Thursday, February 21, 2019

2019 Oscar Picks

Every year, I pick my winners among the categories where I've seen the majority of nominees.  This year, that makes 17 categories I've made my selections in.  These reflect only who I'd vote to give the Oscar to if I could, and not an attempt to predict who will win. In the past my picks have largely coincided with the Academy's selections, but they can easily diverge, especially this year, where the nominees are wide ranging and clear winners aren't apparent in many categories.

Best Picture

As usual, I already posted my rankings of the nominated film and my top pick is Vice. This was kind of a weak year for Best Picture, as I would put the each of the last few runners-up over all of this year's entries.  But from an imperfect set, I'll go with the work that I feel tried something new and fresh.

I'll be happy if any of my top five get the statue, which since it's only an eight film slate, is not saying much for this year's quality.

Best Director

I really struggled with this category because of the same imperfections that made selecting a Best Picture this year a little tough.  Honestly, if Ryan Coogler had been nominated, I might have picked him because he truly made a great film starring a superhero, which is not easy, or else everyone would be doing it.  As it is, I think I'll go with Alfonzo Cuarón, who made an assortment of very unconventional casting choices work pretty well in a well-structured film.  I did not pick Roma for Best Picture, but I kind of see this being a situation like Life of Pi, where the craft of a film that far surpassed expectations was too much to not recognize.

Best Actor

To me, this is a slugfest between Christian Bale and Rami Malek, with Bradley Cooper coming in third.  Both Bale and Malek truly immersed themselves into their real-life characters, with Bale doing another one of his extreme transformations for a role.  I think I have to give my selection to Malek, as he seemed to have more heavy lifting to do and absolutely leapt off the screen as Freddie Mercury.  I don't think the Academy can go wrong either way.

Best Actress

There's not a lot to separate this year's nominees, though I think the climactic scenes of The Wife have earned Glenn Close her first Oscar in seven tries.  I was not thinking this during most of the film, but then she went from enigmatic to slow burn to this stunning combination of fury and sadness and fear.  Honestly, if she's not going to win this year, I don't know what she has to do.  None of the other nominees really did it for me, though if I were to pick a runner up, it would be Lady Gaga, who coupled her extraordinary musical talents with some very solid acting chops.  If we tend to over-reward actors who sing these days, should we over-reward singers who act?

Best Supporting Actress

I would have gone for my perennial favorite actress Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney in Vice, but then Regina King went and had one of those Oscar-winning moments in a breakdown after a failed attempt to negotiate for her daughter's baby daddy's future during a mission to Puerto Rico in If Beale Street Could Talk.  Watching that I immediately thought she'd vaulted into the Oscar discussion.

Best Supporting Actor

Why don't we just name this award after Mahershala Ali?  Or better yet, make him only take leading roles from now on?  Because man, he is too good to just be the perennial supporting actor nominee.  His Don Shirley is worldly, erudite, and vulnerable.  Green Book would be a poorer movie with almost anyone else in that role.  If for some reason Ali doesn't win, I'm hoping that Richard E. Grant wins for his ne'er do well Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a classic rogue who's joyful to watch in action.

Best Original Screenplay

I have not seen First Reformed.  Of the others, I think I'd lean toward The Favourite, which really has some delightful moments and has a few things to say about class differences.  I put that slightly in front of Green Book, which also has a way with its words.

Best Adapted Screenplay

I've not seen The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.  Of the others, I think it's hard to beat the lyrical combination that is Barry Jenkins interpreting James Baldwin's words in If Beale Street Could Talk.  The entire movie is almost prose poetry, and blends nicely with the film's masterful score.

