I Am DB

March 30, 2014

Oscars 2013: What Went Down

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 8:00 pm
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I know, I know. The Oscars were a month ago. It always takes me at least a couple of weeks to get this follow-up post out, and that’s without life interfering. The amount of time it takes me to generate this post is ridiculous, yes, but I can’t abandon it. History must record what I thought of the winners, presenters, host, scandals and set design. You’ve probably moved on from the Oscars by now, like a normal person, and will not invest your time reading this post. I understand. But for the sake of posterity, I forge ahead. I can not be stopped.

THE AWARDS
As far as predictions go, this was probably my best year ever. I went 23 for 24, missing only Best Animated Short Film. I doubt I’ll do that well again anytime soon, so I tried to savor the buzz. The Best Picture/Best Director split I was expecting indeed came to pass, with 12 Years a Slave winning the former while Gravity‘s Alfonso Cuarón took the latter. Given the enthusiasm on display during their Best Picture acceptance, the 12 Years crew seemed just fine with that. And Team Gravity, with seven wins, had nothing to complain about. For the record, Gravity is now second to Cabaret as the movie to win the most awards for the year without taking Best Picture. Cabaret took home eight awards — including Best Director for Bob Fosse — in 1972, but lost the big one to The Godfather.

Like last year, I had no complaints about most of the winners, even if I might have gone a different way in a few categories. (Actually, I still feel pretty strongly that Lincoln should have won Best Adapted Screenplay over Argo last year.) Unlike last year, however, the Academy was not as generous in spreading the wealth. Lots of movies took home gold last year, and only one of the nine Best Picture nominees left empty-handed (that was Beasts of the Southern Wild). This year, Best Picture nominees Philomena, Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips and American Hustle were all shut out. That’s especially surprising for Hustle, given that along with Gravity, it had a field-leading 10 nominations. But honestly, there wasn’t one category where it was the most deserving winner, so apologies to David O. Russell. I have no doubt you’ll get your Oscar sooner than later.

All four winning actors aced their speeches, beginning with Jared Leto, who paid sweet tribute to his mother and scored points for calling attention to the Ukraine and Venezuela. Maybe I’d strike a couple of those points for failing to thank Jennifer Garner, who was sitting right behind him. I mean, the guy thanked everybody in the English-speaking world at the Independent Spirit Awards the previous day. He couldn’t remember his other main co-star?

Lupita Nyong’o’s win was definitely one of the night’s highlights, mainly because everyone was just so genuinely happy for her. As I said in my predictions post, she has been such a classy, grateful, eloquent presence on the many award stages she’s graced this season, and the audience was quick to leap to their feet for her when presenter Christoph Waltz called out her name. And as with all those earlier speeches, this one didn’t disappoint.

The clip cuts off too soon, but as Nyong’o exited the stage, the orchestra played “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and it felt especially appropriate somehow. The cue probably would have popped up at that moment no matter who had won; the orchestra played an array of great movie themes as winners exited the stage and as the show went to and from commercials. But something about that song playing at the culmination of Nyong’o’s fairy tale introduction to the film industry felt right.

Cate Blanchett effectively ended the resurgence of the Woody Allen controversy by making clear her appreciation for his artistry and collaboration. She also paid warm tribute to her fellow nominees, and made a point that too many actress winners have to make: that there is an audience for movies about women, with women in the central roles, and that Hollywood needs to make more of them. Amen.

And Matthew McConaughey…you gotta love this guy. Every speech he’s given for Dallas Buyers Club has been energetic, funny, maybe a little rambling (he really droned on the previous afternoon when he won at the Independent Spirit Awards), but all uniquely McConaughey and all delivered with such charm that bits which could come across as a little arrogant from someone else instead register as funny and spoken from a place of gratitude and love. I hoped he might offer extended comments about his fellow nominees like Blanchett did, acknowledging that he’s worked with three of them (Bale, DiCaprio and Ejiofor) before, but maybe he was reluctant to invoke Reign of Fire on the Oscar stage.

I do have to say one other thing about that speech. As you saw, McConaughey offered a robust thank you to God. The Man Upstairs is often thanked by award winners and athletes who’ve just won a major victory. Most people wouldn’t read much into it. But leave it to a bunch of conservatives, especially grand idiots like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to make something out of nothing. Both radio hosts praised McConaughey for his words, and talked about the audience not knowing what to make of such a statement…as if no one in Hollywood believes in God. According to that article, some MTV host tweeted that when McConaughey thanked God, “the audience nearly took his award away.” But as usual, these morons only see what they want to see…usually because they’re making it up. In fact (“fact” — a word these people have never encountered), McConaughey’s remarks got quite a few cheers from the crowd. It’s not like the whole audience applauded, but again, thanking God is pretty common at events like this. No reason the whole audience has to show their support for such a remark, and silence does not mean disapproval. But ass-heads like Limbaugh, Beck and their flock of ignorant fans assume that to express an appreciation of God — and therefore religion in general — would be offensive to a room full of Hollywood liberals. What they don’t understand is that religion isn’t a divisive issue in American society right now; the divisive issue is bigotry, and those who try to hide behind their religious beliefs in order to justify it. And yes, that’s something you’re unlikely to encounter on a large-scale in Hollywood.

Huh…I guess Oscar bloggers are just as susceptible to getting political in their posts as Oscar winners are with their speeches. I learned it from you, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. I learned it by watching you. Moving on…

Beyond the four acting winners, speeches throughout the evening were nice, with only husband and wife Best Original Song winners Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez doing anything funny or memorable. And congratulations to Robert, whose Oscar grants him admission to the rather exclusive club of EGOT recipients. I really would have preferred any of the other three nominees to win, but you gotta give respect to the EGOT.

Speaking of songs, Darlene Love, one of the singers spotlighted in the winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom (and Mrs. Roger Murtaugh, for you Lethal Weapon fans), joined the director and producer onstage and took the opportunity to belt out a brief, joyous hymn that brought the crowd — led by Bill Murray — to their feet.

The only other notable pattern among the speeches concerned the 12 Years a Slave gang and the exposure of an apparent rift between director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley. When Ridley won for Best Adapted Screenplay, he made his way down the aisle but did not stop to shake hands or even acknowledge the director. Nor did McQueen make an effort to congratulate him. Ridley’s speech made no mention of McQueen either. McQueen, in turn, did not mention Ridley when accepting the Best Picture award. I noted all this while watching, but didn’t think too much of it. Turns out, according to The Wrap, there is something to it after all. It seems that after working with Ridley to shape the script, McQueen asked for co-writing credit, which Ridley refused. This led to a falling out that all involved tried to keep quiet during the awards season so as not to harm the movie’s chances. (There was speculation a few years back that tension between Up in the Air writers Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner during the early part of the 2009 awards season cost them a widely expected Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay.) For his part, Ridley dismisses the idea of a feud with McQueen, saying that his failure to mention the director was simply an oversight in the midst of a surreal moment, and pointing out that he thanked McQueen at length the day before during his speech at the Independent Spirit Awards. I’m not sure I buy that, considering the story in The Wrap, although even that story includes details that seem far-fetched. The truth is probably somewhere in between. McQueen may not come across as the warmest guy, but I have trouble believing that he verbally accosted Ridley’s wife at the BAFTA awards. For what it’s worth, Lupita Nyong’o didn’t thank Ridley in her speech either, but that could also have been an oversight. It happens all the time, and Nyong’o warmly congratulated Ridley when he won his Spirit award the day before.

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THE HOST
On her second occasion hosting the show, Ellen Degeneres did a pretty good job, certainly generating less controversy than Seth MacFarlane did last year. Some people thought her joke about Liza Minnelli crossed a line and seemed uncharacteristically mean for Ellen, but I think people completely misinterpreted the joke, in which she pretended to mistake Minnelli for a drag queen dressed like the actress. Because Minnelli is an icon in the gay community and drag queens often do dress up like her, I took the joke to be about that status that she holds, rather than a dig at Minnelli’s own appearance, which seems to be how others — including perhaps Minnelli herself — interpreted it. Whatever the intention, the two made up later when Ellen took a selfie with Liza prior to the night’s bigger selfie a few moments later.

As to that epic selfie, it definitely goes down as a classic moment in the annals of Oscardom. Meryl Streep knew Ellen was going to come out and enlist her in some sort of bit, but she didn’t know what it was going to be. It turned into a great moment of spontaneity, as Ellen called in a few other nearby stars like Channing Tatum and Jennifer Lawrence, while others like Lupita Nyong’o, her brother Peter, Kevin Spacey, Brad and Angelina and Jared Leto — who must have had to bound over from his seat on the other side of the theater — all poured in symmetrically from each side like a troupe of Bubsy Berkley chorus girls. Ellen’s goal was to make the picture the most re-tweeted ever, and the photo achieved that goal in about a half hour, while also briefly crashing Ellen’s Twitter page. Tweets aside, I just enjoyed the gag for the humor of the moment. I also liked Ellen’s intro of the next two presenters, a little joke that got buried under the applause of the selfie moment, in which she introduced Michael B. Jordan and Kristen B. Ell. (Side note: Jordan and Bell had hosted the year’s Sci-Tech Award ceremony, which I must briefly call attention to because this year’s recipients included a guy who was in my department when I worked at ILM: a mad genius named Josh Pines, whose description of the event made it into the headline of The Wrap‘s coverage. Unless you happen to be shooting a digital film in the year 2011, I don’t expect anyone to care about that video I hyperlinked to Josh’s name, but it reminds me of Josh’s energy and eccentricities.)

Now then…the other great audience moment was the pizza delivery. When Ellen was first in the aisle asking people if they would eat pizza, it felt a little stiff. But when she actually brought out an unwitting delivery guy with three boxes and started distributing, that was great. I’ve heard some people gripe that it went on too long, but I thought it was fantastic. The unpredictability of live TV kept it interesting as stars got involved, with Spacey and Pitt helping to hand out plates, while the delivery guy then went to the other side of the theater, forcing Ellen to follow. And as funny as it was to see who jumped at the chance for a slice (I loved Harrison Ford tugging Ellen’s sleeve to get a napkin), it was just as fun to watch the reaction of someone like Leonardo DiCaprio, who declined to eat but seemed so bemused that Ellen had actually gone through with the joke. Then when Ellen off-handedly said that she had no money, she set up a nice extension of the gag by calling across the room to Harvey Weinstein.

I was just as amused later when she passed around Pharrell’s hat to collect donations. “That’s a start,” she said when Weinstein dropped in $200, and she went on to comically guilt Brad Pitt for not putting in more, prompting him to up his contribution. All in all, I’d say the whole episode turned into another classic Oscar moment.

Not that those people can’t afford to chip in, but I wondered if she really kept that money or gave it back to them later. Shaking Harvey Weinstein down for a $200 pizza tip is funny, and I’m sure he forgot about it five minutes later, but I guess it’s hard for me to imagine having to just kiss that kind of money goodbye in the blink of an eye. It’s also hard for me to imagine being as rich as Harvey Weinstein is, so there’s that. I hope he at least got a slice. Wherever the money actually came from, Ellen really did present the pizza guy with the tip on her show the next day.

These antics made up for the less successful moments of Ellen’s performance. Her introduction of presenters could have used a little more punch, and there was a strange moment where the show came back from commercial break just after Karen O’s performance of “The Moon Song” and Ellen was sitting on the edge of the stage with a guitar, seemingly about to do a gag, only to dryly introduce the next presenter. No joke, no bit, nothing. Oh well. Pizza and Twitter ensured Ellen’s gig will be fondly remembered.

THE PRESENTERS
The production kind of dropped the ball in this area. Usually a few of the presenters can be counted on to keep the comedy going during the show, but there was precious little of that this year. The closest they came was Jamie Foxx doing an amusing Chariots of Fire bit while his co-presenter Jessica Biel discussed Best Original Score. But these Oscars badly needed some Will Ferrell or Jack Black, some Steve Carell or Tina Fey (whose current commitment to the Golden Globes may preclude her from appearing at the Oscars), some Robert Downey Jr. or Ben Stiller, some Kristen Wiig or Emma Stone. Why didn’t they get American Hustle co-star Louis C.K. to present? Or nominee Sandra Bullock and her co-star from The Heat, Melissa McCarthy? Are Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari too associated with TV to be considered as Oscar presenters? What about Chris Pratt? He’s starred in Oscar-winning and nominated movies like Her, Zero Dark Thirty and Moneyball. Let’s get him on stage next year. Point is, comedy is a crucial element in keeping the inevitably long Oscar show moving, and the presenters usually help to carry that weight. Not so much this year. Some blame has to go to the writers, who also didn’t provide funny material for the presenters. Jason Sudeikis presented, but wasn’t given anything funny to do. Robert De Niro had some amusing material about the dark recesses of a screenwriter’s mind, but most of the presenter moments that did get some laughs were off the cuff, like Foxx’s Chariots gag or Bill Murray’s unique Bill Murrayness. Kevin Spacey’s brief invocation of his House of Cards character and equally brief Jack Lemmon impression were appreciated, but beyond that there were few attempts at humor from the presenters. The show could definitely have used some of the comedic energy that Sacha Baron Cohen brought to the Britannia Awards last fall.

Cohen was accepting an award there, not presenting one, but the point remains. And I think I just wanted an excuse to include that clip.

There was also the problem of some odd presenter choices to begin with. Jim Carrey? John Travolta? Will Smith? Kate Hudson? Jessica Biel? When was the last time any of these people had a hit? I don’t mean to write them off as irrelevant, but they feel a little warmed over at the present time. Could the producers really not find some people who feel like more vital contributors to movies at the moment? I mean sure, you also had people like Goldie Hawn and Glenn Close, but there’s something about them that is classically associated with the Oscars. They transcend any concerns of “currentness.” Not that I’m saying to go the other way and just throw a bunch of stars who are hot at the moment on Oscar’s stage. That’s how Taylor Lautner ended up there a few years ago, and that doesn’t need to happen either. I suppose it can be a fine line between presenters who have timeless appeal and those who make you feel like you’re watching a show from five or ten years ago. Knowing the difference is a skill that you need if you’re going to produce a show like this one. (I have that skill, in case the Academy is interested.)

Then there was poor Kim Novak. This is another thing Oscar producers often try to do, which is trot out an old-time Hollywood star who has been out of the spotlight for years. It’s a nice idea in theory, but too often it falls flat and ends up an embarrassment for the performer. They can’t read the teleprompter. Or they try to improvise. Or they get caught up in the emotion of being back in the spotlight, but it leads to awkwardness instead of poignancy. Novak fell somewhat victim to that trap, but even beyond that, there was something off about her presentation. If she was reading from the script, then it seemed like she was trying to do this thing where she made the text sound spontaneous, but I don’t know…it wasn’t working, and Matthew McConaughey looked like he had to hold her up, physically and performance-wise. And why Kim Novak anyway? Was she meant to tie into the show’s theme of Heroes? If so, then that should have been explained when she was introduced. So why her? If elderly stars of yesteryear are going to appear on the telecast, there should be some significant reason, or they should be presenting Best Picture. I don’t know…am I just being a dick? Or was Novak’s moment onstage as painful to watch for others as it was for me? It made me sad.

Sidney Poitier fared better. It was hard to see him looking so frail and moving so slowly, but he was still as cool and classy as ever. He has often come off as a measured, thoughtful speaker, so the long pauses he took felt natural. And as his co-presenter Angelina Jolie noted, the occasion marked the 40th anniversary of his historic Best Actor win, so his presence felt justified. And he was there to give out the Best Director prize, one of the night’s biggest. That’s how it should be done.

Jumping back to Travolta for a moment…what can I say that the internet hasn’t already said? His bizarre butchering of Idina Menzel’s name turned the non-existent Adele Dazeem into a web sensation, and turned him into a punching bag for the next few days. Slate offered the Adele Dazeem Name Generator to show how Travolta would mispronounce your name. Buzzfeed speculated on how he would have screwed up the names of other Oscar attendees. Someone started an Adele Dazeem Twitter feed. I actually started to feel bad for the guy, so incessant were the efforts to mock his mistake. He released a brief statement a couple of days later in which he addressed the error but, amusingly, didn’t really apologize or explain himself. Menzel’s performance of “Let it Go” was just a little bit off that night, and some wondered if she was thrown by Travolta’s intro. When she finally commented on the incident a few weeks later (see, this is why I wait so long to post the follow-up!), her response was good-natured. So it sounds like things are all well, and while it’s probably time to let Travolta move on from this, I think Adele Dazeem, whoever she is, must live on.

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THE PRODUCTION

-The presentations of all four nominated songs were among the best moments of the show. First was Pharrell’s lively performance of “Happy,” which included a trip off the stage and down along the front row where Lupita Nyong’o, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams got their groove on. He really had the room going, and I have to admit, the song has grown on me a lot since the nominations were announced.

Next was the gorgeous staging of “The Moon Song.” Befitting the tune’s delicate lyrics and fragile nature, Karen O —  accompanied by Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig — was seated on a small staircase with her shoes at her side, lit initially by just a single spotlight from above, and then by an enormous full moon projected on the screen behind her, rising throughout the song until it reached full height, her red dress shining beautifully against the dark stage. Visually and vocally, it was a perfect presentation for that song.

U2 kept the flow going with a terrific performance of “Ordinary Love.” The song isn’t an all-out rocker, but they stripped it down even leaner than the studio recording, going with an intimate, acoustic delivery that felt right for the movie, the song and the room. As I watched them standing side by side on stage without a full array of instruments between them, it really struck me just how long these guys have been playing together, how iconic they are, and how long they’ve been involved in social causes like the ones that brought them into Nelson Mandela’s life. They were excellent.

And although I mentioned before that Idina Menzel’s rendition of “Let it Go” was just a touch off — she seemed to be straining at the end — the simple set design evoking the icy look of Frozen was just enough to provide an interesting backdrop against which the singer could shine. Still, the number might have come off even better the next night when Jimmy Fallon played a video of Menzel performing the song accompanied by The Roots on classroom instruments.

-The show’s other two musical performances were fine, but less inspired. Pink did a nice job on “Over the Rainbow” in tribute to the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, but I felt like she was a little bit flat. I’m not sure how they settled on her to perform the song, but I think they could have found someone better, who could have been a real showstopper. The song certainly lends itself to an emotional performance, but Pink didn’t take it there. Yet according to Entertainment Weekly‘s report about things you didn’t see on the TV broadcast, she was a huge hit in the room, and the standing ovation continued after the show went to commercial.

Then there was Bette Midler performing “Wind Beneath My Wings” after the In Memoriam segment. It was a nice idea, but seeing as it followed the actual montage of departed filmmakers and wasn’t accompanied by additional clips of their work or photos of them, it just felt like an unnecessary time suck. Midler still sounds great, but her performance was a dead spot in the show. In the past, performers like Queen Latifah and James Taylor have sung during the montage itself, which has worked well, and might have been instituted to prevent the audience from applauding names that have broad recognition while others come and go in silence because their work is not as well-known any more. The downside is that when the segment ends, the singer’s presence onstage can take the focus away from the deceased, which is where it should stay. In fact, there was an awkward moment when Midler’s number came to an end and the audience offered a standing ovation. It wasn’t really clear if they were standing for her, or out of respect for those depicted in the montage…particularly Philip Seymour Hoffman, the last person featured. Midler seemed moved by the standing ovation, but I’m not convinced it was about her as much as it was a gesture for Hoffman, whose death was obviously a particularly strong blow to this community. Midler could be heard starting to speak just before the show went to commercial, in one of several instances throughout the evening where speakers were mistakenly caught for a few seconds on live microphones. What did she say to the applauding throngs?

-As for the In Memoriam sequence itself, it was good to see Harold Ramis made it in. Having passed away during the week of the show, he might have been too late an addition to be edited into the piece. There’s often some controversy around the montage over who is omitted, but fortunately it wasn’t much of an issue after this year’s aired. I read a few stories noting that Cory Monteith had been left off, but with all due respect to the late Glee actor, he had almost no presence in movies and should not have been featured. The only person I was surprised and disappointed to find left out was Dennis Farina, whose work in films like Midnight Run, Get Shorty and Out of Sight should have earned him a spot.

Although Sarah Jones — the 27 year-old crew member who was killed in a tragic accident on the set of a Gregg Allman biopic — didn’t make it into the montage, the online movement to include her did perhaps reach the Academy. As the segment ended, there was a banner with her picture on it directing viewers to the Oscar website for an online In Memoriam gallery that was more inclusive than the one on the telecast.

I also saw a comment online grousing that it was inappropriate and in poor taste to put an emphasis on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s screen in the montage, as if his death was more significant than others. But the montage always concludes with someone who was a giant within the industry, and there is almost always a little extra time devoted to them. Interestingly, the In Memoriam section is one of the few aspects of the Oscar show that the producers do not control. The decisions about who will and won’t be included are made by a committee within the Academy. It’s always a difficult task, and former Executive Director of the Academy Bruce Davis thinks it might be best to eliminate it altogether.

-Despite the plea I made in my predictions opus, the producers failed to show enough imagination to get a clip for Best Supporting Actor nominee Barkhad Adbi other than the one we’ve seen over and over again in which he looks at Tom Hanks and says, “I’m the captain now.” Oh well. If you’ve seen the movie, you know how good he was in all his other scenes.

-Am I the only one who was sort of puzzled by the mass of bright red roses that appeared down an entire center section of the backdrop when the show returned from its first commercial break? The color was nice, but all I could think was that American Beauty had projectile vomited all over the set.

-It had been announced in the weeks leading up to the show that this year’s theme — because apparently there has to be a theme — was Heroes. This amounted to little more than three montages spaced throughout the show that paid tribute to different types of movie heroes. The first focused on animated characters. The second concentrated on the ordinary heroes populating movies such as Serpico, Braveheart, Norma Rae, Ali, To Kill a Mockingbird, Milk, Silkwood, Apollo 13, The Blind Side, In the Heat of the Night and Erin Brockovich. The last one was the least clearly defined, straddling the line between the previous grouping by including Rocky and The Karate Kid but mostly focusing on action, fantasy and science-fiction fare like Star Wars, Aliens, The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Die Hard, The Matrix, The Avengers, The Princess Bride, Jaws, Back to the Future, the Harry Potter movies, Kill Bill and Ghostbusters.

Now as someone who loves movies, I love a good movie montage that artfully puts together an array of clips from classics and favorites. In fact, one of my favorite Oscar memories is a montage that was shown at the beginning of the 1990 ceremony (or ’91 technically, but honoring the movies of ’90) that was created to mark the 100th anniversary of the invention of motion pictures. I always conclude my annual post about my favorite movies of the year by including some montages that movie fans have created to celebrate the work of the previous 12 months. There can be a certain kind of skill on display in a great montage of movie clips, but these three lacked any of that finesse. They felt hastily assembled, with no creative thought into how they were put together.

More significantly, they were the only attempt to even lend the show a sense of having a theme, and they weren’t enough. What’s so odd about how poorly the theme resonated was that to look at this article from a couple of weeks before the show, in which producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan vaguely previewed the ceremony, there seemed to be a lot more that was supposed to happen. They mention celebrating actors and filmmakers who take on difficult subject matter, so that the hero theme would encompass not just movie characters, but also behind the scenes figures. That didn’t happen. They talk about dividing the show into sections built around the different montages, as if there would have been more effort to incorporate the types of heroes that each montage focused on into the show at large. That didn’t happen. There was supposed to be an “emotional moment”  intended to “illustrate the theme of how movies have inspired” that was set to involve The Amazing Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield “induct[ing] a new superhero into the fraternity of superheroes.” That didn’t happen…although in that case, there are some details.

You probably recall that in November 2013, the City of San Francisco worked with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to realize the dream of 5 year-old cancer survivor Miles Scott to be a superhero for a day. Dubbed “Batkid,” Miles took part in a series of staged heroics around the city, cheered on by huge crowds. On Oscar night, Andrew Garfield was supposed to introduce a montage of what Meron called “popular heroes” which would have been followed by Miles coming out on stage and being made an honorary superhero by Garfield. The initial reports were that Garfield and Scott rehearsed the segment on Saturday, but the producers then decided to cut it for reasons that were never clearly stated. To make it up to Miles, the Academy sent his family to Disneyland on Monday.

Then the New York Post‘s gossip column Page Six claimed that during the rehearsal, Garfield raised concerns with the script and angrily bailed on the show when his suggested changes weren’t accepted. Knowing Garfield’s public image, that sort of behavior seems highly unlikely. Subsequent reports paint a more believable scenario, which is that Garfield did have some concerns with the material, feeling it was “exploitative.” He offered a re-write, but the producers preferred the original draft. Garfield eventually agreed, but the producers ultimately decided that the entire segment was not a good fit with the tone of the show, and cut it altogether. (My favorite part of the article in the previous link? Sony was upset about Garfield being cut because of the lost opportunity to promote May’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2…as if that movie needs helping getting attention.) Captain America star Chris Evans was called in as a last-minute replacement to introduce just the montage portion, and that was that. The Academy later issued a statement explaining that the evolving nature of a live show led to the segment being excised. Garfield’s rep also issued a statement, saying that the Academy made the decision, and that any reports of bad behavior on Garfield’s part were untrue. In fact, Andrew visited Miles at his hotel afterwards, and joined the family on their Monday trip to Disneyland. (Both the Academy’s and Garfield’s statements are included here.)

