A long and rather boring award season ended with a real bang last night, and with that, the 2017 Oscars are over. Here are my final takeaways from this awards season.
Moonlight F*CKING Won Best Picture
There are other conversations to have about all that happened in the last five minutes of last night’s show, but all of it needs to take a back seat to the fact that Moonlight did indeed win. Some of the impact of this film winning may not be seen for years to come, when a new generation of filmmakers and voices appear on the scene after being inspired by this win; but we already know that the fact that a movie about a gay black boy’s journey to becoming a man just won Best Picture is huge. No other film would have had the same impact in winning–and beating La La Land, a film that despite its many pluses represents Hollywood’s worst tendency to over-reward films about itself, made this victory even more symbolic and amazing. People will be talking about and sharing Moonlight‘s story for years and years. When you walk into the Dolby Theatre you will see this movie’s name engraved next to every other Best Picture winner for all of history. This is the first movie about LGBT issues to win Best Picture, and also the first one to win starring African-Americans that is not (directly) about racism. This is a huge step forward in every sense.
That is why it is a real shame that Moonlight didn’t get the chance it deserved to give a real version of its victory speech–one where it gets to be applauded and lauded in the same way that other Best Picture winners (and, for better or worse, La La Land) have. At the same time, Moonlight got a unique Oscar moment all its own that is likely never to happen again, and will in many ways enhance this win when we look back on it years from now–especially if this win turns out to represent a symbolic shift in the type of films that the Oscars is going to be honoring in the future. (Not to say that films like La La Land shouldn’t be lauded at all, but maybe at the very least we can tone it the fuck down.) More importantly, Moonlight won, and after a day or two of fretting over the circumstances behind the win, that is all anyone is really going to be talking about. Honestly, there is so much you could talk about and unpack about this win, and how truly special it is, but we are getting close to the point where I am ill-equipped to properly do so for so many reasons. So let’s just leave it at this: congrats, Moonlight. You totally deserve this win, and let’s all try to remember that above everything else.
— Variety (@Variety) February 27, 2017
Okay, cool, that needed to be said, but WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED!?
I don’t just mean what happened during the actual gaffe, which seems somewhat straightforward at this point. There are two sets of awards envelopes, and somehow the second Leading Actress one was given to Warren Beatty. Then it just so happened that the winner of that award, Emma Stone, was the only Best Actress nominee to also be nominated for a Best Picture, and, you know, everyone thought La La Land was going to win, so it all kinda fit. So it looked like Beatty was just making a joke about the obviousness of the outcome. It was the perfect storm of events that led to one of the greatest moments in television history, and at the same time one of the greatest embarrassments. Someone is totally getting fired, especially considering how long the La La Land producers were allowed to speak before the news was given to them, and this moment will be dissected for years to come in order to make sure it never, ever happens again under any circumstances.
No, the more important discussion is how Moonlight actually won. This is one of the great upsets in Oscar history. La La Land had won virtually all the indicators it could, and had support across nearly every guild in form or another. One of the few awards La La Land didn’t win (or even get nominated for), the SAG Award, didn’t even go to Moonlight, it went to Hidden Figures. In fact, the only major award show that Moonlight had won until the WGA Award was the Golden Globe, which came in a category that La La Land wasn’t even in. But that WGA Award is the key, because I think one thing is becoming clear–the screenplay Oscar has become one of, if not the best predictor of the Best Picture winner. I have said this before, but only three times since the turn of this century has a film been able to win Best Picture without winning one of the screenplay categories. Even in years when Best Picture winners win relatively few Oscars, like the this year with Moonlight winning three, last year when Spotlight won two, or in 2014 when 12 Years a Slave won three, a screenplay Oscar was always one of the wins. The PGA Awards have now been wrong two years in a row, and the winner of Best Director has now not matched the winner of Best Picture in four of the last six years (and looks to be a trend that will continue). La La Land never really should have been as in the thick of the screenplay race as it actually was, and if it had never won the Golden Globe I don’t think it ever would have been. If we had all been more sure that La La Land wasn’t winning a screenplay Oscar, maybe that would have changed things.
