Friday, January 17, 2014

Oscars 2013: Early Commentary and Predictions

It's that time again: time to predict this year's Oscars! The nominations were announced yesterday, and there are six weeks until the awards on March 2. As always, here is the summary of how I have fared over my years of publishing my predictions:

2004: 7/9, missed Picture and Original Screenplay
2005: 7/9, missed Picture and Supporting Actress
2006: 5/9, missed Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Animated Feature
2007: 6/9, missed Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay
2008: 8/9, missed Actor
2009: 6/9, missed Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Screenplay
2010: 7/9, missed Director and Original Screenplay
2011: 8/9, missed Actress
2012: 6/9, missed Director, Supporting Actor, and Animated Feature

So, over nine years of prognosticating, I have an accuracy rate of 60 out of 81, or 74% across the board, and aside from Picture and Original Screenplay, I'm happy with my success rate. Breaking it down by category, it evens out a little bit over the past nine years, as I have accurately predicted 7/9 correctly for each category except for the aforementioned Best Picture (5/9 correct) and Best Original Screenplay (6/9).

The overall picture

In all, it seems like it will be an interesting Oscar season. The best historical comparison (other than last year) might be 1975, which featured a blockbuster film with special effects (Jaws), a dark dramatic ensemble comedy (Robert Altman's Nashville), an epic period film (Barry Lyndon), an edgy satirical thriller (Dog Day Afternoon), and the winner, the stark character-driven drama One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. It's remarkably similar to the types of films from this year, and like the past several years (2009-2012, with the exception of 2011), it was part of a great string of years of film (1972-1977); just consider The Artist like The Sting in 1973, and the comparison works a lot better. At any rate, this is a good year for the Oscars and for cinephiles like myself, and it should be a good competition over the next six weeks.

Overall, the nominations actually seem mostly balanced and accurately reflective of the year that it was at the movies. There is a mostly healthy mix of movies with critical and commercial favor, and very few unjustifiable omissions (though some are necessary to validate the process, as I argued a month ago). Analysts will point to a number of under-recognized movies, but some of those never had the real juice to get more than a token nomination or two (Enough Said, Fruitvale Station, Rush), some were movies that seemed like Oscar fodder but were seen for the kind of pandering fare that they really represented (Saving Mr. Banks, August: Osage County, and Lee Daniels' The Butler), and some were genuine surprises (Inside Llewyn Davis, maybe Blue Jasmine with only three nominations). What it really all amounts to is that 2013 was, like 2009, 2010, and 2012, a good year for movies, and that in a good year that it is really not an easy task to pick the best five (or nine) of a category). Here are some of my initial thoughts on the races this year.

Best Picture

There are nine nominees again for the third year in a row, although they can be divided (roughly) into three categories: the "just happy to be there and get more people to see this movie" category (Her, Philomena, and Dallas Buyers Club); the "movies with enough critical or commercial success to secure a nomination, but not to win" (Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Captain Phillips); and the frontrunners that actually have a chance of winning (Gravity, American Hustle, and 12 Years a Slave). As I mentioned earlier, it's a little surprising to see a couple of the nominees here, but it seems difficult to argue that any of the nominated films should not be there.

It will be a three picture race, each of which represents a different element of Oscar-ness. Gravity is the only Picture not nominated for Screenplay (which is accurate), but it represents the movies as an experience; my hunch is that it will be awarded elsewhere. 12 Years a Slave is the "important" movie that is indicative of the significance of the cinema as artistic and historical discourse. And then there's American Hustle, the movie that best perhaps balances critical and commercial and popular acceptance, the kind of defining work that is almost always awarded with an Oscar, and should be the prohibitive favourite, except for one factor.

The biggest thing going against American Hustle is not its own content, nor anything to do with this year: it's recent history. Consider that last year, the Academy passed over a significantly somber epic film about slavery (Lincoln) to award a plucky, character-driven, dark comedy set in the 1970s involving con artists, polyester pants, and a lot of humourously placed F-bombs (Argo). It's an eerily similar echo this year between Slave and Hustle, and I think that Hustle would win in almost any other year, save for the fact that Argo won just a year ago in response to needing to "lighten" up a bit. Hustle could still win, as it has the feel of an "edgy" Best Picture and there might be backlash to Slave as the established Oscar-type movie, but my early gut feeling is that Slave is going to pull into the lead.

Main Creative Awards

Director: Unlike last year's snub-fest, this year's nominees seem to all be "deserving" of the nomination, and there's no one really on the outs. I was disappointed to not see Spike Jonze get a nomination for Her, as it would have validated his comeback, as well as the complete artistic control he exercised over the only true science-fiction nominee of the year. But the crew includes a couple of auteurs who have been/will be awarded in other ways (Payne and Russell), the ever-present Scorsese, and the two who will contend: Steve McQueen, the young auteur who finally made a film that the Academy could nominate; and the clear leader and eventual winner, Alfonso Cuaron, who directed Gravity within an inch of its life. Cuaron is established in Hollywood, has been regrettably passed over for nominations in the past (2006's Children of Men), and represents a segment of directors from Mexico and South America that has been growing in stature and influence in the past decade.

