The 91st Academy Award Nominations: a Response

When I first started to see myself as a film person, the release of the Oscar nominations would devastate me. I’d think I’d been diligently seeing films, and yet the ones I loved, ones that seemed to be darlings of the indie cinemas I attended, didn’t get nominated. Last year with great films like Mother!, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and my personal favorite The Florida Project going largely unrecognized, I finally began to clue in: Oscar movies aren’t the best that’s out there. Rather the academy specializes in a niche of film that feels more pretentious than superhero movies, but isn’t necessarily of any higher quality.

This year ironically, a superhero movie was nominated, and in fairness, it was one I liked quite a bit. That said, my favorite films of the year were, again, virtually shut out of the Oscars: no nominations went to Thoroughbreds, one went to First Reformed and none went to Sorry to Bother You.

I think by now I’ve learned not to care. Not only do I realize that the academy are not the be-all-end-all guardians of film respectability, but I’ve almost reminded myself that giving out awards is itself  a questionable practice. On the one hand, public awards are a means of celebrating a field and bringing fans “together.” But on the other hand, whenever there are winners there are far more non-winners and especially when there are children nominated for awards, I can’t help but feel bad for the actors who have to tensely sit through all the ceremony only to find they have not won.

Furthermore, no matter how one feels about giving out awards, many of the Oscar categories feel like they are beyond the realm of reasonable judgement. Does it make sense to say X was a better actor than Y, when X and Y were not compared in playing the same role? In no other context would such an apples and oranges comparison be made.

I have decided as a modest participant in film culture to make an Oscars list. I ask however, reader, that you not see this as a list of awards so much as my way of participating in this celebration of film culture. The films and actors I am naming are not objectively superior to others, only memorable parts of my film-viewing experience of 2018. And I look forward to reading a diversity of such lists in days to come.

 

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Anton Yelchin- Thoroughbreds

Thoroughbreds combines the intensity of a murder thriller with the vulnerability of its (anti)-heroes to create a uniquely tense viewing experience. Yelchin completes this power dynamic matrix through his portrayal of a down-on-his-luck ex-convict. Another good choice here would be Michael B. Jordan whose three-dimensional and politicized portrayal of a Marvel Supervillain played a big role in Black Panther’s rise to critical acclaim. 

 

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Regina King- If Beale Street Could Talk

This may be the category where I and the Academy reach the same conclusion. If Beale Street Could Talk is a mainstream-ish Oscar movie. I say ish, because it for whatever reason, seems to have fallen just short of capturing the same attention as Moonlight. A positive reason why the film is on the Oscars’ fringes is that unlike other topical works, it focuses less on messaging and drama then it does on relationships and emotions. King’s character bears the brunt of this, acting through the scenes where the most resolve is required, allowing her performance to shine.

Alternatively, those who believe awards are about conscious talent may question this choice, but I dare anyone who has seen Capernaum to not at least entertain the idea that Boluwatife Bankole, who plays perhaps the most dynamic infant you’ll ever seen on screen, is not worthy of a best supporting actress nomination.

BEST ACTOR

Ethan Hawke-First Reformed

Hawke was an excellent choice for portraying a stereotype defying-priest: a leftist-inclined thinker whose abilities to lead a congregation is maligned by his own existential anxiety. Is his character engaged in a personal drama or a story about the human and ecological race? Does he believe he can be saved, does he think he’s doomed or does he think he has to be the one who saves in the absence of divine help? While I’ll certainly be rooting for Paul Schrader to win a best-original screenplay for this one, this film is a character study, and as such its a shame the academy missed a chance to honor Hawke’s defining contribution.

 

BEST ACTRESS

Olivia Cooke-Thoroughbreds

Cooke plays a character who supposedly has no emotions, a proposition that audiences are made to question, but never doubt. Cooke charismatically embodies this trying ambiguity, which stays powerful up to and including in the film’s defining-finale.

While it’s tempting to point out charismatic portrayals in pieces like this, straight-men (or straight-women or straight-girls) can be just as important in film construction. This is why Rachelle Vinberg‘s role in Skate Kitchen is so memorable. In absurd universes sometimes audiences need a “reasonable” figure to grasp onto. Sometimes these figures can feel a bit like throw-ins, whose reasonability makes them boring or fourth-wall breaking. Vinberg’s character, however, is a quiet, vulnerable figure, meaning her reasonability only adds to her depth and struggle.

