Oscars 2016 preview: Waiting for the day when inclusion is no longer news

Glenn Whipp

Next year’s Academy Awards boast plenty of intriguing story lines — a possible third Oscar for Denzel Washington, a battle royal in the lead actress category, the mystery surrounding Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating passion project, “Silence.”

Let’s be honest though: When the nominations are announced Jan. 24, the focus will be on whether the academy has averted a third straight year of #OscarsSoWhite trending on social media.

With several notable films — “Fences,” “Moonlight,” “Loving,” “Hidden Figures” — featuring prominent black ensembles, it’s unthinkable that we’ll see another year with all 20 acting nominations in the lead and supporting categories going to whites.

But should Washington and Viola Davis and the great stage actor Stephen Henderson be nominated for “Fences” and Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali earn for “Moonlight,” the celebration should be muted. Inclusiveness needs to be the normal state of affairs. And not just for black actors. When we look at the slate of Oscar nominees and see Latino and Asian talent recognized annually, then Hollywood can congratulate itself. (Something this town knows how to do.) And then maybe we can all move to a point where proper representation in movies is no longer news.

What else will we be talking about this awards season? Here are four other things.

A late-breaking best picture winner? We haven’t had a December movie take the best picture Oscar since Clint Eastwood’s 2004 surprise late-entry “Million Dollar Baby.” Last year came close, with both “The Revenant” and “The Big Short” winning major guild prizes, only to see “Spotlight,” which opened the first weekend of November, prevail.

This year, though, Damien Chazelle’s big-hearted, magical musical “La La Land” opens Dec. 9, and it has all the makings of a best picture winner. The movie has already made its mark at film festivals in Venice, Toronto, London and Telluride, Colo., and will have a splashy screening on its home turf next week at the AFI Festival in Hollywood. All that advance groundwork gives “La La Land” a leg up on this year’s other December movies — “Fences,” “Silence” and “Hidden Figures.” That the film celebrates L.A. and the artistic impulses of actors — the academy’s dominant voting branch — make it all the more likely that this will be a December movie that voters remember.

Lead actress > lead actor. There are so many outstanding turns by women this year that you could come up with two equally great sets of five nominees. How crowded is it? Meryl Streep might not even earn a nomination. And she actually kind of deserves one for her wonderful comic performance in “Florence Foster Jenkins.” (The adjective “comic” is probably enough to scuttle her chances with the academy.)

Ultimately, the race could boil down to Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie,” which has won critical raves at festivals, and Emma Stone’s winsome aspiring actress in “La La Land.” The movies — and their stars — have devoted, passionate followings, so expect some serious partisanship. Ultimately, it could come down to one simple fact: Portman already has an Oscar (“Black Swan”) and Stone doesn’t. Voters like to spread the wealth.

You might not know most of the movies nominated for animated feature. “The Secret Life of Pets”? Woof. “The Angry Birds Movie”? Get serious. “Kung Fu Panda 3”? Unless it’s “Toy Story,” third films aren’t nominated here — even if the first two were. (Really. “Kung Fu Panda 2” earned a nod. Look it up.) Even Pixar’s “Finding Dory,” the year’s biggest box office hit, might fall victim to the idea that its existence owes more to commercial consideration than a compelling need to revisit the characters.

Look for two Disney movies — the critically acclaimed “Zootopia” and the upcoming “Moana” (with new songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda!) and then … “The Red Turtle.” Or “My Life as a Zucchini” or a couple of other titles from GKIDS, the distributor of the sometimes captivating, hand-drawn movies beloved by animated branch voters and almost completely unknown to the general public. (Oh, and these voters can’t resist stop-motion. So pencil in Laika’s “Kubo and the Two Strings.”) Slighting “Dory” won’t be as egregious as passing over “The Lego Movie” two years ago. But it still won’t make sense to anyone who enjoyed this movie with their kids this summer. (C’mon, academy: Think of the children!)

But you will probably know most of the documentary feature nominees. On Netflix, you can watch — and, really, you probably have, right? — Ava DuVernay’s searing indictment of the prison-industrial complex, “13th,” and the engrossing tabloid-crime story “Amanda Knox.” The 7½-hour-long “O.J.: Made in America,” which ran on ESPN over the summer, might be the year’s most essential piece of filmmaking. And maybe you didn’t see “Weiner,” the extraordinary doc about Anthony Weiner’s disastrous mayoral bid in 2013, but you feel like you have because there’s seemingly no end to Weiner’s scandalous ways. Documentary branch voters have a history of infuriating omissions, but with so many great movies (Werner Herzog’s “Into the Inferno,” Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Fire at Sea,” which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival), it’s hard not to envision a satisfying slate of nominees. (Provided it includes “O.J.”)

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