Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Are movies really worse than ever? Part 1 of 2

Part 1: The Academy Awards

Somebody recently posed an interesting question to me: can you name the last really good prestige picture? My answer was the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but I think the last one prior to that came a decade ago in American Beauty. The person that posed this question to me, however, unknowingly sparked another thought in my mind: does this matter? Are Academy Awards really the proper measuring stick for what is a great movie anymore?

My answer to both questions is “absolutely not,” and it has been a long time since Oscars were consistently given to the best movies (although were they ever, really?). The Academy Awards have become like, to employ an overused cliché, an old boys club that rewards the people who jump through the right hoops. Best Actor and Actress awards are handed out not in recognition of a great performance, but as lifetime achievement awards when these performers did not give the best performances of the year (Kate Winslet in the Reader, Denzel in Training Day, that old guy in Little Miss Sunshine, etc.). It is the worst watching Anne Hathaway and Ryan Gosling participating in standing ovations for the winners when they have to know that they were far more deserving… watching these ovations might even be worse than watching the Reader.

The awards for films themselves have become points to be advertised, and executives like the infamous Weinsteins campaign vigorously to get awards, going so far as to make extensive cuts in post-production or even structure the film in a way to get awards right from the pre-production stage. In my (and just about everyone else’s) opinion, years of campaigning for awards has caused the Oscars as we see now to become nothing more than a celebration of Hollywood ideals. But, that’s not the point here. The point is that Hollywood has, over time, transformed in such a way that it is now almost bizarre to see a good prestige picture. Curse you, Weinsteins!

However, can we really blame the Weinsteins and other campaigning studios for this? Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m realizing that maybe the Oscars have been a celebration of Hollywood ideals for longer than I originally thought. In 2006, Crash took home the Best Picture award over the likes of Good Night, and Good Luck, The Squid and the Whale (nominated only for writing), and others. While the latter two respectively offered a critique of the modern media in the guise of an Edward R. Murrow biopic and a painfully honest critique of the nuclear family, the Academy awarded the film that dealt with broad racial stereotypes (but happened to make everybody feel good about themselves afterward). In 1989, a much fouler offence occurred when Driving Miss Daisy won the Best Picture award in the same year Do the Right Thing (nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but not Best Picture) was released. A film so painfully broad that it hurts me to write a synopsis of it, Driving Miss Daisy gave viewers the heartwarming tale of lil’ ol’ Miss Daisy learning about the horrors of racism from her driver Hoke, while Do the Right Thing offered a far more earnest examination of race relations in America. Just like would happen in 2006, the movie that was easier to take was the one that took home the award.

Does that make movies worse than ever? Again, absolutely not. The movies winning Best Picture awards may be, with Crash, the Departed and Slumdog Millionaire all being recent victors, but I think that as a whole, movies are doing just fine. Hollywood will continue to follow its tried and true formulas, continuing to release countless rom-coms, big budget action movies, cheapo horror movies and ‘prestige’ pictures with only a few real gems in the mix… but that’s okay. Just remember the Driving Miss Daisy/Do the Right Thing comparison: one of those movies is the butt of at least three jokes a week (and that’s just from me), while the other is remembered as an almost-undisputed classic. And just in case you’re still confused to which one is which, it’s the classic that didn’t win any Oscars.

So let’s hope that the Academy Awards remain what they are: a celebration of film as a whole that awards forgettable films while the truly great movies are still remembered as such decades after their release.


  1. It reminds me of something I heard regarding music the other day - that the most popular music is not what most people love, it is what the most amount of people can stand.

    And there you have it, the recipe for mediocrity.

    I had a problem with watching Paul Haggis presents CRASH in part because the people I was watching it with felt very affected, but couldn't quite say why.

  2. I always feel bad when I'm watching a trailer and it goes something like this:

    John Leguizamo

    (as an aside, i HATE leguizamo. it's the pointy teeth.)

    But let's look at poor Leguizamo in the above display.

    First off, it bugs me that AAW is marignally better than AAN when it comes to trailers. It's like when they are advertising Ben Affleck as "AAW BEN AFFLECK" when it's clearly not a movie he wrote. His Oscar was for writing, but they bend the rules because then they can say AAW B.A. and people will automatically think it's going to be good (or so they hope, anyway. Nobody went to see Australia because Nicole Kidman was AAW N.K.).

    If getting nominated is an endorsement or an achievement, who cares if you actually win? It still goes on the resume as a stamp of validation.

    But the Leguizamos, what do they get? No endorsement. No shiny extra title. Just a chance to maybe learn from the craft masters...and yes, I mean food serivces.

    I still loves me some Oscars. It's still my favourite day of the year.

    MT/JC oh and look I'm JE too!

  3. Travis - I agree with the music comparison, and think it applies to film as well... probably all forms of popular media.

    And I won't lie, I really liked Crash the first time I watched it. It was the second and third time I saw it though, I started to realize it's pretty bad. It just puts forward a vague feel of emotion, and has enough good performances (Cheadle, Phillipe, and one of the most underrated and underused actors there is, Larenz Tate) in it to confuse you into liking it.

    January - I do agree with you, but trailers in general are a mess what with giving away FAR too many plot points and such. Although had the trailer for Couples Retreat shown me just the faces of the actors, I probably would have seen it... so thanks, trailer-makers, for showing me enough to hate it without watching it. ZING!

    And nobody went to see Australia... period. BIGGER ZING!