Written by: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer
This is the week that the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been filling out their ballots for the best films, performances, and crafts of 2018. Unfortunately, as the dozens of precursor awards get rolled out in an age where almost all the film recognition bodies increasingly become nothing more than Oscar prediction outlets instead of carving out their own identities, it appears as though several worthy achievements may be overlooked during the nomination process this week, solely because they somehow haven’t managed to puncture the echo chamber of the season.
For outspoken cinephiles like us, this is our last chance to directly appeal to the Academy membership. Earlier this week, Fiona ran through a massive list of exceptional movies directed by women last year, and today, I want to personally lobby for work that could make it to a nomination with enough of an outspoken public push. I am not foolish; I have accepted the fact that The Favourite has already been taken out of contention for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, and Joaquin Phoenix shouldn’t hold his breath when the Best Lead Actor nominees are announced despite unquestionably deserving to be among them. These FYC pitches are for those films with a sliver of hope; ones that I believe still have the potential to pull a Robert Forster and shock us all with their welcome inclusion among the nominees. And I’m more than happy to move the needle in their direction.
So, Academy voters, for your consideration:
Brian Tyree Henry in If Beale Street Could Talk for Best Supporting Actor
One point I really wanted to get across in my piece about category fraud was how the practice causes voters to shove actual performances in supporting roles aside. It’s gotten so bad and so accepted now that we barely give any consideration to memorable performances of characters who only appear in a small handful of scenes, or in just one scene. Arguably the most heartbreaking omission from the nominee announcements last year was Michael Stuhlbarg, who not only enjoyed a spectacular 2017 with notable roles in films like The Post and The Shape of Water, but was also the source of Call Me By Your Name‘s poignant emotional climax. In just one scene, Elio’s father seizes the opportunity to provide himself as someone to confide in and as a teacher to ensure his son sees this heartbreak as a beautiful thing to cherish.
One year later, the Academy looks poised to make the same mistake with an actor enjoying a similar banner year highlighted by a one-scene-wonder performance. Brian Tyree Henry, previously best-known from the show Atlanta, had major roles in Irreplaceable You, Hotel Artemis, White Boy Rick, Widows, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. You could make a case for him to receive an Academy Award nomination for any one of those movies, the latter two especially, but the strongest case for him resides in If Beale Street Could Talk. Playing Fonny’s childhood friend just released from prison, Daniel Carty conveys in only a handful of lines and pained expressions the toll his experience through America’s brutal and racist criminal justice system inflicted on his soul. It takes an actor of exceptional skill to lay down a film’s stakes and core themes so powerfully with such little screentime, and Henry should be recognized for pulling it off with an Oscar nomination on January 22nd.
Steven Yeun in Burning for Best Supporting Actor
If Academy voters are looking to recognize a more “substantial” supporting performance, at least in terms of screen time, they should not forget the most indelible part of Lee Chang-dong’s beguiling, strangely gripping neo-noir mystery. Previously known best for his role in The Walking Dead, Yeun is saddled with a seemingly impossible task — portray a character deliberately written to be impenetrable to an audience, leverage his handsomeness to make him compelling enough for that audience to want to learn more about him but not so much that we’re lulled into fully trusting him, and ensuring a sense of momentum throughout a film running just under two-and-a-half hours despite very little actually “happening” in the first 75 minutes. Yet Yeun accomplishes this, and more, with his discomfiting take on Burning‘s mysterious Great Gatsby, Ben.
In the most riveting scene in the film, Ben unexpectedly confides in protagonist Lee Jong-su a very specific proclivity that is delivered with such a quietly menacing undertone it immediately sets us on edge even though what he’s describing is so vague that it’s impossible for any reasonable person to infer anything out of it. This turning point has the added benefit of refocusing the narrative from a languid slice-of-life drama into a cat-and-mouse thriller that neither of the two principle players are even aware they’re in. But the sense of danger is still felt, thanks to Yeun never overplaying his hand. With only the slightest of glances, his sly smile, and the casual detachment with which he regards his would-be pursuer, Yeun expertly keeps us on our toes, never feeling at ease with the unfolding of this most unusual of thrillers.
Sorry To Bother You for Best Original Screenplay
This category is one of the saving graces of the Academy Awards, with many of the best and most underrated films of the year finding refuge here when ignored everywhere else. My favorite film of 2016 may have been mostly shut out on the morning of January 24th, 2017, but thanks to Best Original Screenplay, 20th Century Women was not left nomination-less. The same lucky breaks happened to the likes of The Lobster, Margin Call, In Bruges, Happy-Go-Lucky, and The Squid and the Whale, and we have this category to thank for the fact that Pedro Almodóvar is an Academy Award winner. It is the one place I can look to when hoping that Boots Riley’s audacious polemic sci-fi dark comedy Sorry To Bother You won’t be left in the cold. But I do not make this appeal solely as a “consolation” for Sorry To Bother You. Far from it, I consider its screenplay a marvel of go-for-broke ideas and mad energy, exactly the kind of fearless writing that Best Original Screenplay was meant to honor.
