Thursday, February 25, 2016

Stuff White People Like: 2016 Oscar Predictions

The picture on the left here. The tuxedos on the red carpet. Chris Rock on stage at the Dolby Theater. Those three things are about as black as this year's Oscars are gonna get. Yes, for the second year in a row, #OscarsSoWhite is the prevailing narrative ahead of the annual cavalcade of old white men and the things they like. Last year, it was an "insider" film about an aging white actor (albeit directed by a Mexican) and Eddie fucking Redmayne. This year, it's a cornucopia of films about white men (albeit a few about white women) and... Eddie fucking Redmayne again. Seriously, what's the biggest role for a black actor in any film nominated for Best Picture? Chiwatel Ejiofor in The Martian? (Shoutout to my boy Childish Gambino though.) But it's a fruitless exercise to blame the nominated films, or even the people nominating them. So who to blame then? It's the system, man. The system that sets white actors up for success and makes it near-impossible for black (and other non-white races) to succeed. If there were more (and better) roles for non-white actors, even the stodgy old guard of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be forced to recognize (and nominate) them. So how do we get there? Well, short of Will Smith going Nat Turner–style on the studio heads, there's no easy solution. But, with out country growing more diverse every year and Baby Boomers (aka Ol' Whitey) getting older, this problem may take care of itself in the not-too-distant future. That's cold comfort to Smith, Michael B. Jordan, Sam Jackson, and all the other non-white Oscar-worthy performers this year, but at least they know Rock will get a couple good zingers in on Sunday night. So, rant out of the way, let's get to my annual predix. I've once again seen all the major nominees, so at least you know I'm not bullshitting. I'll try to do better than the 3/8 on these picks last year (which shouldn't be too hard).

Gold = Predicted Winner

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

This is a strong group of nominees—there's not a single undeserving nominee among them and not an egregious snub either (although I might have nominated Vikander a second time for Ex Machnia instead of Winslet). Of the five, Leigh is probably the longest shot, as the Academy didn't show its usual love to Q, and hers is a hard performance to stomach. (For the record, she was very good, but I think I liked her better in Anomalisa, even though it's a voice-only performance.) McAdams is probably the next-longest shot—she seems to be well liked, but her first nomination is likely her reward. That leaves Mara, Vikander, and Winslet, all of whom have won a number of precursor awards for their performances. When the nominations were announced, I thought Mara would be a shoo-in winner, but it's really a lead performance and doesn't seem to have much momentum. Winslet won the Golden Globe, but she's already got a statue and her film doesn't have many other nominations (usually a bad sign). So, I think it'll be the new "it-girl," Alicia Vikander, who takes home the prize. She gave a compelling, thoughtful performance opposite the rhombus-headed Redmayne and was also stellar as a robot in Ex Machina (whereas Redmayne just plays a robot in everything). That performance won't be forgotten come Oscar night, and neither will she.

My Non-Existent Vote: Mara

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

This category is a fascinating two-man race between Stallone (sentimental favorite) and Rylance (critical darling). Bale is a previous winner here and actually gave a pretty humdrum performance. There are at least a half-dozen better performances that missed out because of his nom (Elba, Del Toro, and Shannon, just to name three). Tom Hardy is always a welcome sight, but I honestly don't buy into the hype for his work in The Revenant. He was a menacing idiot with a clenched jaw—Bronson toned down a few notches in a coonskin cap. But he had a strong year with this and his expressive, largely-wordless work in Mad Max, so I have no problem with his nomination. He's just not winning. Even mid-tier work by Mark Ruffalo is better than most actors' A-game (as is the case this year), and he'll get his statue someday—just not this year. Of the frontrunners, Rylance was stronger by far—a terse, technical performance not unlike Gary Oldman's work in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—but artistic merit might not mean squat in the face of CANCER. Yes, I think Sylvester Stallone and his well-intentioned but ultimately hokey performance of punch-and-cancer-drunk Rocky Balboa will win here. But you know what? I'm fine with it. He wasn't *that* bad, it's (somehow) the only award Creed was nominated for, and it's a nice tribute to Stallone, once one of Hollywood's biggest stars. And no one's really getting shafted here, not really. Bale has an Oscar, Hardy and Ruffalo figure to be back, and Rylance has a handful of Tonys. Plus, there won't be a dry eye in the house if/when Stallone steps up to the stage. Hopefully he'll remember to acknowledge his director this time though.

