Oscar Contenders

What Does It Mean for a Film to "Deserve" to Win Best Picture?

Is there even an answer to this question?

Argo posterOver at Salon, Andrew O'Hehir has written an article headlined "Argo doesn't deserve the Oscar". His reasons include that he believes it's a "non-great film" that rewrites history and turns the incident at the center of the story into a "familiar action-adventure flick about American heroism".

O'Hehir begins to boils it all down with this:

[Argo] turns a fascinating and complicated true story into a trite cavalcade of action-movie clichés and expository dialogue, leaving us with an image of the stoical American hero (or the Mexican-American hero played by a white guy, anyway) framed in a doorway with a blonde in his arms and the flag flapping behind him.

He continues by adding, "[Director Ben Affleck] and [screenwriter Chris Terrio] are spinning a fanciful tale designed to make us feel better about the decrepit, xenophobic and belligerent Cold War America of 1980 as it toppled toward the abyss of Reaganism, and that's a more outrageous lie than any of the contested historical points in Lincoln or Zero Dark Thirty."

I guess he's suggesting Frederick Douglass really didn't deserve a place in Lincoln, though I'm sure others would disagree. Or do errors of omission not count? As for Zero Dark... well I think we (and everyone else on the Internet) have discussed that issue more than enough, but does being deserving of an Oscar depend on how jingoistic your film is or isn't or how many times you take dramatic license in your "based on a true story" movie?

At what point do we stop looking for truth and start evaluating the movie? Are only films "based on a true story" held to these standards? What of Django Unchained or Beasts of the Southern Wild? I guess it's a good thing The Dark Knight and WALL•E weren't nominated back in 2008, sources tell me there's nothing real about those films.

However, I don't really want to tackle the argument of which film distorts the truth more than the other, though that sure would make for an interesting way of voting on the Oscars wouldn't it?

What I'm more interested in is this idea of a film "deserving" to win Best Picture. What does that even mean? Who decides what is and isn't deserving? The Academy? Audiences? Critics? 30 people who deem themselves more worthy of deciding a film's worth over others? Who?

I have long stopped worrying about what film the Academy determines is the Best Picture of the year in terms of whether it truly was the "best". I can respect the passion some have for the films they write about and put on a pedestal, but determining whether or not a film deserves to win or not, isn't a realistic conversation to have.

The best way to look at the Oscars, is to relish in their celebration of movies. Granted, your favorite films may not win or even be nominated, but at least the conversation is carried on somewhere and, at the very least, some kind of bar exists in a world of cinema that could just as easily be destroyed by endless Transformers knock-offs.

From where I sit the most deserving Best Picture candidates this year are the nine that were nominated. Now all I care about is predicting which one of those nine will win, because when it comes to breaking down the Oscar race, predicting the most winners is the only way of being "right".

SIDE NOTE: I loved Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty (both made my top ten), and even respect Argo, but that wasn't the point of this post.

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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheMovieGuru/ The Movie Guru

    Brad, you gave Argo a B+ when you first reviewed it. At the end of this post you say that you respect that film but love Lincoln and ZDT. But you also gave Lincoln a B+. Would you change your grade on Argo today or would you change your grade on Lincoln?

    • brenda

      What happened to the canadian contribution in argo?? I believe Lincoln deserves to win even tho speilberg is not a favorite of oscar. Lincoln is the better picture.

  • http://www.electriccin.blogspot.com theJackal

    "The best way to look at the Oscars, is to relish in their celebration of movies" - Amen to that, sir.

    I'm not sure why it is important to me for a film to win Best Picture when I felt that it was, in fact, the best film of the year. For some reason, that validation is important. However, even when I've been disappointed by the results (Private Ryan losing to Shakespear, Brokeback getting beat by Crash), I've never felt that the eventual winner was somehow undeserving. Each year I'm very satisfied with the nominated films and feel that each one was deserving of recognition.

    There is really no true barometer for which films should be nominated. That being said, if a film like The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 were ever nominated for Best Picture, I might have to seriously question my theory that all of the Best Picture nominees are deserving.

    Thems the facts

  • Frank

    This is an excellent article! In reality, no one can determine what "deserves" Best Picture, not even the Academy. All film is subjective no matter how you look at it.

    I like the quote you used in the previous Argo Oscar article stating that the Oscars was "A method of affirmation of taste. Yes! The Academy chose my favorite movie as Best Picture and therefore my taste is confirmed as being "right"." That pretty much describes the Oscars in a nutshell for viewers.

    Also, I kind of look at the Oscars as like the playoffs/Superbowl. It's competitive with a bunch of films up against each other for being consider the best. They are movies you want to win just like in sports (your favorite team) and there are movies you don't want to win like your rival teams (i.e. Cowboys).