So much drama! Why couldn’t Garfield still have introduced the montage, even if the Batkid portion was eliminated? I don’t know, but I’d guess he was labeled “difficult” after raising concerns about the original script. And an even better question: why was Garfield tapped to “induct” Batkid in the first place when Christian Bale, the actor who actually played Batman, would be in the audience as a nominee? Did the producers approach Bale to do the segment? Did he decline? I know Bale has a reputation for being prickly, but would he refuse to provide a heartwarming moment for a little kid who survived cancer and loves Batman? I would love to know if Bale was ever asked to do it, and I’d love to know what Garfield’s concerns with the material were and why Meron and Zadan really cut the bit entirely. But their dodgy, politically correct statement is all we have to go on. And for what it’s worth, the Batkid bit wasn’t the only thing cut from the show. Apparently there was supposed to be another musical number with a lot of stars involved, but that too was scrapped.

Bringing all of this back around to the point that the show’s Hero theme was badly underdeveloped, the omission of Batkid seems to be just one of several plans the producers hinted at prior to the show that never came to pass. During her monologue, Ellen pointed out that real-life heroes Philomena Lee and Richard Phillips, who were depicted in two of the Best Picture nominees, were in attendance. Yet they may not have been the only ones. According to The Hollywood Reporter, 2013 movies inspired by real life such as 42, Fruitvale Station, Lone Survivor and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom were represented in the audience by Jackie Robinson’s widow, Oscar Grant’s mother, former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell and Nelson Mandela’s daughters, respectively. Incorporating them into some kind of salute to movie heroes would have made the show’s intended theme resonate. It might also have been manipulative, but no more so than including Batkid. Whatever the reason that all these plans to bolster the Heroes theme failed to materialize, the remnants of the concept — those three underwhelming montages — came across as unnecessary drags on a show that would clock in at about 3.5 hours. So maybe next year, whoever produces the show (and after two consecutive years, the Academy should move on from Meron and Zadan) might be better off foregoing the idea of a theme and just stick to celebrating the movies from the year gone by. And if they insist on having a theme, they should follow through.

-I’ve complained about the lousy job that Don Mischer has done directing the show over the past few years, so I was relieved when it was announced that this year’s telecast would be directed by Hamish Hamilton. Yes, I’m the kind of person who can find disappointment and relief in the choice of the Oscar show director. I have no particular loyalty to Hamish Hamilton, about whom I know nothing. I just know he’s not Don Mischer, and that was good enough for me. He did do a better job than his predecessor, if only because when he cut to reaction shots from the audience, he found famous people to focus on instead of total unknowns in the middle of the room that mean nothing to the TV viewers tuning in to see their favorite movie stars. Still, Hamilton’s directing job wasn’t too impressive. As I mentioned earlier, there were several moments where live mics caught backstage chatter or other snippets not intended to be heard. Or how about when the clip of Best Supporting Actress nominee Sally Hawkins ended and the camera should have shown Hawkins in her seat, but instead landed on June Squibb? It’s not like Hawkins was a moving target. Was it really so hard to have a cameraman in place to capture Hawkins’ reaction, and to cut to said shot from the booth? And what was with that weird camera move we kept seeing where the camera would start to one side of the presenter and then circle to the other side, with the presenter following the camera move instead of just addressing the audience straight ahead? Awkward and arbitrary. C’mon, Academy. Can’t you find someone who knows how to direct live TV?

-As the Oscar-watching faithful know by now, the special achievement awards are no longer presented on Oscar night, but are instead handed out at a ceremony in November called the Governors Awards. Ever since that tradition began five years ago, the recipients have attended the Oscars to take a bow, and highlights from the Governors Awards are usually shown. Alas, not even the bow happened this year, since only one of the honorees was even there. Angelina Jolie received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and of course she was at the Oscars with nominated husband Brad Pitt. But none of the three honorary award recipients — Steve Martin, Angela Lansbury or costume designer Piero Tosi — were at the Oscar ceremony. Lansbury was on the London stage appearing in previews of Blithe Spirit; Tosi, who lives in Italy, fears flying and has never traveled to the United States; and Martin, an Oscar regular who you’d think could have made it, was unfortunately out of town.

So while it was disappointing none of them could be there, there was nothing to be done about it. Kevin Spacey introduced the highlight reel, after which the camera cut to Jolie in her seat. At least she got to take the stage later when she and Sidney Poitier presented Best Director. More from the Governors Awards further down.

-For the second year in a row, the Academy held a contest asking film students across the U.S. to explain in a minute-long video how they planned to contribute to the future of film. Six winners were selected by The Academy, Meron, Zadan and Channing Tatum, and Team Oscar got to hand off the statuettes and direct presenters and winners offstage on Oscar night, as well as tour studios and meet filmmakers during the week of the Oscars. I love this idea and was glad to see the Academy continue it. The winning videos can be seen here.

-One final observation, and this isn’t about the production, but I’ll put it here anyway. Some of you movie stars need to learn how to get into the spirit of this thing. It’s Oscar night! I know for those of you who are nominated it can be stressful, but let’s face it: win or lose, you’ll still be successful movie stars in the morning, so loosen up and look alive out there. When The Great Gatsby‘s costume designer Catherine Martin won, there was a shot of Leonardo DiCaprio clapping, but he wasn’t really smiling and looked like he was sort of on auto-pilot. Martin won again later in the night for Best Art Direction, and again there was a shot of Leo, and again he was clapping slowly, distractedly, as if in a daze. Leo! It’s your movie! Would it kill you to muster some genuine happiness for your winning collaborator? Charlize Theron was shown on camera a few times while seated, and she looked like she couldn’t be less pleased to be there. As the directors and producer of Frozen were walking off stage having just won Best Animated Feature, there was a shot of The Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger in the audience just sitting there stone-faced while the audience continued to applaud. I’m always baffled by this lack of enthusiasm that Oscar attendees often express. Those of you who are too deep in your own heads need to take a cue from Julia Roberts. Anytime the camera showed her, even when “minor category” winners were having their moment, she was smiling, happy, and looked engaged. She seemed genuinely pleased for every winner, whatever their category. If only all the Hollywood elite could be so down to earth.

-All in all I’d say the show was uneven, but tipped more toward successful. There were more times when it was good than not, and it ended up the highest rated Academy Awards in over a decade, so that’s likely all the Academy and ABC care about. I wonder what the big draws were to attract such a large audience. It wasn’t just Ellen; her last time as host didn’t do this well. There were some big hits among the nominees, but nothing on the scale of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King or Avatar. But maybe Ellen, combined with nominees like Gravity and American Hustle, combined with a strong line-up of musical performers added up to make this year’s show particularly attractive.

THE GOVERNORS AWARDS
I already touched on the Governors Awards earlier, but it deserves additional coverage. The Hollywood Reporter offered a thorough report on the event, and In Contention posted one which basically contains all the same information, but adds comments about how much Judd Apatow and Bill Hader were digging the Steve Martin portion of the night, which makes me smile. Mark Harris also wrote on Grantland about why having a separate ceremony for the honorary awards is such a bad idea and weakens the main Oscar telecast. I’ve always had mixed feelings about this. I do miss the inclusion of these tributes in the main show. They add a lot, especially by illuminating for the more casual viewer the work of artists who they might be less familiar with than contemporary filmmakers. Unofficially, part of the Academy’s reasoning of spinning these special awards off into their own ceremony was to allow for a more relaxed, intimate affair. Harris takes them to task for this, pointing out that with speeches by presenters and recipients posted to YouTube, and journalists in the room covering the event, there is nothing intimate about it. But he doesn’t touch on the Academy’s stated reason for the separate event, which is to allow the Academy to pay tribute to its chosen artists in a more expansive celebration that needn’t be crammed briefly into an already full Oscar ceremony.

While he makes some excellent points about the value and importance of the special awards, he fails to acknowledge that if they were included on the regular telecast, everything about them would be truncated. The presentations, the clip packages (presumably; we don’t get to see those on YouTube), and the speeches would all have to be shorter, and it wouldn’t be possible to honor as many people each year simply due to time constraints. When these awards were included on Oscar night, people complained that they added to the bloat of the show. Now that they’re not included, people complain that they deserve to be part of the big night. Maybe advocates of returning the honorary awards to Oscar night would point to other things that should be removed or trimmed back in order to accommodate them, but the bottom line would be the same: complaints. At the end of the day, I think a separate ceremony makes for a more full and touching appreciation of the honorees, and the availability of full speeches on YouTube goes a long way toward assuaging my early concerns about taking them off the main telecast. But I do think it’s time the Academy start offering a full broadcast of the Governors Awards, one that includes all the clip reels and is not broken up into the fragments we get on YouTube. I’m glad we at least get those, but movie fans deserve to see the full event.

Taking what we can when we can, however, here is Angelina Jolie’s moving acceptance speech…

as well as Steve Martin’s.

Also, Martin Short’s comments about his fellow amigo. This is great stuff, though I was really disappointed to learn that some of these jokes were recycled from Short’s tribute to Carol Burnett when she received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor a month earlier. Really Marty?

Oh, and I liked Geoffrey Rush’s remarks to Angela Lansbury.

All of the presentations and speeches can be seen here, for any of you not too fatigued by all this reading to click the link.

THE OSCAR CONCERT
As I mentioned after the nominations were announced, the Academy inaugurated a new event this year: a public concert at UCLA featuring performances of all the nominated songs (not done by the originating artists) and selections from each nominated score, conducted by their respective composers. In addition, film journalist Elvis Mitchell was on hand to interview the composers. It sounds like the event was well-received, so we’ll see if a new Oscar season tradition has been born. Here’s a report about the event, and a photo gallery.

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THE DRESSES

It wouldn’t be Oscar night without lavish dresses and actresses rocking them. To my eyes, untrained in knowledge of fashion, there were a lot of great looks this year.

I would have included Lupita Nyong’o and Cate Blanchett, but they can be seen in photos and videos above. Nyong’o totally conquered the world of celebrity style this award season. She attended numerous ceremonies and events, and looked amazing pretty much every time.

THE INDEPENDENT SPIRIT AWARDS
I’ve mentioned them a few times here already, but I always like to acknowledge the Independent Spirit Awards, which take place every year in a tent at the beach in Santa Monica on the Saturday afternoon before Oscar Sunday. As it would the next night, 12 Years a Slave took prizes for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. Without Gravity to contend with, it took Best Director and Best Cinematography as well. Also winning at both the Spirit Awards and the Oscars were Lupita Nyong’o’s fellow actors Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett and Jared Leto…marking the first time, if I’m not mistaken, that all four winning actors at the Spirit Awards took home the Oscar as well.

The afternoon’s best speech probably belonged to Jared Leto. At first it seemed like he was just going to read a list of names…which he did…but around the 3:00 mark it started to get interesting.

One cool honor given at this event each year is the Robert Altman Award, which is presented to a film’s director, ensemble cast and casting director. It’s a non-competitive award announced in advance, and this year it went to one of my favorite films of the year, Mud. A great choice.

While the ceremony looked like it was a lot of fun as always, the televised version was a disaster. The Spirit Awards used to be broadcast live in their entirety on Saturday afternoon on the Independent Film Channel. I don’t know when that changed, but now the full show is edited down to an abridged version and shown on Saturday night. As a result, some of the best or most interesting moments get edited out, like last year’s drunken acceptance speech by Safety Not Guaranteed screenwriter Derek Connolly. This year, the edited version was an absolute mess. Reese Witherspoon presented an award at one point, and as the winner walked to the stage, there were shots of audience members seated at their tables applauding…including one of Reese Witherspoon. Later, host Patton Oswalt came out with a piece of paper and started reading off names that Jared Leto forgot to thank. It was a strange and random list which made no sense because the whole middle portion of Leto’s speech which Oswald was having fun with had been edited out of the broadcast, so the joke had zero context. What sense does it make to include a joke that references an incident that was not included? And why would the producers of the show cut parts of Leto’s speech when it was one of the highlights of the event? The TV presentation was full of such problems, which is no surprise considering how rapidly it had to be edited together. In addition, some of the awards — like the one above for Mud — weren’t even included in the broadcast. Idiots. I don’t understand why they don’t just air the entire ceremony like they always did. This was just embarrassing.

You know what else is embarrassing? The amount of space I just took up writing about the minutiae of movie award ceremonies, and the amount of time it took me to do it. I think we’re done here.

 

 

March 1, 2014

Oscars 2013: My Annual Absurdly Long Predictions Opus

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 12:30 pm
Tags: , , ,

Alright, now that we are finally done with all that Olympic nonsense (seriously couldn’t care less) we can get to the competition that matters. The Oscars are 29 hours away, so it’s time to lay my cards on the table. Normally I start with Best Picture and work my way down through the categories, but Best Picture has taken shape unconventionally this year, such that it might be better to start from the so-called “bottom” and work our way up. It will all make sense in the end, I promise. Let us begin, and remember: pace yourself and drink lots of water.

BEST DOCUMENTARY/ANIMATED/LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM
As usual, I haven’t gotten around to seeing most of the shorts. Or documentaries. Or foreign language films. But even if I had seen the shorts, there are no past awards to study or readily detectable buzz that would shed any light on what might be the winner. Even informed viewers are flying blind in these categories, trying to guess what might appeal to Academy members. So for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve gleaned from some of the pundits I follow. For Best Animated Short, most seem to be predicting Get a Horse!, the old-school-meets-new-school Mickey Mouse cartoon that starts out looking like a vintage piece before breaking the fourth wall, going 3D and mixing black and white with color. The fact that it played in front of a huge hit like Frozen only increases its chances. There’s also Mr. Hublot, which is getting mentioned as an alternate.

Best Live Action Short has the least consensus of the three. I think I’ve seen four of the five nominees picked as winners, but Helium and The Voorman Problem had slightly more mentions. And for Best Documentary Short, everyone seems to agree on The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, which hits the sweet spot of focusing on a Holocaust survivor and the healing power of art. The subject of the movie, Alice Herz Sommers, passed away just last Sunday at age 110.

If you’d prefer to investigate these categories a little more thoroughly yourself, here’s some brief descriptions and analysis from In Contention for Animated Short, Live Action Short and Documentary Short.

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BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
I haven’t seen anyone predict a victory for Palestine’s Omar or Cambodia’s The Missing Picture. Most seem to think it will go to the Italian film The Great Beauty, while others are leaning toward The Hunt from Denmark or The Broken Circle Breakdown from Belgium. How’s that for helpful? Maybe this will be more useful.


BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

The only one I’ve seen is 20 Feet from Stardom, which focuses on the role backup singers have played throughout the history of rock and roll. As it happens, this one appears to be the favorite, a feel-good introduction to the (mostly) ladies who took great songs and made them greater. I mean, what would The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” be without that soaring backing track from Merry Clayton? The movie stands in contrast to more sobering fare, and although the serious stuff usually wins here, 20 Feet may be too toe-tappin’ to resist. If not, The Act of Killing has been a strong presence on the doc circuit. But I’d be watching out for The Square; it deals with the Arab Spring in Egypt, but I gather that there’s an unexpected feel-good component as it traces relationships between unlikely allies. Not sure if I’m correct about that or not, but if I am, it could bridge the gap for voters as sufficiently dramatic but not depressing. Once again, thoughts from In Contention if you’d like to know a little more.

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BEST SOUND MIXING & BEST SOUND EDITING

This year, the two sound categories have four common nominees: Gravity, Lone Survivor, Captain Phillips and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The lone wolf in the Mixing category is Inside Llewyn Davis, and of the two categories, Mixing is the one that more often nominates music-heavy movies. Indeed, last year’s winner was Les Misérables, with shares a key trait with Llewyn Davis: live singing. That may well have given it the edge in another year, but this year it faces the force of Gravity. On the Editing side, All is Lost stands as the unique nominee, and as a movie that features almost no dialogue, it relies ever more so on sound to transport the audience. It’s a strong slate of nominees across both categories, but as always, few people outside of the Sound branch have any real knowledge of the work that goes into sound design. So they will vote for the movie that they consider an all-around impressive technical achievement, or the one that is most prominent in the Best Picture race. This year those movies are one and the same. Chalk these two up for Gravity.

Personal: Not that I know any better than most of the voters, but I’d go with Gravity for both, with Inside Llewyn Davis and All is Lost as second choices.

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BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

“Academy Announces 9 Films That ‘Gravity’ Will Beat for the VFX Oscar.” That was the headline The Wrap ran in early December when the 10 movies that would contend for the five Best Visual Effects nominations were announced. In many categories, a lot has changed since early December. Not in this one. This is the night’s surest bet. And if you want to know why, just check out the video below. Everything in this movie is CGI…and all of it immaculately created. The earth, the sun, the stars, the spaceships, the stations, the debris, the light, the reflections….even the damn spacesuits were created by the visual effects artists. The only real things onscreen are Sandra Bullock’s star power and George Clooney’s million dollar smile.

Personal: Gravity. I mean, come on! Even the spacesuits!!!

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BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

I’ve said that this branch rightly judges the quality of the work and not the quality of the movie when it comes to choosing nominees, but once the decision moves to the full Academy, minds are less open. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa should be a real contender here, since the makeup that turned Johnny Knoxville into an old man had to fool real people in up close and personal interactions. But it’s hard to imagine enough members handing an Oscar to the Jackass franchise. Then there’s The Lone Ranger, which also seems like a choice most voters just won’t want to make, given the whipping the movie took. So the winner, perhaps by a degree of default, will probably be Dallas Buyers Club. And to be fair, the extent of the film’s makeup work is broader than I understood, and all accomplished on a shoestring budget of $250 for the entire film. That’s crazier than the idea of Jordan Catalano winning an Oscar. The work in Bad Grandpa is excellent, so perhaps voters will surprise us and put that ahead of all other considerations. But Dallas is the safer bet.

Personal: I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other. I’d get a kick out of seeing Bad Grandpa rewarded, while the work on Dallas Buyers Club is much more involved than I thought. I’d be happy for either team.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

The Book Thief and Saving Mr. Banks are the outliers here, with this being the only nomination that either film earned. Her has wonderful music, but lacks the distinct theme that might put it over the edge. Alexandre Desplat has his sixth nomination with Philomena, and he has yet to win. The movie is apparently a big hit with Academy members, and Desplat’s lovely score will probably collect a lot of votes. But I’m calling this one for Gravity. Although it, like Her, doesn’t have a hummable theme that could stick with voters, it’s such a key component of the Gravity experience. Steven Price’s music is big and stirring without being overbearing or manipulative. It’s powerful enough to convey the mysteries, danger and beauty of space, yet intimate enough to underscore the emotional journey of the characters. And when it swells during the movie’s final scenes, you feel it throughout your body. Philomena could surprise, but I think Gravity‘s got it.

Personal: Gravity, for all the reasons stated above.

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BEST ORIGINAL SONG

Oh boy. Strap in for this one, because before we even get to who the winner will be, there’s a hot mess to be explained. As discussed in my earlier piece after the nominations were announced, this category included an out-of-left-field nomination for the title song from a little-known Christian film called Alone Yet Not Alone. There was instant grumbling from other musicians behind eligible songs that didn’t get nominated, with some making bitter and disrespectful comments and calling into question the legitimacy of its eligibility. Some of the concerns focused on the fact that the song’s co-writer Bruce Broughton was a former Governor of the music branch who did minor campaigning on the song’s behalf by personally contacting some members of the branch and asking them to make sure they listened to the song and gave it a fair shot amidst some higher profile competition. I wrote in that piece that the Academy upheld the nomination, and that the song was here to stay.

Two days later, the Academy rescinded the nomination.

It was a bold and rare move. According to Entertainment Weekly, there have only been five cases prior to this one when a nomination has been stripped. The Hollywood Reporter cites some additional examples, though the Academy might not consider all of them to be accurate. (The EW list has been confirmed by the Academy.) Whichever list is correct, the situation is still uncommon, and may be unique in only one way: this appears to be the first case on record where a nomination has been withdrawn due to improper conduct on the part of the nominee.

The organization’s Board of Governors felt that Broughton’s personal communication to fellow members constituted a violation of the voting process. Broughton was vocal in his disappointment. In addition to the comment in the previous link, he posted a message on his Facebook page that night (as did his wife), and gave an interview the next day to a music site called Sibelius Blog, in which he discussed his involvement with the movie and his work on the song before talking about the revoked nomination. After a few days during which this bizarre turn of events dominated the entertainment news headlines, the Academy issued an additional statement explaining more specifically why it considered Broughton’s actions unethical, pointing out that the voting materials sent to members of the music branch deliberately refrain from mentioning the songwriters, so that voters are basing their decision purely on the song itself, without any personal relationship to the artists coming into play. Their position was that by pointing voters toward his own track, Broughton removed that veil of anonymity, providing an unfair advantage. Other songs may have been campaigned more expensively or aggressively, but such campaigns were also more general and didn’t include the inside knowledge to which Broughton had access as a member of the music branch. Broughton responded with a letter to the Academy that called into question the phrasing of the voting instructions given to members of the branch, as well as asking why his actions were deemed inappropriate even though Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, while serving as an Academy governor, had been allowed to work on award campaigns for movies like The Artist and The King’s Speech (both of which won Best Picture). Many people inside the Academy and outside of it (mostly religious audience members to whom Alone Yet Not Alone was targeted) expressed anger at the decision and lobbied for the song’s nomination to be reinstated, but to no avail.

As if all of this wasn’t ugly enough, Oscar-winning producer Gerald Molen chimed in with an accusation that the Academy’s gesture was one of anti-Christian bigotry. Oh please. There’s some bullshit at play in this debacle, no doubt, but anti-religious sentiment is not part of it. Last year, Molen accused the Academy of a liberal bias because a documentary he produced — the largely derided propaganda piece 2016: Obama’s America, which was a big hit with the Fox News crowd — failed to land a nomination for Best Documentary Feature. I guess he couldn’t imagine that maybe the voters just didn’t think his movie was one of the five best the field had to offer. He was the sore loser in that case, and now he’s on the other side of the fence, defending a nomination that was criticized by those who failed to make the cut.

This whole episode was unfortunate, and it’s the Academy that came out looking bad. The Music branch has taken a lot of heat over the past few years for poor policies and bad decisions, but this is one situation that shouldn’t be attributed to them, since the Board of Governors made the call. It’s not like this was the first time an Oscar nomination was awarded to a little-known film that had observers saying, “Huh?” In 2009, an obscure animated film out of Ireland called The Secret of Kells cracked the Best Animated Feature category, where it competed against better known films like Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog and Coraline.  One of the three Makeup nominees the same year was an Italian biopic called Il Divo that was on exactly nobody’s radar. And still in ’09, right here in the Song category, a tune from a French film called Paris 36 — not one of the year’s big crossover foreign language films — was among the nominees. Last year’s song nominee “Before My Time” from the documentary Chasing Ice wasn’t exactly hot on the Billboard charts, and not many people were familiar with the 2004 French film The Chorus when it spawned a nominated song in that year’s race. So the recognition for “Alone Yet Not Alone” is not unprecedented.

Broughton probably should not have reached out directly to members of his own branch to advocate a song he had worked on, nor provided the track’s number on the list of songs so that members could identify it when the Academy’s procedure is clearly designed to withhold that kind of information. But given the widespread, aggressive and varied maneuvers so often used to net an Oscar nomination (or win), Broughton’s actions seem minor. It’s not like we’re talking intimidation tactics here! The only reasonable point made by Gerald Molen in his criticism of the revoked nomination is that personal campaigning happens all the time, and has for years. As one Academy member said to In Contention‘s Kris Tapley, “They should start coming after all of us. They should look at everyone and not just wait for someone to forward them an email from a guy who said ‘listen to my song.’ It seems really punitive and over the top.” Agreed. Penalizing Broughton and his little song from his little movie without applying the same standards across the board is a disingenuous move. By ironic coincidence, earlier in the day that the song’s nomination was stripped, Vulture ran a story detailing Harvey Weinstein’s history of zealously campaigning his movies for Oscar glory. In a system where his approach is permissible, does Broughton really deserve to be the poster boy for this issue?