My Non-Existent Vote: Stallone

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

While there is still a lot of, ahem, drama in the supporting category races, the two lead categories seem all but locked up. If anyone but Brie Larson goes home with the Oscar on Sunday, it will be a monumental upset. Her award will be well deserved, too, as her performance in Room is easily the strongest of the nominees. (And my third-favorite lead actress performance of the year—stay tuned for my top 2016 movies post!) She was very good in the titular Room—scared yet steely—but I thought perhaps the hype had been overblown when—SPOILERS—she got out of Room with nearly an hour left of the movie. I was wrong. She saved her best work for the world outside of Room, running the emotional gamut without reaching, nailing scene after scene. The TV interview especially stood out to me. See Room if you haven't! Of the rest of the nominees, Rampling gave my second-favorite performance, which surprised me, 45 Years being the last of the major nominees I watched. Her work is deep, resonant, and indelible. (And how her costar Tom Courteney didn't get nominated is tough to fathom.) But she has no shot here, especially after her tone-deaf comments about #OscarsSoWhite. Blanchett was characteristically excellent, but Carol did nothing to make her stretch her considerable talents—her grace and vulnerability are effortless, as ever. She's probably our best working actress (Streep included). Here's to her taking bigger chances in 2016. (I liked but didn't love the movie.) Ronan is probably the closest thing to competition for Larson here, and she's one of my favorite young actresses (Atonement and Hanna, yo!), but... Brooklyn didn't do much for me. It's a perfectly lovely movie, but it's devoid of dramatic tension and completely falls apart during a second-half interlude in Ireland. Finally, Lawrence. She's a fine actress, but she and David O. Russell need to break up so they both can make more interesting movies. Joy was a fucking mess, and I don't think much more highly of American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook either (in fact, I hardly think of them at all). Give us back the Russell of Three Kings and the Lawrence of Winter's Bone, please.

My Non-Existent Vote: Larsen

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

If #OscarsSoWhite is the biggest storyline of this year's Oscars, #LeoIsDue is a close second. Not since Kate Winslet in 2009 has there been such a groundswell of "they're due" sentiment. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a Leo fan, but the rabble-rousing is a bit ridiculous, especially for someone so young, and especially for a performance that's more about superficial elements than actual *acting* (not unlike last year's winner in this category). Where's the not-quite-concealed, deep-seated pain he showed in Catch Me If You Can? The maniacal profundity of The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street? The nuanced emotions of The Departed (still his best performance, to me)? Hell, even opulent heartache of The Great Gatsby was better. But still, Leonardo DiCaprio will at last have his Oscar after Sunday (and it's still the best performance of this bunch). This is Matt Damon's third acting nomination, and expect him to become the next cause célèbre when he walks away empty-handed again. He's gregarious and resolute in The Martian, but it's hardly the stuff of Oscar snubbery. Fassbender does well with the Sorkin-isms and turtlenecks, but his performance is ultimately hollow, much like the film itself—well executed, but with no discernible significance. Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo is basically pizza-throwing Walter White in movie form, with social studies class–level analysis of his politics. It's basically the male equivalent of Streep as Thatcher, which she won for. Cranston will have no such luck. As for Redmayne, I think I've made my opinion about that Simple Jacklooking mother f*cker pretty clear. STOP. NOMINATING. HIM.

