The apathy I’m feeling toward Sunday’s Oscar ceremony is very strange.
I’ve written before about my fondness for the Academy Awards. Where most people groan about the Oscars’ penchant for pretension and self-seriousness, I simply love that there’s one night a year where the entire country celebrates movies. Moviegoers tend to award mediocrity so often that it genuinely excites me that we spend a month discussing films often ignored by the mainstream. Sure, if you want you can cringe that audiences enjoy “La La Land” without acknowledging its debt to “Umbrellas of Cherbourgh,” but I’d rather you not be a cinematic twit. At the end of the day, “La La Land” is an original musical that has grossed over $130 million and is culturally relevant enough to be discussed on “Saturday Night Live.” The movie may have its faults, but I’d rather moviegoers be aware of it than give the latest “Resident Evil” their money (plus, I haven’t jumped aboard the “La La Land” backlash bandwagon).
The truth is that I love each of the nominated best picture films I’ve seen. Many ended up on my best-of list last year. From the front-runners like “La La Land” and “Manchester by the Sea” to wonderful genre entries like “Arrival” and “Hell or High Water,” this year’s Oscars honor an array of films that celebrate everything I love about the movies. Sometimes you want to bask in technical artistry or be astounded by an amazing performance. Other times, you want to revel in the impossible or just be taken on a ride. While the rest of the world seemed to fall apart in 2016, the movies were stronger than ever, and last fall in particular was an embarrassment of riches. I’m very happy that this year’s nominees include a musical, a science fiction film, a crime drama, several indie films and a war movie. I’m even happier at the diversity on display, not just in front of the camera, but behind it, from Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” and Denzel Washington’s “Fences” to Ava DuVernay’s “13th.”
And yet, I haven’t given the Oscars more than two thoughts since nominations were announced.
Part of it is probably because, for the first year in about a decade, I haven’t seen several of the nominees. I took a year off participating in my local film critics society due to grad school responsibilities and, as such, didn’t have access to the screenings and screeners that usually take up most of November and December. I’m hoping to catch up on at least “Fences” and “Hacksaw Ridge” by Sunday, but it’s pretty much a given that movies like “Jackie,” “Loving,” “Elle,” and “Captain Fantastic” will go unseen for awhile longer. Heck, I didn’t even know what “Lion” was until the nominations were announced. So being out of the loop could definitely be causing a bit of Academy apathy.
Then there’s the sheer exhaustion that comes from watching the Oscars. It’s an entire Sunday night, with the specter of an early Monday morning hanging over every commercial break. Last year, knowing that I was volunteering with an event our film critics society hosted, I took off the day after the ceremony and enjoyed a late night watching the event on the big screen. This year, I have to be at the day job Monday morning and I know I’m going to constantly be checking my watch and vowing that every commercial break is the last one before I finally toss in the towel and go to bed. I can’t even get too excited about the host. I think Jimmy Kimmel’s funny and I’m sure he’ll be entertaining. But having ABC’s late-night guy preside over the entire thing makes it feel less like an event and more like another ploy for ratings (which it always is; this just feels more nakedly so).
But mostly, I think my disinterest comes from the pre-ordained nature of the entire affair. With 14 nominations, “La La Land” is by far the horse to bet on. In a year when everyone’s spirits are low, it’s the swoon-worthy movie that picks up people’s moods and makes them feel good. It’s a box office hit with two beloved stars and one of Hollywood’s most promising young directors. As “Birdman” and “Argo” have shown, there are few things Oscar loves more than a movie about movies. And from its chase-your-dreams plotline to its lush, magical dance numbers, Damien Chazelle’s film might be the most movie movie to ever be nominated. The only safer bet would be to wager on Kimmel involving Matt Damon in some kind of gag during the telecast.
And as I said, I love “La La Land.” It was one of my favorite movies last year, and I’ve played the soundtrack repeatedly. Between this and “Whiplash,” Chazelle is one of the directors I’m most excited to hear from, and I’m glad to see a musical getting some love and attention. Sure, it’s flawed, but what best picture movie isn’t? It’s just that its assumed win robs a lot of the fun and suspense from proceedings, especially when there’s not a “Revenant”-style nominee for me to actively root against.
I’m still going to watch (and live-Tweet) the show. And hopefully it will be so much fun that my current blase attitude will be turned around. And maybe I’ll be wrong. Maybe we’ll see a surprise run for “Moonlight,” a movie I only caught up with after nominations were announced and deeply love. In fact, I was so taken with “Moonlight” and “Silence” earlier this year that I actually revised my end of the year list on Letterboxd. Barry Jenkins’ film is a masterpiece of empathy that I wish I had more time to write about and that I hope I’ll be able to revisit down the road. In its loving, heartfelt look at the identity crises faced by a young, gay black man, it creates one of the years most vivid characters and serves as a powerful reminder of the roles that compassion and kindness can serve in a person’s life. The movie is phenomenal and I’d also be very happy to see wins for Jenkins, cinematographer James Laxton, and actors Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali (it’s a travesty that Trevante Rhodes wasn’t nominated). The movie is small, but it sticks to the ribs in ways no other film of last year did.
But then again, without the Oscars, many wouldn’t even know “Moonlight” exists. So its nomination is cause enough for celebration. And maybe I can cling to that in the lead-up to Oscar night. I’ll be watching; here’s hoping I’ll be engaged.