On Feb. 12, members of the Motion Picture Academy will begin voting to determine winners of the 91st Oscars. Each campaign has primed its final push, zeroing in on messaging aimed at bringing home the gold. On Feb. 19, balloting will close and it will then be what feels like (for the nominees) an interminable five days until results are revealed at the Academy Awards.
In this space, we chart the season’s ups and downs, sift through the tea leaves and suggest the direction of the breeze, whatever that might be. But I’m not a robot. I have my favorites (or is it favourites?). So as voters sit down to make their final choices, here’s an effort at cheerleading on behalf of a few contenders that deserve to hear their names called — in one columnist’s opinion, anyway.
Let’s begin with one of the season’s most unfortunate notes: Bradley Cooper’s snub in the directing field for “A Star Is Born.” Look, if the directors branch so desperately wanted to put the 44-year-old writer-director-producer-actor-songwriter in his place, fine. But, thankfully, his work in front of the camera was remembered, because here’s the thing: It’s the finest lead actor performance of the year. Go back and look at it. I know it’s sometimes difficult for you to take a performance seriously in the race unless it’s in some prestige biopic (due respect to Christian Bale and Rami Malek, both fine competitors), but Cooper built a character from the ground up and infused it with life. He took an ages-old role that has long been ineffective, because the character was just so damn petty and unlikable in previous versions — and gave it real warmth and dimension.
In the animated feature race, I must admit I find myself wondering. I have flashbacks to the 2015 Oscars, which saw Disney’s “Big Hero 6” snatch the prize away from DreamWorks Animation’s finest hour, “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” That was a more scattered year, with “The Lego Movie” being a major player up until it was passed over for a nomination. But this year, I can’t shake the feeling that Sony’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” — which has absolutely dominated the circuit — could still fall short in what some have come to deride as “the Disney/Pixar award.” I get it, you don’t always have the time (or maybe the inclination) to watch all of the animated features, so maybe you ask your kids, or you just default to the studio that has been synonymous with animation for nearly a century. And to be fair, “Incredibles 2” is a fantastic, critically acclaimed (and box office-busting) film. But just know you’re probably going to be lambasted if it’s not “Spider-Verse.” This movie was a revelation.
“Bradley Cooper took an ages-old role that has long been ineffective and gave it real warmth and dimension.”
The sound categories can sometimes be puzzling. It seems like you might lean toward the musicals “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star Is Born” in sound mixing, while sound editing could fall any direction. Let’s just cut through all of this: “First Man” deserves both awards. The music branch already blew it by passing on Justin Hurwitz’s stunning score (seriously, what happened there?), but you can still recognize the brilliant sonic immersion of this film. Damien Chazelle’s sound team did a phenomenal job reflecting his intimate rendering of this story, putting you right inside those capsules and aircrafts and delivering a harrowing subjective experience. That’s more impressive than some well-balanced songs.
Speaking of scores, if it can’t be Hurwitz, it ought to be Nicholas Britell. The 39-year-old composer knocked it out of the park twice this year, for “Vice” and for the movie that brought him a nomination, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” It’s not just the quivering, jazzy compositions but how they were utilized in Barry Jenkins’ film that makes the music transcendent. Go take a look at the Brian Tyree Henry scene that begins with Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” softly swinging in the background, but as the moment turns dark, listen for a drastically slowed version of Brittell’s central theme. It’s so effective.
Finally, the story of the year, if you’re asking me, is the success of “Black Panther.” Its seven nominations, including best picture, could not have been easy gets. This was an uphill battle from the beginning. The designers branch already made history with production designer Hannah Beachler’s nomination, making her the first black nominee ever in the category. There’s a shot at further history by handing her the win, which would be wonderful and deserving. Even sweeter would be to see the legendary Ruth Carter walk away with the costume design prize. She and Sharen Davis remain the only black nominees ever in the section (each recognized multiple times), but there has yet to be a winner of color there. The options appear to be give Sandy Powell (“The Favourite,” “Mary Poppins Returns”) a fourth Oscar, or Carter her first.
As ever, you’ll decide.