Around Town: Oscars Viewing Parties @ St. Gregory Hotel, Ventnor Sports Café, 2/26/17

LLL_D29_05187_R Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in LA LA LAND. (Photo by Dale Robinette)

As with last year, Parklife DC recommends two Oscar-viewing parties — one fancy, one no-frills — on this Oscars Sunday, Feb. 26.

For the fancy party, join the Washington Film Institute for its red carpet party at St. Gregory Hotel (2033 M St. NW, DC). It’s $45 for a night of elegance. WFI promises a quieter space for those who want to watch the awards. Buy your ticket for the WFI Annual Red Carpet and Hollywood Glamour Night on Evite. Ticket includes passed hors d’oeuvres from Tredici Enoteca Restaurant. First 150 guests will also receive a  free glass of champagne.

For the no-frills party, hit up Ventnor Sports Café (2411 18th St. NW, DC), which will host movie trivia starting at 6:30pm. It lasts an hour and then the bar turns on the red carpet and awards ceremony. Ventnor Sports will offer a special champagne and caviar menu. No ticket necessary; just show up!

To get you in the mood, I will share with you my annual Oscar commentary, where I ponder the awards in four main categories. Read on at your own risk!

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Michelle Williams (“Randi Chandler,” left) and Casey Affleck (“Lee Chandler,” right) star in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. (Photo courtesy Lionsgate)

Best Actor

Denzel Washington in Fences. I think in a typical year, Denzel would be the nominal frontrunner for the award. He and Viola Davis do a great job of bringing August Wilson’s Fences from stage to screen, and Denzel brings the contentious Troy Maxson to life quite vividly and gracefully. There are entire scenes of Denzel chewing scenery — any one of which would on its own justify the award.

Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea. However, everyone seems abuzz by Casey’s understated performance this year. The movie is comfortable ground for one of the Affleck brothers — stick them in Boston and its suburbs and let them mumble and bumble their way through the scene. Don’t get me wrong, I liked this film well enough. It’s compelling to watch him open up as forces conspire to confront him with his past, but I really cannot point to one single thing that distinguishes this performance for Oscar.

Ryan Gosling in La La Land. This was a terrific, old-school Hollywood film, and Ryan was unexpectedly perfect in it. His journey from dejected grouch to hopeful success story seems authentic, despite being heavily choreographed, because of Ryan’s charm. His insistence on playing his own piano, I believe, also empowered him to inhabit the role. And the love story in the film is almost compelling enough to make me want to like jazz.

Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge. Everything about Hackshaw Ridge comes together very well. Andrew’s performance is good enough to buoy an already remarkable story. In what I consider to be the defining scene of the film, he convincingly depicts a medic lost and weary looking for a sign atop the titular plateau of the movie when he hears the distant cries of more soldiers in need of treatment. You as the viewer are on his side thanks to that scene, along with many others, that make you root for the protagonist — something every great film does.

Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic. Aside Denzel Washington’s performance, surely Viggo delivers one of the most complex characters of 2016 cinema. What success his character experiences comes almost despite himself as the film collapses toward its end, finding a kind of balance in survivalist extremism and the expectations of society. I think similar concepts were more accurately explored with Harrison Ford and Mosquito Coast, however.

Conclusions: I fully expect Casey Affleck to win because of the tremendous sustained buzz for him this year. Were it up to me, I would give the award to Denzel Washington, who was far more watchable. However, I didn’t have a personal favorite in the category this year, which is unusual.

xLLL_D35_05828_R2 Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone on the set of LA LA LAND. (Photo by Dale Robinette)

Best Actress

Emma Stone in La La Land. Emma Stone really *is* La La Land. This is how I can actually see La La Land perhaps losing Best Picture to Hidden Figures. Emma is its face and its grace. A win for her would justify all of the raves about La La Land, regardless of what else it takes home. And I’ll add my praise to the pile: She’s glowing in it.

