Oscar Predictions

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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Oscar Season Diary #10: Frontrunning to Instant Death

gravity-bullockAt the heart of divisiveness is passion.

You’re either for something or against it, and dividing love and hate into two binary categories with regards to the appeal of a film is often necessary when talking about it within the context of a race where only one can win. It’s natural to love what you love, push it forward, and let your next-best choice fall off the wagon to the side of the road.

I guess it’s unfair to say that, if you’re an Oscar voter, your #2 choice for Best Picture is one you don’t favor in general. It’s simply one that you don’t favor to win, and is automatically othered as a result. On a preferential ballot, #2 is essentially #9485 on the same scale.

Alas, only Oscar voters have to worry about that. Everyone knows the Academy has a huge task ahead of them after such a magnificent year jam-packed with quality cinema from around the world.

One one hand, the Academy could award the first ever black-made, black-themed film with a Best Picture win; on the other, they could break a 17-year pattern of awarding male-driven films their top honor. The latter seems likely since Alfonso Cuaron–director of Gravity–took home the top prize at the Directors Guild of America Awards last week. 90% of the time, those who win the DGA’s top prize go on to have their film recognized by the Academy as Best Picture of the year. In fact, it has happened a staggering 11 times since 2000. Only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain have the unfortunate honor of being awarded the DGA’s top prize without a follow-up Best Picture win (both films were directed by Ang Lee, funny enough).

Gravity is also poised to win key technical awards, including Best Film Editing (essentially the third-tier Best Picture Oscar).

Still, these statistics are displeasing and unconvincing to some. Pundits are overwhelmingly in favor of a 12 Years a Slave win, as a staggering 18 out of 23 of those surveyed on GoldDerby have it predicted in their #1 slot. If 12 Years a Slave wins, it would be a nearly unprecedented feat, as not only would the Academy defy statistical expectations, but 12 Years a Slave would rank amongst the least-decorated Best Picture winners in Oscar history, as the only other category it has a shot at winning is Best Supporting Actress.

What about the brewing tide making Gravity the statistical frontrunner doesn’t resonate? How can so many look so deeply into the face of such certainty and pick the opposite course? There’s little to no basis for predicting 12 Years a Slave to win other than hope, which is never a bad thing. It would be momentous if Steve McQueen’s film could pull off an upset in the face of Gravity‘s late-game dominance.

The fact remains, however, that we have two fantastic films on our hands, and one cannot be appropriately valued over the other.

As we saw the guilds, critics, and audiences file into their respective, individualized tributaries flowing into the Oscar picture (American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, and Gravity have each shared the spotlight as frontrunner), certainty seemed to be something each of us lacked as we hunted for a singular film to throw our weight behind.

Once Gravity won the DGA and PGA, the ball finally started rolling in one direction, and the tides turned. From its premiere at Venice to its near unanimous praise from critics, Gravity became one of the most prominent, highly-regarded films of the year. It was praised as a technical revolution, as well as a monumental achievement for actresses, as it is largely a one-woman show that went on to gross nearly $700 million worldwide.

It’s funny, then, that we’re currently witnessing the same things that happened to 12 Years a Slave after the fall festivals and to American Hustle after the critics circles prematurely ejaculated all over it; people are turning against Gravity because its footing is firmly planted at the front of the pack. With Oscar voting beginning in a matter of days, Gravity‘s late-entry status as the Best Picture frontrunner carries a stigma few films escape. When you’re perceived as the best, you’re no longer the sexy choice, even after you win Best Picture. The film will become predicated by what so many will harp on as an unjust triumph over a more “socially important” film like 12 Years a Slave.

It’s also around this time of year that the awards season narrative has an end in sight after bloggers, journalists, and audience wallets started writing it nearly 5 months ago. Early in the season, pundits championed 12 Years a Slave not only as a powerhouse film in itself, but as a beacon for the minority voice to finally reign supreme at the Oscar ceremony.

