Oscars 2016: I coulda been a contender

oscarjoyAs in Oscar marathoning, so in life.

What commodities are at play? Time, money, motive, opportunity.

I had plenty of motive this year. A modicum of money. Less so time. As to opportunity, in the end, the only movies that truly were withheld from view were two features and three documentary shorts — meaning, short of buying the Blu-ray in Marnie‘s case (money commodity), there is nowhere to see them today if I tried:

  • When Marnie Was There (animated feature)
  • Embrace of the Serpent (documentary feature)
  • Body Team 12 (documentary short)
  • Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah (documentary short)
  • A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (documentary short)

It’s my own fault on those remaining documentary shorts. I trusted a bad Google search that implied the West End arthouse cinema was permanently closed. It had been the go-to place for documentary shorts, but I dismissed it this year as a possibility. In fact, it recently reopened and was showing them the first week in February — not today. Opportunity missed.

And previously I, along with fellow Oscar marathoners, were spewing hate at Quentin Tarantino and The Hateful Eight: Tarantino, for making a 70mm bloody movie that few theaters wanted to order or had the capability to show (he’s just as frustrated after one in particular reneged on showing it) and The Hateful Eight for teasing us into thinking we could catch it in Silver Spring on Feb. 19. Missed it by ONE DAY. For an entire week, it was nowhere — well, nowhere within 200 miles. Then outta the blue, while heading into D.C. on Friday — my last “free” night before Oscars night — on the way to see A War, which I thought would be the last film I picked up this season, a quick Google search turned up The Hateful Eight at a pop-up arthouse near Gallaudet University. The only showing I could make was 9:25 p.m., and I’d have to break a standing date with my husband, and walk a mile round-trip in an unfamiliar, dangerous neighborhood after midnight. While weighing options on the Metro, someone at another station actually got hit by a train, disabling service. Decision made, and opportunity lost.

That same theater, Angelika Pop-Up — likely a perfectly safe, cool theater, I may never know — also this weekend opened the hard-to-get Boy and the World (animated feature from Brazil), which I could have nabbed this morning — early this morning, for an 11:15 showing — but it woulda meant a 1¼-hour trip, three hours round-, plus the 1½-hour movie … nearly six hours for a cartoon? The commodity of time notwithstanding.

oscar1wordStill, if I’d planned things right, I could have ended this season with having seen an impressive 90% of all Oscar-nominated movies in the top 24 categories. That’s even including the five Original Song nominees, excluded here because of the shunned, shameful Fifty Shades of Grey. (I’ve seen The Hunting Ground — a heart-wrenching documentary putting faces to the unbreakable sexual abuse survivors on today’s most prestigious college campuses and tracking their battle to hold university officials more accountable — and the other four suddenly are available either for peanuts On Demand or free on HBO. I’ll sample the tunes on iTunes.)

Back to reality: After picking up the anomaly in the animated feature category, Anomalisa, at an Alexandria, Va., late show last night with my husband after a party and then nailing Cinderella — and completing the costume design category — this morning before breakfast by signing up through Amazon Prime for a free seven-day trial of its streaming service Starz, I end with a score of 34/37+12/15, or 88%!!!!

Adding to the titles missing above, I also lack, a-lack …

  • The Hateful Eight 
  • Boy and the World 

… thus am disqualified from voting with full authority in five frigging categories:

  • Actress in a Supporting Role (grrrrr — hateful to miss any of the “top six”)
  • Cinematography
  • Music (Original Score)
  • Animated Feature
  • Documentary (Short Subject)

My predictions, you ask? Nothing earth-shattering here. The 2016 Oscars seem boring and far too easy to predict.

Best Picture

Prediction & Pick: The Revenant

(see ” ‘The Revenant’ should be revered” for rationale)

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: Spotlight won.

Actor in a Leading Role

Prediction & Pick: Leonardo DiCaprio

(see “Best actor slam-dunk” for rationale)

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: Leo won!!!!

