Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Movie Review: Get Out

Get Out
Directed by: Jordan Peele.
Written by: Jordan Peele. 
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya (Chris Washington), Allison Williams (Rose Armitage), Catherine Keener (Missy Armitage), Bradley Whitford (Dean Armitage), Caleb Landry Jones (Jeremy Armitage), Marcus Henderson (Walter), Betty Gabriel (Georgina), Lakeith Stanfield (Andrew Logan King), Stephen Root (Jim Hudson), LilRel Howery (Rod Williams), Richard Herd (Roman Armitage), Erika Alexander (Detective Latoya).
 
With his directorial debut, Joran Peele shows that if he wants to be, he could easily become one of the best horror filmmakers in America. Get Out is a film is creepy from beginning to end, building the tension from his brilliantly staged opening scene – where a young black man walks the streets of suburbia, stalked by a slow moving car – to the wonderfully staged action of the finale. Get Out is smart, funny, well-acted, extremely well written, and as a director, Peele shows a wonderful visual flair. The only thing the movie lacks is any real moments of pure terror – but that’s because Peele favors the slow burn – the terror in the everyday, which can be just as unsettling.
 
The movie is about Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is about to head into the country to visit his girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) parents for the first time. He wants to know if she has told them he is black – and she says she hasn’t, but it doesn’t matter – her parents aren’t racist – they would have voted for Obama for a third term if they could have. Chris isn’t sure that’s the best idea – but trusts her anyway. Chris’ interactions with Rose’s family is fraught with unease – although it’s an unease he cannot really put into words. Her dad, Dean (Bradley Whitford) calls him “My man” a lot, and tells him stories of a relative who lost a race to Jesse Owens. Her mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), is nice, but there is an edge to the way she deals with “the help”. Her brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) seems oddly confrontational, but in a way that’s easy to dismiss, and talks about Chris’ “genetics”. That “help” is a maid, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), and caretaker Walter (Marcus Henderson) – and they’re both black, but also very quiet, with permanent uneasy smiles on their faces. But maybe Chris is imagining all these things – or maybe Georgina and Marcus don’t like him with a white girl (“It’s a thing” he tells Rose. At a large lawn party the next day, things get even more uncomfortable. Again, everyone there (and they’re all white, except for one other black guest, with the same sort of weird smile as Georgina and Walter). Everyone is so nice to Chris – talking about how handsome he is, what a fine physical specimen – the old golf pro wants Chris to know that Tiger is the best golfer he’s ever seen, etc. What Chris cannot figure out is if this is just a case of a bunch of rich white folks who don’t know any black people who don’t work for them trying too hard, whether they’re all racists, but bending over backwards to not show that racism, or something even more horrifying – since this is a horror movie, you can probably guess what the answer is.
 
Peele is clearly riffing on a few classics of the horror genre – film like Rosemary’s Baby or The Stepford Wives – tellingly, films in which white woman think something bad is going down, but are dismissed as crazy, or reassured that everything is fine. Peele very smartly flips out the white heroine of those movies, for a black man, already in a situation where he feels uncomfortable and isolated – which puts him on edge, yet he also knows something is not right. Peele smartly infuses this everyday reality – of being the only black person in a room full of white people – and infuses the inherent discomfort with something more unsettling. He has perfectly cast the big roles. Kaluuya (excellent in his episode of Black Mirror, and as Emily Blunt partner in Sicario) is an affable, likable everyman – the classic survivor girl horror character in a different body. Allison Williams is excellent as Rose – the insolated, self-involved millennial, who is convinced of there being no racist intent. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are both great as the parents as well – saying nothing really all that bad, but still giving off an edge of menace. LilRel Howery gives the film some comic relief – not too much to kill the tension, just enough to break it – as Chris’s TSA buddy, convinced that all white people want black sex slaves.
 
We’ve known for a long time that Jordan Peele is immensely talented – from MadTV to Key and Peele to last year’s underrated Keanu, Peele has shown himself to one of the most gifted comic minds of his generation – as both performer and writer. Here, stepping into the director’s chair for the first time, he does a great job with wholly different material. Yes, the film is clever and funny at times – but it’s also a legitimate horror movie – and a great one at that.

Movie Review: I Don't Feel At Home in This World Anymore

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore
Directed by: Macon Blair.   
Written by: Macon Blair.   
Starring: Melanie Lynskey (Ruth Kimke), Elijah Wood (Tony), David Yow (Marshall), Jane Levy (Dez), Devon Graye (Christian), Christine Woods (Meredith), Robert Longstreet (Chris Rumack), Lee Eddy (Angie), Michelle Moreno (Jana Huff), Myron Natwick (Killer Sills), Jason Manuel Olazabal (Cesar), Gary Anthony Williams (Det. William Bendix).
 
There is hardly a moment of Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore that I didn’t enjoy, and yet when the movie ended, I couldn’t help but think that the whole thing never quite came together. Blair is trying quite a few different things out in the film, and has a tricky mixture of tone to pull off, and honestly, I think he’s trying to do too much. The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last month before hitting Netflix this month – feels like something that would have played Sundance back in the 1990s – when there wasn’t necessarily the same kind of quirkiness overload coming out of that festival. Honestly, I am reminded of the debut features of the likes of Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket) and Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth) – which rank among their weaker films, and yet show directors of great promise. The same is true of Blair here. The reason all of this works however is not Blair, but his leading lady – the wonderful Melanie Lynsky – who holds the film together when it threatens to fly apart.
 
In the film, Lynsky plays Ruth – a nursing assistant at an old folks home, who we first meet suffering one indignity after another – a old person who uses their last breath to say something racist, being stuck behind one of those noisy trucks, with the massive exhaust pipes, being cutoff in the supermarket checkout line, even though you only have one item and are headed for a 15 items or less line, and the person who cut you off clearly has more than 15 items, then going to a bar for a quiet beer to read a book, only to having a seemingly nice guy ruin a major plot point for literally no reason, and arriving home to find dog poop on your yard. It’s all enough to send anyone batty – and that’s before she walks into her house, and sees that has been robbed – her laptop, her grandma’s silver, etc. – gone. She calls the police, but quickly realizes that their job stops when they give her the police report to file with her insurance company – they aren’t really going to be looking for anyone. But when she finds out where her laptop is – by tracking it on her phone, as the criminals were not smart enough to wipe her computer – she decides to go get it back. Needing backup, and not having anyone else, she enlists her weird neighbor – who she doesn’t know – Tony (Elijah Wood) – who has nunchakus’ and throwing stars, along with a rat tail, and an obsession with right and wrong – help her. Thus sets off a series of events that become increasingly violent as the film moves along.
 
