Oscars 2023: Donkeys, Sea Beasts, Shipwrecks, and Trees

I’d first like to thank the Academy for making it possible for me to finish screening everything nominated everywhere for anything (not all at once but over six weeks) for the first time since I started Oscar marathoning over a decade ago.

It did this not only by choosing nominees that would be available for screening or streaming during the short window between nominations were announced Jan. 24 and tonight’s ceremony, but also by continually limiting the scope of movies it anoints to a few dozen feature films. This year the magic number was 39 full-length movies plus 15 shorts, and I wrapped up title No. 54 last night just before Cinderella’s witching hour, and before losing a precious hour to daylight saving time, with the apropos costume-design nominee “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” a Cinderella story about a cleaning lady’s dream of owning haute couture. It was the perfect final accessory to my feat, as I imagined all the film industry types harboring transformational dreams while obsessing over their red-carpet looks.

I’d also like to thank my husband for indulging not only the time my obsession takes but the cost. I had to rent or even buy some digital titles (sorry, hon, we now own “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On”) and visited seven movie theaters, from luxurious bistro types to a standby arts house, which, while not fancy, had a full complement of offerings so well spaced out that I accomplished another feat: took in three full-feature films and sugary meals in one day. Yes, proudly, on Super Bowl Sunday, I started at 9:45 a.m. with “The Whale,” saw “EO” at 12:45 p.m., and wrapped with “Living” at 2:45 p.m. — and made it home in time for the big game.

And … SEEN! (Geddit? Like “And … scene!” Except it’s all my seen scenes. Never mind.)

It so happens Oscar Night this year coincides with our 35th wedding anniversary. Then again, our marriage has always been about March madness; today is also Brackets Day for his perennial passion, basketball. Surprising we even managed to get married at this time of year. Yet our twin obsessions timed in unison may be what has helped us stay married so long.

Above all, I thank the makers of the art, the grand designers, the people whose visions rejuvenate the soul each winter. It’s not that I couldn’t take in movies all year round, but marathoning provides rare permission to indulge, to binge. And having someone else cull the watch list, via nominations, as imperfect as they may be, saves time by ensuring the investment is worth it. Each movie has some redeemable quality, whether technical tricks (OK, “Avatar,” I’ll give you that), a pioneering score (“All Quiet on the Western Front”), or the ability to deliver a tear-jerking performance while peering through an unwieldy prosthetic (Brendan Fraser). Sure, too many action movies were nominated this year, but maybe action is what we need to fully reawaken from pandemic slumber.

Not gonna waste time here running down the full prediction/pick list as I’ve yet to compile it — that’s this afternoon’s task. Besides, everyone knows already what’s gonna win. (“Everything …” much? And no, I disagree it deserves to.)

Instead, let’s reflect on themes that go, perhaps, beyond what others see.

Been There, Donkey That. Dun-duh-dun-dun: Critics pointing out that 2022 was the Year of the Cinema Donkey has been done(key) to death — Mashable shared such insight before the year was out and the noms were in. Has anyone speculated what this means politically? Will it be a good year for the Dems, or the opposite, as donkey deaths have been what’s driving the themes. In best-picture nom “The Banshees of Inisherin,” miniature donkey Jenny’s death raises a civil war between brothers-in-arms (or fingers, as it were) to a vengeful crescendo; in best-international film “EO” (spoiler alert!), the self-titled donkey, played by six donkey stars, heads to slaughter; and the shipwrecked bourgeoise humans in “Triangle of Sadness” savagely kill a beast of burden. Most reviewers omit another film spotlighting donkeys: “Navalny,” nominated for feature documentary, which is very political and preoccupied with avoiding death. One scene shows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife, Yulia, feeding two breeds of donkeys and debating which is most virtuous.

Among the interesting donkey commentary in this year’s batch of movies for me, though, were the donkeys that went missing. Namely, from “Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio” (nominated for animated feature). Remember when Pinocchio and bad influencer Candlewick grow donkey ears then, in a detour from the marionette’s dream to turn into a real boy, transform temporarily into a donkey? Totally skipped in this interpretation. The transformation for Del Toro’s Pinocchio is entirely internal.

But this discussion gooses thoughts of another common animal theme this year …

Sea Beasts. I’d say whales, except some of the massive sea creatures gathering in Oscar’s storm are whale-adjacent, and some are merely symbolic. There’s Pinocchio and Geppetto’s whale, where they’re reunited and with whom they must do epic battle. Brendan Fraser’s aforementioned morbidly obese but optimistic-to-a-fault English prof fixates on a peculiar lifeline: a certain essay about “Moby Dick” whose author remains veiled for much of the film. Then there’s the entire movie “Sea Beast,” in which a young girl must teach her portside community how to live peacefully among the fearsome, loathsome creatures. “Avatar: The Way of Water” immerses us into a world of otherworldly beings that too closely resemble whales and sharks (if you’re going to invent a new universe, bounded only by one’s imagination, why hew so closely to what we already know?). Finally, for a whale of a good time, my favorite feature documentary centered around the adventures of marine biologist Maxim Chakilev and sea beasts (no spoilers!) that may have you clambering to join a “Save the Whale”-style movement in no time.

