Saturday, February 25, 2017

Oscars: Predictions & Thoughts

So! As is the case every year for the past, like, decade plus, I'm gearing up for the Oscars telecast by considering the nominees in a bunch of categories, who I think is going to win, and who I think should win. Before we get into it: If you don't care, don't post to tell me how much you don't care. If you care but you think the whole thing is problematic, then g'head and post and I'll be happy to talk about it, but just know that this is one of those problematic things I like, so that's where I'm coming from.

With that said...

The slate this year is pretty strong. Often there's a Best Picture nominee that I kinda feel shouldn't be there, and I don't feel that way this year. I mean, sure, disagree with the nominees, but like, The Blind Side should not have been nominated, even within the context of "white people solving racism" movies. This year, I think the weakest movie was Manchester by the Sea, and that wasn't so weak that it doesn't deserve the acclaim it's getting.

Plus, we've actually got some diversity this year. Could/should we have more? Hell, yes. (I'm reminded of Ruth Bader Ginsburg saying that the appropriate number of women on the SCOTUS should be nine, because we've had nine men for many decades and no one much cared.) So - it's a step forward. It's not a run across a finish line, but it's progress, and frankly that's something we can use this year.

Oh, and, before we go any further: Potential spoiler warnings for any and all of the nominated films.

Best Actor: A couple of really strong performances here, and a couple that I'm a little more "meh" about. Let's start with the meh. Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea is playing a man who has suffered an immeasurable personal tragedy, but I kind of feel like the direction of the movie hurt him (more on this later). Ryan Gosling is not my favorite actor in the world anyway, and his performance in La La Land was perfectly good but I don't feel his singing is amazing and I don't think his acting in that film is anything to write home about (I'd rather this slot have gone to Dev Patel, who really deserves this nom rather than Supporting Actor). Viggo Mortensen isn't going to win for Captain Fantastic; the movie was good and he absolutely carried it (though I was impressed with George MacKay, too), but it doesn't have the buzz behind it to get anywhere. That pretty much leaves Denzel Washington and Andrew Garfield.

Denzel is probably going to win it, and I'm fine with that, but let's talk about the reasons (behind his intense performance in Fences). First of all, it's great that there a bunch of POC nominated this year, but if no one wins that's kind of weak. Second, it's probably the strongest performance, and definitely one of the most demanding (Garfield's is the other one). Third, it's a way to recognize August Wilson's work, which is definitely a worthy endeavor.

But then there's Garfield, playing real-life war hero and pacifist Desmond Doss, whose heroics were, if anything, downplayed in Hacksaw Ridge. Garfield manages to put across a man of faith without coming across as corny or condescending, and that's a hard sell (for me especially). I think I'm OK if he doesn't win it, both because I'd hate to see a Mel Gibson film get too much acclaim and because Garfield's young, so he's got time to do something else fantastic and win.

My Choice & Prediction: Denzel Washington

Best Actress: This race is weird in that four of the five movies nominated aren't nominated for anything (or much) else, which is why I think Emma Stone is gonna win it. I'm not thrilled about that, mind. Stone is a fine actress and I love a lot of her work - hell, I loved her in La La Land, but I would so much rather have seen her win for Birdman. I wouldn't be sad to see her win, I'm just not thrilled about the movie she's winning it for.

But, what else we got. Natalie Portman ain't winning for Jackie. I'm not sure how I feel about the movie. I liked her performance well enough (and she basically was the whole movie), but I also feel like the movie wasn't anything new, or didn't do anything daring. I don't know. I sort of feel that way about Loving, too. Ruth Negga (who I know as Raina from Agents of SHIELD) was nicely understated, but maybe too understated? Like, the back half of the movie it felt like they were really struggling to put some tension into it, and it felt sort of flat as a result.

Can't say that Elle was boring, anyway, and Isabelle Huppert played an interesting (if horrible) character. There's actually a lot to unpack in that movie, and I don't have the time or inclination to get into it too deep, but suffice to say that her performance is actually the one of these five that's stuck with me the most. Is that to say it's the best?

Last one, of course, is Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins, which I was expecting to be this silly, light-hearted sort of thing and it wound up being a lot more interesting and dramatic than I was thinking. I hate to say, though, but I'm still of the opinion that we should take a five-year break from nominating Streep for Oscars, just to see some new folks get the noms. It's not that she's not a fabulous actress, she is (and I actually think this was a pretty strong role for her), it's just that she's pretty emblematic of the "oh, well, we gotta nominate her!" problem.

Anyway, I'm not sure how to call this. Well, I think Stone's gonna win, but who do I think should win it?

