Oscar Watch: A Midyear 2020 Report

It might be hard to fathom, but we are at the midpoint of this experience we call 2020. As COVID-19 and social issues dominate the landscape, the cinematic world has necessarily taken a backseat to the times. The Academy recently announced that the Oscars will be delayed until April 2021 and that movies premiering in January and February of that year will be eligible for consideration. This is in addition to previous notice that streaming pictures that forgo a theatrical release will also be able to nab nominations at that ceremony.

Since theaters have essentially been shuttered since March and with several festivals (the normal breeding grounds for awards hopefuls) either canceled or significantly modified, a midyear report on Oscar contenders is, to put it mildly, challenging.

Yet… here goes! As awards followers already know, the bulk of serious contenders aren’t  typically released until fall anyway. In fact, the earliest release of the nine Best Picture nominees last year was Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which came out in late July. The remaining 8 had autumn and winter dates.

The Sundance Film Festival from January did give us some potential contenders. Florian Zeller’s The Father was acclaimed and it could score nods for previous winners Anthony Hopkins in lead actor and Olivia Colman in Supporting Actress. The biographical tale of feminist icon Gloria Steinem finds several actresses playing her at different ages. Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander (they also both have gold statues) are among them and could be potential nominees. Previous nominee Carey Mulligan garnered solid reviews for Promising Young Woman. 

And there’s Minari. The South Korean family drama starring Steven Yeun won the Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance. I wouldn’t sleep on its chances with the right marketing push from its studio A24. That same studio has the 19th century set indie First Cow, which also has its ardent admirers. They would need to make a major push in order for Oscar to notice it.

For movies that have actually come out, the Jane Austen inspired Emma saw positive notices for lead Anya-Taylor Joy. Ben Affleck got some of the best reviews of his career with the basketball drama The Way Back. Pete Davidson’s starring debut in The King of Staten Island drew mostly praise. And Elisabeth Moss starred in the hit The Invisible Man and it’s a possibility she could be recognized even though acting nominations in horror flicks are rare. Neither Toni Collette (Hereditary) in 2018 or Lupita Nyong’o (Us) last year could pull it off. Moss could also be recognized for Shirley, a drama that debuted at Sundance and is already available via streaming.

Then there’s Netflix’s Da 5 Bloods from Spike Lee. The director saw his last picture, BlacKkKlansman, receive numerous nominations and win Adapted Screenplay. I would posit that Bloods stands the best chance at multiple nods including possibly Picture and Director. Delroy Lindo (though it’s not clear whether he’d be campaigned for in lead or supporting) seems highly likely to be recognized. And if he’s campaigned for in Best Actor (which he probably should be), it could open the door for Clarke Peters or Jonathan Majors to make the cut in supporting.

In other races – Pixar’s Onward could compete in Animated Feature, though Disney could save their muscle for the upcoming Soul. Look for Emma to nab a Costume Design nod.

And we shall leave it there for now, folks! As readers of the blog know, expect more Oscar Watch posts to come your way as titles screen. Typically it’s late August when I start my weekly predictions and hopefully that’s a tradition that can be kept in this crazy thing we call 2020…

Da 5 Bloods Movie Review

Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods shows the filmmaker in peak form with a sprawling and powerful story of war and the residual results on its soldiers. The title characters are a quartet of African-American Vietnam vets and one who didn’t make it out of the jungle. This is a mix of numerous genres – traditional war movie, treasure hunt, and exploration of racial themes to name three. Throughout his career spanning five decades, Lee has never lacked in grand ambition. When he’s in his element, the end product is something to behold. For the majority of the running time here, that holds true.

Following a prologue showing significant moments in the civil rights Vietnam eras, we meet the four soldiers reuniting in Ho Chi Minh City half a century later. They are Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Eddie (Norm Lewis). The reasoning for the reunion is two-fold. Norman (played in flashback by Chadwick Boseman) was their squad leader who perished in battle. He was not just their leader in rank, but a mentor who tremendously shaped their overseas experience and beyond. The four remaining Bloods are there to retrieve his remains, but they are also looking to gather a large quantity of gold buried with him.

