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‘Tis the Season

In earlier posts, I have discussed films as causes of controversy and as a means to satiate the public’s thirst for entertainment. But now, it is that time of year to discuss the more “artistic” side of Hollywood. Yes, folks, we are gearing up for Oscar season!

Unlike summer, winter is the time of year that studios save their more dramatic work and work that focuses on pandering to the serious critics. However, this season marks the time where studios make a genre of film that needs more formal discussion: Oscar-bait.

“Oscar-bait” is a term used to define films that pander to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, usually released right before the year’s cut off for consideration. The end of December to the beginning of January is the perfect sweet spot for films like this. The tend to have several distinct characteristics:

  • “Based on a true story” – Last year we had Lincoln, Argo (the winner), Amour, and Zero Dark Thirty to earn the nomination. The year before we had Moneyball, The Help, and War Horse. If it has a real life analogue, the Academy loves it.
  • Historical drama/period pieces – King’s Speech, The Queen, No Country For Old Men, Les Miserables, Frost/Nixon, Milk and the list goes on and on and on.
  • Underdog stories – Life of Pi, Django Unchained, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Hugo, 127 Hours, Precious, District 9, The Blind Side, Juno. If somebody has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, the Oscars are going to be there watching.
  • Women in precarious positions – Les Miserables, Black Swan, Juno, The Queen, Precious, The Kids Are Alright, Silver Lining’s Playbook, The Blind Side, The Help. Bonus points if she is disenfranchised, on the fringes of society, or disempowered in anyway. Extra points if she dies in a tragic way.

After a few years of paying really close attention to what has come out during Oscar season, it becomes fairly easy to predict which movies will be the 15-20 finalists, which ones will get the ten nominations, which ones will get the real nominations (there are five spots), and which ones of those will win. After a decade or so, patterns will pop up, and the Academy will continue to eat up the same story over and over.

These stories are incredibly catered to a white-washed, male audience i.e. the Academy. The stories told here are, granted, compelling, but they also feel relatively safe. They are filtered several times over before the nominations are even announced. Once announced, the films nominated have that mantle now and can use it as a cash cow. If the Academy judged film festival work, or movies that genuinely pushed boundaries and boldly demanded answers to their questions, I would be on board with calling the recipients art. For example: Cloud Atlas should have been Oscar gold, visually stunning, amazing special effects (make-up, costumes, etc.), a brilliant story that challenged linearity, and a fantastic ensemble. Not a single nomination, possibly because it was not safe.

Another example, Alfred Hitchcock’s work in directing changed the face of filmography forever. His work is incredibly influential even today, but he never saw that statue give to him. And yet, Rebecca, Psycho, Rear Window, and Lifeboat are all cinematic monoliths.

Oscars continue more and more to feel like self-congratulatory awards given to the Hollywood elite by the Hollywood elite, simply to get a larger turnout from the public. It is not art. It is commercialism.

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