The nominees were announced for the 89th Academy Awards this week. "La La Land" grabbed the headlines as it equalled the record of 14 nominations. Impressive. Especially considering it's a pretty average film.
Earlier the BBC ran a story which said 'La La Land is one of the best three films in history'. They stuck a clause on the end of this: 'That's if you use the Oscar nominations as a guide'. We don't use the Oscar nominations as a guide, neither do we use the eventual winners. "La La Land" will win a bag load and it isn't even one of the best three films of the year. Most people can remember the moment they started to take the Academy with a pinch of salt . My raison d'etre came in 2013 when Christopher Waltz won Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Django Unchained". Nothing wrong with his performance but it happened that Philip Seymour Hoffman was also nominated for "The Master".
The Academy Awards got a fair bit of stick last year, remember the whole #OscarsSoWhite trend? It was because there were no black nominees in the main actor/actress categories. In fairness I don't know how much of that was the fault of the Academy but instead down to the lack of diversity in the film industry as a whole. I remember particular outrage about Will Smith not getting nominated for that film which made you feel like you had concussion after watching it. That didn't help the #OscarsSoWhite cause.
A difference a year makes though, not so white anymore, a healthy mix of all all ethnic backgrounds: both white and black nominees this time round. So what OR who does the guy that didn't much rate "La La Land" actually rate ahead of this year's room full of stars.
Here are a few thoughts.
"Moonlight" was easily my film of the year. The official UK release isn't until February 17th but this incredible film by Barry Jenkins did the festival circuit last year. An episodic journey into the life of 'Chiron', a boy growing up in 80's Miami who is struggling to deal with his sexuality and a drug-addict mother, Moonlight is a film that had me helplessly involved in a world completely remote and unknown from my own. Because ultimately, that's why cinema is so powerful right, its power to transport us. This was down to a great script (adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue), great direction and an outstanding cast. Each of the three actors playing Chiron at the various stages of his life were equally impressive, while Mahershala Ali & Naomi Harris provided great support.
Should it win Best Picture it would be a big middle finger up to the whole #OscarsSoWhite brigade of last year. As A.O Scott mentioned in his review, there's not one white actor in the cast, #MoonlightSoBlack. It's visceral on a level superior to "Manchester by the Sea" and "La La Land" and I hope the academy doesn't go with the style of "LaLa" over the substance of "Moonlight".
I'll be seeing it again when it officially releases in the UK next month, so should you.
I'm still not completely decided on the film (Manchester by the Sea) but Affleck's performance I'm pretty sure about. In "Manchester" he plays 'Lee Chandler', an awkward, socially disconnected handyman from Boston. It's only as the film unravels (perhaps a bit too slowly for my liking) that we discover why he's this way. "Manchester" deprives of us much emotion in its first half and we feel a stranger to Chandler's true self. But as his backstory is later developed, Affleck completes the character with a subtlety thats rare to find.
The best scenes in the film came when Chandler was made to confront the emotions that had been laying dormant inside, hiding from his past. Affleck didn't reveal all of his cards, we were made to wait. I especially liked the scene that he bumps into ex-partner (Michelle Williams) whilst she's walking her newest baby and the meeting upon which he discovers his deceased brother has made him guardian of his son.
*OBLIGATORY OSCARS CONTROVERSY BIT*
The actress Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat) tweeted in outrage at Affleck's nomination. It was a throwback to his past allegations of sexual harassment. This then lead people to draw a parallel between Nate Turner who was overlooked for the Best Actor category this year. An old rape case involving Turner was heavily publicised after "The Birth Of A Nation" was released. Why then, was Turner *cough, he's black, cough* overlooked while Affleck leads the race, they ask. #OscarsSoWhite?
Well, you could start by pointing out the gaping hole left by the gap in quality between both the films and their respective performances. But I doubt that will satisfy, and it shouldn't, because as mentioned above, the Academy doesn't necessarily always pick the best performances. So maybe Constance Wu does have a point. Regardless, it's an awards ceremony, it's not like they're running for President or something really important like that. Awards are great, because from our perspective they're really important- as Jim Carrey put it at the Globes. I would distance the actor from the act. If you're rewarding the piece of art itself, then that should be your only consideration. You don't have this problem if award ceremonies like the Oscars and the Globes are made to be such a big deal in the first place though. Just saying.
