Politically, racially, and gendered-charged year. 2016. After the #OscarsSoWhite scandal last year, and the push for more diversity within the membership of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences (as well as new guidelines meant to exclude previous members who weren’t considered “active” in the industry anymore), what we are seeing in this year’s nominees is a distinctive divide between the more conservative (and possibly older) members of the Academy and the more liberal (as well as younger and more diverse) members. So, while initially I was scratching my head at some of these nominees, I eventually came to the sad realization that there’s a lot going on this year that doesn’t really have anything to do with (or at least the focus isn’t) the artistic merit of a film. What you have is people voting with their politics. When one couples the fact that it’s the industry voting on its own as well as money as well as feeling the need for art to represent / reflect the times it was created in, I’m coming closer and closer to treating the Oscars as being mostly superfluous. I still had a lot of fun watching these films, and I have seen almost all of the films up for nominations (I will note after the category which films I didn’t see, so assume all others I did see). Your immediate counterargument to this, as my lovely wife noted, is “no one said you have to watch them all.” However, I’m also noticing (and maybe this runs parallel with the whole politicizing of art) that a lot of commentary associated with talking about Oscar nominations this year includes the phrase “well, I haven’t seen the movie, but …” People are firing off a lot of opinions on films that they haven’t seen, which is unfair and ignorant. So, I’m not going to be one of those people. Already, in more than one instance, I’ve had my mind changed on what I expected to see and what I actually saw (and it was extremely pleasant and affirming). I’ve also had those moments in prior years. So, I have an overall personal feeling of responsibility and respect. I’m not going to sell these films short. Onward!
Actor in a Leading Role: The SAG Award went to Washington. I don’t understand that. There seems to be a lot of love for Washington out there. There is also a lot of backlash with sexual harassment scandals involving Affleck. For the American Society of Cinematographers, Washington won their Board of Governers Award. Holy shit. He’s never even done cinematography for a film. I know it’s about a lifetime of contribution, but really? He’s 62. He has plenty more years of film work in front of him. There’s something about his performances that always have a kernel of similarity to all his other performances. I realize I’m biased because I hate the character he plays (Troy Maxson), but when you put his performance up next to Casey Affleck’s outstanding job in Manchester by the Sea, it should literally be a no-brainer. As much as I like Ryan Gosling, I’m not sure why he’s nominated. He did a solid job, and his dancing was great (singing was ok). But, best actor? It is interesting that Viggo Mortensen is nominated. His work in Captain Fantastic is very good – a different kind of contained that what Affleck does. It’s a great film. However, the ending was really stupid (You think Frank Langella isn’t going to try to track down those kids? Fat chance.). Of course, the ending has nothing to do with Mortensen’s competent work in the film. That leaves Andrew Garfield, who had two physically and mentally brutal performances last year: Silence and Hacksaw Ridge. Both are outstanding, courageous pieces of work. Based on merit, the order should be: Casey Affleck, Andrew Garfield, Viggo Mortensen, Denzel Washington, Ryan Gosling.
Actress in a Leading Role (I didn’t see Elle): I find this category odd. I don’t know why Viola Davis isn’t up for it. I don’t see her role as supporting. If she were in this category, she would still win. I’m at a marked deficit because from what I’ve seen of trailers, Isabelle Huppert did a wonderful job. As for the others in this category, I have issues with 3 of 4. The first is Meryl Streep. I didn’t like Florence Foster Jenkins. In fact, it made me a little angry. I get that you love someone so much you want to shield them from negativity, but the amount of effort put into keeping the fact that Jenkins, who was already suffering from dementia brought on by syphilis, was a horrible singer yet still wanted to perform, was really ridiculous and wasteful. That may sound callous on my part, and I know this was based on a true story, but not only was the original situation ludicrous, but making a movie about it was further indulgent. My guess is her performance is spot-on to the actual Jenkins, but ultimately, I didn’t care. Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie Kennedy was, as Streep’s, well-studied. From archival footage, she sounded and acted just like Jackie. I don’t know much about the historical JKO, so I was hoping that this film would help me understand her a little bit better. It didn’t. I walked out feeling mostly uninformed. And, I think, that might have been part of the film’s point. I don’t think it was trying to answer questions. It was a film I was thinking about days after I saw it. So, yeah, Portman did a great job. The third issue has to do with Ruth Negga’s nomination for Loving. Like Washington and Davis in Fences, I don’t think you could have had a successful movie in Loving without both Negga’s and Edgerton’s portrayals of Richard and Mildred Loving. Both of them did outstanding work which was the opposite of what happens in Fences. It’s a very quiet film. Very respectful of its subject. So, why isn’t Edgerton nominated, yet Negga is? It isn’t right. I don’t have a problem with Stone’s nomination, and she did practically sparkle in every scene she was in. She did win the SAG award for best actress. So, not only is it a safe bet, but it’s pretty accurate. Merit: Stone, Portman, Negga, Streep (cannot place Huppert).
