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.
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.]
“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.]
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!]
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!]
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.]
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.
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.
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)
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.
Still, 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”)
Music (Original Score)
Documentary (Short Subject)
My predictions, you ask? Nothing earth-shattering here. The 2016 Oscars seem boring and far too easy to predict.
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 & Pick: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
(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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 UPDATE: A Girl in the River won. NEED TO SEE THIS.
Prediction & Pick:The Revenant
POST-OSCARS UPDATE: Mad Max: Fury Road won.
Foreign Language Film
Prediction:Son of Saul
(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 UPDATE: Son 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 UPDATE: Mad Max: Fury Road won.
Music (Original Score)
Prediction:The Hateful Eight
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 UPDATE: The Hateful Eight won. How’d I guess?! NEED TO SEE THIS.
Music (Original Song)
Prediction & Pick:“‘Til It Happens to You,” The Hunting Ground
POST-OSCARS UPDATE: “Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre won. Pissed.
Prediction: Bridge of Spies
Pick:The Danish Girl
But I obviously wouldn’t be sad if The Revenant won again.
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 UPDATE: Spotlight won.
Phew, done. Nothing left but the tears.
LET THE FASHION PARADES AND EFFING PARTIES COMMENCE.
With rampant talk of the Oscars being too pale and too male, people forget another overwhelming bias: too jingoistic.
Though its headquarters are smack-dab in Beverly Hills, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was first pitched by MGM’s Louis Mayer in 1927, he intended for it to be theInternational Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But within four months of its founding, “International” was dropped from the name.
Sure, foreign films are honored in their own category, and foreign actors/creatives regularly creep in across the board. (Among this year’s best director pool, in fact, only two contenders are American, and the smart money is on Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu.) But a separate, mystery panel is required to adjudicate the foreign film categories, an upfront admission the AMPAS membership lacks a worldview.
Most films worldwide are produced in India — in 2014, it certified about three times the number of movies than were made in the USA, 1,966 vs. 707 — but only three Indian movies have ever been nominated for Academy Awards in the foreign-film category: Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Lagaan (2001). None was awarded the Oscar. Granted, awards are based on quality not quantity, but how many films aren’t considered because they are beyond the AMPAS panels’ comfort zones or ken?
America holds a movie monopoly.
For roughly a decade, I’ve tracked nominees and winners in the 24 top categories and noticed a serious U.S. bias in an area that should scream inclusiveness: the wonderful world of shorts.
AMPAS’ creed is to advance moviemaking, and this is where it happens. Shorts are the gateway for the have-nots to gain notice, funding and skill. So how’s that working out for foreigners hoping to network?
Sixty-four percent of all Oscar winners have been U.S. entries, including last year’s 3-D Feast, a Disney/Pixar production. Even the non-American animated shorts bow in some way to the States, such as France’s Logorama (2009), which pokes fun of U.S. culture — or lack thereof. The most recent ‘toon winner in a language other than English was 1999’s The Old Man and the Sea — a Russia-Canada-Japan collaboration based on an American classic novel — still in the America-centric judges’ wheelhouse. Another 17% of the winners hail from Canada or the United Kingdom or a collaboration between the two. It’s a filter that doesn’t make us look good.
(You can read about my prediction/pick for this year’s animated shorts here.)
But enough about politics. This is art, not politics. *skeptically cocked eyebrow
My Prediction: “Day One” (USA)
This follows the first day on the job for a female Muslim interpreter joining U.S. soldiers on a mission to interview a bombmaker in a remote Afghan village. Despite slick production and fine acting, it offends. Opening with the fetching Layla Alizada nude in the camp’s makeshift shower — realizing she has also gotten her period, what a bummer!— suddenly a buff soldier is undressing outside to use it next, unaware there’s a woman in there. Oooooh, titillation. Later, of course, on the 6-mile trek she has to pee, while men stand guard, and she can’t keep up with the boys and nearly passes out. What, is this Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Oh, and of course the crisis involves a complicated pregnancy. While dramatic and gripping, it’s billed as challenging gender and cultural norms but plays right into them. U-S-A! U-S-A! zzzzzzzzzzzz.
ITS EDGE: Heavy industry backing in the way of George Lucas, AFI and marketing up the wazoo. Not to mention the whole military industrial complex. AND it’s slick, did I say? Then there’s the issue that its unoriginal title could easily be confused on the ballot with a popular iPad journaling app, a domestic abuse non-profit or any number of previous TV movies or low-budget films, something porn-ish. Capitalize on name recognition much? Plus they save it until last in the cinema bundle. Who decides the order? It’s like So You Think You Can Dance, the contestant with the most votes or best routine finishes the night.
My Pick: “Stutterer” (Ireland)
Enchanting, beautiful film that shows the comfort and value of online relationships. Matthew Needham plays an earnest loner who would be a hipster if not for his debilitating stutter. He is dependent on his dad to navigate the day, while narrating a lovely alternate universe in his head. When the woman he has been Facebook-chatting up for six months suddenly arrives in town and requests a meeting, he finds himself at a crossroads. With all the heavy topics this year in every category, this film is a breath of fresh air. And, of course, the litmus test: This is the one I would share with my adult daughters.
“Ave Maria”(France/Germany/Palestine) — A Jewish family has an implausible accident at a nunnery in Palestine. They beseech the coven of virgin Marys to help them get back to the settlement. A bit goofy, soap opera-ish and tinged with anti-Semitism, it’s my least favorite of the bunch, even though there were several good laughs (the pickle! the phone!). Refreshing treatment of the Middle East conflict, but felt as if it was shot in just one day.
“Shok” (Kosovo/United Kingdom) —Kite Runner in Kosovo. Told mostly in flashback, this is a horrific, powerful story of the death of a friendship amid war (“shok” means friend), and how two adolescent boys are forced to face evil head-on. A true shock awaits that will lurch you in your seat. The only downside is it relies on structural clichés.
“Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)”(Germany/Austria) — Love, love, love this one. Simon Schwarz is brilliant as a father who decides he wants custody of his daughter. He’s like a Louis C.K. without the humor. The way the plot unfolds is like a master class in acting. So tense and suspenseful. Such complicated emotions, and the little girl is fabulous, too. I would have chosen this one, if Stutterer hadn’t charmed the pants off me. Something about the order in which the shorts are bundled is extremely manipulative. I’d be thrilled, though, if this won.
Prediction & Pick: Last Day of Freedom
Because my favorite D.C. venue to watch the documentary shorts has permanently closed, I could find only two of the nominees On Demand. Sorta like flipping a coin, but this one stood out. It’s topical, about our broken justice system, but is a blend of documentary and animated short. An interview with the brother of a death row inmate is illustrated in lovely pencil drawings. Its novelty alone should carry it to gold. I wanted to watch it again as soon as I was done.
Chau, beyond the Lines — [Ed: That lowercase “b” is cq.] A guilt trip to Vietnam. Chau is an institutionalized teen boy afflicted with deformities caused by American use of Agent Orange. He also happens to dream of being an artist and fashion designer, even though he must draw with his foot or mouth. Stirring, but it feels a little like a 60 Minutes segment and reminded me of Inocente, the winner a few years back about the homeless girl who also wanted to become an artist.
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, 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.
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.
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.