E: Some years, nobody knows what’s going to happen. Some years, everyone knows. Some years, you have Crash or Shakespeare in Love or, to a lesser degree, Spotlight: other years, you have Titanic or Schindler’s List. Last year, so much was up for grabs. But this year? This is one of the years where everybody knows. This year, the biggest question isn’t who’s going to win Best Picture, but how many Oscars La La Land is going to win. Could it win enough to break the all time record of 11? It’s not actually possible for it to score a win for each of its fourteen nods (what with two coming in the same category) and is out of contention in at least one other, but a record-breaking 12 isn’t impossible. A record tying 11 is more achievable, but it’s no sinecure.
There are other good questions to ponder, however, and they’re more interesting than just the attendees clothes and the presenters on camera patter. How will Jimmy Kimmel, after a successful turn hosting the Emmy’s, do on the trickiest hosting gig in the biz? It’s not even a question of how late the show will run, but whether it feels like it’s dragging when it does, or if there’s positive momentum building. There could be a record-setting three African American acting winners this year; is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) eager to make up for last year’s appalling slight of all actors of color, and truly embrace diversity, or will it all come to nothing? Will the expected political speeches miscalculate, turning off audiences at home, or galvanize the public’s rebellion? Will the In Memoriam segment be the most gut-wrenching of all time? Do you have enough tissues handy?
Instead of worrying too much, though, let us all take inspiration from La La Land‘s attitude, and enjoy the artistry on display before us. No, all our favorites won’t win, but it’s fun to watch anyway. Here’s a guide to this year’s top categories, broken down for you with all the insight I can offer. Here’s to the ones that dream!
Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
How sure am I?
If Not Him, then Who?
Dev Patel, Lion
You Can’t Count Out:
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals
It Could Happen (But Probably Won’t):
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester By the Sea
If I Could Vote:
Dev Patel, Lion
He Was Robbed:
Kevin Costner, Hidden Figures
Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Andre Holland, Moonlight
Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight
We begin with the most unstable acting race, the one in which the major precursor awards have been divided amongst multiple contenders. We started the season with a clear critical choice in Mahershala Ali, but Christopher Plummer in The Insider and Steve Buscemi in Ghost World stand as historical reminders that not only does love from critics groups not guarantee you an Oscar, it doesn’t even guarantee you a nomination. So where does that leave us? How much do those early end-of-the-year accolades mean? And when there’s no clarity, how do we know who Oscar will choose?
That’s actually the most meaningful question here: it’s not guaranteed to be Mahershala Ali (a black Muslim best known for playing a moral-free lobbyist on House of Cards) but there’s no clear alternative to him, either. And that’s where we are, paging through the choices. We have to reason through all performances. For his work as a supportive father figure/role model in Moonlight (made indelibly complex by his occupation as a drug dealer), Ali swept the critics prizes, but stumbled at the more famous and high profile of the Oscar precursors, losing the Golden Globes to Nocturnal Animals‘ Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Taylor-Johnson, obviously, is no competition here, but his win shoots cracks through Ali’s perceived inevitability. Ali took home the Screen Actor’s Guild Award (stirring the crowd with a passionate speech about his conversion to Islam and his love for his Christian minister mother), but Dev Patel took the BAFTA prize, which certainly puts him in contention and shows again that Ali has at best a tenuous hold on the front runner status. Still, Ali has paid his dues in the industry, and that matters. If racial and religious diversity matter to Hollywood as they often claim, then those factors operate in his favor as well. He’ll give a great speech, and on a night that promises to be rousing and political that matters too.
After years of seeing him as the awkward, earnest up and comer of Slumdog Millionaire, The Newsroom and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel franchise, it’s a revelation to see Patel as a Lion‘s confident, self-assured charmer — still sweet, still sincere, but more convicted of his place at the table. He’s also given a bit of obsession to act through, which isn’t a bad thing. But if there were overwhelming support for the never-before-nominated Patel, we would have seen it with the Hollywood Foreign Press or SAG. For BAFTA, it may have been enough that he’s British. He has the advantage (if you can call it that) of also coming from an underrepresented minority, and he too gives a nice speech. For me it’s nice to see him rewarded as he wasn’t for helming Best Picture winner Slumdog.
It feels relatively safe to count out Lucas Hedges; his nod was well deserved (he’s heart-breaking as the newly orphaned teen whose confidence and grief blurt out at oblique angles), but the movie hasn’t made enough of a splash to lift him up, and AMPAS generally resents youthful male contenders. It’s no accident that Leonardo DiCaprio had to wait more than twenty years between his first nomination and his eventual win. By just getting to this place – by securing an Oscar nomination as an unknown 20 year old – Lucas has already achieved a great deal. Now, granted, his character’s womanizing is part of what makes me conflicted about Manchester By The Sea, but we’ll get more into that later.
And Jeff Bridges? As the one true veteran of this bunch, his will surely be a different experience. I’m somewhat mystified by his nomination. We know he’s popular and well respected in the community (he wouldn’t have received seven nominations and a win if he wasn’t). We’ve seen this grumpy old marshal a hundred times before, though; smart, wisecracking, laconic, burying his emotions under the surface, doggedly pursuing the masterminds behind his last case. It was well done, certainly, but merely shades on an old trope. To be fair to him, though, he was believable in a role that could have been a walking cliche. Does that merit an Oscar nomination? It wouldn’t in my book. Then again, you don’t hear me complaining when Judi Dench and Maggie Smith get nominated for playing variously crotchety or imperious old ladies, so maybe that’s unfair.