Generally, black-themed films are either ignored or shoved to the side as honorees in minor categories (Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, very rarely in other categories)but 12 Years a Slave entered the season strong, and will likely finish along those lines as well. It’s a film that recalls an ugly part of American history, but an important one–ever more so during times when the first black President leads our country, modern racial issues pervade our society, and when a societal surge for minority equality across all fronts should be represented and recognized in our art.

So, then, which social cause do you chose? Gender or race? Should it even be based on such factors?

Pundits on both sides of the Gravity/12 Years a Slave debate have essentially turned on each other, digging into their respective opponent because it doesn’t fit the awards narrative they desire. According to them, Gravity would undermine the doors that 12 Years a Slave would open for minority filmmakers, and to others 12 Years a Slave would only win because it’s the black movie that rides to victory on white guilt.

They seem to be forgetting one key fact: a film does not change once it wins Best Picture. It does not become any better or any worse. It merely becomes the permanent frontrunner, and this passionate discourse that’s tearing apart two camps representing two of the best films from a monumental cinematic year proves that once you’re first, you’re automatically dead.

Weighing which social narrative you’d like to triumph is poison. If 12 Years a Slave wins, then it makes it a hell of a lot easier for the Black New Wave to begin in full-force. If Gravity wins, it represents the first plot that’s female-driven to win Best Picture since 1997, and the first film driven solely by a female character to ever win.

The Gravity detractors nearly always fall back on the argument that it’s a film about a woman that’s been directed and written by men, and therefore crippled as a vehicle to advance the position of women in the industry. But, these people forget that we’re talking about a visual medium. When discussing any film, you must begin on the most fundamental level, and that’s what’s in front of us. On the basis of familiarity, general audiences often identify with a movie through its actors and what they’re able to see. That’s largely what makes Gravity so wondrous; its visual effects, and its charismatic lead (Sandra Bullock), who proved herself as a box-office pull in the age of fading individual bankability. She transcends the film’s visuals and becomes the one thing–aside from the visual effects–that people associate with the film. The only people arguing about Alfonso Cuaron vs. Steve McQueen are the film nerds who make a living off of fueling the debate.

Gravity’s plot is also a beautifully sustained metaphor throughout, and a Best Picture win for it would be a fitting cap on a year when a female-driven film topped the US box-office for the first time in 17 years (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). Things are changing for women, but pundits would rather pick and choose their social narratives in the hopes that they actually might have a hand in shaping them.

Chiwetel EjioforOne of the most prominent Oscar pundits out there, Sasha Stone, recently downplayed Alfonso Cuaron’s position, implying that he would only be significant as a Mexican director in this year’s Oscar race if he directed something about the Mexican experience, which is absurd and reinforcing of the dominant majority. So, by that logic, the minority is only worth something when he’s talking about the “other” to the white man and playing into the white man’s tastes?

While I tend to agree with the generally fantastic pundits over at Awards Daily, their most recent podcast irked me. Ryan Adams, an Oscar blogger I’ve come to respect, states that white voters and critics were “with” 12 Years a Slave until something more “white” and acceptable came along that they could latch on to, and that a viable “white” option was validated by the New York Film Critics Circle (American Hustle) early enough in the race that white voters were able to default onto it because it is more acceptable to them as a predominantly-white voting base. That makes absolutely no sense. The love for 12 Years a Slave came from a predominantly white voice in the first place. The overwhelmingly white pool of film critics across the country made it the best-reviewed film of the year, and I’m not sure Academy voters think with the same sort of racial bias many pundits have been spouting about all year. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision to switch from a “black” movie to a “white” movie that easily.

It seems that the mere existence of 12 Years a Slave is victory in itself. In a year with black filmmakers taking huge strides into the industry as a whole (in addition to McQueen’s success, Lee Daniels directed a “black” film to over $150 million in world box-office, and Ryan Coogler generated significant critical acclaim and impressive box-office for Fruitvale Station), it would be a fitting Best Picture winner after three prominent black men helmed films that began this important dialogue about race in the industry.

