Thursday, February 25, 2016

Oscars 2016: The Good, The Bad, The Overlooked and The Undeserving

Welcome to my annual overview of the Academy Awards nominees where I tell you who will win, who won't win, who should win, and who was inexcusably shut out of the race altogether.

Please excuse me if I stifle a huge yawn of exquisite boredom halfway through this post.  I have never once been so unenthusiastic about an Oscar ceremony since I watched my first one at age 11. (In case you're wondering, it was 1971 and George C. Scott caused a stir by not showing up to collect his Best Actor trophy from a giggly Goldie Hawn who, at the time, was younger than Kate Hudson is now. Yes, I am that old.)

2015 was a great year for movies, but you'd barely know that from list of things that actually got Oscar nominations.  The total absence of people of color in any acting category is, to my mind, not just a problem of Oscars So White, but Oscars So Geriatric as well. With less than 15% of the Academy's voters under the age of 50, it's no shock that they've been reluctant to honor films distributed outside of the traditional channels, even as the Emmys, SAG and Golden Globes have fully embraced them. To wit: I'm convinced that Idris Elba failed to get a nomination for Beasts of No Nation not because he is black but because the film came out on Netflix the same day it opened in theaters.

I'm tempted to say that Spike Lee's Chi-Raq - a film that arguably deserved to be in the running for Best Picture - was also overlooked due to its similar distribution pattern on Amazon, But the Oscars have never shown Spike Lee much love; he has exactly two nominations to his name (a Best Documentary nod for Four Little Girls and a screenwriting nod for Do the Right Thing.) Apparently, Lee did receive an honorary Oscar of some kind earlier this month (which, of course, is a consolation prize that guarantees he'll never win a real one), but he has said he's not coming to this year's main ceremony.

At least we have Chris Rock to look forward to.  Rock previously hosted in 2005, and the common wisdom is that he didn't do so well.  In fact, if you Google "Chris Rock Oscar Host," you'll see him on several lists of the "Worst Oscar Hosts of All Time." My recollection, however, is that Rock wasn't so much bad as he was too hip for the room - or maybe just ahead of his time. I watched his 2005 opening monologue today on YouTube and laughed out load several times.  He was a prescient choice to host the ceremony in its infamous year of Oscars So White; few other comedians are so fearless in delving into race. But given the Academy's penchant for over-correcting a less-than-pleasing host by going in the far opposite direction the following year, we can probably expect an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing white host in 2017. They're probably already asking Billy Crystal to clear his calendar.

YAAAWWWNNN!! (I warned you.)

Grumpy and disenchanted though I may be, I'm still going to play the annual parlor game of Who's Getting that Oscar?  Here we go:

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl

Vikander is this year's omnipresent "it" girl, and that's exactly the kind of actress on which Oscar loves to bestow its Best Supporting Actress trophy.  Not that Ms. Vikander is undeserving (although I was far more impressed with her unnerving turn as the robot who outwits her creator in Ex Machina), but...

The Actress who Should Win is Rooney Mara for Carol

 She doesn't have a chance in hell, but Rooney Mara perfectly captured the awakening spirit of a girl "flung out of space," experiencing her first great love and beginning to grasp all the possibilities of her life.  I'd give her the trophy in a heartbeat.

Apart from Vikander and Mara, I'm not sure why any of the others are here. In Steve Jobs, Kate Winslet never once made me forget I was watching Kate Winslet in a series of bad hairdos and ugly glasses, her carefully cultivated Russian-Armenian accent notwithstanding. Rachel McAdams barely made an impression on me in Spotlight. And I'd have preferred Jennifer Jason Leigh be nominated for her touching voice work as the shy, scarred title character of Anomolisa than for a Quentin Tarantino film where male characters repeatedly punch her in the face. (Full disclosure: I bailed at the halfway point of The Hateful Eight, not so much in dread of the upcoming bloodbath, but because I was dying of boredom while getting there.)

A better choice would have been Kristen Stewart for Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds of Sils Maria opens with a harried Stewart balancing precariously in the aisle of a speeding train while fielding a series of increasingly complicated cell phone calls. This scene is, miraculously, both totally coherent and totally engrossing -- and it only gets better from there. Stewart gives a nimble, startlingly good performance as the valued assistant/confidante to a temperamental actress, shooting sparks off her co-star Juliette Binoche in scenes where you can't quite tell if they're running lines from Binoche's upcoming play or just working out their own complicated friendship. Few performances in the past year were this riveting.

