Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Oscars 2019 Educated Guesses

A love/hate relationship is inevitable when you follow the Oscars year after year, but lately it looks like these feelings are also held by the Academy itself.

It's like the Oscars are embarrassed by themselves. But not because of the La La Land/Moonlight debacle or giving Best Picture to The English Patient. They've gotten themselves upset that the show remains a fairly niche event and not the inescapable cultural juggernaut that the Superbowl is. On one level, I get it. I gave up talking about the Oscars with people I didn't completely trust, just because I found it discouraging to keep hearing person after person tell me they don't care about the Oscars. If I did that every time someone mentioned sports to me, I'd never have time to talk about anything else. Unlike the wise decision to expand the list of Best Picture nominees from five to between five and ten depending on enthusiasm, this year's proposed changes were disastrously ill-advised.

First there was the suggestion to create a "Best Popular Film" category, which was a demonstration of the exact type of snobbery they were worried about exhibiting. If they took the time to fairly evaluate films from genres more popular than "biography of famous artist" and "tone-deaf drama about race," they would find plenty that deserved a nomination. And honestly, they needn't have worried. Last year, Get Out was the first horror film in 20 years to be up for Best Picture and this year Black Panther is the first superhero movie to ever compete for that honor. Expanding Best Picture mostly did its job when it came to this issue so chill. After a backlash, they decided to scrap this idea.

Even dumber was the idea of removing some categories from the live broadcast altogether. Best Cinematography and Best Editing might not have much drama from year to year but the idea of excluding them from an event about movies just boggles the mind. It was borne out of concern about the long length of the show, which indeed never ends on time. After another backlash, they decided to scrap this idea. But if you're worried about the length, you have options. Every year there's a handful of "magic of the movies" montages that are hardly essential. There's also at least one gimmicky song or dance number paying homage to some past classic. One year they had this Sound of Music tribute that was like 10 minutes long. I understand that movie is classic but was that really the best use of time?

Or here's another idea. Maybe just accept that the Oscars are long, they will always be long and that people who are interested will watch anyway. Nobody cares if the Superbowl goes into overtime, so stop worrying about whether this once a year event is cutting into the midnight weather report. And if you want one more suggestion to save time, maybe don't have a host. Oh wait, they're already doing that. It's for the best. Hosting the Oscars is one of the most thankless jobs ever, the person gets shit on by the media every year without fail so yeah let's drop that.

On that note, people may wonder how political the Oscars will be this year. Honestly, I don't think there will be much of that because you don't need to be dramatic to make a point anymore. We don't need a Michael Moore-esque broadside because we're in this strange era of American history where any assertion that people should be kind to each other is implicitly taken as a rebuke to Orange Caligula. There will be people endorsing empathy. Someone will say we need to build bridges and not walls. Probably nothing stronger than that since it doesn't do much good anyway. We can chase a comedian off Twitter for making racist jokes but we can't get a psychotic racist maniac out of the White House. Oh well, what's nominated this year?

Best Animated Feature
The Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Who Will Win: Normally you bet on the Pixar movie in this category. However, The Incredibles 2 doesn't have the same magic as the original and there's another movie that's been racking up other awards. Into the Spider-Verse went way beyond expectations and is light years ahead of the last several Spider-Man films. Isle of Dogs could be a contender since the voters typically like stop-motion films but it came out almost a full year ago. Ironically, it looks like the first Marvel superhero movie to win a major Oscar is one not even made by Marvel Studios (Sony has retained some of the rights to the character and has been busy with spin-offs, including the much less acclaimed Venom.)

My Choice: This was not a particularly great year for animation, so the standout is clear. Into the Spider-Verse had a striking visual design that looked like comic book art rendered in 3-D, along with an exciting and well-paced story. Definitely the strongest of the bunch.

Best Documentary Feature
Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons

Who Will Win: The biggest shock of this year's nominations was not in Best Picture or any of the acting categories. It was the absence of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the popular documentary about the life and legacy of Fred Rogers. All of us who follow this stuff thought it would win easily but now it's a close two-way race between RBG and Free Solo. While they didn't break out the same way, both of these were fairly popular in their own right. It could go either way, but my sense is that RBG has gotten this far because of affection for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rather than the quality of the movie itself. Meanwhile, Free Solo captures the beautiful backdrop of Yosemite National Park and El Capitan with impressive artistry. This is a crowd receptive to strong cinematic technique and that will likely decide the race.

