Oscars 2016: Best actor slam-dunk

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How fitting that Trumbo was the quill in my Actor in a Leading Role cap, the last nominee under my belt, and this year’s homage to Hollywood. (Although Hollywood played the antihero, as part and parcel to 1947’s congressional Commie witch hunt.)

Tragic that a movie about one of the most courageous and prodigious screenwriters in history did not itself earn a screenplay nomination. (Rewrite!)

A shame, too, that Dalton Trumbo’s stand-in won’t be taking home any Oscars next week. As much as Bryan Cranston embodied the wry stoicism of this blacklisted stand-up guy, he can’t touch my untouchable Leo. Cranston is the oldest nominee, nearly 60, but he’s the newbie in this form, with a style still suiting the small screen.

No need to belabor or overthink this category. It’s a two-horse race between Leonardo “always-the bridesmaid” DiCaprio and karma-chameleon Eddie Redmayne. It could be a photo finish, but my money’s on — and my heart’s with — Leo. 

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Eddie was fabulous; his long scene before the long mirror, spellbinding. Ultimately, though, despite The Danish Girl‘s gorgeous production design and superlative acting throughout by all, I found myself drifting, uninvolved at the end. Eddie sure can pose and emote — eventually it devolved into vogueing for me. He was technically masterful, enough that I accepted him as a woman, but Leo brought me along in a more visceral way — not just in the eviscerating scenes. I could see Eddie pulling off an upset and making history with a back-to-back Oscar win. Spencer Tracy won consecutive best actor Oscars in the late ’30s, Tom Hanks did it in the ’90s. Ought the aughts be a three-peat feat?

Speaking of three, that’s three … who else is nominated again? Will Smith? No …

Ah, yes, Matt Damon for The Martian. He was darling but not my favorite martian. One might argue he had fewer lines than Leo, but, no, astronaut Mark Watney definitely talked to himself more than frontiersman-fur trapper Hugh Glass in their parallel-universe isolation. Both left for dead and each having a special way with the blade — and grimacing. A survivalist’s showcase, but I love Leo best. He brought HEAT. No heat shield could protect me from that. I’m not down on Damon, and he hasn’t won an Oscar since his screenplay win for 1997’s Good Will Hunting. But he’s kinda the same guy film to film, if we’re to be honest. He’s got all that musculature and the wave of his arm and that clueless-stunned look. The Martian is not his vehicle to Oscar glory.

fassbender-jobsFinally, consider Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs. Wow. Unbelievable this is the 12 Years a Slave villain. He might be flying under many radars, but stand by for Fassbender 3.0.

Now I didn’t cry in Trumbo; I didn’t cry in The Danish Girl, even though I was supposed to; I let a few tears fly in The Martian, but only when the mass of humanity was applauding the sky; I did cry in The Revenant for that minute my mouth wasn’t slack-jawed, when Glass “reunites” with his half-blood son at the church ruins; but, my goodness, Fassbender’s rooftop scene with daughter Lisa, and the tape recorder bit? Puddles. Both times I saw it, his telescoping genius got me. Score. Despite an Oscar nod, Fassbender is underrated, and it’s a shame there was so much backlash about the “accuracy” of this film. A) Movies, by nature, don’t have to be accurate and B) WHY wasn’t this screenplay nominated?! It “read” like a stage play to me, with brilliant patter so much more noteworthy than what critics fawned over in The Social Network. Kate Winslet — another one I wish could win this year. I barely recognized her until halfway through! But she’s been overshadowed by Alicia Vikander, whose double-duty in The Danish Girl and Ex Machina could put her over the top, so the pundits say. But I’ll save actress predictions for another post.

Funny: I’m pulling for both DiCaprio and Winslet. A Titanic slam-dunk!

At least one will survive.

My pick and prediction: Leonardo DiCaprio

‘The Revenant’ should be revered

Show of hands: Who knew what “revenant” meant before the movie? ——–

As suspected.

Folks, don’t judge a movie by its title. Tough to draw an audience to the cinema by way of the thesaurus, 20th Century Fox has learned. Upon formulating it was a “revenge flick,” the public was less likely to see it when it came out on Christmas Day — didn’t strike anyone as particularly festive.