One of the strange things about the movie is that it almost seems like every character belongs in a different film – and that by bringing them together, Blair is trying for something unique. It works – up to a point, although really only Lynskey’s Ruth is a believable character. Elijah Wood has a lot of screen time, and he’s great fun as the delusional, obsessive Tony (my favorite line in the movie may just be the hurt way he says “It’s not your lawn tiger”) – but I kept waiting for that moment he becomes more than a screenwriters gimmick – and it never really comes. The same is true for the trio of criminals who she eventually tracks down (although, as always, I liked Jane Levy as one of them – even it took me a while to recognize her). My favorite supporting performances are actually my Anthony Williams (a voice actor on literally every show my 5 year old daughter makes me watch) as the police detective who shows up to take Ruth’s report, and who reappears a couple of times to share awkward personal information, and Christine Woods, as a rich, bored housewife who is downright hilarious.
 
But it’s Lynsky who owns the movie. Her role was in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures back in 1994  - as one of a pair of teenage girls who conspire to kill their parents who want to keep them apart. While her co-star in that – Kate Winslet – has gone onto become on the most awarded and acclaimed actresses of her generation, Lynsky has bounced away, appearing mainly in supporting roles in mainstream and indie films alike – and on many TV shows. It’s not an exaggeration to call her one of the great character actors working right now – when you see her name in the opening credits, you know there will be at least one thing worth watching in the upcoming film. She hasn’t often had a film built around her though, and she makes the most of her chance here. In some ways, it’s an odd leading role – as Ruth has to react more than act to things around her – yes, she sets everything in motion, but doesn’t really know what she’s getting herself into. Her performance is understated and quiet – more body language than anything else. No matter what is going on around her, Lynsky holds the film together, by being the one element who remains believable throughout.
 
 I do think that Macon Blair – a great character actor himself, best known for his roles in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin and Green Room – has a future as a writer/director. I do think that he’s perhaps trying to do too much here – trying to hit too many different notes, and not quite doing so. But I was also serious when I compared to the film to early works by Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne – those two eventually worked things out, and so can Blair. And in the meantime, we still have this highly entertaining film built around a great performance by Melanie Lynsky. That’s enough for now.

Movie Review: The Girl with All the Gifts

The Girl with All the Gifts
Directed by: Colm McCarthy.   
Written by: Mike Carey based on his novel.
Starring: Sennia Nanua (Melanie), Gemma Arterton (Helen Justineau), Glenn Close (Dr. Caroline Caldwell), Paddy Considine (Sgt. Eddie Parks), Anamaria Marinca (Dr. Selkirk), Dominique Tipper (Devani), Fisayo Akinade (Kieran Gallagher).
 
There are not many people who would argue with me when I say that zombies are overexposed right now. The biggest show on TV – The Walking Dead – has been doing the zombie thing to death for 7 years now, and frankly, I tired of it (the second half of this season has started on a promising note – but the first half almost made me stop watching completely – the worst half season in the shows history). And really, there hasn’t been all that much original done with zombies since George A. Romero created the modern version of zombie films in Night of the Living Dead in 1968 – everything since then, from Romero’s own films to The Walking Dead to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (and 28 Weeks Later) and many (many) other copycats have been variations on a theme – sometimes great variations, sometimes not, but nothing too unique. What makes The Girl with All the Gifts worth seeing is that the film is at least trying to do something different with the genre (even if that doesn’t really become clear until near the end of the film). I do wish the execution of the film was a little better – directed by Colm McCarthy, the film has a rather pedestrian executions that borders on dull at times. When the film works, it work well – I just wish it had pushed itself a little farther.
 
The film opens in some sort of research facility/child prison – where every day, a group of children are strapped into wheelchairs and brought to class. It takes a little bit of time to determine why they’re there – these are second generation “hungrys” (they don’t say zombies) – who want to eat humans, and if they smell them, they cannot resist. But in every other way, they seem like normal children. While their teacher, Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) wants to teach them, and treat them as normal kids, the head guard, Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) sees them as little more than monster, and the lead doctor, Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) does research on them to try and create a vaccine. The title character is Melanie (Sennia Nanua) – who is smarter, and perhaps more advanced than the rest of the students. Eventually these characters – and some other who are basically along to become zombie food – have to head out on the road when their secure location is overrun, and find another safe place, if one still exists.
 
You can see the various influences at play in The Girl with All the Gifts – this is a film that knows its zombie movie history. There are parts of Romero and Boyle’s films here – mainly in terms of its themes. But the film also does something unique with Melanie – who really is a zombie with empathy. The film could have easily used puberty as a metaphor for becoming a zombie – but smartly, it doesn’t do that. Melanie is a little young for that, and while she clearly loved Miss Justineau, it is more a hero worship thing, than anything even remotely sexual. The film offers a unique view of the world – one in which Melanie and her fellow second generation zombies represents a kind of evolution – the first generation has already mainly succeeded in ending life human life as we know it – but what can these new “hungrys” come up with?
 
Those question are fascinating – but I really wish they were posed by a movie that is just slightly better than The Girl with All the Gifts. While I do think that McCarthy does a good job at establishing the world they know live in, and there are a few good action moments – an extended shot during the downfall of the facility is the best in the movie – too often, those scenes lack excitement. The movie is also never really all that scary – perhaps it’s the (rather unique) decision to mainly shoot everything in the daytime. As well, while the performances by Arteton, Considine and especially Close help to mask how one dimensional their characters are – each serving a VERY specific role in the film, they cannot completely overcome it either. Newcomer Sennia Nanua is a natural however – and does a great job with Melanie – the only person in the film allowed any real growth.
 
