Monday, February 27, 2017

Wrap it up: La La Land huge, but Moonlight triumphs to close out Oscars season

Writer-director Barry Jenkins celebrates onstage after his film Moonlight won Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Even after a night of sleep, it’s still hard to fathom what went down at the Academy Awards yesterday evening. Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ brilliant, beautiful coming-of-age story Moonlight took home Best Picture after an absurd envelope mix-up led to the announcement of La La Land as winner initially. We talked about the error a lot last night in the immediate aftermath. Today, I want to shift the focus back to the awards and the winners.

The biggest question is how the awards prospects of La La Land were so badly misjudged. Now, make no mistake, Damien Chazelle’s musical romance was one of the night’s bigger winners, taking home six awards, but its haul was projected to be much greater. It was nominated by and won with essentially every industry guild where it was eligible. It was widely loved. It was a box-office smash. It looked unstoppable, so what caused it to stumble at the finish line?

The most likely answer is the preferential ballot. Voters are asked to rank the Best Picture nominees 1-9. The film with the fewest votes after the first round is eliminated, and the votes are redistributed to the No. 2 films on those ballots. This process is repeated until a movie ends up with 50 percent plus one vote. The victory of Moonlight suggests that it not only appeared No. 1 on a lot of ballots but was also many voters’ second- or third-favorite film of the bunch.

Let’s take a look at how the whole evening played out:

Picture & Director

Moonlight producers Jeremy Kleiner and Adele Romanski with Jenkins
This is the fourth year in the last five Picture and Director have split. Once seen as inseparable awards – of course if you directed the Best Picture, how could you not be the Best Director? – the preferential ballot and the expansion of the Best Picture lineup have created a schism. Now, it seems like the most audacious or breathtaking film from a technical standpoint wins Director, while the most important, best-told story wins Picture.

In each of the last four years featuring a split – Birdman took home both awards in 2014 – this dynamic holds true. In 2012, Argo, a well-made thriller about nations coming together in an act of quiet heroism, took picture, while Ang Lee won Director for the visually masterful Life of Pi. In 2013, 12 Years a Slave took home the top prize, for my money the greatest film ever to win Best Picture, while Alfonso Cuarón won Director for the technically astounding Gravity. Last year, Spotlight, the handsome drama about the team of journalists that uncovered the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, won Picture, while Alejandro González Iñárritu took director for the formally brilliant The Revenant.

This year repeats that same split. While I felt Jenkins was the more deserving winner, it is hard to argue with Chazelle’s accomplishment in bringing an old-school Hollywood musical firmly into the modern age while losing none of the classical charm. Chazelle is a star on the rise, and I cannot wait to see his next picture, based on the life of Neil Armstrong and starring Ryan Gosling as the first man on the moon. I imagine another visual feast, well told. It seems likely we will see him back at this ceremony.

Jenkins, meanwhile, should get a profound career boost from this. His first feature film, Medicine for Melancholy, was trending on Twitter this morning. I doubt many had heard of it prior to yesterday’s ceremony. Eight years went by between Jenkins’ first film and his second, Moonlight. If the industry is smart, we won’t have to wait eight years for his third. I doubt we will.

The acting categories

Casey Affleck wins Best Actor for Manchester by the Sea.
These went precisely as predicted – Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) for Best Actor, Emma Stone (La La Land) for Actress, Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) for Supporting Actor, and Viola Davis (Fences) for Supporting Actress. Ali and Davis knocked it out of the park with their heartfelt, moving speeches. Stone was gracious and humble, while Affleck just seemed in utter shock. One of the best crowd reaction shots of the night came in the image of two-time Oscar winner Ben Affleck crying tears of pride and joy as his younger brother reached the pinnacle of their profession.

The screenplays

Jenkins, who was not a nominated producer on Moonlight, won his only Oscar of the night for his adapted screenplay, an award he happily shared with Tarell Alvin McCraney on whose play the film was based. Their speech was elegant, impassioned, and important. Another playwright and Pulitzer Prize finalist Kenneth Lonergan earned Best Original Screenplay for Manchester by the Sea. It was a wonderful moment for Lonergan, and I know his was a victory many people wanted to see.

The crafts

Kevin O'Connell (center) wins his first Oscar from 21 nominations.
La La Land picked up four below-the-line awards, predictably winning both music categories, as well as Cinematography and Production Design. Elsewhere, the Academy spread the love at the expense of La La Land. Arrival surprised in Sound Editing, while Hacksaw Ridge pulled off a huge upset in Sound Mixing. Rarely do Best Picture-nominated musicals lose that award, or musicals in general when they are cited, but Kevin O’Connell finally made it up on the stage in another of the night’s best moments. The 21-time nominee is now an Oscar winner.

Hacksaw Ridge also picked up Editing, with the Academy falling in love once again with the big, flashy action sequences of a wartime action picture, and the Academy reaffirmed its love for costume designer Colleen Atwood, who seemed genuinely bowled over by winning her fourth award. It was the first Oscar for the Harry Potter series, as well. Suicide Squad won Makeup and Hairstyling, a deserved honor for the wonderful artists who went home with the award but a certification of Suicide Squad as perhaps one of the worst Academy Award-winning movies in history, certainly recent history. The Jungle Book’s Visual Effects win was well deserved for an overall underrated movie.

While I was of course pulling for Lin-Manuel Miranda, who seemed to be having a great time last night, in Original Song, it is hard to argue with a La La Land win. However, I do wish “Audition (The Fools Who Dream” had pulled ahead of winning composition “City of Stars.” “Audition” really is the film’s signature number. Composer Justin Hurtwitz won for both Song and Score, and Chazelle has to be happy his longtime buddy won for their collaboration.

Of the nine Best Picture nominees, three were shut out completely with Lion going 0-for-6, Hell or High Water 0-for-4, and Hidden Figures 0-for-3. La La Land led with six wins, while Moonlight finished second with three, all in above-the-line categories. Hacksaw Ridge and Manchester by the Sea each earned two awards, while Fences and Arrival went home with one apiece. No film outside the Best Picture lineup won multiple awards, which since the expansion of the category has been the norm.

Documentary, Foreign, Animated, the Shorts

Apart from Moonlight’s Best Picture victory, I was most overjoyed to see my No. 1 film of the year take home Best Documentary. Director Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America is a towering achievement and one of the finest examples of the form. I could not be happier for him and am so pleased the Academy saw fit to recognize this film’s monumental achievement.

Iranian-American astronaut Anousheh Ansari accepts on behalf of Asghar Farhadi.
While politics were front and center all night in host Jimmy Kimmel’s material, the speeches, and the films, nowhere were they felt more than in Best Foreign Language Film. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman brought home the gold, but the filmmaker chose not to attend the ceremony in protest and out of respect for his countrymen and peoples all over the world unfairly targeted by the U.S. president’s inhumane and frankly un-American immigration ban.

