2017 AFI DOCS Documentary Film Festival

(The following coverage of the 2017 AFI DOCS Film Festival appeared online at Film Festival Today.)
2017 marks the fifteenth year of this distinguished documentary film festival. What began in 2003 as “AFI Silverdocs” transitioned to “AFI DOCS” in 2013 when the main hub relocated from Silver Spring, Maryland to Washington D.C.
American Film Institute (AFI) President and CEO, Bob Gazzele, opened the festival at the dynamic Newseum located mere blocks from Congress and The White House, and began by mentioning that this year marks AFI's 50th anniversary since its inception in June 1967. He proceeded to show the audience a photo of the first Board of Trustees meeting which included such notables as Gregory Peck (the founding chairman), Sidney Poitier (founding vice-chairman), Jack Valente, “a new young independent filmmaker” Francis Ford Coppola and founding director George Stevens, Jr. Of Stevens, Gazzele called him, “a visionary who imagined an organization that would insure that the motion picture sits proudly alongside the other arts in America.” Adding that the goal of the festival is “to bring together the nation's leaders with the nation's leading artists.”
The screening venues remained constant from last year: The DC venues in the Penn Quarter district comprised multiple theaters in The E Street Landmark as well as The Newseum, while the sole Silver Spring location returned to The AFI Silver Theater complex.
This years compilation totaled 112 films (up from 94 films in 2016) from 28 countries. Of those, 59 were features (13 more than last year) which comprised six U.S. premieres, five East Coast premieres, three world premieres, three north American premieres and one international premiere. The opening and closing night galas both featured sports themed documentaries. The opening night film, Icarus, focused mainly on the uncovering of the recent Russian Olympic doping scandal, and was purchased at this year's Sundance Film Festival by Netflix for a record $5 million. The closing night film entitled Year of The Scab, focused on the 1987 NFL players strike and the temporary replacements hired by the NFL owners and is part of the ESPN excellent“30 For 30” series. Both films will be released later this year.
The impressive features line-up included: Dina, the Grand Jury Prize for documentary winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival; City of Ghosts, the latest from Academy Award nominated Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land); The Force, which won Peter Nicks the Best Director prize at Sundance; La Chana, winner of the Audience Award at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival; The Work, which won the top documentary prize at this year's South By Southwest Film Festival.
The annual Guggenheim symposium, which each year recognizes a master documentary filmmaker and commemorates their work, honored Academy Award winning director Laura Poitras (2014s Citizen Four-see Christopher Reed's excellent interview below). A varied array of festival activities there were offered were an Impact Lab (a two-day program “designed for filmmakers with issue-driven films who aim to create broader social and political change through the power of story and film”), AFI DOCS forums (“a variety of networking and professional development events for filmmakers, industry professionals and those with a passion for nonfiction storytelling”), and for all AFI DOCS passholders, a VR Showcase which offered the latest and best in virtual reality with the screening of selected VR documentaries. Also, a special program featured a discussion entitled “Look To The Right” between the Pulitzer-prize winning Washington Post critic, Ann Hornaday and filmmaker Michael Pack on the topic of conservative documentaries.
Finally, this was my 15th consecutive year attending this superlative festival and it continues to offer an incredible variety of thought-provoking and entertaining cinema and activities. My sole regret is what seems like an eventual total shift away from the Silver Spring location. When D.C. venues were introduced in 2013, I was informed that the organizers would try to have at least one screening of each program at the AFI Silver Theater. Unfortunately, for those not wishing to travel the seven or so miles to D.C., the film choices appear to be dwindling for Silver Spring. Last year there were only nine films that did not play at The Silver. This year there were a whopping twenty-two films playing only in D.C. - a disturbing trend for those folks not desiring to venture to Penn Quarter but wishing to only attend screenings at the birthplace of AFI DOCS.
NOTE: The Audience Award for Best Feature went to “Step” directed by Amanda Lipitz about the Baltimore step dance team from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women who aspire to win the city's dance competition and become the only women in their families to attend college. The Audience Award for Best Short went to “Fish Story” directed by Charlie Lyne that takes place in 1980 Wales and is about a mysterious gathering between an unlikely group of people who have one thing in common . (Neither film was screened by this reviewer.)


(1) New Chefs On The Block (**** out of 4 - 96 minutes)

I don't know what it is about restaurant/chef/food related docs, as most that have encompassed this genre that I've screened over the years have, for the most part, been first-rate. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012), The Search For General Tso (2015), Super Size Me (2004), Kings of Pastry (2010) are just a few of those titles that come to mind. You can now add this gem by local D.C. director and American University film grad Dustin Harrison-Atlas. He spent nearly three years filming and one year in post-production to create this absolutely delightful non-fiction narrative. Two Washington chefs attempt to realize their dreams of creating an eatery literally from the ground up, and then try to survive in the highly competitive service industry (D.C. was actually named Restaurant City of the Year in 2016 by Bon Appetite magazine). Frank Linn wanted to move from pizza truck to a brick and mortar establishment called, appropriately, “Frankly . . . Pizza” located in Kensington, Maryland located about 10 miles outside of D.C. On the opposite end of the spectrum, chef Aaron Silverman had his eyes on opening a high end eatery aptly named “Rose's Luxury” in Baracks Row. The trials and tribulations each faced involving funding, renovations, and intense approaches to make their venture a success, takes many twists and turns during the film's 96 minute running time. Interviewed throughout are notable chefs, critics, family members and employees. The end result is a documentary that is captivating and entertaining as hell and was my favorite feature screened at the festival. Quoting the director, “It'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry, it'll make you hungry”. Winner of the Cinequest Audience Documentary Feature Award in San Diego earlier this year, New Chefs On The Block has signed on with the sales team of Preferred Content which sold Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Chef's Table; so, hopefully it will be picked up for distribution in the not to distant future.

