Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Oscars 2018 Educated Guesses

So I guess we should talk about last year?

My prediction for Best Picture was wrong. So was everyone else's. Hell, even the Oscars themselves had it wrong for a few insane minutes. In what will likely be remembered as the most unbelievable moment in the history of the Academy Awards, a mix-up with the envelopes led to La La Land being named Best Picture followed by the producers having to turn over their statues to the real winner - Moonlight.

Even without all the drama, Moonlight's win would still have been a huge shock. I've had plenty of time to think about this and I've concluded that La La Land's immense critical acclaim blinded me and my fellow Oscar prognosticators to just how polarizing it actually was, which became much clearer following its big loss. The preferential voting system favors films that are universally liked and I have yet to hear anyone say anything bad about Moonlight. What was lost amid the scandal is just how inspiring it was that a small independent film about the type of people who live on the margins of society was able to upset a seemingly irresistible tribute to classic Hollywood musicals. The Oscars truly are changing and this year's nominees are another demonstration of that.

Without knowing how the night would end, I also had predicted the biggest takeaway from last year's Oscars would be how confrontational they were in regards to Trump's presidency. This year's ceremony will unfold in the shadow of a different sexual predator - Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced producer who bullied and shouted his way to several Oscars over the years. The industry's shameful treatment of women has remained in the spotlight ever since and watching how the Academy handles it will be intriguing. I can't say I envy Jimmy Kimmel, who will be expected to address the topic in his opening monologue despite it being decidedly unfunny.

I also was wondering what was going to happen with Best Actress, which is typically presented by the previous year's winner for Best Actor. That's Casey Affleck, who managed to win despite persistent allegations of sexual harassment. However, he bowed out of the ceremony, probably nervous that Frances McDormand was going to punch his lights out.

Will the MeToo/Time'sUp movement also affect the actual winners? I think so, at least in the case of Best Picture. But before that...

Best Animated Feature
The Boss Baby
The Breadwinner
Loving Vincent

Who Will Win: This was the first year in which voting for this category was open to all Academy members rather than just a smaller group of experts in the animation field. The inclusion of The Boss Baby makes me wonder if that was really such a good idea. Thankfully, it has no chance of winning. Pixar's acclaimed Coco should easily cruise to a victory, thanks in large part to its tear-jerking ending.

My Choice: Coco is a sweet, heartfelt movie but I tend to root for the smaller films when it comes to this category and I'd love to see The Breadwinner get the win. It takes some serious stones to make an animated film set in Afghanistan during the era of Taliban control, but the result was quite powerful. The Cartoon Saloon studio has made three films so far and all three have earned nominations. Hopefully they'll win one of these days.

Best Documentary Feature
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Faces Places
Last Men in Aleppo
Strong Island

Who Will Win: This strikes me as a close race between two of the films, but it's hard to say for sure since there wasn't really any documentary this year that caught on with viewers outside the world of movie buffs. A win for Strong Island, a striking story of a senseless murder in 1992 and the subsequent failure of the judicial system to deliver justice to the family, would be historic given that director Yance Ford is transgender (although this has very little to do with the content of the film itself). However, I'm giving the advantage to Faces Places, directed by the celebrated Belgian filmmaker Agnes Varda. This seems like the perfect year to honor one of the key female directors in cinema history.

My Choice: The lesson from The Act of Killing's disheartening loss in 2013 (yes, I am still annoyed about it) is that if a documentary uncovers truths that are too terrible, the Academy shies away. Last Men in Aleppo deserves to win, but it is so emotionally devastating that it has no chance. It's easy to forget about all the suffering going on in Syria amidst the ridiculous news we're all bombarded with every day, but that's a lot harder to do after spending 90 minutes with rescue volunteers digging dead bodies out of rubble. I don't know if I can necessarily "recommend" it, but it is an unbearably powerful movie.

Best Adapted Screenplay
James Ivory for Call Me By Your Name
Scott Neustadler and Michael H. Weber for The Disaster Artist
Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green for Logan
Aaron Sorkin for Molly's Game
Virgil Williams and Dee Rees for Mudbound

Who Will Win: James Ivory, along with his partner Ismail Merchant, founded the popular Merchant Ivory company that has been putting out highbrow movies for decades. Ivory, now 89, has yet to win an Oscar personally and so this seems like the best chance for the highly acclaimed Call Me By Your Name to pull off a win.

