I Am DB

February 21, 2015

Oscars 2014: The Envelope Please

In past years, I’ve called this post “My Annual Absurdly Long Predictions Opus,” but that no longer felt right since this post is never actually as long as the one in which I attempt to predict the nominees — a stage at which many more movies are in play than now, when the field has been narrowed down. Sure, this piece is always long, but by my usual verbose standards it’s really not absurdly long. So beginning next year, I may transplant the “Absurdly Long” title to my nominations predictions post. For this one, I’ll take the opportunity of a fresh start to use an antiquated phrase that no one actually says at the Oscars or any other awards show anymore but which is somehow still a Thing in the culture.

Anyway, where were we we? Ahh yes, Oscar predictions. Last year, I worked backwards through the categories all the way up to Best Picture because there were some unique elements to the race that made that approach more logical. This year, I’m going to try it again, because it might just be a better way to go in general.

As usual, I’m afraid (and embarrassed) that I have nothing to offer you in the Documentary, Live Action and Animated Shorts categories, nor can I wade into Best Foreign Language Film or Best Documentary Feature. (Well…Doc Feature is probably going to be Citizenfour.) Maybe some day I’ll get my act together with these films. In the meantime…

BEST SOUND MIXING & BEST SOUND EDITING
The four nominees common to both categories are American Sniper, Birdman, Interstellar and Unbroken. Sound Mixing also has Whiplash, while Sound Editing has The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which is the only nominee I’m willing to say has no real shot. In the absence of a clear below-the-line juggernaut like last year’s Gravity, any of these seem like conceivable winners. Sniper, Birdman and Unbroken each won an award from the Motion Picture Sound Editors, which breaks their discipline down into specific categories, while The Cinema Audio Society, which honors sound mixers, gave their award to Birdman (with Sniper, Interstellar and Unbroken all among the nominees.) My suspicion is that once you factor in votes from the Academy members outside of the sound field, Birdman falls away because most people won’t think of it as a “Sound” movie. Then again, it’s probably the most widely admired movie in each line-up, so that often makes the difference. Both categories could go any number of ways, with Sniper the likeliest candidate to double-up, but my guess is that they split this year. Sound Editing, which recognizes the creation of sounds that were not captured during filming, goes to American Sniper. Sound Mixing, which honors the blending of sound effects, dialogue, music and all other sonic components, goes to Whiplash.

Personal: I really have no horse in this race, but if not Whiplash for Sound Mixing, I’d love to see it go to Interstellar as a middle finger to everyone who complained about the mix and couldn’t see what director Christopher Nolan was going for.


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BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

For the first time since 2007, none of the Best Picture nominees are also up for Best Visual Effects. That’s worth noting  because without an obvious winner like Avatar or Gravity, this category is sometimes claimed by whichever Best Picture nominee is among the options, and that’s not always the movie with the most deserving visual effects work. Though to be fair, most of the post-2008 winners of this category — The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Avatar, Inception, Life of Pi and Gravity — deserved the trophy. The only exception was in 2011, when Hugo somehow beat Rise of the Planet of the Apes (as well as the easily more deserving Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and Transformers: Dark of the Moon). Voters have a chance to rectify that error this year by voting for what is hands-down the most impressive achievement in the category, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Building on the motion capture technology that was already impressive when it was used to help create Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Apes is a movie that puts these digitally-rendered characters front and center. Actors like Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell perform the primates (exceptionally, I might add), but the figures we actually see in the movie are created by visual effects. These are lead characters, holding the camera in long close-ups and often conveying emotions silently. They do not exist without the visual effects work, and yet we never for a moment question their presence. We never stop to think, “Hey, this ape wasn’t actually there on set acting opposite Keri Russell or these other live human people.”  Yet they never come across as less than 100% real. It’s incredible, incredible work.

The question is, are voters really tuning into that? I fear that too many of them might not have seen Apes and/or don’t understand how impressive its effects are. The closest thing to a Best Picture nominee in the category is Interstellar, and they’ll probably go with that instead. Nolan’s sci-fi drama has lovely work for sure, but shows nothing that we haven’t seen in a dozen other outer space movies. There’s also the chance that voters could skip the prestige film and go for the super fun movie that they, like everyone else in America, loved: Guardians of the Galaxy. There will absolutely be people who vote for it because they want to see it win something. Will there be enough? Maybe, but I’m going with Interstellar all the same. I hope I’m wrong. I’d gladly surrender the bragging rights of a correct prediction in order for such an astounding accomplishment to be recognized.

Personal: I think it’s pretty clear that in my eyes there’s no contest. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, all the way.

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BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Only three nominees in this category, but none can be dismissed. Guardians of the Galaxy has aliens with blue skin, green skin, yellow skin, red eyes and all manner of other eccentric appearances, all of it elegantly and expertly applied. The Grand Budapest Hotel, with the exception of Tilda Swinton’s brief turn as an elderly countess, features more grounded work with lots of moustaches and carefully coiffed hair, plus Saoirse Ronan’s Mexico-shaped facial birthmark. Foxcatcher‘s makeup centers on making Steve Carell look like the creepy John du Pont by changing up his nose, teeth, eyes and hair. The work in all three films is highly effective, and all seem like plausible winners. Foxcatcher fans may want to throw it a bone, and many voters may choose this category over Visual Effects as a place to give something to Guardians. My sense is that the overall appreciation for Grand Budapest will extend here and carry it to victory, but anything feels possible.

Personal: I’m partial to the colorful, exotic work on Guardians of the Galaxy.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Gary Yershon’s nomination for Mr. Turner was a nice surprise, but we can rule it out right away. I’d give Hans Zimmer’s score for Interstellar better odds if the movie were nominated in some of the top categories. I’m not sure why that seems more important for its chances here than in the visual effects or sound categories, but it does. That leaves The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel. With the latter two, Alexandre Desplat collects his 7th and 8th nominations, all the more impressive considering that his first was only in 2006. He’s still awaiting his first win, and it could come for either of those Best Picture nominees, both of which feature distinctive scores that nicely complement their movies. The Theory of Everything seems to be the favorite, however. It won the Golden Globe, and its classical stylings are certainly pretty. But it also strikes me as having the least amount of personality among the contenders. As I think I say year after year, I’m always looking for a score that not only works for the movie but also as a listening experience on its own. I was pleased to see a recent interview with Desplat on In Contention in which he described that as something he strives for:

It’s the goal I’ve always tried to achieve, writing music for a film that can stand on its own. That’s the lesson that John Williams has given to all of us. And Bernard Herrmann has given all of us. And Nino Rota. And Georges Delerue: to write great music for a film that can stand on its own.
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s The Theory of Everything score definitely has recurring motifs, but to my ear it’s the least singular among the nominees. I like it, but think there are better choices to be made here. Sadly, my ear has no vote. Keeping that in mind, I’d say Theory may well prove victorious in the end, but I’m giving a slight edge to Desplat’s playful, Eastern European-influenced work on The Grand Budapest Hotel, which captured the British Academy Award (BAFTA) and just won a Grammy earlier this month.

Personal:
Interstellar. Christopher Nolan’s movies are so visceral and physically affecting, and Zimmer’s music is often a big part of the reason. His work in Interstellar soars and carries us with it.
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BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Should I be embarrassed that I didn’t know who Glen Campbell was until I started to hear about this song? Granted, I’m not much of a country music guy, but I know the names of most of the big artists in that genre all the same. Apparently Glen Campbell is a country legend, but somehow he was never on my radar. If anyone else is in the same boat, this article served as a nice introduction, even though it’s mostly specific to the documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, which follows the tour he embarked on even as he fell victim to Alzheimer’s Disease. His nominated song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”, which frankly addresses his affliction, comes from that movie and won a Grammy a couple of weeks ago. It’s sweet and simple, and could be a sentimental favorite.
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The catchiest of the nominees is surely The LEGO Movie‘s “Everything Is Awesome,” and I have no doubt it will capture a lot of votes, especially from fans of the movie disappointed by its absence from Best Animated Feature. But I don’t expect it to go all the way. Barring a swell of support for Campbell, I think the award will go to “Glory” from Selma. It’s a powerful song, and like “Everything Is Awesome,” some of its votes will probably come from people who thought Selma got the shaft. More people will vote for it for the former reason, but political motivations will help its case.

Personal:
It would be a kick to see “Everything Is Awesome” take it, but mine eyes have seen the “Glory.”
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BEST COSTUME DESIGN

I suppose I could offer some brief commentary on the other nominees, but what is there to say other than, “The Oscar goes to The Grand Budapest Hotel?”

Personal:
The exquisite threads of Grand Budapest tower over the competition.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

Pretty much the same can be said here. Admirable as the nominees are (though I’m still not sure how Interstellar got here), nothing holds a candle to the splendor of The Grand Budapest Hotel. These two design awards have been a long time coming to the work of Wes Anderson, and watching them both win will no doubt be among the ceremony’s more satisfying moments for me.
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Personal: Take a guess.
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BEST FILM EDITING

Birdman is notably absent from this category, and many Oscar observers have pointed out that its omission bodes ill for the movie’s Best Picture chances, citing a favorite annual statistic that no movie has won Best Picture without an editing nomination since Ordinary People in 1980. Yes, that’s true. Even Driving Miss Daisy was nominated for Film Editing. At the same time, that factoid is one of those little pieces of Oscar trivia that holds true until it doesn’t. Birdman may or may not win Best Picture, but its lack of an editing nomination is not a signal of its fate, and won’t be a factor either way. Does anyone honestly think that the average voter is looking over their ballot and drawing a line between Best Picture and Best Film Editing?
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The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel can probably be ruled out, leaving American Sniper, Boyhood and Whiplash, all films in which editing feels more central to their film’s total accomplishment. I say “feels” because voters, and most of us laymen, are usually voting on instinct here, not on any real understanding of the craft. The same can be said for most categories of course, but you can look at costumes or sets or visual effects, or you can listen to music, and come away with a clear opinion. That doesn’t mean the most deserving work in those categories wins; it just means that most of us can judge design more easily than the elusive art of editing.
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If Sniper wins here, it could signal bigger things to come. But I don’t think that will happen. It will come down to Whiplash and Boyhood, and I think the latter will emerge the winner for the sheer fact that editor Sandra Adair had to create a smooth and organic film from 12 years worth of footage, and did so with subtle, unassuming transitions. Whiplash is the more technically superior achievement, Boyhood the more emotionally effective one. Emotion will win the day.
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Personal: I can’t argue with Boyhood, but I’d have to go with the intensity of Whiplash.
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BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

In the analysis of Best Visual Effects, I mentioned this was the first time since 2007 that none of the nominees were also in the running for Best Picture. This is also the first time since 2007 that there is no common nominee between Best Visual Effects and Best Cinematography. For the past five years, in fact, both awards have gone to the same film: Avatar, Inception, Hugo, Life of Pi and Gravity. That alignment has been controversial to many cinephiles, as it suggests a blurring between the two disciplines that is not actually real and does a disservice to the artists in both arenas. So it’s nice this year to see a slate of nominees free of those implications, where the look of the film is clearly the work of the team running the camera. The category is full of terrific work, and there were many more stellar efforts that deserved nominations. Still, impressive as each of these are, how does this not go to Birdman? The one-continuous shot illusion is stunning enough, but consider the physical challenges behind implementing it, plus actually making what’s in the frame look good on top of just impressing with the technical prowess. It’s a rock star achievement, and for pulling it off, last year’s winner for Gravity Emmanuel Lubezki — Chivo, as he’s known to his friends and collaborators — will become the fifth back-to-back winner in this category.

Personal: It will be sad to see the great Roger Deakins — nominated for Unbroken — remain Oscarless after his 12th time at bat, but as good as his work (and all the rest here) is, anything other than Birdman will be a disappointment.

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BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Like Ben Affleck’s no-show in the Best Director category for Argo two years ago, the absence of The LEGO Movie is the kind of Oscar miss that really changes the race, because it so obviously would have won had it been here. But it’s not here, so who gets the gold? It’s unlikely that enough voters saw Song of the Sea or The Tale of Princess Kaguya for either to triumph, and even The Boxtrolls didn’t catch on as widely as Laika’s previous nominated films ParaNorman and Coraline. So it will come down to Big Hero 6 or How to Train Your Dragon 2, neither of which have a clear advantage or momentum over the other. There are those who think the sequel factor will hurt Dragon 2, and it may lose some votes on that count, but I don’t think most people will hold that against it. It was a well-reviewed box office hit, emotionally rich, beautifully animated, touching and funny. All of which apply to Big Hero 6 as well.

It’s pretty much a coin toss, and my guess is that it comes up tails. Because dragons have tails.

Personal: I was really sweet on Big Hero 6, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya was a quiet knockout. But I think I have to go with How to Train Your Dragon 2, partly to make up for the first film not winning. I didn’t enjoy the sequel quite as much, but I adore the original, which would have had my non-existent vote in 2010 had it not been up against the truly masterful, in-a-league-of-its-own Toy Story 3.

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BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The tricky thing about the screenplay categories is that the actual screenplay is not really what’s being judged. We all know that voters are not reading each screenplay and casting their vote based on what comes across on the page. Rather, they’re watching the movie and then working backwards, evaluating the quality of the writing and the structure, but from a finished product that has inevitably evolved from what was on the page even in the final shooting draft. The Adapted Screenplay category complicates things even further, because it’s unlikely that all the voters have read the source material for all the nominees, so they aren’t really judging the most effective translation of that source material to the screen.

If they were, perhaps Inherent Vice‘s Paul Thomas Anderson would stand a better chance for being the first person to adapt Thomas Pynchon, and for doing it so well. (From what I hear anyway. I haven’t read Inherent Vice, or any other Pynchon, but I’ve gathered that PTA nailed it). As it is though, Anderson is probably dragging in last place. To my continued surprise, American Sniper seems to have a lot of support, and that might come through here, but I don’t (or perhaps won’t) see how it can win. The Theory of Everything took the BAFTA, though I’ve read that the movie was particularly well-received in England. I’d be surprised if it repeats here. I see it coming down to The Imitation Game and Whiplash. There was a time when The Imitation Game seemed like it could be the movie to beat for Best Picture, but it’s been largely sidelined by the unexpected strength demonstrated by Birdman and Boyhood. It remains popular with Academy members though, and this looks like the last best place to honor it. Whiplash has plenty of admirers too, and their support could turn the beat around in its favor. But I’m going with The Imitation Game.

Personal: Tough call between Imitation, Vice and Whiplash. Any of the three would make me happy, but I think I’d go with Inherent Vice. It was a crazy, twisty plot that even PTA himself has acknowledged was hard to follow and was secondary to mood and tone, and yet for all its sprawling threads, it really does cohere. Can I explain to you the details of what happens in the movie? No. Yet I can see how the pieces all fit together. And on top of that, it’s really funny and kinda sad and all-around bewitching.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Nightcrawler and Foxcatcher are on the outside looking in, leaving the category a three-way race between Birdman, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel…just like Best Picture and Best Director. In fact, it’s difficult to talk through this category without pulling those two in as well.  From the time award season began in early December, these have been the three most honored movies of the year. Each one is the work of a visionary filmmaker, and it so happens that each filmmaker is a nominee in all three categories. So if the voters want to send all of them home with a prize, the prevailing logic is that Budapest‘s Wes Anderson wins here, while Boyhood‘s Richard Linklater and Birdman‘s Alejandro González Iñárritu could go either way for Best Picture and Best Director. Those two gents are in a showdown for those top two categories, so really this is the only place Anderson has a shot to win. He’s got the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) award, but didn’t have to face Birdman in that arena since it wasn’t eligible. He’s been nominated here before, he’s never won, and this movie has clearly captured the fancy of Academy members. On the other hand, Birdman is such an audacious piece of work, packed with rich ideas and operating on manifold levels. As for Boyhood, a couple of months ago it looked like it might be frontrunner here, but the screenplay isn’t the movie’s chief talking point. It’s now running in third, although if Academy members aren’t voting with the intention of making sure all three of these guys win something, then they may choose to give Linklater this award, save the two big ones for Birdman and send Anderson home empty-handed. I just don’t know. Will it be the honesty and simplicity of Boyhood, the fiery wit and boldness of Birdman, or the charm and utterly unique Wes Andersoness of The Grand Budapest Hotel? I’m betting on the latter.

Personal:  For me too, it comes down to Birdman and Budapest, and it’s a killer choice. If I rule out all other factors, I go with Birdman. But I would so love to see Wes Anderson win an Oscar, and who knows if he’ll ever be better positioned than he is right now. The Grand Budapest Hotel has a momentum that he’s never had before. In my first Oscar post of the season I talked about how little enthusiasm the Academy has shown to his films over the years. Grand Budapest has obviously struck a big chord with them, and with no way to know if this fortune will smile on him again, I’d love to see it capitalized on now. So this is tough for me. Birdman or Budapest. Either way I’ll be really happy and also little crestfallen.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Patricia Arquette’s buzz started when Boyhood debuted at Sundance, and when award season began, that buzz turned into booty. She’s won the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award, the BAFTA, the Golden Globe, the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) award, the New York Film Critics Circle award, the National Society of Film Critics award, and by the count I’ve kept, 21 additional regional or national critics prizes. The next closest tally was 4 wins for Jessica Chastain, who was passed over by the Academy. Upsets can always happen, but with this kind of momentum, any other choice seems unfathomable. Arquette takes it.*

Personal: There’s really no performance here that I find Oscar caliber. Laura Dern’s part in Wild was too small; Kiera Knightley didn’t do anything particularly impressive in The Imitation Game; Emma Stone was strong in Birdman, but lots of other actresses could have played that part just as well; and Meryl Streep didn’t seem to have a take on her character in Into the Woods. I like all these actresses, and with the exception of Streep, who just didn’t do it for me in this role, they all did solid, enjoyable, moving work. But an Oscar? Meh. As for Arquette, I’ll say it: I don’t get what the big deal about her performance is. I enjoyed her, I agree she does a really nice job, but the kind of dominance she’s had confounds me. With no clear favorite, I’d give it to her or Emma Stone, and not be especially committed either way.

*Note to orchestra: Since Boyhood doesn’t have an instrumental theme, when Arquette wins, can you please play Hans Zimmer’s “You’re So Cool” from her great 1994 film True Romance as she walks to the stage? Thank you.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Like Arquette, J.K. Simmons’ domination began at Sundance and never wavered. He’s won all the same awards I mentioned by name above, and 24 more along the way. Only Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo have siphoned awards away from him, and barely. Simmons is a respected character actor who’s earned fans and industry admirers with his varied work in movies and TV for years, and it’s rare for a guy in his position to get a role like this and a moment in the spotlight like the one afforded him by Whiplash. Everyone’s rooting for him. He’s got this in the bag.

Personal: Norton is so, so good in Birdman, and I wish the field were clear for him to take this. But like everyone else, I’m pulling for J.K. Simmons.

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BEST ACTRESS

It’s nice when the narrative that a certain actor’s “time” has come is attached to a performance for which they actually deserve to win. Such is the case this year with Julianne Moore. Consistently one of our finest actresses in all manner of genres and styles, Moore has been nominated four times prior to this, been inexplicably ignored a few (seriously, no nomination for The Kids Are All Right?) and maintained a high position on the list of actors overdue for an Oscar. Her name comes off that list this year, thanks to her matter-of-fact, utterly truthful work as a successful academic facing early onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice. She faced strong competition on the critic’s award circuit from Gone Girl‘s Rosamund Pike and Marion Cotillard of Two Days, One Night. But in the post-nominations phase, Moore has won all the big ones: SAG, BAFTA, BFCA, and Golden Globe. It’s her moment.

Personal: It really will be nice to see Julianne Moore finally holding that Oscar.

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BEST ACTOR

Despite their excellent work, Steve Carell and Benedict Cumberbatch are on the sidelines of this race. Bradley Cooper, who, I’m sorry, should be out in the parking lot somewhere, is being talked up as a potential spoiler in what we all assume will be a tight contest between Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne. One article I read made the good point that Cooper is a wild card. Having not been nominated for any other major awards, we don’t know how his presence might have impacted other contests that ultimately went to Keaton or Redmayne. American Sniper is a huge hit and a major conversation piece, but I just don’t buy that Cooper stands any real chance here. If I’m wrong, and he somehow pulls out a surprise win, I will launch a cyber attack on Hollywood that will make Sony’s hackers the Guardians of Peace look like some kindergartners playing on a hollowed-out Commodore 64.

The thing that makes trying to predict this category so hard is that both Keaton and Redmayne embody narratives that the Academy eats up like candy. In Keaton’s favor: he dominated the critics award circuit, and won the BFCA and the Musical/Comedy Golden Globe. He’s a beloved actor — well-liked, admired, versatile. Birdman is something of a comeback for him, which Oscar voters love. Also, he plays an actor. The Academy’s largest voting group are actors…and they will relate to this character in a big way. He gives an emotionally bare performance, the movie has earned broad support across the guilds — which means it’s admired by more than just actors — and he’s been clearly touched by the recognition he’s received, delivering good speeches at other award shows. (Why should that matter? It shouldn’t. But it does.) Also, the Best Actor award favors veterans over beginners. (Redmayne broke through in 2006, but his career is young and just taking off.)

In Redmayne’s favor: he won the Golden Globe for Drama, as well as the SAG and the BAFTA. Those two are big. Also big — huge, even — he plays a famous, respected, real-life figure and undergoes an incredible physical transformation in the process. Voters looooove transformations. (Sorry Steve Carell; I guess you were out-transformed this year.) Also, like Keaton, he’s been a big hit with his previous acceptance speeches, demonstrating great poise, eloquence, charm, and gratitude.

Clearly, Academy members face an impossible decision. I’d like to think Keaton will have the additional benefit of voters knowing that he probably won’t be in this position again, riding this high a wave of acclaim. But that was also true of Bill Murray in Lost in Translation and Viola Davis in The Help. Both deserved to win and had a momentum that doesn’t happen often if you aren’t someone like Sean Penn or Meryl Streep — the people Murray and Davis lost to, respectively. Still, despite the signs pointing to Redmayne, I have to go against the grain here. I really do think — not just because it’s what I want to see — that Michael Keaton will pull it off. But it’s a nailbiter, and I can’t deny that the tide seems to be with Redmayne.

Personal: I want Michael Keaton to win this Oscar. He has always been one of my very favorite actors, and what a vehicle this was for him. Redmayne did an amazing job as Stephen Hawking, and if he wins, there’s not much of an argument to make against it. But I badly want Michael Keaton to win this Oscar.

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BEST DIRECTOR
Normally this would be a pretty easy pick. Birdman is clearly loved within the industry, and director Alejandro González Iñárritu won the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) award. That should seal it right there. It probably does seal it right there. Only seven times in the 67 years of the DGA’s existence has the winner not gone on to win the Oscar, and in three of those cases the DGA winner wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar.

But here’s the thing that’s eating away at me: I just find it really hard to believe that Richard Linklater is leaving the Dolby Theater on Sunday without an Oscar. If I’m right — and who knows if I am? — the question becomes which category he wins: Original Screenplay, Director, or Best Picture. I’m guessing he wins here, for undertaking a daunting, against-the-odds passion project that no one has ever tried to do in this way before, and for pulling it off so beautifully. There are equally strong cases to be made for both him and Iñárritu, not least of which is that both of these guys took an incredible artistic risk with their respective movies. They each tried something fresh and daring, and they were each making deeply personal films with something to say about the human experience. History is on Iñárritu’s side thanks to that DGA award, but the DGA members only had this one chance to honor him. Academy members have other ways to bestow an Oscar on Iñárritu. With that in mind, and connecting it to my theory that Linklater’s goes home with an Oscar for something, I’m going out on a limb — a limb which, a month ago, wouldn’t have been a limb at all but rather the sturdiest part of the trunk — and calling it for Linklater.

Personal: When Boyhood came out, I thought Linklater would be a dark horse candidate for a Best Director nomination. I thought the movie might be perceived as too small, too simple to get him that recognition. But I really wanted it for him. The film is a visionary piece of work, and “visionary” doesn’t have to mean Gravity or Inception. Visionary doesn’t have to be grand. It can be small and intimate too. It took incredible balls and drive to conceive of and execute this movie, and the ability to inspire trust and faith in his actors, making them comfortable enough to bring their own personal life experiences to the table, is part of his achievement. It was moviemaking without a net, and I wanted to see Linklater recognized for that…and indirectly, for a career of moving smoothly and successfully between indies and studios, experimental and commercial. And it turned out he got the recognition, no uphill battle necessary.
 
Now that it comes time for the actual award, though, my heart is with Iñárritu. His directorial challenges seem even more varied, more risky, and ultimately more impressive to me. I’ll be happy with either outcome, but while I’m glad Linklater got the nomination, I want Iñárritu for the win.
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BEST PICTURE

Once again, and now in the end, it comes down to the birds and the boys, and while it could go either way, my money is on Birdman. Largely because nearly every industry guild or society has honored the movie, indicating support across all branches of the Academy. Birdman won the Producers Guild of America award, the DGA, the SAG award for Best Ensemble and the American Society of Cinematographers award. It’s been feted by the Art Director’s Guild and the Costume Designers Guild in their Contemporary categories; it’s won awards from the Makeup and Hairstyling Guild, the Motion Picture Sound Editors, and the Cinema Audio Society (all three of which honored other movies as well). The only guilds that didn’t recognize it are the WGA (where it was ineligible) and the American Cinema Editors. None of this means Boyhood can’t still win, but the wind really does seem to be beneath Birdman’s wings.

Is there anything else in the running that could emerge a surprise winner? American Sniper has a lot of fans, and everyone thinks highly of The Imitation Game as well. Boyhood and Birdman, for all the awards they’ve collected and the domination they’ve exhibited, are divisive movies. There are plenty of people who find Boyhood slow and boring. There are also plenty of people who find Birdman pretentious or annoying or who just don’t get it. Best Picture is chosen by a preferential ballot, which aims to award the movie with the broadest support. If Birdman and Boyhood are each championed and cast aside in somewhat equal measure, it’s not impossibe that something like The Imitation Game could sneak in. This helpful video, produced last year by The Wrap‘s Oscar guru Steve Pond, explains the preferential ballot. I included it last year, I’m including it again, and I’ll probably include it every year. If you like to know how the vote is counted, this is worth watching. It’s not just “the movie with the most votes wins.”


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Normally I wouldn’t introduce the idea of a last minute shocker when there are one or two movies that are clearly ahead of the pack. But normally you wouldn’t have two movies in such a position that are as unconventional — and therefore as polarizing — as Birdman and Boyhood. In a year like this, it doesn’t seem impossible for a more consistently admired movie to work its way in. Were that to happen, The Imitation Game would probably be the one. (American Sniper has too much controversy of its own.) But I still think Birdman and Boyhood are the last two standing, with Birdman ultimately flying away the winner.

Personal:
Most of the nominees are among my favorite movies of the year, but Birdman…there’s just nothing else like it.

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And there we have it. From where I stand, we’re in for a pretty damn exciting Oscar night. Neil Patrick Harris is a consummate host, and although he — like Ellen DeGeneres and Seth MacFarlane in the two years before him — must stand in the shadow of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s killer Golden Globes gig…

…Harris has proven many times that he’s more than up to the task. From the first moment to the last, his turn at the helm of the 2011 Tony Awards is one of the best performances by a host I’ve ever seen.

