Parasite by the Oscar Lights


When Tom Hanks tells you to turn the lights back on, you turn the lights back on. After Parasite secured its historic win in the Best Picture category and the first producer delivered their acceptance speech, the show producers dimmed the lights at the front of the stage, eager to bring the long show to a close. But another winner wanted to speak and Hanks led a contingent of front-row A-listers chanting a request for the night to continue a few minutes longer, for the unlikely victors to be given their due.

I’ve repeatedly tried to articulate in this space why the Oscars matter more, towering over all the precursor events on the long path to year-based celebration and retrospection. I have to admit it’s not exactly thrilling to watch Brad Pitt, Laura Dern, Joaquin Phoenix, and Renée Zellweger pick up trophies for the umpteenth time since the cycle got underway a month or so ago. But these performers are now in the annals of film with a totally different prominence, and for the fleet of others who walked off the stage clutching small, golden men, the validation of the prize offers a useful career boost in a business that can be brutal. And for Parasite to become the first non-English language film to claim the biggest honor the Academy bestows — in a ceremony with over ninety years of history — puts it into the record books in a way that will help it get seen by more people, but in the immediate future and years and decades to come. An incredibly worthy film fast-forwards to the status of classic, and marvelous director Bong Joon-ho now has a shelf full of Oscars. Now if they could just give a little honorary trophy to translator Susan Choi, who worked hard all night.

Host-free for the second straight year, the Academy Awards ceremony itself operated in a surprisingly staid mode, despite the presence of a few performers fully capable of stopping the show. I’m not confident I’ll retain a sharp memory of Janelle Monáe’s opening number, but it’s definitely the sort of energy the night needs. (Unfortunately, the directing of the number was shockingly clumsy, as if the team in the booth got caught flat-footed by their own show. It’s the least of the infractions, but how in the world do you bypass the opportunity to cut to Oscar nominee Florence Pugh when Monáe dons the Midsommar flower poncho?) Too much of the show was the standard procession of stiffness that understandably leaves more casual viewers bored. And I think there remains a problematic disconnect between the magnitude of certain moments and the production’s ability to convey that significance to those reasonably unschooled in Oscar lore.

As the clip package highlighting songs used in movies started to build to Eminem taking the stage to perform “Lose Yourself,” I knew it was a delayed make-good for the from the ceremony almost two decades ago, when the song from 8 Mile won an Oscar for the rapper and he chose to stay home rather than give the customary Best Song nominee performance. I know from online chatter that many others were perplexed about why he was there. For a moment to have the proper import, sometimes it takes a little exposition. Repeatedly last night, winners spoke compellingly about the power of storytelling. The Oscars, too, have stories, and last night was one of its better ones. Now it’s time for the Academy to improve their own process of telling them.


Twenty Performances, or Women and Chill Don First

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With the annual Academy Awards ceremony mere days away and the sharing of my personal assessment of the previous year’s ten finest films duly completed, tradition holds that I put my pontificating about performance into the format of an Actors Branch ballot. Had I been inexplicably gifted with the opportunity to identify the finest acting in the four established categories, presented in the required order, these are the names I would have submitted to the institution dedicated to the arts and sciences of motion pictures.


1. Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
2. Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
3. Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit
4. Song Kang-ho, Parasite
5. Adam Driver, Marriage Story

I think The Last Black Man in San Francisco is phenomenal, and the performance by Majors is a major part of that. The few awards bodies that have seen fit to throw a little attention the film’s way have tended to slot Majors into the supporting category, but I think there are dual leads. Song was similarly pushed for supporting, but lead feels right to me. And while I have mixed feelings about Jojo Rabbit, I think its young lead is marvelously expressive. I only agree with the Academy on two nominees, but I’m grateful to that voting body for giving Banderas his first nomination for career-topping work in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest. Sunday’s ceremony will undoubtedly make Joaquin Phoenix the second person to win an Oscar for playing the Joker. I can’t deny the virtuoso physicality he brings to the role, but the performance has he depth of a layer of face paint.



1. Lupita Nyong’o, Us
2. Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
3. Awkwafina, The Farewell
4. Scarlett Johannsen, Marriage Story
5. Ana de Armas, Knives Out

To explain the wonders of Nyong’o’s performance, I’ll defer to this tweet from Guy Lodge shortly after he first saw Us:

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She does so much with the role, absolutely reveling in the joy of intricate invention. It’s my favorite acting of the year, irrespective of category. In addition to the performances the Academy also celebrated, both Awkwafina and de Armas are marvelous in roles that get diminished because they have more comedic elements. When Renée Zellweger wins on Sunday night, it’ll be a perfectly fine choice, if another instance of Oscar voters overvaluing a performance because of displaced affection for the real person who’s being portrayed.



1. Joe Pesci, The Irishman
2. Wesley Snipes, Dolemite Is My Name
3. Timothee Chalamet, Little Women
4. Alan Alda, Marriage Story
5. Winston Duke, Us

Pesci is the only person I have in common with the Academy, and upon seeing The Irishman I thought sure that he was on his way to a second Oscar. The volatile onscreen persona Pesci is known for is put aside for a more more placid take on a mob boss, which winds up as the soul of Martin Scorsese’s rueful crime drama. It’s subtle and complex, exactly the sort of acting most deserving of plaudits. I should have known better. Brad Pitt is one of those actors who is “due,” and he has the benefit of competing with a role that’s really a lead, always a boon for supporting nominees. The other performances on my list are dandy, but this is the weakest category of the four.


1. Florence Pugh, Little Women
2. Shuzhen Zhou, The Farewell
3. Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit
4. Eliza Scanlen, Little Women
5. Park So-dam, Parasite

Little Women is full of marvelous acting, none more impressive than Pugh’s. Smoothly and subtly, she conveys the growth of Amy and gives the film’s centerpiece monologue a measured force that feels bracingly modern and yet also properly of the time. I’m glad to join the Academy in asserting Johansson is deserving of two nominations this year, but my other supporting actress choices never got much traction in the Oscar race, but all are terrific. And Park is also a fine online tutor.

Women Belittled — Thoughts on the Oscar Nominations


“Congratulations to those men,” Issa Rae said pointedly and gracefully this morning, immediately after listing the five contenders in the directing category for this year’s Academy Awards.

The annual announcement of new nominations is always going to be a hash of delightful surprises and miserable injustices for anyone who puts emotional investment into ongoing cinema history as it’s made and realizes that, for good or bad, Academy Award distribution is automatically the first draft of the enduring canon. That draft is often erased and rewritten, but no matter how forcefully different titles and performances are pressed into the page, the faint impressions of Academy-anointed work remains on the books forever. I’ve little doubt that Greta Gerwig’s Little Women will be considered a classic decades from now, but her omission from the Best Directing category is still painful. She made an utterly marvelous movie that’s staunchly Academy-friendly (the rules have change a bit in recent years, but period pieces based on classic literature have usually fallen solidly into the voters’ favor) and yet they couldn’t find room for her. Instead the directing category is a slate of films largely unified by their macho posturing.

I also find it incredibly bizarre that we now live in a cultural ecosystem where The New York Times can accurately run their Oscar nominations story with the subhead “‘Joker’ led the Academy Award contenders with 11 nominations, including best picture.” The director of Starsky & Hutch and Due Date can now claim chief creative responsibility for a movie that led the Oscar nominations, and not because he dropped his previous veneer in favor of serious-minded, deeply personal filmmaking. He took an overly familiar pop culture character and told his story with an ostentatious grittiness and a lazy cribbing of decades-old Martin Scorsese films. And I type that out as someone who believes Joker is a significantly flawed but interesting film. But I’m utterly perplexed by its elevation into a powerhouse awards contender, with the same number of nominations once earned by The Godfather Part II, Gandhi, and Amadeus.

At least in Best Picture and Best Directing, where the Academy voters go from here is a mystery, especially given this year’s truncated timeline and the different tabulating methodology for the top prize throwing things into further disarray. I can’t quite believe the Academy voters are going to give Phillips a major award for making an approximation of a Scorsese film when Scorsese is right there, but I’ve given up on believing I can figure out the course this unwieldy voting body is going to take. Whatever problems there were with the Academy’s past staid choices, guided by sentiment joined with a belief that the trophies belonged in the hands of creators who’d demonstrated a capacity for consistency over the years, I’m reaching the point when I’d welcome that shaky wisdom. For many years, I longed for the Academy to make more daring choices, to celebrate darker films. Joker, somewhat appropriately, could be be the universe’s cruel, cunning response to my previous bellyaching.

Other thoughts:

—Let’s start with Scorsese, because there’s a lot to marvel at. Scorsese’s ninth nomination in the directing category pushes him past Billy Wilder. Only William Wyler has more. And if Scorsese wins, which remains a real possibility, he becomes the oldest winner ever, besting the record set by Clint Eastwood when he took the award for Million Dollar Baby. That year, Eastwood beat out, among other, Scorsese (who was nominated for The Aviator).

—Scorsese’s The Irishman also scored two acting nominations, for Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, in the supporting category. A total of twenty-two performances have been nominated from Scorsese’s films over the years, putting him third on that particular list, behind Elia Kazan (who directed actor to nominations twenty-four times) and all-time, likely unbeatable champ William Wyler (who oversaw thirty-six acting nominations over the course of his career). The only other living director who’s remotely close to Scorsese on the list is Woody Allen, with sixteen, and I wouldn’t bet on any more nominations stemming from him films.

—While we’re still in Scorsese-land, Thelma Schoonmaker got her eighth nomination in the editing category, tying her with Michael Kahn for the career lead. Like Kahn, she’s won three times. Kahn is currently editing Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, so there’s a decent chance he retake the top spot next year.

—I had an inkling that Joaquin Phoenix’s uncomfortable acceptance speech at the Golden Globes might put a dent in his chance at the equivalent Oscar, but the over-performance of Joker in today’s nominations today buffs out that ding. Phoenix is sure to prevail, making him the second actor in the span of eleven years to win an Oscar for playing the Joker. The role is the Vito Corleone of this generation!

—Scarlett Johansson presumably came close to Oscar nominations with Match Point and Lost in Translation, but couldn’t quick muster the support needed to crack the acting quintets those years. Her breakthrough comes in a big way, with two nominations, for Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit. She’s one of twelve actors to pull off that trick and the first since Cate Blanchett, in 2007. Like Blanchett — and Julianne Moore, Emma Thompson, and Sigourney Weaver before her — I suspect Johansson loses twice on Oscar night, but she has an outside chance of pushing past consensus front-runner Renée Zellweger in the lead actress category.

