Forward Backward Thinking

The many fans of writer extraordinaire Aaron Sorkin’s TV fantasy of the presidency, The West Wing, were able to luxuriate in nostalgia this week.

Simpler times

In support of Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote, a non-partisan (Note: Ahem) organization that seeks to encourage voting in groups that too often sit out elections (e.g. young people, communities of color), HBO Max presented a staged reading, with the original cast, of Sorkin’s favorite WW episode — season 3’s Hartfield’s Landing.

This is where senior White House staff obsess about what the first reported presidential primary vote will be in a fictional 48-person New Hampshire town.  After all, the results will dominate the news all day and, if it goes well for the POTUS, it will set a positive tone for all the hoped for favorable press their boss will receive.

LOL remember when there was no news?

And, as we all now know, there is nothing more urgent than setting an upbeat tone in order to win the White House.  Right?

Well, history turns on a dime and what seemed urgent in 2002 and then became just plain silly in light of 2016 could easily, once again, become necessary in 2020.  Right?

Right Jon, right???

Sure!  As I explained to my students this week online via Zoom, because there’s been a deadly pandemic going on for the last eight months and we couldn’t possibly all be in the same room or breathe the same air, history swings like a pendulum – from left to right and back again.

To which one of them blurted out:

So,  when IS it going to swing back?

Yikes, good question #teachablemoment?

I, of course, immediately blurted back that they had to go out to the streets and, while safely socially distanced, swing it back the way they wanted.  Until I realized this was not only likely impossible but sounded like a Grade C imitation of the response Sorkin himself would give. 

Nor do I even believe it in the darker days of 2020.  Which, I confess, is most all of them.

Still, when you live in a purported democracy that’s about all you have, isn’t it?   It’s really just in how inspiring a way you can express it. 

Like a bad haircut, maybe it just needs time.

Well, Mr. Sorkin’s once again done an excellent job on that score as both writer and director in his latest film, The Trial of the Chicago 7. (Note…. the segue).

Dropping on Netflix just one day after the gauzy West Wing redux, his new Netflix offering (Note:  Because, well, our pandemic politics has shuttered most movie theatres and shoved this planned major theatrical release from Paramount right into your home stream) is anything but delicate.

Instead, it’s a theatrically cynical look back into history when the U.S. government was intent on using politics and every piece of the legal system, whether illegally or not, to punish and jail those who dare to take their protests onto the streets.

Look back? Who’s gonna tell him?

Side Note:  It seems particularly fitting it dropped after a week of Senate hearings aimed at putting arch Conservative (and self-possessed handmaid) Judge Amy Coney Barrett on the US Supreme Court.  When asked this week by a Republican senator to name the five freedoms the Bill or Rights guarantees for all Americans, Ms. Barrett could only think of four – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly.

The one freedom that stumped her?

The right to petition the government for redress of grievances, OR, freedom to protest.

And there was laundry talk!

Fittingly enough, the clairvoyant Mr. Sorkin’s new legal drama takes us back in time to the late sixties, when this very issue was very, very VERY publicly spotlighted.  This was a time when the federal government, newly controlled by the uber conservative and freedom of protest loathing Richard Nixon, decided to charge a group of young and somewhat renowned and popular anti- Vietnam War protestors for conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intent to incite riots at the site of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Your next Netflix watch

Take the antics of this cross-section of long and short-haired, hippie and preppy, respectful and comically stoned and disrespectful young people – and mix it with a real-life first amendment-hating and often blatantly racist judge tasked with carrying out those charges by newly installed and diabolically fascist federally empowered Nixon flunkies and, well, you can see where hilarity and mass national conflicts could ensue.

And where the comparable present-day hyperbole might begin.

It’s not a particularly pretty story to look back on, even with the much hoped for and very pithily delivered Sorkin bon mots.  But even if you don’t love Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat movies or his borderline irredeemable prankster antics, you couldn’t experience anyone better portraying the late Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, who famously feasted on yanking the chain of the establishment and even of his co-defendant Tom Hayden, the more straight-laced founder of Students for a Democratic Society so well evoked by Eddie Redmayne.

