I Am DB

February 25, 2017

Oscars 2016: The Envelope Please

 

Better late than never, right? I’d promise you that one day I will actually complete this post more than 24 hours before the show begins, but I don’t know if I have it in me to keep doing these long enough to fulfill that pledge. So for what it’s worth at this point, here are my Oscar predictions and requisite over-explanation.

 

BEST SOUND MIXING AND BEST SOUND EDITING

Sound Mixing:
Arrival – Bernard Gariepy Strobl and Claude La Haye
Hacksaw Ridge – Kevin O’Connell, Andy Wright, Robert Mackenzie and Peter Grace
La La Land – Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee and Steve A. Morrow
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – David Parker, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi – Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush and Mac Ruth

Sound Editing:
Arrival – Sylvain Bellemare
Deepwater Horizon – Wylie Stateman and Renee Tondelli
Hacksaw Ridge – Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright
La La Land – Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
Sully – Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman

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Get ready — you’re going to see the words La La Land a lot in this post. (Is La even a word?) Here in the Sound categories, it throws us a curveball. I pointed out when predicting the nominees that musicals have a great track record getting nominated for Sound Mixing, and not such a great one getting nominated for Sound Editing. This year, however, the Sound branch cited La La Land in both categories. I have to assume that most voters from other branches don’t much understand the difference between the two categories, nor what constitutes a great achievement in either of them. If La La Land had just been nominated for Mixing, I’m sure they would have voted for it, and the Sound Editing award would have gone elsewhere. But now that they can vote for it in both categories, will they? And if they decide to go with two different movies, will they honor La La Land in Mixing, where musicals have traditionally succeeded? Or will they honor it in Editing because, hey, they’re actors and cinematographers and costume designers, and they don’t know in which category musicals have traditionally succeeded? Since the impossibility of knowing is even more acute here than in other categories where it’s impossible to know but you still kinda know, I’ll be a traditionalist and predict that La La Land takes the award for Sound Mixing, but not Sound Editing. In that category, any of the nominees feel like viable winners, but I’m going with Hacksaw Ridge. When in doubt, voters might equate the chaotic noise of war with the best achievement in sound. Or, you know…not.

Personal: I rarely have strong feelings about the outcome of these races, being admittedly ignorant about how to judge the work. However, knowing that Sound Editing involves the creation of the aural components, my vote in that race would go to Arrival, as the only nominee of the five that had to imagine otherworldly sounds as opposed to re-creating earthbound ones.

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BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Deepwater Horizon – Craig Hammack, Jason Snell, Jason Billington and Burt Dalton
Doctor Strange – Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli and Paul Corbould
The Jungle Book – Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones and Dan Lemmon
Kubo and the Two Strings – Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McLean and Brad Schiff
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – John Knoll, Mohen Leo, Hal Hickel and Neil Corbould

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All five nominees boast stellar work that seemed to take certain VFX challenges further than they had been taken before, but the complexity and sheer amount of work that went into The Jungle Book has to be acknowledged. This wasn’t just about adding talking animals that looked believable. This whole damn movie was shot on a soundstage in downtown Los Angeles. The young star Neel Sethi was working on bluescreen and greenscreen stages with only small portions of the jungle set constructed for him to interact with. A boulder here, a small patch of grass there, a short sandy pathway over there….everything else around him was created in a computer. EVERYTHING. Think about that for a minute. Here’s the trailer for the movie. Watch it, and realize that other than what Sethi is actually physically touching at any given moment (not including the animals, of course) and perhaps what’s in his immediate vicinity, the rest of it is computer-generated. That, ladies and gentlemen, is Movie Magic at its most astonishing.

The problem is that voters don’t have the best track record of recognizing Movie Magic at its most astonishing. The good news this year is that there isn’t a Best Picture nominee to muddy the waters, as the inclusion of a prestige film often hijacks this award from a movie that features truly amazing and/or groundbreaking work. That’s how you get Gladiator beating The Perfect Storm, or Hugo over Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But that won’t be an issue this time, leaving a clear pathway for The Jungle Book. But you never know. Watch out for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Personal: It’s gotta be The Jungle Book.

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BEST HAIRSTYLING AND MAKEUP
A Man Called Ove – Eva von Bahr and Love Larson
Star Trek Beyond – Joel Harlow and Richard Alonzo
Suicide Squad – Alessandro Bertolazzi, Giorgio Gregorini and Christopher Nelson

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None of the three nominees are movies that lit it up with the Academy, so voters are a bit off the grid here. Don’t discount Suicide Squad just because it seemed to be derided by critics and audiences. Even without having seen it, I know there was an impressive variety to the work. But I’ll put my money on Star Trek Beyond, because Trek is a known quantity to voters whether they saw the movie or not.

Personal: Judging just by pictures from Suicide Squad, the work looks impressive. But Star Trek Beyond is the only one of the three I’ve seen, so I suppose it gets my vote by default. The new alien designs — especially the one sported by Sofia Boutella — do look Oscar-worthy to me. There’s something about that design that makes me want to eat ice cream. What’s that about?

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BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Jackie – Mica Levi
La La Land – Justin Hurwitz
Lion – Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka
Moonlight – Nicholas Brittel
Passengers – Thomas Newman

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When Disney musicals had their resurgence in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Oscar voters proved keen to award not just their memorable songs, but also their orchestral scores. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, AladdinThe Lion King and Pocahontas all took home the Oscar for Best Original Score even though you kind of got the feeling members were just voting for the scores as a way to vote for the overall music in the movie. I love those soundtracks (well, the first three anyway), but did the scores really deserve to win? Maybe. Maybe not. I bring it up because we’re in a similar situation this year, with La La Land poised to take this prize even though maybe, possibly, perhaps its actual instrumental score isn’t really as strong or memorable as some of its songs. It has a nice theme, for sure, but does the full score really merit an Oscar? Many will think so, and they will vote for it, and it will win.

Personal: I’m probably not being fair. La La Land‘s score is good, and functions successfully in the movie, which is ultimately what should matter with this award, even if — as I say every year — I’m always looking for something that stands tall on its own, apart from the movie. On that score (no pun intended) I think La La Land comes up a little short. It’s between Jackie and Moonlight for me, because both take a similarly unexpected approach to their subject matter. I admire the stylistic choices of both, but found Jackie‘s to be more memorable.

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BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Audition (The Fools Who Dream) – La La Land — Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Can’t Stop the Feeling – Trolls — Music and Lyric by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster
City of Stars – La La Land — Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
The Empty Chair – Jim: The James Foley Story — Music and Lyric by J. Ralph and Sting
How Far I’ll Go – Moana — Music and Lyric by Lin-Manuel Miranda

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You avid Hamilton fans eager for Lin-Manuel Miranda to complete his EGOT with an Oscar win had better put your hopes on hold. Despite contributing music to the latest animated film from Disney — as well-trod a path to success in this category as it is in Best Original Score — it’s not going to happen this year. But fear not; Miranda will have plenty of future chances. With a Mary Poppins sequel in the works and a secretive animated project with Sony a few years off, he’s not throwing away his shot.

The winning film will be La La Land, and this time it should be. The only question is which of the movie’s two nominated songs will emerge victorious: “City of Stars,” or “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)?” Nearly every pundit seems to be banking on the former, and that’s the smart bet. I’m going against the grain, however, and guessing that “Audition” pulls off an upset. First of all, there are really two versions of “City of Stars:” Ryan Gosling’s solo version, which has that memorable whistle going for it, but which is basically one verse; and Gosling’s duet with Emma Stone, which is longer, and has additional verses and alternate lyrics. I’d wager that when most people think of the song, they think of the solo, “whistling” version. But will they remember how brief it is? Will they care?

Then you have Stone’s solo, “Audition,” which is one of the most stirring moments in the movie, and a scene that I think people are more likely to remember than either of the scenes “City of Stars” figures into. It marks a major turning point in the story and furthers the journey of the characters; “City of Stars” doesn’t. It also has more evocative lyrics. Voters may not notice or care about these facts, especially with the powerful hook of that whistle echoing in their heads. So I don’t know. If voters are trying to recall the songs long after seeing the movie, “City of Stars” is probably the one that comes to mind. But if they really remember the moments in which the songs play and how they felt when they watched the movie, I’m convinced they’d vote for “Audition.” It’s not the wise move, but I’m sticking my neck out.

Personal: “City of Stars” is wonderful, so I don’t mean to knock it. I just think “Audition” is better. Gosling’s version of “Stars” is tinged with a touching melancholy, befitting the movie’s bittersweet resolution. The duet version, meanwhile, warmly speaks to the joys of finding love. But to me, “Audition” is the song that truly captures the full, blooming, in-love-with-art-and-artists spirit that infuses every frame of the movie, and it too is bittersweet, as it speaks to the struggle of reaching for an elusive dream. Plus, as I was saying, it has a more crucial function in the film. I certainly won’t be upset if “City of Stars” goes all the way, but “Audition” is the more deserving; an ultimately richer song that better encapsulates the themes of the movie.

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BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Allied – Joanna Johnston
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Colleen Atwood
Florence Foster Jenkins – Consolata Boyle
Jackie – Madeline Fontaine
La La Land – Mary Zophres

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As I said in the previous post, Jackie has beautiful costumes, but many of them are re-creations of well-documented outfits worn by Jackie Kennedy, and to me that means the movie really doesn’t deserve the nomination. A win would be disappointing. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) went there anyway, while the Costume Designers Guild (CDG) instead awarded Hidden Figures in its Period category. Figures is not among the Oscar nominees, nor is Doctor Strange, which took the prize in the guild’s Fantasy category (besting Kubo and the Two Strings, unfortunately). The only CDG winner included among Oscar’s five nominees is La La Land, which won in the Contemporary category. I think it will come out on top at the Oscars as well. Emma Stone sports one striking dress after another, and I imagine at least a few of those will be top of mind for many voters. On the other hand, Academy voters usually favor period pieces and fantasies — or a melding of the two — in the design categories. You have to go back to 1994 and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert for the last time this award went to a contemporary-set film. Before that? 1979(!) and All That Jazz. So history is against La La Land, but I think the bold colors will prove hard to resist, plus the styles are frequently old-fashioned, which helps lend a period feel to this modern musical.

Personal: La La Land. Those colors, those dresses…pretty much everything Emma Stone wears in this movie is splendid, forget about the rest of the cast. I liked the costumes in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, particularly Newt’s outfit, but I’ve got to give it up for La La Land.

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BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Arrival – Patrice Vermette, Paul Hotte
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Stuart Craig, Anna Pinnock
Hail, Caesar! – Jess Gonchor, Nancy Haigh
La La Land – David Wasco, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco
Passengers – Guy Hendrix Dyas, Gene Serdena

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In another category where movies with non-stylized contemporary settings rarely come out on top, La La Land is again likely to defy tradition. The movie is a tribute, among many things, to Technicolor musicals of Hollywood’s heyday, and just as in the Costume Design category, color is key. It’s not so much that the sets and locations are all striking in and of themselves, but rather what the design team did to make ordinary locales pop off the screen. The only other nominee that feels like a potential threat is Arrival, for the compelling interior of the alien craft, so unlike other such settings we’ve seen before. Still, that’s a single and sparse location, and most of the movie takes place outside the ship in more drab or ordinary settings.

Personal: La La Land. Every wall, every windowpane, every prop, every single strip, dash and dot of color seems carefully considered and absolutely deliberate. The cumulative effect is an eye-popping visual palette that feels familiar and new all at once.

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BEST FILM EDITING
Arrival – Joe Walker
Hacksaw Ridge – John Gilbert
Hell or High Water – Jake Roberts
La La Land – Tom Cross
Moonlight – Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon

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Any outcome feels possible in this category, where the kind of movie that wins is more varied than in some of the other “crafts” categories. Hacksaw Ridge has brutally intense battle scenes but also plenty of quieter, well-paced character drama. Hell or High Water feels tight and efficiently assembled as it moves between the bank robbing brothers and the Texas rangers investigating them. Moonlight divides one character’s story into three distinct chapters, each one feeling complete yet complimentary to the others. Arrival plays with time in unexpected ways that take on greater significance after the movie has ended. And La La Land moves between the fast-paced energy of big musical numbers and intimate moments of a romantic relationship with ease, where it could have left us with whiplash. (Get it?! Whiplash?!!?) The voters could throw us a curveball, but I have a feeling enough of them will associate editing with the rhythms of a musical and cast their vote for La La Land.

Personal: I wouldn’t be disappointed to see any of these take the prize, but I’d vote for Arrival. Amy Adams’ character experiences flashes throughout the story, and as we start to understand what they mean and why she’s having them, the way they interact with her current circumstances becomes crucial to unlocking the movie’s mysteries.

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BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Arrival – Bradford Young
La La Land – Linus Sandgren
Lion – Greig Fraser
Moonlight – James Laxton
Silence – Rodrigo Prieto

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In making my nomination predictions last month, I pointed out that the Academy’s nominees usually don’t match up with those from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), and that I thought Greig Fraser’s work on Lion would be the ASC nominee to miss with the Academy. Well, I blew that one. Not only did the Academy’s picks mirror the ASC’s exactly, but Fraser and Lion went on to win the ASC prize. Does that mean Fraser has the Oscar in his sights as well? Probably not. La La Land‘s Linus Sandgren is the frontrunner here. The Academy at large is more likely to remember the play of light (often spotlight) that transports us in and out the movie’s many musical numbers, as well as how the camerawork shows off the rainbow of colors captured within the costume and production design. Part of the reason the colors jump off the screen so vividly is due to the way the lighting illuminates them. All elements of a movie obviously rely on and play off each other, but La La Land‘s costumes, production design and camerawork function in particularly harmonious tandem. It’s hard to imagine the movie winning one and not the other two…though in fact, we don’t need to imagine it. BAFTA spread the love in these categories, giving Cinematography to La La Land, Costume Design to Jackie and Production Design to Fantastic Beasts. So it’s possible. But unlikely, I’m guessing.

Personal: La La Land, for the way the lighting makes the bright colors glow, dance and suck you whole into the world of the movie. Sandgren also gets credit for taking better advantage of Emma Stone than perhaps any cinematographer who’s ever filmed her. She has such an expressive face, so the camera loves her right off the bat. Sandgren really revels in that gift, often holding her in close-up and allowing her to be riveting simply in the act of looking. She brings that to the table, but he has to be there to capture it in all its effectiveness.

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BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Kubo and the Two Strings – Travis Knight and Arianne Sutner
Moana – John Musker, Ron Clements and Osnat Shurer
My Life as a Zucchini – Claude Barras and Max Karli
The Red Turtle – Michael Dudok de Wit and Toshio Suzuki
Zootopia – Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Clark Spencer

X

This has been an exciting category to watch throughout the season, with Zootopia and Kubo and the Two Strings running in near lockstep with critics organizations. Zootopia took the Golden Globe and the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) prize, but Kubo got the BAFTA. Most of the guilds don’t have a category for animation, but those that do — the Producers Guild of America (PGA) and the American Cinema Editors (ACE) — went with Zootopia, and it was also the big winner at the Annie Awards, though I’ve never considered those to be much of a factor with the Oscars. You’d like to think that people only vote in a category if they’ve seen all of the nominees, but some probably vote regardless, and if that applies to anyone with this category, it’s probable that Zootopia — one of the highest-grossing movies of the year — was seen by a lot more people than Kubo…and I’d wager was playing in a lot more family rooms over  Christmas vacation. Kubo has made too strong a showing to be counted out, surprising consistently throughout the season with a Best Visual Effects nomination, a groundbreaking nomination from the Costume Designers Guild, and more critics awards than people may have expected. At the end of the day though, the math seems to favor Zootopia.

Personal: Kubo and the Two Strings. Hey, Zootopia is terrific and I’ll hardly be despondent if it wins. But smart, sly, funny and touching as it is, it’s still cut from the familiar cloth of wide-eyed animals occupying bright, cheerful, landscapes. Thematically too, we’ve seen similar efforts rewarded before. Kubo, on the other hand, is a real original, with arresting visuals and the daring to tell a darker story than the typical plucky animated fare. Plus, Laika Studios has been putting out excellent work from the start. Each of its previous three films has been nominated, but none have come this close to the prize before. Who knows when they will again. The movie deserves this win, and so does the studio. (Speaking, by the way, of voting without seeing all the nominees, I still haven’t been able to see The Red Turtle or My Life as a Zucchini. The latter is just now opening, and the former played only for a limited time and not anywhere very accessible for me. I hope to catch them both, but would be surprised if either lured me away from Kubo.)

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BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Arrival – Eric Heisserer
Fences – August Wilson
Hidden Figures – Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Lion – Luke Davies
Moonlight – Barry Jenkins; Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney

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The Writers Guild of America (WGA) honored Arrival in this category, but I’m sure you remember from my predictions post — because you studied it and committed it to memory — that the WGA placed Moonlight in the Original Screenplay category (where it won) while the Academy considers it an adaptation. Really though, we don’t need the guild to provide guidance in this case. Against La La Land and Manchester by the Sea in the Original category, it would have been a battle. But in the Adapted column, Moonlight should sail smoothly to victory. The movie is universally admired, and writer/director Barry Jenkins seems to have charmed and impressed everybody who’s encountered him during the months he’s been promoting the movie at Q&As, festivals, award ceremonies, etc. I think many voters want to not just recognize the movie; they want to recognize Jenkins specifically, and since he’s not one of the producers, that leaves this category or Best Director as the place to do it. He’ll get a lot of votes in both, but he’ll get more here. Arrival has spoiler potential, and without Moonlight to contend with I think its structure and surprises would carry it to a win. But it does have to contend with Moonlight, so that’s that.

Personal: I wouldn’t have said this if I hadn’t had the chance to see it a second time, but since I did, my pick has to be Arrival. Not just for the whoa-factor, but for making an engaging movie about a rather abstract concept. With a story about humans and aliens trying to establish a baseline of communication with two entirely different systems, the movie becomes about the fragility and delicacy of language. How do we ask them complicated questions about their purpose on Earth? Do they even understand what a question is? How do we correctly interpret their attempt to use a word that even among our own kind can be misunderstood and construed in different ways? There’s nothing inherently cinematic about this, but Eric Heisserer’s script presents it as gripping, high-stakes drama, and even though it rather conveniently bypasses the nuts-and-bolts of how the humans come to understand and “decode” the alien language — and vice versa — the script has the courage to be about something scholarly and intellectual while still having great humanity and feeling. No easy task.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Hell or High Water – Taylor Sheridan
La La Land – Damien Chazelle
The Lobster – Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou
Manchester by the Sea – Kenneth Lonergan
20th Century Women – Mike Mills

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One of the hardest-to-call races this year finds La La Land squaring off against Manchester by the Sea. They tied with the BFCA. La La Land won the Golden Globe. Manchester won the BAFTA. The WGA by-passed them both in favor of Moonlight. So where does that leave us? I don’t know that enough voters — even those who liked La La Land — will think that its screenplay is as much a winning achievement as certain other components or the film as a whole. The heartache and humanity of Manchester seems more the stuff of great screenplays, and since Kenneth Lonergan is unlikely to factor into many Best Director votes, this is the place to reward him. If there are enough voters who love La La Land and just rubber-stamp it up and down their ballot, then surely they’ll choose it here too. But I think this will be one of the few places it misses.

Personal: I love the originality of The Lobster, but I don’t quite love the movie. Really, these are all great (though La La Land is the weakest as a screenplay nominee). But my pick is Manchester by the Sea. Lonergan took somebody else’s skeletal premise — it was actually John Krasinski who birthed the seed of the idea — and made it completely his own, sublimely marrying humor born of character conflict with harrowing circumstances and heartbreaking sadness, to create something deeply moving and unexpectedly funny. Few movies I’ve seen strike the balance so honestly and effectively, and it’s just a great story that seems miraculously imaginative yet completely, believably mundane.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel – Lion
Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

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This year’s acting nominations may have put the #OscarsSoWhite issue on the back burner, but nominations aren’t enough. Some of these folks have to win! And they will, starting here with Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali, who has nearly swept the circuit so far. He did endure two surprise, high-profile losses on his path to the Kodak Theatre — the Golden Globe went to Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Nocturnal Animals and the BAFTA went to Dev Patel for Lion. But Taylor-Johnson isn’t nominated for the Oscar, and Patel may have benefitted somewhat from a home field advantage in England, and perhaps even some lingering residual love for Slumdog Millionaire. I don’t see him repeating at the Oscars, and can’t really imagine any of these guys coming from behind to overtake Ali. If Jeff Bridges were still seeking his first win, things might be different. But he’s got an Oscar now, so I don’t expect him to collect a second this year, beloved as he is. He’ll get a fair share of votes, I’m sure, but Ali will be crowned the champ.

Personal: Mahershala Ali. My only hesitation is that the part is so small, and I’m always saying that roles should be larger than this to be worthy of an Oscar win. But Ali does so much so beautifully with his limited screentime, and his impact is felt even when he’s not there. His character defies the expected archetype, and Ali makes him wholly believable, speaking volumes while talking softly…and sometimes without talking at all.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Viola Davis – Fences
Naomi Harris – Moonlight
Nicole Kidman – Lion
Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

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This is your safest bet of the night. Viola Davis probably already has the Oscar at home, engraved, on her shelf, in need of a polish. The ceremony is just a sham for the public. Some may argue that she belongs in the lead actress category, but given the history with the role on Broadway, lead and supporting were both deemed legitimate pathways. In Best Actress, it might not have been so cut and dry. In Supporting Actress, her fellow nominees can’t compete. They’re all good, but Viola has more screentime, her character is easily the most fully drawn of the five, and she just plain totally crushes it. She’s deeply admired and respected by her peers, and this role seemed to be waiting for her to come along. I was disappointed when she didn’t win Best Actress for The Help, partly because she had such good odds and who knew if she’d come that close again. I’m glad I was wrong.

