The Auteur Theory

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Via Isaac Chotiner, I see that David Carr has a novel theory of the Oscar nominations:

... what's particularly clear this season is that the Academy will reward excellence, no matter if it comes from a big studio or a small independent.

... This year's Top 5 were studio and indie, big and little, broad and very specific. The string that pulls them together is not where the films came from in terms of backing, but where they come from artistically. Each of the films selected for a best-picture nomination ... represents the auteur ideal, in which a director is bankrolled and left pretty much alone. It is no coincidence that these five films were created by directors who also received best-director nominations.

Never before, I'm pretty sure, has the phrase "auteur ideal" been used in conjunction with the work of Ron Howard, so points to Carr for crossing that particular bridge. His broader argument - that the extent to which a given film partakes of "the independent aesthetic" is more important to its Oscar chances these days than whether it meshes with "the tastes of the mass audience" - is pretty obviously true. But what's missing from his analysis is a recognition that rewarding an art-house aesthetic isn't the same thing as rewarding excellence: Mass-market movies can be good movies, and movies made with a narrow, highbrow audience in mind can be mediocre-to-bad. The fact that films like, say, Terms of Endearment or E.T. were studio tentpoles that played to huge audiences didn't mean that they didn't deserve their Oscars; and the fact that Stephen Daldry didn't have much studio interference while making The Reader doesn't make him anything more than a high-toned hack who's good at playing by the current Oscar rules. The Academy should reward excellence wherever it comes from, absolutely. But this year - again, a bad year for movies overall - it rewarded too many of the wrong auteurs.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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