academy award nominees

Final Oscar Predictions: ‘American Hustle’ Keeps Dreaming, ‘Gravity’ Pulls Ahead

gravity-movie-review-spaceGauging the months of speculation, bickering, championing, and–of course–whipping out your notebook to take notes in the middle of a crowded movie theater, it’s unfathomable to think that it all amounts to a single night.

Tonight, the 86th Annual Academy Awards will make believers out of skeptics, perhaps proving that the Oscar voters we spend so much of our time putting faith in–because maybe they’ll do the right thing this year–won’t let us down. Maybe they didn’t even entertain the idea of placing American Hustle at #1 on their ballots. Maybe they realized how laughably out of place Jennifer Lawrence’s performance looks amidst the competition. Maybe Spike Jonze will tonight win his first screenwriting Oscar for Her‘s marvelous script over David O. Russell’s barely-there skeleton of a screenplay.

We can dream, can’t we?

It’s so peculiar that a film that’s so laughably inferior to the other films in the race relies so heavily on the very idea of lofty expectations and fantasy existence–dreams, if you will. American Hustle is about slimy characters who dream of a better life, whose grandiose expectations yield shifty crimes and short-lived highs, wrapped up in a flashy package, directed by a renowned filmmaker with an astounding Oscar track record (despite not having won a single statue). Russell managed to get his cast nominated in each of the four acting categories two years a in a row. His work represents the often never-realized dreams of the Academy’s largest branch–the actors. But, it also invites its audience to feel superior to its characters in a sense that isn’t endearing or tongue-in-cheek. We see them as scum, without much redemption.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Screen Actors Guild–with large crossover membership with the Academy’s 2o% acting membership–bestowed its top prize upon American Hustle. For so many, it embodies the spirit of the dreamer.

The dream for tonight, then, is that American Hustle goes down without a single win. It belongs nowhere near the Oscar race (save for Amy Adams’ performance, which is justifiably better than one or two of her fellow nominees’). Scantily-clad women. A plot that’s not really a plot so much as a meandering narrative that’s not really about this, sometimes about that, and all the time about shouting, sex, and trying to justify itself as something greater than it actually is. In other words, it’s typical Academy fare.

o-american-hustle-trailer-facebookWhile Academy voters are still overwhelmingly old, white men (93% white, 77% male), that didn’t stop them from listening to the industry around them when they voted Gravity and 12 Years a Slave into the race, with an astounding 10 and 9 nominations respectively.

Gravity is a British-American co-production driven by a middle-aged female performance, directed by a Mexican filmmaker, and 12 Years a Slave is directed by a black man, about “black issues,” starring a predominantly black cast–you know, to them, this is only a “black” movie, and the majority of them have objectified the racial aspect of the film. It’s great that minority representation is finding its way into the Oscar race, but does either film stand a chance in the grand scheme of the race?

If you’re a by-the-book prognosticator, your answer must be yes. Gravity has, perhaps statistically, the strongest chance of winning going into the race. What it has going for it and against it:

– 10 total nominations, with a guarantee on approximately seven (Director, Cinematography, Sound Editing + Mixing, Visual Effects, Score, and Film Editing [If you’re ticking off multiple boxes, logic would only tell you it’s appropriate to notch a #1 vote in the Best Picture box]), two of which are generally claimed by eventual Best Picture winners (Director and Film Editing) – Strong support from guilds with crossover membership (Directors Guild of America win, Producers Guild of America tie with 12 Years a Slave)
– High-profile visibility in the months leading up to the Oscars (huge worldwide box-office, largely positive response from critics and audiences, which indicates general plug-and-play appeal that the Academy tends to go for)
– Lacks a screenplay nomination

12 Years a Slave, however, has sentiment and passion on its side which, as we’ve learned, is sometimes enough to win. 12 Years a Slave‘s awards summary:

-9 total nominations (though only a lock in a single category [Adapted Screenplay]) – Strong support from critics (the best-reviewed film of the year), though underwhelming box-office indicates lesser appeal across many markets
– Huge Golden Globe win for Best Picture – Drama in January, prior to Oscar voting
– Subject matter that turned many Academy members and audiences off (if you read around the trade papers and websites, many “anonymous” Oscar voters share similar sentiments regarding the film, saying that it was “too much” or “torture porn”, in some cases)
– Inevitable racial objectification at the hands of Oscar voters (they see only the race issues, which precede the film’s existence as a cinematic achievement and work of art)