Also overlooked: Angela Bassett in Chi-Raq: a beautiful performance of strength and emotional urgency that's been overlooked everywhere.

Best Supporting Actor

Sylvester Stallone for Creed

Confession: I still haven't seen Creed (and yes, I know I should). So I can't comment intelligently on whether Stallone deserves to win. Bu there's something undeniably heartwarming in seeing Stallone get some respect at this late point in a very uneven career.  And everyone loves a good comeback story, right?

Even so, I'm rooting for Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies

Rylance owns this movie from the very first scenes. His performance is the kind which is (correctly) called "understated," but the understatement comes from the deadly, quiet confidence of a great actor at work. Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hardy and Christian Bale all did fine work, and I wouldn't be terribly disappointed if any of them were called to the podium on Oscar night.  Rylance's work, however, is a cut above the rest.

 I wish they could have found a way to include Joel Edgerton for The Gift

Edgerton also did a bang-up job of writing and directing this expertly twisty thriller, but his most Oscar-worthy work was in portraying the lonely misfit who invades the lives of a seemingly happy couple. He found authentic nuances in the character that far surpassed easy cliche and kept us off balance till the bitter end

Also overlooked: Paul Dano for Love and Mercy; Nick Cannon for Chi-Raq.

Best Actress

Will (and probably should) Win: Brie Larson for Room

Larson has walked off with just about every other major award; her Oscar seems a foregone conclusion.  And rightly so. Her performance in Room has a kind of in-the-moment, emotionally supple quality that feels spontaneous and utterly un-calculated. It's a kind of committed naturalness that a few of my very favorite actresses (Debra Winger, Juliette Binoche and Larson's fellow nominee, Jennifer Lawrence) can pull off . Larson is a worthy addition to that sorority, and - at just 26 - she has a bright future ahead.

But My Heart is With: Soairse Ronan for Brooklyn

Ronan has given one fantastic performance after the other ever since she debuted in Atonement (and got her first Oscar nomination) at the age of 13. She rises to the challenge of giving Brooklyn its heart and soul in a performance of quiet warmth.  Many of us secretly wish that Brooklyn would win Best Picture. It won't - but a win by Ronan (who is the dark horse in this category) would go quite a ways towards healing our disappointment.

(And if couldn't be either Ronan or Larson, I'd be very happy to see Cate Blanchett win for Carol - a performance infinitely more deserving of the honor than her mannered, "Look at me acting!" turn in the horrendous Blue Jasmine. I'm a little sad, too,  that Charlotte Rampling isn't going to win, but Jennifer Lawrence already has an Oscar and she'll be back again and again...)

Overlooked:  Sarah Silverman in I Smile Back

There was never any real chance she'd be on this list (though she did get a SAG nomination), but Silverman's fearless vulnerability as a bipolar drug addict who keeps banging against rock bottom was unforgettable.

Also overlooked: Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria - because Kristen Stewart wasn't burning up that screen all by herself.

Best Actor

Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant

Let's talk about what constitutes great acting vs. great endurance shall we?  I'm sure we all admire Leo for spending months in the outdoors, braving snow and cold and eating raw bison meat (while sitting about five feet away from a fire where he could have cooked it if he hadn't been so damn impatient!) and getting chomped on by a big ol' pissed off grizzly bear. But is that a great performance or is it just a thespian version of Fear Factor?  Don't get me wrong, I do love me some Leo.  I could have given him the Oscar twice before when he was nominated (The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street) and once when he wasn't (Revolutionary Road). Part of me is glad that he'll finally be getting the Oscar he's so long deserved, but another part of me wishes he didn't have to go to such wild-ass extremes to get the recognition he's already long been due.

