26 February 2017

Well, La-di-da!

Over the nearly decade-long history of this blog, most of the predictions I made about future posts failed to come true. (Note the evasive use of the passive voice.) So perhaps it’s only fitting that January’s Top 10 music post, which I declared would likely be the last post on Pop Tones has now turned out not to be the final post after all. This post, however, will indeed be the last one. This prediction will come true because all that is required is inaction, which happens to be my natural state.

My annual Oscars/Top 10 movies post has been a tradition on this blog since its inception—or more accurately, two traditions, both predating the existence of Pop Tones, that merged into a single annual post after I moved away from New York and lost access to press screenings, effectively making it impossible to compile a reasonable Top 10 list by the end of December. I plan to continue writing these posts on my new blog, but this post seemed like an inappropriate beginning for a new project. The perfect way to kick off the new blog will be with a discussion of Silence, a novel by Shusaku Endo and now a film by Martin Scorsese that will play a bit part in this post, thus providing a bridge from the old to the new. The reasons for this will become clear in time.

But for now we should move on to the business at hand. The recent history of the Oscars has revealed a couple trends: the quality of the Best Picture nominees has improved (once again, there’s nothing I hate in this year's field of nine), and the awards have been distributed more widely. Last year’s Best Picture winner, Spotlight, won only two Oscars, and no film this decade has won more than six. But if you’re nostalgic for the days when some mediocre film would arbitrarily swoop in and sweep the awards, tonight is your lucky night. Damien Chazelle’s musical La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as an aspiring actress and jazz musician, appears poised to win the most Oscars since at least Slumdog Millionaire, which took home eight awards for 2008, and possibly even The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which won a record-tying 11 Oscars for 2003, taking every award for which it was nominated. La La Land’s 14 nominations (including two in the Best Song category) tied All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) for the most in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Those films won six and 11 awards, respectively, including Best Picture in both cases.

I’m hardly the first to note that La La Land feels like a dissonant Best Picture choice for the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. Its total lack of political relevance seems almost quaint, and its upbeat tone could hardly be less appropriate for the angry, depressing era we're living through. The movie is allegedly set in the present, but you’d only know that by its implicit assumption that going to jazz clubs and watching old movies in theaters are hopelessly passé activities. Indeed, for about an hour or so, I thought La La Land might develop into a self-aware argument for the continued vitality of aging artistic forms in the 21st century, but instead it turns into a movie about…uh, the importance of following your dreams, or something. La La Land will be the fourth Best Picture winner in the past six years to center on show business, and it’s easy to see why AMPAS voters have embraced it. More troubling to me has been the unwillingness of many film critics to point out the glaringly obvious flaws in the film. The script feels like a skeletal early draft that should have been sent back for some fleshing out. In addition to the unconvincing contemporary setting, the film has no meaningful supporting characters. Two of the next three actors in the billing order after Gosling and Stone play characters known as “Famous Actress” and “Coffee Spiller.” Rosemarie DeWitt shows up early on as the Gosling character’s sister and is hardly seen for the rest of the movie, while John Legend’s bandleader is little more than an ambulatory plot device. The whole thing hinges on the charm of its two leads, which is almost enough to carry it. Still, La La Land is by no means a bad film, and Chazelle deserves credit for attempting something more ambitious than the usual Oscar bait, even if the execution wasn’t entirely successful. It should go down as an average Best Picture winner, a tick below Spotlight and a tick above 2014’s Birdman. I can live with a La La Land win for Best Picture, but if it wins for Screenplay I’m liable to start banging my head against the nearest wall.

Heading up the list of also-rans in the field of nine are the two most critically lauded films of the year, Moonlight, a lyrical three-part film from writer-director Barry Jenkins about the coming of age of a black boy (and eventually, man) in inner city Miami who gradually realizes he is gay, and Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, the story of a fortyish New Englander struggling with a decision about whether to adopt the son of his recently deceased brother while working through the aftermath of an unspeakable tragedy of his own. The film is built around a career-best performance from Casey Affleck, a key player in the only competitive race in any major category tonight. I really like both films, particularly Manchester, which manages to weave quite a bit of humor into its closely observed drama. (There’s one bit involving a stretcher and an ambulance where I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.) Moonlight would be a more radical choice, less on account of its tripartite structure than its fundamentally elusive, poetic character. The first part, dominated by tonight’s likely Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali as a sensitive soul miscast by circumstance as a dope-dealing tough guy who becomes a mentor to the fatherless lead character, is particularly fine cinema, communicating far more with lighting and facial expressions than with words. I don’t know if the Academy would have nominated such an aesthetically challenging film if not for last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign, but in any event I’m glad they did.

