In discussing the whole Dark Knight paradigm, or any potential Best Picture contender the question always comes up: What should make up the five Best Picture nominees by the Academy at year’s end?
I was quite sick of hearing my own self think, so I reached out to others who might have a better idea. Some of the answers are short and to the point, others are more in depth. I think you’ll find the discussion interesting. The answers after the jump.
Anthony Breznican, USA Today
This is a good question: What is “Best” supposed to mean? To me, the best (that word again) way to describe it is by acknowledging how hard it is to define. The best runner is the one who crosses the finish line first. The best PICTURE? … Far more subjective and slippery. So the best film must be the one that makes the question irrelevant; it’s the one that makes you sit up in your seat and say, “This is the best picture I’ve seen this year!” without the need for hand-wringing, politicking, or for-your-consideration ads. It’s the movie that surprises, takes risks, tries to say something from the heart, and walks out of the theater with you and, ideally, stays by your side a long time. The best picture is the one you can have the longest conversation about at dinner afterward. The best picture is the one that you could watch again right away as soon as the credits end. The best picture is the one that makes you say “Wow” the loudest.
Damien Bona, author of Inside Oscar and Inside Oscar II:
The Best Picture race should be about my five favorite movies of the year so right now the frontrunners would be ‚ÄúParanoid Park,‚Äù ‚ÄúFlight of the Red Balloon‚Äù and ‚ÄúLes Chansons d‚Äôamour.‚Äù
But, seriously, I think the finalists for Best Picture should not be necessarily the most critically acclaimed films of the year, nor the most popular. Instead, they should be those that people who work in the Hollywood film industry honestly consider the foremost films of the year. These are the people who make up the bulk of the Academy membership and I want voters to be true to themselves ‚Äì and their instincts for liberal humanism.
Thus, when the nominees include movies generally dismissed films by critics or cineastes there shouldn‚Äôt be wailing and the gnashing of teeth.¬† Whether the Academy‚Äôs choices intersect those of film critics or exist in parallel universes is irrelevant. Victories by a ‚ÄúGladiator‚Äù or a ‚ÄúCrash‚Äù and nominations for the likes of ‚ÄúFinding Neverland‚Äù and ‚ÄúThe Green Mile‚Äù ‚Äì films which weren‚Äôt exactly critical favorites ‚Äì provide a mirror to the mind-set of those in the industry. And that‚Äôs a good thing, and as it should be. For instance, ‚ÄúThe Greatest Show On Earth‚Äù is generally disparaged as the worst Best Picture winner ever, but I love how its Oscar success encapsulates the political, cultural and social milieu of Hollywood in early 1953.
What I find disheartening is when buzz indicates that a film is probably not all that well-liked in the industry, but scores a nomination because of an aggressive Oscar push (eg, ‚ÄúGangs Of New York‚Äù) or because it has a certain snob cachet due to intense aggrandizement by some strident film reviewers (eg, ‚ÄúThere Will Be Blood‚Äù).
In short, the Best Picture race should be about the five movies a plurality of the Academy truly thinks are the year‚Äôs finest.
David Carr, NY Times, The Carpetbagger, author of The Night of the Gun
Best picture should embody the magic of the craft, with everyone involved, most especially the director at the height of his or her powers. It should be the kind of movie that is so good that it brings both civilians and the critical vanguard together.
Scott Foundas, LA Weekly
Your question, I fear, is no more answerable than a Zen koan, because, of course, the very idea of a “best” (which you quite appropriately put in quotes) picture is so subjective/negotiable, while even the “ideal” notion a “best” picture depends entirely on who you’re asking. I suppose an agent or manager–and probably many a studio executive–would tell you that the “best” picture of any given year is, if not the single highest-grossing (because, surely, few would be crass enough to think that SHREK 3, PIRATES 3 or SPIDER-MAN 3 should take home the Oscar), one of the more profitable films that can be deemed at least partly respectable. On rare occasions, the obvious “best” picture from the industry standpoint–TITANIC, LORD OF THE RINGS–is also the year’s monster grosser. But even in other years, the movie that goes home with Oscar is almost always the highest-grossing of the five that get nominated.
