Okay, here we go…
With his Screen Actors Guild award signalling the way, Denzel Washington in Fences (pictured with Supporting Actress front runner, Viola Davis) looms the obvious frontrunner in the Best Actor category, and good for him. He’s a national treasure, as much a true-blue actor as he is a bona fide movie star. His Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Glory, 1989) and Best Actor (Training Day, 2001) already make him the most honored African-American actor in Academy history (that is, excluding Sidney Poitier who counts 1 competitive and 1 honorary Oscar among his victories) ; moreover, his total of 8 Oscar nods, 7 for acting and 1 for producing Fences (a Best Picture nominee) puts him in the same league as such luminaries as Marlon Brando. Peter O’Toole, Jack Lemmon, Richard Burton, and Dustin Hoffman, among a slight few others. He’s already in such rarified company as the aforementioned Lemmon, Robert De Niro, and Kevin Spacey as supporting winners who further earned trophies in the leading actor category unlike, say, Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman who won their first Oscars for starring roles before picking up second statuettes as supporting candidates. As with Nicholson, if Washington wins, he’ll be one of a select few actors with three golden boys: Walter Brennan, Nicholson, and Daniel Day-Lewis; moreover, if Washington wins, and it’s a mighty powerful performance to be sure, he’ll take his place alongside Sir Laurence Olivier (Hamlet) and Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful, 1998) as the only performers to direct their own Oscar winning performance. Not a bad way to be remembered in the history books. Once upon a time, this prize seemed destined for Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea), but Washington’s effort as, again, his film’s leading actor, director, and co-producer registers as the more significant achievement.
I haven’t actually seen Viggo Mortensen (right) in Captain Fantastic, one of the few 2016 releases that I somehow missed during its first run; nonetheless, I have only heard wonderful things about it. I’m glad to see Mortensen back in the Oscar race. Can you believe it’s been a walloping 9 years since his first (and until recently only) nomination for the riotous Eastern Promises? I hope to catch up with this one soon.
Regarding Best Actress, meh. With Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures) out of the running and Viola Davis (Fences) relegated to supporting actress status, I’m at a bit of a loss. My sincere belief is that Davis would have won in this category, and handily, if Paramount (with the actress’ consent) had chosen a different campaign strategy. Early enthusiasm for Natalie Portman’s mannered, if effective, portrayal of widowed First Lady Jackie Kennedy seems to have evaporated. Maybe it’s because she already won an Oscar (Black Swan, 2010) and her career in the interim as, till now, been…nothing special. Personally, I’m still kicking myself that I missed seeing Ruth Negga in Loving in what seemed to be an abbreviated theatrical run in the DFW area. I know many people who still hold high hopes that she’ll win. We’ll be watching it in our household soon. I also wish I’d seen Isabelle Huppert in Elle, directed by always provocative Paul Verhoeven. Huppert is always worth watching. She and her film, btw, just won top honors at France’s Oscar equivalent, the César awards. I don’t consider myself a true Meryl Streep devotee. Instead, I take her on a case by case basis, but it’s hard to knock a track record that includes 20 Oscar nominations. I actually think her turn as Florence Foster Jenkins ranks as one of her best, and I’m thrilled that the Academy saw fit to recognize such an unlikely vehicle (a summer release based on the life of an amateur opera singer of minute talent and deep pockets), but this isn’t the film that will earn Streep a fourth Oscar. Barring an upset by Negga, La La Land looks to be Oscar gold for Emma Stone, her first Best Actress race (after being nominated as a supporting player for 2014’s Birdman). Stone is a refreshing talent, and she brings such tremendous enthusiasm to La La Land that it’s hard not to like her in it, but I don’t think it represents her best work, either. Meanwhile, what about Amy Adams (Arrival), Annette Bening (20th Century Women), and Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train)? Not to mention, again, Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis?