Actress in a Leading Role

Prediction: Brie Larson

Pick: This is where it falls apart for me. Hardest category, always. The only fabulous leading lady easily eliminated this year is Cate Blanchett. Carol, about a May-December lesbian love affair back in the ’50s when such things were unspoken, even unconscionable to some, was deeply moving, as was Cate’s pivotal “these people” scene during the deposition with her husband — out of nowhere, crocodile tears. But she was unknowable (maybe that was the point). She outshone herself with her performance as the stepmother in Cinderella, yet she wasn’t nominated for that. What bugs me most is her young lover and supporting actress nominee, Rooney Mara, had more screen time and did more yeoman’s acting yet was sublimated by Cate’s stature. So Cate earns a penalty.

Jennifer Lawrence, while smokin’ stellar in Joy — she carried the film, despite De Niro threatening to sabotage it — didn’t stretch far enough from Catniss. I love you, Jen, I do, you have a magnetic aura, but no mopping up for you. I fell in love with Saoirse Ronan. As an Irish maiden torn between two lovers and two homelands, she left me breathless, like that Kander and Ebb showtune A Quiet Thing “… Happiness comes in on tiptoe, well whaddya know? It’s a quiet thing …” Do folks even realize she played Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones? That heart-stopping scene with Stanley Tucci still gives me chills, and she was only about 14. (BTW, Tucci was my favorite actor in Spotlight.)

I want to give this enchanting, gifted actress a body-of-work Oscar already and she’s but a wee lass of 21. But our-house-of-cards-is-crumbling Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years: even quieter, and no one much has trumpeted her gloriousness. Of all the films and performances this year, her portrayal of a wife battling a dead rival will likely stay with me longest. Could be my age. Could be her age (70). She was understated and elegant, and in the final frame simply haunting. Here’s a clip (not the final frame):

So my pick? Oh, piddle. Brittle but unbreakable Brie Larson‘s survivor, maternal, petulant spirit took us on quite the journey. But the star of this movie is the story, the screenplay, the directing, the 9-year-old who wasn’t nominated.

So my brain-picking pick: Saoirse (SEAR-sha) Ronan 

(Looking for an upset and some excitement, but I’ll be disappointed only if Cate Blanchett wins.)

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: Brie Larson won.

 Actor in a Supporting Role

Prediction & Prediction: Sylvester Stallone

Rationale:  Christian Bale seemed more autistic than odd bird in what one critic calls the erratic tragicomedy The Big Short. Mark Ruffalo is one of my favorite guy and journalists are my peeps, but this performance was average — all impatience and mumbling. Cool cucumber Mark Rylance nearly gets my vote; as a Cold War spy, he brought artistry to a movie that screamed artificial. Tom Hardy — huge profile for him this year, eh?, between The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road. He’s truly masterful, the Next Big Thing, but he also mumbled through both roles. (What’s wrong with mumbling?! Dunno, but I need to find some way to eliminate them.) In the end, Stallone was a huge surprise. Didn’t think he could act. But those darting eyes, curling lips, the strength he emotes in what seems a decrepit face (c’mon, he’s only 69!! THAT’S acting!). Gotta go with the odds-on favorite.

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: Mark Rylance won.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Prediction: Alicia Vikander

Pick: Kate Winslet 

(I’m not allowed to vote here, according to my rules, because I didn’t see Jennifer Jason Leigh in “The Hateful Eight,” but I “saw” her in “Anomalisa.”)

Rationale: Almost went with Vikander. Saw her in Ex Machina, too, of course, and she’s amazing, she deserves the win. But I can’t get Kate’s performance off my mind, so I’m just going with that. I’d also be THRILLED if Rooney Mara gets it, because she is a leading actress in that film (not supporting, as classified) if ever there was one. I wanted to see Carol a second time just to time her screen time, but I know that’s not how the academy decides leading vs. supporting. She’s handicapped because the name of the film is Cate Blanchett’s character. The only one easily eliminated is the flat Rachel McAdams. She is almost as inconsequential in Spotlight as she was in the second season of True Detective. Emily Blunt was robbed for not being nominated  for Sicario  — even if she would have been placed in the leading actress category, I blame Rachel McAdams for wasting a female spot.

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: Alicia Vikander won.

Animated Feature

Prediction: Inside Out

Pick: Anomalisa

Rationale: Charlie Kaufman’s frisky masterpiece borrows from his Being John Malkovich screenplay but is possibly funnier, more tragic and artistically mesmerizing. Motivational speaker Michael Stone has lost all sense of himself in a world of utter sameness. It takes a “deformed” dimwit — freshly prosaic Lisa — to rouse him, if only momentarily, from his hypocritical, hyper-critical stupor. And Inside Out is just good, clean therapy, for anyone, not just the kids.

