Monday, January 28, 2013

New in Theaters: The Last Stand



The Last Stand

Directed by Jee-Woon Kim

The Grade: A-

When The Expendables came out in 2010, I wrote at the time how sad it was that something “that was meant to remind us of how great action movies were in the 1980’s instead just ends up reminding us how those days are long gone.” Imagine my surprise then a few days ago when I saw The Last Stand, and saw how it succeeded in every way that The Expendables (and its even more embarrassing sequel) failed. The Last Stand manages to be a great action movie because the only thing it’s trying to be is a great action movie, instead of a VH1-like pastiche of every nostalgic trope it thinks its audience is looking for.

The Last Stand stars Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his first lead role since 2003, before he became Governor of California) as the Sheriff of a small Arizona border town, Sommerton Junction. When an international drug kingpin escapes FBI custody and plans to use Sommerton to cross the border, it’s up to the Sheriff and his small band of deputies to stop him. Of course it is. What ensues is predictable yet wildly fun, and along the way is everything someone could reasonably want out of an old school action movie. The car chases are fast and intense, the set pieces are elaborate and creative, the shoot-outs are reminiscent of spaghetti westerns (but with much bigger guns), the testosterone is rampant and absurd, and the one-liners are corny and delicious. Stir two minutes, bake until golden brown.

But even amidst all of that dependable predictability, some things surprised me. For one, Arnold never took his shirt off. At first this might seem inconsequential, but as I’m seeing the ads for the upcoming Stallone vehicle Bullet to the Head all over TV, and his chiseled 66-year old shirtless physique prominently displayed, I realized a subtle difference between the two: For Sly, it’s all about still proving to himself that he’s got it; that he can still be Rocky, still be Rambo, still be the toughest guy in the room. And to convey that, he thinks it has to be a “Who has the biggest pecs?” contest. But to Arnold, it’s not about that anymore. He spent decades having the biggest pecs, but he spent the last eight years wearing a suit and tie every day. And you get the sense watching The Last Stand that Arnold isn’t here to prove he can still do it, he’s here because he missed it. I think Arnold just loves making action movies, he has fun with them, and this represents his first time experiencing that fun in a long while. It’s contagious on the screen.

The director, Jee-Woon Kim, is a veteran of South Korean horror films, but he proves here that he’s more than capable of tackling other genres. His sense of momentum is fantastic, and he brings a violent grittiness that feels fresh amidst all of the PG-13 franchise movies that action cinema has slowly become. The entertaining and game supporting cast features Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, Luis Guzman, and Johnny Knoxville, whose stunts are just insane enough that he probably did them himself. But even with talented people surrounding him, this is Arnold’s show all the way.

The Last Stand defiantly is what it is, but it’s damn good at it. Even people with the best taste sometimes get a craving for a giant plate of sloppy nachos, and this is the best order of nachos I’ve had in a damn long while. I struggle to imagine anyone wanting to see The Last Stand and being disappointed by it. How could you be? It delivers everything an action junkie could want. And even though Arnold has never been a good actor, this serves as a reminder that he’s still a great movie star. Sometimes that’s all you need. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

New in Theaters: Zero Dark Thirty



Zero Dark Thirty

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

The Grade: A

Click HERE to read this review on Annarbor.com

In the great battle being waged in the media over the soul of Zero Dark Thirty, it’s occurred to me that we seem to be losing track of what the movie is even really about. Anyone reading this already knows the film chronicles the CIA’s decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, but amidst all of the declarations over whether the film does or doesn’t endorse the use of torture, very few people seem willing to concede that neither answer is the right one.

What Zero Dark Thirty does is ask you to answer that question for yourself. And the question isn’t so much one of whether or not torture works (at least in this portrayal, it does), or whether or not the United States government used it (we probably did), but whether the ends justified the means. In her defense of the film, director Kathryn Bigelow wrote in the Los Angeles Times that she didn’t want to make a film about war without portraying the “moral consequences” that war entails. And that’s just one of many things that make Zero Dark Thirty a great film.