For Best Picture, La La Land‘s 14 nominations, a three way tie with All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) as Oscar’s most nominated pics (both Best Picture winners, as well), will be hard to beat in the final stretch. Michael and I saw La La Land on Christmas Day, and we both enjoyed it tremendously. Believe me when I say there wasn’t a single frame in which I was anything less than entertained. I truly believe it is one of the best movies of the year, and I applaud the efforts of all involved getting an original live-action musical through the development phase and on to the big screen, a no doubt heroic feat–though not necessarily more heroic than the effort it must have taken to see either Hidden Fences (headlined by three African-American actresses, two of whom are over 40) or Moonlight (a movie about life on the streets and the effect of drugs, minus stereotypical gang warfare, that is, excessive gun violence ) to fruition, but I digress. That a dicey proposition such as La La Land should catch on like gangbusters has to be quite a thrill. But I don’t think it’s THE best film of the year, and that’s my prerogative. It’s my opinion. Do I think a certain amount of La La Land backlash has set in? Yep. But I also think that is to be expected, and I don’t really think it will matter so much. After all, Titanic faced similar last minute harrumphing to no avail.
If I were voting, I’d be torn, and I do mean torn, between Hidden Figures (above) and Moonlight (below). I love, love, love the former because it tells a never before told true story, a story that needed to be told, and has proven to be monstrously popular. It also features a host of lively performances, giving such reputable performers as Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer (Best Supporting Actress nominee), Janelle Monáe, and Mahershala Ali, a chance to shine. That’s quite an accomplishment, one that registered strongly enough with members of the Screen Actors Guild to warrant its top prize. Of course, in 2011 the SAG accorded similar honors to The Help though it could not get around the Academy’s love for French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius’s cheeky Hollywood send-up, The Artist.
As much as I love Hidden Figures, and applaud its massive success, I think the greater artistic achievement lies with Moonlight, tied with Arrival as the year’s second most nominated movie with a total of 8 nods, including two for director and co-screenwriter Barry Jenkins. He shares writing credit with Tarell Alvin McCraney upon whose semi-autobiographical play the film is based. Whatever its strengths, Moonlight runs short on the crowd pleasing pizzaz that marks both Hidden Figures and La La Land, making it tougher sell; however, in its depiction of a young back male living in poverty, from elementary school through the teen years and beyond, Moonlight exudes rare insight into the world that shapes who we are, and almost no film in recent memory demonstrates greater clarity of what it feels like to grow up queer in a world of heteronormative expectations. What it really asks from audiences is understanding. Understanding. A win for Moonlight, over shiny, candy-coated La La Land, won’t necessarily rate as a stunning upset, but it will be startling. Kudos, by the way, to Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, all of whom play the main character over the course of Moonlight‘s three acts. What an amazing achievement for these actors and director Jenkins, especially as three performances meld into a seamless whole, with middle (Sanders) and concluding (Rhodes) portrayals echoing the first (Hibbert). Actually, a similar effect is achieved through the clever casting of Jaden Piner, Jharrell Jerome, and Andre Holland who all share the role of lead Chiron’s lifelong bf Kevin.
The delightful Zootopia (l) wherein a rabbit from the countryside (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) tries to score big as a police officer in the big bad city (with unlikely assist from a fox voiced by Jason Bateman) sat unchallenged as my favorite 2016 flick for most of the year. Its message is one of hope and positivity, but it’s not heavy-handed. Mainly, it’s just fun. Though not as widely hyped as its Disney sister Moana. Zootopia is turning out to be the toon to beat in the Best Animated Feature film category. It all but swept the Annie awards (specifically honoring the work of artists and technicians in the animation field), capturing top honors along with a Golden Globe, a Producers’ Guild Award, and accolades from, among others, the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Almost nothing will please me more than for this one to win in its only category though I keep hearing rumblings about Kubo and the Two Strings.
My vote for the movie most inexplicably ignored by the Academy is the lush melodrama The Light Between Oceans, adapted by writer-director Derek Cianfrance from the best selling novel by M.L. Stedman. The movie was hardly a box-office hit, likely because today’s moviegoers aren’t receptive to its melodramatic (there’s that word again) flourishes, so it’s not surprising that it was glossed over, say, for Best Picture or Best Director. Okay, sure. On the other hand, the performances by Michael Fassbender (in the running last year for Steve Jobs), Alicia Vikander (last year’s Best Supporting Actress winner for The Danish Girl), and Rachel Weisz (2005’s Best Supporting Actress for The Constant Gardener) were on-point; however, the biggest omission, by far, is that of cinematographer Adam Arkapaw who wasn’t singled out for any year-end honors, not even among members of the American Society of Cinematographers. La La Land, all colorful, sunny, and sparkling, might have the lead here, but Arrival and Lion have admirers as well.
All right, now, fasten your seat belts….and thanks for your consideration.