The Times’ film critics, Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang, sat down to discuss their picks, preferences and plans for the 89th Academy Awards.
KENNETH TURAN: Oscars are upon us, and that has been a big deal in my life for as long as I can remember. Did you watch as a kid, were your parents fans as well or did you discover it on your own?
JUSTIN CHANG: The first time I became distantly aware of the Oscars was the 1992 ceremony, mainly because “Beauty and the Beast” was up for a bunch of awards — I wasn’t much of a cinephile then but I was, like a lot of 9-year-old kids, a total Disneyholic.
In between all the production numbers and Billy Crystal’s jokes, I remember hearing a lot about this movie called “The Silence of the Lambs” and having no idea what it was about, other than that it looked really serious and grown-up and Anthony Hopkins’ face mask scared the hell out of me. After that I would sometimes watch the show with my family, but I didn’t start paying serious attention until 1997 (“The English Patient” year), which was also the same point I started paying serious attention to movies.
TURAN: I once interviewed Billy Crystal, and he said when he was a kid he pictured “the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences” to be a lot of learned folks in togas gathered for earnest deliberation in some kind of Grecian temple, and I think I felt the same way. It sounded like a really lofty group. Obviously, we now know perhaps more than we want to about the more human side of the academy, but because the voters can be unpredictable I continue to be curious about what they will choose. And I wonder what effect the tumultuous times we are living in might have on the voting this year.
For sheer dramatic fireworks, the presidential election upstaged even the most riveting narrative films of 2016.”
CHANG: For sheer dramatic fireworks, the presidential election upstaged even the most riveting narrative films of 2016. I expect to hear a lot about the state of our troubled nation from the winners tonight, and unlike those who believe celebrities should stay out of politics, I’m actually looking forward to it. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity for this whole silly, addictive, unmissable spectacle to justify itself anew, in the wake of a real-world political thriller that has threatened to eclipse and trivialize it.
TURAN: Some categories might see more political fallout than others. Though critics are almost unanimous in praising Germany’s “Toni Erdmann,” I wonder if it is too daunting for the membership, and if the voters will choose to make a statement about Donald Trump’s travel ban by giving the award to “The Salesman” from Iran’s Asghar Farhadi, who’s decided not to attend because of the president’s action. Farhadi’s won already for the much superior “A Separation,” but wanting to send a message with the ballot is a longtime Oscar tradition. Do you see any other categories where politics might take a hand?
CHANG: A victory for “The Salesman” looks extremely possible, even though I’m still very much rooting for “Toni Erdmann” — and I hasten to add that an award for a female-directed movie about a woman being slowly worn down by sexist, conformist workplace culture is hardly an apolitical choice. Elsewhere, I don’t think the academy could do anything more political than give best picture to “Moonlight” — a political choice that would also, in my opinion, be the most deserving choice. It won’t happen, of course, as it would require stopping the “La La Land” train in its tracks, and I think we can agree that train has left the station.
TURAN: I never say never where the Oscars are concerned, but “La La Land” does seem like a lock, even though part of the magic of “Moonlight” is that it has the emotional transcendence that characterized classic Hollywood at its best. And I feel bad that “Manchester by the Sea,” another of my favorites, is not getting best picture traction. Though the arc of the film is undeniably positive, people seem intent on focusing on its downbeat aspects, of which there are many. Even Casey Affleck giving an overwhelming performance does not seem to be a sure thing for best actor, as feeling for Denzel Washington in “Fences” seems to be growing.
CHANG: When hosting the Golden Globes, Jimmy Fallon made a (not very funny) joke about how depressing “Manchester by the Sea” is. It made me wonder if he had even seen the movie. Yes, it’s piercing and sad, but it’s also full of life, gusto and humor — it’s the funniest best picture nominee, bar none — and like most great art, it’s the very opposite of depressing. But it isn’t uplifting, either, and academy voters do love their uplift. Which is why I think that, if there is an upset for best picture, the momentum could very well favor “Hidden Figures.”
TURAN: I agree, “Hidden Figures” is gaining momentum — the SAG ensemble award was a big deal — and I almost feel if the voting period were a month away, it might sneak in. It is a very good version of a very familiar kind of film, which is never a bad idea where the academy is concerned. The one category which is giving me fits in terms of what’s in contention is documentary. Three superb films on race in America — “I Am Not Your Negro,” “O.J.: Made In America” and “13th” — makes you both happy to see so much good work and sad that they can’t all win.
CHANG: It’s awfully hard to choose among those three, though I’m leaning a bit toward “O.J.: Made in America,” if only because it would make all those film-is-film-and-TV-is-TV purists splutter. Another strong documentary feature contender is Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire at Sea,” which is about the migrant crisis and therefore perhaps the single most topical, politically charged film of the night.
“Fire at Sea” probably won’t win, though it’s worth remembering that it won the top prize at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, from a jury presided over by Meryl Streep. Who probably won’t win, either — I imagine that best actress Oscar is Emma Stone’s to lose — but I imagine her recent awards-show speeches denouncing President Trump probably earned her some goodwill votes. You really can’t get away from politics this year.
TURAN: One question that isn’t political but is sure to be divisive is whether the academy unjustly neglected some worthy films this year. Much to my surprise, I keep coming back to Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special,” a classically styled piece of speculative moviemaking that critics appreciated but both audiences and the academy did not respond to. Or maybe no one bothered to take a look at it in the first place. You never know.
CHANG: I’m beating a dead horse here, I know, but I was disappointed (though not surprised) by the academy’s failure to nominate Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” for best picture and director. I think it’s one of the best things he’s ever done, and the time to acknowledge that was this year — not 20 years from now, when it’ll be common knowledge. And in an admittedly competitive year for best actress, I’d have also liked to see Annette Bening and Amy Adams receive nominations for “20th Century Women” and “Arrival,” respectively.
But as you said, Oscar night is upon us, which means it’s time to put grumbling aside and enjoy the show, to the extent that either of those is possible. Do you have any Oscar-night traditions or rituals you plan to uphold this year?
TURAN: I agree totally on Adams and Bening, sad there was not room for both of them. As to traditions, because I get so involved in watching the show, my only constant is to see it with as few people as possible. Big Oscar parties where no one pays much attention to what is happening on the screen have never been my style. How about you?
CHANG: I can’t stand big Oscar viewing parties anymore either — too many people talking over the speeches and saying things like “Wait, what movie is this?” (It’s like asking which teams are playing during the Super Bowl.) My tradition of late has been to watch the show at home, where I can freely groan, yell and hurl things (mainly expletives) at the screen, and then dance around the living room with my wife in celebration of another endless awards season being over at last.