Black Panther

I loved The Avengers when it first came out in 2012 ( for how well it answered the many challenges of a first superhero franchise film. But Black Panther may well be the best Marvel film yet. It’s gorgeous to look at, well acted (surprisingly so in some instances), and manages to handle its many problems presented by an overstuffed origin story as deftly as The Avengers did six years ago. In addition to the look and the acting, the film owes a significant thanks to its effects crew, an intelligent use of reverb at powerful moments, and of course, personal trainers.

The origin story has depth, and while the plot itself is negligible and centered around a classic McGuffin, the film presents places and characters that work in a standalone film while laying the groundwork for follow-up Panther films, as well as integrating these characters into the rest of the Marvel universe.

At least for me, the film began a bit shakily as one of my favorite actors, Sterling K. Brown, was offered in something of a punk/street persona. Didn’t work for me at all, and was the first time I was disappointed in seeing him on the screen. He’s a great actor (and I use that term precisely), but his persona as the nice guy is perhaps a bit too strong to accept him in the role he has here.

Fortunately, that was not the case with the many other actors that inhabit the film. Chadwick Boseman (42, Get On Up, Marshall) finally steps out of his biopics and easily slips on the persona of the mythical earthly king (T’Challa) and superhero (Black Panther). Boseman has a dignity and regal bearing that combine with his natural talents to make a believable character. It’s true his rather recessive screen personality tends to be overpowered by the electric presence of the villain, played by Michael B. Jordan (Creed), who could have easily stepped into Boseman’s shoes. But that would have created another dynamic entirely. Boseman doesn’t break through the screen as Jordan does, but he carries the weight of the film easily on his broad and highly exercised shoulders.

What the film contains in terms of its presentations of African-Americans and strong women is beyond the scope of this analysis. But two things: Wakanda is a magnificent place that is both fantasy and something of a cinematic affirmation of black history and culture; that’s a tough thing to pull off, and the film does it well. Its strong women, too, are not called attention to as exceptions, but are a logical part of the film’s landscape, going far beyond the “I am woman, hear me roar” presentations of other films, and simply presenting these warriors and leaders as part of the fabric of life. There might be other recent films that call such attention to what they are doing in the name of diversity and inclusion that they forget narrative, drive, energy, and cinematic skill. Thankfully, that’s not the case here.

The cast is large, and the film could easily have broken down under the weight of the many faces and the necessity of giving life to them all. It doesn’t. The commitment and talent of each actor is part of the reason, and the film places characters before plot, giving the viewer ample time to get a sense of each personality.

Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) is third-billed, but in many ways, this is her film. She is strong most of the time (without trying to be), focused all of the time, and relational and romantic at just the right moments. She bears a good deal of credit for the film’s success. Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) has the difficult task of playing a female warrior that has to be a fighting machine while still being a believable person facing believable conflicts. Perhaps it was because of the arc of his character and (spoiler alert) what he ends up doing in the film, but Daniel Kaluuya is less impressive than he was in Get Out. His character seems less focused and credible, and he was less than an ideal match for his character.

On the other hand, Angela Bassett is perfectly cast as T’Challa’s mother, and finally fills her performance with poise and regal strength without the edge of anger she often brings to her roles. Motion-capture legend Andy Serkis (Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes films) throws himself—perhaps too much—in the role of a classic bad guy, but he certainly provides the film with energy. Lastly (for here and now), Brit Martin Freeman (Sherlock and the Hobbit films) nails an American accent and brings his warmth and sympathetic person to a complicated character, adding a welcome layer to an already complex, rich film.

The visuals in the film are stunning. That includes the special effects, which are both eye-popping and beautiful, and are quickly made of a piece with the whole look of the film—not just there for the occasional wow factor. The sets, the costumes, the cinematography are all impressive but again, are so very well integrated into the whole look of the film that you can’t consider them separately. Director Ryan Coogler, who had been known for smaller and more independent style work in Fruitvale Station and Creed, manages to mix the various ingredients of a blockbuster in a way that brings together performances, story, a massive cast, and a breathtaking look into a single cohesive film that also happens to be greatly entertaining. It’s been offered that the film is so complicated that it needs a second look to understand it all. For this writer, the film is worthy of a second and third look for its beauty and distinction alone.

