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Why It’s Impossible for Movies to ‘Deserve’ an Oscar

Why It's Impossible for Movies to 'Deserve' an Oscar

With the Telluride beginning tomorrow and Toronto a week away, the unofficial start of awards season is upon us. Or most of us. At Flavorwire, film editor Jason Bailey explains that the site won’t be engaging in Oscar talk until after Thanksgiving: 

“Let’s be clear,” he writes. “You’ll see plenty of Oscar talk on Flavorwire…. We’ll write those things because a lot of you will read them, but also because a lot of you want to read them, and we want to write them, because the Oscars may be silly and overblown and nearly always wrong about the best films and performances of any given year, but they’re also fun, a common cultural experience, a Super Bowl for movies (with all the unfortunate art-as-competition connotations that implies). But because a lot of you will read about the Oscars, plenty of film and general-interest entertainment sites start writing about the Oscars well beyond what is, by any sensible standard, a reasonable discussion window. The 88th Academy Awards ceremony will be held on February 28, 2016. Today is September 3, 2015. THE OSCARS ARE NEARLY SIX MONTHS AWAY. And yet otherwise indispensable film sites are posting multi-page 2016 Oscar predictions, which, while shining a welcome spotlight on smaller titles, also include movies — like “Joy,” “Bridge of Spies,” and “The Hateful Eight” — that have screened for no one.”

One of the “otherwise indispensable sites” Bailey’s talking about is Indiewire, where Peter Knegt posted his first, “absurdly early” predictions for the 2016 Oscars on February 27. I must admit that the purpose of Oscar punditry — as opposed to the cultural analysis offered by writers like Grantland’s Mark Harris — eludes me. Awards winners aren’t the weather: Unless you’re materially invested in who wins what, there’s no upside to guessing right ahead of time. (“‘The Revenant’ is looking good; be sure to pack a coat.”) People enjoy the sport of it, and that’s fine, right up to the point that they start confusing a movie’s “awards-worthiness” with its actual quality. At the end of that road lie atrocities like the Weinstein Company’s “Honor the Man, Honor the Film” campaign for “The Imitation Game,” which tempted Oscar voters to overlook that movie’s utter mediocrity in favor of the (supposed) historical importance of its victory. (Oscar voters, thankfully, resisted.) I’m happy when good movies win, and briefly galled when they don’t, but neither makes them better or worse. They’re just asterisks.

It’s not news that the Oscars gets things wrong, sometimes monumentally so. (I recently rewatched “Forrest Gump,” and 20 years on, the fact that it won Best Picture over “Pulp Fiction” seems like a sick joke.) Nor is it a secret that campaigns are planned out months, sometimes years, in advance by highly paid awards-season strategists, without whom it’s virtually impossible to secure a nomination, let alone a win. Moaning over that won’t change things. But because that’s the case, it makes no sense to praise a movie — or a performance or a script — as if its quality and its chances of winning an Oscar are somehow inextricably linked. Sometimes the most deserving (whatever that means) nominee wins; more often, they do not. So when you call a movie “Oscar-worthy,” you’re either a) operating under the easily disproven delusion that the best movies always win, or b) praising it for fitting within the pre-established boundaries of what the Academy has been proven to like. Neither of those things is a compliment.

Oscarologists — or, as I sometimes like to think of them, Oscarbators — aren’t in the business of judging quality (although find me a pundit without an axe to grind and I’ll find you, well, Mark Harris). But critics are, and when a normally astute critic like the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw ends his review of “Beasts of No Nation,” with “The awards season really has begun,” it throws the equation out of whack. It’s like when writers emerged from “12 Years a Slave” at Toronto two years ago proclaiming it not a searing exploration of the U.S.’s primal sin but a sure-fire Best Picture nom. As I wrote then:

There’s something disturbing, and slightly warped, about the ease with which Oscar talk takes the place of substantive reaction: Imagine telling your high-school sweetheart, “I love you so much; you’re a lock for prom queen.” There’s a gut element to Oscar predictions, but at heart they’re strategic calculations: Can Fox Searchlight hold onto first place for five solid months? How will McQueen’s intense intellectualism play on the campaign trail? Those may be interesting questions, but they’re not important ones. The questions “12 Years a Slave” means to ask are much thornier, and a lot harder to answer.

Like it or not, the awards race will drive a good chunk of the conversation between now and February, and if that’s what it takes to keep a certain small number of thought-provoking but low-grossing movies at the forefront of our minds for months on end, the trade-off is worth it. But while it’s fine to discuss both a movie’s Oscar odds and its artistic merit, it’s important that those discussions stay separate, or at least that we not lose sight of the difference between them. It no longer matters whether “12 Years a Slave” ran a good awards campaign, but the searing power of its achievement will be with us forever.

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