2018 Summer Box Office Predictions

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Of all the yearly traditions on this blog, this might be the most futile. This is the one in which I try (and invariably fail) to predict which movies will end up as the top ten hits of the U.S. box office. To be fair, I didn’t do too badly last year. I predicted nine out of the ten movies that ended up in the top ten, even if I predicted them all in the wrong order. I had this hunch that Wonder Woman might be the biggest hit of the summer, but foolish me chickened out and went the “safe” route, thinking Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was a sure-bet for the top spot. Twelve months later, I don’t need to tell you Wonder Woman was the movie of the summer, though I might have to remind you that a Guardians sequel did in fact play in theaters last year. Being wrong! It’s fun!

Blow are my predictions for which will be the ten most “successful” movies at the box office this summer, with a big caveat. Some of these franchise movies are so impossible expensive to make that ending up in the top ten, and making hundreds of millions of dollars, doesn’t guarantee they will make a profit. There are a lot of those this summer. Just take a look at my list below, and realize that absolutely none of the movies I’m predicting are an original property. They are all part of an established franchise. I mean, a couple of them look good, and there’s also other smaller movies being released in the following months; but it will be a long summer for big Hollywood movies.

Before we get into it, however, let me inform you I recorded a podcast on this very topic with my good friend Rachel Wagner. This is the second year in which we try to predict the summer box office, so give it a listen if you want to listen to me make a fool of myself instead of merely reading it. I’ve linked to the podcast at the end of this post. It is also available both on Soundcloud and as a Youtube video.

1. The Incredibles 2 
Release Date: June 15
Studio: Disney
Predicted Box Office: 500 Million
I might phoning it in a little bit with this choice for number one, but I just can’t predict another Marvel movie to be at the top of the summer box office! For three in years in a row, I’ve predicted Marvel to come out on top, and for three years I’ve been wrong. This year, Marvel is bringing out the big guns, but I just can’t predict them again. I just can’t. So I’ve decided to go with The Incredibles 2, thinking that the movie could pull-off a run similar to Finding Dory, which dominated the summer two years ago.

2. Avengers: Infinity Wars
Release Date: April 27
Studio: Disney
Predicted Box Office: 450 Million
This is Marvel’s big play of the summer, the movie that will bring a thousand characters together and (presumably) pay off with the big battle the superhero franchise has been building up to for ten years. Early ticket sales for the movie have been huge, and Marvel is coming off the gigantic success of Black Panther, which can’t help. This movie, by all counts, has everything it needs to be the biggest hit of the summer and I’m probably a dumb idiot for not putting it at number one. Maybe the superhero fatigue will finally set in? Maybe the movie will disappoint fans in a big way? Or maybe I’m just being too personal, thinking audiences getting as tired of the Marvel movies as I am.

3. Solo: A Star Wars Story
Release Date: May 25
Studio: Disney
Predicted Box Office: 350 Million
Number three is nothing to sneeze at, but number three of the year (let alone the summer!) for a Star Wars movie is kind of a disaster. The franchise has ended at the top of the yearly box office for three years in a row now, so how could a movie that centers on one of its most beloved characters not be the biggest hit of the year? Well, the whole “young Han Solo” thing has met a lot of skepticism, pair that with the fact that we just got a (pretty divisive) Star Wars movie a mere five months ago and you are left with less enthusiasm than usual. Every Star Wars movie can’t be gigantic in a world in which we get a new one every year… can it?

4. Deadpool 2
Release Date: May 8
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Predicted Box Office: 290 Million
The first Deadpool was a surprise hit, earning 336 million dollars in the U.S. and coming embarrassingly close of a Best Picture nomination. But that movie came out in the (still but every year less so) doldrums of February. This time, the most obnoxious superhero of them all is playing in the big leagues of summer. People seem to like the rancid first movie, so I expect the sequel to make decent business (though not as well as its predecesor) despite being sandwiched between Avengers and Star Wars. 

5. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom 
Release Date: June 22
Studio: Universal
Predicted Box Office: 225 Million
Jurassic World dominated the box office back in 2015, becoming the third highest grossing movie in U.S. history (at the time), but is there anyone who actually likes that movie? Or that remembers it fondly? I might be in too deep into the world of Film Twitter, but I get the feeling that nobody is excited about this movie, which looks like it’s going to be about dinosaurs fighting a volcano? 225 Million is a fortune, but would be a huge disappointment for a sequel to a movie that made 652.

6. Mission Impossible: Fallout 
Release Date: July 27
Studio: Paramount
Predicted Box Office: 190 Million
Not unlike the Fast and Furious saga (but with less gigantic grosses), the Mission: Impossible movies found a winning formula well into the series. It all changed when Tom Cruise climbed up the tallest building in the world. Suddenly, we had found the perfect way to capitalize on the actor’s crazy star persona. The trailer for this latest entry devotes its last few seconds to a medley of Cruise stunts in which he falls out of many high-speeding vehicles. I don’t see a reason why people won’t show up for this. I know I will.

7. Ant-Man and the Wasp 
Release Date: July 6
Studio: Disney
Predicted Box Office: 185 Million
A miniature adventure such as this one (pun fully intended) might feel anti-climatic after the bloat of the Infinity Wars, but one would have to be truly foolish to bet on a Marvel movie not making money. Still, I wouldn’t expect this one to break any records. Falling somewhere along the lines of the first Ant-Man movie (180 million) seems most likely.

8. Ocean’s Eight 
Release Date: June 8
Studio: Warner Bros.
Predicted Box Office: 150 Million
This is movie on this list that I’m most excited to see. Actually, it’s the only movie that I’m truly excited to see (I’m being cautious about getting too excited for Incredibles 2 given Pixar’s recent track record). Anyway, a female version of Ocean’s Eleven? With this cast? Bullock. Blanchett. Paulson. Rihanna! I’m hoping general audiences are as excited for this movie as I am, because I will take all-female versions of beloved movies over exploding franchises all year long.

9. Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation
Release Date: July 13
Studio: Sony
Predicted Box Office: 145 Million
How many Hotel Transylvania movies will we have to endure until animator Genndy Tartakovsky finally gets to make an original movie of his own. The franchise does reliably well for Sony Pictures Animation in the Fall, so there’s the question of whether it will survive in the big leagues of summer. This isn’t a super crowded year in the animation front, so I expect this to do perfectly fine.

10. Disney’s Christopher Robin 
Release Date: August 3
Studio: Disney
Predicted Box Office: 130 Million
This one’s a bit of a question mark for me. The Disney remakes make a hell of a lot of money. The latest entry, Beauty and the Beast, was the second highest movie of last year with a 504 million haul. But this isn’t strictly a remake, and Winnie the Pooh isn’t hit the Millennial nostalgia sweet-spot quite as hard (or quite as precisely) as Beauty and the Beast. I don’t think there’s a world in which this movie is an outright flop, but how far can it actually go? I’m genuinely curious to know.

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Cannes 2018 Preview

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Nothing gets me excited for the upcoming year in film than the Announcement of which movies will be competing at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s hard to judge a line-up without having seen all of the movies, but the one announced this morning strikes me as particularly interesting in quite a few ways.

Let’s get the disappointing news out of the way first: only three female directors in the competition (same number as last year), and not a single Latin American movie in the lineup. Now, one or two films are usually added to the lineup in the weeks between the announcement and the festival (which starts May 8), so those statistics could change. But for now, I am a little disappointed.

I say a little because this year’s lineup is otherwise quite diverse (for Cannes standards). Cannes is known as a bit of a “old boys club”, in which the same respected directors get invited over and over again. But this year, the selection committee has left out a number of heavy-hitters who most insiders predicted would be part of the competition (including past Palme D’Or winners such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Mike Leigh, Terence Malick, Lars von Trier and Jacques Audiard, as well as Olivier Assayas and Paolo Sorrentino).

Instead, we get a line-up with only two American and four French films (which are the two nationalities that usually dominate the lineups), six filmmakers who haven’t been in the “competition” lineup before, and a heavy doze of East Asian and Middle Eastern movies. Here are some thoughts on this year’s Official Competition:

Everybody Knows (directed by Asghar Farhadi)
The opening night film sees Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (winner of two Oscars for Foreign Language Film for A Separation and The Salesman) travel to Spain (courtesy of Pedro Almodóvar’s production company). There, he has crafted a tense family drama about a teenage girl who goes missing in a small town starring Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Ricardo Darín. A Cannes “insider” described this movie as “Farhadi’s version of Sean Penn’s The Last Face”, which makes it sound like a disaster, but those might just be rumors. We’ll have to wait and see.

At War (directed by Stéphane Brizé)
One of four French films in competition, this one sees Brizé reunite with actor Vincent Lindon, who won the Best Actor Award a couple years ago for The Measure of a Man, in which he played an unemployed man desperate to provide for his family. This time, he works for a German-owned factory that is about to go out of business. Expect the very European realism and social critiques of their previous collaboration.

Dogman (directed by Matteo Garrone)
After a couple of more fanciful features, Garrone returns to the dour realism of his breakthrough Gomorra, with the story of a lonely dog stylist who gets involved with local criminals and goes on a quest for revenge. The movie has been described as an “urban western”, whatever that might mean.

Le Livre d’image (directed by Jean-Luc Godard)
The official description of this film reads: “Nothing but silence. Nothing but a revolutionary song. A story told in five chapters like the fingers of a hand”. Which is exactly the kind of experimental artistry (or bullshit) you’d expect from good old Jean-Luc Godard.

Netemo Sametemo (Asako I & II) (directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
Based on a novel by Tomoka Shibasaki, the movie spans a decade and focuses on two romantic relationships on the life of a woman named Asako: one at 22, the other at 31. Hamaguchi was one of the surprise selections this year and this will be his first Cannes. I’m not surprised, since I’ve heard nothing but raves for his previous movie Happy Hourwhich I only haven’t seen because it’s five hours long.

Sorry Angel (directed by Christophe Honoré)
Another of the few French films in this year’s lineup, this one is a gay love story between a 40 year-old writer and a young student. I am not familiar with the movies of Christophe Honoré, but I just learned he has directed a number of musicals and am now quite intrigued to catch up with his work.

Girls of the Sun (directed by Eva Husson)
The last French film of the bunch (and one of the three directed by a woman) stars Emmanuelle Bercot as a French journalist who gets involved with a Kurdish female batallion. Golshifteh Farahani (from About Elly and Paterson) also stars as the leader of said batallion.

Ash is Purest White (directed by Jia Zhang-ke)
Jia Zhang-ke’s most frequent collaborator Zhao Tao stars in this epic story about a woman in love, who commits a crime to protect her lover, and what happens when she gets out of prison many years later. Jia is one of the most celebrated Chinese directors working today, and this sounds like it could be the movie that finally wins him the Palme.

Shoplifters (directed by Hirokazu Koreeda)
Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda is well known for his low-key explorations of everyday life and family relationships. The trailer makes this movie look like it fits perfectly within his brand of extraordinary emotion coming out of ordinary circumstances. The cast is made up of many of his frequent actors, including the wonderful Kirin Kiki, a veteran actress of Japanese cinema.

Capernaum (directed by Nadine Labaki)
Not a lot is known about this movie, except that Capernaum is the name of an old fishing village in Israel, and that the story centers on a group of immigrants. Presumably, they would be Palestinian or Syrian immigrants in Lebanon. Labaki is a Lebanese actress and filmmaker, known for Where Do We Go Now?which won the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival back in 2011.

Burning (directed by Lee Chang-dong)
With Secret Sunshine and PoetryLee Chang-dong established himself as the meditative master of South Korean cinema. He works very sporadically, which makes this return to the directing chair one of the most anticipated movies at the festival. From what we know, the movie is a mysterious drama based on a story by Haruki Murakami (and inspired by William Faulkner).

BlacKkKlansman (directed by Spike Lee)
One of the two American films in competition sees the return of Spike Lee to the festival that was shaken almost thirty years ago with the premiere of Do the Right ThingLee’s films have been hit and miss lately (and that’s being generous), but this true story about a black FBI officer who infiltrated a chapter of the KKK could very well be a triumphant return to form. Here’s hoping!

Under the Silver Lake (directed by David Robert Mitchell)
Already set for release this summer by A24, the second American movie in this line-up stars Andrew Garfield as a guy looking for a missing woman in the hipster neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The movie looks like a colorful neo-noir comedy, and will definitely be an interesting watch. Director David Robert Mitchell has been to Cannes with his horror movie It Followsbut this is his debut in the Competition line-up.

Three Faces (directed by Jafar Panahi)
This is the first time that veteran Iranian director Panahi has a movie in the Main Competition, and it remains to be seen if he will be able to attend the festival. He is currently serving a 20-year filmmaking ban imposed by the Iranian government that has ironically made him more prolific than ever.

Cold War (directed by Pawel Pawlikowski)
The latest film by Polish director Pawel Pawliskowski is a love story set during the cold war. That’s not much to go off, until you remember Pawlikowski was the man behind that wonderful post-holocaust drama Idawhich was a critical success and a surprise box office hit.

Lazzaro Felice (directed by Alice Rohrwacher)
This is the latest from Italian actress-turned-director Alice Rohrwacher, who won the Grand Prix a couple years ago with The WondersThis might be the perfect time to catch up with her previous work, which has been described as delicate and unusual. Not much is known about her latest film, which seems to focus on a man who can travel through time.

Yomeddine (directed by A.B. Shawky)
This is Shawky’s first feature film, which makes it one of the most curious inclusions in the line-up. It is usually very hard for first-time filmmakers to make it into the Main Competition, but this Egyptian drama about a duo of young lepers searching for their family seems to have peaked the interest of the selection committee. This is the only African movie in this year’s line-up.

Leto (Summer) (directed by Kirill Serebrenikov)
A few weeks ago I started hearing a lot about this movie, as many on Twitter started predicting it as a possibility for Cannes and said they were very excited about it. I hadn’t even heard about the director, which I found out has been sentenced to house arrest by the authorities of his native Russia. The movie is set in the rock scene of early eighties Leningrad, and will surely be one of the most talked about movies of the festival.

Predictions? It’s hard to predict anything that will happen at Cannes (unpredictability is part of the appeal of following the festival), but if I had to guess at which directors seem most likely to be favored by this year’s jury (which is led by Cate Blanchett), I’d put my money on Jafar Panahi, Kirill Serebrenikov, or Jia Zhang-ke. And as far as disasters (there is always at least one horrible film in competition each year), I’d say either Everybody Knows and Girls of the Sun sound like they have the makings of a typical Cannes bomb.

Good Boy, Bad Boy: A Survey of Wes Anderson’s Career and his ‘Isle of Dogs’

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It’s always fascinating to see how a director decides to follow-up a huge success. The popularity of Wes Anderson’s meticulously designed doll house narratives, has allowed him to become the kind of director that generates a following big and loyal enough to be considered both a well-respected auteur and a commercially valuable filmmaker. Fittingly for a director obsessed with stylish surfaces, the Wes Anderson name has become a brand. He had the biggest success of his career a couple years ago with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which did incredibly well financially (making almost 150 million dollars worldwide – by far his biggest commercial hit), won a bunch of prizes including five Oscars, and earned Anderson the first Best Director nomination of his career. The success of Grand Budapest solidified him as one of the “biggest” directors in the world. How do you follow that?

According to Wes Anderson, you follow it up by returning to the world of stop-motion animation. His first foray into the format, a delightful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, was the movie that lifted him out of the most divisive period of his career and pushed him into his current status as a celebrated artist. He retreated to animation at the lowest point in his career, and has decided to return at the highest. His newest movie is Isle of Dogsa canine romp set in a futuristic Japan in which a corrupt government spins a conspiracy against dogs – exiling them to an island full of trash called, appropriately, “trash island”. Narratively, it’s the story of a young boy looking for his dog. Thematically, it’s a tale about the darkness of authoritarian governments and fear-mongering.

Isle of Dogs comes at a crucial point in Anderson’s career, and could be remembered as a turning point for a hermetic director who has slowly been forced to come out of his shel and engage with the world around him. As a piece of animation, Isle of Dogs shows a master operating at the top of his game. As a movie about politics, it shows an author willing to go into new and fascinating territory. As a movie about Japan, however, it presents a man whose unique aesthetic blinds him toward the potential problems that arise out of the way he has decided to portray Japanese culture.

With those three points in mind, and being the massive Wes Anderson fan that I am, it becomes clear that the best way to try and decipher Isle of Dogs is through the prism of three of Anderson’s previous movies, each of which relates to an integral aspect of this latest movie’s DNA. Two of them have already been mentioned: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Fantastic Mr. Fox. The third is one of Anderson’s least successful ditties: the Indian travelogue The Darjeeling Limited

Let’s start by thinking of Anderson’s career in animation. Back in 2009, Anderson was coming off of releasing the two biggest flops of his career in a row. Safe for a couple loyalists, the critical consensus around the filmmaker was that he had grown too enamored of his signature aesthetic and abandoned any interest in compelling story-telling. Watching those flops now one realizes they are much more touching and interesting than initially decided, but back then, Anderson seemed to be in a rut. So he decided to fight these “style over substance” accusations by diving into animation, a medium that is literally built around the belief that style is substance.

The result was Fantastic Mr. Fox, which many would argue remains the artistic pinnacle of Anderson’s career. The movie, as mentioned above, is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, about a sly Fox who leads a ragtag group of woodland critters against a trio of gruesome farmers. The movie is energetic, almost manic, in a way that Anderson’s cinema hadn’t been before. He usually balances hectic chases with melancholy pauses, but this was non-stop. Watching Fantastic Mr. Fox is like being on the fastest train in the world. It whooshes past so fast it looks dangerous, but the tracks are so secure and the train so well designed there is no chance of an accident.

The movie didn’t do much at the box office (it was probably too idiosyncratic for family audiences), but it was a critical hit. Even Anderson’s detractors liked the film. Some of them suggested stop-motion was the director’s natural environment and that he should work exclusively as an animator. And stop-motion animation in particular is the perfect medium for an artist as obsessed with detailed beauty as Anderson. In case you don’t know, stop-motion is the process in which you move miniature models one frame at a time in order to create the illusion of movement. Thus, with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the dollhouse director played with a literal dollhouse. The result then was delightful, and Isle of Dogs is an even more impressive piece of animation.

One when talks about stop-motion animation one must understand how exhausting a a form of animation it can be, and how the medium caters to controlling artists. In a stop-motion piece, every single bit of movement no matter how tiny is the result of time consuming effort. With this in mind, jaws are bound to drop during Isle of Dogs, when you see the seamless way in which the dogs’ hair ruffles in the wind, or the forceful choreography of the Taiko drumming trio that opens the film. Anderson, along with the unbelievably talented animators who worked on the film have, quite literally, crafted one of the most beautiful movies of the year.

This attention to detail extends to the better parts of the movie, narratively speaking. A lot of the comedy comes from seeing stereotypes about dogs rendered through Anderson’s signature cocktail of dry humor and affectless melancholy. There is, for example, a little pug called Oracle (voiced by Tilda Swinton) who is believed to be psychic because she can understand human t.v. And an even more delightful Husky (Jeff Goldblum), who seems to know all the rumors that go around the dog island. But there’s more to this movie than silly dog humor (for better and worse). In order to get into it, let me give you some more plot details.

In future Japan, mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has decided that the best way to get rid of the “snout fever” that is affecting the dogs and is bound to spread to humans is to quarantine the city’s canine population in an isolated island. What Kobayashi doesn’t know is that his ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin), is determined to find his exiled dog Spots and bring him back. So, Atari flies (and crashes) a plane into the trash island and joins a pack of alpha dogs in order to reunite with his lost pet.

The emotion comes not only out of Atari’s relationship with Spots (and later with a self-proclaimed stray voiced by Bryan Cranston), but from seeing the hardship endured by the exiled dogs. Using dogs as a metaphor for refugees (or any oppressed minority) is quite effective -at least emotionally. After all, people tend to extend a greater amount of empathy to dogs on-screen than they do any human character. Anderson is famous for killing animal characters in his movies, so he doesn’t shy away from the darkness of his premise, even though he shows unexpected overwhelming warmth toward the dogs on his island.

This balance between dark themes and earnest emotion seems to be the core ideal of the current part of Anderson’s career. He has realized that the repressed emotions he usually gives his characters work best when surrounded with the darkest possible situations. This might sound like a disastrous recipe for a director who works mostly in comedy, but the juxtaposition of colorful comedy, deeply existential drama, and gigantic socio-political ramifications works surprisingly well.

This was most apparent in The Grand Budapest Hotel, a masterpiece in which Anderson imagined a luxurious pink hotel (another dollhouse of sorts) and dropped it into a fictitious version of Europe on the eve of the Second World War. It shouldn’t have worked, but the way Anderson frames the movie through the memories a man whose melancholy for a time of delicate beauty that simply slipped through his fingers and was flattened by history is immensely affecting. It’s a story about the things that seem frivolous and meaningless, until they are lost to humanity’s darkest impulses.

There are similar layers to Isle of Dogs‘s approach to darkness. First, are the “suffering” that the dogs must endure. The dogs on “trash island” are all struggling to survive, scavenging for anything edible, and with some of them having been victims of cruel scientific testing. The second layer is the reason for the dogs’ suffering. It’s the demagogy of Mayor Kobayashi, the politics that surround him, and the attitudes of the city of Megasaki. It’s in this second layer that houses virtually all of the movie’s weakest elements.

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Anderson’s willingness to explore the nature of political oppression and mob mentality is admirable and prescient for a moment in which the world is trending toward totalitarian authorities. But the reasons for choosing Japan as the setting for this movie seem dubious. The plot machinations (and there are many) that go into explaining the extend to which Kobayashi’s plan is a conspiracy are numerous, complicated, and never truly satisfying. It is suggested, but never truly understood why the Mayor hates dogs, and the psychology of the citizens that side with him. It’s frustrating, though perhaps that’s what makes this kind of evil so scary- it doesn’t need an explanation.

But a messy plot isn’t the biggest problem with this movie’s Japanese angle. Its depiction of Japanese culture is bound to raise some eyebrows. It’s easy to see that Anderson isn’t really interested in depicting any sort of “real” Japan, but rather a fantastical version of the country made up of everything the director associates with Japanese culture. It’s an approach he has used in depictions of other places (and cultures), and it has mostly worked. The Japan of Isle of Dogs isn’t any further from reality than the New York of The Royal Tenenbaums or the European nations of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but Anderson’s cultural pastiche doesn’t have the same ring when applied to a country, culture, and people who have a history of misrepresentation on American screens.

It’s fair to say that virtually every culture (even parts of American culture) has been misrepresented by Hollywood, but the extend to which mainstream American media has mistreated Asia and Japan in particular is particularly bad. From World War II propaganda to Long Duk Dong, Hollywood has been consistently insensitive, and thus, no matter how heartfelt the intention, Anderson’s free-association version of Japan doesn’t sit well. Everything in the movie’s Japan is a reference -sumo wrestling, kabuki, haikus, godzilla- and some work much better than others.

Film critic Peter Labuza points toward a sushi-making scene as an example of the movie’s interest in playing with points of view, and I agree with him. The sequence not only shows Anderson’s knack for composition, as well as beautiful animation, but turns a detour into a funny reveal and then a crucial plot point. Then there are moments like when a plane explodes and forms a mushroom cloud that may or may not be intended as a reference to the A-Bomb, but is undoubtedly an unfortunate choice for a movie set in a city called Megasaki.

Another dubious element is Anderson’s decision to have the (human) Japanese characters speak in their native tongue without subtitles. It’s a strange decision on many levels. First, because most of the dialogue is translated anyway by a translator character voiced by Frances McDormand. Second, because it creates a layer of distance between the audience and the Japanese characters that doesn’t work as intended. The moments that lack translation require the characters to over-express dialogue and movement in ways that make them seem unusually big and cartoonish for an Anderson movie in which characters are always reserving their emotions.

If the idea was to embrace the dogs’ point of view and have the humans at a remove, then a better choice would’ve been to have the dogs speak English and the humans communicate in barks (as suggested on Twitter by Griffin Newman). An even more dubious elements is the character of exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig), an American girl who leads the resistance against Mayor Kobayashi in  asub-plot that comes off as yet another white-savior narrative. The ways in which one can wrestle with this movie’s Japan are numerous and have been better explored by a number of Asian American film critics such as Justin Chang, Jen Yamato, and Ingoo Kang.

But even then, there is something outside of specific choices that makes the human parts of Isle of Dogs not work as well as they should. It makes me think of another Wes Anderson movie set in Asia. The Darjeeling Limited, in which three white brothers work out their grief by making their way through India. There are undoubtedly problematic elements in the movie, but they are balanced by a couple of crucial choices. Yes, the protagonists are white Americans, but the movie’s focus is reflective of the characters’ own self-absorption. It is ultimately a movie about westerners using Asian culture to relief their own neuroses.

Second, and perhaps most crucial, is the fact that Darjeeling is a live action movie. The Indian actors are there, and the white protagonist must meet their humanity face to face. Moreover, the movie is not only set but filmed in India, a country that cannot be tamed by Anderson’s will, no matter how obsessive. He can put up as many layers of design as he can, but at the end of the day, India is still India.

Anderson’s stop-motion Japan, on the other hand, was virtually created by his own hands. The same absolute control that makes Isle of Dogs such an impressive piece of animation makes Anderson’s version of Japan so hermetic it becomes airless and problematic. The half of the movie that focuses on the dogs is quite moving and highly effective, but the half that focuses on Japan doesn’t quite work. It’s those parts of Isle of Dogs that make me, a devoted Wes Anderson fan, understand what people mean when they say that he director’s meticulous style makes them feel like they’re never invited to play in his sandbox.

2017 Oscar Predictions

Film Title: Get Out

There are a lot of great nominees in this year’s crop, but the winners are shaping up to be a big disappointment. Below are my predictions for which contenders are more likely to win on Sunday, though I’m hoping (probably foolishly) that most of my predictions don’t come true.

Best Picture

  • Call Me by Your Name
  • Darkest Hour
  • Dunkirk
  • Get Out
  • Lady Bird
  • Phantom Thread
  • The Post
  • The Shape of Water
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

And so, I’m putting all my hopeful eggs on this category’s proverbial basket, because I can’t help but hope that something surprising happens at the end of the night on March 4. Three Billboards has won the most awards so far this season, but I think it will be doomed by Oscar’s preferential ballot (which favors movies that are liked across the board over polarizing movies). Shape of Water seems like the most likely beneficiary from the ballot, though I have this gut feeling Get Out could surprise at the last minute. That would be crazy, since the movie is unlikely to win any other awards. Still, I’m going for the crazy prediction, hoping for at least one surprise this year.
Will Win: Get Out 
My Vote: Lady Bird  

Director

  • Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk)
  • Jordan Peele (Get Out)
  • Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird)
  • Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread)
  • Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water)

This one’s pretty clearly Guillermo Del Toro’s for the taking. He would become the third Mexican director to win an Oscar in the last five years, and that’s quite alright. I’m surprised Christopher Nolan didn’t get more traction this season, since Best Director has become the “technical achievement” category, in which the person who directed the most technically challenging movie wins. Is directing an actor in fish-man suit considered a technical achievement?
Will Win: Guillermo Del Toro
My Vote: Greta Gerwig

Actor in a Leading Role

  • Timothee Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name)
  • Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread)
  • Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out)
  • Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)
  • Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.)

The acting categories are a disaster this year. I already wrote about why I found them so disappointing, so I will instead point out that Gary Oldman seems like the one front-runner that could falter at any second. Given the actor’s controversial past, I was waiting for some sort of controversial allegation to surface during the season, but none did. With the ceremony less than a week away, it’s unlikely any revelation (if indeed there is anything to reveal) could derail his march to the podium.
Will Win: Gary Oldman
My Vote: Daniel Kaluuya

Actress in a Leading Role

  • Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water)
  • Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
  • Margot Robbie (I, Tonya)
  • Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird)
  • Meryl Streep (The Post)

With such a stacked category, I’m shocked that Frances McDormand has so easily run the table this season. Sally Hawkins is the best thing in the otherwise overhyped Shape of Water, Meryl is doing the best work she’s done in more than ten years, and Saoirse Ronan gives what is -for my money- the very best performance of the year in any category. Instead, McDormand -an actress I love- wins for a performance she could have given in her sleep. For a much better glimpse of she can do when playing an curmudgeon, check out the flawless HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge
Will Win: Frances McDormand
My Vote: Saoirse Ronan

Actor in a Supporting Role

  • Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project)
  • Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
  • Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water)
  • Christopher Plummer (All the Money in the World)
  • Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

The supporting categories are especially heart-breaking this year, since just a couple months ago we seemed to have two incredibly deserving front-runners who stopped winning awards out of nowhere. Willem Dafoe steals the heart of anyone who watches The Florida Project, but the Academy seems to be more impressed by Sam Rockwell’s problematic cop.
Will Win: Sam Rockwell
My Vote: Willem Dafoe

Actress in a Supporting Role

  • Mary J. Blige (Mudbound)
  • Allison Janney (I, Tonya)
  • Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread)
  • Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird)
  • Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water)

Same story here, as Allison Janney -an actress I otherwise love- keeps winning left and right for a cartoonish performance she could have given in her sleep. How this can happen when Laurie Metcalf’s sublime work is right there for the taking is beyond me. I’m holding on to the slightest hope that Metcalf can surprise on Sunday, given that this is the only category the widely beloved Lady Bird is capable of winning. Maybe voters will notice?
Will Win: Allison Janney
My Vote: Laurie Metcalf

Writing (Original Screenplay)

  • The Big Sick (Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani)
  • Get Out (Jordan Peele)
  • Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
  • The Shape of Water (Guillermo Del Toro, Vanessa Taylor)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)

I wouldn’t be surprised if Get Out takes this one, considering I’m predicting it for Best Picture. But the cynical part of me thinks that a screenplay as aggressively horrendous and incompetent as Three Billboards can’t possibly lose this category. Remember, atrocities such as Birdman and Crash have won this category in the past.
Will Win: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
My Vote: Lady Bird 

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

  • Call Me by Your Name (James Ivory)
  • The Disaster Artist (Michael H. Weber, Scott Neustadter)
  • Logan (Scott Frank, James Mangold)
  • Molly’s Game (Aaron Sorkin)
  • Mudbound (Dee Rees, Virgil Williams)

For a moment, I thought The Disaster Artist had a shot at this slim category, but let’s just say that ship has sailed. James Ivory is likely to win the first Oscar of his career, at 89 years of age nonetheless.
Will Win: Call Me by Your Name 
My Vote: Mudbound 

Cinematography

  • Blade Runner 2049 (Roger Deakins)
  • Darkest Hour (Seamus McGarvey)
  • Dunkirk (Hoyte van Hoytema)
  • Mudbound (Rachel Morrison)
  • The Shape of Water (Dan Lausten)

Many a cinephile is obsessed with the fact that Roger Deakins still hasn’t won an Oscar despite being considered one of the best cinematographers in the field and fourteen previous nominations. Blade Runner 2049 is the best shot he’s had at the win in years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the fickle Academy ends up snubbing him again in favor of a buzzier movie.
Will Win: The Shape of Water
My Vote: Mudbound 

Costume Design

  • Beauty and the Beast (Jacqueline Durran)
  • Darkest Hour (Jacqueline Durran)
  • Phantom Thread (Mark Bridges)
  • The Shape of Water (Luis Sequeira)
  • Victoria and Abdul (Consolata Boyle)

This has to go to Phantom Thread, right? I mean, the movie is literally about a fashion designer. Now, some people tell me that the fishman suit in Shape of Water counts as a costume, but even then, a bunch of rubber isn’t nearly as jaw-dropping as the gowns in Phantom Thread!
Will Win: Phantom Thread
My Vote: Phantom Thread 

Film Editing

  • Baby Driver (Paul Machliss)
  • Dunkirk (Lee Smith)
  • I, Tonya (Tatiana S. Riegel)
  • The Shape of Water (Sidney Wolinsky)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Jon Gregory)

At first glance, I’d say Dunkirk takes this in a cake-walk, but the movie has performed really weakly this award season. But then again, can you really picture Baby Driver winning an Oscar? Some things just make too much sense.
Will Win: Dunkirk
My Vote: Dunkirk 

Makeup and Hairstyling

  • Darkest Hour
  • Victoria and Abdul 
  • Wonder 

Maybe the easiest category to predict this year? I mean, one of this pictures is nominated for Best Picture and the others seem to barely exist in the eyes of the Academy.
Will Win: Darkest Hour
My Vote: I’ve only seen Darkest Hour 

Music (Original Score)

  • Dunkirk (Hans Zimmer)
  • Phantom Thread (Jonny Greenwood)
  • The Shape of Water (Alexandre Desplat)
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi (John Williams)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Carter Burwell)

This seems like an easy win for Shape of Water, and a second Oscar for prolific composer Alexandre Desplat. I really don’t think any of the others nominees has a legit shot at the win.
Will Win: The Shape of Water 
My VotePhantom Thread

Music (Original Song)

  • “Mighty River” (Mudbound)
  • “The Mystery of Love” (Call Me By Your Name)
  • “Remember Me” (Coco)
  • “Stand Up for Something” (Marshall)
  • “This is Me” (The Greatest Showman)

Now, this one’s tricky. I long assumes the emotional impact of “Remember Me” (and Coco) will give that movie the edge, but The Greatest Showman is making bank at the box office, “This is Me” already won the Golden Globe, and award-giving bodies love composers Pasek and Paul (including the Oscars, which awarded them for La La Land last year). It’s a rousing inspirational song in a big production number, and feel like part of the zeitgeist in a way “Remember Me” doesn’t.
Will Win: “This is Me” 
My Vote: “Mystery of Love”

Production Design

  • Beauty and the Beast (Sarah Greenwood)
  • Blade Runner 2049 (Dennis Gassner)
  • Darkest Hour (Sarah Greenwood)
  • Dunkirk (Nathan Crowley)
  • The Shape of Water (Paul Austenberry)

I’m thinking Shape of Water takes this one.
Will Win: The Shape of Water
My Vote: Blade Runner 2049 

Sound Mixing

  • Baby Driver 
  • Blade Runner 2049
  • Dunkirk
  • The Shape of Water
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Best Sound usually translates to most sound for the Academy, so Dunkirk seems like a slam-dunk.
Will Win: Dunkirk
My Vote: Star Wars: The Last Jedi  

Sound Editing

  • Baby Driver
  • Blade Runner 2049
  • Dunkirk
  • The Shape of Water
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi 

Is there any movie that could challenge Dunkirk in either of these categories? I don’t think so.
Will Win: Dunkirk 
My Vote: Star Wars: The Last Jedi 

Visual Effects

  • Blade Runner 2049
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  • Kong: Skull Island 
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • War for the Planet of the Apes 

A lot of people are predicting War for the Planet of the Apes, but that franchise has never been that popular with the Academy, and the Oscars tend to prefer classier movies in this category. Blade Runner 2049 is easily the most “serious” of these nominees, and I think will take the win.
Will Win: Blade Runner 2049
My Vote: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Animated Feature

  • The Boss Baby
  • The Breadwinner 
  • Coco
  • Ferdinand 
  • Loving Vincent  

Forget about Best Makeup, this is the biggest lock of the night.
Will Win: Coco 
My Vote: The Breadwinner 

Foreign Language Film

  • A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
  • The Insult (Lebanon)
  • Loveless (Russia)
  • On Body and Soul (Hungary)
  • The Square (Sweden)

This is the category that is truly driving me crazy. I can see any of these movies taking the award. I think a lot depends on whether voters actually watch the movies before voting. The Square has the biggest profile, so I’ll give it the edge even though it’d probably have no shot if they’d actually watch it. 
Will Win:
 The Square
My Vote: I’ve only seen Fantastic Woman and The Square 

Documentary Feature

  • Abacus: Small Enough to Jail  
  • Faces, Places
  • Icarus 
  • Last Men in Aleppo 
  • Strong Island 

Faces, Places isn’t the most “serious” movie in this bunch, but it does seem to have the highest profile, which tends to help in this category as of late. This is practically the one thing I have to look forward to among this list of likely winners, so I really hope we get an Agnes Varda speech on Sunday.
Will Win: Faces, Places
My Vote: Faces, Places 

Animated Short

  • Dear Basketball
  • Garden Party
  • Lou
  • Negative Space 
  • Revolting Rhymes

Academy Award winner Kobe Bryant? There are surely enough Lakers fans in the Academy to make that a reality, but will other voters be bothered by the fact that Kobe’s love letter to basketball is really a love letter to himself? There’s also the fact that a Kobe Bryant win would surely raise eyebrows by people who remember his problematic past. I’ve been going back and forth on this one, ultimately settling for the hyper-realist frogs of Garden Party. 
Will Win: Garden Party 

Documentary Short

  • Edith + Eddie
  • Heaven is a Traffic Jam in the 405
  • Heroin(e)
  • Knife Skills
  • Traffic Stop

Edith + Eddie is a story about the legal injustices faced by senior citizen, which could resonate with the Academy’s older contingent. But then you have Heroin(e), about three women fighting the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, which is both very timely and very well made. That one’s backed by Netflix, so voters might have actually seen it.
Will Win: Heroin(e)

Live Action Short

  • All of Us
  • DeKalb Elementary
  • The Eleven O’Clock
  • My Nephew Emmett
  • The Silent Child 

DeKalb Elementary, about a school worker desperately trying to prevent a shooting, seems like the most prescient and politically relevant of the nominees. I’d give it the edge.
Will Win: DeKalb Elementary

Are the Oscars Important? Should You Care?

halle and denzel

I love the Oscars. Though I disagree with their choices more of than not, I absolutely love the time of year we have come to refer to as “Awards Season.” And why wouldn’t I? The months leading up to the ceremony make up the one time of year in which everyone is talking about movies. I spend an unhealthy amount of time reading people’s thoughts on “Film Twitter”, and even more time listening to movie podcasts, but Awards Season is when people in the real world start talking about movies. This is the time when movies leap out of my cell phone screen, when movies abandon my headphones and step into the real world. This is when movies feel real. Only in February can your Uber driver tell you how disappointed he was by The Shape of Water. I love that, but that’s just me.

It would be an understatement to say that not everybody loves the Oscars as much as I do. There is no question that the vast majority of people on this Earth don’t give a shit about which Hollywood star does or does not win a golden statue. So let’s limit ourselves to people who are into movies. There are people, like me, who are into this whole Oscar thing. Then there are those who will dismiss the Oscars saying they are silly and meaningless because they rarely award the actual best movies of the year. Finally, there is a group who will say that the Oscars are everything that’s wrong with movie culture. There is a certain amount of truth in these people’s opinion, but I find that their arguments seldom take into account a full picture of the role the Oscars play in movie culture. With those people in mind, I will attempt to answer a couple questions I’ve asked myself many times: Are the Oscars important? And more pressingly: Should you care?

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: of course the Oscars are silly. For ninety years they’ve been handed out, mostly existing as a tool for Hollywood to promote itself. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was created in the twenties with two purposes in mind: First, to clean up Hollywood’s image as a town of vice and immorality in the eyes of the movie-going public. And second, to work as a mediator in labor disputes. At the time, the big studio heads were worried about workers who had begun to unionize. They feared what would happen if writers, directors, and God forbid, actors did the same. These unions needed busting. Enter the Academy Awards, which perfectly served the Academy’s purposes: They presented Hollywood in the most favorable light possible, while giving out golden statues that would hopefully be enough reward to keep employees from wanting to form an union.

The experiment was partially successful. The union-busting aspect didn’t take. Unions were established, and let’s just say they didn’t get along wit the Academy. But the awards-giving aspect of the experiment was a success. I guess everybody loves a good trophy because even when the unions and the Academy were at each other’s throats, the Awards were never cancelled. Instead, they thrived. The public loved to see pictures of their stars hanging out together. Later, they could hear them giving speeches on the radio, and even better, accepting their awards live on television. The self-promotion worked. Winning and Oscar was a big deal. It’s hard to imagine in our days of superhero franchises, but there was a time when Oscar-winning dramas such as Rain Man, On Golden Pond, and Forrest Gump ruled the box office.

The cultural impact of the Oscars has receded quite a bit since then. There is no way Lady Bird will defy the latest Star Wars movie at the box office, but if there is enough talk about the possibility of it winning Best Picture, then that can do a lot to boost its box office. In fact, the movie has already made more than 45 million dollars (not bad for a movie that cost 10 million to make). Similarly, it’s hard to picture movies like Brokeback Mountain, Juno and The Revenant becoming the big hits that they were without the Oscar buzz that built around them. The fact of the matter is that Oscar talk can still generate box office results, and this is one of the very few reasons why movies like this get made anymore. With all this in mind we can answer the first part of our question. “Are the Oscars important?” I guess it depends on your definition of “important”, but for Hollywood, they are definitely a big deal.

Now, on to the second part: “Should we care?” To a lot of people, judging art (in this case movies) as if they were athletes in a competition is not only silly, but offensive. It’s true that engaging with a movie solely based on its potential to win Oscars is an incredibly limited way of engaging with art, and I would be the first to admit that there are some truly horrible corners of the internet in which movies are measured that way exclusively. But is there something to gain out of comparing movies against each other? People love being judgy, and they have been comparing art for a long time. The earliest form of what consider drama, Ancient Greek comedies and tragedies, were pitted against each other in a competition called the “City Dionysia.” It was a festival that lasted several days. On the last day, they gave out awards for the Best Playwright (or Poet), and later, for the Best Actor. Could one argue, then, that competitive art is some sort of inherent human urge?

What went on in the “City Dionysia” isn’t that different from what happens in the South of France every year at the Cannes Film Festival. The most prestigious film directors in the world fight to get a spot in the Official Competition line-up, which allows them the chance to win the coveted Palme D’Or at the festival’s closing ceremony. The Palme, like the Oscar, immediately raises the profile of the winning film. There are many things to critique about Cannes (just like there are many things to critique about the Oscars), but I doubt many cinephiles would say the film community would be better off without Cannes. It’s hard enough to generate any interest in foreign art films, so one doesn’t even want to imagine how dour the situation would be without the pomposity of Cannes.

In a world that is growing less and less interested in cinema, both Cannes and Oscar serve increasingly similar purposes. They keep interest alive for the kind of movies that can no longer generate interest by themselves. Perhaps you find all this self-promotion nauseating, and decry the fact that both the Oscars and Cannes put too much focus on the movies that are out now, and could potentially win awards, forgetting about the rich history of cinema. In that case, it would be worth mentioning that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is a very big sponsor of film restoration, having helped to preserve and restore 800 movies, including Hollywood classics, documentaries, shorts, and experimental films. It’s also worth noting that these preservation programs are largely funded by the money that flows into the Academy thanks to the popularity of the Oscar ceremony.

I don’t think it would be a stretch to say most people don’t know about this restoration program, and that if nothing else, the labor the Academy puts into preserving the art-form is enough to justify its existence. However, I think the polemic I’ve encountered most often regarding the Oscars is not whether they should exist, but how they should go about their business. The other day I was talking with a friend of mine about the fact that James Franco did not get a Best Actor nomination. We both assumed he didn’t get it, at least partially, because of the sexual misconduct accusations that surfaced after he won a Golden Globe earlier this year. Now, my friend understood the logic behind voters not wanting to nominate him, but he wondered if denying an artistic achievement because of personal or political reasons was in keeping with the spirit of the Oscars. “Shouldn’t it be about the art?”

It’s a question I have thought a lot about and have come to answer with a resounding “no.” It is not about the art. Judging art in this manner is, like I said before, profoundly silly. Most Best Picture winners are regarded as mediocre films just a couple decades after they win, and eventually forgotten by everyone except Oscars obsessives (when is the last time you heard of Cavalcade or Gentleman’s Agreement?) We all have subjective reactions to art, so pretending that we can quantify and measure the effectiveness of a movie is futile. Even if we wanted to judge the Oscars exclusively based on “the art”, it would be impossible to do so. The Oscars cannot award the “Best Picture” because there is no such thing.

Here’s what the Oscars can do, though. They can shine the spotlight on movies, performances, directors, writers, producers, and craftspeople who wouldn’t get much attention otherwise. They can put movies with tiny budgets on the same stage as gigantic Hollywood spectacles. They can insist, year after year, to devote part of an expensive televised show to awarding documentaries, foreign, and short films. Even more importantly, they can put young up-and-coming talent in the same room as the most powerful and respected Hollywood veterans.

Last week, this year’s nominees came out to what is called the Annual Oscar Nominee Luncheon. An event that is meant to give the nominees a primer on what to do during the ceremony and how to deal with their speech, but is mostly just an excuse for all this people to hang out together for an afternoon. Every year, a “class photo” of all the nominees is taken. It’s one of my favorite moments of the awards season. Looking at the picture, you can see titans Steven Spielberg, emerging actors like Daniel Kaluuya, and pioneering technicians like Rachel Morrison (the first female cinematographer to be ever nominated for an Oscar) standing side by side. Mingling. Getting to know each other. Maybe planning to work together in the future.

The last time I encountered the question of “shouldn’t it be about the art” was during the years of the #OscarSoWhite campaign. Back then, people complained that the Oscars failed to nominate a single person of color in any of the four acting categories. And other people reacting saying that it “should be about the art” and not about a person’s skin color. I’m a little embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to fully develop my thoughts on this matter, but here it goes: The “awarding the best art” part of the Oscars is complete bullshit. What’s not bullshit is the opportunities that can come a person’s way after they become an Oscar nominee. This is why it’s beyond important to nominate women, racial minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community. So they can be part of the conversation. So they can get work. This is how you will be truly trying to elevate the voices that haven’t been heard before. This is how the Oscars can actually “be about the art.”

Oscar’s Moral Licensing: Are We Back to the “Old Days” After a Historic Year?

moral licensing

Moonlight’s victory at last year’s Academy Awards was both shocking and historic. Not just because of any confusion involving Faye Dunaway opening the wrong envelope, but because history tells us that Moonlight isn’t the kind of movie that wins Best Picture. We’re talking about a poetic coming-of-age story about a gay man written and directed by a black man and starring an all-black cast. None of those words describe your typical Best Picture winner. As recently as five years ago, it would’ve been impossible to picture a movie like Moonlight becoming the big Oscar winner of the year. And yet, it happened. In that moment, it seemed like anything was possible. Were we witnessing the beginning of a new era for Hollywood? Maybe not. Looking at the movies likely to take home hardware at this year’s Oscar ceremony, I can’t help but think of a woman named Elizabeth Thompson.

Elizabeth Thompson is the subject of the very first episode of  Revisionist History, a podcast hosted by non-fiction author Malcolm Gladwell dedicated to “history’s overlooked and misunderstood moments.“ In this first episode, Gladwell talks about The Roll Call, a 1874 painting by Thompson which the first painting by a woman to ever be exhibited by the British Royal Academy of Arts. The Roll Call was a total sensation, attracting large crowds both at the Academy’s show in London and on its tour across the country. The painting’s success seemed to signal the beginning of a long and bright career for Elizabeth Thompson. Many assumed she would be the first woman to be admitted into the Royal Academy. That didn’t happen. She didn’t get enough votes to join the Academy. She kept submitting, but her work was never again selected for exhibition. After a while, she stopped painting. And that was that.

Gladwell explains what happened to Thompson using a social psychology term called “moral licensing.” The official explanation of the term goes like this: “past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical or otherwise problematic. Behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.” Now, there is nothing strictly immoral about giving an award to one actor over another, but I do think the term applies -in a softer interpretation of its definition- to the way this year’s awards season is shaping up.

Let me explain: because the Oscars did something historic last year when they awarded Moonlight, they feel like they have the moral license to not vote for certain movies this time around. So maybe Oscar voters won’t vote for Get Out, because a “black movie” already won last year. Maybe they won’t vote for Call Me By Your Name, because a “gay movie” won last year. It’s like not feeling bad for not giving the change in your pocket to a homeless person, because you gave a quarter to another panhandler earlier in the day. Or like when Kathryn Bigelow won the Best Director award for The Hurt Locker, but wasn’t even nominated for Zero Dark Thirty a couple years later (this year, Greta Gerwig became the first woman to be nominated since Bigelow’s win – eight years later!). You do something good, then you don’t feel bad about doing something… less good.

The way this concept has most clearly manifested itself in this year’s awards is not in the movies that are losing, but the movies and performances that are winning. After the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, a group of front-runners has solidified itself in the acting races. Looking at these winners -not at the actors, but at the characters they’re playing- one is confronted with a foursome of of loud, un-PC, angry white people. Is this just a coincidence? Or is this Hollywood’s way of reacting to the controversial issues that have defined the industry for the last couple years. What are voters trying to say? “Enough of Oscar so White and #MeToo! We will award whoever we want to award!”

Allison Janney, front-runner in the Best Supporting Actress race, was spotted wearing a pussy hat at the Women’s March in Los Angeles, but you’d be more likely to find her I, Tonya character at a Trump rally. Janney’s an incredible actress, and I would normally be thrilled that she’s about to win an Oscar. But then I look at the role that’s winning her all these trophies and I wonder if I saw the same movie everyone else did. She plays Tonya Harding’s abusive mother in a cartoonish performance that’s fifty percent spitting out politically incorrect one-liners and fifty percent chain-smoking. The character is so one-note that even the one scene in which she shows a hint of vulnerability is undercut by her own selfishness.

Another similarly tough character is played by Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in which she stars as a mother seeking revenge for her teenage daughter, who was brutally raped and murdered. It’s easy to read that log-line and imagine Three Billboards to be the perfect movie for the Time’s Up movement, but after watching the movie, I doubt writer-director Martin McDonagh is interested in female empowerment. A lot happens in Three Billboards, but little of it makes sense. The movie moves from one shocking revelation to the next, complicating its plot while abandoning any interest it has in its characters’ interiority. McDormand’s character’s “complex” moments include a lot of swearing, poorly motivated arson, and kicking a teenage girl in the crotch. 

It’s ironic McDormand is leading the Best Actress race, because the movie is most interested in the bigoted cop played by Sam Rockwell who, also ironically, is most likely to win the Supporting Actor award. Rockwell’s moronic Officer Dixon is introduced to us as a bad cop known in town for harassing and brutalizing black people. He’s the one who gets an arc, as he suddenly -thanks to script contrivances- gains a conscience and seeks redemption. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this redemption arc, until you surround it with a movie that shows no interest for the woman whose rape and murder incites the action, or the many black characters who only enter the narrative when they can serve as obstacles to the white characters’ goals.

Finally, the race for Best Actor is led by Gary Oldman, who stars in Darkest Hour playing Winston Churchill; and this combination might prove double problematic. Churchill is, of course, one of the biggest conservative icons in history. Darkest Hour covers Oldman under layers of latex to present Churchill as a cooky but effective leader, who gains the courage to stand up to the Nazis by talking with the common folk while riding the underground in a scene that I’m sure is 100% historically accurate. Darkest Hour obviates Churchill’s more controversial moments as a leader, but it has another potentially controversial figure in Gary Oldman himself. That is, if voters decide to pay attention to the actor’s history of physical abuse and controversial statements.

The common denominator among these characters seems to be a lack of regard for political correctness. A bad mom, an angry woman, a racist cop, and an unorthodox leader. All white. All loud. All obnoxious. Doesn’t it seem curious that voters are gravitating toward this set of performances? Is it just that they are taking them at face value without examining further? Or is it that they’re identifying with these (older) white people who don’t seem to fully know what to do with their surroundings? Are these Hollywood folks being threatened by a world that is changing around them? By a world that would give Best Picture to Moonlight?

We won’t know until the first week of March. And even if these four acting races go the expected route, there is still room for surprises in other categories. Most Oscar Experts (if such a term exists) agree that this year’s Best Picture race is the most wide open race we’ve had in a very long time. And it is worth remembering that the Academy has changed the demographic of its membership considerably in the last couple years, thanks to an initiative sparked by the Oscar So White campaign. Estimates say that these new members account for 25% of the membership. That is huge. The Academy is now younger and more diverse than ever. So maybe we will see a year of “moral licensing.” Or maybe Get Out will win Best Picture. Only time will tell.

Coco Awards 2017

coverladybird

It’s become a beloved tradition (don’t ask me by who), for me to list my favorite achievements in acting, directing, writing, and other crafts of cinema. This is all basically an indulgent fantasy of what I would pick, were I in charge of the Oscars, but a fun one. I hope. Anyway, below are my choices for 2017. And if that’s not enough for you, you can hear me talk more about my choices with my good friend Rachel Wagner both in Podcast form and on Youtube.

Best Picture

Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig)
“Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love and attention?” The question, posed by Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) to Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), is one of those lines that perfectly encapsulate the theme of the movie they’re in. What makes Lady Bird great, however, is that it is not content to say what it’s about, it wants to be what it’s about. Lady Bird shows attention to all its characters, to the details of their lives, to their stories. I can’t think of a more generous, tender, and profound moment than when Gerwig cuts from Lady Bird consoling her ex-boyfriend Danny to her mother, at work, doing the same for a depressed man. This movie is full of love.