My Choice: Isabelle Huppert
My Prediction: Emma Stone

Best Supporting Actor: Interesting race, here. I think we can count out Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea. He did well playing a young man who's lost his father and is coping with the shock of that, but is still being a teen (people dealing with loss aren't necessarily nice and aren't necessarily above using that loss to get away with shit). Michael Shannon was one of my favorite parts of Nocturnal Animals, but since that's this movie's only nom, I don't think it's got the oomph to win (Shannon needs to get nominated for a meatier role one of these days). If Jeff Bridges won, I guess I wouldn't cry, but he's basically playing the same role he played in Crazy Heart (except a cop) or True Grit (except in modern day), so that's a little disappointing.

That takes us to Dev Patel and Mahershala Ali. Ali's been all over the place this year; he starred in Moonlight, for which he's nominated, but also shows up in Hidden Figures and, of course, as Cottonmouth in Luke Cage. I think he's doing pretty damn well, and the roles he's playing are distinct. And I really liked him in Moonlight, playing a character who's making his living selling drugs, but clearly not considering the human cost of that until it comes back around. Since drug dealers and drug-adjacent people in movies, black men especially, tend to be much less empathetic characters, it was really refreshing to see someone who was capable of displaying love and kindness for no reason other than that's what he feels.

And then Patel, who, as I mentioned, really should have been nominated for Best Actor, but I don't know how these decisions work. Patel really carried the movie, and I don't think Lion is getting anything else (no way is it beating Fences and Moonlight for Adapted Screenplay). Unless, of course, voters feel that Ali's role was too small (or too black) to take it, in which case we might get Patel or Bridges, but I'll be an optimist.

My Choice & Prediction: Mahershala Ali

Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis. We done here? Well, no, of course, not.

So, Davis really should have a Best Actress nom for Fences, because her role is just as important to the movie as Washington's, but my understanding is that they pushed for this category because she'd be more likely to win it. And, I think it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that she will? But let's see.

Naomie Harris in Moonlight plays an emotionally abusive drug addict. An aside: One thing I like about this year is that we've got several women of color nominated and they're not all playing abusers, because the black women who've won acting Oscars while I've been paying attention pretty much all have been (that'd be Halle Berry and Mo'Nique). That's not to say that Harris didn't kill it, because she did, but she was reportedly hesitant to take the role of a crack addict and like, I can understand why. Meanwhile, we've got Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures, the only one of the cast to get a nom, which kind of chafes me a little. I loved her character and her performance, though I think Janelle Monae might have been the stronger one.

And then we get our two token white girls, Michelle Williams and Nicole Kidman, both previous nominees. I don't think Williams deserved the nom. Her role in Manchester by the Sea was important, sure, but it was small and not on the level of some of her other work. I really don't think Kidman deserved it for Lion, and I frankly can't think of a standout scene. I don't think we'll see either one of them take it. We'd better not, at least.

My Choice: Octavia Spencer (but it's a near thing)
My Prediction: Viola Davis

Best Director: Fuck Mel Gibson. With that said, Hacksaw Ridge is actually really good and really well-directed, dammit. I don't think Gibson's going to win, although it's kind been the year for rewarding anti-Semitism, hasn't it? I'm depressed now. Moving on.

I don't think Denis Villenueve is taking it for Arrival. I don't think it has the juice to overcome La La Land, and it's slow and kind of bland, for what it is. Likewise, I don't think we'll see Kenneth Longeran win for Manchester by the Sea. One of the things about that movie that bugged me was that the reveal about why Affleck's character is such a dick comes too late in the film, and we don't really get time to process it properly; the whole movie is told in dribs and drabs. Pacing's too slow. Maybe it's just me, I dunno, but a movie about a guy who loses his children in a fire should have torn me apart, and it barely registered.

Anyway, that leaves us with Barry Jenkins for Moonlight and Damien Chazelle for La La Land. One is a queer drama with barely any white people in it at all, while the other is a very pretty, very self-congratulatory movie about movie-makers. I wish I could maintain optimism, but I think Hollywood's gonna choose to give itself a handjob, here. I hope I'm wrong; Jenkins would be the first black man to win Best Director if he does win.

My Choice: Barry Jenkins
My Prediction: Damien Chazelle

Best Animated Feature: Once again, I'm one movie down - I could not find a way to see My Life as a Zucchini, so I have no idea what happens. I have seen the rest, however. So, let's discount The Red Turtle. I liked it, it was beautiful and sad and minimalist, but it's not beating the three mainstream movies.

