By the time newspapers and magazines like this one tell you something is over, you know it’s already been over for some time. Indeed, newspapers and magazines have been telling themselves they’ve been over for so long that you wonder if it’s begun to occur to them yet that they may NOT be over after all. But that’s another subject for another time…
Anyway, even when I’d published my last movie review in Newsday in 2008, much of what Nick Bilton describes in Vanity Fair was already in motion, shredding Hollywood’s serenity so much that even some of its potentates were ready to declare their universe – and thus, civilization – dead.
Actually, it’s the circus that now looks deader than hell. And if anything’s to blame for that, it’s whatever’s left of Hollywood, meaning the stunt-heavy blockbusters and tent-pole franchises whose commensurate product can likely be laid end-to end along the Equator. While exhibitors are still feeling terminally, even mortally wounded by the changes wrought by digital technology, I’m pretty sure Fast and the Furious sequels will be around to soothe their nerves for a while. In fact, those things may become so self-referential and post-modern that everyone in the cast of The Devil Wears Prada will someday be asked to take part in a Very Special F&F movie…even La Streep herself. And you know she’ll kill it, even they give her a KIA to drive.
The Oscars are once again upon us, speaking of self-referential, post-modern rituals. They make everybody, especially the editors of newspapers and magazines, believe Hollywood as it used to be still matters. But as has been the case for decades now, it’s not the movies, but politics and culture that comprise the nimbus of advance buzz. Last year, if you can remember that far back, there was all this chatter about how host Chris Rock would deal with the #OscarSoWhite foofaraw. (Damned well, I thought, at least.) This year, it’s how host Jimmy Kimmel will use his late-night chops to bring the hammer down on the House of Trump and Bannon…and how trolls on either side deal with it. I don’t remember Johnny Carson having to walk minefields like this, beyond the exemplary way he finessed his 1981 opening monologue with that day’s shooting of President Reagan.
What about movies? Well, what about them? They’re considered something to distract us from the news, which, as it happens, is how those aforementioned newspapers and magazines have always considered them. The real issue this year, and likely for years to come, is the degree to which the movies still reflect or affect their times. The best still try, as most of the nominees below attest. But do their efforts compel us to leave our homes for the evening, let the kids, pets and plants figure things out for a couple hours and sit in the dark to see what and who we are? Right now, I’d say no, though in the last few weeks, I know many people who took the trouble to see a movie about black women mathematicians struggling with their federal jobs. What the hell. In another week or so, we may hear that the efforts to declare Hollywood dead are also dead. Or we may hear the last death rattle in a year or so. Meanwhile, we watch the Oscars to distract us from the distractions from the distractions planted in our public life…Untie those knots and you’ll know what to expect in 2027, if not sooner.
For now, since you’re all still expecting me to drop these things this time of year, here are the picks. As always, predicted winners are in bold and, once again, I’m pulling out a For Whatever It’s Worth (FWIW) addendum whenever applicable.
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Who would have ever believed that in a field that includes a shape-shifting poem with homoerotic overtones about an at-risk man-child in the promised land and a furiously eccentric war movie directed by Mel F**king Gibson that this year’s most polarizing candidate for Best Picture is a candy-colored Jacques Demy homage? People either love La La Land without reservation or hate it with extreme prejudice. In at least two cases I know personally, the latter resentment comes from a an abiding and informed devotion to classic American musical comedy. I’ll yield to their passionate knowledge, but the movie still pushed all my happy buttons, even with its overly emphatic jazz-o-philia. (Wake me up when there’s a movie with a heroine obsessed with Albert Ayler or even This Guy.) What makes this a slam-dunk for La La Land has little to do with whether it is or isn’t a great musical. It’s because it’s a commercially successful product that makes its voters, whether they live in Hollywood or not, feel better about the profession they’re in and the dreams they’ve been peddling for generations. By such criteria, its closest competition is Hidden Figures, whose unexpected success and old-fashioned virtues make it a remote possibility, especially given the up-to-the-minute madness of the post-Obama regime. I’m guessing rapture wins out.
FWIW: I had pretty much written off 2016 as a kind of “meh” year for movies. If I had seen Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson or Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (see below) before New Year’s Eve, I might have changed my mind. Both in very different ways evince the abiding influence of John Cassavetes in their respective displays of intimacy and impulse. Along with Moonlight, they represent what will count in the very long run for cinema’s evolution over tent-pole corporate franchises and “prestige” product. It’ll take a while, as with every other change we’re waiting for.
Also, I kind of wish whoever floated the buzz about Deadpool’s being in this mix made good on the threat; not because I thought it was great or even very good, but because I like the idea of a rude, low-rent movie crashing a high-end party, especially when it had Leslie Uggams saying “Fuck you” on-screen to a white person instead of passive-aggressively spitting in somebody else’s cup.
(2/21) Still thinking this is how it’ll go, though there was a point early in the game when I thought the math sistahs were beginning to sneak up from behind.
