Thursday, January 14, 2016

You've Got To Accentuate The Positive: What's Good About the 2016 Oscar Nominations?

The Oscars aren't perfect. They aren't even good. They get things wrong all the time, ignoring greatness while rewarding mediocrity. They're not-so-secretly racist, as evidenced by this year's list of nominees, which features not a single non-white face among its TWENTY acting nominees for the second year in a row, despite a strong slate of performances by people of colour, as illustrated by this Decider column by Joe Reid. They're also not-so-secretly sexist, since even in these nominally more enlightened times, the work of female directors and writers is routinely ignored. (Admittedly that stems from a much bigger problem to do with how Hollywood repeatedly and completely fails to support female filmmakers, but just because the Oscars are a symptom of a problem doesn't mean they aren't also a problem on their own.) Even when they do get something right, they suck all the fun out of art by forcing people to compare wildly different films, pick sides over which is going to be their film this year, then presents them all in a leaden, slovenly ceremony that's usually only interesting for how it turns people who make their living entertaining into complete dullards. (Poor Neil Patrick Harris, you never stood a chance!)

Yet despite everything that is wrong with them - and you could fill the Dolby Theatre with physical embodiments of those problems, as the Academy does once every February - the Oscars are the one time of the year when a lot of people start paying attention to movies that aren't blockbusters. Not just the denizens of Film Twitter, but normal, functioning human beings, the sort of people who look at the list of nominees and think, "Huh, Room, guess I should check that out." It's an event that can help bring attention to people and films that deserve far more, in addition to those (*cough*Leonardo DiCaprio and The Revenant*cough*) that could use a little less. As such, I think it's worth pointing out the times that the Oscars get it right, however rare that may be, and to shine a little more light on the good and/or surprising nominees that somehow managed to slip through the net.

Delight No. 1: The Love for Mad Max: Fury Road


Artist's impression of the average Academy Voter.
We're all riding shiny and chrome to Valhalla today as, despite The Academy's general bias against genre fare and also the fact that the film is fucking insane, Mad Max: Fury Road managed to scoop ten Oscar nominations, the second biggest haul after The Revenant's twelve. This result seemed increasingly likely over the last few months, as the film picked up critics award after critics award, but it was far from a sure thing that George Miller's long-gestating sequel, with all of its grotesques and intensity, would be able to overcome The Academy's essential stuffiness, even though it was one of the best reviewed movies of 2015. Would it have been even sweeter if Charlize Theron had picked up a nomination for her role as Imperator Furiosa? Of course it would. But that shouldn't detract from the fun of seeing this vision of vehicular invention gate crash Hollywood's very own Citadel.

Delight No. 2: George Miller's Impressively Strange String of Oscar Nominations Just Got Stranger


Time to play everyone's favourite game: Maverick Director or Saucy Librarian?
Australian director and king of the weird frontier George Miller received his first Oscar nomination for Best Director for the aforementioned Fury Road, but it's not the first time that he's been courted by the Academy. In total, thanks to his nominations for directing and producing Fury Road, he now has a lifetime total of six nominations, a list which also includes nods for Original Screenplay for Lorenzo's Oil, adapted Screenplay and Best Picture for Babe (though his work on the beautifully weird sequel, Babe: Pig in the City, was cruelly ignored), and Best Animated Film for Happy Feet (which he also won). At this point, I think it's fair to say that George Miller has the most delightfully eclectic set of Oscar nominations of anyone currently working.

Delight No. 3: The Weeknd, Lady Gaga and Antony Hegarty Are All Oscar Nominees Now


Probably the Oscar nominee who does the best rendition of "Dirty Diana", though we'll need a televised karaoke contest, probably hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, to be sure.
Sometimes Best Song is one of the dullest categories, one in which the Academy will happily cut the number of nominees down to three or stack it with multiple nominees from a single Disney movie because they clearly don't care that much about the songs themselves. Sometimes, though, that same lack of care results in some surprising nominations slipping through the cracks (particularly in years when Disney don't have a big musical on the cards). This is one such year, as Canada's favourite Michael Jackson impersonator The Weeknd, alongside Belly, TBD and Stephan Moccio were nominated for their song "Earned It" from Fifty Shade of Grey, Lady Gaga (alongside Diane Warren) received a nomination for "'Til It Happens To You" from Kirby Dick's harrowing campus rape documentary The Hunting Ground, and Antony Hegarty (of Antony and The Johnsons fame) was nominated alongside J. Ralph for "Manta Ray" from the environmental doc Racing Extinction. Hegarty's nomination may be the most significant of those since she could very well be the first trans woman nominated for an Academy Award. (Even if she's not the first, she is one of a very small number.)*

Sam Smith is also an Oscar nominee, but I think we can all ignore that for now.

