Why the end of the year shouldn't be about a single "best."
The National Board of Review, in typical early fashion, has announced its selections for the best films of 2008.
December means many different things – lavish meals, strung lights, a decorated tree, latkes, vacation time, that one local radio station that converts its entire playlist to holiday music, etc. And when you love movies, December means serious theatrical releases, top ten lists, and open season for awards. I'm not prepared to begin even thinking about the idea of such awards, especially this year when my theater attendance rate is at its lowest in a decade, but it is time.
The best way to describe how I generally feel about film awards would be the above still, taken from Chuck Jones's impeccable 1950 short film Rabbit Fire, and altered by yours truly. Critics' circles and Hollywood academies that bestow awards on the world of film are often as silly and self-serving as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, but usually not as entertaining. As a matter of mental stimulation, I'm much more interested in a year-end review from a specific critic than I am in any sort of awards ceremony. Any kind of look back, whether in a top ten list or a lengthy column, is at least more intellectually consistent than an organization's awards for the following reasons:
1) no accountability to anyone but yourself;
2) no arbitrary rules;
3) no limitations in nominees, particularly in the categories of genre and nationality;
4) no "consensus" candidates;
5) no winners chosen to fit the occasion, such as being passed over the year before or receiving a competitive award as a way to honor a person's body of work; and
6) no "horse race" mentality, or politicking on behalf of a studio.
In other words, staying true to the original, diverse, exploratory intent of criticism.
It's chic and simple to trash awards. What I don't want to do is come off as only an Oscar naysayer; I think there's a systemic problems with awards, regardless of medium but especially in film. The overarching problem is that awards are the easiest way of quantifying a general opinion. Because an award can carry the heft of history or possess some immediate cultural cache, it means something to cite how many awards a work of art has won, a fact that is both satisfying and frustrating. Films are more than the sum of their awards, particularly films or artists who never receive said awards. It's this reductive simplicity that makes something like the Oscar ceremony susceptible to so much criticism but impervious to large degrees of change.
As far as appreciation is concerned, simplicity is the path to the catch-22. As much as I can't stand film awards, complaining about them – even now, right here in this blog post – inadvertently lends a sense of strength to them. To grumble that Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick never won a Best Director Oscar, as I have done in the past, or to bemoaning Citizen Kane and Saving Private Ryan were passed over for Best Picture, as I have also done in the past, gives strength to the Oscars by virtue of expressing any emotion at the outcome. Yes, those bone-headed decisions make the Oscars look short-sighted, but it also means I apparently care about the Oscars because their outcome was not my desired outcome. This is a twisted sort of feeling, one that a person should ever own up to, let alone publicly.
Awards from critics' circles – such as those based in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago – have legions of defenders (re: members or want-to-be members) but are typically no less guilty. Their tastes are typically more in line with my own, but strictly speaking, that shouldn't give me any greater pause. It's not necessarily the results that make something adequate or inadequate, but the process and the bylaws. (Last year Jack Mathews, formerly of the New York Daily News, gave a great summation of the inherent flaw in voting at the critics awards.) It's natural that critics – whose preferences are so often the losers at flashy Hollywood ceremonies – would feel driven to create their own alternatives to the mainstream awards, but the great irony is that their balloting can be just as political, and the moment the image of your organization naming something the best film becomes more important than honest and straightforward criticism, your awards aren't worth a melted penny. The other irony is that critics already have their own alternative to the glitz and glamour: the platform of publication and the intellectual freedom that comes with writing one's mind instead of diluting one's opinion among a group. (At least some had this right before journalism began downsizing.)
Award-giving, it must be confessed, is a sort of criticism – granted, it is a superficial sort of criticism, but it is a relative of criticism nonetheless. The most valuable aspect of any criticism is the notion that there is always time left to experience good art, but where most awards organizations go wrong is that they limit such notions to a handful of films. How ridiculous would it be to limit your annual film intake to the five films nominated for Oscar's Best Picture? I suppose in some ways a "top ten" is just as an arbitrary, but at least it's more expansive than one or five.
This is why I can see the logic in National Board of Review's relatively bizarre structure (for a film award organization, at least). Its general inoffensiveness is rooted in the fact that it fuses the award-giving process with the top-ten-making process, thus making it perhaps the most inclusive of all its kin. The final result is a broad cross-section of the year's films that is much closer and more fair to the year's offerings. The Board names a best mainstream film, a best foreign film, and a best documentary, but more importantly, it also lists choices for top ten mainstream films, top five foreign films, and top five documentaries. Two years ago, the "special recognition for excellence in filmmaking" category officially became a category presenting a top ten list of independent films. I'm not entirely sure they should have to name a "best film" in each category, but by placing their attention instead on five to ten great films, the focus is shifted away from a who'll-get-it-who'll-get-it mentality that drives the Oscars, the media, the industry, and betting pools.
In other words, the National Board of Review's final tally is between thirty to forty different films from the year, which would translate to an impressive queue on Netflix and is probably closer to an actual representation of how the board's members think. I don't want to give the impression I always agree with the selections or I think the Board is hallowed and angelic; any organization that would count The Bucket List among 2007's best films is obviously imperfect. But compared to the limited universe of the Oscars and the high-brow universe of critics' circles, the National Board of Review has figured out a way to come much closer to presenting a sensibly broad spectrum of good films, which should be the ultimate goal.
One of the more psychologically and socially fascinating aspects of art is that commentary on art is an artwork in itself, and as such it is always looking for a justification of its own existence. Awards are mutually gratifying: the art gets honored, yes, but the honorers get to seem important and have fun in doing it. More than anything virtuous or grand, it's just fun to talk about good movies, and awards might be more tolerable if the awarders seemed more comfortable acknowledging the breadth of work in a year instead of the so-called best of work in a year. After all, we would all be fine without awards, wouldn't we? Great art survives regardless of the critic, and this doesn't mean the critic is without a purpose. For as long as art is made, there will be room for formal analysis and greater appreciation of that art. But the notion of the award – the tangible, golden, shiny award, given for the wrong reasons and given as a competition – is the nadir, not the zenith, of that appreciation. It's a dangerous reduction that doesn't begin to showcase the variety of art in the world and its frequently unexpected ability to amaze and entertain.
As far as end-of-the-year discussions are concerned, there shouldn't be much more after this on Screen Savour. I'll include any links to worthwhile top ten lists in the Sunday Matinee feature, lists that will range from professional critics to the much more interesting people listed in my blogroll. I'll put a premium on those that avoid contests and instead show a greater love for the medium. Come February, I might give into temptation and feel obligated to acknowledge the Oscars in one way or another, for same reason that even football fans can't avoid the Super Bowl if their favorite team doesn't make it. Just be aware that whenever the topic of awards comes up, there's a large part of me that can't see it as anything more serious than whether it's duck season or rabbit season.
04 December 2008
Why the end of the year shouldn't be about a single "best."