Finally, of the actual nominees I think awarding Lady Gaga for her role in A Star is Born would be the most appropriate way of honoring that film: as I believe its biggest strength is taking the charming but simple and dated story of Esther Blodgett, and modernizing it through Gaga’s character, Ally.

 

OTHER ACTING AWARDS

I’ve always been a bit troubled by the fact that the best actor/actress awards seem to be reserved only for the top billed members of each gender, relegating other major characters to the “supporting” category. While there are arguably exceptions, such as Viola Davis’ nomination for her role in Doubt and Mahershala Ali’s win for Moonlight, generally the supporting-categories are not used to honor what I think they should: talented actors who aren’t in leading roles: perhaps even those playing “minor characters.” While he doesn’t get to do as much as Regina King, for example, Brian Tyree Henry, certainly leaves a lasting emotional impression for his one scene in If Beale Street Could Talk. And weird as this is to write, I’ll say what I did before: Michael Beach’s brief, sinister-while-affectionate appearance in Aquaman was perhaps my favorite part of that movie.

I also think it’s a shame that voice actors never get nominated for acting awards, perhaps justifying a best voice-actor category. I get it, they aren’t (usually) burdened with the challenge of physical acting, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing nothing. With that said, I found Katheryn Hahn’s unique portrayal of a familiar character was a defining feature of Spiderman Into the Spider-Verse, making her my choice for this theoretical category.

 

BEST ANIMATED PICTURE

Spiderman Into the Spider-Verse

Ok, I went with the safe one here, in a field where there are never that many options. My view on this category is that essentially it’s the only one that’s inclusive of children, making it important to me that it always goes to a family friendly film. While I think the engaging and playful Into the Spider-Verse is the best choice especially when this criteria is taken into consideration, I’m primarily writing this to express my comfort with the academy going for Isle of Dogs instead, a film which is not only a great visual representation of Wes Anderson’s style, but is also, despite its stylistic pretensions, a reasonably family friendly film.

 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHER

Christopher Aoun Capernaum

Capernaum is the story of a child’s search for security in an unjust and under-resourced world. In balancing shots that show the immensity and bleakness of parts of Beirut with those that focus on the young protagonists direct view Aoun and director Nadine Labaki struck a balance necessary for this kind of world building.

 

BEST DIRECTOR

Chloe Zhao The Rider

Zhang immersed herself in a world and told its story, coming out with a visually stunning work . Perhaps Zhao’s subtlest, but biggest challenge was in writing characters based on the actors playing them and then having to train the actors to differentiate between themselves and their fictionalized personas.

Aneesh Chaganty should also be recognized for his solid debut: Searching. I certainly wasn’t convinced by the gimmick of seeing a film presented all on computer screens, but Chaganty made it work, striking the right balance between visuals and storytelling.

Of the nominees I’d be happy to see Spike Lee finally win for BlackKklansman, given the cartoonishness and wit he layered into what, under another director/co-writer , could have turned out to be a more conventional biopic.

 

BEST PICTURE

Sorry to Bother You

Colorful, action-packed and strange, for me Sorry to Bother You’s biggest achievement is that it manages to offer new political approach without feeling like its artistic elements are a mere vessel for its politics. Writer-director Boots Riley’s critique is, furthermore, not one of a specific problem or social ill, but of the general fabric of American capitalist society. This approach allowed him to approach satire through world-building. Perhaps Sorry to Bother You was too radical for the Academy to Consider. Perhaps they don’t like horses (don’t look up what that means if you don’t want a spoiler). Either way, they missed out.

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The Visit (2015)

Written and directed by: M Night Shyamalan 

The_Visit_(2015_film)_posterSomething quickly charmed me about The Visit. The film is told from the perspective of two kids visiting their grandparents for the first time: “rapper” Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) and “filmmaker” Becca (Olivia DeJong). The Visit is supposedly Becca’s documentary, a point regularly alluded to, as she lectures Tyler on her art. There is something that’s just-right about Becca’s filmmaker identity. She is too amateur for the film to be read as a clichéd homage to “the artist,” yet she knows too much of what she’s talking about for her documentary to be dismissed as a joke. One thing to take from this is that she has a very specific and thus believable identity. Another, is that as a gifted, but still vulnerable amateur documentarian, her presence adds to the film’s affect: it feels as if she is masterfully documenting her own doom.

