It's not for the reasons you might think
The National Board of Review is a vaguely defined group of “film enthusiasts and professionals, academics, young filmmakers and students” whose last ten awards for best film have predicted only two Academy Award Best Picture winners. So when the group announced Tuesday that it had selected the blockbuster action flick Mad Max: Fury Road as its best film of 2015, movie-watching corners of the Internet cocked their collective heads and wondered, “Should we even care?”
The answer depends on the value one places on the prizes doled out long before The Big One. If the question is whether the NBR’s blue ribbon serves to prophesy a shiny gold statuette, the answer is empirically no. Its track record as a predictor of success at the Oscars shows that there’s neither causation nor correlation at play. Though nine of the last ten NBR best film winners were nominated for Best Picture, just two have won, and last year’s pick, A Most Violent Year (which also nabbed NBR acting awards for its two stars, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain), received exactly zero Oscar nominations.
NBR’s top movies fared slightly better in the 1980s and 1990s, when half of them went on to win Oscar’s biggest award. But in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as in the last decade, the hit rate was 20%. Last year alone, with the exception of Julianne Moore for best actress in Still Alice, virtually none of their awards translated into wins at the Academy Awards. All of which is to say that as a predictor of Oscar glory, the NBR is middling at best.
But if one’s reason for paying attention goes beyond award-season prognostication and into the deeper terrain of cultural significance—not whether Mad Max might win more and bigger awards but whether it says something about going to the movies in 2015—then yes, it’s most definitely worth paying attention to. The first reason is a matter of genre. Big-budget action movies like Mad Max, which trade in spellbinding visual effects and face-melting explosions, are rarely considered the stuff of high art, or even worthy of a nod from the Motion Picture Academy. Sure, Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper, both Best Picture nominees, had action aplenty, but they had the gravitas of war on their side. Inception and District 9, also nominees, were adrenaline-inducing thrillers, but high-concept ones. That a critical body deems worthy a high-octane franchise film replete with fiery chase scenes seems to signal a lowering of the brow. Crowd-pleasing, the award tells us, can sit comfortably with critic-pleasing.
The second reason to pay attention is that Mad Max: Fury Road is, by most accounts, a feminist action flick. Vagina Monologues scribe Eve Ensler served as a consultant. Its heroine, Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, is as far as a character can get from the damsel in distress: She is a fierce leader, and the land to which she leads is a matriarchal one. Of the NBR’s last ten picks for best movie, only one, Zero Dark Thirty, starred a woman in its primary role. None saw the use of the word “feminist” in headlines at anywhere near the frequency that Mad Max did (and most didn’t see it at all).
As early awards are meted out over the next few months—from Monday night’s Gotham Awards to the Golden Globes and SAG Awards in January—prognosticators will make sport of reading them like so many tea leaves. But as Sam Adams writes on Criticwire, shouldn’t organizations like the NBR “zig where the others zag?” And can’t an award have value beyond how accurately it predicts another award? If Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy and director George Miller don’t get so much as an Oscar nod, they should at least be allowed to take pride in the fact that a group of people, shadowy as it may be, deemed their work worthy of recognition.
So when it comes to an award which even a winning director concedes isn’t necessarily tantamount to actually being the best, it’s worth remembering that a movie’s cultural relevance—that is, its ability to move people and conversations—is worth more than its weight in gold.