A major European conglomerate says one of its employees in South Korea has gone missing — along with $100 million.
Power and robotics firm ABB (ABB) announced Wednesday that it has “uncovered a sophisticated criminal scheme” at its South Korean unit. It only noticed the huge sums had been stolen after the employee of the subsidiary disappeared about two weeks ago.
The employee, who has not been identified, is suspected of forging documents and working with individuals outside the company to steal the money, ABB said. It’s working with local police and Interpol to investigate.
The embezzlement and misappropriation of funds is limited to South Korea, where ABB employs about 800 staff, it said. Other people could still come under investigation.
“We’re looking at every option,” ABB spokesman Domenico Truncellito said. “We are investigating externally and internally as well.”
He declined to provide more information about the missing employee or the investigation.
As a result of the theft, the Swedish-Swiss corporation said it expects to take a pre-tax hit of $100 million on its 2016 results. ABB reported net profit of nearly $2 billion last year on revenue of around $34 billion.
The company said it is trying to recover the missing money and is also pursuing legal and insurance claims in an effort to reduce the blow to its finances.
ABB, which employees roughly 132,000 people around the world, said the affair may delay the publication of its annual report.
And just like that, the Oscar race is over. (”Just like that” meaning “after months of tiresome campaigning and one of the most heated Best Picture debates in history.”)
Voting ended Tuesday, so there’s no more time to haggle over who will score Hollywood’s heftiest insignia. Having covered awards season since it began in September, here’s my humble take on who will win, and who should, at Sunday’s Oscars.
Nominees: “Arrival” / “Fences” / “Hacksaw Ridge” / “Hell or High Water” / “Hidden Figures” / “La La Land” / “Lion” / “Manchester by the Sea” / “Moonlight”
Will win: After months of festival buzz and precursor beacons, the two-pony “La La Land”/”Moonlight” battle found an 11th-hour challenger in box-office smash and SAG Awards champ “Hidden Figures.” If the Academy prefers navel-gazing escapism, it’ll be “La La Land,” a much-needed respite from our political horror show. But “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures” offer a social consciousness that “La La” can’t muster ― they are, in essence, more important movies. In the end, Hollywood loves Hollywood, and with a record-tying sum of nominations (14!), we’ll probably see a city of stars on Oscar night.
Should win: If Best Picture were truly about anointing the year’s best movie, the dynamic storytelling in “Moonlight” ― presented as three chapters in the life of a boy shielding himself from the world’s merciless strictures ― would win outright.
Nominees: Damien Chazelle, “La La Land” / Mel Gibson, “Hacksaw Ridge” / Barry Jenkins, “La La Land” / Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea” / Denis Villeneuve, “Arrival”
Will win: If “La La Land” is destined for Best Picture, the Academy might toss Best Director to Barry Jenkins (”Moonlight”). Gotta stay woke. But most signs point to Damien Chazelle (”La La Land”), who scored the predictive Directors Guild prize. Chazelle’s win would follow the Academy’s recent inclinations toward the category’s most technically ambitious nominee (Alejandro González Iñárritu for “Birdman” and “The Revenant,” Alfonso Cuarón for “Gravity,” Ang Lee for “Life of Pi”). From its single-take freeway dance party to the culminating dream ballet, there’s no denying that “La La” is a dazzling swirl.
Should win: To combine the fractured triptych of “Moonlight” into a cohesive character study requires the utmost discipline. To make it a visually stirring sociological screed with a relatively small budget is a feat, especially for second-time director Barry Jenkins. If anyone should unseat him, it’s Denis Villeneuve (”Arrival”), a master of nerve-shattering extraterrestrial drama.
Will win: Isabelle Huppert has superseded Natalie Portman as Emma Stone’s key competition. The decorated French actress has never received an Oscar nomination, so a win for Huppert doubles as a de facto lifetime appreciation nod. But Stone grabbed the SAG Award, which best predicts the acting races. (Huppert wasn’t even nominated.) She’s also a charm machine whose movie is far less morally confounding than Huppert’s.
