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March 02, 2024

Saturday Evening Movie Thread 03/02/2024 [TheJamesMadison]

A Quick Note

I have a new book out, Corstae. If you feel so inclined, do buy a copy. Otherwise, on with the show!

The Best Picture Winners at the Oscars: The Finale

Well, I did it. I watched 'em all. It took about a year, but I have seen every Best Picture winner at the Oscars from Sunrise and Wings to Everything Everywhere All At Once. This is the fourth of my posts about the winners, and it's going to end up more of a review of the whole thing rather than a breakdown of what the last twenty years of winners means because the last twenty years of winners don't seem to mean much.

I think the Best Picture winners had some kind of meaning to the Academy for decades. They were mostly dedicated to larger films that made a lot of money, rewarding producers who made big bets and won big. This was rather explicit for the first decade or so until Frank Capra felt like he needed his official recognition and pushed for his films like Lady for a Day and It Happened One Night to receive that recognition over the more traditionally celebrated fare like Cleopatra.

Over the decades, it reflected the changes in the industry to one degree or another, near the front edge of popular taste as the institution and the people went back and forth changing their tastes and mores as the years rolled by, and then The Deer Hunter showed that you could game the system in a particular way to win. Harvey Weinstein became the poster child for producers buying the award through the late 90s (he was still winning Best Picture Oscars by the 2010s), and the idea that it was about great movies that had broad cultural appeal at the same time steadily died out.

We're left with a hollowed-out shell of an institution that prioritizes being wooed by studios rather than discovering movies themselves. The irony is that it was a conscious choice on the part of the Academy's voting body to become more irrelevant.


There is one year that changed everything, accelerating existing trends at a renewed pace after films like Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King took the top honor and were little more than bumps in the road, and it was 2008. That was the year that the comic book movie genre reached its critical peak with the release of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. It was critically acclaimed. It had a supporting performance from Heath Ledger as The Joker that was buoyed heavily by the actor's death. It made almost a billion dollars at the box office. It was, very honestly, the modern version of the kind of film that the Academy had been awarding since its inception. It was the crowd-pleasing, popular film that everyone loved and respected.

And the Academy refused to nominate it for Best Picture (the award that year went to Danny Boyle's crowd-pleasing exploration of Indian fate, Slumdog Millionaire).

It seems like a conscious decision on the part of the voting body (the largest of them is the actors who make up a plurality, so I think it's safe to blame them alone to a degree) to ignore popular taste. You see, The Dark Knight was a spectacle film, more of an accomplishment of a filmmaker than an actor or troupe of actors, and, since the 80s, the Academy had put particular focus on films that were more actor centric than filmmaker centric (think Ordinary People over Raging Bull). The pushing aside of The Dark Knight, largely relegated to technical categories and the pity award for Heath Ledger's posthumous performance, obviously concerned the Board of Governors who quickly set out a rule change: Best Picture nominations were no longer limited to 5. They could nominate as many as ten (most years have had nine nominees since, but they've gone to eight a couple of times and ten a couple of other times).

An irony of this decision is that while the expansion of the awards has certainly opened up the nominations to popular movies like Black Panther or Top Gun: Maverick, it also cemented the idea that the Oscars aren't for them. No one seriously believes these movies have a chance when stuff like Women Talking is nominated at the same time. Heck, in 2009, The Hurt Locker became the lowest grossing film to win Best Picture, and it's been overtaken several times over since in that regard.

Of course, the great thing about this change is that it's made manipulation of the vote through the campaign easier with more nominees. With five nominees, the theoretical minimum for a winner was 20% + 1 vote. With ten nominees, that theoretical minimum is now 10% + 1 vote. We could see that even at five nominees it was easy enough to manipulate through the example of Weinstein winning for Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan, but the increase in nominees has made it apparently easier.

Just look at CODA, the independent film that Apple purchased and then aggressively pushed to win Best Picture two years ago. Precious few people actually saw it. Its box office take was $2 million. Apple bought the film and bought the Oscar because it was working heavily to bring eyes to its streaming service, buying prestige instead of earning it over time. I'm not sure it worked. It's the least rated (in terms of number of votes, not the average rating) Best Picture winner at the IMDB over the past 20 years and the second-least rated Best Picture winner at LetterboxD (the least is the 2011 winner The Artist). And the Academy was happy to go along with it, selling its prestige to a large corporation while giving up its ability to lead the public it thinks it's supposed to be showing the way.


