RIP, Ursula K. Le Guin

I’ve written a remembrance of Ursula K. Le Guin; it’s up at the Los Angeles Times.

As I wrote there:

“The speaking of her name and of her words goes on, and will go on, today and tomorrow and for a very long time now. As it should. She was the mother of so many of us, and you should take time to mourn your mother.”


First Pass Oscar Predictions, 2018

Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences persists in nominating films and people for their “Oscars” award, which you may have heard of, and I, in a vestige of my time as a professional film critic, go through the “Big Six” categories and try to guess who and what are going to win, usually getting five out of six (but not always the same five out of six) categories correct. The nominations for this year’s Academy Awards came out today, so let’s do this thing again, shall we?

A caveat: In the last few years it’s become harder to make accurate predictions, in part because as the Academy itself has become younger and more diverse (not a lot more younger and diverse, yet, but still), its voting has become somewhat more adventurous. Also, a passing generation means that some things that might have been a shoe-in for a Best Picture win have to work harder to stay in the mix (yes, I’m looking at you, “Dunkirk”). This is a good thing for the Award of Record of the film industry, but makes accurate guessing of winners harder. Don’t pity me, I’ll be fine.

Now, let’s do this thing.

Best Picture:

“Call Me by Your Name”
“Darkest Hour”
“Get Out”
“Lady Bird”
“Phantom Thread”
“The Post”
“The Shape of Water”
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

The general rule of thumb is that the films without Best Director nods are shoved out of the boat first. It’s not always accurate — see “Argo” a few years back — but it’s generally a safe bet. Which means in this case, we should say goodbye to “The Post,” “Darkest Hour,” “Call Me By Your Name” and “Three Billboards.” With that said, I think “Three Billboards” is still likely in the mix because it’s got a significant number of other high profile nods (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay) and a few other nods as well. “Post,” “Hour” and “Name,” however, are probably already out of the running, although if Trump does something genuinely awful with the press during the voting period, I mean more than usual, I can see “Post” getting a surge.

In the old days I think “Dunkirk” would be a slam dunk for Best Picture — it’s war and nobility and all that stuff — but I don’t think WWII is as resonant as it used to be. “Phantom Thread” like most Paul Thomas Anderson movies is handsome and intelligent and I think people admire it more than love it, so I don’t see the award going that direction. “The Shape of Water” got the most Oscar nominations and that’s not chicken feed, but it’s a fantasy film with significant horror elements, and fantasy has only won Best Picture once with “The Return of the King,” which won because it was a capstone of a trilogy that is the arguably the best popular trilogy of films in cinema. I think it would be delightful if “Water” won but I suspect it won’t. I think it’s likely to be the “Color Purple” of 2018: Nominated for lots, winning little, and people wondering why at the end of it.

The three finalists in my mind are “Three Billboards,” “Lady Bird” and “Get Out,” and of the three I think “Get Out” is the likely (but historically unusual) winner — likely because it really was the right film at the right time, i.e., a time when racists are literally on the march again, and one is in the White House, and unusual because it’s a horror film and only one horror film (“The Silence of the Lambs”) has won before. But aside from it being a good film, I think the Academy will like the idea of shoving a middle finger way up in the air at racism (and, yes, indirectly at Trump). I think it’s possible either “Three Billboards” or “Lady Bird” could sneak by but I suspect not (it’s more difficult to “split the vote” in the Best Picture category because it uses preferential balloting). I think it’s “Get Out”‘s year, and rightly so.

Will Win: Get Out
Should Win: Get Out

Best Director:

“Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan
“Get Out,” Jordan Peele
“Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig
“Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro

For a very long time, the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars were generally well-linked, but in the last several years there’s been a tendency to split them up, and I strongly suspect that will happen again this year, in part because if “Get Out” wins, Jordan Peele will get an Oscar as a producer anyway, and because this year the Academy has two multiply-nominated directors it would probably like to throw a bone to, not only for this year’s films but as a career award.

So: Peele I think will not get the award here, for reasons mentioned above. Next out is Greta Gerwig — it’s great that she’s here (you can still count the number of women nominated for Best Director on one hand), but I think being here is her award for the moment. Next out, I suspect, is del Toro, as part of my blanket suspicion that “Water” is going to miss out on pretty much everything (I’d like to be wrong!).

