Oscar 2020-21 – predicting the winners

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is reinventing the wheel this year when it comes to their annual Academy Awards ceremony. For one thing, being 14 months into a global pandemic has changed the presenting space. I am told that the Dolby Theater will still be used, but that downtown L.A.’s Union Station will be another location as well, with nominees and a single guest apiece in attendance, but no seat-fillers or anyone else.

For another thing, the “Oscars so white” outcry that popped after the crop of nominees from 2019 produced just a single major-category nominee of color (Cynthia Erivo of “Harriet”), eligible best picture nominees (as few as five films and as many as ten) must meet at least two of the following criteria: have a major character be handicapped, LGBTQ, or a racial minority (or have over 30% of the cast be female), and have a storyline revolving around one or more of the aforementioned subjects; have at least two of the top production staff members involved in the film’s production fit the above ethnic/physical/gender criteria; offer internships and apprenticeships to the above-mentioned persons, as well as job opportunities for them in below-the-line roles; and have a marketing and distribution staff that includes representatives from the above group. (Specifics can be found here).

Finally – and for the third year in a row – the event will be sans host. I have little doubt that the show will still near the four-hour mark, even with the Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing categories being merged int one. Having multiple venues (including locations abroad for overseas nominees to appear as well) will surely carry with it some technical challenges…and there are always surprises, from the streaker of 1974 who appeared behind a game David Niven; to the occasional tie (in 1968, Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn shared Best Actress honors, for “Funny Girl” and “The Lion in Winter,” respectively); to Faye Dunaway announcing “La La Land” as the Best Picture winner in 2017, only for it to be retracted in favor of “Moonlight.” What a night that was!

This year, “Mank” leads the pack with 10 nominations, followed by “The Father,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Minari,” “Nomadland,” “Sound of Metal,” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” with six nods apiece? Which films will win? Read on!

Best Picture

Nominees:
The Father
Judas and the Black Messiah
Mank
Minari
Nomadland
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Who Will Win: Nomadland
Who Should Win: Nomadland
Watch Out For: The Trial of the Chicago 7
Should Have Been Nominated: One Night in Miami

Comments:

Many years, common themes emerge among the nominees, such as in 1998, when three of the Best Picture nominees were set during World War II (“Life is Beautiful,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “The Thin Red Line”) while the remaining two took place in Elizabethan England (“Elizabeth” and that year’s winner “Shakespeare in Love”). The eight nominated films from 2020 comprise something of a more eclectic roster. Three are based on true stories (“Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Mank,” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” while one revolves around the immigrant experience (“Minari”), one deals with dementia and aging parents (“The Father”), one is about deafness (“Sound of Metal”), one focuses on the RV lifestyle (“Nomadland”), and one, staunchly pro-female, tackles the tough subject of rape and accountability for one’s actions (“Promising Young Woman”).

If there is any unifying thread, it’s that none of these films received major theatrical runs – just enough screenings to qualify for Oscar consideration. Let’s take a closer look at each film:

In “The Father,” a London businesswoman (Olivia Colman) is about to move to Paris and must find a new nurse for her aging father (Anthony Hopkins) who is slipping into dementia and, lately, has as many bad days as good ones. We suspect that the woman secretly hates herself, especially when we learn – through clever subterfuge and production design trickery – that her father’s basic grasp on reality is not what it once was. In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” we journey back to 1960’s Chicago as life in the city was for members of the Black Panther Party, including local head Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Is the charismatic Hampton, whose party crossed a fatal line during a shootout with local police, ever going to be truly safe? And will the FBI mole (Lakeith Stanfield, in a tricky role) inside Hampton’s inner circle experience a change of heart?

“Mank,” director David Fincher’s labor of love (adapting a screenplay written by his late father, Jack Fincher) about “Citizen Kane” scribe Herman Mankiewicz, tells of a stubborn, alcoholic writer (Gary Oldman, excellent as always) who is called upon by a seldom-seen Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to do his bidding, and who crafts his memories of trips to the Hearst Castle into a politically-charged screenplay that won him and Welles an Oscar (though in this telling, we learn that Welles wrote nary a word). “Minari,” an autobiographical film by Korean director Lee Isaac Chung, follows the mid-1980’s journey of Jacob (Steven Yeun), a young Korean husband and father of two who drags his family, including prideful wife Monica (Yeri Han), from an impoverished but social lifestyle in California to rural Arkansas, where Jacob hopes to thrive as a farmer. The film is Chung’s “Roma,” you could say, and is perhaps more intimate than any other nominated motion picture this year.

“Nomadland,” the current frontrunner, tells of the mournful journey to eventual contentment for Fern (a wonderful Frances McDormand) who converts a utility van into an RV of sorts and takes to the open road, doing seasonal work for Amazon and the National Park Service but otherwise living off the grid, forming temporary friendships with other wanderers like herself, most played by non-actors. (One, known simply as “Swanky,” will break your heart.) “Promising Young Woman,” the come-from-nowhere phenom (a strong contender in the Best Actress and Original Screenplay categories), garnered a fair amount of controversy for its subject matter, which tackles rape, revenge, depression, and male-female dynamics in general. I really don’t want to say much more than that, as the film works better if you know little about it going in. And I mean that as a good thing – it’s phenomenal, as is its lead, Carey Mulligan.

In “Sound of Metal,” we first meet Ruben, a drummer for a heavy metal band (an awful heavy metal band, I should say), and as he appears to suffer from an out-of-the-blue case of tinnitus, we know that things will only get worse. Poor Ruben (Riz Ahmed) loses his hearing rapidly, and his girlfriend/band mate Lou (Olivia Cooke) knows that he needs time away from her to work through this. The film is cruel but honest, and will fare well in the technical categories thanks to its clever sound mixing – we hear what Ruben hears. Finally, in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” we get lots of Aaron Sorkin-penned speechifying a la “A Few Good Men,” in a courtroom drama about the unfair incarceration of anti-Vietnam protesters Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, and others on the eve of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. A strong cast including Sacha Baron Cohen (as Hoffman), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (as Seale), Frank Langella, and the always-reliable Mark Rylance breathe life into Sorkin’s script.

Most years, the frontrunner status changes several times. Last year, for example, we didn’t know until the last minute whether “1917” or “Parasite” was going to win. That makes filling out those office Oscar ballots trickier, but it also makes the broadcast more exciting to watch (not that most people consider a four-hour awards show “exciting”). This year, however, the frontrunner is – and has always been – Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland.” The film has taken most pre-Oscars awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture-Drama, and it would take a freight train to change the picture’s destiny. That it is directed by an Asian woman and released at a time when the disastrous Trump presidency revealed how far America still has to come in matters of gender and race, is the icing on the cake but, for me at least, not the reason it deserves to win. It deserves to win because it is, simply, the best motion picture of the year – a moving portrait of our nation’s fringes, and an ethereal road movie as well, the best film of its genre since “Into the Wild” was released in 2007.

My thoughts on the other nominated films? Emotionally, I was most moved by “Minari,” another beautiful portrait of life in America’s heartland, and a real triumph of the human spirit, if you’ll pardon the cliché. In terms of production values, I though that “The Father” and “Sound of Metal” were both aces; though the films have few location changes, careful attention to detail, set design, and editing help disorient viewers in a fashion similar to those of their protagonists. As someone who is trying to become more woke, I appreciated the civil rights history lessons from “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” I liked the strong ensemble acting in both films as well, although script problems hampered them from truly being among the best pictures of the year (though “Trial” has a slight chance” at besting “Nomadland” on Sunday, as it most closely resembles the traditional Oscar fare that so often wins). “Mank” is made with love, but I find it a triumph of directing more than anything else. It is somewhat slow-moving, and its lack of a writing nomination all but kills its chances in the major categories. “Pieces of a Woman” is a film that I can’t get out of my head. Like “Fargo” and “Get Out” and “Her,” it is a bit too daring, I think, to win the top prize, but it will surely take home Best Original Screenplay honors as a consolation prize. Check it out if you haven’t done so already.

