Sunday, February 26, 2017

La Dee Da: Oscar Predix, 2016

Tonight's Oscars are generally much less exciting or interesting than last year's, where there was an actual horse race for Best Picture. This year, it's all about La La Land and, to a lesser degree, about the Oscars atoning for last year's #OscarsSoWhite debacle; up to three acting categories could go to actors of color, and this is only the fourth time a black director has been nominated, and potentially the third time a black screenwriter will win.

And in the first months of the Trump administration, there is a good deal of speculation about what this Oscars ceremony "means," to what degree politics will enter the fray, and whether awards shows have the capacity or obligation to discuss larger political conflicts.

With La La Land poised to win over half a dozen Oscars, including Picture and Director, it's worth remembering the last time a musical won the top prize: At the 2003 ceremony, Chicago won Picture and five other Oscars. Those Academy Awards took place five days after the U.S. invaded Iraq. Michael Moore won Best Documentary and ranted against the President; people booed. Roman Polanski surprisingly won Best Director; people gave him a standing ovation (he was of course absent, living as a fugitive in Europe).  It's worth remembering, in other words, that the Oscars' politics are complicated and contradictory; at the end of the day, this is a voting body that still prides itself on making safe choices in the middle, rather than venturing out of its comfort zone.

Should La La Land win the most, and win the show, tonight, it won't be anything new. It will be the Academy doing what it does best: playing it safe, and playing it to be well-liked.

Expect all political interjections to be as awkward and forced as the teleconferencing of First Lady Obama announcing Best Picture in 2013.

Win Summaries:
La La Land: 9, including Picture and Director
Moonlight: 2
Fences: 2
Manchester by the Sea: 1
Hacksaw Ridge: 1
Zootopia: 1
O.J. Made in America: 1
The Salesman: 1

Best Picture

"Hacksaw Ridge" 
"Hell or High Water" 
"Hidden Figures" 
"La La Land" 
"Manchester by the Sea" 
Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Moonlight
Reasoning: La La Land won the Globes and the DGA; it has the most nominations, and it has all the buzz. Should it lose, it would be the first time a film nominated for 14 Oscars lost Picture. While there have been some passionate arguments made for Hidden Figures and Moonlight, it's all just in the spirit of drumming up the veneer of a conflict. The more interesting story is how much La La Land will win. Since the Oscars have moved to the weighted ballots in 2010, the film that wins the most usually doesn't win Picture: Gravity won 7, Hugo 5, Mad Max Fury Road 6, Life of Pi 5. The voting body has moved towards giving smaller films (Spotlight, Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, Argo) the top prize, while doting on a "favorite" in the technical categories. This year would potentially reverse, or at least complicate, that recent trend.

Performance by an actor in a leading role
Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea"
    Andrew Garfield in "Hacksaw Ridge"
    Ryan Gosling in "La La Land"
    Viggo Mortensen in "Captain Fantastic"
    Denzel Washington in "Fences"
    Will Win: Denzel Washington
    Could Win: Casey Affleck
    Reasoning: Affleck won the Globe, and Washington won the SAG. Both are in Best Picture nominees; Washington's won two Oscars while Affleck's won zero. Affleck feels like a soft favorite here, but you can really just flip a coin. Multiple Oscar pools will be decided by this category.

    Performance by an actor in a supporting role
    Mahershala Ali in "Moonlight"
    Jeff Bridges in "Hell or High Water"
    Lucas Hedges in "Manchester by the Sea"
    Dev Patel in "Lion"
    Michael Shannon in "Nocturnal Animals"
    Will Win: Mahershala Ali
    Could Win: Jeff Bridges
    Reasoning: As much as I want to see Michael Shannon win an Oscar, there's no real denying the buzz and momentum behind Ali, who is the spiritual glue holding much of Moonlight together (even though he only appears in a small amount of the film). He should easily, and deservedly, win this.

