Oscars 2022: Standing on Ceremony at the Finish Line

One challenge for Oscar marathoners: We can waste no time in starting to screen the best-pic noms and other “top” categories straight out of the gate once nominations are announced. One never knows if life will allow one to complete the mission. This year, contenders were announced on Feb. 8, leaving 6.5 weeks to cram in all 53 movies, at a rate of about eight titles a week.

(Sounds worse than it was, as I’m including the 15 shorts in that overall count — although some of this year’s batch proved epically long, such as the half-hour “Robin Robin” in the animation category and the 40-minute “Ala Kachuu – Take and Run” from Switzerland in the live-action category.)

That hierarchical hitch means one must save the less interesting categories to view at the end. So these “lesser” features are the freshest in our minds come D-(decision)day. In my case, the dregs tend to be the visual effects and animation feature groups — never been a huge fan of blockbuster action flicks, and since my kids are all in their 30s and older by now, I don’t have much use for formulaic cartoons, either. Or so I thought: Man, this year, I found all the animated features quite relevant and riveting, especially the revolutionary “Flee,” nominated in three categories (also international feature film and documentary feature), and — surprise, surprise — “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” which I have neglected to mention much.

(What about us?!)

Another hitch in our git-along: Many of the “top award” entrants get hyped throughout the year and chances are high a marathoner might have already seen them back when they were released, putting even more distance between the viewing and the Oscar race “reveal.”

I’ve been marathoning for 11 years now, and I typically have seen only two of the best-pic noms by the starting gun. This year, though, I had a leg up, having previously seen four of the 10 best-pic noms (“Don’t Look Up,” “Dune,” “The Power of the Dog” and “West Side Story”) plus “tick…tick…Boom!” (nominated for best actor and film editing). All those titles made deep impressions, but with so much time having passed, and so many other celluloid clips crowding my brain, my recall skills are now potentially unreliable, for comparison’s sake.

Still, my husband says I must complete my tour of movie duty and make predictions on these top categories — even though everything’s been written about them and you all have your own views and I wouldn’t be able to influence anyone at this point, with the telecast set to begin mere hours from now.

Check that: According to awards columnist Pete Hammond of the Deadline website, the deadline for Oscar voting is 7 p.m. ET today. Whoa. Still time to sway anyone on the fence. Hammond also notes: “The overall current total of Academy members is 10,487, but 914 of them are emeritus status and don’t vote, likewise for 86 active Associate members.” This year, voters began with a denominator of 276 eligible movies and had not quite five days to whittle those down into the critical categories. I’ll betchu not all 9,487 voters watched all 276 contenders — and I’m pretty sure a smaller share took the time (as I did) to screen even the 53 top nominees. Mainly because it took A LOT of time.

There is definitely something wrong with this system. Shortcuts are no doubt employed. These folks could be voting by feel, pulling filaments of hype from the air, or choosing based on trailers alone (which made, for instance, the international feature “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” look much better than it was because of expert trailer-editing skills).

(Note: I’m not saying the movie was bad — it just wasn’t as good as the trailer portends.)

One mustn’t discount, then, the influence of any small-time blogger upon any big-deal Oscar voter.

So, if anyone is listening, I shall do the dirty work and make your selections for you in what many consider to be the top eight categories.

First, perhaps the most difficult: the writing categories. Eeek. Apologies in advance for my hurried, hack writing.

Original Screenplay

Belfast. Kenneth Branagh’s memoirs as a boy living through “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland proved a gorgeous, intimate portrait of the Irish soul. Part of me thought: Wow, we’re all a little bit Irish, so is it now time to celebrate them (us) as an oppressed people? Viewing the violent conflict through the eyes of a love-smitten Protestant boy — especially when the object of his affection happened to be Catholic, and about a foot taller (another nod to “Romeo & Juliet” or even “West Side Story”) — was an ingenious narrative device. But because the story was largely a diary, point deduction.

Don’t Look Up. Adam McKay’s cleverly veiled clarion call about climate change is truly a statement of our times. It broke Netflix streaming records and obviously seals the popular vote. Biting satire and worthy of the honor, no matter what the snooty elitists say.

King Richard. Loved, loved, loved this movie, but the screenplay wasn’t necessarily the element that stood out, as it was based largely on real events and documented interviews.

Licorice Pizza. Saw this on a late-show date with my husband and — unsure he noticed, but I am confessing now — I dozed off. It’s certainly not one I can go back now to review, as it’s not being streamed. I loved the dialogue that I caught, and it had a lovely improvisational feel. But the story structure seemed jumbled and overwrought, especially after I woke up. Sorry, my bad, but an Oscar winner, even a good bedtime story (in this case, a waterbed) should never induce sleep.

The Worst Person in the World. No ordinary love story, this Norwegian import was ultimately about finding love for oneself. Creative storytelling, and the stop-action scene in which our protagonist tests another course in life with an alternative lover is one for the books. The worry is I can’t fully appreciate the screenplay because I experienced the dialogue only through subtitles — and Oscar voters may feel the same. A sentimental favorite, but …

Prediction & Pick: Don’t Look Up

[Update post-Oscars: “Belfast” was the winner.]

Adapted Screenplay

I haven’t read/accessed the source material on any of these nominees — oh, no! Is that a chore I must add to my Oscar marathoning rules in order to properly choose in the future? Worse, I haven’t even read about the source material, been too busy watching movies. My stalwart husband, however, has read the “Dune” series and testifies Denis Villeneuve’s vision is finally a great adaptation.

CODA. This singing-signing-themed darling is now neck and neck in the best picture race with the alpha “Dog.” I think its chances are good. But “CODA” is a remake of the French-language film “La Famille Bélierso,” so I am less inclined to choose something for adaptation whose source material is another movie. (Although I’m certainly curious how American Sign Language and French signing compare.)

Drive My Car. Pure genius. Too long.

Dune. Shall I let my husband influence me?

The Lost Daughter. Possibly my favorite screenplay of the movies in the running — only because “Drive My Car” needed editing. Admittedly, though, the morning after I watched “The Lost Daughter,” I couldn’t recall the ending — I had to go back and review the final shot, which is so important in evaluating a screenplay. Coulda been the wine. Still, all that doll stuff was disturbing and unpredictable, which are my criteria for screenwriting: stories that keep me guessing and take twisted turns.

The Power of the Dog. This may be, technically, the best adaptation. And I may be advised to pick it, considering I have virtually snubbed this 12-time-nominated movie thus far. Then again, I’m not trying to get a good score. There is no money on the line. Only my reputation. Already damaged. This endeavor is not at all about being right — only about justice.

Prediction: The Power of the Dog

Pick: The Lost Daughter

[Update post-Oscars: “CODA” was the winner.]

And now, for the remaining, highest-achiever categories, just gonna list ’em. Not gonna sweat my rationale, as I have no reason left.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Prediction & Pick: Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”)

[Update post-Oscars: Ariana DeBose was the winner!]

Actor in a Supporting Role

Prediction & Pick: Troy Kotsur (“CODA”)

[Update post-Oscars: Troy Kotsur was the winner!]

Actress in a Leading Role

Prediction: Penélope Cruz

Pick: Jessica Chastain

[Update post-Oscars: Jessica Chastain was the winner!]

