REVIEW: “Bombshell”

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The story of the women from Fox News who stood up to and took down powerful CEO Roger Ailes is one worthy to be told. These women not only exposed Ailes’ abusive conduct towards them, but they also put a spotlight on workplace sexual harassment particularly in the world of television media. And if there is one thing we’ve learned since it’s that this industry-wide problem needed to be uncovered.

“Bombshell” (one of the most overused words in America’s current political landscape) sets out to tell the story of three woman (two real and one fictional) and their roles in bringing down Ailes. They are prime-time anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), morning show host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), and young producer/aspiring anchor Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie).

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Ever since seeing the first full trailer I’ve had a lingering question: Was this going to be an empowering expose on sexual harassment or a Fox News hit-piece? “Bombshell” ends up somewhere in the middle which is frustrating. Too much time is wasted on frivolous pop-shots with no bite whatsoever. Take the seemingly endless parade of impersonations. Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, the list goes on and on. It results in these constant cartoonish diversions from what should be the real focus of the story.

This gets to my biggest beef: the movie is too interested in superfluous things to really dig below its rather familiar surface. It seems content to simply touch on the things we already know instead of pulling back the curtain to reveal something new and insightful. It’s a shame because the inspirational story of women rising up against a corporate media powerhouse like Ailes deserves more than a few strokes from a broad brush.

Despite being the catalyst for the case against Ailes, we get to a point where Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson is more or less tossed to the back burner. Instead the film mostly focuses on Megyn Kelly as she wrestles with stepping out and giving some big-named support to Carlson’s claims. It’s uncanny how much Theron looks the part but her voice-work is a little more inconsistent. Sometimes you think it’s actually Kelly speaking while other times Theron sounds like she’s doing an impression with a head cold.

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A lot of time is also spent with Margot Robbie’s Kayla, a fictional/composite character who could best be described as a naive, sexually confused, Christian conservative (how’s that for covering all of your bases) who has long dreamed of working at Fox News. She becomes buddies with Kate McKinnon’s Jess, another fictional addition who has a deep, dark secret: she’s a closet Hillary Clinton supporter. Okay, so she actually has a bigger secret but it feels completely tacked-on and it’s used in the shallowest of ways.

Of course everyone answers to Roger Ailes who basically pulls all the strings and has a direct line to every control room in the building. He’s played by an entertaining John Lithgow who is full of bile and bluster. But for the most part he’s a fairly one-note character with teases of complexity but not much more. It’s another side effect of the movie’s compulsion to put its focus elsewhere instead of digging into its key characters.

The scattershot script is from Charles Randolph who co-wrote “The Big Short”. Here he and director Jay Roach recycle a lot of the visual pomp and style from that film and others like it: snappy narration, breaking the fourth wall, and so on. It’s an approach that simply doesn’t feel fresh anymore and it makes it even tougher to take the film seriously. Sometimes a movie is better off without all of the extra flash. Especially with a subject like this that deserves the extra attention.

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Instead we get 15 to 20 minutes on Donald Trump and his Twitter squabble with Kelly during the 2016 presidential primaries. We get a one-dimensional, undercooked fictional character who is given considerably more time than the woman who actually jump-started the whole thing. And of course there is the steady procession of performers appearing as Fox personalities whether they have anything meaningful to offer the story or not.

So we end up with a frustrating movie that certainly sees itself as empowering while at the same time giving the real women who fought this fight the surface-level treatment. Would a female writer/director team have served this story better? Possibly. Maybe they would have spent more time digging into the real story and more importantly exploring the women who made the story so important and worth telling.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Little Women” (2019)

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Louisa May Alcott’s original two-volume classic “Little Women” has been adapted multiple times for stage and television as a drama, a musical, and even an animated series. When it comes to the big screen the story of the four March sisters has been adapted a total of eight times over the last 100 years starting with a 1917 silent version all the way to Greta Gerwig’s 2019 refresh.

