Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Thoughts on the 81st Annual Academy Awards

I’ve been pretty down on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for quite a while now. I’ve even made several posts to that effect on this blog. But I have to admit, I was surprised by how well the Oscars turned out this year. The nomination/award system may not be perfect, but watching the ceremony on Sunday night made me realize that it’s not nearly as broken as I thought it was either. In fact, I’m feeling pretty good right now about the way the awards went as well as the state of the Academy Awards in general.

The show itself was definitely better than it has been in the past several years, and Hugh Jackman did a great job as host. His
opening number was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while, and set the tone for what ended up being a really good night. I could have done with one or two less song and dance performances, but putting the band on the stage and having the nominees introduced by a panel of former award winners were both excellent touches and more than made up for any of the show’s other shortcomings.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t have liked a handful of things to work out differently, though. While I can get behind Slumdog Millionaire’s win for Best Picture, I was a bit disappointed that two of my favorite movies from 2008 didn’t at least get nominated. The exclusion most obvious to a lot of people was The Dark Knight. Even if they didn’t feel it was the best movie of the year, there are a lot of people who would certainly consider it as being one of the top five.

In fact, when I originally saw the list of nominees a few months ago, I’ll admit that I was a bit annoyed. I had hoped the last two Best Picture wins, for The Departed and No Country for Old Men – two films that are a far cry from the more “traditional” movies the Academy typically likes to give the award – wouldn’t just be anomalies in the larger scheme of Oscar history, and were indicative of a more progressive mentality on the Academy’s part. With The Dark Knight not even being nominated, we can see a clear shift away from the kind of darker, edgier movies the Academy has celebrated for the last few years.

As I’ve come to realize, though, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially considering that the Best Picture award still went to a pretty nontraditional movie. If it had gone to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – a movie I really enjoyed, but one that by its very nature plays much better to a conservative audience than Slumdog – it would have marked a step backward for the Academy. The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes to me that the Oscars aren’t necessarily meant to give the Best Picture award to the most objectively good movie each year. Rather, the movie that wins is the one that best encapsulates the spirit of our society at a certain point in time. In an era of increasing hope and the real possibility of change, Slumdog Millionaire is that movie much more so than The Dark Knight.

So while TDK’s exclusion is understandable on some level, there is one film that I think really should have been included: WALL-E. I had hoped, perhaps naively, that this would be the year the Academy finally recognized that well-done animated movies aren’t just good children’s movies – they’re good movies that happen to be suitable for children to watch.

What bothers me most about its omission from the ballot is that if there were any year that an animated movie actually had a solid chance of being nominated for Best Picture, it was this year. Many people (myself included) thought Ratatouille should have been nominated last year, and with WALL-E being just as well-received by critics this year, it would have been the perfect opportunity for the Academy to change its outlook.

To its credit, Disney tried to play ball with the other studios and mounted a fairly large Best Picture campaign for WALL-E. Still, this basically underscores my main problem with the way the Academy Awards work. Over the past few years, nominee lists have been for the most part determined by which studios are able to run the most effective advertising campaigns. Film companies spend millions of dollars on “For Your Consideration” advertisements in magazines like Variety, sometimes managing to muscle their way into getting nominations for movies that aren’t really deserving of the recognition (such as Robert Downey Jr.’s nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Tropic Thunder).

Perhaps this is a minor quibble on my part, though, since all of the films that ended up being nominated for Best Picture (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, and Slumdog Millionaire) are good movies in their own right. Whereas in each of the last few years it’s always seemed as though one or two movies nominated for Best Picture weren’t really very good, I think all of this year’s nominees were deserving of recognition. The fact that we’re even able to debate what other movies should have been nominated is a good sign, because it means there were more than just five truly great movies to come out in 2008. That’s something I don’t think we’ve been able to say for a number of years now, and it makes me think that the film world is on more of an upswing than I would have thought just a few months ago.

Overall, I think this year’s Academy Awards are as good an indication as any that we’re entering into a more exciting and adventurous time for movies. Slumdog’s win is significant in that it’s a movie belonging neither to the “old school” of filmmaking the Academy has traditionally honored, nor to the “new school” of dark, gritty films along the lines of The Departed or The Dark Knight. The Academy’s choice of something so unique as its Best Picture means that we’ll likely see more risk-taking on the part of the major studios in the coming years.

In other words, executives will be more likely to give their directors a level of creative control that hasn’t been seen in quite a while, in the hopes that the final product will turn out that much better for it (and thus make more money). The result could be an era of filmmaking as fresh and creative as the 1970s, when independents like Scorsese and Coppola were given the freedom to put just about whatever they wanted on the big screen.

Of course, this is all just speculation on my part. What did you think of the Oscars? Were the awards given to the movies that were most deserving, or do you think your favorites got snubbed? Check out the list of winners
HERE, and post your thoughts in the comment section!

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