Donovan's 2017 Oscar PicksSubmitted by ryandonovan at 2017-02-22 00:56:19 EST
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DONOVAN’S OSCAR PROGNOSTICATION 2017
What can we expect at the Oscars this year? I'm going to go out on a limb and say that you can expect a lot of sociopolitical commentary from underqualified celebrities. If you want to know what else to expect (like who will win), read on for my 18th annual Oscar predictions.
SHOULD WIN: Hell Or High Water
WILL WIN: La La Land
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: Sully
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: The Nice Guys
Do I think La La Land SHOULD win Best Picture? Let me put it this way: It's a movie about idiots chasing idiot dreams for idiot reasons with idiot excuses, spending time with other like-minded idiots. If I ran the marketing campaign, my tagline on the poster would be: "Everybody has dreams. Nobody achieves them. Grow up." I think the audience's opinions of the characters in the film can be categorized into 3 groups: 1) Struggling actors or musicians, who are gushing, "These people capture EXACTLY why I want to be an actor/musician, including all the passion and heartbreak!" 2) Actors or musicians who have actually made it, who are thinking, "These people are morons." 3) Adults with real responsibilities, who are like, "Are you f---ing kidding me with these people?" I couldn't help but think of Judge Smails: "Well, the world needs ditch-diggers too." Let's just say, I'm clearly not the target audience. If you want a movie with a similar theme, stronger chemistry, and frankly, better music, watch 500 Days Of Summer. So, the more appropriate question: Do I think La La Land WILL win Best Picture? Almost undoubtedly. Hollywood is practically falling all over itself to congratulate this film… which is, of course, essentially congratulating itself. The fact that it tied the record for most Oscar nominations ever (14!) is absurd and obscene. Between the critical praise, huge box office take, cleaning up precursor awards, and being one of the few nominees that's not cripplingly depressing, it's a pretty safe bet to win the big prize. (Incidentally, the biggest question of all after seeing the film was: How old is Tom Everett Scott??)
Most people will tell you that there are two films with a (small) chance to knock out La La Land for Best Picture: Moonlight and Manchester By The Sea. This is not true. There is a film with a chance to pull an upset, but it's the underdog about underdogs: Hidden Figures. How could this happen? For starters, La La Land wasn't nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Best Cast award, and only one other film in that situation has ever gone on to win the Oscar for Best Picture (Braveheart, in 1995) - so history is not on its side. And when there IS an upset for Best Picture, it's often the SAG Cast award that portends it (remember Spotlight, Crash, or Shakespeare In Love?). And this year's SAG Cast winner? Hidden Figures. (On the other hand, the SAG Cast winner only goes on to win the Oscar about half the time.) Most importantly, Hidden Figures is gaining steam at the right time: It's been universally praised by reviewers and audiences, it's the highest grossing of all the nominees, and it's a triumphant, crowd-pleasing story that stands out against most of the other films which are, put simply, huge bummers. Detractors argue that it's a little predictable and safe, leans heavily on social context, borrows too liberally from the Apollo 13 playbook, and doesn't have a whole lot of bite to it. But given the harshness of the competition, these may not be such negative things. It's not a bad time for a feel-good, heroic, unifying, patriotic, adversity-conquering, well-crafted story based on true events. It may just be enough to steal the Oscar.
The most fashionable upset pick by the pundits is Moonlight. In my opinion, it's a strong film, but it's too enigmatic to be a serious threat for Best Picture (I think it will have to settle for an Acting award and a Screenplay award). It's an existential puzzle box - it poses a lot of questions, but doesn't necessarily answer many. It gives us a sense of the main character, a hint, but leaves a lot up to possibility. It ultimately leaves us wanting more - which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn't help if we are looking for a sense of closure or finality to the story. (It also doesn't help that the main boy in the story endures more horrible things than any child ever should.) The main question the film poses to the boy (and to everyone) is: What makes a person who they are? And beyond that, it asks: Is a person a product of their environment? Their relationships? What they say? What they don't say? Their actions? If it's none of these things (or all of these things), then how is a person supposed to know who they truly are? Is it one thing, or many things? Does it evolve, or do they always have one constant true self? Is it even possible to know? Moonlight presents us with a main character who's trying to answer all these questions, but doesn't say much at all. It's an interesting choice, and a maddening one. We get a sense that maybe at the end he finally knows the answers to the questions, but he's not about to tell us. (And if YOU can answer any of these big questions, then congratulations, you've solved humanity.)
The other film favored by a few critics is Manchester By The Sea - the one where the filmmaker decided, "I'm going to make a movie about the most depressing family ever." While it's competent and convincingly acted, it's hard to get real enjoyment out of it. There are some moments of lightness and humor (which are dearly welcome), but it basically starts with melancholy, takes a couple dips, takes a huge dive in the middle, and then only mildly recovers. What makes it worse is that you expect that the story will go in a fulfilling direction, but it never does. There's a certain sense of 'Jeeezus, what now?' throughout the movie. At a certain point, it's like, Are there any more terrible things that could possibly happen to this family? Do they have a dog that will get mutilated by a coyote or something? The 'Life is messy' rationale in movies only goes so far with me. And more than that, I think there are a few cases where the script is overly-manipulative, and doesn't feel true to the story. Ultimately, I came away thinking: I bet the town would be gorgeous if it wasn't in a Kenneth Lonergan movie, and apparently "F-ck you" is how you say "I'm so sorry for your loss" in Massachusetts.