What comes across much more clearly than wrongdoing on Broughton’s part is that a bunch of anonymous people whose songs didn’t get nominated decided to raise a stink, and the Academy caved. All of the suspicion around the nomination was about how a song from such an outside-the-mainstream movie could crack the final five, as if the fact that it wasn’t sung by a Grammy winning pop star for a big-budget studio movie should be held against it. There may well be a need to reform the eligibility rules for the Best Song category, but in the meantime all songs that are deemed eligible deserve equal consideration, and that’s what the category’s voting process attempts to offer. The Academy may say that the nomination was revoked because Broughton abused his position, but what I see is the Academy giving credence to those who whine and complain when they don’t get nominated instead of accepting it and moving on like adults.
The day the Academy released their second statement about the repealed nomination, Isaacs also spoke to The Hollywood Reporter, dismissing Molen’s claims and detailing why Broughton’s actions were different from other forms of campaigning that have been allowed in the past. There’s been no response from her or the Academy about Broughton’s point that Isaacs worked on Oscar campaigns while serving as an Academy governor, which strikes me as a fair question. In fact, all has been quiet since the beginning of February. Fair or not, the Academy’s decision stands and the Best Original Song category is down to four nominees, as a replacement selection was not named. I don’t even think the song should have been nominated in the first place…but because I thought there were  a number of worthier options, not because I suspected malfeasance. All in all, this is an embarrassing episode, and a regrettable one to befall Isaacs, the Academy’s first female president, in her freshman term. Perhaps the debacle will be a learning moment for the Academy to make some policy and structural changes, as suggested by Variety. But I doubt it.
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So…what were we talking about? Oh right…who is going to win the Oscar for Best Original Song. While “The Moon Song” from Her and “Happy” from Despicable Me 2 will both have their fans, and even though the latter just hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, this one comes down to U2′s “Ordinary Love” from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and “Let it Go” from Frozen. The former may seem like standard U2 fare, and maybe it is, but it’s also well-known to be particularly meaningful and personal to Bono and the boys, who had a close relationship with Nelson Mandela and were speaking out against Apartheid even in the band’s early days. A vote for them would in a small way honor the incredible work they’ve done over the years for human rights, and also in a small way pay tribute to Mandela himself, who died in December shortly after the movie opened. U2′s last nomination was in 2002 for “The Hands That Built America” from Gangs of New York. They were widely expected to win, but the voters shocked us all by making the bolder decision to honor Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” That was the right thing to do, but I would still like to see U2 win an Oscar.
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Still, despite the many factors that would make this the right song for which to honor U2, they are likely to be defeated by the juggernaut that is “Let it Go.” The song is a certifiable, unstoppable monster of a smash hit, the joy and delight of singing children everywhere. Like…everywhere, as demonstrated in this video depicting it in 25 different languages. Every voter probably has a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, sibling or somebody in their life that is keeping this song ringing in their ears. It is inescapable, and even if it’s not your thing, you can’t deny the power of Idina Menzel’s vocal.
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So while there’s a chance that admiration and a sense of honoring Nelson Mandela’s legacy could lift “Ordinary Love” to victory, the cultural permeation of Frozen and “Let it Go” makes it the likely winner.

Personal: “The Moon Song.” This delicate gem has been stuck in my head for a while now, and it beautifully captures the mood of the film. Both the performances by Scarlett Johansson and Karen O are fragile, their voices cracking in a way that nails the emotional simplicity of this lovely love song. I’d be happy to see U2 win, but this is my favorite song of the group.

Also, I have to say — at the risk of alienating the sizable 3-to-9 year old segment of my readership — I thought the songs in Frozen were unremarkable. And it’s not just because I’m not a little kid. I’m as down for a good Disney musical as anyone, and it’s not unheard of that I might be walking around my apartment singing Menken-Ashman showstoppers like “Under the Sea,” “Be Our Guest” or “Friend Like Me.” That’s right: I’m a 37 year-old childless, heterosexual male who likes Disney musicals. Deal with the paradox. But I found the songs in Frozen bland and forgettable. I had hoped for more from them, given that they were co-written by a lyricist behind Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, but I guess that the subversive mind behind such tunes as “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “Super Mormon Hell Dream” would have to switch gears a bit for Disney. All that said, there’s a reason “Let it Go” is the nominee. It’s easily the movie’s best song, and the only one that deserves a place in the canon of classic Disney music. But I’d rather see the tune from Her win.

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BEST COSTUME DESIGN

The intricate period garb of The Invisible Woman is probably most consistent with the Academy’s past choices in this category, but I suspect that the movie is too far down the radar for most voters. On the other hand, confinement to the art houses didn’t prevent 2008′s The Duchess or 2009′s The Young Victoria from winning this prize. Still, I think both of those movies had slightly higher profiles than this one, which was never able to break through the cluttered year-end field despite strong reviews and the presence of Ralph Fiennes as star and director.

If we also rule out 12 Years a Slave and The Grandmaster, we’re left with The Great Gatsby and American Hustle. It’s a really tough call. Again, the voters tend to go for the more elaborate and pretty costumes, which is great for Gatsby. But that movie is far less popular than American Hustle, whose designers have been praised for capturing the film’s disco days with precise detail. With excellent reasons to justify either victory, I’m basing my guess on past behavior and giving the edge to The Great Gatsby. But Hustle‘s odds are just as good…and The Invisible Woman could still surprise.

Personal: The Great Gatsby. There are some nice items in American Hustle, mainly the outfits worn by Amy Adams. I won’t soon forget that white macramé bathing suit. But the lavish, exquisite styles of Gatsby are on a whole other level.

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BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

I understand the costumes for American Hustle getting nominated; I’m a little puzzled by the production design being singled out. Yes, the period is rendered exactingly, but the same could be said for a lot of movies. There were more interesting choices to be made here, and I’d be surprised if the Academy’s appreciation of the movie helps it here. 12 Years a Slave is probably too drab to win; the voters like more splendor and beauty in this category. Then again, Lincoln took the award last year, so there are always exceptions to the rule.

The remaining choices are The Great Gatsby, Her and Gravity. The latter also lacks the color and opulence that tends to stand out in this race, but if voters are just mechanically choosing the movie in all the so-called “technical” categories, then it has a chance. Gatsby and Her stand in a bit of opposition to one another. Gatsby‘s work is big, extravagant, showy. Her‘s is subdued, intimate, subtle. Voters traditionally prefer extravagant and showy, so I’m guessing Gatsby. But if people find it to be over the top, Her and even Gravity are waiting in the wings.

Personal: I have to go with Her. Gatsby looks great, but Her presents such a beautiful and unique near-future with a warm color scheme that so nicely compliments every other aspect of the movie from the visual to the emotional. Extra points for creation of the cityscape, incorporating footage shot in Shanghai to create an enhanced Los Angeles.

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BEST FILM EDITING

Pundits always claim that this category usually goes hand in hand with Best Picture, but I’m not sure when or how that idea took root, since the two categories have aligned only 34 times in the 79 years that the Editing award has existed. In a year with a tight Best Picture race, many will be looking at this category to give an indication of which way the scales are tipped. I’m not so sure.

Dallas Buyers Club is the only nominee I can say with certainty is out of the running. I don’t think 12 Years a Slave will take it either. That leaves Captain Phillips, American Hustle and Gravity. The former two took the gold from the American Cinema Editors guild, where there were categories for drama and musical/comedy. In recent years, one of the guild’s winners has usually gone on to take the Oscar. But I think Gravity will be the Academy’s pick. It’s heavy use of long takes makes for less editing than any of the competition, which in a way might make the decisions around where to cut seem all the more crucial. The fact is that like most of us, the majority of Academy members don’t really understand what goes into this work. They’ll pick the movie that feels the most effectively edited. That could definitely be Captain Phillips, but I think it will be Gravity.

Personal: Gravity. I don’t know better than any layman, but it’s said that the best editing is invisible. Gravity embodies that more than any of this year’s nominees.

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BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Like Best Visual Effects, this award seems to be one of the night’s easiest calls. With all respect to The Grandmaster, Prisoners, Inside Llewyn Davis and Nebraska — all gorgeously photographed — it’s gotta be Gravity. Though much of the movie’s photography had to be accomplished via VFX, Emmanuel Lubezki still designed the shots as he would for any film and worked closely with the VFX artists to implement his vision. The movie features some stunning long takes, including its already legendary opening shot which runs for…17 minutes? 13 minutes? I’ve read both, and since I was too enthralled even upon my second viewing of the movie to clock it myself, I’ll go with Kris Tapley’s 13; he’s a guy who really pays attention and respect to cinematography. (Check out his excellent annual feature spotlighting the Top 10 Shots of the Year. I stole a couple of pictures here from that post.) 13 or 17…either way, it’s a goddamn glorious shot. Just one of many.

Lubezki has been in this position before, going in as the favorite to win the Oscar in 2006 for Cuarón’s previous film Children of Men, and again in 2011 for The Tree of Life. He won the American Society of Cinematographers prize for both of those, and both times walked away from the Oscars empty-handed. He took the ASC prize this year as well, which is notable because the guild has been resistant to 3D. Gravity is the first 3D movie they’ve feted, which only adds to the likelihood that the stars — and the satellites — have finally aligned for Lubezki’s overdue Oscar win. The right movie, the right year. As for Roger Deakins, still awaiting his first win as Prisoners marks his 11th nomination, well, he’ll definitely be back sooner than later.

Interesting sidebar: assuming Gravity wins Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects, it will be the fifth movie in a row to do so, after Life of Pi, Hugo, Inception and Avatar. Never mind that Pi, Hugo and Avatar should not have won for Cinematography (though I did support Avatar at the time), nor should Hugo have won for VFX. What’s done is done, and it signals a growing connection between the two crafts, as well as a dangerous endorsement of 3D, which was showcased by all but Inception. (I say dangerous because outside of IMAX nature documentaries and the like, 3D has proven to be an exploitative gimmick that as far as I’m concerned has been justified only twice since Avatar: Gravity and the opening credits sequence of Oz the Great and Powerful. Seeing it win Oscars is not helping put an end to its unwelcome invasion.)

As the lines blur more frequently between cinematography, visual effects and even production design, many people within the industry have suggested that the Academy divide the cinematography category into two, just as they once did to award films shot in black and white vs. those shot in color. Here, the idea would be one category for films with a heavy CGI component, and one for films shot more traditionally, in natural environments. It’s an issue the Academy is aware of, with former president Hawk Koch suggesting that such a potential category could be called Visual Imaging. This may be a change worth making somewhere down the line, but I don’t think we’re there yet, for the same reason there shouldn’t be a category for performance capture acting, as people have been suggesting in recent years. The fact is that these things still aren’t happening regularly enough and to such an extreme degree — like Gravity — that five worthy contenders could be identified each year. There might be one or two dominant films, but the rest of the nominees would be filler. Even the illustrious Mr. Deakins thinks a divided category would just result in a whole other set of complications. This year, the Visual Effects Society presented an award for Best Virtual Cinematography in a Live Action Feature, which was of course awarded to Gravity. Lubezki was a winner along with three members of the visual effects team, but none of the other four nominated films — Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug — cited the cinematographer, because ultimately the line between camerawork and effects for the films as a whole was more traditionally divided. That may cease to be the case someday, and projects like Gravity may happen more often. In the meantime, maybe the Academy and the studios could figure out ways each year to make sure voters understand what constitutes cinematography and what constitutes visual effects in these “hybrid” films.

Anyway, that’s all just food for thought. Right now, whatever it signals for the future, Gravity has this in the bag.

Personal: Gravity all the way.

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BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

A pretty weak category this year. The Croods and Despicable Me 2 have their admirers, but not enough of them, despite efforts on the part of DreamWorks Animation to give The Croods a push with some swanky events in late January. Ernest & Celestine, the sole nominee of the group I haven’t seen, is said to be wonderful and charming, but poses no threat. The Wind Rises won a decent number of critics awards, but even a thoughtful alternative such as that won’t be able to ice out the phenomenon that is Frozen. Disney kept their beloved hit on voters’ minds with some gatherings of their own, most notably an intimate concert with performances from the film’s cast. A nice event I’m sure, but they needn’t have bothered. Frozen is way ahead of the pack in this race.

Personal: The Wind Rises. It’s the most original and ambitious film of the bunch, and it is so refreshing to see an animation master like Hayao Miyazaki show that the medium can be used to tell mature stories. As great an age for animated films as this is, most of them still cater to kids and families. Miyazaki and The Wind Rises offer a reminder that animation can be targeted at adults. Oh well…Miyazaki may not win, but he was honored in January by The Simpsons, and really…isn’t that even better than an Oscar?

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BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

It’s too bad that Before Midnight doesn’t have more muscle in this race, but it’s basically sitting on the bench. The Wolf of Wall Street will prove too divisive, so it’s out as well. Captain Phillips took the prize from the Writers Guild, but didn’t have to contend with 12 Years a Slave or Philomena, both of which were ineligible. While it may not be able to overcome the momentum of the frontrunners in its other three categories, Philomena could have more luck here. Like last year’s winner Argo, it successfully weaves a lot of humor into a movie that depicts serious and even tragic events. Apparently it is loved by many Academy members, and this could be the place they show their admiration. It won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) prize, which can sometimes be a barometer for the Oscars, but it’s hard to know. It might have had a hometown advantage of sorts. Harvey Weinstein has done plenty to keep the movie in the spotlight, sending co-writer/star Steve Coogan and the real Philomena Lee on a slew of publicity stops. The pair even met with Pope Francis to advocate for the release of 60,000 adoption files still being kept from families in situations like the one Philomena endured. This race could go either way, but I think the sheer power of 12 Years a Slave will be hard to ignore. Whether voters are going by the effectiveness of the storytelling, the weight of the real-life events depicted or some combination of both, 12 Years stands tallest.

Personal: Before Midnight or 12 Years a Slave. The former, like its predecessors, offers such an honest, intimate and unconventional portrait of a relationship, and it would be nice to see Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke recognized for this special series of films. And John Ridley’s adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s memoir about his time in bondage is direct and raw, never going for manipulation.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

The nomination for Dallas Buyers Club demonstrates how much the movie resonated with Academy members, but it won’t win here. Neither will Nebraska or Blue Jasmine, both of which are liked, but neither of which have the special sauce it takes to win. So it boils down to Her and American Hustle. Her would appear to be the frontrunner, having dominated the critics awards, and taken home the Golden Globe and the Writers Guild Award. There’s no doubt that it’s the most original of the nominees, but of course as I often say, the category isn’t necessarily recognizing work that is original in that way. There are the two obstacles in its path. First, there are a lot of Academy members — especially older ones — who just don’t get the movie. There were enough passionate supporters to secure it a Best Picture nomination, and it obviously had a decent amount of support within individual branches, but now with the whole Academy voting, those who think the movie is too weird could hold it back. Second, this may be the best chance that American Hustle‘s supporters have to give it a major win. There are two other categories we’ll get to where it stands a chance, but I don’t think it will triumph in either. Its odds are better here. Between Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, voters are enamored with David O. Russell, so they may feel the time has come to recognize him. Hustle took the BAFTA, but Her wasn’t nominated.

Either outcome seems 100% viable to me. My gut tells me that Hustle will pull it off, but my heart says that Her‘s originality can’t be denied. I may flip-flop when the moment of truth comes and I have to check my ballot, but I’m going with Her.

Personal: I too would love to see David O. Russell win an Oscar, but not for the American Hustle screenplay, which I found to be the source of the movie’s flaws. There is only one truly original work here that is original not just in the way the category is meant to be interpreted — that is, work that is not based on previously existing material — but also in its entire premise and execution. That would be Her.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

We can start by eliminating Julia Roberts and Blue Jasmine‘s Sally Hawkins. They did good work, but their journey ends with the nomination. June Squibb has minor spoiler potential for her laugh-out-loud work in Nebraska, but although she’s a comic force of nature in that film, she’s up against even stronger forces. Not that she doesn’t make a compelling case for herself…

Barring Squibb’s guilt trip, the winner is expected to be either Jennifer Lawrence or Lupita Nyong’o, whose name — in case this is an issue for anyone — sounds like neon-go. Academy members have been vocal in their adoration of Lawrence’s performance, and it could be said that hers is the more “entertaining” of the two. She’s also the only member of Hustle‘s nominated quartet that seems to have a chance. Lawrence won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, while Nyong’o took the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award and the Broadcast Film Critics Award (BFCA). The timing of the BAFTA — those awards were handed out February 16, two days after Oscar voting began — is often seen as an indication of where winds might be shifting, so some pundits are no doubt reading Lawrence’s victory as a sign that she’s pulling ahead. That may be, but consider that she was not awarded the BAFTA for Best Actress last year for Silver Linings Playbook. She lost to Amour‘s Emmanuel Riva before going on to pick up the Oscar. So BAFTA was a bit late to the Jennifer Lawrence bandwagon, and may have wanted to jump onboard. Her Oscar win last year is another big obstacle. As loved as she is — and she really, really is — are voters prepared to hand her a second consecutive Academy Award? Back-to-back wins certainly happen, but not often. She would be only the third actress to do it, and the youngest actress to ever win two Oscars.

In Nyong’o’s favor is not just that she gives a wrenching performance in a powerful film, but that her character is so horribly victimized. I assure you that many of the votes Nyong’o will receive will be given to her as much if not more so because of what the character goes through as for the skill of her portrayal. Among the outside factors that will help her case are the grace and eloquence she’s expressed throughout the many Q&A’s she has participated in and on stage when accepting prior awards. This is, after all, her first film. She’s fresh out of drama school, and being thrust into the blinding spotlight can be overwhelming and surreal. Yet she’s handled it with the poise of a pro and the overwhelming gratitude of one who’s been warmly welcomed to the club. Her personal narrative is an asset. On top of that, this category loves to recognize ingenues. It’s amusing that at 23, Lawrence is the old pro here, but she is.

So…while the virulent strain of Jennifer Lawrence Fever that has cloaked this country for the past two years remains strong enough to lift her to her second Oscar in a row, I think Lupita Nyong’o is, if not the antidote, than at least a temporary break in the state of delirium.

Personal: June Squibb. I’ll be thrilled for Nyong’o if she wins, but I thought she needed a little more screentime to justify an Oscar win. She is excellent, but I didn’t feel she had enough to do, and I’m not convinced she would be dominating the field as she has if not for the brutality suffered by Patsey. Squibb’s performance may not be the most challenging of the bunch, but hers was the definition of great supporting work, and I relished every moment she was onscreen.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

This outcome has seemed pretty set in stone for a couple of months now. Jared Leto cleaned up with the national and regional critics associations, and took the Golden Globe, the BFCA and SAG awards. He missed out on the BAFTA, but wasn’t nominated, so winning would have been a feat. (It went to Barkhad Abdi.) Surprises could always happen, but I don’t imagine Bradley Cooper, Jonah Hill or Michael Fassbender would emerge victorious at this late stage. Abdi is the most likely threat, but at the end of the day, voters are too deeply moved by Leto’s inhabiting of Rayon.

Not that he needs any help at this point, but Leto might earn extra points for his tactful handling of a heckler at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, who interrupted a celebration of Leto’s work by shouting out that heterosexual actors shouldn’t play gay and transgender characters. Leto engaged with the audience member briefly, then invited her to come backstage after the event to continue the conversation. Between the performance and his admirable offscreen behavior, Leto should be sitting pretty.

Personal: Bradley Cooper’s was probably my favorite performance, and a win for Barkhad Abdi would be pretty sweet too. Leto was excellent, and I’ll have no problem with him getting it. But I feel the same way as I do about Nyong’o: the movie needed more of him to warrant an Oscar win.

On a side note, I’d like to throw a request into the ether and see if it makes its way to the show producers, regarding the clips that will be shown for each of the performers. Barkhad Abdi gives a wonderful performance throughout Captain Phillips; so good, he got an Oscar nomination! So when it comes time to show a small sample of his work, please distinguish yourself from every award show up to this point by choosing a clip other than the one where he says, “Look at me! I’m the captain now.” That’s not his only line. Thank you.

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BEST ACTRESS

When Blue Jasmine hit theaters last July, Cate Blanchett was declared the one to beat for Best Actress. Little has changed. Meryl Streep, Judi Dench and Sandra Bullock are just along for the ride on this one. Amy Adams, celebrating her fifth nomination and her first in the lead actress category, is the only threat Blanchett faces, and the threat is minimal. Her performance has been lauded enthusiastically by voters, and she has definitely gained ground, but Blanchett, armed with the SAG, BFCA and BAFTA awards, a Golden Globe (she won in the Drama category, while Adams took the Musical/Comedy prize), and over 20 critics awards, will be nearly impossible to beat.

The one chink in her armor is the reignited scandal about Woody Allen, sparked when his estranged daughter Dylan published an op-ed in The New York Times detailing her claims of abuse, and mentioning actors from Allen’s films — including Blanchett — in her effort to question the ongoing devotion showered upon him by the film industry. It didn’t take long for people to wonder aloud what the situation would do to Blanchett’s chances. It may have been a crass question to ask, but it does mean something; all manner of outside factors like this one absolutely impact the race whether they should or not. As I followed the media storm over the next several days, I considered writing about it here, but decided that it’s a can of worms I’m better off not opening. When she was questioned about it, Blanchett gave a brief answer clarifying that it was a difficult matter for their family. (Figures it was entertainment/Oscar writer Jeffrey Wells who asked the question. That guy is such a douche.)

The one award she publicly accepted after the scandal reared its head again was the BAFTA, and Blanchett shrewdly avoided the controversy by not thanking anybody specifically, instead offering a general thanks to everyone who made the Blue Jasmine experience so special and memorable for her. She devoted the bulk of her speech to saluting Philip Seymour Hoffman. Heartfelt sentiments no doubt, but you can bet it was also a calculated effort to avoid invoking Allen while there’s so much heat on him, and unfairly on her. I’m sure she did lose some votes from people who can’t stomach honoring Allen’s work in any way, but most Academy members who have spoken about it say that none of it has anything to do with Blanchett. When she wins the Oscar, it will be hard to avoid his name, but we’ll see. Blanchett is a class act; I’m sure she’ll handle it gracefully.

Personal: Cate Blanchett. One of the best, at her exceptional best.

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BEST ACTOR

Of the four acting nominations, this one is probably the least settled. Momentum is with Matthew McConaughey, but I wouldn’t call him a slam dunk. Leonardo DiCaprio has a lot of supporters declaring this the time to finally recognize him, and it is interesting that the “it’s his/her time” sentiment that so often factors into these awards (think recent examples like Jeff Bridges and Kate Winslet) is with McConaughey rather than DiCaprio, who has consistently been one of the finest actors out there, nailing his roles every time out of the gate. This nomination is only his fourth, but there are definitely a few other times he deserved to be in the running. McConaughey, meanwhile, is in the midst of a remarkable career turnaround that has seen him forsake the generic romantic comedies and bland studio dramas and adventures which were keeping him busy in favor of smaller, more exciting character driven pieces with notable directors. The McConaissance, as it has been brilliantly dubbed, is in full swing, and the only reason I can’t say that it peaks with Dallas Buyers Club is that he may still be on the climb. So it’s intriguing that the “it’s his time” narrative that might have benefitted DiCaprio sits instead with McConaughey on the sheer concentration of great work in such a short period.

It’s also not out of the question that Chiwetel Ejiofor could pull this out. The 12 Years a Slave star was the clear frontrunner during the first half of awards season, when the critics awards were the source of all the buzz. Then McConaughey won the Golden Globe for Drama, then the BFCA award, then the SAG trophy. (DiCaprio took the Golden Globe for Musical/Comedy.) Ejiofor rebounded with the BAFTA win, but McConaughey wasn’t nominated by the Brits. Ejiofor is a respected actor who has been doing sturdy work for years now (he made his big screen debut opposite McConaughey in Amistad), and has earned rapturous praise for his performance of Solomon Northrup. A win for him does not seem so impossible.

The buzz seems to be around these three, leaving Bruce Dern and Christian Bale on the sidelines. Dern has worked the campaign circuit like an animal and regaled Q&A audiences and various gatherings of voters with great stories of his many years in Hollywood. He has friends and admirers throughout the Academy, but the nomination and the part itself will have to be his reward.

So Ejiofor is still in the game, and DiCaprio is closing the gap, but McConaughey is still out in front. Dallas Buyers Club has bowled over voters, and his enthusiastic speeches at other award ceremonies have charmed. His SAG speech, in particular, was a gas. It might have seemed strange and rambling, but was actually a giddy and joyous expression of excitement about the adventures that actors get to go on, and those in the room seemed to know exactly what he was talking about. (The video quality in that link isn’t great, but for some reason SAG’s official video cuts off after about a minute.) And there’s one other important thing working in McConaughey’s favor: True Detective. The terrific series debuted a few days before the nominations were announced, providing Academy members who have HBO — which I’m sure is an awful lot of them — with a weekly reminder of his talent. The actor is simply killing it on that show, and will need additional shelf space for the awards he may start winning come this September’s Emmys. If voters are torn over who to vote for, a look at True Detective might tip the scales for McConaughey.

Personal: I have to go with McConaughey. These are all outstanding performances and I’d be happy to see any of them take the stage. There are all kinds of ways to judge these things, but in this case, McConaughey was the one who most successfully made me forget about the actor and see only the character…which especially impressed me since he still had his Texas twang and southern charm (as much as a homophobic profiteer can be charming, at least). I suppose Bale did that for me too, but I don’t know…there’s an electricity to McConaughey’s work that sets it apart. Ejiofor is a close second. It’s a restrained, internalized performance but he conveys so much intelligence and emotion. And when he finally breaks down, it’s just devastating.

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BEST DIRECTOR

This one is pretty much decided. Gravity is a groundbreaking achievement that was dependent on non-existent technology to produce. So like George Lucas and James Cameron before him, Alfonso Cuarón invented the technology. Not single-handedly of course, but he brought together the right people, conveyed his vision, saw it through over four-and-a-half years and delivered an experience that demanded people get off the couch and go out to the theater. Even those who find the movie too thin and lacking substance are awed by the directorial accomplishment. He already has the Golden Globe and awards from the BFCA, BAFTA, and most telling, the Directors Guild of America. If anyone can beat him, it’s Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave, but that would be a shock at this juncture. David O. Russell, Alexander Payne and Martin Scorsese are earthbound this year. The night belongs to Alfonso Cuarón.

Personal: Alfonso Cuarón. His achievement is on a whole other level, even if — as he told the crowd at the DGA ceremony — “I barely understand how we made the film.”

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BEST PICTURE

So why did I want to leave this category for last instead of kicking off with it as usual? Because I believe something fairly unique is about to happen. I’ve predicted Gravity to triumph in seven races so far, and even if it doesn’t get all of them, it will get most. I don’t think there’s any question it will emerge with the most wins of the night. And usually, the film that wins the most awards claims Best Picture among its tally. I don’t think that will happen this year.

We can eliminate most of the competition, as the category is seen as coming down to three movies: Gravity, 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle. Some might also think Philomena stands a chance, but they’re kidding themselves. Hustle is clearly loved by the Academy, co-leading the field alongside Gravity with 10 nominations including one in each acting category. When it took the SAG top prize for Best Performance by an Ensemble, pundits exclaimed that its Best Picture chances were suddenly elevated. Don’t be fooled. Time and again people try to equate SAG’s top award with the Academy’s, and the two simply don’t correlate. Yes, sometimes they go to the same movie, but for different reasons, judged on different criteria. While 12 Years a Slave features a line-up of terrific performances, Hustle‘s are a lot more fun, and pop off he screen with the kind of electricity that befits that movie. Hustle is seen as more of an acting showcase than 12 Years, and that’s why it won the Ensemble award from SAG.

Which brings us back to Gravity and 12 Years. The Producers Guild of America awards were expected to clarify the field, but the two movies tied…the odds of which are incredibly unlikely. The PGA awards use the same preferential system of voting that the Academy uses for Best Picture (though not for any of the other categories), hence the expectation that the Oscar win might be signaled by the PGA winner. No such luck this time around. In past years, I’ve linked to detailed write-ups by The Wrap‘s Steve Pond about how the preferential ballot works, but this year he recorded a succinct, helpful video.

Another tie is unlikely, so with Gravity‘s likelihood of winning 5 to 7 awards, including Best Director, it appears to have the edge. But I’m expecting Best Picture will go to 12 Years a Slave.

It’s not exactly crazy talk. We’ve watched throughout the awards season — at the Golden Globes and the BFCA and BAFTA awards — as 12 Years has lost in most or even all of its categories throughout the night, but still come out with the top prize. What 12 Years has going for it, as Best Picture winners so often do, is a sense of importance. At the very end of this piece from Vulture, published the day of the nominations, the writer points out that Academy members “don’t pick the film they think is best, they pick the film they think will best represent them.” I recall Siskel & Ebert talking about the Oscars years ago, and they said that the Academy tends to make the mistake that to vote for a movie is to endorse its message. Siskel pointed to Gandhi as an example. While he acknowledged that it was a very good film to which he gave a positive review, he said the movie with the enduring cultural impact, and in his mind the better movie, was Tootsie. I would add E.T. Still others would point to The Verdict. It’s not that Gandhi isn’t a good film, but by naming it Best Picture, voters got to celebrate what the movie, and the man himself, stood for.

I’m not calling this year’s race a repeat of 1982′s, because I do think 12 Years a Slave is a remarkable movie that would be a deserving Best Picture winner purely on its artistic merits. But it’s not easy to consider it purely for artistic merits, because right or wrong, its win would also make a statement. As one anonymous voter told Entertainment Weekly, they are voting for 12 Years not because it’s their favorite movie of the year, but because “these stories shouldn’t be marginalized, and it’s a triumph it got made. The film needs to be in the world, and for all the years that it hasn’t been, this is the best picture of the year.” That’s just one voter’s opinion, and as EW’s piece shows, other members are voting differently. But I do think that many people will go with 12 Years, even if they like Gravity or another film better, because naming it Best Picture sends a message. Even if they don’t rank it #1 on their ballot, they may go with #2 or #3, and as the video above demonstrates (as does this older article by Steve Pond), a movie needs a lot of second, third and fourth place rankings to come out the winner.

And you know that if it loses, cultural and media critics will be all over the Academy in the following days. They might not necessarily level charges of overt racism, but they will definitely suggest that the organization’s refusal to honor the movie that boldly confronts such a traumatizing chapter in American history, which turns a necessary eye onto a shame that continues to affect society today, is an insult and a travesty. You thought the backlash was vocal when Brokeback Mountain lost Best Picture? If 12 Years loses, just wait….

On the other hand, Gravity is probably more widely respected than Crash, the movie that felled Brokeback. For months now, pundits who are out there talking to Academy members hear Gravity named most often as their favorite movie of the bunch. With Cuarón’s Best Director win nearly assured, tradition is on Gravity‘s side to get Best Picture as well, as is the fact that Gravity will win more awards than any other movie. The Picture/Director split is still a rarity (it’s happened 22 times at this point), but the way everything has fallen this year, it seems like a strong possibility. As always, we can go all around the bend pointing out things that have never happened before, or stats that are rare, all to justify either outcome (like the point I made in the previous Oscar post about movies without a Screenplay nomination almost never winning Best Picture. That would indicate that Gravity is out). But in the end, each year is unique, and this year I think that Gravity will win the night’s biggest haul, but lose the top prize to 12 Years a Slave.

Personal: I suppose Gravity and Her were my favorite of the nominees, but I’m just as emotionally tuned into the messages these awards can send as anyone, and if I weigh all the factors, I land on 12 Years a Slave.

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PREVIEWING THE SHOW

With Ellen DeGeneres onboard as host, I think the easiest prediction to make is that this year’s ceremony will prove far less controversial than last year’s Seth MacFarlane show. As long as she doesn’t try to make any 12 Years a Slave jokes. (I don’t recall exactly how Whoopi Goldberg handled Schindler’s List; only that she referenced how Billy Crystal usually came out and sang a medley that poked good-natured fun at the Best Picture nominees and then remarked, “He got The Crying Game; I got Schindler’s List.” That may have been the extent of jokes about the night’s eventual winner.) I’m sure Ellen will do well. She’s all about making people comfortable, and especially after all the disapproval that MacFarlane’s gig incited, it was no surprise that returning show producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan went with someone as good-natured and well-liked as Ellen. One thing is for sure: just like last year, the bar was set high at the Golden Globes by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler…who, come to think of it, managed to find the right tone for a 12 Years a Slave joke.


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What else can we expect? The show’s theme is a celebration of movie heroes, from the Avengers to Atticus Finch, and there will also be a tribute to The Wizard of Oz, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. U2, Pharrell Williams, Karen O and Idina Menzel will be on hand to perform the nominated songs, and there will also be performances by Pink and Bette Midler. As usual, the producers promise surprises, so we’ll see what they have in store.

Reading this has probably taken you right up to the start of the show, but if you still have a few spare minutes, here are a couple of Oscar quizzes you can try your luck at. I aced the first one, and got 60% on the more difficult second one. And with that, I think I’ve done enough damage here. Enjoy the show!

January 27, 2014

Oscars 2013: And the Nominees Are…

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 10:00 am
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Complete List of Nominees

Traditionally, the early, early, so incredibly early morning announcement of the Academy Award nominations is a straightforward affair in which the Academy president and a well known actor or actress read off the nominees in about half of the 24 categories. Last year, they decided to have a little more fun with it and get host Seth MacFarlane to make the announcement, joined by Emma Stone, in a looser, more freewheeling ceremony that found them adding some humorous commentary to the nominations. It was a nice change of pace, so this year…they went back to doing what they used to do. It might have been less fun, but it got the job done.

Before I proceed with my thoughts on how things panned out, I have to say something that risks becoming an annual rant. With each passing year, I get increasingly irritated with the rampant use of the word “snub.” Every actor, film, director, songwriter, etc. who was in the conversation but didn’t get nominated was “snubbed.” Except, no. They weren’t. The word snub implies that someone or something was ignored disdainfully. Disdainfully. Perhaps these people need to look up the word “disdain.” According to Merriam-Webster online, it means “a feeling of strong dislike or disapproval of someone or something you think does not deserve respect.” Few if any of the realistically potential nominees that failed to make the cut were on the receiving end of widespread disdain. They simply had the misfortune of falling short in categories where voters were presented with too many options. In other words, they were not fucking snubbed, and I’m tired of lazy efforts to inject a kernel of controversy into the Oscar narrative by using that word to imply that, for example, voters have some kind of problem with Tom Hanks, whose performance in Captain Phillips was overlooked. Believe me, there’s enough controversy in this whole annual season of awards shenanigans without manufacturing it because you can’t find a more accurate word than “snub.” I should have counted up how many times I saw it in the past week and half. Remind me to do that next year when I inevitably express my ire on the matter yet again.

Now then, to the topic at hand. I was only 100% correct in one category: Best Adapted Screenplay. In the past couple of years, I’ve correctly called three or four categories, so I didn’t fare as well this time. On the other hand, there were 12 categories in which I was only off by one. That’s double my tally from the past two years. So on average, I think I did okay. And when I compare myself against 10 other pundits whose sites I follow, I did just about as well as any of them. So I feel like I’m not out of my element playing this game in the first place.

Here are thoughts on some of the races…

BEST PICTURE
I suspected that we’d have another year with nine Best Picture nominees, and I was correct. I wasn’t totally correct about what those nine movies would be. I thought Saving Mr. Banks, despite an underwhelming reaction from the guild nominations, would rank high with enough Academy members to earn it a space here, but there was no saving Mr. Banks. It scored only one nomination…and not the one that it was most expected to get. I also thought that Lee Daniels’ The Butler was more likely to be a top choice for many voters than Philomena, which pushes similar emotional buttons but on a less epic scale. Turns out the warm charm of Philomena had the edge after all. The Butler didn’t earn a single nomination, while Philomena got four. The space I had alotted for Mr. Banks went to The Wolf of Wall Street, which was on the bubble for me. I wasn’t sure how well it was playing to Academy members. Pretty well, as it turns out: five nominations, all in top categories.

There were still some good movies left out, and some reactions I read questioned why the Academy would choose to nominate only nine movies when they could pick up to 10. But it doesn’t work like that. It’s not as if the Academy is a group of 25 people sitting around a table and making decisions about what to include and what to omit. The nominees are determined by a mathematical process that factors in the number of ballots submitted and how voters ranked their Best Picture choices. The Wrap‘s Steve Pond always offers some helpful explanations, but in the end it’s worth noting that when the current system of voting was applied to ballots from years past, going back a decade from when this rule of 5-10 possible nominees was instituted just to see what would have happened, the accountants determined that no year would have yielded 10 nominees. It would always have come in between five and nine.

One nice stat for this category is that with Her and American Hustle in the running, Megan Ellison becomes the first woman to be nominated for Best Picture twice in the same year. She also joins the illustrious company of Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Roos and Scott Rudin as only the fourth producer to hit that mark at all (Coppola and Roos in 1974 for The Conversation and The Godfather Part II, Rudin in 2010 for True Grit and The Social Network). Ellison and her production company Annapurna Pictures have only been on the scene for a few years, but she has established herself as an essential figure, funding the work and supporting the visions of some of the most prestigious filmmakers working today. In addition to Her and American Hustle, she produced Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, and also had a hand in Spring Breakers, The Grandmaster and Killing Them Softly. If early buzz is any indication, she could be back here next year as a producer of Foxcatcher, the highly anticipated new film from Moneyball and Capote director Bennett Miller.

And speaking of Moneyball, Brad Pitt earned his first nomination as a producer, for 12 Years a Slave. Like Ellison, Pitt is turning out to be a champion for films that don’t have obvious commercial prospects. As the film’s director Steve McQueen has said many times, 12 Years a Slave would not exist without Brad Pitt. So it’s great to see producers who are committed to challenging and offbeat material, and to see the Academy embracing those films.

BEST DIRECTOR
Of the five directors nominated by the Director’s Guild of America — Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Greengrass, Steve McQueen, David O. Russell and Martin Scorsese — I was right that Greengrass, who steered Captain Phillips, would be the one left off the Academy’s list. I was wrong about who would replace him. The Director’s branch often embraces outside-the-box candidates, which had me hoping they would spring for Spike Jonze, who they nominated back in 1999 for Being John Malkovich. As it turns out, Jonze’s new movie Her was more inside-the-box than many expected it might be, earning five nominations, including Best Picture. That was never a sure thing, so I was thrilled. But I wish Jonze had received the directing nod.

Instead, the fifth slot went to Nebraska‘s Alexander Payne, and I have to say, that disappoints me. Nebraska was great, and Payne is a consistently excellent filmmaker whose movies I always enjoy a great deal, but in my eyes Best Director should be first and foremost a celebration of bold and unique directorial visions. That’s why I’d have gone with Jonze, or why I cited Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine as one of my personal choices. It’s why Gravity‘s Alfonso Cuarón is, at least for now, the category’s frontrunner. Nebraska is a small-scale movie, simple and straightforward. That’s not a slight or a criticism in any way; it just doesn’t stand up for me as a major achievement in directing. I tend to think the same thing when Woody Allen gets nominated for this award. I’m not saying these movies lack the guiding hand of a skilled director. Making good casting choices, getting great performances out of the actors, finding the proper tone, choosing the best takes during editing…these talents are hallmarks of good directing. But with only five slots available, there should be something more in the mix. Something…bigger. If the voters were going to stick with the most likely handful of directors, Greengrass would have been a more deserving choice than Payne. A movie like Captain Phillips has more complications and challenges, and pulling them all off is what I look for next, after boldness of vision, in a Best Director nominee. That’s why another of my personal picks was All is Lost director J.C. Chandor, who scores on both of those counts.

Whatever happens, we hope the players handle it with grace, but that’s not always the case. The day that began with the nominations announcement concluded with the Broadcast Film Critics Association’s Critics Choice Awards, where Captain Phillips‘ nominated screenwriter Billy Ray told Deadline‘s Pete Hammond, “It’s unacceptable that my guys [Hanks and Greengrass] did not get in. That’s the way I feel.” Now I’m a big fan of Ray, who also wrote and directed Shattered Glass and Breach, but who does he think he is and what does he think he’s talking about? Unacceptable is injured military veterans returning home and enduring substandard care at VA facilities. Unacceptable is an institution covering up a sexual abuse scandal. Are those examples too grand? Okay, I’ll take it down several notches. Unacceptable is making an appointment somewhere for 3:00 and not being seen until 4:30. Unacceptable is having the Unemployment Insurance department screw up your payments due to an internal computer glitch, then not processing your claim for weeks as a result, then sending you a letter telling you not to worry because they’re aware of their mistake and they will fix it without any action on your part, then after you’ve waited nearly a month and finally written to them through their website — because it is literally impossible to reach anyone at that fucking place by phone — they respond a week later with news that your claim has lapsed due to inactivity and that you have to re-file to open it again, even though the only reason it lapsed was because they fucked up and then told you not to do anything because they would take care of it, and this is all hypothetical of course but seriously how fucking incompetent are those people, and what was I talking about, oh right, things that are actually unacceptable. I would say to Billy Ray that no one owes him, or Tom Hanks, or Paul Greengrass, an Academy Award nomination. Just getting to make movies is a privilege that he should be grateful for every day, and awards recognition is icing on top of more icing on top of cake. Not getting an Oscar nomination is the first-worldiest of first-world problems, so instead of making a stupid remark like that, Ray should express gratitude for his own nomination and the five others that his movie received. Expressing disappointment for his forgotten comrades is fine, but tossing around words like “unacceptable” is awfully douchey. Not looking good, Billy Ray.

BEST ACTOR
Well, we knew it was going to be a bittersweet morning with this category, and so it was. There was that Tom Hanks omission, and Robert Redford was passed over as well. Tom Hanks, despite being Tom Hanks, was never a sure thing here. If there were an award for Best Five Minute Excerpt of a Performance, he would be both nominee and winner, cause those last few minutes of Captain Phillips…wow. For the rest of the movie though, Hanks’ performance, while excellent, was the kind of subdued, sturdy work that could go either way. In a less competitive year, he surely would have made it. This time, he got pushed out.

The morning of the nominations coincided with the first day of the Sundance Film Festival, which always begins with a press conference attended by Redford. Naturally he was asked about his Oscar miss, and he was as sanguine as you’d expect from someone who has been around Hollywood for decades. While acknowledging that a nomination would have been great, he said what matters most is that he is proud of the film and proud that it was made independently. He also said he was well aware of the business and the politics of the Oscars, and suggested that the film’s distributor might have done more to get the movie out there. That could be true, though Redford himself didn’t campaign too aggressively. Not that one should have to campaign to win an Oscar, but this whole thing is a game, and that’s how it’s played. Sometimes it might make the difference between an actor getting nominated and not.

This issue was front and center during the 2009 race when Mo’Nique was the Best Supporting Actress frontrunner for Precious and did not buy into the idea of campaigning, believing that the performance should speak for itself (and citing her young children and her day job as a talk show host as reasons she could not work the awards circuit for four months). She discussed it on her show with guests Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, both previous nominees who tried to explain to her why campaigning was part of the process. In the end, she won the Oscar on merit, but she is probably in a minority of people who went the distance without doing the dance.

There are any number of reasons why Redford (and Hanks) may have been passed over, and as the nominations loomed, they were the most vulnerable of the perceived frontrunners. One person who campaigned with vigor was Bruce Dern, and it paid off for him. Perhaps the Academy only had room for one 77 year-old Hollywood veteran who starred in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby and was seeking the second acting Oscar nomination of his career. The newest Great Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio, did make the cut for The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s still not the best work of his career, but it’s damn good, so congrats to you Leo. With Dern, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthew McConaughey getting the nominations they were expected to, the last slot went to Christian Bale, which makes me happy. Even though the category’s abundance of options forced me to exclude him from my list of personal picks, his performance is my favorite thing about American Hustle, and I’ve grown even more fond of it as the weeks have passed.

BEST ACTRESS
So that one Saving Mr. Banks nomination that felt pretty safe was for Emma Thompson, but it wasn’t to be. I thought Meryl Streep might be the one to get squeezed out if Amy Adams were to make it in, but instead it was Thompson who fell off the list of expected nominees. She took the news with her typical brand of practical humor, saying, “You just go ‘Oh!’— and then you (say) ‘Ooh, that means I can work in March instead of getting into another frock and heels.’” Some have even wondered if Thompson’s chances were hurt when her friend and Angels in America co-star Streep presented her with the Best Actress award at the National Board of Review ceremony and made comments in her introduction about Walt Disney’s sexist and racist tendencies. I read some reactions online after that suggesting that Streep had hurt Thompson’s chances. But the speech came on the night before nomination ballots were due to the Academy, at which point it was likely too late to have any effect…not that I think it would have been an issue anyway.

On a side note, Streep’s assessment of Disney got a lot of attention. Some in attendance at the NBR event felt the remarks were inappropriate, while others didn’t seem to mind. Her comments were debunked by writer Amid Amidi on the site Cartoon Brew, and upheld by Disney’s grandniece Abigail. Whatever the truth, I think it’s about time that Song of the South got a DVD release already. That’s my takeaway.

As for Streep, she might not have been singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” on nominations morning, but my oh my, for her it was a wonderful day. Her nomination for August: Osage County is her 18th. People love this woman, and clearly I was an idiot to think her peers would overlook her. As I wrote in the caption of her photo in my previous post, “Me, not get nominated? I’m Meryl Streep, bitch!” So she is, and even after all this time, as she tells Jimmy Kimmel, the accolades don’t get old.

As for Amy Adams, the Academy is pretty fond of her too. This is her fifth nomination since 2005, and her first as Best Actress.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
I was never confident about Daniel Brühl’s chances, but I took my cue from his Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Critic’s Choice and Golden Globe nominations and rolled the dice. If I had a better read on The Wolf of Wall Street‘s prospects, I might have bumped him for Jonah Hill, who got the spot that I’d given to Brühl. As it turns out, Rush never made it out of the pit; it didn’t get a single nomination.

Great to see Bradley Cooper nominated again, his second in a row; along with Christian Bale, he was my favorite part of American Hustle. Michael Fassbender, Barkhad Abdi and Jared Leto all got in, and after all the talk above about campaigning, Fassbender managed his nomination without doing a lot of promotion. At least, not as much as he apparently did a few years ago for Shame, only to be passed over by the Academy. It’s good to see Abdi nominated for his debut performance. From driving a limo to starring opposite Tom Hanks to receiving an Oscar nomination…talk about a Hollywood story. He was excellent in Captain Phillips, and I hope the industry can find a place for him after this. Sadly, there aren’t a lot of obvious parts waiting for him. Is there a role in a future Game of Thrones season for this guy?

Unsurprisingly, the Academy did not nominate James Franco for Spring Breakers. But I would really love to see the ballots and find out how many votes he got, if any. He must have gotten some

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
It’s a shame Oprah didn’t break in for Lee Daniels’ The Butler. She had maintained her buzz since the movie’s August release, and she really did melt into the role of Forest Whitaker’s boozy wife. Like Emma Thompson though, Winfrey stayed positive. Her assumed spot went to Sally Hawkins, who was championed by many critics for her role as Cate Blanchett’s sister in Blue Jasmine. Hawkins missed out on a Best Actress nomination in 2008 for Happy-Go-Lucky, so her many fans must be happy to see her land her first nomination.

I included Julia Roberts among my predictions but felt it could have gone either way for her. She ended up getting nominated, and while she wasn’t among my personal picks, I enjoyed her in August: Osage County and I’m glad to see her back at the table…just as long as it isn’t the same table from that movie’s dining room, because nothing good seemed to come to anyone sitting at that thing.

As the only member of American Hustle‘s cast who was essentially a sure thing, Jennifer Lawrence collected her second consecutive nomination after winning Best Actress last year for Silver Linings Playbook. At age 23, she also becomes the youngest actress to have earned three Oscar nominations. Even more impressive, American Hustle becomes only the 16th movie ever — and the second in a row! — to earn nominations in all four acting categories, following Silver Linings, also directed by David O. Russell. Prior to that film, the last movie to be nominated in all four categories was Reds in 1981. Now Russell has done it back-to-back. With the eight acting nominations collected by these two films, plus the three for The Fighter in 2010, he has now directed 11 Oscar nominated performances in four years, three of which have won. These achievements put Russell in the company of the great William Wyler. None of Hustle‘s nominees are considered frontrunners in their categories (well, maybe Lawrence, but we’ll save that for another post), but Russell has cemented his credentials as one of the best actor’s directors working right now, a point driven home in Bradley Cooper’s great speech on behalf of Hustle‘s ensemble when they won Best Cast in a Motion Picture at the SAG Awards.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
I hung onto the idea that Inside Llewyn Davis would at least get some major-category love from the writers, but no such luck. Dallas Buyers Club took the one spot that seemed up for grabs, but the biggest takeaway here is that Gravity did not get nominated. It was considered a stretch for this race anyway, but its absence may lead some to write off the movie’s chances for a Best Picture win. But that’s not necessarily true. While it is extremely rare for a movie to win Best Picture without its screenplay getting nominated, it has happened a few times over the years. Excluding the first few Oscars, for which records aren’t complete, five movies have managed it: Grand Hotel (1931/32), Cavalcade (1932/33), Hamlet (1948), The Sound of Music (1965) and Titanic (1997). (I was an intern at James Cameron’s production company Lightstorm Entertainment during Titanic‘s Oscar season, and although everyone there was celebrating the movie’s record-tying 14 nominations on the morning of the announcement, the Executive Producer was still griping that it didn’t get the screenplay nod, losing out to surprise nominee Woody Allen. She complained that he “phoned in” the script for Deconstructing Harry.)

