The Films of 2020: The Way Back (dir by Gavin O’Connor)


Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) used to be a star.  When he was in high school, he was a brilliant basketball player.  He led his high school, Bishop Hayes, to multiple championships.  Everyone expected Jack to have a bright figure but …. well, times change.

Decades later, Jack is a construction worker.  He spends every night at the neighborhood bar.  He wakes up every morning with a hangover.  He starts his day by drinking and he ends it by passing out.  He’s separated from his wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar), and he can’t even enjoy a nice Thanksgiving dinner without everyone getting on his back about his drinking.

When he gets a phone call from his old high school, he’s shocked to learn that he’s being offered a job.  The school’s basketball coach has had a heart attack.  Father Devine (John Aylward) wants to know if Jack would be interested in filling in for the rest of the school year.  Though at first reluctant and perhaps not wanting to be reminded of the future he once had, Jack eventually agrees.

The team, it turns out, is not particularly impressive.  The school hasn’t gone to the playoffs since Jack graduated and basketball is such a low priority that the team only has 6 players.  When Jack takes over, the team that has only won a single game.  The team is undisciplined and so used to being losers that they can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a winner.  You know what type of team I’m talking about because, even if you weren’t an athlete in school, you’ve probably seen a movie or two about underestimated high school teams that, under the leadership of a new coach, ended up shocking everyone by making it to the playoffs.

Working with assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal), Jack struggles to turn the team into winners.  He’s a strict coach and, at first, the students resent him and his methods.  When he kicks one of the best players off the team for showing up late to practice, everyone thinks that Jack’s gone too far.  However, when the team actually starts to show signs of improvement, the team and the school rallies around their new head coach….

Of course, Jack still has his problems.  He’s too quick to lose his temper.  He curses a bit too often.  Despite caring about the team, he’s still weary about getting too close to them.  He’s emotionally damaged as the result of an abusive childhood and the death of his son.  A winning season isn’t going to magically change that.  However, Jack’s main problem is that he’s still an alcoholic.  To the film’s credit, it doesn’t try to sugarcoat Jack’s addictions.  Jack doesn’t magically become sober just because he’s found a purpose in life.  Even when he briefly cuts back on his drinking, the temptation is still there.  And when Jack finally does end up returning to his neighborhood bar and has too much to drink, the film is honest about the consequences of his actions.

The Way Back took me by surprise.  It started out as a well-made but rather predictable underdog sports story but it takes a turn during the third act and reveals that it’s actually a character study of a well-meaning but immature man who cannot escape his demons.  The film is honest about Jack’s problems and, to its credit, it doesn’t pretend like there are any easy solutions.  It’s going to take more than just coaching his team to the playoffs for Jack to make peace with himself and his past.  The film ends on a note that’s hopeful yet ambiguous.  Jack has a long way to go and you’re not totally convinced that he’s ever going to truly complete his journey.  But, at the same time, you’re happy that he finally got a chance to do something good with his life.

Ben Affleck was the perfect choice to play Jack and he gives the best performance that I’ve ever seen him give.  Affleck has been open about his own struggles with alcoholism but beyond that, it’s easy to see Jack’s struggles as a metaphor for Affleck’s own up-and-down career.  Like Jack, Affleck won a championship when Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture but it sometimes seems as if he’s struggled since then.  His directorial follow-up, Live By Night, was a critical and commercial failure.  His turn as Batman was appreciated by some but ridiculed by others.  When he stepped down from directing The Batman, he was the subject of the same type of uncharitable gossip that follows Jack as he coaches his team.  In the role of Jack, Ben Affleck gives a poignant, vulnerable, and honest performance.  He’s willing to be unsympathetic.  He doesn’t shy away from showing us that Jack, even at his best, can be a massive fuckup.  And yet, he holds onto our sympathy even while Jack does some very stupid things.  It’s Affleck’s performance that elevates The Way Back from being just another sports film to being something far more touching.

The Way Back may not be quite strong enough to be called a great film (though it’s certainly a good one) but Ben Affleck gives a great performance.

Lisa Marie’s Possibly Pointless and Totally Random Oscar Predictions for April


To do Oscar predictions during a pandemic or not?

That’s the question.

Erik Anderson at Awards Watch announced on twitter that he’s not doing his monthly Oscar predictions for April and May.  (He is, however, focusing on the Emmys so be sure to visit the site and check out his thoughts!)  Over at Clayton Davis’s Awards Circuit, the Oscar predictions have been taken down and replaced by an ominous (though definitely needed) counter of how many people are currently infected with the Coranavirus.  As of right now, there’s a lot of uncertainty.  Are theaters even going to reopen before the year ends and if they do reopen, will people be willing to run the risk of going outside to see a movie?  So many of the big films of 2020 have been moved back to 2021 that one could legitimately wonder whether any of the big “Oscar” films are even going to come out this year. Most ominously, for me, is that we could get hit by a second wave of the Coronavirus.  It’s easy to imagine a situation where theaters reopen in the summer and, regardless of how business goes, are forced to close again in December.

The Academy is aware that the future is uncertain.  Earlier this week, they loosened the eligibility rules.  Films that premiere on VOD or a streaming service are now eligible for Oscar consideration as long as it can been proven that the film would have also gotten a theatrical release if not for the pandemic.  I’m not sure how exactly that could be proven but it does show that the Academy is, as of now, planning to give out some Oscars next February.

(Of course, just because the rules have been temporarily loosened, that doesn’t mean that every studio and director is going to want to put their huge blockbusters out on Prime or Netflix or VOD.  I doubt Spielberg wants to premiere West Side Story in your living room.)

So, for that reason, I’m going to continue to do my monthly Oscar predictions.  Needless to say, these are even more random than usual. The predictions below are also being made on the assumption that theaters will be open in November, December, and January.  Again, there are no guarantees, other than perhaps Netflix.

So, without further ado, here are my predictions.  Also, be sure to check out my predictions from January, February, and March!

Best Picture

Ammonite

The Father

Hillbilly Elegy

Mank

Minari

News of the World

Nomadland

On The Rocks

Respect

West Side Story

Best Director

Sofia Coppola for On The Rocks

Paul Greengrass for News of the World

Ron Howard for Hillbilly Elegy

Francis Lee for Ammonite

Steven Spielberg for West Side Story

Best Actor

Ben Affleck in The Way Back

Tom Hanks in News of the World

Anthony Hopkins in The Father

Bill Murray in On The Rocks

Gary Oldman in Mank

Best Actress

Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy

Jennifer Hudson in Respect

Sofia Loren in The Life Ahead

Frances McDormand in Nomadland

Kate Winslet in Ammonite

Best Supporting Actor

David Alvarez in West Side Story

Tom Burke in Mank

Bo Hopkins in Hillybilly Elegy

Forest Whitaker in Respect

Steve Yeun in Minari

Best Supporting Actress

Glen Close in Hillbilly Elegy

Ariana DeBose in West Side Story

Saoirse Ronan in Ammonite

Amanda Seyfried in Mank

Helena Zengel in News of the World

We’ll see what happens.  Right now, your guess is as good as mine.  In fact, your guess is probably better.

Lisa And The Academy Agree To Disagree


The Oscar nominations were announced today and, for the most part, it’s pretty much what you would expect.  Below is the list of nominees.  If a nominee listed in bold print, that means they also appeared on my own personal list of nominations.

Best motion picture of the year

Black Swan
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone

(The Academy and I agree on five of the ten nominees.  That’s actually more than I was expecting.)

Performance by an actor in a leading role

Javier Bardem (Biutiful)
Jeff Bridges (True Grit)
Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
Colin Firth (The King’s Speech)
James Franco (127 Hours)

(The only real surprise here is Bardem.  I haven’t seen Biutiful but I’ve heard amazing things about it.)

Performance by an actor in a supporting role

Christian Bale (The Fighter)
John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone)
Jeremy Renner (The Town)
Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right)
Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech)

(Yay for John Hawkes!  Some people are surprised that Andrew Garfield wasn’t nominated for The Social Network.  I’m disappointed he wasn’t nominated for Never Let Me Go.)

Performance by an actress in a leading role

Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)
Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone)
Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)

(I’m happy to see Lawrence and Portman recognized but I still so wish that the Academy had recongized Noomi Rapace and Katie Jarvis as well.  I knew it wouldn’t happen but still…)

Performance by an actress in a supporting role

Amy Adams (The Fighter)
Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech)
Melissa Leo (The Fighter)
Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)
Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom)

(Weaver — Yay!) 

Achievement in directing

Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
David O Russell (The Fighter)
Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech)
David Fincher (The Social Network)
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (True Grit)

(The snubbing of Christopher Nolan for Inception is probably the closest thing to an outrage that the Oscars will produce this year.)

Adapted screenplay

127 Hours – Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy
The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin
Toy Story 3 – Michael Arndt (screenplay); John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich (story)
True Grit – Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Winter’s Bone – Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini

Original screenplay

Another Year – Mike Leigh
The Fighter – Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson (screenplay); Keith Dorrington, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson (story)
Inception – Christopher Nolan
The Kids Are All Right – Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
The King’s Speech – David Seidler

Best animated feature film of the year

How to Train Your Dragon
The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

 (I haven’t seen The Illusionist yet but I’m looking forward to it because the previews look great, it’s based on a script by Jacques Tati, and I love all things French.  Still, I kinda wish that Despicable Me had been nominated just so Arleigh could see the minions at the Academy Awards.)

Best foreign language film of the year

Biutiful (Mexico)
Dogtooth (Greece)
In a Better World (Denmark)
Incendies (Canada)
Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi) (Algeria)

Art direction

Alice in Wonderland – Robert Stromberg (production design), Karen O’Hara (set decoration)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 – Stuart Craig (production design), Stephenie McMillan (set decoration)
Inception – Guy Hendrix Dyas (production design), Larry Dias and Doug Mowat (set decoration)
The King’s Speech – Eve Stewart (production design), Judy Farr (set decoration)
True Grit – Jess Gonchor (production design), Nancy Haigh (set decoration) 

Achievement in cinematography

Matthew Libatique (Black Swan)
Wally Pfister (Inception)
Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech)
Jeff Cronenweth (The Social Network)
Roger Deakins (True Grit) 

Achievement in costume design

Colleen Atwood (Alice in Wonderland)
Antonella Cannarozzi (I Am Love)
Jenny Beavan (The King’s Speech)
Sandy Powell (The Tempest)
Mary Zophres (True Grit)

(That’s right, I ended up going 0 for 5 as far as Costume Design is concerned.  Which I guess goes to prove that I have better taste than the Academy.)

