I Am DB

February 25, 2017

Oscars 2016: The Envelope Please

Better late than never, right? I’d promise you that one day I will actually complete this post more than 24 hours before the show begins, but I don’t know if I have it in me to keep doing these long enough to fulfill that pledge. So for what it’s worth at this point, here are my Oscar predictions and requisite over-explanation.

BEST SOUND MIXING AND BEST SOUND EDITING

Sound Mixing:
Arrival – Bernard Gariepy Strobl and Claude La Haye
Hacksaw Ridge – Kevin O’Connell, Andy Wright, Robert Mackenzie and Peter Grace
La La Land – Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee and Steve A. Morrow
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – David Parker, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi – Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush and Mac Ruth

Sound Editing:
Arrival – Sylvain Bellemare
Deepwater Horizon – Wylie Stateman and Renee Tondelli
Hacksaw Ridge – Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright
La La Land – Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
Sully – Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman

X

Get ready — you’re going to see the words La La Land a lot in this post. (Is La even a word?) Here in the Sound categories, it throws us a curveball. I pointed out when predicting the nominees that musicals have a great track record getting nominated for Sound Mixing, and not such a great one getting nominated for Sound Editing. This year, however, the Sound branch cited La La Land in both categories. I have to assume that most voters from other branches don’t much understand the difference between the two categories, nor what constitutes a great achievement in either of them. If La La Land had just been nominated for Mixing, I’m sure they would have voted for it, and the Sound Editing award would have gone elsewhere. But now that they can vote for it in both categories, will they? And if they decide to go with two different movies, will they honor La La Land in Mixing, where musicals have traditionally succeeded? Or will they honor it in Editing because, hey, they’re actors and cinematographers and costume designers, and they don’t know in which category musicals have traditionally succeeded? Since the impossibility of knowing is even more acute here than in other categories where it’s impossible to know but you still kinda know, I’ll be a traditionalist and predict that La La Land takes the award for Sound Mixing, but not Sound Editing. In that category, any of the nominees feel like viable winners, but I’m going with Hacksaw Ridge. When in doubt, voters might equate the chaotic noise of war with the best achievement in sound. Or, you know…not.

Personal: I rarely have strong feelings about the outcome of these races, being admittedly ignorant about how to judge the work. However, knowing that Sound Editing involves the creation of the aural components, my vote in that race would go to Arrival, as the only nominee of the five that had to imagine otherworldly sounds as opposed to re-creating earthbound ones.

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BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Deepwater Horizon – Craig Hammack, Jason Snell, Jason Billington and Burt Dalton
Doctor Strange – Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli and Paul Corbould
The Jungle Book – Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones and Dan Lemmon
Kubo and the Two Strings – Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McLean and Brad Schiff
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – John Knoll, Mohen Leo, Hal Hickel and Neil Corbould

X

All five nominees boast stellar work that seemed to take certain VFX challenges further than they had been taken before, but the complexity and sheer amount of work that went into The Jungle Book has to be acknowledged. This wasn’t just about adding talking animals that looked believable. This whole damn movie was shot on a soundstage in downtown Los Angeles. The young star Neel Sethi was working on bluescreen and greenscreen stages with only small portions of the jungle set constructed for him to interact with. A boulder here, a small patch of grass there, a short sandy pathway over there….everything else around him was created in a computer. EVERYTHING. Think about that for a minute. Here’s the trailer for the movie. Watch it, and realize that other than what Sethi is actually physically touching at any given moment (not including the animals, of course) and perhaps what’s in his immediate vicinity, the rest of it is computer-generated. That, ladies and gentlemen, is Movie Magic at its most astonishing.

The problem is that voters don’t have the best track record of recognizing Movie Magic at its most astonishing. The good news this year is that there isn’t a Best Picture nominee to muddy the waters, as the inclusion of a prestige film often hijacks this award from a movie that features truly amazing and/or groundbreaking work. That’s how you get Gladiator beating The Perfect Storm, or Hugo over Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But that won’t be an issue this time, leaving a clear pathway for The Jungle Book. But you never know. Watch out for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Personal: It’s gotta be The Jungle Book.

X

BEST HAIRSTYLING AND MAKEUP
A Man Called Ove – Eva von Bahr and Love Larson
Star Trek Beyond – Joel Harlow and Richard Alonzo
Suicide Squad – Alessandro Bertolazzi, Giorgio Gregorini and Christopher Nelson

X

None of the three nominees are movies that lit it up with the Academy, so voters are a bit off the grid here. Don’t discount Suicide Squad just because it seemed to be derided by critics and audiences. Even without having seen it, I know there was an impressive variety to the work. But I’ll put my money on Star Trek Beyond, because Trek is a known quantity to voters whether they saw the movie or not.

