At the end of a week when we’ve seen the first major awards handed out and the nominations for the gold shiny bald men unleashed upon an expectant world, it’s a good time to reflect on how well the voters of the various awards bodies have done in providing recognition for the films that deserved it. The Golden Globes and the Oscars represent opposite ends of the spectrum: the Globes voted for by 100 obscure journalists in a ceremony that has taken on an importance inversely proportional to its voting body. While you might knock the Oscars – and I have, repeatedly, during my time writing this blog – everyone wants to put some semblance of order into what’s been released and to reward those who’ve achieved in their fields, and given my plethora of year-end lists each year I’d be a touch hypocritical if I were to dismiss completely the opportunity for others to do likewise.
But the Oscars are the culmination of a season that has become as much of a campaign for votes as any political election, maybe more so given that only around 6,000 people are eligible to vote. Words such as journey, importance and momentum will get bandied about repeatedly over the next six weeks, and every single lesser award ceremony will be pored over by showbiz journalists with nothing better to do than to speculate on the outcome. There have already been casualties – step forward Tom Hanks, this year’s Ben Affleck (and that’s not a sentence I ever thought I’d say) – but while for some it’s too late, for the lucky few the real campaign starts in earnest, with a prize of up to $30 million at the US Box Office alone for those getting the “Oscar bump” of extra recognition through a nomination or a win.
I’ve written before about the main failings of the Oscars: they tend to skew away from the films that sit too close to the mainstream, they generally segregate foreign language films and animation to the margins and they have notoriously short term memories. Partly, the last of those points must be down to the need to get that bump while a film is still in cinemas and not released on DVD, which means a release in the last month of the year gives a distinct edge, but some will also quote the benefits of momentum which is crucially lost if your film was released six months ago. These days, the most prominent campaigns start with films released around the festival season in September / October, that ride a wave of acclaim across Toronto, Venice or London and then are unleashed on the general public just in time to start picking up awards nominations.
Is this year any better, then? Three guesses, but you’ll only need one.
Listed on the left are this year’s nine Best Picture nominations. The Academy will select anything between five and ten, as long as they achieved at least 5% of the vote (hence only having nine nominations for the past three years). I’ve then also assembled the top ten lists from film sites Letterboxd and the Internet Movie Database, which anyone can vote for, and Metacritic which aggregates critic reviews. (Letterboxd tends to skew more middle class while the IMDb typically has a more mainstream slant, so I’ve included them both for balance.) Three films – 12 Years A Slave, Her and Gravity – manage to appear on all four lists, so logic would suggest that they should be the front runners, yet many are considering this a two horse race between 12 Years and American Hustle. American Hustle appears to have in its favour the fact that it’s secured acting nominations in all four categories for the second David O. Russell film in a row and that it picked up the Golden Globe for best comedy, as well as a handful of critical awards prior to that. It overlooks the fact that the general public haven’t taken to it at all, so it would seem to be this year’s film reliant heavily on the actors that make up a decent chunk of the 6,000 members.
What the Academy voters have then done follows their usual pattern: firstly, no populist films, so no Hobbit or Hunger Games which the general public loved. They’ve also not picked any animations, although that may be fairer this year as while Frozen and The Wind Rises sat just outside the other three lists, none gained enough of a consensus to feel hard done by. Those films released earlier in the year, such as Before Midnight, get just a handful of nominations in smaller categories. But the biggest injustice remains that of the exclusion of foreign films, with The Hunt hit by the double whammy of actually being released in 2012.
Yes, the Oscars continue to be The World Championships Of American And British Film And Occasionally Something Australian Or Foreign If You’re Lucky. But don’t take my work for it on just being this year: here’s the same breakdown for the previous four years, since the Best Picture Oscar expanded from five to ten films, and once again with the comparable lists from Letterboxd, IMDb and Metacritic. I’ve highlighted any films not primarily in English, and it’s just the Academy voters that can’t find a way to embrace films not in English.
Only once in five years has a film not in English cracked the Best Picture nominations. While the Academy award nominations are in alphabetical order the other lists are in vote order, so the top pick of both the general public and critics in 2011 (A Separation) failed to crack the Oscar nominations. (About Elly also got neglected, and his latest effort The Past didn’t even make the Foreign Language category this year.) In fact, only nine foreign films have ever managed a nomination for the big prize: Grand Illusion (1938), Z (1969), The Emigrants (1972), Cries And Whispers (1973), Il Postino (1995), Life Is Beautiful (1998), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) and Amour (2012). That’s a rate of less than 2% of the nominations over the lifetime of the Oscars, and when you consider that the top film lists on the other sites all have a rate in double figures, it’s Oscars ought to be taking a long, hard look at themselves.
If you’re a film in a non-English language, the odds are stacked against you from the start of even winning the Best Foreign Language award. The qualifying window runs from October to September – the reason we’ve got The Hunt in the Best Foreign Language category this year, and not Blue Is The Warmest Color), and having a three month longer lead time will put a dent in the hopes of the best films, even before you consider the marketing budget needed to compete on a level playing field. If you’re being considered for the award, then first you’ll need to secure your country’s nomination – as each country is only allowed to put forward one film per year – and then you’ll need to make the initial shortlist of nine. From there, a thirty member committee whittles the list down to five by watching the nominees, and then you can vote for the final winner if you’re an Academy member and are willing to see all five of the nominations in a cinema. Good luck to anyone trying to navigate through that process, you’re going to need it.
The only way I can see to end this farce would be to scrap the Foreign Language Oscar completely, and to do away with the October to September window. If foreign language films were allowed to compete on a level playing field, and if they could secure enough backing to get a campaign off the ground, then maybe we’d see more rounded lists. In a parallel universe somewhere, the Academy did this five years ago when they expanded from five films, and the Best Picture nominee lists have looked like this for the past five years (based on the best performers across the current Oscar nominations and the Letterboxd, IMDb and Metacritic lists). I’ll leave it to you to work out whether or not you prefer these lists to the actual nominations; the films in green are in both the actual Oscar list and these, and the mauve are once again the foreign language films. Let me know what you think; for now we can only dream of a world as well rounded as this one.