cinecist vs. oscar 2016

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2016 started with David Bowie dying, and went downhill from there.Itís a terrible list, as it is every year, but in 2016 it seemed somehow even more terrible than usual, more heartbreaking.We lost the Great and the good, the old and the young, people who inspired us to dream as children and to strive as adults.Cultural giants like Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, John Glenn, Edward Albee, Harper Lee, Leonard Cohen, Gary Shandling, Zaha Hadid, Elie Wiesel, Merle Haggard.Countless figures perhaps slightly lesser but no less beloved, like Gene Wilder, George Michael, Glenn Frey, Carrie Fisher, Nancy Reagan, Sonny James, Gwen Ifil, Leon Russell, Pat Conroy, John McLaughlin, Maurice White, Morley Safer, Florence Henderson (Carol Brady!), Abe Vigoda (at last...), Alans Thicke & Rickman.And what of little Anton Yelchin??Sometimes the blows were coming so fast and furious that we had to duck and cover trying to dodge the sadness.Then in November, a whole new kind of sadness knocked us back on our heels.

 

So yes, loyal readers, 2016 was The Year of Suck.And, operating under the spell of some kind of cultural voodoo upon which I will not speculate, American cinema managed to aptly reflect that.There were, as there always are, high-quality movies to be found if you knew where to go looking.But if you didnít do the work, you found yourself facing a decidedly uninspiring roster of mainstream offerings.In October, I always start bracing for the Oscar Onslaught, that slew of canít-miss studio-backed award contenders with release dates clumped together between mid-November and Christmas that make my holidays so stressful (ďIf I have a week off for Christmas, how many trips to the theatre can I fit in without alienating my wife/family...?Ē)This time around, I waited...and waited...and the flood just never arrived.Only a trickle.La La Land here, Fences there, Jackie somewhere along the way.... No trouble fitting in everything I needed to see in 2016.So the curse of a mediocre year in cinema can be a blessing to a time-deprived critic.But Iím not sure that balances the cosmic scale.

 

Anyhow, these are the nominees, and while there are quite a few of them I havenít seen, Iím pretty sure Iíve seen all the ones I need to.So weíll cross our fingers for a (much) better 2017 and forge ahead with the silliness at hand.Together we can make cinema great again!

 

© 2017 dondi demarco

 

 

Before we start, the usual notes, definitions, and disclaimers:

   Prediction:The nominee that will win.In red, for your convenience.

   Pick:The nominee that should winóand in fact really already has won, which you would know if it werenít for the fake media.

   Percentages:My arbitrary, inexact, self-designed means of assigning probability to certain outcomes.And let me tell you, my system is a great, a very great system.Trust me, I know more about percentages than the mathematicians.You wonít believe how great I am at percentages.

 

 

Please silence your cell phones.

 

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Best Picture

Nominees:

Prediction:

La La Land

 

 

 

Pick:

Hell or High Water

Arrival

--

Fences

--

Hacksaw Ridge

--

Hell or High Water

--

Hidden Figures

--

La La Land

75%

Lion

--

Manchester by the Sea

5%

Moonlight

20%

 

Remember how in 2015 there were two serious contenders locked in a tight race for Best Picture, and a third that was just a hair behind?And all three were really good movies?

 

Welcome to The Year of Suck.

 

Conventional wisdom is that La La Land has a la la lock on this one (sorry, I wonít do that again).Yes, it won the Golden Globe (Comedy/Musical) and Producerís Guild, and its director won the Directorís Guild, and it picked up wins from various top-tier criticsí circles, but itís not about what it has won so much as how it has won it:dominantly.LLL was nominated for seven Golden Globes.Know how many it won?Seven.It was nominated for 11 Criticsí Choice awards and won eight.Seven out of 10 from the Houston Film Critics, four out of five from Detroit, seven out of nine from Washington, DC.The people who like this movie really, really like it, and they want to give it every award they can (with one notable exception, to be covered a bit later in Best Actor).And what reason do we have to think the Academy wouldnít be among this group of fanatic admirers?After all, they gave it a record-tying 14 nominations.Itís an energetic modern-day take on classic film musicals, with singing and dancing and soaring and sobbing; starring two of the loveliest of the current young lovelies (both of whom are past nominees, for good measure); helmed by the wunderkind writer-director responsible for their favorite pet indie film of the last several years (Whiplash); telling its romantic story of the dreams and joys, the heartaches and heartbreaks of, wait for it...life in Hollywood.Yep.Like so many past winners in this extravaganza of self-congratulation, La La Land is a movie about the movies, and the people who make them.It sounds so on-the-nose that one might think, ďGosh, that canít really be a determining factor, can it?ĒIf you think not, youíre living in a la la land of your own (Oops, I did it again).