Seriously…watch that clip. Brilliant writing first and foremost, but NPH crushed it. If some future award ceremony can get him, Fey and Poehler to host together, they might just conquer the world.

Anyway…Oscar show producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, back for their third consecutive year, once again seem to be obsessed with musical numbers that will probably wind up being a mixed bag. In addition to performances of the nominated songs by the likes of Common, John Legend, Tim McGraw, Adam Levine, Rita Ora, Tegan and Sara, and The Lonely Island, Meron and Zadan have recruited Frozen‘s Oscar winning songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen-Anderson Lopez to write a number for NPH, plus they’ve lined up Lady Gaga, Jennifer Hudson, Anna Kendrick and Jack Black to perform. (It hasn’t been stated that Black and Kendrick are doing musical numbers, but the announcements made it sound that way.)

We’ll see how that stuff goes, but yay or nay, I at least expect NPH will be a dynamite host. And the real reason to be excited is, of course, the awards themselves. Most of the winners that are locked in, from Julianne Moore to the sets and costumes of The Grand Budapest Hotel, deserve their surefire victories. Then you’ve got those top races — Picture, Director, Actor and even Original Screenplay — that are so hard to call and will probably shake out in ways that result in simultaneous elation and heartbreak for us fans. (For the real Oscar geeks, even categories like Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup and Hairstyling will have that effect.) Whatever happens, I’m really trying to appreciate the rarity of a year where the top contenders are all unique and quirky in a way that the Best Picture frontrunners usually aren’t. I mean, I liked recent winners Argo and The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave a great deal, and although I’d have picked Lincoln over Argo, or The Social Network or Inception or The Fighter over The King’s Speech, even those movies are pretty typical. Nothing wrong with that at all. But take a moment to relish the fact that the three movies duking it out this year are as out there and atypical as Birdman, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel. When I look at the 2014 award season and the movies it’s honored, even with the disappointing omissions (your day will come, Chadwick Boseman), I gotta say: everything is awesome.

(Nominee Luncheon. Click to enlarge and play Who Can I Recognize?)

 

February 14, 2015

Oscars 2014: And the Nominees Are…

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 4:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Complete List of Nominees

Yes. The Oscars are next weekend. Which makes this post, like, three weeks overdue. So instead of devoting precious time to self-deprecating commentary about that, I’ll get right into it. As always, the morning of the Oscar nominations offered surprises both satisfying and disappointing. In a nice move that I hope becomes a new tradition, all 24 categories were announced live, instead of just the usual “top” ones. J.J. Abrams and reigning Best Director Alfonso Cuarón handled the first part, followed by Chris Pine and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs with the big categories as well as some additional below-the-line races. As is my usual habit, I got up at 5:30 in the morning to watch the announcement live, and had to settle for local TV news coverage since apparently E! Entertainment Television — a channel entirely dedicated to covering the entertainment industry — didn’t feel that the Academy Award nominations merited interrupting a block of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. And the local news channel couldn’t be bothered to air the full announcement, cutting to a commercial in the middle of Abrams reading the nominees for Best Animated Feature. Nice move, dipshits. Luckily the event is preserved on YouTube, so I can go back and relive all the excitement for years to come.

 

Okay, so the excitement was minimal.  It could have used some of the playfulness that Seth MacFarlane and Emma Stone brought to the shorter announcement two years ago. Still, it was nice to see all the nominees get their due with a public acknowledgement instead of being relegated to a press release. And by the way, what was up with Isaacs bizarre pronunciations of really simple names and titles? I’ll forgive her the slip-up of calling Best Cinematography nominee Dick Pope “Dick Poop,” which she immediately corrected, but what about the way she kept saying Richard Linklater as if his name was a three-parter: Richard Link Later. Or the distinct emphasis she placed on “The” in The Theory of Everything when announcing Best Actress nominee Felicity Jones. I know it’s early in the morning, but these are not hard names.

I had a middling year in terms of my predictions. There was no category in which I went 100%, though perhaps the judges will give me partial points for Best Picture. I predicted there would be nine nominees, and there were only eight…but my nine included the eight that made it, so that’s something, right? In 12 categories, I was only off by one, which matches my guesses from last year. But my average was dragged down by having my single worst category since I’ve been keeping track, with only one of the five Best Sound Mixing predictions correct.

Here are some thoughts, category by category…omitting a few where I have nothing to say at this stage.

BEST PICTURE/BEST DIRECTOR
This was the fourth year that there could have been anywhere between five and ten nominees, and I said in my last post that I would continue to guess nine — the tally for the past three years — until I had evidence not too. Well, now I’ll have to figure out what to do next year, based on only eight movies making the cut this time around. The one I had anticipated which didn’t make it was Nightcrawler, which had reportedly been playing like gangbusters with Academy members. Those reports are probably true, but apparently there wasn’t quite enough support to hit the necessary number of votes that would have secured a nomination.

After all of my skepticism and fretting, the Academy finally embraced Wes Anderson, with The Grand Budapest Hotel scoring nine nominations, tying with Birdman for the most of the year. But the big story out of the nominations was the disappointingly weak showing for Selma, which did score one of the year’s coveted Best Picture nominations, but only managed one other, for Best Original Song. It was absent from key races in which many, including myself, thought — or at least hoped — it would be recognized. Ava DuVernay missed out on a Best Director nomination, David Oyelowo didn’t make the Best Actor list, and the screenplay was overlooked as well. Cinematography and Editing might also have been possibilities had the film been embraced. Selma‘s underwhelming presence, combined with the blinding whiteness of the 20 acting nominees, led some impetuous voices (Al Sharpton, special interest groups like ColorOfChange.org) to proclaim racial motivations, while more level-headed responses (producer Reginald Hudlin, author Mark Harris) understood that several factors were likely at play, and racism was among the lesser of them.

As the latter two commenters — and several others as well — have noted, the problem is not with the Academy but with the industry at large. The film industry simply doesn’t create enough opportunities — in any capacity, on either side of the camera — for non-whites, or to a lesser but still highly problematic extent, for women. (Jessica Chastain touched on this issue in a wonderful, eloquent speech the evening the Oscar nominations were announced, when she was presented with an award by the Broadcast Film Critics Association for her body of work in 2014.) So taking the Academy to task is the wrong battle right from the start. Yes, the 2012 Los Angeles Times report about the Academy’s demographics, which was referenced in almost all of these reactions to the Selma omissions, shows that the Academy is overwhelmingly white, male and older. But so is the entire industry (white and male, at least; I’m not sure about older). Until that changes, the Academy can only do so much. And it is doing something. The organization extended invitations to far more people in 2013 and 2014 than it typically used to per year, and the desire for greater diversity has been the driving force behind this. Even Spike Lee, a critic of the Academy’s problems in this area and someone who has been personally affected by them, acknowledges that efforts to broaden the membership have been happening (while mincing no words about Driving Miss Daisy‘s victory in the same year that his seminal race relations masterpiece Do the Right Thing earned only a Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor nomination). But it will still take time to flush out the ranks and turn this crusty Caucasian sausage party into a membership that has greater balance among races and genders.

I could go much further into all of this — it deserves its own post, really — but this piece is already weeks overdue, and most of what I’d say has already been well covered by others. To that point, this article from Vulture is a great overview of some of the problems that befell Selma‘s Oscar campaign, pairing nicely with observations in the Mark Harris piece linked to above. Also, to the discussion about DVD screeners not reaching key voting groups in time to make a difference, I would add Kris Tapley’s remarks from the comments section of an article he wrote on In Contention, where he points out:

With screeners going out around 12/19, arriving 12/21 — typically mailings for directors and actors don’t arrive direct. They go to agencies. Which were more or less closed by then for the holiday. I have little doubt a great many people didn’t get their screener until after the New Year, and by then, voting was already well underway (and I’ve even heard from some who got paper ballots a full week before the end of the year this season, which is odd).

In addition, Ava DuVernay herself said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly conducted about a month before the nominations were announced that she did not expect to be in the final five, citing her lack of connections within the Academy. I don’t think that necessarily makes a difference, as I’m sure some past nominees have received the nod from their peers without being entrenched in their ranks. But maybe we’re all a lot more shocked on her behalf than she is herself. I should also say that yes, Ava DuVernay would have been the first African-American woman nominated for Best Director (and only the fifth woman at all) had things gone that way, but that should not have been the reason to vote for her. The reason to vote for her should have been that she demonstrated superb directorial skill in realizing Selma. Simple as that.

Like Mark Harris, I won’t be so naïve as to say a form of institutionalized racism was not at play in any way. The EW article about DuVernay quotes an anonymous Academy member saying, “It’s almost like because she is African-American, we should have made her one of the nominees. I think that’s racist. Look at what we did last year with 12 Years.” That last bit could be interpreted in a few ways, and one of them (just one; I don’t know what this member intended to convey) suggests that by voting for 12 Years a Slave, the Academy has met its quota of acknowledging “the black experience.” Would it surprise me if there were a small number of voters who felt that way, whether or not the speaker was one of them? No, it wouldn’t. (For what it’s worth, some Oscar journalists have brought up the fact that many Academy members privately admitted to voting for 12 Years a Slave last year without having seen it.) I’d wonder, though, if voters who held that opinion would feel that honoring The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech and The Artist over three consecutive years was too much recognition of “the white experience.” It’s also difficult to watch Selma take heavier hits over questions of its historical accuracy than films like The Imitation Game, American Sniper and Foxcatcher and not wonder why the film coming under the most vocal fire for dramatizing real-life events is the one directed by the black woman, depicting a story about black characters and their battle against an oppressive, largely white system. Of course, these annual attacks are ridiculous to begin with. These movies aren’t documentaries, and are not — contrary to what an another anonymous Academy member says in the EW piece, regarding Selma‘s depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson — “obligated to present it [history] correctly.” These movies are fictionalized versions of true events, and as such they are entitled to dramatic license.

At the end of the day though, I just don’t buy the racism thing. In the industry, yes, but not in the Academy. This is an organization that awarded Gone With the Wind‘s Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 (and don’t start in with the fact that she was playing a servant). If the number of black performers who have won since then is low compared to white performers, well again, the Academy can only reflect the industry. Have there been performances by black actors and actresses that should have been nominated and weren’t? Absolutely. Just like there have been performances by non-black actors that should have been nominated and weren’t. Bottom line, only five people get nominated per category, and outstanding work finds itself sidelined every year. But if the Academy were comprised of a bunch of racists, they wouldn’t nominate actors of color at all. Racism isn’t selective. It doesn’t come and go from year to year. If an institution and its members are racist, they’re consistently racist, at least until enough new people who embrace acceptance arrive in large enough numbers to change the institution’s actions. Selma and most of its filmmakers were not nominated this year, and no performers of color were nominated this year, and that’s unfortunate. But it’s not because one year after the success of 12 Years a Slave, Academy members’ latent racism suddenly flared up. In the last 10 years, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer and Lupita Nyong’o have all won Oscars. In the same period, nominations have gone to Don Cheadle, Jamie Foxx (in addition to his win), Sophie Okenedo, Terrence Howard, Will Smith, Djimon Hounsou, Eddie Murphy, Ruby Dee, Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis (twice), Morgan Freeman (in addition to his win), Gabourey Sidibe, Denzel Washington, Quvenzhané Wallis, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Barkhad Abdi. Other non-whites who have won in the same period? Well, only Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz. But nominations went to Catalina Sandino Moreno, Penélope Cruz (twice in addition to her win), Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, Javier Bardem (in addition to his win) and Demián Bichir. All totaled, yes, these numbers are far fewer than they are for white nominees. But if the industry makes fewer movies in which actors of various ethnicities have the opportunity to play great roles, the Academy is not to blame. Even if those movies and roles exist, they have to earn enough acclaim and attention to become part of the Academy conversation in the first place. And even then they have to be lucky enough to break into the list of five nominees. There are always politics at play when it comes to Oscar nominees and winners, but they’re seldom the politics of race. Ejiofor, Abdi and Nyong’o were all nominated last year, but Fruitvale Station‘s Michael B. Jordon and Octavia Spencer were not, nor were Forest Whitaker or Oprah Winfrey for Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Were those four actors the victims of a racist agenda? Or were they the victims of only five nominations available per category and a surplus of deserving contenders, just like Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Oscar Isaac, Emma Thompson, Julie Delpy, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Daniel Brühl, among even more? If the Academy had a race problem, it wouldn’t have nominated or awarded all those people named above. If the Academy were not interested in non-white stories, its members wouldn’t have voted Best Picture nominations to Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, Slumdog Millionaire, Precious, The Help, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave and yes, Selma.

Keep in mind that while we talk about the Academy as this giant Thing!, it does not operate on a hive mentality. The Oscar nominations and winners are not decided by a committee sitting around a table arguing and debating. They are decided by roughly 6,000 individual people expressing their own opinions, and then having those opinions collected and tallied.

Finally, let’s remember this above all: no one is entitled to an Oscar nomination. The way people like Al Sharpton and others who decried the all-white acting races and the omission of Selma talk about the situation, you would think that Ava DuVernay or David Oyelowo or Get on Up‘s dynamo Chadwick Boseman were promised Oscar nominations only to have those promises revoked at the last minute. There will always be great work that is passed over for an Oscar nomination, and I have certainly spent my fair share of time ranting about such cases over the years. But it’s all part of the game, and sometimes the movie and the actor you want to receive that honor just doesn’t receive it. Even though everybody thinks they should have. Sometimes they just don’t. The complaining about it is part of what keeps us engaged with the whole circus in the first place. But when that complaining morphs into defiance and allegations and legitimate outrage, it’s time to take a few steps back, get some perspective on what we’re talking about, and demonstrate a little understanding of how processes work before you start convening panels to address them.

All of that said, Ava DuVernay should totally have been nominated.

