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Notes from the 34th Seattle International Film Festival – Dispatch One



Notes from the 34th Seattle International Film Festival - Dispatch One

The 34th Seattle International Film Festival gets underway this Thursday, May 22. The press screenings, however, commence nearly a month before. For this first dispatch, I’ve set out to record my day-to-day impressions of what I was seeing, witnessing, experiencing on screen.

DAY ONE: April 28, 2008

Armed with a life-affirming mocha breve from Caffé Zingaro, I make my way to the subterranean blue battleship known as SIFF Cinema. En route, I meet Elaine, a longtime platinum passholder and occasional online reviewer. We greet each other warmly and express hope, hope that the transcendent power of cinema will not desert us (although, secretly, both of us know better). Walking in, my expectations were a trifle high. Shouldn’t they be?

The first film of the first day happens to be (from Russia, but not with love) Anna Melikian’s Mermaid. Utterly abhorrent and overlong at 114 minutes, the movie begins as one creature and ends as another entirely. In short, it’s a feel-bad movie in drag as a piece of surrealist whimsy. Staggering out of the theater, I recalled John Simon’s quip as he exited an Adrienne Rich poetry reading—that in order to appreciate it fully, one would need the combined attributes of Homer and Beethoven—chiefly, being blind and deaf. The same applies here.

Mermaid opens on an expanse of puppet waves; brightly animated fish of blue and gold swim in a sea of pale turquoise and white. From this fanciful beginning, the animation stops, and it becomes clear that the bouncy, rolling sea is actually the fabric of a dress, twitching from side to side, covering a fat woman’s derriere. Our heroine of girth (Maria Sokova) strides past volleyball players on the beach, arrives at an isolated spot, strips naked save for her strand of pearls, then tiptoes into the Black Sea. In the first of innumerable gross excesses, Melikian treats us to underwater shots of this bovine entity, known only as Mama, as white as a whale, her hips and thighs nearly as enormous.

Mama emerges to find a sailor, surprised, sitting on the shore. They copulate, naturally, and their daughter, conceived in the sea, swims into being. There’s a cut to a little girl, age 6, running on the beach, a redhead with freckles. Named Alisa, she’s brought to life by Anastasia Dontsova, who gives the movie’s lone engaging performance. Alisa wishes to study ballet. Her repulsive mother’s hedonistic posing in front of a mirror (she shakes her rump admiringly) makes them late for an appointment with a ballet mistress who sternly refuses to audition the girl. The mother never brings her daughter back, the girl’s dream dies, and in later life, when Alisa visualizes herself as a child, the 6-year-old that she was is always clad in a tutu and tights. Melikian, thus, at least has a sense of how parents oh-so-casually fuck their children up, but a single insight isn’t enough on which to base a 2-hour film of grotesques on parade.

Set in the coastal port of Anapa, the movie early on boasts a few beguiling sequences suggestive of a powerfully symbiotic relationship to and with water, such as an aerial shot of Alisa standing amidst an onslaught of uniformed sailors on a pier, the deck flanked by blue sea, an image lensed for maximum impressionistic effect by the cinematographer Oleg Kirichenko. Likewise, in the scenes that take place in and around the family shack on the beach, there are instances of sensory perception involving open windows looking out on other open windows looking out at the sea, followed by a reverse tracking shot that would indicate that rows of stacked, empty water containers are what’s holding up this precariously perched domicile.

The film steps forward in time: Alisa leaps from a cute 6-year-old to a deeply unattractive 17-year-old, played by the unprepossessing and untalented Masha Shalaeva, who resembles an unholy cross between Scarlett Johansson and a very young Jill Clayburgh, and whose face is mostly jawbone. The locale switches to Moscow, and this is where the film becomes truly insufferable. There are endless close-ups of Shalaeva’s reptilian, open-mouthed, vacant expressions accompanied by flaccid, repetitive poppy jazz on the soundtrack, an awful score by Igor Vdovin for flute, harpsichord, and synthetic drumbeats—music by which to enjoy a self-induced lobotomy.

Alisa, dulled by years in a “special school,” blankly endures a series of grunt jobs in the big city—scrubbing urinals, testing lightbulbs, and dressing up in a yellow foam cellphone costume. Throughout this, Melikian, a former advertising copywriter, incessantly shoves ad slogans in our faces, textual non-sequiturs aimed at women on what sundry products can “do for you.” I would hate to think that there are viewers gullible enough to take the writer-director’s abrasive admixture of bleak realism and smug quirkiness as a statement on anything. This ultimately sadistic trash is strident in how mechanically it yanks us around. For example, Alisa, encased in her cushiony cellphone body suit, placidly observes a ballet class of women and girls doing what she once wanted to do, but never found her way into. She’s mesmerized by the grace and poise and line of the student ballerinas, and we’re pulled into the tranquility of it as well. Out of nowhere, the window between her and the dancers shatters; the reverie erupts into a street riot of smashed cars, physical attacks, and overbearing sound design that amplifies every thud, bump, and feedback screech. Mermaid is rife with rude awakenings, constant rug-pulling on the director’s part that amounts to psycho-emotional whiplash. It’s as if Melikian were getting right up in our faces, close enough for us to smell her, and hissing, “Fuck you. You thought this was going to be charmingly offbeat, huh? Well, FUCK YOU!”

