Friday, February 28, 2014

Oscar picks & predictions

There's no clear front-runner in the Oscar race this year, and that's a very good thing.

In recent times the Academy Awards have become less about coronating a single movie as "the champ" and, justly, more about recognizing individuals for their outstanding work in particular endeavors. Sometimes the awards cluster up around a pair or trio of films, but lately there hasn't been a runaway favorite that sweeps the awards, as was more common in the 1980s and '90s ("Titanic," "American Beauty," "The English Patient").

It's been more than a decade since we had a film garner double-digit Academy Awards, and "Slumdog Millionaire" was on the recent high end with eight. Lately the typical Best Picture winner has only won a handful of other Oscars, with a total tally of just three or four not at all unusual.

I like this because the best film of the year is not necessarily the best directed one, and the finest screenplay did not invariably have commensurate performances, and so forth. Indeed, recently the pattern has been for the film receiving the Best Actress or Best Actor award to have that as its sole recognition.

The hallmark of this trend is last year's Best Director win by Ang Lee for "Life of Pi." It was not really a contender in the Best Picture race, but most people who saw it recognized it as best representing a director's singular vision.

If you like the concept of meritocracy, it's comforting knowing that the person who wins in the "minor" categories -- costumes, sound editing, makeup -- does so because they truly did the best work of the year, rather than because most people adored a particular film and voted a "straight ticket" on their ballot.

But alas ... this does also make the job a lot harder for those of us in the prognosticating business. My ability to correctly forecast the winners has waned as the process has grown more stubbornly, blessedly, chaotic.

So here are my predictions of who will win in all 24 categories, and my picks for who should win. As always, I will add a snarky feature by telling you who should've been nominated and wasn't, and which of the actual nominees' spot they should cross out. (Which I'm calling "Chris Cross," since I'm doing the crossing.)

Best Picture

Will Win: "12 Years a Slave"
Should Win: "Her"
Chris Cross: "Prisoners" and "Rush" replace "American Hustle" and "Philomena"

This year would appear to be a two-way race between "12 Years a Slave" and "American Hustle," with the former waning and the later waxing as time has gone on. But "Dallas Buyers Club" has a puncher's chance, as does "Nebraska" and "The Wolf of Wall Street."

"Gravity" was much loved when it came out in early fall, but its prospects quickly dimmed as  people decided it was merely very well-made entertainment lacking the gravitas of a typical Best Picture winner. (And yes, that pun was totally intended.)

But the space drama/thriller is on the upswing again, and indeed many smart people are now predicting that "Gravity" will sneak in with an upset Best Pic win as "Slave" and "Hustle" cancel each other out. Some of this has to do with a relatively new balloting system that gives weight to highly ranked votes, so a movie that gets lots of 2nd place ballots will beat out another that gets more 1st place ones but fewer lower-ranked votes.

Since "American Hustle" and "12 Years a Slave" have both been polarizing to a certain degree, they might get left entirely off some Academy voters' ballots. I certainly would do that with "Hustle," easily the most over-praised film of the year. (The best summation I've heard of it is fellow Yapper Nick Roger's dismissal of it as "a '70s aesthetic in search of a movie.")

Still, I've going to swing against the unconventional-conventional thinking and predict that the early favorite will nose out the competition, with "Slave" taking the gold. It simply has that classic Best Picture pedigree: an important historical subject, terrific performances, lush costumes and production values, etc.

I do expect "Gravity" to be the overall winner in terms of total statuettes, dominating the technical categories simply because its cinematography, musical score and so forth simply are head-and-shoulders above the competition. From a sheer craftsmanship standpoint, few other films from 2013 were even close.

"Her" and "Prisoners" were my two favorite films of the year, neither of which garnered the attention they deserved. "Rush" was possibly the most criminally ignored movie of 2013, with not even an Oscar nod in the sound categories. My feelings about "American Hustle" are well-known and don't bear repeating here. "Philomena" is a fine film but not in the same league as the rest of the nominees.

Best Actress

Will Win: Cate Blanchett
Should Win: Meryl Streep
Chris Cross: Brie Larson for Amy Adams

This is an exceedingly weak category reflecting a bad year for meaty parts for women. Blanchett appears to be the runaway favorite, and while she was good in "Blue Jasmine" it's hardly one of Woody Allen's better efforts. I found the character too derivative of other classic film anti-heroines -- Blanche DuBois from "A Streetcar Named Desire," Norma Desmond from "Sunset Boulevard" -- to give it much credence.

