‘Selma,’ ‘Boyhood,’ and the Futility of Comparing Great Films

There is a certain hysteria to film awards season. We all go in knowing that the average empty-headed Oscar voter is a 63-year-old white man; the Golden Globes are, for good reason, nicknamed “the Golden Bribes”; and that none of it really has much to do with cinema’s greatest triumphs of the previous year. But when the nominations roll in — and then, again, when the celebrities in sparkly dresses start to hand out the gold statues — the American public loses its damn mind. We analyze. We debate. We place bets. When our favorite film of the year doesn’t win, we rail against the injustice of it all. And what many of us forget, as we’re working ourselves into a righteous lather over an annual ritual whose value is largely limited to the box office, is the futility of comparing two (or more) great yet very different works of art in the first place.

I was reminded of this last night, when Boyhood beat Selma for Best Picture — Drama at the Golden Globes. As someone whose aversion to middlebrow Oscar bait dictates that I’m always surprised and delighted to see a movie I actually liked win a major award, especially considering all the Titanics and Gladiators and Crashes of years past, I was satisfied with Boyhood‘s win. The rest of my Twitter feed, though? Not so much. As Flavorwire’s Sarah Seltzer observed, many viewed the Globes’ Selma snub through an explicitly political lens: the Hollywood Foreign Press Association picked a movie about a white boy growing up over a movie about African Americans fighting for their civil rights.

There’s nothing untrue about that statement, even if it doesn’t tell the whole story of why Boyhood bested Selma. In America, unfortunately, it’s rare that racism doesn’t play some role in any situation where race is involved. And the fact that Selma didn’t win either of the two other major categories in which it was nominated, Best Actor in a Drama and Best Director, added some sting to its Best Picture loss. But it would be naive — and, in fact, disrespectful to Selma and its director, Ava DuVernay, had she won — to assume that racial politics were ever going to be the sole factor in deciding which movie won.

Even before we start to debate the films’ relative artistic merits and social value, it’s important to remind ourselves of the extent to which awards voters are influenced by Hollywood’s own, far less ideologically driven politics and practicalities. Although certainly racism is helping to fuel recent attempts to discredit Selma‘s depiction of Lydon Johnson, as Jason Bailey pointed out last month, the backlash also likely represents a well-funded effort from the film’s competitors to knock it out of the Oscar running — a campaign that wouldn’t even have started if the movie hadn’t been nominated for major awards. The Hollywood Reporter, in an item on last night’s Selma “snub,” went so far as to venture that its chances “may have been hurt by questions about its historical accuracy.” Paramount’s widely reported failure to get screeners of the film to various awards-voting bodies was also probably a factor. (Selma was, in fact, the last likely Best Picture nominee to show up in Oscar voters’ mailboxes.)

Still image from "Boyhood"

Behind-the-scenes jockeying and the irrational whims of senior citizens and rich Europeans aside, though, the worst thing about awards season is the way it convinces us that there can and should be only one best film of any given year. Unfortunately, art doesn’t always work like that. Filmmaking isn’t a competitive sport.

Confession: I can’t tell you what I thought was the “best” film of 2014. Until late December, for me, it was between Boyhood, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, and — here’s the pick that will in all likelihood cause many of you to stop reading immediately — Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Then I saw Selma and was struck by the absurdity of comparing an emotional story about real historical events (and the real, related wounds that persist into the present) to a philosophical art film, a philosophical sex film, and an experiment in capturing 12 years of a full cast’s life. Instead of forcing myself to decide whether I thought Selma was “better” or “worse” than any of my three previous favorites, I finally (although not for the first time) gave up on the whole idea of ranking movies that have nothing to do with each other.

I respect critics who are better at ranking than I am, and I understand that for many it’s a necessary evil in which I’m privileged to participate only to the extent that I want to. But I don’t believe that my disinclination to “choose” between four great movies makes my perspective on them any weaker. For me, it’s enough to know that I love each of those films because they challenged and enriched me — because each made me see questions of politics and art and morality and what makes a good life in a new light.

I think Boyhood deserved to win Best Picture last night. I think Selma deserved to win Best Picture, too. I don’t think we have anything to gain by denigrating one in order to celebrate the other. My hope is, instead, that the awards-season attention afforded to both films encourages more people to see them. That is, after all, the best part — the only good part, really — of this entire annual song and dance.