TFF & Oscars 2017: "What Does It Really Mean To Win Best Picture?"
I know, I know. The directors of the Telluride Film Festival are all about the art, not the business, of filmmaking. The event celebrates the finest “ribbons of dreams.” In other words, it is not a horse race, all about picking a winner. But historically and with uncanny consistency Oscar winners have emerged from that Labor Day weekend in Telluride.
At the 2017 Oscars, which take place Sunday night, February 26, 2017 , the choice appears to be between movies that make us feel good – or good movies that made us think more deeply about our world.
“La La Land” is a singing, dancing tribute to Hollywood’s golden past when movies were GREAT and times seemed simpler and better. On the other hand, movies like “Moonlight,” “Manchester By the Sea,” and “Arrival,” like “La La Land,” which premiered at the Telluride Film Fest 2016, deal with themes like class, race, privilege, and the Other. In other words, the notion of The American Dream, hot topics in Trump’s America. (“Hidden Figures,” another real contender, also falls into the category of socio-cultural import, but did not show up in Telluride.)
At the Golden Globes, the answer turned out to be all of the above. “La La Land” won BIG, seven Globes. But “Moonlight” won Best Motion Picture, Drama, which was especially heartwarming for Film Fest because director Barry Jenkins got his start in the student program for aspiring young filmmakers. And Casey Affleck (of “Manchester”) won best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama, while Amy Adams of “Arrival” was nominated for Best Actress.
In this think piece, Matthew Jacobs of the HuffPost asks “What Does It Really Mean to Win Best Picture.” As “La La Land” battles “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures,” Jacobs suggests the Oscar contest assumes new layers in today’s America. The winners were all made under Obama, but they are duking it out for the Golden Statue under Trump. Does it matter? Should it?
Sunday’s Oscars loom in the shadow of Donald Trump’s fledgling presidency. As with every awards show this year, we can expect copious equal-rights diatribes mounted in resistance to the regressive legislation and callow disregard for tradition that has defined the Trump administration’s debut.
But before arriving at the annual ritual, we will have already seen one of the most politically driven Best Picture debates unfurl in the media. This time, it’s personal.
Perhaps more than ever, the Best Picture contest seems to double as a referendum on our culture’s conscience. It’s bigger than the Oscars, just as Beyoncé losing Album of the Year to Adele was bigger than the Grammys. If movies are statements about the world around us, then one purpose of the Academy Awards is to adjudicate the year’s best cinematic manifestos. That’s complicated when titles from Obama’s America are being feted in Trump’s America.
It’s especially complicated when considering the Oscars’ thorny political backdrop. Throughout its 89-year history, the event has, after all, become a shrine to Hollywood’s liberal values ― even when the movies themselves aren’t explicitly political.
In 2014, “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen ended his Best Picture acceptance speech by dedicating the award “to all the people who have endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.” He then turned to the cast and crew surrounding him onstage and leapt into the air enthusiastically.
In 2016, “Spotlight” producer Michael Sugar addressed his Best Picture acceptance speech to Pope Francis, saying he hopes the recognition will inspire “a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican.” He then turned and gave Michael Keaton a bear hug.
In both cases, it would have been surprising not to hear rallying cries related to the human-rights transgressions depicted in these films.
Sandwiched between the “12 Years a Slave” and “Spotlight” victories was “Birdman.” The closest that movie came to tackling social ills was something along the lines of “middle age = hard.” Yet director Alejandro González Iñárritu, a Mexico native, politicized his acceptance speech anyway, ending with a sweet pro-immigration sentiment.
This all took place during Barack Obama’s tenure. In terms of Hollywood’s nerve center, it was a time of relative political ease.
But amid radical unrest, what does it mean to score popular culture’s most luminous prize?
If there’s one thing we know about the Oscars, it’s this: Even by subjective standards, the year’s best movie often doesn’t nab Best Picture. “The Greatest Show on Earth” beat “Singin’ in the Rain” because “Singin’ in the Rain” wasn’t even nominated. “How Green Was My Valley” topped “Citizen Kane,” frequently cited as the greatest film ever made. “Out of Africa” outpaced “The Color Purple.” “Dances with Wolves” stole the trophy from “Goodfellas.” Perhaps most infamously, voters preferred “Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain,” a groundbreaking masterpiece if we’ve ever seen one. Some would add “Birdman” to the list of failures, too ― it did compete against “Boyhood” and “Selma.”
Understanding that the minutiae of a Best Picture race has little to do with pure quality, any Oscar pundit will tell you this year’s front-runner is “La La Land,” a bubbly musical romance about an aspiring Los Angeles actress and a stubborn jazz purist. “Moonlight,” one of 2016’s most acclaimed releases, could unseat “La La Land” in an underdog triumph, partly because it’s a phenomenal movie and partly because of the important story it tells, about a black latchkey kid grappling with his sexuality in the Miami projects. But watch out for “Hidden Figures,” the charming box-office smash about three black women who were pivotal at NASA in the 1960s. “Hidden Figures” became a veritable threat to the “La La”-”Moonlight” two-hander when it won the Screen Actors Guild Awards’ top prize, a coveted Best Picture pacesetter.
(Apologies to the other six nominees: “Arrival,” “Fences,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Hell or High Water,” “Lion” and “Manchester by the Sea.” Thanks for playing.)
During awards season, that bastion of expensive politicking, offscreen narratives supersede art. This year’s narrative goes like this: “La La Land” is the escapist swoon needed to distract from Trump’s horror show, “Moonlight” is a socially vital tale not seen often enough, and “Hidden Figures” is a healthy blend of escapism and import.
Put another way, some journalists and Twitter objectors accuse “La La Land” of being a mansplain-y letdown with subpar dancers and a misguided homage to old-school musicals. They argue it’s simply not the movie Trump’s America needs, at least not when competing against stories about the very sorts of people our government would rather marginalize. The objectors’ objectors call them killjoys who fail to appreciate Damien Chazelle’s colorful flourishes and bittersweet enchantment. These arguments have occurred in countless think pieces since the moment “La La Land” opened. The New York Times’ arts writers, for instance, chimed in one by one on the musical’s merits, and lack thereof, last week.
Such political undercurrents offer a narrow, though not necessarily unfair, rubric for an awards show long granted an inflated premium within our pop-culture landscape. But if politics haunt the Oscars, shouldn’t the recipients reflect the moment’s political mood?
Maybe. History shows that honoring exemplary art has always been a mere slice of the Oscar pie…
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