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Tuesday Top Ten: Memo to AMPAS

Oscar ballots left the Academy offices today on their way to the 6,000+ members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. If you must concern yourself with the math of Best Picture voting, here is how it works. I've always found that the discussions of hard but unknowable facts like voting percentages (no one but the accountants see them) and the math and statistics that surround them obscure the more telling aspects of like mood and buzz. Those are equally invisible things but way more honest about their own unknowability.

Anyway, sorry to distract with math. Here are the top ten things we'd respectfully like to say to AMPAS members today as they mull over their abundant choices. We may contradict ourselves a few times but so it goes in Oscar season.


10 We Feel For You Even When We Complain!
It's true that you can't please everyone. That's especially true if you are making decisions that millions of people are invested in even when they claim not to be. Thick skin is handy. We assume you have it when people like us start storming the castle. (If we didn't love you we wouldn't care... so stop freaking out about your relevancy)

09 Take Your Time. Watch a Few More Movies.
You have until January 13th to turn in your ballot. Yes, it sucks that at least a hundred screeners arrive between November and now assuming you have nothing better to do during the holidays than prop open your eyes with toothpicks for a marathon session. I don't want to overwhelm you further with more options so I will only boldly suggest a triple feature before you send off your ballot: A SEPARATION, BEGINNERS and MELANCHOLIA. These three films -- and several others -- won't get as much press as the bigger name movies they're superior to (*cough* You Don't Need To Horse Around With The Girl With the Iron Lady Tattoo) but that doesn't mean you shouldn't vote for them! I single them out because they're good, under-discussed and I know you have the screeners.

[Update: You don't have the screener but CERTIFIED COPY is on Netflix Instant Watch so do yourself the favor. (Whoops that's a quadruple feature!)]

08 Vanessa Redgrave in Coriolanus
You also might want to give Coriolanus a whirl too to see why some people are so excited about Vanessa Redgrave again. It's been kind of a great year for actresses and actors of a certain age (Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor may both skew the oldest ever). But don't throw that particular theme party at the Kodak and forget to invite the best one! That would be... weird.

"you are not my son"

07 On the other hand... consider rejecting the one-week qualifiers altogether.
We're not sure what went wrong in 2011 but the one-week qualifier shenanigans went viral this year. There were more of them than ever. Too many films are screaming "screw you!" at audiences and only courting YOU. This is not healthy for the cinema which is meant to be an art form for the masses. If you've ever worried about charges of elitism consider rejecting them entirely.

peek-a-boo releases, combating genre bias, and sticking it to loudmouth pundits after the jump!

  • We Need To Talk About Kevin
  • The Flowers of War
  • The Lady
  • W.E.
  • In Darkness
  • Albert Nobbs
  • Coriolanus
  • Rampart

If not one nomination is won by any of these perhaps studios will stop breaking the spirit of the law and release them in a straightforward manner that doesn't alienate audiences? (If movies aren't made to be seen what the hell are they made for?) That might sound harsh since some of those films have strong deserving elements but the madness needs to end somewhere. Your governing body never addresses this loophole, which is then cannily exploited by distributors who don't want to spend the money or run the risk of their film being perceived as a flop and it seriously messes with potential audience engagement in your annual shindig as well as the idea of a film year (If the calendar means nothing, why annual awards? That is an honest question). The Oscars will always have a hard time not looking strange and elitist or, worse yet, bought and paid for, to general moviegoers when films they've never been allowed to see and in some cases never heard of are honored. We're not saying you have to vote for any ol' mediocre blockbuster to dodge elitism charges and stay relevant -- that request comes from lazier larger media voices, usually the ones working for parent companies who produce the blockbusters -- but one way to combat "relevancy" issues is to avoid films which purposefully didn't play for audiences (i.e. your audience).

If you think these films are deserving go for it, but please pressure your governing body to make some rule changes. It's "best ____ of 2011" you're voting for. Not "best ____ of spring 2012 IF it gets nominated in 2011."

