The key to honoring movies in a real way is to recognize the differences and find the best in EVERY genre. Now just British People Problems™
It’s an Honor to be Nominated
Tease them as we like, critics are great because they call out bullshit.
One of the best arguments they have against the Oscars is the absurd spectacle of so many movies with different goals, methods, audiences and tones being shoved into one category: Best Picture.
How are we supposed to choose between “Pulp Fiction” and “Forrest Gump?” What aspect of filmmaking or human experience helps you choose between “Hidden Figures” and “The Arrival?” “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity?”
The critics are right. We just can’t, so let’s stop.
According to the film data researcher Stephen Fellow’s great blog in 2016, there were 736 films released in U.S. theaters. That’s TWICE what it was just in 2000.
So if a drama or comedy or horror or science fiction film finds itself in the best picture category, chances are they’re the best drama or comedy or horror or science fiction film of the year. They’re in the literal top 1 percent.
That brings us to our first big change:
1 Nomination = 1 Oscar
It might sound strange at first, but if a movie is good enough to be nominated for best picture, it’s good enough for an Oscar. Being nominated really would be the honor.
Yes, yes, this sounds like the worst kind of “everyone gets a prize” mentality, but consider this: There are great years where multiple classics get nominated. They shouldn’t be penalized for some random act of release date.
This is why “Gone with the Wind” has a Best Picture Award but “The Wizard of Oz” does not. What movie had given more to the culture?
This would also stop the ridiculous faux-fights between movies because they both can’t win. If “Moonlight” moved you and you want it to win, how does that make “La La Land” an unforgivable travesty against film? “Unforgiven” and “A Few Good Men” are both the best Hollywood can produce. But because of a quirk of release dates, only Clint Eastwood got the Oscar that year.
And take this year. For my money, “Get Out,” “Lady Bird” and “The Shape of Water” highlight the best film has to offer. They showcase the strange, the touching, the disparate and the bizarre possibilities in film. There is no rational or even emotional way to choose the merits of one over the other.
So let’s just stop. They all deserve to be cherished and if they earn that, they should get a shiny statue if we’re already giving them out.
Stop Genre Fighting: The Oscars for Science Fiction/Fantasy go to…
In Part 1 we’ve established (thanks for the help, Tim) the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has, because of toxic levels of self-importance, narrowed most of film “greatness” to dramas, often about British people. Let’s just stop that too.
So in addition to the best picture category let’s swipe a few items from the Golden Globes, Academy Awards of decades past, and keep just a bit from how the Oscars currently do things.
The Academy already recognizes the meaningful differences between animated films, documentaries, foreign films and English-speaking live action films. In the first Oscars, there was a category for best director of a comedy picture. There was once also best dance direction. The Golden Globes already have the good sense to have a best picture-drama and a best picture-comedy.
Let’s just take these good starts and do what needs to be done. The top five movies in each of these genres would get Oscar recognition:
Obviously, some years a few of these categories don’t produce enough watchable movies to justify our wider level of recognition. I suspect the fourth best Western on 2016 or the third best musical of 2017 might not be that great. So, as in years past the Academy could trim those out or have fewer than five nominees. And some might quibble with a full Western or Comic Book category, but these are major American cinema genres which have both shaped the course of this whole industry. They deserve to be recognized.
This set-up would also allow the Academy voters bestow gold on the stuffy British dramas they love so much while the rest of us would get to see worthy entries from the whole kingdom of film recognized.
Academy Award for Film of the Year
Now if Oscar traditionalist still want one uber category where films from different genres compete, we suggest this:
Change Best Picture to Film of the Year.
It might seem like a small difference, but films do have their moments. At the time it was released, setting off a wave of enthusiasm and passion, “Titanic” seemed like a film or the ages. While we still defend “Titanic,” it’s safe to say “L.A. Confidential” is a better, more meaningful film. But that’ doesn’t change the reality “Titanic” was THE movie of 1997.
If past Oscars had played along these rules, enduring classics like “Citizen Kane,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Airplane!,” “The Exorcist,” “Star Wars,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “ET: The Extra Terrestrial,” “Gaslight,” “L.A. Confidential” and a bazillion others would have been honored as they should.
Correcting Our Mistakes: The Retro Oscar
Warren Beatty, writer/director/actor, said this about making movies: “I think you don’t really know what you’ve done until 10 or 15 years after a movie.”
We think that’s true, which is why we would like introduce the Retro Oscar, which revisits the movies and performances from a decade earlier.