This leaves us with Nolan and Anderson, both of whom have been multiply nominated before, and make the sort of films that makes the film industry feel good about itself, in terms of pushing out “classic, intelligent” movies. Of the two I would give the edge to Anderson, who has been nominated as director before (Nolan’s previous nominations were producer and screenplay nods), and overall has more nominations. I don’t think you can argue that the man is not deserving of the award, either overall or in reference to this particular film. And again the Academy seems to like to split up Director and Picture these days. So Anderson is my frontrunner for now.

Will Win: Anderson
Should Win: del Toro

Best Actor:

Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom Thread”
Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”
Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

Oddly enough, Denzel Washington is out first for me — not because I don’t love him as an actor (I think he’s arguably the best actor of his generation) but because his film is not otherwise nominated for anything, and he already has two Oscars. So this is kind of like when the Academy nominates Meryl Streep in one or the other of the Actress categories: A nice safe choice to fill out the ballot.

Next out for me is Chalamet, who I suspect is just happy to be here and rightfully so, and then Kaluuya, whose performance (in a horror film!) might ultimately be too subtle for the people who prefer flashy performances with ACTING in them.

Which leads us to Day-Lewis and Oldman, both of whom are actors acting with actory intensity. Day-Lewis has three Oscars already so he doesn’t really need another, but then again he’s said this is last film role, so maybe the Academy will want to see him off in Oscarly fashion, which, well, fine. But with that said I think it’s going to be Oldman’s year. He’s been Hollywood’s utility infielder for a long time now, slotting in to that place where Michael Caine and Gene Hackman used to be, and representing august historical personages in crisis is an Academy Award sweet spot (note Day’s last win, for “Lincoln”). I think Oldman’s beatable in the category, but he is the man to beat.

Will Win: Oldman
Should Win: Kaluuya

Best Actress:

Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”
Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”
Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”
Meryl Streep, “The Post”

For my money the most competitive category this year in terms of quality. Streep is, well, Streep — this is her 21st acting nomination (she’s won three times), and this time she’s not just filler on the ballot, as she has been before (I’m looking at you, nominations for “Florence Foster Jenkins” and “Into the Woods”). But I still don’t think it’s her year. Likewise Sally Hawkins, who in fact I would love to see win — such a great performance, without words. I won’t toss her completely out of contention; if Holly Hunter could win an Oscar without speaking, Hawkins can’t be dismissed entirely. But I think she has an uphill climb.

Margot Robbie is my next out. Her performance as Tonya Harding is the patented “gorgeous actress who can actually act has to uglify herself to make people realize she can in fact act” maneuver, which is a thing we should probably have more of a conversation about than we typically do, but it often works and still might here. But I think the competition this year does not make the votes fall in her favor.

It comes down to McDormand and Ronan for me. Both of them won Golden Globes this year and both of them have given widely praised performances, and both are previously multiply nominated for Oscars, with McDormand having won one for Fargo. I think it’s a real coin toss here, and I change my mind about who has the edge roughly once a minute. This very second, I give the slight edge to McDormand, but ask me again in a minute and I’m not sure I can guarantee I’ll say the same thing. As noted: The most competitive category this year, in my opinion.

Will Win: McDormand
Should Win: Hawkins

Best Supporting Actor:

Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”
Woody Harrelson, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water”
Christopher Plummer, “All the Money in the World”
Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

I think Harrelson and Rockwell have a pretty good chance of splitting the “Three Billboards” vote, although I suspect Rockwell has a better chance here than Harrelson. Jenkins does a lovely job in “Water” but I don’t know that it’s enough to catch up to who I see as the two front runners. Plummer has momentum for literally coming into a film at the last minute and still socking his performance out of the park, but he’s won this category before and I don’t know if it’s important for voters to award him again, even for being Not Kevin Spacey. For me that leaves Willem Dafoe, who basically stands in for “The Florida Project” which is otherwise off the ballot, and for whom this will be seen as a career award, and thus a pretty easy vote.

