La La Land and Moonlight are the front-runners for the Best Picture race this year. However, neither should win the Oscar. Not because they’re bad movies, but because winning hurts more than it helps.
For many, La La Land is a happy fantasy in a tough period of time. Moonlight, meanwhile, is a tough drama of brutal truth. They’re in many ways total opposites, making for an easy rivalry. Together they are two of the most critically acclaimed films of 2016. For their respective budgets, they have made huge returns at the box office.
But considering their success, do they actually need a Best Picture win? Winning Best Picture does not guarantee a movie’s legacy. Let’s face it, the Best Picture winners list is uncool. Any criticism for a regular movie is amplified for a Best Picture winner. You can have issues with a regular movie. But if you have issues with a Best Picture winner they’re amplified. The Best Picture win can only guarantee a nasty backlash.
What Winning Best Picture Can Do
Winning Best Picture or merely being nominated is a great victory for marketing. The movie is no longer just “La La Land” but “La La Land, Academy Award Winner”. Award season is one of the few ways that smaller more adult-orientated cinema can reach a mass audience. It motivates studios to produce different kinds of movies, knowing that Oscar success can elevate their reputations. In a time where increasingly the only kinds of movies that studios want to make are giant budget genre films, the allure of Oscar gold is a great motivator to get things like La La Land made.
Moonlight especially could never compete with the big blockbusters in terms of winning the public eye. It’s an indie film festival darling from a unique point of view. The only movies with an all African American cast to make it the local Cineplex are oftentimes awful comedies. Not serious dramas like this. Moonlight could never hope to get airtime on a national stage without the Academy Awards.
The big criticism last year was that Academy was not using its power to highlight films effectively, that black filmmaking was being ignored. No other filmmaking deserves to be less ignored than Moonlight. However, the common wisdom that the Academy is always wrong might hurt Moonlight more than it helps. It could hurt La La Land just as badly.
Why the Academy is So Often Wrong
Let’s ignore for a moment the easy criticisms that the Academy gets. We know what kind of movies they like and why they pick certain winners. Last year’s victory for Spotlight does not seem like a win for the most important or interesting film. Rather it was a compromise vote. Mad Max: Fury Road is the great movie of 2015. But it was too violent and pulpy for the Academy. Still, the reputation for the Academy always being wrong is unfair. Because nobody is always right.
We do not realize how difficult it is to actually choose a Best Picture for any one year. Nobody knows how the public and critics are going to eventually view a film. Back in 1990, Dances with Wolves looked like a modern classic. Twenty-seven years later, it is laughable that anybody would choose that movie over Goodfellas, one of the greatest movies ever made.
Since tastes are such a moving target, it’s inevitable that the Academy is going to get it wrong more than they will get it right. How many critics or websites or magazines get it right either? Turns out a lot of Best Picture nominees have cheesed out as we have reassessed them. Titanic looks corny years later, but in 1997 it was unimaginable that it would not win.
You have to cut the Oscars some slack. At least they’re not just voting for the most popular movies of the year.
However, the Academy’s reputation is not exactly stellar because of this. Serious critics can see the flaws in the voting system. There are so many Best Pictures critics regret. They can name dozens of movies like How Green Was My Valley, the film that beat Citizen Kane. Meanwhile, general audiences would rather watch a superhero flick than Moonlight. We have this term: “Oscar Bait”. It specifically refers to the Academy’s tendency to highlight films that check off certain boxes. People feel preached to by the Academy Awards.
The result is backlashes. Backlashes that have destroyed reputations. 2005’s winner, Crash, is now insufferable for its shallow view of race relations. But even beyond social issues, Best Picture wins hurt. 2015’s winner, Birdman, was once a cool subversive movie. The moment it won Best Picture it became instantly lame. How can Birdman be edgy when it is being celebrated by the Academy, the stuffiest crowd in Hollywood? Many other perfectly fine movies have been killed because they beat out better movies. The King’s Speech is probably best known now for being the film that was chosen over The Social Network.
You Can’t Create a Classic
What the Academy cannot do is try to inflate a movie’s reputation. An award does not transform a film into a classic. Not many people saw The Hurt Locker when it won in 2009 and it still has not won over a crowd. That Iraq War drama only became more suffocating thanks to that little gold statue. What happens to a movie’s reputation is entirely out of Oscar’s hands. Who would have known at the 50th Academy Awards that the losing film, Star Wars, was going to be the model of cinema for decades?
If anything, the Academy gives this impression of insisting a Best Picture is a classic. Nobody wants to be told what great cinema is. It’s why people increasingly resent the Academy Awards, and especially resent the winner. The losing movie gets to keep a certain allure. It can just be a movie, without ending up an unreasonable pedestal. Nothing official is telling you that the film that is important. For the winner the conversation ends. It’s now number one. Where does a movie go from the top? Down. There’s nothing left to talk about except how the movie is not as good as the Academy thinks.
The $16 million box office returns for Moonlight are respectable for an indie film about difficult subject matter. But the movie’s themes stand for themselves. If Moonlight is to remain a beloved movie, it will do so on its own. La La Land, meanwhile, has carved out a pleasant reputation from the public. But a backlash to it is already growing. If it wins too much, people can get sick of it. There’s a fine line between sweet nostalgia and a movie for Grandma. The only thing a Best Picture win can do for La La Land is turn it into more Hollywood self-absorption. It can make Moonlight insufferable and preachy in a way the film itself is not. Neither film deserves this.
If you love these movies, you want them to lose.