Thursday, March 7, 2024

2024 Oscar Picks

Every year, I pick my winners among categories where I've seen the majority of nominees.  These reflect only who I'd vote to give the Oscar to if I could, and not an attempt to predict who will win (though I may talk a little bit about predictions as well).  In the past my picks sometimes coincided with the Academy's selections, but they can easily diverge.  Last year, my picks matched the Academy's in 9 of 16 categories.  In other words, they got a lot of things wrong.

This year is going to be pretty interesting.  It brought the usual mixed bag of Best Picture nominees, but I have one clear favorite and that has filtered into a number of the other categories.  In the acting categories, there are a couple of strong runners up to the clear favorite in Best Actor, Best Actress appears to be a close race between two nominees, and then the Supporting categories both look fairly messy.  Both screenplay categories are fairly cloudy for me.  Of the other categories, only Best Original Song is a no-brainer.  This was a tough year to pick overall, even if a few of the big categories were quite easy.

Best Picture

If you read my Best Picture rankings of 2023 films, you know that Oppenheimer was the runaway winner for me.  It told an important story, showcased a significant amount of craft from its creators, and featured strong acting from pretty much everyone in its cast, as evidenced by its representation in three out of the four acting categories. Both American Fiction and Poor Things were worthy in their own manner, and I wouldn't be disappointed if either of them upset Oppenheimer. Even Past Lives and, to an extent, Anatomy of a Fall, have aspects that lend themselves to being truly Oscar-worthy.  But Oppenheimer has that trifecta of importance, craft, and innovation that Best Picture should really reward. 

Best Director

Could this really be Christopher Nolan's year finally?  I think so.  He learned to tone down some of his stylistic excesses without sacrificing having his own style and filmmaking language.  He elicited strong performances from a very large cast.  And he kept what could have been a very dry biopic fresh and interesting without delving too much into cheap melodrama.  All of his previous snubs and losses can hopefully be forgotten with this accomplishment.

Of his competitors, I'd point at Poor Things' Yorgos Lanthimos, who crafted a wonderful surreal film that was still somehow grounded, and Anatomy of a Fall's Justine Triet, who provided us a film that I actually marveled at the direction mid-watch.  Martin Scorsese deserves some recognition for reining in some of his own excesses in Killers of the Flower Moon (though not completely).  Jonathan Glazer is the only head scratcher here, though I do think some of the artier aspects he put into his The Sims: Nazi Concentration Camp movie can be appreciated even if you think, like I do, that it should have been a completely different film.

Best Actor

This just obviously has to be Cillian Murphy, right?  I didn't get the chance to see Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin, but of the four performances I did see, Murphy's was far and away the most like a well-selected Best Actor performance.  It was poignant, his Oppenheimer was deeply human, even in that aloof-genius kind of way, and he commanded the screen every time he was on it.  This is the kind of performance that Gary Oldman put in for Darkest Hour or that Daniel Day-Lewis did in most of his films, most notably Lincoln.  For Murphy not to win, I'd think we'd be looking at the same kind of mistake as Al Pacino ("Hoo-ah") getting the statue over Denzel Washington's Malcolm X.

Not to say the other performances were without merit.  Jeffrey Wright and Paul Giamatti are always great, and they displayed their craft in their roles.  Even Bradley Cooper, who as a producer and director cranked out a complete fluff piece of a biopic, actually did a great job making it seem like he was Leonard Bernstein leading a life of little drama or interesting conflict.

Best Actress

To me, this was really a two-actress race, and it was really close.  I loved Emma Stone in Poor Things, and she absolutely ran with a strange yet powerful character in Bella Baxter.  She'd be my clear favorite if Lily Gladstone didn't do such a superb job carrying the heft of Killers of the Flower Moon.  Her Mollie Burkhart had to be strong, vulnerable, feisty, compliant, maintain her dignity while being abased by the racist system put up around her existence, and she was believable and compelling through all happiness and suffering.  I hope this opens up more starring opportunities for her, because she's the real deal.

Aside from those two, it was kind of a weak year.  Sandra Hüller was great in Anatomy of a Fall, but her reserved performance as a very German writer was not going to overcome the star turns of Gladstone and Stone. Carey Mulligan really shouldn't have merited a nomination in a stronger year in this category, and Annette Bening was downright annoying in her portrayal as Diana Nyad, resulting in Nyad being a film I actually turned off midway through because it was not making me want to root for its protagonist.  Margot Robbie really was robbed by not getting a nomination out of her portrayal of Barbie with competition like that.

Best Supporting Actor

This was another close race for me between Killers of the Flower Moon's Robert De Niro and Oppenheimer's Robert Downey Jr.  In the end, I went with Downey's slightly more nuanced Lewis Strauss than De Niro's King Hale given that Hale was such a one sided role, a villain from beginning to end, but without the overwhelming menace that some villains have brought to the Best Supporting Actor category, like Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh.  As Strauss, Downey got to play the neutral collaborator recruiting Oppenheimer to Princeton, the villain orchestrating Oppenheimer's downfall, and the embarrassed victim of his own comeuppance as a failed Cabinet nominee.  I won't be surprised or upset if De Niro sneaks out a win though.

Of the other nominees, Mark Ruffalo was appropriately pitiful as the rakish lawyer who fell powerless to Emma Stone's charms in Poor Things and Sterling K. Brown did a great job as Jeffrey Wright's brother and frequent source of family drama.  Ryan Gosling also did fine as Barbie's Ken, but should probably be satisfied with the nomination.

Best Supporting Actress

This makes three close races for me, and this was probably the most even.  Emily Blunt held her own acting opposite Cillian Murphy and really shone a light on the strength of Kitty Oppenheimer in her excellent hearing scenes.  Da'Vine Joy Randolph was excellent herself, having been given a role that had both wit and pathos as grieving mother/cafeteria manager Mary Lamb in The Holdovers.  I like both of their performances very much, to the point that I was going back and forth between them even while typing this paragraph.  But when in doubt, go with the meatier role, and given that, Randolph must receive the deserved nod.  I won't be disappointed if Blunt pulls the upset, though.

