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The Academy Awards are absurd but still relevant…

The Academy Awards are absurd but still relevant…

On Sunday, March 10, the 96th Oscars ceremony will unfold in an annual ritual which is every year more remarkable for being less important to the global theatergoing audience. Starting in Hollywood’s Golden Age and for several decades thereafter, the Academy Awards were generally reckoned spectacular. But for most people today they are just an absurd and even annoying spectacle. The Academy doubled the number of Best Picture nominees a few years ago, ostensibly to make room for fan favorite films, but then filled the new slots with obscure and weird pieces mainly meant to curry favor in the creative community. 

This year is no exception. Practically no one outside Beverly Hills and two streets in Manhattan’s Upper West Side are even aware of seven of the reputedly best films of the year. Seriously, who wants to watch a 3 and a half-hour broadcast of dark weirdness clips from movies you didn’t see, in between actors gushing mean-spirited political jabs? The answer is no one, and one would think the industry would learn that by now. But they can’t learn. The power they wield is too addictive.

And yet, through a Christian lens, the Oscars still matter as a barometer, if not of cinematic excellence, at least of current cultural confusion. For the 10,700 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a “good” film today is much more a moral distinction that an artistic one, but the prevailing Academy conscience is a self-contradictory patchwork quilt — a testimony to the mess that happens in the arts when they are separated from God.

The first moral problem of this years’ Oscars is that the 15 films nominated in the main categories, are in no way inclusive of the best work that was done in cinema last year. Just numerically, it’s absurd because there were 326 films that qualified for Oscar consideration last year. Of those, only 265 could meet the Academy’s new Orwellian diversity standards for Best Picture. The standards were fatuously titled RAISe for “Representation And Inclusion Standards,” but ironically they are doing anything but raising the numbers of “inclusive” films. They’re just functioning as a different kind of artistic censorship.

The ugly truth is that Oscar nominations are highly influenced by money and fear. When a film garners multiple nominations, it’s not necessarily, or even probably, because it is among the best films in those categories. Maybe most of the 311 non-nominated films from last year were mediocre, but just from a probability standpoint, some must have been at least as good, as the too-earnest civil rights drama Rustin (85% on Rotten Tomatoes) or the plodding and repetitive Nyad (86%) both of which got Oscar nominations. 

The films that get nominated are usually driven by relentless, very expensive marketing campaigns that are geared to building award consensus around just a handful of projects. Most Academy voters probably screened only a few dozen films based on which had generated the weird “coolness” momentum which causes people in the industry who are desperate to be cool, to all gravitate around the same few projects. 

Some momentum comes from movies that fulfill a political agenda — especially in an election year. But more can be explained by the way cash-flush studios bankroll glitzy screenings of their projects, take out full page ads in the industry trades, and host swag-riddled junkets in five-star hotels. 

This years’ most nominated studios — Apple (Killers of the Flower Moon, Napoleon) and Netflix (Maestro, Nyad, Nimona, Society of the Snow) — spent millions of dollars campaigning for their projects. Poorer studios and production companies just couldn’t compete. 

How do I know that some great work was overlooked? Because the best-reviewed movie of the year didn’t garner a single Oscar nomination. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret achieved an unprecedented 99% fresh/positive rating on which averages together all the critical reviews. Several top critics actually labeled the piece “a perfect film.” By contrast, Barbie, possessor of eight Oscar nominations, had an unimpressive 88% fresh rating. Martin Scorcese’s insufferably dark Killers of the Flower Moon, which got a whopping 10 nominations, and the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture, Oppenheimer, with 13 nominations, both scored six points lower than Are You There God? with 93% ratings. 

In another rank absurdity, Are You There God? didn’t even get a nomination for best adapted screenplay, which should have been a lock for the brilliant way writer-director, Kellie Fremon Craig delivered a truly relatable story set in the ’70s that didn’t get lost in that strange era. Craig lost out to Barbie, which got the nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay even though the screenplay was not adapted from any previously published material. The claim is it was “adapted” from Mattel’s marketing pieces. That’s more absurd than the claim that Barbie is a feminist triumph even though its heroine is an icon of sexually exploitive misrepresentation of women.

A second reason the Oscar nominees aren’t indicative of this year’s best work is that the judges themselves are inadequate to the task. This is partly due to the Academy’s embarrassed and then imprudent overreaction to the 2015 “Oscars So White” protest. It used to be, that voting membership in the Academy was limited to those who distinguished themselves as filmmakers. The Academy’s webpage notes that members historically had “a body of work in motion pictures that reflects the high standards of the Academy, an achievement of unique distinction, or making an outstanding contribution to the motion picture arts or sciences.” 

Since 2015, however, the Academy has been in a mad rush to add members just to up the numbers of non-white American males. Every year, 300 to 400 new people every year are being added to the Academy, few if any of whom have had a “significant body of work in motion pictures” or any achievement of “unique distinction,” never mind “making an outstanding contribution” to cinema. They were chosen because of their ethnicity, or because they are same-sex attracted or because they are female, the latter of which is another absurd irony because this is the same industry that is aggressively advocating transgenderism. Isn’t it offensive to claim someone is actually female? 

Another moral issue with the Oscar nominations comes down to inexcusable haughtiness. The Academy famously eschews family entertainment, and so seven of this year’s Best Picture nominees are rated R and only three are PG-13. Weirdly, one of the three PG films, Zone of Interest, is about Auschwitz and probably should have been R-rated. In the same way, The Holdovers, an otherwise charming film about a schoolteacher, should have been rated PG-13, but the language was unnecessarily foul. Again, the Academy could have nominated the wonderful family film, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? but the film is just too charming and sweet for Oscar these days.

Of the R-rated offerings, this year’s “Emperor Has No Clothes Award” goes to the darkly depraved and disturbing, Poor Things. It’s one of those movies that made me want to flush my brain afterward. Purportedly a female twist on the Frankenstein story, the film is nominated for 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress for its lead Emma Stone, ostensibly for “bravely” degrading herself unreservedly in every way. 

Poor Things is one of those deeply perverted pieces that critics and industry types rave about as a way of stifling their sense of shame. It is again, a sign of current moral confusion in the creative community that a film that is so profoundly insulting to women is being hailed as a triumph of female empowerment. The fact that it was made by a man, Yorgos Lanthimos, just adds to the absurdity of these claims.

The most surprising project on the list of Best Picture nominees is American Fiction, which is a visceral take down of American liberals who pander to Black people in what George W. Bush famously called, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The film is an indictment of all that is woke and politically correct, and trashes the entitlement of reverse-racism. I couldn’t believe it got made, and I really couldn’t believe it got nominated for Best Picture. It’s a solid film but not a great one, which means it was nominated for its message. A message which is diametrically opposed to key dogmas of liberalism today. There is no greater moral confusion than Academy voters supporting American Fiction and then their own ridiculous RAISe initiative.

In the end, notwithstanding its few moments of gratuitous sexuality, Oppenheimer is the most visionary and well-harmonized work of cinema on the Best Picture list. By rights, it should win the top prize. But excellence doesn’t necessarily mean “Best Picture” in 2024. 

“Best” doesn’t mean beautiful. It doesn’t even mean competent. It might just mean “All the right people say it’s important.” The loss of standards is ultimately the biggest moral problem of the Oscars.

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