Sunday, January 27, 2019

KNEEJERK REACTIONS TO THE 2018 OSCAR NOMINATIONS, or DOES THIS MEAN I HAVE TO SEE A STAR IS BORN NOW?


I knew it was coming, but now that it’s finally here, it feels a little weird to have to admit it. After almost 50 years of watching and following the Oscars (the first Academy Award ceremony I saw was for the movies released in 1969), I find myself feeling genuinely indifferent to the whole megillah. Each year it’s more difficult, even with the move toward acceptance of Netflix-available films like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Roma (which I saw in a theater), to see as much as I want to see, and this year Oscar was consistently good at favoring with nominations a passel of pictures I never really wanted to see in the first place,  stuff like The Wife, Vice  (I thought everyone disliked Vice!), Green Book and A Star is Born. So, this year I guess I’m feeling a touch of what the Academy and pundits like to buzz about when  addressing the decline in ratings for this once-dominant TV ratings juggernaut: Joe and Jane Public just don’t care about any of the movies nominated, so they’re tuning out. (Note: the Oscars broadcast really is still a worldwide ratings juggernaut, but any slight trend toward decline means less dollars, and boy, is that ever a call to panic in Hollywood, USA.)

Well, I’m trying to stay tuned. But honest to God, I find it really difficult, especially when the movies themselves are still outside my experience, to get all whipped up in an office pool frenzy about a potential face-off between Lady Gaga and Glenn Close for Best Actress, especially since A) I have almost 0% historical interest in any version of  A Star is Born (I made it through part of the Cukor version once, the only version that holds any intrigue for me); B) I have an almost categorical allergy to Glenn Close (for me, her finest hour on film comes in Mars Attacks!); and C) I spent the last three months convincing myself that Olivia Colman was a shoo-in, and now the unfailing wisdom of the Hollywood press is trying to convince me otherwise. On some level, I think I actually resent the intrusion into my fantasy that for once the person who I believe actually deserves the award (and the general recognition from an otherwise “Olivia Who?” sort of crowd) might actually win. Ah, who knows? Close or Gaga (we don’t ever call her Lady, do we, unless we know her well) might be really good in their respective roles, but they both seem like such obvious choices, and from a purely bread-and-circuses perspective, the positioning of either one as a favorite kinda makes me reflexively reach for the snooze button. And speaking of Bread and Circuses, Squirmy Public Spectacle Division, Close oughta be aware of the danger of being declared any sort of front-runner, based on either merit or “She’s been so good for so long” status. As a friend of mine who is much smarter than me on these things observed on Facebook recently, just ask how that sure-thing buzz worked out for Lauren Bacall, or Eddie Murphy, or Burt Reynolds, or most recently Sylvester Stallone.


The bottom line is, I just don’t have a whole lot of dogs in this particular hunt. If it were up to me, you’d be seeing a whole lot more of First Reformed and Leave No Trace and Buster Scruggs and Searching and Burning, and maybe even a cultural consciousness no-show like Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds on Oscar night, at the partial expense of all the pictures mentioned above, and even of the presumed all-around favorite, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which far too many people who are inclined to abuse the word are declaring a masterpiece. (I admire the movie, but I never overcame Cuaron’s own prescribed remoteness—I kept waiting for the moment that the movie would sweep me away, and it never did.) And these articles I read immediately after the nominations were announced, the ones that kept trying to sell the idea that for once there was no recognizable front-runner, that for the first time in a long time, for whatever reason, the Oscar show might have a little suspense, well, the folks who wrote those pieces must have been looking at a different list of nominees than I was. In what world could a movie which garners nominations for Picture, Actress, Supporting Actress, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography and  Best Foreign Film, one with considerable critical backing and unprecedented availability in homes equipped to stream Netflix, not be considered a competition-crushing front-runner? No movie nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Film has ever taken both awards, but Roma could do exactly that. For Christ’s sake, Cuaron himself personally stands to walk away with five Oscars next month. Between them, in their storied and influential careers Robert Altman and Alfred Hitchcock managed to snag exactly none.
And therein lies the danger of taking Oscar too seriously, the punishment for which is a consistent thwacking on the back on the head until the brain matter is reordered with some common sense. Posterity has nothing to do with it—Oscars, the nominations and the awards, have more to do with the reflection of a particular moment, whether that moment is, like our current one, inflected with adjustments courtesy of #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite, or trends in the past toward stodgy biblical epics and social problem pictures that haven’t done so well in the Standing the Test of Time Department. (One good thing about TCM’s otherwise humdrum 31 Days of Oscar platform, which will hijack the channel yet again for another month beginning this coming Friday, is that it gives the skeptical viewer a chance to see the same old roster of overplayed pictures yet again, as well as to quizzically observe, while trying to find something to record on the DVR, the nature of just what Oscar thought made the grade 60 years ago-- which I suppose in turn might at least inspire a little research to find out what movies got passed over during the same time period and to by God watch them instead.)  

