Thursday, February 23, 2017

Audacious Oscar picks and predictions 2017

Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood, and there hasn't been a film so in love with Los Angeles and filmmaking as "La La Land" in a long, long time.

At a time when many in show business and journalism are feeling threatened by the political establishment, I think that will be reflected in what Academy voters pick for his year's Oscar winners. They'll go for joy and light over dourness and darkness.

Expect lots of anti-POTUS speeches, no matter who does win.

The end result is "La La Land" appears poised for a runaway night, at a time the Academy Awards are expected be more diverse than ever. Most of the preliminary awards have gone its way, including the Producer's Guild of America and the Director's Guild of America, which are pretty predictive. Interestingly, "Hidden Figures" took the best feature prize in the Screen Actors Guild awards, and actors represent the largest voting bloc in the Academy.

I had presumed that "Moonlight" and, to a lesser extent, "Manchester by the Sea" were the other two main contenders. If there is a surprise Best Picture winner, I now think it'll be "Figures."

Also, make sure to go check out my podcast with Ed Johnson-Ott on this year's Oscar race.

I thought 2016 was a very good year in cinema. Not as outstanding as 2015, which I still contend will go down as one of the all-time greats. Still, I gave out my top score -- 5 Yaps, 4 stars or an "A," depending on where the review was appearing -- to five feature films. I usually have one or two, and I've had many a year where I awarded it to none.

I made a concerted effort to see all 64 films nominated for an Oscar this year. It's harder than it sounds (or should be), especially for documentaries and foreign language films. I'm down to just one, the animated feature "My Life is a Zucchini," though I hope to rectify that by the time this posts.

 OK, enough chatter. Let's get down to the picks and predictions. As always, not only will I tell you who think will win and who should win, I'll gleefully toss out some of the nominees in favor of more deserving ones, in the hallowed tradition I call the "Chris Cross."

Best Picture

It seems I already hashed out most of the intrigue in the Best Picture race above. (Note to self: Keep introductions shorter.)

 I liked "La La Land," "Moonlight," "Hidden Figures" and "Lion" -- they're all fine films with noble efforts behind them. I just don't think any of them are Best Picture material, let alone a runaway favorite like "La La Land."

As I wrote about it when it came out, it's kind of adorable but kind of inconsequential. I much preferred Damien Chazelle's previous feature, "Whiplash." But it has the benefit of being a movie to which no one objects.

"Moonlight" had an interesting three-act structure that got less interesting to me with each time lapse. "Hidden Figures" is a standard feel-good historical drama that hits its notes 1-2-3. "Lion" is an amazing true story that plays out like Dev Patel is showcasing Google Earth.

My favorite of the year is well known. "Hell or High Water" was the best film I saw last year, a new/old Western that took a lot of familiar material and made it seem vibrant and alive. The shunning of "The Birth of a Nation" based on the filmmaker's adjudicated innocence of rape charges while in college is a travesty that rivals last year's #OscarsSoWhite protests.  

Will Win: "La La Land"
Should Win: "Hell or High Water"  
Chris Cross: "The Birth of a Nation," "Everybody Wants Some!!," "A Monster Calls" and "Sing Street" replace "La La Land," "Moonlight," "Hidden Figures" and "Lion."


Chazelle has this one pretty well wrapped up. He's won every preliminary award that I'm aware of, and most of the critic groups, too. And it is a very well-directed film -- the compositions, the story structure, the performances all seem to flow from one filmmaker's vision.

For a musical, I think the music is pretty take-it-or-leave-it. Neither Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone can sing very well, even with the help of selective editing of many recording takes. Just don't have the pipes.

The surprise nominee here is Mel Gibson for "Hacksaw Ridge," the culmination of a career rehabilitation not many would have bet on just a few short years ago.

The obvious omission here is David Mackenzie for "Hell or High Water." Tough call, but I'll knock out "Arrival" for failing to engage on an emotional level. Also, Martin Scorsese gave us one of cinema's greatest contemplations on faith, but I don't think he made "Silence" for awards and kudos.

