Thursday, March 19, 2020

Pandemic ponderings

What a difference a week makes. This time last week, I was trying to figure out how our Teaching Federation’s work sanctions would affect my daily work routine; now, I’m wondering what happens for the rest of the school year and whether it’s time to consider changing careers and what the world will look like in 2021. But I've also been thinking on a macro-level about this pandemic and what it could mean, so I wanted to share some of those thoughts more widely.

I guess I knew it would just be a matter of time before life changed drastically, but I never thought it would be this soon that action would be taken, even when it was clear that COVID-19 was making its way to our prairie province. I had assumed that we would carry on for at least another month or so, even though I also assumed that there would be cases popping up here in Saskatchewan by the end of the week. (There were six cases in the province between confirmed and presumptive cases by the end of Sunday, all from travel and in self-isolation and sixteen by Wednesday.)

In just over a week, everything is being cancelled, everywhere is closing, and everyone’s suddenly an expert epidemiologist and virologist, and the phrases “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” are commonplace - although not necessarily common practice yet, judging by the pictures and videos from various places throughout the United States (in particular).

I’m sure that there will be a lot of analysis of how this all unfolded so quickly once the immediate fallout is not completely consuming our collective consciousness. But regardless of what it was that flipped the switch, up until a week ago, COVID-19 was something foreign, elsewhere, other - until suddenly, it was here, present, immediate, urgent, all-consuming.

And now, we are all just trying to figure out what to do and how to do it and how to solve the kind of problem that we knew was coming but for which we were not really prepared, even though we should have been. After all, in the past two decades alone, there were a few scares - SARS, avian flu, H1N1, swine flu, Zika, Ebola - but there was nothing like this. There were voices in the wilderness, warning us that a pandemic was coming, but they were not heeded with much regard, even in the past few months, as COVID-19 started to spread and shut down entire countries.

I suppose it's not that surprising that this has caught us collectively unprepared. The 2010s were kind of a difficult decade for a lot of people, and it’s hard not to be cynical and to see that in many ways that the advancements in technology over the past decade have helped bring out some of the worst tendencies in humanity, many of which have been very present thus far in the way that the pandemic has unfolded in the western world.

Sure, we’re more connected and immediate and there are a lot of benefits to all of the advances in our world, but it’s easy to have our vision of the good parts of the world blocked by the challenges that have arisen: the presence of increased political polarization, the normalization of extreme radicalization, myriad bad faith actors spreading disinformation, the erosion of institutional authority, the accumulation of wealth by an ever-shrinking group, the increasing rate of climate change and irreversible environmental damage... and now a global pandemic wreaking havoc with woefully underfunded health care instutitions.

And now, we have no idea what the world will look like in six months - much less for the next year or decade. It’s possible that it could be business as usual by the fall - school will start and businesses will be open and sports will resume and life will go on as it did pre-pandemic - but somehow I don’t think that’s going to be the case. It seems like things will be different after this is over, regardless of the eventual death count and whether the curve is flattened or not. The world will be a different place politically, economically, socially, technologically, and it will take generations to see the full impact of this pandemic, however long it lasts.

Maybe we’ll look back on this as a corrective period in our collective history. Maybe this is the kind of event that we will have needed as a society to wake us up from our stupor and to make us see the world differently and to make a difference. Maybe, as we pause and grieve the many losses of lives and livelihoods and hopes and dreams, and we then process all the ways that the world will have changed, and we work collaboratively to problem solve all of the issues that this will create not just in the immediate future but possibly for generations to come, we will gain some perspective and make some of the shifts that we need to make in order to move forward together.

Or maybe not. Maybe this exposes the raw, indigestible, inconceivable truth that humans are selfish and self-consumed, and that even the threat of a global pandemic is not enough to shift our focus to the collective good. Maybe the individualism and self-aggrandizement and polarization and the hoarding of wealth increases to an even more unbearable point, even accelerating as some bad faith actors find ways to profit from this life-changing event.