A big thing everyone is also talking about is how the preferential balloting system really came into play this year. Unlike La La Land, Moonlight had run a campaign that consistently presented it as the alternative to La La Land. It was, at worst, the clear second choice. This gave it a much more consistent voting block, because (especially by the time voting occurred) people either really loved La La Land or hated it. La La Land likely got more first place votes than Moonlight, but not enough for a majority. At that point Moonlight most definitely had many more second and third place votes, which put it over the top. I would love to get to actually look at the data from the voting, but that will probably never happen, thanks to Oscar secrecy. Meanwhile, an underrated part of all this is how a lengthy awards season enabled this to happen. Final voting for the Oscars didn’t actually occur until February 13th through the 21st. If that voting had opened even, say, a week or two earlier, this race probably would have gone according to expectations, as La La Land was riding a high wave of momentum at the time. Instead, there was more time for an increasing number of La La Land detractors coming out one by one to implore that the musical not take the prize–with most of them arguing for a Moonlight win instead. This clearly had an effect, as did everyone realizing that La La Land likely should have never gotten 14 nominations in the first place (you can thank the Golden Globes for this). Of course, on top of all these elements, Moonlight had to run a masterful campaign, and did. Every piece contributed to the anatomy of one of the greatest Oscar upsets in history.
We are in the midst of an awkward transition between the old and new guard.
Another big part of Moonlight‘s big win was the record invitation of 683 new members last year after the #oscarsowhite controversy. The group was highly diverse as part of the efforts of the Academy to shift its demographics away from old, white, and male. The impact of this was seen this year, as I am not sure if the results would have gone Moonlight‘s way had this race happened last year. And these Oscars not only highlighted the conflict between older and newer voters, but also between different awarding philosophies. The Oscars have always been somewhat socially conscious, or at the very least tried to appear so, but at the same time they have always been more than willing to vote entirely on “merit,” no matter any other circumstances. This is nice in theory, but is probably ultimately an untenable position if you want to actually expand the voices you wish to highlight. This year’s Oscars showed a notable shift in the number of films honored for social and political reasons. Part of this is that the events of the past election have spurred people into action and made them want to do more than just talk. The Muslim ban likely led to The Salesman winning Best Foreign film, which allowed director Asghar Farhadi to deliver a proxy speech explaining why he had refused to attend in a show of solidarity with those affected by the ban. Meanwhile, a film about Syrian refugees won Best Short Documentary, a film about racial issues in America won Best Documentary, and Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim-American to win an Oscar. There was a clear effort to honor a more diverse and politically charged group of films this year.
At the same time, as much as it looks like factors outside the industry itself are going to impact what wins in the future, there are still signs that this transition will be a bumpy one, with both the old guard voting block and the (fair) argument that what’s on screen is all that matters continuing to influence Oscar results. Casey Affleck’s win is the poster child for this conflict. Let’s get one thing clear: his performance in Manchester by the Sea is transcendent. It is one of the best performances of this decade, if not longer. He deserves an Oscar for it. At the same time, the fact that he has never really faced any serious repercussions for alleged sexual assault issues in his past is troubling. It clearly had an effect on the room when he won, too. Brie Larson was not amused at having to give him an Oscar, and flat out refused to clap for him. Add in the racial implications arising from the way similar charges ended any real chance of Nate Parker doing well this award season, and this has become a really awkward situation. The old guard doesn’t really care about such things nearly as much as the new guard does. It is why I expect to see more instances in years to come of a tug o’ war between the side that wants to simply honor art and the side that feels there is an obligation to say something with each win. This year the latter mostly won, but Casey Affleck’s success, and the fact that Mel Gibson got to not only be in the room, but receive praise (though unlike Affleck, at least Gibson has somewhat suffered for his mistakes, I suppose), shows that this isn’t changing completely anytime soon.
So what about La La Land?
