The Best Picture Conundrum
Bad movies win Oscars, but that can be good
In a previous post I wrote about this year’s Academy Awards and how, while I didn’t enjoy Everything Everywhere All At Once, I was happy to see it win the Best Picture Oscar anyway, which was surprising even to myself.
To find out if I felt this way about other movies I scanned the list of all Best Picture winners since the year 2000 and realized that yes, my thoughts on each of these films were indeed all over the place.
(I’m ignoring other award shows here, focusing only on the Best Picture Oscar, and that too only on films that won.)
I thought about this a bit more and realized that my opinions on every film in that list can be divided into a couple of criteria: first, how much I like the film itself (irrespective of accolades or acclaim), and second, how happy it makes me that it won. What’s interesting - and what EEAAO made me realize - is how often my opinions along the two parameters differ for the same film.
These two criteria can be represented as x and y axes in a Cartesian coordinate system, which gives us a graph with four quadrants. Every Best Picture winner of the 21st century that I’ve watched falls into one of these quadrants.
So I plotted the graph…
…which pretty much says it all, really.
But let’s delineate this a bit.
Films from quadrant III (bottom left) are the worst of the lot - movies I loathe, and that shouldn’t even have been nominated in the first place. Slumdog Millionaire is kind of like the Indian Forrest Gump - a thematically empty underdog fantasy. Crash is an execrable piece of garbage that I’m glad I watched just so I can justify dumping on it. The King’s Speech might actually be an okay film but that year had too many better nominees for it to win - The Social Network was right there! Green Book was just aggressively, offensively mediocre in every possible way.
On the opposite end of the spectrum you get quadrant I (top right), i.e. genuinely great movies that I’m glad won. I don’t have much to say here, except that you really should drop everything and watch Parasite right now if you haven’t already, which also was the first ever non-English film to win BP. Everyone remembers the Moonlight envelope fiasco but that doesn’t take anything away from it being a beautiful heartbreaking portrayal of masculinity. I could rewatch The Departed for the seventh time again and still enjoy it. All of these are peak cinema.
Now things get more interesting. Quadrant IV (bottom right) consists of movies I generally like but don’t think should’ve won. These are pretty solid films but in a one-and-done kind of way, where I felt they were enjoyable but mostly forgettable, except maybe Birdman, but that really should’ve been Boyhood’s year. I didn’t like their winning because each of these years had far more moving and creatively ingenious nominees. Most of these winners have also had very little cultural impact.
And lastly we get to quadrant II (top left) which, of course, is the most noteworthy one, because I didn’t even know it was possible for me to hate a film but be okay with it winning awards. These are all movies I consider “bad” but in an I-don’t-vibe-with-it-but-get-why-someone-could-love-it kind of way. They’re daringly original and auteuristic in their vision, even if that vision doesn’t align with anything I enjoy.
For example, I like that The Hurt Locker won because that meant Avatar didn’t - good movie, but BP would’ve been too much on top of $1B when there were far better nominees (*cough* District 9 *cough*) - and of course, The Hurt Locker also made Kathryn Bigelow the first woman to ever win Best Director.
Similarly, though I don’t care for it much I just have never seen anything like Nomadland, a film I probably would’ve enjoyed more were I a vagabonding forty five year old woman. (Not quite there yet.) It genuinely felt like a documentary, and just like EEAAO is so vastly different from the kinds of films that usually get nominated for awards it’s quite stunning it actually won.
This graph was worth making to illustrate my inherent conundrum about quadrant II and quadrant IV films. While I’d watch a quad IV film over a quad II one in theatres any day of the week - they’re just better and more fun - I’d still rather have a quad II film win industry awards over a quad IV one, just because they ventured deeper into the artistic unknown.
I get that it’s contradictory to like one kind of cinema but want another kind to win. But when recognizing movies, I feel like artistic originality should weigh more heavily than other factors. (Give Wes Anderson the Best Director Oscar already, goddamnit.) When filmmakers get to make the exact films they want to, the result doesn’t always work, but it is always deeply weird and deeply personal, and it’s these eccentric projects that push the boundaries of what was previously thought possible in the cinematic artform.
If insiders don’t recognize filmmakers operating at the edges of their medium, then who will?
All this being said, I also get that this strange fixation on Best Picture is idiotic, that comparing art is reductive, and this whole buzz around award shows is kind of silly. But recognition matters, because people have to pay attention to something. In my aforementioned Oscars review I noted that:
Everyone knows that showbiz awards are superfluous and inherently meaningless […] and you could argue that the Best Picture Oscar is merely symbolic. But in an industry that’s all about projecting a certain image, there’s nothing “mere” about symbols. Oscar voters aren’t film critics or journalists, but people who work within the industry itself. Who wins at these shows is, in a way, a statement by Hollywood insiders about what kind of films they support and want to see more of.
And that’s the thing. Best Picture might be an endorsement that most people - even most cinephiles - don’t care about, but it is the primary endorsement from within an industry that everyone pays lots of attention (and money) to, which means we should at least keep an eye on it to gauge where the culture is going.
And as long as quadrant I and II films keep winning, it’s going in a positive direction.
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