With the Academy Awards coming up this weekend to round off a bustling awards season, film circles are abuzz with predictions, gossip, and all-around anticipation, particularly in terms of the central, more glamorous categories and nominations. Nevertheless, this year has seen a relatively predictable candidate list and an all-too-familiar return to Hollywood politics that somewhat dulls the Oscar’s ability to truly represent the best of film in its annual selection. In light of this, it might be worth taking a second look at categories that are often bypassed or buried under the usual suspects; it is often within these less exhibitionist categories that we find some of the most innovative and thought-provoking work of the year.
Best Animated/Live Action/Documentary Short Films
It astounds me every year how many film students in particular aren’t familiar with the Oscar short film nominees and aren’t versed in who has stood out in this realm. Granted, getting ahold of quality short films can be difficult, if not impossible, outside of festival circuits and there isn’t a concrete distribution system set up for shorts (which is in itself extremely problematic). Nevertheless, especially for those embroiled in making short films, seeing other people’s shorts seems like it should be a natural step that is all too often overlooked. The Oscars are useful in these terms to point to well-crafted short filmmaking and to emerging filmmakers’ voices. Though the correlation between developing a short into a feature is perhaps stronger in certain festivals (such as Sundance, which heavily encourages filmmakers to seek out its directing and screenwriting labs) than in any Oscar winners, shorts are often where one finds some of the most innovative and surprising works of the year. Ultimately, the category condenses filmmaking at its best.
Best Musical Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing
Even more baffling than the above is how such an essential part of films often gets bypassed in the excitement and glamour of the other, more visual categories. Ditto for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, which are two completely different competing categories that are often mistakenly equated. All three involve a myriad of talents that aren’t recognized or acknowledged enough; composers and sound designers rarely procure the same credits as directors, producers, or even cinematographers, yet they are enormously responsible for setting the right tone for any given film and for concretizing the director’s vision by shaping the film’s atmosphere. Even silent films were never truly silent, as live music and sound played crucial roles before synch sound was ever considered a possibility. Therefore it seems like a strange mishap that so much of sound’s influence is skimmed over in the Academy Awards.
Best Foreign Film
Understandably, it can be a lot more difficult to get your hands on the foreign nominees; between limited release schedules and subtitling, movie-goers can easily draw on excuses for why they weren’t able to dedicate much attention to the foreign film nominees. But this category often presents some of the most boundary-pushing and inspiring work in order to truly capture the Academy’s attention. Additionally, the process whereby each country submits certain films for consideration is fascinating in itself, and can reveal all sorts of politics and cultural values. Foreign nominations can have a surprising amount of influence on international perspectives about each respective country – as I learned the hard way after being asked countless times about how realistic “City of God” is or isn’t in terms of its depiction of Brazil. And finally, the foreign film category is one of the most interesting in terms of its growth and development; from being non-existent to executing crossovers into Best Picture territory (as occurred last year with Michael Haneke’s “Amour”), the category has proved malleable and an intriguing indicator of potential changes in the Academy. Though there is much work to be done yet (the lack of acting nominations for “Blue is the Warmest Colour” stars Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos is perhaps the best example), the category always has the potential to deliver some truly extraordinary films.