Dancing with Oscar

An incomplete, ax-grinding reaction to the Academy Award nominations.

I haven’t watched the telecast of the Academy Awards ceremony since Paul Haggis’ “Crash” won the Oscar for best picture in March of 2006. I was in my 20s and had already seen many terrible award winners come and go, but that one broke me. The rise of the internet has also made the ceremony seem beside the point. I can sit through a four-hour-and-sometimes-more fashion show, or I can read through the winners in a matter of seconds and have my various reactions over coffee at work the next morning. The speeches, which are generally all the same? Cultural osmosis will sort out the ones that matter. And I will watch those on YouTube with said coffee.

The internet has also affected how we watch the movies themselves, which has been the source of profound anxiety for Hollywood. Why watch so-and-so in the theater with $75 dollar-worth of snacks and an insufferable crowd when I can stream it in my home a month later for a fraction of the cost? Unfortunately, this thinking most directly affects smaller movies that could use the exposure. Marvel and “Star Wars” behemoths can’t seem to fail anymore—a failure for one of them is only a couple of hundred million profit globally—while studio movies for adults, featuring adults, are dying out in the theaters.

This brings us to the best picture nominations this year for “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Hollywood might as well as be saying “Thank God for movies that people saw without the benefit of the Marvel logo.” Their status as “adult” entertainments is highly debatable, but “Maverick” did reacquaint audiences with the fading art of the star vehicle. (On a smaller scale, so did “The Lost City” and “Bullet Train,” in which Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock took turns cameoing in each other’s movies. And so did the Channing Tatum picture “Dog,” which is flawed but more interesting than many of the best picture nominees this year, big or small.)

And here’s the thing about prestige projects for adults last year, those nourishing, challenging, small-scaled but big-themed movies that are discussed as if they’re supposed to make us better, smarter people: most of them sucked.

“Why watch so-and-so in the theater with $75 dollar-worth of snacks and an insufferable crowd when I can stream it in my home a month later for a fraction of the cost?”

What I’m about to say is embittered and un-provable, but I couldn’t help but suspect that a lot of critics were handing out gold watches over the course of their weekly coverage last year. David Cronenberg received wonderful reviews for the unwatchable, self-parodic “Crimes of the Future.” I saw that in a theater with a paying audience, an eager audience of Cronenberg fans, and you could feel them turning on it as the film’s deep, curdled, narcissistic absurdity began to dawn on them. It didn’t receive any Oscar nominations, but the film illustrates an insular, let-them-eat-cake syndrome in the industry, on the part of filmmaker and critic alike. That syndrome continued with “Tár,” “The Fabelmans,” and “Women Talking,” the last of which I failed to get through after more than one attempt. All three of the films are up for best picture and other awards, and critics are sounding the alarm bells because no one saw them.

“Middle-tier productions used to draw an audience,” they say. Well, middle-tier productions used to be good on occasion. I hate to be dogmatic, but anyone who says they’d rather watch “Women Talking” than “Top Gun: Maverick” is either a pseud or a fraud.

It’s easy to vilify blockbusters, but one can see why audiences flock to them. It was particularly easy to see given the high-fiber alternatives that were offered last year. The Oscar nominations this year are trying, as usual, to ride the fence between the two polarities, acknowledging the movies that people want to see and those the industry thinks it should make in equal measure. The movies that people—critics and paying audiences alike—actually enjoyed managed to merge both polarities and will do well in a few weeks: “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a blend of “Little Miss Sunshine” and Marvel histrionics for a crowd too self-conscious to watch Marvel, has been popular beyond anyone’s understanding. I hated it but its domination this year has been undeniable for months. Also popular is “The Banshees of Inishirin,” which manages to feel more human than most Oscar-bait despite the finger-chopping symbolism.

Maybe I’m indifferent to the war between blockbusters and critics’ items because I see both sides as debauched and privileged. “Tár” may be fashionably elliptical and loaded with signifiers, practically begging audiences not to see it, but it’s not an underdog. It’s a project made by rich and connected people looking to score points for acknowledging the potential limitations of said wealth and connectivity. A real underdog is something like Ricky D’Ambrose’s brilliant “The Cathedral,” a work of actual formal originality and emotional insight. Forget the awards bait, it’s the truly independent films that deserve support, and Oscars routinely fail them, so who cares if the big flyboy movie does or doesn’t vanquish the smugly bloodless cancel culture movie or the cheesy multiverse-hopping “mommy doesn’t love me” movie?

Having said my piece, here are a few nominations that sparked a reaction:

Andrea Riseborough, best actress, “To Leslie.” This nomination is a triumph of campaigning and of thinking beyond the low hanging fruit candidates. In an even fairer world, Riseborough would win over legacy candidates like Cate Blanchett (who has championed Riseborough) and Michelle Williams. Speaking of…

Michelle Williams, best actress, “The Fabelmans,” and Judd Hirsch, best supporting actor, “The Fabelmans,” are two of the more absurd acting nominations in recent years. They embody everything that doesn’t work in Spielberg’s broad, neurotic, go-big-or-go-home family extravaganza. Paul Dano and David Lynch are vastly superior in the same film, but they did the best rather than the most acting.

Brian Tyree Henry, best supporting actor, “Causeway,” is another triumph of thinking outside the box. This is the kind of grounded, subtly powerful acting that the Academy usually loves to ignore.

“Triangle of Sadness” for best picture. How does this dull and obvious eat-the-rich morality play keep getting best picture recognition at prestigious events? First the Palme D’Or at Cannes and now this. Does someone involved in the production have incriminating photos of a world leader hidden somewhere?

Ana De Armas, best actress, “Blonde.” Another bold pick, and part of me wonders if De Armas is being congratulated merely for getting through the production of that grueling and perverse movie. De Armas is certainly as good as Andrew Dominik allows her to be, and I respect the originality of the nomination.

And let’s cap it off with a notable snub: Tom Cruise, best actor, “Top Gun: Maverick.” No, I don’t believe that Tom Cruise gave one of the five best actor performances last year, but by the Academy’s own logic he should be nominated. Joseph Kosinski might’ve called “cut” on the “Maverick” set but Cruise is the film’s true auteur: its lead, its driving producer, and most importantly the living embodiment of its blinkered, poignant nostalgia for a simpler kind of Hollywood propaganda and for all the iconographic power of movie stars who’ve reflected our fantasies back to us for decades. My guess is that Austin Butler got the Cruise vote, for playing an even bigger icon in “Elvis,” but he’s unproven, surfing on Presley’s waves. Cruise is his own ocean.


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