Saturday, March 02, 2019

The 2018 Markademy Awards

Live from the entertainment capital of my house, it’s the 2018 Markademy Awards!  We’ve never had a host, and we’ve always gotten along just fine!  Incidentally, I think it was around the 35-minute mark into the actual Oscar ceremony when it suddenly dawned on everyone that “hey wait, did we never need a host this entire time?  I don’t miss it whatsoever.”

Still, in this brave new Oscar ceremony world of a host-less show, a running time of less than 200 minutes, and an interestingly varied group of nominees, the Academy can’t be stopped from falling all over itself to reward a mediocre movie as its “Best Picture.”  This is where the Markademy Awards step in as a righter of wrongs.

Actual nominees: Alfonso Cuaron/Roma, Spike Lee/BlacKkKlansman, Pawel Pawlikowski/Cold War, Yorgos Lanthimos/The Favourite, Adam McKay/Vice
Actual winner: Alfonso Cuaron

Alterna-ballot: Bradley Cooper/A Star Is Born, Debra Granik/Leave No Trace, Marielle Heller/Can You Ever Forgive Me, Barry Jenkins/If Beale Street Could Talk, Joe & Anthony Russo/Avengers: Infinity War

My ballot: Cuaron, Heller, Jenkins, Lanthimos, the Russos
My winner: Alfonso Cuaron

Well, okay, the Academy got this one right.  Cuaron captured well-deserving Oscars for both directing and cinematography, since this film is just beyond stunning.  He isn’t dealing with incredible landscapes or windswept vistas here — Roma is largely set in a normal home, on a mostly normal (affluent, to be sure) city street, and yet Cuaron makes this movie look somehow even more visually impressive than a Gravity or a Children Of Men.

If there’s a theme in this year’s ballot, it’s directors who really bring the ordinary to life.  (Plus the exact opposite of this theme in the Russos, who do the impossible by juggling a decade’s worth of movies and characters into a single, coherent, epic.). I don’t want to suggest the stories of CYEFM, Favourite, Beale Street, or Roma are basic by any means, but it’s very easy to imagine versions of these films that get tedious, since we’ve seen some variations on these types of movies before.  The British costume drama, the family drama of a young couple torn apart by a tragic event, the dark Woody Allen-ish New York literary drama, the personal story of the working class…so much new life is breathed into these familiar concepts.  For Roma, it’s incredible how everything is so perfectly cinematic yet also so naturalistic and slice of life.  It would come off as a documentary, were it not for Cuaron’s camera making it clear that no, you’re watching a perfectly-composed film.

Special shoutout to Lanthimos, who merits a directing nod for one of the year’s best movies, just a year after his The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (a strong 10 on the “Insists Upon Itself Scale”) captures the 2017 Markademy Anti-Award as the year’s worst film.  Not to mention Lanthimos’ previous film, The Lobster, a stinker that somehow didn’t make the worst list for 2015.  Third time’s the charm for ol’ Yorgos.

Actual nominees: Mahershala Ali/Green Book, Adam Driver/BlacKkKlansman, Sam Elliott/A Star Is Born, Richard E. Grant/Can You Ever Forgive Me, Sam Rockwell/Vice
Actual winner: Mahershala Ali

Alterna-ballot: Josh Brolin/Avengers: Infinity War, Josh Hamilton/Eighth Grade, Bill Heck/The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, Nicholas Hoult/The Favourite, Cedric Kyles/First Reformed, Billy Magnussen/Game Night
My ballot: Brolin, Driver, Elliott, Grant, Hamilton
My winner: Richard E. Grant

The theme of my alternate ballot is earnestness and duplicity, as my nominees have a nice mix of the disingenuous (Hoult, Kyles), the straight-laced (Hamilton, Heck), and the in-betweeners.  Magnussen is playing a womanizing moron, but it’s hard to hate a character who just nails an unending stream of “but why male models?”-level clueless one-liners.  It may be weird to describe an intergalactic despot like Thanos as “between” two moral poles, but that’s a tribute to what Brolin does with a role that seems impossible, on paper.  Thanos has to live up to a decade’s worth of expectations, has to be believable and almost sympathetic despite an end-goal of universal genocide, plus Brolin is limited by motion-capture, and he can’t hide amongst the enormous cast since Thanos is basically the (*checks notes*) star of the movie?!  It was really incredible work.

