Saturday, February 27, 2016

Predicting the 2016 Oscar Winners

This is a bit of an odd/exciting year, because while we almost definitely know who three of the acting Oscars are going to, Best Picture and Best Director are complete mysteries. Plus, how will you win your Oscar pool if you don't know who to pick for Best Animated Short Film? I think I hear my entrance music...

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

We know precisely three things about this year’s Best Picture race: Bridge of Spies isn’t winning, Brooklyn isn’t winning, and Room isn’t winning. As far as what could win, and the other five films really could do so, there are basically two sides of the aisle. On one side are the traditional and modest prestige dramas, Spotlight and The Big Short. On the other side are three huge budget hits with exotic locations, epic scope, and exquisite technical accomplishments in The Martian, The Revenant, and Mad Max: Fury Road. All five films have their loud fans and detractors.

Different theories abound. Some people think Mad Max or The Martian won’t win because they’re genre films, others think they could win by getting the most second place votes. The Revenant won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, Spotlight won the Best Ensemble Award from SAG, and The Big Short won Best Picture from the Producers Guild, which, by the way, has correctly predicted the last nine Best Picture winners (but got three in a row wrong just before that).

Here’s a refresher on how the preferred balloting system works for Best Picture, because this will matter. Voters rank the eight films in order of preference, one through eight. If any film receives more than 50% of the first place votes, it wins Best Picture. But that won’t happen this year, so that’s when second (and probably third and fourth) place votes will start to really matter. When no film has an initial majority, the film that finishes last is eliminated, and all of the second place votes on those ballots become first place votes. If still no film has a majority, then the seventh place film is eliminated, those second place votes are reallocated, and so on and so on, until a film has over 50% of the vote.

So here’s my theory, based on the three things we know: When no film initially receives over 50% of the vote, the preferential system will start, and Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, and Room (in some order) will be the first three films eliminated from contention. When that happens, whatever film from the remaining five ranks the highest on those three ballots will suddenly receive a lot more first place votes. So, what do we know about the taste of the people who would rank Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, and Room as the best film of the year? That they like quiet, measured, art house dramas, and that means the majority of those votes will likely be reallocated to Spotlight.

In a year like this one, where second, third, and fourth place votes will matter just as much as first place votes, we’re ultimately looking for what film is well-liked by the most people, not what’s passionately loved by some. That’s why I don’t think The Revenant or The Big Short will win—they’re far too likely to appear towards the bottom of a lot of ballots. The films with the best chance at staying in the top half of the most ballots are probably Spotlight and The Martian, and that’s why I see them as the most likely winners. I first saw Spotlight at its Toronto premiere back in September, and immediately said I thought it would win Best Picture. While it’s certainly taken its momentum lumps along the way, it’s still my pick.

Best Director
Lenny Abrahamson – Room
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant
Tom McCarthy – Spotlight
Adam McKay – The Big Short
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road

Before the nominations actually came out, we thought we knew who was winning here: Ridley Scott, for The Martian. But a funny/weird/inexplicable thing happened on the way to the red carpet—Scott wasn’t even nominated, and he left a bit of a free-for-all in his wake.

Literally no one thought Abrahamson would even be nominated, and he’s definitely not winning. McKay and McCarthy will have a hard time breaking through here, on the one hand because their jobs (unfairly) look comparatively easy next to what Miller and Iñárritu did, but also because they’re both likely to receive screenwriting Oscars earlier in the night, and many voters prefer to spread the love.

Iñárritu is the frontrunner, because he won the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, and the Director’s Guild Award. The latter feels particularly significant, as the DGA has awarded the eventual Oscar winner in 11 of the last 12 years (missing only in 2012, when Ben Affleck won for Argo and didn’t even receive an Oscar nomination). But let me play devil’s advocate for a moment.

