Sunday, May 29, 2022

Leaf Grief

It has been two weeks since the Leafs lost in the first round...again. For the sixth year in a row, the Leafs did not make it past their first opponent, with five of those losses coming in the final possible game of the series. The last time the Leafs won a playoff series was in 2004; in the 18 years since that win against the Ottawa Senators, they have lost in the first round six times, the Qualifying Round once, and missed the playoffs ten times (with one season - 2004-05) canceled due to the lockout.

With Florida advancing past the first round, the Leafs are the only team not to win at least one round in the salary cap era (other than brand new expansion team Seattle). Florida, Toronto, Columbus, and Calgary are the only teams not to make it to at least one Conference Final since 2005 (with Colorado recently leaving that list). It has been a historic run of ineptitude for the Leafs franchise, rivalled only by the days of finishing fourth in the Norris Division in the 1980s - but even that team managed to win a couple of playoff rounds.

Despite my best efforts, I find myself still emotionally tangled up with the success of this team once the playoffs come around, even though I am expecting to be disappointed every year. I have written about many of those disappointments over the years, and so the process of writing this post has become a vital part of my way of processing the ending to each season.

I still hate writing this post every year - and I couldn't even bring myself to write post-mortem blog posts after the last two losses against Columbus (August 2020 in the Qualifying Round) and especially last year against Montreal. But this year, I feel as though I need to process this most recent first round loss by writing about it, so here I am, opening up old wounds in an attempt to reconcile the fresh ones. 

I went back and read the last blog post I wrote after the Leafs' season ended after losing a Game 7 against Boston in 2019, and, honestly, it's eerie how much of that post I could have written today. It's actually really disheartening because it seems like so little has changed in the past three years - right down to the fact that, just like in 2019, the Leafs had series leads after Games 1, 3, and 5 only to lose the last two games.

Even if might seem to be more of the same on the surface, this loss feels different, and I think it's worth working through, even if just for my peace of mind. Of course, I realized that the first thing I needed to do was to revisit my "Leafs Levels of Losing" to see where these most recent three losses ranked in the pantheon of pain.

Revising the Levels of Losing

In 2018, after the first Game 7 loss against Boston for this particular group of players, I ranked all of the Leafs' playoff series losses in my 26 years as a fan. There have been three very difficult additions since then, so here's my updated list with the losses from the 2020s ranked and placed into tiers and with commentary included afterward.

Honourable Mention: L.A. Kings, Western Conference Finals, 7 games, 1993. (I was not a Leafs fan yet, but it still kind of counts, if only for the way that the collective pain from this missed opportunity has continued to affect new fans over the past three decades.)

Tier V

16. Chicago Blackhawks, Western Conference Quarterfinals, 7 games, 1995.

15. St. Louis Blues, Western Conference Quarterfinals, 6 games, 1996.

14. New Jersey Devils/New York Islanders, Last Day of Regular Season, 2007.

Tier IV

13. Washington Capitals, Atlantic Division Semifinals, 6 games, 2017.

12. Vancouver Canucks, Western Conference Finals, 5 games, 1994.

11. Boston Bruins, Atlantic Division Semifinals, 7 games, 2018.

10. Buffalo Sabres, Eastern Conference Finals, 5 games, 1999.

Tier III

9. Philadelphia Flyers, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, 7 games, 2003.

8. New Jersey Devils, Eastern Conference Semifinals, 6 games, 2000.

7. Philadelphia Flyers, Eastern Conference Semifinals, 6 games, 2004.

6. Columbus Blue Jackets, Qualifying Round, 5 games (in a 5-game series), 2020.

Tier II

5. Tampa Bay Lightning, Atlantic Division Semifinals, 7 games, 2022.

4. New Jersey Devils, Eastern Conference Semifinals, 7 games, 2001.

3. Carolina Hurricanes, Eastern Conference Finals, 6 games, 2002.

Tier I

2. Boston Bruins, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, 7 games, 2013.

1. Montreal Canadiens, North Division Semifinals, 7 games, 2021.

The loss in 2020 in the Qualifying Round against Columbus sits at the top of Level III for me (#6 overall) for a couple of reasons. The first was that the 2019-2020 season was a mess for the team, seemingly largely due to the toxic situation with coach Mike Babcock, who was replaced by Sheldon Keefe partway through the season. The team was not playing very well overall, and I had mostly written the season off by February. 

The second was the fact that the season was suspended due to COVID for several months, and by the time the bubble started in August, it just really felt like hockey did not matter. The loss still stung - after all, technically, the team didn't even make the playoffs because of that loss, but it still seemed early enough in the Leafs' window that it was okay to write off that one season...until it turned into another, and now another. 

I thought that nothing could ever supplant "It was 4-1" (ie. losing Game 7 in Boston in 2013), but I have realized that last year's loss to Montreal was actually worse. There was no expectation of the 2013 Leafs to win that series against the Bruins - or even to be good that season. They were almost certainly helped in even making the playoffs by the fact that a lockout shortened the season, but they were still a fun team to watch, and I thoroughly enjoyed most of that series - until the last ten minutes of Game 7, of course.

Ultimately, the pain from that 2013 loss came from the accumulated years of anguish in addition to a historical collapse, and although that still hurts to this day, the Montreal loss was worse - and it will only continue to get even worse until this team finally wins a playoff series. So I think I need to spend a few minutes on that loss to Montreal, because it is ultimately the source of much of the residual angst from this year's loss to the Lightning.

The Leafs had finished first in the North Division in the pandemic-shortened season, and fans were looking ahead to the first meeting of generational superstars Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid in the second round - or they would have been, if the Oilers had not been swept at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets. Then the Leafs went up 3-1 in the series against Montreal, despite losing captain John Tavares early in Game 1, and everything seemed poised for the Leafs to end a 17-year playoff series win drought; then things started to go wrong. 

They played poorly in Game 5 at home until the third period, in which they scored two goals late to tie before losing in overtime on a goal by a rookie. Then almost exactly the same story happened in Game 6 in Montreal, and the Leafs were suddenly facing all of the pressure in Game 7, in which they completely collapsed and failed to show up - on home ice against their most storied rivals. It was one of the most embarrassing and shameful moments in a franchise history that is full of them.

The immediate pain of that loss was made slightly more manageable in some ways by the fact that the Canadiens went on to sweep the Jets and beat the heavily-favoured Vegas Golden Knights before succumbing to the Lightning in the Finals; after all, at least the Leafs didn't lose to a "bad team". 

But it also made the question of "what if?" that much more potent; after all, if the Habs could make a run like that, it made sense that the Leafs could have made a similar run, right? And for the record, the fact that the Canadiens finished last overall this year after their miracle run only makes that loss worse - especially since many of us suspected that the Canadiens were taking advantage of a unique opportunity throughout the 2021 playoffs because of the different divisions, as many expected the Leafs would or at least could have.

The 2021-22 season

I watched this season with a mix of anticipation and desperation, constantly feeling the tension between what I hoped would happen and what I expected would happen. As a result, I had trouble enjoying this season despite the fact that the Leafs had the most wins (54) and points (115) in franchise history, as well as a 60-goal scorer and possible (likely?) MVP in Auston Matthews, in addition to incredible seasons from Mitch Marner, and Morgan Rielly. My discomfort was mostly because I knew deep down that none of it would matter unless they won in the playoffs.

