Gilbey on Film: the real Oscar winners

Suffering from awards fatigue? Our film critic has the antidote.

Awards fatigue, which descends around this time each year, has been alleviated slightly by last week's London Film Critics' Circle Awards. As a voting member, I was naturally thrilled to see the award for Film of the Year go to what I considered to be the right film -- A Prophet -- and even in the other categories there wasn't much to quibble with.

Let the Right One In and Fish Tank got some deserved love, and as for Avatar . . . well, let's just say that James Cameron probably spent Thursday evening eating a hell of a lot of comfort food and sobbing himself to sleep on a bed of $100 bills. We sure showed him.

But with the Baftas behind us and the Oscars looming, the cultural nausea returns. So, let me recommend an effective antidote in the form of those websites that revisit the scenes of past Academy Award ceremonies in the interest of righting wrongs.

The internet has successfully undermined the idea that history is written by the winners, proposing instead that it can be annotated, challenged and rewritten in favour of the losers. And nowhere is this more apparent than at stinkylulu, where Oscar rematches (or "smackdowns") in the Best Supporting Actress category are a regular and stimulating feature.

Cheer as Angelina Jolie's 1999 statuette for Girl, Interrupted is snatched from her livid fingers! Then gasp as it is handed instead, after much heated and knowledgeable debate, not to the deserving Chloë Sevigny (Boys Don't Cry), but to Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense).

Applaud as Josephine Hull loses the Oscar she won in 1950 for Harvey! Then guffaw wildly as it goes to Hope Emerson, whose portrayal of a sadistic prison guard in the trashy Caged makes Nurse Ratched look like Little Miss Marker.

One smackdowner, Ken, puts it brilliantly: "Built like Foghorn Leghorn, she's six-foot-two of slow swagger, prowling around looking for the next can of worms to pry open, torturing her victims with that slow-motion chuckle from Hell. Line up, you tramps -- and salute one of the great screen heavies."

You get the gist: it's a feast for anyone whose TV is stained from all the projectiles thrown at the screen each Oscar night. In the same vein is a new and, so we're promised, regular item at mainlymovies, where past Oscar categories are replayed with added wisdom, sanity and imagination.

So, instead of Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe (both in Platoon) battling it out with the eventual winner, Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters, to be crowned Best Supporting Actor 1986, we get a far more inspired batch of nominees, including Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, Ray Liotta in Something Wild and Tom Noonan in Manhunter.

What a war of the psychos that would've been! My vote has to go to Liotta -- not just for his seductive, oddly sad menace, but for the way he wears his responsibility for changing the entire character of that fine film in its second half with such lightness.

Next to such delicious "what ifs", this year's "Cameron v Bigelow" Oscar contest looks about as exciting as Kramer v Kramer.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage