The Academy Awards may be months away, but as journalists, critics, and pundits get their first look at some of the fall's films at the Toronto International Film Festival the Oscar talk is already pervasive. But talking about awards in early September is complicated. Framing coverage of films by noting their Oscar chances is a great shorthand to highlight worthy films, but it's also can simplify films, reducing them to be no more than pawns in a larger game.
The tension over the Oscar lexicon was evident following the euphoric reaction of journalists after seeing 12 Years a Slave in Toronto. Kyle Buchanan at Vulture wrote a piece with the headline: "Your Best Picture Winner Will Be 12 Years a Slave." At BuzzFeed Adam B. Vary's claimed it "should win all the Oscars." The exuberant reactions to the film provoked blacklash on Twitter, where The Wrap's film critic Alonso Duralde wrote: "A) I don't give a rat's ass about the Oscar race. 2) Kindly limit your public orgasms over 12 Years a Slave til general pop gets to see it." That set off an ensuing debate.
Duralde explained to me that he sees a distinction between predicting the Oscar race and judging the quality of a film. "If you are in the business of being someone who is looking at the horse race then be clear that you are saying this is a film that's going to win the horse race not a film that's the best horse," he said. He himself tends not to "trust" the awards.
Writers like Buchanan and Vary know that talking about the Oscars to talk about quality of the film is a like a letter grade or star-rating system. "A way of bluntly communicating broader quality," Vary said. And that bluntness can unfortunately turn attention away from what's contained within a film that can make it so amazing—as it has to a certain extent in the case of 12 Years a Slave. Vary said he wishes the attention being paid to 12 Years a Slave was more focused on the movie than on the fact that he and and many others said the was going to win a bunch of Oscars. In his piece Vary simply wanted to convey the importance of the film. "I was more interested in communicating to my readership that this is a movie that sort of demands to be seen and is of a caliber that just rarely ever happens in movies," he said. Even Duralde said that, if a publication's readers care about the Oscars, invoking them can be a good way to draw attention to a film.
Whether or not you agree with the ultimate results of the Oscars, you have to give the enterprise credit for giving Hollywood studios an incentive to produce movies that have more weight to them than you're normal summer blow-em-up fare. "It's totally fine to take issue with the Oscars — certainly, the Academy has made some head-scratching choices in the past — but without the driver of awards season and the shorthand of using a superlative like Oscar-worthy,' challenging dramas like this one would have a more difficult time getting made and seen by a wide audience," Buchanan wrote in an email to the Wire.
The Academy, of course, does make easily debatable choices. Perhaps the most obvious example , is that at the 1942 ceremony Citizen Kane was nominated but had to settle for a best original screenplay for Orson Welles while How Green Was My Valley was the night's big winner there. In 1990, it was Dances with Wolves that cleaned up while Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas had to settle for Joe Pesci winning in the supporting actor category. Still, the films that at least get nominated for Academy Awards in the major categories these days each year do tend to be quality films. "I do believe that the movies that end up in that list are usually good films, great films, ones that you should see," Entertainment Weekly's Anthony Breznican told us. "When you hear people like us say this is an Oscar movie, that's code, at least as I write it, for this is a must-see movie." (The headline on his story about 12 Years a Slave calls Oscar nominations a "certainty.")
But Breznican admits all the Oscar talk can be reductive, especially you look at the season as a sporting event. Even for someone like Sasha Stone, who blogs about contenders at her site Awards Daily, the discussion is two-pronged, even though she doesn't think it's fair to use the race to judge the movies out in the fall. "The industry that has grown around Oscar watching since I began in 2000 has both ruined the appreciation of films on the one hand, but also kept alive quality filmmaking," she wrote in an email. "If films don't have the awards race to aim for they don't have much of a reason to get made at all."