Sunday, March 27, 2022

2022 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 10 of 15 categories.

Last year was strange and this past year still didn't see the film industry recover.  How else do you explain a Best Picture slate that didn't feature a single Best Actress nominated performance?  I did at least do my Best Picture rankings, as opposed to last year when the slate was a little too weak to warrant commenting on every film.  However, due to a number of factors, this list will be a bit odd this year, which I'll explain along the way.  Let's get to it.

Best Picture


If you read my Best Picture rankings, you know that I went with The Power of the Dog.  Of the nominees, it was the least flawed, with strong performances, good direction, and beautiful cinematography.  It would not win against most prior Best Picture winners, but this is not an ordinary year.

Best Director


This is a tough one, because all of the directors did wonderful jobs.  Kenneth Branagh showed his mastery of craft in Belfast.  Ryusuke Hamaguchi made three hours of driving and talking compelling.  Paul Thomas Anderson made a technically wonderful movie of a very problematic script.  And Steven Spielberg Steven Spielberged all over West Side Story.  But my choice here is Jane Campion for adapting The Power of the Dog.  Her choices were spot on, and she made a fantastic film with few blemishes.

Best Actor


I think it's easy to exclude Javier Bardem and Denzel Washington because neither performance was their career best.  I've heard rumblings for Will Smith, and while he was fantastic, it was a bit of a layup given Richard Williams was written as the Will Smithiest of Will Smith roles.  Benedict Cumberbatch was excellent as Phil Burbank, part bully, part manly cowboy, part scared/scarred child.  But my statue would go to Andrew Garfield, who did it all in Tick, Tick... Boom!  He sang, he made us laugh, he made us cry, he showed us wonder.  It was truly a great performance and not just handing an award to an actor for singing (<cough>, Emma Stone, <cough>).

Best Actress


I'm a bit stuck, because I did not see four of the five nominated performances, and don't plan to anytime soon.  I'd rather miss a great performance than watch anything to do with Tammy Faye Bakker, for example.  I'd normally skip a category I haven't seen most of the nominees for, but this is Best Actress, and Nicole Kidman really did a wonderful job inhabiting Lucille Ball, so I'm going to give her my award a bit by default and a bit by merit.

Best Supporting Actor


All of these performances were quite good, but Troy Kotsur stands out.  Not only did he have the role that did the most heavy lifting for his film, playing the deaf father balancing between worrying about losing his daughter and proud of the adult she's turning into, but he also had to connect with audiences despite not using a language most viewers know.  There was not a time that we didn't know and connect with what his Frank Rossi was thinking and feeling, even if we didn't know ASL and didn't read the subtitles.

Best Supporting Actress


I didn't see The Lost Daughter so can't comment on Jessie Buckley's performance.  Even so, I don't know how I could hand this to anyone but Ariana DeBose.  Anita is a role made for stars, and she managed to elevate it further.  I can see a world in which Aunjanue Ellis wins for King Richard, but DeBose's performance across the board was lights out.

Best Original Screenplay


This is a very weak category this year.  I've not seen The Worst Person in the World.  Adam McKay's script for Don't Look Up is hamhanded.  King Richard is quite good, but fails to deviate from its hero worship of its subject.  Licorice Pizza is, well, problematic.  So I think Belfast wins here for me by default.  If it doesn't win, I'll hope that the Academy picked King Richard, since it's less noxious than the other nominated films I watched.

Best Adapted Screenplay


I did not see The Lost Daughter.  Of the others, The Power of the Dog, CODA, and Drive My Car are all very strong contenders, and I can think of reasons to give the award to each of them.  However, I think I'll go with The Power of the Dog since the final result was so stellar.  But I won't be upset if the Academy opts for either CODA or Drive My Car.

Best Animated Feature Film


This year was odd in that the floor was very high (no How to Train a Dragon film franchise nominations) but there were no knockout films (no Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse) either.  I could make reasonable cases for Encanto (best example of a classic CGI animated film with a brilliant soundtrack), Flee (an incredible documentary that was drawn in order to protect the anonymity of its subjects), and The Mitchells vs. the Machines (highly imaginative and stylistic).  I think I'll be old school and select Encanto, because the story is good and the songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda are absolutely stunning.

A Quick Note About Categories I Didn't Pick

I normally don't pick the Best Documentary Feature or the Best International Feature categories, but I have seen two nominees in each.  For Best Documentary, I saw Flee and Summer of Soul, and both of them were amazing.  I can't imagine having to pick between those two, even without knowledge of the other nominees.  For Best International Feature, I saw Flee and Drive My CarDrive My Car seems the no-brainer here, but I've also heard amazing things about The Worst Person in the World and of course Flee was amazing.  I'll look forward to seeing what the Academy does.

Also, I normally pick among the nominated short film categories.  However, this year they did not release the collected short films prior to the Oscars like they have in other years, and I've been slow to return to the movie theater during this late stage of the pandemic.  So I've not seen any of the Live Action or Documentary short films.  C'mon Hollywood, get these films out to the largest audience possible next year!

Best Animated Short Film


Of these nominees, I haven't seen Boxballet, but really the previews I've seen doesn't think it would change my mind.  This year was very odd, because so many of the films were extremely dark.  I honestly never want to see Bestia again.  Of those, only Affairs of the Art had any charm.  The Windshield Wiper told some interesting tails of love or almost love, but the whole of it didn't hold together well.  My pick is Robin Robin, an absolutely charming and technically proficient film from Aardman.

Best Original Score


Surprisingly, I liked the Don't Look Up score.  Encanto's instrumental score is very good, but I have a hard time separating it from Lin-Manuel Miranda's song writing.  I thought I was going to go with Jonny Greenwood's The Power of the Dog score, which was moody and yet surprisingly easy to listen to multiple times over, but there are a few too many dissonant moments for me to go with it.  I think I'll ultimately give my award to Germaine Franco for Encanto.