Speaking of stereotypes, cypher Michael Shannon picks up his second nomination as yet another cliched, stetson-wearing law man. He too could be a spoiler here, just because the race is so unsettled. I will say, though, that his detective with nothing to lose was a big part of why Nocturnal Animals ultimately failed to connect for me and many others; his choices drove the plot-with-the-plot, but were maddeningly, suspension-of-disbelief-destroyingly nonsensical. Sure, I’ll take along a victim when interviewing a suspect. And give him a gun. Why, what’s weird about that?
I’ll be happy for Mahershala if he does take home the prize; he would be a worthy winner. (He gets bonus points for turning in a nice performance in another Best Picture nominee, Hidden Figures.) If he wins, we’ll see that AMPAS is as committed to diversity as the actor’s union SAG-AFTRA obviously is. Dev’s is the role that will stick with me, though. Actually, it’s a pretty close between those two and the newbie Lucas Hedges, despite my ambivalence toward his character. So I’m hopeful that I’m going to be pleased with the winner however this turns out.
That said, I need a quick word about the gentlemen who were snubbed. The most obvious, perhaps, is Golden Globe winner Aaron Taylor-Johnson, chilling as an mercurial low life, but again, more of a cliche than an original character. How much should that matter? I don’t know. Topping own my list would be Hugh Grant as the actor who plays the role of Florence Foster Jenkins’ husband with such panache and devotion while having an extra life on the side. It was without a doubt the most complex and moving of his career, and to be honest, I’m still kind of sick about his omission. I guess pretty boys have problems getting noticed even as they age! Frankly, I could populate an entire slate with actors I found deeply moving who aren’t nominated here. Why no love for Kevin Costner in the delightful Hidden Figures? Is it because his NASA administrator character was totally made up by the screenwriters? It was still a good performance. Foster, so contained and moving in The Messenger and so unhinged in Hell or High Water, was another stand out for me even if, again, his role wasn’t particularly original. All three actors who played the lead character in Moonlight were spectacular, and all three delivered award-worthy performances, but my favorite is Trevante Rhodes, who negotiated the territory previously shown us by both Ali and his two predecessors: frightened child, discontented son of an addict, tremulous youth reaching out for romantic happiness, and powerful man. But I can’t laud him and leave out his scene partner Andre Holland, who glows in a diner scene as potent and truthful and intimate as anything put on film this year.
Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
How Sure Am I?
It’s An Honor Just To Be Nominated:
Naomi Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester By The Sea
If I Had a Vote:
Viola Davis, Fences
She was Robbed:
Janelle Monae, Hidden Figures/Moonlight
Emmy-winner Viola Davis leads this race like the rock star that she is. Oscar-watchers may remember Davis’s moderately surprising 2011 Best Actress loss to friend and former costar Meryl Streep for her role in The Help to the latter’s turn as Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher. That loss could be put down to the fact that Davis was campaigned in lead for what was probably deemed supporting role, a line her management team has chosen not to cross this year. Ironically, the lead in that movie (or at least, the point of view character) was played by Emma Stone who’s also nominated here, as is Streep. As we know, the Help costar who did go on as expected to win supporting actress, Octavia Spencer, is nominated as well. It’s quite a nice reunion; the only thing that might complete the family circle might have been to see Amy Adams, who starred alongside Streep and Davis in 2008’s Doubt, here as well. Ah well.
If you’ve only been watching award shows or ads, then you might only have seen the popular clip of Davis growling “I’ve been standing right here with you” at her philandering husband, tears and mucus streaming down her face. To concentrate so on that moment, however, is to miss the full beauty of Davis’s rich performance, to miss out Rose Maxon’s joy and her humor, her sexiness and her love, her constant marital negotiations and her profound sense of duty. Husband Troy may be the preening cockscomb of the piece, but Rose is not only its heart but its grounding in reality. Most reviewers will tell you that Fences suffers from “staginess,” that it feels like a filmed play rather than a movie, static and a bit mannered; its a fair critique. Except, that is, for Rose. not for one moment does she feel like anything other than a real person.
Watching Davis ascend the stage at an awards show is a wondrous thing to me. She clomps in her heels, often adjusting her dress, and speaks in a low rasping rumble, so she doesn’t seem like a person used to such trappings. But she’s radiant, whether in a weave or her natural hair (which she wore in 2011 to highlight the fashion expectations made of black women) and she projects such an innate authority and such gravity that you can’t take your eyes off her. She is undeniable. In a world where girls are told that their outsides matters more than what’s within, that their voice only matters if it issues out of a particular vessel — where they’re told that pretty only comes in certain colors and sizes — Viola Davis stands to tell them they can be different, and be more. They can be themselves. It’s a message we could all use these days.
Having an obvious winner doesn’t make this category boring, either. For one thing, it’s filled with bravura performances from amazing actresses; unlike the Supporting Actor category, I can’t find fault with the characters or the performances. We have two former winners here, Kidman and Spencer, we’re initiating a first timer (Harris), we have former teen-soap star Williams slipping under the radar with her fourth nomination, and Davis setting the record for African American women with her third nod. If that’s not a galloping absurdity, I don’t know what is, but hey, lets keep pushing those numbers up! For the first time in the most diversity-friendly category, the plurality of nominated actresses are black. Hattie McDaniels, of course, started it all with her nomination and win back in 1939 for her role in Gone With the Wind, a good thirty years before the color line was crossed in most of the other categories. 2017 is also the first time (and what a truly weird stat this is) that a black actress has been nominated again after winning. Chew on that for a second. Doesn’t taste good, does it? I’m happy for Octavia Spencer that she broke through this strange glass ceiling, but it really makes me frustrated for great actresses who clearly, demonstrably aren’t getting the roles they deserve. Hollywood, how have you not taken Lupita Nyong’o and run with her? This year’s Queen of Katwe finally gave her a substantive onscreen presence, but are you really going to let her languish in voice work or super hero costumes? Come on. You can do better.
At any rate, this year is as advertised an awesome one for diversity, a refreshing sight after last year’s appalling #OscarsSoWhite.
Naomi Harris is the only actor who moves through all three sections of Moonlight, the time jumps taking us through the worst of her devastating struggle with addiction and beyond. Nicole Kidman shines as the Australian who felt it her life’s work to adopt children from poverty-stricken India; the speech she gives explaining this to son Saroo is one of the most astonishing and emotional moments in a generally emotional film. Spencer purses her lips but holds her head up high, quietly making herself indispensable in new ways as technology threatens to make her job obsolete. And Williams tears at our hearts as Manchester By The Sea‘s little seen ex-wife, breaking us open when she tries to break through to her former husband with her tears and her forgiveness.
It’s easy to see why Janelle Monae was robbed of a nomination this year; like Amy Adams, her two fantastic high profile roles probably knocked each other out. She’s a terrific actress, however, and one it will be a pleasure to watch in the future. I hope an Oscar nod’s not too far away, Janelle. And maybe more importantly, I hope you and other black actresses keep getting work this worthy of you.
Casey Affleck, Manchester By The Sea
How Sure Am I?
If Not Him:
Denzel Washington, Fences
Just Wracking Up Lifetime Nomination Totals:
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
If I Could Vote:
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
He Was Robbed:
Joel Edgerton, Loving
Tom Hanks, Sully
What a truly fascinating category this is to consider. It’s very, very interesting. Viggo Mortensen’s Ben would call me out for the use of some “non-words” there, but I can’t help it: the two leading contenders are locked in a battle of opposites that speak directly to the mood of our times, both for their roles and as individuals.
With seven nominations, Denzel Washington ties with Jeff Bridges for this year’s most nominated male acting nominee. The number also makes him the most nominated African American actor ever, male or female. That count may pale in comparison to Meryl Streep’s record setting 20 nods, but Washington may tie her three wins. He would be the first African American to do that as well; he already ties Sidney Poitier for the most Oscars, though to my mind since one of Poitier’s was honorary and both of Washington’s were competitive, Denzel’s already in the lead. He is arguably the most lauded and well-respected African American in the film business – greats like Poitier, Freeman, Tyson and Bassett can match his gravitas but can’t compare to his number of accolades. This year’s nominated role also occurs in a movie Washington directed to a Best Picture nomination, and is a reprise of his Tony winning work from the 2010 revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama. His character, Troy Maxton, brays and pontificates, constantly inventing and reinventing himself (which is to say, lying) to his family and friends and even to himself. He’s thoroughly convicted of his own righteousness, of his claims for your attention, of all the things the world owes him, showing a profound narcissism which increases his frustration at being held back by his race. By turns jovial and threatening, Troy always makes the biggest noise in the room, and needs to have all eyes on him, not unlike our bombastic, braggadocios head of state. In Troy’s treatment of his family, we see a blind monster willing to sacrifice others for standards that fail to account for any reality but his own perceptions.
Then there’s two time nominee Casey Affleck playing silent Lee Chandler, a man so strangled by his grief and guilt that he’s nearly catatonic, yet who still strains to honor his brother’s last wishes and take care of his teenage nephew. His is a profound tragedy; Lee walks and breathes, but he’s dead inside. He fights – figuratively and literally – to stay dead, punishing himself by brawling with strangers when he strays too close to intimacy. I found the film and Affleck’s acting immensely moving.
But, on the other hand, I wasn’t without issues with it, and those issues center on the film’s treatment of women. Troy Maxon is a cad and a philanderer, but Fences knows it and doesn’t defend him from the charge. Unlike Rose Maxon, however, the women in Manchester by the Sea exist solely to reflect the challenges faced by the men. Women who like Lee do so to make us wonder why he won’t pursue them, to show us how broken he is that he won’t take advantage of a sure thing. They stand in judgment or they forgive him only to highlight how he cannot forgive himself. And particularly there are nephew Patrick’s two girlfriends: the mouthy one who puts out but doesn’t get the bro-humor of Patrick’s friends, and the cool one in his band who would absolutely put out if only her overprotective mother would let the two alone. One of the few parenting choices Lee makes in the entire film is to force Patrick to dump the demanding girl, the one who pushes for him to talk about his emotions. Great performances seldom come from solely admirable roles (I love when a film makes me empathize with characters I dislike or disagree with), but what bothers me more than Lee’s attitude is the film’s. The single flashback scene that shows us Lee’s relationship with his now ex-wife, our one glimpse of their past happiness, shows him relentlessly trying to get in her pants even though she’s miserably sick in bed. Taken altogether, it’s not charming.
Add to that small river of trouble Affleck’s profoundly underwhelming acceptance speeches, and the law suits which allege that Affleck created a hostile working environment on a film he produced. Fresh Off the Boat‘s Constance Wu has, among others, made a great deal of noise about how Hollywood can’t rail against Donald Trump as a misogynist but laud actors who live the same way. Since art is subjective, she reasons, and there’s generally no such thing as a universally agreed upon best performance, isn’t it fair to take an actor’s life into account while judging his or her work? It’s compelling reasoning. To say that I find this choice politically fraught would be a gross understatement. I want to pick Casey. To me, his was the best performance. And if we’re judging on political merit of the role, then Washington fares no better. But, this year of all years. But but but.
The Oscar pundits over at Gold Derby upped their odds on Denzel to 1/1 after his SAG win, despite the fact that Casey has won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA. Why, do you ask? Because the SAG best actor winner hasn’t lost the Oscar since 2003. Because SAG generally has a 90% predictive rate for Best Actor. BAFTA, on the other hand, lines up with that particular Oscar only a little more than half the time. But guess what? Denzel Washington wasn’t nominated for the BAFTA. Guess what else? He never has been. (Neither has Morgan Freeman. I don’t like to call you guys out, Brits, but what’s up with the hate? With twelve Oscar nods and three wins between the two men, there’s a clear and surprising disconnect here.)
Andrew Garfield – famously snubbed for his work in The Social Network – finally scores his first Oscar nod for his portrayal of a heroic (and very real) WW2 conscientious objector. At first scorned by the military establishment for his refusal to carry or ever train with a gun, Desmond Doss finishes his medical training and proves his bravery and commitment to saving lives in the Pacific theater. His character seems so peculiar that it’s not until the documentary portion at the end that you understand how perfectly Garfield brings us his mannerisms and speech. He’s never been in contention to win, but should feel tremendous pride in having forced the Academy to acknowledge his work despite his youth and good looks. (No, I’m not kidding. Those characteristics aren’t an asset with men as they are with women. The Academy loves girls and young women, but is far happier rewarding men who’ve paid 20 years of dues at least. Again, ask Leonardo DiCaprio. ) I can’t help hoping that it’s not awkward for him to go through the long and grueling awards season with his ex Emma Stone, invited to all the same events, especially given the likely end result for her; I hope it’s just, as they say, an honor to be nominated and lauded for his work.
Viggo Mortensen picked up his second nomination for playing a man raising his free thinking, extraordinary family off the grid (and dealing with the pressures from both within and without) in the strange and affecting Captain Fantastic. His character’s extraordinary survivalist skills and keen intellect play well with my own Lord of the Rings-driven ideas of Mortensen, not to mention his recent political outspokenness. Gosling, too, picks up his second nod for La La Land‘s grumpy, misanthropic jazz pianist transformed and ennobled by love. There may be no more obvious case of an actor’s talents being obscured by his youth and looks than the former child actor; Gosling has turned in bravura performances in films like Lars and the Real Girl and Blue Valentine as well as classic romantic leads (ie, roles AMPAS ignores) in The Notebook and Crazy, Stupid Love. I’m glad that the overwhelming love for this film pushed this tremendously talented actor over the edge.
Again, okay. I am very much aware that most Oscar watchers are picking Denzel Washington. I’m aware that we can’t take Affleck’s BAFTA win as a sign of momentum or dominance since Washington wasn’t nominated there and that I could be making a mistake. I am aware I am going out on a limb. I still think, however, that the preponderance of evidence is on Affleck’s side. I don’t think AMPAS likes giving out too many awards to the same people; it took Meryl till her 17th nomination to get to three wins, with 19 years and 12 nominations in between wins 2 and 3. Now, SAG clearly cares about minority performers. SAG made a point last year with Idris Elba and kept on making them this year with Ali, Davis, Washington and Hidden Figures. (I’m not saying they’re undeserving: I’m saying it’s not an accident.) But will AMPAS follow? Maybe I’m just less convinced that Hollywood (read all Hollywood, including the people in charge and not just the actors) cares about Affleck’s alleged treatment of his female employees and colleagues, or about showing that they support minority performances. Maybe sexual assault is the kind of baggage that scuttles the hopes of black actors, not white ones. Maybe that’s cynical of me; let’s see them prove me wrong. If he wins, I don’t expect much of a speech from Affleck; Washington, on the other hand, rings out his joy loud and true.
I’d love to take a minute to honor Joel Edgerton for his quiet, often scowling turn as Richard Loving, one half of the couple that overturned Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage. He played a real life hero with grace and resolve. And speaking of real life heroes, seriously, what does the Academy have against Tom Hanks? I feel like I’m saying it all the time, but the man has hardly been nominated in this millenium despite turning in gorgeous, beloved performances in films like Charlie Wilson’s War, Bridge of Spies, Captain Phillips, Saving Mr. Banks and this year’s Sully. What is wrong with Tom Hanks, Hollywood? What do you have against him?
Emma Stone, La La Land
How Sure Am I?
If Not Her?
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Natalie Portman, Jackie
There For the Party:
Ruth Negga, Loving
They Love Nominating Her as Much as They Hate Letting Her Win:
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
If I Had A Vote:
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
She Was Robbed:
Amy Adams, Arrival
Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures
2016 embarrassed us with the riches of its female performances. All five actresses deserve their nods, but Adams and Henson were snubbed for glorious performances, and I have yet to see several other top contenders, Annette Benning in 20th Century Women, Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane, and Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train. Maybe that sounds like it shouldn’t be news, or even like I’m complaining, but it’s the opposite: Hollywood doesn’t make a lot of movies with female leads. And even when they do, the Academy tends to dismiss acting in genre films like, say, Felicity Jones’ turn in Rogue One. What’s nice about this list, though, is that the Academy didn’t have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find these women. Even Elle, the most obscure to American audiences, is well known and widely reviewed (if controversial and dubious). Movies like Jackie and Loving and Florence Foster Jenkins weren’t nominated for Best Picture, but they could have been: Amy Adams and Taraji Henson, nominees from some of the actual Best Picture nominees, could easily have been nominated here.