The director will cut scenes in such a way that one ending on a quiet moment immediately yields to a form of aural rape in the next. Melikian does this so damn often, she’s clearly proud of herself for having thought it up and inflicting it on us. Mermaid reaches its nadir when a peroxide floozie hurls a bottle at an aquarium, smashing the tank to smithereens, all because she’s jealous of a small goldfish. This act of vandalism seems to be the inverse of the movie’s lighthearted opening scene—a metaphor for the filmmaker’s crunching the gravel of our expectations. As of this writing, Mermaid lacks a U.S. distributor. Guess what? It doesn’t deserve one.

Blessed with a splitting headache after this, I had no patience with movie number two, which began immediately afterwards, an archival screening of Josef von Sternberg’s 1953 The Saga of Anatahan. Von Sternberg uses no subtitles in telling a story of Japanese sailors stranded on an island in the Pacific. Rather than let the performers speak for themselves, he relentlessly narrates the film in lofty tones that aren’t merely condescending, they’re xenophobic in the extreme. Whatever interest the film might have had as an historical curio dissipates in practically no time. At the entrance of a kimono-clad beauty, von Sternberg reels off a list of personae through which she permutated in the eyes of the sailors, then states, “Finally, she was to become a woman—the only woman on earth!” I decided I’d be better off to skip out for lunch, so I left.

I returned for Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress. Set in 1835, the movie initially seems as if it’s going to be as stultifying a period piece as Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais. For Breillat, however, costumed formality and the robust bowing of Baroque violins on the soundtrack are mere window-dressing for yet another of her transgressive freak-shows. The supremely ugly and ungifted Asia Argento, the sort of non-actress only Manohla Dargis could defend, stars as La Vellini, who sports a large, beaten-up red rose in her jet black curly hair and, in her first few scenes, wears a black fishnet wrap draped over short sleeves of bumblebee gold (Georgia Tech colors). I couldn’t tell whether the character was supposed to be a courtesan who has slept her way into high society, or whether that interpretation is all the grubby presence of Argento lends itself to. The movie follows a flashback structure in which young Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) recounts for an aristocratic dowager the unending narrative of his perverse association with Vellini. Ryno and Vellini are supposed to have been an illicit item for ten years, except that Aattou appears so young, their affair would have had to begin when Ryno was barely a teenager. “You’re reputed to be a most formidable Don Juan,” the dowager remarks, yet he looks like a kid, albeit not a displeasing one: Aattou’s Ryno has thick, pouty lips, skin pale as fresh cream, agreeable brown eyes, an engagingly cheeky smile, a prominent nose, and he recites his lines well enough.

God only knows what the attraction is supposed to be for him to Argento’s Vellini, she of the sullen expression and coarse-featured face both dirty and unclouded by thought. The moment at which the movie crosses the boundary from merely inept to unforgivable comes when Vellini abandons her decades-older husband, Sir Reginald, for Ryno. Breillat’s camera backs the elderly man into a corner and parks on him in an appalling lack of empathy as he weeps and wheezes in sorrow. It’s a scene done in such cruelty and poor taste that the blood-drinking bit of Vellini feasting on Ryno’s open gunshot wound is considerably less offensive.

I didn’t mind Vellini’s anachronistic habit of bellowing, “Adios!” as she exits gold-brocaded 19th-century parlors; however, an exceptionally risible sequence in which Vellini and Ryno’s illegitimate daughter dies from a scorpion sting in the Algerian desert tested the limits of my endurance. Wailing wildly, Vellini cradles in bed the stinking, gray-faced corpse of the child. Ryno, holding a cloth to his nose, nasally pipes up, “We can’t go on like this; it’s been five days. We have to bury her.” Vellini: “Let’s burn her instead!” Cut to funeral pyre as Vellini, still moaning and over-emoting, runs toward the little body as it goes up in flames. Improbably, Breillat then cuts to Argento naked in the sand on top of Aattou, humping vigorously mere feet from the gravesite, in a frenzy simultaneously grief-stricken and orgasmic. At one point, Breillat positions her camera looking upwards into Argento’s mouth as Vellini bays her basso howls. We can see the back of her upper row of teeth, marvel at how hideous they are. Then it’s off to a picnic wherein the mistress takes a small, serrated knife to her lover’s cheekbone, and the two of these idiots giggle and grin as blood trickles down his face. At this juncture, an hour and ten minutes or so into the film, I left.