My personal choice for Best Picture would be Hell Or High Water, the modern Western that came out of nowhere. Most of the film's critical praise is for taking a tired, hackneyed genre and invigorating it in a slick new way. I fully agree, but I'd take it a couple steps further. It makes what is ostensibly a farcical adventure of epically bad decision-making seem sympathetic and understandable, if not downright inevitable. Bottom line, it's a fun ride: good old-fashioned cops and robbers, where the bad guys are good and the good guys are interesting. I'll get more into this film, and my other favorite, Arrival, in the other categories.
Shane Black has mastered a lot of things, first as a screenwriter, now as a director: seedy faux-glam noir, slick one-liners, overconfident buffoons, the LA crime caper, idiot heroes and the straight players who balance them out, and most of all, fun movies. His type of humor is literally one of the reasons why I watch movies. In a perfect world, the release of each of his new movies would be a highly-anticipated event. (We can probably leave Iron Man 3 out of this conversation; while it was a solid action pic and had some of Black's signature irreverence, it was squarely a studio-machine product, not an auteur piece.) Unfortunately, Black has somehow been relegated to being an afterthought compared to mainstream Hollywood. He's not a guy that fits the mainstream studio mold, he's too offbeat and puckish for mega-hits, and he's too "big idea" for the indie world. In my aforementioned perfect world, Black's film The Nice Guys would have been nominated for Best Picture (among other categories). The excellent comedy about a pair of mismatched, bumbling, low-rent private investigators tweaks convention, stereotypes, and tropes. It generally eschews sentimentality, except for a few key moments (that feel earned). Unfortunately, it got clobbered at the Box Office. Maybe Black can boost his career by trimming budgets; The Nice Guys was a pricy $50 million, but it probably didn't have to cost that much. (On the other hand, would it have been nearly as good for $2 million starring Mark Duplass and Jake Johnson? Definitely not.) So what can we expect the reception to be for his upcoming Predator film? In this imperfect world, probably indifference.
Surprised not to see Star Wars in my Best Picture conversation? Oh, just wait. I was sooooo tempted. I kept it confined to the Adapted Screenplay category, since it was such a surprisingly strong story. But don't worry, there's going to be a new Star Wars movie literally every year for the rest of eternity, so I'm sure it will make it back into this category in future articles.
For my Gloriously Omitted choice, I've gotta pick on Sully, Clint Eastwood's latest. Eastwood is operating at a level where every film he releases in the fall gets serious Oscar consideration. Sully is no exception, but it turned out to be a bit of a clunker, story-wise. It's thrilling, to be sure, but it simply isn't enough to carry a complete movie (especially considering the real 'Miracle on the Hudson' events just took place a mere 8 years ago). It should have been a 1-hour TV special (even allowing for 15 minutes of commercials). An attempt at a narrative is framed around the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board - manufactured drama for the sake of the movie. The problem is that there is no real opposition - the investigation into the pilot's decision-making is illogical and unrealistic, and we know how it's going to play out - so the film forces some ordinarily talented actors to ham it up as 'villains'. (By comparison, the movie Flight used a similar construct, but was much more effective. This is partly because it was completely fiction - we didn't know how things would turn out - and partly because the protagonist was hiding something critical from investigators - creating dramatic tension and conflict… things missing from Sully that are, you know, essential to a movie). On the plus side, I will give Eastwood a lot of credit for his staging the water landing itself - that is the part of the movie worth watching. The splashdown is an absolute dynamo. The sequence is completely riveting, and emotional in a way I was not expecting. We know exactly how the events will turn out, but by putting us right in the action - giving us the perspectives of the people involved and on the periphery - the stakes become huge. That's a really difficult thing to pull off. (Eastwood also borrowed from the Apollo 13 playbook - a common theme this year. Maybe that's why he cast Tom Hanks?) Unfortunately, I only have one takeaway from the film: Landing an airplane on the water doesn't look that hard.
SHOULD WIN: Denzel Washington (Fences)
WILL WIN: Denzel Washington (Fences)
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: Tom Hanks (Sully)
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: Ryan Gosling (The Nice Guys)
This category promises to be the most dramatic of the evening. It could come down to a coin flip between Denzel Washington (for Fences) and Casey Affleck (for Manchester By The Sea). They've pretty much split the run-up awards, with Washington claiming the most important - the Screen Actors Guild award - and Affleck making off with secondary prizes like the Golden Globe, Critics' Choice and BAFTA. As a performer and as a person, Affleck is polarizing, while Washington is dependable. Comparatively, fewer people absolutely love Washington's performance; but also, fewer people loathe it. Smaller camps of passionate fans (think: a few 1st place votes) tend to beat out the larger warm-ish ones (think: a bunch of 2nd place votes) during the nomination process due to Academy rules, but it tips the other way when it comes to the actual winners. (That's how Viggo Mortensen snuck into this race with Captain Fantastic, but he has no shot at winning.)
So how much of the vote will they get? With Affleck, one challenge will be to decide how much of his performance is "acting", and how much is coincidence that he plays a character with the same mush-mouthed, dopey, mopey aloofness that he has. Personally, I don't think it's the best performance of the year, but I'll concede it's a good one - it may not be riveting, but it feels authentic and earned. The other (and possibly bigger) challenge is if voters decide to judge Affleck the man. In the film, his character says that he's "just the backup"; funny, that's exactly how the world feels about Ben Affleck's little brother in real life. More importantly to his voting peers, there are the harassment allegations from his train wreck of a project with Joaquin Phoenix, I'm Still Here. (By the way, how did Phoenix manage to emerge from that catastrophe with his reputation unscathed?) So how did I reconcile seeing (and supporting) Affleck's film in light of the accusations against him? Well, I watched it… but I didn't pay for it.