(l to r) Film subject restaurateur Mike Isabella; Washington Post food critic Tim Carman; Producer Adrian Muys; Rose's Luxury chef Drew Adams; Frank's wife and film subject Kate Diamond; Restaurateur Frank Linn; Q&A moderator and Washington Post Food and Dining editor, Joe Yonan

(2) The Farthest (**** out of 4 - 122 minutes)
In the summer of 1977, NASA launched the first ever spacecrafts to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune: the outer planets of our solar system. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, moving at 10 miles per second, have now been traveling over 10 and 12 billion miles, respectively, since their launch and, for all we know, are still going strong. The Farthest is not your typical cut and dry science doc that informs but makes little or no effort to entertain. On the contrary, Irish director Emer Reynolds has crafted a stunning work that is sure to delight and amuse even the most ardent non-science geek in the audience. Despite the two hour running time, the film never bores as Reynolds covers the nuts and bolts of the mission in a way that is above the elementary but below the technically complex. Included are the requisite talking heads including those scientists and engineers directly involved with the project as well as the late astronomer/educator/author Carl Sagan, who was instrumental in coaxing NASA not to make a mid-course decision that would have potentially altered the achievements and goal of the project. But what is most engrossing, and a topic that the director repeatedly returns to, is Sagan's golden record that was placed on the spacecrafts to be discovered and hopefully analyzed by any alien beings that might happen upon our Voyagers. The making of this record (that contains Earth images, greetings in multiple languages, and 27 musical selections ranging from Bach to Chuck Berry) could fill a documentary of its own. Interesting is the backstory on what musical selections were to be etched, and the tidbit that The Beatles were asked but declined to be incorporated. (During the Q&A, Reynolds revealed that the decision was regrettably made by their record company and not the by the musicians.) The doc includes wonderful archival footage as well as fascinating CGI imagery. The actual photos taken by the spacecrafts, especially of those showing the approaches to each of the planets, are nothing short of awe inspiring. In addition, the soundtrack is as magnificent as the visuals with composer Ray Harman's beautiful score interspersed with classical selections. The director takes the viewer through all the ups and downs of the mission, and when related on-screen by those directly involved, I couldn't help but feel the spectrum of their raw emotions conveyed as they recounted their stories. In the end, these spacecrafts, that contain less computing power than our smartphones, could outlive our planet and travel for billions of years well pass our Heliosphere and long after their lithium batteries are extinguished. Only the golden record and its messages will live on as the sole lasting proof of humankind's existence. Winner of the Audience Award at the Dublin International Film Festival, the film appeared on PBS this summer
(l to r) Director Emer Reynolds; Smithsonian National 
Air & Space  Museum Curator of Planetary Science
 and Exploration, Mathew Shindell; Mission scientists
 Heidi Hammel and Tom Krimigis

(3) Atomic Homefront (**** out of 4 - 96 minutes)
The World premiere of the latest by Academy Award nominated director Rebecca Cammisa (2009 documentary Which Way Home and 2012 documentary short, God is the Bigger Elvis) is yet another disturbing example of government negligence and corporate avarice at the expense of the health and welfare of innocent victims. There is certainly no more fitting location to first present this film to the world than Washington D.C. - which serves to emphasize one reason why the organizers have centered this festival in the capital of our country. Cammisa spent several years investigating the effects of a nuclear landfill on two communities about ten miles outside downtown St. Louis. After that city was selected in the 1930's to process uranium to create atomic bombs for The Manhattan Project, about 25 years later, the resulting nuclear waste was move to northern St. Louis county and dumped in a landfill. The immediate surrounding community (roughly a mile around the landfill) was directly affected while a second community about four miles away along the Coldwater Creek Flood plain is similarly contaminated and is causing cancer and premature deaths for many of its residents. Most of these folks were clueless about the dangers until a strange stink arose caused by an underground landfill fire (known as a Subsurface Smoldering Event) that started seven years ago and is menacingly creeping toward the uranium, thorium, and radium. If reached, the radioactivity would spread into the atmosphere directly affecting some 3 million people (at the Q&A it was revealed the fire is currently a mere 600 feet away from the waste material!). And despite being on EPA's Superfund site list since 1990 (sites that are polluted locations requiring long-term response to clean up hazardous material contamination), virtually nothing has been done to quell the impending danger. As a result, the citizenry organized Just Moms STL and enlisted the help of Lois Gibbs, the Love Canal activist who raised awareness of the dioxin poisoning in the 1970s. Cammisa documents their travels to D.C. to confront the lawmakers only to be rebuffed time and time again. In the final minutes it is revealed that the EPA absurdly allows environments to be poisoned – as long as the levels meet a minimum requirement. The director uses multiple imagery and interviews to a poignant effect and includes an effective score by Robert Miller as well as top-notch cinematography by Kirsten Johnson, Thomas Newcomb, and Claudia Raschke-Robinson. Atomic Homefront delivers a powerful punch to the gut with even more outrageous information too numerous to detail in this limited space. The stunning documentary is HBO produced and will appear on the network after a limited theatrical run.

