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.

Conclusion

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)

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Final Oscar Picks 2021

Well, here we are at the end of April and the end of a rather uninspiring movie awards season. Most of the expected winners have won when they were supposed to win, and there seems to be very little mystery heading into the Academy Awards tomorrow night, other than what the ceremony itself will look like - though I am confident that it will at least be an interesting and unique show, as it will be hosted in Union Station and produced by Steven Soderbergh.

But regardless of how interesting the telecast may be (or not), it is not an understatement to say that this has been a fairly bland and uninteresting season and that the extra two months may not have made any kind of significant difference other than helping what little enthusiasm there may have been dissipate even more than it would have. (To be fair, at least two of the eight Best Picture nominees seem to have benefitted from the extension, but I cannot imagine that the studios releasing The Father and Judas and the Black Messiah would not have found a way to get those movies out in 2020 if it had really mattered. But I digress.)

This Oscars has the "fait accompli" feel of a lot of NBA seasons in which everyone is just waiting for the two best teams to meet in the Finals (like Golden State and Cleveland for four years in a row). But then, every once in a while, there's a team like the Raptors that comes out of nowhere and wins a title, or a completely wide open year in which there are a dozen teams in the mix, and that's enough to bring the fans all back in.

We have actually been fairly privileged to have had a run of five consecutive years with some very interesting storylines and a number of key surprises come Oscar night. The last really boring year was 2015 - the year of Birdman's dominance (which hasn't aged really well - especially the fact that Michael Keaton did not win Best Actor that year, which is arguably the one award that it really deserved to win). 

Every year since then has had some kind of controversy or a duel between two or three strong contenders or a significant surprise in a major category on Oscar night: Spotlight upsetting The Revenant and The Big Short and Mad Max: Fury Road dominating in 2016; Moonlight over La La Land and the whole final debacle in 2017; The Shape of Water actually pulling off a kind-of expected win over upstarts like Get Out and Lady Bird in 2018; the dominance of Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book beating Roma in 2019; and, of course, Parasite taking Best Picture over 1917 in 2020. 

Some of those choices have aged very well and some not so much (it's not hard to figure out which is which). Whatever the result, this extended run of engaging races and surprises - at least at the Best Picture level - is mostly unprecedented at the Oscars, as most years are fairly rote and predictable. The only other years with any kind of significant surprises in the three decades I have been watching the Oscars were 1999 (Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan); 2006 (Crash over Brokeback Mountain) 2006; and 2010 (The Hurt Locker over Avatar). Otherwise, these nights usually end up being fairly predictable - as evidenced by my overall success in prognostication (other than Best Picture).

It's possible - maybe even probable? - that there will be at least one surprise win in a significant category this year, but I - along with many pundits - am struggling to see what it might be (outside of whoever wins Best Actress). I guess we'll find out tonight, so here are my picks, with commentary added as needed.

Major awards


Picture: Nomadland
Director: Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
Actor: Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Actress: Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
Supporting Actor: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Supporting Actress: Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari
Original Screenplay: Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman
Adapted Screenplay: Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller, The Father
Animated Feature: Soul

The main categories just don't seem that complicated this year. Nomadland has run the table, and its closest competition for Picture is probably The Trial of the Chicago 7, which has nowhere near the juice that Green Book had two years ago; also, a lot of people that year really did not like Roma, and people seem to like Nomadland well enough in this year's crop of films. It's kind of weird that it looks like it will win both Picture and Director, given that that seems to not happen nearly as frequently in recent years, but I'm going with it for both (which means it likely won't win Best Picture, given my recent track record). 

So I'm mostly going with the general consensus in these main categories with a couple of exceptions. The first is that I think that voters will want to give an award to The Father, and so I'm picking it to win over Nomadland in Adapted Screenplay. The second is Best Actress, which is by far the most unpredictable category this year - and honestly, that's a refreshing change, since it's usually veeerrrry predictable. (I have gotten it wrong only three times in sixteen years myself: I had Julie Christie over Marion Cotillard in 2008; I had Viola Davis over Meryl Streep in 2012; and I had Glenn Close over Olivia Colman in 2019 - all defensible choices at the time.) Bottom line: Best Actress is usually fairly straightforward, and it's really fun to have a wide-open race this year.

It feels like four of the five could win (sorry, Vanessa Kirby), but I think it will come down to Viola Davis and Carey Mulligan. They're both incredibly well-liked actresses delivering very showy performances in well-nominated movies, and they both have historical precedents that point to the possibility of victory. I think if Mulligan had one just one of the precursors since the nominations other than the Independent Spirit Awards that this would not even be close, but she didn't so it is. I think the fact that Promising Young Woman earned a Best Picture nomination points to an affinity for that film, and Mulligan is arguably the main reason for that, and I think people will point to Davis' recent Oscar win as well as reason not to vote for her again. So I'm picking Mulligan - but it's by far my least sure pick of any of the major categories.