    Performance by an actress in a leading role
    Isabelle Huppert in "Elle"
    Ruth Negga in "Loving"
    Natalie Portman in "Jackie"
    Emma Stone in "La La Land"
    Meryl Streep in "Florence Foster Jenkins"
    Will Win: Emma Stone
    Could Win: Isabelle Huppert
    Reasoning: Stone's win feels weird to me here given the roster of talent, but she's been positioned for this win since before the Globes. Stone's going to get the "breakout Oscar" that often goes to younger actresses.

    Performance by an actress in a supporting role
    Viola Davis in "Fences"
    Naomie Harris in "Moonlight"
    Nicole Kidman in "Lion"
    Octavia Spencer in "Hidden Figures"
    Michelle Williams in "Manchester by the Sea"
    Will Win: Viola Davis
    Could Win: Michelle Williams
    Reasoning: They owe her.

    Best animated feature film of the year
    "Kubo and the Two Strings" 
    "My Life as a Zucchini" 
    "The Red Turtle" 
    Will Win: Zootopia
    Could Win: Kubo and the Two Strings

    Achievement in cinematography
    "La La Land" 
    Will Win: La La Land
    Could Win: Moonlight
    Reasoning: This category has increasingly recognized complex camera movements (Lubezki's back-to-back wins), rather than composition or lighting. La La Land seems like it will win on the strength of its opening number alone. Having said that, I would be happier to see the beautifully constructed Moonlight or Silence take this.

    Achievement in costume design
    "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" 
    "Florence Foster Jenkins"
    "La La Land" 
    Will Win: Jackie
    Could Win: La La Land
    Reasoning: Given the choice between period piece or contemporary piece, always pick period.

    Achievement in directing
    "Arrival" - Denis Villeneuve
    "Hacksaw Ridge" - Mel Gibson
    "La La Land" - Damien Chazelle
    "Manchester by the Sea" - Kenneth Lonergan
    "Moonlight" - Barry Jenkins
    Will Win: Damien Chazelle
    Could Win: Barry Jenkins
    Reasoning: Interestingly, Picture and Director have split: Traditionally united, they have only matched 50% of the time over the last six years. Because of this, some folks see a window for Barry Jenkins to get recognition. I don't really see that happening; unlike last year's The Revenant, La La Land seems to be generally loved by the Academy, rather than "only" respected.

    Best documentary feature
    "Fire at Sea" 
    "I Am Not Your Negro" 
    "Life, Animated" 
    "O.J.: Made in America" 
    Will Win: O.J. Made in America
    Could Win: 13th
    Reasoning: Giving this to 13th would be perceived as a way to "make things up" to Ava Duvernay after snubbing her for Selma a few years back, but it seems hard to deny the larger appeal and titanic accomplishment of O.J.

    Achievement in film editing
    "Hacksaw Ridge" 
    "Hell or High Water" 
    "La La Land" 
    Will Win: La La Land
    Could Win: Arrival
    Reasoning: The cutting in La La Land doesn't feel nearly as strong as basically every other entry in this category. I would love to see the time-twisting cross-cutting from Arrival win this; this category, if it's early enough in the evening, will be an interesting test to see how wide the support is for La La Land.

    Best foreign language film of the year
    "Land of Mine" 
    "A Man Called Ove" 
    "The Salesman" 
    "Toni Erdmann"
    Will Win: The Salesman
    Could Win: Toni Erdmann
    Reasoning: The Executive Orders on immigration have drastically changed this category, and made it the "political focus" of the evening. Iran's The Salesman will likely win this as the evening's major "statement."

    Achievement in makeup and hairstyling
    "A Man Called Ove" 
    "Star Trek Beyond" 
    "Suicide Squad" 
    Will Win: Suicide Squad
    Could Win: Star Trek Beyond

    Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
    "La La Land" 
    Will Win: La La Land
    Could Win: Moonlight
    Reasoning: Logic holds that if a musical is going to win Best Picture, its Score will win. Something feels off about the assuredness with which everyone agrees La La wins here. I'm not comfortable enough to predict an upset, but I think someone else could sneak away with this one.

