Seymour Movies: #OscarsSoInevitable 2016

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The governors and voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should go into the streets, suburbs and strip malls of our great nation and thank every single angry black person they see. Start by going to the Smith family manse and apply a big, long, warm hug to Jada Pinkett Smith — and her husband, too, but only if he really needs one. Give Spike Lee another lifetime achievement award for something, anything else. And keep paying it forward, fulsomely and individually, from sea to shining sea.

Because if it hadn’t been for the #OscarSoWhite movement and all the attendant debate, acrimony and controversy it aroused among movie people all over the world, hardly anybody would give a bacon-wrapped, caramel-covered you-know-what about this year’s show.

Begin with the fact that ALL of this year’s top acting awards have been foregone conclusions for weeks. So barring the utterly, inexplicably unimaginable upset, (in other words, don’t count on it), there’s almost zero suspense accompanying the awards going out to the most recognizable people.

Some uncertainty clings to Best Picture, I guess. But that won’t be decided until the bitter end, at which point Chris Rock will (one hopes and trusts) have kept you engaged and amused with his strafing every glitzy square inch of pomposity and Caucasian self-importance within his reach.

And it wont matter whether he’s the only person-of-color who shows up because, as I’ve said since the boycott was announced, there’s little hope in changing things by absenting yourself from a frame from which your overall absence (or relative lack of presence) is already taken for granted. That’s as clear as I can or need to be on THAT topic. Except, I guess, for this. 

Let’s do this thing we do because we know you care – and we still can’t understand why. As in past installments, projected winners are in bold and there’s a “For Whatever It’s Worth” (FWIW) ancillary graph tacked onto each category listed.

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Room
Spotlight

Revenant is heavily immersive, grandiosely “wow” moviemaking. Then again, this description more or less applies to at least two, maybe three other movies on this list, especially Fury Road, which many believed had the early lead. Big Short may still pull a Crash-like upset. And then there’s Spotlight, which in any other year would have been the public-spirited work collecting Oscars in the double figures. I’m betting on the One With The Big Bear.

FWIW: My own favorites from this list were Spotlight, Fury Road, The Martian and Bridge of Spies, whose U2 takedown scene was, outside of Leo & The Big Bear, the best set piece available in this crowd. (They’re kinda sorta alike if you think too much about it. So let’s not.) If a younger director put that aerial sequence together with the same blend of meticulousness and brio, she’d be hailed as a harbinger of greater things to come for the movie industry. Because it’s Spielberg, it was more like: Is that all you got for us? (At least, that’s what it sounded like to me.)

Best Director
Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Go look it up. I did. The only two directors ever to win back-to-back Oscars were Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve) and John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley). Mank…Pappy…Iñárritu?  It makes a kind of karmic sense: Birdman was a high-fallutin backstage soap in the All About Eve manner, only with dorkier phantasmagorical subtexts. And it’s plausible that if Ford were around today, a frontier epic such as Revenant would have been in his wheelhouse – presuming said wheelhouse was drained of Ford’s patented Irish-whiskey sentimentality. As for what I think of Iñárritu’s work…I think the category, “Less Than Meets the Eye,” that the late Andrew Sarris included in his groundbreaking auteurist survey, The American Cinema, was made for somebody like him. (Then again, to his everlasting credit, Andy wasn’t afraid to change his mind about any of his rankings along the way.)

FWIW: Ridley Scott’s omission must have been a really close call, though it’s hard to decide who would have had to go from this group to put him there. As relatively unassuming as McCarthy’s work on Spotlight appears, his seamless control of volatile material is a lot harder than it looks. The Big Short seems the only outlier in the band, if only because it’s both a muckraking j’accuse and a quirky docu-comedy. Given that this is a presidential election year, Short is also timelier than any of the nominated films and, for a time, that attribute seemed enough to vault McKay to a win. Time, so to speak, flies.

