As the annual Academy Award bacchanalia approaches, all of us who run pop culture websites are more or less contractually obligated to share our predictions and preferences. Frankly, I think we might as well also be obligated to put our money where our mouths are, and throw twenty bucks into a common pool, with the winning blog taking the pot. (I myself, it should be noted, would never, ever win.)
I seriously considered not doing it this year, however, as the bloom is off the rose a bit for me when it comes to awards shows in general and the Oscars in particular. I think at this point most of us accept that the Oscars are not really any kind of arbiter of artistic merit, and in fact they never have been. (Look at the list of winners so far in the 85 years of the Academy Awards, and you'll spot plenty of stinkers. Look at any serious list of the greatest films of all time, and you'll notice that a staggering number of consensus classics never received a nomination from the Academy, let alone a trophy.) The Academy is not a critical body, and the Oscars are more a self-congratulatory company party (and a multi-million dollar marketing tool) than the celebration of artistic merit they pretend to be.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the Academy is a bit out of touch. "This year's nominees are diverse, but the people who vote for the Oscars are not," Mandalit del Barco said on NPR recently. "In fact, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences continues to be an exclusive club that is 93 percent white, 76 percent male, with an average age of 63."
It is also—which should also be self-evident—a Hollywood guild of thousands of individuals from widely diverse backgrounds, holding various qualifications, any of whom may be voting for personal, political, or financial reasons that may have very little to do with an objective critical assessment of the works. On a recent episode of the excellent podcast Filmspotting, Vulture critic Kyle Buchanan mentioned that he'd spoken to two Academy members about how they were voting. These were tech guys, whom one might expect to vote for technically impressive work like Gravity, but that's not how they were going: they reported they were casting ballots for American Hustle's Amy Adams for Best Actress because of "boobs," and were voting for The Wolf of Wall Street's Leonardo DiCaprio because of "boobs."
We all know the actual voting is a quality-divorced crapshoot—and yet we all agree to pretend differently every year, and those of us who obsess about film continue to obsess about the Oscars and other awards shows as if their decisions really matter.
So why do we do it? Well, for one thing, they do matter, of course—just not exactly in the way they pretend. A nomination or an award for a film can mean a larger audience, and financial success, and the probability that we will see more work of that kind—for better or worse—in the future. But that's just another way of saying they matter because they matter: the Oscars are important because we've all agreed to pretend they are, and by continuing to do so we're granting this old, white, male, frequently wrong body of people a staggering amount of power and influence over our cultural lives.
So we should just stop.
But we're not going to. I'm not going to. I can't quite help myself. The Oscars may be confused, corrupt, and self-congratulatory, but they're still the only truly national celebration of cinema that we have, and the conversation about movies they inspire every year is probably valuable—even if the Academy itself has not proven to be particularly adept at judging movies.
Besides, it's fun. I like the dresses.
So let's get on with it. Below are my picks, predictions, and ill-formed opinions about who will win, who should win, and—in some cases—who must not be allowed to win if I'm to retain my sanity and composure on Oscar night. (Since the order of the awards is different every year—and a big secret, for reasons surpassing understanding—I'm following last year's presentation, which is the one schedule we can be certain the awards won't follow.)
Will Win: Jared Leto
Should Win: Michael Fassbender
Must Not Win: Jonah Hill
Write-In Nominees: Daniel Brühl, Rush; James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Like Anne Hathaway in 2013 and Christopher Plummer in 2012, Jared Leto is this award season's runaway train, and—though there's been some justified backlash from the transgender community—I wouldn't bet against him. To me, however, it was a good performance that's getting slightly more attention than it deserves for seriously problematic reasons. Take away the straight-guy-in-a-dress dynamic, and Leto's turn can't hold a candle to Fassbenders' complexly corrupt slaveholder in 12 Years a Slave or Abdi's painfully human pirate in Captain Phillips. Both have a chance, but this is Leto's award to lose.
Will Win: Get a Horse
Should Win: Feral
Write-In Nominee: The Missing Scarf
The power of the Walt Disney Corporation—and the short's attachment to the most successful animated feature in that company's history (see below)—should guarantee a victory for the technically impressive but narratively weak Get a Horse. (The more deserving Mr. Hublot could sneak in, but I doubt it.) As my favorite animated short of the year—Eoin Duffy's hilariously clever The Missing Scarf—just missed getting a nomination, I'm casting my ballot for Daniel Sousa's haunting Feral. (Read my reviews of the animated shorts here.)