There doesn't seem to be an Oscar campaign for Captain America. But that doesn't mean it's clever costuming or Original Song don't deserve votes.

06 Don't Forget the Early Birds
The barrage of ads, media coverage and punditry centers around films that are in theaters now or might soon be. You'll be familiar so think back. If you find contributions of worth in earlier releases like Jane Eyre, Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, Beginners, Certified Copy, Hanna, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America, etcetera vote for them. Good movies come out year round.

05 What's your deal with biopics?
Had to ask. Seriously, it's weird. 

Really consider. We hear horror stories all the time about AMPAS members not taking their ballots seriously or giving them to friends/ family members to fill out. If you're so blessed as to have membership in this relentlessly obsessed over group, make that vote count. Don't just vote for something because it's what people are talking about / voting for / because your friends made it. The ballots are secret for a variety of reasons. Consider your vote. It can affect whole careers (especially the new ones) and future movie projects. Is that really your #1 choice or is it just fresh in your mind or what the BFCA or NBR predicted you'd go for? 

Bridesmaids has more to say than several dramas, doesn't it?03 Comedy ≠ Substance Free & Drama ≠ Substance
The media likes to complain that you have no sense of humor but they often attack when you honor comedy over something that's self consciously SERIOUS (Shakespeare in Love vs. Saving Private Ryan which you still get dinged for though Shakespeare is in no way an embarrassing Best Picture choice when held up against your 84 year history). The messages here are confusing from all corners.

So here's a simple strategy to keep your head clear of typical awards biases. Approach all films as if the subject matter and genre is beside the point or better yet pretend they're a different genre or set in a different time and see if they still feel substantive. Films set during World Wars, for example, are not automatically films of merit. They just happen to be set in a time that we project a lot of gravitas on to but each film should have to earn its own medals and stripes, not borrow them. Light confections can have substance (Bridesmaids is one of the most insightful films ever made about depression. Discuss) and films with serious topics can be completely empty-headed. War Horse is picturesque but what does it say about anything? I'm not trying to pick on War Horse, just underlining the point. Genre is a worthless shorthand as a qualitative measure.  

Genre biases also crop up in acting categories with depressing regularity. There is no way on God's green earth silver screen that an effortful-looking heavy performance in a period piece or bio is always better than an effortless looking lighter counterpart in a more contemporary setting. Is Michelle Glenn DiCaprio's able but 100% expected work in My Week With J Edgar Nobbs really superior to Ryan Pitt-Theron's nimble confident movie star underplaying in Young Driver's Moneyball? Think it over before voting. 

02 Old Guard vs. Fresh Blood
Don't be the Emmys. No matter how great any actor / director / costume designer / sound editor / writer is in general, each year needs to be its own competition. The fresh players deserve an even playing field. That even playing field should be 2011, not what has been accomplished and previously rewarded over the past decade or three. 

Gosling and Fassy really love Refn and McQueen. Should you? Remember how late you were to the PT Anderson party! Why repeat that?

01 Stick it to the Pundits -- Surprise us!
Follow your hearts and minds and not the Oscar blogs and magazines. "Forget everything you’ve heard so far and just vote for greatness wherever you find it." You've heard that from smarter people than I so let it sink in. Oscar watchers LOVE a quality surprise even more than they love correctly predicting your decisions. Mike Leigh for Vera Drake? City of God for Best Direction? Laura Linney for The Savages? These were moments to cherish. So if you're dying to nominate Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) for Best Director or join #TeamMargaret in Original Screenplay or vote for Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia) for Best Actress or Potiche for best costumes or whatever... go for it! Convince a friend or four with similar taste to risk their #1 slot for a mutually beloved deserving pet that doesn't have obvious traction and you just might upset the numbers enough to make a difference.

If you'd like to delete one of these bullet points and replace it with a message The Film Experience neglected to send, do so in the comments!

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Reader Comments (26)

(Apologies for this one being so one-note)
- Just because Juliette Binoche has won an Oscar, doesn't mean you should ignore her out of this world run she's been on in the past few years.

December 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Z

I love this. Just linked to it.