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Going all the way back to This Boy’s Life and The Basketball Diaries, I can think of at least two DiCaprio performances more Oscar-worthy than this one. But, when going all the way back, I also remember that in those days he was considered more of an “actor” than a “movie star.” And when a movie star is seen at a certain point in his career putting himself through as much shit as Leo conspicuously does here, the convergence of forces is too powerful to ignore. In other words, it’s time to let him have it…

FWIW: …because, while I still think Cranston is in the conversation as Our Best Actor, his Dalton Trumbo was ham left in the oven a tad too long. Damon will Get His some other time as will Fassbender, who may have actually been the Best In Show here.

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

It’s a given at this point. And it’s cool. She invests so much into this dark, slender story that her presence assumes total command of the enterprise. (Plus she looks exactly the way readers of the novel imagined.)

FWIW: Had Charlotte Rampling measured her words more carefully before weighing in on the minority/Academy set-to, there might have been some echo-chamber chatter about her illustrious career getting a much-deserved party favor. Thing is, she’s actually pretty excellent in this movie and it would have been altogether appropriate to give her the gold this time. It’s just…that is…well…you probably intended to say it differently, but…how to put this? Do you actually know any black Americans personally, madame?

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

I’m aware I said there’ll be no suspense at all with the acting awards. But I suppose there’s some suspense over whatever bleary thing will pop into Stallone’s head during his acceptance speech and whether he once again thanks the William Morris Agency twice while altogether forgetting to thank the black director and cast members of what some would-be-wit-iots insist on calling Rocky VII. The very least he can do is remind America – and maybe himself – that his “imaginary friend” Rocky Balboa would have never existed without Muhammad Ali as an inspiration. Google “Bayonne Bleeder” if you don’t know what I mean. On second thought, we’ll save you the trouble.

FWIW:  Rylance’s is the one great performance in this bunch and the most significant MIA here is, of course, SAG winner Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation. Meanwhile, I’m still wondering whether Tom Hardy is our new Brando or our new Lee Marvin. Either option would work out just fine. M Squad: The Movie? I’m so there…

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

She’s really good, folks. And she’s had one of the best overall years of anybody on this docket. As much as she outclassed her co-star here, this picture, in some ways, was the least of it. In Ex Machina, she was the most alluringly scary of living dolls. She was also dryly funny beneath the dazzling threads she wears in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

FWIW: Still…Winslet was great in one of those never-saw-it-coming turns that, in many ways, was better than the one for which she won the lead-actress Oscar. (And remind me. Which one was that?) But I’m really rooting for JJL, who made the best out of one of the most thankless roles in motion picture history.

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Big Short
Brooklyn
Carol
The Martian
Room

Classy source material and an austere, near-classical design. What more could anybody ask for?

FWIW: Then again, Carol was pretty austere, too, which some people, though I’m not one of them, believed was its biggest problem. I’d be happier, though, if Big Short’s brasher tactics were rewarded here, if nowhere else.

Best Original Screenplay
Bridge of Spies,
Ex Machina
Inside Out
Spotlight
Straight Outta Compton

A really good list here and I’m sure I’m not the only lapsed newspaperman who roots for this one, no matter where it’s nominated.

FWIW: We may well be running out of opportunities to give one of these to a Pixar movie and my inner cartoonist secretly pulls for the one with the Ugly Imaginary Friend. Yet I’m all but positive it’s a shoo-in for…

Best Animated Feature Film
Anomalisa
Boy and the World
Inside/Out
Shaun the Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

Centuries from now, assuming the smarter rats and bugs take up history, cinema studies and Freud as hobbies, the Disney-Pixar corpus will be pored over as keys to how civilization at the Second Millennium engaged with and critiqued its own imaginative autonomy. Inside/Out will be as crucial to this retrospective effort as all twelve films of the Toy Story saga. (I know, but give them time because you know that’s what The Mouse is ultimately after…)

FWIW: Sing along with me, everybody: “He’s Shaun the Sheep! / He’s Shaun the Sheep!/ He Even Mucks About With Those Who Cannot Bleat/Keep it in Mind/He’s One of a Kind/Oh!/Life’s a Treat/With Shaun the Sheep!!…” Let me repeat: It’s “SHAUN THE SHEEP”!!!!!

