Hey buddies! This past weekend was Valentine’s Day, so what better way to celebrate romance than to invite my partner in affection and movie-going to the column so we can argue about movies? This will be the last cultural column before the Oscars on February 28, so we thought we would discuss some of the movies nominated (and not nominated), so you guys know what you should catch up on. Kasie, what’s good in this year’s Oscars race?
Kasie: Mad Max: Fury Road is good. I don’t know about you, but regarding the best picture nominees, I’m not really that excited for any of them to win. They are all fine, “good movies,” but the only one I was really excited about was Mad Max. Even so, when I watched it with my mom and her best friend for a third time over winter break (the first time I had watched it on a small screen) the magic had worn off a bit. It greatly benefits from a theater.
Charlie: I would agree that Mad Max was the only really “exciting” movie in the race, it’s basically a two hour long roller coaster — But this race seems populated with anti-excitement movies. No one is gonna come out of Spotlight feeling a rush. I guess maybe The Martian could be considered an action movie (excuse me, a comedy or musical) but that movie, much like the atmosphere of Mars, is a big vacuum. (Science majors, don’t question me here.) It’s pretty much nothing; it’s fine, Damon is an affable fellow, but it did not generate a single strong feeling in me. Other movies, the ‘anti-excitement’ movies I speak of, don’t necessarily excite me but leave me with a sense of contentment. Something like Spotlight, a procedural in many senses, ends with a slight feeling of justice in the midst of a cyclone of terrible crimes and societal cover-ups.
Kasie: I wouldn’t agree. Spotlight, though very newsy and not perfectly fit for the big screen (you should watch it on your laptop, or Apple watch), left me with a strong feeling of horror and slime. I felt a deep, kinda-postmodern sense of fear. The scene where Brian d’Arcy James’s reporter sprints a block from his home to match a discovered photo of a priest/registered sex offender’s house to one in the neighborhood, and subsequently posts a warning on the fridge for his own kids, is brilliant. But, although I felt emotionally affected as a spectator, Spotlight still wasn’t a great movie; it’s not the kind of movie I’d want to win an Oscar (mostly because you could watch it on your Apple watch).
Charlie: I don’t know if I agree, although I understand where you are coming from. It’s not a very cinematic movie, not something that I would want to watch several times over. But not many of these films were; it seems like one of the themes that is popping up a lot this year is abuse. This can be seen most starkly in a movie like Room, in which Brie Larson’s character tries to figure out how to escape the room that a man has been keeping her and her son in for seven years and attempts to undo some of the awful abuse the man has put them through for so long. But this can be seen elsewhere, too; a popular feminist reading of Mad Max is that it is a narrative of women overcoming their patriarchal oppressors, and that Max himself is the Trojan Horse this narrative arrives in. Other films attempt to portray the scope of abuse writ large over entire systems, whether religious (Spotlight) or financial (The Big Short). Or, in the case of The Revenant, how much a single man can abuse himself in order to earn a little golden man. Kasie, what do you think was unjustly excluded from this race?
Kasie: I’m not sure, honestly. I liked John Maclean’s Slow West, which I think wouldn’t be out of place on an Oscars-circuit. Though I understand that as a newish director with an off-center product, it’s not really the kind of film that is promoted for awards. And that’s probably the thing: it’s heavily influenced by the institution certainly, but I have this nebulous-yet-strong idea of what an “Oscars movie” looks like. It looks like 12 Years a Slave or No Country for Old Men: a crystallization of the cinematic, sweeping in its visual vocabulary with the right cultural moment and buzz transmitted around it. I don’t mean like Oscar-baiting biopics, but movies with an old-fashioned movie industry grandeur (in a way that I enjoy). I’m aware that idea is very particular and manipulated, but I definitely think it carries with it a certain feeling of movie-ness (like a Scorsesian “power of film” vibe) that this year’s films just don’t have.
Charlie: I also liked Slow West, and I think it’s part of a reignited interest in westerns, especially weirder, more ‘acid-western’ type films. But if the Academy isn’t going to really recognize The Hateful Eight (Tarantino isn’t necessarily an Oscar darling, but he gets around) they definitely aren’t going to pay attention to a delightful little western like Slow West or Bone Tomahawk. On your note about the “Oscars movie”: Maybe we are seeing a gradual shift away from the visual vocabularies and content of traditional “Oscar bait” movies, since that has become such a negative concept in certain film communities over the past couple years. Perhaps that sort of grandeur that you look for in movies (as I’m sure many of us do) might get rolled in with those sorts of aesthetic trappings of the award-baiting trash (such as The Imitation Game, The Danish Girl, The Theory of Everything, etc.). But it could have also just been a low-key year in movies.
Kasie: Or maybe those “aesthetic trappings” were saved for big budget sequels and reboots—Star Wars and Jurassic Park—that aren’t historically Oscars movies. Perhaps that’s why I wouldn’t be unhappy if Mad Max won; I felt movie magic when I first watched it.
Charlie: No, I totally agree. I think a lot of the movie world cleared out and took shelter from the unstoppable encroach of the Star Wars hype. We can hope that Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (a favorite of many from Sundance, look it up and get stoked) is handled well and takes home all of the Oscars next year. On that note, time to wrap things up with this final sentiment we can probably both agree with: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Maya Taylor were robbed. Tangerine deserved the wins.
Kasie: Definitely. I think Tangerine is an example of queer-black-digital cinema so against the institution that it should be recognized by it. And I would be down for that despite my talk of “grandeur.”