Monday, February 22, 2016

Oscars 2016 Educated Guesses

If Saoirse Ronan wins Best Actress, she'll be the first Irish citizen to do so. That's the best we've got for diversity this year, sorry. Welcome to the second consecutive year of #OscarsSoWhite and another round of bad press for the Oscars. I get the sense that the organization's leadership never saw this coming. They assumed the voters would be chastened by last year's controversy and they even invited Chris Rock to host this year's telecast. The current head of the Academy, Cheryl Boone-Isaacs, is a black woman herself and has promised a huge membership drive among female and non-white professionals in the industry. Still, that must be awkward. At this point, the nominations can't be redone (if they could, here's my take on how that might look) and all that's left to do is count down the days until Rock slices them to ribbons on national television with his famously sharp wit.

In an effort to find something useful to say, I went through the Oscar nominees for the last couple of decades. Before last year, the Oscars hadn't had a "so white" year since 1997. Now all of a sudden it happens two years in a row - what changed? The only major changes have been to the Best Picture category. The new "preferential" voting that can produce anywhere from 5 to 10 nominees depending on the enthusiasm behind individual films makes it especially hard to predict. Why not just have 10 nominees each year? Well, they did that for a while but changed the rules to this variable format to avoid nominees that looked like filler. Still, one person's filler is another person's overlooked masterpiece and in a year like this, I can't help but wonder what the other two films would have been.

One problem that nobody else seems to be talking about is that the idea of what constitutes an "Oscar movie" has become so rigid. When minority actors do win, it tends to be the same way that white actors do - by playing a real person in a middlebrow drama, preferably one with some kind of physical or mental ailment and if possible, British. Jamie Foxx won Best Actor for playing Ray Charles in Ray, Forrest Whitaker won for playing Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. These were "Oscar movies," regardless of the color of the actors. But wouldn't it be nice if these folks could get some recognition for great work that didn't involve pandering to the extremely specific tastes of the old honky demographic? People often say that there aren't enough good roles out there for actors of color, and that's true, but let's not let the Academy off too easily. There are still enough to show up in at least one of these categories.

This year, I've heard people express surprise that Straight Outta Compton, a biopic about the early days of N.W.A., didn't get a Best Picture nomination. Its quality aside, I could have told you months ago that no movie that features a song called "Fuck the Police" was ever going to be a big player at the Academy Awards. Therein lies the problem. The entire yearly awards process has become designed around the fogey-friendly type of film. Every year, about fifteen movies right up their alley get released right before the ball drops in Times Square and the attitude is "these are the only important movies of the past year - choose among them." Meanwhile, the preceding eleven and a half months worth of movies are lucky to have anything represented. Until they get out of this rut and actually try to make the Oscars a real celebration of a year in film and not just the two weeks before New Year's Day, this won't change. In that light, a summer action film like Mad Max getting so many nominations is actually a small step in the right direction.

But enough of that for now. There are approximately 100 billion thinkpieces out there about this topic if you're interested. We're here to predict winners so let's get down to it.

Best Animated Feature
Boy and the World
Inside Out
Shaun the Sheep
When Marnie Was There

Who Will Win: Even though I've been ragging on the Academy for their lazy approach to the job, I do get the sense that the people who vote in this category really do make an effort to see all the year's animated films. The results speak for themselves. Such a great list of movies makes me wish it were more competitive this year, but the critically acclaimed smash hit Inside Out is the likely winner. Against a weaker Pixar film, Charlie Kaufman's stop-motion Anomalisa or Studio Ghibli's haunting When Marnie Was There could have upset, but that's not the case here at all.

My Choice: I could come up with arguments for any of these films to deserve the prize, but Inside Out is an instant classic that has strongly resonated with millions of people in a way you don't see that often. There's something so humane and universal about that movie and the win will be richly deserved.

Best Documentary Feature
Cartel Land
The Look of Silence
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom

Who Will Win: Regardless of the results, the real winner here might be Netflix. The streaming service's exclusive documentaries have been nominated three years in a row and this time there are two in contention (the "W" ones). However, Netflix has yet to actually take home an Oscar and this time around it looks like the winner will be Amy, an archetypal "gone too soon" look at an artist's tragic life that's practically tailor-made for the Oscar voters. The closest competition is The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer's second examination of Indonesians trying to cope with the lingering impact of the 1960s genocide while the killers remain in power. While highly acclaimed and truly brilliant, I fear it will suffer the same fate as its predecessor - The Act of Killing - it will be deemed too upsetting and lose to a movie about popular music. The story of Amy Winehouse is certainly sad but it doesn't go to the same dark places.

