Tuesday, March 06, 2018

The 2017 Markademy Awards

It’s a known fact that Katherine Hepburn’s last words were, verbatim, “I would’ve happily melted my four Academy Awards into a necklace spelling out the words ‘OSCARS ARE FOR LOSERS’ just to have been nominated for a Markademy Award.”  Now, Katherine Hepburn famously didn’t give a damn about the Oscars so that part about the necklace might’ve actually been true.  But the part about her coveting a Markademy Award is 1000% true.

Culled from a field of the 89 movies (!) with official 2017 release dates that I saw in theatres and on Netflix this year, here are the best of the best, the creme de la creme.  For instance…

Actual nominees: Paul Thomas Anderson/Phantom Thread, Guillermo Del Toro/The Shape Of Water, Greta Gerwig/Lady Bird, Christopher Nolan/Dunkirk, Jordan Peele/Get Out
Actual winner: Guillermo Del Toro

Alterna-ballot: Sean Baker/The Florida Project, Noah Baumbach/The Meyerowitz Stories, Luca Guadagnino/Call Me By Your Name, Dee Rees/Mudbound, The Safie Brothers/Good Time
My ballot: Anderson, Baker, Baumbach, Gerwig, Peele
My winner: Jordan Peele

I was very pleased that Jordan Peele went home with something on Oscar night, though am I wrong in believing that his direction was more award-worthy than his script?  Don’t get me wrong, it was a great script, but the film was so expertly shot with a hundred little details and homages to classic horror tropes that I came away more impressed by Peele the director than by Peele the writer.  It’s like, we already knew he could write (via Key & Peele), but the filmmaking was a revelation.  Now I’m wishing Peele had directed “Keanu” and perhaps elevated that movie beyond its only ‘okay’ status.

It was pretty hard to improve upon the actual Best Director slate, which shared three of my five nominees and also had long-overdue nominations for Del Toro and Nolan.  As you’ll note later, Shape Of Water wasn’t one of my true favourites of the year, but Del Toro is obviously a fine filmmaker and he should’ve won an Oscar a decade ago for Pan’s Labyrinth anyway, so I have no issue with him getting one now.  It would’ve been great to see Gerwig and Baumbach actually nominated together since it would’ve made them the first pair of directing nominees to have slept together. 

(Unless anyone has some Karina Longworth-style old-timey Hollywood gossip to share about two former nominees seen canoodling at the Brown Derby.) 

(Or if the Coens shared a bunkbed as a kid.)

Actual nominees: Timothee Chalamet/Call Me By Your Name, Daniel Day-Lewis/Phantom Thread, Daniel Kaluuya/Get Out, Gary Oldman/Darkest Hour, Denzel Washington/Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Actual winner: Gary Oldman

Alterna-ballot: John Cho/Columbus, Bryan Cranston/Wakefield, Robert Pattinson/Good Time, Algee Smith/Detroit, Jason Sudeikis/Colossal
My ballot: Chalamet, Cho, Day-Lewis, Pattinson, Smith
My winner: Daniel Day-Lewis

I love movies that seem entirely predictable based on the trailer or even the film’s first 20-30 minutes, and then they take a “wait, WHAT’s really happening here?!” turn that gradually dawns on, and delights, the viewer.  It occurs to me that Phantom Thread, Wakefield, Good Time, and Colossal all share this distinction, with the latter two films standing out since wow, who knew Pattinson and Sudeikis has those types of performances in them?  (I hesitate to say too much about either film since if you haven’t seen them, the less you know the better, but both are terrific.)  With Detroit, sadly, you know all too well what's going to happen, with Smith's character arc perfectly reflecting the film's horror.  Chalamet would've won had it not been for DDL hitting it out of the park once again, and really, you could make the case that Chalamet had the more difficult role given the complicated nature of the story.  If you remember the old Hollywood Stock Exchange online game, I'd advise you to invest heavily in Chalamet and Smith in the near future.