Of the others, I did not get the chance to see Danielle Brooks in The Color Purple.  America Ferrera was perfectly good in Barbie, but I wonder if some of the buzz she received was over how much people liked her character's speech about the difficulties of being [an American middle class] woman. Jodie Foster was fine as Bonnie Stoll, Diana Nyad's coach, but was somewhat handicapped playing the understated role opposite Annette Bening.

Best Production Design

This one was not close for me.  The team behind designing and decorating the world of Poor Things created an interesting world that was almost its own character in the film. In every single scene, you know what movie you're watching.  The other nominees did great jobs too, and I hesitate to name a runner-up from among them because it's difficult to separate them.

Best Cinematography

A category filled with strong performances (though I have not seen El Conde yet), this has to go to Hoyte van Hoytema for his incredible work shooting Oppenheimer.  I mean look at the challenges he had to take on. He had to shoot large amounts of the film in both color and black and white. He had significant dark internal scenes as well as shooting the desert surrounding Los Alamos. And he had to film all of the practical effects Nolan used in recreating the atomic bomb blast.  Hoyte met all these challenges and produced an absolutely beautiful film.

Best Original Screenplay

This was, frankly, not the most exciting category this year.  It's not that the nominees weren't deserving (note: I have not watched May December as of this writing), it's that none of them really made big pushes to stand out compared to each other or to previous winners.  I mean, when you look at the unbridled creativity of Everything Everywhere All at Once or the deeply personal story of Belfast, the two most recent winners, these were films based on scripts that really separated themselves.  Very much less so this year, where I could easily see Anatomy of a Fall, The Holdovers, or Past Lives each winning this category.  I think I would put Anatomy of a Fall just past the other two, but honestly, I'd be just as fine with a (two-way or three-way) tie here.  For me, Anatomy gets the bump over the other two because the twists of the murder trial have to be considered, and while the film did not make me want to ever be in court in France, it did make for a compelling story.

Best Adapted Screenplay

It's easy to winnow down this category, at least at first.  Barbie was nominated "based on characters created by Ruth Handler", meaning the dolls themselves.  Considering the dolls came with nothing like the story told in Barbie, I'm not buying it as an "adapted" screenplay.  Similarly, The Zone of Interest took the setting of Auschwitz and jettisoned the entirety of the novel's story, so it gets no credit here as "adapting" the book.

That leaves three very interesting films that populated my top three Best Picture picks.  There are substantial differences between the three films and the books they adapted, but each are understandable.  Poor Things simplified the story somewhat to allow for a palatable ending.  Oppenheimer adds to its source material with dramatization of Lewis Strauss's confirmation hearing to drive the nested recollections, which allows the film to toy with unreliable narrators.  American Fiction simplifies the structure of the novel on which it's based, Erasure, and replaces the direct questioning of the reader's perspective with a more traditional narrative.  I'd be happy with any of these three screenplays winning, but for me the winner is American Fiction, which manages to be clever, funny, poignant, and so many other things in its layered approach, complete with highly relatable, likeable characters.

Best Animated Feature

I barely qualified to have an opinion on this category, as I missed both The Boy and the Heron and Robot Dreams when they were in the theaters and both of them annoyingly are not available via home video or streaming.  That only leaves three films to choose from, and that's my bare minimum per category.

Of these, I'm not terribly excited about nominating any of them.  They were all entertaining and had great elements to them. Elemental was a heartfelt story (what else would you expect from Pixar?) that was held back a bit by how much they stretched the immigrant analogy at times, as well as falling back on developing stereotypes for their elements (the water beings cry easily, the fire beings are easily angered). Nimona was sharply animated and told a good story, but the actual point of the story wasn't revealed until nearly the end of the film, a zigzag that was clever, yet kind of made me wish I'd had the chance to watch the film from the beginning with that new perspective. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is just as strong narratively and visually as its predecessor, as both make you wonder why live action superhero films can't be this cool, but has the small problem of ending on a cliffhanger.  

That cliffhanger element really had me hung up on whether or not to give it my Oscar vote, but then I realized that this middle film of the trilogy is really the story of Gwen, and by focusing on her as the protagonist, actually provides a complete story arc and narrative.  The fact that this leads into resolving Miles Morales's longer character arc is fine, and hopefully that third movie will be just as great. So my Best Animated Feature is Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

Best Live Action Short Film

First, let me just state that this year was a first in that I chose not to review the Animated Short Films to make my pick there.  None of them are available in video or streaming form, and after watching their trailers, I didn't really feel like dragging myself into the city to watch them.  The Live Action Short Films, though, are all available via various streaming services, and they're mostly quite good.

The one exception is Invincible, a rather run of the mill story of a troubled teen that doesn't bother to make the troubled teen likeable whatsoever.  In contrast, Knight of Fortune is a heartfelt and funny story regarding grief and our need to share it, even if we want to bottle it up. Grief is also the subject of The After, which provides a brilliant performance by David Oyelowo as a father struggling to move on from the loss of his family to a tragic event. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is a wonderful adaptation of the Roald Dahl short story, told by an all-star cast in a way that only Wes Anderson could write and direct.

I was struggling to decide between those last two films when I watched Red, White and Blue and realized it was a non-issue.  Red, White and Blue is a powerful short film that highlights the inhumane implications of current abortion bans in some US states.  It's when the key twist of the film is sprung near the end of the film that you experience the gut punch the movie has been setting you up for all along. It's incredibly well done and is easily my pick as the best live action short film for this year.

Best Visual Effects

I wanted to catch The Creator before making this pick and failed to, which is okay because I never pick this in agreement with the Academy so if it's the winner, my hearty congratulations to their team.  Of the films I did see, I have to give this to Godzilla Minus One, which did an incredible job bridging the rubber suit days of yore with the CGI monsters of today in a way that was still compelling.  The film has many dramatic scenes set among the carnage of Godzilla's rampage, and the film does a great job making it feel real but in a way that doesn't distract from the character work of the actors and director. It's also helped by the fact that I didn't really like any of the other three nominees in this category I've seen as films, which makes it harder to appreciate their technical craft when I didn't enjoy their art.