Best Supporting Actor: This one is tough. This may actually be more challenging than Best Actor. My clear and very easy choice is Michael Shannon, because his work in Nocturnal Animals is so ridiculously good (as well as the, no kidding, 9 other films he was in in 2016). I don’t think Jeff Bridges should win. He’s essentially doing a more hard-core version of Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Bell character from No Country for Old Men (2007). Not a big deal, especially for Bridges. I’m not really sure why Hedges is nominated, other than trying to get someone nominated that’s under the age of 30. Yeah, he does fine in Manchester, but I don’t see a lot of acting (maybe in one or two scenes). It doesn’t help that he’s working next to Affleck and how great Affleck is in the film. Mahershala Ali won the SAG award, and his performance was good. But really who it should go to is Dev Patel. His work in Lion is raw and emotional. He should share the nomination with Sunny Pawar, the little boy who plays the young Saroo in the first part of the film. Merit: Dev Patel, Michael Shannon, Mahershala Ali, Lucas Hedges, Jeff Bridges.
Actress in a Supporting Role: The work done in this category was very strong. Viola Davis’ Rose tore at my heart. As I argued previously, she should be up for Best Actress. This was not a supporting role. Naomie Harris’ work in Moonlight, while clichéd, was solid. When you find out she did all of her scenes in three days, it makes her work shine even more. She’s the only actor that is in all three parts of Moonlight. She’s the through-line. Octavia Spencer is stalworth, but to me, she sort of has only two modes in this film: steadfast friend and chin-up-in-the-face-of-discrimination. I don’t see a lot of range in what she does in the film. The one that did have the most range, even though she’s not in the movie all that much, is Nicole Kidman. You see so many sides to that character and understand so much of what she has been through. That’s talent to convey all those states of mind. While Michelle Williams was good, she’s in so very little of Manchester by the Sea that I don’t think this is a fair nomination. Some have likened her nomination to that of Judi Dench’s Shakespeare in Love or Viola Davis’ Doubt nominations for 8 minutes of screen time. I’m not trying to say the work wasn’t good. But there’s a reason why the word “supporting” is in this category. I think there should be more significant contribution to the film overall. Order: Viola Davis, Naomie Harris, Nicole Kidman, Octavia Spencer, Michelle Williams (hey! alphabetical order!).
Animated Feature Film (My Life as a Zucchini won’t be released near me until after the awards): I really enjoyed the films in this category, some of which surprised me. Kubo and the Two Strings was masterful. That’s the first one I saw in the category. When I saw that, I felt that none of the others would be able to hold a candle. Next, I saw Moana. As much as I’d like to poo-poo the juggernaut that is Disney, I couldn’t help but find the film adorable. Princess Moana has come a long way from the princesses of Disney past. When I’d see posters for Zootopia, it just looked too goofy to be good. When it won the Golden Globe for best animated feature, I was shocked. So, I watched it. It was so relevant to what is going on now with Trump’s all-out policies on immigrants and Muslims, yet also folded in gender politics and perseverance. The film has so much heart to it. It was wonderful storytelling. I was disappointed in The Red Turtle, which I fully expected to be at my top, because it is produced by Studio Ghibli (even though it was made by a Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit) and executive produced by my all-time favorite, Isao Takahata. The film was beautiful (looked like a modern Japanese wood-block print), but it was also pretty slow and overly metaphorical while not always maintaining the metaphors. The trailer for My Life as a Zucchini looks amazing and deals with children living in a foster home. Pretty serious stuff. But, nothing’s going to beat Zootopia. Merit: Zootopia, Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, The Red Turtle (cannot place My Life as a Zucchini).
