• Jim Keller

On the surface, the films Dear Evan Hansen and Bergman Island couldn’t be more different—one is a musical, the other a quiet meditation on the reconciliation of love and the creative process. But the two share some blood in that they depict characters who are struggling with their mental states, and they both made appearances in the fall film festival circuit. Hansen had its world premiere this year at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9 as the Opening Night Gala Presentation, and Bergman Island premiered at the Cannes Film Festival but also screened at the Telluride Film Festival, and most recently, the New York Film Festival. Here, I examine the beating heart behind each one.

By now you have probably heard the incessant jeers coming from the first critics to see Stephen Chbosky’s Dear Evan Hansen concerning its relatively young lead Ben Platt’s age (28) and that of the title character he portrays (17). But having seen the film, Platt’s appearance did not bother me. He delivers an emotional performance that is every bit as engaging and genuine as that of the Tony Award-winning musical of the same name the film was based on and for which Platt won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical.

As the high school senior Evan Hansen, who is plagued with social anxiety disorder, Platt goes out of his way to let everyone around him suck the air out of the room—even after an injury leaves him with a bum wing. He has stooped posture, stumbles on nearly every word, becomes easily flustered, and relies on a steady regimen of Zoloft, Wellbutrin and Ativan to get him through each day. He is a ghost walking amidst giant hallways, drowning in the din of day-to-day high school life, who feels he is perpetually "waving through a window", as one of the story's songs goes. Evan even sits alone in the cafeteria, barely glancing around as he steadies himself through a simple meal that is probably the worst part of his day.

But unbeknownst to Evan, there is another ghost haunting the halls, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a teen with a bad boy exterior who like Evan secretly desperately wants to feel a part of the world that seems to go on around him and without him. It isn’t a spoiler to say that Connor takes his own life, setting in motion the plot that unfolds, and I share that because as low as Evan feels, he couldn’t know the darkness going on inside the mind of Connor, or could he?

Connor’s parents (played by Amy Adams and Danny Pino) find a note in his pocket that is misinterpreted as a suicide note but in reality was written by Evan, a practice note to himself as part of his therapy. Hence, the title of the musical and film, and once Connor's parents entrust Evan with that information, his journey of self-discovery and acceptance begins.

The first part of his journey involves meeting Alana Beck (Amandla Stenberg), a plucky joiner who we later find out is regulated by her own set of medications. Stenberg wrote a new song for the film’s soundtrack, “The Anonymous Ones” that her character sings and describes her to a T:

“The anonymous ones

Never let you see the ache they carry

All of those anonymous ones

Who never name that quiet pain they bury

So they keep on keeping secrets that they think they have to hide

But what if everybody’s secret is they have that secret side?”

Above: Advertisement for Dear Evan Hansen at AMC Lincoln Square, New York, NY

Photo: Author

This past weekend, in a Q&A at the New York Film Festival, the star of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, Vicky Krieps described the feeling she had working on set using the German word “sehnsucht”, a cross between longing and missing. “So, it’s like you long for something you’ve known before maybe or something you might know one day, but you don’t know. It’s quite melancholic but more positive,” she said. The film was shot on Fårö, an island in the Baltic Sea and off the mainland of Sweden's southeastern coast, where Ingmar Bergman made his home and directed several of his films.

Above: Anders Danielsen Lie (second from left), Vicky Krieps, and Mia Hansen-Løve at Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY, September 25, 2021 Photo: Author

Bergman Island follows a couple (played by Krieps and Tim Roth) who retreat to Fårö to work on their screenplays when the lines between reality and fiction begin to blur. In the film, Kriep’s Chris recounts her story for Roth’s Tony where a young woman named Amy (Mia Wasikowska) struggles with her intense romantic feelings for a man she once had a sexual relationship with and with whom she is thrown back in the mix with over a weekend wedding celebration (Anders Danielsen Lie as Joseph). Amy is thrilled when Joseph responds to her advances, but after their first encounter, she cannot contain herself and begins pursuing him. When he doesn’t call when he says he will, she shows up, when he doesn’t follow through with seeing her, she calls—you get the picture. Amy is wholly consumed by the anxiety she experiences vis-à-vis her feelings for Joseph. Meanwhile, outside the film within the film, Chris quietly radiates her own feelings of anxiety as she lives in the shadow of Tony, who enjoys some celebrity, evidenced by fans who attend his events on the island, and who she struggles to keep the attention of when describing her own work.

Although Chris’ anxiety is less palpable, the intensity of Amy’s anxiety is like that of Evan Hansen’s, the difference being that Evan conceals his (as if behind a window) until he nearly blows a gasket and Amy does blow a gasket. In any case, to see mental health issues depicted so clearly through two completely different films and multiple characters—and in the case of Bergman Island even through varying degrees—was beautiful given the lack of attention in our society.

As much as I enjoyed both films, neither will feature in the Oscar conversation, and that’s OK. Because the point is that they were made, are accessible to anyone who wants to reach them, and in the words of Evan Hansen “be found”.

A little more than a year ago is when I last posted to this site. I had said from the outset that I wasn’t sure what the site would become, but it was never my intention to abandon it entirely—chalk it up to the uncertainty of the election and the ongoing pandemic. Even though I didn’t post about it, I did follow the Oscar race closely, so let’s start by reviewing last year.

My top ten films of 2020: 1 Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom/Promising Young Woman

2 Ammonite

3 Hillbilly Elegy

4 The Trial of the Chicago 7

5 Nomadland

6 Mangrove

7 The Prom

8 Minari

9 Driveways

10 The Father

My Oscar nomination predictions on Oscar eve for above the line categories:

My Oscar winner predictions in all categories:

Best Picture: Nomadland

Best Director: Chloe Zhao, Nomadland

Best Actor: Chadwick Boseman - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom / Anthony Hopkins - The Father

Best Actress: Viola Davis - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom / Frances McDormand - Nomadland

Best Supporting Actor: Daniel Kaluuya - Judas and the Black Messiah

Best Supporting Actress: Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari

Best Original Screenplay: Promising Young Woman

Best Adapted Screenplay: Nomadland / The Father

Best Cinematography: Nomadland / Mank

Best Costume Design: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Best Editing: Sound of Metal

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Best Production Design: Mank

Best Original Score: Soul

Best Original Song: "Speak Now" - One Night in Miami / “Fight for You” - Judas and the Black Messiah

Best Sound: Sound of Metal

Best Visual Effects: Tenet

Animated Feature: Soul

Animated Short: If Anything Happens I Love You

Documentary Feature: My Octopus Teacher

Documentary Short: A Love Song for Latasha / Colette

International Feature: Another Round

Live Action Short: The Letter Room / Two Distant Strangers

Now that we have reviewed last year, let’s dive into this one.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing The Eyes of Tammy Faye and attended a Q&A afterwards with producer/actress Jessica Chastain and her producing partner Kelly Carmichael that was moderated by NYC drag queen and city council candidate Marti Gould Cummings. The film offers an intimate look behind the extraordinary rise, fall, and redemption of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) who rose to power in the 1970s along with her husband, Jim.

During the Q&A, Chastain described the film as a love bomb. She said she wanted to create the film to show the world that Tammy Faye was a selfless person who only wanted to be loved. In fact, if Bakker were alive, love is the one thing Chastain hopes she would feel from watching the film.

Above: Kelly Carmichael, Jessica Chastain, and Marti Gould Cummings at The Angelika Film Center, New York, NY, September 17, 2021 Photo: Author

Although many parts of Tammy Faye are humorous, that message of love shines through every frame. Fans of Chastain’s work may recognize a hint of her character Celia Foote (The Help) when she first appears as Tammy Faye in 1960 in the film, but before long the sweetness gives way to a young Minnesotan who wears her heart on her sleeve and finds herself falling for the man who would lift her up on eagle’s wings, only to let her down later with a thud: Jim Bakker (played by Andrew Garfield).

Garfield holds his own and gives an impressive performance as Tammy Faye’s doomed other half, but Tammy Faye is first and foremost Chastain’s show. There are several scenes that evince emotion and give her the opportunity to show the true heart of Tammy Faye, including her 1985 televised interview with Steve Pieters, a gay pastor with AIDS, whom Tammy Faye uses her star power to humanize for the Praise the Lord network’s 20 million viewers as well as the inevitable showdown scene with her husband, depicted in the film’s trailer – but one example of Tammy Faye’s contribution to the LGBTQ+ community. As put by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the documentarians behind the film of the same name Tammy Faye was based on: “Homosexuality has often been demonized by the Christian community. At a time when people shrank from HIV and AIDS, Tammy was having none of it. She didn’t believe in labeling people. She understood the power of the camera to look into the eyes of people far and wide and share the truth.”

