Seymour Movies Lies Back and Lets Oscars 2018 Happen

 

 

Three Billboards

 

 

lady-bird-film

 

 

phantom-thread

 

 

 

At some point, we’re going to have to decide which is more boring: Caring deeply about the Oscars or hearing incessantly from those who insist they don’t care at all. Both positions, in extremis, can be annoying and I have, at least at this precise hour, decided those in the latter camp to be the more obnoxious for the self-congratulatory transparency of their not-caring-but-really-caring-and-wishing-they-didn’t-but-insist-on-not-caring-anyway-and-believe-that-you’re-a-dork-for-doing-otherwise.

If that makes any sense; and if you really care what they think, because complaining about the Academy Awards is about as futile as bitching about the Electoral College. It’s likely we’d be better off without both, but no one can quite persuade enough folks that alternatives would work any better. They’re what we’re stuck with for now. Sometimes they work to our advantage; other times, we get a Gila monster in the West Wing or a Best Picture Oscar for Crash over Brokeback Mountain. (So you know: I liked Crash better than you do. And I was as pissed about this as you were.)

 

Lapses in judgment aside, the craft fair-indoor cookout must, as they say, go on. And at least this year there’s a delightful minimum of advance drama or orchestrated outrage over the nominations beyond the mundane free-style carping that ensues when the screeners pop out of the Blu-Ray players or the spectators rush through the mall parking lots to beat the traffic. After several years of white noise over real and imagined snubs, nobody seems overly incensed over the nominations. Guess we’re realizing that, for now, there’s a whole lot else going on beyond the bubble to get incensed at.

 

Speaking of which: The biggest reason for this relative dearth of whisper campaigns and polarized sneering may also be the biggest elephant in the Dolby Theater March 4: Harvey Weinstein’s conspicuous absence. The chattering classes still wonder how Jimmy Kimmel will (or wont) finesse the explosive disclosures of last fall and their ongoing reverberations. So far this awards season has, I think, done rather well walking/talking the walk/talk and I don’t expect Oscar Night to be any different, except that there will be even more #Time’sUp and #MeToo oratory, with perhaps another potential presidential candidate waiting in the wings for her apotheosis – though I doubt it.
Given how relatively wide-open most of the categories are this year (even at this late date) and how relatively diverse most of the nominations are, some of the advance chatter may congeal around who, or what, will, or wont, win. I’m not sure how to act in such circumstances, except that I’m going to try to keep things as simple as I can this year. So what do you say we all get in the pool together and see how long we can tread water? As usual, my predictions are in bold and, wherever appropriate, an FWIW comment (as in, “For Whatever It’s Worth”) will be pasted on.

 

 

Shape of Water
Picture:

Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk-
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

For many reasons (some fairly obvious), it figured that some form of horror movie would be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year. But I would not have guessed even four months ago that you’d have both Get Out and Shape of Water in the running. If you wanted to, you could also add the two scary movies that deal with Great Britain’s stiffening upper lip against the marauding Third Reich. Right now, it’s the gothic period romance with the gooey sea monster that’s holding house money; though as last year’s chaotic conclusion proved, not even a twofer of Producers and Directors Guild awards assures a clear field – or a clear anything – on Oscar Night. Nevertheless, at this point, Shape of Water checks off more than a few squares: A love story? Check. Fairy tale with politics on its fringes? Check? Grandeur that threatens to spill over the top, but not too much to ruin an evening? Check. And you mean to tell me that the only allies the star-crossed lovers have are a lovelorn gay artist, a conflicted Russian spy and a no-nonsense black cleaning woman who constantly complains about her no-account husband? Check and double-check. Even with all that going for it, Shape of Water isn’t as easy to love as Lady Bird. But however bittersweet and laced with adolescent angst, Lady Bird comes across as comedy and it takes a lot for movie tradespeople to hand out their biggest party favor to a comedy. What about Get Out? Is it “comedy” as the Golden Globes would have it or a “documentary” as some of its advocates insist? Either way, it’s not getting a Best Picture Oscar because documentaries have about as much chance of winning as comedies.