The Eastern Conference playoff teams were essentially locked in by January, and it was clear that the Leafs, who were the fourth best team in the overall standings this year, would almost certainly have to play two of the best seven teams in the league just to escape their division. Tampa, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion, ended up finishing eighth on a tiebreaker, and Boston ended up in tenth - though the numbers may be somewhat inflated by the poor performance of the bottom four teams in the division this year.

Regardless of what happened in the regular season, though, every Leafs fan knew that nothing would really matter until the first round of the playoffs. To no one's surprise, the impending sense of doom that I felt for most of the season turned out to be justified. The season went on, and it became more clear that the Leafs would most likely be playing Tampa, and I had a bad feeling that I knew would not go away until they could win. There was a lot of talk about how this year would be - or even could be - different, but we all knew what could happen and that our worst fears might come true. 

The series against Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay is a great team - maybe even a historically great team. There is a decent chance that they will advance deep into the playoffs not only this year, but for the next several years. Somehow, their window - which started with some players in this group in 2015, is now into its eighth year. In the past seven years, they have won the Cup twice, lost the Finals once, and lost in Game 7 of the Conference Finals twice (in addition to inexplicably missing the playoffs once and being swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the First Round once). 

Their run of success defies reason - and it happens to coincide with the Leafs' best window in at least two decades (and maybe three, depending on how much you thought the Sundin/Joseph teams of the early aughts actually had a window - which I still believe). There's probably an alternate universe in which young me decided to pick the Lightning as his team for some reason - and that version of me would have seen three Cups already in his lifetime. 

This series was a toss-up going in - it was actually equal odds for both teams to win the series - with many prominent hockey minds expecting a seven game series. Most prognosticators were picking the Lightning to win based on the recent history of both teams; after all, the champ is the champ until they're not the champ anymore, and someone has to take that title from them, and the Leafs had not demonstrated the kind of determination required to knock out the champ in recent years.

The worst part of this loss against Tampa Bay is that, unlike the previous five first-round losses, there is no one to blame except for the other team - although the refs can take some blame in Games 6 and 7. I'm not nearly as bitter or given to conspiracy theory as some fans, but it's not too much of a stretch to state that there were a few missed or blown calls in the last two games, and that circumstances favoured Tampa in both games.

The Leafs could have - and arguably should have - won this series. They were the better team in the better part of five of the seven games, and Tampa's goalie was rather ordinary all series. The teams traded fairly dominant wins in the first four games (as they did during the season), so it became a best two-out-of-three, and the Leafs were good enough to win all three of those games.

The Leafs came back from a 2-0 deficit with the first lead change in the series in Game 5 and won on an incredible play by Marner and Matthews to lead the series with a chance to win in Game 6. They led 3-2 going into the third period in Game 6, after again coming back from 2-0 before ultimately losing in overtime (in no small part due to some suspect high-stick calls in the third period leading to a Tampa 5-on-3 power play and the tying goal). And then it just didn't happen in Game 7, which they lost 2-1 in a hard fought game that easily could have gone the other way. 

There was nothing wrong with the Leafs in Game 7 or overall in this series (though they did make a couple of costly errors early in Game 6); they just lost to a team that knows how to win. This was not like Boston in 2018 or 2019, when they lost to a clearly superior team, or 2020 or 2021, when they clearly lost a series against an inferior opponent due to their own issues. This was two heavyweights going the distance, and someone had to lose.

The Narrative

This is where the narrative is the real problem. The Leafs are the only team in the three major sports leagues that feature series (ie. the NBA, MLB, and NHL) to lose five consecutive winner-take-all games in the first round. (And yes, I'm aware that the loss in Game 5 to Columbus was technically in the "Qualifying Round", but it still counts.) In any case, the chances of this happening are 1 in about 28,000 - which is to say, in modern sports, essentially zero. 

The fact that these Leafs have now lost ten consecutive elimination games - including nine in which they could have won the series and four in which they could have finished the series before a seventh game - only contributes to this overall narrative of failure. But a quick review of the circumstances of the other teams reveals a slightly different story than what the big picture might indicate.

Two of the five teams they lost to (Boston in 2019 and Montreal in 2021) went on to the Finals. Another two of the teams (Washington in 2017 and Boston in 2018) would make the Finals the following year, with the Capitals winning. And even Columbus, which was only a year removed from sweeping the Lightning in the First Round in 2019, lost all four games against Tampa, the eventual champion, by one goal. So, of the past six series losses, two they should have lost two (17 and 18), they should have won two (20 and 21), they maybe could have won one (19), and one could have gone either way (22), and only one of those six teams was not removed from a run to the Finals or the Cup by a year.

Here's another interesting fact: the entire team has changed over since the 2019 loss except for four players: Auston Matthews; Mitch Marner; William Nylander; and Morgan Rielly. So this isn't even the same team from the first half of this streak to the second half. And none of those four players can be blamed for this most recent loss.

The circumstances remind me of a team like the Washington Capitals under Alexander Ovechkin. Starting in 2006-2007, the Capitals did not make it past the second round for a decade: they missed the playoffs once; lost in the first round thrice (all in Game 7); and lost in the second round 6 times (thrice in Game 7). They finally went on a run in 2018 and won the Cup; of course, they have not won a playoff round since, but I think any Caps fan would take one Cup even if it meant never winning another series (as would most Leafs fans, I would imagine).

The Future of the Leafs

I know there are a lot of fans who are calling for wholesale change in the front office, behind the bench, and in players on the ice, but I'm firmly in the camp that believes that would be a bad idea at this point. Although the result was ultimately the same this year, the process to get there was not, and this team is better than it was last year. They have learned and grown and gotten better, and I still believe that they will break through sooner rather than later.

There are a couple of changes that should be made, though. John Tavares should not be the Captain any longer, and the "C" should be given to either Matthews or Rielly, who really are the heart and soul of this team. I don't know if it would make a huge difference, but I don't think it would hurt; it might actually motivate Tavares even more.

You could actually easily convince me that Tavares could be traded for the right package in return (a goalie and a pick, maybe?), but I don't think that's going to happen for the next few years. So here's hoping that he can become more of an impactful player, which is funny to say considering that he is still a point-a-game player with an excellent record on faceoffs and is arguably the best second-line centre in the NHL. (Is it weird that I would not be too disappointed if he was injured for a significant portion of next season and the Leafs could use his salary to beef up other areas of the roster? Nope? Okay then.)

There are a few questions that linger, especially about goaltending - is Campbell worth a big contract? - and defense - are the young D-men ready to step up? - but the track record of Dubas and Shanahan has been spectacular in the regular season, and I have faith that they will make the right decisions. After all, even the decisions that have not paid off - Foligno last season, Ritchie and Mrazek this season - have not been overly detrimental to the team's short-term success; they have had to (or likely will have to) depart with some draft picks to deal those players away, but this team's window is in the next five years, so picks are not a big deal right now.

In a lot of ways, Dubas is playing Moneyball with most of his roster, trying to squeeze the most out of the money he has not committed to the Core Four and Rielly, and trying to find the most value for the least money. I thought he did really well overall this year with signings like Kase and Kampf, but he is going to have to continue to improve the third and fourth lines and hope that a few more players can make the jump to the NHL from the Marlies (especially on the back end). 