Anyway, Gravity seems like the kind of movie that could win Best Picture without the screenplay nomination, but it certainly is against the odds. Interesting related note: not including those five movies just mentioned, there have only been 23 movies to win Best Picture without also winning one of the writing awards.

BEST ANIMATED FILM
The only big surprise here was that Monsters University missed the cut. Since the creation of this category in 2001, the only other Pixar film that has been eligible but not nominated was Cars 2. I’d take Monsters over The Croods or Despicable Me 2 any day, but the members of the animation branch felt differently. Sympathies to my friends at Pixar.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
When one of the clear frontrunners of the entire awards season has excellent work in these below-the-line categories, it usually picks up the nominations, so the absence of 12 Years a Slave from this lineup is quite a surprise. Still, this was another category with too few slots and too much deserving work, so something had to give. But few thought it would be 12 Years.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave are pretty unimaginative choices for this category. I predicted them both to make it, but I would have been happy to be wrong if it meant the voters had looked beyond the obvious. At least they nominated the exquisite design work of Her. I hoped they would go for it, but didn’t expect them to.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Over the last few years, this category has offered a number of bewildering nominees, and this year the voters upheld that tendency by nominating the title track from a basically unknown Christian faith movie called Alone Yet Not Alone, which met the Academy’s qualifications with a week-long release in September. Skeptics keep asking how such an obscure song from an unknown film could be nominated over tracks from better known movies, sung by artists like Jay Z, Taylor Swift and Coldplay, but the question expresses ignorance of the process by which the branch votes. As I said in the previous post, summarizing an explanation by The Wrap‘s Steve Pond, the Academy assembles a DVD containing clips for each eligible song exactly as it appears in the movie, and sends that to all members of the branch. If the song plays over a montage, that’s the scene on the DVD. If the song is sung by a character in the movie, that’s the scene on the DVD. If the song plays over the end credits, then that portion of the end credits is what appears on the DVD. So really, it doesn’t — and shouldn’t — matter how famous or not the movie or the singer is. Voters are looking at each song, as it’s used in the movie. Which isn’t to say that higher profile songs that might be getting a lot of radio play or permeating the culture in other ways don’t have an advantage, but if voters are approaching their task with good intentions, they’re playing that DVD and giving every song a fair shot. It’s an imperfect system, most significantly because the DVD only includes three minutes of each song and because end credit tracks are at a disadvantage, but one thing it does seem to do is level the playing field a bit so that songs by famous musicians aren’t automatically handed nominations just because they have more exposure.

The fact that Bruce Broughton, the nominated co-writer of “Alone Yet Not Alone” is a former governor of the Academy’s music branch has led some to question the integrity of the nomination, but that’s nonsense. For one thing, branch governors usually are active members of the film community, and therefore could find themselves nominated at any time. Broughton acknowledges that he made some phone calls asking people to pay attention to the song amidst many higher profile contenders, but he says that was the extent of his campaigning. Even if he did hire a publicist to raise awareness of the song before reaching out to people himself, which he seems to deny, his campaigning efforts are still mild compared to what goes on with studios and production companies who have deep pockets. I love the Oscars, but I’m not blind to the bullshit. Beware of introducing the concept of integrity into the process, lest the entire house of cards collapse. Much of the politics involved is dispiriting, and could be fixed if the Academy had the desire to do so. But some of it is just the reality of any democratic process. Did some members of the branch vote for the song because of a friendship with Broughton? Probably. But does anyone think that’s the first time in the history of the Academy Awards that people have voted for their friends?

Suspicion grew into sour grapes for some artists whose songs were not selected. One anonymous contender who missed out on a nomination told The Hollywood Reporter, “It doesn’t really surprise me — I think it’s just the latest example of how true art sometimes is overlooked by those in a position to make decisions about what is paid attention to and what is not — but it’s disheartening to a lot of artists.” In a more extreme example, a publicity firm representing a non-nominee went so far as to hire a private detective to investigate whether Alone Yet Not Alone met the Academy’s qualifications for advertising during its week-long run. But the Academy upheld the nomination. I have to laugh that anybody would go to those lengths, but the comment about “true art” being overlooked is almost as obnoxious as the Billy Ray comment referenced earlier. The song’s writers are no less deserving of the title “artist” than anyone else. And while “Alone Yet Not Alone” would be way down my list of deserving nominees, it’s a gentle, solemn hymn that is pretty enough, and all the more impressive for being sung by a 64 year-old quadriplegic whose lungs are so weak “that her husband needed to push on her diaphragm while she recorded the…song to give her enough breath to hit the high notes.”

Even if some voters in the 240-member music branch supported the song out of friendship to Broughton, it still seems unlikely that such loyalty would extend far enough for this song to make the final cut from a field of 75 contenders, many of which are more dynamic and memorable. But here it is, and it’s here to stay. The music branch and its rules remain strange. As another potential nominee who didn’t make it said to The Hollywood Reporter (quoted in the same piece as the “true art” comment above), “I can’t figure any of this shit out with the music branch.” Although perhaps spoken out of sore loserdom, at least the comment seems reasonable.

As for some of the choices that didn’t make the cut, well…there are too many to mention, but I do need to bring up one, which I talked about briefly in the previous post, and which further demonstrates the music branch’s ineffectual processes. That would be “So You Know What It’s Like,” from Short Term 12. The song is a brief, stripped down expression of anger and grief sung (and largely written) by Keith Stanfield, an actor in the film who plays a young man about to turn 18 and exit a foster care facility. Accompanied only by a light drum beat provided by another character, Stanfield’s Marcus begins the song quietly, mumbly at first, becoming more intense as he goes along and ending louder, clearer, and with more forceful pronunciation.

In not nominating this song, the music branch highlights its hypocrisy. The system insists on judging songs in the context of their movies (even though watching just a three minute clip of a song often ends up robbing it of such context), and ends up favoring songs that serve a function in the story over songs that just play over end credits. Yet still, the nominees tend to be full-sounding, “produced” tracks. Nothing wrong with any of that, as long as songs like this one aren’t getting ignored. (I’m also thinking back a few years to “Marcy’s Song” from Martha Marcy May Marlene, which John Hawkes’ character sings in the movie.) “So You Know What It’s Like” is less than two minutes long, but it reveals character and furthers the story better than “Alone Yet Not Alone” or Despicable Me 2‘s “Happy.” Nominating it might have helped to justify a rule that seems pointlessly constricting.

At least “The Moon Song,” from Her, got nominated. It’s first heard during the film being sung by Scarlett Johansson with some help from Joaquin Phoenix, before appearing over the end credits in a version by Karen O. The music branch must have a thing for Johansson; she also sang last year’s nominated song “Before My Time” from the documentary Chasing Ice. I wasn’t familiar with Karen O until she did music for Spike Jonze’s previous film, Where the Wild Things Are. Since then, she’s really been doing some great work in the film world. I liked the song “Strange Love” that she performed for last year’s animated Tim Burton movie Frankenweenie, and of course she sang that razor-sharp, aggressive cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” for the teaser trailer and opening credits sequence of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Nice to see her get this nomination.

Will the chosen songs be performed during the show? There’s been some flip-flopping on this in recent years. Three of 2012′s nominated songs were performed live, two of them incorporated into larger tributes during the course of the show. The remaining two songs were spotlighted with clips from their movies. No word yet on how things will go this year, but regardless of what happens on the telecast, one new development is that the Academy is putting on a concert at UCLA a few days before Oscar night to celebrate all the nominated songs and scores. Their hope is that the original singers will be available to perform the songs, and the original composers on hand to conduct the selections from their scores. Then all the nominees, for Best Original Score at least, would appear on stage in conversation along with the directors of their movies.

If the concert is filmed, excerpts could be broadcast during the telecast in lieu of full performances, sort of the way the Oscar show features a highlight reel from the Governors Awards, at which honorary Oscars are presented earlier in the season. On the other hand, live performances on Oscar night could draw on some decent star power. U2 is nominated for “Ordinary Love” from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Frozen‘s nominated song “Let it Go” is performed by Idina Menzel in the movie and Demi Lovato in a pop version on the soundtrack album. If the song is performed at the show, they’ll hopefully go with Menzel, whose role in the movie gives her a more legitimate claim to the song. Although she’s in rehearsals for a new play, she told Entertainment Weekly she’s already got permission to attend the Oscars if they request her services. And Pharrell Williams might bring some fans to the show too. I would have gone for some other songs over “Happy,” but his track is light and bouncy, and he’s definitely coming off a big year thanks to his contributions to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” (He picked up a few Grammy awards just last night.) Having songs performed on the show may come down to whether the performing artists could be a ratings draw, so we’ll have to wait and see how this roster is valued, and how the concert affects the decision.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
These nominees are an odd mix of safe choices and unexpected ones. I wonder how many members of the music branch actually listened to The Book Thief score and really felt it was among the year’s five best, and how many simply chose it because it was composed by John Williams. Heaven knows I loves me some Williams, but even the best can just be “meh” sometimes. On a brighter note, the branch also nominated the score for Her, a pleasant surprise since I thought it would be too unconventional for them. I didn’t think they were hip enough to nominate a couple of rockers over more traditional film composers, but I’m happy to be proven wrong. Hopefully this will prompt Warner Brothers to put out a soundtrack album for the movie; there isn’t one currently.

Even more surprising than the inclusion of Her was the exclusion of 12 Years a Slave, easily one the year’s best scores and one that was widely considered a sure thing. I’m not sure what happened there. The only thing I can think of is that voters found it repetitive. The score is driven by one main theme which is used throughout, but it’s such a beautiful melody and there are plenty of variations. (I’m reminded of another film set in the days of slavery which also had a fantastic score consisting largely of one theme, which was also unnominated: James Horner’s score for Glory.) When there’s a frontrunner movie that even comes close to having a chance in a below-the-line category like this and Best Cinematography, it usually finds its way there, whether it really deserves to or not. So the fact that 12 Years a Slave was passed over in both those areas is a headscratcher, since each are areas in which the movie stands out. In fact, missing Cinematography and Score but landing nods for Costume Design and Production Design seems completely backwards to me. The latter two nominations are the kind that happened because of the movie’s overall stature and not so much because the work is among the year’s absolute best. Some pundits are wondering if the lack of assumed Cinematography and Score nominations signal an unliklihood that 12 Years can go all the way. I’m not reading the leaves that way at the moment, but we’ll see how I feel in a month once the race has settled.

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Everyone thought the elaborate hairdos of American Hustle would be a lock here, but the movie didn’t make the cut. Nor did The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which I thought might find some love here, if nowhere else. Instead the branch went for Dallas Buyers Club, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger, which tells me that despite the name change from Best Makeup to Best Makeup and Hairstyling, the branch’s voters still look at the skin more than than the hair. Still, I don’t recall much makeup or hair work in Dallas. There was some, but enough — and enough of a standout — to secure an Oscar nod? Not that quantity should trump quality, but surely there were other eligible films that featured both. As for Jackass, I should have known enough to predict that one. The aging makeup that turned Johnny Knoxville into an elderly man didn’t just have to hold up on camera; it had to hold up in real life, face to face, since the movie relies on Knoxville’s character interacting with real, unsuspecting people for a series of hidden-camera pranks. And the makeup branch is not a snobby one. It’s one of the few branches where a movie like Jackass, which is far from typical Academy fare, would be given serious consideration.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
The big news here was the absence of Pacific Rim, which most pundits expected to be among the final five. Fewer predicted that The Lone Ranger would make it in, but despite being one of the year’s biggest punching bags (and not really deserving the beating it has taken), members of the visual effects branch were impressed with the movie’s work, much of which centered around a complex action sequence involving a couple of trains. That sequence, and the movie overall, spotlighted the kind of invisible effects that the general Academy membership, now that the vote is in their hands, will have no idea what to do with. Not that the movie has a chance anyway; this category was settled long ago. Still, whatever you may think of The Lone Ranger as a movie, its effects are excellent and it’s nice to see recognition for work that is less obvious but incredibly intricate. Congrats to my friends at ILM for their stellar work on this, and on Star Trek Into Darkness.

With that, the final phase of the season begins. Due to the Winter Olympics, the Oscars are a week later than usual this year. March 2 is the big night, and for what it’s worth, the Dolby Auditorium will be far more welcoming to the LGBT community than the Olympic Village in Sochi. Final voting doesn’t even open until February 14, and between now and Oscar night, the many guilds will hand out their awards, some of which could give a strong indication of where things are headed with the Academy. In fact, some of those awards have already been given out, but I’ll get into all of that goodness when I post my annual absurdly long predictions opus in the last few days before the show. I know, I know…how will you deal with the anticipation? I suggest checking out some Oscar nominated movies.

And now, because I like to end these things with a video, and because I couldn’t find one relevant to this year’s ceremony, and because she didn’t get nominated, here’s Emma Thompson winning a screenwriting Oscar for Sense and Sensibility. I always liked her line about visiting Jane Austen’s grave.

January 15, 2014

Oscars 2013: Nominations Eve

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 6:30 pm
Tags: , , ,

Gather round, one and all, and stand witness as I once again engage in the mysterious, socially-questionable practice of Oscar prognostication. It’s a little bit science, a little bit art, and a whole lot of hours spent watching and reading about movies. If you ever wondered how I maintain my pallid skin tone, wonder no more. Read on if you dare, and then talk amongst yourselves about planning my intervention.

BEST PICTURE
2011 was the first year that the Academy adjusted the Best Picture category so that it would include somewhere between five and ten nominees. Being a weak year, it was generally assumed that there would be seven, maybe eight, nominees. It turned out there were nine. 2012 was a much stronger year, so a full slate of ten films was expected. Once again, the tally came in at nine. And I’m guessing that’s where things will land this time as well. It’s been another impressive year with lots of viable candidates, but nine might be the magic number.

Surely that nine will include 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and American Hustle, which have been the dominant three movies on the circuit of precursor awards from critics and industry guilds. Although the former two have been the pair, ever since October, deemed to battle it out through the season, Hustle came on strong when it began screening in late November, and its stock has only risen. Over the weekend, it took home the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, while 12 Years won for Best Picture – Drama (its only award of the night).

Her has been a big hit with the critics as well, and earned nominations from the Producer’s Guild of America (PGA) and the Writers Guild of America (WGA). I initially thought it would be too offbeat for the generally conservative Academy, but now I think it’s striking a broader cord; broad enough to put it over the edge. The way nomination math works, a movie only requires a few hundred passionate supporters who name it their number one film of the year. I think Her will manage that. Nebraska is a safe bet, as is Captain Phillips, but neither are sure things. From there, it gets fuzzier. The old fashioned, feel-good Hollywood craftsmanship of Saving Mr. Banks was expected to play like gangbusters within the industry, even more so for being a movie about movies. But it landed a bit softly with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), missing out on expected nominations for Best Ensemble and Best Supporting Actor for Tom Hanks. It was also overlooked by the WGA, leading some to wonder if the Academy will find a place for it. Also missing out with all the top guilds is the Coen Brothers critically adored Inside Llewyn Davis. Academy members have been kind to the Coens in recent years, but is this one a little too hard to love? I don’t know…if they liked 2009′s A Serious Man enough to nominate for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, surely they like Inside Llewyn Davis enough. But this is a more competitive year than ’09, so maybe “enough” isn’t enough. The PGA nominated Blue Jasmine, but while Woody Allen’s latest is well-liked, I don’t know that it’s loved as much as his last Best Picture nominee, Midnight in Paris. It feels like a long shot to me. The Wolf of Wall Street is definitely in the running too, but I really have no grasp on where the consensus is falling.

The three remaining titles most likely to show up are Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Dallas Buyers Club and Philomena. Dallas, whose awards prospects initially seemed limited to the performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, has proven unexpectedly popular, earning a SAG nomination for Best Ensemble, plus nods from the PGA and WGA. As for The Butler and Philomena, both are said to play extremely well to the Academy’s older contingent, which remains a large voting bloc. I don’t know though; I have a hard time imagining enough people naming Philomena as their favorite movie of the year to secure it a nomination. The Butler seems more likely to hit those numbers. Neither film was nominated by the PGA, which was notable because their exclusion — along with that of August: Osage County, which has not made the splash once expected for a star-studded adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play — meant that Oscar junkie Harvey Weinstein was shut out. Rare is the Best Picture slate that doesn’t include a movie from Harvey Weinstein. As in any other category, the guild nominees do not tend to line up perfectly with the Academy, so the PGA’s Weinstein-free slate doesn’t necessarily bode ill. I feel like The Butler, which has Weinstein’s muscle behind it and which hits the “sentimental epic” notes that will appeal to voters who loved Forrest Gump and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, will make it in. If it doesn’t, and if Philomena misses too, then that violent shaking felt across Los Angeles on Thursday morning won’t be an earthquake. It will be the wrath of Weinstein.

Predictions:
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Nebraska
Saving Mr. Banks
12 Years a Slave

Personal Picks:
Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
Gravity
Her
Inside Llewyn Davis
Mud
Nebraska
Prisoners
12 Years a Slave

BEST DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuarón pioneered new filmmaking techniques in an effort to realize his vision for Gravity, while Steve McQueen fearlessly plunged the depths of slavery in America for 12 Years a Slave. Both are almost guaranteed a nomination. I say “almost” because they occupy the same frontrunner status held last year by Argo‘s Ben Affleck and Zero Dark Thirty‘s Kathryn Bigelow. Need a reminder of how that turned out? Still, I think last year’s omissions were the unfortunate result of a collective honest mistake, with many voters choosing less obvious candidates because they figured Affleck and Bigelow would be covered by others. So those who truly want to ensure that Cuarón and McQueen are nominated might be more careful this year and cast their vote accordingly, rather than assuming that everyone else will vote for them.

David O. Russell, included last year for Silver Linings Playbook should find himself back again for American Hustle. All three of these gentlemen were cited by the Director’s Guild of America (DGA), along with Paul Greengrass for Captain Phillips and Martin Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street. The same quintet were nominated by the British Academy of Film and Television (BAFTA) as well, a body which, like the DGA (and other guilds) shares some membership with the Academy. But the Oscar nominations rarely align with the DGA’s selections, so where will the discrepancy lie? A few weeks ago, I probably would have said that Greengrass was in and Scorsese out. That could certainly be how it goes. But I also wonder if the controversy surrounding Wolf of Wall Street won’t rally those fellow directors who were impressed by the movie — and by Scorsese’s ability to still make vital, passionately-debated movies at the age of 71 — to throw their support his way. On the other hand, Greengrass doesn’t just impress for the skill and effectiveness of his usual intense and vérité approach, but also for drawing such impressive performances from the four Somali leads, none of whom had ever acted professionally before.

Still, if he or Scorsese miss (assuming it’s one of them, and that only one nominee is different between the Academy and the DGA), who gets the fifth slot? The Director’s branch often backs filmmakers with esoteric or unconventional visions, and I’m guessing that tendency will show up this year and boost Her‘s Spike Jonze, a remarkable and highly selective director, into the final five.

There are plenty of other worthy names in the mix. Some stand a strong chance of breaking in (Alexander Payne for Nebraska), others a less likely chance (the Coen Brothers for Inside Llewyn Davis, Woody Allen for Blue Jasmine, J.C. Chandor for All is Lost) and still others pretty much no chance, no matter how deserving they may be (Richard Linklater for Before Midnight, Jeff Nichols for Mud, Jean-Marc Vallee for Dallas Buyers Club).

I’m really unsure what to do about Greengrass and Scorsese. I don’t think Scorsese would be nominated if The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t also nominated for Best Picture, which I’m not predicting. Since the Best Picture race expanded beyond five films, all of the directing nominees have had their movie in the Picture race as well. But only directors nominate directors, whereas the entire Academy votes for Best Picture. So given the different voting contingents, it’s conceivable that a director could be nominated while his or her film is not. Right? Probably unlikely…but conceivable. Grrrrrr. I’m probably backing the wrong horse here, but I’ll stick with my initial sense that Wolf will miss Best Picture but Scorsese will make it for Director.

Predictions: 
David O. Russell – American Hustle
Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity
Spike Jonze – Her
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street

Personal Picks:
J.C. Chandor – All is Lost
Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity
Spike Jonze – Her
Harmony Korine – Spring Breakers
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave

BEST ACTOR
Here’s where it starts to get bloody. Because while it has been a strong year for movies, it has been an extraordinary year for performances. All of the acting races are rich with contenders, and as usual, Best Actor is the most crowded. It’s going to be brutal.

Since as far back as October, most Oscar pundits — professional and amateur — have expected the lineup to consist of Chiewtel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave, Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips, Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, Bruce Dern for Nebraska and Robert Redford for All is Lost. That’s a goddamn beautiful list right there. But let’s pretend those five names are not in play. So maybe the category features Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station, Joaquin Phoenix in Her and Christian Bale in American Hustle (or Out of the Furnace, in which he is magnificent). Once again, a stellar line-up. Now let’s take those guys out of the picture too. How about Forest Whitaker for The Butler (nominated for a SAG award), Hugh Jackman for Prisoners (or Jake Gyllenhaal, just as good), Tye Sheridan for Mud (don’t discount him because of his youth; his performance is every bit as worthy of recognition as veterans like Redford, Dern and Hanks), Daniel Brühl for Rush (he’s being campaigned as a Supporting Actor, but that’s bullshit; he’s a lead), and Idris Elba for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

In a normal year, there would be somewhere between five and ten performances that are truly deserving. This year, you could fill the category three times over and, with any configuration, have a dynamite slate. So…yeah. The voters in the acting branch face an impossible challenge, and no matter how it shakes out, some people who were good enough to win won’t even get nominated.

Looking again at the five who have longest been considered the likely nominees, Ejiofor and McConaughey feel secure, while Redford appears to be the most vulnerable. He is the only actor onscreen in All is Lost, and he has barely any dialogue. It’s acting at its purest, from a highly respected industry legend who has only been nominated as an actor once, back in 1973 for The Sting. But surprisingly, he was passed over by SAG voters, with Forest Whitaker taking the spot he was expected to occupy. The only prize he’s collected is a Best Actor win from the New York Film Critics Circle, though he has been nominated by a number of regional critics organizations, and made the list for the Golden Globes and Broadcast Film Critics Association. Redford hasn’t played the campaigning game that can often make the difference, but he’ll have the support of his fellow actors.

Hanks could miss out too. The most powerful moments of his performance in Captain Phillips come at the very end of the movie, and they’re shattering. Up until that point though, his work is more subtle and contained. Excellent, but the kind of unflashy turn that could conceivably be overlooked. Still, the movie seems to be generating across-the-board support, and it’s the first movie Hanks has done in a long time that has that awards-friendly glow to it. His last nomination was for Cast Away back in 2000. It would be nice to see him back in the hunt.

Earlier in the season, I was unsure about Bruce Dern’s likelihood of going all the way, but Nebraska is holding strong, and Dern has been campaigning like a machine, appearing at countless Q&A’s and events to promote the movie and mingle with voters. At 77 years-old, Dern has been in the business a long time, worked with a lot of great people and collected an endless supply of colorful stories that have charmed audiences during all this promotion. His performance in Nebraska is low-key, but beautifully affecting. In the wake of the movie’s warm reception at the Cannes Film Festival, where he was named Best Actor, it was unclear whether Paramount would campaign him for Best Supporting Actor or Best Actor. He definitely belongs in the latter, but his chances of winning would be much better in the former. The studio made the right call going with the lead actor category, and Dern agreed, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “If I go supporting, I’m a whore.” He made similar remarks, in his typical, entertainingly frank manner, to Deadline. Dern should have a lot of support from the acting branch’s older members, many of whom he has worked with and/or known for years.

The last movie of the year to be seen by voters and critics was The Wolf of Wall Street, and by then the category seemed impenetrable. Yet many think DiCaprio can’t miss. Pete Hammond of Deadline wrote after one of the film’s first industry screenings, “It would be unthinkable to imagine he won’t be in the top five.” I have to disagree. Given the competition, it’s easily thinkable. And while I’m not counting him out by any means, the Academy has not sparked to DiCaprio of late. His last nomination was in 2006 for Blood Diamond. Since then, he’s been overlooked for J. Edgar (a superb performance, whatever your thoughts on the movie) and Django Unchained. Maybe voters will feel his time has come around again. Though even if they do, that doesn’t mean he’ll make the cut in such a competitive year.

Oh, and on a side note, can people please stop calling Leo’s performance in Wolf the best of his career? Because it’s not. It’s really good, and surely one of his most energetic and fun. It’s certainly a highly committed performance; he does so much impassioned screaming that it’s a miracle he didn’t permanently blow his vocal chords. But career-best? No. It’s not better than What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (will anything be?), and it’s not better than The Departed. So let’s everyone just dial it back a bit.