Screenplay (Original and Adapted): Eight of the nine Best Picture nominees are represented here, but there is one of the Best Picture frontrunners in each category, so it's a fait accompli. John Ridley will win Adapted Screenplay for his work on 12 Years a Slave, and David O. Russell (along with his co-writer Eric Warren Singer) will win a well-deserved Original Screenplay award for American Hustle, although it will also be acknowledgement of his body of work over the past four years (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle have all been nominated for Picture, Director, Screenplay, and they have a total of 11 Acting nominations. I don't think anyone has ever had this kind of a run, ever).

Animated Feature: This should come down to a battle between the super-popular Despicable Me 2 and honouring Hayao Miyazaki's career and retirement with a win for The Wind Rises. Miyazaki has won before, but I think that The Wind Rises will win this year.

Acting Awards

Actor: This is easily the hardest category to call this year. The fact that the actors not nominated (Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Forest Whitaker, Oscar Isaac, and Joaquin Phoenix) could have just as easily comprised the list of nominees is telling about just how incredible this year's competition has already been. In the end, it turned out that they had their balance of star power, racial and age differences, newcomers and established Oscar stars. Bale is here on the sheer ballsiness of his performance, and Dern is the token veteran nomination. The wild card is Ojiofor, though I think this is not where Slave will receive its laurels. The real battle is between the two big stars who both delivered iconic roles and managed to overcome their personas to create memorable characters. Will the voters go for McConaughey and validate the so-called "McConaissance", or will they finally give a long overdue award for DiCaprio for his darkly comic work? It's a toss up at this point, but I think they might go light after honouring "serious" work in the past few years. This

Actress: Although the nominees were all very predictable (the only "surprise" was Emma Thompson's omission and Amy Adams' inclusion, though Adams definitely deserves it) and in some ways this award seems all but locked up for Cate Blanchett, there are still some things to consider here. Adams has her fifth nomination in nine years (!), but this is her first as a lead, and I don't think it's her time yet. Streep is out, since she just won in 2011, and not everyone liked her scene-chewing. That leaves Blanchett to compete with fellow former winners Bullock and Dench. Bullock is the only one of the three to have won Best Actress, but if Hilary Swank is any lesson, the Academy is more than willing to award incredible performances regardless of how recent the last win might have been. Dench and Blanchett both won for Supporting performances (Dench in 1998 for Shakespeare in Love and Blanchett in 2004 for The Aviator), so history's not a factor. It will come down to whether the Academy chooses to give Dench the one last award she arguably deserves. Blanchett is the favourite, but Dench (or even Bullock) could sneak this one out with a strong campaign over the next month.

Supporting Actor: This might be the easiest category to pick, as Jared Leto is the clear favourite for Dallas Buyers Club. There's not even really any other possible winners, as Abdi is the outsider and Hill, Fassbender, and Cooper all seem to have lots of work left in them.

Supporting Actress: It comes down to the two front-running pictures, here represented by Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) and Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave). That Lawrence is considered only a year removed from winning Best Actress speaks to her incredible performance (which, like Bale's and the entire movie, speaks to the raw power of Hustle, which overcomes its shortcomings to become something much greater than its parts), but I think that this is the kind of year in which this category will go to a newcomer, as it often does. Nyong'o is that kind of fresh face that can be anointed, so count this one for her.

Other Awards

Original Song and Score: Original Score seems destined for Gravity because everyone listened to it so intently. Original Song - AKA the most inscrutable category of the Awards - is almost as easy to pick this year. Although Pharrell Williams has had an incredible year, I think he'll come up short to the juggernaut that is U2. They lost out, deservedly, to Eminem's "Lose Yourself" in 2002 with the bland "The Hands That Built America" from Gangs of New York, but this year's "Ordinary Love" is an incredible song that voters will not be able to deny. It's U2 at its late-career best, and Bono and company deserve the recognition not only for their work in this film but for how they have worked with film over three decades, whether in creating concert experiences on film (Rattle & Hum), pioneering 3D technology (U2 3D), contributing creatively to writing films (The Million-Dollar Hotel), or even just having their songs featured prominently in movies. It's time for U2 to fill in the O in their EGOT.

Technical Awards: I fully expect that these categories will be dominated by the three front-running films, with a couple of unexpected surprises. I was surprised that American Hustle was not nominated for Makeup and Hairstyling, though, as appearances were so important to that entire film. Gravity will win Cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki because the film was so incredible but also as recompense for his snub for Tree of Life in 2011, and Gravity should also win Visual Effects. More on these awards closer to the date of the Oscars.

Wrapping it up

I have only seen two of the nine nominated films: Gravity and American Hustle. On my list to see, then, are most of the rest of the major nominees: 12 Years A Slave, Her, Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips, and perhaps Philomena and Dallas Buyers Club if I have time. I also need to fit Inside Llewyn Davis in there, as I'm a huge Coen fan, so I figure that I have to average one movie a week over the next six weeks to see the majority before the end of February. The good thing is that I'll actually be enjoying most of these films, as many of them come from some of my favourite filmmakers and star some of my favourite actors. To the cinema!

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