Nominees: The Croods; Despicable Me 2; Ernest and Celestine; Frozen; The Wind Rises
Will Win: Frozen
Should Win: Ernest and Celestine
Must Not Win: The Croods
Speaking of the unstoppable Disney juggernaut, it is extremely unlikely that any animated feature is going to come close to threatening Frozen—Disney's highest grossing animated movie ever—for Best Animated Feature. And that's okay: I liked Frozen much more than I was expecting to. (I also—for the record—laughed pretty much all the way through Despicable Me 2.) But my heart is split between the two foreign entries. The Wind Rises, the announced last film of Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, is a lovely, mature, deeply personal film, even if it's not as visually imaginative or narratively interesting as the best of Studio Ghibli's output. But my vote goes to the French-Belgian production Ernest and Celestine, a sweet, gentle, slyly subversive fable about the friendship between a mouse and a bear. (Meanwhile, I found The Croods every bit as crude as its title suggested, it isn't a total travesty, but it doesn't belong in this company.)
This is an interesting category this year. I haven't seen The Grandmaster—mostly because the shorter cut available in the U.S. is reportedly a very different film than Wong Kar-wai's original 130-minute version—but the others are all worthy nominees that tug at my personal biases in different ways. Apart from Bruce Dern's performance, the lovely black-and-white cinematography was basically the only thing I liked about Nebraska. The same is true of Prisoners, and I would love to see the always-excellent (and perennially overlooked) Roger Deakins finally win an Oscar. But to me, it comes down to Bruno Delbonnel's gorgeous, evocative camerawork on Inside Llewyn Davis, or Emmanuel Lubeski's revolutionary, 360-degree stereoscopic lensing of Gravity. If I were really voting I'd be tempted to cast a ballot for the former, as this is one of only two categories in which one can vote for what should have been a Best Picture nominee. As it is, however, Gravity will win here, and it probably deserves to.
Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity
Write-In Nominee: Pacific Rim
I didn't see the latest Hobbit movie—one is enough for a lifetime, thanks—but otherwise these are all worthy nominees, even considering the blatant omission of Guillermo del Toro's visually stunning (if intellectually challenged) Pacific Rim. But if there's a mortal lock in the entire evening, it's probably this award for Gravity.
The smart money appears to be on The Great Gatsby to win this category, but American Hustle has had a lot of momentum this awards season, and—though I think it's slightly overrated—it's definitely a film where the costume design is absolutely essential. I'm counting on it edging out the bloated, phony monstrosity of Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby. I haven't seen The Grandmaster or The Invisible Woman, so my preference, unsurprisingly, is for 12 Years a Slave.
Nominees: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa; Dallas Buyers Club; The Lone Ranger
Will Win: Dallas Buyers Club
Should Win: Probably none of these, but Dallas Buyers Club
Must Not Win: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
Write-In Nominees: American Hustle; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Thor: The Dark World
I never understand the nominees in this category, and this year is no different. Granted, Johnny Knoxville had to be in old-man makeup for the entire running time of Bad Grandpa, but that really justifies an Oscar nomination? Why are there no sci-fi or fantasy films worthy of a nod? And how does American Hustle—which was a hairstyle movie if ever I saw one—not get a nomination in this category? Dallas Buyers Club is not only the clear choice: it's the only watchable movie among the nominees.
Will Win: Just Before Losing Everything
Should Win: Just Before Losing Everything
Must Not Win: That Wasn't Me
The Vegas odds-makers seem to have The Voorman Problem slightly favored here—perhaps because it's the only film in English, or with any familiar names in it—but I'm calling a victory for what is, by far, the most deserving entry: Xavier Legrand's tense, taut mini-masterpiece Just Before Losing Everything (Avant Que Tout Perdre). The good news is, my fears of a win for the technically proficient but highly problematic That Wasn't Me seem to be unfounded. (Read my reviews of the Live-Action Shorts here.)
Nominees: CaveDigger; Facing Fear; Karama Has No Walls; The Lady in Number 6; Prison Terminal
Will Win: The Lady in Number 6
Should Win: Karama Has No Walls
This award will almost certainly go to The Lady in Number 6, the story of Alice Herz, a classical pianist and eternal optimist who was the oldest living Holocaust survivor at 110. If I were giving an Oscar for Best Person I Saw In a Movie This Year, I'd happily give it to Herz, who unfortunately passed away February 23, exactly one week before the Oscar broadcast. Herz's indomitable spirit makes The Lady in Number 6 a charmer, but as a piece of filmmaking it's got some problems, most notably some truly execrable narration. For that reason, my vote goes to the pure, harrowing immediacy of Sara Ishaq's Karama Has No Walls, an account of the revolution in Yemen during the Arab Spring of 2011.
Nominees: The Act of Killing; Cutie and the Boxer; Dirty Wars; The Square; 20 Feet from Stardom
I didn't manage to catch up with either Cutie and the Boxer or Dirty Wars this year, and I seriously regret the absence of Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell among the nominees, but Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing is the clear winner here. An extraordinary, surreal, horrifyingly entertaining study of genocidal killers from their own points of view, The Act of Killing is a devastating piece of filmmaking, and probably deserved a spot among this year's Best Pictures nominees.