Should win: Isabelle Huppert’s work in “Elle” is a master class of subdued emotions and unconventional appraisals. But if there’s anyone who transformed on screen last year, it’s Natalie Portman. Her tightrope walk as a newly widowed Jackie Kennedy was both an impersonation and an impressionistic reading on an impossibly scrutinized historical figure. At every turn, she seemed close to combusting in all the right ways. Like Jackie herself, Portman held it together like someone who has mastered the art of performance. Actors dream of roles this rich.
Nominees: Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea” / Andrew Garfield, “Hacksaw Ridge” / Ryan Gosling, “La La Land” / Viggo Mortensen, “Captain Fantastic” / Denzel Washington, “Fences
Will win: Casey Affleck has steamrolled through awards season, despite the media attention paid to his resurfaced sexual harassment allegations. Affleck grabbed just about every accolade, until the SAG Awards, which have correctly predicted this category for the past 10 years, threw its support behind Denzel Washington instead. Voters may not want to honor another alleged abuser, so bet on Washington, who’s made a lot of friends during his long tenure in Hollywood.
Should win: Ignoring Affleck’s alleged transgressions is a big ask, but it’s hard to argue that his mumbly turn as a grief-stricken janitor wasn’t one of the year’s first-rate screen performances. As a backup, Viggo Mortensen remains king.
Will win: If you’re going to bet the farm on one prediction, make it Viola Davis. She won a Tony for “Fences” in 2010, and she’s scored almost every major precursor prize for playing the same role on the big screen. It’s fierce work, snot hovering on her upper lip during teary confrontations with Denzel Washington. It helps that two previous losses make it seem like Davis’ turn, even if her role is too hefty for the supporting realm.
Should win: Frankly, every nominee in this category has done more interesting work elsewhere. I’ll give Davis the benefit of the doubt, despite the category fraud.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Nominees: Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight” / Jeff Bridges, “Hell or High Water” / Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea” / Dev Patel, “Lion” / Michael Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals”
Will win: Think of the Golden Globes and SAG Awards as auditions for the Oscars. Delivering a dynamic acceptance speech can galvanize support, which bodes well for Mahershala Ali, who gave one of the season’s strongest sermons the weekend that Donald Trump enacted his travel ban. Ali doesn’t appear in “Moonlight” that much, but he does the most with his screen time, humanizing the sort of drug-dealer character often reduced to clichés. If there’s an underdog out there, it’s Dev Patel. The “Lion” star scored the BAFTA a couple of weeks ago, and you never know how many babies Harvey Weinstein has kissed on Patel’s behalf.
Should win: Jeff Bridges is pretty Jeff Bridges-y in “Hell or High Water,” and the “Lion” script doesn’t let Dev Patel flex enough cinematic muscles. Toss them aside for a trifecta of surprising performances, none of which outpaces Mahershala Ali, who speaks magnitudes with the blink of an eye.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Nominees: Damien Chazelle, “La La Land” / Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou, “The Lobster” / Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea” / Mike Mills, “20th Century Women” / Taylor Sherdian, “Hell or High Water”
Will win: If there’s one “La La Land” win worth protesting, it would be this. Despite the movie’s charming flourishes, Damien Chazelle’s script is hardly its hallmark. But this is a tough category to predict because the Writers Guild Awards classified “Moonlight” (inspired by an unpublished play) as an original screenplay, whereas the Academy calls it an adapted work. Unless voters opt for an across-the-board “La La” sweep, this seems like Kenneth Lonergan’s game. A previous nominee for “You Can Count On Me,” Lonergan won the BAFTA and has a reputation as one of America’s finest writers, both onstage and on the big screen.