My Choice: The Disaster Artist was a pretty polished adaptation of the book, even if it softened Tommy Wiseau's rougher edges to keep him sympathetic. The nomination for Logan is in fact the first time a superhero film has shown up in this category but I did have some issues with how much it borrows from other movies (It's basically Shane meets Children of Men and even draws attention to the former). So I suppose I am rooting for Mudbound. The interracial friendship between Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell's characters was very well-written and believable and I've thought about it a lot since watching the film.

Best Original Screenplay
Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjani for The Big Sick
Jordan Peele for Get Out
Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird
Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor for The Shape of Water
Martin McDonagh for Three Billboards

Who Will Win: There's some major action in this category with four of the year's heavy hitters (and The Big Sick, but it's a comedy so good luck) in close competition. The Shape of Water will be rewarded for its more visual elements elsewhere. Lady Bird is an exemplary coming of age movie but may not seem challenging enough in a highly politicized year. Three Billboards, with its enjoyable profane dialogue, could manage a win but I have a feeling the edgy streak of this category will favor the entertaining but thematically complicated writing of Get Out. Whatever happens, it's going to be close.

My Choice: I think the screenplays for Lady Bird and Get Out are both great (for different reasons) so I'd be happy with either.

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

Who Will Win: The closest acting race of the night, but so far Allison Janney has been racking up the playoff awards for her memorable embodiment of Tonya Harding's mother from Hell. There is potential for an upset here, especially by Laurie Metcalf as another difficult mother but one who looks positively saintly in comparison. Although she must be used to losing to Janney by now, Metcalf's performance earns a more emotional response from the viewer. Then there's wild card Lesley Manville, whose deadpan humor was a highlight of a movie that turned out to have a strong base of support among the voters.

My Choice: Laurie Metcalf's character, with her control freak behavior and casual put downs, should be someone the audience can't stand. Instead, she's often deeply sympathetic. That's some good acting.

Best Supporting Actor
Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards
Richard Jenkins in The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards

Who Will Win: Here's what's really weird and contradictory about all the Three Billboards controversy. The main bone of contention is with the arc of Sam Rockwell's character, the racist dimwit Officer Dixon, and yet Rockwell is almost certainly going to win an Oscar on Sunday. To get into it more, I'll need to spoil parts of the movie so if you don't want that, scroll down to Best Actress. Dixon begins the film as the kind of bigoted dumbass who is way over-represented in the federal government at this point. It's alleged several times that he tortured a black prisoner, an incident which is never explained, probably because it would compromise his redemption arc. In the final act of the movie, Dixon has half his face burned off and becomes a more heroic figure like some kind of benevolent Two-Face. The question of whether or not the "noble bigot" archetype is still responsible in this day and age has turned Three Billboards into a bountiful hot-take generator. For whatever reason, all the chatter hasn't damaged Rockwell's chances in the least.

My Choice: Willem Dafoe is getting robbed! He's played everyone from Jesus to the Green Goblin over the years, so seeing him nail an everyman character like the overworked hotel manager in The Florida Project was really special. Considering most of the cast was made up of local talent, he blended in surprisingly well...but maybe that's the reason why he keeps losing to a more showy performance.

Best Actress
Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand in Three Billboards
Margot Robbie in I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird
Meryl Streep in The Post

Who Will Win: Frances McDormand gives the kind of larger than life performance actors dream of and it should earn her a second Oscar in this category. If anyone had a prayer of upsetting, it would be Saoirse Ronan, but that seems unlikely. Here's hoping for some quality swearing during the acceptance speech.

My Choice: McDormand is legendary, but she's already won. Meanwhile, Ronan has racked up three Oscar nominations and she's not even 25, which is kind of amazing. She's so good that I could even forgive her character for subjecting me to Dave Matthews Band music. McDormand herself has made comments implying that she would like to see her win.