And she still should have won for The Help.

Personal: Viola’s time has come, and I’m right there with her.

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BEST ACTOR
Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling – La La Land
Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington – Fences

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For the longest time, this was shaping up to be as sure a thing as Viola Davis: Casey Affleck won nearly every single award there was to win, cutting what looked like a clear path to the Oscar stage. Then last month, he was toppled at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards by Denzel Washington, and now this is being called one of the toughest races of the year to call. Since the first SAG Awards in 1994, only four times has the Best Actor winner not gone on to win the Oscar, and the last time was 2003. I throw that out there just for trivia; I put far less trust in those kinds of stats than other pundits. But it’s a fact that had many people shifting their prediction from Affleck to Washington.

The bigger threat is the renewed coverage of sexual harassment charges leveled at Affleck in 2010 by two female colleagues from I’m Not There, his mockumentary collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix. The situation was brought up here and there during Phase One of awards season, but didn’t gain much traction (which, as noted by many of the people who did cover it, stood in stark contrast to the controversy that erupted around Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation). The chatter got a little louder right after the nominations were announced, most notably from Constance Wu, the lead actress on the hit ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat. Wu shamed the Academy for nominating Affleck, yet still the story didn’t blow up. But it could well be steadily simmering below the surface, and it’s impossible to know whether or not it will impact voters’ decisions significantly. Was it part of the reason Affleck lost the SAG award? Possibly. The reason could also have had less to do with denying Affleck than it did awarding Washington, who had never won a SAG award. The organization has occasionally leaned toward a greatly admired actor who has not previously won. In a tight Best Actress race, Julie Christie won the SAG award in 2007 for Away From Her; the Oscar went to Marion Cotillard. The same year, SAG’s Supporting Actress winner was Ruby Dee, but the Oscars chose Tilda Swinton. In 2002, Christopher Walken got the Supporting Actor SAG for Catch Me If You Can; Chris Cooper won the Oscar. SAG’s voters may simply have felt that Washington was due.

Affleck rebounded a few weeks later and won the BAFTA, which like SAG, has some crossover membership with the Academy. But Washington was not nominated for a BAFTA, so there’s that. Plus, he’s a two-time Oscar winner already, so voters who think about that sort of thing won’t feel any pressure to finally award one of the great actors of all time. And hey, maybe Washington won the SAG award because big, showy performances like the one he gives in Fences tend to capture more awards than quiet, inward ones like Affleck’s in Manchester by the Sea. Academy voters could go with Washington for the same reason. His performance is like a big, jagged bolt of lightning; Affleck’s is like the electric current running invisibly inside the wall.

Bottom line, this went from slam dunk to nailbiter. No doubt, Affleck will lose votes from people who can’t ignore his alleged behavior, regardless of their feelings about the performance. Yet controversies like this one haven’t stopped the Academy from handing Oscars to Roman Polanski or Woody Allen. Have things changed in the era of the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief? One writer asked if Affleck could win in a post-women’s march world. I think he can. My gut tells me that despite the recent twist in the road, this will go down exactly the way it seemed destined to in the first place. In the end, Affleck will pull it off…but from other predictions I’ve seen so far, I appear to be in the minority.

Personal: I don’t have strong feelings about the outcome, surprisingly. I enjoyed all these performances tremendously, and consider Ryan Gosling’s the only one that doesn’t feel substantial enough to win. Judge me if you will, but part of me wants to see Affleck get it just because when someone wins pretty much everything along the way, it’s a bummer to see them lose in the end, no matter how predictable winning is at that point. But if Washington captured his first Oscar in 16 years, or Mortensen somehow shocked us all, I couldn’t argue.

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BEST ACTRESS
Isabelle Huppert – Elle
Ruth Negga – Loving
Natalie Portman – Jackie
Emma Stone – La La Land
Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

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When the critics were having their say, this was a race between Natalie Portman and Isabelle Huppert, with Portman looking like the Oscar frontrunner since Huppert faced the challenge of starring in a foreign language film with a difficult subject matter. Even with a surprise Golden Globe win over Portman in the Drama category, Huppert’s odds remain low. Portman’s have receded as well, however, with Jackie being embraced less enthusiastically by the Academy than by critics. Instead, it’s Emma Stone who’s emerged as the late-season frontrunner. Some thought as far back as November that she was right in the thick of it, but her fortunes seemed to fade as one critics group after another went with Portman and Huppert. Now Stone has come back from behind, fueled by winning the Golden Globe Musical/Comedy award, the SAG and the BAFTA. And everyone loves Emma Stone. They won’t vote for her just because of that, but if they were put off by divisive films like Jackie and Elle, they may feel okay about voting for Stone. Portman could still pull an upset, but at this point it looks like Emma’s got this. For those unsure how it will turn out, keep an eye on Best Original Song. Stone could triumph regardless of that outcome of course, but if it goes to “Audition,” she’s your winner.

Personal: As I said in my nominations post, I haven’t seen Elle. I hate going into Oscar night having not seen all the nominees in the main categories, but from what I know of that movie, I couldn’t stomach seeing in a theater. Of the remaining four, I’d pick Portman. Emma Stone is wonderful in La La Land, but I don’t see hers as an Oscar-winning performance. Portman, on the other hand, did transformative work. That odd Jackie Bouvier accent did some of the heavy-lifting, but there’s a lot more than that going on in her work. She presents us with a woman who has played the passive role of doting wife, hostess, and First Lady, then swiftly finds her strength and resilience when confronted with the shock and horror of her husband’s assassination. Portman shows us Jackie’s grief and uncertainly mingling with the need to step up and control how JFK’s death and the immediate aftermath are seen by the world and immortalized by history. Her performance is fiery and understated all at once.

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BEST DIRECTOR
Denis Villeneuve – Arrival
Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge
Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight

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Damien Chazelle won the Golden Globe, the BAFTA and most importantly, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) award, which has failed to augur the Oscar winner only seven times in its 69 years…and in three of those cases, the DGA winner wasn’t nominated for the Oscar. In fact, in the entire grand game that is Oscar predicting, the DGA is the most meaningful precursor. So considering his victory there, and the general acclaim for La La Land, Chazelle is the man to beat. The only one who can is Barry Jenkins. As I said in the Adapted Screenplay section, I think there are a lot of Academy members who want Jenkins to go home with an Oscar. I said he’ll get a lot of votes for the Screenplay — more than he will here, I think — but he will get a lot of votes here. Probably not enough to overtake Chazelle, but this is a politically tumultuous year where voters looking to not just honor great filmmaking but also make a statement (we’ll get into that a bit more in a minute) could do both by voting for Jenkins.

Personal: I admit to favoring directors who take the helm of epic productions with physical and visual challenges and a daring that extends beyond the narrative and into the production itself. So while I recognize the skill involved in directing character-driven dramas like Manchester by the Sea or Moonlight, I’m inevitably drawn to something like La La Land, which makes Chazelle my choice. But I would have no problem seeing Barry Jenkins take this. He created a small miracle with Moonlight, and it’s a beautiful and assured piece of work. (Of course, so is La La Land. Ack! Making choices is hard.)

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BEST PICTURE
Arrival – Dan Levine, Shawn Levy, Aaron Ryder, David Linde
Fences – Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington, Todd Black
Hacksaw Ridge – Bill Mechanic, David Permut
Hell or High Water – Carla Hacken, Julie Yorn
Hidden Figures – Donna Gigliotti, Peter Chernin & Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams, Theodore Melfi
La La Land – Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt
Lion – Emile Sherman & Iain Canning, Angie Fielder
Manchester By the Sea – Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Lauren Beck, Kevin Walsh
Moonlight – Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner

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Since Best Picture and Best Director usually go to the same movie, our starting point is that La La Land is the presumptive winner. Not that Chazelle’s Best Director odds alone are boosting La La Land to frontrunner status. The movie’s been thrilling audiences in and out of the industry since it first debuted at the Venice Film Festival in August, landing at the Telluride and Toronto festivals a few weeks later. Although it didn’t actually come out until early December, it has been considered the probable film to beat ever since those early festivals, and that status has been solidified with victories at the Golden Globes (Musical/Comedy), BAFTA and PGA Awards. Many pundits look to the PGA award in the same way they look at the DGA, particularly because in 2009, the PGA adopted the same voting procedure — the preferential ballot — that is used to determine the Best Picture Oscar. Since then, only last year did the PGA winner not go on to take the Oscar. (The PGA had a tie in 2013; one of the two winners — 12 Years a Slave — got the Oscar.

Is there any reason to think La La Land could lose? Well, sure…we can almost find reasons to doubt and wonder. This year, there’s that politics factor. Things are pretty ugly in the world right now, and especially in America. The movies people choose to support — be they “regular” people deciding what to see on a Saturday night or journalists and filmmakers voting for awards — reflect the times, and so the question this year is whether voters want escapism or want to make a statement. La La Land represents escapism. It would be unfair to dismiss the movie as fluff or ignore the honest things it has to say about art and love and the difficult choices some people make between the two. It may arrive at a bittersweet conclusion, but by and large La La Land makes people feel good. Members who want their vote to speak for their conscience could choose movies that celebrate the sort of characters who are undervalued or victimized in our current political climate. Moonlight‘s protagonist is a gay black boy trying to navigate a confusing world. Hidden Figures shines a light on brilliant African-American women who played a major role in launching Americans into space. Lion follows an Indian boy separated from his family and eventually raised by adoptive parents in Tasmania, who years later falls into an obsessive search to find his home. Hell or High Water involves the corruption of banks and the power they hold over ordinary, struggling people. Fences celebrates those people too, those left behind by institutions that saw them as less than. Arrival focuses on the importance of working across cultures — both earthly and extraterrestrial — to achieve a common, positive goal…and how refusal to cooperate could doom us all. So…there are a lot of ways Academy members could use their vote this year to say something that matters.

Still, of all these movies, Moonlight is the only one that could take down La La Land. I could stretch that and call Hidden Figures an incredible long shot, but for all of its pleasures and for highlighting a tragically unknown piece of history, it’s a pretty standard piece of entertainment by Oscar’s yardstick. Consider too, that a victory for Moonlight (or Hidden Figures or Fences) would be the ultimate rebuke to the last two years of #OscarsSoWhite. La La Land, after all, is pretty damn white…not that I think cries of racism will be too prevalent this year if La La Land takes the top two prizes. Oh, and on that point, could we see a Director/Picture split this year? It’s happened 24 times in Oscar’s 88 years, last year being the most recent. If it were to happen this year, which way would it go? Barry Jenkins wins Best Director but La La Land takes Best Picture? Or Moonlight for Picture and Damien Chazelle for Director? In 2013, Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for Gravity, which boasted incredible technical and visual achievements, while Best Picture went to the powerful, human-scale drama of 12 Years a Slave. Could we see a similar situation this year?

Maybe. Surprises can always happen, but after spinning all of this supposition, the smart money is on things going exactly as the momentum indicates they will…and the momentum is with La La Land.

Personal: When I add up all of the beautiful individual elements of La La Land, I have arrive at that as the movie to which I’m most partial. But Moonlight is exquisite and it would be really wonderful to see something so delicate and humanist win Best Picture. So I’m split between the two. And I loved Manchester by the Sea as well.

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THE REST
As usual, I can be of little help with Best Documentary Feature, Best Foreign Language Film, or the animated, live-action and documentary shorts. O.J.: Made in America appears to be the favorite for Documentary Feature, assuming voters made time for all eight hours of it. If not, look for I Am Not Your Negro or 13th to step up. As for Foreign Language Film, I haven’t detected a consensus, but I do know that there’s been a movement encouraging people to vote for Iran’s entry, The Salesman, as a middle finger to our Infant-in-Chief’s Muslim travel ban. Before the ban was struck down, the film’s director, Asghar Farhadi — whose excellent film A Separation won this award in 2011 — stated that even if accommodations were made that enabled him to attend, he would not, in protest of the policy. Although he could come now, he has chosen not to, saying he will be represented by two prominent Iranian-Americans. I know The Salesman was well-received, and maybe it would have won if none of this nonsense had happened. If it does win, there will be no way to know if the bulk of votes it collected were because it was members’ favorite movie among the five or because they wanted to make a statement. In my eyes, people should vote for the movie they think is the best, and not for something different because they think it will send a message. In this case especially, the people who need to hear the message won’t be listening, and even if they were, they don’t care. There are better, more effective ways to protest.

Regardless of whether or not this category becomes a political moment during the ceremony, we can definitely expect it to be a politically-charged evening, where many artists will mix their gratitude with expressions of dismay about the state of the world and our nation, and call for peace, tolerance and love. This is anathema to many, who think celebrities should keep their mouths shut when it comes to politics and that award show acceptance speeches (and presentations) should focus on the honors at hand and nothing more. But I’m all for some impassioned commentary on Oscar night. It will certainly make for a more interesting and more emotional show than listening to winner after winner recite a list of names. If the Academy or the ABC Network are worried about this, they shouldn’t be. Awards season so far has been marked by such speeches, most prominently Meryl Streep’s instant-classic takedown of the Asshole-in-Chief at the Golden Globe Awards, and the amazing, rousing call to arms from David Harbour on behalf of the Stranger Things cast when they won Best Ensemble in a Drama Series at the SAG Awards.

These memorable moments have only helped their respective shows by bringing them more attention and generating momentous web traffic. Many other speeches at both events found winners speaking to our fractured times. At the Academy’s annual Nominee’s Luncheon earlier this month, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs addressed travel ban-related absences and set a tone for a political Oscar night. Film journalists like Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman and past Oscar winners like novelist John Irving have written opinion pieces to encourage winners to speak their minds. A few days ago, Michael Moore reflected on his controversial speech from 2003 when he won Best Documentary for Bowling for Columbine days after President Bush launched the war in Iraq, and was essentially booed off the stage. This came a day after Yahoo! published a detailed account of how Moore’s infamous moment came to pass. Just on Friday, the directors of the five Best Foreign Language Film nominees released a joint statement calling for “freedom of expression and human dignity.” Politics have a long history of finding their way into the Oscars, and this year promises to be rife with examples.

JIMMY
Despite the potential for fireworks, it’s still an awards show at the end of the day, and it needs to be fun. With Jimmy Kimmel as host, that shouldn’t be a problem. He pulled hosting duties at the Emmy Awards last fall and hit a home run. Terrific cold open…

…terrific monologue…

…and many terrific moments throughout the evening.

(If you don’t get it, you didn’t watch the monologue video).

We can also expect Kimmel to have some fun with his nemesis Matt Damon, who will be in attendance as one of the nominated producers of Manchester by the Sea. Damon crashed the Emmys in brilliant fashion, and no doubt Kimmel will be looking for revenge.

He should more than up to the task of keeping the show entertaining, though it must be said that late night’s other Jimmy threw down the gauntlet with his cold open at the Golden Globes, so Kimmel has his work cut out for him on that front.

 

Alright, I’ve left you precious little time to mentally prepare for the big night, so I will finally leave you at peace and wish your choices good luck, unless they conflict with my choices, in which case screw you. Here’s a ballot if you still need one, and one last video that you’ve probably seen already, but I’ll include anyway because it’s great and has some fun with a certain bound-for-glory musical.

 

 

February 19, 2017

Oscars 2016: And the Nominees Are…

Filed under: Movies,Oscars,TV — DB @ 6:15 pm
Tags: , , , ,

(Class of 2016 photo from Annual Nominee Luncheon. Click image to enlarge and actually see who these people are.)

Complete List Of Nominees

With everything going on in the world, it seems particularly frivolous to spend the kind of time I do writing about, reading about, and thinking about the Academy Awards. But I’m much better equipped to talk about this than I am about the more important things going on, and since there are countless people vastly more qualified to discuss and dissect and spotlight those things — some of those people in my very own family — I’m going to stick with what I’m good at and focus on something that makes me happy, since every day there are a dozen reasons to cry.

Actually, that may not be the most ideal way to draw the line, since looking at recent movies also gives us a dozen reasons to cry. Lion, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea — which delivers one of the most devastating scenes of this year, or last year, or 1983, or 1971…I could go on — these are just some of the movies that lately gave us reasons to cry. But these are cathartic tears, the kind made possible by art’s capacity to move us. Good tears, in other words.

Once again, I’m pretty late with this post – external forces are partly to blame this time — but Oscar voting only started last Monday and closes on Tuesday, so somehow I feel like that lets me off the hook a little bit. I’m not sure why voting didn’t start much sooner after the nominees were announced, but oh well. We’re here now. Phase Two of awards season began at the unfathomable hour of 5:18am on Tuesday, January 24, when the nominees were unveiled in a two-part video produced by the Academy. This was a departure from the tradition of having the nominees announced live by the Academy President and an actor or actress in a room full of journalists and publicists at the unfathomable hour of 5:38am. The video featured past Oscar winner and nominees — including Marcia Gay Harden, Ken Watanabe, Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and writer/director Jason Reitman — talking about their experiences, interspersed with a lady robot reading off the nominations in each category. It was a nice experiment, but maybe could be adjusted in the future, as it wasn’t entirely successful. The interviews included some trite, “most amazing moment of my life” kind of recollections, and the revelation of the nominees themselves were even more dry than they typically are in the live format. At least with an audience you get some gasps and cheers. Here, just that alarmingly neutral female voice. There weren’t even pictures of the films or actors as each nominee was read. There’s got to be a way to have a little more fun with this kind of format, and to maybe get a couple of those participating actors to actually read the nominees. Filming ahead of time obviously makes that difficult since the nominees can not be revealed until that morning, but making magic is what Hollywood does. I believe in you, Academy! And whatever you do, bring back Gabourey Sidibe, cause she was the best part of this thing.

As for the nominations themselves, I was a pretty happy man that morning, as much as I can be at the unfathomable hour of 5:18. Not only did I do pretty well with my predictions, but there were several cases where I might have missed a call but found one of my personal picks nominated instead. There were at least three times where I audibly exclaimed, and I don’t remember that happening in many an early Oscar morning. Of the 19 categories in which I made predictions, I went 100% in five (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Animated Feature, Best Makeup and Hairstyling), and missed by one in 11. I’m good with that.

Here are some thoughts I had on certain categories…

BEST PICTURE
These Best Picture numbers keep getting the best of me. After three years of nine nominees beginning in 2011, I continued predicting nine, but the last two years yielded only eight. So this year I went with eight…and they nominated nine. I did get those eight correct, and right up until publication I was debating whether to add Hidden Figures —and whether to add it as a ninth, or slide it in and take out Fences or Hacksaw Ridge. I decided to stick with eight and keep my initial list intact, but it was great to see Hidden Figures included. It’s a satisfying crowdpleaser bolstered by terrific reviews and genuine social and historical significance that hit its stride at exactly the right time, in the middle of the voting period. The rest of the line-up went as pundits seemed to expect. I could have seen Fences or Hacksaw Ridge having lost enough momentum to be passed over, but they held on.

BEST DIRECTOR
As is usually the case, the Academy’s picks did not perfectly align with those made by the Director’s Guild of America (DGA), and I was correct that it would be Lion helmer Garth Davis who missed the cut. I thought Martin Scorsese might get the fifth slot, but instead it went to another previous winner, Mel Gibson. This seemed to surprise many people, but not me so much. The industry’s warm embrace of Hacksaw Ridge since its early November debut, and Gibson’s inclusion in the award season melee — from Golden Globe and Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) nominations to a seat at The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual roundtable of directors — were high-profile evidence that the industry had accepted Gibson back into the fold and moved on from the public displays of bad behavior that so damaged his reputation over the past decade.

Then again, Gibson was never quite the pariah during these past years that everyone seems to think he was. He’s always had A-list friends in his corner — like Jodie Foster and Robert Downey, Jr. — who stood by him and expressed their firm belief that the person who did and said those things is not the person Gibson is at heart. Beyond that, he continued to find employment. Foster directed him in the The Beaver; he starred in the Warner Bros. revenge thriller Edge of Darkness, which was a modest hit in 2010; and he took on the antagonist roles in the popcorn action flicks Machete Kills and The Expendables 3. They aren’t exactly Hamlet, but they have an audience. So Gibson never fully went away; he just hasn’t been this openly welcomed in a long time. Perhaps the applause that greet his name when this category comes up on Oscar night will be a bit quieter than that of his fellow nominees; surely not everyone in the room will have forgotten past events. Or maybe his name will be greeted as enthusiastically as the others. The fact that he got the nomination is a victory.

I also need to mention Arrival director Denis Villeneuve and how great it is to see him score his first Oscar nomination (he directed 2010 Best Foreign Language Film nominee Incendies, but that award goes to the country, not the filmmaker, so although he would have accepted the prize had the movie won, he wasn’t the nominee). I’ve been high on Villeneuve since he landed on my radar with his 2013 kidnapping drama Prisoners, and he was among my personal picks in this category last year for Sicario. This guy is a fantastic director, fully in command of the medium and the stories he’s telling. He wasn’t among my personal choices this year, but I only recently had the chance to watch Arrival for a second time, and I definitely got more out of it this time. I might have included it personally in several categories if I’d had a chance to see it twice before the nominations. Whether I would have included him or not, I’m excited by his nomination.