Since this is DDL’s, ahem, “last movie,” surely he deserves a Markademy Award before he disappears into the Irish countryside.  He also deserves one since this guy is just operating on a higher level than anyone else.  To use the analogy of the movie itself, Day-Lewis often seems less like an actor than a designer given the care he puts into every aspect of his performances.  You can’t compare the originality of DDL’s work in Phantom Thread to the lesser feat of, say, putting on some old-age makeup and pretending to be Winston Churchill.  Just to pull an example out of thin air.

Actual nominees: Sally Hawkins/The Shape Of Water, Frances McDormand/Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Margot Robbie/I, Tonya, Saoirse Ronan/Lady Bird, Meryl Streep/The Post
Actual winner: Frances McDormand

Alterna-ballot: Anne Hathaway/Colossal, Vicky Krieps/Phantom Thread, Tatiana Maslany/Stronger, Haley Liu Richardson/Columbus, Emma Stone/Battle Of the Sexes
My ballot: Hawkins, Krieps, McDormand, Ronan, Stone
My winner: Saoirse Ronan

Sally Hawkins falls just short of being the first-ever three-time Markademy Award winner, so she’ll remain in the two-trophy club (with Colin Firth, Marion Cotillard, Leonardo DiCaprio, and John Hawkes) for at least one more year.  It is great that between TSOW and, of all movies, Paddington 2, the general public is just beginning to realize how great Hawkins is, and the sky is the limit for her future roles.  Likewise, Frances McDormand seemed to make the leap from “oh yeah, she’s a great actress” to bonafide icon with Three Billboards.  Emma Stone continued to establish herself as a legit star, plus you had the unknown Vicky Krieps leap into prominence, not just breaking out, but breaking out while stealing scenes opposite Daniel Day-Lewis.

My trophy, however, goes to Saoirse Ronan.  It must be odd portraying a character in a semi-autobiographical film when the subject of the autobiography is also your director, though it’s telling how little Christine McPhe…er, Lady Bird has in common with Greta Gerwig (or at least, the “Greta Gerwig” persona we’re familiar with from films and interviews).  Lady Bird McPherson is both shades of every teenage girl you ever went to drama class with and a wholly original character.  Let it be noted that Ronan already has three Oscar nominations by age 23, so if you had to bet on anyone ever breaking Streep’s record, she has to be the (only?) possible favourite at the moment.  She’s the Jordan Spieth to Meryl’s Jack Nicklaus. 

Actual nominees: Willem Dafoe/The Florida Project, Woody Harrelson/Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Richard Jenkins/The Shape Of Water, Christopher Plummer/All The Money In The World, Sam Rockwell/Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Actual winner: Sam Rockwell

Alterna-ballot: Paul Walter Hauser/I Tonya, Lil Rel Howery/Get Out, Michael Keaton/Spider-Man: Homecoming, Tracy Letts/Lady Bird, Michael Stuhlbarg/Call Me By Your Name
My ballot: Dafoe, Hauser, Jenkins, Letts, Plummer
My winner: Richard Jenkins

Tough category as always this year, with so many apples-and-oranges picks.  Do you go with some great comedy relief in Howery or Hauser?  A performance that is lacking in screentime but boils down to one amazing monologue (Stuhlbarg or Harrelson)?  A performance that probably has too much screentime and is essentially a co-lead but what the hell, let’s do some category fraud (Rockwell or Dafoe)?  Michael Keaton continuing his late-career renaissance as one of the best Marvel villains ever?

It was a bad idea on many fronts to cast Kevin Spacey in All The Money In The World, but sticking to just the acting for the moment, surely Plummer would’ve been the better choice from the get-go.  As opposed to loading Spacey up in old-age makeup and making the whole performance into a gimmick, why not just cast an actual 86-year-old who still effortlessly bring it?  Plummer is so good that he manages to turn a role that is basically written as “C. Montgomery Burns, but real” into an actual human being.

