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The State of the Race – 2016, Meet 1968

The world is changing because it is its nature to change. This country is changing because relentlessness often takes root not in hope but in anger and hatred. The forces driving the Donald Trump run for the presidency aren’t working class Americans who want to bring back manufacturing or frightened Americans who want to be protected from ISIS. The forces driving the push to give Donald Trump the White House are far darker and have, in a sense, always been here.

These dark forces used to thrive on the fringes, not in the mainstream. They smoldered during Pat Buchanan’s insurgent quest for the presidency against George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and their flames heated up significantly once Obama was elected. Hot air blew in from the fringes, growing the fire from the core when the Tea Party was born, combining resentment of government reach with the racism and bigotry bubbling beneath the surface of the murky dangerous cauldron.

Trump is Ann Coulter’s candidate. While she was once written off as a lunatic, Coulter has now become queen of the hate-filled alt-right. Trump “won me over with that Mexican rapist speech,” Coulter declared to Sean Hannity. She and other right wing leaders have stuck it out year after miserable year until they finally got a candidate grotesque enough to stand up and proudly proclaim his hatred in ways that would goad the worst of America to emerge. Hitler didn’t rise to power simply by giving charismatic speeches – he needed to create an enemy to blame so his followers would have a tangible target for their frustration and rage. Trump has followed the same playbook. Trump is quoted as saying he knows when his crowd gets bored, he can always wake them up by bringing up that reliable refrain: “We will build a wall and make Mexico pay for it!” Hitler used the same sick strategy. He knew whenever he pointed to Jews as the cause of Germany’s problems, his crowds would go wild. The fact that this kind of malignant contempt for an entire race made more and more Aryan people adore Hitler was appalling. It’s the reason the rise of Hitler was more terrifying than Hitler himself. It’s the reason the rise of Trump should alarm us a lot more than Trump himself.

In 1968, America was on fire. Many have drawn comparisons between then and now — protests, riots, and violent uprisings coupled with rapid social changes and discontent with the status quo, along with a divided Democratic party and the ominous rise of an angry right-wing demagogue. Others who lived through the turbulence of 1968 say that this year is nothing like things were then. One explanation for Nixon’s 1968 election and re-election in ’72 is that many voters had become disillusioned with the Democratic party simply chose not to vote, allowing the so-called “silent majority” to step in and quash the disorganized forces of counter-culture and “revolution.” When you don’t vote, you lose ground. Will that happen again this year? We’ll know in five weeks.

Believe it or not, as we’ve written about before, most of the films the Academy nominated in 1968 were as light and as harmless as you could imagine. And what film won Best Picture? Oliver! (Note the exclamation mark is baked right into the title.) Also nominated was Funny Girl. Other musicals receiving multiple nominations were Star!, Finian’s Rainbow, and The Producers. It wasn’t exactly a hard-hitting Oscar race for Best Picture. In fact, Hollywood seemed determined to make movies that showed audiences the opposite of what was happening in the real world. The 41st Oscar ceremony, mere months after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated, were not exactly a somber affair. Richard Nixon had been elected president. The hippies had lost; the silent majority won. The Academy’s nod to simmering racial strife was to bring out Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll for the opening number (which is better than nothing, I suppose):

Of course, no one was going to tune in and sit through a bummer Oscars. There has almost always been a strict Academy tradition of frowning upon stars who try to “get political” at the Oscars. None of those in power likes a serous message very much when Hollywood is trying to put on a glitzy show that’s supposed to sell tickets and build careers.

Despite those who claim the parallels are sketchy, to me 2016 feels similar to 1968 in that we are once again seeing cultural turmoil to a degree rarely witnessed in America. Many Academy members are actively involved with this election and passionately interested in its outcome. It seems unlikely that none of this will influence the awards, one way or another. The question is whether or not the Academy will go for movies that are hard-hitting and political, or something that’s “light,” like another musical.

Although we can’t yet fathom the answer beyond our instincts and assumptions, we do already have a pretty good sense of where this race is headed. I believe we could actually make the case that Oliver! was a subliminal response to America’s uneasy sentiment of feeling oppressed — a fine film by a legendary director, it would be as much an honorable winner now in 2016 as it was in 1968, since the same forces are at play. Oliver! was a musical, yes, but it was also about a scrappy, poverty-ridden child. It was based on a distinguished literary source created by an author whose concerns for society were always brilliantly packaged for the masses. La La Land is a musical, yes. Some could say it’s light and upbeat. But there is something more to La La Land, I think, that reflects an implicit rejection of malice and a potential yearning for a Clintonian America.

La La Land actually represents a very feminist story. It isn’t about a guy who comes along and saves the day. It’s about an ambitious girl who wants more for herself than being a dejected actress or barista. It can be interpreted, in a funny kind of way, as a riff on the story of Bill and Hillary Clinton — the girl behind the man who eventually moves out from behind the man to stand on her own. La La Land also depicts a wildly colorful and diverse Los Angeles. Not a homogenized one-color city, but a vibrant one, full of different cultures and neighborhood landmarks depicting both the old and the new, all beautifully blended together. All the same, as good as La La Land makes you feel while watching it, it is entirely bittersweet.

Last week, Jeff Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere said he believed by year’s end Best Picture would be down to three films: La La Land, Fences, and Manchester by the Sea. That seems to be a pretty good guess at the moment — and no doubt Manchester by the Sea will have its fervent fans. It’s Jeff Wells’ Birdman this year. He’s pushing it that hard. It’s a wonderfully funny, deeply moving story of grief and regret. I believe it’s a likely nominee but probably not a winner, because it has a non-traditional approach to its story and that approach runs counter to the kinds of films that ordinarily win Best Picture. (I don’t want to spoil it so I won’t — but if Lonergan had reversed it, if he’d given in to convention, we could be talking about a winner). Never say never, however. Fences has not yet been seen so it cannot reasonably be put in the position of being called a frontrunner until that happens.