Best Actor
Timothee Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out
Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Who Will Win: Gary Oldman's had a distinguished career but not all that many awards, but none of those roles were delivered while wearing a fat suit and tons of prosthetics and makeup reading famous speeches by Winston Churchill. The Academy can't resist a physical transformation like this and combined with the general sense that Oldman is overdue for an Oscar, he should win without much trouble. However, there's one X-factor here and that's the accusations of spousal abuse from his ex-wife. A lot of other actors have seen awards hopes crash and burn lately because of this kind of thing, but Oldman seems to be cruising ahead unhindered by virtue of, well, being Gary Oldman. It would be hard for Hollywood to avoid accusations of hypocrisy if they make a big show of support for victimized women at the Oscars only to give one of the top awards to someone with Oldman's past. Should that take him down in the end, the beneficiary would likely be Timothee Chalamet, who would be the youngest man to ever win this category. Still, if Casey Affleck can get past this sort of landmine, an actor with Oldman's stature should have no problem.

My Choice: As far as Winston Churchill goes, I prefer the Albert Finney incarnation in The Gathering Storm. Out of these five, I would give it to Daniel Kaluuya. Protagonists in horror films are generally considered expendable to the audience, but he draws viewers in regardless of whether or not they can identify with the specific circumstances that kick off the plot of Get Out.

Best Director
Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread
Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird
Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk
Jordan Peele for Get Out
Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water

Who Will Win: For all the talk of the lack of diversity at the Oscars, Mexicans have been absolutely cleaning up in this category for the last several years, with a win by Alfonso Cuaron and two consecutive ones for Alejandro G. Inarritu. The trend looks to continue. Having won the telltale Director's Guild award this year, Guillermo Del Toro seems unstoppable thanks to the singular world he created in The Shape of Water. It helps that he's a very endearing dude who can barely contain his love of movies whenever he has a chance to speak about them. It's also worth noting who's absent from this line up - Martin McDonagh of Three Billboards. Some pundits have taken that as a bad omen for the movie but the Academy doesn't pair Director and Picture nearly as often as they used to. In fact, that's only happened once in the last five years.

My Choice: So much talent here, but the most visually spectacular film I saw this year was Dunkirk. The airplane scenes in particular were just breathtaking. Nolan's been due for a while but for now he'll be racking up another loss. At some point, he'll probably have a Scorsese-esque moment where the Academy decides to appreciate him but it won't be this year.

Best Picture
Call Me By Your Name
Darkest Hour
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards

Who Will Win: Let's narrow it down. Phantom Thread and Call Me By Your Name are too highbrow even by Oscar standards. There is so much overlapping subject matter in Dunkirk and Darkest Hour that you could probably edit them together into something pretty epic, but it's not the kind of year where a war movie wins. The Post came only two years after Best Picture went to Spotlight, another film about journalism in the emerging "Ben Bradlee Cinematic Universe." That leaves us with a pretty strong final four.

The Shape of Water has the most nominations of any movie, which is usually a good sign. However, I still can't imagine that a movie where, all beautiful imagery and art direction aside, a woman gets it on with a fish monster, is going to walk away with Best Picture. Either that or the Academy has become much more open-minded than anyone's been giving it credit for. Get Out's success during this awards season has been groundbreaking and makes me smile warmly with pride as a big-time horror fan. However, it is still a horror film and its journey will end here. Lady Bird is a genuine contender and seems to be liked by just about everyone, but I'm predicting a win for Three Billboards.

"But Rob, didn't you just admit to underestimating the backlash against La La Land last year?" I haven't forgotten. Three Billboards is even more controversial but it has something important that La La Land didn't have - major relevance to the times we are living in. Dubious racial attitudes aside, this is a movie about one seriously pissed off woman. She is done with your shit, doesn't care what you think and will do whatever she needs to do to get justice. If you don't think that resonates in a year like this one, you might not have been paying attention. But then again, I could be wrong. It's happened before (like last year).

My Choice: To tell you the truth, once I saw that The Florida Project didn't make it into this category, I became much less invested in its outcome this year. As far as the current nominees go, my preferences are as follows: Lady Bird > Dunkirk > Get Out > The Shape of Water > The Post > Three Billboards > Call Me By Your Name > Darkest Hour > Phantom Thread. But how cool would it be if Get Out actually won?

That's all for this year. Be careful with the envelopes!