I'm ready for the Academy to disagree with me, and that's fine.  I'll keep making my own picks and calling them wrong until I learn how to agree with them, or they with me.

Best Original Score

I came really close to giving my vote to the late, great Robbie Robertson for his score to Killers of the Flower Moon, and won't be upset if it wins. But for me, the score that really stands out, both dramatically and musically, is Ludwig Göransson for his score for Oppenheimer. To me, the measure of a score is whether or not I can listen to it by itself and have it still call up the same feelings as when it was accompanied by visuals.  It's already won at both the Golden Globe and Grammy Awards, and I don't expect anything different on Oscar night. It's amazing to realize this was the work of the same man who won all the accolades for Black Panther as well.  Ludwig Göransson does not limit himself to one narrow style.

Best Original Song

Let's not even pretend this is a contest. "What Was I Made For?" has been in heavy rotation for me ever since I first heard it.  Not only does it play an integral role in Barbie, where it powers a pivotal scene beautifully, it's also an incredible song in and of itself, one that can reach people not only with the message of the film but also with the meaning that the listener themself brings to the experience.  Billie Eilish and Finneas O'Connell winning their second Oscar at such a young age is remarkable.  One wonders how many statuettes they'll be able to amass before all is said and done.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

2023 Best Picture Rankings

It's hard to believe I've been doing these rankings for over a decade.  Wow I'm getting old! After viewing all the Best Picture nominees, I rank them based on my assessment of their worthiness for the Best Picture award. Note that this is not a prediction of who will win, but rather a statement of how I would vote if I could and how I'd rank the also-rans. Every year is a little different in terms of the collective quality of the films. Sometimes there's a battle royale of multiple highly deserving works, and those are the best years (think Boyhood and Birdman in 2014). Sometimes there's a wide swath of worthy films, but no clear standouts that are going to live in our collective memory forever (think 2015, when Spotlight captured Best Picture but isn't mentioned much today, but neither are any of its major competition). 

This year, there were three films that obviously stood out, two that I maintain shouldn't have been nominated, and five that are all worthy films that didn't quite hit the same heights as the top three and were (as usual) the hardest to rank. Here we go. 

10. Maestro

The problem with Maestro is that it doesn't have a story.  It is instead a two hour long character study, which is more length than any character study ever really needs to be.

Bradley Cooper wrote, directed, and starred in it, and while I guess he wanted everyone to marvel at how well he got down Leonard Bernstein's vocal and physical quirks, he might have considered giving his character (and the others that populate this chic, privileged world) something to actually do throughout the runtime.  Instead, his characters do two things: (1) they talk about either (a) nothing whatsoever or (b) events that the movie should have actually shown; and (2) they smoke. 

And boy, do they smoke.  Every single scene features at least one prominent character lighting up or pausing the dialogue to take an exaggerated, dramatic drag.  It is easily the most fetishistic ad for the tobacco industry I've ever witnessed.  

This is pretty much how the characters look in every single scene.  I'm guessing RJR Reynolds backed the film.
The film hints at a couple of storylines that it could have potentially followed to have real content, but it fails to pay off on either.  The first is the various directions Bernstein was pulled in his musical interests.  The film has dialogue that asks a couple times whether Bernstein is a composer, a conductor, a musician, or something else, but it never actually portrays the fact that he's doing multiple things as really interfering in anything he does -- he just simply does it all marvelously.  There is no dramatic tension.  There is no journey the character goes on to allow himself to succeed in all the things he wants to accomplish.  He just does them.  Yay, isn't that great?

The other failed potential storyline is about his sexuality and the strain it could put on his life, his career, and/or his family.  He is out as much as someone could be in his era.  One early scene has him on a Manhattan street proclaiming to a baby that he's slept with each of its parents, for example.  Yet there are a couple of times when there are worries of rumors somehow interfering with the family or with Bernstein's work, though these concerns are never paid off.  Early in the film, Carey Mulligan's Felicia Montealegre Bernstein gamely volunteers to give letting Leonard continue to sleep with her as well as a wide assortment of men.  This doesn't appear to be a problem for years until she decides it's a problem, they have a fight (more on that in a moment), they separate, and then they reconcile, with absolutely nothing changing.

The fight I refer to is a great example of how this movie doesn't know how to tell a story.  During it, Felicia starts to list wrongs that she's been subjected to by Bernstein.  Did we actually see any of these take place?  No, it continues the awful practice this movie establishes of telling, not showing.  It is as if the visuals of the film are reserved only for Cooper's aping mannerisms and the unending onslaught of wisps of smoke.

There's just so much about this movie that screams of amateurism, and I'm really puzzled how it was nominated.  The film uses a number of old time cinematography tricks that are reminiscent of the times during which the scenes shown would have happened, but they're used in odd ways.  An overhead tracking shot is used early in the film to follow Bernstein as he walks from his upstairs studio apartment to the symphony hall he works at (and lives above).  It would have been a great reveal showing how closely he kept to his music if the movie didn't move on from him living there almost immediately.  Similarly, there's a dramatic push in that coincides with lighting going up when Mulligan's character first steps off a bus into the movie.  This dramatic shot is followed by her walking a block to get to the party she's going to.  Had the film instead used that trick to show when Bernstein first spies Montealegre, that would make more sense.  Instead, it reads as if a first time director was finding new toys to play with and unsure of how to use them.

According to Vanity Fair, this shot took four years to get right.  If only the same care had been taken to make the film worthwhile.
There is nothing about this film that is worth watching if you don't have a smoking fetish or are such a Leonard Bernstein groupie that you want to spend a couple hours pretending he's still alive.  If you want to watch a truly remarkable film that explores the selfish choices one has to make to be a top conductor featuring a queer lead, do yourself a favor and watch (or rewatch) Cate Blanchett star in 2022's Tár, because that film was truly powerful and very much deserving of its Best Picture nomination.

