Many serious, and even not-so-serious fans of cinema have long taken the Oscars with a grain of salt. Personally, I haven’t watched them for decades. Academy Award winners tend to be sentimental and pop culture-friendly choices. Just a couple of examples point this out; in 1989 the old-fashioned feel-good Driving Miss Daisy, about a black chauffeur who is loyal to his rich white employer, won Best Picture while Spike Lee’s hard-hitting but disturbing portrayal of race relations, Do The Right Thing was not even nominated.
Similarly, in 1995, the clever but basically insipid Forrest Gump swept all the major awards, beating out the far more groundbreaking Pulp Fiction. Another great contemporary films that were never even nominated for Best Picture was Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), while another, far more simplistic and heavy-handed L.A. ensemble piece, Crash, did grab the award, in 2006.
Now, a BBC list of the 100 Greatest American Films challenges the relevance of the Oscars.
Personally, I like the BBC list more than most Academy Awards selections, but only up to a point. To me, for example, there is something rote and unthinking about putting Citizen Kane at the top of the list (as the BBC list does). It’s a great film, to be sure, but the almost universal assumption that it’s The. Best. Film. Ever. seems more like a shared myth than an objective fact. It’s similar in this way to the Great Books canon, where we repeat the list of the greatest authors and books so often that we no longer have to give it much thought. Obviously, every cultured person knows that the works of Homer, Shakespeare, Melville, Austen, Fitzgerald, etc. are superior to anything written in the last 50 or so years. Although this point of view is now controversial and politically incorrect, the mystique around the Great Books remains mostly intact. It’s similar with certain movies from the black and white era.
Of course, no one is going to agree with all choices made by any awards ceremony or any critics lists. In our decentralized age, such “Best of…” lists are quickly becoming obsolete. Ironically, the very ubiquity of such lists on the internet is evidence of their silliness and subjectivity; who’s to say your clickbait 10 best list of the year’s greatest films is any less valid than the Oscars or the film critics of the BBC, New York Times or Variety?
The Oscars is one of those dinosaur institutions whose relevance fades with each passing year (or, maybe more to the point, with each passing tweet). The age of renowned critics, whether the late Roger Ebert or the BBC reviewers whose opinions comprise the aforementioned list, has also passed, as today any movie fan can spout opinions on his or her fledgling blog (e.g. the one you’re reading now), on Netflix, Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes and hundreds of other places. Still, it can be interesting to use the experts’ opinions as the starting point for discussions about movies.