James Wallace Harris, 3/19/22
This YouTube video from CNBC says the Oscars and Emmys have lost more than 80% of their peak viewership. CNBC claims this is due to a generation shift, and because of cord-cutting. It reminds me of another news story I read about The Gilded Age on HBO Max. That report said the good news was the show was a hit, the bad news was only people over 65 watched it. Of course, that was devastating news to people who sell things.
Are the Oscars really a generation thing? Just how relevant are those awards to anyone nowadays? Why do we watch movies? Is it important that they be awarded prizes? Is it even important that the movies we love, win awards? Do we crave validation for our favorites? I used to use the awards as a checklist of what to try, but I stopped that years ago. However, I do love March, when TCM has 31 Days of Oscar.
I don’t know if it’s a generation thing either. I quit watching the Oscars decades ago. Even though I’m a big movie fan, it’s been years since I could remember the names of any of the new movie stars or directors, and the award ceremony always seemed to really be about and for them.
Before the pandemic, I went to the movies once a week. I haven’t seen a movie at a theater in over two years. When the 2022 Oscar nominations were announced I thought I’d stream all the films that were up for the best picture to catch up. I don’t really care who wins and don’t plan to watch the ceremony. This year ten movies are up for best picture:
This made me wonder just how many movies came out in 2021? Checking Rotten Tomatoes, they list 235 with over 70% positive reviews — there must have been many hundreds made. There are just 30 in their Golden Tomato Awards. Only 4 of the Oscar-nominated best pictures were in that 30. Indie Wire lists their 50 favorites, which have some overlap with both the Oscar nominees and Rotten Tomatoes but rank them differently. Paste Magazine remembers 2021 with another list of 50 films, and with a different slant of opinion. The web could provide me with many more lists, and if you look at enough of these lists, some movies do seem to pop up on many of these top movie lists. In recent years, that’s how I measure movie success — if a film got on multiple best-of-the-year lists.
I’m realizing by following the Oscar best picture nominee list I’m doing myself a big disservice. If I consider the other award categories that involve a feature film, there are 21 other films to consider, for a total of 31 (assuming my ability to count is accurate). I was surprised by how often the 10 best picture nominees were also nominated in the other categories. The movie business is big on promoting their films for the Oscars, often spending millions according to the CNBC report above. They said Netflix spent $60 million to promote Roma. So the Oscar awards feel incestuous, picking the same films over and over again in each category.
I also expected the ten films nominated for best pictures would all be stunning and obvious choices, but I loved only a few of them, and two of them I found tedious and boring. I thought it interesting that three of the ten were remakes. I thought all three remakes were technically superior to the originals, but I prefer the originals for Nightmare Alley and West Side Story. I’m not sure if I care about any version of Dune.
I saw the 1947 black and white version of Nightmare Alley just weeks before seeing the beautiful color 2021 version. I liked everything about the 2021 production, yet I thought the 1947 version was creepier. I wondered if time-period had anything to do with it? Nightmare Alley (1947) seemed to be about something real, something contemporary, whereas Nightmare Alley (2021) felt like a pulp noir fantasy. This was also true for West Side Story. The original felt relevant to when I saw it back in the 1960s. The 2021 version seemed like a perfect recreation of the past but without any current significance. Nowadays gangs kill each other with assault rifles, so a musical about angry teens with switchblades seems out of date.
Dune was gorgeous, but it felt like I was looking at the Illustrated Classics comic version of the story. I read Dune back in the 1960s, and again about ten years ago, and the story felt heavy and rich. The movie versions feel cliche. But science fiction movies about galactic empires have become so common that they now seem silly parodies of each other. While watching Dune my eyes were delighted by the visuals. Yet, intellectually I was wondering if the reason why science fiction movies don’t win awards is because they feel aimed at childish minds? There’s nothing wrong with children’s stories and YA fiction, but the awards appear aimed at stories for grownups.
I’m afraid Drive My Car mostly bored me. I love foreign films, so that isn’t the issue. The problem is Drive My Car felt like MFA literary writing. It’s the kind of story that academics love to analyze and admire. That kind of fiction works on me sometimes, such as The Wonder Boys, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or the way Birdman played with Raymond Carver. I just didn’t pick up on Uncle Vanya as a subtext like I did with “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in Birdman.
But what I like and don’t like isn’t really the point. What I’m asking is: Do the Oscars help us find the best films to watch from the previous year? In recent years I haven’t paid attention to the Oscars but this year I’m using the ten nominees to catch up on what I missed during the pandemic. While I didn’t go to the theater in 2021, I did stream a couple dozen films from that year. CODA and King Richard were my top favorites. I admired The Power of the Dog and Belfast but didn’t love them. I really enjoyed Being the Ricardos. Why wasn’t it up for the best picture Oscar? Who decides these things?
This makes me wonder about how we determine what makes a great movie. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, so there’s no objective way to measure movies. Looking at what I liked, King Richard and CODA makes me wonder if feel-good movies might be my yardstick. Both were riveting stories that left me feeling like I learned something, and they made me feel good about people. (Many movies push my misanthrope tendencies.)
Dune and Nightmare Alley were just fun stories. I would add The Dig and The Last Duel to that kind of story. Don’t Look Up was a very relevant satire, but very uneven to watch. I thought Some Kind of Heaven, another fun satire, was a far better film.
I won’t be around in 50 years, but in 2072 how many movies from 2021 will be shown on TCM in March? If you look back to the 1972 Oscars, I’m still watching many of the films it picked. Professional and critical recognition might matter after all. Then, on the other hand, how many movies do you love that are unrecognized, obscure, and forgotten?
We mostly find the movies we love by accident. It would be interesting if there were a system that would identify films we’d resonate with for sure. Giving films an Oscar doesn’t predict anything for sure, but it might help some in finding movies to watch. Watching the nine nominees for best picture was an interesting education.
I’m planning to watch Licorice Pizza tonight to finish out the ten.