Monday, March 20, 2017

How Good is Logan?

The most significant Sliding Doors–esque moment for 21st century Hollywood actually occurred in 1999, when the filming of Mission: Impossible 2 went over schedule. This forced the man playing the film’s villain, an up-and-coming Scottish actor named Dougray Scott, to drop out of his next project—playing Wolverine in a big budget X-Men movie. Instead, the role went to a little-known Australian actor named Hugh Jackman, whose screen career up to that point had totaled 18 episodes of various Australian TV shows, a remake of Oklahoma! for Australian television, and two Australian movies that didn’t open internationally.

To fully understand the implications of that casting switch, you must know three things:

1.  There hadn’t yet been a big budget movie based on a Marvel superhero, or a comic book movie that relied on modern special effects and CGI, and no one knew what to expect. In fact, there was wide speculation that the movie would bomb, and that characters like the X-Men simply couldn’t work in movies.
2.  The huge success of X-Men very directly led to the comic book movie boom of the 2000s, as well as Marvel creating their own movie studio and developing Hollywood’s first shared cinematic universe. Marvel movies now routinely make over a billion dollars per year (not a typo), and every other studio in Hollywood is now trying to create shared universes of their own.
3.  The huge success of X-Men, and arguably the reason the movie even worked at all, is probably because of how good Jackman was as Wolverine. It was a performance that had to be perfect for the movie to be anything but a joke, and Jackman nailed it.

So it’s really not that much of a stretch to suggest that, had Mission: Impossible 2 not gone over schedule, the movie landscape of the 21st century could have looked startlingly different.

It’s also amazing to think about the fact that Jackman has now been regularly playing Wolverine for 17 years, and Logan marks his 9th film appearance as the character. Those are numbers that, when taken together, are nearly unrivaled in the history of cinema. Sylvester Stallone has played Rocky Balboa over a period of 39 years, but only seven times and with two long breaks. Shintaro Katsu played the blind swordsman Zatoichi 25 times in a popular series of Japanese films, but those were all released in only 11 years. (He then did so again for a 26th time, but only after a 16-year break.) Several James Bond supporting players (M, Q, and Moneypenny) were played by actors that can beat both numbers, but they had bit parts that only required a day or two of filming. Christopher Lee played Dracula 10 times over 18 years, but there was an eight-year gap between the first and second film. Indeed, I can only find one example of an actor who regularly starred as the same character more than nine times over a span longer than 17 years—Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp, who he played well over 50 times from 1914 to 1936. So that’s how far back you have to go to better Jackman’s achievement—to Chaplin, more than 80 years ago.

Playing Wolverine has basically been Hugh Jackman’s entire adult life, and now he’s (allegedly) said goodbye to the character with Logan. The film has been widely acclaimed as one of the best superhero movies ever, but I have to loudly wonder why. As I’ve been thinking about Logan for over a week now, I actually keep finding myself wondering if it might be my pick for the most overrated movie of all time. Sure, there have been other movies loved by audiences that I didn’t like, but the critical community agreed with me. There have also been other films loved by critics that I didn’t respond to, but audiences didn’t respond either. Logan is the only movie I can think of that has been truly adored by both critics and audiences alike, yet leaves me alone in the dark, wondering why.

Reason People Love Logan #1: Because It’s “Grown Up”

The most common praise thrown onto Logan is that it (apparently) marks the moment that superhero movies grew up. But already, I have questions. Do people mean that it’s the first superhero movie with adult themes? Because I thought that was The Dark Knight, and seemingly everyone else in 2008 thought that too. So maybe people think Logan is “grown up” because of its R-rating? But Deadpool was rated R too. I guess maybe people could be referring to the fact that Logan showed superheroes aging and confronting their own mortality? But The Dark Knight Rises did that. I will grant that Logan is the first superhero movie to do all three, but once you shovel that deep to dig for specifics, every movie can be called the first of something.

Reason People Love Logan #2: It Portrays “Realistic Violence”

Ummm, well, first of all, no, it doesn’t. It portrays an old man with metal claws and his pseudo-cloned young ninja daughter fighting cyborgs and a faster, grunt-ier cloned version of himself. But okay, I know I’m just being sassy, so let’s dig deeper into what people mean when they laud the film for its realistic violence. Do they mean that it places the violence into a context of actual bodily harm? Well, no, not really, because the two principal heroes and the principal villain all possess powers that let them heal from anything. Is the violence just realistic-looking? Again, no, because the heroes are constantly defying gravity to fly through the air, and breaking the all-time on-screen grunt record while doing it. Seriously, if the Academy Awards handed men Oscars for grunting the way they hand women Oscars for scenes where they have to wipe their snot away, Hugh Jackman would be next year’s best actor shoo-in. So these aren’t exactly Bourne Ultimatum–level fight scenes in regards to realism. The only concession I can get to here is that I guess the fight scenes are bloodier than any other superhero movie, but blood quotient isn’t what makes a great film.

