2017 Oscars Preview: Director, Editing, Cinematography, and More

2017 Oscars Preview

With the Oscars coming up this Sunday, it’s time to examine in useless speculation ahead of the big night. What follows are a rundown of each category, my personal preference, and what I suspect will take home the award on Sunday night. Of course, making your own picks are part of the fun about awards season and I must once again stress that nobody take the awards too seriously. After all, year after year great movies are snubbed when the nominees are announced, or just receive a lone token nomination, or simply walk away empty handed despite an array of nominations. Remember as we move forward, the Oscars by no means an arbiter or greatness.

Moana

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

NOMINEES: Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, My Life as a Zucchini, The Red Turtle, Zootopia

Before we even get started going over the nominees for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year, I must be forthright in announcing that I haven’t seen either My Life as a Zucchini or The Red Turtle. Though I’ve heard no word of these movies being out of place, I suspect that they are bound to run into significant opposition in the form of two movies backed by Disney and one from Laika.

What’s most astounding of the Disney films nominated this year, Moana and Zootopia, is the fact that neither came from Pixar. Though Finding Dory was obviously a massive hit, it didn’t earn an Oscar nod – I’m sure Pixar is comforting themselves with the $500 million made in North America alone. In the fervor of the campaign, I think the backing of a savvy studio like Disney can make all the difference, and it truly seems that the Mouse House is putting their weight behind Zootopia over Moana. That’s the right call not because Zootopia is the far superior movie, but because Zootopia has social issues on its mind and the minds of Academy voters will be aiming to make a statement during their first ceremony under President Trump. (Remember, the awards are political in their own nature and are voted upon by people with political beliefs – and there’s nothing wrong with that.)

The dark horse of the category, and the best of the trio that I’ve seen, is Kubo and the Two Strings. It’s a movie of towering artistry and a fantastic fantasy adventure to behold. However, it wasn’t a box office smash like its Disney counterparts and that lack of broader exposure may hinder it when the votes are tallied.

Who will win: Zootopia

Who should win: Kubo and the Two Strings

The Salesman

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

NOMINEES: A Man Called Ove (Sweden), The Salesman (Iran), Tanna (Australia), Toni Erdmann (Germany), Land of Mine (Denmark)

This category confounded me more than any other major category this year. After all, I’ve only seen two of the nominees (Toni Erdmann and The Salesman) and am dumbfounded at the number of excellent foreign language films that the Academy ruled ineligible or simply didn’t nominate – The Handmaiden, Elle, and Things to Come all come to mind as stunning works of cinema that were snubbed.

From my limited perspective on this category, I have little reason to believe that Marden Ade’s critical darling Toni Erdmann will walk away with the statuette. The film is rather long for its subject matter and that alone my discourage voters from viewing (they’ll likely just wait for the remake with Jack Nicholson). Politics will be the name of the game this year and Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman is all but a lock to take home the gold, especially given the extra boost in publicity that the film received in the wake of the Trump administration’s poorly thought out “travel ban.” The Salesman is an excellent film and worthy of the honor in this particular field of competition, so the cries of politics that will follow the film’s win should be taken with a grain of salt.

Who will win: The Salesman

Who should win: The Salesman

2017 Oscars Preview

Best Documentary Feature

NOMINEES: Fire at Sea, I Am Not Your Negro, Life, Animated, O.J.: Made in America, 13th

The past couple years, the Best Documentary Feature category has been the source of my greatest awards show frustration. There emerged a trend where powerful, insightful works that transcend the art of cinema were snubbed come time for the show in favor of minor, feel-documentaries that focused on musicians. This year, however, that’s just not going to happen as this year’s roster of documentaries up for the highest honor don’t have any musicians as their subject.

Of this year’s nominees, I’ve only missed Fire at Sea which handles the refugee crisis of the coast of Italy. The potential feel-good spoiler in the bunch is Life, Animated, which tugs on the heartstrings as it tells the story of Owen Suskind and how the young man broke free of his shell of autistic isolation through his love of animated Disney films. It’s heartwarming and touches on how movies can affect people, so it does stand a good chance of playing spoiler.

The other three nominees, however, touch upon the ever-volatile issue of race relations in America. Ava DuVernay tackles the history and effects of the 13th amendment in 13th, a powerful and insightful cinematic exploration. Then there’s Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, using an unpublished manuscript by author James Baldwin (as read by Samuel L. Jackson) played against the images of the modern struggle that highlights just how little progress has been made in the big picture.