 

But still, in order to win Best Picture, the movie still has to be...good, right?For the most part, actually, yes.And La La Land IS good.In some ways, itís very good.The opening sequence, in which gridlocked freeway drivers explode out of their vehicles into the L.A. sun in a frenzy of mixed frustration and jubilation, is really kind of perfect.It nails the escapist impulse that drives all good musicals, that sense that everyday life is so mundane and constricting and UNmagical that there must be some other mode, some alternate plane of experience more beautiful and soul-nourishing just below or behind or beyond this one, and that it is open to us if we just allow ourselves the freedom to fall (or leap) into its current.And then the final major sequence of the film, a dreamy ten-minute interlude about which I will say nothing substantive in case you havenít seen it, is remarkably lovely and moving.Leaving a viewer with that sequence resonating through their heart and head when they walk out of the theatre is a very smart move for a filmmaker hoping to earn accolades.As for what comes between the opening and closing sequences...there are plenty of nice moments, but few that lingered long in my memory beyond the closing credits.The love story itself is unapologetically unoriginal, the characters feel a bit more written than lived, the effectiveness of the musical numbers is uneven, and the mood is often more broody and subdued than one really wants in a film called (for Peteís sake) La La Land.I give writer-director Damien Chazelle all due props for dragging the conventional old-school musical into the 21st century, and itís a testament to his ambition and talent that I wish he had really killed it.He didnít.But he got close enough to secure his projectís place on the podium come Oscar night.

 

In all likelihood, that is. Thereís a chance that Academy voters see things closer to the way I see them.Or, rather more likely, that they are suffering from a touch of LLL fatigue at this late stage in the awards season.Nobody likes a teacherís pet, right?At least not for very long.So if that sweet taste starts to go a little sour before the final ballots are cast, where to turn?

 

The obvious refuge is the universally lauded Moonlight.Everything lines up for this intimate, searching, soft-spoken fable of modern life, including the guilty consciences of Academy voters for past failures to support black voices in cinema.Moonlight follows the life of a young black man in Miami, in three distinct segmentsóchildhood, adolescence, early adulthoodóas he tries to understand his sexuality, his masculinity, and his place in a community often defined by drugs and violence.It won the Golden Globe for Drama, Indiewireís top prize, and an impressive number of nods from the smaller (and a few of the larger) criticís societies.There were times, before the full impact of La La Land was recognized, when it appeared Moonlight might actually be a top contender for Best Picture, along with Manchester by the Sea (discussion to follow).Thatís the level of admiration itís earned, and thatís what makes it the most likely fall-back position for those who donít find themselves unconditionally enamored of the front-runner.Its fortunes have suffered greatly with the rise of the musical juggernaut, but itís not entirely out of the race.

 

That said, when I ask myself if this is truly Best Picture material, I have to answer with a reluctant no.Moonlight is full of excellent supporting performances, and it takes on real-life questions of identity and authenticity that no mainstream studio pic would touch with a 10-foot mic boom.I donít mind that it doesnít find answers to those questions, or even especially try to.I do mind that it ultimately feels spiritually and narratively disjointed in a way that keeps me from connecting with the central character as a realized human being.The three actors playing the protagonist Chiron each do fine work portraying his uncertainty and his inability to settle into any sense of wholeness within himself.But thatís a self-limiting endeavor, you know?When a performance focuses on the incompleteness of the character, thereís a high risk that the audience is going to feel distanced and alienated by that.I needed more time with each incarnation of Chiron to start feeling the person beyond the unhappiness.I donít often wish a movie were longer than it is, but in this case, I would have welcomed the chance to spend an houróor even moreówith each actor offering his truth about this troubled character.With more time, Moonlight could have achieved an enlightening, even revelatory, integration of Chironís three phasesónot a resolution, human complexity being forever irresolvable, but a constitutive vision of how an individual soul navigates such troubled waters.Instead, I feel like I watched a series of vignettes that hinted at something redemptive, all beautifully composed but lacking the connective tissue to make them the story of a real person.I realize Iím in the minority on this.There is so much to love about this movie, and so many who do love it, that it could, under the right circumstances, find a path to victory, and I would not be disappointed if it did.