Isabelle Rupert in Elle. Elle was an interesting film about a dominating woman who has to be dominated in order to open up to the people around her. It’s interesting that the filmmaker tried to make it in the United States before taking it to France because it seems to me a very French film. And Isabelle is fearless in it. I’m glad she won a Golden Globe, and thus received some recognition, but the film is too far removed from American audiences to go far at the Oscars.

Ruth Negga in Loving. As I said, I really wanted to see all of the films in the “Big Four” categories prior to writing this overview, but I missed this one. (I went out for beer with a friend the night I was supposed to see Loving!) Ruth Negga was a surprise nomination for me as I had only seen her previously in a turn on Agents of SHIELD. Agents of SHIELD is a terrible TV show, but she wasn’t half bad, and she definitely has a look for cinema. That said, I anticipate no award here.

Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins. Meryl took an effective comic turn in Florence Foster Jenkins that I found rather endearing. It’s a fun story long known to opera fans apparently, and Meryl gives life and depth to a woman who loved but dearly could not sing opera. The film delivers quite an effective ending in the way that it reveals Florence’s disease and her strength in battling it, and Meryl was the perfect actress to deliver. Still, there are better nominees in the field this year.

Natalie Portman in Jackie. After I first saw Jackie, I was struck by Natalie’s transformation. Her manner of speaking like Jackie O was really impressive and I took to it pretty quickly. She’s pretty convincing in Jackie’s show of strength in a small moment after the loss of JFK. As I’ve put some distance between myself and this film, however, I think the performance and the sliver of time it captures are too slight to effectively mount an Oscar win.

Conclusions: La La Land is the film of the year, and Emma Stone is the face of that film. I think her win is a lock, and she is actually my personal favorite this year. The other nominees (that I’ve seen) also delivered good performances, rounding out a pretty strong year in commercial film.

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Casey Affleck (“Lee Chandler”) stars in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. (Photo courtesy Lionsgate)

Best Director

Damien Chazelle for La La Land. La La Land was thoroughly enjoyable but surely what the Academy would consider to be lighter fare in recent years. Historically, the Academy does not embrace pictures as bubbly as La La Land, so a win here would really surprise me. That said, I think there’s ample evidence that Damien worked well with his actors and helped to create real chemistry throughout the film.

Barry Jenkins for Moonlight. I appreciated the approach of Barry to this narrative, and the way he kept us in his main character’s role. I think he greenlighted some poor camera choices, things that were spinning for the sake of spinning. I would say some of that work lent no extra meaning to the story, which was spare and effective. On top of that, the movie never really rises to being great, although consistently compelling, so I don’t see an Oscar win here.

Denis Villeneuve for Arrival. This was perhaps the directorial nominee that surprised me most, both on paper and in action. It’s easy to misunderstand what this movie is about — it’s about the main character’s choices, a subversive thing rather than her overt meeting with aliens. Denis takes his time to unpack that and draw you into it so that you fully understand in the same way our protagonist does what is truly happening around her. I appreciated that immensely, and an Oscar here would be a well-deserved win.

Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea. Given the buzz around Casey Affleck’s leading performance, it’s hard not to separate Kenneth’s directing from the mix. Painful encounter after painful encounter builds to lift Lee Chandler out of his waking slumber and to the point where he can experience pain and anguish once again after years of burying it. Kenneth’s careful construction is surely key to this revelation, given heft by the fact that he also wrote the screenplay. I believe he is the likely winner here.

Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge. I guess if there are two things that Mel loves it’s blood and God, and Hacksaw Ridge gave him plenty of opportunity to indulge in both. He does a great job actually. War movies in general make you feel sympathetic for the men who have put themselves in harm’s way for some ideal or cause, but some of these guys aren’t all that likable. You believe in Andrew Garfield’s hero because Mel believes in him, and you like everyone he helps because he likes them. It’s pretty solid storytelling, and it’s more than enough to bring Mel back into mainstream Hollywood surely.