 

 

 

 

Best Cinematography
Carol
The Hateful Eight
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Sicario

Nobody does natural light like Emmanuel Lubezki, and this will be an unprecedented third consecutive time.

FWIW: I hope someday Oscar properly recognizes Edward Lachman’s ability to evoke not just the past, but how we remember the past, as he does in Carol.

Best Documentary – Feature
Amy
Cartel Land
The Look of Silence
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Tossing the dice here, because this would be the Academy’s best opportunity to present SOMEthing to an African American. (Lisa Simone Kelly, the subject’s daughter, is co-executive producer.) Besides that, it’s as intense, riveting, distressing and, ultimately, heartrending as Simone was.

FWIW: The same words, in any order, could apply to the Amy Winehouse documentary, though the Simone film feels more urgent and timely. Either would be a worthy recipient – though I also wouldn’t mind if Joshua Oppenheimer’s Look of Silence took the Oscar as a kind of retroactive reward for its companion piece and immediate predecessor, The Act of Killing, which, to repeat, was THE film of 2013.

Best Foreign Language Film
Colombia, Embrace of the Serpent
France, Mustang
Hungary, Son of Saul
Jordan, Theeb
Denmark, A War

By a considerable distance, it’s the single most talked-about and all-but-unanimously praised film in this category. In past years, that still wasn’t enough to win. But the manner in which this Holocaust story keeps to the horrific conventions of its sub-genre while blowing them into unfamiliar shapes makes it hard to ignore, or dismiss.

FWIW: Among my favorite foreign films of 2015 was The Assassin; more thrilling than The Avengers and deeper than Room. I’m still OK with Son of Saul winning it all.

Best Original Score
Thomas Newman, Bridge of Spies
Carter Burwell, Carol
Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
Jóhann Jóhannsson, Sicario
John Williams, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Even people who hated Tarantino’s movie thought the score was its finest, most effective attribute. Plus, don’t you think Morricone deserves to have more than a lifetime-achievement Oscar while he’s still alive?

FWIW: Forgive me if I think a word or two needs to be said on Sicario’s behalf, and this is the place to do it since Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score evokes much of the hard-driving, hairpin-turn qualities that made Lalo Schifrin a demigod at film scoring. (And BTW, where’s his lifetime-achievement Oscar?)

Best Original Song
“Earned It,” Fifty Shades of Grey
“Manta Ray,” Racing Extinction
“Simple Song #3,” Youth
‘Til It Happens to You,” The Hunting Ground
“Writings on the Wall,” Spectre

The idea that a documentary could include a Best Song winner is, to me, a intriguing prospect. (Apparently, there have been four others from documentaries that have been nominated before this.) Also, her overshoot on the David Bowie Grammy tribute notwithstanding, Lady Gaga deserves the mic to once again dedicate an award to victims of campus rapes and their cover-ups.

FWIW: The only visual effect that would rival, if not eclipse that of Lady G’s triumphant podium walk, would be for The Weeknd’s hair to walk, or shimmy, away with the Oscar for “Earned It.”

Clarke Duncan is Dead, Long Live Clarke Peters!

We all knew The Green Mile was going to be the first movie cited in Michael Clarke Duncan’s obituaries. It’s just that none of us expected to be reading those obituaries this soon. His seemed to be one of those careers built for the long haul; he was a solid screen presence audiences were always happy to see in as many movie and TV supporting roles as he could accumulate. Down the road, he could have headlined his own TV series, instead of merely providing support for somebody else’s. And it wasn’t at all unlikely that he could collect another Academy Award nomination to go with the one he’d received 12 years ago for playing John Coffey, the unjustly-condemned man with healing powers in Green Mile

Duncan’s riveting, affecting portrayal is a fine centerpiece to a too-brief career. Yet when I got the news of his death at just 54 years old last night, I didn’t think at first of John Coffey. I thought instead of Otis Jenkins, a small role in 2008’s Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, a family-reunion-as-slapstick farce in which Clarke played gruff-but-sensible elder brother to Martin Lawrence’s blundering talk show guru. In his few scenes, Duncan showed an ease of manner, a limber command of space that he rarely, if ever had the chance to show on-screen. One suspected from his self-effacing, warm-spirited public appearances that this persona was much closer to his real-life self than the by-the-numbers heavies he played more often in such films as 2003’s Daredevil or 2005’s Sin City.