Best Animated Feature

I'll just remind you of my rules about assessing Best Animated Feature nominees:
  1. A nominated film should have seen wide release to win.  The larger populace that votes for the eventual winner in Animated Feature seems to not do the same level of homework that it might do for the bigger awards like Best Picture, so to have a real shot, a contender has to be one the voters already know something about.
  2. Innovation helps, at least to some extent.  Some animated nominees were the first to really try some major new technique.  I don't think this criteria trumps the first one, but it may help break a tie.
  3. The winner is often the one that, if shot as a live action film, would still have significant merit.  If the story transcends the animation, you may have a winner.
With that, I went into the last couple weeks expecting Isle of Dogs as my choice, as it's hard to top a Wes Anderson animated concept.  But then I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  Wow.  It is the best animated film I've seen since probably Up.  And it certainly checks the boxes.  Released widely, it is a movie whose direct story would make for a pretty decent live action superhero movie.  But what really does it for me is the effective mixing of different animation styles into a cohesive whole.  It's truly a stunning film, and well deserving of this honor.  Well done!

Best Cinematography

I've not seen Never Look Away, but it would have to be spectacular to beat Alfonzo Cuarón.  His black and white work on Roma is stunning.  The setup of shots in locations both rural and urban are rock solid, and his nighttime work is some of the clearest I've seen without seeming unnatural, and the fact that he's done this in black and white is amazing.  I don't even know who I would put second behind him.

Best Production Design

I could easily see Fiona Crombie and Alice Fenton winning for The Favourite, but my pick is Black Panther's Hannah Beachler and Jay Hart.  Black Panther brought Wakanda to life, and their mixing of traditional African texture to high tech features is nearly perfect.  Making an environment seem ancient and futuristic at the same time without coming off alien is a significant feat.

Best Visual Effects

I really would love for the folks behind bringing Winnie the Pooh to life in Christopher Robin to win because that movie really hit me square in the feels, but if I'm being honest with myself, I have to give the nod to Avengers: Infinity War.  That movie was epic to the max, and the sheer amount of combat, space adventure, and mysticism it made immersive has to be recognized.  Ready Player One also looked great, but when the entire world is supposed to be artificial, it's kind of like cheating.

Best Animated Short

Thankfully there's no Kobe Bryant career masturbation video here to ruin my day like at last year's Oscars, and none of this year's nominees seems undeserving.  Bao will probably win because Pixar, but my pick is Late Afternoon.  The way the film depicts dementia is effective and imaginative, and the story it tells made the theater quite dusty.

Best Live Action Short

This was not the feel-good slate of the year.  Wow, was this (and the documentary slate) depressing to watch.  I think there's something to be said for the chances of Skin to win the Oscar because of its subject matter, but it felt a little too revenge fantasy for me.  Instead, the film I thought was most well done was Detainment.  Detainment has received some negative press because the mother of the victim of the crime complained about the film's making, but I found the dive into how evil can come from even the youngest minds and the story of how the police handled the case quite engrossing.

Best Documentary Short Subject

A Night at the Garden has gotten a ton of press, and it very well could win because of today's political environment, but I can't get behind that decision.  To me, it takes very little art to dig around and find some archival footage that shows a couple minutes of a Nazi rally in New York, slap a text piece at the end, and release it.  I don't see the craft there.  It's a glorified YouTube video that doesn't even bother to provide context or tell the full story (what else was said at this rally?  what were these people's concrete aims?  what was the crowd doing when they were not saluting?).  I want to reward a film that actually put some work into it and had something directly to say.  From that perspective, I loved End Game, the story of doctors and therapists who handle palliative care, the patients who are facing their own imminent deaths, and the families who are left to struggle with these end of life decisions.  End Game is powerful watching, as evidenced by the sheer volume of tears I witnessed all around me in the theater.

Best Original Score

I thought this was a great year for creative scores.  For me, it becomes a toss up between Black Panther and Isle of Dogs, though Nicholas Britell's incredible atmospherics in If Beale Street Could Talk are a close third and quite worthy of recognition.  Of the two cultural appropriation nominees, I think I have to give Frenchman Alexandre Desplat's Japanese drums and string work on Isle of Dogs just a slight nod over Swede Ludwig Göransson's African fusion.  I fully expect the Academy to reward Göransson since Black Panther is a bit of a darling at this year's Oscars and Desplat already has more than one statue, and I won't feel bad about it.  But in a neck and neck race for my vote, I'll go with the defending champ.

