Much ink is spilled every year reciting the ills of Oscar, and much of the criticism is deserved. “Hollywood,” Shirley Knight once remarked, “is where they give Charlton Heston awards for acting.” But, there is a deeper, perhaps unfortunate truth that many literati would rather ignore: The Academy Awards (which will occur Feb. 25) are important, perhaps indispensable. And, while not nearly the dispassionate arbiters of excellence we would like them to be, the modern Oscar generation is a model of integrity compared to its early history.

Created in 1927, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was the brainchild of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, who envisioned it as a kind of uber-union and social club open to only the movie industry’s elite. Indeed, the insularity of an organization dominated by self-serving producers forced the various craft groups, especially directors, writers and actors, to form their own guilds.

The early awards themselves were more of an afterthought, their outcome the result of Mayer’s formidable influence if not outright voting fixing. It was not until the mid-1930s that new Academy President Frank Capra, facing a boycott by the other guilds, instituted reforms that expanded the voting membership and moved the Academy away from the union business and toward the more public relations role it now serves. Naturally, for his efforts Capra won three directing Oscars in five years.

No one should argue that the Academy Awards is now free of manipulation by big money and big studios, but today’s awards are largely the tail that wags the dog. Once upon a time, this year’s slate of best picture nominees would likely comprise the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Night at the Museum and The Da Vinci Code, all of them major studio box office behemoths. Instead, none of this year’s nominees rank among the top 10 in 2006 domestic grosses; the highest is The Departed at No. 15, followed by Little Miss Sunshine down at 51.

The truth is that the Academy Awards matter to the world of cinema for the same reason as the Super Bowl and American Idol: It’s an industry marketing event. For many in the general public, the Oscar season is the first time they have even heard of Babel, Notes on a Scandal and Pan’s Labyrinth, and for most it is the one time of the year movies become part of the everyday vernacular. In short, even the worst Oscars ever are better than no Oscars at all. Neil Morris

Or maybe no Oscars would be preferable…

The Oscars are portrayed as the biggest night in Hollywoodthere’s all the big articles and pictorial spreads and analyses about who’s going to win. But let’s face itHollywood isn’t driven by The Queen and Little Miss Sunshine. It’s driven by Night at the Museum and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Of the films that are nominated for Best Picture, only The Departed has grossed more than $100 million.

There are plenty of recognizable actors nominated, but most are in films that the bulk of the moviegoing public either hasn’t seen or hasn’t had an opportunity to see (c.f. Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson, Peter O’Toole in Venus, Kate Winslet in Little Children). But the studios ignore (and, in most cases, lose money on) the smaller films until awards season, when they dress up those films’ stars in Vera Wang and put them on display in a hypocritical beggars’ banquet. Most of the stars who get the most coverage at awards show aren’t even the nominees, but A-list presenters.

The Oscars barely have anything to do with Hollywood anymore … or, for that matter, the tastes of the moviegoing public. The Oscars represent only Hollywood’s flattery of itself, a fantasy world for people who want to believe they’re making important films, but who spend most of their days negotiating McDonald’s tie-ins for their latest CGI animated schlock-fest. Judging by the ratings, fewer and fewer people can bring themselves to care. Zack Smith

Non-contenders and technical knockouts

  • Costume nominees are a combination of created and shopped clothing. Patricia Field has a keen eye for the cutting edge, but her wardrobe was selected, not made, for The Devil Wears Prada. Consolata Boyle certainly succeeded in making the supremely sexy Helen Mirren look like a frump in The Queen. As for The Curse of the Golden Flower, sorry, Yee Chung Man, cleavage was never a feature of traditional Chinese clothing. Often, more modern films are dressed from vintage shops. But needing frocks in threes meant that Sharen Davis’ dreamy Dreamgirls gowns were all built from scratch, a rarity. Beyoncé’s acting and voice may not be my cup of tea, but no one can deny she is a fabulous clotheshorse. Still, MILENA CANONERO‘s work on MARIE ANTOINETTE is the standout. Not only are the exquisitely detailed, pastel confections a feast for the eye, but the decadent fashion show scored to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” is the best Hollywood music video of the year. Laura Boyes

  • It is hard to argue that anything in Stephen Frears’ THE QUEEN has been overlooked, but MICHAEL SHEEN‘s spot-on portrayal of newly minted Prime Minister Tony Blair is the voice of normalcy in this otherwise hermetic world. NM

    The one acting nomination I really wanted to see was BEN SLINEY in UNITED 93 (itself a lamentable non-nominee). Not only is Sliney a non-professional actor, but he was reenacting the worst day of his life, Sept. 11, 2001, a day that happened to be his first on the job as National Operations Manager for the FAA. Sliney’s self-effacing performance has none of the melodramatic swagger that we associate with Hollywood action thrillers, and it provides a window into how officials actually behave in a crisis. David Fellerath

  • Kudos to the Academy for bestowing deserved screenwriting and cinematography noms upon CHILDREN OF MEN, but it ignored quite simply the best direction of the year, a tour de force by ALFONSO CUARON that will be assigned viewing in film schools for years. Amongst the current deluge of execrable slasher snuff, NEIL MARSHALL continues his budding campaign as the new “master of horror” with THE DESCENT, his taut, atmospheric British import that borrows heavilybut stylishlyfrom genre touchstones while peeling back the layers of postmodern femininity. NM

  • How does the Academy acknowledge the existence of Mel Gibson’s chase/revenge saga with sound and makeup nominations yet slight its lavish, stunningly exact prism of the Mayan Empire? Give up noms for art director ROBERTO BONELLI and director of photography DEAN SEMLER. NM

  • Nominations for Best Foreign Film are often puzzling, with headliners (like this year’s Volver) benched, and nods to more obscure films unreleased in the Triangle. Perhaps WATER, Canada’s entry, set during the Gandhi pre-Independence era in India, has a chance. Won’t someone please snap red carpet photos of star John Abraham with director Deepa Mehta for me? LB