I Am DB

March 3, 2018

Oscars 2017: The Envelope Please

 

It’s a cold, grey, occasionally rainy weekend in Hollywood, so while the Oscar nominees are fretting their fashion choices, you get to curl up with a hot drink and settle in for a few hours of…I don’t know what, but hopefully something more entertaining than reading my predictions. If this is the best you can do, maybe skip the hot drink. You don’t want to spill it all over yourself when you nod off…
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BEST SOUND MIXING AND SOUND EDITING

Sound Mixing:
Baby Driver – Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin
Blade Runner 2049 – Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hephill
Dunkirk – Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo
The Shape of Water – Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern
Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick

Sound Editing:
Baby Driver – Julian Slater
Blade Runner 2049 – Mark Mangini, Theo Green
Dunkirk – Alex Gibson, Richard King
The Shape of Water – Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira
Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood

As you can see, the same five films are nominated in both categories this year. I was sure this was a relatively common situation, but in reviewing years past I realized it was actually a first. That said, it was only in 2006 that the Sound Editing category was expanded from three nominees to five, so there have only been 12 times where there could have been an exact match up. Not that this has anything to do with what will win. Usually there’s only one difference between the two line-ups, and since 1990 the awards have gone to the same movie almost as often as they’ve been split. As I probably say every year, most voters don’t understand the categories, which means they could always surprise us. But the pervading sense this year is that both will go to Dunkirk. I agree.

Personal: Sound Editing recognizes the creation of sounds in post-production that couldn’t be captured during filming. That makes me feel like this is the more creative of the two disciplines, because when it comes to science fiction or fantasy films, the Sound Editors must come up with what alien creatures and droids and spaceships sound like. Not that those are the only sounds which need to be manufactured in post; there could be practical reasons why real world sounds like gunfire or tires screeching must be re-created. Still, the requirement for complete fabrication makes me lean towards the fantastical, so my Sound Editing pick would be Star Wars: The Last Jedi. For Sound Mixing, which rewards the combination and interaction of dialogue, sound effects and music, I’d go Dunkirk. As with all of Christopher Nolan’s films, the music score by Hans Zimmer feels like a more integrated part of the soundscape then a score usually does, plus the ticking clock motif adds to the tension. It’s the nominee in which all of the sound elements work together most effectively.

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BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Blade Runner 2049 – John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, Dan Sudick
Kong: Skull Island – Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, Mike Meinardus
Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould, Neal Scanlan
War for the Planet of the Apes – Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Joel Whist

This category comes down to Blade Runner 2049 and War for the Planet of the Apes, and I want so much to think the latter will triumph and Weta Digital’s amazing work on this series will finally take the gold after the previous installments were criminally passed over. But I’m afraid it won’t happen. For one thing, I never get the sense that the Apes movies are widely seen by Academy members. In 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes bafflingly lost to Hugo, a Best Picture nominee. In 2014, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes lost to Interstellar, which had effects that were impressive but fairly standard for “outer space” fare. Although there was no Best Picture nominee in the running that year, Interstellar still carried a hint of prestige that may have helped its chances. It was also nominated in four other categories, demonstrating that attention had been paid across multiple branches. The Apes movies have not broken out beyond visual effects, though each film has deserved additional nominations. That’s true this year as well, where Blade Runner 2049 has five nominations and, like Interstellar before it, carries an intangible prestige factor that while not substantial enough to land it in any of the top categories, is probably enough for it to succeed here.

Blade Runner features beautiful and seamless visual effects, so it’s hardly undeserving. But the Planet of the Apes movies are simply in another league, and if enough voters were paying attention, how could they not realize it? Every main character in this movie, save for two, are achieved through visual effects. Actors like Andy Serkis and Steve Zahn perform the characters using performance capture technology, so we can watch the movie and connect with the emotions these actors are putting out. But we also have to connect with what we’re actually looking at, and what we’re looking at in the case of these films was created in a computer. Main characters, holding the screen in dramatic, compelling moments of rage, warmth, loss, fear…it’s astonishing work. These characters – realized “in the flesh” entirely by computers – never for an instant seem anything less than completely, 100% real. There is no uncanny valley in this planet of apes. These movies, and their fate in this category, are a textbook case for why the Oscars might be far more meaningful if the winners – like the nominees – were chosen by the members of each respective branch rather than the membership-at-large. There is no way this series wouldn’t have picked up at least one Oscar by now if the decision was being made solely by visual effects artists.

I should be more optimistic. I’m writing about the movie as if it’s already lost, when in fact this is not a done deal. The primates do have a fighting chance. But I’m feeling like Blade Runner 2049 will win. I would love to be wrong.

Personal: Hmm, let me think about it.

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BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Darkest Hour – Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick
Victoria & Abdul – Daniel Phillips, Lou Sheppard
Wonder – Arjen Tuiten

This is one of the easier picks of the year. The transformation of Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill was as talked about as the performance Oldman delivered through the prosthetics. Darkest Hour has this in the bag.