 

The other potential spoiler (and I use ďpotentialĒ most generously) is Manchester by the Sea, which was the first high-profile front-runner in this race.Manchester and Moonlight both made waves on the festival circuit, but it was Manchester that really looked like it had the goods to go all the way:Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, executive produced by Matt Damon, and starring Casey Affleck (always more respected as an actor than his brother Ben) in a brooding performance that had critics whispering names like Brando and Penn.Thatís good cinematic DNA, and the final product bears it out:Manchester is a stellar film, a clear-eyed but wrenching examination of grief and loss and how they twist, cripple and sometimes permanently break a person.Which sounds appallingly bleak, and I guess is.But this is also a film that, amidst all the pain, remains unfailingly sensitive to the incidental kindnesses and enduring affections that make human relationships possible, and keep life somehow livable even when all evidence indicates it shouldnít be.When someone withdraws from us in pain, we reach out to them, and we keep reaching out even when we can no longer hope to feel any touch in return.We keep doing it because we have to, because every loss is unbearable and every touch, however fleeting, holds the possibility of healing.Manchester by the Sea is as good as one can reasonably ask a movie to beówriting, directing, acting, cinematographyóand if it were to somehow pull off a (jaw-dropping) upset against La La Land, that would be cause for celebration.

 

Thatís really it for the contenders, even the unlikely ones.So letís talk about the palookas.

 

Fences has taken some flak for not being cinematic enough, for feeling too much like a play brought to the screen (which it is).But that isnít a criticism that resonates with me.August Wilson was one the 20th centuryís great playwrights, and Fences is one of his masterpieces, so what Iím paying for when I buy my ticket is the experience of seeing great actors speak Wilsonís words and bring his work to life.I am most interested in Fences as a dramatic experience, not a cinematic one, and in that regard it does not disappointónot in the least.Denzel Washington and Viola Davis both won Tony awards when they played these roles on Broadway a few years ago, and itís easy to see whyómore discussion on this in the acting categories, but basically both performances are flawless, and when you have such expert interpreters of Wilsonís work as your two leads, the rest is really beside the point.In earlier decades, before the creative revolution of the late 1960s and 70s rewrote the rules of American cinema and changed popular tastes for good, Fences could have easily won Best Picture without a second thought.These days, it seems a virtual impossibility.

 

Arrival hit theatres accompanied by the kind of critical noise that generally guarantees a Best Picture nominationóand, almost as often, my own disappointment when I actually see the film.Check and check.The main story line of Arrival is intriguing:A number of extraterrestrial craft have descended upon the earth and the aliens inside spend months conducting on-board meetings with linguists and other experts, seemingly trying to work out a common means of communication.But thatís not exactly it.The aliens are actually trying to teach Earth people their own extraordinarily complex and enigmatic language, and their specific reasons for doing that only become clear late in the story, at which point the movie pulls off a crackerjack bit of mind-bending.Itís the kind of sci-fi plot you have to love, and I can envision a handling of the material that would produce a truly great film.And on the surface, it wouldnít necessarily have to look all that different from Arrival.This is mostly a really good-looking film, with some genuinely original visual effects and a few striking images that reach an almost Kubrickian level of artistry.And the understated, introspective tone it adopts in its better moments feels very right for the story.But thereís too much thatís not right.Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, both excellent actors capable of big-hearted performances, are peculiarly hollow and chilly in the central roles.So the relationship between them is never the least bit compelling or even convincing, and thatís deadly to the emotional core of the movie.Most of the military business, which is critical to the credibility of a story like this, rings false and seems to belong in a much dumber film.Arrival also suffers from the usual sickness that infects efforts to bring complex science fiction works to the screen:The movie just doesnít have the time, nor does the average multiplex audience have the patience, to really dig into the science of it, which is always the coolest and most interesting part (at least for nerdy folks like us).So instead it ends up making do with shorthand and shortcuts that ditch the scientific rigor and thus drain out the intellectual charge, which should be the animating spark behind the whole enterprise. To put it another way:Arrival, like too many movies of its ilk, ultimately just makes me imagine how much better the book must be.

 

The last movie Iíll address in any detail (because itís the only other one Iíve seen) is my personal pick for the top prize, Hell or High Water, a Western-flavored cops and robbers story that does everything exactly right from the first scene to the last.Itís easy to rattle off a list of its virtues:affecting, fully inhabited performances in the key roles, backed up by dead-on character work from all the bit players; sharp writing that plays serious contemporary moral questions against timeless themes of right and wrong, finding plenty of room for perfectly modulated humor; direction and pacing that allow the characters to stretch out and become real without ever sacrificing narrative urgency; production design and cinematography that plunk us right down into the small-town desperation of West Texas; and on and on.But one doesnít have to go through the litany.When a friend and I walked out of the theatre after seeing this movie, he said, ďThat was really good.You could tell as soon as it started.ĒThatís what itís about, thatís what makes it great:From the first moments of the opening scene, a depiction of a clumsy, amateurish bank robbery, you can just tell you are in the hands of a film that knows exactly what itís doing and exactly how to do it.Hell or High Water knows who its characters really are, it knows the story itís telling, and it knows why.It earns your complete confidence from the git-go and never loses it.That makes a big difference for a film thatís going to invest so much in examining thorny moral issues.You donít want to have to choose between the good guys and the ďbadĒ guys, because, well...you kind of like them all.They all seem to be operating honorably in their own ways, acting sincerely on their own truths and principles.So trusting that the film isnít going to betray any of themóor you, the viewerógives you permission to put your personal judgment aside and let the story go where it needs to go.And I love where this one goes, taking us through an engrossing crime procedural that is also an exquisitely wrought character study, and daring to end on a note of uncertainty so perfect and inevitable that it almost sparkles. If you havenít seen Hell or High Water, seek it out and watch it.

