What’s ‘Oscar Worthy’?

This is my follow up to my previous Award season post and that’s a half-legit-half-sarcastic question. Because I often see it associated with commentary about Black Panther – the talking out of both sides of your mouth commentary that goes, yes, it’s good for diversity but is it good artistically. To which I say, hell, yeah, watch Ruth Carter’s breakdown of the work that went in to the costume design (linked in the original post), check out Ryan Coogler’s notes on a scene, observe the world building, the character building – the way it gives an antagonist credible motivation that impacts the character arc of the protagonist in a way that changes the world he inhabits, and yes the cultural impact (all black everything cracking the exclusive billion dollar club, becoming a global phenomenon – so much for black films not travelling, winning acclaim and awards as a legitimately well told story, inspiring young ones, and sparking meaningful dialogue about the black experience on the continent and in the so-called new world and the fractured relationship between the two), and then miss me with your faux concern about it pulling down the Academy with its comic book cooties.

Art is art right? And if a piece of work’s artistic merit is undeniable, why step on it because it’s in a genre you find juvenile or lacking in gravitas. It’s the Get Out scenario from last year all over again – the I don’t like horror or horror is not to be taken seriously narrative (so what it’s not just horror of the slasher fic variety, so what it’s more social commentary and satire than jump scares … not to mention really well written). To me, talking books for a minute, that’s like dismissing Marlon James’ Brief History of Seven Killings as ‘mere’ crime fiction, Stephen King’s Misery (not to mention the Dark Tower series, and more I could mention) as ‘mere’ pop fiction, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as ‘mere’ romance, Marlon James’ upcoming Dark Star Trilogy as ‘mere’ fantasy… as if any work of art can’t exist as part of a genre (yes, hitting those genre notes) while being a legit work of art. There are some that don’t and there are some that do, but if you’re the type to dismiss a work of art without examining or engaging with it first, or, after engaging with it refuse to treat it as a serious work of art based purely on its genre, well, then…you and Bill Maher can do you…but I don’t want to live in such a narrow world.

Because in my world, there are tons of ‘Oscar Worthy’ films, e.g. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and arguably Creed, before Black Panther, which have been totally overlooked. Hell, in a world where Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X exists, this is Spike Lee’s first best director Oscar nomination. How, Sway? We know how. Films have been overlooked for reasons other than merit since the beginning of the Oscars – for not being in the right place at the right time (i.e. not having the money to be seen by and potentially enchant voters), for being on the margins (due to race or gender or any number of other factors), for being too unsettling (too boundary pushing not mainstream or feelgood or ‘relatable’ enough), for being too genre (genres, ick!), for existing in that blindspot where they don’t even see you even when you’re exceptional and not necessarily even then. For instance, as much as the Academy loves British period costume dramas, did Belle (or at least actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw or director Amma Asante) get a second look from Academy voters back in 2013? Let’s not act like every Oscar winner to now was the best performance of the year. It’s a subjective reality, it’s about being on somebody’s radar, and sometimes, every now and again, the best gets it…but there are many who don’t even get seen. So until we can engage with that reality, miss me with your ‘Oscar Worthy’ arguments.

Rant over. Okay? Because I don’t have the time to list all of the overlooked performances over the years; there isn’t enough space in these internets.

Now that I’ve had the opportunity to see more of the top contending films of 2018, I’m going to give my picks for the categories I care about and who I think will probably actually win.

Best Picture: Of the eight nominees, I’ve seen four – Black Panther, Blackkklansman, Green Book, and Roma. This means I haven’t seen Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star is Born, The Favourite, or Vice (I have thoughts but I won’t comment on what I haven’t seen). As for what I have seen. You already know how I feel about Black Panther and I think Blackkklansman is really well done as well, tonally, the most daring given the dark subject matter. And that ending, didn’t expect tears but they showed up anyway. Green Book was entertaining (great performances by Viggo and Mahershala and Viggo’s wife) but, in terms of its handling of race, hits the predictable beats and as a biopic centres the sidekick (there are reasons why, while many, not all, mainstream critics love it, mostly black viewers and critics have issues that they can’t or don’t want to see). Roma was slow to begin but really visually poetic and beautifully engaging as it went on. I think Roma will win and I’m okay with that, as it’s one of my favourites of the year, though I’d be happy with a Blackkklansman win and elated with a Black Panther win.