I sincerely hope for the former rather than the latter, especially because I am of the school of thought that this will not be final such trial that we will face as a species. I’m not trying to be overly pessimistic here, but I think I have long assumed that there will be multiple life-altering events in my lifetime, and that at some point in the next fifty years that I hope to live that my life - and everyone’s lives - will look very different as a result of those changes.

I was already preparing to some extent for a different world for my 13-month-old baby, even though I didn’t know what that world was going to look like in the future. I think I was assuming that we would be able to work together to solve the problems of the world; now, based on what I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks, I’m a little more skeptical of our ability and willingness to do so.

But I have also seen enough good from people and from institutions to know that we’re not outside the realm of hope. Right now, I have hope that enough people are making the changes that we need to make in order to flatten the curve, and that this pandemic may not be as bad as it could have been.

I have hope that this will collectively teach us the value of social institutions and local community, and that some of those aforementioned ills that have risen so sharply in the past decade will begin to wane.I have hope that this is not some kind of Pandora’s box that is opening us up to all of the ills of the world along with our hope. And I have hope that this will bring all of us a better tomorrow.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Oscars 2020: Final Predictions

It's hard to believe that movie award season is already coming to a close with the Oscars on Sunday, but here we are, several weeks earlier than usual. The accelerated pace of the season overall may have resulted in more groupthink, but it also is a bit of a reprieve, as this year's awards seem to be fairly straightforward and predictable. (Of course, me saying that means that there will be a ridiculous upset....) On with the final predictions!

Best Picture: When the nominations were announced, this seemed like a competition between 1917 and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Then as the guild awards were announced, 1917 took a clear lead with wins at the Golden Globes, Producers Guild, and Directors Guild before, inexplicably, Parasite - the first film from South Korea to compete for any Oscars - emerged as a challenger thanks to wins with the Screen Actors' Guild and the Writers Guild.

It's wild to me that a number of pundits are picking Parasite to win, even though the most consistent predictors - the PGA and DGA - both went to 1917, which is my pick to win. And yes, there is somewhat of a precedent for a film winning the SAG and WGA and going on to win Best Picture when Spotlight won in an upset; in that case, however, the PGA and DGA had been split between two films, The Big Short and favourite (and my reluctant pick) The Revenant, so it seemed as though Spotlight split the difference to win.

Even though, as Riley McAtee of The Ringer wrote earlier this week, the betting favourite has not won Best Picture in the past four years, I think that streak will end this year, and that 1917 will prove out to be the winner over Parasite, in part due to the general bias against foreign-language films. (Now watch Parasite actually win and keep my losing streak going.)

Best Director: The predictions for this category have bounced around from Tarantino to Bong Joon-Ho, but I think it will end up going to Sam Mendes for 1917 because of the level of his achievement; this award has tended to go to the "most obviously directed" movie for years, and 1917 fits that bill perfectly.

Best Actor: The acting categories have been swept so far by four actors, so there is no reason to think that there will be any upsets in any of these four categories. If there are, it won't be here, and Joaquin Phoenix will win for Joker.

Best Actress: Renee Zellweger for Judy, which will continue a long tradition of awarding underwhelming and unmemorable imitations of real people in middling biopics with Oscars.

Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt will finally get his much overdue Oscar for his role in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. (For what it's worth, he should have won for Moneyball in 2012 over Jean Dujardin for The Artist, the latter of which still remains one of the more mystifying calcifications of Oscar group-think in recent history.)

Best Supporting Actress: Laura Dern will also get a long-overdue Oscar for Marriage Story.

Best Original Screenplay: I think this is where Bong Joon Ho will be awarded for Parasite.

Best Adapted Screenplay: I thought that this would go to Greta Gerwig for Little Women, but it seems like the momentum is with Taika Waititi for Jojo Rabbit, so that's who I'm picking - but I wouldn't be surprised to get this one wrong.

