The Oscars are this Sunday and if, unlike me, you haven’t been using the lunacy of the past year’s news cycle to excuse yourself to the cinema at every opportunity, you may be wondering what this year’s nominees are, whether they’re any good, and who, pray tell, is going to win.
As per usual, my favorite movies of the year—a feisty, beautiful drama about an ex-radical French philosopher going to battle with a series of unforeseen middle-aged catastrophes and an absurd black-and-white Romanian Western—are not nominated. Nevertheless, the Academy did good by Moonlight, the heartfelt and artful three-act portrait of a gay black man nominated for eight Oscars that you really should go see if you haven’t yet. Moonlight will lose Best Picture to La La Land, and depending on whom you ask this is either the greatest travesty since Citizen Kane lost to How Green Was My Valley or one of the lesser injustices in Oscar history. Moonlight’s consolation on awards night will be its statuettes for Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali) and for Best Adapted Screenplay, which will be shared deservingly between director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarrell Alvin McCraney.
Last year’s all-white acting nominees sparked an outcry of #OscarsSoWhite in certain circles, and for once hashtag slacktivism has gotten results. With Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures in the Best Picture fray and other nominations down the board, the Oscars #Aren’tSoWhite this year. Fences, featuring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprising their Tony-winning roles from the Broadway play about a working-class couple sorting through family and personal drama in 1950s Pittsburgh, roars with prophetic fire straight from the mouth of playwright August Wilson, though I thought the tepidness of its filmmaking—it looks great, but it’s staged like a no-frills recording of the play—softens the effect. I was happy to have witnessed even the mere shadow of what I’m sure was a phenomenal Broadway production, and happier still that the inhabitants of the country otherwise known as Not New York City had a chance to experience it for themselves.
Hidden Figures, the story of the African-American women mathematicians of NASA’s 1960s space program heretofore unknown to the public eye, is a delight with all sorts of problems. I do find its ends honorable and I appreciate the ensemble work by Taraji P. Henson (mysteriously absent from the Best Actress lineup; I blame Meryl Streep), Octavia Spencer (nominated, making her the first African-American actress to receive a repeat nomination after her first win), and Janelle Monáe (not a nominee this year, but just you wait). My preferred civil-rights movie this year, Jeff Nichols’s warm and well-observed Loving—about the couple that gives their name to the Supreme Court case recognizing the right to interracial marriage—opted for emotional and cinematographic intimacy over political grandstanding and was rewarded with a sole, though deserved, nomination for lead actress Ruth Negga while getting shut out from Picture, Actor (Joel Edgerton), Screenplay, Cinematography, and Production Design categories.
Now is probably the time for my other unpopular opinion: while I’m glad that the Oscars for once are reflecting that white actors and storytellers don’t have a monopoly on talent, I’m skeptical that the #OscarsSoWhite backlash will lead anywhere other than right back to the insularity of the Academy. Where, for instance, are Sonia Braga (Brazilian, Aquarius), Zhao Tao (Chinese, Mountains May Depart), Paulina García (Chilean, Little Men), Kim Min-hee (Korean, The Handmaiden and Right Now, Wrong Then), Royalty Hightower (African-American, The Fits, an Italian-financed indie)? All gave performances of equal or greater merit than any of this year’s nominees, but they were never part of the awards conversation and never will be so long as the Oscars diversity push remains tethered to the profit-centric model of the liberal-industrial entertainment complex.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, especially considering how good we have it with some of this year’s nominees. Take David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, as nuanced and conservative-friendly a Best Picture nominee as I’ve ever seen. This alternately dramatic and comedic Texas-set quasi-Western about brothers who turn to bank robbery to pay their family’s debts is populated with rich depictions of the kinds of flyover-country Americans Hollywood never thinks twice about. None of these characters is more memorable than a waitress who complains about New York tourists coming down South and trying to order fish all the time. “So what aren’t you having—the steak with corn, or the steak with potatoes?” Like the beef on the menu, the movie’s a lean cut of entertainment and a vast writing improvement over screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s previous effort on Sicario, a movie caked in easy-bake cynicism with a hazardous calorie-to-nutrient ratio.
