Academy fails to recognize excellence

Joe Cramer

The Academy Awards are the most prestigious and envied prizes in all of Hollywood.

Eight major categories cover the most recognizable areas of film: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay.  

By my math, that means that the mysterious cabal of Hollywood’s elite who determine these nominees have 40 chances to recognize cinematic brilliance in film throughout the year.

Yet, the nominations this year confirm a frustrating trend that has been developing over the last several years during award season.

If a film is hyped enough throughout the year, and if it fits in with the general sensibilities of Hollywood at the time, it is all but guaranteed a spot in the nominations, regardless of actual quality or achievement.

How about an illustration?

The five films nominated for Best Picture this year were all released after Thanksgiving. Evidently, Oscar voters have a very, very short memory. 

 Anyone with some knowledge of award season patterns could have predicted these nominees in June. You have your token epic in “Benjamin Button,” the politically relevant historical films in “Frost/Nixon” and “Milk,” your ever-dependable Holocaust movie in “The Reader” and the “underdog” rags-to-riches story in “Slumdog Millionaire.”

That is not to say that these are not exceptional films. With the exception of “Benjamin Button” and “The Reader,” these are indeed examples of some of cinema’s finest efforts. “Slumdog Millionaire” may even deserve the top prize.

The problem is that every year the Oscars nominate the same types of films, reinforcing an absurd idea that filmmakers can only succeed when they conform to a set of basic expectations.

If Hollywood wants to continue to grow and expand, to reconnect with a populace that it lost so many years ago, it needs to stop rewarding convention and start to reward bravery and innovation.

What makes this trend especially offensive is that it was allowed to continue in the most exciting year of film since 2000, when “Gladiator” dominated the screens.

This year, “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight” proved that entertaining summer blockbusters could be more than merely explosion-ridden Michael Bay fare.

In “Iron Man,” Robert Downey Jr.’s nuanced and surprisingly deep performance as Tony Stark turned the comic-book movie on its head. He presented us with a flawed hero, a man who, despite his suit of armor, could bleed like the rest of us.

The result was fascinating: an action movie where the most engaging parts weren’t the epic fight scenes between dueling CGI-effects, but rather the smaller, more subtle character moments.

 Downey underscored the charming public persona of Stark with a profound guilt and emptiness, proving for the first time since Russell Crowe’s tour de force in “Gladiator” that a summer action film could run on the power of its star performance.

Yet he is noticeably absent from the Best Actor nominations list. Instead, Brad Pitt’s lifeless and CGI-aided turn in “Benjamin Button” holds his place. Pitt’s performance failed to capture even half of the charm and sorrow of Downey’s, but then again, it is Paramount’s fault. They should have released “Iron Man” in December.

Another outstanding film severely lacking in deserved nominations is “The Dark Knight” – 2008’s box office juggernaut. Tense, exciting, dramatic and thought-provoking, “The Dark Knight” is a near-perfect film that captures the essence and the magic of the movies in one epic session.

Much more than an action film about a man who dresses up in a bat suit, “The Dark Knight” is a challenging and disturbing look at insanity and the dark side of justice.

Despite this, it was not rewarded with a nomination, nor was Christopher Nolan’s masterfully-paced directing, nor his intelligent screenplay.

Only Heath Ledger’s incredible turn as the Joker, the thematic heart of the film, was recognized as outstanding.

Instead of rewarding the cinematic bravery and financial risk it took to imbue some of the most anticipated actioners of the year with intelligence, wit and depth, Hollywood has decided to largely ignore it in favor of the usual Oscar bait. We get the message, Hollywood. Bring on “Transformers 2.”

Yet this is not the end of the cowardly choices made by Hollywood this year. Another outstanding film, “The Wrestler,” was ignored outside of the acting categories.

Director Darren Aronofsky wove a brutally honest and deeply personal tale of loss and regret with “The Wrestler,” completely altering his style along the way. The result was a resounding success, and the finest film of the year.

Yet it will now be remembered only as Mickey Rourke’s comeback film, as Aronofsky’s brooding and subtle direction was passed over in favor of Stephen Daldry’s unimpressive and melodramatic work on “The Reader.”

Whether or not anyone likes to admit it, the Oscars carry a significant amount of weight in Hollywood. 

A win, or in many cases, a nomination, is significant motivation for any filmmaker, as it often means a serious career boost and a higher paycheck.

The increasingly conventional and predictable nominations are ultimately detrimental to the spirit of originality and bravery in cinema.

Hollywood has continually failed to reward new voices and ideas in cinema, instead rewarding the same recycling of ideas that has dominated awards seasons for the past decade.

Films must be considered for awards not on the highly political basis of their premise or their release date, but on their actual quality, their spirit of innovation and their purity of vision. Only then will Hollywood be able to reclaim the greatness it once possessed.