And the Oscar goes to…

The past year in film has seen an unprecedented amount of innovative and provocative filmmaking. The hits started early with a February release of Get Out, and summertime ushered in such gems as The Big Sick, Girls Trip, Dunkirk and Detroit. Oscar season officially took hold in October when The Florida Project hit theaters, and since then, audiences have been treated to a tantalizing array of comedy and tragedy. On Sunday, all eyes will turn to Hollywood, as the Academy anoints its latest class of winners. Here are my analyses and predictions on the top categories:

Best Actress

It’s been a long time coming, but Frances McDormand will finally become Oscar’s leading lady Sunday night. She is a cinematic badass who devours every role with nuanced gusto. Her talent has produced unforgettable characters such as Marge Gunderson (Fargo) and Linda Litzke (Burn After Reading), and her unparalleled wit adds charm to such films as Friends with Money and Almost Famous. Now, with her role as steely-tongued Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, she will solidify her status among the greatest of her craft.

Mildred’s monologue to Father Montgomery could easily be pegged as the sole reason for her nomination, but McDormand’s performance is multi-dimensional. Hayes is the everyday woman thrown into tragedy, and McDormand translates every ounce of her grief and rage. Audiences can feel her anxiety and empathize with her torment. She is calculated in her revenge, methodical in her resolve and fuels her passion with enviable conviction. McDormand allows Martin McDonough’s script to explode with spirit; the only thing better than hearing one of Mildred’s saucy one-liners, will be listening to McDormand’s Oscar acceptance speech.

My prediction: Frances McDormand                                                                                            My preference: Frances McDormand

Best Actor

This eclectic bag of nominees includes two Oscar virgins and three Hollywood legends. It’s going to be bittersweet watching Daniel Day-Lewis attend his final ceremony before retirement. His performance in Phantom Thread is hypnotic (and kept me thinking about the film for days after seeing it). But ultimately, Day-Lewis, Timothee Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.) will be attending as spectators  — Gary Oldman has this one in the bag. He’s already amassed a trophy case full of awards; on Sunday night, his crown jewel will be ready and waiting.

Oldman’s transformative performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour is enthralling, allowing audiences to hang on his every word. The dialogue-heavy film rests on his hunched shoulders, and he delivers the goods. Unfortunately, he gives the performance of his career in an otherwise lackluster film. Oldman roars when the story crescendos, but the story begs for too much dramatization, forcing the subtle moments to fall flat. Oldman’s performance could’ve benefited from a calming, more refined directorial eye.

My prediction: Gary Oldman                                                                                                          My preference: Timothee Chalamet

Best Picture

It’s been nine years since the Academy made the decision to expand the field of best picture nominees from 5 to 10, and it still remains a source of angst for me. The sanctity of exclusiveness has been eliminated, lessening the esteem of being nominated into this premier  category. Initially, there was buzz that indie flicks, documentaries and foreign language films would have increased chances of being nominated, but it quickly became clear the decision had more to do with generating money and boosting TV ratings. Every season I prepare myself to be let down, but this year’s sting has persisted.

Darkest Hour and The Post should be kicked off the list of contenders; The Big Sick, The Florida Project and I, Tonya should all be basking in Oscar praise. The three latter films are examinations of profound human experiences, showcasing raw, vulnerable performances. Each film grants the opportunity for self-reflection and pulls pure emotions from the audience. Nonetheless, when it comes to winning this year’s award, my argument becomes moot because this is a two-way race between The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

The opening sequence of The Shape of Water is gripping — transcendent fantasy quickly gives way to mundane, yet mysterious, reality. The color palette is delectable and Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is instantly endearing. Then, about a third of the way into the story, the movie fizzles into a dud. The script is lame with sophomoric humor and an incessant need to spell out every fine detail, as though the audience deserves zero credit for its ability to understand symbolism and foreshadowing — a solid 20 minutes of the film should have ended up on the cutting room floor. Worse yet, there is no chemistry between Elisa and the sea creature, and the racial stereotypes being portrayed on screen are uncomfortable to watch.

However, I’m clearly in the minority on my critique. The film has 13 nominations and has taken home the Critics’ Choice Award for best picture and the Producers Guild Award. It would be a travesty to see this mess go home with Oscar, and although it seems to have significant buzz, I predict the top prize will be awarded to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Three Billboards weaves together dramatic hysteria with knee-slapping humor, and the story evolves into a layered masterpiece. Significant character arcs and unparalleled on-screen chemistry among Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), Mildred (McDormand) and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) allow the piercing dialogue to flow like molten rock. It’s a mighty feat for a film to put a comedic spin on racism, death, revenge and grief, but writer/director Martin McDonough has done so with authentic style. The film has already captured a  Screen  Actors Guild award and the British Academy Film Award (BAFTA); Oscar will be its defining achievement.