Whew. I said I wouldn’t get get too deep into this, and look what happened. Okay, just a couple more observations about these two categories. Of the people who did get nominated for Best Director, four of them were widely expected. The fifth slot, which some thought would go to DuVernay and others thought might go to Director’s Guild of America (DGA) nominee Clint Eastwood, instead went to Foxcatcher‘s Bennett Miller. It wasn’t a total shock — he was considered a possibility — but few had him in their final five. Interestingly, Foxcatcher was not one of the eight Best Picture nominees, making Miller the first person to be nominated for Best Director without a Best Picture nomination since 2009’s expansion of Best Picture beyond five nominees. I do wonder — and I’m probably not alone — if Miller benefitted from a boost in support after Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher, went on a vicious social media tirade against the film and Miller in late December, suddenly attacking a project he had supported all along. He offered a reserved apology soon after, and several more apologetic tweets after the nominations came out, specifically addressing Miller at certain points, but that initial outburst was lathered in vitriol. Could it have moved some of Miller’s fellow directors to show their support by voting for him? Not that Miller couldn’t have simply earned the nomination 100% because members of the branch admired his work, but these outside factors always make one wonder.

Lastly, American Sniper made the Best Picture list too, though I can think of at least a half-dozen other movies more deserving. Sniper just isn’t that great. I didn’t dislike it, but it’s really nothing special and I’m baffled by all the love. If you watched the clip of the Chris Pine and Cheryl Boone Isaacs above, did you notice that each of Sniper‘s nominations elicited cheers and applause from some of the journalists in attendance? I don’t get it. The movie tread on familiar ground that was covered more compellingly and effectively in The Hurt Locker and last year’s Lone Survivor. It was solid, but by no means one of the year’s best movies. Yet America has embraced it like it was delivered forth by Jesus himself. It entered wide release the day after the nominations were announced, and won an enormous box office victory over Martin Luther King Jr. Day Weekend, bringing in unprecedented numbers for a January release and breaking records along the way. I could bring up the ironies around American Sniper doing such amazing business during that particular timeframe while the movie about the man whose legacy is meant to be honored and remembered on that day struggles to find an audience, but you probably see them for yourself. There’s a lot more to explore with this movie as well, regarding why it’s such a massive hit and why it’s been so controversial, but this time I really am avoiding those waters, if for no other reason than how little they have to do with the movie’s Oscar standing.

BEST ACTOR
We sort of covered David Oyelowo in the previous section, so let’s see what else happened here. I’m not surprised Steve Carell was nominated. Despite his (and Foxcatcher‘s) inconsistent fortunes throughout Phase One of the season, I felt pretty sure that the acting branch would speak up for his unsettling, change-of-pace work. My mistake was thinking that in an effort to deal with a painfully overcrowded field, they would take the same course as BAFTA and shift him into Best Supporting Actor. (Also because that’s probably where he really belongs, though I can see the argument for Lead.) But they kept him in Best Actor, and so it turns out those four guys who seemed like locks as far back as October — Carell, Cumberbatch, Keaton and Redmayne — managed to stay in the game, leaving only one open spot and slew of worthy contenders. I can’t believe it was Bradley Cooper. I’m sorry, but no way. Cooper is great, and I was 100% enthusiastic about his previous two nominations, for Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. But this? No way. There is nothing about his performance or character even remotely as interesting or exciting as Jake Gyllenhaal’s in Nightcrawler, and nothing as powerful or magnetic as Oyelowo’s in Selma. Those were the two I thought would get in, but if not them, I can still name a dozen other performances more compelling than Cooper’s. I did name them, in the previous post. Ralph Fiennes, Chadwick Boseman, Matthew McConaughey, Miles Teller, Tom Hardy…literally every single person I listed would deserve this nomination more than Bradley Cooper. I don’t want to suggest he isn’t good in the movie. He is. But lots of people are good, even very good, in their movies. They don’t all deserve Oscar nominations though. We’re talking about one of the five best performances of the year? I’m sorry, but no way.

BEST ACTRESS
For all the emphasis we players of this Oscar nomination guessing game put on the precursor awards to guide our selections, sometimes the tea leaves aren’t worth a damn. Despite several nominations from regional critics organizations, and a handful of wins, Marion Cotillard had not been cited by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, or the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). However to correct my last post, she was among the six nominees from the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), which makes her placement here slightly less unexpected…but not by much. It’s nice to see her back in the game since first winning in 2007 for La Vie En Rose, but few thought she’d make it. Her fellow nominees — Rosamund Pike, Reese Witherspoon (who also produced Pike’s film Gone Girl), Felicity Jones and Julianne Moore — were all expected to place, and most pundits were predicting Jennifer Aniston for the fifth spot, probably because she did have Golden Globe, SAG and BFCA nominations, and there wasn’t a large group of viable contenders to begin with. At least, not without looking to unusual suspects such as Jenny Slate (Obvious Child), Essie Davis (The Babadook) or Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights). It’s rare for someone with all three of those nominations to miss with the Academy. Not unheard of (Leonardo DiCaprio for J. Edgar, Mila Kunis for Black Swan, Jonah Hill for The Wolf of Wall Street), but rare. I had a feeling Aniston wouldn’t make it, though I guessed — for lack of anything that made more sense to me, really — that Big Eyes‘ Amy Adams would take the open spot.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
No surprises here. Despite his general awesomeness, I thought Duvall would be passed over, given the underwhelming reception for The Judge. I hoped that when the moment of truth came, voters would see through the film’s cliches, picking instead a role more interesting than the one that The Great Duvall was stuck with. But they went for it, making this category identical to the way it shook out with the Golden Globes, SAG and BFCA with Ethan Hawke, J.K. Simmons and Incredible Hulks Mark Ruffalo and Edward Norton filling out the list. (The BFCA added Inherent Vice‘s Josh Brolin to those five, and I would definitely rather have seen Duvall’s slot go to Brolin.) Duvall was good in The Judge because he’s always good, but that’s not good enough for an Oscar nomination.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Laura Dern was one of the bubble contenders for her role in Wild, and she managed to sneak in there, which stirs mixed feelings for me. On one hand, I’ve always been a champion for Dern, who I consider among our most underrated actresses. It’s really nice to see her recognized, 23 years after her only previous nomination (Best Actress in Rambling Rose). On the other hand, Dern’s time in Wild is brief, and while she does typically lovely work, she doesn’t get to do enough of it. I think I end up saying this about at least one acting nominee every year, but with rare exceptions a performance should have more presence and more meat than the one Dern has here in order to deserve an Oscar nomination. But here she is, and I can’t say I’m not happy to have her.

Also, nice to see someone else speaking up for Mr. Turner‘s shoulda-been-a-contender Dorothy Atkinson.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Apologies if I sound like a broken record, but American Sniper?!? Are you kidding me? For what?? Writer friends, please explain this to me, because I truly don’t understand. This movie just isn’t that good. I understand why it’s doing so well with audiences, but I can’t get my head around the award recognition, maybe even more so in this category than in Best Picture or Actor. I can honestly say that in a heartbeat I would have nominated Guardians of the Galaxy over this, and other genre fare like Snowpiercer, Edge of Tomorrow and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Under the Skin would have been a more deserving alternative too, but that movie was beyond the Academy’s sights. Wild was considered a good bet, and although Still Alice didn’t register in this category with other groups, it would have been worthy of a place here. Certainly more so than American Sniper. Best Screenplay. I can’t figure it.

Not that Sniper‘s nomination was a surprise. BAFTA called it out, and it got a WGA nod too. I just hoped the Academy would go for something more interesting. The true surprise in this line-up is the absence of Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn adapted her own novel and picked up a number of wins along the way from regional critics, with the BFCA being her most high-profile victory. In fact, across the entire landscape of precursor awards, Gone Girl won far more prizes for Adapated Screenplay than any other film. It seemed like a sure thing, and Academy members have shown their love of David Fincher’s work over the last few years. Not this time. Gone Girl‘s sole nomination went to Rosamund Pike.

The good news in this category is that the last minute shift from Original Screenplay didn’t throw off voters from nominating Whiplash. And Paul Thomas Anderson broke in for Inherent Vice, so that made me happy. That’s a movie that should have been a bigger player this year.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Everything was not awesome for The LEGO Movie. Here was a category where everyone got it wrong. Not only was The LEGO Movie‘s nomination a sure thing, but pretty much everyone assumed it would win. I have a theory about why some animators may not have voted for it, and I can’t explain it without giving a major spoiler. But those who have seen the movie know that it takes an unexpected turn toward the end, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if some voters felt that the move was a betrayal, for lack of a better word. Maybe I’m way off base, and there’s no way to know without surveying members of the animation branch, but I could see that being a reason for casting it aside, even if I think my explanation would be an incredibly stupid reason not to vote for a creative and inspired movie worthy of recognition. I also heard reports that many members of the animation branch come from a hand-drawn tradition and a European background, and were maybe put off by the pop culture saturation of The LEGO Movie while also wanting to champion traditionally drawn films. So that might have been at play too.

As it is, the films that were nominated are all quite good. (Actually, I haven’t seen The Boxtrolls, but I heard good things and should finally be able to catch it this week.) I mentioned Irish filmmaker Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea as a possibility, and he did make it, scoring his second nomination and once again taking people by surprise. People seemed equally caught off guard by the inclusion of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, though I’m not sure why. It comes from Studio Ghibli, the legendary Japanese company whose Spirited Away won this category in 2002, and which had Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises nominated in the years since. So Princess Kaguya was always a viable contender.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
I missed by one in this category, but I’ll give myself a half point for even mentioning the possibility of a nomination for the Polish black and white film Ida, which also scored a nod for Best Foreign Language Film. Although…I described it as “a long longshot” so maybe a half point is too generous. I’ll take an eighth and be on my way.

BEST FILM EDITING
Although Birdman seemed like a good bet here, I shouldn’t be surprised that it missed. I’ve said before that voters — even the editors themselves, at the nomination stage, apparently — often equate best editing and most editing. Birdman, with its numerous long takes, is definitely not among the year’s most edited movies. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t carefully and rather brilliantly put together however, with the editors crucially helping to seal the illusion of the movie appearing as almost one ongoing shot.

I won’t argue with the American Sniper nomination this time. It’s the sort of movie that does well in this category, and I did predict it, though I would much rather have seen the wonderful, more abstract editing of Wild nominated. That’s a big oversight.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Nothing to say here really, except finally, finally, finally, a Wes Anderson movie gets nominated for its set design. A long overdue honor for one of the most visually imaginative directors ever. No, I’m not overstating.

Also, I’m a little baffled by Interstellar showing up in this category. It picked up nominations from other groups along the way, so I knew it was a possibility and said so in the previous post. But the movie didn’t strike me as anything special in the design sense. Everything was well done, but there was really nothing out of the ordinary or so special as to seem worthy of singling out. Not when films like Snowpiercer, The Immigrant and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes were left out. Birdman, too, was the rare contemporary film that seemed to have a shot in this category, as the design of the aged, cluttered Broadway theater added immeasurably to the overall effect of the movie.

Okay, so I guess there were a few things to say here.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Just as with Production Design, it must be celebrated that a Wes Anderson movie finally scored a nomination in this category. I was also pleased that two of my personal picks — Inherent Vice and Maleficent — made the cut, displacing my predictions The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. The latter two did feature some fine costume work, but sometimes period films with Best Picture pedigree get swept into categories like this one at the expense of choices that exhibit a little more thoughtfulness. It’s especially nice to see the costume branch spring for Inherent Vice, which has the period piece factor that these voters love, but a more contemporary period than often gets recognized from a voting block that gravitates toward more historical eras like the one in the also-nominated Mr. Turner. The costume work in Vice goes a long way toward defining the characters, and also did more to capture a specific time and place than the costumes of Imitation and Theory, which seemed more likely to get nominated, so kudos to those who voted for it.

I still think Guardians of the Galaxy deserved a spot here, but with the inclusion of Budapest and Vice, I can’t complain.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Between the crazy number of potential nominees and the problematic method the selection, this category is always a crapshoot, so I was pleased to see four of my five predictions bear out. The one I missed was “Grateful,” from the very good, underseen romantic drama Beyond the Lights, about a talented singer who has been manufactured into a pop star and finally starts to take control of her image and her life. It’s a nice song that ties into the movie’s story, but the same could be said for a lot of songs that seem to get brushed aside by the rules that govern the voting in this category. I’m not sure what makes this one so special as to deserve recognition. It’s not particularly distinctive or powerful. Like I said, it’s nice, but there were more inspired choices to be made here.

Starting with some of the songs from Muppets Most Wanted, all of which were incorporated directly into the movie. I mention that because voters in the music branch are presented with clips of all the eligible songs exactly as they appear in their respective movies, the idea apparently being that songs should be judged as much for context as for musicality. If this is the goal, maybe the category needs to be clearly redefined — and renamed — as “Best Use of an Original Song.” And if that’s the thinking, then voters would have done well to include “Sing Along” from Rudderless, an intimate song performed in the movie’s final scene by Billy Crudup as a father grieving for his deceased son. Yet there lies one of the problems with this method of voting. A song like “Sing Along” really needs to be seen (or heard) in light of everything that’s come before it in order to be understood and appreciated, and with 79 eligible songs, there’s no way voters can watch each full movie to understand every song’s place within that movie. So really, the voters should just receive a CD with each eligible song and judge the song on its own merits. Maybe that ends up benefitting something like “Grateful” even more than the current system. I don’t know. What I do know is that a) the system as it exists contradicts itself at every turn, and b) this fine but average song being nominated over this hilariously clever and loopy one just ain’t right.