I do think DiCaprio, along with Forest Whitaker and Christian Bale, are the guys with the best chance of breaking the Ejiofor-McConaughey-Hanks-Dern-Redford stronghold. Whitaker’s win in 2006 for The Last King of Scotland is the only time he’s been nominated, so it would be nice to see him in play once again. (Personally, I think there are several stronger and more worthy performances that deserve inclusion, but I can’t deny I’d be happy for him). The SAG nomination means he can’t be discounted, but I’m unconvinced he’ll make the cut in the end. If Bale makes it in, he’ll have the momentum of American Hustle to thank. Not to suggest he isn’t great, because he is, but in such a fiercely competitive year, his chances would be lower if he weren’t in such a beloved movie (probably part of the reason that his buzz is all about Hustle instead of Out of the Furnace.) David O. Russell’s last two movies racked up seven acting nominations and three wins (Bale and Melissa Leo for The Fighter, and Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook). Silver Linings earned nominations in each of the four acting categories, and it’s possible that Hustle could do that same. But of the four actors likely to make that happen, Bale faces the steepest uphill battle. In his favor, he was nominated for a Golden Globe, a BFCA award and a BAFTA award. Keep in mind though, that the Globes have categories for Drama and Comedy, while the BFCA nominate six actors, not just five.

I wish Oscar Isaac stood a stronger chance for Inside Llewyn Davis, but despite impressing many voters even beyond the film with his performances at a few concert events celebrating the soundtrack, there’s simply too much competition. And I really, really wish — though this isn’t even in the remotest realm of possibility — that teenager Tye Sheridan had a chance for his wonderful work in Mud. 17 years-old now but 14 when he shot it, Sheridan gives a nuanced, emotionally bare performance that deserves as serious consideration as any A-lister in the running.

A lot could happen in this race, but having to commit to predictions, I think the biggest surprise might be that it plays out exactly how it looked at the start.

Predictions:
Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford – All is Lost

Personal Picks:
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Joaquin Phoenix – Her
Tye Sheridan – Mud

(Even for me, whose picks mean absolutely nothing to nobody, the choices are impossible. I can’t sacrifice any of these guys, but I so badly want to include Bale and Hanks. What a year…)

BEST ACTRESS
Like the Best Actor race, this one has seemed inflexible for quite a while. Cate Blanchett is so certain to win this award for Blue Jasmine that filling out the rest of the category is pretty much just ceremonial. Michael Barker, co-president of Jasmine‘s distributor Sony Pictures Classics, told Deadline back in June that no matter what else came along, Blanchett had the Oscar in the bag. Not the first time studio execs have made such bold claims, but this one will probably play out. Still, since she can’t stand alone quite yet, the conventional wisdom has been that she will keep company with Gravity‘s Sandra Bullock (considered her strongest competition), August: Osage County‘s Meryl Streep, Philomena‘s Judi Dench and from Saving Mr. Banks, Emma Thompson. And like Best Actor, there was enough great work to fill the category a second time, if not quite a third.

Of the next wave of contenders, the only one likely to break through is Amy Adams for her multifaceted work in American Hustle. The dark horse candidates are Brie Larson, playing a director at a foster care facility in the acclaimed indie Short Term 12; Julie Delpy, continuing to amaze as she deepens her now 19 year relationship with her character Celine in Before Midnight; and newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos as a young woman in the throes of first love in the French film Blue is the Warmest Color, for which she and co-star Léa Seydoux shared the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’or prize with the director — a first in that award’s history. The chances that any of them could hear their name read are slim to none, but they’ve received a lot of love on the critics circuit. Adams and Delpy earned Golden Globe nominations in the Musical/Comedy category, as did Julia Louis-Dreyfus for her terrific performance in Enough Said, and Greta Gerwig for Frances Ha. (I really like her, but I didn’t care for the movie.) The BFCA, with six available slots, found room for Larson alongside Blanchett, Bullock, Dench, Streep and Thompson.

Bérénice Bejo, a Supporting Actress nominee two years ago for The Artist, garnered some early talk for her role in The Past, from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. He took home the Best Foreign Language Film award the same year, for the outstanding domestic drama A Separation. Alas, even the critics awards haven’t found room for Bejo, so any dreams of Oscar will have to stay that way. (Unfortunately, I haven’t yet had a chance to see The Past, or Blue is the Warmest Color, so I can’t factor Bejo or Exarchopoulos into my own picks.) And lastly there’s Kate Winslet, who starred in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day. The movie didn’t earn the kind of acclaim that usually meets Reitman’s work, and while Winslet is quite good in the role, the movie is pretty low on the radar. She managed a Golden Globe nomination, but that’s as far as she’ll go.

The category could definitely play out as expected, which is also how the SAG nominations went. But I don’t know…I have a feeling Streep might sit this one out. August: Osage County, with its grand pedigree and powerhouse cast, came into the season with high expectations, but it was met with mixed reviews and has not generated a lot of buzz. It did play well with SAG, who awarded it two individual nominations and one for Best Ensemble, so that counts for something since actors nominate actors. And this is Meryl Streep we’re talking about. She’s been nominated for lesser work than this, and she is revered and beloved by all. But she’s also not hurting for recognition, having won her third Oscar two years ago on her 17th nomination. It’s not impossible that voters could decide to pass her over this time around. If so, her loss would be Amy Adams’ gain. I’ve bet against Adams before and been wrong each time. Dare I underestimate her popularity with the Academy yet again? She could also make it in at the expense of Dench or Thompson, both of whom are safe but not certain bets. But if I go with a gut feeling that’s been building for a while, I’d say Streep misses.

Predictions: 
Amy Adams – American Hustle
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Judi Dench – Philomena
Emma Thompson – Saving Mr. Banks

Personal Picks:
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Julie Delpy – Before Midnight
Brie Larson – Short Term 12
Meryl Streep – August: Osage County

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
All of the advance buzz for Dallas Buyers Club focused on Matthew McConaughey, but when the movie hit, Jared Leto received as much acclaim and attention as his co-star, playing a transgender AIDS patient who becomes McConaughey’s business partner. Leto’s performance — his first after a six year absence from acting — has nearly swept the critics awards, and made him the frontrunner for the win. Expect him to be joined by Michael Fassbender for 12 Year a Slave. After missing out on a nomination for Shame (for shame, Academy), his previous collaboration with Steve McQueen, the magnetic Fassbender should be a slam dunk nominee this time around as a drunken, brutish plantation owner.

SAG rounded out the category with newcomer Barkhad Abdi for Captain Phillips, Daniel Brühl for Rush, and James Gandolfini for Enough Said. Abdi is a good bet to make it in. He’s been a consistent presence on the landscape all season long, earning Golden Globe and BFCA nominations in addition to SAG, and his inexperience as an actor makes his performance that much more impressive. Brühl’s chances are less assured. He too was nominated for a Golden Globe and BFCA award, which were pleasant surprises considering that Rush had largely faded from the conversation since its September release. The movie is said to have a lot of admirers, and while that support may not carry it into the Best Picture race, which once seemed possible, it could be enough to get Brühl nominated. However I should say, for what it’s worth, that by no stretch of the imagination is this a supporting performance. Brühl is without question a co-lead alongside Chris Hemsworth, and Universal’s decision to campaign him as a supporting actor is just a way to give him a better chance at getting nominated, since he would never be able to break into such an overcrowded Best Actor field. Bruce Dern must think him a whore. As for James Gandolfini, he is absolutely deserving of a nomination for his change-of-pace role as a tender divorced man entering into a new relationship. The SAG nomination is welcome recognition, but had he not passed away this year, I think he would have been squeezed out. He’s received plenty of nominations from critics groups, but I don’t think he’s going to make it into the Oscar race. Respected as he is, he’s still most associated with his television work, and Oscar voters aren’t necessarily sentimental about these things. He could make it, but I’m not counting on it.

Who else is waiting in the wings? Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill deliver colorful, incredibly entertaining performances in American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, respectively. Neither managed a SAG nomination, but that is likely because their films weren’t ready in time to be seen by enough voters. Cooper has Globe and BFCA nominations, but Hill missed out on both of those. Cooper’s chances may be better, since voters are expected to go big with American Hustle, whereas Wolf of Wall Street‘s popularity within the Academy is more of a question mark. Hill, meanwhile, is known to have done a lot of improv that provides Wolf with some of its funniest moments, so that could work to his advantage with his fellow actors.

Tom Hanks was considered a strong contender for his role as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, but after missing out on SAG, Globe and BFCA nominations, he would now appear to be a long shot. Another Best Actor frontrunner who has a chance here, though not as much as it might have seemed earlier in the year, is Matthew McConaughey for his work as a charming fugitive in Mud. Will Forte has received some love from critics for Nebraska, but I don’t see it cutting through the competition. Among the actors relegated to long shot/near impossible status but who are nonetheless worthy of consideration: Harrison Ford for the Jackie Robinson biopic 42; Woody Harrelson and Casey Affleck, both quite powerful in Out of the Furnace; David Oyelowo for The Butler; John Goodman for a small but excellent turn in Inside Llewyn Davis; the perennially overlooked Sam Rockwell in The Way, Way Back; and Chris Cooper for a standout performance in August: Osage County.

And then there’s James Franco. His Spring Breakers is far outside the realm of movies that Oscar voters pay attention to, but it’s a textbook case to demonstrate that their narrow box often excludes work that absolutely deserves recognition. There are a number of categories where Spring Breakers deserves to be cited (you already saw me include its director Harmony Korine among my personal picks for Best Director), and if Academy voters took off their blinders, how could they not stand up for Franco’s sensational work as a hilariously materialistic DJ and drug dealer for whom spring break is a state of mind? The film’s indie distributor, A24, has mounted a campaign for Franco, but they only have so much money to spend, and none of it is likely to penetrate the Academy’s bubble. If Franco had a shot, he probably would have needed a SAG nomination, and that actually seemed like a possibility. SAG voters, after all, nominated Nicole Kidman’s somewhat gonzo turn in The Paperboy last year. Unfortunately, Franco was passed over, and a similar fate awaits him tomorrow morning. But if he somehow manages to get a surprise nomination, expect the gathered journalists in the room to let out an enthusiastic round of applause, hoots and hollers.

Predictions:
Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Daniel Brühl – Rush
Bradley Cooper – American Hustle
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

Personal Picks:
Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
James Franco – Spring Breakers
Jonah Hill – The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

(Again, I agonize over my meaningless picks. Kills me to leave off Coopers Bradley and Chris.)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Lupita Nyong’o was in her final months at Yale Drama School when she auditioned for 12 Years a Slave, and at the moment she’s the frontrunner to win the Oscar for her debut film. Not a bad way to break into the biz. But first the nomination. She’ll be there. As will last year’s Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence, who tears it up in American Hustle. For many viewers, she’s been the standout. On the other end of the age and experience spectrum is 84 year-old June Squibb, the veteran character actress who steals the show as Bruce Dern’s outspoken wife in Nebraska. It’s hard to imagine she won’t make the cut. Another good bet, though not a lock, is Oprah Winfrey for The Butler. Winfrey doesn’t act too often, but when she does, she somehow pulls off the seemingly impossible challenge of embodying a character despite being one of the most ubiquitous figures in the world. No small task. She was nominated in this category nearly 30 years ago for The Color Purple, and I suspect she’ll be back.

That leaves one slot, and any number of people it could go to…all of whom could also land in the final five if Winfrey or Squibb should miss. 2011′s winner Octavia Spencer was touted as a likely nominee ever since Fruitvale Station came out in July, but her chances seem to have diminished in the season’s later days. She could still make it, but after missing out on SAG, the Golden Globes and even the BFCA, I’m not counting on it. All three of those groups did, however, nominate Julia Roberts for August: Osage County. Like Daniel Brühl, Roberts should be in the lead category, but The Weinstein Company didn’t want her and Streep to contend with each other. Can Roberts make it in? I’m not sure. But it would be nice to see her there again. Like Tom Hanks, her last nomination came in 2000, when she won for Erin Brockovich.

One nomination that almost certainly won’t happen, but should, is Scarlett Johansson for Her. Although she never appears on camera, make no mistake: she is the movie’s female lead, and creates a fully developed, three dimensional character with just her voice. Several critics groups have nominated her, including the BFCA, but that’s unlikely to make a difference. Although the performance is eligible for an Oscar nomination, I don’t see actors going there, no matter how much they admire the film and her work in it. Whether it’s Robin Williams voicing the Genie, or Andy Serkis being replaced by a creation of visual effects in The Lord of the Rings or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, if the performer doesn’t appear on camera, actors don’t seem to consider it an award-worthy performance. Too bad, since I would think actors would understand the challenges of this work, and should be all the more impressed when it connects so successfully. Maybe someday this barrier will fall, but I don’t think voters are ready yet. However, in this case, there is a way to get around it…sort of. Johansson’s work in Her was not her only great performance this year. She was also excellent as the jersey girl sexbomb with unrealistic notions of romance in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut Don Jon. That performance is worth consideration on its own, but could pull double-duty as proxy recognition for Her.

If there’s a surprise in this category that catches most people off guard, it may well be Jennifer Garner for Dallas Buyers Club. She is not considered a likely contender, and in fact hasn’t received a single nomination in all of the precursor awards except as a member of the movie’s SAG-cited ensemble. But that Best Ensemble recognition was itself a big surprise, and the movie has been faring well in general. Garner is good in it, but doesn’t get to do the kind of transformative work that benefits McConaughey and Leto. Still, The Hollywood Reporter‘s awards analyst Scott Feinberg thinks she has an excellent chance, and his logic makes good sense. He says that voters only have time to watch so many movies, and when they find something they really like, they tend to vote for it across the board. It was by that reasoning that he was one of the few pundits to predict Jacki Weaver’s nomination last year for Silver Linings Playbook. There is usually at least one big surprise on nomination morning that most people didn’t see coming, and given the popularity Dallas Buyers Club seems to have, Garner could be it. Plus, after all of the accolades her husband Ben Affleck collected for Argo last year — not to mention the strange comments he kept making in his attempts to thank her, which made it sound like their marriage was a daily struggle — maybe voters feel that Garner has earned some recognition of her own. I can’t bring myself to predict it; I think this is the one acting category that will match the SAG list five-for-five. But if Garner does score a nod, I’ll definitely be applying Feinberg’s logic to future races.

Another surprise could be Sally Hawkins, who played Cate Blanchett’s sister in Blue Jasmine. She’s received a smattering of mentions from critics, as well as Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations. Never discount an actress in a Woody Allen film. Other names that have popped up but would make for shocking nominations, however well deserved, are Sarah Paulson for her cruel plantation mistress in 12 Years a Slave; Julianne Nicholson and Margo Martindale as family members harboring secrets in August: Osage County; Melissa Leo as the caretaker of a young man suspected of abducting two little girls in Prisoners; and Léa Seydoux as a new couple’s more experienced lover in Blue is the Warmest Color.

Predictions:
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts – August: Osage County
June Squibb – Nebraska
Oprah Winfrey – Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Personal Picks:
Scarlett Johansson – Her
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
June Squibb – Nebraska
Oprah Winfrey – Lee Daniels’ The Butler

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Expect to see American Hustle and Nebraska among this year’s crop. Her, whether or not it can manage recognition for Best Picture or Best Director, would seem like a given here as well. I would also have said that the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis was a sure bet, but its lack of a WGA nomination, or broad guild support in general, makes it a tougher call. But the biggest question mark is Gravity. While the movie is expected to be one of the most nominated of the year, its chances here are cloudier. Even many who love the film would say that the story is slight and that the movie’s screenplay is not where it stands out. Others would argue that it’s much weightier on the story and thematic front that it’s been given credit for. I suspect the writers will pass on it, but given its frontrunner status for other top awards, it could absolutely land here.

The indefatigable Woody Allen stands a good chance at his 16th writing nomination for Blue Jasmine. He got the WGA nod alongside Hustle, Her, Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club, which is another strong but by no means certain contender. I’d say Dallas‘ chances depend on what happens with Gravity and Inside Llewyn Davis. Saving Mr. Banks could find some love here, but having not been the big player so far that it was initially expected to be, it’s hard to anticipate what the Academy will do with it. Enough Said and Fruitvale Station are also on the fringe, but I’m not expecting either to get this far. And if the writer’s branch decides to throw a curve ball or two, look out for Mud, All is Lost or Prisoners.

Predictions:
David O. Russell, Eric Warren Singer – American Hustle
Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine
Spike Jonze – Her
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis
Bob Nelson – Nebraska

Personal Picks:
Spike Jonze – Her
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis
Jeff Nichols – Mud
Bob Nelson – Nebraska
Aaron Guzikowski – Prisoners

[Update, January 26: My personal picks originally included Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's script for This is the End, but last night I remembered that script doesn't qualify as original because it's based on a short film: Seth and Jay vs. the Apocalypse. I removed it from my list and replaced it with Bob Nelson for Nebraska.]

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The Writers Guild nominations aren’t as much of a guideline in this category since, as always, some scripts were ruled ineligible for guild consideration. This was true for Best Original Screenplay too, but the only disqualified movie in that field which is expected to be a contender is Fruitvale Station, and that’s hardly a frontrunner. Not so on this side of the fence, where 12 Years a Slave, which could well be the winner come Oscar night, did not qualify with the WGA. But you can bet it will be on the Oscar shortlist, probably joined by Captain Phillips and Before Midnight. Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, the trio behind the latter, were nominated in this category back in 2004 for the previous film in the series, Before Sunset. They should repeat for this continuation which has been received just as enthusiastically, if not more.

Another strong possibility which didn’t meet the WGA’s standards is Philomena. With that and 12 Years out of play, the guild found room for August: Osage County and Lone Survivor. August still stands a chance with the Academy, but I wouldn’t bet on Lone Survivor. Not to take anything away from it; it’s a good movie. But a screenplay nomination seems like a stretch. The final WGA nominee, along with August, Survivor, Phillips and Midnight, is The Wolf of Wall Street, which I think will repeat here. Last summer’s beautifully spun teen romance The Spectacular Now collected a number of nominations from critics groups, but is a long shot to go the distance with the Oscars. Ditto the indie drama Short Term 12. These are the kind of wonderful small movies that, despite excessive praise from critics, never seem to attract the eyes necessary to lift them to Oscar-level awareness.

Predictions:
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke – Before Midnight
Billy Ray – Captain Phillips
Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope – Philomena
John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave
Terence Winter – The Wolf of Wall Street

Personal Picks:
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke – Before Midnight
Destin Daniel Cretton – Short Term 12
John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave
Carroll Cartwright, Nancy Doyne – What Maisie Knew
Terence Winter – The Wolf of Wall Street

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
It has not been a strong year for animation. At least, not in the mainstream. Several of the 19 films submitted to the Academy for consideration are foreign entries that did not get wide release or promotion here in the states, so I can’t speak to those. But homegrown projects were not, as a group, the best we’ve seen. If at least 16 of the 19 submitted films are accepted by the Academy, the field will qualify for five nominees. Less than 16 will mean a field of four nominees, and less than 13 will result in three. A three nominee field could sport an impressive group. Five will be pushing it, at least based on what Hollywood turned out.

There’s also been a change this year to how the nominees will be selected. In the past, a committee of 100 Academy members had to attend special screenings of all the qualifying films in order to vote for which to nominate. Now the committee will be larger, and its members will be allowed to view screeners of the nominees at home. But according to The Wrap, it is unclear if the Academy would provide those screeners or if they expect the studios to do so. (I’m guessing the former.)

Disney’s Frozen, a huge hit and well-reviewed fairy tale, leads the way, while The Wind Rises, Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s final film as director (he says he’s retiring), is a good bet. If the category tops out at three nominees, I expect Monsters University will round it out. But there will probably be at least four, and knowing so little about the foreign contenders makes it hard to tell what might make the cut. Only the French film Ernest & Celestine, a hand-drawn tale of friendship between a bear and a mouse, has landed on my radar, and word is that it’s excellent. Despicable Me 2 was a massive hit, but can the sequel get nominated if the original couldn’t? I suppose so, but I just don’t get what the big deal is with those movies…not that my personal feelings have any place in the subtle art of Oscar predicting. I just have to imagine that some of the foreign offerings are better than Despicable Me 2, or The Croods or most of the other Hollywood options (though I’ll admit I did like most of Epic). Of course, better doesn’t always mean anything. Depending on how much larger the voting committee is, and how members see the movies, the final slate could favor bigger, well-known films, or instead offer some surprises from beyond our borders.

Predictions:
The Croods
Ernest & Celestine
Frozen
Monsters University
The Wind Rises

Personal Picks:
Epic
Frozen
Monsters University
The Wind Rises

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Moving into the below-the-line categories, expect to see a lot of one word in particular: Gravity. It should come as no surprise that the astonishing outer space drama leads the way in this category, where it is likely to be joined by 12 Years a Slave and Inside Llewyn Davis. Those three movies were among the nominees for the American Society of Cinematographers award, where a three-way tie resulted in a seven-nominee race, rounded out by Captain Phillips, The Grandmaster, Nebraska and Prisoners. Usually there are one or two differences between the guild’s nominees and the Academy’s, but does the guild’s larger field mean the five Oscar nominees will come from this pool of seven? If so, that eliminates the gorgeous lensing of Her, which I had hoped would be a no-brainer.

If the branch looks beyond the ASC’s seven, and beyond the limits of traditional Academy fare, they would be wise to recognize the stunning work on display in Spring Breakers. Other films from earlier in the year that would make deserving nominees but that are probably too far removed from the Academy’s consciousness, whether by time or beause they aren’t sprinkled with whatever pixie dust deems them Oscar worthy: the Tom Cruise sci-fi film Oblivion, the creepy Mia Wasikowska thriller Stoker; and Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, the last film shot by Harris Savides before his untimely death.

Based on no evidence whatsoever, I feel like the branch will take the opportunity to celebrate a striking black and white film whenever one is an option, so I’m guessing Nebraska will make the cut. As for that fifth slot, I could see it going to the beautiful imagery of The Grandmaster, the cold, dark compositions of Prisoners, the contrast of character intimacy and scenic vastness in All is Lost, and the simultaneously warm and cool clarity of Her. I’ll go with The Grandmaster. But man, what a tough call. Some really excellent work this year.

Predictions:
Phillippe Le Sourd – The Grandmaster
Emmanuel Lubezki – Gravity
Bruno Delbonnel – Inside Llewyn Davis
Phedon Papamichael – Nebraska
Sean Bobbitt – 12 Years a Slave

Personal Picks:
Emmanuel Lubezki – Gravity
Hoyte van Hoytema – Her
Bruno Delbonnel – Inside Llewyn Davis
Roger Deakins – Prisoners
Benoît Debie – Spring Breakers

BEST FILM EDITING
Best Picture frontrunners usually land a nomination for Editing, so expect Gravity and 12 Years a Slave to be here, and probably American Hustle and Captain Phillips as well. The fifth slot could go to another movie from the list of usual suspects, with The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club or Inside Llewyn Davis standing the best chance. Or it could go to a well-crafted, action-heavy movie like World War Z, Lone Survivor or The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. But the best shot may be Ron Howard’s Formula 1 race car film Rush, once considered a strong possibility for contention in the top categories. Things didn’t work out that way, but if Rush can get some love anywhere, it might be here.

Predictions:
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Gravity
Rush
12 Years a Slave

Personal Picks:
Captain Phillips
Gravity
Inside Llewyn Davis
Spring Breakers
World War Z

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
12 Years a Slave will probably find a home here due more to its place as one of the year’s major players than because it’s one of the five best art/set decorated films of the year. Gravity has a good shot too, though its limited locations make me wonder if it will be overlooked. American Hustle is a possibility, but I’m not convinced. It’s 1970′s setting does make it a period piece — and the design branches love their period pieces — but it isn’t as elaborate or obvious as the kind of period pieces that usually score here, which makes me doubt its chances. I hope that the subtle futurism and wonderful color scheme of Her will be recognized, but for some reason I don’t feel confident about it. Moving beyond the big dogs, the dazzling excess of The Great Gatsby should land a spot, and since all of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films have been nominated, it would stand to reason that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug will follow suit. It’s possible that the voters could be tired of these, but with all the new locations on display, the films aren’t necessarily repeating themselves. Still, the familiarity of the world casts some doubt at this point. Meanwhile, the elegant scenery of Stoker and Oblivion deserve consideration, and Saving Mr. Banks is a possibility here too.

Predictions:
American Hustle
Gravity
The Great Gatsby
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
12 Years a Slave

Personal Picks:
The Great Gatsby
Her
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Oblivion
Stoker

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Again, chances are good that we’ll see 12 Years a Slave here even though, yes, again, there are more interesting and imaginative choices to be made. American Hustle is expected to score here too, although I’m a tad wary. While the 70′s always allow for some entertaining fashion selections, the Academy doesn’t always take notice. Then again, signature pieces like the white macramé swimsuit worn by Amy Adams should push Hustle to the final five. The members of this branch are always on the hunt for an 1800s or early 1900s period piece and the elaborate outfits that mark that era, and they will likely find their champion this year in The Invisible Woman, a film about Charles Dickens and his younger mistress that was directed by and stars Ralph Fiennes. The Great Gatsby will probably break through here too. As for other period films that might pop up, there’s Saving Mr. Banks, although I’m not sure there is enough variety to secure it a nod. Inside Llewyn Davis features nice work too. Amidst the desaturated camerawork, the colors worn by John Goodman, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and F. Murray Abraham stand out nicely.