Also big hair moment

Ditto for so many others, including Frank Langella’s racist persecutor/Judge Hoffman, whose shared last name with Abbie is an ongoing joke, as well as a brief but memorable appearance by Michael Keaton as Ramsey Clarke, the much more liberal former attorney general from the previous Johnson administration.

It is the shifting of the pendulum of justice between left and right, liberal and conservative, and everything in between that gives the story of this Trial of the Chicago 7 its present day resonance.  At least for those of us hoping that this Election Day is about to once again cause a major shift back to what we used to think of as American sanity.

This. This. This. This. #VOTE

Yet at the same time it’s also this very issue that makes this movie inescapably scary.  As one watches the absolute conviction a single judge, backed by a new presidential administration, has towards enforcing racist and regressive views, and notes how willing both are to twist or even ignore the very laws it’s charged with enforcing in order to permanently silence those who oppose them, one can’t help but wonder — how many times CAN the pendulum shift back and forth before it all together cracks apart?

Sorkin’s courtroom antics and filmmaking dexterity do a great job of zeroing in on the core issues at stake and give us a happy ending from five decades ago that ensures American democracy will continue.

But this week’s US Supreme Court hearing, the one that will very likely (and somewhat dubiously) enshrine perhaps the most conservative judge in American history onto OUR Supreme Court, combined with the challenge for the umpteenth time of once again shifting the American presidency away from, well, fascism (Note: Fascism being the kind word), is a very steep, real life, hill to climb. 

Holding on tight to that last shred of hope

Especially in the middle of a global pandemic.

Where our ability, and even right to vote as we can, is being challenged at every turn.

Sorkin has written and imagined the way forward for us by going back in time.  But we now have to figure how to carry it out.

Another pat answer from me that borders on the cliché. 

Still, life’s never been quite as efficient, or satisfying, as any one Sorkin movie or TV series, much as we all (Note:  Well, the majority of us), would like to continue to pretend it to be.

Bob Marley – “Get Up Stand Up”

Call me Chair, and I’ll Call You Oscar

Decades of working inside and outside, around and through the entertainment industry has taught me one thing:

NO ONE can reliably predict the Oscar winners each year.

Oh sure, the odd person can get lucky every once in a while and ace the whole thing, even the bonus questions in your local online poll. But maintaining that accuracy every year would mean there is some secret formula to understanding Hollywood.

Trust me, there isn’t.

The only secret is that, at the end of the day, there is no secret.

That’s because Hollywood is more of an idea than a location with an overriding opinion. And that’s coming from someone like me who actually lives IN Hollywood.

Oh.. and about my Oscar party

Oh there are lots of opinions here, too many, but there is no guiding principal to any one school of thinking when it comes to awards.

Not money, not artistic merit. Not dues-paying, good looks or familial connections.

Any one or two or three of those can help but they are no guarantee of anything.

Hollywood is more a state of mind in a particular moment where someone with power makes a decision based on – well – an opinion. Put 6000 or so of those together and what comes out are the annual list of Oscar winners – about as elusive of figuring in advance as receiving the shiny gold plated 8 ½ lb. statuette itself. (Note: And a mere 13.5 inches high. Though it does FEEL taller and HEAVIER in person).

Are you saying size doesn’t matter?

So, in that spirit, let’s get started on an online cheat sheet that can maybe help you gain an edge in the categories where you have doubts. (Note: The kind word for that is a consensus of informed opinions. The cynical one: guesswork). We’ll also include the Chair Choice (what we would vote for among the list of nominees) because…well….we want to and we can.

Best Picture

Who’s it gonna be?

Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Winner: The Shape of Water

Chair Choice: Lady Bird

The toughest category this year. The Shape of Water is singularly the most original and yet the one that most reflects the best of the mainstream movie industry as it now stands in that it combines dazzling visual effects with an emotional story. A case can be made for Three Billboards but its odds are a bit lowered since it received no director nomination. Sadly, we haven’t gotten to the cultural moment where a gay love story like Call Me By Your Name, beautiful as it is, could win best film. Some think we will hit a different cultural moment with Get Out but I don’t think so – The Shape of Water is probably the safer genre choice – not to mention the better film. As for Chair Choice, try making a truly great coming-of-age movie (aka Lady Bird) in the age of cynicism and see how far you get.

 

Lead Actor

Elio… Oliver… Sigh

Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name              

Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread

Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out


Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Winner: Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name

Chair Choice: Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name

Yup, you read right. We’re going far out on a limb here because Gary Oldman is the odds-on favorite. But Chalamet’s performance was so unusual, raw and riveting for even those most cynical about his film, that it just feels like he could be rewarded. Also, there are three words in his favor – the crying scene. Yes, the Oldman/Churchill turn was hard to turn away from – for SO many reasons. And he did win the SAG Award, a good predictor here since the actors are the largest voting branch. It doesn’t matter. We’re NOT going with the favorite here. EVER.

 

Lead Actress

American Badass

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water

Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

Meryl Streep, The Post

Winner: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards

Chair Choice: Saioirse Ronan, Lady Bird

Seriously, FM is gonna win. Though we prefer Saioirse Ronan’s feat of so many colors in Lady Bird the idea of hearing a McDormand acceptance speech televised LIVE internationally to tens of millions of people is just too tempting not to simultaneously root for.

 

Supporting Actor

No comment.

Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project

Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water

Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World

Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Winner: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards

Chair Choice: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards

It’s Sam Rockwell’s year. He’s a character actor everyone in the industry respects and it’s the kind of emotionally showy performance that wins supporting acting awards. Many of us have issues with the film (ahem, the performances, the tone and even the writing), but there is something about Rockwell’s work here that ultimately rises above the naysaying. Perhaps…talent?

 

Supporting Actress

Lady (with a) Bird

Mary J. Blige, Mudbound

Allison Janney, I, Tonya

Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread

Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird


Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

Winner: Allison Janney, I Tonya

Chair Choice: Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

This will be the most UNJUST award of the evening. Allison Janney, an often brilliant actress, will win for an over-the-top turn in an over-the-top film despite Laurie Metcalf being nothing short of brilliant as the hate her/love her Mom in Lady Bird. There were literal scenes with that fictional mother that I actually recall living through as a teenager in 197___. Now how can that be????

 

Director

His time

Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk

Jordan Peele, Get Out

Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird

Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread


Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water

Winner & Chair Choice: Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water

He’s going to win. Del Toro was innovative, unusual and Hollywood. It’s not Nolan’s year. Give it up.

 

Animated Feature

No brainer

The Boss Baby, Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito

The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo

Coco, Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson

Ferdinand, Carlos Saldanha

Loving Vincent, Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman

Winner & Chair Choice: Coco

It’s a sure thing. Nothing to discuss.

 

Animated Short

Kobe’s got it

Dear Basketball, Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant

Garden Party, Victor Caire, Gabriel Grapperon

Lou, Dave Mullins, Dana Murray

Negative Space, Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata

Revolting Rhymes, Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer

Winner: Dear Basketball

Chair Choice: Lou

I’ve actually seen all of these. Not being a sports fan, I guess I didn’t at all get Dear Basketball. But watching a drawing of a young would-be Kobe Bryant acting to the words spoken by the actual Kobe Bryant of what basketball meant to him in a film produced by the real Kobe Bryant has gotten to ALMOST everyone who wants to see the live Kobe Bryant accept an Oscar in the flesh. I myself prefer Pixar’s Lou, the story of how and why a young bully gets reformed because I guess I’m still working through my childhood issues.