Best Original Song

Sorry Kendrick Lamar, you made a great song in "All the Stars" for Black Panther, but you're up against Lady Gaga and the song that was almost a character unto itself in A Star is Born.  "Shallow" is a very solid tune and has been racking up the awards, and I fully expect it to continue its run at the Oscars, deservedly.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

2018 Best Picture Rankings

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.

2018 was not one of those years where I think we'll look back a decade later and go, "Oh yeah, 2018 was the year that [fill in the blank] came out!", like how 2014 was the year that Boyhood and Birdman both stretched filmmaking in different ways or how 2010 was the year The Social Network was robbed by The King's Speech in the worst selection since Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan in 1998.  The eight nominated films (and even a couple of the films that didn't get nominated) are all really good pieces of cinematic art, but I don't know that any of them will turn out to be memorable.

8. Bohemian Rhapsody

If Bohemian Rhapsody were to duplicate the second half of the film, with Freddie Mercury's redemption with his band and the subsequent powerful performance at Live Aid, the film would be much higher on this list.  Unfortunately, the beginning of the film is a muddled mess, perhaps brought on by some of the behind the scenes drama that saw this film have multiple directors.  The movie skips over key interactions among the characters that would establish their relationships, instead choosing to have each character state the relationship verbally.  This saps the film of all power during the early tumult.  When the band members say they're a family, there's no real feeling of family there -- it's only later when the band actually shows itself to be a family that the emotions become real.  It honestly feels like pages of scripts were either skipped over or cut out late without thought to the consequences.

Points for casting Littlefinger as a non-villain.
The real strength of Bohemian Rhapsody is the way Rami Malek disappears into Freddie Mercury.  He earned every bit of his Best Actor nomination (and the awards he's racked up to date).  He brings a wonderful mix of passion, vulnerability, whimsy, and strength to his Mercury, and really carries the film through its second half comeback to high quality.  I dare you to watch the Live Aid recreations and not want to immediately go find the real performance on YouTube.

It's impossible to picture a better Freddie Mercury than Rami Malek.
Ultimately though, no other nominated film was as blemished as Bohemian Rhapsody.  Honestly, there were several films that didn't get a nomination that I would place above it.

7. The Favourite

The Favourite is one of those films that seems to come up in ones or twos every year where you almost feel that they have to feel satisfied to be nominated.  Not that it's a bad film, but it's just not important.  It's not reinventing cinema with new techniques.  It's not tackling a critical issue in today's society.  It's not telling an important historical story that helps put our own world into perspective.  It's not bringing a crucial part of literature or the other arts to life.  It's just a very solidly well done film, which is good enough to get a nomination, but doesn't put it even in the top half of the nominees.

Emma Stone is every bit as endearing and funny as ever, even when she plays mean.
The Favourite stars somehow-Best Supporting Actress nominees Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz who jump gleefully off the screen as rival members of Queen Anne's court, pull out every dirty trick in the book to attain and/or keep their place as the queen's right hand woman.  Olivia Colman does a phenomenal job as the queen, who we learn is tortured and not actually crazy, and would probably be my pick for Best Supporting Actress if they hadn't for some reason put her up for Best Actress despite having less screen time than her supporting actress castmates.  The entire rest of the cast is pretty much forgettable.

Kudos on the costuming and set design, though.
It's a very well done comedy film that, among other things, features Emma Stone in probably the best handjob scene to ever hit mainstream cinema.  It's funny, well acted by its powerful leading ladies, and hits the spot.  But it's also largely a puff piece, with really one thoughtful moment at the end, when Queen Anne reminds her newly victorious subordinate that being on the top rung of the court still puts you far below royalty.  That's far from enough to make it a Best Picture.

6. BlacKkKlansman

BlackKkKlansman, on the other hand, is that film that gets nominated because of its importance despite having many flaws.  It presents an at times whimsical story of a plucky young African American cop in 1970s Colorado who, out to prove himself as a potential detective, sets up an ongoing sting of the KKK.  You would think that infiltrating a hate group, especially as someone from the group that is hated, would be the subject of a taut thriller, but instead, Spike Lee undercuts his own tension throughout the film, making even the tense moments seeming to not be all that harrowing.