Thankfully, the voters didn’t ignore every silly option, giving a nod to “Everything is Awesome” from The LEGO Movie. It would not have surprised me if voters had skipped over this popular tune, which is insanely catchy but admittedly simple and repetitive. (The song appears multiple times in the movie, leaving me to wonder what clip was presented to music branch voters. The portions performed by Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaeffer only appeared during the end credits version, but they’re a big part of what makes the song so great.)

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Although I predicted that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies would be nominated, I acknowledged why it might not be, and it turns out I was right to see its vulnerability. It became the first of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films to miss a VFX nomination. And unless Jackson dives into The Silmarillion, it will also be the last. Also falling short was Transformers: Age of Extinction, which I also predicted but felt was not a sure thing. As it is, we wound up with a strong, respectable slate. Now let’s see if the voters do the right thing when it comes time to pick the winner.

BEST SOUND EDITING/SOUND MIXING
I did dreadfully in Sound Mixing, with American Sniper being my only correct prediction. I was on the fence about whether to go with Interstellar, which did end up getting nominated, because there were widespread complaints about the sound mix being unbalanced, with the sound effects and music score occasionally overwhelming the dialogue so that people couldn’t understand what was being said. Personally, I thought it was a deliberate creative decision intended to evoke accurate circumstances in which noise probably would make it difficult for you to hear someone talking to you. It detracted from the movie for some, but had the opposite effect for me, drawing me into the experience even more. I was happy when Nolan discussed the sound shortly after its release to confirm that his choices with the sound mix were absolutely deliberate. Nevertheless, I wasn’t sure how his approach would affect the film’s Oscar chances in the sound categories. I settled on the idea that the branch would overlook the movie, but I’m happy to see that they appreciated what Nolan was going for.

I also thought Into the Woods would follow the many musical or music-centric films that earned Mixing nominations before. The film missed out, but the branch did give a slot to Whiplash, which was nice to see. It was also great to see Birdman show up in both categories. I mentioned in the last post that the film’s drum-driven score was deemed ineligible for that category, but it’s such a vital component of the movie, and I feel like the two sound nominations acknowledge that, as the score does the job of sound effects and music at the same time. And may I say, having recently seen Birdman again, how ridiculous it is that the music score was not allowed to contend for a nomination? No other score all year was more at one with its movie than Antonio Sánchez’s for Birdman. But the music branch clings pig-headedly to a number of asinine rules that continually undermine the very achievements they are tasked with celebrating. They badly need to get their shit together.

Back to the topic at hand, the most interesting this about the nominations in these two categories is that they both ignored the summer blockbusters that usually find a home here. No Transformers (the first time in that franchise there hasn’t been a sound nomination), no Guardians of the Galaxy, no Godzilla, no Planet of the Apes, no Captain America, no Edge of Tomorrow or X-Men or Spider-Man. Instead the categories were populated by the more prestige films like Birdman, Unbroken, American Sniper and Whiplash. Yes, Interstellar and The Hobbit are in the blockbuster mold, but the Middle Earth movies have always been big players with the Academy, as have Christopher Nolan’s films.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
I don’t usually cover this category because I never have the chance to see most of the movies, but it’s worth noting that the voters didn’t nominate Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert. It seemed a likely contender, given the subject matter was man who loved movies and dedicated his life to celebrating them (and yes, often deriding them too). It’s also noteworthy because the film’s director, Steve James, has been here before. He’s had a few films that went into the nominations with big buzz only to be ignored, most notably Hoop Dreams, whose omission from this category in 2004 is widely held up as one of the most egregious oversights in Academy history.

Amusing sidenote: one of the five films that did get nominated this year is Finding Vivien Maier, and its nominated co-director is Charlie Siskel, nephew of Gene Siskel. Two ironic thumbs up.

X

Now then, sorry to rush out out of here without cuddling, but I’ve got another big post to write, and it involves me actually making some decisions about what I think will win. So we’ll get together again next weekend, and in the meantime you can amuse yourself with this classic Oscar moment of Jack Black and Will Ferrell.

 

 

January 14, 2015

Oscars 2014: Nominations Eve

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 8:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

It feels like I just finished writing about last year’s Oscar season, and here we are, back for another go-round.

BEST PICTURE
Our story begins with Boyhood. Our story may well end with Boyhood too, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. That’s a consideration for a different post. For now, we can head into the Oscar nominations knowing that Boyhood‘s slot is secure. Sitting pretty right alongside it are Birdman, The Imitation Game, and probably The Theory of Everything.

From there, the guesswork begins. Since early December, various regional critics associations from around the country have had their say, and if their influence is to be believed, then The Grand Budapest Hotel is a sure thing. For me, the film’s status as one of the three most honored movies of the year – alongside Boyhood and Birdman – has been one of the season’s biggest surprises. I remember the reviews being strong when the movie came out all the way back in early March, but not that strong. Its consistent presence as either a winner or nominee for Best Picture and Best Director among these many critics groups, as well as its appearance in several other categories, suggests that it will do well at the Oscars too. Or could it be a critical darling that doesn’t translate to the Academy? I’ve been burned with Wes Anderson before. Moonrise Kingdom seemed like a safe bet for a nomination here in 2012, but it didn’t materialize. Granted, Budapest is having an even stronger showing with these precursor awards than Moonrise did, but I’m still not 100% convinced. Even in crafts categories like Cinematography and Production Design, where Anderson’s films always shine, his work has never gained traction with the Academy. Only the Writer’s branch of the organization has ever warmed to him. If Moonrise Kingdom couldn’t catch a break here, can Budapest? It’s a bit darker and colder, whereas Moonrise Kingdom had a sweetness, innocence and charm that seemed more like Academy fare. Fact is, this shouldn’t even be a question. The critics have showered it with attention, it just scored a surprise Golden Globe win for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy over Birdman, and nearly every guild has nominated it so far, including the Producers Guild of America (PGA) and, just yesterday, the Directors Guild of America (DGA). Clearly the movie has support not just from critics, but within the industry, where it matters for Oscar voting. Only the Academy’s past lack of interest in Anderson leaves me skeptical…though that DGA nomination speaks pretty loudly. The movie’s got too much momentum to bet against it, and this entire paragraph has probably been a waste of time. But if one of tomorrow’s big surprises is that Budapest is MIA in this category, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

One last thing on this topic: if Budapest does land with the Academy, it will land big. Like, maybe the-most-nominated-film-of-the-year big, given how many categories it has the potential to hit.

So what else? Gone Girl? The Academy has taken a shine to David Fincher’s work in recent years (where were they in ’95, when Seven should have raked in the nominations?), and Girl has done well on the critic’s circuit, so it could find a place here, but it doesn’t feel like a lock. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had experienced love from both critics and industry guilds by this point in the 2011 Oscar season, making a Best Picture nomination seem likely. It didn’t happen. Then again, Gone Girl‘s depiction of a marriage gone wrong could prove more relatable to voters – which sounds really twisted assuming you know the details of the film or novel – but movies about troubled marriages (to put it gently in this case) can become conversation pieces and must-see movies for couples. That might give it more favorable odds than Dragon Tattoo had.

You can usually count on a couple of celebrated indie films to crack the Best Picture race, and the two this year that seem likely to follow in the footsteps of Precious, Winter’s Bone and Beasts of the Southern Wild are Nightcrawler and Whiplash. I’m pretty confident the former will make it, and almost as confident that the latter will as well. It’s always exciting to see smaller films like these emerge out of the festival circuit – be it early in the year at Sundance, where Whiplash won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, or in the fall festivals like Telluride or Toronto, where Nightcrawler first showed up – and inject themselves into the award season conversation because they’re genuinely good, and not because their plot descriptions or talent roster make them presumptive contenders. Unbroken and Into the Woods are two notable films that fall on that side of the line. Neither has borne out the strong showings that their pedigrees had us expecting, and despite being respectively received, both have struggled to find a foothold. Interstellar also came into the season with high hopes in top categories, but those ambitions haven’t panned out. If the PGA had included it among their 10 nominees, it might have still had a shot. The PGA often throws in a mainstream blockbuster (Star Trek, Bridemaids and Skyfall have made their list in recent years…as did Moonrise Kingdom, by the way), so if Interstellar didn’t make their cut, a Best Picture nod from the Academy seems more unlikely. Still, the PGA vote is coming just from producers, while the Academy’s Best Picture nominees are selected by the entire membership, including the artisans whose work is always well-served by Christopher Nolan – visual effects artists, production designers, etc. So while down, it’s not necessarily out. (Unbroken and Woods also missed with the PGA.)

Some people are worried about Selma‘s chances, as the movie hasn’t achieved the level of awards attention so far that would seem necessary to carry it into the Oscar race. It’s recognition from the guilds so far has been soft, but part of that is likely due to the fact that the movie was finished so late in the year that screener DVDs weren’t available to be sent out to guild and Academy members until late December. That was probably one factor in a high-profile miss with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), but the same thing happened last year with The Wolf of Wall Street, and that would up doing just fine nomination-wise. Selma has key nominations from the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), which hands out the Golden Globes, and even though its absence from the PGA, DGA and British Academy of Film and Television (BAFTA) lists is disappointing – all three organizations share crossover with the Academy membership, unlike the HFPA or BFCA – Selma is garnering strong attention and hitting the right notes. I think it’s in.

The remaining films that I could see going either way are Foxcatcher, Wild and American Sniper. I thought Foxcatcher would be a major force to be reckoned with, given the glowing reviews coming out of the Cannes Film Festival last summer. Yet it’s had a surprisingly weak showing with the critics groups. Still, it has received lifelines when it’s needed them most, in the form of SAG and Golden Globe nominations for Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo, as well as a Best Picture nod at the Globes, and also nominations from the PGA, Art Directors Guild (ADG) and Writers Guild (WGA). Will its grim, unsettling aesthetic hold it back, or can it become director Bennett Miller’s third consecutive Best Picture nominee after Capote and Moneyball? As for Wild, the focus has been on Reese Witherspoon’s performance, but the movie comes from the same director as Dallas Buyers Club, which became last year’s little movie that could. Wild could have been a lot less interesting and well-made than it is, and though I’d call it a long-shot, it could crack the Best Picture race. American Sniper, meanwhile, just seems to be hitting its stride over the past two weeks, with nominations from the PGA, DGA, ADG, WGA and American Cinema Editors (ACE). That guild support demonstrates broad respect across disciplines. I think there are better, more deserving films out there (like A Most Violent Year and Inherent Vice, neither of which seem to have much of a shot here, though I suppose Year could sneak in), but Academy members aren’t particularly concerned with what I think.

The biggest question these days for Best Picture isn’t about what will be nominated, but how many nominees there will be. It could be anywhere from five to ten, and in every year since that rule was introduced, the list has held at nine. I’ll continue to expect that number until it comes in at something different, which it inevitably will one of these years. When the change was announced in 2011, the press release explained that the Academy’s accountants applied the new method to the Best Picture races from 2001-2008, and during that period there would been years with five, six, seven, eight and nine nominees (though never ten, interestingly). Until I see evidence to the contrary, I’m guessing we’ll get another field of nine this year.

Predictions:
American Sniper
Birdman
Boyhood
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Nightcrawler
Selma
The Theory of Everything
Whiplash

Personal Picks:
A Most Violent Year
Birdman
Boyhood
Chef
The Imitation Game
Interstellar
Nightcrawler
Selma
Whiplash
Wild

BEST DIRECTOR
Back in July, I thought that come Oscar season I would have to make a case for Richard Linklater to be nominated for Best Director, citing his unique place in the filmmaking world and his determination to capture authenticity onscreen in a way that, as evidenced by Boyhood‘s 12 year production, few American filmmakers ever attempt. All for naught, as it turns out. There’s no case to be made and no minds to sway. Without any help from me, Linklater’s nomination is assured, and as of now he stands as the frontrunner for the prize. So perhaps I’ll save some of the comments I had in mind until a later time. Instead, let’s focus on who will be joining him, beginning with the category’s other sure thing, Birdman helmer Alejandro G. Iñárritu. If the Academy does embrace The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson has to be a favorite here, although given the cold shoulder his work has gotten from the Academy before, I could also see the director’s branch denying him recognition. As I said above, Anderson did score his first DGA nomination, so that’s a a good sign. But the DGA and Academy almost never line up five for five in their nominations, so at least one name on their list is probably out with the Academy. In addition to Anderson, Linklater and Iñárritu, the DGA nominated Clint Eastwood for American Sniper and Morten Tyldum for The Imitation Game. Eastwood…I love the guy of course, but this is such a disappointing nomination. American Sniper is a solid movie, but we’ve seen it before. It has more than a little in common with The Hurt Locker, and there are just better, more original, more interesting movies that deserve this spot. Will Clint get the Oscar nod too? The Academy loves him, but they also love The Imitation Game…so much that some people think it could overtake Boyhood for the top award when all is said and done. Like Grand Budapest and Birdman, guild support for Imitation has been strong, indicating popularity across Academy branches. And if they love it that much, Tyldum may be an obvious choice for them to make, even if he lacks Eastwood’s name recognition.

So who else has a chance here outside of the DGA’s selections? I believe Ava DuVernay is still very much in this thing for Selma, though the DGA nod would have been a nice boost. The DGA has several thousand members (many from television) and tends toward popular picks, whereas the Academy’s directing branch has only a few hundred members (all working in film), and frequently looks outside the box. With that in mind, Whiplash director Damien Chazelle is a possibility, and a nod for Nightcrawler‘s Dan Gilroy is a longshot but not inconceivable. If they wanted to step way outside the box, Under the Skin‘s Jonathan Glazer would be a bold move, but that’s highly doubtful. There are plenty of names in the general mix, like David Fincher, Bennett Miller, James Marsh (The Theory of Everything) and J.C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year), but I feel like without a nomination from the DGA, those names are DOA. Chazelle and DuVernay seem like the only ones who stand a legitimate chance of breaking in. Linklater and Iñárritu should be fine, and I just don’t know about Anderson. He should be a no-brainer, but uncertainty keeps gnawing at me. My gut tells me Eastwood bumps him, but Grand Budapest‘s unwavering show of force throughout the season tells me he’s in. So maybe DuVernay gets squeezed out? AHHHHHHHH, this is so hard!

