There’s a consistent annual complaint about the nominations for Best Picture that goes something like this: How are we supposed to compare such disparate films, let alone decide which one is “best”? By what criteria do you compare The Revenant to Room? Or Brooklyn to The Martian? Or a bonkers fever-dream like Mad Max: Fury Road to an understated but devastating drama like Spotlight? By what measure is a comedy like Trainwreck supposed to be compared against a grueling epic like The Revenant? (Well, it’s not, apparently, as Trainwreck, like nearly every comedy every year, has been left out of the Oscar conversation — in large part because it’s presumably so difficult to assess comedies in competition with dramas.) In other words: If different films employ wildly different aesthetic intentions and techniques, in order to achieve wildly different emotional and intellectual effects, how then can we possibly hope to determine which film was the “most” successful?
Some might contend this is an argument to do away with awards altogether. I reject those people, if only because I treasure long winter nights spent making fun of celebrity outfits on Twitter. Also, fixing awards by getting rid of them seems like an inherently defeatist — nay, un-American — attitude. (Make Oscar Season Great Again.) Especially when there is one very straightforward and increasingly intriguing and useful criterion by which we can judge every movie, all the time, across every genre, every year: Would you rewatch it?
For example: Would you rewatch Argo? (Have you, in fact, rewatched it?) That movie, after all, won the Best Picture Oscar in 2012. (Really! It did! You can Google it.) Argo was widely acclaimed, with a 96 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Yet not too long ago, L.A. Weekly film critic Amy Nicholson asked rhetorically, as part of an argument for the superiority of Django Unchained: “When’s the last time anyone rewatched Argo?” It’s a fair question. There are many critically successful, highly polished, artistically admirable films that come out every year that I think the average viewer is happy to watch once, but never twice. In fact, that description — artistically polished films you never need to watch again — is a pretty useful definition of many Best Picture winners in recent years. Which in turn might help explain why so many recent Best Picture winners seem so pale and uninspired in hindsight.
Or maybe you are, in fact, a rabid rewatcher of The Artist? Maybe you’ve revisited The King’s Speech a half-dozen gleeful times since 2011? Maybe you keep a copy of Slumdog Millionaire on your hard drive, to be booted up and re-enjoyed at any moment? A film’s rewatchability is not its definitive merit, but the extent to which some of these films — Best Picture winners, all! — have vanished from our cultural consciousness suggests that rewatchability is a useful indicator for some sort of lingering impact. Of course, rewatchability is in the eye of the re-beholder: When Nicholson made her claim about Argo, another critic, Nick Pinkerton, responded: “No fucking way anyone rewatches Django Unchained.” But at least we now have a solid point of comparison between two very different movies — let the rewatchability debates begin!
Though it’s hard to recall, not that long ago, rewatching a movie was very difficult. Before the advent of the VCR, your best chance at rewatching a classic was either finding it on late-night TV or studiously checking the tattered rep-cinema schedule that you’d magnetically affixed to your fridge. You couldn’t simply stream any movie whenever you like, which now, more or less, you can. The O. Henry–style irony, of course, is that now that you can rewatch any movie you like, no one has any time to rewatch anything. So rewatching, while increasingly possible, has also become, in our age of notorious overabundance, a particularly precious and specific kind of endorsement.
The idea that you might rewatch something no longer suggests a baseline level of intrigue — it suggests an engagement so vital that you’re willing to allocate precious future hours to revisiting something you’ve already checked off your overstuffed cultural agenda. And no, this is not a suggestion that “easy” entertainment, of the type that might prompt cultish revisiting, somehow trumps “difficult” entertainment, of the type doesn’t go down quite so smoothly. In fact, difficult films are often the ones that prompt revisiting, precisely because their pleasures require multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. And easy entertainment often feels disposable precisely because everything it has to offer can be absorbed in one sitting.
So using this sole criterion — rewatchability — how would this year’s Oscar contenders fare? The artfully crafted Bridge of Spies, for example, strikes me as the quintessential Quality Movie™ that few viewers will ever feel moved to watch again. The Revenant has proved hard for many people to sit through once, let alone twice. The Martian is exactly the kind of film you watch once on the big screen, then later rewatch the last half of when you stumble on it on TNT. By contrast, Spotlight, perhaps objectively the quietest film in contention, is a film I couldn’t wait to see again, even as I was watching it for the first time — in part to better understand how such an understated film delivers such an emotional wallop. (Also: Ruffalo.) Mad Max: Fury Road, of course, has its vocal chorus of supporters, and I’ll confess it’s the only film among this year’s nominees that I willingly paid to see in the theater twice. That might not mean it’s the greatest film among the Oscar contenders, but it definitely wins this year’s Rewatchie trophy, hands down. In a very funny, tongue-in-cheek look at this year’s Best Picture nominees, Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post nods to this idea that a willingness to rewatch something has become a kind of ultimate endorsement. “I saw this movie four times in theaters,” she writes of Mad Max: Fury Road. “I would see it again right now.” I suspect that’s a sentiment no one’s ever expressed about The Artist.