There's only so much the front office can do, though, and there's only so far they can go if the results in the playoffs don't match the expectations. I think that there's one more chance for the front office and the core of this team before significant changes are made. The history of the league indicates that teams with this level of talent and regular season achievement find a way to break through at some point - but if it doesn't happen next year, there may be a need for some not-insignificant changes.

And this is where I find myself hoping, yet again, that next year things will be different. I've experienced some form of this grief process 29 times, and even though it seems ridiculous and silly and meaningless at times to put this kind of emotional weight on something so superficial, I still hope and believe that next year could be different. So here's the upcoming season and the chance for something special to happen; after all, in Leaf Nation, there's always next year.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Reflections on the 2022 Oscars

The 2022 Oscars will now always be known as the "Will Smith Oscars" - but not for the reasons that anyone expected going into the evening. I'm not sure how much more commentary I can add to the millions of words that have been been written about the incident between Will Smith and Chris Rock, so I'm just going to focus on a few aspects of the incident and the ensuing media coverage before going into some of my thoughts on the rest of the evening.

The Slap

First, the singular nature of this event cannot be underestimated: one of the most famous people in the world, period, committed an assault against another very famous person on national television on the same night he was virtually guaranteed to win one of the signature awards of the night and of his career, which allowed him to use his elongated speech to justify his actions essentially in real time. It's a sequence of events that would not be believed in almost any screenplay, but here it was in real life.

To use the parlance of the genre with which Smith is perhaps most strongly associated - science fiction - this felt like a kind of "nexus event" that superceded various timelines and that serves as a kind of "linchpin" pop cultural event that seems to divide "before" and "after" on any number of multiversal axes and wavelengths. It has the kind of cultural significance achieved by few events in recent modern history: Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield's ear; Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl XXXVIII half-time show; or the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton presidential debate.

There is an incredible intersection of issues represented in this one event, including: race; gender; fame and celebrity; comedy; sports; mental health; religion; pop culture; memes; and toxic masculinity (among others), and I don't think it's a stretch to think that we will be dissecting and scrutinizing this incident for a long time.

The Telecast

The incident between Smith and Rock obscured what was otherwise at best a misguided and at worst nearly unwatchable Oscars. I don't think it's recency bias to call it the "worst Oscars I've seen" - and I've been watching for thirty-one years. After all, I thought this year was worse than last year's limited telecast, I wasn't alive for Rob Lowe and Snow White, and the only telecast I've missed in my lifetime was the infamous Franco/Hathaway Oscars of 2011, so I think this year takes the title for me. 

The entire evening felt like it came from a market-research focus group trying to figure out what would appeal to the TikTok generation, without actually appealing to that group. The presenters were mostly odd choices (even for the Oscars), and the evening felt more like the MTV Movie Awards than the Oscars (and that's not a good thing). The producer's decision to shunt eight awards to the hour before the telecast began ended up being the worst of both worlds: not only did it enrage many of the fans of those movies and awards, but it did not actually seem to save much time, as they still aired the nominees and part of the speeches.

The much-hyped "We Don't Talk About Bruno" number brought out Megan Thee Stallion to rap an Oscars-centric verse, which was a great idea (in theory) - if they didn't cut out the best part of the song to do it and also wait until long after kids were in bed to put it on the air. I suppose there should be points for trying something different and unique, and to be fair, it might have had a different energy as an opening number, but it certainly seemed awkward to be included at that point in the show, and I just don't think it accomplished what the producers had hoped.

The trio of female hosts - Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer, and Regina Hall, the ceremony's first hosts since 2018 - had mixed results. I thought Schumer should have hosted on her own based on her solo monologue and a couple of other moments (especially her line after returning after Smith's speech), but Sykes and Hall were either not funny or actually quite unfunny. Hall's extended "COVID test" bit was really quite cringey (at best), and Sykes' visit to the Academy Museum was unnecessary and unfunny. Perhaps I'm not the target audience for Sykes and Hall in particular, but it really felt like the show needed a stronger singular presence (particularly in the wake of the events that unfolded).

There were a few memorable and/or heart-warming moments, primarily in the speeches - Ariana DeBose, Troy Kotsur, and Jessica Chastain in particular - and in the presentation of Best Picture by Lady Gaga and Liza Minelli, but most of the scripted moments and presenters were awkward; now, that's fairly usual for the Oscars, but this year didn't have the usual roster of Hollywood comedians - Tina Fey; Amy Poehler; Kristen Wiig; Maya Rudolph; Will Ferrell; Jack Black; Tom Hanks; etc. - coming in to do a bit to liven up the show for a couple of minutes. It really did not feel like the night was about "movie stars" other than Will Smith...and, as we all saw, that did not turn out so well.

The Awards

One of the main questions every year after the Oscars is, "so, did they get the awards right?" Of course, there's always a debate about snubs and "who really should have won", so the question here really comes down to whether the awards given actually seem to be appropriate both for the year itself and as part of the larger narrative about the movies and the Oscars. My answer? Naw, not really - but I think this will be a "lightweight" Oscar year anyway.

Will CODA stand the test of time as a Best Picture winner deserving of its place in the pantheon of great movies? Almost certainly not; then again, few Best Picture winners actually fit into that echelon of movies (ie. the kind of movies that could be considered among not only the best of their year but among the best of all time), and there is almost always a "better" choice that should have been made. My guess is that it will be hard for some people to figure out why Dune did not handily win Best Picture, though the possibility that voters are waiting for the sequel in a couple of years may shape that narrative in the same way that the sweep for The Return of The King justified the lack of love for the first two movies of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (well, the first one, at least - The Two Towers was not nearly as good).

I would guess that in the future, there will be some confusion as to why Nightmare Alley and Licorice Pizza - both of which I suspect will become beloved cult classics - did not win any awards; I think the fact that Don't Look Up was blanked, on the other hand, will (and does) make perfect sense. Five of the ten Best Picture nominees were given one award each - Belfast, Drive My Car, King Richard, The Power of the Dog, and West Side Story - and I think that of that group that The Power of the Dog and West Side Story will ultimately seem underawarded.

One of the interesting storylines is the fact that three movies - Dune, CODA, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye - won 11 of the 20 total competitive Oscars, including 11 of the 12 categories in which they could have won (CODA and Tammy Faye went 3 for 3 and 2 for 2, respectively, while the only award that Dune lost to a different movie was for Costume Design to Cruella). What makes this really interesting is that those three movies were not even nominated for Best Director; I mean, what more could Denis Villeneuve (in particular) have done?

In regard to the acting awards, the main question - other than what will happen with Will Smith's career in the short and long term - will not be "why did Jessica Chastain win an Oscar?", but "why did she win for that Tammy Faye movie?" It's entirely possible that she will win for another performance in the (near?) future, as she is a very talented actress and she usually has great taste in roles. I hope, for her sake, that this is not her only win, as I think another win would help cement her reputation in a way that this win may not ultimately accomplish; then again, she won an Oscar.

My Predictions

I had one of my best years yet, as I guessed 20 of 23 correct, including Best Picture. The three awards I missed: Animated Short (which is kind of a shot in the dark anyway); Film Editing (I chose Don't Look Up over Dune because I thought the Academy might want to spread the love a bit more than they did); and, most unfortunately, Original Screenplay, which went to Belfast instead of Licorice Pizza, thus preventing me (yet again) from a sweep of the major nine categories I have been picking publicly since 2005. I had an inkling that I should have switched to Belfast, but I went with my heart, and it cost me.