My prediction: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri                                                       My preference: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri                                                     

Best Supporting Actor

This category holds an array of character actors who have enchanted audiences for years.  Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project), Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water) and Christopher Plummer (All the Money in the World) all deliver stellar performances, but in the end, Sunday will be Sam Rockwell’s night to shine.

Rockwell is always solid in his performances — Seven Psychopaths, The Way Way Back, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Conviction — but nothing has catapulted him into the elite league he belongs… Until now. His portrayal of Officer Dixon in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a career-defining role. Dixon is a profane racist with a drinking problem, who lives with his mother and responds to the name “Fuckhead.” He’s terrible at his job and is bereft of empathy, but it’s impossible not to love this screwball. Rockwell breathes humanity into his character, allowing audiences to forgive Dixon’s shortcomings, if for no other reason than the fact he’s too ignorant to understand his troubled disposition.

My prediction: Sam Rockwell                                                                                                          My preference: Sam Rockwell

Best Supporting Actress

As with all other acting categories, this one is all sewn up as well. For her dynamic portrayal of LaVona Fay Golden in I, Tonya, Allison Janney will top off an already illustrious award season with Oscar gold.

Anyone who saw the film has a lasting image of Janney’s judgmental gaze and searing eyes. She hides her insecurities behind giant glasses and fur coats, and her ever-present cigarette acts as a shield, keeping everyone at arm’s-length. She’s polarizing and domineering, but with oxygen tubes up her nose and a bird on her shoulder, it’s impossible not to embrace her every eccentricity. LaVona is seemingly a woman devoid of emotion, yet Janney’s portrayal is deeply affecting with uncanny comedic timing. Screenwriter Steven Rogers composed a masterful script; Janney allows his words to soar.

My prediction: Allison Janney                                                                                                        My preference: Allison Janney

Best Director

This is a difficult prediction to stand by because as much as I disdain his film, Guillermo del Toro is going home with Oscar Sunday night. The Shape of Water is aesthetically pleasing, and the concept is alluring, but the product fails to resonate. Del Toro has the power to suspend disbelief and spin intoxicating webs of fantasy, but this film is a monumental failure. The story doesn’t draw the viewer into his mysterious world and the characters aren’t memorable. Nonetheless, del Toro has collected a Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice Award, BAFTA and Directors Guild Award this year, which makes him a virtual shoe-in for his first Academy award.

My prediction: Guillermo del Toro                                                                                                My preference: Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk)

Original Screenplay

It’s rare for a first-time screenwriter to produce a blockbuster. It’s even more uncommon for such a blockbuster to resonate with critics all the while promoting social conscience across generations. Yet, Jordan Peele has shattered stereotypes and ushered the horror genre into the mainstream with his hit, Get Out.  Peele is also nominated in the directing category, and after taking home the top prize at the Writer’s Guild awards, it’s easy to predict the cinematic craftsman will strike gold Sunday night.

With his script, Peele takes audiences on an addicting, and terrifying, roller coaster ride through the human psyche. The effectiveness of the screenplay rests in its ability to linger. It’s hard to know where the sense of unease resides, but Peele forces it to waft in the air before jolting the story into a high-octane thriller. As carnage unfolds on screen, the film takes a deep dive into racism and prejudice, and challenges White America to question certain intentions. Peele’s ability to inject humor into the horror is ingenious. Arguably the greatest line comes at the very end when Rod (LiRel Howery) breaks the monumental tension by reiterating the fact that Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) should’ve listen to him in the beginning and never even gone to the suburbs — all the murderous chaos could have easily been avoided.

My prediction: Jordan Peele                                                                                                           My preference: Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon (The Big Sick)

Adapted Screenplay

James Ivory’s adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel, Call Me by Your Name, is a piece of art. Romance dramas can easily be overdone, but Ivory’s script lets the film fall gently into place. There are perfect moments of silence, which allow the audience to absorb the sights, sounds and tastes of northern Italy. When the inconvenient love affair takes hold of the story, the stillness of the screenplay invites audiences to experience all the torment and euphoria along with the characters. Words and language are the heart of the film, and Ivory translates a most indelible message: Speak before you die.

The novel spans 20 years, and director Luca Guadgnino has expressed his desire to continue the story with future installments.  If his vision comes to fruition, this could be the beginning of one of the greatest on-screen love affairs in modern history.

My prediction: James Ivory                                                                                                                  My preference: James Ivory

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