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. 


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