With Washington, there really are no challenges. He is, predictably, fantastic. But that's the catch: "predictably". With his reputation and resume, nobody is surprised (like they are with Affleck) that he hits a home run. And more than that, he's ALREADY been great in this role - on Broadway, where he won a Tony a few years ago. Voters will consider if there's a need to reward him for more of the same. Putting the voting into larger context, a win for Washington would put him in the exclusive 3-Oscars Club - becoming the 7th actor, joining recent inductees Meryl Streep and Daniel-Day Lewis. Many voters will agree that it would be a fitting honor for one of the finest actors of our time. On top of that, Washington also directed and produced Fences. The Academy loves a multi-hyphenate, and members that think he deserved a nomination for Best Director won't hesitate to vote for him here.
So for my prediction of who Will Win, I think the SAG win tips the scales slightly in Washington's favor. It shows he has the support of actors - it's the biggest branch of the Academy, and the one that will probably judge Affleck's accusations most harshly. And for my Should Win, I'm also going with Washington, because I can't bear to imagine a world where Affleck has an Oscar and Gary Oldman doesn't. (And not for nothing, but have you seen Affleck recently? He actually LOOKS like Joaquin Phoenix in I'm Still Here. Maybe… a sequel? One can dream.)
Ryan Gosling deserves to be nominated in this category… but for The Nice Guys, not La La Land. (If you're only going to see one of those movies, do yourself a favor and skip La La Land. If you're going to see both of those movies… watch The Nice Guys twice.) You would think that in a musical, the male lead should be able to, you know, sing. The song 'City Of Stars' may well win Best Song, but criminy, couldn't they get Marni Nixon to dub his vocals? "I thought he sounded pretty good," sniffed Russell Crowe, still believing his agent's high praise of his singing in Les Miserables. (Come to think of it, Crowe and Gosling really should have had a duet in The Nice Guys.) And while we're being honest, I think the best music in La La Land is the cheesy 80s music that's meant to represent the antithesis of the goodness and purity of jazz. After sitting through some snoozy musical numbers, I perked up when Emma Stone's character jokingly requested that Gosling's band play 'I Ran (So Far Away)' by Flock Of Seagulls: "Aw, hell yeah! Here's where the movie gets good!"
Andrew Garfield is an intriguing inclusion in this category, scoring his first nomination for Hacksaw Ridge. After emerging about 10 years ago, I figured he'd be an award-season candidate, but he's taken a more circuitous route than I expected. I thought he'd be a bit more independent-minded, eschewing quantity for quality and aiming for smaller and smarter films… but hey, I suppose money is nice, too. With Hacksaw Ridge (and the less-admired but no less prestigious Silence from Martin Scorsese) he at least seems to be half-way headed in that direction, following a natural trajectory from other winning films like The Social Network and 99 Homes. Just please, no more franchises. (And if you want to see a film that foretold Garfield's Oscar-caliber abilities, skip the Spider-Man movies and watch Boy A - in short, he's remarkable.)
For my Omitted choice… Playing the titular role in Sully, Tom Hanks is in a familiar bind: He's excellent, but not excellent by Tom Hanks' standards. To his credit, he plays Captain Sullenberger (he of the heroic airplane landing on the Hudson River) in a fairly realistic, understated way. Unfortunately, the performance underwhelms, and doesn't seem terribly different from Hanks himself. The film tries to play up some of his inner turmoil - grappling with fame and family troubles - but ultimately he's a character that doesn't say much, has almost no dynamism or magnetism, and reacts to his own heroism with a shrug. Scenery, un-chewed. (By the way, the film was much more enjoyable when I imagined Sully played by Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy. I'm getting a Kickstarter campaign to make it happen. Who's in?)
SHOULD WIN: Natalie Portman (Jackie)
WILL WIN: Emma Stone (La La Land)
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: Marion Cotillard (Allied)
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: Amy Adams (Arrival)
If only the Best Actress race was as unpredictable as the Actor race. While it's not a lock, Emma Stone appears to be pulling away. If there was a still a chance for Natalie Portman or Isabelle Huppert to surpass Stone, Stone's victory at the SAG Awards pretty much ended it. It doesn't hurt that Stone's personality is custom-made for the Oscar press circuit. Much like Jennifer Lawrence, she comes off as talented, confident, intelligent, and beautiful, but also disarming, funny, self-deprecating, and most importantly, cool - to both women and men. In short, she's easy to root for. (Lip Sync Battle, anyone?) Hollywood voters lap up her role as an earnest actress struggling to make it while remaining true to herself. Female voters can relate to Stone's character much more than they can to Jackie Kennedy. And male voters can imagine her as the fun, unpretentious girlfriend or the easy-going, sarcastic friend. (Portman is insanely talented, but nobody would ever believe her being amused by Jonah Hill's dick jokes.)
Not to be dismissive of Stone's performance in La La Land (don't worry, I'm plenty dismissive of the film itself), but her triumph here will be in part due to fortuitous circumstances. She can thank her lucky City Of Stars that Amy Adams (Arrival) or Annette Bening (20th Century Women) aren't nominated - either one of them would have been a clear sentimental favorite. With 5 previous nominations for Adams and 4 for Bening (and probably a bunch of 2nd-place finishes), voters would be anxious to reward either of them.
Stone's slate of competitors bode well for her, too. Her presumptive biggest threat, Portman (for Jackie), already won an Oscar while pregnant , like she is now. Doesn't it seem like accepting an Oscar in a maternity gown is probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing? Huppert (the Meryl Streep of the French Cesar awards) scored her first Oscar nomination this year for Elle, and like Charlotte Rampling last year, it feels like the nomination was a lifetime achievement nod of sorts for decades of admired work in foreign films. (I give Huppert extra credit for starring in the underappreciated I <HEART> Huckabees.) Ruth Negga, starring in Loving, is a relative unknown (outside of the big Preacher fans out there), and her nomination in itself was a bit of a surprise.