9. The Zone of Interest

Who thought this was a good idea?  Seriously, who in their right mind thinks this is a good way to make entertainment?  I am not sure if I could feel more unclean than I did immediately after finishing the film if I'd tried.

Based on a book that explores a romantic triangle among Nazis at Auschwitz, the film jettisons the entire plot of the book and instead follows the career and family life of Auschwitz designer and commandant Rudolf Hoss (technically his name has an umlaut in it, but fuck that guy -- he does not merit punctuation) through its mundanity instead.  The film shows him worrying about office politics, serving as his concentration camp's one-man home owners association, interacting with his kids, and being put upon by his demanding wife, all with the horrors of the concentration camp in the background.  It is not a very interesting story, outside of the fact that you're hearing and seeing the signs of hundreds or thousands of people dying the entire time you're watching it.

If Jonathan Glazer had wanted to be clever about showing a film with a concentration camp filling both the visual and auditory background, he might have instead put the focus of the film on someone from the nearby town, showing how the populace near these camps often willingly deluded themselves about what was going on just down the road.  Then the film might feel like it had something of substance to say -- how people talk themselves into accepting evil as a bid to maintain their normal.  But The Zone of Interest doesn't do that.  There is no understanding an evil psychopath like Hoss, who even at a fancy Nazi black tie party he looks at the room packed with partygoers thinking about how he'd gas them.  There is no sympathizing with a wife who reminds her slave laborers that all she has to do is ask her husband to have them turned to ash.  There is no doting on a child who literally plays with the teeth of murdered people when he goes to bed at night.  These are not people worth even trying to understand.

The only character that has any hope of providing insight into how a normal human being could accept such evil is Hoss's mother-in-law, a woman who idly wonders if the woman she'd been a maid for might be in the camp, smugly glad of the reversal of their fortunes and wishing she'd won the auction of her former employer's stuff, but who became too disgusted by what was happening at the camp to remain.  An exploration of her psychology and thought process might be enlightening about how modern racists let themselves think that others deserve suffering.  But she's only a momentary part of the film.

She doesn't look like it, but she's the only German with some semblance of a conscience in the entire film.
It's clear Glazer wants his work to be profound, and there are little things done that in a better thought-out film would stand out.  Glazer shows a local girl who gathers fallen apples at night and leaves them where slave labor from the camp will find them as a photonegative ghost, her goodness and care an exact opposite of the evil of the Hosses.  At the end of the film, the camera jumps away from a suddenly ill Hoss to modern day staff taking care of the museum that Auschwitz was turned into, a distinct reminder that we remember his victims far more than we remember him.  And few things are as chilling as watching Hoss read to his kids the part of the story where Gretel rescues Hansel by shoving the witch into her own oven.  But these are minute jewels hidden in a morass of ugliness.

If only the film had lived up to the use of this mechanism, because it's somewhat profound.
I cannot recommend The Zone of Truth even for viewing.  Sadly, it's still a better Best Picture candidate than Maestro.

8. Barbie

I can't help but feel expectations had a lot to do with reactions to Barbie.  Had I seen this fresh as it was coming out, I think I would have been more impressed that Greta Gerwig took what was essentially meant to be a two hour ad for Barbie dolls and turned it into something much more subversive.  But since I came in after hearing for months about how incredible and brilliant it is, I was disappointed to find a clever but not quite brilliant film instead.

I thought the aims of the film were noble and creative, but the execution of it managed to undershoot those goals. It was made as a family friendly movie, which is perfectly fine, but in the end, that made it pretty toothless, which is disappointing for a film nominated for Best Picture.

Nowhere is that toothlessness more apparent than Barbie's time in the real world, where she finds out that women aren't in charge at all in her own manufacturer and gets (mildly, compared to what I've seen in reality) catcalled and briefly groped.  Those are bad obviously, but there's so many worse things that Barbie could have witnessed or experienced.  In fact, I found myself thinking that the movie should have sent Issa Rae's President Barbie into the real world since she'd experience things pert blonde Margot Robbie Barbie would never see.  And since the film has decided that "the real world" is only the US (in fact, just LA), there's a whole host of horrors put on women that Barbie is spared knowing about.  An opportunity to hold up a mirror to a world that severely mistreats half its population was sitting right there, and the film opted to go the family friendly route.  Commercially sound decision, but I'm not sure it was the artistically correct or brave thing to do.

Not to say that the satire and societal commentary was awful, just that it could have done more.  I did like the fact that the film acknowledges it had built Barbieland as an exaggerated reflection of the patriarchy, with the final victorious Barbies pledging to fix their society and address the issues the Kens had, but only to a point where it didn't threaten their privilege, something we see the well-meaning privileged of our world do all too often ("let's be equal, but not too equal, right?").  I was reassured when the narrator spoke up that the film did recognize this and it wasn't just their blind view of a happy ending.

Structurally, the film was a bit messy.  The rules of what Barbie and the other dolls would know and understand about the real world seemed highly inconsistent and ruled by the needs of the plot. The "real world" of the movie bounces randomly between family film reality (such as any scene featuring Sasha) and outright farce (the scenes at Mattel, which seems to have gone for an aesthetic of "what if Willy Wonka's factory was outfitted by Herman Miller?").  It's less than two hours in runtime, but there were parts that felt like they could have been cut out to make a tighter movie.  

"At Herman Miller, we make office furniture you can pursue unruly staff through with zero risk!"
Ultimately, while I liked the movie overall, it's not a film great enough to deserve Hollywood's top honor.  Bottom line, any film that I spend appreciable amounts of attention during the first watch of it on reconfiguring it to fix issues is not Best Picture material for me.  

In terms of the performances, unfortunately, the plastic nature of the script doesn't give a lot of room for nuanced performances.  Margot Robbie pretty much gets the only opportunities and does her usual stellar job.  I could have seen her getting a nomination for Best Actress, but since I've not yet seen any of the performances that were actually nominated yet, I can't comment on whether it was really a snub.  I do not understand Ryan Gosling's nomination.  America Ferrera did a perfectly good job in this film, but since her role of Gloria wasn't given a lot of meatiness, it's difficult to figure out where she lands in the Supporting Actress Category.  It's so much easier when a role offers up all the juiciness of an Anita, a Sharon Rivers, a Rose Lee Maxson, or a Gerda Wegener.