It is an open question whether the controversy raised the film’s profile in voters’ minds and made it the must-vote-for movie in the category over early frontrunner Toni Erdmann. The political climate, however, should take nothing away from Farhadi’s film, which is an astounding achievement, and its victory provided another of the night’s brightest moments. Iranian-American astronaut and entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari accepted the award on Farhadi’s behalf and read a speech from the filmmaker blasting the travel ban and exalting the shared humanity that defines us all.

Best Animated Feature was also a triumph for shared humanity with Zootopia, Disney’s fable about overcoming racism and prejudice, taking the award. Award co-presenter Mexican actor Gael García Bernal took the opportunity onstage to blast the proposed border wall, a politically charged moment that was perfectly in keeping with the evening’s theme.

Also keeping with the theme were wins by Sing for Live Action Short – a film about joining together to confront abuses of power – and The White Helmets for Documentary Short – another show of support by the Academy for the peoples of the Middle East. Meanwhile, Piper finally put Pixar back on the stage for Animated Short after a 15-year drought for the company. It is a truly great film, both as a technical marvel and a touching tale of parenthood.

The final analysis

Our last “final analysis” before we close the book on this Oscar season. It has been a tumultuous year, to say the least. World events have rightly overshadowed the cinema to some degree. I understand how for some it can be difficult to care about handing gold statues to mostly rich people, but for nearly half of American history, the movies have been there for us. Through two world wars, Vietnam, and Iraq. Through a Great Depression, a Black Monday, and a Great Recession. Through 20 presidential administrations and now a 21st. The movies aren’t going anywhere, and I don’t see anything wrong with celebrating that.

Moonlight is a wonderful winner, whose ultimate message of empathy is among the most important we could have in these trying times. I hope many more people discover this fantastic little film as a result of this award. Like 12 Years a Slave before it and Schindler’s List and Casablanca, its victory means something and will stand the test of time. The world is a disturbing place right now, filled with hate and fear and deep feelings of mistrust. Moonlight is a film that allows us to step into the world of another and love, not hate, embrace, not fear, and understand one another deeper than perhaps we could have before. In short, it is a perfect film for the here and the now.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

La di da, la di da, La La … Moonlight: Best Picture winner stuns in more ways than one

Writer-director Barry Jenkins accepts the Academy Award for Best Picture for Moonlight.

I am still processing what I just saw. The erroneous announcement of La La Land as Best Picture will go down as the biggest gaffe in Academy Awards history. There can be none bigger. Moonlight is your Best Picture winner of 2016. It is the most deserving of the nominated films, and writer-director Barry Jenkins and his cast and crew earned their spot in the sun. But, wow, what a way to step into that moment.

Your heart just sinks for the producers of La La Land, particularly Jordan Horowitz, who was standing at the microphone, pouring his heart out in gratitude, and clutching his Oscar when that frankly shocking announcement took place. I cannot begin to imagine the heartbreak to have achieved your dream for nearly a full minute before it is dashed to pieces on a stage in front of 100 million viewers the world over. Horowitz was incredibly gracious, standing tall in the face of an impossible moment, and stating his pride at getting to hand the award over to such a remarkable film as Moonlight.

Best Picture presenter Warren Beatty’s explanation was both reasonable and confounding, leaving several questions, including how he ended up with the wrong card in his hands. Most importantly, though, the Academy has safeguards in place for just such an occurrence, so how did the folks behind the scenes allow the La La Land filmmakers onstage and almost completely through their speeches before correcting their mistake?

La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz shows the card naming Moonlight Best Picture.
It was an embarrassment of great magnitude for everyone but the artists involved. It stole away what would have been a truly stunning moment of victory for Moonlight, a moment that would have gone down as one of the greatest in recent Academy history, and turned it into a circus. We are not more than a half-hour removed from that moment as I type this, and it remains hard to understand what we witnessed. I am overjoyed for Jenkins and Moonlight, but I will not feel the full weight of the win until tomorrow, when the fog of this absurd ending hopefully will have cleared.

The shame is that this ceremony was on its way to being one of the best Oscars ceremonies in a long time. Jimmy Kimmel made for a wonderfully funny, self-effacing host, if not particularly fleet for an evening that ran just a tad long. The recurring gag with the snacks falling from the ceiling was delightful, and the trick of bringing in a busload of tourists for the most amazing surprise party in history was inspired.

The winners gave uniformly magnificent speeches that spoke to everyone across the world and delivered messages of love, hope, acceptance, and defiance in the face of oppression. In particular, Best Supporting Actress winner Viola Davis stole the show – at least until the evening was hijacked by a misplaced envelope. Wins for movies like The Salesman, The White Helmets, and O.J.: Made in America showed a streak of protest ran deep through these awards, and the power of their victories hopefully will outlast the memory of the only moment anyone will talk about tomorrow and the next day and the next.

Moonlight’s victory, even apart from its circumstances, was a genuine stunner, but there were indications throughout the night Damien Chazelle’s front-running Hollywood musical was vulnerable. The first came in when Colleen Atwood picked up her fourth career Oscar for Best Costume Design for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, beating out Mary Zophres’ work on La La Land. If Chazelle and Co. were going to sweep, it would have started there.

Next came the sound awards, which went to Arrival (Sound Editing) and Hacksaw Ridge (Sound Mixing). La La Land would have been a mild surprise in Sound Editing, but rarely do nominated musicals lose Sound Mixing. By that point, the presumed juggernaut was 0-for-3. The headline in the sound categories, though, really should be Kevin O’Connell, a winner for Hacksaw Ridge and no longer the record holder for most nominations without a win. On his 21st try, O’Connell finally made it onto the stage, and it was among the best moments of the night.

La La Land did not pick up its first award of the night until nearly two hours into the show for Best Production Design, but after losing Best Editing to Hacksaw Ridge, it felt like something might be in the air. A lot of movies with no realistic shot at the top prize were picking up awards that had been earmarked by most pundits, yours truly included, for La La Land. Meanwhile, Moonlight kicked off the proceedings with a well-deserved win for Mahershala Ali as Best Supporting Actor. Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney later picked up Best Adapted Screenplay, while Chazelle lost Original Screenplay to Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea.

Viola Davis wins Best Supporting Actress for Fences.
Heading into the final four awards of the night, La La Land had gone just 4-for-10, bolstered by a pair of wins for Original Song and Original Score that were as good as preordained, though on this night, such impressions were proved foolish at best. However, when Chazelle picked up Best Director and Emma Stone Best Actress – in between Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) beat out Denzel Washington (Fences) at the wire for Best Actor – it felt like the musical was back on track.