And then there's Meryl herself. Does anybody care less about Meryl Streep winning than Meryl Streep? In her 20th (!) trip to the Oscars, she's probably bored, especially because she knows she's going to lose. (I mean, despite being so celebrated, she actually LOSES at an astonishing rate: 84% of the time! And she's by far the best thing in Florence Foster Jenkins; without her performance elevating the film, it would be a trifle.) After 3 victories, she doesn't care about winning, either. Or does she? While she holds the unbreakable record for most acting nominations, she's 1 behind Katharine Hepburn for acting wins. And I'm sure Hepburn would be quick to point out that she won all of her Oscars in the Lead category, while Streep slummed it in the Supporting category for one of hers (kidding… Hepburn didn't even care enough to attend the ceremonies to accept any of her statuettes). In a quest for a legacy that only Tom Brady would understand (damn him), Streep needs 5 Oscars (2 more) to achieve the undisputed title of Greatest of All Time. Think she doesn't want the Oscar this year? Then you don't know Meryl. I'm just hoping she follows Florence Foster Jenkins with Florence Griffith Joyner. Streep in a tale of triumph, controversy, and mortality, as the 1988 Olympic sprinter, 100m/200m world record holder, and one-legged-track-suit fashion icon? Now THAT would get her one of those elusive Oscars.
My vote? It would probably go to Portman, with less enthusiasm than I had for her Black Swan performance. Frankly, a good portion of the time it looks like she's doing Jackie Kennedy as a high-society spoof of Black Swan: paranoid, isolated, terrified, duplicitous, unreliable. Other times it comes off as more of a boozy, breathy Marilyn Monroe (another one of JFK's lady friends). But for the sake of posterity, the real question is, after dozens (hundreds?) of Jackie portrayals, does she bring anything new or novel to the character? I mean, how can she possibly plumb new depths unexplored by Minka Kelly, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Katie Holmes? My biggest disappointment with the film is that Big Edie and Little Edie (the Beales of Grey Gardens) don't show up, along with their live-in raccoons. That's the movie I want to see. (Totally random side-note worth mentioning: In German, Jackie is titled "Die First Lady". I'm not kidding.)
My Gloriously Omitted choice is, of course, Marion Cotillard, for her role as The Villainess in The Curious Marriage Of Bradley Pitt. Team Angelina!
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:
SHOULD WIN: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
WILL WIN: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: Aaron Eckhart's mustache (Sully)
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: Chris Pine and Ben Foster (Hell Or High Water), Tom Bennett (Love & Friendship)
When most of America watches the Oscars on TV, this will be the "Guy From" category, where nobody actually knows the names of the nominees. The bad guy from Man Of Steel. The military guy from The Hunger Games. The kid from Slumdog Millionaire. The kid from… I don't know who that kid is. And the guy from all the Jeff Bridges movies.
One thing's for sure, one of the guys from this category won't be the "Guy From" much longer. In case you haven't been paying attention, Mahershala Ali is going to be a gigantic movie star. After he wins the Oscar for Moonlight, he's going to be at the top of the list for any franchise looking for an anchor, regardless of the tone or genre. In 2016 alone, he managed to star in 4 feature films (2 of which were nominated for Best Picture: Moonlight and Hidden Figures) and 2 hit shows (House Of Cards and Luke Cage). He's not a shoo-in to win the Oscar, but he's clearly the best bet, and in my not-so-humble opinion, the most deserving. The biggest knock against him is that his screen time is relatively limited in Moonlight. After he disappears at the end of Act I, I think everybody wants the story to follow him - his character Juan deserves his own film. His portion of the film builds to such a compelling moment - the only moment of true dramatic conflict between him and the main boy, Chiron - that it's shame that it ends. It's meant to be a turning point for little Chiron, but it appears to be just as big a turning point for Juan, someone who supposedly "knows who he is" (the key theme in the film). The child deftly turns the tables on Juan, and challenges him to define who is really is - and in that moment we see Juan realize that he really doesn't know at all. And then, unfortunately, he's gone. While it's ultimately a minor role, I think Academy members will be impressed by his character's grace and contradictory nature. It certainly doesn't hurt that Ali also does charismatic work in crowd-pleaser Hidden Figures, and impressed voters at the SAG awards with his inspiring, humble speech and impeccable pearl-white tux.
The next most popular choice will be Jeff Bridges, for Hell Or High Water. If he hadn't won recently (for Crazy Heart), he'd probably be the front-runner. He has the benefit of being essentially the second main character in the film - one with his own story, his own decisions, his own spotlight. The portrayal itself is just good ol' boy fun - Bridges looks like he's having a blast, with a guttural, fricasseed voice and a Texas swagger that invokes the late Richard Farnsworth and his own Rooster Cogburn. Though I have to say, as Bridges ages, it seems he's getting more and more like that in real life. I think he liked this character so much, that he's decided to stay in it.
Speaking of Hell Or High Water, I'd like to mention both Chris Pine and Ben Foster for my Snubbed spot, for delivering surprisingly strong performances as ill-prepared bank-robbing brothers. (Particularly Pine, whose surname is an apt description of his typical on-screen personality.) Both Pine and Foster are generally unlikeable actors, but they both summon something I've never seen before, and create an impressively magnetic duo together. It's possible I actually cared about their characters (but still wanted to see Jeff Bridges shoot them). Most critics are calling Pine's performance the best of his career - which isn't saying much - and I agree.