While a Best Picture win for 12 Years a Slave would certainly validate the minority voice in a white-dominated industry, the long-term success of the Black New Wave movement has largely already been determined by audiences and their wallets. There’s often a vitriolic backlash against studios for their overarching control of societal norms–that they reenforce unfair standards of beauty for women by casting thin actresses, that they avoid “black” or “minority” subject matter, etc. While studios and executives shape what’s presented to the public, it’s audience preference that dictates where the money goes, and that dictates what the executives put out. If we don’t want to see it, we shouldn’t take ourselves to indulge in the fantasy of what is largely unattainable for so many.

It’s disappointing that most successful films star men, are directed by men, and are marketed to men, but moviegoers are capable of changing that. Perhaps the smartest thing moviegoers did this year was drive box-office sales for female-driven films like Gravity, Frozen, Identity Thief, The Heat, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

It’s undeniable: while the industry isn’t an equal place for women just yet, 2013 was a turning point, and Gravity‘s impending Best Picture win will represent it well.

The divisive bickering, valuing one great film over the other on the basis of a single award, however, is unfair, and puts us right back at the beginning with no end in sight: squabbling about injustices and forgetting to feed our empty stomachs when a full-course meal sits mere inches below on the table.

Oscar Season Diary #9: ’12 Years a Slave,’ the PGA Awards, and the Dangers of Expectation

PGA-tie-618x400So much of the film industry is driven by expectation.

Studios expect box-office returns. Audiences expect to be entertained. Critics expect to be impressed.

Most Oscar bloggers and awards season pundits place themselves outside of these categories. Most of us have no interest in the business side of the industry, nor do we elect to be as willingly passive as those who think going to the multiplex on a Saturday night is an excuse to switch your brain into idle mode.

We chug along on the perimeter of the industry, poking and prodding at the seams of awards season, championing our favorite films of the year and (sometimes) throwing the others under the bus, because we expect the Academy’s taste to coincide with quality, not whichever film happens to press the least amount of buttons to fall in line with a safe consensus.

The most dangerous thing about awards season, however, is the baggage that expectations can place on prognostication. It’s not a particularly important part of the actual awards, but predictions and expectations are often the push that gets the ball rolling.

Usually, by mid-January, all of the guilds and critics circles have announced their annual set of winners, and the consensus generally tends to funnel into a single lane. By this time last year, Argo was set firmly ahead of the pack, and a year before that The Artist was sitting pretty in a similar position.

If this weekend’s Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild ceremonies proved anything, it’s that the immense quality of the films released in the calendar year have interfered with the industry’s ability to come to that dreaded (but necessary) consensus.

The SAG (the largest voting base of any industry guild, with about 120,000 eligible voters) often aligns with the film with the broadest appeal (in essence, the film that’s easiest for its members to come to a consensus on), which, for 2013, is unmistakably American Hustle (Lupita Nyong’o, however, was able to notch a win over Jennifer Lawrence, plunging the predictability of that race further into oblivion once again).

As all prepared to stick a fork in 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, the seemingly-impossible happened: the PGA announced its first-ever tie, awarding top honors to both films at its awards ceremony last night. Not only were Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron’s respective films kept alive in a race they’d otherwise fallen behind in, they were actually catapulted ahead of American Hustle just as it was gaining the upper hand.

We’ve got the Directors Guild of America left, and their top honor will likely go to Alfonso Cuaron for his work on Gravity. That would, effectively, place Sandra Bullock’s one-woman show in prime position.

Alas, what have we learned? Expectations are limiting and evil, especially in such an unpredictable Oscar year. Just take a look at the likes of Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr. Banks, two films largely expected to dominate this year’s race, but only mustered a paltry three Oscar nominations between the two of them–not a single one in a major category. Again, this goes against what our expectations would tell us. Both Emma Thompson and the Coen brothers have excellent Oscar track records–both are winners–and worked on films that were immense critical successes. 2013 taught us not to listen to history, generally a fail-safe way to predict the Oscar mentality.