America Ferrera is a fantastic actress. I just wish she had a meatier character.
One category I have little doubt about (despite not having experienced 60% of the nominees yet) is best song.  "What Was I Made For?" is so perfect -- wonderfully written, well utilized in the movie itself, and striking the emotional core of the entire film.  If there's any justice, Billie Eilish should be collecting her second Oscar at the young age of 22.

7. The Holdovers

The Holdovers is the latest in a lengthy list of films in which broken people find each other and, through various misadventures and disagreements, find within each other some degree of understanding, comfort, or help.  Hollywood loves making these stories, with results ranging from the much lauded (Good Will Hunting) to the highly regarded (The Breakfast Club) to the poorly received (Accepted).  The Holdovers is one of the more solid entries  to hit the list recently, with Paul Giamatti leading an able cast through a well constructed script.

Prep school classics teacher Paul Hunham is a classic Giamatti character archetype, and he does his usual stellar job in the role.  He's nominated for Best Actor much like he was for his other Alexander Payne film, Sideways.  While he does well, I don't think he's a realistic threat to Cillian Murphy's probable win. It's a shame that Giamatti wasn't even nominated for his brilliant turn as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, possibly his best work.

Someday Giamatti will be properly rewarded for always bringing his A game to every character he inhabits.
Da'Vine Joy Randolph skillfully navigates between the two sides of her character, Mary Lamb, the tough manager of the prep school's cafeteria and a grieving mother.  Best Supporting Actress is very much a varied mix of nominees, and she has as good a claim as anyone else to win the Oscar.

Dominic Sessa is the underrated third leg of the primary cast, playing a student in a role that allowed him to pull on his own prep school past.  He's reportedly at Carnegie Mellon studying drama currently, and I expect big things from his career based on this start.

Good character-driven movies need good character actors, and this film found them.
Director Alexander Payne knows how to effectively shoot clever, character-driven films like Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska, and The Holdovers is no different.  As with those other films, I don't see it winning Best Picture, but Payne has built a very impressive filmography along the way.

6. Killers of the Flower Moon

Because of the awful, pervasive hatred and greed driving the criminal plot behind Killers of the Flower Moon, it is a tough story to sit through, made all the more harrowing given it's recounting true events.  The depths of human depravity are no secret, yet still there are moments when new parts of history are opened up to the broader masses and we still somehow can be surprised by the evil that we can inflict on each other.

In this case, it's a conspiracy to kill of members of the Osage tribe to inherit their headrights, claims to the mineral rights payments provided to the tribe by the various oil companies drilling the oil from the Osage reservation land on which it was discovered.  It would be bad enough if this were just the atrocity of a simple hate crime like the contemporary Tulsa race massacre that is mentioned briefly in the film.  However, this conspiracy involves white men wheedling their way into native families to lay a legal claim to the headrights due their daughters, then dispatching them to complete the court-supported theft.  Sometimes the women were killed violently by their own husbands, sometimes by others; but many of the women instead suffered from measured poisoning meant to mimic a lengthy wasting disease, their suffering prolonged to ensure the murder was well hidden and abetted by the very doctors meant to care for them.  Many native men were killed in this fashion as well, either to shift their headrights claims to their female relatives before the sister, niece, or daughter was murdered, or because the killers had found a way to claim their headrights as well.

When it comes to suffering, Lily Gladstone embodies it well, and that could bring her a Best Actress statuette.
It is establishing this plot that Scorsese takes far too long to accomplish, as he lets it soak up the first half plus of the film, making it a slog at times to get through.  If it weren't paid off by a brilliant second half, it would have sunk quickly toward the bottom of my Best Picture rankings, resting just above Maestro.  However, that second half, when the pace of the plot picks up and then runs into a federal investigation into it, that Scorsese and the film hits its stride.  Stylistically, though, he is on top of his game.  Individual shots are gorgeous and meaningful.  Shadows and focus are used to provide depth to many scenes.  Even the use of a performed radio drama (based on a real life episode of the radio series G-Men) in lieu of the usual text epilogue describing the ultimate fates of all involved provides a unique element to the viewing experience.

Throughout, the film is gifted with terrific performances.  Lily Gladstone plays Mollie Burkhart, the central target in the marriage-and-murder conspiracy, brilliantly, as she shines when portraying Mollie's frustration in dealing with the racist elements of the racist infrastructure erected to "manage" the oil finances for (financially) "incompetent" natives, the cool, measured happiness of a woman being pursued by Leonardo DiCaprio's Ernest Burkhart, or the suffering and defiance of a native being slowly poisoned yet doing everything she can to protect herself and her family.  I've yet to see many of the nominated performances, but for now she's my early favorite for Best Actress.

DiCaprio's Ernest is strikingly complex, a rather simple minded man who struggles between supporting his uncle's greedy plot (including helping the attempts on his wife and her family) and protecting his wife, who he seems to truly love (as much as one can love someone while trying to kill them).   DiCaprio gives a decent amount of complexity and nuance to Ernest's actions, and I'm honestly kind of surprised he wasn't nominated for his efforts.

Robert De Niro earned his supporting nomination playing the mastermind behind the murder plot.  His rancher baron strives to be seen as a best friend to the natives and a patron of the town while plotting and ordering the demise of dozens.  Even when arrested, he continues to cajole the tribe leaders into believing he has always had their best interests at heart.  He is a type of villain familiar to all in this post-2016 world, and De Niro navigates the role brilliantly, bringing lots of menace without going over the top.

DiCaprio and De Niro both know how to play with intensity, and it flows well when they're on screen together.
Jesse Plemons gets a lot of screen time in the trailers for Killers of the Flower Moon, but appears decidedly less in the film itself.  The movie hits his sweet spot, as he plays the earnest, stoic agent sent by J. Edgar Hoover to investigate the Osage murders.  It's a familiar role for him, and he and his band of agents and police strike a neat counterbalance to the small army of conspirators they attempt to bring to justice.

