CJ and Jim go through most of the categories. We have ideas, opinions and predictions. We make a financial bet over Best Original Screenplay. And at the end, we apply the Preferential Ballot System of voting to our own ballots and come up with a BOLD PREDICTION FOR BEST PICTURE! Your comments welcome and appreciated. Happy Oscars 2018!
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It’s been terrific to watch, and be surprised by, Greta Gerwig’s evolution as a film artist. Having missed her entire early career as the leading lady of the mumblecore movement from 2006 to 2011, I finally became aware of her goofy charms in Greenberg (2010). For a while, I frankly thought she was a one-trick pony, her voice and physicality being so distinctive and consistent across the next few of her films that she seemed destined to play variations of herself. But then her craft seemed to expand, and in roles like Abbie in 20th Century Women (2016) she revealed greater depth of characterization. Indeed, in a film full of great actresses, for me she stole that show.
Meanwhile, her writing developed alongside. She co-wrote the lovely, humble Frances Ha (2012) with her paramour Noah Baumbach, and then did so again, more ecstatically, with the razor-sharp, truly witty Mistress America (2015). Now, she journeys solo as a writer, and directs, with the sublime Lady Bird, and in doing so gives us her origin story.
The film is billed as “semi-autobiographical,” but it’s so full of precise – and off-beat – observations that I’m taking it as pretty close to her real life. In fact, it’s so personal that the final lines of the film feel like they’re intended for an audience of one (while not actually excluding the rest of us, no mean feat). It covers the final year in the Catholic High School career of Gerwig’s surrogate, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, Oscar-nominated), taking in her relationships with boys, her best friend, her teachers (including the nuns), her family and, most vitally, her mother (Laurie Metcalf, nominated in the Supporting category).
The script is fantastic – smart, witty, revealing, precise, and concise. Gerwig and Baumbach pulled off something tricky with the script of Mistress America, constructing the third act as one continuous set-piece in the vein of a theatrical farce, but Gerwig goes in the opposite direction here, keeping every scene surprisingly brief. Blink and you’ll miss one; go for a wee and you’ll miss three. Thankfully you shouldn’t have to; in keeping with the speedy vibe, the whole shebang is over in 94 minutes.
I could have watched it for days. Ronan is staggeringly charming and appealing, even when Lady Bird is not. There is absolutely an element of Gerwig in her performance, specifically in her physical mannerisms, a kind of shaking of the lower face that was a hallmark of Gerwig’s, at least from 2010 to 2015. Metcalf is solid and real, and there is an exciting find in Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s bestie Julie. Her character has an entire, intriguing arc, not all of which we’re privy to; Gerwig leaves its darker elements off-screen, as though Lady Bird / Gerwig didn’t hear the whole story until after this story ended.
My experience of the film was light, delightful, airy and droll, but I think that the closer you yourself are to Lady Bird the more the film’s heavier, darker notes will resonate. If you’re a young woman with a mother and a Catholic School education, you’ve almost certainly found, in this beautiful film, your Catcher In The Rye, your Rushmore, your Sixteen Candles, your Juno, your origin story.
At this year’s Academy Awards, the race for Best Foreign Language film came down to two horses: Mustang (which neatly fits the metaphor, yeah?) and Son of Saul. It’s completely understandable that the latter won: it’s a rather revolutionary work, which justified re-visiting the holocaust by its bold technique and astonishing integrity. Mustang is not revolutionary, it’s just a very solid and well-constructed film that is eye-opening without being heavy-handed.
Five sisters go to the beach after their final class for the semester. There they play in the water with some boys. It is a sequence of pure beauty and delight: young people enjoying a classic vibe. School’s out, and they are free.
But there’s the rub – because they’re in a Black Sea town in Turkey, not Sydney or Santa Monica, and a local old lady, watching from afar, doesn’t like what she sees. The sisters are orphans, living with their progressive or at least easy-going grandmother, and when the nosy old biddy dobs them in to their uncle, he takes it upon himself to tighten the reins. These beautiful free, somewhat wild horses are going to be broken.
