According to their website, the annual Gotham Awards “honors the filmmaking community, expands the audience for independent films, and supports the work that [the Independent Filmmaker Project] does behind the scenes throughout the year to bring such films to fruition” — all good things, right? This year’s nominations were led by “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” whose emphatically non-Hollywood depiction of a young woman’s sexuality is in and of itself a solid justification for the continued existence of independent film
But for some Oscar pundits, awards have only one function: to point the way towards who might step onto the stage of the Dolby Theatre on February 28, 2016. “Gotham Awards: Noms Offer No Real Clues About Oscar Potential,” tut-tutted an article by Scott Feinberg in the Hollywood Reporter, which he characterized as “my annual post cautioning people about reading too much into the meaning of this announcement.” (This, then, is my annual post objecting to that idea.)
“It would be nice if I could tell you that… this morning’s nominations offer us some clues about the Oscar race,” Feinberg wrote, “[b]ut the reality is that those noms do not offer Oscar clues because Gotham noms (a) are a reflection of nothing more than the tastes of four five-person committees comprised of ‘writers, critics and programmers,’ and (b) there is no coordination between these committees, resulting in noms that seem to suggest conflicting things.”
The scare quotes around “writers, critics and programmers” say it all: Although the eventual winners are chosen by filmmakers, the involvement of such tastemakers as Indiewire’s Eric Kohn, Entertainment Weekly’s Mark Harris and Rolling Stone’s David Ehrlich evidently renders them invalid. (Disclosure: I have served on nominating committees for the Gotham Awards twice, an unpaid honor which involves watching a boatload of screeners, a congenial conference call, and a single ticket to the awards dinner.) You can practically see the eyeroll emoji as Feinberg runs down the list of nominees: “‘Carol’ (a New York-set movie), ‘Tangerine’ (a film shot solely on iPhones) and ‘Heaven Knows What ‘(a movie with almost no profile prior to today).” In his final paragraph, Feinberg does concede that the Gothams “serve several important purposes,” notwithstanding their “oddities and eccentricities,” but even there he can’t resist a final dig at Josh and Benny Safdie’s raw-nerve depiction of drug addiction: “Who had even heard of ‘Heaven Knows What’ before today?”
The answer to that final question is “Quite a few people,” even if none of them are Oscar pundits: The movie has 784 ratings on Letterboxed and nearly a thousand on IMDb — not blockbuster numbers by any stretch of the imagination, but more than some of the movies whose absence from the Gothams shortlist Feinberg laments. More to the point: So what? Isn’t the point of awards to bring attention to movies that otherwise wouldn’t get it? Rather than paving the way to the Oscars, which a near-infinite number of precursor awards do already, shouldn’t the Gothams — and the Spirits, and the awards given out by critics groups — zig where the others zag? If they don’t, and their only purpose is to sit in the fine print under the eventual Oscar winner’s name, why bother having them at all? (To be fair, some critics organizations are ambivalent about this as well: As they do every year, the New York Film Critics Circle sent out a press release reminding us that “The Circle’s awards are often seen as shaping the Oscar race. The
Circle’s awards are also viewed — perhaps more accurately — as a
principled alternative to the Oscars, honoring aesthetic merit in a
forum that is immune to commercial and political pressures.” Pick a side.)
It’s not just Feinberg, of course. The idea that awards have meaning only insofar as they serve as accurate Oscar bellwethers is not unusual. In an article about Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone lamented that “no lone critic has yet written the kind of review for Fukunaga’s ambitious labor of love that helps justify the need for film critics at all,” the implication being that if film criticism has any purpose at all — a proposition of which Stone is deeply skeptical — it’s to provide awards heat for movies that she thinks merit it. (I won’t make any grand claims for the significance of film criticism, but I would venture that it at worst is no less important than covering the Oscar race.) There’s no practical reason why more idiosyncratic awards and the Oscar clones can’t exist. But as In Contention’s Kristopher Tapley documented in January, when the National Society of Film Critics’ chose Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language” as Best Picture, some awards followers seem to be offended by the very notion that any movie not on their predetermined list of worthy awards candidates might be honored.
You can make a pretty solid argument that none of these things — awards, predictions, film criticism — matter at all, and not just because in a hundred years we’ll all be dead. It’s the movies, the good ones at least, that matter. Even an Academy Award provides only a mild spike in a movie’s box-office take, and their record of furthering the winners’ ongoing careers is likewise patchy. Other awards mean less, although at least some of the Gothams winners get a nice fat check. But they mean something, and if they inspire a few more people to see “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” — or even “Heaven Knows What” — then it’s a job well-enough done.