Should win: A vote for “The Lobster” is a vote for all the weird little movies that mainstream audiences don’t appreciate enough, and “Manchester by the Sea” boasts rare soul-stirring dialogue that mirrors humanity. But “20th Century Women” is a dream of a script, using mixed perspectives and the subtle passage of time to craft a feminist reverie.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Nominees: Luke Davies, “Lion” / Eric Heisserer, “Arrival” / Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” / Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, “Hidden Figures” / August Wilson, “Fences”
Will win: August Wilson won a Pulitzer for “Fences,” so what’s to say he wouldn’t score a posthumous Oscar for its script too? “Moonlight” and “Arrival,” that’s what. They won the Writers Guild prizes, and it’s hard to believe the Academy wouldn’t recognize the power of Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s delicate triptych.
Should win: It really feels like there aren’t many movies in the world like “Moonlight.”
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Nominees: “13th” / “Fire at Sea” / “I Am Not Your Negro” / “Life, Animated” / “O.J.: Made in America”
Will win: “O.J.: Made in America” has 7.5 hours working for it ― how can anyone vote against something so sprawling? Working against it: arguments that the acclaimed examination of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, which also aired as an ESPN miniseries, is technically a miniseries. In that case, one of its thematic cousins ― “13th” or “I Am Not Your Negro” ― could seize its trophy. Both movies have seen a ton of positive press over the past few months, and “Negro” benefits from an 11th-hour theatrical bow that has proven lucrative.
Should win: What a doozy of a category ― and “Weiner,” one of 2016’s best movies, isn’t even nominated! “O.J.” is a feat of nonfiction storytelling, but few race documentaries are as bold and succinct as “I Am Not Your Negro.”
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Nominees: “A Man Called Ove” / “Land of Mine” / “The Salesman” / “Tanna” / “Toni Erdmann”
Will win: The much-loved “Toni Erdmann” seemed like a runaway until Donald Trump’s travel ban risked preventing “The Salesman” director Ashgar Fahardi, one of Iran’s most distinguished filmmakers, from attending the Oscars. Voters can resist Trump’s politics by rewarding Fahardi’s film.
Should win: Even without Trump’s disruption, “The Salesman” deserves this for its complex portrait of a decaying marriage.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Nominees: “Kubo and the Two Strings” / “Moana” / “My Life as a Zucchini” / “The Red Turtle” / “Zootopia”
What will win: “Zootopia,” a surprisingly topical movie about prejudice and racial profiling, made $1 billion at the global box office.
What should win: “Zootopia” is an acceptable choice, but the beautiful “Kubo and the Two Strings” raises the bar for animated movies.
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Nominees: Mica Levi, “Jackie” / Justin Hurwitz, “La La Land” / Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka, “Lion” / Nicholas Britell, “Moonlight” / Thomas Newman, “Passengers”
Who will win: “La La Land” is a musical, and musicals tend to dominate the music categories. Imagine.
Who should win: Before the first frame of “Jackie,” Mica Levi’s score announces itself with haunting force. It twists the unconventional biopic into a psychodrama that plays like a horror piece. There’s nothing like it.
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Nominees: “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” from “La La Land” / “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” from “Trolls” / “City of Stars,” from “La La Land” / “The Empty Chair,” from “Jim: The James Foley Story” / “How Far I’ll Go,” from “Moana”
Will win: Again, prepare for musical dominance, with a possible upset from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Moana” anthem, which could split the “La La Land” votes. “City of Stars” has always been front and center in the “La La” marketing, now playing atop television spots touting the movie’s awards glory. But “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is more powerful, a Broadway-esque showboat that speaks to the story’s themes. Regardless, prevalence counts. Expect “City of Stars” to serenade its way to the Oscar stage.
An international team of astronomers has discovered seven potentially habitable exoplanets — or planets outside our solar system — that could have liquid water on their surfaces, according to a paper published today in the journal Nature.
“The discovery gives us a hint that finding a second Earth is not just a matter of if, but when,” Thomas Kutcher, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said at a news conference today.