The magic trick of Mustang is that it’s a scathing indictment of traditional patriarchal control in modern Turkey without being at all heavy handed. You’re in for the story and the message comes free. I had no idea this stuff went on in contemporary Turkey; that exposes some ignorance on my part and made the film all the more powerful.
The performances are all terrific but the girls are just sublime. The actresses – the youngest is thirteen – are astonishingly believable as sisters. In the opening, sunny, completely enticing early scenes, when the “mustang” is free, the way the girls move together, through the streets and open spaces of their town, is extraordinary. They flow like a single organism that contracts and expands, exchanging positions, following and leading, their energy seemingly binding them on invisible elastic cords, not so much like a school of fish as an amoeba.
Warren Ellis contributes a score made up of cello, flute and violin that suits the tone of the film perfectly, which is dreamy, soft and fluid, despite the imposing subject matter. It’s the debut feature for writer / director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who made the film for just €1,300,000. We’ll be hearing more from her.
Now that I’ve seen all eight nominees for this year’s Best Picture, here’s my ranked list, from favorite to least favorite. Bear in mind, they’re all very good this year.
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Your comments most welcome.
An Instant Response to the Oscar Nominations: (NB not having yet seen THE REVENANT)
All good nominees. FURY ROAD should win. ROOM and BROOKLYN are the great surprises. I would easily give the award to ROOM in a year FURY ROAD didn’t exist. But these are all very, very good films. Will win? FURY ROAD or THE REVENANT. Weird omission: CAROL.
Should win and will win: George Miller. Come on.
It’s shocking Paul Dano isn’t here for LOVE AND MERCY. It feels like it’s gonna go to Leo.
I’d now say it’s definitely Brie Larson for ROOM – should and will.
Again, this should be Paul Dano. I guess it will go to Mark Ruffalo. Maybe Sylvester Stallone.
Jennifer Jason Leigh. Done.
INSIDE OUT or ANOMALISA? I wouldn’t lay a dollar here.
C’mon. Jenny Beavan, FURY ROAD.
Not everyone loves AMY. How about THE LOOK OF SILENCE?
C’mon: Margaret Sixel, FURY ROAD.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE FEATURE:
SON OF SAUL, natch.
HAIR AND MAKE UP:
C’mon, Lesley Vanderwalt, FURY ROAD. But possibly THE REVENANT.
Obviously Colin Gibson, FURY ROAD
SOUND MIXING, VFX, SOUND FXL:
The hardest of all – is it CAROL or THE BIG SHORT? I think it will be CAROL.
It’ll be SPOTLIGHT or INSIDE OUT.
Well, tomorrow they’re not gonna matter more than a hill o’beans except to the winners, but it’s Oscar Day, so some final thoughts are due.
Every year, the punditry (of which I am part) gets noisier, more crowded, but also – I guess because of the first two – more accurate. The Oscars are losing their surprising quality. When I was a kid, I could cross my fingers ‘till they ached hoping that Raiders of the Lost Ark was going to win Best Picture; these days, by the time I’ve read the blogs, heard the radio spots, and checked the bookie’s odds, I know what is likely to pan out (and it wasn’t going to be Raiders). I have put my money where my mouth is before (by laying bets), and I’ve won. I decided to stop doing that because it took a little of the fun out of it for me.
But there are still, always, thankfully, some surprises. So here are a few concepts of what might happen. In other words, some possible upsets.
The money’s all on 12 Years a Slave to take the Producer’s prize at the end of the night, and Alfonso Cuarón is as much of a lock as has ever been for Best Director. But everyone I speak to says something along the lines of, “Look, I loved 12 Years A Slave, but for me, the best picture of the year was Gravity.” Some of these people vote. A lot of the voters, I suspect, feel this way. All those sneaky votes for Gravity may just end up in… a win for Gravity.