Certified Copy really surprised me by turning up on the Eligibility List, which means people need to watch it, especially now that it's on Netflix Instant Watch. And by "people," I mean people who are about to vote to nominate any of the current front-runners, except Viola Davis, my aunt. (Actually, even people voting for Aunt Viola should watch Certified Copy.)

December 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Brian Z -- i suppose people could appropriate your memo for streep or clooney as well :)

December 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

I'd like to place even more emphasis on the early birds that need a boost:
JANE EYRE: Mia Wasikowska for Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay
CERTIFIED COPY: Best Picture, Best Director, Juliette Binoche for Best Actress
CAPTAIN AMERICA: Best Song, Best Costumes, Best Sound
BEGINNERS: Ewan McGregor for Best Actor, Mary Page Keller for Best Supporting Actress
WIN WIN: Amy Ryan for Best Supporting Actress
BRIDESMAIDS: Kristen Wiig for Best Actress (Melissa McCarthy's already in the conversation, Wiig is the one who needs the boost)
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: Andy Serkis for Best Actor
HANNA: Best Score and Best Editing

December 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

I second your one-week (hell, ONE-MONTH) qualifiers point. There's nothing more gratifying than seeing the smug likes of Extremely Late and Incredibly Clueless get shut out -- even if, like Young Adult, they have something very worthwhile to offer. (Let if be a lesson to them!)

December 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

I hope they don't forget Jane Eyre. What a beautiful film. I won't even be upset if it only gets in for costumes or art direction. It should be a lock for Adapted Screenplay because of how effortlessly it got the spirit of the novel across without slavishly following every plot point and character detail.

I hate one week releases that aren't even considering a wide expansion until the end of January. Come out the last week for eligibility purposes. That doesn't bother me. We need more good films released year round, not just in November and December. Actually expand the films, though, before the nominations are due. Seeing a poster for Carnage advertising a release in January just gets on my nerves.

December 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Why do you suppose the Oscar is still regarded as the BIG PRIZE? It's not very often they get it right, yet somehow they still matter. The show is boring and most of the best are ignored.

December 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Bridesmaids was a comedy? Just felt like 2 hours of someone trying really, really, really hard. And failing.

December 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThe Z

I'm desperate for Redgrave to get in. It's one of her finest performances and the woman's a goddess! I'm wondering whether Weinstein has purposefully messed up her campaign to pave the way for Bejo in 'The Artist'...

December 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

But most of all, stop listening to what pundits think you should vote for and go by your own guts and instincts, just as you always have throughout your career to get you to the point where you were invited to the join the Academy in the first place. You're actors, directors, cinematographers, screenwriters, etc... the pundits and film critics are not. :)

December 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEdward Douglas

brandz: The Oscars are Hollywood's chief industry awards, hence not interesting in terms of discerning "quality" per se, but interesting in terms of how they ultimately assess what studios have deemed worthy of marketing to them.

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterColin Low

Sadly I doubt Vanessa Redgrave will ever be allowed to win again, after the controversy over her Julia acceptance speech. It's been 30-odd years but Oscar has a long memory.

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott

Yes to Young Driver's Moneyball, some of the most underrated performances by the critics and awards group. Well, at least Pitt got a couple of the big ones.

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenternic

Scott -- that's true enough but it's weird / petty if that's why she's denied a nomination.

Nic -- yes on Pitt, thank god. It's one of my annual disappointments in fellow film journalists and critics. They all bitch about the Oscars but as groups they tend to show just as little imagination as Oscar voters as to what they deem worthy of actual awards. they also go for the heavy lifting and the mimicry and the SERIOUS THEMES. I mean they *are* a bit more flexible on occassion but still. The line between critics awards and Oscars seems to be ever shrinking.

December 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I really think the Academy should ban one-week qualifiers. It's sort of akin to cutting at the front of a very long line, plus it's a little unfair for moviegoers, as well. I didn't even realize 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' was only playing for one week until well after the fact. Annoying! Let us see the darn movies, or don't release them at all!