My Non-Existent Vote: DiCaprio

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

I'm generally pretty ambivalent to this category—it's usually the territory of formulaic prestige pictures and staid literary adaptations. While the occasional interesting nominee sneaks when an auteur deigns to adapt someone else's story (Inherent Vice, No Country for Old Men) or due to miscategorizaion (Whiplash, Before Midnight), I'm usually not too fired up about adapted screenplays. Not so this year, as one of the main contenders—The Big Short—is one of my favorite scripts of the year. I'll be the first to tell you that I couldn't follow the financial minutiae, but it elucidated the bigger concepts with panache and verve, usually courtesy of a celebrity cameo. It's deliberately pandering, yet its done with a wink, all while juggling a half-dozen separate plot lines effectively. Oh, and did I mention that it was co-written by the creator of Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, and Brennan and Dale? (Forget that the other co-writer wrote The Life of David Gale.) That's right, I think Adam McKay and Charles Randolph will both be able to call themselves Oscar winners after Sunday. Their biggest threat—and it's a very real one—is probably Donoghue, who adapted her own book to earn a nomination. Her script is fine, but it suffers from a lack of focus (it wants badly to be the boy's story, but it's not), I'm not sure the intermittent voiceover works, and I suspect there's more to the mythology of Room than is delved into (haven't read the book). Nagy and Hornby are likely neck and neck for third. Both films are probably too restrained for their own good (albeit in different ways) and are probably more perfunctorily liked than actually loved by the Academy. Goddard (director of The Cabin in the Woods, one of my favorite recent horror films) is just happy to be here. I'm not sure how much is related to the source material (haven't read this one either), but the writing is among the least impressive things about The Martian. The movie really goes downhill when—SPOILERS—the ship's crew turns back to rescue Damon instead of returning to Earth. And I swear, I'm walking out of the next movie where a ship "slingshots" around a celestial object of any kind. But this should slingshot Goddard to more (hopefully original) work, which is a good thing.

My Non-Existent Vote: McKay and Randolph

Best Original Screenplay
Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman – Straight Outta Compton
Matt Charman, Joel Coen, and Ethan Coen – Bridge Of Spies
Josh Cooley, Pete Docter, and Meg LeFauve – Inside Out
Alex Garland – Ex Machina
Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer – Spotlight

This one's probably going to Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer for Spotlight, the only one of these films in the conversation for Best Picture. It's solid, if not spectacular, work, making mundane tasks like retrieving court records and combing library shelves seem gripping and giving each member of the ensemble their own Oscar reel scene (and it worked for Ruffalo and McAdams). It's also got the Important Issue factor going for it, which none of the other nominees can boast (unless you count Straight Outta Compton as a message movie). Speaking of the other nominees, the two likely challengers are Garland and the Inside Out team—the former for its marriage of high concept and constrained quarters, the latter for its playfulness and inventiveness. Inside Out would probably get my vote if I had one (R.I.P. Bing Bong.) I've also been a fan of Garland's since his novel The Beach (yup, the same as the Leo movie—the book is really good though), so it's cool to see him nominated here (also shoutout to 28 Days Later and Sunshine). It's odd to see the Coens in this category and not be a contender—and in a Steven Spielberg film featuring Tom Hanks, no less. Bridge of Spies is easy to admire, but it's tougher to say it's really deserving of any of the awards its up for. It's polished, dignified entertainment, but it's nothing we haven't seen from those involved before. (Side note: Janusz Kamiński was robbed of a nomination for cinematography. Robbed!) Finally, we have the only nomination for Straight Outta Compton... and it's two white people. Oh well. It's actually a fairly prototypical biopic script, which is usually good enough for a nomination if the film is good (and it is—good, but not great).

