Breaking Down the Best Cinematography of 2017 via 25 Films

In this post, I take what I deem to be the 25 most impressively-shot films of the year and explain my reasoning for the choices as well as providing some info on what went into actually getting the desired look. I do this not only because I’m a nerd but also because I don’t think people always notice or care to consider how much work and artistry goes into making a film look a certain way. Even more stylistically muted films require careful decision-making to appear that way.

Each choice also includes an image from the movie that stood out to me. These are NOT my favorite 25 films of the year; these are the ones that impressed me the most photographically.

#25) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Shot by Ben Davis

I have my issues with Three Billboards as a story, but it’s undeniably a smartly shot film by Ben Davis, who’s probably most known for his work on a trio of Marvel films (Doctor Strange, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy). On top of successfully capturing the small-town feel the film required and framing some interesting scenes with the actual billboards in the background, Davis employed an old-school approach to most dialogue scenes, using two cameras (one focused on each actor) so the film could be cut with a shot-reverse shot pattern allowing some of the strongest images to be not of someone talking but of someone else subtly reacting to the talking. The scene that best shows this off is when Woody Harrelson’s Sheriff and Frances’ McDormand’s Mildred talk on the swingset. It was most powerful moment in the film, I just wish it didn’t happen so early on!


#24) Wonder Woman

Shot by Matthew Jensen

One of Jensen’s challenges was having to lens and light the film completely differently depending on if the scene was in Themsycira or WWI-era Europe without it looking like two entirely different movies. The grey & blue color palette crafted by Jensen, the digital artists, and director Patty Jenkins was key for the latter sequences, and also felt at home within the overall DCEU aesthetic (which, love or hate it, has a unique look of its own and deserves credit for that). For the already infamous “No Man’s Land” sequence, which asked for the camera to follow Diana as she runs through mud, Jensen rigged a skycam like you’d see on Monday Night Football so his camera could follow her movements through a giant set without being slowed down itself. Wonder Woman is the rare franchise film that manages to both fit into the franchise visually while also creating its own look. Jensen is coming back to shoot the sequel.


#23) Wind River

Shot by Ben Richardson

When discussing the potential look of the film with first-time director Taylor Sheridan, Richardson pointed to classic westerns as a jumping off point for how to frame this thriller shot in the snowy Utah countryside. A big part of that aesthetic is contrasting wide landscape shots with extreme close-ups, and Wind River certainly does that. For the close-ups, Richardson used a shoulder-cam and got right up in there with the actors. Another aspect Richardson has spoken about is using Zeiss lenses from the 90’s to shoot the film so he could get a look somewhere in between the classic westerns he was influenced by and technical perfection allowed by modern lenses. He certainly achieved that, I’d say.


#22) It

Shot by Chung-Hoon Chung

Being a frequent collaborator of Park-chan Wook, it should come as no surprise that Chung is a master at using complex gaffing to light his images so that there’s real layering, even in darkness. That becomes very important in a film like It, which mostly takes place during the daylight but uses sewers and rooms in old houses to create darkness during that daylight. The opening sequence works so well, not playing comedically in any way, in large part due to Chung’s work. Lighting can make or break a horror film, probably more so than it can any other genre, and It is an achievement in lighting above all else. Not that the film doesn’t have other merits, but Chung’s work with his gaffer is the most impressive formal element of the movie.


#21) Lady Bird

Shot by Sam Levy

Sam Levy, through his work with Gerwig, Kelly Reichardt, and Noah Baumbach, has contributed as much to the look of dialogue-driven American independent film as anyone over the last decade. The key is obviously to craft beautiful images, but not in an overly-dramatic way where your shot composition distracts from the words the actors are saying. Levy, Gerwig, and editor Nick Houy spent a lot of time in pre-production planning the framing and blocking, with Levy saying they even shot-listed the entire script twice. In most scenes, the characters were framed slightly off-center, so not provide too cinematic of a look.


#20) Alien: Covenant

Shot by Dariusz Wolski

Wolski & Ridley Scott are a great team, and they did an exceptional job making Alien: Covenant look creepy during both interior and exterior scenes. The planet this time around is much prettier than the one in Prometheus. There are mountains and lakes and even wheat. But grey lens filtering keeps the environment bleek despite its beauty. Interiors on the ship are shot to emphasize reflections off the grey walls, and even as the film becomes a CGI action spectacle towards the end, Wolski’s palette is still there to ground the viewer. Wolski’s work can next be seen in Sicario 2: Soldado.


#19) Mudbound

Shot by Rachel Morrison

If Rachel Morrison becomes the first female cinematographer ever nominated for an Oscar next week, it’ll be well-deserved. Her work on Mudbound carries a film that has a few narrative lulls, as the atmosphere of the WWII-era South feels natural throughout. Having a period piece look like it’s actually from its period is difficult without the film ultimately looking like it was touched up dramatically in post-production. Morrison accomplished her look not only through natural lighting, but by using low-contrast lenses from the 60’s & 70’s so the colors appeared to blend more naturally, giving a dirty look to a film that features a lot of, well, mud. Morrison recently shot Black Panther for Ryan Coogler.


#18) Logan

Shot by John Mathieson

To design the look of Logan, director James Mangold had Mathieson look at both 70’s road movies and Clint Eastwood westerns. This is pretty easy to see watching the film and the way it’s lit by Mathieson. But one thing Mathieson insisted on was not shooting the fight scenes too close to the action, pointing at Gladiator for reference of how he wanted them to look. Using a medium-long lens and standing back a bit, Mathieson was able to capture the action so that nothing ever fell off the frame no matter how complex the stunt work was (and for Logan, it was quite complex, as the action sequences cut back on CGI and slow-motion in favor of wiring stunts to make the fights seem more real-world). It was also important for Mathieson to shoot scenes from lower angles considering a child was at the center of the action just as much as Logan himself was.


#17) A Ghost Story

Shot by Andrew Droz Palermo

Unique in both its 1.33:1 aspect ratio and precise photographic style that had little in-frame to play with, shooting A Ghost Story the way director David Lowery envisioned it certainly was a challenge for Palermo, and he nailed it. The cinematography changes as the film’s narrative does, continually creating an atmosphere that felt like the real protagonist for the story. Palermo achieved this by using various lenses throughout the film; some old, some new ones designed for digital photography. Made on a miniscule budget (just $100K), for interior scenes Palermo had to get the lighting he wanted by literally covering windows with different sheets and curtains. It’s extremely impressive how a film so small looks so big at times.


#16) Blade Runner 2049

Shot by Roger Deakins

While it’ll likely win him his long-deserved Oscar, I don’t think Blade Runner 2049 ranks amongst Roger Deakins’ finest work. But it’s still a film littered with gorgeous lighting and painterly shot composition in nearly every frame. Despite the film’s huge budget and epic look, Deakins went very low-tech to light the interior scenes. He literally made rings of different sizes out of wood and attached household lightbulbs to them, then hung them over the sets so to provide a different brightness at each vertical level of the shot. He’s spoken extensively about how, despite the film being the biggest production of his career and employing the most post-production VFX work, he doesn’t really consider any of that stuff while shooting, instead focusing on capturing the best images he can while on set and letting Villeneuve and the digital artists handle the rest. Deakins is a veteran cinematographer who may not care for CGI, but his images certainly provide great backdrops if CGI becomes necessary.


#15) The Beguiled

Shot by Philippe Le Sourd

Has another film ever made such perfect use of candlelight? Le Sourd and Sofia Coppola knew what they wanted for the interior scenes at night, and while it seems as simple as burning some candles, it’s not, because no cameras are designed to shoot candlelight. Le Sourd pull-processed the film negatives to reduced the depth of shadows from the actors. He also had PanaVision design a customer filter for the film so his images could look like portraits from the period. Shot composition was extra important for him here, because in nearly every scene that camera is stagnant and there’s minimal movement from the actors, so having everything perfect before you start rolling is a must.


#14) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Shot by Henry Braham

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was the first film to ever be shot on the RED Weapon 8K Vista Vision camera, ditching the Arri Alexa that Marvel usually insists on DoP’s using. In fact, the used camera was still a prototype when Braham and James Gunn decided that’s how they wanted to shoot the movie. I’m not the most well-versed in camera technology, but the RED 8K VV, which you can now purchase for $88,000, is special and groundbreaking because the full frame sensor technology inside the camera allows for extra-high resolution and color accuracy. This is essential for a film like Guardians, which quite possibly features the most extensive and colorful CGI seen yet. Shooting the actors and actual sets with this camera allows the digital artists to not have to compromise at all when they do their thing. Anything they can draw up they can put into the film. The result was a vibrantly shot blockbuster that can’t even be fully appreciated on home video because the tech required isn’t readily available. I hope you caught this in theatres.


#13) mother!

Shot by Matthew Libatique

Regardless of your interpretation of or opinion on mother!, you can’t deny that Darren Aronofsky’s primary goal was to put the audience in the head of Jennifer Lawrence’s character. There are only three types of shots for the entire movie: shots on her where only she’s in focus, shots from over her shoulder connecting her to her surroundings, and point-of-view shots as if she was the camera. The result is something disorienting and engaging, even in the early parts of the film. The camera is on a closeup of Lawrence for 66 minutes of the film’s 121-minute runtime. Libatique is a longtime collaborator of Aronofsky’s (as is editor Andrew Weisblum), and their aggressive style is critical for these films that can often be narratively challenging.


#12) Beach Rats

Shot by Hélène Louvart

Boldly choosing to shoot the film on Super 16mm, director Eliza Hittman and Louvart set out to capture Brooklyn and Coney Island exteriors, as well as impoverished bedrooms, through grainy images populated with dramatic natural color. When they graded the film, they didn’t work on different colors specifically, instead just adjusting the overall brightness of the image so that everything looked authentic even as they tweaked things to make it prettier to the eye. Naturally, comparisons were drawn to James Laxton and Berry Jenkins’ work on Moonlight, another film shot on Super 16mm, but Beach Rats is a bit rawer in its look. Louvart has worked with some of the biggest names in global cinema (including Claire Denis, Agnes Varda, Wim Wenders, and Leos Carax) and it’s easy to see why she’s so sought after.


