My 2017 Oscar Picks

By on February 26, 2017

2017-Oscars-89th-Academy-Awards

2016 was a good year for movies and an outstanding year for black stories, films, film makers and actors.  It was proof that if you can get a good story into the hands of a good producer and good director working with good actors, you can get a movie made and people will watch it.  Or you can do all of it, like Ava Duvernay did with her compelling, enlightening and timely documentary “13th.”  (She directed, co-wrote, interviewed the subjects, was a producer and, in her Oprah Winfrey interview/intro, said she also distributed, although it was put out by Netflix.)  Three of the Best Picture nominees are black-themed, two of which were helmed by blacks who are nominated for Best Director.  Six of the twenty acting nominees (and three favorites) are black.  Add onto that returning Oscar winners Denzel Washington (Supporting for “Glory”, Best Actor for “Training Day”) and Octavia Spencer (Supporting for “The Help”), and let’s hope there’s never another race-based (or other) issue looming over the Oscars and film industry.

A good year also for Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe, both of whom were in Best Picture nominees “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight.”  Both were better in the latter than the former.  Monáe was pitch-perfect, understated and authentically supportive and nurturing as a crack dealer’s girlfriend in “Moonlight.”  She was also the least impressive of the three leads in “Hidden Figures”, partially because of the constraints of the script and it made me think she was short on acting lessons, which is not meant to be as critical as it sounds.  The other two leads are much more seasoned actresses, Monáe is younger than both by 15 years and her casting may have been questionable in the first place.

I’m a fan of Amy Adams but she was wasted on two excessively serious, self-important and just-not-that-good movies in “Arrival” and “Nocturnal Animals.”

Andrew Garfield did not get a nomination for the role he was most proud of this year as a Portuguese Jesuit priest in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence”, but his nomination for Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” did more than salve the wound.

Pardon me if I refer to “Hidden Figures” as “Hidden Fences.”  That gaffe by both Michael Keaton and Jenna Bush Hager made it confusing for me.  “Hidden Fences” might have even been a more appropriate title for the film if “fences” was used as a metaphor for “barriers.”

I omitted categories where I didn’t see any or most of the nominees.  After Best Picture, here are the nominees listed alphabetically by category, with the winner centered on the page:

BEST PICTURE

More of a reason to revert to five Best Picture nominees than “The Dark Knight” was to increase the number to ten, “Arrival” does not belong here.  It was a joyless, moody, too serious and self-important “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” with gaping plot holes.  Denzel did a solid job on both sides of the camera in bringing “Fences”, a Tony, Drama Critics and Pulitzer Prize-winning play to the big screen.  The story of a soldier who saved lives without firing a shot, “Hacksaw Ridge” was engaging but, like “Arrival”, would not have made a five-picture cut.  The same goes for “Hell or High Water”, which doesn’t mean it’s not a great watch.  “Hidden Figures” is the most Hollywood-y effort and most easily digestible of the nominees.  I have no idea why it took 50 years to tell a story that serves to inspire not only young black women to have academic and even technical aspirations, but anyone with a strong passion for pursuing their interests.  Still, I found the writing, directing and acting (except for Octavia Spencer and Kirsten Dunst, who is progressively better every time I see her) lacking in subtlety and nuance. The unimaginably harrowing and visually stunning first act and the emotionally powerful final moments of “Lion” will stick with me forever. The story line of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” was one-dimensional, a downer and too similar to his “You Can Count on Me.”  A win for “Moonlight” would be a highlight of the evening, but the story is much too personal in scope, especially compared to the Old Hollywood-style extravaganza of “La La Land.”   The PGA and DGA winner, I don’t see how “La La Land” can lose the biggest prize of the night and year.

