My Review of the 93rd Academy Awards

Well, I am surely not the only person to use this pun to describe last night’s Academy Awards, but for a ceremony that primarily took place at Los Angeles Union Station, it certainly went off the rails at the end. This ceremony was never going to be perfect or look the way we’ve grown accustomed to as an audience in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I could never have imagined just how crazy this year’s Oscars, which was for the most part fairly uneventful throughout, would end up. The show still had some great moments, hilarious parts, and inspirational speeches, albeit along with some very miscalculated bits—here’s my review of the 93rd Academy Awards.

It’s probably necessary to get to the show’s twist ending first. At every Oscars since 1948 (with the 1971 ceremony being the lone deviation), the Best Picture award has been announced last. Clearly, if you dig into Oscars history, you’ll find that most early ceremonies didn’t utilize this setup, but nearly every film fan, for the most part, has grown up watching the biggest award in world cinema deservedly announced last. This year, things got weird when Rita Moreno stepped onto the stage and started reading off nominees for Best Picture—I was quite confused, wondering if I had somehow blacked out for the two lead acting categories, rewinding my TV a bit to make sure. The nominees also looked a bit stunned by the reorganization of the show’s homestretch. At that point, it felt like the Oscars producers (which this year included previous Best Director winner Steven Soderbergh) mixed things up to deliberately set up a massive emotional climax for the night—Chadwick Boseman becoming the third actor to win a posthumous acting award for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. My goodness, was that a mistake. The Academy famously doesn’t know the results of any category until the envelopes are opened during the live broadcast, as its longtime accounting firm, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, tabulates the ballots and keeps the results entirely confidential—that couldn’t have been clearer in light of how this show ended up.

After Renée Zellweger presented the Best Actress award to Nomadland’s Frances McDormand (a win which made her only the second woman to win three career Best Actress Oscars, behind only Katharine Hepburn who won four) last year’s Best Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix strutted out and, in trademark fashion, stumbled through an intro about acting. Eventually, after reading the nominees, Phoenix opened the envelope and the rest is history. Instead of Boseman winning the Oscar, the award went to legendary actor Anthony Hopkins for his performance in The Father, who, at the age of 83, became the oldest actor to win an Oscar. However, Anthony Hopkins didn’t show up this year, either in Los Angeles or at any satellite location (including London). Via Phoenix, the Academy accepted the award on Hopkins’s behalf, and then the camera cut back to in-house DJ Questlove, who thanked everyone for watching and ended the show. It was mind-boggling—truly the epitome of the term anticlimactic.

This year, I personally (and I recognize that it’s all subjective) had Riz Ahmed, Anthony Hopkins, and Steven Yeun ahead of Chadwick Boseman on my Best Actor rankings. Ahmed gave such a powerful performance in my favorite movie of the year (Sound of Metal), Hopkins delivered arguably the best performance of his career in The Father, behind only his Oscar-winning role in Silence of the Lambs, and Yeun was beautifully poignant in the wonderful Minari—although Boseman was certainly stunning in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I personally felt other performers in far-better movies were more deserving of being declared the year’s best actor. With that said, I was certainly on board and excited for Boseman to win this year—in his final film performance, while in the final stages of his cancer, he gave an impassioned portrayal of Levee Green, and the Oscar here would have felt like a fitting tribute to an incredibly talented actor who impacted the world in so many incredible ways through films like Black Panther and whose life was tragically cut short by cancer. The betting odds heavily favored Boseman at -1667 and other than the BAFTA (which went to Hopkins), Boseman swept the other major pre-Oscars awards. The world certainly expected to see Boseman winning this award.

If you ventured to Twitter after the show, it was full of Oscars slander for Boseman’s surprise loss. And understandably so, as literally everything pointed to Boseman’s posthumous win. The Academy built the entire close of the show around the possibility for a heartwarming emotional high point based on an expected Boseman victory, and instead, we ended the show on an award without its winner anywhere to be found to deliver an acceptance speech. Steven Soderbergh and the producers gambled big on that setup…and ultimately, they lost big.

