A best guess approach to picking the lesser known 2014 Oscar winners

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Remember when movies were cheap?  Like, not-bank-breaking-to-see-one-a-week cheap?  It wasn’t that long ago that you could wander into your local multiplex without having to fork over the proverbial arm and leg for your ticket and bag of popcorn, or slice of pizza.  My friends and I used to try to venture out weekly, which was occasionally rough going during those dry months when the studios were dumping their guaranteed flops into the rolling-tumbleweed timeslots said dreck was similarly guaranteed to disappear quietly within, while doing the least damage to their reputations as producers of quality entertainment.  But it also meant you had a better than average shot of seeing all the movies that were up for awards contention.

Having said that, seeing the movies didn’t mean you were in any better position to judge whether or not they would win awards.  There are distinct, often inexplicable differences between the mind of the critic, the average viewer, and the award voter.  And what wins is a matter not necessarily of quality, but of an unfathomable brew of popularity, body of work, perceived merit and good old fashioned ad campaigns.  In the end the whole affair is about money anyway – someone did a calculation once where they figured out the percentage by which an Oscar win would boost a movie’s box office revenue or an actor’s asking price, with the typical caveat that in Hollywood, there is no such thing as an absolute:  F. Murray Abraham certainly isn’t pulling in $20 million a picture.

So if you’re trying to win your office Oscar pool, what do you do?  You read umpteen columns like this one, both professional and amateur, try to get a general sense of the trends, and toss your darts accordingly.  I’ll go through each category in brief and offer my own uninformed thoughts and guidelines.  You’ll note that as per the title of the post I’m staying away from the big ones like Actor, Actress and Picture, and focusing instead on the technical and “minor” categories, because a) I’m curmudgeonly that way and b) everyone else is doing posts about the big ones, so I’m standing up for the little guy.  You know, like Rob Ford says he does.

Animated Feature Film

Nominees:  The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest & Celestine, Frozen, The Wind Rises

Frozen is rightly being celebrated as Disney’s return to the form of its Renaissance era after years struggling in the shadow of Pixar, and it deserves every accolade it gets.  It doesn’t matter how highly regarded The Wind Rises’ director Hayao Miyazaki may be, nor even that he announced it would be his final film – the Academy will not stand idly by and let the wild success of Frozen go unacknowledged.  The other three contenders may have their own individual merits, but they had the misfortune of being nominated in Frozen‘s year.

Cinematography

Nominees:  The Grandmaster, Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Prisoners

There are two schools of thinking here.  The Academy tends to prefer movies that are shot outside as nature is harder to light than a soundstage.  They also like slow-paced films where the shots look like paintings.  However, they bend the rule when it comes to mind-blowing images that have never been seen before, which is why Inception won this award in 2010.  One thing mentioned universally in reviews of Gravity was that it made you feel like you really were in space.  The cinematography was one of the biggest components of that so this one would be my pick.

Costume Design

Nominees:  American Hustle, The Grandmaster, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Woman, 12 Years a Slave

Anyone who remembers Priscilla, Queen of the Desert‘s designer Lizzie Gardner picking up her award in a dress made of AmEx Gold Cards will note that award-winning costume design is all about flash over substance, so the sequins and dazzle of The Great Gatsby are the odds-on favorite over the drab outfits of 12 Years a Slave or the coked-out American Hustle suits.

Documentary Feature

Nominees:  The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, The Square, 20 Feet from Stardom

The rule for documentaries has always been, “pick the one about the Holocaust.”  Absent that, any documentary about war, death or the general inhumanity of man is the strongest contender, although the Academy does have a soft spot for movies about entertainers or the entertainment industry in general.  20 Feet from Stardom could be the dark horse, as it’s about backup singers.  However, you have The Act of Killing about mass murder in Indonesia, Dirty Wars about America’s dark foreign policy or The Square about the Egyptian uprising of 2011.  Go with The Act of Killing.

Documentary Short Subject

Nominees:  CaveDigger, Facing Fear, Karama Has No Walls, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Otherwise known as the “your guess is as good as mine” category.  The latter is about a man in his 80’s dying in a prison, so given the goodwill shown towards hopeful prison movies like The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption in the past, I’d lean towards it.

Film Editing

Nominees:  American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave

Editing is always a tricky category to gauge in that the best editing is the kind you don’t notice, however, if the film is edited in a particularly audacious and in-your-face manner, it may get awarded simply for calling attention to itself.  Absent that whatever wins Best Picture wins Best Editing, so this one would be between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity.  I would favor Gravity again because even in the trailers and clips that you’ve seen, editing is up front.

Foreign Language Film

Nominees:  The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium), The Great Beauty (Italy), The Hunt (Denmark), The Missing Picture (Cambodia), Omar (Palestine)

This is the category where the winner always gets played off in the middle of his speech while he’s trying to make a point about important issues in his homeland.  And there wasn’t a foreign language film this year that crossed over into the mainstream, the way previous winners Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life is Beautiful did.  So you guessed it – dartboard approach again.  As a general rule, Somber beats Laugh Riot, Stately beats Fast-Paced.  It would be interesting to see Omar take the trophy as a Palestinian film, to my recollection, has never won before.

