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Oscar Watch: ‘Billy Lynn,’ Ang Lee’s ‘baby,’ could use a pat on the head right now

Joe Alwyn plays the title character in "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk."
(Sony Pictures)

I’m not sure how many times director Ang Lee used the word “baby” the other night when talking about his new movie, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” and the innovative technology he used making it. Let’s just say that at a certain point this song started playing in a loop in my head. And I really thought that one was gone for good.

The point that Lee wanted to hammer home to the film critics and journalists in attendance at an early Los Angeles screening was that the technology — shooting in 3-D, with 4K resolution and the ultra-fast 120 frames-per-second rate — was in its infancy. If you must judge (though please don’t), regard it as you would a toddler’s wobbly first steps. “It’s a baby,” Lee said. “Give it a chance.”

The ever-gracious Lee made almost exactly the same plea a couple of weeks ago when the movie premiered at the New York Film Festival, but few seemed inclined to listen. The reviews were mostly terrible. Many found the movie’s astonishing clarity to be distracting. Variety’s Brent Lang noted that “because the higher frame rate and 3D allows for a greater depth of vision, it’s clear that the extras at scenes in the football stadium are miming actions and having fake conversations.” And other critics complained about the conversations they were actually hearing, finding issues with the movie’s story and acting.

But festival screenings sometimes produce extreme, knee-jerk reactions. As you’d expect from a filmmaker as gifted as Lee, “Billy Lynn” — the story of an Iraq war hero trying to reconcile the hoopla of his homecoming with the trauma he suffered overseas — contains many moments of poetic beauty. And its depiction of the heartbreaking isolation veterans face returning from war hits an emotional chord.

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Lee puts the technology about two years ahead of moviegoers, though I’m not sure if people seeing “Billy Lynn” in 2018 will be any less blind to its narrative flaws. Most Oscar voters will be seeing it on a DVD screener, so the format doesn’t matter. Watching at home, they’ll lose the way the technology immerses (and disconcerts) viewers, but maybe they’ll appreciate the sly way the movie exposes the hypocrisy of war advocates who pay lip service to supporting the troops.

Talking to a leading film critic after the screening, we both expressed a theoretical interest in seeing “Billy Lynn” again in 2D. “But I’m not curious enough to see it again,” he said. “The script problems are a major obstacle.”

With the movie sitting at a dreadful 55 rating on review aggregator Metacritic, Lee is going to need a few vocal advocates willing to cradle his baby and shower it with love. At the moment, its road to the Oscars looks more circuitous than its titular halftime walk.

Which brings us to the Oscar Watch predictions, Week 3.

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Here’s the deal: If I’ve already placed a movie or performance in the circle of trust in the lists below, it’s the gospel truth. A nomination is guaranteed. Prime contender spots are reserved for films, actors and directors on the bubble. They’re (probably) deserving and could be nominated, but the remaining contenders need to be seen before putting them in the circle of trust.

As the yet-to-screen contenders are unveiled and academy members have a chance to delve into the work, I’ll adjust the predictions over the coming weeks until the academy reveals its picks on Jan. 24.

BEST PICTURE

The cast and filmmakers of "Moonlight."
The cast and filmmakers of “Moonlight.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times )
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Circle of trust

“La La Land”

“Manchester by the Sea”

“Moonlight”

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“Loving”

Prime contenders

“Jackie”

“Sully”

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“Lion”

“Hell or High Water”

“Arrival”

“Toni Erdmann”

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“20th Century Women”

Not yet seen

“Hidden Figures”

“Fences”

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“Silence”

“Live by Night”

“Allied”

Analysis: “Moonlight” had its academy screening at the Samuel L. Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills on Sunday afternoon — the same matinee slot that “Birth of a Nation” played three weeks ago. The turnout was about the same. “Birth” drew about 250 people, “Moonlight” probably 300. But the reaction was markedly different, with members and their guests applauding strongly afterward for the film’s cast and writer-director Barry Jenkins at the post-screening Q&A. Cinematographer James Laxton and casting director Yesi Ramirez also received appreciation when their names appeared during the closing credits.

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“Moonlight” is nearing $1 million at the box office, remarkable for a film that opened in just four theaters and is now playing on 32 screens. Jenkins’ coming-of-age story is a marvel of quiet intimacy, and I sometimes wonder if the ecstatic reviews will create outsize expectations for those who haven’t seen it. And yet, I’ve yet to speak to anyone not taken with this lovely work of art. (There I go … stoking the anticipation even more. I’ll stop. Just go see it.)