The Girl with All the Gifts is an interesting film that does some genuinely new stuff with a tired genre. That is enough to make it worth seeing. Yet, I cannot help but think that with a little tweaking in the screenplay, and a better director, this could have been one of the all-time great zombie films. It isn’t, but it’ll do until that film gets here.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Oscar Reactions

Prediction Results
First thing’s first – what everyone’s talking about this morning following the Oscars: How did Dave do on his predictions. The answer, not well – I went 14/21 (I didn’t predict the shorts) – missing Moonlight’s shock win for Best Picture, Fantastic Beasts’ surprising costume win, the two surprise Hacksaw Ridge wins (Sound Mixing and Editing), and Suicide Squad’s whatever-we-need-to-give-something-this-award Makeup win – as well as missing when I strayed from convention, thinking 13th would win Documentary (I am extremely happy to be wrong there, as OJ was my favorite film of the year) and that Lin-Manuel Miranda would complete his EGOT from Moana – but instead they gave song to La La Land. Everyone else got those two – but still, this was an unpredictable night, and so if you got better than 16/21 of the main categories, I’m calling you lucky.
 
THAT Moment
Okay, seriously, the one thing everyone is really talking about this morning is arguably the most shocking moment in Oscar history – when they called out the wrong winner for Best Picture, and didn’t correct it for several minutes, letting the La La Land people speak for a while, before the truth came out that Moonlight had actually won. This would have been a huge embarrassment has it been for Sound Editing or something, but for Best Picture, it has to rank as the biggest fuck-up in Oscar telecast history – something compounded by the fact that it was really several smaller fuck-ups that led to the biggest one. I’ve heard for years that there is a procedure in place if someone reads the wrong winner – that’s when the accountants (who are a) my people and b) oddly NOT brought on stage last night) are supposed to walk immediately out and correct the mistake – they being the only ones who know before the envelope is open who the winner is. Why that didn’t happen (my guess is pure, unadulterated shock) was the biggest screw-up – because had they walked onstage immediately, they could have saved the La La Land producers the embarrassment of giving speeches for an award they didn’t win. I do have to give major props to the way the Producing teams behind La La Land and Moonlight handled the confusion – it could not have been easy for either of them – and yet they handled things with grace. IT was easily the most memorable moment of the night.
 
Jimmy Kimmel
Kimmel was a safe choice to host – anyone who hosts a network, late night talk show is used to making jokes and being chummy with celebrities, which is probably why he got the gig that no one else seemed to want (it was ridiculously late in the process that they named Producers and a Host for the show). For the most part, I think Kimmel did fine – I know some people are tired of his “feud” with Matt Damon, but sue me, I still think it’s funny, and for the most part I thought he was funny and kept things moving. I will say I didn’t think it was wise (or funny) to make fun of a lot of non-white people’s “weird” names, or use Sunny Pawar from Lion as a prop in a Lion King gag, and the bringing the busload of tourists in was so incredibly awkward it must have been thought up by a real life Michael Scott – so on the whole, perhaps Kimmel’s grade isn’t great, but it wasn’t horrible either, so give him that. I do enjoy celebrities reading mean tweets on his show – although only the one Miles Teller read really made me laugh out loud last night.
 
The Rest of the Telecast
The musical performances were mostly good – Justin Timberlake got things off to a rocking start – I know many HATE that song, and fair enough, but as the father of a five year old girl who sings it all the time, I still find it adorable. Shoehorning Lin Manuel Miranda into the Moana song was awkward, but that guy is a pro and made it fun, and Auli’i Cravalho nailed How Far I’ll Go – not even missing a beat when she got smacked in the head by a flag (again, I’ve heard this soundtrack a TON with two girls, and I think it was really, REALLY underrated – as was the movie). Sting nearly put everyone to sleep –like the song itself, the performance was respectful to a real life hero and the subject matter of the film it’s from – but it’s also dull. And then John Legend came out and killed a medley of the two La La Land songs. I didn’t much like Legend in La La Land – I thought his role was somewhat insulting, and his song was awful – but that performance was a knockout.
 
The rest of the show was as always, occasionally amusing, occasionally very awkward. I enjoyed Kate McKinnon (I know as a regular on SNL, she won’t be able to host until that’s done, but she would kill it if she did), and Michael J. Fox and Seth Rogen’s banter (again, Rogen could host – leave Franco at home) and a few others, etc. All in all, I know people mock the Oscars for being overlong and overly self-congratulating for Hollywood – fair enough – but I still enjoy it every year.
 
Thoughts on the Winners
My initial thought on Moonlight’s win for Best Picture is that it’s the best film to win since No Country for Old Men in 2007 – although I think a case could be made for both The Hurt Locker in 2009 and 12 Years a Slave in 2013 – they, like Moonlight – are the only films since then that made my top 10 list - for the record, I’m still very conflicted on my 2016 list – my top 9 films are definite should be there, and my 1 and 2 are locked in place, but after that it could be nearly any order from 3-9 and I’d be fine with it – and I have about 5 films I would have been happy to have in my number 10 slot. It will likely – as always – take me a year or so to truly know where I think the films of 2016 should rank against each other, and where Moonlight should rank in the listing of all-time Best Picture winners. But I will say this: - about 10 years ago (when there were only 80 Best Picture winners, I said that the Academy had basically selected 20 masterpieces for Best Picture, 20 embarrassments as best picture, and 40 that rank somewhere in between. Moonlight belongs in that first category, no doubt about it. I am also extremely happy that the Academy resisted the urge to once again give the Best Picture Oscar to film about itself – something they’ve done with The Artist, Argo and Birdman in the past few years – and your thoughts on the merits of those films aside, it’s nice to see a film about something else win. It’s also nice to see a film with an all-black cast win, written by two black men and directed by one black man – and the first film with a strong LGBT subject matter winning. Perhaps the Academy has changed in the decade since Brokeback Mountain. Still, it would have been nice to see Barry Jenkins win Best Director.
 
On that Best Director win for Damien Chazelle – who becomes the youngest Best Director winner in history- no it would not have been my choice, but yes, it is a worthy winner (as would have La La Land been for Best Picture). I’m not quite sure how it happened, but at some point along the way, Chazelle executing a wonderful movie musical – in an era where it is pretty much dead – that is completely original and written for the screen got dubbed a safe and easy choice. It wasn’t – there hasn’t been an original musical nominated for Best Picture in my life time until La La Land did so (the last one was Bob Fosse’s masterpiece All That Jazz in 1979) – and hasn’t been one that WON the Best Picture Oscar since Gigi in 1958. Chazelle’s film was both daring and a loving homage to what came before. Yes, there are problems with the film – but he still does deserve a ton of credit – and I cannot wait to see what someone willing to take these chances does next.
 
