I picked up the book "Inside Oscar" at the New York Public Library last week. It's about 1,000 pages long and goes into every single year of the Oscars (from the very first one in the late '20s to 1994) covering the movies that were released, what people thought of them, what precursor awards the movie won, and then, ultimately, it talks about the academy and the Oscar show itself. I've learned a lot from this book so far and it has really started to inform me regarding this Oscar year. Basically, it has confirmed what I already knew which is, there's always politics involved with the Academy Awards... even from the first few years of its existence. The other thing I've gotten from the book is just how often some critics get movies wrong.
By that I mean, films like Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Psycho, 2001, Raging Bull, Blue Velvet... they all had as many detractors as they had people who were championing these films. Every film comes with a couple of detractors. There are very few films that come out that are able to get as universal of praise as The Godfather movies or Casablanca or Gone With the Wind... it takes time for films the ones I mentioned in the top of paragraph to earn the universal praise that it deserves. A film like The Tree of Life is already getting that type of treatment. It got glowing reviews from a select few when it came out, won the Palme D'or, but there are plenty of detractors of that film. Some who really, really dislike it. Some who scoff at Terrence Malick's style. When the Sight and Sound poll came out this year, The Tree of Life was one of the only movies cited from the past few years to be mentioned on some critics' "best of all-time" list. Best of all-time? Already? And that's just a year after it came out, what will people be saying five years from now? Ten?
Great films tend to get a good amount of praise. The Social Network got as close to universal praise as a movie can get in this day and age. The praise was so universal that some people who initially gave the film a glowing review starting looking for the flaws. And yes, if you really wanted to, you can look for flaws in the movie like with any other movie, I guess some people feel that there has to be some amount of balance between positive and negative.
But when you know that a film coming out, like The Tree of Life or like this year's The Master, is going to have its fair amount of detractors because they are divisive films, sites like Rottentomatoes or even metacritic are really sort of useless. I mean, nobody should ever take these websites too seriously in general, but when you know a movie may have mixed feelings and that it's going to take multiple viewings for someone to really understand and take to it, then reading a critic's first reaction ultimately means nothing.
It'd been said that Pauline Kael only ever saw movies one time. It's strange to think that someone could get everything from a movie after seeing it just once. The late Kael is now considered one of the most important American film critics of the last fifty years, but that's just ridiculous. A repeat viewing can not only enhance a film for someone, but it can also point out flaws that you didn't see before.
I know that I always have to take my own feelings and reactions towards a movie with a grain of salt. I often try to take a day before I do a write up on a film. I'd love to be able to see a movie twice before I start writing about it, but who has the time and money for that? The most important thing to me is being able to acknowledge that more viewings are needed.
Going back to the book I'm reading, this type of reaction to movies is also what drives the mentality of the Academy Awards. The Academy Awards are very much driven by people's first reactions towards movies. Some Academy members might watch a movie more than once, but not ALL the movies that are nominated. Especially if one of the movies provoked a strong reaction from them that they didn't like. It's sad to think that the people voting in the year's most prestigious awards don't really give their voting much thought. But why else would films like The King's Speech or Chicago or Crash wind up winning Best Picture? Because it elicited strong positive feelings the first time they watched it. It made them feel good, even a movie like Crash. It's so rare for a movie to come out and everyone automatically recognizes it as a masterpiece. Even then, it has to make them feel kinda good. The Social Network might have had that kind of praise from the critics, but is it a feel-good movie? No, not really. It followed the lead of such zeitgeist movies as All the President's Men and Network... did those movies win Best Picture? Nope.
Really the only time a feel-bad movie wins best picture is when the critics think the filmmaker involved is way overdue. The Departed has the Scorsese factor, No Country for Old Men had the Coen Bros factor (and all the '07 movies nominated were pretty much downers, except Juno which was too light to have a chance at winning best picture). The Hurt Locker had the Kathryn Bigelow factor. A filmmaker deserving to win an Oscar sometimes trumps that feel-good movie. That'll probably be the only way a movie by David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, or perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson will wind up winning the top prize. I'd hate to think they'd have to wait until they're in the late 50s/early 60s, but that's starting to look abundantly clear.
So if a movie you're highly anticipating is getting RT or metacritic scores that are lower than what you expected or if it winds up losing in the Academy Awards... don't fret. If the movie you like is actually good enough, people will come around to it eventually. If it's not, then start a cult following.