Here at 25YLSite, we handle a lot of heavy lifting. Analysis, interpretation, deep discussion, introspective interviews…you name it, we’ve got it. “Favorites” takes a lighter approach to the material we normally cover. Each week, we will take you through a list of favorites—whether it’s moments, scenes, episodes, characters, lines of dialogue, whatever!—in bite-sized articles perfect for your lunch break, a dull commute, or anywhere you need to take a Moment of Zen. So, sit back and enjoy this week’s offering: Will Johnson and Lindsay Stamhuis’s picks for favorite films and performances snubbed at this year’s Academy Awards.
Best Actor: Ethan Hawke — First Reformed
Will: When it comes to the Oscars, the Academy tends to reward quiet, subtle performances with nominations, but hardly ever with wins. If a performance is flashy and loud, that sometimes is enough to win the voters over, as they can see the intensity laid bare. But being able to be stoic, to act within yourself, through the movement of the eyes and body, is, to me, a greater sign of acting prowess. Anyone can scream and emote, but someone who tells you everything without muttering a word shows true power over the audience.
It came as quite a shock to me that Ethan Hawke was left out of the Academy Awards race entirely in 2018. His performance as Reverend Toller in Paul Schrader’s emotionally taxing First Reformed was a masterclass in playing everything close to the vest in order to, ironically, heighten the tension. As Hawke looks to implode, his calm demeanor betrayed ever-so-slightly through the running time, we as an audience squirm in our seats waiting for the inevitable bomb to explode.
First Reformed tells the story of a passive minister named Toller (Hawke) who oversees a small, historical church called First Reformed. It being more a minor tourist destination for niche historians than an actual place of worship, Toller spends most of his time alone in a barren room; resigned to his fate as a forgotten man. When one of the only loyal churchgoers, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks Toller to counsel her slowly crumbling husband—an environmentalist bordering on radicalism—Toller, already suffering a minor crisis of faith, begins to see how the world, through humanity’s intervention, is slowly dying.
To reveal any more might spoil the trajectory but suffice it to say, the counselor becomes the counseled…except God isn’t listening. Hawke portrays Toller as a man always respectful on the outside whose inner monologue slowly tears him apart. Much like his Oscar-nominated acting role in Training Day, Hawke plays a reluctant bystander who very slowly takes control of his own fate when he can’t take it anymore.
But unlike Training Day, Hawke is mostly working by himself from scene to scene. Other actors and characters come in here and there, and their intermittent presence leads to his slow unraveling. About forty-five minutes into the movie, Toller quietly rampages against a former lover he regrets briefly being with (Victoria Hill), disparaging her with a quiet, seething brutality but without ever raising his voice or showing true anger; just disgust. Later, in a scene with mega-church pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), who oversees First Reformed, Hawke reveals his crisis of faith to someone publicly for the first time and can barely contain his despair, on the verge of tears and of tossing over a table without doing either.
First Reformed is a slow burn and the explosive finale shows everything finally coming undone. But what a journey to get there. The ending was controversial and confusing to many but one thing that was never in doubt was Hawke’s award-worthy performance. Yet, not even a nomination to be had.
I suppose the question is: who of the five nominees currently nominated should be replaced. While Adam Driver is reliable in BlackkKlansman, per usual, and Sam Rockwell brings his Sam Rockwell-ness to his take on George W. Bush in Vice, I see Ethan Hawke’s First Reformed masterclass as better than both if not the best performance of the year overall.
Best Documentary Feature: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Lindsay: It is rather rare that a documentary feature sparks as much joy in so many people as the Mister Rogers doc Won’t You Be My Neighbor? did. The film has an almost unbeatably high approval rating amongst critics and audiences alike but it’s not just crowd-pleasing; it’s a beautifully-made film, wonderfully filmed and edited, and tells the kinds of stories that our society is sorely in need of these days.
So why was it shut out by the Academy this year?
— Will Mavity (@mavericksmovies) 22 January 2019
The five films nominated for Best Documentary Feature are wonderful films, to be sure, and tell stories that deserve to be told (there is no bigger RBG fan than moi, I can assure you!) But it was a stunning omission to not see the life story of Fred Rogers on the list of nominees back in January when they were announced. Sure, the Oscars have faced political backlash for their whitewashed ceremonies, and yet another film lauding the exceptionalism of another white man might have faced backlash of a different kind. But I can’t see the Academy caring much about that; even if they did, Mister Rogers was the kind of man who broke down racial divides in a time when those divides were almost insurmountable. He championed education and disability rights, peace, was an advocate of mental health—is there anyone out there who would honestly say that Mister Rogers isn’t at least somewhat deserving of his saint-like reputation?
