cinecist vs. oscar 2017

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It was a squeaker this year, loyal readers.When the nominations were announced, I looked at the calendar, did my customary calculations, and determined that I had X number of weekends left to see the nominated works before I had to start spending the remaining ones reading and writing about them.It seemed a reasonable plan.Until I had to travel for work.And then got sick upon my return.The delicate balance of time management was upset.So I have scrambled to pull all this nonsense together in time for this Sundayís festivities, all for your ďenjoyment.ĒYou are most welcome.But if the quality doesnít seem quite up to par, you have my explanation.And, of course, my apologies.

 

2017 was a good year for American film and for the Academy.Once it became clear which movies were going to be the key players and I started seeing them, I kept being pleasantly surprised by how good they really were.Of the nine Best Picture nominees, thereís only one I would call definitively mediocre, and the diversity on display is pretty impressive.So hurray for Hollywood.The Academy may have failed to nominate what was actually the best movie of the year (see below), but thatís nothing new or unexpected.There were a few other missteps as well, but nothing too egregious.

 

As we do every year, we lost many luminaries of cinema in 2017.Unlike in previous years, this time we say good riddance.Not to all of them, and I believe in the fullness of time we will be better able to judge who deserves to remain in exile and who should be granted a cultural and professional reprieve.But there is definitely some long-overdue housecleaning underway, and that canít be all bad.

 

See ya at the movies!

 

© 2018 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 probably would have won, if the producer, director, writer, lead actor and/or studio head didnít have zipper problems.

   Percentages:My arbitrary, inexact, self-designed means of assigning probability to certain outcomes.But keep in mind my percentages in the last presidential election would have gone Clinton 95%, Trump 5%.Make of this what you will.

 

 

Please silence your cell phones.

 

____________________________

 

 

 

Best Picture

Nominees:

Prediction:

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

 

 

 

Pick:

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Call Me by Your Name

--

Darkest Hour

--

Dunkirk

--

Get Out

15%

Lady Bird

10%

Phantom Thread

--

The Post

--

The Shape of Water

35%

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

40%

 

Note:In the past few weeks, I have had to adjust my predictions and associated discussion in this category no fewer than three times, and this final version differs considerably from the first.This race has been unusually volatile and is still very difficult to call.Which is how the Oscars should be, right?

 

Weíll start with the non-starters, because Iím a mean person and saying that puts a nasty little smile on my face.

 

One day some few years ago there was a conversation or an e-mail that confirmed for the first time that Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks were all attached to a movie about the Washington Post publishing the Pentagon Papers.On that day, The Post became a nominee for Best Picture.All that remained to be seen was whether the movie, once made, would deserve it or not.It doesnít.But I put off finding that out for as long as I could.Sorry, but every time I saw a trailer for the thing, I just yawned.It looked so...staid.When a trailer canít make you excited to see a movie by one of our best living directors, starring one of our most beloved and bankable actors and arguably the greatest screen actress ever, about a topic that really couldnít be more relevant to current political passions, then the problem is NOT with the trailer.The Post is fine and enjoyable enough to watch and stirring in the ways you expect it to be.But that is exactly all it is.Spielberg seems to be doing his Ron Howard impression most of the time (I donít mean that as an insult to Ron Howard) ((at least not much of one)), and the whole thing is lamentably under-written. Hanks just doesnít have much to do as the legendary Ben Bradlee, other than look weathered and act hard-nosed.And Streep, God bless her, wrings all she can out of the vaguely drawn Katherine Graham, but even genius has limits.As I watched The Post, I kept thinking how much better it would have been had it been written by Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet or SOMEBODY who could have gotten the dialogue off the ground and given us characters and conversations that match the bigness of the ideas.That movie might have had a shot at an Oscar.This one doesnít.

 

Nor does Phantom Thread, a much smaller, stranger and better film.Looking at writer/director Paul Thomas Andersonís prior filmography, few would have predicted he would choose to tell this story, on its face a chilly, strained romance between a fussy fashion designer in 1950s London and his latest in a long line of model/muse/lovers.But this movie has surprises up its couture sleeve, none of which I will reveal here, because one of the several joys of watching Phantom Thread is literally not having any idea where the story of these two strong-willed and seemingly mismatched individuals is going to go next.Another is the gorgeous look of it, the meticulous compositions and sumptuous textures and impeccable lighting.And, oh yeah, the dresses too.Then obviously thereís the singular joy of watching Daniel Day-Lewis do what he does--more about him below.Phantom Thread sneaks up on you, and only when you find the unsettling implications of its conclusion still kicking around in your head weeks later do you realize just how deeply it grabbed you with its weird little tale of...love?All this is enough to get the film deservedly nominated for Best Picture, but not enough for a win.