My Choice: Ginsburg is a national treasure but RBG is only a so-so documentary. There are moments so fawning that I wondered if it was made for the judge herself rather than a mass audience. I'd totally go with Free Solo. Everyone makes a big deal out of Tom Cruise doing supervised stunts in the Mission: Impossible movies but try climbing a 3,000 foot cliff without ropes or safety gear.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Joel and Ethan Coen for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee for Black Klansman
Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty for Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Barry Jenkins for If Beale Street Could Talk
Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper and Will Fetters for A Star is Born

Who Will Win: I don't think Black Klansman will go home empty-handed and this is the best chance for a win. Spike Lee and the others started with the memoirs of the real "black klansman" Ron Stallworth and nicely integrated it with interesting moments that don't initially feel like they belong but contribute to a striking overall picture of the cyclical nature of racial violence in America. Whether it's the KKK's terrorist activities in the 1970s, a monologue about the violence following the release of The Birth of a Nation in 1915, or the concluding footage of the Charlottesville riots, the awful truth about the United States becomes inescapable. If Lee manages to get up to the mic at any point during the night, he'll make sure everyone knows what he was getting at.

My Choice: Black Klansman was one of my favorite movies of the year and I'd enjoy seeing it win. Would also be happy for Barry Jenkins since If Beale Street Could Talk deserved more nominations.

Best Original Screenplay
Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara for The Favourite
Paul Schrader for First Reformed
Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly for Green Book
Alfonso Cuaron for Roma
Adam McKay for Vice

Who Will Win:
Green Book could pull it off, but that's a middlebrow movie in a typically highbrow category. I think the voters will go with The Favourite, which mixes layered commentary on power and class conflict with profane one-liners that make it feel like an episode of "Veep" produced by Merchant Ivory. A long-shot winner is Paul Schrader, the veteran screenwriter and director whose major claim to fame is the script for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. First Reformed was worshiped by critics but not so much by the Academy since this is its only nomination. The Favourite is the f...the one most likely to win.

My Choice: The Favourite is a fine choice. Most of the original screenplays I really liked this year aren't in the lineup.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams in Vice
Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk
Marina de Tavira in Roma
Emma Stone in The Favourite
Rachel Weisz in The Favourite

Who Will Win: This one is tough. Regina King won the Golden Globe for her complex performance as a mother trying to keep her future son-in-law out of prison. However, she was left out of the Screen Actors Guild awards which are usually an accurate precursor to the Oscars. Whoever they chose instead might have offered some insight into who would win but instead they gave it to Emily Blunt for A Quiet Place. I think that's an awesome choice but Emily Blunt's not on this list. I'm going with King but it's not a done deal. Amy Adams has never won despite six nominations but Lynne Cheney is the type of role she could do in her sleep. The two Favourite ladies will cancel each other out and are both a mild case of category fraud since there are really three leads in that film. Marina de Tavira is the true wild card as nobody expected her to show up in the nominations. While it's a good indicator of the overall support for Roma, I don't see her winning. So Regina King it is.

My Choice: Emily Blunt? I don't have strong feelings in this case but Regina King was very good and deserves the win.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali in Green Book
Adam Driver in Black Klansman
Sam Elliott for A Star is Born
Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell in Vice

Who Will Win: It looks like Mahershala Ali will win his second Oscar in just three years for his performance as the musician Dr. Don Shirley. It could also be an award for handling the various Green Book controversies with grace. The real Dr. Shirley's family loathes the movie but have still said they are rooting for him. A possible dark horse winner is Sam Elliott, a veteran actor who has never actually been nominated until now.

My Choice: There are four great performances in this category...and Sam Rockwell, which is just stupid. Josh Brolin was the superior George W. Bush. Anyway, I'm rooting for Adam Driver. There was a scene in Black Klansman that felt surprisingly personal to me when his character is reflecting on his experiences going undercover in the KKK. He says "I never used to think about being Jewish. Now I think about it all the time." I've felt very similar about my Polish background this year for various personal reasons. The scene still haunts me. I hope it's the clip shown when they're reading off the nominees.

Best Actress
Yalitza Aparicio in Roma
Glenn Close in The Wife
Olivia Colman in The Favourite
Lady Gaga in A Star is Born
Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Who Will Win: No actor has as many nominations without any wins as Glenn Close, who is on number seven this year. That should change this year and Amy Adams will probably wind up breaking her old record soon enough. Originally, people thought Lady Gaga was going to win but they may have realized that playing a young woman who suddenly becomes a world-famous singer isn't exactly a stretch for her. Besides, she's guaranteed to take home the Oscar for Best Song. Then Close had a pretty epic Golden Globes speech and seemed to seal the deal. Her toughest competition is Olivia Colman, who gave the best performance in a movie full of very good acting.

My Choice: Maybe I just like underdogs, but I would love to see a win for Yalitza Aparicio, the preschool teacher who is now nominated for her first role as the put-upon housekeeper in Roma. These other nominees have plenty of experience with award shows but it just seems so much more special for someone who is a true outsider. But Glenn Close has the "overdue" narrative on her side, which is just about impossible to beat.

