OSCARS: Seven of Nine

4 March, 2018 at 8:05 pm (film)

Oscars 2018: Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards...

Well, it’s been ten years since I weighed in on the Oscars Best Picture race, and nine years before that since I went back to my alma mater to hammer out a post-grad defense in the student newspaper of Shakespeare in Love having taken home the old Golden Boy. In general, I find the exercise of handicapping the proceedings to be less revelatory than the amount of weight of commentary might otherwise indicate. I feel that my prior comment on the nature of What Is Best lends itself to no particular new insight, so I’ll let my early ham-handed postings remain for anyone who couldn’t deduce my point of view with their own fifteen seconds of introspection. The only thing I’ll add is that wiser word-processors than mine have already looked at the fact that the victors are often less Best picture and more Trendiest Picture, representing a particular cultural windsock more than any larger zeitgeist.

In 2008, I really did feel that any of the winners would have been worthy. That it was a banner year for taste amongst the selection, and that even the slightest entry of the five still had yards of appeal. And in the post-The Dark Knight explosion of Best Picture nominees, allowing up to ten possible candidates, that the entries have never been as lean and incisive again.

This year is a particular exception. Each entry is interestingly slight, if not lean, and each offers a particular insight into the sociopolitical psychology of the nominating community in a manner that feels more apparent than in quite some time.  I’ve seen seven of the nine nominees, and they all (even, so far as I can tell, the two that escaped me) ring out with a particular kind of successful playing of the cultural major chords: the effective one-three-five harmonics of artful production, timely messaging, and pretty people doing something brave. Traditionally, that bravery can be being ugly, or being daring; being tender, or being striking; but it’s always a particular brand of bold choicework wrapped up in something that vibrates with a kind of now. And it’s the politics of the Now-ness that can, with equally traditional inevitability, make a satisfying choice tonight seem limpid or bizarre in a very short amount of time. Every 2018 nominee seems like a logical choice, an effective choice, and — most revealingly — a politically Now choice.  For while, like in 2008, I will be happy regardless of which film gets the gilded accolade, in this case I will be most interested in the shelf-life of the cultural satisfaction with that decision.

Each one of the 2008 nominees still holds it’s lustre today. Each 2018 nominee feels culturally calculated to appeal to voters who are attuned, not to filmmaking excellence, but to currency. And while different wags have weighed in on which cultural cryptocurrency has the greatest market value at the moment — whether it be Race In America, or the Swing Against Sexism, or Remember When Public Servants Were Noble In Speech And Action? — I do agree with them that whichever film wins will likely be due to a combination of having Academy members vote for its message and having the overall vote split by each film having rather significant flaws. New York Magazine‘s the Vulture and the BBC’s Mark Kermode have each decided to go with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (despite Mark having though previously that a split vote would favor Lady Bird).

I like this prediction, based on my experience of watching the film. I was standing in a large line, waiting to go in, when the previous audience was released, and they marched past us, silent but disquiet, faces troubled and conversation nonexistent. Having seen In Bruges and having been waved off the excesses of Seven Psychopaths, I was therefore excited to see what, exactly, hadn’t sat well with the blue-haired cinema contingent of my small-town city. What kind of excess on the part of the writer-director had made them so seemingly dissatisfied? About an hour and forty-five minutes into the film, I mentally weighed where the plot had gotten to, and suddenly had a crystal vision, a clairvoyant prediction of how the film had to end in order to make the previous audience so stunned. And, ten minutes later, as the credits rolled I laughed at the muttered confusion around me as the crowd collectively realized that this was, indeed, it, and resolution was not be offered.

Three Billboards… is a particular kind of dramatic swindle, where it uses society’s inability to come to any sort of answer as it’s ending. It’s the kind of shrug that Monty Python’s Flying Circus was always so fond of, except McDonough didn’t use Terry Gilliam to swoop in with some papercut animations to distract from the sudden cessation. I do think that, in Billboards‘ case, that lack of resolution is earned. I found it as satisfying as everyone around me didn’t.

So, if that ends up fulfilling the odds and coming out as the favorite, then I’ll be chuffed, simply because of the contrarian confusion and irritation it will engender (and has already). Frankly, I think the technical expertise of Dunkirk is the most impressive piece of filmmaking of the year, but — speaking of cultural currency — it’s currently in vogue to look askance at Christopher Nolan’s gunmetal blue precision as inhuman and without genuine feeling, and so I can’t imagine it will win. The Washington Times article earlier ends with no prediction as to what should win, inviting us all back in ten years to judge ourselves for tonight’s decision. And I do think that while many of the other films will seem seem as baggy and trite as the cargo shorts, haircuts, and flannels of a My So-Called Life rewatch, Dunkirk will still be as impressive a feat of clockwork precision then as it is now. And, what with the ocean levels likely to rise precipitously between now and then, a lot more of us will relate emotionally to the harrowing experience of nearly drowning.

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