The trailer also depicts the amount of makeup Chastain had to put on for the role, which may be off-putting, and admittedly coupled with the more humorous elements of the film could spell disaster for the actress’s awards hopes. However, much like Renée Zellweger in Judy, Nicole Kidman in The Hours, and Charlize Theron in Monster, Chastain disappears into her character in such a way that you no longer feel you’re watching the actress on the screen. It’s also worth mentioning that Chastain had to sit for four hours in the makeup chair to complete Tammy Faye’s look.

Her transformation along with the range that Chastain shows, including singing all of Tammy Faye’s songs in the film, and her screen time, will likely propel her into one of the five slots for Best Actress. Many pundits also feel that she could even win, but it’s a bit too early for that conversation.

Verdict: Chastain’s love for, and devotion to, Tammy Faye is palpable, but outside of her powerhouse performance, the film lacks enough ebbs and flows to fully engage its audience.

Below are my predictions for Best Actress as they currently stand:

Best Actress: 1. Kristen Stewart - Spencer

2. Penélope Cruz - Parallel Mothers

3. Jessica Chastain - The Eyes of Tammy Faye

4. Frances McDormand - The Tragedy of Macbeth

5. Lady Gaga - House of Gucci Alternates:

Jennifer Hudson - Respect

Olivia Colman - The Lost Daughter

Catriona Balfe - Belfast

  • Jim Keller

This year is shaping up to be one of the more difficult Oscar races to predict. With film studios shuffling dates around, holding films until next year, and some filmmakers racing the clock to finish following a long hiatus – all due to the global pandemic – it is anyone’s guess which films will actually make it in front of critics and audiences, let alone receive the reviews and box office totals that often drive the awards race.

Accordingly, it is only natural that I begin with what we do know. In recent years the eventual Best Picture Oscar winner has premiered at the Telluride Film Festival (September 4-7, 2020) – indeed last year’s winner Parasite bowed even earlier at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Telluride’s films along with those of Venice (September 2-12, 2020), the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) (September 10-19, 2020) and the New York Film Festival (NYFF) (September 25 - October 11, 2020), usually provide most of awards season fodder. But like the studios and filmmakers, this year the festivals are somewhat discombobulated due to the global pandemic:

  • Cannes (May 11-22, 2020) was cancelled but still released its selection

  • Telluride essentially followed suit

  • Venice, TIFF, and NYFF have opted to proceed with a reduced slate of films and in the case of the latter two, with virtual attendance options

This is the backdrop of the 2020 Oscar race and therefore it is uncertain whether critical reception of the festival films will continue to shape the race or if video on demand services, such as Netflix and Amazon, will finally have their day in the sun for mere accessibility.

Either way, if we’re following the traditional awards trajectory, we must start with the festival films.

Ammonite Release date: 11/13/20 Director: Francis Lee Studio: Neon Possible Nominations: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Cinematography The film, set in 1840s England, is inspired by the life of British paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and centers on the romantic relationship between Anning and Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman who is recuperating from a personal tragedy. The film premiered at TIFF this past weekend, where Best Actress hopeful Winslet was awarded the Tribute Actor Award. The film also features among this year’s Cannes and Telluride selections. Neon has released a beautiful trailer for the film, which showcases the talent of Winslet and Ronan, and is enough to make any believers in love swoon.

Kate Winslet Winslet has been nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Supporting Actress three times (Sense and Sensibility in 1996, Iris in 2002, and Steve Jobs in 2016) and for Best Actress three times (Titanic in 1998, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2005 and Little Children in 2007). In 2008, she was nominated for Best Actress a fourth time for The Reader and won. For me, this was one of the most dubious wins in Oscar history because it was a clear example of category fraud where Winslet was really a supporting player and not the lead. Besides, Winslet was much stronger in Revolutionary Road that year, a film that enabled her to showcase her full range of talent. Since then, Winslet’s three most prominent films failed to catch on in the award’s race The Dressmaker (2015), The Mountain Between Us, and Wonder Wheel (both 2017). In Ammonite, Winslet’s Anning looks weather-beaten and determined to stay afloat – she is almost ripe for the picking for such a romance to come along and change her life. Yet, she seems to be brooding and is somewhat irritated by the arrival of Murchison.

