Saturday, February 27, 2016


It’s been such a good year at the movies that I’m a little bit surprised by the degree to which I’m approaching tomorrow night’s Academy Awards ceremony with something resembling… disinterest. And again, it’s not necessarily the movies. It’s hard to remember a year when there wasn’t at least one obvious howler among the five, or now five-to-10 nominees—just by turning to random pages in Robert Osborne’s 70 Years of Oscar—The Official History of the Academy Awards I am reminded that The Turning Point, Midnight Express, Fatal Attraction and Mississippi Burning were all lauded by the Academy with Best Picture nominations. This year all eight movies nominated are, in my eyes, worthy of some measure of honor, including Room, my choice for the movie of the year. Yet I can’t remember the last time—could it have been 1991?—when I was genuinely happy that a movie had won the Academy’s top prize.

Here’s a thought: Maybe there’s something about being nominated in and of itself these days that takes the luster off some of the best movies the year has had to offer. Many a Best Picture nominee and winner has wormed its way into the popular consciousness-- Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs and Unforgiven all come to mind. But so many more of the movies that end up really mattering to us as individuals never come within whiffing distance of the little gold man, and the ones that do end up winning often don’t seem to carry much cultural weight in the long run—how desperate are you to see Chariots of Fire or Rain Man or The Departed again? 

My second-favorite movie of 2016, Spike Lee’s Chi-raq, is very few folks’ notion of the sort of movie—outrageous, outraged, formally explosive, with a vibrant cultural mixture of vulgarity and literate consciousness— with which Oscar feels comfortable hanging out. But I’d be willing to bet that 10 years from now I’ll have thought about it and seen it 10 times as often as I will have whatever wins this year, be it The Revenant or The Big Short or  Spotlight. I’m almost going to be relieved when Room doesn’t win. It’ll feel like another excellent movie has successfully dodged its date with being put on a shelf to be admired rather than getting out in the life stream for a good swim.

Fortunately, for the recalcitrant gambler in us all, none of this has much to do with the real fun of Oscar night: predicting the winners. That in itself has become, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s carpet-bomb Oscar campaign style having now been officially adopted by the industry at large, less of a challenge than it used to be. By the time of the actual annual Sunday evening coronation, everyone with even a flea-sized interest or a subscription of the Los Angeles Times pretty much knows who will march or glide or trip their way up to the podium to begin their very own tearfully thankful litany of names, of agents and other below-the-liner big shots, with whom the billions watching all over the world have no connection whatsoever.

This year’s model is hardly any different. But despite all those locks, there is enough of a shadow lurking in some of the major categories that to suggest the possibility of an upset wouldn’t be considered complete madness. Remember: nobody knows anything in Hollywood. Unless your investment in your office pool is a lot more indulgent than mine is, I say take a chance here and there on, say, Saoirse Ronan over Brie Larson, or Mark Rylance over Sylvester Stallone, or Mustang over Son of Saul. If it happens, you’ll look like a genius. If it doesn’t, nobody will ever remember. You can’t even name the nominees for Best Picture last year off the top of your head, can you? See? Maybe you can’t even remember what won Best Picture last year.

With all this in mind, here are my fearlessly irrational, some might even say ill-advised picks for how to best fill out your office Oscar pool ballot, followed by my choices for who should win in each category, and who really deserves the honor, nominated or not. I’ll try to be brief in my assessments-- we all have better things to do to prep for the ceremonies tomorrow, I know, such as dress fittings and picking out the right jewelry and, of course, choosing the right Oscar snacks. (The nacho cheese mustn’t be overly spicy—that’s what the jalapenos on the side are for.)

You may begin taking notes now.


It’s hard to vote against The Revenant, which seems to be the movie of the moment, but the PGA award to The Big Short is as strong a wild calling card as there is. Both Adam McKay’s movie and Spotlight have the strength of social relevance that voters may find more appealing in the long run. And really, don’t we all want to see Brad Pitt win another Oscar? (He’s a producer on The Big Short  and won for producing 12 Years a Slave.)

What Will Win: The Big Short
What Should Win: Room
My Personal Pick: Room


If it was The Wolf of Wall Street DiCaprio was nominated for this year, he’d blow away the relatively soft competition and he’d deserve to. He’s still going to blow away the competition, comprised of performances in three movies that ended up not a patch on their critical or box-office expectations, and Matt Damon being stranded and rescued for the third time in a big Hollywood blockbuster.

Who Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio
Who Should Win: Matt Damon
My Personal Pick: Paul Dano and John Cusack, Love & Mercy


It’s Brie’s year, and there’s nothing you can do about it. She should especially thank Charlotte Rampling for self-torpedoing the only real competition here.

Who Will Win: Brie Larson
Who Should Win: Brie Larson
My Personal Pick: Brie Larson (with Nina Hoss in Phoenix breathing right down the back of her Oscar gown)


History and sentiment, to say nothing of a career redemption story that might be, in sheer improbability, right there on par with the saga of Rocky Balboa himself, certainly favor a Stallone win here, and it will most likely happen. But a case can be made, I think, for Tom Hardy, who, unlike his Revenant costar, survived two Oscar-nominated endurance tests this year and, in the instance of Inarritu’s march, emerged with compelling and amusing work that is probably better than DiCaprio’s.

Who Will Win: Sylvester Stallone
Who Should Win: Tom Hardy
My Personal Pick: Tom Hardy


The busiest actress of 2015, Alicia Vikander, should be, I suppose, grateful that she was touted as a Supporting Actress nominee for what is essentially a lead (or co-lead) role, rather than one for Best Actress where she would likely have never survived. But here lurks Kate Winslet, who has been busy developing good will on the awards circuit for a movie few people saw. Do voters care more about seeing her and Leo together again, dual statues in arms, than honoring another rookie with a potentially rich career ahead? If there’s an upset in the wings, this is it.

Who Will Win: Kate Winslet
Who Should Win: Alicia Vikander
My Personal Pick: Alicia Vikander (for Ex Machina and/or The Man from U.N.C.L.E.)


It’s happened more lately that it has in previous years, the picture/director split, and I think it’s going to happen again this year, though that split could certainly manifest in a couple of different ways. My guess, however, is that if the big award goes to The Big Short, Oscar will defer to one of the two fellas who put themselves, their crews and their actors through grand punishment for their art. A win for Best Director two years in a row is a rare achievement, though not an impossible one. But I’m voting with my heart here and hoping that the preferential ballots of the Academy voters will follow suit.

Who Will Win: George Miller
Who Should Win: Lenny Abrahamson
My Personal Pick: Spike Lee


The only thing I can see happening here that would prevent Adam McKay and Charles Randolph picking up statues for The Big Short is a surge of support for Emma Donoghue in adapting her own very particular novel Room to be so successfully expressive as cinema. And it’s the winners in this category that, I think, bolster the likelihood for a picture-director split as well as a possible upset in the Best Picture category.

What Will Win: The Big Short
What Should Win: Room
My Personal Pick: Room


Again, social relevance, and solid craftsmanship, is the key here. But that’s not Straight Outta Compton, not this year.

What Will Win: Spotlight
What Should Win: Inside Out
My Personal Pick: Phoenix


I see another Pixar triumph on the horizon, but I wouldn’t be sad at all if When Marnie Was There could somehow sneak past Inside Out.

What Will Win: Inside Out
What Should Win: When Marnie Was There


Poor Roger Deakins just can’t catch a break. If Sicario had stronger across the board Academy support, maybe. But really, this is one of the only categories where it’s impossible to pick a bad candidate. Even the overly precious Carol was at least exquisitely photographed. Still, beyond the Leo lock this category may be The Revenant’s only sure win, making Emmanuel Lubezki a three-time, three-in-a-row winner.

What Will Win: The Revenant
What Should Win: Sicario
My Personal Pick: Mad Max: Fury Road


Two out of the five nominees are named Sandy Powell, and she stands a good chance of winning for Carol. Gumming up her works are Paco Delgado’s clothes for The Danish Girl, which are right in line with the sort of period undertaking usually smiled upon by voters. But unless this is a Priscilla, Queen of the Desert sort of year, in which Jenny Beavan’s Furiosa couture reigns supreme, I think this award belongs to Powell.

What Will Win: Carol
What Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Personal Pick: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Johanna Johnston)


Amy was compelling but relatively routine in structure and never made a real case for accepting the many on-screen testimonies regarding Winehouse’s transcendence as a jazz singing giant. What Happened, Miss Simone? is not crippled by the same problem. Amy will win because more voters know who she is.

What Will Win: Amy
What Should Win: What Happened, Miss Simone?
My Personal Pick: Meru


Traditionally the most solid indicator of what will be coming up in the Best Picture category. The Big Short won the American Cinema Editors award for Best Edited Feature Film (Comedy or Musical), and Mad Max: Fury Road won it for Best Edited Feature Film (Dramatic). But for the body of Academy voters, most of whom are not film editors, it may come down to which movie has the “most” editing. I’m betting on a Picture/Editing match here.

What Will Win: The Big Short
What Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Personal Pick: Youth


Mustang seems to be picking up a little steam in the final hours, and Embrace of the Serpent, a first-time Colombian nominee, is the most exotic choice. But don’t bet against a well-reviewed film about the Holocaust.