Conclusions: I find it difficult to separate Casey Affleck’s performance in Manchester by the Sea from Kenneth Lonergan’s directing and script. Kenneth obviously worked well with Casey to bring this performance out of him, which everyone agrees has been the frontrunning performance all season. My personal favorite director here is likely Denis Villeneuve, but I don’t see him breaking past Kenneth or Barry for this award.

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Taraji P. Henson, far left (“Katherine G. Johnson”), Octavia Spencer, center left (“Dorothy Vaughan”), and Janelle Monáe, right (“Mary Jackson”) watch a space flight on television in HIDDEN FIGURES. (Photo courtesy Fox Movies)

Best Picture

Arrival. A great picture, nicely told. Best Picture though? No. Ironically, while the movie on the surface is about expanding the awareness of our planet to others, the universe within the film and the impact of its implications are actually small and limited. Its inclusion here remains a nice toast to a thoughtful little film.

Fences. Surely, a contender. Strong staging, capably directed, with a good cast. The combination makes it surely understandable why it was nominated. Not a lot of people seem to be truly *excited* about it however. Perhaps the play already was too well recognized in its own circles?

Hacksaw Ridge. Nominally, also a worthy picture. Andrew Garfield carries too much of the picture himself alone, however. A best picture calls for a bigger tapestry. Although there are fewer central characters in Arrival, it too suffers from a similar problem of scope in that Amy Adams carries the film, and it ends up being all about her. A similar thing happens here.

Hell or High Water. I liked this quite a lot more than I thought I would. It was well conceived, and at times actually a bit of fun. And the end of course dashes whatever sense of fun we may have experienced along the way with a couple of tricks and surprises. Despite how much I personally may like the film, it doesn’t seem deep enough to actually win anything.

Hidden Figures. My usual bellwether for Best Picture? Best ensemble from SAG Awards. I embrace the idea that a Best Picture involves all cast working together to create a whole with no one person really stealing the show. Arguably, Hidden Figures has a single main character, but I believe the ensemble worked well enough together to create a “big picture.” And the film has an important message. Don’t be surprised if it takes the prize.

La La Land. Lots of people love La La Land, and I confess that I’m among them. In my chat so far, I’ve underscored the importance of a film having depth. La La Land may not seem like it has depth to some, but it actually does. It’s about dreams and motivations. How do you make your path to achieve your dreams? The fact that important question is cloaked in song and dance is almost even better in this case as we have a great big love letter to Old Hollywood here. Well done.

Lion. I found Lion quite engrossing. The light touch of the directing as well as the literal and metaphorical journey of the main character carry you through the film rather neatly. But while it is a compelling story, it’s a simple one at the end of the day. There aren’t a lot of tremendous philosophical questions pondered by the film in any sense other than perhaps a question of identity, which isn’t really examined too much. Lion is the first film I would remove from contention.

Manchester by the Sea. As I’ve said previously, I find Manchester by the Sea to be the director’s and actor’s film. No one else in the film really has a lot to do (despite Michelle Williams’ buzzy supporting nomination). So I think it’s challenging to look beyond their contributions for something “more” to justify a Best Picture win. At the end of the day, it’s a compelling character study, and little more.

Moonlight. Moonlight never really rises to the level of being a great film. It’s certainly a good film, and it surely has a thoughtful story to tell. Although I think the story is effectively told, I’m a little underwhelmed as to the impact of that story. This coupled with odd cinematography choices really sink this nomination for me.

Conclusions: La La Land could really cover some ground here and run away with the award. I wouldn’t dismiss Hidden Figures too quickly however. I really don’t see a lot of films “dominating” at the Oscars this year, although several surely will walk away with two *big* wins. My sense that these categories could be split opens up possibilities for Hidden Figures. Honestly, this was a good crop of films overall this year. There wasn’t a *bad* one in the lot.

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