Either one would be a likely frontrunner for the award on any given year, but this year has one documentary that takes the form of documentary filmmaking in a bold new direction. Ezra Edelman’s sprawling documentary O.J.: Made in America should be the movie taking home the award. It is as thorough and in-depth as any documentary ever made. Edelman’s film isn’t focused solely on the life and downfall of O.J. Simpson and the “Trial of the Century.” O.J.: Made in America is a documentary that is an examination of America through one particular case, studying the meteoric rise of O.J. Simpson, athlete, actor, and spokesman as well as the complicated issue of race relations in Los Angeles and the role of the LAPD. All of which culminates in a bizarre chapter of our shared cultural history, one that led to a controversial verdict and a backwards step for race relations in America. In a year that has seen a revival of O.J. hoopla with American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson occupying our TVs, but Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America is the definitive piece on the subject and leaves no stone unturned on this twisted tale of racism, police brutality, celebrity, and murder.

Who will win: O.J.: Made in America

Who should win: O.J.: Made in America

Best Achievement in Film Editing

NOMINEES: La La Land (Tom Cross), Hacksaw Ridge (John Gilbert), Moonlight  (Joi McMillon, Nat Sanders), Arrival (Joe Walker), Hell or High Water (Jake Roberts)

One of these nominees is not like the others. I am, of course, speaking of John Glibert’s nomination for Hacksaw Ridge. Nothing personal towards Gilbert, of course, but Hacksaw Ridge is not a film that excels in its editing, and much of that discord is the likely the fault of Mel Gibson. Whereas the case could be made for any of this year’s nominees, this one sticks out as a big question – mainly, how?

A couple years ago, Tom Cross earned his first Oscar for his tight editing of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. This year, I think it’s apparent that Cross and Chazelle are poised to retake the trophy with their work on La La Land, though it’s certainly not as an impressive feat of editing as Whiplash. Cross splicing together the quick camera pans of Chazelle in a colorful little musical will likely push it over the edge, and the fact that it’s practically a favorite in any category can’t hurt Tom Cross’ chances.

Jake Roberts brings a journeyman’s sensibility to the classical western nature of Hell or High Water, though I suspect that the film isn’t showy enough to truly compete. There’s a strong chance that Arrival and editor Joe Walker grace the stage as a winner due to the non-linear nature of the film and how the editing of the film added layers to the alien story.

If I had to pick, the top honors for editing would go to the team of Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders for Barry JenkinsMoonlight. It’s a film that finds itself in the edit, and mirror elements of the story come out of the three chapter through the way each chapter is pieced together.

Who will win: La La Land (Tom Cross)

Who should win: Moonlight (Joi McMillon, Nat Sanders)

2017 Oscars Preview

Best Achievement in Cinematography

NOMINEES: Arrival (Bradford Young), La La Land (Linus Sandgren), Lion (Greig Fraser), Moonlight (James Laxton), Silence (Rodrigo Prieto)

So Martin Scorsese dropped a masterpiece and nobody seemed to care. Silence, a haunting movie that stands among one of the most powerful portraits of faith ever committed to the screen, was equally overlooked by audiences and Academy members alike. Its lone nomination comes for the stunning cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto. If there’s any justice in this world (Spoiler alert: there isn’t), Prieto will be standing on stage clutching his first Oscar.

Earning his first Oscar nomination (how he wasn’t nominated for Selma is a mystery) is Bradford Young for Arrival, though it certainly seems that this isn’t going to be Young’s moment in the spotlight. Greig Fraiser’s work on Lion is perfectly fine, and it’s a miracle that it even got nominated when considering how much visual brilliance was on display in 2016.

Really it comes down to a two-horse race between James Laxton for Moonlight and Linus Sandgren for La La Land. Sandgren’s work on La La Land is full of bright, flashy colors and features a number of frantic but controlled camera movements that are showy enough to make the voters believe that the most cinematography is the best cinematography. Just because Laxton’s work on Moonlight isn’t as flashy as his counterpart doesn’t mean that it’s not incredibly cinematic. Laxton brings a consistency to the three chapters of Moonlight and is just as adept at capturing natural beauty as he is at capturing characters in the throes of darkness standing beneath a buzzing neon light. As I accept my resignation at the fact that Rodrigo Pietro and Silence won’t win Oscars, I’m pulling for Laxton and Moonlight in this particular category.

