Monday, February 27, 2017

Moonlight wins Best Picture after Colossal Screw-Up

So I got Best Picture wrong this year. So did everyone else. In fact, even the Academy had it wrong for a few minutes. In what will go down as perhaps the most shocking moment in Oscar history, La La Land was mistakenly presented Best Picture only to have to turn it over to Moonlight in the middle of the acceptance speech.

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the stars of the classic Bonnie and Clyde, were presenting Best Picture. As Beatty opened the envelope, he stared at it awkwardly for a few seconds, leaving everyone to think he was just milking the suspense for a laugh. What really happened was that he had been handed another envelope for Best Actress, which had just been given a few minutes earlier to Emma Stone of La La Land. Not sure what to make of a card that was awarding Best Picture to Emma Stone, he handed it to Dunaway to make sense of it. She announced La La Land, an outcome that everyone had expected from the start.

While the producers thanked their colleagues and loved ones, a man with a headset made his way into the crowd and broke the news. La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz told the crowd about the mix-up and handled what must have been a horrible disappointment with major humility and generosity. Beatty tried to explain what happened (Dunaway wasn't there, presumably hiding under a rock) and the stunned Moonlight team approached the stage and made their speeches, but they were too dazed to make the most of the moment. The clip is here in case you didn't watch the show.

Honestly, I've never seen anything like it. Why in the hell was Warren Beatty given another Best Actress envelope when that award was already over and done with? I almost heard the frantic clicks of a million pre-written thinkpieces about how La La Land shouldn't have won being hastily taken off the web and put aside. The internet reacted the way anyone would expect, with jokes about Steve Harvey (who made a similar blunder at a beauty pageant), M. Night "what a twist" Shyamalan, and photoshopped envelopes announcing movies like Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip as Best Picture.

In hindsight, Spotlight's win last year could have been predicted. But this year, I can't think of any clue that would have tipped me off that Moonlight would beat the odds and claim the top prize when all the typical signs pointed to La La Land. If not for the fake-out, there would be more talk about how the Oscars looked outside of their own world and chose to recognize empathy over escapism. Under any circumstances, it's a huge upset. The shock of the final few minutes will also likely overshadow the politics of the ceremony, which weren't as overt as many thought (except for the righteous statement from Foreign Language Film winner Asghar Farhadi, who declined to attend in protest of Trump's Muslim ban). Like I said in the predictions post, giving Best Picture to a movie about people whose struggles are often forgotten is a much more powerful statement.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Oscars 2017 Educated Guesses

The Superbowl was political. The Grammys were political. And you can bet your bottom ruble that the Oscars will be political. I suppose that's just part of the new Age of Shadows we live in. A parade of charged speeches is predictable, as is the ensuing round of whines from those who elected Comrade Trump thinking it would teach political correctness a lesson and are now indignant that progressive-minded people didn't instantly lose their ability to speak after his inauguration. Their guy won the election and yet they're still aggrieved because Meryl Streep sassed him and Netflix has a show called "Dear White People." Sore winners doesn't even begin to describe it.

To be fair, a lot of liberals also find political speeches at the Oscars to be obnoxious. I suppose it's because it can seem insincere or self-aggrandizing, as if rich Hollywood types really suffer under any political arrangement. However this is a different year, not just because Trump pays more attention to media commentary about himself than his predecessors, but because the Oscars have been drawn into the impact of his election just like the rest of us. Before his Muslim ban was overturned by the courts for being blatantly unconstitutional, it looked like Foreign Language film nominee (and past winner) Asghar Farhadi would be barred from attending. At this point, he could come but was so disgusted by the whole affair he decided to stay home. Given that the whole affair has given his film The Salesman a strong chance of winning, the moment after this announcement could be the most memorable of the evening. So I think political speeches are more appropriate for this particular year than they have been in a long time, but I also think these pale in importance compared to the statements the Oscars make when picking the actual winners. More on that soon enough.

Best Animated Feature
Kubo and the Two Strings
My Life As A Zucchini
The Red Turtle

Who Will Win: With no Pixar in the mix this year, Zootopia should take it pretty easily. The two lesser known films were even harder to see than usual and the other two had wider releases but don't have a social commentary so finely attuned to the current moment.

My Choice: Zootopia is a deserving winner but I'd pick Kubo and the Two Strings. Laika has been producing exceptional stop-motion films for several years now and has yet to win.

