Thursday, February 25, 2016

Fearless Oscar predictions and picks: 2015

I've said it before and I will say it again with Rubio-like constancy: 2015 will go down as one of the all-time great years in cinema. It's only appropriate, then, that the race for the Academy Award for Best Picture is one of the most contentious and unpredictable in decades.

Usually by now a portrait emerges: a clear favorite, its chief competition and a dark horse or two. The clear favorite nearly always wins, the last big upset coming for 1999 when "Shakespeare in Love" beat "Saving Private Ryan." (While "Crash" from 2006 was a clear mistake, I'm not sure how popular deserving winner "Brokeback Mountain" really was among Academy voters.)

This time around, the picture is as clear as mud.

Based on the preliminary awards, it's a three-way race between "The Revenant," "Spotlight" and "The Big Short." All three arrive with the credentials to be called a front-runner.

The result? Utter, glorious higgledy-piggledy.

So here are my predictions for the winners in all 24 categories. (Hey, you can't call yourself a true Oscar prognosticator unless you're willing to make a pick for Best Black and White Costume Short.)

As always, not only will I tell you who think will win and who should win, I'll gleefully toss out some of the nominees in favor of more deserving ones, in a soon-to-be hallowed tradition I call the "Chris Cross."

Best Picture

"The Revenant" won the Golden Globe for drama (with non-Oscar-contender "The Martian" ludicrously taking the comedy award), BAFTA best film and, most significantly, Directors Guild award. Director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu has the gloss of prestige as last year's Oscar winner. A repeat would be historic, only the third time a director has won back-to-back awards and the first in 65 years.

"Spotlight" got the Screen Actors Guild award for best cast -- their equivalent of best picture -- the Writers Guild award for drama and the top award from the Broadcast Film Critics Association. (Including my ballot as a first-time voting member.) Plus the endorsement of many regional film critic groups, including the Indiana Film Journalists Association. (I'm everywhere!)

Coming in strong at the end of the race is "The Big Short," directed by goofball comic filmmaker Adam McKay, which shocked many with a win from the Producers Guild, which historically has been one of the best predictors of the Oscar winner. It also took the Writers Guild award for comedy.

Like I said, it's a tough call. I'm going to throw out "Big Short," more or less on gut feeling. It just doesn't have that shiny patina of a Best Pic. On paper "Revenant" seems to have the edge -- it's got "prestige picture" written all over it, and a solid pedigree of previous Oscar nominees and winners.

But there's a backlash growing against "Revenant." A lot of people feel it's too violent and overpraised. There was also a sizeable contingent in Hollywood who thought "Birdman" was similarly overblown -- my hand goes up! -- and don't like to dole out golden statuettes haphazardly.

So I predict "Spotlight" will eke out a win.

For the Chris Cross, I don't feel that any of the eight nominees are truly undeserving. All made my list of the best films of the year -- just much lower down.

Will Win: Spotlight
Should Win: Spotlight
Chris Cross: The End of the Tour, Love & Mercy, Mr. Holmes and Steve Jobs replace Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, The Martian and The Revenant.


Iñárritu won the DGA award, which is usually the Oscar winner, so he has to be called the front-runner. Tom McCarthy of "Spotlight" and Lenny Abrahamson of "Room" are low-profile filmmakers without a lot of credits under their belt. Adam McKay has been known for gross-out comedies, often starring Will Ferrell, and that will hurt him. So the only real competition is George Miller.

I would give it to Miller. More than any film, "Mad Max: Fury Road" represents one artist's singular vision. The Aussie revived a nearly 40-year-old franchise with a new actor and then went one better and centered the story around another (female) character. Bold, visionary filmmaking.

Miller is hurt by the fact that his film falls into the action/adventure mold, and those do not fare well in the awards.

If Iñárritu prevails he would join Joseph L. Mankiewicz and John Ford as the only directors to win back-to-back Oscars. That's pretty rarefied country, and I think voters will take a hard look at "The Revenant" and "Birdman" and ask if those are films that really deserve to go down as all-time greats.

Will Win: George Miller
Should Win: George Miller
Chris Cross: Tough call, but I will knock out Iñárritu for James Ponsoldt of "The End of the Tour," a criminally overlooked film. Ridley Scott deserved a nom, too, but not sure who I'd cross out.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

The screenplay categories are where the Academy likes to reward smaller films that don't have a shot at winning Best Picture. So whichever category doesn't have the Best Pic winner is the one where they can "spread the love." Since I think "Spotlight" will win Best Picture, it will likely win the Original Screenplay category.

The favorite here is "The Big Short," which took a complex issue and melded it into a digestible, funny and infuriating take on the real estate bubble. It also won the WGA award, so it's the clear favorite.

Its main competition is "Room." While it's a wonderful film, #2 on my list of the year's best, I think its strength lies in its performances rather than the script. (Which does have a few minor problems, particularly in the second half with the William H. Macy character.)

