Of all of the things about me that seem to most amuse my fellow critics, my general affection for awards shows (especially the Oscars and Emmys) probably takes the cake. As we all know, awards shows almost never pick the best possible option. They always end up picking some dumb compromise choice. They're deliberately middlebrow, terrified both of wild populism and of artistic greatness. Any organization that could call A Beautiful Mind the "best" of anything is inherently ridiculous, right?
Well, yes. The number of Oscar Best Pictures that are actually good movies that have also stood the test of time is less than 25 and maybe even less than 15. (You can appreciate the majority of them if you approach them from the viewpoint of someone watching them when they were first released, but plenty of people don't want to do that.) The number of movies that can stand up to having the title "BEST PICTURE" slapped on them is vanishingly small, and even the best Best Picture winners inevitably go through at least a minor backlash in the wake of their win.
For my money, for instance, No Country for Old Men is the best Best Picture winner of the new millennium, and after its win, it went through a whole thing where it wasn't There Will Be Blood, and people rode it down for being too grim or too unconventional. This just happens, especially as that big, glitzy label sends the movie into the mainstream, where not everyone will know what to make of it. (Had There Will Be Blood won, people would have ridden it down for not being No Country. Just how this works.)
And God forbid if the movie that wins is just pretty good or even mediocre, especially if it beats something that goes on to become a classic. Ordinary People, for instance, is a solid little family drama, but it was victorious over Raging Bull. The same goes for How Green Was My Valley -- not a great film, but an enjoyable one that had the bad fortune of beating Citizen Kane. Film history is often written by the losers, by the weirdo, out of the way things that got the breathing room to be properly appreciated and grow reputations larger than themselves. Sure, you'll find your Casablancas and Godfathers in the lineup, but you'll find far more Life of Emile Zolas.
But I love the Oscars not because I think they proclaim THE BEST (they don't), but because they tell us something about the entertainment industry for every year they've been around. To look at the Best Picture lineup from 1934 is to get a sense of what the voters were worried about, the face of their business they wanted to present. Watch all of those movies and you'll see some real dogs, sure, but you'll also start to get a sense of cinematic history passing you by -- trends and twists that the industry went through. It's as succinct a film studies program as you could design.
And that, also, is why I've always loved the Oscars, as ridiculous as they are. (Well, I also love the fun game of predictions, and I love the strategic maneuvering studios undertake with their hopefuls this time of year.) When I was a fledgling film nerd in rural South Dakota, I didn't have easy access to a "best films of all time" list, and the few I found were riddled with foreign films and other titles I found daunting to scare up at my video rental spots (which consisted of a couple of convenience stores, the public library, and the larger rental spots in the town my grandmother lived in).
Thus, watching as many Best Picture winners as I could ended up being the way to go. These films, with that sticker asserting their supposed quality on the cover, haven't disappeared, because of that dubious honor. Because I was a trusting child, I just accepted that each film was the best of its year, but the more I dove into Oscar arcana, the more I realized that this just wasn't true. And that set me on a path to watch as many nominees as possible and, finally, to just watch some of those more challenging works I had written off earlier.
I've talked to so many other film geeks who have an affection for the Oscars for this very reason, and I can't help but wonder just how many of us are out there. We can all admit the awards are a little silly, but we can't help but love them all the same. They don't name the best, but they do attempt to quantify a year that was. And in that process, you can watch an industry grow, change, and take over the world.
Big Love essay will pop up sometime! I also swore I would write about David Bowie in this space at some point, so look for that.
Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.