LEONARDO DiCAPRIO WINS BEST ACTOR
All the money’s on Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, he deserves it, he’s won all the others, and he’ll almost certainly win it. But DiCaprio has been campaigning like no-one has ever campaigned before, particularly “behind closed doors” – ie, through his Top of the World contacts and status in Hollywood. He wants this award more than anyone in this race wants an award. He bought the rights to Wolf of Wall Street, he went through all sorts of financing hell to get it made (over seven or so years) and it’s become an astronomical financial success and a huge favourite with audiences despite lacklustre reviews. Leo’s the Last Man Standing in Hollywood, the only performer left who can open a picture, guaranteed (Will Smith having fallen to the mat with After Earth, big time). If Leo has said to enough people, on closed lines and in private rooms, “vote for me this one time, and I owe you one”… then, in a huge upset, he may just, bizarrely, win an Oscar tonight.
SANDRA BULLOCK WINS BEST ACTRESS
Even more unlikely, Bullock leapfrogs Amy Adams to then push Cate Blanchett off the podium to take home that weirdest of concepts: an acting gong for Gravity. She hasn’t won anything leading up to the Oscars and Blanchett has had her face stamped with “Oscar Winner” since Blue Jasmine hit the screens months ago. But Gravity only works if the (essentially only) character works, she owned it, and by now everyone knows what a new-fangled method of performance was involved to actually play the role, stitched up like a cyborg in all sorts of contraptions all day, being hurled around and imagining… everything. It’s old-school versus new school, Blanchett essentially giving a performance that smacks of theatre training. If Bullock hadn’t won for The Blind Side a couple years back, I’d consider her a lock. But she did, kind of unfortunately.
Every bookie in the world would shoot themselves if this happened, as Frozen is already considered The Greatest Animated Film Ever, a true cultural phenomenon, the saviour of all the teenage (and younger) girls in the world; it’s already been green-lit as a Broadway musical, a “Sing-A-Long” version is already playing in theatres, and the DVD will probably outsell the light bulb. But Hayao Miyazaki has stated that The Wind Rises will be his last feature film, it’s made for adults, it quietly takes the concept of animated feature films into new areas, and Hayao Miyazaki has stated it’s his last film. If Picasso was offering his last painting against a still-productive Warhol’s Soup Cans, which would you vote for? It’s that kind of choice.
20 FEET FROM STARDOM WINS BEST FEATURE DOCUMENTARY
If this slight, feel-good peek at what is undoubtedly a fun and deserving subject wins over the ground-breaking, bold, challenging and completely original brain-f**k The Act of Killing, it may come as no surprise to anyone who prefers slight, feel-good movies about celebrity to bold, challenging mind-f**ks about mass political slaughter.
HER WINS ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
There’s a lot of love for Spike Jonze’s Her, but not a lot of room to give it any awards. Here’s a spot; it would take a statue away from David O. Russell for American Hustle (isn’t that fun to say?) but in the last couple of weeks, not everyone is saying they liked that script nearly as much as the performances it inspired.
Dallas Buyers Club reportedly had a hair and makeup budget of $250, which was used to make sure that McConaughey and Jared Leto were always at the right stage of their HIV+ effects. This was really tricky, as the film had an independent film’s shooting schedule – that is, short and out of sequence. Although the actors lost weight, their characters still had to be leaner, and “sicker”, some days more than others. It’s really subtle work, the kind that doesn’t normally even get nominated here (see The Wolfman for the kind of film that wins the Oscar). Bad Grandpa’s makeup is astonishing, and really should win, as the whole film is predicated on that makeup being so good as to fool “civilians” (while they’re surreptitiously filmed) into believing Johnny Knoxville is 86. The thing going against it is that it’s a prank movie called Bad Grandpa. And The Lone Ranger just seems to be here as some sick joke. What’s missing is American Hustle, which used hair and makeup as an essential metaphor for its themes of artifice, illusion and trickery.
Film Mafia now continues its prognostication and comment on the upcoming Event Of The Year. Comments welcome! And don’t forget to listen to the Movieland Podcast — click on the pic to your left.