Best Director

Nominees:
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman
David Fincher, Mank
Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round
Chloé Zhao, Nomadland

Who Will Win:
Chloé Zhao
Who Should Win: Chloé Zhao
Watch Out For: Emerald Fennell
Should Have Been Nominated: Regina King, One Night in Miami

Comments: Holy diversity, Batman! The long-running #oscarssowhite social media campaign reaped dividends this year, with only two of the Best Director nominees (David Fincher and Thomas Vinterberg) being of the traditional white male variety. The third male nominee, Lee Isaac Chung, is just the second filmmaker of Korean descent (after last year’s winner, “Parasite’s” Bong Joon-ho) to receive a Directing nomination. The last two slots belong to women – first-time nominees Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”) and Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”), who is this year’s frontrunner. 2021 marks the first year that two women were nominated in this category, and the first time that an Asian female (Zhao) was nominated for Directing as well. Had Regina King, whose dynamic conversation piece “One Night in Miami” was my second-favorite film of the year, been nominated as well, the slate would have been 60% female, and King would have been history’s first black female Directing nominee. As it stands, Fennell and Zhao are just the sixth and seventh women to have ever been nominated in this category – a shameful oversight.

It seems fortuitous, then, that Zhao is almost certain to win. Even more, I think, than this year’s Best Actor category, Best Director appears to be a one-person race. Vegas statisticians have her as the odds-on winner, so you’d have to be willing to foolishly part with your cash to bet against her. She recently won the top prize by the Director’s Guild of America, and was the first Asian female to have done so. Her inevitable anointing on Sunday will make her just the second woman of any ethnicity to win the Academy Award for Best Director – another unfortunate oversight.

Does Zhao deserve it? I think so. She gets great performances from leads Frances McDormand and David Strathairn – no surprise there – but she also coaxes sublime work from a supporting cast that is comprised almost entirely of non-actors, most of them nomads in real life. Additionally, she treats the subject of the displaced wanderer with dignity and non-judgment, and crafts a film that is beautiful to look at and listen to. Recently tapped by Disney to helm Marvel’s “The Immortals,” Zhao has a great career ahead of her.

Were there to be an upset, it would likely be by the other female nominee, Fennell. Her brave film, which deftly juggles drama and black comedy without the jarring tonal shifts that often mar films that straddle genres, feels like an intensely personal statement, and I applaud her vision. That she made the film while seven months pregnant, working 20 hours/day, is even more impressive. When rave reviews came up after “Mank” was first previewed, I thought, for a while, that Fincher, who has been making movies since 1992 yet remains a respected (and Oscar-less) auteur, would finally win Best Director. His film, like Fennell’s, is a personal labor of love, and it looks great, filmed in glorious black-and-white. Still and all, despite leading the Oscar pack with 10 nominations, it will likely go home with an Oscar for Best Production Design…maybe Best Cinematography…and that’s it. One day, sir. We love you.

Best Actor

Nominees:
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Gary Oldman, Mank
Steven Yeun, Minari

Who Will Win: Chadwick Boseman
Who Should Win: Anthony Hopkins
Watch Out For: Riz Ahmed
Should Have Been Nominated: Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods

Comments: As usual, this is a crowded category, with five deserving nominees and at least two equally-deserving also-rans (I’m think of Delroy Lindo for Spike Lee’s damning Vietnam drama “Da 5 Bloods” and Mads Mikkelsen for the life-affirming Danish import “Another Round.”) There were a couple of sorta-surprises on Oscar nomination morning, namely the nominations of Riz Ahmed – the first Muslim Best Actor nominee – and of “The Walking Dead’s” Steven Yeun – the first Asian Best Actor nominee. That Ahmed in particular is a strong underdog nominee makes the category especially interesting this year.

Ahmed plays Ruben Stone a heavy metal drummer whose rapid hearing loss transforms his life and destroys his relationship in “Sound of Metal.” The late Chadwick Boseman, whose nomination this year was a foregone conclusion, tears up the screen as volatile blues trumpeter Levee Green, all libido and rage, in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Sir Anthony Hopkins plays the title role in “The Father,” a learned man whose descent into dementia robs him of his sense of time and place. Gary Oldman earns his third nomination (he won three years ago for “Darkest Hour”) as “Mank” title character Herman Mankiewicz, a high-functioning drunk and Hollywood hanger-on who just happens to pen one of the greatest screenplays ever written. Finally, Yuen plays the eternal optimist Jacob Yi, a Korean-born farmer who uproots his family to rural Arkansas, with all the toil and spousal disapproval that such a move entails.

They are all terrific, of course, but four of them did not pass away of cancer in their early forties after having played Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and Marvel’s Black Panther. The one that did, Boseman, was dubbed the presumptive winner before his final film, based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, was even screened for critics. I didn’t entirely buy into the dramatic beats penned for his character, but I bought into his towering performance wholeheartedly. Boseman’s Levee is any actor’s dream role. And considering how respected Boseman was in the industry – dependable, easy to work with, treated his female costars with respect, destined to one day win an Oscar had he beaten his cancer diagnosis, yet gone before his time – the film’s failure to ultimately snag a Best Picture nomination doesn’t even affect his chances.

If anyone stands a chance at an upset, it’s Hopkins. The five-time nominee and one-time winner (for “The Silence of the Lambs”) gives his best performance in two decades as an aging – but still dashing – man who can no longer trust his own reality. His tearful breakdown in the film’s last scene, when he cries out for his mommy, will surely play on the highlight reel, but I was most floored by an earlier scene, when, in the presence of his daughter, he meets his new caretaker and tells both women, enunciating the last letter of each word, that they can fuck the hell off. The scene is a treat to watch; I replayed it three times in a row, my jaw dropped. Ahmed has a chance as well – his small film has a lot of admirers – but he and Hopkins will likely be fake-clapping when Boseman’s name is inevitably read on Oscar night.  

Best Actress

Nominees:
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Who Will Win: Carey Mulligan
Who Should Win: Frances McDormand
Watch Out For: Viola Davis
Should Have Been Nominated: Jessie Buckley, I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Comments: A strong category this year, and the toughest one to predict, Best Actress for 2021 is anyone’s game. Each of the five nominees have won important pre-Oscar awards, with the momentum having shifted in each of their favors for a time. Were I to predict the nominees before they were announced, I would have guessed that they would be Viola Davis, Andra Day, Vanessa Kirby, Frances McDormand, and Carey Mulligan. As with Best Actor, I wish there was room for two more; my heart breaks for Jessie Buckley and Julie Garner, so good in the Netflix release “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and the early 2020 indie “The Assistant,” respectively. At least Buckley has an Irish Film & Television Award for the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl,” and Garner a pair of Emmys’ for Netflix’s “Ozark.”

Davis, one of the most respected actresses working in film today, has the least amount of screen time of this year’s Best Actress nominees, but she made the role – that of boozy, flamboyant, you-mess-with-the-bull-and-you-get-the-horns Ma Rainey in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – her own. Day, very good in the not-very-good “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” is her film’s sole nominee. As the hard-living, silky-voiced singer whose anti-slavery song “Strange Fruit” made her a target of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, she was even better than Diana Ross in the same role several decades previous (in “Lady Sings the Blues”). Kirby, of TV’s “The Crown,” breaks your heart in “Pieces of a Woman,” playing Martha, a grieving mother who loses her daughter during childbirth. Interestingly enough, she, like Day, is her film’s only nominee as well. McDormand, who has six lifetime Oscar nominations and two previous wins (for “Fargo” and “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”), is simply luminous in “Nomadland” as Fern, a widower who leaves her impoverished factory town to roam the open road in her repurposed utility van.

And then there is Carey Mulligan. The London-born star of the #metoo-approved “Promising Young Woman” was nominated once before (for 2009’s “An Education”) and should have been nominated in 2013 (for Steve McQueen’s “Shame”). At last, it would seem that her ship has come in. She plays 30-year-old Cassie Thomas, a med school dropout who lives with her parents, works in a coffee shop, and…gets revenge, we’ll say, against sexually aggressive young males that prey against women who’ve had too much to drink. It is a challenging role in a challenging film, and she nails it. Watching the film, I wanted to fall in love with her Cassie, all bubble gum, pink hair, and flirty smiles, but I knew that I didn’t dare. What a performance! I wasn’t a bit surprised to learn that Mulligan was named Best Actress by the National Board of Review – one of the early pre-Oscar night endorsements.  

Still and all, Mulligan isn’t a lock. Despite the strong showing of black nominees since the millennia began, there still remains just one non-white Best Actress Oscar winner (Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball”). With two strong nominees in Davis and Day, 2021 could change that. Davis won Best Actress at the SAG Awards, and Day won Best Actress-Drama at the Golden Globes. Kirby won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, but her momentum faded when co-star Ellen Burstyn, once a shoo-in, failed to receive a nomination in the Supporting Actress category. For a time, McDormand was a lock, and she won the BAFTA prize for Best Actress. She is my personal choice; her performance in “Nomadland” is so naturalistic that it doesn’t even feel like acting, and, as hard as this is to imagine, is even better than in her memorable turns in “Fargo” and “Three Billboards.” Alas, though, her two previous wins in the same category may count against her.      

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees:
Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Leslie Odom, Jr., One Night in Miami
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah

Who Will Win: Daniel Kaluuya
Who Should Win: Daniel Kaluuya
Watch Out For: Paul Raci
Should Have Been Nominated: Kingsley Ben-Adir, One Night in Miami

Comments: Though traditionally a very crowded category, the Best Supporting Actor category is a bit lackluster this year. That isn’t to say that it isn’t filled with good performances; rather, that most years produce 10 or 15 worthy nominees but this year produced just half a dozen.

The nominees: “Borat” funny man Sacha Baron Cohen, playing things more seriously (but still being funny) as anti-war protester Abbie Hoffman in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” He is perhaps the only character from the film to really feel fleshed out (a casualty of the script perhaps, not of the actors), and one of the best things about it. Next up is rising star Daniel Kaluuya, nominated three years ago for “Get Out” before taking a supporting role in “Black Panther.” In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Kaluuya is at his most charismatic as Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, just 25 years old when he died. His costar from the same film, Lakeith Stanfield, joins him as the other half of the coin – FBI informant William O’Neal, who became Hampton’s head of security and forged a friendship under false pretenses. (Rather strangely, Stanfield’s role is a lead, not supporting, role, despite his appearance in this particular category….) Leslie Odom, Jr., the Tony-winning co-lead of Broadway’s “Hamilton,” earns his first Oscar nomination for “One Night in Miami,” playing Sam Cooke, leveling the racial playing field by pandering to white audiences in order to earn money for his black-owned record label. Finally, another first-time nominee, “Sound of Metal’s” Paul Raci, squeaked in as Joe, who runs a halfway house of sorts for hearing-impaired individuals with nowhere else to go.

The sentimental vote may go to the 72-year-old Raci, who has had bit parts in films and TV shows over the years (including TV’s “Parks and Recreation”) and who has been a long-time advocate for having greater representation of deaf characters in entertainment. He plays a key role in the film’s most heartrending scene, and is this year’s underdog to the presumed winner, Kaluuya. As Hampton, Kaluuya shows you not only how his character can ignite a movement and inspire a crowd, but also how such a natural leader can nonetheless have butterflies in his stomach when on a first date. The only actor really snubbed here this year, I think, is Kingsley Ben-Adir, who played Malcolm X in “One Night in Miami.” I read that Amazon Studios touted him for Best Actor; perhaps they should have taken the approach that Warner Bros. took for “Judas and the Black Messiah” by pitching Stanfield in the supporting category instead. Odom was good in Miami; Ben-Adir was even better.

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees:
Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
Olivia Colman, The Father
Amanda Seyfried, The Father
Youn Yuh-jung, Minari

Who Will Win: Youn Yuh-jung
Who Should Win: Youn Yuh-jung
Watch Out For: Maria Bakalova
Should Have Been Nominated: Ellen Burstyn, Pieces of a Woman

Comments: It appears that we have a two-person race for Best Supporting Actress this year. The early favorite – and still a major contender – was newcomer and first-time nominee Maria Bakalova, who stole “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” from her loquacious costar, Sacha Baron Cohen. Her rival, who currently has the edge according to the Vegas oddsmakers, is Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung, also a first-time nominee, up for her role as Soonja, the cantankerous grandmother in “Minari.” Like Bakalova, she steals the film from her costars.

The performances by the other category nominees this year are nothing to sneeze at, either. Glenn Close, who earned her eighth nomination for “Hillbilly Elegy,” plays the chain-smoking, Coke bottle glasses-wearing, bad-postured Mamaw. Can you believe that Close has never won an Oscar? She is joined by 2019 Best Actress (for “The Favourite”) winner Olivia Colman (who bested Close that year; Close was the expected winner for “The Wife”). In “The Father,” Colman plays a career-minded London woman who cares for an aging parent, and she earns your sympathy as both a doting daughter and an independent woman with her own hopes and dreams. The fifth nominee is another Oscar first-timer, Amanda Seyfried, a breath of fresh air as Marion Davies, silver screen starlet and live-in lover to William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) in “Mank.”

Good performances all. Seyfried and Bakalova are luminous, their scenes with costars Gary Oldman and Sacha Baron Cohen being the best sequences in each respective movie. Seyfried has been making movies for 15 years now, and “Mank” represents her highest-profile role since “Les Misérables” eight years prior (sorry, but “Mamma Mia” doesn’t count). She is a distant third in this year’s race – a shame because I suspect that she may never get as good of a role again. In “Borat,” the Bulgarian-born Bakalova – a real find – earned laughs as she humiliated Rudy Giuliani and garnered smiles as she won her father’s love. This is the kind of ingenue role that often wins the trophy in this category, and would this year…were it not for the wonderful Yuh-jung, who, in “Minari,” wins her grandson’s love by literally willing his heart condition into her own body. This Sunday, she is sure to make history as the first Korean female to win an acting Oscar, which means that Bakalova, Seyfried, Colman, and longtime also-ran Close will have to take solace in saying “It’s an honor just to be nominated.”

Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominees:
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
The Father
Nomadland
One Night in Miami
The White Tiger

Who Will Win: Nomadland
Who Should Win: One Night in Miami
Watch Out For: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Should Have Been Nominated: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Comments: A diverse slate of nominated scripts, with some overlapping themes but, overall, five distinct voices. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” which gives cowriter Sacha Baron Cohen his second of two nominations this year, lacks the freshness of his 2006 original, yet tackles Trump politics and the coronavirus with a terrific last 30 minutes. “The Father,” which gives Anthony Hopkins a meaty bit of dialogue in the mid-film sequence where he verbally annihilates his daughter (Olivia Colman) and the new caregiver that she has brought into their home, has some clever bits of time and location trickery that would make Christopher Nolan envious were he to pen a straightforward drama. “Nomadland” observes its RV-driving characters with a sort of distanced respect, as if to acknowledge the fact that many of the film’s souls are too fractured to let you into their inner circles. My favorite screenplay from 2020, “One Night in Miami,” posits the conversation that may have taken place during an actual meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. Lastly, “The White Tiger,” set in India and focusing on a driver (Adarsh Gourav) who wishes to rise above his station, could be marketed as a “Slumdog Millionaire”-esque tale of triumph over adversity – except that this Netflix-distributed film is much darker in tone, and with a protagonist who isn’t always the good guy.

When I watched “One Night in Miami” two months ago on Prime Video, I declared it the film to beat. The perfect movie for a newly-woke America, it takes larger than life characters from black history and makes you feel as if you know them. One of those movies where there is so much going on despite lacking much of a traditional plot, I couldn’t stop watching. This Kemp Powers-penned screenplay is about as close to perfect as a stage-to-screen script can get. Too bad, though, that the film’s momentum has faded – especially here, in its most-deserving category. I don’t think that anything can stop the train that is “Nomadland,” although I think that film’s merits are in its writing, directing, lensing, scoring, and sound mixing. I respect the fact that, when watching “Nomadland,” it’s none of our business why the film’s characters choose to live the way they do…but I can’t help but wish I knew a bit more as to why, as the itinerant lifestyle can’t be an easy one.

Best Original Screenplay

Nominees:
Judas and the Black Messiah
Minari
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Who Will Win: Promising Young Woman
Who Should Win: Promising Young Woman
Watch Out For: The Trial of the Chicago 7
Should Have Been Nominated: Another Round

Comments: I have issues with this year’s crop of Original Screenplay nominees. Namely, some of these scripts seem unfinished. In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” we learn of how FBI informant William O’Neal befriended, then betrayed, the head of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party…but we don’t know how much of Panther Fred Hampton’s message O’Neal believed in. Would a traditional biopic about Hampton’s life been the better way to go? And shouldn’t Hampton have been the main character? In “Sound of Metal,” we watch as heavy metal drummer Ruben faces his radical hearing loss – opting for cochlear implant surgery that makes him a pariah to others in the close-knit deaf community he has grown to love. But the film doesn’t establish the passage of time very well, it seems as if Ruben loses his hearing overnight, and recovers from his surgery just as quickly. One or two additional lines of dialogue could have fixed this! In “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” we simply have too many characters to ever really get to know any of them. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman is relatively flushed out, but what about the other activists on trial? And what kind of personal bias made the judge (Frank Langella) such a hardass? (In defense of writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s script, I am told that its depiction of the trial is spot-on accurate. This gives it a chance as a possible upset come Oscar night…but I think a longer running time would have flushed out the proceedings and players a bit more. As it stands, Sorkin’s screenplays for “The Social Network” and “A Few Good Men,” both of which also dealt all or in part with legal proceedings, are superior pieces of writing.)

I have fewer issues with the last two nominees, Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical “Minari,” and Emerald Fennell’s intoxicating “Promising Young Woman.” In “Minari,” we get to known and fall in love with the Yi family and all of their imperfections – a stubborn father, a prideful mother, a bed-wetting son, a doting daughter, and a non-traditional grandmother. Even the supporting characters, namely the farmhand (the great Will Patton) who speaks in tongues, seem like real, quirky, wonderful human beings. In “Promising Young Woman,” which is poised to win, we learn of how the rape and eventual suicide of her med school best friend turned Cassie (Carey Mulligan) into someone who can be both a trauma victim, afraid to live on her own, and an avenging angel. This is a fascinating film, its main character one of Hollywood’s most interesting creations in some time. It deserves to win here, and I am sure it will.

Other categories

It has taken nine decades, but “below the line” categories such as Cinematography, Sound, and Animated Short are finally getting more recognition at the Oscars. The availability of options via streaming services certainly helps; I haven’t stepped inside a movie theater in over a year, and saw every film this year, including several of the Documentary and Animated entries, via Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, or Disney Plus.

Here are my predictions of the remaining category winners:

   Best Foreign Film: “Another Round” from Denmark
   Best Animated Feature: Pixar’s “Soul” over Pixar’s “Onward”
   Best Documentary Feature: “My Octopus Teacher” edges out “Time” and the more-deserving “Collective”
   Best Documentary Short: “A Love Song for Latasha”
   Best Live Action Short Subject: “Two Distant Strangers”
   Best Animated Short: “If Anything Happens I Love You”
   Best Cinematography: “Nomadland” over “Mank” in one of the tightest races of the evening
   Best Film Editing: “Sound of Metal” over “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
   Best Original Score: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste for “Soul” over…Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for “Mank”
   Best Original Song: “Speak Now” from “One Night in Miami” – performed by Leslie Odom, Jr.
   Best Sound: “Sound of Metal”
   Best Production Design: “Mank” over the more-deserving “The Father”
   Best Costume Design: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
   Best Makeup and Hairstyling: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
   Best Visual Effects: “Tenet”

By my count, that’s “Nomadland” with four Oscars, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” with three, and “Sound of Metal” and “Soul” with two each. A decent spreading of the trophy wealth, and an interesting capstone to one of the weirdest Oscar years ever.

The 2021 Oscars air live this Sunday, April 25th at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m PT on ABC. Read up on the nominees at oscar.go.com…and enjoy the show! Who do you think will win?

Bidding Adieu to 2020

What a year it has been! (And I don’t mean that as a compliment.) Indeed, if I were to call 2020 a “crazy year,” that would be, by most accounts, an understatement. From COVID-19, cases of which continue to climb as news of rival vaccines suggest that hope is in the not-so-distant horizons, to seemingly-endless California wildfires, to dual hurricanes ravaging the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, to meth gators, murder hornets, and giant Saharan dust clouds – and to one exhausting presidential election in which the candidate that officially lost still refuses to concede – it seems that planet Earth has been on its collective toes since the year began.

January

The year began on something of an auspicious note. Though it would be a month before we would hear the word “coronavirus” uttered on a daily basis, my dad spent Christmas Day, and roughly two whole weeks afterwards, violently ill, with all of the symptoms that would later come to define COVID-19. He was never diagnosed as having had the virus, but to this day remains convinced that he caught an early case of the ‘rona.

January 7th marked the first of what would be dozens of noteworthy deaths in the world of sports, news, and entertainment. Neal Peart, the legendary drummer for the band Rush, died. He would be followed just two weeks later, on the 21st, by Monty Python co-founder Terry Jones, and just five days after that by Kobe Bryant, who perished on January 26th in a chopper crash that also took the life of his teenage daughter. Bryant and his daughter were flying over the hills of Malibu on route to Bryant’s charity basketball camp.

GringoPotpourri note: Upon learning of Bryant’s death, I wrote a tribute on FB in which I remembered seeing him play basketball once. I had secured floor seats to a Laker’s game, just a few seats down from perennial season ticket holder Jack Nicholson, and watched as Bryant took his time getting started, as if he had all the time in the world. By the second half, he was on fire, and scored 50 points just by himself. I am told that that’s the kind of player he was, playing the game for fun, not for a paycheck. I found myself defriended soon after my post by a former colleague who called Bryant a rapist, and (it would seem) apparently named me as part of the problem by not mentioning that side of the former LA Laker’s reputation.