 

 

FWIW: Here’s where I usually complain about how mediocre movies were the year before, especially when compared with the home streaming options. But some of my friends insisted that 2017 was kind of a “sneaky-good” year in film and that sounds right to me. There’s some interesting range displayed on this list, even if you didn’t altogether like the nominees. It wouldn’t ruin my life much if any of them ended up with the Big Prize. But I did believe The Florida Project deserved to be included and, upon reflection, so did I, Tonya – which despite my misgivings over some not-so-subtle condescension towards its working-class characters could also be viewed as the dark, antic Elmore Leonard masterwork he never wrote; not because he never got around to it, but because not even he could imagine mooks as pathetic as Jeff Gilhooley, Shaun Eckhart and their leg-breaking confederates. And speaking of crime: Two films I thought deserved further consideration were Ben and Josh Safdie’s Good Time, a fresh-as-a-midnight-subway-ride heist saga with a revelatory Robert Pattison performance and Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River, a contemporary western whodunit with Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olson and the great Graham Greene as cops searching the snowy Wyoming badlands for a rapist-killer. (The latter was distributed by the Weinstein Company, which means exactly nobody wanted it anywhere near Oscar consideration this year.) Still, to make a gratuitous nod to the smaller screens, nothing I saw in the theaters in 2017 crawled under my skin, moved around the furniture in my head and just flat-out made me laugh as much as the riotously absurdist Twin Peaks: The Return. OK, so now we can move on….

 

(2/20) — Though I don’t place a whole lot of stock in the BAFTAs, their results indicate that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is still hanging around the front end of this field. In a way, I can see why. Both Water and Billboards speak to different forms of wish fulfillment; in the latter’s case (and I’ll be careful not to spoil too much), it addresses a collective desire, especially in the present political climate, to get beyond, if not altogether subdue our most inconsolable and irrational rages. I don’t think the movie is as cunning in going about its business as it thinks it is. But as I keep telling you guys, my personal taste is the next-to-last thing that matters in handicapping these party favors. I’m leaving my finger in Water, so to speak, because Hollywood also loves grand  melodramatic flourishes, no matter how preposterous the storyline. Either way, it feels like a neck-and-neck horse race in the final stretch. 

 

 

Director:
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Jordan Peele, Get Out
Not all virtuosi are great artists, nor all great artists, virtuosi. But the favorite in this category has over the past couple decades proven to be a formidable genre-stretcher whose compassion is as bountiful as his technique. I’m not sure the same can be said for Dunkirk’s director, but I’m guessing that had it not been for Shape of Water, the arrows would be all pointed in his direction. Hard high-fives are in order for the two rookies on this list, Gerwig and Peele, for making the Final Five. But neither of their movies, whatever their respective graces, are considered “solemn” enough for Oscar.

 

 

FWIW: This leaves PTA, who may be the one great artist in this group who’s not (necessarily) a virtuoso. If he had more demonstrative ruffles and comfortable flourishes in his quiver, he’d have gotten his Oscar before now. (Maybe.) But since I have the floor, I’m asserting that, outside of Sofia Coppola, he’s the one American film director of his generation with the same willful drive, eccentric rhythms and instinctive sense of risk as the Hollywood rebels of the 1970s. Which means, of course, that it’ll be some time, if ever, before Oscar gets the point.

 

 

Darkest Hour

 

 

Lead 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.

 

Oldman’s got the juice going in. He was nominated back in 2012 for his too-cool-for-school George Smiley while his mood-swinging, latex-laden blunderbuss of a Winston Churchill is much more to Oscar’s liking. As Meryl Streep proved in 2011 with The Iron Lady, you can never go wrong digging in as a bellicose Conservative British Prime Minister.
FWIW: Chalamet’s been campaigning with gusto in a category that’s not terribly deep or wide to begin with. His is a powerful screen performance and, relative youth aside, it’s not altogether implausible to imagine him picking Oldman’s pocket. Except…what if the voters take D-Day at his word that he’s calling it a career? He’s threatened to retire before and not everybody believes he means it this time either. But after last year’s climactic foofaraw, we’re now braced to expect the unexpected; to the extent, that is, that you can call unexpected any sentimental gestures at an Oscar ceremony.

 

Lead 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
The widest-open race on the board, despite McDormand’s wins in both the SAG and Golden Globs (sic). My first instinct was to go along with those indicators and I will probably regret not following through. But any one of these woman is worthy of the prize; even the highly decorated Streep (this 21st nomination breaks the all-time record, in case, or as if, you didn’t already know), whose Katherine Graham is at once her most engaging and delicately nuanced star turn in many years. Ronan is the hot young comer in the group, though her movie seems to have lost some of its early momentum. Shape of Water’s momentum, however, is now strong enough to sweep Hawkins to the winner’s circle.

