On the eve of the 88th Academy Awards, Alejandro González Iñárritu is tipped to win his fourth Oscar – his second as Best Director – for The Revenant (2015).
If he wins and The Revenant wins Best Picture, it’ll be back to back years for Iñárritu taking away this prestigious double, following the success of Birdman in 2015. This may be insignificant for the vast majority of the world’s population, but it will probably be significant for this above average filmmaker. His career will be set up for a while – until a flop or two, anyway.
So, what is the significance of the Oscars for moviegoers?
Generally, a nomination or a win for Best Picture guarantee that the film will probably be technically well-made. None of Enzo G. Castellari’s straight to video 1980s Italian action films were nominated for Oscars.
Oscar films are often palatable, usually polite, dramas.
Schindler’s List (1993) turned the Holocaust into a Hallmark card - it was, thus, perfectly understandable when Jerry “made out” during the film in Seinfeld. 12 Years a Slave (2013) reminded people that slavery was bad, and that there are still racial problems in the US. Argo (2012) celebrated the contrast between free-market American capitalism - the Hollywood kind - and the oppressive authoritarianism of Iranian Muslims. In any case, there are no Bergmans in Hollywood, no longer any Welles.
But this is okay. If you want to know something about European or American history, or to think carefully about economics, then, firstly, don’t watch a movie, and secondly, definitely don’t watch a Hollywood movie.
I should clarify: Hollywood films always say something about the world, and often this is a very provocative and often problematic something, well worth studying.
What, for example, does an action film like Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) say about gun violence in America’s vigilante culture? How does it perform and embody vitality, life and movement? What does it reveal about its own movie-making sorcery and the ideologies therein embedded?
But when a “serious” topic becomes the explicit subject of a Hollywood film, the film tends to respond in ways both pious and shallow. And the problem with the Oscars is that the films that get nominated tend to be very serious middlebrow films, films that engage with serious ideas at an inane and superficial level. Images and sounds are affective; the lightning of Hollywood does strike, but not necessarily, or with sufficient nuance and texture, at a cerebral level.
Antoine Fuqua’s Shooter (2007), starring Mark Wahlberg as a brawny assassin, engaged in a more exciting and systemic fashion with the universe (in Hollywood terms, the US) than No Country For Old Men (2007), which won the Best Picture Oscar that year. Spring Breakers (2012), probably the most interesting film to emerge from Hollywood since the 1970s, didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination, though, unsurprisingly, it did receive a bunch of critics’ awards.
The meaninglessness of the Oscars at any serious aesthetic level draws into relief the bizarre nature of identity politics in the US, with African-Americans desperate to also be recognised by and included in a self-indulgent, mediocre, and aesthetically limp awards ceremony.
This is not to say that Oscar films aren’t worth seeing; they usually are, because you know they won’t be as bad as The Ugly Truth (2009) or Bride Wars (2009). But they are frequently irritating, which is why, apart from, perhaps, the “Professors” of the illustrious Hollywood High School, you will seldom find a film or media academic celebrating the Oscars.
Iñárritu’s The Revenant is, in any case, pretty good, and doesn’t necessarily fit the typical Oscar-film mould.
It is a violent, lurid revenge melodrama which plays like a higher budget spaghetti Western, and, whilst not nearly as good as the recent, sublime revenge Western Seraphim Falls (2006), it is nonetheless a viscerally aggressive, immersive and thus satisfying, film.
The fact that it’s able to maintain the viewer’s interest for its mammoth two and a half hour duration is itself testimony to its craft, and to its strengths as an action yarn.
Perhaps, one gets the sense, its filmmakers felt that it was more than a popcorn film; it isn’t, but its pretensions of self-importance are not so great that they draw attention away from fantastic scenes like an extended bear attack, one of the most thrilling scenes of animal violence in recent popular film.
In a year of disappointing Hollywood releases – notwithstanding Straight Outta Compton and Spectre – it would probably be justified if Iñárritu took home the best director Oscar. The Revenant, like Birdman, is technically superb, and, even if it is a little underwhelming, it is certainly better than many other recent films.
The mix of films up for Best Picture is surprising. Ready-to-hold-an-Oscar dramas still dominate - see Spotlight, Room, and Brooklyn - but there is also the quaintly anachronistic (and, thus, faintly charming) Bridge of Spies, the disappointing genre films The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road, and the offbeat – and surprisingly good – The Big Short, which plays like a Will Ferrell comedy crossed with an educational docu-drama.
Three of these films are worth seeing. In an era of depressingly banal Hollywood fodder, three out of eight isn’t such a low fraction.