FILM: The Academy Awards and Business as Usual

Written by Jim Dalrymple on . Posted in Film

Like someone’s balding, forty-five year old uncle who has suddenly become obsessed with Lady Gaga, the ineffably passé Academy Awards are desperately trying to get cool. And like that pathetic middle-aged guy, the harder they try, the lamer they’ll get.

As Mckay Stevens pointed out several months ago, the upcoming 2010 Academy Awards have expanded the best picture category to include ten films, instead of the recently traditional five. Superficially, this decision seems like a great idea; last year the Oscars reached their nadir when they inexplicably shafted both The Dark Knight and WALL-E, arguably two of the best films of the decade. By nominating ten films, the Oscars can keep including pretentious art films that no one sees, but also throw in a fun summer blockbuster to keep everyone else interested (and watching the dull telecast).

The problem with this plan is that we’re now in the midst of “awards season” and it’s clear that Hollywood is still entrenched in a business-as-usual mentality. Awards season, if you’re unfamiliar, more or less begins after summer but ends before the New Year. Traditionally, with cooler temperatures and kids back in school, movie studios release their artier films during the fall and early winter months to attract a more mature audience. Consequently, the few thousand people who actually get to vote for the Oscars tend to view an autumn release as a sign that a movie should be considered for Best Picture and other Oscars and, by extension, that summer movies should be ignored.

This year has been no different and autumn movies are still being hotly anticipated by hipster cinephiles and film critics. Sometimes, of course, this is a good thing: a movie like The Road, for example, shows a lot of promise. But other films like Amelia and Men Who Stare at Goats have disappointed critics and audiences alike, and it’s the Academy’s focus on “prestige” films like these that have alienated the general public. Few people watch them, and even fewer people want to watch them get honored. The same goes for previous years’ critically acclaimed nominees like Atonement or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which were painfully underwhelming and on par with the Academy Awards themselves in terms of boredom. Though Amelia surely won’t get nominated this year, the current slew of prestigious autumn movies suggests many of the films that do will probably be just as irrelevant and unknown.

The problem with this whole scenario is that it exposes the change in the Academy Awards for what it is: a bone being thrown to the average movie fans that serious filmmakers scorn. Mixed in among the prestigious autumn movies will be a blockbuster or two. Star Trek, for example, has a decent chance because it was well received and made money. However, as a summer movie it’s chance of winning is pretty much nonexistent. Also, a similar movie like District 9, which is even better but made less money, will likely continue to get overlooked because it was released at the wrong time of the year and included too many aliens.

Likewise, even the best animated films like Up or Ponyo are unlikely to get nominated for best picture, because the Academy created a special category for them in 2001. That category — Best Animated Feature — effectively, if not officially, prevents cartoons from ever mingling with their supposedly more sophisticated live-action kin. Against all odds, the expanded Best Picture roster might change that this year but, as long as the animated category exists, Academy voters probably won’t see any reason to give up a spot normally reserved for an autumn film in favor of a summer flick from Pixar.

The point here is that the Oscars will fail to recognize the ten best films of the year and not many more people will tune in to watch them. As something of a hipster cinephile myself, I lament this fact and hope I’m wrong. I’ll also probably watch (and enjoy) many of the pretentious autumn films as they come out. Still, the Oscars purport to be about the best in cinematic achievement and they have the potential to be genuinely fascinating. Expanding the best picture category to ten movies might be a baby step on the path to actually doing that, but by itself it hardly proves they’re really up to anything new.

Jim Dalrymple is a popular culture correspondent for Rhombus. He is a hipster cinephile.

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