Predictions:
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – Birdman
Richard Linklater – Boyhood
Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum – The Imitation Game
Ava DuVernay – Selma

Personal Picks:
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – Birdman
Richard Linklater – Boyhood
Christopher Nolan – Interstellar
Ava DuVernay – Selma
Jean-Marc Vallée – Wild

BEST ACTOR
For the second year in a row, the array of contenders in this category is stunning, and no matter what happens, some remarkable work is going to be left out. Let’s start with the four guys who have been considered the frontrunners since as early as October: Michael Keaton for Birdman, Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything, Steve Carell for Foxcatcher, and Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game. It seemed impossible that any of these guys might not go the distance, but Carell’s standing has weakened considerably as he’s been omitted from the majority of critics awards nominations. He did get SAG and Golden Globe nominations, which are key, but he can no longer be counted on as a sure thing. I can’t imagine people aren’t impressed with the performance, so perhaps the problem has been that Carell’s character John du Pont falls somewhere between lead and supporting. He doesn’t have enough screen time to be called a lead, and Foxcatcher is really the story of Channing Tatum’s character. Yet du Pont looms large over the whole film, and his actions largely drive the story and set events in motion. So it’s a tough call. Sony Pictures Classics, the studio behind the film, opted to campaign Carell (along with Tatum) as a lead, but the BAFTA voters recognized him in the Supporting category. It does happen occasionally that voters ignore a studio’s campaign and move an actor into a different category than where they were promoted. So Carell is in an interesting position. Will his fellow actors honor him here, put him into Supporting Actor instead, or pass him over altogether?

If he doesn’t make it here, there is no shortage of worthy successors to take his place. Redmayne and Keaton – who both won Golden Globes this week – remain locks, and Cumberbatch is probably safe too, though I can absolutely see him being the guy everyone assumed was locked in who ends up out in the cold. If he makes it, that leaves two spots and a dozen contenders in addition to Carell. The two most likely to find their way in are David Oyelowo for Selma and Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal has SAG, Golden Globe, BFCA and BAFTA nominations in his favor, and has been the most frequent winner amongst the critics next to Keaton, who has been the season’s big victor so far. Oyelowo’s place is less assured. He missed out on the SAG nomination, but as mentioned earlier, screeners were not available during SAG’s voting period, so there was no way that most voters would have been able to see his work yet. More surprising is his lack of a BAFTA nomination. Still, I get the sense that he – and Selma in general – is gaining steam.

Next are a pair of gentlemen who seem to be on the cusp: Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner (also known to fans of the Harry Potter films as Voldemort and Wormtail.) Both are terrific in their roles, but neither has broken through with the momentum they would probably need to get nominated. Still, I wouldn’t count them out, with Fiennes standing the better chance of the two. He has a Golden Globe nomination (in the Musical/Comedy category; that division poses limitations in the jump to an Oscar nod, especially since he was up against Keaton), as well as a BFCA nomination (note that BFCA categories have 6 nominees vs. the Academy’s standard 5) and a BAFTA nomination. He’s also in a film that could turn into a big player with the Academy. Spall has none of these advanatges; just a couple of victories from high-profile critics groups (as well as a Best Actor win at Cannes, though that hardly translates), and the benefit of appearing in a Mike Leigh film. The Academy is quite fond of Leigh, so you can be sure Mr. Turner is on their radar, regardless of how well it ultimately does.

I should also mention Bradley Cooper, gunning (no pun intended) for his third consecutive nomination with American Sniper. I’ve stated my thoughts on Sniper, and they extend to Cooper. Nothing against him or his fine work, I think there are much more noteworthy performances that deserves the attention. But as I also mentioned earlier, American Sniper was gaining a foothold just as the deadline for Oscar nomination ballots was getting close. Ben Affleck recently stumped for Cooper, and his comments about why the film and Cooper’s performance are important at this moment in time could very well resonate with the Academy. He’s on the outside looking in, but he’s coming up fast.

But wait, there’s more! Although none of these people have a chance of making the cut, the fact is that all are worthy of a place at the table. In a just world, Chadwick Boseman would be in the thick of the conversation for his dazzling work as James Brown in Get On Up; reigning champ Matthew McConaughey crushes it once again with an emotional performance in Interstellar; Locke is set entirely in a car, in real-time, with Tom Hardy captivating as a driver who shifts from one cell phone call to another juggling huge personal and professional dilemmas; Oscar Isaac, who should have been nominated last year for Inside Llewyn Davis, deserves a spot again for his quiet, wonderfully specific work in A Most Violent Year; the similarly titled A Most Wanted Man features one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last performances, and even near the end his work was potent as ever; Joaquin Phoenix, who also should have been nominated last year for Her, is a hilarious but grounded guide through the beautifully strange trip of Inherent Vice; in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Andy Serkis continues to deliver rich, stirring work utilizing motion capture technology; Jude Law’s electric, uproarious turn in Dom Hemingway was completely ignored in the year-end critic’s accolades despite the universal praise he received when the movie came out in April; Channing Tatum is riveting as the centerpiece of Foxcatcher, as deserving of awards as his two co-stars who have been the ones getting honored; Whiplash star Miles Teller has also been overshadowed by a co-star’s success, but does fiercely committed work. There’s also Bill Murray in St. Vincent, Brendan Gleeson in Calvary, Jack O’Connell in Unbroken, and John Lithgow in Love is Strange – all performances that have generated buzz, though none have quite the force they’d need to make the cut even in a less crowded year.

So…wow.

Predictions:
Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton – Birdman
David Oyelowo – Selma
Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

Personal Picks:
Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton – Birdman
David Oyelowo – Selma
Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

BEST ACTRESS
Sadly, as is too often the case, the embarrassment of riches in the male actor categories is not equaled here.The pickings aren’t slim exactly, but there are far fewer strong options than in Best Actor. The winner on the critics side so far, though not by a great distance, is Gone Girl‘s Rosamund Pike. When she was being touted as a contender around the movie’s early October release, I wasn’t sure she could sustain the buzz, but now she’s a frontrunner for the nomination. She is sure to be joined by Reese Witherspoon for Wild and Julianne Moore for Still Alice. In fact, ever since Alice debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, Moore has been dubbed the one to beat. Her march toward victory may have begun Sunday night with her Golden Globe win. We’ll see how she does from here with the BFCA, SAG and BAFTA. Felicity Jones, who plays Stephen Hawking’s wife in The Theory of Everything, is also a likely nominee.

The other actress to collect a fair share of critics prizes is Marion Cotillard. She has two shots, with excellent performances in The Immigrant and the French film Two Days, One Night. Some critics groups cited her for both, but Two Days, One Night has been the primary focus of attention. (I haven’t had a chance to see it, unfortuntely, as it just opened in Los Angeles this week.) I think Cotillard’s recognition ends with the critics. It’s unlikely that, in a crowded season with too many movies to see, enough voters will see this film to boost Cotillard into the final five. If she couldn’t make it this far in 2012 for Rust and Bone, with the wind of SAG, Golden Globe, BFCA and BAFTA nominations in her sails, I’d be surprised if she could make it here with none of those.

A surprising contender who does have those nominations in her favor except for BAFTA (I don’t think her film had been released in England in time to be considered) is Jennifer Aniston, who plays a hardened woman suffering from chronic pain in Cake. I could see things going either way for her, but it would be nice to see her land the nomination given that she’s still defined by her TV work. Cake is a dramedy and allows Aniston to utilize her well-honed comedic skills, but through a much darker, more bitter filter than we’re used to seeing. And she palpably carries her character’s extreme and constant discomfort. It succeeds as a change-of-pace performance, no doubt, but will enough voters find the time to see the movie?

Beyond these six actresses, there are a handful of others who have dotted the award landscape so far, but none have any considerable momentum. Amy Adams is fine in Big Eyes, but there’s not a whole lot to the role that would seem to earn her a place here. She’s beloved by the Academy though, so she’s always a possibility. I’ve bet against her before and lost. She won the Golden Globe award in the Musical/Comedy category, and has a BAFTA slot that might have seemed destined for Cotillard, so she can’t be dismissed. Many critics groups have taken notice of Essie Davis, an Australian actress who impresses as a haunted single-mother in the psychological horror film The Babadook. She deserves consideration, but this movie is well outside the Academy’s comfort zone. Even with vocal championing from William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist – one of the rare horror films that did well with the Academy – I doubt enough people have seen the movie. Under the Skin‘s Scarlett Johansson, The Homesman‘s Hilary Swank, Obvious Child‘s Jenny Slate and Beyond the Lights‘ Gugu Mbatha-Raw have garnered a bit of attention from critics groups – Johansson’s received a fair amount, actually – but it’s hard to imagine any of them can land in the final five. It’s a shame that Shailene Woodley hasn’t been talked about, because she does really lovely work in The Fault in Our Stars and deserves serious consideration. You know who else does? Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I. The role of Katniss Everdeen has always been a rich one with a lot to offer, and Lawrence is an actress who knows what to do with it. She gets to play a lot of different beats in this movie, and shouldn’t be overlooked because the movie is seen as a blockbuster and nothing more. It’s more.

This is a category that could really benefit from a bold stroke or two this year. Whether that’s Lawrence or Johansson, Mbatha-Raw or Woodley, it would be nice to see a big surprise to make up for the lack of worthy roles.

Predictions:
Amy Adams – Big Eyes
Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore – Still Alice
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon – Wild

Personal Picks:
Marion Cotillard – The Immigrant
Jennifer Lawrence – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I
Julianne Moore – Still Alice
Shailene Woodley – The Fault in Our Stars
Reese Witherspoon – Wild

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
We already know who’s going to win this, but the game must be played nonetheless, so who will join Whiplash‘s powerhouse J.K. Simmons on the list of nominees? Start with Edward Norton, the only guy who could maybe give Simmons a reason to sweat. Birdman provides Norton with his meatiest role in ages, and he tears into it with all the gusto you’d expect from a guy with his talent. Next is Ethan Hawke, who has been a consistent nominee among critics groups for his convivial dad in Boyhood, and Mark Ruffalo for Foxcatcher. Ruffalo has been much more of a force than Carell among the critics groups, chalking up nominations from almost every organization that names nominees (as opposed to just citing a winner and maybe a runner-up). That doesn’t mean the performance is more appreciated than Carell’s, which most groups probably kept in the more crowded Best Actor discussion. It’s probably just a result of there being more room to play with in this year’s Best Supporting Actor arena.

Quite a bit of room, actually. The list of viable contenders here is unusually small. Robert Duvall in The Judge has SAG, Golden Globe and BFCA nominations, but with all due respect to a legendary actor who should have won a second Oscar by now, I’ll be hugely disappointed if the Academy wastes a spot on him for a movie that was as predictable as it gets, and a stock role that an actor of Duvall’s talent could play in someone else’s sleep. Instead, how about going for Josh Brolin in Inherent Vice? The acting branch responds well to the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, and although Vice didn’t land as an across-the-board player this year, Brolin’s turn as a no-bullshit cop with a vehement disdain for hippies is seen as one of its best chances for some Oscar love. As discussed in the Best Actor section, there’s also the possibility that Steve Carell pops up here for Foxcatcher. If that were to happen, I assume he’d be nominated alongside Ruffalo, rather than knocking his co-star out of contention (which would be an ironic turn of events given their character’s relationship). Riz Ahmed, who plays Jake Gyllenhaal’s naive co-worker in Nightcrawler, could potentially be the beneficiary of what appears to be a lot of admiration for that movie among Academy members, while Alfred Molina earned a couple of critics nods for Love is Strange. The Academy still owes him for Frida, so in the absence of a strong roster here, I’d be okay with that. Doubtful it will happen though. Equally doubtful: that Andy Serkis will finally break through. He deserved it back in 2002 for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and again in 2011 for Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I brought him up in the Best Actor section for Rise‘s follow-up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and if Academy members consider him at all, that’s really where they should do it, as his ape leader Caesar really is the lead performance. His co-star Toby Kebbell meanwhile, deserves the consideration in this category. But we must ease into these things, and the Supporting category is probably where any voters with the smarts to vote for Serkis at all would put him. If that’s what it takes, I’m okay with it. Alas, it’s all wishful thinking. Voters still have to come around to motion capture performances being given their due.

Predictions:
Steve Carell – Foxcatcher
Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
Edward Norton – Birdman
Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons – Whiplash

Personal Picks:
Josh Brolin – Inherent Vice
Steve Carell – Foxcatcher
Edward Norton – Birdman
Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons – Whiplash

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Like Best Supporting Actor, this category has a way-out-in-front frontrunner in Boyhood‘s Patricia Arquette. She’ll likely be joined by Jessica Chastain for A Most Violent Year, Emma Stone for Birdman, and probably Kiera Knightley for The Imitation Game. Does Meryl Streep get the fifth nomination for Into the Woods? Most likely. She has the Golden Globe, SAG and BFCA nomination hat-trick, and she is, of course, Meryl Streep. Personally I was a somewhat underwhelmed by her performance as The Witch. I thought she didn’t do much of anything with the character.

Also in the running is Tilda Swinton, who fared well with the critics for her gleeful antagonist in Snowpiercer, though I wonder if that film was widely seen by voters. Laura Dern for Wild, Rene Russo for Nightcrawler and Katherine Waterston for Inherent Vice are all circling, and any of them could get lucky, but the biggest obstacle may be that the parts are all fairly small. That’s most true for Dern, although she does shine in the scenes she has. Russo meets the challenge of conveying a lot about her character in a short period and without always being able to get things across through dialogue, and the admiration for Nightcrawler is raising her profile. Relative newcomer Waterston (son of Law & Order‘s Sam), meanwhile, makes a strong impression in Vice, leaving her mark all over the movie even when she’s not on screen.

