So there’s this DHL commercial from the late 80s or early 90s (sadly unavailable online) which sticks in my mind as one of the all time greats. My family collapsed in hilarity every damn time it came on, and as you can see, quotes it to this day. It was part of a series in which DHL showed irresponsible international curriers to use at your peril; there was one with a Russian rock band that used packages as drums, and this one, in which a deliciously heavily accented French driver had an existential crisis. “I am bored today. I am FIIILLed with bored-em. Zese bourgeois businessmen waiting for zeir packages, zey can wait.”
And that’s how I feel about this year’s Oscar race. I am filled the brim with boredom.
Sure, there will be great fashion, and someone out there will probably give a great speech. Maybe not one of the actors or director or screenwriters or producers (we’ve heard them often enough now to know), but someone. Probably. Oscar matters to industry folks in a way nothing else does, and sometimes that turns self-possessed people into piles of goo. Sometimes the non-celebrity winners have the best things to say; perhaps this year it’ll be Kareem Abeed, director of nominated documentary The Last Man in Aleppo, who was initially denied a visa to attend the ceremony. Or perhaps it’ll be a complete unknown simply paying tribute to his mom. Jimmy Kimmel should be topical and funny as he was last year; I feel like Princess Leia pleading for salvation. “Jimmy Kimmel, you’re my only hope!” Without a real effort from him, I might just be here for the protest art.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some flipping fantastic movies out there this year, movies I’m so glad I’ve seen. Movies that you should go out and see if you haven’t, movies we’ll talk about here. It’s just that the ones that speak to me are not actually winning most of the awards. Also? Every single awards show has rewarded the same performances and film. The critics didn’t produce such a homogenous response, but the industry groups? Every bloody time the same. I’m not sure there’s any race up in the air.
And oh, my lord, that’s so dull. Rolling my eyes like a tween listening to a parental lecture dull, deathly dull, mind-numbingly dull, French existential crisis-level dull. No, I’m not just saying that because I don’t like this year’s presumptive winner; it’s dull even when you like the winner. I’m not longing for last year’s electoral insanity (a remarkably juicy story chronicled here) but I can’t help wishing there’ll be something at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences big show that deviates from the script.
And on that note, let’s get to it!
Best Supporting Actor:
And the Winner Is:
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside of Epping, Missouri
How Certain Am I?
If Not Him, Then Who?
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
There For the Party
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All The Money in the World
He Was Robbed:
Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name
My Pick if I Had One:
Richard Jenkins, Shape of Water
I put three time nominee Willem Dafoe as the possible spoiler because he was the critic’s favorite going into Golden Globes night, not because he has a tadpole’s chance in a whirlpool of winning this award. His motel handyman/super was the emotional core of The Florida Project, and so real as to make his highly recognizable face seem like just another wizened sun worshipper. It felt like we were seeing him in his natural habit, real and true.
But no. He won’t win.
Neither will the lovely Richard Jenkins, so heart-breaking and transformational in The Visitor, the film for which he was first nominated. He would have gotten my vote then, and he’d have gotten it this year with his second nomination, as Water‘s shy closeted artist who like his neighbor Elise comes into his own power through this unusual story.
He’s so not going to win, either.
And former winner Christopher Plummer? His reward was getting the nomination for leaping into the breach left in All the Money in the World by Kevin Spacey’s MeToo exposure. For my money (which is in the world’s most laughable comment near John Paul Getty’s name), he was a far better fit for the role than Spacey who tends even at his best toward a smug, smarmy cockiness. Plummer’s Getty brought a daffy patrician dignity as well as a mercurial chill and was well deserving of this nod.
But nope, not him.
Well, what about Woody Harrelson? Affable pot-advocate Woody’s on his third nomination (surprisingly a higher lifetime total than Dafoe and Jenkins, tied with Plummer) and in Sheriff Willoughby he finds a character arc that’s at once dramatic and also heartbreakingly believable as he battles both cancer and the idea that he’s not doing enough to solve the rape and murder of a local girl.
It ain’t him, though.
No, it seems like from the start the industry has been falling over itself to award first time nominee Sam Rockwell, an actor I’ve enjoyed since 1999’s Galaxy Quest. (Awards-watchers who’re thorough or at least my age will note Rockwell’s shout out to late great Galaxy Quest costar Alan Rickman in his BAFTA acceptance speech.) Please know that my beef here is not with Rockwell, but with the character he plays – the cop whose racism is kept off-screen so we don’t hate him too much before he (eventually, belatedly) attempts to live up to his boss’s good opinion. This arc could be moving if it wasn’t for the obvious manipulation (you should dislike him, but not too much) and lack of insight (he has a bigoted, emasculating mother – so?) and the absolutely bonkers acts of violence and general insanity he progresses to once Harrelson’s stabilizing force no longer holds him back. The film’s ending skews so far away from reality or a moral center that I’m horrified by the people who consider it a redemptive journey. It’s certainly dramatic (in the vein of stage shows that stretch their characters to the breaking point and watch gleefully while they snap) here’s nothing new or revelatory here. The role manages to be at once preposterously over the top and also banal.