Gerwig writes and directs this coming-of-age family drama that has all the energy, personality and period appeal you would expect from Alcott’s story. She fills her movie with an absolutely stellar cast while also working with some fabulous talent behind the camera. French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, production designer Jess Gonchor, the brilliant composer Alexandre Desplat, and Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran all work with Gerwig to create a vibrant, lived-in 1860’s New England.

Emma Watson (Finalized);Eliza Scanlen (Finalized);Florence Pugh (Finalized);Saoirse Ronan (Finalized)

As lovers of the story know, the film follows the March sisters growing up outside of Concord, Massachusetts. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is the principle character, a fiery free-spirit known for her stubbornness. Meg (Emma Watson) is the oldest and most level-headed sister. Amy (Florence Pugh) is an immensely talented painter, brutally honest and bratty but with a pinch of humor. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is gentle, unassuming and a remarkably good piano player.

The relationships between the sisters are spirited, playful, sometimes competitive but always loving. Gerwig nicely taps into each girl’s unique individuality, highlighting their strengths and flaws. Most importantly none of the girls ever get lost in the shuffle or feel shortchanged. Gerwig’s affection for Alcott’s novel and more importantly these characters is clearly seen in ever frame. And while Jo may be the film’s lead, Gerwig treats all the sisters as equals.

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It helps to have such sparkling chemistry between actresses. Ronan (so good in Gerwig’s previous film “Lady Bird”) leads the way, capturing every ounce of Jo’s blazing independence and creative ambition. She’s a veritable whirlwind of attitude, determination, and feminine grit. Watson gets her best role in years and Scanlen exudes earnestness with every tender glance. But it’s Pugh who could be the standout. Her management of Amy’s many layers is superb and she clearly understands her character who goes from vindictive snoot to a sure-footed pragmatist who understands what it means to be a woman in 1860’s America. Pugh is nothing short of brilliant.

And I have to mention the supporting cast who fill out Gerwig’s world yet never feel like filler. Most obvious is Timothée Chalamet who plays Laurie, the wealthy boy next door who becomes a fixture among the March girls. He’s charming but impulsive and often flies by the seat of his pants. Laura Dern is fabulous as the girl’s saintly mother Marmee and Meryl Streep pops up as their sickly looking curmudgeon of an aunt. And a muttonchopped Tracy Letts is a hoot playing a patronizing publisher who epitomizes the era’s archaic societal rules for women. At one point he tells Jo to make her stories “short and spicy. And if the main character is a girl make sure she’s married by the end.”

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Throughout “Little Women” we see numerous touches that highlights the modern day relevance of the story. Alcott’s book always had a forward-thinking bend and you can tell it left an impression on Gerwig. The biggest divergence from the book is in the non-linear storytelling. Gerwig’s script bounces between two timelines set seven years apart. One of my lone complaints is that picking up on the time jumps can be a challenge at least until you get in sync with it. But it does allow Gerwig to do some really interesting things with the narrative such as shifting emphasis and shedding new lights on certain characters.

As a “Little Women” novice I can’t speak to how Greta Gerwig’s version measures up to other adaptations. I can’t pick out every difference from Alcott’s classic. But I do know this is a truly great movie filled with an effervescent female spirit that celebrates the joy of family and the unbreakable bond of sisterhood. Gerwig directs with such vision and confidence and her script takes an all-time classic story and makes it feel fresh and new. The film also features a magnificent ensemble cast. Put it all together and you have one of the true delights of 2019.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

First Glance: “Wonder Woman 1984”

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Oh how my house has been buzzing since the new trailer for “Wonder Woman 1984” trailer dropped over the weekend. Director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot gave a much needed feminine jolt to the superhero genre with 2017’s fantastic “Wonder Woman”. I absolutely loved the movie, but my wife and daughter REALLY loved it.