An interesting note, this is now 4 of the last five years that Picture and Director have not lined up – something that throughout that used to happened about once a decade (it happened in 1967 than 1972 than 1981than 1989 than 1998- and then started happening more and more often (2000, 2002, 2005 than a few years off, than 2012, 2013, 2015 and now 2016). It does suck that in two of those last four splits, they were films directed by black filmmakers that did not win Best Director (a black director has still never won) – but I think that has more to do with how the votes are cast than anything else. Since they expanded to more than five nominees for Best Picture in 2009, you now rank the Best Picture nominees from 1-10 (or in this case 1-9), with the lowest vote getter being knocked off and those votes re-distributed amongst the rest, until one film gets 50% of the vote. Every other category, you simply vote for your favorite, and then one with the most votes wins. This approach values consensus over passion in the Best Picture race – and may well be responsible for films like 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight and Moonlight beating out Gravity, The Revenant and La La Land – even if those later films won more overall Oscars, which used to be the sign of a Best Picture winner (Argo is a different beast, since the directors didn’t nominated Affleck, who would have won Director had he been nominated). Perhaps I’m wrong, and we have no way of knowing, but I think it’s reasonable to think that perhaps The Revenant and La La Land would have won Best Picture had there only been 5 nominees, and you vote for your favorite – both won Director and a Lead Acting award, both won the most “tech” awards as well. You could argue the other way as well though – as neither won a writing award – a bigger problem for The Revenant, since it wasn’t even nominated, and musicals – even when they do win Picture, don’t often win a writing award – but the case could easily be made that after the first ballot The Revenant and La La Land were ahead – but lost as more films dropped out of the running, and their votes re-distributed. We certainly heard far more negative sentiment against those films than we did the eventual winners Spotlight and Moonlight (again, I’m not convinced this was the same case for 12 Years a Slave vs. Gravity – as Gravity would have been a VERY strange Best Picture winner on multiple levels).
 
Anyway, moving onto the Acting awards. Two things are true regarding Casey Affleck – he delivered one of the best performance I have ever seen in Manchester by the Sea (Seriously, the performance would probably make my top 10 Best Actor Winner lists of all time), and sexual harassment is real in Hollywood, as it is everywhere else, and there is no reason to believe he’s innocent of what he was accused of. I am normally a “separate art from the artist” guy, which is why I was happy to see one of my favorite screen performances in years win an Oscar – but understand and respect those you cannot, or choose not, to do so. Still, most of the time the Oscar love BIG acting, so I was happy to see Affleck win for subtle, quiet performance. The same could be said for Mahershala Ali’s performance in Moonlight – again my favorite not just of the nominees in his category, but in the category as a whole this year (it’s been a few years since me and the Academy have been on the same page with acting winners, so I’m happy here). Ali is a great actor, and I cannot wait to see what he does next. I also love just how quiet this performance was. I kept thinking all season that he may be vulnerable – losing the Globe and BAFTA didn’t help – but in the end, they made the right choice. Now, after praising two very subtle performances, let’s praise one that wasn’t – Viola Davis in Fences. Yes, she was a lead, but category fraud isn’t something she invented, and she is stunning and brilliant in Fences. No, overall, it’s not a subtle performance – nor should it be, her fiery nature makes the movie – but there are subtle moments. While we all knew what clip they would use for her, it’s her saying to Denzel – “You are a womanless man” in a quiet voice that sticks with me. Yes, I think Michelle Williams was even better than Davis in Manchester by the Sea – and that it was a legitimate supporting performance, and now on her fourth nomination, Williams has officially entered “Will it ever be her time” territory (say hi to Amy Adams for us when you get there Michelle) – but I find it impossible to complain about Davis winning. Even my least favorite of the acting wins – Emma Stone in La La Land – is for a performance I did adore, and by an actress I think is terrific. Yes, Isabelle Huppert delivered a performance for the ages in Elle – and is arguably the greatest actor on the planet, and the Academy just now realized that they could nominate her – but let’s hope this is just the beginning for Huppert and the Academy – and not the end. Hell, she’s got the lead on Michael Haneke’s Amour follow-up, Happy End – this year – and the Academy embraced Amour, so you never know.
 
Other wins I was happy about – obviously Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney winning for adapted screenplay for Moonlight – what we all assumed would be their consultation prize, and Kenneth Lonergan winning for Manchester by the Sea, that was. You’d be hard pressed to find a better pair of writing winners in any year on Oscar history. O.J.: Made in America was the best film (or whatever) I saw last year, so it’s win for Documentary made be extremely happy. I do think Toni Erdmann should have won for Foreign Language film – but I think it’s wrongheaded to chock up The Salesman’s win to politics. Toni Erdmann is the type of weird film that somehow sneaks into the foreign lineup, and critics love and say it will win, and then are surprised when it loses to something more conventional. The Salesman is in many ways a much more traditional Foreign Language Film win – so while the politics certainly didn’t hurt it, I would not have been shocked to see it win even if Donald Trump never issued a travel ban.
 
Most of the other wins ranged from fine to okay with me. I wasn’t a huge fan of Hacksaw Ridge – but its hard to argue with its sound work – or be upset that Kevin O’Connell won his first Oscar for it after 21 nominations. The editing win from Hacksaw Ridge was a little tougher to take – voters seem blinded by most noticeable editing, and don’t seem to understand the work on structure something like Moonlight has to do, etc. I was glad to see Arrival get something –even if its just Sound Editing – and its hard to argue with The Jungle Book winning visual effects. Fantastic Beasts winning costumes seemed rather lazy to me – not because the great Collen Atwood’s work wasn’t worthy, just because it seems like the type of award they check off on autopilot. I do think time will bear me out that it is Moana, and not Zootopia, which is Disney’s truly great achievement this year (and I like Zootopia just fine). The quartet of La La Land below the line wins were all okay I guess – I really didn’t agree with Song, but the score is good (just not as unique as Jackie or memorable as Moonlight), the cinematography is quite good (although with Arrival, Silence and Moonlight nominated they had even better choices) – and production design may be my favorite of La La Land’s wins – not necessarily because it deserved it, but because contemporary films rarely win here, no matter how deserving.
 