Personal: Judging just by pictures from Suicide Squad, the work looks impressive. But Star Trek Beyond is the only one of the three I’ve seen, so I suppose it gets my vote by default. The new alien designs — especially the one sported by Sofia Boutella — do look Oscar-worthy to me. There’s something about that design that makes me want to eat ice cream. What’s that about?

X

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Jackie – Mica Levi
La La Land – Justin Hurwitz
Lion – Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka
Moonlight – Nicholas Brittel
Passengers – Thomas Newman

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When Disney musicals had their resurgence in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Oscar voters proved keen to award not just their memorable songs, but also their orchestral scores. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, AladdinThe Lion King and Pocahontas all took home the Oscar for Best Original Score even though you kind of got the feeling members were just voting for the scores as a way to vote for the overall music in the movie. I love those soundtracks (well, the first three anyway), but did the scores really deserve to win? Maybe. Maybe not. I bring it up because we’re in a similar situation this year, with La La Land poised to take this prize even though maybe, possibly, perhaps its actual instrumental score isn’t really as strong or memorable as some of its songs. It has a nice theme, for sure, but does the full score really merit an Oscar? Many will think so, and they will vote for it, and it will win.

Personal: I’m probably not being fair. La La Land‘s score is good, and functions successfully in the movie, which is ultimately what should matter with this award, even if — as I say every year — I’m always looking for something that stands tall on its own, apart from the movie. On that score (no pun intended) I think La La Land comes up a little short. It’s between Jackie and Moonlight for me, because both take a similarly unexpected approach to their subject matter. I admire the stylistic choices of both, but found Jackie‘s to be more memorable.

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BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Audition (The Fools Who Dream) – La La Land — Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Can’t Stop the Feeling – Trolls — Music and Lyric by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster
City of Stars – La La Land — Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
The Empty Chair – Jim: The James Foley Story — Music and Lyric by J. Ralph and Sting
How Far I’ll Go – Moana — Music and Lyric by Lin-Manuel Miranda

X

You avid Hamilton fans eager for Lin-Manuel Miranda to complete his EGOT with an Oscar win had better put your hopes on hold. Despite contributing music to the latest animated film from Disney — as well-trod a path to success in this category as it is in Best Original Score — it’s not going to happen this year. But fear not; Miranda will have plenty of future chances. With a Mary Poppins sequel in the works and a secretive animated project with Sony a few years off, he’s not throwing away his shot.

The winning film will be La La Land, and this time it should be. The only question is which of the movie’s two nominated songs will emerge victorious: “City of Stars,” or “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)?” Nearly every pundit seems to be banking on the former, and that’s the smart bet. I’m going against the grain, however, and guessing that “Audition” pulls off an upset. First of all, there are really two versions of “City of Stars:” Ryan Gosling’s solo version, which has that memorable whistle going for it, but which is basically one verse; and Gosling’s duet with Emma Stone, which is longer, and has additional verses and alternate lyrics. I’d wager that when most people think of the song, they think of the solo, “whistling” version. But will they remember how brief it is? Will they care?

Then you have Stone’s solo, “Audition,” which is one of the most stirring moments in the movie, and a scene that I think people are more likely to remember than either of the scenes “City of Stars” figures into. It marks a major turning point in the story and furthers the journey of the characters; “City of Stars” doesn’t. It also has more evocative lyrics. Voters may not notice or care about these facts, especially with the powerful hook of that whistle echoing in their heads. So I don’t know. If voters are trying to recall the songs long after seeing the movie, “City of Stars” is probably the one that comes to mind. But if they really remember the moments in which the songs play and how they felt when they watched the movie, I’m convinced they’d vote for “Audition.” It’s not the wise move, but I’m sticking my neck out.

Personal: “City of Stars” is wonderful, so I don’t mean to knock it. I just think “Audition” is better. Gosling’s version of “Stars” is tinged with a touching melancholy, befitting the movie’s bittersweet resolution. The duet version, meanwhile, warmly speaks to the joys of finding love. But to me, “Audition” is the song that truly captures the full, blooming, in-love-with-art-and-artists spirit that infuses every frame of the movie, and it too is bittersweet, as it speaks to the struggle of reaching for an elusive dream. Plus, as I was saying, it has a more crucial function in the film. I certainly won’t be upset if “City of Stars” goes all the way, but “Audition” is the more deserving; an ultimately richer song that better encapsulates the themes of the movie.

