Monday, April 29, 2019

Yet another Leafs' postmortem

It has been almost a week since the Toronto Maple Leafs lost to the Boston Bruins in Game 7...again. Of course, this time, they did not blow a lead in the third period of the deciding game; they blew three one-game leads in the series. It's a different kind of disappointment, but disappointment nevertheless.

Of course, I shouldn't be disappointed in the conclusion of the Maple Leafs' season this year; after all, it ended precisely how I thought it would both in my pre-season and pre-playoff predictions: losing Game 7 in Boston in the first round. But even though the ending was ultimately predictable, the path there was anything but, and it's worth taking a brief look at what happened in yet another postmortem of a Leafs' season that ended without a Stanley Cup or even a Finals appearance (52 years and counting, though only 26 for me as a fan).

Unlike last year, when the Leafs took a lead into the third period and I still knew they were going to lose, this team was behind in Game 7 from the start and they looked out of it aside from a dominant stretch in the second period. But they just didn't have it that night, and the end of this series was a synecdoche of the entire season.

Thoughts on the Leafs' season


I found it hard to invest in this team from the start even though I knew they would likely be one of the best five or six teams in the league and a Cup contender; after all, NHL '19 had picked them to win the Cup in its simulation of the season. But they seemed disengaged for much of the season, and with good reason. Two of the top three teams - Tampa and Boston - were in the Atlantic Division with the Leafs, and so there was an air of inevitability about the end of the season, since it would need to go through both of those teams - or so we all assumed.

The Leafs were essentially locked into a first round match up with Boston by December, and a stretch in which the Bruins were on fire sealed home ice advantage for Boston, so the Leafs had little to play for and slid down the standings at the end of the season to finish third in their division - though that was still good enough to finish fifth in the Eastern Conference and seventh in the NHL.

There were some highlights, certainly: new high profile free agent signing John Tavares integrated well; Mitch Marner became one of the most electric passers in the league; and Morgan Rielly emerged as a defensive and offensive powerhouse who looks poised to become a perennial Norris Trophy contender over the next several years. And goalie Frederik Andersen looked unbeatable at times.

But all of that good was wasted with yet another early exit after a series in which the Leafs were the stronger team for three of the seven games and about a third each of two other games. But what made it particularly bittersweet was that they blew a series lead after Tampa - by far the favourite to win - got swept out of the first round. There was a path for the Leafs to make a run, but they missed their chance.

While I admit that the Bruins did play well for much of the series, this was almost as much about the young Leafs not knowing how to win as it was the veteran Bruins winning. As had happened all season, the Leafs could not put together a full consistent effort - in this case throughout the series - and they needed to be more consistent in order to win It did not help, of course, that Boston was probably the worst match-up for the Leafs, but at the end of the day, there cannot be excuses; Boston was the better team for the times that counted, and the Leafs are now wondering what might have been.

NHL Divisional playoffs


Indulge me in a brief aside about the NHL's current playoff structure, which in true NHL fashion is almost entirely convoluted and inscrutable. The league returned several years ago to a divisional playoff format in which teams are ranked in their divisions and play the first two rounds in division. Unless, of course, one division has a team in fifth place that has more points than the fourth-place team in the other division, in which case that team crosses over to attempt to win a division they have never played in. 

Or, even more confusingly, there might be a situation in which the two fourth-place teams both cross over in order to ensure a better match-up for the division winner who ended the season with more points. This is also not acknowledging the fact that the inconsistency caused through awarding an extra point for a loss in overtime means that some games are worth three points instead of two, which it could be argued completely invalidates the whole idea of seeding based on points. My point here: the NHL's current playoff method is a mess, and the rumours are the players are going to advocate for it to change (back?) during the next round of negotiations leading up to the new agreement for 2020.

Under the previous method of seeding in each conference, with the division winners taking the top seeds in order of points before the rest of the teams are ranked by points, the West, interestingly enough, would have featured the same match-ups if seeded by conference, and using the previous method of reseeding after the first round - matching up the highest and lowest seeds to advance, rather than advancing through the traditional fixed bracket - would have ended up with the same match-ups in the second round.

But the East would have looked a bit different. Toronto would have ended in fifth, which would have meant that they would have played at the New York Islanders, and Boston would have hosted Pittsburgh. Let's just pause for a second on that thought: the much-anticipated John Tavares revenge series between the Islanders and Leafs could have happened in the first round in the first year after Tavares abandoned the only team he had known for his hometown team. And the Leafs would have perhaps had home-ice advantage had they had something to play for in the last two weeks of the season.

Now, there's nothing saying that the Leafs would have finished stronger in the regular season, or that they would have defeated the Islanders, but I wish we could have found out. And while it is true that this current playoff format, which was instituted to incentivize rivalries, has really disadvantaged Toronto, I think that the criticisms of the format, which are too myriad to list here, go beyond my own fandom and across the league, and I do hope that they change the format again sooner rather than later. In the meantime, of course, the Leafs' road to success will go through Boston and Tampa in some way or another, so they will have to find a way to win in the current circumstances.

Changes for next year's Leafs


I honestly had not considered this edition of the Leafs to be a championship calibre team all year, and I still didn't, even when I thought they might sneak through and win a round or two. My best hope for the season was a second-round loss to Tampa; when the Bolts lost unexpectedly, my hopes were cautiously upgraded to a deep playoff run that would give the younger players some real experience for a future run to the Cup.

But there were still too many flaws in this team this year to really ever fully think that they could win. Even with the mid-season trade for Jake Muzzin, they we're still weak on defense, and Gardiner's gaffe to cause the second Bruins goal (which turned out to be the game-winning goal) in Game 7 may turn out to be his final error as part of the Leafs' defense. I think that this series also showed that the Leafs also need a strong second-pairing defenseman to shore up their blue line in addition to Gardiner, so they may be in the market for two decent D-men when one may be difficult to find - a concern to be sure.