How I would have loved to see Armie Hammer’s graceful Oliver take that slot instead. Call Me By Your Name uses the actor’s matinee idol looks and confidence to bring us first the perfect summer crush, and then a man more vulnerable and less sure of his place in the world than even he knew. Hammer was good as the Winklevii, but this is something else. Like everything else about the movie, he enchants. (Heck, I’d have nominated Michael Stuhlbarg for his work as Chalamet’s professor father and Hammer’s boss here, or his work in The Shape of Water, before Rockwell. That list could get a lot longer.)
Anyway. The best thing I can say about this win and this category is that we’re in the unusual position of seeing men nominated for supporting female lead performances. Harrelson and Rockwell to McDormand, Jenkins to Hawkins, Dafoe to Brooklynn Prince, and arguably Plummer to Michelle Williams. I can’t think of another time that’s happened, and it’s a cool quirk of this year’s nominations. Expect some awkward, well-intentioned words from Rockwell rather than a memorable speech.
Best Supporting Actress
And the Oscar Goes To:
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
How Sure Am I?
And They Hoped It was Going To Be A Race:
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Enjoying the Swag:
Leslie Manville, Phantom Thread
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water
My Vote Would Go To:
She Was Robbed:
Mckenna Grace, I, Tonya
Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
Kristin Scott Thomas, Darkest Hour
After winning 7 Emmys in 13 nominations, you might be forgiven for thinking of Allison Janney only as an incredibly successful television actress unusually gifted in both comedy and drama, but she’s actually got a pretty impressive filmography as well. No, she’s pretty much never the lead (now that would be a movie I’d love to see!), but she’s played substantive character roles in Primary Colors, The Hours, The Help, The Ice Storm, Juno and American Beauty. Though I probably shouldn’t have been, I was surprised to see how prolific she’s been as a voice over artist in excellent animated works: Finding Nemo, Finding Dory, The Simpsons, Robot Chicken, Minions and Phineas & Ferb are highlights on her cv. I imagine you’ve picked up on my point here; Allison Janney knows what she’s doing.
So, okay, her version of Lavona Harding pushes into the cartoon right along with the entire film’s satirical tone, but there’s no denying she’s memorable and awesomely vile, Cruella De Vil with a stuffed bird on her shoulder, leaving cigarette ashes and bile in her wake. I felt like the movie walked the line well; it makes you laugh at some pretty awful stuff (hello child and spousal abuse), but it doesn’t minimize it. In the end it’s a pretty searing portrait of a truth stranger than fiction, and I wish it had been nominated for Best Picture. Though it’s not great with female lead films, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t seem to mind cartoony villains in supporting categories (see Supporting Actor and the history of the awards in general) so that at least won’t prove any barrier.
Many folks preferred Laurie Metcalf’s more measured, less monstrous mother from Lady Bird – but not enough to put her over the top. Marion said a lot of things I could never imagine saying to my kids, things I found jaw-dropping, even, while still remaining more normal that Janney’s horror show. But normal is less fun, isn’t it? Most pundits thought this was going to be a fight (beloved sitcom actresses both playing moms!), but it wasn’t at all. It’s been Allison all the way.
Lady Bird is absolutely worth seeing if you haven’t, by the way, and Metcalf is as always wonderful in it. It’s a great exploration of the mother-daughter relationship, something I related to both as a mother and as a daughter remembering my teen years. Perhaps it isn’t as splashy as other entries in this race, but it feels true.
It might interest you to know that Octavia Spencer becomes the first black woman to receive a second nomination after winning an Oscar; unlike last year’s winner Viola Davis, who took home the statuette on her third try, the black actresses who win generally do so on their first nomination (Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Mo’Nique, Jennifer Hudson, Lupita Nyong’o), and then fade into Oscar obscurity. Partly that’s because many women win on their first and only nomination, but it’s much worse for black actresses because the roles are too few and far between. Though she won’t be taking home a second trophy this year, it’s great to see the powerful Spencer in another award-worthy part. More of these, please! Maybe she and Help-costar Allison Janney can make a road movie together or something. Paul Feig, get on it!
Speaking of black actresses and their first nominations, Mary J. Blige probably surprised a lot of people who hadn’t seen her measured, heart-breaking turn in as a share-cropper, mother, and unwilling servant in Mudbound. Though not in contention for the win, she has made a little history by becoming the first black woman to be nominated twice in the same year – the other nom being for her song “Mighty River” – and I think also perhaps the only person ever to be nominated in acting and song in the same year. With this nomination, Ree Dees becomes the first black female director to have directed an actor to an Oscar nomination, a fun fact that awakens angry remembrances of Daniel Oyelowo’s snub for Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Either way, every little step forward is if nothing else a step forward. (Second Mudbound fun fact: the film’s Rachel Morrison is the first woman ever to be nominated as a cinematographer. You may not have seen this Netflix Original, gloomy and absolutely rolling in muck, but you may have seen her work recently in another little art film called Black Panther.)