Most of the pundits lambasting Zero Dark Thirty for its use of torture are suggesting that, because the film shows key information being obtained through torture, the inescapable conclusion is that the film is supporting its use. But this denies the possibility of something beneficial ever occurring from a mistake. And these people aren’t watching the film closely, nor are they watching it carefully. (And sometimes they aren’t watching it at all; some of the “experts” that weighed in on the issue hadn’t even seen the film yet, as though just knowing torture was present in the film automatically indicated approval on behalf of the filmmakers.)

When Inception came out in the summer of 2010, I watched a different version of the same debate occur, and it blew my mind then just as it does now. Almost everyone who saw that film began having a definitive argument over the ending, about whether or not the top kept spinning, and by extension, whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was awake, or lost in an ever expanding dream labyrinth. And everyone having this argument was invariably suggesting not just that one conclusion was right and the other was wrong, but that there was a singularly correct conclusion to be drawn. Eventually the film’s director, Christopher Nolan, admitted in interviews that there was no right answer, and each viewer was meant to decide for themselves whether or not they thought the ending took place in a dream or in the waking world. And this, of course, pissed people off. What do you mean there isn’t an answer??

It is my belief (and Kathryn Bigelow’s own statements seem to support this) that Zero Dark Thirty takes an Inception like position on the use of torture. And by that I mean it doesn’t take a position at all. It asks us to figure out our own position based on how we evaluate what we’ve seen. The film presents its facts (and whether or not they are facts is a whole other issue, one which I am woefully unqualified to comment on), and asks the viewer to consider their moral implications. And a few of those facts are the following: 1) torturing an Al Qaeda member in 2003 gave the CIA a name. And 2) several years later, the ensuing investigations of that name, as well as several other elements of data, eventually led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. So of course the assumption that many people are making is that the film suggests that because the torture proved beneficial, it was therefore justified, or at least acceptable. But why does that have to be the case? The film doesn’t make that argument, though its detractors certainly wish it did.

Kathryn Bigelow’s films have often been about main characters that struggle, or abjectly fail, at beginning a next chapter of their life. At the end of Point Break (a film that, in hindsight, feels like a minor masterpiece, because it seems like the first real example of the Auteur Theory for Bigelow), Patrick Swayze’s Adrenaline Zen God lets himself be crushed to death under a wave rather than face a life without surfing. In the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, the haunting final image is of a military bomb specialist going back into the fray by choice, because defusing bombs is apparently less stressful than buying cereal. But Zero Dark Thirty even trumps those great endings. Without spoiling too much, the film ends with not just one of the best final shots I’ve ever seen, but also the most penetrating. It’s an image that asks you to look into your own soul, and wonder whether it was all worth it, whether what was gained outweighs what was spent.

And Jessica Chastain (as Maya, the CIA analyst who spent ten years hunting for Bin Laden and made the key intelligence conclusions that led to him) absolutely owns that final image. Most films reach their emotional crescendo some time during the climax, but Zero Dark Thirty saves it for the last few moments, and whether or not it works is purely dependent on Chastain’s ability to get us inside her head. I had a conversation with someone recently who argued that Chastain’s performance, while good, wasn’t Oscar-worthy, because there was (his words) “no difficulty in it.” But imagine knowing that the artistic success of a three hour film about one of the most important intelligence operations in American history hinges on how well you convey the emotions on your face during a single shot. Sound easy? Jessica Chastain gives one of the most searing depictions of obsession you’ll ever see. At one point in the film, one of her CIA superiors asks her what else she’s done in her ten years with the agency besides hunt Bin Laden. “Nothing else,” she says, calm yet confident. “I’ve done nothing else.”

Like so many of the truly great films, Zero Dark Thirty combines impeccable craftsmanship with grand ambition and something important to say. And the important thing it says is that sometimes there are no easy answers. Sometimes people make hard choices that in retrospect might not seem justified. Or they might seem especially justified. It’s a topic worthy of discussion, both internally and publicly, and Zero Dark Thirty prompts that discussion in an incredibly compelling and (it ought to be said) entertaining way. Just so long as we understand what the discussion is really about.




Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Thoughts on the Oscar nominations and the Golden Globe Winners


(Click HERE to see the full list of Oscar nominees, and HERE for the full list of Golden Globe winners)

Best Picture

I had been saying since mid-October that Argo would win Best Picture, and it’s been an interesting week for that prediction. When the Oscar nominations came out on Thursday, that prediction seemed to get squashed on the spot, with director Ben Affleck being inexplicably left off of the nominations. Only three films in history have won Best Picture without their director being nominated, and only one of those (Driving Miss Daisy in 1989) has been released in the last eighty years.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Kodak Theatre: Argo won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama). Does this mean it’s still in the running? Maybe so. One thing we can say for certain is that the Golden Globe voting was completed before the Oscar nominations were released, so Argo didn’t win the Globe based on any sympathy votes from people rallying against a snub. Everything that happened with the Oscar nominations seems to point towards a Lincoln sweep, but that’s what seems so unsettling about it. Because the nominations were so across-the-board shocking, it seems unlikely that the awards themselves will be so boilerplate. But all of the voter fatigue I’ve been saying Lincoln will suffer from might not seem so rote to Oscar voters who just watched the film get virtually shut out at the Golden Globes. For Lincoln, suddenly having all of the attention pulled off it might be the best thing that could have happened.

Best Director

Well… that sucked. In my entire life, I can only ever recall one truly shocking Oscar snub prior to this year, when Hoop Dreams was left out of the Best Documentary race in 1994. People were totally outraged. And that’s the key difference that signifies what happened to Ben Affleck this year was serious. Every single year the Oscar nominations come out and include surprises. But those surprises generally involve the people who weren’t considered “locks” for nominations. Look at every single prediction for the Best Director nominations you can find (including mine), and I guarantee they will all have three names in common: Spielberg, Affleck, and Bigelow. So the fact that two of those names didn’t end up on the final ballot is more than just perplexing. No amount of analysis seems to explain what happened. And Affleck’s Globe win only further illustrates how weird it is. It’s the first time since 1988 that the winner of the Golden Globe for Best Director didn’t get nominated for the Oscar. (Interestingly, that instance was another actor fighting for acceptance as a major director—Clint Eastwood. And he won the Oscar four years later.)

So who will win the Oscar now? Well, with his major competition sitting the bench, Spielberg looks like he’s unstoppable here. But I still think voter fatigue may play a major role. While Spielberg has lost and been snubbed far more times than he’s won, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s still one of only four living directors with two Oscars, and no living director has three. (Only three directors in history have ever won more than two Oscars: William Wyler and Frank Capra won three, and John Ford won four. But they were all Golden Age Hollywood directors, and the last time any of them gave an acceptance speech was during the Eisenhower administration.) Spielberg will never have a better chance of winning a third Oscar, but that still doesn’t mean voters will be eager to give him one. Watch out for Michael Haneke here. I’ll write more on this as we get closer to Oscar time, but I think he has a great chance at an upset.

Best Actor

How snubbed was John Hawkes of a nomination? So snubbed that the guy can barely even get credit for being snubbed. He was thought to be the best chance to beat Daniel Day-Lewis before being left off of the ballot entirely, but with all of the attention on Affleck and Bigelow, Hawkes has just been left out of the conversation entirely. But his snubbing is just as bizarre and inexplicable; I challenge anyone to find a set of nomination predictions that didn’t include him.

Anyway, without Hawkes here, we might as well not even have other nominees. Daniel Day-Lewis should just start walking to the stage as soon as the presenters come out.

But that raises an important question: Are we ready to officially call Daniel Day-Lewis the greatest actor of all-time? Only two other men have ever won three acting Oscars, Jack Nicholson and Walter Brennan. Brennan won Best Supporting Actor three times, while Nicholson won Best Actor twice and Supporting Actor once. But winning Best Actor three times is totally unprecedented, and it would seem to separate Daniel Day-Lewis into a category all his own. Is that warranted? Are we okay with this? Are we ready to pseudo-officially unseat Marlon Brando, or Laurence Olivier, or Robert De Niro from the top of the acting mountain? Perhaps we are. While Daniel Day-Lewis hasn’t reinvented acting to the level of any of those aforementioned legends, he’s probably perfected it just as much, and maybe even more.

Best Actress

We knew before last weekend that this was already a two-woman race, and seeing both Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain collect their Golden Globes only further confirms that. But a great speech at the Golden Globes has been known to help people’s Oscar chances. So the question is, did Jennifer Lawrence give a great speech, or was she too snarky? She definitely gave a memorable speech, but that’s not quite the same thing, is it?  I think she’s the frontrunner, but only by a tiny bit. An equally interesting element of this race is the ongoing controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, and what it may do to Chastain’s chances. Will voters feel like she’s the only opportunity to honor the movie, which remains critically adored? Or will the controversies keep voters away? If this weekend’s box office results are any indication, the controversies certainly haven’t kept audiences away. Zero Dark Thirty could pass Silver Linings Playbook in domestic gross by its second week in wide release.

Best Supporting Actor

This is the only category on the board that doesn’t seem to have any kind of front-runner. All of the nominees are previous Oscar winners, and everyone but Philip Seymour Hoffman has already won this category. Christoph Waltz won the Golden Globe for his portrayal of bounty hunter in Django Unchained, but it’s difficult to see him winning an Oscar for a Tarantino movie just three years after winning an Oscar for a Tarantino movie. My guess is Tommy Lee Jones has the best chance. He feels like an actor that deserves to own two Oscars, he’s in the most nominated film (Lincoln), and he gives a memorably showy performance. But he also looked memorably not amused during the Golden Globes, and that could be the kind of image that sticks with people.

Best Supporting Actress

This is the most boring category because no one has any chance of beating Anne Hathaway, and unlike Daniel Day-Lewis running away with Best Actor, this inevitability doesn’t allow us the opportunity to talk about any greater historical implications. Had Hathaway given a disastrous speech at the Golden Globes, she might have hurt her chances. But she gave the best speech of the night.

Other Categories

Because of the monumental snubs in the Best Director category, a lot of other bizarre omissions have been ignored or forgotten about. But for the record, here are some more: The Master was left out of the Best Cinematography race, a race in which it should have been the front-runner. Cloud Atlas didn’t get a single nomination, despite being the presumptive winner of Best Makeup, and being more than deserving of nominations for Best Original Score and Best Costume Design. Flight was left out of the Best Visual Effects race despite the amazing plane crash sequence that opened the film. And Looper failed to get a much-predicted Best Original Screenplay nomination, which it more than deserved. 

But on the positive side, Oscar host Seth MacFarlane is also an Oscar nominee for his song from Ted. Have we ever seen someone win an Oscar while hosting the show? Without really checking, I’m thinking no. And even in the midst of so many bizarre and disappointing nominations, I still found cause to celebrate. One of my favorite films from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, Norway’s Kon-Tiki, received a much-deserved Best Foreign Language Film nomination. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

New In Theaters: The Impossible



The Impossible

Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona

The Grade: C


While I was watching The Impossible, the true story of a family’s survival against the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2008, my mind kept lingering on the 2010 Danny Boyle film 127 Hours. While both films chronicle true tales of unlikely survival, they are almost nothing alike. And thinking about that was what made me realize The Impossible should have been far better than it was.

Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star as an affluent British family with three young boys vacationing in Thailand when the tsunami hits. And what follows is how they survived and found each other again. Had I never seen 127 Hours, it’s likely I would have liked The Impossible much more. And it’s not because the latter steals from the former. Quite the opposite. 127 Hours is a movie that exists in the mind, and it’s a story of human perseverance and refusal to accept death as an inevitability. The Impossible isn’t really any of those things. I suppose the characters persevere, but their survival and finding of one another is more luck than anything else. We don’t see any of them make difficult choices or do difficult things, aside from the mother sticking out a gruesome leg injury.

