The Academy Awards are the one sporting tournament I follow with any level of engagement. I pay attention to the cottage industry of prognosticators that starts speculating straight out of Sundance, more than a year before the ceremony; I despair about the unsuccessful campaigns mounted by my favorites, as they fall by the wayside; I predict potential nominees and winners; I exult and rant about the films that make it; and, every late winter or early spring, I watch the overlong spectacle alternating between feelings of suspense, delight, and stultifying boredom.
I am, of course, not alone in my passionate, can't-look-away ambivalence. It's a tradition among those who regard themselves cinephiles at this point to yell about the conservative (predominantly white, male, and old) voting body and its middlebrow tastes. Or to get volubly invested in David vs. Goliath arguments that make up in passion for what they lack in nuance.
For the casual movie going public, the Oscars are either a mildly amusing pageant with some pretty stars in prettier clothes, and the nominations are a primer on what “important” non-superhero films they ought to catch up on in theaters not quite near them or on streaming, so that the flurry of memes and think pieces can make some sense. They've learned from Twitter and Facebook that the film that didn't win was robbed, or that the film that won wasn't woke enough, or they discuss Meryl Streep's predictably great speech and Jennifer Lawrence's even more predictably charming gaffe over lunch at the office.
The Oscars, then, are about the nominated movies but also ... not just about those movies. We're talking about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water, the two frontrunners for Best Picture as I write this. We're talking some more about the potential victory at the world's most watched movie event of a throwback romance that centers around the government-approved persecution of an innocent foreigner of sorts or what a violent comedy about the aftermath of sexual violence means at this specific cultural moment, what with #MeToo, #Timesup, and the waking nightmare of America's proudly bigoted President. We want to address the numerous joys of Greta Gerwig's funny, poignant Lady Bird but perhaps also get mad about how she could be one of only five women nominated for direction in the awards' ninety-year history. This grand, awkward, self-congratulatory programme has, I suppose, become a higgledy-piggledy prism through which our thoughts and concerns about pop culture and the culture at large are refracted into varicolored, irresolute, shouty conversation.
The conversation is often interesting and illuminating, of course, but it helps when the films in the mix are truly great—as several of this year's nominees are. None of my personal favorites are likely to win the major awards, but their inclusion signifies hopeful things about how the member body's tastes are diversifying, since that enthusiasm might translate into more such films being made. And they're so good they've already made it to my list of all-time beloved films.
Sure, we have to suffer through the nomination of obvious awards bait like The Darkest Hour (because what the world needs right now is another Churchill hagiography), likely to win Gary Oldman his first Best Actor Oscar. And Three Billboards may have excited viewers with its bald, excoriating, timely-feeling anger; but it bungles its portrayal of racism in America, with a shocking sort of ineptitude and reduces its black characters to mostly silent set decoration.
But how lovely it is to see Jordan Peele's masterful Get Out, my personal Best Picture of 2018, honored with multiple nods! It is about things we ought to be talking about, of course, but we're only talking because it is so good, so vivid, so assured in its craft and storytelling, so deft with its deployment of both satire and horror, so cunning in how it confronts us with its ugly truths. The film has already become a huge hit and is universally acclaimed; it hardly needs a coronation at the Oscars. But by recognizing it, the Academy has made itself look a little less out of step with the times.
I also adored Lady Bird, which I mentioned earlier for Gerwig's induction into the outrageously tiny club of female directors who've gotten a directing nod. Gerwig is a prolific actor, but this is her first film, just like Get Out is Peele's first. (The latter was better known as one half of the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele until recently.) Neither film feels like a freshman effort. Gerwig evokes the perils and pleasures of girlhood in this film about a smart, prickly, dramatic teenager whose battles and detentes with her no-nonsense mother should feel familiar to most of us who've been clever and femme and restless. This is the Best Film nominee that'll make you laugh the most, but it's also a moist-eyed love song for youth and its attendant miracles (and for Sacramento, where Gerwig grew up and which she portrays here with unsentimental large-heartedness).
My other two favorites, Call Me By Your Name and Phantom Thread, are both period love stories. The first is sunlit and languorous and elliptical and queer; the second is chilly and suspenseful and precise and the other kind of queer—in that, it is really very strange (questionable breakfast foods are a plot point, as is a maternal ghost). They both feel like instant, forever-quotable/memeable classics, though. Call Me By Your Name, like Lady Bird, has a teenage protagonist, but Elio's infatuation is deeper and more complicated than Lady Bird's various dalliances. He's fallen for a handsome older American houseguest, who's only in their gloriously photographed shambles of an Italian household for the summer. Love at the movies has never looked this idyllic, felt this heady in a long time. At the end, as the credits started rolling over Timothée Chalamet's sad-elf face (he'd be my pick for Best Actor) and Sufjan Stevens' transcendent song begins playing, I felt aired out, open in spirit and heart. CMBYN is definitely the best time I had at the movies last year.
Phantom Thread is less … elevating, but it is screamingly funny and diabolically acute about love, marriage, and the perverse instincts that keep both love and marriage chugging. Frances McDormand is the unbeatable-seeming frontrunner for the Best Actress in a Leading Role award right now, but my pick would have been the uncanny Vicky Krieps, who, it seems to me, invents a whole new way of existing truthfully onscreen, a new grammar of film acting, in Phantom Thread. She is a formidable match for the great Daniel Day-Lewis, who has broken hearts with his announcement that this will be his last film.
Kumail Nanjiani, thankfully, has a long career in cinema ahead of him. He co-wrote the delightful The Big Sick, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, with Emily Gordon, his wife; the film is based on the real-life story of how they met and navigated a relationship and her sudden illness. It is a witty take on romantic and familial relationships (Nanjiani depicts his conservative Pakistani family with fond exasperation and bittersweet humor). It'd be fabulous to see this Muslim immigrant accept an Oscar while Trump tweets furious, misspelled diatribes about the Hollywood elite, but I suspect the love he's gotten from couples all over the world who've navigated inter-cultural relationships and grave health challenges and found truth and heart in his film of their own have been just as rewarding for Gordon and him.
The Oscars also highlight worthy documentaries and feature films from outside the West (although the short listing process for both can be baffling). The trail blazing Agnès Varda is nominated at eighty-nine for her charming Faces, Places. If she attends, we shall all be blessed with the sighting of a great whose body of work is of far greater import than any gold statuette.
Of course, the irony of the producer of Last Men in Aleppo (one of the nominated documentaries) being denied a visa to the US for the ceremony, is cruel and obvious. But, hopefully, people will feel inspired to seek out his film, and all the other terrific, true films that have somehow made it into a notoriously myopic voting body's line of vision. And they will find in those films beauties and revelations that will outlive the pomp and tinselly splendor of this year's Oscars.
Sal Salam lives in Chicago and works in HIV testing and prevention counselling. A version of this article first appeared in BollyBrit.