My table at the 85th New York Film Critics Circle gala in early January was near the back of the cavernous main room at the posh nightclub Tao Downtown, where the lights are kept dim. So I could see Antonio Banderas’s figure but only barely make out his features as he stood at the podium to collect the Best Actor award for Pain & Glory, which my colleagues and I had voted to give him.
His demeanor as he accepted his award spoke volumes. After talking about how delighted and honored he was, he explained that he had to get on a plane right away to leave for Spain, where he’s performing onstage in A Chorus Line. Those shows have meant he hasn’t been as aggressive on the Oscar campaign trail this season as his main competitors, including Joker’s Joaquin Phoenix, Marriage Story’s Adam Driver, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Leonardo DiCaprio. Instead, he talked about getting off the flight and going straight to the theater, delirious with exhaustion and jet lag.
As he said this, Banderas’s shoulders sagged slightly. “I am tired of campaigning,” he blurted out, in a moment of uncommon honesty for any actor during the tightly controlled awards season. “I am not a politician!” He straightened up and smiled. “I am an actor!”
Antonio, I get it. The Oscar race is a cross between a marathon and a political campaign, with high fashion and late-night parties thrown in, lots of courting favor and giving interviews and appearing at events and, basically, doing everything except making movies. It may look glamorous from the outside, but Banderas spoke the truth: It’s a slog.
And what’s it actually for? Handing out prizes for the “best” art is perverse — and I say that as a member of several awards-giving bodies. I know humans have an innate need to pit things of a similar type against one another. I know competition has been wired into our DNA since we were living in caves. I know that for some, rivalries and tournaments and trying to win are as vital as air and water.
But at least there are rules to play by in sports, and policy platforms to advance in politics, and you can measure, with some objectivity, the “winner,” whether by referee or by the votes of a constituency.
Art, in contrast, is the most subjective thing humans make. It changes based on who’s looking at it. Something that moved you to tears leaves me stone-cold; something I found indelible, intricate, and well-designed makes you shrug. Art is as much the creation of its audience as its creator, and that’s what makes it important: When we watch a movie or read a book or observe a painting or listen to a symphony, our inner landscapes respond in ways that are distinct and, if we’re open to it, can change us, too.
The Oscars, in particular, with their costly, glitzy, backbreaking campaign season and outsize influence on the way we talk about movies all year, feel at times diametrically opposed to the role art ought to play both in the lives of individuals and in broader society.
But over years of covering the Oscars, living life according to a calendar dictated by the awards season — the fall festivals, the late-year prestige releases, the votes and awards galas, and, finally, the hectic weeks of scrambling to prognosticate who will win and mind-read the Academy that gives out the statuettes — I have begrudgingly come to understand that there might be some reason, if not to love the Oscars, then to at least see why they matter.
The Oscars aim to immortalize the “best” movies of the year, a task that’s tricky but possible. Voters’ judgments are largely related to skill and craft, and the way a work interacts with the context in which it’s created and released.
Some movies are indeed bad — I almost wrote “objectively” bad, but to be honest, I don’t truly believe objective badness exists in art. Even the word “bad” takes on different shades of meaning depending on who’s using it and how. When I say a movie is good or bad, I might be talking about the quality of its filmmaking or storytelling or authentic engagement with the world. When I say a movie is “great,” I might mean it’s well made, or I might just mean I love it. I can say Parasite is great, and I can say Cats is great, and I mean two very (very) different things.
Anyhow, it’s not opining on movies that’s perverse to me, and good thing, since that’s how I make a living. It’s the practice of attaching awards to those opinions, crowning one movie homecoming king, electing a single performer the greatest of the year — in short, the whole enterprise of the Oscars and every award that leads up to them.
Many people are very proud to announce to me, when they find out I’m a movie critic, that they “hate” the Oscars, by which they might mean they’re frustrated by hosting controversies or a lack of diversity among nominees, or just that they didn’t like something a winner said in a speech. Truth is, I don’t think most people who work in the movie business — or near it, as I do — actually like the Oscars either, but for very different reasons. The awards are an expensive (an Oscar campaign can cost upward of $10 million) and grueling exercise; they suck up all the conversation around movies for a good six months of the year; and they tend to reflect not the best movies of the year but the movie-est movies.