NOMINEES

ARRIVAL  Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder and David Linde, Producers

FENCES  Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington and Todd Black, Producers

HACKSAW RIDGE  Bill Mechanic and David Permut, Producers

HELL OR HIGH WATER  Carla Hacken and Julie Yorn, Producers

HIDDEN FIGURES  Donna Gigliotti, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams and Theodore Melfi, Producers

LA LA LAND  Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz and Marc Platt, Producers

LION  Emile Sherman, Iain Canning and Angie Fielder, Producers

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA  Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Lauren Beck and Kevin J. Walsh, Producers

MOONLIGHT  Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, Producers

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ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

Affleck was the most one-note of the nominees in a similarly one-dimensional film.  Washington’s rapid-fire delivery, however powerful and effective, was much more appropriate for the stage, and I thought about that throughout the entire film.  Garfield made the best of a good role (I never noticed how long his neck was before).  Ryan Gosling got to act, sing, dance and pretend to play piano in the night’s likely big winner.  He had a lot of screen time and a lot to do, but was “La La Land”s weak link and couldn’t help but ride its massive wave into his nomination.  Viggo Mortensen — in my favorite movie this year — was outstanding in the most unique and complex role of the nominees, possibly in any category.  As much as I think he’s the most deserving, the acknowledgement alone has to prove gratification enough as his was the least high-profile movie in this category.  Based entirely on his SAG win, I’m saying Denzel will win his third Oscar and second for Best Actor.

(I’d have preferred to have seen Ben Foster in his impressively nuanced portrayal of a serial bank robber in “Hell or High Water” over Affleck’s performance.  Foster’s character was similar to but less psychotic than his character in James Mangold’s remake of “3:10 to Yuma”, which he stole out from under leads Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.)

NOMINEES

CASEY AFFLECK  Manchester by the Sea

ANDREW GARFIELD  Hacksaw Ridge

RYAN GOSLING  La La Land

VIGGO MORTENSEN  Captain Fantastic

DENZEL WASHINGTON  Fences

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ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Bridges was reliably Bridges in a gravely-voiced role similar to (but more neurotic than) his Rooster Cogburn in the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” remake.  Hedges was effortlessly true in a role he seemed custom-fit for.  Dev Patel was great but more of a lead character in “Lion” and was overshadowed by the story, Sunny Pawar — who played the same character as a boy — and the movie’s score.   Michael Shannon’s solid performance anchored an otherwise superficial movie.  It has to happen for him at some point but not this year.  Mahershala Ali’s compassionate and nurturing — of all things — crack dealer gave us the most commanding performance in one of the most moving (in the words of the LA Times’ Ken Turan:  “both achingly familiar and unlike anything we’ve seen before”) films of the year.  Along with Mortensen in “Captain Fantastic”, Ali gave one of the two most commanding performances in any category this year and did so with comparatively little screen time.  My favorite and this year’s SAG winner, this one goes to Ali.

(I’d have chosen Simon Helberg in “Florence Foster Jenkins” over Bridges or Hedges.  Helberg fleshed out his character wonderfully and added tremendous value by actually playing classical piano on film and doing it extremely well.)

NOMINEES

MAHERSHALA ALI  Moonlight

JEFF BRIDGES  Hell or High Water

LUCAS HEDGES  Manchester by the Sea

DEV PATEL  Lion

MICHAEL SHANNON  Nocturnal Animals

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ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

I didn’t see “Elle.”  Even if she never spoke a word (which she obviously did), Ruth Negga’s eyes conveyed all you needed to know about what her character was thinking (concern, fear, relief, hope) and they dictated how the audience felt from beginning to end in “Loving.”  From the moment Natalie Portman’s ghost/skeleton opened the door (and story), “Jackie” was too energy-draining and stark for me to watch past the first 30 minutes and she justifies my dislike for impersonations of high-profile people.  Streep was eccentric, flamboyant and emotionally-fragile perfection in a movie that few saw (it finished 93rd on the list of 2016′s highest-grossing movies).   “La La Land” owes much of its success to Stone’s energetic, sincere and versatile performance.  We knew she’d win an Oscar at some point and it looks like it will happen sooner than later.  Another SAG winner wins here as well.  

