PHOTO: DAVID BORNFRIEND / COURTESTY OF A24
As the Academy Awards season nears its end with Sunday night’s ceremonies, I find that I have been curiously drawn to Blind Vaysha, writer-director Theodore Ushev’s Best Animated Short nominee.
It perfectly encapsulates the dilemma critics and discriminating film fans face every year when preparing to make Academy Award predictions. Its succinct narrative presents the allegorical life of Vaysha, a girl born with a unique affliction. With her left eye, she sees only the past, while her right eye peers into the future. Vaysha, so the story goes, never experiences life in the present.
There is more than a hint of Vaysha in those who dedicate themselves to watching as many of the nominees as possible (across as many categories as possible) and then spend hours studying drafts of their Oscar ballots.
Our critical vision splits, in almost exactly the same way as Vaysha’s. Thanks to Blind Vaysha, I consciously paid more attention to this dual perception than I have previously: What will hold up in the future? What will live up to the past?
It all began with memories of my first encounters with this year’s Best Picture nominees.
Five years from now, I very likely will remember that Manchester By the Sea was the first film I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival, mainly because it had an immediate and lasting impression on me, overshadowing every screening that followed.
Every single film I saw from that point on ended up going head-to-head with Manchester. Only one film came close to unseating it as my festival best, and that film — Moonlight — emerged, by year’s end, as my favorite film of the year.
Yet the inevitable Best Picture winner will not be either of these films; that honor will fall to La La Land, a film that, while I thoroughly enjoyed its craft and storytelling, didn’t earn a spot on my Top Ten of 2016.
Observing its universally triumphant run through the primary-like early awards season on its way to what will likely amount to a huge Electoral College win at the Academy Awards, I have to admit that I cannot see it through any relevant present lens.
You could say that, with my left eye, I seek to compare it to recent Best Picture winners. How does it stack up alongside Spotlight, Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, Argo and The Artist?
Three of those films benefitted from the historic circumstances of their subject matter, while the other two (Birdman and The Artist) share a similar artistic focus with La La Land that would at least land the musical in good and welcome company.
But part of this exercise involves how quickly one is able to accurately recall past winners of the top prize.
Will we look back on La La Land as a true and worthy expressionistic landmark in cinema?
Again, this notion returns me to Blind Vaysha and the trouble of trying to simultaneously reconcile how a film relates to previous winners and how it might be seen in the future.
I cannot say that I will at some point in the future see and remember La La Land as a Best Picture winner. Certainly not in the same way that I can still say with certainty that I know both The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II were winners of the top prize.
Or that I know 1980’s Raging Bull wrongly didn’t win it, despite the fact that it is referenced today more than winner Ordinary People and is considered a signature statement from its director, Martin Scorsese.
No Country for Old Men, the 2007 winner, is an achievement that will be talked about ages from now.
But 2004’s Crash will continue to get kicked around as a lousy winner, whereas Brokeback Mountain is the one from that year that we all know should have been Best Picture.
Fortunately, not all 2016 Oscar predictions create such a conundrum for me. When I look at the Supporting Actor and Actress categories, Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and Viola Davis (Fences) unify my conceptions of the best performances. The inevitable win by Davis will even go a huge step further by solidifying her status as a historic figure.
Thanks to this third nomination — following one for Best Actress (The Help) and an earlier Best Supporting Actress (Doubt) — Davis stands as the most-nominated African-American actress.
The lead acting categories will possibly shine brightly on a pair of relatively fresh faces — Emma Stone (La La Land) and Casey Affleck (Manchester By the Sea), both nominated previously in supporting categories and facing tough fights to claim their first Oscar wins.
While I hold Natalie Portman’s work in Jackie in higher regard, the perceived “dark horse” in the Best Actress category is none other than first-time nominee but veteran French actress Isabelle Huppert (Elle).
Affleck’s chief rival appears to be the two-time Oscar-winner and seven-time nominee Denzel Washington for Fences.
What a fascinating turn of events it would be if Huppert and Washington — performers who, in Blind Vaysha’s framework, would by now represent cinema’s past as much as its future — snuck in and stole these honors right out from under the decidedly current faces of Hollywood.
I’ll be able to know at the end of Sunday night, when the top prize is announced. Then and only then does the present, as far as the Oscars are concerned, take center stage for all to see.
The 89th ACADEMY AWARDS ceremony begins at 8:30 p.m. Sunday on ABC; red carpet arrivals start at 7 p.m.