Makeup and Hairstyling

Nominees:  Dallas Buyers Club, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, The Lone Ranger

This one is pretty easy to figure.  The latter two are Johnny Knoxville in latex as an old man in a gross-out comedy or Johnny Depp with a dead crow on his head in a universally disliked big budget remake of an old 50’s radio show.  The former is likely to see two acting winners on Oscar night.  As they all say, you do the math.

Original Score

Nominees:  The Book Thief, Gravity, Her, Philomena, Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks was composed by perennial also-ran Thomas Newman, who was nominated and lost for Skyfall last year, so cross him off straight away.  The score for All Is Lost, which won the Golden Globe, wasn’t nominated, and The Book Thief is by John Williams who already has a pile of Oscars.  Can you hum the score from Her or Philomena?  So that really leaves Gravity – unless the Academy decides to be charitable and end Newman’s Lucci-esque losing streak.

Original Song

Nominees:  “Happy” from Despicable Me 2, “Let it Go” from Frozen, “The Moon Song” from Her, “Ordinary Love” from Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom

Again, I am biased here, but “Let it Go” is the front runner, with one Ireland-sized caveat:  “Ordinary Love” is by U2, and the Academy gets giggly about the possibility of giving out song Oscars to famous singers – improves the TV ratings, dontcha know; plus Bono gives infamous acceptance speeches.  However, you’re not exactly seeing masses of folks post YouTube covers or parodies of “Ordinary Love,” and it is miles removed from the realm of U2’s best work.  The lyrics are so vague that you’d never guess it was from a movie about Nelson Mandela, and it will be forgotten as soon as the Oscar show ends.  Whereas “Let it Go,” like the movie it’s from, is a cultural phenomenon.

Production Design

Nominees:  American Hustle, Gravity, The Great Gatsby, Her, 12 Years a Slave

Pick period here, every time.  That kiboshes Gravity and Her right out of the gate.  And like costume design, the flashier the better.  I would hazard that 20’s glam Gatsby will outperform the bleaker 70’s and 19th Century.

Animated Short Film

Nominees:  Feral, Get a Horse!, Mr. Hublot, Possessions, Room on the Broom

You saw Get a Horse! if you saw Frozen, and its fourth-wall-breaking inventiveness, homage to classic animated shorts and of course, popularity, will help it triumph over the four titles nobody’s ever heard of without breaking a sweat.

Live Action Short Film

Nominees:  Outside of their immediate families, does it matter?

Sorry to be blunt and cynical, and it is a real shame that more audiences don’t get to see these (a fact pointed out in every acceptance speech made by every winner of this category every single year), but nobody knows the movies, nobody knows the people who made them, and thus nobody knows how to pick the winner.  Eeny, meeny, miney mo is probably the best method.  Good luck!

Sound Editing

Nominees:  All is Lost, Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Lone Survivor

It’s interesting to see The Hobbit get one of its only three nominations here when you consider what an Oscar powerhouse the original Lord of the Rings trilogy was.  Perhaps the attitude towards it is a little on the “been there, done that” side.  No matter, it’s not likely to win anyway.  Sound Editing concerns created sound effects, and the most popular movie always wins, so go with Gravity again.

Sound Mixing

Nominees:  Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lone Survivor

Sound mixing is more about the overall tonal quality, or sonic atmosphere, of a movie as opposed to explosions, footsteps and gunshots.  It’s also rare that a movie will win both sound awards, so I would suggest avoiding Gravity.  Instead I’ll go with an ostensibly oddball pick, Inside Llewyn Davis, and that’s chiefly because the movie is about music.

Visual Effects

Nominees:  Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger, Star Trek Into Darkness

Remember that Forrest Gump won this category in 1994?  (You’re saying “huh?  I don’t remember any effects in that movie.”)  But it did, both for making audiences think Gary Sinise was a double amputee and letting Tom Hanks have conversations with dead Presidents.  Visual effects applied to realistic, non-fantasy films are always preferred over flights of wild imagination.  The dragon was cool as was the starship rising from the ocean, but here it’s gonna be  Gravity, Gravity, Gravity.

Adapted Screenplay

Nominees:  Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street

Yay, the writing awards!  The first of the two categories is generally the more boring, and easier to predict.  It only gets shaken up when a celebrity writer is nominated, like Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network in 2010, or someone who’s famous for something else gets a nod for “aw, look, they can write too!”, i.e. Emma Thompson for Sense and Sensibility in 1995.  Absent that, look for 12 Years a Slave to come up trumps here, because movies favored for Best Picture are also the best written, correct?  You’d think so.

Original Screenplay

Nominees:  American Hustle, Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska

The winner here is always the movie that lives and dies by its concept.  Stories that hinge on absurd premises, mind-bending twists or brilliant, quotable dialogue are the way to go.  The race here is between American Hustle and Her, and I give the edge to Her because the idea of a man who falls in love with Siri is more out-there than the misadventures of con artists in the 70’s, and also because it’s the only award it’s likely to win on Sunday night.

So there you have it – absolutely, positively, 100% not guaranteed to help you triumph over your cinephile friends, because every year we do these lists and every year the Academy throws us a curve (or several).  About the only thing you can ever reliably predict about the Oscars is that they will be long and that the host will make a joke (or several) about how long they are.  But we’ll all stick it out for the Best Picture award, of course, and the winning producer’s claim that the movie’s victory will be a watershed moment in the human struggle with whatever the movie was about.  Which of course, it won’t be.

Happy viewing!

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