—Checking the counting stats of other actors, Al Pacino earns his ninth acting nomination, tying him with Paul Newman and Spencer Tracy on the all-time list. Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio each collect their sixth acting nomination. As much is Hanks is thought of as an Academy favorite, this is his first time competing for film’s top award in nearly twenty years. His last nomination came for Cast Away, released in 2000. Similarly, Anthony Hopkins is an Academy Award contender for the first time in two decades. Before this year’s nomination, for The Two Popes, Hopkins hadn’t received a nod since Amistad, released in 1997. And, at the age of twenty-five, Saoirse Ronan is already up to her fourth acting nomination.

—In the supporting categories, Laura Dern and Brad Pitt are almost certain to duplicate their recent Golden Globe wins. I am mighty relieved that Florence Pugh made the cut in the supporting actress category for her fantastic turn in Little Women.

—With nod in both music categories, Randy Newman is up to twenty-two total Oscar nominations. His cousin Thomas Newman hits fifteen nominations. Randy has won a couple Oscars in the song category. Thomas has never won. They’re competing against each other in the category for original score. It’s the first time they’ve been nominated in the same category since the awards for the 1995 year in film, when Randy was nominated for the Toy Story score and Thomas was nominated for the Unsung Heroes score.

—If nothing else, the Parasite nominations are a wonderful thing that I wouldn’t have legitimately expected a few months ago. It’s a shame they couldn’t also find their way to including Song Kang-ho, though.

All We Hear is Academy Ga Ga

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When Julia Roberts slipped her slender fingers across the seal of the Best Picture envelope, I was actively afraid she was going to pull out a card with the title Bohemian Rhapsody typed onto it. So I mostly felt relief at the shocking announcement that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences determined the peak of cinema for the year recently passed was Green Book. I’m supposed to be aggravated by this. For as much tedium as I find in the film’s retrograde self-congratulation in dealing with the painful complexities of racism in the most facile manner imaginable, I’ll ultimately take well-meaning competence over the pure ineptness of Bohemian Rhapsody or the flagrant insult of Vice. The outcome could have been worse.

And there were enough outcomes worth celebrating, including historic wins for members of the Black Panther production team, the animated feature prize landing in the correct hands, Alfonso Cuarón joining the ranks of two-time Best Directing winners while also picked up additional accolades that speak to the breadth of his skill as a filmmaker, and overjoyed documentary short creators shouting about “menstruation equality.” Putting aside the sympathy I have for Glenn Close officially reaching a Burton-esque level of clapping for other actors at the Oscars, Olivia Colman was a far better choice in the lead actress category. I’m glad Regina King won, too, but Colman’s turn in The Favourite is the honored performance that will still be marveled about a generation of two from now. And then there’s the long-delayed dose of justice in Spike Lee winning his first competitive honor.


The ceremony itself was an odd, sleepy beast. Despite the snidely dismissive protestations of co-producer Donna Gigliotti, she and partner Glenn Weiss delivered precisely the “award, award, commercial, award, commercial, award” version of the show she deemed “So boring.” The ceremony itself was old school, stodgy even. If the producers thought it was the height of edginess to turn over the stage to a decrepit stadium rock band that hasn’t had a hit single in thirty-five years (excepting the Wayne’s World fluke that returned “Bohemian Rhapsody” to the upper reaches of the Billboard chart) or an album of fresh original material in nearly twenty-five years, I’d say they’re mistaken, no matter how exuberantly Javier Bardem jammed out in his tux.

Of course, the long run-up to the ceremony was marked by such acts of such clumsiness that the aversion of on-stage disaster was a relief (or, for rubberneckers, a grave disappointment, I suppose). The infamous absence of a host made a case for eliminating the rotating post altogether. The Academy would do just fine by committing to last night’s model of opening the show with a performer of performers who can deliver the obligatory monologue and then letting the announcer handle presenter introductions the rest of the way. It makes the evening about the awards rather that whatever showboating gimmickry Jimmy Kimmel or Seth MacFarlane cooked up, desperately certain that the proceedings needed a mid-program jolt of their comic genius. I guess someone out there might have missed the impish distribution of snack items to the audience or another stale joke about how the Oscars sure make for a long night. Not me.

Now if only the Academy could only find someone who has a discernible interest in the movies themselves and, you know, the import of the Oscars. Recruit a producer with understanding of and respect for the emotions that sent Jamie Ray Newman into radiant exuberance when she won an Academy Award for producing the short Skin, in one the categories, it should be noted, that was briefly cast into the void of a commercial break. I want someone who realizes teaming presenters who already have some affinity for each other is automatically more engaging than the random mix and match that was more common last night. Recent co-stars Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson swapping giggle fits is preferable to Michelle Yeoh and Pharrell Williams interacting with the ease of paired bridal party members who’ve just met. It’s not that difficult to invest meaning into the assembled couples that step before the global audience. Stephan James was a presenter and he played John Lewis. Give James the task of joining the Civil Rights legend to introduce a Best Picture nominee. Make it a moment.