Nominees: The Broken Circle Breakdown; The Great Beauty; The Hunt; The Missing Picture; Omar
Will Win: The Great Beauty
Should Win: The Great Beauty
Write-In Nominees: Beyond the Hills; Like Someone In Love; The Past
I didn't get to see The Missing Picture or Omar, and my guess is that neither did most of the Academy members. I enjoyed all of the other three, but Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) is far and away my favorite: it's a gorgeous, wise, ridiculously entertaining film that feels like an instant classic.
Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Inside Llewyn Davis
And here's where I refuse to pretend I understand Sound Mixing and Sound Editing better than I do. Smaug got a Mixing nomination, and All Is Lost got an Editing nod—regrettably, the latter film's only nomination—but otherwise the nominee lists for Sound are identical. The bookies have Gravity winning both these awards easily, and I'm inclined to believe they're right, and that Cuarón's film will more or less sweep the technical categories. Me, I'm going to cast my futile, uninformed votes for the criminally overlooked Inside Llewyn Davis.
Will Win: Lupita Nyong'o
Should Win: Lupita Nyong'o
Must Not Win: Julia Roberts, June Squibb
Write-In Nominees: Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station; Julianne Nicholson, August: Osage County; Margo Martindale, August: Osage County; Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now; Scarlett Johannson, Her
This appears to be a two-woman race, and it's going to be a photo finish. Look, like everyone else in the world, I love me some Jennifer Lawrence: she's a very good actress, she's beautiful, and she seems to have both a sense of humor and a sense of perspective about herself. She's fabulous. She was even very good in American Hustle, in a role for which she was badly miscast. But let me be clear: if she takes Lupita Nyong'o's statue, I WILL CUT A BITCH. (Okay, that's overstating it, but I will swear futilely and copiously at my TV screen.) Nyong'o's mesmerizing, haunting, absolutely heartbreaking performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave is on a whole other level than those of her fellow nominees, and I'm betting that the majority of Academy voters see that. (Hawkins was excellent in Blue Jasmine, Squibb was amusing in a not-very-demanding role in Nebraska, and Roberts was good but unremarkable in August: Osage County. Personally, I would have nominated her co-star Julianne Nicholson before Roberts.)
Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Captain Phillips
This is another of those technical categories that I expect Gravity to sweep, but my vote goes to the sustained, white-knuckle tension of Paul Greengrass's Captain Phillips.
The smart money is on The Great Gatsby to win here, and I suppose its production design is very impressive if you don't mind the shallow, candy-colored travesty it makes of its source-material. But I'm betting on Gravity's very good night to continue here, and I'm betting that voters unfortunately overlook the exquisite, subtly detailed consistency of the production design on Her.
Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Her
Write-In Nominee: 12 Years a Slave
It is one of my great shames as a self-appointed film critic that I not particularly a musical person, and that I mostly notice music in a film when it annoys the crap out of me. I noticed Steven Price's score for Gravity, and I thought it was powerful—but it also annoyed the crap out of me, swelling ominously at times when I thought the film would have been best served by reminding us of the infinite silence of space. (That's Cuarón's fault, not Price's, but still...) On the other hand, I noticed Arcade Fire's evocative score for Her in a good way: its gentle, melancholy melodies perfectly complimented Spike Jonze's gentle, melancholy movie. (And where is Hans Zimmer's beautiful violin-and-cello soundtrack for 12 Years a Slave?)
Nominees: "Happy," Despicable Me 2; "Let It Go," Frozen; "The Moon Song," Her; "Ordinary Love," Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Will Win:"Let It Go"
Should Win: "Let It Go"
Must Not Win: "Ordinary Love"
Like I said, I'm not a music guy, and so I tend to think songs in movies should be judged by how they serve the movie, not necessarily on their own autonomous merits. As a song, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez's "Let It Go" may be a slightly cheesy power anthem; as a character moment in Frozen, however, it's pure, iconic, exhilarating Disney magic. (Don't tell me you didn't feel it: you're lying.) Meanwhile, Pharell Williams' "Happy" is kind of catchy, Karen O's "The Moon Song" is kind of pretty, and U2's "Ordinary Love" is kind of awful.
This is a hard one for me. John Ridley's smart, remarkably restrained adaptation of Solomon Northup's memoir will probably carry the night, and it's certainly deserving—but it's not quite perfect. (The two scenes most often criticized in the film—one with Alfre Woodard and one with Brad Pitt—are both slight missteps of writing.) So I'm casting my imaginary ballot for Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke's collaboration on Before Midnight, the third and most mature film in their fascinating, decades-spanning examination of an evolving love affair. Before Midnight should have gotten a Best Picture slot, and it deserves to win here in the only category in which it was nominated.
