A critic’s memo to the academy on the eve of Oscar nominations

Liam Neeson in Martin Scorsese's "Silence," an exploration of big ideas cleverly wrapped in atmospheric minimalism.

Critics don’t get to vote on the Oscars, as the pundits and prognosticators are often fond of reminding us. But if we were given ballots, it’s safe to say that our individual choices would look markedly different from those of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at large.

Part of the critic’s job, after all, is to look beyond the choices put forth by the major studios and specialty divisions (noteworthy though many of them are) and sift through a full year’s worth of releases — big or small, locally grown or festival-imported — in search of the very best. And the very best can’t always afford a for-your-consideration ad.

Below is my partial hypothetical ballot, my list of what I would like to see nominated in 12 categories (picture, director, the four acting races, the two screenplay races, cinematography, foreign-language film, documentary feature and animated feature). Some of them will be nominated; most of them don’t have a chance in hell. All of them are well worth a movie lover’s time.



“Certain Women,” “Everybody Wants Some!!” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Moonlight,” “My Golden Days,” “O.J.: Made in America,” “Paterson,” “Silence,” “Toni Erdmann”

The academy expanded its top category from five to 10 nominees in 2009, partly in response to the (understandable) furor over Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” not getting a nomination — the takeaway being that quality blockbusters, especially superhero movies, weren’t being taken seriously as awards fare. (In recent years, the academy implemented a new rule that the best picture can have anywhere between five and 10 nominees.)

In theory, though, a wider net wouldn’t just mean more awards for comic-book movies (like this year’s “Deadpool,” which, having just been nominated by the Producers Guild of America, could well be on its way to an Oscar nomination for best picture). It would mean more awards for foreign-language films, animated films, documentaries and other pictures that the academy membership typically relegates to second-class status. This list of 10, I hope, offers up at least a few possible correctives.



Maren Ade, “Toni Erdmann”; Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”; Pablo Larraín, “Neruda”; Kelly Reichardt, “Certain Women”; Martin Scorsese, “Silence”

It pained me to have to choose between Larraín’s “Jackie” and “Neruda,” two marvelously nonconformist feats of biographical storytelling. But in the end, it would have pained me more to leave him out.


Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”; Adam Driver, “Paterson”; Ethan Hawke, “Born to Be Blue”; Vincent Lindon, “The Measure of a Man”; Peter Simonischek, “Toni Erdmann”


In a more puckish mood, I might have thrown in Samuel L. Jackson, whose voice-over performance in “I Am Not Your Negro” is a marvel.

Isabelle Huppert as Michèle in "Elle."
Isabelle Huppert as Michèle in “Elle.”
(Guy Ferrandis / SBS Productions /Sony Pictures Classics )


Sonia Braga, “Aquarius”; Viola Davis, “Fences”; Sandra Hüller, “Toni Erdmann”; Isabelle Huppert, “Elle”; Zhao Tao, “Mountains May Depart”


Davis is being campaigned as a supporting actress, probably to ensure her victory in that category. Still, her powerhouse work in “Fences” might well have prevailed in the more competitive lead actress race, where it belongs.


Ralph Fiennes, “A Bigger Splash”; Issey Ogata, “Silence”; Yôsuke Kubozuka, “Silence”; Glen Powell, “Everybody Wants Some!!”; Trevante Rhodes, “Moonlight”

You could fill out this entire category with the men of “Moonlight” (Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, André Holland, Alex R. Hibbert and Ashton Sanders). Or the men of “Silence” (Ogata, Kubozuka, Tadanobu Asano, Yoshi Oida and Shinya Tsukamoto). Or most of the men of “Fences” (Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Mykelti Williamson and the cast’s unsung MVP, Russell Hornsby).



Lily Gladstone, “Certain Women”; Riley Keough, “American Honey”; Kate McKinnon, “Ghostbusters”; Tilda Swinton, “A Bigger Splash”; Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea”

The little-known Gladstone has already won a handful of critics’ prizes, and I can assure you we’re not just gilding the Lily.



Richard Linklater, “Everybody Wants Some!!”; Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea”; Arnaud Desplechin and Julie Peyr, “My Golden Days”; Jim Jarmusch, “Paterson”; Maren Ade, “Toni Erdmann”

Every one of these pictures is a fully realized vision, in part because in each case (Peyr’s invaluable contributions to “My Golden Days” notwithstanding), the writer and director are one and the same.


David Birke, “Elle”; Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung, “The Handmaiden”; Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”; Whit Stillman, “Love & Friendship”; Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese, “Silence”


A lot of interesting cross-cultural translation going on here: “Elle,” which is in French, began as an English-language adaptation of a French novel. “The Handmaiden” is a Korean interpretation of a Victorian-set novel. “Silence” is a mostly English-language adaptation of a novel originally written in Japanese. And with “Love & Friendship,” Stillman proves he’s more than fluent in Jane Austen-ese.


Robbie Ryan, “American Honey”; Diego García, “Cemetery of Splendor”; Emmanuel Lubezki, “Last Days in the Desert”; James Laxton, “Moonlight”; Rodrigo Prieto, “Silence”

Both “Cemetery of Splendor” and “Silence” were shot on 35mm film. The other three are gorgeous enough to fool you into thinking they were.


Min-hee Kim as Lady Hideko in "The Handmaiden."
Min-hee Kim as Lady Hideko in “The Handmaiden.”
(TIFF / )


“Elle,” “The Handmaiden,” “Mountains May Depart,” “Neruda,” “Toni Erdmann”

Not being constrained by the academy’s official list of submissions or its one-film-per-country rule, I’d love to see more recognition for “Mountains May Depart,” an emotionally wrenching family melodrama from the highly regarded Chinese director Jia Zhangke that, like most foreign-language films released in this country, drew a much smaller audience than it deserved.



“13th,” “Cameraperson,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “O.J.: Made in America,” “Tower”

Three meditations on race and injustice in American life, a pulse-pounding re-creation of a horrific tragedy, and an artfully fragmented personal essay — taken together, roughly 14 of the richest hours of cinema this year.



“Finding Dory,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “The Red Turtle,” “Sausage Party,” “Zootopia”

To my regret, I still haven’t seen the much-acclaimed Japanese mega-hit “Your Name,” which didn’t need my vote to win the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.’s animation prize. Maybe it’s just as well: I’m not sure I could bear to dislodge “Sausage Party.”