Hollywood tends to favor prosthetic-aided imitations of famous historical figures, films that look very complicated to make, actors who lose or gain a lot of weight for their roles, and, above all, movies about Hollywood itself. And the movies that win Oscars tend to be the ones with the most money to spend on lavish campaign events that keep them in the minds of Academy voters.
Even if the Oscars were a more modest affair, the enterprise of giving awards to art for being the best still makes me want to stab myself in the eye with my rhinestoned stiletto. Deciding whether Parasite is the “best,” rather than Marriage Story or Little Women or The Irishman, feels like being asked to decide what’s best: a ripe, succulent peach just picked from the tree; a sublime, freshly baked, buttery croissant; or a perfect bowl of ramen. I mean, I don’t know! You tell me!
But those awards have lasting value for the people who get to take them home. Winning an Oscar means you make it into the history books, yes. But more importantly, you get to keep working. An Oscar is the ultimate résumé booster, far better than a Golden Globe or a Screen Actors Guild Award or a New York Film Critics Circle award (as much as it pains me to say it). It means you’ve arrived, and you can ask for more money and better jobs in the future. It doesn’t guarantee a long and happy career. But it sure helps.
The Oscars also fill another cultural niche, one that matters to far more people.
For many, especially Americans, the Oscars light the way through the crowded field of movies every year. In 2019, 786 movies were released theatrically in North America, and dozens more (at least) were released directly to digital platforms. Theatrical releases were actually down by about 90 from 2018, but that’s still an extraordinary number of movies. Watching movies is my job, and I still only saw about 300 last year, and only 225 or so were new releases. It’s impossible for an ordinary moviegoer, even an avid movie lover, to cope.
Furthermore, eight of the 10 highest-grossing films both in North America and worldwide in 2019 were big franchise blockbusters owned (or in one case co-produced) by Disney. So it makes a lot of sense that Oscar movies become a kind of counterbalance to the blockbuster behemoths. Only one of the year’s top 10 earners, Joker, was nominated for Best Picture. Only two others, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Ford v Ferrari, cracked the $100 million mark domestically. “Prestige” movies just tend not to be the highest earners.
Yet many people make a ritual of watching, or trying to watch, the full list of Best Picture nominees before the ceremony (which is three weeks earlier than usual this year, so good luck). Even if other, better movies also came out in the preceding 12 months, the Best Picture contenders are often a good place to start.
The nominations for documentaries and international (formerly foreign-language) films also spotlight more niche films, some of which may depend on Oscar recognition to get distribution or find their way onto a broader variety of platforms. International films aren’t required to have had US distribution before they’re nominated, and documentaries may only have played at niche festivals, so many people won’t have had the opportunity to see them before they’re nominated. But once they’re on the list, independent and arthouse theaters, and even multiplexes, may screen them, and their digital releases may be hastened.
Is it a perfect situation? No. But I’ve taken solace in the Oscars’ ability to get people to watch a vibrant but almost experimental documentary like the 2019 nominee Hale County This Morning, This Evening, or prod movie lovers into finally seeing the 2012 Foreign Language winner Amour (which was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay). Sure, important movies get shut out all the time, as the stunning Korean thriller Burning did last year. But some break through.
If we could halt the Oscars after the nominees are announced and just celebrate those lists, I’d be a lot happier. It’s not that everyone deserves a trophy — it’s that picking between them does some disservice to the movies themselves, narrowing history’s focus to the winners, some of which don’t deserve the attention. (The list of Best Picture winners from the past decade has some highs — Moonlight and Spotlight spring to mind — but it certainly has the Green Books and Argos to match.)
But I suppose the possibility of bad choices along with the good just comes with the territory. I don’t anticipate ever loving the Oscars. But I’m trying — like Antonio Banderas, I guess — to see the bright side. The politicking is bad and the campaigning is wearisome, and I’ll be so glad when it’s all over for the year. Because in the end, what I really love is the movies.
Alissa Wilkinson is Vox’s film critic.