#11) Good Time

Shot by Sean Price Williams

Shooting on 35mm to capture the grittiness required through grain, but also with handheld super speeds to keep up with the kinetic action sequences, Williams did some of the most unique work of the year on Good Time. It’s a very colorful movie both naturally and artificially, and much of it is shot at night. Williams chose custom negatives for this that would emphasize the purple and blue and red and green and pink SkyPanel lights amidst the darkness. He got that “electro-acid” look the Safdie’s were going for.


#10) The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Shot by Thimios Bakatakis

Thimios and Yorgos Lanthimos continue to create gorgeous, disturbing imagery together. The film takes place in an unspectacular Cincinnati setting, but it’s shot to make it seem like a macabre dystopia. Many of the film’s key moments are shot through a glass surface. On top of the obvious thematic relevance this motif carries, it simply makes for some beautiful imagery. Another tactic I noticed upon rewatching the film is how brightly lit the family is, compared the dimming of Martin, the film’s antagonist. This is a big factor in Martin seeming so off and sinister even before he actually does anything.


#9) John Wick: Chapter 2

Shot by Dan Laustsen

The first of two Laustsen works on this list, John Wick 2 doubles down on the intricate shot composition of the first film, specifically during fight sequences. Laustsen insists on minimal camera movement during these sequences. He believes it makes the complex choreography stand out more. I tend to agree, as a lot of camera movement makes the fights look a little too perfect. This goes hand-in-hand with shooting wide and keeping everything in every frame, as we went over earlier with Logan. And of course there’s some beautiful lighting in the John Wick movies. My favorite sequence in the sequel, the fight in the catacombs beneath Rome, used Blue LED lighting not just to create pretty images but, as Laustsen has said, to add to the theme of melancholy John feels from being pulled back into the criminal underworld. I hope they make a hundred more of these movies. They are spectacular.


#8) Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Shot by Steve Yedlin

As Rian Johnson’s longtime DoP, Steve Yedlin has built a great working relationship with the director. There’s a level of trust that allows the two to create bold images, like Snoke’s Throne Room. The color red is obviously thematically important in Star Wars, but this took it to another level. Lit to emphasize reflection, with the red floor almost functioning as a mirror, contrasting perfectly with the all-black getup of Kylo Ren, Johnson & Yedlin (and production designer Rick Heinrichs) create what has already become one of the most lauded visual settings in a franchise full of them. When the fighting gets going, Yedlin foregoes the shaky-cam technique used in most modern action photography in favor of a sweeping single shot that allows the lightsaber choreography to feel like poetry. The entire film is a visual treat, but that scene is an all-timer.


#7) The Florida Project

Shot by Alexis Zabe

In The Florida Project, Alexis Zabe’s photography reinforces Sean Baker’s script in telling the story through the eyes of a child. The camera is usually angled up at adults, making them feel like giants, as they do to seven year-olds. The Magic Castle, which we know is a sleazy motel, is shot majestically. The framing makes the motel seem like a gigantic theme park. The pink and purple is almost frustratingly bright. The hallways and staircases seem endless. There’s an uncomfortable, powerful mood to this film; as what’s so often implied from the adults is depressing but what’s shown with the children is so energetic and beautiful. This is a difficult tone to capture. But Baker and Zabe do so, and the results are jarring.


#6) The Lost City of Z

Shot by Darius Khondji

James Gray choosing to shoot on-location in the jungle presented both a great challenge and opportunity for Khondji. On one hand, lighting everything is a lot tougher. On the other, he’s able to capture an intimacy with the environment you simply can’t from second-unit establishing shooting or studio work. Khondji actually shot early sequences on both film and digital as he wasn’t sure how firelight scenes would look, but he eventually settled on film. He used a wide variety of lenses and flashers for the movie, preferring to shoot close-ups with a customized PanaVision 50mm wide-angle lens that gave the desired focus without deforming the faces in any way as wide-angle lenses tend to. Khondji believed the film was about obsession, and he wanted his close-ups to follow suit. Khondji’s work plays a large part in a film made for a relatively small $30M looking like the $100M epic it wanted to be.


#5) War for the Planet of the Apes

Shot by Michael Seresin

When Matt Reeves took over the Apes franchise, he wanted to make darker films; not just thematically, but aesthetically as well. So he brought in Seresin (probably best known for shooting Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for Alfonso Cuaron). The ape characters in the film being played by actors in grey motion-capture suits, as opposed to just Andy Serkis and then fully-CG apes, allowed Seresin to light and lens the film during production as if there was no CGI at all.  Seresin chose to shoot the film on Alexa 65’s, with that extra resolution giving the digital artists even more options when it came to getting the details of the apes right. Five cameras were used at a time on the main unit so they could shoot the expensive stunts from various angles instead of having to continually repeat them, then figuring out how it would play in post. Making this more impressive is that at times as many of four of those cameras would be moving. Seresin and Reeves did a great deal of work before filming even started, just planning and mapping out these shots.


#4) Call Me By Your Name

Shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

Mukdeeprom, who has repeatedly said that when he shoots a film he doesn’t desire a certain look beforehand, instead preferring to go with whatever equipment the production can offer and letting the momentum of the shoot impact his decision-making, shot all of Call Me By Your Name with a single lens. He wanted it to feel like a vignette, one whole thematic piece. Capturing the sun-drenched look the film asked for was tougher than simply using natural light though, as it was raining for 28 days of the 34-day shoot. So Mukdeeprom tripled the amount of lights he originally ordered and positioned them (and the camera) higher so scenes could appear to be taking place on a sunny day even when they weren’t. He didn’t do much grading in post, as Luca Guadagnino was happy with the naturally colorful visual palette the design of the film provided. Maybe the cinematography here seems simple, but it’s far from that. This is a movie that threw challenges at Mukdeeprom, to which he responded with something beautiful.


#3) Dunkirk

Shot by Hoyte van Hoytema

Approaching IMAX with a new sense of intimacy considering the 65mm IMAX camera Dunkirk was shot on (for the land and air sequences, at least) weighs 54 pounds, Hoyte van Hoytema is surely in for his first Oscar nom. Hoyte used the very big and expensive camera to shoot close-ups, specifically inside the cockpit, destroying the stigma that IMAX photography is only worthwhile for big establishing shots from far away. Dunkirk was shot mostly with naturally light, which is different from how Hoyte shot Interstellar for Nolan, but fitting considering the number of real WWII vehicles and costumes this production used. Hoyte plays around with focus a lot on Dunkirk to make it feel epic but also intensely personal. The film as a whole is a miraculous technical achievement. The cinematography of course plays a big role in that.


#2) The Shape of Water

Shot by Dan Laustsen

The visual storytelling of Guillermo del Toro is incredibly detailed. His sets are dense and his ideas are ambitious. This, of course, requires exceptional cinematography. Laustsen certainly delivered on The Shape of Water. Shot with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and a budget of just $20M (tiny for a fantasy film that looks this great), Laustsen had some serious lighting challenges as the sheer size of the production, or lack thereof, greatly limited scaffolding options. So what he did was put most of the lighting in front of the camera, in the frame. Seriously, watch it again. Most of the light comes from bulbs you can see yourself. So what was originally a budgetary problem resulted in a unique, gorgeous look that brings the sets to life.  I hope he wins the Oscar he’ll surely be nominated for.


#1) First They Killed My Father

Shot by Anthony Dod Mantle

For her devastating drama about children living amidst the genocide by the Khmer Rouge in 1970’s Cambodia, Angelina Jolie hired the great Anthony Dod Mantle. Shooting in 4K per Netflix’s request, Mantle used Steadicam for the extended takes moving around big sets with many extras, and handheld photography for more intimate moments close to the film’s 7 year-old protagonist. Jolie wanted some overhead shots as well, to give a sort of “God’s point of view” in certain scenes. Instead of using a crane, Mantle brought a drone team in from Thailand, allowing his camera to capture the sets from above while moving without disrupting anything being filmed. Mantle also has spoken a great deal about how much time went into color grading during post-production on this film, as the palette is huge and very different scene-to-scene. This is one of those movies that captures horror beautifully. It’s the strongest work of Mantle’s career and it’s a shame it hasn’t gotten the awards attention it deserves.

Oscars 2018: Final check-in before nomination morning.

What a wild awards season it has been. Even beyond the wide-open nature of it, where we still have FIVE films very much in the hunt to win Best Picture, I haven’t seen a season with so many fascinating (and disheartening) narratives in play. The exposure of the serial sexual misconduct (to put it lightly) of mega-producer and Oscar manipulator Harvey Weinstein sparked a myriad of skeletons being dug up. This is much more than just a handful of famous people finding themselves in hot water and the actresses wearing black dresses. Hopefully, this is the much-needed tipping point for an industry that loves to pat itself on the back for its supposed social progressiveness yet remains remarkably behind not only when it comes to representation on and off camera, but also in terms of basic human decency. The abuse of power isn’t something that exists only in Hollywood. But Hollywood is an industry, and a culture, built on the commercialization of art. Art reflects life or life reflects art, depending on whether you’re on Aristotle or Oscar Wilde’s side of the fence. Movies are not mere escapism. They matter a great deal to a lot of people. It’s on the people who make these movies to do better, especially in this current political climate. Time to actually earn those stripes.

As for the actual awards show, there are two ways of looking at it. Maybe it’s never mattered less. Does it *really* matter who wins a little statue when Antarctica is melting and the President is threatening Nuclear War on twitter and a large legion of men continue to defend rape culture from what they see as a “witch hunt”?

Or maybe the Oscars matter more than ever as both a celebration of film and possible statement (or band-aid). Celebrity worship is dangerous, but simply taking inspiration from the work and words of folks you’re a fan of isn’t. The Oscars, as a collective, from the entire Academy selecting the nominees and winners to people who get an opportunity to speak during the telecast, have a great opportunity and responsibility this year.