Technical Awards


Cinematography: Nomadland
Costume Design: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Editing: The Trial of the Chicago 7
Makeup and Hairstyling: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Production Design: Mank
Sound: Sound of Metal
Visual Effects: Tenet

It feels like this is mostly a "spread the love" year in these categories, and I'm mostly going with that vibe combined with the movies that won their respective guild awards with one exception: Tenet. I think that Tenet will win Visual Effects over The Midnight Sky since I think that voters are going to appreciate what Christopher Nolan accomplished visually, even if they had no idea what was actually happening in the movie; also, both Inception and Interstellar won in this category in the past decade, and people just usually enjoy the experience of a Nolan film. (For what it's worth, Tenet was the best movie I saw in theaters last year. Of course, it was also the only movie I saw in theaters last year, so, y'know.)

Other Non-Technical Awards and Final Thoughts


Documentary: My Octopus Teacher
International Feature: Another Round
Score: Soul
Song: "Speak Now", One Night In Miami...

There's not much to add here, other than the fact that the latter three of these awards seem to mostly be awarding movies that people like that did not make the Best Picture cut. I don't even bother picking the Short Film categories (Animated, Live Action, and Documentary), so those are my twenty picks (a nice round number after Sound was finally consolidated into one category) for this year's Academy Awards.

Overall, if things go the way they are expected to go, I think I - and many other movie fans - will feel pretty good about the results. Although there may have been some of the same kind of "awards season fatigue" and early leaders, this group of films - although rather unremarkable in a historical sense - is just a good collection that helps viewers feel okay - and isn't that mostly what we need right now? 

There is also a sense of impending catharsis in regard to the expected diversity reflected by the nominees and the projected winners and the nature of the ideas they represent. The fact that it's possible that Picture, Director, and both Screenplays could be won by women (if Nomadland wins Screenplay as many expect it to) is incredible. Furthermore, the fact that it's possible - maybe even likely - that all four acting awards could be won by people of color was unthinkable in the recent years of #OscarssoWhite (2016 and 2017). 

As long as things go like they're expected to go, this could be a year that represents a solidification of the shift that has been taking place over the past decade (with the notable exception of Green Book in 2019). So let's hope that things go right and that this is a positive step forward for the Academy - and also that I finally pick Best Picture correctly.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Exploring the MCU Mul-TV-erse

It's weird to think that there was a time when not only was the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) not the dominant monocultural presence, but when it was not clear if it would even work. Iron Man was seen as a huge gamble before its release in 2008 - at least until it became a huge hit. The rest of Phase 1 was much more suspect, and most of those subsequent releases from 2008 to 2011 were - and still are - widely regarded as some of the weakest in the MCU, which led to skepticism before the release of The Avengers in May 2012.

That was almost a decade ago, and it seems kind of quaint now that anyone ever doubted the entire enterprise in the first place. Sure, this level of corporate and creative synergy was really quite unprecedented, but upon reflection, the roots of the MCU's future success were fully in place even at that point. 

Once The Avengers blew the doors off of the opening weekend record, all bets were off, and the template was established for all future success: the introduction of several new franchises and characters; the expectation of billion-dollar returns on most properties, and a surprisingly nimble combination of popular and critical acclaim that even resulted in a Best Picture nomination for Black Panther.

Marvel Phase 4
This is a really interesting inflection point for the MCU, as WandaVision recently ended what is likely to be the only gap of more than a month in the introduction of new content for at least the next decade (if not two) - a "blip", if you will - judging by the amount of content already announced for Phase Four (12 movies, 12 TV series, and a TV holiday special confirmed to be released by the end of 2023). 

It's an overwhelming amount of upcoming content for even the most seasoned Marvel fan, so this presents a great opportunity to consider not only the past but also the possibilities of the MCU before it doubles in size (!) in the next two years.

A new (tele)vision for the MCU

I never really got into the "television" wing of the MCU such as it was in Phases Two and Three of the MCU. I watched a few episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but it didn't stick for me, mostly because it seemed like a "TV version" of the MCU. Of course, that's exactly what it was and what it was supposed to be, but that didn't really appeal to me; neither did other Marvel shows like Agent CarterCloak & Dagger, or Runaways (among others). They all seemed a bit too removed from the main action, and I did not feel any need to experience them to understand the full MCU experience.

