Movie Awards Season is finally coming to an end23 February 2019
This is a really fun time of year to be a movie nerd. ‘Awards Season’ has been going on all summer, and after the Critic’s Choice Awards, the Golden Globes, the Producers’ Guild Awards, the Directors’ Guild Awards, and the BAFTAs, this Monday we’re finally up to the big one: The Academy Awards, or Oscars. This is a celebrity showcase, a fashion red carpet, and an awards show all rolled into one, and it’s the biggest live event in the entertainment industry. The film world is watching, and I’ve been watching all season–I’ve got some Hot Takes (well, mild-to-hot) on the way things have been shaping up this year. Who’s doing well, and who’s not; or whose ‘stock’ is ‘up’, and whose isn’t, based on all the chaos that’s been going on in Hollywood in the last 12 months.
Stock Up: Superhero movies
So, the Hollywood ‘Superhero Fatigue’ we were warned about still hasn’t come around. The reverse is happening, and it’s not exactly subtle–you can’t not notice the great superhero content that’s up for Oscars this year. Black Panther is the elephant in the uptight, old-fashioned, white room here: this is a superhero movie, with a nearly all-black ensemble cast, with seven Oscar nominations. One of those is Best Picture. This is a game-changer! And against all odds, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is nominated for Best Animated Feature. These are two of the best films to come out of the current era of superhero movies, and they’re getting the recognition they deserve at the absolute highest level. The Dark Knight famously won Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar, but the film itself was never nominated for Best Picture–now, a decade later, Black Panther has reached this milestone.
Both Panther and Spider-Verse are masterclasses in storytelling: in Erik Killmonger and Miles Morales respectively, they feature two of most well-developed, engaging, resonant characters in any movies this year. Setting that aside, contrary to the shallow, hand-waving critique of this genre’s rise to Oscar recognition, these films actually have something to say.
Black Panther is a radical, radical film, not just because of the power of its representation, but its story: this is a superhero movie in which the hero is the one who learns from the villain. In which the central ideological conflict between the two is about what the powerful owe to the downtrodden. In which the climactic final battle is not the ending: Black Panther ends with an apology. A promise for change. Atonement. This is a genre historically defined by the simple thematic duality of Good and Evil–I can’t think of a more moving, refreshing conclusion for a superhero film. And it may have a chance! The Oscars’ preferential ballot means that even if most voters pick a more traditional film for their first preference, if a lot of people put Black Panther second or third, it may just win Best Picture.
In turn, Into the Spider-Verse succeeds on the strength of its revolutionary superhero storytelling. The protagonist is a kid, achingly vulnerable, caught between two worlds, so perfectly realised that you know what he’s feeling every second of the film, and you feel it too. He’s got an absolute banger of an arc, and the highs of the movie’s payoffs are about as high as it gets. Cinema this good is rare enough as it is, but Black Panther and Into the Spider-Verse are operating within a genre that gets a lot of shit from the critical establishment, and the fact that they’re both Oscar-nominated is a great sign for its future. The superhero-movie Golden Age is real. Stock Up.
Stock Down: All of the Oscar snubs
Well, all the ones that I care about anyway. Where was Paddington 2? That movie is without a doubt the greatest force for good that was on cinema screens all year. The fact that If Beale Street Could Talk didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination is criminal. And I’m not surprised Sorry to Bother You didn’t get nominated – it’s a very provocative film – but it makes me sad anyway. What about Eighth Grade? Bo Burnham’s debut was an astonishing work of empathy. And First Man probably doesn’t deserve to win this year, but it should have been in there. Burning was an absolute masterpiece, but it didn’t manage to snag a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. And I liked Widows, and particularly Viola Davis’s leading performance in it, a hell of a lot more than some of the nominees we did get. Even Mission Impossible: Fallout–I’m not sure where it would fit in to the categories, but I’m also not sure when the last time was that I saw action filmmaking done that well.
Stock (kind of?) Up: Diversity behind the camera
It’s always been a given at the Academy Awards that all the directors tend to be white guys. More so than any other field recognised at the Oscars, it seems to be the most resistant to actually reflecting modern society. Today, though, three years after the #OscarsSoWhite uproar, you can see progress: of the eight directors whose films were nominated for Best Picture, only half are the classic trifecta of white, American, and male. You’ve also got Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) and Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) – although The Academy really should have recognised Spike Lee thirty years ago for Do The Right Thing. To be honest though, I thought Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book deserved nominations a whole lot less than the great-but-snubbed Widows and If Beale Street Could Talk. Both of those films were directed by Black people – ironically, the only two Black people to have previously directed a film that has won Best Picture. The fact that Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book got in when they didn’t is probably a sign of The Academy’s still-very-white voting body. And race aside, it’s still all men. The Academy, and the industry, still have a ways to go.