So that’s it, that’s all for another year of Oscars. This year’s race was uglier than its been in a while – I really think that many of the criticisms against La La Land were rather silly, and overshadowed legitimate criticism against the film (on the same topic, I really do wish the people who spend their time ripping on one nominee – especially those people who praised the film when they first saw it, and rip it only when it appears like it may beat their favorite, would spend more time building up their actual choice, applying the same sort of close reading skills they use to pick apart La La Land, on praising Moonlight – or any other film they choose – if it’s good enough, the film will stand up to that sort of reading). Still, a great film won Best Picture this year, and worthy winners won in most other categories, and even if the Academy doesn’t like the colossal fuck-up that is already infamous – they provided something that will never be forgotten. There are worse ways to end Oscar season.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Who Will Win the Oscars: Best Picture

Best Picture
9. Lion
For It: The Academy clearly loved the film – it wasn’t a big critical or commercial hit, and yet, here it is as Best Picture nominee – with multiple supporting noms to go along with it. There is a lot of darkness in this lineup – if they want pure inspiration, they can go here.
Against It: But they can also go elsewhere – lots elsewhere. The only recent Best Picture I see that wasn’t a huge critical or commercial hit was Crash – and even that made a lot more money than Lion, and had a very vocal supporters in the critical community (like Roger Ebert). The nomination is the win here – and they’ll hope to milk some more Box Office out of it.
 
8. Fences
For It: Actor make up the single largest voting block within the Academy – and no film was more of an actors showcase than Denzel Washington’s Fences – which gave its great cast a chance to dig in August Wilson’s great dialogue. The film is actually better directed than some have given it credit for.
Against It: It still feels stagey at times and you can award an actors showcase by giving the actors Oscars, not the film itself. Everyone seems to like Fences, but I wonder just how many people love it enough to put it high on their list. The lack of a director nomination – or any “below the line” nominations probably kills its chances.
 
7. Hacksaw Ridge
For It: There is clearly a contingent of the Academy that loved this film – Picture, Director and Actor nominations attest to that. War films are a traditional Oscar favorite, so I can certainly see quite a few members voting for this one.
Against It: While at least some have forgiven Mel Gibson for his past sins – no director nomination for him without it – has the Academy as a whole done so? I doubt it. I think this is the type of film that a passionate minority can get into the race, but not enough to push it over the finish line.
 
6. Hell or High Water
For It: Oscar loves a come from nowhere hit – and that describes David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water – a genre film, that slowly built its audience throughout the summer, to become a genuine indie hit – and it’s a critical favorite to boot. Something for everyone – the film is well directed, acted and written, with impressive technical credentials – it’s a film that may not get a ton of number 1 votes – but I can see it ranking very high (two or three) on a lot of ballots – and in recent years, consensus has trumped passion in the Best Picture race.
Against It: It’s got a fairly difficult path to actually win a lot of supporting awards – Original Screenplay and Supporting Actor are going to be tough – editing even tougher – and that’s all its nominated for. You can get a film like this in the winner’s circle – just see No Country for Old Men – but that was a film by respected auteurs, in a strange year without a more traditional winner in sight – Hell or High Water doesn’t have either of those things going for it.
 
5. Arrival
For It: The Academy has opened up to science fiction in recent years – see Gravity’s haul from 2012 – and Arrival is brainier than that, and has more weight to it, not just a thrill ride, so it may feel more like an Oscar film. With 8 Oscar nominations, it’s quite clear the Academy loved the film.
Against It: The fact that Amy Adams didn’t get into the Best Actress race is probably the films death knell in terms of its chances of winning this – despite all the praise and precursors Adams got, the Academy went with performances from movies that had far fewer nominations, which says to me they still don’t take sci-fi, even brainy sci-fi, quite seriously enough to give it the big prize.
 
4. Hidden Figures
For It: A late breaking, genuine audience hit – Hidden Figures is a hell of a lot fun, inspirational, and very well written, directed and acted. Because it broke into the season so late, it’s harder to get sick of it, or a backlash to form. The best ensemble cast award at SAG shows the largest single voting block loves the film – which counts for a lot.
Against It: It perhaps broke too late to actually win. It didn’t get in for director and only one acting nomination – and no “below the line” categories, despite a period setting, and famous people behind the music. A little earlier in the season, to build a more complete Oscar campaign, and maybe, just maybe, this would be a legit challenger.
 
3. Manchester by the Sea
For It: As far as a traditional drama goes – Manchester by the Sea is the best of the bunch and it may well appeal to the traditionalists in the Academy, who want something with weight, and that they can relate to. It’s hard to find a better acted or written film this year. It has been running just slightly behind Moonlight and La La Land all awards season long without much of a backlash forming. Perhaps its sneaks in.
Against It: You would expect that if Manchester by the Sea was going to make a late move, we’d see more evidence of it – a few big wins along the way, which it really has not got. Its well on its way to a Best Actor win – and perhaps screenplay – and that will likely have to be enough – its running a close third, but that’s still third.
 
2. Moonlight
For It: Undeniably the critical favorite of the year – the film has won more Best Picture prizes than anything else this awards season, has many, very passionate fans, and is perhaps the film that will be best remembered from 2016 when all is said and done. If anything is going to beat La La Land, it’s Moonlight.
Against It: The Box Office hurts – it’s very low by Oscar Best Picture standards (only The Hurt Locker in recent memory is even close to it – and that was released in the summer, outside of Oscar season buzz – and had a narrative of going against the HUGE Avatar). People will remember Moonlight for a long time – but for some reason, not a lot of people went to see it in a theater. Hate to say it, but the still largely white, largely old Academy may not take to it like critics did – who remember, don’t vote at the Oscars.
 
1. La La Land
For It: La La Land fits very neatly in with recent winners like The Artist, Argo and Birdman – about Hollywood and dreamers, and how art matters, etc. It’s also a film that will appeal to movie buffs – especially older ones, who will catch all the references. The movie is pure charm, pure joy – and unlike Moonlight or Manchester – will not be seen by anyone as a chore to sit through (those people, who think Moonlight or Manchester would be too tough to sit through are idiots, but they exist). You cannot argue with its ambition, and the film is an utter charming. It makes you feel good leaving the theater. It has the precursor love. One of the three most nominated Oscar films in history – the other two won.
Against It: The backlash has formed – more than any other film in contention, by far – which could hurt it. Does the film have any weight at all? If you want to vote for a film you feel is “important” – this ain’t it. A musical hasn’t won since 2002 – and original, written for the screen musical hasn’t won since Gigi in 1958 (and that was based on a book).
 
