Oscar Watch: The Race is On

It’s that special time of year again…every movie trailer being advertised is enticing; Hollywood’s elite are flooding the talk show circuit. For film nuts like myself, November isn’t just the beginning of the holiday season, it’s the start of Oscar season.

Many of this year’s films are reflective of today’s social climate, and the issues shaping our national conscience. Filmmakers in the class of 2018 aren’t just entertaining moviegoers, they’re giving us lessons in humanity. Themes of race, class, poverty and addiction are fueling the race to the Academy Awards. A few contenders have already been in theaters, and this month, a whirlwind of high-caliber films have been released. Here’s a list of the current must-sees:

BlacKkKlansman — Available to rent

Spike Lee is back. The writer/director is responsible for such American staples as Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever and Malcolm X. However, a recent string of flops has left audiences feeling bereft. But now he’s returned to form with a story that proves truth is stranger than fiction.

In the early 70s, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself, he comes up with a most dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. The department isn’t keen on the idea, but Stallworth is defiant in his decision, and recruits his more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go undercover in his investigation. Together, the two-man team attempt to take down the extremist group, just as the organization aims to sanitize its rhetoric in an effort to appeal to the masses.

Lee bookends his film with a profound scene from Gone with the Wind, and live footage of the Charlottesville riots, underscoring the movie’s current relevance. The film is a tour de force — pulse-pounding drama combined with quick wit. It took home the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival, and will be a formidable contender at the Academy Awards in February.


Black Panther – Available to rent; also on Netflix

For the second year in a row, one of the year’s highest grossing films is shrouded in Oscar buzz. (Get Out achieved the feat a year ago.) Writer/director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) combines his skills as an indie filmmaker with cinematic bluster to translate the pathos of superheroes. This nuanced grit brings audiences into a fantasy land, where we experience the struggle for love, acceptance and dominance.

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the bright-eyed prince of the hidden but illustrious kingdom of Wakanda. When his father dies, he ascends to the throne and plans to lead his people into a new future. However, an adversary from his country’s past (Michael B. Jordan) challenges T’Challa’s crown, and threatens to destroy everything Wakanda has cultivated.

This is the third collaboration between Jordan and Coogler (Jordan is the lead in Creed and Fruitvale Station) and the partnership is proving powerful. If he continues on his current trajectory, Jordan could become one of the greatest actors of his generation. Boseman (Marshall, 42) is sublime as Black Panther, and Lupita Nyong’o (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 12 Years a Slave) provides a perfect balance to his strength and sensitivity. With a dynamic ensemble cast including Daniel Kaluuya (Widows, Get Out), Angela Bassett (Mission Impossible: Fallout, What’s Love Got to Do with It) and Leticia Wright (Avengers: Infinity War, Ready Player One), the film is poised to nab nominations in multiple categories.


A Star is Born – In Theaters

Once in a great while, two actors converge on screen with chemistry that seemingly suspends even their own disbelief — as though moviegoers are violating their privacy by witnessing their intimacy. Such is the case for Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper‘s collaboration for the fourth remake of this film. They surrendered themselves to their art, and in so doing, created a romance drama unlike anything of its kind.

It all begins on a typical night for Jackson Maine (Cooper): He performs a rousing show for thousands of his screaming fans, then returns to solitude with his liquor. However, his bottle goes dry and he stumbles into a drag bar, where he collides with destiny. Ally (Lady Gaga) — the only girl allowed to sing in the joint — performs La Vie En Rose, and the gin in his glass is replaced by lightning. They spend an evening on the town before their minds unite in a grocery store parking lot. Ally sings some new lyrics for Jackson, and he becomes infused with inspiration. Eventually, he coaxes her into the spotlight, and their love affair ensues. But as Ally ascends to stardom, life becomes challenging as Jackson continues to battle internal demons.

I’ve seen many sides of Cooper on the big-screen — Wedding Crashers, The Hangover, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, American Sniper — nothing compares to this performance. He utilizes his entire acting repertoire in the greatest role of his career…and shows off his musical chops with a deep, soulful voice. It is equally impressive that, in her debut film, Lady Gaga matches Cooper’s cinematic prowess. She portrays Ally’s strengths and vulnerabilities with raw honesty. And Sam Elliott (The Hero, Tombstone) delivers a supporting role as smooth as liquid gold. The film will contend for multiple Academy Awards (as producer, director and co-writer, Cooper is a shoe-in for four nominations). I’m most excited about the Best Song category…what kind of magic could Bradley and Gaga create together on Oscar’s stage?


First Man – In Theaters

Writer/director Damien Chazelle is an enigmatic auteur. At age 29, he won a screenwriting Oscar for Whiplash (The film received five total nominations and J.K. Simmons won for best supporting actor.) Two years later, his film La La Land earned 14 nominations, and walked away with six statuettes. Now, he’s taking audiences to the moon.

