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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

Gerald Schmitz


Guess who wins when Oscarland meets Trumpland


Hardliners, despite their nationalities, political arguments and wars, regard and understand the world in very much the same way. In order to understand the world, they have no choice but to regard it as an “us and them” mentality, which they use to create a fearful image of “them” and inflict fear in the people of their own countries. . . . Instilling fear in the people is an important tool used to justify extremist and fanatic behaviour by narrow-minded individuals. . . . I hereby express my condemnation of the unjust conditions forced upon some of my compatriots and the citizens of the six other countries trying to legally enter the United States of America and hope that the current situation will not give rise to further divides between nations.
— Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, writer-director of the Oscar-nominated The Salesman

I had the privilege of meeting Farhadi during the 2012 Berlin film festival where he was serving on the jury. A few weeks later he was in Los Angeles to receive the best foreign-language film Oscar for his acclaimed drama A Separation. Sadly he won’t be in the city of stars on Feb. 26 where his latest film, a masterful adaptation of one of America’s greatest plays into an Iranian context, is a contender for the same honour. Trump’s ill-conceived selective Muslim-country ban makes no exemptions for artists. And even if Farhadi could be granted a special exception, he’s made it clear where he stands on principle.

America is no longer an example to the world.

When international relations scholar Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power,” it had nothing to do with being soft. Rather he was thinking of the tremendous power of America’s non-military means of persuasion. Sure the U.S. has a fearsome nuclear arsenal, used twice in 1945 and never since. Sure it can invade smaller weaker countries by choice. But far more influential has been the allure of the American way of life from “coca colonization” to the spread of American ideas and products worldwide. Look at the enormous presence of American media and culture in Canada — all of it imported and embraced without the need to rattle any sabres.

There may be no better example of soft power than Hollywood given the many-decades-long reach of American movies around the globe. The Academy Awards show this Sunday will have an audience of billions, with many viewers more attracted by the glitzy spectacle than the merits of particular movies, if they have seen them at all. This annual celebration is the Super Bowl of cinema, an ostentatious primetime display of wealth and success. Donald Trump should love it. But it’s likely he won’t this time.

To put it bluntly, Hollywood royalty loathes the vulgarian in the White House. Well over 60 per cent of Californians voted for Hillary, and among the entertainment elite it was probably over 90 per cent. At awards shows from the Golden Globes on, many have taken shots at the new president from the podium, unafraid of his angry tweets. Expect more this Sunday. Trump can fume all he wants but this is one global reality TV show he can’t win.

Looking ahead, here are my assessments for the major categories.

Best Picture

There are nine nominees of a possible 10, but one overwhelming favourite. With its record-tying 14 nominations, La La Land — set in Los Angeles and evocative of Hollywoodland — would seem to be a sure thing and certainly a popular choice. (A box-office hit, already grossing over $200 million, it’s also being screened in an IMAX version.) Call me a sucker for nostalgic escapist musical artifice, but it was the 2016 movie that most transported me. The only possible competition is from Manchester by the Sea (six nominations) and Moonlight (eight nominations). The most questionable title is Hacksaw Ridge and the biggest omission Scorsese’s passion project Silence (see PM review of Jan. 25).

Best Female Actor and Supporting Actor

Veteran French actress Isabelle Huppert for Elle is the only non-American nominee and she was also great in Things to Come. Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins) is a perennial nominee but I doubt she will get another chances to shame Trump as she did at the Golden Globes. Natalie Portman gave a stunning performance as the grieving Jackie Kennedy in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie. I’d give it to her. But Emma Stone may have a La La Land edge. Missing from the list are Amy Adams for Arrival and Annette Benning who was brilliant in 20th Century Women.

In supporting roles the race is probably among three African American actors, Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight), and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures), though Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) may have an outside chance if they split the vote.