On the less historical, more fantasy-based side of the closet, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a possibility. The previous Hobbit film missed in this category, but not for lack of worthiness, so perhaps it will happen this year. There’s also The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which features a wide variety of creative looks. I was a little surprised that the first Hunger Games film didn’t land a nomination here, and wondered if its chances would have been better had it come out at the end of the year rather than in March. Catching Fire was a November release, so we’ll see if that makes a difference.

While not exactly fantasy, the clothes in Her do a lot to sell the concept of a near-future that is logically grown out of the present day. It’s probably not flashy enough to do the trick for these voters, but it would be a nice surprise if it showed up. And since contemporary clothing almost never gets recognized, no matter how well or uniquely designed and suited to its film it is, we will almost certainly be denied nominations for Blue Jasmine and Stoker, both of which would be commendable surprises from the costume branch.

Predictions:
American Hustle
The Great Gatsby
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Invisible Woman
12 Years a Slave

Personal Picks:
The Great Gatsby
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Inside Llewyn Davis
Stoker

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
This continues to be a frustrating category, not only because it is governed by some stupid rules, but because the evaluation process is flawed. Steve Pond lamented these issues last week in The Wrap. For starters, a song can only qualify if it appears during the course of the movie itself or if it is the first song during the end credits. If it’s the second song in the credits, it’s ineligible. That might not happen often, but it happens. Also, members are asked to judge the contenders — and for the second year in a row there were 75 eligible songs — by watching a DVD that contains clips of each number as it appears in the movie. This puts end credit songs at a disadvantage, since voters have to watch them over scrolling names, with no context for how they actually fit into their movie or build on the final scenes. Worse than that, clips are limited to three minutes. If a song is longer, it simply cuts off. How can a song be judged fairly if it isn’t even offered in its entirety? Okay, I’ll concede it’s unrealistic to expect voters to sit through every full movie that has an eligible song just to see how that song fits into the whole, so context may always be a problem. But since that issue may exist no matter what, why not send a CD which contains each song in full, so that members have a second option for listening to the many contenders? It might be easier to listen to all the options if they can take it in the car with them, or elsewhere on the go. At the very least, whether delivered on a CD, a DVD or both, it’s offensive to the process not to include each complete song.

So with all that said, what are we looking at? So many possibilities means a 100% accurate prediction is unlikely, but there are a couple of selections that are probably locks, beginning with “Let it Go” from Disney’s Frozen. It’s a fairly standard empowerment number, but Idina Menzel belts it out something terrific. U2 picked up the Golden Globe for “Ordinary Love,” their contribution to Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and will probably be in the running here. In addition, there are five eligible songs from The Great Gatsby, including efforts by Jay-Z and Florence + the Machine. But the one with the most buzz is Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful.” Last month, there was an anonymous effort to mislead voters into thinking the song was disqualified, but there was no truth to it. Who knows if the trick was played by a rival studio, or one of the many Lana Del Rey haters out there, but the song is eligible, and in my opinion, deserving.

Unfortunately, my favorite song from a movie all year IS ineligible. “Fare Thee Well” from Inside Llewyn Davis, although new to me, is not new to the world. (If you’re a fan, check out some of its earlier incarnations courtesy of Vulture.) None of the wonderful songs from Llewyn Davis qualify, as they are all either older tunes being performed anew, or adaptations of previously existing ones. Several critics groups gave their Best Original Song award to the movie’s amusing track “Please Mr. Kennedy,” but the song borrows from a few similar pieces written during the era depicted in the movie, disqualifying it for Academy consideration.

One of the best songs of the year is not the typical studio-produced piece, but a bare bones rap clocking in at less than two minutes, performed by actor and musician Keith Stanfield, who plays a foster home resident in Short Term 12. It’s a song that would appear to perfectly encapsulate the intentions of the music branch, as it speaks directly to the character’s experiences and how he feels about his life. If the Academy’s goal is to recognize songs that are organic to their movies and have an impact on the story, than this isn’t just a nominee; it’s the winner.

Other songs that I really wanted to include among my personal picks were Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire” from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, José González’s “Stay Alive” from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Kings of Leon’s “Last Mile Home” from August: Osage County. If you’re interested in an assessment of the full field by someone who actually listened to all 75 contenders, here again is The Wrap‘s Steve Pond with his thoughts. In the end, anyone taking a shot at predicting this category is bound to miss at least one. But that won’t stop us trying. Having not heard anywhere near all of the options, here are my dart throws.

Predictions:
Let it Go – Frozen
Young and Beautiful – The Great Gatsby
The Moon Song – Her
Ordinary Love – Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
We Ride – Spark: A Burning Man Story

Personal Picks:
Young and Beautiful – The Great Gatsby
The Moon Song – Her
Oblivion – Oblivion
So You Know What It’s Like – Short Term 12
Becomes the Color – Stoker

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Gravity and 12 Years a Slave will show up again here, but this is a case where the frontrunners will earn below-the-line nominations on true merit, not just because voters are selecting it lazily and without consideration. Or…I suppose maybe that is why they will select them, but at least they deserve to be here.

I’m sure I’ve said somewhere on this blog before (feel free to look around for it) that my favorite film scores are those that do their primary job of serving the movie, of course, but are also memorable enough in their themes and motifs to stand on their own as listening experiences. I find such scores are tragically rare these days. The only one from 2013 that stayed with me in that way was Hans Zimmer’s music for 12 Years a Slave. Mark Orton’s score for Nebraska has been growing on me too, but is ineligible for Oscar consideration because much if it was used in an earlier movie. Even The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug didn’t offer up any new themes that resonated with me after the movie.

And yet there were a great numbers of scores this year that made an impression on me in the context of their films, even if most of them were not distinctive enough on their own to become essential additions to my soundtrack collection…other than to serve as nice background music. Which is relevant here because…oh right, it isn’t. I’m just saying, there was a wealth of excellent music that provided atmosphere and emotional resonance to their films, if not exactly classic themes that will become part of the zeitgeist. Alex Ebert, frontman for the band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, just won a Golden Globe for his beautiful music from All is Lost, which plays an especially important role since the movie has barely any dialogue. Ebert was just one of many musicians who successfully dabbled in film composing this year. Skrillex worked with composer Cliff Martinez on Spring Breakers, and Muse contributed to the World War Z score composed by Marco Beltrami — though neither result appears on the list of 114 eligible scores). M83 created the music for Oblivion, and Spike Jonze enlisted his friends from Arcade Fire to provide original music for Her, either of which would be welcome nominees. Perhaps there were additional examples that I’m unaware of, but I thought this was interesting.

Among other scores that impressed me were Prisoners, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Mud, Stoker, Philomena, Labor Day, The Grandmaster and Out of the Furnace (the latter two are also missing from the eligibility list).

John Williams, who is basically retired at this point except for anything directed by Steven Spielberg, as well as his impending return to the Star Wars saga, was apparently such a fan of the novel The Book Thief that he approached the producers and offered his services. Nobody’s going to say no to that, and the results are of course being talked up for a nomination. Williams is always a good bet, but the score didn’t leave much of an impression on me. There has also been some buzz for Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel score. It was decent (certainly not better than the Williams score we all know and love, not that it was trying to be…or needed to be), but I don’t see that nomination happening. Zimmer could also be a contender for Rush, and his protégé Henry Jackman is in the mix for Captain Phillips. Once upon a time, Disney musicals were a given for score nominations, so Frozen could crack the list, and Saving Mr. Banks — a movie about Disney — might earn another nomination for Thomas Newman (though frankly, the only parts of that score that stood out to me were the moments that incorporated music from Mary Poppins). I didn’t get a chance to see Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, but the fact that its music was among the Golden Globe nominees means it stands a shot at an Oscar nomination too.

It’s clearly a packed field this year, with many possible outcomes. But here goes.

Predictions:
Alex Ebert – All is Lost
John Williams – The Book Thief
Steven Price – Gravity
Alexandre Desplat – Philomena
Hans Zimmer – 12 Years a Slave

Personal Picks:
Daniel Hart – Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Steven Price – Gravity
William Butler, Owen Pallett – Her
Clint Mansell – Stoker
Hans Zimmer – 12 Years a Slave

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
In December, the Makeup Artists and Hairstylists branch of the Academy announced the seven-film longlist from which the three nominees will be chosen. Focusing only on the quality of the work and not the quality of the film, their selections run the gamut from Best Picture contenders American Hustle and Dallas Buyers Club to box office hits The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Great Gatsby and Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (no, I’m not kidding) to a couple of movies that are most definitely not Best Picture contenders or box office hits: The Lone Ranger and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (still not kidding). Like I said, the branch evaluates the work, not the film, and both Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger feature excellent makeup work. I haven’t seen Hansel & Gretel, but now that I’m Googling some of its makeup images, I gotta say: pretty cool. Nice to see that The Hunger Games got some attention, after the first movie didn’t even make it to the longlist last year. All in all, the seven options represent a nice cross section of hair-centric work, aging makeup and creature prosthetics.

Among the surprising omissions are The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (which may have been considered “been there, done that”), Rush, World War Z, Lone Survivor and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which not only aged Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and other actors over several years, but also did a pretty nice job transforming Professor Snape Hans Gruber Alan Rickman into Ronald Reagan.

Predictions:
American Hustle
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Lone Ranger

Personal Picks:
American Hustle
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (What can I say? The stuff looks great.)

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Always one of my favorite categories, as visual effects and music scores were the two movie components that got me interested in the Oscars in the first place. Like the Makeup and Hairstyling branch, the Visual Effects branch narrows the year’s options down to a longlist, and chooses the nominees from there. The VFX longlist consists of 10 films, and that number will be cut in half for five nominees. This royal rumble features Elysium, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger, Oblivion, Pacific Rim, Star Trek Into Darkness, Thor: The Dark World and World War Z. While there are certainly other movies that might have made it, like Man of Steel or Ender’s Game, there isn’t anything missing that I would consider a glaring omission.

Besides, we all know what’s winning this award anyway.

Predictions:
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
Pacific Rim
Star Trek Into Darkness

Personal Picks:
Same

BEST SOUND EDITING/BEST SOUND MIXING
By now, I have figured out what each of these things mean, and I understand the difference between them. Yay for me. In simplest terms, the sound editors record or create sounds that could not be captured during filming, either because dragons are not real (so I’m told) or maybe because the location was too noisy to get a usable recording of a particular real-world sound. Sound mixers then take all the sound effects and the music and the dialogue, and blend it all together in proper relation to each other.

Unfortunately, that does nothing to help me understand or predict what the best achievements in these fields are.

But I can make some educated guesses, and the first is that Gravity will be nominated in both categories. Captain Phillips has a pretty good shot at both too. Inside Llewyn Davis recorded its many song performances live during filming, just as Les Misérables did last year, so that gives it a good shot in the Mixing category. Beyond that, we can look to almost any big action movie as a possibility for one or both of these, meaning we could see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Pacific Rim, Man of Steel, World War Z, Lone Survivor, Oblivion, The Lone Ranger or Elysium. Animated films sometimes pop up here, especially those from Pixar, which makes Monsters University a possibility, or by association, Frozen. 12 Years a Slave might slide in if voters fill it in down the line; Rush could find some traction here with its many car races; The Great Gatsby, with all of that music and party noise and excess feels like a contender; and All is Lost relies heavily on the soundscape to tell its story.

That broad array of options is about as specific as I can get, so here are the rest of those educated guesses.

Sound Editing Predictions:
All is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Pacific Rim

Sound Mixing Predictions:
Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Great Gatsby
Inside Llewyn Davis
Star Trek Into Darkness

As for my personal picks, my limited understanding of these categories means I never have strong opinions, but I say each year that I think there should simply be one category, Best Sound Design, honoring a movie’s entire scope of sonic achievement. My picks for that imaginary category would be All is Lost, Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, Stoker and World War Z. I imagine if I had seen The Conjuring, that might find a place here too. But I didn’t, so it doesn’t.

With that, I think we’re done here. In keeping with tradition, I’m afraid I have no insight to offer for Best Documentary, Best Foreign Language Film or any of the short film categories. But since I’m sure I lost you somewhere around the sixth paragraph of Best Actor anyway, if not before, it’s just as well. The nominees will be announced tomorrow at 5:38am PT by Chris Hemsworth and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs. And then tomorrow night, all the people who didn’t get nominated will try to put on a happy face when they attend the Broadcast Film Critics Association ceremony. The awards train stops for no one.

March 7, 2013

Oscars 2012: What Went Down

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 5:00 pm
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As always, I like to take a little time before weighing in with my thoughts on the Oscars…partly so I can respond to all the knee-jerk reactions in the media. And this year, there’s been a lot of knee-jerking. The show has prompted quite an impassioned reaction, most of it directed at host Seth MacFarlane, and most of it negative. Even over a week later, people are still stating their objections to some of his material. So let’s start there.

For the record, this was not the worst Oscars ever, nor was MacFarlane the worst host ever. I’m confident that the people making one or both of those accusations have not seen every televised Oscar show, and are therefore in no position to say what shows back in the 50′s or 60′s, for example, might have been better or worse. Besides, you don’t even have to go that far back for a worse show. You need only rewind two years, to the ceremony honoring the best of 2010, hosted by Anne Hathaway and James Franco. I haven’t seen every Oscar show either, so I can’t say whether or not that was the worst ever. But it was the worst I could remember seeing, and not just because the hosts were not up to the task. In fact, I wrote at the time that I didn’t think Hathaway and Franco even deserved most of the blame. (Well…Franco may have deserved a good-sized chunk.)  As I said, it was “badly produced, badly directed, blandly written.” This year’s show wasn’t the best, but for the most part it was competently produced, so it’s already an improvement over two years ago.

THE HOST
From the moment he was announced last year, the chatter was that MacFarlane was an unusual and provocative choice, but an exciting one. Aside from the fact that he was largely unknown to the public and was not a major figure in the film community (though he was coming off the summer success of Ted, his first movie as director and voice actor), his humor was known for often being crass and edgy. But it was a good pick. It showed the Academy taking a chance, which is not something the esteemed old lady is known for doing, and MacFarlane’s combo of comedy and music skills seemed like they would serve him well at a gig like this.

Other than Team Francoway, who were simply the wrong people for the job, I don’t think I’ve seen a really bad hosting turn in my 25 years of Oscar watching (then again, I’m fairly easy to please). Billy Crystal was always great, though his schtick was a little warmed over by last year; Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Martin always did a good job; Hugh Jackman and Ellen DeGeneres both delivered in their years, as did Jon Stewart the two times he hosted. The hosts that are remembered less favorably are David Letterman and Chris Rock, but both were perfectly funny. They just weren’t the typical warm and fuzzy hosts who go down smooth. They pushed a few more buttons, and were true to their well-established personas instead of trying to become something else for Oscar night.

The same goes for MacFarlane. But the degree of vitriol in response has been high…and in several cases, a lot more mean-spirited than anything he dished out. The show, and its host, have been called sexist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, racist and anti-gay during the last week and a half. Amy Davidson of The New Yorker was one of many who was not remotely amused by MacFarlane’s performance. Two female California state lawmakers sent a letter to the Academy expressing their concerns, as if they don’t have more pressing matters to attend to that involve actually governing. Perhaps I have no right to comment on any of this since I’m not a woman, but at the risk of being labeled a racist, homophobic misogynist for not rebuking everything MacFarlane did, I have to defend the guy. His humor is known for sometimes being offensive, but like South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, MacFarlane is an equal opportunity offender. I don’t think this is a man who has it in for women. I may not be so attuned to things that women would find offensive, and yes, a line like the one about Jessica Chastain’s Zero Dark Thirty character tracking Bin Laden for 12 years being evidence of women never letting anything go was pointless and bound to piss off every female viewer, rightfully so. But I hardly think it was a setback to feminism.

As for charges of anti-Semitism, I can attest from my years of Hebrew school that the Jewish people have survived an awful lot; I think they can endure a couple of cracks about their influence and numbers in the entertainment industry. In fact, I find it more interesting that MacFarlane’s Oscar night humor pushed the envelope as far as what is considered venue-appropriate, while at the same time being as staunchly old-fashioned as including jokes about Jews running Hollywood. Also, I don’t recall there being a backlash three years ago after Steve Martin (co-hosting with Alec Baldwin) described Inglourious Basterds nominee Christoph Waltz’s character as a Nazi hunting Jews, then spread his arms wide and declared, “Well, Christoph? The motherload!” On the contrary, it was one of the best lines of the night, and received the laughs to prove it.

The joke about actresses giving themselves the flu to fit into their dresses bothered some, but did anyone make a peep after the Golden Globes, when Tina Fey described The Hunger Games as what she called the six weeks it took her to fit into her dress? If there were complaints, they sure weren’t loud. I don’t need to tell anyone that Hollywood celebrates beautiful women and sets unrealistic expectations when it comes to the female body image. That’s a problem, but as long as the entire red carpet tradition at the Oscars and every other award show continues, creating pressure for women to pour so much energy into selecting gowns and jewelery and to look amazing or be torn apart in fashion magazines, the culture will persist. Suddenly Seth MacFarlane is a misogynist for cracking a joke about it?

Yes, he joked about Chris Brown and Rhianna. So has every late night comedian, over and over again. I don’t see them getting raked across the coals. Yes, there was a song called, “We Saw Your Boobs.” Yes, it was silly and a little crude. But no, it wasn’t a statement that actresses are only worth paying attention to when they take their clothes off, nor was it indicative of a night where every introduction or comment on an actress focused on her beauty or looks – another complaint I read somewhere after the show, which was untrue. He introduced plenty of women without referencing their looks, including presenters Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Garner, saying “both have played government agents and both have kicked ass onscreen in every sense.” Nothing about their beauty, just their talent. And since Charlize Theron, Naomi Watts and Jennifer Lawrence were all willing to participate in the boobs number, can’t everyone just lighten up? (No, I suppose if that argument worked there wouldn’t have been any controversy last year about The Help or this year about Django Unchained. Just because certain members of a group take part in something doesn’t mean other members of the same group won’t take offense.) MacFarlane was accused of insulting Adele’s weight when he joked that Rex Reed would be coming out to review her performance, but I saw that not as knock on Adele, but a joke about Rex Reed being an asshole. (For those who didn’t get it, film critic Rex Reed made some obnoxious comments about Melissa McCarthy’s weight in his review of Identity Thief a few weeks ago. He deserved the scorn that came his way. MacFarlane doesn’t.)

It wasn’t just journalists slamming MacFarlane. Actress and Oscar night presenter Jane Fonda, as well as Girls creator and star Lena Dunham weren’t impressed, and just within the last couple of days, Jamie Lee Curtis and Geena Davis have weighed in as well. It’s particularly disappointing to see fellow artists bash MacFarlane in the media. While they, along with anyone else, have the right to be offended by his routine, artists know what it is to take risks and put yourself out there, so I would think they would at least refrain from airing their grievances publicly. All but Dunham are Academy members, and if they felt the need to voice their concerns, they could have done so in private communication to the Academy’s president. Their opinions are certainly valid. But people have varying barometers of what is and isn’t offensive. Curtis starred in True Lies, which faced charges of misogyny and furthering stereotypes of Arabs as terrorists. Dunham has been accused (absurdly) of racism and nepotism. They’re bothered by MacFarlane’s jokes? Fair enough. But I’m bothered that fellow artists who have been in his position can’t muster a little empathy. They don’t have to like what he did, but they don’t have to attack him in public for it.

I was happy to see some writers come to his defense, and female writers at that, like Victoria A. Brownworth in The Advocate (though I think she might go a bit far in the other direction when she describes the ceremony as “a veritable paean to women.”) Even better was this letter to The Hollywood Reporter from an anonymous female development executive, who discusses some of the ways that sexism is rampant in Hollywood, and says that the problem needs to be addressed in more fundamental ways than tearing apart Seth MacFarlane for doing what a comedian does. A similar argument about women in Hollywood was made by Katherine Lampher in The Christian Science Monitor, though she is less forgiving of the host.

MacFarlane is not a traditional stand-up comic or performer by trade. He has hosted Comedy Central roasts and private ceremonies like the Writer’s Guild Awards, but the global exposure of the Oscar stage is new to him. Still, the Academy leadership and the show’s producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were willing to take a chance on him, and he took the chance too. Not only did he take it, but he jumped into the deep end. According to Zadan and Meron, MacFarlane was much more involved in all aspects of planning than most hosts. He attended every production meeting along the way, and threw himself into the process. Even at the show itself, he put himself out there more than the typical host just in the sheer amount of the proceedings that he participated in. I don’t remember another host being onstage as much as MacFarlane was. He introduced almost every presenter himself, a task that is usually more evenly split between the host and the anonymous, disembodied announcer. He also was there to throw to each commercial break with a tease of what was coming up. The guy was working it. Many critics described him as coming off smug, amateurish and self-involved. I disagree completely. I think he was comfortable, confident, and fulfilled a host’s duties admirably. He was enjoying himself, and wasn’t afraid to show it. Not every joke landed, but he was quick on his feet when something fell flat. After the off-color joke describing John Wilkes Booth as the actor who “really got inside Lincoln’s head” did little to impress the crowd, he swiftly recovered by expressing surprise that 150 years was still too soon, and that he had some Napoleon jokes coming up that would really make them mad. When his joke about the heavy use of the N word in the Django Unchained script being based on Mel Gibson’s voicemails elicited an uncomfortable reaction, he went with it by asking, “Oh, so you’re on his side?”

Critics were too busy sharpening their knives to notice many of his safer but still funny lines throughout the night, like introducing presenters Zoe Saldana and Chris Pine as “current Star Trek stars and future Priceline.com spokespeople,” or bringing out Daniel Radcliffe and Kristen Stewart with the line, “He’s a boy wizard and she’s a girl vampire. So together they’re pretty much everything the Christian right says is wrong with Hollywood.” He took aim at the Academy’s general failure to nominate blockbusters by describing The Avengers as “the most popular movie of the year, which is why it’s only nominated once.” And he had a great line about the cast of Prometheus coming out to explain “what the hell was going on there.” His bit about Daniel Day-Lewis’ immersive method being challenged by encountering signs of modernity like cell phones and a free-roaming Don Cheadle was terrific. And he got off to a great start with his opening line of the night, “The quest to make Tommy Lee Jones laugh beings now,” a reference to Jones’ stone-faced reaction to a hilarious Will Ferrell-Kristin Wiig bit at the Golden Globes. MacFarlane succeeded, as the side-by-side shows.

The fact is that much more of MacFarlane’s material worked than didn’t. Sure, there were some groans and a few examples of muted applause, but by and large the audience was with him. These critics who ripped his performance should try listening to the room. Perhaps the noises at their Oscar party, or the sound of indignation boiling in their own heads drowned out the consistent laughter of the crowd that followed most of his jokes. The same thing was true of Letterman’s hosting gig. People still talk about it as a failure, but if they actually go back and watch, they’ll find that Letterman was a hit with the audience. Hosting the Oscars is always described as a thankless job, and the reaction to MacFarlane’s performance goes a long way toward proving it. People complain when they think the host is too bland or safe, and they complain when the host pushes buttons and dares to slightly shake up an event which they describe, year after year, as dull and bloated. Make up your minds, assholes. Or better yet, shut up altogether. The Academy’s risk in hiring MacFarlane paid off with a show that accomplished two positive things: it got people talking, and scored the best ratings in four years, with a significant gain in the 18-49 demographic that is probably due, at least in some part, to MacFarlane. I’m happy to see they have defended him in the face of the negative onslaught.

For those who disliked MacFarlane’s performance and might see some victory in his post-ceremony tweet that he would never host the show again, they should know that he said the same thing before the show even happened, citing the amount of work and the time commitment. I hope that when it comes time to choose the next host later this year, the Academy leadership and show producers – whoever they may be – don’t play it safe as a reaction to this backlash, and instead once again choose someone interesting but still appropriate (i.e., a comedian). Last year, right after the Academy’s new president Hawk Koch was elected, there were rumors that he had reached out to Lorne Michaels to produce the show and Jimmy Fallon to host. ABC supposedly didn’t like the idea of Fallon, time-slot rival to their own Jimmy Kimmel, hosting a big program on their network, so it didn’t pan out. Or so the story goes. But Michaels and Fallon…now that’s an Oscar combo I’d love to see. As for Tina Fey’s insistence that she would never host? That’s kinda like what J.J. Abrams said about directing Star Wars. I’m sure she could be convinced.