Sandra Bullock is the stalking horse here, a great performance without a whole lot of dialogue. But I found Meryl Streep's character in "August: Osage County" to be one of the more resonant in her long and glorious career. Observers have complained that she was too unlikeable -- well duh, that was the entire point, portraying a woman reflecting back at the world all the pain and anger she's absorbed throughout her life.

Not many saw the lovely gem "Short Term 12," but Brie Larson was terrific in it. I'm frankly flummoxed by Amy Adams' nomination, in a role as cheesy and inauthentic as the movie around it.

Many were angry about Emma Thompson not getting nominated for "Saving Mr. Banks" even though she won the Golden Globe, but I'm not one of them. A spectacularly over-hyped film.

Best Actor

Will Win: Matthew McConaughey
Should Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Chris Cross: Robert Redford and Tom Hanks for Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio

The men's acting category was every bit as good as the women's was awful. A lot of people were shocked when Redford and Hanks, each giving possibly the best performance of their illustrious careers, went un-nominated while relative whippersnappers Bale and DiCaprio got in. Count me among them.

I thought DiCaprio was good in "Wolf of Wall Street," but it wasn't even his best role of the year -- "The Great Gatsby" was. Bale is usually as reliable as Big Ben, but he failed to connect while playing a character who largely operated inside his own head in "American Hustle." The outward appearance alterations, with the big belly and pretend comb-over, struck me as cheap and showy.

On the flip side, there was nothing showy about McConaughey's deathly transformation for "Dallas Buyers Club." His weight loss was so dramatic he looked virtually unrecognizable, the cowboy handsomeness he's coasted on so long completely leached away. Similarly, his acting represented a stripping away of his star persona and actor's charisma. 

Because McConaughey's been around for almost two decades and has essentially resurrected his career with serious roles in smaller films, Hollywood is itching to reward that with a Best Actor win. But I thought Ejiofor gave the performance of the year. "12 Years a Slave" was an emotional journey in which the audience had to always been in sync with the main character, and that's a hard thing to do. He was touching, graceful and utterly human.

Bruce Dern was terrific in a career-capping performance in "Nebraska," but I think most Oscar voters will see the nomination as his reward, it having been so long since he was recognized by the Academy (or enjoying a role deserving of their attention).

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Jared Leto
Should Win: Barkhad Abdi
Chris Cross: Daniel Brühl, Harrison Ford, Matthew McConaughey and Sam Rockwell for Jonah Hill, Bradley Cooper, Jared Leto and Michael Fassbender

Yes, you read that right: If it were up to me, I'd swap out fully 80% of the nominees in this category. 

Someone wisely commented that getting an Oscar nomination in the acting categories is much like being named an NBA All-Star: once you get over the hump of being voted in the first time, it's much more likely you'll show up on the roster even when your play is not truly deserving.

Look, I like Jonah Hill -- he's an agreeable young comedian segueing into more serious roles. Good for him. But if you think his one-note performance as the manic wingman in "The Wolf of Wall Street" was better than Daniel Brühl's mesmerizing work in "Rush," then we just don't have much to talk about.

Harrison Ford did something in "42" that seemed cartoonish at first, but had many layers underneath. Matthew McConaughey was wounded and watchable in "Mud." And Sam Rockwell was simply splendid as the wastrel-king-turned-mentor in "The Way, Way Back."

Michael Fassbender's character, as it was written and how he interpreted it, was for me the fatal flaw in the otherwise amazing "12 Years a Slave." It was like the filmmakers and the actor were trying to cram everything vile and venal about slavery into one outsized persona. He was a cartoon villain.

Of those left, Barkhad Abdi is my choice. Remember, this is a guy who had never so much as acted in a school play going toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks, and coming out looking good. He gave a depth and complexity to his film's bad guy that Fassbender did not.

Leto appears destined to win. Bravo; it's a brave, elegant performance, underlined by his own skin-and-bones transformation. I just felt that as written there wasn't enough meat in the part. (Yes, another intentional bad pun.)

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Lupita Nyong'o
Should Win: Jennifer Lawrence
Chris Cross: Scarlett Johansson for Sally Hawkins

This one comes down to last year's winner Jennifer Lawrence versus newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, with them trading places in the preliminary awards. I think Lawrence was the best thing about the insipid "American Hustle," to the point the movie went into a torpor whenever she wasn't onscreen. 

