Guest post by Dr. Alicia Kozma, Director of IU Cinema.
While, conventionally, the beginning of a new year brings resolutions and new beginnings, in Hollywood the new year is the start of the big push towards awards season. “Awards season” is a bit of a misnomer, as it indicates a discrete, bounded segment of time, and awards discourse – the prognostications, shortlists, major and minor ceremonies – stretch far across the calendar. Indeed, by January, major critic circles have already named their winners, the Academy has released several shortlists for key categories, and awards-insider podcasts have well been in full swing. All of this build-up is leading toward the multiplicities of ceremonies – from the Golden Globes to the guild awards to the Indie Spirits – that culminate with the Academy Awards in March.
It can all be, in a word, overwhelming. But during the heady time of awards “season,” it’s critical to remember that not all awards are created equal; film awards are inherently paradoxical. Take the Oscars for example, an entity that claims to award the best cinematic work of the year. Yet the field of films available for consideration is absurdly small — they are unrepresentative of the entire slate of releases in any given year, over-representative of English-language, U.S. produced films, and decidedly local in scope (despite posturing otherwise). In short, film awards often reify the same normative film tastes, talents, and representation while narrowing the public’s understanding of the breadth and depth of the cinematic landscape. This is, of course, not to say that there are not benefits to an Oscar win, particularly for those rare films that are simultaneously low-profile for mainstream audiences but embraced by the Academy.
For example, the Best Picture wins for Moonlight and Parasite brought these films into the wider public consciousness. After Moonlight’s win, its distributor A24 opened it in wide release for the first time and saw the weekly grosses double what it had been in the past. Similarly, Parasite made a quarter of its entire North American box-office receipts in the days after its win. An Oscar equals name recognition for even the casual moviegoer, which leads to larger audiences. For films seen by the industry to be “hard sells” to the public – like a drama about family, queerness, and multiplicities of Black masculinity or a Korean-language black comedy that satirizes the global obsession with wealth and status – an Oscar can be a pathway to entirely new and unexpected audiences. Unfortunately, these films are the exception to the rule: for every Moonlight, there is a Crash and Green Book. A small number of exceptions over almost 100 years cannot negate that most awards organizations approach their duties with a shocking lack of imagination and a stringent, narrow conceptualization of both cinematic contributions and assignations of value.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are film festival awards, which operate in a much more expansive universe. While their contenders pool is limited to films playing at any given festival, often those films represent a massively varied cinematic slate of options that is inclusive of multiple countries, genres, experience levels, topics and themes, cinematic form, aesthetics, and much more. Importantly, most films at festivals are looking for distribution, so winning a festival award can push a film one step closer to acquisition and eventual exhibition for the public. In some cases, awards can be the deciding factor in the calculus of if a film is picked up for general release or not. Critically, film festival awards are given in real time, soon after the film has been screened, excising the influence of critics and box-office receipts from the decision-making process, and re-centering the film as the primary text a given award is responding to. In this way, film festival awards can be a critical component in the early cultural life of a film. I raise the paradox around film awards – the ways that awards, depending on their context, can epitomize one-dimensional film comprehension or introduce nuanced and exciting variety into the cinematic landscape – in the context of this season’s International Art House Series. One of the common threads that unites the films in this season’s series is that they are all award winners, all but one from film festivals:
Triangle of Sadness: winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2022, this satire of the uber-wealthy and the society that valorizes them has also generated mainstream award buzz for supporting actor Dolly De Leon.
Utama: the winner of the Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema Dramatic at the Sundance Film Festival is the story of resistance and survival in the isolated Bolivian countryside, a warning of the dangers of unchecked environmental destruction.
Leonor Will Never Die: the winner of the 2022 Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Innovative Spirit follows the kaleidoscopic unconsciousness of Leonor, a screenwriter who slips into a coma and transforms into the main character in one of her films.
Decision to Leave: Korean master Park Chan-wook won Best Director at Cannes for this neo-noir romantic thriller steeped in deception and unexpected twists.
Saloum: the story of three African mercenaries haunted and hunted by the one of their pasts won director Jean Luc Herbulot best director in the Next Wave section at Fantastic Fest.
Tár: Todd Field’s masterful return to directing after a 16-year absence was named Best Film at the New York Film Critics Circle awards, where Cate Blanchett also won best actress, and the film has appeared on 50 “best of 2022” lists. The story of a controversial conductor losing her grip on power and station is very likely to have a strong showing at the major awards ceremonies later than year.
We have awards, in all their paradoxical glory, to thank for playing their part in assembling this captivating mix of films for this season’s International Art House. Undoubtedly, at least three of these films – Utama, Leonor Will Never Die, and Saloum – would have made much less impact in theaters if not for their award-winning reputations. Utama is pure art house cinema, a thrillingly beautiful film that radiates a quiet power writ on the expressive natural landscapes and human faces at its center. Leonor Will Never Die is a joyful, almost unclassifiable film from the Philippines which mixes humor, heart, fantasy, and a deep love for the cinematic. Saloum is a genre-bending ride though folklore, mythology, action, and horror that takes the average viewer to places most have never been before. All three films are emotional, beguiling, entertaining, and challenging, and all three risked getting lost in the cut-throat distribution and exhibition landscape if it had not been for their profile-raising awards from film festivals.
While the bigger name titles on the list – Triangle of Sadness, Decision to Leave, and Tár – are films that come with a pedigree that would have ensured their release, they are still films that will reach mass audiences through the art house circuit, the space wherein their creators earned their bona fides and built their reputations. But broader recognition is never an assurance of continued performance; their festival awards confirm the vision, talent, and rewarding cinematic challenge at the heart of the films themselves.
IU Cinema’s spring 2023 International Art House series starts on January 20 and 21 with Triangle of Sadness, followed by Utama on January 27 and 28, Leonor Will Never Die on February 3 and 4, Decision to Leave on February 10 and 11, Saloum on February 17 and 18, and Tár on March 3.
Dr. Alicia Kozma is the Director of Indiana University Cinema. She researches, writes about, and teaches film. Learn more at www.aliciakozma.com.