I Am DB

February 27, 2016

Oscars 2015: The Envelope Please

As usual, and despite all efforts to do better, I’m once again down to the wire with this post, so there’s no time to waste with lengthy introductions. Let me waste your time with the lengthy play-by-play instead. Away we go…
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BEST SOUND MIXING AND BEST SOUND EDITING
One of Oscar night’s big battles starts in these two categories (well…for our purposes, anyway; it’s not like these will necessarily be the first two awards presented). Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant face each other in 10 categories, and while Phase One of the season suggested that Fury Road would dominate below-the-line, The Revenant‘s emergence as a top-category frontrunner during Phase Two could easily trickle down to these races and shake things up. Poor Tom Hardy isn’t going to know who to root for half the night.

The big question as to whether Fury Road would get those Best Picture and Best Director nominations was partly a question of whether the film was more than just a critic’s darling. Would the industry show it enough love for the conservative-leaning Academy to take the hint? Well…they did. But how far will that extend? As Fury Road faces industry favorite The Revenant in category after category, will it have a chance, or get clobbered by the new kid in town?

As for these two categories, we’re not even talking about a one-on-one bout, as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Martian could totally take one or both of these. I think Sound Mixing nominee Sicario and Sound Editing nominee Bridge of Spies are out of the running, but everything else is in play, and where you can sometimes make a pretty strong guess as to which film has the edge when it comes to sound, there is no such clarity here. So for no reason other than having 17 more categories to get through, I’m guessing they’ll split this year: Sound Mixing will go to The Revenant and Sound Editing will go to Fury Road.

Which probably means they’ll both go to Star Wars.

Personal: As usual, I have no real investment in these categories. To the extent that I notice sound work, the only nominee that didn’t make an impression on me in that area is Bridge of Spies. I was probably most affected by the soundscape of Sicario, so I suppose I’d throw my Mixing vote in that direction. For Editing, any of them would make me happy except Spies…and it’s not like that would make me angry.

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BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

This category poses a conundrum. When there’s no obvious VFX game-changer, this award tends to go to a Best Picture nominee, or the closest thing in the category to a prestige film, even if there’s clearly better work elsewhere. See Gladiator‘s victory over The Perfect Storm, Hugo‘s over Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Interstellar‘s over Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. There’s no major breakthrough work in this year’s nonetheless admirable slate, so we should look to The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road. But Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a wild card. A Star Wars movie isn’t a guaranteed winner; neither The Phantom Menace nor Attack of the Clones triumphed here, and Revenge of the Sith wasn’t even nominated. But those movies weren’t particularly well-liked outside the realm of fandom (and not always so well-liked within either). The Force Awakens, on the other hand, reignited everyone’s love of Star Wars, and the legacy of the franchise could be enough to make this return-to-form victorious.

All three films can make a strong case. The Revenant‘s bear attack is one of the most talked-about movie scenes of the year, and it looks incredible. On the other hand, it’s just one brief scene, and the movie’s other visual effects are more invisible. Fury Road is the rare nominee these days to feature a huge number of practical special effects, which makes the work seem that much more tactile and impressive. Star Wars can make that claim too, offering a balance of practical and digital work that also boosted its reputation after the overly CGI’d prequels. But still, Star Wars is a more traditional VFX movie; Fury Road has the charm of being something a little different. Once again, I have absolutely no idea what will happen, as each of these three is a viable winner. My shot in the dark is that it will go to Star Wars, the movie that’s synonymous with modern-day visual effects and is finally worth celebrating again.

Personal: Difficult choice, but I think I’d have to go with Fury Road. Like I said, it’s something a little different. That bear attack in The Revenant was mighty impressive, but I don’t like the idea of a movie that’s two hours and 36 minutes winning an Oscar for basically five minutes of its runtime. As for Star Wars, excellent work…but nothing we haven’t seen before. And since there are going to be new Star Wars movies every year until the oceans rise and cover the planet’s surface, it has plenty of other chances.

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BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Apologies to The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared. Nobody outside of the Makeup and Hairstyling branch that nominated you has any idea what you are. Which leaves…wait for it…wait for iiiiiiiiiit…Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant! And once again, they both have an excellent chance at the gold. Most pundits appear to be predicting Fury Road for the win. But I’m thinking that more voters, when sitting in front of their ballots and trying to recall the movies, will remember the beards and grime and dirt and blood and gashes and scalps and bad teeth and all around horrible, horrible hygiene of The Revenant before Fury Road‘s work, which is more inventive but perhaps less obvious. Then again, if voters mistake that crazy, instantly iconic face mask worn by Fury Road villain Immorten Joe to be a piece of makeup rather than a piece of costume design, all bets are off.

Personal: Mad Max: Fury Road, because I tend to be more impressed by the imaginative than the realistic.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Will it be Fury Road or The Revenant this time around? Trick question! Neither are nominated for Original Score! Among the films that are competing is The Hateful Eight, featuring music from the prolific Italian maestro Ennio Morricone. In 2006, Morricone was awarded an Honorary Oscar for career achievement, having been nominated five times previously. His first nomination was for 1978’s Days of Heaven, meaning he was never cited for any of his beloved Spaghetti western scores, such as Once Upon a Time in the West or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Now he stands to win his first competitive award for his terrific compositions from The Hateful Eight, which recall the work of those famous movies that have been such an inspiration to Hateful writer/director Quentin Tarantino. I wouldn’t call Morricone a lock, though; he faces another prolific titan in John Williams, who returned to his most famous and popular series with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Enthusiasm for that movie — which has been seen more widely than The Hateful Eight — could earn Williams his sixth trophy. Carter Burwell’s score for Carol is a dark horse, but I think it will come down to Hateful Eight and Force Awakens, with Morricone pulling off the win.

Personal: The Hateful Eight. Williams’ work on Star Wars was solid, and there were a couple of good new themes, but there was nothing in the score that matched the music of original three films. That won’t necessarily stop people from voting for Williams, but Morricone’s Hateful Eight score made a bigger impact on me than the overall score for The Force Awakens. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Sicario score is supremely effective in the movie, but I always gravitate toward scores that stand alone as a listening experience apart from the film.

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BEST ORIGINAL SONG

While trying to guess what might be nominated in this category, I expressed a lack of enthusiasm at the field of contenders. The final five (hear them all for yourself) haven’t done much to change my mind. Nice, fine, okay….these are some of the words that might describe them. Nothing too memorable or fun or beautiful or really worth getting excited about at all. But someone’s gotta win, and it will probably be Lady Gaga and Diane Warren for “‘Til it Happens to You.” It’s from a documentary called The Hunting Ground, about rape on college campuses. The importance of the issue, the star factor of Lady Gaga and the lack of a compelling choice among the competition should all combine to bring this tune a win.

If that happens, it will end one of Oscar’s notable losing streaks. This is Diane Warren’s eighth nomination, and she’s never won. Probably because most the songs she’s been nominated for are bland, forgettable ballads. Remember “How Do I Live,” from Con Air? Or “There You’ll Be,” from Pearl Harbor? Of course you don’t. How about “Because You Loved Me,” from Up Close and Personal? Do you even remember Up Close and Personal? (I do…but I’m a freak of nature.) To be fair, Warren does have one great nominated song to her credit: the epic, just-the-right-side of-cheesy-to-still-be-good-in-the-way-that-80’s-songs-could-be-cheesy-and-good-at-the-same-time “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” from Mannequin.

Anyway…I’m not trying to be a Warren hater. I’ve got nothing against her, and she is a renowned songwriter who’s worked with a long list of great artists. It’s always nice to see somebody finally win an award like this after so many times coming up short. And since she’s not going to beat someone who I’m rooting for, it’s all the same to me.

Personal: I’d vote for “Simple Song #3” from Youth, just because it’s something different from the norm.

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BEST COSTUME DESIGN

After a brief interruption in their nominations domination, please welcome back Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant. But to keep things interesting, let’s dismiss one of them right off the bat. I don’t think The Revenant will factor in here. And while The Danish Girl won the prize in the Period film category at the Costume Designers Guild Awards just a few nights ago, I think Academy voters will make this a three-way contest between Carol, Cinderella and Mad Max: Fury Road. And as with most of these below-the-line categories this year, there’s no obvious frontrunner. Cinderella‘s outfits are grand and colorful, which is the most common winning recipe, while Carol‘s are also strikingly colored, yet more conservative in style. Exquisite as both film’s sartorial selections are, however, I think the rugged and gritty outfits of Fury Road could win here, following triumphs with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and the Costume Designer Guild’s Fantasy category. It’s no sure thing; Carol and Cinderella are more in line with the traditional winners of this award (and of those, I’d give the edge to Cinderella), so we’ll see if enough voters are up for a change of pace.

Personal: I love the work on display in Carol and Cinderella, but I think I’d have to go with Mad Max: Fury Road, for that aforementioned Immorten Joe mask, if nothing else. I mean…look at that thing!

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BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

I think most people — myself included — tend to think of this category as just sets and locations, but it also takes into account all the stuff in the movie. Keeping that in mind, Mad Max: Fury Road — with its tricked-out vehicles and wild, creative props — may have the edge here. The setting itself is mainly a vast, open desert landscape. But pretty much everything moving through that landscape is ingeniously conceived.

If voters remain stuck on the idea of location and backdrops, the path to victory becomes more hazy. The Danish Girl and Bridge of Spies faithfully recreate their period settings — 1920’s and 1950’s, respectively — but the visuals aren’t particularly eye-catching. The Martian‘s interiors have a standard spaceship look, and the beautiful exteriors, while impressive, are just natural settings that don’t seem to require much work from a design standpoint. The Revenant, like Fury Road, primarily takes place outdoors in vast, untouched locales. This award usually goes to movies with lots of interior work, and as with Costume Design, voters tend to favor flashy over muted. Or not; Lincoln was a surprise winner here in 2012, and Bridge of Spies — despite being set nearly 100 years later — has a similar palette. So really, this year’s line-up — in its own vacuum and compared to past nominees — is a study in contradictions.

It really depends on how broadly voters are thinking when they consider what makes up Production Design. I could see almost anything except The Danish Girl picking up the prize, and even though it’s outside the box, I think they’ll go with Fury Road.

Personal: Mad Max: Fury Road. All of the Mad Max movies exemplify brilliant world-building, with endlessly fascinating details in the sets, costumes, vehicles, accoutrements, etc. Sometimes they are just seen quickly, in passing, helping in their small way to tell the story of this brutal post-apocalyptic world. These flourishes might not be explained, but they speak volumes. This is one of the most impressive elements of the series for me, and it makes Fury Road a no-brainer in this category.

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BEST FILM EDITING

Here’s another contest where we can probably eliminate The Revenant right off the bat, unless voters really go deep for it. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a bit of a surprise in this category, is also out. I doubt Spotlight can pull this off, but it’s not out of the question. It mainly comes down to Mad Max: Fury Road and The Big Short. This award often goes to a Best Picture frontrunner, unless there’s another film where the editing work truly stands out. That can apply to action movies like past winners The Matrix and The Bourne Ultimatum, or movies that are longshot Best Picture nominees like last year’s victor, Whiplash. In this case, we have one of each. The Big Short has a big shot at the big prize, while Fury Road has less of a shot, but showcases masterfully assembled action. Both movies are highly admired within the Academy, and I have no idea which side the majority of voters will come down on. Every year has one particularly difficult-to-predict, coin toss category, and this year’s is right here. I’m going with Fury Road, but this is a nailbiter…and if The Big Short takes it, watch out when Best Picture rolls around.