My choice came down to Letts and Jenkins, both killing it in great low-key benevolent nice guy roles.  They were both supporting and supportive actors.  Between this film and The Post, I’m enjoying Letts’ late-career face turn of suddenly playing decent people after a career of mostly being haughty, upper-class scumbags.  Jenkins takes it by a hair, just because I felt his role was slightly more difficult.  Lady Bird does a fine job of illustrating the complexities of the mother/daughter relationship, but being the father in the middle of that relationship probably isn’t as quite as tough as playing most of your scenes against a co-star who can’t speak and an undersea fish-god.

Actual nominees: Mary J. Blige/Mudbound, Allison Janney/I, Tonya, Lesley Manville/Phantom Thread, Laurie Metcalf/Lady Bird, Octavia Spencer/The Shape Of Water
Actual winner: Allison Janney

Alterna-ballot: Hong Chau/Downsizing, Beanie Feldstein/Lady Bird, Betty Gabriel/Get Out, Zoe Kazan/The Big Sick, Sophia Lillis/IT, June Squibb/Table 19, Emma Thompson/The Meyerowitz Stories
My ballot: Chau, Feldstein, Gabriel, Metcalf, Thompson
My winner: Hong Chau

I went over the five-nominee limit on the alternate ballot since this was definitely the most loaded category of the year.  (And also because, to be honest, the Academy’s ballot wasn’t great.  Blige’s nomination was a head-scratcher, and I feel Spencer and Janney could’ve played those parts in their sleep.)  If I’m not mistaken, I also believe we now have the first-ever pair of sibling Markademy Award nominees in Feldstein and Jonah Hill. 

This category again runs a wide gamut, from the young (Lillis) to the old (Squibb), to the playing-against-type (Thompson, as I actually didn’t realize it was her until about halfway through the movie), to those who didn’t have screentime in Gabriel and Kazan.  For Gabriel, she had one big scene to work with and only made it into one of the most iconic scenes of recent years.  For Kazan, she had about 10-15 minutes to get you to fall for her as Kumail did, to understand why she’s worth waiting around for to see if she comes out of that coma. 

Downsizing is one of those missed-opportunity movies that I find fascinating because there’s clearly pieces of a great movies in there, but the execution was just off.  In any sci-fi premise as outlandish as this one, it helps to just focus on one single relationship or aspect within the world so you don’t get bogged down in the “wait, what?” details of how this premise could actually exist.  I think Alexander Payne tried to have his cake and eat it too in trying to make the whole “downsizing” concept explainable rather than just keeping it as big-picture satire, and the movie suffers for it because the viewer immediately has a million questions that poke holes in how this could ever possibly work. 

What might’ve saved the film is if Payne had just focused things around Matt Damon and Hong Chau, the latter of whom totally steals the entire movie in a star-making performance.  In a gimmicky movie, and in a role that could’ve been gimmicky with the broken English and the prosthetic leg, Chau brings a dose of much-needed reality into the mix.  Ngoc Lan Tran has no time for Paul’s mid-life crisis nonsense, and I wish Payne had taken that hint for the movie as a whole.

Actual nominees: Call Me By Your Name/Darkest Hour/Dunkirk/Get Out/Lady Bird/Phantom Thread/The Post/The Shape Of Water/Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Actual winner: The Shape Of Water

As always, the following six movies are the ones that leapt the magical “this was good enough to be Best Picture” bar in my head…

1. The Florida Project
2. Lady Bird
3. The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected)
4. Get Out
5. Phantom Thread
6. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Come quick words on the runners-up…