Best Animated Feature: Klaus won the Annie award, so this category could go weird, but I think that it will go to Toy Story 4 because the entire academy votes on this award.

Other Categories: Here are my picks for the rest of the awards:

Documentary - American Factory
International Feature - Parasite

Cinematography - 1917
Costume Design - Little Women
Film Editing - Ford vs. Ferrari
Makeup and Hairstyling - Bombshell
Production Design - 1917
Sound Editing - 1917
Sound Mixing - 1917 (although one of these might go to Ford vs. Ferrari)
Visual Effects - The Lion King

Original Score - Joker
Original Song - Rocketman

Animated Short - Hair Love
Documentary Short - Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)
Live-Action Short - Brotherhood

For the record: of the Best Picture nominees, I'm picking 1917 to win 6 awards, Joker and Parasite each to win 2, and Ford vs. Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, Little Women, Marriage Story, and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood each to win 1, leaving The Irishman without an award. Now watch it win Best Picture.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Oscars 2020: Early thoughts and predictions

The Academy Award nominations were announced earlier last Monday, and the general reaction was somewhere between an exasperated sigh and a frustrated "meh" (as I will discuss throughout this post). The nominations were earlier than usual by at least a week (if not more than that), and there is an abbreviated season this year, with the Awards coming up on February 9, which means that the fact that I waited a week to publish this post makes my picks that much better, right?

That said, there has been some clarity that has come through the announcements of several Guild awards (Producers' Guild and Screen Actors' Guild), so I will incorporate those observations into this post. But first, a few general observations about this year's Oscars.

A top-heavy year

This year's nominations are unusually top-heavy, as all of the Best Picture nominees earned at least four nominations; four of the nine films were in double digits for their nominations, with another four at six nominations each and one at four. The dominance of those nine films left little room for other films in the mainline categories, as only seven other films in total received nominations in the acting or writing categories.

This particular division of nominees seems like it means that this year's awards may be concentrated on the core group of nominees, and that there may be a sentiment similar to previous years in which voters are trying to spread out the other awards among the dominant group of films, leaving little room for other movies to work their way into the conversation.

It would seem that there is more (or at least as much) of a trend of groupthink than there has been in the past, and that the Academy is mostly playing it safe this year, with just a couple of disruptions making it seem like they're being progressive.

With that in mind, it is also unlikely that there will be a dominant film at this year's Awards, and that even the most-awarded film will only win three or four Oscars. In the decade since the Academy expanded the Best Picture field to more than five nominees, there has been only once when a film has won more than six Awards (Gravity won seven) and another three times when a film won six (The Hurt Locker, Mad Max: Fury Road, and La La Land). So, basically, assume that most major nominees will get at least one award, and the most awarded film will only get three or four Oscars.

Nominations hurt by lack of diversity

The Oscars continued (or revived) a couple of unfortunately long-standing trends: mostly ignoring women and people of color. It remains one of the greatest stains on the Oscars (though there are a few), and I really hope that the changing composition of the Academy actually changes these trends in the next few years. It could easily be argued that Greta Gerwig deserved a nomination for Directing and not just a writing nomination, and that there were far more female directors and writers that deserved conversation.

The Oscars are once again #OscarsSoWhite, with only one acting nominee of color (Cynthia Erivo for Harriet), despite there being several widely well-recognized performances from that community. This really has become one of the worst continuing storylines for the Oscars, and although it's hard in some ways to find fault with the nominated performances when evaluated individually, it is very troubling that the general neglect of minorities continues as a trend.

What seemed particularly egregious this year is the way the conversation shaped over the past few months, as it seemed that this trend seemed inevitable, and that the actors of color were competing for one open spot in each acting category. There were several performances that merited nominations from other bodies - Lupita Nyong'o in Us and Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers come to mind as the foremost examples - but there are many others that could have been nominated, which makes this whitewash even more frustrating.