I wish, in other words, there were a lot more Otises in Duncan’s curriculum vitae than Kingpins.

Once in a while, there would be a nice blend of these tendencies; notably (maybe solely) in 2000’s The Whole Nine Yards. I thought there would be more time for Hollywood to truly realize what it had in Duncan; that just because you’re big and black doesn’t mean you have to be perpetually cast as a Looming Threat, implied or otherwise. I should know better. Hollywood’s constricted imagination narrows even more when it comes to African-Americans. To say Duncan, as successful and beloved as he was, deserved better from the mainstream movie industry is to say it of any talent-of-color, on- or off-screen. Even Duncan’s John Coffey role, as beautifully rendered as it is, is redolent of what Spike Lee has sneeringly labeled the “magical negro” meme in which black characters are endowed with the kind of exalted, near-supernal gifts whose purpose is to somehow ennoble or absolve white characters. I don’t bring this up to demean or diminish Duncan’s life-altering, well-deserved moment in the spotlight. He had a wonderful life and an admirable career. It’s just another lament for lost opportunities. .

Speaking of both Spike Lee and lost opportunities, I got the news of Duncan’s passing over my phone just as I was about to put it to sleep before a screening of Lee’s latest, Red Hook Summer. I was prepared by advance reviews for an uneven movie and thus wasn’t surprised to find moments of brilliance and insight leaping like sparks from a generally muddled saga of life in a Brooklyn public-housing project as seen though the eyes – and I-Pad2 – of a middle-class boy (Jules Brown) from Atlanta spending a summer with his overbearing preacher-grandfather (Clarke Peters).

As with most of Lee’s films, Red Hook Summer is far more valuable for what it brings up than for what it resolves. The vignettes and extended visual takes of its eponymous neighborhood teem with vitality and engagement. No one shoots Brooklyn, or black people, quite like Lee, bringing out tones, colors, details and nuances you just don’t get in other movies with these same subjects. The state of Red Hook, its environmental and economic troubles, its stratification between low-income apartment dwellers and those who either cross the river to Manhattan or flit in and out to shop at Fairway or Ikea are enumerated in the grandfather’s sermons. You learn — and feel — a lot of illuminating things in static bursts, until an unexpected plot development lands with a discordant thud at the climax, raising many more questions than it answers. (I’m not going to give out the spoiler because I still think you should see the movie, warts and all; after all, these lives are so rarely seen in movies that Red Hook Summer gains its importance practically by default.)

The narrative is so diffuse that only two elements provide any kind of adhesive. One is the glowering throughout by Master Brown and the other is the performance by Peters, better known for his work on two David Simon HBO series: the cerebral detective Lester Freamon on The Wire and the bullheaded “Big Chief” Albert Lambreaux on Treme. Peters seems at first to have the thankless task of imposing his character’s aggressive piety upon both his grandson and the audience. It’s only when the air leaks out of his preacher’s rigorously virtuous aura that Peters takes the movie’s grappling to more contemplative and unnerving concerns.

If nothing else, Red Hook Summer establishes Clarke Peters as an actor magnetic and resourceful enough to carry a movie on his own. I’m neither able nor willing to believe the movies have arrived at a point where it knows what to do with such  forceful intelligence, especially when it comes from a middle-aged African American. Then again, Denzel Washington’s a middle-aged African American. And he’s been known to carry movies on the strength of his personality….

Maybe not. Only television knows how to adequately showcase someone like Clarke Peters. The living room, after all, is where the “real” people come to visit.