 

There are those who give Hidden Figures a chance at winning, I guess because it won the SAG Award for Cast, which is that organizationís equivalent of Best Picture.Thatís not a very convincing argument to me.La La Land wasnít nominated for the SAG, presumably because they only like to recognize casts that can be considered ensembles, and LLL really only had two actors in meaningful roles.Had LLL been nominated, Iíd bet dollars to donuts it would have won.Now, I canít explain why Hidden Figures beat out Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, which were nominated.I canít even take the politically incorrect position that SAG jumped at the opportunity to honor a predominantly black cast, because they could have done that with Moonlight, a much more likely winner and, by all accounts, a better movie.No, this one defies analysis.But itís an anomaly of the sort that is rare in Oscar world.

 

I feel a twinge of regret for not seeing Hacksaw Ridge, now that it picked up Actor and Director nominations.The previews initially didnít really entice me.Then I saw some strong positive reviews and put it on my to-see list.But then...every time I considered seeing it, there was just something about the idea of an exceedingly bloody war movie directed by Mel Gibson that kept me at home.So it didnít happen.Not critical, as itís not a player in any way.

 

As for Lion...well, itís nominated.Thatís about all I can say about that.

 

 

 

Best Directing

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Damien Chazelle

 

Pick:

Kenneth Lonergan

Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

--

Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge

--

Damien Chazelle, La La Land

65%

Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

5%

Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

30%

 

Right off the bat we can count out Villeneuve and Gibson.The other nominees are packing too much heat.

 

The obvious favorite and likely winner is Chazelle, who has potentially revitalized the traditional Hollywood musical for a new generation.ďPotentiallyĒ because we have to see what happens over the next few years, but he has certainly laid out a blueprint for it.This isnít the only musical to find its way into theatres (and sometimes even onto the Oscar stage) in recent years.Hollywood has never stopped making them, after all.But for a long time now, with the exception of 2006ís superb Once, these have basically been film adaptations of stage musicals (Chicago, Into the Woods, Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd, etc.), animated features (insert any random dozen Disney titles here), or the frenetic weirdness that is Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge).With La La Land, we see a true effort at updating the form of the film musical for a 21st century audience without abandoning the connection to the tradition behind it, which (not for nothing) produced some of the great works of American cinema.Itís not an easy project, and as I said above, I donít think Chazelle entirely succeeds at it.But he succeeds enough.The Academy rightly sees him as a rising star, and they want to give him this award, as much to cement that status as to recognize the quality of his work on LLL.

 

Rather far behind Chazelle, but in my view not quite as far as many people think, is Barry Jenkins.Moonlight is a film of bold originality and stark humanity, and is clearly a labor of love for writer-director Jenkins.Putting aside the prevailing political currents within the Academy, which clearly favor black nominees more right now than in previous years (which canít really be put aside, but weíll pretend it can), this is the kind of film that gets votes not because of technical achievement but because of the individual emotional response an Academy voter has to itóassuming they have seen it.Thatís a pretty tough thing to measure or predict.If enough voters are deeply moved by Moonlight and believe it to be a work of importance, and there is some reason to think enough of them could, they might reward Jenkins here even if they went with La La Land for the top prize.Itís not hard to imagine that happening.

 

My personal pick Lonergan doesnít have much of a shot, although to make myself feel good I wonít count him entirely out of the game.Lonergan is not prolific, Manchester being only his third film as writer-director since 2001, but he banked serious respect and credibility for his two previous efforts, the Oscar-nominated You Can Count on Me and the embattled Margaret which, while not universally lauded, has a coterie of prominent supporters who consider it a masterpiece.When he puts out a film, people pay attention, and the buzz started very early for Manchester.Justifiably so.It canít be easy to calibrate the tone of such a sad, painful film.You have to make the audience feel the hurt, but not so much that they recoil from it.You have to show the profound emotional damage of a character without turning them into a simple assemblage of wounds.You have to keep available the possibility of redemption without diminishing the enormity of the despair.Thatís a tough needle to thread, and Lonergan pulls it off with a sure and graceful hand.For all its sadness, Manchester by the Sea is a remarkably lovely film.But in all likelihood, thatís just not enough to compete with Chazelle and Jenkins this time around.