The addition of the love story, though tangential to the main plot, is still a distraction.
John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the real-life black undercover klansman, while Adam Driver earns a supporting nod as the fictional partner (Stallworth's real life partner has never been acknowledged for security purposes) who actually meets with the klan face to face given that Stallworth would not make for a very believable racist in person.  Topher Grace plays a David Duke who was basically Topher Grace with a mustache and bad haircut.  None of the rest of the cast really warrants mention, which helps explain why it's so far down this list. 

Even in a Klan robe, he still looks like he's lecturing Kelso.
The film is grossly inaccurate (the plot the police strive to break up is not the same plot that Stallworth helped break up in real life), but I think by now we've given up on historical accuracy from our films that are "based on a true story".  What really sinks the film for me is how off the tone feels at times, with digressions and jokes seeming to rob the movie of any forward momentum.  Spike-isms are abundant throughout, including the really, really old use of a tracked cart to move people who were supposed to be running (I would still love to be behind the scenes in a Spike Lee-Tom Cruise movie as the two fight over how to shoot Cruise's character's running scenes).  Really, the most powerful moment in the film (by far) is at the end when the movie closes with a new bunch of klansmen burning a cross within sight of Stallworth's apartment followed by real life clips from the Charlottesville march and subsequent violence from 2017 to show that we still haven't made nearly enough progress.  But maybe we shouldn't have to wait for the closing credits to get to that point.

5. A Star is Born

A Star is Born begins the part of this list where I wouldn't be terribly upset if it won Best Picture (though I would be surprised).  A remake of the 1976 remake of the 1954 remake of the 1937 original, this year's edition (perhaps thankfully the film decided to take the 1990s off) lives up to its predecessors, who all managed to leave an imprint on motion picture history.  Starring Bradley Cooper, produced by Bradley Cooper, directed by Bradley Cooper, and featuring a script by Bradley Cooper (who may or may not have catered the movie set as well), A Star is Born also stars Lady Gaga, who does a very good job with the material.  Her Ally Maine (wife of Cooper's Jackson Maine) is a little weakly defined in the beginning (the filmmakers seem unsure whether Ally is overwhelmed or completely and confidently in charge of her life in these early scenes) but really comes together into a tour de force for Gaga about midway through, allowing the pop superstar to really show her acting stuff in the late stages of the film.

And oh yeah, she can sing pretty well, too.
Cooper himself does a creditable job himself, and you get the feeling that if he keeps working on getting rid of his still-present-but-not-as-much tics (like smiling goofy smiles with manic eyes at awkward times) from being someone destined to replace the likes of Hanks, Washington, and Day-Lewis in Hollywood's leading man pantheon.  His Jackson manages to be troubled without being unlikable, which is extremely hard to pull off, and Jackson's method of handling what he saw as the no-win situation he was in was powerful and moving.  Sam Elliott also shines as Jackson's brother, an admittedly very Sam Elliott kind of character.

Every family needs Sam Elliott as an uncle.
Could A Star is Born have been better?  Perhaps making Ally a bit more consistent in the beginning.  Maybe reducing the number or duration of the big "talk out your problems" scenes.  Maybe making the scenes leading up to Jackson's decision more powerful (Rafi Gavron does not do those moments justice in his role as Ally's manager).  These are somewhat quibbles, but at this level of filmmaking, those quibbles (or lack thereof) are what separates Oscar winners from the rest of the pack.

4. Black Panther

Black Panther being this high up on the list might be a surprise to some, but what would be more surprising is that at different times, it appeared anywhere from number 5 to number 1.  It's a superhero genre film yes, but it's an almost perfectly formed superhero genre film with a little bit to say.  It's also a genre film with a great villain, which helped send another genre film, Silence of the Lambs, to Best Picture status at the 1992 Oscars. 

