Memo to the Academy: For Your Consideration

Oscar voters should consider Margot Robbie, Dunkirk, Christopher Plummer,
The Post, On Body and Soul, and The Breadwinner

Oscar ballots are in the mail! February 20th marks the beginning of the final round of voting for this year’s Academy Awards race. Best Picture still looks to be a nail-biter with The Shape of Water and Three Billboards going neck-and-neck and their distributor Fox Searchlight laughing all the way to the bank, while the four acting categories look locked for Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Allison Janney, and Sam Rockwell. But last year’s upset proves that no frontrunner is secure, so let’s send the annual memo to the Academy with cases to be made for some of this year’s most worthy contenders:

Best Actress: Margot Robbie in I, Tonya

My two favourite performances from the films of 2017 are from I, Tonya’s Margot Robbie and Allison Janney. Janney might be a safe bet at this point after deservedly scooping Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe, SAG Award, Critics Choice, and BAFTA for her wickedly funny performance as tough love personified playing Tonya Harding’s mother, LaVona, who devoted herself to her daughter’s passion and grew into a bitterly jealous monster as a result. Robbie also deserves to win because her performance as the hot mess of a troubled skater invites empathy for a woman who has a level of guilt or complicity in a terrible attack, yet, she doesn’t shy away from making the character vulnerable to criticism.  I, Tonya plays with the multiple variations of truth that people devise as mechanisms for survival, as these permutations of the truth create for rich characters who destabilise our fondness for easy answers. Awarding I, Tonya is not the same as exonerating Tonya Harding. Robbie’s performance fascinates because it draws out Harding’s conflicted psyche that resulted from being a victim of domestic violence. She straddles comedy and tragedy brilliantly to convey Harding’s sense of shame, her insecurities, and the high she got every time she hit the ice and defied her critics. The fact that we’re even talking about Tonya Harding as a person for the first time in 23 years illustrates the humanity that Robbie invests in a character who is as difficult to land as a triple axel.

Best Original Screenplay: Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

I appreciate that this endorsement might be unpopular, and to an extent pointless since the film is the frontrunner to win in a very strong category, but Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is the one screenplay nominated here that I’d call literature. It's a great read. Martin McDonagh’s screenplay is just so wickedly funny, deep, and dark as it pushes the envelope, offering an ensemble of memorable characters and some highly quotable dialogue that weaves cultural commentary with razor-sharp satire. The film’s heroine, Mildred Hayes, offers a renegade cage-shaker who forges her own trail to defy a broken system. Beneath the irreverent humour is a profound sense of compassion one needs to believe in this increasingly cynical world. Just look at how well the film has its finger on the cultural pulse with two separate incidents of call-to-action billboards appearing in Florida and London protests inspired by the film. Add those challenges for gun reform and justice for the Grenfell Tower fire to the film’s already potent relevance to Hollywood’s sexual predator problem, and the screenplay might be the best product of a cultural tensions colliding post Brexit and Trump. Billboards, however (intentionally) difficult or messy it may be, is a sign of the times. Or maybe three of them.

Best Foreign Language Film: On Body and Soul, Hungary

Don’t miss the quietest contender among the foreign nominees. Ildikó Enyedi’s moving and disarming On Body and Soul is a tender love story that finds romance in the oddest places. From the sterility of the slaughterhouse in which Maria and Ender cautiously explore their love to the snowy dreamscapes of the forest in which they have their first date as deer, the film has a deep appetite for romance. The contrasts of the two worlds of the story favour a world in which love runs wild but asks why one can’t live in the present reality with the same abandon with which one dreams. What a relief it is to leave the theatre drifting a foot above the ground.

Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World

Christopher Plummer is going stronger than ever with a decade that includes his one-man show in Barrymore (probably my favourite performance of his) and his endearing comic/tragic turn in Beginners, but his work in All the Money in the World is the hallmark of a true master. Filming his scenes in a just quick few days—and he’s in the movie far more than one expects—he illustrates how naturally he inhabits the skin of a character. His J. Paul Getty is a devilish tycoon, but he’s a great villain precisely because Plummer avoids going for the obvious Machiavellian baddie. Plummer gives the billionaire an unexpected twinkle to the eye as the man becomes surprisingly likable while negotiating  for the safe return of the grandson he loves and the protection of the money he loves even more. The jovial streak to the character makes Plummer’s take on cold hard capitalism all the more effective.

Best Music – Original Score: Hans Zimmer, Dunkirk

Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan rank among the best partnerships between a composer and director. The music of Dunkirk is the culmination of their collaborations, particularly since the intricate music of Inception and Interstellar charted bold terrain with their experimental meditations on time. The beat of Dunkirk draws upon the ticking of a watch since time is of the essence in every layer of the film. The propulsive beat highlights Zimmer’s career-long effort to conceptualize innovatively the music of the film beyond emotional cues. Dunkirk’s adrenaline-pumping and pulse-pounded soundtrack fuels the film’s race against time and bridges the narrative triptych of land, air, and sea as soldier and civilians work towards a common goal in this heroic war story. The urgency and intensity of the soundtrack reminds audiences that every second counts as the world races for its survival.

Best Documentary Feature: Faces Places

I saw over 150 documentaries last year between Hot Docs, TIFF, and other events between my coverage here and at POV, and Faces Places might be the only documentary that I'd recommend without hesitation to anyone. Whether die-hard doc fan or casual moviegoer, one is bound to connect with the pure bliss of Faces Places. Join Agnès Varda and JR as they travel the French countryside taking portraits of villages and plastering enormous likenesses on the buildings of the surrounding area. The doc is on one level an essential portrait on the value of representation as the filmmakers intimately connect the communities and the land, giving time to oft-forgotten faces outside the bustling metropolis of Paris and putting unexpected portraits in unconventional places, like one of three women in the typically male space of a shipping yard. Faces Places is also a love letter to motion pictures as the film integrates Varda's failing eyesight and her candid conversations with JR offer a bittersweet farewell to the eyes that have transformed the way the world sees itself through film. The Academy hasn't gone for a poetic documentary in the 89 years that Agnès Varda has blessed this Earth. She and JR deserve to break that record with Faces Places.

Best Animated Feature: The Breadwinner

The Canadian-Irish co-production The Breadwinner is a beautiful and necessary stroke of independent animation. Audiences young and old need more stories like this one. The Breadwinner is moving with its story of young Parvana who navigates the complex patriarchal society of Afghanistan to save her father. The film doesn’t pander and it doesn’t insult the intelligence of its audience regardless of age as it depicts and challenges the social structures that cast young girls as secondary citizens. The wonderful and vivid animation creates an interplay between the old and the new as director Nora Twomey offers classically composed 2D palettes to reflect reality in the contemporary scenes, while sequences in Parvana’s imagination appear as fanciful cut outs that draw upon Afghan folklore and art. It’s as inspiring as it is imaginative.

Best Director: Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk

The finesse and precision of Christopher Nolan’s intricate time puzzler deserve Oscar gold. Watch the cutting and the choreography in Dunkirk and simply marvel at the difficulty of orchestrating such a battle. The coordination of the movement of actors and objects in sync with the camerawork truly is laudable as motions and match on action create continuous movements across the three timelines of the film. Dunkirk can span three time frames and points of view in a single motion, while the seamless (and unfortunately unsung) ensemble of actors is united by courage and valour. That precision does not come without the hand of a director, and Nolan’s bold vision is the general leading this seamless charge.

Best Picture: The Post

Yes, it’s timely, but there’s a lot more to The Post than a “yay, journalism!” message for the era of value of the free press. On one level, The Post is simply perfect classical Hollywood filmmaking as Steven Spielberg delivers a riveting and thoroughly entertaining production that boasts some career-best work from heavyweights like Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. The Post is also a return to form for mid-budget studio filmmaking. The package is as substantial as it is slick. Hollywood deserves more stories like that of Katherine Graham and The Washington Post’s decision to take a risk and a stand for freedom of the press to hold governments accountable for their actions. What a treat it is to see Meryl Streep give one of the best performances of her career playing Graham as she finds her identity in the publishing world and gains her voice navigating a male-dominated world where the stakes are too resonant in the era of #TimesUp, #FakeNews, and Donald Trump. Movies can be entertaining, while also being smart, perceptive, and fearless tools to engage audiences with the topics of the day. That scene where Graham makes the call to publish the story is far more thrilling than any Marvel movie is as one watches Streep convey the shift consciousness where her character decides to become an active player in history. Heroes don’t need a cape or a mask. Sometimes they wear a caftan.

Which nominees do you think the Academy should consider?