By Pete Barell
What makes a great movie? Seriously. As we enter what you’d call ‘awards season’ I can’t help but wonder what qualifies a great movie, why these particular titles are picked by critics and the Academy to be shoved at as the golden children of the year.
This time around we have selections like “The Revenant,” “Carol,” “The Danish Girl” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” already being talked up and setting down the road to awards. This makes me wonder what makes an awards-worthy film tick? Is it all hype? Is there a bias in play here, or do films truly stand on their own merit? What are the elements that qualify a particular movie for these sorts of accolade, at least according to the Hollywood illuminati?
Let’s look back at Oscar nominees from the past to gauge the palate of the Academy. One key factor that appears to come into play is if a film is inspirational, particularly a film based on a true story. At the 2014 Academy Awards we saw films such as “Selma,” “Theory of Everything,” “The Imitation” and “American Sniper” receive several nominations — all of these are based on true, inspirational stories of perseverance. This seems to be an ingredient favored by American filmgoers, or at least those who tell filmgoers what they should be watching.
You don’t have to roll back the years very far to see that this is a consistent interest. The 2014 Best Picture Winner at the Oscars was “12 Years a Slave”, the true story of ex-slave Solomon Northup, yet another tale of a character overcoming impossible odds, perhaps a notion stressed within the American film world as it aligns with the ideology of the American Dream and exceptionalism.
The film world appears to be self-interested. Plots of Best Picture films like “Birdman”, “Argo” and “The Artist” are directly imbedded in the world of filmmakers and actors. While this could be slated as a masturbatory facet of the industry, one might also consider the ways in which meta-culture has infiltrated the film world as of late. While it was snubbed as far as the Oscars go, “The Lego Movie” made major bank and received wide acclaim, no doubt due to its fresh, irreverent and self-aware humor that directly acknowledges its own artificiality.
Looking forward, then, why would a film like “The Revenant” (coming out Christmas day) already be slated for an Oscar nod? Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, who has been gipped of a Best Actor nod for time immemorial, not to mention Tom Hardy. Director: Alejandro Inarritu, whose “Birdman” just won Best Picture at the 2014 Oscars. Story: based on a true story and novel by Michael Punke, in which fur trapper who was left for dead and robbed after a grizzly attack in the 1800s seeks revenge. These elements already set the film apart from huge amount of titles released in the American market each year, building up our expectations.
The somewhat sad truth here is that, even if “The Revenant” ends up being fantastic, even if any other hyped films does the same, it appears as if the best of the year are already selected for the average movie goer by pre-existing qualifications. And in this way, despite the hundreds of films that could be seen and enjoyed, theater are packed for only a handful of these titles we’re coaxed into liking. What I’m saying here is that we must judge what makes a great movie for ourselves, and only consider with a grain of salt what the burgeoning zeitgeist of history and popular culture tells us is great.