The Oscars are a behemoth. For 85 years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been awarding honors to the outstanding (mostly American, largely anglophone) films of each year, and in so doing have created a sort of canon (a strange canon, admittedly; where are Badlands, Do the Right Thing, and Paris, Texas?). Engaging critically with any canon is important not only toward understanding the biases (and potential shortcomings) of a list and its originating institution, but also toward a larger project of recognizing our cultural psyche. It’s too simple, of course, to suggest that the movies we create and experience directly reflect the “id” of our collective consciousness, but it is valuable to try and understand the ways in which its products reify the structural underpinnings of the sociocultural sphere.
In other words, how do the movies we celebrate reflect what we care about? What do this year’s films suggest are our larger concerns? Is it: anxiety about the digital sphere and the possibility of human connection therein? the persistence of white guilt and the problematics of race relations? lineage and generational tensions in how we narrate our lives? the tyranny of neoliberal capitalism, and its attendant psychosocial fatigue? all of the above? Obviously these are simplistic assessments of complex films and their themes, not to mention that there were many other films made outside of the insular Academy candidate pool, but these questions offer a starting point, if no easy answers, toward understanding our own patterns and anxieties.
Of course, “we” do not select the films up for nomination, nor does the general public decide the eventual winners. Because of this, any analysis of the Oscar canon must also contend with the demographic particulars of the Academy. As the voting body skews overwhelmingly older, white, and male, it is at least somewhat reliable that their decisions will be biased towards the perspectives, politics, and inherent preoccupations of this cultural intersection. And the Academy is not without other problems, as some statistical analyses have shown.
Much has been written about the concept of “Oscar appeal” (or “Oscar bait,” in more critical circles), the idea that there are certain topics and themes that seem to guarantee some measure of success within the academy’s voter demographic, and it’s a telling critique.
Many of 2014’s nominees bear out this observation (praise and expected wins for 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, and Dallas Buyers Club), while others clearly refute the logic we’ve come to expect from the Academy (the multiply-nominated Gravity, the exclusion of The Butler). Sometimes, the only pattern is inconsistency.
So maybe we can’t expect the Oscars to do justice to or represent each of us, and I suppose it’s a little absurd to assume or hope that they will ever reflect the actual tastes and viewing habits of the larger public; that just isn’t how the Academy is structured. They have their own established criteria for engaging with and honoring the year’s films (just what does “best picture” mean, anyhow?), as do many of us. In the end, the Oscar canon is a mighty one, but it only shows part of the cinematic picture. I might not always agree with the choices they make (as evinced, below), but I’ll definitely be watching the ceremony this Sunday, even if just for the spectacle of it alone (also Meryl <3).
And, because I love making lists (or maybe I’m just obsessively and naturally compelled to do so as a librarian) I’ve compiled a few contenders for Oscar nominees if the Academy Awards took place in an alternate universe held inside my addled brain: