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.

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