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A Classic Performance, Revisited


Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld


Rainer in The Good Earth

Luise Rainer is a name long forgotten in the film world, except by historians and major film nerds, of which I am one. Even so-called “film buffs” have never heard of the actress who won the first two consecutive acting Oscars, retired shortly thereafter and lived to the ripe old age of 104. Certainly part of the problem is how long ago her work was recognized, her short film career, and the absence of any solid film persona that has lingered.

Any review of her work includes the tired old chestnut that “despite limited appearances” (as the ever-questionable Wikipedia entry describes) in her first Oscar-winning performance in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), it was really her one big scene toward the end of the film that won her the Best Actress Award. This is Rainer’s moving telephone conversation congratulating former lover Ziegfeld on his marriage to Billie Burke (best known as Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.) This entire perspective needs to be upended and reviewed.

Yes, the telephone scene is certainly one of the best in all film history, and probably the strongest in the studio era. The aching contrast between what she is saying and the expressions on her face is admittedly touching, and coming toward the end of the film, is probably what most viewers tend to remember about her performance. When I recently revisited the film, however, I was struck by two things: how much Rainer is actually in the first part of the film, and how very good she was in all her scenes, deserving of the award quite apart from the telephone scene.

For one, Rainer performs in numbers her real-life character Anna Held presented years before. Held was known more for her personality and style than her voice, and the performances here walk the fine line between showing her star quality while presenting a voice that is usually “good enough” to pull off the songs—most of which wouldn’t tax a real singer. Rainer makes this look easy, and the songs are usually so light, that it’s tempting to ignore the quality of her work.

But it’s her scenes with William Powell as Ziegfeld that are most impressive. She plays what we might call a flippertigibett, moving with quicksilver speed from “I hate him” to “I love him” and “tell him to leave,” to “no, tell him to stay.” Most other actresses wouldn’t have been able to navigate the quickly shifting thought processes and lightning-fast mood swings of such a character; most would have slowed it down to be able to give some kind of shading to each thought before moving on to the next, or would have skimmed over the scene, unable to provide the necessary emotional depth of each quick feeling. Rainer, however, manages to bring authenticity to every serious and silly thought and feeling, and makes it look effortless.

Her subsequent scenes in the film aren’t challenging, but she keeps in character and gives her all to each moment, even when she’s not called upon to do very much. She drops out during most of the second half of the film, which is apparently why some think of her work as more of a supporting role. Myrna Loy, as Burke, appears late in the film, and as Ziegfeld’s last female partner, perhaps leaving a stronger impression in the memory because of that. But while Loy is fine in the role, it’s far less challenging than Rainer’s, and she isn’t in the film anywhere near as much. Powell dominates the film, of course, but in terms of a female presence in the film, it’s clearly Rainer’s film.

To complete her one-two punch, Rainer played a plain Chinese peasant, as quiet, unattractive, and unassuming as Held was not, in 1937’s The Good Earth, another long-for-its-time film that is unfortunately slipping from memory. While its then-common “whites for Asians” casting is off-putting today, the film has arguably the best locust attack on film, features two solid lead performances—especially Rainer’s as O-Lan—and Oscar-winning cinematography from legendary Karl Freund.

It’s easy to Google Rainer’s famous phone scene, and it’s admittedly something of a slog to make it through the lengthy half-accurate biopic on Ziegfeld (even if it won Best Picture) to see the rest of Rainer’s work. But between her acting and the over-the-top musical extravaganza “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” the film is worth a revisit. And Rainer’s work in it deserves to be appreciated for far more than her most famous scene.

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2018 Oscar Thoughts

Oh, my. Where do you start covering this year’s Oscars? Do we cover the awards, the show itself, the politics, the dresses, the awards as a window into….whatever?

The best I can do at the moment is a series of random thoughts:

The set was extraordinary, and the various numbers were imaginatively staged. The montages of films and actors spread throughout were intelligent and engaging.

Jimmy Kimmel wasn’t as cutting and negative as I feared, and not quite as political either (I’d set the bar low on purpose). Considering his move from talk-show host to self-appointed national social and political commentator, this was surprising. The first several minutes of the show were so fun and smart, I thought we were in for a great show. Well, at least it was a good start.

I am usually appalled at the degree of self-congratulation apparent at the awards, but was happy to see much of that energy moved into activism. The activism was occasionally coated with the same self-congratulatory spirit, but the theme of “Time’s Up,” etc., while ultimately overplayed in the context of an awards show, is at least legitimate and of genuine lasting value. Perhaps, unlike the era after Thelma and Louise (as noted in the broadcast), we are seeing the beginning of a new moment in film art and industry.

