moonlight
“Moonlight”

Faces of Oscar: In 2011, a slight, gimmicky, and not particularly transcendent film swept the awards season, culminating with five Academy Awards after garnering a whopping ten nominations. Shot entirely in black and white and with the added novelty of being a silent picture, The Artist was the toast of Hollywood – yet now, just six years later, is not much remembered.

I feel pretty much the same way about this year’s cinema célèbre – the slight, gimmicky, and also not particularly transcendent La La Land. It’s sweet, it’s cute, and one can appreciate its escapist musical charms at a time when they’re more necessary than ever. But 14 Oscar nominations? My feeling is it’ll be joining The Artist in barely remembered territory a few years down the road.

Count me in the Moonlight camp for this year’s Best Picture. It’s really the one true work of art amongst this year’s nominees, carving a little piece of real estate in that cultural and artistic landscape of the soul. (Yes, this one IS transcendent.) In colors and music and use of silence it paints a coming of age story that sings of hope amongst despair, and those connections that mark us for life, no matter our backgrounds. Though I’ll be more than delighted when Viola Davis wins the Supporting Actress award for Fences, Naomie Harris as the crack-addicted mother in Moonlight runs a close second, and Mahershala Ali, as mentor to the child version of the protagonist, Chiron, is similarly moving.

isabelle huppert
Isabelle Huppert in “Elle”

In spite of what looks to be a La La Land juggernaut which will likely include its female star Emma Stone as Best Actress, I’ll go on the record that it’s long past due that Isabelle Huppert, known in film circles as the French Meryl Streep, wins her first Oscar. In Elle, a psychological thriller (inexplicably left out of the Foreign Language Film nominations), directed by Paul Verhoeven, she owns a role which I’d venture to say even Streep would find a challenge. It’s a quirkily dark depiction of a woman who suffers from unspeakable emotional damage, yet finds some weird empowering strength in those very elements that would have put anyone else over the deep end. Well, most would actually say she is off the deep end, but Huppert’s steely-eyed performance, devoid of any pathos whatsoever, is a master class in deliberative acting. Not much chance she’ll steal the award from Ms. Stone, but one can hope.

Speaking of theft, the biggest case of robbery in the acting nominations concerns Annette Bening. Though much has been made of the passing over of Amy Adams (for both Arrival and Nocturnal Animals) for a Best Actress nod, the exclusion of Bening for her extraordinary performance in 20th-Century Women is nothing short of grand larceny.  As much as I adore Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins was really no more than a curio piece elevated only by her usual magnificent presence; another nominee, Ruth Negga in Loving, though luminous in a quiet and stoic performance, could also have been painlessly sacrificed for the inclusion of Bening. Arguably the greatest living American actress whose initials are not MS, one wonders how long she has to wait to claim the prize that’s been rightfully hers — going on the fifth time.

Regarding the men, I had a late change of heart about Casey Affleck, so lauded for his introspective characterization of a janitor carrying the weight of the world on lonely shoulders in the melancholy Manchester by the Sea. Not a change of heart about the performance itself, mind you, which is haunting, fragile yet tenacious, remarkably inward without bordering on indulgent. Nope, Affleck was indeed quite wonderful. But there was something about Denzel Washington in his adaptation of the August Wilson play, Fences, that unexpectedly won me over in its solidity and strength. What a treasure he is. Should he win, it would mark Washington’s third Oscar, a testament to his reassuring survivability.

sunny pawar
Sunny Penwar in “Lion”

As for feel-good movie of the year? Let the Lion roar. As engrossing a first half of a film I’ve seen in a while, Lion’s real-life message of hope that cannot be quenched (buoyed by a touchingly absorbing performance by the child actor Sunny Pawar) is one that long lingers. Its place in the wildly creative and diverse jumbo of the Oscar mix this year is more than welcome. And one more reason to tune in and see what happens on Sunday.

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