My Prediction of the 90th Major Oscar Winners, 2018

February 19, 2018

Well, when Hollywood is getting ready for its biggest yearly party early next month, one can not forget that to Hollywood the past year was extremely dramatic and tumultuous, to say the least. First we saw the downfall of one of Hollywood’s most powerful men, czar of independent cinema, Harvey Weinstein. It was almost unimaginable just a few months ago that he and his company would be completely shut out at the upcoming party. Then, in connection to this dramatic development, we experienced the tremendous uproar of the #MeToo movement that spread virally on social media, targeting at the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. This also has an enduring impact on how people chose their Best Picture candidates, reacting more viscerally to the subjects that feature the marginal and suppressed groups. This year’s top contenders, namely The Shape of Water and Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri, benefit from these events in Hollywood.

Besides the above, this year’s Oscar nominations also show a love for historical pieces. We have two films that are almost overlapping in their treatment of historical events: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. There are also three other films that loosely fall into this category: Call Me By Your Name (d. Luca Guadagnino, story taking place in 1980s Italy), The Post (d. Steven Spielberg, story about 1970s’ publication of the Pentagon Papers), and Phantom Thread (d. Paul Thomas Anderson, story taking place in post-war London’s couture world). In other words, there are only three films (out of 9) featuring stories that roughly take place in contemporary period: Lady Bird (coming of age story), Get Out (inventive genre mix), and Three Billboards. I think this will be also the trend in the following years, as historical pieces tend to be less controversial and less ambiguous in morality.

After finishing my self-imposed annual watching obligation, I came up with the following major predictions, two weeks ahead of the official ceremony and announcement:

Best Picture:

To be frank, the one (out of the 9 nominated films) I like best is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. I thought Nolan has created something quite new and fresh, something that is not only cinematic, but physically inviting as well. I call this “cinema of experience,” meaning that, whereas storytelling is still a purpose, it is more interested in getting the audience involved, both intellectually, emotionally and physically, in the narrative. Unfortunately, Academy members may not agree with my judgement, and they will overwhelmingly vote for either The Shape of Water or Three Billboards. This year’s battle from the very beginning is the one between these two, and I hope this time The Shape of Water will win, although Three Billboards appears to have gained momentum recently, winning BAFTA and re-enacted in the aftermath of the recent Florida school shootings. I don’t dislike Three Billboards, but I just feel it drags on a bit too long and almost becomes aimless toward the end. It also lacks Coen brothers’ dark humor. Fargo and No Country for Old Man are far more superior than this one.

Best Director:

I said this last year: “in the past several years, there has been a separation between the Best Film and Best Directing awards, a trend not necessarily healthy. The most controversial upset was when Ang Lee became the first non-white person to ever win the Best Director at the 2005 Academy Awards ceremony, but his Brokeback Mountain lost out to Crash.” But this separation once again happened last year, with Damien Chazelle winning the Best Director award but La La Land losing the Best Picture title to Moonlight. Will it happen again? Early indication seems to point to that direction, and it may end very much like this: Guillermo del Toro, one of the “Three Amigos,” winning the Best Director title (a sure thing) and Three Billboards winning the Best Feature title. I hope, it is only a hope, this trend stops this year. Let’s see how the story unfolds… Fingers crossed.

Best Actor in a leading role:

Despite recent rumors about his troubled marriages, it is almost 100% certain that Gary Oldman, the British versatile actor, will win this prestigious trophy for his exceptional performance in Darkest Hour depicting Winston Churchill in a historical juncture during WWII. He has won virtually all major acting awards and certainly won’t lose this time, possibly the most important one in his career. I was in London this past fall and had the opportunity to visit Churchill’s War Room, which looks exactly like the one featured in the film. Oldman’s acting helped me re-contextualize my visit and the days Churchill experienced in wartime. Believe me, living underground for an extended period of time is not a pleasant experience, and it takes tremendous courage and sacrifice to stay in that suffocating space. Can you believe Gary Oldman’s application to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) was rejected back in his college days?

Best Actress in a leading role:

Well, this year seems to belong to Frances McDormand, Joel Coen’s wife and versatile actress active not only in film, but also on stage. She has won the Academy award once for her performance in Fargo, and this time she plays a stubborn mother who is determined to revenge the rape and murder of her teenage daughter, sometimes daring to take the law in her own hands. Like Gary Oldman, McDormand has won almost all major acting awards, and the second Oscar seems to be a sure thing. I also liked her acting, but sometimes felt she went a little too far in her acting and is a bit stiff, not as relaxed as that in Fargo. Of course this is only my observation. Maybe I liked Fargo too much. To me, that is a classic very difficult to compete with.

Best Actor in a supporting role:

In this category, only Christopher Plummer could rival Sam Rockwell, who plays a racist white cop in America’s Midwest. Plummer gives the audience a memorable J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World (the role was recast with Plummer after Kevin Spacey’s multiple sexual misconduct allegations), but Sam Rockwell’s role lingers in people’s mind much longer. It is perhaps because Sam Rockwell is known for his fondness for playing unlikable characters, this time a seemingly retarded but racist small-town cop whose only inspiration comes from his equally slow-minded mother. This is a character every one loves to hate, and it is no small matter for an actor to exactly convey this kind of feeling through the big screen.

Best Actress in a supporting role:

This year there are two strong mother characters on the screen, Laurie Metcalf’s in Lady Bird and Allison Janney’s in I, Tonya. Both are equally memorable and strong-willed, and both are coming from the working class background. Their problems lie in the fact that their daughters are equally strong willed and oftentimes rebellious. The Laurie Metcalf character, a nurse, has to curtail her daughter’s ambition, but the Allison Janney’s character, a waitress, uses every possible means to nurture her daughter’s ambition. In the latter case, the result is disastrous, whereas in the former case, the result is a little manageable. Comparatively speaking, the Allison Janney character is looming larger over her daughter’s career. Her towering presence can be felt almost everywhere in Tonya Harding’s life. I remember vividly when the incident happened, as I was in Los Angeles at that time and followed almost every detail of the story unfolding on TV. I don’t remember the coverage ever mentioned that Tonya has such a bitchy “helicopter” mother.

Best Animated Feature:

This is almost unanimous. I think every Academy member will vote for Pixar’s Coco. It is politically correct, as the story takes place in Mexico, a country/culture the Trump administration would like to wall off, and has repeatedly insulted. But it is more than politically correct to vote for this animated feature, as it is both artistically outstanding and visually mesmerizing. Most important, the story is universally touching and cross-culturally understandable. It was warmly embraced by people old and young when it played in China, and many of my friends actually started to research the culture of Mexico, and planned to travel to Mexico to experience the culture in the near future. I think the animated feature also made people less agonizing when their family members pass away.

Best Foreign Language Film:

Well, I had a hard time nailing down my choice. The five nominated films, Russia’s Loveless, Chile’s A Fantastic Woman, Lebanon’s The Insult, Sweden’s The Square, and Hungary’s On Body and Soul, each has its own unique traits and merits, but none of them really stands out as the front runner or unequivocal choice. It is unlike the previous years, when a single film always stood out. So, it’s everyone’s game and nothing is strange if the winning film ends to be Hungary’s On Body and Soul (uncomfortably bloody sometimes) or Chile’s submission (uneven). In comparison, just in comparison, I like Russia’s Loveless, as this film is more solid from the beginning to the end, whereas films like The Square begin with a promising premise but almost fall apart in the middle or in the end. In other words, nothing is very exciting about this category. This is in dramatic contrast to the previous years. I just hope this year is an exception rather than a norm.

Best Visual Effects:

This trophy should go to the all-time classic: Blade Runner 2049. As a matter of fact, I think this sci-fi ought to occupy a Best Picture nod, as in the future, time and again we will come back to this film when we talk about/teach cinema. The world it created is simply stunning. I mean it is both visually stunning and philosophically thoughtful, and the latter is not always easy to achieve. People may find it slow-paced and hard to follow from time to time, but it is truly a masterpiece, more unforgettable than Ridley Scott’s first one. If making a dead actor alive again on the big screen is not an easy task (Rogue One: A Star War Story), then it is equally challenging to present a world that only exists in people’s imagination. Blade Runner 2049 has successfully made this possible.

The 90th Academy Awards will be televised live from the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday, March 4, 2018 beginning at 5:30pm PT or 8:30pm ET on ABC, hosted again by Jimmy Kimmel. I hope last year’s stunning screw-up won’t happen again this time.

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China in 2017: Top 10 Box-Office Hits

February 8, 2018

After a sharp slowdown of growth in 2016, China’s domestic box office in 2017 picked up the speed of growth and, for the first time surpassed the 50 billion mark, grossing a little over 55.9 billion yuan (US$8.7-8.8 billion), up 13.5% from 2016 if calculated in Chinese money. The industry became once more excited about the possibility of China taking over the United States to become the largest film market in the world. Domestic film productions reached 798 features in total in 2017, which accounted for close to 54% of the box-office total.

The phenomenal success of “Wolf Warrior II” (2017), with a story taking place in today’s Africa.

In the meantime, more cinemas and screens were added in 2017. Mainland China now has 50,776 professional screens in total, solidifying its position as the world’s biggest theater owner.

The following is the list of the Top 10 Box Office Films of 2017 in China (in Chinese yuan/RMB; exchange rate: 1 US$=6.4 RMB):

1. Wolf Warrior II (战狼2;d. WU Jing); box office: 5.68 billion yuan;
2. The Fate of the Furious (d. F. Gary Gray); box office: 2.67 billion yuan;
3. Never Say Die (羞羞的铁拳;d. Song Yang, Chiyu Zhang); box office: 2.2 billion yuan;
4. Kung Fu Yoga (功夫瑜伽;d. Stanley Tong); box office: 1.75 billion yuan;
5. Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (西游伏妖篇;d. Tsui Hark); box office: 1.65 billion yuan;
6. Transformers: The Last Knight (d. Michael Bay); box office: 1.55 billion yuan;
7. Dangal (d. Nitesh Tiwari); box office: 1.29 billion yuan;
8. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (d. Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg); box office: 1.17 billion yuan;
9. Kong: Skull Island (d. Jordan Vogt-Roberts); box office: 1.16 billion yuan;
10. xXx: Return of Xander Cage (d. D. J. Caruso); box office: 1.12 billion yuan.

Note that for the first time a Bollywood feature, Dangal (or Wrestling Competition), produced by Aamir Khan Productions, UTV Motion Pictures, and Walt Disney Pictures India, and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, made China’s Top 10 list of 2017.