 

When Dunkirk came out in the summer, everyone was abuzz:Surely, clamored so many of the critics, this would be a leading Best Picture contender.But July is really, really early for that kind of talk.By the time January rolled around, it was still on the list of probable nominees, but no longer considered any kind of threat to the front-runners.In addition to the misfortune of being released nine months before the awards, Dunkirk has also suffered by being upstaged, in a sense, by a much more conventional telling of the same WWII story in Darkest Hour--which also happens to feature the flashy, high-profile performance of the odds-on favorite for Best Actor.Compare that to Tom Hardyís much-lauded performance in Dunkirk, during almost all of which his face is entirely obscured by a pilotís mask.Obviously thereís something very different going on in these two films.The material fact of Dunkirk is unquestionable and indelible:Weíve never really seen this vision of war before, and we may never again.But its understated narrative originality and unsentimental emotional register--i.e., its ďartinessĒ--can get fairly easily overshadowed by the less nuanced, rather juicier Darkest Hour.Which is not to say I think Darkest Hour has a better chance of winning; I donít.Itís entertaining by-the-numbers filmmaking that only got nominated because of its lead performance.But I do believe, strangely, it hindered Dunkirkís shot at the gold.At any rate, neither is in the running.

 

With the next two nominees, we transition from those who certainly wonít win to those who only very probably wonít win.Both are ďcoming-of-age storiesĒ (normally a big snooze) that joyfully remind us why thatís even a thing in the first place, why anyone ever bothered to make a movie about some teenager going through the same old shit every teenager goes through at some point, and why they keep on making them at the rate of several dozen a year.Itís because, when you do it just right, when you make the effort to envision full characters and let them live and move through their own world instead of imposing the requirements of a particular story idea upon them, you can end up with something as fresh and insightful and poignant as Lady Bird, or something as vibrant and charming and heartbreaking as Call Me by Your Name.

 

Call Me is my favorite of the two, every scene brimming over with generosity and emotional intelligence.When we first meet Elio (Timotheť Chalamet in an exquisite performance) he seems to be unusually mature, talented and worldly for a 17-year-old.And you know what?He actually is.What sets this movie apart from so many lazier, more schematic films about teenagers is that it doesnít feel it has to strip Elio of any of those qualities to make the story cleaner or easier to digest.Meaning it doesnít turn him into a dumb kid.He remains smart and compassionate and even wise, all while heís making mistakes, saying the wrong things, acting selfishly, and generally just fumbling around the way teenagers do when anything important happens in their lives.Elio is a remarkable adolescent, but heís an adolescent.Call Me by Your Name reminds us that those things we sometimes want to think of as contradictions are really just the complexity--the confounding reality--of people being people.I love this movie.It ends with two scenes of crushing emotional weight (Iíll talk about both later on), the combined impact of which is responsible for this nomination but wonít amount to a win.

 

Lady Bird is a more lighthearted affair, but it would be a mistake to call it lightweight.True, it has plenty of outright laughs in it, both ironic and sincere, but they are poking out from among the sadness and anger and pain that form the basic fabric of that awful gap between frustrating teendom and the unknown of impending adulthood. 18-year-old Christine hasnít adopted the moniker Lady Bird on a lark (so to speak).Flying away is all she imagines for herself, being free of the spiritual claustrophobia of Catholic school and culturally barren Sacramento and, most critically, her punishing relationship with a mother whose disappointments in her own life have made her incapable of hiding her disappointment in her daughterís.Lady Bird tries all the usual escape routes:teen romance/sex, school theater, hanging out with the rich kids, and dreaming of one day attending college on...the East Coast!This of course sounds like familiar territory, but Lady Bird is conceived and executed with such perfect specificity of character, of interaction, of place and time, that we might as well be seeing it all for the first time.Itís a wonderful film.Audiences and critics have responded enthusiastically, as has the Academy, and supporters never tire of pointing out its 99% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.But regardless of the quality of Lady Bird, it still feels like rather small potatoes in the Oscar world.Enough smart people see potential there that I wonít count it out entirely, but Iíll be awfully surprised if it actually wins.

 

Now things start to get really interesting.Get Out has been the one to watch over the last month or so, the little film that just maybe, possibly can.It started out looking like one of those movies that should be grateful for the nomination, not a contender for the prize, but a respected honoree.Except...Jordan Peele was also nominated for Best Director, while Martin McDonagh, whose Three Billboards was a front-runner for Best Picture, was not.Hmmm.That makes the nomination for Best Picture more than just a gesture, and as people have contemplated the possibility of an actual win by this peculiar little movie, the contemplation itself has actually made it more and more of a possibility.Over the last few weeks, if you were paying attention to betting activity on the Oscars, you would have seen the odds for a win by Get Out go from 8/1 to 7/2.That is a meaningful shift, indicating we should no longer call it a dark horse. (Although, upon further consideration, we probably shouldnít have called it a Ďdark horseí anyway.Think about it.)