Black Panther picks up just after Captain America: Civil War, with the young prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) about to take the rites to become king of his technologically advanced nation of Wakanda.  With all of its vibranium-driven tech, Wakanda could easily subjugate the world if it wanted, but instead the nation's tradition is one of hiding in plain sight, building an extensive spy network and keeping the world at large completely in the dark as to what wonders they've managed to create for themselves.  Michael B. Jordan's Eric Killmonger, a terrorist with ties to the ancient nation, has other ideas and challenges the new king for control of both the reins and the heart of the nation.  All kinds of really good superhero action takes place as a result.

Though there are some aspects of Jordan's performance that I didn't get as much out of as other audience members.
But what sets Black Panther apart from other superhero movies (really, almost all action movies of any subgenre) is that its action is clothed in a philosophy that provides some food for thought (the only prior superhero movie to accomplish this was The Dark Knight, whose Best Picture exclusion caused the Academy to rethink how many films to let into the race -- since then, Avengers: Infinity War has also managed this accomplishment).  To a certain degree, Killmonger is right, and his impact on T'Challa is palpable.  It also manages to be poignant, funny (in a non-disruptive way -- something Taika Waititi might want to study), and thrilling.  In other words, it's a damn good movie.

And did I mention the action?
It's not perfect, mind you, which is why it settles below the films ahead of it.  There are a few plot holes involving T'Challa's decision making during critical moments (though some of the seemingly most egregious ones can be explained by T'Challa's inherent nobility, a trait his own father warned him was not good for being king) and why, considering Wakanda had spies everywhere, no one bothered keeping track of Killmonger throughout his life.  These are nits, but nits that the films ahead of it on this list don't seemingly have.  But even if it doesn't win Best Picture, Black Panther showed the world how a legitimately great superhero film can be made.

3. Roma

Roma, like Black Panther, was difficult to place on this list, but for slightly different reasons.  Black Panther has to overcome the difference of genres, bridging the gap between superhero film and Best Picture nominee.  Roma also has a gap to bridge, but in this case it's cultural.  I'm not talking about the fact that it's in a combination of Spanish and Mixtec, but rather the fact that the actors portraying the characters are so reserved in their craft.  It's a different feel than a modern American (or British) film, where the actors push forward their portrayals, even seeming to be actively quiet.  That doesn't happen here in Roma, and that sets up a very different tempo to the film than an American audience is used to.  That doesn't make its film craft any lesser, but it does add difficulty in trying to discern if something noticeably off is off because of the cultural translation or because it's legitimately a flaw.

It makes it difficult when characters are either much more sedate than I would expect (which is often Cleo, the main character played by Yalitza Aparicio in her very first role ever) or much more aggressively emotive or manic than I'd expect (which is almost every other character in the film at different times).  Is this culturally accurate?  I don't have the knowledge to say.  If it is, then everything's great.  If it's not, then here are the flaws that should knock it out of contention.  I'm choosing to interpret it as a bit of both given the relative inexperience of some of the main cast.

Drama, drama, drama.
However, that doesn't prevent Roma from being a dazzling film to watch.  The cinematography by Alfonso Cuarón is absolutely stunning.  There are too many shots worth mentioning to list them all, including a wonderfully difficult tracking shot done at the beach, but the one every film student should examine is the fire scene, when a bunch of revelers are called from their party to put out a fire.  Seeing such a difficult visual environment of a nighttime blaze in an otherwise dark forest area with every person on screen clearly yet seemingly naturally lit -- in black and white, mind you -- just reminds you how much craft there is to the art of great filmmaking.  Watching Roma brought to mind John Ford's great films, and I'd love to put the fire scene up against some of the nighttime scenes from, for example, My Darling Clementine just to see how they relate in the use of light and shadow.

Seriously, look at how beautiful this is.
Roma is a personal story of Cleo's professional and love life within the context of the tumult surrounding the family she works for, who are going through their own substantial drama within the context of the political happenings of the time.  When these different layers intersect and mix is where Roma attains a sort of narrative magic that help pushes the film forward.  It's a surprising amount of complexity that Cuarón wrings out of a relatively straightforward story structure, and truly is a joy to experience.