(2/20) — OK, so maybe Water’s momentum isn’t quite as powerful as I thought last week. Blame it on bad shrimp (not really) and the resulting delirium that made me forget that McDormand is almost as respected by her peers as the Unavoidable Fact of Streep and that when she’s working at an especially intense pitch as she is here, those peers are as wildly, madly enthralled in her presence as an arena full of Welsh grannies at a Tom Jones concert. Of COURSE it’s McDormand. 

 

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
Rockwell’s very good in this. He’s very good in everything he does. But he’s been better. And as with much else in Three Billboards, there’s something a little too pat and even mildly patronizing about his role of bigoted cop struck dumb(er) at life’s crossroads. Nevertheless, in this year and at this point in our history, it’s the kind of supporting turn that begs, even panders, for this kind of acknowledgement. I’d a whole lot rather see the guy playing Rockwell’s boss catch the ring here. Woody Harrelson persuasively playing a grown-up; who would have guessed he had it in him? (OK, I would have.) But the subtler graces between his performance and Rockwell’s are likely too subtle for Academy voters to parse.

 

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

 

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This one appears to be a Battle of the Moms with Janney’s – um — variation on Tough Love holding a widening lead over Metcalf’s. When actors Hollywood loves as much as Janney go Lon Chaney (e.g. grotesque and near-unrecognizable), that’s often enough to make them prohibitive favorites. Having a Golden Globe and a SAG statue in her swag bag might seal Janney’s deal, though I’m not as ready as others are to declare this one over just yet.
FWIW: The one I’d really like to see walk away with it is Manville, whose performance in Thread is polished to such a near-blinding metallic sheen that she damn near pilfers the movie away from its two leads; yes, even from D-Day. Also, since we’re here, I wish the Academy had followed the precedent set by my erstwhile New York Film Critics Circle colleagues and just nominated Tiffany Hadish for Girls’ Trip. Big breakouts like hers don’t grow on trees, or whatever cliché best applies.

 

Animated Feature:
The Boss Baby
The Breadwinner
Coco
Ferdinand
Loving Vincent
There may be a year when a rough-and-tumble animated feature like, say, Ferdinand, sneaks up behind a phenomenally successful Disney-Pixar production and picks the inevitable Oscar from its back pocket. This is not that year.

Adapted Screenplay:

 

call me by your name
Call Me by Your Name
The Disaster Artist
Logan
Molly’s Game
Mudbound

 

No matter how you feel about the genre, it was a pleasant surprise to see Logan get Academy props for its post-apocalyptic western spin on the comic-book-superhero movie. It’s got my vote, if nobody else’s. One also wonders what Disaster Artist’s fate would be here and elsewhere if James Franco’s hadn’t skidded off the turnpike. I’m guessing a summer in Italy is where this is going.

 

Original Screenplay:
The Big Sick
Get Out
Lady Bird
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

 

Get Out
Here is where Gerwig and Peele are foregrounded in ways they’re not able to be in the directing categories. I can’t believe either of them could come away empty-handed given the good will they both engendered at the start of this awards season. So it comes down to Peele’s right-on-time ingenuity versus Gerwig’s wry compassion. Close call, but I’m going along with the Writers Guild on this.

 

Cinematography:
Blade Runner 2049
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
Mudbound
The Shape of Water

Roger Deakins is the Peter O’Toole of this category, having been nominated 13 times before now and coming away empty-handed. Some believe his time will finally come, though I’ve heard grumblings over how Blade Runner 2049’s use of green-screen technology all but disqualifies Deakins from this competition. I happen to think it’s the stuff he does in between that abets this undervalued movie’s grit and dread. But if I and the others in his corner are wrong, it’ll either be Shape of Water as part of a sweep, or even the fast-fading Dunkirk.

 

agnes_varda_efa
Documentary Feature
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Faces Places JR
Icarus
Last Men in Aleppo
Strong Island
Since I Called Him Morgan and Jane are inexplicably missing from this otherwise impressive list, I’m going to spin the wheel…and what do you know? It stops at the great Agnes Varda (above), who turns 90 years old in May and all but invented the modern feature-length documentary as we have come to know it. Does anybody really believe the Academy wouldn’t use this opportunity to give Varda the full-throated love that her incomparable body-of-work deserves? Anybody?