Personal: Darkest Hour. And now I want to see Oldman made up as Churchill and then transformed from that starting point into the ancient Transylvanian count he played in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Dunkirk – Hans Zimmer
Phantom Thread – Jonny Greenwood
The Shape of Water – Alexandre Desplat
Star Wars: The Last Jedi – John Williams
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Carter Burwell

If this award were being given out by film critics, I’d call it for Jonny Greenwood’s Phantom Thread, and it could turn out to be the Academy’s favorite too. Or Dunkirk admirers could push Hans Zimmer into the winner’s circle for his essential contribution to the movie’s nonstop tension, as well as for unifying its three storylines. But while Greenwood in particular poses a threat, I think Alexandre Desplat will take the Oscar for his romantic, Parisian-accented score that evocatively captured the playfulness, the love story and the otherworldliness of The Shape of Water.

Personal: Hans Zimmer’s collaborations with Christopher Nolan yield scores that do much more than support the films musically. The scores are almost like another character, and their impact on Nolan’s ability to grab his audience and get their hearts racing can not be understated. So I would be happy to see Dunkirk win. But I’d go with The Shape of Water. At every moment, Desplat’s charming score is the note-perfect complement to what we’re watching. Plus it works better as a listening experience apart from the movie than Dunkirk, which tends to be a consideration for me. And I could listen to “Elisa’s Theme” on an endless loop.

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BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Mighty River – Mudbound – Music and Lyric by Mary J. Blige, Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson
Mystery of Love – Call Me By Your Name – Music and Lyric by Sufjan Stevens
Remember Me – Coco – Music and Lyric by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
Stand Up For Something – Marshall – Music by Diane Warren; Lyric by Lonnie R. Lynn and Diane Warren
This is Me – The Greatest Showman – Music and Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Poor Diane Warren. Her nominated song from Marshall marks her ninth time at this dance, but she has yet to win and that’s not going to change this year. In fact, “Stand Up for Something” is the least likely of the five to take the prize. Salt on the wound: while she awaits her first victory, she will likely lose to a pair of repeat winners. Either husband-and-wife team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who won for Frozen‘s inescapable “Let it Go,” or Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who took the prize last year for “City of Stars” from La La Land.

The problem with “Remember Me,” the effort from Team Lopez, is that it’s rather slight. It appears during Coco in three different versions, two of which are barely over a minute long, with the third falling short of the two-minute mark. It’s charming and sweet and I like it, but there’s not much to it. It’s power and effectiveness is less about the song itself than about the role it plays in the movie, especially in its final incarnation. The song could almost be anything; what packs the punch is how it’s used. Will voters make that distinction? Some, maybe. Regardless, my guess is that more of them will be engaged by the energy and aspirational nature of “This is Me,” which is a full-blown production number in The Greatest Showman, and which has taken on a life of its own apart from the movie, thanks in no small part to its prominent use in commercials for the Olympics. Having a platform like that smack in the middle of the voting period couldn’t hurt. That benefit aside, the song is an anthem for underdogs and people who feel unseen, making it as powerful and inspiring as it is jubilant. We’re experiencing a moment right now where those who have felt silenced or victimized are standing up and calling for change, whether it’s women fighting for pay equality and an end to harassment, or African-Americans demanding fair treatment from systems that have historically oppressed them, or students refusing to become casualties of gun violence…this song speaks to all of them, even without directly addressing any of those struggles. It feels like a song for this moment. But who knows. I may be taking away more than the average listener…or Oscar voter.

Personal: Although I seem to have just made a case for “This is Me,” that would be my second choice after “Mystery of Love,” Sufjan Stevens’ airy, haunting ballad that exquisitely captures the mood and tone of Call Me By Your Name.

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BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Beauty and the Beast – Jacqueline Durran
Darkest Hour – Jacqueline Durran
Phantom Thread – Mark Bridges
The Shape of Water – Luis Sequeira
Victoria & Abdul – Consolata Boyle

In Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, an esteemed fashion designer who creates dresses for royals and ladies of highest society. It’s a tall order for any costumer to create an array of outfits that could have believably been designed by a world famous couturier, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s longtime collaborator Mark Bridges met the challenge with flying reds, golds, pinks and greens. Unless The Shape of Water gets caught in a sweep, expect Bridges to take the statuette…which, if I were him, I would then dress in a little House of Woodcock replica. He’s already got one Oscar, so he can display that one in its au naturel glory while the new one is dolled up.

Personal: The category features nice work all around, but nothing really stands out like the beautiful designs of Phantom Thread.

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BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

Beauty and the Beast – Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
Blade Runner 2049 – Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola
Darkest Hour – Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
Dunkirk – Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis
The Shape of Water – Paul Denham Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

In the Best Visual Effects section, I suggested Blade Runner 2049 would win partly because it was embraced more broadly within the Academy than its primatey primary competitor, which I argue is more deserving. Here somehow the opposite applies. The world created in Blade Runner 2049 through the production design is at once familiar and alien, at times grand and imaginative while at others intimate but still idiosyncratic. It’s even more impressive considering that the sequel’s design carves out its own identity despite having to fit with what came before, even though 30 years have passed in the story. The movie pays homage to the original, but still feels fresh in its look. Yet it appears to be facing an uphill battle against The Shape of Water, which takes place in a world more grounded and ordinary but still sports terrific design work and would definitely be a worthy victor. Both films present bold colors that work in concert with all other visual elements of the films to tell their stories, and both films took home awards from the Art Director’s Guild, with Shape of Water winning in the Period category while Blade Runner scored in the Fantasy race. It’s probably the more creative accomplishment in this particular area, and it could win, but The Shape of Water seems to have the edge, perhaps because it’s more popular across the Academy’s ranks.