Aside from the Oscars’ twist ending, there were a number of other noteworthy moments from this year’s ceremony. First, last night was a major step in the right direction for the Academy as it works to overcome the infamous #OscarsSoWhite controversy a few years ago and be more inclusive. This year’s class of nominees was the most diverse in Oscars history, and a number of historic moments followed. Nomadland’s Chloé Zhao became only the second woman (and first woman of color) to win the coveted Best Director award. Both the Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress winners (Daniel Kaluuya and Youn Yuh-jung, respectively) were people of color. Emerald Fennell won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (the first woman to do so since Diablo Cody won for Juno in 2008). And for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson became the first black women to ever win for Makeup and Hairstyling. It was a great night for inclusion and diversity.

Additionally, per usual, there were some great speeches, ranging from inspirational to hilarious. In particular, I enjoyed watching Daniel Kaluuya, who won Best Supporting Actor for my favorite acting performance of the year in Judas and the Black Messiah, deliver a wonderful tribute to Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. (He also referenced his parents having sex, which turned out to be particularly hysterical as the camera then cut to a live shot of his mother, who was watching from the British Film Institute in London.) I was also nearly brought to tears listening to Thomas Vinterberg, who won Best International Film for his brilliant Another Round, dedicate the Oscar to his late daughter, Ida, who was supposed to appear in the film but died in a tragic traffic accident just days into production. On the lighter side, it was a joy to watch Youn Yuh-jung give her acceptance speech after winning Best Supporting Actress for her scene-stealing performance in Minari. Youn was just as adorably funny in real life as she was in Minari, especially as she gushed over her presenter, Brad Pitt.

Lastly, I couldn’t do a proper review of the show last night without mentioning the funniest moment of the evening. During the middle of the show, there was a musical bit where actor/comedian Lil Rel Howery picked actors in the audience to listen to past movie songs (played by Questlove) and guess whether those songs won an Oscar for Best Original Song, were just nominated in the category, or none of the above. Truthfully, I didn’t enjoy this bit almost in its entirety—it was a bit choppy and didn’t land the way the producers probably thought it would. However, this “game” provided us with the night’s most gif-worthy moment—acting legend Glenn Close dancing to “Da Butt,” the song featured in Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze. I sure didn’t see that one coming, but it was very, very funny!

 

The 93rd Oscars – Best Actor

In today’s post, I will review the Best Actor category for this year’s Academy Awards. Let’s go!

The Nominees

Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal)

Filmmaker Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal tells the story of Ruben (played by Riz Ahmed), a recovering drug addict and drummer in a hard metal band with his girlfriend Lou (played by Olivia Cooke), who suddenly loses his hearing. Eventually, Ruben makes his way to a sober-living community for deaf people, which is run by Joe (played by Paul Raci), a recovering alcoholic who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War. Ruben’s hearing loss is set up in the first act of Sound of Metal, and thus, the bulk of the film is substantively focused on Ruben’s experience learning to live with his new circumstances. As I will get to in greater detail when I reveal my Top 10 Films of the Year this Saturday, Sound of Metalis an incredible cinematic experience, and Riz Ahmed is stunning as the movie’s protagonist. Ruben quickly becomes overwhelmed by the sudden and incessant silence associated with his deafness, which ultimately causes him to engage in addictive behaviors that Joe feels threaten Ruben’s sobriety—Ahmed skillfully plunges deep into this portrayal of Ruben’s complex journey to realizing deafness is not a handicap. It is a moving performance that at times will bring you to tears, and although the film as a whole is superb, Ahmed’s depiction of Ruben is the most vital ingredient—a truly impressive display of acting bravura.

Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)

In his final film role before his death just 8 months ago, Chadwick Boseman plays Levee Green in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the film adaptation of August Wilson’s acclaimed 1982 play of the same name. In the movie, which tells the story of a turbulent studio recording session with Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis) and her band in 1920s Chicago, Levee is an ambitious, yet cocky and erratic, trumpet player who ultimately experiences an emotional collapse—Boseman is utterly exceptional, depicting this hot-tempered character with mesmerizing style and fiery flair. This is just the ninth time a performer has received an Academy Award nomination posthumously in an acting category, and only Peter Finch and Heath Ledger have previously won in those circumstances—based on the results at the other major film awards this season, Boseman is sure to become the third such winner.

Anthony Hopkins (The Father)

In Florian Zeller’s film The Father, Sir Anthony Hopkins plays the titular father (whose name is actually Anthony in the movie), an elderly man battling against the degeneration of his own mind at the hands of dementia. It goes without question that Anthony Hopkins is one the greatest actors of all time. This year’s Oscar nomination is the sixth of his career (and second consecutive nomination following his inclusion in the Best Supporting Actor category last year for The Two Popes), and in The Father, Hopkins delivers what is arguably his greatest acting performance, behind only his Academy Award-winning turn as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins’s character in the film is snappy and petulant throughout, clearly struggling to come to grips with his condition. He quickly oscillates between moods, engages in unkind outbursts, and hurls a number of cutting comments at his daughter, Anne (played by Olivia Colman), and yet, he’s also such a sympathetic character. It’s understandable why Anthony is who he is, and Hopkins embodies this character masterfully, giving us a peek into the man’s heartbreaking circumstances. I got choked up a number of times during this movie, but never more so than when Hopkins brought the performance home with a crushing final scene. Anthony Hopkins epitomizes dramatic acting, and even in his early 80s, he’s still showing the industry how it’s done.

Gary Oldman (Mank)

David Fincher’s black-and-white biopic Mank (written by Fincher’s late father Jack, who passed away in 2003) tells the story of famed Hollywood screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) and his role in developing the screenplay for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, often credited as the greatest film in cinematic history. Mank is definitely a love letter to Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” and I had incredibly high hopes for it since Fincher directed it. Unfortunately, for me, the film underwhelmed altogether. Gary Oldman, a master of his craft, was obviously great in his role of the titular Mank, but I never felt while watching it like this was worthy of a surefire Oscar nod—certainly, I expected it to get a nomination, as the film is the prototypical Oscar bait, but I never felt blown away by his performance. Oldman’s spot among the nominees should have gone to more deserving actors this year.

Steven Yeun (Minari)

Minari, a semi-autobiographical film by writer and director Lee Isaac Chung, follows South Korean immigrants Jacob Yi (played by Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica Yi (played by Han Ye-ri) as they move their family from California to rural Arkansas to fulfill Jacob’s dream of starting a Korean produce farm. South-Korean born Steven Yeun, who is best known to audiences as Glenn from the AMC television series The Walking Dead, is stellar as the Yi family’s patriarch in this film, and I was incredibly excited to see him become the first Asian-American of Korean descent nominated for the Best Actor award at the Oscars. Despite Jacob’s painstaking commitment to achieving his piece of the “American dream,” the bullheaded character is also marred by stubborn imprudence. Yeun’s portrait of this complex character is first-rate and exquisitely captures the enduring spirit of an immigrant’s inspirational journey to achieve success for his family in America.

