In his culture column this week, Brent Bozell explored how the Academy Awards have trended dramatically toward nasty art films that are not embraced by the masses. This is quite a contrast to a new anti-Oscar of sorts: the Dove Crystal Seal, issued by the Dove Foundation, which awards movies for being family-friendly. Brent notes that the standards are different, that a film can be a great artistic achievement and not be good for children, but the Oscars used to go to family films at times, and that's not so true now.
The first Dove Crystal Seals were awarded to hit movies like Disney's "Ratatouille," "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," and "The Game Plan" with the Rock, as well as Walden's religious picture "Amazing Grace." Brent found that inspirational subject matter makes the nation's film-critic tastemakers choke and say "ugh, Hallmark." For example:
Rounding out the winners was the Best Limited Release, "The Ultimate Gift," a Fox Faith film. Never heard of it? It featured some major stars – James Garner, Brian Dennehy, and new young Oscar-nominated star Abigail Breslin. Garner’s character leaves his spoiled grandson an inheritance – but only if he performs 12 character-building tasks.
So why might you have missed it? Because if a film gets tagged as "inspirational," watch out. Film critics will drop bombs.
It was panned by the Los Angeles Times, because it teeters on its "treacly good intentions and simplistic parable-like storytelling." Or the New York Times: "Reeking of self-righteousness and moral reprimand...a hairball of good-for-you filmmaking." Then there’s the simply mocking and nasty approach, from Entertainment Weekly: "Kind of like a feel-good ‘Saw’ for churchgoers, minus the sadistic games of death."
Not everyone was so enlightened. One of the nicer reviews came from Variety, which correctly tagged the rest of the film reviewers as cynics: "Although cynics likely will reject The Ultimate Gift as warmed-over Capra-corn, this predictable but pleasant drama based on Jim Stovall's popular novel may be prized by those with a taste for inspirational uplift and heart-tugging sentiment."
Snarky film reviewers tend to look down their noses at "those with a taste" for positive films, as if they’re a tiny market of weirdos. Except the market is screaming for that which Dove honors. As the Dove Foundation notes, its award-winners grossed $536 million at the box office, compared to just $295 million for Oscar’s Best Picture nominees.
Oscar voters will argue, correctly, that they bestow awards for artistic merit, not "inspirational uplift." But what the Oscars honor these days is usually a list of dark, arty, "edgy" films. They’re like the anti-Doves. They’re for unsentimental, depressing downdraft.
The exception this year is "Juno," which is the best-grossing movie, and which is inspirational in its own teen-slacker way, even if it’s still a cheaply made art film. Everything else on the list limped at the box office, films full of paranoia, ultra-violence, and in "There Will Be Blood," virulent religion-bashing.
The Oscars used to be populist. Now they’re elitist – in the worst definition of the term. Its nominations not only reject the major studio system, they’ve even trended against American-born actors. Nine of this year’s twenty acting nominations went to Brits, Australians, and the French lady playing the singer Edith Piaf.
The elitists are right that they shouldn’t pick Best Pictures based on their box-office numbers. But the Dove awards nudge us to remember that the Oscars used to award films with both artistic merit and strong audience appeal. The films that audiences love the most, movies that quickly become "classics," are today often skipped by Oscar snobs.
Even film critics know the score. Time critic Richard Corliss wrote an interesting piece a few weeks ago that suggested there’s a very good reason why the ratings numbers on the Oscar telecast have been slumping. He noted that in the old days, the Best Picture prize went to box-office hits – "Casablanca,"" “The Bridge on the River Kwai," or "The Sound of Music." The mass audience had seen these movies, and they paid attention to the Oscars as they codified those hits as classics. Now when the nominations come out, the process is backwards. Some people go see the films and play catch-up after the Oscar nominations are announced. But "it's almost like homework," Corliss wrote.
The Oscar crowd might be better off doing its own “homework” by seeing the Dove-winning films they missed.
In another piece, Corliss is more brutal: "The Oscars are largely an affirmative action program, where the industry scratches its niche."