Wouldn’t it be brilliant if everyone decided to vote for Streep for the reason so obvious I don’t have to say?  THAT would make my night.

NOMINEES

ISABELLE HUPPERT  Elle

RUTH NEGGA  Loving

NATALIE PORTMAN  Jackie

EMMA STONE  La La Land

MERYL STREEP  Florence Foster Jenkins

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ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

The most competitive acting category and possibly of all the categories.  Brit Naomie Harris could not have been better as the crack-addict mother of the lead character and she did it without overdoing it, always a tricky line with a role like hers.  While there may have been more compassionate film portrayals since Anthony Hopkins set the standard in playing Dr. Frederick Treves in David Lynch’s 1980 jarring and brilliant “The Elephant Man”, none has stood out for me more than Nicole Kidman in “Lion.”  In a movie where time constraints and the need for the masses to be able to digest it didn’t allow for subtlety, Octavia Spencer gave it to us anyway in the best portrayal in “Hidden Figures.”  Credit Kirsten Dunst for being generous and similarly understated in their scenes together, which were the best of the film.  Along with ripping out our hearts, Michelle Williams gave Casey Affleck and the rest of the cast acting lessons in “Manchester by the Sea.”  With two previous Oscar nominations (Actress for “The Help”, Supporting for “Doubt”), Davis should have been in the Best Actress category.  She had the best role (and best-dialogued role and the best single line) of the nominees.  Couple that with her SAG win and I think she will be the very deserving recipient of her first Academy Award.

NOMINEES

VIOLA DAVIS  Fences

NAOMIE HARRIS  Moonlight

NICOLE KIDMAN  Lion

OCTAVIA SPENCER  Hidden Figures

MICHELLE WILLIAMS  Manchester by the Sea

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ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

I only saw “Zootopia” and it’s surprising Disney/Pixar’s “Finding Dory” didn’t make the list.   Giving this one to the PGA winner in this category, “Zootopia”, which gave us one of the funniest lines of the year with “Doug is the opposite of friendly (strategic pause) . . . he’s UNfriendly.”

NOMINEES

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS  Travis Knight and Arianne Sutner

MOANA  John Musker, Ron Clements and Osnat Shurer

MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI  Claude Barras and Max Karli

THE RED TURTLE  Michael Dudok de Wit and Toshio Suzuki

ZOOTOPIA  Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Clark Spencer

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CINEMATOGRAPHY

The camera work had us from the beautiful overhead shots during the opening credits of American Society of Cinematographers winner “Lion” and never let up.  The most impressive cinematography was during its most harrowing moments.  The soft-lens look of “Arrival” was one of its best features, but that’s not saying much.  “Moonlight”‘s swirling-camera opening scene called our attention to it and the lights in the night backgrounds looked so good they took your eyes away from the characters, not a small feat considering those were some of its most emotional moments.  I’m one of the multitudes that avoided the mixed-reviewed Scorsese labor of love “Silence.”  “La La Land”’s camera work was so busy and showy, I couldn’t help but think about the film’s detailed pre-production, especially with the opening and swimming pool scenes.  In my “La La Land” review, I said this was one of the film’s most certain Oscar wins, but that was before I saw “Lion.”  If “La La Land” wins, it will be close.  I’m going against guild winner “Lion” and giving it to “La La Land.”

NOMINEES

ARRIVAL  Bradford Young

LA LA LAND  Linus Sandgren

LION  Greig Fraser

MOONLIGHT  James Laxton

SILENCE  Rodrigo Prieto

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COSTUME DESIGN

Tepid (at best) reviews and the excessive Brangelina breakup publicity kept me (and everyone else) away from “Allied.”  I’m similarly disinterested in Rowling’s made-for-kids stories and even more so Redmayne, so “Fantastic Beasts” is out.   The only character all year whose costumes caught my eye was Florence Foster Jenkins.  There was so much going on with so many characters in “La La Land” — which won the Costume Design Guild award in the Contemporary Film category — it’s hard to argue against it in this category.  The Guild winners for Period Film and Fantasy Film (“Hidden Figures” and “Dr. Strange”, respectively) were omitted here.

