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Oscar Season: Sinking to the Occasion

Let’s face it, we’ve all seen better Oscar years. But have we seen worse ones? No, according to many despairing voices online, and the smarter ones are quoting GoldDerby writers to make their points. I don’t remember hearing “let it be over” quite this often during any other Oscar race.

Maybe it all gets back to the Popular Film Oscar fiasco of last summer. Even after backing away from that idea, AMPAS insisted it would drop at least four of its 24 categories from the broadcast. Then came the Kevin Hart fiasco, and the (inaccurate) notion that no one is now PC enough to host the Oscars.

Since then, disappointments have come in dribs and drabs: the lack of any host at all; the choice to perform only two of the five Best Song nominees; the idea of not airing Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins’ speech was cinephiles’ favorite moment last year!); and what looks like a determination to make this Oscars as unenjoyable as possible. All this has been accompanied by a slate of honorees that feels a bit less impressive than in years past.

To be clear, there were plenty of great films in 2018, but that doesn’t mean that AMPAS bothered to find American-directed, up-to-the-minute films like Moonlight (2016) and Get Out (2017). In reaction to the latter – this was only last year – the Academy exiled its one-time-leading rainmaker (Harvey Weinstein), nominated only its third American woman in the Best Director category (Greta Gerwig), and generally seemed willing to put the past behind it and welcome the future Oprah Winfrey hailed at the January 2018 Golden Globes when she said “Time’s Up!”

AMPAS hasn’t exactly retreated, but this year feels like treading water, at best. Another female-directed film in the Best Picture lineup would have been nice (like the outstanding Leave No Trace and Can You Ever Forgive Me?). And yes, it’s true that two of the eight Best Picture nominees were directed by African-Americans and one, perhaps the frontrunner, by a Mexican. Sure, but…

Listen: Oscar Nominations Reactions from Filmotomy Staff

Reacting to and representing the current cultural climate is about more than ticking boxes for non-white-males. Let’s face it, it’s also about Donald Trump and perhaps Brexit. This is the very first Oscar race where all of the films began shooting after the election of the 45th President.

Last year, Steven Spielberg managed to squeeze out The Post just in time for a Best Picture-nominated rebuke, but because movies usually take 18 months to make and release, most of that year’s slate were only relevant to Trump or Brexit partly by accident, e.g. “The Sunken Place” feeling comparable a paralyzed body politic.

By contrast, this year, for the first time, the Oscars could have fully taken on the existential crises that are Trump and Brexit. And for the most part, they utterly failed to rise to the occasion. They sunk themselves to the occasion instead, and not in a cool Get Out way.

Only three of the eight Best Picture nominees have any scenes set after the 1980s. One of them is the third remake of a 1937 film called A Star is Born; the second, the very tech-savvy Black Panther, is based on a 1960s comic book; the third, Vice, with its RT score of 64, is basically saying Cheney was as bad as any person ever, which doesn’t exactly jibe with anti-Trump sentiment.

Granted, BlacKkKlansman has an epilogue that takes on Charlottesville, but the larger vibe of the Best Picture lineup is nostalgic, personal and sentimental. The characters in arguably the three best films in the Best Picture lineup – A Star is Born, Roma, and The Favourite – make a point of turning away from the outside world to focus on their own personal concerns. That doesn’t mean those are mediocre films; in fact, they’re kind of great. But honoring them (and, uh, Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book) without honoring others feels like a waste of a chance to speak to what’s going on right now.

What about First Reformed? What about The Hate U Give? What about Sorry to Bother You? Those films, along with Leave No Trace, are right up to the minute. But instead…we’ve got this year’s Oscar race.

Ever since 2016, in our darkest moments, we’ve thought: what was the point of all this blogging and podcasting and posting and writing, anyway? If it couldn’t prevent things like Brexit and Trump, maybe we should have focused our energies elsewhere? Then we remind ourselves that art and writing and social media can’t do everything. But we like to think it can at least stand up and show a little bit of what resistance looks like.

This year, the Oscars didn’t bother. That, along with everything else, is what makes this Oscar race uniquely disappointing. Silver lining: at this year’s Oscars, Rob Lowe could sing onstage with Snow White and the show would still exceed current expectations.

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