Okay, now for some thoughts on who might be nominated next Tuesday…

UPDATED PREDICTIONS HERE

The award pundit community seems to have come to the consensus, a consensus the industry guilds and other precursors have only confirmed, that there are five films we can lock in for Best Picture nominations (and your ultimate winner will surely be one of these five). In no particular order the “big 5” are…

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri(Fox Searchlight), which, despite being a divisive of twitter fodder, appears to be adored by the industry, hitting with every guild and dominating with the actors (the Academy’s largest and his most important branch).
  • Lady Bird (A24 Films), a surprise smash hit that’s already picked up tons of prizes for its director and cast, as well as the Globe for Best Comedy/Musical.
  • Get Out(Universal), a subversive and undefinable film that’s been hotly discussed all year not only because of its relevance but also its merits, which the guilds have noticed thus far.
  • The Shape of Water(Fox Searchlight), a film that’ll be a double-digit nominee and have support from nearly every branch, including the directors, where Guillermo del Toro is the heavy favorite to win.
  • Dunkirk (Warner Bros), the technical achievement of the year and the best chance yet at Christopher Nolan winning an Oscar.

Beyond those five, when trying to pinpoint the remaining nominees (which could be anywhere from 0-5 slots), passion matters. When the Academy ultimately votes on winners, the preferential balloting system favors less divisive work that gets a bunch of #2 and #3 votes if not necessarily a ton of #1’s. But for nominations, if a film gets 5% of first place votes in a complicated runoff explained here, it’s in*.

*For nominations, each voting member of the Academy chooses nominees within their branch AND up to five Best Picture choices. So somebody in the Academy as a cinematographer votes their and in Best Picture. For winners, everyone votes everywhere.

Call Me By Your Name (Sony Pictures Classics) feels relatively safe. It has a good number of vocal supporters who’ll vote it top two, and it picked up best film nods from PGA and BAFTA. There have been some mumblings from journalists that Academy members are saying “we just went gay last year with Moonlight”, but even if that idiotic mindset is real, it shouldn’t impact nominations. The Post (20th Century Fox), a timely Steven Spielberg film starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, certainly has Oscar DNA, but it all-of-a-sudden looks very vulnerable having been shut out of SAG, PGA, and DGA. Did the studio just not get enough eyes on it in time for the guilds, or is it really failing to land with voters? It still is certainly in play in a great many categories, but what once looked like a possible winner now has the makeup of a borderline nominee. It’ll need the older voters on its side.

Speaking of older voters, while the Academy has made very real efforts to diversify the last couple years it is still overwhelmingly white and male, with an average age currently unknown but likely over 55 considering it was 63 in 2014. Don’t assume Moonlight winning is the dawn of a new era. Maybe it is, but that’s far from a certainty. Can the old folks drum up enough love for Darkest Hour (Focus Features)? The historical biopic is a more traditional Oscar player but hasn’t popped up much thus far beyond Gary Oldman and BAFTA. And how do they respond to I, Tonya (Neon)? Gregory Elwood of The Playlist has reported that the late-rising film has turned off a lot of older voters because it pokes fun at a serious story they remember living through vividly.

There are a handful of other films fighting for a nom. Most notable amongst them is The Big Sick (Amazon Studios). The popular crowd-pleaser has a great narrative surrounding it and scored critical guild notices from SAG and PGA. Amazon, with help from the film’s co-writer/star Kumail Nanjani, has done a great job working it on the circuit and at this point I’d be surprised if wasn’t nominated in Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress (Holly Hunter). The Florida Project (A24 Films) is the smallest film in the hunt but like CMBYN there’s a lot of vocal passion for it and its principle players (writer/director Sean Baker, stars Brooklynn Prince and Willem Dafoe) seem to be wildly popular on the circuit. Molly’s Game (STX Entertainment) was a surprising PGA inclusion and can’t be written off, but it seems limited to a screenplay nom for Aaron Sorkin and maybe seeing Jessica Chastain jump into Best Actress. Mudbound (Netflix) is hanging around hoping to be the first Best Picture nominee for the streaming giant but I just haven’t seen the guild support necessary to feel any confidence predicting it. Phantom Thread (Focus Features) is an interesting dark horse. The critically-adored film figures to get a few nominations and could snag some #1 votes but the work of P.T. Anderson hasn’t always landed with the Academy at large. Neither Inherent Vice or The Master were nominated for Best Picture despite multiple other nominations.

The DGA historically lines up fairly well with Oscar’s Best Director lineup, but rarely five for five. This year’s DGA nominees unsurprisingly come from the “big 5” I mentioned above. That makes them a better bet than usual to mirror Oscar. But very much in the hunt are critical favorites like Sean Baker (The Florida Project) and Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name), both looking for their first nomination, something we all assume will happen eventually. Then there’s Steven Spielberg. If The Post hits in Best Picture and a couple other spots the legendary filmmaker and seven-time directing nominee will be right there. Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), who has quite the overdue narrative considering he’s got just one directing nomination despite widely being considered one of the greatest auteurs of his generation, is certainly in play as well.

Overdue screen legend Gary Oldman has long been considered the favorite in Best Actor for his transformative turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. It’s the classic Oscar winner. He still feels like the heavy favorite unless young Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) or a now-retired Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread) can spark serious buzz (and probably win SAG). Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) has popped up everywhere necessary and is a safe bet for the fourth slot. Globe winner and SAG nominee James Franco (The Disaster Artist) seemed a lock this time last week, but then allegations of sexual misconduct popped up. Do those kill his chances? I’m not so sure, considering the story didn’t really break until just 48 hours before voting closed. Many ballots were likely in, and those still out probably don’t check twitter incessantly. If he is out, however, look for a big name like SAG-nominated Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.) or the seriously overdue Jake Gyllenhaal (Stronger) to snag the spot.

Best Actress has been a loaded field all season, but it finally looks like it’s settled into seven contenders. Locked in are SAG nominees and critical favorites Frances McDormand (Three Billboards), Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), and Margot Robbie (I, Tonya). Any one of those four could conceivably win the Oscar. The final spot comes down to Meryl Streep (The Post), Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game), and Judi Dench (Victoria & Abdul). Streep is of course always a threat and critics love her work in The Post, but the film doesn’t look as strong as it did a month ago. Chastain is a late riser with some overdue narratives on her side against the older ladies. Dench was SAG-nominated and is another Oscar favorite but will everyone in the branch really bother watching Victoria & Abdul?

While Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) has picked up nearly every critics prize for Best Supporting Actor, Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards) won the Globe and has a strong overdue narrative having never even been nominated before despite being one of the better working character actors for a couple decades. Those two will duke it out for the win. We’ll see what happens with SAG, but I’d give the slight edge to Rockwell right now. However, there have been some complaints about the way Three Billboards handles Rockwell’s character. If those come to a boil, Dafoe, who plays an eminently likable man, could run away with the prize. Looking like a strong bet for a nomination is Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water), a respected veteran who provides a warm presence in a Best Picture contender. After those three, SAG went with Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards) and Steve Carell (Battle of the Sexes). If Harrelson can join his co-star Rockwell in the field of five, it’ll be the first time since Bugsy in 1991 that a film has two supporting actor nominees. Carell’s film hasn’t landed very strong on the whole, and there have been some complaints that he overdoes it, but he’s become very popular with the actors. On top of Three Billboards, a couple of other films could theoretically land two nominees here. Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) hasn’t popped up anywhere on the circuit but he came out of nowhere for a nom last year, and this film is much stronger than Nocturnal Animals was. The supporting men of Call Me By Your Name, Armie Hammer & Michael Stuhlbarg, both do exceptional work in the film and have popped up at their fair share of places so far. Could they split votes from fans of the film and keep each other out of the field though? The campaign seems to be more focused on Hammer but Stuhlbarg is the more veteran, overdue actor and has a real “Oscar scene”. Dark horses include Globe nominee Christopher Plummer (All the Money in the World), Sebastian Stan (I, Tonya), and Jason Mitchell (Mudbound).

The screenplay categories couldn’t be more different this year. Best Adapted Screenplay, which’ll likely only have one Best Picture nominated script in the field, seems ready made for the legendary James Ivory (Call Me By Your Name) to take the prize. Best Original Screenplay is a bloodbath, however. Three writers –Jordan Peele (Get Out), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards)- are safe whether or not they’re nominated as directors. The last two spots very well could come down to what’s nominated for Best Picture as Kumain Najani & Emily Gordon (The Big Sick), Steven Rogers (I, Tonya), Sean Baker (The FloridaProject), Guillermo del Toro& Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water), Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), and Liz Hannah & Josh Singer (The Post) all have strong cases for nomination. The writers can throw a curveball every now and then and nominate a script that isn’t from a Best Picture player (like The Lobster last year) but it’ll be hard for an outsider to get enough votes this time around.

In the “technical” categories expect to see a lot of Dunkirk, The Shape of Water, and Blade Runner 2049. A storyline to follow is can legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) FINALLY win his first Oscar on what’ll be his first nomination? The narrative is certainly there but he’s far from a lock, as there’s some really strong work from Hoyte van Hoytema (Dunkirk) and Dan Laustsen (The Shape of Water) in films that are bigger overall players than Deakins’ film. Also, what about War for the Planet of the Apes? The franchise has never won Best Visual Effects despite continued groundbreaking work in motion capture. I’d consider it the slight favorite right now but the VFX field is loaded this year; so loaded, in fact, that Star Wars: The Last Jedi may not make the cut.

That’s all for now. Again, you can see UPDATED PREDICTIONS HERE, which’ll be updated all the way up until the night before nominations.

Oscars: The Case for & Against 12 Best Picture Contenders

The latest in my ongoing Awards Season coverage is a breakdown of what look like the 12 strongest overall contenders right now. I put on two different hats (“Zak the Champion” and “Zak the Cynic”) for each film and say why they can and can’t win Best Picture. Note that for most films my actual stance is somewhere in the middle. This is more of an exercise to look at the narratives, both good and bad, that seem to be taking shape.