Cinematography (Did not see Silence – sorry, Marty): This got more interesting when the ASC gave their award to Lion. But when you couple that with the fact that Greig Fraser was also DP on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in the same year, that’s pretty impressive. The dream-ish sequences in Lion are striking. The camera work in Arrival and Moonlight is also appropriate and effective, each evoking a tonal sense for the films. From what I’ve heard about the production of Silence, it was a Bataan Death March in Taiwan. It sounded horrible. Mud. Typhoons. Constant rain. Short shooting schedule. Poor Marty. But I don’t see how anyone can fail to acknowledge how drop-dead beautiful La La Land was. Linus Sandgren did an amazing job. He’s also DPed David O. Russell’s last two films. Loved his work on American Hustle. This should be his award to lose. Order: Sandgren (La La Land), geez this is hard … um … Fraser (Lion), Young (Arrival), Laxton (Moonlight) (cannot place Prieto).
Costume Design (didn’t see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them): When you think of costume design, you usually think of period pieces or fantasy. In fact, they actually break down their awards into different categories based on genre. Clever. Their ceremony is a week before the Oscars. Their nominees are really interesting. I don’t know if I’d consider La La Land fantasy, so it’s an odd duck in this category. But the CDG has a category for contemporary, so there you go. Marion Cotillard’s gowns in Allied were indeed beautiful, and I know a lot of work went into the costumes for that film. So, I have to divorce my apathy to that film when I consider this. Yeah, the costumes in Beasts were interesting. As were the costumes in FFJ. And Jackie. Merit: Jackie, Allied, La La Land, FFJ (cannot place Beasts).
Directing: DAMIEN CHAZELLE!!! You can practically see the love in each frame of that film. The other films are well-directed, without a doubt. Learning about Lonegan’s coming off of the nightmare litigations with Margaret (2011) and him taking over this film and how hard this film is bears true testimony to his adherence to his craft. Barry Jenkins’ personal attachment to the story of Chiron also shows the depth of responsibility and reverence for the materials he worked with. The full commitment of Mel Gibson to tell the story of Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge was inspiring. The body of work Denis Villeneuve is amassing displays significant talent. All of these films are good. But, when I think about what I will buy and rewatch, this is easy. Order: Chazelle (La La Land), Lonegan (Manchester by the Sea), Villeneuve (Arrival), Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge), Jenkins (Moonlight).
Documentary – Feature (Fuck you, Academy. I am not watching 7 hours and 47 minutes of what is essentially an ESPN documentary mini-series. Just because it was shown in theaters a few times does not make it a movie.): I think this is where you will see politics in total play here, and it will give liberals an anxiety attack to judge whether they should give the award to a film about Lampedusa, a city in Sicily that processes refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East on boats across the Mediterranean Sea, mostly with disastrous results, or one of three documentaries on the African-American experience. The darkest horse in the group is Life, Animated, which tells the story of an autistic boy who uses Disney films to communicate. In light of the other four films nominated, this one comes off as kind of a joke. I honestly did not get Fire at Sea beyond the obvious juxtaposition of everyday life in Lampedusa to the horrors of the refugees. The long passages following the boy around were so slow and wasteful. What should win, and what everyone should see is I Am Not Your Negro. James Baldwin’s eloquence is so beautiful and painful. Expertly edited archival footage, coupled with Samuel L. Jackson’s almost-whispered readings of Baldwin’s text is, in my estimation, one of the best films of the entire year. It really makes 13th look pale in comparison. Order: I Am Not Your Negro, and forget the rest, really.
Documentary – Short Subject: I won’t be seeing these until Mom gets here next weekend, so, my apologies.