 

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Foreign Language Film:
A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
The Insult (Lebanon)
Loveless (Russia)
On Body and Soul (Hungary)
The Square (Sweden)
Flying blind here because I haven’t been able to see most of these. The one I have seen has been getting the most advance buzz: In which a transgender woman (Daniela Vega), grieving for the death of her partner, is besieged by mortification and injustice.

(2/20) — In the last couple weeks leading to the vote, however, some lilting ear candy could be picked up on behalf of both The Insult and Loveless. Still think Chile wins the gold, but it’s not necessarily a wash.

 

 

Original Score:
Dunkirk
Phantom Thread
The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi,
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
If I were voting, I would go for Jonny Greenwood’s music for Phantom Thread because I think the lead guitarist for Radiohead, besides showing impressive chops as an ace orchestrator, delicately enhances the movie’s spectral, slightly nutty glow. Then again…he’s the lead guitarist for Radiohead. And the voters in this category tend to shy away from rookies, no matter how impressive their turn at bat. They do, however, like to reward previous winners and since Alexandre Desplat finally broke his long drought three years ago with The Grand Budapest Hotel, a return to the podium seems almost inevitable.

 

 

Original Song:
“Mighty River” from Mudbound
“Mystery of Love” from Call Me by Your Name
“Remember Me” from Coco
“Stand Up for Something” from Marshall
“This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman
Mary J. Blige’s galvanizing performance in Mudbound will likely go unacknowledged beyond her well-deserved nomination. I doubt the same will happen to her song.

(2/20) — Then again, one should never underestimate the impact that a Disney movie can have on this category. Also, I’ve heard from some people who went to see that Hugh Jackman circus movie and walked out so happy that they wondered why the critics were so snippy. It’s because we have hearts of ice pumped with polyurethane, but you didn’t hear that from me. 

Spielberg & Kushner’s More Perfect “Lincoln”

Lincoln Scene 1

Lincoln – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: And what if last week’s election had gone the other way? Would that 13th Amendment have been repealed? Oops. Spoiler…Sorry about that, those-of-you-who-slept-through-high-school-history….)

Race prowls, growls and snaps along the edges of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln as it never could throughout the recent political campaign. And to briefly digress, the evasions have only gotten worse since last Tuesday. So far, no one in what Sarah Palin and I love to label the “lame-stream media” wishes to acknowledge the specter of racism in these calls for secession by spoilsports in Texas and elsewhere. I’d like to believe, as Lincoln widens its presence in the Great American Multiplex, that the neo-Victorian lummoxes now wasting their energies on the Petraeus-Broadhurst Misadventures will be compelled by the movie to see this neo-Confederate furor as the maypole-dance-for-bigotry that it is. But as a good friend of mine sadly reflected today, it would have been nice to think that last week’s election results meant we’d finally put away all our childish things.

As vital as I think Lincoln is to generating a more perfect discourse on race and union, I think the movie’s gradual release better facilitates such maturity. A more big-footed nationwide bust-out of any Spielberg movie conditions audiences to expect pyrotechnics and razzle-dazzle, if not dinosaurs and aliens. This is a deliberately-paced, serious-but-not-altogether-solemn epic that needs all of its 150 minutes to convey the urgency, languor and ultimate viability of the democratic process. If Steven Spielberg’s showmanship can’t make compelling cinema from material as multi-layered as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, nothing can. It can, and does.

(And, for the record, boys and girls, there are plenty of dinosaurs and exotic beings in this one as well, if only metaphorical ones. You’ll see what I mean.)

 

 

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As with Amazing Grace, Michael Apted’s handsome, relatively neglected 2006 movie about Britain’s abolition of slavery, Spielberg’s Lincoln isn’t about African American rights so much as it is about politics itself, and how time, personality, and the velvet-fisted power of persuasion can converge to bring about epochal, seemingly miraculous transformation. Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery (little noted and not as long remembered as the Emancipation Proclamation) provides a surprisingly wide lens for viewing the contradictions and complexities of both the Republic and its haggard-but-dauntless leader in the final months of its greatest crisis. Among the many small miracles wrought by Tony Kushner’s script (and the movie is as much Kushner’s as it is Spielberg’s, maybe more) is its seamless compression of the personal travails of its protagonist with the brilliant calculation of his maneuvering. You’d have to know going into the theater that, however much the movie is packaged as civic education, you’re not going to visit a stone edifice. You’d also have to know that Daniel Day-Lewis, whose preparation is so diligent and fertile that it can sometimes spill onto the scene, nails down everything there can possibly be about Lincoln’s voice and physical movement, even the way he nestles against his sleeping youngest boy, to leave little or no doubt that this is how “our one true genius in politics” (vide Robert Lowell) really behaved in sorrow, anger and, most tellingly, in jest. (Would it really ruin things for you if I disclosed that Lincoln tells a dirty joke in the movie? Or would it make you more curious? Either way, I’m not sorry. At least I didn’t tell the joke.)

