The Oscars sure have come in for some stick in recent times. Chiefly this is because, for a while there, they seemed determined to give the Best Picture statuette to films that not a single card carrying member of the human race watched, much less remembered, much less enjoyed or talked about more than three minutes after the credits rolled.
This reached a nadir in 2022 when… well, what even was Coda? Or The Power Of The Dog? Or Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story? Out of professional obligation, I sat through all of the above. Now? I couldn’t tell you one scene or bit of dialogue or character trait or outfit or anything about any of them if you offered me a role in the next Scorsese movie.
Things improved a little bit last year when they at least shortlisted Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way Of The Water. Even if – like Barbie this year – these were patently just “thanks for keeping our industry afloat by actually selling some tickets” nominations. Do you think the not-so-golden oldies who (still) largely make up the voting panel enjoyed Barbie’s entry-level feministing? I doubt most of them even watched it.
There are now three types of films. Heavily promoted, big, fan service blockbuster films. Heavily promoted, tiny, please-can-I-have-an-Oscar films. And then just a tsunami of actually watchable mid-budget stuff which disappears without a trace within minutes of being released. Quentin Tarantino put it best when he said that these movies “don’t exist in the zeitgeist. It’s almost like they don’t even exist.”
Which brings me, somewhat long-windedly, to Saltburn, a film that I personally thought was very, very terrible, but which has managed something almost impossible for films in the latter category to achieve and much, much more important than selling tickets. Namely: actually becoming part of the zeitgeist that Tarantino was talking about.
That surely is what movie making is ultimately for: to ignite conversation and incite debate and be endlessly discussed for weeks, months, years after being released. This is what Hollywood should be striving for. This is what matters.
Saltburn has unquestionably pulled off this feat and should be acknowledged for it. And please: don’t give me any of this crap about “technical excellence” or whatever. The late, great William Goldman famously said that “nobody knows anything” when it comes to movie making, and the same is even more true when it comes to judging movies by such criteria.
I write about films all the time in an allegedly professional capacity and I have no idea, really, what constitutes good cinematography or whatever. Neither do you. Neither do the people who vote for the Oscars.
Films should be endlessly discussed for weeks, months, years after being released. Saltburn has done this.
A film either connects with you or it does not. Bad filmmaking can be good filmmaking, and vice versa. Go and look up how many Academy Awards your favourite-ever film won. I can almost guarantee that it is zero. Go and see which films were nominated that year, and how many of them you have seen or ever heard anyone talk about. I can almost guarantee that it is zero.
How you correct the status quo of the voting system – beyond involving some people under 70 without penises – I do not know. But it needs be done, quickly, if Hollywood wants to retain any semblance of relevance. And even if it does mean giving awards to Saltburn.