For the record, that marks the sixth time in eighteen years of publicizing my picks that I have gotten within one pick of a sweep of the nine major categories, and the second time I was foiled by Original Screenplay. (Two other times I was foiled by Best Picture - the last award of the night - and two other times by either Actor or Actress.) I am three total misses shy of averaging seven correct picks per year over the past 18 years, so I'd say - with the notable exception of Best Picture - that I've gotten really good at this exercise over the years.

Final Thoughts

I still have not watched most of the nominees from this year, even though many of them are now available on streaming. The movies on the top of my list to watch are Licorice PizzaWest Side StoryNightmare Alley, and Belfast (along with rewatching Dune), and I imagine that I will get around to watching Drive My CarThe Power of the Dog, and CODA at some point (whenever I finally sign up for Apple TV+, I suppose). I imagine that, along with DuneLicorice Pizza and possibly Nightmare Alley will emerge as the movies that cinephiles will really remember from this year.

I think that this will be remembered as a lightweight year for the Oscars and for movies in general; not as much as 2020, of course, but certainly more so than many other years in the past decade. I would probably rank this year as the fourth-worst Oscars year of the past twelve, with 2012 (The Artist), 2019 (Green Book/Bohemian Rhapsody), and 2021 (Nomadland) ahead of it in some order. I am really hopeful that there can be some bigger nominees next year as the world continues to emerge out of the pandemic, as I think it will be better for the Oscars if the movies are more significant. 

As far as next year goes, there are some really intriguing possibilities already out there, but as this year demonstrated, most of the hard work starts in September. Right now, it's all just guesswork: maybe Avatar 2 will finally win Disney that Best Picture award they've never won (incredible, right?), or Netflix will finally break through in Best Picture - or maybe Apple will win a second in a row with Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon. And maybe next year I'll finally sweep the major categories. Maybe.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Oscars 2022: Final Predictions

This is turning out to be quite the coda (pun intended) for what seemed to be a fairly straightforward Oscars season for most of the past six months. It seemed like the nominations confirmed what we already knew (or thought we knew, at least), and that it was mostly going to be a predictable ending, save for perhaps a couple of acting races. Well, that's not the case after all, and this awards season will have an interesting conclusion after what seemed like a fairly tedious start and a season that has been waaaay too long.

A quick aside: I'm really not sure why the Oscars are so late this year. Last year's late ceremony at the end of April made sense with the extension of the season until the end of February due to COVID in 2020, but this year's delayed ceremony doesn't really seem to make any sense whatsoever. FWIW, I think the sweet spot for the Oscars is the end of February, before any new movies and TV shows premiere; once the new content starts up, it's far easier to lose track of the movies from the previous year. (More on that in another post.)

It is undeniable, however, that the timing and length of this year's season - even more so than last year - has distinctly affected the prospective winners for this year's Oscars. Here are some of my final thoughts and predictions heading into the Oscars on Sunday night, starting off with the telecast itself.

The Telecast

At best, it might be uninteresting; at worst, it has the potential to be just "bad." Last year was a weird COVID year with a fairly uninteresting slate of movies, but at least it had Steven Soderbergh doing some interesting stuff and a different vibe to draw viewers in. This year just seems like one mistake and/or missed opportunity after another: the snubbing of Spider-Man: No Way Home and Lady Gaga; the Oscar fan-favourite of the year and "Oscar Cheer" moment (whatever that is); the underwhelming trio of hosts; and arguably, most egriously, the relegation of eight (!) awards to pre-telecast.

I just don't know if this is going to be a very "fun" show overall, and other than a couple of likely highlights in the winners, I have a feeling that the main takeaway from the actual show is that "this should have been an email" (not unlike the Golden Globes). The Oscars need to do something - just not the things they're trying to do. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised, but I doubt it. Now on to the final predictions!

Technical Awards

Cinematography: Dune

Costume Design: Cruella

Film Editing: Don't Look Up (Allow me to explain this one: Pamela Martin won the ACE Eddie for King Richard, but Hank Corwin - one of the most recognized and recognizable editors of the past decade - arguably did the "most" editing in a movie that a lot of people really liked and that - unlike King Richard - is not likely to be recognized elsewhere.)

Makeup and Hairstyling: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Production Design: Dune

Sound: Dune

Visual Effects: Dune

Assorted Awards

Animated Short: Robin Robin

Documentary Short: The Queen of Basketball

Live Action Short: The Long Goodbye (an Oscar for Riz Ahmed!)

Best Documentary: Summer of Soul (an Oscar for Questlove!)

Best International Feature: Drive My Car

Best Song: Billie Eilish and Phineas, "No Time To Die"

Best Score: Hans Zimmer, who created new instruments for Dune.

Directing, Writing, and Animated Feature

Best Director: Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog

Best Original Screenplay: There was a bit of a surprise at the WGA Awards with Don't Look Up earning an upset win, but I really think that there will be no change here from what I originally thought, despite some buzz that Belfast might win Kenneth Branagh his first Oscar; Paul Thomas Anderson should win his first Oscar for Licorice Pizza.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Although I originally thought Jane Campion might win here by default, it seems as though this award is destined to go to Sian Heder for CODA. She won the WGA award, and the CODA surge is real.

Animated Feature: Encanto.


Best Actor: The main question here is whether the orchestra is going to play the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song or Gettin' Jiggy Wit' It when Will Smith accepts his Oscar for King Richard.

Best Actress: I'm surprised to be writing this, but I am actually picking Jessica Chastain for The Eyes of Tammy Faye. She has run a very active and effective campaign, and she has the combination of being established (over a decade as a star), being well-liked in the industry, seeming youthful and vibrant, transforming into a real-life person, and "deserving" an award for not having won before even when many people thought she should have (she lost in Zero Dark Thirty to Jennifer Lawrence in The Silver Linings Playbook). It's kind of a classic Oscar pick, but it did not seem like it would get to this point - and it seems likely that it would not have if not for the elongated season. (FWIW, if it's not Chastain, I think Colman is the next most likely to win.

Best Supporting Actor: I had this pegged as a lock for Kodi Smit-McPhee a month ago, and it's still a lock - just for another actor, Troy Kotsur from CODA. Kotsur won the SAG and has had a very successful run over the past two months overall, which has combined for a guaranteed win - a first for a deaf male actor.

Best Supporting Actress: This category, however, has not shifted at all, so expect Ariana DeBose to win for the same role as Rita Moreno 60 years later and to serve as the way for the Academy to recognize West Side Story.

Best Picture (Recent History)

Before discussing Best Picture in more detail, it seems useful to look at the recent history of the award for context. For most of the history of the Academy Awards (well, after the first few wacky years, at least), this category has been predictable, save for a few notable upsets along the way: more recent examples before 2010 included Braveheart in 1996; Shakespeare in Love in 1999; Crash in 2006. 

But since the Academy started its aggressive expansion of membership for the 2010 awards, it's just no longer the case that the eventual winner is crowned early and obviously. Sure, there are still many awards that get locked in early - particularly in the acting categories - but recent history indicates that the race for Best Picture is more likely to be unpredictable. Here's where some context will clarify.