What Will Win: Son of Saul
What Should Win: Mustang
My Personal Pick: Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem


To paraphrase the late, great Frank Zappa, The Revenant certainly kept it greasy. And that Swedish movie with the title too long to say in one breath, well, it’s a surprise that enough people even saw it to rustle up a nomination. This one goes to Fury Road, all shiny and 

What Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
What Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Personal Pick: Mad Max: Fury Road


I don’t remember the song from 50 Shades of Grey, though I’m sure it was perfectly harmless and radio friendly. Sam Smith’s power ballad from Spectre was almost as forgettable as the film itself. And I haven’t a clue what the songs from Racing Extinction or The Hunting Ground even sound like. I wish David Lang’s sublime “Simple Song #3” from Youth, one of the more sadly overlooked movies of the year, had a chance. But no, it doesn’t, not against Diane Warren and Lady Gaga.

What Will Win: “Till It Happens to You” The Hunting Ground
What Should Win: “Simple Song #3” from Youth
My Personal Pick: “Pray 4 My City” from Chi-raq


Hard to believe that Ennio Morricone won’t win here for what amounts to a career award-- John Williams has already has his C.A.—five wins over 50 nominations!). But relatively little of Morricone’s “score” for The Hateful Eight was comprised of original compositions written expressly for the film. In fact, I’m still trying to figure out how Ryuichi Sakamato and Carsten Nicolai were deemed ineligible here (because it could not be determined exactly who contributed what to the score--???) and Morricone gets a pass. But so it is, and so Morricone shall be.

What Will Win: The Hateful Eight
What Should Win: Sicario
My Personal Pick: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.


Hmm. Can The Danish Girl’s lushness or The Revenant’s gorgeous realism beat Immortan Joe’s elaborately imagined and realized desert compound? I don’t think so.

What Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
What Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Personal Pick: Bridge of Spies


Previously listed at the Academy Awards as “Best Sound Effects,” this is basically a category for recognizing achievement in the creation, recording and eventual perfecting of new sounds and their individual elements. Mad Max: Fury Road would seem the obvious choice here, but the Star Wars gang should never be underestimated round these parts, and the work done on The Martian here was pretty exemplary too.

What Will Win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
What Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Personal Pick: Ex Machina


This is a category for recognizing achievement in the way sounds (original or organic) are mixed, or layered upon each other. The more subtle candidates here, Bridge of Spies and The Martian are excellent candidates, but voters tend to like to go big here. Give this one to Rockatansky.

What Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
What Should Win: Bridge of Spies
My Personal Pick: Love & Mercy


Yet another category, like cinematography, where there would seem to be no “bad” choice. But I have a suspicion that voters might go smaller here and reward the movie in which the effect and the character were truly inseparable, in which one truly informed the other, the one where after a while we forgot we were watching special effects.

What Will Win: Ex Machina
What Should Win: Ex Machina
My Personal Pick: The Forbidden Room


Well, that’s my ballot, and I’m sticking to it. Maybe. There’s still about 24 hours to go at this writing for me to fuss my way out of yet another office Oscar pool prize. Just know that, as reasoned as some of the picks above might sound, betting on my picks has been, for the past 35 years or so anyway, a fool’s game. In that time, I’ve won my personal pool exactly once. But this year… This year is my year. I can feel it!
And just in case you want a peek at how an actual Oscar voter cast his/her lot, with all the twisted reasoning explained, take a look at this "brutally honest Oscar ballot." See if this helps you make your own predictions. If it doesn’t you’ll at least get a few bitter laughs at the expense of Oscar’s reputation as a system for honoring artistic achievement.


Finally, a nod to an alternative to the Oscar season blues—the ninth annual Muriel Awards, the only critic’s group that would have me as a member. (Groucho, does that mean I shouldn’t have joined?) Named after cofounder Paul Clark’s beloved (now deceased) guinea pig, the Muriels have for nine seasons gathered a wide-ranging, eclectic and smart group of essayists together to cast votes on the year’s finest achievements, and our results almost never resemble the usual year-end award show lineups. Clark rolls out the results of the voting over the course of a couple of weeks, and so far the awards for the following have been announced:

The Muriels have also already announced this year’s winner’s in their 10th, 25th and 50th anniversary categories, as well as a series of musings by Clark on the history of the Muriel Awards, one year at a time, beginning in 2006.

It’s been a real honor to participate in the Muriels over their first nine years. This year I’ll have three Muriels pieces coming up on three of my favorite films of the year, three among a real treasure trove of writing about the best the movies of 2015 have had to offer. Look for those and the rest of the awards the Muriels will be announcing over the course of the next week or so, at the site of the official Muriels headquarters, Our Science is Too Tight.


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