Best Original Song


I'm rooting for Lin-Manuel Miranda to complete his EGOT with a win for "Dos Oroguitas", but I'm confused as to why this was the selection from Encanto to get nominated instead of "We Don't Talk About Bruno".  "Dos Oroguitas" is a fine song, but it's very traditional and straightforward, compared to the complex structure of "We Don't Talk About Bruno", which also happened to sit at number one on the charts for several weeks.  So I'm rooting for Miranda to win, but that's not actually the song I'd pick.  I get a little annoyed at the overly abundant love that the entertainment world gives Beyoncé such that even her less than stellar work gets extreme praise, but her "Be Alive" really captures the spirit of King Richard so well.  I don't know that it's an upset to give her the award, but it is well deserved.

Best Production Design


This is a really strong category, and I can see any of the five nominees taking home the statue.  I've in fact changed my mind five times while typing this.  But I'm going to go with West Side Story in the end.  Unless I change my mind again.

Best Cinematography


I hate the fact that Greig Fraser is even nominated for the dark mess that is half of Dune.  I think I'll go with Ari Wegner for The Power of the Dog, though really I could see most of the nominees winning.

Best Visual Effects


Here's where Dune really deserves its nominations.  The visual effects team did an outstanding job bringing the world of Arrakis to life.  Too bad the script, direction, cinematography, and acting didn't live up to it.



2021 Best Picture Rankings

Almost every year, 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.  I skipped doing this last year after deciding I had little to say about so many of the nominees that came out in a necessarily weak year due to the pandemic.  This year, I have no such problem.  There are five tiers, consisting of two clear leaders, three that are brilliant but slightly flawed, one that I absolutely loved but is that one nominee that's just too light a film for serious consideration, three that are quite good but more flawed than the others, and one I'm actively angry was nominated at the expense of more deserving films.  

10. Dune

There have been few Best Picture nominations that have disappointed me like Dune getting a nod for 2021.  Dune is one of the most flawed films to be nominated for Best Picture since Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, and there were plenty of films more deserving for that honor.  In the Heights was a magical adaptation of a Tony-winning musical.  The Tragedy of MacBeth brought Denzel Washington to a moody translation of a Shakespeare classic.  The French Dispatch was a weak entry into Wes Anderson's oeuvre, but it would be far from alone among this year's nominees.  Being the Ricardos has nominations in three of the four acting categories.  If the Academy wanted to recognize a genre film, Spider-Man: No Way Home is one of Marvel's finest films to date.  But the real victim of this horrible mistake can be found later in this list.

Why is Dune undeserving?  For several reasons.

First, it's not a complete story.  And I don't mean that it's just adapting part of a book.  There have been plenty of great films that have adapted only part of a book or was one part of a series.  There is not a complete story, a total character arc, experienced by any of the characters.  Paul, the obvious focus here given he's the movie's main character, has several opportunities to complete an arc just slightly later in the novel, where he fully accepts becoming one of the Fremen (or, more strongly, accepting his role as their messiah a bit later), but the film leaves him as he and his mother take refuge.  This in no way reflects a resolution for Paul.  Contrast that to the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, in which Frodo, who had started a reluctant participant in the events, put on the run by no cause of his own and guided by the decisions of others, takes the onus fully on himself at the end of the film.  This represents a full character arc, even if it's not the end of the character's story.  Dune could have given Paul (or anyone else) a complete arc without having to adapt the entire novel, but chose not to.

Really, does anyone look like they're not hoping to die soon?

Second, there's the wooden nature of so many of the performances.  I don't know whether to blame the acting, the direction, the script, or some combination thereof, but this was a largely lifeless film.  It's easy to point at actors like Josh Brolin, who is not the most energetic performer, but this trait is widespread throughout the cast.  Jason Momoa is one of the more charismatic action-oriented actors of his generation, and there were times during his speaking parts where I thought they should check for a pulse.  My suspicion lies with director Denis Villeneuve, whose films have always featured reserved performances.  It is quite logical that this was a considered decision, wanting the cast to portray a lifeless dystopia of a galactic empire, which is in and of itself an unfortunately overused trope.  

You can imagine just how riveting this scene was.
Finally, there is the awful lighting of the movie for its night scenes in particular.  Again, this looks like a conscious decision on the film makers, and it's one that detracts from the viewing experience.  There are scenes in which the screen is a black sea of nothingness unless viewed in absolute darkness.  Unfortunately, the modern viewing experience doesn't uniformly offer that, especially as movie theaters move to the dine-at-your-seat model and so many pandemic viewers choose to watch from home.  If we can rightfully ding Christopher Nolan for the audio peculiarities of this movies (read any of several dozen screeds about the sound quality on Tenet), we can and should rightfully ding Dune for its poor visibility choices.

9. Don't Look Up


I have been a big fan of Adam McKay's previous two films, The Big Short and Vice, picking both of them as my top Best Picture nomination in their respective release years.  Sadly, Don't Look Up does not reach those heights.

It's told with a specific point of view, just like McKay's other two nominated films.  It has his usual acerbic wit.  But while both The Big Short and Vice were artfully told and deftly navigated complex topics in ways that allow the audience to firmly grasp Why This is a Big Deal, Don't Look Up really dumbs things down, spinning a clumsy allegory for the way politics and greed have interfered with humanity's (and by humanity, the film apparently means the United States) ability to tackle global disasters such as climate change and the SARS-COV-2 pandemic.