Reason People Love Logan #3: It’s Not a Superhero Movie, It’s a Western

Okay sure, there are several ways in which Logan has more in common with a classic western than with modern superhero movies, but again, we’re not in new territory here. We’ve seen multiple Marvel movies try to structurally and/or thematically evoke other genres, such as Ant-Man (heist flick), Captain America: Winter Soldier (conspiracy thriller), and Guardians of the Galaxy (space opera). Yes, this is arguably the first superhero movie to try and be a western (at least in as much as all superhero movies aren’t already westerns), but that brings us back to the “getting too specific to identify how it’s the first” problem.

Reason People Love Logan #4: It Cared More About its Characters Than its Plot

Nope, disagree. Every single scene in the film is about advancing the plot, except, arguably, the Eriq La Salle farmer segue—but I would posit that sequence wasn’t about advancing a character arc, but rather about introducing greater stakes and consequences to the story.

Reason People Love Logan #5: Because it has Powerful Themes About Friendship, Fatherhood, and Responsibility

Okay, sure. I’ll take beef with the use of the term “powerful,” but yeah, those themes are there. Tell me again how that makes Logan so amazing? Most bad movies still have major themes of the human condition.

Reason People Love Logan #6: Because it’s “Just Great Filmmaking”

And now we get down to it. All of the “is it really the first to…” talk is just that: talk. Being the first to do something doesn’t make a movie great, and not being the first to do anything doesn’t make a movie bad. They’re all just reasons we concoct to develop or attack an argument of taste. Is Logan great filmmaking? I say no. I didn’t find any nuance in the film. As mentioned above, the fight scenes are all grunting, growling, and leaping. The film kills major characters, but doesn’t wrestle with death. It also kills scores of minor and unnamed characters, but doesn’t ask the audience to experience the gravity of so much killing, it just asks us to think its cool. And, by the way, I find nothing wrong with cinematic violence being cool, but I do think we can’t have it both ways—we’re either dealing with awesome cool violence or consequential violence, never both. But Logan asks us to watch its cool violence and then feel it to be consequential and weighty, and my pleasure centers don’t quite work that way. I’ve never really found myself thinking, “That was so bad ass! And it gave me so many feels!” One or the other.

Logan also suffered from a villain problem that I’ve come to think of as the “Iron Man Problem”—once the first Iron Man movie gave us a villain that was basically just a bigger, more powerful version of Iron Man, the sequels could only up the stakes from there. (Dozens of Iron Men!!) Logan doesn’t give us a real villain; it only gives us a younger, more savage version of our hero. And, conveniently, one who can’t talk, because the movie implicitly knew it had nothing for him to say.

Ultimately, I think to love Logan requires a kind of “I didn’t know superhero movies could be like that” type of thinking, and maybe I’ve just read far too many comic books to ever have that train of thought go through my head. I’ve read dozens of adult, violent, superhero stories that dealt with mature themes and mortality, and I’ve seen them done better than Logan. My requirement to loving superhero movies, of which I love many, has never been to show me something I haven’t seen before, because I already assume that isn’t happening. I merely want to see something done really well, and devoid of any “it’s not like everything else” modifiers, I just don’t think Logan was a well-crafted story or movie.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all still tip our hats to Hugh Jackman. I had just graduated high school when he first donned his prop claws, and now I’m 35 years old. Hugh Jackman has been playing Wolverine for my entire adult life, and his performance as the character has done more to plot the course of 21st century Hollywood than probably any other thing or person.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

2017 Oscars Post-Mortem

I heard Wesley Morris, a New York Times critic, say on a podcast the other day that the most unfortunate thing about the Best Picture gaff at the Oscars is that now, to even get to coverage about Moonlight winning, you have to trudge through several other paragraphs (of what is basically scandal reporting) first. He’s right; that sucks. So I won’t do it. We’re talking about Moonlight first, and then the Best Picture kerfuffle.

Moonlight is Your 2016 Best Picture Winner. Forever.

I always wait at least a full day (or three) after the Oscars are over before I write about them. This is 49% laziness and 51% strategy. I like to read and listen to everyone else’s hot takes first, and see what pundits think the takeaways are, before I respond with my own. Part of the reason the Oscars matter so much is because people think they matter so much. So discovering the precise ways that people think they mattered is an essential part of discovering why they actually mattered.

The most disheartening thing I read and heard yesterday, from multiple sources, was people being elated that a movie “which had no business being at the Oscars” won Best Picture. This killed me. The funny thing is, everyone saying this meant it as a compliment. They were all happy that Moonlight won. But it’s a compliment that is severely backhanded, self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s get something straight: Moonlight had every business being at the Oscars. It was probably the best film of the year, and the critical community unanimously agreed on this. It was gorgeously written, acted, shot, edited, and scored, and those five things intertwining in artful ways is the very heart of great cinema.

When people express some variation of shock that Moonlight could win Best Picture, these people are tacitly suggesting that only big spectacle films like Titanic, historical dramas about Great Complicated Men like A Beautiful Mind, or occasionally films about why Hollywood is so awesome, à la Argo, are what are “allowed” to win Best Picture. But this view of what the Oscars are has been tenuous and only barely true for a long time now.