Personal: As much as I admire and enjoy The Shape of Water‘s design elements, I want Blade Runner 2049 to take this.

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BEST FILM EDITING

Baby Driver – Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
Dunkirk – Lee Smith
I, Tonya – Tatiana S. Riegel
The Shape of Water – Sidney Wolinsky
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Jon Gregory

As I mentioned in the nomination predictions post, this award almost always goes to a Best Picture nominee, but every once in a while a particularly skillful action movie (The Matrix, The Bourne Ultimatum) or let’s say “near-action” movie (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) can emerge victorious. This year, Dunkirk would seem the clear choice, as it’s both a Best Picture contender and something of an action movie. But watch out for Baby Driver. Although probably seen by fewer voters than Dunkirk, it’s the kind of movie whose reputation precedes it, and even those who haven’t seen it might have awareness enough to admire and vote for the precision with which the images are cut to the pop soundtrack. It’s not your typical Oscar-caliber movie, but it’s exactly the kind of action piece that could take this prize. The precursor awards  do little to illuminate a clear choice. Dunkirk won the American Cinema Editors award in the Drama category, while Baby Driver surprisingly lost to I, Tonya in the Musical or Comedy field. I would read less into that, however, than into the fact that Baby Driver beat Dunkirk at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards, which have a pretty decent – though not perfect – record in recent years of matching the eventual Oscar winner. It’s a tough call. I’m going with Dunkirk, but I might as well toss a coin.

Personal: Tough call here too. I’d be perfectly happy to see Lee Smith win for his excellent work on Dunkirk – and to make up for him not getting nominated for Inception. But Baby Driver is probably the more impressive, difficult achievement and it would be great to see it rewarded.

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BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Blade Runner 2049 – Roger Deakins
Darkest Hour – Bruno Delbonnel
Dunkirk – Hoyte van Hoytema
Mudbound – Rachel Morrison
The Shape of Water – Dan Lausten

Roger Deakins is one of the most lauded lensers of all time. 15 nominations from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC); 4 wins. 8 BAFTA nominations; 4 wins. 14 Academy Award nominations; 0 wins. That’s right. Deakins, one of the greatest ever seated behind a camera, has yet to win an Academy Award. Many think this could finally be the year he takes it, thanks to his dazzling work on Blade Runner 2049. He’s already collected the prize from at least 22 critics organizations, as well as the ASC and BAFTA. Should be a slam dunk, right? Much as I’d like to think so, there’s reason to be wary. As mentioned above, Deakins has won BAFTA awards and ASC awards before, only to lose the Oscar. He’s won them both in the same year before, and still gone on to lose the Oscar.

Why might it happen again this year? For the same reason Blade Runner 2049 will probably lose Best Production Design: it’s up against two widely admired Best Picture nominees – Dunkirk and The Shape of Water – that also boast highly impressive work. Dunkirk was shot almost entirely with IMAX cameras, giving the film an epic sweep that still managed to be intimate and place the audience right alongside the characters. In addition, much of the movie’s photography is handheld, which is no easy feat to pull off with cumbersome IMAX equipment. And to get those big, bulky cameras into the cockpits of the planes for the RAF storyline? Quite a challenge. The Shape of Water, meanwhile, may not have posed the same level of physical complexity, but its camerawork and lighting interacts beautifully with every other visual element of the movie. Of course, the same is true for Blade Runner 2049; they both happen to be especially eye-popping films. I’d just argue that Blade Runner‘s imagery is a little more striking a little more often, particularly in its lighting.

With no clear and present frontrunner, this does seem like it might finally be Deakins’ year. But with Dunkirk and The Shape of Water showcasing wonderful work and being in the thick of the Best Picture hunt, either could find more support amongst voters. It should be noted that on the ballots, only the name of the film appears, not the name of the actual nominee. In the end, I’m cautiously predicting that Deakins’ losing streak is about to give way, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it extend yet again.

Personal: I can’t really be disappointed if Dunkirk or The Shape of Water took the prize. Each is immaculately shot and eminently worthy. But so is Blade Runner 2049, and when you factor in how overdue Deakins is, and how in the zone he is with this film, it would be crushing to see him miss yet again.

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BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
The Boss Baby – Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito
The Breadwinner – Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
Coco – Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson
Ferdinand – Carlos Saldanha
Loving Vincent – Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart

Not a whole lot to debate or deconstruct in this category. Coco is way out in front, and should easily deliver Pixar its ninth win in this category.