(l to r) Director Rebecca Cammisa; Healthcare reporter
at Governing Magazine, moderator Mattie Quinn;
film subjects and residents of the contaminated
communities outside St. Louis

(4) A Gray State (**** out of 4 - 93 minutes)

David Crowley's pre-production poster for his unfinished film

What begins as just another making-of doc, slowly morphs into something entirely different - and troubling. The film opens in 2010 with ex-Iraq/Afghanistan vet David Crowley working feverishly to make his independent film dream a reality. The fiction narrative, seeming aimed at the alt-right and entitled Gray State, describes a not-too-distant dystopian future where the government totally represses the rights of its citizens. Crowley raised enough cash to produce an extremely professional two minute trailer that was seen over 2 ½ million times on YouTube that resulted in him being considered a messenger of the movement. In the midst of filming and trying to raise enough to complete it, the project came to an abrupt and tragic end when the filmmaker, wife, and 5-year-old daughter were found shot to death in their Minnesota home on Christmas day in 2014. “Allah Akbar” was written on a wall in blood. (A friend compares the scenario to Sid and Nancy.) Was this merely a case of murder/suicide as a result of Crowley's slow decent into depression, paranoia and madness, possibly accelerated by an unexpected call to overseas duty for a second tour? Or were they murdered by a fringe Libertarian sect or by a government conspiracy? Director Erik Nelson uses a plethora of material to attempt to unravel the mystery. Thirteen thousand stills, twenty-three terabytes of computer data, multiple diary entries, hours of David's personal home videos, and interviews (including a three hour self interview) were all thoroughly researched by the director in an effort to get at the truth of the tragedy. (At the Q&A, Nelson said the police didn't go through the evidence like he did.) Nelson produced three films by the great Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Encounters at the End of the World, and Into the Abyss) and Herzog returns the favor here as one of the executive producers whose influence cannot be ignored. A powerful film that will stay with you long the lights come up, the A&E/Netflix produced documentary will have a limited theatrical run before being available on Netflix sometime next year.

David Crowley laying out the plot-lines for his unfinished film

(5) Brimstone & Glory (*** ½ out of 4 - 67 minutes)
A 67 minute film about fireworks hardly seems enticing. Although the narrative in Brimstone and Glory is sparse, the backstory, images and soundtrack kept me totally engrossed. First-time director Viktor Jakovleski introduces us to a festival that is certainly not world renown. In fact, the director mentioned during the Q&A that his crew from Mexico City, and only an hour away, wasn't even aware of it and became emotional on the last day of shooting and thanked him for introducing it to them) . Tultepec is a small town in south-central Mexico known for its manufacturing of fireworks for some 150 years (they produce over 80% of all the fireworks in Mexico). Although Jakovleski introduces a couple of characters, it is the annual early March week-long Pyrotechnic Festival that is the focal point of the film. As it turns out the event is as much spiritual as it is spectacle. We discover that fireworks have a religious connotation for Mexicans and that the festival is dedicated to the saint of fireworks-makers – the 6th century Portuguese-born Catholic saint John of God. The two main filmic segments involved a giant castle infused with a multitude of fireworks (that prematurely catches fire during a rainstorm during its construction), and a harrowing version of Spain's "running with the bulls” where participants try to outrun mechanical bulls while avoiding exploding pyrotechnics attached to the sculptures. Jakovleski spent portions of three years filming and utilizes incredible cinematography by Tobias von den Borne. The DP captured the fireworks at 1500 frames per second on a high-speed camera. The result are displays unlike any pyrotechnics one usually sees on film. In all, seven cameras were used to capture the intensity including two drones and go-pros. Of special note is the stunning score by Dan Romer and producer/editor Benh Zeitland (who composed the music for and directed Beasts of the Southern Wild). Viktor's decision to make a visual tribute permeated with a wonderful score, instead of a movie full of talking heads, was a brilliant move and made the experience that more wondrous. This little gem will take your breath away and I predict that you will not view fireworks the same way again. During the Q&A, Viktor referred to the massive explosion at a fireworks market in this town in December 2016 where scores of people perished. The filming had ended about a year before and the correct decision was made to omit mentioning this tragedy because, as the director stated, he wanted to only share his perspective and experience. Oscilloscope has bought the distribution rights and a fall theatrical release is planned. Try and see it on the big screen with an equally large sound system.
(l to r) Director Viktor Jakovleski and moderator,
AFI DOCS screener Joe Warminsky

Mosquito (*** 1/2 out of 4) - The International premiere of this beautifully photographed but frightening exposé on mosquitos and the global threat they pose is a Discovery Impact film which premiered on the Discovery world-wide beginning July 6.
Trophy (*** 1/2 out of 4) – A dark look into big game hunting in Africa and its causation on looming wild animal extinction. The CNN-produced film was shown theatrically in the U.S. in September and will be on CNN early next year.