And yet the movie’s theme of isolation resonated more powerfully for me (an Oscar marathoner can relate, sitting alone in a theater during 10:10 p.m. previews). It so happens isolation is a common theme among this year’s batch of nominees. The Martian. Room. Carol. 45 Years. The Danish Girl. Joy. Bridge of Spies. Theeb. They all track survivalists’ courage, sitting “inside the head” of protagonists as they struggle alone against the tide or against their demons or against the challenge of seeing 37 feature films and 15 shorts in a month’s time.

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Every year, my Oscar cheat sheet looks slightly different. This year, I started marathoning at my parents’ house when my dad’s printer was low on ink. Charming. One of these days, I shall invent the Oscar Marathoners’ app — the better to track showtimes and venues and fit them into a busy schedule.

It’s been nearly a week since I wrapped up the Best Picture nominees ahead of the 88th Academy Awards telecast, now nine days away. My Oscar marathoning score: 23/37+0/15 or 62% of the full-feature nominees. Still need to squeeze in those shorts. Who can blame me? I’ve been traveling all but seven days of 2016, a big handicap. (Recap: My denominator is 37 and not 42 because I’m not counting the five Original Song nominees as I refuse to waste a cent on such refuse/trash as Fifty Shades of Grey. Should factor in some points for seeing The Hunting Ground twice and catching Spectre On Demand later this week, if I manage it.) 

Today I’m just three pictures away from crossing off what people consider the “top 6” categories: four acting honors plus best director and best picture. I tend to include the two screenplay categories as my Essential Eight. The hateful titles standing in the way: The Hateful Eight (a bear to locate; it’s playing at one remote theater with only one midday showing), Creed (plan to see the late show tonight at a hole-in-the-wall, second-run college theater) and Trumbo, which finally, FINALLY popped up On Demand.

Feast your eyes on the categories I’ve decimated:

  1. Adapted Screenplay
  2. Original Screenplay
  3. Visual Effects
  4. Sound Mixing
  5. Sound Editing — what’s the difference again?!
  6. Production Design
  7. Makeup and Hairstyling
  8. Film Editing
  9. Directing
  10. Actress in a Leading Role
  11. Best Picture

It’s never too soon to predict the big awards, so here’s my big picture on Best Picture — and you know where I’m going with this if you’re paying attention. 

*(In case you’re wondering why there are only eight nominees and not 10, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changed the rule, ergo: “The pictures receiving the highest number of votes shall become the nominations for final voting for the Best Picture award. There may not be more than 10 nor fewer than five nominations; however, no picture shall be nominated that receives less than 5% of the total votes cast.”)

The Big Short (5 total nominations; released Dec. 11, 2015). I’m all for trying to electrify a dry subject like underwater mortgages. But when I tried to watch this movie with my parents, ages 91 and 84, who have their faculties intact except for some vision/hearing issues, it played like a horror movie on their giant home-theater screen. Too jumbled, gimmicky and LOUD. They couldn’t stand it for even five minutes, so we watched Steve Jobs instead (yay, my third time!!!). Not saying The Big Short wasn’t stylistic or entertaining or educational. It aroused strong emotion: blistering anger. But this movie was trying too hard to get me to like it and, like taking medicine or an advanced econ class, I resisted. It seems targeted to Millennials with squirrel-like attention spans. For what Best Picture tends to represent — a slice of Americana that’s not so bleak — it doesn’t meet my criteria. Ranks 6th on my list.

Bridge of Spies (6 total nominations; released Oct. 4, 2015). Who knew we were referring to a literal bridge?!? Despite fairy-tale-like production design and drippy nostalgia, most of the imagery was not only too literal — it was simplistic. Terrific story, but in Steven Spielberg’s hands it was dumbed-down, Disney-fied, you know, for kids. God, I hated the part on the bus or train where the woman is reading the paper and glowering at Tom Hanks over the negative headlines and then later, same woman, different headlines and she’s all sugar and gaga. GAG ME. “Maudlin” was the word my husband used, and that describes it to a T. Although Mark Rylance was brilliant, Hanks never sold me, no matter how stirring and patriotic the soundtrack got. Give me an actual spy movie with unpredictable twists and turns any day. Ranks 7th on my list.