Personal: I’m torn. I loved Coco, even more than I expected. It moved me to tears…several times. But as a work of animation, Loving Vincent is staggering. An entire feature-length film, hand painted in the thick, swirly style of Van Gogh’s art and integrating live performances by actors like Saorise Ronan and Chris O’Dowd rendered as Van Gogh subjects. It’s a painting come to life, and it makes me wonder what the category should be judged on: the film itself, or the achievement of the animation? I suppose the former; the category is called Best Animated Feature, not Best Animation in a Feature. But maybe occasionally, with something as unique as this, the technique or style deserves to come first. So for its strikingly original artistry and its dramatically compelling content (a skeptic investigates Van Gogh’s mysterious death), I’d give the win to Loving Vincent.

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BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Call Me By Your Name – James Ivory
The Disaster Artist – Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Logan – Scott Frank, James Mangold, Michael Green
Molly’s Game – Aaron Sorkin
Mudbound – Virgil Williams, Dee Rees

Here’s another category where there really isn’t a lot to grapple with. It’s not even roughly a two-way race. Call Me By Your Name might as well be engraved on this Oscar as I type. James Ivory will become the oldest winner in Oscar history at 89, besting Ennio Morricone, who was 87 when he won Best Original Score for The Hateful Eight. Then again, if Agnès Varda wins in the Best Documentary Feature category, she’ll be the oldest winner ever. She’s got eight days on Ivory. Regardless of who holds what record, it will be nice to see Ivory win an Oscar after a long and celebrated career that saw him nominated three times for Best Director, but always for films (A Room with a View, Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day) that were considered also-rans in the Directing and Picture categories despite winning in other top races. His moment has finally come.

Personal: It’s great to see Logan nominated, but Call Me By Your Name is the crown jewel among these contenders. A beautiful movie across the board, and it begins with André Aciman’s novel and Ivory’s script.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
The Big Sick – Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani
Get Out – Jordan Peele
Lady Bird – Greta Gerwig
The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Martin McDonagh

Any of these nominees would be a deserving winner, but The Big Sick will have to be content with its nomination. So too will The Shape of Water, despite being a frontrunner in other categories both above and below the line. It’s lovely and imaginative and full of meanings that may go unnoticed but which are carefully layered in by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, and in another year it might have had a better chance. As it is, there just happen to be three dominant writing contenders this time around. Two of them, Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig, have been lumped together quite a bit throughout the season (as in this Vanity Fair photo shoot and cover story), forced by circumstance to carry the torch for their respective chronically underrepresented demographics. Both are nominated here and for Best Director. The screenplay nominations were expected, but the Director nominations were question marks. Receiving that recognition is as far as they’re expected to go in that category, meaning this is the best chance that both of them have to win…and like the Highlander, there can be only one. (Well…technically they could tie, but that’s unlikely.) Oh, and there’s still Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to consider.

This is also Martin McDonagh’s best shot, as he was rather surprisingly omitted from the Best Director line-up. Three Billboards has been a formidable presence in the top races throughout Phase Two, and took Screenplay honors at the Golden Globes and BAFTA (the former does not distinguish between Original Adapted). It did not win the Writers Guild of America (WGA) award, but it wasn’t eligible for a nomination.  The big question with Three Billboards is whether the controversy that surrounds it has made a significant impact on Academy members. What controversy, you may ask? Many critics and viewers have a big problem with how the movie handles race. This piece from /Film nicely summarizes the issue, and contains links to several of the critiques, including prominent articles by New York Times critic Wesley Morris and The Daily Beast‘s Ira Madison III. The movie has its defenders, however, including Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, who argue in part that these excoriations miss the movie’s point. So again, will the controversy make a difference? Some voters may think twice, but I’d wager it’s more likely that if they consider this at all, it will be less about their own opinion being swayed than about not wanting to be perceived as endorsing a film that many find racially insensitive or outright ignorant.

So there’s that.

Peele and McDonagh are both among their films’ nominated producers, so if either loses this award, they still have a chance to take home an Oscar if their movie wins Best Picture. Not so for Gerwig, who is not a producer on Lady Bird. So with Best Director likely out of reach, this is her chance. But as perennial as it is for Oscar pundits to think a given person and/or their film might win in one category while their closest competition will win in another, thereby spreading the wealth, this scenario seldom plays out. People vote for what they want to vote for category by category; they don’t play their Oscar ballot like a chess board. So the fact that this is Gerwig’s best hope to win an Oscar this year doesn’t matter. As funny, acutely observed and delightful as Lady Bird is, it’s outmatched by the cleverness and social commentary of Get Out and the originality and potency of Three Billboards. Between those two, it could go either way…but Get Out just feels too relevant and too fresh to lose.

Personal: It’s not my favorite movie of the five nominees, but I still have to give this up to Get Out. It’s such a smart premise; simple but ingenious, and a whole lotta fun.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Willem Dafoe – The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins – The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer – All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The way things were going waaaaay back in December, Phase One, the early days of the awards season, it seemed as if veteran character actor Willem Dafoe might earn a sort of career achievement Oscar for his role as a beleaguered motel manager in The Florida Project. But as often happens as the season stretches on, the winds shifted. Sam Rockwell (a veteran character actor himself, if not quite one with as many years logged as Dafoe) came up from behind to establish a lead, and is now the firm favorite. Given that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was built as a showcase for a dynamic female lead, it’s a testament to Rockwell’s impact that he’s as much a reason to see the movie as Frances McDormand. And even though his character is at the center of the aforementioned controversy, no one seems to have a problem with his performance. Having overtaken Dafoe’s early lead and captured every major prize along the way – Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and BAFTA – at this point it’s hard to envision any other outcome.