In the last ten years, we’ve seen narratively ambiguous art films like No Country for Old Men and Birdman win Best Picture, as well as a film that actively sought to make its audience uncomfortable (12 Years a Slave), a film that opened in the summer and made no money (The Hurt Locker), a silent film (The Artist), and a film about a reality show contestant in India (Slumdog Millionaire). Of the last ten Best Picture winners, only three of them nicely fit into any traditional Oscar narrative—The King’s Speech, Argo, and Spotlight. The point is, “traditional Oscar narratives” don’t matter anymore, and that’s been the case for a while. The new narrative is, what are the best films of the year? Seriously, what’s the last movie you can think of that was objectively in the conversation for the best film of the year, and it *wasn’t* considered a serious possibility to win Best Picture? For me, the answer to that question is Wall-E, and that was nine years ago. According to Metacritic, the three best-reviewed English-language feature films of 2016 each won at least two of the top eight Oscars, and collectively, they won seven of the eight. The Oscars are still changing, but more importantly, the Oscars have already changed.

Is the Academy still full of out-of-touch old men? Yes, absolutely. That’s how you get Hacksaw Ridge getting nominated for, and winning, several Oscars. But crucially, the Academy is now even more full of young, diverse artists. Just last year, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs inaugurated the largest new member class in Academy history, and that class was full of women, people of color, and non-Americans. Nominating, and awarding, the best films of the year should be the new normal for this Academy, and we need to stop being shocked when it happens.

I was one of the only people to predict Moonlight would win, and I partially wonder if that’s not because I’m actually any good at predicting, but rather because I’m one of the only people that’s fully realized these aren’t your parents’ Oscars anymore, and haven’t been for a while. Part of the reason so many experts didn’t think Moonlight had a chance is because they inherently don’t believe the Oscars award films like Moonlight. I inherently did believe that, because I’ve been watching it happen for a decade. Now it’s time for all of us to believe that. Whatever film ends up being the best of 2017, we should believe that merit is plenty reason enough for it to contend for Best Picture. These are our Oscars. Let’s normalize them.

La La Land Didn’t Win Best Picture. But it did for 2 Minutes.

If you haven’t heard the official explanation for what happened, it’s actually far less nefarious than it seemed at the time. It’s even happened once before, when Sammy Davis Jr. was presenting the Oscar for Best Score in 1964. The only difference that time was that the winner in the incorrect envelope he was given was lucky enough not to be a nominee in the category he was presenting for, so everyone knew it was wrong right away. No one was giving their acceptance speech before the mistake was corrected.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the accounting firm that tabulates the Oscar ballots, actually prints two envelopes with the winners for every award. Each set of 24 winning envelopes goes in a separate briefcase, and they situate one of the briefcases at each side of the stage. This is probably partially for safety, in case anything happens to one of the briefcases, and partially for convenience, so that presenters can enter on either side of the stage without worrying about which envelope is where. So there were always two Best Actress envelopes, just as there are two for every category. And when it came time for Best Picture, the PwC accountant accidentally handed Warren Beatty the backup Best Actress envelope instead of the Best Picture envelope.

But, of course, within that, is lots of bad luck. The most fascinating aspect of the bad luck to me is that it ended up being the Best Actress envelope, an award in which Emma Stone was the only one of the five nominees to even be in a Best Picture nominee. So if anyone else won Best Actress (Isabelle Huppert, Natalie Portman, etc.), then this whole snafu wouldn’t have been nearly as bad. It’s also amusing to imagine if it had been the envelope for Best Actor instead of Best Actress, because then Manchester by the Sea—which was produced by Matt Damon—would have been announced as the wrong Best Picture winner, and Jimmy Kimmel would have literally gotten to take the Best Picture Oscar away from Matt Damon on live television, without it even being a prank or a rehearsed bit.

Two things I do find interesting are 1) how Warren Beatty seems to have taken so much blame for this when it was clearly more the fault of Faye Dunaway, who just blurted out the first words she saw, and 2) what this means going forward for whether the Oscars will stick with PwC as their accounting firm. The accountant who handed out the wrong envelope was busy tweeting a photo of Emma Stone from backstage at the time, which he also apparently wasn’t supposed to be doing. And, even worse, it seems he didn’t react to the incorrect announcement nearly fast enough, with the La La Land team having given three full speeches before the mistake was corrected. It’s very possible he’ll get fired, and at least conceivable that the Academy will fire PwC from the Oscars. And if that happens, it could be a much bigger deal than it seems. If a new accounting team is hired to tabulate the votes, that could be an impetus to re-evaluate and possibly overhaul the entire voting system that the Oscars use. Certainly a new firm would have new ideas on how best to do things, and this is happening both at a time when the Academy seems especially open to change, and the Academy President is aggressively seeking it. We’ll see where this goes from here, but there’s a real possibility that it wasn’t merely a gaff with no long-term repercussions.