Film Editing: Films are made and broken in post-production. One thing I am learning from listening to interviews with producers, directors, and editors is that the films they want to make are not the films we end up seeing. So much gets compromised. This is essentially the same list as best director, only with Manchester by the Sea swapped out with Hell or High Water. Why is that? Is it because there were bank robberies and car chases? That seems a bit lame. The non-linear storytelling in Manchester was quite compelling and, by extension, well-edited. Anyways. Normally when I think of something as being “well-edited,” I’m looking at action sequences or dance numbers. Not sure why Moonlight is here. It really should come down to Hacksaw Ridge and La La Land. And since there’s a lot of long takes in La La Land, the really tight editing in that film comes in the sequences at the end (the “what-could-have-been,” which was highly effective). What the American Cinema Editors’ Eddie Awards did was give Arrival best edited dramatic feature and La La Land best comedy feature. (My) Order: John Gilbert (Hacksaw Ridge), Tom Cross (La La Land), Joe Walker (Arrival), Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon (Moonlight), Jake Roberts (Hell or High Water).
Foreign Language Film (Land of Mine will not be released in my area until after the awards. Was going to see Toni Erdmann, but was always put off by the fact that it is 2 hours and 42 minutes long): I realize only seeing 3 of 5 nominees puts me at a disadvantage here. I’m still rather puzzled why, after all the attention it got, The Handmaiden was not nominated for this category (edit 2/21/17: Apparently, South Korea didn't submit it. Why? Beats me.). For me, watching A Man Called Ove was a very similar experience to watching The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, which was a Swedish film up for best makeup in 2014. Both films are very similar: an actor is aged through makeup to look at various parts of his life. While 100 got really goofy after a while, this other Swedish film (oddly enough, not made by the same people but being really tonally similar), was a better film of the two. Tanna was Romeo and Juliet in the jungle. It was beautiful (the shots that included the lava flying from the volcano were amazing), and the Nauvhal language is so alien, like most of the world we see in the film. The Salesman, directed by Asghar Farhadi, whose 2011 film A Separation won in this same category, was really built-up, so when I watched it, I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. Yes, it was a good story (sort of, maybe), but I don’t see anything particularly innovative here. So … I’m assuming that film will win, simply due to the fact that it was made in Iran. None of the films I saw really impressed me. From what I’ve seen of Land of Mine, it tells an amazing story. I don’t think I’ll vote on this category here.
Make-up and Hairstyling: Um … I only saw A Man Called Ove. I wasn’t going to watch Suicide Squad or Star Trek Beyond just for this category. So, a superhero movie, a science fiction movie, and a quirky Swedish film. It’d be great to see the Swedish film win, just for giggles.
Original Music Score (did not see Passengers): The score for Lion really stands out to me here. I realize this is Thomas Newman’s (Passengers) 13th nomination, but that film got little attention. Since I’m fairly sure Justin Hurwitz is going to win in the Best Original Song category, he may get a pass on his score (splitting the vote could be an issue for him, too). I’d say another strong contender is Britell. The music in Moonlight really heightened individual scene moods. But, I could say the same thing for Lion. This is another really tough one. Merit: Moonlight, Lion, La La Land, Jackie. (cannot place Passengers)
Best Song: Normally, I don’t care at all about this category. I think it’s a waste of time. NOT THIS YEAR! The Academy should go to “You’re Welcome” from Moana, but it’s not up. If you ever see Kim, please let her how sorry you are for her that she has to listen to me sing this all the time. I didn’t see Trolls, but I listened to “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” which is a fun song. And everyone loves Justin Timberlake. That’s not winning, but it will make it fun for Timberlake to perform at the ceremonies. Also, I didn’t see Jim: The James Foley Story, but I listened to “The Empty Chair” by Sting, and … Sting’s getting old. Initially, I didn’t know if it was him singing or whoever J. Ralph was. Also, why wasn’t that film nominated for best documentary? Sounds like it was pretty good. I could venture a guess. The song is very sad, and in the face of all these other fun songs, there’s no way it has a chance. So, that leaves the two songs from La La Land and “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana. I’d go: “City of Stars,” “Audition,” “How Far I’ll Go,” “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and “The Empty Chair.”