Is there a chance for Dev Patel or Michael Shannon to sneak in here? They're both possibilities, but probably not. For his lauded role in Lion, Patel won the BAFTA, which bolsters his chances… but then again, he's a Brit, so that doesn't count. Shannon snuck into this category by somehow supplanting his Nocturnal Animals co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who managed to win the Golden Globe but then got passed over for the Oscars. (Christmas cards should be awkward this year.) Shannon is the only actor to make Ali look lazy in 2016, with a whopping 10 feature films, plus a starring role on Broadway. I'd be happy to see him win; he's a Chicago theater actor whose unique look and style have enabled him to methodically carve out a niche career, score kudos (including 2 Oscar nominations) for pretty much every one of his movies that's not about Superman, and somehow stay relatively anonymous and tabloid-free despite having about a zillion screen credits. His agent must hate him, because every project that seems to attract him (or he attracts) is low-budget and, for lack of a better word, weird. A small sampling: Elvis & Nixon; Midnight Special; Take Shelter; My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done; Let's Go To Prison; The Broken Tower; Bug; and of course, Kangaroo Jack. (And yes, that's him at the diner as a teenager in Groundhog Day.)
I'm a little puzzled by the nomination for Lucas Hedges in Manchester By The Sea. (But given how puzzled I am by the movie itself, I guess that shouldn't be a surprise.) I just don't know what's so impressive about his performance. To me, he just seems like a smart-assed, foul-mouthed, horny 16-year old; in other words, every 16-year old. For all we know, that's what he's like in real life - so is it great acting? For a character whose father has just died and whose mother abandoned him years earlier, his performance just doesn't feel that authentic to me. There are interesting flashes of denial, but it seems like the film mostly glazes over that element, instead of using it to elevate the character. More than anything, I'm struck by how much he seems like a teenage version of Matt Damon - voice, accent, posture, performance. It's no accident that Damon is a producer on the film - he probably held New England-wide auditions to find his mini-me, to star alongside Ben Affleck's mini-me. In terms of advice, I'm guessing Damon just handed Hedges a VHS tape of Good Will Hunting and said, "Hey Lil' Matt, watch this movie, because I think I'm amazing." For my money, I would have preferred to see any of a number of actors take Hedges' place in this category: Pine or Foster (see above), Tom Bennett (a hilarious Victorian moron in Love & Friendship), Hugh Grant (playing his weaknesses as strengths in Florence Foster Jenkins), or even Robert Downey Jr. (in a tiny, magnificent cameo as the corpse of a porno director in The Nice Guys).
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:
SHOULD WIN: Viola Davis (Fences)
WILL WIN: Viola Davis (Fences)
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: Anna Gunn (Sully)
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: Kathryn Hahn (Bad Moms)
This is the biggest lock of the night: Viola Davis will win for Fences. She's winning everything. Literally everything. She's even winning awards that have nothing to do with this movie. I'm pretty sure she just beat out Beyonce for a Grammy. If she would have announced her candidacy for President the day before the election, she would have won that, too. And it's overdue: I'm in the camp that thinks she should have won the Oscar for The Help. She's been the prohibitive favorite here since the movie adaptation of August Wilson's play was announced; after all, she won a Tony for the same role on Broadway. And the critical consensus is that she's even better in the film than she was on stage. Even her nostrils give an award-winning performance during her crying scene. (Oh my, that's a runny nose. Which brings up a lot of practical considerations: Did director Denzel Washington call for the amount of snot in each take? Did he ask for a variety, so he had snot options in the editing room? Do they have continuity checks for snot? Did the script specify the viscosity and texture of snot? Do close-ups require 'hero' snot? Can Davis snot on cue? Is there fake snot for the days she can't get the nose-works going? Does that fall under the Makeup department, or is a there a specialized Snot Wrangler? Is there a separate casting call for snot, and if so, which agents specialize in it? So many questions.) If Davis is emotional during her acceptance speech, let's hope they hand her a kleenex - or five - along with the Oscar.
Nicole Kidman has said she felt a strong bond with her character in Lion, as they're both adoptive mothers. Many credit that real-life connection and perspective with propelling Kidman to her 4th Oscar nomination. In order to secure a nomination in her next film, she's planning to play a woman who marries a celebrity in order to conceal his closeted sexuality. "I could play that role in my sleep," she said. "Come to think of it, I've played that role twice." Does she have a chance to win this year? She already has an Oscar. Next.
Octavia Spencer gives a strong performance in Hidden Figures, but it seems that she's something of a surrogate for the entire SAG-winning cast, a way to recognize all of them. (They could have easily nominated Janelle Monae, who infused Figures, as well as Moonlight, with a welcome burst of energy. Pretty impressive for a singer in her first acting roles ever.) While Spencer is steady throughout, her portrayal is fairly businesslike; she doesn't have many showy scenes that would stand out to Oscar voters. So does she have a chance to win this year? She ALSO already has an Oscar. (And even she is rooting for Viola Davis.) Next.
Perhaps the biggest revelation of all this year's nominees is Naomie Harris, for her role as a struggling drug-addict mother in Moonlight. She's been recognizable in a variety of roles over the past decade and a half, but she hasn't shown anything like what she does with this role. But does she… I think you know where this is going. Next.
That brings us to Michelle Williams, for her role in Manchester By The Sea. She's quietly racked up 4 career Oscar nominations without a win - she's venturing into Amy Adams territory. She's been consistently strong since the day she paddled out of Dawson's Creek, so a lot of voters WANT to pencil her in. But with such a tiny role in this film, there's simply no compelling reason to do so this year. Frankly, I'm not even so sure she deserves one of these slots. She only pops up in a handful of scenes, mostly to fill in emotional backstory for Casey Affleck and to make us feel terrible about life in general. (And gahwd, that accent.) So… no.
