Golden gentlemen and the people they’re handed to

I tend to use the Academy Awards not as any sort of barometer of film quality, but rather as Movie Christmas — the symbolic end of the year in cinema, and an appropriate time to write about the films that wowed you during the previous twelve months. Because the Oscars themselves are, this year more than ever, a weird kind of questionable. Not only because they’re seemingly intent on heralding a bafflingly well-liked snooze of a musical, but because it all feels a little distracting as an event.

The word is collapsing in on itself, Nazis have taken over, and nameless commenters across social media illustrated by frogs and eggs will descend upon comment sections, decrying the liberals and luvvies and progressives and virtue-signallers (the term of the month, surely?) who dare to express any sort of rage or compassion for people who aren’t exactly like them. Because that’s delusional, apparently. And nobody should take incredibly wealthy celebrities with no experience in politics seriously, except for those that they do. Or something. Nothing much makes sense anymore.

But then there is art, which can distract and inspire and make you giggle and cry. And sometimes when you switch off your feeds, turn the lights down low and bury yourself under a blanket at the thought of everything, two hour bursts of feeling can really help. As much as we need to stay alert, stay vigilant and work our asses off, we need those distractions, too. It would just be easier if said distraction didn’t reward a bunch of white people talking about jazz.

Here are my thoughts on the major Oscar categories and the year in film.

Best Picture
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Moonlight is the best picture of 2016. It is surging, swooning and beautiful, a battle cry for finding love in an uncertain world, and the pain of discovering one’s self. It’s a film that is both broad in its themes and wonderfully specific, about the outcast, the queer, the black and the undervalued. In a just world, it would be watched and experienced by all, and rightly knocked out by the awards tossed its way.

But it probably won’t take home the night’s biggest prize, because La La Land exists. With its conventional plotting, characters devoid of any real complexity and abundance of pretty images, it’s the sort of film engineered for Oscars. Throw in a worship of all things Hollywood, and a bit of casual racial messiness, and it’ll fit right in with illustrious winners like The Artist, Argo and Shakespeare in Love. Snore.

Will Win La La Land
Should Win Moonlight
My Ballot 20th Century Women; American Honey; Hell or High Water; Jackie; Moonlight

Best Actor
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Denzel Washington ought to win this. We’ve arguably seen this Washington before, that bullying, narcissistic menace in love with the sound of his own voice, but he’s so, so good at it that it’s hard not to consider it the best male performance of the year. Granted, he’s served well by such a darkly compelling character on the page, a protagonist you struggle not to feel rage over, but he still ought to take home the gold.

Elsewhere, while Jeff Bridges became the “face” of Hell or High Water’s ensemble (for a brilliant, if unsurprising performance), it’s unfortunate that Chris Pine wasn’t greater pushed. Pine nails a sleepy, tactile masculinity here that resembles classic Eastwood, putting to bed any vague resemblance he may have had to the array of tedious modern leading men who all happen to be called Chris. He would have been a worthy nominee.

I also loved Jesse Plemons getting a rare star vehicle in Other People. It’s a very traditional Sundance indie, but Plemons never overplays his checklist of personal and familial trauma here. He’s endearingly real and tender throughout the film.

And while it feels like The Lobster hit the UK a million years ago, per Academy American release date rules, I’m gonna have to give a nod to Colin Farrell’s fussy, anxious work in The Lobster, particularly how he so wonderfully tethered to the ground a potentially outlandish story. I also loved Adam Driver’s blank-faced sweetness and subtle comic timing in Paterson, even if the film itself was something of a non-starter.

As for actual nominees, both Andrew Garfield and Viggo Mortensen were completely fine in their respective movies, but said vehicles are so flawed that it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for their central performances. Hacksaw Ridge is so aggressively hokey for its first half that Garfield gets completely swallowed in sepia-coloured corn before the technically masterful battle scenes start up, while Captain Fantastic is such a nothing-burger of a movie that it’s difficult for any of its central cast to overshadow its embarrassing lack of weight. Snore.

As for the category’s eventual winners, I’m not sure the Academy will care about all that is Casey Affleck. It would be a lovely surprise if the award went elsewhere, but it probably won’t. He’s very, very good in Manchester by the Sea, successfully mirroring the understated passion of Kenneth Lonergan’s sleepy coastal drama, but I don’t know if it’s something that needs awards flung at it either.