There are definitely a few changes to be made on the forward front. Nazem Kadri's egregious cross-checking penalty at the end of Game 2 cost him the rest of the series, and I would argue necessitates his immediate departure from the team. Patrick Marleau was ineffective for most of the series, and it would be great to get his contract off the books. And for what it's worth, I think the Leafs could look at trading William Nylander for the right return; I think he would be fine to stay and that he will shake off the rust from this year, but he might be a good asset to get a strong defenseman in return.

That said, a lot of the building blocks are in place. Tavares will only get better with time and Matthews and Marner (who will sign for big bucks soon) will keep improving. Andersen is good enough to win games for the team (as demonstrated in Game 5), and most of the pieces are in place, so despite this year's final result, I do feel really good about this team.

And as for the growing refrain to fire coach Mike Babcock, I think that is overly reactionary and unhelpful. He did make some puzzling decisions in Game 7 regarding ice time and not switching up lines, but it's not time to cut him loose yet. Sure, he hasn't won a playoff series in four seasons as coach in three playoff appearances, but he was not expected to win any of those series by most of the pundits - even this year. The Leafs bottomed out to worst in his first year, then hit the playoffs a year ahead of schedule before last year's letdown in the third period of Game 7 and this year's painful loss. But the heat will be - and should be - on Babcock for next year for sure, so expect him to be more motivated to find a way to help the team win.

Conclusion


It's easy to see the same result - a first round loss - and to conclude that the Leafs did not make any progress this year, but that's just not true. They learned and grew and they will be even better next year. This year's loss is more about considering what could have been, and how this team might have become something special with even one more round of play. There was briefly a window of hope of something more, but everyone needs to remember how collectively young this Leafs team is and that they do have time remaining.

There is a lot of talk about windows and how the Leafs' is closing with their upcoming cap pressures. But even in the Salary Cap Era, windows for annual contenders still last for five to ten years. The Leafs are still in the early stages of their window opening. Furthermore, as the 2016-17 Penguins and 2018 Capitals and perhaps this year's Sharks and Bruins will attest, there is often that one magical Cup run at the end of a team's window that happens after years of heartbreaking losses, so it's possible that the Leafs' window might be even a bit longer than we think.

Sure, there are many recent examples of teams whose windows unceremoniously slam shut, but many of those teams unexpectedly made a deep playoff run and forced themselves into contention when they had no business doing so. The 2017 Ottawa Senators are the most recent example of such a team, and they mistakenly chose to try to build on that success rather than realizing that it was a one-shot deal, leaving themselves in the unenviable position of the franchise with the worst future in the league.

That is not the case for the Leafs; this team is built for the long haul, which is why Tavares signed with them last July. But their window overlaps with the two other dominant teams in their division, which does not include the rebuilding teams like Florida and Buffalo that may yet emerge as future contenders.

It's not as if the Leafs don't have more chances to make a run, because they do; it's the fact that they were not able to take advantage of an unexpected window this year, and that this year may represented a great chance for the team to get a sense of what a long playoff run feels like, which could have proven very valuable to any future runs.

This team is too good not to have a run or two or three at some point, and the consensus around the League and its writers is that this Leafs team will end the Finals and even the Cup drought at some point in the near future. But it was not to be this year, and even though it's exactly what was expected, we're still left wondering what might have been.

And despite the early loss and my season-long reticence to really invest emotionally in this team, I still find myself more interested and invested after this abbreviated run. I really like a lot of these players, and I want to see them figure it out and find a way to win. I have a feeling that I will be more invested next year from the start, and I look forward to watching these Leafs grow up and grow more into the team that they will become, which has been shaped in part by yet another disappointing loss this year. I just hope there are not too many more disappointments in store before they can figure it out.

Friday, March 01, 2019

The "Green Book" Oscars of 2019

The "take machine" was in overdrive this week after Green Book's Best Picture win at the Academy Awards on Sunday night, and we are finding out what the reaction would have been like if there had been Twitter in 2006 when Crash won.

This year's Oscars joins the shortlist - well, perhaps a somewhat longish list, actually - of Best Picture duds, and on the much shorter list of Oscar travesties. (To understand the difference between those two, just consider the difference between The Artist and Crash, to cite two relatively recent examples.)

As I do every year after the final conclusion of the Oscars, here are my thoughts on this year's season, awards, telecast, and my (mis)predictions of it all, along with a thought or two on next year's Oscars (because awards season doesn't already start soon enough).

The problem of Green Book


The way I see it, there are three issues at play in the problems with Green Book's win. Full disclosure: I have not yet seen Green Book, so I cannot comment personally on the film, but I can comment on the issues surrounding it. As far as I can tell, the three main issues are the quality of the movie itself, the content of the movie, and the context of what it represents in 2019.

Because I have not seen it, I cannot speak directly to quality of the film or the content therein, so I won't spend a lot of time on these two factors, but the clips and recaps I have seen and read seem to indicate what is at best an enjoyable, if flawed screenplay, and a problematic treatment of racism and manipulation of the true events of the story. I do intend to see the movie someday, and perhaps I will be able to comment more then, but for now, I'll leave it at that.

What really makes Green Book's win a problem is its context, as it is much harder to see how Green Book could overcome its problems than, say, Crash or Dances With Wolves or Driving Miss Daisy. Don't get me wrong: those wins remain unconscionable; it's just that it seems like we should (and do) have better metrics for figuring out the problems earlier than we used to.

Green Book had many problems in its campaign, too, including a writer having published racist tweets, a star using the n-word, accusations from the family of the black man in the film, allegations of the director having a himself to females repeatedly in the 1990s, and even a producer sending out letters against critics of the film in the final days of voting. And yet, it won.

I believe in the theory that Green Book's win, like Donald Trump's election, became a convenient avatar for white people to embrace when faced with the possibility of losing power, whether to Mexicans, Netflix, or the "new" Academy - all of which happened to be represented in Roma, the erstwhile almost-winner.

All of this makes Green Book the perfect Best Picture winner for 2019. It's the ultimate in the kind of "you coastal liberals can't tell me what movies to like or how to vote" thinking that allows the Republicans to control red America. Green Book represents a rejection of progressiveness and an embrace of established ideas and systems.

It's a star vehicle made by a studio about a subject to which people can relate, and it's easily the Best Picture that is most accessible and appealing to the "average" American since Argo. It became representative of the Hollywood that was in the same way certain films won in the 1960s or 1990s when the studio system changed significantly.

Of course the Academy can give Oscars to Spike Lee (who apparently was visibly upset and tried to leave during the Green Book producers' speech) and Black Panther and If Beale Street Could Talk and also award Green Book. I read somewhere that it is the ultimate "both sides" movie, and that's about the sum of it.

After the upset wins of Spotlight and Moonlight in 2016 and 2017, it seemed as though the Academy had shifted. The win of The Shape of Water in 2018 was a bit of an eye-roller, but still seemed somewhat progressive; although it confirmed that the Oscars were still the Oscars, it still appeared at least to not contravene - if not continue to confirm - that the Oscars had responded to #OscarsSoWhite and the long-serving conservatism of the Academy.

So Green Book's victory is a problem and yet another mark against the legitimacy of the Oscars. But the question remains as to whether this represents a return to form, or a last gasp of a dying reality (much like the current American government). Maybe the change has already happened, and Green Book happened to coalesce in the one final perfect opportunity to attempt to reassert power. Or maybe the Academy will never change; it's just too early to tell.

(As an aside, Green Book's win is also a testament to the power of the narrative in awards season and how much it can shift in just a couple of months. There really was little reason for A Star Is Born not to have won Best Picture, all things considered, so Green Book is as much a beneficiary of the way these things go as any movie in recent years.)

The rest of the awards and the telecast


Green Book's upset cast a pall over an otherwise enjoyable evening. There were some great speeches and moments, and in perhaps an Oscar first (at least since the expansion of the Best Picture field beyond five nominees), all Best Picture nominees were recognized with an award.

The only other two movies to win in non-specialized categories happen to be the two leaders of this year's "snubbed" list - First Man and If Beale Street Could Talk. In a few years, movie fans will wonder why this wasn't the competition for Best Picture.

Spike Lee winning after three decades for his seventh or eighth best movie - just like The Departed and Martin Scorsese winning in 2006 - was one of the most Oscars-y moments ever, but it was enjoyable nevertheless.

Olivia Colman's surprise victory was delightful (and I think history will look fondly on not awarding Glenn Close for The Wife), as were the historic victories for African-American women for Black Panther.

And I have to say that the hostlessness of the evening actually improved the event. I don't know if it's sustainable, but I appreciated the lack of a forced monologue, unfunny and overlong bits, and the occasional comical interjection in light of a leaner, quicker show. (The relative lack of montages also helped.)

Overall, I give this year's Oscars a B-. Much like a Grade 11 English essay that runs out of ideas and totters toward an underwhelming conclusion, this year's Oscars could have gotten a higher grade, but they botched the ending and proved the wrong point. Unless that point was #OscarsSoWhite, in which case they succeeded masterfully.

About those predictions...


I went a respectable 6/9 on the major categories, which was just below my average of the previous 14 years. I missed Actress - although, to be fair, almost everyone did (though I came very close to picking Colman for the upset) as well as Best Picture and Original Screenplay, which were both won by Green Book.

That leaves me with a five-year-long streak of missing Best Picture and 6 out of 15 since 2005. And it makes me wonder why I keep getting it wrong. Perhaps that is an analysis best left for its own post. At any rate, I can mostly maintain my dignity after this year, as all three of those misses were upsets.

Overall, I was slightly disappointed in my final performance. I should have seen Green Book coming from its combination of People's Choice at the Toronto Film Festival, the Golden Globe for Best Drama, and the Producers Guild of America win, but perhaps I just didn't want to see it happen. That said, I had a bad feeling about my pick as soon as it was published, which is more than I can say for many other misses over the years.

Conclusion


I don't think this year's Oscars or the movies therein will be very memorable in the long run other than the frustration of Green Book's win and the curiosity of Bohemian Rhapsody's dominance. It just wasn't a great year in many ways.

Roma has a shot to become part of the shortlist of "greatest movies to lose the Oscar that actually could have won it", a list that includes 2001: A Space Odyssey; Brokeback Mountain; Goodfellas; Pulp Fiction; and Citizen Kane (among others). When people look back on this year, they will wonder how neither Black Panther nor A Star Is Born won, and Green Book will likely be remembered fairly negatively for what it was and what it ended up coming to represent.

It's always hard to look forward to the next year, since so many of the storylines don't really start until September, but 2019 isn't looking much better than this past year - right now, at least - unless Avengers: Endgame really packs a punch, or maybe the live action version of The Lion King will finally bring Disney a Best Picture Oscar. I suppose there are some intriguing possibilities, such as Jordan Peele's UsToy Story 4, Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (about the Manson murders of the 60s), and a Downton Abbey movie. 

