MOUNT: Oscars push to be conservative, not honoring risky film choices

By Cameron Mount on February 22nd, 2013

Celebrity worship, grievous nomination oversights and hosting so generic it offends. Why, then, do the Oscars carry so much weight and attention?

The Academy Awards remain relevant because they point to an ideal: Movies aren’t just good, they’re the most exciting art form going on today. They deserve public critique and consideration.

What defined 2009 more clearly: the engrossing, realistic Iraq War drama found in “The Hurt Locker,” or the visual leap forward of “Avatar”? You may not agree on the winner, but the force behind this debate spoke volumes about the given cultural moment.

Or look back to 1994, where “Forrest Gump,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Pulp Fiction” all vied for the top prize. Creatively, “Pulp Fiction” certainly had the most far-reaching effect, and “Shawshank” currently sits as IMDB.com’s #1 film of all time. But it’s tough to argue that “Forrest Gump” (the winner) hasn’t claimed the most treasured place in Americans’ hearts. Another Best Picture nominee that year, “Quiz Show,” received universal claim and reviews touting that it was “historically important,” but is hardly remembered today.

There’s a misconception that the Academy Awards judge the best movie of the year. They don’t. They judge which films that uphold standards of “good movies” are safe and likely to have the most staying power. While frustrating, this isn’t always a bad thing.

“Annie Hall” was hugely influential, but surely not as much as “Star Wars” in 1977. Nor was “Dances With Wolves” as influential as “Goodfellas” in 1990.

These picks make sense in context, though. “Dances With Wolves” won when sentimental, wide-sweeping epics were valued highly. “Goodfellas” was too risky, too new, and thus Scorcese didn’t see an Oscar until “The Departed” in 2006. “The Departed” wasn’t a better movie, but the innovations of “Goodfellas” had proved their staying power. There was now perspective that gave Scorcese merit.

The Oscars aren’t here to honor innovation. That’s the job of critics’ awards like the New York Film Critics, or festival awards like Sundance. Risky art is created and honored all of the time by these organizations, but industry awards like the Golden Globes or Oscars are conservative.

A film like “The Dark Knight” had no chance of even a nomination in 2009.

It had made a splash, but it hadn’t upheld any time-honored film tradition like the Western or period piece. It was a turning point for superhero films, not a culmination. With “Inception” in 2010, Nolan was building on a style he’d worked with in “Dark Knight” and “Inception” won four Oscars. There wasn’t enough cultural perspective to give it Best Picture, but Nolan is working his way there.

Science fiction is slowly earning its respect, and though it would have been nice to see “Looper” get a nod or two for adding to the genre, by Academy standards sci-fi isn’t there yet. The question for them isn’t ‘is this good art?’ but where does this piece stand in terms of mainstream American culture right now?

This isn’t to say the Academy is completely stuck. “Slumdog Millionaire” was a different kind of film, and now embodies today’s trend of ‘movies the Academy adores.’ Maybe in 10 years, “Slumdog” will be as reviled as “Dances With Wolves,” but its success marked a definite cultural shift.

What does that mean for this year?

“Life of Pi” is the most artistically innovative of the bunch and arguably the best story, but the Academy focuses too much on acting and direction to give its top prize. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a more likely contender than it’s being given credit for, especially as the Academy has been making small shifts toward recognizing independent cinema, but Best Picture is a long-shot.

“Zero Dark Thirty” would likely be the frontrunner if it hadn’t attracted so much controversy, but now has too much baggage attached.

So all eyes are on “Lincoln” and “Argo.” Though Affleck’s directorial appreciation is long-overdue, I’m not convinced that means he’s earned a Best Picture for the largely conventional “Argo.” Already winning a slew of Best Picture equivalents in most of the other industry awards, Affleck’s Iranian hostage crisis thriller has a strong chance. But considering Affleck was snubbed for a Best Director nominee, I’m doubtful the Academy believes much in him either.

“Silver Linings Playbook” has more of a chance than “Argo” with a rock-solid cast and a plot that handles mental illness with just enough progressive heart. Plus, it’s the only film nominated in every major category.

“Lincoln” still stands as the obvious choice and in today’s tense political climate, it certainly resonated with audiences. It’s the kind of movie that, looking back, won’t have much to say about 2012 culture beyond clichés about democracy and political heroism.

Sticking to predictable ideals about “good cinema” and only diverging in times of careful consideration defines the Oscars. Debating why those ideals are what they are, and fighting against them until they change is what makes the Oscars the fascinating and frustrating intrigue they are.

Cameron Mount is a senior English education major. Reach him at arts@dailynebraskan.com.

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