Sunday, February 24, 2013

"And the Oscar for Best PRACTICAL Effects Goes To ..."

We're hours away from the pinnacle of the 2012 Awards Season, and I'll make no bones about being excited -- perpetually, inextricably -- by the Academy Awards.  It's the Super Bowl with sequined dresses, a monster truck rally with orchestral interludes.  It's every good reason to scream at the TV with friends over arbitrary and meaningless decisions.  Like a NASCAR race, I'm half in it for the crashes, like (well) seeing Crash expose the cowardliness and self-satisfaction of the Academy voters who favored that tripe over Brokeback Mountain and Munich (let alone the not-even-nominated A History of Violence).

I don't have any particularly strong feelings about the Oscar contenders this time around, other than a suspicion that Argo will emerge as this year's "safe" choice (by engaging Middle Eastern politics and terrorism without all the baggage of Zero Dark Thirty) -- that is, unless Silver Linings Playbook takes the cake in the same lighthearted spirit that gave the Oscar to Shakespeare in Love over The Thin Red Line and other headier historical dramas.  I do have more to say about whether awards shows such as this, and indeed the entire critical establishment we still rely upon to single out "quality" artworks amongst the rabble, still play a useful role in the era of internet anarchy, where anyone with an internet connection can bypass the cultural gatekeepers of the Analog Age to find an audience.  For the time being, however, I have something far more modest in mind.

Like many others out there, I find the established Oscar categories far too limiting.  Of course, whatever categories you set up inevitably become arbitrary and capricious, leading to head-scratching confusion over what constitutes a "supporting" role versus a lead role or why a musical score incorporating established music cannot also be the "best score" of the year.  That said, here are the categories I would add to the mess and why.

Best Practical Effects

In short, it makes no sense to me whatsoever to compare the (albeit impressive) CGI work in Avengers with the mostly practical effects on display in Dark Knight Rises.  Just take a look at this behind-the-scenes clip from Dark Knight and try telling me these guys don't deserve some recognition separate and apart from what a room full of programmers can accomplish:

Besides giving credit where it's due to those who actually risk bodily harm to pull off these stunts, it would also encourage the preservation of a distinct film-making art form onto itself.

Best Sequel / Franchise Installment

Speaking of Dark Knight Rises, there is no doubting that we're in the Franchise Age, in which audiences are well accustomed to treating movies as "episodes" of a larger epic.  Why not embrace this trend and recognize movies that are solid "parts of a whole" rather than stand-alone works of art comparable to other films?  I don't think it's a stretch to say that Return of the King won the Best Picture award in 2004 to honor the achievement of the entire Lord of the Rings series.  Creating an award directed specifically to franchises would give recognition to the strength of individual episodes viewed in the context of the series as a whole.  (And, for the hell of it, we can retroactively give the award to The Empire Strikes Back, which is a good movie on its own but a great movie when viewed as the bridge between A New Hope and Return of the Jedi.)

Yes, practically speaking, this category also doubles as a back-door Award for sci-fi and fantasy, which constitute the bulk of franchises out there today (with action flicks like the Fast and Furious franchise a close second), but I'd call that a feature, not a bug.

Best Use of Music

Of all the categories proposed on this list, this one seems like the most obvious and the most necessary.  I'm not the first one to point out that it's stupid to exclude soundtracks that incorporate preexisting music from the Oscars for Best Score and Best Song.  When some of the most distinctive moments in modern classics depend on the re-appropriation of preexisting music, it's absurd not to recognize the craft in picking the right song for the right moment:

Needless to say, Tarantino would be a heavy favorite for this category in any year he releases a movie, but he wouldn't be the only contender by far ...

Best Children's Entertainment

The de facto stand-in for this award currently is "Best Animated Feature" and that's unfortunate on two counts.  First, it would have excluded such genius children's entertainment as the Babe movies, even if the "Best Animated Feature" category existed back in the 1990s.

Second, it results in such absurdities as Chico and Rita competing against Kung Fu Panda 2, or the sophisticated, adult-themed Persepolis competing against the disposable Surf's Up.

Giving the voters a category specifically directed to family-appropriate films (animated or not) will run interference, allowing sophisticated animated films to compete for the Oscar for Best Animated Film without the burden of also being the only kid-friendly category on the ballot.

Best Historical Fiction

This last category is most specifically in response to this year's candidates, given the controversy surrounding the historical accuracy not of one but three of the Best Picture nominees.  I wrote about Zero Dark Thirty and Argo here, but Lincoln has also come under fire for -- among other inaccuracies -- a scene falsely showing the congressmen from Connecticut voting against the 13th Amendment.  Creating a separate category recognizing explicitly that these films are historical fiction might take some of the edge off of the controversy.  (Honestly, this category may not be such a hot idea, but for whatever reason, the Hollywood Press seemed to decide that this was the year movies about important historical events would be put under the accuracy microscope.)

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So those are my ideas.  Any thoughts?

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