I watched the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones and an episode of Luke Cage on Netflix out of interest, but none of them captured my attention enough to watch the subsequent seasons or other related shows on Netflix (Iron Fist, The Defenders, The Punisher). It was interesting to see a more "adult" depiction of the MCU, and some of the characters were intriguing (especially Jones, Cage, and Wilson Fisk), but it just felt like too much to keep watching (the two full seasons I watched could both have benefitted from being several episodes shorter).

I suppose that was kind of the point of these different mini-universes - that the MCU would be large enough to contain and offer myriad stories for interested viewers, but not confined enough that they would all have to be necessary to the integrity of the whole of the MCU. After all, even the times when MCU TV interacted more directly with the movies - such as how the big Hydra reveal in Captain America: The Winter Soldier immediately affected Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - were mostly a bonus, rather than quintessential viewing.

I was intrigued when Marvel Studios took the television wing of the MCU under its own umbrella because that "arm's length" removal changed immediately with the announcement of the first few projects: WandaVision; The Falcon and the Winter Soldier; and Loki. Now the new TV wing of the MCU would be fully integrated into the larger narrative, and characters both major and minor would transition between the movies and television. New series would no longer be a "TV version" of the MCU; they would be entries of the MCU that best fit the episodic series format, whether in limited or continuing form.

The possibilities for storytelling immediately opened up, and the MCU was no longer committed to having to introduce characters as side characters in films or in their own origin stories; characters old and new could be developed in a vitally creative format that reflects the new reality of television as more of a creative equal to film than it ever has been. And the first MCU episodic series - which also ended up being the introduction of Phase Four, thanks to several unexpected pandemic production delays - is a perfect example of the new Vision of the MCU.

Previously on WandaVision

Let me say this first: I really enjoyed WandaVision overall, and I think it worked really well as an introduction to the new MCU television presence and a re-introduction to the MCU in general. I thought the conceit of the show - the use and replication of established sitcom styles and tropes - was inspired and well-executed, and that even the "real-world" aspects of the show were interesting and dynamic. 

What really made WandaVision work, in my opinion, were the performances. Elizabeth Olsen was fantastic as Wanda, especially as she had to convey emotional depth and complexity in so many different styles and tropes. I would put her work in the "Breaking the Fourth Wall" episode up with the top performances in the MCU, and it was especially heartening to see, given that the character has not had the best track record in the series. 

Paul Bettany was delightful and deep as Vision, and I really enjoyed Randall Park and Kat Dennings' performances in their returns to their supporting roles. Kathryn Hahn was a sheer delight in her ever-changing role as Agnes. Teyonah Parris brought an unexpected pathos in her role as Monica Rambeau, and I look forward to seeing her feature more in future MCU efforts (like Captain Marvel 2).

I will acknowledge that the final third of the show, when it moved toward a more typical resolution and some typical one-on-one CGI battles, was perhaps a slight clich├ęd, but there were still enough interesting pieces of character development to make the ending narratively and emotionally compelling - thanks largely to the work of the two stars of the show, who helped lift the entire show beyond the typical Marvel melodrama.

It did seem, however, like the ending was a bit rushed, which was confirmed afterward by the showrunner and director. They expressed that the original intention was for the show to run for ten episodes, but that the changes in production due to the pandemic resulted in the decimation of the series (in the literal sense of the word meaning "losing ten per cent") and the compression of material into one final episode.

I also found it interesting to observe the general dialogue about the show, whether that was the compulsive chronicling of easter eggs or the internet industrial complex of fan theories which varied from reasonable (Agnes' true identity) to completely unhinged (Al Pacino as Mephisto). It seems like some of the people who were disappointed in the show's ending wanted there to be more than there was, rather than appreciating it for what it was.

I think what was key to my enjoyment was an early acknowledgement on my part of what the show was likely to be - a way to move these two characters to a new point in their story in the same way a film does. It did not seem to be meant to be a story that could go on for seasons; there was a finite end from the start, much like a movie presents to its viewers. It just happened to be better to present this particular entry as an episodic series than a movie, and it worked as both a "puzzle-box" show and an entry in the larger MCU. 

I'm not sure exactly where I would rank it in regard to the entire MCU, but it's definitely in the top half and maybe even in my top ten (of twenty-four total entries to date, not including the previous television shows on Netflix, ABC, and Hulu. (I'll have a better idea after rewatching a few more movies and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier over the next six weeks.)

Conclusion: My MCU fandom

I thoroughly enjoy being a fan of the MCU and all that role entails: the speculation; the anticipation; the excitement; and the enjoyment of the final product. I watched all but two entries (The Incredible Hulk in 2008 and Thor: The Dark World in 2013) in theatres, and I have no intention of missing the theatrical experience for any future movies (as long as it's safe to go to theatres, of course) or the communal experience of watching current and future TV entries as they stream weekly. 