Personal: Mad Max: Fury Road. I thought the editing of The Big Short was a little annoying, truth be told. It wasn’t so much an example of best editing to me as it was most editing. There’s a difference.

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BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

There’s not a weak contender in this lineup, and there are several more films that could easily have been here, but it will boil down to the two most obviously difficult movies to shoot: Mad Max: Fury Road, with its mind-boggling mayhem of practical effects and stunt work; and The Revenant, with its remote locations, long takes and natural light. This time, look for The Revenant to take the gold, making Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki the first person to win this award three years in a row, following Gravity and Birdman.

Personal: It would be fun to see 70 year-old John Seale win for coming out of retirement to shoot Fury Road, but The Revenant is hard to deny. And as much as it pains me to think of Sicario‘s criminally Oscarless Roger Deakins losing for the 13th time while Lubezki wins his third, there’s a reason Lubezki keeps on winning. The guy is a magician, and these last three films have been unusually complex tricks.

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BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

I don’t know which of Inside Out‘s five emotions — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger or Sarcasm — covers jealousy and disappointment, but those feelings will be working overtime in the heads of everyone not nominated for Inside Out. In one of the night’s few slam dunks, Pixar will celebrate its eighth win since this category’s inception 15 years ago. I wonder if Roger Deakins is interested in directing a Pixar movie…

Personal: Anomalisa and Inside Out were both funny, sad and beautiful. Either would be fine with me, but the creativity on display in Inside Out is tremendous.

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BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Not a lot to say for the two writing categories this year, as each one has a pretty clear frontrunner. The Big Short has been far out in front of this race from the start, with more wins from regional critics groups than any of its competition, as well as wins from the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) and BAFTA. The movie has been a big hit with Academy voters, and all signs point to an Oscar win. Room has potential to surprise, but that potential is low. The Big Short will take it.

Personal: I like Room, The Martian and Brooklyn better than The Big Short, but I’d still give this award to the latter because I have no doubt that it was the most challenging book to adapt. The other three stories — as well as the remaining nominee, Carol — tell straightforward narratives, but The Big Short is not a traditional A to B to C tale. It’s a fragmented story following multiple, unrelated groups of characters and dealing with incredibly complicated, dense concepts, which the script illuminates with humor and clarity. Like I said in the previous post, I haven’t read any of these books (and I’m sure most voters haven’t either), but finding a compelling movie in the pages of The Big Short was probably no easy task.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Like The Big Short, Spotlight took home prizes from the BFCA, WGA and BAFTA, and nearly swept the critics awards, capturing even more than its adapted counterpart. While its Best Picture hopes may have faded, it’s still held in extremely high regard, and for good reason. It’s one of those films where everything just clicks, and that begins with the impeccably researched, unfailingly truthful script. It’s hard to imagine any of the other nominees coming up from behind.

Personal: I’ll be happy to see Spotlight take this, especially since co-writer and director Tom McCarthy is long overdue for this kind of recognition after being ignored for past work like The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win. Still, I’d probably go with Inside Out. I loved how it handled such abstract concepts as, well, abstract thought, short-term and long-term memory, and the subconscious. The imagination behind every detail of how the mind functions is just wonderful.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

I never thought that the phrase “Oscar frontrunner” would be used to describe Sylvester Stallone, but his moving and grounded performance in Creed has put him in that position. Stallone dominated the critics awards, and took home the Golden Globe and the BFCA prize. So with all that momentum, he remains the man to beat. But consider this…Stallone was not even nominated by SAG or BAFTA, which are the only two organizations that actually share membership with the Academy. Perhaps that shows some vulnerability.

Or perhaps not. Consider this: the SAG voting opened so early that Creed had barely been identified or positioned as an awards player. SAG voters had a brief window in which to view the unexpectedly acclaimed movie before ballots were due. As for the BAFTA awards, Creed didn’t open in the U.K. until mid-January, too late for 2015 awards consideration. (Oddly, it opened in countries like Kuwait and Pakistan much earlier. Go figure.) In addition, Stallone’s wins at the Globe and BFCA ceremonies were accompanied by long and enthusiastic standing ovations, which suggests big support from the industry. People seem genuinely moved by the narrative of a guy who created a character (let’s not forget that) 40 years ago, was nominated at the time, and now comes full circle to give what many have called the performance of his career in an acclaimed spin-off of his brainchild, conceived by a young filmmaker who was deeply impacted by that original film. That story could almost be a movie itself. So momentum remains with Sly, and betting against him would be unwise if you’re in this thing for money or even just bragging rights. Still…a surprise is not out of the question here.

Personal: Stallone’s journey is touching, no doubt, but the focus should be on the performance. His is great, but for me, it’s all about Ruffalo. Sure, he’s the one who gets the big emotional outburst scene that will almost certainly be the clip played during the telecast, but it’s not about that. It’s because he’s the one principal actor in the movie who is called on to transform, and he does it completely. His voice, his speech pattern, his walk, his entire physicality…he inhabits this guy so fully, and because it’s a guy who’s so intense and committed, it allows him to really get under the skin. It’s enough of a makeover that it could have been a showy performance, but it’s not, because the writing and directing are so grounded. I enjoyed Tom Hardy in The Revenant a helluva lot, but Ruffalo would get my vote.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Alicia Vikander has been leader of this pack, collecting the BFCA and SAG trophies, plus far and away the most critics awards (though for what it’s worth, most of those critics awards were for Ex Machina, while her nomination here is for The Danish Girl, as they were at the BFCA and SAG awards). The only major prize she lost was the Golden Globe, which went to Kate Winslet. That could have been dismissed as a fluke…until Winslet won the BAFTA prize as well. Now we have to stop and wonder if Vikander is on less solid ground than it initially seemed. I think she’s still the frontrunner, as the SAG award is generally a more reliable indicator of Oscar success than the BAFTA or Golden Globe. But the two taken together suggest that Winslet is closing in. Then again, Vikander was nominated for Ex Machina — not The Danish Girl — the two times she lost to Winslet. So…there’s that…whatever that is.

Winslet is an Academy darling, of course, with this being her seventh nomination, and she’s excellent in Steve Jobs, but as a co-lead in The Danish Girl, and by virtue of the story and her character, Vikander gets to go deeper in her role than Winslet does in hers. Not that Winslet’s work is shallow; it just isn’t as chewy a role as Vikander’s. The Swedish actress is young and still not widely known, and will surely have many more shots. But I think that on the strength of her work not just in The Danish Girl but also in Ex Machina, Testament of Youth (in which she gave another award-worthy performance), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (a fun, breezy summer movie that showcased her playful side) and Burnt (not much to do in her brief appearance opposite Bradley Cooper, but she looked great, for whatever that’s worth), voters will reward her for an incredible year full of shining performances.

Personal: I’d vote Vikander too. Although I’d have nominated her in this category for Ex Machina, she’s been fantastic in everything she’s been in this year. Any way you slice it, her work speaks for itself.

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BEST ACTOR

There’s not much to say here, as this award is one of night’s easy bets. Leonardo DiCaprio has reigned supreme all awards season long for the all-in, go-for-broke dedication he displayed in The Revenant. After years atop the Hollywood food chain, he will finally take home his first Academy Award.

Personal: Here’s the thing about DiCaprio. He gives an excellent performance in The Revenant, no argument, and his nomination is deserved. But he has given stronger performances, and he will again. Leo winning this Oscar is about two things: finally rewarding him for a career full of outstanding and committed work, and rewarding him for the physical extremes to which he pushed himself in order to make this movie. For his willingness to go to those extremes, I applaud him. But an Oscar win should be recognition of the performance, not the personal struggles. Leonardo DiCaprio, the Actor, buried himself in the experience of making The Revenant, but he doesn’t bury himself in the character of Hugh Glass the way he did with The Departed‘s William Costigan or The Wolf of Wall Street‘s Jordan Belfort or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape‘s Arnie or J.Edgar‘s title character or so many others. He doesn’t bury himself in Hugh Glass to the same extent because Glass, as depicted here, doesn’t require the same level of immersion. The story of The Revenant is primal and powerful, but it isn’t deep. That’s not a criticism; it’s just a fact. It doesn’t have to be deep to be great. It’s a story of survival and revenge, plain and simple. At the end of the day, what went into the performance is more impressive than the performance itself.

With that in mind, my pick would be Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs. He had a much more challenging character to play, requiring him to hit notes grand and intimate, and to capture so many subtle and contradictory facets of the pioneering tech giant. He’s in nearly every moment of the movie, deftly maneuvering the acrobatics of Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue, and not trying to guide how the audience feels about his mercurial character. His performance is completely magnetic. He really is quite something.

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BEST ACTRESS

There’s little commentary or analysis required here either. Very early in Phase One, it seemed that this award might be a neck-in-neck race between Room‘s Brie Larson and Brooklyn‘s Saoirse Ronan, but Larson soon pulled ahead and built up a considerable lead that she hasn’t relinquished. With BFCA, SAG and BAFTA awards now on her shelf, as well as a Golden Globe, she’s got the Oscar all locked up.

Personal: This is an absolute heartbreaker of a choice between Larson and Ronan. Putting aside that I have major celebrity crushes on them both, their performances are so, so good. I’d have to give the tiniest, tiniest edge to Ronan, just because her role calls on her to play what appeared to me as a wider range of emotions. There’s no question that both actresses nail every beat. Ronan just got a more varied array of beats to hit, and when the choice is this difficult, you look for whatever you can to guide your decision.

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BEST DIRECTOR

The stars seem aligned for Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who took home this Oscar last year for Birdman, to become the first back-to-back winner of Best Director since 1950, when Joseph L. Mankiewicz won for All About Eve a year after taking the prize for A Letter to Three Wives. Prior to that, the only back-to-back winner was John Ford, for 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath and 1941’s How Green Was My Valley. A few weeks ago, Iñárritu became the first person to ever win the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) award two years in a row. Given that award’s success rate at predicting the Oscar — only seven times since the DGA award was first presented in 1948 have the two not been in sync — a win for Iñárritu is extremely likely, especially when you add in Golden Globe and BAFTA victories. In what has been another tough-to-call year in the top categories, it’s always possible that this will turn out differently, but the momentum is definitely with Iñárritu.

