Wednesday, February 20, 2013

2013 Oscar picks and predictions

Conventional wisdom is out the window with this year's Academy Awards. If you're a film lover who likes to see the Oscars spread around to the most deserving winners instead of steamrolled into the lap of a dominant film, then 2013 is bound to be one of the most exciting years ever.

If you're in the prognosticating business of predicting who will win, though, it becomes something of a nightmare.

With no "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" or "The King's Speech" guaranteed a certain number of wins, it turns each race into a shifting landscape. Technical awards that usually follow a leading film are in flux with no clear favorite. Movies that emerged early as contenders have fallen by the wayside, while dark horses -- "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Amour," "Life of Pi" -- racked up an impressive number of nominations.

This year's nominations will probably be remembered as much for the number of glaring omissions as who actually takes home the statuette. I'm still waiting for an explanation on why John Hawkes didn't get an acting nod for "The Sessions."

So here are my annual picks and predictions. I generally get around 60% to 70% of the categories right, but I have a feeling my batting average is going to be lower this year.

As usual I'll make my prediction of who I think WILL win the award and my pick of who I think SHOULD win. Where appropriate I'll suggest nominee(s) who didn't get a nod who deserved to -- and I'll even tell you whose place they should take.

I'm also going to try something new with a backup prediction. Since this is a helter-skelter year, I'll try to demonstrate my prowess by selecting who will win if my pick is wrong. On the one hand, it gives me a safety net -- if my backup pick wins, I can say that I got it right the second time. Of course, if I whiff with two tries, you'll know I'm not as hot of an Oscar Nostradamus as I thought.

Best Picture

 "Argo" will win Best Picture.

Just a few weeks ago when the nominations for the Academy Awards came out, I would have told you that any chance of Ben Affleck's dramatic thriller taking the top prize went down the tubes the moment he failed to make the short list for Best Director. It is exceedingly rare for a film to win Best Picture without its director being recognized. The last time was "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1990. Before that, you'd have to go back to the early days of the Academy to find another.

Going into the awards season, it seemed like a three-way race for Best Picture, with "Argo" joined by "Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty." But when Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow were surprised shutouts for Best Director, it seemed to leave the field open for "Lincoln." If anything, it set up "Silver Linings Playbook" as the stalking horse, based on its surprisingly strong showing -- the first film in more than 30 years to receive nominations for Best Picture, director, screenplay and all four acting categories.

But since then, "Argo" has virtually swept the preliminary awards. Affleck even won the Director's Guild of American prize, which historically has been the best predictor of the Oscar will go to. That leads me to a few conclusions.

First, there is a distinct backlash against "Zero Dark Thirty." Despite what I saw as the film's carefully nonpartisan approach to the war on terror, the industry has decided it "endorses" waterboarding and other extreme interrogation methods that many dub torture. Hollywood tilts about as left as it gets, so don't expect 'ZDT" to pick up many awards. A goose egg is not improbable. This may also explain Bigelow's snub.

Second, Affleck may have suffered from the effect where all the Academy voters assume he'd got nominated anyway, and wanted to spend their votes on a lower-profile pick. So everybody thought everyone else was voting for Affleck, and it turns out not enough did.This is unofficially known as the "Paul Giamatti Vote," after his (still-shocking) snub for "Sideways" when his cast mates were all nominated.

Third, even though "Lincoln" is universally respected, I think most people regard it as a great performance by Daniel Day-Lewis with just a pretty-good movie around it. Personally I think the screenplay is wobbly -- too many self-regarding moments on the one hand, and a superfluous ending on the other.

No other contender broke through. "Les Misérbles" was my top film of the year, but few seem to agree. So this looks like a race between "Argo" and the rest of the pack.

Prediction: Argo
I really meant...: Lincoln
Pick: Les Misérbles
Swap: "The Session" and "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" both deserved nods. Since the Academy only nominated nine films this year instead of the maximum of 10, as I see it I only need to boot one. I choose "Amour," a well-made but terribly unoriginal French drama.

Best Actress

There's really no clear front-runner here. It's notable that four of the five nominees were from movies that were not dominated by the lead female character. In other words, the best performances by an actress were usually set off by a strong turn by a male actor. The only exception is "Zero Dark Thirty," though you could make a case for Naomi Watts in "The Impossible."

In her short, fantastically successful run in Hollywood, Jessica Chastain has been a workhorse, starring in 11 features over the past two years and earning two Oscar nominations. But can her strong, willful turn in "Zero Dark Thirty" overcome the backlash against the film I described earlier?

This clearly seems to be between Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence from "Silver Linings Playbook." They each won a Golden Globe, though they divide it up into dramatic films and comedies/musicals -- a pretty useless distinction, in my mind.

But Lawrence won the Screen Actors Guild Award, and actors make up the largest voting bloc in the Academy. So the young ingenue -- this is her second nomination at age 22 -- will not have to wait long to take home a golden statue.

I've made no secret of my disdain for the nominations of Emmanuelle Riva and Quvenzhané Wallis, neither of whom I think is deserving. But apparently the idea of having the oldest nominee ever and the youngest nominee ever in the same year was too tempting.

Prediction: Jennifer Lawrence
I really meant...: Jessica Chastain
Pick: Chastain
Swap: Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "Smashed" and Helen Mirren in "Hitchcock" for Wallis and Riva.

 Best Actor

If there's any category that does appear to be a mortal lock this year, it's Daniel Day-Lewis for the title role in "Lincoln." And I'm not going to take anything away from him, he's terrific in the part. He took some real risks, such as employing a tinny high voice that is historically authentic but probably was disconcerting to contemporary audiences used to the idea of great men speaking in a deep rumble. It's a carefully constructed performance, almost like a suit tailor-made with each laborious stitch.

But for my money Joaquin Phoenix gave the performance of the year in "The Master," playing a deeply disturbed man who is trying so hard to conceal his own defects. It's the type of role that employs a lot of "behavior," outward tics and expressions, but is rooted in a deep emotional center. After all the hullabaloo over his retirement stunt a couple of years back, Phoenix blew me away.

As for the rest, Hugh Jackman was the anchor of underperforming "Les Misérbles," Bradley Cooper is still too close to those "Hangover" comedies to get the benefit of the doubt, and Denzel Washington mainly got nominated because ... he's Denzel Washington.

Prediction: Daniel Day-Lewis
I really meant...: Hugh Jackman
Pick: Joaquin Phoenix
Swap: John Hawkes was just amazing in "The Sessions," and if he'd gotten a nomination I'd say he would be the only one capable of pushing Day-Lewis. Alas. Tough call, but I'd probably knock out Jackman for Hawkes.

Best Supporting Actress

This one also looks fairly well wrapped up, with Anne Hathaway deservedly sweeping the prelims for her small but powerful role in "Les Misérbles." As soon as I saw her sing that heartbreaking rendition of "I Dreamed A Dream," I knew this race was pretty much decided. Her only real competition is Sally Field in "Lincoln," but I think enough people saw the Mrs. Lincoln character as annoying and poorly written to give Hathaway the edge.

I'm amazed at the lack of buzz for Helen Hunt in "The Sessions," or for that movie in general. As Hathaway herself joked when co-hosting the Oscar ceremony a couple years back, "It used to be that when you got naked, you got nominated!" That certainly held true from Hunt's revealing turn, but it appears the nomination is all she'll get.

Prediction: Anne Hathaway
I really meant...: Sally Field
Pick: Hathaway
Swap: Jacki Weaver had such a small, inconsequential part in "Silver Linings Playbook," that her nomination was one of the biggest surprises. Still, it was a pretty weak year for this category, and I'm not sure who else you'd pick. Maybe Emma Watson in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower?"

Best Supporting Actor

This one is totally wide open. Consider: Every single nominee is a veteran actor -- average age: 63 -- who has previously won an Academy Award.

Christoph Waltz and Alan Arkin would seem to be the low men, since their roles essentially provided comic relief -- not an endeavor typically rewarded by the Academy.

I'm guessing it's between Tommy Lee Jones in "Lincoln" and Robert De Niro in "Silver Linings Playbook." Sentiment might swing late toward De Niro -- if you can believe it, it's been 20 years since his last Oscar nomination. Plus, Jones' curmudgeonly ways have led him to be respected but not particularly liked in Hollywood.