Six awards in tow, La La Land was back and chugging its way to the big one, which it won ever-so briefly. Its train was not just derailed, though. It was a crash of epic proportions, and all the blame falls on the shoulders of the Academy. The group’s detractors will laugh and point, and the U.S. president, perhaps with nothing better to do with his time, will probably tweet derisively. There is no doubt Hollywood’s biggest night ended in unprecedented fashion, a manner that will overshadow, hopefully only in the short term, all the good that was accomplished.

In time, I hope the underlying truths of the evening will lodge better in the cultural consciousness than a poorly timed mistake. For roughly the first three hours and 35 minutes, the Oscars ceremony was a beautiful ode to connection and transcendence through art. It delivered a message of hope and inclusivity to peoples all over the world. The final 10 minutes were a colossal disaster, but the triumph of Moonlight as Best Picture of the year only reinforces the ideas of hope, tolerance, love, and acceptance that I will take away from the evening, scandal be damned.

For a full list of winners, click here.

Totally Accurate, 100 Percent Guaranteed 2016 Academy Awards Predictions*

This is the third year running I have put out theses absolutely perfect predictions (with wide, wide margin for error), and in the previous two, there have been open questions extending even to the top award. This year, that question does not exist. The only major question is how high Damien Chazelle’s throwback Hollywood musical La La Land can soar. Can it set the record with 12 wins? Count ’em below if you want to know what I think.

That does not mean there is no intrigue. Far from it. From Best Actor to Best Documentary to Best Foreign Language Film, we will be in the dark until the moment the envelope is opened and someone’s life changes forever. So, sit back, relax, and embrace the mystery. Here are Last Cinema Standing’s Totally Accurate, 100 Percent Guaranteed 2016 Academy Awards Predictions*. Click on any category to see a full breakdown of the nominees, and check back here after the show for a full recap and analysis. Have fun.

*Guarantee this year is valid everywhere but no requests for refund will be honored.

Will win: La La Land
Should win: Moonlight

Will win: Damien Chazelle for La La Land
Should win: Barry Jenkins for Moonlight

Will win: Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
Should win: Denzel Washington for Fences

Will win: Emma Stone for La La Land
Should win: Natalie Portman for Jackie

Will win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
Should win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight

Will win: Viola Davis for Fences
Should win: Viola Davis for Fences

Will win: La La Land
Should win: The Lobster

Will win: Moonlight
Should win: Fences

Will win: La La Land
Should win: Silence

Will win: La La Land
Should win: Hacksaw Ridge

Will win: La La Land
Should win: La La Land

Will win: La La Land
Should win: Jackie

Will win: Star Trek Beyond
Should win: Star Trek Beyond

Will win: Hacksaw Ridge
Should win: Hacksaw Ridge

Will win: La La Land
Should win: La La Land

Will win: La La Land
Should win: Jackie

Will win: “Audition (Fools Who Dream)” from La La Land
Should win: “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana

Will win: The Jungle Book
Should win: The Jungle Book

Will win: Zootopia
Should win: Moana

Will win: The Salesman
Should win: Land of Mine

Will win: O.J.: Made in America
Should win: O.J.: Made in America

Will win: La Femme et le TGV
Should win: Sing

Will win: Pear Cider and Cigarettes
Should win: Piper

Will win: Watani: My Homeland
Should win: 4.1 Miles

Predicted big winners

La La Land – 11
Moonlight – 2

From O.J. to Benghazi: All 62 Oscar nominees ranked

Two years running now, I have seen every nominated film. In a fun bit of symmetry, the earliest nominated film I saw this year was Production Design nominee Hail, Caesar!, which I saw in theaters Feb. 24, 2016, and the last one I saw was Animated Feature nominee My Life as a Zucchini, which I saw Feb. 24, 2017, the day of its release. One full year to the day to watch the 62 nominated films – 47 features and 15 shorts – and the reasonable question one might ask is: Why?

I spend a lot of time thinking about that. As a person who loves film, I would see movies anyway, but why these movies? I don’t know that I have a complete answer for that other than pointing to the collective quality of the group. The power of the Oscars is and always has been their power to draw attention to movies, be they good or bad. So, take an entirely subjective list like this with a grain of salt, but if it can be useful in any way guiding you to movies you might not otherwise see, then that is what it is here to do.

Here they are, then, all 62 2017 Academy Award nominated films, ranked for your amusement:

1. O.J.: Made in America
2. Silence
3. Moonlight
4. Fences
5. The Lobster
6. Land of Mine
7. Moana
8. Jackie
9. I Am Not Your Negro
10. 13th
11. Loving
12. Fire at Sea
13. 4.1 Miles
14. The Salesman
15. La La Land
16. Lion
17. Hell of High Water
18. Toni Erdmann
19. Sing
20. The White Helmets
21. Elle
22. 20th Century Women
23. Arrival
24. Piper
25. Watani: My Homeland
26. Hidden Figures
27. The Jungle Book
28. Manchester by the Sea
29. My Life as a Zucchini
30. Timecode
31. Hacksaw Ridge
32. Zootopia
33. Sully
34. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
35. La Femme et le TGV
36. Joe’s Violin
37. Deepwater Horizon
38. Tanna
39. A Man Called Ove
40. Kubo and the Two Strings
41. Borrowed Time
42. Life, Animated
43. Nocturnal Animals
44. The Red Turtle
45. Hail, Caesar!
46. Extremis
47. Doctor Strange
48. Pearl
49. Ennemis Intérieurs
50. Jim: The James Foley Story
51. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
52. Pear Cider and CIgarettes
53. Silent Nights
54. Allied
55. Blind Vaysha
56. Florence Foster Jenkins
57. Captain Fantastic
58. Star Trek Beyond
59. Trolls
60. Passengers
61. Suicide Squad
62. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Friday, February 24, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Picture

Writer-director Barry Jenkins' masterful Moonlight is among the nine nominees this year for Best Picture.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Picture

The nominees are:

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

It has been a few years now since a movie ran away from the pack. Last year, it felt like any of four films could have been called out for the top award. Before that, Birdman and Boyhood battled it out for the big prize, and 12 Years a Slave and Gravity the year before. You have to look back to Argo in 2012 for the last time a film gobbled up everything on its way to the big win at the Oscars. Jack Nicholson and Michelle Obama presented that award. Can you imagine such a thing now? Damn it, it has only been a month, and it seems so long ago that hope mattered or was even possible.

We have talked in this series about the new president and his administration and how these awards reflect a cultural backlash against our just-beginning national nightmare. It is no coincidence we see films nominated like Iranian master Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and shorts like The White Helmets, Watani: My Homeland, 4.1 Miles, and Ennemis Intérieurs. All of these films directly confront the most pressing issues of the day.

