Note: I was asked to give a sermon at the local Unitarian Universalist Church. The audience was mainly folks over 60, and I think they found this talk useful. I hope you will, too.
I’m a Democrat but I come from a long line of Republicans, so it’s always been difficult to hold different political beliefs from my family. But things have never been so taxing as they have been since the election of Donald Trump. Yes, my family and I disagree on many of Trump’s policies and approaches. But more worrying to me, as a scholar of the media, is how difficult it has become to support claims with evidence that will be accepted. I’ll offer an example to illustrate:
Last weekend my family drove north to central Pennsylvania to see my mother. As with most visits, our conversation invariably turned to politics, specifically, a widely reported story about how the US Navy hung a tarp over a warship docked in Japan, where President Trump was giving a speech last week. The warship in question, the USS John McCain, is named after the father and grandfather of the late Senator John McCain. As I’m sure you all know, Donald Trump maintained a contentious relationship with John McCain, a member of his own party, in both life and death. This particular story—the fact that the warship was covered by a tarp during Trump’s visit—was reported in prominent sources including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, NPR, CNN, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, and yes, even Fox News. While there is no full consensus on who made this request, all of these news sources cite a statement released by the US Navy’s chief of information, that a request was made by the White House, “to minimize the visibility of USS John S. McCain.”
My mother a staunch Republican, agreed that the story was embarrassing, but then told me that her close friend, Richard, a strong Trump supporter, disputed the veracity of the story.
“Richard said the reason the boat was covered with a tarp is because it was being repaired.”
“And where did he hear that?”
“Fox news,” she replied, but then, before I could say anything, quickly followed up, “But Fox News is where I heard about the story in the first place.”
In other words, both my mom and Richard, staunch republicans who watch Fox News regularly, learned about the covered USS John McCain through the same news source, but came away with very different conclusions. I decided to investigate the root of Richard’s story on Fox News. With a little Googling I found a series of articles on Fox News which mention that the warship’s name was obscured by a tarp and a paint barge, but that this was due to repairs on the ship, not a request from the White House. Faced with dozens of sources reporting that the White House requested the warship be covered and just one source reporting that the ship was simply under repairs, my mother threw up her hands and concluded: how can we ever know the truth?
This question troubled me because my mother reads the local newspaper every morning, and the New York Times on Sundays, and is generally aware of both national and international current events. Of all the people in her educated Boomer demographic, she should know where and how to find reliable and consistent information about the world. So what happened? The first problem my mother faced, and which so many Americans are facing right now, is the misguided belief that there are two sides to every story, and that, at the end of the day, it is simply a matter of one’s opinion. The second problem my mother faced is a deficit in media literacy. While my mom now knows how to minimize a window, print a PDF, and share articles on Facebook, she is less aware of how information functions in today’s media environment. In this respect, my mother is like the great majority of us, not just the Boomers, who consume and share content in an ever-shifting online environment. How does content circulate online and how do we know which sources to trust? This morning, I’d like to unpack these two causes of fake news and the spread of misinformation.
One of the most lauded virtues of American society is the idea of free speech and that a plurality of voices is always preferable to the restriction of some in favor of others, hence the appeal to hearing “both sides” of an argument. This feels objectively true and logical, but like all things in life, functions quite differently in different scenarios. Both Sides-ism causes problems when we incorrectly decide that all views on a single topic deserve the same amount of consideration. All political issues elicit a range of opinions, depending on who you’re talking to, but these opinions, these “sides,” do not always carry equal weight. I might be pro-choice because I believe women should have sovereignty over their bodies or because I just hate babies. Both are indeed opinions but one carries far more validity (and morality) than the other. The phenomenon of Both Sides-ism, or false balance, occurs when viewpoints are presented in public discourses as having roughly equal weight, when they objectively do not.
In a New York Times editorial, published in the final delirious months of the 2016 election season, economist Paul Krugman described the phenomenon of Both Sides-ism, this “cult of balance,” as “the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.”
The consequences of Both Sides-ism are most destructive when all views about personhood are given the same consideration. Take, for example, the recent case, Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in which a baker refused to make a cake for a same sex wedding, claiming that to do so conflicted with his religious beliefs. The plaintiffs argued this was discrimination while Masterpiece Cakeshop thought the refusal couldn’t be discrimination when it was actually freedom of religion. In this way, Both Sides-ism, this false balance in our discourse, works to legitimate opinions which are not legitimate because equal rights are not up for debate. Another consequence of Both Sides-ism is that, just as it converts opinions into truths, it turns truths into opinions. Because my mother’s friend Richard reported to her that the USS John McCain was covered with a tarp due solely to repairs being made, a story supported by one news source, she felt compelled to give this claim the same weight as the story reported by dozens of news sources, which is that someone in the Trump administration requested that the ship be covered.
We need to be mindful of these slippages and logical fallacies. While there are dozens of opinions for every major political issue, we must always remember that some are more valid than others. And considering some of these opinions, like the idea that same sex marriage is a sin, is damaging. While there is much fake news out there, that does not negate the fact that real reliable news and facts exist. But how can you determine how to find reliable news? That brings me to my second point…
Scholars who study the media and the way it’s content is shaped and deployed have long known that much of the news on cable channels like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, as well as network and local newscasts, tend to focus on the sensational at the expense of the newsworthy. These scholars have also long known that, in a bid for more eyeballs (and advertising dollars) news headlines, and even news content, can be purposely misleading, incorrect, or yes, even “fake.”
However, in the lead up to, and following, the contentious 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the term “fake news” was deployed more frequently, and in more contexts, than ever before, and not because Americans were suddenly becoming more media literate. The prevalence of the term “fake news” coincided with a rise in conspiracy theories getting traction on social media and then finding their way into public discourse. Take, for example, when White House advisor Kellyanne Conway cited something she called the “Bowling Green Disaster,” an event invented out of whole cloth, as a justification for the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban in February 2017. This increasing inability to discern truth from lies has changed in relation to the technology we have developed for communicating authentic facts. That is, technology is conditioning the way we understand the look and sound of reality and truth. Let’s take a quick trip into our technological past to illustrate what I mean.
Before the global spread of the printing press in the sixteenth century, information about anything outside what you could personally verify was simply not available. When we move forward in time to the circulation of newspapers in the seventeenth century, we are able to learn factually-verifiable things about the world outside our immediate purview, and we are consuming the same facts as our neighbors reading the same newspaper. Again, there is an implicit trust that what we are reading is in, fact, from a reliable source and that this source would have no motivation for misleading us.
The development and deployment of radio and television for the mass distribution of information in the twentieth century likewise carried an implicit trust, inherited from the media that preceded them (namely print newspapers and newsreels that ran before cinemas screenings). Rather than buying a newspaper or venturing out to the movies to watch a newsreel, consumers could enjoy the radio, and the information it provided, without leaving the comfort or the intimacy of their home. Radio also acted a democratizing technology: it gave anyone with a radio common access to events and entertainments that only a tiny minority had been able to enjoy previously. In the 1920s and 1930s, the medium of radio made the world feel like a smaller place when everyone with a radio could listen to the same content being broadcast at the same time.
Just after WWII, when the new medium of television gained a foothold in the American consciousness, it was likewise viewed as a tool for the production of social knowledge, part of a postwar television cultural moment that embraced the medium for its ability to convey realism. The technology of television—its ability to record human behavior and broadcast it live—was linked to a general postwar interest in documenting, analyzing and understanding humanity. By 1960, 90% of American homes had television (compared with 9% in 1950). More and more, Americans were able to consume the same information at the same time, all across the country.
Until the mid-1980s, American television programming was dominated by a small number of broadcast networks: ABC, NBC, CBS and later Fox in 1986. Cable television technology existed as early as the 1940s, a solution to the problem of getting TV signals into mountainous areas. But cable subscriptions steadily rose throughout the 1970s and 1980s in response to new FCC regulations and policies allowed the technology to grow. What’s important for our discussion of fake news is that cable provided access to targeted audiences, rather than the more general demographic targeted by networks. Special interests, homogenous groups, had content made specifically for them.
The development of cable had a massive impact on journalism because, rather than being relegated to the morning or evening news, cable allowed the news to run 24 hours per day. In the 1980s, Ted Turner launched CNN which provided “saturation coverage” of world events like the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 or the first Gulf War. Instantaneous and ongoing coverage of major events as they happen is incredibly useful but also has its drawbacks.
For example, this type of coverage demands an immediate response from politicians, even before they have a chance to inform themselves on developing stories, aka “the CNN effect.” Former Secretary of State James Baker said of the CNN effect “The one thing it does, is to drive policymakers to have a policy position. I would have to articulate it very quickly. You are in real-time mode. You don’t have time to reflect.” CNN’s saturation coverage also increases pressure on cable news to cover an issue first, leading to errors in reporting and even false and misleading information.
In 1996, Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News as a corrective to the liberal bias he argued was present in American media. The new channel relied on personality-driven commentary by conservative talk radio hosts figures like Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck, only Fox framed right-wing positions and coverage as “news” and not “opinion.” Thus, the news channel served as decisive blow to the boundary between fact and opinion in journalism. This blurring of fact and opinion, along with the drive for 24 hours of content, has led to an onslaught of information of varying levels of utility.