Other films that should be considered right now that might very well challenge La La Land include Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Martin Scorsese’s Silence. La La Land and Manchester have hit the Telluride sweet spot in terms of timing. Any film that has a premiere from now on will have a harder time overcoming the time crunch. It’s not impossible — there is a first time for everything. Voters in recent years have tended to go for something that is tried and true rather than something that comes in at the last minute and changes the dynamics of the race.

We won’t really know whether politics will influence this year’s Oscar race. It may be that the impact of this era’s unrest won’t make an imprint on movies till writers and directors have more time to process it all. The same way 1968 set in motion forces that would later become fully expressed in the following decade of Oscar winners, the 1970s, which remains Oscar’s most daring decade of Best Picture nominees and winners.

On the other hand, there is no telling what might happen at the Oscars if our worst nightmare become reality and Donald Trump is actually elected President of the United States. It would be a very traumatic moment for Americans, especially those who live in liberal strongholds, and that could possible impact how Oscar voters react this year. But more likely, since the process of awards season has become so durable, the race will probably follow a more familiar pattern of simply honoring the films that voters like best.

Here are the films I believe have the stuff that Oscar dreams are built on. I know many of my colleagues don’t really agree but this is how I see it.

1. La La Land – It will be the one movie that isn’t like any other. It’s spectacular cinema. It will be tough to be beat because no one will hate it. The last act is what lifts it from being an interesting exercise to the realm of something truly exceptional. It’s the last part of the movie that sells it and that’s often what a Best Picture winner needs. You need that last part to stick the landing to put it over the top. I’m surprised more films don’t follow this simple formula: save the best for last. La La Land does that. It embeds in our heads because it is about love. It celebrates cinema and the film industry. It also features an utterly charming, never-been-better Emma Stone.

2. Moonlight – If there was one film that challenged La La Land in Telluride for most beloved, it had to be Moonlight. Moonlight is a coming of age story about a black gay man growing up in a culture that resists anything that doesn’t conform to heteronormative masculinity. But it’s Barry Jenkins’ directing that elevates this beyond what you’d expect. Three different versions of one man, told by three different actors, Moonlight let us feel the universality in the way this young man experiences life as an outsider. It is both a tribute to those who threw him a lifeline, and a testament to the importance of knowing who you are.

3. Manchester by the Sea – Kenneth Lonergan’s best film, this is the kind of storytelling and character-driven film that the industry should want to preserve. Manchester by the Sea is about a character who is walled off from his own emotional experiences and fights against his desire to self-destruct. Lonergan tells the story in a specific order, as a mystery that slowly unravels to reveal the truth. Brilliantly acted, deeply moving, and surprisingly funny, it is easily one of the best films of the year.

4. Loving – Jeff Nichols made two movies this year, both quietly brilliant and surely destined to be appreciated in the future as Nichols’ fascinating body of work is re-examined. Still, Loving is really more about the kind of hatred and ignorance that drove segregation and anti-miscegenation back then, just as it still drives the bigoted right who remain intolerant of LGBT families and same-sex marriages. Loving is just beautifully made, acted with tenderness and depth by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. It is one of the few films this year that has direct relevance to the U.S. election and our current political climate.

5. Arrival – A big, bold, beautiful work of sci-fi, Arrival is my own personal favorite film of the year because it tackles the perplexing, fundamental questions of human existence through the point of view of a woman and a mother. Who ever does that? No one. The views of female characters tend to be limited to narrow types. But here, Amy Adams is a scientist working to save the world, and at the same time she’s a mother who understands that precious moments with our loved ones matter more in terms of our short time on this planet than anything else. It is a rumination on those two opposing elements of what it means to be human: our minds and our hearts. No, it isn’t always easy to understand and yes, many Academy voters tend to need something easy to absorb in one go, but that does not diminish Arrival’s greatness. It is easily Denis Villenueve’s best film.

6. Lion – Garth Davis’ epic tale of a young boy from India who finds himself lost on a train that takes him far, far away from his home. With no technological tools to help rescue him, and being too young to know what to do or how to get home, he ends up trying to survive on the streets before eventually being adopted by an Australian couple. Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman give two of the best performances of the year in a film that is a tearjerker through and through. Lion is about finding your family and if you can’t be with the ones you love, honey, love the ones you’re with. It’s a tribute to adoptive parents everywhere, and one of those experiences that leaves you transformed and hopeful about life. There’s a lot to be said for that, even if snarkier viewers will resist it.

7. Sully – At 86, Clint Eastwood made a great film that will likey go down as the year’s biggest money-making nominee, probably earning more than any of the films mentioned above (except perhaps for Arrival). An old-fashioned story about an American hero, Sully is surprisingly restrained. Anchored by yet another great performance by Tom Hanks, Eastwood manages to find a way to both celebrate the first responders and the flight crew of the Miracle on the Hudson along with a stern rebuke to anyone who ever doubted Sully’s motives and skill.

8. Hell or High Water – The new kid on the block, David Mackenzie, has made a hell of a modern-day western. It probably won’t get anywhere near the Oscar race, but it is worth mentioning because we all know that this will be considered one of the best films of 2016, in retrospect, ten years from now.

We’re a few weeks away from everything changing, but this is where we are today.