The DGA is filled with people who all desperately want to make a film as prestigious and zeitgeist-y as The Revenant, so of course that’s what they’d award. The Academy, on the other hand, is filled with a great many more people than just directors. It’s also filled with sound guys and effects people, costume designers and editors, production designers and makeup artists, and all kinds of craft people that hope one day to work on a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road, and work with a guy that lets them go nuts with their art like George Miller does.

Iñárritu won last year (for Birdman), which both helps and hurts him. Some voters will like the narrative and prestige of a director winning twice in a row (only John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz have done so, in ‘40/’41 and ‘49/’50, respectively); other voters will use that as motivation to choose someone else. Because of that, and because I expect Mad Max to have more breadth of support across the Academy, I’m calling George Miller for the upset.

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
Matt Damon – The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

As recently as six weeks ago, there was a semi-popular theory that maybe Leo wouldn’t win the Oscar because “people don’t like his lifestyle.” (Translation: perhaps voters won’t want to further reward a guy that’s already been fellated by every supermodel in the western hemisphere.) That almost seemed believable until the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards happened, and Leo received a rousing standing ovation upon winning both. That’s when we knew for sure that his peers (and Academy voters) see Leonardo DiCaprio as one of the best working actors in the world, and nothing was keeping him from winning the Oscar this year.

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett – Carol
Brie Larson – Room
Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn

Cate Blanchett’s already won two Oscars, Jennifer Lawrence is nominated for a bad movie, and Charlotte Rampling just won’t get enough broad support (though her film, 45 Years, is excellent). This race is clearly between Brie Larson and Saoirse Ronan. In both cases, they’re immensely talented young actresses who have been in the industry since they were children, and have now become breakout stars in their first major leading roles as adults.

You might think Ronan would have a slight edge, having been nominated before (Best Supporting Actress for 2007’s Atonement), but it’s Larson who’s in the more emotionally devastating film, and her performance carries it. Larson also played Amy Schumer’s sister in Trainwreck, so it feels like her breakout year. Combine that with her incredible performance, a personality that everyone loves, and the fact that she’s won every major precursor award (Golden Globe, SAG, BAFTA, and Critic’s Choice), and Brie Larson will be the winner.

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale – The Big Short
Tom Hardy – The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone – Creed

Of the acting categories, I think this is secretly our best chance for an upset. Stallone is undoubtedly the front-runner, and Creed is a fantastic film that deserved a hell of a lot more Oscar love than it got (Best Picture, Actor, Director, and Adapted Screenplay all should have been possibilities). But Stallone is hurt by two things: 1) he forgot to thank his director (Ryan Coogler) in his Golden Globes speech, which is a major faux pas, and 2) he’s Sylvester Stallone. Not exactly a pinnacle of method acting.

If there’s an upset, it could come from anywhere. The other four films are all Best Picture nominees, Ruffalo and Hardy are hugely respected A-Listers that have never won anything, Bale is considered one of the best actors of his generation, and Rylance (who gives the most deserving performance) is one of the best stage actors in the world, making a rare film appearance. In Spotlight, Ruffalo probably has the best “Oscar scene” of anyone, while Bale disappears into his role and Hardy went through the most physically grueling ordeal. All of them could win.

But I still think it’ll ultimately be Sylvester Stallone. This year marks the fortieth anniversary for the Rocky franchise, and that’s the kind of Hollywood institution that voters love awarding, like John Wayne winning for True Grit. And like Wayne then, Stallone abandons his vanity and traditional on-screen persona and just allows himself to be an old man. It's the male equivalent of when gorgeous women win Oscars while wearing ugly prosthetic faces (Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard). I just really hope he thanks Ryan Coogler first.

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara – Carol
Rachel McAdams – Spotlight
Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

This is the year’s only acting race where we don’t pretty much know what’s going to happen, so let’s break it down. Rachel McAdams probably has the lowest chance. She doesn’t give a performance that you come away from the film talking about, and, more crucially, it’s the only film in this race that is pretty sure to get awarded elsewhere. The other four nominees all have a decent chance, and they’ll all be the beneficiary of voters who think this race is their best chance to award a film they loved.