Best Actor in a Leading Role: I’ll abstain…because I just don’t care enough about any of these choices… but Christian Bale or Rami Malek will probably win, Rami has been cleaning up but the movie has a Bryan Singer problem, so we’ll see.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: A rich category but, easily, I’m rooting for Glenn Close. I have seen The Wife so this isn’t just a lifetime achievement for me (though you have to admit that after a career that includes The Big Chill, Maxie, Fatal Attraction, Reversal of Fortune, Dangerous Liaisons etc. – roles in non-‘Oscar worthy’ films like What Happened to Monday and Guardians of the Galaxy – and many performances I haven’t really seen but which are critically acclaimed like The World According to Garp, The Natural, Hamlet, and Albert Nobbs, she’s way past due). It’s not about previous snubs, it’s about a nuanced, layered, quiet and compelling performance of a woman overlooked (and isn’t that just perfect). The film itself is a bit tepid overall in my opinion, but she is its strong centre, so just give her her Oscar already.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: It bugs me that Adam Driver is nominated and John David Washington (who does really good work here – listen to his vocal mannerisms, for one) isn’t; it reminds me of that SNL sketch. Though Topher Grace with his convincing turn as David Duke is arguably a snub as well. But I’d be happy with a win for Adam so that the win goes to Blakkklansman over Green Book BUT Mahershala will win and I can’t be mad because I love Mahershala and because it was a great performance in that he fully inhabited his character, imbuing him with dignity and an undercurrent of vulnerability … it’s just unfortunate that he is a supporting character in a movie ostensibly about the experience of a black man travelling down south using the book (the green book) that black people used to travel the American south as safely as they could. But it’s all about point of view and the movie was written by the son of the Viggo character and skews to his pov. I still feel like we haven’t seen Dr. Don Shirley fully but Mahershala rendered him as fully as he could within the script he was given.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Okay, so I haven’t seen If Beale Street could talk but I have been following Regina King’s career since 227. I am happy for her and I hope she wins; that’s all I’ll say. Good thing I don’t have an actual vote. As to who will win, she might or if Roma sweeps Marina de Tavira might.

Best Animated Feature Film: I’ve only seen Into the Spiderverse…and I feel enthusiastic in my support of it for the win. It was so nimbly done in the way it moves between the different aesthetics without ever making me feel lost (and I’m not a Spiderman-stan, not by far). I like the humor of it and the action, and the stakes for the characters, great story, inventive use of animation, distinctive characterization and voice work; plus it was just enjoyable in a way no animated feature has been for me since maybe the Lego movie which was completely overlooked the year it came out (talking about Oscar snubs).

Best Cinematography: I would liked to have seen Steve McQueen’s Widows (which had strong and overlooked performances) included here because I do like what he did visually in terms of his shot choices and how they served the story in addition to it just being a sleek and beautiful looking film. I would like to have seen Rachel Morrison wedge a foot in to this boy’s club that is awards season (especially when it comes to the below the line nominees) because she is consistently good and Black Panther was visually stunning. But twas not to be. Of the available choices, I think Roma is the easy win here – I like how shots get uncomfortably personal in terms of what they focus on and in terms of how they hold the shot but also when the story demands it has a view which positions the smaller, more intimate story, visually, within the larger societal issues happening around it without commenting overtly on those larger issues. It speaks to the way life is happening around us all the time even as our gaze is turned toward our own issues. All of that plus the quality of the black and white and how it seems like the perfect film for that aesthetic choice. And then there’s that shot at the beach near the end, that long pan out in to the water, the tension in the silence and the movement and the increasingly rowdy waves and the uncertainty. Well done.

