I'll tread lightly here.
I'm one of those people who believes that a film's cultural impact can occasionally be taken into account when deciding whether to give it an Oscar. I'm not necessarily saying that the Academy Awards should be a popularity contest -- just that if it's obvious ahead of time that a certain movie's going to have a lasting legacy, that's worth at least considering during the Oscar voting process. The most glaring recent case in point: In 1998, Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan, the latter movie being not only a far better film but one that had a much more hefty impact on American culture. More than a decade later, which movie still sticks in your head?
Granted, I get that if you were to go strictly by contribution to the national zeitgeist, Avatar would be the one and only choice to get the top honor this year -- but let's face it, it's not a very good movie. Groundbreaking and an awesome visual experience, yes, but not a great film by any means. The Hurt Locker is without question the best movie I've seen over the last year, and it would be good to see Kathryn Bigelow get an award -- if for no other reason than how it cool it would be to be able to say, "From the Oscar-winning director of Point Break" -- and it's the current very slim favorite. But lately there's been a quiet tide turning in favor of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Gold Derby's Tom O'Neil -- who's not only a really good guy but who happens to be the only person who predicted that Crash would shock everyone, most of all fans of quality moviemaking, by winning Best Picture -- has gone on record as saying that Basterds will pull off the upset this year. But does it deserve it?
If you ask Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, the answer seems to be "yes."
In a move that feels more than a little predictable, Foxman has posted a piece over at HuffPo which tries to make the case that Basterds should get the film world's top honor simply because, from the way it sounds anyway, it's a really good movie about the Holocaust. Now I'm not sure whether Foxman is specifically saying that the film should win Best Picture or simply an Oscar in general, but what he's pretty clear about is that, like Life is Beautiful and Schindler's List before it -- both far superior films, by the way -- Basterds is inherently "good" because it serves to remind audiences of the atrocities of Nazi Germany. Obviously I would never belittle the Holocaust -- one of the single darkest periods in human history -- but as an argument this is kind of nonsense. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor himself, indirectly makes that point that Basterds serves a greater purpose because it brings the reality of Hitler's horrors to "a new audience," the younger generation.
But once again, does the movie deserve an Oscar simply for that reason?
There have been a lot of films made about murderous injustices that have been completely overlooked by the Academy, that is they weren't honored strictly because they told a story that needed to be told or made a point that needed to be made; just think of the number of movies dealing with slavery in America -- Amistad, Beloved, etc. -- that didn't win top Oscars. The reason they didn't, of course, is that they weren't terrific movies, and at its core -- all powerful messages and attempts at righting the wrongs of society through film aside -- that's what the Academy Awards are all about. Not every film that breaks new ground on land that's admittedly fertile deserves to be honored for it -- not even when that land calls to mind a tragedy that shouldn't be easily shrugged off. Hell, if we judge strictly on the moral of a story, who's to say that The Hurt Locker -- with its nightmarish look at war in the modern era -- isn't as powerful a film as Tarantino's World War II epic?
Inglourious Basterds is certainly a good movie, and with a surreal final act that includes -- spoiler alert -- the murder of Adolf Hitler, it's easy to see why the head of the Anti-Defamation League would get a visceral thrill out of the alternate history it concocts. But I'm just not sure it deserves an Oscar for Best Picture solely for its contribution to the pantheon of Holocaust films. (Best Original Screenplay for its sheer audacity might be a different story.)
Bottom line: A movie has to be much more than simply its message, no matter how passionately we might feel about that message.
Of course the real irony in all of this is that the guy who chews up the scenery as the deliciously menacing Nazi colonel -- Christoph Waltz -- is the one person from Inglourious Basterds guaranteed to walk away with an Oscar.