Overall, Killers of the Flower Moon is an exceptional if flawed film. It is not peak Scorsese, and he still would benefit from a critical eye to rein in his excesses during shooting, but it certainly represents him better than The Irishman did.

5. Anatomy of a Fall

It was clear from the end of the opening sequence that the direction of Anatomy of a Fall was the driving force in the film's Best Picture nomination, as the camera follows a guide dog through the bustle of a house suddenly filled with people handling the aftermath of a sudden death (due to the fall mentioned in the title) until the dog settles, staring at a photo of the fall's victim during a happier moment.  Thankfully, this conceit of the filmmaker is used sparingly, which allows her to flex her craft rather than serving as a storytelling crutch.

Oh yeah, we know who the real star of this picture is.
The rest of the film is a legal drama following the man's widow as she maneuvers the French legal system while the authorities investigate and then put her on trial for his murder.  It also follows her visually impaired son, who is the star witness in his mother's trial for the murder of his father.  The film's third main character is the French criminal justice system, which, as an American, seems kind of fucked up.

The past film that Anatomy of a Fall immediately brought to mind was Reversal of Fortune, but there are clear differences.  While Reversal followed the building of a defense for a hugely unlikable accused, the accused in Anatomy is far more likable, at least due to the fact that the proceedings are stacked against her.  The prosecution presents rampant speculation, is allowed to imply things about the defendant without any actual evidence of it, submits feelings of witnesses as evidence, and discusses philosophy as a grounds for their case.  I don't know if this bears any resemblance to France's actual standard of justice, but if it does, remind me never to live there.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, as our defense, we point you to Book IX of Plato's Republic."
Overall, it's a taut legal drama that keeps things sufficiently ambiguous even to the end.  My one complaint is that it has an overlong running time.  It's not altogether clear that the film couldn't have been tightened up just a bit.  Fortunately, you don't feel the runtime very often, a credit to the director's skill.

4. Past Lives

While most nominees are noteworthy in their subject matter, telling an important story, or are innovative, unveiling a new filmmaking technique or using an established one in new ways, or is the latest oeuvre of a top director, there seems to always be at least one nominee that is simply a mundane story told perfectly.  This year, that nominee is Past Lives.

An at least somewhat autobiographical story by newcomer Celine Song, Past Lives explores the penchant for delving into the what ifs that everyone to some extent thinks through, especially when lonely, as well as what happens when those what ifs run up against the what actually was.

The primary point of view character is Nora Moon, who (like the director) emigrates to Canada as a 12 year old from her native Korea, then finds herself (like the director) in New York trying to make it big as a playwright while (like the director) meeting and marrying another writer.  Nora is the center point of the film, but surprisingly not the emotional center.  Instead, the emotional heft of most of the runtime is carried by Hae Sung, the boy who went on one date with the soon-to-be-leaving-the-country Nora who grows up to be a man who wishes to reconnect, and Arthur, the fore-mentioned other writer.

Greta Lee's performance could have justifiably been nominated for Best Actress.  I'd happily give her Carey Mulligan's spot.
It is these other two main characters that sucked me fully into the film, because I am Hae Sung.  And I am Arthur.  Often at the same time.  Hae Sung's wistfulness regarding lost opportunities while maintaining respect for reality and Arthur's openness of heart yet self-doubt about his own place in relationships both ring loudly and true.  I do not have the experience of Nora Moon, but I can imagine many will see a part of themselves in her as she's pulled between the what could have been and the what is.

"Hi, I'm her destined soulmate." "Hi, I'm her husband she loves very much."
I could easily see another filmmaker taking this plot and turning it into teeth gnashing and over the top drama ripe for the Hallmark Channel.  The fact that Song approaches this with nuance and restraint is why it was nominated for Best Picture.  It's a truly beautiful film that uses its silent moments and sly looks well.  It's an affecting film to watch on the eve of the annual holiday devoted to coupling.

3. Poor Things

It's a shame that Poor Things came out the same year as Barbie, because it really crystalizes how toothless Barbie is in comparison.  This film, in which a woman with a Frankenstein's monster-esque origin finds her way in the world, addresses many of the worst aspects of how male-dominated society treats its women in a direct, unblinking manner.

Emma Stone plays the aforementioned Bella Baxter, with the great Willem Dafoe as her creator/paternal figure, Godwin Baxter.  The filmmakers who decided it was a good idea to pair two of the actors most willing to go mentally just about anywhere for their characters deserve an award of some kind, because it's a brilliant combination.  During the runtime of the film, Stone takes Bella from the creepiness of a woman with (literally) a child's brain to a grown up, sophisticated woman of the world, and the journey is riveting.  Dafoe's Godwin starts out as a stereotypical mad scientist, but he peels back the layers of the character little by little to reveal a fully realized human being shaped by the horrors of his childhood treatment at the hands of his mad scientist father.  They both have the tendency to steal every scene they're in, which means whenever they're together on screen, magic happens.

Seriously, what an amazing combination.
Bella's adventures and development as a person occur despite the attempts of the various men in her life to control her at all times.  She begins life with Godwin and -- eventually -- Godwin's new assistant Max McCandles constantly constraining her behavior and actions, primarily out of concern for her safety.  When she eventually escapes that existence, the next man in her life (Mark Ruffalo's Duncan Wedderburn) tries to control what she says and what she does, threatening her and literally kidnapping her to try to make her conform to his expectations.  When she meets the man around whom her body's previous owner was tied to, he takes the threats and attempts to subjugate her even further.  During her period living on her own as a Parisian prostitute, the men she meets have little interest in what she enjoys or desires, instead immediately jumping to what their own desires call for.  Other men (and some women) she comes across in her journeys likewise try to enforce their world view on her, finding her to be too happy, too independent, too sexual for their liking.  Yet through it all, Bella just continues to become more powerful within herself, more self-assured, more certain.

