So, going into the final stretch before the Oscars are announced, I have a question: if you like—no, love this year’s front-running La La Land, does that make you a bad person, or just deluded? Don’t laugh—there may be people at your own Oscar party who will have already come to their own conclusion on that conundrum. This year’s presumptive favorite is so presumptive that people are talking about the film as if it had already won and are projecting as to whether it’s an enduring classic or just another meh-fest to be thrown on the mediocrity pile along with Crash, Chicago, Argo, The Artist and about half of the rest of Oscar’s Best Picture winners since the Academy started handing out awards at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 1929. It is hard to deny, no matter how much you like or dislike La La Land, that it is precisely the sort of movie Oscar, and apparently every other award-doling group out there, loves to overrate, which is precisely what has happened and why that backlash, which may have been in its infancy before the movie was even released theatrically in the US this past December, seems so firmly entrenched.
But if anything, especially in our age of social media instant gratification, and instant denunciation, the Oscars are designed to be disagreed with, argued about, denigrated and celebrated in roughly equal measure. Most of us who rail on about their failure to represent the actual audience that pays to see movies, and their failure to uphold standards of artistic achievement in the face of outrageous commerce and the sometimes even more outrageous whims of the folks who actually cast votes, will still tune in and get excited, even at a slightly further distance that we may have used to, to root for the movies we’re convinced deserve the honor (whatever we’ve decided that honor might mean) over the other candidates.
So, in these final hours, before the first envelope is opened and before everyone on stage gets a chance to give the alt-right more reasons to insist that “Hollywood” represents everything that is wrong and weird and not “great” about America, I’m gonna play the Oscar game. I will reveal my predictions for the winners in several major categories, as well as the movie I believe should take home the prize (from those nominated), but not before reminding you that in the 30-some year’s I’ve run my annual office Oscar pool I have won precisely twice, and both of those wins, if I recall correctly, were in years when the level of difficulty in choosing sure things was low. Kinda like this year. So maybe if you throw in with my Sybil the Soothsayer-esque picks and fill out your own Oscar ballot per my advice, you’ll do well on Sunday night. Certainly, as well as I will. It’s up to you.
My official stand is this: I don’t follow the trades religiously this time of year and honestly have no idea what the prevailing wisdom of the “experts” might be, so I figure my gut is as good as anyone’s. (Well, maybe not the rock-hard abs of Chris Evans, but you know what I mean.) So, take the picks of this interested outside observer for what they are worth, which may be close to nothing. As the old pinball machines used to say, this column, much like the Oscars themselves, is For Amusement Only.
All the wisdom in Hollywood says La La Land is your winner. I cannot disagree. My prediction: La La Land. My wish: Moonlight, although I would belt a tune by the light of said moon if Hell or High Water pulled off what would be the most ridiculously unlikely upset in Oscar history.
Again, to bet against Emma Stone is toss your shekels to the wind. My prediction: Emma Stone. My wish: I have loved Emma Sone since Easy A and I will be very happy when she wins, but I would be even happier if Isabelle Huppert could emerge victorious for what I do believe is the female performance of the year in Elle.
It’s undersized Casey Affleck versus oversized Denzel Washington here. This is the only acting category with some measure of suspense, but I think a combination of residual ambivalence about Affleck’s alleged off-screen behavior and Washington’s surprise win at the SAG awards bodes well for interior pain expressed in the bombastic mode this year. My prediction: Denzel Washington. My wish: Casey Affleck.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Slam dunk for Viola Davis, though anyone who has seen Fences should be able to see this is a lead performance. Savvy positioning in the Supporting Actress category will secure this heavy hitter her first Oscar. My prediction: Viola Davis. My wish: Naomie Harris.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
His impassioned speech at the SAG Awards, speaking as an artist of the Muslim faith, endeared Mahershala Ali to liberal-minded Academy voters as much as his actual work in Moonlight did, and they’ll want him to speak his mind again on the Dolby Theater stage Sunday night. My prediction: Mahershala Ali. My wish: Mahershala Ali, though seeing Jeff Bridges take the stage would be a nice surprise too.
Two strong choices from independent films to choose from here, but the pull of the La La Land tide is a formidable one. My prediction: Damien Chazelle. My wish: Barry Jenkins.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Progressive politics couched in a surprisingly engaging story is a hard combination to beat. My prediction: Zootopia. My wish: Kubo and the Two Strings.