It is also a major step forward in answering the age-old question of “Are we alone out there?” Kutcher added.
Though it is unclear whether any of the newly discovered planets can harbor life, astronomers said all seven exoplanets could have liquid water — the key to life as we know it.
The newly discovered planets have been nicknamed “Earth’s seven sisters” and have masses similar to that of Earth’s, in addition to having rocky compositions like our planet, scientists said.
Three of the seven planets are considered to be in the habitable zone, which is the area around a star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water, researchers added.
Astronomers also pointed out that the newly discovered planetary system orbits TRAPPIST-1, a dwarf star that is much younger than our sun and that will continue to burn for another 10 trillion years — more than 700 times longer than the universe has existed so far.
That is “arguably enough time for life to evolve,” an article in Nature reported.
The star TRAPPIST-1 is about 39 light-years, or 235 trillion miles, away from Earth. It is located in the constellation Aquarius.
Astronomers noted that they are still awaiting the scheduled launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in 2018 to confirm what conditions — such as atmospheric composition and climate — are like on the exoplanets. The James Webb Space Telescope is expected to be significantly more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope.
The James Webb Space Telescope can detect molecules like water, methane, ozone and oxygen — which can then help scientists determine a planet’s habitability and chances of harboring life, according to Nikole Lewis, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
The discovery of the new planetary system also suggests that Earth-sized planets are much more abundant and common in the Milky Way galaxy than previously thought, researchers said.
“With this amazing system, we know there must be many more potentially life-bearing worlds out there waiting to be found,” said Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The international team of astronomers that discovered the new exoplanets said they will be ramping up their efforts to locate and identify other planets around small stars in the vicinity of our sun through project Search for Habitable Planets Eclipsing Ultra-Cool Stars (SPECULOOS).
Additionally, NASA said it plans to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a space telescope that will spend two years finding planets orbiting over 200,000 of the brightest stars in the sky.
“The seven wonders of TRAPPIST-1 are the first Earth-size planets that have been found orbiting this kind of star,” said Michael Gillon, lead author of the paper published in Nature and the principal investigator of the TRAPPIST exoplanet survey at the University of Liege, Belgium.
Gillon added at the NASA news conference today that the discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system is a very promising indicator for the search for life outside of Earth.
Despite the glitz, glamor, and prestige of the Academy Awards, the Oscar statue itself isn’t worth much of anything, monetarily speaking.
In a new video from Coinage, Time Inc.’s personal finance video company, it’s revealed that an actual Oscar is only valued at $10. The making of the statue costs $400, but before a trophy can be put up for bid, it must first be offered to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for just $10 — an Academy rule that was upheld in a 2015 court ruling.
Among the Oscar resale rule’s supporters is legendary director and Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg, who spent $1.36 million on Oscars belonging to Bette Davis and Clark Gable, only to donate them back to the Academy.
If life exists beyond Earth, it likely exists on an exoplanet. These planets orbiting stars outside our solar system have fascinated astronomers for decades. The first was detected in 1988. Over 3,500 have been confirmed since then. Now, NASA has an update. The agency said yesterday it will host a news conference on Wednesday to discuss recent discoveries of planets beyond our solar system. The findings, to appear in the journal Nature, will be presented at 1 p.m. ET as the event kicks off live on NASA Television. Five scientists will participate in the conference. The media and public alike are invited to ask questions via Twitter by using the hashtag #askNASA. The agency will also hold a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) at 3 p.m. to discuss exoplanets and the new findings. Exoplanet discoveries have been increasing over the past year. In July, the largest ever haul of confirmed exoplanets was announced, detected the Kepler spacecraft telescope. A total of 104 planets were confirmed, four of which showed promise as potentially rocky and habitable worlds. In August, a potentially habitable planet was confirmed around our nearest star system. And just last week, astronomers publicly released a massive dataset of nearby stars detected by the High-Resolution Echelle Sprectrometer (HIRES) instrument. The team behind the project encouraged citizens scientists to comb through the data in search of orbiting planets. “[These] data likely contain even more planets that didn’t meet our statistical significant testing, but that more observing may reveal with time,” Paul Butler, staff scientist at Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, told Digital Trends at the time. “In that sense, these data will likely ‘keep on giving’ for a long time.”