BEST ACTOR
Of the five nominees, Viggo Mortensen was the one who felt the most vulnerable going in, even with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) nomination under his belt. But he made it, along his four fellow SAG contenders, and I have to acknowledge it, because Viggo Mortensen is awesome. A great actor and class act all the way (scroll to the end of this recent interview for his story about the dinner he organized for his Captain Fantastic kids after the SAG Awards). He’s one of those actors — Sigourney Weaver, Ed Harris, Bill Murray and Michael Keaton are others that come to mind — who I really really want to see win an Oscar, so with every new role they take on that sounds like it has that sort of potential, I get excited for them and hope that the movie and performance are good enough, and catch the right wave of attention and bring them into the award season orbit. He’s not going to win, but I love that he got the nomination.

I was also happy to see Andrew Garfield score his first nomination. It should have been his second, but he missed out in 2010 for The Social Network. His character is Hacksaw Ridge is a tricky one, so unflappably earnest and pure that he could have come off as laughable. But Garfield found his way into the character’s core and sold the role 100% and then some. It’s been great to see him celebrated for it throughout the season.

BEST ACTRESS
The biggest surprise of the morning in terms of an expected nomination that did not come to pass was easily Amy Adams’ absence from the Best Actress list. It’s perplexing for a couple of reasons. One, as I mentioned in the previous post, the Academy adores Adams. Two, the movie was obviously embraced across the Academy, with recognition above the line — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay — and below the line, from Cinematography to Sound Mixing. Given how central her performance and her character’s emotional state is to the entire fabric of the movie, her omission is rather stunning. With nominations not only from nearly every critics organization during Phase One, but also from key bodies like the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (distributor of the Golden Globes), BFCA, SAG and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), Adams was considered nearly as sure a thing as sure things Natalie Portman and Emma Stone.

We have to remember, though, that each branch nominates its own, so looking at all the other mentions Arrival earned doesn’t ultimately matter. One hand doesn’t know what the other is doing, and although Adams missed out amongst her peers, I’d wager she collected plenty of votes and came awfully close to making the list.

The question of who took Adams’ perceived spot has a different answer depending on how you saw the nominations going. Some might say it was Elle‘s Isabelle Huppert. By this point in the season, however, I felt Huppert was a good bet. So to me, the surprise is Ruth Negga. She didn’t came out-of-nowhere, having remained consistently in the mix since Loving‘s early November release (in fact the buzz for her and the movie really started last May at the Cannes Film Festival). But given the number of compelling performances that could have been nominated this year, Negga had become a longer shot, and she represents the only nomination received by Loving. I was thrilled to see her recognized, as she was one of my personal picks, but it was a fiercely competitive field, and any number of actresses deserved a spot only to miss out. Chief among them in my eyes are Rebecca Hall and Annette Bening. It was never expected to happen for Hall, unfortunately, but Bening was firmly in the running, so her omission is tough to take. She’s wonderful in 20th Century Women — dry, relaxed, introspective…I’ve never seen her play anyone quite like the character she plays here, and I’m sad she wasn’t honored for it.

I certainly would have preferred to see Bening over Meryl Streep, who earned her 20th nomination, breaking a record previously held by Meryl Streep. I love Meryl as much as anyone, and I enjoyed Florence Foster Jenkins quite a bit — more than I expected to. I have nothing bad to say about Streep’s performance; there was just stronger work this year that deserved recognition.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
One the most pleasant surprises among this year’s nominations was Michael Shannon, recognized for his intense, oddly comedic and sad portrayal of a West Texas detective working a case sometimes outside the boundaries of the law. Shannon earned strong reviews and awards buzz when the movie came out, but as the season unfolded it was his co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson who took people by surprise with the most visible recognition (though Shannon was nominated by the BFCA). Taylor-Johnson was nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award, and pulled off a huge upset by winning the former. That had led most pundits to expect that if anyone from Nocturnal Animals managed a nomination, it would be him. So it came somewhat out of left-field when Shannon’s name closed out the Academy’s list of Supporting Actor nominees. It’s the actor’s second nomination — his first was in 2008 for Revolutionary Road, opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates — and in both cases he came up from behind as a long shot. Many people thought he’d be in the running last year for the drama 99 Homes after he earned Golden Globe, SAG and BFCA nominations. It didn’t happen, but his peers celebrated him this year even without any of those accolades boosting his visibility. The nomination is even more surprising because it represents the only one collected by Nocturnal Animals, a film which several other organizations honored in multiple categories. BAFTA was especially high on it, citing it in nine races.

If anyone is seen as missing out at Shannon’s expense, it’s probably Hugh Grant. He received career-best notices for his work opposite Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins, and odds looked good for him to receive his first nomination. Some pundits seem to think that category confusion may have cost him the honor, as his Golden Globe nomination came for Best Actor (Comedy or Musical) while his other nominations – SAG and BAFTA among them – were for Supporting Actor. I’m not convinced this was a factor. The Golden Globes have a bit more room to play with given their separation of drama and comedy, but Grant’s role pretty clearly is a Supporting one, and I’d be surprised if those Academy voters who did include him on their ballots did so in the Lead Actor category vs. Supporting.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Cheers to the writers for honoring the bizarre and imaginative screenplay for The Lobster, by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou. It didn’t pick up any other nominations, but its premise and execution had to earn it a place here. Hell or High Water, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea were all favorites, but it was tough trying to surmise what might get the fifth spot. I guessed Captain Fantastic, and I know that was a popular choice among other players of this game. I’d have been pleased with that, but I was also happy to see Mike Mills nominated for 20th Century Women, which begins with the great idea of a single mother enlisting the help of two other women in her life to help educate her teenage son in how to be a good man. Mills’ mother was the inspiration for Annette Bening’s character, just as his father inspired the character that Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for playing in Mills’ previous film, Beginners. His script is personal, warm, and generous to all of its characters. Terrific choice by the branch.

It’s also worth pointing out that Hell or High Water writer Taylor Sheridan got his first nomination, a year after missing out for Sicario, which as mentioned above was directed by Denis Villeneuve. That movie should have brought nominations for both of them. Nice to see them both here this year.

BEST FILM EDITING
I was a little surprised to see Manchester by the Sea miss out on this. This category tends to include the leading Best Picture nominees whether or not they seem to feature the most effective editing, but Manchester does take a somewhat non-linear approach to its story by withholding details of the event that defines Casey Affleck’s character when we meet him. It isn’t until midway through the film that we learn what happened to him, and even then the story is doled out in small fragments within a single sequence.

One nomination of note: Joi Mcmillan, co-editor of Moonlight, becomes the first African-American woman nominated for an Oscar in this category. With the #OscarsSoWhite movement still active in calling attention to the scarcity of women and people of color in behind-the-scenes positions, this recognition is great to see.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Another of my audible exclamations on the morning of the nominations came when Passengers was nominated for Best Production Design. Not only was it among my five personal picks, but I specifically made a point of praising the movie’s design and wondering why no one was talking about it as a contender in this area despite the Academy’s frequent recognition of more traditional “spaceship” movies. Too often, movies that aren’t seen as the Academy’s cup of tea are overlooked in areas where they nevertheless stand out, and not given the consideration they deserve. Although it was released at the height of awards season, Passengers was always a commercial play more than an awards one, but good for Academy voters who gave it a look and recognized its achievement in specific areas, regardless of its overall reception or its intended audience. Further demonstrating the movie’s achievement in this realm: The Art Directors Guild handed Passengers the prize in their Fantasy category, where it topped Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Doctor Strange and Rogue One.

This is one of two categories where my predictions were off by two; I got Arrival, La La Land and Fantastic Beasts; I missed Jackie and Silence. But those two slots went to Passengers and another of my personal picks, Hail, Caesar! (its sole nomination), so I have no complaints.

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BEST COSTUME DESIGN

The nominees here include Jackie, a movie I would have nominated in several categories (sorry, Aunt Geri). This, however, was not one of them, even if it was among my predictions. I would agree that Jackie boasts some of the most striking and beautiful costumes onscreen this year, but when many of those costumes are re-creations of already famous outfits — even iconic, in the case of the pink suit from the day of the assassination — then it irks me to see the results, however impressive, honored over work that didn’t have the benefit of countless photographs and even film footage to guide the design team. While clothes that Mrs. Kennedy wore in more private moments might have had to be imagined, many if not most of the outfits in Jackie are based on things actually worn by the former First Lady and those around her. I don’t want to minimize the difficulties, challenges or ultimate achievement that go into re-creating the design elements — be they costumes or sets — of true-life events, but when you’re singling out the five best achievements of the year, it has always seemed unfair to me when films that had the advantage of historical evidence are celebrated over original works.

Original work like the kind featured in Kubo and the Two Strings, whose vestiary praises I sung in the previous post. Failing to nominate the exceptional work in Kubo — which would have made it the first animated film to receive such an honor, though not the first to deserve it — was a huge missed opportunity for the Costume Design branch. I would love to know if it got a lot of votes and lost by a small number, or if there weren’t many voters who gave it serious consideration. I have to believe the former, because I don’t see how anyone who works as a costume designer and takes their craft seriously could fail to pay due attention to such sumptuous work.

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BEST ORIGINAL SONG
In the previous post I mentioned that with so many strong contenders in the mix, the category probably couldn’t handle three songs from La La Land, which would mean the exclusion of John Legend’s contribution, “Start a Fire.” However I had forgotten the current rule that no more than two songs from a movie can get nominated, so as it turned out the category really couldn’t handle three. But the two expected tunes from La La Land — “City of Stars” and  “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” — made the cut. With 91 songs to choose from, there are obviously a lot of ways for this category to go, but I’m pretty disappointed by the absence of Sia’s “Never Give Up” from Lion and especially “Drive It Like You Stole It” from the sadly underseen Sing Street – omissions that are all the more frustrating when they were partially kept at bay by Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” from Trolls. Okay, everyone loves JT, and the song was an instant hit when it came out last May (seven months before the movie’s release, to capitalize on its summery vibe). It was the best-selling song of the year in the U.S., and it’s fun and energizing and will probably make for a great production number on Oscar night that will have the crowd grooving. But c’mon, this song is the the sugariest stick of bubblegum you could imagine. I’m not saying a song has to be deep or particularly substantive to deserve an Oscar nomination, but “Drive It Like You Stole It” is just as infectious as “Can’t Stop the Feeling” — more so, to my ear — and definitely more interesting lyrically. It doesn’t strive to be much more than a catchy pop song either, but it has a little bit more to say than “feel the music, get up and dance.”

Oh well. What’s done is done. But you should go watch Sing Street. Right now.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Another of my most pleasant nomination surprises came in this category, and once again it was for Passengers. I mentioned Thomas Newman’s score in my predictions post, but didn’t think it had much of a chance. I even lamented that I pushed it off of my personal picks, but it was right there for me, essentially on even ground with the five scores I did pick as my own choices. Newman is Hollywood royalty (his father Alfred is one of the most famous film composers of all time, whose work includes this brief but iconic piece) and a beloved composer who has been nominated in this category 12 times before (and maddeningly, is still seeking his first win). Whether or not his stature among his peers helped him this year or they just dug the music, it was a nomination I was happy to see. Ditto for Mica Levi’s Jackie score, which was also one of my personal picks, but one I thought might be too odd and untraditional to penetrate deeply enough into the ranks of the music branch. Happily, they surprised me. Less happily, they also surprised me by passing over Abel Korzeniowski’s lush, romantic Nocturnal Animals score, which has a classic, old-school Hollywood feel that I thought would be a big appeal to this crowd. Maybe it was, but not enough so to crack the final five.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Most people with an interest in visual effects were probably surprised by the inclusion of Deepwater Horizon, and I would have been too had I not attended the branch’s Bake-Off event, as I discussed in the previous post. Hearing the VFX supervisor talk about his team’s work made me realize how deserving the movie was, and I was glad the voters felt the same way. The bigger question mark was whether or not they would honor the stop-motion animated Kubo and the Two Strings. I wasn’t sure they would, as my predictions showed, nor was I sure they should, as my commentary expressed. But despite my mixed feelings, I have to say that seeing the movie show up on the list of nominees brought me a big smile. Even though I didn’t include it among my personal picks, I knew what a triumph it was for everyone up at Laika Entertainment to receive this nomination — only the second ever for an animated film.

I thought the spot that ended up going to Kubo would be given to Arrival, given the branch’s frequent tendency to nominate at least one “prestige” film. Among the ten films left in the running when the Bake-Off was held, Arrival was the only one in serious running for Best Picture and other top awards, so history led me to expect it among the final five. The movie’s visual effects look great, but in a tough year that also could have resulted in deserved nominations for Passengers and Captain America: Civil War, I think the final picks represent a terrific array of work.

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BEST SOUND MIXING AND BEST SOUND EDITING

When discussing the sound categories in my predictions post, and the wide array of films from which they could come, I named 16 titles that I thought represented the field. Even with that many, I still left one off that ended up getting nominated for Sound Mixing: Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, a movie that came out way the hell back in January 2016, the day after last year’s Oscar nominations were announced. I was an idiot not to have kept this movie on my radar; Bay’s movies tend to do well in the sound categories, and had I remembered it, I definitely would have had it among my list of movies to consider, whether or not I’d have ultimately predicted a nomination. So that was a glaring oversight on my part.

I didn’t include La La Land in my predictions for Sound Editing because musicals and music-centric movies never get nominated here. Sound Mixing, yes. Sound Editing, no. I knew this movie could potentially be the one to change that, but I went with precedent. Sure enough, it came through, pushing La La Land to a record-tying 14 nominations, and ruining all future chances when making predictions in this category of saying, “Musicals never get nominated for Sound Editing.” So thanks for that, Academy. As if this isn’t hard enough…

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
As usual, I didn’t make predictions in this category, having not seen any of the films in the mix. But I was aware of the movies in the running, and aware that one of the most frequent winners from critic’s groups was O.J.: Made in America, a nearly eight-hour sociological deep dive into the life, professional career and downfall of O.J. Simpson. The project was created for television as part of ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 series, but because it was briefly exhibited in movie theaters in New York and Los Angeles, it qualified for Oscar consideration and made the cut. Count me among the contingent that finds this unfair. Yes, technically the movie qualifies. But this was not created to be a theatrical documentary, and it’s not right that other films — which were intended to be films (not epic television projects) and had to work within a traditional theatrical running time — should have to be measured against a piece that had hours more to explore its subject and tell its story. Regardless of how good it is – and by all accounts it’s an incredible piece of work – it shouldn’t be considered alongside other films whose directors had to make harder choices about what to sacrifice and what to focus on. The movie is considered the frontrunner, but if I were one of the other nominated filmmakers, I’d find it extremely frustrating not to be judged on a relatively even playing field.

On a more positive note, the great Ava DuVernay — who should have been a Best Director nominee in 2014 for Selma — is a nominee now for her doc 13th, which argues that the mass incarceration of African-Americans is effectively the continuation of slavery. Hopefully this is the first of many Oscar nominations DuVernay will collect in time. (By the way, 13th‘s distributor Netflix has addressed the disparity in running time with O.J.: Made in America by putting out billboards and banner ads that highlight its more traditional length.)

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Now then…I can’t wrap this post up without commenting on one aspect of this year’s nominations that has already been frequently-discussed. Much of the reporting in the minutes and days after the announcement centered on the inclusion of several actors of color among the nominees, as well as three films in the Best Picture category focused on African-American characters. Many outlets were quick to declare #OscarsSoWhite a thing of the past. This year’s nominations indeed take us in the direction we should be heading, but let’s not be too quick to declare Hollywood a post-racial paradise of inclusion.

First of all, none of these movies — Moonlight, Fences or Hidden Figures — arrived in theaters as a reaction to the past two years’ unfortunate lack of diverse stories and performers nominated for Oscars. Movies take a long time to make. They take a long time to write, a long time to gestate and develop, and a long time to land financing. That’s all before the cast and crew takes shape and the movie actually gets shot and then edited and assembled in post-production. It doesn’t happen in a year’s time. It seldom happens in even two years’ time. That means these movies were already in the works. If anything, they may have been put on an accelerated track for release to ensure they hit theaters within a year of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, but whenever they were going to arrive, the important thing to remember is that they were going to arrive.    Whether or not they would have gained traction with the Academy in a different year would be subject to all the other movies in the mix, but you can safely bet they would all still have been in play. The fact remains, however, that the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag will be hiding in the wings, ready to be dusted off and displayed again anytime the year’s most celebrated movies do not reflect the diversity of the real world.

Of course, directing that rallying cry at the Oscars was misguided from the start, as the problem is not with the Oscars but with the studios and producers who decide with their millions of dollars what movies get made. The more movies depicting varied cultural, racial and sexual characters and experiences, the more likely that audiences will find those movies, that critics will champion those movies, and that award-giving bodies will honor those movies. It’s all about what gets made. That’s where the focus should be. The Academy has been making big moves toward diversity for longer than the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag has existed, and as positive and important as those moves are, they’re not going to solve the problem of more diverse representation at the Oscars. So by all means, enjoy the representation featured among this year’s  nominees, but don’t yet claim the battle for diversity is won. Let’s see how things look in two years, four years and beyond. That’s the test.

Now with that said, let’s end things on a fun note…assuming that you find any of this fun. Each year in my Favorite Movies of the Year post, I put forth some nominations for Oscar categories that don’t exist but are fun to consider. Unfortunately I haven’t managed to complete one of those posts since the 2013 list, so I’m transferring my fake Oscar categories here instead. From my one-man Academy, which is not bound by the five-roster rule, my categories and nominees are:

BEST POSTER

[Larger Versions: The Birth of a Nation (Noose); The Birth of a Nation (Flag); Patriots Day; Certain Women; 13th; The Handmaiden; Jackie; Pride & Prejudice & Zombies; De Palma]

BEST TRAILER
Fences (Teaser #1); La La Land (City of Stars Teaser); La La Land (Audition Teaser); Zoolander 2 (Teaser)

BEST CASTING
Captain Fantastic – Jeanne McCarthy
Hell or High Water – Jo Edna Boldin, Richard Hicks
Indignation – Avy Kaufman
Little Men – Avy Kaufman
Loving – Francine Maisler
Manchester by the Sea – Douglas Aibel
Moonlight – Yesi Ramirez
Other People – Allison Jones
Silence – Ellen Lewis

BEST ENSEMBLE
20th Century Women; A Bigger Splash; Captain Fantastic; Fences; Hidden Figures; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight; Nocturnal Animals; Other People; Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

BEST BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE
Julian Dennison – Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Alex R. Hibbert – Moonlight
Madina Nalwanga – Queen of Katwe
Sunny Pawar – Lion
Lewis McDougall – A Monster Calls
Angourie Rice – The Nice Guys
Trevante Rhodes – Moonlight
Ashton Sanders – Moonlight
Neel Sethi – The Jungle Book
Hayden Setzo – The Edge of Seventeen
Theo Taplitz – Little Men

BEST BODY OF WORK
Mahershala Ali (Free State of Jones, Hidden Figures, Moonlight)
Michael Shannon (Complete Unknown, Midnight Special, Loving, Nocturnal Animals)
Michael Stuhlbarg (Arrival, Doctor Strange, Miles Ahead, Miss Sloane)
Rachel Weisz (Complete Unknown, Denial, The Light Between Oceans, The Lobster)
The Woods (Captain Fantastic, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Jungle Book, The Lobster, Pete’s Dragon, Swiss Army Man, The Witch)

BEST SONG SOUNDTRACK
20th Century Women; Deadpool; Everybody Wants Some!; La La Land; Sing Street

BEST OPENING CREDITS
10 Cloverfield Lane; Deadpool; Nocturnal Animals; A Monster Calls

BEST CLOSING CREDITS
A Bigger Splash; Deadpool; The Jungle Book; Kubo and the Two Strings

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January 23, 2017

Oscars 2016: Nominations Eve – My Absurdly Long Predictions Opus

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I was going to kick off this post talking somewhat extensively about a movie that premiered right around this time last year, at the Sundance Film Festival, in the wake of the second consecutive year of all-white acting nominees and the resulting rise of #OscarsSoWhite. The Birth of a Nation took home the festival’s  Grand Jury and Audience Prizes for Drama, and sold to Fox Searchlight for a record-setting $17.5 million. It was instantly proclaimed the front-runner for the next year’s Oscars. Then in the few months leading up to its October release, it became mired in controversy stemming from director/co-writer/leading man Nate Parker’s involvement in a sexual assault lawsuit years earlier, when he was in college. Parker’s past became the narrative around the movie, and by the time it came out, it was DOA. It has been almost entirely absent from the awards season, and no one even seemed to be talking about that fate.

I should have written what I wanted to about all of that earlier and had it ready to go, but I didn’t, and now there’s no time. There’s more than enough material out there to consume for anyone who missed the story at the time and wants to learn more. But I thought it was worth mentioning, especially since #OscarsSoWhite is not going to be a problem this year even without The Birth of a Nation in the running.