Though there's no doubt some MAGA fans still won't get it.
By clumsy, I mean the film hits you over the head with its message repeatedly.  Specific points are made repeatedly and with no subtlety whatsoever.  Supporters of the President's ignorant plan look exactly like MAGA fans with a gullibility that somehow manages to dwarf their real life analogs.  American media obsession over stories that really don't matter is skewered, and then skewered again, and then again.  This is done with all the art of a bad Saturday Night Live skit, the same jokes repeated endlessly.  As a result, the movie feels much longer than its two hour runtime.    

The one true protagonist of the film.
There are no characters in this film to make you even root for humanity.  The rich and powerful don't care what happens because they always assume things will work out for them.  The media only break out of their vapid stupidity to be just clever enough to get ahead.  The population of bureaucrats are divided into sycophants who act against everyone's best interests to get ahead and well-meaning individuals who seem befuddled by the very system they've somehow worked within for years.  And the general public demonstrates absolutely zero redeeming qualities.  If Don't Look Up has a hero, it's the comet speeding its way to wipe all these motherfuckers out. 

8. King Richard


The best biopics tell the unblinking story of their subjects, embracing the complexity and nuance of the humans behind the headlines. This is perhaps why the best biopics are either based on well researched biographies or on autobiographies written near the end of the subject's life, when they're more willing to examine their darker moments and impulses.  King Richard is not one of those, and instead is a bit of a defense and a love letter from two daughters to their father.  For that reason, a very good biographical film falls short of being great despite sterling performances from across its strong cast.

Richard Williams is a perfect Will Smith role.
Will Smith plays the titular Richard Williams, father of co-executive producers Venus and Serena Williams.  It's clear the film was written from the perspective that Richard Williams was grossly misunderstood by, well, practically everyone.  The film's Richard Williams has an ego, is a driven taskmaster, and has to have his way at all times.  But these are his only flaws, and the film pushes hard on a narrative that even if he didn't communicate his plan the best, he was always right.  Maybe all of this is accurate and Richard Williams is the nicest guy to ever be vilified by the general public.  But even if that's accurate, it doesn't make for the most compelling film.

Part of the problem is that it's a contemporary biography.  The accomplishments of the Williams sisters is fresh in everyone's minds.  Serena Williams is still arguably the greatest active tennis player.  The movie's not going to thrill us with a will-they or won't-they succeed narrative.  Instead, the strength of the film needs to rest on the character arc of Richard Williams, and he really doesn't have one.  What lessons he learns along the way are minor, with the end of the film really reading more like a victory lap than an arc completion.

The entire cast is very strong, even in their relatively quiet moments.
What saves this film is the incredible job done by the cast.  This Richard Williams is a perfect role for Will Smith, who plays underdogs with ample chips on their shoulders with the best of them.  His Richard has some interesting parallels to his Ali and his Chris Gardner (The Pursuit of Happyness).  Aunjanue Ellis is an able partner as Venus and Serena's mother Oracene Price.  Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton shine as young Venus and Serena.  It's unfortunate that they didn't have a better story to tell.  It's a great feel-good movie, but with a harsher spotlight on the excesses of its main character, it could have been a great film.

7. Belfast


It's good to see Kenneth Branagh back in the Oscars mix this year after a decade away.  Belfast is a nice pseudo-memoir featuring a child growing up in Belfast during The Troubles.  Branagh's analog, Buddy, is pretty much a happy kid who likes to play pretend and fight imaginary battles and who has no idea what he's doing when he develops a crush on a classmate.  This innocence is contrasted vividly against the horrors and ugliness of the clashes between Protestants, Catholics, and the government forces struggling to maintain the peace.

The Troubles lived up to its name for this family.
While he's the main character, Buddy isn't really the protagonist so much as the point of view through which the audience gets to witness the events unfold.  The primary protagonists are instead Buddy's Ma and Pa, ably played by Caitríona Balfe and a surprisingly effective Jamie Dornan.  Ma and Pa are trying to make their way through this dangerous world, Ma trying to keep the extended family together and safe while Pa trying to provide for the family while also attempting to keep them disentangled from the neighborhood loyalist gang.

The use of color was at times subtle, but there was never a payoff.
Branagh deftly winds through the narrative landscape, switching back and forth between universal vignettes of growing up and serious scenes of the Troubles.  The film doesn't remain focused on either element too long, allowing the film to breathe.  I'd in fact put Belfast higher on my list except it feels incomplete, where Branagh for some reason chooses not to tell the full story.  The clearest example of this is in the fact that, while the film is largely shot in black and white, color pops in whenever Buddy gets to experience the movies, television, or live theater, yet Branagh never explains why.  It seems this is one of the places where the film becomes most autobiographical, so it's strange that he doesn't fully embrace it and incorporate it fully into his narrative.  With just a few small changes, Belfast would be vying at the top of my list.

6. CODA


It seems every year there's that one film that doesn't tell a necessarily important story in terms of addressing a key moment in history, adapting a piece of classic literature, or spinning an allegory for a critical aspect of civilization.  Instead, it earns its Best Picture nomination by telling a more personal story with near perfection.  This year's film in that category is CODA, short for Child of Deaf Adults.

The film helps its accessibility by exploring the travails of the working class along the way.
I could write a treatise on everything this film does well: capturing the loving isolation of the child that stands out from the rest of the family, painting a vivid picture of the struggles to make a living in a field of work that has been overindustrialized, finding new ground to cover in the classic coming-of-age story, showing the joy of finding something you're really good at.  

Little moments like teaching your crush some simple ASL makes this film so enjoyable.
Though Troy Kotsur is the only member recognized with an acting nomination, the cast is absolutely stellar.  Main character Ruby, brought to life by Emilia Jones, is the perfect example of the child forced to act as the adult for her free-spirited parents.  I don't envy Ruby when she has to deal with the ramifications of her parents' very active and happy sex life.  The fact that these responsibilities impinge on her ability to pursue her own dreams creates much of the drama that drives the film forward.  The complexities of the relationships among the family members are slowly unwound as the movie progresses.  You start the film rooting for Ruby and end up cheering the family.  There's not much more you can expect from a film.