The tide could very easily shift toward 12 Years a Slave, bringing the narrative of the season back full-circle onto itself. When you think about it, the path is always uncharted, it’s just the critics, guilds, audience wallets, and pundits that determine who lives and who dies in the race. After all, the hype machine is to blame for building up most of our expectations and then violently shooting them down. It happened with Silver Linings Playbook last year, nearly happened to 12 Years a Slave this year, and is (most likely) currently unraveling American Hustle‘s late-race dash for Best Picture.

rs_560x415-140118172006-1024.Lupita-Nyongo-SAG-011814_copyIt’s a constant circle of self-made praise. Each publication–from Variety to Entertainment Weekly to Awards Daily–wants to be there at the start of glory. They want to champion the buzzy film-that-could that comes out of Toronto, Venice, and Telluride. They want to advance the narrative, and gain traction for pin-pointing excellence.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but this essentially kills any genuine reaction from general critics (the “legitimate” ones are usually already at these festivals, and are doing their fair share of feeding the hype monster) and audiences, as they’re either over-hyped to the point where it’s impossible to be impressed, or they’re unable to think for themselves and merely pile on the praise to fit in with the tide that’s been crafted around them. It’s a self-starting, self-destructive bubble.

12 Years a Slave is, on paper, a film that seems a fitting Best Picture for the 2013 calendar year. The Academy appointed its first female black president and made numerous efforts to diversify its voting base by inviting more women and people of color than ever before.

It only makes sense, then, that a film like 12 Years a Slave would be championed as a harbinger of change, as the perfect vessel to carry us through this monumental year for change.

As evidenced yesterday on Twitter as the film was announced as one of two PGA winners, many champion the film because they say it’s a symbol of hope for minorities in the United States. I’ve always had a problem with this, seeing as the film is a triumph in its mere existence, and doesn’t need what is essentially a majority award to justify its presence.

According to the LA Times, the Oscar voting base is overwhelmingly white and male (90% white, 75% male). If 12 Years a Slave were to win with these voters, the only thing it proves is that the film is playing into the majority’s taste, and isn’t really triumphing over the majority, then, anyway. Do not let the film be a symbol of “hope,” as that is a false appropriation of credit. All this means is that the film received the white majority’s approval, and played to their tastes. If it wins, the film will win as a great film, and should not be used as a tool for validation of race or presence. If hope lies in the hands of playing to the majority’s fancy, freedom for the minority voice is a missing part of the equation, as objectification then becomes the issue.

Again, people’s expectations for the film are that it must be the harbinger of hope simply because it was crafted by black hands, stars black actors, and is adapted from a book written by a prominent figure in African-American history. It is a marvelous film that should be championed because it does represent the minority voice, and represents it extremely well.

12 Years a Slave is a moving, powerful work of art that both challenges the majority stylistically and thematically, but to demean its value by validating its greatness at the hands of a white male-dominated is an insult to what it stands for.

The seething, lurking, ever-present tentacles of expectation have no right to impede 12 Years a Slave‘s existence as a cinematic landmark.

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

Oscar Season Diary #7: Passion and Transformation

Gravity-Movie-Space-2013-640x360We spend so much time arguing about movies. 2013 is no exception, as one of the most intensely scattered races in recent memory has brought showers of praise–and an equal amount of detraction–upon a vast array of potential frontrunners.

Tomorrow, the Academy’s 6,000 members begin the nomination process, which should provide a bit of clarity by the time their selections are made public on January 16th.

As last year proved, the Academy encounters another difficult task thanks to the date change. Without the usual nominations from the DGA or PGA to use as a springboard, Academy members must again this year do two things they’ve never been much good at; see every film in contention and make up their own minds.

The film purist in me holds on to the idea that the sacred art of quality cinema is what leads Oscar voters to make the right choice. Year after year, that’s proven to be nothing more than a fantasy we go out of our way to believe will prevail when, 90% of the time, we’re slapped in the face with the exact opposite.