I have every hope the winners of Academy Awards on Sunday will use the platform of the ceremony to speak out, to protest, and to sound a rallying cry to the rest of us. There is no doubt the administration and its supporters, in an attempt to stoke class divisions and nurture their beloved us-vs.-them mentality, will point to this as yet another example of Hollywood elitism. I prefer to think of the Academy as speaking for the majority of Americans, who do not support the hate, racism, sexism, bigotry, and ignorance spewing from and encouraged by the White House.

The Academy Awards are a big, fancy-dress ball being held at a time when it almost does not seem worth it to get out of bed in the morning. It has been hard all season to look forward to Sunday evening with any real joy or anticipation. Political events seemed to have sucked the very idea of joy out of our national consciousness. So, I understand if some people do not want to watch (mostly) rich people get dressed up and award each other gold statues, but I would also argue it means more than that.

Th nine Best Picture nominees listed above and discussed below are about us and how we feel right now in this place and time. Some of us want escape, some want confrontation, some need inspiration, and others just need to see themselves reflected in a world turned upside down. Roger Ebert, that greatest of all film writers, once said: “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” If ever there were a time we needed that machine, it is now.

La La Land (directed by Damien Chazelle) – As an Oscar contender, there is nothing that compares to La La Land in the history of the Academy. It is just the third film in 89 years of ceremonies to garner 14 nominations. The first to do so was All About Eve in 1950. While both films are ostensibly show-business films, All About Eve is a dark, cynical satire, while Chazelle’s film is an earnest paean to the magic of art. The other film with 14 nominations is Titanic, which like La La Land is a romance, but let’s not compare the scale of the two. No one need be reminded of the epic nature of James Cameron’s historical fiction, and by comparison, the Hollywood musical seems small.

Chazelle’s film, then, is in a class by itself. It has pulled away from everything else in such an historic manner, I would not be surprised to see it break the record for Oscar wins, shared at 11 by Ben-Hur, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. La La Land is double nominated in Best Original Song, so there is one it cannot win, except in the unlikely event of a tie. Ryan Gosling is not among the frontrunners for Best Actor, so there are two. That leaves 12 and the record within reach.

Here are the Awards we can be nearly certain of: Picture, Director, Actress, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Original Song, Original Score, and Sound Mixing. That’s nine, which would be an impressive haul and the most since The Return of the King in 2003. Editing and Sound Editing are a toss-up between La La Land and Hacksaw Ridge, while Original Screenplay is between this and Manchester by the Sea, and that is all that stands between Chazelle and history.

The question lingers: Why? Why this film? Why now? A starry-eyed musical romance about two dreamers following their lives’ passions – how does this speak to us today? Well, it is an escape into a fantasy land of hope and optimism, two hours during which you can sink into your chair, click your heels, and be whisked away into another world entirely, a happier world. It is natural, in times such as these, to need such an escape.

I have felt every day since the election: ‘Just bring me another drink, in bed; no worries, I’ll pull the covers back over my head myself.’ I do not suppose I am the only one. La La Land is the briefest of respites from the national depression. It is also a marvelously realized film, and whatever minor flaws it has are covered by its audacity and unbridled enthusiasm.  With it, Chazelle takes his place as one of the modern visionaries of cinema.

Moonlight (directed by Barry Jenkins) – There are a couple films here with an outside shot of upsetting the apple cart, and we will discuss those in a moment, but the only film with a reasonable chance of toppling La La Land is Moonlight. It is the critical favorite by a wide margin. It is second in nominations total behind La La Land, tied with Arrival at eight. More than any of that, though, and what will linger long after the awards have been handed out, it is a uniquely artistic, gorgeously rendered examination of a life. Talk about a machine that generates empathy.

As the film opens, Little (Alex R. Hibbert) could be any of us. He is a small, shy, sensitive boy being bullied for who he is. He meets his mentor, Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer but a kind man. He grows and becomes Chiron (Ashton Sanders), who is not yet comfortable in his own skin and has difficulty adjusting to the emotional and physical upheaval of adolescence. Finally, he is Black (Trevante Rhodes), a man who embodies all of that – the shy boy, the angry teen, the kind mentor – but still has little idea who he truly wants to be.

Moonlight is glorious because it charts the path of a life that could be any life, but in its specifics and details, it opens a door and invites us to step into this life, which we perhaps only understood intellectually. Jenkins helps us understand emotionally. At the margins of this society are people with the same hopes, fears, dreams, and aspirations as everyone else, but because opportunity never knocked on their doors, their lives took a different path. Most of us will never walk a mile in those shoes, but Moonlight shows us what it is like to lace them up.

Hidden Figures (directed by Theodore Melfi) – Every year, there is a popular favorite, a movie everybody saw and everyone liked and everyone thinks should win Best Picture. Call it the People’s Choice. In the recent past, that would have referred to movies like The Martian, American Sniper, and Gravity. These movies are usually well made, conventional but with an arty pedigree, and huge hits at the box office. Enter Hidden Figures, a well-made flick that feels conventional but has a degree of artiness and is the highest grossing of these nine nominees.

USA Today conducted a recent poll, in conjunction with Fandango, asking 8,000 movie-goers – a sample size a little larger than the Academy – what should win Best Picture. Hidden Figures led with 26 percent of the vote, followed closely by La La Land. Now, 26 percent will get you nowhere on a preferential ballot, which requires 50 percent plus one vote to win, but it is still informative. In a group that contains several crowd-pleasing entertainments, Melfi’s film is the one that pleased the crowd most. That it happens to be about three smart, black women is a wonderful bonus.

Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) are American heroes for what they accomplished, yes, but more for how they accomplished it. To be black in this country has never been easy, and to be a woman in this country has never been easy, and black women have had perhaps the toughest time of anyone. The story of these brilliant people and their work at NASA is inspiring, the script is witty, and the performances are superb, but what matters most is if one more young, black girl – hopefully many more – decides to pursue a career in science or mathematics. That is what we mean when we talk about the power of these movies.

Manchester by the Sea (directed by Kenneth Lonergan) – There is no formula for winning Best Picture or making the kind of movie that will even be nominated. The more cynical among the film commentariat will sometimes see a log line or cast list and declare a film signed, sealed, and delivered for the Academy. Often as not, they are wrong. Speaking in the most general terms, a film needs one of two things to win Best Picture: wow factor or importance. If a film features both, so much the better. The last three Best Picture winners could not be more dissimilar, but they all had one or the other – Spotlight (importance), Birdman (wow factor), and 12 Years a Slave (both).

