I tried. They’ll never know how hard I tried. I tried my very best not to write anything remotely related to this year’s Oscars. For god’s sake, I’m sixty pages into a new screenplay. I have minor dental surgery coming up. We have fruit flies. It’s not like I don’t have other things to do.
But in the end, it was hopeless. Fish gotta swim, and birds gotta fly, and bloggers gotta testify.
So, the problem with writing the Oscar column is making it new and different. Everyone has already written the who will win and who should win and who should have been a contender pieces. Is there really anything new to say?
No, there isn’t. So to find some new take on the 2016 Oscars, I’m going back – way back – to the 1929 and the very first Academy Awards. That’s right, today we’re gonna party like it’s 1929.
One of the good things about 1929 is they only had twelve categories. And what I like even more is that they used different criteria for selecting the winners. For one thing, even though Wings technically won the equivalent of today’s Best Picture, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans won an award that was quickly discontinued for Unique and Artistic Production.
And Janet Gaynor and Emil Jannings, who won Best Leading Actress and Actor respectively, were awarded for multiple roles during the year. I like that “body of work” concept.
So here are my 2016 awards, 1929-style.
BEST ART DIRECTION
We now call this one “Production Design.” But if “Art Direction” was good enough for William Cameron Menzies in 1929, it’s good enough for me today. And it’s good enough for Mark Digby, whose work in Ex Machina helped make it one of the best early releases of 2015.
BEST ENGINEERING EFFECTS
This is kind of a hybrid today. You know, it’s part special effects, part general production. As such, you could make a case for movies as diverse as The Force Awakens and The Revenant. And since it should be obvious that I don’t really know exactly how they were defining this way back when, I’ll use that ignorance as an excuse to give this award to a movie that I liked better than both of those – Beasts of No Nation. And since I don’t really know who to give the award to, since there was no one credited for “engineering effects,” I’ll just go with Cary Joji Fukunaga, since he did virtually everything else on the production.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for the cinematography in movies about artists. Last year, I thought Dick Pope’s work in Mr. Turner was clearly the best. This year, it’s Danny Cohen for his magical work on The Danish Girl.
BEST WRITING, TITLE WRITING
OK, this doesn’t exist anymore. We don’t use intertitles. Characters on screen can talk. But – if you’re a typical one-language-speaking American like me, we can morph this award into the Best Foreign Language film. Because they use titles, get it? If you think that is forced logic, then write your own damn blog. For me, the best movie that used titles this year was the Estonian war epic 1944.
BEST WRITING, ADAPTED
I don’t know how you adapt a book about economic theory, but fortunately Adam McKay and Charles Randolph do, and they did it in The Big Short.
BEST WRITING, ORIGINAL
They put my blurb on the cover of the DVD, so I may be biased here. But I did call it the best American movie of the year, so I feel pretty comfortable recognising Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi for their work on 99 Homes.
BEST DIRECTOR, COMEDY
This is where it really gets good. Yeah, that’s right, they gave an award for directing a comedy. How Golden Globes of the Academy. Mckay gets some consideration here for The Big Short, as do Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen for Inside Out. But when I really thought about it, there was one obvious choice: seventy-two year old Swede Roy Andersson’s mesmerising A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is filled with more ingenious comic ideas than any movie I’ve seen in a long, long time.
BEST DIRECTOR, DRAMA
Look, I didn’t even like it all that much, but even an opinionated jerk like me can see Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was doing something pretty special in The Revenant.
Remember, body of work. You play Steve Jobs and Macbeth in the same year, and you do it this well, you get my vote. Congrats, Michael Fassbender.
If you’re just putting up a single performance, I go with Saoirse Ronan. But Alicia Vikander was so good in a supporting role in Ex Machina, solid in both Testament of Youth and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and extraordinary in what I would consider a lead role in The Danish Girl. No actress topped that body of work.
UNIQUE AND ARTISTIC PRODUCTION
The fact that this award did not beget the line of Best Pictures we have come to know is a pretty good indication that the industry has always favoured technical brilliance over artistry. Those may be vague terms, but it’s undeniable that cinema is a technological medium in which technical innovation necessarily precedes artistic creation. Screw all that. I think we should still give an award for Unique and Artistic Production. And if we did, Room would win it in 2016.
I’m going with my own interpretation of what this award meant in 1929. That’s right, I am a strict constructionist. Not a cinematic activist. I am promoting nothing, just doing what the founding fathers wanted. The best technical production of the year was Mad Max: Fury Road. I think the story was flawed in some ways, but by Odin’s beard, it was amazing to look at.
Those were the twelve awards given out at the first Academy Awards in 1929. But, they also gave out two honorary awards, which allows me to cheat just a bit and make up two honorary awards as well. We’ll call the first one …
Yeah, I know, not very creative. Joshua Oppenheimer should have won the Oscar a few years ago for his extraordinary The Act of Killing. This year’s follow-up, The Look of Silence is no less riveting. See them both.
BEST MOVIE, REGARDLESS OF CATEGORY
This movie was made in 2009 but only released in the States in 2015. It was not eligible for Oscar consideration for reasons too dull to go into. And it wouldn’t have won, or even been nominated, were it eligible. But it was my favourite movie of the year. Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly.
For those of you who mourn the past, I’ll point out that 2015 was a better year for movies than 1929. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still learn something from the past.