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.
TEN IMPORTANT MESSAGES FOR OSCAR VOTERS
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.
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.
- We Need To Talk About Kevin
- The Flowers of War
- The Lady
- In Darkness
- Albert Nobbs
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."
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?
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.
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!