Other Thoughts and Notes

  • I was impressed with the job Jimmy Kimmel did, and I say that as someone who was not optimistic about his hosting potential. There was nothing as good as Fallon’s La La Land-swiped musical opening to the Golden Globes, but generally speaking, I thought everything worked, and some of the bits, like the mean tweets and his mocking of We Bought a Zoo, were hilarious. I even seem to be in the minority of people that thought the tour bus segment was pretty funny. My only complaint about it was that people who are on a tour bus during the Oscars are clearly people who do not care about watching the Oscars, so they didn’t appreciate, or emote, the grandeur of the event.
  • Every Oscar producer changes the show in minor ways, and one minor change this year that I particularly loved was the inclusion of montages of previous winners being announced, and giving their acceptance speeches, for the four acting awards. I’ve long thought the Oscars do a bad job of appreciating their own history, and this was an improvement in that area.
  • The eight major Oscars (Picture, Director, the four acting categories, and the two Screenplay categories) all went to the right films and performances. There isn’t a single winner of the bunch that we’ll look back on and loudly lament, “How did Film/Person X lose to that?” (as we do with so many Oscar winners).
  • Two long losing streaks came to a close. Pixar won Best Animated Short for the first time since 2002, toppling a losing streak of eight nominations over the past 14 years. And even better, sound designer Kevin O’Connell finally won an Oscar on his 21st nomination. His previous 20 nominations came in just 25 years, from 1984-2008. He owned the all-time Oscar record of most nominations without a win, across all categories. Now, O’Connell’s former partner, Greg P. Russell, is the new record holder, having been nominated 17 times (12 of which were in partnership with O’Connell) without winning yet.
  • The most bizarre win of the night was certainly the Best Editing Oscar that went to Hacksaw Ridge, and it’s really difficult to know what to make of that. Both La La Land and Moonlight were far more deserving here, and perhaps the only explanation is that they split the vote of the cinephiles in the Academy (as it’s truly difficult to try and make a cogent argument for which of them is “better” edited), which allowed the Steak Eaters to swoop in and carry their pick to victory here. It does make me wonder how different the results would be across the board if the preferential ballot were instituted in every category. For instance, Casey Affleck won Best Actor because he clearly received the most first place votes, but if a preferential ballot were used in that race, it likely would have strongly favored Denzel, who had no controversies to keep him from getting the most second place votes. It’s interesting to think about.
  • A few other records and firsts: O.J.: Made in America is now officially the longest film to ever win an Oscar, beating out 1966’s War and Peace, a winner for Best Foreign Language Film, by 40 minutes. Mahershala Ali is the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar. Damien Chazelle is now the youngest Best Director winner ever, beating the 1932 winner, Norman Taurog, by several months (though both were 32 at the time of their win). Moonlight is the first film to win Best Picture without having a white actor in the principal cast, as well as the first Best Picture winner directed by an African-American. (12 Years a Slave’s director, Steve McQueen, is British.) And, of course, Suicide Squad officially and unarguably became the worst movie to ever win an Oscar—a record that I truly hope we never see broken.
  • For my part, I went 14 for 24 in my predictions, so definitely not my best performance. Four of my misses—Costume Design, Editing, Makeup, and Sound Editing—were categories that every single expert got wrong. Three of my misses—Sound Mixing, Documentary Short, and Live Action Short—were categories that every expert but one got wrong. And three of my misses—Documentary Feature, Foreign Language Film, and Animated Short—were categories where I picked upsets that didn’t happen. I did, however, correctly predict Best Picture and Best Actor, which almost every expert got wrong. The final score tally is that I beat Variety by one; Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Ringer each beat me by one; Anne Thompson (of Indiewire) beat me by three; and Vanity Fair won the year, going 18 for 24 and beating me by four. I was, however, the only person to get all eight major categories correct, and this is the second year in a row I’ve correctly predicted Best Picture while all of the experts got it wrong. So I guess I’ll take it.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Predicting the 2017 Oscar Winners

2017 Oscar Predictions

Welcome to Snob Super Bowl 2017!! On Sunday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) will give out 24 little gold bald men. Some will be deserving, others won’t be. But all of them are fun to spend way too much time predicting and analyzing, only to find out we were all clueless. Last year my predictions beat every expert, but this year will be tricky, both because I’ve gone against the grain more than I usually do, and because a chaotic political climate could hurt the prospects of the looming juggernaut that is La La Land. Remember, when AMPAS voted on the nominees, Obama was still POTUS. We knew Trump was coming, and knew it would be a disaster, but now we know that it’s actually even worse. Will that affect anything? Read on to find out.

As always, all incorrect predictions are fake news.

Best Picture
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

If you’re betting actual money on the Oscars, you should absolutely bet on La La Land to win Best Picture. It’s by far the safest pick. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, please allow me to spend several paragraphs explaining why I actually think Moonlight will pull off the upset.