Folks like me who love costume drama miniseries might remember Leslie Manville as heroine Margaret Hale’s mother in North & South. No, not the American Civil War one – the British one with the cotton mill and the unions. If you haven’t seen it, and you like costume drama or just enjoyed Manville’s steely turn as the practical sibling managing both the House of Woodcock and her brother, you must check it out. Or if you haven’t seen Phantom Thread and Manville’s sour turned-down mouth and her delicate sipping of tea, well, you simply must. The movie is a head-scratcher, and Manville’s inclusion on this list was a surprise in a very fluid field of possible actresses, but a pleasant one.
I wouldn’t have been sorry to see the under-appreciated Kristin Scott Thomas, either, for her role as Winston Churchill’s understanding wife: witty, self possessed, and well-versed in getting her irascible husband to listen (possibly the only person in the film to know how). Though her role didn’t receive a lot of buzz, I was particularly impressed with Mckenna Grace, the young actress who played Tonya Harding as a tween. Watching her spit curses at prissy competitors in one scene, skin squirrels to make herself a fur coat in another, and then plead with her kindly deadbeat dad not to abandon her with slap-happy Lavona? She absolutely broke my heart. And for about half the year, everyone thought Holly Hunter’s fierce Southern mama had a lock on Supporting Actress. It would have been fun to have her in the race; her work was definitely deserving of the notice.
Janney has spoken eloquently about the way her film mines the class divide in America, (far more ably and far less patronizingly than fellow comic opera Three Billboards, to my mind). I wouldn’t be mad if she talked about it again.
And The Winner Is:
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
How Sure Am I?
If Not Him, Then Who?
Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
Having a Good Time:
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Tom Hanks, The Post
I’m Ambivalent About His Absence:
James Franco, The Disaster Artist
My Imaginary Vote Goes To:
Gary Oldman (with Timothee Chalamet a very close second)
Let me get this out of the way first: I’m glad that men in Hollywood are being called to task for their behavior, from the boorish to the criminal. #Time’sUp and it’s about bloody time. (Gosh, I wish we had another Oprah speech to look forward to! Who knew that I would ever expect lifetime achievement awards to actually improve the telecast!) In light of the political situation, what happened to James Franco was the right thing. I don’t doubt he was frat boy awful and totally work-inappropriate, and it’s only just that he’s held responsible for his actions. I have to spare a little regret for his Tommy Wiseau, however, because it was a really terrific performance, one that impressed me far more than Denzel Washington’s, for example. You can bet your lunch money (and a lot of other peoples) that this year’s non-presenter Casey Affleck is relieved his Oscar-winning role came a year too early for him to be held responsible for his habitual, appalling behavior – an issue you may recall I struggled with back then.
And in case you think I’m being unfair, or that Hollywood is being unfair, let’s admit this part: these awards are subjective, and they’re also drive to a large degree by groupthink and buzz. The very idea of a “best” performance is endlessly debatable and not truly achievable, a matter of personal taste as much as anything else. The Oscars mark popularity as much as they award merit – yet another reason that the nominations matter more to me than the awards themselves – and given that, it’s pretty natural to leave out people who’re also doing unpopular things.
Okay. That’s done. Now, let’s get to the people who’re actually nominated, shall we? We can start with second-time nominee and soon-to-be first-time winner Gary Oldman, who chomps and stomps his way through the story of Winston Churchill’s ascendancy to the prime ministership and early dark days of World War II leading up to the triumph of Dunkirk. I brought my kids to see this, and when it ended I asked what they thought of his performance. Who is he? they asked, certain they’d never seen him before. Sirius Black, I replied.
And blew their minds.
When I think of Oldman, I think lean. I think of a corded neck cracking, of a whip-like tension. I don’t think of a waddle or rolls of fat or greedy lips smacking. But he had me from the first moment we watched him suck down a tumbler full of scotch for breakfast. I knew it was Oldman, of course, but I believed the illusion.
Some critics will tell you that his performance is all bombast, and that’s an understandable critique. That’s unlikely to count against him here, though. Often we see AMPAS voters choose a big swing for the fences over a smaller, more life-like moment, and if you add in a successful physical transformation into a highly recognizable historical figure? Oldman’s performance surely brings us the best of that. Buried under foam latex and silicone, Churchill’s essence still shines: his blazing oratory and his ringing certainty as well as his occasional moments of crushing self-doubt. He makes it all look like one flesh; he emotes through the makeup. Oldman has taken the Critics Choice, the Golden Globe, the Screen Actor’s Guild Award, and the BAFTA.
Though he hasn’t actually managed to beat Oldman in the major precursor awards, Timothee Chalamet has held up as his most buzzed-about competitor. That may be, in part, because Chalamet seemed to have emerged fully formed from the head of Zeus this year, giving remarkable (and remarkably different) performances as Lady Bird’s second terrible boyfriend and as the love-stricken teen protagonist of Call Me By Your Name. He snagged some early bird critics’ prizes (the National Board of Review and the L.A. Film Critics) but since has been nominated everywhere without a win. A bright, highly educated teenager, composer Elio glides through a redolent Italian summer till being fair enchanted by his father’s luminous grad student Oliver, a glowing Armie Hammer. I expected to be grossed out by the age difference, especially since the actors are even further apart in age than the characters are supposed to be, yet their emotional reactions are so nuanced, so true, and their connection so deep that I simply couldn’t be.