And that’s a very frustrating thing about The Impossible, that the impossibility of it all only comes down to luck, and not to any sort of human action. While it’s certainly wonderful and heart-warming that this family all survived and found one another, it never feels inspiring. And inspiration is the most important ingredient for this type of story, one that 127 Hours had in spades.

And were that the only problem with the film, I would still mostly recommend it. But I can’t recall a time I was left with a worse taste in my mouth by a film’s final moments. Spoiler that doesn’t really spoil anything: the family’s survival is made (I suppose) more official when their insurance company flies them on a private jet from Thailand to Singapore, where they can receive better medical treatment. So in the final moments of the film we see this family of five good looking white people shuffle past hundreds of critically injured Asians and get on a huge jet, where every other seat is empty, and fly off into the sunset. Roll credits. All I could think about leaving the theater was “Oh, so the best way to survive one of the most devastating natural disasters in recorded history is to be rich and white. Good to know.”

Had they gotten on a small helicopter, I wouldn’t have been bothered so much, but the film went to great lengths to show us the following: 1) How overcrowded and inadequate the Thai hospitals were, 2) How many critically injured people were in those hospitals, and 3) How the huge plane they got on didn’t have a single other person on it!! Why couldn’t they have taken others with them to Singapore for all this great medical treatment? Why did the film have to go out of its way to show the family walking past so many other injured (non-white) people to get on the plane? Couldn’t that shot have been left out? Did it really not occur to anyone how it would look on screen?

In all fairness, The Impossible isn’t all bad. In fact, there’s a lot to praise here, particularly Watts’ physically demanding performance and the production design/visual effects team that amazingly recreated the tsunami and its devastation. And it is a good story that’s being told. But it’s just told in a way that never reaches a real emotional crescendo, and leaves a wretched taste in the mouths of anyone sensitive to socio-economic disparities. My advice to anyone that sees this film: Just walk out once the family gets reunited. Nothing more to see here. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

New in Theaters: Hitchcock



Directed by Sacha Gervasi

The Grade: B+


While Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho certainly has many attributes—really, entire books have been written on the subject—the greatest is undoubtedly the sleight of hand trick the film pulls on the audience of making us think the film is about one character, when really, it’s about someone else. How appropriate then, that Hitchcock, a film ostensibly about the making of Psycho, is actually about something else entirely?

Hitchcock begins with the director searching for his next project and ends with the Psycho premiere, and in between is certainly a lot of history and dramatization of the circumstances that molded Psycho into the great film it became, but none of that is really what Hitchcock is about. Hitchcock is the story of a marriage reaching a potential breaking point, yet finding the strength not to break. And it’s a damn good one.

A few years ago, I believe in a review of The Kids Are All Right, a writer (sadly I can’t recall who) mentioned how sad it is that most films treat a couple’s journey to the altar as the pinnacle of the relationship, and that there’s apparently no narrative value in anything that happens after that moment. Hitchcock begs to differ. With Anthony Hopkins playing the eponymous director and Helen Mirren as his wife, Alma Reville, their marriage is portrayed as a wonderfully complex, organic, loving, and incorrigible thing. And that makes sense, given that in his role as a director, Hitchcock spent his “work” hours making millions of people fall in love with beautiful women, and then watch horrible things happen to them. It can’t be easy being married to someone like that, especially if you’re an intimately involved creative collaborator, like Reville absolutely was.

The plot of the film is pretty basic and mirrors every story you’ve ever heard about great works of art: Hitchcock wants to make Psycho, the studio doesn’t think it will be good and doesn’t want to finance it, Hitchcock finances it himself but now feels the pressure to make it great lest he go belly-up, then lo and behold, a masterpiece is created. But from this paint by numbers outline, the real film emerges, and that’s the film about a marriage being torn at its seams by ambition, pressure, temptation, and pride.

The film is cast with name actors even down to minor roles (Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, Danny Huston, and Toni Collette, among others), and they all do a good job, but Hopkins and Mirren are really the stars of the show here. Both give spectacular performances, though wildly different ones. With Hopkins, it’s all about how well he embodies Hitch (and the answer is, quite well), but with Mirren, it’s more about how she embodies an idea. Mirren plays the good wife that’s slipping away, who wants both to be saved and let go in near equal measure. Mirren creates a fascinatingly complex character, and by the time the film ends, it’s her you want to spend more time with, not Hitch (“Hold the cock,” as he says in the film when someone uses his full last name).