The development and widespread use of the internet and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter over the last 20 years has profoundly impacted our relationship with facts and truth. Complex search algorithms, like Google, make information retrieval and organization easier and faster, thereby giving human brains more free time to think and do and make, something engineer. Engineer Vannevar Bush first addressed how creation and publication of research and data was far outpacing the human mind’s ability to organize, locate, and access that information in a timely manner in a 1967 article titled, “Memex Revisited”. He was particularly concerned about a problem that plagues us today: information overload. If attention is a finite commodity and information is increasingly boundless, how can we reconcile the two?
Bush’s essay proposes a solution: a hypothetical microfilm viewing machine, a “memex,” which mimics the way the human brain recalls information and makes connections between different concepts and ideas. While most file storage systems at this time were structured like indexes, with categories, subcategories, and hierarchies of information, Bush’s hypothetical memex was structured by association, working much as the human brain does when searching for an answer. Bush foretells the development of the modern search engine, which is able to process 40,000 queries per second, searching for the exact information a user seeks.
We often think of the ways technology shapes the way we think, but Bush’s essay highlights how the ways we think can also shape the structure of technology. Indeed, complex search algorithms, like Google, make information retrieval and organization easier and faster, thereby giving human brains more free time to think and do and make. Bush described this as the “privilege of forgetting.” But when this perspective bumps up against our current experience of the internet, a memex that exceeds Bush’s wildest dreams, we can also see how the privilege of forgetting might also be one source of the current distrust of the news and the rejection of facts and science.
With that in mind, I made up a hand out outlining basic tips and tricks for figuring out whether or not the news you’re consuming can be trusted, and, more importantly, so you can share these tips and tricks with friends and family. We have to hang onto the truth, and find ways to help those around us hang on, too. Please feel free to share with family and friends (especially your racist uncle): UU Detecting Fake News
 Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” Journal of Economic Perspectives. 31, no. 2 (2017): 211-236.
 Andy Guess, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler, “Selective Exposure to MisinFormation: Evidence from the Consumption of Fake News During the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign,”2018, https://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/fake-news-2016.pdf 2018.
 Schmidt, Samantha and Lindsey Bever, “Kellyanne Conway Cites ‘Bowling Green Massacre’ that Never Happened to Defend Travel Ban,” The Washington Post, February 3, 2017.
 David Hendy. “Technologies,” The Television History Book, ed. Michelle Hilmes (London, U.K.: BFI, 2003), 5.
 Vannevar Bush, “Memex Revisited,” Science is not Enough (New York, New York: William Morrow & Co., 1967).
Welcome back to my legion of faithfuls (waves to 6 people) who come to this blog every year for the hottest Oscars take in Hollywood: my Mom’s! I’m not even pretending to use this blog space as anything other than a place for me to put this post. It’s now the blog equivalent of a Parking Chair, but I only park here once per year. C’est la vie!
Scandal alert: this is the first year my mother and I did the majority of this post asynchronously. That is, instead of a face to face conversation or a phone interview, which I record and then later transcribe, my mother emailed me her picks and I emailed her mine. Then we responded, when we could, to each other’s picks. What can I say? I was pressed for time this year, still watching movies up until last night (Friday, the 22nd). But as I said, this is an important tradition* for me and my Mom so we decided to try this format.
Please note that, whenever possible, I have tried to use my mother’s writing verbatim, including punctuation and emojis. But she did not enjoy this format. She told me, “You have a PhD and you’re a writer. How am I supposed to compete with that? You need to cut back some of what you wrote so there is more focus on me. This is my blog.” Sorry, Mom. We’ll do better next year. Onward!
I had some trouble getting out to the movies before many of these titles disappeared from theaters, so I haven’t yet seen Vice or If Beale Street Could Talk. Out of the remaining nominations, my pick is Rachel Weisz in The Favourite, with Emma Stone (also in The Favourite) coming in a close second. I loved Weisz’s performance because it really could have become hyperbolic as tensions escalate between the women, but she balances the humor in the part, with the shrewdness of the character. Also, I was initially worried that these characters would feel anachronistic (like Girl Power for the 1700s!). But they didn’t. It really worked for me.
I did not see Vice😢 or If Beale Street Could Talk. My choice for BestActress in a Supporting role is Emma Stone in The Favourite. She was mean, cunning, gorgeous, and kind, all in one role. Fabulous!!!
Why did you pick Emma Stone over Rachel Weisz?
They were both phenomenal. It was very difficult but in the final analysis, the role that Emma Stone had to play was just amazing. And she had to do everything. Rachel Weisz just had to be The Bitch that Ran the Place. So I give it to Stone.
This was a tough choice for me. Mahershala Ali was the perfect snob and super refined but in the end, I’ll go with Richard E. Grant, the British Actor I never heard of. He stole the movie. I am glad the Academy saw how superb he was in the role of an old, gay (and, eventually, sick) has-been writer in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
I liked Sam Elliott’s performance in A Star is Born but the role wasn’t very interesting to me; it felt like he received an Oscar nomination for being Sam Elliott more than anything else. Mahershala Ali had a pretty thankless role in Green Book so I don’t have much to say on that, except that he did the best he could with a poorly-written character. I generally love Adam Driver in anything he does, but I don’t think he did anything special in BlacKKKlansman. So, for me, the best performance was absolutely Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me? I appreciated his performance for a few reasons. First, he plays an outrageous person, but his performance is never outrageous. Second, every time he appears in a scene, I just want to look at him. His presence is such a force. Third, those blue eyes. My God.
For sure, without hesitation, I choose Rami Malek for best Actor in Bohemian Rhapsody. I did not know who Fred Murphy [sic] was or who the band Queen was (sorry), but he was the singer and made the band what it became. The music was fantastic and memorable. He and the film was loved by all age groups (I can attest to that).
How can you attest? Did you take a poll?
Well, as you know, I’m just a movie critic once a year. I don’t have to take a poll. I do everything by what I feel in my gut, and I also asked my friends what they thought. They are all very sophisticated women with college degrees. At Book Club last Thursday night all of them screamed when I said that Rami Malek was my pick.
Also, did you really not know the band Queen before seeing this movie?
Yes. I was never big into listening to music like that. I remembered the songs like “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We will Rock You,” but didn’t know who the band was. I only went to one concert in my whole life, The Rolling Stones in 1989 (Steel Wheels Tour). Why would I go to a concert? The only star I ever went berserk over in high school was Elvis Presley.
I am ill-equipped to weigh in on this category because I haven’t seen Vice or At Eternity’s Gate. As for the rest? Oh, Bradley Cooper! You are very handsome and your singing voice is much better than what I expected it to be (fuck those haters, Bradley). But this was a weird performance for me. Jack never felt like a real character, just a Generic Drunk Tortured Guy, which impacts the efficacy of love story for me.
Now, as for Viggo Mortensen in Green Book. If there was an Oscar category for Best Onscreen Food Consumption, my dude would win, hands down. But other than the great eating, I found his performance to be Too Much. It’s like he was an understudy at the Thatsa Spicy Meatball! School for Italian Accents. It distracted me.
Bohemian Rhapsody was a real shitshow, so it is hard to objectively discuss Rami Malek’s performance. In a lot of scenes I just couldn’t get past those teeth. It was like John Travolta in The People vs OJ Simpson-level distracting, but in a bad way instead of a good way.
My pick for Best Actor in a Leading Role, therefore, is Ethan Hawke in First Reformed. Yes, I know he wasn’t nominated. But he gave the performance of his career in that film. At a time when many of us tire of seeing another film about a Straight White Guy Struggling with His Demons, this version of that story was so compelling. I always respect performances in which the actor is onscreen a lot but doesn’t necessarily get to do much. A lot of this movie is staring at Ethan Hawke’s face and IT. IS. NEVER. BORING. 10/10, would gaze again.
I CRY FOUL BALL! YOU MAY NOT CHOOSE SOMEONE WHO IS NOT NOMINATED. The Academy will hear about this, Dr. Klein.
I said what I said.
Well I was a lady and I followed the rules. Even when I was mad that Won’t You Be My Neighbor didn’t get a Best Documentary nomination, I saved it for the end. [see below]
I’ve seen all of these performances! And truly, all five of these women were fantastic, with Lady gaga being a little less fantastic than her competitors. No shade on Gaga; she was great. But she can’t be the best at singing, song-writing, performing AND acting.
As for the rest, and I know this is a cop out, but my runner up is actually a three-way tie between Yalitza Aparicio in Roma, Glenn Close in The Wife, and Olivia Colman in The Favourite. This year’s Best Actress in a Leading Role category is a testament to how difficult it is to compare excellent acting performances. All three these movies were so different—in tone, subject, and character—that it’s hard for me to rank them.
Having said that, the performance that stands just a little above all of these other amazing performances is Melissa McCarthy’s in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Where to start? I love how McCarthy took this character whose clothing, hair, and posture all ask you to look right past her, and plays her in such a way that all you want to do is look directly at her. This performance perfectly complements the film’s plot, which focuses on a writer who has spent her career telling her readers about other people’s lives and words. I really only know McCarthy from her comedic roles, where she is superb (long live Sean Spicer!), but damn, I hope she gets #alltheroles going forward.