Best Male Actor and Supporting Actor

Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) set the bar and deserves a golden statuette but could be upset by Ryan Gosling (La La Land) or Denzel Washington (Fences). Andrew Garfield, who won’t win for Hacksaw Ridge, deserved a nomination for Silence. The same could be said of Adam Driver (who also played a Jesuit priest in Silence) for his memorable role as the unassuming poet-bus driver named Paterson from Paterson, New Jersey in Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s ode to small-town America. While I didn’t much like Nocturnal Animals, for which Michael Shannon has a supporting nod, the un-nominated Jake Gyllenhaal was the best thing in it. The supporting race should be between Mahershala Ali for Moonlight and sentimental favourite Jeff Bridges for Hell or High Water.

Best Director

Damien Chazelle, who took the Directors Guild award, has to be considered the heavy favourite for La La Land and, having just turned 32, would be the youngest winner ever. The closest competition might be Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea or Barry Jenkins for Moonlight. Missing from the list are Garth Davis for Lion and Martin Scorsese for Silence.

Best Screenplay (Original and Adapted)

For original screenplay the contest will likely come down to Chazelle for La La Land and Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea, with an edge to Chazelle. Missing is Kelly Reichardt for the overlooked Certain Women. For adapted screenplay, I’d bet on either Jenkins for Moonlight or August Wilson for Fences, also based on an acclaimed play. Missing are Scorsese and Jay Cocks for Silence.

Best Cinematography

This was the only nomination for Silence and Rodrigo Prieto would be a deserving recipient. The odds however favour Linus Sandgren for La La Land.

Best Animated Feature

With omissions that include Finding Dory and The Jungle Book, I give the edge to another Disney/Pixar box-office hit Zootopia with its message of diversity and inclusion. My own choice would be the France/Belgium/Japan coproduction from the renowned Ghibli Studio, The Red Turtle, a wondrous dialogue-free fable about a castaway on a tropical island drawn into a mythic circle of life.

Best Foreign-Language Film

Most of world cinema gets squeezed into this single category chosen from selections submitted by many countries. (Canada’s was the Xavier Dolan misfire It’s Only the End of the World.) Denmark’s Land of Mine is excellent but a 2015 film as is Tanna, the Australia/Vanuatu production set on a remote Pacific island in the Yakel tribal language. I haven’t seen the latter or Sweden’s A Man Called Ove. Germany’s Toni Erdmann, a long savagely satirical take on a bizarre father-daughter relationship, has a good chance. Apart from Pedro Almodóvar’s Juileta (Spain) and Pablo Larraín’s Neruda (Chile), the big omission is France’s submission of Elle for which Huppert has a best actress nomination. Its controversial depiction of sexual assault was likely a factor. The aftermath of sexual assault is also central to the narrative of Iranian Asghar Farhadi’s finely wrought The Salesman, showing how it afflicts a husband and wife who are rehearsing roles for a staging of Arthur Miller’s play The Death of a Salesman. I hope it wins for reasons of both artistic and political integrity.

Best Documentary (Feature and Short Subject)

It is unusual to have a television series nominated, but O.J. Made in America was superlative and could win. The nominations are all strong though Life, Animated, about an autistic boy growing up, is somewhat of a surprise. Fire at Sea (Italy) about the refugee crisis on the island of Lampedusa was also Italy’s submission in the foreign-language category. In the current climate Academy voters could also make a politically resonant choice of either Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro which draws on the writings of James Baldwin, or Ava DuVernay’s 13th (available on Netflix), a powerful history of race, criminalization and incarceration in America. Omissions include multiple award winners like Tower, about the 1966 Texas university mass shootings, and Gleason, about a former football star suffering from ALS.

In the short film category I want to draw attention to The White Helmets (available on Netflix) by director Orlando von Einsiedel, whose feature-length Virunga was Oscar nominated in 2015. It’s a riveting intimate look at the several thousand Syrian civil defence workers who are the first responders when regime and Russian war planes rain death from the skies. Many of these humanitarian heroes have been killed. Their courage to carry on keeps hope alive in the midst of terrible suffering.

*Last month’s Sundance festival premiered a number of outstanding new documentaries, notably one on the Syrian white helmets in Aleppo. More on these in next week’s column.