DAY TWO: April 29, 2008

Well, now, expectations lowered, I arrive the next morning to watch Sir Ben Kingsley play a stoner in Jonathan Levine’s wonderfully titled The Wackness. The movie begins poorly. In truth, I’ve always considered druggies a boring lot, and the snortin’, puffin’, tokin’, chillin’ hip-hop lovin’ children on display at a smoke-wreathed high school graduation party did nuthin’ to alter my perceptin’. Levine and his cinematographer Petra Korner shoot the film in a hazy, washed-out monochrome palette, with no vibrant colors and an excessive use of gray, as if an unwashed bong had doubled as a lens.

It’s set in the sweltering hot New York summer of 1994, but the inert opening scene between Kingsley and Josh Peck, a shrink session that’s a pretext for a drug deal, fails to catch fire. Kingsley’s Dr. Squires at first seems based on the notion of an aged Benjamin Braddock from The Graduate gone to seed. In posing for a family snapshot at the graduation ceremony, Squires’s jaded wife and budding femme fatale stepdaughter fiendishly suck down cigarettes, not even bothering to put them out long enough to commemorate a moment. This is a man, in other words, who’s ended up with two Mrs. Robinsons. But for most of The Wackness, Kingsley leaves aside suggestions of Dustin Hoffman and instead channels one of Robin Williams’s touchy-feely creeps, a la The Birdcage or Good Will Hunting.

Mercifully, Josh Peck is around to save the picture. As 17-year-old Luke Shapiro, a “nice Jewish kid” who’s the friendly neighborhood weed peddler, Peck, quite unlike Asia Argento, has exceptionally nice teeth, and a soulful, believable anima. He has a slightly scratchy, husky voice that’s at odds with his fresh, young face, yet this, too, is part of Peck’s low-key appeal.

A typical exchange between the two leads, as they sulk in a dive bar on a night sultry enough to drop water-filled condom balloons off a balcony, goes like this—

Squires: Why couldn’t Mozart find his piano teacher? Because he was Haydn.

Luke: That’s not funny.

Squires: Lucas, I hate my wife.

Levine’s screenplay, despite such fine, dissociative rapport, has its breakthrough in a scene of Luke and Squires’s stepdaughter Stephanie (played by an aptly full-of-herself Olivia Thirlby), after a languorous day spent on Luke’s drug rounds, sitting at the embankment of what he calls a “mad dirty” river, wondering why the two of them had never hung out together until now. The moment builds to that awkward first kiss, followed by several more kisses that are considerably less awkward.

After they say goodnight outside her brownstone, Levine does something brilliant. The panels on the sidewalk underneath Luke’s feet light up one by one, step by step, as Luke walks on air, so to speak. It’s a visualization of first love at once urban and fanciful. The imagery, of course, owes something to Michael Jackson’s dancing on and illuminating a sidewalk in the “Billie Jean” video from the early ‘80s, but Levine’s staging and Peck’s agile moves are infinitely more truthful and magical. This daring stylistic leap lasts only a few seconds, yet it works to show Luke’s sense of uplift as well as reviving the spirit of the movie. Back at home, he has that beatific smile of being in love, and it’s the rare actor who could say a line such as, “I got mad love for you, shorty. It’s on the real,” (or is that reel?), and make it incandescently romantic. Second only to Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, Peck’s work is the most incisive I’ve seen by an American actor thus far in ’08.

A final note: Ben Kingsley should never, ever, ever wear a tanktop. He shouldn’t. Not in dark brown, anyway. Still, The Wackness is worth seeing, flaws and all.

At least Levine’s druggies have a sense of humor about themselves; Ricardo de Montreuil’s, in the horrible Peruvian film Máncora, do not. Titled for a beach resort on the coast north of Lima, Máncora showcases the surf to good advantage, and an underwater sequence at the beginning, as the sunlight above beams through the blue depths below, is a lovely effect from cinematographer Leandro Filloy. Nonetheless, the movie announces itself as a piece of crap, only moments in, by juxtaposing an elderly man’s suicidal plunge from a bridge (he lands/crashes into the windshield of an oncoming car on the highway underneath) with a cut to his 21-year-old son, Santiago, banging a woman in the graffiti-scrawled bathroom of a punk rock club.

De Montreuil is a former “Senior Creative Director” at MTV Networks Latin America, a fact that goes a long way in explaining why his movie has such a nauseating sheen of ugly cool. Máncora belongs to a universe wherein the figures onscreen are either going to be victimized or sentimentalized, but absolutely none of them will be three-dimensional. The film’s rhythms are meandering rather than aggressive, yet the sleazy content makes it unpleasant all the same. The screenplay, which took three hack writers to assemble, gives the performers nothing to go on; even so, sleepy-lidded Jason Day is a complete disaster as Santiago, a puerile fatalist with a violent disposition and zero social skills. Day seems to have been hired for the job based on his ability to smoke cigarettes and rub the top of his buzzed head (though, amazingly, he doesn’t attempt both at once).