Best Director and Best Picture
As seems to happen more and more these days, these two categories are gonna split. As Ang Lee got Best Director for the astonishing technical virtuosity of Tiger On A Boat, sorry – Life Of Pi, so too will Alfonso Cuarón win Best Director for Gravity. And so he should. Cuarón did this: he imagined the unfilmable – and then he filmed it. The director’s branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences all know this, and they’re going to give him the Oscar. It’s a lock. And so it should be…
But Gravity isn’t going to win Best Picture. It should, but it won’t. No matter how astonishing it is, it is Sci-Fi. Star Wars didn’t win, 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t win. And those two, just like Gravity, deserved to win. Sci-Fi doesn’t win Best Picture at the Oscars.
You would think this left 12 Years A Slave for the Best Picture slot as a lock, but this isn’t necessarily the case. American Hustle is not just in the mix, it’s neck-a-neck. How can this be so? There are a few explanations. One is that 12 Years A Slave has a reputation of being a “difficult” watch because of “unprecedented brutality” (both unwarranted charges: Django Unchained was tougher in this regard – remember the Mandingo fight and the hot box?) The Academy’s membership remains at an average age of 63 years old. Some of those old geezers will simply not have watched the film. However, American Hustle is a breezy, easy watch, totally accessible to anyone, and will have been watched by everyone who got a screener (which is every single Academy member). This alone could easily put American Hustle onto the podium.
There’s also a brimming undercurrent of resentment – rarely vocalised but real enough – that America’s great slavery movie has been made by Britain (actually, America’s great slavery movie as made by America is Django Unchained). Director Steve McQueen is British, the cast is British. It’s a British movie about not only a uniquely American subject, but one that every single American is ashamed of. It’s kind of a fuck-you – or at least, is perceived by some as such.
By contrast, American Hustle is so American it even has “American” in the title.
So where to place your money on this one? I can’t call it. To me it’s a fifty-fifty between Slave and Hustle. If they were my awards to give (see the Movieland Awards elsewhere on this page) Gravity would win. But, if I had to give the award to Slave or Hustle, I’d give it to Slave. I loved them both, but a movie begins with the thought of making it, and I really appreciate that McQueen has taken an absolutely astonishing, fundamentally important historical text and given it the screen treatment it deserved, retaining its language, its idiosyncrasies (both main slavers are incredibly nuanced and strange as they are in the actual book) and its essential raison d’être, being the story of one man’s journey, as told by that man.
But McQueen won’t be taking out that Best Director award. That’s all Cuarón.
My Oscar thoughts continue. Now for…
This is Matthew McConaughey’s to lose, and he’s not going to lose it. His work in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club is sensational and the male performance of the year, without a doubt. He’s got the Globe and the Screen Actor’s Guild Award on his shelf already. He’s a lock.
The only other horse in this race is Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave but he’s not going to win and nor should he. Ejiofor, as the extremely unfortunate Solomon Northup, suffers from being in the strange position (just like Forest Whitaker in The Butler, not nominated for Best Actor here) of playing the least dynamic character in his own movie. Although 12 Years a Slave is Northup’s story through and through, and he’s in every scene, it is the performances of Lupita Nyong’o (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and Michael Fassbender (nominated for Best Supporting Actor), along with a gallery of excellent actors in smaller roles scattered throughout the twelve years such as Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard and Paul Dano, that really grip as performances. Ejiofor is fine, perhaps excellent, and he certainly holds the movie together, but it’s a passive role, limited to bearing a burden (admittedly a very heavy one) and reacting to the horrors around him. As the title suggests and the movie makes very clear, all Northup has to do for twelve years is survive. He makes very few major choices and does not undergo any major transformation. His arc is very limited, and, therefore, so are Ejiofor’s options as an actor. Given his screentime, he also has limited dialogue to perform.