I mention all of this because Manchester by the Sea was tabbed as an early favorite for the top prize based on the critical response, which was breathless, and its cast and performances, which are universally superb. While it has found love in the nominations process everywhere, it has not caught on anywhere but for lead actor Casey Affleck, though even he is battling off a late charge by Denzel Washington. The reason, it seems to me, is that it lacks either the wow factor of some of these contenders, such as La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge, or Arrival, or the importance of films like Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and even Hell or High Water.

None of this is to say Manchester by the Sea is not a wonderful film, which it is, nor that it failed to accomplish what it sets out to accomplish, which I believe it does. Lonergan’s script is a remarkable achievement of character development, emotional resonance, and quiet humor, and he very well could win an Oscar for it. The work by Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, and the rest of the cast is outstanding. However, next to the frontrunners, and indeed some of the films ostensibly trailing it, Manchester by the Sea lacks that essential element that would drive Academy members to vote for it.

Hacksaw Ridge (directed by Mel Gibson) – The Oscar story of Hacksaw Ridge is the story of Gibson’s return to the good graces of the Academy. The film, Gibson’s first as director since Apocalypto in 2006, premiered out of competition at the Venice Film Festival and received a 10-minute standing ovation. Its adequate, if not stellar, domestic box-office numbers are mitigated by a solid overseas haul, and the capper came nominations morning with six nods, including Best Picture. Mel Gibson, at least for now, is fully back. We talked a lot about the ethical quandary of that in discussing Best Director, so I will not rehash it here. The work stands alone.

And what beautiful work. Gibson’s credentials as a filmmaker have never been in doubt, and his twin Oscars for directing and producing Braveheart are hard-won, if not necessarily the choices I would have made. What he has needed – what all directors need – has been a story worthy of his gifts. He finds it in the true-life tale of Desmond Doss, a Quaker and conscientious objector during World War II who nonetheless joins the U.S. Army in an effort to preserve as much life on the battlefield as he can while refusing to take a life or even to carry a gun.

For a film that is ostensibly about the virtue of nonviolence, Gibson packs a hell of a lot of blood and guts into his picture, but at no point does he fall into the trap of making war look pretty or poetic. It is gritty, grimy, gross business, and the film depicts the honest darkness with a refreshing lack of sentiment. This is the big action star and action filmmaker in Gibson putting his talents to use in service of a cause larger than mere thrills or entertainment. Hacksaw Ridge uses its trappings as a brutally gory war flick to hide its true nature, that of a grand, glorious anti-war statement.

Arrival (directed by Denis Villeneuve) – Speaking of films that hide their true nature, anyone walking into Arrival expecting to see a traditional alien-invasion movie, with all the attendant firepower and destruction, left sorely disappointed. That is, unless they were able to give themselves over to one of cinema’s truly unique experiences this year – an elliptically told story about the power of words and virtue of patience that ultimately speaks volumes about the world in which we live.

The short story on which the film was based – “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang – was published in 1998, nearly 20 years ago, but its themes and ideas grow more relevant with each passing day. It is a story of communication, of seeing the world through eyes that are not your own, and of accepting that our lives and views are not so big in the grand scheme of things. In a world of radical self-importance and nihilistic individuality, this is perhaps not the message most want to receive, but it is the message we all most need.

Villeneuve’s direction, Amy Adams’ central performance, and the script by Eric Heisserer combine to make sense of a story that by design, has no beginning or end. Events occur, or have occurred, or will occur, seemingly at random, but as the pieces fall together, we get closer to understanding what it all means and how it all fits. This is the character’s journey as well, slowly, methodically coming to understand the whys of the world around her and finally coming to grips with that understanding.

Lion (directed by Garth Davis) – Some movies sneak up on you. You are not prepared for their depth or beauty. You cannot conceive of their brilliance until you are awash in it. I did not expect much from Lion. I had heard all the rave reviews, but most described it as a sort of weepy, which to me suggested it would be emotionally manipulative in some way, that it would not play fair with our hearts and minds. Its trailers did it no favors in selling it as just that kind of film. I went in with decidedly lowered expectations. How wrong I was to have doubted.

Davis’ film is anything but the generic, based-on-a-bestseller melodrama I so dreaded. It is a contemplative, quietly moving, deeply affecting look at the inner turmoil and emotional upheaval of a person whose life is split in two and who cannot move forward until the pieces are put back together. In addition to the remarkable, heart-on-its-sleeve story, the artistry put on display by first-time feature director Davis is positively splendid. The director daringly transitions from a neo-realist, nearly silent opening half into a more dreamlike, surreal second half that blends memory and reality, sensation and absence into a whirlwind of competing emotions that perfectly mirrors the main character’s headspace.

Lion is one of those rare pleasant surprises at the movies. I see enough and read enough that I know what to expect when I buy my ticket and take my seat – most of the time. When a movie comes along like Lion, though, and from the first frame to the last simply bowls me over with its intelligence, its grace, and its beauty, I can do nothing but marvel and appreciate that I have had an experience that does not come around very often.

Hell or High Water (directed by David Mackenzie) – I have a little game I play every year, like a thought experiment, in which I try to guess which Best Picture nominees my dad would enjoy most. I learned my love of film from my father, then as I grew older, I grew a different appreciation for the art of cinema from the one I knew as a child renting VHS tapes from the video store across the street. Suffice to say, my father’s and my taste have diverged.

While there are few films he enjoys that I do not – apart from a few tiresome comedies, which I would not begrudge anyone – I feel certain most of my favorite films would not appeal to him. This does not bother me and is perfectly normal, but when I find a movie I know my father will love, I get excited. It is fun to show something to the man who showed me everything when I was growing up. All of this is a long way of saying Hell or High Water is the kind of rollicking, adventure thriller that will appeal to anyone with an appreciation of cinema or anyone who just wants to have a good damn time.

The magnificence of Mackenzie’s film, written by Taylor Sheridan, lies in its ability to be two things at once. It is a whip-smart, down-home thriller about a couple good ol’ boys on the run from the law and the lawman chasing after them. However, it is also an earnest condemnation of the big-business world and the politics of money that have depressed entire regions of this nation, destroying livelihoods and wrecking futures for generations to come. So few movies can be all things to all people, but Hell or High Water succeeds in entertaining and informing in a way of which I think my dad would approve.

Fences (directed by Denzel Washington) – In just the past two months, I have written thousands of words about the greatness of Fences – its performances, its direction, and above all its writing. There is not much more I can do to convince the unconvinced, to interest the disinterested. I simply sit and wonder how anyone could not be shaken to the bone, moved to their very core, by the story of Troy Maxson (Washington), his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), their son, Corey (Jovan Adepo), Troy’s first son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), and his friend Bono (Stephen Henderson).

