Finally Oscar season is over which is both a relief and a shame. After the tightest and most open race in ages The Shape of Water came out with both the highest number of Oscars (4) and the big prize in Best Picture. But as is befitting to the nature of this year’s race, the awards were spread out as seven of the nine Best Picture nominees heard their name called for various awards that night and two others (Coco and Blade Runner 2049) were multiple awards winners too.
In the aftermath of a sombre and mostly disaster free night (after last year’s snafu) here are some of my concluding thoughts on Oscar season:
WHAT EXACTLY DOES AN OSCAR BEST PICTURE WINNER LOOK LIKE NOW?
There are some quarters who are citing The Shape of Water‘s win as an example of Hollywood playing it safe once again. Even though I myself only had it as the sixth best movie on my own Best Picture ranking this is a ludicrous claim to make. The fact is that there is absolutely no precedent for The Shape of Water – a nerd-love letter to classic horror movies and classic movies as well as a human-fish creature romance tale. Had this film won in any other year prior to Moonlight’s win last year we would be thoroughly stunned that the Academy went in this direction and excited for the prospects of film’s future.
So it is really only in light of Moonlight’s win last year, easily the most pleasantly shocking win of all time, that The Shape of Water‘s win seems like a setback. But what is lost in the conversation is just how rapidly the Academy’s concept of what a Best Picture movie looks like has shifted. In years past Darkest Hour and The Post would have easily been the frontrunners of the race and I would be moaning about how the Academy had once again fallen for Oscar Bait. But in this year’s race they were afterthoughts. Instead the three major film’s in the conversation for best picture (Three Billboards, Get Out, The Shape of Water) and the next tier of films that theoretically had a puncher’s chance (Lady Bird, Dunkirk) were all in their own way very different films from the usual template of Oscar Winners. The remaining movies Call Me By Your Name and Phantom Thread were similarly ambitious in ways few Oscar winners typically are.
This of course begs the question, “So what exactly does an Oscar Best Picture look like now?” This ceremony made clear that the Academy does not have a firm grasp of what that looks like, and this has been true for several years now. The Shape of Water is the latest Best Picture winner with less than five awards overall (with the last movie to dominate an awards ceremony being Slumdog Millionaire which was ten years ago). Starting with Mad Max: Fury Road winning six awards a few years ago and culminating with this year’s slate of nominees it is clear that the old model of “Oscar-movie” no longer holds true. It is hard to argue to think that the recent push to adding more diversity to the voting body of the Academy has not been directly responsible for this shift (women now make up 28% of the Academy, up from 25% in 2015; minorities now make up 13% of the voting body, up from 8% in 2015).
Get Out not winning can only be considered a snub if it is accepted that a racial horror-comedy fits in the category of an “Oscar-worthy” movie. A fish-romance fantasy tale about acceptance and inclusion of people in the margins can only be considered a “safe choice” by the Academy if the metrics for what a “safe Academy pick” has shifted dramatically from it’s historical definition. This race has proved that what an “Oscar” movie can be is now more diverse than it ever has been for. This cannot be anything but good news for the Academy and the film industry. But it also cannot be anything but good news for the rest of us who love watching good movies.
THE FUTURE IS DIVERSE AND INCLUSIVE
The biggest entertainment story right now is one that had nothing to do with the Oscars and that is the emergence of Black Panther, the first major superhero movie starring an almost exclusively black cast, as a box office powerhouse (currently breaking into the top 10 box office gross in North America of all time in its third weekend). It is an astounding accomplishment that is a resounding indictment against an entertainment industry that has for so long resisted telling minority stories on a large scale. It is also simply a continuation of trends that were established almost exactly a year ago when Jordan Peele’s Get Out shocked everyone by being both a box-office phenomenon while having the legs to run a nearly successful Oscar campaign and Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman who proved that superhero stories about someone other than a white man could prove to be appealing not just to women (even if it was especially empowering to them) but to the masses. Some people are already talking about Black Panther being among the mix for next year’s Oscars (which I will not speculate about because it’s officially the Oscar offseason for the next three months for me after this post goes up) and at this stage it is not a completely ridiculous proposition.