    • http://www.gamingsymmetry.com Stinger

      What I disagree with and this might get philosophical but why people say "it's subjective" and then it means right and wrong immediately exit the door. Subjective matters are harder to decide, but they are not exempt from reasoning and evidence. There might be more than one right answer but there is a best answer. Racism and equality are both subjective mind frames, but only one of them is right.

      You can't say "something is subjective" and then immediately decides there's no right answer. There's no place outside the dominion of rationality.

      Now you might say "but how do you know your subjective opinion is right", I don't, but people must criticize it mercilessly and I should reply to them and out of clash there might come along a shard of truth for the observer who wants to decide if I'm right or wrong.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/kaizer/ kaizer

    I think the better question is argo is a great movie or not. Its real source of power is direction and writing and not acting performances which in popular sense are criteria for a great movie.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ryguy815/ Ryguy815

    I 100% agree with you Brad.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

    Well, first I'd just like to say bravo to Mr. O'Hehir. It's nice to FINALLY see someone taking Argo to task for its brazen jingoism. While I completely agree with his assessment of the film, I disagree (like Brad and others) that there is such a thing as "deserving" an Oscar. Because if there even was such a thing as "deserving" an Oscar, what makes the Oscars the final verdict on whether a film is great or not? Because it's been around the longest? Please. So what.

    So no. Not only is there no such as thing as "deserving" an Oscar, but the perceived prestige that comes along with the title "Best Picture" is unwarranted and meaningless. The Oscars are about making money (like everything else). You can dress it up any way you like, but the Oscars are about little more than promoting your own film and collecting ad revenue.

    • Susan

      Someone at Slate about a month ago did a takedown of Argo's jingoism, but damn if I can't find the link.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

        It's just sad that with all the hoopla over ZDT, virtually no one was talking about Argo (which, imo, is 10 times more offensive than ZDT).

        • Susan

          It's certainly problematic.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Fox/ Fox

    In my opinion, only one film "deserves" best picture each year: my favourite of the year. Isn't that the point of having a favourite? That being said, I'm not going to call the Academy stupid for having a different favourite than me.

  • http://www.criterion.com/my_criterion/27913-criterion10 Criterion10

    Whether or not a film "deserves" the Oscar for Best Picture is simply a matter of opinion. I personally thought Argo was okay, though nothing great, and thus it does not deserve the Oscar IMO. I loved both Zero Dark Thirty and Amour (my two favorite films of the year), and thus I feel that either or those deserves the Oscar. Ultimately, it simply comes down to a matter of personal opinion and preference.

    The problem with the Oscars is that for me, they are not about celebrating film. They are not about taking the highest artistic achievements of the year and appreciating them, but rather they have simply became a game of politics, where the only way to win an Oscar is through campaigning aggressively. Plus, let's face it, the Academy is known for not being especially in touch with the rest of the film world. This is why I feel that a film festival like Cannes is much more prestigious than the Oscars.

  • Chris138

    I agree with you Brad. I also stopped caring about what the Academy deems the best movie of the year, mainly because a lot of internet bloggers end up taking this stuff way too seriously and see the whole thing as a competition rather than a celebration of good movies. I guess I take the George C. Scott viewpoint of the whole thing, where it's fine to acknowledge these movies with awards and get a pat on the back, but in the end the whole thing is just a meat parade.

    Also, I think Matt Damon had it right when he suggested that the best picture of each year would mean more if it were decided 10 or more years later. I think time and how these films age is the true test of what is really the year's Best Picture.

    • Susan

      I see I'm not the only one who remembers that Damon quote. How odd.

      • Susan
        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

          Great article. I only wish more people would read it. I'm not familiar with the writer, but they're extremely articulate. I think this quote pretty much encapsulates the whole thing:

          "Looking at the runaway success of this film, it seems as if critics and audiences alike lack the historical knowledge to recognize a self-serving perversion of an unflattering past, or the cultural acumen to see the utterly ersatz nature of the enterprise: A cast of stock characters and situations, and a series of increasingly contrived narrow escapes from third world mobs who, predictably, are never quite smart enough to catch up with the Americans."

          Ladies and gentleman, here is your "Best Picture".....

        • Chris138

          While we're at it, Jesse Williams wrote a pretty scathing article on CNN that strongly criticizes Django Unchained and calls out QT's ego. At the bottom he posts a link to a scene-by-scene breakdown of what he found problematic in the film.

          http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/19/opinion/williams-django-still-chained/index.html

          I love the film but I do think Tarantino's head has gotten incredibly far up his own ass when he claims that he's responsible for bringing the discussion of slavery back in America. Plus, it's an interesting read.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Silrian/ Silrian

    I think this issue goes back to judging art in general. On the one hand, I think most people desire to see skill and craftsmanship applauded, on the other hand, the only ones who truly know what went into making the film are often only those who made it, plus a relatively handful of fellows who understand or are practicing the same craft. Even then, how one judges craft and skill can't remain devoid of subjectivity, because you'll always judge it partially to your own experiences.