BEST PICTURE
So that’s all I’ll say about the movie that won’t get nominated for Best Picture. Let’s talk about the ones that will, starting with La La Land (which will easily be the year’s most nominated film), Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea. Rock solid, those are. We can also reasonably expect Hell or High Water, Lion and Arrival, all of which have demonstrated impressive staying power throughout the critics awards and guild nominations. That puts us at six, and of course we don’t know what the magic number will be. We’re now in the sixth year of Best Picture yielding anywhere between five and ten nominees depending on how the numbers play out. The first three years saw nine nominations, while the last two gave us eight. So as always, it gets trickier as we proceed. FencesHacksaw Ridge, Loving and Jackie are sure to have strong support among the ranks, but Loving‘s bare-bones simplicity and Jackie‘s ethereal intimacy probably don’t play as broadly as Fences and Hacksaw. Sully is a longshot at this point, having been eclipsed by too many other options since its September release, but a nomination isn’t impossible. Much more recent arrivals Silence and Hidden Figures were once thought to be certain contenders, but the reception for Silence has largely lived up to its title, while Hidden Figures – popular crowd-pleaser though it is – might lose ground to Lion as the year’s biggest heart-tugger. Both Figures and Lion found favor with the Producers Guild of America (PGA), but that group nominates a guaranteed slate of ten movies, and always leans commercial where the Academy leans prestigious. To that point, the PGA nominated Deadpool, whose other notable accolades include Best Picture and Best Actor nominations (Musical/Comedy) at the Golden Globes. But despite a super sincere pitch for inclusion, don’t expect the the wiseass mutant to show up in the Academy’s above-the-line races. Anyway, Hidden Figures walks the commercial/prestigious line, but is still a tough call. It went into successful wide release in the middle of the voting period, so might that help? I can see it going either way.

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Predictions:

Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

Personal Picks:
20th Century Women
Fences
Jackie
La La Land
Loving
Manchester by the Sea
A Monster Calls
Moonlight
Silence
Sully

BEST DIRECTOR
The Big Three lead us off here as well, in the forms of Damien Chazelle (La La Land), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) and Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea). Alongside this trio, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) put forth Denis Villeneuve for Arrival and Garth Davis for Lion. The latter selection took me aback, even coming just one day after it was nominated by another guild I hadn’t expected (which we’ll get to further down). I wasn’t sensing that Lion was that big a player, and I’m still skeptical it will hit the same notes with the Academy. The DGA nominees almost never match up with the Academy’s picks five-for-five, and I have to think that Davis will be the odd man out. Villeneuve seems like a good bet to repeat with the Academy, especially given that Arrival – unlike Lion – has been a more visible player across the top categories during the precursor phase…though Lion has done well.

The director’s branch sometimes uses that fifth slot to celebrate a helmer who has been largely overlooked by other groups, as was the case the past two years with Room‘s Lenny Abrahamson and Foxcatcher‘s Bennett Miller, respectively. On that possibility, never underestimate directors’ esteem for Martin Scorsese. Although Silence didn’t make much noise in the precursor phase (c’mon, these puns are begging to be used), it was one of the very last movies of the year to begin screening within the industry, and it certainly hasn’t been poorly received. It’s just gotten lost in the year-end glut. It has its admirers, and the fact that it’s been a decades-long dream of Scorsese’s to make it, and that it was surely a difficult production to finance and mount, might fuel its chances. Directors who respect Scorsese for continuing to push himself and create artful, challenging films may well want to show him their appreciation.

Still, there are others in the mix. Mel Gibson found himself back in Hollywood’s good graces with Hacksaw Ridge, which left many viewers breathless with its intense battle scenes and moved by its celebration of old fashioned heroism. David Mackenzie’s direction of Hell or High Water doesn’t call attention to itself, which the movie’s fans will likely appreciate. The same could be said for Jeff Nichols and Loving, but his odds seem distant. On the other side of the coin are a pair of movies whose directorial style is front and center: Pablo Larraín’s Jackie and Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. Both men have found a fair amount of love from the critics, but their work might be too divisive to earn enough votes within the Academy…though I’d give better odds to Larraín. One last possibility worth mentioning is Denzel Washington, who delivered a forceful screen version of Fences. Powerful as the movie is, however, it retains the feeling of a play, and stands more as a showcase of acting and writing than directing.

Predictions:
Denis Villeneuve – Arrival
Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
Martin Scorsese – Silence

Personal Picks:
Pablo Larraín – Jackie
Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
J.A. Bayona – A Monster Calls

BEST ACTOR
Given the astonishing dominance of Casey Affleck, who has picked up nearly every single critic’s award there is for his aching performance in Manchester by the Sea, nominating four other guys feels like a formality. But that’s how it works,  so when Casey arrives onstage to collect the prize, he can acknowledge his fellow nominees Denzel Washington – the only other super-sure thing – and almost definitely Ryan Gosling. Andrew Garfield is a bit less definite, but still right on the edge of almost definite. Along with Affleck, Washington, Gosling and Garfield, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) went with Viggo Mortensen, an excellent choice that could easily repeat with the Academy. There are usually one or two differences between SAG nominees and Oscar nominees, but there’s also usually one category a year where the two bodies match up, and this year Best Actor could be the one. Although the most vulnerable of the five, Mortensen also has a nomination from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and was a Golden Globe nominee.

Overall, the field isn’t nearly as crowded as usual, making for a less painful process of elimination to round out the category if the Academy passes on Viggo (or Garfield or even Gosling). Loving‘s Joel Edgerton has stayed in the mix thanks to several critic’s groups nominations, but it’s hard to gauge how that movie will do. Everything about Loving is quiet and unassuming, and especially when it comes to acting, those aren’t necessarily the performances that get recognized. Adam Driver has also been nominated by quite a few critics groups for his turn in Paterson, but he faces the same challenges as Edgerton in a movie that’s almost surely been seen less widely. Plus, Jim Jarmusch films have never exactly caught on with the Academy. Driver would need a passionate and sizable fan base within the acting branch.

Tom Hanks gave yet another of his reliable and understated – many would argue undervalued – performances in Sully, and after 16 years since his last nomination, he’s long overdue for another. Sully could be the one to bring him back, especially given the thinner-than-usual slate of contenders. The movie doesn’t give him the kind of unforgettable scene he had at the end of Captain Phillips, for which he was widely expected to be nominated, but 2012 was a maddeningly competitive year for Best Actor. Michael Keaton and Matthew McConaughey were at one time expected to be in the thick of the race for their vibrant performances in The Founder and Gold, respectively, but The Weinstein Company – distributor of both films – totally dropped the ball with the releases, dumping them into the packed December market with minimally-publicized one-week qualifying runs before releasing them wide this month (The Founder this past Friday, Gold this coming Friday.) Harvey Weinstein is usually much smarter and savvier than this, and The Founder is especially head-scratching since it was initially set for release in August, when it would have had breathing room and Keaton – whose hot streak continues with another excellent performance – could have built up some momentum. But for whatever reason – possibly financial limitations? – TWC put all their muscle behind Lion (which, admittedly, will work out well for them) and hung The Founder and Gold out to dry.

The remaining names in the mix face slim odds, despite having popped up in high-profile places. Deadpool‘s Ryan Reynolds and The Lobster‘s Colin Farrell both earned Golden Globe nominations in the Musical/Comedy category, while Jake Gyllenhaal raised eyebrows with a BAFTA nomination for Nocturnal Animals that displaced Denzel Washington. In fact, I learned in the wake of that surprise that BAFTA has never nominated Denzel Washington. NEVER! Not for Glory, not for Malcolm X, not for The Hurricane, not for Carbon Copy…what the hell is that about? Did Denzel do something early in his career to offend the Brits?

Oh, and for what it’s worth, Don Cheadle gave a great performance as Miles Davis way back in the April release Miles Ahead, but it’s been long forgotten save for one nomination in the precursor phase. Cheers to you, North Texas Film Critics Association!

Predictions:
Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling – La La Land
Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington – Fences

Personal Picks:
Same

BEST ACTRESS
For the second year in a row – noteworthy because, sadly, it’s not usually the case – the Best Actress conversation has far more deserving nominees than available space. Actually, it’s not that the pool is especially large as much as it is robust. Better to have a surplus of great work than a dearth, but it makes for difficult choices and unfortunate omissions. Emma Stone and Natalie Portman needn’t worry about this, as their spots are assured. Amy Adams is a near lock too, after Arrival went from a bubble candidate upon its release to a bona fide awards season darling. Her almost-certain nomination will be the sixth she’s collected in 11 years. (She has yet to win, but make no mistake: the Academy loves Amy Adams.)

Isabelle Huppert has pulled in major acclaim – and lots of precursor awards – for Elle, and is a good bet for a nomination, but faces obstacles. The movie is smaller, without the kind of marketing muscle that the likes of La La Land, Jackie and Arrival have in their corner. It’s a movie that voters will need to seek out rather than wandering into a screening any night of the week anywhere in Hollywood. Motivation to see the film shouldn’t be a problem given how much attention Huppert has garnered. She has rivaled Portman nearly neck-and-neck for prizes from critic’s groups, and has come out better so far when it comes to higher profile wins. The New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics – three of only five standard critics groups that really matter on their own – gave their award to Huppert, and she also bested Portman at the Golden Globes, taking the award for the Drama category. Despite all of this, the movie is still something of an outsider, which could impact Huppert’s chances to some degree. Plus, for all the attention she’s received, she was passed over by BAFTA and SAG. Unlike all these critics groups, SAG and BAFTA actually share members with the Academy, so their selections can offer clues. But they also shouldn’t be overestimated; just last year, Charlotte Rampling scored a Best Actress nod at the Oscars, and Huppert fits a nearly identical pattern: veteran performer, acclaimed international star never before nominated by the Academy, earning some of the best review of her long career, landing a lot of wins and/or nominations during the precursor phase but missing out with SAG and BAFTA…if it could happen for Rampling – who also didn’t get a Golden Globe nomination, let alone the win – it could surely happen for Huppert. Still, there’s one key difference that should be mentioned, and that’s subject matter. Elle deals with a rape and its aftermath (other things too, but the rape is what sets the story going), and overall it subject matter is “difficult.” That might deter some voters from pursuing it. (Huppert’s is the only performance in the Best Actress conversation that I haven’t seen. I’d love to check out her work, but knowing what the movie is at least partially about, I know I don’t have the stomach for it. Not on the big screen at least. Maybe I can eventually give it a try at home.)

Speaking of SAG and BAFTA, both groups shared a rather baffling inclusion: Emily Blunt for The Girl on the Train. Don’t get me wrong: I love Blunt, and would have been thrilled to see her nominated for The Devil Wear Prada and Sicario. But The Girl on the Train? Despite its origins as a popular best-seller, the movie landed softly, middling in both its critical and box office reception, and for reason. She was good, and most reviews singled her out as the best thing about the movie, but still…it’s hard to justify such high profile honors when there was much more impressive work in the mix. (Plus – and of course this has nothing to do with the quality of the performance – but the character was so unsympathetic that I spent most of the movie’s duration wanting to violently shake her and give her a couple of good slaps across the face…not feelings I usually have toward people). Anyway, these nominations mean we have to talk about Blunt. Now we’ve talked about her, and I think that’s as far as she goes. I just can’t imagine the Academy affording her a spot given the competition.

No, I’m afraid the last spot may go to Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins. I say “afraid” because it’s a safe and unimaginative choice. Look, we all know Meryl Streep is a marvel (well, most of us), and she does it again in Jenkins as a wealthy socialite whose determination to be an opera singer is matched by her complete lack of talent. As we’ve seen in movies like Postcards from the Edge and A Prairie Home Companion, Streep has a lovely singing voice, so it may have required a unique skill set to suppress her natural ability and come off as such a disaster. The movie is charming and it’s a delightful performance, yes. Plus, outside factors always come into play, and Streep’s chances were no doubt boosted by the memorable speech she gave at the Golden Globes while accepting a lifetime achievement award. That went down smack in the middle of the Oscar voting period, and it almost surely won her some votes. But the fact is there’s richer, more complicated, more nuanced and simply more deserving work this year, and it will be a disappointment if voters rubber-stamp Streep for what is ultimately a lightweight offering.


One such performance that belongs here is Annette Bening’s in 20th Century Women, and when the movie debuted at the AFI Fest in November, she was touted as a highly likely nominee alongside Portman and Stone. But that was before Adams and Huppert surged, and before Streep picked up nominations from SAG and BAFTA; nominations that I believe mean more for her than for Blunt because she was already in the mix, whereas Blunt feels like a kooky outlier choice. Bening could still break through, but she’s looking more and more like a longshot. Ditto for Ruth Negga, who gave a beautiful breakout performance in Loving as a modest wife and mother who quietly but defiantly challenges the county’s discriminatory interracial marriage laws. Negga, like her co-star Joel Edgerton, may pay the price for the subtlety of the performance and the overall film. But if it turns out to have stuck with enough voters, Negga could have a shot.

Like Bening, Taraji P. Henson started generating talk when Hidden Figures finally bowed late in the season, but it may have been too late. She probably would have needed one major nomination elsewhere in order to have a fighting chance at the Oscars. Without one, she’s probably out. Jessica Chastain gave another fierce and worthy performance in Miss Sloane, but she and the movie were largely buried under higher profile releases. Also shamefully lost in the shuffle this season was the terrific coming of age comedy The Edge of Seventeen, anchored by a superb Hailee Steinfeld performance. She never earned buzz as an awards possibility, but she should have. She received a deserved Golden Globe nomination in the Musical/Comedy category, but that was the extent of her presence. Finally, I have to mention the most disappointing example of neglect in any acting category of the year: Rebecca Hall in Christine. She did get some critic’s group mentions here and there, but none from the ones that mattered (unless we count runner-up to Huppert from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association). As a real-life, troubled news reporter who shot herself on the air, Hall’s performance was like nothing we’ve seen her do before, and she captured the character’s pain and disappointment and social awkwardness with dry wit and deep pathos. She should be in the thick of any legitimate Best Actress conversation.

Predictions:
Amy Adams – Arrival
Isabelle Huppert – Elle
Natalie Portman – Jackie
Emma Stone – La La Land
Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

Personal Picks:
Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
Rebecca Hall – Christine
Ruth Negga – Loving
Natalie Portman – Jackie
Emma Stone – La La Land

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
You could pretty much stack this category with the five principal male performances from Moonlight and be done with it. That’s how good Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes (playing main character Chiron at ages 9, 16 and 26, respectively), André Holland and Mahershala Ali all are. But short of a major surprise, it’s Ali who will get the nomination. He’s completely run this category in the precursor phase and is the heavy favorite to win the award. I’m a bit surprised by his domination, not because he isn’t great – he is – but because he doesn’t have a huge amount of screen time, and because the other performances are also so good. Personally I’d give the nomination to Rhodes, who not only has the larger role, but arguably the greater challenge as well: connecting the adult Chiron in the movie’s final third to the younger actors who played him in the earlier segments. Regardless, Ali is a sure thing.

The only other likely lock is Hell or High Water‘s Jeff Bridges, who’s been a consistent nominee, winner or runner-up so far. A surprising number of critics groups also cited his co-star Ben Foster, but I don’t expect that to continue with the Academy. Ironically, the actor most deserving of award attention for Hell or High Water is the one who hasn’t gotten any: Chris Pine. Bridges and Foster are terrific, but we’ve seen both actors play similar characters before. Bridges, especially, could play this guy in his sleep. Pine was the real revelation, and reviews repeatedly said as much when the movie came out last summer. Unfortunately the role – although the lead one among the three – isn’t dominant enough for Pine to have broken through as a Best Actor contender. Too bad.

Dev Patel is probably in for Lion, nearly a decade after his breakthrough in Slumdog Millionaire brought him within striking distance of a nomination. Lucas Hedges is a strong possibility for Manchester by the Sea, but there are some potential stumbling blocks. Although Hedges has been a fixture among nominees from regional critics, he was passed over by the Golden Globes and BAFTA. He did land BFCA and SAG nominations, but SAG in particular has always been generous to young actors, and at 20 – not a kid anymore, but not far off – Hedges is in a bit of a grey zone with the Academy. They don’t often nominate young performers, and when they do, girls have a better track record than guys. If nominated, he would be the youngest male in either lead or supporting categories to be nominated since Haley Joel Osment for The Sixth Sense in 1999. Since then, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Kiera Knightley, Abigail Breslin, Ellen Page, Saoirse Ronan, Jennifer Lawrence, Hailee Steinfeld and Quvenzhané Wallis have all been nominated while between Osment’s then-age and Hedges’ current age. This is hardly a scientific argument, or a demonstration that Hedges won’t get the nod, but it’s not as certain as Manchester‘s expected presence or Hedges’ success thus far might lead you to believe. He could easily be among the overlooked.

For the one – or maybe two – remaining spots, we could look to Hugh Grant, who earned some of his best notices ever for Florence Foster Jenkins, and who scored with the Globes, SAG and BAFTA. His co-star Simon Helberg – also Golden Globe nominated – is deserving as well, but a long shot at best. Michael Shannon has been a critic’s favorite for Nocturnal Animals, but was ignored by most major entities (the BFCA cited him) while to everyone’s surprise, his co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson scored nominations from BAFTA, as well as truly shocking Golden Globe victory over Mahershala Ali. I’m not expecting his good luck will extend to the Oscars (or that Shannon will manage to break through) but clearly the performance is sticking with people. In advance of Hidden Figures‘ release, Kevin Costner was generating a lot of talk, but he hasn’t been singled out by any group, so at this point a nomination would be a surprising.

I’m also compelled to mention three performances that haven’t had much traction, but deserve consideration. First, Alden Ehrenreich, the up-and-comer who stole the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! out from under a jacked cast boasting Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johannsson, Channing Tatum and Tilda Swinton. Second, one of Ehrenreich’s scene partners in Caesar: Ralph Fiennes, who did blazing, boisterous work opposite Tilda Swinton in A Bigger Splash. Lastly, John Goodman as a creepy, unpredictable survivalist in 10 Cloverfield Lane. It’s crazy that Goodman has still never been nominated for an Oscar, and although the Academy rarely honors commercial horror/thriller/sci-fi movies like 10 Cloverfield, Goodman’s excellent performance would be a welcome exception. All three actors have received a smattering of recognition amongst the critic’s awards, but the odds of any getting Oscar love are slim to none.

Predictions:
Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
Hugh Grant – Florence Foster Jenkins
Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel – Lion

Personal Picks:
Alden Ehrenreich – Hail, Caesar!
Ralph Fiennes – A Bigger Splash
Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
Trevante Rhodes – Moonlight
Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
As awards season was unfolding, one big question affecting people’s early predictions was whether Viola Davis would be pushed as a lead or supporting actress for Fences. Davis won a Lead Actress Tony Award for the role in a 2010 stage revival. The same part also earned Mary Alice a Tony Award in the original Broadway production, but her win was in the Featured Actress category (the Tony’s equivalent of Supporting). So while category fraud often finds leading performances shuffled into the supporting categories because odds of winning might be better there – see Rooney Mara and winner Alicia Vikander last year – there was precedent for Davis to go either way. It was reportedly Davis herself who, after watching a final cut of the film, felt her performance belonged in the Supporting race. Once people got a look at Fences, there was no question she’d be nominated; only where she’s be placed. Count her in.

She’s sure to be joined by Michelle Williams, who’s role in Manchester by the Sea is small but in one particular scene packs such a punch that it could actually leave people physically bruised. Moonlight‘s Naomie Harris is also a sure bet, playing a mother whose drug addiction continually gets in the way of her love for her son. All three of these actresses are playing mothers and/or wives, and motherhood is a big theme among the potential nominees this year. In Lion, Nicole Kidman plays the devoted adoptive mother of two Indian boys; in Queen of Katwe, Lupita Nyong’o is a mother concerned that her daughter’s success as a chess prodigy will build up hopes that can’t be fulfilled; and both Other People‘s Molly Shannon and A Monster Calls‘ Felicity Jones play mothers dying of cancer, fighting to ensure their children will be okay when they’re gone. Unfortunately, most of these terrific performances have received too little award attention to stand much chance of getting nominated, save for Kidman, whose chances look good thanks to nominations from SAG, BAFTA, the Golden Globes and the BFCA.

Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe both play wives and mothers in Hidden Figures, though their domestic roles take a back seat to their professional roles in the story of African-American women’s contribution to NASA’s space program in the 1960’s. Monáe was nominated by the BFCA, and Spencer was nominated for a Golden Globe and SAG award and is on many pundits’ list of expected Oscar nominees. I’m not sure what to expect. Her performance (and Monáe’s) are enjoyable, but don’t merit Oscar attention in my view. Not that my view has any impact on what will actually happen. But I just don’t know if I see it happening. Another option that’s vexing me is Greta Gerwig, who plays a bohemian artist boarding with a mother and her teenage son in 20th Century Women. Several critics’ organization’s nominated her, but I don’t know if the movie has managed to make an impression on enough Academy voters.

One actress who has has done well with critics but who has little prayer with the Academy is Certain Women‘s Lily Gladstone, a young actress who plays a ranch worker so lonely that she wanders into a night class just to be in the company of other people, and then begins to yearn for the instructor, played by Kristen Stewart. The movie also stars Laura Dern and Michelle Williams, but it’s Gladstone who has resonated. There’s no way the movie has been seen by enough people for her to crack the race, and even if it had, her performance, open-hearted as it may be, is so understated and quiet that she makes Loving‘s Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton look like they’re playing Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in What’s Opera, Doc?

Predictions:
Viola Davis – Fences
Naomie Harris – Moonlight
Nicole Kidman – Lion
Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

Personal Picks:
Viola Davis – Fences
Naomie Harris – Moonlight
Lupita Nyong’o – Queen of Katwe
Molly Shannon – Other People
Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
As evidenced by the preceding sections, and this annual post I’ve been doing for far too long, Oscar predictions are based in no small part on what other organizations have nominated. The most important place to look when it comes to the screenplay awards is the Writers Guild of America (WGA) nominations. Yet this always proves tricky, since the WGA plays by its own rules. If a movie is written by a non-guild member, or if the production operates outside of certain guild guidelines, it is deemed ineligible for consideration. Inevitably, this occurs every year with movies that are prominently in the running. In the category of Original Screenplay, this year’s affected movies include Florence Foster Jenkins, The Lobster, Paterson, Everybody Wants Some! and Miss Sloane. Of these, only The Lobster seems a possibility for the Oscars, and its chances would have been strong with the WGA had it been eligible.