I think Jones was hands-down the winner, taking a meaty role and absolutely tearing it to pieces. He made anti-slavery zealot Thaddeus Stevens into a force of nature who dominated every scene he was in -- including those with the title character, arguably.

Prediction: Robert De Niro
I really meant...: Tommy Lee Jones
Pick: Tommy Lee Jones
Swap: Hey, I like Alan Arkin. Everyone likes Alan Arkin. And he had a fun, breezy role in "Argo." But let's be honest: It's just not a substantial enough part for an Oscar nomination. I'll take Jude Law in "Anna Karenina," about the only outstanding thing in that mess of a movie. Or Scoot McNairy, whole role was pivotal to the success of "Argo."

Best Original Screenplay

"Zero Dark Thirty" would seem to be the frontrunner here, but again ... that backlash thing. Hollywood is a town of grudges that can get held over for a long, long time -- remember all the animosity toward Elia Kazan, one of the great 20th century filmmakers, at the time of his honorary Oscar for his role in the 1950s blacklisting?

That leaves us with "Amour," the only other nominated film that is also up for Best Picture. The fact that a foreign language film got so many nominations indicates strong support for it. I think the Franco-love from "The Artist" will carry over another year.

As for my pick, it's between the meticulously researched and constructed history of "Zero Dark Thirty" or Tarantino's wild, fun, genre-hopping "Django Unchained." I give it to "ZDT" because Tarantino's script has a few flaws, notably a protracted ending that robs the jaunt of some of its juice.

The Academy has loved to use the screenplay categories as a "make up" award for a film they want to reward but doesn't have a chance in the Best Film  or Best Director races. So I think "Django" is the dark horse here.

Prediction: Amour
I really meant...: Django Unchained
Pick: Zero Dark Thirty
Swap: Have you seen "Safety Not Guaranteed?" No? I'm not surprised, hardly anyone has. Go rent it, watch it, and tell me it's not more deserving of a screenplay nod than "Moonrise Kingdom" or "Flight."

Best Adapted Screenplay

This one's really a tough call, a three-way race between "Silver Linings Playbook," "Argo" and "Lincoln." And "Beasts of the Southern Wild" could sneak in as a way to reward a promising newcomer.

As I've stated I think the screenplay for "Lincoln" undermines the film in several ways, but Academy voters may recognize the difficulty in turning a historical book into a vibrant feature film. And "Argo" may get points deducted for some recent controversy about bending the truth in that final sequence where the Americans make their escape from the Iranian airport.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say "Playbook" sneaks in here.

Prediction: Silver Linings Playbook
I really meant...: Lincoln
Pick: Argo
Swap: The omissions of "The Sessions" and "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" are particularly grating. I'd knock out "Beasts" and "Life of Pi."

Best Director

At this point it seems clear that if Ben Affleck had been nominated, he would win. But since he's not, and "Zero Dark Thirty" is also not in the running, it appears to be a wide-open contest.

"Life of Pi" is probably the film that most represents a director's singular vision, and Ang Lee is a past winner. Michael Heneke can't be counted out, given all the (misplaced) support for "Amour." Steven Spielberg would seem to be the 7-footer in a jumping contest, given his stature in showbiz.

I'm going to take another flier on "Silver Linings Playbook" and guess David O. Russell will complete the restoration of his reputation that began with "The Fighter." He's seen as an actors' director, the sort who puts performances and mood above pyrotechnics and twisty plotting. And that may be enough points for the gold.

Prediction: David O. Russell
I really meant...: Steven Spielberg
Pick: Lee
Swap: Affleck, Bigelow and Tarantino all deserve to be here. Ditching Haneke and Benh Zeitlin of "Beasts" are easy calls. I'd probably knock out Spielberg next. I also think Tom Hooper deserved to be in for "Les Miz," but I can't see anyone else I'd boot for him.

Animated Feature Film

An extraordinarily weak year for animation, and the best movie -- "Rise of the Guardians" -- didn't even get nominated.

This has become the Pixar-by-default award, but it has two other competitors from the Disney umbrella: "Wreck-It Ralph" and "Frankenweenie." And I haven't met anyone who didn't think "Brave" was rather flat. I think "Ralph" is the best of the rest, and the Academy will think so, too.

