In discussing this year’s Oscars, it’s become increasingly in vogue to characterize the nominees with such adjectives as “small” and “serious intent.” These very phrases, in fact, were lifted directly from The New York Times Arts section the day after the Academy’s morning announcement. The author, Sharon Waxman, marveled at the “deep political and social themes” of the Best Picture nominees, which “range from gay romance to the abuse of government power to racial relations to the cycle of vengeance in the Middle East.” Factor in that fourteen of the twenty acting nominees are first-time contenders, and one could infer that 2005 will go down as the year that the Oscars pulled back from the brink of inconsequence and re-affirmed its position as a cultural trend-setter.

Right, and Jessica Simpson just missed the Best Supporting Actress cut for “Dukes of Hazzard.” To buy into the hyperbole surrounding this year’s Oscars is to fit the Academy with the crown of social luminary that hardly accommodates its often-swollen head. Make no mistake. Just because some of this year’s Best Picture nominees touch upon relevant political and social issues, this does not transform the ritual affectionately known as the Oscars into the watershed event for a troubled and tumultuous time. Oddly enough, however, the Academy’s specific choices this year highlight the real reasons why, for all its silliness and pomposity, the Academy Awards remain a vital and necessary force in the world of film and filmmaking.

Before we can pat the Academy on the back, it’s necessary to stick a pin in the ever-ballooning fallacies otherwise known as the Academy’s newfound social conscience and love for the little guy. Oscar’s embrace of the “small movie” has less to do with a sudden burst of love for the little engines that could than the fact that so-called larger films failed to pass the Academy’s silent criterion. Had it not been pegged with the Hollywood scarlet letter of “box-office disappointment,” Peter Jackson’s critically-acclaimed “King Kong” would most likely have bumped “Capote” or “Munich.” Ditto to Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man,” whose underwhelming take may have suffered, ironically enough, from boxing-movie fatigue set in place by last year’s Best Picture winner, “Million Dollar Baby.”

Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon picked up acting nods for their widely admired work in “Walk the Line,” but even the most casual of voters must have sensed the Johnny Cash biopic was no “Ray,” much less “Coal Miner’s Daughter” or “Nashville.” The one argument you could make for the Academy’s sincerity in their support for all things “small” comes from the acting nominees, with many first-time nominees justly receiving recognition for fine and varied work.

As for social conscience, a closer inspection reveals a far-thinner argument than some would claim. True, “Brokeback Mountain” addresses intrinsically American-bred homophobia, and “Munich” tackles the Gordian Knot of the Israel-Palestinian conflict with intelligence as empathetic as it is unblinking. They are true cultural artifacts, deserving of recognition precisely because their gaze travels beyond it.

The same, in this writer’s opinion, cannot be said of the remaining three. “Capote” operates successfully as both a biopic and an artful moral inquiry, but good luck trying to sift out any modern echoes that go beyond the most abstract notions of journalistic integrity. George Clooney crafted a fine piece of historical re-enactment in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” but even the most willing blue-stater would be hard pressed to find more than shallow connections between the McCarthy Red Scare and today. As for “Crash,” impassioned acting and a smattering of powerful sequences cannot disguise Paul Haggis’s film for the liberal guilt porn it is. No one understands anyone, but somehow the hands of fate force Sandra Bullock to see the pure and shining soul within her Hispanic maid? This is race relations as overcooked fantasy; the very fact that it’s being mentioned in the same breath as “Brokeback” or “Munich” points to the shallowness of the Academy’s so-called embrace of “small films with potent themes” (again, Waxman’s words).

Lay these five films out in front of another filmgoer, however, and they may find wells of wisdom in “Crash” while dismissing “Brokeback” as a shallow tear-jerker. Here, beyond the hype, lies the essence of the Academy Awards. Providing a glittery pedestal for these films to stand on, the Oscars allow for a heightened debate of films that are worthy of discussion. The Academy does not lead cultural dialogue so much as take its cues from it, and this year’s line-up, flawed though it may be, does indeed reflect an increased hunger for substantive cinematic reflection on relevant, or at least serious, topics. Thanks to the Academy, more people will go to see these movies, both widening the cultural dialogue and providing financial incentive for film studios to invest in projects of similar ambition.

The film industry is a tango of art and commerce, where dollar signs and grand aspirations struggle for dominance. More often than not, cool green trumps bleeding-heart red. The Oscars provides an often crude but forceful equalizer. Film studios hunger for box-office bull-eyes, but prestige does not fall far behind. The presence of the Academy Awards (not the mention the array of critical and guild awards that have followed in its wake) is concrete incentive to get richer, meatier films in the pipeline. Many end up falling into that interminable category known as “Oscar bait.” For every creaky period piece or botched literary adaptation, though, there comes a work of genuine insight or piercing wit or heart-rending emotion. Without the goal of obtaining the little golden guy, many of these quirkier, quieter, non-franchise films would simply never be made.

When I sit down to watch Sunday night, I’ll be rooting for “Brokeback,” Ang Lee, Heath Ledger, Amy Adams, and Paul Giamatti (I haven’t seen enough Best Actress nominees to make a qualified judgment; the very fact that the year’s best films lacked singular female lead performances is for another day and another column). Your list probably doesn’t match mine; it may diverge completely. You defend your picks, I’ll defend mine.

Because of the argument that will follow, if nothing else, the Oscars remain as valuable as ever.

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