Production Design (did not see Beasts or Passengers): Yeesh, another tough one. There are some specific worlds created here. I’d say La La Land is the least worthy, since most of its locations were real. Hail, Caesar! is another movie about movies, and it was a period piece, and the movie within a movie was a Roman epic, so they had harder work to tackle. That leaves you with the fantasy world of Beasts, the completely outer space Passengers and the interior spaceship of Arrival. Like costumes, the Art Directors Guild also breaks down their awards into contemporary, period and fantasy. They recognized (read: nominated) Nocturnal Animals. They get it. As far as what to pick that’s actually up: Arrival, Hail, Caesar!, La La Land. (cannot place the other two)
Short Animated Film: I won’t be seeing these until Mom gets here next weekend, so, my apologies.
Short Live Action Film: I won’t be seeing these until Mom gets here next weekend, so, my apologies.
Sound Editing (This is the only award Sully is up for, and I’m not going to watch that movie just for this.): I thought Hacksaw Ridge had this in the bag. Then I saw Deepwater Horizon. Ho-ly shit. Wow. Damn. Merit: Deepwater Horizon, Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival, La La Land. (cannot place Sully)
Sound Mixing: I thought Hacksaw Ridge had this in the bag. Then I saw 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Wow. Damn. That was pretty similar. However, whereas HR has part of the film that is not in combat, almost all of 13 Hours is either waiting to get attacked or getting crazy attacked. And that film is 2 hours and 24 minutes long. Merit: 13 Hours, Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival, Rogue One, La La Land.
Visual Effects: I thought Dr. Strange had this in the bag. Then I saw Deepwater Horizon. I still think Dr. Strange was amazing. But it was amazing fantasy. Watching Horizon, I feel like I know what those men and women went through during that disaster. The realism was incredible. I am quite tickled / pleased that Kubo and the Two Strings was given a nod here. That’s extremely rare to see for an animated film. However, the stop motion work they did on Kubo was astounding. While The Jungle Book won most of the Visual Effects Society awards (for photoreal categories), Kubo won for best animated visual effects. It’s nice to see someone other than Disney win something. That’s respect. I love VFX. These awards are cool. Merit: everyone. Even though I didn’t like The Jungle Book, I have no problem saying the VFX were impressive.
Best Adapted Screenplay: So, THIS IS MY CATEGORY. However, out of the 5, I’ve only read one. The weirdness is, I’ve taught that one. I’m of course talking about Fences. And I would be an idiot to hate on August Wilson. I’ve loved this play since I first encountered it. However, there are better stories being told here. Not going to lie – Luke Davies adaptation of the real story of Lion is what should win. Sorry, but this is too compelling and blows away the other four. After that, this gets complicated. Technically, Hidden Figures should come second, given how amazing that true story is. That leaves you with Arrival and Moonlight. Order: Lion, Fences, Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Arrival.
Best Original Screenplay (did not see 20th Century Women): There are two real contenders here: La La Land and Manchester by the Sea. Hell or High Water was good, but the acting in it made the writing shine more than it did (though you could say the same for Manchester). The Lobster is one of the worst movies I’ve seen in years (not from an execution point of view but a “Do I Give A Fuck About The Human Species?” point of view). I will seriously come in conflict with you if you say you liked this film to my face, or at least lose some respect. Merit: Manchester by the Sea, La La Land, Hell or High Water. (cannot place 20th Century and will not dignify Lobster by doing so)
There’s so many different ways to define what a movie is. Is it artistic? Emotional? Important for its time / place? Gut reaction? Aesthetic? So many different things to consider. Here’s mine, with my honest opinions. I’d like to think I focus on craft, but maybe I’m fooling myself.
9. Hidden Figures – This is my no means a bad movie. In fact, all the movies nominated this year are good films. But I would say there is a marked difference between a “good” film and a “great” film. For example, when I look at the films I own on DVD from last year, they are: The Big Short, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Spotlight. Guess what I have reserved for purchase this year? Nocturnal Animals and La La Land. So, what does that say? Quite a lot. This film is a story that needs to be told. My position: this would have made an amazing documentary. However, they went the dramatic route. The performances were solid, but this writing was aw-ful. “We all pee the same color.” Maybe that line was actually spoken in the real world during this incident, but that shouldn’t have been in final cut, instead of a rousing point. This is a paint-by-numbers film. A TV film. Not best pic material.