As it is, the WGA’s nominees this year are Manchester by the Sea, Hell or High Water, La La Land, Loving and Moonlight. The first two will surely be nominated, and it’s hard to imagine La La Land missing out even if its screenplay is pretty simple and straightforward. However we now come to another wrench in the gears; one which is less frequent than the yearly WGA ineligibilities. The Academy ruled last month that Moonlight and Loving will be considered in the Adapted category, not Original. Moonlight is based on a play Tarell Alvin McRaney, titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. McRaney receives a Story By credit on the film, though his material was significantly altered by Jenkins. Loving was partially informed and inspired by the 2011 documentary short The Loving Story, whose creator Nancy Buirski is among Loving‘s credited producers. Both Jenkins and Loving writer/director Jeff Nichols have been open about the source material that influenced their scripts…but we’ll save this for the next section. For now, we’re left with a race that looks quite different than it might have, and which the WGA now provides even less help in forecasting.

Two assumed slots are up for the taking, and will probably be filled from a short but potent list of challengers, topped by The Lobster. There were few films this year more original than this one, set in a world where single adults are forced to find a mate or else be turned into an animal. That’s an extremely simplistic description, but it will have to do until you see it for yourself. Despite the WGA’s ruling, I would be surprised if members of the writer’s branch didn’t support this one en masse. The movie feels like something Charlie Kaufman would have come up with, and given the good luck his films have had, surely The Lobster is on the shortlist of many a voter. Beyond that, the best bets are Captain Fantastic, 20th Century Women, Zootopia and Jackie. I have no sense of which one will come out on top, or if something else altogether might surprise. There’s no shortage of films that haven’t found traction on the awards circuit despite terrific scripts. Could we see Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Edge of Seventeen, Sing Street, Other People, or The Founder? I doubt it. But I wouldn’t mind being wrong.

Predictions:
Matt Ross – Captain Fantastic
Taylor Sheridan – Hell or High Water
Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Yorgos Lanthimos, Efythimis Filippou – The Lobster
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea

Personal Picks:
Mike Mills – 20th Century Women
Taylor Sheridan – Hell or High Water
Taika Waititi – Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Yorgos Lanthimos, Efythimis Filippou – The Lobster
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea

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BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Interestingly, the name of this category technically used to be Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, and while I don’t know the circumstances around when or even if that officially changed, I do know that the last time a presenter of this award used that phrase was at the 2007 Oscars. Ever since then they’ve called it Best Adapted Screenplay. (How do I know this? Because I went to YouTube and started watching clips of this category until I found the turning point. That’s how dedicated I am to bringing you thorough commentary. That’s also why I’m never done until the nominations are hours away. This is my curse.) I bring it up because the literal interpretation of the category seems relevant in regards to Moonlight and Loving. The play that Barry Jenkins adapted was not produced or published (in fact, McCraney says it wasn’t really a play at all; that he never wrote it down in the way a play is written). Loving, though based on real events that are part of public record, was by Jeff Nichols’ own admission based in part on the documentary. So the Academy’s classification of Loving as adapted seems cut-and-dry to me. I’d be curious to know why the WGA saw it differently. As for Moonlight, it’s clearly adapted from another medium, but I wonder if it would have been considered an Original were the Academy still calling the category Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published.

In any case…they’re here now, and Moonlight will definitely be among the nominees, while Loving is a possibility. Fewer adapted scripts than originals were ruled ineligible by the the WGA; the most prominent was Lion, which is a good bet to land with the Academy. In the absence of the three movies mentioned so far, the WGA’s nominees were Arrival, Deadpool, Fences, Hidden Figures and Nocturnal Animals. Arrival will make the cut, and Fences looks good too. The WGA nominees often include some fun, commercial choices that tend to be ignored by the Academy (Trainwreck, Guardians of the Galaxy and Looper are recent examples), but they can usually be accommodated because of the more expected contenders that are disqualified. Translation: Deadpool probably won’t be a factor in your Oscar pool. It’s not an impossibility, but definitely not a likelihood. Hidden Figures and Nocturnal Animals both stand a chance, each having scored BFCA and BAFTA nominations along with mentions from other groups during the season. (BAFTA was especially taken with Nocturnal Animals, awarding it nine nominations. I don’t expect it will do quite as well with the stateside Academy.) This is one of the few areas where Silence has garnered a bit of attention, and I’ll say again that it was a late arrival, which could account for why it has struggled to gain traction in a field that is overcrowded, as always. Maybe it will surprise us with a decent showing.

Predictions:
Eric Heisserer – Arrival
August Wilson – Fences
Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi – Hidden Figures
Luke Davies – Lion
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight

Personal Picks:
Park Chan-wook, Chung Seo-Kyung- The Handmaiden
August Wilson – Fences
Jeff Nichols – Loving
Patrick Ness – A Monster Calls
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Depending on the number of eligible films, there can be anywhere from two to five nominees for Animated Feature, and with 27 submissions this year, there should be no problem with at least 16 successfully qualifying, meaning we can expect a full slate of five nominees. Two of those will for sure go to Zootopia and Kubo and the Two Strings, which have dominated the critics’ awards with an almost equal number of wins (Kubo comes out just ahead). The category could easily be filled out by five mainstream releases, but the voters almost always include one or more lesser known films, often foreign, independent or both. Moana will probably make it, but I feel like Finding Dory is surprisingly difficult to call. Pixar movies have won this award in eight of the 15 years it’s existed. Only twice have they lost (Monsters Inc., Cars), and only three times have they not been nominated: for Cars 2, Monsters University and The Good Dinosaur…which we can probably all agree are the three weakest movies they’ve produced during that time period. Finding Dory has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and was the second highest grossing film of the year. The problem is really that despite being universally well-received, it still seems to have been eclipsed by the three non-Pixar movies previously mentioned, and there are a lot of acclaimed indie films in the running (six of the most notable are highlighted in this Hollywood Reporter piece). Even though Dory has plenty of acclaim, does anyone think it matches the original, which won this award in 2003? And will members of the animation branch, when faced with something original vs. a sequel, go for the sequel? In a less crowded year with movies that look less interesting, maybe. This year, I’m not so sure. Or hey, maybe they’ll go with Seth Rogan’s hilariously raunchy Sausage Party, celebrating that animation can be totally adult-centric with a hard-R rating.

Regrettably, most of the smaller animated movies eluded me this year, or ran in theaters only briefly, just long enough to qualify for consideration. My personal list, therefore, is completely filled out by big studio picks. I have a feeling it would look slightly different had I been able to see some less-exposed contenders.

Predictions:
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle
Zootopia

Personal Picks:
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
Sausage Party
Sing
Zootopia

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
As we move into the below-the-line categories, La La Land will be as much of a presence as it was above, starting here with a nomination for Linus Sandgren. He was among the lensers selected by the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), along with Bradford Young for Arrival, James Laxton for Moonlight, Rodrigo Prieto for Silence and Greig Fraser for Lion. Fraser’s nomination was a shock to me (it’s the other one I referred to above in the Best Director section when I mentioned my surprise over its presence on the DGA’s list.) I just don’t remember coming away from Lion thinking that the cinematography was among the year’s very best, and since the Oscar nominees are unlikely to align with the ASC picks, I’m once again left to think Lion will miss. Maybe I’m underestimating it.

If the Academy veers from the five ASC choices – either dropping Lion or perhaps something else – Nocturnal Animals could find its way in. Tom Ford’s movies can be counted on to look great, and Seamus McGarvey’s work on the movie is stylish and foreboding. Those adjectives may be even more appropriate to describe Natasha Braier’s gorgeous images in The Neon Demon, but unfortunately I don’t see the Academy going anywhere near that batshit crazy movie. (Nocturnal Animals is pretty batshit crazy too, actually, but The Neon Demon…Jesus, that movie is fuckin’ nuts.) The cinematographer’s branch has shown an affinity for Asian cinema over the years, which could bode well for The Handmaiden. There’s also been some recognition from critics groups for Hell or High Water, shot by Giles Nuttgens. I don’t expect it to make the cut, but it’s not out of the question.

Predictions:
Bradford Young – Arrival
Linus Sandgren – La La Land
James Laxton – Moonlight
Seamus McGarvey – Nocturnal Animals
Rodrigo Prieto – Silence

Personal Picks:
Stéphane Fontaine – Jackie
Linus Sandgren – La La Land
James Laxton – Moonlight
Natasha Braier – The Neon Demon
Rodrigo Prieto – Silence

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BEST FILM EDITING

Best Editing tends to mirror Best Picture closely, anointing that category’s favorites alongside possibly a “respectable” action movie. (Sometimes you get something that hits both buttons, like last year’s winner Mad Max: Fury Road.) This year’s Best Picture leaders La La LandMoonlight and Manchester by the Sea are all expected to score here, though it’s conceivable that either of the latter two could be usurped by any number of other prestige dramas. Arrival relies heavily on the success of its editing, and Hacksaw Ridge benefits from having intense war sequences. These movies all picked up nominations from the American Cinema Editors (ACE), though La La Land was in their Musical or Comedy category. Hell or High Water held the fifth spot in the Drama category. Across the pond, BAFTA also went with La La, Manchester, Arrival and Hacksaw, but swapped Nocturnal Animals for Moonlight. ACE’s Musical/Comedy category was rounded out by Deadpool, The Jungle Book, Hail, Caesar! and The Lobster. I’m doubtful any of these can break through into a race of just five, but Deadpool and The Jungle Book could conceivably crash the party.

For me, Jackie is right up there in terms of deserving recognition alongside those three, but I expect it will be overlooked. I would also think Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day – two intense, real-life dramas from Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg, each balancing a lot of moving parts – will have their supporters within the branch, as will Sully, which portrays the Miracle on the Hudson multiple times, from different angles and for different storytelling purposes throughout its running time. Had Sully caught on as a stronger contender in the top categories, I’d have given it better odds here. Lion could show up if it turns out to play across the Academy better than I’m expecting, as could Hidden Figures or Silence. I suppose we should also consider Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as a distant possibility, as The Force Awakens made a somewhat surprising appearance here last year. That movie had an ACE nomination, however, which Rogue One doesn’t. Not that an ACE nod is a prerequisite for an Oscar nod, but for a long shot like Rogue One, chances that it will make the cut without precedent from the guild seem slim.

Predictions:
Arrival
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

Personal Picks:
Jackie
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight
Sully

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
As always, period pieces and science-fiction/fantasy films rule the day in the design categories, so naturally La La Land – which is neither – leads us off. True, contemporary films with “real-world” settings are seldom recognized in this category, but La La Land may be the most gorgeously color-coorindated movie since Dick Tracy, which took home the award in this category in 1990. Seriously, look at how the green of the pencil eraser interacts with the green of the pencil itself and the green on Emma’s shirt and the blue reflected on the window. Colors….pretty….

XX
Moving into more traditional territory for this category, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them could bring three-time winner Stuart Craig back to the race. The production designer on all eight Harry Potter movies, Craig returned for this spin-off where the 1920’s setting allowed him to blend period details into the fantasy elements of the wizarding world that earned him four nominations for the Potter movies. The unique design of the alien crafts in Arrival – both interior and exterior – make that movie a prime contender here, and Passengers should be in the thick of the conversation too. Although it earned a nomination from the Art Director’s Guild (ADG) in their Fantasy category, it didn’t show up with any critic’s groups that give out awards in this category. But many of those organizations, as well as the Academy, love to nominate “spaceship movies” even when the spaceships in question all look pretty much the same time and time again. Given the Production Design branch’s recognition in the last three years of Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian, certainly they should be taking a close look at the more imaginative, unique design of Passengers‘ enormous ship, designed to be a playground of luxury for its inhabitants on their journey to a new life in the cosmos. Elsewhere in the area of Fantasy, Doctor Strange is worthy of attention, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story brought some fresh locations and design elements to the 40 year-old galaxy far, far away.

On the period side, Jackie was frequently cited by critic’s groups for its re-creation of the Kennedy-era White House, while the 1790’s English setting of Love & Friendship also earned some attention. Silence and The Handmaiden spotlight different but equally impressive depictions of Asian locales, with the former taking place in 1600’s Japan and the latter in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 1900s. Hail, Caesar! not only offers up renderings of old time Hollywood, but gets to show off plenty of variety thanks to its primary setting: a movie studio where one soundstage is occupied by a Roman epic, another by an elaborate musical number in a swimming pool, and so on through a variety of film genres.

Finally, to circle back around to the contemporary – and the batshit crazy – Nocturnal Animals is another viable possibility, while The Neon Demon is worthy but probably not viable. Even batshit crazy has a scale.

Predictions:
Arrival
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Jackie
La La Land
Silence

Personal Picks:
Arrival
Hail, Caesar!
The Handmaiden
La La Land
Passengers

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Kicking things off with a guaranteed spot is, you guessed it, La La Land!  It would be getting annoying by now if it wasn’t eminently worthy in category after category. Generally though, the same rules apply in Costume Design as they do in Production Design: period, fantasy and sci-fi films dominate. As such, many of the same titles vying for a Production Design nomination are in the mix here too: Jackie and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are both solid possibilities; Love & Friendship and Hidden Figures are stronger contenders for their costumes than their sets; and Silence, The Handmaiden, Nocturnal Animals, Doctor Strange and Rogue One have about the same odds here as they do there, which are not great, but not impossible.

This is actually one of the most competitive categories of the year, with a plethora of stylish threads on display and jockeying for a position on the coveted list of five. Other challengers include the dapper duds and elaborate gowns seen in Florence Foster Jenkins; and Live By Night, Allied and Rules Don’t Apply. I group that trio together because, although set in three different 20th century decades – the 20’s, the 40’s and the 60’s, respectively – each one features immaculately tailored and beautifully designed outfits that seem like they could all be found in one decade-spanning epic.

There are two spoilers that must be mentioned. First, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, given that its predecessor earned a nomination in 2012 and it does feature some stunning pieces. Second, a little-seen Kate Winslet vehicle called The Dressmaker. The Australian film came and went from American theaters, but a Google search of its costumes clearly shows that it should not be underestimated. The Costume Designers branch has never had a problem nominating movies that were barely seen by audiences but which stood out for their incredible sartorial achievements. Remember The Invisible Woman? W.E.? 2010’s The Tempest? Bright Star? Angels and Insects? Probably not. But the Academy’s Costume Design branch did.

Lastly: if I had the power to influence the Academy in just one of its choices across all categories, I would use it to ensure that they nominate Kubo and the Two Strings for Best Costume Design. Animated films never seem to break through – if they get considered at all – in these crafts categories, and that needs to change. In this case, Kubo is as worthy of consideration as any other movie in the field, and if there was a better single costume all year than the one adorning Kubo‘s chilling villains The Sisters, I didn’t see it. The Costume Designer’s Guild (CDG) recognized the film’s achievement, nominating it in their Fantasy category – the first time they’ve accorded a nomination to an animated film. Do the right thing, Academy, and follow the CDG’s example.

Predictions:
The Dressmaker
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Florence Foster Jenkins
Jackie
La La Land

Personal Picks:
The Dressmaker
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hidden Figures
Kubo and the Two Strings
La La Land

XX
BEST ORIGINAL SONG

This is probably the most difficult category to call each year, given how many possibilities there are and how open the voters are to looking beyond the usual suspects and nominating songs from movies no one has ever heard of. That’s a good thing, of course, but it makes predicting the nominees extra challenging. Of course, I wouldn’t exactly call the music branch voters – or the rules they play by – enlightened. This is a category in need of serious procedural overhaul, and the utterly illogical guidelines complicate guessmaking. For one thing, voters are sent video clips of the songs as they appear in the movie, which can work against songs that play over end credits or that seem less integral to the plot. If the Academy wants to change the category to Best Use of a Song in a Movie, then this methodology is appropriate. But when the category is simply meant to recognize the best songs, it shouldn’t matter how they’re used. Voters should receive audio only, not video, and judge the songs simply on their musical merits. But wait, it gets better. Clips submitted to the Academy for consideration and in turn sent to the voters can not exceed three minutes. So if the song runs five minutes, or four minutes, or 3:06, well, tough shit. The clip will cut off and that’s that. How is this possibly allowed, or considered an effective way of evaluating the a piece of music? The branch leaders would probably argue that the time limit exists to expedite the judging process to some degree. Perhaps the better way to do that, however, would be to revise the submission guidelines in the first place, tightening up the qualifications so that you don’t wind up with a list of 91 songs for consideration. 91 songs! That’s how many are in play this year. The last three years all had between 70 and 80.

So…where to begin with trying to predict which five songs from a list of 91 will make the cut? Well, once again we can begin with La La Land, which actually cuts the field down by two. “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” are standouts in the film and standouts in the field, and given the expected love for the film, both songs are sure to get in…though for what it’s worth, only “City of Stars” picked up a Golden Globe nomination. A third song from La La Land – “Start a Fire,” sung by John Legend – is also on the list (a maximum of three songs per film can be submitted), but beloved as the movie is and catchy as Legend’s track is, the category probably can’t handle three songs from one movie. That’s because unlike last year, which featured a dreadful pool of offerings – a dreadpool, if you will – there are actually a lot of worthy songs this time around. Moana has two in the running, and in a weaker year – or just a year without La La Land, both of them might have been able to pick up nods, but I expect that “How Far I’ll Go” will get a slot over “We Know the Way.” I’m surprised the powers that be at Disney didn’t also submit the fun and bouncy “You’re Welcome,” which is sung – quite respectably, if I do say so – by Dwayne Johnson. For my money it’s a better choice than “We Know the Way.”

Those are the relatively easy picks. After that it gets hard. Maybe because I loved the movie so much, I have to think one of the tunes from Sing Street will be included, and while voters could go with the slow-building ballad “Go Now” sung by Adam Levine, I don’t see how anyone can resist “Drive It Like You Stole It.” That’s just a no-brainer to me, although it does touch on the frustrating elements of the music branch’s voting system. One one hand, the song is featured in a big fantasy sequence involving a school dance, so the clip might appeal to voters looking for selections that have story impact. On the other hand, they’ll be missing most of the context, because there are things going on in that scene that won’t make sense to anyone who hasn’t watched the whole movie. So does seeing how the song is used in the movie help its chances, hurt them, or make no difference? Also, the song is about three-and-a-half minutes long, so the ending will be cut off. Brilliant, music branch. Way to go.

Plenty of rock and pop stars are in the mix, with some of them having taken on a music supervisory role for entire movies. In addition to voicing a lead character, Justin Timberlake oversaw the music for the animated Trolls, contributing the relentlessly upbeat “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” Pharrell played a large role in the music of Hidden Figures, and could find his song “Runnin’” in the runn…in the mix. Common contributes the searing and topical “Letter to the Free” to Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13th, which explores the mass incarceration of black men in America. Sia has three songs on the list, with “Never Give Up” from Lion definitely a standout for me. Feeling like the category could use some Iggy Pop? Well, he’s here too, with the title track of Matthew McConaughey’s Gold. The list goes on, and obviously I can’t go through all of these. If you’re interested in an overview, The Wrap‘s Steve Pond listened to all 91 and offered his thoughts. I did listen to a whole bunch of them, and found many that I liked, some of which surprised me, like Shakira’s “Try Everything” from Zootopia; Twenty One Pilots’ “Heathens” from Suicide Squad (unfamiliar with the band, I expected something numbing, bombastic and forgettable, and instead found it sort of charmingly creepy and low-key); and “Even More Mine” from My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. Not exactly a must-see for me, but I found the song – sung by actress/singer/Tom Hanks’ wife Rita Wilson – to be quite lovely and touching, with a nice melody.

I don’t expect to see any of those three nominated, but any of the previous four could make it. Others we might see? Perhaps “The Empty Chair,” from the documentary Jim: The James Foley Story.  A collaboration between Sting and J. Ralph, both past nominees. (Ralph has been nominated twice, each time an unexpected choice from a way-under-the-radar movie.) Or maybe “The Rules Don’t Apply,” from Warren Beatty’s movie of the same name (minus the “the.”), although I really hope not. The melody is bland, the lyrics are terrible and there are so many more deserving songs on the list. But it was nominated for a Golden Globe and BFCA award, so it’s not out of the question. Three-time winner and all-around songwriting legend Burt Bacharach has a contender this year, “Dancing With Your Shadow,” from a movie called Po that I’ve never heard of. But he collaborated with Sheryl Crow, and you have to think voters will pay attention to someone of Bacharach’s stature…although come to think of it, I seem to recall that the  clip package and accompanying list of songs sent to voters do not include names of the songwriters, in order to make sure the works are judged on their merits and not by who was involved. If voters are feeling bold and good-humored, they might honor Sausage Party‘s “The Great Beyond,” where the Broadway musical skills of The Little Mermaid/Beauty and the Beast/Aladdin composer Alan Menken meet the weed-addled mind of Seth Rogen. The song is okay, but it would make me smile to see it nominated.

Okay, I can’t do this anymore. It’s time to move on.

Predictions:
Audition (The Fools Who Dream) – La La Land
City of Stars – La La Land
Drive It Like You Stole It – Sing Street
The Empty Chair – Jim: The James Foley Story
How Far I’ll Go – Moana

Personal Picks:
Audition (The Fools Who Dream) – La La Land
City of Stars – La La Land
Drive It Like You Stole It – Sing Street
Letter to the Free – 13th
Never Give Up – Lion

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BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

At 145, the number of eligible scores is even more staggering than the number of songs, but the nominees are much more likely to be pulled from a relatively small and familiar pool, which makes for easier – or at least, less difficult – prognostication. Once again, La La Land leads the pack, and Moonlight will probably join it. Another leading contender was thought to be Arrival, but the Academy disqualified it (along with Manchester by the Sea and Silence) because it featured non-original contributions that the music branch felt would be indistinguishable to voters from the original music by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. It’s too bad, as Jóhannsson’s score is quite unique and effective.