My Choice: First, it must be said: the lack of a nomination for the terrifying Scientology expose Going Clear shows just how much pull the cult still has over Hollywood. But even if it were nominated, I'd be rooting for The Look of Silence. People literally risked their lives to get this film made and to draw attention to a massive crime against humanity that the perpetrators have almost succeeded in making the world forget. History won't be kind to the Academy for not recognizing its impact when they had the chance.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Charles Randolph and Adam McKay for The Big Short
Nick Hornby for Brooklyn
Phyllis Nagy for Carol
Drew Goddard for The Martian
Emma Donoghue for Room

Who Will Win: The preliminary writing awards this season have favored the writers of The Big Short, a movie which combines detailed explanations of financial malfeasance with fourth wall-breaking gags to create a unique take on the 2008 economic collapse. In particular, the righteous anger in the film's final scenes leaves a strong impression. To win, it will have to fend off a strong challenge from Room, adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own novel. The first half of the storyline, which takes place entirely inside a tiny shed, isn't the most cinematic concept but she made it work. Close call, but I'm going with The Big Short.

My Choice: A lot of good writing here, but I think I would give it to Carol. Nagy's screenplay manages to convey a lot about the inner lives of the characters without ever being wordy or obvious (helped along considerably by the actresses of course).

Best Original Screenplay
Matt Charman, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen for Bridge of Spies
Alex Garland for Ex Machina
Pete Docter, Meg LaFauve and Josh Cooley for Inside Out
Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy for Spotlight
Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff for Straight Outta Compton

Who Will Win: The sole nomination for the aforementioned Straight Outta Compton is for its two white screenwriters. This is like a criminal begging to get caught. As far as the winner goes, I would bet on Spotlight, which expertly turns a highly detailed journalistic investigation into riveting movie magic. Sometimes this category has a hip, contemporary streak and that could favor an upset for Ex Machina. Still, it's unlikely that Spotlight will go home empty-handed and this is its best chance for a win.

My Choice: Spotlight is excellent but if it were up to me, that statue would be going to Inside Out. It felt like with every scene, the writers had found something new and fascinating to do with the mental landscape that served as the film's setting.

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara in Carol
Rachel McAdams in Spotlight
Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs

Who Will Win: At the very first Academy Awards in 1929, Janet Gaynor won Best Actress for her work in three films - Sunrise, 7th Heaven and Street Angel. It wasn't long before the Academy settled on the "one actor, one movie" convention but sometimes appreciation for a larger body of work can influence the votes. That's the best reason I can come up with as to why Alicia Vikander is poised to win for The Danish Girl, a by-the-numbers piece of Oscar bait that hasn't even inspired much enthusiasm among the people it was tailor-made for. Vikander appeared in a number of movies this year, the most significant of which was Ex Machina. I suspect that movie came within striking distance of a Best Picture nomination and her spooky performance as a humanoid robot was easily the highlight, making it a big influence on this category's results despite not actually being nominated. Kate Winslet has also taken some trophies this season for Steve Jobs, but I think most people are sick of the endless worship of this man regardless of how good she and the movie might be.

My Choice: Rooney Mara, although it was clearly a leading role and she has no business competing in this category. It's become a common practice among studios to dump leading roles (usually female) in this category to avoid tougher competition. So common that it now has a name - "category fraud." It's a shame her work was compromised by this sleazy maneuvering because she was the heart and soul of that movie.

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale in The Big Short
Tom Hardy in The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight
Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone in Creed

Who Will Win: This category's been a wild ride. Just about every Oscar pundit (including me, if I am deserving of such a title) was sure Idris Elba would be nominated for his epic performance as a depraved African warlord in Beasts of No Nation. Clearly we all underestimated the strength of #OscarsSoWhite cause here we are and he's not here. However, he was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award and despite the huge amount of overlapping membership, SAG embarrassed the Academy by giving Elba the honor (and making the most reliable indicator for this category's results not helpful this time). Early in the season, the favored nominee was Mark Rylance for his enigmatic spy Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies. His momentum has since been eclipsed by Sylvester Stallone, who returned to his classic role of Rocky Balboa, now training Apollo Creed's son. Say what you will about Stallone's career as a whole but he knows this character. Rocky is one of the most beloved characters in film history and yet Stallone never won an Oscar for bringing him to life. I don't think the voters are going to be able to resist. Expect Chris Rock to make some variation of the following joke - "They made a black Rocky movie and the only one that got nominated was White Rocky!"