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

Not only is Bridesmaids an insightful film about depression, it's perhaps the only mainstream film released in the past few years with a middle-class female protagonist struggling in the modern economy. I really appreciated that. Women can have problems in comedies other than "does my boyfriend love me?"

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Pretty ambivalent about Redgrave getting in or not considering the movie basically didn't open.

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRJ

RJ -- which is why i chased her with "or ignore them entirely. But honestly if they're going to nominate people from ALBERT NOBBS and WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN than Vanessa should be nominated too since she's better than those performances. But yes, it would be satisfying if NO one week qualifier received so much as one nomination.

It depresses me that so many people who write about Oscar are so supportive of the studios doing this under the umbrella of "it's a tough business. they need marketing muscle". I just don't feel sympathetic. This only reinforces the status quo which forces everything into this tiny tiny window and continues to train adults not to expect that moviegoing is for them... oh until this two month window at which point they have to pick and choose because who, other than people who do it for a living, can see that many movies in that short of a time frame? movies for adults are cannibalizing each other by all opening in the same window.

Films need to stand on their own apart from what awards they might win. A film is the same whether it opens in February or July. And it's kind of sick that people's reactions change so much depending on that.

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

//Brian Z -- i suppose people could appropriate your memo for streep or clooney as well :)//

No on Streep, Nathaniel. NO NO NO - not until she uses the talent she has again, instead of coasting on celebrity, mediocre mainstream films and "Oh it's Meryl doing mimicry, isn't she great? We love Meryl!" She's one of the few actresses of her age group who can get major roles and leads in films (basically hogging the space IMO), and she doesn't do more with it?

However she's campaigning like a fiend (all the while seeming not to, which admittedly is part of her charm), and everybody "likes" her, so I suppose she could win this year. That's something you don't exactly touch on here - vote for the performance/film/project, not the person because you like them or they (James Cameron) "dissed" Meryl Streep.

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

I love this list so so much and agree with everything you say. Great piece, Nathaniel. Hope some Academy members read it.

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLucky

Lucky, i know there's a few that'll read it :)

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

"I'm not trying to pick on War Horse"

You are ALWAYS picking on Spielberg's movies. It's some sort of sport to you...

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGustavo

Oh! I was so much looking forward to Vanessa's Redgrave's nomination but damn I don't know what Weinstein's had done and what happened! There is no comprison between what Redgrave does in Coriolanus and Woodley, Spencer, McTeer or Bejo. I am puzzled and dumbfonded that Redgrave will be skipped for these 4.

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterhaqyunus

Gustavo -- i said really nice things about Close Encounters a month or two ago. gave it a whole post :)

December 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R



That is all.

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew

I guess I wouldn't want those worthy people to be out of the race in these "one-week qualifiers" just b/c of studio mandates. I hate having to wait for these Oscar films that I genuinely look forward to all year too b/c I'm not "fortunate" enough to live in NYC or LA. But once they're seen, they could be amazing. And that blanket diss of biopics was excessive. They're not all bad, and there are people out there that find worth in them. It's not just the Academy voters. Surprises are nice on nominations day, but I do think that there are some that take this as sport more than anything else. You want to be surprised just for surprise's sake. Entertain me, thrill me! I wouldn't want to see deserved nominees snubbed just for the excitement of someone surprising getting in. I think that comes from the precursors' glut and people getting bored too easily in an ADD world. Honestly, if you're bored, don't watch the precursors, and stay off the Internet. But to end on a positive note, I did agree with the comedy point. The fact that "Bridesmaids" will probably be snubbed completely is pretty sickening to me. It's one thing to snub genuinely bad comedies like "Bad Teacher" and "The Siitter" when they're doing nothing to further the genre. But when one comes along that has something on its mind and is a populist hit, it feels churlish that the Academy won't give it its due b/c of genre bias. I guess they won't be happy with themselves until they nominate "War Horse" for every category it's eligible in. It's par for the course with them, and I shouldn't be surprised by anything voters do at this point, but somehow I get worked up about it yearly.

December 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGerry
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