Da 5 Bloods is in many ways a concentration about what the group left behind. For Otis, this includes a girlfriend and child. For Paul, it’s no less than his sanity. His PTSD is severe and his character is quite a creation. Sporting a MAGA hat and a host of unresolved issues, his son David (Jonathan Majors) unexpectedly makes the trek to the former Saigon to join his unpredictable dad. The part of Paul is a well-constructed character. Yet much credit is due to Lindo, a veteran actor in the role of his career. Lindo delivers a couple of direct to camera monologues as the gold hunt takes unanticipated turns that are potent and riveting. Those moments will likely garner awards buzz for the performer and it’s deserved.

The supporting cast is impressive with Peters and Majors getting the most fleshed out characters behind Lindo’s. Jean Reno turns up as a Frenchman getting his cut of the gold and Melanie Thierry plays an activist dedicated to ridding the Vietnamese landscape of decades old landmines.

As mentioned, the use of flashback is employed and Lee makes a fascinating narrative decision here. While Norm is shown as his younger self, the four other actors are shown as is in the callbacks to wartime. This is a bit jarring at first, but it turns out to be a wise choice. As the story unfolds, we realize that it’s through the lens of their recollections of their hero Norm. The utilization of Irishman style de-aging or younger actors isn’t necessary.

Lee’s previous pic BlacKkKlansman told a tale from decades ago that resonates in 2020 (perhaps slightly more effectively). Same goes for Da 5 Bloods. Lee is an urgent director and we feel it throughout. With a commanding lead performance from Lindo, a fine score from Terence Blanchard, and a fresh take on the genre (s), Bloods is a vital watch.

***1/2 (out of four)

Oscar Watch: Da 5 Bloods

Hitting Netflix this Friday, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods had its review embargo lifted and it appears we may have the first major 2020 contender in the Best Picture derby. The drama focuses on a group of African-American Vietnam vets who return to the country. With comparisons to The Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Deer Hunter, the pic has a current Rotten Tomatoes score of 87%. Several reviews are raves while others are a bit more mixed in their approach, including complaints about its length and third act.

Most critical reaction notes the timely nature of its subject matter. This is Lee’s follow-up to BlacKkKlansman, which finally earned Lee an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay two years ago and was his first Best Picture nominee (despite an outcry for both 1989’s Do the Right Thing and 1992’s Malcolm X not being recognized). The cast includes Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, and Chadwick Boseman. While the work of Majors and Peters has been highlighted, the performance of Lindo is being called a career best. The veteran is a familiar face to moviegoers in such features as Lee’s own Clockers as well as Get Shorty and Gone in 60 Seconds, among many others. From the sounds of it, Bloods could very well mark his first Academy nod. It is unclear if that will be in the lead or supporting actor race. My hunch is that Supporting Actor is where Netflix will land for the actor, but this is speculative at this juncture.

In addition to Lindo’s vault into the Oscar mix, Da 5 Bloods appears to be a contender in Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and tech races such as Original Score, Editing, and so forth. Last year, Netflix broke into the awards fold with The Irishman and Marriage Story. As of now, Mr. Lee’s latest creation could easily keep that trend going. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

Will The Indie Spirits Nominees Showcase Oscar Gems?

This afternoon, the nominations for the 35th Independent Spirit Awards were released as we prepare for the onslaught of Oscar precursors to follow. And make no mistake – the Indie Spirits are indeed a precursor. In this decade from 2010-2018, five of the nine Best Feature winners emerged victorious with the Academy for Best Picture: 2011’s The Artist, 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, 2014’s Birdman, 2015’s Spotlight, and 2016’s Moonlight. Some of these years have three or four of the five nominees get Oscar nods in the big race.