I saw all the films and believe all of these actresses deserve the Oscar (except Lady Gaga) but Olivia Colman rose above them. She is almost the new Meryl Streep (no nomination for Meryl this year. Must be the first time in many years). Colman played the role of the aging lesbian, with bandaged legs (must have diabetes [editor’s note: she had gout]), and no children of her own. She was superb!!!!!!
Still not sure what to think of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. We watched it drunk on Christmas Eve, which may explain that. My pick is Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? This movie had great performances, but they were only possible through a script that was both funny and sad, and then weirdly redemptive. They built these characters who are assholes who I still like and understand so much that I would definitely go drinking with them in real life. Also, the scene in which they discover piles of old cat poop under Lee’s bed felt realer than real, as we own a house-pooping cat. Bonus points for that scene.
My pick is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Love the Cohen brothers–watch this movie sober. It is hysterical and soooooooooooooooo clever! Only the Cohen boys can think this way!!!!
Roma. To me, the film was one of the best I’ve ever seen. The way they started that movie–with her washing the driveway…from that moment I was in that movie. I was so mesmerized by that film. Everything about it, I liked. I also like The Favourite. It was fascinating to watch three women conniving each other. The last quarter of the movie was so real to me. The sadness. And The Queen really loved those two women, and they’re destroying each other in front of her. And then the one she loved the most, she banished from England.
This one is also very hard for me in the same way that the Best Actress category was hard. The Favourite, Roma, and First Reformed were all perfect vehicles for the stories being told. The Favourite is filled with saucy tongue twisters and sick burns. Roma, like all good neorealist texts, spend a lot of time contemplating the mise en scene, rather than chatting. But for me, First Reformed is the winner. There are so many reasons for this but I will just mention one: when Pastor Toller lies on top of Mary (she asked him to!) and the entire movie shifts to a different plane of reality. It was completely unexpected and so different from everything else that had come before in the film and yet, it worked.
Saw all but Vice. Actually, saw Cold War. Don’t go! Depressing and stupid movie. The winner without question is Alfonso Cuarón for Roma!!!!!
At last we agree on something! I can’t say Roma was my favorite film of the year (that’s why I don’t give it Best Picture) but the direction on this is pretty phenomenal. That ocean scene at the end was absolutely perfect. I love Italian Neorealism (my favorite is Umberto D) and this movie does that kind of filmmaking so well. Gorgeous.
A close second for me is Spike Lee for The BlacKKKlansman. This is not my favorite of Spike Lee’s movies (that would be the Oscar-deprived Do the Right Thing) nor is it my second favorite (She’s Gotta Have It) or even my third (Bamboozled). But that’s not saying much, as I very much like Spike Lee. I also want to note that I love Yorgos Lanthimos’ work and I loved The Favourite, but as with Spike Lee, this is definitely my 4th favorite Lanthimos film (that order would be #1 The Lobster, #2 Killing of a Sacred Deer, and #3 Dogtooth).
This year I saw all of the Best Picture nominees, but Vice. Very upset that I did not see it but will do so as soon as it returns. I truly enjoyed all the films that I saw; some were beautiful to watch, some were funny, charming, violent and some educational. Of all of them were but A Star is Born (BORING) !!!! I did learn that Lady Gaga is no joke! She can really sing.
You didn’t know Lady gaga could sing?
You know how it is with the performers who wear crazy outfits and do crazy things? They usually don’t have great voices. I think she wore a meat dress one time.
This year I choose Roma as Best Picture. Actually, Roma was one of the best films I’ve ever seen (and you know I have seen a lot of films). It was an amazing film to watch. Black and white film captured the time and turmoil of Mexico, along with the inner heart ache of the family. Tragedy, love, and survival. What I found interesting is that so many people couldn’t get through Roma.
Because it was long and slow?
BUT IT WAS AWESOME.
I will have an easier time eliminating some of the so-called frontrunners that I don’t think deserve this award: First, Green Book had a hokey script and hokey acting (great soundtrack tho) and truly, Hollywood should be done making message movies about Racism of the Past just so that White People can feel better about the kind of racism we have today.
As for A Star is Born, I love the story (my favorite version is the 1954 Judy Garland version) and I love musicals and I also really like both Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. And that Grammys scene was A+ But the movie was uneven and needed another round of editing.
The film which has inexplicably received a lot of awards is Bohemian Rhapsody. This movie failed on so many levels. It was only worthwhile because I saw it with my kids and then, for the next 6 weeks, we would randomly burst out into verses of “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Don’t Stop Me Now.”
So I’m giving Best Picture to The BlacKKKlansman for a few reasons. First, the actual story of Detective Ron Stallworth is truly bananas, and every actor in this film (yes, I am talking to you, Topher Grace) really brought their A game (ironically, Adam Driver was the least compelling to me among these performances). Also, the dialogue was sharp and funny. He made some interesting stylistic choices (like those extended dance scenes) that worked, and others that fell flat for me (the final scenes with Stallworth and Patrice felt too abrupt). But what put this one over the edge for me is that I saw it with my 12yo daughter and, when the footage from the Unite the Right rally plays in the final moments before the credits, her jaw dropped. She had seen that footage before, of course, and we had even discussed what happened in Charlottesville as a family. But seeing that footage of violent racism from 2017 nestled at the end of the story of violent racism from almost 40 years ago is a real gut punch. Where Green Book aims to make audiences feel good about race relations before the final credits, The BlacKKKlansman brings it directly in line with the present.
And frankly, the fact that Mr. Lee has previously received only two Oscar nominations in his long and rich career (School Daze, Malcolm X, Clockers, Summer of Sam, 25th Hour, Inside Man) and never for One of the Big Ones (Best Picture, Best Director), I think this is his time now.
Any other thoughts about this year’s slate of contenders?
My pick for Best Song is “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” but “Shallow” from A Star is Born will win. Best Make up will be Vice. I’m glad A Quiet Place was nominated for sound editing. Also, I was very disappointed that Won’t You be My Neighbor? was not nominated for Best Documentary. Best Cinematography is The Favourite.
Are you disappointed that Leonardo Di Caprio didn’t receive any nominations this year?
Well he wasn’t in anything this year. And you can’t choose something that wasn’t nominated or else we’d have bedlam [Note: she is referring to me and my Best Actor pick]. But I don’t have any threats this year.
Now, I’m not writing any more because I’m tired of this [typing].
That’s it, Dr. Klein. Call me xoxoxo.
*For those who might be new to My Mom’s Oscar Picks (waves to 1 person who thought this was porn), this tradition began in 2011, a few months after my father died. His passing was not unexpected but it was a violent, visceral, and fully shared family experience that remains incredibly vivid, over 7 years later. So this annual blog post is like a gift of connection that my mother and I can give each other each year, during a time of year when it is cold and dark outside, and reminiscent of sadder times.
Welcome to the 5th Annual edition of “My Mom’s Oscar Picks.” We started this tradition 6 years ago, not long after the death of my father, at a time when my mother and I both found a lot of solace in going to the movies. Since that time, we both look forward to this annual tradition, and do our best to see as many of the Oscar-nominated films as we can. She has even developed her own fanbase, and had the good fortune of meeting a few of them face to face this summer when my university hosted the media studies conference, Console-ing Passions. One conference attendee actually gasped when he saw her, exclaiming “You’re Nana? I love your Oscars blog!” She was tickled.
For those who are new to this tradition, here is what I initially said about my Mom’s qualifications for this job, back in 2012:
Perhaps the best thing about my mother’s cinephilia is her pithy, honest responses to them. Her critiques generally match up with what the professional critics have to say. And she sees enough of the new releases to have a solid understanding of the contemporary cinematic landscape. She can tell when a film is being manipulative (like War Horse [2011, Steven Speilberg]) and when it is being subtle. Her one blind spot is experimentation. My mother doesn’t like films that are “too weird” or that steer too far away from conventional cinematic language. For example, she really enjoyed The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius), which, with its lack of sound, can certainly be labeled as “experimental.” But she hated Tree of Life (2011, Terence Malick). We have discussed her hate for this film on several occasions. I think she is actually mad at Terence Malick for making this film and for luring her into the theater to see it.
This year we were able to conduct our Oscars picks in person, because we got together in New York City to celebrate her birthday. This conversation was recorded just after a heavy Italian dinner and several glasses of wine. So without further ado, let’s begin.
Me: Welcome back
Nana: My pleasure
You enjoy this a lot, don’t you?
Yes, I do
I’d like to start the way we usually start, by putting our cards on the table and listing all the Oscar-nominated films that we did not get to see this season. So out of the Best Picture nominees, can you tell me which films you haven’t had a chance to see?
The only films I did not see were Get Out and Phantom Thread, unfortunately.
The films I didn’t see are Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri…
[Nana makes surprised noises]
…and Darkest Hour
[Nana makes outraged noises]
…yes, because I’m tired of movies about World War II. Now with that on the table, I think we should start with the acting awards.