2010 to 2015: The winners from the first six years after the expansion of the pool of nominees after the 2009 Oscars were entirely predictable: The Hurt Locker; The King's Speech; The Artist; Argo; 12 Years a Slave; Birdman. Through those first few years, it sure did not seem like anything had changed by expanding the field from five to ten (and then "as many as ten" after a couple of years); if anything, it was the same old Oscars.

Sure, there were a couple of minor surprises with little to no precedent in recent Academy history - Argo winning without a nomination for Directing; Birdman winning without a nomination for Editing - but things were pretty much "chalk" for these years. 2015, however, would be the last predictable year for awhile, as the Best Picture winners from 2016 to 2020 were not the odds-on favourites heading into the Oscars.

2016: Spotlight wins over The Revenant and The Big Short with the fewest Oscar wins by a Best Picture nominee in over six decades; it won only Original Screenplay in addition to Picture in a historic six-plus-decade low for a Best Picture winner since The Greatest Show on Earth in 1953.

2017: La La Land ties the record for most nominations (14) and seems like an unstoppable juggernaut going into the evening, but loses in a huge upset to Moonlight

2018: In the most straightforward year in this five year span, The Shape of Water wins after taking most of the precursors, even though it was not the odds-on favourite heading into the Oscars (that title belonged to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) nor the popular upset pick (informally that title belonged to Get Out). It was, however, the first science fiction movie to win Best Picture.

2019: Green Book upsets Roma in what immediately went down as perhaps the true culmination of the "Oscars So White" trend of recent years and what will hopefully be remembered as the last dying gasp of the "old" Academy - as well as immediately becoming a de facto candidate in the conversation of "worst Best Picture winners"

2020: Parasite wins over 1917, which had won the PGA, the DGA, the Globe, and the BAFTA. Parasite had won a number of precursors as well, so it probably should not have been as much of a shock as it was; the fact that a film in a foreign language had never won probably contributed to the shock of the moment.

2021: Nomadland wins over...well, no one, a fairly straightforward year, other than upsets in Actor and Actress and the fact that dozens of movies were not released due to the pandemic. 

Here's what I find really interesting almost all of those years - and most of the history of the Oscars, really - in each case, the movie that won was the "emotional" favourite over a more "technically superior" film that felt like a more traditional Oscar pick. It's actually somewhat rare that the "best" movie wins, especially if it's more of a technical feat than an emotional one, and it is far more rare for the Best Picture to actually feel like the best picture of the year - especially in recent history.

Best Picture (2022)

This seemed mostly like a lock when nominations were announced, to the point that people like me were struggling to discover and/or craft a narrative for any other movie to defeat the seemingly insurmountable The Power of the Dog. And then something really weird started happening - one of the apparently "lower" ranked Best Picture nominees started to gain a lot of momentum and has emerged not only as a dark horse, but as a likely victor at the Oscars.

Yes, CODA has now arguably (and to some, inexplicably) emerged as the frontrunner after winning the top awards from the Screen Actors' Guild (SAG), the Producers' Guild of America (PGA), and the Writers' Guild of America (WGA). In fact, in some ways it would feel like an upset for The Power of the Dog to win at this point, so let's go through the cases for each movie here by examining a few categories.

Historical Precedents: The main historical predecessor to which many writers are pointing in their analysis of CODA's success is Little Miss Sunshine in 2007. It was an independent family drama that got buzz at Sundance and grew a devoted fan base from critics and commoners alike throughout the year. It started making noise during awards season, winning awards from the WGA, SAG and the PGA before losing Best Picture to The Departed - a film from a long-loved filmmaker who had been unfairly and historically snubbed by the Academy. While Jane Campion is not at the same level as Scorsese was in 2006 (and really, very few have been), the comparison seems appropriate as a starting point.

But maybe the precedent is from the previous year, when Crash - a movie with significant emotional appeal amongst the Academy - beat out a superior favoured western with progressive themes in Brokeback Mountain. Or perhaps we have to ignore most of the history of the Awards and just look at the past few years, which would seem to favour CODA.

The Guilds: The Power of the Dog clearly has more support from more guilds, despite CODA's three significant wins, so the edge would seem to go to Dog here. That said, SAG is the largest guild in the Academy, and the three that CODA won are arguably the most influential, so it's a slight edge.

The Preferential Ballot: Much has already been written about the ways in which the style of voting may or may not affect the awards, so suffice to say that the ballot itself is a consideration, and that it seems that movies that have a broader base of support in the 2-3-4 zone of the ballot may be the movies that have actually won, rather than the movie with the most #1 votes.

A lot of speculation has the edge here going to CODA because people just like it more, but it's hard to tell, since it does depend on which movies are voted out first (assuming no one movie wins a majority on the first ballot). Are voters who choose Nightmare Alley or Drive My Car (the apparent ninth- and tenth-runners) more likely to prefer CODA or The Power of the Dog? It's almost impossible to know, but it seems like CODA probably has the edge here.

The Overall Nominations: The Power of the Dog led all movies with 12 nominations, including a couple of surprises in acting and the technical awards, which would indicate wide support; CODA, in stark contrast, received only three nominations in total (including Best Picture), which would seem to indicate less support overall. 

But here's the thing: CODA continued to build its case and its base after the nominations, so they're not necessarily that informative, especially since it was not as widely seen at the time of nominations. So perhaps this metric is not as instructive as "expected wins" could be, and at this point, The Power of the Dog is down to one, since it seems as though Dune will take many of the technical awards. CODA is arguably at two other than Best Picture, including one over The Power of the Dog (Adapted Screenplay). 

While it would be relatively unprecedented for a film with as few overall nominations as CODA to win Best Picture, it it certainly not unprecedented for a Best Picture winner to win that few Oscars. In the dozen years since the Best Picture category was expanded, only two winners have won more than four awards: The Hurt Locker in 2010 with six and The Artist in 2012 with five; most have won either three or four, with Spotlight winning only two. So the fact that CODA might only win three Oscars is not necessarily against it; it's just that it seems (generally) improbably that a film can go three-for-three.

Key Nominations: There have traditionally been two categories that are seen as the key indicators for Best Picture winners. Most winners of Best Picture are at least nominated for Directing; for many years, the two awards were very unlikely to be split, even when they arguably should have been. Two of the five Best Pictures to win without a nomination for Directing, however, have come in the past decade - Argo and Green Book - so it's possible that the trend could be changing.

Film Editing is the other category that is unusually predictive. While the award often seems to go to another Best Picture nominee, it has still be very unlikely for films to win Best Picture without a nominated for Film Editing. The only time it has happened since 1981 was in 2015 when Birdman - a movie that simulated one continuous shot - won Best Picture but was not nominated because of its "lack" of editing (which still seems silly to me - doesn't the fact that it was edited to look like it was one shot actually mean it arguably had more editing? But I digress.) It did happen five times in the 1960s and 1970s, but recent history would suggest that CODA has an uphill battle here, too.

So, with both of those Key Nominations seeming to lean toward The Power of the Dog, it seems like it should be a fait accompli that it will win over CODA. After all, to the best of my knowledge, in modern history, there has not been a movie that did not have nominations in either Directing or Editing that even was a serious contender for Best Picture - much less winning the award - until CODA. And that's what really gets me - even with all of the "statistics" going against CODA, it's still here.