X

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Allied – Joanna Johnston
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Colleen Atwood
Florence Foster Jenkins – Consolata Boyle
Jackie – Madeline Fontaine
La La Land – Mary Zophres

X

As I said in the previous post, Jackie has beautiful costumes, but many of them are re-creations of well-documented outfits worn by Jackie Kennedy, and to me that means the movie really doesn’t deserve the nomination. A win would be disappointing. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) went there anyway, while the Costume Designers Guild (CDG) instead awarded Hidden Figures in its Period category. Figures is not among the Oscar nominees, nor is Doctor Strange, which took the prize in the guild’s Fantasy category (besting Kubo and the Two Strings, unfortunately). The only CDG winner included among Oscar’s five nominees is La La Land, which won in the Contemporary category. I think it will come out on top at the Oscars as well. Emma Stone sports one striking dress after another, and I imagine at least a few of those will be top of mind for many voters. On the other hand, Academy voters usually favor period pieces and fantasies — or a melding of the two — in the design categories. You have to go back to 1994 and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert for the last time this award went to a contemporary-set film. Before that? 1979(!) and All That Jazz. So history is against La La Land, but I think the bold colors will prove hard to resist, plus the styles are frequently old-fashioned, which helps lend a period feel to this modern musical.

Personal: La La Land. Those colors, those dresses…pretty much everything Emma Stone wears in this movie is splendid, forget about the rest of the cast. I liked the costumes in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, particularly Newt’s outfit, but I’ve got to give it up for La La Land.

X

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Arrival – Patrice Vermette, Paul Hotte
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Stuart Craig, Anna Pinnock
Hail, Caesar! – Jess Gonchor, Nancy Haigh
La La Land – David Wasco, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco
Passengers – Guy Hendrix Dyas, Gene Serdena

X

In another category where movies with non-stylized contemporary settings rarely come out on top, La La Land is again likely to defy tradition. The movie is a tribute, among many things, to Technicolor musicals of Hollywood’s heyday, and just as in the Costume Design category, color is key. It’s not so much that the sets and locations are all striking in and of themselves, but rather what the design team did to make ordinary locales pop off the screen. The only other nominee that feels like a potential threat is Arrival, for the compelling interior of the alien craft, so unlike other such settings we’ve seen before. Still, that’s a single and sparse location, and most of the movie takes place outside the ship in more drab or ordinary settings.

Personal: La La Land. Every wall, every windowpane, every prop, every single strip, dash and dot of color seems carefully considered and absolutely deliberate. The cumulative effect is an eye-popping visual palette that feels familiar and new all at once.

X

BEST FILM EDITING
Arrival – Joe Walker
Hacksaw Ridge – John Gilbert
Hell or High Water – Jake Roberts
La La Land – Tom Cross
Moonlight – Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon

X

Any outcome feels possible in this category, where the kind of movie that wins is more varied than in some of the other “crafts” categories. Hacksaw Ridge has brutally intense battle scenes but also plenty of quieter, well-paced character drama. Hell or High Water feels tight and efficiently assembled as it moves between the bank robbing brothers and the Texas rangers investigating them. Moonlight divides one character’s story into three distinct chapters, each one feeling complete yet complimentary to the others. Arrival plays with time in unexpected ways that take on greater significance after the movie has ended. And La La Land moves between the fast-paced energy of big musical numbers and intimate moments of a romantic relationship with ease, where it could have left us with whiplash. (Get it?! Whiplash?!!?) The voters could throw us a curveball, but I have a feeling enough of them will associate editing with the rhythms of a musical and cast their vote for La La Land.

Personal: I wouldn’t be disappointed to see any of these take the prize, but I’d vote for Arrival. Amy Adams’ character experiences flashes throughout the story, and as we start to understand what they mean and why she’s having them, the way they interact with her current circumstances becomes crucial to unlocking the movie’s mysteries.

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BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Arrival – Bradford Young
La La Land – Linus Sandgren
Lion – Greig Fraser
Moonlight – James Laxton
Silence – Rodrigo Prieto

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In making my nomination predictions last month, I pointed out that the Academy’s nominees usually don’t match up with those from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), and that I thought Greig Fraser’s work on Lion would be the ASC nominee to miss with the Academy. Well, I blew that one. Not only did the Academy’s picks mirror the ASC’s exactly, but Fraser and Lion went on to win the ASC prize. Does that mean Fraser has the Oscar in his sights as well? Probably not. La La Land‘s Linus Sandgren is the frontrunner here. The Academy at large is more likely to remember the play of light (often spotlight) that transports us in and out the movie’s many musical numbers, as well as how the camerawork shows off the rainbow of colors captured within the costume and production design. Part of the reason the colors jump off the screen so vividly is due to the way the lighting illuminates them. All elements of a movie obviously rely on and play off each other, but La La Land‘s costumes, production design and camerawork function in particularly harmonious tandem. It’s hard to imagine the movie winning one and not the other two…though in fact, we don’t need to imagine it. BAFTA spread the love in these categories, giving Cinematography to La La Land, Costume Design to Jackie and Production Design to Fantastic Beasts. So it’s possible. But unlikely, I’m guessing.

Personal: La La Land, for the way the lighting makes the bright colors glow, dance and suck you whole into the world of the movie. Sandgren also gets credit for taking better advantage of Emma Stone than perhaps any cinematographer who’s ever filmed her. She has such an expressive face, so the camera loves her right off the bat. Sandgren really revels in that gift, often holding her in close-up and allowing her to be riveting simply in the act of looking. She brings that to the table, but he has to be there to capture it in all its effectiveness.

X

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Kubo and the Two Strings – Travis Knight and Arianne Sutner
Moana – John Musker, Ron Clements and Osnat Shurer
My Life as a Zucchini – Claude Barras and Max Karli
The Red Turtle – Michael Dudok de Wit and Toshio Suzuki
Zootopia – Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Clark Spencer

X

This has been an exciting category to watch throughout the season, with Zootopia and Kubo and the Two Strings running in near lockstep with critics organizations. Zootopia took the Golden Globe and the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) prize, but Kubo got the BAFTA. Most of the guilds don’t have a category for animation, but those that do — the Producers Guild of America (PGA) and the American Cinema Editors (ACE) — went with Zootopia, and it was also the big winner at the Annie Awards, though I’ve never considered those to be much of a factor with the Oscars. You’d like to think that people only vote in a category if they’ve seen all of the nominees, but some probably vote regardless, and if that applies to anyone with this category, it’s probable that Zootopia — one of the highest-grossing movies of the year — was seen by a lot more people than Kubo…and I’d wager was playing in a lot more family rooms over  Christmas vacation. Kubo has made too strong a showing to be counted out, surprising consistently throughout the season with a Best Visual Effects nomination, a groundbreaking nomination from the Costume Designers Guild, and more critics awards than people may have expected. At the end of the day though, the math seems to favor Zootopia.

Personal: Kubo and the Two Strings. Hey, Zootopia is terrific and I’ll hardly be despondent if it wins. But smart, sly, funny and touching as it is, it’s still cut from the familiar cloth of wide-eyed animals occupying bright, cheerful, landscapes. Thematically too, we’ve seen similar efforts rewarded before. Kubo, on the other hand, is a real original, with arresting visuals and the daring to tell a darker story than the typical plucky animated fare. Plus, Laika Studios has been putting out excellent work from the start. Each of its previous three films has been nominated, but none have come this close to the prize before. Who knows when they will again. The movie deserves this win, and so does the studio. (Speaking, by the way, of voting without seeing all the nominees, I still haven’t been able to see The Red Turtle or My Life as a Zucchini. The latter is just now opening, and the former played only for a limited time and not anywhere very accessible for me. I hope to catch them both, but would be surprised if either lured me away from Kubo.)

X

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Arrival – Eric Heisserer
Fences – August Wilson
Hidden Figures – Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Lion – Luke Davies
Moonlight – Barry Jenkins; Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney

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The Writers Guild of America (WGA) honored Arrival in this category, but I’m sure you remember from my predictions post — because you studied it and committed it to memory — that the WGA placed Moonlight in the Original Screenplay category (where it won) while the Academy considers it an adaptation. Really though, we don’t need the guild to provide guidance in this case. Against La La Land and Manchester by the Sea in the Original category, it would have been a battle. But in the Adapted column, Moonlight should sail smoothly to victory. The movie is universally admired, and writer/director Barry Jenkins seems to have charmed and impressed everybody who’s encountered him during the months he’s been promoting the movie at Q&As, festivals, award ceremonies, etc. I think many voters want to not just recognize the movie; they want to recognize Jenkins specifically, and since he’s not one of the producers, that leaves this category or Best Director as the place to do it. He’ll get a lot of votes in both, but he’ll get more here. Arrival has spoiler potential, and without Moonlight to contend with I think its structure and surprises would carry it to a win. But it does have to contend with Moonlight, so that’s that.

Personal: I wouldn’t have said this if I hadn’t had the chance to see it a second time, but since I did, my pick has to be Arrival. Not just for the whoa-factor, but for making an engaging movie about a rather abstract concept. With a story about humans and aliens trying to establish a baseline of communication with two entirely different systems, the movie becomes about the fragility and delicacy of language. How do we ask them complicated questions about their purpose on Earth? Do they even understand what a question is? How do we correctly interpret their attempt to use a word that even among our own kind can be misunderstood and construed in different ways? There’s nothing inherently cinematic about this, but Eric Heisserer’s script presents it as gripping, high-stakes drama, and even though it rather conveniently bypasses the nuts-and-bolts of how the humans come to understand and “decode” the alien language — and vice versa — the script has the courage to be about something scholarly and intellectual while still having great humanity and feeling. No easy task.

