This year is shaping up to be a particularly odd one for the Oscars. A widely presumed—and entirely worthy—frontrunner for Best Picture, Zero Dark Thirty, seems to have been derailed by political controversies that, whatever their merit (and I find it limited), are external to the film itself. Another anticipated contender, Lincoln, appears to be losing steam by the week, much as Up in the Air did in 2010. And no one seems able to fathom just what went so terribly wrong with the nominations for Best Director.
So what will happen on Sunday? I don't pretend to have a better idea than anyone else—I should perhaps note here that I wrote an entire article arguing that The Hurt Locker had virtually no chance of beating Avatar three years ago—but for whatever they may be worth, here are my predictions and precriminations:
It certainly feels as though we've seen this movie before, with Argo gaining alphabetic velocity, a la The Hurt Locker, with each round of pre-Oscar awards: PGA, SAG, DGA, BAFTA, ACE. I confess it seems more than a touch unfair that while its primary competitors, Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln, have both been dogged by questions of historical accuracy, no one seems to care that large portions of Argo—in particular the last act, featuring skin-of-the-teeth escape after skin-of-the-teeth escape—were made up out of whole cloth. That's the advantage, I suppose, of writing about a historical event that almost no one had even heard of beforehand.
What will win: Argo
What ought to win: Zero Dark Thirty
What was nominated but shouldn't have been: Life of Pi, Django Unchained
What wasn't nominated but should have been: Moonrise Kingdom, The Master, The Avengers (yes, The Avengers: it was a damn sight better than, say, Avatar)
What the hell happened? Of the four films that seem to have any chance, however slim, of winning Best Picture—Argo, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Les Miserables—only one, Lincoln, received a directing nod. Worse, of those four movies, it was the one whose excellence depended least on its director and most on its lead performance, by Daniel Day-Lewis. (Thought experiment: Envision Lincoln with Spielberg as the director but another actor in the lead role. Now envision it with Day-Lewis as Lincoln but someone else directing. Which is the better picture?) I've longed for the Academy to decouple the Best Picture and Best Director categories as much as anyone. But this was exactly the wrong way to do it.
Who will win: Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)
Who ought to win: Of this batch of nominees, Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) or, if that's too unrealistic, David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook). In a better world, it'd be Kathryn Bigelow.
Who was nominated but shouldn't have been: Ang Lee (Life of Pi), Michael Haneke (Amour)
Who wasn't nominated but should have been: Bigelow, Ben Affleck (Argo)
When Daniel Day-Lewis is at the top of his game, he's playing an entirely different sport, and Lincoln finds him at the top of his game. In pleasant contrast to past major roles—as Daniel Plainview, Bill the Butcher, Christy Brown—Day-Lewis turns in a subdued, almost recessive performance, bringing a historical giant down to human scale. To date, no actor has ever won an Oscar for a performance in a Steven Spielberg film (the last to be nominated was Christopher Walken in 2002's Catch Me If You Can). That will change Sunday.
Who will win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Who ought to win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Who was nominated but shouldn't have been: Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables)
Who wasn't nominated but should have been: John Hawkes (The Sessions)
This wasn't the strongest of years for the category, with several compelling performances but none that stand out indelibly. Jessica Chastain was good in Zero Dark Thirty, but it was the precise opposite of Lincoln: a film that belonged to its director rather than its star. Quvenzhané Wallis is certainly memorable in Beasts of the Southern Wild, but I don't think it's really possible to assess the craftsmanship of a six-year-old performer. Jennifer Lawrence seems the likely bet here, though Amour's Emannuelle Riva has a shot as well.
Who will win: Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)
Who ought to win: Jennifer Lawrence
Who was nominated but shouldn't have been: Quvenzhané Wallis
Who wasn't nominated but should have been: Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Almost always a strong category, and this year is no exception. Nothing against Leonardo DiCaprio, but I was pleased that the Django nod went to the strangely charismatic Christoph Waltz. Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master), Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook), and Alan Arkin (Argo) were all excellent as well. Pity the award will likely go to Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln), who did a great job of playing Tommy Lee Jones but an utterly unconvincing job of playing Thaddeus Stevens.
Who will win: Tommy Lee Jones
Who ought to win: Any other nominee
Who was nominated but shouldn't have been: Tommy Lee Jones
Who wasn't nominated but should have been: Christopher Walken (Seven Psychopaths)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Who will win: Anne Hathaway
Who ought to win: Does it even matter? One might as well wish for a unicorn
Who was nominated but shouldn't have been: Sally Field (Lincoln), Amy Adams (The Master)
Who wasn't nominated but should have been: Ann Dowd (Compliance), Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty)
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Django Unchained seems to be the favorite here over Zero Dark Thirty, which is an odd and (to my mind) perverse reversal of 2010, when The Hurt Locker beat out Inglourious Basterds in the same category. Given that Mark Boal's current script is far more ambitious than his previous one, and Quentin Tarantino's is far less ambitious, this seems a dubious critical appraisal. But the anti-momentum for Zero Dark Thirty (thank you, John McCain!) is a powerful force indeed.
Who will win: Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained)
Who ought to win: Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty)
Who was nominated but shouldn't have been: John Gatins (Flight)
Who wasn't nominated but should have been: Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master)
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
As with Best Picture, it looks as though Argo will win over Lincoln, though perhaps by a narrower margin. But the Academy has already rendered its most important verdict by denying Peter Jackson a nomination for his exercise in narrative obesity The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Who will win: Chris Terrio (Argo)
Who ought to win: David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)
Who was nominated that shouldn't have been: David Magee (Life of Pi)
Who wasn't nominated but should have been: Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain (Rust and Bone)
Perhaps it's just me, but I'm made slightly uncomfortable when the same film is considered a prohibitive favorite for both the cinematography and special effects awards, as is the case this year with Life of Pi. How accurately can we judge the quality of the cinematography when so much of what is onscreen is added after filming has concluded? If I had a vote, it would go to the great Roger Deakins, who has been nominated ten times without (thus far) a single win. Yes, he's nominated for a Bond film. But you'll never see a better-looking one.
Who will win: Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi)
Who ought to win: Roger Deakins (Skyfall)
Who was nominated but shouldn't have been: Janusz Kaminski (Lincoln)
Who wasn't nominated but should have been: Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. (The Master)
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Well, at least Tim Burton's Frankenweenie was nominated, which was by no means a sure thing. Though it fared worse at the box office than any picture he's made since 1994's Ed Wood, it was also his best film in that span. There doesn't appear to be a clear frontrunner here, with Brave perhaps having a very slight edge over Wreck-It Ralph. I hope that's how it plays out, less because of any deep affection for the Pixar product than because Wreck-It Ralph genuinely left me cold.
What will win: Brave
What ought to win: Frankenweenie
What was nominated but shouldn't have been: Wreck-It Ralph
What wasn't nominated but should have been: Rise of the Guardians
How wrong will I be? I aim only to be less wrong than I was about Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker. For anyone curious, my own end-of-the-year awards are here.
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