Who will win: La La Land (Linus Sandgren)

Who should win: Silence (Rodrigo Prieto)

Moonlight

Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay

NOMINEES: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney), Arrival (Eric Heisserer), Fences (August Wilson), Hidden Figures (Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi), Lion (Luke Davies)

This an odd category this year. Barry Jenkins’ screenplay for Moonlight falls into the adapted category because the writer-director adapted Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue despite the fact that it was an unproduced play; it has only been seen as a piece of cinema. On the other end of the spectrum is August Wilson receiving a posthumous nomination for the screenplay adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize winning play Fences. Whereas Moonlight transcends the line between stage and screen, Fences is a movie that feels like it wasn’t adapted for cinema as much as it was transcribed.

The other competitors in this category are based upon previously published literary works. Eric Heisserer turned Ted Chiang’s short story Story of Your Life into Arrival, Luke Davies adapted Saroo Brierly’s A Long Way Home into Lion, and Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroder crafted Margot Lee Shetterley’s Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race into the crowd-pleaser with the much shorter title Hidden Figures. With the exception of Lion, which features far too many scenes in front of a laptop, these are some solid cinematic adaptations of literary works.

I fail to find any way that Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney don’t accept the award on Sunday evening. There’s not much competition and they’ve lucked out by the arcane rules that have relegated Moonlight to the adapted category without much in the way of serious competition.

Who will win: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney)

Who should win: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney)

Manchester by the Sea

Best Writing, Original Screenplay

NOMINEES: Hell or High Water (Taylor Sheridan), La La Land (Damien Chazelle), The Lobster: (Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou), Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan), 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)

Historically, the Original Screenplay category is the place that bold and original movies are able to get their lone glimpse of Oscar glory, or at least a bit of recognition in the form of a nomination. This year’s batch of nominees is no different. The wild, unconventional screenplay of The Lobster by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou has yielded the film’s lone Oscar nod (seriously, Colin Farrell’s performance deserved higher praise). The inquisitive, ponderous examination of generation conflict drawn from Mike Mills’ original screenplay for 20th Century Women earned the film its sole nomination (seriously, Anette Bening got fucked over; more on that tomorrow). The fact that these two movies failed to gain more traction beyond their screenplays don’t bode well for their Oscar chances, but there is that mild consolation that these strikingly original works of cinema at least garnered some awards consideration.

Tyler Sheridan is a hell of writer and his chances of winning for Hell or High Water are trapped two between two extremes. On one hand he’s up against the arty and unusual. On the other he’s up against the incredible momentum of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land and the emotionally honest drama of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. All of which signals slim chances for Sheridan on Sunday.

Between Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and Chazelle’s La La Land, the advantage, based simply on perceived momentum, lies in Chazelle’s favor. While I honestly think that La La Land is the weakest screenplay of the bunch, it has emerged as the favorite. However, it wouldn’t be too shocking of Kenneth Lonergan pulls the upset, because Manchester by the Sea is a drama that comes to life through its dialogue and the narrative structure employed by its auteur.

Who will win: La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

Who should win: Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)

2017 Oscars Preview

Best Achievement in Directing

NOMINEES: Arrival (Denis Villeneuve), Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson), La La Land (Damien Chazelle), Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan), Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

Like most categories where it’s nominated, Mel Gibson and Hacksaw Ridge seems incredibly out of place in relation to this year’s nominees for Best Director. The issues that plague Hacksaw Ridge are entirely due to the obsessions that have driven Gibson as a filmmaker, a chaotic blend that is at once extoling the virtues of pacifism while reveling in some of the most unnecessary graphic violence committed to the screen. Gibson is so enamored with violence that he loses track of his characters during the climactic battle, including the film’s lead. Mel Gibson is the only member of the category whose potential victory may cause to hurl profanities at my television on Sunday.

I have serious doubts that the works of Denis Villeneuve on Arrival or Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea have the momentum to push them over the top in this key category. Villeneuve will be a contender in this category for years to come, and Lonergan is the kind of dramatist who keep making the stories that he wants without being driven by awards considerations.

Really, once again, this seems like a two-horse race between Damien Chazelle’s La La Land and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. As I said earlier in regards to the cinematography nominees, I suspect that the voters of the Academy will conflate most directing with best directing. At present, Damien Chazelle is poised to become the youngest winner of Best Director for his musical La La Land. His camera movements are wild, the colors vibrant – people are dancing! Chazelle beating out Jenkins wouldn’t be some great kind of tragedy, after all it’s simply a matter of taste. I do firmly believe that the argument could strongly be made that Jenkins has a better handle on his film and the material than Chazelle did with La La Land, but the showiness of the musical suggests that voters will find the razzle dazzle as the key factor in the direction and thus bestow it with the award.

Who will win: La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

Who should win: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

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