I do find it interesting that two recently ignored female directors both have high-profile projects releasing in the fall: Marielle Heller has A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, and Greta Gerwig has Little Women, so that will make for a fascinating conversation if either or both of those movies are any good. But regardless of what films end up in the conversation, rest assured that I will be right in the thick of it, probably getting Best Picture wrong for the sixth year in a row.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

2019 Final Oscars Picks

Well, here we are, close to the end of one of the more divisive and confusing awards seasons in recent memory. I have actually had trouble remembering a more active and contentious Oscars season in the 21st century. The past few years have had their controversies and ultimately, their surprises, but I don't think there has been a season like this with the combination of tumult in several of the nominees, the telecast, and in Best Picture itself.

I suppose that some of that tension might actually be good for the Oscars, but this year it has felt especially draining, particularly insofar as it feels tiring to have continued to have to have these conversations about problematic politics about race, gender, and sexuality. Sean Fennessey of The Ringer had a fair amount of existential malaise in his final ruminations on the season, and I don't entirely disagree with him. Such is perhaps the inevitable nature of attempting to change an unwieldy institution, but it felt especially tired this year. At any rate, here are my final picks for this year's Oscars.

The main categories


Best Picture: Roma is the odds-on favourite, but it is far from a lock. It would be the first foreign language film to win, as well as the first product of the streaming studios, either of which could work against it. And yet, it is my pick for the win (which I give with the caveat that I am on a four-year streak of incorrectly guessing Best Picture) over Green Book, which would instantly become part of the conversation with Crash as an all-time travesty.

Best Actor: Rami Malek has run the table, so I expect him to win here over Christian Bale. There's too much love for Queen and Bohemian Rhapsody for it to go away empty-handed.

Best Actress: Glenn Close will finally get her Oscar after almost four decades - and in typical Oscar fashion, it is two decades too late and for an unmemorable role - but at least her speech should be a highlight of the night.

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali will win his second award in this category in three years for Green Book. He has also run the table, and like Bohemian Rhapsody, there is too much affection for this movie for it not to win anything.

Best Supporting Actress: I'm sticking with Regina King for If Beale Street Could Talk for this one over Rachel Weisz for The Favourite.

Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón for Roma should win his second and the fifth win in this category in the past six years (!) for one of the Mexican directors nicknamed the Three Amigos: Cuarón; del Toro; Iñárritu.

Best Animated Feature: I'm going to go with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse here over The Incredibles 2. I know Brad Bird has two Oscars and might be the "smart bet", but my Spidey sense is tingling here for the upset.

Best Original Screenplay: The Favourite remains my pick here.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Spike Lee should finally get a long-overdue Oscar for BlackKklansman.

Other categories


There are a few other interesting categories peppered throughout the Oscars; here are my thoughts on a few of them.

Cinematography: Cuarón could win five Oscars for Roma, but my guess is four, including this one, the aforementioned two, and Foreign Language Film.

Costume Design: This typically goes to a Best Picture nominee with the "most" costumes, unless there is a clear leader otherwise. There isn't, but there are two possibilities here from Best Picture: The Favourite and Black Panther. I think that Black Panther will actually win this category in part as recognition of Ruth E. Carter's long and storied career.

Film Editing: The fact that Roma was not nominated here is one of the reasons to second guess its status as frontrunner for Best Picture, but this race is interesting on its own merits. I think it will go to Hank Corwin for Vice as a way of recognizing his entire body of work, but especially his recent work on The Big Short.

Foreign Language Film: The only reason Roma would not win here is if enough people feel like it will win Best Picture that they could pick Cold War here - but I just don't think that's going to happen.

Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice. Just look at any picture of Christian Bale.

Original Score: I think Black Panther has a real shot here for Ludwig Goransson, but the smart money is on Nicolas Britell for If Beale Street Could Talk.

Original Song: A Star Is Born should get its only Oscar of the night here, and part of the irony is that Bradley Cooper is not nominated in this category. But its win will leave Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson each halfway to an EGOT.

Production Design: This category splits with Costume Design half of the time, and I wouldn't be surprised if it did again this year, with The Favourite winning. Then again, I wouldn't be surprised if Black Panther won this award too.

Visual Effects: Marvel should finally win here for Avengers: Infinity War, unless there's a push for First Man as a smaller film with impressive effects -which does happen often enough in this category.

Conclusion


In fourteen years of public prognosticating of Oscars, I have come within one award of a 9/9 sweep of the major awards five times, including being foiled by Best Picture twice in the past three years. That category may again be my undoing this year, along with Animated Feature and/or Supporting Actress. But I tend to think that Roma will take home the narrative of the evening.

As I reflect on my picks, I realize that I am expecting every Best Picture nominee to win at least one award - most of them in those eight significant categories - which would be somewhat unprecedented; that said, the fact that I expect that A Star Is Born, Vice, and Black Panther will not win major awards is enough to satisfy my expectation that a major contender will be essentially shut out, which happens relatively often.

I am actually unsure as to whether I will actually watch the full telecast on Sunday night, but be assured that I will be posting my results and reflections as soon as possible next week. And I sincerely hope that I will not have to write one of the possible thousands of thinkpieces on how Green Book could win in 2019 and what it means for the future of the Academy.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Let's fix the Oscars: the Awards

The Academy Awards are just around the corner, and there has been a lot of buzz about this year's Awards - most of it not very good. Whether it is the fraught nature of some of the main nominees, the telecast itself, or the current status of the academy, most of the press since last summer has been negative, and deservedly so, I would argue.

Perhaps this should have been obvious, given the increasing unease of events that have shaken up the Academy in recent years, as many of the simmering issues of gender, race, and power politics have come to the surface: the repeated #OscarsSoWhite neglect of nominations for actors of color; the continued and increasingly indefensible ignorance of prominent female filmmakers in most categories; the #MeToo controversy (especially insofar as it involved noted Oscar manipulator Harvey Weinstein and former winner Kevin Spacey); and (far less significantly) the Best Picture snafu of 2017.