Most of the ciphers on parade here are doped-up, alcoholic, hedonist “swingers” who don’t have to work for a living. Sample dialogue: “What matters is what’s fucked, because no one can take that away from you,” and when this pearl of insight meets with silence, the speaker probes: “What’s up, amigo? You look really pensive.” On the flip side of this, we have Batú (Phellipe Haagensen), a happy-go-lucky New Age surfer hippie who always has some wise, shamanistic observation to bestow on lesser mortals. De Montreuil’s sex scenes are directed as if they were “hot,” yet the filmmaker’s notion of intimacy, in general, runs the gamut from psychotic to ludicrous. The equatorial beaches certainly look inviting, and after a while, I wondered why I wasn’t at the ocean myself instead of at this trash.

Film number three that day was a low-budget, absolutely dreadful Gaelic-language kids’ movie shot on DV. My patience for bad cinema exhausted, when two nutjobs got into a fistfight over black pudding, I left.

DAY THREE: April 30, 2008

I skip the morning film. A friend has asked me to drive her to the airport, but even if she hadn’t, nothing could have induced me to sit through Baghead. Not after the previous two days. I arrive at noon for Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Encounters at the End of the World.

Not unpredictably, the doc proves to be a seriously mixed endeavor, a mild tug-of-war between sincerity and deadpan condescension. After a heavenly a cappella Russian male choir graces the opening credits, we join Herzog and company on a cargo plane bound for Antarctica. The director narrates in his elfin Bavarian accent, “Who were the people I was going to meet? What were their dreams?” as the camera pans over sleeping passengers, mostly middle-aged bald men and one token dreadlocked individual of indeterminate gender. It doesn’t matter. We never see them again.

On the ground, Herzog’s first interviewee is a chubby-cheeked fellow in red-faced good health, a former banker in Colorado turned Peace Corps worker in Guatemala turned Antarctic taxi driver, though the cab he steers more closely resembles a plow. “I learned that the world isn’t all about money,” he says, and what a luxury it must be to learn that.

Much of the doc focuses on the grim-looking research center McMurdo Station, a wing of our government’s National Science Foundation, and “From the very first day, we just wanted to get out of this place,” states Herzog. It’s an industrial wasteland filled with trucks, mud roads, corrugated rectangular pre-fab bunkers of metal-gray, its own bowling alley, a radio station (which we never hear), and “such abominations as aerobics and yoga classes.” In the commissary, we’re briefly introduced to Ryan, a young boy billed as a filmmaker/chef whose function is to ensure that inhabitants have an adequate supply of vanilla ice cream.

The sun never sets in the Antarctic summer, from October to February, and one brightly lit middle of the night, Herzog chats up the mirthful linguist/hipster William Jirsa, who’s keeping the plants company in a greenhouse. Jirsa speaks of feeling at home among PhDs washing dishes, whom he considers “my people.” Sporting a bushy goatee that juts out from the center edge of his chin, a mop of hair over his forehead, and square tortoise-shell frames, Jirsa reminded me of the sort of person I might have expected to bump into at a Feelies concert in Athens, Georgia, circa 1988.

A tweeds-clad Englishman from Cambridge, the volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, he of the tousled red curls and wooly scarf of wide green and yellow stripes (best dressed man in Antarctica, hands down), makes for an engaging interviewee during Herzog’s stopover at Mount Erebus. Yet the most memorable “encounter,” indeed the most stirring footage Herzog and his cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger steal away with, involves a penguin colony. We see these animals in a group as a penguin behavioral expert fields inane questions on the creatures’ sexual predilections, then a few of the birds take off, some for the sea, perhaps, yet one solitary penguin leaves the colony behind altogether. The striding purpose of his waddling steps—not going left, not going right, as Sondheim might say—but simply headed straight for the mountains—alone—becomes a bracing example of individualism. This one casually, fortuitously captured great moment is more poignant than anything in Sean Penn’s false and contrived Into the Wild adaptation.

And a cave sequence near the end may be the most purely visually stunning moment in Herzog’s travels: The tracking through such a narrow interior space, the blue-white cast to the curve of the cave wall, and the immobile ice ridges that appear to be undulating ripples—all usher in a sense of being inside a Georgia O’Keefe painting; the textural contours evocatively suggest an arctic equivalent to the artist’s vulvic motifs.

Snow and ice also figure prominently in the next film, Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, which has the honor of being the best movie to be screened during this first week. Although Hunt is a talented new director who can supply gripping suspense without resorting to soundtrack cues (her film has no heightening music to tell us what to feel), Frozen River wouldn’t be nearly the success that it is were it not for the splendid work of its leading lady, the superb actress Melissa Leo. Leo has great screen presence, a tremendous visual authority; she has grandeur about her, even playing a hardscrabble, blue-collar mom who’s so frighteningly poor she can’t complete the payments on a new mobile home. “I just want my double,” Leo’s Ray Eddy declares. Hunt, who also wrote the screenplay, has great affection for character types who are usually ignored by movies or ridiculed by them. Ray and her two sons live in an industrial town on the New York-Canada border; it’s a sad world, one wherein a teenage boy’s only memento of his AWOL father is an acetylene torch. He uses that torch with such pride, against his mother’s objections, and when they fight over the use of it, there’s very nearly a sense that the sky is falling, because if she takes it away, then that’s the last of his daddy.

