How relevant are the Academy Awards at this point?

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Photo courtesy of oscars.org

Andrew White Cleary, staff writer

[NOTE: This article was originally written, and scheduled to be released, before the 87th Academy Awards ceremony on the night of February 22, 2014; inclement weather delayed the issue’s distribution. It is for this reason the article is written in future tense when predicting the Oscars’ choices, which were unknown at the time of writing.]

Every January, the Academy Awards selection committee presents their nominees for many accolades including Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Director, and Best Picture. Another January event is becoming just as common: wrath following the Academy’s selections. All nominees for this year’s Best Actor category are Caucasian, and all Best Director nominees are men. The nominee choices for both sparked controversy; many wanted David Oyelowo nominated for his performance in “Selma” as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ava DuVernay had been a popular choice among audiences for her directorial work in the same picture.

Some will strongly condemn the committee for ‘not reflecting social change,’ or something along these lines. This crowd is particularly prevalent in 2015: liberal pundit Al Sharpton called for an emergency task force to discuss action against the Academy. Others will not question the Oscars’ choices too much: they will get in the awards show spirit, making their best effort to watch all nominated performances and films.

Both parties, the “we can trust the Academy” crowd and the “more diversity” crowd, have flaws. The first may want to be a little more skeptical. The second overemphasizes what is only a minor shortcoming. We should all take a deep breath and ask ourselves if awards shows really matter when discussing which films of any given time period will be remembered as the ‘best.’

They don’t. Those who only care for the Academy’s choices miss out on many great movies.

“Citizen Kane” (1941), directed by Orson Welles, is possibly the best film ever made; its screenplay and cinematography were groundbreaking for its time, and hold up today. When the Academy Awards were held that year, the committee had nominated it alongside movies like “Blossoms in the Dust” and “How Green Was My Valley,” finally handing the statuette to the latter. In recent years, the loss of “Citizen Kane” has been described as an embarrassment for the Academy.

Those who want more diversity in the Academy are stomping their foot down on the wrong floor. The scarcity of international cinema, if anything, is more worth lamenting. Some films from foreign countries are shot on rather low budgets, made by filmmakers with less resources than English-language blockbusters capable of sweeping the Oscars. In 2011 an Iranian film called “A Separation” was released; it was only made on half a million dollars, meaning Asghar Farhadi, the director, could not achieve excellence as easily as other awarded directors of that year.

The 1960s in film include the masterpieces of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and the Russian Andrei Tarkovsky. Bergman is responsible for “The Seventh Seal” (1957) and “Persona” (1966).  Neither of these were nominated for Best Picture, but they have become classics and their ambiguous themes fascinate viewers to this day. The critics rightfully love Tarkovsky, but neither of his two best films, “Andrei Rublev” (1966) or “Mirror,” (1975) received any Academy Awards.

Regarding contemporary filmmakers, Hungarian director Béla Tarr is the apex. Tarr’s films “Sátántangó” (1994) and “Werckmeister Harmonies” (2000) received no Academy Award nominations in any category. In 2004, Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was released. Taking place mostly in a character’s mind, it employed unconventional visual techniques to represent the creation and destruction of memories. Blurring the line between romance and science-fiction, it is possibly the most original American film of this century so far. The following year, however, the Academy chose “Crash” as Best Picture.

On tspdt.com, a site which statistically calculates critics’ acclaim for movies, there is a list of the 250 most acclaimed films of the 21st century so far. None of the first 20 movies won Best Picture. By now, you get the drift, awards show lovers. I do not consider myself insecure regarding which films will win and which will lose, because I care very little. History has proven, time and again, that their opinions have not always held up. As a film critic, I’ll share a good lens through which to view yearly awards shows: as an indicator of the state of film criticism at that time, rather than as a serious authority on artistic merit. Award shows, one could say, are misleading. They claim to tell us what the best pictures are, though also seek to recognize the best films within a year of every nominee’s release — while the greatest and most ambitious art is often too ahead of its time to be properly acknowledged within a year of release. William Shakespeare was not universally recognized as the greatest English playwright in his time; it took a little while. American rock band the Velvet Underground were not all that acclaimed in the late 1960s; once mainstream rock critics began to realize their influence, an entire decade or so had passed.

When we search for archival Academy choices, seeing “Blossoms in the Dust” put alongside “Citizen Kane,” we should do so to understand the growth of film criticism since then, and to be thankful for it. Such choices, as time has shown, were not an authority regarding which films would be talked about generations from now, but they are a catalyst for the discussion of film theory and its development within a certain time frame. If someone were to call the two films equal today, they would never have found a job in the Academy.

Over 70 years later, anticipation captures the American masses; hype is built in the weeks leading up to this televised event, and people begin voting on their predictions vs. their favorites. We cannot predict what will happen Sunday night. The Academy in all likelihood will crown “Boyhood” or “Selma.” Out of all nominees, however, I believe “Birdman” is the greatest. The first time I saw it in the theater – with its brilliant, daring camerawork and its densely layered screenplay – I knew it was something special. No film with that much ambition, and which succeeds on all said ambition, is anything less than a masterpiece for the ages. It will still be talked about 70 years from now.

This Sunday, watch the Oscars all you want. Get your popcorn, record the time block on your DVR, laugh at the best and worst acceptance speeches, and cheer for your favorite actors and actresses. There’s nothing wrong with being in award show spirit, after all. Realize, however, that the Academy’s choices have no guarantee of being the last say. The test of time is the ultimate test for merit.