The vast majority (about 97 percent) of confirmed exoplanets are initially detected through indirect means. As in the case of last week’s release, the most common technique is radial velocity, which detects a star’s tiny movements in response to internal forces or external forces, such as the pull of an orbiting planet.
Sunday’s Oscars loom in the shadow of Donald Trump’s fledgling presidency. As with every awards show this year, we can expect copious equal-rights diatribes mounted in resistance to the regressive legislation and callow disregard for tradition that has defined the Trump administration’s debut.
But before arriving at the annual ritual, we will have already seen one of the most politically driven Best Picture debates unfurl in the media. This time, it’s personal.
Perhaps more than ever, the Best Picture contest seems to double as a referendum on our culture’s conscience. It’s bigger than the Oscars, just as Beyoncé losing Album of the Year to Adele was bigger than the Grammys. If movies are statements about the world around us, then one purpose of the Academy Awards is to adjudicate the year’s best cinematic manifestos. That’s complicated when titles from Obama’s America are being feted in Trump’s America.
It’s especially complicated when considering the Oscars’ thorny political backdrop. Throughout its 89-year history, the event has, after all, become a shrine to Hollywood’s liberal values ― even when the movies themselves aren’t explicitly political.
In 2014, “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen ended his Best Picture acceptance speech by dedicating the award “to all the people who have endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.” He then turned to the cast and crew surrounding him onstage and leapt into the air enthusiastically.
In 2016, “Spotlight” producer Michael Sugar addressed his Best Picture acceptance speech to Pope Francis, saying he hopes the recognition will inspire “a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican.” He then turned and gave Michael Keaton a bear hug.
In both cases, it would have been surprising not to hear rallying cries related to the human-rights transgressions depicted in these films.
Sandwiched between the “12 Years a Slave” and “Spotlight” victories was “Birdman.” The closest that movie came to tackling social ills was something along the lines of “middle age = hard.” Yet director Alejandro González Iñárritu, a Mexico native, politicized his acceptance speech anyway, ending with a sweet pro-immigration sentiment.
This all took place during Barack Obama’s tenure. In terms of Hollywood’s nerve center, it was a time of relative political ease.
But amid radical unrest, what does it mean to score popular culture’s most luminous prize?
If there’s one thing we know about the Oscars, it’s this: Even by subjective standards, the year’s best movie often doesn’t nab Best Picture. “The Greatest Show on Earth” beat “Singin’ in the Rain” because “Singin’ in the Rain” wasn’t even nominated. “How Green Was My Valley” topped “Citizen Kane,” frequently cited as the greatest film ever made. “Out of Africa” outpaced “The Color Purple.” “Dances with Wolves” stole the trophy from “Goodfellas.” Perhaps most infamously, voters preferred “Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain,” a groundbreaking masterpiece if we’ve ever seen one. Some would add “Birdman” to the list of failures, too ― it did compete against “Boyhood” and “Selma.”
Understanding that the minutiae of a Best Picture race has little to do with pure quality, any Oscar pundit will tell you this year’s front-runner is “La La Land,” a bubbly musical romance about an aspiring Los Angeles actress and a stubborn jazz purist. “Moonlight,” one of 2016’s most acclaimed releases, could unseat “La La Land” in an underdog triumph, partly because it’s a phenomenal movie and partly because of the important story it tells, about a black latchkey kid grappling with his sexuality in the Miami projects. But watch out for “Hidden Figures,” the charming box-office smash about three black women who were pivotal at NASA in the 1960s. “Hidden Figures” became a veritable threat to the “La La”-”Moonlight” two-hander when it won the Screen Actors Guild Awards’ top prize, a coveted Best Picture pacesetter.