As a lifelong Christian and ordained Presbyterian minister, he considered his TV set to be his pulpit, and used his privileged position to fight (gently) for those things that mattered most by talking directly to the children in his audience. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? talks about the evolution of his approach to television, his philosophy of education, and the causes he held dear. It is a tender portrait of a tender man whose upbringing was less than perfect; instead of that becoming a catalyst for a life of dysfunction, Rogers channeled everything into becoming a figure of great compassion, a moral leader for a challenging time of great division and discord. His messages of hope and optimism and courage and deep understanding and, above all else, love…these messages resonated across four decades and touched millions of lives.
None of this is to say that the other five documentaries are unworthy of the mantle the Academy is prepared to grant them. There’s Free Solo, a National Geographic documentary about free climbing; Minding the Gap tells an all-encompassing tale ostensibly about skateboarding but it’s really about so much more than just that; Hale County This Morning, This Evening is less like a film and more of an impressionistic painting that beautifully recasts and recontextualises the lives of the black residents of Hale County, Alabama, while Of Fathers and Sons does something similar with the stories of Syria. And then there’s RBG, which chronicles the life of feminist icon and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I wouldn’t want to take any of these films out of the running; they’re each deserving of attention and praise. (And so maybe this is actually an argument for expanding the nominee list beyond five slots across the board.)
Still, in this day and age, when harmony and compassion are scarce virtues and there is so much fear and unease, how could Mister Rogers’ messages of positivity be so overlooked?
I have a hard time reconciling this snub…
Best Film Editing: Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt — Avengers Infinity War
Will: Editing is usually reserved for Best Picture nominees or “legitimate” film contenders. Since editing is a form of storytelling, and the Oscars are rewarding a certain amount of films with screenplay and best picture nods, it makes sense editing would be elevated in significance. In 2019, all five films nominated for Best Film Editing also happen to be Best Picture nominees.
But because genre films are generally left out of the prestigious categories, sometimes truly innovative work can be ignored. I still, to this day, will never understand how Scott Pilgrim vs. the World didn’t get an editing nomination in 2010 (surprise, surprise — the nominees that year were all up for Best Picture). And another one I will never understand is how the brilliant editing we take for granted in Avengers Infinity War could get snubbed.
Yes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the MCU, is a 20+ film behemoth that has many similar tropes and storytelling plot devices; a formula, if you will. However, as readers of comics know, despite the integrated universe in which all the characters exist together, it is hard to just drop a talking raccoon and his tree friend into the world of a biologically modified super soldier and a teenager imitating a spider without the coming of a tonal apocalypse. Start throwing in living planets, gods, people who shrink, people who turn into rage monsters, giant dwarves, and a guy who shoots just plain old arrows and you might as well pack it in trying to make it all fit.
But co-editors Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt managed to take all of the vastly disparate elements of the MCU and put them together into one story, expertly intermixing genre types, physical settings, humor, tragedy, and action. Oh, and adhering to a three-act structure that brings twenty plus existing characters together and sends them on three or four different side missions on multiple planets (and dimensions?) that lead back to one goal and purpose. And, of course, introducing a new fully fleshed out three-dimensional villain. Ah, I forgot: and keeping the whole thing within a respectable two hours and twenty-nine minutes without ever dragging. Phew.
Ford has edited seven MCU films and has dealt exclusively with that universe since 2011 after stints on projects directed by Michael Mann, David Ayer, and Jim Gray. Schmidt has only five full editing credits to his name, three of which are for MCU films. He’s served as an editorial assistant in 20 films prior to his promotion to co-editor on those MCU films. Both are familiar with the landscape presented in such an audacious proceeding and handled their duties on Infinity War expertly. Almost to the point where we took it for granted by barely even noticing the craft at work due to how seamless the whole thing was.
I think many regard the MCU films as formulaic schlock due to their immense success. That is an argument I will get into with you at some other time — as Cap says, “I could do this all day” — but one thing that can’t be argued is the artistic achievement of making Infinity War possible and not an incomprehensible disaster…and the key to that is fantastic editing.
Best Director/Best Original Screenplay/Best Picture: Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You
Lindsay: Some have argued passionately that the Academy Awards are not a place to champion radical ideas and experiments. Others have argued, with equal passion, that the decline in popularity of the Oscars ceremony is proof that they need to embrace some kind of change. It’s hard to know where the Academy actually stands on this issue—sometimes they nominate interesting films and performers and artists and other times they play it really safe—but it’s clear this year that they were in no mood to reward one of the most singularly interesting and unique films of the year when they snubbed Sorry to Bother You, shutting it out in every category it could have been nominated in.