I’ve said that Oldman’s playing a role that Oscar likes to reward; it’s just as true that he’s exactly the type of lead actor they prefer to laud (at or past middle age), and young unknown Chalamet is exactly the type they like to nominate and then ignore. Most of the time, men are forced to earn the award through a long career rather than a single performance, a rule that operates in reverse for women.
Fun Facts: last year’s wonder boy Lucas Hedges also pulls double duty in Lady Bird (bad boyfriend number one) and Three Billboards (grieving son). Caleb Landry Jones takes the prize, however, as Willem Dafoe’s son in The Florida Project, Allison Williams’s brother in Get Out, and the unlucky billboard owner in Three Billboards. I’m always amused by how many threads these films share, and this year it’s the young bloods so many have in common.
In case you were wondering, Daniel Day-Lewis can act. Boy howdy, can he. There wasn’t much doubt that he’d score a nomination for what he’s saying now will be his last role. (Please don’t be true!) Famous for taking long breaks between films, the actor has won three of the five Oscars he’d been nominated for previous, a shockingly high percentage. His work as a fashion designer falling in and out of love in Phantom Thread won’t get him record-tying Oscar number four, but that’s okay – Meryl’s twenty-first nomination won’t get her a fourth Oscar either, and her batting average isn’t nearly as impressive. I frankly didn’t expect to like this film (I disliked There Will Be Blood, the actor’s first, celebrated collaboration with writer director Paul Thomas Anderson), or merely to tolerate it for Day-Lewis’ always genius acting. I was creeped out by the idea of him romancing a girl half his age — and while it is creepy, just as Krieps has been telling the press, her character gives as good as she gets. The two dance around each other in ways I certainly wasn’t expecting. Reynolds Woodcock is a narcissist, convinced of his own worth and his genius, fussy and fussed over, set in his ways. It was with real fascination that I watched Krieps’ Alma use increasingly unorthodox methods to break through his walls, and his reactions to her efforts.
If it’s obvious that Daniel Day-Lewis can act, that certainly wasn’t something I knew about Daniel Kaluuya before hand since I, like most Americans, had never heard of him. I had seen him once or twice, it turns out, but he never landed on my radar. It’s a feat for a young man to go from relative obscurity (at least on this side of the pond) to an Oscar nomination, and even more so considering that Get Out is a satirical horror movie with a political and allegorical bent. It feels like that shouldn’t work, and that it does is Kaluuya’s gift as much as it is writer-director Jordan Peele’s. Photographer Chris Washington is not only a likable artist, but a vulnerable man with a fierce will to live; to take these simple lines and give them enough nuance to merit an Oscar nomination? It’s quite an achievement, and I’m really excited to see what this young Brit is going to accomplish in the future. Maybe more adventures with T’Challa and Okoye for a start? If Black Panther continues to break box office records, he ought to have his own action figure before the year is out.
It’s unlikely anyone’s going make an action figure of defense lawyer Roman J. Israel, though you can see an artist’s eye in his carefully curated, character-inspired look; the ill-fitting suits, the body padding, the hair and glasses reminiscent of his 70s heyday. It’s certainly true that we haven’t seen a black civil rights attorney with Asperberger’s syndrome-like tics and social constraints, and it’s nice for both Washington and us to have such a character exist on film. What the movie isn’t, unfortunately, is interesting or consistent in its character arc – inert and flaccid. In one way, that’s a completely fascinating departure from the norm: many years Oscar has had so few female lead options that they’ve been forced to find lead actress nominees (and winners) in bad movies that merited no other nominations, but this year it’s a man in that position. His fellow nominees all helm Best Picture nominees; this year, four of the five women do, too, with only Margot Robbie outside that number, and even she’s in a film that scored several other nods and could have, should have made it on the big slate.
It’s starting to become a yearly debate: what does the Academy have against Tom Hanks and what the heck is it going to take to get him another nomination? I know I sound like a broken record, but he’s pretty fantastic in The Post — and I wasn’t prepared to like him in it, considering Jason Robards will always be Ben Bradlee to me. It’s like Hanks is living the reverse of Sally Fields’ famous quote: they really, really don’t want to like him.
Gary Oldman doesn’t seem likely to give much of a speech; short and practical seems to be his way.
And the Oscar Goes To:
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri
How Sure Am I?