SHOULD WIN: Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)
WILL WIN: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: Stephen Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins)
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: David Mackenzie (Hell Or High Water)
This category, a collection of refreshing, talented directors with unique voices, probably represents the future of cinema. (And that's including Mel Gibson - there will always be at least one racist old coot in the establishment. I guess if the Academy forgave Roman Polanski, they'll forgive anybody.) There's very little doubt here that Damien Chazelle will prevail for La La Land. I'm more okay with the film scoring the Director prize than Picture, due to the daunting technical nature of the film, but I would still choose someone else. I was frankly more impressed with Chazelle's previous (and more poignantly intimate) film, Whiplash. After all the hullabaloo surrounding La La Land, I kept waiting for it to transform into a unique, original take on the musical romance genre… but it never does. I don't think the opening freeway musical number is as much of a dazzler as everyone else seems to. And the dancing… Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone don't look like naturals, they look like contestants on Dancing With The Stars, going through the paces after a couple weeks of rehearsals. To Chazelle's credit, there are a lot of nice touches in the film, and the final sequence is outright fantastic (more on that in the Original Screenplay category). I just expected more to justify the hype… and the slew of Oscars it will win.
I'm much more impressed with Denis Villeneuve's vision in Arrival. Besides crafting a film that's visually stunning, narratively captivating, and intellectually stimulating, he managed to make a deeply personal film about what's effectively a silly sci-fi alien invasion. (Though the title is inauspicious: Dithering voters might confuse it with that other alien invasion movie called The Arrival, the 1996 masterpiece starring critical darling and Hollywood treasure Charlie Sheen as a - wait for it - brilliant astronomer with a goatee.) This year's hipster nomination, Villeneuve may appear to be a newcomer, but he's been a darling on the French-Canadian art-house scene (Is that a thing?) for two decades. (Credit where credit's due: I predicted he would be the next big thing back in 2000 at the Toronto Film Festival; it just took 16 years, that's all. Next up for him? The SLIGHTY high-profile Blade Runner sequel.) If you want to impress your film-snob friends, check out his French-language film Maelstrom, a twisty, dark thriller / love story with bits of absurdist humor thrown in for good measure. (Oh, and it's narrated by a fish. In a butcher shop. Being chopped up into pieces. I’m telling you, the French-Canadian art-house scene.)
It's a real longshot, but a win here for Barry Jenkins (director of Moonlight) would be a pleasant surprise. Jenkins took a tiny, potentially difficult, urban art film and turned it into a true sensation. The feat is even more astounding considering it's only his second feature, his main actors are mostly inexperienced, and he tells a story about the internal conflicts of an introvert who barely speaks. To top it all off, he chooses to split the story into 3 pieces, spread out over 15 years. As narratives go, it's about as tough as it gets. Moonlight is not going to be everybody's favorite film, but it's a marvel, and Jenkins is someone we'll be hearing plenty more about.
It's actually been 10 years since Mel Gibon's drunken, expletive-ridden, anti-Semitic rant during his DUI arrest. Just long enough for Mel Gibson jokes to be funny again - and since Jimmy Kimmel is hosting the Oscars, I think you can expect one or two (or twenty). How to explain Gibson's nomination for Best Director for Hacksaw Ridge? I think an old episode of South Park featuring a loony Gibson put it best: "Say what you want about Mel Gibson, but the sonuvabitch knows story structure." Want to know a totally, completely true fact? Gibson fought hard for a couple of titles to his World War II drama, before the studio forced him to change it to Hacksaw Ridge: "Guess Who's Responsible For WWII (And All The Wars In The World)" and "Sugar Tits".
While I respect Kenneth Lonergan as a filmmaker, I haven't been overly impressed with any of his films. I mean, I WANT to like his movies. They're just… tough to digest. I know that, above all, he strives for realism. Referring to typical Hollywood movies, he recently said in an interview, "I see them sugarcoat and pass over experiences everybody in the world has had. It annoys me, because it seems like a lie." He certainly doesn't sugarcoat anything in Manchester By The Sea, where Lonergan's form of realism is exceptionally harsh. And maybe that's my problem - when I watch a movie, realism isn't always exactly what I want to see, especially when it puts me in a depressed mood for a couple days. Aside from the tone and story, I actually have problems with the awkward editing and incongruous musical choices. They make the film seem unpolished, beyond the point of realism. It feels, I don't know, almost lazy. I'm sure it's all intentional, but I just don't understand why. When it comes to Lonergan, I guess there's a lot I don't understand.
David Mackenzie got passed over for an Oscar nomination for Hell Or High Water, but he may still win a Nobel Prize… for coaxing an actual lifelike performance out of Chris Pine. I was hoping Mackenzie would sneak into this race. The Scottish director filmed in New Mexico with a West Coast actor and somehow managed make a film that feels authentically like West Texas - without casting Tommy Lee Jones. (I damn near had to turn on the subtitles to understand those accents.) His wide lens captures something both intoxicating and toxic about the region. How do you make geography look so beautiful and so crappy at the same time? There are plenty of postcard-worth landscapes in Odessa, but Mackenzie will be damned if he'll use those. But instead, here's an extra helping of rural decay! The West Texas office of tourism has to absolutely hate it every time a new movie is set in the area. Based on what we see in movies, we assume it's depressive, repressive, oppressive, backwards, racist, redneck, violent, callous, dead-end, dying, undereducated, sweltering, and corrupt. Maybe that's why they filmed Hell Or High Water in New Mexico: they weren't allowed in Texas. "If you're not going to film La La Land 2 here, then git the hell out!"
