Re-edited on 12.28: The thousands who complain each and every year about the shallow obsessiveness behind the Oscar race reporting keep missing a basic fact, which is that tracking and handicapping the possible nominees and likely winners isn’t primarily about picking winning horses (although it is), or the gowns worn by female nominees or the Oscar telecast ratings or any of that other stuff which we all know to be transitional effusions of little if any value.
The reason the Oscar race grabs us the way it does each year is because it’s primarily about the championing of values. Day-to-day values, eternal values, cinematic values. It’s a yearly ritual in which we seek to define who and what we are by way of fighting for a consensus of judgment — among critics, the viewing and reading public, the various industry branches — about the values expressed in movies about things that matter, and about how artfully or movingly these things are conveyed.
The Oscar race, in short, is not the World Series or the Kentucky Derby or the Daytona 500 or the damn Superbowl. It’s a much more primal cultural exercise than some of us are willing to admit.
It’s a debate about various themes, visions and ways of dealing with life as presented in the top films (including films that never came to be regarded as “top” but should have been). And the debate is the point of it. It’s all that matters. The numerical winner is always forgotten within days, certainly weeks of Oscar night. So the race is about winning, yes, but at the same time not really. It’s really about what we figure out about ouselves — how deeply we care about this or that view or reflection or magical conjuring — as we approach the Big Moment, which is almost always an anti-climax unless there’s a big Pianist-like upset.
And of course, about standing by certain filmmakers, craft-persons and performers because they seem to be best at taking us on this or that journey. Some journeys won’t mean as much next year, let alone five or twenty years down the road. Some will gain. Some will evaporate — and those of us who choose to celebrate the evaporations in the lead-up to the Oscars will have to face the music down the road.
To what extent is the tenacious, resourceful, at times fiendish Daniel Plainview a portrait of core drives and feelings in our culture? Do we need a little more Chris McCandless in our lives, except for the part about blowing off our parents? Does the world of There Will be Blood resonate with our own, and if so, in which ways? And how should we respond if it is? Am I Robert Graysmith? Are you? Have we thought long and hard enough about abortion, and has there been another film that has made us feel the anguish of going through a late-term procedure as dramatized in 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days?
To what extent are some of us shaking our heads like Tommy Lee JonesSheriff Tom Bell and wondering how the hell things got this way? Do we believe that a man in his 30s can go back to his native country and somehow redeem himself for having abandoned a childhod friend and helped to destroy his life? How many of us have felt a sense of transitioning from one personality or identity to the next, a la I’m Not There? And if there’s no general resonance element in Todd Haynes‘ film, why do we find it fascinating?