For actual Oscar predictions in every category and more analysis, CHECK HERE.

Lady Bird

Zak the Champion: Not only is Lady Bird the single best-reviewed film of the year and a box office smash, it’s also dominating early awards. Greta Gerwig has won more Best Director prizes than anyone thus far. Laurie Metcalf is the runaway favorite in Best Supporting Actress. The film is also a threat in Best Film Editing and Best Original Screenplay, categories that often go hand-in-hand with Best Picture. With the preferential balloting system, where voters rank their favorite Best Picture nominees, non-divisive/offensive films that are hard to hate even if they don’t spark as much passion as others get a boost. That’s Lady Bird!. While it may not seem like typical Best Picture material, the Academy is changing with its largest new class. Look at what won last year.

Zak the Cynic: A coming-of-age film from a first-time director is simply not going to win Best Picture when competing against more major, male-driven work (the type of stuff the Academy goes for). The last time a Best Picture winner had a female lead was Million Dollar Baby (2004). Lady Bird is a cute little film that’ll be nominated but it’s not a threat to win.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Zak the Champion: Martin McDonagh’s black comedy won the People’s Choice Prize at TIFF, a serious Oscar predictor that kicked off the campaigns of recent winners such as Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and 12 Years a Slave. The film was also a huge hit with SAG, where it received not only a Best Ensemble nom but three individual noms. That shows it’s a huge hit with actors, the biggest and most powerful branch of the Academy. This is a challenging, thought-provoking film and a worthy winner in a year where police issues are a bigger talking point than ever.

Zak the Cynic: The film is very problematic in its handling of police. Some are basically saying it’s a “well, not all violent racist cops are bad” movie. There could be major backlash once more people see it. Neither of Martin McDonagh’s previous films, despite being better than Three Billboards, were even nominated for Best Picture, and now people think this can win? It’s going to have some vocal detractors, and that hurts a lot considering the preferential ballot. It’s simply too divisive to win. Maybe it wins Best Actress and Best Screenplay, but it’s not winning Best Picture.


Get Out

Zak the Champion: When will the haters realize the nomination is happening and this is a real threat to win? It’s a huge hit with critics and audiences alike. SAG went for it. It’s the most important and subversive film of the year, something that the changing Academy can cite as a statement winner. You want people to care about and tune into the Oscars? Award movies like Get Out that everyone actually sees.

Zak the Cynic: A nice story, but nope. Whatever genre you want to call it (comedy, horror, etc) it’s not Oscar material. The critics are trying to get it nominated but critics don’t matter. It isn’t a film that’s gonna drum up a ton of support from any one branch, and there are still a lot of old white people with voting power who simply won’t “get” the film.


The Post

Zak the Champion: A movie about the Pentagon Papers, released in the Trump era, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep/Tom Hanks? How isn’t this going to win the Oscar? Reviews are strong. It won Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress with NBR. The most timely film of the year with many Oscar favorites in tow (below the line as well) and a major studio backing it. The only reason it’s not considered the frontrunner is because it isn’t out yet.

Zak the Cynic: Not all reviews love it, and some think it’s baity. Other than the NBR, it hasn’t won anything else yet. SAG didn’t cite it anywhere. Much like Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, it looks like a nice historical film that’ll pick up some nominations but it’s not going to win. Not this year considering the other films in the hunt. They just awarded a “power of journalism” film two years ago with Spotlight. They’ll mix it up a bit.


Dunkirk

Zak the Champion: The most popular film in the hunt, and critics adore it. Nolan is winning Best Director and it’ll be nominated in every technical category. Nobody really hates it, which helps considering preferential balloting. Great war films do well with Oscar. Hacksaw Ridge won some awards (including Best Film Editing) last year and this is a much better film than Hacksaw Ridge. A worthy winner that could bring more widespread attention to the Oscars as a whole.

Zak the Cynic: It wasn’t nominated for SAG Ensemble. No film has won without being nominated there since Braveheart in 1995. The actors are the most important branch and this isn’t a film they’ll get behind. It’ll win in some techs and maybe even director but it simply won’t have the support to win the top prize. No Nolan film has ever been a real threat to win. Why now?


The Shape of Water

Zak the Champion: Looks like a near-lock for double-digit noms and the most overall. Support from nearly every branch, including the actors. Guillermo del Toro is super popular and campaigns well. The film is a stunning achievement on nearly every level. It’s done very well with critics groups thus far. Should be a box office hit now that it’s in theatres everywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this become the runaway favorite come January.

Zak the Cynic: Just ask The Revenant and La La Land if 10+ noms means you win, and both those were much more popular than this. No SAG Ensemble nom, so I’m not sure the actors support is really there outside of for Sally Hawkins. It’s a very weird film that may not resonate with the larger Academy when it comes time to vote on winners. Maybe it gets 12 noms, but where can you really say it’s going to win? Doesn’t look like the frontrunner anywhere.


Call Me By Your Name

Zak the Champion: One of the most acclaimed films of the year, a beautiful love story that’ll hit across the Academy, including with the actors. Sony Pictures Classics is running a great campaign. Timothee Chalamet can win Best Actor. The buzz is only growing as more people see it. Voters have been aware of it since Sundance. They’ll all give it a look.

Zak the Cynic: I hate to be that guy, but Moonlight just won last year, so I doubt they’ll go for another LGBT film so soon. There are also some people ripping it to shreds for romanticizing the relationship between a 24 y/o and a 17 y/o. So it’ll be too divisive to win. No SAG Ensemble nom either. Sorry, film twitter.


The Florida Project

Zak the Champion: Critics adore it, and we’re seeing it dominate early awards. A24 Films is running a great campaign for it like they did last year for Moonlight, so its size or lack thereof matters not. Willem Dafoe is winning Best Supporting Actor. Once people see the film, they’ll recognize it for the emotional crowd-pleaser it is. Impossible to hate this film.

Zak the Cynic: Critics don’t vote on the Oscars, and it’s hard to see it popping up anywhere with industry guilds outside of Dafoe. Where inside the Academy is there gonna be vocal support for it? I’m not sure it’ll even be nominated, much less emerge as a threat to win. A nice little film but not a serious contender.


Phantom Thread

Zak the Champion: Last time PTA and Daniel Day-Lewis worked together, it was Oscar darling There Will Be Blood. Critics love this film. It’s a real threat to win screenplay and score, and will have support from the actors and some techs (costumes, sets). Once it comes out the buzz will be major. Last minute entry that could win.

Zak the Cynic: No PTA film has ever won Best Picture, as he’s a very weird filmmaker. This looks no different, despite the critical adoration. It hasn’t popped anywhere outside a few critics groups thus far. Simply not an Oscar winner.


The Big Sick

Zak the Champion: A crowd-pleaser that a lot of people love. SAG Ensemble nominee. Amazon is working the film hard and Kumail is great on the circuit. Timely film, hard to hate. Would be another refreshing winner.

Zak the Cynic: If Amazon couldn’t win with Manchester by the Sea, no way are they winning with this early year rom-com, no offense. The film is simply too minor. SAG Ensemble is a nice citation but its only actor in the hunt is Holly Hunter. Maybe they award it in screenplay but it’s simply not an Oscar film.


Darkest Hour

Zak the Champion: This year’s The King’s Speech? Oscar loves a good period piece with a respected actor giving a powerhouse performance as a historical figure. That certainly sums up this film. Gary Oldman is the runaway favorite to win Best Actor and this film should get real love from other branches as well (writers, costumes, composers). Traditional Oscar favorites are traditional Oscar favorites for a reason. This is still the type of film much of the Academy will love.

Zak the Cynic: Maybe ten years ago. Reviews are good, not great. Even if Oldman wins, there’s no way this takes the big one given the competition. I’d be surprised if it’s even nominated. An old-school, talky movie isn’t winning Best Picture in the year 2017.

2017 in Movies (My Top 10, & Other Stuff)

Harvey Weinstein! Evil coroporate merging! These are the two biggest movie stories of the year. Don’t let that distract you from the fact that there were loads of great films this year. Included in this post is my top 10.

As always, this post consists of:

  • Movies I Liked More Than Most
  • Movies I Liked Less Than Most
  • Honorable Mentions
  • My Top 10 Movies of the Year

10 Films I Liked More Than Most

These films had some very vocal critics but I liked them enough.

  • The most divisive studio film of the year is probably Darren Aronofsky’s MOTHER!; which I found to be both a gripping statement on the artist as a figure and a eulogy for a modern world already cursed by environmental decay, all thinly disguised as an on-the-nose biblical farce. It’s the most Aronofskyish of all Aronofsky movies.
  • When you give an accomplished visual stylist like Zhang Yimou a big VFX budget to play with, you hope to get something as fun as THE GREAT WALL; a beautifully colored and shot monster epic whose maligned racial undertones were completely misunderstood by people who didn’t bother to actually see the film. The white man doesn’t save the East, the ways of the East save the white man.
  • Imagine Blow if Blow had any real energy, that’s AMERICAN MADE. Doug Liman directs the film with the perfect sense of looseness, squeezing every ounce of star power he can out of Tom Cruise. Another solid film from a director-actor duo that’s quietly become one of Hollywood’s best.
  • Ridley Scott, very hit-or-miss this century, continues to flex his sharp design muscle with films like ALIEN: COVENANT, which isn’t as concerned with asking questions as Prometheus was. It’s a by-the-numbers creature horror flick, but it works because of Scott’s visual ideas and the efforts of a strong cast.
  • The best film from a McDonagh this year (more on that later), WAR ON EVERYONE is brash in the best sort of ways. Everything about this film -from the soundtrack cues to the slapstick violence to the performances- is simply hilarious.