Should Win:  Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs

I'm not particularly crazy about the work of any of this year's Best Actor nominees, to be honest. But if I had to pick just one to give the trophy to, it'd be Fassbender. (And not just because it would be so cool to see him and his real-life main squeeze, Alicia Vikander, toting their his-and-her Oscars around to the after-parties.)  If I never forgot I was watching Kate Winslet in this film, I always forgot I was watching Fassbender; even though he never made any attempt to look like Steve Jobs and always looked like Michael Fassbender, he still managed to disappear into the role.  Never mind that I pretty much hated this film, just like I pretty much hate so much stuff that Aaron Sorkin writes. Fassbender was so damn good that it didn't even matter.

Tobey Maguire in Pawn Sacrifice was just one of many deserving but overlooked actors here.

There was also Tom Hanks (i.e. The Actor Whose Greatness is Most Unfairly Taken for Granted) who the Academy voters apparently thinks makes movies like Bridge of Spies in his sleep. (Meryl Streep gets an Oscar  nomination every time she convincingly blows her nose onscreen, but Hanks can't get another nomination to save his life.) Then there was young Jacob Tremblay who's every bit as genius as Brie Larson in Room but gets no recognition. (And don't tell me he's too young for this category: Quevenshane Wallis got a Best Actress nomination for Beasts of the Southern Wild, which she made when she was all of six.) But most egregiously of all, there's the complete lack of awards recognition across the board for Tobey Maguire's flat-out brilliant personification of chess prodigy/mad genius Bobby Fischer, an electrifying performance that too few people saw. Those who did see it, however, will never forget it.

Best Director

Will Win: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu for The Revenant

I'm still pissed at Innaritu for winning last year's Best Director Oscar - an award that should rightfully have gone to Richard Linklater and not to the maker of that dreadful, vastly overrated piece of crap known as Birdman.  I don't want him to get another one right away, but he's going to get one anyway. I will, however, grudgingly admit that he comes considerably closer to deserving this year's trophy than last year's.

Should Win: Lenny Abrahamson for Room

Because he pulls off so many wondrous things in this film: the slow, subtle reveal of the cramped quarters in which his characters are trapped for the film's first 45 minutes; the unbearable, heart-stopping suspense of the escape scene, the sense of disorientation in the the child's first experiences of the outside world.  It's a seamless and beautiful job of helming a complex film that could have gone the way of a Lifetime Channel weepie with one or two bad directorial decisions. Fortunately, every decision Abrahamson makes is perfect.

Overlooked: Todd Haynes for Carol

What does the Academy have against Todd Haynes? They snubbed him thirteen years ago for the beautiful Far From Heaven and they snubbed him again for this year's even more beautiful Carol. Seriously, what is the problem here?  Surely they can't be objecting to the gay themes in this day and age. Do they think that because he channels and emulates films of the 1950s (and those of Douglas Sirk in particular) in both of his greatest films that they amount to no more than pastiche or clever homage? (If so, that's a pretty shallow way to look at them.)  I don't know what  to make of a Best Direction slate that includes Adam McKay and not Todd Haynes, but I know it constitutes an injustice.

Also overlooked: Steven Spielberg for Bridge of Spies, Ridley Scott for The Martian and Spike Lee for Chi-Raq. This really was the year for crap Best Director nominees.

Best Picture

Will win: The Revenant 

The pundits have called this race a dead heat between Spotlight and The Big Short, but it think it's unlikely either of those films will win.  They'll split the screenwriting awards and the grueling, endurance test of The Revenant is going to take the top prize of the evening. But...

 The best of the Best Picture nominees is Bridge of Spies

With Lincoln (which should have been the Best Picture of 2012) and this film, Steven Spielberg has entered a new and masterful phase of his career in which he perfectly encapsulates major moments in American history and teaches us something about ourselves a nation in the process.  And, yes, I honestly believe that Bridge of Spies accomplishes something that lofty. It may be Spielberg's most undervalued film to date.  (Full disclosure: a little part of me also wishes that the very lovely Brooklyn could take this award, too.

But Carol was really the Best Picture this year

Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy took an odd, difficult novella and turned it into not just a classic gay love story - but a classic love story, full stop.  This film is beautiful in every sense: gorgeously filmed, impeccably acted and emotionally devastating in the silences and unexpressed longing that underlie its characters' interactions.  This is a film that I believe will richly reward repeat viewings, more so than any film actually nominated for Oscar's top prize. Its exclusion from the list of nominees is bound to be an embarrassment to the Academy in years to come.