I love the Oscars. I acknowledge this without a hint of shame and I’m more than happy to admit it. With the television ratings slumping to 26.6 million in 2018 (a 39% decrease from 2014), and remaining below 30 million for this year’s broadcast, it’s safe to say that I am part of a rare breed – a young person still interested in the Academy Awards. However, the caveat is that I watch the show ‘almost completely ironically’. Every year for the past four years, myself and another film buff nit-pick the entirety of the marathon show. We do have a few reasons for it:
Firstly, to make the near 240-minute programme bearable, you have to do something a bit more exciting.
Secondly, if you think that the Academy Awards are merely a ‘celebration of cinematic excellence’, then you are truly mistaken. There are many different film festivals and ceremonies that take place during the awards season, and there is definitely a debate to be had over which is the most prestigious or important. Whether the Oscars will admit it or not, they feast on the grand spectacle as much as, or perhaps even more than, simply rewarding genuine talent. From #oscarssowhite, to La La Land winning by mistake, to this year’s host debacle. It is these controversies which make people watch the Oscars. So, by critiquing it, we subconsciously embrace the farce and fanfare of the show. Thus, we make the whole experience of watching it far more enjoyable.
Thirdly and finally, predicting the Oscars is an artform and each year we have just one opportunity to test our skills. I highly recommend Insider’s Youtube Video: “Are the Oscars Rigged?” if you’ve never thought about the logistics of winning Best Picture, or any Academy Award for that matter. To state the obvious, it doesn’t just simply happen on merit. There are tried and tested formulas on how the system works, with each critic or film buff having their own method of guessing the winners. As the great film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 2005:
“Shhhhhh. Don’t tell a soul. Close Oscar-watchers (and Academy insiders) know that what you are about to read is true but few like to talk about these things. When it comes to picking Oscar winners, you can study the statistics of the past Oscars in search of patterns and clues, but there are certain influential paradigms that defy and transcend conventional statistical analysis.”
He goes on to give a few examples, all of which are worth a read, but my favourite is definitely the following:
“Having a Period: The showiest way to flaunt your budget (besides spending it on astronomical marquee names) is to set your movie in the past, so you can see all the departments – costumes, production design, cinematography, makeup – working hard all the time. It’s astonishing, but the only Best Picture winners in the last 20 years to be set in contemporary times (real or fantasy) were “Rain Man,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “American Beauty” – which are also among the few that weren’t historical biographies.”
Once you know (or think you know) the formula, guessing all of the 24 awards is simple…or so it seems. As Ebert notes, “count on at least one surprise, off-the-wall winner”, and in my experience it is not usually the obscure categories that trip you up, usually it is one of the big ones, such as Best Supporting Actor/Actress.
A cynic might say that by watching the Oscars, in this manner, we are just making a mockery of the Academy Awards; and, despite its over-exuberance, by ridiculing the show we are also ridiculing the pieces of art that the show is rewarding. Now, I do partially agree with this; the Oscars will, for a lot of people, always be the watermark of good cinema. Moreover, in recent years the Oscars have helped promote smaller indie films that without the Best Picture nomination or win, would never have achieved such success. Indeed, in a world where five films made over US$1 billion in 2018, the past six Best Picture Winners all grossed under US$100 million in the United States. To cite some prime examples, films such as Birdman (2014) and the Shape of Water (2017) would never have gotten the exposure that they did, without the Academy Awards, or more specifically, the Academy’s reputation as representing prestigious cinema.
I said earlier that I watch the Oscars “almost completely ironically” and it is time to address the ‘almost’ part of that statement. There is one part of the annual broadcast that I do take seriously, namely the meteoric rise of ‘New Mexican Cinema’ that surely would have gone largely unnoticed by the general public, but for the Oscars. Now, if you’re thinking, “I am an average film-goer, and I have literally no idea what New Mexican Cinema is”, that’s fine. In fact, I think this is the beauty of this movement; it has quietly infiltrated Hollywood, and apart from film buffs and industry experts, nobody was even aware it was happening.
I deliberately listed the examples of Birdman (2014) and the Shape of Water (2017) earlier, and both of these have Mexican directors: Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Del Toro, who along with Alfonso Cuarón make ‘Los Tres Amigos’, the leading lights of the second wave of this movement. Incredibly, between the three of them they have won five of the past six Academy Awards for Best Director. They have an astonishing ten Academy Awards between them and show no signs of slowing down. Yet, perhaps what is more impressive is how they have been able to blend this critical success with commercial “Hollywood” box office hits. Remember, these are the very same directors that made Hellboy (2004), Pacific Rim (2013), Children of Men (2006), The Revenant (2015) and *Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban* (2004). Yet, the three have stayed true to their roots as well. They continue to make Spanish language films, with the best and most recent example being Cuarón’s Roma (2018), winner of three Oscars this year and, in my opinion, robbed of Best Picture. It is available to view on Netflix, and whilst a black and white Spanish language drama about a maid for a middle-class Mexican family might not be everybody’s cup of tea, it is definitely my favourite film of the past few months and worth a watch.
Now, as a Spanish and Portuguese student, foreign language films have always been more accessible to me than they might be for the average viewer. I know that subtitles can be a little unpalatable for some people, and it is usually easier to relate to something if you have shared culture or understanding. That said, despite all I may critique about the Oscars, they have actually taken note of the genuine movement of foreign cinematic talent that has hijacked the awards over the past few years. By recognising these directors, it validates the movement as a whole, bringing respect and recognition from a global audience. Films such as Y tu Mamá También (2001), El Laberinto del Fauno (2006) and Amores Perros (2001) were all nominated for Oscars in various categories; they were just the first indication of what was to come. Moreover, it is not just directors that are receiving recognition. The cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki won Best Achievement in Cinematography, three years running from 2013 to 2015, and actors such as Gael García Bernal (Coco, 2017) and Diego Luna (Rogue One, 2016) are stepping into the spotlight of Western cinema.
Yes, I do make fun of the Academy, perhaps a little too much. However, I am somewhat part of the snobbery that make the Oscars what it is; I love the inside jokes, the awards scandals, the predicting of formulas. Even if I critique the ridiculous nature of it, that in and of itself just contributes to the grand annual spectacle. With all the said, what brings me back to the Academy is the small belief that it still does do what it should do; reward some of the best cinema that the world has to offer. And maybe the success of New Mexican Cinema is a sign that the Academy is getting back on track.
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