So, while we’re here praising one “star of the movie,” you might notice that Mahershala Ali didn’t make even my shortlist of nominees.  That’s because he is deservedly in my Best Actor ballot, and it’s time for the annual Markademy Awards tradition of Mark calling out blatant examples of category fraud.  We might as well have the Green Book talk here — I thought it was pretty mediocre.  It’s the worst Best Picture winner since A Beautiful Mind, which says something that I’m even putting Crash ahead of it.  There have already been piles of criticism heaped on the movie’s sketchy racial politics, but the lead/supporting split between Mortensen and Ali is itself a red flag.  I’m sure the publicists saw the value in not splitting Best Actor votes, but even if you deny the obvious that the two are co-leads, shouldn’t Viggo’s character be supporting, narrative-wise?  It’s Don Shirley’s story, he has the stronger growth arc from start to finish (or at least the more apparent growth arc, as it was hard to tell anything from Viggo’s East Side Mario’s commercial-level caricature of a performance) that should mean more in determining “lead” or “supporting” than just counting up Mortensen’s 5-10 extra minutes of screen time. 

Whatever, the movie stunk, let’s never speak of it again.  Let’s focus on Josh Hamilton’s incredible speech to his daughter by the fireside, or the tears in Sam Elliott’s eyes as he’s pulling out of the driveway.  Not big parts, either actor, but key moments that almost stole a movie.  Going into larger roles, CYEFM was the role that took Richard E. Grant from a high-level “that guy” actor to someone that could’ve or should’ve won an Oscar, and I think BKK was the film where Adam Driver’s potential started to click for me.  My award goes to Grant by a hair, unless I learn that Brolin also did motion-capture on Sam Elliott’s moustache.

Actual nominees: Yalitza Aparicio/Roma, Glenn Close/The Wife, Olivia Colman/The Favourite, Lady Gaga/A Star Is Born, Melissa McCarthy/Can You Ever Forgive Me
Actual winner: Olivia Colman

Alterna-ballot: Elsie Fisher/Eighth Grade, Nicole Kidman/Destroyer, Thomasin McKenzie/Leave No Trace, Saoirse Ronan/On Chesil Beach, Emma Stone/The Favourite, Rachel Weisz/The Favourite
My ballot: Colman, McCarthy, McKenzie, Stone, Weisz
My winner: Melissa McCarthy

Category fraud charges were also levelled at Olivia Colman’s victory from the Glenn Close fan club, though here is the Markademy Awards’ Gordian knot-style answer to how to define the three Favourite actresses — they’re all leads.  Boom!  Simple as that.  Stone and Weisz have the largest arcs and the most screentime, but Colman is the movie’s narrative center, holding steady whenever Stone or Weisz disappear or reappear as their importance to Queen Anne’s court varies.  All three, by the way, are amazing in this movie, and as a long-time member of the Olivia Colman fan club dating back to her days on Peep Show, her win was my favourite Oscar result of the night.  That said, if Weisz had actually shown up to the Oscar ceremony in her supremely badass scarf/facial cover from the movie, she might’ve won every Markademy Award for the next three years running. 

(Sidebar on Glenn Close: she wasn’t robbed.  She was very good in The Wife, but nothing special.  I’m also not really on the “Glenn Close is overdue and deserved to win!” train since she lacks that signature Oscar robbery moment.  For Peter O’Toole it was Lion In Winter, for Richard Burton it was Virginia Woolf, for Amy Adams it’s looking like it’ll be her odd trend of getting nominated for everything except her actual best roles, which were Arrival and Enchanted.  Plus, as an Oscar geek, I’m actually more interested in the idea of someone challenging or breaking Peter O’Toole’s record than I am in seeing Close win.  I mean, come on, her last name is literally CLOSE!  Is there a better possible name for someone who always comes up short at the Oscars?!)

The winner, however, is Melissa McCarthy.  In addition to joining Cate Blanchett as a proud Markademy Award recipient, McCarthy may also be threatening Blanchett’s title as the most no-middle ground performer in Hollywood.  Every time you watch McCarthy, whether it’s a movie, an awards show presentation, or even something like an SNL sketch, you’re left thinking either “that was amazing” or “man, that bombed.”  (I think her only lone average role was in Ghostbusters, where she was unmemorable but the movie was overall pretty good.)  CYEFM is damn near career-peak McCarthy, as she inhabits a hard-to-like character and leaves you understanding why Lee makes it so hard on herself.