X

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Hell or High Water – Taylor Sheridan
La La Land – Damien Chazelle
The Lobster – Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou
Manchester by the Sea – Kenneth Lonergan
20th Century Women – Mike Mills

X

One of the hardest-to-call races this year finds La La Land squaring off against Manchester by the Sea. They tied with the BFCA. La La Land won the Golden Globe. Manchester won the BAFTA. The WGA by-passed them both in favor of Moonlight. So where does that leave us? I don’t know that enough voters — even those who liked La La Land — will think that its screenplay is as much a winning achievement as certain other components or the film as a whole. The heartache and humanity of Manchester seems more the stuff of great screenplays, and since Kenneth Lonergan is unlikely to factor into many Best Director votes, this is the place to reward him. If there are enough voters who love La La Land and just rubber-stamp it up and down their ballot, then surely they’ll choose it here too. But I think this will be one of the few places it misses.

Personal: I love the originality of The Lobster, but I don’t quite love the movie. Really, these are all great (though La La Land is the weakest as a screenplay nominee). But my pick is Manchester by the Sea. Lonergan took somebody else’s skeletal premise — it was actually John Krasinski who birthed the seed of the idea — and made it completely his own, sublimely marrying humor born of character conflict with harrowing circumstances and heartbreaking sadness, to create something deeply moving and unexpectedly funny. Few movies I’ve seen strike the balance so honestly and effectively, and it’s just a great story that seems miraculously imaginative yet completely, believably mundane.

X

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel – Lion
Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

X

This year’s acting nominations may have put the #OscarsSoWhite issue on the back burner, but nominations aren’t enough. Some of these folks have to win! And they will, starting here with Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali, who has nearly swept the circuit so far. He did endure two surprise, high-profile losses on his path to the Kodak Theatre — the Golden Globe went to Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Nocturnal Animals and the BAFTA went to Dev Patel for Lion. But Taylor-Johnson isn’t nominated for the Oscar, and Patel may have benefitted somewhat from a home field advantage in England, and perhaps even some lingering residual love for Slumdog Millionaire. I don’t see him repeating at the Oscars, and can’t really imagine any of these guys coming from behind to overtake Ali. If Jeff Bridges were still seeking his first win, things might be different. But he’s got an Oscar now, so I don’t expect him to collect a second this year, beloved as he is. He’ll get a fair share of votes, I’m sure, but Ali will be crowned the champ.

Personal: Mahershala Ali. My only hesitation is that the part is so small, and I’m always saying that roles should be larger than this to be worthy of an Oscar win. But Ali does so much so beautifully with his limited screentime, and his impact is felt even when he’s not there. His character defies the expected archetype, and Ali makes him wholly believable, speaking volumes while talking softly…and sometimes without talking at all.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Viola Davis – Fences
Naomi Harris – Moonlight
Nicole Kidman – Lion
Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

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This is your safest bet of the night. Viola Davis probably already has the Oscar at home, engraved, on her shelf, in need of a polish. The ceremony is just a sham for the public. Some may argue that she belongs in the lead actress category, but given the history with the role on Broadway, lead and supporting were both deemed legitimate pathways. In Best Actress, it might not have been so cut and dry. In Supporting Actress, her fellow nominees can’t compete. They’re all good, but Viola has more screentime, her character is easily the most fully drawn of the five, and she just plain totally crushes it. She’s deeply admired and respected by her peers, and this role seemed to be waiting for her to come along. I was disappointed when she didn’t win Best Actress for The Help, partly because she had such good odds and who knew if she’d come that close again. I’m glad I was wrong.

And she still should have won for The Help.

Personal: Viola’s time has come, and I’m right there with her.

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BEST ACTOR
Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling – La La Land
Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington – Fences

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For the longest time, this was shaping up to be as sure a thing as Viola Davis: Casey Affleck won nearly every single award there was to win, cutting what looked like a clear path to the Oscar stage. Then last month, he was toppled at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards by Denzel Washington, and now this is being called one of the toughest races of the year to call. Since the first SAG Awards in 1994, only four times has the Best Actor winner not gone on to win the Oscar, and the last time was 2003. I throw that out there just for trivia; I put far less trust in those kinds of stats than other pundits. But it’s a fact that had many people shifting their prediction from Affleck to Washington.