It wouldn't be overly surprising, especially given last year's bad press, if the Academy went for a safer option in Ryan Gosling (La La Land) or Denzel Washington (Fences). That probably depends on how much the press run the whole Turner/Affleck debate from now until then.
Also a quick shoutout to Joel Edgerton who wasn't nominated for his performance in "Loving". His might have been my favourite from 2016 and was a clear nominee/contender in my mind. Can't win 'em all though Warrior.
Best Supporting Actress
The "Best Supporting" categories always slightly confuse me. What differentiates a "lead" and a "supporting" role? Apparently not a lot. The Academy will nominate an actor for the category they think they have the best shot at winning. It's pretty ambiguous. Remember when Hopkins won the lead acting award for his fifteen minutes in "Silence of the Lambs". Two performances I enjoyed this year came from Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) and Naomi Harris (Moonlight).
Both had pretty limited screen time but we've established there's no requisite in that respect. I always forget Naomi Harris is English, she plays so diverse. But she's one of the better English actresses in the industry IMO and hopefully she does more films like "Moonlight". Was it enough to win the Oscar though? Hard to tell.
Then again, were Michelle William's brief interludes enough either? Her scene with Affleck was powerful and key to the films emotional arc. Can you win an Oscar on the basis of one scene though? I guess she did have to work alongside, as Contance Wu put it, a man who "sexually harasses women". People should put that spin on it, she might win then.
Ultimately neither will win and it will go to Viola Davis for "Fences", who played a far more substantial part in her respective movie. This is where it gets a bit confused. The film (Fences) was weaker than the others, but her role meatier. You can debate the relative merits of both for ages here. If in doubt then just give it to Seymour Hoffman I guess.
Best Foreign Language Film
Can't pick a favourite here as I haven't seen all the nominees but from those I have seen, "Toni Erdmann" (review to follow) stands out.
Some of my favourite films of recent time have won this category: "Biutiful" (Alejandro Inarritu) and "The Great Beauty" (Paolo Sorrentino) especially. I recently read an interview with Barry Jenkins in which he talked about the influence that foreign language films have had on his creative process:
'I thought, I'm gonna watch the shit that nobody else is watching, and that was foreign cinema [...] Cinema is a global economy, a global art form. But the things that have the marketing money to really push above the noise are these huge Hollywood studio productions, some of which are good but most of which are not'
Finding the shit that nobody else is watching obviously paid off for Jenkins. Films like "Toni Erdmann" will struggle to push above the noise but Odeon have been promoting it on the back pages of their site, so watch it if you can. Remember, noise gets louder when people talk.
The Oscars seem to reward a certain amount of innovation in the Foreign Language category that perhaps gets overlooked elsewhere. Would "Toni Erdmann" have been nominated if it was an American picture. "Swiss Army Man" by 'The Daniels' was certainly as unconventional and impressive and that missed out this year. It had Paul Dano in it as well, that should be enough.
General thoughts on La La Land
It's hard to talk about most of the other categories without mentioning "LaLa Land". It could quite feasibly pick up at least six statues at this years awards. Best Score and Best Song would be a pretty safe bet, whereas Damien Chazelle for Best Director and Best Actress to Emma Stone would also be tempting.
Briefly (review to follow), I'd say I was disappointed with the film given the extensive hype. Similarly to Chazelle's first feature "Whiplash", it's well made and it looked great but it felt like it was missing some key ingredient. I always judge a film on the way that it makes me feel. The emotions that it stirred inside, and the extent to which it did so. "La La Land" failed to resonate with me, ultimately it's meant to be a fun film, but did I have that much fun watching it? Not really. The poster above probably isn't too far off; there was romance, there was magic and it looked magnificent. It just doesn't say that "Moonlight" was a lot better.
How important are the Oscars, really? Wouldn't it be nice, for once, to see the best films and the best performers rewarded, irrespective of prejudice and their off screen antics. Maybe that's too idealistic, because show business has always been full of characters equally as extravagant and flawed as those they portray on the screens. That's probably part of what makes them so good at their craft. Sometimes award ceremonies feel as intent on punishing as they are rewarding. That should change.
Still, I'll be watching, hoping "Moonlight" does well.
If not, then at least credit Philip Seymour Hoffman for "The Master" damn it.