(Apologies to the other six nominees: “Arrival,” “Fences,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Hell or High Water,” “Lion” and “Manchester by the Sea.” Thanks for playing.)
During awards season, that bastion of expensive politicking, offscreen narratives supersede art. This year’s narrative goes like this: “La La Land” is the escapist swoon needed to distract from Trump’s horror show, “Moonlight” is a socially vital tale not seen often enough, and “Hidden Figures” is a healthy blend of escapism and import.
Put another way, some journalists and Twitter objectors accuse “La La Land” of being a mansplain-y letdown with subpar dancers and a misguided homage to old-school musicals. They argue it’s simply not the movie Trump’s America needs, at least not when competing against stories about the very sorts of people our government would rather marginalize. The objectors’ objectors call them killjoys who fail to appreciate Damien Chazelle’s colorful flourishes and bittersweet enchantment. These arguments have occurred in countless think pieces since the moment “La La Land” opened. The New York Times’ arts writers, for instance, chimed in one by one on the musical’s merits, and lack thereof, last week.
Such political undercurrents offer a narrow, though not necessarily unfair, rubric for an awards show long granted an inflated premium within our pop-culture landscape. But if politics haunt the Oscars, shouldn’t the recipients reflect the moment’s political mood?
Maybe. History shows that honoring exemplary art has always been a mere slice of the Oscar pie.
When a coterie of Hollywood bigwigs created the Academy Awards, first held in 1929, they intended to harmonize the ballooning industry, which was facing labor disputes and struggling in the transition from silents to talkies. Within two years, subtle lobbying had started, with studios purchasing ads in trade magazines touting their candidates. In 1953, television broadcasts began, further romanticizing the event. As the years progressed, offscreen solicitations swelled. In 1979, the major studios reportedly spent a collective $1.8 million on Oscar campaigns. Two decades later, Miramax dropped an estimated $5 million on its successful “Shakespeare in Love” crusade alone. By that point, one has to wonder how much a movie’s quality even matters.
It can’t be over-emphasized: No matter how many A-listers wax poetic about the power of great art on Oscar night, the Oscars are never really about great art, not exclusively at least.
Which is why a Trump-era victory for “Moonlight” or “Hidden Figures” would be more significant than any other socially relevant winner from the past, including Obama-era champs “Spotlight” and “12 Years a Slave.” Following two consecutive years without any acting nominees of color, we’re blessed with one of the most diverse Oscar rosters in history. Why, some ask, would voters select “La La Land,” in which a white dude mouths off about the death of jazz, an art form historically associated with African-Americans?
Because it’s about Hollywood, of course. A Best Picture selection exemplifies the way the Academy wants to portray itself. In picking “La La Land,” the electorate advances the notion that movies are the dream ballets to which we all aspire. In opting for “Moonlight,” the Academy can confirm that art is inherently political, and that “Moonlight” is the film America needs to see now. “Hidden Figures,” again, combines the two value systems.
In every sense, there’s room for both styles of movies. Cinema does provide an escapism that has become woven into the fabric of our culture, and that’s perfectly fine. It also tackles hot-button issues in ways that shape how we see the world around us. There’s a reason Vietnam War epics “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now” ― both Oscar winners ― were such important works in the 1970s, for example.
As mass media has mushroomed throughout the Oscars’ history, so has our treatment of the Academy as a cultural figurehead. It means something ― it means a lot, in fact ― that so few filmmakers of color have been nominated, or that the Oscars have spotty credentials when it comes to stories about queer subjects. If these awards are America’s gold standard, people of all backgrounds deserve an invitation.