Oscar will reveal his decisions on February 24, and no doubt some smarmy jerk like me writing for his holographic blog or for Trailers from Hell in 2078, if the Academy and the Internet and civilization itself still exist at that point, will wonder why everyone in 2018 thought Roma or A Star is Born or Vice were such collective big deals, and that person will likely have no idea that many of us in the current moment were thinking the same thing. (And I’ll bet the movies which will be clogging SmarmyGuy2078’s Oscar wrap-up article will be just as perplexing in their acclaim.) But we march on, tossing our observations and predictions about Oscar around like so many ineffectual thoughts and prayers, in the hope that come Oscar Night some of it will somehow gel into something resembling sense, some entertainment value beyond gawking at gorgeous gowns and listening to a parade of strident speechifying (however well intended) and gushing about the four other nominees who didn’t get to make the long walk to the stage and how this really belongs to all of you! That’s not really very likely to happen, though I do think that proceeding without a host is a step in the right direction. For once, the Monday morning teeth-gnashing in all the entertainment press will have to focus on something else besides Kevin Hart’s painfully misguided sense of humor and the writers who couldn’t make him, or Seth MacFarlane, or Ellen Degeneres, or Jimmy Kimmel, look any better. Presenters of individual awards, good luck to you all. To everyone else, may your Oscar party be amusing, however tedious and predictable the outcome of the actual show may be. 

And since predictions are best left (at least by me) for my office pool Oscar ballot, here’s a list of what I’d save a checkmark for if I had a real Oscar ballot in my hands. Use the following picks to guide your own Oscar pool guesses at your own peril.


PICTURE
I’m still trying to figure out how Bohemian Rhapsody, a movie I liked, by the way— and one that apparently directed itself, if the lack of mention of a certain defamed director in the remarks of all its post-Golden Globe award recipients tell us anything—ended up with a Best Picture nod. That said, my vote would give the slight edge to BlacKKKlansman over Black Panther, with The Favorite coming in third. I can’t bear the thought of Spike Lee losing again to another picture about racial harmony arrived at inside a moving vehicle, but here’s where the appeal of the Oscars vis-à-vis possible public humiliation comes in again, I guess. Still haven’t seen: Green Book, A Star is Born, Vice.

ACTRESS
See above. Yalitza Aparicio and Melissa McCarthy are above reproach in Roma and Can You Ever Forgive Me? respectively, but my black heart belongs to Olivia Colman. (She had no chance, of course, but a perfect world would have made room for Leave No Trace’s Thomasin Harcourt Mackenzie, so natural and so compelling in Leave No Trace.)

ACTOR
My point of greatest embarrassment this year. I have seen exactly one of the nominated performances—Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody—so my vote reflexively goes to him. But he wouldn’t stand a chance in my eye if Ethan Hawke (First Reformed), or John Cho (Searching), or Joaquin Phoenix (Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot), or maybe even Brady Jandreau (The Rider), were up there instead of, say, Bradley Cooper, or Christian Bale, who will probably benefit from this year’s Gary Oldman Award for Real-Life Representation from Underneath a Shit-ton of Really Good Make-up and reign supreme. (See also Best Make-up.) 

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Wherefore art thou, Elizabeth Debicki? Wherefore art thou, Michelle Yeoh? I walked out of Widows and Crazy Rich Asians convinced both were locks for a Supporting Actress nomination—they were the only things people with wildly variant views of the respective films could agree on, and they both outclassed their own movies. And Tyne Daly’s dyspeptic apoplexy in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was flat-out spectacular. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Yet these women get only crickets, while Marina de Tavira slides in on Roma’s overall goodwill and Amy Adams rides the coattails of the Academy’s mysterious love for the largely derided Vice. (There’s a joke in there, but I won’t make it.) I’m inclined to back Regina King simply because I’ve loved her since 227 (look it up, art house snobs!), but I have yet to see If Beale Street Could Talk—I was gonna catch it this afternoon, but instead I’m sitting at home writing this—so I’ll tilt toward Emma Stone.