Personal: George Miller, by a mile. I kinda don’t get why Miller isn’t the frontrunner here, or at least considered a major threat. I understand why people are impressed by Iñárritu’s achievement, but since so much of the admiration derives from his insistence on pushing the limits under such extreme conditions, how are people not in even greater awe of what Miller accomplished? I look at The Revenant and I see the beauty and the skill, and I admire Iñárritu’s drive for authenticity. But as hard as the movie surely was to shoot, it doesn’t feel impossible. Mad Max: Fury Road feels impossible. I look at that movie and I am completely blown away by the directorial skill on display. I look at that movie and I have absolutely no idea how Miller even begin to film it. How to even conceive of the specific beats of the action choreography, let alone actually capture it all on camera. It’s a towering achievement. With all respect to Iñárritu and The Revenant, as well as to nominated directors like Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) and Lenny Abrahamson (Room), whose talents are absolutely evident even if showcased differently by the nature of their movies’ smaller scales, what Miller did with Mad Max: Fury Road was singular and stunning.

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BEST PICTURE

As Alejandro G. Iñárritu looks primed to win the directing prize, so too is his film The Revenant poised to capture the night’s top honor. But it’s not a sure thing. The only sure thing is that whichever movie does win, the victory will have been hard-won. This was an unpredictable awards season in many ways. (Do I say that every year? I probably say that every year. It must feel that way every year.) The precursor awards, which are supposed to help narrow the field — and ultimately take any and all suspense out of Oscar night — proved to be mostly unhelpful this year. It was one of the rare times when the Producer’s Guild of America (PGA), the DGA and SAG each went with a different movie. The producers chose The Big Short; directors rewarded The Revenant; SAG went for Spotlight. SAG’s Best Ensemble winner has the least impact on the Oscars, and Spotlight — an early frontrunner thanks to its dominance in Phase One — has seen its odds decrease.

With The Revenant‘s recent successes, The Big Short no longer feels like the movie of the moment, but here’s why it could win. Of all the other movie award-distributing bodies, the PGA is the only one to use the same voting system as the Academy uses for Best Picture. That would be the preferential ballot, and as I’ve included each of the past two years, here’s a video from The Wrap‘s Oscar expert Steve Pond explaining how it works.

The PGA and the Academy both moved to the preferential system in 2009, and every year since, the PGA winner has gone on to win the Oscar (with the only hiccup being when 12 Years a Slave and Gravity tied). That doesn’t really mean anything — these streaks are made to be broken — but it doesn’t mean nothing either. Then again, the PGA award has only been around since 1989. The DGA award has been around since 1948, and there have only been 14 occasions in the ensuing 66 years when the DGA winner’s film has not gone on to win Best Picture. But again, what do any of these facts ultimately mean? Some people doubted Birdman‘s chances last year because no movie had won Best Picture without a Best Film Editing nomination since Ordinary People in 1980. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King had its naysayers because the Academy had never awarded a fantasy film the Best Picture prize. Could the song Skyfall win an Oscar when no James Bond theme had ever managed the feat? Yes it could, and it did. These factoids are interesting to bring up, but eventually they all get defied. Other trivia, records and statistics that pundits have brought into the discussion for this category:

  • Only three films — Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, The Sound of Music and Titanic — have won Best Picture without a screenplay nomination, which The Revenant does not have. And no film has ever won Best Picture without either a screenplay nomination or a WGA nomination, which The Revenant also did not have.
  • There have never been back-to-back Best Picture winners from the same director, even though there have been back-to-back director winners. With Iñárritu’s Birdman the reigning champ, a victory for The Revenant would be a first.
  • Seldom does a movie win Best Picture without also winning at least two other awards. In the last 62 years, only one film — The Greatest Show on Earth — has managed it. So by that statistic, The Big Short — only considered a lock for Best Adapted Screenplay — would have to win one more to be a viable Best Picture winner. It’s a strong threat to take Best Film Editing, but can Christian Bale or director Adam McKay pull off upsets? (Spotlight faces the same challenge.)

We’ll see which of these talking points are altered come Sunday night. Other things to consider in the meantime? The preferential ballot favors consensus, so the movie that wins probably isn’t the one with the most first-place votes, but the one with lots of second and third place votes as well. The Revenant seems like more of a love-it-or-hate-it movie than The Big Short, which could have a better shot at placing higher on more ballots. Could that be why it lost with the PGA? Or has it just been more widely seen since the PGA – one of the earlier voting groups in Phase Two – presented their award? And who knows if I’m even right in that love-it-or-hate-it estimation? This is just intuition on my part. Really at this point, I’m just spinning my wheels, so enough is enough. In a tumultuous award season like this one, few things are certain. Something could come along and knock down The Revenant — most likely being The Big Short — but the odds seem stacked in its favor.

Personal: I’m a big fan of most of the nominees, so almost any of them would be fine with me. Only The Big Short or Bridge of Spies would disappoint me, though I definitely liked both. Still, once again I’d choose Mad Max: Fury Road, because the fact that it even got here is such a triumph, and I’d love to see it go all the way. And because, as I said in the Best Director commentary, the movie sorta blows my mind. I’m left to wonder again why The Revenant became The One to Beat. I think its Phase Two surge had more to do with the narrative behind the movie than the one in the movie — an effective bit of strategic campaigning on the part of the filmmakers and 20th Century Fox. What surprises me is that given how taken the industry at large seems to be with the movie’s behind-the-scenes lore, they aren’t showing more of that love to Fury Road. My conjecture is that they think The Revenant is somehow “important” and that Fury Road, at the end of the day, is still just an action movie and ultimately too frivolous to win the top awards. The irony is that The Revenant may have the appearance of depth, but is actually quite superficial (again, not meant as a criticism), while Fury Road, which appears to be just explosions and car chases, has much more substance brewing beneath the surface. Oh well. At least it made it this far. That’s worth appreciating on its own.

 

As usual, I’m sorry to say that I have nothing to really offer in the remaining categories. Son of Saul is the favorite to win Best Foreign Language Film, with Mustang being called the most likely spoiler. Amy is said to have the inside track on Best Documentary, though I don’t know; I’m not sure the subject matter of Amy Winehouse has wide enough appeal across the Academy. I might go for Cartel Land. As for the live-action, animated and documentary shorts…you’re on your own.

Hopefully it will be an exciting show, given some of these up-in-the-air categories, and it might be a bit of an uncomfortable show too, with Chris Rock and others commenting on the lack of diversity among the nominees. I still haven’t been able to write-up all my thoughts on that issue, so perhaps I’ll do a separate post. The issue isn’t going away, unfortunately.

To close, here’s a great bit from Chris Rock’s 2005 hosting gig.

February 14, 2016

Oscars 2015: And the Nominees Are…

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 7:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Complete List of Nominees

And so we are deep into Phase Two of awards season, with the Oscar nominations announced and the guild awards rolling out. I’ve already been asked several times who’s going to win the Oscar in this category or that. To which I’ve responded, “Does it matter? They’re all a bunch of racists, apparently, so who even wants one?”

Unfortunately, that’s where we have to begin this year, as the nominations set off a firestorm of controversy when acclaimed films about black characters like Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation and Creed were not nominated for Best Picture, and for the second year in a row, all the acting nominees are white.

A lot has already been said about this topic. Like…a lot. It’s been in the news nearly every day since the nominations were announced. I wrote about this in last year’s corresponding post, and having just re-read that, I feel it’s pretty spot-on, thank you. I don’t know what I can add this year, especially with so much already said by so many others. But it’s too big a story to ignore. I can’t get wrapped up in all the awards nonsense and spend all the time I spend writing about the Oscars and not wade into this mess. The whole reason I’m posting this a month after the nominations were announced is that I’ve been trying to stay abreast of all the developments and respond to specific points that have been made, but it’s been too much to keep up with. So for now, I’m going to leave it alone, and hopefully get to it in the next post. At this point, it’s well past time to review the nominations, so let’s stick to that.

It was another middling year for me on the predictions front. Of the 19 categories I covered, I only went five-for-five with Best Actor. But in 11 others, I missed by just one…though perhaps I lose a point for expecting Alicia Vikander’s Best Supporting Actress nomination to be for Ex Machina. The Academy voters cited her for The Danish Girl — clearly a lead performance, but one that the studio campaigned as Supporting to give her better odds at a nomination.

Let’s drill down into some of the categories, shall we? While you want to glory in being as accurate in your predictions as possible, there’s also fun in seeing where you went wrong and what unfolded that went against your instincts, where your theorizing went wrong, and where it went right. If you consider any of this fun, that is.

BEST PICTURE
I once again predicted there would be nine nominees, and for the second year in a row there were only eight. I got seven of them, but missed Room. I opted for Carol instead, and also included Inside Out. In the previous post, I mentioned Room and Carol as movies I’d read were not being received as enthusiastically by Academy members as they were by critics. Goes to show that you can never be be sure how 6,000+ people are going to come down on something. Because Carol director Todd Haynes is a more established filmmaker than Room‘s director Lenny Abrahamson, I thought Carol would have a stronger base of support and would make the cut thanks to a small but passionate contingent. Instead, Room turned out to be the movie that got the necessary boost, and I’m thrilled to see it here.

As for Inside Out, I had thought that given its level of acclaim, it would have found a place here just like previous Pixar efforts Up and Toy Story 3 did in 2009 and 2010. But after the nominations were announced, I became aware of something I hadn’t realized. In 2009 and 2010 — the two years where the Academy went with a guaranteed slate of ten Best Picture nominees — voters were asked to list ten movies on their ballots. (I knew that part.) Beginning in 2011, however, when the change was made to a system that would result in anywhere from five to ten nominees, ballots reverted back to just five choices for voters to write down. I didn’t know that. If I had, I wouldn’t have predicted a nomination for Inside Out. With ten selections to make, voters are more likely to honor an animated film. With only five selections, they’re more likely to stick with live action and leave movies like Inside Out to the Animated Feature category. Live and learn.

Mad Max: Fury Road, meanwhile, overcame historical odds and landed in the Best Picture race, coming in behind The Revenant as the second most nominated movie of the year. In the narrow scope of this year’s award season, it may not be surprising, but given how outside the Academy’s “top award” box this movie is, the fact that it’s now a Best Picture nominee is pretty astonishing. It’s great to see the Academy recognize the artfulness of this movie — both the staging and creation of its incredible action, but also the character drama and underlying themes that propel the story. The movie is more than one big car chase, and the Academy’s recognition is a ringing endorsement of that fact.

BEST DIRECTOR
The most surprising omission from this year’s nominees came in this category, with The Martian director Ridley Scott being left out. He was supposed to be one of the day’s absolute sure things, with many at that point already dubbing him the sentimental favorite to win. Whether his omission was a matter of too many voters deliberately choosing elsewhere, or a matter of them thinking he was a lock and therefore giving their vote to someone else — something I suspect happened to Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow in 2012 — we’ll never know. I didn’t think Scott deserved a nomination for The Martian, so I’m okay with his absence. I loved the movie and he did a great job with it, but it didn’t strike me as such a strong directorial achievement as to be singled out among the year’s five best.

I only guessed three out of five in this category, expecting Scott to get in, and going for Steven Spielberg over Adam McKay. Overlooking McKay was a dumb move. I knew The Big Short was apparently doing really well with Academy members, and with the DGA nomination under his belt, I shouldn’t have underestimated him. I thought his comedy background would hinder his chances with this crowd. But the evidence for his nomination was all there, and I ignored it.