I offer these grumbles only because I want the Oscars as an event to live up to the Oscars as an institution. These awards mean something. They define careers, a win serving as the lead descriptor in retrospective accounting of individual careers. To the degree that simple truth is reflected — in the raw emotion of winners, the rare introduction that was properly enthralled with the craft, even the lovely restraint of the performance of “Shallow” — the Oscars can still be magical.

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Twenty Performances, or Support the Favourites

Independent Filmmaker Project's 28th Annual Gotham Awards, Inside, New York, USA - 26 Nov 2018

As tradition mandates around these digital parts, the completion of the top ten films countdown is followed promptly by a celebration of the same year’s finest acting achievements, following the same model employed by the Academy. Had I been gifted with a nominating ballot, asking me to rank the best five performances in four delineated categories, this is the group of names I would have mailed back.

Let’s begin with the acting category that is the strongest this year, by far.


1. Regina Hall, Support the Girls
2. Olivia Colman, The Favourite
3. Joanna Kulig, Cold War
4. Emma Stone, The Favourite
5. Charlize Theron, Tully

By now, I have devoted a ridiculous amount of mental energy (and a couple pleasantly boozy conversations) to the question of where the three principal actresses of The Favourite should be placed: lead or supporting. A strong case can be made for every last combination, but, with assistance, I’ve landed on the idea that Colman is a lead (the film unquestionably revolves around her), as is Stone (as the clearest protagonist). I’ll get to our third performer in a couple paragraphs. Other than those two, I include three actresses who likely got some voter support, but not enough to elbow their way in to a category that can be used as proper definition of the term “abundance of riches.” Glenn Close will likely win on Sunday night, and it is overdue, making complaints about the quality of the honored work churlish. I’ve already done my best to address the specialness of Hall’s work. It’s reminiscent of the sort of performance of beautiful, understated humanity Jonathan Demme regularly coaxed from actors. I have few higher compliments to pay.



1. Brady Jandreau, The Rider
2. Stephan James, If Beale Street Could Talk
3. Alex Wolff, Hereditary
4. John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman
5. Lakeith Stanfield, Sorry to Bother You

The field for leading actors is dire in comparison. I like all these performances a great deal, but none would crack the top ten if I threw out the gender split. It feels a little odd to assert that Jandreau should be the winner since he’s essentially playing himself in The Rider, but it would be more wrongheaded to deny the power and delicacy of his acting. That he’ll likely never replicate the feat in a different role doesn’t diminish that it is indeed a feat. James is remarkable in Beale Street, showing amazing range and burying himself in the role in an an entirely unshowy way, and Wolff might have my single favorite acting moment of the year. Washington and Stanfield make magic happen in high-risk roles. Not only are none of the Oscar nominees represented here, I’m actually baffled by the appreciation for many of those performances, especially likely winner Rami Malek.



1. Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
2. Jeon Jong-seo, Burning
3. Haley Lu Richardson, Support the Girls
4. Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
5. Shayna McHale, Support the Girls

And Weisz is placed in supporting, for reasons that I could detail if I had a TED Talk worth of time in which to do it. She’s marvelous in The Favourite, demonstrating how ingeniously flinty line readings can inform a character rather than, as is often the case, stand in for one. Jeon arguably deserves to be among the contenders for the tangerine pantomime alone. I love the other performances, too (if the entirety of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs had been as good as the sequence with Kazan, it would have been high on my list of the year’s best), but I feel compelled to note this is the second straight year Richardson has been flat-out great in a movie. She is one Room away from a major breakthrough, and she deserves to get it. I suspect Regina Hall is going to win in this category on Sunday, and that’s fine by me. She’s my sixth choice, and leaving her off thise listing caused me some pain.



1. Steven Yuen, Burning
2. Nicholas Hoult, The Favourite
3. Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
4. Hugh Grant, Paddington 2
5. Josh Hamilton, Eighth Grade

I know a Korean film with a fairly dark sensibility was always going to be a hard sell with the Academy, but it’s a shame that Yuen’s Walking Dead credentials didn’t make him an established enough figure in the community to celebrate some truly intricate work. He does more with a yawn and a smirk than any of the actually nominated performers does with every tool at their disposal. I get why the ladies have dominated discussion around The Favourite, but Hoult is terrific in his supporting role. The two British Grants are grand, but I Hamilton might have my favorite single line reading of the year with his one word response to his daughter’s request for help in staging a quick backyard ritual burning. I know where all the precursors point, but I still don’t quite believe Mahershala Ali will become a two-time Oscar winner quite so quickly. My tentative bet is on Grant winning for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, in part due to his absolutely charming joy at merely being nominated.

Popularity Contest — Thoughts on the Oscar Nominations

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It’s been a notably rocky year for the the most hallowed of entertainment honors, so it’s fitting that the announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominees was a mix of the woefully predictable with gleaming bursts of the daring. In truth, that’s long been the case, but there are intriguing signs in this year’s batch of honorees that the Academy’s mighty efforts to improve the diversity of its membership are yielding the desire results. Netflix has steam-shoveled money into the campaign to get Roma Oscar love at levels unseen since the heyday of Miramax’s game-changing promotional assaults of the nineteen-nineties, but it still takes an Academy membership with a more adventurous gaze for talent to earn acting nods for both Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira.