There’s an affection for longevity of career and for persistence that runs in-line with Academy voting. It’s at the root of all praise, regardless if it’s capped off with a golden statue at a fancy, televised ceremony, but thanks to the preferential ballot the Academy has used for the past few years, affection can now be wielded as a champion’s sword.

Last year, we saw Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour garner critical nominations in key categories over seasonal favorites such as Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow. We all know how that one turned out.

2013’s frontrunners tout themes about passion or attaining the ideal (Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle) or trying to regain it (12 Years a Slave, Gravity). These are films with intense emotional pull and drive, things that people very easily latch on to. With these 5 films heading into the Oscar nomination process as frontrunners, it’s not difficult to see the full affect of the Academy’s decision to up the cap of Best Picture nominees to 10.

With the old 5-nominee standard of yesteryear, you’d never see more than two films heading into mid-season runs at the head of the pack. This year, we have five, perhaps six. If anything, the expanded category has inspired more passion for individual projects from wider nets of people in all corners of the industry.

Gravity and Her tied for the LAFCA Best Film award, American Hustle stampeded into the race with a major early Best Film from the NYFCC, and 12 Years a Slave continues to rack up multiple, consistent nominations and wins in major categories with each of the critics circles and industry guilds.

In a continued ripple felt throughout Oscar season, each guild, each critics circle, and each Oscar blogger is out to prove one thing in the midst of the Academy’s shift to earlier voting deadlines: that they, solely, are to be trusted as prognosticator.

So who, then, does a film need to impress?

With scattered results, it seems that each precursor award thus far has only served to bolster the frontrunners’ positions as, well, frontrunners. Impressing the overall Academy is absolutely vital to scoring a Best Picture nomination.

The Wrap predicts that some 549 votes are needed to secure a nomination in this category. Films with general or overly emotional/passion-based appeal succeed on this system (even those that are divisive, like Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild). For acting, directing, and technical categories, smaller nominating branches choose nominees, the largest being the directors and the actors, which makes the SAG and DGA Awards perhaps the most indicative of Academy voting behavior.

Let’s take a look at how past Best Picture front-runners have fared with precursors, and how they’ve fared in key categories that usually indicate an impending Best Picture win (Directing, Editing, and Screenplay):

PastWinnerPastWinnerTechUntitled(Frontrunner Key Category Ranking is projected position based on my opinion on their likelihood of winning)

It’s important to note that this year there is not a single film from 2013 which casts its net of appeal over all categories or precursors. Each have taken a top award somewhere. Gravity is hampered by its lack of an ensemble or strong script, while Her lacks push in the screenplay department as well. Gravity does lead the race in two key non-Best Picture categories, however, as its looming presence as a technical masterpiece (game-changer, some have said) will propel it to wins for Best Film Editing and Best Director.

Taking the burden of too-early over-ecstatic praise unto its shoulders from 12 Years a Slave, Gravity is victimized only by the sheer praise it received upon release that seems to have exhausted itself to the point of becoming one-note. People were rightly ecstatic about it for all the reasons it would become one of the most interesting Best Picture winner in history, but the praise got ahead of itself.

If it were to win Best Picture, Gravity would be the first female-centered film to win in nearly 10 years. It would also become the first “science fiction” (note: I don’t consider it science fiction, but the trade headlines have been labeling it that since its release, so I’ll side with the inevitable, here) film to win the top prize. These would be two precedents that would solidify the Academy’s attempt to diversify its membership.

Its close competition, American Hustle, teeters on the edge of the director race, though Russell’s film follows the hugely-successful Silver Linings Playbook. Hustle appeals to actors thanks to its huge ensemble cast–it garnered a SAG ensemble nomination as well as a nomination in each individual category–but, none of those performers are frontrunners. Best Picture is extremely hard to attain without a strong performance-based award (another reason Argo was such a glaring anomaly last year), and Hustle‘s luck fate will be determined by the SAG and HFPA and if they choose to push Jennifer Lawrence ahead of Lupita Nyong’o.

