Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight, the best two of the paltry five Best Picture nominees I’ve seen, are twin lamentations: the first, bleakly cold, white, and northern; the second, sensuously warm, black, and southern. Both deal with coastal inhabitants that hardly qualify as “élite.” Despite the setting—a haven for old money on the North Shore of Massachusetts—the Chandler family in Manchester by the Sea has the sweat stains of the white working class we’re hearing so much about these days; they’re as straight and white as Chiron, from South Florida, is gay and black. And though the Atlantic has thematic significance to both, one imagines that these sets of characters would be two ships in the night, never passing nor considering one another, save for at Oscar time. That is to say, these Americans would have no rapport with one another except with a screen as mediator, and that says as much about the simultaneous importance and irrelevance of the Academy Awards in these parlous times as anything else does.
I’m even less qualified than usual to make sweeping judgments this cycle. Given the load of symbolic bricks weighted to the decision, I’m as curious as anyone to see what title is pulled from the envelope. Picking La La Land would, in any other year, be the neutral, inoffensive choice—it’s a shiny lollipop of a movie that will get just as many musicals green-lighted as The Artist churned out silent pictures. And yet, in Trumpistan, honoring such a white-telephone movie would seem very Vichy indeed. Manchester might be dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of Casey Affleck, but if voters can forgive Mel Gibson, whose fall was far more public (and whose entry, Hacksaw Ridge, is pleasantly old-fashioned but not nearly as remarkable), who knows? Is Moonlight too—welp—“intersectional”? (Few films pair an artist’s eyes with a social worker’s mentality as fluidly as it does, even if the sociology crowds out the dramaturgy from time to time.) Would a nod in that direction be taken to mean that Hollywood is standing up to social-progress whiplash or confirming that it’s “out of touch” with “regular Americans” (mediaspeak for folks like the Chandlers)?
By these calculations, Arrival and Lion seem better positioned. The former option celebrates what a President Hillary Clinton might have represented: globalism as the triumph of communication and cooperation. The latter is more directly about bridging different identities and more subtly about the benefits of diversity and an interconnected world. It’s as sweet-natured about identity and familial bonds as Hacksaw Ridge is about heroism and sticking to one’s pacifist guns; but whereas Hacksaw slices off its baby fat when it hits the battlefield, Lion loses a lot of its force by the time Saroo is old enough to grow a mane. There isn’t enough going on in his life, apart from his obsession with the past, when Dev Patel assumes the role.
I’m almost more curious about some of the nominees I haven’t seen yet and haven’t the right to write about. A year ago, Hidden Figures would have seemed to me (spoiler alert: I haven’t seen it yet so take these impressions with a grain of cynical salt) the sort of glossy message movie that took a commercially-sound consensus position about gender and racial equality but puffed itself up with ersatz courage. Of course, the world has changed in a year; like many, many people, I took that “consensus” for granted.
Hopefully, I’ll make good on the resolution I failed to follow through on back in those simpler times, and be a better content provider. Hopefully.