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY:
SHOULD WIN: Taylor Sheridan (Hell Or High Water)
WILL WIN: Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester By The Sea)
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: A million people (Zootopia)
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: Anthony Bagarozzi, Shane Black (The Nice Guys)
It's not uncommon for one of the screenplay awards to serve as a runner-up for the Best Picture race, particularly when there's a chance to reward a writer-director. This year, probably both screenplay categories will serve this purpose, which is unfortunate. While La La Land certainly could sweep every category and claim this prize, it's more likely that Manchester By The Sea will take it. Personally, I'd rather see it go to a more enthralling piece of writing, Hell Or High Water.
As movie writers go, Kenneth Lonergan is about as unassailable as they come. No stranger to accolades, Manchester By The Sea is his 3rd screenplay nomination (following You Can Count On Me and Gangs Of New York), and he's got a pile of other film and playwrighting awards (including a Pulitzer nomination). I would be an idiot to criticize his writing, but I’m going to do it anyway. (I think I've proven that I’m an idiot in the past, so I might as well embrace it.) Simply put, I don't think Manchester has a strong story. I won't go so far as to claim that the emperor has no clothes, but if you spent 20 seconds on the Internet, you'll find tons of people who feel that way about Mr. Lonergan. I suppose I would categorize this script as a tragedy (in the ancient dramatic sense), but there isn't really anywhere for the main character to fall from. It strikes me as more of a portrait (admittedly, a rich, vivid one); it seems to take more cues from the stage world than screen. I don't want to say too much to spoil anything (but just in case you're going to see this movie, skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers). Probably my biggest complaint (other than the fact that it's a serious downer) is that the story is set up as a classic redemption story, and then… there's no redemption. Instead, the main character resigns himself to failure. (And please, I'm not saying "I wish it had a Hollywood ending.") There's a clear crossroads in the movie where, after the 'Lost Point' (the main character's lowest point in the story, about 3/4 of the way through), the character would choose a redemptive path (through an epiphany, an active decision, drastic measures, etc.). But he simply doesn't. And then the rest of the story just peters out from there. The frustrating thing is that the character recognizes the opportunity for redemption (taking responsibility for his deceased brother's teenage son), but he refuses it. Lonergan clearly sets this situation up, tempts us to follow him, gives us a head-fake, and runs off in the other direction. (In his defense, there is an intriguing - and potentially heartening - hint of self-sacrifice on the part of the main character, but I think it's too faint to truly pay off.) This is a long way of saying that after a 2-hour journey of unrelenting grief, I wanted more of a reason for the journey to be worthwhile.
As I mentioned, there's a good chance that La La Land will win Best Original Screenplay instead of Manchester, but brother, I hope it doesn't. I'm not even sure why it's nominated here in the first place. The genre and music notwithstanding, there isn't much motor in the story. I find no compelling reason to be invested in the romance between the drippy, selfish faux-idealists. There are no real obstacles. There is no conflict other than superficial conflict for its own sake - internally fabricated by the characters to get in their own way. It's like they're trying to make their lives harder for no particular reason. How do these wistful whiners get past practical inconveniences, like filing their income taxes? (I'm sure their 1040s are met with an abundance of longing sighs.) But believe it or not, I have to say, I think the ending is superb. It almost redeems the movie… almost. (It's the one part that I like, and not surprisingly, the one part that my wife hates.) I can't say much without ruining the movie (and trust me, I REALLY do want to ruin the movie for you), but it effectively turns the entirety of the movie into a fairly poignant metaphor. It gives weight to many of the themes that were, up to that point, trite, and adds legitimacy to some of the lazy aspects of the screenplay. It attempts to answer the question (with some success, I admit) of what it means to dream - with all the perks and perils that come along with it - and whether a dream can ever truly become a reality. I'm certain there are different interpretations of the ending; I prefer a cynical one. What if you achieve your dream - is that even a good thing? I guess my primary lament about the script is: If writer-director Damien Chazelle had such a cool trick up his sleeve for the finale, why did he drown the rest of the movie with such lifeless material?
I'm rooting for Hell Or High Water, written by Taylor Sheridan. Besides what I previously mentioned, probably its biggest strength is that it wisely does not dwell on backstory. It doesn't spend time in the beginning "setting up" who the bank-robbing main characters are, or shoehorn in flashbacks to fill in the gaps (ahem, Manchester By The Sea). It jumps right into the story in the opening scene and never looks back, giving us just enough of a sense of the characters' backgrounds and motivations to keep us on track - without EXPLAINING it all to us. (The price of that is a few clunky expositional lines of dialogue, but in general it's handled pretty well.) Credit the director and editor on that front as well: knowing that anything that is NOT part of the story does NOT belong in the movie. The message of the script, a clear allegory, is an admirable - if damning - one. Besides condemning the evils of greed and "the bank", it hammers home a theme about the sins of fathers (biological and generational) and redemption of (or rejection by) sons. Unfortunately it teeters into preachy, heavy-handed territory occasionally. (There's an awkward, unintentionally funny scene where Jeff Bridges' lawman stops his truck to allow a ranch hand to corral his cattle across the road. As he's struggling to herd the cattle away from a blazing prairie fire - clearly a life and death situation - the rancher pauses to casually deliver an absurdly jarring, unprovoked, preachy, expository speech. Given the circumstances, I don't think I'd be up for much conversation with a random driver, other than, "Watch out for my cows, a--hole!") Unlike many of the nominees this year, the film delivers with a resonant, satisfying ending. The only detriment is that the final scene (which had the potential to be understated, sly, and truly great) is a little on-the-nose. I have a feeling the studio gave a note… that should have been ignored.