Jennifer Jason Leigh has been well-regarded in Hollywood for over thirty years, and this is somehow her first nomination, so that alone will give her a certain amount of votes. But The Hateful Eight is probably the least-loved film of the bunch, and seeing her spend nearly three hours dropping the N-word and getting punched in the face on screen isn’t likely to garner much love. She probably finishes fourth.

Rooney Mara is stunning in Carol, and she has the screen-time benefit of being the film’s lead character (her role isn’t “supporting” by any stretch of the imagination). But, and here’s where unfair/irrelevant voter agendas come into play, Mara can’t play into the “great thespian” label that will help Winslet, nor the “young and beautiful It Girl” narrative being applied to Vikander. Mara would have to win on performance merit alone, and sometimes that just isn’t enough.

Winslet is absolutely at the stage of her career where voters will see her as a two-Oscar kind of performer, she won both the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, and there’s even a sect of voters that will pick her because they like the idea of awarding her and Leo in the same year.

But I still don’t think that will be enough to beat Alicia Vikander. First of all, and because it might matter the least, Vikander gives the best performance in the field. Like Mara, she’s also a lead in her film, and she emotionally carries The Danish Girl. Vikander has been poised and radiant on red carpets all season, and fair or not (it’s not), that matters to some voters. Astonishingly, Vikander was in seven (!) films released in 2015, from (attempted) franchise movies, to art house indies, to prestige dramas, and that range and ubiquity will gain her a lot of support. One of those other films, Ex Machina, even earned a few Oscar nominations itself, and appeared on many critics’ top ten lists. A lot of Academy members think she deserved a nomination for that as well (or instead).

But most importantly, Alicia Vikander is 2015’s “It Girl,” and the Oscars will be her coronation.

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Big Short – Charles Randolph and Adam McKay
Brooklyn – Nick Hornby
Carol – Phyllis Nagy
The Martian – Drew Goddard
Room – Emma Donoghue

In a year with no Best Picture front-runner to easily check off in this category, voters are likely to go with what they perceive as the greatest degree of difficulty. Brooklyn and Carol display a lovely amount of subtlety in letting their characters internalize their emotional arcs. On the opposite end of the spectrum, The Martian and The Big Short required their writers to convey a huge amount of technical data and exposition to the audience without boring them along the way. Neither task is greater or harder than the other, but I expect voters to gravitate towards the latter set.

I would go with The Martian, because it not only had to deal with the data dump problem, but also the cinematic dilemma of having one character largely speak to the camera in solitude. Making that work, and making it really funny and engaging, is, I believe, the best achievement of the bunch. But The Big Short is seen as a more timely and necessary film, a more difficult subject to deal with on screen, and the innovation of the “Now here’s Margot Robbie in a bathtub to explain it to you” exposition breaks is probably enough of a memorable writing quirk to push it over the top in a close race.

Best Original Screenplay
Bridge of Spies – Matt Charman and Ethan Coen &
Joel Coen
Ex Machina – Alex Garland
Inside Out – Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley,
and Ronnie del Carmen
Spotlight – Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy
Straight Outta Compton – Jonathan Herman and Andrea
Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus

Spotlight is the heavy, heavy frontrunner here, and it should be—it was the year’s best screenplay. The way Singer and McCarthy figured out how to tell this story cinematically, and without source material, is an incredible achievement. It’s possible to imagine a scenario where Ex Machina pulls out a surprise victory here, but you’d be doing just that: imagining.

Best Animated Feature Film
Boy & the World
Inside Out
Shaun the Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

No top-tier Pixar movie has ever lost this category, and the utterly delightful Inside Out isn’t likely to be the first. But having said that, don’t count out Anomalisa. It’s a creative, quirky, touching, and beautiful love story that represents everything people love about Charlie Kauffman. It’s still a long shot, but one that will get a lot of support.