Best Actor
Christian Bale in Vice
Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born
Willem Dafoe in At Eternity's Gate
Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen in Green Book

Who Will Win: Is Bohemian Rhapsody the real life? Nah, it's mostly just fantasy. But the other nominees are going to get caught in a Rami Malek landslide, no escape from reality. The success Malek has enjoyed so far is surprising given the controversy surrounding the film. In what is becoming a distressingly common new awards season trope, a damning expose about years of sexual assault and manipulation committed by the director Bryan Singer dropped right around the time Bohemian Rhapsody won Best Drama at the Golden Globes. The publicity campaign has decided to just pretend the film directed itself out of thin air, but the reports that Malek feuded with Singer during production actually seem to be working in his favor. The only real competition is Christian Bale, who underwent one of his signature physical transformations to play Dick Cheney. An actor playing a villain hasn't won this category since Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood and in this case, I think the Oscar voters would prefer to honor Freddy Mercury rather than try and stick it to Cheney by giving Bale another chance to call him "Satan" on live television. But if they're feeling salty, who knows?

My Choice: I hope that Willem Dafoe eventually gets a role that he can win for. But for this year, I was pretty amazed by what Christian Bale and his makeup team pulled off. He honestly looked exactly like Cheney and even though the movie obviously thinks little of the former vice president, Bale managed to show a little bit of humanity perhaps in spite of himself.

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron for Roma
Yorgos Lanthimos for The Favourite
Spike Lee for Black Klansman
Adam McKay for Vice
Pawel Pawlikowski for Cold War

Who Will Win: The newer members of the Academy are really flexing their muscles in this category, which passed over some highly favored American directors for arthouse Europeans like Lanthimos and Pawlikowski. However, the story here is the continuing domination of Mexican directors in this category. Hollywood still loves Cuaron and his impressive long takes, giving him the telltale Director's Guild win that foreshadows a second Oscar for Best Director. You'll likely be seeing Cuaron a lot during the evening as he's also nominated for Cinematography and Foreign Language Film. Mexicans have won this category in five out of the last six years, which is as good a reason as any to stop talking shit about immigrants.

My Choice:
Alfonso Cuaron is great but Spike Lee is overdue. He hasn't been able to achieve that inevitability which will help Glenn Close. There must be some reason. Oh, it's because this is his first nomination. Sure, that must be it. He's been stuck with the reductive "angry black man" label for most of his career when his best work (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour and more) is much more versatile, combining snappy dialogue with righteous moral clarity. If he did win, it would probably be enough to elevate Black Klansman to Best Picture (like with Scorsese and The Departed in 2006). Maybe he should do some more long takes.

Best Picture
Black Klansman
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
A Star is Born

Who Will Win: I've had some trouble with this category for the last few years. It's been tough to predict how the influx of new members into the Academy changes the usual patterns. In hindsight, the Best Picture nominees have reflected the clashing tastes of the old voters and the younger, more diverse voters. It's this tension that leads to a weird movie like The Shape of Water actually being a consensus winner. It's also become quite clear that a significant controversy is much more of a deal-breaker than it used to be.

On that note, we can rule out a few nominees right away. The Academy may enjoy Rami Malek's performance, but Bryan Singer is still way too toxic for Bohemian Rhapsody to have any shot at the win. Green Book is also likely to be undone by the various controversies. It would have been unbeatable in the 1980s or 90s but it's become harder to reconcile the optimistic outlook of movies like this with the real world. Vice is also much too polarizing to manage a win.

Moving on to the upper tier. There was all sorts of Oscar talk for A Star is Born when it first opened but voters seem to have decided that it's a well-made drama and not much more. Black Panther's nomination is the happy ending to a story that began ten years ago when The Dark Knight's absence from this category sparked a backlash so intense that the Academy moved beyond the usual five films approach. It's been nice to see but the movie won't win. The Favourite has its champions but in the end it's probably a little too caustic and skeevy for Best Picture. Like I said earlier, Black Klansman could have had a real shot if Spike Lee was going to win Best Director but it doesn't seem to be his year.

So that leaves us with Roma. It's quite unusual for the consensus pick to be a Netflix-released black and white movie that's entirely in Spanish, but that's where we are. Nobody really expected it to get this far but when the nominations came out there were some surprises (Marina de Tavira being the biggest one) that made it clear there was wide support for the movie. Watching it is a memorable experience - the first hour is naturalistic to the point of boredom but it turns out you're being set up for the kill. The second half is a potent series of unforgettable, intense sequences that can turn a viewer into a sobbing mess. Enough emotional power can help someone get over the anomaly of giving Best Picture to a film on a streaming service or that's also nominated in the Foreign Language Film category. It might very well win both, which would certainly be a first.

My Choice: Black Klansman > Roma > Black Panther > The Favourite > A Star is Born > Green Book > Bohemian Rhapsody > Vice. I suspect I've said enough about Black Klansman that summarizes why I would like to see it win. It's wishful thinking at this point so I'll add some more - I'd like to see the Oscars at peace with themselves. We'll all have our complaints (I'm going to be pissed off about The Act of Killing's loss for at least another decade) but they've honestly tried to do better and we're seeing the results each year. Don't skip categories, don't add stupid new Appease the Plebs categories, yourself.