Ahead of the ceremony this Sunday, Getintothis’ Del Pike questions the reasoning behind this year’s Oscar nominees.
If ever there was a year for the underdog to shine, then this is it.
The annual tradition of checking out the Oscar nominations has become a little predictable over the years, the cavalcade of heroes and villains, weepers and jokers has become increasingly formulaic and the temptation to stay up all night to find out who gets the gongs has become a little less appealing.
But this is 2017, we do things differently here.
2017 is a year in absolute mayhem, on both sides of the pond, if 2016 was the rehearsal then this is the main event. It would be wrong surely to pour accolades onto the rich white potentates of Hollywood right now as Trump takes control from his gilded office and the non-whites of America cower in fear from a knock on the door.
The underdogs in the movie world are the independents, or at the very least those with an indie sensibility. Arty and wise, once the domain of thin beardy men with top knots and now the borderline mainstream. Multi-cultural and left wing, these are the films that are dominating the nominees list this year, and it would be churlish to see this as merely coincidental.
A turning point in making this happen can be traced back 20 years to Gus Van Sant’s unlikely romantic drama, Good Will Hunting. The film that introduced the world to the pairing of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and helped to buck the trend of discovering actors who could ride both the indie train and play hard in Hollywood too. The film also starred Robin Williams, an actor who already had taken his place in that role, choosing both mainstream and niche roles, TV and film and rarely putting a foot wrong. Van Sant’s direction bordered on whimsy with Damon battling between being a genius school janitor and the winner of Minnie Driver’s heart, but the inclusion of a perfect soundtrack by Danny Elfman and more importantly, Elliot Smith lent the film credibility and made it fashionable to recruit indie acts to indie film soundtracks.
In the years that followed, this quirky, appealing style of filmmaking trolled on, allowing the likes of Sofia Coppola to shine with the Air sound-tracked The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, the former making another Indie / Hollywood star out of Scarlett Johansson while simultaneously carving a new indie career for everyone’s favourite Ghostbuster, Bill Murray. Even kid’s movies found that Indie sensibility; look at the spindly fonts and documentary style camera work in Spike Jonze’s 2009 adaption of Where the Wild Things are, along with a soundtrack from The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O.
2017 finds us in a year when by rights Rogue One should be festooned with awards due to its sheer entertainment value, but this is not the time. (Although it has been nominated for best visual effects.)
Arrival takes that space, one of the very few multiplex certs that finds itself on the nominee list (Best Picture), but this is a throwback to the cold war surely, when alien attack movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Forbidden planet were poorly shrouded warnings against the red threat.
People are genuinely concerned about the warm space Trump is keeping in his bed for friend Putin right now, and rightly so. The fear of the other is looming large once more and the mysterious black shapes hanging in the air in Arrival will remain iconic of the time when once again, we lost control.
History is certainly repeating itself, look at the glut of musicals that filled cinemas across the Western World during World War II. In a time of crisis nothing lifts the mood like a song and a dance. Could La La Land really have captured the hearts of serious cinemagoers three years ago, to the extent that it has now?
We may never know, but one thing is certain, La La Land is the absolute definition of a zeitgeist moment, a real Good Will Hunting Moment; both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, traditionally beautiful in the Hollywood sense of the word have successfully straddled both indie and Hollywood roles with faultless success. Director Damien Chazelle could quite easily have remained niche after his cult success with the excellent Whiplash, the 2014 tale of a committed music student, based on Chazelle’s own short film from the previous year. La La Land has captured the imagination of so many cinemagoers, in search of escapism in this darkest of winters.
The themes of the remaining Best Film nominees make for fascinating scrutiny this year with Fences and Hidden Figures both detailing black Americans overcoming prejudice, on the sports field and in space. The latter documents the role of the three African American women, who whilst working at NASA were pivotal in launching astronaut John Glen into Space. A vital and timely statement at a time when being black and female in Trump’s America cannot seriously be a positive experience right now.
Fences finds Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson, a wannabe baseball player in 1950s Pittsburgh, denied his dream because of the colour of his skin. Based on the award-winning Broadway play, the themes would normally be those that make the audience gasp at the restrictions of a few generations ago, but placed against athlete Mo Farrah’s recent verbal attack on Trump regarding his potential banishment from his American home and family, Fences becomes even more pertinent.
Moonlight and Lion similarly feature non-white protagonists and human stories of independence, strong will and the importance of identity; alien values in the world of Trump and Brexit. The films deal head on with African and Indian culture and instil once again the importance of other cultures and the necessity to co-exist without fear. It is refreshing to see that three out of the five nominees for actress in a supporting role are black. Previously the lack of black actors nominated has been something of a sticking point with the Academy.
Whilst Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge may look like your average Oscar contender, look again, this is the tale of Desmond T Doss, who saved 75 lives during the bloody Okinawa battle of WWII without firing a shot. As the whole world feels like it is currently gazing down the barrel of a gun, it is worth a reminder of how there is more than one way to win a war. Andrew Garfield is nominated for best actor here too, a star who has been rising for some time now.
The Independently-produced Hell or High Water and the Casey Affleck / Michelle Williams starring Manchester by the Sea, also independent, round up the list, a list that really does appear to have a conscience this year.
Look at films from any year and you will see society reflected in them, the psych out films of the late 60s or the glut of gulf war films in the 90s. 2017 is the most unusual of times as we are facing a bleakness that may feel unheralded but we have been here before (Hitler, Bush, Thatcher) yet the surprise is how little society has learned from these past monsters.
If this list of Best Picture nominees tells us anything it is that cinema is still the ultimate escape. Two and a half hours in a darkened room can make us forget the world outside, and it is still an incredible storytelling platform.
These films, regardless of whether we like them or not represent a capsule of how the right-thinking people of the Western World (that’s right with a lower-case r), really feel; tales of compassion, individuality, independence and even magic. Awards ceremonies are always political and divisive, but for once it appears that the board have finally got it right. For once, it may be worth staying up for.
The 2017 Academy Awards will take place on February 26.