(I’m also not allowed to vote here, because I didn’t see “When Marnie Was There” or “Boy and the World.”)

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: Inside Out won.

Cinematography

Prediction & Pick: The Revenant

(Didn’t see “The Hateful Eight”)

Rationale: The most immersive camera work ever. And no VR or 3-D. Sure felt like it.

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: The Revenant won.

Costume Design

Prediction & Pick: Cinderella

Rationale: I wanted to throw a bone to Mad Max: Fury Road here, but Cate Blanchett’s frocks as the stepmother were jaw-dropping and Cinderella’s ballgown? It had the moonlight in it without being over-the-top. Those costumes alone made me cry.

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: Mad Max: Fury Road won. (I had picked that to win before I saw Cinderella.)

Directing

Prediction & Pick: Alejandro G. Iñarritu for The Revenant

But: I was this close to picking Lenny Abrahamson for Room.

And, question: Why does the Oscar cheat sheet list only movie titles and not the directors’ names for this category? Oversight? Works this year, though, because the accomplishments of movie and director are seamless and inseparable. From 2006 (The Departed) through 2011 (The Artist), the Best Picture and Best Director awards were indistinguishable (matched wins). We had two years of disjointed, “spread it around” awards, but last year Iñarritu restored the AMPAS tradition with Birdman, and he’s bound to do it again with back-to-back Oscars.

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: The Revenant won.

Documentary (Feature)

Prediction: Amy

Pick: The Look of Silence

Rationale: The Amy Winehouse story is something everyone in Hollywood can relate to. Reminded me of the Kurt Cobain film, Montage of Heck. Nicely structured, uncomfortably voyeuristic, with great archival footage. But in the end, they’re both “home movies.” If a biopic were to take top honors, I’d rather see it go to the Nina Simone thought-provoking piece, What Happened, Miss Simone? Far more moving and important a message (racism, mental illness). Documentaries should be about the message, and that’s why I favor Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to 2013’s The Act of Killing. How many times does this guy need to call our attention to genocide? Most people aren’t aware what happened in Indonesia in the 1960s. Please, if you haven’t already, discover this artful film. 

POST-OSCARS UPDATEAmy won.

Documentary (Short Subject)

Predicton & Pick: Last Day of Freedom

(I saw only two of the nominees, but  rationale is in “On Oscar diversity: The Big Shortcoming”)

POST-OSCARS UPDATEA Girl in the River won. NEED TO SEE THIS.

Film Editing

Prediction & Pick: The Revenant

POST-OSCARS UPDATEMad Max: Fury Road won.

Foreign Language Film

Prediction: Son of Saul

Pick: Theeb

(Note: I didn’t get to see all the nominees; still missing “Embrace of the Serpent”)

Rationale: I discussed this category a bit in “Oscar-nominated foreign films: The chosen one,” but that was before I saw A War, a Danish treatise on the war in Afghanistan that elicits serious PTSD, and Theeb, a gorgeous, lone-wolf Arabian western — the marriage of The Martian and The Revenant — starring an amazing young talent, Jacir Eid-Al-Hwietat. Who?! Right. Also loved Mustang, but it had editing issues.

POST-OSCARS UPDATESon of Saul won.

Makeup & Hairstyling

Prediction & Pick: The Revenant

Rationale: Sorry, Mad Max. And unsure why The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared was even nominated. He didn’t look 100.

POST-OSCARS UPDATEMad Max: Fury Road won.

Music (Original Score)

Prediction: The Hateful Eight

Pick: Sicario

Rationale: I didn’t see The Hateful Eight but, given its three nominations and all Tarantino’s troubles, figured it should get something. Meanwhile, the score for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, while great, was recycled greatest hits. Sicario was chilling, haunting, memorable and truly fit this fantastic film that more people should have seen and/or appreciated. All senses engaged; you could even smell it.

POST-OSCARS UPDATEThe Hateful Eight won. How’d I guess?! NEED TO SEE THIS.

Music (Original Song)

Prediction & Pick: “‘Til It Happens to You,” The Hunting Ground

Rationale: Gaga.

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: “Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre won. Pissed.

Production Design

Prediction: Bridge of Spies

Pick: The Danish Girl

But I obviously wouldn’t be sad if The Revenant won again.