Those movies are: Zootopia, Moana, and Kubo & The Two Strings, all of which I really loved. I don't think Kubo is going to win over the other two; it's amazing, but jesus, the other two were pretty huge and Kubo is weird. So: Disney princess movie or Disney animal movie? (That's an oversimplification and does neither movie any service, by the way.) Moana came out more recently and might be fresh in people's minds, but Zootopia had a worldwide total gross of over a billion dollars, and that's pretty goddamn impressive. I think the ways in which Moana was impressive might slide under the radar.

My Choice: Kubo & the Two Strings
My Prediction: Zootopia

Adapted Screenplay: Two plays, a short story, a memoir, and a non-fiction book, and as usual I've read none of them. I think this is likely to go to either Moonlight or Fences, and that's probably fine. I think Lion is a pretty amazing story, and from what I've found in my light research, they played fair by the story (even softening the blow about how Saroo's brother died, which would otherwise have been a real downer). Arrival was an interesting story, but I kind of want to watch it again at some point. I love time travel and I love linguistics, and I feel like there's probably more there for a second viewing. Hidden Figures, I dunno. We might see this win so the white people can feel good about solving racism (that whole thing with Kevin Coster knocking down the "colored" bathroom sign was fabricated, but then, so was the notion that Taraji P. Henson's character had to run across campus to use the colored bathroom (she claims she refused and just used the white one). I feel like that could have been played for drama just as effectively.

Either way, I don't think I'd cry if any of these took the award, though Hidden Figures would annoy me not because the script was bad, but because of the changes to history that were made.

My Choice: Moonlight
My Prediction: Hidden Figures

Original Screenplay: And here, I'm missing one. Never got around to seeing 20th Century Women, and based on that synopsis, neither did anyone else. There's no way it's beating La La Land, anyway, which I think is the probable winner, but what else we got? This is the category where the weird stuff goes.

Frankly, we could do with a little more weird stuff. We've got Manchester by the Sea again, which I don't think had a strong enough script for this nom, honestly. We've got Hell or High Water, which I think does belong here - it's a neo-noir/Western, which is pretty cool, and it's got a story that's straightforward but not boring. Then we've got La La Land, which I actually do like, story-wise, if for no other reason than the lead characters don't wind up together, and so it subverts a couple of the tropes of its genre, which is always good.

Finally, The Lobster, what my brother might have called a "double blinker," because when it's over you sit there going "blink blink." Absurdist, slow, not funny but not sad, it's just weird, and with just enough magical realism that it kept me hooked.

My Choice: The Lobster
My Prediction: La La Land

Best Picture: OK, here we go.

Hell or High Water ain't winning. It's good and I'm glad it was nominated, because it's nice to have something that's watchable and entertaining, while still being dramatic, here.

Arrival, likewise, ain't winning, but I love seeing genre films get Best Picture noms. I personally think Deadpool should have gotten a nom (and before you say "oh, it's just a by-the-numbers revenge flick," yes, it is, but being representative of a genre hardly disqualifies a film. But I digress).

Manchester by the Sea ain't winning. It's up against too many movies that could make a Statement by winning, but even absent that, I don't think it's got the chops to beat La La Land.

Hacksaw Ridge ain't winning, and man, I'm conflicted about this movie. On the one hand, fuck Mel Gibson. On the other, it's really good. The battle scenes are fantastically and brutally choreographed, Doss' character is really well-realized, and he even gets a harsh lesson in consent when he kisses a girl without asking. A couple of really heavy-handed religious images, but just a couple, and otherwise it's really impressive. Dammit, Gibson, why you gotta be such a douche?

Lion ain't winning, but it tells a really compelling story and it's a good showcase for Patel. I almost wish Sunny Pawar, who plays Saroo as a boy, would have gotten a nom.

And now we're into the stuff that could win.

I don't think Fences is going to win. In addition to being too black (a problem it shares with Moonlight), I think it's too long and I think the Academy will reward Denzel with Best Actor (though I think he might have won Best Director if he'd been nominated).

That leaves Hidden Figures, Moonlight, and La La Land. I think we can probably count out Moonlight. Sure, it's probably the best of the nominees, and sure, it's drawing on the screenwriter and director's life experiences, but it's also too black, and it's up against a chance for the (mostly white) Academy voters to either feel good about the space race or feel good about movie-makers. That's a hard sell to get them to vote for a movie about a gay black man in Miami.

So, if it's between Hidden Figures and La La Land? I think given that the box office on La La Land dwarfed that of Hidden Figures, and since Hollywood really likes giving movies about movies the Best Picture (see also The Artist and Birdman), I think that's probably the way they'll go. And that's...OK, I guess.

My Choice: Moonlight
My Prediction: La La Land