It was the Oscars tonight! I watched the full telecast for the first time in several years tonight, and thought it was a surprisingly inspiring and life-affirming broadcast. Here’s my picks of winners and losers this year.
Parasite. The winner that everybody is going to be talking about tomorrow is Parasite. The best case scenario is that this becomes an early episode in a process of the American film ecosystem becoming more curious about international films and less chauvinistic about Hollywood movies. There’s a lot to consider here: the politics of the movie, production nominations vs. acting nominations, the relationship of South Korean culture to US culture. I’m not informed enough to have an opinion on all that, what I do know is that the movie was very good and deserved every award it won tonight.
Olivia Coleman. She is glorious, and one of the sharpest, most witty people in entertainment right now. Her wit allows her to get away with saying things that push the envelope of taste with this regal dominance that is a joy to watch. There are few people who can take a stage like that and be so secure in their ownership of it that they can be playful. Every time she is on stage as “Olivia Colman,” it’s down to earth, warm, and with a hilarious angle that nobody else would take. This guy fucks.
Quality movies. One of the reasons that this Oscar year felt good was that there were relatively few victory lap/middlebrow consensus winners. There was a little more Ford vs. Ferrari and 1917 presence than I would like, but otherwise it seemed like all the winners were rewarded for outstanding work, rather than because of popularity
Corniness. Janelle Monaé opened the broadcast with “Come Alive” from The ArchAndroid. It’s not my favorite song, but the feel of the song is like this strange mixture of B-52’s/Violent Femmes novelty rock and Cab Calloway big band schmaltz. It (mostly) worked, and it was very corny. Also corny was Maya Rudolph and Kristin Wiig’s a capella songs-about-clothing melody that was both incredible and completely embarrassing. Very skit-from-your-theater-camp-counselor vibes.
Workers of the world. Julia Reichert is a documentarian who co-directed American Factory, which won Best Documentary. She has terminal cancer. In her speech, she recognized working people: ““Working people have it harder and harder these days — and we believe that things will get better when workers of the world unite.” I truly cannot imagine the emotions she must be experiencing, this wonderful validation and career highlight, in a time when she must be aware of every moment that she has left to live.
Frozen 2. I just loved everything about this performance. I love Idina Menzel (she was great in just a few minutes in Uncut Gems); I love when these kind of events can share the spotlight with performers that don’t always get this kind of reach and platform; I loved hearing the song in all of the different languages; I loved the haunting vocals (and very strange choice of staging) of the delightfully elfin Aurora; and I love the operatic power of many solo voices coming together and singing in harmony. Loved it.
The human quality of grace. Not everybody that won an award was able to accept it gracefully. That’s no knock on them, it’s a big event. Even Taika Waititi, who has a trickster energy and seems to be able to create a vaudevillian routine for every public appearance started to lose his hold on his composure when accepting his screenwriting award. But some others seemed to understand the power of the public platform that they were given, not feel rushed, and said what they felt like needed saying. It’s a wonderful human quality, grace. There is a physical sense of the word, graceful movements, graceful lines, etc. But the root of the word (Latin: “praising” “welcoming”) has to do with social interactions, the physical definition is the metaphor. It is being present in the moment and retaining your composure at the same time as you are aware of the different levels of context that are in operation. It’s like respect: if I am to be welcoming to you, I must not only choose to be welcoming, but be paying enough attention to you to understand how you will receive my gestures. The best speeches of the evening—Hildur Guðnadóttir for the Joker score, Carol Dysinger for Learning to Skate in a War Zone (If You’re a Girl), and Bong Joon Ho all evening—had this kind of grace.
Shia LeBeouf. Shia had a few years of psychotically bad behavior, but over the last few years has built up a portfolio of interesting performances. I have no insider knowledge, but my guess is that he is either incapable of making himself play nice with the media or he is still radioactive to publicists because his public image never really adjusted to where is is today. He presented a category with Zack Gottsagen, his costar of The Peanut Butter Falcon who has Down’s syndrome. Out of context, he had a moment where he seemed to get angry with and roll his eyes at Zack, but I believe was an expression of secondhand anxiety for Zack, who was struggling with stage fright. But for people who concluded that he was a dick and wrote him off in 2013, that seemed really dickish.
The Best Actor and the Best Actress. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Renée Zellweiger gave terrible acceptance speeches. Phoenix gave an emotional, rambling speech about human exploitation of nature and each other. You can’t talk about racism and animal rights and environmental rights in the same thought like that, you just can’t. There are ways to live in balance with nature while taking from nature what we need to survive. There is a range of opinions about whether there is a moral balance like that possible with animal protein and materials. There is no good, balanced way to exploit other human beings.
Zellweiger either winged it or thought that memorizing names would be enough because she read the entire production credits of Judy before getting to a personal message about rallying around “our heroes” with all of the coherence of Miss Teen South Carolina talking about maps in 2007.
Little Women. What a great movie. It should have been nominated for Best Director, it would have been a fine choice for Best Picture, and Florence Pugh was absolutely robbed by Laura Dern’s showy-performance-in-a-mediocre-movie for Best Supporting Actress. The only award it won was Best Costume, which was the only award it should not have won (all of the clothes in that movie were too clean).
Normal-sized women. There was an embarrassing amount of hollow “Girl Power” messaging that just underlined how shut out women were from directing and most of the technical categories. You don’t need any of that if people are getting jobs. That’s what people want, they just want their projects funded and to have a fair shot at getting hired.
Old men. There were moments of tension, where it seemed like the status quo of all-white and all-male categories cannot hold much longer. One guy who won an editing award thanked his wife for giving up her career to raise their kids, and it just clunked in the room. Chris Rock and Steve Martin had a couple of opening jokes, and they just seemed like dinosaurs. There’s enough momentum in the system that men who came up in it will be able to keep staying at the top, but the folks that are coming up now are—I am hopeful—bringing a different world with them, and there’s going to be a moment when that balance tips. This year felt like a step back, in terms of women and black nominees. But I don’t think the old boy’s world is coming back. These older, white artists have a challenge ahead of them, if they choose to engage with it. They have the opportunity to re-imagine a position in the industry that is not automatically on top. Some are going to choose to evolve, some are going to choose to hold onto the past with all of their strength.