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Reviewing the Academy Awards

Every year when the Oscar nominees are doing the rounds, I always intend to see each of the Best Picture films before the ceremony, and this year I’ve finally done it - all nine nominees seen, as the God of Cinema intended, on the big screen. Not only that, I’ve written up a review for each film for The Manchester Review. Here are the links to the reviews:

Now, this is not to say that I necessarily agree with the Academy’s shortlist, nor that I believe the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts is the final word in cinema craft, as it likes to believe it is. What’s the point, for example, of having a Best Picture category and a Best Foreign Language Film category which automatically presumes that the very best film of the year will always (or usually) be either American or British made? Can a documentary or a short film not also be the best film? Why also distinguish between actor and actress? As the world slugs on, the categories are getting increasingly banal.

Nevertheless, the Best Picture nominees are worth bothering with because they will invariably contain at least a few very good films, as is the case this year, and from a cultural standpoint it is inherently interesting to let the art-form dance through its annual awards parade and get a sense of how and where it moves and shakes. It doesn’t really matter what wins Best Picture, in the same way it doesn’t matter who wins the Booker, the Turner, the Hugo and so on, but the playing of this particular game is unfailingly intriguing.

In terms the Academy, the battle between giving the top prize to the best film in terms of overall technical achievement and the best film in terms of cultural importance is a curious one which often seems hard to resolve. The line between best-technical and best-importance is a fuzzy one. Winners Moonlight from last year and 12 Years a Slave from 2013 are perhaps the only examples in the last decade when those two golden elements combine, although a case could be made for The Hurt Locker in 2009 (although I prefer A Serious Man).

There’s a suggestion from the previous two winners – Moonlight and Spotlight – that the Academy now prefers to select the important film for the top prize, while the Best Director award becomes a sort of silver medal booby prize for the top technical achievement films – which tend to be the ‘biggest’ films that were most expected to win Best Picture (La La Land and The Revenant respectively). Is all this the Academy trying harder to have cultural relevance rather than just handing the gong to the most showy/glitzy/worthy film? The heady world of Hollywood and the Academy have been suffering blows of recent years, particularly with the #OscarSoWhite campaign, the female star pay problem, and the Weinstein debacle. Now more than ever, the Academy are conscious of their image as well as their role and there is at least some mild effort among the Academy voters to try and eradicate their colour and gender biases and see a tiny bit further beyond the privileged white men who have historically scooped the majority of the statuettes.

And so, we come to the 90th awards and the 9 nominees, which have proven a mostly fascinating bunch and one the strongest line-ups of very good films for many years. What’s been particularly interesting this year is the fruition of an indie spirit rising over and above the more traditional ‘Oscar worthy’ fare. At the bottom rung are the clearest two in this latter category: Spielberg’s star vehicle The Post, which is fine but dull and lacks the vibrancy and energy of Spotlight which it attempts to emulate, and Darkest Hour, the most obviously classic Oscar movie in the list and also the weakest (and most deplorably badly timed given Brexit).

Among the other seven are two thrilling debuts, both of which have a punky and refreshing approach to their genres (Get Out and Lady Bird), and three auteurist arty affairs from cinematic visionaries (Phantom Thread, Call Me by Your Name, and Dunkirk). The remaining two could also fit in this latter category, but step slightly aside into their own subsections; contemporary-drama-with-relevance (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and magical Hollywood fantasy 'escapism' (The Shape of Water).

Following the logic, Three Billboards and The Shape of Water are probably the front runners, and I would imagine Three Billboards will take the top prize while Del Toro takes Best Director (particularly since the Academy tends to prefer realism over fantasy. Side note: a ‘science fiction’ film has never won Best Picture). However, the fascinating thing this year is that a whole bunch of the other films can’t be so easily written off. There has been a lot of very thrilling and very vibrant buzz about Get Out and Lady Bird, both of which are real treats, and given the spectres of racial and gender discrimination haunting the Hollywood hills at the moment, the Academy might be tempted to lean in either direction. Which might mean a Best Picture gong for Get Out, a best director for Greta Gerwig, or vice versa for Jordan Peele.

Either of these latter outcomes would be a surprise, but a welcome one which will do further wonders for these two vital films. But the Academy may well still be too old, male and white to go that far, besides which, there has also been a lot of discussion and adoration of Three Billboards and Shape of Water which will not be so readily ignored or snubbed. Discussion around the others has been pretty quiet despite the fact that both Phantom Thread and Call Me by Your Name are superbly excellent films in their own right and more than deserve to named Best Picture. I, personally, can't shake off either of these films – I thought they were both exquisite. Thread will likely pick up a Best Score award for Jonny Greenwood (he of Radiohead), or Best Costume of course. It will be a shame if Call Me by Your Name comes away empty handed and, although it is a supremely tough category, I would shove a Best Actor into the hands of the wonderful Timothee Chalamet over and above the others (sorry Daniel Day-Lewis. I bet you get it though, Danny).

Which only leaves Dunkirk. The curious thing here is that if Nolan’s war epic had been released in December/January I would bet anything that it would’ve been right up there as the favourite. It a perfectly astonishing technical achievement and has a feel of worthiness and importance that the Academy tend to fawn over. But it is being shunted aside by the hype surrounding the others and will probably only get statuettes from the technical categories. On a personal level, I wouldn’t be too displeased with this as I have my reservations about Dunkirk – watch out for my review for more deets.

I’ve picked, I think, a really cracking year to do this. Seven of the nine are genuinely fascinating films in their own right and demonstrate the rude health of the art form. There’s a real blend of autuerist favourites and young new upstarts, and a broad range of genres and topics and ideas. It feels like the various controversies that are plaguing all of our cultural complacencies have really re-energised both the creators and the judges and injected some freshness into proceedings. Long may it continue.

So, here are some of my predictions and personal picks, based on the films I’ve seen (I’ve not seen any of the foreign language category, or the documentaries or shorts):

Best Film

Prediction: Three Billboards

My choice: Phantom Thread

Best Director

Prediction: Guillermo Del Toro

My choice: Jordan Peele

Best Actor

Prediction: Daniel Day-Lewis

My choice: Timothee Chalamet

Best Actress

Prediction: Frances McDormand

My choice: Frances McDormand

Best Supporting Actor (why no Arnie Hammer? Why no Michael Stulbarg?)

Prediction: Sam Rockwell

My choice: Woody Harrelson

Best Supporting Actress

Prediction: Allison Janney (I’ve not seen I, Tonya yet, but this performance is getting interest)

My choice: Laurie Metcalf

Best Original Screenplay

Prediction: Three Billboards

My Choice: Three Billboards

Best Adapted Screenplay

Prediction: Call Me by Your Name

My choice: Call Me by Your Name

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