Before we do that, I’d like to make a comment.
Every year as I look at the pictures I’m to review—and I love doing it—I’m told it’s never as good as the year before…
Who tells you this?
Hmmm…people…out there [gestures in the air]
People? Just a vague group of people?
Yes. And they’re saying the acting is not what it was…
Where are you getting this information?
From the right wing?
No, that’s not what I’m asking…
Maybe from the left wing, because they’re into the theater? [laughs]
This is what is called a “straw man argument,” mother. It’s where you come up with an opposing argument that doesn’t exist so that you can make your point. I don’t think people are actually saying this.
Well, it’s interesting. I don’t really go to a movie unless I’ve read good reviews, like in New York Magazine, The New York Times, and Time magazine…
So you get your reviews from the liberal, lamestream media?
They are so liberal! But that’s okay, because they know their stuff.
The fake news?
Well, whatever you call it…but every year I am more impressed with the nominated films. And this year is an example of that…
I agree. I thought the films this year were very strong…
Okay, let’s start with the Best Supporting Actor categories. This year’s Best Supporting Actress nominees are:
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water
And you’ve seen all of these nominees?
Who is your pick?
Without question, Allison Janney in I, Tonya was absolutely amazing. I loved Laurie Metcalf in Ladybird, but there’s no comparison…
I’m with you on that. I, too, saw every film in this category so I feel like I can speak with some authority here…
Octavia Spencer is a great actress, but I don’t think she did anything special in The Shape of Water, Laurie Metcalf did a great job of depicting the complicated relationship between a mother and her teenage daughter in Ladybird, and I also enjoyed Leslie Manville in Phantom Thread. Now, as for Mary J. Blige, you may not know this because you’re so very old, Mary J. Blige is actually a singer…
I’ll be darned!
Yes. When I saw her in Mudbound I didn’t even realize it was her until after it was over. And I thought she was fantastic. But, Allison Janney—playing this chain-smoking bitch who is awful but still compelling on screen—that’s a tough line to walk.
So we’re in agreement?
Now let’s talk about Best Supporting Actor. The nominees are:
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Who is your pick?
I have seen 3 Billboards, The Shape of Water, and All the Money in the World (Christopher Plummer was great) but I choose Sam Rockwell.
Why is he your pick?
He played this angry sheriff’s deputy. He just couldn’t handle that this woman, the mother of the murdered girl, was causing all this trouble. The movie moved from one horrific scene to another, and he was just phenomenal.
Why do you pick him over the other nominated actor from the same film, Woody Harrelson?
He was superb. But I really had a problem with that nomination. He was not in the film as much as Sam Rockwell, and his role was not as striking.
I have to say, I am a little out of my depth here because I have only seen 2 out of the 5 nominated performances. With that in mind, my pick is Willem Dafoe. The Florida Project—and I’ll talk about this more later—was my favorite movie of the year. It’s a realist film, focused mostly on children who are living in precarity in Orlando. Dafoe plays the super of this apartment building where a lot of the action is set. His character is engaged in the lives of the residents of this building—they don’t pay the rent on time, they’re on probation, they’re doing illegal things like prostitution—and he’s this compassionate figure. It’s not a showy role. It’s subtle and lovely.
Let’s discuss Best Actress in a Leading Role.
The nominees are:
Meryl Streep, The Post
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Now have you seen all of these?
Who is your pick?
Well, it’s tough because this year, more than any other year that I have been doing this job for you…without pay…
…the roles for women were amazing. All of them were superb. I had to weigh between Margot Robbie, Frances McDormand, and Sally Hawkins. But in the final push, I give the Oscar to Margot Robbie. She is so drop-dead gorgeous, and they tried to make her look not as gorgeous, but that didn’t matter. Evidently, she learned to ice skate? She was amazing. This year it was tough to pick the Best Actress.
Don’t you think that’s exciting? That there were so many great roles for women?
Yes! They dominated these movies. It’s almost unfair to have to choose just one.
My pick is also Margot Robbie. Acting is such a subjective category. It’s hard to pin down what makes one performance better than another. But part of it for me was the movie itself. I loved I, Tonya. The Tony Harding scandal happened when I was in high school and it was a such defining moment. The scandal was such a big deal. I remember watching the Olympics and not knowing if Harding was even going to skate. And then she does, but she has a problem with her skate. It was so much drama!
That was insane.
It’s hard for me separate my interest in that story, from the performances of the actors portraying that story. But she was so convincing. Her character aged throughout the film, and she was convincing at all those different ages. I also thought she conveyed the ambiguity of Tonya Harding: is she innocent? Or she manipulating us all?
That’s still a question. And we didn’t like her in those days. We hated her.
Right, the media portrayed her as this villain and Nancy Kerrigan as this angelic victim. But this was such a sympathetic portrait of her…Well, look at us, in agreement again.
Now here is where we’ll disagree: Best Actor in a Leading Role:
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.
You said you didn’t see Get Out or Phantom Thread, and I’m assuming you didn’t see Roman J. Israel, Esq…
I don’t think anybody saw that.
My pick, without question, without hesitation, is Gary Oldman. That film…
…and I know you don’t want to see another [World War II film], but this is different. It all takes place in the bunker…
How many more movies do we need about World War II?
Well, I agree with that. But Gary Oldman was so great…you know I never heard of Gary Oldman?
Well, Gary Oldman was Winston Churchill in this film…
So you’ve met Winston Churchill?
[ignores my question]. I read the book Clementine, which is the story of his wife, and what she dealt with…so it was amazing to see how this man had such balls. He told British Parliament he was doing this…
Can you separate the historic importance of the movie’s topic from the performance?
I can’t. Because he made it real. We’ve all read about Churchill. We all know about him. But he made it real. This film you’ve got to see.
I’m not going to see it.
My pick—and again, I haven’t seen 2 out of the 5 nominated performances—is Timothée Chalamet. First, it’s rare for Hollywood to tell the story of a romance between two men in a non-tragic way. Usually, when these stories are told, someone is getting AIDS, getting rejected by their family, getting rejected by society. It’s rare to see a mainstream film depict a same sex couple having a romantic summer together in the same way that heterosexual couples have been. On top of that, I found Chalamet’s performance so believable. He’s in his twenties, but he’s playing a 17-year-old, and it works. The way he moves, the way he would slink around with his sunglasses and headphones, creeping around the edges of things, lying in bed masturbating, every inch of him was an angsty teenager who is having a sexual awakening. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He stole the film from his co-star Armie Hammer, and everyone else.
I disagree. I did not feel any magnetic energy between them. I thought it was all so fake. I didn’t see true passion.
I agree with you on that with regard to Armie Hammer’s performance. I didn’t feel his passion for this younger boy. But Chalamet? He was practically vibrating with it. Like the scene where they kiss in his bedroom and he’s not sure where to put his hands or how to hold this man, he’s this sexually inexperienced kid. He’s just grabbing onto his body. It was so intense.
I didn’t get that at all. Look, if Gary Oldman doesn’t win this Oscar, we’re finished.
[editor’s note: she makes this threat every year]
Let’s talk about Best Picture. The nominees are:
Call Me by Your Name
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Another tough one.
Why don’t you start by telling me what your favorite movies were, then your pick for Best Picture?
It’s very tough. Let’s go through each of them. Darkest Hour? Oldman was the best. Dunkirk? Nah. Call Me By Your Name? No way. There was a lot of hype [about that film]. The only thing I liked about it was the gorgeous scenery of Italy’s countryside. Ladybird? A lot of people felt this was the best film. I thought it was an interesting film, but not the Best Picture. I didn’t see Phantom Thread. The Post was superb. 3 Billboards I loved until I saw The Shape of Water. That film is so brilliant.
I liked the creative impact of the sets. It has this young woman who was unable to speak and then this monster that they found and brought into the laboratory. Then there’s Michael Shannon’s character, who is so scary, and Octavia Spencer’s character, who grounds everyone in reality. And Sally Hawkins was so great. I mean she had such an amazing life. Every morning she’d get into the bath tub and masturbate.
Then they have sex in the bathroom!
Yes! Very cool. And then when she wound up flooding the bathroom? The whole thing becomes a love story between this monster and the woman who can’t talk. When I first read about it I thought “This is ridiculous. I’m not going to this movie.” Well, I don’t want to go into the whole thing, but by the end of the film, my friend and I were so choked up. I actually cried. I was so emotionally upset about these two who loved each other and wound up in the water. The whole thing is such a fantasy. But it was beautifully done. And that director, writer, producer? [She means Guillermo del Toro]. He really should win Best Director.
I’m with you. I loved The Shape of Water. I was totally entranced. You fall into the world del Toro creates, and he makes you believe this world exists. And one thing I didn’t think about until I heard an interview with the actor who plays the monster…
On NPR’s Fresh Air. The actor mentions that the two romantic leads never speak. I didn’t even realize that until after the film was over…
I realized that.
The both of them were very lonely people, monster and woman. She probably never thought she’d have a romantic relationship. The monster obviously didn’t.