In the past six months alone, there has been the "Best Popular Film" announcement and subsequent retraction, the controversy over host Kevin Hart, followed by the current plan of not having a host, and the recent uproar over the relegation of Cinematography, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, and Live Action Short to the commercial breaks - which was summarily reversed in the week before the telecast.

In short, the Oscars are a mess, and they need some fixing, and fast. I have a lot of suggestions for fixing the Oscars, but I thought we should start with the main point of the Oscars: the awards themselves. Here my thoughts on how to fix the awards given out each year.

The practical suggestions


1. Combine Sound Editing and Sound Mixing into one category. Look, I know they're different practices, but there is often significant overlap between the categories, with the same movies and even the same people being nominated. The Academy does not divide visual effects into digital and practical, or the different elements of VFX, so why should Sound get two categories? Simple answer: it shouldn't.

2. Create a category for Best Stunt Coordination (and maybe include Choreography). It boggles my mind that neither of these groups of craftspeople have been recognized with awards. When I looked into it, I saw that stunt coordination was rejected as a category from 1991-2012, which is just shameful on the part of the Academy. Stunts are such a huge part of movies, and they deserve to be recognized as such. Just think of possible past winners: The Dark Knight; Inception; Mad Max: Fury Road; Baby Driver; the last two Mission: Impossible movies. Sure, some of those won for Visual Effects in part because of their physical prowess, but Stunt Coordination is its own art and should be recognized as such..

Choreography could perhaps have its own category, but it kind of makes sense to me to at least attempt to honor it here. I think it could easily produce enough nominees as its own competition, particularly if the definition of Choreography is extended beyond dance to the concept of blocking and physical manipulation of actors. Past winners/nominees could include: La La Land; Birdman; even comedies like Bridesmaids.

3. Create an additional acting category for Best Ensemble and/or Best Casting Director. It's great to recognize the four actors, but there is something different about recognizing a film as a whole. This extra category could also go a long way to awarding the Casting Directors who are the only craftspeople in the opening credits and Academy-recognized Guild that does not have an award; I would argue that this could go to the Casting Director on behalf of the actors in the film. Past winners could include: Juno; The Dark Knight; MoonlightThe Hurt Locker; 12 Years a Slave; or maybe upsets like The Master or even a comedy.

The radical suggestions


I have four other kind of "out there" suggestions for changes to the awards. I would love to see them happen, even though I don't think they would - but here are my somewhat radical suggestions for improving the awards.

1. Create a category for Best Use of Existing Media. The Oscars famously shun existing material for songs and scores, so it feels like there could be some balance restored by adding in a category to honor the directors and music directors who are doing incredible work in curating soundtracks and incorporating existing material into their original works. Think of all the times T-Bone Burnett could have been nominated for his work with the Coens, or other possible past winners like: Almost Famous; Moulin Rouge; or Juno. This really should happen!

2. Create a category for Best Promotional Video. Sure, there are already three Oscars for short films, but the most watched group of shorts - trailers and promotional tie-ins - are completely ignored by the Academy. I would love to see five nominees for the best trailers - and I bet some (most?) of them would be for movies that would not otherwise contend for Oscars. Past winners could include: The Social Network; Get Out; Guardians of the Galaxy; or the initial trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - which, of course, was quite different from the final movie after rewrites, reshoots, and the general Disneyfication of the movie before its release.

3. Create an award for Best Title Design / Promotional Presentation. This was a rejected suggestion at one point, but I think it merits consideration for an award. There is so much amazing work happening with title sequences, fonts, and general promotional presentation other than videos and trailers that the graphic designers who work so hard to make these films marketable could easily be recognized for their contributions. After all, the marketing budgets often exceed the actual budget, and in this age of movie-going, it seems even more important than ever to the commercial and creative success of a film to make a fast impression; hence, this award.

4. Create an award for Best Vocal Performance. The shift toward animated films and computer-generated characters has only increased over the last two decades, and I think there should be recognition of this art, especially because the Academy does not seem like it will ever do so; after all, if Andy Serkis would not be nominated for Gollum, who would? There are some really interesting possible past winners/nominees here - Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter for The Incredibles, perhaps, or maybe Peter O'Toole actually winning an Oscar for his work in Ratatouille, or Amy Poehler for Inside Out.

Changes that should not happen


And finally, here are three possible changes that have been suggested that I think should actually be rejected outright. 

1. Best Popular Film. I wrote about this idea when it was suggested, and although I tried to be charitable to the Academy, I have come to really think that this is a terrible idea. There are so many issues with how these nominees would be decided, much less the actual idea of even trying to divide these movies into their own category. The reality is that these movies should be recognized in the Best Picture conversation if they deserve to be there; Black Panther deserves its consideration, for example, as have other previous "popular" nominees like Inception or The Lord of the Rings. Let's move beyond elitism and not further entrench the divide between awards season and blockbusters.

2. Separate categories for Best Comedy and/or Musical - or any other genre-based award, for that matter. It often comes up that certain genres like comedies and horror movies are underrepresented by the Academy, which is true. But the solution is not to create more individual categories for those movies; it is to continue changing the Academy's membership so that more movies from those kinds of genres are recognized.

The Golden Globes often demonstrate the kind of category fraud that happens between these categories, and even the Emmys, in which the divide between comedy and drama is incredibly well-established, have begun to experience some existential angst about the division in recent years as television continues to change.

I do think Documentary, Animated Picture, and Foreign Language Film should continue to be recognized, although I do wonder if there will ever be a Documentary nominated for Best Picture. (O.J.: Made in America might have been the best possibility in recent years, and even that never came close.) But don't add any more categories like this; it would just make things much murkier.