Overboard With Water. That brings us quickly to water, sinking ships, and shipwrecks, which Oscar seems to be drowning in this year. Leave it to James Cameron to dive into déjà vu by recreating “Titanic” with his “Avatar” sequel — even getting Kate Winslet to help on his creative team and star as Ronal, powerful partner to the chief of the seafaring peoples. Like much of the cast, Winslet had to learn to free-dive for the role – she may not have gone down with the ship in “Titanic,” but castmates were likely holding their breath over the risks they were forced to take. Cinema audiences also must watch a ship go down in spectacular fashion, with characters straining for air pockets. I couldn’t help but distractedly imagine what it was like for the Strausses and Captain John Smith, etc. “Triangle of Sadness,” part gilded “Gilligan’s Island” satire, also features a flooding, sinking ship. Not to mention the aforementioned “Sea Beast” movies. Plus “The Flying Sailor,” an animated short that spins off the 1917 explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia, after a French cargo ship collided with a Norwegian vessel, killing 1,782 people and injuring an additional 9,000. I’m sure there were more watershed moments in this year’s lineup, but my memory is awash in excitement right now, and I must post this soon to get Oscar-ready.

Addicted to Heroines. Time pressures won’t allow me to get into this big idea right now, either, so just putting it here. This year’s Oscars feature so many rise-up or save-the-day strong female characters — from Michelle Yeoh’s reluctant heroine Evelyn in “Everythng, Everywhere All at Once” and the Mennonite sisterhood in “Women Talking,” to superhero types Shuri taking up T’Challa’s mantle in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and the young girls in “Sea Beast” and “Turning Red”; the small woman with big gumption in the live short “Night Ride”; and the courageous women who manage to stand up for themselves or recover, as in two other live shorts, “The Red Suitcase” (escaping an arranged marriage) and “Ivalu” (escaping sexual abuse), plus the parade of “To Leslie,” “Causeway,” “Tell It Like a Woman,” and “Empire of Light.” All powerful stories in their own right, but watching them in succession was so striking, I asked myself: When did Hollywood go from full-blown patriarchy to bordering on patronizing? Is moving too fast to balance the scales tipping the bandwagon? (Gender equity reigns even among the villains, most notably in “Everything …”)

The Trees Letting in the Light. Which brings me, finally, to two of the most towering female performances among 2023’s Oscar-nominated films, at least for me — one who was recognized (Cate Blanchett in Tár) and one who was not (Olivia Colman in “Empire of Light”). Interestingly both women also voiced characters in 2023-nominated animated films. Blanchett jumped in at the last moment as the monkey in “Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio” — imagine wanting to be in a movie so much this acclaimed actress was willing to merely squeak and howl — and Colman was the sage voice of the Mama Bear in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.”

I could write an entire post about “Empire of Light,” partly about a woman with mental illness who is abused and manipulated by men yet manages to break through and find a ray of light and meaning. The movie pays homage to one’s ability to find that sliver of hope through art, in a darkened theater. And it was about so much more — such as terrible, toxic racism. Nominated for cinematography, one scene really sticks: Employees of a grand old movie theater, people who live and work in a fantasy world, stand like sentries inside the lobby, curiously watching a demonstration outside. Suddenly they realize the demonstrators are demons, skinheads, set on violence and destruction. They lock the doors, but the brutes soon gravitate to the glass doors like locusts, echoing a scene from a zombie film, with hate raining down, and finally shatter the theater staff’s protective bubble.

The movie spoke to me deeply, underpinning one reason I partake in this vanity undertaking of digesting every movie deemed worthy of accolades. It was pure therapy, much as some of the other under-the-radar masterpieces were this season: “Living,” “Close,” “Causeway,” “The Quiet Girl,” and “Aftersun” — the latter arguably the best of the bunch.

Colman’s character recites poetry throughout “Empire of Light.” One poem in particular stood out because not only does it sum up how Oscar marathoning can resurrect and recalibrate you, it infiltrated yet another nominated movie, recited by yet another magnificent actress: Isabella Rossellini as Nana Connie in “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.” Whom would you rather hear utter this?

The Trees (1974)

By Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Beyond poetry, this season’s crop of movies were rife with subtitles. Subtitles once were relegated to the international film category, but as the world shrinks more foreign dialogue — including hard-to-suss Irish brogues — and subtitles are creeping into mainstream films. I noticed this especially while screening a few titles with my 91-year-old mother, who likes to turn on captions, anyway. We’ve all gotten more digital, but I’ll bet this excess text poses a conundrum for captioners as well as for viewers. Having to “read” a movie can ruin the dialogue — especially, in the case of a Spanish-language film like “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” for which I understand a lot of what’s spoken and realize how much is lost in translation. That overlong, overwrought film is nominated for cinematography, but its subtitles threaten to obscure the optics. Timing on subtitles is also crucial. Reading dialogue before it’s spoken can ruin the pacing of a scene and sully the appreciation of the work.

Given my husband is a longtime practitioner of tai chi, I’m also noticing more and more tai chi “jokes” in films — this year “Turning Red” and “The Irish Goodbye” come immediately to mind, but there were at least two others I checked off in my head that mangled the technique but I forgot to write down. He’s also of strong (100% proof) Irish ancestry, so this is really his year! That may be why he’s willing to watch an awards show with me, for a change, on our anniversary night. For whatever reason, though, I’m grateful, and here’s a final love note to him:

“… It’s very clear
Our love is here to stay
Not for a year
But ever and a day

The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies
And in time may go

… But, oh my dear,
Our love is here to stay.”