I never try to predict who will win, but here are my favorites for 2017. I also include a section at the end for ensembles, because this year, more than others I recall, films were great because of the combination of superb acting and directing.
Best Actor: I loved Timothee Chalamet’s performance (Call Me by Your Name), but his best (and IMHO most stunning) scenes came at the end. Gary Oldman’s performance was solid (Darkest Hour), but the movie felt scattered and left me mostly uninterested. I felt similarly about Denzel Washington’s performance (Roman J Israel, ESQ) as a lawyer on the spectrum who finds himself without a job after his partner has a severe heart attack. Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) was very good in a film genre that typically gets overlooked by the academy, but I am not sure the performance is at the same caliber as the others. My pick: Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread). The role required a sustained and nuanced acting effort that only the best could execute. This is the only category whose outcome I would try to predict: Gary Oldman, because the Academy always likes actors and actresses who “pull off” historical characters. Two people who deserved to be on the list had there been space: Jake Gyllenhaal (Stronger) as the conflicted survivor of the Boston Marathon terrorist bombing, and James Franco (Disaster Artist) as Tommy Wiseau, the director of The Room, named by many as the worst film ever made.
Best Actress: Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird) is excellent as a high school senior living in Sacramento sparring with her mom on the precipice of independence. Sally Hawkins had two wonderful roles this year (Shape of Water and Maudie), both of which showcase her as one of our best contemporary actresses. Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) played a great (adult) Tonya Harding; while I didn’t think that she pulled off the young Tonya as well, her portrayal of Tonya trying to tell her side of the story is remarkable. Meryl Streep (The Post) faithfully becomes immersed into her characters, but the Post was (for me) misdirected and irritating. My pick: Francis McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), hands down. Her fiery performance as a mother dealing with the brutal loss of her daughter is brilliant and, like the performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, required an acting effort achieved by only the best. One person who deserved to be on the list had there been room is Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game), who plays the real-life Molly Bloom, a woman who headed a high-stakes gambling empire.
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer (All the Money in the World) created a really evil J Paul Getty; he plays these kinds of characters very well. Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) was excellent and multifaceted, but I didn’t find his character that nuanced . Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) was very good, but I did not feel that his performance stood out. I thought Richard Jenkins (Shape of Water) was wonderful as a lonely gay man working as a painter of works no one wants; and is my close runner-up. My clear pick: Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). His performance was nuanced, and he pulled off a rare feat of being despicable in the beginning and growing to be somewhat likeable at the end – a great redemption story. One person who deserved to be on the list had there been room is Michael Shannon (Shape of Water), who plays a despicable agent involved in the creature’s captivity. Like Christopher Plummer, this is a character type that Shannon does so well.
Best Supporting Actress: Mary J Blige (Mudbound) brought depth to the film with her excellent performance as the wife of a sharecropper in the Southern US during WWII. Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread) was also excellent as Daniel Day-Lewis’ partner in the dress-making business. Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird) plays a realistic and believable mother coming to terms with the independence of her daughter. Octavia Spencer (Shape of Water) brought a natural and comic character to life as Eliza’s friend at the secret government headquarters. My pick is Allison Janney (I, Tonya); her role as Tanya Harding’s mother is simultaneously hilarious and illuminating as to how Tonya became the person she did. Others who deserved to be on the list had there been room for more: I thought this category to be a particularly crowded field – there were so many wonderful supporting performances. Others I could have imagined include Vicki Krieps (Phantom Thread), who held her own against the magnificent Daniel Day-Lewis as his muse. Brooklynn Kimberly Prince (The Florida Project) gave a most remarkable performance as a girl who sees the joy and fun of life in spite of her poverty. No one spoke of Sandy Martin (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), who played Sam Rockwell’s mother and was the perfect representation of old Jim Crow South.
Director: All of the Best Director nominees are deserving. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was impressive in terms of capturing the feel of war from multiple perspectives – ground, water, and air. Jordan Peele (Get Out) gave a socially conscious horror movie that is probably one of the most interesting twists on the genre to happen in years, maybe decades. Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) crafted one of the loveliest and most realistic mother-teenage daughter stories. Guillermo del Toro has one of the most creative imaginations in film, and Shape of Water tells a contemporary Beauty and the Beast story that is emotionally captivating and pays wonderful homage to old-school movies. My favorite is Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread). He crafted an intriguing love triangle that builds slowly and completely threw me off-guard at the end. I left the theater elated about this strangely wonderful story. Who was left out? Well, obviously – Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). What a wonderful script and a fascinating redemption story.
Ensemble (There really is no favorite here; all were incredible ensemble efforts).
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This is the perfect combination of a director who is known for black comedies and tight screenwriting and some really great actors. In this film, McDonagh directs Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Sandy Martin to craft fully-realized characters that are fierce, deep, and (ultimately) likeable. I also thought
- Shape of Water. Combine Guillermo del Toro’s brilliant imagination with several actors who help bring each of his characters to life to tell a modern-day Beauty and the Beast story: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, and Michael Shannon. Collectively, the performances were exceptional.
- Phantom Thread: Paul Thomas Anderson has a large repertoire of interesting movies in which he directs his actors to achieve brilliance. Who could forget Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood? Burt Reynolds, John C Reilly, Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, and Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights? In this film, there are only three main characters who bring such power and intensity to a strange and mesmerizing story: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicki Krieps, and Lesley Manville.
- I, Tonya: There were so many people central to this film – Craig Gillespie, the director, and Steven Rogers, the screenwriter; Margot Robbie as Tonya; Allison Janney as her mother; Sebastian Stan as Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly; and the actors playing the two bumblers who carried out the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. There wasn’t a single character who wasn’t funny and at the same time very serious. I doubt this movie would have worked as well as it did in other hands.