I'll give my "should win" pick to Kenneth Lonergan. "Manchester by the Sea" is a very difficult emotional thicket to wade through, to maintain an elegiac tone while also introducing surprising notes of humor.  

Will Win: Chazelle  
Should Win: Lonergan  
Chris Cross: Mackenzie and Scorsese replace
Denis Villeneuve("Arrival") and Gibson.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Academy voters have often used the screenplay category to reward a smaller film and/or an up-and-coming filmmaker. That's why I think the award will go to Barry Jenkins for "Moonlight." It tackles difficult topics of race and sexuality in a sensitive and probing way; the film's gentleness just oozes out of every pore.

"Arrival" won the WGA award in this category, so I figure it's the other top contender. For my money, I'll take August Wilson's adaptation of his own play, "Fences." I usually don't care for stage-to-screen pictures, but this one had spot-on pacing, dialogue and characterizations.

Both "Hidden Figures" and "Lion" could have been a lot less clichéd than they are. I would have loved to see nominations for "A Monster Calls" and "Deadpool."

Yes, that's right, an Oscar nomination for a screenplay based on a comic book. When it's the year's cleverest writing, you betcha.  

Will Win: Jenkins  
Should Win: Wilson  
Chris Cross: Patrick Ness, "A Monster Calls," and Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, "Deadpool" replace
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi ("Hidden Figures")and
Luke Davies ("Lion").

Writing (Original Screenplay)

This one's between "La La Land" and "Manchester by the Sea." Normally I think Oscar voters would like to honor a smaller piece of work they found ambitious, but the tidal surge for "La La Land" will change things up.

"The Lobster" was quirky for quirk's sake. I liked a lot of things about "20th Century Women," but the pieces added up to less than the sum of its parts.

I'll take "The Birth of a Nation" and "Sing Street" instead. I also really liked "Everybody Wants Some!!," but I think that film works because of its freewheeling atmosphere and truly ensemble cast rather than anything written down on a page.  

Will Win: Damien Chazelle, "La La Land."  

Should Win: Taylor Sheridan, "Hell or High Water."

Chris Cross: Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin, "The Birth of a Nation," and John Carney and Simon Carmody, "Sing Street" replace
Efthimis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos, "The Lobster,"and
Mike Mills, "20th Century Women."


Actress in a Leading Role

This one is a REAL toss-up. Early on it was shaping up as a career capper for great French star Isabelle Huppert for "Elle." The film's subject matter -- a woman who develops a relationship with her rapist -- is probably too strong for a lot of older Academy voters.

I think a lot of people will vote for Meryl Streep just because they want to see her continue her Trump feud from the biggest podium in the world. In the end, though, "Florence Foster Jenkins" is hardly one of her top performances.

My should-win pick would be Ruth Negga, who really had to carry the film "Loving" because her film counterpart is such a reserved, withdrawn guy. But she's too much of a newcomer to contend. On the flip side, Natalie Portman recently won the award and "Jackie" is not a particularly well-regarded picture.

So I'm predicting Emma Stone will win. She's a fine young actress and I'm sure the award will do a lot for her career. I don't really begrudge her.

There was a lot of talk about snubs for Amy Adams in "Arrival," but I hardly think it was her best work.

It was a terrific year for female lead performances. Usually there's a filler or two in this category, but there are many others you could have pointed to as deserving. My only regret is that Rebecca Hall didn't get more traction for her brilliant performance in "Christine," a deeply immersive portrait of a suicidal TV journalist.  

Will Win: Stone  
Should Win: Negga  
Chris Cross: Hall replaces


Actress in a Supporting Role

I'm not a fan of category-hopping, and that's exactly what Viola Davis is doing here. Her role in "Fences" is obviously a leading one. That's the way August Wilson wrote it. Indeed, when Denzel Washington and much of the same cast brought about the stage revival a few years ago, Davis was nominated for the Best Actress Tony, not Supporting.