THE AWARDS
Now with all of that out of the way, we can get to what the show is actually about. This year, the wealth was nicely spread around, with eight of the nine Best Picture nominees winning at least one award. Only Beasts of the Southern Wild went home empty-handed, but let’s be honest: for such an outside-the-mainstream, low-budget film from a 30 year-old first time director, just being at the Academy Awards with four major nominations was a huge victory. Life of Pi led the night with four awards, Argo and Les Misérables took home three, Lincoln and Django Unchained each won two, while Silver Linings Playbook, Amour and Zero Dark Thirty all claimed one. Non-Best Picture nominees Skyfall, Anna Karenina and Brave also emerged as winners.

-For my own part, out of 24 categories, I called 19 correctly, missed three (Supporting Actor, Makeup and Hairstyling, Production Design) and abstained from two (Live Action Short, Documentary Short). Better than I thought I would do in this unusually unpredictable year. Many of my personal picks missed out, but I was largely satisfied with the slate of nominations this year, so I felt good about how things unfolded. There were no travesties of Oscar justice or unexplainable headscratchers.

-Chief among the new records set and pieces of trivia inscribed was Daniel Day-Lewis becoming the first person to win three Best Actor awards. He also became the first actor to win for a Steven Spielberg movie. Argo became the fourth movie to win Best Picture without its director being nominated. At age 22, Jennifer Lawrence became the second youngest Best Actress winner ever, behind Marlee Matlin, who was 21 when she won for Children of a Lesser God. “Skyfall” became the first song from a James Bond movie to win, and George Clooney joined some elite clubs this year, as the person to receive nominations in more categories than anyone else, and only the sixth person to win in both acting and non-acting categories.

-Of all the awards, the one that surprised me most was Christoph Waltz’s Best Supporting Actor win for Django Unchained. Not because I didn’t see it coming at all (I predicted De Niro, but acknowledged that Waltz and Tommy Lee Jones both had a strong chance), but because it just seems strange that Waltz is now a two-time Oscar winner. He’s great, and I’ve enjoyed not just his winning performances, but those he gave in between in Carnage and Water for Elephants, but a two-time Oscar winner? After less than five years in Hollywood? It’s a neat, but slightly bewildering accomplishment, especially considering that his characters in Inglourious Basterds and Django aren’t that far apart. He joins an impressive roster of two-timers that includes Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Marlon Brando, Jack Lemmon, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Gene Hackman, Jodie Foster, Anthony Quinn, Maggie Smith, Denzel Washington and Jessica Lange. Waltz’s win is a testament to how much voters obviously enjoyed his performance, and how expert he is at delivering Tarantino’s dialogue. It really is a match made in heaven with those two.

-The other big surprise of the night, though less high-profile, was the tie in the Best Sound Editing category. It was only the sixth tie in Academy history, and lent some unexpected drama to a category that doesn’t get its due from the average movie or Oscar viewer.

-The Best Animated Film win for Brave was a nice triumph for Brenda Chapman, who conceived the film based on personal experience and was Pixar’s first female director until she was replaced during production by Mark Andrews. It was a shocking development at the time, with almost no details given, though ultimately Chapman shared directing credit on the film with Andrews. Now she’s an Oscar winner, and whatever tension might exist between them, you would never know from the way they interacted on stage or in the press room, where they posed for some goofy pictures. (One thing, though: if I were Andrews, I’d probably have hung back so Chapman could speak first.)

-One of the other big stories that has emerged from Oscar night, though less visibly to the average viewer than the MacFarlane brouhaha, centers on the Best Visual Effects triumph for Life of Pi. As I had mentioned in my predictions post, this widely expected win occurred under a storm cloud: Rhythm & Hues, the primary visual effects house that worked on the movie, has been in financial trouble recently and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy a few weeks ago. When the quartet of winners took the stage, speaker Bill Westenhofer thanked Ang Lee, the talented crew and his family before bringing up the sad irony of winning the Oscar as the company – and the entire VFX industry – is in such dire straits.

As a former employee of a VFX company, with many friends still there, I hear about these issues often. In simplest terms, studios want to pay as little as possible for visual effects (and for everything else, no doubt). In order to secure business, facilities have to bid the work at numbers far below the actual cost. Compounding the problem, other countries offer tax incentives and cheaper labor to the studios in order to lure business (within the U.S., other states outside of California, where the industry was born and raised, also have tax incentives). The result is that VFX artists increasingly live migrant lifestyles, bouncing around from shop to shop, state to state, sometimes country to country in order to make a living, and even then they still have to put in impossible hours to complete the work on time as studios demand increasingly complex visuals at lower and lower prices on shorter and shorter delivery schedules.  The piece of the pie these companies and artists receive is small to nonexistent, and they are not represented by a union. Despite the fact that year after year, the highest grossing movies are driven by visual effects, the industry is being destroyed by the studios which are unsurprisingly fixated on their bottom line. Rhythm & Hues is just the latest company to go under, and everyone in the industry is feeling the squeeze. VFX artists organized a protest near the Dolby Theater on Oscar night to call attention to the problem, and newly minted Oscar winner Westenhofer tried to address the issue…until the orchestra started playing the Jaws theme to send him on his way, an obnoxious though not atypical move at the Oscars year after year. Then they cut his microphone altogether – more obnoxious, less typical.

When the winners arrived on stage, there was unusually loud applause and hooting from the audience. Maybe there were just a lot of Pi fans out there, or maybe people were happy to see this team win in the face of R&H’s financial difficulties. Either way, Westenhofer hadn’t been talking that long before the music started to play, and cutting off the microphone was a real bullshit move. I’ve said time and time again that whether it makes compelling TV or not, winners should be allowed to complete their speeches. Most are considerate enough not to drone on endlessly. Oscar night is first and foremost about the film community honoring its own, and so the honorees should be accorded the respect of having their moment.

All that said, the VFX community reacted harshly not just to Westenhofer’s treatment, but to two other speeches of the night, complaining that Ang Lee and Best Cinematography winner Claudio Miranda didn’t thank or acknowledge the work of the VFX artists. I’m less sympathetic to these rebukes. First of all, most people who take the stage to accept an Oscar are not used to being in that kind of spotlight. By all accounts, it’s an extremely surreal and disorienting experience. Even a pro like Jennifer Lawrence was quickly at a loss for words, and forgot to thank her director David O. Russell and the all-powerful Harvey Weinstein. When Hilary Swank won her first Best Actress award, she famously forgot to thank her husband. People are not always at their most eloquent or most focused in that moment. If you saw Miranda’s speech, the guy could barely speak coherently, and acknowledged as much. I’m not about to accuse him of slighting the VFX teams. As for Lee, he began his speech by thanking the 3,000 people who worked with him on Life of Pi. No, he didn’t call out Rhythm & Hues specifically, which would have been nice given what’s happening to them. But I don’t believe that not mentioning them was disrespectful or meant to neglect their invaluable work. I’m sure every contributor to the movie could make an argument for why their discipline should be mentioned. The problems in the effects industry are bad, but they are not singular. Plenty of other sectors of the economy, in and out of the film industry, face problems comparable to those the VFX industry is caught in. Members of the VFX community  should be upset about what’s happening, but they should also focus on the real problem and not lash out at people who didn’t thank them in an award speech. The industry could absolutely benefit from even just a couple of powerful, respected directors taking up the cause with the studios – a James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, David Fincher or Tim Burton – somebody who understands the importance of VFX, uses them consistently and has made the studios a lot of money. But the difference is not going to be made by a quick mention in an Oscar speech, and VFX artists would do better to direct their ire elsewhere and cut these guys some slack.

-Not all the drama on Oscar night happened on stage. I liked this story, about a producer of Best Animated Short winner Paperman being temporarily ejected from the auditorium for throwing a few paper airplanes from her seat when the movie won.

-Poor Anne Hathaway. Some people really just don’t like that girl. I’m not one of them, and although I have described her before as sometimes coming off as over-the-top in her eagerness and enthusiasm, I usually find her to be a class act with a good sense of humor. She has been ridiculed by people throughout the season for some of her speeches (she’s given a lot of them), which have been called insincere and rehearsed. Rehearsed? She’s admitted to practicing her speeches, but how is that any different from writing a speech or a list of names and reading from it? It’s just a different way of being prepared in case you win. I think what people have called a lack of sincerity is actually an abundance of it; she’s so sincere that it bugs people. Throughout the awards season I’ve found her speeches to be gracious, warm and genuine. She’s consistently and eloquently acknowledged her co-nominees, her cast and crew, and she has impressively avoided breaking down in a fit of tears, which…c’mon, Hathaway totally seems like the type who might lose it when winning an award, especially an Oscar. But she hasn’t and she didn’t. So don’t let the haters harsh your buzz, Anne. (I will say though, I wish you had cracked a joke about being back on the Oscar stage for the first time since your maligned hosting gig. And it would have been funny if you thanked Susan Boyle. And it would have been cool for you to mention that your mother played Fantine years ago in a traveling production of Les Misérables, making your win for playing the same character even more special. Cause that does make it more special, right? Or have I crossed an inappropriate line from telling winners what they should say to telling them what they should feel as well?

-The best speeches of the night came toward the end of the show. I still think Lincoln writer Tony Kushner should have taken home the Best Adapted Screenplay award, but I really liked what Argo winner Chris Terrio said about using intelligence and creativity to solve problems nonviolently.

I also liked Quentin Tarantino’s speech, calling out the actors who bring his characters to such memorable life, as well as all the other nominated writers for doing such great work.

Daniel Day-Lewis, always great with a speech, was no different last night, and once again had the crowd rolling as he described how he and presenter Meryl Streep had swapped roles, Abraham Lincoln for Margaret Thatcher. I kept hearing comments from people who were surprised by his humor, but in my previous post I provided links to other speeches Day-Lewis has given throughout the season, all of which have shown him to be as funny as he is humble and appreciative. How great would it be to see Day-Lewis in an intelligent, highbrow comedy? Somebody needs to get him in a room with Alexander Payne!

Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence took a spill on the way to the stage to accept her award, but superstar that she is, she humorously and gracefully brushed it off and went on to deliver an appreciative speech, despite her spinning head causing her to forget a few key people (which she rectified later).

And when Ben Affleck got to make his speech for Argo‘s Best Picture win, he once again spoke from the heart, echoing his BAFTA speech by thanking the people who have helped him rebuild his career. It’s a shame that Affleck missed out on the Directing nomination, because he almost certainly would have won had he been there. But given the way his career is going, he may get another chance before too long.

THE PRODUCTION
The show may have been long and overstuffed this year, but the stuffing was at least well-made, and attractively presented. The sets were beautiful, and I especially liked the background that looked like hundreds of slender stalks of light. It was like an electronic-age update of the set for The Police video “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” I half expected to see Sting frolicking in between the rows of light.

(Click Image to Enlarge)

-Once again, the show was directed by Don Mischer, and once again he proved he sucks at this. To his credit, he did better than the last two years when it came to showcasing celebrities in the crowd, but he still failed to spread the wealth around and provide a sense of the famous faces in the room. There was a point in the show when MacFarlane acknowledged the show’s producers Zadan and Meron, and then director Mischer, calling the latter “masterful.” At that moment, the master cut away to his favorite thing: a wide shot of the middle of the auditorium, with no recognizable faces. Later, when MacFarlane said, “How great was Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty?” Mischer again cut to middle of the crowd, where we caught a glimpse of Renee Zellweger and Queen Latifah, but not Jessica Chastain nor anyone we recognized as connected to Zero Dark Thirty.  When Reese Witherspoon was onstage introducing the first three Best Picture nominees, the camera cut to the contingent for the first two, Les Misérables and Life of Pi. But for some reason, despite knowing where all the nominees would be seated, the cutaway that should have showed the Beasts of the Southern Wild camp instead found Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. It would have been nice to have one shot all night of Beasts director Benh Zeitlin, to show the new kid on the block reacting to his first Oscar experience. But the only time Zeitlin was on camera was during the few seconds when the envelope for the Best Director award was opened. All the directors were on camera at the moment, except for David O. Russell, who was for some reason replaced with Emmanuelle Riva. It’s not like Mischer didn’t know where to send his cameramen to get the right person in the shot, but nevertheless he failed to do so. Throughout the night, he missed obvious opportunities to cut to certain audience members when they were being mentioned from the stage. Some of those mentions were spontaneous, and maybe a cameraman couldn’t get there in time, but others were during planned portions of the show, like the aforementioned Best Picture intros. He couldn’t have cut to the Lincoln or Zero Dark Thirty crews when their movies were discussed? This is the third year in a row that Mischer has directed the show, and the third year in a row that the show has been incompetently directed. When are they gonna dump this guy? I’m sure he’s nice and all, but maybe it’s time he hung up his headset.

-Speaking of those Best Picture montages, kudos to whoever put them together. They were nicely assembled, providing a good sense of each movie and not just looking like excerpts from the trailers.

-The majority of The Avengers cast – Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner and Samuel L. Jackson – took the stage to present awards for Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects. After cinematographer Claudio Miranda had finished his speech and left the stage, the presenters returned to the mic and, as you saw in the clip above, Jackson started to announce the Visual Effects nominees before Renner and Ruffalo interrupted him and told him he had just skipped a bunch of text. Downey started to chime in with some words about it being a big year for effects-driven films, but Jackson comically argued that they should honor the artists by simply presenting the award. It was an awkward bit of business, since it wasn’t clear if Jackson really had skipped a chunk of the presentation, or if the jokey bickering was in fact planned and there was no skipped material after all. I still don’t know the answer, but if it was the former, then the visual effects community was slighted again…and this time it would be worth getting pissed.

-The James Bond tribute was a bit of a disappointment. The producers said in an interview before the show that the intent was always to focus on the music of Bond, in keeping with the theme of the night, and that there was never a plan for the six actors who’ve played 007 to unite onstage. There were still rumors that there had indeed been an attempt to bring the Bonds together, but that Sean Connery and perhaps Pierce Brosnan were holdouts, killing the whole deal. Regardless, even as just a tribute to the music of Bond, the presentation was lacking. After a nice intro by Oscar winner and Die Another Day Bond girl Halle Berry, we were treated to a run-of-the-mill montage accompanied by the James Bond Theme, and then an instrumental of “Live and Let Die.” Not even the actual song with lyrics, but just an instrumental. I did enjoy the way that dovetailed right into the arrival of Shirley Bassey, looking great at 76, who belted out an impressive rendition of “Goldfinger.” I applaud Meron and Zadan for getting Bassey onto the show, but the rest of the tribute was sub par. Why was “Live and Let Die” the only song featured, and why was it not even the actual song? Where was “For Your Eyes Only” or “Nobody Does It Better”? Could they not have gotten at least one or two more singers to come on the show and perform their songs, at least partial versions, if they were concerned about time? Why not fold Adele’s performance of “Skyfall” into this segment, with more Bond clips projected behind her? (And when she did perform later in the show, why was she set so far back instead of out closer to the audience? Bad staging, that.) The tribute was a nice idea, but it should have been better.

-Did anyone notice that as Seth MacFarlane began to acknowledge the orchestra, the music swelled so loud that he could barely be heard, then sharply pulled back before rising again almost loud enough to drown him out as he continued his salute to their contribution? No? Nobody? Well…it made me laugh.

-The tribute to recent movie musicals was another mixed bag. It was strange to begin with that only three movies were featured, especially when one  – Chicago – was executive produced by Meron and Zadan, and another – Les Misérables – was a nominee for Best Picture, giving it more attention than any of the competition. Why focus on recent musicals only? Maybe because the Oscars featured a big tribute to movie musicals just a few years ago, when Hugh Jackman hosted? Okay, so they wanted to spotlight musicals of the last decade, rather than the decades worth featured in that big number from the 2008 show. Even then, why just Chicago, Dreamgirls and Les Misérables? There were plenty of other movie musicals to showcase. How about Sweeney Todd, Nine and Moulin Rouge? The Producers, Hairspray and The Muppets? Even Team America and A Prairie Home Companion could qualify as musicals. But these movies were all ignored.

As it was, the tribute began with Catherine Zeta-Jones performing “All That Jazz”, but it seemed a bit pointless since the whole number was staged exactly as it was in the movie. Why not try to bring something new to it, at least? (I also read some comments online that Jones was clearly lip-synching, but if it was true, I didn’t notice.) She was followed by Jennifer Hudson belting out “And I Am Telling You”, her signature number from Dreamgirls. The power of her vocals brought the crowd to their feet, but I’m not crazy about the song, which lacks a compelling melody and just seems designed for an impressive voice to screech and roar. The best number of the tribute was easily the Les Misérables medley. I was concerned this would flop, as medleys always run the risk of being corny. But it turned out to be excellent. It started off with a solo Hugh Jackman performing the nominated song “Suddenly”, then nearly all of the film’s main cast joined in bit by bit for the soaring number “One Day More”, with a dash of “I Dreamed a Dream” for good measure. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen’s presence seemed to be for inclusion’s sake only, since neither got to solo or even duet, and they aren’t actually part of “One Day More” in the film. Still, the whole performance was stellar (even Russell Crowe, whose singing in the film has earned more derision than it deserves) and was the highlight of the segment.

-One of the coolest things the Academy did this year was hold a contest for film students asking them to make a 30 second video explaining what they would contribute to the future of movies. Six winners were selected and invited to the Oscars to help hand out the statues, in lieu of the nameless spokesmodel types that usually do the honors, and Academy president Hawk Koch even introduced them all by name. I could have done without that part; no offense to them, but that time would be better spent letting a winner complete their speech. But the contest and opportunity is a great idea, and I hope the Academy makes it a new tradition. The winning videos can be seen here. (I like the second and third.)

-Why do people keep asking Kristen Stewart to present awards? She’s terrible at it. Whatever charisma or talent she brings to her performances, she brings none of it to her real life public appearances. She mumbles, she fidgets, she looks down, over and around…if it’s an effort to court younger fans, there are plenty of others who can accomplish that.

-Why does Kristen Stewart keep agreeing to present awards? She has often admitted that she’s uncomfortable and awkward in the spotlight, which is fully apparent from the way she mumbles, fidgets and looks down, over and around as if she can’t wait to get off the stage. Maybe she looked so sullen because of her fresh Razzie win for the final Twilight movie. Nah…she always looks that sullen.

-Although the emphasis on Chicago was a sort of ego-stroking gesture on the part of Meron and Zadan, it was nice to see Richard Gere, Renee Zellweger, Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones present together. Where has Zellweger been these last few years? And where was John C. Reilly? I hope his absence was due to unavailability, because if they failed to invite him, that would be an egregious oversight…not to mention an ironic one for the guy who sang “Mr. Cellophane.”

-It seemed a little odd and unfair that only three of the five Best Original Song nominees were performed live on the show. After Hugh Jackman sang as part of the Les Misérables medley and Adele got a big moment to sing “Skyfall”, Norah Jones was trotted out in the middle of the Best Song presentation to perform “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” from Ted. It’s not a long song to begin with, but even so it was a truncated version. And did Jones even have time to exit the stage before the envelope was opened declaring a different song the winner? (Not that Jones would have taken the Oscar had the song won, as she didn’t write it, but still…kinda makes her performance, which already felt like an afterthought, seem all the more pointless.) Then there are the other two nominees, which were only featured as clips. “Before My Time” from Chasing Ice was performed in the film by Scarlett Johansson, who wasn’t at the Oscars due to her schedule on Broadway, but they could have found somebody else to perform the song. And “Pi’s Lullaby”, performed by Bombay Jayashree, would have lended itself to a nice visual presentation if the producers had worked it into the show. Maybe there was a reason they didn’t…but like I said, it seemed odd.

-Only two things were less surprising than wins by Daniel Day-Lewis and Anne Hathaway: Iran complaining about Argo‘s Best Picture win, and idiots complaining about Michelle Obama. Yes, when Jack Nicholson came out to present Best Picture, he introduced a surprise co-presenter. The First Lady appeared onscreen via satellite from The White House (awkwardly flanked by a number of military personnel in what looked like the most uncomfortable reception ever). The First Lady, of course, was all class and elegance as she talked about the importance of movies and then opened the envelope to reveal Argo as the winner. The idea to have Mrs. Obama on the show came from Harvey Weinstein’s daughter, and Weinstein helped make it happen. I suppose this year was a fitting one for something like that, with a number of Best Picture nominees being so politically relevant (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, even Beasts of the Southern Wild and Les Misérables), but really it was just intended as an unexpected treat. Of course, not everyone saw it that way. Blowhards who feel the need to politicize everything expressed their disgust at the First Lady’s appearance. I love reading through some of the comments mentioned in this article, because it demonstrates what imbeciles these people are. I expected them all to be conservatives, but I stand corrected: one of the quoted douchebags is MSNBC commentator Donny Deutsch, whose remarks include calling Mrs. Obama “uninvited.” Yeah, that’s right, dipshit. She just took over the satellite feed and inserted herself into the Oscars. Do you know what “invited” means? You should look it up, and then use it properly, because you can’t possibly be stupid enough to think that she crashed the Oscars. Then there’s conservative Jennifer Rubin’s comment about Mrs. Obama “intruding” and feeling “entitled.” Hey moron, it’s not intruding when you’re asked to be there, nor are you being entitled when you accept an invitation. And to the Fox News fuckwad, Todd Starnes, how did Mrs. Obama “make it about herself?” She was asked to be there, and she talked about movies – same as any other presenter. Surely the conservative critics would have had complete respect for the Oscars had Michelle Obama not appeared, because, you know, conservatives love Hollywood. And as the article above points out, other First Ladies and even Presidents, including Laura Bush and Ronald Reagan, have been involved in past Oscar ceremonies, either in pre-taped appearances or in the case of FDR, a live radio address in 1941. So get over it. I’m only interested in one narrow-minded, politicized Oscar critique, and that’s Stephen Colbert’s.

Anyway, my only issue with Mrs. Obama’s presentation was her overly worshipful talk about the impact of movies. Not her fault; I’m sure it was written for her, and that sort of inflated praise is a hallmark of Oscar night. The Academy loves to give presenters long paragraphs about the power of movies. I love movies like I love little else, but even I tend to roll my eyes at this. Other than that, I thought the First Lady’s involvement was pretty cool. And I’m glad to see she’s brushing off the criticism without a second thought.

THE DRESSES
While critics were busy tearing up Seth MacFarlane for demeaning women, others in the media engaged in the time honored tradition of passing judgement on dresses and gowns, and by extension, the ladies wearing them. Well who am I to question this practice? I appreciate a nice Oscar dress and the person inside it as much as anyone, and among those whose Oscar night looks jumped out for me were Halle Berry, Jennifer Aniston, Kerry Washington, Jennifer Lawrence, Sandra Bullock, Samantha Barks, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Garner, Helen Hunt, Naomi Watts and Jessica Chastain.

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Ladies, kudos to your good taste and your designers’ skills. And you’re all damn fine actresses to boot.

THE INDEPENDENT SPIRIT AWARDS
As always, Oscar Sunday was preceded by the breezier, more casual Saturday celebration at the beach in Santa Monica known as the Independent Spirit Awards. I like to take a detour and mention these, since they can sometimes be forgotten in the shadow of the golden guy. Silver Linings Playbook was the big winner, with awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. John Hawkes and Helen Hunt won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, for their roles in The Sessions, while Best Supporting Actor went to Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike.

The Spirit Awards are typically a loose and irreverent affair, and there are usually some great moments to emerge, whether courtesy of hosts, winners or presenters. The highlight this year came with the first award, Best First Screenplay, which was awarded to Derek Connolly for Safety Not Guaranteed. Although he seemed a little shell-shocked when he took the stage, he spoke logically and coherently. Well apparently he was totally plastered and just kept going on and on. I don’t know what happened in the room, but the TV broadcast, which was an edited version of the show and aired later in the day, jumped ahead five minutes to an amusing effort by Bryan Cranston to help presenter Kerry Washington get Connolly off the stage. The blitzed winner seemed oblivious to their intent, but finally allowed himself, with a bemused grin, to be led offstage.

The clip below covers the first fifteen minutes of the show, which includes a great opening monologue by host Andy Samberg, and the announcement of Connolly’s category. It ends as his name is called, and you can click here for the next segment, to see the bizarre moment that transpired when he got onstage. Those who felt the Oscars were too heavy on jokes about women and decried the lack of dick humor would do well to watch Samberg’s opening.

And with that, the 2012 awards season finally comes to a close…unless you’re holding out for the MTV Movie Awards in April (nominations were just announced…and surprisingly, given their track record of late, it’s a solidly non-embarrassing line-up). It’s been one of the more unusual years on the awards circuit that I can remember, with the kind of excitement, tension and twists worthy of the movies themselves. I’m sure next year will go back to business as usual, with a bunch of frontrunners on an inevitable march to victory. But here’s hoping for some similar excitement.

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