My first reaction, in fact, to seeing this film was wondering if someone came up to him as he was writing his first draft and telling him, “This will be your only movie. Ever. So make the most of it.” The trailer only spells out the initial setup, which alone has enough baked into it for an entire feature film about systemic racism, the benign affect corporations take on when acting as cruel and dehumanizing to others as they can get away with, and the pressure on nonwhite laborers to “act white” for success and opportunities. Rich material to explore! But Riley is just getting started, and as Cassius moves up the ranks the rug is pulled out from under us and we’re down a rabbit hole of darker themes about the creative ways literal slavery is maintained in the modern world. Oh, and did I mention this movie is often hilarious? Until it becomes terrifying. This is the kind of bold, ambitious, messy, politically radical, tonally and narratively unpredictable feat of writing that should not be ignored by the Academy Writer’s Branch.
Widows for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound, and Supporting Actress
One of the most depressing things I witnessed last year was seeing adult dramas marketed to a wide audience and falling flat. Even the rare success stories like A Star Is Born had to take a backseat to the likes of Turd In the Wind in the box office weekend “rankings.” Fresh off La La Land, which grossed over $150 million, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up First Man struggled at the box office. Which, okay, that could have been due to moronic crybaby Republican politicians making a big publicity stunt over not enough American flags in the movie or something, but what explains Widows not doing so well? This was a movie starring beloved actress Viola Davis, helmed by a director whose last outing won the Academy Award for Best Picture, in an ostensibly crowd-pleasing, accessible genre (the heist thriller), and received great reviews from critics… so what happened? I blame the marketing. Every poster I saw was a boring montage of faces from the film, divorced from context, with no indication of what all those solemn faces crammed into a single poster were going to do. The trailers all adopted this heavy, portentous tone hinting at something more along the lines of a depressing domestic drama instead of the muscular crime thriller it was.
But a bad sales pitch should not be what Academy voters judge a film’s merits on, and the merits of Widows are substantial. The film is brilliantly-edited, with Joe Walker employing smash cuts and threading the plotlines of its ensemble together to marvelous effect, keeping us constantly on the edge of our seats. Gillian Flynn’s screenplay is as focused and smart as any writing she has ever done, layering a number of sociopolitical themes and even a genuinely surprising mid-film twist onto what starts out as a fairly straightforward narrative. Steve McQueen remains one of the century’s most engaging visual storytellers, but also does an outstanding job guiding his uniformly strong ensemble, the highlight being Elizabeth Debicki, who I am shocked has not emerged as near-certain lock for a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Widows deserves consideration in a variety of categories at the Academy Awards this year, and with that consideration, may bring the possibility that general audiences will give it a second life on DVD and streaming platforms.
A Simple Favor for Best Costume Design
A Simple Favor was one of the unexpected delights of 2018. Here was an adaptation of what was, by all indications, a trashy and not-very-good airport novel, transformed into a breathless farce-bordering-on-parody-of-its-own-subgenre by Paul Feig that should have been a complete disaster and yet somehow worked, d̶e̶s̶p̶i̶t̶e̶ because of its mounting absurdities and feeling that no one involved was taking this at all seriously. I had a great time watching A Simple Favor, but I am under no illusions that it was a boundary-pushing, nomination-worthy cinematic achievement in any respect… save one.
Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, who has been quietly humming along as a competent provider of threads for films like Dead Man Down and The Mountain Between Us, does the best work of her career and easily the best contemporary costume work of 2018. The most buzzed-about outfit, understandably, was Blake Lively’s tuxedo that becomes a vest when she casually strips it off piece-by-piece while mixing martinis and ravenously making out with her husband, but the entire wardrobe of both Lively and Kendrick are all just as eye-popping and vibrant and sexy. The outfits Kendrick wears are especially good at communicating her lonely widower’s awkward stumble into self-assured horny private detective, with an entire comic setpiece hinging on a too-tight black cocktail dress that nearly suffocates her. No less a costuming titan than Sandy Powell herself complained at the lack of recognition for contemporary work, and the Academy will clearly have learned nothing from her speech eight years later if A Simple Favor‘s unforgettable outfits do not end up among the nominees.
Those are the five underdog contenders that I want to personally lobby for to Academy voters during the last weekend before ballots are due, but I want to know what you all think. Sound off in the comments on which performance, craft achievement, and/or movie from 2018 you think deserves more recognition than it’s been receiving!
Author: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert Hamer is CC2K’s resident opinion columnist. In addition to being a self-centered 30 year-old white man living in northeastern suburbia who obsesses over movies and nerd culture ephemera, he also works to ensure Donald Trump does not succeed in permanently destroying the United States.