Actual nominees: Amy Adams/Vice, Marina de Tavira/Roma, Regina King/If Beale Street Could Talk, Emma Stone/The Favourite, Rachel Weisz/The Favourite
Actual winner: Regina King

Alterna-ballot: Elizabeth Debicki/Widows, Zoe Kazan/The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, Sissy Spacek/The Old Man & The Gun, Phoebe Waller-Bridge/Solo, Dolly Wells/Can You Ever Forgive Me, Letitia Wright/Black Panther
My ballot: Debicki, King, Spacek, Wells, Wright
My winner: Regina King

My verdict on the lead/supporting actress of the Favourite actresses thins this category out a bit, plus I didn’t think Adams was anything special in Vice (nothing was special about Vice), and de Tavira is barely in the movie.  That opens the door for seasoned pros in King and Spacek to a bunch of relative newcomers — Kazan carrying the best of the Buster Scruggs vignettes, another mo-cap performance for PWB, Letitia Wright for bringing such joy to Black Panther (then, as a bonus, pwning Bruce Banner in Infinity War), and a breakout low-key role for Wells.

And then there’s Debicki, who steals (no pun intended) Widows wholesale.  This film has a lot of good performances, though mostly from actors digging into their familiar playbooks — Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Colin Farrell are all doing “Viola, Michelle, and Colin things,” as it were.  This opens the door for lesser-known performers to really break out, be it Daniel Kaluuya going in a distinctly different direction from Get Out, Brian Tyree Henry continuing his great all-around year, and another multi-movie favourite of 2018 Cynthia Erivo, who was also one of the highlights of the otherwise forgettable Bad Times At The El Royale this year.  They were the lesser-knowns, however, whereas Debicki so stands out in part because I’d never seen her in any kind of substantial role before.

But in the end, King narrowly takes both the Markademy Award and the Oscar.  I almost put “The Leftovers” after King’s name in the ballot out of sheer habit, since we’ve known for a long time what great acting she’s capable of doing in any kind of notable part.  Even this role isn’t much in terms of screentime, though King has two major scenes to nail, and they’re both home runs.  

Actual nominees: Christian Bale/Vice, Bradley Cooper/A Star Is Born, Willem Dafoe/At Eternity’s Gate, Rami Malek/Bohemian Rhapsody, Viggo Mortensen/Green Book
Actual winner: Rami Malek

Alterna-ballot: Mahershala Ali/Green Book, Simon Russell Beale/The Death Of Stalin, Ethan Hawke/First Reformed, Stephan James/If Beale Street Could Talk, Robert Redford/The Old Man & The Gun, Geoffrey Rush/Final Portrait
My ballot: Ali, Hawke, James, Redford, Rush
My winner: Ethan Hawke

I didn’t actually see At Eternity’s Gate, and I have little reason to believe that Dafoe wouldn’t give a good performance, so I can’t entirely call this the weakest Best Actor field in recent Oscar history.  But good gravy, between SNL-caliber impressions of Freddie Mercury, Dick Cheney, and (let’s be honest) Sam Elliott, and Mortensen playing such an Italian caricature that even Steven Van Zandt would’ve asked him to take it down a notch, this category didn’t have much to work with. 

Frankly, even my alternate nominees aren’t super, as it was a weak year overall for lead performances.  (Beale and Rush are both kind of reaches.)  Redford was charm city, Ali did his best to try and bail out a weak movie, and James (Canada’s own) looks like a big star of the future.

Into this void, however, comes not just a clear winner, but one of the more fascinating performances in years.  First Reformed is such a wonderful, looming threat of a movie, transposing the classic Paul Schrader violent outcast character into the body of a milquetoast priest.  It’s played by Hawke in a way that’s both true to the character, yet also sort of taking the piss out of Hawke’s entire “do-gooder who also seems kind of sketchy?” public image, whether Hawke necessarily intended this or not.  The catch of it is, Reverend Toller is actually pretty decent at his job (i.e. his initial talk with Michael) yet is just in an inescapable downward spiral that leaves the viewer where exactly this is all going to lead, since stories about church management don’t lend themselves to an obvious climax.  But what a climax it is, as I don’t think I’ll ever forget that ending…even if I’m in the film theory camp that believes it was all imagined.  I’m open to debate on this point!  I’m not open to debating whether Hawke deserved an Oscar nomination or not, since it’s absurd that he wouldn’t even get a nomination in a year with such a thin field.