Year of The Scab (*** 1/2 out of 4) – Yet another in the excellent ESPN “30 for 30” series was three years in the making and is the third entry by producer/director John Dorsey. The focus is on the three-week 1987 NFL players union strike and the effect it had on the strikers, their replacements, and their fans. The main focus is on the Washington Redskins whose two victories in this period became a significant factor in their quest to reach the Super Bowl that year. The documentary premiered on the ESPN network on September 12.

Saving Brinton (*** 1/2 out of 4) – The world premiere of this fascinating portrait of Utah collector Michael Zahs whose eccentric obsession led to the eventual restoration of turn-of-the-century cinema reels belonging to William Franklin Brinton and which first launched movies to the world. The film is scheduled for a spring 2018 release.

UPCOMING:  Coverage of the 3rd annual Investigative Film Festival-Double Exposure being held in Washington DC from October 19-22.


Accountants Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz of PriceWaterHouseCoopers confer with Warren Beatty following the now infamous envelope mix-up

Friday March 10,  2017  

THE SHOW (*** 1/2)
Well-THAT was fun!!  But only if you stayed up nine minutes past the interminable three hour ten minute mark.  As the photo above shows, the dude with the headset is not one of the producers of the "winning" film (initially and erroneously announced as La La Land) about to give a rousing acceptance speech, but is actually stage manager Garry Natoli.  On the left are the two Price-Waterhouse employees whose only duty was handing out the coveted winners cards to the presenters.  On the right is a befuddled Warren Beatty, whose sole purpose, along with co-presenter Faye Dunaway, was to announce the most important winner of the evening for Best Picture. What nearly everyone on the planet now knows, this was the Oscar show for the ages after the wrong film was announced and the mistake realized only after acceptance speeches were in full swing by the losing film producers!  Classic!! 

I gave the show 3 1/2 stars based mainly on two factors:  the incredible drama that played out over the last 10 minutes as just described, and the admirable job by first-time host Jimmy Kimmel.  His quips and jabs were on-the-mark more often than not; and his unusually calm demeanor belied any hint of nervousness - delivering each joke with such smoothness that brought to mind the memorable multiple hosting duties by Bob Hope and, later, Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal.  My only quibble:  this is an awards show that should not have a political agenda.  However, in these divisive times, and judging from the agenda on display at the most recent award shows, that would have been way too much to ask for.  And, although Kimmel's references to the current occupants of The White House were generously sprinkled throughout the telecast, none were terribly biting or blatantly disrespectful.  

Once again this year, over produced musical numbers were few and far between. And, as have been the norm in recent years, a few bits involving the audience reared its ugly head, such as dropping parachutes into the audience replete with snacks, and bringing unsuspecting tour bus patrons into the Dolby Theater who were punked into believing they were visiting a celebrity home (more on that later).  

As for the ratings, the viewership just keeps on plummeting.  This years total of 32.9 million viewers was lower than last years 34.4 million, and came dangerously close to 2008's total of 32 million (the all-time low when Jon Stewart hosted).  Maybe the colossal Best Picture flub will have a few more folks watching next year - but I doubt it.

Finally, in a year where "The Electoral College vs The Popular Vote" is getting so much press, I might add that, ever since The Best Picture category was expanded in 2010 a similar method is used to award The BP Oscar. This might account for Moonlight's win over heavy favorite La La Land, the latter of which may have initially garnered the most first place votes but eventually lost out in the end due to the complicated process.

Once again, my annual apologies to Sergio Leone, as this breakdown will pretty much sum up the event through this reviewer's eyes:

Jimmy Kimmel.  I would vote for him to MC the 90th edition.  However, even if invited back, would he even want to be associated any longer with this utterly thankless task? 

- The elimination of the "thank you" crawl during acceptance speeches which last year were present to speed up the awardees.  For the most part, this year the orchestra remained silent as the majority of the speeches were, thankfully, short and concise. 

- The opening.  In a stark break from tradition, the upbeat nominated song "Can't Stop The Feeling" from the animated Trolls, opened the show with Justin Timberlake and dancers performing in the aisles and had many in the audience jumping to their feet while gyrating to the beat.

- The surprise introduction onstage of the real-life NASA mathematician Patricia Johnson portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the nominated Hidden Figures.

- Thankfully, only a couple of speeches leaned toward the political left. 

- The voting academy saw to it that, at least for a year, no longer will there be the lack of diversity issue that dominated twitter (#OscarsSoWhite) after last years nominees were announced, and awarded Oscars to a record number of Blacks.  

- Finally!  The 21st time is the charm.  Kevin O'Connell wins the sound mixing Oscar (for Hacksaw Ridge).  It's always good not to get your first award posthumously. 

- The beautiful moving performance by Sara Bareilles performing Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" during the In Memoriam segment.

- No self-serving political rant from Meryl Streep who, thankfully, didn't present or win.

