Tybout: Rankings should be left to critics’ tastes

By Andy Tybout

At this point in film history, many complaints about the Academy Awards have become almost as… At this point in film history, many complaints about the Academy Awards have become almost as tired as the ceremony itself. Allow me, then, to offer one criticism you probably haven’t heard before: The Oscars are just too damn democratic.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is composed of more than 6,000 members — a number that exceeds the population of many Pennsylvanian towns. All academy members nominate contenders in their designated fields — actors vote on actors, screenwriters on screenwriters — and all members are allowed to nominate a film for Best Picture. Most members are subsequently eligible to vote on the final victors in each category.

Naturally, this approach — a large collection of experts casting ballots in their areas of expertise — is intended to bolster the academy’s credibility. After all, we’re meant to assume that the bigger the voter base, the better. The flawed judgments of individual participants are overridden, so to speak, by a reasonable majority.

Of course, the results of this mentality are depressingly apparent: Winners are predictable to the extent that pop culture pundits are actually quite adept at picking the winners. Last year, for instance, no one had any doubts that either “Avatar” or “The Hurt Locker” would win Best Picture, or that Sandra Bullock would win Best Actress for “The Blind Side.” Ultimately, the academy’s practice of polling a large body of voters only engenders an affirmation of conventional opinion.

Indeed, democracy, on any scale, has no place in criticism. Contrary to the beliefs underpinning the Oscars and other awards shows, the idea that a film is superior simply because any number of people believe it’s superior is a pitiably misguided notion. After all, to deem a certain movie “better” than another, as a result of a survey, presumes the participants’ heterogeneous critical standards somehow complement one another. In reality, of course, critical opinions don’t fare well when conflated to a single result: The outcome is a reductive and unrevealing grasp at consensus.

This might seem like a common-sense gripe — especially in the United States, where individual thought is considered one of the highest virtues. Yet the “strength-in-numbers” criticism is only gaining traction among moviegoers in the age of the web. Aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are routinely cited to bespeak a film’s merit. The former site, uses a threshold percentage of positive reviews — reminiscent of the academy’s numerical rationale — after which a film is deemed “fresh.”

This is, of course, no means to achieve a thorough perspective on any movie. Rather, moviegoers must undertake a perhaps more difficult but undeniably more rewarding, endeavor: finding critics they can trust — writers whose idiosyncratic tastes are most attuned to their own. If you value geekery, read Harry Knowles. If you value omnivorous levelheadedness, read A.O. Scott. If you value contrarianism, read Armond White. All these critics’ picks for Best Picture would be wildly different, but all are, to their niche readership, more valid than the academy’s.

At best, the Academy Awards function as an exercise in probability. If a certain film garners a number of accolades, it’s an indicator you might be likely to reach similar judgments. But the pursuit of an indisputable victor by way of polling, in any art, is invariably futile. There’s much more fulfillment to be had reading one’s favorite critics — they, unlike the academy, know what’s best for their audience.