*Edit: Literally seconds after I posted this, I saw David Ehrlich retweet someone on Twitter saying that Hegarty is the second trans person to be nominated for an Academy Award after Angela Morley.

Delight No. 4: The Second Best Film of 2016 Got An Oscar Nomination


The only thing bleaker than this is the thought of Eddie Redmayne winning another Oscar.
Best Animated Short is usually a pretty interesting category since, besides the Disney/Pixar films that tend to get most of the attention, you get a lot of innovative and interesting work coming from veteran animators and newcomers alike. This year's is especially exciting, though, because it delivered a nomination to Don Hertzfeldt's beautiful, hilarious and sad sci-fi/philosophical musing on the nature of time World of Tomorrow, which was my second favourite film of last year. Hertzfeldt has been around for a while - he was previously nominated for an Oscar in 2001 for his short Rejected - and is generally considered to be a pretty significant voice in the world of independent animation. But anything that brings attention to what may be his masterpiece (or at least his masterpiece to date) can only be a good thing. It was recently added to Netflix Streaming in the US, and if you have the means and 16 minutes spare, it is absolutely worth your time.

Delight No. 5: Adam McKay Is Now A Double Oscar Nominee


We all know these nominations are belated recognition for this moment.
Yes, the man who gave the world Pearl The Landlord and Bill Brasky, and who helmed such hard-hitting exposes as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and The Other Guys now has two Oscar nomination to his name, thanks to his work directing and co-writing The Big Short. I'm a little conflicted about McKay's showing - as I am about basically every aspect of the Oscars - since I don't think for a moment that he deserved to be nominated for Best Director ahead of Todd Haynes for Carol, Ryan Coogler for Creed, F. Gary Gray for Straight Outta Compton, or literally dozens of other directors who did better work this year. However, McKay is someone whose work I have enjoyed for many years, and given The Academy's long-standing disdain for comedies, I do get a kick out of seeing him get a nomination for making a film which isn't too far removed from the work he did in his more overtly absurd films.

6. The Strong Showing For Brooklyn


TFW you've said "it's pronounced 'ser-sha'" for the thousandth time.
John Crowley's Brooklyn has flown under the radar somewhat as far as awards season is concerned. It's picked up a lot of nominations for Saoirse Ronan's delicate yet resilient performance as a young Irish girl who moves to New York in the '50s and builds a life for herself, but it's not one of the bigger, flashier contenders. It's a simple, heartfelt melodrama anchored by a trio of great performances by Ronan, Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson, which is completely unshowy and hard to champion against bolder auteurist works like Carol or The Revenant. That doesn't mean that it's not an immensely lovely, impeccably made film. If the Oscars are going to nominate middlebrow fare, it wouldn't hurt them to nominate great middlebrow fare like Brooklyn instead of, say, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

7. A24's Banner Year


The campaign to introduce "Best Dance" as a category starts - and ends - with this GIF.
Distribution and production company A24 have only been around for a few years, but already their logo appearing before a film has come to serve as a sign of quality (well, give or take Kevin Smith's Tusk). In their first year, they were behind Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring and The Spectacular Now. In 2014, they put out Enemy, Under The Skin, Locke, Obvious Child, The Rover and A Most Violent Year. Basically, they've already established a reputation as a company that gets behind interesting films driven by directors with strong visions. Thanks to their 2015 slate, which includes Amy (nominated for Best Documentary), Ex Machina (nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Visual Effects) and Room (nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actress and Adapted Screenplay), A24 have graduated from scrappy underdogs to a force to be reckoned with.

Considering that they have new horror classic The Witch, Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin follow-up Green Room, and John Cameron Mitchell's Neil Gaiman adaptation How to Talk to Girls At Parties due out this year, it's safe to saw that 2016 is looking pretty good for one of the most exciting companies out there.