Thoughts on the 2017 Oscars

The 2017 Oscars were unique for me in that I had a stake. Unlike in years prior, I had actually seen (and enjoyed) roughly half of the films nominated for best picture. I was also pretty well-versed in a hearty chunk of the other movies awarded.

I did feel cheated in the sense that Arrival, my hands down favorite film of 2016 (as well as one of my new all time favorites) was, in a sense, snubbed. However, with 2016 being such a strong year for movies, I understand why. The Academy has a certain taste in cinema that can be better reflected through works such as La La Land and Moonlight (both of which were also great). I’m not going to take the time to dive deep into why Arrival is such a masterpiece here. Once I manage to get a copy of the DVD and give it a few more watches, I will definitely be writing an in-depth analytical review. If you would like a brief excerpt of what’s to come, check out my HIGHLY OUTDATED top 4 films of 2016 list.

Overall, the award choices this year were a mixed bag. Some I strongly support, while others I severely disagree with. However, as I said, with so many great movies in 2016, I was prepared for disagreement.

The animation awards were, as usual, highly misguided. Piper, while a beautifully animated short film, was a bland and sub-par romp, vastly overshadowed by its companion feature Finding Dory. Inner Workings, one of my all time favorite short films, wasn’t even nominated. This trend of neglect oozes into the animated feature department with Kimi no Na Wa (Your Name in English) not even receiving a nomination. Kimi no Na Wa was an international sensation, becoming one of the most renowned Japanese films of all time. How it didn’t receive a nomination was beyond me; the irony is that it definitely would have won. Without Makoto Shinkai’s magnum opus in the frey, it was down to Zootopia and Moana. Deep down, I knew Zootopia would win. Its timely allegorical narrative clearly struck a chord with audiences and the Academy alike. In my opinion, however, the timeless Moana was the vastly superior film in story, character, and message. Zootopia preys on the current political zeitgeist, but I’m sure Moana will go on to inspire a generation of creatives.

In the realm of live action short films, I can’t say I had a stake. The only one I loved from 2016 was This House Has People In It, which wasn’t nominated. I knew it wouldn’t be, it had no Academy sensibilities whatsoever. Being of the horror genre and produced by Adult Swim, I guarantee you it went under the radar of every single Academy member. However, I can’t think of a more original and thought provoking movie to come out of 2016. I plan on covering This House Has People In It (along with the rest of Alan Resnick’s filmography) in some capacity in the near future, so stay tuned for that.

When it comes to cinematography, Arrival was, to put it simply, robbed. Don’t get me wrong, La La Land was a beautiful looking movie, but Arrival had some of the best cinematography I’ve ever seen. I understand the impressiveness of La La Land’s long takes and camera movement, but it still felt like a movie. Arrival manages to use cinematography to break all possible disbelief, and transport you into the story. Everything feels crisply real, something a majority of movies fail to accomplish. People cite La La Land with having a dreamlike aesthetic. I can see where they are coming from in terms of the generic common sensibility. However, Arrival is shot like an actual dream; all of the uneasiness and fluidity that dreams bring was not neglected.

I’m not going to dive too deep into La La Land’s best original song victory. It was undeserved, plain and simple. La La Land had a fantastic story, message, and set of performances, but it did not have great music. At best, the majority of its songs were decent. My favorite song in the movie, Audition, didn’t even win. Further, Audition, while great, wasn’t even amazing to begin with. How Far I’ll Go from Moana is not only one of my favorite songs from a musical, but one of my favorite songs of 2016 period. It inspired and stuck with so many on such a personal level, including myself. I hypothesize that it didn’t win because not enough of the Academy saw Moana, while I guarantee you every single voter saw La La Land.

This same bias flows into the best director award, which was snagged by La La Land. Damien Chazelle is a fantastic director, especially for his age. However, his skill is much more apparent in 2014’s Whiplash. All bias aside from Denis Villeneuve being one of my favorite living directors, both Arrival and Moonlight were much better directed films than La La Land.

Perhaps my most positive takeaway from this year’s Oscars was Emma Stone’s victory as best leading actress. I do believe Amy Adams deserved it more for her masterful performance in Arrival. However, I am a huge Emma Stone fan. I have been following her career closely since my pre-teen years (thanks to Superbad). I have watched her mature as an actress, progressing from tertiary generic comedic roles to competently starring in intense dramas. Seeing her finally awarded after all these years was both heartwarming and satisfying, and I can’t argue with that.

Now for the gargantuan elephant in the room, best picture. We all saw the hilarious debacle; there’s not much to say on the matter that hasn’t already been said. However, it will go down in history as one of the funniest Oscar moments. I even made a joke before it happened, “What if they say the wrong movie?” I proceeded to follow up with “I personally enjoyed La La Land more, but I think Moonlight deserved the award.” Apparently I’m a foresightful genius.