Naomi Watts snuck into the SAG race for her funny, enjoyable work as a Russian prostitute in St. Vincent, taking a slot that Chastain has occupied in most other races (like Selma, Chastain’s A Most Violent Year wasn’t able to get screeners out early in the season), but the chances of her repeating that with the Academy are slim. I would argue, however, that she deserves consideration for Birdman, even though the attention there has all been on Emma Stone. I’m also partial to Carrie Coon as Ben Affleck’s dour twin sister in Gone Girl. And Kristen Stewart was quite good as Julianne Moore’s perceptive daughter in Still Alice. The Polish film Ida, a possible nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, features an actress named Agata Kulesza who made a number of critics lists, but like several other films I’ve mentioned so far, it’s doubtful that enough voters have seen it to consider her. Assuming that turns out not to be a problem for Jennifer Aniston and Cake, voters could warm to Adriana Barraza. A nominee in this category in 2006 for Babel, Barraza does lovely work as the weary employee of Aniston’s prickly character.

The problem with many of these performances – even some of those most assured of a nomination – is that they aren’t as substantial as you would want an Oscar nominated (or winning) role to be. It’s frustrating, because the actresses all do excellent work, but this category features so few parts with the necessary screen time and/or character depth to really let them soar. If that’s just how it is, then one performance I’d mention that hasn’t garnered any talk in the precursor stage but which left an impression on me was Dorothy Atkinson’s in Mr. Turner. As the title character’s longtime housekeeper, Atkinson barely has any dialogue, but her awkward stance and pining eyes reveal a lifetime of experience. In a field that will mostly celebrate roles where the characters don’t have enough to do, Atkinson would be a welcome surprise.

Predictions:
Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year
Kiera Knightley – The Imitation Game
Emma Stone – Birdman
Meryl Streep – Into the Woods

Personal Picks:
Dorothy Atkinson – Mr. Turner
Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year
Emma Stone – Birdman
Tilda Swinton – Snowpiercer
Katherine Waterston – Inherent Vice

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
If there’s one category where The Grand Budapest Hotel is a safe bet, this is it. It will easily be joined by the other two leaders of the award season, Birdman and Boyhood, with Nightcrawler also a near-guarantee. The fifth slot would likely have gone to Whiplash, until the Academy threw a late-in-the-game curve ball. Whiplash has won or been nominated for a number of Original Screenplay awards among critic groups, including the BFCA, as well as BAFTA and the WGA. But last week, news broke that the Academy had ruled the script an adaptation. Writer/director Damien Chazelle wrote Whiplash based on personal experience, then filmed a lengthy sequence from early in the script as a short film which he could use as a calling card to drum up – ha! –  financing for the feature. His effort was successful, and off he went. But because of that short film, which even won a prize at Sundance a year before the feature played the festival, the Academy considers Whiplash an adaptation.

Remember, the Adapted screenplay category is technically named Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published. In the case of Whiplash, they’re focusing on the “Previously Produced or Published” phrase, when what they should be paying attention to is the word “based.” Whiplash the feature is not based on material previously produced or published. It is based on an original screenplay, a portion of which was filmed as a contained short before the feature was made. If Whiplash had been conceived as a short film and then later expanded to feature-length – like another terrific film from this year, Obvious Child – then Best Adapted Screenplay would have been the proper place for it. But that wasn’t the case. Best Original Screenplay is where it really belongs, but the Academy has spoken (albeit so quietly that no one associated with the movie was told about the reassignment) and this category now has an open spot.

In addition to Whiplash, the WGA nominated Foxcatcher, Boyhood, Budapest, and Nightcrawler, but as always it’s important to note that prominent films are left off the WGA’s eligibility list each year, either because the writers aren’t WGA members, or because certain guild guidelines were not followed in the making of the film. The exact reasons for each omission are never explained. Whatever the causes, this year’s list of ineligible films on the Original side include Birdman, Selma, Mr. Turner and Calvary. Birdman will definitely right its course with an Oscar nomination, so can Foxcatcher repeat its WGA recognition and take the Oscar slot that would probably have gone to Whiplash? Possibly, but I’m inclined to think the space will go to Selma. One of the obstacles to making a movie about Martin Luther King for all these years has been the King estate’s refusal to grant rights to his speeches (from what I understand, they haven’t wanted to participate in a film about Dr. King that included references to his infidelities). So Selma proceeded without obtaining those rights, which partly meant channeling the spirit of Dr. King to write speeches that he never actually made, but which sound like he did.

Working against Selma‘s chances at recognition here is a dispute – a quiet one, to the credit of all involved – over writing acknowledgement. The original script for Selma was written by Paul Webb, a sixty-something British screenwriter. The project went through various incarnations on its way to getting made (Lee Daniels came close to doing it in 2010, and even had a cast in place that included Hugh Jackman, Liam Neeson, Cedric the Entertainer, Lenny Kravitz and Robert De Niro in addition to David Oyelowo, who remained attached as King). When Ava DuVernay came on to direct, she did significant re-writing that changed the structure of the script, shifted the focus, and included those originally-crafted speeches for King that I just talked about. But the story goes that Webb’s contract guaranteed him sole credit if he desired it, and that he chose to exercise that right despite the work to the script done by DuVernay. Because DuVernay is not a WGA member, she couldn’t fight for shared credit through the guild’s arbitration process. Without knowing the exact details or hearing Webb’s point of view, I’m left to think that his refusal to share credit is quite the dick move, similar to ones we’ve seen before. Just last year in fact, a similar situation arose with 12 Years a Slave, with writer John Ridley – who went on to win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay – choosing not to share credit with director Steve McQueen, who helped re-write the script after signing on. In 2009, Jason Reitman significantly re-wrote Sheldon Turner’s script on his own for Up in the Air, but Turner was allowed to retain co-credit, leading to some awkward appearances on the awards circuit that arguably cost the film an Oscar win. While the Selma situation hasn’t blown up into a public feud, it’s probably well-known in the filmmaking community, which could impact voters’ decision to nominate it. Will they ultimately decide to honor the work regardless of whose name is on it, or will fellow writers punish Webb by denying the nomination altogether? With admitted uncertainty, I’m going with the former. But if the nomination doesn’t happen, I’ll wonder if this was part of the reason.

If neither Selma nor Foxcatcher make it here, Mr. Turner is a possibility. The writer’s branch has nominated Mike Leigh five times before, so they obviously admire his work. J.C. Chandor’s first film Margin Call broke through in 2011 to win a nod, so while his latest A Most Violent Year seems to have been unfortunately lost in the crowd, the writing branch may take note. Animated movies get recognition here every now and again, so it’s not out of the question that the clever and witty script for The LEGO Movie could pop up. And while it is pretty much faded from the conversation, there was a time when Jon Favreau’s Chef was considered a strong contender for a spot here. I wish that buzz hadn’t evaporated.

Predictions:
Birdman – Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Boyhood – Richard Linklater
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson
Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy
Selma – Paul Webb

Personal Picks:
A Most Violent Year – J.C. Chandor
Birdman – Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Chef – Jon Favreau
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson
Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The expected nominees here are Gillian Flynn’s faithful adaptation of her own best-seller Gone Girl, and British Genius biopics The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. The addition of Whiplash into the mix shakes things up for the remaining two spots, one of which I’m sure will now go to Chazelle. Theory of Everything was ineligible for the WGA Awards and Whiplash was classified as an Original, so along with Gone and Imitation, the guild’s nominees were Wild, American Sniper and Guardians of the Galaxy. The latter two came as surprises, especially since Inherent Vice was passed over. Sniper‘s appearance here is a mark of its increased strength, though I’m not sure it can pull off the Oscar nomination. Guardians, meanwhile, has even less chance with the Academy, though it’s fun to think about. Its guild mention is the kind of happy twist that can occur when typically Academy-friendly fare is deemed ineligible. Wild and Inherent Vice are still probably the best bets to round out the category, but one of them will probably be pushed out because of Whiplash. Then again, they aren’t the only players in the game. If voters look elsewhere regardless of the Whiplash factor, they could throw a bone to Unbroken, which has the impressive line-up of writers William Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Misérables), Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Horse Whisperer) and Joel and Ethan Coen (no credit samples necessary). Into the Woods could also show up here, but without the guild nominations or the overall attention that movies of their stature might have received, Unbroken and Into the Woods remain long shots. Snowpiercer earned some critics groups nominations, but if the Academy were going to gravitate toward a genre film, Guardians seems a likelier candidate.

Predictions:
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
The Imitation Game – Graham Moore
The Theory of Everything – Anthony McCarten
Whiplash – Damien Chazelle
Wild – Nick Hornby

Personal Picks:
The Imitation Game – Graham Moore
Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson
Obvious Child – Gillian Robespierre
Whiplash – Damien Chazelle
Wild – Nick Hornby

BEST ANIMATED FILM
Predicting this category is always challenging since the pool of contenders usually includes some foreign and independent films that have not received wide exposure. In addition, the number of nominees can vary based on how many films qualify by playing theatrically in Los Angeles. 20 animated features were submitted for consideration this year, but several had not yet held their qualifying runs at the time of that announcement in early November, and I don’t know how many of them have followed through. Assuming they all have, a slate of 20 contenders means there could be up to the maximum five nominees. Looking at the mainstream releases, we can safely say that The LEGO Movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Big Hero 6 will score nominations. The Boxtrolls is probably in too. Among the remaining broad releases, only The Book of Life seems a viable candidate, having been mentioned by several critics organizations. (I’m disappointed that I missed both of these movies in theaters and neither has arrived on DVD yet.) Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Rio 2, and The Penguins of Madagascar have all been completely ignored so far, except for some Annie Award nominations, and I’d be surprised to see any of them suddenly earn an Oscar nomination. Aside from these selections and few others that got broad-ish U.S. releases but have absolutely no shot of getting nominated (sorry Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return and Planes: Fire and Rescue), the highest profile film in the running is The Tale of Princess Kaguya, a gorgeous and mature hand-drawn film from Japan’s beloved Studio Ghibli. There’s also a new film, Song of the Sea, from Irish animator Tomm Moore, whose previous film The Secret of Kells surprised everyone with an out-of-nowere nomination in 2009, illustrating that members of the animation branch were looking beyond the mainstream. So don’t count him out for return visit.

Predictions:
Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The LEGO Movie
The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Personal Picks:
Big Hero 6
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The LEGO Movie
The Tale of Princess Kaguya

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Last year’s winner in this category was Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity, and he finds himself at the front of the line again for his brilliant work on Birdman, which is intricately constructed to appear as if nearly the entire movie is one continuous shot. And as seems to be the case year after year, there is enough phenomenal photography to fill the category three times over. The American Society of Cinematographers, in addition to Birdman, selected Unbroken, Mr. Turner, The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel. The only surprise was Imitation Game, which hasn’t received much attention for its camerawork, and which takes a spot that would better suit any number of other films. Where to begin? Gordon Willis, the great cinematographer who shot The Godfather trilogy and All the President’s Men among many others, passed away in May, but his spirit and style were very much alive in films like The Immigrant (shot by Darius Khondji), A Most Violent Year and Selma (both from relative newcomer Bradford Young). Under the Skin featured some of the year’s most striking images, as did the little-seen Dostoevsky adaptation The Double (which I have to say, I disliked so much that I turned it off before finishing, which I pretty much never do). On the opposite end of the indie/mainstream spectrum, Interstellar and Gone Girl each boasted the kind of impressive work we’re used to seeing in films from Christopher Nolan and David Fincher, while Dawn of the Planet of the Apes featured sensational compositions from beginning to end. Robert Elswit served up two L.A. stories this year, shooting Inherent Vice on film and going digital for Nightcrawler, with excellent results for both. The branch likes to go for black and white when it can, and some of the critics groups cited Ida, so that could be considered a long longshot to show up here. Fury, The Homesman, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash, Into the Woods, Wild…the members of this branch (and dorks like me who pretend that our selection on our dumb blogs mean something) have some hard choices to make.

The Academy usually strays slightly from the guild, so I’m guessing Imitation Game misses. On the other hand, voters sometimes go for the movie they like the best even if it isn’t the most deserving showcase in a given category. Overall enjoyment of Imitation probably helped score it the guild nod in the first place, so that could repeat here. But I’m taking my chances and betting elsewhere. With so many options though, I might as well pick a name out of a hat.

Predictions:
Birdman – Emmanuel Lubezki
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Robert Yeoman
Interstellar – Hoyte van Hoytema
Mr. Turner – Dick Pope
Unbroken – Roger Deakins

Personal Picks:
Birdman – Emmanuel Lubezki
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Michael Seresin
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Robert Yeoman
Inherent Vice – Robert Elswit
Under the Skin – Daniel Landin

BEST FILM EDITING
With 12 years worth of footage to sort through, even if shooting only occurred for a few days each go-round, Boyhood editor Sandra Adair had a delicate task in choosing how to transition the characters through their growth, so count on a nomination for her. As mentioned in the previous section, Birdman is presented largely as if it were one fluid take. That’s not possible, of course, so the work of editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione had to be even more invisible than editing usually is in order to sustain the effect. Put them down for a nomination too. The broad appeal of The Imitation Game will probably help it find a slot here as well. Whiplash definitely deserves a spot, and stands an excellent chance of making it, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see it squeezed out by something that isn’t necessarily as impressive on the editing front but which gets marked down anyway because voters sometimes equate this category with Best Picture too blindly (a nod for The Theory of Everything would be an example of that trend). Given that I’m predicting a Best Picture nomination for Whiplash, my doubts may be unfounded. I just don’t think it’s completely safe, even if it should be.

