Archive for February, 2019

Yes, it’s Sunday February 24 and I’m *just* now publishing my Oscar Picks, roughly 5 hours before the awards broadcasts begin.

I was very tempted to skip the whole exercise this year. It’s beginning to feel like The Oscars is actively daring us to not care anymore, and I believe that in the relatively short future the Academy Awards currency will collapse and it will join broadcast television in cultural irrelevance.

But we’re not *quite* they’re yet, and the Academy relented and put cinematography back into the broadcast categories. Plus, if I’m being honest, I kind of want to see if this whole no-host thing is a train wreck or not.

So maybe I’ll finally quit when they institute that ridiculous “popular film” award. Yikes.

Caveat number 1: I vote with my heart, not my head, which has made me a historically terrible predictor of Oscar success.

Caveat number 2: I always try to see every Best Picture nominee, but I did not end up watching “Green Book” prior to tonight’s broadcast. Take that as you will.

Caveat number 3: For reasons I don’t understand, FiveThirtyEight did not publish their data-based predictions, which I typically rely on for a second opinion.

Best Picture

Conventional wisdom says that the more nominations a film has, the more likely that film is to win Best Picture. And that rule seems like a good measuring stick for the 2019 cohort, with Roma and The Favourite tied with 10 nominations each.

And, as it turns out, those are my personal Top 1 and 2 films of the year, so I’m feeling a little pleased with myself.

But many of the professional forecasters have noted how 2019 is one of the most wide-open Oscar slates in recent memory, with legitimate odds for many, if not most, of the 8 Best Picture films to take a shot at the statuette.

I agree with that sentiment, and will feel a range of excited surprise (BlacKkKlansmen), ambivalence (Black Panther, Green Book) or crushing disappointment (Bohemian Rhapsody) if the other films take the prize, but still feel that this year’s race is either Roma’s or The Favourite’s to lose.

That said, Roma has a political edge to it that, given the circumstances of 2018-2019, could give it enough of an edge in the final count to overcome the forces working against it (more on that in a minute).

Black Panther

BlacKkKlansman

Bohemian Rhapsody

The Favourite — Should win

Green Book

Roma — Will win

A Star Is Born

Vice

Actress in a Leading Role

Two big caveats for this category: I have see neither “The Wife” nor “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” But I’m fairly certain my prediction would be the same even if I had.

I’m on record as *loving* The Favourite, particularly due to its cast. While “Roma” is a Director’s movie, “The Favourite” is an actor’s movie, and Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is the secret ingredient that makes the whole sauce come together.

Simultaneously egomaniacal and heartbreakingly vulnerable, Colman’s performance is magnetic (Just thinking about her “Look at me! Look at me! HOW DARE YOU!” line makes me shake with laughter) and sets the tone for the rest of the surrealist antics in the film that would crumble under their own weight if not for the film’s steady protagonist.

Yalitza Aparicio, “Roma”

Glenn Close, “The Wife”

Olivia Colman, “The Favourite” — Should win — Will win

Lady Gaga, “A Star Is Born”

Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Actor in a Leading Role

This year’s crop of lead actor nominees is terrible, and I feel like it’s necessary to talk about *how* something comes to be nominated for an Oscar.

While the entire Academy membership votes on the final winners, the various *branches* vote on the nominees. So the directors choose the directors, the writers choose the writers, the actors choose the actors.

That’s a problem, because the acting branch is the Academy’s largest, and they’re prone to certain, well, unfortunate tropes. In short: actors are obsessed with physical transformation and the result is glaringly apparent this year: All but 1 of the nominees are portraying a real-life/historical figure.

So is Bale’s impression of Dick Cheney better than Willem Dafoe’s impression of Vincent Van Gogh? I can tell you one thing for sure, I was much more impressed with Bradley Cooper doing his own vocals than Rami Malek’s lip-syncing performance that was 90 percent prosthetic teeth.

This category, bizarrely, comes down to the old guard vs the new guard, embodied in Viggo Mortensen’s homage to golden-age Oscar bait in “Green Book” versus Malek’s hipster-age feature-length Behind the Music.

I pick the latter, because I’m interested in what an Oscar can do to Malek’s career now that Mr. Robot is wrapping up. The Academy will pick the former.

Christian Bale, Vice

Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born

Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate

Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody — Should (?) win

Viggo Mortensen, Green Book — Will win

Directing

Once again, this comes down to Roma versus The Favourite, and the clear winner is Alfonso Cuarón and his pain-stakingly detailed recreation of Mexico City circa 1970.

Now, when I say “clear winner,” I’m talking about my “should” designation. There’s still quite a bit of industry prejudice toward Netflix, seen as a lesser medium for screening capitol-F films.

That may well doom Cuarón, which would be a shame. I’ve got my quibbles with Netflix, but they made the right call investing in “Roma” and did right by the film, pouring a lot of resources into marketing and, likely, putting a black-and-white film about a Mexican domestic worker in front of more eyeballs than a traditional arthouse release would have.

BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee

Cold War, Paweł Pawlikowski

The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos

Roma, Alfonso Cuarón — Will win, Should win

Vice, Adam McKay

Actress in a Supporting Role

In what is the polar opposite of this year’s Best Actor category, Best Supporting Actress is the spoils of wealth. Every name on this list gave an Oscar-worthy performance (whatever that phrase even means any more) and particularly Regina King, in any other year, would be a breakout for her great work in “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

But in the end, the question isn’t whether The Favourite will win this category, the question is *which* of The Favourite’s two nominees will take home the statue.

Personally, my money is on Rachel Weisz, whose Lady Sarah is cunning, manipulative and dangerous but centered around a consistent core of moral principal that ultimately leaves her susceptible to the guerilla schemes of her competitor, Emma Stone’s Abigail.

Also, Weisz hasn’t won an Oscar since 2006, compared to 2017 for Stone.

Amy Adams, “Vice”

Marina de Tavira, “Roma”

Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Emma Stone, “The Favourite”

Rachel Weisz, “The Favourite” — Should win — Will win

Actor in a Supporting Role

This year’s category of the misfit toys features great performances by great actors, all of whom seem wrong to win the Oscar this year. Every nominee in this categories seems a little off, either because they’re the wrong actor to get the nomination (Adam Driver?) or because they so far been overshadowed on the awards circut by their costars (Mahershala Ali, Sam Rockwell).

I actually like the idea of an out-of-the-box win for either Sam Elliott or Richard E. Grant, which would help spread the gold around a little and recognize some clutch thespians who have been putting in some really good work in relatively thankless roles lately.

So flip a coin on this one, you’ll be in as strong a position as I am.

Mahershala Ali, Green Book — Will win

Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman

Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born — Should win

Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Sam Rockwell, Vice

Best Documentary Feature

And now for a mea culpa: I should have waited until after I saw Mind The Gap before I wrote my Top 10, because it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen. (It’s also currently available on Hulu — hint, hint, nudge, nudge)

This is a strong category this year, and in an alternate reality I could see Free Solo and RBG battling it out for the statute. But if anything other than Mind the Gap wins tonight, I riot.

Free Solo

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Minding the Gap — Should win — Will win

Of Fathers and Sons

RBG

Animated Feature

Black Panther made history for being the first superhero flick to be nominated for Best Picture. That’s a great milestone, but it’s a *different* superhero that will earn the gold tonight.

Incredibles 2

Isle of Dogs

Mirai

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — Should win — Will win

Odds and ends

I’m still smitten with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but I’m betting that adapted screenplay is where BlacKkKlansmen gets some much-deserved Oscar love.

Similarly, a lot of cinephile folk were irked that Ethan Hawke was left off the Actor’s list, and imagine that sympathy vote will propel First Reformed in the original screenplay category.

If by some chance Roma doesn’t get Best Picture, than look for it to pick up the best foreign language film award. Otherwise, that statute goes to Cold War.

And finally Best Original Song, which is an all-but-guaranted lock for “Shallow” from A Star Is Born. Watch for Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s live performance during the telecast, something they didn’t even bother to schedule for the also-rans.

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Click here to read Part I

Velvet Buzzsaw

Set in the world of high-end modern art, writer-director Dan Gilroy reunites with his Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo (plus Toni Collette and John Malkovitch) for this wonderfully wicked mashup of satire and horror.

The plot follows the discovery of an unknown artist’s work after his death, and the assorted bon vivant (a celebrity critic, a gallery owner, an art agent, etc.) who both admire the craft as well as see the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing. Only one problem: the paintings appear to be imbued with some hostile and supernatural force that sets about eliminating the cast in increasingly gleeful displays of carnage.

You’re mileage will certainly vary with this one, and Gilroy’s attempts to zip two genres together (as if the Final Destination franchise had been grafted onto The Devil Wears Prada) don’t always result in a seamless delivery. But the experience is so unique, kinetic and unassuming, anchored by a hypnotically devoted Gyllenhaal, that it makes for a rare, if beguiling, treat.

Grade: B+

*Watch it NOW on Netflix

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Jillian Bell, a very funny if not yet widely known comedian, stars and shines in this semi-biographical film by debut director (and screenwriter) Paul Downs Colaizzo.

As the titular Brittany, Bell plays a woman who, after some hard truths about her health from a doctor, resolves to turn her life around by training for and running in the New York City Marathon. Brittany finds confidence and new purpose with each lost pound, but the film is far from an advertisement for Gold’s Gym memberships — it follows a woman’s search for identity and self-appreciation, trading laugh-out-loud comedy with cringing tragedy as it builds up to a powerhouse finale.

