Last year I explained (at some length) why I still love the Oscars, even though they are pretentious, predictable, overlong, and frequently delusional in ways that make me want to kill myself. This year, I'm going to skip the preamble and get right to the wrong-minded opinions and prognostications: my choices for what films will win, what films should win, and what films must not, in the name of all that is holy, be allowed to win at the 85th Academy Awards. (The actual order of the presentations is a big secret—why, I have no idea—so I've taken an educated guess.)
Oscar Night is this Sunday, February 24th. My invitation seems to have been lost in the mail, so I'll be live-tweeting the Red Carpet and ceremony from home, alongside my partner N., The Unenthusiastic Critic (whose interest will flag noticeably after the focus turns from pretty dresses to awards). Follow me on Twitter to get all the despair, snark, curses, and detailed explanations about why host Seth Macfarlane is bad for humanity.
And now, the envelopes please…
As thrilled as I would be to see Roger Deakins finally win an Oscar—after lensing The Shawshank Redemption, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and almost every Coen Brothers movie since Barton Fink—I have to cast my vote here for Claudio Miranda's gorgeous, groundbreaking work on Ang Lee's Life of Pi: if Miranda doesn't win, I'll chalk it up to a Luddite distrust of computer-generated images vs. "traditional" cinematography. I'd rather see any of the nominees win, however, than see Janusz Kaminski win again. Spielberg's frequent collaborator already has two well-deserved Oscars in this category (for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan), but I thought his gauzy aesthetic lent an unfortunate air of artificiality to Lincoln.
Nominees: Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer (Anna Karenina), Dan Hennah, Ra Vincent and Simon Bright (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), Eve Stewart and Anna Lynch-Robinson (Les Misérables), David Gropman and Anna Pinnock (Life of Pi), Rick Carter and Jim Erickson (Lincoln)
It's rare that I have strong feelings about the Production Design category (previously called "Art Direction"), but holy crap, does Anna Karenina deserve this one: Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer's imaginative, euphorically clever staging put Tolstoy's sprawling epic in a dilapidated theater: the result was not only visually stunning, but it made one of the most familiar (and filmed) stories of all time feel fresh and exciting. Alas, Anna Karenina was shamefully overlooked in most of the major categories, so I fully expect to see Les Misérables take this for its lavish, colorful, utterly phony-looking environments.
Will Win: Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)
Should Win: Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)
Must Not Win: Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained)
Write-In Nominees: Jude Law (Anna Karenina), Muhammet Uzuner(Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), Mikkel Boe Følsgaard (A Royal Affair).
I'll be honest: I don't have a dog in this fight. All five nominees are good actors, and they were all fine in their roles. (The only reason I'm rooting against Waltz is that I don't want to reward anyone for their work in that highly problematic movie.) I expect Jones to win—and he was easily the best thing in Lincoln—but it's a role he could have done in his sleep. (Ditto: DeNiro and Arkin.) Hoffman, on the other hand, stretched himself further, and gave a remarkably complex and sophisticated performance: I didn't like the movie, but I loved watching him (and Joaquin Phoenix) work.
Will Win: Curfew
Should Win: Death of a Shadow
Must Not Win: N/A
Write-In Nominees: None
Okay, if you haven't seen the Live-Action Shorts—and c'mon, I know most of you haven't—the first thing you should do (after you finish reading this post, of course) is go watch them: they're available on iTunes, and they should be available On Demand from most cable companies. (Watch trailers here.) It's an extremely strong bunch of nominees this year: I liked all of them, though Buzkashi Boys and Henry are both a little too predictable in their construction. The other three, however, are sheer delight. The American entry, Shawn Christensen's Curfew, isprobably expected to win, and I won't mind a bit: it's a witty, confident dark comedy with surprising heart and depth. Nor would I object to a trophy for Bryan Buckley's Asad: if you can set a surprisingly hopeful (and funny) film in the devastation of Somalia (using a cast and crew of Somalian refugees), you've done something remarkable. However, what I look for in the shorts is a glimpse at promising new directors—Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) and Andrea Arnold (this year's gorgeous Wuthering Heights) are among recent winners—and so the only way I decided how to cast my vote was to ask myself which director I'd be most excited to see a feature from. From that perspective, I hope somebody is giving Flemish director Tom Van Avermaet a big-budget feature to direct as we speak. A dark, evocative, wildly inventive steampunk parable about love and death, Death of a Shadow takes less than half an hour to build as rich and fascinating a world as I saw realized on-screen all year, and layers some maturity and emotional resonance beneath its strange (and visually inventive) mythology. He's a real talent, and I can't wait to see what he does next.