All jokes aside, I knew Arrival had no chance of winning best picture. Despite being the far superior film, this is the Academy we’re dealing with. The true battle was clearly going to be down to La La Land vs. Moonlight. Again, despite my personal preference towards La La Land from an pure enjoyment perspective, Moonlight deserved to win from a technical viewpoint. I may end up writing a full analysis of Moonlight at some point, so I don’t want to delve too deep into the movie now. What I can say is that it is a very important film, and, despite its depressing nature, one everyone should see. It was a successful exercise in empathy, and truly helps you to put your life into perspective.

There you have it, my opinions on the 2017 Oscars in a nutshell. I’m really looking forward to what the rest of 2017 will have to offer in terms of film. With 2016 being such a great year for the medium, the coming ten months have massive shoes to fill.

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Moana and Wind Waker: Perfecting the Polynesian Ocean Explorer Aesthetic

May as well cash in on the Moana hype train for a second time. There is a particular aesthetic in media that I have become increasingly fond of over the years. This is that of the Polynesian ocean explorer. Today I am going to be explaining this aesthetic, as well as why I appreciate it, through two pieces of media that perfect it. These are Moana and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

Moana takes a very direct approach with regards to implementing this aesthetic. After all, the movie is literally about a Polynesian girl who wants to explore the ocean. Every single trait of the aesthetic is there: island inhabiting tribes, personified sea life, traditional Polynesian fashion. However, the element that stands out to me the most is the exploration of the ocean itself.

Despite being from entirely different mediums, both Moana and Wind Waker perfectly portray the vastness of the oceans at hand. In both instances, the audience knows the true constraints of the body of water. In Moana, it is limited to the confines of Earth’s Oceania region. In Wind Waker, it is bound to the grid-based world map that the player is given early in the game. Despite these literal constraints, the writing manages to make the oceans seem endless.

The idea of Moana’s deep-seated calling for ocean exploration is presented very early in the film. This already gives the sea a sense of vastness, as she is truly unaware of its constraints. She has never left her island; she has no perspective as to the true size of the body of water. To her, it may as well be infinite. This cleverly ingrained theme is only amplified when she actually begins to explore the ocean with Maui. Together, they encounter many unique characters, islands, and magical entities. The feeling that you can come across almost anything only supports this illusion of oceanic endlessness.

Wind Waker, while extremely different, flaunts the very same aesthetic in a similar manner. Before comparing the game directly to Moana, I must explain the context of Wind Waker as a part of a media franchise. The Legend of Zelda, a video game series produced by Nintendo, is one of the most well known high fantasy sagas of all time. The series typically takes place in a somewhat generic high fantasy world known as Hyrule, which always has the typical geographical tropes. A volcanic mountain region, an aquatic lake/river region, a mystical forest region, and a harsh desert region can be seen in almost every game in the series, regardless of where it lands on the timeline. However, aside from minor strides in Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker was the first game in the franchise to truly turn this world upside down. During the time between Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker (the two games directly next to each other on the series’ timeline) the world of Hyrule was flooded by the gods. Wind Waker is the first game in the series to take place in the ocean that is the aftermath of this very flood. There is no longer a main continent, only small islands formed over the peaks of what used to be traditional Hylian landmarks. Now, rather than exploring a vast landmass on horseback, you are sailing across a massive ocean on a small boat.

Although Wind Waker naturally borrows many elements from its franchise predecessors, it manages to use this oceanic atmosphere to its advantage. It seamlessly blends the traditional European fantasy concepts that defined the series with a Polynesian ocean explorer aesthetic. Link, rather than living in a farming village or forest haven, now lives on a small tribal island. The attire of the villagers is influenced heavily by Polynesian style. Once you leave your village, you sail to many islands and come across a plethora of unique creatures, but this aesthetic still remains. In fact, many of the staple characters and enemies of the series get an oceanic makeover. The Kokiri get a re-imagining that feels like it stepped straight out of Polynesian mythology. The Zora race is replaced by the Rito, a group of anthropomorphic bird people that live in a society that is literally that of a Polynesian tribe. Bokoblins, rather than running around Hyrule as bandits, now patrol the seas from rafts and watch towers as pirates. Even the main antagonist of the saga, Ganondorf, now looks somewhat like a tribal chief.

However, what Wind Waker succeeds at the best with regards to this aesthetic brings me back to what Moana did so well. Despite there only being a limited number of original characters and creatures, as well as only 49 small islands to visit, the world of the flood still manages to feel massive and unexplored. This aesthetic doesn’t even wear down the more times you complete the game. With each playthrough you manage to notice new things. Whether it be a hilarious character you never talked to before, or a secret area on an island you thought you knew by heart, the world of Wind Waker still manages to feel endless after all these years. Although the second and final game to take place in the flood era of Hylian history, Phantom Hourglass, does not succeed in implementing this aesthetic successfully, we will always have the endless appeal of Wind Waker. This replayability is one of the main reasons why it is, and probably always will be, my favorite video game of all time.

This is also why I would love to see Moana sequels in the near future. There is just so much of this world still left to be explored. I would love to see new islands, meet new characters, and face new threats with Moana and Maui, as long as the movies continue to be as well written as the first.