Best Documentary Feature
Fire At Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
Life, Animated
O.J.: Made in America

Who Will Win: The towering O.J.: Made in America has the advantage of having eight hours to dive deep into the material it chronicles and has enjoyed huge acclaim. However, this race is a little closer than it first appears. 13th and I Am Not Your Negro are both blistering takes on race but are likely to be overshadowed by O.J. Sometimes the members are in the mood for lighter fare in this category and if that was the case, the only choice would be Life, Animated, about a young autistic boy who uses Disney films to help express himself. However, I think the real upset looming could be from Fire At Sea. A film looking at the refugee crisis in Europe, the vile Muslim ban could be just the boost it needs to swing the vote. For now, I'm sticking with O.J. but keep an eye on this one.

My Choice: As usual, this category has a fine lineup and yet many other great documentaries were left out. That said, I was seriously impressed by the clarity with which O.J.: Made in America gave to such a complex real world story.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Eric Heisserer for Arrival
August Wilson for Fences
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi for Hidden Figures
Luke Davies for Lion
Barry Jenkins for Moonlight

Who Will Win: Interesting story about Fences. The playwright August Wilson passed away in 2005 but is still being given sole credit for the movie's screenplay. If you've seen it, it does appear that not a whole lot was changed in the transition from stage to screen. However, I suspect that this will be Moonlight's chance to shine. Arrival is a contender but the final big twist gets mixed reactions from viewers. The screenplays for Hidden Figures and Lion fall neatly into the usual prestige formula but the writers who vote in these two categories tend to aim a little higher.

My Choice: Moonlight is one of those movies that doesn't even feel written, more like it just unfolds before your eyes. That's no accident.

Best Original Screenplay
Taylor Sheridan for Hell or High Water
Damien Chazelle for La La Land
Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster
Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea
Mike Mills for 20th Century Women

Who Will Win: The voters in this category rarely go with the herd and while La La Land is set to have a good evening at the Oscars, the writing isn't what has gotten it this far. I could see them embracing the singular weirdness of The Lobster, but I suspect that this year they'll rally behind celebrated writer Kenneth Lonergan and award Manchester by the Sea the prize. His examination of grief goes refreshingly against the conventional wisdom and the unmistakable (and profane) Boston dialect helps it go down easily.

My Choice:
I would totally give it to Taylor Sheridan. Hell or High Water was ridiculously entertaining and fun while drawing strong parallels between the violence of the American West's past and the indignities committed by today's financial industry.

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis in Fences
Naomie Harris in Moonlight
Nicole Kidman in Lion
Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea

Who Will Win: Viola Davis, despite the category fraud of competing here when it's a leading role. She's come within a hair of winning a few times now and keeps doing great work. She won a Tony for this role on stage and now an Oscar's up next.

My Choice: Everyone listed here was very good in their respective films. Viola Davis should be in Best Actress. I suppose I'd go with Naomie Harris. Yep, looking at me rooting for Moonlight again. Better get used to it.

Best Supporting Actor
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

Who Will Win: Mahershala Ali had a very good year. He was one of the best parts of the Netflix show Luke Cage, playing the gangster Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes and also had a supporting role in Hidden Figures. He brings immense gravity to his quiet role as a father figure to the lonely young boy at the center of Moonlight. Dev Patel is probably the one with the best chance to upset, given how well he holds Lion together despite how underwritten his character is, but this one isn't particularly competitive.

My Choice: No complaints here. Ali's last scene in Moonlight is one of the scenes that haunts me months after seeing it.

Best Actress
Isabelle Huppert in Elle
Ruth Negga in Loving
Natalie Portman in Jackie
Emma Stone in La La Land
Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins

Who Will Win: Emma Stone has been favored for most of the race and there's not much reason to think she won't win. She's quite good at making audiences forget about her glamorous movie star status when she plays misfits and underdogs. The dark horse is Isabelle Huppert, who had a surprise win at the Golden Globes and landed in this category despite expectations that Amy Adams or Annette Bening was headed for that fifth spot. But La La Land's momentum has been consistent so Stone is probably in.

My Choice: Viola Davis. I'm serious, she ought to be competing here. As usual, this category is a disappointment. Taraji P. Henson? Ella Ballentine? Rebecca Hall? And yes, Amy Adams? That's just scratching the surface but for whatever reason, it always plays out like this.