The Next Most Likely:
Saorise Ronan, Lady Bird
The Rest of the Best:
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Meryl Streep, The Post
She was Robbed:
Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread
Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project
Bria Vinaite, The Florida Project
Margot Robbie, with Sally Hawkins a close second
Here’s yet another case where it looked like there was going to be a battle for the award, and instead there’s just the drums and cheers of a victory parade.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Frances McDormand. She’s a very cool lady. That’s why her husband and his brother and Martin McDonagh all write parts for her; her fierce independence, her intelligence, and the way those flashes of haunted soul shine through her grouchy face. I love her ferocious line readings, her intensity, the murderous rage with which she spits out her words. I got a ton of pleasure, for example, out of watching her chew out a local priest trying to talk her into taking down the titular billboards; she’s a force to be reckoned with, a fireball of righteous anger and truth-telling with a molten core of buried guilt. McDormand managed to make most of Mildred’s preposterous acting out seem like something someone might actually do. (Not all of it, but more than you’d think.) So while I hate the film, we could do worse than award this role.
The ingenue usually beats the veteran actress at the Oscars. Look at Emma Stone last year over Isabelle Huppert, Brie Larson over Charlotte Rampling. Of course, as noted above, with men the process is reversed – they have to wait for their due – but not on the ladies’ side. And so it’s nice when the occasional older lady who isn’t Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep gets acknowledged for her work. McDormand is close to as beloved as those iconic ladies, and it’s nice to see that she’s getting more work these days rather than less.
After splitting the Golden Globe (Drama/Musical or Comedy) with this year’s ingenue, McDormand has won the Critics Choice, the SAG and the BAFTA. She seems pretty damn unstoppable. Sorry, 2018 – no surprises for you! I suppose I should be grateful after the insanity that was 2017, longing for some soothing non-news, but if you can’t hope for suspense at the Oscars, where can you?
And, as I’ve said, I don’t like the movie and that influences how I feel about her nigh certain win. Her character and Rockwell’s graduate to a Tarantino-like level of cartoon violence that I simply don’t enjoy.
Was it clear that the ingenue in this whole scenario, the potential runner up, is Saorise Ronan? If you can call two-time nominee and former child star Ronan an ingenue, anyway. The best argument for calling the doe-eyed actress that is that she’s still getting away with playing a teenager, in this case a mildly rebellious Catholic school girl navigating her senior year, who just wants to figure out her life, fall for a cute boy who likes her back, leave her home town, and get out and live it. And as she achieves her dreams, as she moves forward with college, she comes to realize how much her home and her family mean to her after all; she learns that her feelings are complicated and shadowed, but that doesn’t belie their importance. She is, in short, learning who she is, and it’s a tender, fumbling, frustrating joy to watch.
There’s something about Sally Hawkins that makes me want to talk to her, even when she’s playing a person who doesn’t talk. She’s just likable. Elise, the mute cleaning woman at a 1960s government facility, is an enormously likable character, three quarters timid and shy, overflowing with empathy but longing to unleash her inner boldness, a characteristic that draws both Doug Jones’ fish-man and Michael Shannon’s head of security to her. There’s so much life under the surface. Like her many of her fellow nominees, there’s steel running through her.
What is there left to do but praise Margot Robbie? Perhaps tired of playing girlfriends and sex objects (most notably in The Wolf of Wall Street), she made this movie happen and ably plays the complex, well-rounded main character. And what a role it is! Tanya Harding gives Robbie every opportunity, playing furious and vulnerable, fierce in the face of opposition, desperate for approval, barbed wire and soft underbelly. She’s the underdog who just can’t win, the talented dreamer who’s punished for trying but refuses to stop. Margot’s performance gives nuance to a figure we think we know, and like Mckenna Grace she breaks our hearts, and I’m sorry she won’t win the Oscar for it.
Well, there is a little left to do besides praising first time nominee Robbie, and first up is to pay homage to the queen. Meryl Meryl Meryl. What encomiums can I add to your total? I was rooting for your twenty-first nod. I felt the tension when socialite/Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham confronts her dear friend Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. How could he let her send her son to Vietnam knowing that we couldn’t win? Knowing that they could be throwing his life away just to boost morale at home, more lives lost so they didn’t have to admit they’d already lost it? She’s so polite, so gracious, so ill at ease taking a leadership role in her own company, and yet so insistent that he sees the personal cost as she holds his feet to the fire.
If you haven’t yet, see it. These are pretty terrific, resonant films.
Among other terrific performances this year, Vicky Krieps captivates as the reserved waitress-turned-model-turned-couturier Alma, and anyone who can hold their own in subtleties with Daniel Day Lewis deserves mad respect. Their relationship truly astonishes. As mother and daughter, Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince lead a cast of non-professional actors in The Florida Project, a heart-shattering examination of the depths of poverty and lives lived on the margins.
Frances McDormand is probably my best hope for a great speech among the top four. She’s brassy and funny and articulate, and unabashedly herself, flouting dress restrictions and, like her character, speaking truth to power.
Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water
If Not Him, Then Who?
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Jordan Peele, Get Out
He was Robbed:
Luca Guadagnino, Call Me By Your Name
First, a word in praise of the four first-timers in this category. This is the year for writer/director auteurs and more importantly for recognizing new visionaries. New blood! And for the first time maybe ever, white men aren’t the majority. Those are all pretty good things.