 

Adapted Screenplay

Can I just say.. SIGH… again

Call Me by Your Name, James Ivory

The Disaster Artist, Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber

Logan, Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green

Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin

Mudbound, Virgil Williams and Dee Rees

Winner & Chair Choice: Call Me By Your Name, James Ivory

It’s the very definition of brilliant screen adaptation of a novel that was made into one of the most unique films of the year. Plus, it was written by the guy who directed and produced such classic movies as Howard’s End, Remains of The Day, and Maurice.   James Ivory has never won an Oscar, was robbed off it too many times to count and is now 89 years old. You do the math.

 

Original Screenplay

The Academy’s cup of tea

The Big Sick, Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani

Get Out, Jordan Peele

Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig

The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh

Winner: Get Out, Jordan Peele

Chair Choice: Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig

The idea for Get Out is brilliant, as is the script and film that everyone is writing about. Sadly, that’s not the film I saw – at an actual movie theatre early on – and not at a screening and not on DVD. But the screenplay for the movie that’s getting talked about is the one that I WANT to see. Still, who cares what I think? Certainly, not anyone in the Academy. So we’ll just sit home and sulk, knowing Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird was the far more accomplished and nuanced achievement in storytelling.

 

Cinematography

Is it his time?

Blade Runner 2049, Roger Deakins

Darkest Hour, Bruno Delbonnel

Dunkirk, Hoyte van Hoytema

Mudbound, Rachel Morrison

The Shape of Water, Dan Laustsen

Winner & Chair Choice: Blade Runner 2049, Roger Deakins

This is Roger Deakins’ FOURTEENTH nomination for best cinematography WITHOUT A WIN. While it is possible the brilliant work in Mudbound or The Shape of Water or Dunkirk could win, we won’t be responsible for it.

 

Best Documentary Feature

Heartbreaking

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James, Mark Mitten, Julie Goldman

Faces Places, JR, Agnès Varda, Rosalie Varda

Icarus, Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan

Last Men in Aleppo, Feras Fayyad, Kareem Abeed, Soren Steen Jepersen

Strong Island, Yance Ford, Joslyn Barnes

Winner & Chair Choice: Last Men In Aleppo

It was near impossible to get through. Can you imagine making it? To do that you’d have to slog through thousands of dead bodies in Syria, side by side with the ordinary citizens of Syria, searching for survivors, and then relive it all again and again and again in the editing. For bringing the unendurable and unimaginable into the light, this one should and will win.

 

Best Documentary Short Subject

Edith+Eddie, Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, Frank Stiefel

Heroin(e), Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon

Knife Skills, Thomas Lennon

Traffic Stop, Kate Davis, David Heilbroner

Winner & Chair Choice: Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, Frank Stiefel


I saw all of these. A lot of wonderful stories but nothing has stayed with me like Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405. You MUST watch this woman’s story. Then think about art. And what it means to survive. That’s all we’ll say.

 

Best Live Action Short Film

DeKalb Elementary, Reed Van Dyk

The Eleven O’Clock, Derin Seale, Josh Lawson

My Nephew Emmett, Kevin Wilson, Jr.

The Silent Child, Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton

Watu Wote/All of Us, Katja Benrath, Tobias Rosen

Winner & Chair Choice: DeKalb Elementary, Reed Van Dyk

After watching these DeKalb Elementary left me speechless, even though I had read all about the real story it is based on right after it happened. And that was prior to the recent school shooting that killed 17 people in Parkland, FL, which happened just prior to the date Academy’s final voting ballots were due.

 

Best Foreign Language Film

Oscar sparkle

A Fantastic Woman (Chile)

The Insult (Lebanon)

Loveless (Russia)

On Body and Soul (Hungary)

The Square (Sweden)

Winner & Chair Choice: A Fantastic Woman (Chile)

This is a guess based on speaking to people and the one film in the bunch I experienced. That film, A Fantastic Woman was a slow build around a trans actress who always appeared to be living, and not acting, a trans woman not unlike herself onscreen. It’s the likely winner.