Sorry to Bother You, the directorial debut of rapper Boots Riley, tells the story of Cassius “Cash” Green, a down-on-his-luck telemarketer who discovers one day that using his “white voice” during phone calls garners him more sales. What follows this discovery is a tale of biting political criticism mixed with sardonic humour and stunning visuals (it takes place in a kind of alternate-reality version of Oakland, and there’s an outrageously weird subplot featuring Armie Hammer and mind control; I can’t explain it, you have to watch it). This film was so stunningly original that I literally didn’t know how to process my own feelings about it when I left the theatre on that hot summer night, and I write about pop culture for 25YL on the reg. It was only after a couple of patio beers and a good two hours’ conversation that I realised I just didn’t have the vocabulary to describe it, to describe my reaction to it, to talk about why I felt the way I did; all I knew was that I’d never seen anything like it and I wanted to see it again. (Unfortunately it left the theatres very soon after; it didn’t get a very wide release to begin with, but that’s perhaps a discussion for another day.) At the end of the day, Sorry to Bother You appeared poised to be the kind of touchstone for an industry currently mired in overly expensive tentpole productions focused on sequels and “universes” but which could if it wanted to get back to a place of true innovation and creativity; all we needed to do was listen to and give platforms to minority voices!
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.
Riley himself said in a Twitter thread that the lack of nominations was probably because they didn’t mount a huge For Your Consideration campaign; if true, that—to me; to many—signals a larger problem with the way the Academy operates. A truly great film shouldn’t need to spend millions advertising itself to voters; voters shouldn’t be wined and dined in order for you to earn their vote in the first place. But, as Riley says, that’s the way the biz works; the Academy won’t stick its neck out for films it doesn’t think will stand a chance. We ought to wonder why that is, and when we do, we may get to the heart of why the entire award industry is so plagued with apathy year after year.
But it’s a damn tragedy that this film didn’t garner any nods at all when it could have garnered many. When was the last time the Oscars praised singular vision, a timely social message, creative risk-taking, fantastic writing/editing/cinematography, and unique storytelling all at once? I can’t remember, but I wish it had happened this year.
Best Actress: Joanna Kulig — Cold War
Will: Cold War was so busy providing surprises (Best Cinematography) and creating snubs of its own (director Pawet Pawlikowski was nominated over Bradley Cooper and Ryan Coogler, to name a few) when the Oscar nominations were announced that some didn’t realize the largely unknown film had been snubbed itself. The Best Foreign Language Film nominee entered some very prestigious categories, but failed to secure actress Joanna Kulig a Best Actress nomination.
The film itself is a throwback of sorts. It goes beyond the black and white film being used to tell a noir-like tale set against the backdrop of a dangerous time in European politics. When it comes to Kulig’s character of Zula, the film digs deep into its noir roots by producing one of the most striking femme fatales the screen has seen in some time. At some point during the film, you’ll question when it was made; a true compliment for a film in 2018 trying to recreate ‘50s/‘60s Europe in painstaking detail. And a lot of that sense of time travel comes from Zula.
Cold War tells the story of two Polish musicians, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a pianist/composer/historian who runs a traveling company of rural-based musicians, and Zula (Kulig), a singing/dancing city girl, posing as a farm girl so she can get a shot at being in Wiktor’s entertainment group and escape her violent past. Wiktor and Zula, though completely wrong for each other in every way, fall in love and can’t seem to keep apart from each other, even as both escape Communism by either escaping the country or marrying into citizenship.
Zula is a fascinating subject, and as an audience member you can understand Wiktor’s complete obsession with her while also shaking your head and going, “get away from that girl, man!” When we meet Zula, she is on probation for stabbing her father. She tells Wiktor, “He mistook me for my mother and a knife showed him the difference.” She begins her eventual decades-long love affair with Wiktor despite changing regimes and always changing locations (France, Yugoslavia, back to Poland) because she shows vulnerability by needing him, and always returning, but by doing everything her own way—sometimes in loud, drunken ways.
It is Kulig’s dedication to the wide-ranging emotions of Zula that makes us both frustrated and intoxicated with her. Looking like a cross between a more earthy Lea Seydoux and a more outwardly sexual Jessica Chastain, Kulig shows Zula as petty, feisty, sexy, cruel, kittenish, and bored, channeling Brigitte Bardot in her devil-may-care attitude and, as Kulig herself told Last Call with Carson Daly, Lauren Bacall, who Kulig used as inspiration to be “slow and very sensitive.”
In true femme fatale fashion, Zula leads our hero towards a path of destruction; one in which he is a willing participant since he can’t just say no. Zula abandons Wiktor on multiple occasions, criticizes his art, flirts with other men, passively attacks his exes, and makes him chase her all over Europe. And, despite all this, she does love him, confusing the matter entirely as she is seemingly there and nowhere all at the same time.
Kulig’s take on Zula is such a visual performance that it is hard to put into words. On paper it seems like she is just satisfying a genre trope, but once you see her look at Wiktor in anger, with passion, and with sadness, you see the true depth of her performance and realize that while it is rooted in tropes, it transcends them. A true Oscar swing and a miss!
So that’s our list of Oscar snubs for this year. What/whom do you think should have gotten a nod that didn’t? Let us know in the comments and on social media!