Let’s get real: The Oscars are kind of a joke. We’ve had so many lame Best Picture winners that the awards have devolved into Olympic figure skating: We’re into it for the sparkles and behind-the-scenes drama. Who cares who ends up with the gold?
And yet the Oscars should matter. Movies matter. They’re our history. Hollywood wants to tap into what scares us, thrills us, obsesses us, and reflects us. Old movies tell us who we were, how we felt, and what we dreamed. The Oscars are a starting place for people in the future to understand our present. But they’ll be studying the average Oscar voter’s America — a 63-year-old white man’s idea of what matters — not ours.
I am not the average Academy Awards voter. Not only am I half of one’s age and a chick, I bet I saw more new movies in 2015. As a film critic, that’s my job. Give every film a chance: good, bad, big, indie, overpraised, and overlooked. But Academy members only have two months to Oscar-screener-and-chill.
I’m not accusing the average Academy member of making out instead of focusing on their DVDS — honestly, if a 63-year-old man is still that excited to hook up with his bae, more power to him. But if Grandpa Gary only has time for 20 movies, which screeners go on top of the stack? The ones he heard his friends liked, which they watched because their friends liked them, and so on in a daisy chain of golf-buddy groupthink. He won’t bother with anything too edgy — or, and here’s where the kind of bias that results in huge problems like #OscarsSoWhite comes in — too female or too minority-focused.
It’s not that Grandpa is racist (or misogynist), he assures himself. That story’s just not for him, and since most of his old white male friends probably won’t get it, either, why waste two hours on a doomed cause?
This sucks. It’s why the Best Picture race is a cliché, an echo chamber where everyone nods that middlebrow movies like Birdman and Argo and The Artist are great, hands them a statue, and never wants to watch them twice. Those all “sound like” Oscar movies: self-consciously important, quasi-historical dramas that go down like chocolate-flavored Metamucil. And it’ll stay that way until Grandpa gets outnumbered, retires, or starts dating an exciting younger woman. (Not it.)
So forget about who will win the Oscars. Let’s talk about who should win some of the most interesting races on Sunday night.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Animation isn’t just kid stuff. But it is to the Academy Awards. Since the Oscars launched the Best Animation Oscar in 2001, they haven’t dared reward anything more adult than PG-rated Shrek. It’s time to grow up. This year, Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion romance Anomalisa made history as animation’s first ever R-rated nominee. I’m not saying Anomalisa should win just because it has the most realistic sex scene you’ll see all year. (Although: You’re on notice, sex scenes in which actresses bounce and wail like opera singers on trampolines.) Anomalisa, a story about a cheating narcissist who falls in love with a naive doughnut saleswoman, is a masterpiece that could only be told with puppets — unnervingly human-looking puppets whose visible cracks and gears hint that we’re all wearing a mask. At least Pixar’s Inside Out, the front-runner, hits the same idea with a happier ending.
None of these nominees deserves a little gold man. Leo had more depth when he was 23 years old and dog-paddling next to the Titanic. Matt Damon and Michael Fassbender each clang the same emotional gong for two hours (Matty’s chipper! Mikey’s callous!) except for one big switcheroo scene. Bryan Cranston was better in any five-minute clip of Breaking Bad than as bellowing, overbearing Dalton Trumbo. And Eddie Redmayne, who won last year for The Theory of Everything, was so disastrous as Lili Elbe, the first male-to-female transgender patient, that he ruined the movie. Redmayne focused only on the clothes, hair, and hands, reducing gender to dress-up. Lili’s soul went ignored. Fine, Leo can win. But only because if he stops chasing an Oscar, he can remember how to smile.
The Brie Larson train is speeding toward victory, which is great news for audiences who’ve loved her since Short Term 12, or, hell, 21 Jump Street. And if you’ve been a fan of Brie since her Disney days, you’re more hip than everyone else. Each of this year’s Best Actress nominees did better work than any of the boys. Their performances were staggeringly complex. Cate Blanchett’s lesbian divorcée in Carol hid her instability under impeccable grooming. As a wife who suspects that her husband of four and a half decades never truly loved her, Charlotte Rampling peeled off layer after contradictory layer in 45 Years. She was heartbroken, then resolute; furious, then armored by pride. Though Joy was a mess, Jennifer Lawrence was glorious, and with two nominations at just 22, Brooklyn’s Saoirse Ronan is destined to be her generation’s Meryl Streep. Yet, among such diamond competition, Larson is the crown jewel. In the claustrophobic confines of Room, she has to silently channel the horrors her character can’t confront in front of her son, and later, she ricochets between two painful extremes: screaming, destructive anger and continuing to suppress feelings people don’t want to hear about.
Please: Anyone but Alejandro González Iñárritu. So he buried himself in snow. So he got the founder of the Pussy Posse to eat raw fish right off the bone (and not even served on a naked model’s stomach). So what. The Revenant cares more about suffering and spectacle than its script — the Academy may as well give the Oscar to squish porn. Still, if I had to pick a favorite, um, I’m going to to pick two: Mad Max: Fury Road’s George Miller and Room’s Lenny Abrahamson. One is a flawless whirligig fashioned from passion and genius. The other is a hushed master class in how to work with actors, particularly then-7-year-old Jacob Tremblay. Maybe if Abrahamson had directed The Revenant, Leo would have done more than glare and grunt.
Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, the most important movie of the year, wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. It wasn’t nominated for anything. But Lee’s raucous gun-control comedy captures a year in which #BlackLivesMatter demanded change — here, in the form of a gangster’s girlfriend who organizes a female sex strike until the men stop shooting. Chi-Raq will be the movie people watch in 2055 to make sense of today, as much as anyone can make sense of a government that flips out at overseas terrorism but refuses to fight terrorism at home, like the 30 Americans murdered by gunfire every day. But of this year’s actual nominees, I’m revving my engine for Fury Road. I’m sick of safe dramas that are simply — what’s the word, Immortan Joe? — mediocre. I want to live in a world where a loud, over-the-top, literally female-driven action movie can win Oscar’s biggest prize. Listen to Imperator Furiosa, Grandpa. You’re never going to have a better shot at redemption.