The Long Shot: In praise of the misfits

Posted by · 8:38 am · September 28th, 2011

A few days ago, a friend put me on the spot and asked me to name my five favorite films of 2011 thus far. I wriggled out after a cursory mention of “Drive” – largely because too many as-yet-unreleased films from the festival circuit swam into my head, clashing with 2010 festival favorites that only hit the real world this year, and mentally sorting through them was entirely too confusing an exercise after a few pints in the sun. I choose to reserve such crazy-making activity for December, when the surrounding chaos makes it a positively soothing practice.

Another reason I held off: it reminded me that this year, for this first time, I”m going to have to make such a list on more than one occasion, as two critics” groups will be requiring my ballot for their upcoming awards. (In a dark, sequin-strewn corner, “Burlesque” weeps over the fact that I wasn”t granted such influence a year ago.) For someone who has made a longstanding hobby and partial career out of bemoaning the mistakes made by awards bodies, this is a slightly disorienting turn of events – however much I might disagree with the critical collective”s choices, I shall now have to accept a tiny percentage point of responsibility for the outcome.

This in turn brings up the hypothetical question I”ve asked myself ever since I learned how Oscar voting works: if I had a ballot, would I fill it out honestly or tactically? Would I use it to declare my love for what I think are the best films and individual achievements of the year, no matter how far off the beaten path, or would I instead limit it to the films I like that still have a conceivable chance of being recognized by the larger group – thereby potentially exerting a greater degree of influence on the actual award? Would a Best Picture vote last year for my beloved “White Material” have been a wasted one, or a principled one?

I have no idea if these are questions that bother Academy members (or indeed London Film Critics” Circle members) on an annual basis, but they bother me, and will likely do so more than usual this season. For what they do is force judgments of what may or may not appeal to the majority that are not only unreliable – I”ll raise my hand and admit to thinking “Black Swan” had little chance of major-category Oscar recognition when I saw it at Venice last year – but have a nasty habit of narrowing the conversation at a time when it couldn”t be more essential to expand it.

It”s almost every awards pundit”s self-defeating catch-22 that we mourn the films and artists that”ll never get the recognition that they deserve – even as we strike them from the contenders list because they”re not “that type” of film or artist. How do we hope for the “awards movie” bracket to widen if we define it so narrowly from the outside? It”s the deluded (not to mention conceited) critic or blogger who imagines that his passions hold any sway on voters during Oscar season, but that isn”t an automatic argument for accepting your lot and shutting up.

I”m sure most Academy members don”t give much thought to whether or not something is an “Oscar movie” before casting their vote for it – one need only draw up a Venn diagram listing the common points between “The Hurt Locker” and “The King”s Speech,” or Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side” and Natalie Portman in “Black Swan,” to know that most voters don”t know what they”re looking for until they find it. Their “finding it” may entail some collaborative effort between canny campaigners, critics and paying audiences, but enough offbeat nominees – from “Cries and Whispers” to “Pulp Fiction” to “Winter”s Bone” – have occurred over the years to prove that presuming narrow-mindedness doesn”t help anyone in this game.

Already at this early point in the season, I”ve caught myself arguing with readers and fellow pundits that, say, “Drive” doesn”t have a chance of a Best Picture nomination – citing the Academy”s historical resistance to hardboiled exercises in style, and not persuaded otherwise by the film”s disappointing box office – but I must remind myself that it”s in no one”s interest to shut down potentially exciting lines of conversation, however deeply embedded one”s scepticism.

Conversely, it”s important to avoid mythologizing the awards season as some kind of Holy Grail for any quality cinematic work, and regarding it as either the film”s or the voters” failure if it doesn”t find it. It”s natural to want the films and people we love to benefit from the exposure and future opportunities that Oscar (or even critics” award) approval affords, but there”s something noble and beautiful about the misfit achievements that are too prickly, too populist, too exotic or simply too little-seen to get there, that are destined to find future champions on their own ungilded merits.

The romantic in me would love, for example, to see “Certified Copy” star Juliette Binoche make awards headway for the richest, wittiest, most tender and most complicated performance released to US theatres in 2011 – but while I can protest the near-inevitability of her absence from the season”s major Best Actress fields (and there I am making assumptions for the voting majority again, though I have pragmatic concerns of finance and release dates on my side), I think such films can be as flattered by their exclusion as they would be by their inclusion.

All of which is to say I”m not sure there”s a right answer to the “if I had a ballot” questions I asked earlier. Many Oscar voters are doubtless lucky enough to find their favorite films comfortably in play on an annual basis, but for those who don”t, their choice is to treat the voting process as a compromise-heavy team effort with which to find the right films for an appreciative larger audience, or as a lonely soapbox with which to voice their passions into a void – and there”s honor in both strategies.

Many took issue with the Academy”s previous Best Picture balloting system – whereby a voter”s Top Ten could wind up boosting the tally of a plausible contender, even as they reserved their #1 spot for a more esoteric title – but it was one designed to eliminate concern over potentially wasted ballots. The new system, with its emphasis on number-one votes, may or may not change how such voters treat their ballots – I suspect there will still be the odd stray vote for something as left-of-center as “Meek”s Cutoff” floating around the sorting room at PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

Whoever casts such votes will be content knowing that they probably won”t wind up counting for much, but it”s when misfit voters happen to land upon the same cause that widely unanticipated against-the-grain nominations like Fernando Meirelles” 2003 Best Director bid for “City of God” happen.

There are more strong, idiosyncratic creative personalities in the Academy than we generally give it credit for when we talk about its “type” of film – I have a hunch that AMPAS member Michael Haneke wasn”t fretting over the relative superiority of “The King”s Speech” over “The Social Network” when filling out his Best Picture ballot, for example – even if their tastes may be too scattered to exert a consistent influence. Perhaps there aren”t any “Oscar movies” – just lucky ones.

Check out my updated predictions here.

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