The awards were not surprising at all, and the lack of suspense, and the general low quality of films this year together conspired to lower viewer ratings. The top three contenders were cool (Dunkirk), hot (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and warm (The Shape of Water). This was a warm year, apparently. (Would Dunkirk, considering its rapturous reviews when released, have won Best Picture if it had been released in December?) I would have preferred a Dunkirk win in both the picture and director categories, but ‘twas not to be. I agree that The Shape of Water is beautifully designed and (generally) exquisitely acted, but has several glaring screenplay holes in it, and I think it misses the balance between magical and realistic in its magical realism in several key moments. Time will tell, of course, but Dunkirk may well be better remembered in the future.

Nothing was surprising, either, about the acting awards, which have been set in stone for months. I would have preferred Lady Bird’s Laurie Metcalf every so slightly to I, Tonya’s Allison Janney, but no real com plaints. Question: Since Casey Affleck bowed out (or was asked to bow out?) of the presentation for Best Actress this year (which traditionally belongs to the previous year’s Best Actor), will Gary Oldman be forced out next year in the light of his past accusations? And as much as I love Frances McDormand, who is an American institution, she may be getting a little full of herself in her speeches lately. And to say she was a little “over the top” may be under-describing her moment. I may be old-fashioned, but I thought these were acting awards that ought to be gratefully received. Silly me—I forgot they were just springboards for whatever one is passionate about at the moment

Folks are saying Lady Bird was “snubbed,” a word I’m coming to dislike as much as “dystopian,” but it just came up short in all the categories—that’s all. Take another look at all the nominations, and we’ll see it wasn’t “snubbed.”

Best Song was a surprise, especially after the live presentations. “This is Me” (The Greatest Showman) was rousing, engaging the audience with energy and powerful enthusiasm. It almost seemed inevitable that it would win after such a performance. This was especially in comparison to the winner, “Remember Me” from Coco, which was earlier presented with a barely-there vocal start by the wonderful actor and pretty awful singer Gael Garcia Bernal, only to be followed by two real singers who seemed to have their own vocal struggles. Perhaps the winner peaked at the right time for voters, while “This is Me”’s popularity came just a little too late.

The highlight of the night for this writer was Rogers Deakins finally winning an Oscar after 14 nominations, for Blade Runner 2049. He could have easily and rightly won any number of times in the past, and he was deserving of both the specific award for this film as well as the career award that it also was. James Ivory, a spry 89, won both a specific and well-deserved career award for his screenplay for Call Me By Your Name, becoming the oldest Oscar winner in history, joining seasoned presenters Rita Merino and Eva Marie Saint as reminders that we still have some legends around.

As seems to be the new habit, there was one crazy idea carried to excess that wasted time, involved food, and really didn’t work. The idea of thanking the moviegoers was fine in theory and worthy of a quick mention. But to be honest, that’s not what the evening is about, and it seemed an awkward stretch to a general public that wasn’t out there in TV-land to be reached. The visit across the street to interrupt the viewing of a preview of A Wrinkle in Time must have sounded good to someone on paper. But the joy of the interrupted movie-viewers didn’t make its way to those of us in the home audience, and the greetings from the Oscar participants to the viewers were somewhere between silly and forced. I’ve rarely gotten the impression that the folks involved in the Oscars genuinely cared about the movie-going public. There are some who honestly appreciate their fans, and hearing them express those thoughts is touching. But the evening is about peer recognition (and to quote Seinfeld, there’s nothing wrong with that).

I’m not sure if the Oscar show even knows what it is anymore. This year there were sub-par films, little to no suspense in the awards, a host trying to restrain himself from instructing us all in how to think, some genuinely well done production numbers, and a show trying to reflect an industry struggling between fierce anger and hope that this is a time of real change. In spite of frayed edges, the show managed to squeak through well enough—this time. The awards aren’t really going to affect anyone’s career this time out, but last night’s show may well be studied as an example of where and how Hollywood is struggling to remain viable and relevant.

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All the King’s Men

All the King’s Men is an “old film,” according to most of my students, having been made in 1949 and shot in (oh, my) black-and-white. However, the near-documentary look, the stellar performances, and the themes (corruption in politics and politicians) makes this as current as Black Panther and Wonder Women.