SUPPORTING ACTOR
Sam Rockwell is clearly the beneficiary of having won here last year—my wife, who has seen Vice, assures me that his tiny role as George W. Bush wouldn’t warrant Oscar consideration even if it went beyond simple caricature. Mahershala Ali’s inclusion makes more sense, but again, he’s already got a statue—and, yes, he might get another one. Richard E. Grant does very well by a role that is, however based on real humanity, a bit of a Hollywood cliché. Adam Driver should’ve been nominated for Paterson. That leaves Sam Elliot, an actor I like—he should’ve been nominated for I’ll See You in My Dreams—nominated for a role I haven’t seen. My vote: Richard E. Grant, the beneficiary of a ton of goodwill stretching back to Withnail & I— now there’s an Oscar-worthy performance—but the whole category gets a shrug from me in the absence of folks like Ben Foster (Leave No Trace), Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther) and, God bless him, Jesse Plemons (Game Night).

DIRECTOR
Anyone who bets against Alfonso Cuaron, here and elsewhere, is filling out a fool’s office Oscar pool ballot. But among these five, Spike Lee deserves his moment on stage, for sheer conviction alone. That, and BlacKKKlansman is a hell of a movie.
ANIMATED FEATURE
I loved Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, but Isle of Dogs looked like a mutt too far for me. (Yeah, yeah, it’s on Amazon Prime—I’ll get to it.) And frankly, I was a touch disappointed by Incredibles 2, which was admittedly burdened by being a sequel to a film that was almost impossible to follow. So, admitting ignorance about Dogs, Mirai and Ralph Breaks the Internet, I’ll still confidently (if somewhat ignorantly) proclaim that no other animated feature colored outside the lines in such an innovative fashion as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse did. It’s not just the animated movie of the year; it comes damn close to being the movie of the year.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

Caleb Deschanel, who should already have an Oscar for The Black Stallion, and maybe one for The Right Stuff too, is nominated for a German-language movie (Never Look Back) no one has seen. (Way to go, Caleb Deschanel!) Roma will win because, well, Cuaron, even though his ascent will deny self-inflated would-be insiders everywhere the chance to wax ecstatic about “Chivo.” (Cuaron has the right to call his longtime cinematographer and friend, Emmanuel Lubezki, by that nickname, and he undoubtedly will on Oscar night in his acceptance speech.) But if it were me, I’d give it to Old Fish Eyes, Robbie Ryan, for The Favourite.

COSTUME DESIGN
I’d automatically default to Mary Zophres here for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs if it weren’t for the fact that Ruth Carter’s spectacular threads for Black Panther made that movie pop off the screen like it was in 3-D, even if you saw it without the free sunglasses. Carter deserves it, and she’ll get it.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Free Solo  wasn’t quite the feat that Jimmy Chin’s previous eye-and-mind-boggling mountain climbing doc Meru was, but it’s still grand. Of Fathers and Sons is easily the most unsettling movie I saw in 2018, and it’s a daring, unblinking piece of work. And to my shame, I have so far missed RBG, Hale County This Morning, This Evening and Minding the Gap. I’d vote for Of Fathers and Sons of the five. But the real story in this category is all the movies-- in a great year for documentaries, by the way-- that went unrepresented, titles like Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (okay, AMPAS ain’t coming near that one-- I get it), Fahrenheit 11/9 (the political outrage factor already covered, I guess, by Vice), John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, Amazing Grace and Three Identical Strangers. But the huge elephant (or the giant Donkey Hodie) in the room is, of course, the lack of recognition for Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a movie that may have been hurt by voters in the Academy documentary branch who may have felt the movie, a big hit and the rare documentary that might be almost as beloved as its subject, had already collected its reward. Mr. Rogers might forgive such an omission, but I cannot.
FILM EDITING
I’d like to think longtime Spike Lee cutter Barry Alexander Brown has a real shot at winning this-- he’d get my vote. But all five nominees also have representation in the Best Picture category, and Roma is not among them, so looks like anything could happen here. My vote: BlacKKKlansman. Prediction?... Um…. The Favourite? Green Book?


FOREIGN FILM
I think the prospect of a Roma  sweep, Best Supporting Actress excepted, is a real thing. That said, if Oscar wants to appear even-handed, Shoplifters has a good shot at one of the evening’s upsets.

MAKE-UP
Please. Vice. For Border and Mary Queen of Scots, really, it’s just an honor to be nominated. Really.

ORIGINAL SCORE
Another toss-up. Though I’ve often bristled at the way his music has been used by Lee, the veteran Terence Blanchard is well-represented for his work on BlacKKKlansman. I honestly don’t recall a note of the score for Black Panther. And if I voted for Mary Poppins Returns, it would be because Marc Shaiman should have won something for South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut  19 years ago. (Nineteen years ago…?) I’d vote for Blanchard. 