With its catchy “WW84” moniker and Gadot once again leading the charge, this stylish and energetic first look has me really excited. It’s set (obviously) in 1984 which puts Diana right in the middle of the Cold War. But the trailer doesn’t focus on that. Instead it’s funky and playful in a way I wasn’t expecting. I don’t quite know what to make of it but I know I like it. And it has definitely left me wanting to see more.

“Wonder Woman 1984” hits theaters June 5, 2020. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you will be seeing it or taking a pass.

Bergman 101: “The Silence” (1963)

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The second film in Ingmar Bergman’s inadvertent Trilogy of Faith is to me the most disconnected of the three. I’ve read far smarter film critics than me share their idea on how “The Silence” ties together with the earlier “Through a Glass Darkly” and “Winter Light”. Still I’ve yet to make a satisfying connection and find that this particular Bergman picture stands more firmly on its own.

“The Silence” opens with two seemingly miserable women traveling on a train with a young boy. We learn the three are on their way “home” but are forced to stop for the evening in an unidentified city (at least never identified with certainty) because of one of the women’s unidentified illness. Moreover the unidentified city seems to be involved in or preparing for an unidentified war. That’s a lot of stuff left unidentified but frankly none of those specifics are especially important for what Bergman is up to. They would help thicken a more plot-driven story but this movie isn’t much for plot.

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After checking into a fancy hotel suite the sickly Ester (Ingrid Thulin) immediately climbs into bed while Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) prowls around the apartment in various states of undress. It’s an uncomfortable first glimpse of Anna’s unbridled carnality as she seems to relish the perplexed yet inquisitive gaze of her young son Johan (Jörgen Lindström). Without question Johan is the real victim of the story, caught in the crossfire of two warring sisters. You could cut the tension between the women with a knife and to them the child is collateral damage.

Both Ester and Anna are worldly women without the slightest bit of spiritual conflict and both seem to be on different yet equally self-destructive paths. Ester attempts to drown her unspecific and possibly terminal pain with cigarettes and alcohol. LOTS of cigarettes and alcohol. And her biggest concerns are dying away from home and jealously judging her sister’s every lascivious act. At least she seems to care for her nephew, but her twisted obsession with Anna’s bad behavior often takes precedent.

Anna would rather be out on the town catching the lustful eye of potentially new boy-toys than spend time at the hotel with her son. She blithely flirts with a local waiter followed by a sexual encounter which she relays to Ester with a perverse satisfaction. In fact it seems that Anna is driven by hurting her sister as much as (if not more than) personal pleasure.

The genesis of this bitter and toxic animosity between siblings is another of the film’s unresolved mysteries. So we are left in a similar position as Johan – perplexed, often alone, and in a constant state of observation. Bergman spends a lot of time with Johan particularly as he roams the largely empty halls of the hotel. Johan isn’t a perfect picture of innocence. At one point he pees in the hallway with no shame whatsoever. Later he swipe’s some cherished family photos from the hotel’s elderly porter and then stuffs them under the carpet. Simply put, it’s hard to figure out what Bergman is trying to say through Johan.

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And speaking of the porter, he’s played by Swedish actor Håkan Jahnberg, a veteran of both stage and screen. He’s one of the film’s few glimpses of light. Whenever Ester buzzes he’s there in snap, bringing more booze, collecting soiled sheets, even helping her into bed during one of her spells. Funny thing is we never understand a word he says (there is not a single subtitle when he speaks). Yet his gentle smile and thoughtful mannerisms speaks volumes.

