Thursday, March 2, 2017

2017 Oscars Post-Mortem

I heard Wesley Morris, a New York Times critic, say on a podcast the other day that the most unfortunate thing about the Best Picture gaff at the Oscars is that now, to even get to coverage about Moonlight winning, you have to trudge through several other paragraphs (of what is basically scandal reporting) first. He’s right; that sucks. So I won’t do it. We’re talking about Moonlight first, and then the Best Picture kerfuffle.

Moonlight is Your 2016 Best Picture Winner. Forever.

I always wait at least a full day (or three) after the Oscars are over before I write about them. This is 49% laziness and 51% strategy. I like to read and listen to everyone else’s hot takes first, and see what pundits think the takeaways are, before I respond with my own. Part of the reason the Oscars matter so much is because people think they matter so much. So discovering the precise ways that people think they mattered is an essential part of discovering why they actually mattered.

The most disheartening thing I read and heard yesterday, from multiple sources, was people being elated that a movie “which had no business being at the Oscars” won Best Picture. This killed me. The funny thing is, everyone saying this meant it as a compliment. They were all happy that Moonlight won. But it’s a compliment that is severely backhanded, self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s get something straight: Moonlight had every business being at the Oscars. It was probably the best film of the year, and the critical community unanimously agreed on this. It was gorgeously written, acted, shot, edited, and scored, and those five things intertwining in artful ways is the very heart of great cinema.

When people express some variation of shock that Moonlight could win Best Picture, these people are tacitly suggesting that only big spectacle films like Titanic, historical dramas about Great Complicated Men like A Beautiful Mind, or occasionally films about why Hollywood is so awesome, à la Argo, are what are “allowed” to win Best Picture. But this view of what the Oscars are has been tenuous and only barely true for a long time now.

In the last ten years, we’ve seen narratively ambiguous art films like No Country for Old Men and Birdman win Best Picture, as well as a film that actively sought to make its audience uncomfortable (12 Years a Slave), a film that opened in the summer and made no money (The Hurt Locker), a silent film (The Artist), and a film about a reality show contestant in India (Slumdog Millionaire). Of the last ten Best Picture winners, only three of them nicely fit into any traditional Oscar narrative—The King’s Speech, Argo, and Spotlight. The point is, “traditional Oscar narratives” don’t matter anymore, and that’s been the case for a while. The new narrative is, what are the best films of the year? Seriously, what’s the last movie you can think of that was objectively in the conversation for the best film of the year, and it *wasn’t* considered a serious possibility to win Best Picture? For me, the answer to that question is Wall-E, and that was nine years ago. According to Metacritic, the three best-reviewed English-language feature films of 2016 each won at least two of the top eight Oscars, and collectively, they won seven of the eight. The Oscars are still changing, but more importantly, the Oscars have already changed.

Is the Academy still full of out-of-touch old men? Yes, absolutely. That’s how you get Hacksaw Ridge getting nominated for, and winning, several Oscars. But crucially, the Academy is now even more full of young, diverse artists. Just last year, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs inaugurated the largest new member class in Academy history, and that class was full of women, people of color, and non-Americans. Nominating, and awarding, the best films of the year should be the new normal for this Academy, and we need to stop being shocked when it happens.

I was one of the only people to predict Moonlight would win, and I partially wonder if that’s not because I’m actually any good at predicting, but rather because I’m one of the only people that’s fully realized these aren’t your parents’ Oscars anymore, and haven’t been for a while. Part of the reason so many experts didn’t think Moonlight had a chance is because they inherently don’t believe the Oscars award films like Moonlight. I inherently did believe that, because I’ve been watching it happen for a decade. Now it’s time for all of us to believe that. Whatever film ends up being the best of 2017, we should believe that merit is plenty reason enough for it to contend for Best Picture. These are our Oscars. Let’s normalize them.

La La Land Didn’t Win Best Picture. But it did for 2 Minutes.

If you haven’t heard the official explanation for what happened, it’s actually far less nefarious than it seemed at the time. It’s even happened once before, when Sammy Davis Jr. was presenting the Oscar for Best Score in 1964. The only difference that time was that the winner in the incorrect envelope he was given was lucky enough not to be a nominee in the category he was presenting for, so everyone knew it was wrong right away. No one was giving their acceptance speech before the mistake was corrected.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the accounting firm that tabulates the Oscar ballots, actually prints two envelopes with the winners for every award. Each set of 24 winning envelopes goes in a separate briefcase, and they situate one of the briefcases at each side of the stage. This is probably partially for safety, in case anything happens to one of the briefcases, and partially for convenience, so that presenters can enter on either side of the stage without worrying about which envelope is where. So there were always two Best Actress envelopes, just as there are two for every category. And when it came time for Best Picture, the PwC accountant accidentally handed Warren Beatty the backup Best Actress envelope instead of the Best Picture envelope.

But, of course, within that, is lots of bad luck. The most fascinating aspect of the bad luck to me is that it ended up being the Best Actress envelope, an award in which Emma Stone was the only one of the five nominees to even be in a Best Picture nominee. So if anyone else won Best Actress (Isabelle Huppert, Natalie Portman, etc.), then this whole snafu wouldn’t have been nearly as bad. It’s also amusing to imagine if it had been the envelope for Best Actor instead of Best Actress, because then Manchester by the Sea—which was produced by Matt Damon—would have been announced as the wrong Best Picture winner, and Jimmy Kimmel would have literally gotten to take the Best Picture Oscar away from Matt Damon on live television, without it even being a prank or a rehearsed bit.