And then we can’t even begin this category without talking about the elephant (not) in the room, Martin McDonagh’s shocking snub. It’s the director’s wing, ladies and gents! What can I say? I’d love to think that his exclusion was a sign of other folks not being snookered by this film, but subsequent events suggest otherwise.
Even in situations where they’ve been in direct competition, Mexican fantasist Guillermo Del Toro has bested Martin McDonagh almost every time. It’s eerily similar to the 2012 race in which Del Toro’s fellow “Three Amigo” Alfonso Cuaron had an easy handle on Best Director while his film, Gravity, lost as expected to Twelve Years A Slave. Leaving the racial politics of that choice aside, I find it an interesting footnote that Del Toro will be the third Amigo not only to be crowned Best Director, but also to win for a film that (probably) won’t win Best Picture. (Inarritu, as you may recall, won for both Birdman and The Revenant, but the latter lost out to Spotlight for Best Picture.) I imagine the love he’s getting stems from the fact that every piece of the film, from the paint colors to the props to the script and performances, perfectly serves the director’s vision. He’s created a Cold War-era Baltimore that feels both historically accurate and whimsically outside of time, a modern fairy tale.
This nomination has been a long time coming for Christopher Nolan, whose snubs have echoed through pop culture since he first burst on the scene for Memento. Dunkirk might be Nolan’s most conventional topic, but his film is anything but a typical war movie, and the virtuoso skills that made Inception and his Batman films such box office titans are in full evidence here. The film’s 8 nominations (all of which it might lose) bear testament to its suspense and technical mastery.
Paul Thomas Anderson wasn’t on the awards scene at all until his movie reached up from the depths to grab six major nominations. It’s likely to win only one out of the six; how does a movie about designing dresses not win Costume Design? Still, it’s an impressive achievement to get so far with AMPAS when the film was barely noticed elsewhere outside of Day-Lewis’ performance. That Anderson beat out McDonagh for a nod? Those directors are a quirky bunch of guys, and they’re hard to predict. It’s pretty easy to write him off this list, though, and say he won’t be the winner.
I think there are a lot of people rooting for Gerwig and for Peele. We’ve seen actresses promoting Queen Greta of Mumblecore, which is awesome. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to pan out, though. Keep making great movies, Greta, personal and heart-felt and honest, and hopefully your time will come! It would have been so appropriate if that time was now. And after the audacity of Get Out, I can’t wait to see what Jordan Peele comes up with next. As I’ve said before, Gerwig is the fifth woman nominated in this category, and Peele the fifth black man, and both have writing nods, so this year has that going for it as well.
By the way, I don’t really mind this slate, but if I could swap anyone out it would be Anderson for the man who created the lush, fulsome Italian summer of Call Me By Your Name, Luca Guadagnino, who turned a sunlit Italian villa into a galaxy of beautiful, painful emotions. As with Gerwig, he makes his audience a teen again, flooding you with the complicated and often contradictory emotions of that accompany a crush (the fear, the hope, the anguish, the anger at being so vulnerable, the obsession), but the movie also goes beyond that into deep tenderness and true intimacy before the inevitable heartache and the true strength that follows. As with Del Toro, he brings a complete world to his audience, sumptuous and infused with desire.
I’ve only seen Del Toro accept an award once (the Director’s Guild is untelevised, and he lost the BAFTA to McDonagh) but I seem to remember him being funny. I guess we’ll see.
And the Oscar Goes To:
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
How Sure Am I?
The Next Most Likely:
The Shape of Water
Seven Other Movies That Are Better Than the Favorite:
Call Me By Your Name
These Un-nominated Films Were, Too:
The Big Sick
Excuse me while I go throw up, won’t you?
Lots of times the movie Oscar picks is not the one I like the best. It’s pretty rare, really, that they choose my favorite, and that’s okay; I still usually think many nominated films are worthy, and don’t always even have a rooting interest. (I don’t have a solid favorite this year; it’s a fantastic slate and that’s a fantastic problem to have.) It’s only occasionally, however, that the Academy lights on a movie I actively dislike – No Country for Old Men, for example. Well, they’ve done it again this time.
One of my biggest problems with Three Billboards, and it’s something you might laugh at, is the profanity. I know that makes me sound like a prude, but I swear, it’s not the use of profanity by itself. The Hardings swear a blue streak, and it tells you something about who they are. Profanity is clearly used in I, Tonya as a designator of class. In Martin McDonagh’s America, everyone swears with the same frequency and the same exact words, and after a while, it becomes both less impactful and also dulls the specificity of the characters’ voices. (The most clearly delineated voice in Three Billboards, to my mind, is John Hawkes’ daffy girlfriend, which in large part is the contrast between her and her filthy mouthed costars.) The fact that everyone sounds the same makes the play feel stagey rather realistic, and the longer it goes on, the more annoyed I get and the more it takes me out of the moment. I just don’t buy that an entire town all talk like this.
And then there’s the extraordinary levels of violence that exist without repercussions. Dixon loses his job and that’s it? I just don’t believe it. Does McDonagh really think that this madness is what Americans are like? Maybe my issue here is that there’s no cheeky wink at the audience, as in I, Tonya; it feels like an attempt at realism that falls flat. The tone doesn’t work for me. And that’s leaving aside the bonkers notion that the surprise ending constitutes a redemption. There’s nothing more hope-filled than some good old vigilante justice! Which is a real big arc for those characters, venting their rage on folks they know didn’t earn it. Very transformational! Love it!
To sum up: the acting was largely terrific, but while the dialogue stings, the story itself (a mother’s guilt, grief and frustration breaks her after the police fail to find her daughter’s killer; her relentless push forces to two cops to struggle with their own mortality and consciences) took a fraught situation and buried the moments of profound personal vulnerability and connection beneath operatic absurdities. It’s a clever idea that defeats itself, insights that collapse under the weight of inhuman action. In other words, it’s a much too stagey stage play that suffers for being set in the real world.
And yet, somehow, despite lots of controversy and negative attention from audiences who don’t like it, it’s won the most precursor awards. It’s probably going to win Best Picture. I guess some folks other than me must like it.
I should qualify my prediction by noting that a lot of pundits assume the winner’s going to be The Shape of Water. What a weird, wonderful movie that is; I was enchanted by Guillermo Del Toro’s peculiar fairy tale, in which a mute cleaning woman falls in love with – and rescues – a magical fish-man, all the while fending off the lecherous advances of a her beastly boss. I really rooted for their weird little troupe to save the monster and live happily ever after. Entertainment Weekly puts Water at something like 42% likely to win vs. Billboard‘s 38%. Some of the Gold Derby crew seem to expect it to triumph as well. I’ll be darned if I know why, though. I mean, sure. I liked it way, way better, and those kind of assessments matter a lot in the age of the preferential ballot. The Shape of Water snagged 13 nominations (a detail that persuaded the writers at the Hollywood Reporter), and the old rule has always been that the film with the most nominations won. It clearly has broad support across the industry with so many nominations, right? Well, tell that to La La Land and its 14 nominations. Some folks might be remembering that Martin McDonagh was this year’s most shocking snub, and the fact that movies almost never win Best Picture without being nominated for director. (Driving Miss Daisy and Argo being the modern exceptions – Argo, funnily enough, won because of the snub.) Could that suggest that voters aren’t as enchanted with it as all that?
Except here’s the deal. Three Billboards won the Golden Globe. It won the SAG. It won the BAFTA, from the voting body that has the most members in common with AMPAS. Those are the biggest of all precursors. Obviously it’s possible (we know from last year that certainty is an illusion) but is a win at the Producers Guild and the Critics Choice enough to put The Shape of Water over the edge?
I guess my point is here that it’s possible for The Shape of Water to win (and how I will cheer if it does) but you just can’t assume it’s the front-runner. The evidence simply isn’t there.
Although now that I’m thinking about it, BAFTA’s been an inaccurate predictor two years in a row, choosing La La Land over Moonlight and The Revenant over Spotlight. And perhaps they were swayed by the fact that Billboards was made by Brits. As precursor awards announce earlier and earlier, trying to influence the Oscars and the nominations, we’re left with a long gap between pieces of information. The further they get from the telecast, however, the more likely we are to get surprises because we go a long stretch with no concrete news to tell us what the industry is thinking. So maybe thinking has changed?
Of course we can also argue that director and picture have only matched up once in the last five years (for Birdman, blech), which oddly enough argues against Water. Those two categories used to match up every year – as many as 6 years ago that was by far the norm – but not any more.
Weirdly, in the fall and early winter all the awards watchers seemed certain that Lady Bird was going to be THE picture. They praised the film to the high heavens, they cited its astronomical Rotten Tomatoes score, and they lauded the timing of a film made about a woman’s experiences, written by a woman, directed by a woman, starring women. Lots of female stars have done their best to make sure the film remained in the public eye, as you know if you watched the Screen Actors Guild Awards; host Kristin Bell made her preference clear. Maybe it’s more impactful if you’re a woman, but there’s something really true about this film that sticks with you.
But it’s also a pretty non-dramatic coming-of-age movie. Nobody gets thrown out of a second story window or blown up or shot out of the sky or invaded by fascists. Lady Bird clearly wants to fall in love, but she doesn’t form a deep connection with either of her suitors. She’s just trying to find her way. It’s real life for an average person, well observed and funny and touching — and it looks like that’s not flashy enough. How shocking is it, really, that Hollywood would use its # MeToo moment to reward a violent revenge movie with a female main character both written and directed by a man, with a supporting cast almost exclusively populated by men?