Actor in a Leading Role

Prediction & Pick: Will Smith

[Update post-Oscars: Will Smith was the winner!]

Directing

Prediction: Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”)

Pick: Steven Spielberg (“West Side Story”)

[Update post-Oscars: Jane Campion was the winner.]

Best Picture

Prediction: CODA

Pick: West Side Story

[Update post-Oscars: CODA was the winner!]

Notice the absence of “The Power of the Dog” in that last bit. What can I say? I’ve always rooted for the underdog. Plus, between “The Piano” and “Dog,” can’t help but wonder if Campion has a sadistic streak.

And maybe I’m a little masochistic, but my Oscars 2022 marathon is finally, officially a wrap — although I still plan to watch “Writing With Fire” upon its release tomorrow, just to say I’ve seen 100% of all nominees in the top 23 categories. My viewing score is 98%. My guessing score will be far, far lower because I’m not in it for the win. It’s an honor just to experience all the nominees. And better luck next year.

The whole thing is a crapshoot, and I’m pooped.

See you all virtually tonight. Congratulations to all the artists who make the movies magic. And keep an eye peeled for winners holding their Oscar statuettes upside down to signify their protest of the eight categories cut from the telecast. I’m with them — thumbs down on ABC’s decision.

[Update post-Oscars: 6 of 8 correct. But never saw the Will Smith outburst coming. My overall score, though, is abysmal — the worst ever at 47%. Mostly because I didn’t appreciate “Dune,” and couldn’t trust the popular choice.]

Oscars 2022: The Envelope, Please

Do they still use envelopes? You really can’t call those $200-apiece cardboard craft projects envelopes.

The 94th annual Academy Awards are upon us. My penultimate round of picks, made under duress:

Music (Original Song)

Can’t go wrong with Queen Beyoncé. “King Richard” was the only sports movie ever that made me cry.

Prediction: “Be Alive”

Still, the artistry of Billie Eilish can’t be denied. This music video captures more emotion than the movie did — in fact, the Bond clips kinda ruin the video. Anyway, it won’t win, but I sure like the poetic convergence of “Be Alive” and “No Time to Die” in this category. Keeping the movies alive that keep us alive!

Pick: “No Time to Die”

[Update post-Oscars: “No Time to Die” was the winner!]

Feeling obligated to share the also-rans, just in case you missed them. You can play them while you “read” (scroll). And de verdad, “Dos Oruguitas” shouldn’t win — not only because no one can remember how to spell it, but because even Disney is voting against it by promoting “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” instead; see quibble at the end of the post.

Visual Effects

For the first time ever, I enjoyed seeing all the action movies tied to this category.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings” broadened me culturally. So much humor and I didn’t fall asleep during the battle scenes as I typically do. The story was weak, though. Super far-fetched. (As if the rest aren’t?) One point against it: The VFX team used the exact same “ring of fire” portal effect for the characters to step through to other dimensions as was used in “Spider-Man.” Is there a setting on the MacBook for “ring of fire portal”?

“Dune” — Just wasn’t feeling the sandworms. Sleep-inducing. Like a lullaby. Check back when we get to Part Two. [UPDATE: While watching the run-up interviews on March 27, all the VFX artists were explaining their techniques, and I might have made the wrong call here. “Dune” probably has the artistic edge. If only the movie hadn’t felt so dull.]

“No Time to Die” — Big surprise! The hero dies! (You knew that, right?)

Prediction: Spider-Man: No Way Home

Can’t bet against the most popular movie of the year. I honestly felt queasy as he swung around, so I guess those were some rad visual effects. Enjoyed the star power and the multiverse science stuff, too. But because of the ordinary “ring of fire” effect, it loses points and can’t be my pick.

Pick: Free Guy

“Free Guy” is the only movie in this category I’d be inclined to rewatch. It’s “Groundhog Day” meets “The Truman Show.” Chris, if you’re reading this, you MUST check out this flick. Augmented reality is part of my daily life, so it stimulated my imagination — and not just in scenarios featuring Ryan Reynolds, but, yeah, that, too. Now I gotta cue up “Deadpool”! (Yes, I’m the only one in the universe who hasn’t seen it.)

[Update post-Oscars: “Dune” was the winner.]

Costume Design

“Cruella” was smashing, but its extreme fashions catered to mostly one person. “Cyrano” was credible, but nothing too special — and seeing Peter Dinklage’s wardrobe only made me feel worse for the protagonist of the live-action short “The Dress,” about a woman with dwarfism who struggled to find any nice clothes to fit her. Throughout “Dune,” I felt the urge the do laundry. Nothing against the stylistic “Nightmare Alley”

Prediction & Pick: West Side Story

… but nothing can compare to “West Side Story,” whose wardrobists had to outfit an entire mob. While the costume design was enmeshed in its production design — could the dance at the gym have been better coordinated? — every garment in every frame simply sizzles and energizes. They paid homage to the original while freshening and upping their game. The costumes contribute more to the characters than any other nominee.

[Update post-Oscars: “Cruella” was the winner.]

Cinematography

This is the one category in which I will yield to the front-runner — although I am still secretly (or not so secretly) rooting for “West Side Story.” I think the power of “The Power of the Dog” is all in its cinematography, so throwing it a bone here.

Prediction & Pick: The Power of the Dog

[Update-post-Oscars: “Dune” was the winner.]

International Feature Film

Flabbergasted that the critics gave a 100% score to Bhutan’s “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” about a reluctant teacher in the most remote classroom on Earth. That and Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino’s near-pornographic, self-indulgent, autobiographical “Hand of God” are the only two I can safely eliminate. (Sure, now you’re all gonna race to stream that one.) Denmark’s “Flee” and Japan’s “Drive My Car” were brilliant — but “Flee” has other chances to win in the animated feature and documentary feature categories. Norway’s “The Worst Person in the World” was probably the most relatable and engaging entrant for me — I also had the chance to see it in the theater, so maybe that gave it an advantage. (I featured it in an earlier post.) But it has a chance to win in the original screenplay category, whereas I doubt “Drive My Car” will snag best picture or adapted screenplay. So making the most charitable pick here.

Prediction & Pick: Drive My Car

[Update post-Oscars: “Drive My Car” was the winner!]

Documentary Feature

Ah, cursed category in which I was unable to screen all five submissions. “Writing With Fire” remains elusive (its public premiere is March 28, the day after the Oscars telecast), so I’m not wholly qualified to judge. It also received 100% positive reviews from the critics, but who knows — many Academy voters may not have gotten through all their screening materials. It certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of ink, being a journo flick. It may indeed win. But this category is so strong, it’s anybody’s race. I wrote a whole post early on about “Attica,” and “Ascension” simply blew me away — a fly-on-the-wall study of the Chinese work ethic, classism, and that pervasive “Made in China” label. The sex-doll factory alone! “Flee,” again, was mesmerizing. Yet I’m compelled to go with the most entertaining and the best-edited documentary — the solid-gold “Summer of Soul.”

Prediction & Pick: Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

[Update post-Oscars: “Summer of Soul” was the winner!]

Animated Feature

Prediction & Pick: Flee

[Update post-Oscars: “Encanto” was the winner.]

