The Good, The Bad and The Future of The Oscars

Perhaps because we have all been looking forward to putting it all behind us, the 2015 awards season already feels like a distant memory. But in reality, the 88th Academy Awards took place only less than a week ago. And the consequent glory, weight and burden of it all still linger. Soon enough, the debris will be removed from the crash site and we will firmly move further and further away from the season, left with its one singular takeaway: the lack of diversity among the nominees will forever and irreversibly remain engraved in our collective 2015 memories.

Before we shift our eyes to next year to take a premature look at what’s ahead (with the hopes of seeing some real, concrete evidence of change), here are my brief thoughts on Sunday’s results and telecast, a couple of days later than initially planned.

The Good

Chris Rock delivered a phenomenal opening monologue that kept its focus on the diversity debate while managing to be incisive, non-sensationalist and entertaining at the same time. Some jokes throughout the telecast – such as the Stacey Dash appearance as the “Director of Minority Outreach” – proved to be awkward and poorly planned, while others – such as introducing three kids of Asian descent as accurate and hard-working accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers – sparked understandable outrage for its lazy humor. But overall, Rock succeeded in a tough, thankless job and survived a show full of uncomfortable moments and many well-deserved wins and surprises.

George Miller’s critically beloved feminist sci-fi/action Mad Max: Fury Road nearly swept in below-the-line categories (beating another technical marvel The Revenant) with its incredible craftsmanship, winning Best Editing, Costume Design, Make up & Hairstyling, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing and Production Design. The presence of women was notable amongst these winners (knowing some of these crafts are usually dominated by men), which included the film’s editor Margaret Sixel. In fact, director Miller is on record for insisting Sixel, his wife, to edit the film so that it doesn’t look like every other male-edited action film out there.

As broadly predicted, Leonardo DiCaprio finally collected his long-deserved Oscar, with a committed, elemental performance as the 19th century fur trapper Hugh Glass in The Revenant. An Oscar surely looked great in the hands of the movie star, who generously took his win as an opportunity for a firm, environmentalist call-to-action: “Climate change is real and it is the most urgent threat facing our entire species,” he said in his sharp, impassioned acceptance speech.

Known for its impeccable tastes and risky/bold slate, the indie film distributor A24 had a fabulous night with wins for Brie Larson as Best Actress in Room (one of the night’s surest bets), Amy as Best Documentary and –in a shocking upset– Ex Machina as Best VFX, beating The Revenant, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian. (Belated congratulations to our own Rob Hunter for correctly predicting this shocking win.)

The Bad

In all honesty, I can’t argue against the majority of these winners. For me, the night’s biggest WTF was Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes winning Best Original Song for “Writings on the Wall” from Spectre (one of the worst James Bond songs in recent memory, perhaps ever). Not that the entire category wasn’t particularly weak this year. I am not even a fan of the song itself, but after Lady Gaga’s phenomenal/spine-chilling performance of “Til It Happens To You” from The Hunting Ground with several sexual abuse survivors on stage, Spectre’s win seemed especially comical. In the Live Action Short category, Stutterer was my least favorite but it won anyway, surpassing favorites like Shok and Ave Maria. (As far as I’m aware, In Contention’s Kris Tapley is the only pundit out there who called this one correctly. Respect.)

The telecast itself slightly dragged. Some tightening was certainly possible (crazy idea: to perhaps accommodate the two remaining Original Song nominees). Notable was the creative/instructive way screenplay and crafts categories were introduced – more of that next year please. Certain musical tracks that accompanied presenters to the stage (or played off winners’ speeches) raised my eyebrows. I missed the good old days where the orchestra strictly stuck with relevant music from movies presenters have been in or were nominated/won for. The “thank you scroll” (or whatever it is called) at the bottom of the screen proved to be a ridiculous idea as many suspected it would be. Did anyone pay attention to it? I know I didn’t.

