Frances McDormand winning a human shaped award in some year other than 2018
I’ve listed this post as an essay, but it’s more of a listacle. By listacle standards it’s an essay. I hope you appreciate this commentary even as it horrifyingly lacks an introduction and a conclusion. Without further ado, here are my quips with the Academy.
Time to Split the best Animation Category
I watched the Oscars at a public viewing event. As Coco was given the award for best animated picture the person sitting next to me complained. “How?” he asked, “Could Loving Vincent not win? It’s an OIL PAINTED MOVIE!” Those comments rang both true and false for me. They rang true in that painting a movie surely made for the year’s biggest achievement in animation. They rang false in that acknowledging the fact that Loving Vincent was, literally speaking, the year’s best animation is (to quote Leonard Cohen speaking on the subject of Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize) like “pinning a medal on Everest for being the tallest mountain.”
My personal inclination is that the Oscar for best animated picture should go to a kids movie. After all, it’s the one award that most kids will have heard of an entry in, and therefore, the only one which they will likely have a rooting interest for. In that sense I agree that Coco was a better choice than Loving Vincent. To have given the award to Loving Vincent, would be to have given the middle finger to kids. On the other hand to name a Pixar film the year’s best kids movie is also like pinning that medal on Everest.
Clearly we need more good kids movies (or the Oscars needs to do a better job of finding them). On the other hand, it does feel like a shame that notable animated works like Loving Vincent and Anomalisa (a 2016 nominee) have to compete in a category where I, and apparently many voters, feel they have no real place. The Oscars should make a quick and long overdue fix and simply separate the category into best family movie and best animation: problem solved!
Get Your Cause Speech Right
Even with time limits removed, this year’s Oscar speeches were still generally given in traditionally short fashion: rife with thank yous meaningless to most viewers. Of course it is also not unheard of for Oscar winners to use their platform to make a shout out for a social cause of the day that is often related to their film. While I would never be one to tell celebrities to “shut up and act,” the inherent brevity of the Oscar speech often gives these statements a damningly superficial affect. I think this was particularly true in the case of Coco producer Darla K Anderson’s speech in which she plainly stated that the film was made with the intent of representing non-white characters and culture. While it is indeed important to celebrate and promote representation in filmmaking, Anderson’s choice to represent the film solely as a work of representation made the project seem like a mere charity project rather than a multi-faceted, award-worthy film.
Frances McDormand, by contrast, came a bit closer to figuring out how best to politicize an Oscar speech. Rather than taking on a big subject (such as representation) and failing to present it with nuanced judgement, she was to the point, specific, and narrow. She championed “inclusion riders”: the idea that actors (with clout) can use their contract negotiations as a platform from which to negotiate on behalf of woman and minority actors other than themselves. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say actors should only talk about subjects that fit into 30 second speeches (I’m for all flavors of progressive provocativeness), plans of action beat vague rhetoric in most situations.
Is the Academy Afraid of Great Documentaries?
Perhaps that heading is a bit provocative, as the issue here is not so much about quality but character. Greta Gerwig and Laura Dern presented the best documentary category by describing documentarians as truth tellers, implicitly championing them and other kinds of journalists in the age of Trump. If that is the view the Oscars have of the role of documentaries I can understand why they did not award the playful, unlikely-friendship-centred Faces and Places. Then again, the film that did win (which, to be fair, I haven’t seen) Icarus seems to have been propelled to the top on American Olympic patriotism; I hardly see the notion that Russia systematically cheats as sports as a pressing issue of the day. As far as I’m concerned, Faces Places was simultaneously an exploration of various French proletarian stories, a quirky adventure movie, and an homage to the life of une legende de cinema nouvelle vague. If that’s not a “best documentary,” I don’t know what is.
Faces Places’ snub reminded me of the loss of The Act of Killing back in 2014. That loss felt more absurd given that Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary was in fact about a pressing issue (it lost to a film about the experience of being a career backup singer). Like Faces and Places, however, The Act of Killing, did not simply teach but also told a story. While nominally about the brutal anti-communist killings of the Indonesian coup in 1965 and the murderous-machismo culture that stemmed from them, the film goes on to examine the personalities of individual killers and how they explore, and in some cases come to regret, their relationship to violence and power through the arts.
I am a hypocrite in that on principle I don’t like the idea of awards (I’m a participation trophy loving millennial, get over it conservatives), but also enjoy talking about and watching the Oscars. I can reconcile this tension, partially, by citing the approach of Youtuber nerdwriter1, who says he doesn’t care about who wins, but sees the list of nominations as a chance to celebrate a year in filmmaking. In that sense I think its important to acknowledge some of the nominations that could have been.
As I discussed previously, I found Downsizing to be on the of most-bizarrely mis-rated films of the year, and was disappointed to see its costar Hong Chau not nominated for best supporting actress. The way Chau’s character is written, puts her at risk of being seen as a joke by racist audiences: she has a heavy Vietnamese accent, is headstrong and is just a tad vulgar. Chau, however, brings the character to life as an anarchic jolt in Downsizing’s dark story, turning what is at that point a visual-based film into a compelling adventure.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer also went unacknowledged at the Oscars, which is a shame given that it was the pinnacle film in a year of what I call “thorough horror.” It’s distinct use of deadpan acting should have garnerned nominations for writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos and supporting actor and spaghetti eater Barry Keoghan.
Finally, if I had to pick a film of the year, it’s The Florida Project. The film got one nomination for supporting actor Willem Dafoe, a nomination that while deserved feels like an insult to the film’s approach of largely casting amateur actors. While I can understand not nominating Brooklyn Prince for best actress on the grounds that it might be unethical to put a seven year old through the stress of being nominated, I’m disappointed that her co-star Bria Vinaite was not nominated in her place. Vinaite took on similar challenges to Saoirse Ronan who was nominated for her role in Lady Bird, playing a young woman who is playful, but regularly plagued with sadness. The difference of course, is that Vinaite’s character, Halley, has to take on this spectrum of moods within far more painful circumstances, and with less avenue for self expression than Lady Bird has.
I would also, of course, have liked the film to have been nominated for best picture. If you want to know why you can read my review, or check out this great argument by nerdwriter1 who I quoted earlier in this entry.