Oscars good, Razzies bad? It’s really not that simple

Sulking? grebo guru, CC BY-NC-ND

As the last of Elton John’s guests stagger into limousines after his annual Oscars after-party, so concludes the proceedings for this year’s film awards season – and I’m left wondering: why do we set such store by the prestige conferred on films marked out for attention by industry insiders with a vested interest in honouring themselves and their friends? Oughtn’t we to call this out for the inside job it is?

I remember when I stopped taking Oscar nominations seriously as a marker of a film’s quality. It was 2000, the year the staggeringly awful Chocolat was nominated for five awards, including Best Picture. Since then, I have taken them with a pinch of salted caramel.

Most years I find the films nominated for Best Picture are overrated exercises in worthiness, big acting, self-congratulation and sycophantic pastiche. And this year was no exception. In recognition of the latter, the award for Best Impersonation of a 1990s Martin Scorsese Film goes to American Hustle. With special mention for Robert De Niro’s performance, in recognition of excellence in self-parody.

Perversely, in Makeup and Hairstyling, the category that recognises the only thing for which American Hustle is exceptional, it lost out on a nomination to Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa for transforming Johnny Knoxville into an ill behaved senior citizen. Who says the Academy is out of touch with the everyday filmgoer?!

But most talk of Best Picture has of course been about Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which went on to win last night. I never thought I’d say this about a film, but Brad Pitt really ruined it for me. This is not to deny the role played by a white man’s intervention in the emancipation of historical figure Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). But nor is it cynical to say that only by seeing his story through the eyes of a sympathetic white man could it be nominated for nine Oscars. And casting one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in this role only underlines that.

In the Foreign Language Film category, I was aghast at the absence of Haifaa Al Mansour’s sublime Wadjda, about a Saudi schoolgirl’s ardent desire for a bicycle. My favorite film of the year, it’s also the first film shot wholly in Saudi Arabia, and was made by a female writer-director in a country that remains staunchly gender segregated – a truly paradigm-shifting and important film.

I was equally bewildered that Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty won, which I endured, missing my last chance to see White House Down on the big screen! A decision I still curse the more praise I hear bestowed on Sorrentino’s film. Instead of marvelling at it as so many have done, I was mostly just disgusted by its unapologetic misogyny. But we’re not supposed to worry about that sort of thing when a film has “great beauty”.

For all that the Oscars pertain to recognise excellence and artistry, they don’t exist apart from ideology, or speak from a position outside it. Like Meryl Streep says in August: Osage County, in the latest of her bevvy of Oscar-nominated performances: “I’m just truth tellin’. And some people are antagonised by the truth.”

So it’s tempting to turn to The Golden Raspberry Awards – better known as “The Razzies” – which were also this weekend, for a refreshing dose of irreverence to put the self-aggrandisement and narcissism of mainstream industry awards into perspective. Since 1980, The Razzies have provided a cultural antidote to the middlebrow posturing of the Oscars, by gleefully recognising the “worst” in cinematic failure.

But let’s not be naïve. Of course, they operate in an environment in which the dollars to be made from the phenomenon of SOBIG (So-Bad-It’s-Good), which sees audiences seeking out “bad” films and enjoying them ironically, are just as up for grabs as those to be made from Oscar nominations. This is Hollywood we’re talking about. It wants its money back. And for multi-Razzie nominated The Lone Ranger, there’s a lot to get back.

All the same, I often find the Razzies back-handedly recognising some of the most underrated films of the year. The Lone Ranger was easily the best tent-pole blockbuster of last summer (although it’s possible I’m saying that because it reminded me of Back to the Future III). And After Earth, which was awarded three Razzie awards, really wasn’t that bad. At least it was no worse than the other bloated sci-fi spectacles of 2013 that it sat next to (Oblivion and Elysium).

The real reason for After Earth’s host of Razzie wins was because the cachet of Will Smith’s stardom has turned a corner from which it will struggle to turn back, due primarily to his flagrantly nepotistic championing of son Jaden’s Hollywood career. People don’t want to see Will taking a back seat to his mini-me while they both talk in funny future voices.

And Razzie nominations for The Call were completely, er, uncalled for. It was genuinely suspenseful, at least for the first half. I can’t help thinking they just wanted to see Halle Berry again after she was such a good sport about her win for Catwoman in 2005.

This isn’t to suggest that we should call Razzie nominees art. Or that turgid Oscar films deserve the scorn heaped on their Razzie counterparts. Rather, that both are just differently attempting to police the proclivities of film fans.

And anyway, we all know that the real stinker of 2013 was Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor. Except, apparently, the Razzie voters …