12 Years a Slave seems like, on paper, the safest choice for Best Picture at this point. Though, with reports coming from Academy screenings for The Wolf Of Wall Street of older members recoiling viciously in shock and disgust, one begs to question the Academy’s ability to handle powerful, disturbing material as in 12 Years a Slave.

Black films tend to have the least amount of luck when it comes to the Best Picture race. The Color Purple most notably garnered a staggering eleven nominations without a single win. Older voters might have appreciated the film if it were a straightforward, Americanized version of slavery, but the film is an intensely challenging, artful refocusing of the historical drama. It’s clear that there’s a push for this film, but it remains to be seen if the Academy will bite. If they’re going based on historical sentiment, they will. If they’re going based on the actual content of the film, it won’t be hard to understand if they don’t.

Each film has its strengths, but other weakness which would mar its chances in any other year. Where one film falls short, another is there to pick up the slack in a different category and vice versa.

new-images-from-the-hobbit-american-hustle-and-the-monuments-men-142354-a-1375953418-470-75
What will ultimately propel a film ahead of the others? Unless Gravity pulls an upset and adorns Sandra Bullock’s performance with its Best Female Actor award, I think we’ll have another Director/Picture split this year. American Hustle is the film to beat, if only for David O. Russell’s persistence. American Hustle is picking up steam (and substantial box-office) as the season rolls along, and that indicates only one thing: passion.

There’s a huge, generally-appealing blanket of passion for Russell’s recent work that transcends any rules or formulas used to predict the Oscars. Silver Linings Playbook was popular enough to receive surprise acting nominations in all four categories, and American Hustle will be Russell’s restitution. It’s lighter, prettier, and settles far more traditionally than 12 Years a Slave does, and Gravity simply lacks the push from the actors that Hustle has on its side.

It’s hard to get at what exactly is driving the Oscar race this season. Pundits and bloggers each seem to be skirting around the issue while being afraid to say it, but everyone is talking about everything and nothing with the 2013 Oscar race. No one really knows which way the race is headed.

It’s clear that a genuine love for championing artists, their visions, and the pure impact of their work is making its way back to the forefront of the Oscar discussion. The race is now justifiably a multi-perspective arena where every voice does matter. While Argo‘s win was insufferable because of the quality of the film, it gave the Oscars a voice, one that said–while their opinion may be juvenile at times–it’s getting back to being its own. I hope the trend continues, that these past two years have not been flukes, and that next year we don’t regress back to the campaign-and-steamroll process.

You can’t predict the heart, and the Academy might have finally found a way to let voters follow good old individual passion as its pulled along in front of their faces, seeping back into the race.

National Board of Review Announces Winners: ‘Gravity’ Hurts, ‘Her’ Soars Into the Race

spike-jonze-her-joaquin-phoenix

The National Board of review has announced its annual list of year-end bests, moving in a drastically different direction than yesterday’s New York Film Critics Circle Awards, crowning Spike Jonze and his film Her with its top two honors.

The NBR generally tends to favor showy titles, big names, big budgets, and audience-friendly fare, which makes it entirely surprising that Gravity–a film right up the NBR alley–walks away with only a special achievement award here. If Gravity‘s finds little success with the LAFCC later this week, its chances at its previously-expected Oscar glory might plummet, though I have faith that the HFPA will eat the film up in its dramatic categories.

Gravity could also prove to have been a mid-season fluke. Its existence as a massive box-office success helmed almost entirely by an Oscar-winning actress (one of the most powerful in Hollywood, mind you) might have bogged the film down with unrealistic expectations that were entirely ahead of themselves just before awards season.

Gravity is, compared to other films in the race, a crowd-pleasing stroke of surface entertainment. It delves beyond the surface if you’re willing to look, but seeing through to its thematic/metaphorical structure isn’t necessary to enjoy the film. It’s still a lock in key technical categories.

The one thing that’s remained consistent throughout the precursor awards is an outpouring of love for Ryan Coogler and his Fruitvale Station. Though it seems to be sweeping minor categories (directorial debuts, breakthrough performances), it’s becoming clear that there’s a passionate push behind the film that extends into other areas, as Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer have been recognized by the Film Independent Spirit Awards and NBR, respectively.

So far, Coogler’s film has received honors and nominations from Sundance, Cannes, the Gotham Awards, the Film Independent Spirit Awards, the NYFCC, the Satellite Awards, and now from the NBR. It would be a huge mistake to discount Fruitvale Station‘s chances in the Oscar category for Best Picture.

Sarah Polley adds another win to the ongoing tally for her documentary Stories We Tell, which is now poised as the frontrunner in the Best Documentary Feature category.

Last year, the National Board of Review honored Kathryn Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty with multiple awards (including for her Direction and Jessica Chastain’s lead performance), though it fell just short of Oscar glory thanks to an ugly political agenda aiming for its demise. Whereas the critics circles tend to exist in their own world (somewhat exemplified by the NYFCC’s love for American Hustle), the NBR usually takes a few steps further, throwing in random mass-appealers (Lone Survivor this year) year after year, or pushing an unexpected film to the forefront of the discussion.

Will the NBR’s push for Her extend the film’s reach into big categories at the Oscars? Maybe. We’ve only just witnessed the opening of the gates, and Her is now positioned for a healthy run.

Top 10 Films (in alphabetical order):

12 Years a Slave

Fruitvale Station

Gravity

Inside Llewyn Davis

Lone Survivor

Nebraska

Prisoners

Saving Mr. Banks

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Wolf of Wall Street

Best FilmHer

Best Director: Spike Jonze, Her

Best Actor: Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Best Actress: Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

Best Supporting Actor: Will Forte, Nebraska

Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station

Best Original Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Adapted Screenplay: Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Animated Feature: The Wind Rises

Breakthrough Performance: Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station

Breakthrough Performance: Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color

Best Directorial Debut: Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station

Best Foreign Language Film: The Past

Best Documentary: Stories We Tell

Best Ensemble: Prisoners

Oscar Season Diary #4: When Will the Fantasy End? “Captain Phillips” and the New American Dream

930353 - Captain Phillips

For the better half of the last decade, The Academy has gone soft.

Argo ends as we gaze upon the quintessential American family embracing amidst the backdrop of a glistening sun and oversized American flag. The Artist concludes with a pair of beaming smiles, aimed like saccharine arrows poised to pierce our helpless hearts with undying hope.

Both films are fantasies, and both reaffirm what only cinema can; that painful reality is pitifully easy to forget, even when it surrounds us each and every day.

Zero Dark Thirty’s final shot shows a dead-tired woman unraveling before our very eyes, crushed by the lack of relief she feels after pouring years of her life into finding and killing the most-wanted man in the world. In its final moments, Captain Phillips dares to toy with the idea that American heroism is a mirage bolstered only by ignorance and virus-like corporate domination of the international economy. While the former’s chance at Oscar’s top prize were dashed thanks to the irresponsibly harsh political campaign against it, the latter seems similarly destined to find itself among Oscar’s forgotten contenders when envelopes are opened early next year. Both films challenge us in places where Best Picture winners like The Artist and Argo dared not to tread.

With hard-hitting dramas like 12 Years a Slave garnering the overwhelming majority of Oscar buzz, it’s clear that The Academy might finally (for the first time since 2009) be obligated to choose a film that represents a relevant sense of reality versus the abnormally glossy one they’ve favored for years, and the conclusion can’t be drawn merely at the Best Picture line.

Where Argo celebrates American triumph, Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips embody a much darker, tangible pessimism in their refusal to herald classical American heroism. Zero Dark Thirty failed to receive its deserved share of Oscar attention. Will the story be different for Captain Phillips? Perhaps, though it is a far more challenging film that reflects a mentality the Oscars will have to deal with at one point or another.

These films—Captain Phillips, in particular—usher in the New American Dream, one that’s wrangled itself free from the grasp of US hands and into those whose existence lingers far outside the casual American’s radar. Somali pirates (like the ones in Captain Phillips) are a prime example of this.