After all of this back and forth, cases can be made for and against CODA, which is in and of itself perhaps the most telling part of this year's narrative - the narrative is not about The Power of the Dog; it's about CODA. As much as we want to and try to contextualize these awards in a larger narrative, it really comes down to each year as its own narrative, especially in regard to who campaigns the best in the time between nominations and voting. This year, that has clearly been Apple on behalf of CODA, and there's something about how it has surged in the past few weeks that leads me to believe that this is real - that CODA will be announced as Best Picture at the Academy Awards, thus bringing Apple its long-coveted Best Picture award over Netflix. I guess we'll find out on Sunday.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

2022 Oscar Nominations: Early Reactions

The nominations for the 94th Academy Awards, which will honor films from March through December 2021 (since the 93rd Academy Awards extended into the first two months of last year), were announced on Tuesday, February 8, and they were...underwhelming. Yes, that happened two-and-a-half weeks ago, but most of my thoughts have not changed much yet from my initial reactions, as I think that this season has mostly coalesced already, save for a couple of competitive categories.

I have only watched two of the main group of nominated movies, but I'm still interested in what will happen between now and March 27, when the Oscars will finally air. I will post my final thoughts in the days immediately preceding the ceremony, but here are my initial thoughts and reactions to the nominations as a whole, with early commentary and predictions on the major nine categories as well as very brief thoughts on most other awards.

Overall Thoughts

2020 and 2021 have been mostly underwhelming in terms of movies, save for a couple of exceptions. Just take a moment and consider the most memorable movies of the pandemic: it's not a long list, and it's arguably shorter than any other two year period in the 21st century. Sure, the pandemic has certainly had something to do with that, but the fact that most movies that were delayed have been released by now indicates that it has also been a couple of dull years overall for movies - especially in the realms of the Oscars.

As with most years, there is a core group of 12 to 15 movies that secured most of the nominations, with another 5 to 7 that earned one or two nominations in significant categories; then there are another 5 to 7 movies that earned one or two nominations in craft categories - like Free Guy or Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings this year in Best Visual Effects - and all of the "specialty nominations" that bring various documentaries, international films, and short films into the conversation in that one category

The first group - that is, the films that take up the majority of the nominations - includes fourteen films this year: Being the Ricardos; Belfast; CODA; Don't Look Up; Drive My Car; Dune; King Richard; Licorice Pizza; The Lost Daughter; Nightmare Alley; The Power of the Dog; tick, tick...BOOM!; The Tragedy of Macbeth; and West Side Story. (The second group, for the record, consists of: Encanto; The Eyes of Tammy Faye; Flee; No Time To Die; Parallel Mothers; and The Worst Person in the World.)

It's not a terrible list overall, but it's not a great list, either, and it's missing something: movies that were actually popular. The one exception is Dune, which has made just over $107 million so far; the next highest earning of the main group of nominated films was West Side Story, with a whopping $28 million. Sure, we're still in the midst of a pandemic, and many of these films did have their releases coincide with either the Delta or Omicron waves of COVID-19, but this group represents an incredible ignorance of popular films even by the Oscars' sliding standards.

Spider-Man: No Way Home? Only in Visual Effects. No Time To Die? Original Song and a few technical awards. Even House of Gucci managed only a nomination in Makeup and Hairstyling. when everyone had assumed that Lady Gaga was a lock. It almost seems as though a film's popularity actually made it less likely to be nominated this year, which should not be true - and if it is presents a huge problem for the overall significance of the Awards going forward.

This trend is not new for the Oscars, but this year certainly felt like a significant shift further in that direction, considering that movies like Black Panther and Joker were nominated just a few years ago. It seemed like most years since the nominees expanded have had at least one (if not two) more "populist picks" that appealed to the wider public, even if their inclusion did not make much sense otherwise (like The Blind Side in 2010).

I am not a big proponent that the Oscars have to nominate popular movies just for sake of bringing in the wider audience, but I believe that big movies should be able to be included just as smaller movies are; the scale of the production or popularity should not matter, as long as a movie is one of the best of the year. And to be fair to the Academy, I think they are really trying to get closer to that (arbitrary?) line of nominating the "best" ten films.

Then again, this year and last might just be weird pandemic years that have warped our perception of awards in general. And while Dune is certainly not the most populist pick, it's still popular, and it managed to (justifiably) garner the adoration needed from the Academy, so maybe there is still hope for tentpole movies if they are made well. And who knows? Maybe Avatar 2 sweeps next year's Oscars after becoming the all-time box office leader, making this whole discussion moot - at least for one more year.

Onto some thoughts on this year's nominees...

Picture and Directing

The ten nominees for Best Picture, much like the overall group of nominees, was mostly underwhelming and has been mostly established for at least a month, save for the surprise nominations of critical darling Drive My Car and Nightmare Alley. Alley had been touted as a possible nominee for much of the year until a distinctly underwhelming release seemed to damage its chances, at least until only one of the five "bubble" movies which seemed to be jockeying for the final three spots - CODA, along with non-nominees Being the Ricardos, The Lost Daughter, tick, tick...Boom!, and The Tragedy of Macbeth - emerged as a significant contender. 

There was a brief moment when there was serious consideration given to wondering whether either No Time To Die or Spider-Man: No Way Home could crack the list, although the consensus seemed to be that they probably would not, especially after they were both ignored by the Producers' Guild Awards; I'm not sure (having seen neither myself) whether they should have made the cut, but I can say that the inclusion of either one would certainly have made the category more interesting (and justified the expansion to a fixed ten nominees).

At this point, it would seem as though the competition is between the films with the most nominations - The Power of the Dog and Dune - but the fact that Dune missed out on a Best Director nomination would indicate that The Power of the Dog has a significant lead. That film, however, has not had the warmest reception overall, so it is far from a fait accompli that The Power of the Dog will become the latest Western to win (and first in 14 years) - especially since it would finally mean that Netflix would finally win Best Picture (after failures by Roma, The Irishman, and Mank, among others).

I think, if anything, Dog's main competition may come from its Netflix compatriot Don't Look Up, which might just be able to capture momentum with the mainstream portion of the Academy, much like Green Book did in 2019 (over Netflix's Roma). But a lot of things would have to go right for that to happen, and I just don't see the votes coalescing for Don't Look Up, especially with Netflix seemingly putting its might behind Dog, which seems like it will gallop away with a win.

Best Director: The only real story here was that Denis Villeneuve (Dune) was replaced by Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi in the nominations. I am not sure whether Hamaguchi or someone else should have been cut here, but it is a travesty that Villeneuve was not included for his achievement in Dune - taking a book long considered "unfilmable" and making it into one of the most visually stunning movies in recent memory. Besides, Villeneuve is easily one of the best directors working today, especially in the realm of tentpole movies, so he really should have been there.

But it doesn't really matter anyway, since Jane Campion seems destined to win for The Power of the Dog, which would make her the second consecutive woman and third overall woman to win the award. There's certainly a narrative that she should have won back in 1994 for The Piano, and she almost certainly would have, except that she was up against Steven Spielberg and Schindler's List (although I honestly think that his direction of Jurassic Park that same year was the superior achievement).

None of the other nominees this year seem to have enough momentum or even possibility of building momentum for a win; even Kenneth Branagh, who is now the first person ever to be nominated in seven different categories (and who has only two acting nominations in 33 years - and one of them was for My Week With Marilyn - weird, right?), so this is as close to locked down as it gets - well, with maybe one exception...