Who Will Win: La La Land. Every year people bring up the backlash forming against the frontrunner, or things splitting the vote and something coming down the middle, etc. – and you know what, the frontrunner usually still wins. I’d love to see Moonlight or Manchester upset – I just don’t see a path for that to happen. La La Land wins it no matter how I calculate it.
Who Should Win: Manchester by the Sea. The film utterly destroyed me, and left me a puddle on the floor, at TIFF this year – the most emotionally satisfying film of the year, the best acted and written – and wonderfully directed. Its quiet – perhaps too quiet to win – but it really should be the winner here. It will last longer than most of the films this year.
Least of the Nominees: Lion. I usually dismiss the effect Oscar bloggers have on the race – but when something like Lion gets in – which isn’t really like by critics, and largely ignored by audiences – I have to wonder if they really can muscle something into the race, simply because they keep predicting it. Lion is an average film – with a much better first half than second – but it’s still the weakest film here – even if I think Hacksaw Ridge is more problematic, its highs are higher than Lions.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Movie Review: The Great Wall

The Great Wall
Directed by: Zhang Yimou. 
Written by: Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy and Max Brooks and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz.
Starring: Matt Damon (William), Tian Jing (Commander Lin Mae), Willem Dafoe (Ballard), Andy Lau (Strategist Wang), Pedro Pascal (Tovar), Hanyu Zhang (General Shao), Lu Han (Peng Yong), Kenny Lin (Commander Chen), Eddie Peng (Commander Wu), Xuan Huang (Commander Deng), Ryan Zheng (Shen), Karry Wang (Emperor). 
 
The last time a film by Chinese director Zhang Yimou was released on thousands of screens in North America, it was 2004, and the film was his action masterwork Hero – a film that had been nominated for the foreign language film Oscar two years prior, but that the studio had sat on since. In retrospect, Hero marked a definitive turning point for Zhang and his career. As part of the Fifth Generation group of filmmakers, Zhang had made several great films in the 1980s and 1990s – the content of which made them controversial in China. He had been moving away from that for a while when Hero was released – while his 1990 film Ju Dou was banned for a short time (and got a lot of people fire when they submitted it the Academy as China’s Foreign Language submission in 1990) and his follow-up, Raise the Red Lantern was submitted to the Academy by Hong Kong, not China, his 1992 film The Story of Qiu Ju was back as China’s submission – but Hero kind of cemented Zhang Yimou as one of the Chinese government’s favorite filmmakers. That film, which is an action masterpiece, is also very much a Nationalistic film (some have used harsher words to describe its politics) – and he has also directed the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics. So it certainly make a lot of sense that he would be the director to get to make The Great Wall – a co-production between China and Hollywood, starring Matt Damon, many Chinese stars, and a lot of special effects. The film tries to recapture the action brilliance of Zhang’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers (released later in 2004) – but unfortunately, it doesn’t come close. The film is another one in which the action sequences are basically a bunch of CGI soup, lacking in any real distinctive visual flair. The film is a fairly uneasy mix on a plot level as well – trying to find a way to make Matt Damon both the star of the film (White Savior would be going too far – but not by much), and as part of the collective – a message that is inherent in many Chinese films of this kind. The result is a confusing mess of a film.
 
In the film, Damon plays William – a European trader, who has come to China to get some “black powder” to make himself rich in Europe. His travelling companion is Tovar (Pedro Pascal) – and the movie tries very hard to make these two into bickering buddies, with no success (for the most part, it’s all just horribly awkward). The pair of them – being chased through China by some local hordes – come across the Great Wall, and are invited inside. Because they have killed something – that moved so fast they didn’t get a good look at it, but they do have its arm – they are not immediately killed. The people – the Nameless – serve the Emperor, and are China’s final defense against a horde of invading creatures – part dragon, part alien, part insect, etc. – which attack every 60 years. One of those things is what William had killed. While Tovar teams up with the only other white man at the wall – Ballard (Willem Dafoe) – to try and steal a lot of black powder, and flee (something Ballard has apparently been planning for 25 years – although his plan sucks) – while William finds his conscience, and decides to help fight off the horde. Whether he does so because he actually believes in the cause, or because the leader of the Nameless is Commander Lin (Tian Jing) – a stunningly beautiful woman, and the only woman person in the Nameless not wearing a helmet, probably because it would mess up her perfect hair is open for debate.
 
Damon is one of the best movie stars we have – someone who is effortlessly able to pull off the movie star persona thing. Oddly, here, his performance is more awkward then anything else. When the movie begins, he is hidden under matted hair and a bushy beard, and he’s doing the strangest accent this side of Shartlo Copley in Oldboy (or Jodie Foster in Elysium or Forrest Whitaker in Arrival or Tom Hardy in anything – take your pick) – and it takes a minute to register it’s even him. Even when he shaves, his performance lacks his normal charming swagger – in part because the dialogue is so awkward – but also in part because the movie tries to integrate him into the larger cast, but it doesn’t quite work. The movie isn’t quite the white savior narrative the films detractors feared when the first images (of just Damon) surfaced, but it’s not exactly not that either.
 
Still, had the action sequences worked, the rest of it would probably have been acceptable. Sadly, they really don’t. The CGI creatures are odd, but unmemorable (I’m writing this about 13 hours after the film ended for me, and I’m having a hard time picturing them in my mind). They swarm like insects – or the zombie in World War Z – working as a collective – which is what the people will need to learn how to win if they are going to win (yes, William and Lin kind of go it alone at the end – but it’s made possible by all the brave sacrifices made before then). Yet, the CGI sequences – especially in 3-D- all seemed overly fake to me. Strangely, the effects work here is far less convincing than it was in Hero – nearly 15 years ago - in part, that’s because Hero didn’t have creature – but even the sequences in which people hurtle themselves done huge bungee lines seemed off.
 
In short, The Great Wall feels like a movie in which everyone is just going through the motions – a cynical attempt to appeal to both American and Chinese audiences by combining the two countries different styles in a single film. Yet the result seems to be homogenized – lacking any real personality – a movie built by algorithm to appeal to everyone, which ends pleasing no one.

