Sunday, March 4, 2012

Oscars, Hugos, the nature of awards

All award systems are flawed; I hope we can all agree. Popular vote awards reflect popular tastes, but rarely reward artistic merit or innovation or subtlety. Small jury awards can become echo chambers for a narrow set of viewpoints. And so on.

Still, some are more flawed than others. Take, for instance, the recent Oscars awarded by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  There probably are no more commercially successful awards in the world than the Oscars. As a marketing exercise it is rivaled only by the Grammy’s. Unfortunately, the quality of the award winners is less remarkable.

There is something systemically wrong with the methods of the Academy, as evidenced by the premier award category, the Best Picture. Most results are blandly likable and safe (The Artist, The Kings Speech), or bloated epics that rely too heavily on their own seriousness (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Titanic, Braveheart, Dances with Wolves), or sentimental slop (Titanic, Forrest Gump, Driving Miss Daisy, Out of Africa, Terms of Endearment).

Only rarely does the Academy find its way to a movie that reflects the best in film. Looking down the list, I think the hit rate for finding excellence is roughly once every 10 years. While you, dear reader, and I will likely disagree on which film is that once-a-decade wonder, I hope we can agree that one-in-10 is a dismal, dysfunctional hit rate. There were two movies in recent years that I thought demonstrated achievement at or near the best of the year: The Hurt Locker (2009) and No Country for Old Men (2007). Weighing against these is the truly bad Best Picture winner, Crash (2005), the most egregiously odious choice in the past 10 years.

Among 2011 films, I’ve seen three so far that I thought were first rate: The Tree of Life, A Separation, and Martha Marcy May Marlene. Only one of these, The Tree of Life, was on the Best Picture shortlist and, not surprisingly, it didn’t win.

Closer to the topic of this blog, the Hugo Awards, a popular vote award open to anyone willing to pay for a supporting membership in the annual World Science Fiction Convention ($50 this year), is subject to the same blind-spots. For all the criticism of the Hugo Award choices I have made on this blog, the Hugos have a better record than the Oscars. Just glancing at the Best Novel winners:

The Windup Girl (2009) by Paolo Bacigalupi
The City & the City (2009) by China Miéville (tie)
The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007) by Michael Chabon
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke

That’s four first-rate Hugo Best Novel winners in the past 10 years. Not bad.

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