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Movie Madness

This time of year, the fever pitch of movie hype does a disservice to both filmmaker and moviegoer, making it difficult to tell which films are fulfilling and which are fluff. Isn't it time to rethink the awards system?
 
 
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We're in the midst of movie madness, a time period that begins in early December with the avalanche release of the "big films" that are considered so-called "Oscar-bait." This year Miramax accelerated the trend, dumping a half dozen films onto the market in December, including "Chicago" and "Gangs of New York."

The prevailing theory is that the film last seen has the best chance to lodge itself in the pleasure memory of the voters and film critics. So an array of films are released in the waning minutes of 2002, sometimes only in Los Angeles and New York, in order to qualify for the Golden Globes (Jan 19) and the Academy Awards (nominations Feb. 11; awards March 23).

Most moviegoers, of course, like you and me, can't possibly keep up with the full-time film critics, who have seen everything by the end of the year. Most of us are lucky if we see a majority of the films on our "must see" list" before March, and certainly not before the super-early Golden Globes.

The rules in this great annual epic movie battle are not remotely fair. There is a giant pecking order in which films ranging from "Spider Man" -- the year's top grossing film, making $404 million (fifth of all time) -- compete for honors with the most modest independent that has to scramble for a commercial run somewhere.

But despite the bigfoot efforts by entertainment corporations like Disney/Miramax and SONY to pump tens of millions of marketing dollars on top of films that already cost well over $100 million, anything is still possible. Witness the inexplicable success of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which was made for $5 million and grossed more than $218 million, making it #5 overall in take for 2002 -- all based primarily on word of mouth.

Another phenomenon is Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," a hugely discussed film that has set the new all-time box office record for a documentary and made the 10 best lists of more than 100 film critics.

On a smaller scale is the German documentary, "Rivers & Tides," about the great Scottish environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy. This film's long run is credited with keeping open for business the Roxie, a legendary San Francisco Mission district theater.

Then there's "Fast Runner," which Tom Luddy, the benevolent tsar of the Telluride Film Festival, considers "the biggest miracle of 2002 ... a film made by Inuits, about Inuits in Inuit, has brought in $4 million dollars."

This year is particularly exciting, because despite the chronic chattering of the naysayers, many entertaining, thoughtful and challenging films were made -- so many that there is no consensus yet as to which are the best pictures or performances, and the media mythmaking machine, designed to create horse races and winners and losers as fast as possible, is stalled in debate.

Movies are great cultural levelers -- they offer people a common ground where the elite and vox populi, the huge commercial forces and the scrappy independents, can duke it out for word of mouth, bragging rights and market share in the ongoing debate about what is a great movie and what performances knock your socks off.

Buried in the hoopla and hype, however, is a fundamental weakness in Hollywood's traditional system of evaluating and giving awards to movies. The obsessive focus on the "best" movie and the superlative star often create an all or nothing situation -- a powerful version of the winner-take-all syndrome that so dominates and weakens the American character. This comes at the expense of more diverse choices and a more democratic marketplace where movie marketers would be encouraged to spread around their money more like manure, as Jim Hightower would say.

Interestingly, while the movie hype is at fever pitch, the nominees for the Grammy awards were announced on Jan. 8. The contrast of the Grammies with the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and dozens of less visible choices by critics is truly striking. Grammy Awards are given for a whole host of musical genres, including pop, R&B, gospel, bluegrass, new age, urban alternative, country, jazz, folk classic, salsa, merenque Mexican, Native American and so forth. Out of this eclectic mixture emerges nominees for a record, album and song of the year, top females and male performers, and new artists.

Wouldn't it be more interesting if films competed for awards in different categories that helped viewers understand what they were about? There could be categories for historical films: "The Gangs of New York" vs. "The Road to Perdition" or "Bloody Sunday"; and for political films: "Rabbit Proof Fence" could compete with "The Quiet American" and "The Trials Of Henry Kissinger." Categories could include film noir, western and comedy, with "Catch Me if You Can," competing with Spike Jonze's "Adaptation," "Roger Dodger" and "Kissing Jessica Stein."

What about categories that provided a more fair competition? Consider a category for best film made for under $5 million, in which "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" could compete with "Bowling For Columbine."

More interesting might be "feeling" categories such as Most Inspiring Film: "The Piano Player" vs. "The War Photographer"; or, Film that Most Changed Your Mind About a Topic: "Real Women Have Curves" vs. "Minority Report." Or how about Sexiest Film? Imagine "Y Tu Mama Tambien" vying for an award against "Secretary," "Frida" and "Unfaithful" (ignoring the ending)? Or simply a competition among films with fine character studies, like John Sayles' "Sunshine State," "About Schmidt," "One Hour Photo" and "The Hours," adapted from Michael Cunningham's novel.

We'd like to see this kind of creative appreciation of the complexity and diversity of contemporary filmmaking. It would lead more people to see more movies, and make the awards bequeathed on them more meaningful for everyone -- audiences and actors alike.

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.