I won’t go into the plot, suffice to say it has to do with driving back and forth over the iced up St. Lawrence River, smuggling illegal immigrants in the trunk of a car. The movie opens on a stark wide-angle shot of this jagged white surface—waves frozen in mid-motion. In one night-time crossing, Ray and her Native American “business partner” Lila (Misty Upham) get out of the car to look through the slushy field for a piece of baggage that was dumped, and the cinematographer Reed Morano creates an unostentatiously virtuosic lighting effect: It’s as if the women were walking across the surface of the moon.

I have my issues with Upham’s uninflected line readings, yet a friend of mine who’s worked in and among the Mohawk tribal reservation, from which Lila hails, informs me that Upham’s tense, tonally colorless voice and her expressionless face are accurate. And I wish Hunt had resisted the temptation to pan the camera upward to a building sign that reads “High-Stakes Bingo,” just as the women set out on a final run.

Flaws aside, Frozen River is well worth seeing. There’s a marvelous moment when Ray receives a Christmas morning visit from a state trooper, and Leo, in a terrific close-up, does a miniature master class on acting within acting, being chatty and feigning bemused ignorance of what he’s talking about. It may be her best scene; certainly, it’s one of the few she plays opposite an adult male (the once lissome Michael O’Keefe, grown unrecognizably stolid), so there’s an undercurrent of flirtatiousness not seen elsewhere in Ray’s struggles.

DAY FOUR: May 1, 2008—The Press Launch

A dilemma presents itself: on the same calendar page as SIFF’s press launch, I have to go back to my day job as a copyeditor at, I confess, Republican Banker Today, a trade rag at which I was not hired for my political affiliations, whatever those might be. This means I’ll have to miss the advance screening for the festival’s closing night film. Am I shallow enough to ditch work (again) for movie love? But then I think of how bad the closing night films have been over the last five or six years: Jet Lag, for one, also Intimate Strangers, Alan Rudolph’s deservedly obscure Investigating Sex, Gus Van Sant’s odoriferous Last Days, and the least terrible of the bunch, Molière, a comedy that made me laugh exactly once, yet nonetheless offered the beautiful Laura Morante in a role softer and more womanly than the back-to-back bitches she’d played earlier that year in Avenue Montaigne and Private Fears in Public Places.

Therefore, I make the noble sacrifice and show up at the office. Luckily, it’s only a few blocks away from the SIFF screening room in the basement of Seattle’s opera house, so I dash out for an early lunch. There’s no salmon at the press launch buffet, as there was a year ago, and no champagne either. (Lowered expectations?) The luncheon consists of three leafy salads; I try them all—the one with shrimp, strawberries, and toasted hazelnuts rating the highest. The room is jam-packed. I nosh with a few friends and adversaries; this year, as in press launches past, I’m amazed at the sheer preponderance of people who show up for this event, members of “the press” who I never see at other private screenings the rest of the year.

The closing night film turns out to be Bottle Shock, a comedy set in the California wine country, and that, I suppose, will be meant to cash in, however belatedly, on the Sideways bandwagon. I’m glad I’m not able to stay very long, and those of you who recall that Sideways made my 10-worst list of 2004 will know why. At high noon, various functionaries shoo the critics away from the buffet table and into the auditorium. We’re shown the trailer for SIFF’s opening night film, the shot-in-British-Columbia Battle in Seattle. I know people who protested and were jailed at the WTO riots, and so I wince at the made-for-TV-esque potboiler the subject has been reduced to by Charlize Theron and friends. I linger for the first five minutes worth of longwinded speeches by festival staff, then duck out.

Later, from friends who stayed on, I learn some of the reviewer consensus on Bottle Shock. “Execrable,” a former LA Times critic declares. “Bloody awful,” another critic relates in an email, and he went on to say, “It’s a film for people who can’t really handle subtitles but want to feel ’superior’ by seeing a film about the supposedly snooty, elitist subject of wine. There was a moment when it looked like the beautiful blonde intern was going to end up with the déclassé Mexican farm laborer, but eventually she comes to her senses and ends up with the hunky blonde slacker son of the wine company president. Boy, that was a close one.”

OK! Later, also, I peruse the packet I picked up that lists all the films in this year’s festival. There are a few “likely candidates” I’m on the look out for, but to my chagrin, all of them are missing. The two best narrative films that screened last February at the Portland festival, Joanna Hogg’s masterpiece Unrelated and Kim Ki-duk’s Breath, were somehow excluded from SIFF. The worthwhile (and much admired) In the City of Sylvia is, likewise, mysteriously AWOL. I had hoped to see again (and write about) all three of these. Also eyebrow-raising in their absence are the new films by Xiaolu Guo (We Went to Wonderland) and Hong Sang-soo (Night and Day), despite the fact that both filmmakers were represented in last year’s SIFF, vis-à-vis How Is Your Fish Today? and Woman on the Beach.