5. Licorice Pizza


Licorice Pizza
was the most difficult to place in this list because it's so well done and yet so problematic.  In the end, I decided to put it as the lowest of the second tier of films.

Licorice Pizza is a combination of a coming of age film along with a nostalgic look at a particular era of Hollywood culture, which makes it strong Oscar bait.  The film ticks all the boxes on the "will they or won't they" story motif, with constant misunderstandings, romantic zigging and zagging, and acts done purely to make the other person jealous.  It does this with a backdrop of auditions, talk show appearances, gossip, drunken antics requiring a director, and restaurants who welcome certain individuals by name and take them to their usual table.  Hollywood fixtures of that age appear in thinly veiled fictionalization (Sean Penn's character) or openly named lampoon (Bradley Cooper, playing Jon Peters, who I gather was an even bigger ass than the scenery-chewing Cooper made him out to be).  This is the kind of film that is often Oscar gold.

Bradley was good, but I still can't believe people wanted him to get Best Supporting Actor for this caricature.
But then you think about some of the story elements a bit more.  This is a love story between a person in their mid-20s and a person in their mid-teens.  It's meant to be "okay" because the older individual is the woman in the coupling and she doesn't give in until he's 17 and she's 27 (well, except for when she raises her shirt to show him her breasts when he is probably 16), as if doing little more than casting lots of side eye glances for two years until he's almost of age makes everything okay.  The fact that the film can't explain why she spends all of her time hanging out with a teenager horndog and his friends other than "he's too irresistible" really makes this a teenage boy's power fantasy.

Seriously?  What was Paul Thomas Anderson thinking?
The movie also suffers from playing a blatantly racist restaurant owner for laughs.  I love John Michael Higgins in almost everything he does, but his restauranteur who goes through a string of Japanese wives while speaking to them in the most over the top sing song caricature of their accent is the epitome of cringe.  The fact that the film thinks this is comedy gold is a complete head scratcher.  I'd put Licorice Pizza much further down the list and question the Academy's wisdom if not for the excellent craft put into such a problematic film.  But hey, Birth of a Nation once got good reviews, so this is nothing new.

4. West Side Story


If it weren't for its flaws, West Side Story would be a lock for Best Picture.  Technically, this is Stephen Spielberg in the groove.  It's gorgeously shot with all the camera sweeps, timely pans, dramatic lighting and interesting camera angles you could ask for.  He clearly loves the source material and does a great job of updating the craft of the film without losing the "of its time" feel, though nothing short of a miracle is going to make a song with the lyrics "Get cool, boy/Got a rocket/In your pocket" feel anything but dated.

One place where Spielberg went awry was the casting of his leads, Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler, as his Tony and Maria.  The pair have very little chemistry in a film where they're playing Romeo and Juliet.  To their credit, Elgort does much better playing Tony as the ex-con who regrets his previous life and Zegler shines as a poor cleaning girl dreaming of a better life.  It's just unfortunate that the movie needs them to see the stars shine in each other, because it's not happening.

Everyone needs more Ariana DeBose in their lives.
No, the real power couple of this film are Anita and Bernardo, played so effectively by Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez.  Anita is a star turn for everyone who plays her on stage and film, and it's no different for DeBose, who jumps of the screen every time she appears.  When she's happy, her smile lights up the theater.  When she's angry or hurt, the heart aches.  And when she's sexy, everyone breaks out into a sweat.  If she doesn't win her Supporting Actress statue, something is horribly wrong in Hollywood.  Alvarez also shines as a Bernardo who cares deeply about Anita, about his sister Maria, and about his people in general. Really, Spielberg could have decided to make a completely different film with Anita and Bernardo as the main stars and it would have been glorious.

How hard would it have been to give Valentina more connection at the start?
One place Spielberg does make a change is replacing the character of Doc with his widow, played by the great Rita Moreno.  Moreno is wonderful in everything she plays, and she provides a nice connection to the original film adaptation for which she won her own Oscar.  The substitution allows for the film to push further into the trope of a character being a part of two worlds but not fully in either.  While this is a laudable goal and Moreno gives it her all, the film doesn't do the work early to make it really pay off.  In the early stages of the movie, Valentina is only shown interacting with the Irish gang, primarily because of her relationship with Tony.  The film later tries to show Valentina struggling with having to take sides, but the only reason the film has given her to want to side with the Sharks is her name and accent.  Having some throwaway appearances early showing her being an active part of the Puerto Rican community too would have gone a long way to bolster the desired effect.  It's a small thing, but it's these small things that have me place West Side Story here in this list rather than at number one. 

3.5 What Should Have Been Tick, Tick... Boom!


It pains me so much that the Academy didn't nominate the best musical of a year filled with great musicals.  Tick, Tick... Boom! is an incredibly imaginative piece of work that adapts a semi-autobiographical play into a full fledged Hollywood musical biopic.  The film brings us the story of Jonathan Larson, the man who brought Rent to Broadway before his untimely passing.  It's also a great view into the creation of musical theater and the ups and downs an artist has to go through to succeed.

The musical performances were so good.
It's ably directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, doing a wonderful job for his first time in the chair.  Tick, Tick... Boom! is a musical, and Miranda is of course no stranger to pulling off a good musical.  The musical performances are on point, with a mixture of stage pieces and interpretive scenes.  The cast performs well, led by Andrew Garfield as Larson himself.  I know lots of people are shocked by his singing talent, but I fear that may overshadow the wonderful job he does on the acting side.  This is no mere "look I can sing" performance -- Garfield's performance is well rounded and he pulls off playing a genius with ease.  He is by far my Best Actor pick because of this.