Contrastingly, it's amazing to me that "Steve Jobs" and "The End of the Tour," both carefully constructed narratives, did not get nominations. Meanwhile, old-fashioned storytelling in "Brooklyn" and "Carol" was recognized.

It's important to note that "The Revenant" did not get a writing nod, which I think underscores the movie's weakness in the big race.

While Best Picture winners occasionally lack any acting nominations -- "Slumdog Millionaire" most recently -- it's rare for them to not be recognized for the screenplay. Only seven films have won Best Pic without a screenplay nod, and most of them were in the very early days of the Academy Awards. The most recent being "Titanic" in 1997 and "The Sound of Music" in 1965.

Will Win: The Big Short
Should Win: The Big Short
Chris Cross: The End of the Tour and Steve Jobs replace Brooklyn and Carol.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

One of the easiest calls of the night, for "Spotlight." It won the WGA award and could be the Best Picture. If it doesn't, then this is its make-up award.

Why no screenplay nom for "Mad Max: Fury Road?" Sure, there's not a lot of dialogue and there is a lot of action. But structure-wise it's just brilliant. And the characters are really distinctly written. It was a chase movie that built a whole world around it. Meanwhile, "Ex Machina" had an innovative starting concept and then made a lot of overly safe choices.

Will Win: Spotlight
Should Win: Spotlight
Chris Cross: Mad Max: Fury Road for Ex Machina.

Actress in a Leading Role

Brie Larson of "Room" has been one of Hollywood's best-kept secrets for a while, and she's all lined up to become her generation's Hilary Swank, winning this award at a young age for a tiny picture, which will hopefully boost her into the sort of roles that Jennifer Lawrence or Carey Mulligan are getting now. Those of us who caught "Short Term 12" a few years back saw this day coming.

Her main competition is Cate Blanchett, a former winner with a great pedigree. Charlotte Rampling was a sentimental choice in a movie hardly anyone saw. "Joy" underperformed in box office and critical praise, so J. Law is probably on the sidelines this time. "Carol" got a lot of early buzz before anyone saw it, then they saw it, and the buzz died down.

Maggie Smith of "The Lady in the Van" and Charlize Theron of "Mad Max: Fury Road" deserved nods.

Will Win: Brie Larson
Should Win: Brie Larson
Chris Cross: The commanding Charlize Theron and the sublime Maggie Smith knock out Jennifer Lawrence and Cate Blanchett.


Actress in a Supporting Role

A busy category with no clear favorite. Kate Winslet would seem to be the front-runner, as a past multiple nominee and winner, and she was great in "Steve Jobs." And she took the Golden Globe. But Alicia Vikander won the Screen Actors Guild Award and seems to have the late momentum. Of course, hers was clearly a leading role, but we're used to shenanigans in category hopping by now. That could help and hurt her.

Coin flip. Most of the prognosticators are picking Vikander. I'll take the load less traveled and say Winslet.

My choice would be Rachel McAdams, who shined in a non-showy role.

Will Win: Kate Winslet
Should Win: Rachel McAdams
Chris Cross: Elizabeth Banks centered "Love &  Mercy," while Rooney Mara contributed to the overwrought snoozefest that is "Carol."

Actor in a Leading Role

Another easy call. Leonardo DiCaprio has been Hollywood royalty for two-plus decades. He's been nominated five times without winning, and probably had at least a couple other times he should've been. He's run the the table on the preliminary awards and seems to have this locked up. Like Paul Newman, he'll win not for the finest performance of his career but because "it's his time."

That's not a diss; Leo was indeed outstanding in "The Revenant," in a largely non-vocal role, which is a huge contrast to his filmography of fast talkers. Of those nominated, I would give the slight edge to Michael Fassbender, who played the myth rather than the man in "Steve Jobs."

My picks to win would be Jacob Tremblay of "Room" or Jason Segel for "The End of the Tour," but neither was nominated. Would've also loved to see nominations for Ian McKellen, Tom Hanks, Jesse Eisenberg, Paul Dano, Johnny Depp and Mark Ruffalo, but more love than nominations to go around.

Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio
Should Win: Michael Fassbender
Chris Cross: Jacob Tremblay and Jason Segal replace Bryan Cranston and Eddie Redmayne.

Actor in a Supporting Role

Nearly always the busiest category with the most number of snubs, and this year's no different. The lack of nominations for Idris Elba of "Beasts of No Nation" and Michael Shannon of "99 Homes" really, really grates. Their films don't work without them. Essentially, they're the subjects of their movies and the protagonist is the object.

You could've also put up Paul Giamatti twice, for playing musical Svengalis in "Straight Outta Compton" and "Love & Mercy." Also dissed were Michael Keaton, Steve Carell, John Cusack (arguably a leading role), and a few others.

Of those nominated, Sylvester Stallone appears to be the strong sentimental pick. Capping off a great career and all that (so long as you conveniently forget long stretches of it). Mark Rylance is big in theater and kind of anonymous in film, so I don't expect the actors' wing to vote for him in great numbers. Tom Hardy was good in "The Revenant" but it was possibly his fourth best performance of the year. (If you count "Legend" as two, and I do.)