My Non-Existent Vote: Cooley, Docter, and LeFauve

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

Once upon a time, the man responsible for the most visionary, technically brilliant, viscerally engaging film of the year was the frontrunner for this award. That man is George Miller, and that film is Mad Max: Fury Road. Then the big precursor awards started going Alejandro González Iñárritu's way, and that was that. It'd take a pretty big (but not unprecedented) upset for Miller (or perhaps McCarthy) to nab the statue instead of Iñárritu, but I'm not holding my breath. I went against Iñárritu's bombastic, unsubtle direction last year (and for a much better film), so I'm not going to make the same mistake again this year. That said, I think the film is quite good (it sits just outside my top 5 of the year), but I'm not sure how much credit goes to Iñárritu. The Revenant is much more of a piece with his earlier films (especially Biutiful) in that it's a real slog at times, putting its characters (and audience) through the meat grinder. It makes me wonder if the virtuosic Birdman was an aberration. I'd like to see more films in that vein than another 150-minute death march like The Revenant again, gripping though it may be. Of the rest, McKay deserves the most plaudits for his vibrant, vital work on The Big Short—it takes the Important Issue formula and tosses it into a bubble bath with Margot Robbie. Other than Mad Max (and we'll get back to Miller), I didn't see a film that felt more joyfully alive than The Big Short in 2015. It could've been another self-serious, straightforward message movie (like, I dunno, The Life of David Gale), but instead it played with the formula, took chances, went for (ahem) broke. Bravo, McKay. Can't wait to see what you do next. I don't have a lot to say about Abrahamson or McCarthy—a lot of their best decisions were just getting out of the way of their talented casts. Still, Abrahamson imbued the very troubling story of Room with a sense of something very close to whimsey, allowing the audience to relate to the characters as humans rather than simply victims. But back to Miller (I *really* don't have much to say about McCarthy). I know I accused Iñárritu of being bombastic and unsubtle, and no one would say Mad Max is restrained or subtle, at least on the surface. But Miller took what is essentially a two-hour car chase and made it both achingly personal and grandiosely cinematic, full of thrills both visceral and emotional. Not since, well, Birdman has a film pulled off that feat. Here's hoping the Academy recognizes the superior work this year.

My Non-Existent Vote: Miller

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

Like last year, this is a solid group through and through, without a glaring weak link. But there are only three contenders here—The Revenant, Spotlight, and The Big Short. They've largely split the precursors and have dominated the blogosphere babble. To quickly address the rest: I've heard some say Room is a dark horse, but I don't see it (because it's so dark). It's much too small of a film to make any noise here (but it is an excellent film, sitting right inside my top 10). Bridge of Spies and Brooklyn both fall under the prestige picture umbrella, and their nominations are a courteous tip of the cap to their filmmakers. The Martian is a wonderful popcorn movie, and that films like it can be nominated is one of the only reasons I'm glad they expanded the field. Unfortunately, the other popcorn nominee—and my favorite film of the year (SPOILERS!)—Mad Max: Fury Road, doesn't seem to have much of a chance here, unless the tech guilds find some way to rig the ballots. A shame, too, because giving the trophy to a two-hour feminist car chase directed by a septuagenarian retread would've been a helluva narrative. But as it is, the three contenders are all fine films—Spotlight is earnest and riveting, The Big Short is whip smart and cutting edge, and The Revenant is epic and harrowing. But it will be the latter taking home the prize, as films that have won the prizes The Revenant already has—Golden Globe, DGA, BAFTA—tend to do *really* well. I'll be rooting for an upset—c'mon, Mad Max or Big Short!—but I won't be that upset if Leo Is Cold and Also a Bear Mauled Him and Then He Was Cold Some More: The Movie wins the big prize. It's not the best picture of the year, but then, the winner of Best Picture rarely is. In my book, you have to go back to maybe 2008 (No Country for Old Men) or 2007 (The Departed) to find a year those two things aligned. So, I'll settle for having a very good movie win—and hey, at least it's not a thoroughly mediocre piece of pap like The Artist, right?

My Non-Existent Vote: Mad Max: Fury Road

Final random observations:
Nominees I'll be rooting the hardest for: McKay, Miller, and Mad Max
Most likely category for a WTF? win: Best Supporting Actor
Strongest overall category: Best Supporting Actress
Weakest overall category: Best Actor

I'll predict the rest of the categories Sunday morning. Until then, feel free to chime in with your own predictions!

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