- The only montage was an effective one:  showing previous Oscar acting winners before this years winners were announced. 

- The incredible drama produced by the most memorable bungle in award show history. Too bad most of the viewing audience had already checked out before seeing it live. The happiest person on the planet has to be Steve Harvey who announced the runner-up contestant as the winner of the 2015 Miss Universe Contest.
- Despite minimal political references which had me putting it in "The Good" column above, the fact that ANY were spoken are out of place during the annual pat-on-the-back "entertainment" extravaganza; and that fact puts it in my "Bad" column.

- Each year one can count on at least one notable omission from the In Memoriam segment.  This time around the producers outdid themselves by not honoring, most notably, comedian Garry Shandling, Robert Vaughn, Florence Henderson and Doris Roberts. The argument could be put forth that they were better known for their TV work; however Mary Tyler Moore was included in the list as well as musician Prince. Not to be outdone merely by these omissions, they also included a photo of still living producer Jan Chapman while mistakenly identifying her as the late fashion designer Janet Patterson.  Must have come as a shock to Ms. Chapman!

- The show went 19 minutes over their three hour time slot.  Two minutes shorter than last year but still way too long.

- It isn't right that the Best Director didn't direct the Best Picture.  Of the 89 films winning Best Picture, only 62 directors of those movies won.  

-The ratings.  The smallest since 2008 and trending down the last three years.  This year the average viewership was 32.9 million, down almost one million from 2016.

- Although it wasn't known until the next day, one of the tour bus folks, "Gary from Chicago", who received a lot of love from the audience (and was even gifted Jennifer Anniston's pricey shades), was actually a convicted rapist just released from prison three days earlier after serving twenty years.

- One of Kimmel's few missteps was poking fun at the name of Best Supporting Actor winners Mahershala Ali, which one could consider as borderline racist.  Another was the disrespectful tweet he sent to Trump that was posted on the giant screen above the stage.

-Kimmel mounting Lion's young Sunny Prawar on his shoulder miming the iconic scene from The Lion King.  However, the image of a white man holding up a brown child with African music playing might be conceived as having racial overtones and brought back memories of last years ill-conceived use of Asian children on stage that had many afterward charging insensitivity.  


Although you had to wait until the bitter end, Moonlight winning Best Picture had to be the biggest surprise of the night.  After La La Land  being the overwhelming pre-show favorite and already receiving six awards, it seemed a foregone conclusion that it would take home the big one.  However, the small powerful indie was undoubtedly helped immeasurably by the Academy's complicated voting process for determining Best Picture and ultimately became the evenings largest upset.  

Viola Davis winning Best Supporting Actress ("Fences").

The left-leaning Academy voting members awarding Viol Asghar Farhad (director of the foreign language winning The Salesman) who made good on his pre-show promise to skip the awards in protest of the administration's immigration policy.  A fine film but not nearly as deserving as Germany's Toni Erdmann. 

Mahershala Ali who not only won an Oscar for Moonlight but also became a father for the first time when his daughter was born four days earlier.

Kevin O'Connell who ended his losing streak with his Sound Mixing Oscar for Hacksaw Ridge.

Viola Davis.  Her speech was so awe-inspiring that Kimmel right afterward said that she just won an Emmy for it.  

Kevin O'Connell who talked about how his late mom helped him to win his first job as a sound man.  When he asked her how he could ever thank her, she told him to "go win an Oscar and you can stand up on that stage and and you can thank me in front of the whole world.  Mom, I know you're looking down on me tonight.  So, thank you."  With that, O'Connell walked off the stage clutching a Oscar after 34 years and 19 unsuccessful nominations.

La La Land with six out of its record-tying fourteen noms.

Meryl Streep so the world wouldn't have to be subjected to yet another political rant.

The Best Documentary winner, O.J.:  MADE IN AMERICA, at 467 minutes, beat War and Peace by a half hour.

Damiaen Chazelle who, at 32, was a couple of months younger than Norman Taurog who won in 1931 for Skippy.  

Dede Gardner (Moonlight) who also won for 12 Years A Slave. 

Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor (Moonlight).

Justin Timberlakes's rousing performance of the nominated song "Can't Stop The Feeling".

Kimmel's long-running "feud" with Matt Damon.  Kimmel revealed on his late-night show the following night that he was supposed to end the Oscars while seated next to Damon in the audience.  We never got to see that ending as Jimmy ended up on stage trying to explain the debacle that was occurring in full view of the world.

Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling - who appeared together a million years ago on The Mickey Mouse Club.  Timberlake was shown hugging his long-ago co-star just before breaking into song and later mingling together during the show.

Nicole Kidman and her ridiculous clapping

Kimmel talking about the country's current state of  divisiveness and then poking fun at Mel Gibson stating, "There's only one braveheart in this room, and he's not going to unite us either."

Stars expounding on what films they loved.  Later, Kimmel used the format to further rip Damon saying how much he "admired" Damon's flop, We Bought a Zoo.

Kimmel using one of his late-night bits:  having Hollywood Stars read actual mean tweets directed to them by "loving" fans

Moana star Auli'i Cravalho while performing the nominated song "How Far I'll Go" had a rendezvous with a dancer's flag without missing a beat. 