For the record, there are only three MCU movies that I would not rank at least as "okay", and probably only five of the other twenty just as "okay" and/or not rewatchable - and neither of those qualifiers really applies to any movies released since Thor: The Dark World in Phase Two. In terms of return on investment, it's as close as possible to a guarantee that I will enjoy a Marvel movie and that it will be worth my time and money, even as an experience and for participating in the zeitgeist.

I totally understand that the MCU is not everyone's thing, and I can respect that, but I really enjoy that all of these stories that I have enjoyed for almost my entire life (at least since I collected Marvel cards from 1991 to 1993) are mainstream popular culture that present a way to engage some significant emotional and cultural realities - or at least that provide some level of entertainment and fun.

I don't know that it's worth it to rank my excitement about the announced movies and TV series, but suffice to say that I intend to watch them all. Of the TV shows coming this year - The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, What If?, Ms. Marvel, and Hawkeye - I am perhaps most interested in Loki because of its kind of bonkers premise. Of the announced shows coming in 2022 and beyond - Moon Knight, She-Hulk, Armor Wars, Ironheart, I Am GrootSecret Invasion, and an untitled Wakanda series - there are two that stand out: Moon Knight because of the presence of Oscar Isaac (!) and Ethan Hawke (!!); and Secret Invasion because of the possibilities of the storyline.

I don't know if I can even determine which of the movies intrigue me most, since most of them have something that piques my interest. Marvel has recruited some very interesting filmmakers for their newer properties (Black WidowShang-Chi and the Ten Rings; The Eternals), as well as for sequels (Taiki Waititi for Thor: Love and Thunder and Sam Raimi for Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness).

There are stories that will provide some sense of conclusion to their respective trilogies (at least as much as there can be in the MCU) - Spider-Man: No Way HomeAnt-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 - as well as sequels that will present interesting opportunities to advance their respective franchises in unexpected ways (Black Panther II and Captain Marvel 2). That's quite the list for the next two years - oh, and then there's Fantastic Four and Blade.

And that's not even including the confirmed titles coming in Phase Five - Deadpool 3 - or the heavily rumoured titles coming in 2023 or beyond - Young Avengers, A-Force, Miles Morales, or Secret Wars - or even the X-Men, which were an entire cinematic universe of their own for two decades. Let's just say that it seems as though Marvel will not run out of material anytime soon - or ever, for that matter.

I am really interested in the ways that the MCU is diversifying its roster of key characters through both movies and television by introducing more strong female characters as well as new heroes of different cultural backgrounds (the lack of which, at least through the first two Phases of the MCU, was one of the most meaningful criticisms of the entire enterprise). 

It will be interesting, however, to see whether the MCU will be able to maintain its structural integrity with the dozens of new characters that it will be introducing and the continued parallel development of movies and episodic series (I'm not even sure they should be called "TV shows" at this point, honestly). The past decade would seem to indicate that they can keep things on track, but I really do wonder if there will be a point at which there is too much content to follow and whether viewers with more of a passing interest in the MCU will start to depart from accessing the entirety of its offerings. 

Of course, I'm in too far already and I enjoy the MCU too much to leave now. To paraphrase one of the great early showrunners: "I am in Marvel stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er." (Macbeth 3.4.142-144). 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

2021 Early Oscar Predictions

It's really strange to be writing this post both at this point in the year, but also writing it at all, really. With all of the weirdness of the past year, it feels surreal and superficial to be interested in something as silly as the Oscars - but it is also somewhat refreshing to have something "normal" to think about, even if the Oscars are anything but "normal" this year (much like any other aspect of life).

And yet, here we are, two months later than usual, with about six weeks to go until the actual ceremony takes place on April 25. It has been interesting to take note of the overall dialogue about the season so far as various voices have been reflecting on how this delayed schedule and the general abnormality of the year will affect this awards season. The common conclusion seems to be that the only real difference between this year and previous years is that the absence of a number of expected favourites has opened the door for some smaller nominees to emerge and perhaps allowed for more (sorely long-overdue) diversity to thrive.

But in terms of the season itself and how it will unfold, it mostly seems kind of typical for the Oscars. There are a few films that are dominating the conversation, and many of the races seem to be locked in place already - at least in terms of the contenders, if not the final results. If anything, the races seem a bit more calcified than usual because of the extra two months added to this year's calendar - but I suppose it remains to be seen if they stay that way.