The other big surprise in the category was the man who took Scott’s perceived slot: Room’s Lenny Abrahamson. He was a real longshot, not expected to go the distance. So not only were those rumblings about Academy members staying away from Room unreliable, they belied how taken with the movie voters actually were. It may have only landed four nominations, but it was never going to place in the crafts categories, so its showing in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay is a huge victory. Too bad the actors branch couldn’t overcome their reticence to nominate children by recognizing the movie’s not-so-secret weapon, Jacob Tremblay. Given the enthusiasm for the movie, you’d think voters would have gone to bat for him. But with the exception of Best Picture, each branch votes for their own, and apparently not enough actors could find a place for him, even though their SAG counterparts did.

BEST ACTRESS
I was mildly surprised that Charlotte Rampling made the cut. Many pundits expected her to be nominated, but I left her off my list, thinking 45 Years was too small to get noticed, and her performance too subtle and quiet to stand out. I also thought the lack of a BAFTA nomination was a big omen, but I was obviously wrong. She made it…and promptly killed her chances with some poorly worded comments on the diversity controversy (seriously, Charlotte…you’re not helping.) No no, I’m kidding: ignorant and tone-deaf as her comments were, she didn’t kill her chances. She never had a chance. Her nomination is her reward.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Of all the non-white actors who were in the conversation this year, the one with the best odds of a nomination seemed to be Beasts of No Nation‘s Idris Elba. As we know, it didn’t happen. Some blamed the fact that Netflix didn’t have experience mounting an Oscar campaign. Some blamed the movie’s difficult subject matter. Some blamed a bias against black actors. The film’s subject matter is the only one of those possibilities I believe might have been a factor. But I’d bet a lot of people did watch the movie, and I’d bet a lot of those people did vote for Elba. Just not enough, in the end…though interestingly, he did go on to win the SAG award. Sylvester Stallone, Mark Rylance and Christian Bale survived from Phase One, while Mark Ruffalo and Tom Hardy — who were largely absent from the precursor awards — found a place too. I’ve been baffled all along by the consistent inclusion of Bale. He’s a great actor, of course, and I enjoyed him in The Big Short, but I just don’t see it as an award-worthy performance at all. If anyone from that movie should have been singled out, it was Steve Carell, and even he wouldn’t have made my cut. I remain disappointed that Jacob Tremblay didn’t get nominated for Room, as I mentioned above. He would really belong in Best Actor, but that was never going to happen, so Best Supporting Actor would have been his spot if he had made it. Still, Tremblay seems okay with being passed over. He’s having a blast, Instagramming his way from one starry red carpet event to another and making the talk show rounds, proving hilarious and adorable at every turn.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Despite a lot of attention paid to category fraud this year, Academy voters fell in line with studio campaigning and nominated Carol‘s Rooney Mara and The Danish Girl‘s Alicia Vikander in this category, despite both actresses being co-leads in their films. Vikander received far more attention during Phase 1 for her role in Ex Machina, but The Danish Girl always seemed more in the Academy’s wheelhouse. I still thought, as did several others, that her many critics citations for Ex Machina would translate here, but it did turn out to be The Danish Girl that earned her a nomination. She’s superb in both movies, so…either way, really.

It’s great to see Jennifer Jason Leigh finally earn an Oscar nomination after years of excellent work, and although Rachel McAdams has been around for far less time, she’s a versatile and always reliable actress, so it’s nice to see her here too. I wasn’t convinced she would make it for her strong but unassuming work in Spotlight, but the movie — whose fortunes some thought might be fading when the nominations came around — is still making a big impression on people.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
After Ridley Scott, the second most shocking omission this year came in this category, with Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs script failing to make the cut. This one astounds me. It should be the winner here, as far as I’m concerned. I haven’t read the source material for any of these contenders, but who are we kidding: neither have the voters. No one is ever really evaluating this category by how successfully the source material is translated to the screen. They’re going off the movie itself. Even without reading the source material, I doubt that any of the nominees — all of whom did excellent work — crafted anything as creative, unique, or just plain smart as what Sorkin did with Steve Jobs. Very disappointing.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
My risk in predicting The Assassin didn’t pan out, as the voters in the Cinematography branch stuck with a more expected set of nominees. Despite all the fanfare over The Hateful Eight‘s 70mm shoot and use of anamorphic lenses literally not employed since the 1960s, I thought the film’s mostly interior settings would hurt its chances. Not so, with three-time winner Robert Richardson earning his ninth nomination. Not at all undeserved; I just wasn’t sure it would happen.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
I was a little surprised to see The Revenant here. So much of the film’s settings and locations are natural landscapes; beautiful, but not appearing to require the work of a production designer so much as a location scout. That’s not to diminish the work that did go into the film from an art and set decoration perspective, but it does seem that with so much good design efforts to consider, this slot might have been more deserved by something like Carol, Crimson Peak or Ex Machina.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Again, The Revenant is a bit of a head-scratcher to me. Clearly, as evidenced by the field-leading 12 nominations, Academy members across all branches were big-time in the bag for this movie. But this nomination — and the Production Design nod, to a lesser extent — strike me as the kind of unimaginative thinking that leads voters to just fill in a favorite movie all the way down the line without really considering the options. If members of the Costume Branch were taken with the look of heavy furs and 1800s winter wardrobes, they’d have made a better choice going for The Hateful Eight, where the costumes at least had some creative flair. And for a branch that usually prizes color and elegance above all, a nod for the drab outfits of The Revenant over Brooklyn or Crimson Peak is curious.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Poor Vin Diesel. This was the one category where Furious 7 actually stood a decent chance of earning a nomination, but it didn’t happen. Diesel’s Oscar dreams have died hard this year, but he surely has another half-dozen Fast and Furious movies coming down the road that could finally end the series’ inexplicable Oscar drought. Keep on truckin,’ Vin.

At least Fifty Shades of Grey is now an Academy Award nominee.

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Still trying to figure out what the hell The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is.

BEST SOUND EDITING AND SOUND MIXING
I did surprisingly well in these categories, calling four out of five in each. And they were the same four, which is a frequent trend: four common nominees between the two categories, and one loner in each. Fury Road, The Force Awakens, The Revenant and The Martian were the shared contenders. I predicted Bridge of Spies for Sound Mixing, and it ended up in Sound Editing. Go figure. I may ostensibly understand the general definition of these two categories, but I still don’t really get it, or have any idea how to evaluate it. Nevertheless, I know enough to know they made a good call by including Sicario in Sound Mixing. The sound work in that movie was stellar, and huge contributor to its incredible sense of tension that was sustained throughout.

 

Chris Rock copyThat’s really all I have to say about the nominees at this stage. The big show is two weeks away, so we’ll see each other before then. Chris Rock is hosting, and in this year of racial controversy, who better to comment on the drama? I have a great idea for the opening of the show. The announcer says, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your host for the evening, Chris Rock!” And out walks Louis C.K., nodding and doing his understated, I’m-kind-of-uncomfortable-right-now Louis C.K. thing. “I…I know you were expecting Chris. You were probably expecting Idris Elba or Will Smith too, but you know…anyway the Academy quietly decided that in keeping with the theme this year…” and then he’d just kinda point to his face with a telling look. And it would go on for a minute until they figured a way to get Rock out there. I imagine maybe Louis calling Chris and tracking him down to Jerry Seinfeld’s house. They put Jerry on screen, Chris is over his place just hanging out in a tux, Louis and Jerry convince Chris that the show needs him, he agrees to come, and then Jerry drives him over, the ride becoming a riff on Seinfeld’s web series, this time called Comedians in Cars Getting Oscars. I dunno — it’s a work in progress. I’ve got two weeks to figure out the second part, but the opener is gold.

Anyway, after three years of being produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who insisted on stuffing the show with musical numbers, this year’s producing duties fall to the ebony and ivory team of Reginald Hudlin and David Hill. Hudlin is a writer/producer/director/executive with many credits in film and television, while Hill is best known for his work on live sporting events. Interestingly, Hudlin and Hill were talking about a focus on diversity at the show months ago, long before the nominees were determined. They’ve stated that diversity also means taking into account movies that are popular with audiences but don’t necessarily find themselves represented at the Oscars. (Furious 7, you may yet get your moment in the Oscar sun.). Hill, whose work in the sports world often focused on telling personal stories of the athletes in the game, talked of bringing that kind of device to the Oscars as a way to better acquaint audiences with nominees in the below-the-line categories. He also said he wants to construct the show in such a way that the awards are not given out in a totally random order, but that they have a flow and build to night’s final award, Best Picture. So…pretty much they’re talking about doing what was done for the 2008 awards, which is probably the overall best and most creatively produced Oscar ceremony I’ve ever seen, and did almost everything Hudlin and Hill have talked about, except for personalizing the lesser known nominees. Not a bad model to emulate. One idea I’m not crazy about, which was introduced earlier this week at the nominee’s luncheon, was asking all nominees to submit in advance a list of people they’d like to thank, and then the list will scroll across the bottom of the screen like a 24-hour news ticker. The idea is to encourage the winners to say something interesting during their time on stage, as opposed to just reading a list of names that have personal significance to them, but mean nothing to anybody watching. I understand the instinct, but the idea seems pretty crass to me. I kinda hope most people just don’t submit anything.

Okay…I’m sure nobody reading this cares about any of this stuff, so I’ll end it here. Your time would be better spent catching up on nominated movies.

(Class of 2015 photo from Nominee Luncheon. Click image to enlarge and scan for recognizable faces.)

 

 

January 13, 2016

Oscars 2015: Nominations Eve – My Absurdly Long Predictions Opus

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 12:45 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Early in the premiere episode of the about-to-conclude-tonight American Horror Story: Hotel, Wes Bentley’s homicide detective is reviewing gruesome crime scene photos while listening to a recording of facts about the case to which they pertain. His notes identify the brutally mutilated victim as an Oscar blogger. I chuckled at that. Then I locked all the doors and windows and peeked out onto the street from behind the curtains to make sure no suspicious activity was afoot. I suppose if a deranged killer was out there targeting an Oscar blogger, there are several professionals for them to pursue. They wouldn’t bother with my small-time operation. So I’ll just continue toiling away here for the five of you who have showed up to read this. But in case this is my last hurrah, savor it. We who are about to die salute you…and still can’t believe Al Pacino wasn’t nominated for Donnie Brasco.

BEST PICTURE
To begin, it’s safe to say that whatever Vin Diesel might have promised us last April, Furious 7 will not be counted among this year’s contenders for the top Oscar. There are, however, an unusually high number of commercial films in the hunt that do have a legitimate shot. Mad Max: Fury Road, Straight Outta Compton, The Martian, Inside Out, Creed and even Star Wars: The Force Awakens all have varying degrees of momentum.

