It’s Oscar season. “For Your Consideration” ads are everywhere, publicity events are all over town, and awards are being given out for everything from everyone. Back in the day, the critics valued their own awards more than they did the Oscars. The Oscars were “fluff” according to them and anyone who covered the Oscars were regarded as lowly slime. Well, a new page has been turned, folks. Now the critics really do care what wins the Oscar. They not only do they care, they now want to meddle in the election. Evidenced by last year’s complete and total freak out on Film Twitter that Green Book could beat the critics’ darling, Roma — and even today their long-lasting campaign to trash Green Book and its filmmakers remains in full swing. You see, film criticism for all intents and purposes has been folded into the clickbait model of news and Film Twitter is an easy way for critics to connect with readers. Connect and provoke — because if it doesn’t trigger people, it isn’t going to get clicks.
Today’s most recent crusade is in Esquire: Don’t make Parasite into a TV series! Give it Best Picture and Honor Foreign Cinema. As though these two things are equivalent or even comparable. As if Bong Joon Ho needs career counseling from Esquire. As if giving Parasite the Oscar for Best Picture would somehow pacify Bong and save him from the shame of developing his own brilliant ideas into what may well turn out to be a brilliant HBO series. Because I guess the idea is that everyone who votes for these awards is obligated to curate and care for Parasite’s fate. Yes, Parasite has become Film Twitter’s obsession — a wonderful film that had thus far soared above the petty bickering of the Twitterati has now been swallowed up and becomes a political banner to wave.
And if that weren’t enough, two — count ’em, two — hit pieces against 1917 have conveniently cropped up at Variety and at Slate Magazine, smack in the middle of Oscar voting. These aren’t conscientious politically-minded hit pieces that attack the film’s demographics or context (it’s WWI, after all — not much wiggle room there) Instead, they seem to be designed to bring an Oscar frontrunner to its knees.
What strikes me funny and rubs me wrong about these efforts is how much film critics suddenly care so much about the Oscars. Since when? Back in the day, some would predict them at year’s end, but for the most part they held their nose and laughed at the whole affair. Most distinguished film critics paid the Oscars no mind at all. Did Pauline Kael ever write up her Oscar predictions for The New Yorker? She did not. Roger Ebert was among the first to notoriously champion one film (Crash) to win Best Picture, but he did it by praising a movie that he admired; he never lowered himself into the muck by writing a strategic smear or hit piece against Brokeback Mountain, or any other movie. In fact, it was mostly verboten and frowned upon to do it. No self-respecting critics would tarnish their reputations that way. Sure, the odd op-ed by William Goldman or Joe Esterhuas might crop up to target, say, a Scorsese movie. Peter Bart and Peter Guber had a gossipy TV series where they tried to compete with YouTube’s Real Geezers (perpetually cranky Lorenzo Semple and his long-suffering wife Joyce), but that kind of thing was relegated to professional malcontents. It wasn’t a job that any principled critic would want.
Even as recently as a couple of years ago, when critics for major outlets would handicap the Oscars, they usually waited until the Friday edition just before Oscar night, when editors thought readers’ interest would be peaking. The most they would do were the “Should Win/Will Win” Oscar appetizer pieces. Not anymore. Now a lot of them can’t resist rushing onto the playing field while the tournament game is still underway. They want to run interference for their pet favorites and intercept voters, doing whatever is in their power to influence the outcome. Why? We can only assume that a few critics feel invested in making or breaking Oscar winners. Why? Who knows, but sometimes it sure smells fishy. Through all the years that I’ve been covering the Oscars, most critics would never deign to do this, and they’d never want to risk how seemly it can appear to be.
The Oscars are an industry event with awards chosen by voters who want to honor their peers. The critics phase of the season certainly has its place in the race, but by now we should be past that place. Critics have their say and then the filmmakers get theirs. Rarely the twain shall meet. I guess everything has to be political now, even the Oscars — so if there are clicks to be had and outrages to mount, why not target the Oscars?
Often, what we mean by political means is when people advocate for a cause. In the case of a few critics, to politicize awards means they want the Oscars to represent an effort to “fix” socio-cultural problems. Right? So the last thing on the list of things to honor, the last (and least) thing that it’s acceptable to wish for, is a win for any white men who made a movie about white men and white men problems. To do so is the fastest way to trigger the most people on Film Twitter. Because, to them, a win like that means nothing has changed. And somehow, to them, if a film wins Best Picture that is not a film directed by white men or is not about white men, then that must mean Things Have Really Changed! It’s evidence of progress and proof that they can achieve something at a time where they feel helpless against the Trump catastrophe and all the unfathomable repercussions that come with it. “Welp, we sure screwed up the Supreme Court for the next 40 years, but at least we can make sure Whitey McWhitedude didn’t get an Oscar!”
Sorry to say, but I can promise you with 100% certainty that it won’t matter. It won’t make a difference. The Oscars do only one thing: they say this is the movie that a few thousand people liked best. That is all they’ve ever tried to say and all they ever can say. The designated message they send (or don’t send) can’t make the real world any better or worse. No matter which movie wins Best Picture, it won’t repair our broken society. The Oscars will never be able to satisfy all the needs and desires of Film Twitter or Woke Twitter, and any critics who try to micromanage the outcome by tearing down movies that don’t suit their agendas are kidding themselves.
Some might say they think I do the very thing I wish critics wouldn’t do. But I hope most people that know me will agree that I’ve always been someone who believes in championing films if they are good enough to be championed. Yes, I stand up for films by women and filmmakers of color whenever I feel they are good enough. But hating on a movie just because it doesn’t perfectly reflect a cultural ideal is unfair and dishonorable. And it’s a futile political gesture. There are a hundred other, better ways to channel that outrage.
I’m not linking to the clickbait articles that bother me. You can find them if you want to feed that particular beast. But I’d just like to remind people that although I’ve spent a lot of time and energy over the past twenty years writing about which films should win Best Picture, I have always been against hit pieces. I find such tactics to be insulting across the board. They should be embarrassing to the people who write them, because they’re so damaging to the talented people who put themselves on the line to make movies in the first place. The filmmakers take all of the risk. They have enough hurdles to overcome without getting kneecapped in the 11th hour by hot takes and potshots from snipers.
The Oscars aren’t supposed to be tailored to satisfy the transient demands of critics. The critics have their own awards for that. Hundreds of them. Filmmakers have never needed critics to tell them how to make the great art they create, and Academy voters will never need critics to them which movies should win Oscars and which shouldn’t.
And so it goes.