Look, choosing a winner is always hard, even within a more narrowly defined genre. Which is better: An experimental and beautiful triptych about what growing up means for one gay black kid in South Florida, or a more conventional story about three unconventional adults who faced down sexism and racism and sent a man to space? Which movie was most creative with language: Manchester by the Sea, where people are frequently talking just out of frame, at a volume where you can just barely make it out and are invited (but not compelled) to overhear — echoing Lee’s isolation? Or Fences, in which Troy’s illiteracy only augments his oratorical jiujitsu? Or Arrival, where a linguist is radically transformed by the language she learns? Which of these is the most “important?” And how does “important” relate to “best?”
When you tack on an extra comparative layer — which is better, comedy or drama? — the exercise becomes not just moot but counterproductive. Comedy is an immensely important art form. It is. But when challenged to determine what’s “best,” it’s awfully hard to defend comedy’s intrinsic frivolity against drama, where people suffer and grieve and die. Shakespeare in Love was about a blond young white woman who cross-dressed to be taken seriously in early modern England and fell in love. It’s romantic and a little bit silly. That this was considered “better” than a story about war — where far too many young men died — was an outrage in 1999. And there were plenty of reasons to object on artistic grounds. But the truth is, most didn’t. Critics of Shakespeare in Love’s win were less concerned with the acting, script, structure, or cinematography than they were by the Academy’s choice of what subject matter they deemed “important” enough to honor.
We’re likely to see a repeat of that this year, and it’s a shame, because the film industry could so easily opt out of this meta version of the Hunger Games. It won’t: A discussion about the business and the art that a less blunt instrument could make vital and illuminating will dissolve instead into a flood of defensive comparisons. But it could be different: Moonlight could walk away with Best Drama. La La Land could dance off with Best Musical or Comedy. And the Best Picture category would salute them from the In Memoriam reel, glad to be relieved.