Hitchcock was directed by Sacha Gervasi, whose only previous film was the absolutely hilarious documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil. With both films, Gervasi has demonstrated an ability to find the hidden story about a subject we thought we already knew, and to show how much mere entertainers wrestle with inside their heads. It’s rare to get films that succeed well on more than one level, and Hitchcock does. As film history, it’s entertaining and informative. But as the story of a marriage between two strong-willed people, it’s even better. And that’s a twist of dynamic that even Hitch himself would have appreciated.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Predicting the Oscar Nominees


Click HERE to read this post on Detroit's Metro Times.

Start your engines, it’s awards season time! The nominations for the Golden Globes, the Screen Actor’s Guild, and all of the other guilds have already been released, the Golden Globes are this Sunday, and the Oscar nominations come out tomorrow. What will they be? I’m so glad you asked…

In each category below, everything is listed in order of how likely I think a nomination is, and the films in bold are what I think actually will be nominated. And thanks to Grantland, whose format I stole for this piece.

I’m weighing in on 45 potential nominations, with the goal of getting at least 40 of them right.

BEST PICTURE

The Locks
Lincoln
Zero Dark Thirty
Argo

The Near Locks
Silver Linings Playbook
Les Miserables
Life of Pi

At Least One of These
The Master
Moonrise Kingdom
Amour
Beasts of the Southern Wild

Other (Unlikely) Possibilities
Django Unchained
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
The Sessions
The Impossible
Flight
Skyfall
The Dark Knight Rises

This is the toughest category to pick, because we don’t even know how many nominees we’re getting. Starting last year, the voting changed, so now we can get anywhere from five to ten nominees, purely dependent on how the voting gets spread out. The crux is this: for a movie to get nominated, at least five percent of the ballots have to list it number one. There are close to 6,000 people in the Academy, so that means a minimum of around 300 Academy members have to think a movie was the best of the year for a nomination to occur. And that’s the key here—it doesn’t matter if every single person in the Academy thought something was in the year’s ten best, it only matters if 300 or so people thought it was the very best.

Consensus agreement suggests this was a very strong year for movies, and a lot of people assume that means we’ll get the full ten nominees. But the math doesn’t necessarily support that theory. Because there’s so much agreement about what this year’s very best films were (Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, & Argo), that’s likely to take a huge amount of the first place votes. If each of those films gets somewhere in the range of 15-25% of the first place votes, then that already leaves precious little space for the rest of the field.

Silver Linings Playbook, Les Miserables, and Life of Pi all feel pretty safely in, but after that, just about anything could happen. And one possibility is definitely that the nominations stop there. Some people are predicting that films widely liked by either younger Academy members (Django Unchained) or older Academy members (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) have a great chance to be nominated. But remember, the key isn’t how widely liked a movie is, it’s how passionately liked a movie is. Can you imagine 300 Academy members choosing either of those as the best film of the year? Perhaps you can, but I’ll be over here, respectfully disagreeing with you.

And that leaves the “art” films that gain small, yet passionate (there’s that important word again), followings. For many prognosticators, The Master has fallen out of the race and appears to be a peaked-too-early also-ran. But I think it’s just the kind of movie that will succeed in the Academy’s new voting system. Between it’s memorably amazing acting and cinematography, and its high-brow artiness, it’s easy to picture this being the type of film that a small group rallies around and puts at the top of the ballot (just like Tree of Life last year). But The Master is just one of four films that could benefit from this voting possibility, and that means they could all become victim to vote splitting. But my guess is Moonrise Kingdom comes through, while Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild fall just short.

And as for the rest of the crowd pleasers, blame the system. Until the voting policies change again, the days of movies like The Full Monty, Seabiscuit, and The Blind Side sneaking into the Best Picture race are over. 


