Welcome to September, the year’s doldrums of cinematic offerings, which also means it’s the calm before the storm when the studios double down on awards seasons hopefuls. (Though taking a quick look at the upcoming offerings, the word hope should be heavily emphasized. At first glance, it does not seem like a good few months ahead.) Nevertheless, even though Oscar season generally focuses on movies released between October and December, there’s been quality offerings in the first 3/4 of the year that are worthy of attention in the big competition.
If I had to choose one nomination that I am pulling for above all others, it’s Cliff Martinez for his score for Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. Although the movie is very divisive, and understandably so (though it sits pretty firmly in my Top 5 of the year so far), Martinez’ score is one of the greatest cinematic achievements so far in 2016. Refn makes films that are fully immersive, and with The Neon Demon you get a sense of just how important music is in luring us into these worlds. The interplay of visuals and score are as crucial to the movie as any performance or dialogue, and Martinez’ work is beautiful, haunting, and hypnotic. Martinez, who has never been nominated for an Oscar, won the Cannes Best Composer Award for The Neon Demon, so maybe this could be his year.
Best Crafts And Stuff (Set Design, Production Design, etc.)
The short answer is: Hail, Caesar! I’ll get more into the possible Oscar domination of the latest Coen Brothers’ fare later, but for costuming (Mary Zophres), set decoration (Nancy Haigh), art direction (Cara Brower and Dawn Swiderski), etc., I’m hard pressed to think of a movie from this year that even comes close to being as visually magnificent as this love letter to the 1950’s studio system. It’s probably the most aesthetically accomplished Coen Brothers’ film yet, which is incredible considering how they are arguably the best working filmmakers today. And a huge part of that is thanks to cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins…who despite 13 nominations has never won an Oscar. It’s a period piece (which the Academy loves for these categories), and the look of the film plays towards the ostentatious and spectacle of the era without seeming over-the-top.
From politics (Weiner) to icons (Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words) to subcultures (Tickled) to the singularity (Lo And Behold: Reveries Of The Connected World), this has been a great year for documentaries. Do I have a particular horse in this race (not intended to reference the horse racing documentary Dark Horse)? Not particularly, however Werner Herzog (Lo and Behold) has only been nominated for one Oscar in his entire career (not 2005’s Grizzly Man, as most would guess, but 2007’s Encounters at the End of the World … which lost to An Inconvenient Truth), and it’s hard to think of a documentarian as compelling and fascinatingly philosophical as he is. (Not that he should win simply for sake of a lifetime achievement award, Lo and Behold easily stands on its own as one of this year’s standout films.)
Best Screenplay (Adapted and Original)
Like with most years, the “Best Screenplay” and “Best Picture” (and for that matter “Best Director”) list are probably the same exact list (unless there’s a particularly remarkable spectacle worthy of “Best Picture” or a particularly amazing script with a movie that just isn’t quite lofty enough for “Best Picture” aspirations). For the first 75% of 2016, the top three titles are the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!; Efthimis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster; and Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special.
After so many years of the ensemble movie being an excuse for the melodramatic, hackneyed “EVERYONE IS INTERCONNECTED!” theme (Traffic, Babel, Cloud Atlas, etc.), it’s nice to see a movie like Hail, Casear! that uses that concept well and differently. It’s a good-time movie where every character gets a chance to shine.
We’re going to be inundated with high profile and high brow (fingers crossed) sci-fi movies over the next few months – Denis Villenueve’s Arrival, Morten Tyldum’s Passengers, Peter Chelsom’s The Space Between Us, and Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, to name a few – but it would behoove us to remember two smaller features that will certainly rank among the best of 2016: Midnight Special and The Lobster. Whether about one man’s love for his child or the inescapability of totalitarian societies regardless of where on the spectrum they fall, these films show us that sci-fi doesn’t need extravagant special effects (or even decent explanations for the ‘why’) as long as the characters are compelling and the emotions feel real. (This is especially poignant for The Lobster, which never explains the origins behind its insane premise, but it is so terrific that it never has to.)
Best Supporting Actress
I don’t know. Regular favorite Julianne Moore might have a chance for Maggie’s Plan. Maybe Léa Seydoux or Olivia Coleman for The Lobster (the latter of whom won a British Independent Film Award for the role).
Best Supporting Actor
Another difficult one to guess because “Supporting” categories have a greater tendency to respect the more “out there” performances. My initial thought is Alden Ehrenreich for Hail, Caesar!, and he hits a lot of the checkmarks on the “Potential Favorite List.” He’s a young up and coming actor in his first major role who managed to steal the movie from veterans such as Josh Brolin, George Clooney, and Ralph Fiennes. Though one might argue that a posthumous nomination for Alan Rickman for Eye in the Sky could be in the cards.