 Brooklyn (3 total nominations; released Nov. 4, 2015). Oh, heaven. Now THIS is the kind of American story that wins Best Picture. An absorbing immigrant tale (topical!) that some might discount as a “chick flick” but should seduce anyone with a pulse. Gorgeously filmed, consummately acted, lovely screenplay … blew me away. Unfortunately, it carries East-Coast-bias baggage and nobody saw it, so it won’t win. Ranks 4th on my list.

Mad Max: Fury Road (10 total nominations; released May 15, 2015). I’m shocked this was even nominated. I know that hurts the feelings of people I love and respect; I’m sorry. It’s nothing but a CGI car chase purported to be feminist — I felt it was sexist-ugly. The best I could give it might be costume design. People who know me understand that CGI puts me to sleep; I fell asleep twice, unfortunately, and had to see it twice. It did not improve on a second look. A Best Picture, for me, needs to be compelling enough to want to watch again and again. I’m embarrassed USA TODAY reviewers put this one at the top of their list. It would not make my top 20. I think its long legs (its release date a distant memory) can be attributed to the power of the franchise behind it, and the fact movie technology has finally hit critical mass appeal for its audience. Ranks 8th (last) on my list.

The Martian (7 total nominations; released Oct. 2, 2015). This is one of three Best Picture nominees I saw at the theater when they were released (Spotlight and Star Wars: The Force Awakens are the others). I enjoyed it enough to see it twice. Shocking that many average Americans considered it a documentary. Hello?! If a Best Picture is supposed to put life in perspective with universal themes, this works. I still get choked up thinking of the scene where the whole world is watching on screens, pulling for our lone hero in space. However, it’s not a “great” film, and its competition is too great. Ranks 5th on my list.

The Revenant (12 total nominations; released Dec. 25, 2015). I have to admit, for once, the Academy got it right. I literally had to drag myself to see this one — not unlike Hugh Glass dragging himself in the mud and snow back from the brink of death. (Funny how Leo doing that reminded me of his amazing physical comedy in his Wolf of Wall Street now-classic Quaaludes scene.) Despite my reluctance — and I never would have gone to see this if it hadn’t been nominated, thank you, Academy — as soon as the movie started, from the first frame, I was hooked. It was the closest thing to a virtual-reality cinematic experience I’ve known. Never been a fan of 3-D and actually watched it in 2-D, but still, I felt totally immersed, as if I was part of the hunting party. And for anyone who rejoices in nature — holy moly! “Revenant” should stand for “reverence.” While it is indeed a story of revenge, it has themes up the wazoo — family, tolerance, hunter-becoming-hunted, man’s place in grand scheme, native rights — the American Indian stuff alone should make it America’s Best Picture and required study in schools. This is visual literature. Haven’t read the book, but don’t need to. Pure moviemaking magic. Make fun of it all you want, but that bear-mauling scene!! I want to see it over and over. The filming of that scene should be a movie all its own. And the underwater scenes! The stunts, the rapids, the falls. This is Hollywood at its best, people. A pure vision from a brilliant director and collaborative excellence from his whole team, from hair and makeup designers to breathtaking cinematography. I was on the edge of my seat from start to finish. Part of my reaction could be because my expectations were so low that it was an utter joy to discover. I famously posted on Facebook that if The Revenant doesn’t win Best Picture, I’ll eat a raw squirrel — which is why I’m ill advised to host an Oscar party this year. Would be happy for The Revenant to sweep the rest under the rug, and I almost always prefer awards to be spread around. Go, Leo!! Ranks 1st (tops) on my list, obs. 

Room (4 total nominations; released Sept. 4, 2015). Before I saw The Revenant, this was my hands-down favorite. As you’ve heard all the critics say, it’s the Little Movie That Could. Because I had read the book, I especially could appreciate the translation to film — the movie is definitely its own vehicle, even with the author doing the screenplay adaptation — great choices. The acting is flawless, and that whip-smart Jacob Tremblay, who was not nominated for an Oscar, grrrr, nevertheless is the reason I’m torn and could almost assign Best Director to Lenny Abrahamson. The performance he coaxed outta that 9-year-old kid. … But so hard to compete with my new master, Alejandro González Iñárritu. I’m afraid Room will have to settle for a Best Adapted Screenplay and maybe a leading actress Oscar, haven’t quite decided on that yet. And that’s largely because Emily Blunt wasn’t nominated for Sicario. Robbed! Ranks 2nd on my list.