NOMINEES

ALLIED  Joanna Johnston

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM  Colleen Atwood

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS  Consolata Boyle

JACKIE  Madeline Fontaine

LA LA LAND  Mary Zophres

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DIRECTING

I took care of “Arrival” when I hit Best Picture.  It’s a victory for Gibson to be acknowledged for his directing after revealing he’s an angry, alcoholic bigot for all the world to see.  He’s still directed some extremely good movies, and that’s what counts most, although I’m starting to think the gore thing is bordering on a fetish.  Jenkins (who also co-wrote) couldn’t have done a better job with “Moonlight.”  As much as I didn’t care for the film itself, I can’t question the quality of Lonergan’s work on “Manchester by the Sea.”  All have to take a back seat to the creative, joyous, energetic and multi-faceted effort put out by DGA winner Chazelle.

NOMINEES

ARRIVAL  Denis Villeneuve

HACKSAW RIDGE  Mel Gibson

LA LA LAND  Damien Chazelle

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA  Kenneth Lonergan

MOONLIGHT  Barry Jenkins

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DOCUMENTARY (FEATURE)

Three of the nominees are black-themed films where the subject matter is race relations.  I learned nothing new from “O.J.” (more mini-series than movie) and it just pissed me off about that progression of events and massively unjust outcome.  Considering its subject matter and timeliness (and the fact it’s very well-made), especially with its powerful dig at Donald Trump, Ava Duvernay’s “13th” is my pick in this category.  If nothing else, you’ll understand directly why the Trump administration wants to crack down on marijuana: to make money for Steve Bannon and his corrupt friends who sell overpriced products and services to prisons and jails.  The more people in prison, the more goods and services are sold.  I’ll give you one guess who ultimately pays for all of that; it begins with a “U” and ends with an “S.”  The hint works on two levels and both answers are correct.

NOMINEES

FIRE AT SEA  Gianfranco Rosi and Donatella Palermo

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO  Raoul Peck, Rémi Grellety and Hébert Peck

LIFE, ANIMATED  Roger Ross Williams and Julie Goldman

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA  Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow

13TH  Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick and Howard Barish

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FILM EDITING

I was too busy rolling my eyes at “Arrival” to be impressed by its technicals.  War movie battle scenes have to have great editing or they don’t work, and “Hacksaw Ridge” earned this nomination.  The quality of the editing of “Hell or High Water” could easily get lost in the simplicity of the story.   Focusing on the story and acting in “Moonlight” prevented me from noticing anything other than the camera work.  For its dance scenes alone, “La La Land” should be a lock here.

NOMINEES

ARRIVAL  Joe Walker

HACKSAW RIDGE  John Gilbert

HELL OR HIGH WATER  Jake Roberts

LA LA LAND  Tom Cross

MOONLIGHT  Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon

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MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)

The music of “Jackie” was too ominous to appreciate, at least for the 30 minutes I could tolerate the film.  The music in “Moonlight” and especially “Lion” effectively emphasized and even dictated (that’s its job) the emotion of their big moments.  How do you vote in this category against a musical that was the year’s biggest film?  “La La Land” was just short of being nothing BUT music.

