What does it mean to be ‘Best Picture’?

Best Picture
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“Best Picture.”

Throughout the years, the name of the award has changed, from “Outstanding Picture” to “Outstanding Production” to “Outstanding Motion Picture” to “Best Motion Picture” to what we have today. Until 1951, the award was given to the production company. Since then, it’s been awarded to the producers.

One of the direct parallels that many draw in regard to the Academy Award for Best Picture is to the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture, which is also given to producers. But that prize, nominated and awarded by only producers, is distinctly about producing. That quality doesn’t necessarily carry over to the academy’s Best Picture award — case in point, “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins was the focus of the film’s (unfortunately short) acceptance of Best Picture. The Oscar for Best Picture feels bigger than just the producers  — than even the producers and the director too.

Essentially, “Best Picture” is a massive concept that is not properly captured by the rules and logistics in place because it transcends them. The award may be for the “best picture” of that year, but it also transcends just that year as a representation of it for the future.

That’s why we so often heatedly discuss “wrong” Best Picture winners, or the “true best picture” that wasn’t even nominated. The win by “Argo” is seen as one of many examples of the former, while Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” has become the epitome of the latter for many. Many are already suggesting that this year’s winner, “The Shape of Water,” was a “safe choice” and that Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” will be the film that will stand out from the pack in 20 years’ time.

In reality, there is no such thing as a “wrong” Best Picture winner, and yet, film fans ultimately want Best Picture winners to feel like the “right” representations of each year. But how do we decide on which film is the “right” one?

Sometimes, time suggests an answer. There are plenty of “Shakespeare In Love” enthusiasts, but Steven Spielberg’s landmark war film “Saving Private Ryan” has, as many would argue, clung to film lovers’ consciousnesses much more firmly. Other times, it’s the sheer force of masterful filmmaking or the widespread impact in popular culture that suggest that films such as “The Social Network” and “Inception” were more “worthy” than the “safe” choice of “The King’s Speech.”

As that last example shows, there isn’t necessarily one “right” film each year. While “Mad Max: Fury Road” has already been deemed as one of the best action films of all time and would’ve been a revolutionary winner, it’s difficult to make a strong enough case against “Spotlight,” an extremely polished and refreshingly unpretentious prestige picture that has increased in cultural relevance with its heroic vision of a free press, uncovering years of sexual abuse.

So, how does the academy move in the right direction? Part of the answer lies in what it’s been trying to accomplish over the last few years: an increase in diversity. The more representative the voting body, the more representative the film could be.

ABC / Courtesy

Part of the answer can also be found in much of the voting body’s interpretation of the title “Best Picture.” Often, academy members vote for their favorites, but that approach can be frustratingly personal. Others vote for what they thought was the best made film, but great filmmaking isn’t all that should make a “Best Picture.” Some vote for the topical film, but that risks succumbing to mere Oscar bait. “Topical” is also an ephemeral adjective, accruing varied meanings when its scope is pushed beyond just one year. The academy has to get ahead of time; it has to be forward-looking so that time cannot reflect on its Best Picture winner unfavorably.

Regarding this year’s winner, “The Shape of Water” proves to be a fascinating situation. The film’s characters are a mute woman, a gay man, a Black woman and an “Other” figure, and the film integrates those characters into a story about breaking down barriers and uniting those that feel othered. In the present, those elements are harrowingly relevant. In fact, those elements seem timeless.

So, why are so many calling it the “safe” choice? And why does that criticism feel, at least to some degree, valid? It may be because of what director Guillermo del Toro says himself: “the way (‘The Shape of Water’) is shot, it’s so full of love for cinema that it actually feels like an old-time classic.” There is a familiarity that old-guard academy voters can find in this film, one similar to that in “The Artist” and last year’s heavily favored “La La Land.”

In relation to those films, though, “The Shape of Water” does seem more preferable — in that, while it may feel familiar, its story is so wildly unorthodox and so significantly human that it’s difficult to say that it’s the “wrong” winner. But that familiarity has restricted it from having the widespread, piercing impact that one would expect from what many want — the “right” Best Picture.

We can see that impact, that piercing quality in two films: “Lady Bird” and “Get Out.” One remarkably and without shame portrays the unremarkable life of a young woman, and the other simultaneously capitalizes on and subverts genre to reveal racial truths. This year, though, there are many films that time could reveal as “right” — 2017 was that outstanding of a year.

As a Best Picture winner, “The Shape of Water” shouldn’t necessarily be looked down on like other winners; it’s not “The King’s Speech,” and it certainly isn’t “Crash.” It’s not a step backward, and it’s not even a stagnancy. But time will only magnify how much further we could have stepped, how much more forward-looking we have to be and how much further we have to go in defining what constitutes “Best Picture.”

Contact Kyle Kizu at [email protected]. Tweet him at @kyle_kizu.