Chazelle reunited with Ryan Gosling (La La Land, Blue Valentine) to tell the human side of this harrowing story. Based on the book by James R. Hansen, the movie explores the emotional roller coaster Neil Armstrong (Gosling) endures during the eight years NASA dedicated itself to the mission. Armstrong was a solemn man with layers of sorrow behind his steely eyes, and Gosling translates every bit of his delicate confidence. Chazelle illustrates the personal toll of balancing family and duty, and the moon landing scene plays out on screen like poetry.

Supporting’s performances from Claire Foy (“The Crown,” Breathe), Kyle Chandler (Manchester by the Sea, Zero Dark Thirty) and Jason Clarke (Mudbound, Everest) will make the film a force in this year’s Oscar race.


Can You Ever Forgive Me? – In Theaters

A writer’s mind never stops. Mental input is constant — daydreams run rampant and wonderment never ceases — but when output runs scarce, the Grim Reaper comes lurking. Writer’s block is a psychological prison that can erase any memory of past success…and the longer a mind is trapped, the more irrelevant a writer becomes. This film captures such anguish with refined charm.

Biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) made a name for herself profiling the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Estée Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. However, she’s not keeping up with current trends, and sits motionless behind her typewriter. Placed in the peripheral of the publishing world, she turns her art into a game of deception: forging letters from deceased celebrities such as Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman. Eventually, her loyal friend Jack (Richard E. Grant) starts abetting her crime spree and the duo begin wheeling and dealing on the literary circuit.

McCarthy and Grant demonstrate precise comedic timing with moments of palpable tenderness; both should receive nods from the Academy. Seasoned screenwriter Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said, Friends with Money) gives the film a quiet eloquence, providing equal parts joy and pain to the story. This should be her year to receive a much overdue Oscar nomination.


Green Book – In Theaters

Writer/Director Peter Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber) is spreading his artistic wings with this much-anticipated indie flick. A story of unlikely friendship, the film has been buzzed about since winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

The story begins as Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a Jamaican-American world-class pianist, sets to embark on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962. Aware of the legal discrimination and violence being waged against non-whites, Dr. Shirley recruits Tony Lip (Vigo Mortensen), a tough-talking bouncer from the Bronx, to serve as his driver for the eight-week tour. Before they take off, Dr. Shirley’s managers give Tony a copy of “The Negro Motorist Green Book” — an annual guide for black road trippers — so he knows where it is safe for Dr. Shirley to eat, sleep and travel. The men have stark differences, but develop a special bond as they confront racism and class warfare in some of the most segregated areas of the country.

The splendor of the film rests in Farrelly’s ability to infuse humor into the story’s heavy themes. Ali and Mortensen play beautifully off one another, each elevating the other’s performance. It’s an on-screen partnership made in movie heaven. Both actors, along with Farrelly and additional screenwriters, Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie, are expected to nab nominations in their respective categories.


The Favourite – In Theaters

Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lobster) embraces quirkiness with his films, and his latest endeavor is one of the most touted films of the year. A trio of powerful leading ladies — Olivia Colman (The Lobster, Murder on the Orient Express), Rachel Weisz (The Lobster, The Constant Gardener) and Emma Stone (La La Land, Birdman) — give the film a bravado that will tantalize Oscar.

The movie is set in the early 18th century, when England is at war with the French, and a frail Queen Anne (Colman) occupies the throne. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating continue to thrive as the Queen’s closest friend, Lady Sarah (Weisz), governs the country, and tends to Anne’s ill health and erratic temper. A new servant, Abigail (Stone), arrives unexpectedly, endearing herself to Sarah. However, just as Sarah takes her under her wing, Abigail employs ulterior motives when she sees an opportunity to return to her aristocratic roots.

The film was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, where Colman also won Best Actress. Next week, all three actresses will receive the Gotham Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble Performance.


Boy Erased – In Theaters

Joel Edgerton is a master storyteller with incredible range. He wrote, directed and starred in The Gift — a hair-raising thriller that resonates deep within the psyche. His portrayal of a high school teacher/MMA fighter/family man in Warrior is an unforgettable illustration of brute compassion. His performance in Loving is a master class in stoic vulnerability. His latest film (which he wrote, directed, and co-stars) is an emotional drama with an all-star cast including Lucas Hedges (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Manchester by the Sea), Nicole Kidman (The Beguiled, Lion) and Russell Crowe (Les Miserables, Gladiator).

The film is centered around Jared Eamons (Hedges) who belongs to a loving, middle-class Arkansas family. His father (Crowe) is a Baptist minister; his mother (Kidman) is present and loving. Jared’s life is going according to plan — he gets good grades, plays basketball, and has a steady girlfriend — until his friend outs him as gay. Determined to please his parents in their attempt to support him, Jared attends a conversion therapy program. While there, he conflicts with group leader, Victor Sykes (Edgerton), and begins to realize it’s others who need healing.

It’s difficult to predict how this film will resonate with Oscar, but nonetheless, it’s a must-see for all.


Stay tuned for my upcoming winter film preview, highlighting this year’s second batch of Oscar contenders.

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