Grade: A-

Watching “The Brink,” Alison Klayman’s documentary on populist provocateur and propagandist Steve Bannon, one can’t help but wonder what the subject expected to get by granting a filmmaker such intimate access to his life.

Much like the 2016 fly-on-the-wall documentary “Weiner,” which similarly premiered at Sundance, “The Brink” finds a controversial and scandal-prone American political figure behind closed doors in the places where the public typically isn’t invited to go.

In this case it’s Bannon’s intimate meetings with far-right European leaders as he attempts to stitch together a coalition of the misfit toys to take on “the establishment” over immigration and exclusionary nationalism. At every turn Bannon insists his work is not racist, anti-Semitic or vitriolic, then he gives a smile and a wink as he’s pressed to explain his fearmongering tactics and dog whistles.

The movie is book-ended by two major setbacks for Bannon’s philosophy — the defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama and the election of a Democratic House majority in 2018 — but the lingering message from The Brink is that Bannon is always one to regroup, reinvent, and resurface.

Grade: B

The Report

In the years since the September 11 attack and the War on Terror, America’s pop culture response has incrementally shifted from the escapism of 24 to the repressed jingoism of Zero Dark Thirty to the pessimistic criticism of Looming Tower.

Into that maze steps The Report, the Adam Driver-led film by Scott Burns that zealously hopes to set the record straight on the moral shortcomings of U.S. intelligence and government leaders.

It’s vehicle in that effort is the “Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Report of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program” and its lead researcher, Daniel Jones, whose dogged pursuit of the facts despite byzantine bureaucratic intransigence exposed the truth of the C.I.A.’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” (read: torture) and the agency’s lies and misrepresentations to two presidents and the American public at large.

You might wonder how the creation of a 6,000-page government report can make for compelling drama, and The Report is initially clumsy and disjointed as it attempts to set the narrative background and cast of characters (played by a stellar supporting cast including Jon Hamm, Cory Stoll, Michael C. Hall and Annette Benning — as Sen. Diane Feinstein). The end result is an enlightening and thought-provoking film that is perhaps 30 minutes too long due to its slow start, but one that finishes strong and on an aspirational note for American democracy.

Grade: B

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The Lodge

Riley Keough (Logan Lucky) stars as Grace in this frostbit thriller by directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala about a woman snowed in while on a get-to-know-you vacation with her boyfriend’s children at a remote winter cabin. Once the storm hits, frozen pipes and a broken-down generator leave Grace and the children cut off and alarmed by an escalating series of inexplicable — supernatural? — events.

The Lodge has atmosphere in spades, utilizing the dark setting and inhospitable weather to great effect. But its plot and character work is considerably less artful, ham-fisting symbolism for religion and family onto the screen as though the writers were standing nearby shouting “See! It has layers!” into your face while you watch.

The story’s big moment comes in the flip between Act II and III and a twist (?) is handled so poorly that the film — serviceably eerie until that point — careens into farce and slumps its way to the closing credits leaving little more than head-scratching uncertainty about what transpired.

Grade: D

State of the Union

Confession: Despite State of the Union‘s inclusion in Sundance’s Indie Episodic category — for indie TV pilots and series — I walked in expecting a traditional narrative film. Even so, the 10 relatively short chapters combine perfectly into a not-quite-2-hours single sitting, as the vignettes blend seamlessly into a coherent arc for its characters.

Written by the great Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education, Wild) and consisting of little more than a pub setting and two characters, (Played by a wonderfully comedic Rosamund Pike and the winning every-man Chris O’Dowd) SOTU tells the story of Tom a Louise, an on-the-rocks couple who meet up for a drink each week before a marital counseling session to talk strategy.

The dialogue is superb, insightful, witty and heartbreaking as Tom and Louise track the evolution of their relationship, looking for what went wrong, what is salvageable, and how to move forward. It’s real and raw and touching in that sad-funny sweet spot that Hornby does so well.

Watch out for it when it launches (likely on Sundance TV but presumably available elsewhere afterward) is it’s not one to miss.

Grade: A

Big Time Adolescence

“Coming-of-age” is the classic, quintessential staple of the stereotypical *SUNDANCE* movie, and Big Time Adolescence fits that trope in spades, following Mo (American Vandal‘s Griffin Gluck) as he navigates high school, first dates and being a well-intentioned teenage drug dealer.

But the film also flips that narrative with its co-lead Zeke (SNL’s Pete Davidson) who remains-of-age smoking dope, getting blitzed and hanging with his buds, including his best bed Mo the 16-year-old brother of an ex girlfriend Zeke never quite stopped pining for.

The characters both support each other and feed into a destructive impulse that stunts their emotional development, with the big question of whether the inevitable crash will shake them lose and allow them to mature or doom them to perpetual childhood.

It doesn’t quite satisfy that question in its final moments, falling just shy of a perfect landing, but it still manages an impressive launch through some universal, meaningful territory.

Grade: B+


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