 

To be sure, Get Out is not really the kind of movie that wins Best Picture.But neither was Moonlight.Or Birdman.Or, come to think of it, Silence of the Lambs.Not until they won, that is; then they became precisely the kinds of movies that win Best Picture.Things do change.Beyond that, the prevalent cultural currents in Hollywood at this moment are pretty warm for a project like this.ďThisĒ being a tense, dark comic satire of white liberalism that eventually blossoms into a full-on bloody apocalypse of racial conflict.Sound like fun?Well, it actually is.It was written and directed by Peele, half of Key & Peele, the comedy team responsible for some of the sharpest and most inspired sketch comedy of the last decade--much of it probing the same wounds of race relations in America, albeit usually without the literal bloodshed of Get Out.If the film, as a fearless and aggressively goofy allegory, ultimately plays a bit like an extended K&P sketch with a much bigger budget, that is very far from being a criticism, because it would be the best K&P sketch ever.And thatís not a low bar to clear.Perhaps more to the (cynical) point for our purposes, Get Out provides non-minority Academy members aspiring to ďwoke-nessĒ with endless, glorious opportunities for self-recrimination and -flagellation.Their money canít buy that, but their votes can.Is it possible all this is enough to put Get Out on top?Truthfully, I donít think so, but Iím just not comfortable ruling it out, either.

 

Now on to the big two.Six weeks ago, the heavy favorite was Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.It won the Golden Globe for drama, then picked up the SAG ensemble award, and its two key actors, Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, were also cleaning house in the Lead Actress and Supporting Actor categories respectively. But itís a funny thing, when I was watching the Globes, even though Three Billboards won, the energy in the room really seemed to be behind Shape of Water.Every time it was mentioned, the crowd went nuts.Itís as if between the time the voting ended and the awards ceremony began, preferences had started shifting.Or maybe the two were virtually tied, and while Three Billboards edged out a few more votes, the passion of those supporting Shape of Water was greater.Either way, it was a strong indication that Three Billboards would NOT have a cakewalk to the podium on Oscar night.Sure enough, Water went on to win nearly all the major awards in the ensuing weeks--Directors Guild, Producers Guild, Critics Choice, etc.--effectively wresting frontrunner status from Billboards. Then Billboards fought back with a strong BAFTA showing, followed in the last couple of weeks by what seems to be a resurgence of momentum in the final innings.

 

In short, we have a horse race on our hands.

 

If it were up to me, Three Billboards would take it.Iíll admit to two personal biases that together probably account for a big part of this.The first is the inordinate weight I put on dialogue as part of the total equation of filmmaking.Iím a word guy.When you watch a movie like Billboards that takes such obvious joy in how its characters use language, it reminds you how many movies donít, how often dialogue is just a means of conveying information or moving a plot along or--worse--shorthanding emotional Ďmeaningí in an (always doomed) effort to avoid the harder work of developing it organically.Me, I will forgive a multitude of cinematic sins if you just give me great language to listen to.And Billboards does that in spades, not surprising since it was written (and directed) by Martin McDonagh, among the most acclaimed of contemporary Irish playwrights, an ilk virtually defined by their love and mastery of language.The other bias contributing to my pick is...well, itís Sam Rockwell.See my discussion in Supporting Actor for more about that.So these two factors alone would probably be enough to tip the balance in favor of Billboards for me.Add to that the densely layered moral questioning that propels every word and action in the story, and countless individual scenes memorable for their humor or their beauty or even their brutality (physical and/or emotional), and you end up with a film I loved watching and then couldnít get out of my head for days. Iím hoping the Academy agrees, and at the moment things seem to be leaning in that direction.

 

The Shape of Water isnít at the same level, but certainly has much to recommend it.I admit I donít have a built-in affinity for the work of Guillermo del Toro, or at least not for the genre in which he does it.Monster-fantasy-tinged-with-magic-realism doesnít exactly sound like the cinecistís sweet spot, does it?That said, del Toro sure makes some beautiful movies.And not just beautiful to look at--though they certainly are that.He doesnít settle for being merely visually accomplished, but actually invents whole unique aesthetic systems, like Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Terry Gilliam or Luc Besson or Tim Burton.But his films are also concerned with emotional and even moral beauty.Amid the otherworldly critters, and the unfortunately very-much-of-this-world monsters, del Toroís focus inevitably returns to the human, the innocent, the good, the gentle.This has never been truer than in Shape of Water.Itís a love story between a lonely mute woman and a scaly, marginally amphibious creature she has to rescue from torture at the hands of some government entity or other, and youíll be surprised how quickly the movie makes you stop caring how silly that all sounds.Thatís not to say thereís not silliness abounding, because that just goes with the territory, itís the price of admission.But if youíre willing to pay it, and to put up with the occasional mawkish touches, in return youíll get an experience that doesnít just captivate your vision but also scratches at your scaly little heart.

 

I canít really explain why this (admittedly enchanting) bit of fabulism has been nominated for 13 Oscars and become a frontrunner for Best Picture over some of the better and more substantive works nominated.I wonít begrudge it the award if it beats Three Billboards, it will just find it a little mysterious.

