Behind-the-scenes jockeying and the irrational whims of senior citizens and rich Europeans aside, though, the worst thing about awards season is the way it convinces us that there can and should be only one best film of any given year. Unfortunately, art doesn’t always work like that. Filmmaking isn’t a competitive sport.
Confession: I can’t tell you what I thought was the “best” film of 2014. Until late December, for me, it was between Boyhood, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, and — here’s the pick that will in all likelihood cause many of you to stop reading immediately — Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Then I saw Selma and was struck by the absurdity of comparing an emotional story about real historical events (and the real, related wounds that persist into the present) to a philosophical art film, a philosophical sex film, and an experiment in capturing 12 years of a full cast’s life. Instead of forcing myself to decide whether I thought Selma was “better” or “worse” than any of my three previous favorites, I finally (although not for the first time) gave up on the whole idea of ranking movies that have nothing to do with each other.
I respect critics who are better at ranking than I am, and I understand that for many it’s a necessary evil in which I’m privileged to participate only to the extent that I want to. But I don’t believe that my disinclination to “choose” between four great movies makes my perspective on them any weaker. For me, it’s enough to know that I love each of those films because they challenged and enriched me — because each made me see questions of politics and art and morality and what makes a good life in a new light.
I think Boyhood deserved to win Best Picture last night. I think Selma deserved to win Best Picture, too. I don’t think we have anything to gain by denigrating one in order to celebrate the other. My hope is, instead, that the awards-season attention afforded to both films encourages more people to see them. That is, after all, the best part — the only good part, really — of this entire annual song and dance.