Personal: Rockwell. I have loved this guy for ages. The Green Mile, Galaxy Quest, Charlie’s Angels, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Choke, Moon, Conviction, The Way Way Back…he’s just one of those magnetic performers who always commands attention, no matter the quality of the movie he’s in. Still, none of his past achievements are reason to vote for him here. I choose him because Three Billboards gives him one of his best roles, and as expected, he crushes it.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Mary J. Blige – Mudbound
Allison Janney – I, Tonya
Lesley Manville – Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer – The Shape of Water

Even more starkly than in the Supporting Actor race, this one saw a shift as time went on. Allison Janney did well with the critics groups, but Laurie Metcalf dominated. Yet it was Janney who took the Golden Globe, SAG, BFCA and BAFTA awards, and there’s no reason to expect that she won’t take the Oscar as well. She has the showiest role of the bunch by far, and perhaps more importantly, she’s never played a part like this. There are moments in this movie when her eyes are so icy and frightening she could make Game of Thrones‘ Night King tremble, and she conjures the attitude to match. Some have pointed out that the character is pretty much one-note, and maybe it is…but take that up with the screenwriter. Janney went the distance with the part, and because she’s so well known across film and television, voters are likely to note what a change of pace the role is for her. She also has the advantage of being more familiar to film audiences than Metcalf, who is active on television and the stage but hadn’t appeared in a theatrical movie since 2008. From all angles, this seems like a sure thing for Janney. Still, proceed with caution. The very fact that all four acting frontrunners seem so locked could belie the possibility of a surprise, and if something unexpected happens, it could be here. Metcalf could still pull it off, and word is that Lesley Manville is gaining ground among voters who are just catching up with Phantom Thread.

Personal: I’ve got nothing but love for Janney and I’d be fine with her winning. I’d also be happy with Lesley Manville, who did so much with looks and posture. But I’d be happiest to see it go to Metcalf. She made that character so real. Flawed, kind, pained, petty, generous…loving. Not always in the right way, but always. Sometimes the most impressive feat isn’t nailing a big showstopper scene, but making all the ordinary and mundane moments so memorable. Metcalf does that here, over and over again.

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BEST ACTOR

Timothée Chalamet – Call Me By Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis – Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out
Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington – Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Gary Oldman has pretty much had this thing locked up since Darkest Hour premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September. The Toronto Film Festival followed within days, and the buzz was out of the bag. Oldman checks off all the classic Oscar boxes. Real life/historical figure? Check. Physical transformation? Check. Big speeches/scenery chewing? Check. Quieter, subtler, more interior moments to balance out big speeches/scenery chewing? Check. Respected actor, long career, lots of great performances, hasn’t won yet? Check. As time goes on and the Academy’s old guard becomes the minority, these boxes may go away. But for now they remain intact, and they all point to victory for Oldman. Not exactly victory at all costs or in spite of all terror…but victory nonetheless.

Personal: It’s hard to deny Gary Oldman. Just because the performance checks off those predictable boxes doesn’t diminish its impact or suggest that voters who choose him are simply going through the motions. Oldman is tremendously entertaining and wholly committed in Darkest Hour, and having reached a point in his career where he tends to play primarily supporting roles, his work as Churchill is a reminder of his power as a lead. He’s also one of those guys who you assume must have won an Oscar somewhere along the line, but hasn’t, which fuels a classic “it’s time” narrative. It’s hard to put all the side factors out of your mind and just vote purely for the performance, but if I did I would probably go with Timothée Chalamet. Like Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird, he’s just so authentic. In his portrayal of a teenager overtaken by unexpected romantic desire, he makes some choices that are so surprising and impeccable, yet so straightforward. None of the performances present an existence so believable and fully lived-in as his.

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BEST ACTRESS

Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird
Meryl Streep – The Post

Almost every year at least one of the acting categories comes down to a tight race between two nominees, with either outcome completely plausible. This year, not so much. All four acting categories seem to have clear outcomes, with Rockwell, Janney, Oldman and now Frances McDormand having taken Golden Globes, BFCA, SAG and BAFTA prizes. That factoid is, I believe, a first. It doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be an upset; only that they all have a significant advantage going into the big night.

Unlikely as a loss for McDormand seems at this point, there’s a case to be made that she could miss. For one thing, it’s clear each time she takes the stage that while she is happy and grateful, it’s not too important to her. Frances McDormand does not need your trophy, thank you very much. While accepting her SAG award, she even encouraged voters to support younger, newer talent. For another thing, this acting category might be the one where the frontrunner’s lead is the slimmest. Sally Hawkins and Saoirse Ronan are likely to pick up a lot of votes, and Margot Robbie will get her fair share as well. If enough people who are torn decide not to vote for McDormand, figuring she’ll already get enough support, the tide could turn. Also worth considering…

Oh hell, who are we kidding? Making a case for McDormand to lose is pointless. Yes, yes, anything could happen, but c’mon. People love her in this movie, they love her in general…you watch her give her other speeches – BAFTA, Golden Globes…this lady is just oozing swagger.