Lin-Manuel Miranda will be a great director if he keeps this up.
Depicting genius and the musical creative process is difficult in a visual medium, but Miranda pulls it off with inspired scene construction and tasteful application of visual effects along with just the right character tics to push the narrative of the process along.  The movie's Jonathan Larson sees music in almost everything, from the lines at the bottom of a swimming pool to the rhythm of his fingers caressing his girlfriend's shoulder.  He finds inspiration in the cadence of an argument and the aggravation of diner patrons.  The fact that this work of art wasn't even given a nomination (especially given the flaws of so many of the films that were nominated) is truly an unforgiveable act by the Academy.

3. Drive My Car


You know what takes talent?  Making a movie that's three hours of nothing but talking and driving and making it riveting.

And that's what Drive My Car is.  The story of an actor and director who loses his wife but continues his work only to find the connections -- to both his work and the people that become a part of his life as a result -- to finally address the loss, Drive My Car is a completely different kind of film than we normally see.  Every film lover should experience it, because it shows what film can be when all of the shiny trappings are stripped away.

Oto is complicated and I can see why Kafuku fell in love.
It's really a film in three parts revolving around stages of loss by main character Yūsuke Kafuku.  The first part revolves around Kafuku's marriage to his wife, the screenwriter Oto.  They are a couple brought together by creativity and passion, but Oto also cheats on Kafuku.  It seems like Kafuku is on the path to losing Oto until he comes home to find that she's died.  We learn even more about Oto later in the film, and she's a nicely complex character -- a whole person, which is uncommon for characters who die early in films.

The second part jumps ahead in time and shows Kafuku, still clearly not over the loss of Oto, settling in to direct a run of Uncle Vanya at a cultural center near Hiroshima.  He's assigned a driver for insurance reasons (which would make a lot of sense given Kafuku is slowly losing his eyesight, though for some reason this is never mentioned again after it's introduced in the first act).  Though solitary and stolid, he slowly has extended discussions getting to know one of his deaf actors and her husband, as well as one of his stars, who just happens to be his wife's last lovers.  It's with this lover that the film really plays games, alternately giving us reasons to hate him and then also to think he's not so bad.  The end of his part of the story is a real head scratcher, as things about him are revealed only in news stories.

The openness slowly evolved during the second part of the film sets us up for the third part, when Kafuku deepens his relationship with his driver, Watari.  Watari has had a hard life, and Kafuku starts to see her as the daughter he and Oto never had the chance to raise.  It is here that Kafuku finally achieves the end of his own story and passes on the protagonist role to Watari while he becomes her mentor.  It is an elegant shift in focus, and though the coda to the film is a bit of a jump that had me wondering what happened in between, it wraps up Kafuku's story nicely.

When a movie actually makes you want to go see a Russian play, it's doing something well.
Throughout, Uncle Vanya hovers above all the proceedings.  Kafuku constantly listens to different parts of the dialogue, as it's the last words of his wife he has to hold onto.  The lessons of the play also provide a structure in which to understand the messages of the film itself.

Drive My Car is far from the typical Hollywood film, and I hold no delusions that it deserves the Best Picture statue.  But it is remarkable in its accomplishments and every film lover should experience it.

2. Nightmare Alley


Nightmare Alley
might be my favorite Guillermo del Toro film to date.  A remake of a 1947 Tyrone Powers film (or, more accurately, another adaptation of the same 1946 novel), it's an effective return to noir in an era where we rarely see noir, a genre that I hadn't realized I missed until seeing this.

Bradley Cooper stars as a loner who falls in with a traveling carnival and slowly wheedles his way into the troupe's lives, learning methods to lie to people for their entertainment.  The real action of the film starts when Cooper, along with his lover played by the always riveting Rooney Mara, leave to start a life in Chicago, where Cooper's character makes the mistake of using his ability to lie for purposes other than entertainment.

So much talent.
The carnival is brought to vivid life by a cast of luminaries including Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, Toni Collette, and David Strathairn.  You can easily see each of them having fallen into the carny life, and they inhabit it with ease.  This part of the film is important not only for setting up Cooper's move to the city, but also as a foreshadowed warning that he all to eagerly ignores.

Don't do it Stan.  No amount of money or women is worth losing Rooney Mara.
The majority of action occurs in Chicago, as Cooper's Stan builds a life as a stage psychic with Rooney's Molly.  However, it's not enough for Stan, as he looks for bigger scores, both in terms of money by conning the rich and in terms of women via wooing a psychiatrist vamped into life by Cate Blanchett.  The plot serves as a lesson against letting greed get the better of you. In this movie, no one has clean hands, but Molly's are the cleanest, so you are set up to root for her, just as you know that Stan's excesses will lead to trauma and trouble.  

As the movie approaches its inevitable end, the film completes its tragedy arc.  That fact that it telegraphs its resolution so early yet makes you want to watch it to the end is a credit to del Toro, who for once doesn't depend on the fantastic to drive his plot forward.  It is a fine piece of film craft and deserves its place among the leaders for Best Picture.

1. The Power of the Dog


In other years, I don't think I would put The Power of the Dog at the top of my list.  I would see it comfortably behind both Boyhood and Birdman, for example.  But this was not the greatest year in film history, and so many of its competitors were significantly flawed that it almost wins by not having any major blemishes.  

Okay, time to play spot the dog.
That's not to say it's not a great movie -- it certainly is.  It's well written, it receives strong performances from its principals, and it is shot absolutely gorgeously.  Jane Campion uses all of the tools at her disposal effectively.  Possibly the star of the movie is the New Zealand wild, which ably stood in for 1925 Montana.  It was a different era for cowboys, and the juxtaposition of old fashioned cattle trains with old timey cars, ubiquitous electricity, and the other trappings of that era's modernization make for a feeling of anachronism that helps the unsettling feeling of being out of place that the movie thrives on.

