There’s a reason why big-budget superhero movies that take up so much commercial screen space are generally absent from awards season speculations except for a few special effects or technical categories. A few offer solid entertainment, if one likes that sort of thing, although more are a just plain awful waste of time. On the plus side, it’s worth celebrating several recent breakouts from the white macho superman genre. The year 2017 gave us the rousing spectacle of Wonder Woman. Now people of colour and African descent have their own comic superhero to cheer with the release of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, which earned back its $200 million mega-budget in just a few days of release.
Panther is helmed by Ryan Coogler, whose 2013 breakout feature, Fruitvale Station, won the Sundance grand jury prize, followed up by Creed in 2015. The star of those films, Michael B. Jordan, plays a villain here — N’Jadaka, abandoned as a child in California after his father was killed by the king of Wakanda, a mythical never-colonized African paradise of superior civilization and technology that exists on a parallel plane to the planet where black people suffer more than succeed. Wakanda’s ace is its possession of “vibranium,” the strongest element in the universe.
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is in line to be king, anointed by spiritual leader Zuri (Forest Whitaker, a producer on Fruitvale Station who plays the pastor in the Sundance hit Burden), after first surviving a ritual combat challenge. King T’Challa has a strong sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), and fearsome female warriors Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) at his side. T’Challa gains Black Panther superpowers as heroic protector by drinking a sacred purple potion. He’ll need them all and more after seemingly being vanquished by rival cousin N’Jadaka, who takes over the throne seeking to use vibranium for world domination. Of course T’Challa rises again and saves the day.
There’s a bad-guy white character, Klaue (Andy Serkis), who gets disposed of before matters get ultra-violent in the battle for Wakanda, in which another white guy, CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman), is on the good side. The principal scenario, however, is all black power, including roles for a tribal ruler, M’Baku (Winston Duke), and a sidekick, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, best-actor nominee for Get Out). The production design is spectacular, with cinematography by Rachel Morrison (the first woman to be Oscar nominated in this category for Mudbound). The story is convoluted but satisfying enough to set up the inevitable sequels.
On to the 90th Academy Awards show coming this Sunday night. (For the full list of nominees see; http://www.oscars.org/.) The safest prediction is that there won’t be another embarrassing snafu like last year’s best-picture fumble when La La Land (with its record-tying 14 nominations) enjoyed a few seconds in the limelight until the actual deserving winner, Moonlight, received the prize. The nominations are much more spread out this year. And with the storm clouds of sexual misconduct allegations swirling about the entertainment industry, we also know that last year’s best actor Oscar winner, Casey Affleck, will not be a presenter, or indeed present, at the ceremony.
The nine best-picture nominees are a toss-up with no obvious frontrunner, although The Shape of Water with 13 nominations should be the odds-on favourite. The Post is on the list but has only one other nomination and was shut out at the Golden Globes. Director Steven Spielberg was also snubbed in that category. Still, its timely treatment of a great American story of journalistic courage to publish in the face of a hostile Nixon White House could appeal to a lot of academy voters in this era of “fake news” and Trumpian attacks on the press. I would not be surprised to see it come out on top, as two years ago did Spotlight, another inspiring true story of frontline journalism exposing inconvenient truths. The Post has received some critical love; indeed it was a National Board of Review triple winner for best film, actor and actress. With all of the nominees having their passionate supporters the votes could be split, allowing a narrow plurality to claim the honour.
Meryl Streep received a record 21st Oscar nomination as best actress for her portrayal of Washington Post publisher Kay Graham, but faces stiff competition. I loved Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird. Sally Hawkins is extraordinary in The Shape of Water (and was equally good in the overlooked Nova Scotia-set Maudie opposite Ethan Hawke). Margot Robbie was sensational in I, Tonya. But, although I was not a big fan of the pitch-black “comedy” Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, veteran Frances McDormand commands the screen in it like an avenging force of nature and will likely be rewarded.
For best supporting actress, Laurie Metcalf was great as the exasperated yet supportive mother in Lady Bird, but Allison Janney really turned heads as the mother from hell in I, Tonya. Expect her to add an Oscar to her Golden Globe win.
On the men’s side, I was a bit surprised to see Denzel Washington in the best-actor mix for Roman J. Israel Esq., with both Tom Hanks (The Post) and James Franco (The Disaster Artist) overlooked. Franco has been the target of allegations since his Globe win. However, Hanks continues to be admired as the great American everyman. I thought he did a terrific job portraying legendary Washington Post publisher Ben Bradlee (whose storied career is the subject of an excellent new HBO documentary The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee). Still, my guess is that the Oscar will go to Gary Oldman who endured many hours in the makeup chair in order to portray Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. It’s a dominating performance that would stand out in any year. Daniel Day-Lewis is great as always in Phantom Thread, and he says it’s his last screen role, which would be a shame. But, like Streep, he already own three Oscars, so . . .
For supporting actor I would cheer if remarkable 88-year-old Canadian thespian Christopher Plummer were to get another statuette for coming to the rescue of All the Money in the World, replacing the disgraced Kevin Spacey at the last minute. However, I think it will come down to either Globe winner Sam Rockwell for Three Billboards, or Willem Dafoe for The Florida Project, most deserving in what was really a lead role.
Best director is another toss-up. I’d love to see Greta Gerwig become only the second female director to win in Oscar history, which is a sad statistic. The strongest competition is probably from Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), who won the Golden Globe. For cinematography with 14 nominations, Roger Deakins is due to finally win one for Dennis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. But Hoyte van Hoytema could be in the running for the IMAX awesomeness of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
The world of non-English language cinema is reduced to a single category that allows only one submission per country. That left out Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s excellent The Other Side of Hope. Cambodia submitted First They Killed My Father directed by A-list American actress Angelina Jolie, but it didn’t make the cut either. I’m mildly surprised that the Golden Globe winner, Germany’s In the Fade, was also left out. Of the five foreign-language nominees I have not seen Lebanon’s The Insult, yet to be released in Canada. The Hungarian On Body and Soul has had no theatrical release but can be watched on Netflix. A strange love story that takes place in an abattoir, I found it depressing and definitely not for the squeamish. Although a recipient of the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, I still find it an odd choice given stronger potential picks like Israel’s Foxtrot. My bet to win is Ruben Östlund’s The Square, which received the Palme d’Or, Cannes festival’s top prize. Controversial certainly, but among the best films of 2017.
Documentaries also get squeezed into a single category, and the Golden Globes completely ignore non-fiction cinema. Steve James’ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is excellent and has been broadcast on television. But it’s a 2016 film and there were so many other compelling choices from 2017. Three Sundance selections are in the running, including Strong Island and Icarus. The latter is a somewhat surprising choice, although undoubtedly timely given its probing of Russian Olympic doping scandals. Faces, Places and Last Men in Aleppo (Sundance grand jury prize winner) were my two top docs of 2017 so an Oscar to either one would be well deserved.
The animation category has the same five nominees as the 75th Golden Globes. It includes the remarkable oil-painted Loving Vincent and the inspiring Afghan girl’s story The Breadwinner, a Canadian co-production with Ireland and Luxembourg executive produced by Angelina Jolie. But my guess is that the late-year Mexican-themed blockbuster Coco will again come out on top and be a popular choice.As a final note, my best film of 2017, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed with Ethan Hawke, appears nowhere in the above since it won’t have even a limited U.S. theatrical release until this April. It’s a good reminder both that some things are worth waiting for, and that it’s often necessary to look beyond Oscar lists for challenging cinema of the highest order.