BEST DIRECTOR

The Locks
Steven Spielberg – Lincoln
Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty
Ben Affleck – Argo    

The Near-Lock
Ang Lee – Life of Pi

Probably Someone From This Group
Paul Thomas Anderson – The Master
Michael Haneke – Amour

Probably Not Someone From This Group
David O. Russell – Silver Linings Playbook
Tom Hooper – Les Miserables
Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained
Robert Zemeckis – Flight

We basically know what four of the nominees will be here, but predicting the fifth is a bit tricky. The Golden Globes nominated Tarantino, while the Director’s Guild chose Hooper. But the Oscars have a longstanding tradition of awarding the fifth slot to a “visionary” director who tends to get unfairly ignored elsewhere (what I like to call the Terrence Malick Memorial Nomination). This year, there are two obvious choices for that slot, Anderson and Haneke. It’s basically a 50/50 toss-up, but I’m giving the edge to Anderson, just because his career is a little more user-friendly than Haneke, whose films often stretch viewer patience to the limits. But it should be noted that Amour is regarded as the most accessible film of Haneke’s career, while The Master is undoubtedly the most inaccessible of Anderson’s, so Haneke taking this slot definitely wouldn’t be a shock.


BEST ACTOR

The Lock
Daniel Day Lewis – Lincoln

The Near Locks
John Hawkes – The Sessions
Denzel Washington – Flight

Pick Two
Hugh Jackman – Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix – The Master
Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook

Better Luck Next Year
Richard Gere – Arbitrage
Anthony Hopkins – Hitchcock
Bill Murray – Hyde Park Hudson
Jack Black – Bernie

This is an immensely difficult category for me to analyze objectively, because I thought Phoenix’s performance wasn’t just the best of the year, but among the five or ten best acting performances I’ve ever seen. And because of this I find it unfathomable that he wouldn’t make the field of five, despite any evidence to the contrary, and regardless of how many comments he makes about not caring. So I’m going with my gut, and predicting he’ll find himself a nomination, because I desperately want to believe that quality of that magnitude matters more than the politics of how this all works.

Now having said that, the safe bet is that Jackman and Cooper will be the final two nominees. But I think both are vulnerable, Jackman because a lot of people disliked Les Miserables, and Cooper because some see his performance as slight and lacking depth. Because of Jackman’s impeccable singing, I’d give him the edge. And Richard Gere is looming as a potential spoiler. He already received a Golden Globe nomination for Arbitrage, and he’s been campaigning hard. Plus he’s never gotten an Oscar nomination, which some voters may see as an oversight that’s due to be corrected.


BEST ACTRESS

The Locks
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty

Someone Has To Get Left Out
Naomi Watts – The Impossible
Helen Mirren – Hitchcock
Emmanuelle Riva – Amour
Marion Cotilard – Rust and Bone

Unlikely (But You Never Know)
Judi Dench – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Rachel Weisz – The Deep Blue Sea
Quvenzhané Wallis РBeasts of the Southern Wild
Maggie Smith – Quartet

This is already seen as such a two-(wo)man race that the other five nominees feel virtually inconsequential. And yet, arguing over the inconsequential is what I’m here for! I think Watts is basically a sure thing for her physically demanding performance, and Mirren should get in on name-recognition alone. So it’s down to Riva and Cotillard for the last slot, and both are in French subtitled films that many voters will have to talk themselves into watching. But Amour is light-hearted and beautiful, while Rust and Bone is heavy and depressing. That may be the deciding factor between which screener makes it to the DVD player and which screener stays on the coffee table. Plus Riva, at 85 years old, would be the oldest Best Actress nominee in history, and voters love a good narrative to latch on to.

