Hollywood is preparing for Oscar season. Every year, as the season of the summer blockbuster comes to an end, Hollywood movies suddenly get serious. And almost as a ritual, all major studios release their ``prestige pictures,'' setting up the Oscar-baiting season.
This year, among the usual suspects for the Oscar nominations to be made in February 2006, are the Charlize Theron-starrer, North Country, Steven Spielberg's Munich, Sam Mendes' Jarhead and George Clooney-starrer Sryiana. All these movies will be released in the next few weeks leading up to Christmas.
But have the Oscars, the most popular film awards anywhere in the world, become irrelevant? Consider the five best picture winners since this decade began: Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Million Dollar Baby. Which of these movies can be included in the top 100 Hollywood ever made? None with the possible exception of the last installment of the Rings trilogy. But even this is contentious given the fact that movies heavily reliant on special effects get outdated fast.
Let's look at the first three movies in the Oscar-winning list. Ridley Scott, perhaps past his prime, had taken the Roman epic and turned it on its head while making Gladiator. The movie, while being elegant, was not his best. It was a distant second to Blade Runner, the 1980s sci-fi classic and Scott's acknowledged masterpiece. A Beautiful Mind (Russel Crowe again) is probably the weakest movie that won the Oscar in the last two decades. Do you, frankly, remember this movie? Chicago, initially hailed as the movie that brought back the musical to Hollywood, is again another dud. It's unlikely that after fifty years Chicago will be mentioned in the same breath as Singing in the Rain (1952) and Wizard of Oz (1939), two other popular musicals of yesteryears.Æ
Now, consider this list: Memento (2000), City of God (2002), The Pianist (2002), Lost in Translation (2003) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). None of these five won the best picture Oscar. In fact, movies 1, 2 and 5 did not win in any of the major categories.
In the five years since it was released, Memento, director Christopher Nolan's breakthrough movie, has only grown in its reputation. He went on to direct Batman Begins, one of the most successful movies at the worldwide box office this year. Experimenting with form, Nolan narrates this crime noir backwards and yet manages to retain suspense. The story of a man with apparent short-term memory loss has even found its way into Tamil cinema. Ghajini, made five years after Memento, borrowed its central element from Nolan's thriller.
City of God, for which Fernando Merilles was nominated as best director, tells the story of two boys growing up in a violent Rio de Janeiro slum. Chosen recently by Time magazine as one of the top 100 movies ever made, City of God too experimented wildly and broke away from conventional Hollywood cinema. The Pianist was Roman Polanski's Holocaust saga and Lost in Translation was a deceptively simple tale from one of Hollywood's most important directors in recent years, Sophia Coppola. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, director Michel Gondry's tale of two lovers erasing memories of each other, combined innovative special effects with riveting performances from its stars, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.
Why does the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences favour certain movies over others? Period pieces are obvious favourites - both Ben Hur and Titanic won 11 awards. Movies with social messages too are a hit with the Academy, a reason why Julia Roberts manages to deliver a horribly weepy speech on Oscar night for her performance in Erin Brockovich instead of Juliette Binoche for Chocolat.
But things didn't go wrong at the Academy recently. Some of the best directors ever - Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorcese and Charlie Chaplin among them - did not win any Oscars though some of them belatedly won an honourary award. Some of the best films ever made have also gone without Oscars. The Academy must been blind not to give the best picture award to movies like Citizen Kane, City Lights, Rear Window, Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Taxi Driver.
Directors outside the US too have been continuously snubbed. The artistic genius of directors like Fedrico Fellini, Satyajit Ray, Francois Truffant, Ingmar Bergman was never recognised. None of them ever won an award for best director despite providing us with some of the most acclaimed classics.
Has Oscar night, with its swirling bright evening gowns, become just another TV show? The awards lately have become increasingly predictable. For example, last year, almost everyone knew that Million Dollar Baby would walk away with the best picture award because it dealt with an issue as contentious as euthanasia. It's anybody guess whether the Academy will continue to fall for the slick marketing campaign and wine-and-dine lobbying of the studios instead of finally choosing pictures worthy of the Oscar hype. But for the Academy's sake, let's hope that this year is different from the rest since the new millennium dawned.