 

One more thing on this category:I have to express my disappointment at the absence of what I think was the actual best picture of the year, The Florida Project.The Academy (properly) recognized Willem Defoeís supporting performance, but thatís it.Itís a shame, this is such an impressive film.If youíre a fan of ďrealisticĒ filmmaking (i.e. the acting doesnít look like acting, the dialogue doesnít sound like it was written, etc.), you wonít do any better.And half the cast is under 7 years old!If thereís ever been a more convincing performance by an ensemble of child actors, I havenít seen it.As for the plot and themes:broke, tattooed single mom tries to scrape by living with her kid in a cheap motel room outside of Orlando, Florida among other families in similar circumstances, in the looming figurative shadow of Disney World.You can pretty much extrapolate the action from there.If you prefer your movies easy to watch and your characters readily sorted into good and bad, likable and repellent, then yeah, I suppose this one isnít for you.I guess thatís why it didnít make much of a dent in the nominee list.Itís bleak stuff, brought vividly and painfully to life through high-level filmmaking, from the acting and the script to the cinematography and set design.Itís clear from the outset that happy endings are about as common in this world as winning scratch-off tickets.But in spite of its desperate circumstances and heartbreaking outcomes, The Florida Project is finally about how the magic of childís play and the alchemy of imagination conjure up more optimism and joy than anything in most peopleís material worlds will ever possibly warrant. A beautiful, wrenching work.

 

 

 

Best Directing

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Guillermo del Toro

 

Pick:

Paul Thomas Anderson

Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk

10%

Jordan Peele, Get Out

15%

Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird

--

Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread

--

Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water

75%

 

Entirely out of the running, I think, are Greta Gerwig and P. T. Anderson.In her directorial debut, Gerwig demonstrates beautiful touch in modulating the tricky tone of Lady Bird, keeping things lively without ever sacrificing thoughtfulness or the reality of her charactersí emotional lives.Plus, of course, eliciting some great performances from her cast.Lady Bird is kind of like a much, much better version of a classic John Hughes film.But a first-timer directing a film like this just doesnít have the oomph for a win.

 

Anderson is decidedly more of a heavyweight, and heís my pick--among these nominees, at least--for how his precision of vision and technique combine with an unexpected generosity of spirit to wrest such a striking emotional payoff from what by rights should be an off-putting story about difficult people in a profoundly troubling relationship.One argument goes that once you see a person as they are, once you truly see them, you canít really dislike them; you canít help sympathizing and even identifying with them to some extent, itís just a function of the human psyche.Maybe thatís true, maybe not, but Andersonís laser focus on the specificity of these characters, both their virtues and their failings, definitely makes it harder to distance oneself from them or to condemn their actions--a great many of which fall far short of what would normally be considered acceptable. Of course much of this depends upon the performances, and Anderson is famous for pulling top-notch performances from his actors.Hell, he once managed to get a great dramatic turn out of Adam Sandler (Punch Drunk Love).He does it again here, though to be fair getting stellar work out of Daniel Day-Lewis may not be a fair test of his abilities.Anyway, Anderson puts the performances together with flawless visual finesse, tonal richness, and deliberate pacing that deepens both our observation and our emotional investment.Itís highly accomplished directing, with the only significant strikes against it being that 1) Not enough people have seen the movie, and 2) Guillermo del Toro is going to win.

 

Yes, del Toro looks to be the insurmountable favorite here, which would make this the fourth of the last five years in which a Mexican director has taken the prize, after it went to compatriots Alfonso Cuarůn in 2014 for Gravity and Alejandro IŮŠrritu in 2015 and 2016 for Birdman and The Revenant respectively.I donít know what this means, but if the expected happens and del Toro prevails, someone will surely use this to bolster a case for the border wall. Mark my words.

 

As a director, del Toro works in the visionary auteur tradition, with one eye always seemingly trained on a stack of comic books--er, I mean graphic novels.Itís a whole different brand of directing from what Anderson or Gerwig are doing, a lot easier to spot.One could even call it showy, but thatís not to detract from it in any way; Hitchcock was showy too.The Shape of Water--visually dazzling and viscerally affecting--is a worthy showcase of del Toroís distinctive talents.If the look and feel he creates call to mind Jeunetís vibrant Amelie, they do so through a dark film of organic residue that would have David Cronenberg licking his fingers.His scenes are marvelously composed and framed, and he explores interior spaces almost obsessively from a multitude of angles, giving us a compelling sense of physical presence.Itís impossible not to like looking at this movie.What complaints I have about it are mostly with the writing--which del Toro is also responsible for, so itís not like heís off the hook, but weíre only talking about his directing here.No one disputes the quality of his work in Shape of Water, which was also honored with the Directorsí Guild Award.But more importantly, the widespread and passionate popular support for the film overall has catapulted del Toro way out ahead of the pack.