Overall thoughts on the nominations

It feels really weird to think that it seems as though the Oscars actually kind of mostly got things right (with a couple of notable exceptions). It seems like the fact that many high-profile possible theatrical contenders vacated their release dates helped a number of smaller films not only enter but actually come to dominate the awards season conversation. Also, there seemed to be fewer films that did not receive a level of recognition in nominations in accordance with their general cultural reception.

There are arguments to be made that Ma Rainey's Black Bottom or One Night in Miami... or Soul deserved Best Picture nominations, and that films like News of the World were also overlooked, but each of those films still received at least three nominations, so it's not like they were completely ignored. I would contend that this year's slate is fairly balanced and reflective of the year in film - weird though it was.

This year feels most like 2015, when Birdman emerged as the early frontrunner and flew through the season in what ended up being a less significant year for movies overall. It was an "okay" year for movies, but there was no one single movie that stood out then (or now) as memorable excellent with the possible exception of Whiplash

This year is kind of similarly unremarkable in regard to the overall slate of films. Many of the main contenders are "good, but not great", which is pretty much how I feel about any of the movies I have seen at this point. But that's not going to stop me from picking which movies seem the most likely to win at this early point in the race.

Predicting the main races

Best Picture: Since the category was reduced from ten nominees to "between five and ten nominees" starting in 2012, there have been either eight or nine nominees for this award; there are eight this year, which was a little surprising as at least one of the movies that was left out (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) was a presumed lock for a nomination. As has been the case in the past decade, most of the nominees overlap with the ten nominees for the PGA award, with the one notable international and/or indie exception (this year, it's The Father). And, as is also the case every year, there are only a couple of movies that are actually contending to win - a short list that does not include Mank, which seems likely only to earn a couple of technical awards despite receiving the most nominations by far.

The presumptive favorite is Nomadland and it would be shocking at this point if anything else won; then again, in the past six years, the presumptive favourites have lost each time. Unlike previous years, however, it is unclear which movie will emerge as the "other" favourite to win; my bet is that Judas and the Black Messiah will present the biggest challenge to Nomadland. But given my recent track record, it doesn't matter which one I pick, since the other one will probably win.

Best Director: Chloe Zhao is going to win for Nomadland; she's run the table throughout awards season so far, and there is no chance that the Oscars, after nominating two women in the category for the first time, will not award one of them; of the two, it's Zhao.

Best Actor: This feels like a lock for Chadwick Boseman - and he deserves it for his performance in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. His competition will come from Anthony Hopkins in The Father, but the main story here is that Delroy Lindo was not nominated for Da 5 Bloods.

Best Actress: This is a very interesting category, as there is really only one nominee who has no chance to win (Vanessa Kirby). Andra Day has an outside chance for her performance as Billie Holiday (think of Marion Cotiallard winning for La Vie en Rose in 2008), although I don't think it's likely that she wins. Frances McDormand and Viola Davis are recent Oscar winners who could both win for their respective performances in Nomadland and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - but I think the feeling will be that they have both been honored recently enough that they won't win. The fact that Promising Young Woman earned so many nominations and that Carey Mulligan has been significantly overlooked by the Academy since An Education will combine to bring her the trophy. 

Best Supporting Actor: Another lock here - this time for Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah.

Best Supporting Actress: This is another really interesting category in which anyone could win - including recent Best Actress winner Olivia Colman, who is running against Glenn Close here (as she did in Best Actress in 2019). Close is the presumed favourite after losing for The Wife to Colman, but her performance is in Hillbilly Elegy, a Netflix film which has been critically reviled, and she is the first performer since 1984 to be nominated for an Oscar and a Razzie for the same role.

In that light, it seems entirely possible that this award could go to Maria Bakalova for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm or Yuh-Jung Youn for Minari - but not likely to Amanda Seyfried for Mank. I'm going to hedge for now and say that Close is the early leader and probable winner; after all, isn't giving actors long-overdue Oscars for less-than-stellar roles kind of their modus operandi? Hoo ah! Hoo ah!

Best Original Screenplay: This is actually a really interesting category this year, with all five nominees competing in Best Picture and only one recognizable name (former winner Aaron Sorkin) amidst four newcomers. I tend to think that this is where Promising Young Woman director and writer Emerald Fennell will be recognized, although I would not be surprised to see Judas and the Black Messiah or Minari awarded here - basically, anyone but Sorkin could win. (I tend to think that The Trial of the Chicago 7 will not win any awards.)