Between this and Melancholia, Kirsten runs the risk of typecasting.
Being out of place is the central theme of the film, which portrays it in many different dimensions.  Benedict Cumberbatch is a closeted gay man trying to live up to -- and instill -- the kind of masculinity Sam Elliott apparently wants everyone to have.  Jesse Plemons is a rancher who wants to be a part of modern society, even if he needs to drag everyone around him there.  Kirsten Dunst is a poor innkeeper pulled into a life that she does not understand and which seemingly doesn't want her.  And her son, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, is someone that no one really understands.  With a mixture like that, something will have to give, which is what the core of the film builds to.

With its excellent script, its strong cast of performances, and its cinematography, The Power of the Dog was the best film of 2021.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

2021 Oscar Picks

Every year, I pick my winners among categories where I've seen the majority of nominees.  In a decidedly off year for the movies, I've made picks in only fifteen categories because some categories were scatted among too many diverse options than I had the time nor desire to watch.  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 10 of 17 categories.

It's stating the obvious to say that this year was strange.  The slate of films to review was comparatively weak due to a whole slew of issues revolving around the pandemic.  This resulted in me skipping my usual companion piece in which I rank the Best Picture nominees because quite frankly I didn't have a lot to say about many of the nominees.  But that's not to say there aren't gems among the artistry on display by the nominees.  Let's get to it.


BEST PICTURE


If I had posted my rank ordered Best Picture list, you'd have seen that I only considered three films to be real candidates for the top prize: Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari, and Nomadland.  Of the others, Sound of Metal is extremely overrated, The Trial of the Chicago 7 makes the most of an Aaron Sorkin script and a couple of very good performances, Mank has its moments but is mostly pedestrian Hollywood self-love, The Father surrounds an incredible Anthony Hopkins performance with an interesting concept that's executed in a flawed way, and Promising Young Woman would be a strong candidate for Best Picture if it had taken itself slightly more seriously.  (Now you see why my Best Picture ranking post would have been rather short.)

Judas and the Black Messiah features a pair of really powerful performances in a film that tells an important story and tells it well.  I'll talk more about the leading (supporting?) performances below.  The issue is with the rest of the cast's performances, which fall flat next to their charismatic and intense co-stars.  If the surrounding performances had been similarly elevated, this would have been my pick for Best Picture.

Minari is an excellent film, and the "foreign language film set in America" flavor feels experimental, even if it's been done in a few prior movies.  Given its focus on a Korean family dealing with poverty and the difficulty of attaining their dreams, with much of the dialogue in Korean with obligatory English subtitles, it's natural to link this with Parasite, which is unfortunate given it's nowhere close to being as great a film.  But it does tell a simpler, quieter story very well. I'd actually compare it to The Florida Project more. The performances are superb, and if the movie had expanded more beyond telling the personal family story to the societal implications that surround it (especially in this COVID year), it would have made an even stronger case for Best Picture.

Nomadland is the most complete film of the crop, marrying a good script and direction with great cinematography and performances.  While its use of real life nomads in its cast isn't the most amazing experimentation in recent Best Picture nominees, it does give the film a slight boost when regarding its craft.  The story it tells is a highly accessible one about life for especially older people in the wake of the Great Recession, as traditional unskilled jobs continue to dwindle in number and stature.  While Judas and the Black Messiah and Minari have both taken their turns atop my mental Best Picture list, Nomadland is the one that lives there the most, and I think it should be this year's Best Picture Oscar winner.


BEST DIRECTOR


I haven't seen Thomas Vinterberg's Another Round, so I'm really just deciding among four candidates.

Of those, I would eliminate David Fincher and Emerald Fennell from contention first.  Fincher does his usual fine job with a coherent stylistic point of view.  It's just that Mank doesn't come off as anything special, at least to someone outside Hollywood circles.  Fennell does a fantastic job in what is her feature film debut as a director, but while it's quite good, Promising Young Woman misses several opportunities for delivering even more gut punches.  But it's promising debut, and I would expect Fennell to appear among the nominees many more times in coming years.

I'd easily back a Lee Isaac Chung win here for his deft handling and ability to pull strong performances from a cast diverse in age and culture.  The film is well-constructed and a great example of the craft that needs to go into a film to successfully elevate it at the theater.  But I think that ultimately the high points of the film are muted enough that it pulls Chung back a bit compared to the job that Chloé Zhao put in.

Zhao's accomplishment with Nomadland was quite pronounced.  She ably blended the look and feel of scripted and documentary films into one wonderful hybrid.  You can expect great performances out of gifted, seasoned professionals like Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, but she also pulled great performances out of amateurs who are real-life nomads.  The feel I get watching those performances is similar to the sensation I had watching the first third of Moonlight, where Barry Jenkins elicited strong performances from kids making their feature debuts.  It's an incredible job, and Zhao deserves all the accolades she's won to date and will continue to win for this work of art.


BEST ACTRESS


Of the candidates, I have not yet seen The United States vs. Billie Holiday, so I can't consider Andra Day.  

Of the other candidates, Viola Davis is Viola Davis.  I don't think she's capable of a less than stellar performance, and this is coming from someone who did subject himself to Suicide Squad.  But her Ma Rainey, despite the title of her film, feels more like a supporting role (which is ironic since she previously won Best Supporting Actress for the same role she won a Tony for Best Actress).

Carey Mulligan does a wonderful job in Promising Young Woman, but it's not a role featuring the most range.  I actually think some of her previous performances were stronger.