Will Win: Paperman
Should Win: Adam and Dog
Must Not Win: Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare"
Write-In Nominees: None
I debated my vote on this one right down to the wire—the almost certain winner, Paperman, is indeed a charmer—but ultimately it feels thin and simplistic next to Minkyu Lee's beautiful Adam and Dog. The story of the first man and his relationship with the first man's-best-friend, Adam and Dog begins as a cute concept and then deepens in surprisingly mature and complex ways. (And the delicate, complex watercolors of Lee's Eden are the best argument I've seen in years that traditional, hand-drawn animation can create worlds and moods that computers can't yet imagine.) Meanwhile, it's bad enough that an enjoyable but unremarkable Simpsons short has elbowed its way into such artistic company: it would be a dark day indeed if it were allowed to actually win. (Once again, you can—and should—watch the animated shorts on iTunes or On Demand; the Simpsons short doesn't seem to be there, but you're not missing much.)
I enjoyed all of the nominees more than I expected—particularly Frankenweenie—but I have a strong feeling that the story this year will be that Disney Animation finally produced a CGI film to compete with its more beloved cousins at Disney-Pixar. However, none of the other nominees have Pixar's magic, and I think audiences and critics alike severely undervalued Brave. Visually, it's among Pixar's very best work, and narratively it's an important and subversive reinvention of the "Disney Princess" that will stand the test of time. Wreck-It Ralph was fun, but Brave is a classic.
WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)
Nominees: Chris Terrio (Argo), Lucy Alibar & Behn Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), David Magee (Life of Pi), Tony Kushner (Lincoln), David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)
Will Win: Tony Kushner (Lincoln)
Should Win: David Magee (Life of Pi)
Must Not Win: David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)
Write-In Nominees: Tom Stoppard (Anna Karenina); Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain (Rust and Bone)
I'm fairly certain Tony Kushner will take his third step towards an EGOT on Sunday, adding an Oscar to the Emmy and Tony awards already on his mantle. I found the screenplay to Lincoln emotionally thin and morally timid myself, but better Kushner than an award for the mystifyingly overrated Silver Linings Playbook and its disastrously schizophrenic story. I'd be happy to see Beasts win, but my vote goes to a brilliant adaptation of what everyone agreed was an unadaptable novel: Magee's smart, deceptively rich screenplay for Life of Pi.
WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)
Nominees: Michael Haneke (Amour), Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained), John Gatins (Flight), Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom), Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty)
Will Win: Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty)
Should Win: Michael Haneke (Amour)
Must Not Win: Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained)
Write-In Nominees: Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and Ercan Kesal (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon (The Cabin in the Woods), Leos Carax (Holy Motors)
Common wisdom has Tarantino favored in this category, but of the likely winners I'd like to think that voters will choose the smart, admirably restrained screenplay for Zero Dark Thirty over the irresponsible mess of Django Unchained. My regular readers, however, will not be surprised to hear that my vote goes to Michael Haneke's spare, ruthless, devastating script for Amour.
Will Win: Amour
Should Win: Amour
Must Not Win: N/A
Write-In Nominees: Rust and Bone, This is Not a Film, The Kid with a Bike, Holy Motors, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
I saw so many great foreign-language films this year, and still didn't manage to catch up with three of the five nominees. (This is one of those categories where you can't blame the Academy for too many omissions, since each country chooses which film they want to enter for competition. We can, however, blame France for submitting the thin, crowd-pleasing The Intouchables—which made the short-list, but not the final-five—when they had Holy Motors, The Kid with a Bike, or Rust and Bone to choose from.) However, I have trouble imagining there was a better film out there this year than Amour. Kudos to the Academy for nominating it for Best Picture and Best Actress (see below); it probably doesn't have a prayer in those categories, but it is (deservedly) a mortal lock here.
Speaking of mortal locks, if you want to place the safest bet possible—and if you can find someone to take it—put your money on Ms. Hathaway to add yet another shining trophy to her groaning mantle. The cynical backlash against her short, emotionally wrenching performance in Les Misérables began almost before the film opened, but her four-and-a-half minute rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" was both genuinely powerful and instantly iconic. I hated Les Misérables with a fiery passion, but she was so good I almost went back just to watch her scenes again. (Almost.) And, though the predictability of this category is a bore, I thank God Hathaway is such an unstoppable force this year: otherwise, I'd have to watch Sally Field accept another Oscar—this time for a role in which she was painfully miscast.