 

 

 

Best Actor

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Denzel Washington

 

Pick:

Denzel Washington

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

45%

Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge

--

Ryan Gosling, La La Land

--

Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic

--

Denzel Washington, Fences

55%

 

OK, so hereís a funny story.Last year my wife and I were visiting relatives of hers in a smallish town a few miles outside of Basel, Switzerland.As we were all walking home from dinner, we passed a very small movie house (cottage, really) by the train station, and we saw a poster for a movie that looked like it must be about a family of misfits or bohemians or crazies or something.It was called Captain Fantastic, and it starred, of all people, Viggo Mortensen.How odd, I thought at the time.Then I promptly forgot about it.The next time I heard anything about that movie, anything at all, was four months later when I learned Viggo Mortensen was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in it.In between, nothing.Never heard it mentioned, never read a review, never saw it advertised anywhere.Then the globe nomination, then the SAG, then the Oscar.Now, I donít live in a cave in the mountains or a van down by the river.I live in the middle of Greenwich Village in New York City.And, in case you canít tell, I actually make an effort to follow meaningful news and developments in American cinema.But somehow, the first time I heard of Captain Fantastic was by complete accident outside a dinky little train station in Switzerland, and the next time was when the lead actor started racking up nominations for the top Hollywood awards.How odd.

 

All that, to say this:Mortensen is not going to win.Not a chance.But I bet itís a hell of a performance.

 

Garfield is also a non-starter, regardless of the quality of his work in Hacksaw Ridge (which I hear is very good).

 

A casual observer could be forgiven for assuming, at first glance, that Ryan Gosling has a pretty good shot at taking the prize.After all, look how much everyone loves La La Land! Look how much they love Emma Stone!Look how much they swoon over the romance of it all!If youíre going to give her the award (which they will, see below), how can you NOT give it to him too?Well, truth be told...heís kind of...um...one of the weaker parts of the movie.Look, Iím a huge fan of Goslingís work.Check out his sad brilliance in Half Nelson and Blue Valentine, his engaging and at times hilarious weirdness in Lars and the Real Girl and The Nice Guys, even his ability to elevate truly sodden pap in The Notebook.Heís a huge talent, and he WILL win an Oscar one day.It just ainít gonna be for La La Land.Gosling is always (always) impeccable in moments of layered emotional intensity.Thereís no actor who seems like more of an actual thinking, feeling person onscreen than he does.I suppose maybe thatís why heís such an awkward and finally unsuccessful fit for LLL.A musical, even a modern one, doesnít call for Goslingís brand of Method naturalism, and he is not at home in the form.When fantasy is whatís required, realism feels like a cold shower.Gosling isnít bad in the film; I believe heís incapable of being bad.But in the moments that are most critical and defining for a Hollywood musical, he is way outside his wheelhouse, and it shows.Love for LLL got him the nomination anyway, but heís not really in the running. [Side note here:I find myself wondering how much more I would have liked La La Land if, instead of casting a great actor who is a serviceable singer/dancer, they had gone with a serviceable actor who is a great singer/dancer.Someone like Justin Timberlakeówho, coincidentally, actually lived with Gosling years ago when they were Mouseketeers together.Weíll never know how that would have worked out, but I like the idea.I hope they keep that in mind when they mount the inevitable Broadway adaptation in a few years.]

 

Nope, this is absolutely a show-down between Denzel Washington and Casey Affleck, and it might as well be a coin toss.Affleck was the early favorite based on Manchesterís strong showing at festivals, but then Fences came out and set things roiling.Thereís no denying the power of either performance, and they couldnít be more different.

 

Washington is reprising a role he played on Broadway several years back, and which seems tailored to his proven strengths, his ease in conveying both righteous anger and damaged swagger, his ability to project a powerful and articulate intelligence from a position of real or perceived oppression.With just a little imagination, itís not hard to see the through-line connecting all of his Oscar nominated performances, from Glory and Malcolm X to Training Day and Flight.No shoulder can carry a chip like Denzelís can, and no voice can decry the burden of it quite like his.He was born to play Troy Maxson in August Wilsonís Fences, a giant, loud, bitter personality torn between past failures and present longings, the humiliations of historical racism and the demands of modern masculinity.Love and anger, responsibility and resentment are inseparable for Troy, maybe even indistinguishable.Washington can convey all of that in a single smile.And thatís before he even opens his mouth to speak, bringing to Wilsonís words further layers of pride and heartbreak that one has to believe would have awed the playwright himself.James Earl Jones originated the role of Troy Maxson, and everyone says he was brilliant.But itís pretty hard for me to imagine anyone has ever done it better than Washington does here.

