Like the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards ceremony is an annual display of power and wealth that we love to hate and hate to love. I haven't watched an Oscar telecast since Paul Haggis's "Crash" won the award for best picture in 2006 — a selection that epitomizes the organization's ongoing obsession with platitudes over artistry and daring. As of this writing, Haggis has won more Oscars than Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and two of this year's more deserving and so-far-un-awarded nominees, Paul Schrader and Spike Lee.
Yet the political controversies that reliably surround the Super Bowl and Oscars offer an ongoing testament to their relevance, however fleeting it may or may not be. Oscars affect careers and—unfortunately, whether audiences wish to admit it or not—influence popular perception of what important films are. Whether I watch them or not, I have a stake as a film critic in how the Oscars turn out, and below I offer my picks for the most coveted statuettes, as if I had a vote. As an act of discipline, I'm restricting myself only to the nominees.
Best Supporting Actor
I'm torn between Adam Driver for "BlackKklansman" and Richard E. Grant for "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" both great performances. Driver is perhaps the best American actor of his generation, and he informs "BlackKklansman" with a revelatory sense of self-interrogation and vulnerability. Grant, a brilliant veteran, gives a performance of highly pleasurable stylishness that gives way to pathos. I would choose Driver by a nose.
Best Supporting Actress
Three of the performances in this category are intensely overrated: Amy Adams does another of her woman-behind-a-big-man turns in the hollow, cartoonish "Vice," Marina de Tavira rode the inexplicable "Roma" wave, and Regina King was saddled with the least convincing material in "If Beale Street Could Talk." This leaves Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, both superb opposite one another in "The Favourite," though I prefer Weisz.
Best Original Screenplay
This is the award the academy often gives to artists it knows it should love but doesn't like or understand, and as such it should be renamed after Orson Welles, who took this statue, and this statue only, for "Citizen Kane." This means that Paul Schrader actually has a chance to win for his searing "First Reformed" screenplay, and he's easily the most deserving nominee in this rather tepid lineup.
Best Adapted Screenplay
This is a much stronger collection of scripts than those competing for best original screenplay. I'm not sure what source material the academy believes Joel and Ethan Coen to have adapted for "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," but it's nice to see a great film recognized. "BlackKklansman" is structurally unwieldy but has rich passages of the liveliest dialogue to grace a Spike Lee film in some time, which is saying something given that he's in the middle of an artistically fertile period. Call me a softy, but I'm picking Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty's "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" which is an increasing rarity in Hollywood: a literate, generous, unpretentious character study.
Melissa McCarthy and Olivia Colman richly deserve their nominations for "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" and "The Favourite" respectively. Their competitors are either fads — Lady Gaga and Yalitza Aparicio — or have been nominated as an act of offering a veteran yet another gold watch — Glenn Close, filling in this year for Meryl Streep. I pick McCarthy for crystallizing and refining her comic art to create an unforgettable antihero, though Colman elevates a potentially over-the-top role into the stuff of authentic tragedy.
In "At Eternity's Gate," Willem Dafoe gives viewers a Vincent van Gogh that they've never seen before, informing an oft-played role with his distinctive blend of comedy and alienated gravitas. Meanwhile, Rami Malek and Christian Bale are good in "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Vice" respectively, but the films strand them. As for Bradley Cooper in "A Star Is Born," I'll give him this: It takes cojones to do a just-OK Sam Elliott impersonation opposite the real McCoy. Dafoe is the best actor here by a mile, though the omission of Ethan Hawke for "First Reformed" is galling.
Best Director and Best Picture
For an auteurist like myself, the best director and best picture winners should usually match. While "BlackKklansman" is not the best of Spike Lee's recent films — that would be "Chi-Raq," which was deserving of nearly every Oscar the year of its release — it's a combustible and exhilarating fusion of racial satire, undercover buddy cop movie and media criticism. Most audacious, particularly in this polarized age, is Lee's willingness to empathize with the Ku Klux Klan, and to leaven moments of profound hatred with free-associational punchlines. "BlackKlansman" expands in the mind while other issues-oriented nominees, like "Roma" and "Black Panther," shut you out with their mixed messages, stilted formalism and speechifying.
The 91st annual Academy Awards will air on ABC on Sunday, Feb. 24 at 8 p.m.