It’s highly unlikely that anyone but two time nominee Emma Stone will take the win here for her incandescent role as actress Mia, the heart of the bittersweet charmer La La Land. Conventional wisdom had it that the Golden Globes would bring us a classic showdown between critical favorites Stone and Natalie Portman, but instead Isabelle Huppert stole the drama award from Portman, who failed later to make a show at either the SAG or BAFTA awards. Both of those prizes were won by Stone. And what a hard job it is, don’t you think, to be charming? To be sweet, but not cloying: to be relatable and yet aspirational, funny but real, truthful and still appealing? La La Land doesn’t work if the audience, as well as Gosling’s grumpy Sebastian, doesn’t fall in love with Stone’s Mia. That the film works, and works beautifully, is her triumph, and she’s going to be rewarded for it. It’s been a good long time since our Best Actress has come from the Best Picture winner – not since Million Dollar Baby twelve years ago, only once in this millennium. You have to leap back to Shakespeare in Love in 1999 and Silence of the Lambs in 1992 for the next instances most recent. (This tells us yet again that the great roles for women aren’t made by big studios any more, and also that what the Academy considers great routinely does not include stories about women.) That this year’s Best Picture winner is going to have a true female lead that is a great performance? That’s a pretty awesome thing.
Of course it’s still possible that Huppert or even Portman could surprise, Huppert for the steely, twisted rape victim continually punishing herself for her own childhood trauma, or Portman, conveying former First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s fragility and stoicism. (This is another odd pairing: men literally want to beat successful business woman Michele LeBlanc down, as they want to patronize and protect Jackie Kennedy, holding her up and sheltering her at the same time they’re questioning her judgment in areas where the film if not history itself clearly vindicates her choices.) Potman is delicate and girlish, Huppert pitiless and cold, but both are consumed by their place in history, one foisted upon them by the men in their lives. Each actress elevates her film, and we cannot look away (no matter how much we might want to). Elle is despicable in a particularly French way; each character is uniquely rude and revolting and a subject for contempt or of victimization. Empathy is certainly not its business. (This review sums up my objections pretty neatly, but only read it if you don’t care about being thoroughly spoiled.) Jackie, on the other hand, brings us the title character’s role in Camelot myth-making, her crafting of a legacy. What does she feel that we don’t see in the official story? What is her truth? Elle asks that question, too, but refuses to give us an answer outside the protagonist’s desire to punish others and herself.
Totally out of the running is Irish-Ethiopian Negga (perhaps best known to American audiences as Raina, the Girl in the Flowered Dress from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), as the quiet (I know, that word again) but determined Mildred Loving, who with great personal bravery but also great gentleness of spirit pressed her case to the Supreme Court. Loving makes the farmlands of 50s and 60s Virginia feel almost like an alien planet, centuries away, and the unspoken intimacy of the Lovings’ marriage a thing of astonishing beauty. I’m thinking of the moment when Mildred slips into Richard’s lap at their kitchen table, or when Richard lays his head in Mildred’s lap as they laugh at the television, their image captured by the Life photographer played in the film by nominee Michael Shannon. (I can’t help thinking it’d be fascinating to teach some of these films in comparison with each other as lessons in form: the verbosity that makes Fences a great play, for example, against the wordless embraces that make Loving such a transporting movie.) Negga’s was a surprise nomination, in a slot that most prognosticators (including me) assumed would go to Adams, but certainly not an unwelcome one. I mean, if you’re not going to let Adams win (which they weren’t), then maybe this is just an argument in her quiver that she should win the next time (and there will be a next time) — not to mention, if neither of them can win, then why not give Negga her first nod instead of just bringing Adams’ total from five to six? It’s win/win, really. Best Actress is the one acting category certain to be won by a white person, but because of Negga, every category has at least one nominee of color, and after last year’s shame, that’s nothing to laugh at.
Finally, we have Meryl Streep, a nominee for the 20th time. I knew it’d been too long since her last nomination; it’d be pretty unusual to go three full years without her getting a nod. It’s an odd thing, how much the Academy loves nominating Meryl but not awarding her. That’s not to say she isn’t deserving. Florence Foster Jenkins broke my heart (somewhat unfortunate since my husband and I saw it as a long awaited and rather rare night out) and stayed in my blood stream for days. Heiress Jenkins, a real woman, has used her money to buy herself the life she likes best: a handsome younger husband, patronage of the arts, even occasional performances for a select, conniving few who flatter her she’s the artist she wishes she were. Can the audience approve of such an arrangement? Can we get over watching Florence’s husband tuck her into bed and slip off to cavort with his lovely young mistress? Or watching music tutors and accompanists and reviewers lie to Florence about her musical abilities? How can a life of such lies not be wrong? Is it real happiness, to live so deluded? Can someone who loves music as much as she does really not know how terrifically terrible she is? Yet there’s a bravery and pluck to Florence (living with a fatal disease) that makes you wish for her happiness, and long to protect her. The movie is heart-rending, and Streep’s fearless performance (imagine singing that badly over and over again, finding new ways to be ever worse!) astonishes.
I like all these performances, and it’s rather tough going for me to pick one, but after a great deal of waffling and deliberation, I can say I’d have voted for Streep.
You may have deduced that I like Amy Adams, and was touched by her acting in Arrival, one of my favorite films of the year. That, too, is a film that will stay with me with its insight and clever structure and fascinating plot, and Adams carries it all. Another favorite of mine, Henson, could have made this list as a mathematical genius no longer obscured by the white-washing and gender-washing of history. The untold story of the women who did the math and wrote the codes that got Americans into space and onto the moon? I’m glad it’s out there. Read the book. See the movie. Support the truth.
Best Adapted Screenplay
How Sure Am I?