History and logic would tell us that Gravity will win, though 12 Years a Slave seems to be riding along the narrative path Oscar voters are forging. If this is a split year between Best Picture and Best Director, 12 Years a Slave will most likely have upset in some of the lesser categories with stronger-than-expected support across the board from Oscar voters. If the tide turned in 12 Years a Slave‘s favor during the eleven-day voting process, we can expect it to take things like Best Film Editing and Best Supporting Actress away from Gravity and American Hustle respectively.

years3Of all the acting categories, its surprising that the one which isn’t locked-up (Blanchett, Leto, and McConaughey are all too far out front to abdicate) will indicate Academy support across the board. I’ve had a sinking feeling that American Hustle will emerge as the surprise winner in many categories tonight, though Supporting Actress is the most likely. Jennifer Lawrence is a fabulous actress with a huge career ahead of her, though her performance in the film is stilted. The film overwhelms her. She’s wooden, aware of the camera, and has a charismatic ability to have fun while onscreen; none of this, however, translates into a good performance. She’s great fun to be in the presence of, though 30 seconds of Lupita Nyong’o’s work in 12 Years a Slave puts everything Lawrence does in American Hustle to deep shame.

It seems that Oscar voters (and the industry in general) wants to forge a path to superstardom for Jennifer Lawrence, versus letting her find the work and the roles for herself. They want to be there at the beginning of the trajectory, they want to carve her ascension to the stars with gold. Last year was justifiably the right time for her. This year, it’s simply embarrassing that she’s nominated.

Tonight has the potential to be over shortly after it begins, as key categories are often announced early. Supporting Actress and Editing generally come before the halfway mark, and have the potential to set a course for the evening. If 12 Years a Slave is to take Best Picture, look for it to steal these awards away from the current frontrunners. On the technical side, be prepared for a 30-40 minute segment where nothing but Gravity racks up statues. It’ll likely take a large chunk of aesthetic awards, but don’t let that lull you into thinking it will win Best Picture by default.

It’s difficult to imagine a film like Gravity not doing well on a preferential ballot. The race is essentially down to three films: American Hustle, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave, each with vastly different appeal. Is a voter who puts American Hustle at #1 on their ballot likely to put Gravity at #2 or #3? Is a voter who places films that are likely to be eliminated in the first few rounds–like Philomena or Captain Phillips–likely to put 12 Years a Slave as their #2 or #3? I’m of course making the mistake of assuming that appeal remains the same across each of these films in terms of voter perspective. It’s simply too difficult of a year to accurately predict.

It’s easy to tell if a voter who liked Captain Phillips for the right reasons (it’s critical of American domination) will like 12 Years a Slave, as they’re both critical of and relevant to tensions of inequality with themes applicable to contemporary culture. If an Oscar voter understood Captain Phillips to be a rah-rah America tale of patriotic heroism, it’s extremely difficult to accept that this person would put 12 Years a Slave high on their ballot.

It’s a contentious year with no clear outcome. We can only, as we do every year, put our faith in a system of voting and a crop of voters we never trust, to make a decision that essentially means nothing in the grand scheme of life. After all, Crash winning over Brokeback Mountain did nothing but tarnish the Academy’s image. The Color Purple‘s lack of a single Oscar win only hurt the voters who shunned it, not those of us who enjoy it to this day. Whether Gravity or 12 Years a Slave win the Oscar, their presence as quality films won’t diminish.

Is it so much, though, to ask that the celebration of film be done right? Is there even a right way to do it?

We never lose faith that the Academy has the potential to do just that. It’s enough faith to get us back into the awards season machine in a few months. After all, Toronto, Telluride, and Venice are right around the corner–sort of.

Predictions for the 86th Annual Academy Awards:

Best Picture:
Gravity

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity

Best Actress in a Leading Role:
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

Best Actor in a Leading Role:
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

Best Original Screenplay:
Spike Jonze – Her

Best Adapted Screenplay:
John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave

Best Animated Feature: Frozen

Best Foreign Language Film:
The Hunt

Best Documentary Feature:
The Act of Killing

Best Documentary Short Subject: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Best Live-Action Short Film:
Helium

Best Animated Short Film:
Get a Horse!