“Encanto” fans will call this pick blasphemy, but I’m making the choice based on art here, not formula. Besides, my favorite song/scene in “Encanto” is “Surface Pressure” — and no one ever talks about that one (instead “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” gets all the attention — it wasn’t even the nominated song, and yet it will be performed during the live telecast, upstaging its own nominee). “Surface Pressure” also contains the only Titanic reference I recall among all 52 Oscar nominees I’ve seen.

And that segues into what I consider the top eight categories — all four acting awards, best picture, best director, and, most important, the two writing awards (original and adapted screenplay). That’s too much pressure for me to process tonight. No doubt you’ve made up your mind already on those and don’t need me to weigh in, anyway. No mistakes, no pressure! tick…tick…BOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

[Update post-Oscars: My score was a dismal 3 of 7 among these.]

Oscars 2022: Picks and Predictions From Someone Who’s Seen It All

“‘The time has come,’ the walrus said.” I tend to be an indecisive person, but no more so than come awards season. Still, I soldier on. Because I take pains to see every film nominated in every category on the Oscars ballot, friends rely on me to make the picking part easier.

Let’s start with those sad eight categories that have been eliminated from the live telecast this year. It’s shameful that the biggest draw and suspense of the Oscars awards is being denied. We all know the big races are fixed, and the biggest names are rarely the biggest dreamers. It’s a thrill to see those lesser-known artists get their 15 seconds in the spotlight.

My jam has always been the shorts. Pardon if I write long.

Short Film (Live Action)

Such a strong crop this year.

The longest one runs 40 minutes and shouldn’t even qualify as a short: “Ala Kachuu – Take and Run” (Switzerland), or The Runaway Bride of Kyrgyzstan, focuses on the plight of the thousand or so women kidnapped into marital slavery each year. Though shedding light on an important topic, it’s straight-shot story-telling, with some blatant symbolism, and so my least favorite.

“The Dress” (Poland) is a daring but disturbing tale of a hotel maid with dwarfism who pines for love — or, at least, its rite of passage. She arranges a special date with an itinerant trucker but must scrounge for something special to wear (“the dress”). Even as this piece spotlights cruel injustices faced by differently abled people, it left me wondering whether it was also exploitative.

“On My Mind” (Denmark) — a powerful treatise of love and loss — is the only one that brought me to tears. I have already written about in a previous post because it spins on karaoke. While each of these is deserving, none is likely to win.

Prediction: The Long Goodbye (United Kingdom)

This nightmarish episode in what we think is a civilized country boasts the star power of Riz Ahmed, a British rapper and actor who was nominated for his explosive leading performance in 2020’s “Sound of Metal.” It was released as a companion piece to his concept album “The Long Goodbye,” and imagines the brutal possibilities of ethnic persecution/cleansing in a post-Brexit U.K. Though only 11 minutes long, nearly a third of it is consumed by Ahmed’s performance art — which is breathtaking. The theme is tolerance, live and let live, but the fusion of art forms and the improvised screenplay make it stand out.

Pick: Please Hold (USA)

This satirical look at our broken justice system amid the punishing, un-navigable maze of digital-assistant “customer service” is both hilarious and horrifying. It’s a heavy sentence on actor Erick Lopez’s shoulders, but he pulls it off. Kudos to writer-director KD Dávila. I’m voting here for all the misjudged people of color and all the unjustly incarcerated people. And anyone who has ever raged against the A.I. machine.

[Update post-Oscars: “The Long Goodbye” was the winner!]

Documentary (Short Subject)

This is traditionally my favorite category, and this year’s entrants don’t disappoint.

“The Queen of Basketball” is simple and charming — a one-person interview with the most adorable super-athlete ever to break barriers interspersed with archival clips, with the power of The New York Times behind it. Upping its game is the pity factor: Its subject died in January, wouldn’t live to see the Oscars. Kinda OK if it doesn’t win. It’s well edited and structured, but the filmmaking, like sports, seems a combo of skill and luck.

Another sporty title, “Audible,” about a winning season for the Maryland School of the Deaf’s football team, felt too staged and filled with cheap shots (“let’s go to the cemetery and take close-ups of everyone missing their friend who took his life”). Tragic, gripping in its silent-movie mood — the sound is terrific, like something out of “2001: A Space Odyssey” — but the camera was too intrusive, the subjects too aware of the filmmakers, and each scene overly directed to qualify in my documentary book.

“Three Songs for Benazir” required three viewings — I fell asleep the first time via Netflix because I’d been watching too many movies. I watched it again for good measure. Then had to go to the cinema to catch the shorts that weren’t available for streaming and was forced to watch it once more. Turns out the third time’s the charm because it finally dawned on me how brilliant it was. Shot over the course of four years, it’s the tale of an Afghan refugee, Shaista, whose future (and day-to-day) looks bleak. With a wife, a son, and another on the way, he sees joining the army as his only option, but his father and village oppose it, fearing the Taliban’s recourse and insisting the opium trade holds the answer. There are great bird shots throughout, whether caged, being forced to fight in a ring, or flying free. One fantastic vignette shows Shaista protesting his case through the rebar on his adobe-hut window, trapped. Eventually, he sticks with the opium harvest … and (SPOILER ALERT!) ends up in rehab. What’s great is that the filmmakers were his neighbors, so all the action is searingly nosy and honest. Oh, and the “songs”? He has a habit of spontaneously singing to his wife, Benazir — such winsome interludes.

Prediction: Lead Me Home 

I think the Academy voters will be persuaded by this slick, in-your-face short about homelessness, using every time-lapse and drone trick at moviemakers’ disposal. Still, the individual stories are powerful, woven into a gut-wrenching, heavy-hitting plea for solutions. It juxtaposes upscale apartment dwellers freighted with kitchen islands and treadmills beside tent dwellers, car sleepers, and the most beautiful panhandling dancer on Earth, Ronnie “Futuristic Astaire” Willis. I would invite him to move in.

Pick: When We Were Bullies 

Betting I’m the only one to pick Jay Rosenblatt’s walk down memory lane to try to make reparations for participating in an act of bullying while in the fifth grade 50 years ago, at PS 194 in Brooklyn. Perhaps more memoirs than documentary, its premise and coincidences are mind-blowing, spine-chilling, and it made me chortle and choke up. The creativity astounds — sprinkled with animation — the story-telling is sharp, and his hypotheses about why kids bully touched a nerve, as I had a similar experience in fifth grade. This short was even more guilt-inducing than the homeless one. A full link on YouTube has since been removed by Rosenblatt for copyright infringement. Hmmm. Maybe he is just promoting himself? Regardless, it moved me the most, in the moment. (Sorry, Barbara of Winchester!) And the schoolyard scenes remind me of the “West Side Story” rumbles, and I can’t get enough WSS this year.

[Update post-Oscars: “The Queen of Basketball” was the winner.]

Short Film (Animated)

Already posted about the animated shorts, here. But will reiterate my votes:

Prediction: Robin Robin (United Kingdom)

Pick: The Windshield Wiper (Spain)

[Update post-Oscars: “The Windshield Wiper” was the winner!]

P.S.: For the best wrap-up I’ve seen on all 15 shorts, check out a fellow marathoner’s “A Busy Film Fan’s Guide to the 2022 Oscar Shorts.” Turns out I agree with him on many points, and he provides nice clips/footage.