However, for a bit of a wild card, I’d like to throw in Danny DeVito from Wiener-Dog. Not even the most popular movie this year with the name “W[ie]ner” in the title, Wiener-Dog is Todd Solondz’ latest (and is fantastic in that depressingly humanistic way Solondz has perfected). The film, which is a collection of vignettes using a dog as the one interweaving thread, features great performances from every member of its ensemble, but it’s Danny DeVito who stands out the most. As a failed screenwriter at the end of his rope, his Dave Schmerz is a notably sad, defeated character and his depressive destructiveness is a marked difference after seeing years of manic destructiveness as his definitive character Frank Reynolds on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
I would also like to give a special commendation to John Goodman for 10 Cloverfield Lane. An underrated actor who can effortlessly go from comedy to drama to the truly bizarre in a way few others can, Goodman has never been nominated for an Oscar. Odds are he won’t get it for 10 Cloverfield Lane because of genre bias, but it was his performance that made the essentially one-room/three character thriller something exceptional. [SPOILERS] aside, the core to the movie was wondering whether he was being honest or lying, helpful or threatening, truly insane or merely broken, or everything all at the same time, and he constantly kept us engaged and guessing, no matter where on the emotional roller coaster he was. Without such a well-acted antagonist, the film could not have worked.
It’s a bit too early to even take a crack at this category. After all, the only biopics of note thus far were those ill-fated attempts at casting Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams and Don Cheadle as Miles Davis, and we all know that biopics are pretty much the only way to win a best actor Oscar. How else to explain Eddie Redmayne defeating Michael Keaton two years ago? (Don’t worry, soon we’ll have all the Sullys and Snowdens we can handle.)
Although it actually is difficult to think of THE stand out lead male performance thus far this year, there are a number of great performances that might be a bit too subtle or weird to be placed in actual contention. The three top movies I’ve mentioned all contain leads worth acknowledging: Michael Shannon as a father desperately trying to save his son in Midnight Special, Colin Farrell expertly playing the everyman in a bizarre dystopia in The Lobster (it’s a terrifically nuanced performance), and Josh Brolin as the nucleus around which 1950’s Hollywood revolves around in Hail, Caesar! However, I’d also like to give special attention to Paul Dano in Swiss Army Man; his optimism and hope sells the farting corpse movie every step of the way.
We might actually have two (or even three) Best Actress slots already set. One-time Oscar winner (and regular nominee) Helen Mirren for Eye in the Sky and two-time Oscar winner Sally Field for Hello, My Name is Doris already have significant amounts of buzz following them, with Field remarkably headed towards her third possible win. They might be forced to compete against the Annual Requisite Nominations for Meryl Steep (this year for Florence Foster Jenkins) and Jennifer Lawrence (this year for Passengers, which hasn’t been screened yet), but their odds look pretty good to at least remain in connection until year’s end. And besides, wouldn’t it be great to see a movie created by a founding member of The State to win one of the top Oscars?
I wonder if David Ayer thought that Suicide Squad would get a Mad Max: Fury Road-style nomination for Best Picture? Anyway, my top choice for Best Picture is actually one that I feel has genuine potential to be nominated and maybe even win. It’s, you guessed it, the Coen Brother’s Hail, Caesar! Still my favorite movie of the year, it actually has a lot going for it. On the public’s side, it’s gotten a lot of recognition and love since being released for the home market. (I’m basing this on nothing solid, but I have seen and heard plenty of comments praising the movie since it left theaters.) On the Hollywood side, we have beloved filmmakers and beloved actors creating a ode to the old timey Hollywood, which the Academy continues to fetishize. Nevertheless Hail, Caesar! is genuinely funny, consistently entertaining, looks great, and unlike previous Best Picture winner The Artist, doesn’t live or die by a gimmick.
As a wild card, Midnight Special. Far more approachable than some of my other favorite movies of the year, it’s also the one with the biggest heart. It’s sci-fi (not the most beloved genre come Oscar season), but at its core, it’s about what two parents would do for their child. It’s quiet and respectful in the way Close Encounters of the Third Kind was. If only it was released now, it probably could have gotten a boost from our obsession with Stranger Things. (A 1970s/1980s throwback about a child with magical powers? Please let the thematic connection draw other people to this fantastic film.)