It may sound silly, but I think Nyong'o's campaign has been bustressed by her fashionable presence at all the various Hollywood parties and awards events -- "Look at that dress! She's so beautiful!" A lot of people would love to see her up on that stage just for the sheer pageantry of it, not to mention adding a little much-needed diversity to the ranks of Oscar winners.

My problem with her performance is that, like Jared Leto, her role just isn't all that hefty. She doesn't have a lot of dialogue in "12 Years a Slave," mostly acting as a visual presence, a subservient counterpoint to Solomon Northup's uppity educated slave. She only gets one scene where she really "acts," and for me that's not enough to justify a golden statuette.

June Squibb was just delicious in "Nebraska," taking a showy, funny part and milking it while keeping a sense of humanity; if  Lawrence and Nyong'o cancel each other out, she has a shot at sneaking in here.

I liked Sally Hawkins in "Blue Jasmine," but ScarJo gave one of the most amazing voice-only performances in cinematic history in "Her."

Best Director

Will Win/Should Win: Alfonso Cuarón
Chris Cross: Spike Jonze for David O. Russell

As I stated above, I believe this will be another year in which Academy members go for the best-directed movie as opposed to voting for the director of the best movie. With "Gravity" Cuarón executed a real labor of love, becoming an expert in visual effects and green screen cinematography that he'd never really tackled before.

The result was a sumptuous, exhilarating cinematic ride -- an example of old school "you are there" filmmaking using all the flashy new tools.

His main competition is Steve McQueen for "12 Years a Slave," and I wouldn't really have a problem with him winning. Other than my stated problems with the Fassbender character, it's a lovely film.

Russell has been nominated for director twice before without winning, and he's become known as a favorite of actors, who represent the largest voting bloc of the Academy. So you can't count him out. Same goes for Scorsese because, well, he's Martin Fucking Scorsese, in his sixth decade of making movies and hasn't lost a tick off his fastball.

I just adore "Her," and its success depends entirely on the director being able to maintain the right tone and balancing the audience's suspension of disbelief. It was a masterful turn, so Spike Jonze should've gotten nominated. I'll boot Russell because he took the bones of a great story and turned it into a freak show.

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win/Should Win: "Her"
Chris Cross: "Rush" for "American Hustle"

Original Screenplay is one category that the Oscars have historically used as a "make up" award for smaller pictures that aren't really a contender for the big prize. So I'm hoping, and predicting, that Spike Jonze will win for the odd, strange and wonderful "Her." It's too bad audiences dismissed it as being about "a guy who falls in love with his computer," because I haven't seen another film in a long time that comes this close to capturing the real human condition -- who we are right now, and where we're going.

For my money, the second-best screenplay of the year was Peter Morgan's yeoman's work on "Rush," another movie audiences didn't respond to. It was a sports movie that cared more about the Formula One drivers than the cars and the action (though the movie was very good at that, too). Morgan's script for "The Damned United" also didn't get an Oscar nom, pushing him to the fore in the race for Best Screenwriter The Academy Keeps Screwing.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: "12 Years a Slave"
Should Win: "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Chris Cross: "Great Expectations" for "Philomena"

Not many people saw Mike Newell's lovely adaptation of Dickens' "Great Expectations," but I thought
David Nicholls' script remained faithful to the book while making it a more emotionally compelling journey than we usually get out of his novels. I'd knock out "Philomena," because it's a little rote and obvious, telegraphing its punches.

Wherever it ends up in the Best Picture race, "12 Years a Slave" seems to have this award wrapped up. I thought Terence Winter's intentionally chaotic, over-the-top screenplay for "The Wolf of Wall Street" captured the essence of its live-for-the-moment main character.

Best Cinematography

Will Win/Should Win: "Gravity"
Chris Cross: "The Wolf of Wall Street" for "The Grandmaster"

I haven't actually seen "The Grandmaster," so I probably shouldn't really cross it out. But the frenetic visual splendor of "The Wolf of Wall Street" contributed greatly to the film's appeal, and it deserved a nod.

If there's a "minor" category of the Oscars that deserves to be counted among the majors, it's cinematography. Quite often the director of photography can have as much impact on a movie's success as the director. Much has been written about Gregg Toland's work with Orson Welles making him the real genius behind "Citizen Kane."