John Legend's main squeeze, supermodel Chrissy Tiegen shown sleeping on Legend's shoulder during Casey Affleck's acceptance speech.  I suppose she was catching up on some zzz's before the after-parties.

Do I need to repeat it?

See the top of this article.

When it came time to announce the Best Picture name on the card, a flustered and confused Warren Beatty handed the card to Faye Dunaway to call out the incorrect winner.  As Kimmel humorously explained on his late night show the next night, 50 years later, "Clyde threw Bonnie under the bus".  

Kimmel lifting Lion's Sunny Pawar above his head.

Suicide Squad which won for Makeup and Hairstyling.  Its honors this year also included two Razzies which salutes the worst of Hollywood offerings each year.

The producers of La La Land after realizing they didn't win for Best Picture.


Justin Timberlake opens the show performing 
"Can't Stop The Feeling" from "Trolls" 

Nominee Auli'i Cravalho performs "How Far I'll Go" from 

Sting performs "The Empty Chair" from "Jim: 
The James Foley Story"

John Legend performs a medley of  "City of 
Stars" and "Audition (Fools Who Dream)" from
"La La Land"

Kimmel and bus tourists greeting the audience

Emma Stone accepting the Best Actress Oscar
("La La Land")

Casey Affleck accepting the Best Actor Oscar
("Manchester by The Sea")

Mahershala Ali accepting his Best 
Supporting Actor Oscar ("Moonlight")

 Viola Davis accepting her Best
Supporting Actress Oscar

NASA physicist Katherine Johnson is 
surrounded by the actresses of "Hidden 
Figures" Janelle Monae (far left), Taraji P.
Henson (second from right) and Ocativa
Spencer (far right)

Charlize Theron (l) and Shirley Maclaine 
presenting the Oscar for the Best Foreign 
Language Film

Producer Jordan Horowitz ("La La Land" ) holds 
up the correct Best Picture card announcing
"Moonlight" as the true winner


Saturday February 25, 2017


- One can count on three things on Oscar night:
(1)  There will be at least one African-American award winner in the major categories after none were nominated in the 20 acting categories last year.  The diversity issue that surrounded the last two years has been put to bed - at least for a year.  This year a record-tying (with 2007) seven minority actors and a record six black actors are on the list. For the first time, three black actresses are competing in the same category (Best Supporting Actress) and the first time there has been a black actor in all four major acting categories.  However, the Academy still has a way to go nominating women in the director and cinematography categories where none again have been nominated. And only one woman made the ten nominated screenplays list:  Allison Schroeder who co-wrote Hidden Figures.
(2)  La La Land will walk off with at least 5 (of its 14 nominated) statuettes including Best Picture and Best Director (see my predictions below)
(3)  There will be at least one political speech - probably more (and watch out if Streep gets a chance to be alone at the podium - see below).

- This years thankless hosting job goes to the brilliant Jimmy Kimmel after Chris Rock did an admirable job at last years extravaganza.  Kimmel (who, IMHO, is the absolute best of the late night talk show hosts), hopefully, will make this more about entertainment and direct his barbs to the industry and audience instead of the White House.  However, considering the current political climate and the, it seems, constant never-ending negative utterances for the past couple of months from the left-coast, this thought appears to be in the wishful-thinking category.

- Well deserved:  La La Land  tying the 89th Academy Award nomination record of 14 nominations along with 1950's All About Eve and 1997's Titanic.  Will it tie or win more than the record 11 held by Titanic and three others?  We will know around midnight tomorrow for what was, hands-down, the best film of the year that was devoid of big flashy contenders.

- The 2nd best film of the year that practically nobody saw:  Hell or High Water. Released during the late summer, the film has grossed just under $27 million. I was thrilled to see this one make the final list.  The modern "western" mystery/suspense drama boasts one of the best original scripts of the year by Terry Sheridan (2015's Sicerio) accompanied by terrific acting across the board (Jeff Bridges is nominated in the Supporting Actor category).  

- The most obvious nomination snub:  Deadpool.  There are 10 Best Picture category slots available.  Again this year, the Academy has failed to fill all ten.  One that should have been included in the list is this brilliant comedy/science fiction/fantasy film. Despite earning more that $348 million(!), its way early February release date, and the fact that science fiction films and comedies are never a fav of the Academy were probably determining factors.  Two Golden Globe nominations (including one for Best Picture) as well as from the Writers Guild and the Producers Guild did nothing to bring support to the incredibly clever superhero movie.  Too bad as this film definitely deserved to be honored here.

- The 2nd most obvious snub:  Amy Adams - despite glowing reviews as the central actor and driving force in Arrival  and her equally excellent work in Nocturnal Animals. I'm thinking the two roles might have canceled each other out in the nomination voting for the actress who has tied Deborah Kerr and Glenn Close for the most noms (5) without winning.  

- The 3rd most obvious snub:  Pixar's animated Finding Dory despite the almost universal positive reviews coupled with its earning of over $1 billion worldwide.  Was the fact that it was a sequel to Finding Nemo a factor?  Possibly - but it didn't hurt the brilliant Toy Story 3  which won 2011.