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
When a solid humanitarian piece like Life, Animated, which might have won in a different year, is your weakest candidate, you know you’re looking at a real bounty in all the rest. Still, the historical scope and insight of Ezra Edelman’s singular achievement should dominate the voters’ fields of vision. My prediction and my wish: OJ: Made in America.
My prediction and my pick: Moonlight.
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
My prediction: La La Land. My wish: Allied.
BEST FILM EDITING
My prediction: La La Land. My wish: Hell or High Water.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FEATURE
My prediction and my wish: The Salesman.
BEST MAKEUP AND HAIR
My prediction: A Man Called Ove. My wish: Star Trek: Beyond
BEST MUSICAL SCORE
My prediction and my wish: La La Land
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
My prediction: La La Land. My wish: Hail, Caesar!
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
My prediction: “How Far I’ll Go” (Moana).
My wish: “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” (La La Land).
My wish: “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” (La La Land).
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
My prediction and my wish: Moonlight.
BEST ORIGNAL SCREENPLAY
My prediction: Manchester by the Sea. My wish: Hell or High Water.
BEST SOUND EDITING
My prediction: La La Land. My wish: Arrival.
BEST SOUND MIXING
My prediction: Hacksaw Ridge. My wish: Arrival.
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
My prediction: The Jungle Book. My wish: Doctor Strange.
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
My prediction: Extremis.
BEST ANIMATED SHORT SUBJECT
My prediction: Piper.
BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT SUBJECT
My prediction: Sing.
And now a word about the awards that really matter. Winners for the 10th annual Muriel Awards, given by a group of writers and cinephiles among whose member I have been since their start back in 2006 (and named after award cofounder Paul Clark’s beloved guinea pig), began rolling out this past week, in direct competition with the big gold guy, and will continue to do so into next week. I’ve got a couple of pieces coming up for the Muriels, and don’t for a minute think my legendary humility will somehow allow me to somehow forget to alert you when those are posted. But in the meantime, I want to let you know, in the face of all the overwhelming Academy Awards hype and talk of a La La Land sweep, that there still are independently minded awards groups out there who have a mind and an eye toward films that might not be top of Oscar’s mind, and the Muriels constitutes one of the most independent of them all. Here’s what they have already awarded for 2016:
Best Supporting Performance (Male): Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Best Supporting Performance (Female): Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
Best Ensemble Performance: Moonlight
10th Anniversary Award (Best Film of 2006): Children of Men
Best Body of Work: Isabelle Huppert
Best Music: Mica Levi, Jackie
25th Anniversary Award (Best Film of 1991): The Silence of the Lambs
Best Cinematic Breakthrough: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Stay tuned all this week at Muriels headquarters, Our Science is Too Tight, as more awards will be revealed, including the countdown to best film of 2016.
And finally, if all this award talk is getting you down and you need some stimulating creative distraction, consider tuning in to director Peet Gelderblom’s video essay series, Pretty Messed Up, whose six-episode run at Film Scalpel concludes this coming week in an unusually epic fashion. Gelderblom is the fella who earlier pitted Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma against each other in a Split-Screen Bloodbath and whose director's cut of Raising Cain was approved by De Palma himself and included on the recent Blu-ray of the film. In Pretty Messed Up, Gelderblom specializes in teasing out the subversive and commentative qualities of the mash-up to reveal specific insights and unusual personalities within the elements of the films themselves. Episode #3, "Heading Toward Certain Death," combines audio from Werner Herzog’s acclaimed Antarctic documentary Encounters at the End of the World with the animated comedy Happy Feet, about a flock of musically inclined penguins which, as Film Scalpel put it, results in “a surrealist clash of heavy-handed narration and lighthearted visuals... a clash that, for one thing, reveals the appetite for Hollywoodian hyperboles in Herzog’s dramatic narration.” (This episode was chosen as Vimeo’s Staff Pick of the Week.)
And for his finale this week, Gelderblom is pulling out all the stops. “Brace yourself for the ultimate showdown between good and evil,” he warns. “God vs. Satan,” coming Tuesday, promises a truly epic mash-up, one which, according to the director, is compiled from 24 different films to construct a spectacular clash between Our Lord and Savior and the Prince of Darkness. Expect shock and awe, and maybe even a little controversy. As Gelderblom says, “It won’t be a friendly confrontation.”
While you wait for “God Vs. Satan,” you can catch up with all the previous episodes of Pretty Messed Up at Film Scalpel.