Spotlight (6 total nominations; released Nov. 6, 2015). As a journalist, I’m all for valentines to investigative reporting. I’ve seen this one twice and still cry when the presses roll. But despite a fantastic cast — including one of my favorite Broadway idols, Brian d’Arcy James, and my soulmate, Stanley Tucci — it did not ring all my bells. Yes, a compelling issue, gripping story, important to be seen and advocate for. But I’m rating movies here, not topics. And I feel neither Mark Ruffalo nor Rachel McAdams deserves their nomination. Ranks 3rd on my list, with Brooklyn a close 4th.

More predictions coming soon to a blog post near you.

Adapted screenplay: Make room for ‘Room’

This is new: Adapted screenplay is the first category of nominees checked off in my race to see 37 feature films and 15 shorts before Oscar Night. That hardly ever happens. My score so far: 12/37+0/15, which means I’ve seen 32% of the essential Oscar-nominated films in this year’s first two weeks of marathoning.

But I’ve read only one of the books on the list (Room). So, despite having seen all five nominees, I’m sorely unqualified to judge.

The combination of Jack's knit hat in "Room" and Joy's stolen innocence combines to feel lot like Susie Salmon in "The Lovely Bones."

The combination of Jack’s knit hat in “Room” and Joy’s stolen innocence meshes, for me, into a mirror of Susie Salmon of “The Lovely Bones.”

Let’s begin with Room, then. The book was hauntingly told in the voice of a 5-year-old. It evoked Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, in which horrific events are filtered through a child’s eye. But Bones was a sad screen adaptation, with screenplay by Peter Jackson, lord of the epics. Relief, then, to see that author Emma Donoghue adapted her own book. She deftly sanitized parts, enhanced the dramatic tension where issues were glossed over in print — unsure how much guidance she had, but this was an emotionally wrenching, faithful, fresh adaptation.

Even the blue palette is the same.

Susie Salmon –who happened to be played by Brie Larson’s rival for best actress, Saoirse Ronan!!! I just realized — appears in her handmade knit cap. As if a parent’s love could protect a child from the cold, cruel world. Even the blue palette is the same.

A well-worn crutch in most adapted screenplay nominees (especially those derived from books) is the overuse of narration. Room managed to use this technique sparingly and effectively. The shift from Jack’s separation anxiety in the book to Ma’s on-screen trauma balanced the work, as a whole. Adore this movie, and I want it to succeed in as many categories as possible.

But then there’s The Big Short, a flashy sermon on the housing bubble, which no doubt in book form is about as far as you can get from an “action” movie. Yet, this is one of the buzziest and most kinetic films on the list. Impressively translated, but not a slam-dunk. It relied too much on narration, slide-show effects and the breakdown of the fourth wall. Too cheeky for me.

The Martian? This novel was on most folks’ holiday reading lists, yet maybe the film hewed too closely to the book. Not much adaptation to be had, aside from condensing — and most of the fascinating science got sacrificed, I hear, which made for a confusing movie upon first viewing. What amazes me is many American viewers thought this film was a documentary, that the events actually happened (while possibly the same subsample of folks subscribes to the conspiracy theory that the moon landing was a hoax). When belief is at odds with suspending disbelief, it diminishes  the sci-fi effect. Like the air on Mars, this screenplay proved thin.

Brooklyn and Carol. Both very powerful woman-empowerment flicks. I think Brooklyn outdid Carol as both film and screenplay.

Carol had one foot stuck in a novelesque mental landscape; Exhibit A was its overdone window/mirror imagery. Moving, but the movie tried too hard. I can’t imagine reading through that screenplay, ugh. While it made good use of the “flashback” technique, it was way too self-conscious to earn my vote.

Brooklyn was simply lovely. If the secret to a good adaptation is that the movie makes you want to read the book, it did its job. Brooklyn will be the next one I download.

In short, I fear The Big Short might win the Oscar, but I’m gonna short (bet against) The Big Short. Instead, I’m pulling for Room.