The Oscars are an odd phenomenon. With over 6,000 members of the Academy (most being film professionals), it is by far one of the most prestigious award ceremonies in the film industry. However, to quote filmmaker Michael Haneke, "With the Palme d'Or, I already received the top artistic award, now if the 'commercial' side, the Oscar Academy, also thinks me worthy, that will obviously be a great honor."
Too often, the Academy proves itself to be more of a commercial venue compared to a ceremony of artistic recognition similar to Cannes. Just in recent years, we have seen Sandra Bullock win an Oscar for best actress in the feel good movie of 2009 The Blind Side (which was controversially also nominated for best picture), as well as a deceased actor win a posthumous Oscar (Heath Ledger) against the highly deserving Josh Brolin in the film Milk. It is fascinating though to look at the best picture nominees of the past ten years only to realize that the film that won is not the film people are still talking about.
With that said, does the Academy lose its value and voice based upon the assertion that they are choosing more mainstream films to take home the trophies compared to the unique films that movie-viewers will continue to watch for years to come?
1. Starting in 2001 with Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (which featured a brilliant performance by Russel Crowe as John Nash), it should be clear simply by glancing at the other nominees that it was less deserving of best picture compared to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring which is arguably the strongest film in the trilogy. Yes, the Academy had given Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000) the Oscar in the previous year (another film with sword-swinging), but the scale of the Tolkien adaptation is timeless and the first film integrated character development and story action seamlessly. Yes, the third film would win eleven Academy Awards in 2003, but the first film is far superior on a dramatic scale as the constant sense of fear-of-the-unknown looms in the hearts of the fellowship and the audience.
2. Chicago (2002) had an odd edge over the competition as it was a musical (and the Academy had not awarded a musical since 1968 with Oliver!). Not even nominated for best picture at the Golden Globes, Chicago stole the night by winning best picture in typical Oscar fashion. Though the film was enjoyed by many, its top competitor was Roman Polanski's comeback film The Pianist which won Polanski the Oscar best directing (regardless of him not being in attendance), Adrian Brody won for best actor, and Ronald Harwood won for best adapted screenplay. A film about the Holocaust, directed by a Jew whose mother died in Auschwitz, and a solid Palme d'Or winning film. It becomes easy to argue that because Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) was also about the Holocaust that the Academy did not want to become known awarding films based upon that criteria, but The Pianist is still a film highly regarded as one of Polanski's greatest and is naturally a far more compelling story than that of Chicago.
3. 2003 at the Oscars is best known for its The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King sweep. Winning every award that it was nominated for (all eleven), it took away technical awards, best director, and best picture. The third installment in Peter Jackson's adaptation of Tolkien's trilogy is certainly on the largest scale, but the film is the final chapter of an incredible film trilogy with a first film, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), that better reflects the plot and relies less on overall violence compared to the third. 2003 should have been Clint Eastwood's moment to shine. Having won best picture with Unforgiven in 1992, Mystic River is a completely different type of film that truly flaunts Eastwood's ability as a director and the power of his cast. Sean Penn did win an Oscar for his performance as well as Tim Robbins, but Mystic River as a whole deserved best picture for its incredible vision and genre-bending story.
4. The Academy is infatuated with boxing films. From On The Waterfront (1954) and Rocky (1976), to the 2004 Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby. Directed by Clint Eastwood, this film was a powerhouse for viewers, but Scorsese's The Aviator was a beautiful and thoughtful drama (and a departure from the typical Scorsese movie). Sure, Scorsese would win for a weaker film in two years (The Departed), but 2004 was Martin Scorsese's year to win... ignoring the year 1976 when he should have won for Taxi Driver.
5. 2005 was a rough year for the Academy. Giving the best picture award to Crash (a film that had not been nominated for any major awards prior) was a shock to the many who supported Ang Lee's controversial film Brokeback Mountain. Though it is not a perfect film, Brokeback Mountain still lives on as a film that captured a modern look at America while being a film set in the mid twentieth century. The film also should have been Heath Ledger's chance for an Oscar, but Phillip Seymour Hoffman played the Capote part well.