My Choice: I think it's shameful that Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler weren't nominated, but it isn't Stallone's fault and I can't root against Rocky.

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett in Carol
Brie Larson in Room
Jennifer Lawrence in Joy
Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

Who Will Win: Brie Larson has been a steamroller during the preliminary awards and shows no signs of slowing down. As usual with this category, the competition's not all that inspiring. Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lawrence might as well be given permanent nominations at this point while hardly anyone has seen Charlotte Rampling's movie. Larson's only formidable opponent is Saoirse Ronan, whose enchanting performance in a much less disturbing film surely has fans among the voters. An upset is possible in theory but don't bet on it.

My Choice: Brie Larson is the real deal and an extraordinary talent. Anyone impressed by Room owes it to themselves to check out her performance as a youth counselor in Short Term 12.

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston in Trumbo
Matt Damon in The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant
Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl

Who Will Win: It looks like the sixth time will be the charm for Leonardo DiCaprio. The Revenant's publicity machine has gone nuts with stories painting the film's shoot as an Apocalypse Now-esque ordeal where Leo ate livers in the bitter cold for the sake of his art. It's very silly but it seems to have worked. Can anyone beat him? Matt Damon is too funny in The Martian and didn't eat nearly enough livers. Michael Fassbender has the misfortune of being in a movie that nobody wanted to see but was made anyway for some reason...and he also didn't eat enough livers. If Eddie Redmayne hadn't won just last year, he'd be a serious threat. That guy has mastered the art of Oscar baiting very quickly and I'm sure he's already in negotiations for a movie about a famous liver-eating Englishman with restless leg syndrome. As for Bryan Cranston, I suppose there could be some cathartic value in giving him an Oscar for playing a blacklisted screenwriter who had to compete for an Oscar under a false name during the height of the Red Scare...but the role's lack of liver-eating works against him. This is Leo's year, folks. Enjoy the memes while you still can.

My Choice: I may be teasing him, but DiCaprio's given a lot of great performances and he deserves this at some point. Still, I prefer Cranston out of this group. The movie was average but he really dug deep.

Best Director
Lenny Abrahamson for Room
Alejandro G. Inarritu for The Revenant
Tom McCarthy for Spotlight
Adam McKay for The Big Short
George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road

Who Will Win: This has been another highly unpredictable category. The early prediction was that Ridley Scott would win his first Oscar for The Martian, but then he didn't show up in the final five. Scott did get nominated for the telltale Directors Guild award but that went to Inarritu, who just won all these awards last year for Birdman. I wouldn't have thought this a month ago, but it looks like Inarritu will be the first person in 65 years to win this category two years in a row. The only other directors to ever pull this off are John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Quite an accomplishment.

My Choice: George Miller. The amount of mayhem on display in Mad Max was amazing to behold and it was all done with real vehicles and explosions. Everyone talks about how tough it was to make The Revenant but they didn't even use a real bear! Try shooting a movie in the desert about flipping spiked cars and guys flying through the air on stilts and eating livers might not seem quite as impressive. At least Miller already has an Oscar, but not for this category. He took home one for Best Animated Feature as the director of Happy Feet.

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Who Will Win: The toughest category of the night and the trickiest race in at least ten years. Typically you look for a consensus among the various guilds when trying to pick this category, but that's no help this year. The Producers Guild went with The Big Short, the Screen Actors Guild picked Spotlight and the Directors Guild chose The Revenant. It's safe to say it's going to be one of these three, but which one? It's a tough call. The Big Short is an incredibly relevant film in an election year but it's also hilarious and comedy doesn't do so well at the Oscars. Spotlight has a lot more gravitas and a win would be a moving gesture of solidarity for all the victims of abuse by Catholic priests. Yet I can't shake the feeling that everything is coalescing around The Revenant. It surprises me because underneath all its gorgeous cinematography is a pretty basic revenge plot, but all the "liver eating" coverage makes it look like a tribute to the craft of filmmaking and overcoming major challenges to get your vision on the screen. That's my guess and while I may sound sure of myself, I'm not. This could be the first time I've been wrong about Best Picture since 2006, when I incorrectly predicted that Little Miss Sunshine would score an upset victory. We'll see how it plays out.

My Choice: My opinion is as follows - Spotlight > Room > The Big Short > Mad Max > Bridge of Spies > The Martian > Brooklyn > The Revenant. Maybe it's all the coverage of this year's controversies talking but all I can think of are the great films that didn't make it this far. I'll always enjoy predicting the Oscars no matter how out of touch they are, but as a film buff, I can't help but hope they expand their horizons in the coming years.