Visalia’s James Ward only got to see one best-picture nominee in a theater. That made him feel differently about this year’s awards.
DONALD: The Pandemic Oscars are Sunday, and some people are anticipating a half-baked, “lite” version of the event that we normally experience. Beyond the format and presentation of the awards ceremony itself, there’s a larger — or maybe you’d call it a smaller — issue to consider: For the general public, most of the nominated films were only available to view on a small screen rather than in a movie theater.
The most Oscar-literate person I know is movie critic James Ward of the Visalia Times-Delta, and I need to get my pre-award Ward fix. Yet he has taken the remarkable step of NOT writing an Oscar prediction column for the first time since 1998. So I roped him into participating in this column.
To kick things off: I have to ask, James, why are you so cranky about the awards this year?
JAMES: I’m a traditionalist. I saw so few films on the big screen this past year, I refused to take part in the travesty of this year’s Oscars. The Oscars are supposed to celebrate cinema, not streaming titles. They should have canceled this year’s awards. Call it my little scream of protest no one cares (or should) care about.
DONALD: I just finished watching “Nomadland” on TV using Hulu. I have a pretty big TV, but it’s still a small screen. It was the only one of the best-picture nominees you saw in a real movie theater, right? Do you think that impacted your overall opinion on the quality of the film compared to the other nominees? (And, what is your take on “Nomadland”?)
JAMES: Yes, I saw “Nomadland” on the big screen in Clovis last week, and, yes, seeing the film on the big screen made this year’s other nominees feel, well, puny. “Nomadland” tells an intimate story on a large canvas. I can’t imagine seeing the film on a small screen. Director Chloe Zhao fills the film with a sense of vast space and emptiness that can only be fully appreciated on the big screen. It’s a beautiful movie. I was really taken by the dual nature of the story: An intimate story about a woman dealing with grief who wants to be swallowed up by America’s vast open spaces. It’s a remarkable film.
DONALD: I thought of you when I was watching it, knowing that those vast open spaces would have looked even better on the big screen. However, I was still tremendously moved. I was intrigued with how Frances McDormand finds a sliver of upheaval, a patch of menace, in her otherwise mostly amiable and reflective character. At one point she says she feels as if she’s spent too much of her life remembering. Perhaps that’s what life is: figuring out how to balance the remembering and the not-remembering.
The other thing that struck me hard was a tiny detail: Early in the film, a small black dog, abandoned by its owners, tries to latch onto McDormand’s character. In most films, the two would partner up and hit the road together (and the dog would keep her warm at night, and probably save her from an intruder, too). But “Nomadland” is different. McDormand gives the pup an awkward pat and moves on.
Another film I managed to catch was “Mank,” which depicts how Herman Mankiewicz wrote the screenplay for “Citizen Kane.” This one I didn’t love. I appreciated it (especially the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography) and enjoyed some of the performances, but, to be honest, I got tired of all the scenes of Gary Oldman playing drunk. What did you think?
JAMES: The problem I had with “Mank” was the most interesting character wasn’t the focus of the film. I was really taken with Amanda Seyfried’s performance as Marion Davies.
There have been other films that have tackled the making of “Citizen Kane” better. Specifically, the 1999 HBO film “RKO281” with a stellar cast including Liev Schreiber as Welles, James Cromwell as Hearst, Melanie Griffith as Davies and John Malkovich as Mankiewicz. It’s a better film — and certainly drops the whole convoluted argument “Mank” makes that Mankiewicz wrote “Citizen Kane” as revenge for political dirty tricks Hearst played against Upton Sinclair. A really interesting take on the making of “Citizen Kane” would be seeing the controversy through Davies’ eyes. By all accounts she was a charming, wonderful woman who didn’t deserve the savage depiction by “Kane.” I’ve read that Hearst wasn’t that bothered by the way “Citizen Kane” depicted him — he was routinely attacked by his enemies — but the way the film depicted Davies as a shrill, untalented money grubber infuriated him. Wouldn’t a film centered around Seyfried’s radiant Davies be far more interesting than seeing a drunken Mank write a script in his bed?
DONALD: Do you think the Academy slathered “Mank” with nominations because it celebrates the industry?
JAMES: Oh, for sure. The Academy has a long history of patting itself on the back. For instance, recent Oscar-winning films “Argo” and “The Artist” — both wet, sloppy kisses to the movie industry — were fine movies, but in retrospect weren’t the best films of their years. Does anyone really think “Argo” is a better film than Spielberg’s “Lincoln” today? And don’t get me started about “The Tree of Life” — a flat-out masterpiece — losing to “The Artist.” Want to win an Oscar? Make a movie that celebrates the movies.
DONALD: The other best-picture nominee I watched was “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which I thought was a gripping courtroom drama. I like how writer/director Aaron Sorkin essentially started us off with the trial itself and then eased us back using flashbacks to recreate the mood and violence of the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago. Mark Rylance is strong as William Kunstler, the famed trial attorney who represented the defendants, but want to know which performance really stuck with me? Frank Langella as the befuddled, venomous judge. He might have been king of his courtroom, but history isn’t treating him well. What did you think of the film, Jim?
JAMES: I liked the film. It was fun, glib and entertaining. And I agree the performances were all top-notch. But again — and I feel like I’m repeating myself — “The Trial of the Chicago 7” felt like a really superb TV movie, say a particularly compelling episode of the “The Good Wife.” Would you, for instance, compare “The Trial of the Chicago 7” to such other great courtroom drama movies like “The Verdict,” “Anatomy of Murder” or “Witness for the Prosecution”? The Sorkin film just didn’t have a cinematic flair of those other examples.
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DONALD: You ended up seeing all the best-picture nominees except “Minari” and “The Father.” Do you have a favorite? Do you want to venture a prediction which one will win, or are you going to be stubborn?
JAMES: I’ll stick to the movie I saw in a theater: “Nomadland.” It’s just an exquisite piece of filmmaking. I also think it will win. It’s clearly better than any of the other titles.
DONALD: Lastly, James, there’s always a nomination or two that gets you riled up each year. What is it for this year’s “Streaming Oscars”?
JAMES: How on Earth did “Borat 2” get a best adapted screenplay nomination? I thought the comedy was more miss than hit. But even if the film was consistently funny like the original, isn’t the genius of Sacha Baron Cohen his improvisational comedy? The thin premise of the “Borat” films are just an excuse for Cohen to do two things: Put unsuspecting real people in awkward situations and get some of those same people to say shocking things on camera. Plus, I can think of several films that deserved Oscar nods more than Cohen’s film: The exquisite “First Cow,” most prominently, which also deserved a best picture nomination as well.
DONALD: There you have it: the Oscar year with an asterisk. I’ll be rooting for “Nomadland,” too. And if “Borat 2” takes home an award for screenplay, I bet I’ll hear your Sunday-evening scream from your house in Madera, James. Thanks for playing along, and here’s to a big-screen Oscars next year.