But it's not just the nominations that are male and white: it's the movies themselves that reflect that reality. Two-thirds of the Best Picture nominees seem to appeal primarily to that demographic, and as mentioned earlier, it seems as though the Oscars doubled down on those films rather than trying to incorporate a wider diversity of experiences.

Of course, each branch of the Academy works independently for their nominations, so it's perhaps not quite as simple as observing that the Academy is mostly male and white and so are the nominations. And there is an argument to be made that there should not be tokenism, and that the best films should be recognized, regardless of color; but to do that blindly is to also ignore the systemic patterns of privilege that continue to benefit white men (primarily).

There still is a significant system of privilege in place, and it's far easier for films that appeal to white men to succeed at the Oscars, and this year's nominations have demonstrated that there is a lot of work to be done in the Academy and in the world of film in general to rectify some of those historic imbalances of power that still proliferate.

Other emerging trends being established

There are a few other trends that seem like they may be solidifying in regard to new norms being established within the Academy. They're certainly less significant than the required changes in regard to diversity, but they're still notable shifts in the Academy's patterns (at least for now).

After emerging as a contending studio last year with Roma, Netflix continued to establish itself as a dominant studio, with a total of 24 nominations leading all studios. The Irishman, Marriage Story, and The Two Popes all earned multiple nominations, and Netflix has several other films contending in other categories.

Parasite's six nominations marks the second consecutive year that a film made in another language has received significant attention from the Academy at large - although it could definitely be argued that it deserved at least one acting nomination, especially in light of the film's win for Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors' Guild Awards

And Joker's eleven nominations seem to indicate that the superhero genre is now even less anathema than it was before last year's nominations for Black Panther. It's taken over a decade since The Dark Knight was snubbed in Best Picture, but superheroes (and villains, for that matter) may be here to stay in the serious consideration department. Also, what would the odds have been even a few months ago that Joker would have been the most nominated film? What a world we live in.

My early thoughts and predictions for the 92nd Oscars

Best Picture: This is by far my worst category to predict, and I'm still not sure exactly why. I made a couple of dumb mistakes, but mostly, I still defend my reasoning behind choices like The Revenant, La La Land, Get Out, and Roma over the films that won in the past four years. So, what I'm trying to say is, you probably shouldn't trust me in this category, especially since I have not seen any of the nominated films at the time of nomination for the first time since the Best Picture field expanded to more than five nominees in 2010.

With nine nominees becoming the standard, it's normally easy to group them into three categories based on their prominence and ability to win the big award - but this year seems different, with at least five or six movies that would seem to have a strong narrative to win Best Picture and another two or three that can make a case; that said, each of those eight movies also have a narrative against them that could develop over the next few weeks.

If I had to group them, I would say that the frontrunners are 1917 and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, as I find it hard to see a case for Joker to actually win (though it would be the most Oscarsiest thing ever for Joker winning Best Picture to be the way to finally recognize the superhero genre), and that the only nominee of the nine that seems likely to not win and not really gather much momentum in other categories is Ford v. Ferrari.

That leaves the middle group - the films that maybe could win, but will probably be awarded elsewhere (or maybe not at all) - as the largest, including: The IrishmanJojo RabbitJokerLittle Women; Marriage Story; and Parasite. In short, it feels like a mostly wide-open year, and with a shorter Oscar season, it seems as though the outcome is far from guaranteed. The Irishman could actually become the latest film to get blanked after receiving ten or more nominations, given this group of nominees.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, on the other hand, has the cachet of being a production about Hollywood with some of its biggest stars of the past quarter-century both in front of and behind the camera. There are some problematic discussions both of the content in the movie and Quentin Tarantino's career in general, but there is also a strong "he's due" case that's being made, in addition to the "this is the kind of movie that helps remind us of what movies are like" narrative that has developed since the summer.