The Best Picture field also features a pair of ambitious, technically assured genre pieces: Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s World War II drama about the exploits of Desmond Doss, a devout Christian whose strict interpretation of the Sixth Commandment precluded his carrying a rifle, who went on to save the lives of dozens of soldiers as a medic during the battle of Okinawa; and Arrival, a science fiction film about first contact with extra-terrestrials, directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams as a linguist enlisted by the U.S. military to help communicate with the new visitors. Hacksaw is not immune from some of the standard war movie criticisms and the ending of Arrival was a major letdown, but both are fine films. Hacksaw should take the Oscar for Sound Editing, while Arrival is competitive in several categories, although not favored to win anywhere.

Four other movies round out the field. Fences is Denzel Washington’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize–winning play by the late August Wilson that’s barely adapted at all. It’s a very good play, deftly portraying the psychological and generational consequences of racism, but I wish Washington had decided to make an actual movie out of it. Hell or High Water is a solid sociological drama about a pair of Texas bank robbers that’s now overrated for being underrated. Hidden Figures is a feelgood drama about a trio of black women who worked for NASA during the preparation of a key early-’60s space flight by John Glenn that delivers exactly what it promises. And finally, there is Lion, which remains unseen by me.

This looks to be a boring predictions year, perhaps just as well given my poor performance the past two times out. I did correctly predict that last year’s bandwagon pick, The Revenant, would not win Best Picture but unfortunately went with PGA winner and personal favorite The Big Short, over the more middle-of-the-road Spotlight. I shouldn’t have to worry about missing Best Picture this year, but there are some competitive races. In addition to Best Actor, which I’ll get to below, there is Sound Mixing, where Hacksaw Ridge could challenge La La Land, and Costume Design, where Jackie stands a good chance of interrupting the parade of La La Land wins. The other category to watch tonight is Foreign Language Film, where Iran’s The Salesman is widely expected to beat out the German film Toni Erdmann, which had been the favorite right up until President Trump’s reprehensible and unlawful travel ban tipped the scales. The order led to director Asghar Farhadi’s first being unable to attend the ceremony and then declining to attend in protest. I don’t blame him for not coming, but I do hope Academy voters don’t allow Trump to essentially make their choice for them. Truth be told, I haven’t seen The Salesman, but I was underwhelmed by Farhadi’s previous Oscar winner A Separation. Toni Erdmann is one of the great films of the decade and would be an unusually deserving winner in this troubled category. If Farhadi wins his second Oscar tonight, he will, ironically enough, have Trump to thank for it.

With so many categories seemingly sewn up, this could be a dull ceremony. Jimmy Kimmel will be the host. I have no strong feelings about Kimmel, but I am glad they picked someone new. There will undoubtedly be a fair amount of foot stamping against Mr. Trump, but hopefully no one will mention football or mixed martial arts. At least one winner will be rudely interrupted by the house band, and I will get upset about it. Hopefully, something surprising will happen at some point. Without further ado, we shall move on to the picks. I’m going chalk this year thanks to the results of my recent risk-taking. Please stay tuned for my own Top 10 list at the bottom of the post. As always, thank you for reading. When I reemerge with a new blog, I will post a link here.

Best Picture

Sentiment for Moonlight and the late-breaking Hidden Figures notwithstanding, there is virtually no chance of an upset here.

Will win: La La Land
Should win: Manchester by the Sea

Best Director

This feels nearly as locked as Best Picture. Picture and Director have actually gone to different films three of the past four years, but with Jenkins and Lonergan favored to take the two Screenplay awards, there’s little incentive for Academy voters to honor either here. There doesn’t seem to be enough sentiment for Arrival to consider Villeneuve here, but I can’t help thinking there’s a minuscule chance of a Roman Polanski–style shock victory for Gibson, which would surely make for the most memorable moment of the broadcast.

W: Damien Chazelle, La La Land
S: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

Best Actor

The sole major race that calls for any sort of analysis should come down to a close vote between Affleck’s hollowed-out janitor in Manchester by the Sea and Washington’s embittered ex-ballplayer turned tough-love father in Fences. Affleck has won most of the major precursor awards, but Washington took home the Best Actor prize at the Screen Actors Guild awards, which has matched the Oscar winner the past 12 years in a row. On the other hand, most of those races weren’t particularly competitive. A crucial detail is that Washington had never won a SAG award, so his victory could be interpreted as a lifetime achievement award of sorts. Washington has won two Oscars, including one for Best Actor. Only six actors have ever won a third, with Daniel Day Lewis having achieved the feat most recently four years ago. Washington won a Tony for the same role on Broadway, and his performance, like everything else about Fences, feels a bit theatrical at times. Perhaps he was let down by his director. Affleck, on the other hand, does some brilliant, naturalistic screen acting, so if I’m wrong here I’ll once again blame it on having actually watched the movies.