Who Will Win the Oscars: Acting

Best Actor
5. Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)
For Him: A well liked movie veteran, a previous nominee, with no Oscar wins under his belt. The performance is clearly loved by some in the Academy – this is a small movie, released in the summer that somehow managed to get all the way through the season and end up with a nomination.
Against Him: This is only Mortensen’s second nomination – this isn’t a situation where they are embarrassed at not having giving him a nomination before – nor should it be. The other four are from best picture nominees –
He’s his film’s only nomination. It’s great that he got in – the nom is the reward here.
 
4. Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge)
For Him: Garfield has been around for a while now, but this was his real breakthrough year as a serious actor – with Hacksaw Ridge, and Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Garfield anchors this film with his plain, homespun mannerisms, you cannot help but like him – and gives the film its core. They obviously like the film a lot.
Against Him: His accent is perhaps too broad, which won’t help him. There is a lot of competition above him, in which it’s going to be hard to overcome. He’s a young guy, so the nomination is the win for his career.
 
3. Ryan Gosling (La La Land)
For Him: Gosling is almost certainly going to win an Oscar at some point. He’s the charming leading man in the presumptive Best Picture winner, which is likely to sweep a lot of awards on Oscar night. He’s got a solid resume, he’s on his second nomination, and is a genuine star. If La La Land really sweeps, it could drag him along with it.
Against Him: La La Land cannot win every Oscar that night – and there are two performances in this category that I think they’re just going to respond to more. Gosling may face the same thing that DiCaprio faced – make the charming, good looking movie star wait a while for a win.
 
2. Denzel Washington (Fences)
For Him: Washington looks to become only the 7th actor to win 3 (or more) Oscars – an elite group, and I think it’s safe to say Washington would not look out of place among them. It’s been 15 years since his last win, so that’s enough time. His performance in Fences won him a Tony – and his work in the film is amongst his most praised, fiery performances. The Academy clearly loved the film more than many thought – the Best Picture nom shows that.
Against Him: He’s up against a performance that has won most of the major prizes this year. Winning that third Oscar is often tough – and I’m not sure Washington is quite there yet. I won’t be shocked if he gets there – I just don’t think it will be this year.
 
1. Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
For Him: He’s won most of the prizes that he can for this film this year. He’s run a long race, from Sundance on, and there has yet to be a serious backlash against the performance. He’s a respected actor, a previous nominee, and in a film that they clearly love – and will want to give a major prize to. It’s his to lose.
Against Him: It’s a quiet performance – perhaps too quiet for Oscars, especially compared to the fire and brimstone of Washington. While no one much criticizes the performance, Affleck has come under fire because of the resurfaced allegations of sexual harassment against him from a few years ago. That hasn’t blown up yet – but if the race is tight, a few lost votes because of it could cost him the Oscar.
 
Who Will Win: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea. It could be very close between Affleck and Washington, but I think that Affleck holds on for the victory.
Who Should Win: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea. As someone who (mostly) separates the artist from the art, Affleck’s performance in Manchester by the Sea was clearly the best one I saw – in any category – this year.
Least of the Nominees: Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic. I wish I was a fan of this movie and performance – it’s always fun to be a supporter of the little film that could – but I didn’t much like the film, although I thought Mortensen saved it. I may have gone with Garfield, but I’m choosing to pretend he got nominated for Silence, and I’m fine with that.
 
Best Actress
5. Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)
For Her: She’s Meryl Streep. It’s her 20th nomination – 8 more than any other actor – so if anyone is ever going to tie Katherine Hepburn’s 4 wins, it will be Streep.
Against Her: Come on. I love Streep, and think she’s one of the greatest actresses ever – and I’m still sick of her getting nominated for okay, over-the-top performances, in bad movies – and Florence Foster Jenkins is perhaps the most egregious example of this. She may well win a 4th – it damn well better not be for this.
 
4. Ruth Negga (Loving)
For Her: Negga is a newcomer, who was able to get into the Best Actress lineup, despite weak support for the film in general (it’s the only nomination it got), so it’s clear they like. In a category filled with a lot of large choices by the other nominees, Negga delivers a simple, quiet, subtle performance.
Against Her: Quiet and subtle don’t often win – and certainly won’t here. Negga is a newcomer, and this will do wonders for her career – which means that the nomination is the win here, and there is no way she’s going to pull off an upset.
 
3. Natalie Portman (Jackie)
For Her: Oscar loves a biopic, and Jackie is one of the best in recent years – all of it anchored by Portman, doing a great interpretation of Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Portman is a prior winner – and well-liked by the industry. She’s done in the precursors, showing up everywhere.
Against Her: While she’s been nominated everywhere this year, she hasn’t won a lot. With her previous win, there’s no real need for a second win – at least not right now. The film was a critical favorite, but didn’t break through with the Academy in a major way.
 
2. Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
For Her: Huppert was probably at the top of everyone’s list of Best Working Actors never to be nominated for an Oscar, and if she doesn’t win, she’ll go right to the top of everyone’s list of Best Working Actors never to win an Oscar. Hers is probably the most praised performance in this category – even those who don’t like the movie, love her in it. If you want a dramatic performance, this is it. 
Against Her: There are a lot of people who don’t like the movie – and not only that, they find it offensive – and I can imagine some Academy members not making it far into their screeners. It is a foreign language performance – and they don’t often win. 
 
1. Emma Stone (La La Land)
For Her: She has become one of the most liked actresses of her young generation – and as this her second nomination, it isn’t that they are giving it to a complete Oscar rookie. She really is the heart and soul of the movie – more of the focus than Gosling. While she didn’t win a lot of critics’ awards – they don’t vote.
Against Her: Like the film itself, some may see the performance as too lightweight for the win. She is still young, so there’s lots of time to award her – and she’s going up against a legend.
Who Will Win: Emma Stone, La La Land. This really does remind me of Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Living Playbook vs, Emmanuelle Riva for Amour – just like that year, go for the younger American, over the European veteran. Stone fits in with a lot of previous winners more easily than Huppert – which can make it close if her passionate supporters are more numerous in the Academy than I expect they are.
Who Should Win: Isabelle Huppert, Elle. It is an amazing performance – one that will be remembered forever, and one of the great performances in a legendary career. It would immediately be one of the coolest wins in Oscar history.
Least of the Nominees: Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins. As much as I love Streep, I really do wish she would take on something other than a role where she sucks all the oxygen up in the room. Please Academy, make her work for nomination 21.
 
