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An Oscars postmortem

It was the year of the merman.


BEST PICTURE: Director Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water" was named "Best Picture" and scored wins for its production design, directing and musical score.
  • BEST PICTURE: Director Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water" was named "Best Picture" and scored wins for its production design, directing and musical score.

The Oscars this year exemplified the adage about compromise as an arrangement in which all parties walk away disappointed. The big winner was "The Shape of Water," a fine movie with a fine cast made by director Guillermo del Toro, whose freaky arty weirdness inched right up to the line of the Academy's idea of palatable without quite stepping over it. Not many were clamoring for "The Shape of Water" as Best Picture when they walked out of the theater; even in the weeks leading up to the awards, the general consensus seemed to be that the kinkily sweet Cold War fairy tale about a mute woman hooking up with an Amazon merman was almost a sure thing on the collective basis of its 13 (!!) nominations, more so than on its overall merits.

But whaddya gonna do in a year when nothing in the real world seemed very real anymore? What a year it was for middlebrow escapism that provided respite from the steady drumbeat of Washington news — a collection of headlines and Trump tweets that, together, sounded like Tom Clancy by way of the Farrelly brothers, one Mike-Pence-accidentally-drinks-piss-at-Mar-a-Lago chyron away from evolving into actual, literal farce. Except there was so much cruelty in the machinations as well: Congress and the president attacking health insurance for the poor and environmental regulations and anyone agitating for civil rights and workers and anyone who doesn't fuel up private jets on the regular. One of the quiet, genius strokes of Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk," another Best Picture nominee that won in the sound categories, was its iconoclastic choice to show virtually no Nazis in a World War II film. (And yet, I don't believe anyone in America would say 2017 was a slow year for seeing Nazis represented on screen.)

Could be that "The Post" was too on-the-nose, putting Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep and Steven Spielberg against the forces of U.S. governmental secrecy, and that "Lady Bird" was just too low-stakes, ultimately; both Best Picture nominees were shut out entirely. "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" was perhaps the best-acted of the darlings. Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand both won for a movie that otherwise seemed to rankle people as being tone-deaf on race and sort of generically Middle American. The seeming wild card to me was "Call Me By Your Name," which I saw at a midnight showing the night before the awards, hoping to be struck through the heart by a story about a teenager falling in love with Armie Hammer, who looks like his genes were selected by a focus group. It was beautiful and sensual and had Sufjan Steven's "Mystery of Love," also nominated, as pithy an emotional distillation of the film as you could hope to hear.

But "Call Me By Your Name," too, felt too low-stakes; one critique I heard was that a movie about taboo gay love in the '80s didn't need to go quite so well for the characters involved. The film that in the era of #MeToo and Time's Up and the Trump-forced reckoning that we're all fighting through — the most important movie of last year, even if it fell shy of Best Picture — was undoubtedly "Get Out." In a mostly dull Oscars year, and on a mostly tepid Oscars broadcast, Jordan Peele's win for Best Original Screenplay was the only jump-off-the-couch-and-clap moment of the night. He's the first black screenwriter to win that award.

Appropriately, Peele thanked people who bought tickets to see the $4.5 million flick that grossed a preposterous $255 million worldwide: "I love you for shouting out at the theater, for shouting out at the screen." This is the film people haven't stopped talking about since it came out early last year, not least because it gets better on repeat viewings. The script was a Rube Goldberg machine, full of trips and switches and tiny callbacks and allegory and actual jokes. Oh, and it delivered a scathing critique of race relations in America in a way no one ever had. More people loved it than "The Shape of Water," and despite the cross-species sexual themes of the eventual winner, "Get Out" freaked out way more people. Peele's film should've won, but at least he, the screenwriter, did. The Oscars do still get it wrong — just less so than usual. It's a start.

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