Monday, March 5, 2018

90th Academy Awards: Final Thoughts

Lupita Nyong'o and Kumail Nanjiani presenting at the 90th Academy Awards
Well, another Oscars has come and gone. After all the assessment and predictions, it's done. And while the top awards all went in expected ways, there were quite a few surprises in some of the other categories. Below are my thoughts on the awards, the ceremony, and what were some of the biggest moments and surprises.

Biggest Upset of the Night:
Grigory Rodchenkov and Bryan Fogel in Icarus
The biggest upset of the night comes in the category of Best Documentary. In my predictions, I had not only said Faces Places would win, I had said that was one of the surest bets of the night. It is one of the most acclaimed films of the year, appearing on numerous top ten lists and winning Best Documentary at basically every awards ceremony that offers such a prize up until this point. But, instead, the prize went to Icarus, a tense and terrifying documentary about the Russian Olympic doping scandal which hasn't won anything up until now and which hadn't really been in the discussion to even get a nomination. So, how did this happen? Well, five years ago there had been a big rule change. Before, only those Academy members who had seen all five documentaries in theaters would be allowed to vote. But starting in 2013, the voting was opened up to all Academy members for the first time. The artistry that went into the making of Faces Places might be lost on some Academy voters, who instead would have been quite taken with the important subject matter of Icarus. In some ways, the fact that Faces Places is so original probably worked against it. No matter what, these are both great films, and so different it's impossible to really compare them. And I'm glad that the underrated Icarus got a chance to be in the spotlight. Also, it's worth noting that Icarus is the first Netflix feature film to win an Oscar, which could be a turning point in the Academy recognizing the relevance of the streaming service in the industry.

More Upsets:
Artist Mindy Alper in Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405
There were also some upsets in the shorts categories. I was excited that Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 won Best Documentary Short Subject. This profile of artist Mindy Alper is wonderful, but I thought it would have a tough time competing against some of the heavier entries in the category. But it's a really great film which had the most creative storytelling in the category. I was more disappointed with the upset in the Animated Short category. The winner, Dear Basketball, was the most underwhelming of the nominees for me by far. It's not a bad film, but it's also not much of a film, and outside of the name recognition of Kobe Bryant, I'm pretty confused about what Oscar voters responded to with the film.

Also, I definitely thought Dunkirk had a chance to win Best Sound Mixing, but I'm still sad it did because the sound mixing is objectively bad. Christopher Nolan insists on using bad sound mixing in his films and I just don't understand it, and to give one of his films this award is only going to encourage him.

Progress was Front and Center:
Jordan Peele accepting his history-making Oscar for Best Original Screenplay
The Oscars has been criticized in the past for its lack of diversity, and there were some notable steps taken this year towards inclusion. The winner for Best Live Action short, The Silent Child stars a deaf child actress and is about the difficulties deaf children face due to the ignorance of their parents and educators. It was my least favorite of the nominees, because to me it felt like a PSA rather than a film, but it's impossible to disagree with the message, and it was great to see writer and star Rachel Shenton signing her acceptance speech and bringing these issues to the Oscars stage.

Probably the biggest step the Academy took this year was with trans inclusion. The Academy has been infamous for nominating cisgender actors who have played transgender characters, an outdated and controversial practice. This year, the documentary Strong Island became the first ever Oscar-nominated film to be directed by a trans filmmaker, and said filmmaker Yance Ford was part of an excellent montage about diversity. Even more excitingly, the film A Fantastic Woman won Best Foreign Language Film. The Chilean film (Chile's first ever win in this category) is the first Oscar-nominated film to have a transgender performer in a leading role, and now has also become the first Oscar-winning film to have a transgender performer in a leading role. Not only that, but said actress, the phenomenal Daniela Vega, was included in the ceremony as a presenter, which I imagine is a first for the Oscars.

It was wonderful to see visionary director Guillermo del Toro win his first Oscar--an award that he's inexplicably never even been nominated for before. And it's worth noting that, with his win, a Mexican director has taken home Best Director for four out of the past five years. That's pretty cool. Fuck you, Trump.

Not to mention, Jordan Peele made history last night becoming the first black person to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

But...It Could Have Been More Progressive:
Frances McDormand gave a fantastic speech as she accepted her Oscar for Best Leading Actress
The Oscars talked a lot this year about being more inclusive towards women in particular. With the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, the poor treatment of women in the industry has been placed under a magnifying glass and it was part of much of the discussion at this year's Oscars. But the actual Oscar winners were strikingly male. Aside from, of course, the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories, there was not a single award won by an individual woman this year. The only women who won outside of the acting categories were part of a team with a man. Lady Bird has rightfully been seen as a triumph for putting women's stories first, but it didn't take home any awards last night. Frances McDormand's speech was an undeniable highlight of the night, where she asked all the female nominees to stand, and told producers to contact them and finance their projects to tell their stories. Hopefully this will happen, and we can see more women up at the winner's podium next year.

