Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
First off, let's be clear: If you're an actor, filmmaker, screenwriter, or any other behind-the-scenes person in Hollywood who's been nominated, of course the Academy Awards matter. For those select folks, their careers—scratch that—their lives change. Just look at last year's surprise Best Actor nominee Demián Bichir, who earned his unexpected acknowledgement with a painfully sympathetic, heartfelt turn in the little-seen drama A Better Life. Before 2011, nobody outside of his native Mexico even knew he existed; now, he's already made two major studio films, last year's Oliver Stone thriller Savages and this summer's Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy action-comedy The Heat. Without that nomination, Bichir probably wouldn't have done any of that.
When we say "The Academy Awards don't really matter," we’re coming from the point-of-view of people outside the industry. As in, moviegoers who keep those glammed-up performers on the red carpet by purchasing tickets. People who will never meet super-producer Harvey Weinstein—the returning Oscar champ who was in attendance last night for producing winners Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained, as well as multiple nominee The Master—in person, or even care about him in any serious way. These are the same ladies and gentlemen who fall victim to the big lie that's perpetuated by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) celebration of superlatives, the idea that the nominees for "Best Picture" are literally that year's greatest works of cinema. Which, more often than not, is not the case. In fact, it's bullshit.
Now that we're almost two years removed from the 2011 film calendar, let's briefly reflect back. According to the AMPAS, that year's top movie was The Artist, the clever, entertaining black-and-white champagne burp that fleetingly brought silent filmmaking back into the mainstream. According to us, the year's top movie was Drive, the hip, brutal, and subversively genre-savvy oddity starring Ryan Gosling. Which didn't receive a single nomination from the Academy.
In the Academy's play-everything-safe minds, a film like The Artist is a no-brainer. Like the still-unbelievable and still-awful 2010 nominee The Blind Side, it's upbeat, it pleases crowds. Most importantly, though, like this year's Argo, The Artist pats Hollywood on its back with a plot that hinges on the magic of cinema. Here's the thing, though: If not for it being mentioned here, would anyone even remember The Artist? Did it influence pop culture or modern filmmaking in any discernible or important way? Nope. Casual popcorn eaters still can't tell you who starred in Modern Times without consulting Wikipedia. (Which is a shame, but still.)
As for Drive, go rent the blockbuster smash Taken 2 and notice how one of its coolest soundtrack cuts, Chromatics' "Tick of the Clock" is blatantly ripped off during one if its key action sequences. Or wait until the Elijah Wood-starring horror remake Maniac opens and recaptures its '80s-heavy ambiance. Or go ahead and Google Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn's name and read about all of the projects he's been attached to since the film opened, including Denzel Washington's in-development The Equalizer, which Refn has recently departed, but at least he was there for a moment. Drive's impact and resonance are still in effect. The Artist, meanwhile, has Oscar bloggers saying to themselves, "Man, I still can't believe that film won Best Picture." Not to mention, its minimal resonance led to Oscar host Seth MacFarlane's jab about The Artist star Jean Dujardin's lack of visibility in 2012. Dujardin was in the audience.
The fact of the matter is that movies like Drive will never stand a chance of winning over Academy voters—that's just accepted at this point, however begrudgingly. A few prominent awards season pundits, namely In Contention's Kristopher Tapley went to bat for last year's excellent Liam Neeson flick The Grey, but that was never going to happen. To the Academy, that's an action movie about a guy fighting wolves—even though it's not—and therefore off-limits. The same probably goes for Rian Johnson's inventive time travel film Looper, another genre production that ended up on several highbrow critics' year-end lists but got shut out by Oscar's handlers.
For them, the more neatly and prestigiously packaged a movie is, the easier it is to nominate, save for the occasional anomaly that's just happy to be nominated (see: this year's Beasts of the Southern Wild). For example, take Les Misérables, one of this year's Best Picture nominees. That overlong, divisive (its positive review percentage on Rotten Tomatoes is 70%), but star-laden musical screamed "Nominate me!" from the moment it was first announced. And, of course, the AMPAS obliged. Director Tom Hooper's (who made the 2010 Best Picture winner The King's Speech) take on the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic tale has all of the necessary ingredients: elegant costumes, A-list stars, beloved source material, and a prime December release date.
So what if many of the nation's top film critics—like The New Yorker's Anthony Lane ("I screamed a scream as time went by") and former Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum ("The fake-opulent Les Miz made me long for guillotines")—loathed it? It means nothing that The Grey (Rotten Tomato rating: 79%) and Looper (93%), and, hell, even the superb meta-horror knockout The Cabin in the Woods (92%) were met with much better critical responses overall. Because, as previously mentioned, they're "genre" movies, not to mention dark, unconventional, uncompromising, and, particularly in the cases of Looper and The Cabin in the Woods, destined for cult-favorite status. In other words, they're exactly the kinds of movie that stodgy, non-risk-taking AMPAS members and voters avoid like the plague. Most Academy members probably didn't even watch those movies. They'd rather watch the entire Les Miz cast stiffly belting out the big musical number, as Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, and the tone-deaf Russell Crow did at the center of last night's festivities.