Will Win Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
Should Win Denzel Washington (Fences)
My Ballot Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea); Colin Farrell (The Lobster); Chris Pine (Hell or High Water); Jesse Plemons (Other People); Denzel Washington (Fences)

Best Actress
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I had been following the Isabelle Huppert narrative for a while, the shrieks of Twitter pining after a shockingly under appreciated French lady victory over the seemingly preordained Emma Stone. Huppert had been campaigning like crazy, the US media seemed to have woken up to her legacy — it seemed like a dark horse that could actually be worth hitching a ride on.

Then I actually saw Elle. At the centre of an uncomfortable psychosexual thriller, where themes of consent, sadomasochism and misogyny run riot, Huppert has arguably the most complex, difficult female character of the year. And there’s not a single hope in hell that the Academy will go for it. When you have a shiny, easily decipherable young white lady waiting in the wings, with a perfectly neat arc and nicely telegraphed scenes to show off each perfunctory emotion on the actor gamut, it’s never going to happen.

To be honest, I actually preferred Natalie Portman’s work in Jackie over Huppert, purely down to its daring willingness to be somewhat artificial and campy. Portman is arch, aloof and unusual here, fitting Pablo Larrain’s relentlessly atypical melodrama like a glove. It’s neither impersonation nor a radically new variation on the Jackie Kennedy burnt into our collective consciousness, but sits somewhere compellingly unique in the middle. It’s Portman in Black Swan mode again, paired with a director that knows exactly the tone in which to anchor their star.

As for the de facto winner, Emma Stone is fine. I’ve never really found her particularly great as a performer. She’s never bad, but she’s never gaga-worthy either. She’s perpetually conventional, which naturally equals Oscar winner. Elsewhere, Loving is my one major category blindspot this year, while Streep’s nomination is silly. And I’m somebody who had no problem with her Into the Woods nod in 2015. But in such a strong year of great female performances, the majority in much better movies, it’s lazy and stupid that she’s ended up here.

And that’s even counting films that typically get Oscar attention. Someone as radically, compellingly green as Sasha Lane in American Honey was never going to catch the Academy’s eye, but Annette Bening’s career-best work in the gorgeous 20th Century Women is a bizarre snub, while Rebecca Hall’s similarly career-best work in Christine, playing such a daringly tetchy, strange and brittle true-life tragedy, deserved far more acclaim than it got.

Then there’s Kate Beckinsale’s ingenious comic timing in Love & Friendship (a movie that even the historically local-first BAFTAs bizarrely snubbed), Oulaya Amamra’s out-of-nowhere fire in Divines, Allison Janney’s impeccable humanity in Tallulah, and a rousing Taraji P. Henson, who for some reason just wasn’t a factor in this race despite Hidden Figures so clearly being a vehicle for her.

Finally there’s Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen, another entry in the long pantheon of radically brilliant female lead performances in teen movies that were barely a blip on the radar upon release but will inevitably turn into cult hits in future. Julia Stiles, Rachel McAdams and Reese Witherspoon welcome you to the club. She’s marvellous in that film.

Will Win Emma Stone
Should Win Natalie Portman (Not seen: Ruth Negga)
My Ballot Annette Bening (20th Century Women); Isabelle Huppert (Elle); Sasha Lane (American Honey); Natalie Portman (Jackie); Hailee Steinfeld (The Edge of Seventeen)

Best Supporting Actor
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Or, as I like to refer to it, my Moonlight category. All five of Moonlight’s central male performances are breathtaking, but the smile-inducing, open-hearted chemistry between Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland during their third act reunion is cinema at its very best. Their scenes are funny, spirited and laced with an underlying eroticism that feels not only swoon-worthy but startlingly unique to modern film.

Ali, who should and will win this category, hangs over the film like a tender spectre, doing so much with what is ultimately so little. He’s the battered, wounded heart of the film, whose distinguished presence can be found in the crash of a wave later on, the build of another rousing piece of score, or the visual impact of a grill and do-rag. If Hollywood wasn’t so backward, all three male Moonlight adults would have been turned into stars by now.

Elsewhere, Shia LaBeouf is stunningly good in American Honey. As a character meant to convey both sexual allure and unpredictable danger, LaBeouf delivers one of the most exciting, tragic performances of the year. I also loved Tom Bennett’s masterful stupidity in Love & Friendship (arguably one of the hardest modes to play, and one of the modes most susceptible to buffoonery), John Goodman’s skin-crawlingly terrifying work in 10 Cloverfield Lane at the start of 2016, and everything Woody Harrelson did in The Edge of Seventeen.

As for actual nominees, Dev Patel is MOR acceptable in the MOR acceptable Lion, and Lucas Hedges does great things in Manchester by the Sea, even if the general sleepiness of the whole film never really hit that sweet spot for me. I can barely remember anything Michael Shannon did in the stupidly stylised Nocturnal Animals, though I imagine this is more a nomination for his general body of work over the past few years. Dude has range!