3. Best Breakthrough (either Performance or Craft). There is an argument to be made that there could be awards given for breakthroughs on either side of the camera - but not by me. I think that any truly deserving breakthroughs should be recognized with individual nominations, rather than a separate category, and that this kind of award should remain the purview of shows that few take seriously, like the MTV Movie Awards or the Grammys.

Conclusion: The revised Oscars


So, for anyone keeping track at home, here are my revised Academy Awards after all of those proposed changes (or rejections thereof), as grouped into categories of similar awards.

Picture/Genre: Picture; Animated Picture; Foreign Language Film; Documentary (4)

Acting: Actor, Supporting Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, Ensemble/Cast, Vocal Performance (6)

Film Craft: Cinematography; Directing, Film Editing, Adapted Screenplay; Original Screenplay (5)

Music/Media: Score; Song; Use of Existing Media (3)

Production: Costume Design; Makeup and Hairstyling; Production Design; Sound; Stunt Coordination (and Choreography); Title Design; Visual Effects (7)

Short Film: Animated; Documentary; Live Action; Promotional Video (4)

That makes 26 Oscars for mainstream films plus the three categories for original shorts, which seems about right. It's an increase of only five awards overall, and only one or two in any given group of similar categories, so there would be not be a huge imbalance in representation from the current status quo. If anything, these changes would help the Academy recognize the kinds of films that should get more attention.

Just in case you're wondering, the most nominations any given film could receive would be 24 - only one Screenplay and not Documentary. The current record, by the way, is fourteen (shared by All About Eve, Titanic, and La La Land), which seems unlikely to be broken any time soon - but it's still fun to consider as a possibility.

These changes would go a long way to further legitimizing the Oscars, and I think that the Oscars need that more than anything. They have been suspect for many years, but internet culture continues to shift the public perception at an increasing rate. These changes would make the Oscars more reflective of the twenty-first century of film, rather than the end of the twentieth, and I tend to think that they would make the awards more interesting for a wider group of moviegoers. There would, of course, still be significant changes that would need to be made to the Academy itself and its public persona, but any of these ten changes would be a good start.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Oscars 2019: Early reactions and predictions

The Oscar nominations were released a week ago on Tuesday, Jnauary 22, and while there still is not a host for the telecast itself , there is now a lot more clarity on this year's race. A lot of the heavy hitters that were expected to be there were nominated, but there still managed to be a few surprises - and there have been even a few more in the week since.

Here are my top five takeaways from this year's nominations, one week after the announcement:

1. As Mark Harris observed, the Academy is quite divided in its current iteration, and much like the American political system, there are really two groups: the younger, much more diverse, millennial-oriented generation; and the older, whiter, more male establishment. As has happened in each of the past few years, the overall nominations reflect a division between the more traditional "Oscar bait" (Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody) and more progressive fare (Black Panther, Roma), as represented by primary face-off between Green Book and Roma (more on that in a bit). 

2. White males are still firmly in control of this thing. Despite the fact that the favourites in both supporting categories are currently actors of color, they represent the entirety of the African-American acting nominees and half of the nominations for non-white actors. Add in an unhealthy dominance of nominations by white males in other key categories, and it adds up to a relatively risk-averse Academy that favours the establishment (more on that later). We're still a long way from better representation both in front of and especially behind the cameras.

3. The snub narrative this year will be shared by First Man and If Beale Street Could Talk, which I find interesting as their writers/directors (Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins) were involved in the infamous Best Picture mix-up two years ago. But there's one other surprise contender for this narrative in Black Panther, which, despite seven nominations including one for Best Picture, has a chance to participate in this narrative after missing out on several key categories (Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Film Editing). It has the angle of being somewhat snubbed as both a superhero/popular film and as an African-American film, and if it does not come away with any major awards, it will likely be the movie most remembered for not winning, therein taking hold of the snub narrative.

4. This has the potential to be a particularly controversial Oscars on several fronts, both in regard to the nominated films and the Oscars itself. Aside from the continually reinforced aforementioned white maleness of the nominees, there is the little issue of the telecast itself and who will host (a process which has not been without controversy already), as well as that snafu of the "Best Popular Film" Oscar from last summer (which seems to have faded into memory, thankfully).

There are a number of controversies both about the content of and filmmakers behind Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody. BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther, The Favourite, and Vice are politically divisive to varying degrees. Roma is subject both to scrutiny as a product of Netflix and the streaming system and politically as a representative of Mexico as per the current American government's rhetoric. Only A Star Is Born is really devoid of any controversy, other than the fact that a month ago it seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut but that now seemed like it likely peaked too early.

5. The main competition of Green Book and Roma is indicative of higher stakes for the future of the Academy. Let's be honest - the Academy will always be the Academy to some degree, and there will always be "Oscar bait" that succeeds in various categories. But there has been significant hope that this could be the year in which the Oscars really embrace change after indications in the past five years that it was doing so. The next month will go a long way to determining whether there is change or not.

That said, this really is a wide-open year in many categories, with as many as four films that could conceivably win Best Picture. Roma is the early favourite overall, with Green Book close behind and A Star Is Born and Black Panther another half-step further behind. But this seems like one of those years without a dominant film in which the major awards are divided among the main nominees and the movie with the most Oscars gets as few as three.

By the way, I was actually fairly close with my estimations on nominations for the major contenders, including that The Favourite would lead with ten nominations (of which I incorrectly identified only one!). I thought Roma's Netflix origins might hurt it a bit more than it apparently did, and I missed out on a nomination each for Vice and A Star Is Born, but I'm fairly happy with my overall prediction of the nominations. But now onto some of my thoughts on the specific competitions in the main categories.