Best Adapted Screenplay: There are only two Best Picture nominees included here - The Father and Nomadland - so it would seem that Nomadland might pull off the trifecta of Picture, Directing, and Screenplay. After all, there is a strong trend of the Screenplay awards connecting to at least one of those two other Awards over the past decade. Since the Best Picture field first expanded in 2010, there have been only two years in which neither of the Screenplay awards have gone to a movie that has won either Picture or Directing, and in both of those years (2012 and 2018), both Screenplay winners were nominated for Best Picture.

[As an aside - I did a quick survey of Screenplay winners going back thirty years. Out of sixty total winners, only seven were not nominated for Best Picture: Thelma & Louise (1992); The Usual Suspects (1996); Sling Blade (1997); Gods and Monsters (1999); Almost Famous (2001); Talk To Her (2003); and, most recently, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2005). Furthermore, there have been a total of only nine of those thirty years - 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2012, and 2018 - in which the winner of either Picture or Director has not also won a Screenplay award. Basically, if you win either of those two awards, a Screenplay award is likely, especially if you're nominated for Best Picture.]

So I guess that means that if Nomadland does not win here, The Father would win, unless another nominee really takes hold of the narrative, which does not seem very likely, given the history since 2005.

Best Animated Feature: Soul seems like the obvious winner here, considering that there is a not-insignificant portion of the Academy that feels like it could (should?) have been nominated for Best Picture.

Other Categories: It's hard to know what to expect, but this seems like the kind of year when almost every major nominated movie - the eight Best Picture nominees, plus the other three or four main films (Soul, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, News of the World, One Night in Miami...) will win (or perhaps just contend for) at least one award.

One of the more interesting narratives is whether Chloe Zhao will win four Oscars in one night - the three for Picture, Director, and Screenplay, as well as one for Film Editing. There have been a few recent examples of films dominating this way: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu with three in 2015 for Birdman (Picture, Director, Original Screenplay); Alfonso Cuaron with three in 2019 for Roma (Director, Cinematography, and Foreign Language Film); and Bong Joon-Ho with four in 2020 for Parasite (Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and Foreign Language Film). (Technically, the awards for Foreign Language Film go to the country instead of the director, but in reality, Cuaron and Bong won those awards.) The recent trend means that it's not entirely unprecedented to win this many awards, but it's certainly going to be interesting to see if a female filmmaker can dominate Oscar Night in the same way.

My prediction records since 2005

With the notable exception of Best Picture, I would consider myself to be quite good at picking the winners over the years. In all but three of the main nine categories I have picked since 2005, I have at least an 81% accuracy rate, and I have a 75% accuracy rate overall (including my terrible record in Best Picture); without Best Picture, that rate increases to 79.6%. 

So basically, I'm really good at this - except for picking Best Picture, for which I have picked the "other" film six years in a row (four-and-a-half picks of which were entirely defensible). That said, I do really want to get Best Picture right this year and break this embarrassing streak. For the record, here's my history of predicting the Oscars since 2005.

Results by category:

Best Picture: 6/16 (missed 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020)
Best Actor: 13/16 (missed 2007, 2009, 2017)
Best Actress: 13/16 (missed 2008, 2012, 2019)
Best Supporting Actor: 14/16 (missed 2007, 2013)
Best Supporting Actress: 14/16 (missed 2006, 2008)
Best Original Screenplay: 10/16 (missed 2005, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2019)
Best Adapted Screenplay: 13/16 (missed 2008, 2010, 2015)
Best Animated Feature: 13/16 (missed 2007, 2013, 2015)
Best Director: 12/16 (missed 2011, 2013, 2015, 2020)

Results by year:

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)

Conclusion


I don't really feel much of a personal connection to this year's slate of films - or really to movies in general right now; I just don't watch many movies at this point in my life. It's not that I don't have interest in these movies or movies general; it's just more the combination of the challenge of finding time to sit down and watch a full movie in the course of an evening and the relative lack of social connection over movies in general or any one movie in particular. 

In the past year, I have come to realize just how much movies have morphed into a primarily social activity for me, whether in the actual watching or the conversation afterward, and neither of those aspects are very present in my life right now. That said, I am actually interested in most of the nominated films, even though I have only watched three of the main films nominated - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Mank, and One Night in Miami... - and those were in a span of three days when I was in self-isolation. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Soul have been available for me to watch for months, so I just need to prioritize actually watching them. My priority order for the other main contenders would be (in order): Nomadland; Sound of Metal (Riz Ahmed has been amazing for years); Promising Young Woman (Carey Mulligan has been underappreciated for a decade); and Minari

But then again, I might just keep rewatching the MCU - in particular The Winter Soldier and Civil War - thanks to the upcoming premiere of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, which concludes the same weekend as the Academy Awards take place. So, on April 25, we will know the winners of the Oscars and we might even know who gets the mantle of Captain America. It should be a fun six weeks on either front.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Mario Memories

I have been spending some time with everyone's favourite plucky plumber since the release of the Super Mario Bros. 35th Anniversary Nintendo Direct last September: playing Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy on the Super Mario 3D All-Stars Collection; (mostly) finishing Paper Mario: The Origami King; and recently alternating between replaying Super Mario 3D World and playing through the DLC-sized Bowser's Fury.