Personal: I’ve long wanted to see Academy Award Winner Frances McDormand become Two-Time Academy Award Winner Frances McDormand, so if she wins, it’ll be aces with me. But in a tough, tough choice between her, Hawkins and Ronan, I’d pick Ronan. Her character is more average and grounded than those played by some of her competitors, but her inhabiting of this girl facing typical struggles of adolescence went so deep and was so relatable. Her portrayal was as universal as it was particular, and her deadpan comic timing and delivery is a marvel.

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BEST DIRECTOR

Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk
Jordan Peele – Get Out
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Paul Thomas Anderson – Phantom Thread
Guillermo del Toro – The Shape of Water

It’s great to have Paul Thomas Anderson back in this category, and great to have Christopher Nolan and Guillermo del Toro here for the first time. One day, this award surely must go to Anderson and Nolan. But it won’t be this year. Like the four acting categories, this one includes a nominee who has won every major precursor. Guillermo del Toro took the BFCA, Golden Globe, BAFTA and Director’s Guild of America (DGA) awards, the latter of which is the most reliable harbinger of Oscar victory in all of awardom. His close compadres Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu have each won this award in the last five years (Iñárritu did it twice), and now del Toro will complete the trifecta.

Personal: Guillermo del Toro. Every detail in every frame of The Shape of the Water, and every thought behind every word, shot, cut, sound effect and so on, is significant and can be explained in passionate detail by del Toro. When I hear him interviewed about this or any other of his films, I’m always struck by how nothing is without meaning or careful intention. And it all comes together so gorgeously in this movie.

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BEST PICTURE
Call Me By Your Name – Peter Spears, Luca Guadagnino, Emilie Georges, Marco Morabito
Darkest Hour – Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce, Anthony McCarten, Douglas Urbanski
Dunkirk – Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan
Get Out – Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum, Edward H. Hamm, Jr., Jordan Peele
Lady Bird – Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Evelyn O’Neill
Phantom Thread – JoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi
The Post – Amy Pascal, Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger
The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro, J. Miles Dale
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Martin McDonagh

The most difficult prediction of the year is for the top award. Races like Best Visual Effects, Best Original Song and Best Original Screenplay have boiled down to two strong possibilities (maybe three in the case of Screenplay), but four of these nominees are widely thought to be serious players. Of those four, Dunkirk faces the toughest odds. It hasn’t won any major awards on the road to the Oscars, but many pundits who are out there talking to Academy members consistently hear that it’s a popular choice, admired by many. This matters when dealing with the preferential ballot, the method employed to choose the Best Picture winner. All other categories are determined by a simple popular vote; the nominee with the most votes wins. But in 2011, the Academy introduced the preferential ballot in the hopes of reaching a Best Picture winner that represented as wide a group of voters as possible. Once again, I offer this video from The Wrap‘s Oscar whiz Steve Pond, who uses visuals aids to explain how it works.

So…it’s better to be a movie that’s admired and liked by a whole bunch of people than a movie that’s loved by a smaller faction. Based on reports from the trenches, Dunkirk appears to fall in the former group, and it surely has a lot of support from below-the-line members (cinematographers, editors, sound mixers, etc.). Actors make up the largest voting bloc of the Academy, but combine all of the crafts categories and you’ve got an even larger group. Working against Dunkirk? It didn’t receive any nominations for writing or acting. It’s considered almost impossible to win Best Picture without either.

Get Out. It’s seen as one of the most relevant nominees, which can be a huge benefit in these troubled times when social consciousness is on everybody’s mind. Many members want their vote to make a statement. Get Out spotlights an exciting new voice in filmmaking, provides a rare blessing of legitimacy on a genre that seldom gets this level of respect, and demonstrates that an “issue movie” can also be a popular crowdpleaser. And as with Dunkirk, many pundits report that their Academy contacts keep talking about it….though whenever I hear that I think, “Ok, but there are roughly 8,300 members of the Academy. How many are you talking to? A few dozen? Even if it’s a couple hundred, that’s a small percentage.”

Next, The Shape of Water. With a leading 13 nominations, it has broad appeal across the below-the-line categories as well as with actors, who nominated three of its stars. It’s a common mistake to think that the most nominated movie is also the most popular or the most likely to win. This often proves false. The movies that get the most nominations are the ones that not only find success in the top categories, but also hit several below-the-line boxes. Costumes, set design, music, makeup, visual effects, etc. In other words, period pieces and sci-fi or fantasy. So when it comes to The Shape of Water, it doesn’t hurt to have all those nominations, but they don’t necessarily signify anything. While many people love the movie, there are also many who don’t get it or just don’t care for it. One deterrent cited over and over is that despite its acclaimed ensemble and their praised performances, the movie did not receive a SAG nomination for Best Cast. No movie has won Best Picture without that since 1995’s Braveheart. But it did win the Producer’s Guild of America (PGA) award, which is the only major precursor that also uses the preferential ballot. And it won the BFCA award, which comes from an organization whose size is closer to the Academy than any other entity, and therefore probably consists of a similarly diverse and divided voting membership.