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Chazelle’s already copped the DGA prize, so he’s a front-runner here. But there’s plenty of precedent for the Oscars to zag when the trade awards zig. And I have a feeling about this one, even though it wasn’t that long ago when pundits would have regarded Moonlight as too “arty” for serious consideration in either Best Picture or this category. I doubt the movie has enough commercial “heft” to win the first. But it seems to have reached the deepest into people’s hearts and if, as I suspect, Jenkins’ quiet assertion of will and insight propels him to become the first African American to win this prize, his victory could have a resounding, transformative impact on American film, and not (only) because of race. It may not bring back “cinema” as we once knew it, but it could be the first pebble tossed into a stagnant lake.
FWIW: We didn’t get a gratuitous Clint Eastwood nomination this year, which is too bad because for a change, I thought he deserved one for Sully, its stacked-deck attitude towards federal authority notwithstanding. He still wouldn’t have won, but it was still one of the leaner, sturdier products to come from his workshop bench.
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences
The SAG decision to go with D-Money here proves that Hollywood – or whatever’s left of it – would like nothing better than to reward its most formidable male box-office star with a third gold statue. I don’t think the performance is top-grade Denzel, which isn’t entirely his fault given he was also doing double-duty as the movie’s not-half-bad director. But just as the one he got for Training Day compensated for the one he didn’t get for The Hurricane, this one will nicely suffice as recompense for the one he deserved for Flight. (His crowning achievement, as I’ve said before.)
FWIW: Affleck’s performance is by far the best in the bunch and he would be lapping the field by now if it weren’t for a dark patch on his past that will not go away easily or quietly. Pretty sordid, but it still wouldn’t ruin my weekend if he ended up winning anyhow.
(2/21) ….though there hasn’t been all that much buzz in the air about Affleck’s past since the nominations were announced. (We’ve had too many other things buzzing in the air lately.) This could mean there’s still a chance he could overtake D. But I’m keeping my piece where it is.
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
If the front-runner for supporting actress were competing in her proper division (see below), this would be a runaway no-brainer, even with La Streep riding a high tide of good feeling over her State of the Union address at the Golden Globes. Given the rapacity overwhelming the government’s executive branch these days, I wouldn’t put it past the Academy to toss her another party favor to go with the three she already has, even though this title role of hers is, essentially, a supporting performance. (A reverse ringer, if you will.) People adore Stone, but despite her SAG prize, it doesn’t feel like her time yet. Negga was the best thing about her movie, which is too small a vessel to deliver her to the Promised Land. This leaves two of the most magnetic faces on the planet and while I think Portman’s performance here is much more deserving than the one for which she was previously honored, Huppert is the super glue holding together a movie with so much on its mind (and in its spleen) that it would all shatter in sharp fragments from all the attendant weight without her élan and sinew.
FWIW: Amy Adams deserved consideration here for carrying the smart, but slight Arrival than she did for making the best out of the overrated Nocturnal Animals. But the more egregious oversight was Annette Bening’s deeply moving, intricately detailed rendering of a middle-aged mom in 20th Century Women.
(2/21) People are still hyping Stone as the front-runner and I’m thinking that the reason everybody’s shortchanging Huppert is that movies-with-subtitles don’t have the presence they once enjoyed on these shores. Not all that long ago, however, a French actress did shock the system by beating out a very strong field in a foreign-language film . So there’s precedent here that doesn’t require going back to Sophia Loren or even Anna Magnani.
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
An exceptionally strong list this year. I’d be happy with any of them walking away with the prize. I’m also pretty sure that Moonlight’s all-but-ecumenical embrace will carry Ali to the podium. It’s his year – and it’s still only the beginning for him.
(2/21) In an earlier draft, I alluded to the dark arts of Harvey Weinstein that, when deployed in Oscar campaigns, can yield envelope-popping surprises. Given such history, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that there have been tremors out there over the possibility of Dev Patel coming up on the backstretch. I still say Moonlight’s got a lot more power than people believe and Ali’s killer acceptance speech at the SAG Awards may have sealed his prize in dry ice.
Best Supporting Actress:
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
People much smarter than I have put forth my own theory as to how this happened: Someone near and dear to Viola Davis’ heart told her that though her turn in Fences is layered in gold, she shouldn’t have to once again undergo the pain of watching a grand, over-the-top Meryl Streep impersonation of an imperious British woman (Margaret Thatcher in 2011’s The Iron Lady) bigfoot the lead-actress Oscar away from a can’t-miss Davis performance (that same year, in The Help). Hence, there’s no real harm in her campaigning in this category since she’s not necessarily top-billed, right? It wouldn’t surprise me if the person dropping this hint in Davis’ ear was her Fences director and co-star who has often said, given that he has both, that there’s no real difference between lead and supporting Oscars; they’re both for acting, they’re both the same height, weight and color, and what else needs to be said?
FWIW: Just this. Michelle Williams’ minutes in front of Manchester by the Sea’s cameras were the most meaningful, heart-rending minutes I’d seen from any actress last year beyond those of Davis herself. To these eyes, it’s unfair that Williams’ raw, resonant performance has to take a back seat to a larger, more sweeping one from someone who I now consider to be, indisputably, a goddess. Yes, I said it before and I’ll say it again: VIOLA DAVIS IS GOD…but Michelle Williams is pretty great, too, and deserves a clear, smooth ride to glory of her own someday.
Best Original Screenplay:
Hell or High Water,”
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
20th Century Women
Always a bad idea to bet against Kenneth Lonergan in this category, especially when he seems to have reached a new, fresh peak here.
FWIW: If Lonergan or his script weren’t on this list, I’d incline towards Hell or High Water, which wouldn’t have stood out so conspicuously if the movie had been made in 1980, or even 1970, instead of 2016.
(2/20) While we’re here, do you guys mind if I ramble a little about this notion, stubbornly persistent these days, that a movie is somehow handicapped for being a “downer”? First, who can tell me what the Greatest American Play ever written is? (Let’s not see the same hands…) Right. Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Oh, you thought it was Death of a Salesman or A Streetcar Named Desire? Well, fine, but is there a “feel-good” number among that group? I thought not. O’Neill’s play comes in first for me because whenever I see a production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night I may find the story it tells unbearably depressing. But I walk away from it invigorated by its artistry, its raw dynamism and, above all, its rich and humane sense of character. I’m not saying Manchester By The Sea is somehow equal to Long Day’s Journey…in achievement. But it is animated by the same insistence on taking people as they are and acknowledging life’s travails and defeats…and somehow staying alive anyway. It’s the artistry, not the content, that brings me up. And if the rest of us can only see movies in terms of how their stories make you “feel” at the end rather than how those stories are forged in the first place, then we’re in worse shape than I thought…with no end in sight. And THAT, in case you’re confused, is the real downer here.
Best Adapted Screenplay:
This one’s tough; very competitive and perhaps subject to the caprice of the four winds. Still betting on the deep reserves of good will towards Moonlight, but never underestimate the dark arts of Harvey Weinstein to finagle something-or-other for Lion.
(2/20) See Supporting Actor above…
Best Foreign Language Film:
Land of Mine
A Man Called Ove
Donald Trump’s travel ban made this a cause-celebre, given Asghar Farhadi’s refusal to attend the ceremony. So I guess it’s a no brainer, though otherwise, as I indicated earlier, it’d have been Toni Erdmann’s to lose.
FWIW: All that said, The Salesman’s also a very good movie and deserves whatever it will get for whatever reason.
(2/20) Still hedging, though, just a little on Maren Ade’s behalf. People REALLY love goofy Toni.
La La Land
Any of you guys know that Linus Sandgren was the DP on David O. Russell’s last two movies along with The Hundred Foot Journey? I was neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed with the latter, but I remember it looking a lot better than it actually was. His peers have already acknowledged him and they’ll continue to do so here.
Best Original Score:
La La Land
The juggernaut rolls on – mainly because there’s no evidence here that it shouldn’t.
Best Animated Feature Film:
Kubo and the Two Strings
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle”
Outside of what many have declared the presumptive (and deserving winner), the only one of these I’ve seen is Kubo and it’s REALLY an amazing movie! Still for reasons having to do with The Way Our Lives Have Been Lately, a movie about inter-species travails in an urban setting is Right On Time, along with being surprisingly well wrought.
Best Documentary Feature:
Fire at Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
O.J.: Made in America
Let me tell you how old I am: Old enough to remember writing stories about how Ye Olde Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences wouldn’t give so much as a glance to any prospective nominee appearing on television first, no matter how many theaters exhibited it in the intervening months. Such prohibitions, to this reporter’s mind, cost two great performances – Linda Fiorentino’s in The Last Seduction (1994) and Gillian Anderson’s in The House of Mirth (2000) – the nominations and, at least in Fiorentino’s case, the win – they deserved. I know it’s a far different world now with streams, clouds and those other water-based delivery systems without which not even Meryl Streep can function. I’m still not sure how the rules accommodate those changes. But rather than grouse about past injustices, I can say that if any of these worthy nominees were somehow excluded from consideration for appearing on a small screen first or even second or third, I’d stop writing these things immediately and find a new hobby. (Pez dispensers, anyone? Anyone?) And what do you know? I’ve gone on so long about this issue that I no longer have enough space to explain why I think Ezra Erdman’s epochal inquiry into race in America is far more deserving than Ana Du Vernay’s. I can say that it’ll be far more attractive to Academy voters since the story it tells is, for them, a local story writ grand and lucid.
(2/20) I Am Not Your Negro, however, has made explosive headway through the marketplace since voting began. It may not gather enough steam to make a difference here, but keep your eyes and ears open…
Best Original Song:
“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” from La La Land
“Can’t Stop the Feeling” from Trolls
“City of Stars” from La La Land
“The Empty Chair” from Jim: The James Foley Story
“How Far I’ll Go” from Moana
I’ll catch hell from somebody for saying this, but I think “Audition” is at or very near the rare-air reaches of Carousel’s “Soliloquy” for a musical monologue, nailed down compellingly enough by Stone to, perhaps, make me the fool for dismissing her chances for Best Actress, as noted above. But “City of Stars” is something at which grey heads can imagine Sinatra taking a swing. And lest we forget, the Academy is still crowded with grey heads.