The announcement of the nominees for the 89th Academy Awards this week marked the beginning of the end of the year-long awards process, which begins with the Cannes Film Festival in May, and ends with the Oscars, 8 months later. As usual, the list of nominees contains few surprises, with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences choosing to stay on the straight and narrow, throwing out very few left-field choices.
Damien Chazelle’s musical romp through an imagined Hollywood, La La Land, leads the pack, with 14 nominations; a record-tying haul, this puts in on par with Titanic and All About Eve as the most nominated film of all time. The raft of nominations – which includes Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director – is unsurprising; there is nothing more that the Academy loves more than a film which indulges their romantic fantasies about what commercial film-making can achieve. One only needs to look back to 2012’s ceremony, when The Artist and Hugo, both in thrall to the ‘magic of cinema’, took home five awards apiece. Taking this into account, the success of La La Land – which essentially functions as a love letter to Hollywood – is not a shock.
The question is whether La La Land can continue the run it’s had this award season, which peaked with a record-setting night at the Golden Globes, or whether Moonlight or Arrival – each with eight nominations – can knock it off the top perch. If either had a chance, it would be Moonlight, which has been picking up critical acclaim since its premiere at Telluride. (Arrival, which has the bulk of its nominations in the more technical categories, is likely to fill in the Gravity/Mad Max/Grand Budapest Hotel space, with a high number of wins, but none of the ‘big ones’.) Online, there seems to have been a rumbling of a backlash against La La Land – after months of being told that it was a masterpiece, those who went and found instead an empty-hearted, reactionary imitation of past greats were sorely disappointed.
Manchester by the Sea has also had a good run, being nominated for six awards, all of which are in major categories. Casey Affleck already seems to be a shoe-in for the Best Actor prize, with his emotionally understated performance as a man consumed with silent grief. The Best Actress award, meanwhile, is a more open field: Emma Stone (La La Land), Isabelle Huppert (Elle), and Natalie Portman (Jackie) have all been picking up gongs, and Ruth Negga’s performance in Loving could also get some traction. The inclusion of Meryl Streep on the list – for the underwhelming Florence Foster Jenkins – leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, especially considering that Amy Adams (who delivered two great performances this year in Arrival and Nocturnal Animals) is not even nominated. I would have also loved to see Rebecca Hall rewarded for her performance in Christine, which – for me – has been the best performance I’ve seen all year.
The Best Director category seems to be a breath of fresh air, if only because Alejandro G. Iñárritu decided 2016 was miserable enough without him releasing another film (thank God). The last few years have seen mainly big-budget spectacles getting the Best Director prize, but of the list this year, only Hacksaw Ridge seems to fit the traditional macho mould (it remains to be seen whether Mel Gibson’s previous racist and homophobic behaviour will stand in his way). I would argue that Arrival is more of a cerebral affair than an SFX-flick, and La La Land might be grand in scope, but its set pieces are noticeably more musically-inclined than previous winners.
What is grating with this year’s list is the lack of daring. Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, a deep, heady thriller, only gets a nod for Michael Shannon in the Best Supporting Actor category; Amy Adams’ performance goes unrecognised, and so does Ford’s direction and screenplay. Similarly, Jackie only has three nominations, for Best Costume Design, Best Score, and Best Actress. It is a far more audaciously daring work than, say, Arrival, with complex direction from Pablo Larraín bolstering the tricky screenplay, which darts back and forth. That being said, I am thrilled that the Academy has recognised Mica Levi for her haunting score, following her noted omission for Under the Skin a few years ago. She is only the third woman to be nominated for scoring a film, and she more than deserves to win the top prize. The most noted omission, for me, is Antonio Campos’ Christine, which tells the story of depressed TV presenter Christine Chubbuck. As already mentioned, I feel that Hall should be up for the Best Actress award, but it would also be a well-deserved nominee for Best Picture, Best Director or Best Screenplay, as well as any number of other awards for its pitch-perfect 1970s production design.
So, what will happen come February 26th? My prediction – and everyone else’s – is that La La Land will take home most of the awards. But what do the Academy Awards even mean? Not that much really. This might be the most obvious of hot-takes for anyone who follows the world of film, but looking back over the last decade or so of ceremonies, and a pattern becomes clear: how little we really care about the Oscars after everything has died down. How many of us can say that we regularly watch The King’s Speech? Or argue that Slumdog Millionaire really represents a masterpiece of modern cinema? For me – and I know this isn’t an opinion shared by others – it seems unlikely that I will watch La La Land again, even if it wins top prize on the night. But I will make sure to watch the ceremony itself. I might disagree with the nominees, I might disagree with the winners, I might even agree with the entire ethos of artistic competitions…but damn if it’s not fun to take part, even for an evening, in all the pomp of Hollywood.
In the run-up to the Academy Awards, felix will be running innumerable articles on the nominees. If you’re interested in letting us know who should win Best Picture, who has been overlooked, or just how sick of awards you are, drop us a line.