Predictions by category


Best Picture: There ended up being eight nominees, rather than nine, so my prediction that If Beale Street Could Talk would make it in despite not being nominated for a PGA was incorrect - but I did correctly identify the other eight. This is an interesting race, with Roma and Green Book leading the pack, which also provides an interesting dichotomy for the Oscars and seems like it really might answer the question of whether the Academy is looking backward by awarding a spiritual sequel to Driving Miss Daisy and Crash or forward to a future in which a movie in a foreign language that was released on a streaming service can win Best Picture. It does seem like a watershed year for the Academy, but I think that Roma's accomplishment is such that the Academy will want to be on the right side of history.

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron is a lock. It's not even a question.

Best Actor: A month ago, I thought Bradley Cooper was a lock. Now, he seems like Warren Beatty, who never won an acting Oscar. A week ago, it seemed like Christian Bale was a lock, but then Rami Malek won at the SAG Awards over the weekend. I think this might actually be Malek's to lose at this point, but the next month should be interesting.

Best Actress: Glenn Close, arguably the greatest living actress without an Oscar (my apologies to Amy Adams), looks like she will remedy that this year. I thought Olivia Colman might have more momentum, but this seems like Close's to lose, despite the fact that very few people seem to have seen The Wife.

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali will win this for Green Book. There's no other option.

Best Supporting Actress: This is an interesting category, as the frontrunner - Regina King for If Beale Street Could Talk - was not nominated for the Screen Actors' Guild Awards, and the winner at SAG - Emily Blunt - was not nominated here. I think King still takes it, particularly because Glenn Close has taken the "it's her time" narrative from Amy Adams, who has been better in the past and likely will be again in the future.

Best Original Screenplay: It seems like this is where The Favourite will be acknowledged, but it is not impossible for Green Book to win here even with its controversy. That said, the writer's branch often likes to reward creativity, so I expect The Favourite to win.

Best Adapted Screenplay: While at one point I could have seen this being where A Star Is Born got an Oscar, I think that BlacKkKlansman will win here and that Spike Lee will finally win a competitive Oscar. Sure, it's not for Directing, but it's still meaningful.

Best Animated Feature: It seems like it comes down to two superhero movies: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and The Incredibles 2. Despite some late Spidey momentum, it seems more likely that Brad Bird will win his third (!) Oscar in this category for the return of his Pixar superheroes.

Bonus picks


Best Original Song: "Shallow" is where A Star Is Born - and Lady Gaga, who famously lost to Sam Smith's turgid Bond theme - gets its Oscar.

Foreign Language Film: It seems obvious that this would be Roma, and I think it will be, but there's a case to be made that if people think that Roma will win Best Picture that Cold War could win here. But I think Roma will win.

Cinematography: Cold War might win this category, but the crazy thing is that Alfonso Cuaron could win here, and if Roma really sweeps the night, it could be one of five Oscars (Cinematography, Picture - as Producer, Director, Writing, and Foreign Language Film) he wins for the movie. It's not likely, but the fact that it could happen is kind of nuts in itself.

Technical categories: I expect The Favourite to win a couple, Vice to win Makeup and Hairstyling, and Black Panther to win at least one, but I don't think there will be one dominant film in the technical categories this year.

Film Editing: Here's a weird stat: all five nominees here are nominated for Best Picture, but two of the most nominated films - Roma and A Star Is Born, the two early frontrunners - were not. The only time the Best Picture winner was not nominated in this category was Birdman in 2015, which was essentially shot in a few long takes, so Roma's leading despite this lack is quite interesting. This might be where Vice wins a second Oscar.

My personal record


This is now my fifteenth year of publicly predicting the Oscar winners, and I am happy overall with my results in that period (91/126 for 72.2% correct in the nine major categories) with one exception: I'm really bad at predicting Best Picture. I have a four-year-long streak of missing that category, including the last two of the last three which spoiled what would have been 9/9 sweeps. It's not quite as bad as it seems: at least two of those picks were defensible - The Revenant over Spotlight and La La Land over Moonlight - and my risk of taking Get Out over The Shape of Water last year would have been brilliant if it had happened. (Not choosing Birdman was just a product of being really out of tune that year.) But it's still pretty bad, and combined with a bad streak from 2005-2007, it makes it my worst category by far.

Here are my results by category and by year.

Results by category:
Best Picture: 6/14 (missed 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)
Best Director: 11/14 (missed 2011, 2013, 2015)
Best Actor: 11/14 (missed 2007, 2009, 2017)
Best Actress: 12/14 (missed 2008, 2012)
Best Supporting Actor: 12/14 (missed 2007, 2013)
Best Supporting Actress: 12/14 (missed 2006, 2008)
Best Original Screenplay: 9/14 (missed 2005, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015)
Best Adapted Screenplay: 11/14 (missed 2008, 2010, 2015)
Best Animated Feature: 11/14 (missed 2007, 2013, 2015)

Results by year:
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)

Conclusion


This is turning into a very interesting year for the Academy, with the possibility of change looming ever larger over the possible winners this year. The next month should go a long way to determining whether that change is actually here, or whether the Academy will double down on its old favourite tropes. And, of course, if this will set a new low for the telecast itself, depending on who does (or does not) host.

As for me, I still have a number of films yet to watch: RomaA Star Is Born; The Favourite, BlacKkKlansmanBohemian Rhapsody; and, problematic though it may be, even Green Book. And I might try to rewatch Black Panther, too. And although there might be some personal changes (!) that interfere with these best-laid plans, I will do my best to make my final picks closer to the ceremony on February 24.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Oscars 2019: The pre-nomination storylines

The Academy Award nominations closed on Monday, and they will be tabulated over the next week before they are announced on Tuesday, January 22. But even though the nomination window is closed, there are still quite a few unresolved storylines that remain open. Here are some of my thoughts on five major storylines heading into the announcement of the nominations.