The big question mark is Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s one of the best reviewed movies of the year, and has collected several Best Picture wins from national and regional critics associations. Nearly every organization that didn’t give it their top prize, if they name runners-up or nominees, had it in one of those two positions. It’s far and away one of the two most honored movies of the year so far, which would appear to make it a no-brainer Best Picture contender…except that it couldn’t be further away from a typical Best Picture contender. This is a loud, crazy, high-octane action movie that begins at full-throttle and rarely lets up. Whatever intelligence and strong feminist themes run through it, it is on its surface a far cry from the type of films that earn Best Picture recognition. When this category was expanded to include more than five nominees, the move was believed to be, in part, a reaction to the Academy’s failure to nominate Christopher Nolan’s action drama, The Dark Knight. With a larger field of nominees, the thinking went, smart commercial movies could earn a place at this table. Alas, that isn’t really how things have gone…but then again, has there been such a film since The Dark Knight that has truly deserved that recognition? Maybe Skyfall. Definitely Fury Road. So this will arguably be the biggest test of the Best Picture expansion since its inception. Will voters make room for an acclaimed action film that has been embraced in all other corners as one of the year’s finest? Or will they ignore it in favor of more standard Academy fare that feels Moving, or Important?

The question is further complicated by the presence of The Martian. Ridley Scott’s sci-fi drama, with ample doses of crowd-pleasing laughs – so much so that it was rather questionably nominated in the Golden Globes’ Musical/Comedy categories, where it won Best Picture and Best Actor – is a box office success (more so than Fury Road), and also a big hit with critics (though less so than Fury Road). Crucially, it feels more like an Academy movie. I can’t articulate why, exactly. Whatever Oscar-friendly fortune smiled on Avatar and Inception – popular, mainstream films that have been nominated since the category’s expansion – also seems to grace The Martian. The Best Picture race will rarely accommodate more than two “popular” movies, and The Martian is a commercial film with a larger whiff of prestige than the gritty, grungy, in-your-face Fury Road, making it a more likely nominee. Given how well Fury Road has done in the precursor phase, it would be foolish to bet against its chances for a Best Picture slot. More importantly, it’s scored nominations from every guild to announce so far except one, which indicates support across the filmmaking community. Many voting members of the guilds are also Academy members. On the other hand, the film failed to land a Best Picture nomination from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), which could be a bad omen…or could mean little, considering that BAFTA’s Best Picture race still only has five nominees. Like our Academy, the BAFTA is a large voting body comprised of filmmakers, so it can be a decent indicator of which way the winds are blowing, but it’s still just one of many such indicators, and must be weighed accordingly. On paper, Fury Road appears to have all the momentum it needs to score a Best Picture nomination. Yet the fact remains that there is zero precedence for a movie like it to be nominated, while there is plenty of precedence for critically adored and even guild-heralded movies to be shunned by the Academy.

Moving on to some safer bets, I mentioned that Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the two most honored movies of 2015, at least based on the year-end awards. The other is Spotlight, which has captured the majority of Best Picture precursor awards so far. I expect it will be joined by Brooklyn and The Big Short, as well as aforementioned commercial prospects The Martian and Inside Out. So that’s five slots for sure, and six if we go with Mad Max: Fury Road. That leaves a maximum of only four spaces – five if we bet against Fury Road – and several contenders in the hunt: The Revenant (crowned with a Best Picture – Drama win earlier this week at the Golden Globes, though Oscar voting had already closed by then), Room, Carol, The Danish Girl, The Hateful Eight, Bridge of Spies, Steve Jobs, Joy, Trumbo, Sicario, Ex Machina, Beasts of No Nation, Son of Saul, plus Straight Outta Compton, Creed and Star Wars. That may seem like a kitchen sink list, but every one of those movies – even Star Wars – has legitimate potential to land a nomination. A solid case could be made for each, let me put it that way.

Once again, we don’t know how many nominees there will be. Last year there were eight, while the three previous years each had nine. I’m guessing nine again, based purely on the few years of evidence we have to work from. Ultimately, it has nothing to do with how many worthy films there are, or whether it’s been a strong or weak year for movies. It’s all about how many votes each movie gets. The way the numbers are crunched, a movie with a few hundred first place votes will be nominated over a movie with many more second or third place votes. (There are approximately 6,000 members of the Academy.) The passion vote is the key when it comes to the Best Picture nominations, and that’s tough to get a handle on. I’ve read, for example, that Carol and Room – while performing quite well with critics – have been less embraced by Academy members; the former for being perceived as too cold, and the latter for portraying difficult subject matter that has discouraged voters from watching it. Even if those rumors are true, there could still be enough devoted admirers who choose one of those films as their first choice, helping land it a coveted spot. (I’m counting on that passion vote to carry Fury Road over the finish line.)

Predictions:
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Carol
Inside Out
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Spotlight

Personal Picks:
Brooklyn
The Hateful Eight
Love & Mercy
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Room
Sicario
Spotlight
Steve Jobs

BEST DIRECTOR
Whatever happens with Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Best Picture prospects, director George Miller’s chances in this race are a different ball game. As far as the critics awards go, Miller is miles ahead of the competition, having been named the top filmmaker of the year by nearly two dozen groups. The director’s branch usually makes room for one outside-the-box contender alongside a line-up of more traditional choices that align with Best Picture nominees. Miller could end up fitting either of those slots, depending on how things go. I imagine fellow members of his branch will want to honor him for getting out there at age 70 and mounting an immensely challenging production full of brazen physical effects and practical stunt work. It was a complicated endeavor with stellar results, and it’s hard to imagine his peers won’t honor him for it.

His peers in the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) did indeed honor him for it, nominating him alongside The Revenant‘s Alejandro G. Iñárritu (who also took the Golden Globe, in a minor upset), The Big Short‘s Adam McKay, Spotlight‘s Tom McCarthy, and The Martian‘s Ridley Scott. It’s the first such mention all season long for McKay, though he has collected his fair share of Screenplay honors. His slot comes at the “expense” of the only other director besides Miller, Iñárritu, McCarthy and Scott to be recognized during the precursor phase: Todd Haynes, director of Carol, who was honored by a couple of major critics groups.

What does it all mean for the Oscars? Well, as is the case with most of the guilds, the nominees rarely line up exactly. Scott and Iñárritu seem safe, as does McCarthy, having directed the presumed Best Picture frontrunner. Despite dominating the critics circuit, however, I’m not prepared to say that Spotlight will go all the way. And good as it is, it doesn’t jump out as a directing showcase…although the fact that it isn’t a flashy epic shouldn’t deceive anyone into thinking it’s not a superbly helmed film. So McCarthy could be the omission that will shock the pundits. I’m hearing that The Big Short is playing like gangbusters with Academy members, and that its popularity was hitting its stride smack in the middle of the voting period, so McKay could definitely benefit if people are loving the movie. On the other hand, might some voters be reluctant to hand a Best Director nomination to the guy behind Anchorman and Talledega Nights? You never know. I mentioned that the Director’s branch often goes for a less mainstream, more outsider candidate, and that can translate to “arty,” so I wouldn’t count Todd Haynes out.

Steven Spielberg could break into the race with Bridge of Spies, which has proven a surprisingly strong contender throughout both phases of the season, earning consistent mentions from critics in various categories, as well as nominations from several guilds and a field co-leading nine nominations from BAFTA. The movie is exactly the kind of sturdy, old-fashioned, handsomely crafted and entertaining production that older Academy members love…or at least greatly admire. Other than Spielberg, the only two people I can see sliding in – and they’re both huge longshots – are Alex Garland (Ex Machina) and Denis Villeneuve (Sicario). I’d be surprised if anyone else showed up. There’s plenty of good, worthy work, but nothing that looks likely to push through. I don’t see Quentin Tarantino or David O. Russell getting in this year, nor up-and-comers like Lenny Abrahamson (Room), Ryan Coogler (Creed), or John Crowley (Brooklyn). Danny Boyle and Tom Hooper are past winners with prestige films in the mix – Steve Jobs and The Danish Girl, respectively – but nominations don’t appear to be in the cards.

We’ll see soon enough if I’m underestimating someone.

Predictions:
Steven Spielberg – Bridge of Spies
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
Ridley Scott – The Martian
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant
Tom McCarthy – Spotlight

Personal Picks:
Quentin Tarantino – The Hateful Eight
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant
Denis Villeneuve – Sicario
Danny Boyle – Steve Jobs

BEST ACTOR
This is typically a tough category to crack, overcrowded with excellent, deserving work. The competition isn’t quite as intense this year as it’s been the last few, but there are several viable contenders, and the category feels more pliable than in other years. Leonardo DiCaprio is the one true lock, for his all-in work in The Revenant, and he’ll likely be joined by Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs. The fate of that film seemed up in the air for a while when, despite strong reviews and big box office during its limited release, the movie faltered in wide release and disappeared from theaters far too quickly. But the critics revived it with constant mentions during Phase 1 of awards season, and Fassbender has been nominated for a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award and Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) award – a hat trick which doesn’t guarantee an Oscar nod, but doesn’t hurt.

Last year’s winner Eddie Redmayne has good odds of being back again, for The Danish Girl, but that movie’s reception seems just muted enough to make what might seem on paper like a surefire nomination be less of a guarantee. (He plays a real-life artist who was one of the first people to ever undergo gender-reassignment surgery.) Heading into the fall season, everyone assumed – and even hoped – that Johnny Depp’s work in Black Mass would be a return to form for the actor, and a surefire awards magnet. Unfortunately the movie was underwhelming, and Depp – while very good – was stuck with a script that gave him a two-dimensional character to play. There was nothing below the surface to dig into. He’s been largely absent from the awards conversation, but did score nominations from SAG and the BFCA, so he’s not completely sidelined.

Bryan Cranston has done quite well on the circuit for his role as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and Cranston’s popularity among actors (everyone loves Breaking Bad) as well as the boost of being in a movie about the movie industry – which tends to go over well with Academy members – give him an excellent chance of finding a spot. Matt Damon is a favorite for his versatile turn in The Martian, while Will Smith has garnered positive notices for his performance in Concussion.

Circling on the periphery with limited chances but just enough buzz to break through as a surprise, we have Michael Caine in Youth, Michael B. Jordan in Creed and Ian McKellan in Mr. Holmes. Tom Hardy and Jason Segel have garnered some critical attention for Legend and The End of the Tour, respectively, but neither have the momentum to push through into this race, while Jake Gyllenhaal might have had a shot for Southpaw had the movie made more of a splash. I’d bet there are many voters who would want to make up for him missing out last year with Nightcrawler, but Southpaw just didn’t catch on. I should also mention child actors Abraham Attah from Beasts of No Nation and Jacob Tremblay of Room, though they would probably find themselves in the Supporting Actor race – despite both being leads – if they make it at all.

Predictions:
Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
Matt Damon – The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

Personal Picks:
Abraham Attah – Beasts of No Nation
Matt Damon – The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Jacob Tremblay – Room

BEST ACTRESS
What I’m about to say will defy logic and make you doubt all that you have come to believe in and understand about the world, but just know that everything is going to be okay. Here goes: Meryl Streep starred in a movie this year and is NOT going to get nominated for an Oscar. It feels like heresy just to write that, but I must speak the truth. Meryl Streep’s performance in Ricki and the Flash is not part of the Best Actress conversation at all. It might have been, in a more typical year…”typical” meaning a year with a disappointingly small pool of great female roles from which to select. Happily for us all, this is not a typical year. In fact, the number of women in the Best Actress hunt is larger than it’s been in a long time, and the problem that has plagued Best Actor over the past few years – so much good work that no matter how the nominations turned out, some great performances were going to be left out – now impacts the ladies.

