Sunday, March 5, 2017

Top Five Highlights of the 2016-17 Awards Season

I've vented my biggest frustrations, but the only proper way to put the season to rest is by celebrating those moments which made me most happy.

Top Five Highlights of the 2016-17 Awards Season:

5. Biopic curse broken
We were this close five years ago to having a winning lineup of actors who played four fictional characters, but then Meryl's imitation of Maggie Thatcher thwarted that plan by beating Viola Davis' ordinary hero Aibileen Clark in what we can only speculate was a photo finish. How fitting it then is that Viola is now part of the first winners' circle to feature no real life roles since the class of '97. Chalk it up if you must to a year that was a bit leaner on biopics than usual, but it's still refreshing to see four thespians clutching Oscars for playing the kinds of 'ordinary people' that Viola so passionately celebrated in every acceptance speech this season.

4. Meryl's speech

Exploiting politics on the campaign trail doesn't always sit well with me, but I don't begrudge award recipients their momentary soapbox. In the case of Meryl's career achievement speech at the Golden Globes, it offered an exemplar on how to promote one's politics in the best way; Without aggression, without name-dropping, without screaming and without making it about one's self. While headline writers were quick to label it Meryl Streep's "attack" on the president of the United States, the real point of the speech was the "act of empathy", and a beautifully made point it was too. As for those skeptics who feel it was a ploy to curry favour with the Academy in the last week of nomination voting, I would respectfully disagree. I feel comfortable with the hypothesis that she'd have been nominated anyway, because... it's Meryl Streep.

3. Kubo's Visual Effects nomination
Every once in a while, you see a fringe contender that you know deserves a nomination for something, but you just don't have faith in the Academy to make it happen. Initially, it kind of liberates you to bang the drum, whether in the form of an extensive op-ed or a couple of passing Tweets, but you might do so with the pessimistic belief that such conversation is in vain. It's just nice to be part of the cheering section for an unlikely nominee. I actively singled out the extraordinary visual effects work of Laika's Kubo and the Two Strings when I reviewed the movie back in August, not written as an FYC so much as an exercise after a long summer of movies that I just didn't feel like writing about. When it made the semifinalist list of 20, I was content to know it had at least been considered. When it made the top ten, I started to get nervously excited. And when that nomination was announced, I yelped. There are few things that can elicit such powerful instantaneous elation, except perhaps...

2. Kevin O'Connell wins on 21st nomination

Scratch another one off my list of people who need an Oscar immediately, and this one has been the longest time coming. Sound mixer Kevin O'Connell had to wait 33 years from his first nomination before finally getting to clutch a golden boy of his own, and there was plenty of disappointment and heartbreak in between. Ten years prior (almost to the day), he left the Oscars right after losing for the 19th time to be with his mother Skippy, who passed away later that night. When he took the stage last weekend, exclaiming how much this meant to him and thanking his mother, every word rang true. To me, it was easily the most genuine and moving acceptance speech of the evening, and possibly the most satisfying Oscar win of the decade so far.

(Other satisfying winners include Arrival sound editor Sylvain Bellemare -- yay Canada! -- and Jungle Book vfx supervisor Dan Lemmon, who had been shafted twice for the Planet of the Apes prequels. But let's be honest; They can't compare to this.)

1. Best Picture 'catastrophe'
How fine is the line between disaster and miracle? Is it possible for something to be both at once? The snafu that concluded the 89th Academy Awards in such dramatic fashion might be the closest we'll see of such a case. This is the first (and probably the only) time my biggest pet peeve of the season is also the uncontested highlight. How could anything else possibly replace it? For those who yearn for big surprises at the Oscars, this should sate them for years to come.
While the fiasco still puts my stomach in knots, the meaning of the moment is bigger than the moment itself. In a politically charged year when empathy, camaraderie and basic human decency seemed to be at premium, we saw the best of those things on the Dolby stage last Sunday. It was messy, but what a beautiful mess. Jordon Horowitz -- whose name may as well be engraved on the trophy anyway for how graciously he handled the unimaginable situation, forever emblazoning himself in the Oscar headcanon despite losing -- embracing and handing over the award to Barry Jenkins is a potent symbolic image.

Again, I can't overstate the word: Miracle. For a movie like Moonlight to win this honour is unprecedented on several levels. The first LGBT-themed Best Picture, the first all-black cast to win Best Picture, the lowest budgeted film to win Best Picture... to say nothing of the fact that beating the movie that won the two top guilds (PGA and DGA) among many others flies in the face of convention.

Whether or not this turns out to be a one-off or a turning point remains to be seen, but the industry has a responsibility to model inclusion and empathy now more than ever. Jenkins and his miracle movie have given Hollywood the start it needs.

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