Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Build me up, Buttercup

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Build me up, Buttercup. Don’t break my heart. It’s a good song but even better advice if you want to win Best Picture. The Academy, as much as it loves and honors great art and artists, wants uplift. It wants joy. It wants what Roger Ebert used to call Elevation. It is the feeling of warmth, hope, and generosity of spirit we experience when we see good people do good things. This is what makes Casablanca, enjoying a theatrical run now for its 75th anniversary, such an enduring piece of cinema.

Though I cannot speak for all time, I can say with great certainty never in my lifetime have we needed uplift in our art more than now. One looks at the world and, if seeing events through clear eyes, can hardly be blamed for wanting to escape, if only for two hours in the dark of the cinema and story of another place and time.

Academy members are like the rest of us in that regard, so it should come as no shock a confectionary delight such as La La Land leads this year’s Oscar race with a record-tying list of nominations. Damien Chazelle’s musical ode to dreams and dreamers is Elevation at its finest, which is not to say it does not deal in hard truths or difficult realities. It does but in such a way you leave the theater skipping and humming a tune.

The Hurt Locker in 2009, the first year of the expanded Best Picture lineup, was probably the last film to win the top prize without providing some kind of rousing, crowd-pleasing ending or at least the hope for a brighter tomorrow. Even Birdman, a dark, sharp-edged show-business satire, which won two years ago, found its moment of artistic transcendence. 12 Years a Slave, one of the darkest, most brutal Best Picture winners ever – and one of the best – ends on a note of quiet triumph. Those two films plus Spotlight last year, Argo, The Artist, and The King’s Speech are films whose ultimate messages consist of good will, inspiration, and the power of the human spirit.

This is not a knock on the Academy. Every one of those films has merit and a couple are stone-cold masterpieces. It is simply an observation and a way of looking at the Oscar race and identifying a trend. That trend’s place in this year’s race, then, seems self-evident. La La Land is a juggernaut, and while it may not sweep the ceremony, it will be the night’s biggest winner, scoring handfuls of awards and in all likelihood Best Picture.

The question is whether any other film can stand in its way. Hidden Figures, Lion, and Hacksaw Ridge all satisfy the desire for uplift and inspiration. As solid as they are, though, they cannot compare in that regard to La La Land – otherwise one of them would be the nominations leader and winner of most of the major, early precursors. Hidden Figures’ Screen Actors Guild win for best cast this weekend is a bit a red herring. Despite beating out Moonlight, Fences, and Manchester by the Sea, it feels like a true ensemble piece more than the others, making its victory seem more of the head than the heart.

No, the true challenger to the throne is and always has been Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. It is the critical darling and a Golden Globe winner, and while it is not exactly uplifting, its message of hope, understanding, and compassion is enough to rival La La Land for Elevation. The big, bright, bold Hollywood musical is sitting in the driver’s seat, but do not sleep on the indie darling. As soon as you think nothing else can win, that is when something else wins (see: Brokeback Mountain vs. Crash; personal confession, by the way, I think Crash is the better film by miles; I thought so at the time and still think so).

Of course, the possibility lingers we are looking at a sweep year. La La Land could very well take home a record number of Oscars, and the night could turn into a coronation for Chazelle as he becomes the new king of Hollywood. If such is the case, Emma Stone will likely be carried to the podium as Best Actress, though her win at the SAG Awards perhaps foretells this already. Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis are locks in their respective supporting categories.

Denzel Washington’s SAG victory throws the Best Actor race into some doubt, but I suspect the Screen Actors, with whom Washington had never won, finally wanted to honor one of the giants of the art form. He already has two Oscars, and the Academy will not feel the same pressure to reward him again, paving the way for Casey Affleck to resume his dominance of the season. If so, there could be very few, if any, surprises in the top categories when the envelopes are opened.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. The Academy Awards do not have to be about only who wins statues and which films win the most. Oscar night is an evening of celebration, a joyous paean to the art of cinema itself. In many ways, the nomination truly is the reward if the goal of a film ultimately is to be seen by as many people as possible. There is little advertising better than a shout-out from the Oscar stage.

The beauty of the Oscars, though, is that anything can happen, and until the envelope is opened, you never know. So, join me here every day in February for in-depth analysis of each of the 24 categories and come along for the ride as we make our way to that world-famous red carpet.

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