POST-OSCARS UPDATEMad Max: Fury Road won.

Short Film (Animated)

Prediction: Prologue

Pick: World of Tomorrow

(see “Are Those Animated Shorts or Are You Just Happy to See Me?” for rationale)

POST-OSCARS UPDATEBear Story (Chile) won.

Short Film (Live Action)

Prediction: Day One

Pick: Stutterer

(see rationale in “On Oscar diversity: The Big Shortcoming”)

POST-OSCARS UPDATEStutterer won.

Sound Editing

Prediction: The Revenant

Pick: Sicario

POST-OSCARS UPDATEMad Max: Fury Road won.

Sound Mixing

Prediction & Pick: The Revenant

POST-OSCARS UPDATEMad Max: Fury Road won.

Visual Effects

Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road

Pick: Ex Machina

POST-OSCARS UPDATEEx Machina won.

Rationale: I always get this category wrong.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Prediction & Pick: Room

(see rationale in “Adapted screenplay: Make room for ‘Room’ “)

POST-OSCARS UPDATEThe Big Short won.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

Prediction: Spotlight

Pick: Ex Machina

Rationale: Gotta give Spotlight at least one. As a real-life journalist, I thought the screenplay was scarily accurate and gripping. Some people say this film will sweep, but I beg to differ. I beg to, because I loved it — saw it twice. And I agree with my husband who says movies must be important, not just entertaining or magical or honest or wrenching or whatever other criteria. Indeed, this one is important, as Doubt was important, or All the President’s Men. (Ultimately, though, as my justification for ignoring Spotlight in every other category, The Revenant got ahold of me and never let go, just like that bear.) Ex Machina, meanwhile — what a fantastic, futuristic, escapist (or not!) story. One of my favorites of the year.

POST-OSCARS UPDATESpotlight won.

Phew, done. Nothing left but the tears.

LET THE FASHION PARADES AND EFFING PARTIES COMMENCE.

Oscar picks: Documentaries

What every documentary filmmaker is born knowing; Real life can be stranger than fiction — and 50 times more horrific, dramatic, tear-jerking, whatever you’re going for in the storytelling. Above all, documentaries can incite a typically passive moviegoer to outrage and action.

Michael Moore, on Oscar night.

Michael Moore, cleans up well for the 2003 Academy Awards. His Oscar-winning “Bowling for Columbine” is a timeless treatise on gun violence.

IMHO, it took Michael Moore, a master documentary maker, to raise the genre to an art form, combining all of the above, plus humor. He also inserts himself into his movies — analogous to a first-person-column approach in a newspaper. Not that documentaries ever aimed to be objective; their hallmark is advancing an agenda, from awareness to anarchy. So judging them on artistic vs. sociopolitical merit can be tricky.

What Moore does is mix the flavor of 60 Minutes and Mission: Impossible into an awesome sauce of smart sass. Maybe the theory is: to get more people to watch documentaries, you must inject them with more mainstream movie technique.

Frankly, I’m seeing the lines blurring both ways. Best Picture nominees are becoming more docudrama-esque. Most of this year’s pool are based on “true stories”(American Hustle is about Abscam; 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street are all derived from memoirs) — history vs. “story” story. Of the remaining three, two are fantastical cautionary tales (Gravity and Her, both sci-fi nightmares that advance only slightly today’s horrors of technology and artificial intelligence to navel-gazing effect). The lone Nebraska is novel in its novel approach. But more on BestPicNoms in a future post.

Even when you’re up on the news and know the story inside and out, the structure of documentaries is delightfully unpredictable, compared with your typical blockbuster. And it’s nearly impossible to correctly guess which one will take home the Oscar.

So here’s a hand. I’ve seen all five of this year’s crackerjack crop of nominees. They are so good, I hesitate to present summaries lest you decide you don’t need to see them.

You need to see these. They will make you smarter.

Four are available for live-streaming on Netflix, with the fifth, 20 Feet From Stardom, coming at a higher premium on Amazon ($3.99 for Amazon Prime members).