Mica Levi’s score for Jackie was a major presence on the critic’s circuit, and not unlike Moonlight, takes a  unusual approach to an emotional character study. Lion also received a lot of deserved attention from critic’s groups and should resonate with voters. Other scores that seem to be in the mix are Nocturnal Animals, Hidden Figures, Hell or High Water and Hacksaw Ridge. I would add The Neon Demon, Swiss Army Man and Passengers as being worthy of nominations, though I doubt they’ll break in. I hated pushing Passengers off my own list, but these are sacrifices one must make.

Predictions:
Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, Benjamin Wallfisch – Hidden Figures
Justin Hurwitz – La La Land
Dustin O’Halloran, Hauschka – Lion
Nicholas Britell – Moonlight
Abel Korzeniowski – Nocturnal Animals

Personal Picks:
Mica Levi – Jackie
Dustin O’Halloran, Hauschka – Lion
Nicholas Britell – Moonlight
Cliff Martinez – The Neon Demon
Abel Korzeniowski – Nocturnal Animals

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
The three nominees for Makeup and Hairstyling will come from a list of seven semi-finalists offering Deadpool, The Dressmaker, Florence Foster Jenkins, Hail, Caesar!, A Man Called Ove, Star Trek Beyond and Suicide Squad. It’s a rather underwhelming list, with the emphasis apparently less on the makeup and more on the hair…although even in that area, I can’t quite see what Florence Foster Jenkins or Hail, Caesar! have to offer that’s so impressive as to be shortlisted for an Oscar. A Man Called Ove is a Swedish film sporting work from makeup artists Love Larson and Eva von Bahr, who were nominated last year for another movie you’d never heard of: The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. Like that film, A Man Called Ove features aging work, and if their effort was good enough to make the shortlist last year, it may be again this year.

Predictions:
A Man Called Ove
Star Trek Beyond
Suicide Squad

Personal Picks:
Seeing as I haven’t seen three of the nominees and only half of the remaining four make sense to me as contenders, I can’t say I really have any.

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BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Like the Makeup and Hairstyling Branch, the Visual Effects branch has helped us narrow down the field this year by beginning with a list of 20 contenders, then whittling that down to 10: Arrival, The BFG, Captain America: Civil War, Deepwater Horizon, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, The Jungle Book, Kubo and the Two Strings, Passengers and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It’s a strong list, with only two that I would dismiss: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and The BFG. Both feature good work, but in the case of Fantastic Beasts, the strongest elements are undermined by some spottier contributions (the CG goblins populating a speakeasy were noticeably subpar), while the title character in The BFG – realized through a motion capture performance by last year’s Best Supporting Actor winner Mark Rylance – couldn’t climb out of the Uncanny Valley, close to the upper slope though he was.

The only one of the 10 films that will also be a player in top categories is Arrival, and since the branch usually likes to include at least one such movie among its selections, that may earn a spot by default…not that the work isn’t good on its own merits. Like pretty much all of the Marvel movies, Captain America features seamless work that looks terrific, but it may be overshadowed by its showier cousin, Doctor Strange, which sports work that is equally polished but more eye-popping, even if some of it hearkens noticeably back to 2010’s winner, Inception.

I had the opportunity to attend the branch’s Bake-Off event this year, where the teams behind each of the 10 remaining films present clips of their work and discuss techniques used and challenges encountered. The big surprise for me – and from what I could tell, just about everyone else in the room – was Deepwater Horizon. Most probably assumed that the majority of the movie’s effects were achieved practically, on set in real time with the actors. As it turns out, the demands of the true story about the 2010 oil rig explosion were too intense to be accomplished at the necessary scale with practical effects. Instead, a massive portion of the work was achieved through CGI, though you would never guess to watch it. CG fire – just one part of the movie’s demanding work – is always a challenge to visual effects artists, but the Deepwater Horizon VFX crew tamed the beast and enhanced the reality with smoke, ash and embers that were all added in post-production. This was a movie I’d have assumed would be dismissed had I not attended the Bake-Off. Now I’ll be straight-up pissed – and quite surprised – if it doesn’t get nominated.

The most interesting selection in the running is Kubo and the Two Strings. I have mixed feelings about this, which go back to the only other example of a stop-motion animated movie being nominated in this category: 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. It never felt right to me, since stop-motion essentially is a visual effect in the first place. How do you separate the visual effects from the animation technique when the animation technique is a visual effect? How do you fairly measure a movie that is one giant special effect against movies that blend special effects into real-world environments? On the other hand, the movie did utilize visual effects beyond the stop-motion, just as any live action movie would, and the crew at the Bake-Off emphasized that in their presentation, so why shouldn’t it have a chance? Certainly the crew was thrilled to be invited and given an opportunity to make their case, and they made an enthusiastic and impassioned plea for consideration. The crowd did seem impressed, but I couldn’t gauge if they were impressed with the visual effects specifically, or with the general impressive feat of doing a stop-motion animated feature.

Another category with some tough decisions to be made.

Predictions:
Arrival
Deepwater Horizon
Doctor Strange
The Jungle Book
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Personal Picks:
Deepwater Horizon
Doctor Strange
The Jungle Book
Passengers
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

BEST SOUND EDITING/BEST SOUND MIXING
After Best Sound Mixing turned out to be one of only two or three categories in which I was 100% correct in my predictions last year, maybe I should approach it with more confidence this year. As always, let me drop what is surely an overly simplistic explanation of what the two categories are all about. To lift directly from last year’s post, sound editors create and/or fix sounds that couldn’t be recorded during filming or were not usable, while sound mixers combine all the elements – dialogue, music, sound effects, etc. – into a balanced whole.

More often than not, at least in recent years, the categories are almost identical with one unique nominee in each. You might think La La Land would be a sure thing in both areas, but I’m not so sure. Going back to 2000, every time there has been a movie with a heavy musical component, it has been nominated only for Sound Mixing. Whiplash, Inside Llewyn Davis, Les Misérables, Dreamgirls, Walk the Line, Ray, Chicago, Moulin Rouge – all nominated for Mixing, none nominated for Editing. And in none of those years did the Editing category feature a music-heavy film that wasn’t nominated for Mixing. Now, eventually this pattern will end, and it’s not like music is the only sound in any of these movies; an Editing nomination could happen on other merits. But I’m going to side with history and say that La La Land gets the Mixing nomination, but not Editing. (If I’m wrong, and if I’m right about it’s chances in every other category, it will land 14 nominations, tying All About Eve and Titanic as the most nominated films of all time.)

These categories are also among the hardest to predict, since a) the criteria are less obvious to me – I can look at costumes or visual effects and form a reasonable opinion – and b) the nominees can come from anywhere: respected dramas, blockbuster action movies, animated adventures…there are a lot of options. I’m figuring this year’s crop will come from Deadpool, The Jungle Book, Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, Star Trek Beyond, Jason Bourne, Kubo and the Two Strings, Sully, Deepwater Horizon, Hacksaw Ridge, Doctor Strange, Arrival, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Passengers and Patriots Day. That may seem like a kitchen sink list, but trust me, there’s a strategy that goes into narrowing down the field…or if not strategy, at least a sense of vague intuition. Hey, shut up, you try doing this!

Sound Editing Predictions:
Arrival
Deepwater Horizon
The Jungle Book
Hacksaw Ridge
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Sound Mixing Predictions: 
Arrival
Deepwater Horizon
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Because the two categories are so difficult for most people outside of the sound field to make sense of, I always say that there should be one award, designated Best Sound Design, recognizing the overall aural experience of a movie. The rest of us are still poorly equipped to really judge even that, but we can probably  at least come up with a list that makes some sense to our untrained ears. With that said, I admit my ignorance and forego making personal picks in the two actual categories, instead naming my picks for the fake category of Best Sound Design. And this year, it looks pretty similar to my predictions: Arrival, Deepwater Horizon, Hacksaw Ridge, Passengers, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Usually I have some more interesting variations in there, but not so much this time around.

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And there we have it. I hope it wasn’t as torturous for you to read as it was for me to write. Nominations are announced tomorrow morning at the absolutely unholy time of 5:18am PST. That’s a half-hour earlier than the usual unholy time, but apparently the Academy is trying something new this year. In the past, the nominations have been announced live in a room full of press and publicists. This year, the nominees will be unveiled via a “global live stream” on Oscars.com, Oscars.org and broadcast on Good Morning, America. In addition to Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, several past winners and nominees will participate, including Brie Larson, Ken Watanabe, Jason Reitman, Jennifer Hudson and Emmanuel Lubezki. I’m not sure why the new procedure requires a start time half an hour earlier than what was already painfully early, but I’m an addict, so I’ll be awake to get my fix. For now, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite songs from a movie this year. It won’t be nominated for Best Original Song, because, well,  it’s not original. But it’s a classic, given an appealingly fresh take.

 

July 16, 2016

“Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture”

Filed under: Books,Movies,TV — DB @ 4:45 pm
Tags: , ,

 

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“Great literature is not great literature until it’s been made into a movie.” – Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, June 7, 2013
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There’s a deleted scene from Pulp Fiction (included in the published screenplay and among the DVD’s special features) in which Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace first meets John Travolta’s Vincent Vega and videotapes an interview with him, with the intention of getting to know him before they head out for the evening. She explains that one of her standard questions in these interviews is whether the subject is a Beatles person or an Elvis person. “Now Beatles people can like Elvis, and Elvis people can like The Beatles,” she says. “But nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere, you have to make a choice. And that choice tells you who you are.”

I feel the same way about books and movies. You can like both, but you can’t like them equally. Maybe you think you can. But you can’t. You’re either a book person or a movie person.

Way back in 2011, while I was putting this blog together and getting familiar with WordPress, I came across a post titled, “Why I Hate (Even Good) Movies Based on Books,” in which the blogger, R.H. Culp, expressed his frustration with books being adapted so often to film. As a writer of books himself, Mr. Culp is clearly a book person, and was asking why a book couldn’t be allowed to simply exist as a book. I wanted to leave a comment, but my thoughts were too long and my time too short, so I decided I’d just save it for my own eventual post on the topic.

Six years later…

I love to read, but it’s obvious to anyone who knows me and most who see me pass them on the street that I’m a movie person. And as a movie person, I have to start by pointing out just some of the movies we wouldn’t have if books were never adapted for the screen. The Godfather. The Wizard of Oz. Gone With the Wind. Jaws. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Silence of the Lambs. The Princess BrideApocalypse Now. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Shawshank Redemption. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Die Hard. The Lord of the Rings. The Graduate. Blade Runner. Mary Poppins. Dracula. Frankenstein (and by extension, Young Frankenstein). Brokeback MountainThe Exorcist. Nearly every film made by Stanley Kubrick, including Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. More than half of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, including Rebecca, Psycho, Vertigo and Rear Window. The entire James Bond series.

I could pretty much rest my case right there and feel that I had more than justified the practice of adapting books into movies. The topic, however, merits more than that, and my intention is not to deliver a glib rebuke of Mr. Culp’s position. I understand his feelings. After all, this is a popular and enduring debate that dates back to the Stone Age, when an ambitious caveman first took the symbols chiseled on a stone tablet and translated the text into a cave drawing.

A book person might look at the list of titles I offered and stand their ground that we would all be just fine if these stories existed in print only, never having made the jump to celluloid. But come on; show me a person who wants to live in a world without The Godfather and The Princess Bride on film, and I’ll show you a person without a soul. Also, before we get too far along, don’t we have to expand the scenario to television? Legendary miniseries such as Roots and Lonesome Dove are based on books, as are some of today’s most popular shows, including Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Outlander. Even The Wire, regarded by many as the greatest TV series of all time, grew out of the David Simon books The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood — itself the basis of an HBO miniseries that preceded The Wire — and Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which also inspired NBC’s critically adored series Homicide: Life on the Street.
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THE RIGHTS STUFF
In fact, David Simon offers a fine jumping off point for this topic. Because the answer to Mr. Culp’s question about why books can’t just remain books begins with the authors themselves. No matter how much Hollywood wants to buy, if the author doesn’t want to sell, the story ends there. Some writers are involved in the adaptation process and some stay away, but all of them have to sign on the dotted line. And there are practical reasons for them to do so. In a Q&A session with a class at Eugene Lang College, which is included among the extra features on The Wire‘s third season DVD set, Simon addresses this:

Why do it? It’s gonna get done. If somebody wants to do it, the author will always sell. Or invariably. It’s very rare when the author will not, because it’s hard getting paid as a writer. In the beginning, what it is, is you’re really just trying to extend the shelf life — literally the shelf life — of your book. It’s so hard to sell books in America, because people don’t read. I mean, Homicide sold 30,000 in hardback, maybe, and another 20 in trade paperback, and then the show came on the air. And by the time the show finished its run, it had sold like, 400,000 paperback. It’s like, ‘Oh, if there’s a TV show about it I’ll read it.’ So that’s the economy of scale as a writer. So if you can get your stuff made, if you can get a bad movie made about your book, you’re gonna do it. Anything will go from print to screen if they pay you money.

Tom Perrotta, the writer whose books have been adapted into films Election and Little Children and the HBO series The Leftovers, said in an interview with New York Magazine that even the decades-long, unsuccessful efforts to turn his first novel The Wishbones into a film paid him more money than he’d made doing anything else. “It went from a frustrating thing to an insurance policy,” he said. All six of Perrotta’s novels have been optioned for film or TV development. He collected an Oscar nomination for co-writing the Little Children screenplay, and along with Damon Lindelof of Lost fame, he is the co-creator and co-showrunner of The Leftovers, which enjoyed a well-regarded second season last year.

Simon is also correct that to a certain extent, the release of a movie or TV show based on a book does drive people who haven’t previously read the source material to check it out. Mr. Culp’s main concern seems to be the opposite: that the existence of a movie deters people from reading the book. That is undoubtedly true for many people, but it’s also undoubtedly true that many people will read the book because a film is coming out. Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl was a massively popular best-seller right out of the gate, and director David Fincher’s 2014 film version (adapted by Flynn herself) renewed the book’s popularity. It was back atop best-seller lists in the paperback categories when the movie came out, and while this is hardly a scientific statistic, I’ll just toss out there that at the time of the movie’s release, there were 273 copies of Gone Girl across the entire Los Angeles Public Library system, and every single one of them was checked out or on a hold shelf awaiting pick-up. Granted, Flynn’s novel was already a popular hit and the involvement of talents like Fincher and Ben Affleck assured high awareness of the movie. Not every book that gets adapted is a huge hit, and not every adaptation gets the kind of high-profile release of Gone Girl. But does anyone think the book would have been in such demand at that time if there weren’t a movie about to land?

Another reason authors might be willing to see their work translated for the screen is for the opportunity to dive even deeper into a world they created. This tends to be true more for TV adaptations than films, since TV’s ongoing, episodic structure more closely resembles that of a novel, and allows more time for story and character development than a movie limited to a few hours. After years of futile efforts to adapt Jonathan Franzen’s award-winning 2001 novel The Corrections into a film, super-producer Scott Rudin brought the project to HBO for development as a series. Franzen, who had not been involved with the attempts at a film adaptation, came onto the project to work alongside Rudin and Noah Baumbach, who was brought on to direct the series and co-write it with Franzen. The author enjoyed the process of re-visiting the book for a new medium. “Minor characters in the book are becoming very substantial characters in the show,” he told New York Magazine. “It’s fun. I’m coming back to the book as a stranger, essentially twelve years after I wrote it, and I’m filling in blanks that were deliberately blanks, but I’m having the pleasure of filling them in.” The creators planned a four-season run of ten episodes each, and shot the pilot in 2012 with a sterling cast featuring Chris Cooper, Dianne Wiest, Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans and Greta Gerwig. Unfortunately — or fortunately, for those who feared another beloved book being corrupted — HBO decided to pass on the series, feeling that the narrative structure — which frequently shifted between time periods and required different actors playing different characters at different ages — was too complicated. Having been deemed unfilmable, The Corrections stands as a feather in the cap for purists. Still, the fact that Franzen was enthusiastically involved in the attempt is exciting to consider.

Another author who is immersed in the TV adaptation of his work is The Walking Dead‘s Robert Kirkman, a writer and executive producer on AMC’s gargantuan hit. And the interesting twist here — which also applies to the equally popular Game of Thrones — is that the series on which the show is based has not yet concluded. Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics launched in 2003 and are still going strong. Fans of the comics who also follow the show are well aware by now, as the show’s seventh season is in production, that Kirkman is not afraid to change things up between page and screen. While the overarching plot of the show has followed that of the books, some characters who have died on the page remain alive on the show, and vice versa. Things that happen to one character in the comics might happen to a different character on TV. In an interview with TV Guide following a Season Three episode in which a main character on the show was killed despite still being alive in the comics, Kirkman said:

I think fans of the comics recognize that this show is a different animal…There are going to be differences from time to time and some big differences. People know the comic still exists, and I want people to experience both and get a somewhat different experience. I think it’s cool that there are differences that are going to make the show as dramatic, startling and unpredictable as the comic book was the first time you read it. That’s really what we’re going after.

The timeline of The Walking Dead comics is far beyond the events currently playing out on the TV show, but the same can not be said for Game of Thrones. As I’ve covered in some of my posts about that series, the TV show has now caught up to the novels, with the newly concluded season being the first to venture into new territory unfamiliar to readers. Like Kirkman with The Walking Dead, author George R.R. Martin is an executive producer on Game of Thrones; unlike Kirkman, he isn’t involved in the day-to-day running of the show. He has a producing credit, but other than writing the teleplay for a few episodes, he leaves the show in the hands of its creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

I always find it fascinating when novelists adapt their own material for the screen. Flynn’s script for Gone Girl faithfully follows the book’s plot, with the film version featuring the necessary trims and adjustments that must be made to accommodate the medium’s time constraints. There’s some valuable material that gets excised, and some that has little effect on the film. On the whole though, Flynn doesn’t do anything radical to her source material. The same can not be said for Scott Smith, who wrote the 1993 novel A Simple Plan and then adapted it into a 1998 movie directed by Sam Raimi and starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda. What’s so intriguing about Smith’s adaptation is how wildly it veers from his book. The film actually follows the book quite closely up to a certain major event that occurs in the middle of the story. From that point, the film radically diverges from the book, and although they eventually come back around to the same place for the climax — with one significant difference resulting from that mid-story divergence — the pathways are shockingly different. I’ve always wondered why Smith deviated so markedly from his novel, and whether the decision was based on how the novel’s events would come across on film vs. his own desire to try something different. Was the film’s direction something he considered for the novel but ultimately abandoned? I’d love to know, but have never been able to find any interviews with Smith discussing his adaptation.

So whether their reasons are financial or creative, authors seem to have no problem, for the most part, allowing their work to be translated to the screen. Furthermore, there are no shortage of filmmakers looking to bookshelves for great stories they can bring to life. I mentioned Stanley Kubrick at the beginning of the post, noting that almost every one of the director’s films was based on a book. He was a voracious reader, consuming all kinds of genres and styles, and was always reading with an eye toward what might make a good film. Diane Johnson, who co-wrote the screenplay for The Shining with Kubrick, said in a 1998 interview with film historian and critic Michel Ciment, “Kubrick always said it was better to adapt a book rather than write an original screenplay, and that you should choose a work that isn’t a masterpiece so you can improve upon it. Which is what he’s always done, except with Lolita.” People can argue about whether Kubrick’s films were always improvements upon their source material, but whether they were better than their books or not, his filmography boasts one classic after another. Perhaps his choice to adapt rather than start from scratch had to do with high standards for coming up with a great story. In a 1972 interview with Ciment, following the release of A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick said:

A good story is a kind of a miracle, and I think that is the way I would describe [Anthony] Burgess’s achievement with the novel. A Clockwork Orange has a wonderful plot, strong characters and clear philosophy. When you can write a book like that, you’ve really done something. On the other hand, writing the screenplay of the book is much more of a logical process — something between writing and breaking a code. It does not require the inspiration or the invention of the novelist. I’m not saying it’s easy to write a good screenplay. It certainly isn’t, and a lot of fine novels have been ruined in the process.

“THE BOOK WAS BETTER”
For book fans, that’s the concern: that the movie will ruin the book. Or if not ruin — since the book is still there to be enjoyed — the movie will be a disappointment. “The book is always better.” Isn’t that the most common statement made whenever this topic comes up? Well let’s be real…it’s not always better. We all know that. Right now, I’ll bet you can think of at least one example of a movie or TV show that you think is better than the book on which it was based. Go ahead. Mention it below in the comments section. I have a few that come immediately to mind. Field of Dreams, adapted by Phil Alden Robinson from the book Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. Wonder Boys, adapted by Steve Kloves from the book by Michael Chabon. Never Let Me Go, adapted by Alex Garland from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The English Patient, adapted by Anthony Minghella from the novel by Michael Ondaatje. The aforementioned A Simple Plan. These are movies that, for me, surpass the books they’re based on. (With the exception of Never Let Me Go, I read all of them after seeing the movies, and in all fairness, I do wonder if I’d still prefer the adaptations had I read the books first.) I never read The Bridges of Madison County, but from what I heard, it was a cheese-fest of the first order. Yet somehow screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and director Clint Eastwood turned it into a beautifully nuanced film with great performances from Eastwood and Meryl Streep. And good luck finding someone who will tell you that the novels Jaws or The Godfather are anywhere near as impressive as the films they became. I haven’t read The Godfather, but its reputation as a trashy beach read is well-known. I’ve read Jaws, and what’s most interesting about it is seeing how it’s different from Steven Spielberg’s film. (Lest you think I’m insulting authors Mario Puzo and Peter Benchley by maligning their books, bear in mind that both novelists co-wrote the respective screen adaptations.)

