Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Oscars: How much do you care?

The Oscars are going to be handed out on Feb. 26, and I suppose we'll all be watching.

And, yes, many of this year's nominated pictures, actors and directors are particularly deserving. Overall, this year's list is an impressive one.

And yet ....

Let's face it: It's not easy to get excited about Oscars in a moment when a new administration has been upsetting the apple cart of half the country's expectations. I'm not going to go all political on you, but I can't say that I'm especially excited about the Academy Awards in a year when so other pressing matters scream out for attention, so many -- in fact -- that it's difficult to know where to focus one's attention, much less one's efforts.

Like you, I've heard it said that we're now in a time when support of the arts is essential -- as if it weren't vital before the recent election. OK, but the Academy Awards isn't only about cinema art: It's about an industry celebrating itself. And although in recent years, Oscar nominations have done a better job of honoring artistic excellence and even idiosyncrasy, audiences don't necessarily agree.

Captain America: Civil War was the highest grossing movie of 2016, and since has been surpassed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. For better or worse (and they come in both varieties), tent-pole movies still dominate Hollywood's thinking. The fact that the Academy Awards now align more closely with many critics' 10-best lists hasn't changed that.

At the same time, I expect that this year's acceptance speeches will be full of sanctimony about the need for inclusion, the need for kindness and the need for acceptance that transcends the teary-eyed acknowledgment that often accompanies receipt of one of the world's most coveted statues.

I've been making Oscar predictions since I began writing about films some 37 years ago. Some years, I've had rooting interests because a favorite actor or director happened to be nominated. Other years, I speculated about who I thought would win, but was neither buoyed nor heartbroken about who won or lost.

Besides, we all know that history has a way of dimming Oscar's glow, elevating films that may not have won anything. In the last Sight & Sound critics' poll, published once a decade, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo supplanted Orson Wells' Citizen Kane as the best movie to date.

At the awards ceremony for 1942, How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane, one of 10 nominees for best picture from a list that also included The Maltese Falcon. When it came to the 1958 Academy Awards, Vertigo was nominated in two minor categories: best sound and best art direction. It won neither. Bridge on the River Kwai won best picture.

I know what you're thinking. Movies really used to be better, but don't get carried away; those were different times, and movies occupied a different and perhaps more central place in the national conversation than they do today.

In any event, time seems a better judge of quality than the votes of the Academy or even, sometimes, film critics -- never mind the box office.

I'm moderating an Oscar panel at the Sie Film Center Wednesday (Feb. 22) at 6 p.m. I'm sure that many will turn up who have an interest in filling out a ballot for one Oscar contest or another. That's fine. There's serious movie interest. There's Oscar movie interest. Sometimes the two overlap, but not necessarily.

And in a year in which the Oscars finally show true diversity in terms of black expression, it's a little weird that La La Land probably will take home the most awards. Many have pointed out -- and it's a fair criticism -- that La La Land casts a white actor (Ryan Gosling) as a musician who champions the purity of jazz, while a black actor (John Legend) becomes a spokesman for commercial capitulation. It's also true (at least in my view) that no music in La La Land can match the sheer inventiveness of American jazz at its best.

In my judgment, both Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea are better and (heaven help me for saying it) more significant movies. They tell us more about the state of American life now than La La Land even knows how to tell us.


Director Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is the expression of an individual voice -- or, in the case of its main character, the devastating lack of one. Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea explores the shattered life of a man who, in most circumstances, would be equally invisible.

Unlike in La La Land, the characters in Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea don't dream of success by way of acquiring an audience. They may not even dream anymore; they suffer because they are human, they are flawed and the world can be a crueler place than most of us like to admit.

But even if one of those pictures wins, will it change Hollywood's approach to green-lighting movies? Will we suddenly see an onslaught of personal movies full of the kind of honesty and grace that made Moonlight so special? What do you think?

Last year, at an Oscar panel, I suggested that -- for once -- we break the mold and talk about the issues raised by the year's nominations, most of those issues having to do with #Oscarssowhite. There was some audience impatience with my idea. Some folks only wanted predictions, but focusing only on predictions is like trying to pick the winner of the Super Bowl and not caring whether the game is any good.

But for those who insist on predictions, here are mine -- in the major categories.
Best picture -- La La Land
Best director -- Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Best actor -- Denzel Washington, Fences
Best actress -- Emma Stone, La La Land
Best supporting actor -- Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Best supporting actress -- Viola Davis, Fences
Best animated film -- Zootopia
Best documentary -- OJ: Made in America
Best original screenplay -- Manchester by the Sea
Best adapted screenplay -- Moonlight
Best foreign language film -- The Salesman
A few caveats. Sure Casey Affleck -- everyone's front runner throughout most of this interminable awards season -- easily could win best actor, but Washington's Screen Actors Guild victory tilted the scale for me. Why? Actors still make up the largest Academy voting bloc.

And, yes, either Toni Erdmann or A Man Called Ove could win best foreign language film, but the Trump immigrant ban that caused Salesman director Asghar Farhadi to say that he wouldn't travel to the US even if granted an exception for the Oscars made him the favorite in my book.

Finally, some advice from someone a good deal wiser than me. The incomparable Samuel Johnson once wrote, "The natural flight of the mind is not from pleasure to pleasure but from hope to hope." It's a great admonition for movie fans. Oscars or no, we always hope the next movie we see will be the one that fulfills and even surpasses our most ardent expectations.

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