 

Could anyone take it away from him?Some say Christopher Nolan has a shot for Dunkirk, with its epic scope thatís simultaneously sweeping and chilling.Dunkirk is an exercise in scale on the level of Titanic or Lawrence of Arabia, and is every bit as visually ravishing as either, in its own way (though noticeably lacking their romantic sheen).Nolan orchestrates massive resources--material, environmental and human--to make a war movie that somehow feels both old fashioned and startlingly new, willfully eschewing not only the sentimental but often even the personal to bring home a vision of the implacable vastness of war that touches us all the more for its apparent emotional distance from so much of the action.Itís definitely some of his best work to date.Smart money puts Nolan at #2 behind del Toro, and I understand the reasoning.But if I have to put my dollars on a long shot, itís going on Jordan Peele.For the same reasons Get Out has an outside shot at winning Best Picture, I believe Peele is actually more likely than Nolan to be the one who could stand in del Toroís way.Itís not only that there is strong cultural pressure to honor the movie, on top of peopleís genuine personal response to it as bold and thoughtful entertainment, itís also that this could mark the emergence of a major new figure in Hollywood, a black filmmaker who can make serious films that win at the box office AND wow the critics, without alienating blacks OR whites. Time will tell whether he can deliver on that promise (and whether he will be allowed to), but I do think thatís the kind of whispering thatís going on inside studio conference rooms right now.The chance that will translate to a win for Peele is still awfully thin, but if it does come to pass, remember you heard it here first.

 

 

 

Best Actor

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Gary Oldman

 

Pick:

Timothťe Chalamet

Timothťe Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name

10%

Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread

10%

Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out

--

Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

80%

Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

--

 

No one without an agenda is seriously betting against Gary Oldman on this one.To say Oldman is overdue for an Oscar is a ludicrous understatement.The fact that he was nominated for the first and only other time in 2011 defies logic.Heís been so good for so long, and in such a jaw-dropping range of roles, that by now they probably should have invented an Oscar category just for him.(If you want a quick primer:Sid & Nancy, Prick up Your Ears, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, State of Grace, JFK, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and now Darkest Hour. Thatís about 10% of it.) That his work has been nearly entirely ignored by the Academy is beyond surprising, itís just weird.But theyíll make up for it this time by finally handing him the trophy for what might be his most impressive physical transformation to date, playing Winston Churchill.Take a quick moment to savor this rich, faintly acrid pleasure:The guy who first made a name for himself playing snotty, vomiting, heroin-addicted punk Sid Vicious is about to collect the Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill.Itís like the reverse of when Sir Ben ďGandhiĒ Kingsley was nominated 20 years later for playing the barbaric and odious Don Logan in Sexy Beast.You really have to love this stuff.

 

So the remaining question:Does Oldman deserve it?Well....look, itís a really fun and charming performance to watch.It feels genuine and human, and doesnít come off like a mere impersonation, which it might have given the disparity between the physical fact of Gary Oldman and the corporial/mythical/cultural requirements of ďWinston Churchill.ĒBut the genre and format of Darkest Hour donít make the kinds of demands of an actor that require a truly capital-G Great performance to be effective.And thereís no question that Oldman is effective in the role, 100% so.He does what is needed to make this movie work, and this year thatís going to be enough to win him an award that he has probably deserved at least 2 or 3 times in the past, so Iím not complaining about it.

 

Who would I rather see accepting this one Sunday night, if Oldman werenít in the running?No question, itís Timothťe Chalamet.What this kid (who just turned 22, by the way) does in Call Me by Your Name would be impossible for most actors twice his age.He has to convey intelligence, worldliness, talent, confidence, empathy and solidity...and also deep confusion, self-doubt, selfishness, immaturity and, more than anything, vulnerability.He does all of this and more, and there is never any disconnect, never for a moment any sense that what we are watching is an artificial creation, a character who was written rather than simply being born.Chalametís Elio is a fully realized person, and watching him we are forced to recognize how truly rare it is to be presented with one of those at the movies.The scene that likely clenched his nomination is the scene that everyone talks about, the very final scene of the film.And itís a stunner, which I wonít bother describing, out of respect to those who havenít seen the movie and also because nothing I could say about it could give any sense of what Chalamet is able to accomplish in a wordless 10-minute take.But we have to guard against reducing his performance to that, because itís every minute of what he does before that that makes the final scene possible.When I saw Call Me by Your Name I thought to myself, ďThatís the performance of the year.Too bad no one will even notice.ĒIím thrilled that the Academy has proven me wrong.But Iím realistic about Chalametís chances of actually winning.

 

Some people think Daniel Day-Lewis has better odds of upsetting Oldman than Chalamet does.I disagree.Day-Lewis has said unequivocally that this is his last film, and sure, that might create a kind of artificial pressure to hand him a trophy as he rides off into the sunset, considering his manifest stature as one of the greatest of all time.But to be fair, dudeís already won Best Actor three times.Itís not like Paul Newman or Martin Scorcese, who were both overlooked so many times for so many years that, had they not finally won when they did, riots would have likely broken out at the Oscar after-parties.DDL has already gotten his fair share of statuettes and then some, so I donít think the buildup of sentiment is sufficient to give him much of a boost this time.What does give him a (slim) shot, as always, is the fact that he turns in yet another gob-smackingly good performance.Iím not even going to dive into it, really, because itís all been said before.(In fact, I said it here.)Let me just give this small illustration:Phantom Thread opens with Day-Lewisís character shaving.As I watched, I started considering how many times Iíve seen a man shaving in a movie.It has to be hundreds.I was running through some of the iconic ones in my head--Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, De Niro in The Untouchables, John Denver in Oh, God!--but my attention kept being pulled back to Day-Lewis onscreen. I just couldnít take my eyes off of him.Off of him shaving.Shaving genuinely, meticulously, charismatically.Shaving not as Daniel Day-Lewis, but as Reynolds Woodcock.This guy can shave, in character, and make it fascinating to watch.How can one react to that level of artistry?The appropriate reaction, I guess, if youíre the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, is to award it Best Actor.If more people had seen Phantom Thread, that might be a more realistic possibility this year.