W: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
S: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Best Actress

Stone is favored to win here, but to do so she’ll have to overcome the best performance of the year by the greatest screen actress of her generation. And also Meryl Streep. The French actress Isabelle Huppert remains shockingly unknown to non-cinephile American audiences, but perhaps that’s about to change as a result of her typically fearless performance as a businesswoman who is raped—victim hardly seems like an appropriate word—and attempts to track down her attacker in Paul Verhoeven’s provocative Elle. No film this year was more reliant on the success of a single performance. Without revealing too much about the story, let’s just say that the movie would have been downright offensive with nearly anyone else in the role. Huppert scored an upset victory at the Golden Globes, although she and Stone have yet to face off directly at any major awards show.

W: Emma Stone, La La Land
S: Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Best Supporting Actress

This might be an even easier call than Best Picture, with Viola Davis, who’s nearly a co-lead in Fences, having swept the relevant precursor awards. Davis gave a fine performance, as did Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea, but I’d personally give the slightest of edges to Naomie Harris as the troubled mother in Moonlight.

W: Viola Davis, Fences
S: Naomie Harris, Moonlight

Best Supporting Actor

Mahershala Ali looked like a slam dunk for the win until he somehow lost at the Golden Globes to Aaron-Taylor Johnson for the fourth-best performance in a lousy movie. Johnson was not nominated here, although his co-star Michael Shannon was, setting up a battle of the Texas lawmen with Hell or High Water’s Jeff Bridges. But Ali, his great performance in Moonlight now bolstered by a memorable SAG acceptance speech, should win easily here. If there’s an upset, it will probably come from Dev Patel of Lion.

W: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
S: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Screenplay, Original
W: Manchester by the Sea
S: Manchester by the Sea

Screenplay, Adapted
W: Moonlight
S: Moonlight

Animated Feature
W: Zootopia

Documentary Feature
W: O.J.: Made in America
S: O.J.: Made in America

Foreign Language Film
W: The Salesman
S: Toni Erdmann

W: La La Land
S: Silence

Production Design
W: La La Land
S: Hail, Caesar!

W: La La Land
S: Moonlight

Visual Effects
W: The Jungle Book

Costume Design
W: Jackie
S: Jackie

Makeup and Hair
W: Star Trek Beyond

Sound Mixing
W: La La Land
S: Arrival

Sound Editing
W: Hacksaw Ridge
S: Hacksaw Ridge

Original Score
W: La La Land
S: Jackie

Original Song
W: “City of Stars,” La La Land

Animated Short
W: Piper

Live Action Short
W: Ennemis Intérieurs

Documentary Short
W: The White Helmets

And, finally, we arrive at my own Top 10 films of the year. Despite my best efforts, I missed several promising contenders, most of them foreign-language films. I'll try to add some more blurbs to the list later in the week, if only for posterity's sake. I now have two children; some things are slipping.

1. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, Germany)

This German comedy (!) from director Maren Ade, whose Everyone Else would have made my never-finalized Top 10 list for 2010, nearly defies description. It is on one level a scathing satire of contemporary EU culture, encompassing family, sex, friendship, and particularly the corporate world. On another level, it’s a father-daughter comedy built around a pair of brilliant performances. But lurking beneath both is a poignant existential drama, concerned with deep questions like what makes life worth living. Sandra Hüller stars as a German businesswoman living in Bucharest whose life is disrupted by an unexpected visit from her father (Peter Simonischek), who eventually manages to insinuate himself into her professional life by taking on the titular persona, a self-styled life coach. The film hums along briskly for the first two-thirds of its 162-minute running time before shooting into the stratosphere with a pair of absolutely brilliant scenes, both involving parties of one sort or another, that would by themselves be sufficient to elevate Ade into the front ranks of global directors, her boldness matched by her mastery of tone. Appropriately enough, the movie ends on an unresolved chord, but I can safely say that the father-daughter bond ultimately proves to be one of great love, if not quite the greatest love of all.

2. Silence (Martin Scorsese, U.S.)

3. Sully (Clint Eastwood, U.S.)

4. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, U.S.)

5. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, U.S.)

6. Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)

7. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, U.S.)

8. Little Sister (Zach Clark, U.S.)

9. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, U.S.)

10. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, U.S.)

Honorable mentions (alphabetical): Elle (Paul Verhoeven, France); Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S.); Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman, Ireland/France); No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France); Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)