 I don't blame Davis; it's the studio that pushed her as a supporting actress. And based on the preliminary awards, it appears the ruse will work.

I thought the best performance in this category was Naomie Harris in "Moonlight." Playing the crack-addicted mother, she gave the character such a depth of despair and resentment. And here's my favorite stat of the film year: Harris was on set for a grand total of three days. She did that. In three days.

Just amazing. Nicole Kidman was fine in "Lion" and Octavia Spencer was, too, in "Hidden Figures," but they were one- (maybe two-) note characters who represent more an ideal than a person.

Rachel Weisz gave four indelible performances in 2016: "The Light Between Oceans," "Denial," "The Lobster" and "Complete Unknown." The fact the Academy couldn't see fit to honor even one of the represents the year's truly egregious snub. So I'll give her two spots!  

Will Win: Davis  
Should Win: Harris  
Chris Cross: Felicity Jones, "A Monster Calls," Rachel Weisz, "The Light Between Oceans" and Rachel Weisz again, "The Lobster," replace
Kidman, Davisand


Actor in a Leading Role

This one had seemed to be Casey Affleck's to lose. His only real competition is Denzel Washington, who took the SAG award. Plus, it truly was the best performance by an actor this year.

Old allegations of sexual harassment have come back to haunt Affleck, so a lot or prognosticators are picking Washington. But I think Affleck will prevail.

I was glad to see Andrew Garfield get a nod for his sensitive portrayal of a deeply religious man willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for his faith in "Hacksaw Ridge" -- although he actually did a better job of doing the same thing in Martin Scorsese's criminally unseen "Silence."

 I was similarly pleased to see Viggo Mortensen receive a nod for "Captain Fantastic," a terrific little picture I'm hoping more people will seek out as a result of this accolade.

Ryan Gosling was fine, but c'mon -- this was the equivalent of seeing a pitcher's third-best pitch. Not a lot of heavy lifting there.

How about Ethan Hawke in the little-seen "Born to Be Blue"? Or Don Cheadle in "Miles Ahead"? Two great explorations of troubled jazz greats. I know that leaves me a spot shy; coin flip between Hawke and Cheadle.

 Will Win: Affleck  
Should Win: Affleck  
Chris Cross: Cheadle and Garfield for "Silence" replace
Gosling, "La La Land"and
Garfield, "Hacksaw Ridge."


Actor in a Supporting Role

This is usually one of the busiest categories. I could easily swap out this list of five actors for five more, and then go find another quintet that's deserving.

First, the bumps: Lucas Hedges had a breakout performance in "Manchester," but it was still surprising to see such a young actor get the nod over veteran performers like Ben Foster in "Hell or High Water" or Hugh Grant in "Florence Foster Jenkins."

I'd also nix Dev Patel for blatant category hopping. For cripes' sake, he's the star of the movie. His face is on all the posters. His character's name is the title. True, during the first half the character is played by another actor. But by any sane measure -- screen time, centrality to the story, lines of dialogue -- that's a leading performance.

Other potential nominees: Kevin Costner in "Hidden Figures;" Stephen Henderson, "Fences;" Tom Wilkinson or Timothy Spall from "Denial;" Aaron Taylor-Johnson, "Nocturnal Animals," etc.

 For my should-win, I'll take Michael Shannon from "Nocturnal," another twisty, edged performance from an actor who always surprises.  

Will Win: Mahershala Ali, "Moonlight" 
Should Win: Shannon  
Chris Cross: Foster and Spall for


Animated Feature

For once it appears the truly best animated feature is going to win over "whatever Disney / Pixar has nominated this year."

"Kubo and the Two Strings" was just a triumph in every way imaginable. The combination of stop-motion photography and CGI backgrounds and effects was seamless. A transporting movie that feels like an ancient Japanese parable.