Playwright August Wilson’s masterpiece is about these people and the way they live. It is about how they communicate, how they interact with the world, how the world treats them. It is about the ways they wrong each other, care for each other, love each other, and find equal amounts of joy and sorrow in one another. No work of American literature has better captured or better expressed the basic humanness of us all. It is not a blueprint for how to live our lives but a blueprint for how we have already lived. Wilson writes as if he knows who we are, what we have done, and what we will do. He writes this way because he knows all of this of the Maxsons, who stand for every one of us and yet stand alone.

The play, as Wilson’s only true peer Shakespeare once wrote, is the thing. Every bit of brilliance in Fences stems from the words on the page. But Washington’s task does not end there. He is the first director to bring a work by Wilson to the big screen, and his responsibility in so doing is immense. Of course, lest we forget, this is Denzel Washington, one of the great talents of our time, and he lives up to every responsibility he has to the text. He mounts the picture marvelously, performs in it incomparably, and directs it admirably. We are lucky, now, to live in a world where such greatness was captured, even for an instant.

The final analysis

There are certain years in Academy history that stand out for their Best Picture lineups. The first, and most often cited as the greatest year in film history, let alone Academy history, is 1939, when nominated for Best Picture were winner Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights, among others.

Another is 1967, 50 years ago now, and as is my understanding the subject of one of those strange, themed Academy Awards ceremony tributes that honor films that came out in the anniversary of the ceremony year, not the year of the films being celebrated. For instance, the ceremony of 50 years ago, honored the films of 1966, much as this one celebrates the achievements of 2016. I digress. In 1967, the nominees were winner In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and Doctor Doolittle.

Less often spoken of but to my mind no less miraculous is 1976, when the nominees were winner Rocky, Taxi Driver, Network, All the President’s Men, and Bound for Glory. It has been a while since we have had a year of such vintage, though I would argue 2005, which honored Crash alongside Capote, Goodnight and Good Luck, Brokeback Mountain, and Munich, belongs in the conversation.

La La Land will win Best Picture this year. It will probably sweep the awards in a possibly record-setting fashion. It will do so, however, at the head of a class of nominees that deserves a place on that illustrious list of best years in Academy history. Moonlight and Fences belong to the ages. La La Land is an invigorating, admirable champion from an exciting, young visionary director, and it will be looked back upon fondly.

The other six nominees are all glorious achievements and a year featuring any one of them could not have been a bad year for the movies. These nine films speak to who we are today, the people we were yesterday, and the people we could be tomorrow. Their individual accomplishments are many, but taken together, it is one of the greatest groups the Academy has ever produced, and years from now, generations yet to be born will look back on these films and know something good came from the mess we made of this world. If we cannot say the same about the society we have fostered, at least we do not have to be embarrassed of its cinema.

Will win: La La Land
Should win: Moonlight
Should have been here: O.J.: Made in America

This weekend: I will have up a couple more fun items tomorrow and Sunday morning, including a ranking of all 62 nominated films, so be sure to check back for that, and then, at long last, the big show arrives.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Actor

Casey Affleck is nominated for Best Actor for his role in Manchester by the Sea.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Actor

The nominees are:

Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling for La La Land
Viggo Mortenson for Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington for Fences

In the past three years, 12 of the 15 Best Actor nominees have been for characters based on real people. Each of the last four winners has played an historical figure. Some assumptions about the Academy’s tastes are demonstrably false and used only as a satirical baton to swing at the organization. However, in this realm, the cliché has absolutely been true. This year, however, expect the Academy to break free from the mold.

In some ways, voters already have by nominating four performances that portray fictional characters. The frontrunners sprang entirely from the minds of two of America’s preeminent playwrights. Real or imagined, though, every one of these characters is brought to vibrant life by the five nominated actors. They are war heroes and everyday heroes, artists and philosophers, fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons. For everything else they are, fictional or not, they are deeply moving portraits of the human experience.

Denzel Washington for Fences – I am already well on the record as calling Fences one of the best films of the year, the play one of the best things ever written, and Washington’s performance the single best of 2016. Mick LaSalle, film reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, called it one of the best self-directed performances of all time, and I would certainly put it up there with Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, Laurence Olivier in Hamlet, and Charlie Chaplin in City Lights.

While I would not quite place Washington on the same level as those directors, it is time, if we have not already, to start calling him one of the greatest actors of all time. If this sounds to you like hyperbole, consider the facts, which are titled: A Soldier’s Story, Glory, Cry Freedom, Malcolm X, Philadelphia, Crimson Tide, Training Day, American Gangster, Flight, and Fences. Put those 10 performances up against 10 performances on any other actor’s résumé in this era or any other. You will not find many comparable.

Troy Maxson is a perfect character for Washington, and the actor never missteps in bringing one of August Wilson’s greatest creations to life. He is a bitter, broken down old drunk who holds a grudge for the failings of a racist nation, but he is also a hard-working man who deserved a better hand in life than the one he was dealt. About that much he is correct, but the way he allows his resentment to curdle is what makes him the man he becomes. In a career of great roles, Washington has never had one like the retired baseball player turned garbage man Troy. It is a perfect performance that belongs in the history books of cinema.

Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea – By my estimation, Affleck should already be an Oscar winner for his nominated work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That was the first time I really remember seeing him deliver the kind of insightful, contemplative work that has come to define his career. Since then, I have followed everything he has done, and he has never been anything less than stupendous in movies such as The Killer Inside Me, Gone Baby Gone, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and Out of the Furnace. Manchester by the Sea is not Affleck’s greatest performance, but it is of a piece with the great work he turns in consistently.

He portrays Lee Chandler as a tower of grief just waiting to implode. Lee has done his best to hide himself away from the pain and anguish of his past only to have it brought into full view by the death of his brother. As much as he wants to be a stronger person, more resilient, more capable of confronting the deep sorrow he has experienced, the despair is often too much for him to take. The beauty of Affleck’s performance is in the way he portrays grief, not as an expressive burst of roiling emotions but as a chilling numbness. It is too much to feel, so he feels nothing.

Two days ago, we spoke in depth about the trespasses of Hacksaw Ridge director Mel Gibson, and it would be disingenuous not now to mention the allegations of sexual harassment leveled against Affleck by the female crew members of films he has worked on. If the allegations are true – and I think we owe it to the potential victims of harassment to believe them first – then Affleck’s actions are despicable and indefensible. If true, it means Affleck has been an amazing performer in his career, but he has not been even a passable citizen. I do not believe these allegations will have any bearing on the Oscars, but hopefully, a conversation can begin in the industry to address these very important, very real concerns.

