That precious gold statuette
The Oscars takes place Monday morning Thailand time. We pontificate and prognosticate the results
Battle for Best Actress
With other categories nearly locked, the fiercest battlefield for armchair spectators is Best Actress. The nominees are: Isabelle Huppert from Elle; Ruth Negga from Loving; Natalie Portman from Jackie; Emma Stone from La La Land; and Meryl Streep from Florence Foster Jenkins. All these except Loving and Florence Foster Jenkins have been released in Thailand.
Partisan punditry and inside speculations aside, this is a tough race, in which learned predictors risk losing face. (That Amy Adams wasn't in the list was a shock to everyone.) The three front-runners are Huppert, Stone and Portman -- not specifically in that order -- and we have the spectacle of one of the greatest actresses in cinema history neck-to-neck with two younger American actresses, wide-eyed and studious. The Irish actress Negga, from Loving, is sensitive and admirable, though she will have other chances in the future. Streep -- with her record-making 20th nomination -- is pitch-perfect as a tone-deaf socialite who wants to become a singer, but we can't imagine the Hollywood doyen winning again from such a minor role.
The dame of French drama -- of drama, period -- Huppert has never been nominated before, a glaring testament to how the Oscars are such an insular institution, out of touch with the rest of the world. Cinephiles everywhere would easily argue that Huppert -- now 63 and having been in the movies since the early 1970s -- is on equal footing if not actually surpassing of Streep for a place in the pantheon of movie acting. A true European performer, Huppert's roles are risky -- emotionally, physically, morally and technically (as the masochistic lead in The Piano Teacher, for example, or the depraved mother in Ma Mere). And in the black comedy Elle, she plays a woman who's raped in her own house yet refuses to let the incident define her. It's one of the most complex, inscrutable and entertaining characters we've seen in years. (The project was originally conceived as an American production, and we don't even want to imagine what that would have looked like.)
To me, it's either Huppert or Portman. The latter, playing Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband's assassination, is the nuclear reactor in that strange and enthralling film (grossly overlooked in other categories). Here's an actress whose edifice is technique (like Streep), with her every drawl and facial movement calibrated to inhabit her character. She wants us to believe that she's Jackie, the grieving widow and maker of myth, mother and mourner, airheaded doll and angry lioness who's just lost her lion. We see Jackie, of course, and we also see Portman as Jackie; it's inevitable, the blessing and curse of playing real-life figures, the Hollywood mirror game of art imitating life imitating art.
Stone, the shining star in La La Land, has gained momentum during the award circuit despite losing the Golden Globe to Huppert. What can I say? I enjoyed watching her, but is this a momentous, prize-winning performance? She sings and dances and charms and widens her egg eyes, and that much-heralded audition sequence shows her range. But I'm still not convinced, especially in a very competitive year such as this.
So, in the ideal world, Huppert should win. In Hollywood -- a world of its own -- it's probably Stone.
The documentary feature is another competitive category. The nominees are: Fuocoammare (Fire At Sea; the life of refugees and locals on Lampedusa Island, shown at the World Film Festival of Bangkok earlier this month); I Am Not Your Negro (the life and work of black writer James Baldwin, coming soon to Bangkok); Life, Animated (an autistic boy and how Disney movies help him communicate emotionally, showing now at SF CentralWorld); O.J.: Made In America (an eight-hour documentary about the murder of Nicole Simpson and how the case engaged the issues of race, fame and politics); and 13th (a hard-hitting look at the criminalisation of black people and the US's prison industry, available on Netflix).
No one would mind if any of these five ended up winning. All of them wrestle with hefty topics, with four of them acknowledging the urgency of race, migration and structural oppression. In mood and impact, this category is the direct opposite of the bubblegum of La La Land.
My favourite is Fuocoammare. This is an Italian film (again, there are many good non-American documentaries out there) by Gianfranco Rosi, who spent over a year on Lampedusa Island filming locals and refugees. Addressing perhaps the world's hottest political button, Fuocoammare is a very human film, a patient and unsentimental yet moving look at the way different lives on this supposedly uneventful island intersect. The refugees aren't even prominently featured; most of the time we follow the daily life of a young boy, a symbol of innocence and normality in a place that becomes a centre of the world's upheaval.