    I think the problem of the Oscars is that most, probably including myself, have made the award into something it's at the core not: a general presentation of what was best of that year. We tend to value the Oscars, even as "simple viewers" mainly I think, because they are the amalgam of all accolades of the filmmakers to themselves – in other words: the experts themselves. Nevertheless, experts can just as easily love something regardless of its level of skill required to make it. Granted, Oscar voters might be inclined to never fully ignore effort put on screen, but they'll sure take into accounts other factors then that – fully subjective factors.

    Clearly, there's no such thing as to what 'deserves to win best film' because it's impossible to make a combined lot of criteria to judge art in every quality it has that can be of quality. Combined with the fact that Oscars are awarded democratically (by popular vote), I'd say that the only way for a film to not deserve its win, is miscounting in votes, or misinformed voters (whatever the hell that means).

    Any criteria put on the election itself, such as Laremy's proposal to ban lobbying, or my own idea to make everyone who wants to vote watch every film that's contending, are for a variety of ways just not applicable. So basically, our common desire to want to see quality be recognised simply can't be fully met on a group scale. I see no other conclusion to be made. (Sorry this post got a bit long.)

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/lalecture/ lalecture

      Very well expressed Silrian! I concur completely with your essay!!
      One thought I had as I read your post is, what potential future success does a winner have? It can open doors for options but the artist still has to choose projects wisely.
      Ive seen many winners go down the "one and done" road.
      I wonder if how the academy votes, can be propelled by how much they want to see the artists work in the future?

  • Susan

    My criteria is simple and totally useless, but based on something Matt Damon said a few years ago; ten years after all the hype and initial acclaim, what movies have mattered, both in a still popular and influential sense.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Silrian/ Silrian

      And then what? That might even give rise to more subjective voting, because people take away different things per film. I might be wrong in this, but I don't think the Oscars were meant to judge what films matter, but simply to award excellence in the respective crafts of filmmaking.

      The only thing I would want is to know of an assurance that people will vote with that idea in mind: what did member X think was most excellent in their category + film overall? But there is no way to force that. At least I don't know of any. I can see more evaluation time has positives, but it has upsetting negatives as well, perhaps even outweighing the former. People's memories differ and many are flawed and filtering. And I'm pretty sure most members not gonna re-watch all films from 2012 in 2022...

      That, and some members may have died during those ten years, which seems unfair. If a member was alive in 2012 and still is by 2013, they should get their vote counted.

      • Susan

        Oh, I'm not calling it a realistic situation for voting, just one that if somehow could be done would likely have better films picked. I don't think the Oscars stink, I love watching them and their history, but their Best Pic winners are hit and miss, though still traditionally better than what say the Emmys or Grammys pick to represent their fields.

        • Jake17

          Yeah, if you think the Oscars are bad, then the Emmys are a freaking nightmare.

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/lalecture/ lalecture

          "Hit and miss" what?
          Again, it comes down to the academy voters being just as human as the rest of us in that they have certain things they appreciate or dislike in "best" whatever of the year!

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Xarnis/ Xarnis

    We all have opinions on what we think is the "best" film of the year. For me it was Zero Dark Thirty. For the Academy it's Argo. For Brad it's Django Unchained. It's all a matter of opinion. But in this case, the Academy's opinion is the most influential. Whether or not someone thinks Argo is "worthy" is up to them.

  • Thornsy

    This is only only briefly touched upon in the article, but the supposed "white-washing" of Mendez doesn't really exist. He is of European descent. Assuming he must be brown because his last name is Spanish is just as racist as making him more white in the movie.

  • GARY JAMES

    When i see movies like ordinary people beat out raging bull ,dances with wolves beat out goodfellas ,shakespeare in love beat out saving private ryan ,forest gump beat out shawshank redemptionand driving miss fckin daisy beat out field of dreams i cant get too worked up with most deserving winner.

  • Mr. Jim

    The thing is it's a flawed system instead of just recognizing four or five films that were great during the year we try and quantify which one was the best. Just look at the 1994 awards and think to this day could you still pick which movie was the best with Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption, and Forrest Gump all being nominated. I highly doubt it and you could make a case of all three. Movies shouldn't be penalized as being looked upon as not being the best especially when we have years like this where we have excellent movies all around.
    Also it's a matter of opinion of in judging artistic creations there is no right or wrong choice just because one person loves Argo doesn't mean everyone else will and if you ask me Django Unchained was better then Argo but like I said it's all a matter of opinion.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/lalecture/ lalecture

      Very accurate Mr. James!