Stock Down: The Academy
What are these guys doing? This season has seen The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in the midst of some kind of panic attack over its relevance, embarrass itself again and again.
In August, they announced a new award for “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” – a fairly transparent attempt to keep Black Panther out of Best Picture contention, and potentially attract viewers who loved movies like Crazy Rich Asians and A Quiet Place. You know, regular people? It was roundly criticised for drawing a line between ‘blockbusters’ and ‘arthouse films’, suggesting ‘popular’ movies weren’t good enough to be Best Picture, and movies that do get nominated aren’t popular. They pulled the pin on the new award a month later.
In December, the Academy picked Kevin Hart as its Oscars host. He was out in three days. A series of tweets and stand-up clips of his from 2009 to around 2012 had been dug up, all of which contained some pretty ugly, homophobic stuff. It was all a bit of a shitshow after that, but after the year we’ve just had, surely someone at The Academy would have thought to check for something like this before they locked him in? It was a very preventable fiasco, and the Oscars are now proceeding without a host for the first time in thirty years.
In January, it got out that – in a break from tradition – all five Best Original Song nominees would not be performed live at the Oscars ceremony. Only ‘Shallow’ from A Star Is Born and ‘All The Stars’ from Black Panther would be. I mean, this one’s pretty egregious. They literally shot down two-thirds of the nominees, a month before the actual Oscars. The decision was reversed a week later.
Just last week, The Academy rescinded an announcement that the awards for four Oscar categories would be handed out during the ad breaks. Not just any categories, but Live Action Short, Makeup & Hairstyling, Film Editing, and Cinematography. Four hugely important awards, (also, four awards for which no Disney film was nominated? I’m grabbing my tin foil hat) all cut in an attempt to keep the broadcast under three hours. That one lasted a whole week, but the pattern’s hard to ignore. Dumb decision. Public outcry. Embarrassing backflip. It’s symptomatic of an awards show that no longer knows what it wants to be, and it is slowly killing itself. Stock down.
Stock Up: The international film festival scene in Melbourne
Our local film festivals have been killing it lately! They’ve always been good at getting the best major arthouse films that don’t come from Hollywood every year – we get this beautiful array of world cinema, screened months before general release, right here in Melbourne. But this year they’ve been particularly strong. Of the five Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, three (Cold War, Shoplifters, and Capernaüm) played at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August (as well as Burning, which many people – myself included – believe deserved a nomination). A fourth, Roma, which is also nominated for Best Picture(!), screened in Melbourne for the annual Cine Latino Film Festival. Melbourne festivals even screened a film that would be nominated in the technical categories: Border, which was nominated for Best Makeup & Hairstyling, and played at the local Scandinavian Film Festival in July. Love react for Melbourne.
Stock Down: The Golden Globes’ decision-making ability
Come on. Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody? Not just the movies themselves, but Bohemian Rhapsody for Best DRAMA and Green Book for Best MUSICAL/COMEDY? The Globes truly globes-d it to an alarming degree this year. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has always been a bit of a strange group of individuals (fun fact: it’s just ninety people!) who, weirdly, decide the second-biggest awards show of the season, but I’m not sure if anyone was prepared to believe this would happen.
Bohemian Rhapsody is not even a good movie. It’s infectious, I guess? It’s just an incredibly generic, trite, smoothed-over account of a band that were (and are) very popular. There’s nothing bold or challenging about this movie. That’s probably my most deeply-felt opposition to it being a Best Picture nominee – it doesn’t offer anything, it’s not the kind of thing that should be recognised. We have to learn to tell the difference between a film that’s ‘a fun watch’ – with the exceptions of maybe Roma and A Star Is Born, all of the other nominees are fun watches anyway – and a film that’s actually good.
Meanwhile, Green Book is – as much as this is a tired term – a problematic film. I don’t think I really disagree with any of the points it tries to make, but it’s still another movie about a white guy learning not to be racist, it seems to have hurt the family of Don Shirley, (they called the film a “symphony of lies”) and old stories have come up that suggest director Peter Farrelly is a creep.
