2017: Thoughts on Oscar

This year’s nominations are anything but shocking, though you’d think there was drama galore according to some reports. But that’s just an attempt to wring some strum und drang from what is a pretty normal year.

Yes, it’s a big deal to have a picture win 14 nominations, as La La Land did. And while the number of nominations doesn’t predict the final total (1977’s The Turning Point and 1985’s The Color Purple both had 11 nominations and went home empty-handed), it’s likely La La Land will do well—though with two films nominated for Best Song, it’s sure to lose at least one in that category. Though it’s not a runaway smash, it’s a solid hit, and the timing of its rise as well as its worth will likely seal its win for Best Picture.

Side comment: It was good to see the generally under-appreciated Hell or High Water get a nomination for Best Picture. A modern western, it’s also a solidly made film with a great original screenplay (nominated) and solid performances, including Jeff Bridges with another nomination.

All of the films have their strengths, though some of the sentimental favorites (Lion, Hidden Figures, and even Arrival) don’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hades. But a nomination brings attention and dollars, and these are films worthy of both.

The only category that has suddenly gotten interesting is Best Actor. It’s been considered a lock up until now for Casey Affleck for his magnificent performance in Manchester by the Sea. But with Denzel Washington’s win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards for Fences, things are looking different. Denzel is deeply loved by the Academy, and Casey is an acquired taste, or even one who leaves a bad taste. I love Denzel, and would love to have coffee with him, while I’m not eager to share a caffeine moment with Casey. But I’m one of the few who thinks that Denzel, while a good actor who can occasionally touch being very, very good, he isn’t a great actor, and can be, yes, overrated. (If more than a few folks read this, I’d get hate mail for this statement. But no worries.) Affleck’s performance is one for the ages, and the fact that he hasn’t always behaved and doesn’t have the loyalty of other performers shouldn’t make a difference. I hope it doesn’t.

The Best Actress category brings me to one of my pet peeves. It’s the use of the word “snub.” Media coverage loves to create drama and exaggeration where there isn’t any, and the use of this word is very rarely accurate. For example, we are to believe that Amy Adams was “snubbed” because she didn’t get the expected nomination for Arrival. Or Hugh Grant for Best Supporting Actor for his excellent work in Florence Foster Jenkins (a must-see), or even perennial favorite Tom Hanks for Sully. It makes for fun speculation as to why someone got in and someone didn’t, but few folks are actually snubbed.

The reason Hanks didn’t get nominated is that he was merely solid, and the other male performances in that category were better. Same for Hugh Grant, though it would have been nice to see him get a nomination for what might be his best work. The speculation for Amy Adams is that her “slot,” a ridiculous idea, was taken by either Ruth Negga for Loving or La Streep for the aforementioned Florence Foster Jenkins. Negga has been getting solid buzz for a long time, and since race has been a big issue this past year (as if it hasn’t for the previous several hundred?), the nomination is also a respectful tip of the hat to the subject of interracial marriage. (Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back for its political correctness, and nominations like this are both deserving and feel-good at the same time.) Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe speech may well have locked in her Oscar nomination this year. But for those who don’t think her work here was special, think again. Streep has never been strong in comedies, and she shines here, though she plays the “straight woman” part rather than the one knowingly generating the laughs. Plus her technical work—singing off-key so precisely with just the right edge of self-deception—is a triumph right up there with Eddie Redmayne’s work with the growing physical debilitation of his character in his Oscar-winning role in The Theory of Everything, or Colin Firth’s combination speech impediment/stammer in The King’s Speech. Streep’s was a masterful performance made all the more amazing by how effortless it looked. Try thinking of anyone else in that role and you’ll realize how very good she was here.

Of course neither she nor Negga will win. But Negga’s nomination is the award itself, and 20 for Streep is a nice, historic round number. And Amy Adams should thank the Academy. Some have posited that the gratitude should be for not placing her on the list of those who are nominated for X number of times and haven’t won. They’re right that Amy wouldn’t have won this year anyway, and therefore escapes said list. I’m suggesting that her not being nominated makes her next nomination that much stronger. People love her, and the next strong performance—barring an amazing performance elsewhere—is practically guaranteeing her a win.

The Academy is grateful to Fences for providing it an opportunity to give the much-loved Viola Davis an Oscar for Fences. Of course she is excellent. But that’s almost not the point. She pretty much always is, and the Academy wants to give an Oscar so badly they can taste it. The only regret here is that Michelle Williams’ stunning work in Manchester by the Sea may be left in the shadows. Williams’ and Affleck’s last scene together in the film is nearly overwhelming and may be the best two-person scene this past year. But watch for the immediate standing ovation for Davis when she wins.

Best Animated Film has a lot of strong contenders: Kubo and the Two Strings, and the popular Moana and Zootopia. Should be interesting to see who comes out on top.

Apparently we are far enough away from the Holocaust that it no longer dominates the documentary category. Instead, race relations has taken its place: I am Not Your Negro, 13th, and O.J.: Made in America are all in the running.

Two final thoughts:

It was nice to see the genuinely odd and original Lobster get a nomination for screenplay. It was better written than directed, but it’s good to see that the oddness of its central idea didn’t keep folks from noticing the freshness of its script.

Also, it’s not always the case that the film destined to win Best Picture (La La Land) has so many technical nominations as well as the usual writing, directing and acting ones. It’s certainly a contender for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing. It’s an unusually strong film that can capture nominations in all those categories.

Predictions? Soon….

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About Mark DuPré

Full-time (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Part-time film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 40 years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I preach, teach, counsel, write and plan in my real job. I teach a subject I love at RIT in my "other job," which is a lot of fun most of the time.... I play piano for our local college choir, and sing and play at church occasionally. I also have a film-related website at www.film-prof.com.
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