But this is the one thing that confused me [about the movie]: this monster was chained up in the lab and beaten. But at the end of the film he’s able to heal her wounds, and his own wounds, and he had the power to take her in the water and make her breathe like a fish…
…But I don’t even care. I loved it.
Before I give my Best Picture pick, let me say what my Best Picture criteria are. For me, Best Picture is like Best in Show at the Westminster Dog Show. It’s everything: great performances, great script, beautiful or interesting direction, compelling story. And then I add in one more quality for Best Picture, which for me is a timeliness. I like to ask: why is the film being made at this moment? What is it doing for its audience?
I don’t think about that part.
So, Get Out, do you know the premise? A black guy is dating a white girl, she brings him home to meet her family, and shenanigans ensue, and not the kind of shenanigans you’re expecting. I thought it was very clever. Horror films are all about showing us what we’re afraid of, what we try to repress. And in that regard, it was an excellent horror film. But part of me still has trouble thinking of a horror film as a Best Picture winner. And I realize that is a ridiculous bias for someone who studies film for a living to have. But I can’t quite see it as Best Picture.
Ladybird is not my pick because it wasn’t a “big” or “grand” enough for Best Picture. Phantom Thread was a beautiful film but for me, the final moments really threw me for a loop. It rattled me so much that I didn’t really process it as I was watching it. I feel like I need to see it again, knowing what I know.
But my pick for Best Picture, believe it or not, is The Post.
That’s not gonna win.
I know. Let me tell you why it’s my pick…
[rolls eyes] Because of what’s happening today…
Now why do you say it with that tone?
Because I don’t think that should be why you pick a film for Best Picture. You should pick THE BEST PICTURE! The Shape of Water was the best film released this year!
Can you just back off and let me explain? First of all, the cast of The Post was amazing: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, David Cross, absurd cast!
The second thing I loved about this film was its subject. I knew very little about the Pentagon Papers going on, and so it was fascinating to hear about this chapter in American history. What I also liked about this movie—and here is where you were rolling your eyes at me—is this question the film asks: what is the role of the media? What is their duty, where is their allegiance? Is it to protect national security or is it to report on the news in the most honest and complete way that they can?
Absolutely. I agree.
The Post made this concept so clear, at a time when many Americans have forgotten the role of the fourth estate.
And how she [Kay Graham] made that decision to publish. A woman did that! She told all those guys with the white hair “I own the paper, I’ll make the decision”
And when I left the theater, I felt inspired and hopeful about the ability of journalism to speak truth to power. I know you don’t feel as pessimistic about the world right now as I do, but this movie made me feel like there might still be something left in this country that will keep us together as a country: the truth and the facts…
There were so many great movies this year, but the one that hit every button for me was The Post. I know it won’t win…
Well, it may. Because it’s a very liberal group that votes [she means the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences]…
It is! [The Academy] may feel what you feel…
Wait, wait, wait…so you’re telling me that a movie about exposing a government conspiracy and revealing the truth about a highly controversial war to the American people is a “liberal” value. Isn’t that an American value?
I think that’s all very nice and I think what you’ve said is true, but I’m talking about the best picture…
Right, but you also just described my pick as “liberal”…
Well, it’s going to be pushed in that category because right now it’s all about real news versus fake news and all the bullcrap…
It’s not bullcrap. It’s incredibly important! The only way the average American knows about what is happening in the world is through the news. Are you flying to Syria to see for yourself what’s happening there? No, you rely on journalists for that.
You know what a similar thing is? I loved Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, but I would never give that Best Picture because we all know that story.
But the story of the Pentagon Papers is not as well-known as the events of World War II…
Oh, everyone knows about that! Unless you were born…right now. The film that shows the creativity of today, of thinking over the top, is The Shape of Water. Who ever in their head to think up a movie about a monster in a tank, a woman who can’t speak…
Look, my second choice is The Shape of Water. But I’ve got to go with my gut and my gut says The Post was the best film of 2017.
You know what my second choice is? Three Billboards. You haven’t seen it.
I haven’t, but I wish I had, because I would love to argue with you about it, because everyone I’ve talked to about it has said it was complete garbage.
OH MY GOD! Film people?!
Yes. And you know a movie has to be about more than good acting performances. You’ve been doing this job long enough to know that.
So, that about wraps it up. Is there anything else you want the people to know?
If my picks don’t win, we’re gonna have a problem doing this next year.
Really? Because because you say that every year, and every year you come back.
Well, last year [my Best Actor pick] Leonardo won. So I came back. This year Gary Oldman better win.
So you are willing to state, on the record, that if Gary Oldman doesn’t win Best Actor, you will not be doing this next year?
Exactly. So my fans better put pressure on…
Okay, well thank you so much for doing this.
And happy 75th birthday!
What?! How dare…[angry sputters, I turn off the mic]
So, Nana-fans, what do you think of our picks for 2018? And are you in any way concerned that Nana will quit if Gary Oldman doesn’t win Best Actor? Share your thoughts below.
Welcome to the 5th Annual edition of “My Mom’s Oscar Picks.” Please know that my mother takes this interview very seriously and prepares for it every year by seeing as many of the nominated films as possible. She often tries to talk to me about these films right after she’s seen them but I have to cut her off with “Save it for the blog, ma!” Now, at long last, we can finally rip La La Land to shreds. So, without further ado, please enjoy my Mom’s 2017 Oscar Picks.
Mom: So, we’re ready to do my interview. But I have some comments.
Me: You have comments before we start?
Mom: Yes. As you know, I enjoy going to the movies tremendously…
Me: I do know this.
Mom: I read the reviews. I choose the movies I want to see and I pay my money. Sometimes I rent them. So I’m a different kind of reviewer, from the people who don’t have to do any of that…
Me: You’re saying you work for it? Unlike professional film critics who are given special opportunities to see all of the films.
Mom: Exactly. When I go to a film, I take it very seriously. And I must admit, every year the films are getting better, there’s a tremendous variety. That’s the positive note. Now, on a negative note: films have become too long.
Me: I agree!
Mom: I think any film that goes over the 2 hour mark is losing the audience. It is not good.
Me: I could not agree more, mother.
Mom: So that’s my comment. We can begin now.
Me: Great! Once again, I want to thank you for joining me for this interview. And I want you to know that your fans have been very anxious. They were worried that perhaps they missed this post…these are just 2 individuals, by the way…
Mom: [laughs loudly] Two people! That’s not bad…
Me: And I assured your 2 fans that they hadn’t missed the post and that we were doing this interview on Saturday…
Mom: [continues laughing]
Me: So every year I like to start the interview with some self disclosure about which nominees we saw and which nominees we didn’t see. As you said, unlike the professionals, we aren’t provided with screeners. That limits what we are able to see and not see.
Me: I’ll go first. Out of the big categories—Best Picture, Best Actor and Actress, Best Director, etc.—this is what I haven’t seen: Lion, Elle, Jackie, Florence Foster Jenkins, and Nocturnal Animals. These omissions will obviously impact my picks.
Mom: Well, let’s look at Best Picture. I’ve seen every film in that category except Hidden Figures, unfortunately. It has not been On-Demand, you can’t even buy it. I would have gone to see it in the theater, but as you know, I’ve had that awful cold-slash-virus. I just didn’t want to take the chance [of spreading the virus].
Me: And you haven’t seen Elle, right?
Mom: No I did not, and I have a comment about that.
Me: Okay we’ll talk about that…Did you see the Meryl Streep film, Florence Foster Jenkins?
Mom: Ohhhhhh, you can’t miss that! She is…well…
Me: Wait, let’s hold off on talking about acting.
Mom: OK. Go ahead.
Me: This year, instead of starting with what we liked the best, let’s start with what we liked the least out of the Best Picture nominees.
Mom: I do not understand why Arrival was even nominated. It was a “blah” movie.
Mom: I’ve seen better Sci-Tech [Note: She means “scifi”], horror, scary, weird stuff and I’ve liked them all much more than I liked Arrival…You know I had problems just staying and watching it.
Me: I’m with you. I didn’t love it the way so many other people did. It was an interesting story, certainly not a story I’ve seen before. It was beautifully put together—the sound, the cinematography, were all really lovely—but I agree with you that, at times, I had trouble paying attention to it.
Mom: And then when you finally got to the end and realize what it was about? It was just—in my opinion there’s only one word I can think of: silly.
Me: I’m with you.
Mom: I didn’t care for the whole premise of the thing. It was so silly. I’ve seen better stuff in Star Wars! They were up in that thing, and they go up there, and the arm comes out. I think people who like unusual, not-enjoyable films will like it.
Me: What else didn’t you like out of the Best Picture nominees?
Mom: La La Land.
Me: Oh good, can we get started on La La Land?
Mom: So I certainly wouldn’t say “Don’t go see it.” It was interesting and lovely to watch. The best part of the film was the male lead [Ryan Gosling] because he looked fabulous in his clothes.
Me: He does, Mommy!
Mom: And she [Emma Stone]…was inconsequential.
Me: I’m very confused as to why this movie has so many nominations.
Mom: Me too.