And that’s really all there is to “The Silence”. It plays out like a series of snapshots, linked together by the thinnest of plot threads. No doubt there is plenty of subtext and symbolism that Bergman wants us to wrestle with, much like the previous two films of the trilogy. But unlike those movies, finding any discernible ‘meat to chew on’ here is a chore. The performances are strong as is the cinematography by Bergman favorite Sven Nykvist. But not only is it hard to connect this film to the previous two, it’s just as difficult to connect it to any meaningful point. I can certainly speculate about what it means to me, but where “Through a Glass Darkly” and “Winter Light” made me feel something, “The Silence” left me cold.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Irishman” (2019)

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No filmmaker has explored the complex worlds of mob bosses, wise guys, and the streetwise better than Martin Scorsese. Over his 50-plus year career he has frequently returned to these crime stories many of which have a strong moral point to make about the consequences that come with such a life. It’s too early to say whether his latest gangland epic “The Irishman” is his best, but the fact that it must be considered speaks volumes.

Taking from the vein of “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, Scorsese unwraps “The Irishman” through the narration of its central character. Our first glimpse of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) sees him alone in a Pennsylvania nursing home. He begins telling his story which screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapts from the biography “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. It spans three decades of mob jobs, labor corruption, and of course underworld violence.

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Frank begins his story in the 1950’s as a World War II vet driving a truck for a meat distributor. He crosses paths with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the boss of a Pennsylvania crime family. Russell takes a liking to Frank and their chance meeting leads to a handful of odd jobs around town. Soon Frank is entrusted with bigger responsibilities which earns him even more respect among the local wise guys.

Russell introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) who runs the Teamsters labor union out of Detroit. Turns out Jimmy is feeling heat from the federal government because of his ties with organized crime (among other things). Jimmy’s also dealing with an ambitious Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) who is working his way up the Teamsters rank. Jimmy becomes a mentor to Frank and makes him his #1 guy.

But as Hoffa’s relationship with the mob sours, Frank, who has close bonds with both, finds himself caught in the middle. While all of this is building up and playing out, a literal Who’s Who from the era’s real-life Mafia scene are represented in some fashion: Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, “Crazy” Joe Gallo, and even Albert Anastasia among others. As someone who has done a fair amount of reading on the history of La Cosa Nostra it’s impressive to see how Scorsese and Zaillian weave so many in and out of their story.

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Equally impressive is watching big moments in American history unfold in the background – Bay of Pigs, JFK’s assassination and so on. It’s one of several things that gives this film its sense of time and place. And it’s one of many ways the film feels yanked right out of a time capsule. With a striking authenticity Scorsese paints a vivid portrait of America while highlighting the mob’s extensive influence.

There’s been a lot of talk about Scorsese bypassing the hiring of younger actors to help cover his sprawling timeline. Instead he uses some age-altering digital trickery that allows De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino to play their characters from their thirties to the seventies. Sometimes you can’t help but notice it, but not because it looks bad. It’s more of a subconscious thing. We know these actors are in their seventies so when we see them suddenly thirty years younger we can’t help but notice. Still it’s pretty incredible to see.

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“The Irishman” features so many classic Scorsese trademarks. It features abrasive, complex, and well-developed characters. There is its heavy focus on crime, violence and corruption. We get Scorsese’s pitch-perfect use of period music. And there is always someone wrestling with guilt, penance, and consequences. In fact, we are steadily reminded of the consequences. Countless times Scorsese freezes the frame on a character with text stating the date and details of their murder. It’s as if Scorsese is drilling home the point that the lifestyle may appear glamorous, but it all too often ends in brutal, violent death.

So you could say “The Irishman” is above all things a tragedy. Underneath its veneer of wise guy tradition and violence lies the story of a man facing the music for his embrace of mob life and neglect of his family. It’s a masterwork of storytelling and moves at such a crisp pace despite being three and a half hours long. Moreover it truly feels like a movie only Martin Scorsese could have made.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

 

Random Thoughts: The 2020 Golden Globes Nominations

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And just like that it’s awards season again this morning the Hollywood Foreign Press announced the nominees for the 2020 Golden Globes. As expected there are plenty of surprises, frustrations, and plain old headscratchers. But that’s part of what makes these fun – taking the good with the bad and then talking about it. So here we go, a few random thoughts on this year’s batch.