The bigger threat is the renewed coverage of sexual harassment charges leveled at Affleck in 2010 by two female colleagues from I’m Not There, his mockumentary collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix. The situation was brought up here and there during Phase One of awards season, but didn’t gain much traction (which, as noted by many of the people who did cover it, stood in stark contrast to the controversy that erupted around Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation). The chatter got a little louder right after the nominations were announced, most notably from Constance Wu, the lead actress on the hit ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat. Wu shamed the Academy for nominating Affleck, yet still the story didn’t blow up. But it could well be steadily simmering below the surface, and it’s impossible to know whether or not it will impact voters’ decisions significantly. Was it part of the reason Affleck lost the SAG award? Possibly. The reason could also have had less to do with denying Affleck than it did awarding Washington, who had never won a SAG award. The organization has occasionally leaned toward a greatly admired actor who has not previously won. In a tight Best Actress race, Julie Christie won the SAG award in 2007 for Away From Her; the Oscar went to Marion Cotillard. The same year, SAG’s Supporting Actress winner was Ruby Dee, but the Oscars chose Tilda Swinton. In 2002, Christopher Walken got the Supporting Actor SAG for Catch Me If You Can; Chris Cooper won the Oscar. SAG’s voters may simply have felt that Washington was due.

Affleck rebounded a few weeks later and won the BAFTA, which like SAG, has some crossover membership with the Academy. But Washington was not nominated for a BAFTA, so there’s that. Plus, he’s a two-time Oscar winner already, so voters who think about that sort of thing won’t feel any pressure to finally award one of the great actors of all time. And hey, maybe Washington won the SAG award because big, showy performances like the one he gives in Fences tend to capture more awards than quiet, inward ones like Affleck’s in Manchester by the Sea. Academy voters could go with Washington for the same reason. His performance is like a big, jagged bolt of lightning; Affleck’s is like the electric current running invisibly inside the wall.

Bottom line, this went from slam dunk to nailbiter. No doubt, Affleck will lose votes from people who can’t ignore his alleged behavior, regardless of their feelings about the performance. Yet controversies like this one haven’t stopped the Academy from handing Oscars to Roman Polanski or Woody Allen. Have things changed in the era of the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief? One writer asked if Affleck could win in a post-women’s march world. I think he can. My gut tells me that despite the recent twist in the road, this will go down exactly the way it seemed destined to in the first place. In the end, Affleck will pull it off…but from other predictions I’ve seen so far, I appear to be in the minority.

Personal: I don’t have strong feelings about the outcome, surprisingly. I enjoyed all these performances tremendously, and consider Ryan Gosling’s the only one that doesn’t feel substantial enough to win. Judge me if you will, but part of me wants to see Affleck get it just because when someone wins pretty much everything along the way, it’s a bummer to see them lose in the end, no matter how predictable winning is at that point. But if Washington captured his first Oscar in 16 years, or Mortensen somehow shocked us all, I couldn’t argue.

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BEST ACTRESS
Isabelle Huppert – Elle
Ruth Negga – Loving
Natalie Portman – Jackie
Emma Stone – La La Land
Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

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When the critics were having their say, this was a race between Natalie Portman and Isabelle Huppert, with Portman looking like the Oscar frontrunner since Huppert faced the challenge of starring in a foreign language film with a difficult subject matter. Even with a surprise Golden Globe win over Portman in the Drama category, Huppert’s odds remain low. Portman’s have receded as well, however, with Jackie being embraced less enthusiastically by the Academy than by critics. Instead, it’s Emma Stone who’s emerged as the late-season frontrunner. Some thought as far back as November that she was right in the thick of it, but her fortunes seemed to fade as one critics group after another went with Portman and Huppert. Now Stone has come back from behind, fueled by winning the Golden Globe Musical/Comedy award, the SAG and the BAFTA. And everyone loves Emma Stone. They won’t vote for her just because of that, but if they were put off by divisive films like Jackie and Elle, they may feel okay about voting for Stone. Portman could still pull an upset, but at this point it looks like Emma’s got this. For those unsure how it will turn out, keep an eye on Best Original Song. Stone could triumph regardless of that outcome of course, but if it goes to “Audition,” she’s your winner.

Personal: As I said in my nominations post, I haven’t seen Elle. I hate going into Oscar night having not seen all the nominees in the main categories, but from what I know of that movie, I couldn’t stomach seeing in a theater. Of the remaining four, I’d pick Portman. Emma Stone is wonderful in La La Land, but I don’t see hers as an Oscar-winning performance. Portman, on the other hand, did transformative work. That odd Jackie Bouvier accent did some of the heavy-lifting, but there’s a lot more than that going on in her work. She presents us with a woman who has played the passive role of doting wife, hostess, and First Lady, then swiftly finds her strength and resilience when confronted with the shock and horror of her husband’s assassination. Portman shows us Jackie’s grief and uncertainly mingling with the need to step up and control how JFK’s death and the immediate aftermath are seen by the world and immortalized by history. Her performance is fiery and understated all at once.