Me: There are two possible explanations. First, Academy voters love stories about Hollywood. They go crazy for movies like this. It’s very nostalgic for old Hollywood. I think the other reason is that we haven’t had a lot of musicals recently and people have forgotten what a musical is supposed to be like. This was not a musical. This was a movie where sometimes the actors would sing and dance.
Mom: I don’t know what the justification was. The best part of the film was Ryan Gosling’s clothes and how he looked in them. It was fascinating to watch, I understand, that the two of them were never really dancers or singers. Is that true?
Me: Ryan Gosling, when he was a child, was a singer and dancer. He did the Mickey Mouse Club.
Me: But it’s not his thing and I think it showed. I think their dancing was very perfunctory. If I’m gonna watch a musical, I want to see beautiful dancing. I want it to look natural. I don’t want to be thinking, as I’m watching, “I wonder how long it took Ryan Gosling to learn this dance?” You don’t think that when you watch Fred Astaire dance. You don’t wonder about how hard Fred Astaire trained.
Mom: Not even close. Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire…The one scene in La La Land that I will almost consider watching again, the one scene that was phenomenal in the whole film, was the opening scene.
Me: On the bridge? Yes.
Mom: I learned later that that take took two whole days to film. They shut down that freeway. Can you believe that? Can you imagine the people who had to use that?
Me: Yeah I thought the opening number was pretty good. It was a true musical opening: you have the characters hanging out and then all of a sudden they start singing about whats going on, there are all these different people joining in and its very natural. It was a great opening and the film never got back there.
Mom: What was different about that, compared to something from years ago, is that they shot it right there on the bridge. It wasn’t “Make a bridge and then we’re going to film this.” I thought that was fascinating and it’s the best thing I can say about La La Land.
Me: I think we’re in agreement. Lets move on from that. What else didn’t you like?
Mom: I was not impressed at all with Hell or High Water.
Me: I really liked that!
Mom: I didn’t care for it.
Me: I don’t think it was one of the Best Pictures of the year.
Mom: That’s what I mean. I decided to watch it because it was finally available to rent. This is not something I would go to see in the theater. Another nominated movie is Hacksaw Ridge.
Me: I hated that movie.
Mom: If you’re into realism and war movies, then it was phenomenal.
Mom: Ohhh! Yes.
Me: Mom, I whole-heartedly disagree.
Mom: That’s the way it is.
Me: Hacksaw Ridge was my least favorite out of all the Best Picture nominees.
Mom: Oh I know. I’m not saying it was a favorite. I was surprised that I didn’t have a positive feeling about it. But I started thinking about what it is [Mel Gibson] was trying to do.
Me: The story itself—its based on a true story—is fascinating. There’s this man [Desmond Doss] who saves 75 men during single battle. That’s amazing. Having said that, I found the whole film to be very hokey. I thought it was disjointed. There were portions of the movie that were funny, that were out of place, like Vince Vaughan cracking jokes, I thought that was weird. And I thought [Gibson] got way too grisly. I mean, I like gore…
Mom: I do too…
Me: But I thought he reveled in those dead bodies in a way that I don’t think war films should do. It was almost pornographic. You’d see the rats eating the faces of the dead soldiers. It was too much.
Mom: He was trying to show, as realistically as possible, the way that…
Me: [interrupts] But we know! We all know war is horrible!
Mom: If you will recall, you had a lot of criticism about a film I happened to like very very much…
Me: American Sniper?
Me: I didn’t like American Sniper but it was a better movie than Hacksaw Ridge!
Mom: You felt American Sniper glamorized war and this film [starts laughing] did not glamorize war.
Me: No, it did not. But it was just so gory. And it wasn’t necessary because we all know war is hell. [Note: I read All Quiet on the Western Front in my 7th grade English class]
Mom: Maybe this is another criticism: I don’t think [the Academy] should worry about nominating a certain number of films every year. I think they struggled this year.
Me: I agree!
Mom: Arrival should have never been nominated, you hated Hacksaw Ridge…
Me: Right. Why don’t we transition to what we did like?
Mom: I’m going to tell you the one I think should win and then I’m going to tell you the one that I think probably will win.
Mom: The one I think should win is Lion. I thought Lion had everything—where it was filmed, the emotion of the child, the filming of it, incredible! And I’m pretty sure it was filmed somewhere in India. [Note: Nana is correct. Principal photography for Lion was shot in Kolkata, India]. And of course the acting was phenomenal. Dev Patel was just amazing. But the movie that will win? Fences. Because Fences is an August Wilson play, and he’s a superb writer. I’ve seen this play on Open Stage here [in Harrisburg, PA]. It’s always been memorable and of course when you add Denzel Washington and Viola Davis..
Me: They were great.
Mom: Yes. But if I were voting as a [member of the Academy]…
Me: And that’s what I’m asking for here, for the film you liked the best…
Mom: Then it’s Lion.
Me: So this is unfortunate, mom, because both of our Best Picture picks are the one nominee that the other hasn’t seen.
Me: Because my Best Picture pick is Hidden Figures, and I will tell you why. For me, the Best Picture has to hit every note. It has to be well-made, well-acted, it has to have a good script, the story has to be interesting and important. And what I liked about this film is that it told a remarkable story. When I watched this movie I couldn’t believe that I had never heard about these women working at NASA in the 1960s. How did we not know that these women were so important?
Mom: How did that happen?
[Note: How did this happen? The answer is, of course, racism]
Me: So that’s one reason I loved it. The other reason is that the story is told well. The women in the movie are incredibly charming—I don’t think any of them deserve acting an award because no one performance stood out to me. Best Picture winners tend to be inspiring, profound. For me, the movie that I came out of the theater and felt really great about, is Hidden Figures.
Mom: That’s how I felt about Lion. But I am going to see Hidden Figures next week.
Me: You should. And I’m going to see Lion. Let’s move on and talk about two other movies we haven’t talked about much, but that we both liked. The first is Manchester by the Sea.
Mom: Oh yeah.
Me: You liked it, but its not your pick.
Mom: No. Lion, especially, is better. Casey Affleck is not going to get Best Actor. In the beginning [of Awards season], there was a lot of publicity and hype. But it’s never gonna happen this year because, guaranteed, there will be a black actor chosen for Best Actor. I’ll wager you five dollars.
Me: Are you saying that because you think [Denzel Washington] doesn’t deserve it and he’s just going to win because he’s black?
Mom: Well last year, all that hype [she is referring to the 2016 “Oscars So White” campaign] was unwarranted.
Me: It was warranted.
Mom: The only black actor who wasn’t nominated last year but should have been was the guy who was in the Grateful Dead.
Mom: He was a supporting actor in the Grateful Dead.
Me: The Grateful Dead? The band?
Mom: Oh wait, I mean, The Hateful Eight.
Me: Jesus Christ, mom.
Me: That was Samuel L. Jackson. But I do disagree with you here, mom. Every year, not just last year, the films with the most hype generally have all white casts and directors. So we’re going to have to agree to disagree. But my question to you was about Manchester by the Sea and what you thought of it.
Mom: I enjoyed it. I don’t know that I enjoyed it as much as my friends did. It was a very dark movie.
Me: It was!
Mom: You know I love violence, like Quentin Tarantino violence, but I don’t love realistic violence, like children dying in fires. I get very very upset with stuff like that.
Me: I agree with you on Manchester by the Sea. It was very well done but it was a tough movie to watch. I saw it as part of a double feature with Fences…
Me: I cried—and I’m not exaggerating here—from the halfway point in the film, where we find out what’s happened to the children—until the final frame, I sobbed like a baby. But I did enjoy it. It deserves a Best Picture nomination. I especially like that the story ends—not with Affleck’s character being redeemed and fixed, but with him still broken. He’s just going to live his life.
Mom: It was realistic.
Me: It was so realistic, and I appreciated that. So, good for them. Now let’s talk about Moonlight. Again, I thought this was a beautifully done film, it was a story you don’t hear very often—love stories involving black gay men—it’s not a story that is told by mainstream cinema. I appreciated that. It wasn’t my favorite movie of the year, but I really did like it.
Mom: Oh it was just wonderful. It was my second favorite of the year, after Lion. That was so well done. I’ve never seen a film where 3 different actors play one role, plus the mother of the boy [Naomie Harris]. She starts out at the beginning as a normal nurse’s aid, and then you see her in the 2nd part, when she gets down into drugs, and then the 3rd part, where she’s older and in that rehab center. She was phenomenal. That’s gonna be a tough one for me to call.
Me: I’m with you. My pick for Best Picture is Hidden Figures, but if I had to pick a second, it would be Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea.
Mom: Oh Moonlight! It was so different! That’s one where you put a star on top for being an unusual film. It was so creative. I don’t know how much is grossed…
Me: Neither do I.
Mom: But it was one of the best.
Me: There we are in agreement. Let’s get into the acting awards. I think it’s gonna come down to two people: Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea and Denzel Washington for Fences.
Mom: And it better not be Ryan Gosling.