Finally, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which has the clearest momentum going into Oscar night, thanks to Picture and Screenplay wins at BAFTA and the Golden Globes, as well as McDormand and Rockwell steamrolling their way through Phase Two. It also won the SAG award for Best Cast. If not getting nominated for that could hurt The Shape of Water, winning it surely helps Three Billboards. On the other hand, Martin McDonagh was passed over for Best Director. A movie can win Best Picture without a directing nomination, but it doesn’t happen often. I’ve also read some interesting comments suggesting that the movie’s depiction of America is not all that realistic, representing an outsider’s view (McDonagh hails from Ireland) that misses certain key cultural nuances, particularly of the American south, and that the top prizes from BAFTA and the Globes are not surprising given that both voting groups are comprised of non-Americans. There’s also the controversy discussed previously. Here, it gives me pause. If the story has permeated the ranks of the Academy, they may be more wary of what they choose to represent them as a Best Picture winner than they will be with Best Screenplay. To whatever extent Oscar wins are remembered over time by those outside the realm of obsessives like me, a Best Picture win is more prominent than Best Screenplay. What kind of movie does the Academy want to bestow its ultimate validation upon? It’s the same question they face with Best Original Screenplay – if they face it at all – but it might matter to them more here, especially when they’re still in the shadow of #OscarsSoWhite.

Nine Best Picture nominees, four thought to have a real chance, all four facing precedents that say they can’t win, or at least are highly unlikely to win. They’re sometimes worth mentioning, but you can drive yourself mad trying to decipher all of these equations for victory that rely on the idea of voters actually stopping to think if the movie they’re selecting for Best Picture was nominated for SAG’s Best Cast Award or received an Editing nomination or is likely to win at least one other award, which is another supposed necessity. All of these rules will fail eventually. Which will it be this year? I have no idea. But my Best Picture guess, after much hand wringing, is The Shape of Water. Not because Guillermo del Toro is likely to win Best Director; the preferential ballot has upended the long-standing correlation between Best Picture and Best Director. The awards have gone to different movies in four of the last five years…and I feel more than a little stupid for not making the connection until last year. The categories are being voted on in two completely different ways now, so of course it’s going to be less likely that they will match up as often as they used to. No, I’m picking The Shape of Water because I suspect the arguments against it are weaker than the arguments against the other nominees, and because I think it’s the most likely among the four pack-leaders to benefit from the preferential ballot. But Three Billboards, especially, is a major threat, and if all the controversy and outsider viewpoint theories turn out to be sound and fury signifying nothing, it could go all the way.

Personal: The Shape of Water. This was the one I loved the most. The story, the production values, the humor, the characters and performances, the music, the bold swing of the romance…top to bottom and everything in between, this was my favorite movie of the year.

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FINAL THOUGHTS
As usual, you’re on your own with the Best Documentary, Best Foreign Language Film and the short film categories. I have a hard enough time keeping up with the feature-length narrative movies.  But there are a couple of other things I want to mention. Each year, you’ll find a few entertainment news sites that publish the opinions of some anonymous Academy members, who talk frankly through their choices and their feelings about what was and wasn’t nominated. There were several this year, and it’s always enlightening and frustrating to read them. What they prove is that despite all the time and energy that Oscar geeks like me, professional or otherwise, spend on calculating and predicting what “The Academy” or “The Voters” will do, this is ultimately – and I’ve hit this point before – several thousand individuals just expressing their own random opinions. Every nominee in every category will have some people who love it, some who hate it, and others whose feelings fall somewhere in the middle. Some voters are retired or work less and probably have a chance to see every nominee. Others are busy, active in the industry, and may not get around to everything. Some people will vote for a friend or a colleague, some people will vote to promote an agenda. Some people will vote for the nominee they enjoyed the most, others will wield their vote politically. I said earlier that people don’t play their ballot like a chess board, and while I believe that to be generally true, I’m sure that sometimes a voter might make a choice because they want to see a multiple-nominee win something, even if they preferred another choice in that given category. The reasons are all over the map, as you see when you look at these anonymous comments. (Year after year I read some of these and think there are certain people who don’t deserve the privilege of voting. Their comments also frequently come off as bizarre streams of consciousness that make little sense. But what can you do?)

The point is, for all the words I’ve vomited into this post talking about what voters might do and how the Academy thinks, there is no typical voter or Academy hive mind. It’s just a bunch of people marking a ballot according to their own personal preferences and reasoning. Every voter has their own criteria for determining what constitutes great work. If you’re interested, here’s some insight. IndieWire published a whole series of these interviews, speaking to a costume designer, film editor, publicist, executive, visual effects supervisor and producer. One especially telling detail from all but one of these is that they don’t understand or care for the preferential ballot. I have my issues with it as well, but now is not the time. The Hollywood Reporter, which usually publishes several of these in the week or so before the ceremony, has posted just two so far this year, one from a producer’s branch member and one from an actress, while The Daily Beast interviewed a member of an unspecified branch. Lastly, Vulture published a compelling two-part piece for which they interviewed 14 Academy members who joined within the last two years, several of whom represent the Academy’s push for greater inclusion (over half of their subjects are women and more than a third are people of color). The first article is a wide-ranging conversation about how they feel the Academy’s effort to diversify the voting ranks is affecting the nominations and the organization’s outlook in general. The second focuses on this year’s top eight categories and how these members are voting. These are definitely worth checking out. There’s so much in these two pieces I want to address and comment on, but that would have to be for another post that I’m sure I’ll never have time to write.