The Way We Look at Predictions Has Changed:
Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water was seen as the frontrunner to win the award, but its win has bucked a few trends. For the past three years, the Spirit Awards for Independent Film have been on a roll and gone hand in hand with the Oscar Best Picture winner, and many thought that Get Out's win this year might indicate an Oscars upset. Even more surprising is that The Shape of Water is only the second film ever (and the first in over two decades) to win Best Picture without a nomination for Best Ensemble Cast at the SAG Awards. Usually not scoring a nomination in that category means the Oscars are a tough sell because the Screen Actor's Guild makes up such a large chunk of the Academy. But, in this case, The Shape of Water still clearly had some SAG love. It was nominated for three other SAG Awards (for Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, and Octavia Spencer) and was probably just left out of the ensemble race because it was a competitive year.

There's also the category of Best Film Editing. In the past, this has often been a category that matches Best Picture, but that seems to no longer be the case. In fact, this category has not gone to the Best Picture winner for the past five years. It signals that being a Best Picture frontrunner is no longer enough to win this category, and shows that the artistry of film editing is finally being recognized in its own right.

Good For You, Roger Deakins:
Roger Deakins accepts a long overdue Oscar
 Roger Deakins won his first Oscar after fourteen nominations. Which is really exciting, because he's widely seen as the best cinematographer in the business and it's great that he finally has Oscar-winner in front of his name. It might have been for a film that has the least Deakins-esque cinematography in his career, but hey, it's a win nonetheless! Most excitingly, this means that insufferable film snobs like me will finally stop talking about how Roger Deakins has never gotten an Oscar.

The Ceremony Itself:
I think the theme they were going for with the set design was "Subtlety"
Jimmy Kimmel did a solid job. His monologue had some good jokes, and he struck a good balance between humor and acknowledging the clearly changing times in the industry. He was casual, and maintained a presence without being overbearing. I also thought he did a great job addressing last year's Oscar snafu which, while not his fault, still happened under his watch. Of his two big stunts, I thought the idea of awarding a jet ski to the person who gives the shortest acceptance speech was a great and really funny idea, especially with Helen Mirren as a game presenter of said award. The other big stunt was when Kimmel gathered a bunch of celebrities to go to a movie theater across the street to surprise some movie-goers. It seemed genuinely impromptu and the delight of seeing Guillermo del Toro and Lin-Manuel Miranda carrying a giant sandwich, or Armie Hammer shooting a hot dog gun was really fun. It didn't quite have the same impact as, say, Ellen DeGeneres ordering pizza, and it dragged on for a bit too long, but it was still enjoyable. I also loved the joke that instead of being played off, overly-long acceptance speeches would be cut off by LaKeith Stanfield running up to you and screaming "Get Out!" That got the biggest laugh from me of the whole not by a mile. But Kimmel's best moment for me was at the very end, when he allowed one of The Shape of Water's producers to speak after his mic had been cut off. Good for you, Kimmel. Still, while Kimmel was good, his hosting wasn't exactly groundbreaking or sensational. With so many great potential hosts out there, I really hope he's not brought back for a third year in a row. It has been 17 years since we had a woman of color host the Oscars. And I imagine, say, Tiffany Haddish would be up to the job.

Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph, who were undoubtedly the funniest presenters of the night.
But the thing that I liked most about this ceremony was the emphasis on the love of movies. There were a lot of great montages (I really liked the ones for all the previous winners in the acting categories) but my favorite was this one, which simply celebrated movies. The Academy Awards are heavily flawed. The Oscars have so many blindspots, and there are so many ways in which they're not inclusive. And one could argue that the idea of giving awards to something so subjective as artistic tastes is a futile thing to do. But, and I've said this before, the reason I love the Oscars so much and think they're important is that it's amazing that there's this one night that is devoted entirely to celebrating achievement in film. It's not about who wins. If you disagree with the awards, talk about it! Tell everyone why Get Out should have won, or Lady Bird. Tell people about the amazing film you saw that didn't even get nominated, and talk about why it should have been recognized. But the Oscars are a really important event for continuing a discussion about the art of film. There were many amazing films this year, and not all of them were talked about at the Oscars this year, but if you want to watch some good movies, the nominees and winners are a good place to start.

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