It may be rare that the movie or show is better than the book, but more often than people probably admit, the truth is that the book and the adaptation are both good. Different, but good. I could cite countless examples, and I’m sure you could too. One that comes quickly to mind is Misery. A faithful adaptation, but there are enough differences to make both worth your time. Chunks of Stephen King’s novel are comprised of the manuscript that the character Paul Sheldon is being forced to write by his rescuer/captor Annie Wilkes. So we get to taste the world of Paul’s book series which has inspired such demented devotion in Annie. Legendary Hollywood screenwriter and raconteur William Goldman wrote the script for Misery, and to open up the story beyond the confines of Annie’s house, he created the characters of Buster and Virginia, a married sheriff and deputy who work the case of Paul’s disappearance. In the novel, there is only a state trooper who shows up at one point to look for Paul. One of the biggest differences — though not really too big — is the punishment Annie exacts on Paul when she learns he has managed to escape his bedroom and wander the house while she was out. The punishment is essentially the same — she takes his legs out of commission through a process called hobbling. But the method changes. In the novel, armed with a blowtorch and an axe, she chops off his feet. In the movie, she smashes his legs with a sledgehammer. Goldman, in his book Four Screenplays, writes about first reading Misery and his reaction to the hobbling. “I could not fucking believe it. I mean, I knew she wasn’t going to tickle him with a peacock feather, but I never dreamt such behavior was possible. And I knew I had to write the movie. That scene would linger in audiences’ memories as I knew it would linger in mine.”

Goldman goes on to explain, however, that George Roy Hill, director of The Sting and Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who was set to direct Misery, left the project because he felt chopping Paul’s feet was too extreme. He couldn’t do it. Goldman, convinced that the scene was the key to the whole movie’s success, refused to take it out. Rob Reiner, initially just a producer on the film, stepped in to direct after Hill departed. But everyone connected to the film — other than Goldman — was now having second thoughts about the hobbling scene. Goldman couldn’t believe it, and held fast. He says that Warren Beatty, who was in talks to play Paul, articulated the problem with the scene as King and Goldman had written it. “Beatty’s point was this,” Goldman explains. “He had no trouble losing his feet at the ankles. But know that, if you did it, the guy would be crippled for life and would be a loser.” Once a scene like that comes to life from the page, it’s visceral in a different way, and the filmmakers’ fear was that while cutting off Paul’s feet works in the book, movie audiences would reject it. Ultimately, despite Goldman’s vehement protestations, Reiner and co-producer Andrew Scheinman did some script revisions and replaced the hobbling scene of King’s book with the one that made it into the movie. Goldman was livid. He writes:

The lopping scene was gone, now and forever replaced by the ankle-breaking scene. I hated it, but there it was.

I am a wise and experienced hand at this stuff, and I know when I am right.

And you know what?

I was wrong. It became instantly clear when we screened the movie.

What they had done — it was exactly the same scene except for the punishment act — worked wonderfully and was absolutely horrific enough. If we had gone the way I wanted, it would have been too much. The audience would have hated Kathy [Bates] and, in time, hated us.

If I had been in charge, Misery would have been this film you might have heard of but would never have gone to see. Because people who had seen it would have told you to ride clear. What makes a movie a hit is not the star and not the advertising but this: word of mouth.

Goldman’s story — and Beatty’s point contained within — gets to one of the main reasons that things often change between page and screen. Readers use their imagination to fill in the details provided by the writer, but once characters and situations come to life and no longer reside in the mind’s eye of the individual, everything from tone to performance can necessitate a change. Alexander Payne’s film version of Perrotta’s novel Election features a different ending than the book, which Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor addressed in a 1999 interview with Scenario Magazine. “We loved that ending in the book, and we shot it and it’s fine,” Payne said. “But the book is more ruminative and quiet and allowed that ending more. The movie came out too funny and too fast-paced and too cynical, and that ending just felt wrong.”

“Which is ironic,” Taylor added, “because the ending is one of the things that I love most about the book and was what convinced me that it was worth making as a movie. Because in spite of all this comedy, there was this beautiful moment of grace at the end…” After the movie was edited and shown to preview audiences, the production company offered Payne and Taylor the chance to come up with a new ending if they wanted, so they took the time to figure out what they would have devised had it been an original script. What they came up with is a perfect fit for the movie they made, and the change speaks to how a story takes on a life of its own when it makes the transition from page to screen.

Scott Frank, the screenwriter behind two of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations — Get Shorty and Out of Sight — also speaking to Scenario in 1999, discussed how a character who died in the book Out of Sight remained alive in the movie…though the change came late.

Right up until the very last draft. He was killed in the script, and at the last-minute [producer] Danny DeVito said to me: we just can’t kill this guy. You like the character so much, it’s such a left turn to kill him, given the way the movie’s evolved. It’s also for no reason…It’s one of those things where I was kicking myself for not having thought of it earlier…I just felt that audiences, having invested so much in these people, to get the rug pulled out  from under them was too much. And on-screen, they’re alive in a way that they’re not in the book.

MAKING IT WORK
That last point connects back to what Warren Beatty was trying to say about the Paul Sheldon character in Misery, and why chopping off his feet in the film would have been a mistake. Movies come alive in a way that books do not, and sometimes changes need to be made to compensate for that difference. On the other hand, changes often happen for more mundane and practical reasons involving budget, logic and time constraints. In Goldman’s novel The Princess Bride, Inigo and Fezzik must make their way through the Zoo of Death — an underground cavern with multiple levels, each containing some of the world’s most dangerous animals — in order to rescue Westley from Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen. But the setting was too elaborate for the film’s budget, so it was replaced with the more modest Pit of Despair. Similarly, Game of Thrones faced budget limitations when realizing the second book/season’s massive Battle of Blackwater, and while they were still able to create a spectacular sequence that had no problem conveying the scope and scale of the clash, fans of the book missed the massive chain which is pulled from the water as a defense against an invading fleet. The effect was simply too expensive to include.

In the same interview with Scenario previously referenced, Out of Sight‘s Scott Frank explained how the need to streamline certain elements of the book for logic’s sake led to some of his decisions in adapting it. Almost all of the main characters in the film serve time together at the same prison, but in reality, given their varied crimes, they would not have been in the same place. “Even though it’s not real, a white-collar criminal wouldn’t have been in jail with those guys. But I thought there were too many different prisons in the story, and people were in prison at different times. It was hard for me to keep it straight, in the book. I thought the only thing to do was to visually see them there, in one prison, all together.”

Then there’s the issue of time. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in J.K. Rowling’s series, spends a great deal of time examining Dumbledore’s past and how it impacts Harry’s current mission. Yet even with the novel translated across two movies, not all of that history and backstory could be covered, partly for time reasons and partly because it’s material that Harry is wrestling with internally. The flow of the movie would be interrupted if we kept flashing back to a younger Dumbledore as a way to include what seemed like crucial intel, not to mention that in doing that, we would lose the filter of Harry’s perspective on his mentor. So instead, screenwriter Steve Kloves — with one simple line of dialogue from Harry — erased the need for all of that. One character challenges Harry to confront all the ways in which Dumbledore may have failed him and all the secrets he kept from him. Harry responds, “I trust the man I knew.” That’s it. Harry can move forward toward accomplishing his goal, and the film is freed from having to address chapters worth of material that would not necessarily work on film. There is a cost to this, of course. We wind up with a less intriguing, less enjoyably complex story than what Rowling offers on the page. But the movie can forge ahead with thrills and pleasures of its own, and the books are there for our enjoyment anytime we want to dig deeper.

Logic and time tend to be the primary concerns that necessitate streamlining a novel into a movie. Screenwriters often talk about finding the central idea or theme around which the movie version of the story can be built, and how that often boils down to their own interpretation. In his Scenario interview, Scott Frank explained this as it pertained to Get Shorty and Out of Sight:

I think that the key to any adaptation is to find out what the running theme of the book is. The thing with [Elmore] Leonard’s books, and the challenge of adapting them, is that it’s all so delicious. When you begin the process, you just love everything you read. It’s so much fun that you want to keep it all in the film. So you need some sort of template, and the only template you’ve got is: what does this mean to me? If you’re just trying to preserve the book, you get a real flat version for the movie. So you have to filter it through your own point of view and make it your own, to some degree; otherwise it has no shape. My first pass with his books has always produced long drafts. I would begin with a 180-or-so-page-long draft, where I would have virtually everything that’s in the book, in the script.

So you find out what the book is about for you. Everything else has to fall away. In Get Shorty, it was the idea of everyone coming to Los Angeles to reinvent themselves. This is a city of reinvention. Whether you’re a waiter who wants to be an actor, or a writer who wants to be a director, or, in the case of Get Shorty, a coke dealer who wants to be a producer. It’s about how people are constantly looking at themselves as something other than who they are. So it’s very simple — anything that isn’t about that idea just falls away. In the case of Out of Sight it was about a road not taken. It was about a guy who thought: what if I hadn’t been a bank robber? I could be with a woman like this, I could have that kind of life…In adapting the novel, anything that was not about “the road not taken” fell away.

This approach will often eliminate parts of a book that readers might love — Peter Jackson’s Frodo-centric approach to The Fellowship of the Ring meant that fan favorite character Tom Bombadil had to be jettisoned — but asking people to sit down and watch a story unspool on a screen is not the same as asking them to read it at their own pace. Onscreen tellings require a forward momentum; the page can take its time.

PROSE AND CONS
There are two things books can do that screen adaptations will never replicate: they can take you inside the head and the thought-process of a character (something no amount of voiceover narration, however skillfully deployed, can truly match), and they can revel in the power of the written word. If a novel is wonderfully written, that particular characteristic can not be translated to the screen. Not that people don’t try. Bryan Fuller, showrunner of Hannibal, explained that he and his writing staff would sometimes repurpose Thomas Harris’ prose as dialogue. “We put it in actors’ mouths because it was so beautifully written and we wanted the DNA of Thomas Harris to be present in all of the episodes…The text and the fetishization of the text was really all about the want to honor Thomas Harris in this adaptation.” Still, good writing itself logically can’t make the jump from page to screen, a point well made by essayist Calum March in a 2013 Paris Review piece about an attempt to bring J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise to the screen (an attempt which was just realized this year). He uses some brief examples from the book to illustrate how certain things Ballard is able to convey with words do not have an equivalent in the language of cinema. Yet just because stirring prose can’t be replicated onscreen doesn’t mean there can not still be value in an adaptation of the material. Several of Ballard’s works have been brought to the screen, the most notable examples being Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun and David Cronenberg’s Crash, both of which succeeded on their own merits, whatever may have been — as Marsh titled his essay — lost in translation. Marsh humorously contrasts his Ballard examples with excerpts from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, where the writing is flat and descriptive, leaving the filmmakers to do little other than cast appropriate actors and follow the direction of the action.

Seeing as the pleasure of exquisite writing is nearly impossible to carry over in adapting a book to the screen, filmmakers who adapt books are likely responding to a great story that they want to see brought to life. Studio executives vying for the rights to the Harry Potter series probably saw dollar signs, but producer David Heyman, screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Chris Columbus were surely drawn to Rowling’s story and its cinematic possibilities. Or perhaps the response is to a great character, above all. In discussing Appaloosa on film critic Elvis Mitchell’s podcast The Treatment, Ed Harris — who directed, co-wrote and starred in the 2008 Western — said that he had brought Robert B. Parker’s book on a family vacation for some pleasure reading, and asked his agent to inquire about the rights after reading only a few scenes, so taken was he by the easygoing friendship between the two main characters. He also estimates that 85% of the dialogue in the movie came right out of the book. (It’s certainly easier to carry that from book to film than it is the kind of descriptive writing that March examines in his Ballard essay.)

Conversely, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen — also on The Treatment — talked about the need to eliminate much of the dialogue when adapting Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, particularly for the character of Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem. Chigurh doesn’t say much in the movie, whereas in the book he speaks quite a bit. But Joel points out that McCarthy offers little-to-no physical description of the character on the page, which creates a sense of mystery to him. Once an actor is cast, that mystery goes away. In order to preserve the character’s enigmatic nature for the film, the Coens stripped away much of his dialogue, allowing his ghoulish physicality to accomplish on-screen what his dialogue did on the page. (Give the full half-hour interview a listen for some terrific insight on the process of adapting McCarthy’s book.) This is also a reminder that we don’t have to make a choice between the book and the film. Chances are the two will be different enough to offer distinct rewards. Here, we have one character — Anton Chigurh — made equally yet uniquely compelling in the hands of two different storytellers in two different mediums.

FROM SCREEN TO PAGE
In my college screenwriting class, our professor had us examine the adaptation of Michael Tolkin’s novel The Player. We started by reading the book, then read the screenplay which Tolkin wrote, then watched Robert Altman’s film. It was the traditional way to experience the adaptation trajectory. I had already seen (and loved) The Player, however, so as I read the book, the movie was in my head. It was not the first time I’d read a book after seeing the movie it became, but it was the first time I realized doing it this way might well be the key to loosening up about books making the jump to the screen. This isn’t the order in which it’s usually done, and it’s an unrealistic scenario for the avid reader who is likely to have finished a book long before its movie comes out; maybe long before they know it’s even going to be a movie. But for those of us who move more slowly, and who might be inspired to finally pick up a book they’ve heard good things about because they know the movie is coming and they want to read the book beforehand, I would suggest trying it the other way around. When you read a book after seeing the movie, the story opens up instead of closing in. Movies are a purer distillation of story/plot and character arc, where a book allows you to swim in the details…and as March would point out in the case of something like High-Rise, enjoy high-quality writing. Even though you’ll still see the story unfold differently, somehow it doesn’t seem so problematic when things are expanding rather than contracting. We tend to be unforgiving toward the movie when it veers from the source material, yet when we go from screen to page, those same alterations are more easily accepted. The differences make the book seem more like an interesting alternative than a bastardization.

Admittedly, this approach has its downsides. What if you don’t like the movie? Are you going to invest the time to read the book — which you might find more enjoyable — if the movie didn’t satisfy you? More significantly, reading the book after seeing the movie undoubtedly robs you of the imagination you bring to the experience. I tried to read The Shining years ago, but Jack Nicholson’s performance from the movie loomed large in my mind. Knowing that Stephen King’s book was quite different from Kubrick’s film — and that one of King’s chief complaints about the adaptation is that Nicholson seemed off-kilter from the get-go, whereas the character was supposed to be a decent man who succumbs to the hotel’s forces — the vision of Nicholson became distracting, so I put the book aside. For many active readers, the great pleasure of sitting down with a book is conjuring the world and the characters in their own imagination. If you read the book after seeing the movie, you’re sacrificing some, if not all, of that experience, and that’s understandably too big a price to pay for someone who loves to read.

I’ve never pictured deeply detailed images of characters while reading, so this is generally less of an issue for me. Being a movie person, my imagination more often manifests by casting the book in my head. Even at age 15 or so, while reading Jurassic Park (I don’t remember if I knew it was movie-bound when I read it), I was assigning actors to the parts. For what it’s worth, my Jurassic Park featured Nick Nolte, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ron Silver, John Heard, Hume Cronyn and Mercedes Ruehl. (Such a movie nerd. Seriously, how many 15 year-olds knew John Heard, Ron Silver or Hume Cronyn by name?) The screen first/book second formula has generally worked for me, and I’ve been championing it ever since that experience with The Player.

In fact, my first encounter with the differences between books and movies also came about in this manner, and it happens to connect with another central concern Mr. Culp’s blog post expressed, which is the idea that kids in particular might be less inclined to read if watching the film is an alternative. But I think his fears for that demographic are unfounded. There are such omnipresent efforts to promote literacy and reading amongst children — campaigns conducted through schools, daycare, and libraries — that when kids have the opportunity and ability to read, they appear to do so with great enthusiasm. When I was in third or fourth grade, the class was assigned a book report, and I decided to read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I chose it because I loved the movie, The Secret of NIMH, and was curious about the book. What I found in the pages of Robert C. O’Brien’s novel was a story vastly different from that of the film. Characters from the movie were portrayed differently in the book, events were different, entire elements were missing…and none of this bothered me. On the contrary, those differences fascinated me.

 

LOOSELY ADAPTED
That brings up another important point to remember when considering adaptations, which is that plenty of movies adapted from novels are barely adaptations at all, but rather nearly original concepts that are only loosely tied to or inspired by their source material. I encountered an excellent example of this around age 11, courtesy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It was another movie I loved enough to eagerly seek out the novel from which it was adapted, Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, by Gary K. Wolf. I was surprised to discover that the book told an entirely different story in which not even the concept was the same. The cartoon characters of the movie were, in the book, stars of comic strips. When they opened their mouths to speak, a word balloon would rise above them; their words had to be read, not heard. All the book and the movie have in common are characters named Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit, Eddie Valiant and Baby Herman. Nothing more. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is, for all intents and purposes, an original screenplay.

The same is true of the Jason Bourne series. Although each of the existing films does take its name from one of Robert Ludlum’s novels, there is almost zero connection between the books and the films. Writer/director Tony Gilroy, who wrote all four films in the series prior to this summer’s Jason Bourne, had this to say on The Treatment in 2007, after the release of The Bourne Ultimatum: “The first 15 minutes of the first film is sort of around the book, until you get to a safe deposit box in Switzerland. And after that, it has nothing to do with anything, anything to do with Ludlum. So once we’d finished the first film, no one ever thought that there would be a sequel…there was no intention of having it go forward, and by that point we were so far afield of the whole cosmology of what the books were about, there was no relationship whatsoever. So it’s pretty much original material all the way on out.”

Variety recently published a 10th anniversary retrospective on the making of The Devil Wears Prada, which details that Fox 2000 bought the rights to Laura Weisberger’s book before it was published, based on the first 100 pages of the manuscript as well as an outline of the full story. It’s not at all uncommon for studios or individual filmmakers to purchase the rights to a book before it hits shelves, but in the case of Prada, the adaptation process began particularly early, before Weisberger had even finished writing. Once it was released and became a bestseller, more details from the book’s plot were worked into the script. Yet the movie still shifted direction from the book, which is a revenge fantasy about a put-upon assistant striking back against her oppressive boss. Fox eventually hired David Frankel to direct the movie, partly because they were impressed with his idea that the material should be less about retribution and more about the sacrifices made by the women working at the story’s iconic fashion magazine. Frankel and Fox brought in Aline Brosh McKenna to write a new draft of the script, and the result is a movie that tells Weisberger’s story filtered and reshaped through the vision of the filmmakers. It goes back to what Scott Frank (and so many other screenwriters) say about determining their own take on the story. In the case of The Devil Wears Prada, it was less about finding the book’s through line than it was looking at the story from another angle, but the adaptation process follows the same course either way. The filmmakers have a strong response to the material and a desire to see it brought to life, but need to find a way for that material to work cinematically while perhaps also integrating their own ideas. (In a post a few years ago, I brought up a book called The Manikin, and how I think it could be a terrific movie even though I would make a couple of significant changes in order to deal with plot developments that I found hard to believe.)

Stories like Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games are very specific narratives that are obviously going to result in reasonably faithful adaptations that translate the original story for the screen, but many movies use their source material as a mere inspiration or jumping off point for something almost entirely new. Examples like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Bourne movies demonstrate that this can work out perfectly well.

BUT DON’T TAKE MY WORD FOR IT
For anyone who likes to read and watch movies, and finds this topic at all interesting, the best examination of the adaptation process may be John Irving’s memoir, My Movie Business. Irving’s books have been adapted into the films The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Door in the Floor, Simon Birch and The Cider House Rules. That last title is the focus of My Movie Business. It’s the only one of his novels that Irving adapted for the screen himself, and in My Movie Business he delves into the experience of translating the book over the course of a decade, as it evolved dramatically each time a new director came onto the project. At 170 pages, it’s a slender volume that serves as a quick read and an indispensable glimpse into the art of adaptation. Irving also talks a lot about the genesis of Cider House the novel, because it was a personal story inspired by the work of his grandfather, and therefore his investment in the material and his feeling about what was lost and changed in reshaping it for the screen took on additional significance and informed his thoughts on how it was brought to the screen.

Interestingly, Irving says that of the four major iterations the story went through during years of development, his favorite was the one that strayed furthest from his novel. When the director he was working with at the time would propose changes, he was rarely open to them at first. But he always came around to trying them, and often found that the story and the characters became stronger. The movie that eventually got made more closely resembled the novel, and Irving admits that he loves the finished film, but he was ready to take it in another direction. If the guy who wrote the book was open to radically changing it, can’t we the readers be more open to the idea?

Look, I’ll be the first to say that Hollywood is sorely in need of more original stories. But I’m much less turned off by a movie or show based on a book than I am by remakes, reboots, reimaginings and sequels. There are good examples in all of those categories, but the bad and unnecessary far outweigh the good and worthwhile. The translation of a book into a movie doesn’t strike me as nearly the bankruptcy of creativity as launching the third iteration of Spider-Man in a decade, or continuing to churn out Transformers movies, which somehow keep making millions of dollars even though no one seems to like them.