 

Of course that has to go up against the implacable silence of Casey Affleckís Lee Chandler, a surly loner with a dark history working as an apartment custodian and handyman in Quincy, Massachusetts in Manchester by the Sea.For Lee, pain isnít just the weight crushing all possibility of joy out of him, it is also the small shadows that settle into every corner and crack of his daily existence making even the pretense of normality inconceivable.He is a ghost, a being detached from everything that surrounds him except, every now and then, the possibility of visiting some form of his internal suffering upon those who dare to breach the wall of his isolation.He seems a subdued and compliant soul, until the demands are a little too much and he has to belittle and abuse a tenant who just wants their shower fixed.He goes to bars and quietly gets drunk until he feels like he has to start a fight for no reason.Everyone is sympathetic, because they know his history (which I wonít reveal here), but still...they donít want him around, because itís just too much.When his brother dies and Lee is stuck with the responsibility of caring for his teenage nephew, we see the obvious opportunity for redemption, just as Lee does.Like him, we know this is a singular shot for him to regain something he thought was irretrievably lost.But sometimes opportunities are too overwhelming for those who need them the most.

 

Affleck, with his opaque countenance and unassuming manner, embodies both the innate gentleness and the simmering desperation of Lee Chandler. There is something monolithic and untouchable about his performance as a man who will never be able to let go of his past no matter what the cost might be, to himself as well as to those who continue to love him and even need him.He finds the intersection point between complete self-absorption and complete self-denial that can only be borne of true tragedy, and he makes us wonder, and care, whether that point is large enough to house a human life.

 

Which one will win?By any meaningful measure, they both won already.Which one will get the trophy?I think itís Washington, which is probably the right result.Unless itís Affleck, which is also right.

 

 

 

Best Actress

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Emma Stone

 

 

Pick:

Natalie Portman

Isabelle Huppert, Elle

10%

Ruth Negga, Loving

--

Natalie Portman, Jackie

30%

Emma Stone, La La Land

60%

Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

--

 

This category isnít quite the done deal it looked like just a few weeks ago.Emma Stone is still the strong favorite, but Natalie Portman, who was seen as the front-runner in pre-La La Land times, is starting to regain momentum, probably a result of creeping LLL fatigue within the Academy. I think it would have had to creep a lot faster to change the result here, but it did at least change my percentages.

 

If Ryan Goslingís performance was a weight on La La Land, Stoneís is the lift that counteracts it.Her cuteness, never less than sparkling, is turned up to incandescent here, and we are reminded how much a pretty, shining face can shape our experience of a movie (or anything else, really).Stone also acquits herself very nicely in the musical numbers, displaying a physical ease and a naturally appealing voice free of distracting affectations or fuss.Sheís every bit the young leading lady.If there is a criticism of her performance, itís the mirror image of the one I leveled earlier at Gosling:Whereas he has trouble breaking out of his realist/naturalist idiom and stepping into the full flow of a more fantastic cinematic style, Stone at times struggles to look and feel like a real flesh-and-blood person.This isnít unique to this film.There is always something of the high school theatre nerd in Stoneís acting, that residue of precociousness that stage children can never quite shake off.Some people might call it trying too hard, but I think maybe itís not trying hard enough, focusing on perfecting the mannerisms rather than conveying the truth of a moment.This is a mild gripe, really, and especially so in the stylized world of a Hollywood musical.When notes start flying and toes start tapping, Iíll take Stoneís performance over Goslingís every single time.And the Academy will take it too, I think.

 

If it were up to me, the award would go to Natalie Portman for the truly transformative work she does in Jackie.Playing a cultural icon who lived recently enough to be remembered by your audience in great detail, and with great emotional attachment, has to be one of the toughest jobs an actor can take on.You have to get the look, the voice, the mannerisms correct enough that no one will be distracted by the fact that you are, in fact, an actor (and probably an actor they already know) rather than the figure you are pretending to be.The audience wants to be able to look at you and feel, in their hearts, ďYeah, thatís not Michelle Williams Iím looking at, thatís Marilyn Monroe.ĒThatís frankly a ridiculous demand, and thatís just the starting line, the baseline prerequisite for credibility, the cost of doing business.Once youíre there, then you have to actually do the work of telling the story.You have to embody the truth of the characteróthe truth the filmmaker wants to convey, that is, which might not be the truth your audience particularly wants to receive.The whole thing is a minefield.But in Jackie, Portman picks her way through it with meticulous care, sidestepping the pitfalls and delivering a Mrs. Kennedy that is not only credible but illuminating.We watch her struggle through the impossible days between JFKs assassination and funeral, desperately trying to exert her rapidly waning influence to make sure the right story gets told, obsessing over cementing her husbandís legacy before she has even washed his blood and brains from her dress.As Portman seesaws between her characterís innate strength and situational fragility, her sense of propriety and honor and her very personal desires for her life, the picture of Jackie Kennedy she paints is tentative and fragmentary and enigmatic, but never feels less than 100% real.I thinks itís the best performance in the category, and I know there are many voters who agree; I just canít tell how many.