What is on the roster? Why, Kung Fu Panda, bless my soul. How good to know that SIFF programmers have their priorities in order.


In the firm conviction that there has to be more to life, I skip all press screenings.

N.P. Thompson lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest.

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Review: Guns of the Trees Wears Its Looseness as a Badge of Honor

The film is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.




Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

Jonas Mekas establishes the tone of 1961’s Guns of the Trees with a director’s statement, declaring that the “mad heart of the insane world” has prevented him from finishing the film. What follows, Mekas asserts, is “a sketchbook,” a “madhouse sutra,” “a cry.” And such a description aptly articulates the film’s melodramatic, self-pitying sense of yearning, which is driven by Mekas’s career-spanning need to contexualize the divide of artifice that separates artist from audience. To Mekas, sketch-like scenes represent a refutation of staid, insidious craftsmanship that can smooth out rougher and more resonant contours.

In the case of the quasi-fictional Guns of the Trees, Mekas follows a handful of young people in New York City as they hang out and grapple with the state of modern existence, decrying America’s involvement in Cuba, the development of the atom bomb, and various other atrocities that underscore the awfulness of the imperial machine. Occasionally, Allen Ginsberg reads his poetry over the soundtrack, his scalding free-associational verse conjuring an anger that the film’s characters can’t quite articulate, while providing Guns of the Trees with another element of the literary. A little of Ginsberg’s poetry goes a long way. What is the “hunger of the cannibal abstract” and why can’t man endure it for long?

Ginsberg’s bebop phrasing complements Mekas’s fragmentary images, which are alternately ludicrous and lovely. In keeping with the sketchbook concept, the film wears its unevenness and looseness as aesthetic badges of honor. A framing device in which two businessmen in white mime makeup wander a cabbage patch in near hysteria, in all likelihood embodying the ageless corruption of man, is self-consciously oblique and edgy, feeling like an earnest film student’s pastiche of 1920s-era avant-garde tropes. Other scenes, however, poignantly detail life in the early ‘60s, such as when a woman sits her husband down in a chair in their loft and cuts his hair, or when a man tries to talk his drinking buddy down from an intoxicated rant. These scenes have the humor and behavioral specificity of John Cassasvetes’s films, evoking the comforting rhythm of the little moments that come to define us.

Guns of the Trees belongs to an easily mocked beatnik era, when people discussed whether to conform or be free while listening to folk music and reading Ginsberg and smoking grass. At times, even Mekas seems to be on the verge of ribbing his subjects’ sincerity. For all their thrashing about, these people seem prosperous and more interested in speaking of revolution than in truly sparking it. Ben (Ben Carruthers) sells life insurance, prompting the film’s funniest line, when a potential client asks, “Don’t you still believe in death?” A young woman named Barbara (Frances Stillman) is gripped by authentic depression though, and her suicide haunts Ben, Gregory (Adolphus Mekas), and Ben’s wife, Argus (Argus Spear Julliard).

If the beatnik navel-gazing dates Guns of the Trees, Mekas’s docudramatic eye memorably revels in poetic details throughout. His protagonists wander through fields, which suggest the rice fields of Vietnam, and junkyards that testify both to the beauty and the waste of mainstream society. The play of light off the twisted metal of the trashed cars suggests found sculpture, while indirectly conjuring the wreckage wrought by the wars the characters protest. Such images, which include profoundly intimate close-ups of the characters’ faces, also anticipate the rapture offered by future Mekas “sketchbook” films such as Walden.

Mekas would go on to pare away the preachiness of Guns of the Trees from his subsequent work, as he increasingly honed a personal style that would make ecstasy out of the commonplace, utilizing multimedia and a restless syntax to suggest how memory intricately shapes life. Guns of the Trees is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

Cast: Adolfas Mekas, Frances Stillman, Ben Carruthers, Argus Spear Juillard, Frank Kuenstler, Louis Brigante Director: Jonas Mekas Screenwriter: Jonas Mekas Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1961

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.



Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.



Once Upon a Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.

On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.

Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.



For Sama
Photo: PBS

Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.

When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.

Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from his mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.



Photo: Warner Bros.

We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.

While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.



Photo: Neon

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.

Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.



Photo: Warner Bros.

That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.

Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.

Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”

Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.

Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

Tags: Academy Awards, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker, Thomas Newman, 1917, Alexandre Desplat, Little Women, Randy Newman, Marriage Story, John Williams, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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Review: Dolittle, Like Its Animals, Is Flashy but Dead Behind the Eyes

Dolittle’s inability to completely develop any of its characters reduces the film to all pomp and no circumstance.




Photo: Universal Pictures

Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle begins with a just-shy-of-saccharine animated sequence that spins the tale of the eponymous character’s (Robert Downey Jr.) adventures with his wife, who one day dies at sea during a solo voyage. It’s something of a more condensed, less moving version of the prologue to Pixar’s Up, underscoring our protagonist’s upcoming fantastical journey on behalf of Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) with a tinge of melancholy.

As soon as the film shifts to live action, we immediately sense the loss felt by Dolittle in the overgrown vines and shrubbery that surround the famed doctor and veterinarian’s estate, as well as in his unkempt appearance. But any hopes that the film might follow through on its promise to explore Dolittle’s emotional turmoil are quickly dashed once he begins interacting with the animal friends who keep him company. Their banter is ceaseless and mostly ranges from corny and tiresome to downright baffling, as evidenced by a pun referencing Chris Tucker in Rush Hour that may leave you wondering who the target is for half of the film’s jokes.

The tenderness of Dolittle’s prologue does resurface sporadically across the film, most memorably in a late scene where the good doctor shares the pain of losing a spouse with a fierce dragon that’s also enduring a similar grief. But just as the film seems primed to say something profound about the nature of loss, Dolittle shoves his hand into the dragon’s backside—with her permission of course—in order to extract a bagpipe and an array of armor, leading the fiery beast to unleash a long, loud fart right into the doctor’s face.

That moment is crass, juvenile, and, above all, cheap in its cynical undercutting of one of Dolittle’s rare moments of vulnerability. But it serves as a ripe metaphor for the filmmakers’ incessant need to respond to a show of earnestness with a dollop of inanity, as if believing that their young audience can’t handle anything remotely sincere without a chaser of flatulence.

But worse than the film’s failure to truly probe Dolittle’s emotional landscape is how it surrounds him with a series of uncompelling character types. While the film seems to mostly unfold through the eyes of young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), who becomes Dolittle’s apprentice after witnessing the doctor communicate with animals, he serves little purpose aside from drawing the man out of his shell. And Dolittle’s arch-enemy, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen, chomping on every bit of scenery within reach), has little motivation to justify his ceaseless quest to stop his rival from attaining an elixir that will save Queen Victoria’s life.

Despite repeatedly paying lip service to notions of grief and opening oneself up to the world, Dolittle ultimately plays like little more than an extended showpiece for its special effects. But even the CGI on display here is patchy at best, with the countless animals that parade through the film’s frames taking on a creepy quality as their photorealistic appearance often awkwardly clashes with their cartoonish behavior. The film’s notoriously troubled production, which went so off the rails that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director Jonathan Liebesman was brought on board for reshoots, is evident in its clumsy staging and lifeless interplay between humans and animals, but it’s the film’s inability to completely develop any of its characters that reduces it to all pomp and no circumstance. Like the CGI animals that inhabit much of the film, Dolittle is flashy and colorful on the outside but dead behind the eyes.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland Director: Stephen Gaghan Screenwriter: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Bad Boys for Life Is a Half-Speed Echo of Michael Bay’s Toxic Formula

In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it.




Bad Boys for Life
Photo: Columbia Pictures

From its parodically overused low-angle and circling tracking shots to its raw embodiment of Michael Bay’s unique brand of jingoism and adolescent vulgarity, Bad Boys II arguably remains the purest expression of the director’s auteurism. Bay doesn’t direct the film’s belated sequel, Bad Boys for Life, leaving one to wonder what purpose this franchise serves if not to give expression to his nationalist, racist, and misogynistic instincts.

Intriguingly, Bad Boys for Life is helmed by the Belgian team of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, whose streetwise, racially focused crime films, from 2014’s Image to 2018’s Gangsta, represent positions that are nearly the polar opposite of those of Bay’s work. Except the filmmakers do nothing to shake the franchise from its repellent roots, merely replicating Bay’s stylistic tics at a more sluggish pace, losing the antic abandon that is his only redeeming quality as an artist. At best, the half-speed iterations of Bay’s signature aesthetic reflect the film’s invocation of too-old-for-this-shit buddy-movie clichés, with Miami cops Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) forced to contend with growing old and obsolete.

The film is quick to establish that Marcus, newly a grandfather, longs to settle down, even as Mike continues to insist that he’s at the top of his game. It’s then that the partners are thrown for a loop when Mike is shot by Armando (Jacob Scipio), whose drug kingpin father Mike killed and whose mother, Isabel (Kate del Castillo), he helped get imprisoned in Mexico. Both men are left traumatized by the event, with a horrified Marcus forswearing a life of violence, while Mike seeks brutal revenge for his wounded sense of masculine security. And for a brief moment, Bad Boys for Life finds fertile ground in the emotional chasm that opens between the two pals, with Mike’s single-minded rage leaving Marcus morally disgusted.

