There's something in the seemingly arbitrary nature of the Academy Awards that makes it so interesting each year. The Oscars have their own system of logic that is both predictable and surprising at times, and it intrigues me every year to see how the system presents itself. There is a temptation to label some movies "Oscar movies", as if there is a monolithic definition of what constitutes that kind of a movie. What we often forget is that each branch nominates its films separately, and that it's often as much of a surprise to the filmmakers when they receive several nominations. Each branch has its own idiosyncracies, and each film stands on its own merits within each field of expertise. Of course, there is a fairly limited pool of films from which many of these nominations are derived, as in any given year, there are around twenty films that are part of the discussion in the final quarter of the year to qualify for the main awards (excluding the documentary, foreign language, and animated categories save for the very few films that exceed those limitations). There are always a few other films that qualify for one or two of the technical categories (ie. make up, costume design, visual effects), but they really are not part of the "conversation" as it stands. A brief count of this year's reveals seventeen films that are in contention, though some are significantly less widely nominated than might have been expected at one time (Moonrise Kingdom, for example). While it's true that there are "Oscar movies", the kind of movies that have wide enough appeal and high enough quality to be considered for the awards, this relatively limited number is more indicative of a parallel to critical success. In the past twenty years, there has been an increasing number of movies that are nominated without having commercial success, though popular acceptance is still an effective tool for determining which movies could be considered. Each year, there are a few determined proponents of films with a narrower appeal or audience that are advocated as possibilities - take 2011's Shame, Melancholia, Margaret, or Martha Marcy May Marlene - though even the critics who discuss those films claim them as longshots. These are often considered "snubs", even though these films did not garner the kind of momentum necessary to be nominated. As a result, there are arguably very few "snubs" - movies that could or should have been nominated but were not; the main example in 2011 was Drive. In any year, there are always a few films that don't make it, but that's part of the fun of the whole enterprise. This year's conversation struck up anew yesterday with the announcement of this year's nominees, which were particularly interesting given the strong quality of films in 2012 (as opposed to the wasteland of 2011). With all of these thoughts about the awards in mind, here is my initial breakdown of the major categories for 2012.
Best Picture: It is interesting that of the twenty or so films that now fully ten or twelve of them are considered for Best Picture, rather than being limited to a range of five to seven. In the past three years, it has seemed that this category has been too inclusive, allowing films that seemed to have little "right" to be there. There has also been a relatively clear distinction between the top five films (ie the movies that would have been nominated even before the expansion of nominations in 2009) and the "other films". That distinction began to erode last year, though it still seemed like the overall system was still in place. It feels like this year was the first time that the Academy has really started to figure out nominating more than five movies, and it is also the first year since expanding the category that there have been "legimate" snubs - in this case, The Master and Moonrise Kingdom, both of which I was hoping would be nominated despite the swing in critical attitude toward them in recent months. For the first time, the distinction between the five "have" movies and the "other nominees" is not nearly as clear as determined by other nominations. The nine nominees can be categorized in four ways: there are the little movies that should be happy just to be there (Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild.) There is the token comedic nominee that rarely wins but is often present (Silver Linings Playbook). Then there are the more typical "Oscar favourites", which can be broken into two categories according to yesterday's nominations: the now-deposed previous favourites, including Argo, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, and Zero Dark Thirty; and the two remaining clear front-runners: Life of Pi and the current favourite Lincoln. The reason for the change? Each of the four deposed films were not nominated for Best Director; only one movie in the past eighty years has won Best Picture without at least a nomination for its director. That movie was 1989's Driving Miss Daisy, which is widely regarded as one of the worst selections in modern history. At this point, Lincoln is the clear favourite: it is a non-threatening movie with wide appeal commercially, critically, and technically. Life of Pi has an outside chance, but I think it would need a significant shift to pull ahead of Spielberg's opus.