 

Embarrassingly, the two nominees who effectively have no chance of winning are...the two black guys.Damn.But címon, Denzel Washington isnít exactly hurting for recognition.His misfortune this year has nothing to do with his skin color and everything to do with the critical and commercial belly-flop in which he chose to appear.The 11 people who saw Roman J. Israel, Esq. spent most of the movie holding their noses while they watched Washington give his (by all accounts) worthy performance.So letís not weep for Washington, heíll knock us out again soon enough.Daniel Kaluuya, for his part, is good in Get Out.But in a movie that is primarily satirical and allegorical, characterization of the sort that generally collects Academy Awards is never going to be the priority.That Kaluuya is nominated at all speaks volumes about the popular (and industry) enthusiasm for the film.And the cultural pressures already discussed.And the singular eloquence of this now-iconic shot:

 

Image result for get out

 

Kaluuya doesnít give a Great Performance in Get Out, but the stunning power of that ubiquitous image is enough to persuade a lot of people that he does.Enough people to secure a nomination, that is; not enough to secure a win.

 

 

 

Best Actress

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Frances McDormand

 

 

Pick:

Frances McDormand

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water

15%

Frances McDormand, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

65%

Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

--

Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

20%

Meryl Streep, The Post

--

 

The Academy seems very likely to get this one correct this year, honoring Frances McDormandís clenched fist of a performance in Three Billboards just like everyone else has.Itís some of the best work sheís done--and sheís done a lot of great work.Why do we love McDormand so much?Have you ever heard anyone say, ďI really donít like that Frances McDormandĒ?Me neither.No, everyone appears to love her and think sheís about the coolest kid in school, in addition to being a fantastic actress.And never more than right now, when she is nominated for playing a prickly, largely unpleasant character in a movie that resides well outside the comfort zone of a large chunk of the movie-going public.It doesnít sound like the magic formula for popular appeal.So why do we respond so positively?I canít say I understand it very well.My best guess is that itís because her performance just feels so genuine to us, which is a weak and mealy-mouthed thing to say, but my gut tells me itís in the ballpark.The challenge of embracing Mildred is the challenge of accepting that she wonít make nice when sheís feeling mean, even knowing the trouble not being nice is going to get her into.She is authentically herself, for good or bad, which makes us come to respect and admire and even love her; and (guileless creatures that we are) we imagine that such authenticity of character must necessarily flow from an authenticity of performer, so that thing we respect and admire and love in Mildred is born of something respectable and admirable and loveable in Frances.We love conflating actors with their characters--or, more exactly, we love it when the available evidence seems to support our doing so--because it just helps the world make a little more sense, right?

 

That was an aside, really.It didnít get down to the heart of what makes McDormandís performance so great, and so likely to win:the furious intelligence, precarious strength, stubborn humor and unreachable sadness of it.She deserves to win.

 

The potential threats to McDormand, such as they are, are Sally Hawkins and Saoirse Ronan.Hawkins certainly gives a thoroughly charming performance in Shape of Water as a mute cleaning woman who falls for the big glowy frog-guy.She does it as well as anyone could have, and it has exactly the effect it needs to have.But do I dare point out itís not the most demanding role...?Hawkins got the nomination because of the immoderate affection people have for this movie, the rich pleasure of its sentimental gut-punch.There is, I have to admit, some small chance that will be enough to put her on the podium, but donít hold your breath (cheap reference to bathroom scene).I say this with no offense intended to Hawkins, who is an absolutely first-rate actress.If you need definitive proof of that, donít watch Shape of Water, watch Happy-Go-Lucky, Blue Jasmine or Maudie.Those performances were all more deserving of high accolades, but itís this one that gives Hawkins her first actual chance at a win, dime-thin though it may be against McDormand.

 

Personally, I think Saoirse Ronanís chances are a bit better.Starting with the strictly technical part, Iím comfortable saying that were I not, for avocational purposes, rather more invested than the average viewer in knowing what actors are playing what roles, I would have had no clue whatsoever that Sacramento high-school kid Lady Bird McPherson was being portrayed by the 22-year old Irish actress who was nominated for an Oscar two years ago for Brooklyn.I wouldnít have even known there was anything to have a clue about: My unconscious assumption would have simply been that the actress was an 18-year-old kid from California.Flawless transformation of speech, manner(ism) and just overall...aura, I guess.So kudos for that.But kudos beyond that too, for giving us such a genuine and comprehensible portrayal of a young soul being batted around by forces both petty and profound, befuddling and bruising, forces we all recognize and can probably still find the scars of in our own lives if we go looking deep enough.Ronanís performance is smart and funny and touching, and really just thoroughly inhabited.Sheís a close second to McDormand for my pick, and itís not entirely out of the question that she could pull off an upset.I wouldnít mind that, at all.