While I wouldn’t rule out Dench and Weisz—two beloved actresses who consistently churn out great work—I am ruling out Wallis. I know other people are predicting she’ll make the cut, but, as Mark Harris wrote on Grantland last summer, what she does isn’t even really acting. She’s six years old, so it’s not like she’s really considering the different ways to approach a scene. And Wallis even said as much when asked about her performance. She just said that was her up on the screen. While this certainly doesn’t take away from how good she is, it’s also distinctly non-Oscar worthy.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

The Locks
Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln
Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master

The Near Lock
Alan Arkin – Argo

Pick Two
Javier Bardem – Skyfall
Leonardo DiCaprio – Django Unchained
Christoph Waltz – Django Unchained
Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook

Sorry Guys
Matthew McConaughey – Magic Mike
Ewan McGregor – The Impossible
Samuel L. Jackson – Django Unchained

This is a fascinating category, because of the seven legitimate contenders for a nomination, six have already won Oscars, and five of them have already won in this category. Because of this, I really like DiCaprio’s chances for a nomination, as voters might see him as the only breath of fresh air in a category filled with people who probably don’t need any more accolades.

Out of the four actors vying for the final two slots, I think De Niro is the closest thing to a longshot, because it could be argued that this is his first role in over a decade that wasn’t simple check cashing. And it might be hard for voters to talk themselves into rewarding that. I’m also operating on the assumption that Bardem is pretty close to a lock. He didn’t get a Golden Globe nomination, but he’s on SAG’s list, and voters who loved Skyfall (and apparently, they are legion) will probably feel like this is the best chance to reward that film. Plus, after 22 other Bond movies, coming up with a totally refreshing and totally creepy villain ain’t no easy task. And there’s recent history of this award going to the year’s best villain, which happened three years in a row from 2007-2009.

The real question here will be whether DiCaprio and Waltz split each other’s votes, and even if Samuel L. Jackson siphons some away from both of them. But DiCaprio is playing both a supporting role and a villain for the first time in his adult career, and that should gain not just the curiosity of the voters, but also their attention.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

The Winner Lock
Anne Hathaway  - Les Miserables

The Near Locks
Sally Field – Lincoln
Amy Adams – The Master

Probably
Helen Hunt – The Sessions
Maggie Smith – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Spoiler
Nicole Kidman – The Paperboy

Possible Surprises
Ann Dowd – Compliance
Jacki Weaver – Silver Linings Playbook
Samantha Barks – Les Miserables
Kerry Washington – Django Unchained

This feels like kind of a boring category because Hathaway appears to have it in the bag, but whether or not Kidman can sneak into the field will be one of the most interesting elements of the nominations. And that’s because The Paperboy is a legitimately awful movie. To be fair, Kidman is quite good as its southern-fried sexpot, and there are (fleeting) stretches where she almost makes the movie tolerable. But getting voters to watch their screener copy given the savage reviews heaped upon the movie is no easy task, while Hunt and Smith (Kidman’s most vulnerable competitors) are both in happy feel-good movies that voters will likely love watching. And that’s why I think Kidman will sit this one out despite getting nominated by both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actor’s Guild.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

The Winner Lock
Mark Boal - Zero Dark Thirty

The Near Lock
Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola - Moonrise Kingdom

Anything Could Happen
Rian Johnson - Looper    
Quentin Tarantino - Django Unchained    
Paul Thomas Anderson - The Master
Michael Haneke - Amour
John Gatins - Flight

Zero Dark Thirty is the only sure thing here, and I can imagine virtually any scenario for the other four nominees. But ultimately I think Flight will fall short because it’s seen as more of an achievement for Denzel Washington and the special effects team, and I think Amour is more likely to get honored in other categories. Plus Tarantino and Anderson are such mainstays of this category that it’s hard to picture either of them getting left out.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

The Locks
Tony Kushner - Lincoln
Chris Terrio - Argo    
David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook

The Near Lock
David Magee - Life of Pi

One of These
Stephen Chbosky - The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Ben Lewin - The Sessions
Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin - Beasts of the Southern Wild

We’re really only debating the last slot here. While Beasts of the Southern Wild is probably the most loved film of the likely possibilities, and I happen to think The Sessions is the most deserving, the consensus seems to be that Wallflower will claim the last slot. Stephen Chbosky adapted his own novel for the screenplay, which is probably nerve-racking, and this is likely the only category for voters to recognize the film.