Denouement: Is It Better NOT to Win Best Picture?

The Projector
Not a Best Picture winner. Sony Pictures

Last night at the Oscars when Steven Spielberg came on stage to present the award for Best Picture, he mentioned that the evening's winner would join the ranks of films like "On the Waterfront" and "The Godfather," while those that lost would be in the company of "The Graduate," "Citizen Kane" and "Raging Bull." The point was pretty obvious -- hey, don't feel bad, lots of great movies don't win Best Picture -- but it also brought attention to the fact that sometimes winning the big prize might actually hurt your film's legacy.

It happens every year during the buildup to the Academy Awards and then peaks the morning after the show -- everybody who didn't think the Best Picture winner was, in fact, that year's best picture will complain about all of its many flaws. None of us are immune to this: In recent years I've very much liked "The Hurt Locker" and "No Country for Old Men," but the idea that they got the top Oscar inspired me to determine the "real" reasons why the won -- beyond the fact that people liked them, I mean. And so I nitpick, which leads me to downgrading and eventually bad-mouthing movies that are actually good. I've been doing the same with "The King's Speech" -- actually, I started when I reviewed the movie back in December:

"The King's Speech" feels like the sort of movie that's destined to win Best Picture, which isn't necessarily a compliment. It's well made with strong performances and all that, but there's something slightly generic and pat about the entire film that keeps it from being truly amazing or special. It's a movie constructed to please audiences, and it does its job admirably. Isn't that enough? Not quite.

That's exactly how I feel today about the movie -- it's good, but it's not great. And shouldn't a Best Picture be truly great?

Part of the problem with giving any movie a Best Picture Oscar is that, by definition, it suggests it is superior to all other films from that year. Now, if you do think "The King's Speech" was the best movie of 2010, then everything is right with the world today. But if you thought any other movie was better, then it can be difficult to not feel like the whole Oscar business is completely stupid. (And I have to say this doesn't just happen with the Academy Awards: When the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, of which I'm a member, picked "The Social Network" as our best film of the year, there were members who immediately started complaining about the real reasons the organization had voted for that film. Why did they do that? Because their personal favorite didn't win. Hey, I did the same thing when we picked "The Hurt Locker.")

This also has to do with human nature and the phenomenon of backlashes. In today's social-networking world, it's easy to be inundated with opinions, which can start to feel like overkill if you don't agree as strongly as everyone else does about something. And when a certain film/book/album/show is presented as the Greatest Thing Ever, it's easy to respond against that, going as violently in the other direction to separate oneself from all those singing something's praises.

The perhaps unexpected consequence of this sort of Oscar backlash is that films that don't win Best Picture see their status elevated. When "Brokeback Mountain" was the supposed frontrunner for the Oscar, people started to complain that the movie was "only" going to win because the Academy wanted to seem progressive in their attitude toward gay rights. Others said that director Ang Lee's movie wasn't bold enough or good enough to deserve the prize. Well, after "Crash" pulled off the upset, those complaints seemed to melt away. If anything, losing Best Picture helped "Brokeback Mountain," giving it a stature because it was "robbed." In some ways, it's easier to love a movie precisely because it hasn't been anointed with a Best Picture Oscar: It's not the property of everybody else; it still belongs to you. (Is this why Martin Scorsese's older fans are still annoyed that "The Departed" won for Best Picture and Best Director? They somehow wanted it to be retroactively bestowed on "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas"?)

What this all means is that probably in future years people will wonder why "The King's Speech" won when [insert your favorite movie of 2010 here] didn't. The most likely pick for that slot seems to be "The Social Network," although the fans of "Inception" or "Toy Story 3" or "Winter's Bone" or "Black Swan" might disagree with that assumption. What Spielberg didn't mention in his comment was that great movies (whether they win Best Picture or not) often need to be judged years down the road to determine their true worth. For better or worse, the Academy Awards are about the here and now, when the right Oscar campaign can sometimes be just as important as the quality of a film. I prefer "The Social Network" to "The King's Speech," but ask me again in five or 10 years. Who knows: Maybe your favorite film of 2010 will be the one I realize years down the road was actually the one that should have won the Oscar.