Gone Girl and American Sniper were cited by the American Cinema Editors (ACE) in their Drama category (along with Boyhood, Imitation and Whiplash), and Gone Girl may have an edge. The Academy’s editing branch loves them some David Fincher, as evidenced by the surprise Oscar win in 2011 for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (a year after the same editors won for Fincher’s The Social Network). Sniper, meanwhile, is the kind of action-drama that voters like to reward here. There’s also Selma, which missed with the guild but could still break in with the Academy.

In ACE’s Musical or Comedy category, Birdman is nominated alongside The Grand Budapest Hotel, Into the Woods, Guardians of the Galaxy and Inherent Vice. Budapest and Into the Woods could show up, but Vice and Guardians are less likely. If the editors were eyeing a straight-up action blockbuster, they would do better to nominate Edge of Tomorrow than Guardians. Interstellar also has a chance, though only a small one in the absence of overall support for the movie. I’d love to see Wild make the list, but unless the film does really well across the board, it will probably be passed over.

Predictions:
American Sniper
Birdman
Boyhood
The Imitation Game
Whiplash

Personal Picks:
Birdman
Boyhood
Edge of Tomorrow
Whiplash
Wild

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Hard as it is to believe, not one of Wes Anderson’s movies has ever been nominated for art direction and set decoration. The Royal Tenenbaums? Nope. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou? Nothing. The Darjeeling Limited? Uh-uh. Moonrise Kingdom? Didn’t happen. I still don’t know how that’s possible, but I’ve got to believe the pattern ends this year with the immaculate, exquisite design of The Grand Budapest Hotel. I refuse to entertain the notion that Adam Stockhausen’s phenomenal work will be passed over. In fact, forget the nomination; we should be jumping ahead to give him the Oscar right now.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way…Voters in the design branches are always partial to period films and sci-fi/fantasy, so The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Inherent Vice, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Unbroken, The Immigrant and Mr. Turner all have a claim to stake on the period side, while Into the Woods, Maleficent, Guardians of the Galaxy and Interstellar lead the charge for the sci-fi/fantasy vote…although Interstellar is really more grounded than your usual sci-fi movie, eschewing the fantastical settings usually expected in the genre. The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies should be mentioned too, though I have a feeling that series has run its course in these two races. Snowpiercer, with its many distinctive train cars from grimy and filthy to shiny and glistening, is standout work that deserves a shot, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes‘ depiction of a decrepit San Francisco and the ape village in the redwoods was marvelous. Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam movies often do well with these branches, but Burton’s Big Eyes landed rather quietly this year, and Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem came and went with almost no attention paid (I enjoyed it, for what it’s worth). Also, despite my earlier comment that I couldn’t get through The Double, I’d be remiss not to mention it here too. It was a triumph of cinematography and production design, even if I wanted to punch every character in the face so badly that I had to stop watching.

Contemporary films rarely catch on in the sets and costume categories, but Birdman could be an exception thanks to the claustrophobic theater in which almost the entire movie is set. The way Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera prowls through the space shows it off in a way that makes it feel like its own character, and voters might respond to that.

Predictions:
Birdman
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

Personal Picks:
Birdman
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Snowpiercer
The Zero Theorem

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
In the interest of time, I’m just going to grab the first paragraph from the previous section and use it again here, with a few minor tweaks:

Hard as it is to believe, not one of Wes Anderson’s movies has ever been nominated for art direction and set decoration costume design. The Royal Tenenbaums? Nope. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou? Nothing. The Darjeeling Limited? Uh-uh. Moonrise Kingdom? Didn’t happen. I still don’t know how that’s possible, but I’ve got to believe the pattern ends this year with the immaculate, exquisite design of The Grand Budapest Hotel. I refuse to entertain the notion that Adam Stockhausen’s Milena Canonero’s phenomenal work will be passed over. In fact, forget the nomination; we should be jumping ahead to give him her the Oscar right now.

The same rules apply to costumes as they do to sets, in terms of what Academy members gravitate toward, so once again The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Inherent Vice, Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Immigrant, Mr. Turner, Into the Woods, Maleficent, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Guardians of the Galaxy, Selma and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I are all in play. Personally, I’d throw in mentions for The Two Faces of January and A Most Violent Year too.

Predictions:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner
The Theory of Everything

Personal Picks:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Imitation Game
Inherent Vice
Maleficent

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
This is the last piece of the post I’m trying to write, and I’m running out of time and patience, so I’ll keep this one uncharacteristically brief, and perhaps share a few more thoughts post-nominations. Steve Pond of The Wrap writes a comprehensive rundown of the eligible songs each year (there were 79 this time), so it’s a nice overview of the field. With so many choices, and with the notoriously idiotic rules by which the music branch votes, there’s usually at least one headscratcher in the bunch. We’ll see how it plays out. One song that I was disappointed not to see among the 79 possibilities is “I Love You All,” an odd yet oddly catchy and moving song from the movie Frank, about an eager, wannabe musician who stumbles into a gig with an avant garde indie band – The Soronprfbs – whose lead singer Frank wears a giant papier-mâché mask at all times. He’s played by Michael Fassbender, and that’s him singing.

Would have been fun to see them perform that on Oscar night. Oh well.

Predictions:
Lost Stars – Begin Again
I’m Not Gonna Miss You – Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
Everything is Awesome – The LEGO Movie
I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu) – Muppets Most Wanted
Glory – Selma

Personal Picks:
The Last Goodbye – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Everything is Awesome – The LEGO Movie
I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu) – Muppets Most Wanted
We’re Doing a Sequel – Muppets Most Wanted
Glory – Selma

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Whether it’s standard rules and policies or bad calls specific to each year, you can always count on the music branch to fuck things up right from the outset. This year, they’ve obliged by disqualifying what should absolutely be one of the five nominees: Antonio Sánchez’s percussion-driven score to Birdman. The Academy’s reason, in short, is that they felt the film used too much pre-existing music in addition to Sánchez’s original work, thereby lessening the impact of the score. The Hollywood Reporter offered a thorough play-by-play of what took place, with excerpts of the letters written by Sánchez and director Alejandro González Iñárritu as part of an effort to appeal the decision, as well as the Academy’s response. Unfortunately, the decision stood, despite efforts to explain how essential Sánchez was not only to the finished film, but to the production. Unlike most composers, he was involved early, working with the actors and crew in ways that are wholly atypical to how film scores usually come about. (Sánchez described the process in an interview with In Contention in early November, and spoke to the site again the day that the appeal was rejected. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski also brought up the score in a brief Hollywood Reporter story about the camerawork, explaining how key a role the music played in his own efforts.)

Sánchez’s work is essential to the film, underscoring beats physical, emotional and psychological, and functioning – like the camera and the sets – as yet another character occupying the labyrinth of the Broadway theater that serves as the movie’s primary locale. It’s a shame he won’t be included. Getting to who will be, the impossibly prolific Alexandre Desplat could be a double nominee for The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel, with the former being the more certain nomination of the two. Hans Zimmer should also be a good bet for the rousing, propulsive score of Interstellar, and Jóhann Jóhannsson is a likely nominee for his classical work in The Theory of Everything. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won this category in 2010 for David Fincher’s The Social Network, stand a good chance of a return trip with their typically unsettling score for Gone Girl. John Powell was nominated that year too, for How to Train Your Dragon, so perhaps the sequel could repeat. And if the members of the music branch are feeling adventurous, we could see a nod for the eerie tones created by Mica Levi for Under the Skin. Other scores that seem unlikely to break in but not impossible are The Homesman, Noah, A Most Violent Year, Selma, Unbroken and Mr. Turner.

Predictions:
Gone Girl – Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Alexandre Desplat
The Imitation Game – Alexandre Desplat
Interstellar – Hans Zimmer
The Theory of Everything – Jóhann Jóhannsson

Personal Picks:
Birdman – Antonio Sánchez (Hey, I don’t have to play by the Academy’s bullshit rules)
Gone Girl – Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
The Homesman – Marco Beltrami
The Imitation Game – Alexandre Desplat
Interstellar – Hans Zimmer

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Unlike the song and score categories, which have 79 and 114 possible nominees, respectively, the Makeup and Hairstyling category has only seven, an executive committee of branch members having been generous enough to review the full slate of options earlier and narrow it down. Three nominees will be chosen from The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Maleficent, Noah and The Theory of Everything. If my opening comment sounds tinged with a bit of sarcasm, well, it is. I don’t know why this branch (and the Visual Effects branch, coming up next) continue to employ this whittling-down process ahead of the nominations instead of just letting branch members cast their vote as they like for whatever makeup and hairstyling achievements from the year appeal to them. The films listed above are all worthy, but so are Snowpiercer, Get On Up, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Unbroken, and probably some others I’m not mentioning.

Of the seven, there are really four that seem to have the edge, and that’s one too many. As Foxcatcher‘s work is mainly limited to transforming Steve Carell, I suspect that may be the one that misses in favor of my three guesses below. Then again, the same could be said about The Theory of Everything and Eddie Redmayne’s transformation into Stephen Hawking. But I give Theory the edge over Foxcatcher because a) it’s the movie more Academy members will probably enjoy and therefore nominate across multiple categories, and b) turning Redmayne into Hawking was a gradual process throughout the film, whereas turning Carell into John du Pont was a one-shot deal…applied daily, of course, but there was no variation to the makeup itself. The branch is no more inclined toward fantasy creations than it is toward realistic ones, so maybe Guardians gets nosed out by Foxcatcher. Or maybe those both make the cut and Grand Budapest gets bumped. So few contenders, so many possibilities.

Predictions:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Theory of Everything

Personal Picks:
Same

TheoryStellar - Banne

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Although the Visual Effects branch also culls the year’s offerings down to a select few for semi-final consideration, at least their longlist now features ten films and eventually five nominees. They used to match the Makeup branch with seven and three. This year, voters can choose from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Interstellar, Maleficent, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Transformers: Age of Extinction and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

I think we can dismiss Maleficent and Night at the Museum from the outset, buy any combination of the other eight seems possible. Every one of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films has been nominated, so the final adventure would seem a slum dunk. But is it? It’s the first of the films that doesn’t really have anything new to offer in the way of effects, and it’s easy to imagine that a bit of fatigue has set in where these are concerned. Neither of the previous Hobbit films has won, whereas all three Lord of the Rings films did. Telling, or just a matter of more groundbreaking competition from past two winners Life of Pi and Gravity? The Transformers movies are as ridiculous as ever, but their visual effects have always been superb. If only the scripts could be as good. Two of the three prior entries in the series were nominated. Where will this one fall? (If I’d seen it, it would probably make my personal picks, but I haven’t. It’s just so hard to sit through them…). None of the X-Men films have been able to crack this category, and I can’t recall much about the specifics or the quality of the work in Days of Future Past…except for that one fantastic Quicksilver/prison break scene which is so good that the movie could land a spot just based on that alone.

Predictions:
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Interstellar
Transformers: Age of Extinction

Personal Picks:
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Godzilla
Guardians of the Galaxy
Interstellar
X-Men: Days of Future Past

BEST SOUND EDITING/BEST SOUND MIXING
I’m always repeating myself when this category comes around, but I should relax and acknowledge that nobody remembers what I write in these columns from year to year. I doubt anyone will remember in five minutes. I mean, c’mon…are you even still reading this? What the hell is wrong with you?

What I say every year is basically this: that nobody knows what makes good sound editing or sound mixing. Except for sound editors and sound mixers and maybe James Cameron. So even though I’ve finally got a handle on what the two crafts mean, that doesn’t really illuminate who or what should or will be nominated. In the giant guessing game that is Oscar predicting, the sound categories are among the guessiest. But I’ll try anyway. To quote directly from my post last year: the sound editors record or create sounds that could not be captured during filming, either because dragons nuclear-mutated lizards [I figured I’d at least update that bit] 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.

So with this category, we’re looking at every action movie and summer blockbuster; we’re looking at sci-fi and fantasy; we’re looking at war movies; we’re looking at musicals or movies with big musical numbers; and we’re occasionally looking at animated films. It’s a wide field, and although my predictions don’t include The LEGO Movie, Begin Again, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Fury, Unbroken, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Gone Girl, Selma, or Whiplash, any of them could conceivably show up…as could any number of other titles. So how’s that for making a bold stand?

Sound Editing Predictions:
American Sniper
Birdman
Guardians of the Galaxy
Godzilla
Interstellar

Sound Mixing Predictions:
American Sniper
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Into the Woods
Transformers: Age of Extinction

Another thing I always say about these categories is that I think, with my admitted lack of understanding of the sound field, that both of these categories should be eliminated in favor of one category recognizing overall Sound Design. It is in this fantasy category that I always select my personal picks…because I have no framework for making personal picks in the actual categories. My Sound Design nominees would be: Fury, Godzilla, Interstellar, Under the Skin and Wild.

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Now then…having wasted more than enough of everyone’s time, my own included, that about wraps it up. As usual, I’m far too in the dark about the documentaries and foreign language films to venture any guesses, and forget about the short films; that’s just not happening.

The nominees will be announced tomorrow morning, and in a new experiment for the Academy, all categories will be unveiled live, beginning at 5:30am PST. (Usually the on-air announcement covers only Picture, Director, the acting categories, the writing categories, Animated Feature, Foreign Language Film and Documentary Feature.) Half the nominees will be announced by J.J. Abrams and current Best Director champ Alfonso Cuarón, then the rest – including those major categories I just mentioned – will be read by Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Chris Pine. For those who like to know exactly what they’re getting into, here’s how it will break down. (Jeez, they couldn’t have thrown Abrams and Cuarón one “major” category? Best Director might have been logical…)

I was going to leave you with a clip from a past Oscar show, but then I stumbled upon this, and that was pretty much that.

March 30, 2014

Oscars 2013: What Went Down

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 8:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

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
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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, which 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 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 the 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.

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!

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