The Visit starts with an intriguing if somewhat unlikely premise: these kids have never seen their grandparents, due to a dispute between the grandparents and the mom. For a while, it seems Shyamalan has created a uniquely realistic horror film. His protagonists find themselves in an unusual situation and they’re creeped out by it: that’s all there is too it. Becca’s grandmother may ask her to crawl all the way into the oven, but this only bears aesthetic resemblance to Hansel and Gretel, it is not actually a fatal act.

Great as the premise I described sounds, it’s hard to imagine where it could be taken: how can you end a movie that’s ultimately anti-climatic. So Shyamalan ultimately does make his a horror film. The horror-moment is set up subtlely, though its odd how late in the film the setup is put in place.

Unfortunately, Shyamalan’s non-commitment keeps this film from being as strong in its narrative as it is in its aesthetic. It never builds up its horror quite enough to be scary, while also not finding a bold way to work from start-to-finish with its early realist-not-actually-horror approach. The Visit is nonetheless a strong enough film that it can be enjoyed along with Shyamalan’s other acclaimed works, as part of a strong aesthetic portfolio. If you’re interested in getting to know him as a director or if you simply want to try a less-intense horror flick, it’s absolutely worth the watch.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Written by: Steve Conrad Directed by: Ben Stiller

 

The_Secret_Life_of_Walter_Mitty_posterIt’s easy to be dismissive of a film like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The film follows an “inspiration trajectory,” by which I mean its beginning tells us exactly how its going to end. It is the story of Mitty (Ben Stiller) a photography editor for Life magazine who struggles with an inability to form romantic connections, a slightly offbeat (though I wouldn’t say dysfunctional) family and employment precarity, as Life is taken over by a “modernizing” new manager (Adam Scott). Walter’s problems fit into neat thematic categories, so I can understand why certain film critics might be put off by the film’s having a “predictable,” “inspirational” message.

Nonetheless, I am also weary of people deciding whether or not they like a film because of pre-conceived metrics like “predictability” and “preachiness” (in my last few posts I’ve similarly criticized by own heuristic of “subtlety”). The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is particularly cloying in its final moment, but when it comes to appreciating the film, this shouldn’t matter. That’s because, despite being the tale of a spiritual journey, Walter Mitty is decidedly secular.

After a photo by famed photographer James O’Connell goes missing (costing Walter his job), Walter decides to find the photographer, a decision that leads him to overcome his mundane existence and take a helicopter to Greenland. This moment, however, is not a celebration of Walter “facing his fears,” “seizing the day” or some other clichéd value: rather, it’s a mildly captivating moment of magical realist randomness. Smitten by love, and having recently discovered the song “Space Oddity,” Walter takes to the sky. Walter’s journey to Greenland sets up the domino chain of events that define his stories. He proceeds to Iceland, Afghanistan and the Himalayas. Again, one could jump to the conclusion that this trajectory of Walter going from nobody to worldly traveller reeks too much of self-help books to be thematically interesting. This kind of judgement, however, is one I believe critics reach after-the-fact. While watching Walter’s story, I found his character development to be perfectly paced. A weird episode leads him to Greenland, and from there he becomes impressed with his new coolness and experiences self-actualization at a believeable rate. Walter’s character development thus blends in smoothly with his dramatic surroundings. Audiences are thus not left to gaze too closely at the film’s feel good plot, but rather to appreciate the sparkling photography Walter’s journey passes: mirror lakes and abyss-laden mountain ranges.

For a spiritual journey, Walter’s is also a rather silly one. The leadup to his journey features a cutaway to a parody of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The conclusion of his journey introduces him to a spiritual guru of sorts, who in fact is a carelessly playful, not all that insightful, famous actor in an extended-cameo. Along, the way Walter is also exposed to a recurring character (Patton Oswalt) who’s very becoming a recurring character is itself a playful gesture.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is visually ambitious, moderately experimental and certainly has funny moments. These qualities combine to make it at very least an interesting viewing experience. Critics have found reason to criticize it, but, and I levy this criticism cautiously, in this case I feel they are simply thinking too hard, instead of appreciating the easily captivating creative, and sensorial experience that is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.