Let me start by coming clean—I have as of this moment seen five features and one short from 2018. Three of the features and the short are nominated for Oscars. (The other ones are Ant-Man and the Wasp and Crazy Rich Asians.) I feel this is frankly not enough viewing to have an opinion about what the actual best movies of the year were; the most recent year where I can really start having an opinion is maybe 2013, if then. So I’m not going to cry the merits of any specific movies from this year, because how would I know? I liked Black Panther, but it’s literally the only Best Picture nominee I have seen thus far.
There’s an Onion article I’ve seen going around about “area man thinks movie he saw should have been nominated for something,” and there’s certainly an aspect of that here. With the exception of our own Douglas Laman, hardly anyone I know sees enough movies to really have a clear perspective on the year in film as a whole. People see movies that appeal to them; it’s part of the reason for the difference between critics’ ratings and public ratings on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. If you don’t think you’re going to like a movie, you simply don’t see it in the first place. Which is of course part of why I haven’t seen Green Book.
But invariably, these conversations get into what movie “deserves” an Oscar. Certainly it’s part of the narrative around Black Panther, as I said the only Best Picture nominee I can discuss with any authority. Does it deserve its nomination where movies like, for example, Widows and If Beale Street Could Talk do not? Is giving a nomination to such a populist choice damaging to the credibility of the Academy?
There are several questions at work here, not least the one of how much credibility the Academy really has. I mean, we’re talking about an organization that awarded The Greatest Show on Earth over High Noon and The Quiet Man. This is even without getting into things like the Citizen Kane discussion and the Academy’s notorious shutting out of voices other than those of straight white men. (While only one Best Director nominee this year is a white dude born in the US, or even an English-speaking country, there are once again no women nominated.) Art is subjective anyway, and the Academy is of course driven by politics like any other organization, though there specific politics are at least more complicated than the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, at least inasmuch as there are more members.
There is also, of course, the Academy’s screwy “between five and ten nominees” thing, meaning that this year has eight nominees and Film You Liked Better could have gotten a nomination without taking one away from Black Panther in the first place; surely that’s a better place to start your anger than by taking nominations away in this particular category. It just feels to me as though this rule is the worst possible one. Yes, people will get annoyed no matter how many nominees there are when their preferred nominee doesn’t make the list, but still.
Last year, the question was about Get Out. And if you’re not choosing to contemplate the racial politics—which I don’t think should be ignored but aren’t necessarily not a factor in why those two films are the ones to get the backlash—there is still the aspect that they’re genre movies. The reason the Best Picture slate was expanded in the first place was that a lot of people felt that its being a genre movie is what kept The Dark Knight from an Oscar nomination. Until this week, the closest thing to a superhero movie to be nominated for Best Picture, much less win, is Birdman. Which, um, no. And I liked Birdman okay.
Then, of course, there’s the idea of deserving an award in the first place. I admit a tendency to think in those terms myself—most notably with Spielberg and The Color Purple. (Given that he directed two actresses who were essentially new at performing to nominations themselves, I do think he deserved the Best Director nomination, especially since I wasn’t impressed by the direction in winner Out of Africa—though I probably would have given the award itself to Kurosawa!) But what makes a work of art deserve an award? Are our criteria better than anyone else’s? Because art is subjective, is it really possible to say for sure that any award for art is deserved?
It’s all speculation. Futile speculation at that, since the list of eight nominees is out and is unlikely to be changed. (Nominations have been withdrawn, but only in extraordinary circumstances—if it’s happened more than eight times over the years, I don’t know about it.) All I can say is thank Gods we don’t seem to have to have an art-versus-artist conversation about any of the nominees this year, even though we definitely do about the director of one of the nominated films and the writer of another.