Much of the Oscar season narrative to date has centered on the ways in which the Academy will inevitably pivot to the safest of safe zones, the films that remind seasoned observers of the dullest and most lamentable of past winners. The recent victory of Green Book at the Producers Guild of America’s awards ceremony coupled with its haul of Golden Globes had people invoking Crash through tightly gritted teeth. Green Book did well today, including nominations for leading actor and screenplay despite ugly controversies that surely dissuades plenty of voters from penciling them in. Even so, director Peter Farrelly didn’t make the cut in his category, which isn’t a good sign for the film’s prospects in turning nominations into wins. Similarly, there was a resolute band of Oscar prognosticators that kept insisting A Star is Born would eventually muscle its way to the front of the pack. Once again, its the directing category shifting the story, with Bradley Cooper forced to be content with only three nominations (for producing, acting, and writing) for his passion project.

I’ve complained at length in recent years about the predictability of the award dispersal — in the major categories, anyway — by the time the Academy weighs in. It can seem as though they’re anointing picks that have been made by others rather than selecting new members in most elite of showbiz clubs. With rare exceptions, I don’t look at this year’s tally of nominees and see a lot of sure bets. Even the presumed front-runners could fall prey to the strange dynamics of this year, which includes a Best Picture nominee so messy that its director was fired mid-shoot (and reviews that largely reflect the compromised nature of its production). Likely preferences could solidify in the month between the nomination announcement and the ceremony, but the counterarguments of entertainment business politics could just as easily keep the races uncertain. In the acting categories, Glenn Close is the only person I’d confidently lay a bet on right now, and I’d still slide a couple chips onto Olivia Colman’s square, just in case.

Following the debacle of the announced then retracted popular films category, the lineup for Best Picture includes Black Panther, the top domestic grosser of 2018, and two other films (A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody) that raked in more than two hundred million dollars at the U.S. box office. That’s more than one-third of the contenders for the top prize that can be considered popular films. If a dearth of titles familiar to the general populace has been the cause of the Oscar telecast’s declining ratings (I don’t believe it has been, but that’s a furiously typed diatribe for another day), then it’s up to the Academy to capitalize on the presence of these hits. This morning’s nominations announcement doesn’t bode well. Kumail Nanjiani and Tracee Ellis Ross (who I think is wonderful, but who also hasn’t appeared in a feature film in the last ten years) recited the honorees with a measured restraint that lapsed into blandness, engaging in asides about the early hour and what they had for breakfast. All the while, the nominees emerged in onscreen chryons that had all the excitement of a PowerPoint hastily assembled by the least imaginative person in an accounting office.

The Academy’s fumbled attempts to secure a host for the Oscars have been an embarrassment, but the institution’s corresponding inability to muster enthusiasm for its own yearly celebration of the finest film has to offer is a far bigger problem. Recent years have suggested the Academy powers that be have no feel for the true treasure of their centerpiece, the one entertainment prize that carries the weight of canonization. It’s time for them to stop implicitly apologizing for all the things the Oscars are not and start taking visible pride in the

Other thoughts:

—I think Close is finally going to become an Oscar-winner because it’s her seventh nomination and continued futility would be downright cruel. At least she’s in good company if she loses again. Richard Burton was nominated seven times without winning and Peter O’Toole reached eight swinging strikes.

—Amy Adams earns her sixth nomination, five of which have come in the supporting category. If my quick research is correct, only Thelma Ritter had more lifetime nominations in the supporting category. Adams has never won, and I think there’s a good chance she’s passed over again. Ritter also went Oscar-less. She didn’t even get an honorary trophy.

—Over thirty years after his debut feature, well after he was skittishly bypassed for worthy fare Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, and three years after his well-deserved “lifetime achievement” Oscar, Spike Lee gets his first nomination in the Best Achievement in Directing category. It’s especially nice that his longtime musical collaborator, Terence Blanchard, breaks through in the same year and for the same film.

—Songwriter Diane Warren is up to ten lifetime nominations, and she’d never won. Up against “Shallow,” the night’s more certain trophy recipient, she’ll be clapping for someone else again. Of course, many of the songs she’s been nominated for are hideous and the rest are merely forgettable, so adjust sympathy levels accordingly.

—On the other hand, it’s pretty great that the now routine Academy affection for the brothers Coen helped make Gillian Welch and David Rawling into Academy Award nominees. Hopefully, they get to perform at the ceremony, preferably with Tim Blake Nelson seated and singing between them.

Bait Taken — The Academy Awards Shake-Up

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Not that long ago, the Academy Awards spent one of their annual ceremonies giving practically every trophy they could to The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Directed by Peter Jackson, the film was the concluding feature in a trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus. It won in every category in which it was nominated, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Directing, and — the top prize — Best Picture. It became one of three films in Academy Awards history to tally eleven total wins. It was also the highest grossing film of the year, by a considerable margin. Indeed, by the end of the film’s box office run, bolstered a bit by the Oscar haul, it was the second-highest grossing film of all time to that point, behind only James Cameron’s Titanic, another Academy Award Best Picture winner (and another film tied for the record of eleven Oscar wins).