8. Hell or High Water – This should be a testament as to how good the movies are this year. This is my #8. If someone wanted to ask me why Trump was president right now, I’d tell them to go watch this movie. I don’t know how many of the “coastal elite” understand what it is like for people to be out of work for a long period of time. This film stretches back long before current times, to the housing collapse of 2008 and even before, but it relates directly to what we are seeing today as the aftermath. The most telling scene of this film is when Hamilton comes to Howard’s porch at the end of the film, and Howard explains that he’s been poor all his life, and here was an opportunity to reverse that for his own children. I know a lot has been made of this being a modern-day western, but it really isn’t. It is about what is happening now. It is about a rural America desperate for America being great again. And, they don’t know (or want to know) how much they’ve been lied to in order to make that happen. This movie is incredibly well-executed. This is film is thoughtful. But, it may be too subtle. Do you realize that as of 2/3/17, this film has made $27 million against a $12 million budget? Do you understand how sad that is?
7. Fences – August Wilson is an undisputed genius. And this play is perhaps within the top 10 plays of the 20th Century (and if you know me, that’s a big claim). The characters are what make this. As stated previously, I think Troy is a horrible person. Just like I think Willy Loman is a horrible person. I see a bit of my father in both men. Very depressing. Kim made an astute and important point about the Madonna / Whore complex and how it relates to Rose (and also Linda Loman). Why do we have to make these women such martyrs? She’s got a point. Up until now, my affinity for Rose has been very solid. However, why does she have to be so “good”? So “long-suffering?” Men = bad, women = good (or necessary to be good in order to stay with these dirtbags). Why? I used to think Wilson was a visionary for how he depicted women. Now, I think it may be a cop-out.
6. Arrival – This a great film. However, I found it lacking. I just felt it got away with things too easily. And, that’s a problem with time-travel, sci-fi movies. It takes something that is meant to save the world, and looks at how it can save an individual. I wanted to love it, for its humanity. But, it got too ridiculous. So, I don’t begrudge this film a minute, but it needed to be tighter.
5. Hacksaw Ridge – This is outstanding, and if you didn’t see it in a theater, you missed it. This needed to be seen in a theater. However, this film is not for everyone. It is a very gory, violent film. But the story it tells is so uplifting and honorable, it is worth watching. Also, it is technically well-made. As much as people want to throw shit at Mel Gibson, he did a masterful job with this film. So did all the actors. Out of all the films nominated for best picture, this is by far the most intense.
4. Moonlight – What I appreciate about this film is its subtlety and its confidence that you will do with the characters what you will. No one “wins” in this film. If you are human, it should hurt you. It’s a very beautiful film. However, it is also heavily clichéd and formulaic. So, it turns me off. This is not a limit of the filmmakers. Well, perhaps. Actually, yeah, that’s what I’m saying.
3. Manchester by the Sea – This movie is physically debilitating. I came out of it feeling I had been beaten up. So many scenes that were so powerful and real. It is a very deliberate film. I respect what everyone was trying to do. Yes, it is depressing. But, it is so human, you can’t but help to watch and identify. If you haven’t seen it, GO NOW. Pay respect to amazing filmmaking.
2. Lion – When you think about movies, you think about the stories they tell. This one, Arrival, and my #1 have the best stories. A man, who has grown up in affluence when he could have been discarded like so many others, is so tormented by the pain he has most certainly left behind that he is compelled to go back. While I love La La Land, this story is much better. And, the filmmaking is so careful and respectful of the real people it depicts (much like Loving).
1. La La Land – You don’t like this film? Think it was overhyped? Fine. Go ahead. Sorry about your cynicism. I’m a cynic. And a pessimist. And I loved this film. Why? Because I’m also an idealist at heart. I really do want to believe in the good of everyone. And yet, in the face of its flights of fancy, there is some realism. From all the audition rejections to the shattering of dreams (a great jazz bar now a tapas place?), the alternate “Hollywood” ending and what Chazelle does with it. This is beautiful and life-affirming. NONE of the other films makes you feel good once you leave (well, maybe Lion, a little bit). This one does. Does it matter? TAKE A LOOK AROUND YOU RIGHT NOW. Yes, it matters.