Snubs and Other Performances

Despite the year’s many wonderful acting performances from male leads, it was always going to be difficult snagging an Oscar nomination, as the field was certainly crowded. Other than the nominees, here are a few other performances that caught my eye during the past year in film. First, one of the surprise hits of the film season was The White Tiger, a film set in India that examines the country’s caste system from the perspective of its lead character Balram (played by Adarsh Gourav), who cleverly escapes poverty. Gourav was remarkable in his breakout starring role, and I hope to see much more of him in the future, as he’s proven to the world just how capable of a performer he is. Second, in addition to his blockbuster role as Vision in Marvel’s Disney+ television series Wandavision, Paul Bettany was equally extraordinary in Uncle Frank, a film set in the 1970s, which tells the story of the titular Frank, played by Bettany, a gay man living in New York City who, following the death of his father, must grapple with his past and his South Carolina-based family. Bettany turned in a beautiful performance as Uncle Frank, and although he hasn’t been nominated for too many major acting awards in his career, it’s hard to think he didn’t deserve more attention for this fantastic role. Additionally, Ben Affleck was superb in The Way Back as a former high school basketball star and alcoholic seeking redemption as the coach of his former team. In light of Affleck’s real-life issues with alcoholism, it’s clear this perspective for the role allowed him to uniquely portray the heartbreaking struggles of the addiction—Affleck delivered a great performance.

This year, I believe the biggest snub in any category was Delroy Lindo missing out on a nomination for his stellar performance in Da 5 Bloods. Spike Lee’s latest film tells the story of four African-American veterans of the Vietnam War who reunite to travel back to the Southeast-Asian country to both locate the remains of “Stormin’” Norman (their former squad leader, played by Chadwick Boseman, who died during the war) and to find a massive treasure the group hid during their time in Vietnam. Like most Spike Lee films, Da 5 Bloods explores a number of important themes, including the horrors of war, race relations, and redemption. At the center of the story is Lindo’s emotionally complex character Paul, a cynical Trump supporter whose hostile demeanor is shaped by tragedy and oppression. Lindo, who previously collaborated with Spike Lee on three films in the 1990s, is spectacular in his depiction of Paul. The character is tragic in every sense of the word, and Lindo delivers his performance with heart, passion, and above all, masterful skill. My tweet on the day the Oscar nominations were announced says it all.

Conclusion

Who Could Win: Anthony Hopkins

Sir Anthony Hopkins’s performance in The Father is clearly one of the best of his storied film career, and for that, if anyone is going to overcome Chadwick Boseman’s incredible frontrunner status to pull off an upset on Sunday night, it’ll like be Hopkins. Presently, Hopkins is getting +700 odds, the best of any challenger in the category.

Who Should Win: Riz Ahmed

My personal pick for Best Actor is probably the toughest call in any category, and despite my love for Anthony Hopkins in The Father, if I had a vote, it would go to Riz Ahmed, the first Muslim to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Ahmed committed to his role in stunning fashion, spending a great deal of time learning American Sign Language and how to play the drums. His many hours of preparation were well worth it, as Ahmed turned in a perfect performance in a film that highlights a community not often depicted with regularity in film. Although Ahmed won’t win this year, he’d have my vote.

Who Will Win: Chadwick Boseman

I simply cannot see anyone beating the late Chadwick Boseman at this year’s Oscars. The only major award Boseman hasn’t received for his role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the British Academy Film Award, which went to Anthony Hopkins, although it’s likely due to the fact The Father is a British film and Hopkins is one of the United Kingdom’s most accomplished performers. Currently getting frontrunner odds of -1600, Boseman is set to become just the third performer to posthumously win an Academy Award in an acting category.

The 93rd Oscars – Best Actress

In today’s post, I will review the Best Actress category, home of the most wide-open race at this year’s Academy Awards. Who will win is anybody’s guess, so let’s dive in for an analysis of the category.

The Nominees

Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)

Based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows the real-life Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis), a highly influential African-American blues singer in the 1920s. The film focuses on a tumultuous studio recording session with Ma Rainey and her band in Chicago. Viola Davis is one of the best and most talented actors currently working, and with her turn this year as Ma Rainey, she further demonstrates her impressive range, taking on a distinct physical transformation to play the brash blues legend.  Over the course of the film, it becomes apparent Ma Rainey’s generally difficult demeanor with respect to her producers is shaped by her experience as an African-American woman in a world controlled by white men, and Davis depicts the character’s tough-nut-to-crack temperament with strident passion and exquisite flair.

Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday)

Set in the 1940s, Lee Daniels’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday follows the life and struggles of Billie Holiday, one of the most instrumental jazz singers in the history of music. In particular, the film focuses on the U.S. government’s racially motivated preoccupation with targeting and harassing Holiday. The government persecuted Holiday under the guise of drug-related offenses, but Daniels explores another motivation—stopping Holiday from performing “Strange Fruit,” her anti-lynching song, which became an anthem for the civil rights movement. Three-time Grammy Award-nominated singer Andra Day’s performance in this film’s leading role is absolutely stunning, made all the more startling by the fact it is only the third film credit of her career. (She previously played the role of “Minton’s Singer” in Marshall and voiced the character “Sweet Tea” in Cars 3.) Although the film as a whole had a number of flaws, Day’s take on Billie Holiday was surely not one of them—she was singularly the film’s dazzling high point. Day transformed into Holiday, delivering striking moments of passion and restrained moments of intimacy, and it deservedly earned her an Oscar nomination this year.

Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman)

The setup for Pieces of a Woman is simple—a young couple, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), lose their baby during a home birth gone wrong, and they are left to grapple with the emotional toll of this tragic event, while also dealing with the stress of a legal case being pursued against the midwife who delivered the child. For me, it was impossible to watch Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman and not come away thinking, “Wow, that is what acting is all about.” The film’s storyline is, at its very core, crushing and heartbreaking, and Kirby delivers every single one of her character’s raw and painful emotions with devastating exactitude. It is a shame Kirby hasn’t been shown more love this awards season in what has turned out to be a wide-open Best Actress race. (She’s been nominated at a number of noteworthy award shows, but her only significant win was the Volpi Cup for Best Actress, the award given out at the Venice Film Festival.) The portrayal of Martha required Kirby to embody the essence of a shattered woman, consumed by inconceivable grief, while also to methodically demonstrate the character’s ultimate revival and enduring spirit to press on—Kirby checked these boxes off with apparent ease. It was an outstanding expression of pure acting prowess.

Frances McDormand (Nomadland)

In Nomadland, following the death of her husband and the closing down of the manufacturing plant in her hometown (at which she worked), Fern (played by Frances McDormand) makes the decision to sell most of her personal possessions, purchase a van, and essentially live a “nomad” life without any fixed residence, driving from city to city in search of odd jobs here and there to make enough money to survive. Make no mistake, the legendary Frances McDormand is, in accordance with every other role she’s ever played, wonderful in Nomadland. However, for me, if I was going to sneak in another performer who was snubbed this year (see discussion of such snubs below), McDormand would probably be the one to make way. Nomadland is definitely one of the best films this year (when I reveal my rankings in a few days, you will definitely hear more about it), but considering its beautiful story, cinematography, collective supporting performances, and near-documentary style of filmmaking, it’s a film where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts, including McDormand.

Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman)

Although Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is full of unique and intriguing twists and turns, the setup is fairly straightforward: Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan), motivated by the rape of her best friend Nina, spends her nights pretending to be drunk at bars in an effort to attract morally corrupt men (who pass themselves off to her as “nice guys”) in order to ultimately confront those guys about their skeezy behavior and hold them accountable—Cassie is most definitely a modern-day femme fatale. Eventually, Cassie directs her mission to everybody connected to Nina’s rape, which is where the story takes off. Carey Mulligan is nothing short of amazing in this darkly comedic thriller, a bona fide departure from her trademark appearances in period pieces and hard dramas. Cassie is ice cold and vastly different than any character I’ve ever seen Mulligan depict, and if her entrancingly exceptional performance in Promising Young Woman is any indication, I hope we see Mulligan again in the near future taking on another complex modern figure—Mulligan is a first-rate pro!