LEAD ACTRESS

Could a sci-fi film bring Amy Adams her sixth Oscar nomination?
Could a sci-fi film bring Amy Adams her sixth Oscar nomination?

Circle of trust

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Emma Stone, “La La Land”

Natalie Portman, “Jackie”

Ruth Negga, “Loving”

Annette Bening, “20th Century Women”

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Prime contenders

Isabelle Huppert, “Elle”

Meryl Streep, “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Jessica Chastain, “Miss Sloane”

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Amy Adams, “Arrival”

Not yet seen

Taraji P. Henson, “Hidden Figures”

Analysis: Is Adams poised for a sixth Oscar nomination for her turn as a linguist enlisted to find a way to communicate with the alien visitors in “Arrival”? She’s at the center of a movie that leaves many people in tears by the closing credits. Paramount is pushing the film hard at private screenings. (It opens in theaters Nov. 11.) The genre remains something of an obstacle, but Adams is respected enough to slide into one of the five slots.

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LEAD ACTOR

Casey Affleck, "Manchester by the Sea"
Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times )

Circle of trust

Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”

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Prime contenders

Ryan Gosling, “La La Land”

Joel Edgerton, “Loving”

Tom Hanks, “Sully”

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Andrew Garfield, “Hacksaw Ridge”

Miles Teller, “Bleed for This”

Viggo Mortensen, “Captain Fantastic”

Not yet seen

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Denzel Washington, “Fences”

Andrew Garfield, “Silence”

Michael Keaton, “The Founder”

Matthew McConaughey, “Gold”

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Robert De Niro, “The Comedian”

Analysis: Will Smith scored a prime launch spot at AFI Fest last year with “Concussion.” This year we haven’t heard a peep about his meaning-of-life drama “Collateral Beauty.” It sports a great cast — Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren as Death! — but it also comes from the filmmakers who gave us “Marley & Me” and the Kevin James vehicle “Here Comes the Boom.” So subtlety will likely be at a premium. At least Jada can skip the Oscars again.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Naomie Harris, left, and Michelle Williams
Naomie Harris, left, and Michelle Williams
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times; Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times )
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Circle of trust

Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea”

Naomie Harris, “Moonlight”

Prime contenders

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Nicole Kidman, “Lion”

Greta Gerwig, “20th Century Women”

Felicity Jones, “A Monster Calls”

Not yet seen

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Viola Davis, “Fences”

Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”

Janelle Monáe, “Hidden Figures”

Analysis: Monae appears in just a few scenes in “Moonlight,” playing the nurturing, surrogate mother of the movie’s young protagonist in the early part of the film. But she leaves quite the impression, which might bode well for her chances in scoring a nod for her role as a mathematician in “Hidden Figures.” Several scenes from the movie screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and Monae’s work crackled with a vital energy — just like the imaginative music she’s best-known for.

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SUPPORTING ACTOR

Mahershala Ali from “Moonlight”
Mahershala Ali from “Moonlight”
(Grant Pollard / Invision )

Circle of trust

Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”

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Prime contenders

Jeff Bridges, “Hell or High Water”

Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea”

Dev Patel, “Lion”

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Michael Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals”

André Holland, “Moonlight”

Hugh Grant, “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Simon Helberg, “Florence Foster Jenkins”

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Aaron Eckhart, “Bleed for This”

Not yet seen

Stephen Henderson, “Fences”

Jovan Adepo, “Fences”

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Liam Neeson, “Silence”

Analysis: Category will remain in flux until “Silence” and “Fences” screen. Not a bad choice among the list.

DIRECTOR

"Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins with young cast members Jaden Piner, left, and Alex Hibbert.
“Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins with young cast members Jaden Piner, left, and Alex Hibbert.
(Aaron Davidson / Getty Images )
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Circle of trust

Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”

Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea”

Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”

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Prime contenders

Jeff Nichols, “Loving”

Pablo Larrain, “Jackie”

Clint Eastwood, “Sully”

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Garth Davis, “Lion”

Not yet seen

Martin Scorsese, “Silence”

Denzel Washington, “Fences”

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Analysis: Jenkins graduates to the circle of trust. (See best picture.)

glenn.whipp@latimes.com


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