6. Martin Scorsese's first Oscar in his 40+ years as a filmmaker went to the wrong film. 2006 was the year of The Departed for the Academy (which differed with the Golden Globes as they gave Babel best picture). Alejandro González Iñárritu's best director winning drama at Cannes lost to a typical crime-drama with an all-star cast. Yes, Babel had a large celebrity cast as well (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett etc), but it wasn't distracting as in The Departed where the audience is bombarded with familiar face after familiar face (and unnecessary curse words galore). Babel is a film about language and the way that it divides people and cultures, and it also touches on topics such as immigration, terrorism, and the human condition which makes it a timeless film (or at least a time capsule of the world in 2006).
7. Different from past years, 2007 was initially a very disappointing Oscar year for many as the Coen Brother's film No Country For Old Men won, but this is one of the few films that received the coveted best picture Oscar that the world of film is still discussing. At the Golden Globes, Joe Wright's Atonement was the favored film (another wonderful movie), but at the Oscars the film only won for best soundtrack. No Country For Old Men is a modern western, an action packed thriller, and an intelligent meditative film about modern society's departure from common values. Though Atonement has faded from the scene, another nominee has come forward alongside No Country For Old Men and has also stood the test of time: There Will Be Blood. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood also captures a time period and continues to entertain (and inform) audiences... much the same as No Country For Old Men.
8. Slumdog Millionaire was a fad that made its way into the hearts of Oprah and critics everywhere, but the masterworks of 2008 are still being viewed as modern classics. Gus Van Sant's Milk was the deserving winner of the best picture Oscar due to its relevance on a modern level with the events of Prop 8 in California, and for the film's beautiful depiction of a life ended too soon. Though Milk won best actor (Sean Penn) and best screenplay (Dustin Lance Black), the film failed to win any of its other awards including best directing and best picture. Instead, a wonderful light-hearted film about Indian children in poverty defeats a film that spoke to audiences and inspired many everywhere to look at social issues differently. Even Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon is a masterpiece (and a masterful film that not only educates but also keeps audiences at the edge of their seats). Today, Slumdog Millionaire plays on TV frequently, but Milk is still a film that screams to the forefront of the film world.
9. 2009, one of the worst years in Oscar history. Sandra Bullock defeats Carey Mulligan, Avatar won best cinematography against The Hurt Locker, and The Hurt Locker won best original screenplay over Inglourious Basterds. The Hurt Locker (a decent film overall) won best picture as well, but it most likely won against its nine competitors because the Academy really wanted Kathryn Bigelow to win best director and best picture (the first woman to win in either category). Kathryn Bigelow certainly deserved the Oscar, but 2009 was Tarantino's chance to shine. Inglourious Basterds walked away with one Oscar for best supporting actor (Christoph Waltz), but today many would argue that the film is Tarantino's best work ever. Bending the genre of a WW2 film into a western, and then using film as a weapon is already enough for most people to give a film a best screenplay Oscar, but The Hurt Locker stole the night leaving Tarantino in the dust.
10. Finally, 2010, a year filled with mixed-feelings. Tom Hooper's The King's Speech won the top honor, and justly so, as the film was historically rich and a powerful drama for audiences of all ages... but in an odd series of events, David Fincher's The Social Network glows as a film that is still living and breathing today. Though The Social Network is not perfect, the film is one of the most unique character studies in recent times. Almost comparable to Shakespeare, The Social Network is a classic story of a rise to power with everything being seemingly attainable, but everything that mattered most (friendship and relationships) are lost along the way. The Social Network is darker than The King's Speech, but The Social Network is also open-ended leaving much to ponder.
This upcoming Oscar ceremony is filled with a few wonderful films (The Tree of Life, Midnight In Paris, and The Artist), but there are also some undeserving duds in the bunch as well (War Horse and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). This year it feels that some of the best films (Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Drive) have been ignored and replaced with films that have large names attached to them (such as Spielberg), but February 26th will reveal if the Academy continues its trend of awarding the easy favorite or if they make a challenging decision as they did in 2007 with No Country For Old Men.