There seem to be two pressing issues of the day: will the US wage war on Iraq, and will the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences give Martin Scorsese his longed-for Best Director Oscar? And even though it’s clear (one hopes) which is the more important, there’s no escaping the fact that the Oscars matter. But do they matter in the way they should?

When the Academy began handing out its awards in the late 1920s, the aim was to honour excellence in film in the preceding year. This year the five Best Picture nominees are all films which were released in the US in the last two weeks of 2002. It’s often been claimed that Academy voting members have short-term memories, but what of all the films that came out in the preceding eleven and a half months in 2002 – were none of them as good?

The main problem is that today the Academy voters cluster around films which are pre-packaged specifically for Oscar success. And no studio can create those packages better than Miramax. Before Scorsese had shot a frame of Gangs of New York, Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein told him he’d get him an Oscar for it – or so the story goes. Whether that’s true or not, the fact is that Miramax has had at least one Best Picture nominee every year since 1992, and they’ve won the top award twice, for The English Patient (1996) and Shakespeare in Love (1998). This year, they are responsible for three of the five Best Picture nominees (Chicago, Gangs of New York and The Hours) and are executive producers of a fourth (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). Of the movies up for Best Picture, then, only Focus Features’ The Pianist reached cinema screens without Miramax’s help.

Miramax deserve a lot of kudos for the top-quality movies they have made or distributed over the past few years, such as Pulp Fiction (1994), Trois Couleurs Rouge/Three Colours Red (1994), Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Sling Blade (1996). But they also got Best Picture nominations for such mediocre offerings as Good Will Hunting (1997) and Chocolat (2000). And in recent years the company has been criticised for its bullish Oscar campaigning, which grabs the attention of Academy voters like no other studio.

Are, then, Chicago, Gangs of New York and The Hours really among the best films of the year? For my part, I enjoyed Chicago, but it’s not a patch on what movie musicals used to do, and could still do now, given the chance. Although director Rob Marshall keeps the cynicism and high spirits fizzing throughout, he fails to showcase his own choreography, and the film’s central conceit – that the musical numbers take place inside Roxie’s head – is deployed inconsistently. Gangs and The Hours are prestige projects with ‘Oscar’ written all over them. Sure, the other major companies could launch campaigns of similar size and exuberance – DreamWorks, for example, this year produced a series of very attractive mock-antique posters on behalf of Road to Perdition, and the summer release has received six nominations. But such campaigning tends to stifle the chances of smaller, no less worthy, films. Where are the critics’ favourites – Hable con ella/Talk to Her, Far From Heaven, Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi/Spirited Away? They have only a handful of nominations between them. Where are La Pianiste/The Piano Teacher, Riri Shushu no subete/All About Lily Chou-Chou, Roger Dodger?

In fairness, it’s not as if Oscar nominations routinely used to go to better films than they do now. After all, when Paramount reaped a trio of Best Picture nominees in what was, in retrospect, a vintage year in 1974 – Chinatown, The Conversation and the eventual winner, The Godfather Part II – the Academy had also nominated The Towering Inferno, a fun movie but one whose nominations were surely down to the combined muscle of its two studios, Fox and Warner Brothers, than to any claims of artistic merit. But for the past few years, the Academy has chosen mediocre films time and again. Does anyone you know really feel that A Beautiful Mind (2001), Gladiator (2000), American Beauty (1999), Shakespeare in Love (1998) or Titanic (1997) were the best films of their respective years, or even, really, much good at all? Something those films had in common, though, were major Oscar campaigns; Miramax’s promotion of Shakespeare in Love was so good, it managed to topple the Best Picture chances of the supposed frontrunner, Saving Private Ryan (1998) (although Ryan had a huge campaign of its own).

As well as supposedly honouring artistic excellence, it has been said that in its infancy the Academy was also anxious to legitimise achievements in an industry which was seen in some quarters as rather a vulgar form of entertainment. If so, that may account for Oscar’s continued tendency to recognise films which cover certain types of ‘heavyweight’ material – and thus the studios’ tendencies to court such favour with its most ‘likely’ projects. Does the Academy feel the need to apologise for films, to legitimise the medium?

The Oscars are best enjoyed, and observed, as a barometer showing the state of the industry at that moment. This year, I guess, film-makers hold Chicago, Gangs of New York and The Hours in especially high regard, maybe because they genuinely consider them to be the best of the year … or maybe because they allow us, and them, to believe that musicals can be made as well as they were in Hollywood’s ‘heyday’, that personal ambitions to deliver sweeping historical sagas can be realised, and that there’s an audience for films about – hold onto your hats – women.

Yet, of all the awards going, I do believe that the Oscars are the most democratic measure of popular, measured opinion (and, besides, it’s the most handsome statuette of the lot). And some bad choices along the way can’t dim my love affair with Oscar. I just wish the Academy would think past the ‘For Your Consideration’ posters and seek out truly outstanding work; maybe they do think that Chicago, Gangs and The Hours, which between them have 32 nominations, are so much better than everything else; but I find it hard to believe. Or perhaps the Academy should be done with it and introduce an Oscar for Best Ad Campaign, and be done with it.