But no matter the political jeremiads that flank Oscar night, the compulsion to gauge nominees based on the White House’s affairs has never been this frank. Just look at the past decade. Analyses of 2010’s campaigns indicated “The Hurt Locker” bested sci-fi behemoth “Avatar” because it staged a fierce dark-horse coup, not because it tackled the then-ongoing Iraq War. 2011’s titleholder, “The King’s Speech,” a typical Hollywood period piece, is one of the more divisive Best Picture upsets, largely because the moral ambiguity and topical timeliness of “The Social Network” made for a more progressive filmmaking style. Many chalk up the next two choices ― “The Artist” (over, say, “The Tree of Life”) and “Argo” (over “Lincoln”) ― as evidence of Hollywood’s love affair with itself.
These competing codes ― potent campaigns, forward-thinking filmmaking, masturbatory interests ― create a hodgepodge of Best Picture history that hasn’t prepared us to agree that Trump’s election should determine the winner. It is only within the Oscars’ limited scope that “La La Land” and “Moonlight” ― movies with little in common ― are pitted against each other. And that’s where it helps to realize the Oscars create more phony narratives about popular culture than perhaps any other institution. Suddenly, you’re either a “Moonlight” fan or a “La La Land” fan, creating a false choice between supporting inclusivity or encouraging the same old Hollywood frolics.
But if there’s one consistent message the Academy sends, it’s that a Best Picture winner reflects the product Hollywood is proud to have made. Knowing the economic boon such a victory can bring to a movie, the Academy seems to say, “Go see this so we can make more like it.”
For many playing along at home, that theory leads to an easy answer: We’ve seen movies like “La La Land” before, and we’ll see them again. Instead, we must fight for movies like “Hidden Figures” and, especially, “Moonlight,” which would be the second-lowest-grossing winner in history after “The Hurt Locker.”
It’s encouraging to know the Academy has proven increasingly capable of crowning films that aren’t the box-office bonanzas so cherished in a mercurial industry. Look no further than the little-seen “Birdman” conquering the lucrative “American Sniper,” or the fact that “Spotlight” was every bit as worthy as “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Despite rapacious business models, money isn’t the only form of profit. To coronate low performers is to risk seeming out of touch with common moviegoers, but the Oscars were never designed to be populist anyway.
That timeworn tug-of-war is on display again this year. The box-office success of “La La Land” and “Hidden Figures” make them far more popular, and arguably more relevant as a result. Yet despite initially positive reviews, “La La Land” does not mean to its fans what “Moonlight” means to its admirers, especially considering the latter’s smaller marketing budget. Few will leave “La La Land” thinking, “Finally, my story is being told.” And anyway, “La La” and “Hidden Figures” did not muster the volume of critical enthusiasm that “Moonlight” enjoyed.
What, then, makes one deserving of Best Picture over another? The weight of Hollywood’s future.
For a final example, let’s turn to the most glaring anecdote: In 1995, the edgy oddity “Pulp Fiction” lost to “Forrest Gump,” a box-office medalist drenched in conventional bathos. It’s an indisputable travesty, as “Pulp Fiction” is superior by every rubric except revenue. Critics knew it then, and just about everyone knows it now. Moreover, there would be ample “Forrest Gumps,” aka fables about heterosexual white men overcoming adversity in fantastical ways. Less reliable was the assumption that mainstream moviegoers in the mid-’90s would turn the next “Pulp Fiction” into a notable hit, thereby encouraging studios to invest in more like it ― and that’s a big part of why the Academy made a mistake. (Case in point: Quentin Tarantino’s next film, “Jackie Brown,” grossed one-third of what “Pulp Fiction” made domestically.) It’s not that there isn’t room for movies like “Forrest Gump.” But they do not boast the same flash-in-the-pan singularity of “Pulp Fiction,” just like “La La Land” does not carry the same dynamic originality of “Moonlight.”
At some point, the Academy has to decide for itself what the future of moviegoing must look like. What should people want to see? What should filmmakers aspire to? Dream ballets or mirrors held up to a knotty world? In other words, will voters pick more of the same or blaze a fresh frontier? With so much of the Obama administration’s progress in flux, our democracy awaits the answer.