That independence is primarily expressed through ownership of her own body.  The film spends a lot of its time on Bella's sexual explorations (the movie no doubt kept its intimacy coordinator busy), but this is expressed in other ways.  Bella is forced to go places at the decision of the men she's with many times early in the film, sometimes after being sedated or otherwise forcefully moved, but this happens less and less as she develops into a fully expressed woman, with Bella deciding what she wants to do and then doing it.  Similarly, it's no coincidence that when the men in her life dress her, she typically is made to look like a doll of some dressed in outlandish shapes and colors.  However, when she dresses herself, she leans toward more sedate, practical garb.  The clothing becomes the ultimate expression first of the men's desire for her to be infantilized and then later of her freedom.

As wonderful as the film is (and it's truly wonderful, not only in message but also its cinematographic beauty as well as the number of times it is laugh out loud funny), there are things to nitpick.  Probably most important is the fact that while they make Ramy Youssef's Max the lone male character (other than Godwin) to fully respect Bella's independence, they fall just short in making him an ideal partner for her, instead leaving him forever the doting assistant.  Also, the film can be fairly criticized for unnecessarily going for an odd steam punk look for the world Bella inhabits, complete with steam-powered horseless carriages, sky ships, and funky steamships.  They're unneeded affectations of a film that could have don just fine without them.  

The steam punk trappings do make for gorgeous scenery, but the story itself would have worked just fine in an environment grounded in reality.
Fortunately, these blemishes don't distract from the message or enjoyment of the film.   It doesn't quite hit the same heights as a couple of its competitors in the Best Picture category, but Poor Things really should be experienced and enjoyed as the well-crafted piece of art that it is.

2. American Fiction

American Fiction
is one of those films that is highly enjoyable, but as you spend more time thinking after watching it, the more you like it, the brilliance of the film making itself more and more apparent as you probe your experience.  What is at first a straightforward plot with a clever twist keeps showing its layers, and I love that.

The great Jeffrey Wright plays Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, a frustrated novelist and literature professor who has become increasingly disenchanted with his writing career, his students, and his life in general.  His books are (largely) respected, but they don't sell well, to the point where he's started hitting a wall trying to get his work published.  At the same time, he's frustrated with how America eats up work that glorifies the more degrading aspects of the black experience, which builds on his disdain of white liberal guilt behavior in general. In the meantime, he has to deal with no shortage of personal dramas, as his family is beset by one crisis after another.  As a bit of catharsis, he writes a satire of the nouveau blaxploitation fad, but the film's main selling point hits as no one gets the joke and the book not only sells, but becomes a popular and critical hit, no matter how much he tries to sabotage it.

This photo hints at three of those personal crises.
At first blush, the film seems as subtle as an Adam McKay movie in its messaging, as it hammers home white liberal trope after white liberal trope, highlighting a world filled with white people who are all too happy to be voyeurs on the most base aspects of black existence rather than address the rest of the black experience. During these moments, the film underscores a racial reality in which there is a white world and a black world, and the white world only wants to perceive the black world through very particular lenses.  The movie presents these moments in ways that are both hilarious and upsetting, with the stoic Wright always there to provide the obligatory disappointing look on his face. 

Lesson from the film: want to make a white person accept your black authenticity as an author?  Show up to lunch looking like you can't afford a suit.
But then you take a step back and realize that those scenes are almost just act breaks dividing up a well-written, supremely well-acted drama of a man dealing with real life issues.  During a conversation with one of those writers whose books surged in popularity due to pandering to stereotypes, Monk says, "we're more than just this," and the movie proves it by actually embodying the full human experience of a black man, not just the purely racial parts. It's clever and subtle construction, and it's why the more distance I've had from the in-the-moment viewing experience, the more it shines. It's only at the end of the film, which has some real connective ties to the way Greta Gerwig ended her interpretation of Little Women, that those two aspects -- the satire and the family drama -- really meet, Monk nodding to an actor dressed as a slave while getting into a car with his brother to no doubt address the next part of his mundane life.

1. Oppenheimer

I'm not sure I even need to say much about Oppenheimer to justify its place atop my list.  It's a biopic telling a layered story about the man who led the creation of the world's most terrifying weapon (to date), as well as the man who destroyed him, and somehow this was one of the films that saved the movie business in 2023, ending the year as the number 3 box office draw worldwide with a take just shy of a billion dollars.  The rest of the top 10 features four franchise films, two toy tie-ins, two films that are either a remake or a prequel to a childhood favorite, and an animated family film.  Oppenheimer does not look like a modern blockbuster, but it succeeded by telling an important story incredibly well, which makes it exactly fit the standard model of a Best Picture winner.

You can see where Christopher Nolan trained for the making of Oppenheimer through his filmography to date.  Elements of his style, from eschewing CGI in favor of practical effects to the greatest extent possible to surprise casting of major names in minor roles.  The movie is a testament to the reach within Hollywood of its director, as star after star appears on screen in roles both significant and momentary. Gary Oldman in particular does more with his brief time on screen than anyone has the right to do.

Can a biopic make it to the Oscars without Gary Oldman in makeup somewhere in it?
As always, the structure of the film is not simple and linear, as most of the story is told as testimony within a hearing that is actually a flashback providing background for yet another hearing. But Nolan has trained audiences with his prior films, and so Oppenheimer  seems almost quaintly straightforward in its structure.  Along the way paints a highly complex portrait of the genius who led the Manhattan Project and then had to deal with the knowledge he helped unleash a new age of weapons on the planet.

The cast is deep, strong, and talented, and they play off each other incredibly well.  Cillian Murphy has almost assuredly earned himself a Best Actor statuette. Robert Downey Jr. plays his part as the villain somewhat skulking in the background to the hilt.  Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, and Matt Damon all do wonders with the meaty supporting roles they’re given.