Best Documentary Feature Film
Cartel Land
The Look of Silence
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Nearly every year, the Best Documentary nominees tend to be a deeply heavy and depressing lot. That’s why, in years when voters are presented with an option that doesn’t remind them that the world’s going to hell, that film always wins. It’s the “Hey, that one didn’t make me want to drive off a cliff” phenomena, and 20 Feet From Stardom, Searching for Sugarman, Undefeated, Man on Wire, and March of the Penguins are the most recent beneficiaries. Amy and What Happened, Miss Simone? are the two musical crowd-pleasers this year, and though Amy is the sadder of the two, it’s also the more powerful, successful, and widely seen.

Best Foreign Language Film
Embrace of the Serpent
Son of Saul
A War

Some years this award is a complete tossup, while other years see one foreign film dominate the conversation. This is the latter. Son of Saul, a harrowing and unforgettable point-of-view look at life in Auschwitz, has won every precursor award, topped many critics’ lists, and was widely considered a contender for a Best Picture nomination. Like 12 Years a Slave, it’s the rare type of film that people will vote for even if they haven’t seen it, just because they believe they should. Mustang is also an incredible film, and I think it has a very miniscule chance here, but Son of Saul is one of the night’s true sure things.

Best Original Score
Bridge of Spies (Thomas Newman)
Carol (Carter Burwell)
The Hateful Eight (Ennio Morricone)
Sicario (Jóhan Jóhannsson)

Thomas Newman has now been nominated 13 times and hasn’t won yet, but that won’t change this year. Bridge of Spies isn’t a particularly memorable score, and Newman isn’t even the sentimental favorite of this bunch. That would be Ennio Morricone, who many regard as the greatest living film composer. He’s 87 years old, has composed over 500 film scores, and has been nominated five previous times without a win (though he did receive an honorary Oscar in 2007). Plus, The Hateful Eight’s score is really fantastic. Carol’s score is truly lovely, and it might be the best one of the year. But it’s not beating Ennio.

Best Original Song
Earned It,” from Fifty Shades of GreyThe
Weeknd, Ahmad Balshe, Jason Quenneville, and Stephan Moccio
Manta Ray,” from Racing Extinction – J. Ralph and
Simple Song #3,” from Youth – David Lang
Til It Happens to You,from The Hunting Ground –
Diane Warren and Lady Gaga
Writing’s on the Wall,” from Spectre – Jimmy Napes
and Sam Smith

Not a great batch of songs this year. “Manta Ray” is completely forgettable, and “Writing’s on the Wall” wasn’t even the best possible title song from its own movie (check out the Radiohead candidate). “Simple Song #3” won’t be affecting to anyone that didn’t see its use in the film, and judging by how many other nominations Youth got, voters didn’t see the film. “Earned It,” by The Weeknd, is definitely the best song of the bunch, but it doesn’t have the gravitas of Lady Gaga’s “Til it Happens to You.” It’s also been well publicized that co-songwriter Diane Warren has never won before, on seven previous nominations.  

Best Cinematography
Carol (Ed Lachman)
The Hateful Eight (Robert Richardson)
Mad Max: Fury Road (John Seale)
The Revenant (Emmanuel Lubezki)
Sicario (Roger Deakins)

There’s a possibility this will go to Mad Max: Fury Road if voters get on a rhythm of just checking it off for every single technical category (and don’t rule that out). There’s also a chance Roger Deakins could win purely out of sympathy; this is his 13th nomination in 21 years, and he still hasn’t won yet. But Deakins’ name won’t appear on the ballot (voters only see the film title), so that hurts any small chance he even had.

The likeliest outcome is for Emmanuel Lubezki to win his third Oscar in a row for his truly stunning imagery in The Revenant. Lubezki has won the last two years for Gravity and Birdman, respectively, and a win on Sunday would mark only the fifth time in Oscar history that the same person (or set of persons) has won a category three years in a row. It’s previously only happened in the Visual Effects, Costume Design, and Animated Short categories. For the latter, Walt Disney won eight Oscars in a row at one point. So remember that next time you’re proud of something you’ve done.  

