I won’t pretend to care what happens in categories that exclude Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Coogler and Todd Haynes, but here are seven Oscar categories that mean something to me this year.
Possibly the most impressive slate of nominees in a single Oscar category in my living memory. Gone (?) are the days when the Academy would automatically nominate one or two popular computer-animated kids’ movies of no consequence each year. The category continues to improve as it becomes more invested in honoring a variety of animation traditions. In hindsight, last year’s omission of The Lego Movie feels like a clear signal in favor of craft, against commercialism and cynicism. The only fully computer-animated nominee this year is the great but obligatory Pixar one, while hand-drawn and stop-motion films get their due and a movie made for an adult audience is finally in the running (long after Richard Linklater’s rotoscoping forays stood no chance against the likes of Shrek and Happy Feet).
I loved Inside Out but eight months later it’s easily my least favorite of the bunch. Shaun the Sheep Movie’s wordless gags are consistently hilarious, Boy and the World’s anger is so profound that it eventually must cut to documentary footage of the pillaging of the planet, and Anomalisa’s artistry is so tender and complete that no sex scene with live actors seems real, in comparison. Still, nothing resonated for me quite like Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There, the Studio Ghibli feature whose retreat to the countryside implicates urban malaise (again) and whose subtextual richness invites queer readings. It stands no chance of winning, but only because Ghibli and Miyazaki are inexplicably treated as synonyms.
This is a toss-up between Amy and The Look of Silence, both of which take big formal risks and maintain a gaze that yields intense discomfort. The reason Amy seems a more compelling choice is probably due to cultural myopia: the topic of our worship and destruction of celebrities strikes us with an immediacy that our other crimes do not.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is probably the best possible documentary on its subject, given her elusiveness. All the best moments involve her performances, but the film knows exactly why and when to include each one. Cartel Land tells an important story, about Michoacán’s Autodefensas, but saddles it with redundant and unrevealing scenes from the other side of the border, in the hopes that interweaving two unrelated portraits of vigilantism constitutes a directorial point of view. It does not.
Not seen: Winter on Fire
Foreign Language Film
Evil lives in many of the Best Picture nominees too, but Hollywood’s great at spinning tough content into satisfying Oscar stories. So instead of genocide, systemic child abuse and the defrauding of the American working class, we’ll get headlines like Leo DiCaprio Wins Award; Journalistic Heroes Get Job Done; Comedic Director Makes Good. Son of Saul is a true reckoning with evil and there’s no way to twist or glamorize its meta-narrative, so its win will sit awkwardly in a telecast eager to play it off the stage.
Theeb and Mustang (my personal favorite) are nearly as apocalyptic in their own ways, but the former is also a boy’s adventure tale and the latter offers the city as salvation from rural conservatism. Son of Saul’s only relief is in the close tracking of its lead actor and in its somewhat oblique ending. Saul’s facial transformation during his final appearance is so shocking that it should have yielded a tagline as succinct as Garbo Speaks: Röhrig Smiles.
To be seen imminently: A War, Embrace of the Serpent
Animated Short Film
Don Hertzfeldt was first nominated in this category 15 years ago, but seeing the creator of It’s Such A Beautiful Day in the running still feels radical. His World of Tomorrow is palatable, even kid-friendly, but retains the Hertzfeldt touch and a grim vision of the future, deadpan in its fantastical plausibility. Movies like this don’t win respectable awards, do they?
I liked The Hateful Eight and especially its Lincoln letter punchline but never really felt up for the conversations the film failed to generate. The only one I had quickly turned to praise of Ennio Morricone’s ominous score.
This category hasn’t been so strong in years, but Charlotte Rampling’s clueless comments will be the only thing anyone remembers about it. I’ve started to think of Brooklyn, Carol and 45 Years as a trilogy, a portrait of a woman concealing her emotions, then erupting with an intensity that diminishes with age. All three performances are amazing but Cate Blanchett’s exercise in carefully modulated passion is on another level, one of those rare pieces of acting that makes me think all other aspects of film art are pale in comparison. I don’t buy the accusations of category fraud. Her Carol could have gone supporting, melting into unhappy domesticity or playing foil to the younger woman’s awakening, but ultimately her interior life is too powerful to be controlled and she claims the film’s title for herself.
If I have to explain why Sylvester Stallone meant so much to me in Creed, it’s gonna get personal.
images: Marnie & Anna // the future beyond the World of Tomorrow