First, we need to go over the voting rules for Best Picture, because they’re different than any other category, and they’re important. Voters rank the Best Picture nominees in order of preference, and the goal is for the winner to get over 50% of the first-place votes. If that doesn’t happen initially (which it probably won’t), then the nominee that gets the fewest first-place votes is thrown out, and the second-place votes on those ballots become first-place votes. If still nothing has 50%, then the process repeats—the 8th place film gets booted out, and those second-place votes get reallocated, and so on. And eventually something will have at least 3,350 first-place votes.

Now, awards analysts will often say that getting the most second place votes is extremely important, but that’s actually not true. Getting the most second place votes doesn’t matter; what matters is getting the most second place votes on the ballots that get eliminated first. So here’s the real key: figure out what films are likely to get the least amount of first-place votes, and then try to figure out what the people who thought those were the best films of the year might plausibly think are the second best films of the year.

So okay, let’s start getting really hypothetical and try to game this out. Let’s say the films with the lowest amount of first-place votes are probably Fences, Hell or High Water, and Hidden Figures, which seem reasonable since those are the three nominees with the lowest amount of total nominations. Now try and get in the heads of the people that think those are the best films of the year. What might they think is second best? All three films are character-driven dramas about social justice. Two are indies. Two are about African-Americans. For all three films, it seems far more likely that their voters would gravitate more toward Moonlight being higher on their ballots than they would La La Land.

So that’s the mathematical reason I think Moonlight will win. Now here’s the political one: In three of the last five years, the Best Picture Oscar has gone to a film that is about Hollywood or the entertainment industry (The Artist, Argo, and Birdman). After two years of #OscarsSoWhite, and with a truly incredible “black” film on the ballot (which is, by the way, the most critically revered film of the year), I think a large swath of the Academy will feel truly embarrassed if La La Land wins over Moonlight. A La La Land win could further the narrative that “Hollywood doesn’t get it,” which the Academy really doesn’t want. And that brings us to the Trump factor; if ever there were a time people might feel galvanized to recognize a movie about a gay black protagonist growing up in the ghetto, it’s 2017.

Yes, La La Land tied the all-time nominations record with 14, while Moonlight *only* got eight, but that doesn’t matter as much as it seems like it would. Last year, Spotlight only received six nominations while Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant got 10 and 12, respectively, but Spotlight won Best Picture. With both the math and the politics in its favor, not to mention merit, Moonlight will do the same. Or so I think.

Best Director
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Unlike Best Picture, for all of the other awards it only matters how many first place votes you get. And I just don’t see anyone getting more first place votes than Damien Chazelle. Having just turned 32, and with two masterpieces already under his belt, he’s the very person that the word “wunderkind” was created to describe. I’m not totally ruling out Barry Jenkins here (unlike the other three nominees, who I am totally ruling out), and voters surely know that no person of African descent has ever won the Best Director Oscar. But even still, it would be a massive shock if Damien Chazelle doesn’t become the youngest Best Director winner in history on Sunday.

Best Actor
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences

Pundits spent all of 2016 thinking Casey Affleck had this in the bag, and now they’ve spent all of 2017 thinking Denzel will beat him. This is primarily based on two things—that Denzel won the SAG Award, and that Casey Affleck’s sexual harassment allegations will sink his chances. But honestly, I think this is a case of pundits subconsciously changing the narrative because you just can’t write about the Oscars for six months without desperately trying to find new angles.

The Academy has a voting body of a little under 6,700 people. SAG has a voting body of 165,000. To say SAG’s voting body is more populist in its leanings is a massive understatement. Denzel winning the SAG Award likely means little more than that he’s a more popular figure, and most SAG voters are barely-working actors that revere him. Academy voters aren’t as star struck. And as for Casey Affleck’s sexual harassment allegations, I hate to point this out (because it’s unfair and it sucks to use it as an arguing point), but there just aren’t that many women in the Academy. Affleck could get literally zero votes from women and still win handily.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s a sure thing that Affleck will win this; not only does Denzel have a good chance, but so does Viggo Mortensen. If Affleck loses, I actually think it’ll be to Viggo, who has long been highly respected in the industry, and people (rightly) believe Captain Fantastic is the role of his career. But in the end, I still think Casey Affleck wins it. His portrayal of grief and loss in Manchester by the Sea isn’t just great; it’s that rarified level of great that future generations will still talk about and study.

Best Actress
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

This is a two-woman race: Stone is the front-runner and Huppert is the spoiler. They both fit the predominant Oscar narratives for this category: the beautiful young ingénue and the long-respected veteran that’s somehow never been awarded. But the key difference here is that there just isn’t much support for Huppert’s film, Elle. It missed the cut on getting nominated in the Best Foreign Film race, and it’s subject matter of rape fantasy may be too much for a lot of the Academy’s older voters. While Emma Stone has been criticized for not being the greatest singer, the fact that she did it live on camera for her show-stopping number (“Audition”) should get her more than enough support to win.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

When Mahershala Ali lost at the Golden Globes, pundits started believing he may be vulnerable here, but it’s useful to remember two things about the Golden Globes: 1) they have an extremely small voting body of less than 100 people, so anomalies can and do happen, and 2) there’s zero overlap between that voting body and the Academy. So honestly, Ali’s Globes loss means nothing, and any lingering doubt that he’s winning the Oscar should have been put to rest when he gave the single best speech at the SAG Awards three weeks later. That’s something that really matters to AMPAS voters—whether or not they want to hear you give another speech. And these voters absolutely want to hear Mahershala Ali give another eloquent speech, and they want Oscar viewers to hear him too.  

