2019 has been a wide open year for the Oscar race, in all categories. That means ALL CATEGORIES. There is no clear frontrunner at the moment. We can measure, to a degree, what we know by what the past tells us. We know that we can probably still rely on the guild awards — especially the SAG — and that the Globes give us some intel on what direction the race will take, though we won’t know how much until the Oscar nominations come out and we analyze where things stand and how we got there with reverse engineering.
Yesterday, it was clear that the Boston Film Critics wanted to award Little Women. It kept coming up as a runner-up in the major categories, like Screenplay and Director, and then it scored wins for Best Ensemble and Florence Pugh for Best Supporting Actress. But it wasn’t until the final award that the membership relented and did what no other group has done thus far: rather than simply nominate Little Women for Best Picture, the Boston group put an exclamation point behind it — naming LITTLE WOMEN as the best film of 2019. Do a majority of their members really mean it was the BEST film of the year? Better than Parasite? 1917? The Irishman? Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Maybe they did. Or maybe enough of them just wanted to make sure the movie finally got major attention with some hardware from critics. That’s the thing. When groups from different cities weigh in with results that diverge from most film critics, one has to wonder why geography would make such a difference. With groups from various metropolitan areas seeming to make an effort to be “different,” it become harder to really suss out what they think is best.
There isn’t much of a consensus this year, beyond the consensus that kind of, sort of thrives on Twitter. This has created a situation that never existed before: now, as they announce their awards, critics make waves with each of their choices in real time, by triggering the instant feedback machine, They immediately feel the pang of blowback or strokes of encouragement while their voting is still underway. It is, in a way, a performance where their choices are monitored, retweeted, favorited. They read comments about their taste, good and bad. They can get applauded or else they get booed. How is that expected to have no effect?
After following them for 20 years, I have found that critics all say they don’t really care about the Oscar race. This is especially true the higher up the cosmopolitan ladder you climb, outlet by outlet, with the ones who claim to care the least being those who write for the New York Times. The writers who see themselves only as critics (as opposed to those who also cover the Oscar race), hate people like me. I recently made a comment about film criticism on Facebook and a vocal critic hissed, “Listening to an Oscar blogger talk about film criticism is too rich for my blood.” (His name is Jason Bailey, and he writes for Flavorwire, which I believe sprouted 5 years ago from its newsletter origins, not that there’s anything wrong with that). That’s typical Critics vs Oscar Blogger conflict, old school. You don’t see a lot of that anymore. It used to be much more of a thing a few years back but clearly it still rages and rages in the dark corners of the internet and the minds of some individuals.
There seems to be less agreement this year than ever, among critics about which film is best. I do think humans respond to hierarchy, though not so much lately, since the familiar structure of hierarchy has come unraveled. Partly because the memberships of some of the more elite groups have begun to include a wider range of people of color to balance out their memberships and thus, their choices have reflected that shift towards inclusion as well; after all, why would you bother to go to all that trouble to change your demographics if you didn’t want your awards to reflect the effort?
I won’t go all the way into making a comparison that the clash of recent awards decisions look a lot like the Democratic primary, where “anyone but an old white guy” is such a common refrain. That can’t be argued in this year’s films because there are so many outstanding choices, so many good movies, from big studios, independents, from America and from all around the world. All the same, do many critics still cringe from the hateful blowback they get from Twitter by picking a film starring a white man, written and directed by a white man? Probably.
Here in the 11th hour before Oscar Nom Morning, the movement #voteforwomen advertised on Instagram and elsewhere by celebrities seems to insist that one of the films chosen must be made by a woman. As you know, I feel this is insulting to women who want a level playing field, and counterproductive to women ever being seen as competent in their own right, as worthy artists. It demands what the Democratic primary has tried to dictate: “pick a woman, any woman because we can’t live with ourselves otherwise.” It makes me sad and sick that women aren’t treated as though they actually can win the nomination (as Hillary Clinton did) or that they actually can make movies as good or better than any man (The Hurt Locker). Instead, it’s more of a shortcut trying to force the Utopian diorama to instantly be what we want it to be, rather than work hard to improve what it is.
No one wants to begrudge Boston’s choice of Little Women for Best Picture. It looks like a noble act, I thought, to give the film something it hasn’t gotten so far – an actual win. But it wasn’t the only movie that won over the weekend and chances are Little Women was always going to get in for Best Picture anyway. All it needs now is to make money at the box office, which it will. It is impossible to tell which people think the movie is actually good, though. Because it’s now impossible to tell which critics vote for undeniable quality vs. naming movies as various forms of activism.
Last year, Roma had the near universal consensus of critics. This year, no movie nor any major contender does. It’s fair to say that Marriage Story played pretty well with them. It won the Gothams. And it’s fair to say that Parasite has inspired genuine passion — it won Los Angeles. And it’s fair to say The Irishman has devotees as well — it won the New York Film Critics. This weekend brought in wins for Little Women, and 1917, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
There is nothing wrong with having good intentions. Most of these critics are people with good hearts who genuinely just want to make the world a better place. They’re doing what most of us are doing, the best they can.
At last the critics phase is over – and with so many good intentions floating around, we’re still a long ways away from any kind of consensus about which movie will win this thing.