Best Actor: This is easily the most predictable category at the Oscars every year. In the three decades I have been watching the Oscars, there is almost never an upset and very rarely even a competition; I counted only seven years in which there was even a question of who would win - and only three or four of those were a genuine surprise.

For the record, the genuine surprises were: Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful) over Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan) in 1999; Adrien Brody (The Pianist) over Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York) in 2003; and memorably, Anthony Hopkins (The Father) over the late Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) in 2021 (although, honestly, it should not have come as a surprise). The other four competitions were Tom Hanks (Philadelphia) over Liam Neeson (Schindler's List) in 1994; Sean Penn (Mystic River) over Bill Murray (Lost In Translation) in 2004; Sean Penn (Milk) over Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) in 2009; and Casey Affleck (Manchester By The Sea) over Denzel Washington (Fences) in 2017.

All that is to say that Will Smith is by far the favourite for King Richard, and there is no competition for him. He's been going after this Oscar for three decades, and I can say that I am very excited for his speech. I think that enough people will assume that The Power of the Dog will get enough love elsewhere that they do not need to award Benedict Cumberbatch for his role, plus it seems as though his win will come eventually. It's time for the Willennium.

Best Actress: This category is traditionally also really predictable - perhaps even more so than Best Actor over the years - except when it isn't; and this year, it isn't. None of the five nominees are from Best Picture nominees, so there's no obvious early leader, and Lady Gaga - the only actress to have hit every precursor nomination - was not even nominated here. I think it's going to come down to two previous winners: Nicole Kidman for Being the Ricardos and Olivia Colman for The Lost Daughter. Then again, since nominations were announced Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers) has surged in the voting, and she has only won for Best Supporting Actress. If I had to guess, I would say Kidman has the early edge, but a second win by Colman in three years would not surprise me, and neither would a win by Cruz; I think this will be a toss-up on Oscar Night.

Best Supporting Actor: This one is locked in already, with Kodi Smit-McPhee leading significantly for The Power of the Dog. He's won most (all?) of the precursors, and it seems likely that Oscar voters will want to award the acting in the film in addition to the other awards it is on track to win, so this is the place to do that. There's a slight possibility that castmate Jesse Plemons may siphon some of the vote away, but there's no other likely winner who can take advantage of such a split if it were to happen, so it's Smit-McPhee's to lose.

Best Supporting Actress: This category also seems fairly locked in, with Ariana DeBose pulling out front for her portrayal of Anita in West Side Story. There are a lot of narratives in her favour, including the fact that the Academy loves to award young upcoming actresses in this category and that Rita Moreno won for the same role six decades ago, so it's DeBose's award to lose. If anyone is going to overtake her, I would bet on Aunjanue Ellis from King Richard, but the smart money is on DeBose.

Writing and Animated Feature

Best Original Screenplay: There are four Best Picture nominees here, but only two are really in contention: Kenneth Branagh for Belfast and the favourite (!) Paul Thomas Anderson for Licorice Pizza. This is Branagh's second nomination for Writing; his first was for Adapted Screenplay for his version of Hamlet. But let's not waste time: here's the case for Anderson to win.

Licorice Pizza is Anderson's ninth film, and the sixth to receive significant attention from the Academy, although one of the three that was mostly ignored - Inherent Vice - still recieved a nomination for Adapted Screenplay (for the record, his other completely non-nominated films were his debut film, Hard Eight, and Punch-Drunk Love). Including the nominations for Licorice Pizza this year, he now has three nominations for Picture and Director (There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread); he has directed nine nominated performances and one win (which remains one of the most iconic performances of the 21st century); and he has been nominated five times for his writing - Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice, and now Licorice Pizza (but not Phantom Thread, oddly enough). If all that is not enough to convince you that he will win, I don't know what to tell you. All I know is that he is one of the most iconic writers, and so his acceptance speech should be good.

Best Adapted Screenplay: There are four Best Picture nominees represented here, but this feels like it will go to Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog. Perhaps, though, this might be where voters can award Sian Heder for CODA, if they assume that Campion will win in Director.

Best Animated Feature: Lord and Miller (The Mitchells vs. The Machines) won for Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse recently, and Flee seems likely to win in Documentary (after pulling off the unprecedented nomination trifecta in Animated Feature, Documentary, and International Feature), so that leaves three Disney/Pixar movies: Luca; Raya and the Last Dragon, and the winner here, Encanto. It's the only of these five nominees that will have any kind of lasting cultural impact, and there is a case that it could have made its way into Best Picture if nominations were even a week later. Believe me, we'll be talking about Bruno for awhile yet.

For the record, that means that I am currently expecting The Power of the Dog to win four of the eight major Oscars - Picture; Directing; Supporting Actor; and Adapted Screenplay - which is essentially as close to a sweep as is possible in the modern Academy. Several films have come close to this type of win in recent years, but the last film to accomplish wins each of the four areas was The King's Speech in 2011 (ugggghhh). 

Features and Music

Best Documentary: Flee is thrice nominated, and it will not win the other two, so it seems logical for it to win here.

Best International Feature: Drive My Car is nominated for Best Picture, so it's a lock here.

Best Song: This is an interesting category, actually, since "We Don't Talk About Bruno" isn't nominated (though it certainly will be performed at the ceremony). It would seem obvious that "Das Oruguitas" (also from Encanto) would win instead - and I think it should - but I think that voters may decide to wait to give Lin-Manuel his Oscar for one of his songs from The Little Mermaid in the near future.

To me, this comes down to a face-off between Billie Eilish and Beyoncé; Eilish's Bond theme is not a slam dunk like "Skyfall" was, but Beyoncé's anthem is not a slam dunk like "Glory" was a couple of years later, so it's not clear either way. I'll give the early edge to Beyoncé.

Best Score: Jonny Greenwood, who scored The Power of the Dog has only been nominated twice, but many film fans thought his work on There Will Be Blood and The Master should have been recognized. His main competition will probably be Dune's Hans Zimmer, who has improbably only won once, for The Lion King in 1995.

Technical Awards

This is where Dune wins a bunch of craft awards.

Cinematography: Dune (over The Power of the Dog)

Costume Design: Nightmare Alley (over Dune)

Film Editing: The Power of the Dog (over Dune)

Makeup and Hairstyling: The Eyes of Tammy Faye or House of Gucci (over Dune)

Production Design: Dune (over Nightmare Alley)

Sound: Dune (over West Side Story)

Visual Effects: Dune (over Spider-Man: No Way Home)

Final Thoughts

I think that this is definitely going to be a "lesser" Oscars (like last year), but there is the potential for the actual awards to be fun. It does seem like a fairly predictable year (again), but, then again, the Oscars have been anything but predictable since 2015 - at least in Best Picture (except for last year, when I finally broke my streak of mispredictions in that category). This year seems like it will have a couple of fun winners - Smith, Anderson, and Campion, among others - and there are still a few surprises in store even over the next month until the Oscars are held.