However, 2018 marked the first year of this decade when none of the five nominated pictures at the Indies garnered any Academy love. I don’t expect that to occur for a second year in a row.

In this post, I’ll break down Feature, Director, and the four acting races and what it might mean for Oscar:

Best Feature

Nominees: A Hidden Life, Clemency, The Farewell, Marriage Story, Uncut Gems

First things first: Marriage Story is going to get a Best Picture nomination and probably wins here. And it might be the only one here that does. The Farewell has a decent shot and Uncut Gems is a potential sleeper (though I wouldn’t bet on it).

That said, Gems did tie The Lighthouse for most Indie mentions (5). And that brings us back to Marriage Story. The voters here chose to give it a special Robert Altman award honoring the team behind it. That includes cast members Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, and Alan Alda. They all probably would’ve heard their names here had that not occurred and same goes for director Noah Baumbach. If that seems like a bit of a cheat (taking out probable winners like Driver and Baumbach), I wouldn’t argue. The silver lining is that it does make some of these categories more interesting.

Best Director

Nominees: Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse), Alma Hor’el (Honey Boy), Julius Onah (Luce), Ben and Josh Safdie (Uncut Gems), Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers)

Like Best Feature, 2018 saw no directors recognized get Academy attention. With Baumbach getting his Altman award and out of the running, that could certainly happen again as I don’t even have any of these directors in my top ten Oscar possibilities. Perhaps this could help spur chatter for the Safdies or Scafaria. Again… I wouldn’t bet on it.

Best Female Lead

Nominees: Karen Allen (Colewell), Hong Chau (Driveways), Elisabeth Moss (Her Smell), Mary Kay Place (Diane), Alfre Woodard (Clemency), Renee Zellweger (Judy)

Six out of nine winners here from 2010-2018 went onto win the Best Actress statue: Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Brie Larson (Room), and Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).

Even with Johansson not included, it could be 7/10 as Zellweger is my current Oscar front runner. Woodard and Moss stand shots at nods. The other three need not shop for red carpet dresses.

One noticeable omission is Awkwafina in The Farewell, who many are predicting for Oscar attention. I currently had her on the outside looking in at sixth. That could slide when I update my estimates on Monday.

Best Male Lead

Nominees: Chris Galust (Give Me Liberty), Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (Luce), Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse), Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems), Matthias Schoenarts (The Mustang)

Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), and Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) are the three Indie/Oscar recipients. Only in 2015 and (yes) 2018 did no nominees get Oscar nods…

I expect that to occur again. I believe only Sandler stands a chance, but it’s a reach based on severe competition.

Best Supporting Female

Nominees: Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers), Taylor Russell (Waves), Lauren Spencer (Give Me Liberty), Octavia Spencer (Luce), Shuzhen Zhou (The Farewell)

Four winners here have picked up Academy trophies – Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), and the past two winners Allison Janney (I, Tonya) and Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk).

With soft front runner Laura Dern in the Marriage Story special category thing, we could still see a third year in a row match with Lopez. Zhou and Spencer (to a lesser degree) may also find themselves in the Oscar mix.

And with Taylor Russell’s nod here, it’s a good time to mention that Waves really came up short with the Indies today. That doesn’t help its Oscar viability.

Best Supporting Male

Nominees: Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse), Noah Jupe (Honey Boy), Shia LaBeouf (Honey Boy), Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco), Wendell Pierce (Burning Cane)

This category is another ultra crowded one for Oscar attention, but Dafoe and LaBeouf are legit contenders for nods. Not so with the other three. The omission of Sterling K. Brown in Waves is a surprise.

There have been four Indie/Oscar victors this decade: Christopher Plummer (Beginners), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), and Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). With Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Al Pacino (The Irishman) as likely favorites for the Academy, I wouldn’t expect a fifth match.

And there you have it, folks! My take on the Indies and which Oscar gems they could produce…