The 89th Academy Awards ceremony will take place on Sunday, February 26th, and its broadcast will be a glorious celebration of the mainstream films that are respectable enough to show your grandparents. The event will be hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, so we should expect light amusement and Matt Damon jokes.
Following two years of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, when no nominations went to actors of colour, in 2017 there are six black candidates in the ‘Best’ categories — a record. That is supposed to reflect the recent membership changes in the Academy, with women and minorities getting better representation. Hooray! Better representation! Except now Oscars seem to be black and white, like television in the 1950s, with no visible presence of the Latino or Asian communities. The ‘revised’ underrepresentation has already caused discontent (Exhibit A, Exhibit B), but that is because some people simply cannot enjoy progress when it happens one snail push at a time. Gosh. The gall of them!
The full list of nominations can be seen on the official Academy website, or here is a super-sleek ballot published by The New York Times. Below I take a closer look at the titles that seem to be of particular interest — be it by virtue of them being in foreign language, or otherwise.
By now, I have seen two out of nine ‘Best Film’ nominees: Hacksaw Ridge and La La Land. The former is a war drama that is curiously devoid of the pacifist sentiment it is supposed to celebrate. Made by Mel Gibson, the film has the gore and the depth of an old-school shooter, and the best things about it are Hugo Weaving and napalm. The latter, a revival of the musical genre, stars Hollywood darlings Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Their performances are not technically perfect, but the story made my heart soar and break. The academics must have felt the same, as La La Land went to score 14 Oscar nods altogether, repeating the record achievements of All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997).
The seven nominated works I am yet to watch are, in the order of personal preference, Moonlight, Arrival, Fences, Manchester By the Sea, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, and Lion.
Lion is a drama about an Indian boy who gets lost, is adopted by an Australian couple, and grows up to become Dev Patel. Whatever merit the film might have, its trailer strongly reminds of Every Oscar-Winning Movie Ever, suggests that the work is entirely devoid of humour and that Nicole Kidman is reprising her role of a concerned mother familiar from The Others (2001).
Returning to the topic of race — particularly, of black race in America — three films address the matter in various historical context. Hidden Figures, set in the 1960s, is about three female African-American mathematicians who work for NASA and dismantle the patriarchy from within, while dressing with style and profound understanding of patterns. At first glance, it seems like an interesting story told in the most old-fashioned way and shown through pastel filters (see The Help, 2011, or any Disney live feature).
If Hidden Figures lacks intensity, the same cannot be said regarding Fences, a family drama taking place in 1950s Pittsburgh. The main parts are played by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, and that film looks sharp as nails. Based on a Pulitzer-winning play, Fences has great dialogue and will surely deliver a couple of twists and turns. I am looking forward to seeing it almost as much as I want to watch Moonlight, the season’s favourite.
Described as ‘fluid and seductive, deceptively mellow, and shot with searing compassion’, Moonlight is one of the highest-rated films of this century (so far) and, certainly, the most intriguing Oscar nominee. Issues of growing up, sexuality, parenthood, and punishment in modern America are approached with the understanding of their complexity, interdependence, and continuity. Aesthetically, I already love the visuals Moonlight delivers.
Arrival, praised for Amy Adams’s performance, is a sci-fi thriller that, although introducing us to space aliens, is closer in its style and drama beats to Gravity (2013) and Interstellar (2014), rather than Alien (1979). The core question of Arrival is that of communication and finding enough in common to understand each other. That seems timely and, personally, I am ready to take any lessons. On another note, I was told by the viewers who had studied linguistics with me a life ago now that the film proves general theories, and so my geeky side is extra curious about their applications on screen.
A different example of genre cinema, Hell or High Water is a Western that has been credited with revitalising the genre and introducing full-bodied characters in place of stereotypes. It’s a bit dirty, a bit gritty, it does not promise a merry anything, apart from a wild ride and an occasional view of Chris Pine’s slightly sagging belly that he must have prepared specifically for this role. Colour me curious.
The final title is Manchester By the Sea which, according to Twitter, is a brilliant cinematic choice for anyone in the need of a good long cry. Casey Affleck, nominated for Best Leading Actor amidst controversy, makes use of his naturally meek and sad countenance (see The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2007) and Michelle Williams has not been this miserable since Blue Valentine (2010). With its charm of a wet dog and its well-delivered parts, Manchester By the Sea is a strong contender for the main Academy award.