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

This race is the biggest sure thing on the board. Viola Davis will win, and it’s not even worth writing about anyone else’s chances. So instead, I’ll use this space to weigh in on whether or not she’s guilty of category fraud for being campaigned here instead of as a lead actress. Personally, I don’t think she is. My definition of lead vs. supporting is simple: who is the movie about? With Carol last year, for example, I thought that was egregious category fraud because that movie was clearly about the two women as a couple, so campaigning one as lead and the other as supporting was ridiculous. But I see Fences as a movie about Denzel’s character. He has several scenes without her, and the reverse isn’t true. Yes, she’s very important, but the plot doesn’t revolve around her. I think she plays a supporting role.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Arrival, by Eric Heisserer
Fences, by August Wilson
Hidden Figures, by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Lion, by Luke Davies
Moonlight, by Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney

Even though this race features five Best Picture nominees, it’s actually one of the safest bets on the board. Moonlight probably shouldn’t be in this category at all, because the only thing it’s adapted from is an unproduced play. The Writers Guild ruled it an original screenplay (a category that it won), but regardless of how ridiculous the designation is, it’s going to win. Not only is it deserving, but voters will also see it as their only chance to award Barry Jenkins, because he’s so widely expected to lose the Best Director race to Damien Chazelle.

Best Original Screenplay
20th Century Women, by Mike Mills
Hell or High Water, by Taylor Sheridan
La La Land, by Damien Chazelle
The Lobster, by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou
Manchester by the Sea, by Kenneth Lonergan

It’s pretty unlikely La La Land will win this award, as most people think the screenplay is one of the film’s few weak points. Hell or High Water has a decent shot, because that film is clearly adored by a lot of the Academy and this is likely the only race it has a remote chance in. But really, Manchester by the Sea should have this in the bag. This is Lonergan’s third nomination in this category, and the film is a masterwork of tone and restraint.

Best Animated Feature
Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)
Moana (Ron Clements and John Musker)
My Life as a Zucchini (Claude Barras)
The Red Turtle (Michael Dudok de Wit)
Zootopia (Byron Howard and Rich Moore)

If you’re looking for the category where anti-Trump sentiment will galvanize into a specific result, this is the one. Zootopia is basically a giant anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-xenophobia, anti-bigotry parable, told with the help of adorable sloths. It looks unstoppable here.

Best Documentary Feature
Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi)
I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)
Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams)
O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)
13th (Ava DuVernay)

This is probably the single most difficult category for me to predict. Fire at Sea is the only one I haven’t seen, but it’s also the only one I don’t think can win. In a year where four of the five directors in this category are black, the Academy would get utterly eviscerated for giving the Oscar to the lone white dude. But from there, I think anything could happen.

The experts are all picking O.J.: Made in America, which, to be clear, is a towering achievement and would be a deserving winner. But I don’t think it’ll win for two reasons: 1) it’s facing the “is this film or television?” controversy, which will undoubtedly cost it some votes. But, I think more importantly, 2) it’s nearly eight hours long, and one of the enduring lessons of every Oscar season is that Academy members find it extremely difficult to spend the time even watching all of the nominees, and this problem gets especially exacerbated in the documentary/animated/foreign film categories. Let’s say, conservatively, that 20-30% of voters don’t watch this (and it may be far more than that). If that happens, it’ll need a huge majority of voters that do see it to also vote for it, and that may be too much to overcome given the strength of the competition.

So what’s left? 13th has the possible advantage of being by a director, Ava DuVernay, who is widely viewed as having been snubbed two years ago for Selma, and one should never underestimate the power of a make-up vote. Life, Animated has the huge advantage of being the only film of the bunch that’s not depressing, which has carried recent winners like 20 Feet from Stardom and Searching for Sugarman. And because the film is sort of about the power of animation, it could basically sweep the votes from the Academy’s animation branch, which is no small thing in a race where every vote will matter.

And then there’s I am Not Your Negro, a stunning and powerful essay film about the writings of James Baldwin. It has the quality, subject matter, and title to win, and it’s less than 1/5 the runtime of O.J.: Made in America. It also opened in theaters as voting was taking place, and its uniformly excellent reviews may have helped to place it in the forefront of voters’ minds. In a race where I think nearly anything could happen, I’m going with my heart and picking my favorite: I am Not Your Negro.