The Roads Not Taken:
Fences, Hidden Figures, Lion and Moonlight were all produced in some capacity by writers of color; for four out of five works to be so has to be another Academy record. If any of the black nominees win, this will be only the third time ever such a thing has happened. The late push for Moonlight to overcome La La Land may not come to anything, but it ought to win this most difficult of categories. (Weirdly, Jenkins’ screenplay departs enough from it’s source material – Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue – that many awards giving bodies considered it an original script. Not so the Oscars! Never the Oscars, who declared Memento‘s screenplay adapted because it was inspired by an unpublished short story.) It’s a gorgeous screenplay, though it’s up against stiff competition. If anything has a shot, I’d like to think it was Hidden Figures (a dense and spectacular book turned into a charming and inspirational movie) or perhaps Arrival with its fascinating structure, but I’d be very surprised to see the Scripter winner lose.
Best Original Screeplay
La La Land
How Sure Am I?
Manchester By the Sea
The Rest of the Gang:
20th Century Women
Hell or High Water
I haven’t made any bones about my issues with Manchester by the Sea, but let me be perfectly clear; with all its faults, it’s still extraordinary. It’s still deserving. So I suppose we’ll really see here if La La Land has the sweep potential. Okay, we know it’s going to lose Best Actor, and it can only win Best Song once, but it has a great shot at as many as 12 of the 14 it’s nominated for. BAFTA, the Critics Choice and a host of critics groups all gave Manchester their thumbs up, but if the film-making industry is as enchanted by LLL‘s stardust as they seem? Here’s their big chance to show it.
“City of Stars,” La La Land
But Wait, Can You Really Count Out The Most Popular Song of the Year?
“Can’t Stop the Feeling,” Trolls
But He’s the Hottest Person in the Arts:
“How Far I’ll Go,” Moana
And Isn’t This One More Substantive and Moving?
“Audition/The Ones Who Dream,” La La Land
At Least This One We Should Be Able To Count Out, Right?
“The Empty Chair,” Jim: The Jim Foley Story
Blocking Lin-Manuel Miranda’s shot at completing not just an EGOT but the never before accomplished MacPEGOT (MacArthur Genius Grant, Peabody award, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) is going to be no mean feat. I have to admit, if you’d asked me before the Golden Globes I’d say there was no way it could happen. How could anything or anyone beat Miranda? But that’s exactly what happened when the writers behind both La La Land and Broadways’s tech heavy teen suicide musical Dear Evan Hansen triumphed at the Globes. Are Justin Horowtiz, Justin Paul and Benj Pasek this year’s Matt and Ben? They seem unbeatable. But are they? If it’s a La La Land sweep, absolutely. Could the two La La songs cancel each other out? It’s possible, though not perhaps the likeliest outcome: more often than not the movie that has multiple song nominees gets the win (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Slumdog Millionaire) instead of negating each other (Dreamgirls, Enchanted, Cold Mountain, The Princess and the Frog) .
Now, Lin-Manuel will probably have other chances. He won’t have another shot at being the youngest ever EGOT winner, of course, but still it won’t be the end of the world for him or his fans. And to be fair, it’s not like Moana inspired a “Let It Go” or Hamilton level obsession, but in any other year it would likely have triumphed. And it still could. It’s truly a fascinating question here, though. When movies, music and money collide, what wins?
I heard a fantastic report on NPR this week praising the five nominated songs as the strongest slate in years, which very well might be true. The report is absolutely worth a listen, but as much as I do love at least four of these five I keep getting bogged down in how many songs I loved didn’t make the cut. What about “Get Back Up Again” from Trolls, or the rest of the amazing Moana soundtrack, or the glorious original tunes from Irish 80s musical Sing Street like “Drive It Like You Stole It,” “To Find You” and “Up“? What about Shakira’s inspiring, chart-shaking “Try Everything“? What about Hidden Figures‘ impossibly catchy “Running,” written and performed by one of the film’s producers, Pharrell Williams? What about the other beautiful songs from La La Land, for that matter? It’s an embarrassment of riches. Honestly, the only song on this list that doesn’t strike me as an automatic classic is Sting’s sweet but less memorable “The Empty Chair.” The music legend scored his fourth Oscar nod this year, but honestly his previous movie efforts aren’t stand outs in his immense ouevre either. When was the last time you played “My Funny Friend and Me,” “You Will Be My Ain True Love” or “Until“? Huh. You know, I think now that I’ve looked it up, I’m going to be listening to “Until” more. It’s gorgeous. Glad I did that! Anyway, here’s my point: this year, pretty work from big stars doesn’t cut it.
How Sure Am I?
Who Else Could It Be?
Kubo and the Two Strings
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle
Kubo and the Two Strings
Robbed, I Tell You:
I have yet to see either of the foreign nominees here. It frankly galls me to have only three of these nominees under my belt, because seriously, this was a fabulous year for animated film, and I saw almost every single one that hit American theaters. These are movies with smart scripts, inspirational story lines, dazzling effects, and fantastic music. Think about the extraordinary music in Moana. Think about the extraordinary music in Zootopia, for heaven’s sake. When was the last time you saw an animated film nominated for Visual Effects, as Kubo is for its breath-taking origami-inspired sequences? And in Finding Dory, you have the second highest grossing film of the year, one rated 94% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. (Actually, the animated film nominees are rated even high than their Best Picture counterparts. Even some of the snubbed ones. True story.)
At any rate, I’ll be happy to see Annie and Golden Globe winner Zootopia win, but I’d be just as happy with either Moana or BAFTA’s choice, Kubo. As I would have been happy with Dory. It’s a great year for animated film, I’ll say it again, and I hope that I can manage to get my hands on those pesky foreign nominees, because they’re supposed to be fantastic, too.