I thought "Moana" was an imaginative take-off on the staid Disney princess genre, filled with wonderful music, animation, characters and themes. And turns out The Rock can sing!

"Zootopia" was good-not-great. I liked "The Red Turtle" but I think many will find it too minimalist. Still hoping to see the stop-motion "My Life as a Zucchini."

Bit of a weak year for animation. Not many saw "A Little Prince," which deserved a bigger audience.  

Will Win: "Kubo and the Two Strings"  
Should Win: "Kubo and the Two Strings"  
Chris Cross: "A Little Prince" replaces


Foreign Language Film

This category is bothersome because often the best foreign films don't even get considered for a nomination, because there are arcane rules about what movies get submitted from each country. My three favorite foreign language films this year were, in order, "Our Little Sister," "Dheepan" and "The Handmaiden," and none of them got in.

I've seen all five nominees -- and it took some doing to get a screener link for "Tanna," which is just a wonderful modern Romeo and Juliet type of story based on the experiences of a real native people. One of the flat-out most beautiful films of the year.

Of those nominated I'll pick "Land of Mine," a Dutch drama about young German soldiers (boys, really) forced to recover land mines from the beach by their captors after WWII. Great little piece of unknown history.

Predicting a winner is tough. "A Man Called Ove" is the sentimental choice. "The Salesman" might get the nod because of its Iranian origin and political climate; the filmmaker is boycotting the Oscar ceremony. Picking it would be a big statement by Academy voters.

Of those remaining, "Toni Erdmann," a weird and quirky German black comedy, has the highest profile, what with an American remake starring Kristen Wiig and Jack Nicholson just announced. So it has a shot to win.

I also liked "Neruda," a very non-traditional biopic of the writer/activist, but not enough to bump "Tanna."  

Will Win: "The Salesman"  
Should Win: "Land of Mine"  
Chris Cross: "Our Little Sister," "Dheepan" and "The Handmaiden" replace
"Toni Erdmann,""The Salesman"and
"A Man Called Ove."


Documentary Feature

A pretty good year for documentaries. Unfortunately, this list of five nominees doesn't even come close to representing the best work of 2016.

"O.J.: Made in America" seems to have this category locked up. It's a fine piece of work, though I would pick the un-nominated "Weiner" as my favorite of the year. But the simple truth is "O.J." is a television documentary miniseries. It was conceived as part of ESPN's "30 for 30" series. After nominal theatrical screenings, it aired on television over several nights -- with commercials. It was edited to include pauses for said commercials. It will be eligible for Emmy prizes next awards cycle.

In form and substance, it is indistinguishable from the work Ken Burns has been doing for decades. If this film wins an Oscar, then Burns should own at least four or five.

Of those nominated, I'll take "Life, Animated," an endearing tale of an autistic boy who learns to connect with the world through Disney animated films. It has a puncher's chance of beating "O.J."

"Fire at Sea" is an often dull look at the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean; it needed a good edit and to be a documentary short rather than a feature. "I Am Not Your Negro" is a rumination on race in America through the words of the late James Baldwin; it's solid but hardly Oscar-worthy. "13th" is a one-sided political screed that takes giant liberties with facts and history; I actually shut it off in anger at one point (though I did eventually watch the rest).

So many other good docs to choose from; I'll nix this entire list.  

Will Win: "O.J.: Made in America"  
Should Win: "Life, Animated"  
Chris Cross: "Author: the JT LeRoy Story," "The Invisible Patients," "Night School," "Weiner" and "Command and Control" replace
the entire field.


Documentary Short

First year I was able to see all of these. I was struck by how many of them, like "Fire at Sea" among the features, eschew traditional editing. There seems to be a deliberate aesthetic to embrace cinema verite style: Just let the cameras roll and let scenes run.

Problem is, many scenes don't deserve this screen time. They reach their natural point of cutting to the next informational/emotional progression, and then just... don't. The result is frustratingly paced movies sapped of strength.