Best Costume Design: I’m going to be legit mad if Black Panther doesn’t get this. Back when I thought Black Panther didn’t stand a chance of being taken seriously as a nominee, I was rooting for a nomination for Ruth Carter for the research and the detail she put in to creating a world, a world has a culture and a history, and with each article of clothing she made Wakanda feel lived in – and she managed to honour the tradition of Afrocentrism while creating something that was Afro-future inspired in its originality and modernity and sense of you haven’t seen this yet til now. Seriously, she earned this Oscar.

Directing: Broken record alert, I would like to have seen Ryan Coogler nominated for visioning an original and inspired narrative and steering the ship that is Black Panther and I do think the Russo Brothers did a good job bringing balance and tension to a character-overloaded project like Avengers: Infinity War but two comic book movies in a year would have been wishful thinking. And for another year the Academy has decided that there are no women directors worthy of merit – no Debra Granik for Leave No Trace which I thought was an effectively atmospheric, character-driven, and emotion-stirring film, for one (though she’s not the only one who should have gotten a look). So, in the land of reality/how things are, can Spike finally get an Oscar already? Or is that too much realness – are folks still mad that Mookie busted the window of the Italian pizza place after Radio Raheim was strangled to death by the police setting off a riot- do they still not get that (get the festering rage that speaks to and Spike’s prescience in documenting that in film)? Spike is one of the definitive filmmakers of our time with signature moves like his trademark double dolly shot. and this is his first freaking best director Oscar nomination. Time to correct that. Beyond that and specific to Blackkklansman there’s a level of clarity and focus some of his other works are accused of lacking, and energy and tone to it that just makes for great and engaging cinema, while never losing sight of the stakes then and, unfortunately, now. Alfonso Cuarón might take this and I can’t argue with it though the film does have some pacing issues in my view.

Film Editing: I would say Blackkklansman makes a good case for itself here, for instance, in that car chase sequence which is reminiscent of 70s cinema but at the same time uses the chase to ramp up the tension in things happening outside of that moment. So let’s hope the Academy sees what I saw. I saw one critic lauding Green Book and dismissing Blackkklansman as a mediocre effort…seriously? compare the editing work on both of these if nothing else…one lines up the shots pretty much as you’d expect and one keeps you on your toes and yet never loses the narrative through-line.

Music Original Score and Best Song: I’m going to link these because though I love music I don’t have a lot to say about either of these. A Star is Born’s Shallow by Gaga seems like the frontrunner and the only other song I know is All the Stars by Kendrick Lamara and Sza which I liked well enough but didn’t love…but I actually think the Black Panther score was an integral part of its world building with its use of African and Afrocentric rhythms and sounds to amp up the excitement or layer the mood…but it wasn’t perhaps a standout as some of the more iconic scores of all time, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was overlooked. That said, I have no clue who will win for score.

Production Design: I’m glad to see Hannah Bleacher get a nod for her world building in Black Panther – I believe the first black woman to do so, and I hope she wins.

Sound Editing: I’m rooting for A Quiet Place to win this one (and it’s a shame Emily Blunt who won the SAG for her role in this was overlooked for an Academy nomination – kind of a reverse Regina King, since King didn’t rate a SAG nom for If Beale Street Could Talk but is a favourite for the Oscar). The whole movie is about sound and it uses sound and silence well in telling that story.

Visual Effects: Avengers Infinity War would be my pick but First Man which, from several accounts was overlooked for Score, might get a win here…right?

Writing (Adapted, Original): I’d like to say something but I can’t say much not having seen many of the nominees and of the ones I have seen (Roma, Green Book, Blackkklansman), I’m not sure the writing is their strongest point and Green Book especially has issues as I’ve said. I am surprised to see A Star is Born which is about the fourth adaptation…does it really separate itself from the previous versions that significantly? So I don’t know…which is your pick for best written (original and/or adapted) screenplay? You know which screenplay was truly original for me this year? Sorry to Bother You…I’ve literally never seen anything like that film before; an imperfect but boundary-pushing script.

Everyone has their faves, of course. See the full list of nominations and let me know your faves, predictions, and snubs in the comments. For my part, I’m way more excited about this year’s show where there seems to be a lot more uncertainty than last year where the same people kept winning over and over and over. Let’s see what happens.

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