Prediction: Wreck-It Ralph
I really meant...: Brave
Pick: Wreck-It Ralph
Swap: "Rise of the Guardians" instead of the staunchly mediocre "The Pirates! Band of Misfits."


"Life of Pi" was just visually gorgeous, with "Skyfall" a distant second.

Prediction: Life of Pi
I really meant...: Skyfall
Pick: Life of Pi

Costume Design

"Mirror, Mirror" and "Snow White and the Huntsman" were both nominated in this category. I'd just like to point out that "Mirror" got one more nomination than did "Perks of Being a Wallflower," and "Snow" (also up for visual effects) got twice as many as "The Sessions."

Prediction: Les Misérbles
I really meant...: Anna Karenina
Pick: Anna Karenina
Swap: "Django Unchained" for "Snow White and the Huntsman."

Documentary Feature

There are actually some pretty high-profile pictures in the running this year, though the much-talked-about "Bully" did not make the short list. The old joke used to be that whichever documentary was about the Holocaust would win. Since there are none this year, we move to the default position of whichever movie about Israeli-Palestinian relations wins. Except there are two of those. (I said this was a hard year, didn't I?) So I think they'll cancel each other out.

"Searching for Sugar Man" is the feel-good choice, but voters tend to favor very serious subjects in this category. That leaves the movie about sexual abuse in the military with a clear field.

Prediction: The Invisible War
I really meant...: How To Survive a Plague
Pick: Searching for Sugar Man

Documentary Short

I haven't seen any of these, so it's a total stab in the dark.

Prediction: Innocente
I really meant...: Kings Point

Film Editing

This category tends to follow the Best Picture winner, so I'm betting on "Argo" to win. Personally I'll take the harrowing last half hour of "Zero Dark Thirty" over just about anything I saw last year in terms of kinetic energy.

Prediction: Argo
I really meant...: Zero Dark Thirty
Pick: Zero Dark Thirty

Foreign Language Film

This seems like a pretty easy call, given that "Amour" also broke out with noms for best picture, director, actress and screenplay. It's also the only one of the quintet I've seen. (That isn't unusual ... Indianapolis usually gets all the foreign language nominees, but it may take until mid-year.)

Prediction: Amour
I really meant...: No

Makeup and Hairstyling

I'm not sure when this category was changed to include hair as well as makeup, but that could be important. With so many jokes about Hugh Jackman's Michael Landon 'do, that would seem to doom "Les Misérbles." But its only other competition is "The Hobbit" and "Hitchcock," both of which are (unfairly) perceived as underachievers. There were also jokes about Anthony Hopkins' fat suit as Hitch, and there's nothing in "Hobbit" we hadn't seen before in the "Lord of the Rings" films.

Prediction: Les Misérbles
I really meant...: Hitchcock
Pick: Les Misérbles

Music: Original Score

A notoriously difficult category to predict, since judging musical scores is a pretty subjective exercise.

Prediction: Life of Pi
I really meant...: Argo
Pick: Skyfall

Music: Original Song

The thought of "Ted" winning makes me quiver in my boots. I'm a fan of Seth McFarlane's TV work, but how is it he gets picked to host the Oscars? He's made exactly one movie, and it was a pretty lackluster comedy. I'm guessing Adele will win for "Skyfall."

Prediction: Skyfall
I really meant...: Les Misérbles
Pick: Skyfall

Production Design

Perhaps the most underrated category in terms of importance. Production design includes the sets, props, backgrounds -- basically, everything you see in a movie that isn't an actor or a special effect. A lot of strong contenders this year with dense, imaginative environments that envelop the action.

Prediction: Lincoln
I really meant...: Les Misérbles
Pick: Les Misérbles

Short Film: Animated

Prediction: Paperman
I really meant...: Adam and Dog
Pick: Paperman

Short Film: Live Action

Prediction: Death of a Shadow
I really meant...: Asad
Pick: Death of a Shadow

Sound Edting

Prediction: Skyfall
I really meant...: Zero Dark Thirty
Pick: Zero Dark Thirty

Sound Mixing

Prediction: Les Misérbles
I really meant...: Argo
Pick: Les Misérbles

Visual Effects

Prediction: Life of Pi
I really meant...: Prometheus
Pick: Life of Pi

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