Of those nominated, I'll take "Extremis," a journalistic exploration of wrenching end-of-life decisions by patients, their families and doctors. "Joe's Violin" is the sentimental pick, so it always has a chance with the Academy's large bloc of older voters.

 Three of the docs are about unrest in the Middle East and/or the resulting refugee crisis. Normally I would think that subject matter would appeal to Oscar voters, but there's a good chance they will end up splitting the vote. Of the trio, "The White Helmets" has the best shot.

Coin toss; oldsters rule.

Will Win: "Joe's Violin"  
Should Win: "Extremis"


Short Film (Animated)

This has essentially become the Disney/Pixar Award. I'm glad the animation giant uses short films to build up its younger talent, but there are a lot of other great films this year with deeper, richer themes. "Piper" has visual but not storytelling ambition.

Case in point: "Pear Cider and Cigarettes" is a masterful piece by Robert Valley based on his decades-long friendship with a troublesome character named Techno Stypes. It's visually arresting, using more of a motion-comics aesthetic than either traditional hand-drawn or computer-generated animation approaches.

 I also really liked "Pearl," a girl's reminiscence on music, her dad and his car.  

Will Win: "Piper"  
Should Win: "Pear Cider and Cigarettes"


Short Film (Live Action)

"Mindenki" ("Sing") was my favorite, a Hungarian drama about a school choir that approaches children at eye level. "Ennemis Intérieurs," a tense French film about an Arab man being interrogated for terrorist ties -- and my least favorite of the five -- will probably win.  

Will Win: "Ennemis Intérieurs"  
Should Win: "Mindenki"



Now we segue into the "minor" awards -- a term I hate but recognize. In a year where one film is seen as dominant, these other categories tend to get swept along in the stampede. It's a shame, because the Best Picture winner doesn't automatically have the best photography, or costumes, or sound, etc.

As a result, I think we're going to see a lot of the "down-list" awards go to "La La land." It is a legitimately amazing-looking film, though I'll take "Silence" for its lush Japanese compositions. The lack of a nod for "Hell or High Water" galls.  

Will Win: "La La Land"  
Should Win: "Silence"  
Chris Cross: "Hell or High Water" replaces


Costume Design

I did not like a lot of things about "Jackie," but it's the rare film where costumes are central to the story and characters. I also really liked the look of "Allied" -- I was lusting after Brad Pitt's three-piece suits.  

Will Win: "La La Land"  
Should Win: "Jackie"


Film Editing

Will Win: "La La Land"
Should Win: "Hacksaw Ridge"


Production Design

Will Win: "La La Land"  
Should Win: "La La Land"


Sound Mixing

Will Win: "La La Land"
Should Win: "Hacksaw Ridge"


Sound Editing

Will Win: "La La Land"  
Should Win: "Hacksaw Ridge"


Visual Effects

Here's one category "La La Land" can't win! Interesting to see "Kubo and the Two Strings" nominated here; you almost never see animated films get a nod in the technical categories.  

Will Win: "The Jungle Book"  
Should Win: "Doctor Strange"


Makeup and Hairstyling

Will Win: "Star Trek Beyond"  
Should Win: "Suicide Squad"


Music (Original Song)

I heard a lot of great songs this year. The best song from "Moana" didn't even get nominated: I much prefer the rolling, Polynesian-influenced "We Know the Way" to the main character's theme song. But there's no chance the dominant film, which is a musical, doesn't win Best Song.  

Will Win: "City Of Stars" from "La La Land"  
Should Win: "How Far I'll Go" from "Moana"


Music (Original Score)

A lot of people get musical score vs. song confused, especially in a musical. Justin Hurwitz worked on the music for "La La Land" for seven years. I personally prefer the moody, atonal music from "Jackie."  

Will Win: Justin Hurwitz, "La La Land"  
Should Win: Mica Levi, "Jackie"

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