Oscar Gold 2018 – Best Actor

We’re down to the final three categories, and tonight we deal with the last one that I actually finished this year. It’s always interesting to me to see which category ends up being the final one to wrap up the blitz. Two years ago, the first time I completed every film, it was Foreign Language, with Embrace of the Serpent coming in to a local arthouse theatre (coincidentally the same one I go to for the Animated and Live Action Shorts) a mere two days before Oscar night. Last year, the final category (at the same theatre) was Animated Feature, with the long-awaited debut of My Life as a Zucchini. This year, the final film was Roman J. Israel, Esq. to complete Best Actor. I wonder what will be the final category next year.

This year’s field is an interesting mixed bag. We have two former winners, two newcomers, and one repeat nominee who has yet to win. I’d also argue there’s a bit of Academy politicking with at least one of the nominees, if not two. There are several leading performances that were worthy of consideration here, so I’m a tad skeptical of about 40% of this category. There’s no truly bad performance (though one gets really close), but when you consider who didn’t make the cut, you kind of have to shake your head and shrug your shoulders.

This year’s nominees for Best Actor are:

Timothée Chalamet – Call Me By Your Name
I’ll say this for the kid, he’s had a hell of a year, similar to Lucas Hedges over the past 18 months. In addition to this nominated turn, he had supporting roles in Lady Bird and Hostiles. This is certainly the best of the three, but I’m not sure that’s saying much.

As Elio Perlman, Chalamet does an admirable job of portraying a hormone-charged teenager. He’s horny, silly, awkward, indignant, whiny, and thinks he’s way smarter than he actually is. At times, this can be endearing. At other times he just seems like a twerp. The best I can say is that it’s accurate. Also, his name sounds like frozen pizza, so what’s not to like?

Sadly, it’s the whole “twerp” factor. I get why he was nominated. This is a performance from a relative newcomer, and a young actor ahead of the curve. There’s also a wave of inclusion in recent years, so a gay romance was bound to raise some eyebrows and encourage campaigning. But in all honesty, I have to bow to the wisdom of my friend Jen, who broke it down thus: “If he was a girl, no one would be talking about this movie. He’d be every giggly ingenue from every cheesy romcom.” I can’t argue with that.

Daniel Day-Lewis – Phantom Thread
There’s no such thing as a film that’s not elevated by the presence of Daniel Day-Lewis. Only an actor of his caliber could make a repugnant character such as Reynolds Woodcock almost sympathetic. He’s a master of method, and he completely loses himself in the role. He’s needy, self-centered, hypocritical, verbally abusive, and endlessly convinced of his own superiority.

As I mentioned when I reviewed the film, Day-Lewis is at his best when he becomes manically focused on Woodcock’s work. It’s also amazing that he can turn what we would all consider back acting habits into character assets. This is a worthy nomination because for a film as weird as Phantom Thread, he’s one of the few things (along with the Costume Design and Score) that prevent it from becoming terrible.

As far as his chances of winning, I’m afraid I can’t endorse him here, mostly because I’ve seen him earn nominations and wins for so many better films and performances. He does an admirable job here, but it’s no Lincoln, or Last of the Mohicans, or Gangs of New York, or My Left Foot, or even There Will Be Blood. This is advertised as his final performance, so the nomination lets him go out on a high note if this is indeed the end, but that’s about it.

Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out
My God was this a brilliant performance. I still remember watching Get Out in the theatre over a year ago, and the experience was almost transformative. Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington engaged the audience in ways I’ve never seen before. Everyone focuses on his eyes, and the tearful fear he experiences when he’s hypnotized and taken to the “sunken place,” and that’s worth mentioning, because no performer other than maybe Sally Hawkins was able to convey so much last year with just their eyes. But for Kaluuya, that only scratches the surface.

Throughout the film he’s a lightning rod for social paranoia. He’s timid around new people, but always puts out a smile and a hearty handshake, despite the fact that Chris is clearly uncomfortable, even after Allison Williams warns him. There’s a passive racism that informs nearly every scene, and it’s the subtle way in which Kaluuya reacts to it all without overplaying his hand that makes his character so much fun. Even when the tables are turned on him, he’s just a step ahead of the action. He’s terrified, but certain where things are headed, because he’s very smart and even more observant (that “photographer’s eye” that Stephen Root so desperately wants).