Almost immediately, though, the film turns to gleeful violence, showing how grotesque the consequences of Mike’s vigilantism actions can be, only to then largely justify his actions. When Mike violates orders during a surveillance assignment to abduct a possible lead, that source is left dead in a gruesomely elaborate shootout that’s played for satire-less kicks. Partnered with a new unit of inexperienced, tech-savvy rookies (Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, and Charles Melton), Mike can only express his dismay at the new generation resorting to gadgets and nonlethal, perhaps even—dare one say—legal, measures of law enforcement. Each one gets a single defining characteristic (Hudgens’s Kelley is a trigger-happy fascist in the making and Ludwig’s Dorn possesses a bodybuilder’s physique that belies his pacifism), and they all exist for Smith to target with stale jokes about old-school justice.

Likewise, the surprising soulfulness that Lawrence brings to his character is ultimately just fodder for jokes about how the weary, flabby new grandpa isn’t getting laid. Unsurprisingly, then, Marcus only reclaims his virility as a man by lunging back into a life of chaotic police action. Even his turn toward faith and a vow of peace is mocked, as when he finds himself in possession of a machine gun during a hectic chase and Mike reassures him that God gave that to him in a time of need. “Shit, I do need it!” Marcus exclaims, but the humor of Lawrence’s delivery only momentarily distracts us from the film’s flippant take on his spirituality.

By saddling both heroes and villains alike with quests for revenge, Bad Boys for Life broaches deeper thematic possibility than has ever existed in this franchise. Indeed, the film’s focus on aging, when paired with a last-act reveal that forces the characters to think about the legacies that are passed on to future generations, places it in unexpected parallel to another recent Will Smith vehicle, Gemini Man. But where Ang Lee’s film actually grappled with the implications of violence bred and nurtured in our descendants, this movie merely gets some cheap sentimentality to contrast with its otherwise giddy embrace of carnage.

In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it. The aforementioned scene with Marcus discovering the machine gun is played as a joke, even though the man, half-blind but refusing to wear the glasses that show his age, fires wildly at gunmen on motorcycles weaving around civilian vehicles. Watching this scene, it’s hard not to think of the recent, real-life case of Miami cops firing hundreds of rounds at armed robbers despite being surrounded by commuters, not only killing the suspects but their hostage and a random bystander. This coincidental timing is a reminder that the supposed harmlessness of glib entertainments like Bad Boys for Life plays a part in normalizing the increasing police-state tactics and mentality of our nation’s over-armed law enforcement.

Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Joe Pantoliano, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Paola Núñez, Kate del Castillo, Jacob Scipio Director: Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah Screenwriter: Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, Joe Carnahan Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you.



Renée Zellweger
Photo: LD Entertainment

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you. Loyal readers of Slant’s Oscar coverage know that we don’t like to beat around the bush, and this year we have even less reason to do so what with the accelerated awards calendar forcing us to kick-start our rolling predictions earlier than usual. So, as we busy ourselves in the next few days catching up with some remaining blindspots, and being thankful that we don’t actually ever have to see Cats, we will be bringing you our predictions in some of Oscar’s easier-to-call categories.

Which isn’t to say that we’re going to be drama-free. Case in point: the revelation that Eric Henderson, my fellow awards guru, made on Twitter this week that “Scarlett Johansson is genuinely better in Jojo Rabbit than in Marriage Story.” He also asked us to throw the tweet back in this face four or five years from now, but I say right now is as good a time as any.

No, seriously, shocking as that tweet was to this fan of Marriage Story’s entire acting ensemble, that some are already predicting the actress as a possible spoiler in supporting actress in the wake of Jojo Rabbit scoring six nominations, it’s gotten us thinking about the ostensibly evolving tastes of AMPAS’s membership at a time when it’s struggling to diversify itself. And based on how things went down at last year’s Oscars, the only conclusion we can come up with is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Immediately after Glenn Close lost the Oscar last year to Olivia Coleman, Eric sent me a text wondering why AMPAS hates the former so much, to which I offered that there’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals. Well, that and its support for actors who actually want to be exalted by the industry. Even in a world where Renée Zellweger isn’t also being helped by a comeback narrative, and has yet to follow Joaquin Phoenix’s savvy lead by getting arrested at Jane Fonda’s weekly climate change protest and erasing our memory of her performance at the Golden Globes, she’s nominated for a generally well liked performance in a film that has actually performed well at the box office.

On Monday, more outcry was provoked by the Oscar nominations, again for women being shut out of the best director race, but also for the snubbing of several actors of color, most notably Jennifer Lopez and Lupita N’yongo. Some will speculate that Cynthia Erivo, the only actor of color to be nominated this year, is a potential spoiler here, but whether she stands to benefit from a core of protest votes is something that can never be known. This fine actress’s performance checks off almost as many boxes as Zellweger’s, if not, at the end of the day, the one that matters most: representing a film about the industry itself, in this case one that will allow a reliably backward-looking Hollywood to atone for sins committed against their own.

Will Win: Renée Zellweger, Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

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