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/G-Man/ G-Man

    To me, the Best Picture should be the movie that is all around best liked by people. When referring to "people", I mean anyone who watches movies. If you hypothetically showed every movie released in the last year to let's say a million random people, which one would be the most well liked. In all honest, from my discussions about movies with most people (non-internet cinephiles), Argo seems to be the most universally well-liked. Therefore, even if I don't agree with the selection personally, I would support it winning Best Picture.

    • Pachinko

      "To me, the Best Picture should be the movie that is all around best liked by people. When referring to "people", I mean anyone who watches movies...."

      That system already exists. It's called the MTV movie awards.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/G-Man/ G-Man

        Not sure if serious...I hardly think the skewed demographic of people who vote for the MTV Movie Awards is reflective of what I'm referring to.

        • Jake17

          Yeah, MTV is basically what teenage girls like best, and it's pretty much the same with all award shows controlled by the people.

  • Winchester

    I think the idea of 'deserving' is really a personal matter more than a definitive. This argument applies to all Awards ceremonies across all mediums and is far from limited to the Oscars so I do tend to take note of who wins on the awards circuits but so many factors play into both the process for being nominated and then the process of winning that it really doesn't mean my own personal views would agree.

    That said, while I get Damon's point I don't agree with going back and revisiting old winners or reappraising who should have won. It happened in the respective year. You can't go back for everything and say 'let's do a switcheroo' because X amount of time has passed and 'we don't think that anymore.'

    What's done is done, even if it means Raging Bull or Shawshank never won.

    It will be the same this year. Argo will win Best Picture. Obviously it won't mean I agree with that choice. But it's The Academy's decision.

  • http://www.gamingsymmetry.com Stinger

    Well, each year I select my personal favorite film of the year and I think they deserve the title. But like anything else in the world, the top choice can be taken by many films and they all deserve it. In 2008 I think all the nominated films for Oscars deserved the title of "best film" (I mean films of 2007). Just like I think many films can be validly called the best film of all times. It's easier to say what films don't deserve it. I don't think "Argo" deserves it because of its lackluster decoupage and cliche ridden filming. To me "Argo" is like an episode of 24, breathtaking but not artistic. But how do I select my best film of the year?

    Well I have to find the film revolutionary, artistic, and daring in its subject matter. It has to break boundaries and make history. I want to select a film that I'm sure people will watch 100 years from now. That can be done many ways. But mostly, it must be a film which has the capacity to open the eyes of the viewer to a different world, it's controversial, and makes them think. Its cinematography must be strong and it must be engaging.

    The best example is 1994. That year Academy awarded "Forrest Gump". Cannes awarded "Pulp Fiction". That year Canne's choice was very controversial. But now we have seen how much more historic and meaningful its choice has been. It's not that "Forrest Gump" is a bad movie. I am a fan of it myself. But it's not history-shattering.

    Since I've begun this in 2000, I was happy to see many of my choices really did go to make history. In 2001 "Mullholand Dr." didn't win any major awards but at the end of the decade most magazines chose it as the top or one of the top movies of the decade. The same can be said for 2003 "Oldboy", which moved on to become a classic.

    So who gets to really decide the best movies? History. So we need to try and think from the perspective of people 10 years from now. Why they would have to watch "Argo"? "Argo" will be outdated then as most of the thrillers of 70s are now.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/lalecture/ lalecture

      "Well I have to find the film revolutionary, artistic, and daring in its subject matter. It has to break boundaries and make history. I want to select a film that I'm sure people will watch 100 years from now. "

      I love your criteria for choosing a "best" picture film. It makes me realize that I have a similar approach. I could just never put it into words! thanks for that Stinger

  • Central Ohio

    I'm sick of people comlaining about accuracy in narrative films. These are not documentraries! What movie based on a true story is 100% accurated with every detail? My answer is this...nothing.

  • Newbourne

    That's like saying The Departed didn't deserve to win because it didn't stay true to the original films.

    I think it's silly to compare a movie to the original, to the book, to the true story or to any type of source material. The award isn't "Most faithful adaptation", it's "Best Movie" which implies that the movie is the most interesting, the most well-crafted and the most entertaining.

    These complaints are only valid when talking about a documentary nominee. A doc nominee shouldn't win when it distorts the truth, but Argo never implied it was a documentary. It's just a thriller that took inspiration from a real story. Inspiration is all it took, everything else was hammered down by Terrio. It's still a good movie.

    It isn't a GREAT one, but not for the reasons stated above. I didn't particularly enjoy it as much as other people did. The red herrings and "suspenseful" moments didn't work for me at all. It reminded me of The Hurt Locker when people were supposed to be on the edge of their seat while he diffuses a bomb. I wasn't on the edge of my seat in either film, because the protagonist isn't going to die half-way through the movie. It's silly to think so.

    Oh well, Argo is winning. People should stop complaining and just accept it.