ORIGINAL SONG
My daughter’s vote would go to “All the Stars” from Black Panther, and I completely understand. It’s a good song. And there will be no denying Lady Gaga in this category, no matter what happens between her and Close (and Colman)—from what I’ve heard it’s even a good song too. But there’s no way I’d ever vote against “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” written by the great roots musicians David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Another strike against the Oscar show: I hear tell they’re not scheduling a performance of the tune, by Tim Blake Nelson or anyone else. Pan shot!

PRODUCTION DESIGN
Would anyone dare vote against Black Panther in this category? Not me.

SCREENPLAY (ADAPTED)
This one feels like Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott, Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz’s to lose. The quality of Can You Ever Forgive Me? was no forgery, thanks to Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s talents. And the shadow of James Baldwin seems not to have intimidated Beale’s Street’s Barry Jenkins. My own vote would go to the Coens, whose use of existing texts in one story (“Meal Ticket”) and a full-on adaptation of an existing short story ("The Girl Who Got Rattled") lands their otherwise original script for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in the adapted category. They get my vote, but the Oscar will go to BlacKKKlansman, and that’s okay with me. (Just retroactively apply a little of that luster to Lee and Willmott’s previous collaboration, ChiRaq, while you’re at it, Oscar, if you don’t mind.)

SCREENPLAY (ORIGINAL)
I can’t tell you how nice it is to see Paul Schrader get an Oscar nomination, and for a Paul Schrader film too. His template may have been Winter Light, but Schrader is no more a Bergman copycat than De Palma is of Hitchcock, which is to say that he takes a familiar perspective and makes it his own; in First Reformed he’s made a true movie of the moment. I think the momentum behind Roma will be unstoppable here, but it’ll sure be nice to see Schrader in a tux.

SOUND EDITING

Black Panther may seem like the obvious choice, but a movie with sound as something more than subtext, like A Quiet Place, might be a better choice.

SOUND MIXING

Black Panther gets my vote and my prediction, but A Star is Born could sneak one in with this category.

VISUAL EFFECTS

Hard to imagine how a juggernaut like Black Panther managed to miss out on an obvious slot like this one, but it did. Ready Player One was frantic, but also kinda dingy-looking, and Solo: A Star Wars Story and Christopher Robin, while undoubtedly benefitting from feeling familiar, felt, well, too familiar. (I’d have tossed Solo and replaced it with the familiar but wildly enjoyable big monster antics of Rampage.) Of the nominees, Avengers: Infinity War seems like the best choice. But why no love for Annihilation, whose effects were genuinely special, and unsettling as hell to boot?

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And a post-year-end note by way of a mea culpa. I submitted my list of year-end favorites a couple of weeks ago, and I was forthcoming (to the point of embarrassment in some cases) about my blind spots. But thanks to my own poor record-keeping, I created a blind spot for myself where there was none by accidentally omitting Chloe Zhao’s The Rider from the upper echelon of my list of favorite movies of 2018. The story of The Rider, that of a young Native American cowboy (Brady Jandreau) who, after a devastating head injury, has to reevaluate his own life and his place in the world, was based very closely on Jandreau’s experience—he’s a real cowboy, not an actor, and the movie is populated with people from his own family and circle of friends. But what could have been simply a sincere, NPR-friendly character study becomes responsive, inquisitive, empathetic art in Zhao’s hands. With The Rider she’s made a startling original, a one-of-a-kind tribute to one man’s anger and confusion and resiliency that begs comparison to no other movie this year. And yet in a strange and lovely fulfillment of one of her premier influences, Zhao has also made the Terence Malick movie that Malick himself seems unwilling or unable to make anymore.

We who put these things together always say that the year-end list in question might look different if it were composed a day earlier or later, that it could change from moment to moment, and this is an instance when it really did. Here’s what my year-end list would look like if I’d been paying closer attention to my own notes:

FIRST REFORMED

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

LEAVE NO TRACE

THE RIDER

FAHRENHEIT 11/9

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

BLACKKKLANSMAN

BLACK PANTHER

SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD

(Sorry, Game Night. I still love you.)

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2 comments:

Mike Schlesinger said...

My two cents: Six of the eight major categories are pretty much a lock: ROMA, Cuaron, Bale, King, and for screenplays, THE FAVOURITE and BLACKKKLANSMAN. (I know Malek's been coming on strong, but late breakers historically don't catch up in time.) As for Supporting Actor, it will probably still be Ali, but he just won two years ago, so there might be a sentimental wave for Sam Elliott in what will likely be his only shot at the gold. So that just leaves Best Actress as the one genuinely wide-open category.

joe baltake said...

Dennis- And here I thought I was the only one with a serious aversion to Glenn Close. We also agree that "Mars Attacks!" was arguably her finest hour (I've a hunch that her fans would strongly disagree), although I must confess that her debut in "The World According to Garp" is pretty remarkable. -J