McConaughey’s role in Dallas Buyers Club could not contrast more. Playing the also-real Ron Woodroof, a Texan electrician, rodeo rider and homophobe in 80s Dallas who contracts HIV through hetrosexual unprotected intercourse with an intravenous drug user, McConaughey has to attack every challenge not available to Ejiofor, and he hits every single one of them out of the park. Every thing he does in the film is a major choice (from the very first one – letting himself believe he actually has the “faggot disease”); he undergoes an absolutely, positively staggering transformation, from real, grade-A homophobe dick to compassionate caregiver and fighter for the rights of the neglected and marginalised, and therefore has a huge, and extremely clear, character arc. As befits McConaughey, who has one of the best mouths for dialogue in Hollywood, his character never shuts up – he has pages and pages of brilliantly written dialogue with which to etch his indelible character. He displays humour, rage, intense grief, sensitivity, total lack of sensitivity, and, above all and most importantly, real change. He also manipulates his body weight throughout the movie to portray the physical ravages of the disease but that, while impressive on a technical level, is not why he should, and will, win. McConaughey’s Woodroof is a true, real-life hero, and he doesn’t start that way: he earns his heroic status every step of the way, every minute of the movie. The actor has been having a stellar last few years – the kind of run very few actors get but all the serious ones dream about – and this tops it off. But even if he’d been a total unknown in his debut feature lead, like Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry and Geoffrey Rush in Shine, he would still – like Swank and Rush did – walk away with the Oscar. He deserves it. A lock.
The Wolf of Wall Street ***1/2 (out of five)
You get a lot of movie for your sixteen bucks with The Wolf of Wall Street. But you’d have a better time if you got less movie. It’s two hours and fifty-nine minutes, which sounds like director Martin Scorcese said to Paramount, “You don’t want a three hour movie? I haven’t given you a three hour movie!”
Actually, he probably would have said it a lot more colorfully. Wolf drops the F-bomb 506 times, making it the most fucked fictional feature film in history (the documentary Fuck uses it 857 times). There are some scenes where the use of the word almost seems banal, as though the writer (Terence Winter) was being lazy, but, in truth, this is a movie about banal people.
The worst is the main one, based-on-real-life Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), and this is the movie’s burden: for three hours (“Two hours and fifty-nine fucking minutes!”) we have to watch a movie about a royal prick. Greedy, self-obsessed, nihilistic asshole Belfort has almost no redeeming features, and, as played well by DiCaprio, that’s a bitter pill to have to suck on for such a long time.
The movie is so similar in structure and style to GoodFellas that it’s fair to wonder if Winter stuck the script of that movie into Final Draft and then changed the words. A young ambitious man of limited means finds his niche, rises to dizzying heights while breaking the law, has his downfall… and squeals like a fuckin’ pig. Scorcese has themes, tropes, tricks, milieus and every other fancy type of cinematic self-referential tic, but he’s never so blatantly repeated himself as he does here – and unfortunately he does it with far less precision than with GoodFellas. Stylistic elements are haphazardly placed. Like GoodFellas, there is lots of voiced narration, but unlike in GoodFellas, it’s not funny, ironic or clever. Halfway through, Belfort turns and speaks directly to camera, but that’s an hour and a fuckin’ half through the movie, which is a weird time to introduce such a conceit. Some of the scenes seem deliberately improvised and are cut with the haphazard style of The League and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where the dialogue suddenly lurches to a new topic as though to skip over a dead patch of improv. And many of the scenes of debauched excess – such as a flight with hookers and drugs – are ludicrously (and unrealistically) over the top.
All this makes thematic sense – the film is about excess – but it’s too much. In particular, Scorcese gives DiCaprio too much, as though (and this could actually be the truth) he said to him, “Leo, I’m 71, you’ve done five films for me, I’m gonna get you that fuckin’ Oscar.” There are three Leo-centric scenes – two speeches and one silent piece of physical comedy – that go on soooooo long, so ludicrously, painfully, obviously too-long long, that you can feel the whole audience being aware of it: “Isn’t this scene bonkers fucking long?”
The staggering bloat aside, there are some hysterically funny scenes, some absolutely killer dialogue, endless great performances (starting with Jonah Hill, cruising through instant star Margot Robbie, and climaxing with Matthew McConaughey, who opens the movie with what is essentially a comic monologue that is, in retrospect, the best part of the whole film) and, of course, Scorcese-level craftsmanship throughout. It’s a very hard movie to love, but it’s an easy enough movie to enjoy, especially knowing that, at any time, you can go for a piss and not miss anything important… there will be plenty more movie for you when you get back.