Arts & Culture

2018 Oscar nominations prove more progressive

Eventful year in film culminates in wide variety of nominees, representing diverse spread

By
Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2018

The 2018 Oscar nominations came out early last week, firing the starting pistol for the final stretch of what has been one of the most tumultuous, industry-shaking years in Hollywood’s history. They honor a diverse, somewhat untraditional set of films, from the politically spiked scares of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” to the young woman’s coming-of-age tale in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.”

It’s a poetic coincidence that this year marked by new films breaking into the Academy’s ranks is also the year of Harvey Weinstein’s downfall. The films he produced, under the stamp of Miramax and the now-defunct Weinstein Company, were largely old-fashioned, serious-minded affairs; historical epics (“The English Patient”), issue dramas (“My Left Foot”) and nostalgia trips (“Chicago”) varied in quality but were united in their projection of good taste. The wrenching irony of Weinstein as an arbiter of good taste should be readily apparent.

But, come to think of it, a “projection of good taste” isn’t a bad description of the Oscars themselves. They purport to acknowledge the best of the best in any given year of movie-making, but what they really do — at least up until recently — is obligingly acknowledge a certain haughtily middlebrow, white-people-dominated type of movie. The term “Oscar bait” is less a critical judgment than it is a genre.

That the world’s most prominent film awards have such a narrow idea of the “best” does neither the art nor the industry any favors. When boring movies — like “A Beautiful Mind” — keep winning Oscars, boring movies — like “The King’s Speech” — keep getting made. But this year’s crop of nominees suggests that our conception of what movies can win Oscars is changing.

Take “Get Out,” a film that could scarcely be further away from the Weinstein ideal of an Oscar movie. It is a sharp, uncompromising film about contemporary racism that’s also a horror film that’s also a comedy.  None of those qualities point to traditional Oscar success — in fact, they point away from it — and yet “Get Out” pulled in four nominations, including one for best picture.

The most notable of its nominations may be the one for Daniel Kaluuya, the film’s star. In “Get Out,” Kaluuya gives the kind of performance that rarely receives awards attention: He is subtle and authentically human, the clear-headed man in the middle of a vortex of off-the-wall thrills and political allegory. It’s not a performance that screams “I’m acting!” and yet it’s essential to the film’s success. Though Gary Oldman may end up taking the award for his hammy performance as Winston Churchill, the presence of Kaluuya in this category — along with fellow twenty-something Timothée Chalamet for his pitch-perfect, devastating performance in “Call Me By Your Name” — is as surprising as it is exciting.

The Academy’s demonstrated warmth toward “Lady Bird” is another point of pleasant surprise. In the moment of #MeToo, it’s tempting to opt for the blinkered and crudely drawn female rage of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and the Academy still might. But “Lady Bird,” in its sensitively crafted portrait of a mother and daughter living their lives and figuring out their relationship, is a female story scaled to human life and is all the more powerful for being so.

The film received five nominations, including one for best picture and two for its terrific central acting duo, Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. But most exciting is Greta Gerwig’s directing nomination. Gerwig doesn’t have the awesome technical prowess of Christopher Nolan, and she doesn’t make obvious ploys for cinephilic rapture a la Guillermo del Toro. But she has a crisp visual style, a keen sense of rhythm and a deep understanding of her characters. Her direction isn’t attention-grabbing or jaw-dropping; it’s simply perfect. Kudos to the Academy for recognizing it as such.

“Lady Bird” and “Get Out” are deviations from the Oscar norm just based on the films themselves, but they’re different in a more obvious way, too: Neither is directed by a white man. In response to things like #OscarsSoWhite and Natalie Portman’s sly “all-male nominees” barb at the Golden Globes, the Oscars face mounting pressure to diversify — and they’re making strides. In June, the Academy invited a record 774 new members, many of whom were women and people of color.

The nominations for “Lady Bird” and “Get Out” make more sense, then, and point to a brighter future for the Academy. Because the two films aren’t just different in who they represent, on screen and off. They are different in their politics, their genres, their themes and even their aesthetics. Thanks to activists’ insistence on diversity in Oscar-nominated films, the Oscars have had to nominate movies that normally wouldn’t circulate in awards circles, and — quelle surprise! — they’re a whole lot better than “The Artist.”

So Weinstein can keep the “Tulip Fever” Blu-rays for the twenty-to-life that’s coming to him. A number of talented artists — Gerwig and Peele chief among them — have arrived to make their mark, and Oscar is just starting to know it.