As good as Day-Lewis is, it’s not as dominant a performance as you might expect — or dread. Tommy Lee Jones, that proud son of the once-and-future Republic of Texas, dines robustly on scenery as the Pennsylvania abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens, treated so shabbily by D.W. Griffith in Birth of a Nation and here given some of the better lines not assigned to Lincoln himself. Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, though nowhere near as edgy as Mary Tyler Moore’s version in the 1988 TV mini-series version of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, is as persuasively grounded as she is borderline hysterical. Everyone else, from Bruce McGill and David Straithairn as cabinet stalwarts Edwin Stanton and William Seward, respectively, to a near-unrecognizable James Spader as ringleader of Lincoln’s back-ally lobbyists, makes vivid use of on-screen time, even Lee Pace as the flamboyant Copperwood Democrat Fernando Wood who wanted New York to secede and Justified’s peerless Walton Goggins, his wormy magnetism on that show checked here in the role of a tremulous fence-sitting Democrat fiercely tugged by both sides in the amendment debate.

And what about the African Americans? Well, as seems customary in the aforementioned lame-stream, they talk less here than they are talked-about. Gloria Reuben’s Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker and “confidant” to the First Lady, is permitted here to ask Lincoln the question most black people are more likely to ask of him now: How, Mr. President, do you really feel about us? Mr. President finesses the answer in the movie with precisely the same ambiguity with which he dealt with the race question all his life. (He was never as ambiguous on slavery itself. The distinction isn’t as clear here as it perhaps should be, but it’s there.) David Oyewelo, as one of the black Union soldiers speaking directly with Lincoln at the movie’s beginning, is far less credulous, peering at the president’s amiable façade with visible skepticism over its owner’s commitment to that “new Birth of Freedom” cited at Gettysburg months before the movie’s story begins.

But if black people aren’t as conspicuous as whites in Lincoln, race, as noted earlier, rages insistently throughout, stalking the historical figures like a rough, fearsomely mythological beast whose presence drives everyone’s actions, even – especially – the hesitation or outright refusal to act at all. And the movie is not the least bit shy implying that it is hysteria towards the very idea of “race-mixing” rather than the dark race of the despised minority itself that is most complicit in the Civil War’s bloodshed. Nowhere is this made more visually striking than after the unsuccessful attempt by Confederacy vice-president Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) and his “commissioners” to retain slavery as a prerequisite for a negotiated settlement between North and South. The impasse fades to the image of a city in flames illuminating the night, followed by a gloomy ride by Lincoln and assorted military officers through a sooty, corpse-riddled battleground in Virginia. At such a point, those familiar with Lincoln’s life and words might be inclined to think of his 1858 speech in Edwardsville, Illinois when he dares to ask whites about dehumanizing and subjugating blacks: “Are you quite sure the demon which you have roused will not turn and rend you?”

I bet Tony Kushner knew that speech. I’m also betting that Kushner, who’s on-record defending Barack Obama’s circumspection and cool resolve against the dismissive criticism from Kushner’s left-wing allies, worked on this screenplay over the past few years with the intuitive sense that the 44th president’s struggles to finesse necessary transformation against ferocious and, at times, irrational opposition mirror those of the 16th president. Such perception gives his script a breadth, passion and level of commitment rivaling those of his stage work, notably, inevitably, Angels in America.

Lincoln, as the film takes pains to point out, is not perfect – and neither is Lincoln. Its ending comes across as Spielberg’s surrender to the temptation of making things obvious to the audience. It needed to end a few minutes earlier. (No, not this time. See for yourself.) Still, though we’re all in dire need of remedial history and (God knows) civics, Lincoln arrives not as a $50 million classroom lecture, but as a deeply enthralling diorama of tragedy and triumph bridged by the worst (avarice, bigotry, meanness of spirit) and best (equanimity, perspective, the enduring power of the open mind) from our many selves. And in case I didn’t make it clear at the outset, I’m as surprised by all this as you are – or will be.

 

lincoln finale