 

Isabelle Huppert remains technically in the running because she has picked up a TON of awards all over the world for this performance, including a surprise win at the Golden Globes.Are you hearing the coded language here?ďAll over the worldĒ?ďGolden GlobesĒ (i.e. the awards given by the Hollywood Foreign Press)?The acclaim hasnít been limited to foreign sources; the list of domestic criticsí associations that got on board is also as long as your arm.But the bottom line is this is a performance by a foreign actress in a foreign-language film, and thatís a tough sell on Oscar night.Even the Golden Globes victory isnít quite so meaningful, since the separation of Drama and Musical/Comedy means Huppert didnít have to go up against Emma Stone.Though, to be fair, Stone didnít really have to go up against the toughest contenders, who were in Drama.Huppert did, and won.Hmmm.Still, I donít see her besting both Stone and Portman on their home turf.

 

As for the others, Meryl Streep was of course nominated and of course wonít win for a nearly unseen movie called Florence Foster Jenkins, regardless of how richly she may deserve it (or may notóIím among the vast majority who didnít see it).Ruth Negga did a lovely job in Loving as a quiet woman forced to become a little less quiet in opposing the basic wrong of anti-miscegenation laws.The movie is an effective and ultimately moving, if not always gripping, look at the real-life landmark case of Loving v. Virginia.Neggaís performance ends up being the bedrock of the story, and Iím happy it was recognized, though it never had a shot at winning.But keep your eye on her, we will probably see her here again one day.

 

 

 

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees:

Prediction:

Mahershala Ali

 

Pick:

Jeff Bridges

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

75%

Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water

20%

Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea

--

Dev Patel, Lion

10%

Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

--

 

Let me say right out of the gate that I donít know why Iím giving Dev Patel a 10% chance at a win.Two weeks ago, I had him at 0%.I didnít see Lion, so I canít comment on the quality of his work, but that seemed entirely irrelevant.Itís a movie no one was talking about.I never saw a preview for it, I never read a review of it, I never saw a TV ad for it, I didnít know anyone who had seen it.I hadnít even heard of it before it started picking up nominations, and even then I didnít hear anything substantive about it, only that it was picking up nominationsówhich I attributed to the presence of Nicole Kidman and the dearth of top-quality films in 2016.Patel didnít look like he had a ghost of a chance.I lumped him in with the other also-ran unfortunates, Michael Shannon and Lucas Hedges. But then, Patelís stock suddenly started rising.He began an ascent up the ladder on a number of criticsí leader boards, even reaching the top in a few.The betting odds against him dropped from 50 to 1 to only 8 to 1.I have to assume this is in response to some esoteric bit of late-breaking intelligence circulating among the inner sanctum, well beyond the grasp of us rank amateurs.But it seems unwise to ignore it.So Shannon and Hedges remain bystanders in my estimation, but Patel moves up to dark horse status.

 

Sharing that status, only slightly better positioned, is my pick, Jeff Bridges.There is no denying that the role of about-to-retire-Texas-Ranger-called-on-to-solve-one-last-case nestles very comfortably into Bridgesí sweet spot.It is in every way typical of one strain of his later-career work, leaning heavily on a world-weary old cowboy persona and mush-mouth vocal affectations that are startling for the first few moments but quickly become perfectly credible in the hands (mouth) of the consummate professional. As always, there are subtle shadings that distinguish this particular role from other similar ones he has played in recent years, but you will not be surprised by anything you see in Bridgesí performance hereóexcept perhaps how emotionally engaging and satisfying it can still be in spite of the familiarity of it. There is never a single false moment in anything he does, and he brings to the role a kind of cumulative gravitas earned over the course of the last couple of decades.Itís the kind of acting you can never tire of.When Hell or High Water was over, I wanted it to keep going just so I could keep watching Bridges do his thing.Twenty minutes into the movie, I knew we would see him on this nominee list, and by the end of it, and for quite some time afterwards, I expected he would win.It could still happen, but itís become a long shot.

