Some Oscar Thoughts

So the votes are in. Or at least the preliminary votes. The Academy has spoken and selected the three-to-five Best whatevers of 2015 films. Now the real betting can begin to determine which is the best of the Best.

In general, it’s not a bad Oscar lineup. There are some things I’m very happy with. There are some glaring oversights. For starters:

Best Song

When I woke up this morning, this was actually the first category I checked. And I was crushed. See You Again didn’t even warrant a nomination. That’s criminal. No offense to Sam Smith, who I’m sure is a perfectly fine musician, but I don’t think I even remembered his song for Spectre even right after the movie, much less months later.

In contrast Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth put out a heartspoken entry that shot to the top of the charts (ousting fantastic earworm Uptown Funk) and managing to be memorable even months later. Go ahead, try and listen to it and not tear up a bit. I dare you.

So my initial thought was “Fuck these Oscars”. But I kept looking around and there were some bright spots.

Mad Max: Fury Road

What seemed like a dark horse candidate for many categories even a month ago managed to secure an amazing ten nominations, second most of any film. And it wasn’t just for the technical stuff. George Miller himself is up for both Best Director and Best Picture (along with Doug Mitchell).

Arguably, it should have had even more. Charlize Theron’s performance as Furiosa had a depth of anger and focus that was among the best performances of the year, man or woman. And Nicholas Hoult’s turn as Nux gave us one of the best and touching character arcs ever seen. Junkie XL’s score is a piece of brilliance and not getting a nod is criminal. Finally, while it’s not anything close to standard for screenplays, the process that Miller built up the story of the film is key to making the whole thing work, and should have been acknowledged.

Still, there is good news. It got noms for all eight of the technical categories (Cinematography, Costume Design, Visual Effects, Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, and Makeup.) It should manage a handful of wins from those.

 

Animation

The presence of Inside Out among the Best Animated Feature nominees was not a surprise. The fact that all of the other four nominees were much lower profile was, and that’s welcome. It’s become apparent that the animation branch in particular doesn’t generally follow the lean of popularity in their choices. One has to look no further than The LEGO Movie‘s surprising snub last year to see that.

Even so, the lack of anything from a major studio besides Inside Out could indicate that the branch is going even further in that direction. While Shaun the Sheep and Anomolisa are fairly expected (the animation branch LOVES stop motion), and When Marnie Was There is a beautiful piece of traditional animation (another love) that also has the distinction of being the final feature from the legendary Studio Ghibli, the presence of Boy & the World is a shock. Mostly because you haven’t heard of it. It’s grossed a total of $17,580. No, that’s not missing a few digits. It’s earned less in total (domestically) than Inside Out did in an average theater over its opening weekend ($22,919.)

So, nice selection that will hopefully drive the profile of some of these films higher.

But let’s talk about Inside Out. It’s basically guaranteed to win the award. Now that the voting is going to the entire Academy, the trends will take hold, and it’s become apparent that whatever grosses the most domestically will probably win the Oscar. But Inside Out also managed to snag a writing nomination, for Best Original Screenplay. This isn’t an unprecedented feat. Pete Docter’s last film, UP, managed do to the same.

Where the two differ, though, is that despite easily being one of the best films of the year, Inside Out didn’t get a Best Picture nomination. The reasons for this are because after expanding the field to ten films in 2009 (which allowed UP to get a nom), the Academy changed the rules in 2011 (after Toy Story 3 got a BP nom), so that there’s a threshold of first place votes required to get a choice. This has led to there being a selection of eight or nine films, not ten. Whether this was done to keep animation out (and in its preferred ghetto spot of Best Animated Feature) or something else, I don’t know.

Acting (and other whiteness)

Here’s where we get to the ugly. For the second year in a row, all twenty nominees for the four acting categories were white people. And for the second year in a row, that’s a highly questionable selection.

It’s not that the nominees aren’t great. I’m sure many of them are, but when you have the likes of Straight Outta Compton and Creed, both of which garnered critical praise and seemed well poised to get some recognition. Both films came away with but a single nomination (Best Original Screenplay for Compton and Best Supporting Actor – for Sylvester Stallone – for Creed). Both films should have had more, in acting, directing, and picture recognition.

Besides those two, where is Will Smith? Where is Idris Elba? Where is Samuel L. Jackson? Their presence wouldn’t make up for the astonishingly offensive snub of David Oyelowo last year, but it would be a start.

I mean, how is Eddie Redmayne there? By all reports, the only bright spot in The Danish Girl is Alicia Vikandar’s performance (she’s had a hell of a year). Did Redmayne get in because the voters were like “Oh, he won last year so this must be good?” I suppose he just has that right combination of “Most Acting” that the Academy seems to adore. (I like Jupiter Ascending, but his cheesy over-the-top-ness in it doesn’t really indicate he’s a man who knows how to act in moderation.)

So we’re looking at two straight years where many actors (and directors) of color have put up virtuoso work and not been acknowledged. It’s great that Mad Max: Fury Road got the recognition it deserves, but it’s only a weird blip in the otherwise ongoing out-of-touch-ness that the Oscars display.

And I don’t mean popularity, here. Understanding that diversity in awards and other recognition is as important as being diverse in the products themselves. The whiteness of the acting nominations is anomalous, even for an institution as old, white, male as the Academy. In every year from 2013 at least as far back as 2001, at least one non-white person got an acting nomination. Several of them, such as Denzel Washington, Lupita Nyong’o, and Javiar Bardem even won.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

So, Star Wars wasn’t shut out, earning five nominations, but it didn’t get a Best Picture nomination. And this is a little anomalous.

Going back at least as far as Jaws every film that has managed to break the all-time domestic record has managed to get a nomination for Best Picture. So why didn’t it happen this time? Another sign that the Academy is out of touch with the general public?

Well, in a sense, it seems that the Academy is less likely to favor huge box office grossing films than they were in the past. It’s not that they dislike such things, but the biggest films of late tend to be franchise vehicles and sequels, which isn’t something favored by the Academy. In fact, only five sequels have ever gotten a BP nomination: two Lord of the Rings films, two Godfather films, and Toy Story 3. 

Besides that, all those previous All Time Domestic Champions were very much director driven films. James Cameron was the guiding vision for Titanic and Avatar. Steven Spielberg is entirely behind Jaws and ET. And George Lucas perhaps had so much of a vision for Star Wars, that he spawned the biggest franchise of all time.

In contrast, Star Wars: The Force Awakens feels like a committee vehicle. JJ Abrams may have been the director, but he’s not the only one driving this train. The Academy likes to reward a singular vision, and that’s just not in evidence this time around.

 

 

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