NOMINEES

JACKIE  Mica Levi

LA LA LAND  Justin Hurwitz

LION  Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka

MOONLIGHT  Nicholas Britell

PASSENGERS  Thomas Newman

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MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)

This is a tough category because what the songs are in and out of a film’s context can be completely different things. Without the context of the film, “The Empty Chair” is a life-draining requiem I only need to hear once.  ”Can’t Stop the Feeling” is this year’s “Happy” (which did not win that year’s Oscar for Best Song) and is a good song with a catchy hook — something producer and co-writer Max Martin can do in his sleep.  Gosling’s barely-awake singing robs “City of Stars” of its full impact.  ”How Far I’ll Go” is too show-tuney.  I’m listening to all the nominees repeatedly even as I’m typing this and have to go with “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, which was one of the strongest moments, if not THE strongest, in “La La Land”, especially with Stone’s sincere, vulnerable rendition.  It also has an element that often makes a song great; it’s something a child can sing after a few listens (think Stevie Wonder’s Oscar-winning and massively popular “I Just Called to Say I Love You” from 1984′s terrible “The Woman in Red”).

NOMINEES

AUDITION (THE FOOLS WHO DREAM)  from La La Land;

Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

CAN’T STOP THE FEELING  from Trolls; Music and Lyric by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster

CITY OF STARS  from La La Land; Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

THE EMPTY CHAIR  from Jim: The James Foley Story; Music and Lyric by J. Ralph and Sting

HOW FAR I’LL GO  from Moana; Music and Lyric by Lin-Manuel Miranda

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PRODUCTION DESIGN

I liked the design of the vertical-hovering space ships. the aliens and their the smoke-sign language, and the 90-degree change in gravity orientation in “Arrival”, but nothing else.  I didn’t watch “Fantastic Beasts”, “Passengers” or anything after the first 20 minutes of “Hail Caesar!”, the first time that’s happened with a Coen Brothers movie for me.  I said it in my review of “La La Land” and I see no need to veer from that mind set:  One of the night’s surest bets.

NOMINEES

ARRIVAL  Production Design: Patrice Vermette; Set Decoration: Paul Hotte

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM  Production Design: Stuart Craig; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock

HAIL, CAESAR!  Production Design: Jess Gonchor; Set Decoration: Nancy Haigh

LA LA LAND  Production Design: David Wasco

Set Decoration: Sandy Reynolds-Wasco

PASSENGERS  Production Design: Guy Hendrix Dyas; Set Decoration: Gene Serdena

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SOUND EDITING

As with film editing, if sound editing is not spot-on, battle scenes in war movies don’t work, and they worked in “Hacksaw Ridge” (was that torso scene really necessary?).  You know my opinion of “Arrival” by now.  I didn’t see “Sully” because I’m surprised it was even made.  At the time the event happened, pilot Chesley Sullivan said all he did was what his training taught him.  He was right and it should have ended there.  I didn’t see “Deepwater Horizon.”  Again, the multi-dimensional busyness of “La La Land” gives it the edge over “Hacksaw Ridge.”

NOMINEES

ARRIVAL  Sylvain Bellemare

DEEPWATER HORIZON  Wylie Stateman and Renée Tondelli

HACKSAW RIDGE  Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright

LA LA LAND  Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan

SULLY  Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman

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SOUND MIXING

I’ve had enough of the Star Wars movies and didn’t see “13 Hours.”  Beyond that, I’m echoing here what I said about the Sound Editing category.  Chazelle’s sound mixers won for “Whiplash.”  This is a completely different team — which had much more to do — but I think the result will be the same.

NOMINEES

ARRIVAL  Bernard Gariépy Strobl and Claude La Haye

HACKSAW RIDGE  Kevin O’Connell, Andy Wright, Robert Mackenzie and Peter Grace

LA LA LAND  Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee and Steve A. Morrow

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY  David Parker, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson

13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI  Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush and Mac Ruth

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WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)

I’m confused by the fact “Moonlight” won the WGA for Original Screenplay but is up for Adapted here.  The logic behind how the characters in “Arrival” understood the alien language had so many holes, I’m surprised by its nomination here, much less its WGA win.  Again, and understandably constricted by running time and making it digestible for the masses, “Hidden Figures” was so lacking in subtlety it was distracting.   “Moonlight” was definitely a great screenplay and “Lion” was powerful and based on a true story but I think their personal scope works against both.  The same could be said for “Fences”, but it’s from a play that won the Tony, Drama Critics and Pulitzer Prize. Despite its loss to “Arrival” at the WGA, I’m giving this one posthumously to August Wilson, which I’m guessing will be accepted by Tony Kushner, who finished the script after Wilson’s 2005 passing.