1917 has a lot going for it, and I think it has the momentum right now with its wins at the Golden Globes and the Producers' Guild, as well as the advantage of having a sense of being political without actually having any current political stakes. OUATiH was the odds-on favourite right after the nominations, but I think there's a good chance that 1917 will keep coming on strong after its recent wins and box-office success, so I'm leaning toward 1917 to win right now. But chances are that I'll be wrong no matter who I pick.

Best Director: The biggest story here is that Greta Gerwig was omitted, leaving it as an all-male category yet again. Todd Phillips is just happy to be here for Joker, but each of the other four could win. Bong Joon Ho will probably be awarded elsewhere, but then again, Cuaron won this award and Best International Feature last year, so it's possible Ho will win for Parasite. Although there could be a move to give it to Scorsese to validate his career (in addition to his win for The Departed), I tend to think it will go to Quentin Tarantino, who has never won this award, over Sam Mendes for 1917. But it could go either way; my early pick is that they give this to QT as a way to acknowledge his work over the past three decades.

Best Actor: I don't see a way that this doesn't go to Joaquin Phoenix for Joker, but also for his entire body of work . Driver seems too young, DiCaprio won recently, and Banderas and Pryce seem mostly happy to be there. For that matter, though, the entire slate of Acting nominees is entirely uninteresting this year, with all four having highly favoured nominees.

Best Actress: Renee Zellweger seems poised to win for Judy, and that's probably a lock. But if there were an upset, I'd pick Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story over Saoirse Ronan in Little Women.

Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt being nominated along with four previous winners seems like a lock for Pitt to finally get an Oscar for his role in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.

Best Supporting Actress: This category consists of one previous winner, three young actresses (well, Scarlett Johansson isn't exactly young anymore, but I think it still fits the general narrative), and the much-beloved Laura Dern, who should win for Marriage Story.

Best Original Screenplay: Will Tarantino win his third writing Oscar (tying him with Woody Allen), or will Noah Baumbach win for Marriage Story? Or maybe Bong Joon Ho for Parasite? I have a poor track record in this category, but my early hunch is that it could be Bong Joon Ho winning for a screenplay in another language.

Best Adapted Screenplay: It seems like this should go to Greta Gerwig, as she has adapted a much-beloved work, was snubbed for Directing, and didn't win for Lady Bird two years ago because she was up against Jordan Peele for Get Out. Her main competition is probably Todd Phillips for Joker, but I think we'll see Greta get an Oscar.

Best Animated Feature: I have no idea. Toy Story 4 might seem to be the frontrunner, but I have a sense that this could go weird - like I Lost My Body weird. But it's probably Toy Story 4. But maybe not.

Other Technical Categories: I'm assuming that these will mostly be divided among the Best Picture nominees, with 1917 picking up two or three awards of the eight (Cinematography; Costume Design; Film Editing; Makeup and Hairstyling; Production Design; Sound Editing; Sound Mixing; Visual Effects). I imagine that most of the main contenders will get an award here, too.

My prediction records since 2005

For the record, here are my results by category and by year since I've been publicly predicting the awards in this forum. As you can see, I have been particularly poor at predicting Best Picture most years, but I have only had two really bad years in which I have missed more than three of these nine categories; in fact, my most common result is 8/9 (five times), and I only miss one or two awards (at least 7/9 correct) 60 % of the time, so chances are I will mostly be correct in my final picks - except for Best Picture, of course.

Results by category:
Best Picture: 6/15 (missed 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019)
Best Director: 12/15 (missed 2011, 2013, 2015)
Best Actor: 12/15 (missed 2007, 2009, 2017)
Best Actress: 12/15 (missed 2008, 2012, 2019)
Best Supporting Actor: 13/15 (missed 2007, 2013)
Best Supporting Actress: 13/15 (missed 2006, 2008)
Best Original Screenplay: 9/15 (missed 2005, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2019)
Best Adapted Screenplay: 12/15 (missed 2008, 2010, 2015)
Best Animated Feature: 12/15 (missed 2007, 2013, 2015)

Results by year:
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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