Andrew Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge – For my money, Garfield is nominated here for the wrong performance this year, not because he is not excellent in Hacksaw Ridge but because his work in Martin Scorsese’s Silence is the more nuanced, all-encompassing performance. The role of Desmond Doss has only one mode through most of Hacksaw Ridge, quiet heroism, and Garfield plays it for everything it is worth. In Silence, Garfield is able to portray a much wider range of experiences and emotions, but Scorsese’s film was underappreciated by the Academy, while Hacksaw Ridge caught on. Such is the way it goes sometimes.

Garfield is a magnificent young performer who burst onto the scene in David Fincher’s The Social Network but quickly thereafter became mired in superhero land, playing Spider-man in a pair of not highly regarded films. One hates to say it, but the failure of the Spider-man reboot was probably the best thing that could have happened to Garfield. Since his last time portraying the web-slinging crime fighter, Garfield has appeared in three remarkable films (99 Homes, Hacksaw Ridge, and Silence) and delivered three remarkable performances of great depth and understanding.

He portrays Desmond as quiet, solemn, and devoted. He wishes to serve his country’s military during World War II because he believes he has a moral obligation to do so, but he refuses to kill or even carry a weapon, also in keeping with his moral obligations. When the film hits the battlefield, Garfield’s performance turns wondrously physical as we watch Desmond endure the bodily torment and emotional exhaustion of the war. Regardless of what film Garfield should have been nominated for, his status as an Oscar nominee is unimpeachable, and I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Ryan Gosling for La La Land – I think Gosling is wonderful actor, but I also think sometimes performers get swept up in the Academy love for their films and land nominations that otherwise would have seemed unlikely. Gosling’s performance in La La Land is not among the five best lead actor performances of the year, not while work by the likes of Colin Farrell (The Lobster), Michael Fassbender (The Light Between Oceans), Peter Simonischek (Toni Erdmann), and David Johns (I, Daniel Blake) is out there. This is not meant as a knock on Gosling but more on the Academy.

As jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder, who dreams of opening his own music club someday, Gosling nails the smugness he has in previous efforts while providing just enough softness to make the audience root for this guy. He is fantastic musician, but when we meet him, he refuses to budge even an inch on his artistry, even if to do so would allow him to pay his bills. Many of us have known people like this, and certainly members of the Academy have – or they have been people like this.

Gosling, who is a weaker singer than co-star Emma Stone, excels at playing the film’s romantic elements, deploying his weathered charm and delightful excitability to great effect. However, because the movie revolves around Stone’s character, Gosling is used more like a plot device. Of course, leading women have been playing plot devices in male-driven films for 120 years, but it still leaves Gosling with little to play and little depth to explore. Gosling, who was previously nominated in 2006 for Half-Nelson, will almost certainly return to the show again soon with a performance more indicative of his many talents.

Viggo Mortenson for Captain Fantastic – As a person who tends to see everything, or at least as much of everything as I can, I hesitate to say I studiously avoided this movie. Even in the trailers, its tone felt off, its story treading familiar territory in a manner I would find irksome. For this piece, though, I watched it, and I can say, now having seen it, I found it worse than irksome. It is condescending, mean-spirited, and self-satisfied. The plot is inert and the story structure inept. I found it offensive on every possible level – human, artistic, political, cultural, etc.

Mortenson plays Ben Cash, the leader of a cult – sorry, father of a family – that lives outside of society in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. They read books by firelight and kill deer with their bare hands. They self-righteously declaim American society while doing nothing to change what they correctly identify as systemic inequality and the corrupting influence of big business. Instead, they stand apart from it, above it, looking down on everyone else, identifying problems without offering solutions, which is the worst kind of moral superiority.

Is Mortenson good in the role? Sure, he is fine. Previously nominated for his role as a Russian gangster in Eastern Promises, Mortenson brings to the role the right combination of end-times survivalist crazy and university lit professor sanctimony. Like the film in which he appears, the character is mostly insufferable, but that has nothing to do with Mortenson’s performance and everything to do with writer-director Matt Ross’ script. Ben is also dealing with the death of his wife and the possibility his children will be taken away from him. In these rare human moments, when Ben is more than just a sketch of a person, Mortenson shines.

The final analysis

I want to believe Washington will win this award, and his triumph with the Screen Actors Guild offers some hope. However, that is not the way the season has looked like it would go. Affleck was the critical darling. He beat Washington to the Golden Globe and won the BAFTA, where Washington was not nominated. Washington is also a two-time winner already, while Affleck’s consistent brilliance is of the kind the Academy likes to reward when a performance such as this comes along. I will root for Washington, but Affleck’s win will not be undeserving.

Will win: Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
Should win: Denzel Washington for Fences
Should have been here: Colin Farrell for The Lobster

Tomorrow: Best Picture

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Actress

Emma Stone is nominated for Best Actress for her role as Mia Dolan in La La Land.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Actress

The nominees are:

Isabelle Huppert for Elle
Ruth Negga for Loving
Natalie Portman for Jackie
Emma Stone for La La Land
Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins

One woman wants to act, and another just to sing. One is burdened by the shattered dreams of a nation, while another is held down by that nation’s history of prejudice and injustice. Another seeks to explore her deeper self after a brutal act uncovers hidden desires she never knew. In a Hollywood system that often marginalizes women and trivializes their stories and experiences, it is refreshing to celebrate a list of films that put their female performances front and center. 

Among this group are five wonderful performers all at different stages in their careers. Streep is of course a living legend with three Oscars to her name and an inspiration to anyone who dreams of acting. Portman is the Oscar winner and former child star who has grown up before our eyes and now delivers the performance of her career in the role of a lifetime.

Huppert and Negga are both first-time nominees, but while Huppert is already a goddess of world cinema, Negga is only now beginning to garner the recognition she deserves. Finally, there is the ingénue, Stone, who is just 28 but made her feature film debut a decade ago and has an Oscar nod under her belt already. It is a remarkable group, among the best the Academy has ever put together, and the only shame is that one must be declared the winner above the others.

Emma Stone for La La Land – For whatever else the Academy looks for in performances, members really love to see themselves on screen, or rather, their ideal selves. The character of actress Mia Dolan is nothing if not an actor’s ideal self. She is young, pretty, talented, motivated, and devoted. She dreams big and chases those dreams with the kind of tenacity we all wish we possessed. She tries and fails, tries and fails, and tries again because for her, there is little else but the dream.

How perfect then that the character is portrayed by Stone, who is about as close to those ideals as a real person could comfortably come. She has been magnificent before in films like Irrational Man or Birdman, for which she received her first nomination, but this is a more challenging and abstract role than she has ever been asked to play. In many ways, Mia is hope come to life, optimism incarnate. Her experience is what we imagine it is like to dream so big. We know it cannot be easy, or always fun or rewarding, but if we dream for the right reasons, then we do so because it is necessary.