Of the main group of nominees, I have only seen Don't Look Up and Dune, despite the fact that many of the other nominees are currently available on streaming services (I just don't watch as many movies these days - but that's a topic for another post). The nominees I want to see most (in order of preference) are: Licorice PizzaThe Power of the DogThe Tragedy of MacbethWest Side Story; and Being the Ricardos (although I imagine that I will get around to BelfastCODADrive My CarKing RichardThe Lost Daughter; and Nightmare Alley eventually). 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Thoughts on the 2020/21 Oscars

First things first: I finally correctly picked Best Picture! After six years of choosing the wrong film for the (usually) final award of the evening, I finally chose the right winner (though, let's be honest, it was not that difficult this year). I went 7/9 on the major categories and 15/20 overall (I didn't pick the Short Film categories) - though, like many prognosticators, I was surprised repeatedly in the final hour. 

I picked the first thirteen and the first major seven awards overall before losing momentum and only picking two of the final seven awards of the evening correctly - one of which was Nomadland for Best Picture, thankfully. It was my seventh time in the last seventeen years of publicly picking the awards that a potential sweep has been foiled within the final four awards of the evening (usually Director, Actor, Actress, and Picture in some order), and so I am still seeking the full sweep of the major awards. (I've included my overall records as an addendum at the end of this post.)

The Telecast

We knew it was going to be a different kind of Academy Awards, and it certainly was. There are a variety of thoughts on the different direction that this year's telecast took under the leadership of Steven Soderbergh, but count me in the the camp that appreciated a different strategy. Union Station was a unique setting, and the combination of the new setting, a smaller crowd, and the trimming of almost all of the "extras" (a host, montages, etc.) really altered the vibe of the evening, and I think it (mostly) worked.

I was a bit confused in the pacing - particularly the placement of the one comedic bit in the final hour of the show and in the order of some of the awards - but I did think it was good to try some different things in a year that promised to be very different anyway. Of course, the final production decision of the evening to move Actress and Actor after Picture did not pay off as expected with the final tribute to Chadwick Boseman (instead ending with an awkward Joaquin Phoenix moment and a still photograph), but I admire the fact that Soderbergh and company tried to be more cinematic.

I don't think this will be the best template for future Oscar shows, but I think they will take their lessons and learn in the future. Limit the bits and the montages and the talking about movies, show clips of the movies, and aim for three-and-a-half hours. It is likely, however, that this could be the lowest-rated Oscars in many years, so I do hope that they do not conflate the low ratings with this year's production, as the telecast was not responsible for the ratings.

This Oscar year

The Oscars - and movies in general - are in a bit of a weird space right now. The Oscars always serve as the Academy's evangelistic tool to present the power of cinema, and a lot of people are just not feeling that vibe at all right now with the absence of movie theatres and event movies. It's arguable that movies as a cultural force are less significant than they have been at any point in my lifespan, even though people might be watching as many or more movies than they ever have while being stuck at home.

It's a strange dichotomy that seems to not make much sense at first glance, but makes more and more sense the deeper it is examined. Although people might be watching more movies, they are likely not watching more "different" movies, whether that is based on the increased economy of scale of movies in the past few decades, the increased political polarization of the movies and the industry as a whole, or the continual redefinition of what makes a movie an "Oscar" movie.

There is the continued stratification of "Oscar" movies and "commercially successful" movies, with far less overlap than there was in the 1970s and 1980s. It seems utterly inconceivable now that a Best Picture could be the highest-earning movie in a year, like Rain Man was in 1988 or Titanic in 1997, or a box-office smash hit like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. It seems like in most years there are one or two exceptions within that "mega-movie" world that cross over into the Oscar conversation, but they are really two almost entirely different pools of movies at this point (and they really have been for most of this century).

Most of the Oscar pool now is made up of the kind of "medium-range movies" that major studios have mostly abandoned and left for independent studios and streaming services and the kind of independent movies that once were completely ignored but are now mostly embraced; of course, there are now even "more" independent" films like First Cow that seem like they will never be able to gain traction with the Academy, but I suppose there always has to be someone outside of the bell curve, I suppose. And those independent and/or mid-range movies - which was the entirety of this year's slate due to the pandemic - are just not the major drivers of movie business or social media among most moviegoers.

There's certainly a political aspect to this conversation, as there has been for decades with the Academy Awards, and that is probably also making a not insignificant difference. Despite its occasionally more conservative missteps and stumbles (Crash, Green Book), AMPAS is certainly more progressive as a group than is a significant portion of the US, and so the Oscars are becoming increasingly irrelevant to more and more viewers who are perhaps limiting their scope of viewing more and more.

It's the issue that any popular medium and/or franchise is having right now; think of the MCU trying to appease everyone with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, or the way HBO is trying to balance its progressive slate with continually attempting to draw in new subscribers to HBO Max with its library material. And the Oscars, for better or for worse, have enough expectations and history that they are working through the same issues; they just happen to be doing it with a very public auditing of the results.


I do think that this Oscars seemed to mostly get things right, based on what I've seen, both in terms of the general scope of nominations and the winners. The most nominated movies were widely acclaimed, and the nominees and winners provide an overall sense of the direction of Hollywood and the world - and really, in several categories, there was not really a "wrong" choice this year in what was a less significant year for movies in general. 

That said, the Oscars are only a few years removed from #OscarssoWhite and Green Book's win, so it's not like they're completely out of the woods. I just think that this year was overall a step in the right direction.

I still have a lot of viewing to do to catch up on this year's Oscars and year in movies in general: Nomadland; Promising Young Woman; Soul; Sound of Metal; and The Trial of the Chicago 7 are on the top of my list, with The Father; Judas and the Black Messiah; Minari; and Wolfwalkers (an animated film) also on my short list. 

Of course, the facts that many of those have been available on streaming services (several with no additional cost, mind you) and that I, as someone who is interested in these types of movies both naturally and as a byproduct of attention from critics and awards, have not yet taken the time to watch most of this year's slate probably tells you how generally uninspiring a year it has been. Some good movies, to be sure, but I'm not sure which movies from this year - if any - will emerge as favourites in the future. 

Addendum: Personal Prognostication Results since 2005

Results by category:

Best Picture: 7/17 (missed 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020)
Best Actor: 13/17 (missed 2007, 2009, 2017, 2021)
Best Actress: 13/17 (missed 2008, 2012, 2019, 2021)
Best Supporting Actor: 15/17 (missed 2007, 2013)
Best Supporting Actress: 15/17 (missed 2006, 2008)
Best Original Screenplay: 11/17 (missed 2005, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2019)
Best Adapted Screenplay: 14/17 (missed 2008, 2010, 2015)
Best Animated Feature: 14/17 (missed 2007, 2013, 2015)
Best Director: 13/17 (missed 2011, 2013, 2015, 2020)

Results by year:

2021: 7/9 (missed Actor and Actress)
2020: 7/9 (missed Picture and Director)
2019: 6/9 (missed Picture, Actress, and Original Screenplay)
2018: 8/9 (missed Picture)
2017: 7/9 (missed Picture and Actor)
2016: 8/9 (missed Picture)
2015: 4/9 (missed Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Screenplay, and Animated Feature)
2014: 8/9 (missed Original Screenplay)
2013: 6/9 (missed Director, Supporting Actor, and Animated Feature)
2012: 8/9 (missed Actress)
2011: 7/9 (missed Director and Original Screenplay)
2010: 6/9 (missed Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Screenplay)
2009: 8/9 (missed Actor)
2008: 6/9 (missed Actress, Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay)
2007: 5/9 (missed Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Animated Feature)
2006: 7/9 (missed Picture and Supporting Actress)
2005: 7/9 (missed Picture and Original Screenplay)


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