Film Editing

Another favorite category is film editing because I do a little on the side and it’s what I secretly wanted to be when I grew up. (Instead, I’m a regular journalist-type editor, though you’d hardly know it reading my slap-dash blog posts.)

The critics’ choice here is “The Power of the Dog.” The fans’ choice is “King Richard.” I can definitely see that because sports movies present their challenges, and the tennis action took some deft splicing. The girls cast as Venus and Serena Williams weren’t tennis players to start, so a combination of visual effects and body doubles were used to create realistic tennis sequences. We’ll skip “Dune” and “Don’t Look Up.” I mean, I didn’t skip them — I saw them all. But “Dune” needed editing (not enough action or sandworms) and unless you count Meryl Streep’s nude scene, the editing hardly stood out in “Don’t Look Up.” Yeah, yeah, it’s not supposed to stand out, but you get my drift. “Don’t Look Up” had that frenetic ADHD quality of today’s screen-addicted youths. Part of me is rooting for it, though, as it depicted my alma mater (though that wasn’t truly the East Lansing campus).

Prediction: The Power of the Dog

Pick: tick…tick…Boom!

C’mon! Weaving in all those Broadway stars who aren’t used to double and triple takes? Syncing all that couch-jumping, keys-pounding action? Let’s hear it for my boy, Lin-Manuel!!

[Update post-Oscars: “Dune” was the winner.]

Makeup and Hairstyling

Two words. Jared Leto. I didn’t know he was in the movie — even after I watched it — so “House of Gucci” must win. No point even listing the also-rans.

Prediction and Pick: House of Gucci

[Update post-Oscars: “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” was the winner.]

Music (Original Score)

Prediction: Encanto

Pick: Anything but Parallel Mothers

Seriously. That soundtrack was like a porn movie score, not that I know anything about porn movies, or scoring.

[Update post-Oscars: “Dune” was the winner.]

Production Design

Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth in a scene from “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Credit: Courtesy of Apple TV+ and A24

Prediction: The Tragedy of Macbeth

It needs a win. This might be its only shot. Far more artful than the projected winner (“The Power of the Dog” — again?!?)

Pick: West Side Story

A true production, amiright?

[Update post-Oscars: “Dune” was the winner.]

Sound

Belfast. Interestingly, I watched this once without the sound on, just to breathe in its exquisiteness. Despite a killer soundtrack by Van Morrison — made doubly musical by those bewitching brogues — I don’t think such points count for sound design, though.

Dune. Lots of wind-blowing is all I recall.

No Time to Die. The sound crew was no doubt the MacGyvers of sound design but, again, I forgot to pay attention, because I watched it in a hotel.

The Power of the Dog. I liked the piano-practicing scene. And the sound of exasperation. (Really? 12 nominations?!)

West Side Story. CRANK IT UP.

Prediction: This one’s tough. So I’ll go with pack-leader The Power of the Dog.

Pick: West Side Story

[Update post-Oscars: “Dune” was the winner. Damn “Dune.” I got only 2 of 8 among these.]

Oscar vs. Tony: A Race of Show Vehicles

Music and musical theater are getting a strong hearing in this year’s Oscars race. From Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cameo-loaded “tick…tick…Boom!” to Steven Spielberg’s remastered “West Side Story,” the Academy Awards have gotten so showy that moviegoers might start expecting playbills and intermissions.

I sure needed an intermission for “Drive My Car,” that Japanese import clocking in at three hours and one of 10 best picture nominees this year. Although it’s not a musical, it borrows heavily from the theater. It’s the saga of a stage actor-director tasked with directing a production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at a theater festival in Hiroshima soon after the death of his wife. Four-time Oscar-winning “Driving Miss Daisy” it’s not, but we witness Mr. Kafuku studiously internalizing the lines of the play while in transit, and — when the theater company insists on assigning him a driver because of a fatal accident that occurred in bygone days — his young driver, Misaki, is also transformed by hearing the work over and over again. Any devotee of theater would devour this film as the ultimate life-imitates-art vehicle.

A momentary detour: Who could miss the parallels between these “Drive My Car” scenes and the Oscar-nominated animation feature “Shang Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings,” in which Katy (Awkwafina) and Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) make their living as valets? Katy, a daredevil driver, is tasked late in the film with driving the gang through an enchanted forest that’s hell-bent on swallowing them up.

If I were Billy Crystal trying to frame an opening number for the Oscars, I’d capitalize on this chauffeur-charged theme, somehow hitching it to the famous truck scene in “Licorice Pizza,” in which Alana is behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler, driving BACKWARDS, with soulmate Gary (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s real-life son, Cooper) egging her on.

Piling on with the behind-the-wheel vignettes this awards season is the live-action short “Ala Kachuu – Take and Run,” about a Kyrgyz woman with higher-ed aspirations who is kidnapped into marriage. Without giving too much away, the scene in which her equally independent-minded mentor teaches her to drive proves a most valuable life lesson.

But back to this post’s driving theme: how live theater, aka Tony, has merged into this year’s Oscar lane. Are we Broadway-bound or in La-La Land?

Among best picture nominees with songs at their heart, besides “West Side Story,” is “CODA,” about a girl who is the only hearing person in her family who listens to her inner voice to pursue a career in singing, by way of her high school show choir. Lots of gleeful (and tearful) moments. (Ed: In music, a “coda” is a passage that brings a piece or a movement to an end. But this one I didn’t want to end.)

Prancing through the costume design category is “Cyrano,” a de facto, if lackluster, musical. “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage showcases his stunted four- or five-note range in a score that, frankly, bores to tears. Skip it, if you can. But don’t dare miss Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magic as he showcases his connections and MT chops in both “tick…tick…Boom! and “Encanto.”

Do any of these showtune-fueled flicks have a chance of winning? Let’s harken back to that tragi-comic moment at the end of the 2017 Academy Awards telecast when the producers of “La La Land” were giving their acceptance speeches for best picture before the show-stopping realization that Warren Beatty had announced the wrong winner? (Cue “Moonlight.”)

A “La La Land” win would have been plausible, because Americans do dig their movie musicals. If you also dig lists, check this out: At least 132 movie musicals — including so-called jukebox musicals — have won some sort of Oscar over the years, starting with 1929’s “The Broadway Melody” (Outstanding Picture award) and most recently 2017’s “Coco,” which won both for animated feature film and for original song, “Remember Me” — which bodes well for “Encanto.”

Closely aligned with jukebox musicals this year are those movies that celebrate and elevate karaoke to an art form. (Any musical theater nerd is known to practice karaoke devoutly.) Katy and Shang in “Shang Chi” blow off steam by hitting the karaoke bars after work — to viewers’ and listeners’ delight. And the tender-hearted live-action short from Denmark, “On My Mind,” is about a man driven to sing Elvis’ version of “Always on My Mind” as if on a life-or-death mission. Although this man-vs.-machine saga has slim chance of winning, if you have 18 minutes to spare, it’s gorgeous and well worth your time — and will leave you with an endearing earworm. (Lead actor Rasmus Hammerich does all his own singing; bartender Camilla Bendix is also blisteringly authentic, down to her makeup.) Showing here:

The curtain rises, in just four short nights …

Counting down to Oscars 2022 … tick … tick … BOOYAH!