Finalists

This was a good year for movies. I wrote a whole post on my favorite movies of the year, which you can read right now if you click here.

Best Director

Sean Baker (The Florida Project)
I like to spread the wealth, because why have a Best Director category if you’re just gonna give it to the one that directed the Best Picture? I want to single out Sean Baker as someone with an impossible task. A movie about a young girl living in poverty? Are you kidding me? This is a recipe for maudlin disaster. Instead, Baker goes into unexpected places. His young protagonist is loud, rude, and angry. She is an honest child in an honest situation. That extends to the loving but frustratingly angry mother, the kind but restrained hotel keeper, and almost every person that shows up in this gem of a film.

Finalists

  • Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird): For a most welcome kind of auteurism. Every single frame in the movie is confidently hers. No need to underline or bold.
  • James Gray (The Lost City of Z): For classicism and patience, for searching for the sublime and not finding an answer. For a miraculous ending.
  • David Lowery (A Ghost Story): For vision. For having a crazy idea, following it all the way to the end of the world, and pulling it off.
  • Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie (Good Time): For crafting a flawless movie. Not an ounce of fat, not a misplaced hair, every cliche applies to this machine.

Best Actress

Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird)
Lady Bird is great because it strikes the exact perfect balance in order to make the best movie possible out of Greta Gerwig’s screenplay. There simply wouldn’t be a right balance without Saoirse Ronan, who makes it all look effortless, as she casually gives the best performance of the year. Critic Tim Brayton describes it best: “When the script says that Lady Bird should be tugging on our sympathy, Ronan [makes] her hard and alienating; when the script wants her to be a witty quipster, Ronan [shows] the frantic work Lady Bird has to do in order to seem like she’s not collapsing from stress and fear all the time.” This is the work of a virtuoso at the top of her game. At 23 years old, who knows what the limit is for Ronan’s talent.

Finalists

  • Regina Hall (Girl’s Trip): For a performance that’s an argument for stardom. She laughs, she cries, she carries the film, and makes it all look effortless.
  • Rebecca Spence (Princess Cyd): For warmth and depth, and such a felt woman. She deserves to break big and get offered every available script.
  • Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper): For re-inventing herself (and her performance) in every line reading. The most unique actress of her generation.
  • Meryl Streep (The Post): For a performance to rival her best work, for understated choices, for that glorious silence before she goes “let’s do it”.

Best Actor

Robert Pattinson (Good Time)
I’ve never been a big Robert Pattinson fan, not even in his artsier projects. This year, however, this was the year of Pattinson. First, he was totally affable and understated as a bearded explorer in The Lost City of Z, and then he delivered what might very well be the performance of his career in Good Time. My problems with Pattinson were always his insistence in intense, big acting. He leaves all of that behind in order to play a low-life whiteboy from Queens who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. His performance is unstoppable. It’s all about action first and thinking later. There’s no room for histrionics, and that’s exactly what the movie needs.

Finalists

  • Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread): For going out with a bang. An incredibly prickly man, full of line readings that will do down in history.
  • Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out): For holding one of the best movies of the year together. The way he uses his eyes alone should make him a star.
  • Adam Sandler (The Meyerowitz Stories): For loss, anger, sadness, all ingredients in the regular Sandler formula, re-mixed into outstanding work.
  • Ben Stiller (Brad’s Status): For the best work of his career. He’s been playing white men in crisis lately, but never going as ugly and honest as here.

Best Supporting Actress

Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird)
She plays the protagonist’s mother, and the performance is so layered there is really no simple way to describe the character. I’ve heard people refer to her as “overbearing”, “conflicted”, even as a “bad mother.” None of those descriptions -especially the last one- make the character, or the performance, any justice. There is so much going on behind Marion McPherson’s harsh façade, and Metcalf lets us in on it through a most graceful performance. “I just want you to be the best version of yourself”, she tells her daughter. “What if this is it?” asks the girl. The mother shoots her a look. And what a look it is. There are no words, yet Metcalf says more about her character she might as well have written a novel about her. With one look.

Finalists

  • Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip): For filthy hilarity and an earnest, warm heart. A masterful balancing act if there ever was one.
  • Elizabeth Marvel (The Meyerowitz Stories): For a unique character. Doses of hilarity, innocence, and poignancy balanced in a way we haven’t seen before.
  • Michelle Pfeiffer (Mother!): For understanding what kind of movie she’s in and hitting straight for the fences. La Pfeiffer reigns supreme!
  • Taliah Lennice Webster (Good Time): For turning a one course meal into a banquet, giving us so much about her character through honest and detailed behavior.

Best Supporting Actor

Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project)
Imagine having the range of Willem Dafoe? He’s played everyone from a murderous vampire to Jesus Christ. He has played villains, sidekicks, buffoons. But there is one thread that stretched through all of his performances. A sort of melancholy that hides behind his angular face and comes through his big blue eyes. It’s that soft pain of recognizing the dangers and injustices in the world, even when you can’t do much about it. In The Florida Project he plays a motel manager who is simultaneously an antagonist and a guardian to the poor people trying to scrape by in the outskirts of Orlando. He brings in so much humanity to the role it may very well the brightest moment of his career.

Finalists

  • O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ingrid Goes West): For being charming as fuck. A breath of fresh air and low-key empathy in a very frantic film.
  • Jason Mitchell (Mudbound): For making dignity engaging, which is not easy to do. For a burning passion that earns him the heart of the movie.
  • Ray Romano (The Big Sick): For a thoughtful and heartfelt performance, as loving and warm as the movie. Raymond can act y’all!
  • Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me By Your Name): For the power of kindness and softness, and the way he sells that flowery monologue like nobody’s business.

Best Ensemble Cast

Mudbound 
(Jonathan Banks, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Rob Morgan, Carey Mulligan)
The great thing about Mudbound‘s structure is that every major character gets a spotlight shone on them at one point or another (especially during the first half). It can feel like a disjointed ensemble at first, since we’re bouncing off from one character’s perspective to another’s. Being inside someone’s head and then seeing them from the outside can be disorienting. However, once the table setting has been done, and we’ve learned who each of these players is… Well, that’s when the magic starts happening. Suddenly every glance, movement, comment says volumes about each character. It’s a worthy set-up, and this amazing cast relishes in the payoff.

Finalists

  • The Beguiled: For an incredible cast of veteran and young actresses, who give personality to even the smallest roles. And you can do worse than Colin Farrell as the sole male.  
  • Get Out: Because virtually every performance in this movie is memorable, everyone gets a chance to shine, and they take it.
  • Lady BirdBecause how could a movie as generous as this one work without a masterful ensemble at both comedy and drama?
  • The Meyerowitz Stories: Because through chaos, bounciness, and stillness, these people evoke all the frustrations of interacting as a family.  

Best Original Screenplay

Get Out (Jordan Peele)
One cannot help but commend a movie that manages to capture the zeitgeist not just because of its topicality, but because it’s so damn good. Peele’s biggest accomplishment is being able to take a bunch of horror influences (Rosemary’s Baby, The People Under the Stairs) and remix them into something that functions like a perfect pop culture machine. It’s hard to find true originality and energy in the three-act template of mainstream Hollywood, but once in a while comes someone who can grab that template and take it to the bank.

Finalists

  • Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig): For a screenplay so fully committed to finding the point of entry into every characters’ humanity. A humanitarian effort, if you will.
  • The Meyerowitz Stories (Noah Baumbach): For giving into the comedy, diving into silliness in order to find pathos. And for juggling adventurous structures.
  • Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson): For the most bizarre romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. For remaking Fifty Shades of Grey as a prestige picture.
  • Princess Cyd (Stephen Cone): A wonderful script throughout, but I come back endlessly to Rebecca Spence’s monologue in the kitchen. What a piece of writing.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Mubound (Dee Rees, Virgil Williams)
My favorite thing about this screenplay is its use of narration, a device that is usually used a crutch, but is essential to the success of this movie. The proper plot doesn’t really kick in until halfway through the movie -when the two sons come home from the war. The entire first half is dedicated to get us to know every one of the main players intimately. Narration from six different characters is how this is achieved, by making us stand in their shoes, see the world from their perspective. That’s the only way we can truly understand the dynamics at play between these two conflicted families.

Finalists

  • The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola): For a remake that turns the focus from heinous revelations into one about observation and behavior.
  • Frantz (François Ozon): Remixing Lubitsch, changing perspectives and diving right into the melancholic crevasses of the original.
  • Hermia & Helena (Matías Piñeiro): More inspiration than adaptation, but a movie with a unique and worthy vision of Shakespearean romance in the 21st century.
  • The Lost City of Z (James Gray): An old-fashioned movie with a progressive heart, a way of talking all its own, and a mythical structure.

Best Animated Film

World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts
The first World of Tomorrow -animator Don Hertzfeldt’s first foray into digital animation- is nothing short of a miracle. The brilliant short film takes the musings of a sedated futuristic clone and clashes them against the nonsensical freedom of her four year old past self. This second installment goes even further, looking not at how we might interact with the dehumanizing technologies of the future, but how we hold on to the fondness memories of the past. Equal parts hilarious and heart-breaking, this sequel is more experimental, more densely stuffed, and harder to grasp than the original. But none of that makes it any less rewarding.

Finalists

  • The Breadwinner: Beautifully animated drama, walks such a fine line between whimsy and horrific tragedy. Impressive in tone and theme.
  • Your Name: Goes a bit too deep into science fiction for me, but a lovely body-swapping story about knowing the person you fall in love with.  

Best Cinematography

The Lost City of Z (Darius Khondji)
Director James Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji have become great collaborators. Their first movie together, The Immigrant, culminated in one of the most overwhelmingly beautiful final shots of any film. Then, they decided to top themselves with The Lost City of Z. But it’s not just that the last image we see in this movie is incredible, the whole journey through the Amazon is a unique spectacle. It’s the kind of detailed, beautiful photography that takes into account the true majesty of the landscape. And the final section of the movie, before that wondrous last shot, in which the explorer’s last journey turns into a fire-lit dream is nothing if not magical.

Finalists

  • The Beguiled (Philippe Le Sourd): Life has left this house. Everything is dull, damp, humid. Women hiding in the shadows of a decrepit fortress.
  • The Florida Project (Alexis Zabe): The ugliest buildings, in the most beautiful light. How can you find visual elegance without making poverty look fun?
  • A Ghost Story (Andrew Droz Palermo): A movie of images. It’s all about placing a white sheet with two holes amid time and space.
  • Good Time (Sean Price Williams): Close-up on the face. The protagonist isn’t stopping and neither are we. But don’t worry, wide shots tell the truth.

Best Production Design

Wonderstruck (Mark Friedberg)
I am still sad I couldn’t love Wonderstruck as much as I wanted. The movie can never fully rise past a disastrous screenplay, but every technical aspect of it shines bright in my memory. None of them more than the production design, which recreates New York in the roaring twenties and the run-down seventies. Both times are reproduced with intense love and care. And if that weren’t enough, Mark Friedberg tops himself with an unbelievable diorama-like montage toward the end of the film. One of the most purely beautiful sequences I saw all year.

Finalists

  • Atomic Blonde (David Scheunemann): For an East Berlin that feels decrepit, dull and yet excitedly dangerous. A sea of grey that pops with neon.
  • Call Me By Your Name (Samuel Deshors): I heard that this basically shot in Guadagnino’s house. I’m just here to say the guy has great taste.
  • A Cure for Wellness (Eve Stewart): The most art directed movie of the year, and boy am I glad about it. The Creepiest Beautiful Budapest Hotel.
  • Downsizing (Stefania Cella): Because everything’s just a little off. A reminder that the scale of the world is not the one we know.

Best Costume Design

Phantom Thread (Mark Bridges)
This is a movie about a fashion designer, so of course the costumes are going to look great. But Phantom Thread is a cagey movie, about characters who aren’t willing to open up about themselves and their feelings. We learn a lot about them through their costuming choices. The outdated red dress Alma wears to her first date, the ridiculous vest-over-pajamas Reynolds wears to a frustrating dinner, and the incredible white collar shirt and black dress Alma wears in her final fantasy are all indicative of these hermetic characters’ inner lives.

Finalists

  • Atomic Blonde (Cindy Evans): Give me Charlize pulling up her turtleneck. Give me McAvoy’s giant coat. Give them to me every single day.
  • The Beguiled (Stacey Battat): Dressed in their best clothes, impressing a man who is an enemy. Southern decadence perfectly reflected.
  • Call Me By Your Name (Giulia Piersanti): It’s all about the shorts! And the big sneakers! And the colors! The eighties without screaming.
  • The Post (Ann Roth): The golden caftan is the obvious standout, but it’s the most written about costume choice of the year for a reason. “caftan as superhero cape.”

Best Editing

Good Time (Ronald Bronstein, Ben Safdie)
How can one truly judge a movie’s editing without knowing what was left in the cutting room floor? One can only turns toward a movie’s rhythms, how it uses its pace and its length. It’s easy to be impressed with the editing in a movie as propulsive and tense as Good Time. The movie follows its problematic protagonist relentlessly through a night of bad mistakes. I am, however, also impressed by the times when the movie pumps the breaks. The beginning and the end, when we spend time with the other Nikas brother, and see how the rhythms of their lives are different, and affect each other.

Finalists

  • Faces, Places (Maxime Pozzi-Garcia, Agnes Varda): The magic of Varda’s movies lies in the editing bay. Bonus points for making JR so likable.
  • Get Out (Gregory Plotkin): There is nothing more satisfying than a well-edited horror, especially one that puts unsettling moods over loud scares.
  • Hermia & Helena (Sebastián Schjaer): Cutting back and forth from location and stories, creating confusion and play. Cinema becomes a game.
  • The Meyerowitz Stories (Jennifer Lame): Her experiments with Baumbach are developing a structural and rhythmic style of their own. Unique work.

Best Original Score

A Ghost Story (Daniel Hart)
The key to a great movie score is a great theme. Daniel Hart’s main theme for A Ghost Story is simply perfect. During the course of this small budget epic through the afterlife, the score is re-interpreted as a melancholy tune, a romantic love song, and a rousing spiritual crescendo. The way in which Hart finds new depths and permutations to his music is ideal for a movie that keeps re-inventing itself, opening itself up bit by bit until it dares to try and capture a whole universe inside itself. The second half o this movie is guided by the score. That’s a feat.

Finalists

  • Good Time (Daniel Lopatin): Eighties high octane synths that keep up the tempo. After all, this movie can never stop.
  • The Lost City of Z (Christopher Spelman): Appropriately mysterious and atmospheric, while still feeling like a classical score.
  • Okja (Jaeil Jung): So expansive, from guitars idly strumming to a staccato horn section racing with itself. It’s big and adventurous.
  • Phantom Thread (Jonny Greenwood): A new side of Greenwood, so sweeping and romantic. The opening section of the film is all his.

Best Sound

The Lost City of Z
In a movie about a British explorer searching for new life in the depths of the Amazon, the sounds of Victorian England and the most remote nature blend in unexpected ways. The movie opens with Amazonian drums that turn into the fanfare of a British hunting party. What are the sounds of this jungle? They’re not wholly realistic, they feel like a dream, or a fantasy. Everything is so quiet, and yet, there is a thin veneer of unsettling awareness. That is not the life the explorer used to know. That he might encounter whatever he is looking for at any moment.

Finalists

  • Get Out: Because there are no jump scares in this movie, just a constant build-up toward dread. That tea cup is the most memorable sound of the year.  
  • John Wick: Chapter 2: Because John Wick lives in a cartoonish world, and the sound effects reflect that with the most extreme -often funny- choices.  
  • Okja: Okja is one of the best virtual characters of the year, and everything she does is emphasized through sound choices. Sound sells reality.  
  • Phantom Thread: This movie sounds like no other, toying with us and the line between cruelty and romance. Buttering toast is second only to that teacup.  

Best Makeup and Hair

Atomic Blonde
Atomic Blonde is a movie of extremes. It doesn’t take place in late-eighties East Berlin as much as it takes place in the Platonic Ideal of late-eighties East Berlin. Everything is turned up to eleven, carefully designed to perfection. There are two basic things that make up should achieve in every movie: make its stars look good, and alter their look through seamless effects. Charlize Theron has never looked better than she does in this movie. And you will believe the woman is going through intense physical strain whenever she scratched, cut, or lands a punch in the face.

Finalists

  • Battle of the Sexes: Contemporary wigs lack the necessary frizziness to conjure the seventies. Not here. The styles might be obvious, but the texture was there.  
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2It’s just a bunch of painted faces, but boy am I in love with the color palette of this brightly colored skins.
  • Phantom Thread: In a movie about a prickly trio playing games with each other, a single hair out of place says loads about the contender.

Best Visual Effects

Okja
It’s hard to truly judge the achievements of visual effects artists in a time when our effects-driven movies are inundated in oceans of computer generated imagery. It all starts to look the same after a while, which makes the creation of Okja -the genetically modified super-pig at the center of Bong Joon-ho’s movie- stand out as the great visual achievement of 2017. You’ll believe super-pigs exist! Not just because the thing looks very photorealistic, but because of the personality and detail that the animators put in making this creature come to life.  

Finalists

  • DunkirkPractical effects forever. They wanted us to feel like we went to war, and I’m pretty sure we did.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2: I still come back to that flying red pen scene, and let’s not forget about the all-color psychedelic look of this movie.
  • Mother! Say what you want about the movie’s themes, but that last third of total chaos is nothing if not a feat of film making.   
  • Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Best effects or most effects? One visual wonder after another is just one of this movie’s pleasures.