In an increasingly desperate bid to stem the ongoing attrition impacting practically every televised event, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced a set of planned changes to their annual awards ceremony, which will present its ninety-first edition in early 2019. There aren’t many changes, but those that were sent into the showbiz world (with a shocking lack of basic logistical detail) are so abjectly terrible that they suggest the people charged with protecting and preserving the Oscars have nothing but contempt for the venerable institution in their charge. The additions and subtractions are simultaneously an embarrassment and an affront, undercutting the credibility of the one entertainment award that matters and tacitly communicating to a wide population of cinematic artisans that their most inspired efforts simply aren’t as worthy of public celebration.

The proposed change that has stirred slightly less chatter will relegate an indeterminate number of Oscar categories to presentation off-air during the annual ceremony, while the American Broadcast Company is helping Pepsi and Toyota peddle their wares to the masses. The Academy hasn’t identified while categories will be shunted to the side, but they surely are looping an oversized hook around the so-called technical categories, bereft of famous names, but also, let’s not forget, more amenable to exactly the sort of big blockbuster entertainments the Academy clearly wishes were more present in the ceremony. Those Academy members presumably targeted for official second-tier status are understandably upset.

The more buzzed about alteration is an addition. There will be “a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film.” It is vaguely defined, with the tepid assurance that “key details will be forthcoming,” but all signs point to it as some sort of “people’s choice” equivalent, given to a film with a far larger box office footprint than, say, Spotlight or Moonlight or even, I guess, The Shape of Water, which took in a wholly respectable $195 million worldwide. Those sorts of films can, and often do, factor into major Academy Award categories on their own merits. Even Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, long the poster child for the Academy’s elitist rejection of hit films, was nominated in eight categories and won an acting trophy (posthumously, for Heath Ledger). It competed in the very categories the Academy would so dearly love to excise. I find it hard to believe that the pandering consolation prize of Best Popular Picture would struck anyone — creators, fans, viewers — as a satisfying outcome.

If anything, the segmenting off of “popular” films makes them less likely to contend. It’s early in the process, but it does seem possible that Marvel’s Black Panther could be a major presence at next year’s Oscars, for a variety of reasons. The Academy’s new categories signals to voters that they need not take it seriously. A little kiddie table has been created for that film, so don’t bother considering it among the real art. (To be fair, at this point last year, it was plausible that Wonder Woman could factor into Picture, Director, and Lead Actress races, and it was completely shut out of the nominations.) Even if the best intentions are assumed, that the new category is meant to extend the celebration of film excellence, it winds up doing the exact opposite, emphasizing that the hit movies don’t belong, that they’re not creative achievements.

I freely admit that I’m not the type of film fan the Academy is anxiously trying to win over. But I am precisely who they need to keep around. I’ve been watching the Oscars with a mildly mortifying intensity for decades, and I’ve defended the earned value of the awards with exhausting persistence. I’ve also openly lamented certain choices, especially in recent years. Today, though, really does feel like the first time I’m watching Academy leadership blithely demolish everything that’s been built up across nearly a century.

Oscars Gonna Oscar


For the first time in more years than is at all reasonable, I feel like I watched an Oscar telecast that wasn’t constructed by people who were embarrassed about the very concept of the storied ceremony they presided over. That I find this remarkable might be a touch sad, but it doesn’t really take away from the fundamental achievement of last night’s program. The 90th Academy Awards was gratifyingly solid.

My assessment refers more to the ceremony than the accuracy of the awards’ dispersal. I try not to get too chagrined when the Oscars don’t get handed out in precisely the fashion I would personally prefer, ultimately respecting the general wisdom of the industry crowd. Yes, I long for a perhaps unreachable era in which the Oscars are no longer simply the final ratification of the same cluster of actors who’ve gathered up preceding awards like monied stoners loading up on Girl Scout cookies outside their friendly neighborhood dispensary. And this was the first year in absolute ages that all four acting awards went to performances that I not only wouldn’t champion, but indeed found wholly unremarkable (or, occasionally, deeply flawed). Then again, I look at the quartet and feel satisfied that all are generally deserving to have possession of film acting’s highest honor (and the person who got a sibling for the trophy already on her mantle is equally deserving of the rarer designation “two-time Academy Award winners).

And then there’s the big prize, a choice that felt so sweetly convention in so many particulars — a period piece, a romance, made by a well-respected name director, the most nominated film of the night — that it is jolting to circle back around to the outlandish, delightful truth that the supposedly staid Academy just gave their most revered honor to a lush, horror-tinged fairy tale about a woman in a decidedly unchaste relationship with an amphibious man-monster. The Shape of Water sits forever on a historic continuum that also includes Going My Way, The Sound of Music, and Gandhi. Any divvying up of Oscars will yield results of mixed emotions, but a ceremony that includes the director of Cronos and Blade II showered with affection — as well as cinematographer Roger Deakins finally getting his due — is hard to generate ire against. As my preferred pick for the directing award, Greta Gerwig, watched Guillermo del Toro give one of his onstage speeches, she clearly said, “I love him.” If she’s happy, who am I to gripe?