Only an Oscar marathoner like me — who has screened 98% of all the movies nominated in the top 23 categories (52 of 53, all told) — can fully register the convergence of talent spanning this year’s contenders. Cross-pollination of projects makes busy bees of many A-listers, especially as they emerge from pandemic-induced hibernation.

As far as I can tell, no one is up for multiple awards in separate categories this year, but nothing in the rulebook bars that from happening.

At least a dozen times in Oscar history, actors and actresses have been nominated for multiple awards in the same season. Such freaky-deaky overlap first occurred in 1938, during the 11th annual awards, when Fay Bainter was nominated as best actress for her role in “White Banner” and took home the Oscar for best supporting actress for her turn in “Jezebel.” In 2020, Scarlett Johansson was nominated for both leading actress (“Marriage Story”) and supporting actress (“Jojo Rabbit”) — winning neither. The most recent time an actor has been nominated in two categories and actually won one was in 2004, Oscars LXXVII, when Jamie Foxx clinched best actor honors for “Ray,” and was an also-ran for best supporting actor in “Collateral.” Although featured in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (nominated for visual effects) as the laser-gifted villain Electro, Foxx’s name won’t be etched on any statuettes this year.

That 2021 Marvel vehicle, though, is like a clown car packed full of cinematic double-timers.

“Spider-Man” sure gets around! Consider:

Benedict Cumberbatch: Not only does he seem to be leading the pack in the best actor category for “The Power of the Dog,” Cumberbatch’s familiar Doctor Strange in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” helped “No Way” open to a staggering $260 million at the box office amid a pandemic, eventually becoming the third-biggest U.S. box office grab in movie history. Yes, way! But no way do I want him to win. I thought he was more chilling in “The Imitation Game” (2014) as computer nerd Alan Turing.

Andrew Garfield: Cumberbatch’s fellow British rival for best actor — yes, both of these karma chameleons are English — also found his way into “No Way” by reprising his 2012-14 Peter Parker part. Garfield, who won a best actor Tony for the 2018 revival of “Angels in America” but never an Oscar (he was previously nominated for “Hacksaw Ridge” in 2017), may seem a triple threat this year. He was simply dynamite impersonating Jonathan Larson in “tick…tick…Boom!” having taken vocal training for a year and learning to play the piano well enough to pass as fluent. Still, I fear he was nominated for the wrong performance. His Jim Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” was even more masterful than his Larson, as he convincingly portrayed the Southern televangelist through his arc from straight-laced to crooked. I wouldn’t be sorry if Garfield won, but my heart this year is with Will Smith.

Zendaya: Yet another “Spider-Man” ensemble member represented in multiple Oscar-worthy projects is Zendaya, so incomparable that only one name suffices. In “Spider-Man” as in real life, she is Tom Holland’s eye candy, but she’s also the ethereal, ephemeral vision with the piercing-blue spicy eyes in “Dune.” Although she didn’t get enough screen time in either movie to broker a nomination, she is sure to be rewarded (again) come Emmy season for her rapturous work in HBO’s “Euphoria.”

Bradley Cooper: The nine-time Oscar nominee (four acting nominations, four producer nominations, and one writing nomination) produced and stars in the hellish circus fever dream “Nightmare Alley,” and also goes on a rampage as Jon Peters, Barbra Streisand’s erstwhile significant other, in “Licorice Pizza.” No silver lining here; “Nightmare Alley” can’t possibly win for best picture. But it is kinda wild to recall that Cooper directed and starred in the 2018 remake of “A Star Is Born,” playing opposite the character Streisand played in the 1976 remake, which Peters produced. (Sadly, Lady Gaga, Cooper’s co-star from the 2018 “Star” vehicle, was snubbed — however you make the Italian gesture for “snubbed” — this year for her fashionable turn in “House of Gucci.”)

Lin-Manuel Miranda: OK, this is where things get fun. Broadway’s self-appointed ambassador not only directed the movie version of “tick…tick…Boom!” (which apparently missed a best-pic nod by a hair) but he also helped infect this year’s Oscars with enough Tony as to confuse voters about whose party it is next Sunday. Get ready to rumble, Oscar vs. Tony! And Miranda’s Nuyorican fingerprints are all over “Encanto,” an enchanting entry into the animated feature category for which he work-horsed the music. Not only has the flick collected oodles of awards and #hashtag hits, but it also has entered Miranda into the best original song category for “Dos Oruguitas” (“Two Caterpillars”). A very hungry caterpillar indeed. Plus, Miranda opines about music in the documentary feature that I predict will win: Questlove’s “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).” My only question: Why was his “In the Heights” overlooked — the movie for which I first subscribed to HBO Max, opening my Pandora’s box of streaming via the FireCube? Side note: A P.R. high school classmate, Olga Merediz, played Abuela Claudia in that movie and also originated the role on Broadway, for which she was nominated for a Tony, which is why I had to see it as soon as it was released. Sweet release. And so … we’ve come full circle, as far as Miranda goes.

My former school chum Olga Merediz (right) with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Grace (Nina Rosario) at the “In the Heights” premiere.
Did the release of Steven Spielberg’s fabuloso “West Side Story” on Dec. 10, 2021, completely erase from our memories the “In the Heights” release just six months earlier?

Awkwafina: Speaking of coincidences and highly animated features, the mythical dragon Sisu in “Raya and the Last Dragon” is voiced by self-deprecating actress, rapper, and comedian Awkwafina who (SPOILER ALERT!) casts the fatal blow to the evil dragon in “Shang Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings.” Typecast much? Awkwafina’s birth name is Nora Lum, but she chose Awkwafina at age 15 as a “shield of confidence” (and apparently a reminder to stay hydrated). Sisu’s name is a Finnish word meaning courage, guts, grit, and determination. Fits her.

Olivia Colman: Another actress with animation voice-over in her arsenal — which few people may be aware of — is Her Highness Olivia Colman, who played the villainous AI called Pal in the animated feature nominee “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” (an obvious nod to HAL from fellow Brit Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”). Colman’s certainly not lost in space, but she does give an out-of-this-world, non-robotic performance in “The Lost Daughter,” for which she’s up for best actress.

PAL (on left) vs. HAL 9000

Maya Rudolph: Finally, a mainstay on “SNL” from 2000 to 2007, Rudolph seems to prefer to be heard and not seen in this year’s Oscars race. She appears briefly in “Licorice Pizza” as casting director Gale, mostly in a long shot and making hilarious gestures. She also voices the mom, Linda Mitchell, in “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” as well as the mom, Daniela Paguro, in Pixar’s “Luca” — two nominees in the best animated feature category. A mother of four herself, Rudolph knows motherhood from many angles. One of her claims to fame is her own mom’s identity: Minnie Riperton of five-octave “Lovin’ You” fame. Too bad Riperton didn’t get a shoutout in “Summer of Soul.”

Maya and mom Minnie, lovin’ each other.