You see, I didn’t know. I remember dozens of men – creepers like Louis C.K. and predators such as Harvey Weinstein – getting their just desserts when the long overdue #metoo movement took hold. I also remember other men – comedian Aziz Anzari comes to mind – being lumped into that group as well, only for their accusers to take a step back once the truth came to light that some accusations were specious at best. And for the life of me, I simply didn’t remember hearing Bryant’s name be among those mentioned.

I did a bit of research after being accused of taking Bryant’s side, and what I initially found (no, I didn’t invest too much time) suggested that Bryant and his accuser settled outside of court, and that no guilt was ever publicly admitted. That is my story, and I’m sticking to it. Even so…this issue begs a bigger question. If the accusations against Bryant were true, does that make him any less sensational of an athlete? For that matter and while we’re on the subject, should every Best Picture Oscar won by Miramax be revoked because of Weinstein’s depravity?

February

COVID-19 started making bigger headlines domestically, but it was slow to reach Tennessee, and mask mandates and toilet paper hoarding were still a month or two away. East Tennessee had its second-rainiest February on record (breaking the previous record, set just one year prior).

I found myself promoted to a long-sought-after position at the Knoxville call center where I work, and in charge of 13 impressionable agents.

The next day, February 5th, Kirk Douglas passed away at the age of 103. Father of Michael and star of “Paths of Glory” and “Spartacus,” Douglas was the last celebrity from the golden age of Hollywood.

Three weeks later, my world was darkened when my best friend, Molly the Dog, died before her time. You can read my tribute about her for more information. All I will say at this time is that I miss my favorite girl, and I hope to someday see her again.

March

March saw my professional life upended when it was decided, perhaps halfway through the month, that we would deploy everyone at the office to a temporary, work-from-home environment. The transition was bumpy, as we sent everyone home, a few teams at a time, with a keyboard, mouse, computer, monitor, phone, headset, and VPN device. There were late adapters to this migration, and I was one of them. For some, they didn’t have viable home internet, while others lacked a private space in which to work. For me, the issue was that my townhouse was being renovated, and there was too much hammering and banging. So when a show of interest was taken for leaders willing to continue working from the center so that there would be some kind of on-site leadership presence, I was only too happy to volunteer – thinking that things would be back to normal in no more than two months’ time.

But I should have known that we were in for some tough times when my candidate of choice for the president in the 2020 election, Pete Buttigieg, dropped out the race on March 1st. A rising star in the Democratic party, “Mayor Pete” served two terms as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and was credited with revitalizing a dying riverfront area in that Midwest city. Buttigieg was a Rhodes Scholar and a Naval intelligence officer who spent seven months deployed in Afghanistan. He speaks seven languages and is President-elect Biden’s nominee for secretary of transportation. Just as important, Buttigieg is gay. Although he narrowly won the Iowa Caucus and finished second in the New Hampshire primary, it is believed that concerns over his viability as an appealing candidate in the Bible Belt and other conservative-leaning regions led to his untimely decision to drop out. I would have loved to see him go toe to toe with President Trump on the debate state, but alas, it was not in the cards. Mayor Pete is just 38, and may have to bide his time until wider acceptance of LGBTQ candidates makes him a viable candidate and not just an also-ran. For my $0.02, he would make a great president.

One of my favorite Bravo Network shows was “Inside the Actors Studio,” during which Columbia University acting students were invited to sit in on interviews with dozens – hundreds, perhaps – of actors, ranging from Robert De Niro to Harrison Ford to the voice cast of “The Simpsons.” As such, I mourned the loss of the show’s host, James Lipton, who died on March 2nd. He was joined in death six days later (March 8th) by the legendary Max Von Sydow (star of “The Seventh Seal” and “Pele the Conqueror”), and by country star Kenny Rogers another 12 days later, on March 20th.

If the deaths of Lipton, Von Sydow, and Rogers merit a few words apiece on the subject, then the tragic death of 26-year-old medical worker Breonna Taylor on March 13th, at the hands of overzealous Louisville police officers, deserves at least a full paragraph. 

The police officers, who were initially acquitted and have yet to serve any jail time, were said to be on the premises investigating a narcotics deal that did not involve Taylor. A settlement of $12 million was eventually awarded to Taylor’s family, but as #blacklivesmatter protesters rightfully said, how much money is a human life worth, anyway?

April

The slow deployment of agents home lasted until early April, and I ended up committing to a schedule of three days/week at the office and two days/week at home. My landlord agreed to postpone renovations of my own unit as long as possible (although I would ultimately end up moving units the following month). While I wouldn’t hear the news until October, it was in April when one of my former bosses perished from COVID-19. He was never a candidate for the cover of “Men’s Health” magazine, and was the dictionary definition of a high-risk candidate for the virus. Lance, you are missed.

2020 has been a tough year for fans of the James Bond universe, and not just because the latest film in the franchise, “No Time to Die,” has had its release date pushed back several times. The first death of several actors who played prominent roles in the films was that of Honor Blackman, Pussy Galore herself. Blackman died on April 6th. I do not know the cause of death, but the film in which she appeared, “Goldfinger” is considered by many to be the best early entry in the series, though her character would surely have been given a different name were the movie to be made in the age of #metoo.

Brian Dennehy, star of stage and screen, died on April 15th. The barrel-chested character actor is perhaps best known for playing Chris Farley’s dad in “Tommy Boy,” or the no-nonsense sheriff in “First Blood,” but did you know that he also won two Tony awards? I have never seen the play “Death of a Salesman,” but am told that his portrayal of the production’s title character, Willy Loman, is generally considered to be theater’s best.

Fans of Hollywood and Bollywood cinema will recognize the face of Irrfan Khan, the Indian-born actor who appeared in dozens of Hindi films before transitioning to Hollywood stardom. He played the detective in “Slumdog Millionaire” and the adult Pi in the FX-heavy “Life of Pi.” Both films won multiple Oscars. Khan died on April 29th from a rare form of cancer. I was dismayed to learn that Khan was just 53.

May

I turned 45 (!) with little fanfare and began to realize that early promise of our call center reopening at full capacity by Memorial Day would be little more than a pipe dream. I moved in May as well – just two doors down, but to higher rent and a newly renovated townhouse that was as different as night and day from my previous unit, despite having the same layout.

Notable celebrity passings in May included Jerry Stiller – father of real-life Ben and fictitious George Costanza – on May 11th, Fred “Best in Show” Willard on May 15th, and “In the Heat of the Night” and “Unforgiven” character actor Anthony James on May 26th. They were all preceded by the legendary, flamboyant Little Richard, who died on May 9th from complications relating to bone marrow cancer.

Born Richard Wayne Penniman, Little Richard penned several 50’s and 60’s hits that still receive heavy radio airplay today. “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” are undeniable classics, and in 2007, “Tutti Frutti” was voted #1 on Mojo Magazine‘s “The Top 100 Records That Changed the World.” Damnably, he never won a competitive Grammy.

Even more damnably, 46-year-old Minneapolis resident George Floyd was killed on May 25th  while being arrested for allegedly passing a counterfeit bill at a convenience store that he frequented. Eyewitness testimony and security camera footage revealed that Floyd was pinned to the ground, strangled to death when his neck was under the knee of one of four arresting officers on the scene. 

“I can’t breathe.” Eight minutes and 46 seconds. If historians remember little about 2020 long after this tumultuous year has come and gone, Floyd’s last words, and the amount of time he was pinned to the ground, will – and should – be among the details to never be forgotten. That the officers involved lost their jobs, and that their actions, so soon after the actions of those involved in the Breonna Taylor killing, led to a summer filled with protest marches across the country as part of the powerful and hopeful #blmmovement, matters little. Floyd is dead, and as I write this, his killers have yet to receive their day in court. 