It seems that whenever Mike Mills writes a script about his family, it gets nominated for Oscars. A few years ago, he wrote Beginners about his father, and Christopher Plummer won Best Supporting Actor. Now 20th Century Women, written about his mother, is nominated for Best Original Screenplay. I can't wait for the script about his goldfish.
Ah, The Lobster. This is the most intriguing and refreshing nominee in either screenplay category. It's as strange as you would expect from a filmmaker named Yorgos Lanthimos. After seeing it, the only thing I know about it for sure is that the story can't be taken at face value. It's clearly a satire, with subtext serving as the point of the film. (Some would argue that subtext ALWAYS serves as the point of any film, and that a film should never be taken at face value.) At its most obvious, it's a send-up of the absurdity of the "rules" and social norms around being a romantic couple and being single. However, I'd argue that it better serves as an allegory for pretty much any arbitrary dichotomy, with 2 diametrically opposed sides or points of view. It applies in particular to any situation where the line between the 2 sides is essentially fabricated, and people are forced to choose a side. It applies well to important things like war, religion, and political parties, as well as more trivial concepts like cola wars, sports fans, and late-night talk show rivalries. The film poses the questions that should be obvious: Why can't there be a 3rd point of view? Or even infinite points of view? Why are there any sides period? Why do we have to choose? I wish all this meant that it was a great movie. The premise and the absurdity, especially in the first half of the film, are a strong draw (dialogue like: "Do you have any pets?" "Yes: my brother."), but the harshness is a little too sobering. The story is whimsical, but in a rigid way: there are rules in the world of The Lobster, and they are relentlessly, brutally severe. Going into it, I thought it might be quirky-fun (in the vein of Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman, or Wes Anderson), but it's quirky-disturbing. There's a sensibility to The Lobster that's almost masochistic, which is belied by the comically flat and simple dialogue. (All the characters deliver their lines like Europeans with 3rd grade English skills - appropriate, considering it was written by Greek men with 3rd grade English skills.) It's more akin to A Clockwork Orange or Brazil, in terms of the skewed definitions of "normal", and the frightening prices people pay for not being "normal". But unfortunately it's not nearly as good nor as enduring as those films.
I know it's not fair to pick on a kids' movie like Zootopia, but am I the only one who thought the sloths-working-at-the-DMV gag was unfunny and unoriginal? I guess so.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:
SHOULD WIN: Eric Heisserer (Arrival)
WILL WIN: Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight)
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: Todd Komarnicki (Sully)
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: Tony Gilroy, Chris Weitz (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), Whit Stillman (Love & Friendship)
Ever since Moonlight was shifted from the Original to the Adapted Screenplay category, it's been the favorite, not having to compete against Manchester By The Sea and La La Land. And once it beat both of those scripts at the Writers Guild Awards, it became a virtual lock for the Oscar. Anyone that considers voting for it as Best Picture or Director will almost surely vote for it here. But truthfully, I think the screenplay is one of Moonlight's weaker elements. It's probably because I'm an advocate of a strong narrative. And while there is a narrative thread across the film's 3 segments, I think other elements orchestrated by writer/director Barry Jenkins are what make Moonlight such a triumph. So I'd probably vote for it for Director or Picture before Screenplay. But to be fair, the script has many unique elements rarely seen in cinema, and people are clearly responding to it. Whether it was the story, theme, production, direction, or acting, I found the film to be entrancing in a way I didn't expect.
On the other hand, I love the script for Arrival (by Eric Heisserer), which has a very strong narrative. In fact, it toys with narrative by dismantling what we've come to expect from flashbacks. Flashbacks are often derided as a screenwriter's crutch, so Heisserer preys on that notion, then manipulates it into something new. The story even takes a novel approach to the Alien Invasion genre: What if the aliens aren't the most important thing in the story?
So, Moonlight will win, and if there's an upset, most people expect that it will come from Arrival. But not so fast. As I mentioned earlier, it's possible that a groundswell for Hidden Figures could conceivably propel it to a Best Picture victory. And if that happens, look out, because it could well carry over into this category as well. Never count out a story that people absolutely love. (That said, the film's lack of nomination for Best Director makes this scenario much less plausible.)
I expect Fences will also get its share of votes, from a small group of passionate devotees. It would be a way to honor the late August Wilson (who adapted his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play into a screenplay years ago). But since Wilson had no active involvement in this incarnation of his story (he died in 2005), it won't approach the support that Moonlight is getting.
Of course, we can't forget about Star Wars. I really would vote for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story for Best Screenplay. While the film on a whole was excellent, Screenplay is where it truly excelled. Imagine the audacity of it: It takes a few throwaway lines from the opening crawl of the first Star Wars movie, and turns them into a clever thriller that culminates in a breathless firestorm leading smack into the first scene from the original masterpiece. I expected cool action and mythology; I did not expect such an emotional story about characters that have never before even been mentioned in the series. While I would also give full credit to director Gareth Edwards and the entire production, screenwriters Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz (leveraging a story from John Knoll and Gary Whitta) are the MVPs. By comparison, the story is unquestionably superior to The Force Awakens. (Why, you ask, is my wife such a fan of Gilroy? Because she's a bigger Star Wars geek than I am? Because he was nominated for Screenplay and Director Oscars for Michael Clayton? Because he was the mastermind behind all the Jason Bourne movies? No. Because he wrote The Cutting Edge. That guy could cure cancer, and he would still be best remembered for the words "toe pick".)