Another fun mother-child discovery: The namesake of the film “Luca” is voiced by an actor of that famous mom story from Oscars 2015, “Room.” Canadian Jacob Tremblay was only 9 when he gave an arresting performance as the boy who knew of nothing beyond four walls and his caretaker mother. His film debut two years earlier, though, was another animated feature: He played Blue in “The Smurfs 2” (2013). He’s more sea-green in “Luca,” a “Little Mermaid”-type story for boys about sea monsters and vroom-vroom (not “Room”) — in which our misfit hero is trapped inside his own skin.

Then there’s the mantra that Luca and his best bud, Alberto, use to silence their inner voice of self-doubt: “Silencio, Bruno!” Errr, we don’t talk about Bruno? An “Encanto” reference, for you youngsters and hipsters. Full circle again, back to Lin-Manuel Miranda. Boom! Booya!!

Oscars 2022: The Thrill of Discovery

Big announcement for anyone who cares. As of 11:30 p.m. ET on March 19, 2022, I’ve finished viewing 98% of all the movies nominated in the top 23 categories for this year’s Academy Awards. That’s 37 of the 38 full-length features and all 15 shorts.

The only reason I can’t achieve 100% is because the documentary feature “Writing With Fire” refuses to be available in theaters or via any streaming service until March 28, the day after the ABC telecast. It also happens to be the critics’ favorite title in that category, with 100% of positive reviews, according to Rotten Tomatoes polling — the only film in this year’s lineup to achieve such perfection. It figures that the “perfect film” would handicap my own potentially perfect score. Still, who can scoff at 98%? So, so, so close. The closest I’ve ever come in over a decade of striving.

Thus I’m kinda writing with fire myself to say: What a journey it’s been. Sure, it used to be more thrilling back in the ancient pre-streaming days, having to carefully plan my itinerary up against the deadline, mapping out those off-the-beaten-track theaters, catching late-night offbeat screenings, even double and triple features on my days off, doing it all in just over a month. But if the covid pandemic has done anything it’s made my movie diet easier to consume on my own timetable. Now, with a week to go before the Oscars telecast, I’m unsure what to do with myself. Maybe just rewatch a few to make proper picks in the categories I’m unsure about.

Oh, right. The D.C. Environmental Film Fest is in full swing and all virtual this year, so I could binge there. Or I could read my stack of unread must-read books. I could also campaign and beg the producers of “Writing With Fire” to release it early, please, please, pleeeeeeeeeze. Or I could join the chorus of complaints about ABC editing out some of the most important, suspenseful categories from its live telecast: best original score, film editing, production design, makeup and hairstyling, sound, documentary short subject, live action short film, and animated short film. The creators behind these films, not the A-listers, are the folks who need the recognition to further their careers. These titles represent the gems that the mainstream audience never bothers to see.

As Emmy-winning film composer Scott Bomar recently told The Washington Post: “You’re going to diminish these eight categories and air a Twitter vote instead?” (He was reacting to the stooooopid #OscarsFanFavorite and #OscarsCheerMoment categories whose winners, selected online, will be announced during the ceremony.) “This whole thing is making the academy less relevant instead of more relevant, which is what they’re going for,” he said.

I couldn’t agree more that the point of awards shows — if there’s a point — isn’t the fashion or the speeches but the “thrill of discovery” — getting those sneak peeks of the relevant art that flew under the radar, whetting audience appetites to consume them. Like “Writing With Fire,” about ballsy female journalists in India, something right up my alley but that apparently was available only to select film clubs.

I don’t go to the movies much during the year, preferring instead to wait for awards season, when the endless offerings have been culled by critics. Although the Oscars have lost much of their luster and integrity, it’s still my blueprint for exploration. At least, that is, until I achieve 100% one year; maybe then I can be done with my Oscar marathoning.

Because I’ve never been big on action flicks, the category I ended with was Visual Effects. That one’s usually a slog because I tend to fall asleep during mega-battle scenes. But the two features I saw tonight, I must say, proved delightful surprises. “Free Guy,” starring Ryan Reynolds (my first-ever Ryan Reynolds movie), touched and tickled me. And “Shang Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings” featured some bad-ass lady martial artists, such as Michelle Yeoh, who at age 59 still has it going on and, not to mention — if you’ve seen as many movies as I’ve seen in theaters this month you’d know — has a new multiverse flick coming out, “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” (The multiverse is definitely having its moment. Would that make the multiverse part of the meta-verse?)

“Shang Chi” proved the perfect movie to wrap on because it offered a li’l sumpin’ sumpin’ that few movies bother with anymore: a couple of Easter egg segments tucked midway through and at the end of the credits. I always insist on sitting all the way through until the end just in case. How wonderful to be rewarded with my last feature of the season, and a Mark Ruffalo/Hulk cameo to boot! It may have been a shameless promotion from Marvel, but marvelous nonetheless.

Cramming on movies is my personal brand of March Madness. Now all that’s left is the filling out of my ballot/bracket. And for the first time ever, I have a whole week to do it.

 

Oscars 2022: Cartoons That Are Sick, Sick, Sick

From the Department of Stolen Childhoods, this year’s nominees for short-subject animation are, generally, unsuitable for children.

And I’m not sure these explicitly NC-17 doodles were even suitable for me. The graphic nudity and defiling of corpses I could kinda take, but it was the animal abuse, beheadings, torture, suicide, homicide, and sexual harassment that made me wonder what some of these animators were smoking. (Oh yeah, the chain-smoking depicted only made me laugh — are we trapped in some 1960s time warp?)

The lineup starts mildly enough with “Robin, Robin,” from the same British studio that brought us “Wallace and Gromit.” It’s a classic cat-and-mouse caper, except for the bird. (Well, “Tom and Jerry” meets “Tweety and Sylvester.”) A robin is adopted by a mouse family — and feels very much like the black sheep, because whenever she tries to sneak around for crumbs, she manages only to draw attention to herself because, hey, pretty bird! The moral: Being different is special. It’s on Netflix, so you can watch it with your kids there and keep them far, far from the theater.

After that, the Russian offering, “Boxballet” — and I admit I set a pretty high bar for this one having freighted it with an instant anti-Russian bias amid the invasion of Ukraine — explores the unlikely love story between a brutish boxer and an exploited ballerina (think Bluto and Olive Oyl). What surprised me was it comes before the Short TV’s editors announce that children should leave the room. Plenty of sleazy stuff in this one, too, like the director fondling the ballerina’s leg while she stretches and then making a pass at her (more like an assault, feeling her up) after dangling the promise of the role of Giselle in exchange for, well, favors. The mismatched couple bumbles through and, even though (spoiler!) he gets the girl — having wooed her literally with sugar, a 10-pound bag of it — their settling down reeks of “settling.” For a ballet, not uplifting in the least.

Not until it’s over, though, does this warning appear for several minutes onscreen:

Now that we have everyone’s attention, cue up “Affairs of the Art” (U.K./Canada), which supposedly is a “whimsical” look at a woman’s midlife obsession to pursue her lost dream of becoming an artist. It’s kinda gross, except I was amused by the protagonist forcing her nude husband to repeatedly fling himself down the stairs while she tried to sketch him (she ends up leaving marks that could be Exhibit A in a domestic abuse case).