Actual nominees: Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Green Book, Roma, A Star Is Born, Vice
Actual winner: Green Book

The following are my top six of the year, the ones that made it over the hard-to-define bar that separates “that was really good” from “that was one of my Best Pictures of the year.”

1. Avengers: Infinity War
2. First Reformed
3. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse
4. The Favourite
5. Mission Impossible: Fallout
6. Roma

To address the films we haven’t, uh, addressed yet, we’ll start with one of the best all-out action movies of all time.  I can’t honestly call Mission Impossible one of best franchises ever when I only really liked two of the six films, and because whatever ongoing story element there is throughout the series fades from my memory after every movie.  Watching Fallout, I was like, “oh that’s right, Michelle Monaghan and Alec Baldwin are in these.  Oh, and Rebecca Ferguson’s back, cool.  Is Renner in this one?”  The only thing I remember (and maybe the only thing you need to know) going into an MI movie is Rhames, Pegg, and Tom Cruise performing at least one crazy stunt that may have gotten him killed in real life.  If you told me that Cruise had died on set years ago and been replaced by Tom Crooze, I wouldn’t doubt it.  All I’m looking for at this point is at least one wild action setpiece, and Fallout gives us not one, not two, but three of them, plus a bunch of fine lower-level action in between.

Spider-Verse is just absolute catnip to a longtime Spidey fan like me.  Between this and Tom Holland, there has been more great Spider-Man content on the big screen in the last three years than there was in the previous 15 years.  It’s at once such a great tribute to the character for classic Spidey fans, while also doing the heavy lifting of introducing a new Spider-Man in Miles Morales for a new generation.  I loved it so much that I’ll even accept that my own Spider-Verse idea is now likely never going to be made.  :(  Part of me wants to check the blog analytics on that post to see if I could somehow track down if Phil Lord or Chris Miller could’ve read it, then I can get some sweet, sweet, lawsuit money. 

Finally, we conclude this genre-heavy turn through my Best Picture field with the movie that I’m frankly a little surprised to be awarding with my top prize.  Needless to say, Infinity War’s release was cause to clear the schedule, and get a ticket to the theatre’s earliest possible screening.  I showed up amidst an eager, buzzing, audience that spent the next 2.5 hours laughing, gasping (Red Skull?!), outright cheering, and then….complete dead silence.  Well, not entirely silent.  Some parent had brought their six- or seven-year-old son to the movie, and the youngster spent the movie happily yelling out the name of every character when they first appeared on screen.  This kid was having the time of his life, until, uh, he suddenly wasn’t.  Imagine a theatre frozen in place, save for that one kid now bawling his eyes out.  (To be fair to that kid, I heard a couple of other muffled sobs after “I don’t feel so good.”)

I mean, it wasn’t the most unpredictable ending in the world, especially for everyone who knew how Infinity Gauntlet played out in the comics.  But the specifics of it, man.  I’m going to remember that experience watching Infinity War forever, and while that’s hardly the only reason I’m giving it the Markademy Award, it might be the tiebreaker in a field of excellent but maybe slightly flawed contenders. 

Even Infinity War isn’t perfect — the stuff with the GOTG drags a bit, and holy cow, Peter Quill’s character just goes down the toilet in this movie.  But going back to what I mentioned about the Russos’ directorial effort earlier, this film is just such an incredible culmination of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe up to this point.  The degree of difficulty was off the charts, and yet the movie still delivered.  I could not be more fired up for Endgame (and Captain Marvel before it) to see the next steps of this “phase three” of Marvel’s movie plans.  There is a decent chance that I, a grown man in my late 30’s, may also be dropping a few tears in the theatre, and then blaming it on the air-conditioning.  The cold makes my eyes water!  No, you shut up!

The rest of the notables from the year in cinema…

7. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
8. A Star Is Born
9. Widows
10. If Beale Street Could Talk
11. The Old Man & The Gun
12. The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs
13. Leave No Trace
14. Black Panther
15. Sorry To Bother You
16. Searching
17. BlacKkKlansman
18. American Animals
19. Destroyer
20. Eighth Grade
21. On Chesil Beach
22. Deadpool 2
23. Support The Girls
24. Game Night
25. Annihilation
26. Mid-90's

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