The much-awarded film (Oscars for Best Picture, Actor and Supporting Actress, plus other nominations) tells the story of a local man running for county treasurer. His differentiating quality: he’s apparently an honest man. He loses, partly because of the dishonest political machinery around him. But he eventually makes his way up to the top state position, growing less and less honest along the way. He finally turns into something of a monster, and his loyal long-time followers have to consistently re-evaluate their thoughts and support. It’s a “power corrupts and absolutely power corrupts absolutely” take, but one that questions methods, people, and eventually, even the so-called “honest man” he once supposedly was. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that the story is not so loosely based on the life and times of Louisiana governor Huey Long.

The style, and some of the acting, is a hybrid of Old Hollywood and the rougher, less florid, and tougher documentary style of the next couple of decades. It moves quickly, and some of the dialogue is reminiscent of the early ‘30’s Warner films and 1940’s His Girl Friday—fast and edgy.

The central performance is one for the ages. Broderick Crawford, not the traditional good-looking leading man, found his role of a lifetime, moving from the softer-voiced, apparently humble, younger Willy Stark to the bombastic autocrat who can still sway the masses. His character arc is something to watch.

Bounding into the film world in this film, and dominating nearly every scene she is in is Mercedes McCambridge as a touch, sometimes brutally honest Stark employee. Unfortunately, the actress is probably best known today for supplying the demon’s voice in The Exorcist, but her performance here is worth the viewing apart from the Oscar-winning lead’s. There’s not another character like hers in the film, or in most any other film. She’s not the tough-talking dame in the Eve Arden or Rosalind Russell category; she’s more wounded, much more severe, more acrid, more angry, and faster thinking than anyone around her. She threatens to take the film from Crawford at nearly every turn.

Also nominated was John Ireland, who gives a deeper, richer and sharper performance than his work in television or Westerns might have suggested; the film is clearly his “moment” (he was Oscar-nominated). He’s a great example of a good actor who rose to higher heights when the script, director, and fellow actors were at their highest level. Less fortunate for the film and the viewers is the performance of Joanne Dru, who co-starred with Ireland the previous year in Red River and divorced husband Dick Haymes and married Ireland in 1949. Dru gives a performance that, like the film, is an uneasy cross between old-time Hollywood studio work and the more straightforward acting styles to come. She swoons just a bit too much, and her old-time style doesn’t match the others. She seems a part of another film, especially when compared with McCambridge. Part of the problem is her character, who borders on the unbelievable. (Spoiler alert) She is supposed to be in love with Ireland’s character, which makes sense. Then she apparently falls for Stark, first politically and then much less believably, romantically. It’s resolved narratively, but it leaves something of a scar on the film.

From a film history perspective, All the King’s Men helped propel American film into a grittier and more realistic style. As a standalone film, it’s a joy to watch. It’s fast-paced for an “old film,” and the performances are as fresh as this year’s Oscar nominees. It’s also a springboard for great discussions on corruption in politics. Is Willy Stark early Clinton, early Trump, or someone else? Or is this what happens when political ambitions take hold on anyone?


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The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman is one of the great movie conundrums of 2017. It was tepidly received my most critics and savaged by others. Yet, over time, it’s become an unqualified popular and financial success. While Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Black Panther have taken most of the media attention, The Greatest Showman has quietly made more than $344 million on an $84 million budget, more than $155 million of that domestically.

There is clearly something attractive here that the public likes and the critics don’t see or appreciate, which is beyond the interest and scope of this particular analysis. But it’s just one of those “disconnect” films that shed light on what the public wants to see that will likely be misinterpreted, judged, and wrongly imitated in an attempt to cash in on the film’s financial success. Sometimes this stuff is fun to watch!

I mention this because as the film began, my own heart was lightened as I thought it was going to be a brave, fun, joyous, and blissfully uncynical film that would be the equivalent of a more family-oriented La La Land. I was partially right: the cynicism is minimal, the movie is all heart (even when its heart isn’t necessarily in the right places), and the main players, with one great exception, do their own singing.

But the initial magic disappeared as the film devolved into less of a film than a series of musical numbers that are often clichéd in terms of subject, and which provide a lot of pizzazz with little feeling and with a strange tendency to avoid the most intriguing conflicts in the film. It is fun, to be sure, but only on the most superficial level. It stubbornly refuses to go deep, which may well be its most attractive factor (dare I say it?) in these troubled times.

