More musings about the Oscars and the Wallflower Syndrome

… Certain films have dibs on the center of the lunchroom and get to stay
there unless something horrible knocks them out of favor, while others,
no matter how much they have to offer, nurse their peanut butter and
jelly on the outskirts, wondering if they’ll ever be hip enough to be
noticed. …

For print Variety, I wrote a column on what I called the Wallflower Syndrome, which could be summarized in the sentence above (but I certainly hope you’ll click over to read the entire piece). The column features “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” prominently, though the point is not to spotlight that film above all others, but rather just make the case that films be judged less on their pedigree and their loglines and more on their merits.

Each year, I keep a running tally of my favorite films. “Favorite” is underlined and used rather than “best,” because I don’t think there’s any objective way to determine what the “best” film is — you can only decide what film has meant the most to you.  At the end of the season I’ll reveal the list, but right now, I’ll just say that of the top 10 films, only three have a prayer of earning an Oscar best picture nomination, and only one, “Argo,”  would be considered a lock. And as much as I truly enjoyed “Argo,” from start to finish, I’m not sure it will be in my top 10 by the time the year ends.

That speaks to my idiosyncracies as much as anything, but also to my belief that some low-key films speak powerfully to an audience in a way that more obviously ambitious movies often fail to do. Ambition is usually thought of in visual terms in Hollywood: special effects, costumes, the logistical challenges of the filmmaking, but I’m still not convinced that any production ambition is more important than a script that strives to make sense of life, even if that script is largely set in a few rooms here and there.

At the end of the day, neither massive scope nor dazzling images will make a great movie if there isn’t a quality script to back it up, but a great story can blow you away no matter where it takes place. I truly consider “A Late Quartet” (shown in the trailer above) to be one of the most ambitious films of the year, and there’s nothing spectacular in its presentation at all.

Obviously, any film that combines grand, ambitious success in the writing as well as the production deserves to take its place among the best films of the year. Film is a visual medium.  But when it comes time for the Academy voters to find as many as 10 best picture nominees, my concern is that they err toward the films that look like best picture nominees but have a more hollow center rather than films that are low-concept but actually offer true excellence.

In short, my concern is that voters find some films too small to even be considered. And that should never be.

Believe me, from the moment I started writing about the Wallflower Syndrome, I fretted over the level of naivete it might seem to convey. In fact, I get how the system works, why some films have a head start, why some films have a campaign advantage. I also understand that some small films overcome the hurdles and make it through. But I think it’s worth stopping from time to time and reminding ourselves that every film deserves to be judged as a potential award winner, that no matter where you end your evaluations, you should start them from the same place. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and you shouldn’t judge a movie by its gloss.

Below: The Variety Studio session from Toronto with “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”

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