Lots of the audience watching awards shows want their winners to be films with a certain gravitas. But is there really high art and low art? Or just good movies?
This Sunday night is ground zero for pop culture nerds. Some film fans are neutral on Oscars because choosing one great film over another is not what art is for, or about. The Oscars are not concerned with art as much as they are with commerce and politics. Swag and cosmetic fillers. Designer endorsements. Did I say commerce?
Then there are the hipsters who say the Oscars don’t matter, well, duh. The melting ice cap matters. Brexit matters. Housing, food and water supplies for everyone… that matters. The Oscars are a barometer of the western world’s dominant culture: the membership of those who vote is still overwhelmingly a bunch of aging white dudes, despite recent stabs at diversification. 69% male, 84% white. That’s who is deciding what will make movie history, and what you will find soon after in theatres and on your screens.
We only have two hours to change people’s lives.
-John Cassavetes, filmmaker
We are defined as a people by the stories we tell ourselves. Cinema was the defining narrative form of the last century before we entered the wild west of modern media. So yes, the Oscars matter. And I will be watching. I’m neutral on nothing.
What they always get wrong: read how I would change the show here (from last year) and here (from this year 2019)
Back to those great films, the only one that surely belongs in this year’s Best Picture nomination group is Roma, although The Favourite wins my deep admiration for audacious creativity; Black Panther for grandiosity; A Star is Born for soaring notes-Gaga and Cooper as troubled lovers I bought. Ditto the decent portrait of mental affliction. Cooper set my heart aflutter too-damn, he looks good here. But remakes trouble me at the best of times even if we understand as a culture that everything is an iteration of something. Remakes are usually about commerce and ego.
Read what I like about Black Panther: A fierce and welcome bolt
What I’d include in that group with Roma are two powerful films featuring youth that absolutely belong among the best pictures of the year: The Hate U Give and Eighth Grade. Others that belong there are the exquisite Leave no Trace, First Reformed, If Beale Street Could Talk, You Were Never Really Here, Can You Ever Forgive Me, and Sorry to Bother You. The foreign film category is always very strong and it’s no different this year, mostly because Roma is again nominated here, pitting it up against the other giant of film, Shoplifters, one of my favourites from TIFF 2018. But there is another giant missing, a film many film nerds have claimed the best of the year, South Korea’s Burning.
In the documentary category, one puzzling omission was Won’t You Be My Neighbour? As I wrote during HOT DOCS 2018, watching the sweet new documentary about Mister Rogers with my guy, both our faces stained with tears, all of us there in that theatre suddenly children again, we agreed we were the lucky ones who grew up with this gentle spirit leader, even if the experience was again peering at the snowglobe: the world will never be like this again. Had the Academy included this film, some of that sentiment would have made it to new corners that need to hear more about neighborliness writ large.
In the acting categories, among those performances that stood out for me with no Oscar recognition: Thomasin McKenzie in a stunning performance in Leave No Trace, Eva Melander in Border, Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give (a breakout performance among a very strong cast), Rosamund Pike in A Private War, Awkwafina in Crazy Rich Asians, Kathryn Hahn in Private Life (not a comedy as marketed but still, an effective and moving film about infertility) and Carey Mulligan for Wildlife.
Emily Blunt gave it her all for Mary Poppins, a big frothy musical, that rare film that elicited a smile on me from start to finish but nothing gained at the Oscars. Yes, a remake but there are always exceptions to Anne’s rules and Mary Poppins is one of them. I will take you down if you think the world doesn’t need more Mary Poppins. Hell, I need Mary Poppins. Nicole Kidman was note perfect in Boy Erased (and not for Destroyer as many critics have suggested). The standout performance of the year for me was Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade, a film that provoked intense reactions in this household. We all were astonished and brought to tears by the honesty depicted of an age difficult to capture right.
Michael B. Jordan’s performance in Black Panther was not recognized but then, I would have given a nod to several of that powerhouse cast. If a theme that has emerged in the cinema of late is a new kind of father figure, Steve Carrell is it in A Beautiful Boy as much as his beautiful co-star, but so is Ben Foster in a heartbreaking role as a troubled single father living off the grid in Leave No Trace. That this film has fallen off the radar of the Academy is unfortunate as director Debra Granik’s work is simply beautiful here, and provoked an entirely new understanding for me about PTSD.
Ethan Hawke is so utterly compelling in the excellent First Reformed but Hollywood has never embraced the talent in Hawke fully. Others deserving: Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting, Bryan Tyree Henry and Toronto’s own Stephan James: both in If Beale Street could talk.
If I ran the Oscars I’d mix things up entirely with entirely new categories like best screen chemistry (Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke in Juliet, Naked), voiceover work (Isle of Dogs-one of my favourites of 2018, from that great innovator, Wes Anderson. On the show, I’d bring out all the voices behind each dog and make them bark. Now that’s entertainment!) and badass stunts, to name just a few. This year that award surely goes to Tom Cruise for his stupifying stunt-making in Mission: Impossible-Fallout. Tom Cruise is a few years older than me and is a bit better than me in a few things. Watch this.