A Few Words on Some Very Lacklustre Academy Award Nominees

So the nominees for the 2019 Academy Awards have been announced today and it’s a very lacklustre selection.

The SFF world is rejoicing that Black Panther got a Best Picture nod, the first ever superhero film to do so, which is bloody depressing in itself, because superhero movies are not just the most successful film genre of the past ten years or so, there have also been several very good ones that would have deserved this nod (Logan definitely, The Dark Knight, though I don’t care for it, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, etc…), but were resoundingly ignored. Plus, as Jacob Trussell points out at Film School Rejects, the Oscars still don’t give a fuck about horror, even though there were some excellent horror movies this year. Okay, A Quiet Place got a best sound editing nod, but that’s it. Meanwhile, musicals and westerns were not necessarily deeper than superhero films or horror films when they ruled supreme at the box office and both genres still got a lot of best picture nominations and wins.

Besides, it’s telling that Black Panther‘s other six nominations are all in the technical (sound editing, sound mixing, production design and costume design) and musical (best original song, best original score) categories. Notably absent are a best director nod for Ryan Coogler, a best screenplay nod as well as any nominations in the acting categories. Michael B. Jordan for best supporting actor would have been the obvious choice here, maybe also Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright or Danai Gurira. And no nominations in the acting, best director and best screenplay categories usually mean that a film won’t win best picture, no matter how deserving.

And so I’m pretty sure the best picture nod for Black Panther will remain just that, a nod. It has very little chance of winning, as little as Get Out! in 2018 and Mad Max: Fury Road in 2017. If there’s any justice in the world, Black Panther will take costume and production design, though you never know and the gerontocracy that is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science may just go for The Favourite or even Mary Poppins Returns. I don’t see much of a chance for Black Panther in the music categories either – Academy voters like sappy ballads and the completely superfluous third reiteration of A Star Is Born will probably take best song – though it might just take the sound categories.

I’m not sure what will win best picture – BlacKkKlansman is the only other nominated movie I actually like, but that one isn’t any more likely to win than Black Panther. The rest of them range from overrated to terrible, blatant Oscar bait. I guess The Favourite is the best we can hope for. It’s not bad for a historical drama and Olivia Colman is probably my personal favourite in the best actress category, but nonetheless. I’m very much over historical dramas and have been for years. Most of them have very little new or interesting to say, though Queen Anne is at least not as overexposed as the entire Tudor period.

There are some other nods to superhero movies, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Incredibles 2 in best animated feature and Avengers: Infinity War in best special effects. If there’s any justice in the world, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse would win best animated picture, but the Academy shares the inexplicable American love for Pixar, so Incredibles 2 will probably win.

Meanwhile, what gets a lot of Oscar nods is the Academy’s favourite genre, the bio pic. Now bio pics are something I just don’t get – they’re usually boring, almost always falsify the subject’s life story to match social conventions of the day, hardly anybody likes them and they’re usually forgotten within a few years. But for reasons best known to themselves, the Academy just loves bio pics and always has, as far back as the 1930s. Even if bio pics are often the most blatant Oscar bait around and also usually the most “What the ever loving fuck?” of past Oscar decisions. Or can anybody explain why James Cagney won his lone best actor Oscar for the crappy Yankee Doodle Dandy rather than for Angels With Dirty Faces or White Heat?

The year’s crop of Oscar nominees includes no less than six bio pics, namely Vice, Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, Werk ohne Autor, Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Favourite. I guess you could also make a case for BlacKkKlansman, since it’s based on a true story. Ditto for Roma. Plus, two Oscar favourite – A Star is Born and The Wife – are not actually bio pics, but very much feel like bio pics, only that their subjects never existed.

But what makes the focus of this year’s Oscar nominations on bio pics even worse is that two of the movies in question – Green Book and Werk ohne Autor – were vehemently refuted by their subjects. The family of jazz pianist Donald W. Shirley was so angry about Green Book and accused the film of hurtful lies to the point that Mahershala Ali, who plays Donald W. Shirley in the movie, actually apologised, which is a classy thing of him to do, considering that the fault lies not with him, but with the script and the director. And the notoriously media shy artist Gerhard Richter, who almost never gives interviews, was so infuriated by Werk ohne Autor (which utilises some extremely painful bits of Richter’s biography such as the fact that his aunt was a victim of a Nazi euthanasia program) that he emerged from hiding to vehemently renounce it. I imagine that Dick Cheney isn’t particularly happy about Vice either, but then I don’t much care about how he feels, cause he very much had it coming. Meanwhile, Freddy Mercury and Queen Anne are no longer around to complain about Bohemian Rhapsody (which did fudge details of Mercury’s life and pushes a homophobic “gays are only good as long as they’re monogamous” narratives) and The Favourite respectively. Only the subject of BlacKkKlansman actually seems to like the movie. As for writer/forger Lee Israel who is the subject of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, I’d never heard of either her or the movie until today, so I have no comment.

Nonetheless, honouring two bio pics which insult their subjects is not a good look for the Academy. Plus, Green Book has attracted more than its share of controversies, such as accusations of perpetuating the magical negro narrative as well as allegations of sexual misconduct against the director and islamophobic tweets against the screenwriter, which are made even worse by the fact that Mahershala Ali, one of the stars of Green Book, is muslim. Honestly, Academy, this is the movie you want to honour in two thousand fucking nineteen?

