Oscars Countdown: The World Championships Of America

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There are two events that booked February in the worldwide calendar, and there is a striking similarity between both. At the beginning of February each year, over 150 million viewers tune in to watch one of the most viewed events in the sporting calendar, the Super Bowl, in which two teams fight for the title of world champion. Except all of the teams involved come from America, of course, so it’s not much of a “world” championship. But it would be hard to argue that there’s a team better at the sport anywhere else in the world, although it would also be hard to argue that there’s much interest elsewhere in the world, when that audience is composed over 100 million people in America watching, and barely half that across the rest of the planet.

At the end of February, there’s an event that’s a different story. Typically getting a US audience in only the 30-40 million range (still enough to beat top rated shows like American Idol), but getting a worldwide audience higher than the shoulder-pad wearing ball-throwers, the Academy Awards have a much bigger reach, with audiences genuinely around the world tuning in. But sadly, there’s not much more chance of something non-American winning than there is at the Super Bowl.

“But what about us Brits!” I hear you cry. Certainly the acclamations of “The British are coming!” have been ringing around Oscar red carpets ever since it was uttered first thirty years ago for Chariots Of Fire, and indeed we do have a good track record at the Oscars, undoubtedly helped by the fact that we invented Americans and gave them a handily similar language to our own to use. They even want us to like their games, sending one match a year of the normal Super Bowl season to be played in London now. But we have a much better chance at the film awards, with The King’s Speech and The Social Network in an almost UK vs USA battle to take the top honours this weekend.

Sadly, though, in the previous eighty-two years that the big prize has been handed out, there’s only ever been winners from films produced by one of those two countries. The current scores, in case you were wondering, are USA 72, UK 10, everyone else in the entire world 0. While we might have made inroads into the dominance of the colonies at their own film awards, no-one else much has. There’s a snobbishness about the Oscars that excludes certain types of films and favours others, and that’s as clear this year as almost any other.

No love for foreign language films

Of course, it’s only two years since a film partially in a foreign language won the Best Picture award. Slumdog Millionaire was financed by the UK and featured a lead actor born and raised on these shores, though. It’s one of three films that have taken the big gold statue that aren’t entirely in either English or its American variant, the other two being The Last Emperor and The Godfather Part II. But in eighty years, and over four hundred nominations, only eight other films in a foreign language have even been nominated for the big award.

That wouldn’t be a crime if there wasn’t the quality there, but looking at the past two years does make you wonder why these films don’t get bigger audiences. This year, I’ve managed to see two of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language, Dogtooth and Biutiful. The former is no doubt too much of an off the wall choice to have been seen by many voters, never mind actually chosen, but Biutiful has its lead actor in the Best Actor category, Javier Bardem giving an amazing performance that is (whisper it) at least as good as Colin Firth’s this year. (Although it’s not as good as Colin Firth last year, and he didn’t win, but I digress.)

While that might not be the crime of the century, then last year probably was. The expansion to ten in the Best Picture category saw a diverse list that included the likes of Avatar, The Blind Side and An Education, big crowd pleasers or traditionally home-spun films from their respective countries, but not films that were universally loved by any stretch of the imagination. Then look at the Foreign Language list, which included winner The Secret In Their Eyes as well as nominees like The White Ribbon and A Prophet. Every one of those has been acclaimed around the world by critics and audiences, but just didn’t have the profile to get close to a nomination for the big prize.

Not much more love for animated films

So maybe it’s just a popularity contest. To get in the top ten, you need to have been seen by a wide audience. So let’s consider the widest audience possible: the general public. If you enter a search on the good ol’ Internet Movie Database, then the top films of the year looks just a little different to the Oscar list.

The films in gold background are the ten Best Picture nominees; those in darker gold text are animated films. If the general public had their say, then How To Train Your Dragon would have made the cut and Tangled, which was ahead of Shutter Island as recently as last week, would also have been in with a shout.

That’s bad, but nowhere near as bad as last year:

Again, there are four animated films in the top 20 of the year, but this time only five of Oscar’s picks match the general public. If you were picking out animated films, then you’d have put at least one more in that list. Shamefully, Mary and Max didn’t even make the cut for Best Animated. Even The Princess And The Frog, which wasn’t one of Disney’s more memorable efforts, came higher up the list than A Serious Man.

Forget it if you were released earlier in the year


One other thing stands out from the list for 2010: Shutter Island, released in the US in February, was largely forgotten at awards time. The Ghost came out in March and wasn’t even an apparition at awards time. And The Town, which was probably fighting it out for the tenth and final slot with 127 Hours, based on nominations for other major awards, came out in September. There’s a theory that movies need to be released late in the year to gain awards attention; only three of the list were released before The Town, and Winter’s Bone lasted the longest, having been in limited release since June.

But you’re a true story? Now you’re talking

Looking at this year’s list, four of them have some basis or inspiration in real life: The Social Network, The King’s Speech, 127 Hours and Black Swan. (Had you going there – of course, it’s The Fighter.) Which may not sound like a lot, but when you consider that top 100 list on the Internet Movie Database for last year, then the total comes in at seven. So more than half the true stories released made the list. Is it any wonder that the likes of Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell were queuing up for Conviction, even though it sounded like (and turned out to be) TV movie material? It seems that whether you invented Twitter or coughed up both your lungs while climbing Ben Nevis, if you’re story’s true you have just increased your chances of being nominated exponentially.

So, this Sunday night or Monday morning we’ll all be settling down to watch which American or English film which probably wasn’t animated and definitely didn’t have any tricky other languages in, released in the second half of the year and quite likely based on an improbable true story of triumph over adversity was deemed by a group of people who we’re not a part of was the best. Why are we watching again?

One thought on “Oscars Countdown: The World Championships Of America

    […] written before about the main failings of the Oscars: they tend to skew away from the films that sit too close to […]

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