2. Green Book

Green Book is one of those films that attains its spot on the list thanks to doing everything exceedingly well.  It has a tight script, is well shot, and the lead actors are phenomenal.  It tells a heartwarming tale of cross-race (and cross-sexuality) friendship set in a time of very little tolerance and screened in a time of diminishing tolerance.  It's a timely film, even if it doesn't say enough about our current world to warrant Important Film status.

Some have complained about the film having a white savior complex, but I don't see that here.  Instead, I see a film that shows a friendship in which both partners bring something fundamental to the table.  It also flips the script on so many other black-white friendship movies like The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption in that here the African American part of the team is the learned, cultured scholar teaching the relatively coarse white partner the finer aspects of civilization while the caucasian part of the team is the streetwise, physical half of the tandem.

Seriously, I don't quite see this as putting the white guy over the black guy.
Green Book fills the Best Picture nomination spot for the straightforward, well-acted comedy that tells a culturally significant true(ish) story, much like Philomena, which preceded it by a few years.  And as with Philomena, it perhaps rises a little too high up my list as a result.  But any film that can ably make me laugh (and laugh quite hard at times), think, and have my emotions swell in the same two hours deserves real consideration.

Green Book's success as a film is particularly driven by the great work of its stars.  Viggo Mortensen jumps off the screen as Italian-American blue collar worker and neighborhood tough guy with the heart of gold Tony Vallelonga.  Mahershala Ali may well win another Oscar as the erudite Carnegie Hall pianist Don Shirley.  Mortensen and Ali have considerable chemistry, and both live up to their Oscar-worthy resumes.  Mahershala Ali in particular makes the case that, once filmmakers start consistently giving him starring roles instead of supporting actor roles (though you can make a great case that Ali was a lead actor here and his nomination in the supporting category is just gamesmanship), he'll be the next pantheon actor of our time.

Mahershala Ali can make even quiet moments compelling.
In the time I've been making my list, Green Book has wandered everywhere from number two to number four.  I can't put it in front of my number one choice, but a film so well done can't fall far.

1. Vice

Vice was not one of those "it's obviously an Oscar favorite even while I'm watching it the first time" films for me, but as I was sorting the list out, it became apparent that Vice was the only film that really made me feel like I had seen something new in filmmaking.  And really, that's a major part of what pushes a movie to the top of my Best Picture list.

Of course, I've been here before with director Adam McKay, having picked The Big Short as my Best Picture for 2015 when it was up against a similar list of films that did not present a clear and easy favorite.  While I still stand by that pick, The Big Short fell, well, short, against Spotlight, a film that I said could easily be my Best Picture despite listing it at number three.  I fully expect something similar to happen, as I think McKay ends up being a little too edgy for many Academy voters.  Still, here we are.

Vice shares quite a bit with The Big Short in terms of having a satirical flavor while explaining some of the complex concepts surrounding major issues the film takes on.  Instead of using random celebrity encounters to take the audience to school (who can forget Margot Robbie in a bathtub?), Vice uses a single narrator to provide the necessary context and lectures.  If you're like me, trying to figure out who the narrator is will bug you throughout the film until they finally reveal their identity, at which point you'll think, "Whooo, they went there!"

I mean, really.
The script is funny and informative, the directing is crisp and innovative, and the acting is stellar.  Christian Bale absolutely transforms himself into Dick Cheney, physically and emotionally.  Sam Rockwell somehow conjures George W. Bush out of a drawl and a relaxed face, eschewing any attempts to make himself look exactly like the former president entirely.  Amy Adams and Steve Carrell also shine as Lynne Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Though he did have to go with some hair graying for later scenes.
I don't think Vice necessarily tells a completely true story, getting a little too deep into conspiracy theory land for my taste, but as a film, it's a stunning example of op-ed cinema, combining with The Big Short to introduce perhaps a new genre of live action film. 

I could see any of my top five getting the actual Best Picture trophy this year, but if you ask me, Vice is my Best Picture of 2018.