Best Director: The list of non-nominees is as impressive as the list of nominees: Ben Affleck, Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow, and Tom Hooper were the significant omissions (though I would argue that P.T. Anderson and Wes Anderson might have also been considered). Bigelow and Hooper - winners in 2009 and 2010, respectively - are particularly puzzling, as both of their films have been lauded for their direction. QT has been nominated twice as a director without winning (though he has won as a screenwriter), and his omission seems strange considering how much his movie(s) reflect his direction. Affleck seemed destined to have made it as a director this year, but it seems his recognition will have to wait. So with those four out of the picture, the five actual nominees seem almost pedestrian. Zeitlin's inclusion is his victory, though it is still deserved. Haneke should win for foreign language picture and Lee has won relatively recently (2005). That leaves two nominees of very different films: David O. Russell was a surprise nominee, and it is more rare that intimate personal films can win for directing; Steven Spielberg is the clear favourite here to win his third award, though it would be his first in fifteen years.
Best Actor: The list consists of two first-time nominees (Cooper and Jackman) and three veterans (Washington, Day-Lewis, and Phoenix). The clear leader here is Lincoln's Daniel Day-Lewis to win an unprecedented third Best Actor award; it seems that the power of such an iconic performance is hard to deny. The only possible competition would be Phoenix, whose performance was riveting, though it seems more likely that his hour will come later.
Best Actress: The competition here seems to be between the two young leading ladies, Lawrence and Chastain. Either could win, depending on the next few weeks. I haven't seen either film yet, so I think I have to reserve some judgement, but if I had to pick one right now, I'd say Chastain will win. Then again, Lawrence's performance could be honoured as a way to award something to Silver Linings Playbook...
Best Supporting Actor: Each nominee has won an Academy Award before (which I think is an Oscar first), which makes this a veteran's category. Hoffman, Waltz, and Arkin have all won in recent history, so it would be surprising for any of them to win. De Niro hasn't been nominated since 1991, and it seems possible that this nomination could be seen as a way of giving him a lifetime award. Then again, Jones won twenty years ago, and his performance, like Day-Lewis', seems so iconic that it would be hard to see him losing.
Best Supporting Actress: All the contenders have been nominated before, but this category comes down to one question: do actors resent Anne Hathaway as much as some of the public does? If they do, then she doesn't win; if they recognize what she was able to do with Fantine, then she wins. I think her main competition is Sally Field, but it would be a shock if Hathaway did not win.
Best Original Screenplay: It seems entirely possible that there could be an upset here and that Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola might win against three scripts from Best Picture nominated films. Anderson has been nominated for two other films, and I could easily see the writers giving him his due. I think his main competition is Quentin Tarantino, but I think Anderson just might do it.
Best Adapted Screenplay: All five nominees were nominated for Best Picture, and Les Misérables was the only Best Pic nominees not given its due in writing. Lincoln again seems like the front-runner, particularly considering the general agreement of the difficulty present in adapting it for the screen, though it seems possible that David O. Russell will get his acknowledgement for Silver Linings Playbook. I think it will probably be Tony Kushner for Lincoln, though.
Best Animated Feature: I think this is the first time I have not seen any of the five nominated movies, so it makes it hard to discuss the nominees. Usually, I wouldn't bet against Pixar, but I don't think Brave will do it this year. Other than that, this category is wide open; my early hunch is that Frankenweenie might pull into the lead so that Tim Burton can get an Oscar, but I'll see what I think after viewing other movies.
Song and Score: The competition for Song would seem to be between Adele's "Skyfall" and the new song from Les Mis. It could go either way. The only thought I have on the Score category is that I wish they had nominated Benh Zeitlin to make a historic triad of nominations (Director, Writer, and Composer).
Technical categories: It seems that Argo, Life of Pi, and Lincoln will likely each get a couple of statues here, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Skyfall pick up a couple of awards too.
Overall, I think we're headed for Lincoln to win six or seven awards, with a relatively even distribution among the other major players. Although there seems like there is some inevitability to Lincoln's domination, there are still more awards in question than last year's snoozefest. It's interesting that no Best Picture nominee received fewer than four nominations, so there will be a few that will be shut out; my best guesses are that Beasts of the Southern Wild and Django Unchained might not win any awards, and that Argo and Life of Pi may only manage a couple of technical trophies. Before the ceremonies air, I really want to see Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty (in that order), with Amour, Flight, and all five of the animated feature nominees also on my radar to see eventually. It should be a fun year!