    Achievement in music written for motion pictures (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"
    Will Win: "City of Stars"
    Could Win: "How Far I'll Go"
    Reasoning: Another semi-interesting category. A win for Moana would put Lin-Manuel Miranda one step closer to that EGOT. It's also weird that "City of Stars" has become the suspected winner here, given that it seems to me the worst song in the whole movie. But hey, that's how campaigns work, I guess.

    Achievement in production design
    "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" 
    "Hail, Caesar!" 
    "La La Land" 
    Will Win: La La Land
    Could Win: Arrival
    Reasoning: La La Land is the one of two here to win a Production Designer Guild Award (the other being Passengers, which likely doesn't have close to enough momentum to win). It's rare that contemporary movies win this, so part of me thinks Fantastic Beasts or Arrival could push through, but La La Land just seems to have enough to grab this one.

    Achievement in sound editing
    "Deepwater Horizon" 
    "Hacksaw Ridge" 
    "La La Land" 
    Will Win: Hacksaw Ridge
    Could Win: La La Land
    Reasoning: Usually, musicals do well in Sound Mixing, and war/action movies do well in Sound Editing. The reasons for this are slightly unclear. I do think Hacksaw Ridge can win both of these, given how popular the film seemed to be at the time of nominations, but I think this will be its sole statue.

    Achievement in sound mixing
    "Hacksaw Ridge" 
    "La La Land" 
    "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" 
    "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" 
    Will Win: La La Land
    Could Win: Hacksaw Ridge
    Reasoning: See Sound Editing, above.

    Achievement in visual effects
    "Deepwater Horizon" 
    "Doctor Strange" 
    "The Jungle Book" 
    "Kubo and the Two Strings" 
    "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" 
    Will Win: The Jungle Book
    Could Win: Doctor Strange
    Reasoning: Photorealism has been dominating in this category, which seems to give Jungle Book an edge over the sci-fi duo of Strange and Star Wars.

    Adapted screenplay
    "Hidden Figures"
    Will Win: Moonlight
    Could Win: Arrival
    Reasoning: This seems like the place to expect Barry Jenkins to get recognition for Moonlight, and for the film to really have its biggest moment. 

    Original screenplay
    "Hell or High Water" 
    "La La Land" 
    "The Lobster" 
    "Manchester by the Sea" 
    "20th Century Women"
    Will Win: Manchester by the Sea
    Could Win: La La Land
    Reasoning: La La Land may be popular, but this is Lonergan's to lose. Especially if Affleck ends up losing Actor to Washington, this is the only other place to recognize Manchester, which is obviously well-respected.

    Monday, January 16, 2017

    The Top 20 Films of 2016

    Movies ended up taking more of a backseat than I would have liked this year.

    I found I was unable to see--or simply missed--more films than I would have hoped. It was a very busy year for me, one where a lot of things began to speed up: I got married, I made it is a resolution to take up more hobbies, I made more of an effort to visit friends and family, dissertation research and writing kicked into high gear, and I was given more responsibilities and opportunities in my classrooms. I wouldn't have traded any of these things, but it means I did miss a lot of weekends at the cinema.

    So there are a lot of holes here. Manchester by the Sea and Jackie are two whose absence is felt the strongest to me: knowing their subjects and reputations, I imagine they would be here if I had seen them. But this is a snapshot of how I feel on one Monday morning in January 2017. As always, it's part of the process of figuring out what I value, what the stake of cinema is moving forward as much as it is about looking just over the shoulder to take stock of what happened.

    To the next year, and all its struggles. May movies continue to fill our lives with possibility.

    20. Knight of Cups (dir. Terrence Malick)

    Widely detested by basically everyone I know, I still think Malick is up to something grand and mysterious in his increasingly abstract, wandering movies. 