June

June was an uneventful month for your favorite gringo blogger. I discovered a new hiking spot at Oak Ridge Forest and Arboretum, and spent an enjoyable Father’s Day in Johnson City, Tennessee, taking my dad to lunch at Freiberg’s Restaurant and walking off the meal with a stroll through town, its normally-bustling streets and parks devoid of people during a pandemic that, midway through the year, had yet to abate.

The Shakespeare-trained Ian Holm, who appeared as a track coach in “Chariots of Fire,” as the traitorous Ash in “Alien,” and as Bilbo Baggins in the “Lord of the Rings” films, died on June 19th. I would make an “LOTR” joke about how he is now reunited with his “precious”…except death is no laughing matter.

Polarizing filmmaker Joel “Batman Forever” Schumacher died on June 22nd, and legendary comedian Carl Reiner (and father of Rob) died on June 30th. Holm was 88, Schumacher, was 80, and Reiner was 98.

July

July was a tough month. I knew, after July 4th came and went and our physical call center remained shuttered to all but a few essential employees, that we were “in this” for some time to come. I spent a muted Fourth of July home alone, a far cry from Independence Days past in which I would take in fireworks celebrations in places as different as Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, and, once or twice upon a time, from as far away as Reykjavik or Moscow, no doubt raising eyebrows in my American flag t-shirt (kidding).

Legendary composer Ennio Morricone, who was most famous for scoring the Sergio Leone trilogy of “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More,” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” died on July 6th in Rome after taking a fall. Kelly Preston, upon whom I’d had a crush on since “Twins” premiered in 1988, died of breast cancer on July 12th. The exuberant Regis Philbin died of a heart attack on July 24th. The following day, the film and music industries lost Fleetwood Mac co-founder Peter Green, “Enter the Dragon” and a “A Nightmare on Elm Street” co-star John Saxon, and “Gone with the Wind co-star and two-time Oscar winner Olivia de Haviland.

Residents of Georgia and members of Congress grieved the passing of U.S. Congressman John Lewis, who spent 30+ years in the United States House of Representatives, from 1987 until his death on July 17th. Just as noteworthy as his career in politics, Lewis helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, and led the first march from Selma to Montgomery. He authored a bill to open the National Museum of African American History, and fought for over 15 years for it to become law. In 2011, Lewis was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Lewis died at age 80, of pancreatic cancer.

As if that wasn’t enough, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain died of COVID-19 on July 30th. Cain, on the opposite end of the political spectrum from John Lewis, ran for the Republican presidential nomination as a “Tea Party” candidate in 2012. Cain said some asinine things on the campaign trail and I wasn’t a fan, but still…he lingered in COVID’s grip for an entire month before passing. I wouldn’t wish that upon my worst enemy. 

Preston was just 57 when she passed away, Green 73 and Cain 74. The others, however, were in their mid-80’s or above. De Haviland was 104. Perhaps there is comfort in knowing that they lived long, full lives?

August

I took my first vacation in 14 months, and lofty plans of going someplace fun in the Eastern United States, perhaps Cedar Point in Ohio or the dunes of coastal North Carolina, were tabled in favor of a simple road trip to visit my sister and her family in Memphis. Thanks, pandemic! Fun was had, and we enjoyed a few pool mornings, a trip to the zoo, and, as I took my time driving back home, solo visits to two little-visited state parks.

Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park, south of Jackson, is home to what is believed to be the largest concentration of prehistoric, Native American burial mounds in the country, including massive Sauls Mound, pictured below. The site sits on the edge of a cypress swamp near the Forked Deer River, and has several miles of mostly paved walking and cycling trails. T.O. Fuller State Park is a small pocket of wilderness in the southwestern-most corner of Tennessee, with its own set of Indian ruins managed separately by the University of Memphis as the Chucalissa Archaelogical Museum (closed during my visit). A four-mile loop trail traverses the state park, and I made it less than 1.5 miles before turning back due to the oppressive humidity.

The highlight of that visit wasn’t the state parks, however; it was spending time with my nephew, the walking terror known as Junior. That kid, still two months shy of his second birthday at the time of my visit, has more energy than I do after three cups of coffee, and keeping him out of trouble is a 24/7 occupation. My heart goes out to the family dogs, who have the patience of Job yet live in constant fear of being climbed on or of having their tails pulled (not to mention other extremities). Junior is a great traveler, however, and I hope you’ll smile at this picture of him studying Memphis Zoo dinos:

Ben Cross, who died on August 18th, was something of a minor celebrity, yet he was seldom out of work. Among other parts, he had one of two lead roles in the 1981 Oscar winner “Chariots of Fire,” and he played Sarek in the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot. My favorite role of his was that of Barnabas Collins in the short-lived 1991 Gothic horror TV remake, “Dark Shadows.” Cross was 72.

Ten days later, Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer. His loss shocked Hollywood as he was just 43 years old, and was primed to surely one day win an Oscar. (Early odds have him as the Best Actor frontrunner for this year’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Having just watched it on Netflix, I can confirm his brilliance as the bitter trumpet player Levee; I only wish the rest of the film was as good.) I posted a tribute to Boseman not long after hearing the news of his passing; the “Black Panther” and “42” star leaves big shoes to fill.

September

September was an uneventful month, personally. Work was…work. I did find a new local swimming hole, an idyllic – albeit manmade – cove near Cherokee Dam. A hiking trail leads from the parking lot to the bottom of the dam’s spillway; steps to the top allow one to walk back along the retaining wall, with the promise of a swim in the murky, room-temperature waters of Cherokee Lake at the end as an incentive. Hope there aren’t any meth gators in that water!

The intersecting worlds of law and politics were rocked when, on September 18th, legendary Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at age 87. The cause: pancreatic cancer, the same disease that took the life of her Washington, DC colleague John Lewis. While the world mourned RBG’s passing, few people were ultimately surprised. What would no doubt have been the biggest disappointment to RBG herself was the fact that she did not outlive the Donald Trump presidency; she had, more than once, expressed that as her dying wish. To borrow a quote from Emmy winner Kate McKinnon, who regularly portrayed the late judge on SNL, we have all been “Ginsburned.”

On the last official day of summer, British-French actor Michael Lonsdale passed away at age 89. Lonsdale was perhaps best known for playing the dour James Bond villain Hugo Drax in the “Star Wars”-inspired “Moonraker,” but he also played a prominent role in the earlier thriller “The Day of the Jackal.” I recently gave Steven Spielberg’s 2004 drama “Munich” a re-watch, and was delighted to see Lonsdale in that film as well; I had forgotten he was in it.

October

October is usually the nicest month for weather in East Tennessee. A coastal hurricane may bring a couple days’ worth of rain through the area to kick-start the changing of the leaves, but barring that, Octobers are sunny and warm during the day and crisp and cool at night. Sure, pumpkin spice is everywhere, but you can stop running your air conditioner 24/7.

Although this can be chalked up to it being 2020, the month got off to a colder-than-normal start – the perfect time for me to discover that my furnace didn’t work! An easy fix, and temperatures normalized after those two or three unseasonable days. Except for pre-election jitters in which I learned that I am on the opposite end of the political spectrum from another close family member (and the fact that the usual Halloween costume contest at work would be a muted affair because of our center’s deployment home), the rest of the month was uneventful on a personal level.

The “Notorious” RBG notwithstanding, the Celebrity Grim Reaper was more-or-less on holiday in September, but returned with reinforcements in October. Two music industry deaths kicked off the month. On October 6th, “I Can See Clearly Now” reggae singer Johnny Nash died at age 80. Nash was an early pioneer for the genre, and signed Bob Marley to the JAD Records label of which he was a co-owner.