How Moana Messed Me Up

When I think about movies I want to see in theaters, I place them in one of three categories. There’s the top tier- movies I must see in theaters, maybe even opening night. Then comes middle tier- movies I would like to see in theaters, but will take my time to see. Finally, at the bottom tier comes movies I will see if invited or if bored with a friend.

Despite being a new Disney animated feature, Moana fell into the third tier for me. I really don’t know why it did, I’m usually the first one out the door when it comes to Disney Studios and Pixar films. I think it may have just been a sheer lack of someone to convince me to see it. The last day before my good friend Zack (go check out his YouTube channel 123zc1, it’s well worth your time) and I left for the semester, we had a few hours to kill. We made a last minute decision to finally see Moana, and boy was that decision well made.

Moana is not the best Disney film by any means. Movies like The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame take that position. However, it is by far the one I’ve personally connected with the most, making it my hands down favorite. I can definitely say that Zack felt very similarly, but at a stronger level, as he was crying throughout most of the movie.

I’m entering a crossroads in my life that has put me in existential disarray. I will be graduating college, and entering the “real world” this year. I know that I will have to get a 9-5 job, and probably live with my parents until I can save up enough to leave Florida. Although not thrilled, I have come to terms with this seemingly inevitable future. This is the path for someone with a passion that does not lead directly to a sustainable career. Don’t get me wrong, I do have a driving passion in my life. Since a very young age, I have always wanted to be an author. Writing fictional stories is my calling. My characters live in my mind like real friends and family, becoming fully realized even before they are put to paper. Having written my first novel last year, I can tell you firsthand that there is nothing more thrilling and satisfying then acting upon your passion.

I can’t talk about the experience of seeing Moana at this time in my life without talking about the accompanying short film. Inner Workings follows the story of a man who is living the exact path I face. The moral of the short is that you have to include little things in your 9-5 office life that make you happy, or else you’ll be miserable. However, I’ve had some influences in my life over the past year that have made this short mean a bit more to me. The Pro Crastinators are a group of YouTube content creators that have served as my main creative influence and entertainment source over the past year or so. Each member serves as a shining beacon of success from abandoning the normal path, and focusing their entire lives on their creative passions. Whether it be anime analysis, writing/drawing comics, or documenting their slow path towards insanity on video, they have embraced their true purpose, and abandoned their ties to the typical life structure that society enforces. In other words, they are a very hedonistic, but intelligent bunch. They would take Inner Workings, and throw it in the trash. I can’t say whether the Pro Crastinators are the angel or the devil on my shoulder. What I can say is that Inner Workings falls right alongside with the ideals of my parents, grandparents, and mentors/advisors, who all believe that a stable 9-5 job is the way to go. Just add a few small things that give you joy and you’re good to go.

If Inner Workings represents the ideals of my family, Moana is the mindset of the Pro Crastintors. The very meaning behind the entire plot of the film is to ignore what society deems to be the correct life path, and follow the passion you have in your heart. Moana has a deep-seated desire to explore the ocean. However, her entire family and village swears by never leaving the island they inhabit, and fulfilling the traditional life path that they have all taken. The only human character who encourages Moana to act on her passion is her grandmother. Gramma Tala is to Moana what Jesse Wood is to me: the voice on one of my shoulders telling me to screw society and follow my passion for writing fiction. While the ocean in the film is a literal entity that calls to Moana from inside her heart, it is clearly symbolic of her internal passion.

I would like you to read the following lyrics. They are to one of the climatic songs of the film, I Am Moana. The first stanza is the ghost of Moana’s grandmother singing to her (I believe this ghost not to literally be present, but in her head). The second stanza is of Moana herself responding. I believe these words perfectly reflect the entire point of Moana as a work of art, and hope you agree:

 

I know a girl from an island

She stands apart from the crowd

She loves the sea and her people

She makes her whole family proud

Sometimes the world seems against you

The journey may leave a scar

But scars can heal and reveal just

Where you are

The people you love will change you

The things you have learned will guide you

And nothing on earth can silence

The quiet voice still inside you

And when that voice starts to whisper

Moana, you’ve come so far

Moana, listen

Do you know who you are?

 

Who am I?

I am a girl who loves my island

I’m the girl who loves the sea

It calls me

I am the daughter of the village chief

We are descended from voyagers

Who found their way across the world

They call me

I’ve delivered us to where we are

I have journeyed farther

I am everything I’ve learned and more

Still it calls me

And the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me

It’s like the tide; always falling and rising

I will carry you here in my heart you’ll remind me

That come what may

I know the way

I am Moana!

 

I just need to replace all the specifics of the lyrics with things about me, and this song becomes about me. That’s the beauty of Moana as a piece of cinema. The film is made for self insert; you can’t help yourself but look at everything metaphorically. You can replace the plot elements, setting, specific passions, and characters with things that apply to you, and the story still works. Moana is the story of a girl following the voice inside her heart, and embracing her true passion. That’s the most inspiring thing imaginable to me, and that’s why this movie messed me up.