Two actresses that needn’t worry about the stiff competition are Brie Larson and Saoirse Ronan, who are comfortably positioned to be recognized for Room and Brooklyn, respectively. Whatever issues Room might have in cracking the Best Picture race, they shouldn’t impact actors’ desire to recognize Larson’s extraordinary work. Jennifer Lawrence is an Academy darling, and even though Joy hasn’t resonated as strongly as American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook – Lawrence’s last two collaborations with David O. Russell – her work in the film is admired enough to make her a likely nominee. She missed out on a SAG nomination, but ballots for those awards went out in mid-to-late November, well before the movie was completed and screening for guild members.

That leaves two slots and a dozen strong possibilities. In addition to Larson and Ronan, SAG nominated Cate Blanchett for Carol, Helen Mirren for Woman in Gold, and in a major shock, Sarah Silverman for the little-seen indie I Smile Back. Blanchett is probably a safe bet for an Oscar nod, and Mirren can never be discounted, but I suspect she’ll be squeezed out by more compelling work. Silverman’s SAG nomination is impressive, but a matching Oscar nod isn’t in the cards.

There’s been plenty of talk for Blanchett’s Carol co-star Rooney Mara as well as The Danish Girl‘s Alicia Vikander, but both of them are being promoted by their studios for Supporting Actress recognition. This has led to cries of category fraud, since both actresses are clearly leads. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which hands out the Golden Globes, rejected these categorizations and filtered Mara and Vikander into the Lead race, where both were nominated in the Drama category. Some critics organizations also put them into Lead, while others stuck with Supporting. Both actresses received SAG and BFCA nods, both in Supporting. Academy voters always have the option of ignoring the studios’ suggestions and placing performers in the category they feel is most accurate, though more often than not they go along with what is recommended. The danger for both actresses’ chances comes from the possibility that many voters will place them in one category while many will place them in the other, splitting their recognition such that they don’t collect enough votes in either category to break through.

A number of veterans have been in the conversation this year, from character actress Blythe Danner, playing her first lead film role in I’ll See You in My Dreams to Lily Tomlin for her acerbic turn in Grandma to Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van. But the only one from this over-65 club who seems to have a real shot is Charlotte Rampling, who has earned raves for 45 Years. The movie is a small one, but she’s received enough praise that if voters get a chance to see the film, she could land a spot. It’s a definite “if,” however, especially since her performance is so quiet and internalized. Voters prefer fireworks. She missed out on a BAFTA nomination (her assumed spot went to Maggie Smith), and that could be a bad sign for her Oscar prospects. If she couldn’t break through with a home field advantage, she may not have the votes to get nominated on this side of the pond.

Carey Mulligan turned in a pair of excellent performances, with Far from the Madding Crowd and Suffragette, and Emily Blunt was terrific in Sicario, though like Rampling, who has racked up far more mentions than Blunt, her work is probably too understated and nuanced to pop amidst such strong competition. There’s also Charlize Theron’s lauded performance in Mad Max: Fury Road, but while that would be great to see nominated, I have a hard time imagining she’ll collect enough votes to get her there.

Predictions:
Cate Blanchett – Carol
Brie Larson – Room
Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl

Personal Picks:
Emily Blunt – Sicario
Brie Larson – Room
Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Whereas the last two years have seen one actor dominating this race heading into the Oscars – Jared Leto in 2013 and J.K. Simmons in 2014 – this time around the race is wide open, with critics groups spreading their love across a dozen performances. The one to collect the most prizes so far, believe it or not, is Sylvester Stallone for his reprisal of Rocky Balboa in Creed. It’s a part he’s now played seven times, and he was a Best Actor nominee the first, back in 1976. Stallone is quite good in Creed, and gets to bring some lovely new shadings to the character. On the other hand, we don’t tend to think of Stallone and “great actor” in the same sentence, and although he’s in a frontrunner position at the moment, it wouldn’t surprise me if many voters felt that he hadn’t “earned” Academy attention. He did just win a Golden Globe, and is nominated for a BFCA award, but was passed over by SAG, which is the only one of those three voting bodies that has any crossover with the Academy. On the other hand, if the enthusiastic standing ovation he received at the Globes is any indication, his chances look good.

If we consider Stallone a lock, the only other person who enjoys similar status at the moment is Mark Rylance as the accused Soviet agent at the center of Bridge of Spies. Rylance isn’t well-known by film audiences, but he’s a Broadway fixture with three Tony awards, and has been a highlight of Steven Spielberg’s drama for those who’ve seen it. (I enjoyed the performance, but felt it needed to be more substantial in size to deserve an Oscar nod.)

From its earliest showings in September at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals, Spotlight was seen as having strong Oscar potential, with Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo the standout performers likely to earn award recognition. The only question throughout the fall seemed to be if the category would have room for both of them, or only one. Now the question is whether it will have room for either, as both have missed the cut with nearly every major group so far. SAG, BFCA and the Golden Globes all overlooked them. The thinking seems to be that they’ve split the vote, but I’ve said before that the long-held notion of vote splitting makes little sense to me. By and large, people will vote for the performances they most enjoy, whether or not there happen to be more than one in a given movie. If Spotlight does as well with the Academy as it’s expected to, I find it hard to believe that at least one of these guys isn’t getting nominated. But if only one, which one? Keaton could have support from what I’m sure is a large number of people who wanted to see him win last year for Birdman. Ruffalo, also widely admired by his fellow actors, is still awaiting his first Oscar, and he has the showier role in Spotlight. And in a late breaking boost, he got a BAFTA nomination last week. I think he’s going to make it, but it’s no sure thing.

Michael Shannon has garnered a fair amount of critical accolades for the searing housing crisis drama 99 Homes, and even landed SAG, BFCA and Golden Globe nods. But have enough Academy members seen that movie? Enough to go for Shannon over Keaton and Ruffalo in Spotlight, a movie many of them will definitely have seen? Only Shannon and Rylance have scored nominations from all three of those groups. Idris Elba was recognized by SAG and the Globes for Beasts of No Nation; Christian Bale by SAG and the BFCA for The Big Short; and Paul Dano by the BFCA and the Globes for Love & Mercy. Bale, Elba and Rylance have also added BAFTA nods to their tally. Tom Hardy picked up a BFCA nomination for The Revenant, while Jacob Tremblay scored a SAG nod for Room. SAG often goes to bat for child actors, but I’m unsure about Tremblay’s Oscar chances. People who’ve seen the film – actors who’ve seen the film, importantly – are definitely moved by his performance, but with someone so young, there’s often the question of the line between acting – making conscious choices about a performance – and playing a sort of make-believe guided by natural behavior. There’s also the category fraud issue again, seeing as Tremblay is unquestionably a lead in Room. As with Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander, Tremblay’s placement as Lead vs. Supporting has varied among critics groups.

Benicio del Toro garnered buzz for Sicario, and has been on the bubble all season long. He landed a BAFTA nod, but that’s the biggest honor he’s collected to date. The buzz may not have remained strong enough to get him in. Oscar Isaac is a longshot for his work in Ex Machina, and Joel Edgerton had a bit of shine around him early on for Black Mass, but his fortunes seem to have faded along with the movie’s. Still, if it somehow rebounds with the Academy – if they nominate Depp – he could benefit.

One more longshot that I have to mention is Harrison Ford for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He hasn’t been named by a single critics group, let alone SAG, the Globes or the BFCA…though to be fair, the movie wasn’t available for most of these groups to watch before they announced their nominations. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference. But consider: Ford is a beloved actor with only one nomination, way back in 1985 for Witness. He hasn’t even earned an Honorary Oscar yet. From George Burns to Don Ameche to Sean Connery to James Coburn to Alan Arkin to Christopher Plummer, this category often recognizes veteran actors who have never won before. With The Force Awakens, Ford returned to the role of an iconic character, also beloved, and slipped comfortably back into the part despite 30+ years elapsing since he’d last played it. The character is deepened in this new film, allowing Ford to bring new dimensions and play a more emotional arc than the earlier films allowed. All of these points, by the way, also apply to Stallone, though as popular a character as Rocky Balboa is, he doesn’t hold the same cultural significance as Han Solo. And those who’ve seen the movie know that Ford has one scene in particular that could go a long way toward earning him some sentiment for recognition. Do I think it will happen? No, probably not. Do I think it could? Absolutely. There are all kinds of factors beyond just the performance that voters think about when making their selections, and some of the things I’m mentioning here could propel Ford to a nomination.

Predictions:
Christian Bale – The Big Short
Idris Elba – Beasts of No Nation
Tom Hardy – The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies

Personal Picks:
Tom Hardy – The Revenant
Oscar Isaac – Ex Machina
Jason Mitchell – Straight Outta Compton
Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
Sylvester Stallone – Creed

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
We now come back to Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander. If voters fall in line with the studio marketing, both will earn their recognition here…and chances are good that both will earn recognition. In Vikander’s case, the mystery is whether her nomination will come for The Danish Girl or Ex Machina. While the assumption all season long has been that Vikander would garner recognition for The Danish Girl, she has quietly amassed a field-leading number of critics group wins for Ex Machina. I don’t know what to expect from that film in terms of how it will play with the Academy. It was nominated for Best Picture by the Producers Guild of America, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will repeat with the Academy. It’s been out long enough and received enough attention that I’m sure many voters have seen it. So in which role has Vikander most impressed the most people? And could she end up pulling double honors, with a Best Actress nomination for The Danish Girl and Supporting for Ex Machina, which she got from the Golden Globes and BAFTA? That’s what I’m predicting…but I’m not convinced about her Best Actress chances. I just had to make a choice and get on with my life.

Mara and Vikander and their category confusion aside, the safest bet here is Kate Winslet, who has earned consistent accolades for her work in Steve Jobs, and just picked up an unexpected Golden Globe win. Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of the finest actresses to never be nominated for an Oscar, could finally have her chance with a live-wire role in The Hateful Eight, and Helen Mirren is in play for a small role in Trumbo…much too small, in my opinion. She earned the SAG/BFCA/Golden Globe trifecta, but enjoyable as she is playing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, this is a spot that should go to someone who contributed more to their film. Like Elizabeth Banks, for instance, in Love & Mercy. The prolific actress gives one of her best performances, and although she has picked up some recognition in the precursor phase, she’s a dark horse for an Oscar nomination.

Another dark horse, though she has received a few major critic’s prizes, is Kristen Stewart for Clouds of Sils Maria. I’m a bit baffled by the attention she’s received for this. (Last February, she became the first American actress to ever win a César, France’s equivalent of the Oscar. Bizarre.) Clouds of Sils Maria is a movie that stuck with me all year even though I had significant issues with it, and Stewart was good…but Stewart is rarely better than good. There is something compelling about her screen presence, but she’s not a great actress, and I can’t figure why she’s earning such high marks for this role. Her co-star Juliette Binoche is the one who should be in the conversation, for Best Actress, but there’s been nary a peep about her, or a single critic’s notice during Phase 1. The question of “deserve” aside, I seriously doubt Clouds of Sils Maria has been seen by enough voters to earn Stewart a spot.

While Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton have been unable to register as widely as expected, Spotlight‘s Rachel McAdams has carried the torch for the movie’s lauded ensemble, earning SAG and BFCA nominations. She’s solid in the movie, but it’s a pretty muted performance, and I’m not sure she would be singled out unless voters indeed can’t choose between Keaton and Ruffalo, and want to make sure someone from the cast is acknowledged.

Jane Fonda has a shot for her brief, memorable work in Youth, but like Helen Mirren in Trumbo – more so, in fact – the role is much too small to deserve a spot. It’s little more than an extended cameo, really, but it was enough to land her a Golden Globe nomination. With all due respect to these esteemed actresses and the admittedly fine work they did in their films, it would be a shame if their brief contributions were allowed to eclipse roles that are significantly more substantial, even if from less known performers or films outside the mainstream. Consider Tangerine, the Sundance breakout hit starring transgender actresses Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who created two of the year’s most vivid and memorable characters. The movie’s producers, indie rock stars Mark and Jay Duplass, initiated an Oscar campaign for Taylor and Rodriguez, and while the movie surely remains too under-the-radar to actually land any nominations, it would be a breath of fresh air from the Academy if they were to honor either of these vibrant performances.

Predictions:
Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara – Carol
Helen Mirren – Trumbo
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina
Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

Personal Picks:
Elizabeth Banks – Love & Mercy
Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
Mya Taylor – Tangerine
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina
Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Bank on Spotlight and Inside Out to land here for sure, with Bridge of Spies also a near-lock. Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell have both done well in the writing categories in recent years, but while QT’s The Hateful Eight is a good bet, Russell may not be able to repeat unless the Academy turns out to embrace Joy more enthusiastically than any other group this year. Straight Outta Compton, Sicario and Trainwreck all picked up nominations from the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) – alongside Spotlight and Bridge of Spies – but there are always several major players which are ineligible for recognition from the WGA, and this year’s victims include Inside Out and Hateful Eight. I’m sure the former will get a nomination, and the latter probably will too, so there won’t be room for all of the guild’s selections. Sicario may have the best shot of the three, but even that’s hard to say, seeing as the film has been on the bubble all season. It’s done well with guild nominations, but I can’t say with any confidence that things will play out the same way with the Academy. Ex Machina, which was also ineligible with the WGA, is another strong possibility here, though again, I’m have no sense of how the movie is playing with Academy members.

Predictions:
Bridge of Spies – Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Ex Machina – Alex Garland
The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino
Inside Out – Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
Spotlight – Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer

Personal Picks:
Dope – Rick Famuyiwa
The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino
Inside Out – Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
Spotlight – Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer
Sicario – Taylor Sheridan

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
There are six films that have come up consistently in this category throughout the season: The Big Short, Brooklyn, Carol, The Martian, Room and Steve Jobs. There’s only room for five, of course, and there are a few others looking to break in. Chief among those is Anomalisa, written by Charlie Kaufman, whose work is always unique and admired. A few critics groups have nominated The End of the Tour, about Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky’s interviews with David Foster Wallace near the end of his Infinite Jest book tour, but I seriously doubt that movie has the momentum to be a threat here. Others that have cropped up are Creed, 45 Years and The Diary of a Teenage Girl, as well as Trumbo, which landed a WGA nod. But again, ineligibilities always clear the way for some longshot nominees to have their day in the sun with the WGA. Brooklyn and Room were the most notable omissions this year, but both seem like safe bets for an Oscar nod. I’d say Carol is the most vulnerable here, but the fact is that all six of these are favorites, and something’s gotta give.

Predictions:
The Big Short – Charles Randolph, Adam McKay
Brooklyn – Nick Hornby
The Martian – Drew Goddard
Room – Emma Donaghue
Steve Jobs – Aaron Sorkin

Personal Picks:
Anomalisa – Charlie Kaufman
The Big Short – Charles Randolph, Adam McKay
Brooklyn – Nick Hornby
The Martian – Drew Goddard
Steve Jobs – Aaron Sorkin

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Sixteen films were submitted for consideration this year, a quota which means that up to five can be nominated…though I think there can be fewer. Inside Out is a no-brainer, and Pixar’s other 2015 release, The Good Dinosaur, is a safe bet too, though it was less well-received than most of the studio’s films, and could be bumped. The animation is often stunning, but the plot is fairly pedestrian. I’m not sure which of those qualities will be given more weight by voters.

Anomalisa and The Peanuts Movie will probably make it, so if we assume there will indeed be five nominees, the question is whether or not one of the more obscure, indie animated films can break through. Salma Hayek produced Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, which might be able to land a slot. Japan’s renowned Studio Ghibli, which has enjoyed several nominations over the years, has When Marnie Was There in contention, but I feel like that movie has flown further under the radar than other Ghibli efforts. Not that it matters, since the branch members have often selected little-known movies that have received no mainstream publicity prior to being nominated. I don’t think this is going to be one of those years, but that could well be because I have absolutely no framework in which to evaluate movies like Moomins on the Riviera or Boy and the World.

Predictions:
Anomalisa
The Good Dinosaur
Inside Out
The Peanuts Movie
Shaun the Sheep Movie

Personal Picks:
Anomalisa
Inside Out
The Peanuts Movie
Shaun the Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Emmanuel Lubezki, who triumphed in this category the last two years, is going for a three-peat with The Revenant, shot in remote landscapes using only natural light. He’ll surely be keeping company with John Seale, the 70 year-old Oscar winner who came out of retirement to lens Mad Max: Fury Road, a monumental production with a dazzling visual style. And count on the brilliant, still Oscar-less maestro Roger Deakins to make the cut for his evocative work on Sicario. Those three are the sure things, with Carol‘s Ed Lachman probably right at their heels. Who gets the fifth spot?

Much has been made of The Hateful Eight‘s 70mm shoot and the decades-old lenses that were used, but will any of that ultimately be meaningful to voters on a film that, however well photographed, is largely confined to a single-room location? Robert Richardson is a three-time winner, nominated for Tarantino’s last two films, but I could see him getting edged out this time. Lubezki, Seale, Deakins and Lachman were all nominated by the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), which chose Janusz Kaminski’s work on Bridge of Spies to round out their list. Kaminski is another Academy favorite with two wins under his belt, but rarely does the Academy line up five-for-five with the ASC, and of these five impressively photographed productions, Revenant, Fury Road and Sicario seem immovable. Carol could get knocked out, but it feels too entrenched. The Martian has a good chance, as a movie that could hit a lot of these below-the-line categories and does have an exotic look thanks to its alien location. The employment of different film stocks, along with digital cameras, to capture the three distinct acts of Steve Jobs could earn it some votes, but the end result might not be viewed as dynamic enough to land a spot in such a competitive race. There is also plenty of deserving work that probably doesn’t have the momentum to make the cut, including Luca Bigazzi’s wondrous shot compositions in Youth; Maryse Alberti’s fluid work on Creed; Dan Lausten’s gothic play of light and shadow in Crimson Peak; and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s unflinching hold on child soldiers in the African jungle in Beasts of No Nation.

I could go on, as there’s no shortage of impressive cinematography to marvel at, but if the Academy offers up a surprise, it could be The Assassin. I missed the film, so can’t speak to it personally, but the Cinematographer’s branch of the Academy sometimes goes for a more obscure pick, and it’s often a foreign film. The Assassin has collected enough critics prizes to make me think it will be on voters’ radars, and while it’s definitely a longshot, I’m going out on a limb and guessing it turns up.

Predictions:
The Assassin – Mark Lee Ping Bin
Carol – Ed Lachman
Mad Max: Fury Road – John Seale
The Revenant – Emmanuel Lubezki
Sicario – Roger Deakins

Personal Picks:
Mad Max: Fury Road – John Seale
The Revenant – Emmanuel Lubezki
Sicario – Roger Deakins
Steve Jobs Alwin H. Küchler
Youth – Luca Bigazzi

BEST FILM EDITING
This category is closely associated with Best Picture, so some of the frontrunners are sure to appear here as well. However, the most obvious Editing nominee is Mad Max: Fury Road, even though its position here doesn’t necessarily reflect its Best Picture odds. It’s just a hell of a skillfully assembled movie. The Big Short moves between multiple storylines, and also uses a lot of rapid-fire imagery to convey its message, so expect a nomination for that. The Martian also shifts between different storylines, maintaining successful pacing throughout its running time, so I think it has a good chance too. As the current frontrunner for Best Picture, Spotlight would seem like a sure thing for Editing, but it was conspicuously absent from both the American Cinema Editors (ACE) and BAFTA nominees. That may be a bad sign, but given the history of connection between Picture and Editing, I can’t bet against Spotlight. ACE breaks things out into categories for Drama and Comedy, and The Big Short is named in the latter, where it feels like the only nominee that will also land with the Academy (it joins Ant-Man, Trainwreck, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and the only one I wouldn’t dismiss as a possibility, Joy. On the drama side, Fury Road and The Martian are up against The Revenant, Sicario and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. BAFTA threw Bridge of Spies into the mix as well. My guess is that Revenant, Sicario and Spies are fighting it out for the fifth spot, and I’m giving a slight edge to Sicario.

Predictions:
The Big Short – Hank Corwin
Mad Max: Fury Road – Margaret Sixel
The Martian – Pietro Scalia
Sicario – Joe Walker
Spotlight – Tom McArdle

Personal Picks:
Dope – Lee Haugen
Mad Max: Fury Road – Margaret Sixel
The Martian – Pietro Scalia
Sicario – Joe Walker
Spotlight – Tom McArdle

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Once again, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian are out in front. I’d be questioning the latter’s chances if “spaceship” movies didn’t do so well with the voters in this branch. Apollo 13, Gravity and Interstellar all picked up nominations here, so I’m guessing The Martian will follow suit, especially with the arid Mars exteriors lending color and character. While Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian are all technically science fiction, they portray realistic designs, as opposed to the more fantasy-based science fiction of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which could also find success here. Much of its design seems to take its cues from the earlier Star Wars movies, which might be a strike against it, and I don’t know if the category – which also favors period pieces – has room for both The Martian and Star Wars. But it very well might.

On the period side, Carol, Brooklyn and The Danish Girl seem the likeliest contenders, with Bridge of Spies also a strong possibility. The Art Directors Guild picks nominees across three categories – Contemporary, Period, and Fantasy – and still didn’t find room for Carol or Brooklyn, which came as a big surprise, though I think both are very much in the running for an Oscar nomination. Two additional strong contenders, bridging the gap between period and fantasy, are Cinderella and Crimson Peak. Also worthy of consideration is the excellent design of Ex Machina, but unfortunately films with contemporary settings – even ones like this that are not only uniquely stylish, but also serve the story quite organically –  are rarely given their due by designers. I’d love to be wrong in this case.