 

Film Editing

Baby Driver, Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss

Dunkirk, Lee Smith

I, Tonya, Tatiana S. Riegel

The Shape of Water, Sidney Wolinsky

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Jon Gregory

Winner: Dunkirk, Lee Smith


Chair Choice: Baby Driver, Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss

It’s hard to understand how a movie that many of us couldn’t follow could win the Oscar for editing. Isn’t coherence part of good editing? Isn’t that common sense? Of course, in Oscar polls and award giving, sense is not always the ultimate deciding factor, common or not. And who are we to talk when we’re advocating for a movie starring Kevin Spacey?

 

Sound Editing

you guessed it

Baby Driver, Julian Slater

Blade Runner 2049, Mark Mangini, Theo Green

Dunkirk, Alex Gibson, Richard King

The Shape of Water, Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood

Winner & Chair Choice: Dunkirk, Alex Gibson, Richard King


It’s the only thing I liked in the film. I don’t care what you think.

 

Sound Mixing

one more time!

Baby Driver, Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin

Blade Runner 2049, Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hephill

Dunkirk, Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo

The Shape of Water, Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michae l Semanick

Winner & Chair Choice: Dunkirk, Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo


See above. And I still don’t care. At all.

 

Production Design

I preferred the fish man

Beauty and the Beast, Sarah Greenwood; Katie Spencer

Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola

Darkest Hour, Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer

Dunkirk, Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis

The Shape of Water, Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

Winner: Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola


Chair Choice: The Shape of Water, Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

One of my dearest friends is a big time production designer and he says it’s Blade Runner. I, myself, loved the fish man, the marquee lights and the largest bathroom a tenement building has ever seen in The Shape of Water.

 

Original Score

Dunkirk, Hans Zimmer

Phantom Thread, Jonny Greenwood

The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, John Williams

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Carter Burwell

Winner: The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat


Chair Choice: Phantom Thread, Jonny Greenwood
 

The score for The Shape of Water was wonderful but The Phantom Thread score was brilliant and made it the movie it was. Either could win but the edge goes to the fish man.

 

Original Song

Tears

“Mighty River” from Mudbound, Mary J. Blige

“Mystery of Love” from Call Me by Your Name, Sufjan Stevens

“Remember Me” from Coco, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez

“Stand Up for Something” from Marshall, Diane Warren, Common

“This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

Winner & Chair Choice: “Remember Me” from Coco

This song provided THE central motif of the movie. That’s what the best original song is supposed to do. Plus, it’s a good song. Okay, perhaps not as memorable as such other Oscar winners as “(The Theme from) Shaft” but you can’t have everything.

 

Makeup and Hair

Darkest Hour, Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick

Victoria and Abdul, Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard

Wonder, Arjen Tuiten

Winner: The Darkest Hour

Chair Choice: Either of the other two.

The latex, the bald cap and the insistence that this was a HISTORICAL CHARACTER and we have to get CHURCHILL right!! Lawd.

 

Costume Design

I see you

Beauty and the Beast, Jacqueline Durran

Darkest Hour, Jacqueline Durran

Phantom Thread, Mark Bridges

The Shape of Water, Luis Sequeira

Victoria and Abdul, Consolata Boyle

Winner & Chair Choice: Phantom Thread, Mark Bridges

Phantom Thread is a movie about a CLOTHING DESIGNER and it received SIX nominations.   Get it? Not to take anything away from the accuracy and beauty of its costumes or some of the other nominees. But this is another sure thing.

 

Visual Effects

Blade Runner 2049, John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, Dan Sudick

Kong: Skull Island, Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, Mike Meinardus

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould, Neal Scanlan

War for the Planet of the Apes, Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Joel Whist

Winner & Chair Choice: War for the Planet of the Apes, Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Joel Whist

Things have come a long way since the original Planet of the Apes – at least visual effects-wise. The CG apes, the real apes – who knew? Still, it’s a crime the Fish Man in Shape of Water will go unrecognized – and went un-nominated.

Best Original Songs 2000-2017