OSCARS WEEKLY – Best Picture and the power of importance

There are several factors that lead to a Best Picture win. Sometimes it’s just a film voters fall in love with (The Artist, The King’s Speech). Sometimes it’s a light year and a piece of cinema that wouldn’t win any other year takes it (Slumdog Millionaire). But the most common reason a film manages to take Hollywood’s top prize in recent years is simply by being “important.” A film that feels more relevant and timely than its fellow nominees. A film that taps into a cultural moment of that particular Oscar season. A film that demands Academy voters pay attention and vote for it. It’s both a blessing and a curse to this year’s potential nominees.

One of the main reasons La La Land failed this year was its severe lack of importance. Sure, no one could deny it was a technical triumph, and rightfully award it for artisan categories like Cinematography, Production Design, and Score. They also couldn’t deny the directorial achievement of Damien Chazelle and the impressive performance of Emma Stone. But the one major problem for its Best Picture chances was the undeniable fact it just wasn’t a socially important piece of cinema.

It didn’t comment on anything other than love, jazz, and tip its cap to the dreamers of this world. It elicited awe and warmth, but nothing more. It dazzled and delighted, but even its most ardent fans (including myself) couldn’t say it changed anyone’s perspective of the world. That’s hardly a crime against cinema, and films like this have certainly won Best Picture before. But in a year with something as powerfully relevant and socially important as Moonlight, it looked far too fluffy and light. In hindsight, it’s hardly surprising La La Land failed to win.

It’s partly the reason we’re just not seeing a film like La La Land vying for Best Picture contention this year. Something like The Greatest Showman screams Best Picture contender (its songs are even written by the Oscar-winning duo behind La La Land), yet it’s not getting an awards push beyond the Golden Globes, and no one expects it to contend for anything other than tech categories. The studios seemed to have received the message loud and clear that Academy voters are looking for more. But some films are standing out as far more important than others, and those should be the ones we look to as our real contenders.

The film with the most overwhelming sense of importance right now has to be The Post. Since his days on the campaign trail, Donald Trump has launched a consistent and vicious onslaught of attacks at the free press, labeling any media outlet who dares to defy him as “fake news.” We are now living in a scary time when the right of Americans to enjoy their constitutional right to freedom of the press is under threat. That right has always stated the media can circulate information and opinions without any censorship or interference by the government.

This right seems to be completely lost on the Trump administration. But this has all happened before, and Steven Spielberg is here to show us. His historical account of a time not so long ago when the government did indeed interfere with the freedom of the press, in its desperate and illegal attempts to stop the publication of the damning Pentagon Papers, could not be more relevant and important right now. A film that shines a light on the power of the press and why the world needs journalism is something that may be impossible for Academy voters to ignore.

A horror film as a Best Picture contender is an unlikely concept. That particular genre is often ignored by the Academy. But a horror film like Get Out which sharply and deftly comments on the very relevant and important issues with racism and class warfare in America may also be something the Academy cannot ignore. With its razor-sharp wit and biting commentary that blurs the line between serious drama, unsettling horror, and dark comedy, Get Out has defied all odds this Oscar season to remain a genuine awards contender, almost a year after its initial release. It’s breaking all the rules this year, and it carries a hefty dose of importance that’s ultimately leading its surprising charge towards Best Picture.

Another contender which shines a light on the issues of class warfare is the beautifully tragic The Florida Project. It may not be something new to see America’s major crisis of poverty portrayed on the big screen. We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again. But to see such penury and destitution taking place on the outskirts of a major tourist destination like Walt Disney World is eye-opening, to say the least. This is happening right now at motels and inns across Orlando and Kissimmee, and director Sean Baker delivers an intimate and powerful portrait that demands you pay attention to the issue. With a president elected by the poor but enacting tax cuts and policies that only favour the rich, the need for a story like this is terribly important.

With same-sex marriage now a reality for most first-world countries (including my own, finally), and the acceptance of gay people now more common than ever, a “gay film” like Call Me By Your Name may not scream importance like it once would have. But by labeling the film as such (which needs to stop), it belittles the film’s true intentions and themes of love, connection, and the results of opening your heart to something new. For all the monumental steps the gay movement has made, there are still crippling struggles for those coming to terms with their sexuality, and Luca Guadagnino’s gorgeous film portrays that in a way like few other examples of films of this genre. The life and times of LGBTQI people are still important and still relevant, and this film cannot be dismissed. And it would make it the second gay-themed film in a row to take Best Picture. Wouldn’t that be something?

From here, the rest of our contenders ultimately suffer from a real sense of importance. Dunkirk is a stellar technical achievement, but its devastating portrayal of war and its consequences on those involved are not as timely as they once were. When The Hurt Locker took home Best Picture, the US was still in the midst of its assault on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the film was as timely as it gets. Those wars may still be ongoing, but they don’t dominate headlines like they did in 2010. This also doesn’t bode well for The Darkest Hour, which follows similar tropes and themes as Dunkirk.

Our other major frontrunners, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards, and Lady Bird, are all solidly made films. They feature brilliant acting, phenomenal writing, and impressive direction, but their themes are not the stuff of social relevance or importance. They entertain and dazzle, but they don’t exactly shake your view of the world. And that’s why this year’s race may indeed be won by the film that’s the most important. In this time of turmoil, the winner for Best Picture needs to be a beacon of something more than just pure entertainment.

The world is on fire. Tensions are at an all-time high in so many aspects of daily life. Film can obviously be a tool of escapism, but it can also tap into that anxiety and mirror and challenge the world we live in. That’s always been the truest power of cinema, and we have some stellar examples this year of films that do just that. It seems almost impossible to fathom the Academy will not be swayed by the social influences of 2017 life and vote for a film of importance, yet again.

Moonlight was important because it showcased black storytelling in a way we’d never seen before. Spotlight was important because it highlighted the power of the written word in bringing down an institution many thought untouchable. Birdman was important because it challenged the way a film is meant to be told and highlighted the absurdity of celebrity. And 12 Years a Slave was important because it gave us the story of a man we never knew and shined a spotlight on a shameful time in America’s history. The path is now almost set in stone for the Academy to follow suit and award another important film this year. Which one that will be is still anyone’s guess.

BEST PICTURE PREDICTIONS, AS OF 11/12/17
The Post
Call Me By Your Name
The Florida Project
Get Out
The Shape of Water
Dunkirk
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
Mudbound