More than any other film, "Gravity" leaned on its visual poetry to carry the plot. Emmanuel Lubezki's groundbreaking work meshed well with the special effects and actors.

Best Animated Film

Will Win/Should Win: "Frozen"
Chris Cross: "Monsters University" for "Despicable Me 2"

This one's not even close. It was a terrible year for animated feature films, with only "Frozen" and the little-seen "The Wind Rises" truly even deserving of a nomination. "Wind" is reputed to be Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki's last film, and while it's very good it won't be remembered among his very best, paving the way for an easy "Frozen" win. I'll take the cheerful "Monsters University" over the paint-by-numbers "Despicable Me 2."

Best Foreign Film

Will Win: "The Great Beauty"

It was a strange year for foreign language movies, with none of the expected strong contenders, like "Blue Is the Warmest Color," making the list of nominees. As a result, I haven't seen any of them, but I foresee "The Great Beauty" as the frontrunner.

Best Documentary

Will Win/Should Win: "The Act of Killing"

A strong year for documentary features, with "The Act of Killing" leading the pack with its very non-traditional style, essentially letting the subjects of the film take over the production. Brave, disturbing, illuminating.

Best Documentary (Short)

Will Win: "The Lady in Number 6"

This one is a total stab in the dark, as documentary shorts really get screened for critics (or anyone).

Best Costume Design

Will Win: "American Hustle"
Should Win: "The Great Gatsby"

"The Great Gatsby" suffers from having come out early in the year, so voters are less likely to remember its visual splendor, greatly enhanced by the terrific 1920s outfits. So "American Hustle" will likely take the win for its excess of '70s cheese.

Best Production Design

Will Win: "12 Years a Slave"
Should Win: "The Great Gatsby"

Again, "Gatsby" had the best period look of any film in 2013, but it came out so long ago its chances have dimmed. While "American Hustle" could also come out on top here, I think the antebellum sets and designs of "12 Years a Slave" will prevail.

Best Makeup & Hairstyling

Will Win/Should Win: "Dallas Buyers Club"

I think "Dallas Buyers Club" will win, simply because few people want to see either of the execrable two other nominees, "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa" or "The Lone Ranger," to be remembered as Oscar-winning films.

Best Visual Effects

Best Sound Editing

Best Sound Mixing

Will Win/Should Win: "Gravity"
Chris Cross: "Pacific Rim" for "The Lone Ranger," "All Is Lost" and "Lone Survivor," respectively

These next three categories are all easy picks, with the visual and aural polish of "Gravity" blowing away everything else in the running. I'm still shocked that "Pacific Rim" didn't pick up some nominations in the "technical" categories. "Rush" also deserved recognition in the sound categories.

By the way, if you're confused about the difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, here's a quick primer: sound editing involves the creation and recording of sounds, and sound mixing is how those sounds are blended together in the film's final audio track. So if you hear a really cool sound effect, but it's almost drowned out by background noise, that would be an example of good sound editing and bad sound mixing.

Best Original Score

Will Win/Should Win: "Gravity"

Kind of a weak year for movie music, leaving the path open for "Gravity," which by necessity was carried along during long stretches by Steven Price's music.

Best Original Song

Will Win/Should Win: "Let It Go" from "Frozen"
Chris Cross: "In Summer" for "Ordinary Love"

Super-easy pick. "Let It Go" has become a national phenomenon, though "Happy" also gotten a lot of play on children's radio. I liked it the first 1,072 times I had to listen to it. I was truly surprised some of the other terrific songs from "Frozen" didn't make the list.

Best Short Film (Animated)

Will Win: "Get a Horse!"
Should Win: "Mr. Hublot"

Disney/Pixar generally owns this category, and "Get a Horse!" was indeed a giddy, visually inventive romp. But "Mr. Hublot" was a mesmerizing animated adventure with a distinctive look and a heart full of pathos. The Japanese "Possessions" was also very good.

Best Short Film (Live Action)

Will Win: "Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)"
Should Win: "Helium"

If the French "Just Before Losing Everything," about an abused wife seeking to escape her husband along with her two kids, doesn't win then the equally somber Spanish "That Wasn't Me," about an African child soldier, will. Of the two, I prefer the latter. But I'll take the sweet sentiment of "Helium," about a dying boy and a janitor's fanciful final gift.

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