We’re introduced to Muse, Bilal, and Najee, a trio of fishermen living in poverty on the beaches of Somalia. The waters before them teem with international trade routes, largely controlled by the United States’ almost tyrannical presence. These fishermen don’t let this domination keep them down, however, as they set out to overtake US ships and reap the bounties of their cargo.

captain-phillips01
These men see America as not only an intrusive presence, but as something to be conquered. Filtered through this foreign perspective, the New American Dream evolves beyond merely being a goal-oriented journey to better opportunity. For Bilal, Muse, and Najee, it is a challenge; a plague; a virus; something that can be contained and conquered, as Muse reminds us that he “can handle America,” speaking of it as a single entity, brushing off a gargantuan presence as if it were a pesky housefly.

Once aboard Phillips’ ship, these men demand two things: money and honesty. “No games,” Muse, a stern-faced and determined leader with little inclination to cause bodily harm, consistently reminds Phillips. These men are here to do business, to bring back a portion of wealth that traverses their home waters on a daily basis, and to assert themselves as a minority of the world population that refuse to disappear under the boot of America.

While the three pirates come to represent various aspects of the anti-American worldview (rage, yearning for national prosperity, and those lost in the struggle between the two positions) the film as a whole represents the underlying fear Americans have but rarely have to confront in their everyday lives: that those we deem “weak,” that we fancy ourselves “untouchable” to, harness a primal power which threatens the footing upon which we stand. In contrast, we see that Americans are willing to do less work for more, as Phillips’ men refuse to defend the ship because they’re “in the union” and “didn’t sign up for this,” as poor Somali men scale their vessel–without shoes.

It’s interesting that in such a short amount of time, now nearly a year after Kathryn Bigelow’s sophomore effort opened to #1 at the box-office (well on its way to nearly $100 million domestically), that the American public seems to be embracing challenging alternatives to the male-dominated, male-marketed norm. Despite typical hits like Iron Man 3 and Despicable Me 2, American audiences have proven that a yearning for alternative films is ever-present. We saw success stories for women (The Heat, Gravity, The Conjuring—nearly every “original” title to open to over $34 million in weekend receipts was female-oriented or driven by a female star [or stars]) and watched adult-oriented dramas climb their way to box-office success (Prisoners peaked at $60 million, Now You See Me quietly made over $100 million).

Captain Phillips seems poised to break $100 million within the next few weeks, and 12 Years a Slave has enough awards push behind it to cross into healthy $50 or $60 million territory by the time the Oscars roll around.

My only problem continues to be audience reception of these films. I can remember audiences clapping at the end of Zero Dark Thirty and, again, at my screening of Captain Phillips. I continue to be disturbed by this behavior, as both films position America as an almost evil entity that’s to be feared for its ruthless manipulation of so many outlets and people.

The Americans in Captain Phillips ignore the pirates’ willingness to cooperate by playing games and manipulating, which directly opposes Muse’s only condition for complying in the first place. After heading the operation to successfully kill Osama bin Laden, Maya sits on an airplane, alone, and weeps to herself after the pilot asks her where she’d like to go. Her tears stand for the anxieties about America’s position in the world. Where do we go from here? How do we face life when the evils of America’s reach become personal? We see the effects of America’s domination in Captain Phillips. “There’s got to be some other way to solve this,” Phillips says to Muse. “Maybe in America,” he responds, for once acknowledging the fantasyland that the nation has become.

Chastain_final_scene

The Academy rarely plays with challenge. Their voting base seems, to me, like the kind of people who would clap at the end of Captain Phillips because an American “hero” survives. I’m the kind of person who sees the last shots of the film for what they are. I can’t watch as a close-up on the tiny lifeboat where the pirates lost their lives becomes an extreme long shot that positions three large American vessels on all sides, cementing US domination as an unrelenting, soulless presence on the world stage.

It’s scary and unnerving. I hope The Academy will learn to see through the veil of American entitlement if it chooses to award Captain Phillips with anything.

Awards for heroism it does not deserve; recognition for lifting the wool Argo seeks to pull down, however, would be most appropriate.