One of the biggest surprises when last year’s Oscar nominations were announced was the omission of “Carol” in the Best Picture and Best Director fields despite six nominations overall. Prior to the academy’s nominations, “Carol” had racked up a number of high profile notices including wins for Best Film and Best Director (Todd Haynes) with the New York Film Critics Circle and nine nominations from the Critics’ Choice Awards. Given what we know of the academy’s general tastes, there are two biases that could explain why “Carol” missed out in these top two fields: its queer POV and female POV. So looking ahead to this year’s nominations in this early stage of the awards season, what sort of precedent do the “Carol” snubs set for another queer-centered film, “Moonlight”?
In terms of contemporary queer cinema, “Moonlight,” a coming of age story about a poor black boy coming to terms with his sexuality, shares a lot in common with “Carol.” One of the strongest comparisons to be made is how it handles sexuality: both films depict the tug-of-war that comes with having to simultaneously hide and explore one’s queerness when living within communities either unfamiliar with or overtly hostile to it.
For queer audiences, the connection to the characters’ struggle of identifying and living with their gayness is easily made because it’s a journey unique to the gay experience. But for non-queer audiences (like most academy members) that connection to the core subject is likely either impersonal — understood without feeling personally connected to it — or not made at all. That’s why films often succeed when they sidestep sexuality in favor of themes that non-queer viewers can more easily relate to — the heroic World War II history of “The Imitation Game” or the political activism of “Milk,” for instance. The more explicitly queer “Brokeback Mountain” managed a Best Picture nomination by addressing more universal themes of masculinity, adultery and sexual repression, but we all remember what happened to that unabashedly gay romance when the academy got around to deciding the winner.
Where “Carol” and “Moonlight” differ, though, is how they resonate with audiences on an emotional level. A common complaint lobbied against “Carol” is that it leaves audiences “cold” — a charge that I don’t agree with, but can at least understand because it does lack the kind of overt catharsis that audiences are accustomed to. “Moonlight” on the other hand is more outwardly emotional, offering audiences an easier way in to connecting with its characters. The emotional punches of “Moonlight” are hard to miss, regardless of one’s connection to the film’s specific sexual or racial themes, and help bridge the gap between the film and an outsider viewing it.
Like “Carol” last year, “Moonlight” is gaining notices in many fields already — the Independent Spirit Awards recently recognized it for nominations in cinematography, film editing and writing as well as directing and Best Film. It’s also a strong contender for its score and in the two supporting categories (for Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris) at the Oscars and many other events. Also like with “Carol,” critics are already hailing “Moonlight” as one of the year’s best — it’s currently at 98% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes and 99 on Metacritic — and thus it is a strong contender for top prizes at this season’s critics’ awards.
There are, of course, more complex similarities and differences to be addressed between the two films — for instance, awards voters have as mixed a track record with gender and race issues as they do with queer issues — but how do you think “Moonlight” will fare on Oscar nomination morning? Do you think it will perform better or worse than “Carol” with the academy?
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