Like a fine wine, some movies just age better. Best Picture winning “Crash” (2006), for example, has not aged well. “Brokeback Mountain” is a movie that people still talk about. It’s still relevant. Nobody talks about “Crash,” other than “Remember that bullshit when ‘Crash’ beat ‘Brokeback Mountain’ for Best Picture?”
In years past, it’s safe to say “The Wizard of Oz” would have been recognized for the achievement it was in 1949, “Citizen Kane” in 1952, “The Ten Commandments” in 1967, “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1979, “Raging Bull” in 1990, “Blade Runner” in 1992, “Godfellas” in 2000, L.A. Confidential in 2007, and “The Dark Knight” (not even NOMINATED!) next year.
Let’s go back 10 years …
The Coen Brothers’ terrific “No Country For Old Men” won Best Picture in 2008. That’s a pretty great movie. You know what else was nominated that year: “There Will Be Blood!” So was “Atonement,” “Juno” and “Michael Clayton” (?!) — No one is talking about those movies anymore. Not nominated: “Zodiac,” which has only seen admiration grow for it throughout the decade.
This year’s Retro Oscar would go to “Zodiac.”
Let’s Dial it up to 11: The Deca Oscar
One of the reasons we’ve thought so much about this, and invented the Retro Oscar, is because movies age and change and rise in different ways. So let’s take it a step further: The Deca Oscar.
The year after a decade has ended, all the nominees from that decade’s Film of the Year nominees would compete for the Deca Oscar. Different eras are defined by different movies, and this would recognize that in an interesting way. Also, and this is a entertainment industry trade secret, the 100-nominee list for the Deca Oscar would generate more argument and comment, more revisiting and re-evaluating than we can shake Walt Disney’s Oscars at.
Obviously “Gone with the Wind” would take the Deca Oscar at the 1941 Awards. But what film best defined the 1940s? “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane”? The 1970s is awash in towering classics. Did“Star Wars” epitomize the new direction of film, or “The Godfather” embody the corrupt darkness of the Nixon era?
Let’s look an era closer to us. When the 2001 Oscars rolled around, what film should be honored for the 1990s? In many ways, it was Quentin Tarantino’s decade. Should “Pulp Fiction,” with all its influence, get the Deca Oscar? Of course, “Pulp Fiction” stood on the shoulders of Martin Scorsese, so what about his movie “Goodfellas?” Pixar began its magical run. What about “Toy Story?” Or what about a movie not nominated at all in its year, the legit classic “Groundhog’s Day.”
In 2011, we would the massive spectacle of James Cameron’s “Avatar” exert itself for the movie of the 2000s? Or would the pop culture mixed with terrorism allegory of “The Dark Knight” best embody that time? Would “There Will Be Blood” be recognized, or the superhero movie as family drama “The Incredibles?” And then there’s the next 96 nominees to think about.
Best Performance of a Historical Figure
That brings us to actors.
While we feel the “top five get awards” change would go a long way to reforming the Oscars into something meaningful, any discussion on fixing all this must include an idea from Stephen Thompson (@idislikestephen), one of the hosts of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour.
As he astutely laid out in their February 9 discussion of Gary Oldman in “The Darkest Hour,” “the Oscars overweigh the art of imitation. When you have an actor come in and do a spot on and heavily prostheticed, perfect imitation of a historic figure, it tends to get treated as more acting instead of what I think it is which is less acting. It’s impersonation. We just had the Grammys. They did not give a Grammy Award for best cover band.”
Think about the absurdity our current five-actors-fight-it-out has led to in the past. In 2012 Meryl Streep won for playing Margret Thatcher in the platonically forgettable “The Iron Lady” while Rooney Mara created an electric and unique performance as Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” How does this look just five years later?
While of course it’s not Streep’s fault for being nominated, of her 21 nominations, almost 30 percent are for playing real people.
This year, what sense does it make to see Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding performance go up against Sally Hawkins’s mute and lyrical “Shape of Water” turn. Then answer is none.
So rather than dig into the writing/directing/music categories, you an see the idea here. Directors don’t have to fight it out. Scorsese can win for “GoodFellas” and Kevin Costner can win for “Dances with Wolves.”
And look at this: Of the 450 or so people nominated for best directors, women would have five whole Oscars instead of just the one they have now! (Kathryn Bigelow won for “The Hurt Locker” in 2010… that’s the whole winner’s list).
Look, we can’t solve all of Hollywood’s problems in three blog posts.
Now while these changes might make things more fair and reasonable, wouldn’t it make an already boring show thoroughly intolerable and excruciatingly long?
No. If you do it as we suggest, Hollywood tear itself apart with wonder, fear, anticipation, bonkers celebrity excess AND legit artistic achievement. Who doesn’t like that?
How, you ask? That comes in Part 3.