    19. Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven)

    Part comedy of manners, part revenge thriller, its tone vacillates wildly, its message about empowerment is murky at best, and it's nasty to the core.

    18. The Handmaiden (dir. Park Chan Wook)

    This is a bonkers movie of ever-shifting allegiances and scheming, erotic and sensual and also overblown and overstuffed and maybe the best movie Park has made to date. 

    17. Hail, Caesar! (dirs. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)

    In the Coens' latest, the movie studio is a giant process machine where politics and ideology are battlegrounds lurking in the corners behind extended musical numbers and failed attempts at correct pronunciation.

    16. Rogue One (dir. Gareth Edwards)

    Rogue One delivers on a strange promise, moving laterally through the Star Wars universe to expand its world-building and focus on the costs of those titular wars.

    15. Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

    Neo Nazis holding a punk rock band hostage in their compound might be the most 2016-iest movie of 2016. 

    14. Zootopia (dirs. Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush)


    Its politics are far from subtle, but there's something to be said for a movie aimed at young kids about, y'know, government corruption.

    13. Cemetery of Splendor (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

    I spent a surprisingly large amount of 2016 writing and researching about sleep, so this movie hit home in a weird way.

    12. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)

    If loving this melancholy, expressionist ode to missed opportunities and life's forking paths is wrong, I'd rather not be right. 

    11. Love & Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman)

    Kate Beckinsale is superb, and Stillman has not lost his touch at getting the driest, barbiest quips out of his actors. An increasingly rare sort of comedy.

    10. O.J.: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman)

    At seven and a half hours long, this is a novel-esque, sprawling documentary that uses the troubled and troubling life of O.J. Simpson to make an argument about nothing less than 20th century America. It's monumental.

    9. Nocturnal Animals (dir. Tom Ford)

    Nocturnal Animals is high formalization built on a contrast between beauty and brutality, high art and pulp fiction, teetering back and forth in a game of taste-making and sin-atoning.

    8. HyperNormalisastion (dir. Adam Curtis)


    Middle-Eastern geopolitics, the rise of computational information systems, the economics that drove Trump to power--it's all woven together in Adam Curtis's latest achievement, which tries maddeningly to capture the whole context of how we ended up here.

    7. Sing Street (dir. John Carney) 

    "Buoyant" is almost too gentle a word. John Carney's latest explodes with the passion and possibility of making music and being creative.

    6. Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie)

    The land is the thing in Hell or High Water, which combines all the stakes of contemporary economic debt with all the brash classicism of cop-and-robbers shoot-outs.

    5. American Honey (dir. Andrea Arnold)

    Arnold's rambling look at how poor kids make do in a system of seemingly endless exploitation and zero opportunity for mobility is some kind of tender epic.

    4. Arrival (dir. Dennis Villeneuve)

    A humanities professor saves the world in what might be one of the most Deleuzian movies ever made.

    3. The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

    In the tradition of the best sci-fi and the best satire, The Lobster feels like such a beautifully absurd refraction of the systems we develop to make sure everyone finds love, and the social (not to mention political) pressures to conform to a certain way of being in the world. 

    2. Silence (dir. Martin Scorsese)

    My heart is always weak for long, epic historical dramas, and Scorsese's latest achieves many of its ambitions to be one of the defining films about the moral complexities of faith. Every piece of it feels so deeply considered, designed to patiently inform every other piece.

    1. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

    At the end of the day, Moonlight isn't just the best film made in 2016, it is the most important film for 2016. It is a film that begs us to see other people for their complexity, to empathize with the choices they make, to see the good in others and the masks we adopt. It's a movie about a black gay man trying to figure out what it means to be those things; to be each of them individually and all of them at once. Moonlight is also patient; its triptych coming-of-age structure is hardly innovative, but the first two chapters are really just set up for that last third, where it turns out the gorgeous cinematography was just playing a long con before becoming emotionally overwhelming. We need this movie. We need more movies like this movie.