Birdman is my new Oscar nemesis, and it's my own fault. In picking the Oscars this year, I backed Boyhood over Birdman, and I ended up with my worst year of Oscar picking yet (4/9 on the major awards, although I did get 17/24 overall). I underestimated the Academy and the Guilds, and I thought I knew better; apparently, I don't. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that the Academy would choose a self-referential meta-movie somewhat-superhero comedy this year, approximately five years (or more) into the general introduction of those subgenres and styles. Birdman (for which I refuse to use the full parenthetical title) encapsulates the Academy's current direction perfectly, and I think it will come to represent the mid-2010s accurately. I don't know if it will be considered a "good" movie in the long run, but it will be noted for its notoriety.
But in reviewing my picks and my process in the wake of this prognosticational catastrophe (which is admittedly a tad overdramatic), I realized that not all is lost, and that I am better off than I might have thought despite my poor showing. As soon as Birdman won the Original Screenplay award last night, I realized the error of my ways and that I had actually violated all of my rules in picking against it this year. So, for future years of picking, I have decided to write out my rules for the Oscars so that I can return to this post and hopefully not make the same mistakes again.
1. Don't be contrarian in your picks and trust the Guilds. I tried to out think the recent trend toward Birdman and I didn't trust the Guilds, all of which pointed to Birdman's victory. Each award other than Best Picture is selected by its guild, so it makes sense that most of the same winners appear on both lists.
Since 1950, only seven winners for Best Director from the Director's Guild have not won the Oscar. In the 25 years the Producers' Guild has given the award, only seven have not won Best Picture at the Oscars, and they have lined up for seven years in a row. (Those seven included two of the more controversial Oscar wins in the 1990s (Braveheart and Shakespeare in Love) and a stretch of three in a row from 2004-2006 that differed.) The Writer's Guild does not often vary widely, as there has been only once (2002) in the past 30 years which neither WGA winner has repeated their Oscar. The current trend of only one of the two winning (as has happened in five of the past six years) was preceded by five years in a row in which both screenplays repeated, so it's a good bet to choose at least one. (Just choose the right one; this year, I missed both Screenplays because I chose Wes Anderson (WGA winner for Original Screenplay) over Graham Moore (WGA winner for Adapted Screenplay) as the Oscar winner, rather than the other (correct) way around.) The Screen Actors' Guild similarly lines up with the eventual winners.
2. Don't choose subtlety. The Oscars rarely reward subtlety, instead choosing the much more ostentatious showy kind of movies and performances. It's especially obvious in the acting categories (as it has been for many years), but it's clear in all major categories. Birdman was not subtle; Boyhood was.
3. Never underestimate the power of "the narrative" for the year. The effect of the period from October to the awards should not be underestimated, and so it makes sense that most of the winners are released in this period of the year. Birdman took on a life of its own in December and January, and it became clear that it was the leader despite Boyhood's early prospects. The narrative essentially wrote itself - Michael Keaton's comeback, the innovative nature of the film, the meta-analysis of Hollywood - and it fulfilled its destiny with its win.
4. Don't overestimate the long term possible ramifications. I often get sucked into considering the overall perspective and the legacy of the movies selected, and it's always wrong. The only history that really matters, other than the narrative for the year, is very recent history (ie. the past two or three years), rather than the future. Voters don't care how the pick is perceived in the future; they only care that they don't really dwell on the past (unless, of course, they are remembering it nostalgically, as in The Artist). Last year's win for 12 Years a Slave meant that should have been no surprise that a more comedic film took the award this year.
5. Don't overthink it. When in doubt, just go with your first (informed) guess; think of what Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Blink. I know the Oscars well, and my first thought was Birdman for Best Picture; I talked myself out of it by convincing myself that Boyhood had more support and that it made the better picture in the Oscar legacy and violating every rule I have. I overthought my choice, and I paid the consequences. (Granted, I still would only have had 6/9 correct, rather than 4, but it would have been somewhat respectable.)
Bonus rule for Best Animated Feature only: If there's a toss up between nominees, choose Disney/Pixar first, then pick the highest-grossing movie, then go for the most recent nominee, and avoid sequels (unless they obey the first two rules, like Toy Story 3 in 2010). In the 15 years of the award, the highest-grossing nominee has won ten times, and Disney/Pixar have won nine times, including seven of the past eight. (The only Pixar movies to lose were Monsters Inc. to Shrek in 2001 and Cars to Happy Feet in 2006.) Recency and popularity seem to matter more in this category than others, so default to the top earner if there's any confusion. With this in mind, the early bet for next year is Pixar's Inside Out, so mark it in now.
Other observations on this year's Oscars
- This was a highly politically charged ceremony, despite indications that it might not be due to the (somewhat correctly perceived) lack of diversity. Suicide, veterans' rights, wage equality, homosexuality, incarceration rates, immigration, and Alzheimer's and ALS were all raised as issues in speeches and presentations, and despite the mostly inward focus of the Academy itself, its members were looking outward.
- I know people have had issues with the telecast for years, but this year's fell particularly flat, which seemed mostly due to Neil Patrick Harris. NPH might be the new equivalent of Letterman, a comedian whose talents simply do not translate to the Oscar stage. Here's a thought: what about Jon Stewart hosting again next year? He won't have much to do with his resignation from The Daily Show, and his turn as host in 2008 was unfairly maligned (I thought he was hilarious.) If not Stewart, maybe it's time for Jimmy Fallon to host with The Roots as the house band?
- There are 24 categories, which break down into basic groupings: Picture; 4 for Acting; 5 for the craft of filming (Directing, Cinematography, Writing x2, and Editing); 6 Production (Production Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Costumes, Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing); 2 for music (Score and Song); and 6 in specialized categories (2 Documentary - long and short, Animated, Foreign, and 2 Short - live action and animated). I'm not the first to ask for categories to be examined, but I still think that there are a couple of changes to be made. Present the three awards for short films before the ceremony and just tell us about them to take the total awards down to 21. And finally combine Sound Mixing and Sound Editing into "Best Sound" to bring the total awards from Production down to 5 and 20 televised awards. I'm still in favour of the possibility of a Best Cast or a Best Use of Existing Media (music/movies/TV) in a Film to round things out (which would also make a fascinating blog post to examine sometime), but just make the cuts to the bloated telecast already (along with the song after the In Memoriam montage - that just needs to go).
- Aside from the surprise of American Sniper, the gulf between Oscar movies and popular movies is as large (if not larger) than it ever has been, and Birdman is the perfect example of the kind of movie that exists for the Oscars and not for the people watching the Oscars. My perception is that most viewers were disconnected from these movies, as they were in 2011 when The Artist won, or in 2008, which was the last time that there were only five nominees for Best Picture and that The Dark Knight and Wall-E were famously omitted despite commercial appeal, critical success, and eight and six nominations respectively. That means that our current cycle seems to be two mostly good years and then one not as good year, which means that 2015 and 2016 should be good before 2017 takes another tumble.
- In terms of the legacy of the year overall for movies and Oscars, I think it will rank high in the middle third of the modern Oscars since, say, 1969 - good, but not great. It would be interesting to try to rank the years sometime according to criteria such as the overall quality of nominees, the satisfaction of the winners, and the general sentiment about the movies of the year. (I don't know that anything could beat 1972, but 1991 and 1994 might come close. Another hypothetical exercise for a future post, perhaps.)