But back to the show itself. In Jimmy Kimmel’s second straight year as host — and a similar encore engagement for producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd — a slew of small, targeted changes made for a better show. The running gags were pared back to a minimum and the inevitable stunt — this year centered on Kimmel leading a batch of stars to a preview screening of A Wrinkle in Time at a movie theater across the street, barraging the audience of average moviegoers with star power and projectile frankfurters — was staged with smart foresight for the basic logistics of the endeavor, making it brisk and economical. And in a year marked by rolling scandals of sexual misdeeds by Hollywood power players, Kimmel’s comedy addressed the hard truths of the moment without ever stooping to exploit them.

There were references to the length of the ceremony without cheap shots or whining, and the one running gag relating to the topic — a Showcase Showdown level prize given to the winner who delivered the night’s shortest speech — cleverly framed the eternal challenge of tightening the show as a challenge rather than a complaint. With rare exceptions, producers set aside the practice of making speech-givers compete with swelling orchestral tones, itself a gracious, welcome acknowledgement that the purpose of the night is to celebrate these individual’s artistic achievements. The clip packages were largely strong, especially the well-curated celebration of ninety years of Oscars and the packages of previous winning performances that announced each of the acting categories. Even the unavoidable wrong envelope jokes were kept to a dignified minimum, with the innovation of big, bold type on the packets carried to the stage reminder enough of the lunacy of last year’s fumbled finale.

In the long run, I’m not sure how much of this year’s Academy Awards will truly be memorable. For one night, though, I was pleased that the producers of the Oscars decided to be engaged with the award’s place in the ongoing cultural conversation. In accepting Best Picture, del Toro shared advice he received from Steven Spielberg as the Oscars approached: “If you find yourself there — you find yourself at the podium — remember that you are part of a legacy, that you are part of a world of filmmakers, and be proud of it.” More than in most years, the Oscar ceremony itself seemed to justly, properly share that sense of pride and value. It made for a good night.


tiffany maya

From The Archive — My Ballot, 2007

no country

In the corner of the multiverse where I preside over the Academy Awards like a benevolent despot, every one of the performers pictured above received an acting nomination for their roles in No Country for Old Men. Also, Seth MacFarlane never hosted the ceremony. So it’s a decent place, is what I’m typing. The other day, I shared my personal picks for the four acting categories handed out at the Oscars. Here’s evidence I’ve been engaging in this particular exercise online for quite some time (and yet longer — far longer — offline). Without the original explanations and observation included (but with a couple revised, updated hyperlinks), here are the performances I celebrated ten years ago. I stand by all of these selections, but do note with some amusement my mild dismissal of one of the nominated actresses from Joe Wright’s Atonement. My oh my, how times do change.


1. Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
2. Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah
3. Ryan Gosling, Lars and the Real Girl
4. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Savages
5. Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men

Let’s start with a relatively easy category, shall we? At least when it comes to picking out the name that goes next to the numeral one. Arguably the surest bet in tonight’s ceremony, the performance is starting to entrench itself the cultural vernacular to such a degree that it’s soon going to be easy to forget just how good it is. Day-Lewis may be the best by a solid margin, but that Tommy Lee Jones performance is terrific, a controlled, deeply felt portrait of sorrowful disillusionment.

1. Ellen Page, Juno
2. Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There
3. Laura Linney, The Savages
4. Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart
5. Julie Christie, Away From Her

Yup, I opt for the little Canadian miracle worker who manages to make Diablo Cody’s highly constructed dialogue sound natural and revealing. As much credit as many of the other Juno collaborators deserve, without Page and her mix of expert comic timing and grounded emotionalism, it’s hard to imagine the film recovering from its opening minutes which are almost uniformly viewed as problematic. That the film winds up so winning is a testament to the fully realized accomplishment of her performance. While I think she has an outside shot to be an upset winner in this category tonight, slipping past Marlee Matlin to become the youngest Best Actress winner ever, my wager remains firmly on Christie for her elegantly moving work (and because voters will see it as a sort of de facto career award), and I suspect Marion Cotillard’s unbearably hammy work as Edith Piaf is a tick ahead of Page in the horse race, too. Since I commit to being ruthlessly honest about filling this out, I’ll note that I consider Blanchett to be a lead for I’m Not There. I’ve got a different supporting actress in mind for that film.

1. Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men
2. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War
3. Tommy Lee Jones, No Country For Old Men
4. Steve Zahn, Rescue Dawn
5. Paul Schneider, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Hoffman and Jones certainly had good years. Hoffman’s continuing mastery of he craft of acting has almost become mundane, but it’s nice to see Jones giving committed performances after the odd digressions of recent years. Schneider had a less recognized good year (he’s also award-worthy in Lars and the Real Girl). I like Casey Affleck’s nominated turn in Jesse James, but I see that as a lead performance and I just can’t make room in that category. It’s a shame Steve Zahn didn’t get more end-of-the-year talk; his work in Werner Herzog’s film deserves to be career-shifting. Bardem will almost certainly win tonight, and, like Day-Lewis, it’s completely deserving. Those two performances are the two from this year that will be remembered for a long, long time.