The nominees, in alphanumerical order:

20 Feet From Stardom

This slick, music-soaked testament charts the careers of backing vocalists, specifically the black women who supported the careers of artists such as Lou Reed (“… and the colored girls sing doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo …), The Talking Heads, Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, Elton John, Luther Vandross (the latter two got their starts as backing vocalists, didjaknow?; we learn that Vandross backed Bowie on his soulful hit “Young Americans”). Specifically, we meet Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill and Tata Vega — if their names ring any bells and, really, they should — that’s the point. It explores why some people “make it” and others never will. A handful are brought back for a reunion recording session.

Note: This is the ONLY nominee that doesn’t depend on subtitles. For that reason, and the star power behind it (Bruce Springsteen kinda narrates), I’m thinking it appeals most to Hollywood and will win.

The Act of Killing

Based on synopsis alone, this one may garner Academy votes. It’s got a great gimmick. The filmmakers found former executioners who spent 1965-66 helping to purge a million “Commies” in Indonesia — thousands at their hands alone. They interview the killers (self-dubbed “gangsters”) in present day, taking them back to the scene of their war crimes and inviting them to tell their stories by re-enacting the brutal slayings. It plays out as a twisted form of therapy for some of them, but void of justice.  As documentaries go, it is too contrived, rambling and poorly edited, for my tastes. If you want to skip one, this is at the bottom of my heap. Which is why I fear it may win.

NOTE: So far, these first two are what I call “hindsight” documentaries. They rely on vintage footage and modern interviews and reunions to make the meat of the movie. The following three all required more “vision” on the part of the filmmakers to capture the story as it unfolded. That quality raises a documentary in my estimation.

Cutie and the Boxer

This is an art-for-art’s-sake film in the vein of Inocente, which won the Oscar for documentary short in 2013. That film followed a homeless Hispanic teenage artist’s journey to being celebrated at her own art show — while gaining self-esteem and independence along the way. “Cutie” refers to the doppelganger of Japanese artist Noriko Shinohara (more like a graphic cartoonist) who came to America at age 19 to pursue her career but got sidetracked after she met and married her mentor, Ushio “Gyu-chan” Shinohara, a Japanese Neo-Dadaist who famously creates paintings by boxing at the canvas. This film is the couple’s reality show, showing their humble suffering while living for art, the warts of marriage and alcoholism (they are separated in age by 22 years and The Boxer is turning 80 as the film starts). It also focuses on their chasm of recognition and satisfaction, as they journey toward their first husband-wife gallery show in hardscrabble NYC. It is Noriko’s story of finding her voice and independence (“I am woman, hear me ROAR”), so for that reason Academy voters, always swayed by feminist themes, may vote for it.

Dirty Wars

Fearless investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill (The Nation) should not only win the Academy Award for this exposé of the repercussions of America’s “War on Terror,” he should win a medal. Using spooky, artsy night-vision effects, gritty black-and-white-and-blue-and-green hues, he follows the country’s collective dawning that a Joint Special Operations Command even exists — a force nicknamed the “American Taliban,” which seems impervious to fact-finding or flak and was ultimately outed with the killing of Osama bin Laden. As one observer puts it: A potent “hammer searching for a nail.” Scahill is the star of the film, with Art-of-War-Zen-like narration, but also in the model of Michael Moore. It is mind-blowingly shot, tautly edited, expansive and gripping. It may also dent your American pride a bit while opening your eyes to why the rest of the world hates us so much.
A MUST-SEE.

The Square

This film serves as your Cliffs notes for the Arab Spring, tracking revolutionaries during the uprising in Egypt’s Tahrir Square from repression under Mubarak to his overthrow to the election of Morsi to repression under him to his overthrow and Egypt’s uncertain future. One young instigator I particularly fell in love with was Ahmed Hassan, an articulate and charismatic kid; another, Magdy, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. And they’re tight friends! Folk singer Ramy Essam’s storyline is particularly wrenching, and the main guy, Khalid Abdallah, is actually Scottish and movie-star-handsome. And there are women featured, too. If the image in your mind when you think of these Cairo demonstrations is macho heathens or the shocking assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan, this movie will change your mind about these masses who are together more enlightened than the bulk of Americans seem to be. Against the backdrop of Dirty Wars, this movie makes Egyptians the most heroic tribe on Earth. But it won’t win, because it is too much like the documentaries shown in school. Still, it could win due to the uprising of Netflix, for which it was produced.

To wrap up:

My prediction: 20 Feet From Stardom

My pick: Dirty Wars