Umm, it’ll be fine. Honestly, this is the best thing that could ever happen to this movie. It didn’t need the Best Picture win, and a lot of people are going to hate it a lot less after its loss and the gracious way it handled the mix up (though that, too, will get ruined, because people will over-praise them for simply doing the right thing, which will cause a whole other set of issues). La La Land had become a symbol of everything wrong with the Oscars (which was bullshit, but it still happened), and now that those shackles are lifted, people can actually enjoy this movie again. Also, considering the ending of La La Land, this might be the most appropriate thing to ever happen to the movie, in one of the strangest moments ever of art and life aligning. The film did still win six Oscars, which is almost as many as the next three films this year in Oscar count combined. Plus it has made nearly 370 millions dollars worldwide, which is staggering. La La Land is still a great success, and hopefully is going to enable more people to receive modest budgets to make somewhat risky dream projects, because it proves that, if done well, people will come see them.
Barry Jenkins and Damien Chazelle are just getting started.
I don’t know if it can be emphasized enough that we are witnessing the beginnings of two truly transcendent directing talents. There is a good chance that we will look back at the end of both of their careers and find that both Moonlight and La La Land are their third or fourth best films. Both are under 40, and look to be avoiding the Hollywood trap so far of jumping into the jaws of a big budget franchise. Chazelle is tackling a Neil Armstrong biopic with Ryan Gosling next, while it looks like Jenkins is helping direct an adaptation of Will Eisner’s A Contract with God as well as working on a TV mini-series with A24 about the Underground Railroad. So it remains to be seen what his next big “movie” project will be. Hell, if you add in Denis Villeneuve, we might be looking back at this year as the point that really introduced the world to the auteurs that are going to be helping to shape cinema’s future going forward.
Zootopia continues the Disney Empire.
I have railed on this so much over the years that I am not going to continue to do so… after this paragraph. Zootopia is actually a fine choice in this category, but man, at some point Best Animated Feature has to start going to something not from Pixar or Disney. It is especially disheartening this year knowing that next year’s animation slate looks so much weaker by comparison, to the point that we should just give the trophy to Pixar’s Coco now and just skip the category altogether. There were so many animated films this year that didn’t get properly acknowledged, and yet next year we are probably stuck with garbage like The Boss Baby (prove me wrong, movie, and I will apologize, but you look awful). Disney and Pixar are awesome, and will continue to be so, but as the animation nominations become more and more culturally diverse, the Academy needs to start letting those different voices actually win.
Jimmy Kimmel was the best host in years.
Seriously, he was a delight. Every one of his Oscar bits actually worked. The Hollywood tourists created the Ryan Gosling meme for the ages. His bit with the kid from Lion was a delight. He made the obligatory food gags work like gangbusters. His bit with Matt Damon worked well like always, especially when he made fun of Matt Damon’s performance in We Bought a Zoo. Kimmel was level-headed and figured out the right mix of comedy in a night when a lot of hosts would have gone all in on political humor and Trump potshots (that’s not to say there wasn’t a lot of this, but it was definitely more subdued than it could have been, and mostly not from Kimmel). Of course, I say this, but I imagine that basically any criticism will be construed by a lot of people as Hollywood leftist hate, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The show ran smoothly, and didn’t feel all that long (which it was, but I think everyone needs to accept that award shows like this will be long and stop trying to change it). No one will remember how well he did because of the end of the show, but Kimmel deserves credit for a commendable job. He joked that he will never come back, and he was certainly not perfect by any means, but the Oscars would be lucky to have him again.
Twitter rules the Oscars.
The sheer amount of memes from this show are staggering, and instead of discussing them I will just present some of my favorite tweets.
— Nathan Ourn™🔱🇰🇭 (@Nxthann_) February 27, 2017
— Dice Prophet (@DiceProphet) February 27, 2017
— Chris (@CrisMovieCorner) February 27, 2017
— VAN(ESSA) (@wxndyvan) February 27, 2017
Viola Davis is the best.
I don’t really have more to add to this, but it needed to be said. Her speech was awesome, and she deserves every award she can possibly get.
That’s it for this year’s Oscar season–the last five minutes of which will cause it to be one of the more memorable ones for quite some time. I can only hope this trend of sharing the wealth at the Oscars continues, as honestly that is so much better than when one film wins ten or more in a night. Now I am going to continue to reflect upon what all this means, as I finally rest before having to worry about next year’s season.