Best documentary feature

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy and Jaimie D’Cruz)
Gasland (Josh Fox and Trish Adlesic)
Inside Job (Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs)
Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger)
Waste Land (Lucy Walker and Angus Aynsley)

 (If Banksy wins, I’ll be happy.  I have a feeling the award will go to Inside Job, however.  As a documentary, Inside Job reminded me a lot of Capt. Hindsight from the South Park Coon Vs. Coon And Friends trilogy.  Also, I’m a little bit surprised that Waiting for Superman wasn’t nominated.  I’m even more surprised that I actually saw enough feature documentaries last year to even have an opinion.  Also, interesting to note that Restrepo — a very nonpolitical look at military in the mid-east — was nominated while The Tillman Story, a much more heavy-handed and stridently political documentary was not.)

Best documentary short subject

Killing in the Name (Nominees to be determined)
Poster Girl (Nominees to be determined)
Strangers No More (Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon)
Sun Come Up (Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger)
The Warriors of Qiugang (Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon)

(It’s always interesting that nobody knows what these movies are about yet their producers always end up giving the longest speeches at the Oscars.  I’m hoping that Poster Girl wins because the actual producers have yet to be determined.  I imagine that means there might be some sort of legal action going on which means that, if it wins on Oscar night, there might be a big fight at the podium.  Plus, I like the title.  It makes me want to walk up to people I barely know, lean forward, and go, “Can I be your poster girl?”)

Achievement in film editing

Andrew Weisblum (Black Swan)
Pamela Martin (The Fighter)
Tariq Anwar (The King’s Speech)
Jon Harris (127 Hours)
Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter (The Social Network) 

Achievement in makeup

Adrien Morot (Barney’s Version)
Edouard F Henriques, Gregory Funk and Yolanda Toussieng (The Way Back)
Rick Baker and Dave Elsey (The Wolfman)

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (original score)

John Powell (How to Train Your Dragon)
Hans Zimmer (Inception)
Alexandre Desplat (The King’s Speech)
AR Rahman (127 Hours)
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network)

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (original song)

Coming Home (from Country Strong, music and lyrics by Tom Douglas, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey)
I See the Light (from Tangled, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater)
If I Rise (from 127 Hours, music by AR Rahman, lyrics by Dido and Rollo Armstrong)
We Belong Together (from Toy Story 3, music and lyrics by Randy Newman)

(I’ll just say it now — 4 nominations and I didn’t agree with a single one of them.  Seriously, they could have nominated up to 5 songs but instead of giving at least one nomination to Burlesque, they just nominated 4 songs.  What a load of crap.)

Best animated short film

Day & Night (Teddy Newton)
The Gruffalo (Jakob Schuh and Max Lang)
Let’s Pollute (Geefwee Boedoe)
The Lost Thing (Nick Batzias, Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann)
Madagascar, carnet de voyage (Madagascar, a Journey Diary) (Bastien Dubois)

(I’ve actually seen Day & Night since it was shown before Toy Story 3.  I thought it went on a little bit too long, to be honest.)

Best live action short film

The Confession (Tanel Toom)
The Crush (Michael Creagh)
God of Love (Luke Matheny)
Na Wewe (Ivan Goldschmidt)
Wish 143 (Ian Barnes and Samantha Waite) 

Achievement in sound editing

Inception (Richard King)
Toy Story 3 (Tom Myers and Michael Silvers)
Tron: Legacy (Gwendolyn Yates Whittle and Addison Teague)
True Grit (Skip Lievsay and Craig Berkey)
Unstoppable (Mark P Stoeckinger)

Achievement in sound mixing

Inception (Lora Hirschberg, Gary A Rizzo and Ed Novick)
The King’s Speech (Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen and John Midgley)
Salt (Jeffrey J Haboush, Greg P Russell, Scott Millan and William Sarokin)
The Social Network (Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick and Mark Weingarten)
True Grit (Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter F Kurland)

 (I would have probably had more matches in the sound category if I actually knew the difference between sound editing and sound mixing.)

Achievement in visual effects

Alice in Wonderland (Ken Ralston, David Schaub, Carey Villegas and Sean Phillips)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (Tim Burke, John Richardson, Christian Manz and Nicolas Aithadi)
Hereafter (Michael Owens, Bryan Grill, Stephan Trojanski and Joe Farrell)
Inception (Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb)
Iron Man 2 (Janek Sirrs, Ben Snow, Ged Wright and Daniel Sudick)

So there you go.  I went 50/50 on the Best Picture nominations and — well, it all pretty much went downhill from there, didn’t it?  Oh well.