So, I took some numbers on the last 23 years of Best Picture winners to try and get some sense for how wide the cultural impact they are. I'm not sure a full analysis could be done because the sample size is simply not very big and has so many other major variables that would be hard to filter out, but after comparing numbers from the IMDB, Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, and LetterboxD, I think that the Academy does still carry some influence. A Best Picture win does seem to lead to people discovering a film that they otherwise wouldn't (I mean...I would never have seen Nomadland if it weren't on the list because the film disinterested me so much).

However, Nomadland is an interesting example. It won in 2020 when Hollywood did its part to shut down the economy in response to covid. It is a tiny indie where we watch Frances McDormand listen to people who live the nomad lifestyle for 2 hours. It's not the most interesting movie (I genuinely just didn't like it, though there are plenty of people who seem to have been over the moon for it), and you'd think it would have gotten some kind of serious boost from the Academy Awards it won. It's hard to gauge counterfactuals, but I think comparing it to something similar would be helpful. I chose Land, Robin Wright's directorial debut about a woman who goes into the Rocky Mountains to learn to live again, or something (I haven't seen it). It has 13,000 ratings on LetterboxD and 15,000 on the IMDB. Compared to Nomadland, that's roughly a tenth of what the Oscar winner has. And yet, how pervasive is the reach of Nomadland? 180,000 votes on IMDB isn't exactly a huge population, especially compared with the biggest movies of the past few years that have regularly gotten well over a million.

That push seems to have serious limits now. Gone are the days when the culture will rush to catch up with something like The Deer Hunter or Marty. There will always be those who look at the selection from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and decide that they need to check out the latest selection. However, using Marty as a further example, its numbers are still paltry decades after both sites were established and even more decades after the film's release (LetterboxD: 21,000 votes and IMDB: 26,000 votes). So, do people care about the Oscars, or does an Oscar win just put a film in the "cultural conversation" for a hot minute? Marty winning decades ago seems to have done nothing for its profile, but Nomadland (especially in comparison to the similar film Land) seems to have gotten some small push in cultural acknowledgement. It seems paltry and weak, though.


One thing that needs to be pointed out as to the changing times of the Academy is the increase in the voting population. After the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2016, the Academy has gone overboard in inviting in new voting members increasing the size of the body from under 7,000 to just under 10,000 in the previous seven years. Largely younger, these are the voters who formed the groundswell for last year's win for Everything Everywhere All At Once, a film that, reportedly, the older members of the Academy simply did not like very much. This is where the lower threshold for winners comes into play.

In the past, the minimum was 20% of the voting body you had to convince. In more practical terms it was probably a minimum of a third. Now? It might just be a quarter of the voting body. That seems like a far cry from any sort of consensus. Throw in the fact that you suddenly have a quick infusion of younger, "more activist", voters, and you've got a body that is going through very quick changes. This makes the ability to manipulate the voting body towards a win that much easier. These younger voters, if they're anything like some of the new voters for the BFI Sight & Sound poll who have admitted to having virtually no real knowledge of film history, will be more open to being caught up in social media pushes and zeitgeists.

We'll see if Oppenheimer wins in a little bit, but if it does, it feeds my feeling that the attitudes of Film Bro Twitter are going to determine the winners of the Oscars for the next few years. Everything Everywhere All At Once was the jewel of Film Bro Twitter for the months leading up to the ceremony last year, and Oppenheimer is following a similar path.

And do you see how this kind of talk gets old fast? We don't talk about the actual movies. We end up talking about stuff around the movies. This is why I really cannot have any emotion over any Oscar winners or losers. It's not actually about the movies. It's about the people voting, what they want to do with it, who's the most influential. I just cannot bring myself to care about any of that. It makes me think that this whole exercise in watching all the winners was a mistake born from a false assumption. That false assumption being: the Academy is worth paying attention to.