1. Which eight or nine movies will be nominated for Best Picture? The Oscars' flagship category is Best Picture, which is why it expanded the number of nominees in 2010, when it increased from five to ten for two years. In the seven years since the subsequent change from "ten" to "between five and ten" nominees, there have been five years with nine and two others with eight nominees, so it seems like a good chance that there will be either eight or nine again this year. My bet is on nine nominees, with seven that I think are locks: A Star Is Born; The Favourite; and Roma, the three "favourites", as well as BlacKkKlansman; Black Panther; Green Book; and Vice.

The Academy's Best Picture nominations have overlapped with films nominated by the Producers Guild of America (PGA) by between seven and nine spots (of the ten that appear on the PGA list) each year since the Academy expanded the number of Best Picture nominees. All seven of the aforementioned "locks" are PGA nominees this year, which leaves one or two spots remaining, and a few interesting possibilities.

The Academy often uses one of those spots for an indie film: examples include Phantom Thread; A Serious Man; Winter's Bone; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Room; Amour; or Philomena. I think this year that honour will go to If Beale Street Could Talk over First Man and Can You Ever Forgive Me? (though I do expect some acting nominations for the latter two films).

The other spot often seems to go to some kind of Oscar biopic catnip kind of movie that also has some popular draw: Darkest Hour; The Blind Side; and Selma. This year, however, one of those kinds of movies was actually (surprisingly) listed by the PGA, and I think it will be nominated for Best Picture despite its checkered history behind the scenes, especially after its recent win at the Golden Globes: Bohemian Rhapsody.

My next pick - or if there were somehow to be a tenth nominee - would be A Quiet Place, which would likely leave Crazy Rich Asians as the only PGA-nominated film out of the Best Picture conversation this year. But even with a year that is this wide open, it just does not seem likely that there will be a full complement of nominees.

2. Just how many nominations will Black Panther get? With a Best Picture nomination seeming all but guaranteed for the first time for a Marvel movie, the question is how many nominations it can receive. I think the final number will be eight, to tie the superhero movie record held by The Dark Knight a decade ago. I'm hedging my bets a bit, as it could get nine or ten nominations, but I doubt director Ryan Coogler will be nominated, and I think that the movie will miss on at least one of the technical categories.

For the record, I think it gets to eight with nominations for Picture, Supporting Actor (Michael B. Jordan), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography (Rachael Morrison with her second consecutive nomination after 89 years of no female Directors of Photography being nominated), Art Direction, Costume Design, and two of Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects.

3. Which movie will lead in nominations and thus be declared the early frontrunner? In the last few years, the leading nominees have often been technically proficient movies that have had critical acclaim: Mad Max: Fury Road; The Revenant. The movie that most fits that bill is actually Black Panther, but something tells me that the movie that will lead in the nominations is The Favourite, with ten (Picture, Director, Screenplay, the three Actresses, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design, and Film Editing).

For the record, I think that this year will have a number of movies with multiple nominations. In addition to Black Panther and The Favorite, I think the next most nominated film will be Roma with seven or eight nominations (Picture, Director, Actress, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Film Editing, and a technical award). I'm not sure whether its distribution through Netflix will hurt it other than perhaps having curtailed its reception somewhat; then again, I could also see Roma being the most-nominated film if it receives what seems to be well-deserved favour in the technical categories.

After those three, Vice should get six or seven nominations (Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actress, Makeup and Hairstyling, and maybe Supporting Actor), as should A Star Is Born (Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Song, and maybe Supporting Actor), providing narratives for five favourites (when there are usually three).

4. Who gets the snub narrative this year? There are usually a couple of types of movies that dominate the snub talk after the nominations, but they take on different directions depending on the film. There's usually the "popular but it should really have gotten more attention" snub that has been quieter in recent years because the Academy has been nominating science fiction movies for the past decade. Think Straight Outta ComptonDeadpool, or even Blade Runner 2049. If Black Panther doesn't get the love that's expected, it will dominate this narrative, but my pick is A Quiet Place over Crazy Rich Asians, which has not received the kind of narrative that would place it in the Oscar conversation.

There's also the "indie that really should have gotten more attention" type of snub. There are, of course, many indies that are considered by some to be snubbed, but I'm referring to the movies that actually garner some semblance of momentum and then are left without many - if any - nominations. Think: Drive; Moonrise Kingdom; Inside Llewyn Davis. The most likely candidate here is First Man, which had a lot of buzz initially due to its pedigree (Oscar-winning director, biopic, Oscar-nominated star), but now seems like more of a bust. If First Man somehow breaks through, this corner could belong to Can You Ever Forgive Me?

5. Will Paul Schrader finally be nominated? It is unreal to me that the writer of Taxi DriverRaging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ - all films directed by Martin Scorsese that were nominated for Best Picture - has never been nominated for an Oscar. Schrader's spiritual sequel (pun intended) to Taxi DriverFirst Reformed, received critical acclaim, and it probably represents his last best chance to be nominated. For what it's worth, I think that Schrader will be nominated for Original Screenplay, along with a deserved Actor nomination for the movie's star, Ethan Hawke.

There will, of course, be many more storylines to come next week, depending on how the nominations go. Will Roma and A Star Is Born regain their erstwhile favourite status? Will Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody suffer a post-Globes backlash? Will A Quiet Place or First Man usurp some of their nominations? Will there be any surprises in the acting nominations, or will this be another year of mostly straightforward competitions that already seem decided? And can Disney win its first ever Best Picture Oscar (it's hard to believe, I know!) with a Marvel movie? Stay tuned...

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