Also, there are a lot of folks thinking that Get Out might get in there. I don’t tend to seek out horror movies (honestly, I tend to run from them), but when I finally got up the nerve to see this one, I loved it. It’s a gonzo premise (girls takes guy home to her family so they can own his beautiful black body and sell it off to the highest bidder – and that’s the spoiler-lite version of the crazy) that manages to be smart and funny and adrenaline-rushing all at once. I don’t see any evidence to support the idea of a win, though. It’s just the sixth horror film to be nominated for Best Picture, and of those, only Silence of the Lambs has won. (The others being The Exorcist, Jaws, The Sixth Sense and Black Swan.) And it has to be respected for the mark it’s made, not just as a horror movie and a movie written, directed by, and starring a black man, but also as a February release that stuck in Hollywood’s notoriously short term memory for more than a year.
There’s another coming-of-age movie on this year’s slate, though whether it isn’t winning because not enough happens or because the main character is gay I’m not really sure. This beautifully crushing tale of first love found and lost has been nominated everywhere and tops plenty of end of the year lists. If there’s a movie people seem to want to live inside of this year, it’s Call Me By Your Name. The brilliant, loving parents who know how to give space, the lush Italian landscape, the hot summer nights, the aching romance… it’s incandescent. It won’t have enough votes to get over the top, but I would consider giving it mine.
And that leaves me to mention this year’s three superlative historico-political offerings. Darkest Hour and Dunkirk deal with the same period but in vastly different ways. Darkest Hour fits more into the classic feel-good biography, though told in the more modern format of a slice of time rather than an overly manipulated attempt to impose a narrative arc over an entire life. It’s cinema in the time of Trump in a way I didn’t expect; Churchill’s a fat, unorthodox politician with a ghastly record who’s hated by the political elite and fiercely ignores all opposition. On the other hand, he’s also a brilliant thinker and orator with a lifetime of political experience, a life spent in service to the people of Britain.
A friend observed that Dunkirk is as much a horror movie as it is a traditional war film. The score is two hours of jangling violins screaming along your nerves, paired with sharp, masterfully cut scenes that follow three different sets of people on three different timelines. I’m so pleased that the innovative, exciting Christopher Nolan has finally gotten the notice he’s long deserved. And the movie clearly speaks to our unsettled times; it’s a thrilling marvel to watch ordinary Britains snatch victory (or at least stalemate) from the jaws of total defeat.
Finally, The Post tells a far less visceral tale, one with a lot more necessary exposition and a lot fewer explosions. There’s no strafing. And yet the film crackles with tension. The New York Times obtains evidence that the American government has long been lying to the public about the Vietnam War. When a court stops them from publishing, the Washington Post must grapple with the choice of publishing their own work on the subject or not — and the editor and the publisher must similarly grapple with big ideas. What’s the real role of the press in a democracy? How do reporters live with people, socialize with them, and report on their actions fairly? How do we weigh the government’s desire to keep some information private with the public’s right — need — to know?
So all three movies have a ton to say about the moment we find ourselves in politically. It fascinates me that none of them ever had a chance. It fascinates me that Three Billboards grabbed so much attention, that Hollywood feels it’s the most important thing it could be focusing on now. As often happens, I’m desperately hoping I’m wrong.
I’ll just say it. I loved Wonder Woman. Take away my street cred (such as it is) if you must – though I don’t know who has the right because everyone loves Wonder Woman. I don’t care. I love serious movies, but I’m tired of Hollywood pretending they’re the only movies that can be made well and are worth awarding. And I, Tonya – the brilliantly funny satire about the American figure skater – just did not get the love it deserved from Oscar. I’m also willing to bet that The Big Sick was more historically faithful than Darkest Hour (albeit on a less epic subject), but again, romantic comedies (let alone romantic comedies starring Pakistani-American television stars) are a tough sell with voters.
And there it is, the (probably) incredibly predictable 2018 Oscars. The lesser races aren’t super exciting, either. Foreign Film is a remarkably unbuzzed about group, possibly led by Lebanese drama The Insult. Coco is really the only viable option on the slate of Animated Features. “This is Me” better win Best Song; there are four songs from The Greatest Showman soundtrack better than the other nominees, which weren’t put into contention. I love the idea behind “Remember Me,” and its centrality to Coco’s plot, but it’s a pretty somnolent tune, while the Pasek & Paul anthem will provide the emotional high of the telecast. On the other hand, Score seems certain to go to Alexandre Desplat for The Shape of Water. Adapted Screenplay most likely will go to ’80s adaptation king James Ivory of Merchant/Ivory fame, perhaps the only win for the luminous Call Me By Your Name. Original Screenplay’s a little trickier with the fantastically original Get Out unlikely to win anywhere else up against Martin McDonagh’s popular bombast. Phantom Thread looks likeliest to take Costumes (it is a movie set in a fashion house after all), and Darkest Hour makeup. Blade Runner 2049 might clean up in the tech categories, though it faces very stiff competition from Baby Driver (improbably one of my favorite films of the year) and the impeccably made Dunkirk. Will the great Roger Deakins finally win the cinematography award after losing 12 previous tries? Who knows! Cinematography could turn out to be the most exciting category of the year…
As ever, I’ll be back to talk about things Monday morning. For now, remember: don’t crack that champagne bottle until the show’s off the air.