Nominees: John Reitz, Gregg Rodloff, and Jose Antonio Garcia (Argo), Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson, and Simon Hayes (Les Misérables), Ron Bartlett, D. M. Hemphill, and Drew Kunin (Life of Pi), Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom, and Ronald Judkins (Lincoln), Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell, and Stuart Wilson (Skyfall)
The difference between Sound Mixing and Sound Editing escapes most of us, and for good reason: for one thing, the categories are counter-intuitively named. The Sound Editor creates the sound effects, while the Sound Mixer edits them into the film. These are important jobs, and god bless them both, but it would take a better ear than mine to form strong opinions here. However, all the hype over the use of "live singing" in Les Misérables makes me think it will probably pull the votes here, and fair enough: it certainly can't have been an easy gig. However, every time I'm reminded that the set of Life of Pi basically consisted of a kid standing in a wooden boat before a lot of green screen, I'm inclined to award it kudos in the technical categories: nearly every single element of that wholly immersive world had to be created from scratch.
Nominees: Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn (Argo), Wylie Stateman (Django Unchained), Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton (Life of Pi), Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers (Skyfall), Paul N. J. Ottosson (Zero Dark Thirty)
Will Win: Zero Dark Thirty
Should Win: Life of Pi
Must Not Win: N/A
Write-In Nominees: None
If you look at the past winners in this category, you see that the Academy has recognized the challenges of creating sound in largely CGI worlds—Hugo and Inception are the last two winners—so Life of Pidefinitely has a chance here. However, if you look further back, you'll see the category is dominated by war movies: apparently, nothing says good sound editing like the whine of bullets whizzing past our ears. So the safe money is probably on Zero Dark Thirty.
MAKE-UP AND HAIRSTYLING
Nominees: Howard Berger, Peter Montagna, and Martin Samuel (Hitchcock), Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater and Tami Lane (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell (Les Misérables)
Hitchcock? Seriously? And I feel like an eight-year old hurling PlayDo with a miniature trebuchet could achieve more realistic looking makeup than what I saw on the dwarves in The Hobbit. This has always been a strange category, subject to its own mysterious rules of nominating, and this year is no different.
The dueling Snow White movies were literally the last things I caught up with—I watched them back-to-back last night—and I was actually impressed with the inventive visual styles of both of them, including the costumes. None of the nominees here are unworthy, but they don't call 'em "costume dramas" for nothing, and Anna Karenina was the best one I've seen in years.
Will Win: Open Heart
Should Win: No opinion
Must Not Win: N/A
Write-In Nominees: None
There is a very good movie theater in Chicago called the Music Box. Every year, the Music Box plays the Documentary Shorts on the big screen for one week only. Every year, I dutifully mark the dates in my calender, and promise myself that I won't miss them. And, every year, I remember to look at my calender three to seven days after the dates in question. Bewilderingly, the documentary shorts do not seem to be available on iTunes or On Demand either, despite this site implying that they would be. Open Heart seems to be the favorite, and that is the sum total of what I know about the Documentary Shorts. (You can watch trailers for all the short films here.)
Nominees: 5 Broken Cameras, The Gatekeepers, How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War, Searching for Sugar Man
Will Win: Searching for Sugar Man
Should Win: Searching for Sugar Man
Must Not Win: N/A
Write-In Nominees: This is Not a Film, The Central Park Five, The Queen of Versailles, Marina Abromovic: The Artist Is Present
Always the most controversial list of nominees at the Oscars, the documentary branch hasn't quite fixed its flawed nominating procedures, but it's getting better: I haven't seen 5 Broken Cameras or The Gatekeepers yet, but otherwise there's not an unworthy candidate here. (My biggest gripe is the baffling omission of Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s This is Not a Film, a movie I would have voted into the Best Picture category if it had been up to me.) However, I'll be happy to see the Oscar go to Malik Bendjelloul’s surprising, uplifting, stranger-than-fiction success story Searching for Sugar Man.
Yes, I will shit on the bloated monstrosity of The Hobbit each and every time you give me the opportunity, and I will celebrate the extraordinary achievement of Life of Pi just as eagerly. A misguided marketing campaign called it this year's Avatar, but that was doing Ang Lee's film a serious injustice. Cameron's movie felt like an aggressively impressive, ludicrously expensive assault on the senses, while watching Life of Pi on the big screen in 3D (which I usually detest) was like seeing Dorothy step out of sepia into the glorious colors of Oz. Best of all, these exquisite, groundbreaking, jaw-droppingly beautiful special effects were actually in service of a smart, emotionally and spiritually rich story. (Only Ang Lee could get me to vote against Joss Whedon.)
Nominees: William Goldenberg (Argo), Tim Squyres (Life of Pi), Michael Kahn (Lincoln), Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers (Silver Linings Playbook), Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg (Zero Dark Thirty)
Argo is expected to win this category—and, given the momentum the film has this awards season, I'm not surprised—but I actually found the visual storytelling in Zero Dark Thirty to be much stronger. Either way, double-nominee William Goldenberg should go home happy.
MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)
Nominees: "Before my Time" (from Chasing Ice), "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" (from Ted), "Pi's Lullaby" (from Life of Pi), "Skyfall" (from Skyfall), "Suddenly" (from Les Misérables)
It's bad enough that he's hosting, but I live in terror of a world in which I would ever have to utter the words "Oscar-winner Seth Macfarlane." Fortunately, America's #1 lobotomizer doesn't stand a chance against Adele's modern take on a Bond theme song, "Skyfall." Like the film itself, it's a perfect blend of old-style 007 cheesiness and 21st century sensibilities, and an instant classic. (Watch the video here.)
This appears to be a two-horse race between Mychael Danna's haunting score for Life of Pi and John Williams' John-Williamsy score for Lincoln. Hey, you know who doesn't need another Oscar, after five wins and forty-eight nominations? John-fucking-Williams.
Will Win: Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Should Win: Michael Haneke, Amour
Must Not Win: David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Write-In Nominees: Catherine Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), Joe Wright (Anna Karenina), Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone), Sam Mendes (Skyfall), and just about everybody else on my Best of the Year list. (Oh, and who directed Argo anyway?)
Here's a mini-drinking game for Oscar night: count how many times throughout the evening people make jokes about Ben Affleck's omission from this category, and then count how many times the camera cuts to him when the category is announced. (Personally, I think Argo—though good—is slightly overrated, and I understand Affleck's omission: I would have given Russell's spot to Bigelow or Wright before Affleck.) But his absence makes this an interesting race: the smart money seems to be on Spielberg, but I'm calling a slight upset here and predicting Ang Lee goes home with a well-deserved prize. (Affleck should comfort himself with the fact that Lee won for directing Brokeback Mountain in 2006, but lost Best Picture to the excremental Crash. At least Ben will get the big trophy.) My man Michael Haneke has no chance, but I'm happy he was nominated.
Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
Should Win: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
Must Not Win: Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables)
Write-In Nominees: Jesus, where do I start? How about with JEAN-LOUIS-MOTHERFUCKIN' TRINTIGNANT (Amour). Also, Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi), Denis Lavant (Holy Motors), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone), John Hawkes (The Sessions), and a bunch of other foreign actors who never had a chance that you can read about here.
I can't even believe I'm saying this—I've been on record for a while as thinking that Daniel Day-Lewis is incredibly overrated—but, among the available options, he is clearly the best choice. Phoenix was impressive in The Master, but hampered by an incredibly muddled screenplay that made just exactly what Phoenix was doing unclear and unfocused. Day-Lewis, on the other hand, gave a restrained, gentle, inwardly-turned performance as our 16th president. (Besides, I might as well vote for him, since—after Supporting Actress—this is the least suspenseful award of the night.) Meanwhile—while we should be grateful his co-star got a nomination—go watch Trintignant in Amour and ask yourself what else a guy should have to do to get a nomination in this town.
ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Nominees: Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Naomi Watts (The Impossible)
Will Win: Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Should Win: Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)
Must Not Win: N/A
Write-In Nominees: Marion Cotillard(Rust and Bone), Michelle Williams (Take this Waltz), Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea), Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina)
Easily the most interesting category of the evening: as usual, my first choice (Cotillard) isn't here, but my second choice is: 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva. There's absolutely no question Riva deserves it, and she actually has a shot: current Vegas odds heavily favor Lawrence—whom I like, but no—but some bookies are only paying a little over 2:1 on Riva, who is the oldest nominee in this category's history. I'm rooting for her, but I'm also throwing caution to the winds and calling a huge upset here, and predicting—just for fun—a surprise win for the youngest ever nominee, 50:1 longshot Quvenzhané Wallis. (There have been such upsets before: not many, but hey, it could happen.)
Only three movies in history have ever won the Oscar without their directors being nominated: Wings (1925/26), Grand Hotel (1931/32), and Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Expect it to happen again this year, as Ben Affleck's Argo has all the momentum this awards season. Frankly, while I thought Argo was perfectly fine, I don't understand the love—is it really as simple as Hollywood loving a film in which Hollywood saves the day?—but better Argo than Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained, or Les Misérables. I've made my peace with the fact that the actual best movie of 2012—Michael Haneke's Amour—isn't going to win anything but Best Foreign Language film, and that's okay: any organization that ever gave an award to Driving Miss Daisy should be congratulated for simply acknowledging that Amour exists. (I've done enough raving about this film, so I'll spare you here: you can go read my review if you want the spiel.) However, I harbor a secret hope that my second favorite film of the year—Ang Lee's Life of Pi—could squeak out a victory here. If that happens, I'll call it a good night.
So those are my picks and predictions. I welcome your own in the comments below. As I mentioned above, be sure to follow me on Twitter, where I'll be live-snarking Oscar Night all the way from the Red Carpet to the final credits. Hope to see you there: (Black-tie optional, funny hat mandatory.)