You Hate Poor People (And Other Things I Want to Tell the Academy)

[Forgive the spacing issues throughout: Blogger is not cooperating right now]  
Since the Oscars happen tonight...This could make for a divisive conversation, but just remember that this is only my opinion as a normal moviegoer. I'll try to keep my focus on the Best Picture race.

I think that Oscars shouldn't be for favorites but for great productions, great filmmaking, a great combination (especially the technical aspects) of all the best things that make movies great: technical aspects, performances, writing, direction, set design, everything. Basically, Best Picture is for a film on which just about everything is working together perfectly.

Five of my favorite movies of the year weren't nominated for Best Picture, and I think they should've been. The first two of these are Hostiles and Wind River and what's most interesting to me about these omissions is that they make such nuanced statements about the way Native people have been treated in this country. In a time when Hollywood and the Twittersphere like to claim that they're "woke" they still don't give a damn about Native Americans. I really loved both of these films for not only that theme but also for the performances, writing, and technical aspects...I thought they were truly great films. (An aside, though: it is troubling that while these movies do a great job of examining Native issues they were not Native-made and the Native characters are secondary characters...they would have been even better movies if that had been different)

The other three that weren't nominated are The Florida Project, Mudbound, and A Quiet Passion. I won't say much about A Quiet Passion except that it's profound and, as the title suggests, very quiet, like all of Terrence Davies' films. It's a movie about a writer for writers, and it's also a unique look at a woman who refuses to do what society tells her. Mudbound is a hugely overlooked beauty, too, and while it largely deals with racism, it's also about poor people and again exhibits the way the Academy can't seem to get on board with shining too bright a light on a complex look at that (although their showering of nominations on Three Billboards shows they like a simplistic view of it).  

Mudbound is the kind of film that should have been prime Oscar bait: it's epic in scope, zooming in on one of the defining themes of American life; it has a slew of great performances; the writing is lovely and succinct; and the cinematography captures everything from wide summer fields to the moonlit striped darkness of a barn. But it didn't receive a nomination for Best Picture either.

The Florida Project is the film that has haunted me the most from this year...I've thought about it just about every day since I saw it. That really says something for a movie. The performances are amazing. If Willem Dafoe doesn't win (the only nomination for the film, I think) then I will be really disappointed, and I've never been a Dafoe fan before this. But his performance is so human, so layered, so full of moments where he acts only with his physicality (since he never gets a big dramatic monologue like Oscar nominees tend to do); the writing is top-notch, lyrical while being gritty and real, full of emotion without ever once slipping into sentimentality. I've never seen a film that better captures how a place really sounds--traffic, helicopters, children playing, people chatting on their porches. And it's a master class in sense of place. Perhaps best of all The Florida Project gets right what movies hardly ever do: poverty, class issues, poor people (WIND RIVER is also about these issues and again, the Academy totally ignored it...seems like they have a real problem rewarding films that feature poor folks). The characters are portrayed with dignity and complexity and surprising layers. But this country still doesn't know how to have a conversation about class and when it is presented honestly a lot of viewers don't know how to process that.

Which leads me to why I'm so disappointed by the hugely positive reaction Three Billboards has gotten...because it gets rural life and class so very wrong. It gets just about everything wrong, I think, but perhaps most troublingly the way it examines domestic abuse with such a limited lens, the way it uses homophobic and racist talk to be "edgy" instead of to actually SAY something, the way it insists on celebrating a racist, homophobic, misogynistic character, not to mention the intelligence-insulting gaping plot holes (why does the guy even go into the gift shop if he's not the killer? why does the new police chief suspend Rockwell's character for talking back but never mention him throwing a man out of a window, which he witnessed...I could go on and on here). It's as if the creator had a checklist of things that happen in rural places: domestic violence, check; everybody knows everybody, check; everyone is racist, check; everyone is homophobic, check; the women are either strong and asexual or over-sexualized, check...I could go on). It's worth seeing for McDormand's performance but even that is ruined because her character is so inconsistent. Three Billboards is the Hillbilly Elegy of cinema in that it's a film about rural America in that the filmmaker thinks he's an expert when he doesn't really know much at all. McDonagh is a Brit who likes to talk about being Irish when that's convenient in much the same way Vance is an Appalachian "expert" despite not being raised there. And now McDonagh has gone from mythologizing Ireland to doing the same with rural America. No other film in a long time has frustrated and troubled me as much as this one...but what troubles me most is how widely embraced it has been. I wanted so badly to love it because I always love seeing rural people on the big screen. But not when they're portrayed so incorrectly.

Call Me By Your Name is a sensory feast--not only the romance but also the food, the weather, the scenery, the books, everything about it. If it doesn't win Best Screenplay I will die. Also, Armie Hammer was completely robbed by not being nominated and Michael Stuhlburg, also not even nominated, should have WON just for that incredible speech he gives to his son at the end. It's hard to talk about this movie without giving away the plot but what I loved most about it is that we go in thinking it's mostly going to be a romantic love story but it turns out to be a love story about place and family more than anything else. It's a really beautiful production that stays with you for a long while.

Dunkirk-A truly great production. Innovative, interesting, engaging, moving, technically adventurous (hardly any CGI, for example). This movie deserves it more than any other I've seen this year as a great feat of filmmaking. I say that based totally on how great a production it is.

The Post-Solid and safe and very good filmmaking and totally not deserving of a Best Picture nomination. I really enjoyed everything about it but there is nothing innovative going on. Great script that I think deserves an Oscar. I thought the ensemble cast was terrific.

Lady Bird-Very enjoyable to watch but no cinematic feats happening here except for the performances of Metcalfe and Ronan. I think it's overhyped but it's still a really good movie with a very moving coda. It's a great film for looking at sense of place. I really wanted Laurie Metcalfe to win Best Supporting Actress because she makes this movie, for me, but I also think Alison Janney deserves it for her amazing performance in I, Tanya. I do have to give the Academy props here for considering a film like Lady Bird that does look at being lower middle class, but even though that's discussed a lot hey're not poor....struggling, maybe, but really the teenaged girl just feels poor in the film.

Darkest Hour-Solid, safe, with one incredibly beautiful and moving scene. Oldman's performance is great but almost too over-the-top for me--you can practically feel the spittle flying out of his mouth onto your face, and I'm not sure that's a good thing. I got bored in this film, and I don't get bored easily. I really love a slow pace. But I found it repetitive (in this scene he's screaming at Parliament, in this scene he's in the bath tub smoking cigars, now he's yelling at Parliament, now another bath). Ultimately, I found the whole thing a bit forgettable (except for that one scene on the Tube).
Get Out-This film provides great cultural conversation but in my opinion it is not a great piece of cinema by any means and the only thing Oscar worthy about it to me was the performance of Daniel Kaluuya.

I haven't seen The Shape of Water or Phantom Thread.

In the end, awards really only matter to the people winning them and the best thing about the Oscars is the show really does celebrate one of our greatest art forms. I love movies. They are one of the reasons I became a writer and they're one of the things that sustain me as a writer. In the end, I don't need the Oscars to tell me what the best ones were and will just sit back and enjoy the show.


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