Controversy has always surrounded the arts leading to productive debate and recognition of artful pictures that not everyone agrees on. However this year it seems all a little to absent from the public domain. This leads us to the question are the arts being recognised if the institution built to distinguish them isn’t generating an informed and shared debate?
Throughout the last decade it seems the Oscar has been redefining itself into a more prosaic achievement. The voting process for best picture returning to the 1934 to 1945 preferential ballot method in 2009, which shines a light on the more mediocre and unanimously preferred pictures. Removing almost all the red-tape designed to retain the art centred features, opposed to the commercially structured movies.
This year it seems to have all hit a critical mass as it’s nominees list reads more like that of the trending articles on Gawkers’ former Big Board. A nominees list designed to derive attention from the reader with headline grabbing nominations designed around whats most popular. The most noticeable of these surrounds the nomination of Andrew Garfield recognised in the best actor category for Hacksaw Ridge. This is despite his stellar performance in Silence, which beholds an immensely greater performance of the same subject of a character tested in their faith. If this were an individual instead of a voting body it would be clear that the nomination for Hacksaw Ridge was based on popularity. Along with the trending capital of Hacksaw Ridge Director Mel Gibson, nominated for best director.
However, while we return to remembering that the Oscars are voted upon by the Academy’s body of almost six thousand members. It seems that it’s the event of all those headlines creating the current effect. As more and more attention is directed at the Oscars with new technologies, new members and existing members alike it seems are turning away titles they haven’t heard. Those not generating headlines surrounding audience and critical praise.
This means that the third sector of a film’s acclaim from the industry itself is faltering. This is all happening while those films of high artistic achievement are relegated to the sidelines in place of those with an attention grabbing style, new yet familiar names and residency on newspaper headlines. Even throughout all the years of the Academy Awards it would be a rare and unpopular occasion to see directors like Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg all not nominated. Others of high artistic achievement have also been sidelined, one of whom is Tom Ford with his sublime work on Nocturnal Animals being overlooked, not trending enough?
Another of these trending nominees is in the acting categories, the nomination of Dev Patel. While his performance was a notable one the star of the film, the young actor that carried the film halfway relatively alone Sunny Pawar was overlooked.
Additionally, Amy Adams was overlooked twice this year for her performances in both Nocturnal Animals and in Arrival where the director Denis Villeneuve called her the soul of the movie. These are just a few of many notable yet not overwhelmingly headline present names tossed aside, enough to at least consider a pattern.
All those dedicated to the craft of film in place of others ranked higher on the likability and trending meter including Damien Chazelle for La La Land, Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge and Denis Villeneuve for Arrival. Not that these aren’t pictures worthy of recognition but for the highest honour multiple times it’s becoming clearer we need to shine a light on the pool from which they are being chosen.
In the past week Director James Cameron floated around the topic saying that the Academy is bias against blockbusters and that they don’t reward the films people want to see. He says this despite having been nominated for Best Picture, Directing and Editing for both blockbusters Avatar and Titanic. History has shown that there is no correlation between box office and artistic quality. Every summer when the blockbusters come into season at theaters, box office revenues go from milestones moving from $100 million to a billion. This is because no matter the event you can always line up a crowd of people that want to see an easy going movie yet for the arts it’s always been more difficult as attention becomes more difficult to derive.
On this perceived blockbuster bias, which is not in fact a bias but a dismissal for artistic integrity, the Academy might not have been popular but it was correct. Until recently that is as Cameron may not have realised but that perceived bias is now fading. The Academy itself might not as a whole be caving in an attempt to remain relevant outside Hollywood. Yet this new influx of digital attention and declining viewership of the Oscars is influencing the nominees more than their own artistic quality. The last Oscars telecast of 2016 was down to an eight year low in the overnight ratings.
Another factor that could be contributing to this problem is the relatability factor, much proclaimed as “Hollywood’s love affair with itself”. This seems to be becoming increasingly present when you look back over the past few years since 2010 with all Best Picture winners focusing on popular professions or relating to subjects close to Hollywood and the film industry. The one exception being 12 Years A Slave and it’s 2013 win. The year previous in 2009 the Academy returned to the preferential ballot method, which is a system hard to separate from the electoral college system in the recent election.
This all appears to be heightened by the emergence of La La Land with voters likely to overlook the absence of great artistic achievement in place of an ability to feel themselves within the picture. Reminiscing about recreated scenes from past movies that were themselves worthy of the Oscars they received in past decades, when they were original. A problem likely to have contributed to the diversity issue the Academy has faced over the decades. For can we truly say La La Land is worthy of the 14 nominations equal to the 50’s All About Eve and the 70’s nominations of Titanic. It seems this could be the new age of social media informing the Oscar nominees and along with it the overused occasions of hyping subjects. There seems to be few nominees this year that can say they would have received such nominations in the decades past. Not to say some wouldn’t have been nominated say Arrival for Best Screenplay but the following eight nominations seem difficult to justify.
The light of this years nominees on the other hand are those diverse Oscars nominees that would have been overlooked for truly bias reasons in past decades despite being a superb selection of artful motion pictures. It seems this is the first year of many the voting problems lay not with them but in those films that sit beside them. It appears that the diverse Oscar nominees are now taking on the mantel of representing a majority of the craft of the art form in this years nominations.
Theres also a flurry of superb, masterful and artful films you would think a majority of Academy members would have to have never heard to nominated them so little including Silence, Nocturnal Animals and Sully. There are other notables absent entirely The Witch, Miss Sloane, The Handmaiden, Cafe Society, A Monster Calls and many others.
With the critical mass hit and the damage done in the nominees, the question now is will the artful nominees that survived the battle win the war and prevail on the stage?
The source of all this isn’t clear as they are many possible explanations from relatability and correcting perceived bias to voters leaning for that headline recalled screener. Although what’s clear is the effect it’s having and the damage that is being done to the artworks that remain unrecognised and the overall damage done to the motion picture arts as something more than a crowd pleaser. Something where every layer from costume, set design and sound to blocking and colour is used to tell collective stories. That’s the magic of artful cinema, it lingers in the details.