Hell or High Water is joined by a weird sort of spiritual sibling up north in Manchester by the Sea, nominated across the board in what must feel like a surreal fantasy for writer and director Kenneth Lonergan, whose previous film Margaret famously floundered in post-production hell for six years before its studio unceremoniously dumped it in six theaters for one week—just long enough for Film Twitter to get its hands on it, declare it a masterpiece, and secure its place in the pantheon of Great Twenty-First Century Films, where I agree that it belongs. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t like Manchester as much as I did by everyone from the political-correctness police (it’s too white) to my high-school film teacher (it’s too trite). Perhaps I’m biased, being from the Greater Boston area and a fan of imaginatively empathetic storytelling. That a man like Lonergan—secular Jewish Upper West Side son of cosmopolitan psychoanalysts as he is—should be able to invest so much heart into a story about damaged, Catholic-ish working-class folks from Massachusetts and produce such a beautiful, perceptive film is something we ought to celebrate. Naturally, the Oscars will send Lonergan home empty-handed by giving La La Land the Best Original Screenplay prize in a fit of self-aggrandizing hysteria likely to sweep most of the night’s major categories in that throwback musical’s favor.
I have the stomach for neither intense war films nor Harvey Weinstein cash grabs, so I haven’t seen and can’t comment on Hacksaw Ridge and Lion, though the former got a thoughtful treatment from Philip Jenkins here at TAC. Sci-fi isn’t my genre of choice the way it is for most everyone else I know, though I did see and like Arrival. While I very nearly bawled my eyes out at the “twist” ending, I didn’t shed a tear for poor Amy Adams, snubbed from the Best Actress lineup deserving though she is, for Adams’s loss comes at Isabelle Huppert’s gain. Even though Emma Stone is the likely Best Actress winner, I’d be tickled if Huppert—the best performer of the year, bar none—manages to take top honors for her role as a video-game company CEO/rape survivor/daughter of a mass murderer/impishly hilarious bourgeois Frenchwoman in Elle. (I can hear you scratching your head from here: it’s a Paul Verhoeven movie.)
If this year’s Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards shows were any indication, this year’s Oscars ceremony will be more political than usual. I suspect the most overtly political move of the night won’t be any speechifying by Meryl Streep, but rather a win for The Salesman and Iran in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Before anyone goes rolling their eyes at yet another Hollywood attempt to speak truth to power (against that executive order barring entry to nationals from Iran and elsewhere), let me point out that the director barred from attending the ceremony, Asghar Farhadi, is one of our very greatest living filmmakers and The Salesman a tremendous film entirely deserving of the award on its own merits. There are no good guys to pit against bad guys in Farhadi films, only ordinary people who make bad decisions and are made to suffer the sometimes ruinous consequences. The subtlety of his morality plays puts him in my personal pantheon of great writer-directors alongside Yasujiro Ozu and the Dardenne brothers; heaven forbid that any more American conservatives should ever get a taste of their work.
We’ll likely get another dose of heavy-handed politics when the Best Documentary Feature winner is announced. Four out of this year’s five nominees deal with stereotypically liberal-friendly topics, though after watching I Am Not Your Negro and 13th and admiring both I can’t for the life of me understand why we need to spend another year insisting that the humanity of black people and the inhumanity of what they’ve been made to suffer in America is somehow a partisan issue instead of a transcendently human one. That said, I do recognize that both of these films are in the business of persuasion and will likely fail to convince anyone who doesn’t already share their premises.
That’s why my personal pick for documentary of the year, if not film of the year, would have been the unnominated Cameraperson, a memoir of sorts by documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, who compiled this film entirely from unused B-roll footage on her lifetime’s work filming everything from Fahrenheit 9/11 and Citizenfour to Third World birthing wards and survivors of war atrocities. Johnson’s film may read as intensely political on the surface of things, but unlike the aforementioned documentary nominees its primary motive isn’t persuasion so much as understanding. That she happens to sympathize with many causes and people who have become championed by the left should be all the more valuable for conservatives, for whom the movie gives a rare chance to observe how a person who might be so politically unlike us comes to think about and see the world the way they do. The kind of unguarded and disarming self-emptying on display in Cameraperson is the quality I think our movies will need more of in the years to come, and you don’t need the Academy to validate my thinking on that to go and find out for yourself.
Tim Markatos is editorial fellow at The American Conservative.