Predictions:
Bridge of Spies
Carol
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian

Personal Picks:
Carol
Crimson Peak
Ex Machina
Inside Out
Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Costume designers, like their brethren in the Production Design branch, favor period pieces and, to a slightly lesser extent, fantasy.  So while Mad Max: Fury Road is a probable nominee, the frontrunners are Carol, Brooklyn and Cinderella. The Danish Girl is also a strong possibility, and Bridge of Spies, though more muted in color palette than the films that do best here, also has a shot. Trumbo and The Hateful Eight have decent odds, while Far From the Madding Crowd, Crimson Peak, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Martian could all find a way in. Two other films that deserve to be mentioned are the tongue-in-cheek 60’s spy adventure The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and the Will Smith-Margot Robbie con artist caper Focus. I’m sure neither earned any real consideration, falling outside the “prestige” purview, and in the case of Focus, being set in the present day. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at least has the period setting in its favor, and maybe it will collect some votes, but not enough to get nominated.

Predictions:
Brooklyn
Carol
Cinderella
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road

Personal Picks:
Brooklyn
Carol
Cinderella
Crimson Peak
Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Even with 74 eligible songs this year, the pickings are slim. Like…really slim. This list is comprised of lots of forgettable pop songs as well as tracks from movies you’ve never heard of. Vin Diesel’s promise of a Best Picture nomination for Furious 7 may not come true, but the unstoppable franchise may in fact land its first ever Oscar nomination, for the song “See You Again,” which serves as a farewell to the series’ late star, Paul Walker. In addition to that song, most of the critics groups that include a Best Song category have featured the same short list of titles: “Love Me Like You Do,” from Fifty Shades of Grey; “Simple Song #3,” from Youth; “Writing’s on the Wall,” from Spectre; and “‘Til it Happens to You,” from the documentary The Hunting Ground. There have also been a couple of mentions each for Shaun the Sheep Movie‘s “Feels Like Summer,” Pitch Perfect 2‘s “Flashlight” and Concussion‘s “So Long.” A number of critics groups nominated the Brian Wilson selection “One Kind of Love,” from Love & Mercy, but for reasons I’m not sure of, it didn’t qualify for Academy consideration…which is too bad. The lackluster category could have used the work of someone like Wilson.

I really have no idea what will happen here, and I’m not sure I care. The selections could all be from this pool of pop songs, or maybe something out of left field will impress the voters. It wouldn’t be the first time. The Wrap‘s Steve Pond once again listened to every eligible song and filed this report, but he doesn’t really offer predictions; just his own thoughts. If you’re interested in a bird’s-eye view of the contenders, it’s worth a read. I didn’t listen to most of these songs myself, but nothing I’ve heard this year has left much of an impression. Maybe there are some gems I didn’t hear.

Predictions:
See You Again – Furious 7
‘Til it Happens to You – The Hunting Ground
Feels Like Summer – Shaun the Sheep Movie
Writing’s on the Wall – Spectre
Simple Song #3 – Youth

Personal Picks:
Uhhh…..I like the new Adele stuff. Was any of that in a movie? Can we figure out a way to nominate David Bowie for something?

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Fortunately, one of the music categories offers some work this year worth getting excited about. Despite a typically large pool of qualifiers – 114 this year – the conversation has focused around a small-ish selection of likely nominees. Fresh off a Golden Globe win, legendary Italian maestro Ennio Morricone is gunning for his first competitive Oscar (he received an Honorary statuette in 2006) for The Hateful Eight, and I can’t imagine him not getting nominated for this terrific work. Another legend, John Williams, returned to sacred territory with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, to which I give 50/50 odds for a nomination. The popularity of the film and of Williams himself could be enough to get him a spot. Working against him? The score is good, but not great. He was nominated for each of the original three films, but none of the prequels, and the Force Awakens score is more on par with those later efforts.

Health issues prevented Williams from collaborating with Steven Spielberg on Bridge of Spies, making it only the second of the director’s 28 features since 1974 not to be scored by Williams. (Do you know the other? No Googling! And Twilight Zone: The Movie doesn’t count; Spielberg only directed one of that movie’s four segments.) Bridge of Spies was instead scored by Thomas Newman, who did nice work…though I preferred his score for Spectre. Newman, long overdue for an Oscar win, could be in the running again this year with either one. Another excellent composer who has never won – who has never even been nominated (not even for Fargo!?!) – is Carter Burwell, but he’s poised to finally join the club with his work on Carol. (He also won acclaim this year for Anomalisa.)

With The Danish Girl, last year’s winner – and a near-perennial at this point – Alexandre Desplat may collect his ninth nomination since 2006, and another of last year’s nominees, Jóhann Jóhannsson, could get cited for his moody, unsettling contributions to Sicario. That score might not make for the most enjoyable listening experience on its own, but works magnificently in the context of the movie. I generally favor scores that stand on their own as music you can listen to without the film, but what I favor has nothing to do with anything, and the Oscar for Best Original Score should first and foremost recognize music in service of its movie. Others this year that could land nominations for serving their movies well even if they might not be as compelling on their own include The Martian, by Harry Gregson-Williams, and Ex Machina, by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow.

Spotlight (Howard Shore), Brooklyn (Michael Brook), Inside Out (Michael Giacchino), Cinderella (Patrick Doyle) and Steve Jobs (Daniel Pemberton) are all serious contenders, but two scores that have done well in the precursor phase – Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant – will be sidelined. The Revenant was ruled ineligible, while Fury Road features the kind of thumping score – more rock than classical – which the music branch voters rarely favor. One last possibility that should be mentioned is The 33, a movie that isn’t otherwise on the Academy’s radar, but which features music by James Horner, the Oscar-winning composer of Titanic, among many other great scores. Horner died in a plane crash over the summer, and it’s possible his colleagues will want to honor him one last time.

Predictions:
Bridge of Spies – Thomas Newman
Carol – Carter Burwell
The Danish Girl – Alexandre Desplat
The Hateful Eight – Ennio Morricone
The Martian – Harry Gregson-Williams

Personal Picks:
Ex Machina – Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
Far From the Madding Crowd – Craig Armstrong
The Hateful Eight – Ennio Morricone
Sicario – Jóhann Jóhannsson
Spotlight – Howard Shore

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
The Academy has already taken a fair amount of guesswork out of this category by narrowing it down to seven contenders, of which three will be nominated. The lucky finalists are Black Mass, Concussion, Legend, Mad Max: Fury Road, Mr. Holmes, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, and The Revenant.

If you’re anything like me, that list begs a few questions. Like, what the hell is the The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared? Or, are they retroactively talking about the 1985 Tom Cruise-Tim Curry fantasy Legend? Because what could they possibly be thinking about by including the Legend with Tom Hardy as twin gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray?

There are some unfortunate omissions from this shortlist that deserve a shot at the final three, including In the Heart of the Sea (this poor movie got the shaft in every way), Everest, Ex Machina, The Danish Girl, Trumbo, and maybe Avengers: Age of Ultron. But the seven finalists are generally a good lot. Seriously, though…Legend? Am I forgetting something from that movie?

Predictions:
Black Mass
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

Personal Picks:
Same

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Like the Makeup and Hairstyling branch, the Visual Effects group goes through an organized process of elimination that began with a list of 20 films. That was narrowed down to 10, from which the final five will be selected. Our pool consists of Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ex Machina, Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Tomorrowland and The Walk. Last Saturday, members of the branch gathered at an Academy theater for presentations by each film’s visual effects supervisor, immediately after which they cast their ballots. (The Makeup and Hairstyling branch held a similar bake-off event the same day.)

It’s an impressive line-up this year. There’s not a film here that doesn’t feature really high-quality work, so it’s a tough call. The voters love to honor visual effects from Best Picture-caliber movies, so that bodes well for The Revenant and The Martian. The primary work in both The Walk and Ex Machina, while excellent, is somewhat limited in terms of how much it’s employed. Ex Machina‘s effects create the visible robotic portions of the AI character Ava, but those parts are often concealed by clothing. The Walk, meanwhile, has one truly spectacular sequence that lasts maybe 20 or 30 minutes, but beyond that it’s not an overtly effects-heavy movie. I’m also not sure if both The Walk and The Revenant will make it. Each employs visual effects on major, buzzed-about sequences – the former on the breathtaking walk between the two World Trade Center towers, the latter on the harrowing bear attack – and both with stellar results. I’m trying to figure which one has the edge, but maybe they’ll both make it and push a presumed nominee like Jurassic World or The Martian out of the final five. As Yoda once said, “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.” No idea, he has. Predicting the Oscars he should try sometime, then talk to me he can.

Anyway, if you want an insider’s view, Variety‘s David S. Cohen was at the bake-off, and offered his take on the presentations and how they were received.

Predictions:
Jurassic World
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Walk

Personal Picks:
Ant-Man
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Walk

BEST SOUND EDITING AND SOUND MIXING
I feel like a broken record when I reach the Sound categories each year, because I always say the same things: the difference between the two categories, the wide array of films that could turn up, and how I think there should be a single sound category honoring overall Sound Design. So first, the two categories. In simplest terms, sound editors create and/or fix sounds that couldn’t be recorded during filming or were not usable, while sound mixers combine all the elements – dialogue, music, sound effects, etc. – into a balanced whole.

Second, the array of possibilities. The categories are usually dominated by action movies, so we could see things like Mad Max: Fury Road, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Jurassic World, Tomorrowland, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Spectre, or Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We could see dramas that have strong action-ish elements, like Sicario, The Revenant, Everest, In the Heart of the Sea, The Hateful Eight (Tarantino’s last two movies have been recognized) or Beasts of No Nation. We could see something with a heavy musical component, like Straight Outta Compton or Love & Mercy (which employs sound mixing to great effect by using it to bring us inside Brian Wilson’s troubled headspace). We could see an animated film, which requires extensive creation of sound elements (several Pixar movies have been nominated). And we could also see the odd, straight drama that doesn’t seem an obvious candidate for recognition in Sound, but apparently is, because, well, what do we know? Bridge of Spies seems a likely bet to fill that potential slot this year.

Sound Editing Predictions:
Inside Out
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Sound Mixing Predictions
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Finally, in lieu of personal picks that I feel wholly unqualified to offer, I have my fantasy category of Best Sound Design, which I feel slightly less unqualified to offer. I’d go for Inside Out, Love & Mercy, Mad Max: Fury Road, Sicario, and The Revenant.

And that’s everything. Well…almost everything. As always, my sincere apologies to the Documentaries and Foreign Language films that I didn’t get around to seeing, as well as the short films that no one ever gets around to seeing until the nominees are announced and each category’s selections are released as a package…at which point I probably still won’t get around to seeing them, so advance apologies for that too.

It’s all in the hands of the movie gods now. The nominations will be revealed tomorrow morning, in two segments beginning at 5:30am PST. Ang Lee and Guillermo del Toro will announce 11 categories, followed by John Krasinski and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs with the remaining 13, including all the above-the-line categories like Picture, Acting and Writing. Will you be waking up to watch the gig live?? I will be!! Because, if you hadn’t figured it out by now, I’m waaaay too into this shit. Pray for me…

 

 

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. Jordan 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.

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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.

 

 

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