Awards offered scant satisfaction after season's interminable slog

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

My wife and I have a tradition: Every year, after the Oscars are over, we dance around the living room in grateful, weary celebration that yet another long awards season has finally come to an end.

Some seasons, of course, feel longer than others, and for reasons I'm still trying to make sense of, the one that concluded Sunday night felt close to interminable. We almost broke with tradition, barely managing a few beleaguered dance steps before collapsing and heading to bed.

I suspect we weren't alone in our Oscar fatigue. If you're feeling it acutely this week, it might have something to do with the sheer disjointedness of what has been both a season of celebration and a season of reckoning. That much was clear from Sunday's telecast, with its whiplash-inducing pivots from the self-congratulation of Hollywood's biggest party to the self-flagellation of Hollywood's long-overdue grappling with decades' worth of representational inequity and sexual misconduct in the industry.

Then again, you might simply be one of those incurable movie-awards addicts who were hoping -- as we hope every year -- that the motion picture academy would rise to the occasion and make better, bolder, more inspired choices than everyone was expecting.

It wasn't meant to be. The show lumbered its way through a series of outcomes that had been preordained on the awards circuit for months, proving once and for all that the wrong choice doesn't suddenly become the right one through repetition. As Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney stepped up to claim yet another round of statuettes, some of us staved off boredom by scanning the also-rans for their well-practiced "honor just to be nominated" reaction shots. (Hang in there, Willem Dafoe, and you too, Saoirse Ronan.)

That's not to suggest, of course, that a win must be surprising in order to be deserved. In a night free of upsets, some of my own favorite outcomes were entirely expected, whether it was "Call Me by Your Name" earning its screenwriter, 89-year-old industry veteran James Ivory, his long-overdue first Oscar, or Mark Bridges winning costume design for his astute work on "Phantom Thread" (plus a jet ski for giving the night's shortest speech).

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I doubt anyone was too shocked or disappointed when the legendary cinematographer Roger A. Deakins ("Blade Runner 2049") finally struck gold on his 13th nomination. And while you could feel the joyous electricity in the room when Jordan Peele won original screenplay honors for "Get Out," his victory landed less with a shock than with a sigh of relief: At least one of the year's best, most important movies wouldn't leave the night empty-handed. (That indignity fell to Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird," the latest pitch-perfect, character-driven indie to prove itself too good for the Academy Awards.)

Had "Get Out" gone further and pulled off an upset victory for best picture, providing the juicy semi-surprise that some of us were anticipating, Monday's post-mortem headlines would have been markedly different. But a come-from-behind victory for Peele's film -- or "Lady Bird," "Dunkirk," "Call Me by Your Name" or "Phantom Thread," to cite a few excellent alternatives -- was not in the cards.

Instead, the ceremony marked the agreeable coronation of Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water," a visually ravishing, dramatically stolid fantasy whose best picture trophy will make a nicely gilded bookend to its first major prize of the season, the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. (Some depressing perspective: That was nearly six months ago.)

Not unlike "Get Out," "The Shape of Water" offered up its own eerie supernatural tale of marginalized minorities rising up against a brutal white oppressor -- a 2018 movie in '60s Cold War drag, its themes driven home via passages of exquisite if strenuous lyricism and a few sadistic jolts of violence. It may be an absurd thing to say about a movie whose human protagonist (the wonderful, still Oscar-less Sally Hawkins) winds up seducing a sea creature, but I wish that, beneath its luscious aquamarine surface, "The Shape of Water" were a more genuinely surprising movie -- more spontaneous and less complacent in its homage to the virtues of collective unity and individual difference.


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