There’s one other thing I wanted to touch on, and then I will leave you in peace. Last year’s Oscar night concluded with the infamous clusterfuck of La La Land being mistakenly announced as Best Picture instead of the actual winner, Moonlight. It transpired that one of the PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants who hands the envelopes to the presenters gave a duplicate copy of the Best Actress envelope to Warren Beatty and, well, we all know what happened.

There’s so much more to say about what happened, but that all belonged in yet another piece that I never had time to write. As it pertains to this year’s awards, I wanted to express a hope that last year’s event isn’t leaned on too heavily this year or played for repeated laughs. Returning host Jimmy Kimmel has already used it in an amusing promo…

…and there are bound to be some of jokes and references, and that’s fine. You can’t not acknowledge what happened, as new Academy president John Bailey and Kimmel have both expressed this week. And hey, what happened made for fantastic viewing and probably the single most memorable Oscar moment ever. But at the end of the day, it was huge embarrassment that resulted in three people thinking they had won Oscars only to have to give them up, gracious as they may have been, and another group of people not really getting to have the pure moment they deserved. We’re not talking about tragedy here, obviously. No one died, no one’s career was ruined (not even that accountant, who was not fired…but will most definitely never step foot near an Oscar ceremony again), and it was simply human error on a massive scale. It wasn’t Warren Beatty or Faye Dunaway’s fault, it wasn’t Jimmy Kimmel’s fault, it wasn’t anyone in the Academy’s fault, but the result was a pretty shitty situation for a small group of people. So my advice to Kimmel, show producers Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Todd, and the Academy leadership – because, you know, they’re all reading this – is to not overdo it. Word broke yesterday that Beatty and Dunaway are returning this year, but in what context – genuine presenters, or part of a gag? – is unclear. Have a little fun with it, but be respectful enough to remember that it kinda sucked for some people. They’ll live…but they’ll never live it down.

As for what Kimmel has in store, he hasn’t revealed much, but we are in such fiercely political times right now and you know the show will touch on some of it. #TimesUp, #MeToo, Parkland, Russia attacking our democracy…tough stuff to deal with, but Kimmel has addressed non-entertainment events with great compassion on his nightly show, so I’m sure he’ll handle his second time at the Oscars with finesse. Seth Meyers set a strong example at the Golden Globes, so the path is lit.

Ok, I’m done. Here’s a link to a ballot, here’s a link to an Oscar-themed crossword puzzle, and here’s that Golden Globes monologue from Seth Meyers, to leave you with something more interesting than anything I’ve said.

 

 

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2 Comments »

  1. The brutally honest #2 was great. Agreed with a lot of what she said and her approach. I liked Dunkirk, but respected her view because it didn’t sound like a pre-conceived opinion.

    Looking forward to reading those other links you sent.

    Find myself torn between baby driver and Dunkirk for editing, but would probably vote for driver if nothing other than for the opening credits sequence.

    Would really like to see ladybird when screenplay and best actress. I’m fine with picture and director going elsewhere, but would love to see it get those two because I think they are very deserving.

    I didn’t see the apes movie, so can’t comment on it but I’m surprised kong doesn’t seem to be in the race. I though Kong looked grrrrrrreat.

    Agreed on moonlight / Lala land jokes. In this age of social media and hyper fast news cycle that joke was played out by the end of the week. You’ll only date yourself if you try to revive it. Unless they get Jenkins and the lala team back, then it could work.

    Great write up as usual!

    Comment by Grantland Gears — March 3, 2018 @ 6:53 pm | Reply

    • Yeah, those anonymous ballots are really interesting. It’s great to hear what these voters are thinking, even if sometimes the rationales they provide make me want to punch them.

      I agree about Baby Driver vs. Dunkirk being a tough call. Lots of tough calls this year, as there always are.

      Lady Bird might surprise with something, but it looks to be just out of reach in every category. It could end up winning nothing, which would be a bummer. But it would be in great company of other Best Picture winners that went home empty-handed. The Insider, The Sixth Sense, The Shawshank Redemption, The Thin Red Line, Broadcast News…

      You gotta see War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s excellent. Have you seen any of the new movies, with Serkis? They’re all great. The first one is really good, but the next two are outstanding.

      I did hear something about the La La and Moonlight teams coming back for some kind of appearance this year, or maybe just the Moonlight crew, but I think that’s a bad idea. As imperfect as their moment of victory was, they still got to make speeches and say their thank yous, and Barry Jenkins even got to publish in the press within the next couple of days what he would have said had the moment played out normally. But now…it’s a year later, and having that kind of moment would just be odd and out of place.

      Comment by DB — March 4, 2018 @ 2:23 pm | Reply


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