How sure am I?
If Not Him, Then Who?
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Look Who Else Is At the Party:
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By the Sea
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
When Chazelle takes this prize as he’s taken every significant precursor from the Golden Globes to BAFTA to the Director’s Guild, he’ll become the youngest ever director to win an Academy Award. He’ll also become only the second director to take home the prize for an original musical, after Vincent Minelli in Gigi. The last musical to win best picture, 2002’s Chicago, was of course a remake of a Broadway musical (as were others like Oliver! and The Sound of Music; 1929’s winning Broadway Melody was based on a short story), and its director Rob Marshall was passed over for the directing prize. (How funny is that Gigi was recently made into a Broadway musical, just in time for another original musical to take its place in Oscar history?) Wunderkind Chazelle dazzled with 2014’s Whiplash, perhaps my favorite film of that year, and delights again with another story of artists stretching themselves for their craft. Here, instead of brutalizing themselves to achieve greatness, Mia and Sebastian must have faith long enough to become the successes we know they can and should be. It’s altogether a lighter, fluffier affair, but one that Chazelle carries off with great delicacy of tone and deftness of hand. It dances back and forth between realism and enchantment, and the fact that this all feels plausible and organic is Chazelle’s impressive achievement.
If Chazelle were to lose, Moonlight‘s Barry Jenkins would be his logical replacement. In that case, he would be the first black director to win. I’m hoping that’ll happen soon – it should have happened, honestly, when 12 Years a Slave won, but if winning Best Picture couldn’t get a black director over that line, losing it certainly won’t.
For the only repeat nominee, Mel Gibson, it was an incredible feat to get this nomination. It’s been a long time since he was the affable Christian family man who flew to Oscar glory with Braveheart. Along with his new young wife and baby, perhaps this story of historical heroism has given his career new life. Lonergan and Villeneuve may be industry veterans, but like Chazelle and Jenkins they’re new to Oscar. They’ve made beautiful, cleverly structured works of art here, and it’s great to see them at the party.
La La Land
How Sure Am I?
What Could Beat It?
In Another World:
Manchester By the Sea
It’s An Honor to be Nominated:
Hell or High Water
I have to admit it; this is a pretty dazzling slate of nominees. Outside of the bafflingly ordinary Hell or High Water and too stage-y Fences, I liked all of these movies very much, and indeed valued all nine for their own good qualities. Would I have slipped in Jackie and Loving instead of those last two? Sure. But I’m a lot more okay with this bunch than I usually am. Some stats here: 3 of these movies have lead female characters. Only three out of nine. That’s shameful, but it’s pretty much par for the course, so much so that the mainstream press never questions it or even brings it up. What’s far better is that this year, four out of the nine films boast non-white protagonists, up from last year’s zero. Now that is progress.
But those are the nominees. As for the winner, it’s pretty much a law: the movie with the most nominations wins. (See especially Shakespeare in Love‘s surprise win over Saving Private Ryan: maybe we shouldn’t have been so shocked.) There’s a mild bit of backlash around La La Land‘s presumed win, and it’s not because LLL isn’t a wonderful movie. It’s not even because it’s not a worthy winner. It’s the nomination total, which at 14 puts it in the most exalted Oscar company of all, Titanic and All About Eve. But think about that before you start wondering who deserves what. Titanic, certainly, is one of the most popular movies ever, but does either top critical lists? No. All About Eve is certainly better respected critically. But again, it’s probably not the critics absolute favorite and definitely not the public’s. As Oscar Watcher extraordinaire Sasha Stone often warns us, the heart wants what it wants. The community loves what it loves, in the moment. They don’t always think about context, as Constance Wu and other critics might wish. They just want what they want.
After the 2016 presidential election, it surprises me that Hollywood isn’t focusing in on the many movies from 2016 that speak directly to our current political landscape. Now, sure. The arts are definitely under attack, with the new administration vowing to defund PBS, NPR and the NEA, so it’s not like La La Land isn’t highlighting anything important. There’s uplift and purity and enchantment. But do the dreams of a couple of good-looking white people (dreams of being rich and famous and successful in exactly the way they prefer) really amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world? I don’t say this to minimize the film’s impact, but to question what Hollywood is saying in choosing it, and who it is they’re talking to.
La La Land is a sweet and charming movie; it sweeps you up in wistful music and candy colors and soft shoe. But the nominations ever? La La Land, winning more Golden Globes than any movie in the Hollywood Foreign Press’s 70 plus year history? Does anyone actually think it’s the greatest movie of all time? I imagine that even from its strongest partisans, the short answer is no. And the long answer is this; that’s not what I get out of watching the Oscars.
Outside of the awards community groupthink, no one is ever going to agree on what the best movie of a given year is, let alone the best movie of all time. Taste is subjective; give a room full of people a “best of” list, and you’ll get hours worth of dissent and conversation. But that’s the fun of it, right? Defending your favorites, hearing the relative merits of someone else’s pick. Film industry awards are driven by a myriad of odd, undefinable factors, a dizzy concatenation of buzz and box office and seriousness of purpose, subject matter and style. The reason I follow the Oscars isn’t because I usually agree with the Academy’s choices (because I don’t), or to root for one film over another (even though that’s fun), but because as a whole, paying attention to what might and does get nominated gives me a moderately comprehensive list of some terrific movies. Sure, they pick movies I hate sometimes, and overlook popular stuff every time. But it’s a good place to start. It’s a good way to find films that you might not otherwise see.