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BEST DIRECTOR
Denis Villeneuve – Arrival
Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge
Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight

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Damien Chazelle won the Golden Globe, the BAFTA and most importantly, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) award, which has failed to augur the Oscar winner only seven times in its 69 years…and in three of those cases, the DGA winner wasn’t nominated for the Oscar. In fact, in the entire grand game that is Oscar predicting, the DGA is the most meaningful precursor. So considering his victory there, and the general acclaim for La La Land, Chazelle is the man to beat. The only one who can is Barry Jenkins. As I said in the Adapted Screenplay section, I think there are a lot of Academy members who want Jenkins to go home with an Oscar. I said he’ll get a lot of votes for the Screenplay — more than he will here, I think — but he will get a lot of votes here. Probably not enough to overtake Chazelle, but this is a politically tumultuous year where voters looking to not just honor great filmmaking but also make a statement (we’ll get into that a bit more in a minute) could do both by voting for Jenkins.

Personal: I admit to favoring directors who take the helm of epic productions with physical and visual challenges and a daring that extends beyond the narrative and into the production itself. So while I recognize the skill involved in directing character-driven dramas like Manchester by the Sea or Moonlight, I’m inevitably drawn to something like La La Land, which makes Chazelle my choice. But I would have no problem seeing Barry Jenkins take this. He created a small miracle with Moonlight, and it’s a beautiful and assured piece of work. (Of course, so is La La Land. Ack! Making choices is hard.)

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BEST PICTURE
Arrival – Dan Levine, Shawn Levy, Aaron Ryder, David Linde
Fences – Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington, Todd Black
Hacksaw Ridge – Bill Mechanic, David Permut
Hell or High Water – Carla Hacken, Julie Yorn
Hidden Figures – Donna Gigliotti, Peter Chernin & Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams, Theodore Melfi
La La Land – Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt
Lion – Emile Sherman & Iain Canning, Angie Fielder
Manchester By the Sea – Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Lauren Beck, Kevin Walsh
Moonlight – Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner

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Since Best Picture and Best Director usually go to the same movie, our starting point is that La La Land is the presumptive winner. Not that Chazelle’s Best Director odds alone are boosting La La Land to frontrunner status. The movie’s been thrilling audiences in and out of the industry since it first debuted at the Venice Film Festival in August, landing at the Telluride and Toronto festivals a few weeks later. Although it didn’t actually come out until early December, it has been considered the probable film to beat ever since those early festivals, and that status has been solidified with victories at the Golden Globes (Musical/Comedy), BAFTA and PGA Awards. Many pundits look to the PGA award in the same way they look at the DGA, particularly because in 2009, the PGA adopted the same voting procedure — the preferential ballot — that is used to determine the Best Picture Oscar. Since then, only last year did the PGA winner not go on to take the Oscar. (The PGA had a tie in 2013; one of the two winners — 12 Years a Slave — got the Oscar.

Is there any reason to think La La Land could lose? Well, sure…we can almost find reasons to doubt and wonder. This year, there’s that politics factor. Things are pretty ugly in the world right now. The movies people choose to support — be they “regular” people deciding what to see on a Saturday night or journalists and filmmakers voting for awards — reflect the times, and so the question this year is whether voters want escapism or want to make a statement. La La Land represents escapism. It would be unfair to dismiss the movie as fluff or ignore the honest things it has to say about art and love and the difficult choices some people make between the two. It may arrive at a bittersweet conclusion, but by and large La La Land makes people feel good. Members who want their vote to speak for their conscience could choose movies that celebrate the sort of characters who are undervalued or victimized in our current political climate. Moonlight‘s protagonist is a gay black boy trying to navigate a confusing world. Hidden Figures shines a light on brilliant African-American women who played a major role in launching Americans into space. Lion follows an Indian boy separated from his family and eventually raised by adoptive parents in Tasmania, who years later falls into an obsessive search to find his home. Hell or High Water involves the corruption of banks and the power they hold over ordinary, struggling people. Fences celebrates those people too, those left behind by institutions that saw them as less than. Arrival focuses on the importance of working across cultures — both earthly and extraterrestrial — to achieve a common, positive goal…and how refusal to cooperate could doom us all. So…there are a lot of ways Academy members could use their vote this year to say something that matters.

Still, of all these movies, Moonlight is the only one that could take down La La Land. I could stretch that and call Hidden Figures an incredible long shot, but for all of its pleasures and for highlighting a tragically unknown piece of history, it’s a pretty standard piece of entertainment by Oscar’s yardstick. Consider too, that a victory for Moonlight (or Hidden Figures or Fences) would be the ultimate rebuke to the last two years of #OscarsSoWhite. La La Land, after all, is pretty damn white…not that I think cries of racism will be too prevalent this year if La La Land takes the top two prizes. Oh, and on that point, could we see a Director/Picture split this year? It’s happened 24 times in Oscar’s 88 years, last year being the most recent. If it were to happen this year, which way would it go? Barry Jenkins wins Best Director but La La Land takes Best Picture? Or Moonlight for Picture and Damien Chazelle for Director? In 2013, Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for Gravity, which boasted incredible technical and visual achievements, while Best Picture went to the powerful, human-scale drama of 12 Years a Slave. Could we see a similar situation this year?

