Do We Dare? Oscar 2022

E: It definitely has not been a normal year at the movies. America is still not seeing movies – at least not outside of the house – so that’s been an adjustment. We didn’t have a Golden Globe show at all. Most of the movies haven’t been tested by audiences, so the critics’ and insiders’ views reign supreme. Would we have a different Best Picture race if audiences had returned to theaters? I absolutely believe it.

But thanks to vaccines and boosters and Omicron BA1 subsiding, we will at least get a pretty normal awards show tonight. Glitz, glamor, broken records, emotional acceptance speeches, political causes, jokes perfectly calibrated for the precise amount of lameness, actresses who were initially dissed and then promoted to presenters – this year will have it all. So let’s talk Oscar!

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees: Ciaran Hinds (Belfast), Troy Kotsur (CODA), Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog), J.K. Simmons (Being the Ricardos), Kodi Smit-MacPhee (The Power of the Dog)

Your Winner: Troy Kotsur

How Sure Am I?: 80%

If Not Him, Then Who?: Kodi Smit-MacPhee

This year’s Supporting Actor winner will be someone who’s worked in movies for a long time, and almost certainly a first time nominee. 2014 best supporting actor Oscar winner J.K. Simmons was typically wry and acerbic in Being the Ricardos, mostly sniping at the Ethel to his Fred, but occasionally offering compassion and even sage advice to leading lady Lucy. (Like others in that film, he gets double points for playing the actor and the classic tv characters they play.) His was a surprise Oscar nomination, and he hasn’t been actually won any of the awards that come earlier in Oscar season, so he’s the least likely to triumph here. Ciaran Hinds – a family favorite since his impassioned letter-writing in Persuasion as one of my favorite Jane Austen heroes, Frederick Wentworth – exudes the wisdom of age as Belfast‘s charming, twinkle-eyed Irish grandfather. Unlike Simmons, he’s been buzzed about and feted all season, nominated by the Hollywood Foreign Press for a Golden Globe, the Screen Actor’s Guild, a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Awards) and the Broadcast Critics for a Critics Choice award; evert top tier group that could nominate someone chose him. It’s lovely to see him finally get noticed after decades of wonderful work, and hopefully some day he’ll actually win one of those awards – but this isn’t that day.

Though fellow first time nominee Jesse Plemons is much younger than Hinds, his first IMDB credit dates from 1998; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves acknowledging those who’ve paid their dues. Well-intentioned blunderer George sparks the action of The Power of the Dog by unexpectedly reaching out for happiness with widow Rose (played by his wife and costar from the television show Fargo, Kirsten Dunst); while they share the movie’s few moments of tenderness, it’s also his inability to act on her distress and confusion that drives the film’s action to its conclusion. It’s a measure of the Academy’s love for this film that his more subtle work was noticed here when most groups overlooked it. (Four acting nominations from one film is a notable achievement; I’m not sure it’s happened since 2013.)

It’s Plemons’ costar and fellow child actor Kodi Smit-MacPhee (The Road, X-Men) who has been the marquee name in the Supporting Actor race until very recently. Playing the son of widow Rose, Smit-MacPhee’s Peter’s cerebral and artistic nature makes him the immediate target of George’s sadistic brother Phil, but the movie surprises with the complexity of their interactions and with the unfolding of their characters. Smit-MacPhee’s performance begs for a second viewing to fully appreciate his choices, our assumptions, and his character’s hidden truths. Like Hinds, he’s been nominated everywhere. He won the first major award of the season, the Golden Globe, and it seemed assured that he would take the season.

Then came the SAG awards.

Now, here’s one thing about awards shows and Hollywood: general consensus matters, and public appearances matter. A good awards speech can swing a race in a huge way. This can be an almost Byzantine thing – people love a winner until they get bored with them and suddenly don’t, people love awarding a veteran until they see a shiny new thing, audiences require pandering until suddenly they want an actor who refuses to talk to them. (Witness last year’s surest thing, the posthumous Best Actor being assured for Chadwick Boseman until suddenly it went to Anthony Hopkins – who has so little skin in the awards game that he didn’t even Zoom in to the ceremony, shocking the producers who had made Best Actor the last award of the night with the idea that Boseman’s widow Simone would provide the evening’s emotional highlight.)

Anyway. The Power of the Dog, it must be said, is an absorbing drama, but also a grim one that focuses on the ugliness aspects of human civilization – the way we hurt others because we’re hurt ourselves, the way we break our hearts to fit into the roles society expects from us. It’s smart and gorgeously made, but it’s not exactly something you enjoy. And CODA? That’s the stuff most people – not just critics – don’t just like but love. CODA is heart. CODA is real people trying to connect, and succeeding, despite the obstacles in their way.

And of course, CODA is also a shiny new thing – it’s the story of a hearing girl and her deaf family, both specific and universal in the way the best stories are. And the rollicking, hilarious, beating heart of that movie is Troy Kotsur, the main character’s horny and hard-working dad. When Kotsur unexpectedly took the SAG award, the veteran actor’s speech moved the audience to both laughter and tears. If you’ll remember, the Golden Globes took themselves off the air in repentance for their history of racism and graft, and so Smit-MacPhee had no opportunity to show audiences (and more importantly Hollywood insiders) if he was charming or not. With Kotsur’s surprise SAG win, it might be too late – we’re already in love with someone else. Kotsur went on to win the Critics Choice and the BAFTA (the body which shares the most members with AMPAS), and seems well on his way to being the first deaf man not just to be nominated for an Academy Award, but to win one.

Now, like I said, Oscar is fickle. Glenn Close had been widely hailed 4 years ago as the inevitable winner for her astonishing turn in The Wife; after so many years and so many nominations, it was finally going to be her turn. NOPE. So Smit-MacPhee could still pull this out, especially if a lot of people voted early. But he’s a very young man, and the Academy doesn’t like to reward them if they can help it; he’s got time, they reason, while Kotsur and his unusual industry connections (he created sign language for The Mandalorian, among other things) has captured the momentum. And he gets away with arguing for middle aged men’s sexuality (in the sense that the disabled are usually required to be saintly and inspirational in films, rather than well rounded), which you know the men of the Academy must love.

To sum it up, I’m both hoping to see Kotsur win, and expecting it. I’ll be very, very disappointed if he doesn’t, even though Smit-MacPhee is also deserving.

Best Supporting Actress:

Nominees: Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter), Ariana Debose (West Side Story), Judi Dench (Belfast), Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog), Aunjanue Ellis (King Richard)

And the Oscar Goes To: Ariana Debose

How Sure Am I?: 100%

Spoiler: No one

Dame Judi Dench took the spot everyone assumed would go to her costar Catriona Balfour, who had received all the precursor nominations mentioned above, while the generally beloved Dench had no buzz at all. Clearly, we can never count Judi Dench out, even when she spends only 5 minutes on screen; I suppose it shouldn’t have been such a shock, because she was barely in Shakespeare in Love, for which she won her Oscar. It looks like the Academy would rather watch her peel potatoes than anyone else weep and rail. This is her eighth nomination, but she won’t pick up a second award tonight.

As with Supporting Actor, there’s one winner in the field and four first time nominees. (A funny note: the supporting actor nominees had 6 nominations between them, while the actress have 12; the difference is all Dench.) Kirsten Dunst, whose career began with Interview with a Vampire, Little Women and Bring It On, who shared one of cinema’s most famous kisses with Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, has finally arrived the industry’s highest table. Her wounded Rose is the prize in the center of The Power of the Dog: she’s the loved one to be protected, saved from hurtful words and the expectations that drive her to drink. It’s not her turn now, but she’s exactly the sort of person around whom that sort of consensus might arise. Someday. Not today. For now, I hope it’s just a great day to be Kirsten and Jesse, to know they’re respected and valued, and to celebrate a job well done (the kind of job that might get them the chance to do more good work later).

Jessie Buckley has been flirting with awards season for a while, even though she’s mostly unknown to mainstream American audiences. In The Lost Daughter, she plays main character Leda in flash back, a college professor who chooses her career and personal happiness over her family. The movie explores the idea that motherhood isn’t a natural instinct, as most people assume, but rather a subjugation of self which takes a lot of work and is damn hard to do, something that not all women can do even when they think they want to. I missed out on Wild Rose, but I did think Buckley was a stand out in the excellent Judy Garland biopic Judy. I’m pleased for her, but I’ll admit that I’m surprised (there’s no flash in those flashbacks, just subtlety), and that she wouldn’t have made my own short list. She wasn’t nominated by most of the precursor awards, and she won’t win here.

A lot of groups did nominate veteran tv actress Aunjanue Ellis, though – SAG and BAFTA among them. She’s had a long, if not showy career; I know her best as the police captain on The Mentalist, but she’s had significant parts in Get On Up, If Beale Street Could Talk, NCIS: Los Angeles, Designated Survivor and Lovecraft Country where you might have seen her too. She excels as the Queen to Will Smith’s King Richard, fierce and supportive, a coach as well as a mother, and wife who calls her husband on his excess while also supporting his outsized dreams for their children. Though she won’t win, I hope that this boosts her profile and her paycheck; Oscar is often (and should be!) the ticket to doing more exciting work, and I wish for that for her.

The absolute star of this season, however, is the incandescent Ariana Debose, who sings and dances with such fire in West Side Story. 60 years ago Rita Moreno started her path to becoming the first EGOT winner with a Supporting Actress statuette for the role of Anita, and tonight Debose – perhaps best known as “the bullet,” a featured ensemble member in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton. If you checked out Apple +’s musical sitcom Schmigadoon! this past summer, you’ll remember her as the strict but sweet schoolmarm vying for Keegan-Michael Key’s attention. She exploded like a supernova onto the scene, winning every possible precursor and an outsized share of critics prizes. It’s a sterling role (sexy, funny, grieving, brutalized and furious) and Debose brings every moment to such vivid life; there is no containing her. Her acceptance speeches, too, are powerful and endearing. A win tonight will I believe make her the first openly queer actress to win an Oscar, and the possibly first Afro-Latinx one as well. She’d get my vote if I had it, just like everybody else’s.

If there was anyone I wish had been nominated here, it’s probably Rita Moreno, whose inclusion in West Side Story as the Puerto Rican widow of store-owner Doc was a thoughtful addition to the new film, and a bridge between the two sides. Without giving it away, she sings an iconic song that’s normally assigned to other characters, and those words from her present a new, larger meaning.

Oh, and if you haven’t? See the dang movie. It’s so incredibly good.

Best Actor:

Nominees: Javier Bardem (Being the Ricardos), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog), Andrew Garfield (tick, tick, BOOM!), Will Smith (King Richard), Denzel Washington (The Tragedy of Macbeth)

Your Winner: Will Smith

How Sure Am I? 100%

Who’s Beating Big Willy? No one

Like Supporting Actress, this is an easy one. Will Smith has been around Hollywood a long time, first as a musical phenom and then as an actor. I’m pretty sure that 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation was the first film that garnered some awards chatter for him, that made people aware he was more than just a hammy sitcom star. He didn’t receive a nomination until 2001, however, for the title role in Ali, a role that fit his swagger, verbal dexterity and larger than life persona. He was nominated again in 2004 for The Pursuit of Happyness, based on the true story of a smart single father struggling with homeless while finishing an unpaid internship that will bring him riches and stability for his young son. Now, 18 years later, he plays another down-on-his-luck father, a night watchman who spends his days coaching his two youngest daughters in the hopes of making them tennis superstars. Like all of his most successful roles, it’s a true story that trades on his personal ebullience, energy and optimism; Richard’s a smooth talker looking to fulfill his dream with grit and determination alone. More than any other role he’s played, any other time I’ve seen him, I was less aware that I was watching Will Smith, and more caught up in the story of a man who turned out to be crazy like a fox, whose strong belief in his dreams gave agency to others.

Will Smith is well liked in the industry. He has a producing nomination for King Richard to add to his Oscar total. He’s won everywhere – even at the BAFTAs, which doesn’t generally respond to Black American films. This is his role, and his moment.

If there was anyone else I’d vote for, it’d be Benedict Cumberbatch, the thinking woman’s sex symbol, whose ferocious turn as the promising intellectual who traded Harvard business associations for a chaps and a job leading the cowboys at his family’s Montana ranch in The Power of the Dog. Mercurial, terrifying Phil is the dog of the title – he tears into everyone around him, manipulating them with his outsized cruelty, turning the attention always to what he wants them to see, bullying relentlessly, longing for connection but only able to take it on the most prescribed of terms. It’s rather surprising that this is only his second nomination, but it’s highly unlikely to be his last.

It’s pretty obvious from the first that The Tragedy of Macbeth is a Coen brothers movie; the fish eye lens, the high contrast cinematography, the three witches who aren’t really three. Theirs is an oddball vision which isn’t for everyone, and this Macbeth was not for me. Denzel Washington, though? He’s captivating, bringing real depth to his ambitious tortured killer. Denzel is just one of those actors who really gets Shakespeare; from the Duke in Much Ado About Nothing to this Macbeth, his portrayals lack the stuffiness sometimes associated with the Bard. Like the Shakespearian-sounding King Richard, his titular character is a real man.

Oh, Andrew Garfield. I’m so happy to see you pick up your second nomination. Even though you’re younger and cuter than AMPAS usually likes their Best Actor candidates, you star in a theater story, and Hollywood is a sucker for movies about making art. The clock ticks away as Jonathan Larsen struggles to decide how much time to devote to his current project and to his ambition of writing musicals for Broadway. How much life do you give a dream? When do you take a steady job that might give you time for a life with your girlfriend instead? I adored this movie (I’m still so peeved it got overlooked for Best Picture) and Garfield was the perfect choice; he earnestly splatters his fears and his doubts and his dreams and his very heart all over the screen. So, okay. Maybe he’s the one who would have gotten my vote, if I had it to give.

But I don’t, and it wouldn’t matter – tonight we’ll celebrate Big Willy style, just like it says in the song. Will Smith will be likable as ever, and we’ll all feel good about his win.

Best Actress:

Nominees: Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter), Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers), Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos), Kristen Stewart (Spencer)

Taking Home the Trophy: Jessica Chastain

How Sure Am I?: 70%

You Can Make A Good Case For: Nicole Kidman

Here’s our one moderately open category. What’s particularly great about is that until recently, there weren’t really a lot of women’s performances that Oscar was willing to consider. Maybe 6, tops. This year (as last year) there were a much higher number competing for these five slots. These five, obviously, but there was also SAG nominee Jennifer Hudson, BAFTA nominees Alaina Haim, Tessa Thompson and Emilia Jones, and Golden Globe nominees Jennifer Lawrence and Rachel Zelger, all with realistic claims for Academy attention. And then there was Lady Gaga, who seemed assured of a nomination for her melodramatic turn in House of Gucci.

And now that we’re here, narrowed down to five nominees, it’s still hard. The precursors haven’t been clear. Most of the early critics prizes went to Kristen Stewart, but then she missed a lot of precursor nominations and hasn’t had any wins. It’s obvious even from the trailer what an extraordinary job Stewart does bringing the late Princess Diana to the screen – the way she tilts her head, the hesitation in her speech – but the film itself (dreamy and plotless) failed to connect with audiences. That isn’t a dealbreaker for a Best Actress nominee where it would be for an actor, but it’s not ideal. Back in January it didn’t seem likely that she’d even receive an Oscar nomination at all, but here she is, testament to the Academy’s occasionally long memory with her first career Academy nod. Stewart, who is bisexual, joins Debose as the two first out actress nominees. It’s unlikely she can win, but it’s great to see yet another former child actor do well this year. Anyone who’s moderately aware of entertainment and celebrity news knows what a long, hard road Stewart has had to this point, and it’s good to see her make headlines for her impressive acting skill rather than her dating life.

Taking up the mantle from Stewart was five time nominee and 2003 winner Nicole Kidman, who won the Golden Globe for drama. I’ll admit, I was in the crowd who doubted Kidman’s casting as Lucy in Aaron Sorkin’s imagining of a hard week on the set of classic sitcom I Love Lucy. Though Kidman is a wonderful comedian, her work tends to be dark and satirical. Physical comedy is not her bag, while it was Lucy’s. What the film taught me, however, is that Lucy wasn’t actually a fun or funny person to work with, as I’d assumed; that she worked hard to look silly and wacky, thought her way through each beat, pinpointing what approach to any given moment would be the funniest. Though Sorkin’s chronology wasn’t accurate, everything I’ve read suggests that the depiction of Lucille Ball’s character was. It was surprising, but utterly fascinating, and Kidman executes it brilliantly. The scenes where we watch her think through a bit (losing her ring in the grape vat, being surprised by Ricky as she sets the table) are the best in the film. I was happy to accept her second win, and still will be if it happens.

But wait! Then there’s SAG, Critics Choice and BAFTA winner Jessica Chastain., who plays the title character in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which takes its title from a documentary about real life televangelist Tammy Faye Baker. After a hard childhood, Tammy becomes enchanted by the health and wealth gospel as preached by her college classmate and future husband Jim Baker (Andrew Garfield, continuing to have a very good year); she’s captivated by the idea of a God who blesses the faithful with money rather than only punishing His children for their sins. As was widely publicized, Tammy and her good intention and weird thinking was blessed and punished both, and the film takes on both her willful blindness to financial abuse as well as her husband’s infidelity, and also her courage in promoting love and acceptance for all, particularly members of the gay community and those suffering from AIDS. Three-time nominee Chastain (and genuinely I’m shocked she doesn’t have more) brings us Tammy Faye in all her peculiarities, at her most child-like and her most quietly insistent. It’s a fascinating story and terrific performance, in a much more accessible movie than Spencer. It’s quite clear she has the momentum,. I’ve been rooting for Chastain for a long time, and I’d be happy to see her finally seated at the winner’s table: if you can give an award to a new person, why not? All things being equal, that’s how I’d vote.

Heck, it’s even hard to count out Olivia Colman, considering how deeply the Academy has fallen for her over the last four years – three nominations and one win! Well, I count her out, but Entertainment Weekly think she’s going to take the whole thing, so there’s that. College professor Leda, on vacation in Greece, becomes fascinated by a loud, possibly criminal family of Americans staying at the same resort, particularly Dakota Fanning’s glamorous Nina, who seems just as disinterested in motherhood as Leda was in the flashbacks where she’s played by Jessie Buckley. One day on the beach Nina loses track of her daughter, and Leda finds the little girl, leading to a very peculiar series of entanglements between Leda, the other guests and the staff. Leda is an uncomfortable, prickly woman who both is and isn’t interested in being liked, and Colman gives us that, beautifully. Like her incredible supporting work in last year’s heartbreaking dementia drama The Father, it’s hard not to wish that Colman got her Oscar for something grounded and real like this, rather than the screeching, over-the-top melodrama of The Favourite. That’s not to say I would like her to win, or that I think she will; I wouldn’t and I don’t. I’m still just mad that she has Glenn Close’s Oscar.

I do feel very comfortable leaving out Penelope Cruz (four time nominee and supporting actress winner for Vicky Christina Barcelona), whose nomination for Parallel Mothers (the misnamed story of two women who give birth to daughters at the same time) was a bit of a shock. The story, as is true of Cruz’s best work, is a Pedro Almodovar effort, and as such the story that follows that set up is fairly bonkers. As photographer Janis, Cruz grounds the film, letting the wild twists of the story unfold around her, mature, confident and thoughtful. Okay, so she’s a little crazy too, but Cruz makes even Janis’ weirder choices seem plausible. Though again, I’m not sure’d be my choice for this slot, she pulls it all off with a lot of grace.

Whoever wins – which is most likely to be Chastain but could provide a bit of drama – it’s a happy year with so interesting female led stories; may the trend continue, and the quality continue to improve.

Best Director:

And the Nominees Are: Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza), Kenneth Branagh (Belfast), Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog), Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car), Steven Spielberg (West Side Story)

And the Winner Is: Jane Campion

How Sure Am I?: 95%

If Not Her, then Who?: Steven Spielberg

In 1994, Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus, Schindler’s List, beat out Jane Campion’s The Piano. The two faced off in best director. This time, the outcome will be reversed. Australian Campion (famous for producing roughly a film a decade) has won everywhere this year – Golden Globes, BAFTA, Critics Choice, you name it. She’ll become the third woman to win this prize (she’s already the first woman to be nominated twice), and it’ll be two female-lead movies in a row. I’d rather like the movie, but with the Oscars you can only hope for so much. Even if something shocking happens and her movie loses, Campion is even more locked to win.

This is Steven Spielberg’s 8th nomination for Best Director: he’s won twice, first for Schindler’s List and then for Saving Private Ryan (yet another assumed winner that suffered winner fatigue and lost in a surprise upset to it’s opposite, a light and enjoyable comedy). He’s captured Best Picture once, and has received a total of 19 nominations. His West Side Story takes a classic I didn’t think could be improved and gives it new brilliance and depth, rooting it in urban upheaval and change, the waves of immigrants replacing each other and resenting the newcomers in their turn, a glittering fusion of color and light. It is in every way worthy of Best Picture, but so are many, many films. It and he are unlikely to take the day.

Kenneth Branagh, too, takes a city block and wrecks it, shows us a futility of neighbor against neighbor, the way any difference at all can drive a wedge, can be space for grasping men to exert power over others, the way joy creeps up through the cracks in the sidewalk even so. I’m so happy to see him back in this game after so many years; I remember the bright blast of his first appearance on screen, the vibrancy and wonder of him.

A fun note for this category: Kenneth Branagh makes a little history in 2022: he’s now the person nominated in the most categories. Get ready for it! He’d already been nominated as a director (Henry V), in both lead (Henry V) and supporting actor (My Week with Marilyn), for adapted screenplay (a head-scratching nod for his famously uncut production of Hamlet), and for a Live Action Short. This year he adds two to his total first as a producer of a Best Picture nominee, and another for original screenplay.

Licorice Pizza was a pleasantly oddball fantasia, and set a mildly enjoyable tone. I don’t for a minute buy it as reality (a fifteen year old kid who can rent a storefront for an arcade? rent trucks, run various businesses? successfully woo a 25 year old woman? no), and I don’t see it as Oscar-worthy, but I didn’t hate it, which in the year of the Dog counts for a lot. In case you haven’t seen it (and you don’t have to, but some people – not all – might enjoy it if they do) licorice pizza is a euphemism for a record, and has no relevance to the film at all except as a general reference to the 70s. Paul Thomas Anderson has a wide range of tones and styles in his films. The best I can say is that he usually pulls good performances out of his actors, and here, working with Cooper Hoffman, whose father he guided to brilliance in The Master, he’s once again an inspired touch.

I’m still patting myself on the back for guessing that AMPAS would nominate Ryusuke Hamaguchi. Now that I’ve seen his movie, I’m okay with it; the story alternates long periods of silence with play rehearsals and occasional bursts of pure exposition – dialogue delving deep into the characters’ innermost truths. It’s not for everyone, but it was for me, and I definitely enjoyed it, and I’m pleased to see him on this list.

For the record, The Lost Daughter is an interesting, well crafted film; I didn’t particularly enjoy it, but I respect it – exactly how I feel about The Power of the Dog. I look forward to seeing what Maggie Gyllenhaal does next, and I hope AMPAS takes her seriously as the artist she is.

Best Picture:

The Academy’s Top Ten: Belfast, CODA, Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Dune, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, West Side Story

And the Winner Is: The Power of the Dog

Can This Nightmare Be Stopped?: Unlikely. 80% sure.

This Year’s Dark Horse: CODA

My Personal Top Five: Belfast, CODA, Spider-man: No Way Home, tick, tick, Boom!, West Side Story.

The toxic masculinity themed Western The Power of the Dog is a beautifully made, almost hypnotic story about awful people doing awful things and hurting nicer people. The acting is great, the characters have depth, it’s hard to look away from, it was way more interesting than I expected – but it’s still just a rotten story. I’m not sure what Oscar’s obsession with awful is (Parasite, really? No Country for Old Men? What gives?) and I know I’m not the only person out there who’d love to see a good old fashioned crowd pleaser triumph some time. That’s not where we are today, though. The Power of the Dog took home the Golden Globe, the Critics Choice and the BAFTA (which, again, includes the most crossover with Academy membership). Dog boasts the biggest nomination count of the year with 12, which shows it has broad support across the membership branches. The movie with the most nominations usually wins, but not always – not in the last several years, actually but still most of the time.

If there’s any hope for something more cheerful to triumph here, it’s CODA, the story of a hearing high schooler with pressure to join the family fishing business, but also dreams of a singing career of her own. Now, I have to tell you, I watched CODA with my high school student daughters, and they ripped to shreds its depiction of both high school and especially high school music groups, something they’re both heavily involved in. Allowing for dramatic license, however, we all enjoyed the film, and its story of family – of holding close and letting go – spoke strongly to everyone I know who’s seen it. But there’s something more here – Dog was inexplicably ignored for SAG ensemble and CODA won, to the rapture of the crowd; then CODA (which stands for Child of Deaf Adults) took home the Producers Guild Award in direct competition with Dog. I still think it’s more likely that Power of the Dog will triumph, and I admit it’s a better made film, but I will cheer like a mad woman if CODA pulls off a surprise win.

My vote would have gone to West Side Story. I honestly didn’t see any way that it could even equal the 1961 version, and didn’t know why Spielberg would even try, but I got it when I saw it. It feels like a truer read on the same story; the inclusion of Spanish language dialogue, the past fleshed out for Tony, the uncertainty that goes with a neighborhood on the cusp of gentrification, the wrecking ball that shatters buildings and lives. For me, this film hits the sweet spot of brilliant film-making that doesn’t ignore human darkness, but isn’t suffocated by it, either.

Belfast walks the same line so ably. I would have expected West Side story to win over more audiences as inspired spectacle, but the war torn streets of Belfast during the Troubles, and Van Morrison’s smooth vocals, should have charmed audiences had any been willing to go to the theater. I understand the impulse to try and force movie goers back, but we’re just not ready. I truly wish this film could have had the audience it deserves, and then we might again have had a different outcome.

I can’t help looking at all these movies and thinking that COVID has brought us where we are; I don’t think The Power of the Dog would have made particularly good box office, while I’d guess that both CODA and West Side Story would have in a year where it didn’t feel like going to the theater would threaten your life. Oscar used to be really responsive to box office numbers: small movies can win Oscars, but movies can fail because audiences disliked them, or because they didn’t connect to the level the industry expected. Even now, I believe that West Side Story is paying the price for this; experts assumed that audiences would turn out for West Side Story, when they’re just not ready to. There’s only been one theatrical hit during COVID (No Way Home, enthusiastically embraced by critics and roundly and unjustly ignored by the Academy as most superhero movies are) and most people just weren’t willing to risk theaters twice. Because box office experts hoped and thought they might, the films chances have suffered. In another year, I firmly believe it would have been the main contender.

The other movies are a mix of genres and styles (and levels of quality). With it’s appealing stars and true story, King Richard could have been a bigger contender if it had a normal year’s box office to back it up. Audiences love an inspirational sports story, and this tale of a father’s determination to turn his daughters into the world’s best athletes is definitely that. Triumph over overwhelming obstacles? Check. Sure, it takes some licks because it focuses more on Richard Williams than his prodigy progeny, but the film was made with the assistance of the Williams family, and if they don’t mind, should we? And let me tell you, it will make you question all your parenting choices for sure.

As I’ve said, Drive My Car isn’t for everyone, but it’s an absorbing story of moving on after loss; a man struggles to deal with both his wife’s death and the strange intricacy of their relationship, finding a way to move forward through his evolving friendship with his driver (a young woman dealing with her own traumas) and his late wife’s last protege, set through a multi-language production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. It’s one of my favorites of the year, probably number six after the five above.

I devoured the Dune novels when I was in high school, and though the series is of uneven quality, this rendition of the first half of the first book isn’t. Granted, most of the action will come in the second installment, but I was intrigued by what I saw. The Duke of House Atreides, his concubine and their son (his heir) arrive on a desert planet sparely occupied by rebellious sand warriors and but ruthlessly mined for the ore that makes space travel possible, the characters are immediately embroiled in clan politics on a galactic scale. It’s an epic saga with calls back to Greek tragedy, ably made and deserving of its place at the table.

Now, Licorice Pizza seems like much less of an Oscar story to me; it doesn’t say much about human nature, it’s not an epic saga, it’s not even rational as a love story. Alaina Haim’s naive character isn’t believable as a 25 year old, which is ironic because she’s even older. I was very excited to see Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, which details the trajectory of a con man who moves from a 1930s circus side show to elegant society marquees and back, but the stylish psychological thriller telegraphs most of its twists far in advance.

Finally there’s end of times comedy Don’t Look Up, which satirizes climate change, Donald Trump (as riffed on by Meryl Streep – and why weren’t we talking about that this year?), corporate culture, profits over everything, the media and so many other things. That wouldn’t make my ideal list, but it definitely didn’t put me to sleep, I’ll give it that much, and the ensemble cast was wide and wonderful.

10 movies. 2 contenders. Who will win? Who should win? We’ll know tonight for sure.

Speaking of the ten nominees, I’ve heard some Oscar-watchers calling for a return to the 5 nominee slate in this category. That number was originally expanded in the hopes of bringing in movies that audiences actually cared about, but as you can see from this year’s slate, there aren’t many, and the most popular – let’s call it CODA and Dune – could have made a top five anyway. The expansion hasn’t made it easier for say, No Way Home to get a nod. So what’s the point? It’s an interesting question to consider.

Smaller categories:

The stunning cinematography of The Power of the Dog should earn it a win – really the only win I’ll actually be happy about: if hers is the name that gets read, Ari Wegner will become the first female cinematographer to win an Oscar. Insane, right? No woman had even been nominated until Mudbound‘s Rachel Morrison a mere four years ago. The cinematography was definitely my favorite part of this movie. The Tragedy of Macbeth‘s Bruno Delbonnel is her biggest rival, although I personally found the high contrast black and white gimmicky (not to mention the fish eye views) and much prefer Janusz Kaminski’s work in West Side Story; Spielberg and Kaminski are a legendary partnership, and their work has rarely been sharper or more stunning.

The Dog may have a leg up on editing – Best Picture and Best Editing used to be lockstep, but lately that hasn’t been in the case. I wouldn’t holler too loudly over that one if it happens, because as I’ve said the film is lovingly made, but I’d much prefer tick, tick, Boom! get it – that movie is put together beautifully, and the editing really makes the visuals one with the music. The explosive tennis scenes from King Richard took the ACE Eddy (the guild for editors) and relatively showy sci fi epic Dune triumphed at the Critics Choice, so this could be a category to watch.

Animated Feature may be the most popular Encanto, Disney’s Colombian extravaganza about refugees and generational trauma (or in lighter terms, a magical family with a magical house) but it’s no runaway victory: both Raya and the Last Dragon and The Mitchells vs. the Machines have picked up awards along the way. OR they could decide to give Flee the win here and not in documentary – more on that in a minute.

Encanto boasts the biggest movie music since Frozen in “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” but that number 1 hit wasn’t submitted for consideration (largely because it contains dialog and so in dependent on the context of the film) and so instead, the sweet, soft “Dos Orugitas” (the first all Spanish-language nominee) will face 4 songs that play over the credits of their various films. I have to tell you, this boils my blood. First off, that dialogue didn’t stop the song from topping the Billboard charts, and second, I’d rather have a song that’s pivotal to the film win than something tacked on at the end! It’s no secret that I’m a huge Lin-Manuel Miranda fan, and that I wish they’d just let him just get his damn EGOT already, but the win is more likely to go to Billie Eilish’s serviceable (but rather generic) Bond theme, “No Time to Die.” It’s a little funny: I have a lot of opinions about this slate, but I don’t love any of them. My favorite of the five is definitely Beyonce’s “Be Alive” from King Richard, so at least that promises to be an exciting performance. It galls me that Diane Warren’s twangy ode “Somehow You Do” made the list rather than the unsubmitted but vastly superior “Bruno” or Encanto‘s other hit, “Surface Pressure,” even if I can understand Disney fearing that offering up two songs from the same musical would result in vote canceling.

Most precursor awards honored The Power of the Dog for it’s score, so that’s the favorite going in. I guess I won’t begrudge that one either (it’s moving, but repetitive – nowhere near the level of The Piano, one of my favorite scores of all time, but good), although I’d prefer Encanto.

Screenplays are tricky to call, partly because not a lot of groups give out screenplay awards, and those who do might not divide them into adapted and original, or might have super persnickety rules about who and what qualifies, so you rarely get a look at Hollywood groupthink before the event. At least that makes something suspenseful! Belfast has a very solid shot of taking original and I hope it does; it doesn’t seem like it’s going to win anything else, and it’s too good a movie to be ignored. Adapted seems to be a fascinating two way race between Sian Heder’s CODA and Jane Campion’s initial frontrunner, The Power of the Dog. Winning this category would make Campion the first woman to write her way to wins in both adapted and original screenplays (the latter coming 18 years ago for The Piano), but Heder has the momentum coming out of her win at BAFTA, which did see the two go head to head in the body that most closely resembles AMPAS. Perhaps voters wanted to spread the wealth, or appreciated all the care taken with the deaf community’s portrayal in the Apple + heart-warmer. (Would that she’d taken more care in accurately representing high school!). A tie-breaking underdog might be the quietly heartbreaking Drive My Car. It’s worth noting that three of this year’s nominated screenplays were adapted by women (The Lost Daughter‘s Maggie Gyllenhaal being the third).

Drive My Car is obviously going to win International Feature – you don’t get nominated for Best Picture and lose that one. The shorts (always difficult for non-Academy members to see) are a toss up as usual; I’d have had a hard time choosing between the charming Queen of Basketball (a brief bio of utter delight Lucy Harris, contemporary of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, NCAA basketball powerhouse and Olympic medalist as well as the first woman ever offered a spot in the NBA) and the lyrical and searing Lead Me Home, which focuses on the homeless popular in urban California. Usually the animated shorts are a sweet, sugary buffet, but not this year. I’ve no idea what will win, and didn’t really like any of what I’ve seen.

Refugee memoir Flee is perhaps the most high profile of the documentaries – and clearly made an impression as it’s nominated for Animated Feature and International Feature – which suggests it’s the one to beat in this category as well, although Summer of Soul (the glorious, previously unseen footage of a concert series in Harlem in the summer of 1969, brilliantly placed in historical context) has won it’s share of attention. It’s unusually upbeat and also offers chance to honor Black excellent and joy, something the Academy has historically ignored. I’ll be watching this one with great attention – though since I’m a fan of both, I’ll be happy either way. See what you can! I learn a lot from these docs and just wish I’d been able to see them all; Writing With Fire, about female journalists in India, is a gaping sore in my 2022 Oscar viewing. It looks amazing, and those reporters (seen in the trailer surreptitiously filming angry mobs with their cellphones) brave and impassioned.

11 time nominee Jenny Bevan’s extravagant, cartoony designs for Cruella are the favorite to take costumes; it would be her third win, showing her range between the romantic period detail of A Room With a View and the post-apocalyptic grunge of Mad Max: Fury Road. Mad, eh? Makeup and Hairstyling might go the same way, or it could fall to The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the very title of which brings makeup to mind. Awful makeup, but still. Tammy Faye uses more effects make up to age up leads Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain; other nominees (Cruella, House of Gucci) are more notable for their fantastic hairstyling and beauty shots while weirdly Coming 2 America does both. I’d expect the most technical of categories to split between Dune and The Power of the Dog, but if it were me I’d give Sound (which this year combines what used to be Sound and Sound Editing) to West Side Story, for recalling the original while managing to feel current.

And that, my friends, is that for now. I’ve a packed day tomorrow but I’ll get you a wrap up as soon as I can, once all the answers are finally revealed.

This entry was posted in TV.

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