This is the kind of movie I wish would just go away. Look at the Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri controversy from last year. Awards Season gets too bogged down in grappling with films that do have their heart in the right place, but make clumsy political points: because they’re nominated for the highest award, they need the scrutiny. Art, at this level, has to be measured by decency, by morals. What that means, though, is that every season we end up ignoring the more ‘clean’ films, devoting all media attention to the more controversial ones. A natural casualty, of course, is discussion of actual merit. Yes, Green Book is not the right choice for the kind of message that achievement-recognition bodies like The Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association need to be sending, but it’s also just not the best film of the year. The Golden Globes have shown us that the HFPA aren’t realising either of those things.
Stock Up: The devil on Kevin Hart’s shoulder
Pssst. Hey, listen. Kevin. My guy. You know those homophobic tweets from years back, the ones that made the Academy threaten to cancel you hosting the Oscars? Here’s an idea. DON’T apologise for them. Well, not for days anyway. Yeah, that’s perfect. That way everyone will just forget about it. Anyway, you’ve already apologised in the past, you’re good. Clean slate now. That’s how it works. In fact, step down as host, man. Step down as host, say it’s because you don’t want to distract attention from the honourees. Wait for, like, I dunno? A few weeks? Then reinsert yourself into the conversation. Go on Ellen. And not like an epilogue-to-the-drama, what-have-I-learned type thing either. Make it about getting the job back. Damn, this is good. Who needs to make amends or display actual remorse when you can just tend to your public image? You’re famous, my dude, which means people must want to take that from you. That must be it. Get mad about it. No contrition. You’ve moved on, why can’t everyone else? Say you’re never talking about it again. Talk about it a little bit more. Then go make Ride Along 3 or something.
Stock Up: Netflix
Ok, this is kind of a lukewarm take (I wrote about this for Farrago back in November when I reviewed Roma) but it seems like barely anyone is talking about this? Don’t let the controversies around Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody distract you from the fact that a streaming service is responsible for the frontrunner for Best Picture. If you ask anyone who knows the Academy, check any betting website, you’ll see that Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is what everyone’s betting on to take the top honour – and the logo that plays before that movie is the word ‘Netflix’ in big letters. That’s absolutely wild. This was a year full of changes to the film industry, but nothing is more indicative of our new 2019 reality than a Silicon Valley tech giant’s movie tying for the most Oscar nominations. (Ten. Ten!) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, another Netflix film, got three. Bird Box was one of the most talked-about movies all year. Netflix is swallowing the entire conversation here. How did this happen?
Netflix don’t have much history as an established movie studio, but they’re smart, and they’ve got a hell of a lot of money. Roma’s budget was $15 million USD, but Netflix have reportedly spent $25 million on its Oscars campaign. They’re outspending the competition, by a wide margin. They’ve bought out Lisa Taback, the awards strategist who handled previous Best Picture winners The King’s Speech, Spotlight and Moonlight. There are stories about boxes of Oaxacan chocolates being sent to voters, with a signed note from the film’s star Yalitza Aparicio, and a list of all the categories in which Roma was nominated. Angelina Jolie (!!!) hosted a cocktail party for ‘tastemakers’ where the film was screened. Netflix is doing this – very transparently – because they want to be seen as not just a platform where everybody goes to watch stuff, but also as the studio where all the best stuff is actually getting made. Until recently, the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) had six members, the biggest studios in Hollywood: Disney, Sony, Universal, Paramount, Fox, and Warner Brothers. On the day it was legitimised by Roma receiving a Best Picture nomination – the same day! – Netflix became the seventh.
For the foreseeable future, they’re going to keep throwing their weight around, because they see the Best Picture award as a marketing tool. Their source of revenue, their only real business, is getting more subscriptions – and one way to do that is to develop a reputation as a place for prestige content. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep shouting about this from the rooftops. That’s not because it’s necessarily a bad thing – Roma is an incredible film, and I actually want it to win – but it’s scary that money can be so powerful in this way. You want to believe that genuine merit is the most important factor in Oscar voting. But, if Roma wasn’t the amazing movie it is, I’d be really, really worried about the possibility that it’s the frontrunner simply because of the money Netflix has thrown at it. At any rate, Netflix’s stock is way the hell up.
