Nomination day is usually a time to kick the Oscars around the gutter of shame. Oh, they’re so conservative. Oh, they favour films about themselves. Oh, they refuse to nominate anything released before October.
Much of this is still true. But we should also acknowledge the improvements that have taken place. Cast your minds back to the 1980s and the 1990s. Following the decline of post-classical Hollywood – the 1970s movement that gave us best pictures such as The French Connection, The Godfather and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – the Academy settled into the most tedious rut of its messy history. Mark Harris’s great book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood details how the 1967 Oscars became a battle between the new guns and the boring old guard. In one corner we had the violent Bonnie and Clyde. In the other squatted the fatty Doctor Doolittle. The skirmishes raged throughout the following decade. Midnight Cowboy became the first ever R-rated winner. The old-school The Sting beat The Exorcist.
By the Reagan era, however, we were confronted with an endless stream of dull, worthy winners that seemed to have been designed purely to win over older voters who wished that Easy Rider had never happened. Who now approaches Out of Africa, The Last Emperor or Driving Miss Daisy with any great enthusiasm? Ponder for a grim moment the nominees in 1990: Dances With Wolves, Awakenings, Ghost, The Godfather Part III, Goodfellas. Thanks heavens for that Martin Scorsese film. A year later, Barbra Streisand's notorious folly The Prince of Tides actually made it into the best picture race. And this was when there were only five nominees.
By way of contrast, the last decade has seen a succession of imaginative, off-centre nominees. It's easy to dismiss La La Land, which just received a record 14 nominations, as a feather-light entertainment that plays to Hollywood's own narcissism. The overabundance of nominations will kick up an inevitable backlash. But remember that Damien Chazelle's film is, in an era where such things are not deemed commercial, a rigorous tribute to the post-modern musical style perfected by the French director Jacques Demy. You didn't get that among the 1980s nominees.
The two films that have shadowed it throughout awards season, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, are both works of great imagination and daring. The Academy has never nominated a science fiction film as wilfully odd as Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. Not every film among the nine nominees is a classic, but none looks much like the cosy, bloated epics that dominated the field in the final decades of the 20th century. Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge comes closest, but the lunatic levels of violence in the last act put some distance between it and Driving Miss Daisy. (Even Gibson’s own Oscar-winning Braveheart seems sedate by comparison.) Recent winners such as 12 Years a Slave, The Hurt Locker and The Artist show an imaginative spread. Among winners in the last 10 years, only The King's Speech looks like a classic snoozy “Oscar movie”.
The reasons behind this shift are various. Expanding the nominees to 10 and then – for reasons still obscure – between five and 10 allowed wider scope. Introducing a system of preferential voting meant that big movies had less opportunity to boss the result.
But cinema has also changed. A two-tier system has emerged. The box office is dominated by a handful of franchise movies that are never likely to compete for Oscars. Grand bores like Out of Africa are no longer financially viable. So voters are forced to look at the wealth of innovative films that have descended from the 1990s boom in independent cinema. There are nine nominees. Not everybody will like every film. But all are all worth seeing. This was not always the case.
Give the Oscars a break.