As usual, I have been enjoying my time spent in the Mushroom Kingdom (and whatever other various locales Mario traverses in his travels), and as I have been (re-)playing various games, I have been thinking of how to observe Mario Day this year in a blog post. I have written about Mario surprisingly infrequently over the years, mostly in short passing comments in other posts; here are some previous posts that stick out, along with brief descriptions of their content:

  • Super Mario Awesomeness (December 2008): A brief ranking of Mario games written after playing through Galaxy for the first time.
  • The True Appeal of Mario (May 2014): A brief analysis of why Mario matters. I'm proud not only of the analysis itself, which I think holds up well as a distillation of why Mario is so effective, but also of my encouragement for Nintendo to pursue an open-world Mario three years before the announcement of Super Mario Odyssey.
  • Ranking the Mario Games: the Power-ups (May 2014): My initial playthrough of Super Mario 3D World seems to have provided a creative impulse to think about Mario, as I then ranked the main platform games by their power-ups.
  • It's A-Me, Mario: Ranking the Mario Franchises (March 10, 2016): On the last time I wrote about Mario on "Mario Day", I ranked the various franchises and off-shoots of the Mario brand. I think the rankings mostly hold up five years later.

I thought about trying to do some more rankings or to attempt to establish a Mario canon or various other ideas, but I realized two things: first, I still have a few gaps in my Mario history (mostly in Mario franchises that branch off from the main series); and second, that I didn't really want to do that right now. 

I decided that I would observe this Mario Day by sharing some of my favourite experiences of the series over the years. I have shared some of these before in those earlier posts, but never in as much detail or in one place. So here are ten of my favourite Mario memories, in (mostly) chronological order.

The early years (NES/SNES)

1. Super Mario Bros: The Movie: There was a lot of hype when this movie was set to release in 1993 - the same summer as Jurassic Park. I was ten years old when this movie released, and although I remember seeing it in theatres - one of the first movies for which I can clearly recall the theatrical experience - I do not remember much about it at all, except that it's really weird and that there was a joke about the Bros.' last name being Mario.

I have not watched it since that initial viewing, and although it has been maligned significantly over the past three decades, it has also achieved cult status despite not being widely available - likely largely because Nintendo would like everyone to forget that an off-beat 90s movie riff on Mario ever happened. I'm going to work on tracking down a copy to watch in the near future.

2. Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES): I first remember discovering the existence of SMB3 in the movie The Wizard, but my memories of the game go so much further. There are so many moments in the game that stick out - Kuribo's Shoe; the tanooki suit; that angry sun; the pipe world - but if I had to pick one moment, it would be when you enter World 4 for the first time and realize that everything is huge compared to you. That world - and really the entire game - did so much to subvert existing expectations and to establish new ones that the Mario series is still following some of these patterns over two decades later.

3. Super Mario World (SNES): It took a couple of years before my sister and I were able to afford a Super Nintendo, but when we did, we made it worth our time and money. Super Mario World was the pack-in game, and for a time the only game we owned, so I played it all the way through. It was such a vibrant and creative game, and it had secret endings inside the levels - a concept that blew my mind as a ten-year-old. 

Perhaps nothing symbolized that mind-blowing nature more than the challenges of the Special World: eight bonus levels with names like Gnarly, Tubular, and Funky that were only accessible from the already secretly accessed levels in the Star World. Those Special levels were unique and challenging, and I still take pride in completing all of them at a relatively young age.

The mid-90s (SNES/N64)

4. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island (SNES): Although I do not consider this a Mario game in terms of the "canon" of Mario platforming games, it is still part of the Mario franchise, and I include it here because of my memorable experience with the game. I rented the game over the Christmas holidays when I was 12 years old (back when you could rent games for a few days - remember that?), and I started playing it around 9 pm on one of those January nights before school started. 

Somehow, I managed to evade my parents and keep playing late, and I found myself playing from the start of the game all through the night into the wee hours of the morning. I made it all the way to the final boss around 5 am, at which point my mom heard the clacking of the buttons and came upstairs and (rightfully) yelled at me to go to sleep.

5. Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars (SNES): I could pick dozens of moments from this game, which stands out as one of my all-time favourites. I play through it every few years (I think I'm at four full playthroughs at this point), and I have so many favourite moments that it's really hard to choose any one moment or character or area that sticks out.

I think that the section of the game from Booster's Tower to Star Hill is probably my favourite stretch of the game, as that is when the team comes fully together and the rest of the plot of the game is set up. I just really enjoy the way that each of the main characters - as well as most of the secondary characters and villains are established - and I would love for Nintendo to develop a true sequel to this game. 

I know that Paper Mario started off as a sequel, and although it is a fun game and started an enjoyable series of its own, it's not a true sequel to Super Mario RPG. I just want to see more of Geno and Booster and Mallow and Valentina and all of the other wacky characters; put Geno in Super Smash Bros. and then launch the game from there, Nintendo!

6. Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64): Another game in which I could pick hundreds of moments, but the one that always sticks out to me is the first time you look up in the lobby of Peach's Castle and get to use the Wing Cap.

7. Mario Kart 64 (Nintendo 64): There are other great entries in the franchise, but this was definitely the first peak of Mario Kart, and I think it still has the best battle arenas of the entire series. I cannot count the hours spent shooting red shells at my friends on Block Fort and Big Donut.

Recent Years (2008 to present)

8. Super Mario Galaxy (Wii): I enjoyed Super Mario Sunshine well enough at the time, but it was Galaxy that really recaptured my wonder at what a Mario game could be. A friend and I rented a Wii for his birthday and made a bucket of wings and spent the night playing through the game from start to final Bowser (we were both married and in our mid-20s, by the way). Galaxy 2 might have been an even better game, but nothing matched that initial experience of discovering new galaxies and power-ups.

9. New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Wii): It was great to have a playable side-scrolling Mario game on a console (and not on a portable system), and NSMBWii delivered, especially with its multiplayer madness. Propeller Caps and Penguin Suits and stomping your opponents into oblivion all made for good times.

10. Super Mario Odyssey (Switch): It really is unbelievable how well Nintendo was able to innovate a series that seemed to perhaps have lost its creative mojo; Super Mario Galaxy 2, NSMB U and Super Mario 3D World were great games, but their main appeal was in repeating the successes of the past rather than doing anything really new. 

Then Odyssey blew the roof off and completely changed everything while still being familiar and accessible. There are so many moments I could choose in this game, but the one that really sticks out is the first time you get to control a T-Rex in the first new world you enter. I mean, c'mon - how awesome is that? 

Conclusion

I am certain that there are many more Mario memories in years to come, especially as I begin to introduce my own child to Mario in a few years. I have already started thinking about the best entry points to the series for him, since he will have close to four decades of established canon by the time he starts playing Mario games. (Super Mario 3D World might actually be my pick, by the way.)

And Nintendo should hold to its historical patterns, there will be more Mario memories to come. Bowser's Fury (the open-world game attached to the re-release of Super Mario 3D World) is an indication that Nintendo is still being very creative and innovative in its new content, and it's enough to tide me over until the next major Mario game (Odyssey 2, perhaps?) releases in the next couple of years (I hope).

I, of course, have some wishes for Nintendo, other than the aforementioned Super Mario RPG sequel and Super Mario Odyssey 2. I would love to see Mario Kart 9 feature a complete set of racers and tracks from all Mario Kart games (even if some of those are DLC). I would love to see more Mario sports games revived for current consoles; after all, in addition to Tennis and Golf (coming soon), Mario and company have also played baseball, soccer, basketball, hockey, dodgeball, volleyball, and football over the years, so why not bring some of those back?

Finally, I would also love to see releases of anthologies and/or remasters of the Mario Party series. Most of the games of the series are only available for their original consoles, and although I have owned several of Party games over the years, I currently only own Super Mario Party for the Switch; I do regret selling many of them now, but it was hard to keep them when their resale value was so high.

(In case you're wondering: there are 10 Mario Party games for consoles (1-3 for Nintendo 64; 4-7 for Gamecube; 8-10 for Wii/Wii U) and 6 for portable consoles (e-reader, Advance, DS, Island Tour, Star Rush, and The Top 100 mini-game anthology) to pull from, so it should not be too difficult to create an "Ultimate Mario Party" that includes many of the boards, mini-games, and characters from throughout the series.)

Mostly, I just hope that Nintendo keeps trying new things while still keeping true to what makes Mario great: relatability; simplicity; innovation; creativity; and replayability. Who knows if there are another 35 years of Mario to come, but he's definitely not done yet, and he's barely even showing his age. I can't wait to make more Mario Memories with my son in the next few years and for him to discover all the things that make Mario games so much fun.

Attribution

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