So as far as I’m concerned, books are fair game. I want them to be adapted with thought and care, but I try to be understanding about the necessary changes that will allow them to work onscreen. Adaptations are always going to involve loss. It’s unavoidable, and that’s a starting point we have to accept. To those like Mr. Culp who would say we don’t need to start in the first place, I’d counter that something new and uniquely enthralling can be born out of the disassembly and reconstruction that goes into adapting a book for the screen. A book and its filmed adaptation can both be terrific despite their inevitable differences. Sometimes the book will be better, sometimes the movie or show will be better, and sometimes they’ll both be pretty damn good. Just because a novel has the luxury of diving into details that wouldn’t work for a movie, or is written with a flair for description or language that can not be re-created on film, that doesn’t mean the movie is an inferior method of delivering the same story. The movie version might offer indelible performances, a breathtaking visual realization, or a soaring music score. Instead of automatically proclaiming that the book is always better, you need to shift your expectations. Adjust your perspective. Open yourselves up to the new interpretation that doesn’t replace, but rather compliments, the source material. To the book people among us: you need to adapt. Admit it: the world is a better place with Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone, Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya, Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins…

May 7, 2016

20 Movies I’m Looking Forward to in 2016

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 10:00 am
Tags: , ,

Yes, I realize that we’re more than a third of the way through the year and that this annual post might seem pointless by now, but there are probably only three movies released up to this point that would have made the cut, and one of those — the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar! — would already have hit theaters even by my usual March, post-Oscars timeframe. So I say this is fair game…and since this is my blog, what I say goes. Truth is, I’m not hugely excited about this year’s offerings, so it took a while for motivation to strike. But there are always movies to look forward to, so the inevitable surprises notwithstanding, here are 20 still to come this year that have my interest piqued.

20.
THE BOOK OF HENRY

Director: Colin Trevorrow
Writer: Greg Hurwitz
Cast: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Bobby Moynihan, Dean Norris, Lee Pace, Sarah Silverman, Jacob Tremblay, Maddie Ziegler
Release Date: TBD

Colin Trevorrow made his feature directorial debut with the indie dramedy Safety Not Guaranteed, before being snagged by the studio system — like so many indie directors before him — to make the massive budgeted Jurassic World. His success on that monster hit led to his selection as director of Star Wars Episode IX. The jury’s still out on whether he deserved that golden ticket or not, but we may get some more clarity on the issue when he delivers this scaled-down story about…I don’t know really. There’s not a lot of information out there yet about the movie, including whether it’s a comedy or a drama or something in between. It makes my list based on my curiosity about Trevorrow, and because it features two of the best child actors working today: Lieberher (St. Vincent, Midnight Special, Masters of Sex) and Tremblay (Room, this adorable Instagram feed).

19.
LA LA LAND

Director/Writer: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock
Release Date: December 2

Damien Chazelle’s breakthrough movie Whiplash was set in the world of music. For his follow-up, he’s doubling down by going full-on musical. At one time set to feature Emma Watson and Chazelle’s Whiplash star Miles Teller, the movie instead came together with Stone and Gosling, collaborating for the third time after Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad. They play Mia and Sebastian, an actress and jazz pianist, respectively, who fall in love while trying to pursue their dreams of artistic success. Chazelle has spoken of the film as being a heart-on-its-sleeve love letter to Los Angeles and all the regular people therein, struggling to make it big without losing themselves along the way. The songs are, I believe, originals, though I can’t seem to find confirmation of that anywhere. Regardless, original, modern-day musicals are a big creative swing, and there’s no way to know yet if Chazelle’s will emulate Woody Allen’s charming Everyone Says I Love You or James L. Brooks’ disastrous I’ll Do Anything. It’s a dicey proposition, but Whiplash definitely earns Chazelle the benefit of the doubt.

X
18.
ALLIED

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Steven Knight
Cast: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Lizzy Caplan, Matthew Goode, Jared Harris
Release Date: November 23

Not much to say about this one yet. My interest stems mainly from the pedigree. I know that it’s set during World War II, and that Pitt plays an intelligence officer who meets Cotillard’s French resistance fighter in North Africa circa 1942. They fall in love, and meet a wacky cartoon rabbit who has invented a time traveling car that whisks them through history, where they interact with presidents and other prominent figures, and influence decades worth of pop culture.

Probably not, but with so little to go on, I’m taking cues from Zemeckis’ resume to fill in the blanks. Kidding aside, a lush period romance set against a dramatic backdrop has its appeals, especially when the central couple are played by actors as watchable as Pitt and Cotillard. And I gotta say, it’s been great to have Zemeckis back in the world of live-action filmmaking. May we never again speak of The Polar Express.

17.
UNTITLED HOWARD HUGHES PROJECT
Director/Writer: Warren Beatty
Cast: Warren Beatty, Alec Baldwin, Annette Bening, Haley Bennett, Candice Bergen, Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, Lily Collins, Steve Coogan, Chace Crawford, Alden Ehrenreich, Taissa Farmiga, Ed Harris, Megan Hilty, Amy Madigan, Joshua Malina, Oliver Platt, Martin Sheen
Release Date: TBD

It’s been 16 years since Warren Beatty made a movie, in front of or behind the camera, which makes this long-in-development project — supposedly due to arrive later this year — a tremendous curiosity. The story concerns an aspiring actress (Collins) who comes to Hollywood and signs a contract under Hughes, where she meets a businessman (Ehrenreich), who is also trying to make a name for himself working for the enigmatic mogul. The two fall in love, but their relationship is complicated by their strict religious upbringings — hers Baptist, his Methodist — and by Hughes’ rules about dating amongst his employees, as well his own direct meddling in their affairs.

Beatty, never known for doing anything quickly, has been trying to make a movie about Hughes for roughly 40 years, and his take has apparently evolved significantly over time from more of a direct biopic to the current incarnation in which Hughes is not the central figure. The tone has been described as “lighthearted romantic dramedy,” and beyond that, the project remains cloaked in mystery. The story sounds charming, and ripe for some classical screwball comedy, if that’s the direction it goes, but it doesn’t seem like anything to generate significant excitement on its own. However, Beatty is a true Hollywood legend, one of the last we still have, so his return to action after such a long hiatus can’t help but generate high hopes.

16.
BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK
Director: Ang Lee
Writer: Simon Beaufoy
Cast: Joe Alwyn, Vin Diesel, Garrett Hedlund, Deirdre Lovejoy, Steve Martin, Tim Blake Nelson, Ben Platt, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker
Release Date: November 11

Slumdog Millionaire‘s Oscar-winning screenwriter adapts the celebrated 2012 novel by Ben Fountain, about a group of Iraq war soldiers on a victory tour, and their stop at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium on Thanksgiving Day, where the jarring experience of celebration clashes with soldier Billy Lynn’s memories of the operation that earned him and his company war hero status. That general story recalls Clint Eastwood’s 2006 Iwo Jima drama Flags of Our Fathers, but if the plot sounds familiar, the filmmaking technique promises something new. Lee is shooting the movie in 3D and at a whopping 120 frames per second (fps). Every movie you’ve ever seen has been shot at the universal standard of 24 fps. But filmmakers like James Cameron and Peter Jackson believe that higher frame rates offer a more immersive and eye-popping experience. Jackson shot the second and third Hobbit films at 48 fps, and while the results underwhelmed most viewers — they complained that it gave the movies the quality of cheap video — there is still a lot of belief in its potential. In the less fantastical, more realistic setting promised by Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the higher frame rate — combined with the 3D photography and 4K resolution (which produces a sharper image with more detail and deeper blacks) — could work more successfully. The idea is that when these pieces of technology — 3D, 4K and higher frame rates — are used together, they compliment each other and negate the problems that each one has on its own. In the end, it won’t matter to most of us, since very few theaters in the world are even equipped to handle projecting a 3D, 4K movie at 120 fps. So let’s hope the story and the film itself are good. At this point, I’ve learned to never underestimate Ang Lee.

15.
SILENCE

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Jay Cocks
Cast: Tadanobo Asano, Adam Driver, Andrew Garfield, Ciarán Hinds, Liam Neeson
Release Date: TBD

A project that Scorsese has been trying to make for years, Silence is the story of two young Jesuit priests in the 17th century who travel to Japan to search for their missing mentor and spread a little Christianity while they’re at it. They arrive to find Christians are being persecuted, and that the man they seek may have turned away from the faith. Religion has been a consistent theme throughout Scorsese’s work, manifesting in both the gritty urban tales he’s most closely associated with (Mean Streets, Bringing Out the Dead, The Departed) and period dramas like this one that address the topic head-on (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun). I can’t say this story sounds riveting on paper, but Scorsese remains a bold and vital master filmmaker well into his fifth decade working in the medium. Whatever he’s doing demands attention.

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14.
JASON BOURNE
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writers: Paul Greengrass, Christopher Rouse
Cast: Matt Damon, Riz Ahmed, Vincent Cassel, Tommy Lee Jones, Julia Stiles, Alicia Vikander
Release Date: July 29

After four films, the Bourne formula has become familiar, but the James Bond series is no less formulaic, and that franchise continues to thrive in its sixth decade, so if the movies still deliver the goods, I’m game for more. After the thrilling third installment, The Bourne Ultimatum, Damon and director Greengrass walked away from the series, unable to settle on a satisfying story. Undeterred, Universal Studios moved forward with The Bourne Legacy, which cast Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton in a story about another agent in a highly secretive government program with ties to Bourne’s, and which depicted events that unfolded parallel to those of Ultimatum. And like its three predecessors, it was pretty great.

Jason Bourne was a character trying to put together the lost pieces of his adult life, and he finally did that in his last outing, so where does the character go from there? Greengrass developed the new story with Christopher Rouse, the film editor who won an Oscar for his work on Ultimatum, and the director’s interest in the post 9/11 political landscape has provided these movies a depth and intelligence to go with the relentlessly paced action. The government conspiracy angle in which this series is steeped is always rife for further exploration, and the role of Bourne has been a great fit for Damon from the beginning. Let’s hope they can keep their streak going.

13.
MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN

Director: Tim Burton
Writer: Jane Goldman
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Judi Dench, Kim Dickens, Rupert Everett, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Stamp
Release Date: December 25

There’s been little consistency to the quality of Tim Burton’s films over the past several years, unless we’re talking about the quality of the production design and overall look of his films, which is seldom unimpressive. Early word is that his latest is another triumph on that score. Whether it succeeds beyond that remains to be seen, but I’m always looking for Burton to recapture that combination of humor, heart and the macabre that permeates his early career. The potential is there with this adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ novel, a rapturously reviewed best-selling book that was notable for including interspersed black and white photos of creepy, old-timey kids. No wonder a visualist like Burton was drawn to the material. It should be interesting to see how he spins the tale from page to screen, and how this eclectic cast fits into the milieu.

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12.
PASSENGERS

Director: Morten Tyldum
Writer: Jon Spaihts
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Sheen
Release Date: December 21

The Academy Award nominated director of The Imitation Game heads to deep space with two of the most charismatic movie stars working today. Katniss and Star Lord play passengers aboard a massive freighter carrying thousands of people to a colony planet that will take 120 years to reach from Earth. A malfunction in their hibernation chambers wakes the duo up decades before they reach their destination. It’s a great set-up; what happens from there, I don’t know. Is it a creepy sci-fi thriller in which strange things are happening aboard the ship? Is it romantic drama about how these two people deal with their isolation over the course of a lifetime that will likely end before they arrive at the colony? Is it a slapstick comedy about a couple of goofballs who have to save the ship from an invading alien force? Until a trailer arrives, it’s anyone’s guess.

11.
THE NEON DEMON
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws
Cast: Elle Fanning, Desmond Harrington, Bella Heathcote, Christina Hendricks, Abbey Lee, Jena Malone, Alessandro Nivola, Keanu Reeves
Release Date: June 24

Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish filmmaker who brought a stylish aesthetic and Lynchian atmosphere to the 2011 Ryan Gosling crime drama Drive, comes back to L.A. for the story of an up-and-coming model whose youth and beauty are targeted by a group of envious women. The trailer teases a psychological thriller with arresting visuals and a throbbing pulse of danger, though I’m not sure I’m buying Elle Fanning in the central role. There’s not much to go on yet, so I’ll see what she and Refn have in store. It could be an exciting, against-the-grain piece of casting…or a total misfire. Either way, the movie sure looks pretty.

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10.
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS
Director/Writer: Derek Cianfrance
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
Release Date: September 2

Derek Cianfrance only has a few narrative movies under his belt, but all of them are wrenching, contemporary stories of complicated romantic and/or familial relationships that face disintegration. So get ready for what’s sure to be one of the feel good movies of the year! An adaptation of the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, Fassbender plays a lighthouse keeper in Australia whose wife (newly crowned Oscar winner Vikander) has been unable to have children. When a rowboat washes ashore, carrying a dead man and a living baby, the wife insists that they keep the child…and hilarity ensues! Or a tragedy of Greek proportions. I’m definitely betting on one of those two.

9.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Director/Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol, Lucas Hedges
Release Date: November 18

One of the standouts from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Manchester By the Sea was picked up for distribution by Amazon Studios, which won a bidding war and will give it a theatrical release before it finds a home on the streaming service. Word out of the festival is that this could be a big player in next year’s awards season, buoyed by stirring work from past nominees Affleck and Williams, and Emmy winner Chandler. Set in the small Massachusetts coastal town that gives the movie its title, the story follows a man who takes on the responsibility of caring for his nephew after his brother’s death. I avoided reading the unfailingly stellar reviews, but gleaned that the movie is deeply affecting, powerful and leaves a lasting impression. It will be nice to see Lonergan — best known for his stage work — regain his cinematic footing after the the ill-fated, ambitious but maddening Anna Paquin-led Margaret. Man, was that movie a mess. But this is the guy who made You Can Count On Me, so..fingers crossed for something closer to that.

8.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION
Director/Writer: Nate Parker
Cast: Nate Parker, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Roger Guenveur Smith, Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Dwight Henry, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union
Release Date: October 7

Nate Parker is an actor who has impressed me in under-the-radar dramas Arbitrage, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Beyond the Lights, but he has his sights set on bigger things. The actor has worked for years to pull together financing for a dream project about Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who led a violent rebellion against white slave owners in 1831. The film was was ecstatically received at Sundance, where it won the Dramatic category’s Audience Award and Grand Jury prize, and sold for a record-breaking figure to Fox Searchlight, the same studio that guided 12 Years a Slave to a Best Picture win in 2013. The Birth of a Nation hit the festival just as the #OscarsSoWhite controversy was exploding, and speculation was already rampant that come next year’s awards, Parker and his movie would be in the thick of the race, bringing some much needed color back to the proceedings.

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7.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Director/Writer: Tom Ford
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kim Basinger, Kristen Bauer van Straten, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Release Date: TBD

In 2009, fashion designer Tom Ford moved into filmmaking with A Single Man, starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode and Nicolas Hoult. It was no surprise that his eye for great design translated to the screen, but he proved a natural director right out of the gate, demonstrating an ability to tell a story cinematically and draw strong work from actors. Ford has taken his time landing on a follow-up, which suggests that his interest is filmmaking is driven by producing material that truly speaks to him. That bodes well for Nocturnal Animals, based on a 1993 novel by Austin Wright, which offers a compelling premise: years after their divorce, a woman receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, accompanied by a letter requesting that she read the book and offer her feedback. What unfolds from there is both the story of the novel — a family vacation that takes a violent turn — and the story of the woman, now remarried, as she re-examines the relationship with her ex-husband and where her life has gone since. I tend to enjoy the story-within-a-story structure we’re in store for here, and I’m genuinely excited to see Ford’s sophomore effort, backed by this excellent cast.

6.
STORY OF YOUR LIFE

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Eric Heisserer
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, Forest Whitaker
Release Date: TBD

In this grounded sci-fi story, Amy Adams plays a linguist who is recruited by the military to determine whether alien spaceships that have appeared across the planet have come in peace or hostility. The premise sounds intriguing, but the main attraction for me is French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. With his 2012 kidnapping drama Prisoners and last year’s drug war examination Sicario, Villeneuve has quickly established his expertise at building tension and exercising tight control over every moment of his movies. He continues to fly under the radar, but after these last few films — even the bizarre, uneven Jake Gyllenhaal mystery Enemy achieved an intoxicating, moody atmosphere — he’s due to be recognized for the immense talent that he is. Maybe this will be the movie to bring him into the light of wider recognition. And if not, well, there’s always the Blade Runner sequel he’s gearing up to shoot.

5.
THE NICE GUYS

Director: Shane Black
Writers: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Kim Basinger, Matt Bomer, Hannibal Buress, Keith David, Margaret Qualley, Ty Simpkins
Release Date: May 20

Shane Black began his career as one of Hollywood’s hottest screenwriters, who practically pioneered the action-comedy genre as we know it today, through films like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. He transitioned into directing a decade ago with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a boisterous crime/mystery/comedy that paired Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer to pitch perfect effect, and marked an auspicious beginning to the post-rehab phase of Downey’s career. The actor even got Black to direct Iron Man 3, which had its merits but was definitely unfamiliar territory. Based on the trailers for The Nice Guys, he appears to be back doing what he does best: blending violent action and fast-paced comedy in a crime-mystery that brings together two great actors who instantly demonstrate an easy, natural chemistry. Gosling looks so goddamn funny in this thing I can hardly wait to see it.

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4.
LIVE BY NIGHT
Director/Writer: Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck, Max Casella, Chris Cooper, Scott Eastwood, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Anthony Michael Hall, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Titus Welliver
Release Date: TBD

Ben Affleck’s foray into the DC Comics universe delayed his directorial follow-up to Argo, which was supposed to come out this year or even last year, only to be pushed to October 2017. But test screenings for the movie are said to have begun, and my reliable sources placed high atop the Hollywood food chain tell me that Affleck is hoping to get the movie out this year, likely in December. We’ll see if he makes it. The Prohibition era crime drama set in Boston and Florida is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who has been pretty well served by Hollywood to date. Mystic River, Shutter Island, The Drop, and Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone are all based on Lehane books, and all are pretty good, at least. Given Affleck’s skill behind the camera, there’s no reason to think both his and Lehane’s track records won’t continue here.

3.
THE FOUNDER

Director: John Lee Hancock
Writer: Robert Siegel
Cast: Michael Keaton, Linda Cardellini, Laura Dern, John Carroll Lynch, B.J. Novak, Nick Offerman, Patrick Wilson
Release Date: August 5

Set in the 1950’s, Michael Keaton will portray Ray Kroc, the salesman whose milkshake machine led him to a small, successful chain of hamburger restaurants started by brothers Mac and Dick McDonald. Impressed, and seeing potential for something much bigger than the brothers had in mind, Kroc went to work for them and grew the business into the billion-dollar, billion-served ubiquitous behemoth it is today. But the growth came with drama behind the scenes, as Kroc’s aggressive style and lofty ambitions clashed with the brothers’ more humble goals for their operation.

When the movie went into production, I heard it described as being in the vein of The Social Network and There Will Be Blood. Those are two stirling touchstones to aim for, but let’s be clear: director John Lee Hancock, who helmed The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks, doesn’t have it in him to make anything as idiosyncratic as There Will Be Blood, nor as blistering as The Social Network. But a script by Robert Siegel — who wrote The Wrestler — is a good start, and more than anything really, I’m just looking for another great role for Keaton. The beloved actor is flying high these days, having starred in the last two Oscar winners for Best Picture. Hopefully The Founder will put him back in the hunt himself, after he came up short for Birdman. Master awards strategist Harvey Weinstein is releasing the movie, so you can bet he’ll push hard for Keaton.

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2.
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

Director: David Yates
Writer: J.K. Rowling
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Ron Perlman, Alison Sudol, Jon Voight, Katherine Waterston
Release Date: November 18

This return to the world of Harry Potter doesn’t really have anything to do with Harry Potter, as it takes place 70 years before the birth of The Boy Who Lived. The focus of this story — the first in a trilogy — is Newt Scamander, an expert in magical creatures (and author of a book on the subject that was among Harry and company’s Hogwarts texts), who runs into trouble during a visit to New York City when some of his specimans escape. Fantastic Beasts existed as a slender volume Rowling published during the Potter years, as if it were a copy of Harry’s textbook. Now, she expands the story, but whereas all the Potter books were adapted for film by other screenwriters, here Rowling makes the leap herself. This is her first foray into writing directly for the screen, and her direct involvement — the fact that this is all-new material generated by Rowling herself — elevates this to something for all us Potter geeks to be truly excited about. Like all great world builders of fiction — Tolkien, Lucas, Martin — Rowling knows every inch of her universe, having developed detailed backstories for every character, creature, event and location. To see her dip back into this beloved world and transpose it to the screen makes this movie much more than a cash grab for Warner Bros., who were no doubt desperate to remain in the Potter business after the series came to its logical conclusion in 2011. David Yates, who did a mostly admirable job with the last four Potter films, returns to the fold.

1.
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
Director: Gareth Edwards
Writer: Chris Weitz
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Forest Whitaker, Donnie Yen
Release Date: December 16

The first in what might be a never-ending series of spinoff films, Rogue One will depict the Rebel Alliance’s dangerous mission to steal the plans for the Empire’s Death Star. Described by director Edwards (the man behind 2014’s Godzilla) as a war movie, Rogue One — connected to the previous films but outside of its established parameters — will allow for a different tone and feel than we’ve seen in any previous Star Wars movie. That’s an intriguing opportunity, and we can only hope that after the success of The Force Awakens and its revival of this beloved series, this new offshoot will stand on its own while earning the right to call itself a Star Wars story. If the teaser trailer is any indication, we have nothing to worry about.

 

 

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