Best Actor
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

Who Will Win: There has been a lot of drama in this category and it's going to be close. For a while, it seemed like Casey Affleck's performance as a man destroyed by grief in Manchester by the Sea was a guaranteed win. However, tales of sexual harassment incidents in his past have followed him throughout the award season and it's always a gamble as to whether stuff like this makes a difference in the end. When the nominations were announced, I expected the presence of the typically more controversial Mel Gibson in Best Director would take the heat off him, but the opposite seems to have happened. Everyone's decided that Gibson is old news and Denzel won at the Screen Actors Guild awards. The SAG doesn't always line up with the Oscars, just most of the time, so Affleck may yet win, but my gut is that things will ultimately work out in Denzel's favor. This will be his third Oscar, putting him in a small group of elite actors that include the likes of Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis. Another piece of trivia - he would also be only the second person to win in a film that he also directed (the first was Laurence Olivier).

My Choice: Denzel's electric presence comes as no surprise by now. The one who surprised me was Andrew Garfield. Desmond Doss, the man he played in Hacksaw Ridge, was one of those people who are almost cartoonishly noble. It had the potential to be very corny on screen but he grounded the character without compromising that core decency. A really impressive performance.

Best Director
Damien Chazelle for La La Land
Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins for Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve for Arrival

Who Will Win: Damien Chazelle looks poised to win for only his second film. The first was Whiplash, a much darker exploration of many of La La Land's themes about ambition and sacrifice. Could Barry Jenkins or Kenneth Longergan upset? Possibly. But Chazelle has the Director's Guild award, and Oscar buffs bet against that at their peril.

My Choice: I have two choices here that I really like. Obviously I'm a huge fan of how Barry Jenkins created such a controlled mood for Moonlight and made it seem effortless. I also thought Arrival was a great experience on the big screen. The way Villeneuve contrasted the alien ships against dramatic landscapes was really epic. So either of those two would be great.

Best Picture
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

Who Will Win: Last year was really close and I wound up making the wrong call. This year, it's not close at all. Can anything beat La La Land?

Arrival may be highbrow science-fiction, but it still has aliens and spaceships so that doesn't help. Fences is an actor's showcase and will be rewarded as such. Hacksaw Ridge has some pretty intense violence plus Mel Gibson's baggage. Hell or High Water is way too awesome. Lion's incredible true story deserved a movie with better writing. Manchester by the Sea is way too depressing. The remaining two films have more of a chance. Moonlight has developed an enthusiastic following despite its small release and would be the ideal choice if the awards wanted to promote empathy and understanding. Hidden Figures is another important black American story and is a much more conventional prestige drama. Plus, it really connected with audiences and is actually the top-grossing film listed here! If any film could upset La La Land, this is it. However, three out of the last five Best Picture winners have been about show business (Argo, The Artist and Birdman) and La La Land is arguably the most adoring portrait in the bunch.

My Choice: My opinion of the nominees goes like this - Moonlight > Hell or High Water > Arrival > Manchester by the Sea > Hidden Figures > La La Land > Hacksaw Ridge > Fences > Lion. I found La La Land to be a well-staged musical and I don't really have many issues with it as a film (or the three other showbiz movies I referenced just now). But if you've followed my Oscar commentary for a while, you might have seen that I try to be aware of the historical significance bestowed by winning Best Picture. We can all joke about underwhelming past winners but the fact remains that this is the biggest spotlight the Academy can shine on a film.

By taking shots at Trump and our current political climate, the Oscars will be attempting to communicate that they are in touch with the world outside of Hollywood. But if they talk a big game and then give their top award to another celebration of their craft, they look just as insular as ever. In a year like this one, they really ought to put their votes where their mouths are. There's no explicit anti-Trump film in this batch (probably will take two or three years before we really start getting into that) but there are other ways to make a statement. Honoring a film like Moonlight, a story featuring the kind of people who will be the most hurt by what's happening in America now, would be a powerful signal of empathy. It likely wouldn't merit a mention on Trump's twitter account but it would say to those who have suffered in similar ways as Moonlight's characters that their stories are important and worthy of enshrining in a historical record that includes films like Casablanca and The Godfather. The fact that I believe it to be the best movie of the past year is almost beside the point.