1. Emily Mortimer, Lars and the Real Girl
2. Leslie Mann, Knocked Up
3. Michelle Williams, I’m Not There
4. Maria Tomei, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
5. Kelly Macdonald, No Country For Old Men

Not a single one in common with the Academy, although that has something to do with the fact that I think they (and, granted, everyone but me) have got Blanchett’s stellar turn as Jude Quinn misfiled. I’d say that Michelle Williams’ brief, riveting performance as model Coco Rivington is more suited to the supporting category, although I’ll quickly concede that the big jumble puzzle of Todd Haynes’ film is hard to fit into the simple Oscar category boxes. Mortimer is terrific in a tricky role in Lars, since her empathetic work in crucial to making believable the conceit of the entire town rallying around the lead character’s delusions. Mann is more than a considerable comic force in Knocked Up. She makes a character that could have easily been little more than a mean-spirited caricature in to someone sympathetic and interesting. I frankly don’t understand why Tomei and Macdonald aren’t actually in the running for the Oscar. As for tonight, this is the one category that you can see going to any of the actual nominees except the kid. Of course, the last time I said that any one of four different people had a real shot at winning in this category, it was the fifth that took the prize, so don’t count out Atonement‘s Briony yet. I think Tilda Swinton is going to win for Michael Clayton, largely by process of elimination (Blanchett just won three years ago, Ruby Dee’s role is apparently less than five minutes of screen time in a film that’s not hugely well regarded, Amy Ryan seems to have settled in to that place where Thomas Haden Church was a couple years ago, where the nomination is seen as adequate compensation for sweeping the critics’ awards). Besides, I think enough Oscar voters will want to check a box in close proximity to the words “Clayton” and “Michael,” and Swinton is the most likely beneficiary of that instinct.


Twenty Performances, or Bird is the Word

academy luncheon

Now I’ve completed the process of listing my ten best films of the cinematic year not-so-recently-completed, I have one more bit of annual business to take care ahead of this Sunday’s trophy ceremony. As usual, I share the Actors Branch nominating ballot I would have turned in had some strange shift in the the fabric of the universe had placed the document in my eager hands. I’ve tried to be resolutely honest in settling on the twenty names that follow, eschewing sentimentality or gamesmanship.

And I’ll open with the strongest category of the year.


1. Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
2. Haley Lu Richardson, Columbus
3. Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
4. Carey Mulligan, Mudbound
5. Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

Ronan, Hawkins, and Robbie all made the Academy’s cut, and their fellow nominee Meryl Streep was likely my sixth name, her crafty nuance in The Post just an eyelash behind Robbie’s fierce inventiveness. I suspect it’s Frances McDormand who will win in this category, and I have to grudgingly admit that her having a second Oscar on her shelf in a fine thing, even if I think she overacts in the highly problematic Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I’m hoping that McDormand using her SAG Awards acceptance speech to essentially give permission to pick someone else opens the door for Ronan. Because Lady Bird has got to win something, doesn’t it? Richardson never had a chance here, but she’s nearly Ronan’s equal in the category playing a role that’s similar on the surface, but less flashy. I do wonder if Mulligan would have been more of a factor for her bruising performance had Mudbound gotten a more traditional Oscar season roll-out than the popping into ubiquitous availability that is the Netflix model.



1.  Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
2. Daniel Day-Lewis, The Phantom Thread
3. Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
4. Jason Mitchell, Mudbound
5. John Cho, Columbus

I believe Chalamet’s performance is the best of the year, regardless of category, and I felt that way even before the heartbreaking power of the final shot, the most emotionally devastating acting to close a film since Glenn Close sat before the makeup mirror to bring the curtain down on Dangerous Liaisons. He doesn’t have a chance against Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, a classic case of the the Academy’s dismal “great man” blind spot, which leads to a confusion over the deeds of the character versus the quality of the acting. As for the others in my quintet, I’ll note that my admiration for Kaluuya’s performance only grows every time I catch another bit of Get Out on cable, Cho is a beautifully understated partner to Richardson, and, while readers may find this a bold pronouncement, Day-Lewis is quite good at acting. I had a hell of a time placing the male actors from Mudbound into categories, but ultimately decided Mitchell’s character was closest to a protagonist’s arc.



1. Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
2. Lesley Manville, The Phantom Thread
3. Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!
4. Allison Williams, Get Out
5. Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

Metcalf losing to Allison Janney’s adequate but hammy performance in I, Tonya will be one of the night’s most dispiriting moments for me. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is exactly the godawful disaster its reputation makes it out to be (and the critics who have devoted some of their end-of-year energy to championing its daring are either adorable or delusional, I can’t quite decide), but Pfeiffer is blazingly good in her role. Had the movie taken its cues from her sly bravado, it might have been something. I’m very happy Manville and Spencer were both lauded by the Academy, but Williams deserved a place among the contenders, if only for the scene in which she talks to Rod on the phone.



1. Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
2. Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name
3. Tracy Letts, Lady Bird
4. Garrett Hedlund, Mudbound
5. Lil Rel Howery, Get Out

Speaking of TSA agent extraordinaire Rod Williams, you’re damn right I think Howery deserves to be in the running in the supporting actor category. Jenkins is the only performer the Academy and I agree upon.  It’s not so surprising in the cases of Letts and Hedlund, but its downright criminal that Stuhlbarg was overlooked. His monologue toward the end of Call Me By Your Name is one of the clear highlights of the entire year. Of course, anyone in this category is doomed to applaud for when the win is claimed by Sam Rockwell, an actor absolutely overdue for awards acclaim who is getting his prize for a mediocre turn in a poorly conceived character that — as a bonus — really belongs in the lead category. It’s going to be a rough Oscars year for me, friends.