Best Original Score:
Steven Price – Gravity

Best Original Song:
“Happy” by Pharrell Williams – Despicable Me 2

Best Sound Editing:
Glenn Freemantle – Gravity

Best Sound Mixing:
Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Chris Munro – Gravity

Best Production Design:
Catherine Martin, Beverley Dunn – The Great Gatsby

Best Cinematography:
Emmanuel Lubezki – Gravity

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:
Adruitha Lee, Robin Matthews – Dallas Buyers Club

Best Costume Design:
Catherine Martin – The Great Gatsby

Best Film Editing:
Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger – Gravity

Best Visual Effects:
Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould – Gravity

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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Funneling the Insanity: Predicting the Oscar Nominations

cn_image.size.oscar-statue-nominationsI’ll keep this short and (relatively) sweet, as we’re just eight hours away from having this vibrant, bountiful, confusing, immensely-exciting, wildly-unpredictable awards season funneled into some semblance of harmony by the AMPAS as they announce their annual list of nominees.

I’ll post full impressions once nominations have been announced (5:30 AM PST, 8:30 AM EST), but I’ve sort of dawned on something as I whittled my predictions down to their final state (as seen below).

Of the three films that have dominated the awards season discussion thus far, only Gravity has history and statistics on its side. Traditionally, there are four categories within which a film must be nominated if it has a legitimate shot at winning Best Picture (Screenplay, Director, Editing, and Picture). Gravity is currently the frontrunner in two of those categories (Director and Editing), while American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave are poised to take the Screenplay awards in their respective categories.

With a slew of nominations for Gravity expected tomorrow, the Best Picture race is, statistically, Gravity‘s to lose. Though, when a film wins Director and Editing, it tends to win Screenplay as well. Gravity isn’t even on the radar in that category. Let’s take a look at past Best Picture winners and how they fared in their respective categories, and then at the current frontrunners’ and their numbered rankings (in terms of potential to win) in the same slots:

UntitledIf you’re predicting with your brain, Gravity should be way out front. The problem is that I get the impression that no one wants to put their finger on a single film and stick with it, and the Globes proved this. They divided each of the top awards amongst the three frontrunners. 12 Years a Slave won only one award (Best Picture – Drama), American Hustle picked up Best Picture – Comedy/Musical, and Gravity snagged Best Director. None of these films won Best Screenplay, which went to Her. Do the Globes represent the larger voting base of the Oscars? There are far too many factors acting upon each of the films, and if Gravity  had support from the SAG (its 2-person cast, largely helmed by one woman for the majority of the film, can’t qualify as an “ensemble” to make it into the SAG Awards’ top category), it’d be a lock for the Academy’s top honor.

If 2013 taught us anything, however, it’s that riding the tide of awards season can be a daunting task–especially when no one’s dropping an anchor. My full predictions are below:

Best Picture: 

12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Gravity
Captain Phillips
Nebraska
The Wolf of Wall Street
Her
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club
Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Alternates: Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, Philomena, Saving Mr. Banks

Best Actor in a Leading Role:

Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips
Forest Whitaker – Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Best Actress in a Leading Role:

Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Meryl Streep – August: Osage County
Emma Thompson Saving Mr. Banks
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Judi Dench – Philomena

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Barkhad Abdi – Captain PhillipsMichael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
Bradley Cooper – American Hustle
Daniel Bruhl – Rush

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:

Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
June Squibb – Nebraska
Oprah Winfrey – Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Julia Roberts – August: Osage County

Best Director:

Paul Greengrass – Captain Phillips
David O. Russell – American Hustle
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity
Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Original Screenplay:

Her
Nebraska
Inside Llewyn Davis
American Hustle
Blue Jasmine

Best Adapted Screenplay:

12 Years a Slave
Philomena
The Wolf of Wall Street
Before Midnight
August: Osage County

Best Film Editing:

12 Years a Slave
Gravity
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Rush

Best Cinematography:

Gravity
Inside Llewyn Davis
12 Years a Slave
Prisoners
Nebraska

Best Production Design:

Gravity
12 Years a Slave
Her
The Great Gatsby
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Best Sound Mixing:

Gravity
Rush
All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Sound Editing:

Gravity
Rush
Pacific Rim
Star Trek: Into Darkness
Iron Man 3

Best Costume Design:

American Hustle
12 Years a Slave
The Great Gatsby
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Great Beauty

Best Original Score:

Gravity
All Is Lost
12 Years a Slave
The Book Thief
Saving Mr. Banks

Best Foreign Language Film:

The Broken Circle Breakdown
The Grandmaster
The Great Beauty
The Hunt
Omar

Best Documentary Feature:

The Act of Killing
Stories We Tell
Blackfish
Tim’s Vermeer
20 Feet From Stardom

Best Animated Feature:

Frozen
The Wind Rises
Despicable Me 2

Best Visual Effects

Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Pacific Rim
Iron Man 3
Star Trek: Into Darkness

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

American Hustle
The Great Gatsby
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire