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.

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Coco Awards 2017

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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.  

2018 Movie Preview

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The Oscar ceremony, which I consider to be the official start of the movie year, won’t take place until March 4. But 2018 is not going to wait around for it. I’m still thinking about the movies of 2017 (especially Phantom Thread, which grows in my estimation the more I think about it), but I’m also looking forward to what 2018 has to offer…

The Five Movies I’m Most Excited For:

Isle of Dogs – Wes Anderson returns to animation after hitting a career high with The Grand Budapest Hotel. I am a sucker for all things Anderson, so I’ve practically already bought my ticket. In case you need some more context, this is a futuristic story set in Japan, at a time when dogs have been exiled to a deserted island. Opens March 23.

Ocean’s Eight – The biggest pleasure of the Ocean’s 11 movies is seeing the stars bounce their charisma off each other. So imagine what will happen when you bring in a cast of fierce women that includes Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, and Rihanna? The only question mark is director Gary Ross, whose track record ranges from serviceable to uninspired. It opens wide June 8.

Suspiria – A remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria sounds tricky. But then you hear it’s directed by Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash, Call Me by Your Name), one of our most stylistically pleasurable filmmakers, and that he’s reuniting with past collaborators Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton. Now, I hear my nemesis Chloë Grace Moretz in this movie, but the Guadagnino-Johnson-Swinton trifecta should be enough to balance her out.

Ad Astra – James Gray stepped out of his New York milieu and into the Amazonian depths last year with the sublime Lost City of Z, and now steps out even further… into outer space. Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, and Ruth Negga (all personal favorites) star in this one. It’s scheduled for release in January 2019, which makes me hope it shows up late in 2018 (at least in the Festival circuit).

Gloria If nothing else, Sebastian Lelio’s 2013 film Gloria was a showcase for its lead actress, the wonderful Paulina Garcia. This year, Lelio remakes his own film in America, and the lead is Julianne Moore. Just knowing that there will be a 90-minute movie dedicated to closely following Julianne Moore this year makes me hopeful.

Five Holdovers from 2017 (That Will Be Released in 2018 and I’m Most Excited For):

Zama – I’ve already seen Lucrecia Martel’s long awaited return (at the New York Film Festival), but I will not shut up about it. I would be shocked if I see a better movie in all of 2018. This is a literary adaptation about a colonial functionary stranded in a remote South American village. It’s brilliantly directed, uniquely capturing the soul of a whole continent. It opens in limited release April 13.

Western – Every film critic I respect who has seen this movie has had nothing but great things to say about it. Directed by Valeska Grisenbach, this is a culture-clash movie about a group of German workers taking a construction job in a small Bulgarian town. It premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and starts its limited run on February 16.

You Were Never Really Here – Lynne Ramsay hasn’t made a movie since We Need to Talk About Kevin back in 2011. But she’s back, with a thriller about an army veteran trying to bring down a pedophile ring. Joaquin Phoenix won Best Actor, and Ramsay Best Screenplay at last year’s Cannes. The movie opens April 6.

First Reformed – Another movie that I saw the New York Film Festival, this one has director Paul Schrader directing Ethan Hawke as a troubled priest trying to help a young man who has grown obsessed with the end of the world. The work of Bergman, Tarkovsky, and Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest are all influences int his deeply spiritual movie. Opens in April.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties – This one premiered at least year’s Cannes without much fanfare, but I’m still holding on to the latest work of the great John Cameron Mitchell, which is a sci-fi extravaganza about aliens disguised as punk rockers with Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman. A25 has the distribution rights, but hasn’t set a release date just yet.

Five Movies I Want to Be Good But I’m Nervous About (You Know, Cautiously Optimistic):

Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time – I loved Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay’s last movies (Creed and Selma respectively), and I’m thrilled they get to play with Hollywood’s big toys. But both these movies land firmly in genres I’m not crazy about. One is a Marvel movie and we know how forgettable those are. The other is a fantasy YA story. I’m hoping for the best, though. Black Panther opens February 16 and A Wrinkle in Time March 9.

Black KlansmanSpike Lee has had a spotty record lately, but read the plot synopsis of this movie and tell me you’re not at least curious. This is the true story of an African American police officer who managed to infiltrate the KKK. John David Washington (Denzel’s son) stars alongside Adam Driver and Topher Grace.

Ready Player One – It seems these days Steven Spielberg has lost interest in making the kind of movies he used to make in the 70s and 80s, and this one looks like a mess. But last time Spielberg made a movie with lots of performance capture action sequences, we got The Adventures of Tintin, so there’s hope. Opens March 30.

The Incredibles 2 – I love Brad Bird. (I will even defend Tomrrowland!), but boy am I nervous about this movie. Outside of the Toy Story movies, every Pixar has been a bland disappointment. Now, I know that if anyone’s gonna reverse that curse is going to be Bird, who’s two previous features are my favorites of the Pixar canon. This one opens June 15.

The Happytime Murders –  A film noir parody in which the hard-boiled detective is a puppet? Who Framed Roger Rabbit but with puppets instead of cartoon characters sounds right up my alley, but these genre match-ups can be tricky. The director is Brian Henson (son of puppetry legend Jim Henson), and the cast includes Maya Rudolph and Melissa McCarthy. It opens August 17.

2017 Oscar Nominations

phantom thread

Here we go! The Oscars giveth, and the Oscars taketh away, but mostly giveth? Unusual, I know, but I gotta sat… this is a pretty good list of nominees! More thoughts, and foolishly early predictions of who will win below.

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

How did I do in my Predictions: 7 out of 9
Recent Oscar history has taught me that there are at least a couple movies that get in for Best Picture without having show much support at other awards shows like the Golden Globes and the various Guild Awards. I thought that would be Florida Project, turned out they were Phantom Thread (yay!) and Darkest Hour (nay!). The Shape of Water leads with most nominations, and Three Billboards might be about to lose its status as front-runner without a Best Director nod (more on that later).
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: Shape of Water 

Director

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

How did I do in my Predictions: 3 out of 5
Again, I overshot The Florida Project‘s chances, but what I wasn’t ready for was the exclusion of Martin McDonagh for Three Billboards. The movie’s so far very successful awards-run has been quite divisive, and a snub here might spell the end of its run for Best Picture. And thank God, because we now have Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele, and Paul Thomas Anderson. This is easily the best category of the day.
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: Guillermo Del Toro 

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.)

How did I do in my Predictions: 4 out of 5
I thought the timing between voting and James Franco’s sexual misconduct story breaking was too tight and that he would get nominated anyway, but I guess it wasn’t. That’s a good thing. Oh, and congrats to Denzel Washington for getting nominated for a movie that doesn’t really exist!
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: Gary Oldman 

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)

How did I do in my Predictions: 5 out of 5
This was an easy category to predict. The Post has been shaky this awards season, never fully materializing into the awards juggernaut we thought it was gonna be. It ended up with two pretty high profile nominations which isn’t bad but unusual for Spielberg film. Meryl seemed to many like the weak link here, but you know what they say: “at your own peril, doubt Meryl.”
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: Frances McDormand  

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)

How did I do in my Predictions: 5 out of 5
I got this one right, but am kinda of sad about it. This is easily (and I mean easily) the worst line-up of the year. There is only one performance here that I would call truly good, and being that he’s the only nomination for his film, he doesn’t seem likely to win. Sorry, Willem.
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: Sam Rockwell

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)

How did I do in my Predictions: 4 out of 5
A pretty good lineup. The surprise nominee here is Lesley Manville. Those who remember her wonderful performance is Mike Leigh’s Another Year will be glad she’s getting the recognition she failed to get back when that movie was in the race.
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: Allison Janney 

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)

How did I do in my Predictions: 4 out of 5
The Big Sick had a pretty good awards run this year, but still didn’t manage to get into Best Picture. Original Screenplay is its consolation prize, and in a less competitive year, it would stand a good chance of winning. This right is getting tight, with Get Out, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards all looking like strong possibilities.
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: 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)

How did I do in my Predictions: 4 out of 5
Logan becomes the first superhero movie to get nominated in a major category and I gotta say it feels really weird that this is the one that did the trick. Otherwise, it seems like it’s gonna be smooth sailing toward the win for Call Me by Your Name. That would mean an Oscar for James Ivory, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: Call Me by Your Name  

