There's an article in the mid-November issue of Entertainment Weekly by Anthony Brenzican called, "Is 12 Years [a Slave] the New Brokeback?" Since Brenzican feels the same way I do about Brokeback Mountain having been more deserving of the Best Picture honor than Crash, I want to agree with his premise in this article. And yet...I don't.
I can't find the article online as of yet, but I've excerpted the parts that I find problematic:
Academy Awards history is full of powerful, disconcerting films that secure a Best Picture nomination, only to lose to a warmer, fuzzier rival. The King's Speech over The Social Network. Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan. And, of course, Crash over Brokeback Mountain.1Let me be clear that I am NOT commenting specifically on this year's Oscar race because I haven't seen enough movies this year to make an informed opinion. But generally speaking, I don't believe that a movie's enjoyability has to be inversely proportional to its substance, its cultural significance, its overall resonance. For a lot of movies that IS the case, but I don't believe it's a requirement.
12 Years' problem isn't subject matter, it's tone. The Academy gave Django Unchained a Best Picture nod and awarded it the Original Screenplay prize last year, but that film was a revenge-fantasy lark, not a grim social indictment. Brokeback, similarly, didn't lose because of homophobia in 2006: Ang Lee won in the directing category, and the Academy has long been receptive to films with gay themes2 [...] Voters were simply split between two movies they loved, and the balance tilted toward the one that was reassuring rather than challenging. Unfortunately, there's nothing noble about that.
Crash is a terrible movie because it thinks it's more substantial than it really is.3 It tries so hard to be a "grim social indictment," but apart from the One Good Scene, it comes across as pretentious and silly at best.
Brenzican seems to be saying that a darker tone and more disturbing subject matter automatically equate to "better film," but I don't think that's necessarily true at all. Take Little Miss Sunshine, for example: a film with decidedly disturbing events made all the more disconcerting BECAUSE the overall tone is so lighthearted and humorous.
Or let's apply Brenzican's logic to literature for a moment. If "a grim social indictment" that is more "challenging" automatically equates to "better," then J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy is a better book than the entire Harry Potter series combined. Now, I'm not saying there are no scholars out there willing to make that case, but I think it would be an EXTREMELY controversial thesis in academia. There's a whole paper there just waiting to be written, but for my purposes here I will merely paraphrase Dumbledore and say this: that which certain critics do not understand--fantasy, children's tales, love, loyalty, and innocence--they take no trouble to comprehend, and the very qualities they dismiss in Harry Potter are the very things that make it a deeper, more resonant, and ultimately better narrative than The Casual Vacancy.
Somewhere along the line, our culture started conflating the words "realism" and "cynicism," so that those of us to don't buy into a cynical worldview tend to be looked down upon with either smug indulgence or undisguised contempt. Brenzican implies that the darker and more grim a story is, the more challenging it is. This is a perfectly valid viewpoint, but that doesn't mean that it's the ONLY valid viewpoint. I'm reminded of something that Tim Robbins once said about The Shawshank Redemption,4 considered by many (including myself) to be the greatest film of all time: "It's very easy to make a film saying everything's screwed up; very difficult to make a movie about hope and [genuine] human emotion, that has a long-term goal, that has humanity behind it and not nihilism." Robbins seems to be talking about a challenge for the filmmakers, whereas Brenzican seems to be talking about a challenge for the audience. Nevertheless, in a world where "idealistic" is increasingly regarded as synonymous with "delusional," I believe a film that dares to offer a substantial vision of hope presents its own unique challenge.
1 Please note that, apart from Brokeback Mountain versus Crash, Brenzican's views here do not necessarily reflect my own. I love The King's Speech, and I really like Shakespeare in Love. Please also bear in mind that my horse in the 1998 Oscar race against Shakespeare in Love was Life Is Beautiful, which was much criticized at the time for being too "warm and fuzzy" for a movie set during the Holocaust.
2 Yeah, so long as one of the characters dies.[/sardonic mode]
3 Or, to paraphrase the tagline, it thinks it knows what it is, but it has no idea.
4 Arguably another example of a more powerful and challenging film being beaten to the Best Picture prize by a warmer, fuzzier rival in Forrest Gump. With that said, some critics maintain that BOTH Gump and Shawshank were warmer and fuzzier rivals to Pulp Fiction, but because I've never seen PF (nor do I ever intend to), I'm not qualified to make that judgment.