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Sorting Through Statuettes: A Skeptic’s Guide To Surviving Awards Season

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
November 30, 2011

As the 10 Best Swallows Who Returned To Capistrano In 2011 would tell you, it’s awards season again.

The New York Film Critics Circle handed out its prizes yesterday (on Twitter!), Kevin Smith is already swearing at the Independent Spirit Awards for overlooking the cast of Red State, and we’ve already switched Oscar hosts once, from Eddie Murphy to Billy Crystal. From now until the Oscars in late February, you’re going to hear a lot about movies both big and small, about performances you have and haven’t seen (and some you haven’t even had the opportunity to see), and about what a travesty it is to recognize this performance or film instead of that performance or film.

It may get a little exhausting, and then right when you’re extra exhausted, you will be asked to tune in to a giant gala where rich people in dresses and tuxes will hand out trophies to other rich people in dresses and tuxes, and at some point, it will all begin to look very silly if it doesn’t already.

But the situation isn’t hopeless. You can make awards season work for you.

In the realm of movies, awards certainly have a spotty record in the popular understanding of perfectly identifying the best of the best. There’s the famous victory of Shakespeare In Love over Saving Private Ryan, there’s the snubbing of Hoop Dreams … the catalog of alleged wrongdoing goes on and on.

On the other hand, especially since the Best Picture category expanded to 10 films, the Oscars have certainly managed to bring attention to some good films that probably wouldn’t have been widely seen otherwise. It’s true that a 2011 Oscar completist would probably have seen the mainstream “good movies” like The Social Network and Inception anyway, but might easily have missed the very small Winter’s Bone or the unconventional 127 Hours until they were nominated.

If you expanded your reach last year to looking for Oscar-nominated performances, you’d have found Michelle Williams’ great turn in Blue Valentine, and if you sought out documentaries, you’d have found the marvelous Exit From The Gift Shop. Among the Foreign Film nominees, you’d have found the brutal but riveting Incendies. In other words, you can most definitely use awards nominations — and not just the Oscars! — to find terrific films. Not in every case, but in many cases.

So you can use awards season to your advantage by just seeing nominees and winners as a list of possibly interesting movies that you might not have paid attention to otherwise. Not a definitive list, not a smarty list, just a list. They won’t all be great, but when the NYFCC made The Artist its Best Feature (and the first significant winner of the season, really), whether it’s the absolute best choice they could have made or not, it probably made the movie more prominent than a silent film in black and white was before.

But perhaps the most important survival strategy for awards season is not to take it too much to heart. Awards can be nice moments of recognition, they can make you feel really vindicated if something you like happens to win, and they provide a couple of months of fodder for arguing back and forth about really high-quality culture, which isn’t such a bad thing. (I’d much rather argue over Tilda Swinton in We Need To Talk About Kevin versus Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene than try to figure out what ails The X Factor.)

Awards are not, however, any good at actually creating a ranking of things where one performance or one film is actually demonstrably better than any other. It’s a foolish endeavor, really.

For instance: There are ways in which I believe Bridesmaids was both the best and the most important film of the year — truly. But it would be a miracle for it to even be nominated, since it’s not the kind of film that people are typically talking about when they say “Best Picture.” People are usually talking about thoughtfulness and technical skill and, above all, ambition; that’s what makes them gravitate to audacious, gorgeous experimental pieces like Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life. If you think any awards ceremony can meaningfully place The Tree Of Life and Bridesmaids on a continuum that makes any sense, you have more confidence in that endeavor than I do. The entire concept of putting Melissa McCarthy and Jessica Chastain in a room and trying to decide who’s better at her job is absurd.

And yet, as long as you don’t expect awards season to do what it claims it can do, and you adjust your expectations so you’re basically exploiting voting processes by industry people and critics to suit your own needs, you can survive the whole thing without letting it drive you around the bend. Throw a party at the end, make a few ill-informed bets about who’s going to win for Sound Design, and don’t think about it too hard. It can, and should, be fun. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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