Ask a critic what the “best” picture of the year was and you’re likely to hear the name of some obscure experimental film or a five-hour, black-and-white political drama from Poland. That, of course, always leads to grousing from some pundits (albeit nobody even remotely connected with Awards Daily) that critics are elitists terminally removed from the taste of “ordinary moviegoers.” To which I can only say: Guilty as charged! The notion that the opinions of a critic–who, if he or she is doing his job properly, sees a few hundred movies a year–should align with those of a moviegoer who may see no more than a couple of dozen movies a year is so preposterous that one wonders how it ever came about in the first place. Of course, you might also ask a critic what the best picture of the year is and hear THE DARK KNIGHT, which might in turn send some of those very same pundits into a tailspin.
If we’re talking specifically about the Oscars (as I assume we are), it’s that old Hollywood conundrum: Most of the suits–and a great many of the filmmakers who work at the studio level–view movies primarily as a business from which they hope to make heaps of money. But because they also feel guilty about the heaps of money they make (which has lead to the creation of an entire sub-genre of Hollywood movies about people of great wealth who, by some act of divine intervention, learn how the other half lives and, in turn, how empty/meaningless their lives really are), these same people like to talk about the “art of cinema” and, every once in a while, to make a movie that isn’t targeted entirely at hormonal teenagers with wads of disposable income. As the critic David Thomson points out in the introduction to his very fine new book, HAVE YOU SEEN…? (an excerpt of which appears in this week’s L.A. Weekly), this exact dilemma was present right at the founding of the Academy, which, in its first year (1928) gave two different Best Picture awards–one for “outstanding picture” to the WWI aviation drama WINGS, and one for “unique and artistic picture” to F.W. Murnau’s SUNRISE. The first was a popular hit that stayed in theaters for over a year–call it the TITANIC of its day. The second has endured as one of the masterpieces of the cinema, even managing to land a place in the coveted IMDB top 250, no matter that it lags a couple hundred places behind the likes of THE MATRIX and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION.
But already by 1930, the Academy decided that “best” picture should be a monolithic entity, and the results since then have, simply put, tilted in the direction of the “outstanding” rather than the “unique and artistic.” “Unique and artistic” may get you a nomination (for recent examples, see THE PIANO, LEAVING LAS VEGAS, THE THIN RED LINE and THERE WILL BE BLOOD), but those are the cases for which the phrase “great just to be nominated” seems to have been invented. So, to divine the “best,” you end up with this unholy algorithm of box-office success added to critical plaudits, multiplied by some vague sense of sociopolitical relevancy, and divided by that mysterious “x” factor also known as career appreciation. I’m not going to list here all of the cases in which some cinematic landmark has been bested for Best Picture by a movie that, even at the time, seemed less than classic but which somehow jibed with the cultural moment or allowed the Academy to recognize some long-overdue Oscar bridesmaid. And who knows? Maybe there is someone out there who really does think IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is a better movie than BONNIE AND CLYDE, much as I suspect he would hesitate to raise his voice in ¬†a crowded room.
Funny enough, just a few hours before I received your email, I was having a conversation with a publicist from a prominent mini-major distributor, who was trying to convince me that the Academy was getting hipper to the times, because “a decade ago, a movie like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN would never have won Best Picture.” “A movie like NO COUNTRY” was this publicist’s euphemism for a bleak, violent movie with an unresolved ending. And that’s the kind of conventional wisdom that, before you know it, gets turned into a Sunday Arts feature by a newspaper editor who knows less about movies than the average publicist. Of course, you can look back a lot further than a decade to find bleak, violent, morally ambiguous movies like UNFORGIVEN, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, PLATOON, THE DEER HUNTER, et al., all of which, to some extent, took home Best Picture because their time had come. Some were even, arguably, the “best” pictures of their respective years, but as with so much about the Oscars, that seems almost irrelevant. Awarding UNFORGIVEN was a way of telling Clint Eastwood that the industry took him seriously as a filmmaker, while lauding SILENCE sent a memo to horror filmmakers that they were no longer the Elijahs at the Academy’s table. The Oscar for Platoon said that we had finally come to terms with Vietnam as it was experienced by the soldiers on the ground, just as THE DEER HUNTER had acknowledged the war’s impact on the homefront. I’m sure nobody knows better than the movie-mad Martin Scorsese that his Best Picture (and Best Director) Oscar came for one of his most proficient but least interesting films, because one more snub and he’d have turned into the Academy’s own Susan Lucci. And while I may think NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is one of the Coen brothers’ best films, I’m also of the mind that they would have won last year even if they had directed THE DEPARTED (but not BURN AFTER READING). After getting invited to the dance for BARTON FINK and almost but not quite making it into the winner’s circle with FARGO, their number was up, lest they become the new Martin Scorsese.
Best Picture at the Oscars also comes with another important caveat: The award really ought to be called “Best American Picture,” because despite the handful of foreign-language films that have managed to eke out nominations over the years, the Oscars in general and Best Picture in particular are mainly a way for the American film industry to pat itself on the back for a job well done. Foreign films are no more present for the average Oscar voter than they are for the average American moviegoer, and so it’s only fitting that those few foreign pictures that have captured the Academy’s heart–CROUCHING TIGER, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, IL POSTINO–are the ones made in such a recognizable Hollywood idiom that they scarcely need subtitles. This wouldn’t be relevant were it not for the fact that the Academy fancies itself a global institution, with its token (and reliably short-sighted) foreign-language award and its much-ballyhooed global broadcast in some triple-digit number of countries. Take, for comparison purposes, the annual European Film Awards, an event that would very much like to be considered the Oscars of Europe. When I attended that ceremony for the first time last winter, I found it in some ways just as absurd as its transatlantic counterpart, and yet the differences between the two ceremonies were striking: At the EFAs, the winners really did represent a diverse cross-section of contemporary world cinema. (The big winner that night was the Oscar-ignored 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS.) The acceptance speeches were pithy, concise and generally lacking in tawdry emotion and gratuitous self-indulgence. The badly scripted comic banter of the hosts, while not completely eradicated, was kept to bare minimum. And instead of splashy, overproduced production numbers, the musical entertainment was provided by the pompadoured Finnish rock band known as the Leningrad Cowboys. As one well-known European filmmaker said to me that night with a mixture of envy and disgust, ‚ÄúTo put on a show like the Oscars, you have to be convinced that you‚Äôre living in the center of the world.” Fair enough, but the fact remains that, just as Hollywood movies dominate the local box office in most foreign markets, the Oscars are watched by a great many more television viewers around the world than the European Film Awards.
All of which, I suppose, begs the question: Why spend so much time thinking and talking about the Oscars if they’re just one elaborate parlor game? The answer is that, frustratingly, the Oscars do occasionally get things (Best Picture included) right. And even when they don’t, they still matter in the sense that an Oscar win–even a nomination–can bring so many more viewers to a movie than might have seen it otherwise. It can also do marvelous things for a filmmaker’s career. The Best Picture nomination last year for THERE WILL BE BLOOD in some way legitimized a movie that, up to that point, was hovering precariously between being the pet enthusiasm of those darn obscurantist critics and a bonafide new American classic. When Mike Leigh’s SECRETS & LIES was nominated in 1996, it put Leigh (who had already been making movies for 25 years at that time) on the radar of American audiences in a way he had never been before, and the movie itself went on to become the highest-grossing, worldwide, of his entire career. Whether the Academy deserves to wield such power is another question entirely–one that could just as soon be asked of the American Film Institute, the IMDB, or any of the other sacrosanct organizations whose lists of “best” films are accepted by so many as statements of fact. And I think you know that I speak as someone who believes the Oscars are nothing to spend weeks and months soothsaying about. But the point is that the Academy’s power is real, and even if it has seen its TV ratings slipping as of late, it will not soon be abdicating its throne. So we watch–even if from a careful remove–and wonder and hope that, every once in a while, the stars will perfectly align.
Mark Harris, NY Times, author of Pictures at a Revolution
What should the best picture race be about? The most popular movie of the year? No. If you believe that, go stand in the corner. Or go sit in the press room of the People’s Choice Awards, where you can complain that the Academy robbed “Spider-Man 3” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” of the top prize. (Although this year, I would be very happy to see “The Dark Knight” in the final five.) The most critically acclaimed? About 856 different film critics’ circles seem to have that covered–and I don’t think their track records are all that much better than the Academy’s. The most successful at meeting the goals it sets for itself? No, because what if those goals are mediocre? Execution counts for more than anything, but I don’t think you can ignore ambition, degree of difficulty, originality of approach, or deeper cultural resonance. If I were a voter looking at the final five, I’d ask myself which movie I was most held by while I was watching it, which movie stayed with me the longest, and which movie I most wanted to see again. And if I came up with three different answers, I’d probably allow the movie that stayed with me the longest to break the tie.
Dave Karger, EW:
I like to think of the Best Picture nominees as the five movies that would go in a time capsule to be unearthed 100 years from now. They should be the five movies that define the year. Not necessarily the movies that the most people saw, but the ones the most people will remember.
Tom O’Neil, Gold Derby, author of Movie Awards
Ideally, the best picture race should NOT be about the most critically acclaimed pic because we can’t trust the critics. That group is too heavily male (more than 80 percent) and too often blinded by testosterone rushes, damning great sentimental flicks as gooey chick flicks, etc.. When they form mysterious gangs, they can go trotting off in bizarre directions like the year they all picked “Mulholland Drive” for best picture. Jeeez, even its director David Lynch admitted he didn’t know what the hell that movie was all about. We can’t let the box office decide what’s best picture either or else we’ll end up next February with “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” being top dog at the Kodak Theater. So can’t we all just agree to leave the decision to Sasha? That’s fine by me. Then “Dark Knight” will slay all rivals, including, hallelujah, that winy lil Chihuahua.
All of our Oscar bloggers are fools because we’re chasing something that doesn’t exist. We know, really, deep down, that there’s no such thing as a best picture. Only once in the history of showbiz awards have all of the major industry awards — the Oscars, Globes, guilds and critics kudos — agreed that, yes, this is the best picture of the year. It was 1993: “Schindler’s List.” However, that same year the People’s Choice Award — which was still decided by national Gallop Poll back then — went to a different Spielberg flick, “Jurassic Park.” So just when all Hollywood finally made up its damn mind and said, yes, a best picture does exist and this is it, the rest of America piped in and said, “Wrong!”
So it’s all up to you from now on, Sasha. That means we can finally shut down all these Oscar websites and I can stop blogging and go back to what’s really important: watching my “Sweeney Todd” and “Dreamgirls” DVDs.
David Poland, Movie City News:
“Ideal” doesn’t exist in a popularity contest. I think there is a percentage of Academy members who think of “best” the way a film critic does, but even critics prioritize based on things like popularity and ambition. But it is different things to each person, as in any conversation. These 6000 people give an award, a snapshot in time that even
they would often change a year or more later. There is no “best,” except for each of us.
Kris Tapley, In Contention
I think ideally, Best Picture is exactly what it says. But that’s really utopian. Subjectivity is a real issue that will always get in the way of defining a “best” film in a given year. What we’re left with is an opportunity to showcase milestone achievements or, in the right circumstances, time capsule representations of the season. I definitely don’t think that “best” should ever translate to most critically acclaimed or even most popular, but in the case of the Academy, it should be the honest majority “winner” of some 6,000+ opinions that are, themselves (and again, ideally), taken seriously. As if, right? But ideally, the Academy takes its role seriously and leaves politics and buzz at the door in favor of the easy task: picking the film that was the most expertly crafted achievement of the year throughout they various films the AMPAS chooses to recognize.
But that’s like Halley’s Comet.