  • I’m an admitted sucker for modern Malick, so SONG TO SONG brought all the visual poetry and intentional inchorence I could’ve asked for. It’s meant more as an atmospheric experience than a standard story.
  • You’ve seen this sort of movie a hundred times before. Hell, you may have already seen it this year with Alien: Covenant, but that doesn’t stop LIFE from being an entertaining deep-space horror. The A-list cast leans into genre in their performances and it’s visually stimulating for most of its runtime.
  • More movies like VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS, a colorful epic unafraid to embrace camp, please. The first half of the film is genuinely interesting. And the second half isn’t nearly the disaster critics say it is. This has the makings of a cult classic much like some of Besson’s other films.
  • I totally understand why many will refuse to ever watch GHOST IN THE SHELL, given the obvious whitewashing with its casting and lack of loyalty to its source, but I gave it a look one night, and it really works on its own terms. It’s a visual treat and the action sequences really pop.
  • Finally coming out after numerous delays and re-edits, TULIP FEVER certainly is a bore by some’s standards. But for folks like me who love nothing more than watching beautiful actresses chew scenery in lavish period pieces, there’s enough in this Alicia Vikander melodrama to entertain.

10 Films I Liked Less Than Most

For various reasons, I didn’t see what everyone else seemed to in this group.

  • I love stupid, entertaining movies that only concern themselves with pleasing the senses. But KONG: SKULL ISLAND couldn’t even get that right, mostly due to its insistence on balancing elementary anti-war sentiments with bland CGI action. What could’ve easily been a fun but forgettable popcorn movie is instead stuck in my head for all the wrong reasons.
  • DETROIT is a story that deserved to be told, I’m just not sure Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, with their bare-bones observational style, were the right people to tell it. The middle chunk at the hotel is impressive, visceral filmmaking. Unfortunately, everything surrounding it is so lacking in insight that the violence here almost plays like torture porn for bigots.
  • I can see why THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI has resonated with so many. It’s passionate. It’s very well-acted. It’s 2017. But what could’ve been a more challenging film based on its exceptional first act reverts to something else entirely, something lesser. It’s no coincidence that the moments in this film that are being called problematic are also its most boring.
  • I’m still not over how dull BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is. The big musical numbers were lifeless and the chemistry between the titular characters was nonexistent. The biggest non-Star Wars hit of the year is a nice piece of nostalgic business, but a poor movie musical.
  • As a well-intentioned inclusive crowd-pleaser, THE BIG SICK is something I certainly wanted to love. But it goes through almost an hour before any real story comes up. Stand-up comics always think audiences are way more interested in the lives of stand-up comics than we actually are.
  • All of the power in MUDBOUND comes from its unique and relevant historical setting, not anything the film actually does. Strange structural and editing decisions distract from what’s a very good ensemble. The first hour of the film is a chore to get through.

  • BABY DRIVER is Edgar Wright’s worst film. His stylistic well quickly runs dry, yet he insists on having his lead dance and hum along to the soundtrack through the entire movie. Such verve makes it impossible for the film’s more serious moments to register, and the supporting cast of criminals are too thinly-written to provide a compelling foil for Baby.
  • Perhaps I just didn’t “get” PERSONAL SHOPPER, which I found to be a disjointed and empty film full of unearned pretentions, despite Kristen Stewart’s best efforts. And I usually love Assayas!
  • For a film that attempts to ask what it means to be human, BLADE RUNNER 2049 felt oddly engineered and never truly alive. It lacked the spontaneity of the 1982 classic. Beautifully framed and constructed sets don’t add up to much when they’re in service of such an overlong, empty story.
  • The first half of WONDER WOMAN is exceptional, boosted by strong chemistry between Gal Gadot & Chris Pine and wise use of period detail. It’s also refreshing to see a superhero excited about being a superhero, as opposed to being a brooding bore. But then Patty Jenkins’ film becomes a Zack Snyder film, complete with an overabundance of slow motion and a clusterfuck finale full of unintelligible digital imagery.

Honorable Mentions

These are films I really loved but just couldn’t squeeze into my top 10.

  • Logan Lucky should’ve been a huge hit. The cast goes all-in and the results are hilarious, while typical tight filmmaking from Steven Soderbergh keeps things moving at all times. This is best film of 2017 with “Logan” or “Lucky” in its title. Soderbergh is the only one allowed to make heist films now. Those are the rules.
  • With the somber and beautiful WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, Matt Reeves concluded the best franchise trilogy of the decade perfectly. Its predecessor was about how lack of communication can lead to war. This one is about how war creates an even greater lack of communication.
  • With THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, Yorgos Lanthimos eases up on the satire, instead choosing to disturb as a means of provocation. His script never gives into your blood lust until its final moment. His images stick with you. He is a master and even his more minor films, like this one, are unique pieces of cinema that blend the art house with genre.
  • THE SHAPE OF WATER is a fairytale for adults, one that wisely considers sex, something too often ignored in cinematic love stories. The film’s core love story is much stronger than its allegorical efforts, but Guillermo del Toro’s ability to direct the eye with lighting and framing choices keeps it stimulating even during its lulls. He is a masterful visual storyteller.
  • Beautifully filmed and intimately acted, THE FLORIDA PROJECT sees Sean Baker making a movie about contrasts. Kids living on society’s margins manage to stay upbeat despite the overwhelming sadness of their situation. It’s almost an American version of Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher. Brooklynn Prince is going to be a star. She is adorable.

  • It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a carnally engaging drama like RAW, which is full of metaphor but also very entertaining in the moment thanks to a breakout lead performance from Garance Marillier. This is the type of film that makes you think about the choices made, ushering in a fascinating new auteur in Julia Ducournau.
  • For all the grumbling about how Netflix is bad for cinema, OKJA is the type of movie studios don’t make anymore; a smart, quirky, and reasonably high-budgeted experiment. The film is beautifully executed all-around, with many action sequences being simply jaw-dropping. It’s Bong Joon-ho, after all.
  • While I expected STRONGER to be a typically mediocre inspirational film riding the back of an actor, it’s not that at all. It honors its subject without making him out to be a saint. David Gordon Green is in complete command of nearly every scene, using minor details to drum up emotion. Both Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany do awards-worthy work.
  • IT COMES AT NIGHT is a horror film that understands what you don’t see is scarier than what you do. It uses smart pacing and cinematography to build psychological terror. For such a young director, Trey Edward Shults has shown remarkable control over the course of his two features. He’s a talent to watch closely.
  • If not quite as refreshing as its predecessor, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is more aesthetically bonkers. Who says action film can’t have mise-en-scene every bit as effective as prestige films? These movies have their own unique form that’s already being borrowed by others. I hope they make a hundred more John Wick movies.

My Top 10 Films of 2017

or, my FAVORITE 10 films of 2017

Notable films not yet seen: The Post, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Phantom Thread, All The Money In The World

#10) The Beguiled

Director: Sofia Coppola

Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning

Distributor: Focus Features

Sofia Coppola choosing to put her own spin on a 1966 Thomas Cullinan novel and to a lesser extent a 1971 Don Siegel film starring Clint Eastwood was certainly an interesting decision. The result is a borderline feminist film crafted from source material that’s been called sexist in the past, and a better film than Siegel’s version. Set during the Civil War at an all-girls boarding school run by Martha (Nicole Kidman), an enemy soldier (Colin Farrell) is found by one of the girls and taken in so they can tend to his wounds. Sexual tension, taboo at the time, quickly arises and personal rivalries develop between the women, leading to a simple but engaging thriller that draws great drama from its scenario and subtle comedy from its exploration of old worldviews and gender roles.

Coppola is a smart filmmaker. She’s never over-directed. In The Beguiled, she understands what she has and gets out of the way. The period detail, candlelight, and gorgeous country setting allow her camera to find beauty without having to manufacture it. Her exceptional cast allows scenes to linger without needing quick cuts in order to move. Kidman is a treasure as always. Farrell embraces his role as a sex object, playing up his handsomeness with a dark flirtatious vibe. Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning continue to be two of the best working actresses people don’t talk about enough. Coppola asks a lot of her cast considering the film takes place in one location and gets its tension from character rather than plot, but they’re all up to the task.

The Beguiled is the rare corset drama that asks relevant questions and manages to thrill by more modern, impatient tastes. Coppola (with help from her usual editor Sarah Flack) achieves this by condensing the story to its bare bones, packing loads of thematic heft into a film that runs just 93 minutes. Despite that run time, this is far from a minor work. Balancing era-sensitive sexual repression with situation-sensitive eroticism, daring to explore both the female libido and male incubus archetype…this is a film as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.  


#9) Get Out

Director: Jordan Peele

Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield

Distributor: Universal Pictures

For all the drama surrounding its category placement at the Golden Globes, perhaps the greatest strength of Get Out is that it truly is undefinable by conventional genre. The film works on numerous levels. It’s a unique cocktail. There’s never been anything quite like it, and that played a large part in making it such a smash hit (it grossed $254M). With just one film under his belt, Jordan Peele, formerly known mostly as a sketch comedian, has established himself as one of Hollywood’s most interesting new auteurs.

Peele could have easily kept the basic plot of the film but set it somewhere in the south with card-carrying, hood-wearing klansmen. But his choice to surround Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) with affluent, educated, liberal types added an additional layer of critical satire to the film. A likely Oscar nominee, Get Out is extremely subversive. It openly mocks the same type of people that it’s asking to vote for it. For much of its runtime, it looks at the black experience through the lens of a man constantly annoyed by woke white people’s lack of self-awareness and attempts at coming off as not racist. It becomes more traditional horror in its final act, but the majority of the film sees Peele building tension and sparking laughs through the minutiae of a “Mom & Dad, this is my black boyfriend” scenario.

It’s almost not believable that Get Out is Peele’s directorial debut considering how carefully made it is. He understands the power simple sound editing can have. The sound of a spoon tapping on a teacup or glass of iced tea becomes more terrifying than a gory murder. He’s not too on-the-nose with his symbolism. The secluded upstate New York location is shot with images inspired by slave plantations, but the characters never comment on it. When Chris escapes, he does so by plugging his ears with cotton from a chair. This is daring as mainstream filmmaking gets, and its gigantic success with both critics and audiences alike hopefully sparks a mini-revolution in the cinematic ranks.