The narrative is thin as a thread and serves primarily as a line on which to hang one musical number after another. The script is a barely-there gloss on P.T. Barnum’s life, with the creation of one fictional person and event after another in an attempt to create current relevancies and more “regular” movie situations. For example, there was no younger partner in love with a performer of a different race, nor did Barnum and Jenny Lind ever have any semblance of a romantic relationship. Also, while the casting of perennial favorite Hugh Jackman in the role of Barnum softens many edges and draws great empathy, Barnum was more of an exploiter than a modern-day tolerant equal opportunity employer.

The least interesting aspect of the film and its numbers is exemplified by “This is Me,” a variation of the Disney princess song of independence combined with what seems like a modern rallying cry, but one that even in modern times goes back to “I’ve Gotta Be Me.” Much more interesting was the fake interracial romance, which was only celebrated musically in terms of its romance rather than with its righteous defiance of social convention—a lost musical opportunity. The best vocals of the film, however, are found in this number—“Rewrite the Stars” with Zac Efron and Zendaya. Even more interesting and therefore more of a disappointment because it wasn’t really explored was Barnum’s insecurity, rooted in his childhood years and exacerbated by snobbish and judgmental in-laws. Such a great and gritty topic for a number…oh, well.

Efron and Zendaya are both just fine in roles that don’t stretch either one of them, but Michelle Williams is basically wasted. She is one of our most talented actresses, and is capable of adding depth and multiple layers of meaning to her films most of the time, but the film doesn’t allow that kind of subtlety. She proves to film audiences that she can sing well enough, but her performance, as fine-tuned as it is, is as shallow as the film itself.

Then there is Rebecca Ferguson as opera legend Jenny Lind. Ferguson looks modern and of course nothing like Lind. This is to be expected, but then then there is her signature song, “Never Enough.” I get that the composers wanted a modern sound, but I was wondering why they couldn’t have at least given a nod to Lind’s more lyrical operatic sound. Instead of a “Swedish Nightingale”—Lind’s nickname—we have an American screech owl of a performance. It thought it sounded straight out of an audition for “American Idol”. I was wrong. It’s from a genuine finalist on “The Voice” and it’s wrong on so many levels.

This of course brings us to Jackman, the raison-d’être of the film, its unwavering center, and the force behind the film’s long road to realization. Jackman can sing and move, though I wouldn’t call him a dancer. His voice is just OK, but he knows how to act through song, and unlike the straining he had to do in Les Misérables, only one song near the end stretches his vocal abilities. He’s a natural leader on screen, and a vibrant personality that fits with the Barnum image. The non-musical scenes are solidly acted, but formulaic. A less charismatic actor would never have been able to hold this thin narrative and string of production numbers together; those profiting from the film owe Jackman a great deal here.

This is the first feature directed by special effects expert and music video director Michael Gracey. That explains the lack of narrative coherence and the focus on the splash of the musical numbers. Fortunately, the songs are by the same composing team that did La La Land, and they are, if not on the same level as those of that film, catchy, fun and infectious.

The Greatest Showman is clearly hitting a sweet spot with audiences. Perhaps it’s the central character/actor, perhaps it’s a group of singable and enjoyable songs. Perhaps it’s perfect counter-programming to the dark and intense films out there at the moment (take a look at the Best Film nominees, for example). Unfortunately, in terms of the history of film musicals, the film as a whole doesn’t just bring us back to pre-Oklahoma! days (I refer to the original Broadway version), it brings us back to musical review and vaudeville days when productions were discovering that a plot could help unite the numbers.

To reset once you’ve seen the film, go back and re-watch Singin’ in the Rain. Inside its brilliant satire, that’s a film with a real plot and some of the best musical numbers you’ll ever see. You’re welcome.

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The Post

The Post has been called second-tier Spielberg, and that’s true. Of course, second-tier for SS means it’s more finely crafted than 95 percent of other films. But in spite of the political perspectives brought to the film by many viewers that have added value where there is none, this is less intriguing and more simplistic than either All the President’s Men, to which it’s been compared, or Spotlight, to which it hasn’t.

To get all the political considerations out of the way … This has been judged something of a rallying cry for freedom of the press, and the actual story of lies and deceptions regarding the Vietnam Way is both infuriating and tragic. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite been translated into the suspenseful (All the President’s Men) or enraging (Spotlight) film it could have been. In fact, it’s not quite clear what the film wants to be. Is it a story of the free press, or an anguished cry for the lost young lives and loss of truth and trust? Or is it the story of a woman finding her voice and ever-strengthening spine? Apparently, all three and more, and the multiple goals blunt the film’s force.