Best Foreign Language Film
Land of Mine (Denmark, Martin Zandvliet)
A Man Called Ove (Sweden, Hannes Holm)
The Salesman (Iran, Asghar Farhadi)
Tanna (Australia, Martin Butler and Bentley Dean)
Toni Erdmann (Germany, Maren Ade)

This category has gone through two prevailing trains of thought. Toni Erdmann had been considered the strong front-runner since its premiere at Cannes last May, all the way until it lost the Golden Globe last month. Then, when President Snowflake ordered his Muslim travel ban last month and The Salesman’s director, Asghar Farhadi, announced he wouldn’t be attending the Oscars, everyone switched to assuming it would now win, to “send a lesson to the President.”

There are a few problems with both of these theories. Toni Erdmann is by far my favorite film of the bunch, but the nearly three-hour German comedy won’t play especially well on screeners, and I have a suspicion that it’s one of those films that critics like far better than audiences. I’m rooting for it, but I’m not optimistic. As for The Salesman, it’s slower and more minimal than the other films in the race, and I don’t see it winning because voters like it the best; if you don’t think it can win purely on the strength of protest votes, then it can’t win at all. And the problem with the protest vote theory is that Farhadi won’t be there to give a protest acceptance speech, so what, really, is the point?

Instead, I would look to either Land of Mine or A Man Called Ove. The former is an extremely powerful anti-war film about Nazi POWs being forced to defuse millions of landmines along the Danish coast in the summer of 1945. The latter is a Swedish octogenarian dramedy about an angry old man dealing with his new middle-eastern neighbors. A Man Called Ove, which was also one of the year’s most successful foreign films at the box office, is the kind of film that I can see provoking Academy voters to just say, “Sure, I should vote for the Iranian film, but fuck it, I like the one about the old Swedish guy better.”

Best Cinematography
La La Land

The biggest question for all of the craft awards is, Will voters really consider the nominees for each category, or will they just check La La Land for every box? I don’t know the answer, but I’m guessing it’ll be a middle ground of both—basically that voters will go with La La Land as long as they think it’s at least fairly deserving. That’s the case here; a good argument could be made for all five nominees, but the lighting and framing of La La Land created some truly stunning imagery, and that’ll be enough to win.

Best Costume Design
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Florence Foster Jenkins
La La Land

Here’s a category where La La Land actually might be vulnerable. When people vote for Best Costume Design, they need to be able to picture the costumes in their head. Can you do that with La La Land? Are the monochromatic dresses enough? Can they compete with the blood-stained pink suit that Natalie Portman wears in Jackie? Did voters even watch Jackie? I dunno. But I sense there’s just enough backlash to La La Land’s assumed domination that voters will look for categories to award something else, and picking Jackie here will be one.

Best Editing
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land

I’d love to believe Moonlight has a shot here—its editor is the first black woman ever nominated in the category—and if it somehow won that would be a sign that a Best Picture upset could be in the cards. But even though some people (erroneously) think La La Land drags in the middle, it should still prevail here.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
A Man Called Ove
Star Trek Beyond
Suicide Squad

There’s no way in hell that the unmitigated disaster that was Suicide Squad will win an Oscar, and I just watched A Man Called Ove three days ago and honestly can’t even recall it using any notable makeup. So Star Trek Beyond basically wins this one by default.

Best Production Design
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hail, Caesar!
La La Land

Arrival was nominated for eight Oscars and doesn’t have a very good chance to win any of them. That’s just how it goes sometimes. (Gangs of New York went 0-10 in 2003.) But, if it’s going to win anything, this is probably the category. I kind of want to pick it, but it just seems like this category will succumb to the La La Land tidal wave.

Best Visual Effects
Deepwater Horizon
Doctor Strange
The Jungle Book
Kubo and the Two Strings
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Personally, I’d love to see the epic collapsing and folding cityscapes of Doctor Strange win here, but everyone seems far too smitten with the talking CGI animals of The Jungle Book for anything else to have a shot.

Best Original Score
Jackie (Mica Levi)
La La Land (Justin Hurwitz)
Lion (Dustin O'Halloran and Hauschka)
Moonlight (Nicholas Britell)
Passengers (Thomas Newman)

It’s tricky with La La Land to separate the score from the individual songs, and to be honest, I’m not even sure most voters will have a clear understanding of exactly which pieces of music in La La Land they’re meant to consider in this race. But it won’t matter. As much as I’d love to see Moonlight prevail here for its stunning score of sparse, chaotic violins, there’s just no way voters won’t award the best musical in a generation with the Oscar for best music. They’re checking the La La Land box.

Best Original Song
Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” from La La Land (by
Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul)
Can’t Stop the Feeling,” from Trolls (by Justin
Timberlake, Max Martin, and Karl Johan Schuster)
City of Stars,” from La La Land (by Justin Hurwitz, Benj
Pasek, and Justin Paul)
The Empty Chair,” from Jim: The James Foley Story
(by J. Ralph and Sting)
How Far I’ll Go,” from Moana (by Lin-Manuel Miranda)

There’s a theory being bandied about that maybe the two La La Land songs will split the vote, and the Moana song could win. If that happens, for those of you keeping score at home, that means Lin-Manuel Miranda will have won an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Pulitzer Prize in just under 2 ½ years. He would be only the 13th person to win the EGOT (and both the youngest and fastest to do so), and only the third person ever to win the PEGOT (the other two are Richard Rogers and Marvin Hamlisch). So, honestly, that would be kind of sweet. Plus, he’d give a great speech!

