February 23, 2009

The silly season: Oscar unreality

It is that time again- Oscar silliness will be a feature of every newspaper this morning and heads in Hollywood will be feeling sore after last night's extravaganza. The problem with this annual farce is that actually it makes little difference to the average film goer- it may indicate some paths along which aspirant directors wish to move, it may even indicate which films will sell most on DVD (a minor foreign film like Okuribito is bound to be boosted by winning an Oscar), but it doesn't say much about which the best film of the year was. There are various reasons for this: take the best actress categories- this year won by Kate Winslet and Penelope Cruz- true both of them may well have given superb performances, but both have done so before. One wonders if the academy is trying to avoid another Scorsese moment (when a great figure in cinema is left without an Oscar for an unreasonable time)- Cruz for example could have won for her magnificent performance in Volver a couple of years ago. There are also odd ommissions from the list- Of Time and the City is a superb film, which beats many on the best film list in my opinion for its imagination, scope and quality but it is not there.

You might get an award wrong, but that doesn't mean that an award should not exist. In this case, I find it hard to sustain the idea of the award itself: it does not make any sense to talk about the best film of a year, anymore than it makes any sense to talk about the best book of a year. The problem is about the nature of the comparison. Films try to do different things. 1959 saw the US releases of Hiroshima mon amour, Ben Hur, Wild Strawberries, Carry on Teacher and North by Northwest. How do you compare that list of films? Carry on Teacher is the one I would least like to watch: but it is not attempting to do what the other films on the list are attempting to do, it is unfair to judge a film or anything else by a criteria that it does not attempt. I would suggest that comparing Hiroshima mon amour to Wild Strawberries or North by Northwest is an impossible task: ranking those three films is a silly endeavour, much better to settle for the fact that all three are great works of art and deserve to be watched on their merit. They are three great films with individual points to make about the world- and those points are more interesting than the rankings we might assign them. Ben Hur, which got the Oscar in 1959, again is a different kind of film, it does not seek to arouse the softness and sadness at the heart of Wild Strawberries, the contemplation at the heart of Hiroshima or even the suspense of North by Northwest- it is about spectacle.

There is a difference between a poor film and a good film, a good film and a great film: there are films that we all prefer to watch and those that it is pure suffering to watch (Rambo IV step forwards): but the best film of a year is an arbitrary decision and not a helpful one in terms of appreciating films. Think about what a film is saying rather than what ranking a film has. Ultimately films are a means of communication, and for those outside the industry, the key issue about a film is what it says not where it stands in comparison with other films of the year. The annual Oscar fest is useful to remind you that someone in the world thinks that Okuribito was a good film- and therefore point you in its direction- it isn't useful for much else. Unless that is you are a director or actor and interested in a free drink and an aftershow party: otherwise its best to leave the judgement of the best film to the industry- and concentrate not on the Oscars and who won and who lost, but on the films, what they say about the world, what they teach us about life, the universe and everything else.


James Higham said...

Who would you put in your top five? Tough question.