Next, “Bestia” (translated as “Beast”) from Chile simply traumatized me. I’m left speechless. “Disturbing” doesn’t cover it. Nightmare-inducing. Sure, cartoons have always been violent, a bit sadistic, capitalizing on the Schadenfreude of characters falling, getting bonked on the head, being stuffed through small-beyond-belief orifices. But I regretted not leaving the theater with all the kids. (Actually, I was the only one in the theater. That frightened me even more because I expected that fractured china doll head to come peering out of the shadows at me. EEEK!) Next!

Bringing up the rear — and there was plenty of tail in this one, too — was the only one I genuinely liked: “The Windshield Wiper” (Spain), whose creator found inspiration traveling the world in July 2021, at the height of the pandemic’s second wave, secretly recording cafe conversations and observing humans’ odd mating habits. So much loneliness it’s painful, but beautifully drawn. I loved the scene in which we zoom all the way out above the planet to the perspective of a cell satellite getting pinged by vapid texting/sexting: “LOL, right? Yeah.” What a waste of technology. We have all this brainpower, yet as a species our scope seems infantile to any outsiders/eavesdroppers: unremarkable flirting, pining, seeking distraction and instant gratification, looking for love in all the wrong places. Look sharp to catch the inspiration for the title — lovely indeed.

I’ve used this line before, but it’s more appropriate this year than ever: Are those animated shorts, or are you just happy to see me? The envelope, please!

Animated Short Film

Prediction: Robin Robin (United Kingdom)

Pick: The Windshield Wiper (Spain)

Oscars 2022: Lead Me to the Movies, My Second Home

Roughly midway through “Lead Me Home,” a masterful documentary short about the nation’s homelessness crisis, when the onscreen discussion had turned to strategies for finding a shower (one woman confessed to sneaking into motels after the maids had left), I finally got a good whiff of myself. Frankly, I stank. The week had been so crammed with my day job on top of my night job of Oscar marathoning — my annual quest to see every film nominated for an Academy Award in every possible category — that it had been days since I’d showered.

And that was my only excuse for not going out afterward for a bite or even grabbing a photo of me and Barbara of Winchester, one of the three people committed to sitting in darkness on this sunny afternoon to witness all the documentary shorts, which are not in the least bit short.

The halcyon days of spending an entire day holed up with strangers and booze at West End Cinema in D.C. are long gone. That bougie dive used to be the only place in the DMV you could catch the documentary shorts, which would get split into two full-length features, shown back-to-back, over the span of four hours. Since the pandemic interceded and amplified the risks of patronizing tiny arthouse cinemas — historically, the documentaries would prompt impromptu film clubs afterward, with robust yapping and laughing among groups of suddenly fast friends — I’ve resorted to mostly a streaming film diet. Which is sad, because crossing paths with other cinephiles is part of the dang-gone fun.

Barbara of Winchester turned out to be my superhero. You see, three of this year’s documentary shorts are available on Netflix, so I had already done my due diligence and digested “Audible,” “Three Songs for Benazir,” and “Lead Me Home” at home. “Three Songs for Benazir” I’d even watched twice because, after staying up so late streaming movies, I’d fallen asleep my first time watching it on my phone in bed. To cross off this category, I needed only “The Queen of Basketball” and “When We Were Bullies.” In the theater’s description, “The Queen of Basketball” and “When We Were Bullies” were listed first, so in between errands today, I figured, I could buy a ticket, watch those two, then sneak out and not spend too much of my day every day watching movies. Besides, I already had a date planned tonight for dinner and “Licorice Pizza” for dessert.

When buying my Doc Shorts ticket, though, a flash of disappointment: Another patron had already claimed my favorite seat. Oh, well. At least I won’t be alone in the theater for a change (many people are still hesitant to return to the movies, and those braving the experience are mostly seeing “The Batman”; this past week, the late showings of “The Worst Person in the World” and “Cyrano” were empty — more safety for me!).

So today it was Barbara of Winchester in My Favorite Seat, me positioned near the screen, and another lady waaaaaaay up in the back row who were propping up the local cinema economy. The previews end, the reel gets rolling, and whoa. The live-action shorts begin. What?! We all exclaim different levels of confusion and frustration. Me: “I thought this was the documentaries? Hmm. I do need these, too, tho …” Lady in back: “Oh, jeez. They’re running the wrong reel! Is somebody gonna tell them?!” Barbara of Winchester in My Favorite Seat Now Unburdening Herself of a Tub of Popcorn: “Yes. I’ll go do it. Because I’ve bought tickets to all three shorts presentations today, and the timing will all be off if we see these first because they’re the longest.”

Don’t remind me. Gosh, I sure hope they’re in the right order so I can still leave and get stuff done. I watch a little bit of the live-action nominee “On My Mind,” patiently waiting for Barbara of Winchester with the Purple Spiked Hair to return with things all straightened out.

She’s nothing if not effective. And dedicated: Not even I had the stamina to take in all 15 nominated shorts in one day, enduring a six- or seven-hour marathon, plus previews and the two-hour round-trip drive from Winchester. Within moments, the documentary shorts start rolling and, shoot. Wrong order. It goes: “Audible,” “When We Were Bullies,” “Three Songs for Benazir,” “Lead Me Home,” and, finally, “The Queen of Basketball.” But I don’t suffer much. Turns out the third time’s truly the charm for “Three Songs.” I adore it now and predict it may win — although I have a new personal favorite, which I’ll divulge in due time, in my traditional Predictions-Picks Post.

Anyway, Barbara doesn’t agree with me. When I go to thank her afterward, she confesses she almost fell asleep during the one I favor because she, too, has been cramming on movies and doing crazy things like driving from Winchester to Reston for rare screenings. (“It’s not really very far.”) Oh, I know. For an Oscar marathoner, even Philly wouldn’t be far. We share bite-size film analyses, if not a bite and a brew, and she invites me to join a session of her Winchester Film Club, which meets every Wednesday night at the Alamo Drafthouse. Tells me they screened the one film I can’t find anywhere (“Writing With Fire”), the one I desperately need to clinch 100% of my marathoning this year (never attained; current score: 25 of 38 full-length features and 6/15 on shorts). That movie was a must-see, of course, she testifies. I tell her I sometimes blog about this thing we do. She asks if I’ll write about her. I say I may, and she warmly extends her hand.

Which, to someone who had spent the past two years shunning human contact beyond her pandemic bubble and hadn’t showered in three days, seemed a tremendously generous gesture.

And I just might show up at the Alamo in Winchester one Wednesday night to finally get that selfie together. Or maybe I’ll simply go back to my neighborhood theater in a couple of hours to catch the animated shorts — knowing full well Barbara will be there.

46 Years On, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ Is Still Having Its Day

Throwing Oscar adjudicators a bone: There aren’t many dogs (aka duds) in this year’s pack of nominated flicks.

And, no, this isn’t a post about front-runner “The Power of the Dog,” although it might be interesting to note the staying power of movies with “dog” in the title.

Case in point, canines have been featured in such Oscar-worthy works as 1987’s “My Life as a Dog,” 1997’s “Wag the Dog” (more about political louses than tail-chasing curs), and at least eight animated shorts from 1944’s “Dog, Cat and Canary” to 2011’s “Adam and Dog.” (Moviegoers’ pet pooch Lassie got nods with “Lassie Come Home,” up for cinematography in 1943, and for one of the treacly songs in 1978’s “The Magic of Lassie.” Man, in dog years that collie has outlived romanticist Francisco Goya’s painting “The Dog” by a long shot.)