Vanessa Kirby makes you believe every bit of her being a mother struggling with the loss of her newborn baby, but fails to make you believe she would ever have gotten married to Shia LaBeouf.

Frances McDormand, however, is Frances McDormand, and she Frances McDormands the heck out of her role as a widow struggling to figure out who she is and find her way in an America whose economy has passed her by.  Eventually we may get tired of honoring the "Frances McDormand-type character", that woman from the middle of America who must take control of her world in the face of potentially overwhelming challenge, but for now, I'm not sick of it at all.


BEST ACTOR


I fully expect this award to go to the late, great Chadwick Boseman, who was taken from us by cancer this past year.  His work in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is outstanding, especially when you know that he's dying while putting so much energy into making his Levee Green a memorable force of nature.  But while I'll applaud that selection and probably blink back a tear or two, he's not my selection for this year's Best Actor.  Anthony Hopkins is.

Hopkins plays a juicy role as an elderly man struggling to make sense of and re-establish some degree of control on his world as he falls victim to dementia.  It would be cliché to hand an award to the actor who plays "the old sick dude", but his performance is so much more than that.  His Anthony is at different times suave, brutal, loving, and vulnerable, and Hopkins excels in all.  It's the kind of varied and textured performance that Denzel Washington should have won for Fences had he not been robbed by the highly overrated Casey Affleck.  It's unfortunate that his work is up against Boseman, because he'll either lose to Boseman or he'll experience the backlash that will come toward anyone beating out Boseman for the award.  But taken in a vacuum, it truly was (by a nose) the best performance this year.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS


I watched neither Borat Subsequent Moviefilm nor Hillbilly Elegy, so I'm only considering three candidates here.  

Of the three, I find Youn Yuh-jung by far the most compelling, not because her fellow nominees didn't do great jobs, but because she was given more to work with.  As the daughter of a demented old man, Olivia Coleman had to be sad, confused, and afraid, and she does a wonderful job at each.  As Marion Davies, Amanda Seyfried had to be glamorous, quietly competent, and hurt, and she does a wonderful job at each.  

But Youn's grandmother was a force of nature in Minari, being at different times impish, matronly, out of control, vulnerable, and childlike.  And she does an amazing job at everything, often having to segue from one extreme to another mid-scene.  She does so deftly and smoothly.  Without her performance (as well as that of the severely underrated Alan Kim), I don't think Minari is as effective a film.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR


I often grumble about what the industry calls "category fraud" when it comes to the supporting categories, and here we see it again.  Somehow, the actors playing the two roles that get by far the most screen time and, with one minor exception, are the viewpoint characters for Judas and the Black Messiah, are both nominated for Best Supporting Actor, for a movie with apparently no leads whatsoever.  

At least Daniel Kaluuya can make the better claim of the two as the supporting actor, playing the Black Messiah to Lekeith Stanfield's Judas.  Kaluuya's Fred Hampton is suave, driven, intelligent, and surprisingly vulnerable.  Kaluuya plays him with a restrained intensity that pops off the screen.  His performance was so good that I would pay to see him reprise the role in a biopic centered on the rise of Fred Hampton in the Black Power movement.

Lakeith Stanfield is no slouch either, as the FBI informant who eventually sets Hampton up to be assassinated at the hands of the authorities, and together the two men stand out completely from the rest of the pack.  Sacha Baron Cohen does the best acting job of his life as Abbie Hoffman, but can't seem to keep Hoffman's Worcester accent consistent.  Paul Raci does a fine job is a role that's far from dynamic in the overrated Sound of Metal.  And Leslie Odom Jr. gives a yeoman's effort in a film that literally put me to sleep.


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY


Honestly, I could see almost any of these films taking the prize, and while my runner up is Judas and the Black Messiah, I'm giving it to its 60s sibling, The Trial of the Chicago 7.  It's Aaron Sorkin doing Aaron Sorkin-y things, which in a relatively weak year, is good enough to be the best of the group.  Sorkin's script does suffer a bit from self-righteousness, but it is funny, often poignant, and moves extremely well.  It fleshes out real characters for much of its sizeable cast (though it does suffer from leaving most of its villains as cardboard cutouts).  While flawed, there's a beauty to Sorkin's prose, and it's on display here.


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY


This is even a weaker category than Original Screenplay this year.  I need someone to explain to me how a film that was largely improvised could get nominated for best script and feature no less than nine co-writers.  It's a joke.  Of the others, both The Father and Nomadland are memorable for things other than their scripts.  And let me repeat once more that One Night in Miami... put me to sleep, and that happens about once every decade or so.

That leaves The White Tiger, and I will be quite pleased if it wins.  It has a strong point of view, and its use of language is at times poetic.  Its perspective on the brainwashing of groups into subservience is important to hear and more universal than the casual observer might suspect.  I can imagine it being overlooked by a Hollywood that sometimes thinks that only two races exist or matter, but it has a message that needs to be heard.  


BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM


While the slate of live action films suffered with the pandemic, this was one of animated features' best years, with three very strong works and two more that don't feel like list fillers (as opposed to any year featuring a Croods or How to Train a Dragon entry on the nominee list).

There's one runaway favorite, but let me talk about the others first.  Onward is probably the weakest of the five entries because it has that feeling of just another modern CGI animated feature, but it does have quite a bit of heart and builds an interesting world for itself.  The latest Shaun the Sheep film is not as good as its progenitor, but is endearing and poignant at times.  

Wolfwalkers really surprised me by spinning a wonderful legend of werewolves prowling the woods of Ireland and making its more traditional 2d animation stylish and strong.  

Over the Moon is a wonderful film exploring a part of Chinese legend with modern sensibilities.  Its first ten minutes isn't quite as powerful as the first ten minutes of Up, but it really tries to be.  If not for the quality of the winner, Over the Moon would easily be my pick.  It's too bad it didn't come out a year earlier, because I could see it beating out Toy Story 4.