#8) Good Time

Director: Ben & Josh Safdie

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Jennifar Jason Leigh, Ben Safdie, Barkhad Abdi, Buddy Duress

Distributor: A24 Films

Good Time is relentless. It’s pure, kinetic cinema. The script wastes no time and manages to repeatedly surprise, but it earns those surprises rather than use them as crutches. What is in theory a dark New York crime thriller is shot with a neon-tinted flare, scored with pulsating synths that make the entire film feel like one big chase. This is a film that simultaneously hearkens back to classics while suggesting a fascinating new direction for independent cinema.

Connie (Robert Pattinson) and his mentally-handicapped brother Nick (Ben Safdie) rob a bank. Naturally, things go wrong when a dye pack explodes. Connie escapes but Nick is arrested. Connie then attempts to get Nick out of custody, and shit gets crazy. The bond between the two carries the film despite them each spending much of it on their own. It takes a delicate authorial touch and commanding performance to make us root for a protagonist who continually makes the wrong decision, and that’s exactly what happens with Connie. He’s a lot like Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, hopelessly trying to do something criminal out of love, only the love he’s capable of giving is not the kind that’s needed. There’s tragedy in that, but Good Time doesn’t ruminate on it. It’s too busy pushing forward and entertaining you.

This is another strong turn from Pattinson, who’s quickly breaking out of his brooding teenage vampire shell and establishing himself as one of the great working character actors. Safdie is good too, managing to tiptoe the thin line between sensitivity and exploitation when it comes to playing a character with a mental handicap. Even as the film ventures into the semi-ridiculous, it stays grounded thanks to these performances.


#7) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Director: James Gunn

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillain, Kurt Russell, Pom Klementieff

Distributor: Disney

Guardians 2 is the type of blockbuster sequel that will age like a good single-malt, the Marvel equivalent to The Empire Strikes Back. It doubles-down and improves on everything that made the first film a surprising smash hit. It’s funnier and written to seem more improvisational. It has a more colorful visual palette. Its themes of childhood neglect and unorthodox families are explored more deeply now that they don’t have to spend time introducing so much. James Gunn’s script throws an awful lot at you for a popcorn movie, but it all works.

The one-liners and visuals are really just coating for a story that sees all its characters coming to their own moments of subtextual catharsis. I mean, this is a movie that ends with a brash space raccoon moved to tears because he realizes he has a family and will be loved at his funeral. Referential moments that could take you out of the movie -”I’m Mary Poppins y’all”, the soundtrack- are rooted in characters relating to one another. This film splits up the team for most of its run, a decision that proves wise as it allows each character to get to where they need to go emotionally on their own. Then, being a superhero film, they come together at the end for a spectacular action climax.

The most surprising development is how the movie uses Yondu (Michael Rooker), who was really just a throwaway character in the first one. His entire nature is deconstructed, and his moment of redemption is moving. It’s probably the most emotionally impactful death in any of these movies. Guardians 2 will expose itself as a heavy movie the more you watch it, but that’s not to say it still isn’t entertaining on the most simplistic terms. Baby Groot dances to “Mr. Blue Sky”, after all.       


#6) Call Me By Your Name

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Starring: Armie Hammer, Timothèe Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Luca is a sensual filmmaker. He understands how to block and shoot scenes in order for them to function as a cinematic aphrodisiac. Even scenes that aren’t inherently sexual on their own are done this way. It’s tantalizing to watch, and with Call Me By Your Name, he finally has a story emotionally captivating enough to make his scenes be more than just aesthetic pleasures. The film chronicles the romance between young Oliver (Armie Hammer) and even younger Elio (Timothee Chalamet) over the course of a summer in Italy. The summer love comes full circle, from the initial spark to the physical manifestation to melancholic thoughts at its end. It’s all handled beautifully and delicately.

Now, being a same sex romance in the 1980’s, it’s a bit taboo and therefore the two attempt to keep it a secret. But screenwriter James Ivory wisely keeps the narrative focused on this specific relationship rather than the larger gay experience at the time. That makes the film very emotionally affecting. Anyone who has ever experienced first love will see parts of themselves in this story and these characters. Chalamet gives a powerhouse performance, hitting every note. He’s timid when the script calls for it, in full bloom when he needs to be. He has a very emotive, innocent face. The chemistry with Hammer is palpable.

This is also a beautifully constructed and shot film, one that’s both very 80s but also classical thanks to some antique-heavy production design. Each sun-drenched frame is as pretty to look at as the last. You quickly fall under its visual spell, important for a film about limited love. I’ve still only seen it once but am looking forward to diving back into it to pick up on subtle character beats and visual cues that I surely missed. It’s so carefully made, I assume it’s a film that rewards repeated viewing.


#5) Beach Rats

Director: Eliza Hittman

Starring: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge

Distributor: Neon

A poetic drama about self-discovery, repressing self-truth, and going through the motions….Beach Rats is an unexpected gem that opens your eyes to the talent that is Eliza Hittman the same way Moonlight did for Barry Jenkins last year. Frankie (Harris Dickinson) mostly lives an empty life. Things suck at home. He spends much of his time doing drugs and causing mischief at the beach with his friends. Despite having a lovely new girlfriend, Frankie leads a double life of sorts where he meets up with older men from the internet and has sex with them. Frankie doesn’t consider him gay though. While he of course hides this from everyone in his life and that deception drives the plot, this is really a film about Frankie’s internal conflict.

Not all coming-of-age films should be optimistic, Beach Rats argues. It’s an achingly human film that never tries to do more than it’s capable of. So many things don’t happen here when you expect something to because of the way other films have trained you. Dickinson’s performance is captivating despite the sparse dialogue that accompanies the film’s lyrical style. 16mm photography with a touch of grain gives Hittman’s film a perfectly imperfect look. Her camera tends to observe things anti-cinematically, not quite documentarian, but as if the camera was just one of the people in the frame, moving a little bit but mostly just there.

The film slowly moves to an unsettling climax that makes everything that happened before it seem even messier, and therefore more authentic. Hittman doesn’t claim to have resolutions for the conflicts of her character because many of them simply aren’t answerable. Not every coming-of-age story should end with the subject learning who they really are and becoming comfortable. Some people never do. I sure as hell haven’t yet.


#4) A Ghost Story

Director: David Lowery

Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara

Distributor: A24 Films

A somber, meditative film about memory and loss, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story  is a different type of haunting. C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are a married couple. C is killed in a car accident. The rest of the film is mostly C, as a ghost, observing M grieving and attempting to move on. This subverts the idea of ghosts as C is the one who’s haunted. Lowery’s images and loose narrative create a hypnotic atmosphere that’s as impactful as it is confounding. There are moments in A Ghost Story that you won’t fully grasp, which is the point to a certain extent.

Rooney Mara is one of the best actresses working right now and she’s as good as ever here, and Affleck, covered in a sheet the entire time, gives a heartbreaking performance. Emotion also comes via one of Lowery’s usual collaborators, composer Daniel Hart, who’s score here is a character itself. As A Ghost Story hits its final act it incorporates themes of wasted time and spirituality, but these ideas never seem over-ambitious because of how seamlessly they tie back to C & M.

This is simply one of the most original movies I’ve ever seen. I’ve come to expect greatness from Lowery after Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon and was pleased to see him outdo himself in such experimental fashion. There’s a large amount of lived-in emotional maturity here, shocking considering Lowery made the film at the age of just 34.


#3) Lady Bird

Director: Great Gerwig

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges

Distributor: A24 Films

It’s hard for a film to hit every emotional note imaginable without feeling disjointed or manipulative. Not just the ability to make the viewer laugh and cry in equal measure, but to do so in service of a story that will make even the most cynical fall victim to its spell. This requires a sharp script, pitch-perfect performances, and understated direction that styles itself without ever seeming too filmic. Enter Greta Gerwig’s fantastic debut, Lady Bird.

It’s no surprise that Gerwig was capable of writing such a script given her previous work as an actress and writer. But for a first-time director to be in such complete command of her own storytelling ambitions is almost unheard of. Even the great directorial debuts are messy, albeit beautifully messy. Not Lady Bird though. Lady Bird feels like an experienced auteur making their opus. It’s insightful about adolescence without ever playing like an all-knowing lecture, as many coming-of-age films tend to do.

Saoirse Ronan is the perfect muse for Gerwig. She keeps topping herself. It won’t be long into the film before you feel like you’ve known Christine (Lady Bird) for her whole life, and understand her motives while still seeing some of them as petulant. The same goes for her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, who seems destined to win an Oscar for the role. The greatest strength of the film is how real every character feels. You’ll root for everyone to kiss-and-makeup while realizing that such tidiness probably isn’t what’s best for these people.


#2) Dunkirk

Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Various

Distributor: Warner Bros

Christopher Nolan is an ambitious filmmaker, obviously. With Dunkirk, his finest effort yet, he channels his ambitions into a tight structure while tossing aside the lofty high-concept narrative ideas that have hindered some of his prior work. The film recreates the famed Dunkirk evacuation of WWII with a wordless structure, telling its story with pure imagery rather than exposition. It’s almost the anti-Interstellar. Three narratives -land, air, and sea- are balanced and cut together perfectly. Every moment is made to feel urgent. More of a survival/escape film than a standard war film, Dunkirk uses every cinematic gift in Nolan’s arsenal to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Nolan’s set pieces, benefiting from actual machinery of the era, are not just vast but also framed to create a sense of impending doom. He wants you to see just how vulnerable these men are and what angles they can be attacked from. Whether it be a crowd of men crammed onto a pontoon or below deck of a carrier, there’s always danger on a large scale. Hans Zimmer’s score is perhaps his best yet. It functions almost as a narrator.