Will Win Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Should Win Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
My Ballot Mahershala Ali (Moonlight); John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane); Andre Holland (Moonlight); Shia LaBeouf (American Honey); Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight)

Best Supporting Actress
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Category fraud, schmategory fraud. Viola Davis could have been campaigned as lead, absolutely, and it would have been interesting to see if she would have beaten Emma Stone (the optics of a Stone win in that situation would have been hilarious iffy), but I’m fine with her being in Supporting. Denzel Washington is such a force in Fences that Davis’s character recedes into the background, her resentment and dissatisfaction beautifully concealed behind a steely smile.

This is Davis’s category, her deserved win, and a masterful, brilliant performance. She will and should take home the gold.

As for everybody else, Michelle Williams is very good in Manchester, but (small voice) I wasn’t in love with her big Oscar moment, even if the film does interesting things with her character despite her general lack of screen time.

Naomie Harris is indeed spectacular in Moonlight, and so easily accomplishes what is deceptively the trickiest task of the movie: conveying years of guilt, rage and animosity in essentially just three extended scenes, each with a different scene partner playing the same character, and only shooting for three days. It’s a testament to the sheer power and reliability of indie film actors.

Octavia Spencer is fine in Hidden Figures, though she’s clearly here as the Fox Searchlight-approved ‘face’ of the film’s cast. When Janelle Monae delivers the far more interesting and flashy supporting performance, it’s really the only excuse.

And while it’s always nice to see Nicole Kidman score Oscar attention, there’s something so telegraphed, so (shudders) Weinsteiny about her supporting role in Lion that it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. She’s fine, the movie is fine, her wig is breathtaking, but I’m not totally sure why she’s here.

As for snubs, I adored Lily Gladstone’s small, tender and heartbreaking work in Certain Women, playing the sort of lonely, happy ending-less nobody that never gets face-time in cinema. Considering the skill and career lengths of her three fellow female leads, it’s even more impressive that Gladstone so comfortably walks away with the movie.

Continuing the Other People love, Molly Shannon should probably be here, too, even if it’s very traditional in its cancer/chemo/death trajectory. But she’s wonderful, and probably deserved more awards attention. Likewise Riley Keough in American Honey, whose volatile but beautifully underplayed anger at the world is one of the most terrifying performances of the year. Greta Gerwig is also fantastic in 20th Century Women, particularly for an actress who has a tendency to float on the same barrel of tricks that made her an indie darling in the first place.

As for totally under-the-radar picks, Abbey Lee found wonderfully knowing ‘Gershon in Showgirls’-style camp in the otherwise dreadful Neon Demon, Hailey Squires was the sole piece of legitimately great acting in the otherwise messily-performed I, Daniel Blake, and Khandi Alexander delivered one of the most powerful, mesmerising cameos of 2016 in her small role in Patriots Day.

Will Win Viola Davis
Should Win Viola Davis
My Ballot Viola Davis (Fences); Greta Gerwig (20th Century Women); Lily Gladstone (Certain Women); Naomie Harris (Moonlight); Riley Keough (American Honey)

Best Director
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It would have been wonderful to see Andrea Arnold recognised here, not only to break up the male monotony of this category, but because her work on American Honey is the visual definition of ‘reach out and touch’. Her directorial scope is so earthy and sumptuous, like rolling around in a mossy field on a hazy day in summer. Watching it on a big-screen is a must.

I also loved what Mike Mills did with 20th Century Women’s visuals, from static framing of household objects and burning cars to the sheer power of an apprehensive Annette Bening moving through the crowd of a 70s rager. It’s a testament to the Best Director category’s bias for maximised hyper-visuals that films as clean, interesting and quiet as 20th Century Women get snubbed here. Likewise the gorgeous tracking shots and airy wonder of Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, or the clean, yellow-hued sweatiness of David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water.

When it comes to actual nominees, what Mel Gibson does with those Hacksaw Ridge war scenes are admittedly stunning, but oof does that first half stink. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is more of an writerly accomplishment than a visual one, and you already know how I feel about La La Land. Denis Villeneuve, in any other year, would have likely made my personal ballot for his awe-inspiring work on Arrival. But things got crowded this year.