Also irritating is the issue of fake news, which isn’t just a rallying cry of the left. Upon learning years ago that the New York Times, in covering the infamous Kitty Genovese murder, decided that the “no one came to help” angle, though completely untrue and known as such by the paper, was the story they would promote because it made better copy, my respect for even the greatest newspapers in the land has been suspect. I won’t even go into the hatchet job I know the paper at the center of The Post has accomplished based on politics alone.

But back to the film…. Much of the attention has been on the two legendary leads—Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. When I heard that Streep had been nominated for Best Actress again, I was tempted to think it was just an easy vote for a great actress. But darn if she doesn’t deserve it. Streep shows the fear, hesitance and insecurity of a woman thrown into an unanticipated position and learning to come to complete terms with that. It’s an original and fresh performance that doesn’t lean on her past successes yet adds another example of her range and abilities. Unfortunately, the slow tracking shot onto her face when making the key decision doesn’t…quite…work…. But that could be the fault of the writing or direction as well.

Hanks, not nominated this year (to the surprise of some), doesn’t quite fare as well as Ben Bradlee. Perhaps because he is in the shadow of Jason Robards’ Oscar-winning performance in All the President’s Men, Hanks comes across as a hard-working but ultimately unconvincing substitute. He’s fine to occasionally very fine in some scenes, but he basically is too nice a guy and doesn’t have the requisite darkness, bitterness, and grumpiness to be a new generation’s Ben Bradlee. Occasionally his comic persona and comic chops override the character to a temporarily humorous but ultimately undermining effect. Fortunately, Bob Odenkirk gives a consistently strong performance as Ben Bagdikian. There’s also solid work all around from Bradley Whitford, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys (as Daniel Ellsburg, who needed to be in much more of the film), and David Cross, but the net effect is a parade of well-known television actors whose personae override their characters.

One great strength of the film apart from its acting is the acknowledgement and investigation of the various elements at play when making a decision of whether to print controversial material or not. There were business considerations at this juncture in the paper’s history that one wouldn’t have expected, and there are several personal issues at stake, the main one being the sometimes murky relationships between journalists and politicians that are not always the solid friendships they may have appeared at first glance. Any one of these could have been a separate film, and perhaps a better one.

Sorry, National Board of Review. Streep could be considered Best Actress, yes; after all, how can one judge among several great performances this past year? But Best Picture and Best Actor for Hanks?—these will come back to haunt you.

The Post is a solid film with one great performance and several good ones. It follows one main story that turns out not be as interesting as the many other issues it touches on. It’s worth one’s time, but no need to hurry.

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2018 Oscar Noms—First Thoughts

I love Oscar season. Each year is fascinating for different reasons. While genuinely good work gets recognized (and some good and great work gets ignored), the other factors that figure into the nominations, and then the final awards, change each year. The common other factors are an unhealthy sense of self-congratulation, a desire to make up for past oversights, and an aspiration to position themselves as correct, or caring, or aware, or a combination thereof. The percentage of the ingredients is what fluctuates from year to year.

This year, there is a recognition of good work, an avoidance of uncomfortable situations, and a desire to use the nominations to make amends for 100 years of sexual harassment and abuse in the industry. As if….

But let’s take a look at the categories:


Good ones. Get Out is wildly original, a rather breathtaking first directorial effort, and the kind of social statement that is surprising enough to get attention and not vicious enough to get the wrong kind. This is a sign of the academy growing and expanding.

Wonder Woman and The Big Sick could have been in the mix here, perhaps with the loss of Darkest Hour. The rest look like they belong there, though Phantom Thread is a surprise, considering its art-house sangfroid.

The Shape of Water is a lovingly crafted film and the most overrated of the year. And Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has great performances, and is something of a structural mess. And The Post is solid and workmanlike with one great performance and several good ones.


Finally! Christopher Nolan gets a nomination, and a well-deserved one, for Dunkirk. Newbies Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) are nominated partly as recognition for their excellent work, and a nod to talented first timers that show some new pathways for mainstream films. Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread) is a bit of a surprise for the same reasons as above.