At the ceremony itself, inclusion and diversity were on full display not just in the composition of the presenters and the major themes of the night, but in the actual winners. Jordan Peele became the first African-American to win a screenplay award for his debut film. A Fantastic Woman became the first movie from Chile to win the Foreign Picture Oscar even as the movie’s star Daniela Vega became the first trans-woman ever to present at the awards. James Ivory, an openly gay writer who for a long time had to keep homosexuality to the subtext in films, finally won his first Oscar for adapting the coming-of-age tale and explicitly gay film Call Me By Your Name. Kumail Nanjiani, the star of The Big Sick and writer (along with his wife Emily V. Gordon), almost stole the night with a couple of standout appearances and got what seemed like the loudest applause for a soundbite he gave in a montage, “Some of my favorite movies are movies by straight white dudes about straight white dudes. Now straight white dudes can watch movies starring me and they relate to it. It’s not that hard. I’ve done it my whole life.” And then Frances McDormand actually stole the night in her acceptance speech by calling out Hollywood to not only listen to women’s stories but pony up the cash to finance them (while invoking the dreaded term of “inclusion rider” – a type of contract where movies would be obligated to hire a certain percentage of women and minorities for all the roles in front of an behind-the-camera). And the fact that all of these happened without feeling remotely forced is a testament to how far we have come and how bright the future looks for film. Now let’s be clear, we still have a long way to go, but let’s acknowledge that the film industry is more diverse, more inclusive, and as a result more exciting than they were five years ago, let alone ninety iterations of this award ago. And that is something to be celebrated.
LONG OVERDUE AND RIGHTLY SO
I usually deplore the idea of giving someone a regular Oscar as a de-facto lifetime achievement award simply because they’ve been snubbed for so long. And while that effectively happened twice last night, I truly cannot complain too much because both of those wins were well deserved not just for the people who won them but for the projects they won them with.
As someone pointed out last night (I sincerely cannot remember who), you can simply go through the nominated films that Roger Deakins didn’t win the award for cinematography for and get a thorough education of the last thirty years or so in film. The man had been nominated thirteen times before for beautifully shot movies like Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Man, Skyfall, and Sicario. To say the man was overdue would be an understatement. But the fact that he won for Blade Runner 2049 which is a stunningly beautiful movie from beginning to end, made it all the more sweeter that he finally won.
I’ve already mentioned James Ivory, but he became the oldest person ever to win an Academy Award when he picked up the award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Call Me By Your Name. The fact that the openly gay Ivory, whose career has long been about keeping homosexuality in the subtext of his gorgeously romantic films due to the prejudices of society, finally won for the explicitly gay Call Me By Your Name is a fantastic bit of poetic justice. The fact that Call Me By Your Name completely deserved to win that award to makes it all the more sweeter.
- I know Agnes Varda doesn’t care two hoots (maybe just one hoot) about winning the Oscar because she is just that much cooler than us, but it would have been awesome to see her accept the award for Faces/Places and become the oldest person to win the award while capping off a fantastic and revolutionary career.
- Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan are quickly becoming this generation’s Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg in terms of being repeatedly denied the Best Director award. This will need to be ratified soon before it becomes a serious blight like it was for Scorsese and Spielberg. Of course this is not to mean that Guillermo Del Toro is not deserving of the award. But it’s becoming a little ridiculous.
- Genuinely bummed that Lady Bird came away empty handed from the awards. In any other year I would be generally outraged, but the fact is that this year’s slate was so strong that it’s hard to be completely upset about it not winning any awards. The fact is that it is slightly miraculous that this female coming-of-age comedy was not the template of a usual Best Picture nominee (like so many of its fellow nominees this year) that it was a genuine surprise that Lady Bird made it to the party in the first place. And while Saoirse Ronan got snubbed again this year (for the third time before turning 25!) it’s clear that the awards season was a perfect coming out for the women involved in this project.
- The easy thing to say is that Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph should be hosting awards shows from here on out as they easily were the best presenters in a particularly drab year. But the better thing to say is that Paul Thomas Anderson (Rudolph’s husband) had better be working on a fantastic script for these two women to star in because the world needs more of these two.
- I think the decision to reward Kobe Bryant in the year of “Time’s Up” is one that’s not going to age well.
- The fact that going into the final award there were several movies that still had viable claims to it thanks to its earlier win in vital categories (Dunkirk for Editing, Get Out for Original Screenplay, Three Billboards for two acting awards, and The Shape of Water for Director) speaks to just how much depth there was to this year’s movie field. Although it is still too early to call it, I do think 2017 is going to go down as a particularly strong year for the movies.
- Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig are going to be back. Their debut films are just too great for them not to be the leaders for the next generation of filmmakers.
- Timotheé Chalamet and Saiorse Ronan also prove that the future of acting is going to be bright. Their time has come, and the awards just have to follow soon.
- Jimmy Kimmel succeeds as a host because he knows his role and simply sticks to it. He is simply uninterested in making things cool, which as everyone knows is the first step to being cool.
- As much as I love the montage sequences every year, showcasing all the awesome and amazing movies that have stood the test of time that DIDN’T win Oscars does not really help your case in proving to the public that the Academy is a relevant institution.
- And for the record: I still think Dunkirk should have won. I completely understand why it didn’t and that it wasn’t the most important film of the year. But it was the best.
(Author’s note: With Oscar season done I’m going to be taking a well-deserved break from blogging for a week. So see you next week!)