- The biggest resurrection and comeback:  Mel Gibson, nominated for Best Director Hacksaw Ridge.  Although he earned his directing chops for 1995's Braveheart, his other directorial efforts since have not come close to equally the success of that film. And considering his near disgraced image and numerous controversies over the years, Gibson appears to have been forgiven by The Academy and has come full-circle with this major recognition.

-They should make a separate category for Meryl Streep.  Now nominated for a record 20th(!) time (including three wins), I fully expect her name to be on the acting list every year she appears in a movie. After her controversial alt-leftist accepting speech at The Golden Globes, one has to wonder if the overwhelming liberal voting Academy members mark their ballot for her if for no other reason than to hear more of the same on the industry's biggest stage. Stay tuned.

- Both Denzel Washington (Best Actor) and Viola Davis (Best Supporting Actress) for Fences became the most nominated Black actors (the former with seven and the latter with three) and each are likely to win (see below).

- A nomination for Tom Hanks was usually considered as much as a lock as a Meryl Streep nom.  However, he has curiously been overlooked since 2000 (Cast Away) even though his work in Sully as the "miracle on the Hudson" captain had garnered almost universal praise.

- Poor Kevin O'Connell.  He holds the thankless record of most nominations without a win harking back to 1984's Terms of Endearment.  His sound mixing for Hacksaw Ridge is his 21st nomination.  However, I wouldn't bet the mortgage on this being the year the streak is broken as he is up against La La Land - the likely winner.

- Finally, if August Wilson (who died in 2005) wins for Best Adapted Screenplay for his Pulitzer Prize winner Fences, he will be the first black posthumous winner and the 2nd posthumous winner in this category since Sidney Howard for Gone With The Wind  in 1939.

The envelope, please . . . 


What will win:  La La Land
(Very Extreme) Upset Possibility:  Moonlight
What should win:  La La Land
Although I listed Moonlight as an upset possibility, the outstanding independent film has little chance of winning.  La La Land  is a virtual lock for many reasons.  Besides being the best movie I screened this year, it encompasses the reasoning I expounded in my earlier review comparing it to 2010's Best Picture award winner Silent Movie. Hollywood loves throwback films that have all but disappeared from their landscape. Not only does it hearken back to the musical genre so prevalent in films during the glory days of Hollywood past, and not only is it based in La La Land, it is also masterfully crafted.  At its heart, it is infused with an emotional romantic theme complete with a stand-out score and choreography and is beautifully acted by two of today's most talented actors.  After winning almost every major award this year, a upset here would be considered monumental.

FOR THE RECORD:  here are the nine nominated films I rated from best to least: 
(1)  La La Land
(2)  Hell or High Water
(3)  Moonlight
(4)  Hidden Figures
(5)  Lion
(6)  Manchester by the Sea
(7)  Fences
(8)  Hacksaw Ridge
(9)  Arrival

Who will win:  Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Upset possibility:  Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)
Who should win:  Damien Chazelle
Rarely does the Academy bestow this award to a director of a film that doesn't win the big prize.  Don't expect this to be one of those years.  Chazelle took six years to bring his dream to the big screen, and his patience and skillful talent will pay off in spades Sunday night.  If anything, his direction in the spectacular opening ten minutes of the film alone be enough to qualify for the win!  Jenkins is an obvious talent that bears watching in the future.  His directorial effort for the indie Moonlight , like Chazelle's 2014 Whiplash, puts him high in the running but not nearly enough to overtake the eventual winner. 

Who will win:  Denzel Washington (Fences)
Upset possibility:  Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
Who should win:  Denzel Washington
The diversity issue ends with the likely win by Denzel who delivers an absolute tour
de force as the lead in Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson's play.  Washington gives a mesmerizing performance as the patriarch of a struggling black family in 1950's Pittsburgh.  However, if Affleck wins, it would not be a total surprise.  His acting as the morose center of the character-driven drama by Kenneth Lonergan, is understated but sure.  Consider also that Casey is up against one of the premier actors of this generation.  And then there is that diversity issue hanging over the voting members as well.

Who will win:  Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
Upset possibility:  Emma Stone (La La Land) 
Who should win:  Isabelle Huppert
One of the toughest categories to handicap.  The great French actress who since 1971 has appeared in over 100 films and TV productions and has won a multitude number of awards over her career, receives The Oscar on her first try as a strong willed sexual assault victim in search of her attacker in director Paul Verhoeven's riveting mystery drama.  Of course Emma Stone has to be considered as part of the La La Land  tsunami; however, I feel that The Academy will acknowledge the better performance.  Stone was certainly wonderful as the female love interest in the musical, but, overall, Huppert gives the more memorable performance.  An extreme upset possibility could be the Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga who was nominated at Cannes for her role as Mildred Loving in the interracial civil rights true story.      

Who will win:  Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Upset possibility:  Dev Patel (Lion)
Who should win:  Mahershala Ali
The Academy needs to deliver at least one major award to the universally acclaimed indie Moonlight and this category seems to fit the bill.  Ali (Netflix's House of Cards) gives a memorable performance as a drug dealer who befriends the young central character in the coming-of-age drama and is certain to walk up to the podium to accept.  A longshot could be the English actor Dev Patel (2008's Slumdog Millionaire) portraying the Australian-adopted Indian who, as an adult, searches to locate his birthplace.

