The Innate Value Of Award Season Villains

How problematic film award contenders provoke conversation.

I’m not what you’d call a sports fan. I do think I understand the appeal of sports, in that there’s a sense of innate tribalistic loyalty to one’s geographically-determined team and that there is a natural drama in rooting for that team to win as a representation of your allegiances, but I’m just not one to gravitate toward competition as a compelling narrative in and of itself.

Except, that is, for movie award season. I am a sucker for film awards, tracking contenders and winners every year in the lead up to the granddaddy of prizes, The Oscars. I catch up on the films and write my reviews, taking note of what films I think should advance and which others I think don’t deserve recognition, even as I recognize that more often than not award winners are picked based on a voting process that favors more generally accepted films rather than standouts that may have greater niche appeal. In other words, it’s all bullshit, but I don’t care because this is the one place where I plant my flag as a fan of competition, primarily because it means I get to engage in a conversation about how films merit recognition in different ways and what ways deserve the most recognition.

However, there’s a somewhat dark undercurrent to award prognostication that I’ve noticed over the years, and it’s something that I’m certainly not immune to, nor do I think it’s an entirely negative practice. See, there’s a tendency among a contingent of film buffs every year to collectively single out an awards contender as the year’s villain. In 2015, that film was Birdman, which portrayed its egotistical WASP actor protagonist in an empathetic light, while the competition of Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel followed characters who were more appealing as something other than flattering to Hollywood creatives. In 2016, The Revenant was commonly decried as a blatant bid to win Leonardo DiCaprio his gold statue when other films like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian were sidelined as merely better-than-expected genre fare. And, of course, in 2017, the world split along the lines of La La Land and Moonlight as each film was adopted as a proxy to symbolically reenact the presidential election of months prior. Keep in mind that none of this is a judgment of the listed films’ overall quality, but rather how those films were publically received with regards to their deserved or undeserved place as the nominated best of cinematic entertainment.

The evolving conversation seems to be singling out Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri as this year’s nominated villain, and it’s really not hard to see why. Though the film’s dialogue is very well written and acted, as one would expect from writer-director Martin McDonagh, it is easily one of the most challengingly problematic contenders of the year, which some largely attribute to McDonagh’s lack of personal familiarity with topics he attempts to cover in the film, namely violence against women and racial minorities. I’m fairly middle-of-the-road on this one, as I acknowledge the film’s strengths while also feeling terribly uncomfortable with what I perceive to be its weaknesses, but those feelings are immaterial to the fact that Three Billboards has become the focal point of a conversation about the role of privilege in conveying stories about a group of people to which an auteur does not themselves belong.

Because this controversy is brewing—and just to be clear, this is absolutely a conversation worth having—every time Three Billboards wins a new award detractors rise up and criticize the award’s voting body for choosing as they have. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The very act of criticism is itself a judgment of how a work of art fits into cultural mores, modern or aspirational, and social progress is defined by those willing to call out art for retrograde attitudes or cultural insensitivity, intentional or otherwise. But there’s more at play here than a simple calling out of a piece of art; were that the case, conversation would have died as the film left theaters and the popular consciousness with it.

Three Billboards is being singled out as this year’s award season villain, but what exactly does that mean? Is there value in a film being considered the year’s villain, and what exactly does that say of the film’s quality to be decried as unworthy of its attention as among the year’s best? You’ll notice that none of the films listed above as previous award villains would be commonly decried as bad films. Sometimes they’re merely good films with an express purpose of winning someone an award, and sometimes they’re blatantly courting the sensibilities of a voting body primarily comprised of actors and other members of Hollywood industries, but aside from a reasonable number of detractors, these films are remembered at least somewhat favorably. The point is that though they are often contenders for the top prize, there is always another, decidedly more heroic favorite that a plurality of film buffs will congregate around.

At the end of the day, film awards amount to little more than a different, more culturally critical kind of sport, with people lining up along ideological lines and rooting for their preferred cinematic experience to be recognized in a fleeting manner to stroke the egos of those who aligned with its tribal campaign. There are some who might feel the films I outlined as villains are more justly considered underdogs, and that’s okay; we all approach art from different angles, and criticism is primarily a means by which to provoke discussion, something definitively at odds with competitions that have the stated purpose of determining which piece of art is empirically The Best Picture. Even if Three Billboards weren’t in the running, some other film (probably Molly’s Game) would take its place in the discussion and act as the contender we’d hate to see win. Because film criticism is itself an analysis of narratives and their execution, it only makes sense that we’d develop a cultural narrative that demonizes particular praised films in favor of those that spoke more personally to us, much as a Green Bay Packers fan expresses a hatred of Minnesota Vikings fans based solely on team preference.

The value in villains is that we place into focus the problems we have with some films so that we can more clearly define what we like in others. For as racially tone deaf as Three Billboards can be, comparing it to the likes of Get Out can be someone’s way of demonstrating why Jordan Peele’s film is more worthy of awards recognition. For as much as the dreaded third act of Molly’s Game bungles its tale of female achievement in a male-dominated culture, we can contrast it with how Lady Bird sticks its own feminist landing. When nominees are determined by a variety of voters from different social backgrounds and levels of privilege, there will inevitably be some contenders that rub each of us the wrong way. However, social progress is made by engaging in those conversations and evaluating why you do or don’t agree with an awarded honor. The awards themselves are bullshit, soon to be forgotten and wholly divorced from the personal experience that art is meant to evoke. It’s the conversations that the awards provoke that hold value, and framing our villains is a small way in which we determine our cultural growth. You may or may not agree that Three Billboards deserves the ire and rancor it has received, but unlike sports, film criticism is primarily based on reason and argument, acts that require intellectual and cultural engagement. So maybe the thing to remember as we see the trophies handed out over the next couple months is that those tokens don’t matter nearly so much as the conversations they provoke. After all, any good story needs a good villain.