I started off the year reeling from my viewing of Portrait of a Lady on Fire and thought to myself that if there’s any movie deserving of an Oscar, there it was. It was one of the most visually stunning pieces of film I’d ever seen, and the writing and casting left me completely blown away. From there, I started actually immersing myself into the politics of the upcoming awards season, as I had seen the film in early December. I began to hear about the controversy surrounding films such as Joker and Bombshell. I watched Parasite which was fantastic and seemed to be the only movie in the awards circuit that came close to the magic that Céline Sciamma, the director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, had managed to create.
There were dozens of hours of film that I only had a few short weeks to catch up with, and frankly, I’d left the bulk of my viewing to the last few days before the biggest ceremony and the season’s closer. I was watching two or three movies a day and it was draining, not because I find film viewing exhausting but because I found this year’s nominees exhausting. I watched Ford v Ferrari, Bombshell, The Two Popes, Harriet, and Jojo Rabbit over the course of 24 hours. The viewings were saturated with eyerolls, political tropes, and overdone perspectives that were oh so tiring, and the saddest part ended up being that a few of these films had so much potential. Bombshell was appropriately named as it was a particularly hard hit when it came to subject matter and execution. Let me emphasize that I do not mean that in a good way. Nothing quite measured up to Portrait, and my thoughts that it would get the recognition it deserves set me up to be let down.
When the Oscars shortlist came in late December, immense disappointment hit me. France ended up submitting Les Misérables instead of Portrait of a Lady on Fire for their foreign film entry for the Oscars. I’m not some bitter twenty-something who thinks Portrait should have won just because finally I got some good representation on the big screen; I was just shocked when I saw the various nominations for big awards shows rolling in. Portrait of a Lady on Fire blows nearly every awards season film out of the water. Almost anyone who watches it knows that’s the truth.
I started racking my brain trying to figure out why France would choose to submit Les Misérables when the film wasn’t nearly as well received as Portrait. The choice became even more baffling when I did a little more research and realized that Portrait had received the great honors of Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival last summer. The answer to why things played out the way they did ends up being simple and disappointing. When it comes to an award show such as the Oscars, politics and social expectation are often viewed as more important than content and quality. Certain films that get put forward end up feeling like devices used placate the public. Those films attempt to make us forget about our current situation or give us an easily digestible, over simplified perspective about the political and social turmoil that surrounds us. The public ends up patting themselves on the back when they watch a movie with the magic words “Academy Award nominated” in front of the title. That mindset evolves into the problem of getting award winners that are frequently thought-numbing instead of thought-provoking. That’s where our Green Books and Forrest Gumps come from. With that, we forget what real filmmaking is about. It’s about capturing authentic, innovative visions. Commending and awarding films that don’t truly stand for the awards they receive put the future of the medium in danger. That’s not to say that they don’t get it right every once in a while. We do have The Silence of the Lambs and Moonlight among our Best Picture winners, afterall.
My shock in Portrait receiving few nominations was poorly founded. If I’d been around long enough, I would’ve known better. Awards season has been like this for decades. It’s been a gut punch to people who really care about movies, and this year is no different. I don’t mean to be a cynic. Maybe I need to do what everyone else who has an educated opinion about film does: realize that these award shows are phony. That realistically, they mean nothing. They’re just trophies that we give to people we feel have been around long enough to deserve them.
That doesn’t sit right with me though. Mostly because it’s not true. People pay more attention to award winners. Production companies, the people who fund filmmaking projects, and most prominently, audiences love giving opportunities to those who receive Oscar nominations and awards. Those people get to make more movies. Those people get more viewers. Those people get more money. And what do the diverse teams who make films such as Portrait and Atlantics get?
Céline Sciamma was right when she jokingly said, “I don’t know why my film isn’t making millions, actually.” There’s no reason why these sorts of films shouldn’t receive the distribution, public exposure, and the critical acclaim they deserve. These choices require courage and progressive thinking. These choices require unbiased, educated opinions and people who see and appreciate films as they are, regardless of what they think the public wants or needs.
Things need to change. The Academy and its voting methods need to be revamped. We need a body of voters with open minds and true dedication to making fair choices. Filmmakers with amazing visions but little interest in mainstream success, palatable politics, or mundane escapism are cursed to be left under the radar until that change comes. Parasite receiving recognition and several awards is a step in the right direction. The only hope we can have is that things keep moving in that same manner or perhaps the next genius filmmaker will feel disheartened and we will miss out on the next best film of the decade.
Essays academy awards atlantics bombshell celine sciamma ford v ferrari forrest gump green book harriet jojo rabbit joker les miserables moonlight oscars parasite portrait of a lady on fire the silence of the lambs the two popes
Making my way through the world. Writing and stuff.