Best Supporting Actor
5. Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)
For Him: I think Michael Shannon is probably on the verge of becoming an Oscar favorite – he’s one of the best actors in the world, and he’s always good. This is his second nomination – and he’s been close several times as well. There is almost no scenario in which he ends his career without an Oscar, right?
Against Him: As soon as Shannon gets nominated for a better liked film, he could easily win – like his first nomination, for Revolutionary, he’s the films lone nomination. People love him, but he’s often better than the movies themselves. The nomination is the reward here – although he’ll get one eventually, this isn’t his year.
 
4. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)
For Him: He’s young for an Oscar nominee – and he still got in with relative ease. He goes toe to toe with Casey Affleck, perhaps giving the performance of the year, and doesn’t miss a meet. While being young hurts actors in the lead category – that’s not so much the case in the supporting one. They clearly love the film, and the acting in it, so perhaps he can ride a wave of support into the winners circle.
Against Him: You would expect to see him win something by now if he had a serious chance of pulling off an upset. He would be the youngest actor ever to win in this category – ironically enough, beating out Timothy Hutton for Ordinary People, a film this has been compared to. If he’s as good as this breakthrough implies, he’ll get another chance for a win.
 
3. Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)
For Him: They clearly love Jeff Bridges – he’s on his seventh nomination now, which is more than enough to justify a second win, if they love the film and performance enough. Hell or High Water is one of the most loved films of the year – and yet, it’s probably going to go home empty handed, unless Bridges can pull off the upset here.
Against Him: This kind of feels like it’s so much in Bridges’ wheelhouse, all he had to do was show up and he’d be brilliant. His first win wasn’t all that long ago, so there’s probably no rush to give him a second one right away. You would expect him to win at least one major precursor if he’s going to win this – and he hasn’t.
 
2. Dev Patel (Lion)
For Him: A well liked actor in a well-liked performance in a well-liked movie. He’s probably the lead – and while that annoys some, it usually doesn’t seem to affect the Academy, who is fine with it. He’s made good since his breakthrough in 2008’s Best Picture winner, Slumdog Millionaire. He won the BAFTA – and there is membership overlap there.
Against Him: No one seems to really love the film – everyone just likes it. His one major award was the BAFTA – which is good – but then again, he was the hometown hero there. I cannot be the only one who thinks that Sunny Pawar, playing the younger version of this character, was far better, right?
 
1. Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
For Him: Other than the Golden Globe, there is hardly an award for this performance than Ali has NOT won – and the winner of the Globe isn’t nominated. He’s having a career year – great here, and also in Hidden Figures and in Luke Cage – he’s a star in the making. The performance is brilliant, and it’s looking less and less like the film is going to win that much on Oscar night – here, with no La La Land to contend with, it should be easy.
Against Him: The role is small – too small? He is a newcomer to the Oscar circuit and sometimes they make them wait a little bit before they give them an Oscar
Who Will Win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight. The Globes and BAFTA have been hiccups to be sure – signs that the industry may not love it as much as critics - but he’s rolled through winning everything else possible. The great SAG speech won’t hurt – and he’ll win this unless an upset happens.
Who Should Win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight. It’s a quietly, subtle remarkable performance in a great film. I like most of the nominees – but is easily the best nominated.
Least of the Nominees: Dev Patel, Lion. It’s not really Patel’s fault that the movie becomes extremely dull when his part starts – he plays the role as best as he can. It’s not all that much of a roll though.
 
Best Supporting Actress
5. Nicole Kidman (Lion)
For Her: She was once an Oscar staple, now she’s returning for the first time in a while, for an emotional performance playing one Oscar’s favorite type of rolls – supportive mothers. It’s been over a decade since her only win – some may think it’s time for number 2.
Against Her: She doesn’t show up until the halfway point in the film, and doesn’t really have all that much to do aside from her one big speech. I just don’t think Lion is well-liked enough to push her into the winners circle. With the win already – and several multiple nominee who are still winless, it’s just not time for number 2.
 
4. Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)
For Her: Hidden Figures broke into the Oscar race late – perhaps too late to pick up as many nominations as it may have otherwise - there isn’t a lot of places where it can win, so if they like it enough, why not Spencer? The film did win the SAG ensemble award, which seems to mean the actors are behind it. Spencer really is quite good here – and she is a well-liked, previous winner.
Against Her: It’s the previous winner thing that kills her chances. When you have Viola Davis with three noms and no wins and Michelle Williams with four noms and no wins, there really is no reason to give Spencer her second for this performance.
 
3. Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
For Her: She’s been around for a while, doing solid work, but never quite breaking through. Her work here really should change that – it’s a powerful and emotional performance. Most of the work in Moonlight is quiet and subtle – Harris has an opportunity to go slightly bigger than anyone else in the cast – she stands out, and in a great way.
Against Her: In a Viola Davis-less race, I think she would have a shot at the win. With Davis in, I just don’t see how she does it. If she was going to beat Davis, she’d have done it somewhere by now – and she hasn’t. She’s a newcomer to the Oscar, so they’ll make her wait.
 
2. Michelle Williams (Manchester By the Sea)
For Her: Williams is on her fourth nomination – which is really around the time the Academy starts thinking it’s ridiculous that they haven’t already given you an Oscar. Her role in Manchester by the Sea is small, but it is powerful, having a few devastating moments.
Against Her: I think in a Viola Davis-less year, we’d be talking about Williams finally winning her Oscar – but it isn’t a Viola Davis-less year.
 
1. Viola Davis (Fences)
For Her: Remarkably, Viola Davis is now the most nominated African American actress in history – on only her third nomination. There are a lot of people who think she should have won for The Help (and then those of us who think she should have won for Doubt), so it’s about damn time. To me, this is clearly a lead role – as it was on Broadway – which doesn’t hurt it, since it just gives her more screen time to use.
Against Her: Not a lot really – who doesn’t love Viola Davis? And even those who don’t love the movie, agree she is brilliant in it.
 
Who Will Win: Viola Davis, Fences. She has won the major precursors, and given one great speech after another. I think it’s too bad she didn’t go lead – she’d win there too – but she didn’t, and she’ll win this category without much trouble.
Who Should Win: Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea. Davis is brilliant and fiery in Fences – Williams is brilliant, and restrained – conveying so much in such a small amount of screen time – that’s impressive, and truly a supporting performance.
Least of the Nominees: Nicole Kidman, Lion. Why do I keep picking on poor Lion? It’s not that it’s a bad movie or a bad performance per se – just that there is a lot of others they could have gone with.