Two things I do find interesting are 1) how Warren Beatty seems to have taken so much blame for this when it was clearly more the fault of Faye Dunaway, who just blurted out the first words she saw, and 2) what this means going forward for whether the Oscars will stick with PwC as their accounting firm. The accountant who handed out the wrong envelope was busy tweeting a photo of Emma Stone from backstage at the time, which he also apparently wasn’t supposed to be doing. And, even worse, it seems he didn’t react to the incorrect announcement nearly fast enough, with the La La Land team having given three full speeches before the mistake was corrected. It’s very possible he’ll get fired, and at least conceivable that the Academy will fire PwC from the Oscars. And if that happens, it could be a much bigger deal than it seems. If a new accounting team is hired to tabulate the votes, that could be an impetus to re-evaluate and possibly overhaul the entire voting system that the Oscars use. Certainly a new firm would have new ideas on how best to do things, and this is happening both at a time when the Academy seems especially open to change, and the Academy President is aggressively seeking it. We’ll see where this goes from here, but there’s a real possibility that it wasn’t merely a gaff with no long-term repercussions.

Other Thoughts and Notes

  • I was impressed with the job Jimmy Kimmel did, and I say that as someone who was not optimistic about his hosting potential. There was nothing as good as Fallon’s La La Land-swiped musical opening to the Golden Globes, but generally speaking, I thought everything worked, and some of the bits, like the mean tweets and his mocking of We Bought a Zoo, were hilarious. I even seem to be in the minority of people that thought the tour bus segment was pretty funny. My only complaint about it was that people who are on a tour bus during the Oscars are clearly people who do not care about watching the Oscars, so they didn’t appreciate, or emote, the grandeur of the event.
  • Every Oscar producer changes the show in minor ways, and one minor change this year that I particularly loved was the inclusion of montages of previous winners being announced, and giving their acceptance speeches, for the four acting awards. I’ve long thought the Oscars do a bad job of appreciating their own history, and this was an improvement in that area.
  • The eight major Oscars (Picture, Director, the four acting categories, and the two Screenplay categories) all went to the right films and performances. There isn’t a single winner of the bunch that we’ll look back on and loudly lament, “How did Film/Person X lose to that?” (as we do with so many Oscar winners).
  • Two long losing streaks came to a close. Pixar won Best Animated Short for the first time since 2002, toppling a losing streak of eight nominations over the past 14 years. And even better, sound designer Kevin O’Connell finally won an Oscar on his 21st nomination. His previous 20 nominations came in just 25 years, from 1984-2008. He owned the all-time Oscar record of most nominations without a win, across all categories. Now, O’Connell’s former partner, Greg P. Russell, is the new record holder, having been nominated 17 times (12 of which were in partnership with O’Connell) without winning yet.
  • The most bizarre win of the night was certainly the Best Editing Oscar that went to Hacksaw Ridge, and it’s really difficult to know what to make of that. Both La La Land and Moonlight were far more deserving here, and perhaps the only explanation is that they split the vote of the cinephiles in the Academy (as it’s truly difficult to try and make a cogent argument for which of them is “better” edited), which allowed the Steak Eaters to swoop in and carry their pick to victory here. It does make me wonder how different the results would be across the board if the preferential ballot were instituted in every category. For instance, Casey Affleck won Best Actor because he clearly received the most first place votes, but if a preferential ballot were used in that race, it likely would have strongly favored Denzel, who had no controversies to keep him from getting the most second place votes. It’s interesting to think about.
  • A few other records and firsts: O.J.: Made in America is now officially the longest film to ever win an Oscar, beating out 1966’s War and Peace, a winner for Best Foreign Language Film, by 40 minutes. Mahershala Ali is the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar. Damien Chazelle is now the youngest Best Director winner ever, beating the 1932 winner, Norman Taurog, by several months (though both were 32 at the time of their win). Moonlight is the first film to win Best Picture without having a white actor in the principal cast, as well as the first Best Picture winner directed by an African-American. (12 Years a Slave’s director, Steve McQueen, is British.) And, of course, Suicide Squad officially and unarguably became the worst movie to ever win an Oscar—a record that I truly hope we never see broken.
  • For my part, I went 14 for 24 in my predictions, so definitely not my best performance. Four of my misses—Costume Design, Editing, Makeup, and Sound Editing—were categories that every single expert got wrong. Three of my misses—Sound Mixing, Documentary Short, and Live Action Short—were categories that every expert but one got wrong. And three of my misses—Documentary Feature, Foreign Language Film, and Animated Short—were categories where I picked upsets that didn’t happen. I did, however, correctly predict Best Picture and Best Actor, which almost every expert got wrong. The final score tally is that I beat Variety by one; Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Ringer each beat me by one; Anne Thompson (of Indiewire) beat me by three; and Vanity Fair won the year, going 18 for 24 and beating me by four. I was, however, the only person to get all eight major categories correct, and this is the second year in a row I’ve correctly predicted Best Picture while all of the experts got it wrong. So I guess I’ll take it.


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