Alas, though, Nash’s passing went largely unnoticed that Tuesday, as guitarist Eddie Van Halen died on the same day. Van Halen was just 65, and another victim to the monster that is cancer. I loved the cheesiness of the David Lee Roth-led Van Halen of the 1980’s, and played less attention to the group once Roth went his own way, but the band Van Halen was as much about guitar work as it was about songwriting and stage presence. Eddie Van Halen was, is, and will always be a legend. Keep on rocking, sir.

If you were even a casual fan of the long-running CBS show “Two and a Half Men,” you’ll remember Berta, the show’s wise-cracking maid. Conchata Ferrell, who played her, died of a heart attack on October 12th. She was 77.

With apologies to the family of the late Chadwick Boseman, perhaps the celebrity death that loomed largest in 2020 was that of Sean Connery, who died on Halloween, at age 90. The seven-time James Bond (including the non-canon “Never Say Never Again”), one-time Oscar winner (for 1987’s “The Untouchables), and on-screen dad to Harrison Ford (in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”), was the star or co-star of dozens upon dozens of memorable films. Others include the Rudyard Kipling adventure yarn “The Man Who Would Be King,” co-starring Michael Caine; “Entrapment,” a heist caper with a much younger love interest for Connery in the form of Catherine Zeta-Jones; and the little-seen, Gus Van Sant-directed “Finding Forrester,” in which Connery played a reclusive novelist.

Not every film was a winner. Connery had dreadful chemistry with Lorraine Bracco in the 1992 misfire “Medicine Man.” He was miscast as the father of Dustin Hoffman and the grandfather of Matthew Broderick in the 1989 bomb “Family Business.” And although I loved the film, the very Scottish Connery probably wasn’t the right choice to play the very Russian submarine commander Marko Ramius in the 1990 Tom Clancy Cold War thriller “The Hunt for Red October.”

Off-screen, Connery was a lifelong advocate for Scottish independence, a stance which long-delayed his inevitable knighthood, finally bestowed upon him in 2006. Thirteen years prior, he received flack for publicly clarifying his 1965 statement that women should be slapped. Today, such words would derail an actor’s career, and it is rumored that Connery wasn’t always the nicest of persons. The actor retired in 2003 after his last film, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” was poorly received, and even turned down an offer to return for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” He spent his remaining years at his castle in Scotland, but suffered from dementia later in life, and spent his final days in the Bahamas, where he died from pneumonia.

Whatever you think of Connery’s politics and treatment of women, it is hard to deny the impact he had as a movie star.

November

I am told that was some kind of election in early November? Just kidding. Tensions were high all across the country (and around the world, really), as we wondered if the 78-year-old Delaware senator and two-term vice president, one Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. could pull off an election victory in a year when, to many Americans, the stakes never seemed higher. Fears of election day violence were real, and early voting took place in record numbers. I believe in the tradition of standing in line on election day, and while socially distanced and clad in a face mask this year, the experience went off without a hitch otherwise. There were no protesters outside my local polling station, and while there was a sea of red MAGA hats (no surprise, really), the lines moved quickly and everyone was eerily quiet as they performed their civic duty.

My heart sank as early numbers came in that showed Biden behind in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, and other Eastern Time Zone states that the Democrats had hoped to carry. As the day ended with the results too close to call, I went to bed remembering the clusterfuck that was the 2000 election, and hoped for a late surge once all of the mail-in ballots were counted.

During the next two anxiety-filled days, I foresaw Biden narrowly edging out Trump, 270-268. Ultimately, however, a recount of mail-in ballots sealed the deal, and Biden won, 306-232. These results were finally certified just two weeks ago, and despite Trump’s continued cries of voter fraud (which may exist on a microscopic level, but on a level of 5 million votes?! C’mon!), Biden won every battleground state except for Florida and Ohio. If you consider the candidates’ messages – Biden’s of staying home and remaining safe, Trump’s that COVID-19 is nothing to fear because he rebounded thanks to an experimental vaccine delivered at Walter Reed Hospital – is it really so surprising that the vast majority of mail-in votes were cast for Biden?

As I mentioned before, Mayor Pete was my candidate of choice, not Joe Biden, but I’m still giving Biden the benefit of the doubt. And his historic appointment of California Senator Kamala Harris – the nation’s first female, first black, and first South Asian vice president – as veep will land both Biden and Harris in the history books, regardless of how they govern. Congratulations to President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris! (You have a lot of work to do.)

Okay, enough about politics. November may mean “election” but it also means “Thanksgiving.” My dad and I journeyed to the western edge of the state to spend Turkey Day with my sister and her extended family – daughter, son, husband, step-kids, step-mom, dogs, cat, and the like. The holiday was relaxing but expensive for both my sister and I – the brakes went out on my car, while she was faced with a costly plumbing emergency at her lovely home. Highlights include the Thanksgiving smorgasbord, watching my nephew destroy his Christmas present from Uncle Scott (we exchanged presents early) by running it through dog poop in the backyard, and bonding with Sarge, the family pit bull.

On a sadder note, long-time “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek lost his lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer on November 8th. He was 80. Twenty days later, former English bodybuilder and Darth Vader body double David Prowse died at age 85. Of fucking COVID-19.

December

There hasn’t been much to report this month on a personal note, except that I bought an epic ugly Christmas sweater a few days and I hope to win my office’s Ugly Christmas Sweater Contest. Check it out:

Another black entertainer of note, Tommy “Tiny” Lister, Jr., was one of my favorite character actors. He is perhaps most famous for playing the bully Deebo in the 1995 comedy “Friday,” or for playing President Lindberg in the 1997 sci-fi vehicle “The Fifth Element.” Both films are considered cult classics of their respective genres, and I feel that this would please the actor greatly. Before starring opposite Ice Cube and Chris Tucker, he played the wrestler Zeus in the Hulk Hogan movie “No Holds Barred,” then turned pro several years later in 1996, as the professional wrestler Z-Gangsta. My favorite role of his was that of Winston, the taciturn bail bondsman in the 1997 Quentin Tarantino crime film “Jackie Brown.” I was worried when first reading that Lister contracted COVID-19 last August, but pleased to find out two weeks later that he had apparently beaten it. Alas not, it would appear. Lister was found dead in his Marina del Rey, California home on December 10th, from COVID-related complications. He was 62.

Sci-fan fans mourned the death of Jeremy Bulloch, who perished on December 17th from Parkinson’s-related complications at age 75. If his face doesn’t immediately spring into your mind, that is probably because his most famous role, that of bounty hunter Boba Fett in “The Return of the Jedi,” “The Mandalorian,” and other projects, saw him covered in body armor from head to toe.

______________________

There are still ten days left in the year, so my fingers are crossed and my teeth are gritted that we make it through the remainder of 2020 without any more sadness.

Of course, there will be sadness. Death always rears its ugly head around the holidays, and with over 250,000 dead from COVID-19 in the U.S. alone and more than 1,000 new cases daily, the wrecking ball seems poised to keep swinging for at least a little while longer. I predict twice as many dead – by the time herd immunity, safe and ready access to a vaccine is available to everyone, and general stubbornness over not vaccinating for political reasons wanes – before coronavirus seems like little more than a bad dream. Furthermore, rumors of a mutating COVID strain making its untimely debut in the U.K. suggest that there is still much to learn about the virus.

Will President Trump finally make that long overdue concession phone call to President-elect Biden, extending the symbolic olive branch that is needed more this year than any other? And on an “everyday” level, will movie theaters reopen, or are they to go the way of the dodo bird? Will my nephew stop running around in circles, bringing terror and destruction to everything in his path?

