First things first — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences never gave a Best Director Oscar to Alfred Hitchcock or Mira Nair (yet), and movies that didn’t “win” Best Picture include Do the Right Thing, Citizen Kane, The Tree of Life, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Daughters of the Dust, Stories We Tell, Jean de Florette, Toni Erdmann, and The Piano. Hal Holbrook didn’t win for his exquisite supporting performance in Into the Wild, the film score I listen to most often wasn’t even nominated, and A Hidden Life, the best film I saw last year, has received precisely zero recognition from the Academy.
For what it’s worth, I could write a book about the movies that should have won but didn’t ( Danny Peary already did, and it’s lovely but due an update.) The Oscars are not an indication of the greatest achievements in cinema; they are instead the result of what happens when popularity meets expensive campaigning, the relationships among people in the film industry, a desire to do the right thing (unless that’s the name of the film), or at least to look like the right thing is being done, making up for mistakes of previous years, and the sheer luck of timing. When your movie is released matters — both in terms of how fresh it will be in the memory of Academy voters, and in which other films it’s up against. So, let’s agree: just because Oscar says it, doesn’t make it so. And saying that the Oscars represent the views of “the Academy" is like saying that any given president represents the views of all U.S. Americans. The only way to be truly sure of this would be to have mandatory voting for all members, and a commitment from the voters to watch all the eligible films, and that’s effectively impossible.
So let’s not overstate the meaning of the Oscars — at their best, they can bring some attention to movies that deserve a wider audience, and sometimes to questions of making a fairer world; and the night itself can bring a hearty laugh or heartstring moment. The rank order voting system introduced for Best Picture nominees in recent years does help widen the field (and if we used it in “real” elections, could transform national politics for the better); and the conscious recruitment of more women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and other minorities to the Academy membership is not just a popular move, but the right thing to do. In a society beginning to face the unjust consequences of one group’s unearned power being used for personal gain, any move to enlarge the table has to be a good thing.
And here we are — with another nomination announcement, another raft of opinion pieces about those nominations, and another social media skirmish between people who go to bat for the movies that they love, or the ones that validate their prejudices. I’m one of “them” too, of course. There’s no such thing as an objective critic, or objective criteria by which any of us could judge a movie. The question is whether the critic, or the audience, is able to be honest about the criteria they are using. So I’ll say something I’ve said before: By my sights, the purpose of art is to help us live better, and the best cinema occurs when technical and aesthetic craftsmanship operating at their highest frequencies, and a humane concern for the common good, kiss each other.
There were dozens of films like this in 2019 — and some of them were even nominated for Oscars this week. The main thing we can read into the Oscar nominations is what they say about mainstream cinema and entertainment culture at a given time. Make what you will of the fact that the nominated films include a gorgeous invitation to interdependent community transcending the restrictions of the nuclear family, an extraordinarily controlled portrayal of inequality awaiting the Flood, a guilt-sodden confrontation with the consequences of violent tribalism and individual selfishness, a crowd-pleasing story of fast cars and caring more about the work than the win, and an aching, distant sketch of a relationship collapsing. Little Women, Parasite, The Irishman, Ford v Ferrari, and Marriage Story are all such films.
I’m more ambivalent about 1917 and JoJo Rabbit — one a technical astonishment (with a compelling central performance) that may also be too much like the catharsis of a first-person shooter game to be truly anti-war, the other a satire about fascism and resisting fascism that sometimes moved me, and sometimes left me wondering if the joke was on all of us, including the filmmakers. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is even more challenging: For two hours, it’s an entirely delicious dream of the past, with a brilliant central sequence culminating in a conversation between Brad Pitt and Bruce Dern that deserves to win Best Scene should the Academy decided to create such an award. But then the culmination of the entire film is a dehumanizing vengeance fantasy, that may or may not be a commentary on violence in the movies, or may or may not be a failure of imagination on the part of the folks who made this particular one. And then, there’s Joker — which I do believe wants to be about folks pushed to the margins of society by selfish social policies and economic inequalities, but ends up equating “mental illness” with violent psychopathy, and justifying the murderous rampages of its protagonist. (The fact that there were literally death threats shared via social media against people who criticize the movie is, of course, troubling. But people feeling so seen by this movie that they feel hatred for people who don’t like it may be the reason it’s most worth taking Joker seriously. That’s a topic for another time.)
Of course the debate this week is more about who wasn’t nominated — with very few acting nominees of color, most Best Picture stories dominated by white men, the omission of a fantastically talented woman from the directing lineup, and so on. Most of what needs to be said has probably been said, so I’ll just add this: The fact that there’s a public discussion about moving beyond stories dominated by — or told only by — white men means a corner continues to be turned in the direction of the common good. And the fact that more women than ever have been nominated across the board is of course to be welcomed. But we can’t stop talking about this until the voices of women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and other minorities are proportionately represented based on the quality of their and our work. Not to fill “woke quotas” or just to annoy people who deny that there’s a problem. There are two primary reasons for deepening our consciousness about the relative lack of these voices at the Academy Awards. The first is that it’s better for the world to be represented in telling the story of the world — one of the things that will help us overcome racism, sexism, and homophobia will be when those of us who know most about these prejudices tell stories as often as we experience them. And, frankly, there are some utterly magnificent films out there that weren’t written or directed by, or don’t focus on straight white men.
With that in mind, my alternative Oscars for films not nominated this year go to Mary Kay Place in Diane, Julianne Moore in Gloria Bell, and Himesh Patel in Yesterday; everything about: The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Farewell, Vita & Virginia, Wild Nights with Emily, and Booksmart; and for two nominated movies whose directors were ignored: Marielle Heller and Greta Gerwig for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Little Women, respectively. While we’re at it, can someone please give Heller, Gerwig, and Lulu Wang (The Farewell) the resources to make whatever they want? They’re three of the best directors working today, no matter what happens at an awards show.