The Dunkirk evacuation remains remarkable because of the everyday heroism involved. Dunkirk shows us that without ever hollywoodizing it. The cast is a true ensemble. Nobody is favored. The larger story never bends to convenience one character. This is Nolan’s best film; his first to realize that large scale art doesn’t have to be conceptually difficult.


#1) The Lost City of Z

Director: James Gray

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland

Distributor: Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street

There’s always been an old-school flavor to James Gray. The Lost City of Z, based on the true story of a man sent to survey the Bolivian jungle in the 1900’s who becomes obsessed with proving the existence of an ancient civilization, is paced and shot like the adventure pictures Hollywood doesn’t seem to make anymore. But it’s also loaded with modern thematic heft. Percy Fawcett (the aforementioned surveyor, played by Charlie Hunnam) and his claims of this civilization challenge European historical notions rooted in racism. His well-intentioned obsession with proving it becomes (possibly literally?) the death of him, and his son.

Hunnam gives a dynamic performance. You respect his ambition while loathing some of his decision-making. It becomes clear relatively early on that his efforts will ultimately prove fruitless. His descent into the jungle, lushly filmed by the great Darius Khondji, becomes just as much about stubbornness as it is about exploration. This is a complex film that asks you to consider a great deal of subtext. But Gray’s script, and his actors, are smart enough to keep that subtext from hindering the film’s entertainment value. This is a long film and, at times, a slow film. But it’s never a boring film.

Its old-school merits likely played a large part in The Lost City of Z not finding much box office success or awards traction despite strong reviews from NYFF last year. I do believe this film will become a cult classic amongst cinephiles though. It’s too good not to. I strongly encourage you to give it a watch if you haven’t. I rest my reputation as a movie geek on its brilliance. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year.

Breaking: Alexander to return to Inside The Pylon.

Sources have told zakkondratenko.com that former draftnik Shane Alexander, best known for the podcast PylonU as well as controversial opinions such as “O.J. Howard is a generational talent” and “Paxton Lynch is QB1”, will be returning to the podcast after a self-imposed exile to preview the upcoming bowl season.

This news comes as a bit of a shock as Shane recently deleted his Twitter account. But over the last couple of weeks, Shane’s new account has sent out a few football-related tweets, leaving many to wonder if a full-on return was imminent.

We’ll have more on this story as it develops.

Oscars 2018: Breaking Down the Acting Races.

Next in a series of posts as awards season heats up, a breakdown of Oscar acting categories.

Updated Predictions 

Best Actor

All year, even before anyone saw any of the films, Gary Oldman has been considered the heavy frontrunner to win for his performance as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. On paper, it’s the perfect Oscar performance; a beloved veteran actor with a strong overdue narrative (just one nomination, zero wins) doused in heavy makeup playing a historical figure in an assumed Best Picture contender. We’ve seen this type of performance win many times, especially when the British angle (an important “vote” within the Academy) is played up, a la Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. When the film screened at Telluride and Toronto, our suspicions had been confirmed. Critics and festival-goers called Oldman’s turn a powerhouse performance and reaffirmed the notion that it’s his Oscar to lose (even if overall word on the film wasn’t quite as kind). But the first few precursors of the season have ignored Oldman, bringing in some doubt. He should still be considered the frontrunner, and critics groups often intentionally go against the grain when an early frontrunner is declared. But one thing is for sure, Oldman isn’t going to sweep the entire season the way Daniel Day-Lewis did five years ago for Lincoln, and the more precursors that go to other names, the more voters in the acting branch will have reconsider what at one time seemed like an obvious vote.

Speaking of Daniel Day-Lewis, the three-time winner may be Oldman’s main challenger. He’s back teamed with Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread. The last time the two worked together was There Will Be Blood, for which DDL won an Oscar. The film is still under embargo but early whispers say that it’s major and he’s great in it. The fact that it’s supposedly his final performance could be an added narrative boost for one of the Academy’s favorites. Also establishing himself as a contender thank to NY Critics, and someone who’ll surely pick up more critics notices, is Call Me By Your Name breakout Timothee Chalamet. He’ll turn 22 in a few weeks, so he’s very young for this category, but his work has drawn raves since Sundance and the film is a Best Picture contender. He looks like a lock for a nomination.

A trio of strong contenders will likely battle for the final two slots. James Franco, previously nominated for 127 Hours, has emerged as a strong player for The Disaster Artist, which he also directed. The dramedy, chronicling the making of cult disaster/classic The Room, is sure to resonate with other actors and there’s a nice comeback narrative surrounding Franco after a five year stretch without much high-profile, acclaimed work. Tom Hanks, who hasn’t been nominated since Cast Away despite doing some of the strongest work of his career in films like Captain Phillips and Sully, surprisingly won Best Actor from the NBR for Steven Spielberg’s The Post. The film, while a major threat to win Best Picture, is said to be more of a Meryl Streep show, but there’s already premature talk of a Silence of the Lambs type sweep for it with Oscar. I don’t think Hanks can win this year, but he is a popular actor and a strong bet to ride the film to a nomination. Also in play is Jake Gyllenhaal, who many think was snubbed for Nightcrawler a few years back. He’s got a strong overdue narrative himself and does exceptional work as Boston Bombing survivor Jeff Bauman in Stronger, but I’m worried that if Franco and Hanks continue to rise then Jake’s film not really being an Oscar contender anywhere else could keep him out.

As for dark horses, Oscar favorite Christian Bale is said to be great in Scott Cooper’s western Hostiles, but the film (from a new distributor) needs a late rise. After seeing him rise at the last minute and almost win for The Big Short, I will never rule him out. Denzel Washington was nominated again last year and is back with Roman J. Israel, Esq, but reviews for the film are very mixed and it probably will sit the season out. Andrew Garfield got his first nom last year and afterglow noms are a very real thing but Breathe is being ripped apart by many as shameless Oscar bait. It doesn’t seem to have any traction. Daniel Kaluuya and Robert Pattinson give two of the year’s best turns in Get Out and Good Time, respectively, but will both need a number of critics groups and/or SAG to cite them to really jump into serious contention. Kaluuya is a better bet to do that considering his film is a likely Best Picture nominee.

Current Predictions: Gary Oldman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Timothy Chalamet, James Franco, Tom Hanks


Best Actress

What a loaded field this is. Along with Best Original Screenplay, it’s the most interesting race of the season. At the top right now appear to be three ladies who have all hit with Oscar before. First, there’s Meryl Streep, the most nominated actress in Oscar history (20), who seemingly has something major on her hands as the lead in The Post. Her winning the NBR confirmed that she will once again be a force to be reckoned with. Streep’s last win came six years ago for playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Her three noms since then have all been for less serious work, but now she’s in a Best Picture frontrunner and is a real threat to win her third Oscar. Two-time nominee (despite being just 23!) Saoirse Ronan has already begun what figures to be a dominant run with critics groups for her work in likely Best Picture nominee Lady Bird. She’s the youngest contender in a field loaded with big names but Oscar has shown that they like her and the work is really, really good. She is a serious threat to win. I’m still unsure of how the Academy will respond to Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri given how absent it’s been from the season so far, but Frances McDormand should be a safe bet for a nom. Many critics and festival-goers are saying her work in the film is even better than what she did in Fargo, for which she won this award.

The next tier looks real strong as well. Sally Hawkins is receiving a lot of praise for The Shape of Water, and the branch has nominated her before. It’s a unique performance that may not resonate with everyone but will have vocal supporters. Margot Robbie, quickly becoming one of the most popular actresses in the game, is getting strong word for her work as Tony Harding in the black comedy I, Tonya but it remains to be seen if the film (from new distributor NEON) is a real Oscar contender. Can it hit with a few precursors? In such a loaded field, it’s hard to see anyone getting in if their film doesn’t hit with the Academy on a larger level. Jessica Chastain, two-time nominee who pretty much everyone realizes should’ve won for Zero Dark Thirty over Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, appears to have a strong turn in Molly’s Game, the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin. But like Robbie, I have concerns that the film just isn’t going to last the season and hit big with the Academy.

There’s also another Academy favorite in play with Kate Winslet. Her film, Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, didn’t land as the contender most expected but her performance is being praised and she can never be ruled out. If SAG goes for her, she’s in. Emma Stone, fresh off her win, has a baity role in Battle of the Sexes but the film also didn’t land too strong. She’s got a great shot at a globe nom though. The legendary Judi Dench is playing Queen Victoria again in Victoria & Abdul but the film doesn’t appear to be a player. She 100% needs SAG to notice. A couple of dark horses to watch are Vicky Krieps for her supposed breakout turn in Phantom Thread and Academy favorite Michelle Williams if she’s a true lead in All the Money in the World and if the film is actually good.

Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) may have had some early momentum, but the field is too strong for her to crack it. Same goes for the young Brooklyn Prince (The Florida Project).

Current Predictions: Frances McDormand, Saoirse Ronan, Meryl Streep, Sally Hawkins, Jessica Chastain


Best Supporting Actor

Some clarity has been given to this field over the last few weeks, but the fact that four films still each have two contenders keeps it a relative mystery until more critics groups and SAG weigh in. Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project), fresh off wins from both the NBR and NYFCC, is certainly a lock for a nom and the early frontrunner to win. This is a spot for the Academy at large to award The Florida Project as a whole when final voting goes down. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri appears to have two real contenders in Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson. I haven’t yet seen the film, but based on what I’m reading, Rockwell appears to be *slightly* more likely to hit. Then again, he’s never been nominated before whereas Woody has two. I doubt they both get in unless the film is a real threat to WIN Best Picture. Same goes for the men of Call Me By Your Name, Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg. Hammer is being pushed harder by Sony Pictures Classics and is playing the circuit very well but Stuhlbarg is older with a major snub on his hands years ago (A Serious Man) and is also in Best Picture player The Shape of Water. Stuhlbarg also has a clear “Oscar scene” that can be edited into promotional material easily. But much like with the Three Billboards guys, we need more clarity.