In a normal year, it would be dangerous to bet against Woody Allen in this category—but, of course, this was not the normal year for the Woodman. (And—scandals aside—Blue Jasmine is hardly his finest work.) This seems to be a tight race between American Hustle and Her. My choice is Her, and my guess is that this will be the only award it's going to win all night. At the other end of the spectrum, I continue to be mystified at the love for Alexander Payne's movies: I find them smug, shallow, and condescending, and Nebraska is no different.
Will Win: Alfonso Cuarón
Should Win: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Must Not Win: Alexander Payne
Write-In Nominees: J.C. Chandor, All Is Lost; Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips; Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station; Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis; Asghar Farhadi, The Past
This is one of the more interesting categories this year. There is a lot of love for David O. Russell—this is his third nomination in four years, without a win—and Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street was undeniably a directorial tour de force. But it appears to be a two-man race between Alfonso Cuarón and Steve McQueen, with Cuarón slightly favored to win. Both are deserving, and either will be a blow for diversity in the shamefully white male pantheon of Best Director winners. (Taiwan-born Ang Lee has won twice, and Kathryn Bigelow won once: otherwise, all the winners have been white males.) Really, however, this race (and the identical battle over Best Picture) strikes me as a choice between what you find more impressive, artifice or art? Cuarón's technical achievement on Gravity was stunning, but my vote goes to McQueen's exquisite, restrained mastery of emotionally devastating material in 12 Years a Slave. Meanwhile, I would give any of my write-in nominees Alexander Payne's slot, but particularly egregious are the absence of the Coen Brothers and the absence of any nomination for Ryan Coogler's fantastic Fruitvale Station.
Will Win: Cate Blanchett
Should Win: Cate Blanchett
Write-In Nominees: Julie Delpy, Before Midnight; Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color; Amy Acker, Much Ado About Nothing; Bérénice Bejo, The Past; Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color
To me, this is one of the weakest categories this year, and one in which Academy voters overlooked a lot of fantastic performances to nominate four previous winners and a five-time nominee. They're all good actresses, obviously, though Bullock doesn't quite belong in this company, and Streep gave a scenery-chewing performance in a clumsily-directed film. Fortunately, the deserving Blanchett has had a mortal lock on this category since Blue Jasmine opened way back in August, and—unless the Woody Allen backlash is a lot stronger than I think it is—she still does. Among the choices, she's clearly the right one: Allen's screenplay may be a rehash of A Streetcar Named Desire, but Blanchett is extraordinary as the tightly wound, pill-popping socialite whose self-delusional world has fallen apart around her. (In a perfect world, I'd be tearing my hair out over a choice between Acker and Exarchopoulos—but we don't live in that world.)
Will Win: Matthew McConaughey
Should Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Write-In Nominees: Robert Redford, All Is Lost; Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips; Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station; Joaquin Phoenix, Her; Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
This is another category where I would happily make substitutions for 3 out of 5 of the nominees. DiCaprio's inclusion here is baffling to me, as every nomination he's received since What's Eating Gilbert Grape? has been. Bale and Dern were both good, but every actor on my write-in list—particularly Oscar Isaac—gave a stronger performance. As it stands, Matthew McConaughey will almost certainly win, and I won't mind that much: he's become a fantastic, fascinating actor, and he gives an excellent performance here in a movie I didn't like as much as everyone else seems to. The actual best actor, however, was Chiwetel Ejiofor, who makes all the right choices in a role that might have gone disastrously wrong: a lesser actor would have taken the material of 12 Years a Slave and begged shamelessly for the Oscar, but Ejiofor's restrained, inward-turned performance is one that actually deserves it.
Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: 12 Years a Slave
Must Not Win: Nebraska, Philomena
Write-In Nominees: All Is Lost; Before Midnight; Fruitvale Station; Inside Llewyn Davis; Much Ado About Nothing
I could add several more movies to my write-in list—only four of my 20 Best of 2013 made the cut, after all—but this is a better than average slate of nominees, and the race seems to be coming down to two of the most deserving: Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. (American Hustle, which had a lot of momentum earlier in the season, could still slip in, but the tide seems to have thankfully turned.) Gravity, as I've indicated, is going to have a very good night—probably taking home the highest number of naked gold dudes—but I'm betting on the rare confluence of events in which the best picture of the year is actually named The Best Picture of the Year.
If I'm right, I'll be forced to admit that the Academy—even with all its vanities, vagaries, and venalities—does indeed get it right once in a while.
Oscar Night is Sunday, March 2, 2014
Follow me on Twitter, where I'll be sporadically commenting on the red carpet and awards, and tweeting the (no-doubt funnier) things my girlfriend, The Unenthusiastic Critic, has to say.