Getting it...

So, in the final accounting, how should one who is not within the industry view the list of Best Picture Winners at the Oscars? Was it a list that was once in tune with truth and reality about the greatness of film that has fallen out with it? I say no. Having gone through all of them, I think I can say that the list is a strong survey of mostly American cinema from the late silent period to now. There have been great films honored from the beginning to the end. There have been terrible films honored from beginning to end (my least favorite remained the 1931 dreg of a release Cimarron through it all). There are middling films honored from beginning to end. However, on balance, it's a really good list. Even recently movies like The Artist, The King's Speech, Spotlight, and Parasite have entertained me.

The fault is in the assumption that the Academy is some sort of authority on film. They're not. They're industry insiders who have their own set of tastes that collected together to create a fairly narrow band of potential winners from the inception of the award. Westerns, easily the most popular genre for decades, were all but ignored, the only Western winning the award was Cimarron in 1931 until Dances with Wolves in 1991. Were they getting it right when they were outright ignoring the best work John Ford was doing in The Searchers?

The Academy Awards are an industry awards show. They are a celebration of the industry personnel at the highest levels. Those in the industry should care about it because it helps get jobs after being awarded, but outside of it? What other industries do you care about their awards? The American Society for Quality gives out awards annually. Should you care about that? The work in experimental design has much more direct application to your life than a bunch of celebrities gathering together to talk about how awesome they are while standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before them.

It still amazes me how many people get emotionally involved in these things, flailing their arms because this movie beat that movie, about how the Academy "got it wrong". In what way does the Academy "getting it right" or "getting it wrong" affect those of us little people out in the world who just like to watch some movies? Does a Best Picture win suddenly make a movie better? Does a Best Picture loss suddenly make a movie worse? Does a snub invalidate one's own tastes?

If you're looking to Hollywood for validation of your tastes, I think you may need a rethink about your priorities. I think horror fans have the best outlook about the Academy Awards after having their own tastes invalidated for so long: they simply don't care. That's healthy.


I think the desire for the Academy to make the "right" choice stems from some desire for there to be a canon of films: a list of essential films that everyone agrees is the right choice for what is the cultural bedrock of American cinema. Something someone can point to and say, "This is what you need to see to know movies." It's an understandable desire but misguided. It's this earnest need for categorization that humanity desires so much, but this yearly choice of what gets campaigned for best is a terrible model for that.

If I had to point to a pre-existing list that did it better, I'd probably point to the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Movies list, especially the first one they put out in 1998 (like the BFI, they redid it a decade later in 2007, but they haven't done another since). It's not that I agree with the list on any real level or attribute any real meaning to the ranking. It's just that it's not limited by a requirement to have one per year (there are multiples from multiple years, and there are some years that have none), and it's not influenced directly by those who made them at nearly the level that the Academy is. The Oscars are an industry awards show for insiders. The AFI list is for people outside the industry. It's a better starting point.

But that's all these things should be: starting points. If you are already well aware of cinema history, what value does something like the AFI list or the Oscar list do to you? You should already know most of what's present on those lists. For those who are looking to start out figuring out what this whole movie fad is? You could do worse than the Oscar list. Just realize that there's a whole lot more out there than what some assholes in Los Angeles decided to fete fifty years ago.


Oh, lord I don't care.

That being said, it's going to be Oppenheimer. It won the top awards at the Director's Guild, Screen Actor's Guild, and Producer's Guild ceremonies. There's no question.

What I Would Have Voted For

As with the previous three entries, here is the list of winners for the given period and which I would have voted for. I'm going to repeat what I said the last time:

I'll explain a bit more since I got some pushback that I should have predicted for whenever you say that "this movie" should have won over "that movie," one inevitably gets the response that one is stupid because one doesn't love "that movie", even though I never expressed an opinion on "that movie".

So, what I mean is that out of the five (or more) nominees each year, I would have voted for the movie in parentheses. That's it. It's not me saying that, if there's a disagreement between my own little, unimportant taste and the Academy's choice from 50 years ago, that I hate the choice the Academy made. In more than one instance, I genuinely love the film I wouldn't vote for, I just love the other film a bit more. Same goes if I agree with the Academy and some other very worthy film wouldn't have gotten my vote. And then there are a couple of years where I think the Academy was smoking some bad stuff.