 

Margot Robbie and Meryl Streep arenít players in this game.Robbie, for her part, isnít quite great as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya.Thereís nothing wrong with the performance, and at times I loved it...but I just couldnít quite get past a niggling feeling that I was watching Margot Robbie slumming a bit.That might well be my own failing.But that aside, if you havenít seen the movie, please do so.Hands-down one of the best entertainments of the year, hilarious and clever and inventive, but still very thoughtful throughout, and finally, even, credibly tragic.Even though Robbieís performance wasnít quite the home run it might have been, I think I, Tonya belonged on the Best Picture nominee list. It could have taken the place of...oh, letís say...The Post.Speaking of which:Streep doesnít know how to be bad, but she was shackled to an underconcieved character, so we really canít blame her for not doing something transcendent this time around.Donít worry, sheíll be back.

 

 

 

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Sam Rockwell

 

 

Pick:

Sam Rockwell

Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project

20%

Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

--

Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water

10%

Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World

10%

Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

60%

 

Woody Harrelson isnít going to win.This is not through any fault of his own, heís just right in the role of a small town police chief who knows his days are winding down and would like to spend those that remain in some productive if not enjoyable activity, rather than fending off public relations assaults from a bitterly grieving mother who is bent on calling attention to his failures.Harrelson actually gets what might be the most moving scene in Three Billboards, and he carries it off with perfect grace and gravitas.But heís not going to win, because he is going up against his co-star in the film, Sam Rockwell, who gave a leading performance but is nominated in the supporting category.Thatís not an accident, savvy studio campaigns push for nominations in certain categories. If Iím a studio exec and my second-tier star gives what turns out to be a major performance, do I want him facing off against Gary Oldman, Daniel Day-Lewis and Denzel Washington for an Oscar?Or would I maybe rather have him going up against Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins and Woody Harrelson?Itís a no-brainer.If I can make any kind of credible case that they should nominate my guy for Supporting Actor instead of Best Actor, thatís what Iím going to do.And thatís why Rockwell is so likely to win, and Harrelson hasnít got a shot.

 

This all depends, of course, on my guy actually having given a great performance.Fortunately, in this case, he does.Ever since I saw Sam Rockwell play Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, I will watch him in anything, any time.Even when the movieís not great--hell, even when heís not great--he will still give you at least half a dozen moments that ARE, and another twenty that will keep you watching until the end. What Rockwell has about him is an unusual...vagueness.It manifests variously as gentleness, uncertainty, anger, sadness, vulnerability, malice, intelligence (or sometimes the precise lack thereof), an inchoate interiority that keeps you the viewer guessing at what the hell is going on inside almost as desperately as the character himself is guessing.Which is a perfect starting point for Officer Jason Dixon of Ebbing, Missouri, a man equally capable of stark cruelty and intense loyalty, and whose hazy conscience doesnít seem able to distinguish between the two.One of the complaints of detractors from this film is that the arc of this character is too dramatic to be believable, that he ends up too far from where he started.But itís Rockwell who makes this arc not only credible but inevitable.He gives us a soul that is weak but far from simple, deeply corroded but still wildly searching for a version of goodness he can actually embody.Through the complexity and humanity of Rockwellís masterful performance, we see that the currents that brought Dixon to the start of the story are the same currents that carry him to the end, where the question of whether heís finally a good guy or a bad guy remains as essential as it is unanswerable.

 

To date, Rockwell has dominated the awards for supporting actor, and that probably wonít change Sunday night.But if it does, Willem Dafoe is the likely spoiler.I already expressed above my deep admiration for The Florida Project, and Dafoeís role is critical to its success.The circumstances of the families and individuals we see in this movie, desperately clinging to the cracks in the American dream, are tenuous, always in flux.You might have to move all your belongings to another motel room at 4:00am.An argument with a neighbor could mean your daughter doesnít get dinner tonight.Dafoe, as Bobby the motel manager, provides a point of stability for his residents as well as for the audience.The biggest struggle these people face is the constant, mundane necessity for shelter.Without a home, youíre not just vulnerable to the dangers of your environment; youíre almost not a family anymore, almost not people.Bobby represents that necessity.Heís the guy you have to pay every week, who will kick you out if you screw up bad enough.But heís also the guy who keeps the electricity on and the water running, and who chases off the creeps loitering around your kids. Dafoe could play Bobby as many actors would, the typical gruff guy with a heart of gold.Instead he plays him as a man beset by his own struggles and necessities, always trying to balance his sympathies against the realities of the business heís in, and never knowing if heís getting it right.We come to learn how much goodness there is in Bobby, but itís unclear whether he ever learns that.Dafoe has both the sharp edges and the underlying weariness needed to pull off a performance like that, and he makes the most of it.Itís great work, and would probably be the winner this year if Rockwell had landed in the lead category.