I watched Soul without knowing anything about it beforehand, and my opinion was that it was the best Pixar movie since Inside Out.  Then I realized it was by the great Pete Docter, who's given us not only Inside Out but also the incredible Up and Monsters, Inc, as well as the screenplays for Toy Story and WALL-ESoul has a wonderful story, textured performances featuring both comedy and poignancy, and a great message.  It is one of the best animated films of the past decade (though it would have to beat out both Inside Out and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to be the best).


BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM


This was a runaway category for me.  Burrow and Yes-People are both well-done trifles.  Opera is extremely interesting, but aside from that intellectual curiosity, doesn't really present a powerful viewing experience.  Genius Loci is pretentious and underwhelming as only the French can make cinema.  

No, by far the most powerful experience is watching If Anything Happens I Love You.  Even without its topicality, it would win in my book for both its wonderful artistic style as well as its portrayal of two parents dealing with loss.  But then you couple it with a slow burn up to the reveal that the title keys into the modern danger of a school shooting spree and as a viewer you become torn asunder, needing to be put back together like the grieving couple must be.  If Anything Happens I Love You is one of those short films that I immediately start pointing all my friends to after watching it for the first time.  It's a strong work and stands out easily from its competitors.


BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM


Two Distant Strangers stands out from a relatively strong batch of contenders.  It's a Groundhog Day for the George Floyd era, as a young black man trying to every day escape his death at the hands of a quick-to-kill police officer.  It would almost be perfect if on one turn through the loop we didn't learn that the cop in question was a psychopath.  To me its more powerful when the cop is a slave to his own poorly-aimed training and personal prejudices and not just a stone cold killer.  But the hope that the character brings -- that no matter what, he's going to find a way to get home safely to his dog is one that's needed.

The others are quite well done as well.  Feeling Through and The Letter Room are both relatively feel-good movies in their own way, showing people who care about others even when they don't have to.  And The Present and White Eye both show, from different perspectives, what assholes the Israeli authorities are.  Together they make an unusually strong slate of short films.  But Two Distant Strangers will be the short film we talk about in years to come.


BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT


As always, it was absolutely brutal getting through this year's slate of nominated short subject documentaries.  Only one of the five, the highly entertaining A Concerto is a Conversation, doesn't make you walk away feeling angry or sad, and for that it's worth viewing, especially to hear the stories of how composer Kris Bowers's grandfather moved to LA and created a good life for himself through a great deal of cunning.

Two other documentaries seem incredibly exploitative.  Colette takes a former member of the French Resistance to the concentration camp where her brother died.  Hunger Ward gives you the "opportunity" to watch young children in Yemen die of malnutrition on screen.  In particular, one scene in which a grieving grandmother has just killed her granddaughter by feeding her milk through her breathing tube and right into her lungs while the medical staff did nothing but say she shouldn't do that makes one want to throw everyone involved in prison.

Another short subject, A Love Song for Latasha, tells the tragic story of an African American girl who was shot and killed by a store owner while attempting to pay for a drink.  This film suffers two issues, one craft-related being the use of actors to play the parts of the subjects (which takes it somewhat out of the documentary category and toward the live action short film category) and one message-related being the lengths it takes to say that the incident "caused" the LA riots that took place a year later the day the Rodney King trial verdict was announced.  Latasha's murder was no doubt part of the context that made LA so incendiary at the time, but it's a real stretch to say it "caused" the riots given, you know, the fact that they happened directly after the King trial verdict was handed down.
 
That leaves Do Not Split, which is a powerful portrayal of the early days of the Hong Kong protests leading up to the COVID pandemic.  It's an important story for everyone to see what's been happening in Hong Kong, and it's done in a way that's extremely accessible.  Millennials will see in it echoes of the BLM protests that occurred last year.  Boomers will hear echoes of the kinds of protests and authoritarian reaction that resulted in Kent State and the events dramatized in The Trial of the Chicago 7.  It's a story that bears illumination, especially given how distracted we've been in America this past year.


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE


I thought this would be a runaway for Soul given how effectively it mixes modern electronic scoring with classic jazz and a taste of hip-hop.  But then I listened to the score for Minari and was blown away by it, too.  I really won't mind if it wins, but I still put my selection with Reznor, Ross, and Batiste because I noticed Soul's score during the film and only came to appreciate Minari's during a separate listen.  They're both fantastic works that should be enjoyed.


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY


This is a strong category, as all five nominated films look great.  News of the World in particular stands out as establishing a clear look-and-feel to its world.  However, my selection goes to Nomadland.  Joshua James Richards creates a visual landscape that is simultaneously gritty and hauntingly beautiful.  That's difficult to pull off.  Yet in almost every scene, you are treated with shots that somehow underscore both the struggles of the people involved as well as the grandeur of the country they're choosing to see instead of the four walls many of us are treated/subjected to.  I would be fascinated by a behind-the-scenes look at the decision making for slot selection and other elements.


BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN


I feel underqualified to comment on these nominees this year, but since I've seen all of them, I'll venture an opinion.  To me, it's a three-way race between Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Mank, and News of the World.  Mank is helped out somewhat by the choice to film in black and white.  New of the World is helped out somewhat by the natural surroundings most scenes are shot in.  So I would go with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which generates a wholly believable, yet somewhat stylized, historical setting for its cast to do their work within.  The setting supports its characters ably, while almost being a character unto itself as well.  That puts it ahead of its fellow nominees in my book.



That wraps up my 2021 picks.  Here's hoping that 2022 brings with it a more traditional process and slate, indicating that we have been given the opportunity to return to something resembling normal.