The five films in foreign language chosen by the Academy this year come from Australia (spoken in Nauvhal, a Southern Oceanic vernacular), Denmark, Germany, Iran, and Sweden.
Iranian The Salesman looks breathtaking and dark. A double drama, it deals with assault, grief, and revenge as experienced by a couple of actors involved in a local rendition of Henry Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The theme of reality versus illusion unites the play and their life off the stage, and it seems that the film will provide a happy ending for neither part. My only previous experience with Iranian cinema is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), and that was an excellent picture, full of character, style, and subdued humour. The Salesman looks equally promising, even though the plot devices the two films have in common should upset any feminist.
A Man Called Ove entered by Sweden and Land of Mine representing Denmark tell stories of likeable people processing trauma. Ove is about a grumpy old widower searching for an escape but, through a chance friendship, finding the ability to handle his wife’s death. Land of Mine shows a group of Hitlerjugend teens clearing Dutch shores of landmines in the aftermath of the war. Historically, half of the prisoners engaged in that task lost either their lives or their limbs, without much sympathy from Danes. When you are fourteen, it is normal to think that the world hates you, but in the case of those German boys that just happened to be true.
Australian entry Tanna is Romeo and Juliet set on an island in the South Pacific. Made by Martin Butler and Bentley Dean, co-directors who had previously shot documentaries together, it leaves the impression of a National Geographic production. The more interesting parts have nothing to do with acting or plot but, rather, are glimpses into the daily life of a community foreign to the viewer.
German Toni Erdmann is a study of the father-daughter relationship, where the father is a middle-aged prankster with little regard for any social norms, and the daughter is tired of his shenanigans but also distracted by business, business, business. Numbers! Toni Erdmann has a lot of admirers and the same uncomfortable emotional accuracy that lasted nine series of Peep Show. I find second-hand embarrassment unbearable, so this feature might prove to be the real challenge of the awards season.
The Best Animated Feature this year is either Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings, My Life as a Courgette by Swiss director Claude Barras, The Red Turtle co-produced by Wild Bunch in France and Studio Ghibli in Japan, Disney’s Moana, or Disney’s Zootopia.
Having seen Zootopia and Kubo and the Two Strings, I would be happy if either of them won. The world of animated features is skewed towards big studio productions, but these two titles would truly deserve the honour, regardless of their lineage. Zootopia is an on-screen fable as never seen before, unafraid to tackle the hot issue of ‘us vs. them’, funny and beautiful. Kubo and the Two Strings is stop-animation at its finest and a rare opportunity to watch a family adventure where the family is both functioning and non-standard.
Moana is on my to-watch list, and I expect it to be an easy-going story of a strong-willed girl on a mission. A bit like Leslie Knope, if Leslie Knope was a daughter of the chief in a Polynesian tribe. I have been told there are musical numbers in Moana, which greatly diminishes my chances of liking the film. I have this debilitating condition where I do not enjoy most Disney songs. I wonder how far I’ll go with that attitude.
My Life as a Courgette stands out in its singular unprettiness and delicacy. About as simple as any childhood story, it is set at an orphanage and focuses on friendship, first love, loneliness, and the concept of family. Everyone has expressive eyes, noses and ears, adults are occasionally competent, and Courgette’s real name is Icarus but that, coupled with his life of kites, cannot possibly mean a thing.
Not using any speech, The Red Turtle tells an updated story of Robinson Crusoe — or Cast Away (2000) — introducing a mythological element. Majestic watercolour landscapes, the work of Ghibli, are offset by the minutiae of leaves or crabs scuttling along the shore. The plot seems simple enough, but that might be deceptive, as is the figure of the Red Turtle herself.
The Oscar-nominated documentaries cover topics as wide as the refugee crisis, autism, and the Civil Rights Movement in America. These are largely upsetting educational films that make one exercise empathy, which is a precious quality as far as 2017 is concerned. Foremost, I am planning on watching O. J.: Made in America as soon as I am done with the first series of American Crime Story dedicated to the same subject. It is as if fiction and reality never strayed too far from one another, being ever-changing reflections in the water.
By the end of winter we shall find out which descriptions ring truest.
Current album: Christine and the Queens, Chaleur humaine
Current book: Ian McEwan, Nutshell
Current TV series: Stranger Things, Series 1 (2016)