Best Costume Design
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

The winner of this award is almost purely dependent on how long voters spend thinking about it. The longer they mull, the more likely they are to go with the opulence of Cinderella, which is really the type of film you think of with Best Costume Design. But if voters spend the thirty-seconds-or-less I expect them to, this category is likely to get caught up in a Mad Max: Fury Road technical sweep.

Best Editing
The Big Short
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This is the toughest technical category to call. On the one hand, it could be part of a Mad Max: Fury Road sweep in the craft races. On the other, it could go to Spotlight or The Big Short for creating the best puzzle. There’s precedent either way: The Bourne Ultimatum and Whiplash both won this category in the last ten years, and they have the kinetic style of editing that Mad Max perfects. But this award has also recently gone to The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which are the dialogue-heavy pieces of artful pacing reminiscent of Spotlight and The Big Short. The prevailing theory is that those two will split the vote and lead to a Mad Max win here, but I’ll be daring and go against the grain. I think Spotlight will win because it deserves to. Making a journalism movie suspenseful and propulsive ain’t easy.

Also: If either Spotlight or The Big Short win Best Editing, that probably means they’ll win Best Picture, too. Historically, this award only goes to the Best Picture winner about half of the time, but if either of these talkie dramas can beat Mad Max here, it means they have a lot more support in the Academy than people think.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Mad Max: Fury Road
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and
The Revenant

Leo’s bear attack wounds in The Revenant were horrific to look at, but those few moments (that voters might have even looked away or covered their eyes for) won’t be able to overcome the two hours of makeup insanity on display in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Best Production Design
Bridge of Spies
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Mad Max: Fury Road has some of the best production design in the history of cinema. Seriously.

Best Visual Effects
Ex Machina
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This is a tough category, because voters could see it as their best chance to award Ex Machina, The Martian, or Star Wars—all highly regarded films that aren’t expected to win anywhere else. But once that sentiment plays out a few times for each of those films, they’ll cancel out and clear the path for Mad Max: Fury Road.

(Side note: How did The Walk not get a nomination here??)

Best Sound Editing
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

For the two sound categories, it’s virtually inconceivable that anything besides Mad Max: Fury Road will win.

Best Sound Mixing
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

See above. (Hint—it’ll be Mad Max: Fury Road)

Best Animated Short Film
Bear Story
Sanjay’s Super Team
We Can’t Live Without the Cosmos
World of Tomorrow

Sanjay’s Super Team is the Pixar entry, which means it won’t win. Pixar has shockingly lost this category the last six times they were nominated, probably because voters think they’re playing with house money. Prologue and We Can’t Live Without the Cosmos just aren’t that great, so don’t bet on them either. From there, it’s a bit of a toss-up. World of Tomorrow is a film that people absolutely love, but it uses stick figures. Bear Story is pretty simple, but the actual animation is stunning. Because this award tends to most often go to the film with the most dazzling animation, Bear Story is the pick.

Best Documentary Short Film
Body Team 12
Chau, Beyond the Lines
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
Last Day of Freedom

This is the one category where I don’t see the films, but there are two major tidbits I can impart­—­­Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah is a Holocaust film, and it’s about the director of the monumentally important Shoah, which the Oscars couldn’t award thirty years ago because it debuted on television. It’s the safest bet.

Best Live Action Short Film
Ave Maria
Day One
Everything Will Be Okay

Shok is the most forgettable here, and Day One was too heavy for its own good. Everything Will Be Okay is affecting and has the best acting, but this is a category where voters tend to go with funny. That leaves Ave Maria and The Stutterer. I thought the latter was the best film of the bunch, and in a category devoid of politics or agendas, that’s as good a reason as any.