Stock Down: The filmmakers’ integrity, a bit
The need to campaign for their films is clearly weighing on this season’s nominated directors. You don’t get into filmmaking to schmooze Academy voters at cocktail parties – at least, I hope not – and I can see how the whole process would get to you. The constant, controversy-driven media cycle. The endless Q&As and other promotional events. The nervousness before the winners are crowned at every single one of the award ceremonies. Cuarón actually broke ranks and spoke to Deadline about it a few weeks ago: “the Awards Season should be a celebration … this industry has turned everything into something a bit more vicious”. If you watch any of the roundtables or Q&As where this season’s nominated filmmakers get together, you can see how much they respect each other, so I imagine being forced to compete like this must be depressing. I’m sure all these guys wanted was to make great movies, but Awards Season kind of takes that artistic purity and mutates it. That part sucks.
Stock Up: Meryl Streep
No nominations, only fun musical roles this year? Doesn’t matter. Her stock’s always up.
Stock Down: Bradley Cooper’s promised land
If you look hard enough online, you can find a 1999 episode of Inside the Actors Studio, where the guest is Sean Penn. At one point, Penn takes a question from this long-haired kid, clearly a big admirer – and it’s fucking Bradley Cooper. Director, star, co-writer and co-producer of Australia’s 8th-highest-grossing film of 2018, A Star Is Born. Watch that Inside the Actors Studio episode, and any of his interviews over the years, and you’ll see this guy has always shown a hunger to be one of the greats. After working with directors like David O. Russell and Clint Eastwood, he took a big creative leap of faith and made this huge movie, with his sights on the biggest prize in the game. But we’re less than a week away from the Oscars now, and the chances are not looking good.
A Star Is Born was supposed to be it. It had all the makings of a Best Picture winner. Movie about show business? Check. A marriage of huge box office success and genuine critical acclaim? Check. Transformative lead performances that break from the actors’ established image? Check – who knew Cooper or Lady Gaga could do this? It’s genuinely a really good movie: Cooper clearly gets how to make the big emotional moments work, all the performances are great, and it’s weirdly one of best-shot movies of the year. Through most of Spring 2018, it was looking like nothing would be able to take down the A Star Is Born juggernaut. Being in the public eye is massive for a movie like this – that word-of-mouth really carried, and ‘Shallow’ is still playing on Nova, KIIS, and Fox FM all the time. It was expected to win, or at the very least be nominated for, Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Actress, and Original Song.
But then the race broke wide open. Roma, The Favourite, and Green Book all came out and started stirring up critical acclaim. Bohemian Rhapsody somehow made a pile of money second in size only to Avengers: Infinity War. And most surprisingly of all, the only Golden Globe A Star Is Born took home was for ‘Shallow’. A month and a bit later, and that’s all that it seems likely to get at the Oscars, too. Bradley Cooper is pretty awful at campaigning, but he kind of did everything you’re supposed to do as a debut director – be bold, have a vision, see it through… In October I would have told you it paid off, but did it? I’m not the only one who’s weirded out by the turn things have taken – in beautiful irony, it was none other than Sean Penn who wrote an op-ed for Deadline earlier this month, demanding a Best Picture win for Bradley Cooper. I mean, all power to him, but the stock for this movie? And the avalanche of accolades everyone thought would pile upon it? Way down.
Stock Down: My credibility?
Buying into the whole horse-race dynamic of Awards Season probably isn’t healthy for the way we engage with movies. Comparing cinema as a practice is kind of pointless, and The Academy tends to make bad choices. I think the reason I go along for the ride so much is because for the better part of a few months, more great movies come out, and people spend more time talking about great movies, and how could I not want to get in on that? I love this shit. Besides, all of this incredible work deserves to be recognised, and honoured, and the films that receive awards will inform the direction of the industry. I remember two years ago, after the envelope-mistake madness died down, and it kind of dawned on everyone that The Academy had just picked Moonlight over La La Land. What that meant for the future. Times change slowly, but they change. I loved La La Land, and all of its nostalgic charm, but Moonlight is the future. I want more of it – more unique voices telling amazing, powerful stories. That Best Picture win legitimised this future, and that’s why any of this is important, and why I’ll keep buying into Awards Season madness, barracking for the movies that will carry cinema forward, year after year.
The Academy Awards air live on Channel Nine and its web platform, 9GO.