I should also note that I did my best to watch as many of the nominees I'd never seen before to make this list as robust as possible. In more than one instance, my mad dash to watch as much as I could did lead me to actually changing my mind about what I would have voted for. I also limited myself to what was nominated.

2005 - Crash (Capote)
2006 - The Departed (The Departed)
2007 - No Country for Old Men (There Will be Blood)
2008 - Slumdog Millionaire (Slumdog Millionaire)
2009 - The Hurt Locker (A Serious Man)
2010 - The King's Speech (The Social Network)
2011 - The Artist (This would be my hardest year of voting, wanting to vote for three of them, but I'd have to set aside Hugo and Moneyball in favor of Terrence Malick's masterpiece The Tree of Life)
2012 - Argo (Life of Pi)
2013 - 12 Years a Slave (12 Years a Slave)
2014 - Birdman (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
2015 - Spotlight (Mad Max: Fury Road)
2016 - Moonlight (Hacksaw Ridge)
2017 - The Shape of Water (Dunkirk)
2018 - Green Book (The Favourite)
2019 - Parasite (1917)
2020 - Nomadland (Minari)
2021 - CODA (Nightmare Alley)
2022 - Everything Everywhere All At Once (Triangle of Sadness)

Next Time

So, normally I just leave this to a small announcement at the very end of the post, but I have gotten myself into a small quagmire. I am hoping that you guys will lead me out.

I watched the films of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, but he...let's just say he wouldn't fit in well here if he hadn't been murdered in the 70s. I have written a post about him, but I'm willing to set it aside, post it at my own personal blog where a grand dozen people will see it, and post something else (which I have also already written). Take this as an invitation for an informal bit of feedback: which would you rather see? A post about Pier Paolo Pasolini, or a mystery post that would more naturally fit with the Horde's tastes?

It's up to you!

Movies of Today

Opening in Theaters:

Dune: Part Two

Movies I Saw This Fortnight:

Dune: Part Two (Rating 3/4) Full Review "Anyway, it's a spectacle. I think it gets the heart of Herbert's message right. It mixes things up to some degree and to not entirely successful effect." [Theater]

The Artist (Rating 3.5/4) Full Review "Overall, though, a delight of a picture." [Personal Collection]

12 Years a Slave (Rating 4/4) Full Review "Still, the overall effect is incredible." [Personal Collection]

Spotlight (Rating 4/4) Full Review "It all collects together into this incredibly compelling package, a look at professionals doing their job while uncovering a horror underneath society. It's great." [Library]

The Shape of Water (Rating 1.5/4) Full Review "I actually do like the first act, but how everything ends up playing out and the thinness of the antagonist ends up weighing the film down so much that by the end I'm not swept up in the romantic gestures and resolutions by the end. I'm just tired of the machinations that never felt right." [Library]

Green Book (Rating 2/4) Full Review "This is almost nothing. There's nothing particularly bad about it, but there's nothing particularly good about it either. It's milquetoast. It's lukewarm to be spit out. I've seen it twice now, and I mostly just find it kind of boring." [Library]

Nomadland (Rating 1.5/4) Full Review "Nomadland is one of those prime examples of why the Academy is being left behind by the larger culture. It's a dull, ugly little film that has far less to say than it thinks and received all of the awards." [HULU]

CODA (Rating 2.5/4) Full Review "It's more a triumph of the Oscar campaign than the cinematic form." [AppleTV+]

Accattone (Rating 3.5/4) Full Review "The characters are full of life. The actors (all non-professional) feel real. The editing is crisp. The images are thoughtful. The ending has a sad tragedy to it all. This Pasolini fellow, I think he has some talent." [Personal Collection]


Email any suggestions or questions to thejamesmadison.aos at symbol gmail dot com.
I've also archived all the old posts here, by request. I'll add new posts a week after they originally post at the HQ.

My next post will be on 3/23, and the topic is up to you! Yes, you! (see above)

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