Judging solely on the trailer, Ronan’s looks like the meatier of the two roles, with Winslet playing the strong silent type. There is little doubt that Winslet will one day win at least a second Oscar, but Oscars tend to go to those who give the bigger performance. Still, Winslet excels in relationship dramas and is probably a safe bet for a nomination.

Saoirse Ronan

Ronan was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2008 for Atonement at age 13, and three times for Best Actress for Brooklyn (2016), Lady Bird (2018), and this year in Little Women. Curious enough, Ronan has never been favored to win any of the times she had been nominated. But now, she has a career spanning 17 years, with four nominations under her belt, she joins the ranks of other actresses who have yet to be awarded by the Academy for their work – despite having delivered solid performances for several years. Namely, Amy Adams, who has six nominations within 13 years for a 21-year career and Jessica Chastain, who has two nominations in 2 years for a 16-year career. Both actresses also have films in this year's Oscar race: Adams with Hillbilly Elegy and Chastain with The Eyes of Tammy Faye, but Ronan’s role looks to be the supporting role, so she wouldn’t need to square off against the others.

Here, Ronan’s Murchison was put in the care of Anning’s fossil hunter following her personal tragedy. She appears listless in the trailer until she begins to develop a companionship with Anning at which point she seems fascinated by Anning’s work and appears to be the aggressor in the relationship that ensues. It is because of this drastic personality shift that I have pegged Ronan’s as the more substantive of the two performances and therefore the crux of why I feel she has a real chance to not only be nominated, but win the Best Supporting Oscar this year.

Francis Lee

Lee’s only previous film is 2017’s God’s Own Country, another LGBTQ+ effort that was nominated for Outstanding British Film of the Year by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), among a slew of other festivals and critics groups. Lee also wrote the screenplay for both films, making him eligible for the Oscar for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. As I mentioned in the last post, it has been 51 years since a gay director has won (John Schlesinger for Midnight Cowboy), and it is not often that a director wins on their first time that they are invited to the big show. So, from purely a statistical standpoint, the odds are stacked high against Lee for a Best Director nomination. However, he could certainly feature in the Best Original Screenplay race, which has seen seven LGBTQ+ nominees, two of whom have won – compare that with eight individual LGBTQ+ nominees in the last 20 years in Best Director, where none have won.

But the bigger issue, and one of the main reasons I chose to create this site, is that whereas the Academy often recognizes films that depict lesbian characters or themes with nominations, it does not often give them awards. Films with lesbian characters or themes over the last twenty Academy Award years: 2002 – Mulholland Drive: one nomination, zero wins 2003 – Far From Heaven: four nominations, zero wins; The Hours: eight nominations, one win

(Best Actress: Nicole Kidman) 2004 – Monster: one nomination, one win (Best Actress: Charlize Theron); Thirteen: one nomination, zero wins 2007 – Notes on a Scandal: four nominations, zero wins 2010 – Precious: six nominations, two wins Adapted Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher and Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique 2011 – The Kids Are All Right: four nominations, zero wins 2016 – Carol: six nominations, zero wins 2019 – The Favourite: nine nominations, one win (Best Actress: Olivia Colman); Can You Ever Forgive Me?: three nominations, zero wins Following Ammonite’s premiere on Friday evening, tastemakers such as Indiewire and Variety shot out the first word on the film, with the former essentially pummeling it as though it had been waiting all year to snuff out its Oscar chances. Fortunately, the review in Variety was much more positive (and fair). But it’s these moments that can make or break a film, and one would think it deserves more of a chance than the words of a single human being, or handful of them, as the case may be, are willing to give it. Indiewire:

Loving someone doesn’t ensure you will always be able to understand them; Lee and his stars may love these characters, but they never understand them. Neither can we.Variety:In his sophomore directorial effort, he steers an organic and elegant vessel with Winslet and Ronan delivering on multiple fronts…Lingering in the moments on Winslet’s stoic and brooding facial expressions, the film is able to mostly capture the complexity of its themes while remaining observant of its objectives…Ronan delivers her most mature outing yet, which could assemble a groundswell around the Irish actress who is due for an Oscar win.”

Unfortunately, for now I’ll have to wait until November to see the film, but I will share my thoughts when I see it. For now, the excerpts above prove my point.

#AcademyAwards #Oscars #LGBTQ+ #TIFF20