The Oscars are still a little over a month away but for most, that probably seems extremely close, especially in context: Oscar season in theaters anyway starts in late October and heats up right around Christmas, when the last few contenders are released, just in time. And the buzz continues from then until the night of the show, if not longer. With that in mind, I wanted to consider not this year’s Oscar race so much but a little more broadly why some of my favorite movies, when nominated for best picture, often do not win the prize.
I’ll start with 1990: having seen Dances With Wolves, albeit for a middle-school social studies class with my teacher censoring the sex scenes by standing in front of the cathode ray tube television-set-on-wheels, I can say with some amount of unabashed bias that Goodfellas should have won. But, this is a case study for how the Academy just is. Most of the time, it proves to be a mostly conservative embodiment of what still remains from Hollywood’s old studio system’s values about what makes a film “good;” sentimentalized tropes and grandiose tones, the swelling music and pathos, epic historical sagas filled with hardship and triumph, etc. Goodfellas is violent, offensive (to some), subversive, non-linear– basically Martin Scorsese at his best in terms of bringing together his most characteristic themes and visual tricks yet still with the inherent ability to also entertain on a wider scale. 1990 is thus the sole reason I’m not predicting a win for The Wolf of Wall Street for this March.
Martin Scorsese is not the only director whose style is somehow recognized by the Academy but not rewarded by it. One may argue that recognition in itself is something to be celebrated, but it feels too, pardon my colloquialism here, half-assed and empty of a gesture to warrant my satisfaction. The director I’m really thinking of here, seeing as Scorsese was at least given what many might consider to be a sympathy Oscar for The Departed, is Quentin Tarantino. Nominated in 1994 for Pulp Fiction but having lost to the sweeping charm of Forrest Gump seems to me to be Oscars-101. Pulp Fiction is even more non-linear and violent than the aforementioned Goodfellas, but it is also seen as a postmodernist masterpiece from the director. The problem is, there simply isn’t an awards show in the upper echelons of mainstream popular culture that is explicitly looking to honor any bit of postmodernism, at least not as such.
The Coen brothers at least, with their singularly offbeat, darkly comic and disquieting film-making sensibilities, finally increased in Academy respect and honor but I’d argue for Fargo‘s (1996) sake that it came too late. And this year, with an unfilled 10th spot in the best picture race where Inside Llewyn Davis very well could have been, I find it sad that the now-veterans seem to have descended from some kind of peak with regard to the Academy’s perception of them, anyway.
Now, in the interest of going somewhat chronologically, let me digress and say not all “Oscar-bait” is bad, or rather, I am not immune to biting every once in a while. I love both Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind (2000 and 2001), and also, by my previous logic, Scorsese’s turn for a while there towards seemingly Oscar-friendly movie-making seemed to have not reaped any of the expected benefits (particularly in the case of The Aviator in 2004, a biopic with Scorsese’s distinct imprint but a biopic nonetheless).
It’s really beginning in the year 2008, however, when things start to take many turns for me as a movie fan, meaning that I often felt either very negatively or very positively toward the winner in alternating fashion or there were multiple candidates which I would have been equally pleased with including the actual winner. 2008 is when my current love for David Fincher began, first off, and it wasn’t until recently that I decided I probably should end the petty, personal boycott of Slumdog Millionaire, harboring a feeling of resentment that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button didn’t win. But, again, my previous logic might prove faulty here and I freely admit that– is Slumdog Millionaire more visually interesting and innovative, its story more unique and modern than Benjamin Button? Maybe. But what happened in 2010, in my personal opinion, cannot be explained with any such reversal or discounting of theory.
The King’s Speech is a perfect example of an Oscar-worthy movie that fulfills the requirements but brings nothing new to the table, and for it to have beaten The Social Network— what had been widely praised as an important movie of our time– both in the best picture and best director race, is something that will never not deeply upset and baffle me. The Social Network was given some awards, all of which were also well-deserved of course, but was perhaps too new, too soon for the Academy members who favored the approach Tom Hooper took– one that I would argue is safe and therefore stuffy and drab– to a story that is rooted in feel-bad/feel-good British history. Not even the extraordinary 127 Hours and its talented director, Fincher’s previous adversary (in my eyes, I mean), Danny Boyle could take the win; Boyle also did something profoundly exciting and engaging with a story that, not unlike The Social Network, is very current and very atypical for Academy tastes.
And wedged in between and after these two years, we had 2009 and 2012 in which the other tendency that I mentioned occurred– I would have loved for Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained to have won in their respective years, but I think the redeeming fact about what beat them is that they weren’t beaten by something quite so predictably Oscar-y. Both revenge-filled re-imaginings of history play out as if in some parallel universe to an Oscar-winning historical epic anyway, so I didn’t expect Tarantino’s two latest films (arguably his two best) to win.
I didn’t think The Hurt Locker or Argo would win either though. The former was somewhat of a critically successful underdog of a win. Its look at modern war and the men who fight it was intense and nuanced. It is the kind of film that gets under your skin without you really understanding or realizing quite when or how it got there, lingering and tingling within your psyche, physical being and your emotional core all at once in a way that is uncomfortable and haunting, with every bomb being dismantled feeling like both an action movie slowed down and a work of modern art sped up. Argo, similarly, told a very true story in a very artful fashion while also having traces of a Hollywood action movie, balancing historical fact (and the issue of presenting that fact in both a clear and entertaining way), humor, humanity, suspense, drama, and (I’ll admit) the drawn out climax leading to the much-awaited happy ending.
Now, I haven’t seen many of this year’s nominees, unfortunately, but I will say that most/any of them seem to be anti-Oscar in at least some senses to me, so maybe we really are moving in a different, more progressive direction finally, one that favors the interesting over the expected and the odd over the ordinary. But there are still reasons– reasons that persist, immovably embedded in awards season culture– that the films I personally most often gravitate towards don’t win the Oscar for best picture nearly as often as the films that strike me as being more traditional and therefore less desirable for me to go out of my way to see. And that reason is that my logic, though defied some of the time for sure, still stands when certain films particularly threaten what the Academy is used to and comfortable with.
And it is a logic which helps me cope with the Tarantinos, Finchers, and Scorseses of the world getting a taste of the prestigious prize without ever or often enough being able to claim it fully. The other part of me likes to think that the movies I love most– the horror genre included (The Silence of the Lambs is a great step towards nothing, really, and we can’t go back and make The Exorcist win; we probably can’t even imagine some of today’s horror films being elevated to this realm of popular high culture)– are better left separate from something that very well may be increasingly overrated and riddled with outdated politics.