Who will win:  Viola Davis (Fences)
Upset possibility:  Naomic Harris (Moonlight)
Who should win:  Viola Davis
The first black actress to be nominated for three Academy acting awards (including 2008's Doubt and 2011's The Help) will continue the burial of the diversity issue and will finally wins a much deserved win.  Much has been made of the fact that she easily could have been placed in the Best Actress category since she is afforded an incredible amount of screen time.  However, her presence on this list definitely gives her the best chance of winning where her closest competition is Naomic Harris as the crack-addicted mother of the central character.  Her commanding performance, however, does not come close to topping Davis' inspired turn as the matriarch in August Wilson's drama.

What will win:  The Salesman (Iran)
Upset possibility:  Toni Erdmann (Germany)
What should win:  Toni Erdmann 
Politics rears its ugly head as The Academy picks controversy over common sense. The world knows about The Salesman's director Asghar Farhad (2011 Foreign Language winner A Separation) and his proclamation of boycotting the ceremony due to the President's travel policy.  And what better way to honor that action by the left-leaning Academy delivering him The Oscar.  A much better film, however, is the ambitiously moving Toni Erdmann, written and directed by Maren Ade, which practically swept The European Awards.  Alas, politics will probably win out.   

Who will win:  Linus Sandgren (La La Land)
Upset possibility:  James Laxton (Moonlight)
Who should win:  Linus Sandgren and James Laxon (tie)
In any other year James Laxton might have been a shoo-in.  The film's title is based
on Tarrell Alvin McCraney's deeply personal "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" and Laxton's superb cinematography powerfully reflects the images on the screen. Unfortunately, Sangren's work is equally notable conveying the look and feel of 1950's Hollywood.  The reality is that voters in this category in the past have tended to favor musicals - which, more than likely, will put Sangren on the podium.  As unlikely as ties are in Oscar's history, I would be totally OK if one was announced here.

Who will win:  Tom Cross (La La Land)
Upset possibility:  Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon (Moonlight)
Who should win:  Tom Cross
Mark up yet another win in the technical categories for La La Land.  Although Moonlight's editing was distinctive, Cross' editing, especially during the musical production scenes and the incredibly moving finale, cannot be overlooked in the final analysis.

Who will win:  Justin Hurwitz (La La Land)
(Extreme) Upset possibility:  Nicholas Britell (Moonlight)
Who should win:  Justin Hurwitz
A great musical certainly demands a great memorable score and Hurwitz will win the Oscar in one of the slam-dunk locks of the night.  Hurwitz is currently riding high on Broadway writing the music for Dear Evan Hansen along with his lyric writing pal Justin Paul (who will assuredly win for Best song-see below).  Britell wrote a beautifully haunting score for Moonlight but will finish a distant second to Hurwitz in this category.

What will win:  "City of Stars"  (La La Land)
(Extreme) Upset possibility:  "The Empty Chair" (Jim:  The James Foley Story)
What should win:  "City of Stars"
Another virtual lock is the evocative number performed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone that is one of the few winning songs in recent years that will actually linger long after the show ends.  Of course, even though it is competing with another worthy La La Land nominee, "The Fools Who Dream", it is nowhere as potent and should not cancel out the votes for "City of Stars". However, if it does, then look for the J. Ralph and Sting number "The Empty Chair" to possible slip in.  Nonetheless, my ducats are on writer Justin Hurwitz along with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul accepting the statuettes.

Who will win:  Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
Upset possibility:  Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water)
Who should win:   Taylor Sheridan
As mentioned above, I absolutely loved Taylor Sheridan's script which made Hell or High Water so memorable.  My heart yearns for Sheridan winning. However, my head screams Lonergan's script if, for no other reason, because the Academy would love to honor the indie film that has garnered so many incredibly positive reviews.

Who will win:  Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney from "In Moonlight Black   Boys Look Blue" (Moonlight)
Upset possibility:  August Wilson (posthumous) from Fences by August Wilson (Fences)
Who should win:   Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney
This should be another win for the powerful Moonlight, although it will be hard to overlook a script by a Pulitzer Prize winner.  However, despite that the Academy rarely accords a posthumous Oscar, Wilson's intelligent insightful script comes across more as a play (from which it was adapted) on the screen.

What will win:  O.J.:  Made in America
(Extreme) Upset possibility:  I Am Not Your Negro
What should win:   O.J.:  Made in America
Traditionally a strong category, an argument could be made for any of the nominees winning.  However, this powerful 467 minute masterpiece by director Ezra Edelman (who was nominated for his wonderful 2013 documentary Cutie and the Boxer) that interrelates race, sports, media and politics before, during and after the infamous murder trial of the century, stands head and shoulder about the other outstanding films on this list.   That being said, if any film has a chance of upsetting it would be director Raoul Peck's film based on ideas expounded by American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet and social critic, James Baldwin.  Considering the current racial climate a win by this film would hardly be a major surprise.