I would say Mark Ruffalo is the stalking horse here. Very respected actor who shifts easily between indies, mainstream dramas and now big-budget spectacles. He would be my pick of those nominated.

Will Win: Sylvester Stallone
Should Win: Mark Ruffalo
Chris Cross: Steve Carell, Michael Shannon and Idris Elba edge out Christian Bale, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance.


Animated Feature

Despite being an outstanding movie year, it was a rather weak one for animated films and comedies. Disney/Pixar is seen as having kicked themselves out of a moribund funk with "Inside Out," after years of sequels and cut-rate rehashes. For my money I slightly preferred the heartfelt "The Good Dinosaur," which wasn't nominated. Meanwhile, the fun but utterly forgettable "Shaun the Sheep Movie" was.

My fellow Indiana critic adored "Anomalisa," but I felt it was weird and quirky for he sake of being weird and quirky. I think Charlie Kaufman, like George Lucas, works better as an idea and story man who hands off the nuts and bolts elsewhere.

I haven't seen the two foreign nominated films -- virtually no one has -- so I can't assess their quality.

Will Win: Inside Out
Should Win: Inside Out
Chris Cross: The Good Dinosaur for Shaun the Sheep Movie.

Foreign Language Film

Historically a tough category to pick as most of the nominees typically don't make it to U.S. theaters until long after the Oscars have been given out. "Son of Saul" has made a strong showing in the preliminary awards, and made my top 10 list.

Will Win: Son of Saul
Should Win: Son of Saul

Documentary Feature

"Amy" has this one all locked up, and deserves to.

Will Win: Amy
Should Win: Amy

Documentary Short

 I haven't seen any of these.

Will Win: A Girl in the River: The Prince of Forgiveness

Short Film (Animated)

I adored "Bear Story," but most people are predicting the darkly (very darkly) comedic "World of Tomorrow."

Will Win: World of Tomorrow
Should Win: Bear Story

Short Film (Live Action)

A very clear standout here imho.

Will Win: Shok
Should Win: Shok



The most important of the "minor" awards. The way a film is photographed has a major impact on how we react to it emotionally and intellectually. Take a look at "Son of Saul" for a prime example. I also adored the hauntingly beautiful "The Martian" among the snubees.

"The Revenant" seems to have this one in the bag, due to the oft-cited difficulty of shooting in a natural setting with extreme climate. I will take "Mad Max: Fury Road" for its great, grainy look and practical camera effects.

I love to rag on "Carol," but it was indeed an exquisite-looking film; indeed, the thrust of my complaint is that it's a pretty box with nothing inside. Robert Richardson managed to be quite inventive inside a confined space... but 19/20ths of "The Hateful Eight" still takes place inside a single room. If we're going to award brownie points to "Revenant" for degree of difficulty, we have to subtract for ease.

Will Win: The Revenant
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Chris Cross: The Martian and Son of Saul for Sicario and The Hateful Eight.

Costume Design

In a year with a strong favorite for Best Picture, many of the other categories tend to fall in line with wins whether they deserve them or not. That isn't the case this year, so people feel free to vote for what they thought was the truly most outstanding achievement in a given field -- a novel idea, that.

You'd think "The Danish Girl" would win here, since it's a story told largely through clothes. Most people are picking "Mad Max: Fury Road." I think it will go to "Carol."

Will Win: Carol
Should Win: The Danish Girl

Film Editing

The consensus seems to be that "Mad Max: Fury Road" is going to run the table on the "technical" awards, or close to it. I find little reason to disagree. Just a masterpiece of craftsmanship. Though I think "The Revenant" will pick off a few, mostly for its dense aural landscape.

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Production Design 

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Sound Mixing

Will Win: The Revenant
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Sound Editing

Will Win: The Revenant
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Visual Effects

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Makeup and Hairstyling

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Music (Original Song)

"Simple Song #3" was about the only thing I actually liked about "Youth." The fact that "Fifty Shades of Grey" has one more Oscar nomination than "Love & Mercy," "Mr. Holmes," "The End of the Tour" and many other outstanding films is worthy of Dante's Inferno-style damnation.

I think the Academy will go Gaga. At least Sam Smith's falsetto warbling, aka "Worst Bond Title Song Ever," won't win.

Will Win: Til It Happens To You from The Hunting Ground
Should Win: Til It Happens To You from The Hunting Ground

Music (Original Score)

This could be the most sentimental category of the night. You've got two film music legends, John  Williams and Ennio Morricone, going head-to-head. Despite this being his 50th nomination -- that's right, 5-0 -- Williams won't win because "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" simply builds on his already iconic music of nearly 40 years ago. "The Hateful Eight" is one of Morricone's most playful scores, if not among his very best -- though that's rarefied terrain indeed.

Having never won in five previous tries -- even being written off with the "We think you're done" honorary Oscar in 2007 -- this will finally be the 87-year-old Italian's time.

Will Win: The Hateful Eight
Should Win: The Hateful Eight

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