  • What a showing for Netflix! “Marriage Story”, “The Irishman”, and “The Two Popes” all scored big this morning proving the streaming platform has become a force (sorry Mr. Spielberg).
  • Let me go ahead and get this out of the way: WHERE ON EARTH IS LUPITA NYONG’O? “Us” was considerably better than “Get Out” in large part due to her fabulous lead work. This is a big miss.
  • “Joker” had a huge morning and I absolutely love it. Yes, I know it’s somewhat en vogue to dislike the movie but I firmly believe it’s one of the year’s best. Great job HFP!
  • Speaking of “Joker”, it received a total of four nominations. The biggest being Best Picture: Drama, Best Director, and Best Actor.
  • Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score for “Joker” was phenomenal. It’s eerie, forboding and such a big part of the movie. It was great to see her nominated.
  • And Joaquin Phoenix for Best Actor. I’m not sure how anyone can dismiss his performance. There is far more to it than weight loss and weird laughing fits. It’s a very complex role and Phoenix brings a ton of menace. I wouldn’t be a bit upset if he took home the win.
  • I also wouldn’t be a bit upset if Adam Driver took home the win. He has to be considered among the most deserving for his intensely authentic performance in “Marriage Story”. He deserves all the praise he is getting.
  •  Huge props to the HFP for not forgetting either “Jojo Rabbit” or “Knives Out”. Both were really good last quarter movies that I was worried would be left out come awards time.
  • Speaking of “Jojo Rabbit”, wasn’t it cool seeing young Roman Griffin Davis nominated. He’s such an integral part of that movie (pretty adorable too).
  • On the hand it wasn’t cool leaving Thomasin McKenzie off the Supporting Actress list. Granted, there wasn’t a lot of awards buzz going in but I thought she was amazing.
  • As for “Knives Out”, so good to see both Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas nominated. He is a ton of fun and she gives an eye-opening performance.
  • And NOTHING for “A Hidden Life”? Talk about a travesty. Terrance Malick’s is nothing short of brilliant. And that score…wow!
  • It looks like both “Parasite” and “The Farewell” are destined to be stuck in the Foreign Language category. Technically that is where they qualify but it would be nice to see both nominated for the big prizes.
  • But to be fair Bong Joon Ho did get nominated for Best Director and Awkwafina for Best Actress. That makes me happy.
  • Sadly “Transit” seems to be the forgotten foreign language film. More people need to see it.
  • But seeing “Ad Astra” shut out makes me sad. I get that it may be too slow and ruminative for some. I thought it was tremendous and easily among my favorite films of the year. Hopefully Oscar will see things my way (though I doubt it).
  • At one time I thought this might be a year where Brad Pitt was nominated for two films. It’s not happening for “Ad Astra” but at least they got it right by giving him a Supporting Actor nod for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. Leaving him off the list would have been criminal.
  • Quentin Tarantino and his 9th film got plenty of love earning nominations for Best Picture: Musical or Comedy, Actor, Supporting Actor, Director, and screenplay. As someone who thinks this is some of QT’s best work, well done HFP.
  • It’s really cool seeing “1917” getting nominations even though it looks like most of us won’t get to see it until next year. I’m still holding out hope for a screener but time is running out. It looks excellent.
  • Nothing for “Avengers: Endgame”. I mean I didn’t expect there to be but I did hope they would do the right thing and show it some kind of appreciation.
  • One of the most interesting categories is Best Actress: Musical or Comedy. It’s a fascinating mashup of nominees. I love seeing Awkwafina and Ana de Armas there. I’m sure Cate Blanchett will take some snarky shots but she was really good in “Where’d You Go Bernadette?”. But Beanie Feldstein? She was fine but nothing that screams award-worthy.
  • By the way, Rebecca Ferguson for “Doctor Sleep”. I would include her over most nominated for Supporting Actress. And how about Florence Pugh? I’m hoping to see “Little Women” this week but from all accounts she is tremendous. That category is a headscratcher.
  • Perhaps the biggest snub of all is no Best Actor nomination for Robert De Niro. Both Joe Pesci and Al Pacino get supporting nods for “The Irishman” but nothing for the film’s star? That’s a huge surprise.
  • Much is already being made about the absence of women in the Best Director category and it certainly stands out. As mentioned I’m seeing “Little Women” this week so I can’t comment on Gerwig. But unlike last year there are no glaring female omissions especially considering the . I loved “The Farewell” and really liked “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, but it wasn’t the direction that stood out in those films. And “Hustlers”, not a great film. “Booksmart”? No way. Thankfully there is progress being made by the studios but not nearly enough.
  • And the category is so stacked even Noah Baumbach was left out for “Marriage Story”. That’s really hard to imagine.
  • I’m more annoyed at the lack of women in the screenplay category. Lulu Wang absolutely should have been nominated. Gerwig again is left out for “Little Women” and I think Julia Hart should be considered for “Fast Color”, one of the most overlooked movies of the year.
  • Eddie Murphy nominated for “Dolemite Is My Name”? I gotta admit I didn’t see that coming. Also another win for Netflix.
  • I wasn’t too high on “The Lighthouse” but I expected it to get a little something. Turns out…nope.

