Why Are Critics’ Favorites and Awards Favorites So Rarely The Same Movies?

By  · Published on May 24th, 2016

Exploring the divide between festival audiences and festival critics and festival judges: a dangerous threeway.

With Cannes now concluded for another year, a variation on a familiar question arose over the festival jury’s distribution of its awards. The specific films involved here aren’t the point, and I haven’t seen any of them yet because I’m allergic to yachts, toplessness, and money. The point, as more than a few people noted upon hearing what movie won which award, is that there was an even greater split than normal between critics’ favorites and eventual victors. This happens often enough with awards – except those given by critics themselves – that there’s an apparent sizable divide between “critics’ favorites” and “awards favorites.” Sure, taste varies. But why? In this case, I think it’s because critics and, for lack of a better phrase, “normal” people watch movies in a fundamentally different way.

This is not just “critics pay more attention,” because that wouldn’t be a fundamental difference. Not to mention it’s an overly flattering assessment to critics. We may know a lot about movies, but our way of watching is not inherently superior. The way critics watch movies – ideally, obviously, as there are plenty of critics who either cut corners or simply aren’t up to the task – is to assess each movie on its own formal merits, as well as within the context of the history of cinema, the given genre, the filmmakers’ previous work, the universe in which the movie exists (the rules that govern which depend on whether that universe is its own created one or our own), and what its purpose is. There are other factors, too, but listing them in total would be to list the world. The point is that criticism, done properly, is a bit to reckon with. And, again with the proviso that it’s done properly, the critical view takes a great deal more of the technical side of filmmaking into account. Expertise levels limit how deep some of us can get in this realm, but any professional critic should be able to at least discuss composition, staging, cutting and the like in broad terms. Whether or not all of this litany comes into play when crafting a take on a given film, people who spend their lives learning about, watching, and assessing movies are consciously bringing their particular wealth of knowledge to account.

Stressing “consciously,” the way of approaching movies that pervades among awards voters and, indeed, a great many filmmakers, is at once simpler and unfathomably complex. Strict rationalists would have you believe that operating “from the gut” or however one wants to phrase it is an inferior way of doing things, but rationalists are also in a fair degree of denial with regards to the infallibility of reason. At some point, however rigorous and grounded in expertise one’s take on a movie (or anything) is, there is at least some blurring of the line between simply liking what one likes. None of this is meant to imply a fuzzier or less tangible grasp on the medium; indeed filmmakers and industry professionals are far more equipped to discuss how something is done than a lot of critics are. What it does mean is that making stuff and assessing stuff are two different skill sets, with some but not total overlap. Making stuff, in the creative realm, often consists of relying on impulse and instinct. This same instinct guides taste. Thus, coming from this angle can lead, in the main, to a less academic sense of film and movies.

These are generalities, and the first way of thinking is not meant to apply to all critics, just as the second doesn’t hold for all non-critics. The intent is more to sketch out, broadly, the kind of thinking that leads to valuing certain kinds of movies over certain others. The (idealized) critic above is the type who’s going to get excited about a favorite auteur’s new film at Cannes, tout experimental work outside of the mainstream, value form in the abstract, that kind of thing. The non-critic, as described, is more likely to overlook by-the-numbers filmmaking in favor of virtuoso acting, or a well-written story, or interesting subject matter. The kinds of movies that win lots of awards tend to be driven more by acting, writing, or subject, which means only that festival juries and Oscar voters tend not to be film critics.

Read More: Cannes 2016 Coverage

I’ll admit that my own sympathies in this debate are with the weird auteurs. My personal best-of lists every year since I’ve been a Guy On The Internet Who Writes About Movies overlap very little with Palme winners and not at all with the Oscars. I care deeply about acting and writing, and would even if I weren’t an actor and a writer, but do not watch scripted theatrical features to learn about a subject, and don’t particularly care that a movie is about something “important” if it’s badly or blandly made. As for awards, I’ve long since learned to not expect my favorite movies to win very many of them, even if rooting for eligible favorites is inevitable. Even though it’s not terribly fashionable these days, I do like to make an effort to understand and respect ways of thinking that differ from mine, though. Who knows, maybe some good will come of it.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all