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A question of taste

Movies | The Hollywood awards season is useful first and foremost as a gauge of what the industry thinks is important

Issue: "Tighter lips?," Feb. 18, 2006

Hollywood's problems at the box office last year may come down not so much to quality (or the lack thereof), as many have supposed, but to taste. There are plenty of talented craftsman in Hollywood, but-and this will come as no surprise-the prevailing tastes in Hollywood may not match those of the general movie-going public.

Just look at the films that people actually went to see last year, and compare that list to what Hollywood is now recognizing as 2005's best.

The 15 top-grossing films released in 2005, in descending order, were: Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; War of the Worlds; King Kong; Wedding Crashers; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Batman Begins; Madagascar; Mr. & Mrs. Smith; Hitch; The Longest Yard; Fantastic Four; Chicken Little; and Robots.

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Good or bad, these are the movies that Americans were watching last year. They're mostly family-oriented films, with only one R-rated movie, Wedding Crashers, making the list.

Now, compare that list to the films that the industry itself has chosen to honor as the year's best. You won't find many of them above. The recently announced Academy Award nominations were the culmination of a month-long awards rush that heaped praise on the likes of Brokeback Mountain; Syriana; Good Night, and Good Luck.; The Constant Gardener; A History of Violence; Transamerica; and Munich.

The five Academy Award best picture nominees-Brokeback, Capote, Crash, Good Night, and Munich-reach a combined U.S. box-office total of just over half of what 2005's top-grossing film, Star Wars, raked in. None of them makes it into the top-40 grossing films of the year.

Biggest doesn't necessarily mean best-the films that made the most money often don't meet the highest artistic standards. No one, for instance, is going to argue that Adam Sandler's The Longest Yard was unjustly shut out of Oscar competition, or that it somehow artistically trumps serious efforts from legendary talents like Steven Spielberg or Ang Lee.

But in this year of noticeable box-office lows-the third consecutive year in which the number of times Americans visited movie theaters declined ("Exit signs," July 23, 2005)-the stark box office versus back office divide is telling.

The Hollywood awards season is useful first and foremost not as a gauge of what is truly awards-worthy, in some sort of objective sense, but as a gauge of what the industry thinks is important. These are the stories that make film industry executives, usually concerned first and foremost about the bottom line, feel good about themselves. And this year, these stories are remarkably consistent. By and large, they are cynical, liberal, and generally unpleasant-and they're not going to appeal to most family audiences.

Sure, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe picked up three nominations in technical categories, and the Johnny Cash bio Walk the Line picked up a couple of acting nominations for its stars, but the films that are really generating buzz reflect a sensibility that's far outside of the American mainstream.

Subverting an iconic American film genre (as does Brokeback's gay Western) or implicating U.S. corporations and the CIA in nearly all of the problems in the Middle East (as does Syriana) or presupposing that the current political climate is somehow akin to McCarthyism (as does Good Night, and Good Luck.)-these are understood as acts of bravery in Hollywood, and, come Oscar time, the industry is eager to reward such courage.

Although it's always easy to complain about the diminishing quality of films as another year rolls by, it seems that the biggest challenge for Hollywood is not that the dream factory has somehow lost the ability to tell a good story, but that these are the sorts of stories that its finest craftsmen are eager to tell.

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