And those are a few random thoughts on this year’s Golden Globes nominations. What do you think of the choices and my take on them? And if you missed it, below is a full list of all of this year’s nominees.

Best Motion Picture – Drama
1917
The Irishman
Joker
Marriage Story
The Two Popes

Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
Dolemite Is My Name
Jojo Rabbit
Knives Out
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Rocketman

Best Director – Motion Picture
Bong Joon Ho (Parasite)
Sam Mendes (1917)
Todd Phillips (Joker)
Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)
Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language
The Farewell
Les Miserables
Pain and Glory
Parasite
Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Best Original Score – Motion Picture
Alexandre Desplat (Little Women)
Hildur Guðnadóttir (Joker)
Randy Newman (Marriage Story)
Thomas Newman (1917)
Daniel Pemberton (Motherless Brooklyn)

Best Screenplay – Motion Picture
Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)
Bong Joon Ho & Jin Won Han (Parasite)
Anthony McCarten (The Two Popes)
Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Steven Zaillian (The Irishman)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in any Motion Picture
Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood)
Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes)
Al Pacino (The Irishman)
Joe Pesci (The Irishman)
Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in any Motion Picture
Kathy Bates (Richard Jewell)
Annette Bening (The Report)
Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers)
Margot Robbie (Bombshell)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
Daniel Craig (Knives Out)
Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Taron Egerton (Rocketman)
Roman Griffin Davis (Jojo Rabbit)
Eddie Murphy (Dolemite Is My Name)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama
Christian Bale (Ford v Ferrari)
Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory)
Adam Driver (Marriage Story)
Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)
Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
Ana de Armas (Knives Out)
Cate Blanchett (Where’d You Go Bernadette?)
Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart)
Emma Thompson (Late Night)
Awkwafina (The Farewell)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama
Cynthia Erivo (Harriet)
Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)
Saoirse Ronan (Little Women)
Charlize Theron (Bombshell)
Renee Zellweger (Judy)

Best Motion Picture – Animated
Frozen 2
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
Missing Link
Toy Story 4
Lion King

Best Original Song – Motion Picture (alpha by song title last year)
“Beautiful Ghosts” (Cats) — Taylor Swift & Andrew Lloyd Webber
“I’m Gonna Love Me Again” (Rocketman) — Elton John & Bernie Taupin
“Into the Unknown” (Frozen 2) — Robert Lopez & Kristen Anderson-Lopez
“Spirit” (The Lion King) — Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Timothy McKenzie & Ilya Salmanzadeh
“Stand Up” (Harriet) — Joshuah Brian Campbell & Cynthia Erivo