Will Win Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Should Win Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)
My Ballot Andrea Arnold (American Honey); Barry Jenkins (Moonlight); Pablo Larrain (Jackie); David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water); Mike Mills (20th Century Women)

Best Adapted Screenplay
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This will probably, shamefully, be one of just two Oscars Moonlight will likely walk away with. But it will be a deserved one. While Barry Jenkins is a brilliantly inventive director, his work translating Tarell Alvin McCraney’s original play to film is a masterclass in sheer visionary ballsiness. Each segment in his script is wonderfully constructed, distinct and unique on their own but sharing an overriding emotional power with the two sections surrounding them. It’s a storytelling device that never feels showy or unnecessary, but rather effortlessly needed.

Elsewhere, August Wilson’s Fences screenplay is, quite obviously, a direct lift from his original play, but it’s so thunderous in its self-contained power that I don’t care all that much. It also works very well on film, an unusual distinction that separates Fences from many of its stage-to-screen contemporaries.

As for other nominees, Eric Heisserer’s Arrival gets points for burying a powerful human drama in an otherwise fantastical premise, while the adapted screenplay for Hidden Figures was everything good about Oscar bait: inspiring, funny, heartwarming and illuminating of a moment in history shamefully unspoken of for decades. It’s Oscar movie done right. Lion is fine.

For my personal ballot, it would have been cool to highlight Whit Stillman’s brilliantly frothy Love & Friendship, which somehow made Austen even more biting and quick-witted. I also loved how David Birke’s Elle adaptation managed to meld together tropes of an early-90s erotic thriller with complex, daring Euro melodrama. It warranted a notice here.

Will Win Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight)
Should Win Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight)
My Ballot David Birke (Elle); Eric Heisserer (Arrival); Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight); Whit Stillman (Love & Friendship); August Wilson (Fences)

Best Original Screenplay
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It would have also been neat to give a shout-out to Richard Linklater for his completely invigorating Everybody Wants Some!!, which has faced a barrage of slightly askew criticism since it was first released. A film can be overwhelmingly testosterone-driven without being misogynist, and depicting a very real kind of young male isn’t inherently a bad, or dangerous, thing either.

Elsewhere, Jackie was largely lost in the shuffle when it came to Oscar recognition (despite a thoroughly deserved nomination for Mica Levi’s strange and beautiful score — which happens to be the best of the year), but its script by Noah Oppenheim is a thing of wonder.

As for new voices, Kelly Fremon Craig created one of the most identifiable and charming young adult films in recent memory with The Edge of Seventeen, a delightful comedy drama that should be watched and re-watched by generations to come. I’m also enormously excited for the next projects by Trey Edward Schults, Zach Clark and Melodie Sisk, who (with Krisha and Little Sister, respectively) took standard indie tropes of the ‘awkward family reunion’ and transformed them into fascinating, fresh portraits of familial conflict. Both projects promise increasingly brilliant future work.

As for the actual nominees, Lonergan would be a fine if flat winner and The Lobster warrants a spot for its sheer ballsy-ness. I have no idea what La La Land is doing here. In a film with few non-visual assets, its plodding, completely conventional screenplay is not one of them.

Taylor Sheridan’s tight, brutal Hell or High Water was a script I adored, featuring some of the most memorable bits of characterisation this year. Even players who appear in just one or two scenes sparkle with personality and weight.

But my favourite screenplay of the year was Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women. There are so many stirring moments here, from lines of dialogue to pointed scenes of conversation. It’s a script that feels worked over, shaped and lived-in, and one that lingers long after the film ends. I was shockingly affected by much of the material here.

Will Win Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
Should Win Mike Mills (20th Century Women)
My Ballot Kelly Fremon Craig (The Edge of Seventeen); Richard Linklater (Everybody Wants Some!!); Mike Mills (20th Century Women); Noah Oppenheim (Jackie); Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water)

Best Foreign Language Film/Best Documentary
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Every year I want to watch more documentaries and Foreign films, and then I hit the end of the year and realise I’ve barely made a dent in them. With stuff like Toni Erdmann, The Handmaiden, Train to Busan, The Wailing and O.J.: Made in America all still hanging around tapping their fingers waiting to be watched, I’m not going to try and make ballots for either category. But I loved Elle, thought Julieta, Things to Come and Divines were all strong if not entirely successful, and found documentaries 13th, Wiener and Tickled completely captivating.

But I most adored Author: The J.T. LeRoy Story. How such a narratively fascinating, inventively presented masterpiece skipped any major award recognition is a mystery that will linger for a while. Author talks of identity, anxiety, self-hatred, fame and the hypocrisy of the professionally outraged in its shockingly all-encompassing scope — a film that ends up tackling most aspects of how we react and engage with the culture around us. It’s aggressively brilliant, and deserves to be seen.

Foreign (Will Win) The Salesman
Documentary (Will Win) O.J.: Made in America

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