Why “The Departed” Was Not the Best Picture

Jason Gutierrez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Academy voters saw The Departed as fit to win its top prize this year, despite the fact that they had nominated two films (Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima and Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu’s Babel) that were more ambitious, better-acted, better-directed and more meaningful than The Departed ever hoped to be. This is emblematic of a growing problem with the Academy Awards. The easy choice wins. The Academy rarely nominates and never selects as Best Picture those films that push the medium of film into uncomfortable, confusing, or innovative areas. It explains the horrifying absence of Todd Field’s Little Children, Paul Greengrass’ United 93, and David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE.

There is something wrong with the Academy Awards. I know that it’s almost May and the Academy Awards happened two months ago, but the recent horde of releases that have “Nominated: Best Picture” emblazoned on their covers has made me think about these awards we call Oscars.

It got to me for several reasons, my belief that it wasn’t actually the best picture being paramount among them. The ending of the film, specifically, is what threw the entire film off. I don’t have a problem with Leonardo DiCaprio getting killed, or really any of the violence that takes over the last third of the picture. What bothers me is the way that it was done. The introduction of a second rat in the police department at the end felt like a deus ex machina.

I have been told by a friend whose film opinion I have a great deal of respect for that I’m not looking at the end of the film correctly. It’s a tragedy, or so he says. I simply can’t buy into that. In order for it to feel like a tragedy you have to care, at least a little, for the characters that meet their downfall by the time the curtains close. But Scorsese, for whatever reason, prefers to remain cold, with his camera keeping a perplexing distance from the characters. We don’t move in close to feel the paranoia and loss of identity that comes with being a rat in a crime organization, or a mole in the police department. So, when these characters reach their demise, the audience doesn’t have a single iota of feeling for them, because we weren’t given the opportunity to connect. So, when the deaths came, I found myself asking, “So what?” I wanted to mourn for these characters, not shrug my shoulders as I left the theater. The film had potential (not to mention some good qualities) but Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan missed the point of the original film Infernal Affairs; dying is easy, it’s living with yourself after you’ve done a horrible thing that is hard.

The Academy has a unique opportunity to promote pictures that run against the grain of typical Hollywood studio output. For every picture like United 93 (the picture that, truly, was the best picture made last year) that is made, there are five movies starring Nicolas Cage (and I am not even making that up, there will be five movies that have Nicolas Cage in them released in 2007). Yet the help of the Academy in gaining exposure is invaluable to a small picture. American Beauty (winner of Best Picture in 2000), for example, saw its profits flat line when its nomination was announced, only to make nearly sixty million dollars in the month and a half before the ceremony.

The problem is twofold: on the one hand the Academy rewards track records, stars, and major releases before it honors unknown actors, independent features, and controversial material. This leads to the second problem, which is that the major studios then take the money and prestige that comes as a result of these wins and pump it back into producing the disposable, uninteresting, shitty pictures that fill up the Cineplex during the summer.

Am I advocating the awarding of Best Picture to only independent films? No. What I am advocating is that the Academy actually give the award to the best picture in a given year, not what is easy to give awards to because of its star, director, or production company. The problem with a B-picture like The Departed winning is that it sets the already pretty low bar of Best Picture (Chicago? The bar doesn’t get a whole lot lower than that) even lower. When they recognize a picture that appeals to the broadest possible audience, they aren’t promoting good filmmaking, but are encouraging a studio system that stifles creativity and values money above innovation.

For a counterpoint: Why ‘The Departed’ Was Indeed the Best Picture

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