Film writer Toby Symonds assesses this year’s top Academy Award contenders and offers a fresh perspective regarding both the politics of Hollywood and which films were actually deserving of critical praise.


 

The Academy Awards do not and have never stood as a definitive marking of the year’s best films. The giving of awards to celebrate the ‘excellence’ of cinema is really just a bit of fun, albeit heavily commercialised and unnecessarily political. Despite this, controversy took centre stage with the nominations for last year’s ceremony due to an intrinsic lack of diversity. Indeed, last year was the second consecutive year which saw Caucasians receive all but one of the nominations across every acting and directing category, although that feels more symptomatic of a much wider issue than merely one in recognition. It’s a shame to have awards marred like this, but admittedly a travesty to limit winners to male, white and Western. Though this year is a touch more diverse, it also sees a continuation of the overlong saga of male-only directors. Go figure.

Of the films vying for Best Picture, it seems almost certain that La La Land will win the day. With fourteen nods overall, it should be a lovely night indeed for Damien Chazelle’s all-singing, all-dancing love letter to Hollywood (the thirty two-year-old looking like favourite for Best Director too). It’s not surprising, being both very Oscar-friendly and totally worthy. La La Land swept the board at last month’s Golden Globes, whilst collecting awards and nominations from the Critic’s Choice Awards, BAFTA and countless more. Back in 2011, The Artist met similar adoration for its joie-de-vivre revival of silent cinema; further proof of the Academy’s love for a ‘classic’. What’s crucial to note is that natural consensus amongst Academy voters is: ‘if I haven’t seen the film, I won’t vote for it’. With La La Land’s buzz, along with obvious appeal to the film industry it celebrates, it’s a sure ticket that every single one of them will have seen it.

Amongst the actors, Casey Affleck’s breathtaking performance in Manchester by the Sea is the one to beat and, for my money, the only predictable choice of the night. Natalie Portman, star of Jackie, seems the safest bet for Best Actress, but it should be remembered that it was Isabelle Huppert for Elle that took the Golden Globe, and Emma Stone who clinched this week’s Screen Actors Guild Award. It really is anyone’s game, with the exception, perhaps, of Meryl Streep whose token nomination surely feels a waste. Make no mistake about it, she’s an exceptional actress but four words say it all: where is Amy Adams? Viola Davis (Fences) never gets enough praise, so she’d be my reckoning for Supporting Actress, although it’d be an impressive feat for an underused Michelle Williams to seize it on just minutes’ screen time in Manchester by the Sea. As for Supporting Actor, there’s certainly a buzz around Mahershala Ali (now wouldn’t that be a delightful turnaround from last year and two fingers to Trump) for Moonlight, which reaches the UK on the 17th, but I’ve a lot to say in the favour of Lucas Hedges’ excellent work alongside Affleck and Williams. Equally, why a solid Michael Shannon gained the nomination over an explosive Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Nocturnal Animals is beyond me, but that goes for many of this year’s snubs (cough*Adams*cough).

Whilst Best Animated Feature will probably be Zootopia, hats off to the beautiful Kubo and the Two Strings and also to Disney’s other pick: Moana, the film which stands the only chance against La La Land in the Best Song category. On the subject of Kubo, it’s lovely to see the Laika feature getting a nod in Best Visual Effects too, up against heavyweights Rogue One and The Jungle Book, which would probably be my pick. It has been another terrific year for animation and even blockbusters have rather pulled it out of the bag, save Deadpool for which many had hopes of Academy recognition.

As aforementioned, it wouldn’t be Academy Awards season without at least some controversy, so, while it’s just a bit of silliness, it is worth raising a hat to those missing from this years nominees. Yes, Amy Adams deserved a nomination and, yes, Nocturnal Animals (just ONE of her two impressive roles in 2016 – no, the other was not Batman v Superman) is also strangely absent. Where too are Martin Scorsese’s harrowing Silence, the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, and, less surprisingly, Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning I, Daniel Blake?

Whatever and whomever wins on 26th February, it doesn’t really matter and it would be daft to judge a film solely on its acquired number of statuettes. The Oscars will always be a fun, if incredibly self-congratulatory, means to look back at another year of “culture”. Besides, Amy Adams will always be 2016’s Best Actress for me.

 

Toby Symonds