 

The other two nominees both have very thin shots at it.Christopher Plummer was nominated, I think, mostly because of the great optics:Venerable veteran steps into big-budget actioner a month before release to reshoot entire performance of disgraced A-list actor, knocks it out of park, gets Oscar nod, Hollywood and #MeToo movement celebrate together in (figurative) orgy of good intentions.I didnít see All the Money in the World, so I canít comment on the quality of Plummerís performance, but sometimes the optics are enough.

 

As for the other one, Iím going to be blunt here:Richard Jenkins is one of the weak spots in Shape of Water.I know, I know, millions of people are going to cry heretic and throw stones.But I didnít buy Jenkinsís performance for a minute.There were a few entertaining moments, but overall it felt tentative and muddy and built more on borrowings from other movies and television shows than on the observation of actual human emotions and actions.I didnít get the sense I was watching anything like a real person.Donít get me wrong, Jenkins is a very fine actor, but everyone whiffs it once in a while.Just a little strange that the year he does so is the year the Academy decides to nominate him.Which I guess takes us right back to ďThey really love this movie.ĒWhich means itís not out of the question.

 

For what itís worth, I would have really loved to see Jenkinsís spot on this list go to Michael Stuhlbarg instead, for his lovely work as Elioís father in Call Me by Your Name.For most of the film, he gives an understated, unobtrusive performance, a father who loves and supports his teenage son and mostly stays out of his way.Then in the next-to-last scene, he suddenly blooms, revealing wisdom and generosity--and sadness--in greater amounts than we could ever have foreseen.That scene is the emotional climax of a heartbreaking story, and it is Stuhlbarg, not Chalamet, who carries it on his shoulders.Itís the definition of a great supporting role, and it should have been recognized.Plus, for good measure, Stuhlbarg also happens to appear in two of the other Best Picture nominees this year, The Shape of Water and The Post.If theyíre not going to give him a chance at Best Supporting Actor, the least they could do is name him MVP.

 

 

 

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Allison Janney

 

 

Pick:

Allison Janney

Mary J. Blige, Mudbound

--

Allison Janney, I, Tonya

70%

Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread

--

Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

30%

Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

--

 

As you can see from my percentages, I consider this entirely a two-person race.I wouldnít bet a dime on any of the other three nominees regardless of the odds offered.

 

I didnít see Mudbound, but I donít doubt the people who say Blige does great work in it.Itís clear, however, that the movie didnít make as strong an impression with the Academy as was expected when it was first released; many thought it would be in the running for Best Picture, but instead it only picked up one acting nomination and a few secondary awards, none of which itís expected to win.

 

Octavia Spencerís performance in Shape of Water is charming as always, but she isnít doing anything you could call great acting.This is more of a pile-on nomination for the movie, one more way of demonstrating intense affection.

 

I do think there is real weight and artistry to the performance Lesley Manville gives in Phantom Thread as the long-(very long-)suffering sister and business partner of a singularly self-centered genius.Imagine having to live with Sheldon Cooper, and run all his professional and personal affairs, without ever taking a break, and without any of the laughs--ever.Think about the kind of person you would become.Manville does a very convincing job of becoming that person, but the subtlety of her work and the relatively low profile of the film wonít play in her favor.

 

No, itís Janney vs. Metcalf, with Janney the heavy favorite after taking home all the precursors--Golden Globe, SAG & BAFTA.Her performance as Tonya Hardingís mother LaVona--cold, abusive, deeply dishonest and absolutely hilarious--in a way ties together the various tonal strands of a movie that is simultaneously comedy, tragedy, satire and unreliable docu-drama.LaVona stands astride it all, looming over Hardingís every thought and action, a cruel, chain-smoking colossus with an oxygen tube in her nose and a parakeet on her shoulder.As hideous and destructive as we know LaVona is, Janney makes her so emotionally slippery that we keep finding ourselves almost being drawn over to her way of thinking.Until she says or does the next awful thing, reminding us how irredeemable she is.And how smart, and funny...which starts the process of drawing us back to her once more.... Sheís not in any way a sympathetic character, but because of Janneyís performance, she is an irresistible one.This is a tough act to beat.

 

I donít usually do this, but I have to quote the official Oscars website on Laurie Metcalfís nomination:ďAs Marion McPherson, Metcalf portrays a devoted, outspoken mother attempting to instill self-reliance in her equally headstrong teenage daughter.ĒThat is a terrible description of this character and this movie.Marion is a devoted mother, yes, in that she loves her children and has made many sacrifices to try to provide them with what they need.But she is also a woman with gnawing regret and bitterness about many aspects of her own life, which she canít help taking out on her daughter even as she sees the damage she is doing to her and to their future relationship.Marion and Lady Bird have moments of bonding, as any mother and daughter do, but they dissolve soon enough into antagonism.What Metcalf does expertly is let us see Marionís internal struggle, so we can begin to understand why she canít ever let things be easy with her daughter, why what she wants for Lady Bird has to trump what Lady Bird wants for herself, why she canít just be loving and supportive.Marion is much more sympathetic than LaVona, but sheís not always particularly likable.That makes this an uphill climb for Metcalf, though the intensity and honesty of her performance keeps her in the race.

 

 

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