This post instead is about how the crackling bank-heist feature “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), starring Al Pacino as a nervy, nervous underdog thief, is stealing attention among today’s Oscar honors fetchers. That 46-year-old vehicle reverberates in two long-shot 2021 movies begging for closer attention.

Before this month, pretty much all I knew about the massacre at New York’s Attica state prison came from Pacino’s improvised performance in “Dog Day”: his raised fist and unrelenting “Attica!” chant. That single line has become a one-liner among cinephiles, repeated almost a joke. In my warped mind, I sometimes merged the image of Pacino outside the bank riling up the crowd with the scene in 1960’s “Spartacus,” in which enslaved survivors of a rebellion refuse to give up the identity of their leader, with their unified, upstanding “I’m Spartacus!” ruse.

What a shock, then, to absorb the full context of that hue and cry in Stanley Nelson’s “Attica.” This consciousness-raising documentary traces the five-day 1971 uprising in which thousands of incarcerated men protested their inhumane treatment — attesting they’d been treated worse than dogs — and took dozens of hostages as collateral for their civil rights demands. Through interviews with survivors and witnesses, and copious archived media that might have been lost to history, viewers are flogged with the all-too-familiar horrors of racism (70% of Attica’s population were Black men). It’s soul-crushing 50 years later, against the backdrop of I’m George Floyd, I’m Ahmaud Arbery, I’m Breonna Taylor, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum … to realize change don’t look like it’s ever gonna come.

The parallels to the Pacino scene are uncanny. Snipers perched on rooftops; bloodthirsty, trigger-happy police amassing; hostages suffering from Stockholm syndrome and sympathetic to their captors; members of the media enlisted as leverage; helicopters looming like monsters. Then there’s the brutal way things play out — the evil duplicity of those law-and-order types who are ultimately unwilling to relinquish an inch of privilege. The prisoners at Attica were forced to relent. Pacino’s Sonny, even while ranting, symbolically waves a white towel — his surrender seemingly inevitable.

The wedding of Liz Eden and John Wojtowicz.

And Sonny was motivated (if misguidedly) by his own rights struggle. The film was based on the true story of John Wojtowicz, who needed the money to finance what society then called “a sex change operation” for his transgender lover, Ernie Aron. The real-life Wojtowicz, after serving seven years of a 20-year prison sentence, received $7,500 for “Dog Day” movie rights and gave $2,500 to Aron, who subsequently became Liz Eden. The movie was groundbreaking in dramatizing members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Nominated for six Academy Awards (best picture, leading actor, supporting actor, directing, film editing, and original screenplay), “Dog Day Afternoon” clinched just one, for screenwriter Frank Pierson. He drew his inspiration from the Life magazine article “The Boys in the Bank” by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore — who perhaps can take some credit for casting, because they described Wojtowicz as “a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or a Dustin Hoffman.”

But the allusion to Attica was never part of screenwriter Pierson’s design. A 2018 interview with Pacino in Vulture reveals the line was improvised, the action feeding off the crowd of extras and onlookers:

“It was an assistant director who whispered the magic word to Pacino in the now-famous scene in which he rallies the crowd outside the bank. “He says, ‘Say “Attica.” ’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Go ahead. Say it to the crowd out there. “Attica.” Go ahead.’ So I sort of half got it, so when I got out there, I looked around. This is on-camera now. Cameras are rolling, and I looked around, and I just said, ‘Hey, you know, Attica, right?’ … And we start improvising, and you get that whole Attica scene, because an AD whispered in my ear as I’m going out a door. I mean, that is what movies are.”

In 2014, as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, Uri Hasson, an associate professor of psychology and neurosciences at Princeton University, explained how brain responses to films could be measured dynamically using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). After mapping subjects’ neural responses to particular “Dog Day” clips, the Attica! scene among them, he declared that 63%-73% of viewers’ brains were engaged — a remarkably strong response. He also observed outward manifestations of connection/emotion, like laughter.

“Attica” the documentary is guaranteed to deeply engage the brain and provoke serious emotion — in my case, outrage, tears, and unbridled fear for those still navigating racist brutalities in their daily lives. I don’t expect the movie to take home the Oscar — its competition this year is brutal (not as brutal as scenes depicted), and its narrative, building suspense toward a dreadful denouement, is jumbled. But it’s important folks bear witness to the buried history and also understand the undercurrent of one of Pacino’s iconic performances.

The other movie in this year’s Oscar race that pays unexpected homage to “Dog Day Afternoon” is the Norwegian offering “Verdens Verste Menneske,” translated as “The Worst Person in the World,” up for both original screenplay and international feature film. Who’s this worst person? Julie is no criminal. She’s a med student on the cusp of 30 who’s unsure what she truly wants in life — career-wise, love-wise, reproductive-wise — and how her indecisiveness affects those in her path. The title unfairly indicts her, of course, because many of us herk and jerk our way toward self-actualization.

One of her onetime lovers — played by the brilliant Anders Danielsen Lie, who happens to be a doctor as well as an actor — delivers an incisive line, something like: “How many times can one watch ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ anyway?” That’s loosely translated and quoted, as I was at an actual movie theater for this one and not taking notes. Danielsen Lie’s character, a cartoonist and comic book writer, was reflecting on art, on the things in life with true value. He says something to the effect of: You can’t pass along culture in objects, you can’t really collect it, you can’t hold it in your hand. Although Julie, who works at a bookstore, reminds him, oh, but no, with books you can.

It’s an interesting testament to the screenwriter, who wrote the words and obviously reveres the American movie that snagged the 1975 award for best original screenplay. Just a passing reference, but one that made me sit up and wonder: How deep into our universal psyche does “Dog Day Afternoon” go?

Pretty deep, apparently. In 2009, “Dog Day Afternoon” was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. I wonder if it’s been translated into Norwegian.

You may have heard about one special scene in “The Worst Person in the World,” in which Julie flips a switch and manages to momentarily test another life choice, an alternative pathway. The world freezes, and she escapes her domestic scene and runs through city streets to meet a potential love interest. Blissfully, no GCI tricks were used; folks freeze in place as she and the camera crew dodge and dart by.

I heard that on the day this scene was filmed, other passersby — or non-passersby, as it were — caught on to what was happening and extended the scene outward, filling in like an endless game of freeze tag, even though they weren’t on anyone’s list or payroll. It reminded me of the energy of the extras in the Attica! scene of “Dog Day Afternoon” — a fuse lit among the crowd but, in this case, inspiring stillness, inner reflection.

Our memories of movies live beside the memories of our lives, sometimes indistinguishable in our brains. No doubt John Wojtowicz had trouble remembering where he left off and the folk hero created by Pacino began. In fact, a transcendent 10-minute art installation dubbed “The Third Memory” features the actual John Wojtowicz re-enacting the 1972 Brooklyn bank robbery alongside footage of Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon” and actual media coverage, including that Life article that inspired the screenplay. Sure would like to see the functional magnetic resonance imaging on that.

And that’s how movies amplify the stories of our lives. Some lived, others half-lived, some half-remembered, others impossible to forget.