Will Win: Dafoe
Should Win: Dafoe

Best Supporting Actress:

Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”
Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”
Lesley Manville, “Phantom Thread”
Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”
Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water”

Octavia Spencer already has an Oscar in this category and the category is hotly competitive this year; I don’t see her winning. Likewise I wonder to what extent a possible bias against Netflix (which doesn’t really release its films into theaters, unlike, say Amazon) will impact Mary J. Blige; I guess we’ll see (Disclosure: I sold film rights to Old Man’s War to Netflix). I don’t see Lesley Manville moving the needle (no pun intended) in the category, either.

So that leaves Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf, both playing mothers (albeit of different sorts), and while the fan of both actresses in me is screaming don’t make me choose give it to both which by the way could totally happen (Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand tied for Best Actress one year), I suspect Janney may have the slightest of edges because the mother she’s performing is kind of a monster, and monsters are fun to perform and watch. But seriously, Academy: Work a tie in this category. Everybody will be happy!

Will Win: Allison Janney
Should Win: Either Janney or Metcalf

Other categories:

I suspect James Ivory may have an in for his Adapted Screenplay for “Call Me By Your Name”; he’s been multiply nominated as a director over the years, never winning, and this would be a lovely career recognition award. After Best Actress, I think Original Screenplay is the most competitive category, and the one where Guillermo del Toro has his best chance of winning something on Oscar night (screenplay Oscars are often the “consolation” Oscar for people nominated for director). That said, I’ll be cheering for Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani in the category because we’re Twitter friends, and also their screenplay is wonderful. I see no future where Coco doesn’t win Best Animated Film.

I’ll likely check in again closer to Oscar night and offer some tweaks to these predictions, but for right now: This is it.

Thoughts of your own about this year’s nominees, or just want to detail how I’m wrong about everything (in terms of my Oscar predictions)? That’s what the comments are for.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: S. Craig Zahler

S. Craig Zahler writes and directs films most of the time, but the story of Hug Chickenpenny was one that called out for written rather than cinematic form. But Zahler found there was a theme that ran through his book writing efforts that ran through all his other efforts as well. He’s here to tell you what it is.


Perseverance is possibly the single most consistent quality that the protagonists have in all of my different pieces, whether science fiction, horror, crime, western, or just, let’s say, this gothic fairy tale that is Hug Chickenpenny.

I originally created this character probably about 20 years ago. At that time, I was reading a lot of Charles Dickens. Also, I was a big fan of David Lynch—and still am—and so I think those sensibilities are there. But, typically, my inspiration isn’t so much that I see something and want to emulate it, it’s more that I think of something I haven’t seen—perhaps in a genre that I have seen—and think of a new way to bring it to life.

So, in the case of Hug Chickenpenny: The Pangegyric of an Anomalous Child, I was interested in doing something that had a Dickensian scope—and it’s an orphan tale, so it bears that relationship—but, at the same time, I knew that I wanted the titular character to be different from any I’d read about, and for the world to be comparably unique. And so it really comes from a place of me wanting to read a story and write a story that I hadn’t quite seen before. But certainly Charles Dickens, David Lynch, and the incredible books by Mervyn Peake– The Gormenghast Trilogy– are all things that influenced what Hug Chickenpenny became.

So, certainly that’s there: Perseverance. Seeing how someone deals with trying situations and how they overcome them as things get harder and harder, whether it is Arthur with the broken leg in Bone Tomahawk still continuing to make the journey towards his wife, or the terrible prison situation that Bradley finds himself in in Brawl in Cell Block 99.

Hug Chickenpenny starts off in a situation worse than either of these people, and how his character develops through it– as well as the effects of his early relationships with George Dodgett and Dr. Hannersby and the other characters– says a lot about who he innately is. So perseverance is there throughout. I am on day 13 of a 28 day work streak, where every day is 14 to 16 hours. Just, in the last five days, I wrote eight soul songs with my songwriting partner that are going to go into a new movie.

And then, after working until 8 in the morning on Sunday through Monday, I came into the editing room, worked until 5 in the morning last night, and I’ll be here just as late tonight. So it’s something I do: I push hard towards the things that I want. I have a lot of drive, and that’s a common trait for the lead characters in pieces I do. Not all of them, but I’d probably say the most common trait is: they persevere.


Hug Chickenpenny: The Pangegyric of an Anomalous Child: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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