NOMINEES

ARRIVAL  Screenplay by Eric Heisserer

FENCES  Screenplay by August Wilson

HIDDEN FIGURES  Screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi

LION  Screenplay by Luke Davies

MOONLIGHT  Screenplay by Barry Jenkins; Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney

_______________________________________

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)

I can’t argue “Hell or High Water”‘s nomination and I’m glad the unique story line of “The Lobster” was rewarded with its nod here.  Again, the similarities between Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” and his own “You Can Count on Me” work against him for me in this category.  I think it will go to “Manchester” but I’m going with the more elaborate, more multi-dimensional and exponentially more original and enjoyable “La La Land.”

(Matt Ross was robbed for his thoughtful, provocative and socially significant screenplay for “Captain Fantastic”, which could replace any of the nominees, the possible exception being “La La Land.”)

NOMINEES

HELL OR HIGH WATER  Written by Taylor Sheridan

LA LA LAND  Written by Damien Chazelle

THE LOBSTER  Written by Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA  Written by Kenneth Lonergan

20TH CENTURY WOMEN  Written by Mike Mills

I know it looks like I worship “La La Land” with my choices but I’m just being objective.  I’ve seen it twice and I think that might be all I’ll ever need.  There’s something about it that’s lacking that I can’t quite put my finger on.  Actually, for me, all roads lead to Ryan Gosling, although I have no idea who else has his star-power and would have been physically appropriate for the role and who can act, sing and dance.  And pretend to play piano.  Miles Teller (“Whiplash”) was reportedly Chazelle’s original choice but wanted too much money, which he must be kicking himself about on a daily basis.

For the record, I also watched “Arrival” twice and after both viewings came up with the same conclusion; that I didn’t need to see it a first time.  “Lion” and “Moonlight” are even better with a second viewing.  For me, being able to enjoy a film after multiple viewings is an implied gauge for a Best Picture nominee.  During a first viewing I focus on the story and acting; I can pay attention to the actual production during subsequent viewings.

DPW

February 26, 2017

R.I.P. Bill Paxton, who died today as a result of surgery complications.  A wonderful supporting actor, he may never have been better than he was in one of the greatest sequels of all time,  James Cameron’s 1986 “Aliens.”  Paxton excelled at playing slimy grease balls, like he did in Cameron’s 1994 “True Lies” and Joe Loder’s 2014 “Nightcrawler.”  He did a great job of playing it straight and serious in Sam Raimi’s 1998 “A Simple Plan”, a winter staple for me that will never seem the same.  I didn’t realize until just recently that he directed and appeared in the 1980 avant garde classic short, “Fish Heads.”  He always seemed like a good guy and he gave every thing he had into entertaining us, beginning with an uncredited appearance in Jonathan Demme’s 1975 “Crazy Mama.”  We already miss him.

As of February 20, 2017, IMDB ceased its message boards, which was more than half its value.   I can’t complain, though; it’s not like I pay for using the site.  Still, it’s the end of an era and I’m not sure where to find such a great source of other viewers’ opinions on movies, which were often not only enlightening but hilarious.

About Dan Walker

As part of an Air Force family, I went to elementary school in Great Falls, MT, junior high in Cheyenne, WY and high school and college in the San Francisco Bay Area, graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree in business. I was fortunate to have worked for great companies in Silicon Valley (Oracle Corp) and Hollywood (Miramax Films). I also lived and worked (primarily in financial services, which has no great companies) for eight years in Manhattan, New York City. I now reside in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley.

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