* Lady Bird is one of the great coming-of-age stories of our time, and the rare such film that both treats the young character’s desires as understandable and realistic, yet also quite wiling to acknowledge the nonsensical, in-your-own-headedness of being a teenager.  Greta Gerwig is a longtime Markademy Award favourite, and it’s fascinating to watch her evolution from great actress to great writer to now great director.
* I like to think that Baumbach read the script for Lady Bird or saw the dailies or something and realized he had to up his game to avoid getting A Star Is Born-ed, since he stepped up with easily the best of the Ben Stiller Mid-Life Crisis Trilogy — Greenberg was good, While We’re Young was not.  Who knew Adam Sandler had this kind of a performance in him?
* Get Out is one of the rare films I went to see twice in theatre, since it works great if you a) know nothing about it going in, and b) if you know EVERYTHING about it going in, since there is so much to be caught on a repeat viewing.  It is such a novel idea for a movie and perfectly executed. 
* I’ve already talked about Phantom Thread a bit, so I’ll just add that Paul Thomas Anderson really should win an Oscar one of these years.  Hell, I only like about half his movies and even I think the guy is overdue.
* As a Spidey fan since childhood, was it ever great to see Spider-Man once again done well on the big screen.  Aside from the second Sam Raimi movie, the previous Spidey movies have ranged from frustrating to “why is this happening,” and I’m relieved that Sony finally just threw up their collective hands and just handed the creative reins over to Marvel.  I’m beyond fired up for the next generation of Spider-Man movies, not to mention seeing him in the Avengers films and lord knows how many other crossovers with future Marvel projects.

This brings us to the big winner, and I’ll begin with a fun fact.  “The Florida Project” was (thank you, Wikipedia!) Walt Disney’s idea both for his Florida theme parks and a bigger-picture vision of an always-sustainable city of the future, basically Tomorrowland and Epcot Center rolled into one.  In Sean Baker’s film, we essentially get Realityland, a look at lower-class families trying to hustle and get by as best they can while living in a rundown motel just minutes away from Disney World.

Yet, this is also a self-sustaining world.  Moonee and her friends are a bit too young to really understand their situation, though when the veneer begins to crack as the film goes on, Moonee sustains herself through imagination.  Bobby the motel manager sustains himself by just focusing on making the motel the best it can be on a day-to-day basis, while also seemingly trying to make up for his fractured family by acting as a guardian figure to the residents.  Halley also lives in something of a world of make-believe, though her contentment about her life often manifests itself as dangerous given her obliviousness about her parental responsibilities — it seems like Halley would be perfectly happy living at the motel and hanging out with Ashley forever, never realizing until it’s too late that this *isn’t* sustainable.

It’s a fascinating idea for a movie, and one completely grounded in complete normality.  There’s less a strict plot than there is just some of the day-to-day routine of these characters, and the cinema vérité vibe is enhanced by the fact that the cast is mostly comprised of first-time performers.  What an achievement to get such an absorbing movie and a set of performances from people who weren’t even actors, plus Dafoe as the cast’s experienced cornerstone.

Between Florida Project and Tangerine, Sean Baker is on an incredible roll of innovative movies about characters that you basically never see featured in film.  Even in an era when movies like Get Out or Mad Max: Fury Road are getting a lot of Oscar attention, I get the feeling that Florida Project might’ve been just a little too out-there for the Academy, hence its lack of nominations aside from Dafoe.  I heartily urge everyone to check out Florida Project since you’ve probably never seen a movie quite like it, and it also has one of the most creative end sequences in recent memory.  Come on, it’s a Markademy Award winner, how could it NOT be great?

The rest of the films that weren’t quite enough to get into my Best Picture ballot, but all ranged from excellent to very good to good to good-but-not-nearly-as-good-as-if-could’ve-been (looking at you, number 26!)

7. Good Time
8. Colossal
9. Logan
10. The Big Sick
11. Coco
12. Mudbound
13. War For The Planet Of The Apes
14. Baby Driver
15. Landline
16. Detroit
17. The Shape Of Water
18. It
19. Blade Runner 2049
20. Call Me By Your Name
21. Thor: Ragnarok
22. The Disaster Artist
23. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
24. John Wick 2
25. Wakefield
26. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


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