 

Now the man to bet on is Mahershala Ali for his evocative portrayal of Juan, a tough but gentle-hearted drug dealer who befriends the young Chiron and tries to instill in him some self-confidence and self-worth. I say itís evocative because we are never allowed to know much at all about Juan, where he came from or what his motivations are.He is a forceful, charismatic presence, for us as for Chiron, but he is cloaked in shadows that never lift.They are never given the time to lift, which (alas) goes back to my main qualm with Moonlight overall.Juan is only present in the first segment of the film, then he is gone.And given the understated approach of the storytelling, even when he is there, weíre not picking up a lot of information about him at any given time.We feel that there is so much more to know about him, and we are made to assume that he remains in Chironís life for some time after the first segment ends, though he is gone by the time the second one picks up.Weóor at least Iówant to see more of this critical character, want to spend more time watching him and Chiron together to better understand the real shape and nature of such an essential relationship in the young protagonistís life.We are given glimpses and hints, and I admit that Ali works magic in those fleeting moments, but finally I feel like he was given only half a role, and so can only give half a performance.What I suspect is that a lot of shot footage ended up on the cutting room floor.I wish more of it had made the final cut.If it had, perhaps I would feel justified in rooting for Ali here.Of course, heís winning this one whether I root for him or not.

 

 

 

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Viola Davis

 

 

Pick:

Michelle Williams

Viola Davis, Fences

70%

Naomie Harris, Moonlight

10%

Nicole Kidman, Lion

-

Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures

5%

Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

15%

 

Just like last year and many previous years, we see something not entirely honest going on in this category.The obvious front-runner by a mile is Viola Davis, but thatís because her lead performance is going up against supporting performances.Anyone who has seen Fences knows that the role of Rose is the female lead, period.And they also know that Davis knocks it out of the park, delivering yet another performance of fearless honesty, the kind that has rapidly established her position as one of the most powerful and respected female voices in Hollywood.I repeat what Iíve said before:Davis simply seems incapable of doing anything false onscreen.Her Rose is a woman in the shadow of the booming giant that is her husband Troy, who has either found or convinced herself she has found a way to transform self-sacrifice into power.She isnít afraid to tell Troy when heís acting a fool, but she also knowsóand we can imagine the painful ways in which she has learnedówhen itís okay to tell him that and when itís not.Rose will stand for a lot from the man for whose love she has deferred so many of her own dreams and wishes and desires, but in the course of the story she comes to understand that there are things she will not tolerate, and Davisís navigation of that process of realization is a thing of beauty.It deserves every award it can get.

 

But.Itís a lead role.

 

These misclassifications almost always result from studio shenanigans:They mount advertising and PR campaigns urging Academy members to consider a particular actor for a particular category.Sure, the Academy could have decided to nominate Viola Davis for Best Actress, but why would they when the studio was pushing her for Best Supporting Actress?From the studio perspective, it makes sense:Why fight Emma Stone and maybe Natalie Portman for Best Actress when you are basically guaranteed a win in the lesser category?Um, well, we can say, because itís not fair to Davis that she doesnít get a shot at the more prestigious award, and itís not fair to other supporting nominees to have to compete against a lead performance.But thatís not the studio calculus.

 

Look, this is all old news, and none of our bitching is going to change how these things work.Davis will get her (extremely well deserved) Oscar after three nominations, and the others will applaud and smile, knowing they got steamrolled.

 

The irony is, I think Davis would have beaten Stone if they had nominated her in the right category.Thatís how good she is in Fences.

 

So why is Michelle Williams my personal pick?I suppose partly just in protest of the silliness of the Nomination Games that are being played here. (Take that, Hollywood power brokers!)But really, also, I just love Michelle Williams to death.She is so unassumingly good, so often, that I guess Iím a little afraid sheís going to spend her whole career getting overlooked.This is her fourth nomination, and itís yet another one she has little chance of converting to a win, despite delivering the most emotionally wrenching five minutes I experienced at the movies in 2016.She appears in several scenes in Manchester, but itís very clear she is being nominated for That Scene.Itís an encounter between Lee and his ex-wife in which she desperately tries and inevitably fails to reconnect with him across the abyss of shared pain that separates them.Itís tragic and itís devastating, and Williams carries every ounce of its weight, allowing Affleck, the lead, to hold to the brokenness of the character he is locked into.Forget screen time or anything else, THAT is a supporting performance of the highest order.Had Viola Davis been nominated in the proper category, this would have finally been Williamsís year to take home a trophy.Instead, well, you know.... Itís not inconceivable, but donít hold your breath.

 

I also left a little room in the game for Naomie Harris and Octavia Spencer, mostly just because we sometimes see some weird things happen in these supporting categories.Small hedge.

 

 

© 2017 dondi demarco