Maybe. Surprises can always happen, but after spinning all of this supposition, the smart money is on things going exactly as the momentum indicates they will…and the momentum is with La La Land.

Personal: When I add up all of the beautiful individual elements of La La Land, I have arrive at that as the movie to which I’m most partial. But Moonlight is exquisite and it would be really wonderful to see something so delicate and humanist win Best Picture. So I’m split between the two. And I loved Manchester by the Sea as well.

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THE REST
As usual, I can be of little help with Best Documentary Feature, Best Foreign Language Film, or the animated, live-action and documentary shorts. O.J.: Made in America appears to be the favorite for Documentary Feature, assuming voters made time for all eight hours of it. If not, look for I Am Not Your Negro or 13th to step up. As for Foreign Language Film, I haven’t detected a consensus, but I do know that there’s been a movement encouraging people to vote for Iran’s entry, The Salesman, as a middle finger to our Infant-in-Chief’s Muslim travel ban. Before the ban was struck down, the film’s director, Asghar Farhadi — whose excellent film A Separation won this award in 2011 — stated that even if accommodations were made that enabled him to attend, he would not, in protest of the policy. Although he could come now, he has chosen not to, saying he will be represented by two prominent Iranian-Americans. I know The Salesman was well-received, and maybe it would have won if none of this nonsense had happened. If it does win, there will be no way to know if the bulk of votes it collected were because it was members’ favorite movie among the five or because they wanted to make a statement. In my eyes, people should vote for the movie they think is the best, and not for something different because they think it will send a message. In this case especially, the people who need to hear the message won’t be listening, and even if they were, they don’t care. There are better, more effective ways to protest.

Regardless of whether or not this category becomes a political moment during the ceremony, we can definitely expect it to be a politically-charged evening, where many artists will mix their gratitude with expressions of dismay about the state of the world and our nation, and call for peace, tolerance and love. This is anathema to many, who think celebrities should keep their mouths shut when it comes to politics and that award show acceptance speeches (and presentations) should focus on the honors at hand and nothing more. But I’m all for some impassioned commentary on Oscar night. It will certainly make for a more interesting and more emotional show than listening to winner after winner recite a list of names. If the Academy or the ABC Network are worried about this, they shouldn’t be. Awards season so far has been marked by such speeches, most prominently Meryl Streep’s instant-classic takedown of the Asshole-in-Chief at the Golden Globe Awards, and the amazing, rousing call to arms from David Harbour on behalf of the Stranger Things cast when they won Best Ensemble in a Drama Series at the SAG Awards.

These memorable moments have only helped their respective shows by bringing them more attention and generating momentous web traffic. Many other speeches at both events found winners speaking to our fractured times. At the Academy’s annual Nominee’s Luncheon earlier this month, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs addressed travel ban-related absences and set a tone for a political Oscar night. Film journalists like Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman and past Oscar winners like novelist John Irving have written opinion pieces to encourage winners to speak their minds. A few days ago, Michael Moore reflected on his controversial speech from 2003 when he won Best Documentary for Bowling for Columbine days after President Bush launched the war in Iraq, and was essentially booed off the stage. This came a day after Yahoo! published a detailed account of how Moore’s infamous moment came to pass. Just on Friday, the directors of the five Best Foreign Language Film nominees released a joint statement calling for “freedom of expression and human dignity.” Politics have a long history of finding their way into the Oscars, and this year promises to be rife with examples.

JIMMY
Despite the potential for fireworks, it’s still an awards show at the end of the day, and it needs to be fun. With Jimmy Kimmel as host, that shouldn’t be a problem. He pulled hosting duties at the Emmy Awards last fall and hit a home run. Terrific cold open…

…terrific monologue…

…and many terrific moments throughout the evening.

(If you don’t get it, you didn’t watch the monologue video).

We can also expect Kimmel to have some fun with his nemesis Matt Damon, who will be in attendance as one of the nominated producers of Manchester by the Sea. Damon crashed the Emmys in brilliant fashion, and no doubt Kimmel will be looking for revenge.

He should more than up to the task of keeping the show entertaining, though it must be said that late night’s other Jimmy threw down the gauntlet with his cold open at the Golden Globes, so Kimmel has his work cut out for him on that front.

Alright, I’ve left you precious little time to mentally prepare for the big night, so I will finally leave you at peace and wish your choices good luck, unless they conflict with my choices, in which case screw you. Here’s a ballot if you still need one, and one last video that you’ve probably seen already, but I’ll include anyway because it’s great and has some fun with a certain bound-for-glory musical.

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 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?)

 

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