The Shape of Water has both Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon. Jenkins is more of a highlight based on reviews but after Shannon’s out-of-nowhere nomination for Nocturnal Animals last year you can never rule him out. The acting branch loves him. If Netflix’s Mudbound can find a way to actually land with Oscar, there could be some split votes in the acting branch between Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund. Both are very good in the film, but it seems to be more of Mitchell’s moment right now.

Other strong contenders include previous winner Mark Rylance (Dunkirk) carrying his film’s acting chances and therefore Best Picture chances on his shoulders, Bryan Cranston (Last Flag Flying) whose work will appeal to older voters, Will Poulter (Detroit) whose film never landed strong but looks to get a late push from Annapurna, Bob Odenkirk (The Post) who’s reportedly a scene-stealer, and Idris Elba (Molly’s Game) if his film can get off the ground.

Current Predictions: Willem Dafoe, Armie Hammer, Sam Rockwell, Richard Jenkins, Bob Odenkirk


Best Supporting Actress

Is this really the two-horse race between Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird) and Allison Janney (I, Tonya) that it once appeared to be? Metcalf is the frontrunner. She’s already started picking up what will ultimately be a huge number of critics prizes and her film is at the top of the Best Picture hierarchy right now. Janney is still very much a contender but I wonder if she can really win if her film doesn’t land elsewhere, which could very well be the case. Both ladies are respected veterans of film and television and should duke it out for industry awards all season long.

Octavia Spencer received her second nom last year and she’s the acclaimed comic relief in The Shape of Water. But there are multiple performances in the film that figure to draw more attention. Sony Pictures Classics picked up Novitiate thinking Melissa Leo could win. Oscar loves her but the film is *very* small. The surprising NYFCC for Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip) established her as a very real part of this race. Raunchy comedies aren’t traditional Oscar material but Melissa McCarthy was nominated for Bridesmaids and Haddish has a ton of vocal support. Will more critics groups get behind it or was NYFCC just trying to stick out?

Holly Hunter is carrying The Big Sick on her shoulders. The film has a lot of fans and she’s a previous winner and four-time nominee. Mary J. Blige is really, really good in Mudbound but it remains to be seen if Netflix can hit with Oscar in the major categories. A SAG nom would be huge for her, but then again, Idris Elba got a SAG nom for Beasts of No Nation and still missed with Oscar. Folks love Kristin Scott Thomas (Darkest Hour) and while the film is obviously all about Oldman we often see lead actor juggernauts carry in supporting players (think Sally Field getting in for Lincoln).

Some dark horses include Lesley Manville for Phantom Thread and Hong Chau for Downsizing. The former needs to to emerge as a talking point from her film, whereas the latter already has but needs to film to play better with voters than it did with critics and festival audiences.

Current Predictions: Laurie Metcalf, Allison Janney, Octavia Spencer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Holly Hunter.

Check back soon for more!

NBR goes heavy on ‘The Post’ & A24 Films; November awards season check-in.

Awards season is off and running. The Gotham Awards went down last night. The Indie Spirit noms came out last week. Those two collectives focus on honoring the independent, small-budget films of the year. Many films that pop up there also go on to hit big with Oscar, but many simply aren’t eligible for various reasons. The National Board of Review, a mysterious and secretive NY-based collective of film enthusiasts that’s been citing the best in the field since 1909, weighed in today. The NBR, like any precursor, shouldn’t be considered too heavily when predicting Oscar, but it is one of the first major groups to have their say and citations from them can give a film a boost as other critics groups and industry guilds have their say over the coming weeks. There are always some films that make the NBR’s top 10 that don’t go on to receive a Best Picture nomination (Sully, Silence, Patriots Day, and Hail, Caesar! last year) and 4 of the last 5 NBR Best Director winners missed out on Oscar noms (Barry Jenkins bucked the trend last year). On the other hand, only 3 times since 1990 has the NBR Best Film winner missed out on a Best Picture nomination. It’s worth talking about a little bit for any serious awards nerd.

So let’s do that.

And if you’re interested, here’s a spreadsheet of my actuals Oscar prefix with analysis, that I updated weekly: OSCAR PREDICTIONS 

Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Post‘ named Best Film, and more.

In a bit of a surprise, considering reviews of the film are still embargoed, Steven Spielberg’s The Post took the NBR’s top prize. An unseen wildcard over the last few weeks as awards discussion heated up, a film about The Pentagon Papers from one of the most acclaimed directors ever certainly seems to have Oscar DNA, especially in a time when a certain orange man is making freedom of the press a talking point. But some bad buzz came with the film a while back due to nobody seeing even an image of it and some mumbling that it was having problems in the editing room (that buzz appears to have been completely made up by thirsty bloggers). A historical Spielberg drama hit big with Oscar as recently as two years ago (Bridge of Spies).

What’s most surprising here isn’t that The Post won Best Film, but that its two lead performers (Tom Hanks & Meryl Streep) won Best Actor & Best Actress, respectively. Streep, with her 20 Oscar noms, was always assumed to be a contender this year and now we have verification of that. Hanks on the other hand is genuinely surprising to see cited here, considering word suggests it’s really “Streep’s film” and juggernauts like Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis were competing with him. Despite stellar recent work in films like Sully and Captain Phillips, Hanks hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar since Cast Away in 2000. Can he continue the momentum all season? Winning NBR by no means guarantees an Oscar nom, just ask Oscar Isaac and Sean Penn.

The twitterverse is already buzzing that The Post could be the first film since Silence of the Lambs to win the “big five” Oscars (Picture, Director, lead Actor, lead actress, screenplay). It’s a little early for such speculation but The Post certainly looks like a force to be reckoned with.

A nice day for A24 Films’ three-headed pony.

A24 Films, a NY-based company and probably the premiere indie studio right now, won the big Oscar last year with Moonlight. They appear to have 3 strong players this year and the NBR put all of them in their top 10, as well as citing them elsewhere. Lady Bird, an exceptional coming-of-age film and surprising commercial hit, saw Greta Gerwig named Best Director by the NBR. What a pleasant surprise that is, considering it’s her directorial debut and she’s just the second woman to win it in NBR’s 109 year history. The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s dramedy about the making of cult midnight disaster/classic The Room, scooped up Best Adapted Screenplay for Scott Neustadter & Michael Weber. It’s looking like a real Oscar player in a weak adapted screenplay field and also for Franco’s lead performance. The Florida Project, Directed by Sean Baker, saw Willem Dafoe scoop up Best Supporting Actor. The veteran seems like a great bet to hit with SAG & Oscar as well, and any citations help a really small film like this. Add in a trio of early-year acclaimed films in It Comes At Night, A Ghost Story, and Good Time it’s been a nice stretch for A24.

Surprising inclusions, and exclusions, in the NBR top 10.

The NBR always goes against the grain a bit, but this year’s crop of 10is particularly strange. Their top 10, in alphabetical order:

  • Baby Driver (TriStar Pictures, dir. Edgar Wright)
  • Call Me By Your Name (Sony Pictures Classics, dir. Luca Guadagnino)
  • The Disaster Service (A24 Films, dir. James Franco)
  • Downsizing (Paramount, dir. Alexander Payne)
  • Dunkirk (Warner Bros, dir. Christopher Nolan)
  • The Florida Project (A24 Films, dir. Sean Baker)
  • Get Out (Universal, dir. Jordan Peele)
  • Lady Bird (A24 Films, dir. Greta Gerwig)
  • Logan (Fox, dir. James Mangold)
  • Phantom Thread (Focus Features, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Let’s start with the films that ARE in the top 10. Baby Driver, while a smash commercial hit and critical darling, wasn’t something I thought would pop up anywhere outside sound categories. It’s unapologetically escapist, seemed to be relatively forgotten about, and features a certain actor in some hot water right now. It’s cool to see such a popular film get a citation, but don’t expect to hear its name much throughout the season. Alexander Payne has always been a juggernaut when it comes to awards, but Downsizing was ripped apart by critics on the festival circuit. I assumed it was dead on arrival. Perhaps not?

There’s been talk all year about how hard Fox would campaign Logan, and it appears to be paying early dividends. Despite the narrative surrounding Wonder Woman and the general acclaim the trio of Marvel movies received, Logan was always the best awards bet when it comes to this year’s superhero crop. It’s style is much easier for cynics and film purists to digest. Paul Thomas Anderson films will always be contenders, but it’s still a bit surprising to see it cited here considering its first screenings were less than a week ago. PTA also won Best Original Screenplay from the NBR.

The rest of the top 10 were all assumed to be strong awards players yesterday, and they still will be tomorrow. While these early awards so more about what they nominate than what they don’t nominate, I’d still like to discuss a trio of films that AREN’T in the NBR top 10.

Everyone has said all year that Gary Oldman (playing Winston Churchill) is winning Best Actor for Darkest Hour. But neither he nor the film were cited by the NBR. I wouldn’t panic. It’s a more traditional player, something that’ll do better with industry guilds than critics, and should have no problem capturing the older vote and the British vote (still important even as the Academy continues to diversify). As for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water, I’m starting to have a bit of pause when it comes to calling them Best Picture frontrunners. Both missed out with the NBR, and the Gothams/Indie Spirits as well, despite being eligible indies. They both played really well on the festival circuit and have vocal admirers, but perhaps the early hyperbole is a bit much. We’ll see. Again, it’s still early.

List of NBR Winners

  • Best Film: The Post
  • Best Director: Greta Gerwig
  • Best Lead Actor: Tom Hanks (The Post)
  • Best Lead Actress: Meryl Streep (The Post)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project)
  • Best Supporting Actress: Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird)
  • Best Original Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Scott Neustadter & Michael Weber (The Disaster Artist)
  • Best Animated Feature: Coco
  • Breakthrough Performance: Timothée Chalet (Call Me By Your Name)
  • Best Directorial Debut: Jordan Peele (Get Out)
  • Best Foreign Film: Foxtrot
  • Best Documentary: Jane
  • Best Ensemble: Get Out

Check back soon for more commentary as awards season continues.