Posted January 21, 2012 by William Dunmyer in Feature Article

Why is this Awards Season So Strange?

There seems to be consensus around one thing right now: this awards season is awfully strange.

Typically there are two or three movies that win most of the Best Picture awards. But this year, the awards have been all over the place. “Hugo” won one of the early awards but has failed to win any others. “The Artist” looked like it might turn into an awards darling, but that hasn’t panned out. “The Tree of Life” topped many critics’ lists but has barely won any awards. “The Help” and “War Horse” were on many Top 10 lists, but towards the bottom. And that’s just to name a few of the films.

What is going on? Were the English-language films of 2011 so bad that none of them has been able to generate much enthusiasm? My answer to that question is a resounding No. One thing is for sure: 2011 was a good year for English-language cinema. Not a great year but definitely a good one.

The problem, as I see it, has not been with the films. It has been with the nominating committees. The nominations have almost exclusively gone to middle-tier films.

In my view, the top tier of 2011 has been almost completely ignored in this awards season. I’m sensing a strange fear on the part of awards-granting bodies to nominate trenchant, deep works of art. With a few exceptions, these groups have overwhelmingly turned their attention to works of entertainment. Instead of “Best Film of 2011,” these awards should be renamed “Most Entertaining Movie of 2011.”

Am I really the only person who thinks “Drive” (the hypnotic, heart-breaking, spectacularly original neo-noir near-masterpiece starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan) was one of the best films of the year?

When “Drive” was released in the early fall, it was greeted with almost universal acclaim. It also packed in audiences. It must have had some of the best per-screen averages of the year, nearly selling out wherever it played. I saw it in a theater with about 1,000 seats, and it was nearly sold out.

Ditto for “Martha, Marcy May, Marlene.” When it was released about a month after “Drive,” it triggered almost as much enthusiasm. Here were two phenomenally original works of art that really got under your skin and haunted almost everyone who saw them. Was anyone haunted by “The Descendants”? I was moderately entertained by “The Descendants.”

Elizabeth Olsen’s performance in “Martha,” furthermore, was spoken about as the best screen debut in years. Then awards time comes around and no one nominates her! Was her performance considered too scary? Her depiction of mental illness too much like our state of mind? Do we want our screen performances and our films only to be entertaining nowadays? That’s all we want from cinema?

Critics, who have a responsibility for reminding nominators about the major artistic achievements of the year, made nary a peep when Olsen appeared on no nominating lists. I did not see one article expressing disgust over this.

I could go on. What happened to “Beginners,” the film starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer that warmed (and froze) so many hearts during the summer? Sure, Plummer’s great, artistically rich performance has been remembered, but what of the film itself? The nominating committees didn’t think “Beginners” was at least as good as “The Descendants”?

In my book, “The Descendants” was not much more than a good pilot for a TV show – a show that would run on NBC, not HBO. Move over, “Parenthood.” “Beginners” penetrated far deeper into the soul of its characters and had about 1,000 times more originality, I would say. Would many serious cinephiles really disagree with me there?

Who’s getting put on these nominating committees? People who only enjoy popcorn movies? Or are they cinephiles who have become frightened to nominate major works of art? Has someone convinced them that the nominations should be dumbed down?

What saddens me most is that there are so many American moviegoers who rely on the awards season to draw their attention to worthy films. Most intelligent moviegoers will not go see 150 movies a year, like I do. They will see some films throughout the year, but mostly they will wait for awards season and then go see a bunch. They go to see the films that win a lot of nominations.

This mechanism has worked quite well for the past 40 or so years. But if awards-granting bodies lose their nerve, what will we end up with? We’ll have the bulk of our smartest moviegoers getting sent to see mediocre films, which will lead to bitterness. It will also lead them to think that smart movies don’t exist anymore, which is completely untrue!

This mistaken notion has started to circulate. Talk to most smart Americans, and they demonstrate more enthusiasm for premium-cable TV shows (such as the awesomely good “Breaking Bad”) than for cinema. What a terribly disturbing development.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.