Oscar Elitist

The Academy Awards are this Sunday.  If you’re not excited, it’s your own damn fault.

The Oscars are perennially the most-viewed TV entertainment event of the year—more popular than the Grammys, Emmys or VMAs—yet they are also, unfailingly, the most criticized.  People carp about who was “snubbed” the moment the nominations are announced.  The show itself is derided for its bloated length and nauseating air of self-importance.

And again and again, the Academy is scorned for being out-of-touch with the typical American moviegoer, ignoring most (if not all) of the year’s biggest blockbusters in favor of low-grossing independent films that, in many cases, never even open in theaters outside major U.S. cities.

Rarely has this been truer than this year, and never have I been happier for it.  This has been a great year for the Oscars.  It’s just a shame more Americans don’t have the good sense to realize it.

It is very curious, indeed—and more than a little depressing—that 2014’s eight Best Picture nominees comprise one of the strongest fields in memory, yet also one of the least-seen.  Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is far and away the most lucrative in the group, having grossed more than $300 million in the United States alone.  However, the remaining seven nominees have earned less than $300 million put together, dragging the per-film average in this category down to its lowest figure in nearly a decade.

In truth, this economic fact does not bother me all that much.  To be honest, I hadn’t the slightest idea how any of the Oscar movies have done at the box office until I looked them up.  Except to write this column, I really couldn’t care less.

And why is that, ladies and gents?  Because there is absolutely no correlation between how much money a movie makes and whether that movie is any good.  I’ve never once inferred a movie’s quality based on how many people go to see it.  I don’t understand why anybody would.  As a strategy, it would only begin to make sense if all of America had similar tastes and could distinguish, as a group, between worthwhile entertainment and utter dreck.

It’s an absurdity on its face.  It would be like conducting a nationwide poll to determine which type of salsa to put on your tacos, or asking ten random strangers at the mall what you should get your wife for her birthday.  Are you really that susceptible to the whims of the masses?

This is not to suggest that gazillion-dollar commercial behemoths can’t also be excellent films from time to time.  Nor would I ever want to deny someone an enjoyable evening at the movies.  After all, it is equally true that a great many small-budget art house offerings are every bit as boring and stupid as they look.  When I say there is no relationship between money and quality, I mean exactly that.

All I want is to rebuke this idea that the Academy’s apparent disinterest in box office success is inherently a bad thing.  It’s not.  I’m positively thrilled that the Oscars take themselves seriously enough not to care whether all—or any—of America agrees with them about what constitutes great cinema.  I’m delighted that this has made the Oscars as “irrelevant” as they’ve ever been.  If it means honoring a slew of films like the ones under consideration this Sunday, I hope the trend continues indefinitely.

For instance, buried among the more talked-about works on this year’s roster is a little movie called Whiplash.  It was filmed in 19 days on a $3.3 million budget by a little-known 29-year-old director named Damien Chazelle, and it’s one of the most exhilarating movies I’ve seen in years.  It’s a simple story about a teenage conservatory student who wants to be the greatest jazz drummer in the world, and a teacher who knows virtuoso talent when he sees it.

The twist—and the film’s mad stroke of genius—is that the instructor is a raging psychopath who conducts band practices like the CIA conducts interrogations.  He is played by J.K. Simmons as a petty tyrant who justifies his extreme behavior as a way to weed out the true, committed artists from those who “don’t have what it takes.”

But what really makes Whiplash so exciting and so frightening is how the drummer, played by Miles Teller, shows that he may well be the diamond in the rough that Simmons has been searching for, and is prepared to endure the abuse—physical and psychological—that is required to prove it.  The movie’s final sequence—a compression of raw kinetic energy of jaw-dropping skill and intensity—brings all its threads together in a manner that is simultaneously funny, absurd and altogether electrifying.

Whiplash is clearly one of the gems of 2014 cinema, yet hardly anyone has seen the damned thing.  It’s as satisfying a theatergoing experience as one can hope for, yet precious few are even aware of its existence.

What a shame that a movie with such potentially broad and deep appeal has been relegated to the fringes of the national consciousness.  And what a tremendous relief that Academy voters nominated it for Best Picture anyway, thereby assuring it a considerably higher visibility in the long run than it otherwise would have had.

In a just world, Whiplash would not need an Oscar boost in order to garner the wide popular acclaim that it deserves.  Nor would Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, an utterly delightful confection whose lead performance by Ralph Fiennes is one of the funniest you’ll see.  Nor would Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which deftly and compellingly shows how the particular racial tensions in Ferguson, Mo., can be traced at least as far back as the Deep South in 1965, leaving us to wonder how we will resolve our present conflicts without a figure like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead the way.

But we don’t live in a just world, so instead we depend on the Academy to tell everyone which movies they should seek out.  (We also depend on critics and bloggers, but who ever listens to them?)

The Academy does not always do this job well.  Those who are still sour about this year’s omissions of, say, DuVernay for director or The Lego Movie for animation can rest assured that worthy films and performances have been overlooked every year since the dawn of cinema, often inexplicably.  As widely noted, this year’s nominations contain an appallingly low number of non-white people, but then again, this has pretty much always been the case.

But on the curve on which Hollywood must always be graded, this year’s Oscar harvest is markedly stronger than usual, and a validation of the Academy’s worth in anointing the year’s best movies, even if the rest of the country disagrees with them.

The purpose of the Oscars is not to be popular.  It’s to be right.

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