With all of these things, the answer is, “who can say?” Certainly not I, though I am cautiously optimistic. I look forward to one day being able to go the supermarket without wearing a mask, and to once again traveling around Europe with open borders, not having to defend myself as “Yes, I’m from the States, but don’t worry, I voted for the other person.”

In the meantime, we stumble along, trying to do more good than harm. For the most part, we succeed. For the most part.

If you are still reading after this many paragraphs, I thank you for coming along for this trip down amnesia lane. I hope you and yours remain safe for the remainder of this crazy year and into next year as well. Happy holidays!

Election 2020: All Bets Are Off

Eight years ago, I began this blog as wide-eyed expat who had just arrived in Mexico City. While the occasional post might have been about movies, family members back in the U.S., or travel memories to other parts of the world, the general theme was about my new life abroad – settling in, taking in the sights, navigating my blossoming relationship with a CDMX local, etc. Content was added, on average, once or twice a week.

Fast forward to 2020, the year to end of all years, and I hardly write at all, and just once about Mexico City. I am finishing up six years of Tennessee residency, and wondering what my employer’s recent announcement, that our Knoxville office will be permanently closing next year and all employees in it remaining 100% virtual, means in terms of remote living possibilities should a fish-out-of-water such as myself want to move to a different city.

First things first, though: we have an election to contend with…and it is sure to be a doozy. With a general sense of anxiety in the air, with a pandemic that seems to be rising in new cases, with a passionate #BLM movement that has staked some equally-passionate flames on the other side of the aisle, I feel that the stakes have never been higher.
Continue reading “Election 2020: All Bets Are Off”

Remembering Chadwick Boseman

Chadwick Boseman, the 43-year-old rising star of such films as “42,” “Get on Up,” and Marvel’s “Black Panther,” has died. The cause: colon cancer. The reaction: stunned silence.

The South Carolina-born Boseman, who leaves behind a wife but no children, was poised for superstardom. He headlined the highest-grossing film of 2018 (“Black Panther”) and played real life figures Jackie Robinson (“42”), James Brown “Get on Up,” and Thurgood Marshall (“Marshall”).

Continue reading “Remembering Chadwick Boseman”

By Special Request: A Quarantine Movie Marathon

It is just four days into June as I write this, yet it seems as if the world’s been quarantined for about two years now. Even after COVID-19 infections level off (still a ways to go on that, methinks) and the police officers responsible for George Floyd’s death are brought to justice (again, still a ways to go, I think), we will continue to face an uncertain rest of the year. For one thing, hurricane season has already begun. For another thing, in April the government announced the existence of aliens, and I wouldn’t be surprised a whit if there was an actual landing. For yet another thing, the murder hornets are still on their way from the Pacific Northwest to the rest of the United States.

(GringoPotpourri note: I am both serious and joking in my comments about aliens and murder hornets. I mean really, what’s next?!)

At least there are streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime to pacify us. Movie theaters are closed, and sadly, I suspect that many of them will never open their doors again. The new golden age of television has given entertainment junkies much to binge watch – I recently finished season five of AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” and season three of Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” I look forward to the next season of Prime’s “Jack Ryan,” and may tackle HBO’s “Chernobyl” in the meantime.

That being said, I am much more of a movie geek than a TV geek; if you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you surely know that. There is good content to be found online (or in other formats, such as DVD and Blu-ray; I subscribe to both regular and DVD Netflix). Below, in no particular order, is a sampling of ten films that I’ve watched since the COVID quarantine began. Since a part of believes that things are opening up too quickly, and that new cases will spike as a result, I’m sure we’ll be in this for some time to come. If you’re at loss for something to watch, and have diverse tastes like I do, you may find something that appeals to you from the following selections. Enjoy!

Continue reading “By Special Request: A Quarantine Movie Marathon”

Remembering Molly

It has been one month since I lost my best friend.

I am talking, of course, about Molly, the world’s best golden retriever, who died unexpectedly while supposedly on the mend from a bladder infection.

We mourn the passings of our beloved fur babies because they are in our lives for such a short period of time, and because they ask us for so little, yet give so much affection in return. I grew up with dogs from infancy, and, like my parents and sister, have always treated them like part of the family. They sleep inside, not out (and on our beds much of the time). They have Christmas stockings and receive birthday cards. They go with us on family vacations.

But Molly was even more special. She was the love of my life.

Continue reading “Remembering Molly”

Oscar 2019-20 – predicting the winners

For the second time in a row, the Oscars will be host-less. Last year, original host Kevin Hart, whose name had briefly become associated with homophobia, dropped out, lest the Oscar broadcast become besmirched in controversy. The end result was a leaner show, still long at three hours, 23 minutes, but a full hour shorter than the longest-ever Oscars, 2002’s four-hour, 23-minute snooze-fest.

Aside from the “Oscars so white” outcry that popped up again this year with just a single major-category nominee of color (the excellent Cynthia Erivo of “Harriet”), this year’s pre-show drama was decidedly low-key. I expect a show with lower-than-normal ratings, considering that many fans of “Joker,” the year’s most-nominated film, probably aren’t the target viewing demographic for the Oscars, and that last year had a much more mainstream slate of nominees but disappointing ratings nonetheless.

Here are my picks for the winners. Interestingly enough, this year’s acting categories each seem to have all-but-guaranteed winners, which is unusual. That being said, there are always surprises; last year, I was wrong on both Best Actor (Rami Malek for “Bohemian Rhapsody”) and Best Actress (Olivia Colman for “The Favourite”).

Mark your ballots!

Continue reading “Oscar 2019-20 – predicting the winners”

Top Ten Films of 2019

As I look back on the 2019 year in cinema, two thoughts come to mind. The first is that wow, I saw a lot of movies last year! The first few months of the year saw the release of “Us,” the sophomore film by “Get Out” director Jordan Peele, of “Captain Marvel,” straight out of the MCU, and of “Glass,” a miscalculated sequel to both “Unbreakable” and “Split,” if you can imagine such a thing. Later, we got the sentimental “Toy Story 4,” the ribald, “Superbad”-esque comedy “Booksmart,” and a quiet little think piece called “Avengers: Endgame.”

The second half of the year gave us a few above-average horror films (“Doctor Sleep,” “The Lighthouse”) and a few below-average ones as well (“It Chapter Two,” “The Dead Don’t Die”). Finally, the end-of-year Oscar-bait bombardment gave us such diverse fare as “Richard Jewell,” a compelling true story from octogenarian director Clint Eastwood, “Uncut Gems,” an intense thriller of sensory overload starring a better-than-usual Adam Sandler, and a slate of Netflix titles given the briefest of Oscar-qualifying runs, such as “The Two Popes,” which posited an imagined meeting between Popes Benedict and Francis.

Phew! I try to avoid seeing bad movies at the theater, and enjoyed most of what I sought out. A few films disappointed me, like the mis-marketed Mr. Rogers movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” and the Brad Pitt-starring “Ad Astra.” Still, there was much to like, and I tried to catch up via Netflix or Amazon Prime on anything that I may have missed in the theater. Good thing for those reward points – lots of free popcorn!

Here are my picks for the Top Ten Films of 2019:

Continue reading “Top Ten Films of 2019”

Merry Christmas!

2019 has been an interesting year both nationally – presidential impeachment, drought-like conditions for much of the country throughout the summer – and internationally – Brexit woes for the U.K., Chinese trade tariffs, and a hurricane-ravaged Bahamas.

On a personal level, it was a pretty good year. I explored more of Tennessee and the Carolinas, spent time with my precocious nephew over Thanksgiving, and ended the year with a bit of good financial news.

Continue reading “Merry Christmas!”