Cinematography

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

How did I do in my Predictions: 5 out of 5
Rachel Morrison becomes the first woman to ever be nominated in this category for her beautiful work in Mudbound. This is probably my favorite nomination of the day. This looks like a tight race, too, with three movies that stand a very good shot.
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: Dunkirk 

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)

How did I do in my Predictions: 3 out of 5
I’m surprised about some of these nominations. This category usually prefers big, flashy costumes, and I feel like Darkest Hour and Shape of Water are pretty subdued compared to what is usually nominated here. A couple movies I though had a better chance: The Greatest Showman, I Tonya, and Wonder Woman. 
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: 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)

How did I do in my Predictions: 3 out of 5
Another movie that did surprisingly well at previous awards, and who people thought stood a good chance a Best Picture nod is I, Tonya. A nomination for Best Editing seem like an indicator that there was some support there, just not enough to take it all the way.
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: Dunkirk 

Makeup and Hairstyling

  • Darkest Hour
  • Victoria and Abdul 
  • Wonder 

How did I do in my Predictions: 2 out of 3
I was pretty confident this category -notorious for nominating bad movies- was not going to pass up the opportunity to nominate a movie as wretched as Bright, but I guess they decided to go the boring route.
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: 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)

How did I do in my Predictions: 3 out of 5
Why Carter Burwell gets nominated for strumming a guitar a couple times in Three Billboards and not for his evocative symphonic score for Wonderstruck has all to do with the fact that one of those movies is up for Best Picture and the other isn’t. In other news, Academy Award nominee Johnny Greenwood. About time.
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: The Shape of Water  

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)

How did I do in my Predictions: 5 out of 5
I can’t believe I got this one right. Original Song is usually very tricky, almost impossible to predict. I’m proud about this totally inconsequential achievement of mine.
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: “Remember Me”  

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)

How did I do in my Predictions: 4 out of 5
Nothing to say here, a perfectly fine and expected list of nominees.
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: The Shape of Water  

Sound Mixing

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

How did I do in my Predictions: 4 out of 5
I’m still surprised Wonder Woman didn’t get a single nomination. For such a big hit, with such a positive critical reaction, that got mentioned as one of the best movies of the year by both the Producers Guild and the American Film Insitute, in the year of #MeToo to not get anything? It just seems very weird. I mention that here because I thought the sound categories were the most likely place it was going to pop up.
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: Dunkirk  

Sound Editing

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

How did I do in my Predictions: 5 out of 5
Same as the other sound category, which doesn’t usually happen. In fact, the last time we had two identical categories was… never.
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: Dunkirk  

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 

How did I do in my Predictions: 3 out of 5
I was expecting to see some love for the practical, immersive effects in Dunkirk, and hoping they would show some love to Okja (the movie that actually has the best effects of the year). Instead they went big and loud with Guardians and Kong.. 
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: Blade Runner 2049

Animated Feature

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

How did I do in my Predictions: 4 out of 5
Academy Award nominee The Boss Baby. And you know what? It’s not even the worst movie in the category. I think it’s actually my second favorite movie in this line-up. Yup, I like it better than Coco. Have I made you sufficiently angry? Good, let’s move on.
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: Coco  

Foreign Language Film

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

How did I do in my Predictions: 2 out of 5
Germany’s In the Fade, which won both the Golden Globe and the Critics Choice Award in this category has been mysteriously snubbed. And now it seems like this award is anyone’s to take. I look forward to see what happens, and to catch up with most of these movies (I’ve only seen The Square).
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: The Square 

Documentary Feature

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

How did I do in my Predictions: 3 out of 5
The front-runner in this category was considered to be Jane, a documentary about the life of Jane Goodall. But now that that’s out of the running, it seems like my beloved Faces, Places stands a good chance at the win. I’m rooting for Agnes Varda!
Early non-binding Prediction of Who Will Win: Faces, Places  

2017 Oscar Nominations Prediction

shapeofwater

Here we are. Another year, another set of foolish predictions…

Best Picture

  • Dunkirk
  • Get Out
  • Lady Bird
  • The Shape of Water
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • If there are six nominees: Call Me By Your Name
  • If there are seven nominees: The Post
  • If there are eight nominees: The Florida Project
  • If there are nine nominees: The Big Sick
  • If there are ten nominees: Darkest Hour 

My official prediction would be eight nominees, though It seems like every film outside of the top five could easily falter and be left off the list, doesn’t it? Could this be the first year since the category was expanded to fit any number between 5 and 10 nominees that we only get five nominees? Anything is possible in this crazy year.

Director

  • Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk)
  • Sean Baker (The Florida Project)
  • Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird)
  • Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water)
  • Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Jordan Peele, nominated by the Directors Guild already, seems like a very good possibility. And I can see Spielberg getting in if The Post gains the momentum it’s lacked all season. But a surprise nomination for The Florida Project’s Sean Baker (who strikes me as in-line with the kind of surprise nominee we’ve gotten in the past – think of Benh Zeitlin or Lenny Abrahamson) just seems like too good a prediction to pass.

Actor in a Leading Role

  • Timothee Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name)
  • Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread)
  • James Franco (The Disaster Artist)
  • Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out)
  • Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

James Franco is one of the latest actors to be accused of sexual misconduct. The accusations could be enough to kick him out of competition, even if he has been getting nominations left and right this season. However, Casey Affleck won last year, and front-runner Gary Oldman’s past behavior hasn’t affected his chances this year. Franco’s scandal broke right in the middle of voting. I think he might have gotten enough votes for a nomination by the time the accusations came to light.

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)

The Post has been doing surprisingly poorly this award season. Maybe because it came out so late in the game, maybe because people are just not into it? We won’t really be able to tell until the nominations are revealed. Even then, it would be insane if Meryl Streep (Oscar’s favorite actress) gets passed over for what is clearly the best work she’s done in at least ten years. I mean, her last two nominations were for Into the Woods and Florence Foster Jenkins for God’s sake!

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)

We haven’t had two actors from the same movie nominated in this category since 1991, but double nominees were pretty common in the seventies and eighties. For a while, it seemed like we were gonna get two actors from Call Me By Your Name nominated, but the tide has turned in favor of the Three Billboards fellas instead. I still think Michael Stuhlbarg (from Call Me By Your Name) could score a surprise nomination, but not strongly enough to bet on it.

Actress in a Supporting Role

  • Mary J. Blige (Mudbound)
  • Holly Hunter (The Big Sick)
  • Allison Janney (I, Tonya)
  • Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird)
  • Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water)

I think there’s room for some surprises in this category. Hong Chau has been nominated for a number of awards, but are people watching the badly reviewed Downsizing? Maybe a last minute entry by Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread? Or maybe breakout star Tiffany Haddish for Girl’s Trip? Hey, a man can dream.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

  • Get Out (Jordan Peele)
  • Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
  • The Post (Liz Hannah, Josh Singer)
  • The Shape of Water (Guillermo Del Toro, Vanessa Taylor)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)

This really depends on whether The Post has found any kind of favor with Academy voters after an iffy performance at the early award shows. The Big Sick and I, Tonya have both done really well this season, but there’s something about them (maybe the fact that they’re comedies) that makes me think they will falter at the face of the big front-runners

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

  • Call Me By Your Name (James Ivory)
  • The Disaster Artist (Michael H. Weber, Scott Neustadter)
  • Molly’s Game (Aaron Sorkin)
  • Mudbound (Dee Rees, Virgil Williams)
  • Wonder (Stephen Chbosky, Steven Conrad, Jack Thorne)

Four nominees have been clear in this category for a long time now. The question on everyone’s mind is who takes the fifth spot. Logan has some buzz, but superhero movies never get nominated in writing categories. Victoria and Abdul has the makings of a typical Oscar movie, but who’s talking about that joint? I’ve landed on Wonder, considering it’s based on a very popular novel and has been a surprisingly huge box office hit.

Cinematography

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

The least secure of these nominations is the most exciting one. Rachel Morrison could become the first woman to ever be nominated in this category. That’s right. Ever. I say it’s about damn time. We’ll see if the Academy can overcome its supposed anti-Netflix bias and give her the nomination.

Costume Design

  • Beauty and the Beast (Jacqueline Durran)
  • I, Tonya (Jennifer Johnson)
  • Phantom Thread (Mark Bridges)
  • The Shape of Water (Luis Sequeira)
  • Wonder Woman (Lindy Hemming)

Showy costumes do best in this category. I don’t think I’m making any bold predictions here. Superhero movies never get nominated here, but Wonder Woman has been specifically praised for its tasteful Amazonian costumes. I do wonder if Shape of Water‘s costumes aren’t showy enough for the category. They could get replaced with something really showy. Like The Greatest Showman.

Film Editing

  • Dunkirk (Lee Smith)
  • Get Out (Gregory Plotkin)
  • The Post (Michael Kahn)
  • The Shape of Water (Sidney Wolinsky)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Jon Gregory)

Baby Driver and Blade Runner 2049 are big spectacles that could easily get nominated here, but Film Editing tends to line up with Best Picture, and these five movies just seem like obvious Editing contenders to me. I would certainly be sad if the flawless tension-building of Get Out or the slow burn of The Post get passed over for the obvious editing indulgences of something like Baby Driver. 

Makeup and Hairstyling

  • Bright 
  • Darkest Hour
  • Wonder 

This category has a deep love for critically panned blockbusters, nominating The Lone Ranger and last year’s winner Suicide Squad. That’s why I think David Ayer’s God-awful Bright is a shoo-in for a nomination. Judging by the Academy’s short-list (which controversially excluded The Shape of Water), I’d expect either Wonder or I, Tonya to nab the third slot.

Music (Original Score)

  • Darkest Hour (Dario Marianelli)
  • Dunkirk (Hans Zimmer)
  • Phantom Thread (Jonny Greenwood)
  • The Post (John Williams)
  • The Shape of Water (Alexandre Desplat)

Is this finally the year Jonny Greenwood gets an Oscar nomination? The music branch is notorious for hermetically nominating its favorites over and over again while leaving out newcomers and outsiders. They’ve shown a tendency toward inclusion in recent years, which gives me hope for good ol’ Jonny.

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)

I don’t have much to say about this category, except that I really hope that lame power-ballad from Beauty and the Beast doesn’t get nominated.

Production Design

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

I don’t think I have much to say about this one. This seems like a pretty save group to me. Maybe Darkest Hour makes an intrusion? But at the expense of which one?

Sound Mixing

  • Blade Runner 2049
  • Dunkirk
  • The Shape of Water
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • Wonder Woman

I could see any of these -except Dunkirk– be left out for Baby Driver. 

Sound Editing

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

And I can see any of these -except Dunkirk– be left out for Wonder Woman. So, basically, there are six contenders in these sound categories.

Visual Effects

  • Blade Runner 2049
  • Dunkirk
  • Okja
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • War for the Planet of the Apes 

The Shape of Water is a favorite for Best Picture, and obvious contender in this category… except that it doesn’t feature that much (obvious) visual effects work. The design of the creature at the center of the film is a makeup achievement, and he only appears a couple times as a CG character. That’s why I’m thinking it is left out of competition, and replaced with the outstanding character work on display in Okja. It might be wishful thinking (Okja has the best effects of the year, if you ask me). Or then again, it might not.

Animated Feature

  • The Boss Baby
  • The Breadwinner 
  • Coco
  • Loving Vincent 
  • Mary and the Witch’s Flower 

That’s right! Academy Award nominee The Boss Baby. And in this rather weak year for mainstream animation, it would be more than deserved.

Foreign Language Film

  • A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
  • Foxtrot (Israel)
  • In the Fade (Germany)
  • Loveless (Russia)
  • The Wound (South Africa)

The only potentially controversial thing about these predictions is the fact that I’m leaving Palme D’Or winner The Square off the list. But The Square is a very uncomfortable and very dark comedy, and director Ruben Ostlund’s last big hit (and similarly awkward) Force Majeure failed to get nominated a couple years ago. Judging by what’s been short-listed by the Academy, these five seem like an obvious line-up.

Documentary Feature

  • City of Ghosts 
  • Faces, Places
  • Icarus 
  • Jane
  • Last Men in Aleppo 

I worry that Faces, Placesbeing one of my favorite films of the year, and a pretty low-key documentary compared to all these “big issue” movies- won’t get nominated. I’m crossing my fingers as hard as I can.

Paddington 2: The Best Superhero Movie of the Decade

paddington 2

Paddington 2 is the best superhero movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Bear with me.

Paddington might not be a household name in America, but he is one of Britain’s most beloved children’s literature characters. The Paddington books were written by Michael Bond and first published in 1958. Inspired by the image of British children evacuating London with labels around their necks during World War II, Bond introduces Paddington as an orphaned bear wandering Paddington train station (hence the name) with a label around his neck that reads “Please take care of this bear”. He is found, named, and eventually adopted by the Browns, a perfectly lovely family.

Those origins -plus the machinations of a villainous taxidermist played by Nicole Kidman- make up the plot of the first Paddington movie, which was first released in 2014. Co-written and directed by Paul King, this first movie is a complete delight. An all-around lovely story about a British family opening their home (and hearts) to a furry immigrant. That’s right, Paddington is an immigrant. He comes, like me, from Darkest Peru (or in my case, more like Whitest Peru). At the time, I described the movie as an argument against xenophobia in this very blog. It seemed to me like a prescient message at the time, and that was early 2015. A lot has changed since then.

Since then, we’ve seen a rise in dangerous nationalism across Europe, we’ve seen Britain vote to leave the European Union, and we’ve seen a deplorable reality show host become the President of the United States. The world seems more hateful than it had in quite a while. Then along comes a movie like Paddington 2, which catches up with the bear, who in the years since the first movie, has not only been adopted by the Browns, but by his diverse neighborhood. At a crucial moment, the Browns defend their love of Paddington to resident bear-hater Mr. Curry by claiming “Paddington sees the best in people, and that’s why he makes friends everywhere he goes.” It’s a quaint message, but these days it rings like a radical statement.

In terms of structure, the sequel is happy to take its cues from the first movie. From the treatment of the villain and his motivations (Kidman’s taxidermist is replaced with a greedy actor played by Hugh Grant), to setting up a specific hobby for each of the Browns that comes handy when they band together to rescue Paddington in the grand finale. The movie is setting the stage for a series of sequels by locking in a formula, and that’s fine. Not only would sequels to these lovely movies be more than welcome, when it comes down to it, whatever Paddington 2 lacks in the story department it makes up for with visual cleverness.

Paul King returns as director, and he makes a good case for being treated as the great next comedy director. Unlike most CGI creatures derived from children’s books, who tend to wisecrack and fart when they migrate to the screen, Paddington is envisioned as a more timeless comedic presence. He is naive and good-hearted, a callback to the well-meaning but often clueless heroes of silent cinema. A stand-out sequence in which Paddington has a go at being a barber is right out of a Chaplin short. There are references to Modern Times, and other silent classics, including the film’s climax, which features a steam train chase, just like in the best action movie of the silent era, The General.

And this is where the superhero part comes in. Perhaps the biggest irony in our current fascination with superheroes is that while these heroes profess to stand for justice and peace, they surely love to solve their problems through extreme violence. This is true of even the good superhero movies, like last year’s Wonder Womanwhich presented us with a positively kind-hearted hero, then dispatched her to kick some ass on the trenches of World War I. One of the most shocking attributes of Paddington 2 is how much it is a movie about solving problems through dialogue, kindness, and as little violence as possible. And not just because this is a family movie, this is a philosophy that the movie seems to truly believe in.

The clearest example of this comes when Paddington takes his kindness to prison. He is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and is sent to jail. But when he is put in the big house, with a bunch of rough and rugged men, the little bear turns one of the harshest and most toxically masculine environments imaginable into a perfectly lovely place, complete with flowers, pastries, and bedtime stories. This is when I first thought of Paddington as a superhero. His superpower, like Mr. Brown says, is “seeing the best in people.” And often, the best in people is their vulnerability. Would there be xenophobia, toxic nationalism, and “shithole” comments if we allowed ourselves to be truly vulnerable? Not all superheroes wear capes. Some of them are covered in fur, wear a red hat, and a stylish blue coat.

Best Movie Writing of the Week (Jan. 12 2018)

kylo ren

I don’t know how much movie writing I’ll be doing this year, so I thought I’d at least share the best of what I’ve been reading.

Paradise Lost, Regained
Eric Hynes chimes in with a review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi for Reverse Shot. He articulates the tension felt by many (including myself), at seeing a movie that argues for “letting old things die” within a decades-old franchise that insists on dominating our culture better than anyone I’ve read so far.

“See you around, kid,” old-thing Luke says to [Kylo Ren], triumphantly channeling Humphrey Bogart via Ren’s vanquished father, Han Solo, quickly confirming that old things don’t ever really die, they hang around as memory and sentimentality, invocation and documentation, bad smells and madeleines, haunting our dreams, stabbing at your conscience, and forging afterlives among, between, and despite intellectual properties. Yet Ren’s proposal [to “let old things die”] still hangs in the air as the defining moment of the film, and of this third Star Wars trilogy to date. Having these young protagonists enact ambivalence about their inheritance rhymes with a filmmaking enterprise wrestling with the same.

11 Offenses of 2017
Also on Reverse Shot, one of my most cherished year-in-review traditions, the Offenses list, in which many of the smartest film critics in the country chime in about the most, for the lack of a better term, overrated movies of the year. Even though I disagree with some of the takes, there’s always truth in what these thoughtful minds have to say. This year, entries include Baby Driver, Wonder Woman, and the wonderful Nick Davis on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (quoted below).

Sadly, the movie feels incoherent even on its own hermetic, rhetorically extravagant terms. It’s not for lack of potential: the catalyzing act by Mildred (Frances McDormand) furnishes a provocative premise, and the script charts her a gutsy course from principled protest to a reckless pursuit of vengeance—any vengeance. As written, she’s as debased as the local cohort. But along the way, writer/director Martin McDonagh seems to have fallen in love with her, and even more queasily with Sam Rockwell’s moronic bigot police deputy.

The Cinephilliacs: Moments Out of Time (Podcast)
For the sixth year in a row, Cinephilliacs podcast host Peter Labuza and film critic Keith Uhlich count down their favorite movies of the year. Only this year, the first half is different. Instead of doing a traditional ten through six part of the countdown, they pick “Moments Out Of Time within often good (though perhaps bad) films that surprised, challenged, and delighted.” There is interesting conversations about many films, including The Lost City of Z, The Beguiled, and Girl’s Trip. Here is a taste of what Labuza had to say about Steven Spielberg’s The Post

I heard some critiques: “we don’t really learn much about what’s in the pentagon papers”. But the one thing that we do learn -and I think this is made explicit at one point- is someone says that there is nothing really int his first publishing on Nixon. It’s all about what was going on during the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations. And this is why the film is about Kay Graham, and not abut the journalists writing. We don’t really see the journalists doing that much reporting compared to a film like Spotlight. We see a little but the focus is really on Kay Graham and this institution, and how this institution is wrapped up in financial, political, and other powers; and how it actually works as the fourth estate.

Slate Movie Club 2017
Another beloved year-end (year-beginning?) tradition is the week-long Movie Club series of essays over at Slate. This year, film critic Dana Stevens is joined by author Mark Harris, and film critics Amy Nicholson and K. Austin Collins to talk about the year in film. There is a lot of great writing in this series, including Amy Nicholson on The Greatest Showmanand K. Austin Collins on Tom CruiseBelow, some of what Nicholson had to say about that infamous circus musical:

Sobered up, I’ve concluded that I wasn’t crying at The Greatest Showman—I was crying for it. Jackman’s attempt to revive the florid studio musical was as doomed as a heroine coughing blood into her hankie […] I hate to acknowledge that critics lock into groupthink, but it’s the kind of movie that has to work twice as hard just to make people admit it’s OK. The worst thing about Rotten Tomatoes and #FilmTwitter is that entire genres get deemed lame—especially anything embarrassingly romantic. On the whole, Rotten Tomatoes recoils from vulnerability like it just got tricked into watching a topless scene with its mom. The word weepie gets flung around like an insult, but what’s shameful about something skillfully making you cry? It’s milking the emotion it was designed to squeeze, no different than a horror film that makes you jump.