So do I think Oscar routinely picks the films for which each year will be remembered? Naw. Most people will remember 2015, for example, for The Force Awakens or Mocking Jay Part 2 rather than Spotlight. We find those films meaningful for different reasons, and that’s fair and right. There’s no doubt that Avatar has a bigger following than the film that beat it out for 2009’s Best Picture; no one’s making a theme park out of The Hurt Locker. But so what? Who would want to go to one? Both ways of looking at films have merits and faults. The Academy deliberately eschews popular movies these days, even when they’re remarkably good. And they’ve never been perfect at sussing out the most lasting films. The best movie musical I know is Singing in the Rain, an assessment most critics and film historians will probably agree with – and yet that film garnered a paltry 2 nominations. Is La La Land a better film? Better than Moulin Rouge, better than Chicago, than My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music? Fight about it if you want, or don’t, but don’t think there’s definitive answer.
After November, I thought for sure that the Academy would go edgy instead of insular – would honor the bleak poverty in gay coming of age story Moonlight (two minorities for the price of one!), or Manchester by the Sea‘s devastating look at the broken heart of the working class. (Let’s never mind for a second that the actual town of Manchester-by-the-Sea is a expensive community decidedly not populated by droves of cussing fishermen with broad Boston accents.) Or perhaps they’d follow the public to break out hit Hidden Figures, with the kind of upbeat, inspirational true story that Oscar used to love? What about Arrival, which uses a classic genre story (first contact!) to make a profound statement about perseverance, about mortality, about the bravery of loving even when pain is the inevitable outcome. Both Hell or High Water and Fences show the working class, again, locked in a profound struggle with a system rigged against them. Lion brings us a triumph of empathy and technology over third world poverty and crime that’s almost beyond first world understanding. And Hacksaw Ridge? Again, in the face of horrific violence, a true hero saves lives without sacrificing his integrity. Those would be a lot of good things to spotlight. After The Artist, Argo and particularly the narcissistic Birdman just in the last five years, do we really need yet another movie telling us that making art (specifically making movies) is the highest form of human good?
So the question is, what’s the point of the Oscars? Is it just about what the industry likes at any given moment, or is it a community trying to speak with the world? We can safely say the industry always likes movies about making movies, anyway. I had expected this would have been a nice time for something more expansive. There were lots of good films to get behind here. It’s not that La La Land isn’t a wonderful film, of course, even if the film’s very name argues against taking it too seriously. But that’s the thing about Oscar: there’s no real “best” picture, only the one that most people choose. And that has to be okay, because it doesn’t dictate what audiences have to like best. You just have to take it with a pinch of salt.
At any rate, after wins at the Golden Globes, the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild, the BAFTAs and the Critics Choice it seems like a fantasy to argue any other film’s case, though some are still hoping against hope for a Moonlight-surprise in the way people do when they’re bored with the obviousness of an awards season. La La Land is dreamy and lovely, an atmospheric, touching and immensely enjoyable piece of cinematic magic. Sure, movies normally do not win Best Picture without at least being nominated for the SAG Ensemble award (a shocking snub, especially happening as it did right after LLL‘s historic sweep of the Golden Globes, winning more awards there than any other film the Hollywood Foreign Press’s existence), but this movie wasn’t an ensemble piece. The Screen Actors Guild nominated the two lead performances, and those two performances are frankly the entire movie; two people influencing each other’s lives, opening each other up to being their best (or at least most artistically fulfilled) selves. Two people, and a lot of terrific back up dancers.
No, like I said at the top, barring an unpredictable, November-style surprise the question is how many awards La La Land will win. Are we looking at Globes style sweep (7 for 7), or a more modest BAFTA-esque total (5 out of 11)? Only time will tell, since the accountants aren’t talking.
Let’s pay tribute to a few other categories. Costume Design seems to be another good indicator for La La Land‘s chances at a high total: the tough choice seems to be between its brightly hewed, Umbrellas of Cherborg inspired fashion and Jackie‘s meticulous historical detail, and so a nod here in LLL‘s direction could be a portentous sign. Foreign Film, once the clear province of German’s Toni Erdman, might be the site of some Trumpian backlash. When Oscar winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi announced that he would respect the new administration’s travel ban and not attempt to enter the country to attend the Oscar ceremony, he catapulted his film The Salesman into new territory. That might be enough to put him on the elite roster of directors (Bergman, De Sica, Fellini and Kurasawa) who’ve taken the Foreign Film title at least twice, and so I’ll be watching that race with renewed interest. As with many other categories, race is a hot topic in Documentary Feature where three nominees explore that shadow on America’s promise: 13th (an exploration of the 13th Amendment by the recently snubbed filmmaker behind Selma, Ava DuVernay), James Baldwin biography I Am Not Your Negro, and the likely winner, O.J.: Made in America. Our fascination with the former football and media star seems to have no bounds. These latter categories tend to inspire political speeches, and no doubt this year will be no different.
And of course everyone knows to have tissues ready for the In Memoriam segment of the telecast, always touching but this year certain to be a real blow. We all know it; 2016 was rough. Back stage tip: you may have heard that Carrie Fisher expressed a wish for Harrison Ford to sing during that section when it was eventually her turn to be in it. Though surely tongue and cheek (“Melancholy Wookie”?), there’s a lot of buzz around this from Star Wars fans, including the owner of a building neighboring the Dolby Theater where the Oscars are taking place. So while I’m personally hoping for something more dignified for everyone involved, I will still be on the look out for the billboard that says “Sing For Her, Harrison!” off behind the red carpet.
And that, my friends, is what I have to tell you.