Stone is tasked with portraying all of this, and while the ups and downs of being an actor must be very close to her heart, she must also be all things to all people in this role. She is not only what we think of the character but what we think of ourselves. It is truly an unfair burden to place on a performer, to ask that she embody the character and the audience, but Stone is up to the task. She encounters hope and despair; she loves, and she loses; she laughs, and she cries; she sings, and she dances; but most of all, she dreams.

Natalie Portman for Jackie – As an actress portraying a woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders, Portman carries the weight of history on hers. There is no easy way to step into the shoes of one of the 20th century’s most famous and influential figures. It requires the actor to disappear, as all great performances do, but it also requires the subject to emerge. It is not enough for the actor to hide behind a costume or an accent or a physicality. Oh, all of these are parts of the performance, but it takes a special act to embody the full nature of someone like Jacqueline Kennedy. If there is one thing Portman is and always has been as a performer, it is special.

I have written at length about Portman’s performance, which is one of the great screen portrayals of a historical figure. I will not go on much here, then, except to say that for an hour and 40 minutes, Jackie becomes a living, breathing person again, and that is all thanks to Portman’s performance. This is not some dryly historical interpretation of a famous person but rather a complete abstraction, as Portman removes the associations and clichés and cultural baggage, beginning anew with the raw portrait of a grieving woman who summons the strength to persevere and to thrive.

Portman earned her first Oscar nomination in 2004 at the age of 23 for Closer, but she was thereafter mostly associated either with her role in the Star Wars prequels or as cinema’s preeminent manic pixie dream girl in Garden State. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2010 for Black Swan and has remained mostly out of the public eye since, apart from a few choice roles and her supporting appearances in Marvel’s blockbuster Thor movies. Jackie, then, marks a triumphant return to the Oscars for Portman and serves as a reminder she is one of the most talented performers working today.

Isabelle Huppert for Elle – Some nominations inspire spontaneous cheers in my home when they are announced, like Charlotte Rampling last year for Best Actress for 45 YearsInherent Vice for Best Costumes, In Bruges for Best Original Screenplay, and so on. Add Huppert to that list. For all the complaints – an annual tradition around the Oscars – about the Academy not casting a wide enough net and failing to look outside a certain subset of films, nominations like this serve as proof of the Academy’s willingness to reward brilliant work, no matter where it must be found.

Huppert’s work in Elle is undeniably brilliant. It is also brave, dangerous, and compelling. Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc. When the film opens, Michèle is brutally attacked and raped by a masked intruder in her home, but Huppert never portrays the character as a victim. She is the master of her fate, taking control of a situation that would be permanently scarring for most. This is an attitude she carries in both her personal and professional life, and in her uncomfortable interactions even with friends and family, Huppert shows us how difficult it must be to be this person all the time.

Director Paul Verhoeven’s film gives the character license to be mean, to be angry, to be petty, and Huppert seizes that license and runs with it. Huppert plays Michèle like a woman ready to chew up anything and anyone in her path, despite dealing with the aftereffects of her attack, which are not what the audience expects nor what Michèle likely imagined. It is a supremely confident, consistently surprising performance from one of the best actresses of her generation.

Ruth Negga for Loving – How wonderful would it be to live in a world where such stories needed no telling because such atrocities never occurred? What a beautiful dream that is. The truth, however, cannot be denied that at one time in this country, marriage between people of different races was outlawed. The dastardly things this says about the nation are too many to count. Mildred Loving never wanted to make history by ending this hideous practice. She just wanted to marry the man she loved and live in the state she chose.

Negga’s performance beautifully captures the irony that one need not be a radical person to change the world when simply living your life is a radical act. Negga’s work is more subdued and unassuming than her nominated peers, but it is no less powerful. Mildred is not a meek figure but rather quiet and resolute, which is how Negga portrays her. She knows what she wants, and with righteousness on her side, she sees a path to attain it. These stories need telling because these atrocities occurred, but how wonderful it is that people like Mildred Loving exist to stand up and declare what is right when so many others were so afraid.

The Ethiopian-born, Irish-raised Negga is a celebrated stage actress and is a prominent performer on UK television, and while she has cropped up in films like World War Z and Warcraft, she is probably best known to American audiences for her role on the TV show Preacher. It is my sincere hope this recognition and this performance allow her to scale the highest peaks of the industry and bring her the kind of prominence she deserves.

Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins – Sitting on the coffee table in front of me as I type this is the latest book on Streep, covering her early years in Hollywood. Written by Michael Schulman, it is aptly, and cheekily, called Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep. In accepting her Best Actress Oscar for 2011’s The Iron Lady, her third Academy Award, Streep mused half of America must be thinking, “Oh, no. Her. Again.” Whether that assessment was correct then, America has had many more chances to think such things with Streep picking up another three nominations since, including this one. That brings her record total to a nice, round 20.

It becomes easier with each one to dismiss the work. Streep is something of a Hollywood institution and an Academy Awards fixture. Since her first nomination – in 1978 for The Deer Hunter – there have been more years in which she has been nominated than in which she has not. On its face, that seems absurd, and I am sure we will get all the familiar jokes about it at this year’s ceremony. The fact is sometimes the Academy really does seem to nominate her just for doing work and being Meryl Streep, as I complained on this site two years ago. Happily, I can report this is not a case such as that.

Now, Florence Foster Jenkins is by no means a good movie, nor is it worthy of the performance Streep delivers in the title role. Florence is a wealthy music patron with dreams of singing opera. She has no vocal ability to speak of but uses her money and influence to give performances to her friends and hangers-on. If you will pardon the expression, Streep gives a full-throated performance here, diving into Florence’s character as a woman who lacks talent but is gifted with deep wells of breathless enthusiasm and confidence. The movie’s message is objectionable – it wants to say, “Pursue your dreams no matter what,” but instead says, “Rich white people can have anything they want.” However, Streep’s performance is golden and this nomination hard-earned.

The final analysis

It initially seemed like this would be a competitive year in this category with Portman and Huppert earning most of the critical plaudits while Stone carried nearly every scene of the popular Best Picture frontrunner. Right around the time Huppert beat out Portman for the Golden Globe, though, Stone began building steam. She picked up her own Golden Globe, the BAFTA, and the SAG award. She will also be rewarded for providing the heart and soul of the likely Best Picture winner. Huppert could play spoiler, but expect this to be Stone’s night.

Will win: Emma Stone for La La Land
Should win: Natalie Portman for Jackie
Should have been here: Viola Davis for Fences

Tomorrow: Best Actor