Florence Pugh in particular went all in with her portrayal of an unbalanced paramour of Oppenheimer.
There's a possibility that Academy voters will have grown tired of honoring Oppenheimer through all the other awards its raked in, and if so, I would not be upset if American Fiction or Poor Things received the honor, but really, this feels very much like a one horse race.  And hopefully it will bring with it a Best Director award for Nolan, who's been making excellent films for decades and always coming up short.  This could (and should) finally be his year.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

2023 Oscar Picks

 Every year, I pick my winners among categories where I've seen the majority of nominees.  These reflect only who I'd vote to give the Oscar to if I could, and not an attempt to predict who will win (though I may talk a little bit about predictions as well).  In the past my picks sometimes coincided with the Academy's selections, but they can easily diverge.  Last year, my picks matched the Academy's in only 6 of 15 categories.  In other words, they got a lot of things wrong.

If you read my Best Picture rankings, you'll know I didn't think much of the depth of filmmaking in 2022.  I was happy to see this be the year of the woman, though, as more Best Actress nominees came from Best Picture nominees than Best Actor (it's usually the opposite).  Overall, I'll have more gaps in the films I've seen than usual, so please bear with me.

Best Picture

If you read my Best Picture rankings, you know this is Everything Everywhere All at Once.  I can't stop talking about how original and how heartfelt it is.  An absolutely stellar job was done by all associated with this film.

Best Director

I have to give this to the Daniels.  They kept Everything Everywhere All at Once moving at all times and elicited wonderful performances from its cast.  Steven Spielberg and Martin McDonagh both did wonderful jobs as well, but I think the pair of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert takes this one for me.

Best Actor

I've not seen Brendan Fraser in The Whale, so while he has received boundless praise and accolades.  I would give my award to Austin Butler, who did a very good job with the little he's given in Elvis, with Colin Farrell my backup choice for The Banshees of Inisherin.

Best Actress

Incredibly strong category this year.  I've not seen Andrea Riseborough's performance, but the other four were stellar.  Ana de Armas is literally the only good thing about Blonde.  Michelle Williams was her usual talented self in The Fabelmans.  In another year, I'd give Cate Blanchett the nod for her very controlled performance as Lydia Tár, but this year is really Michelle Yeoh's year, as she portrayed so many dimensions (literally) as Evelyn Quan Wang.

Best Supporting Actor

The Supporting categories are a little weak this year.  I've not seen Brian Tyree Henry's work, but from the others, I'm pointing at Ke Huy Quan, who is simultaneously a well-meaning dad and long-suffering husband, a dashing secret agent, and a romantic lead.  He is the ultimate supporting actor, driving the plot forward for Michelle Yeoh's character.

Best Supporting Actress

I'm not a huge proponent of any of the nominees (I have not seen Hong Chau's performance in The Whale).  I'm constantly miffed that Angela Bassett was nominated over the much superior work of Viola Davis in The Woman King (Ms. Davis could have been nominated for either category for that role, but since she won Best Supporting for her much meatier role in Fences, I'll put her here).  I can see Stephanie Hsu winning for her performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once (or potentially Jamie Lee Curtis in a less power-packed role in the same film), but I think I'll give my vote to Kerry Condon, Colin Farrell's often frustrated sister in The Banshees of Inisherin.

Best Original Screenplay

I almost want to give this to Martin McDonagh for The Banshees of Inisherin, but Everything Everywhere All at Once was so imaginative that I think I have to give the nod to Daniels Kwan and Scheinert.

Best Adapted Screenplay

As a rule I discount nominations based on prior film franchise entries or on prior versions of the movie, so this is really a two-horse race for me.  I settled on All Quiet on the Western Front, where the screenwriters did a marvelous job capturing the novel's themes in a script that felt modern and moved things forward with consistency without inserting anachronism into a World War I tale.

Best Animated Feature Film

There was not a dominant nominee this year.  Marcel the Shell with Shoes On was difficult to sit through, so it comes in last in my rankings.  Puss in Boots: The Last Wish was incredibly well done but not really Oscar memorable.  Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio is memorable and well done, but I took issue with some of its structure.  I was pleasantly surprised by The Sea Beast, which was much stronger than I'd expected.  But my winner is Turning Red, which did a wonderful job capturing teenage angst and cultural pressures in an animated form.  Plus those cooking scenes were animated masterpieces.

Best Animated Short Film

An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It was very imaginative and told a complete story.  My second place slot is filled with a tie between The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, a great adaptation of children's literature, and Ice Merchants, which told a beautiful story of a father and son dealing with loss.

Best Live Action Short Film

I didn't get to see An Irish Goodbye and The Red Suitcase because they're not on streaming (fix this please, Hollywood), and I suspect The Red Suitcase will win based on what I've heard.  However, of the three nominees I did see, I'd go with Ivalu, which told a beautiful, tragic story of a native Greenland girl searching for her sister.  It will make you cry and hit something at the same time.

Best Original Score

It's difficult to go against John Williams, especially in his next to last film, but Volker Bertelmann's score for All Quiet on the Western Front stays with you.  It is not just musical accompaniment, it's a sound landscape matching the visuals on the screen.  It's the kind of score you can listen to separately from the film and still feel the same visceral sensations.

Best Original Song

If there's any justice, "Naatu Naatu", the only song to actually have a role in its movie, should win for the criminally undernominated RRR.  However, if the Academy poo-poos that distinction and wants a more Grammy-esque award, I'd look to "This is a Life", the lovely work from Ryan Lott, David Byrne, and Mitski.

Best Production Design

I think you have to give this to All Quiet on the Western Front for its amazing recreation of the World War I battlefield.

Best Cinematography

Having not seen Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths or Empire of Light, I'm at a bit of a disadvantage.  However, the staging of All Quiet on the Western Front, the subtle zoom in shots used throughout, and the incredible tracking shots during action sequences wins this category for me.

Best Visual Effects

It's easy to go the Avatar direction, but I did not see the movie (and now never have to), so I will look instead at the other nominees.  The Batman was my early favorite for this, as it served up some amazing shots.  But then Top Gun: Maverick was nominated, and I'm partly giving it my vote for its incredible visual effects work and partly in protest that its stunning cinematography didn't get a nomination of its own.  Perhaps that's because the nominating groups assumed that the incredibly practical shots it captured were actually visual effects, and if so, I'll reward the film for it here.