The Rules Are To Be Broken

All in all, it was refreshing to be thrown a few surprises, along with predictable yet unusual occurrences that shook up some stats. Among the three frontrunners for Best Picture, the SAG ensemble winning Spotlight –also a big winner at the Independent Spirit Awards just the day before the Oscars- deservingly claimed the top honors over the DGA-winner The Revenant and the PGA pick The Big Short, becoming the first film since The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) to win only one other Oscar in perhaps the most unpredictable Best Picture race in recent memory. (Another congrats to Rob Hunter for calling it.) Early season favorite Mark Rylance won the Best Supporting Actor accolade over the late-blooming category favorite Sylvester Stallone in a tight race, making or breaking several Oscar ballots. The Revenant director Alejandro G. Inarritu won the Best Director acclaim second year in a row (note that he was the only non-white nominee among the five and he thankfully made the Oscars a little less white), while Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki won his 3rd consecutive Oscar after Gravity and Birdman.

On a personal note, this was my worst/least accurate year predicting the Oscars – I got only 16 correct. Mad Max technical sweep seems so obvious now (the two sound categories broke my ballot.) And looking back at my Best Picture write up in this space, I seemed to have answered my own question by referring to Spotlight as a film loved by a widespread crowd. So, PGA stat be damned – this was AMPAS’ preferential ballot at work, against the more divisive The Revenant and The Big Short. But lesson learned. Stats are valid and safe to follow…..until they are not

Looking Ahead to the 2017 Awards Season

Too soon to do that? Yes. Necessary? Also yes. And here is why.

As I have said before, I am not too keen on hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale, as they tend to focus on the symptom instead of the big picture. The prestige projects that land nominations don’t come out of nowhere. But the outrage that surrounds them certainly approaches the problem in isolation within the limited view of the awards bubble. So, better we’re aware of what’s in store now and shape the conversation/narrative leading up to the next awards season accordingly early on.

Looking at both Indiewire’s and Time Out’s lists of future awards season players, the news seems to be a little bit better when it comes to diversity. Nate Parker’s Sundance sensation The Birth of a Nation –grabbed by Fox Searchlight for a record-breaking $17,5 Million- will open in October in the thick of the awards season releases and will certainly be pushed by the savvy distributor into the Oscar race. We can expect to hear about this film throughout the season, and see it land at a Fall film festival to solidify and strengthen its run. (Hey, Brie Larson didn’t thank Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals in her acceptance speech for no reason.)

It looks like David Oyelowo, notably snubbed for his remarkable performance in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, will have a good year with several female-directed projects under his belt, including Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom (playing Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana who marries a white woman from London in 1940s), Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe (joining Lupita Nyong’o in the story of the young Ugandan chess prodigy, played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga – both possible contenders) and Cynthia Mort’s controversial Nina Simone biopic Nina (which admittedly doesn’t look like a contender.) Not breaking the Best Actor list this year with Concussion and boycotting the Oscars for its all-white line up of acting nominees, Will Smith could contend in the David Frankel-directed Collateral Beauty, playing a New York ad executive dealing with a tragedy. Additionally Jeff Nichols’ Loving (one of my most anticipated films of 2016) could push Ruth Negga into the race in the true story of an interracial couple battling prejudice and bigotry.

Next: 5 Life Lessons We Can Learn from Oscars Acceptance Speeches

But what about women behind the camera? Based on what we know so far, 2016 is shaping up to be another year with wall-to-wall male directors. I look forward to the works of many notable/legendary filmmakers, including Clint Eastwood (Sully), Martin Scorsese (Silence), Steven Spielberg (The BFG) and can testify for the greatness of Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful Manchester by the Sea, which took last January’s Sundance by a love storm. But I am disheartened that the aforementioned 2017 awards season list by Time Out has only three films directed by women: The Queen of Katwe by Mira Nair, A United Kingdom by Amma Asante and The Zookeeper’s Wife by Niki Caro. And things don’t look any brighter in our own list of most anticipated 2016 films -which has a healthy mix of blockbusters, prestige works and smaller scale films- with only one film directed by a female (The Invitation by Karyn Kusama). I am obviously not stating this to put the blame on writers who compile these lists. Like the awards season, we are all pulling from an available slate of films the industry puts in front of us. And to no one’s surprise, that slate overwhelmingly favors males currently. Unless a miracle happens, expect to see the reflection of this in the upcoming awards race. But of course, I would love to be proven wrong.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD)

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.