But real talk. Not gonna happen. This award has been engraved with the name “City of Stars” since the moment that first La La Land teaser trailer dropped last summer.

Best Sound Editing
Deepwater Horizon
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land

First, here’s your quick annual reminder on what the difference is between the two sound categories: Sound Editing is basically sound creation. It’s manufacturing, and recording, every sound that happens in a film but that doesn’t literally happen in front of the camera—dinosaurs roaring, transformers transforming, aliens gurgling, et cetera. Sound Mixing, on the other hand, is controlling the volume and focus of all of these sounds within the finished film. Sound mixers guide your ears to what’s important when dozens of things are happening simultaneously on screen, from dialogue to score to sound effects.

Contrary to popular belief, Oscar voters actually don’t just go with the eventual Best Picture winner when it’s a nominee. Since 2000, only one Best Picture winner has won this category—The Hurt Locker. In that same timespan, this award has never been won by a musical, while it’s been won by an action/war/sci-fi/monster/super-hero movie in every year but one (when Hugo won in 2011). But, and this is crucial, this award usually does go to a Best Picture nominee. Voters essentially just pick whichever Best Picture nominee they think had the most noises. This year, that’s probably Hacksaw Ridge. But beware: if La La Land wins this award early in the night, that’s a likely sign that it’s just going to sweep everything.

Best Sound Mixing
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Regardless of where you stand on Mel Gibson films, you should really be rooting for Hacksaw Ridge in this category, because it’s sound designer Kevin O’Connell’s 21st Oscar nomination, and the poor guy has still never won. He owns the all-time Oscar record, across all categories, for most nominations without a win.

But, sadly, precedent suggests he won’t win this year either. Unlike Sound Editing, this category tends to be very kind to musicals (or musical-adjacent films, like Whiplash or Ray). Eight musical-esque films have been nominated in this category since 2000, and five of them won. On the other hand, only two war films have won in this category over the same timespan. It would be a surprise if La La Land didn’t prevail here.

Best Animated Short Film
Blind Vaysha
Borrowed Time
Pear Cider and Cigarettes

Under normal circumstances, my first rule of this category is that the Pixar film won’t win. Since last winning in 2002—before the company was seen as such an animation juggernaut—Pixar has lost this category eight straight times. Voters just don’t like picking the Goliath against four Davids. But the problem this year is that the other four choices are mostly underwhelming, and the Pixar film, Piper, is really, really great. So what will voters do?

I don’t think Borrowed Time or Pear Cider and Cigarettes have a chance; they’re just too forgettable. A lot of experts are picking Pearl because it’s the first virtual reality film nominated in this category, but the problem is that most voters won’t see it in virtual reality—I didn’t either, and I can say it’s pretty unimpressive in standard format. That leaves Blind Vaysha, an innovative film stylized as stop-motion woodblock prints. While it has the advantage of being the most visually distinct (usually important in this race), its story may be too esoteric, especially compared to the universality of Piper. I think it’s a wash, but in the end I’m sticking with my theory that Pixar can’t win in this category until I’m proven wrong.

Best Documentary Short Film
4.1 Miles
Joe’s Violin
Watani: My Homeland
The White Helmets

This is the only category that I haven’t seen the films, so we’ll do this fast: Watani, The White Helmets, and 4.1 Miles are all about the Syrian refugee crisis, so they’ll likely cancel each other out. (Though White Helmets, which George Clooney has optioned for a feature remake, may have the advantage of wider exposure and pull through from the pack.) That leaves the medical one (Extremis) and the Holocaust one (Joe’s Violin). Precedent for this category suggests that uplifting films and Holocaust films have a huge advantage, and Joe’s Violin is both.

Best Live Action Short Film
Ennemis Intérieurs
La Femme et la TGV
Silent Nights

I feel like the same thing happens in this category every year: there are four heavy-ish films and one funny one, and the funny one wins. You have to remember, most voters watch the shorts in a single sitting, so if one of the five feels markedly different in almost any way, it has a huge edge.

Silent Nights and Ennemis Intérieurs are both immigrant dramas, and feel overly familiar. Sing has a memorable ending and message, but sure takes its time getting there. I think La Femme et la TGV has a decent shot, because one should never underestimate Oscar voters’ love for charming octogenarian stories. But it’s not as good, as charming, or, perhaps importantly, as short, as Timecode. An expressive and poignant film about two parking lot attendants who make dancing videos for one another, Timecode is the only film in the bunch that’s under 20 minutes, and it ends on a killer, Billy Wilder-esque final line.

And that's the way the cookie crumbles.