Hollywood is branching out in many different directions that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is simply not built to support, and definitely not evolving alongside. There is not much wiggle room in terms of where the Oscar race has been going up to this, its 88th year of handing out awards to the “highest achievements in film.” It supports what it supports – which is usually the traditionally drama, the handsomely mounted period piece, or a film that invests heavily in actors and character developments. Actors like to work and they like supporting films that showcase their work. They do not appreciate being “replaced” by CGI, nor superhero movies pretending to be real films. But. They are simply not keeping up with the continuously evolving film industry. They continue their message of “make movies we like, present them to us, and we will reward those.”
For some inexplicable reason the Academy only offered members ten nomination slots for two years, in 2009 and 2010. The thing that prevented them from keeping that tradition was the old-time Academy guard. If you’ve ever met one of those voters or spoken to one you would see how rigidly they hold on to the old way of doing things. Why pick ten? Ten only invites more mediocrity, one told me once. But ten actually saves them from themselves. How do we know this? It’s easy. Once they reduced the nomination slots for Best Picture back down to five their Best Picture lineup narrowed to exclude any kind of film that wasn’t “their” kind of movie. They allowed for more than five, those that narrowly missed the top five, but that still doesn’t solve the problem of 6,000 or so mostly middle-aged, mostly white males choosing their top five films of the year.
When you’re talking about top five, you’re talking about films people LOVED as opposed to films that were, perhaps, a little more challenging, a little more dark, too genre-y, animated, films about women, films directed by women, films about subjects that don’t appeal to white men like Fruitvale Station, or Nightcrawler, or Gone Girl, or even Foxcatcher. The slightest discomfort means it’s off their top five.
It isn’t working. No one thinks it’s working. Almost everyone thinks they should go back to a solid five or a solid ten and stop with this nonsense of pretending they have more nomination slots than they actually do. Their narrow-minded thinking is what is holding them back from embracing the new.
Probably no film will test the limits of this method of choosing “best” than Anomalisa (review forthcoming), one of the year’s standouts without a doubt, and a film that will likely be stuffed into the animated category where it will likely lose to Inside Out. Inside Out is the perfect film to win in the animated category – it does everything an animated film should do and more. Anomalisa is a different kind of thing entirely. It has full frontal puppet nudity – both male and female. It is deeply moving, and, like the other masterpiece that has dropped this year Beasts of No Nation, utterly uncompromising. Putting it, like so much of Charlie Kaufman’s work, into this sick little world of film awards greatly diminishes its magic because there is no place for it. There might be a place for it on the top five ballots but probably those five slots will go to more traditional, actor-driven pieces (the numbers in actors branch are almost double every other branch and dominates, in all ways).
With ten nominating slots, voters have more breathing room and flexibility to work against their own worst (and sometimes best) instincts – to vote with other organs besides the heart. Ten slots would mean they would say yes to an animated film like Anomalisa, maybe even alongside Inside Out, maybe Mad Max, maybe Star Wars, maybe Beasts of No Nation. They have room to expand past their own comfort zone and choose films that really do reflect the best of the year because the best of the year films that Academy members like best is an ever shrinking pile, that shrinks more and more as we start checking off what “they” won’t go for.
Why does it matter if the Academy chooses Anomalisa or Beasts of No Nation as the year’s best?
Because they are the year’s best. Anyone who gives Anomalisa a bad review is not to be trusted. It is not a matter of opinion, that film’s greatness. They can say they “didn’t like it.” They can be put off by the puppet sex but there is no one out there getting paid to write film reviews who can say that is not one of the year’s best films.
Because it’s hard to get people to watch movies anymore. It’s hard for any movie that isn’t a tent pole or driven by a big name director to make any money at all. Film awards are one way to bring awareness to films people might not take a chance on. That is true of the best films of this year because they are unique. They defy “branding.” They stand apart and can’t be easily explained. They don’t feed the Academy voters what they crave: confirmation that they and they alone matter. They push the limits of what artists are allowed to do in film anymore. A vote for a film like Anomalisa or Beasts of No Nation or Inside Out even, or Mad Max says those films matter. Maybe they don’t make us feel warm and fuzzy and good about ourselves, but do we matter more than art? Do we? Let’s be honest about if that’s the case and change the name of “Best Picture” to “Best Mirror Mirror On the Wall.”
There is no use in saying it anymore. I really feel like they do themselves, the Academy, a great disservice by limiting the number of Best Picture nominees to five ballots. They do a great disservice to the artists out there who are trying to do something different with their work. They do a great disservice to us, the consumers, who are asked to be interested in their show and their choices every year. We, the consumers who are asked to pay big money to see what Hollywood puts out, big and small, in sickness and in health, til death do us part. We enter a contract with the Oscars and with Hollywood but we’re at a point where what we the consumers says doesn’t matter.
In other words, all I want for Christmas is a ten nomination ballot for voters. They can still pick five if they want but for those who have seen everything, give them a chance to pick ten. When one of our greatest talents in film, Charlie Kaufman, has a hard time getting anything made film awards can sometimes make the difference, or at least I hope they do.