He walks a delicate line until the third act, being overly polite so as not to rattle anyone, even though literally every scenario rattles him. He doesn’t rage, he doesn’t monologue, he just carries on like he does every day of his life, like many people of color have to do themselves, only this time he’s actually getting deeper and deeper into a situation he can’t control. Kaluuya’s handling of it all is simply brilliant.

Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour
While the film is nominated in multiple categories, the success of Darkest Hour comes down to two things – the makeup job to transform Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill, and the unparalleled acting of Gary Oldman to make us believe he was Churchill.

It’s one thing to do an impersonation of an historical figure, but Oldman really sold it here. He adapted not only Churchill’s legendary wit, but also his carriage and mannerisms. Oldman really took his time to study Churchill to make sure he got it right, and it shows in the performance, especially in his more bombastic speeches.

But there’s one scene that I really loved that was much more low-key. About midway through the film, Oldman/Churchill, beset by political opposition and the Nazi threat, makes a quietly desperate call to Franklin Roosevelt to ask the United States for support. Now, aside from the fun fact that it was David Strathairn playing FDR, there’s just so much pathos in this scene. The normally brash and bellowing Churchill being reduced to a level just above blubbering and begging? That was the moment I was convinced.

Denzel Washington – Roman J. Israel, Esq.
I’m not going to mince words. This movie sucked, and Denzel’s performance was phoned in. His character, I think, was intended to be a mixture of Atticus Finch and Raymond Babbitt, but really it just seemed like a blacksploitation version of Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. His line readings were labored, and his tics were not really believable (so he eats peanut butter sandwiches – so did Magellan the Dragon on Eureka’s Castle back in the day – that’s not a character trait, it’s just trivia). Also, given that this was the follow-up to Nightcrawler, the bar was set unbelievably high, and both the script and Denzel failed to live up to it. Even one of my major movie pet peeves infiltrated here, and that’s a wholly misleading trailer. What we were promised was a high stakes legal thriller where a good lawyer’s been beat down his entire career, so he decides to turn the tables on the assholes and get rich doing so. Instead we got a tepid bit of Asperger’s character study with a half-hearted shuffle into non-ethical/illegal behavior, before immediately backpedaling and having the whole thing resolved through ex machina. What a waste.

This was almost certainly a political nomination. We are in the age of the #MeToo movement, and we’ve seen a lot of examples of men getting their comeuppance in Hollywood for inappropriate behavior. As Bill Maher said on his show last week, we’re all “playing with five fouls,” and that’s a good thing. It sucks here because Denzel’s nomination was a double power move in the wake of the issue. Let’s just admit it, Denzel is here to keep James Franco out, and considering Denzel lost to Casey Affleck last year (who also has some harassment issues to deal with), it’s also an apology for that horrid decision. Casey’s win was the result of campaigning, not a positive performance. He spent two and a half hours basically screaming “I’M FAHCKING SAD!” in a Boston accent. Denzel gave a wonderful performance in Fences, and got screwed by marketing. This is a half-assed attempt to right two wrongs.

It’s sad, because Franco’s performance as Tommy Wiseau was utterly brilliant and hilarious, and he’d have a damn good shot of winning here if not for the baggage. But even if we all accepted that he’d have to be locked out this year, there were so many other choices that would have been better than Denzel on this one. You have Tom Hanks in The Post, Ansel Elgort for Baby Driver, Hugh Jackman for Logan, Bryan Cranston for Last Flag Flying, Chadwick Boseman for Marshall, Kumail Nanjiani for The Big Sick, Javier Bardem in Mother!, or Charlie Hunnam for The Lost City of Z just to name a few. I could even buy a nod for Tom Cruise in American Made, for God’s sake. I love Denzel, but this was a misfire on all counts.

My Rankings:
1) Daniel Kaluuya
2) Gary Oldman
3) Daniel Day-Lewis
4) Timothée Chalamet
5) Denzel Washington

Next up: Just one more category to go before the big one! Join us on Monday for Best Director, and stay tuned for more new movie reviews over the weekend!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Did Daniel Kaluuya make you feel his fear? Does Daniel Day-Lewis make you feel pretty? Was I too hard on Denzel? Is there a performance that I didn’t mention that would have been better than Denzel? Let me know!

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