No Spielberg? Perhaps because The Post is good but not great, or because he’s been awarded enough, and this year is about a younger crowd.


This one is interesting. It’s likely Gary Oldman’s year for a powerhouse performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Daniel Kaluuya was very good in Get Out, and his nomination is part of the respect shown to that film and its director Jordan Peele. Denzel Washington has James Franco’s apparent past sexual indiscretions to thank for his nomination for Roman J. Israel, Esq. To be honest, it’s easy to vote for talented and likable actors such as Washington and Streep; it’s just not always correct. Six months ago, Franco would have been a shoo-in for The Disaster Artist, for which he just won the Best Actor/Comedy Golden Globe Award, as well as several other critics groups awards.

And of course, Jake Gyllenhall gets ignored again. But his continually being overlooked will help him the next time he puts out a great performance in a year when the Oscar isn’t “owed” to someone else. He’s the male Amy Adams with fewer nominations.


As in recent years, a strong category. It’s pretty much decided that Frances McDormand will win for her blistering performance in Three Billboards. Saoirse Ronan is proving herself the budding great actress we thought she was with Lady Bird, but apparently her time hasn’t come. (I wish she’d won for Brooklyn.) Margo Robbie (I, Tonya) has successfully proven herself a serious actress and has moved past the fact that she is stunningly beautiful. Streep, like Judi Dench, is always so good that she is often taken for granted. Yes, it seems overdone to grant her another award-breaking nomination, but it’s deserved, too.

Other considerations: In terms of neither drama nor comedy, who else could have done what Gal Gadot did in Wonder Woman? Seriously—who else could have pulled this role off with such success? But that’s just a superhero movie, so it doesn’t count (please hear the irony and slight sarcasm). Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, and the production design were the best parts of The Shape of Water, but the nominations are the rewards here (except for perhaps production design).


Another strong category, with nary a weak one. I haven’t seen All the Money in the World, but it seems as if Christopher Plummer’s nomination for his quick replacement work for the disgraced Kevin Spacey is the reason for the nomination. I seriously doubt it would be in that group without Ridley Scott’s near-miraculous work in re-gathering the cast, shooting quickly, and re-editing the film. But Plummer won’t win anyway. It will likely be Sam Rockwell, both for his performance in Three Billboards (he’s McDormand’s equal) and for his having been under-recognized but appreciated nonetheless all these years—the curse of the actor’s actor at times.

I was glad to see Woody Harrelson in the mix for Three Billboards, but I hope he and Rockwell don’t split the vote.


This is Allison Janney’s year for the showiest of the great performances here. She’s a highly respected actress and has won every other major award here. She is the J.K. Simmons of this year’s awards. But it was good to see Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird), whom I expected in the lineup, and especially Leslie Manville for her excellent work in Phantom Thread, on which much of the film rests.

Octavia Spencer. Oy. She is a talented actress, and a delightful screen presence. But this is her third nomination for essentially the same role. Enough said….sigh…. Mary J. Blige’s nomination for Mudbound is her reward, but is significant beyond her coming from music to film. The film itself is considered an independent and not the normal “contender,” though the categories have been breaking down for years.


Speaking of Mudbound, it receives the first nomination for cinematography for a woman, Rachel Morrison—another significant moment. Though the nominations for all the films are well deserved, I personally hope that Roger Deakin’s work in Blade Runner 2049 finally brings him a long-delayed and most definitely deserved award.


Production design was a strong element in all the nominated films. Darkest Hour deserves a nomination, as does Dunkirk. Production design may have been the single strongest element of The Shape of Water outside the performances, but Blade Runner 2049 was extraordinary, and it is hoped that the film’s underwhelming financial performance in the States won’t diminish its chances.


Both James Ivory (Call Me By Your Name) and Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) have high name recognition going for them. But this category also contains another nomination for Mudbound, plus a perhaps surprising one for Logan, certainly an anomaly in the fantasy superhero category.


So very glad The Big Sick—the best romantic comedy in 20 years—received its well-deserved nomination. Also happy that Lady Bird and Get Out, two of the freshest screenplays in years, got some attention here. Still not in love with The Shape of Water or Three Billboards here, however.

Watching the ups and downs of certain films is fun as critics and others look at the various “other factors” that make up the awards other than quality. The nominations are one thing, and include attempts to right the world and atone for previous sins of omission. Sometimes they actually promote some of the best work of the year. We’ll see which factors dominate in March.

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