Me: I agree. Because I saw Fences and Manchester by the Sea on the same night, I could really compare those two performances. I gotta say, for me, it’s a draw. Both actors gave superb performances and they were very different roles. One was a big, loud man who is always telling stories and is full of bluster [Fences]. The other is this quiet, withdrawn role [Manchester by the Sea]. But I loved both. Who is your pick for Best Actor? Are you just gonna say Dev Patel and bypass the whole system?
Mom: No. Denzel is going to win.
Me: But who do you think did a better job: Casey or Denzel?
Mom: [long pause] They were such different roles. But Denzel showed deep remorse and sadness in his performance, but he also showed how you could be upbeat, to laugh and enjoy a marriage. Casey Affleck was just morose. I’m trying to remember: was there any point when he laughed?
Me: In the flashbacks with the wife and kids.
Mom: I have to give it to Denzel this year.
Me: What about Best Actress? Here I have to confess that I’m very ill-equipped for this category, because I have not seen 3 out of 5 performances.
Mom: I saw all of them but Elle.
Me: My pick is Ruth Negga from Loving. In fact this is a movie that should have been nominated for Best Picture over La La Land and Hacksaw Ridge.
Mom: I didn’t see Elle, so I’m going to say that one.
Me: Tell me why Ruth Negga doesn’t deserve it.
Mom: I just wasn’t moved by her performance.
Me: Didn’t you see her as this quiet Southern girl who is in love and then finds herself at the center of this history-making Civil Rights case? I can’t believe the man who played her husband [Joel Edgerton] wasn’t nominated. He was great, too.
Mom: I kept falling asleep. I watched it when I still wasn’t feeling that well.
Me: I was really moved by the film. Her performance was quiet and subtle, but very moving.
Mom: Well, I’m gonna take a stab at something—its never gonna happen—but you really must see Florence Foster Jenkins…Meryl Streep is a genius. There isn’t another actor out there, male or female, who compares. [The Academy] at least nominated her, which she deserves.
Me: But she won’t win. She’s won too many times. She has enough Oscars. They need to just retire her from the Oscars. She can still be in movies, but no more Oscars. It’s not fair. So you’re saying your pick is Meryl Streep?
Mom: No, my pick is Isabelle Huppert in Elle.
Me: Even though it’s the one film you didn’t see?
Me: Okay! Moving on to Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Mom: This is a tough one. It’s between Mahershala Ali in Moonlight, and of course, Dev Patel. I’m going with Dev Patel because his performance blew me away.
Me: I’m going to totally blow your mind and go with Lucas Hedges from Manchester by the Sea. The whole time I’m watching the movie I’m asking myself “Who is this kid? Where did he come from?” He was perfect. How about Supporting Actress?
Mom: This is another tough one. Let me tell you who should win: Naomie Harris. I felt furious with her character, but I also felt sympathy for her. But I think Viola Davis will win.
Me: My pick is Viola Davis. I feel like I’ve seen the Naomie Harris character before: the drug-addicted single mom looking for redemption, etc. But Viola Davis’ character was new to me: a late in life marriage to a man she loves but also disagrees with a lot. And maybe it had something to do with the way it was filmed: it really showcased her acting.
Mom: She’s great in anything she’s in.
Me: We’ve covered the major categories but I do have a follow up question for you: are you disappointed that Leonardo Dicaprio wasn’t nominated for anything this year?
Mom: Well, I don’t think he was in anything this year.
Me: That doesn’t matter.
Me: Any final thoughts?
Mom: I’ve enjoyed watching the films. It gets even more interesting with your chosen field [film professor] because we can have pretty good discussions about this. It’s a joy.
My Mom’s other 2017 Oscar picks:
Cinematography: La La Land
Costume Design: Florence Foster Jenkins
OG Bae of All Time: Leonardo Dicaprio
If you’d like to read my Mom’s previous Oscar Picks, click:
As some visitors to this blog may already know, I curate a true story blog over at tellusastoryblog.com. For our first three years of existence, we aimed to publish one new true story every Wednesday (we took summers and holidays off). But we found that model to be unsustainable so we have just switched to a quarterly format, which we are very excited about! We also redesigned the look and functionality of our site.
Tell Us A Story is proud to announce the publication of our first ever quarterly edition of Tell Us A Story, featuring the best work submitted to us over the last few months. Give it a read and a share! Click here to read volume 4, issue 1.
Look for our next issue in Fall 2016!
I am super pleased to have this piece published over at The Chronicle of Higher Education on the need for well-researched pop culture writing. Yes, even in thinkpieces. Also pleased to have co-authored this with my dear pal, Kristen Warner, who is a big smartypants.
Read, enjoy, make snarky comments about how this article means we are elitists [shrugs]:
Click here to read.
Dearest readers, please forgive my lengthy absence from the blog. There are many causes for this: I’ve been freelancing more, I’ve been working on my next book project, and perhaps, most significantly, I have come to conclusion that blogging is not going to get me a raise at work or pay for my kids to go to college. In fact, as I recently argued in an essay for Film Criticism , I believe that the academic film blog as a concept is dead or dying.
But don’t start the dirge for Judgmental Observer just yet. I still have things to say that can only be said in the loose, informal, ad-free space of the blog, such as my mom’s annual Oscar Picks! If you’d like to catch up on my mother’s picks in previous years, you can see 2012, 2014 and 2015. As for the rest of you, let’s get started, shall we?
Me: Welcome back to the blog, Mom! It’s been a year since we heard from you, and your fans eagerly await your picks. Are you ready to discuss the 80th Annual Academy Awards?
Mom: Oh I can’t wait!
Me: As always, in the interest of full disclosure, I’d like for you to tell the readers which of the nominated films you were not able to see. Let me give you my list: Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, 45 Years, Trumbo, or Steve Jobs.
Mom: Unfortunately, I did not see: Brooklyn, Room, Carol, 45 Years, Joy, or Trumbo.
Me: Let’s start our discussion with the Best Actress in a leading role category. What were your favorite performances of the 2015 season?
Mom: I really don’t have an opinion one way or another because I wasn’t able to see any of these performances.
Me: That’s so unlike you! Well, I’ve seen three of the five nominees (Carol, Room and Joy) and I thought all of the women whose performances I saw were great. So Joy was one of my least favorite films of the year. Normally I’m a big fan of David O. Russell but I found her casting in this film–as a down-on-her-luck single, 34-year-old, working mother–to be completely absurd. Jennifer Lawrence is a great actress but no amount of acting will make that young, fresh-out-of-the-womb face look 34 and tired. I thought Brie Larson was excellent in Room but for me, the young actor who plays her son, Jacob Tremblay, stole the show. So my pick for Best Actress is Cate Blanchett in Carol. I didn’t enjoy her performance on an emotional level–I found it icy and severe–but it worked in the context of this film as a stylized melodrama. There are also so few great roles for women, it’s always hard to pick “best” performances.
Me: So let’s move on to the category I know you’ve really been looking forward to discussing: Best Actor in a leading role.
Mom: The actor who should win the Oscar…is without question… [takes dramatic pause] WITH…OUT…QUESTION…
Me: Who? Who are you gonna pick? I’m on the edge of my seat…
Mom: …Leonardo DiCaprio! For his role in The Revenant. Now I will tell you why. I was blown away. It was a phenomenal film, and his acting in the film, and what he went through…
Me: But what did he do, exactly?
Mom: To portray someone living in the beginning of our country, going through horrific weather and violence between his own people, hunting for skins and hiding from the Indians–his portrayal of this man was just amazing. But not only that, he also gave you the feeling of getting to know what someone in that situation would go through. It was much more than surviving the violence. It was also learning about a man who wanted to move on to a better place. And he truly loved his son…
Me: Okay but you’re not telling me about Leo’s performance. You’re just describing the plot of the film.
Mom: He just came through as someone who survived the worst conditions. I found it fascinating that Leonardo DiCaprio performed just about every scene himself. Evidently the temperature was 20 below zero. It was a horrific situation for everyone involved in the film and the director just pushed them through it, which was worth it. In my opinion, this was the best film of the year.
Me: Hold on, let me chime in here even though I am woefully underprepared for this category–the only performances I saw were Damon’s and DiCaprio’s. I thought Matt Damon was fine in The Martian but nothing special. Honestly I’m a little shocked that he was nominated at all for this role. As for DiCaprio, I agree with you, it was a great performance. I will say this though–and I’m not trying to be cynical–but a lot of the role felt to me like it was screaming “Nominate me for an Oscar!!!” And I feel like sometimes actors will take on these roles and then make a big fuss in interviews over all they had to go through to prepare, all the suffering, and I’m kind of over that. I don’t care what you had to do to play the role. I just care about what appears onscreen. Having said that, I do think Leo deserves to have an Oscar on his shelf and I do think he will win this year, perhaps as an acknowledgment of his past body of work.
Mom: I see what you’re saying, but his performance was incredible. No matter how much people might say that he took on a role to show how tough it was and how he can do all of this stuff, I just don’t think that’s true. DiCaprio, no matter what role he takes, he is so brilliant. Every film he’s been in, and every time he’s been nominated, I feel like he should have won.
Me: I think we need to establish for our readers, that you do in fact have a Leonardo DiCaprio bias. I think you heavily favor him anytime he’s in a film. Why do you think that is?