Not to mention that Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen have equal amounts of screen time in Green Book, but for some reason Viggo Mortensen was nominated for best actor and Mahershala Ali for best supporting actor. What is more, Adam Driver was nominated for best supporting actor for BlacKkKlansman, while star John David Washington doesn’t get any nomination at all. Honestly, Academy, have you learned nothing from the “Oscars so white” debacle of two years ago?

Okay, so there are actors of colour nominated in all four acting categories as well as two directors of colour (Spike Lee and Alfonso Cuarón). But it’s notable that there’s always just one actor of colour nominated in each category – Rami Malek in best actor, Yalitza Aparicio in best actress, Mahershala Ali in best supporting actor. Only best supporting actress gets two nominees of colour – Marina de Tavira and Regina King. And this in a year that had several excellent movies with highly diverse casts. Sorry, but this stinks of tokenism.

Meanwhile, the white nominees in the acting categories are mostly examples of make-up and fat suits doubling as acting, unless you’re Doug Jones, that is, (anybody nominated for Vice), ugliness doubling as acting (Olive Colman, whom I like a lot, for The Favourite) as well as the Academy’s inexplicable love for Bradley Cooper who gets nominated for everything he’s ever done except Rocket Raccoon.

Meanwhile, the German cultural press is all agog about the best foreign language picture and best cinematography nominations for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Werk ohne Autor, which is inexplicably named Never Look Away in English (an accurate translation would be “Work without an Author”). Here is Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s review of the movie at The AV Club. He doesn’t like it – well, it’s a bad film and don’t get me started on the voyeuristic portrayal of the aunt who becomes a euthanasia victim* – and notes the bio pic like qualities, but seems completely unaware that it is an unauthorised bio pic of an actual artist. Now Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck already won a best foreign language Oscar in 2007 for The Lives of Others, an awful film that’s very much responsible for reducing the former German Democratic Republic to the all Stasi all the fucking time image that prevails today, even though reality was a lot more complex than that. And yes, I’m still pissed off that The Lives of Others robbed Pan’s Labyrinth of its well deserved Oscar. Now I think that all three German best foreign language picture winners are awful (the other two are The Tin Drum and Nowhere in Africa), but The Lives of Others is the worst of the three.

However, Werk ohne Autor won’t win the 2019 best foreign language Oscar, because it’s pretty clear that Roma will take that one, since everybody seems to love Roma. Now I’m pretty sure that Roma won’t win best picture or any of the acting categories (sorry, Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira – I’d be happy for both of you), though Cuarón might just snag best director or best screenplay. Maybe best cinematography, too – that category is hard to predict.

Meanwhile, the real best foreign language picture, Capernaum, which made me cry (and I hardly ever cry at movies) won’t win and neither will the second best foreign language picture, Shoplifters (honestly, if you love found family stories, watch them both). And for that matter, why no best actor nod for Zain Al Rafeea, the young star of Capernaum? But then, America doesn’t care about the plight of refugees and street kids, but the Academy really likes movies about domestic servants for some reason (see Roma and The Help a few years ago and also the completely superfluous Mary Poppins Returns). I guess they need the periodic reminder that their domestic servants are indeed human. And while we’re on the subject, it’s bloody depressing that eighty years after the first person of colour won an Oscar (the wonderful Hattie McDaniel for Gone with the Wind), actors of colour still get nominated for and sometimes win Oscars, when they’re playing domestic servants (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for The Help, Yalitza Aparicio for Roma) or other cliché roles, but not when they’re playing mathematicians (Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures) or superheroes (anybody in Black Panther).

Over at File 770, Bonnie McDaniel said that the best picture nod for Black Panther represents baby steps forward, but that’s all it is, baby steps and tokenism. Because the vast majority of this year’s Oscar nominees is the same stuff that always gets nominated, movies hardly anybody except the Academy actually likes, which will be forgotten in ten years of time.

ETA: For a bit of fun, enjoy Benjamin Lee’s look at some terribly blatant Oscar bait movies that nonetheless failed to snag a nomination at The Guardian. In many way, failed Oscar baits are a lot sadder than failed blockbusters. Because while it’s usually possible to at least get a bit of fun and entertainment out of a failed blackbuster (plus, there are quite a few failed blockbusters that aren’t actually bad such as Jupiter Ascending or John Carter), failed Oscar baits usually don’t even have any entertainment value.

*The aunt is in her late teens or early twenties (which matches the age of Gerhard Richter’s real life murdered aunt) and her mental illness manifests itself by running around the house naked and playing music. Later, she is gassed in lacy silk underwear together with several other attractive and scantily clad young women. That’s so inappropriate, I can’t even… Honestly, it’s no surprise that Gerhard Richter was furious, when he saw the film. Hell, I’m furious on behalf of Marianne Schönfelder. Here is an article about the true tragic story of Marianne Schönfelder BTW.

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1 Response to A Few Words on Some Very Lacklustre Academy Award Nominees

  1. Pingback: Some Comments on the 2019 Academy Award Winners | Cora Buhlert

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