Snubs and Other Performances

In addition to the nominees, this year supplied movie watchers with a number of other incredible acting performances from female leads who easily could have gotten Oscar nominations themselves—this category is just so unbelievably stacked. First, Jessie Buckley was hauntingly superb in Charlie Kaufman’s enigmatic psychological thriller I’m Thinking of Ending Things, nimbly navigating a cinematic maze of strange, surrealist ideas. Second, in a movie chock-full of first-rate acting performances, Han Ye-ri wonderfully delivered a quiet, yet poignant, depiction of a wife struggling to balance her own happiness against the dreams of her ambitious husband in Minari. Third, Rosamund Pike is enthralling in the Netflix dark comedy I Care A Lot as Marla Grayson, a charismatic (yet brash) con artist who preys on elders in assisted living communities to steal their money and valuables. I couldn’t help but see a lot of similarities in this character to Amy Dunne (the character Pike played in 2014’s Gone Girl, which earned Pike her lone Oscar nomination), so it’s no wonder Pike knocked the performance out of the park. Additionally, one of my favorite acting performances this year came courtesy of breakout actress Bukky Bakray, who starred in Rocks, a British film about a teenage girl who must take care of not only herself, but also her little brother, after her mother abandons the family. Bakray, just a teenager herself, gave a beautiful, gut-wrenching portrayal of the film’s lead, which earned her a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress and a win for the BAFTA Rising Star Award.

Although these performances above were certainly stellar, there was one this year that stood out to me as a performance that absolutely deserved an Oscar nomination (and yet got snubbed): Elisabeth Moss as the lead protagonist, Cecilia Kass, in Leigh Whannell’s rendition of The Invisible Man. Whannell’s version of this classic tale focuses heavily on abuse and the effects it can have on victims, and Moss was nothing short of astounding in her portrayal of this character. Her performance is incredibly intense at moments, while also meticulously subtle at others. With every apprehensive glance, with every hurried breath, Moss skillfully portrays her character’s fear and emotional exhaustion with fastidiousness. Ultimately, Cecilia gets her revenge, in the most badass way possible, and Moss executes the whole operation to perfection. For years, dating back to Mad Men, Elisabeth Moss has been a critically acclaimed staple of television—this year, Moss deserved an Academy Award nod for her silver-screen talents.

Conclusion

Who Could Win: Viola Davis or Frances McDormand

This year, the Best Actress category at the Academy Awards is by far the most competitive of any other acting category. So far, a different woman has won the Golden Globe Award (Andra Day), Critics’ Choice Movie Award (Carey Mulligan), Screen Actors Guild Award (Viola Davis), and British Academy Film Award (Frances McDormand) for Best Actress. Carey Mulligan is getting slightly better odds than the rest of the field, and of the three other Best Actress award winners this season, Viola Davis and Frances McDormand stand the best chance to pull off an “upset.” (In light of how tight this race is, nothing will actually be an upset this year.) McDormand is currently getting +400 odds, while Davis is getting a stunning +200 odds, which is insanely close to what Mulligan is receiving. I wouldn’t be surprised if either Davis or McDormand took home the Oscar on Sunday.

Who Should Win: Vanessa Kirby

I truly enjoyed each performance nominated in this category, but for me, the most emotionally affecting of the year—Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman—deserves the Oscar. It is a beautifully soul-crushing portrayal of a first-time mother struck by tragedy, and Kirby would have my vote, full stop, if I had one to give.

Who Will Win: Carey Mulligan

As I alluded to above, this category is going to come down to the wire. Carey Mulligan, this year’s winner at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, is currently getting the best betting odds to take home the gold at +125. Although not really a frontrunner due to the razor-thin margin between the nominees, my educated guess is Mulligan takes home the Oscar. Promising Young Woman is a vital, timely piece of cinema, and Mulligan is its standpoint star. Prior to this year’s nominations, Davis and McDormand accounted for a combined 8 Oscar nominations and 3 wins—this is only Mulligan’s second nomination ever, and I think the Academy will welcome her into the winner’s circle.