I Am Not Your Negro, 13th and O.J.: Made In America are all about the way black lives matter, or don't matter, or matter in different ways. All were made before Donald Trump's election, but their urgency and social implications are sharply pertinent. O.J., originally intended as a five-part mini series, benefits from the long-form deliberation that packs drama, information and argument. While 13th follows a traditional format -- talking heads and infographics -- it does an extensive, coherent and unflinching job of tracing the history of racial inequality and how prejudice has been institutionalised -- by pop-culture, by law and by policy. A big chunk of the film discusses the prison industry -- the more inmates, the bigger the profits -- and how black people suffer the brunt of this deeply cynical and unfair system.
In my world, Fuocoammare will win. But on Oscar night, it will be 13th.
Foreign Language Film
The talking point here is why the nomination snubbed many good films from last year (where's Pablo Larrain's Neruda, Paul Verhoeven's Elle, Brilliante Mendoza's Ma' Rosa?). Now the nominees are: Under sandet (Land Of Mine) from Denmark; En man som heter Ove (A Man Called Ove) from Sweden; Forushande (The Salesman) from Iran; Tanna from Australia; and Toni Erdmann from Germany.)
It's a no-brainer: Toni Erdmann, directed by Maren Ade, is the best film, not just in this category but of the entirety of the year (too bad it has no Thai distributor). The story of a prankster father who tries to inject some life into his uptight corporate-type daughter, the film is moving and funny, always unpredictable in tone and plot, and is also a wry commentary on Europe, its labour market and how corporate life can dehumanise workers.
Forushande, by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, is now showing in cinemas. It is a skilfully written domestic drama about the moral quandary in a couple's lives after they've moved in to a new apartment. Farhadi won this category six years ago with the superior Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (A Separation) -- and while Forushande has the intensity of life's unexpected drama, it feels over-calculated. Still, the controversy over Donald Trump's ban of Iranian citizens, which prompted Farhadi and his actress to shun the event, may tip the scale in favour of the film.
A dark horse is En man som heter Ove. I don't know why, just a hunch. Hopefully it's wrong.
Toni Erdmann should win. I think it will.
Who'll win and who should win?
It's no fun: It will be a sweep by La La Land.
It's not, however, a unanimously loved confection. La La Land has ridden the waves of popular and critical acclaim since its premiere in Venice last August, cementing its reputation when it won the audience award in Toronto in September. It won the Golden Globes and countless other awards (to be sure, Barry Jenkins's Moonlight has also collected more or less the same number of kudos). But in the past month or so, surprisingly, Damien Chazelle's sort-of-musical has proved fascinatingly divisive, with cultural critics taking turns firing at its "whites-only" Los Angeles, its revisionist attitude toward jazz and its nostalgic escapism that's out of touch with the real world. In box office terms, it made less money in North America ($134 million; 4.69 billion baht) than Hidden Figures ($140 million), a real-life drama about black mathematicians working at Nasa in the 1960s and also a Best Picture nominee -- though worldwide La La Land scored nearly $300 million.
Anyway, there won't be an upset. Oscar night, taking place in LA, will be La La Land night; the only question is how many of its record-tying 14 nominations it will win.
Will win: La La Land
Should win: Moonlight
Will win: Damien Chazelle from La La Land
Should win: Barry Jenkins from Moonlight
Will win: Casey Affleck from Manchester By The Sea
Should win: Affleck
Will win: Emma Stone from La La Land
Should win: Isabelle Huppert from Elle
Best Supporting Actor
Will win: Mahershala Ali from Moonlight
Should win: Michael Shannon from Nocturnal Animals
Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Viola Davis from Fences
Should win: Davis
Best Original Screenplay
Will win: Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester By The Sea
Should win: Lonergan, or Efthimis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster
Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: Barry Jenkins for Moonlight
Should win: Jenkins
Best Documentary Feature
Will win: 13th
Should win: Fire At Sea
Best Animated Film
Will win: Zootopia
Should win: Kubo And The Two Stringsor La tortue rouge (The Red Turtle)Best Foreign Language Film
Will win: Toni Erdmann (Germany)
Should win: Toni Erdmann