Mom: The first role I ever saw him in was The Aviator, then Catch Me if You Can, then Blood Diamonds…
Me: You really liked him in J Edgar.
Mom: That’s another one! I cannot believe he did not win for that role…I mean, talk about a difficult role.
Me: Here is something you have said to me in the past: “Leonardo DiCaprio is penalized by the Academy for being a good-looking man.” Can you say more about that?
Mom: Absolutely. I still believe that and it’s been part of the Academy’s nomination process for a long time.
Me: Why do you say that?
Mom: Two absolutely gorgeous men–Paul Newman and Robert Redford–have been nominated many times. And Newman won once [editors note: Newman received an honorary Oscar for his body of work in 1986]. Redford, another incredible actor, has never won [editor’s note: Redford won an Oscar for Best Director in 1980 for Ordinary People]. I think the Academy is absolutely biased against handsome men.
Me: That theory is insane, Mom. Plenty of handsome men have won Oscars!
Mom: I’m talking model-looking, gorgeous men. There have been very many nice-looking men who have won. I just feel it’s a bias. When you’re that good-looking, they just look at you as a pretty boy actor. But that’s not done with women. Just with men.
Me: Last year you threatened to quit my blog if JK Simmons didn’t win Best Supporting Actor for Whiplash:
Mom: [laughing] Yes I said that.
Me: And luckily for my readers, Simmons did, in fact, win the Oscar.
Mom: Of course he did.
Me: Are you prepared to never appear on this blog again if Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t win Best Actor for The Revenant?
Mom: AB. SO. LUTELY.
Me: Really? You’re willing to give up all this?
Mom: Yes. I’m sorry. I must. If he does not win this year for Revenant, I’m done.
Me: Okay. Before we leave this very contentious category, I would like to talk about a performance I thought was snubbed by the Academy this year: Steve Carrell’s performance in The Big Short. I thought he was absolutely fantastic in that movie. There were a lot of characters in that film and a lot of visual tricks–it was a very “busy” movie–and he was the emotional heart of that film. He took what was a very reflexive and theoretical film and he expressed the human toll of the short selling phenomenon. And by the same turn, I was frustrated that out of that entire cast it was Christian Bale who got the Oscar nomination. This brings me back to my earlier complaint regarding Leo: I just hate how performance gets wrapped up in process. We all know that Christian Bale learned how to play the drums for his role as Michael Burry. And he didn’t even need to learn how to drum! There was no point to that stupid scene where he drums–the movie would have been the same with or without it. He just wanted to make a big fuss about his process. Then he gets a nomination and Steve Carrell doesn’t.
Me: Let’s talk about our picks for Best Supporting Actor. Out of all of these performances–and of course I can’t speak about the Bridge of Spies actor–I’m gonna have to go with Tom Hardy. I thought he was great in that movie. He’s a gorgeous man who you want to stare out but he made himself into such an ugly person in this film–not just physically, but his overall character. He was just so despicable you almost had to look away from him, which is hard because, holy cow, it’s Tom Hardy! I did like Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight but that was a more understated role.
Mom: I agree with about Christian Bale. He should not have been the nominee from The Big Short. As for Tom Hardy, I just thought he was so overshadowed by Leo in that film. I can’t even remember a lot that he did…
Me: He was the antagonist! He had the second biggest role in the film!
Mom: I just didn’t think it was that impressive…
Me: Wow you ride hard for Leo.
Mom: Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight was phenomenal. I’m glad he was nominated. And Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies was so low key and brilliant. I’ve never seen him before, I don’t know who he is. But throughout the film I just kept thinking “This guy! He’s got it down.” But then I did see Creed and the way Sylvester Stallone portrayed the old boxer trying to help the young boxer, the way he moved his body, his whole persona, I just thought he was terrific.
Me: Was he really terrific, Mom?
Me: Wasn’t he just a big dumb guy?
Mom: When you see Stallone you expect to see him in the role of a warrior, of a fighter who wins. But in this film he’s a down and out ex-hero and I thought he added a lot of passion to that film.
Me: Let me bring up another role I felt was snubbed this year and that is Oscar Issac’s performance in Ex Machina. It was an amazing movie and his performance as this sleazy tech bro–young, thinks he’s hot shit–was great. He was the puppet master for most of the movie, until he isn’t, and he plays the role very cool and hard to read, yet there’s this vulnerability there too. That was my favorite supporting actor performance of the year. Also, that jumpsuit!
Me: Let’s talk about our pics for Best Picture. What was your favorite film of 2015?
Mom: The Revenant.
Mom: There was so much involved in that film. The one thing I remember while watching it was the beauty of the photography. It was a joy to watch. The realism of the violence, and what the characters endured, their lives were so tough… I just thought it was a beautiful film. No other film from 2015 had such a dramatic effect on me.
Me: I agree with you. The cinematography was unreal. Iñárritu is famous for those amazing long takes he uses that last for minutes. The film is filled with those gorgeous landscapes. But for me my Best Picture selection is The Big Short. First, it’s incredibly timely–it’s talking about the subprime mortgage crisis, which America is still reeling from right now, and which literally impacted everyone in the world. To make a movie where your topic is sort of dry and dull and you make it compelling to a mainstream audience, to non-experts, is so important. I mean, that’s how we got into this crisis in the first place–people being uninformed. As a society, Americans (I include myself here) don’t know much about how Wall Street or the stock market works. The economic recession was the direct result of a few people who had specialized knowledge and who took advantage of loopholes that no one else knew about. I appreciate a movie that illuminates that to the audience. In addition to that, it was a really innovative film. I love how they illustrated difficult concepts like “synthetic CDO” with Selena Gomez and an economist playing craps. And of course the performances were great, as was the script. For me, The Big Short hits all my Best Picture marks.
Mom: Well my second choice is Spotlight. This was a film highlighting one of the greatest tragedies in this country.
Me: I just watched Spotlight and I did find the story to be equally compelling and horrifying. This crazy conspiracy! It highlights how important good journalism is to justice and truth in this country. In many ways it reminded me of All the President’s Men. But overall I wanted a little more from that movie.
Mom: You kept hearing it was wonderful and then you watched it and it let you down.
Me: Yes that’s true.
Mom: That’s the problem. It’s best to see movies cold, before you hear the reviews. Now one film I am very sad to see with a nomination for Best Picture is Mad Max: Fury Road. It was absolutely horrible…
Me: Whoah, whoah. I am delighted that film was nominated. In fact, that film is my second choice for Best Picture…
Mom: [horrified noises] If you like a film that is nothing more than looking at filthy, dirty men with blood coming out of their mouths, and their bodies torn apart…
Me: It sounds like you’re describing Revenant, you realize that?
Mom: …and there’s this stupid guy, playing the guitar…
Me: Yes, see that’s what was missing from The Revenant! We needed a bear playing a flaming guitar!
Mom: Now that’s not fair. Mad Max was absolutely disgusting.
Me: How can you praise The Revenant and the Hateful 8 for their violence but critique Mad Max for its violence?
Mom: Mad Max made The Revenant and The Hateful 8 look like a fairytale.
Me: WHAT?! What is the difference?
Mom: There’s a huge difference! The violence in Mad Max is pretend and it’s over-the-top. I mean one character in Mad Max captures this guy and straps him to the front of his car so he can drain the blood out of him. [shakes her head in disgust]
Me: Well I loved Mad Max…
Mom: LOVED IT???
Me: They took this character who is the star of this franchise, this hero, Mad Max and they put him in the film with the words “Mad Max” in the title. So you’re going into this movie assuming Mad Max is the center of the story, the hero of the narrative. The movie starts with him…
Mom: …eating a live lizard…
Me: …and then he is literally pushed aside so that we have these female heroes instead. And it’s one-armed Charlize Theron? Come on, that was awesome. It was a feminist action film. I mean, if you’re going to praise a movie like Revenant for its intense and realistic depiction of violence, why critique Mad Max for that?
Mom: First of all, The Revenant was about American history. Mad Max is nothing but horrific people rolling through a desert
Me: I see no difference there. Revenant was nothing but horrific people rolling through the woods.
Mom: You’re insane.
Me: Okay, let’s discuss The Martian.
Mom: I really enjoyed it.
Me: Me too.
Maisy [my 9yo daughter]: Can I say something about The Martian? I thought it was awesome! It was so cool.
Me: Yes, that’s why I liked it. It was such a great family movie. I wish there were more movies like that for the whole family to go to.
Mom: It was a very pleasurable movie. I learned about how an astronaut could grow plants in space!
Me: Okay, any final thoughts, Mom?
Mom: Yes, one person who I felt really deserved an Oscar nomination was Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful 8. He was just great in that film. I can’t believe he wasn’t nominated.
Me: Well, Mom, as always, it was a real pleasure talking to you about the Oscars.
Mom: Thanks for having me!
Editor’s note: I received this email from my mom today:
There you have it, folks. We’ll be back again in a year to discuss the 2016 nominees, that is unless Leonardo DiCaprio loses the Oscar. Then I’ll be on the search for another mom who wants to talk movies with me. Keep an eye out just in case, won’t you?