Wednesday, February 22, 2017

THE EASE OF PREDICTING THIS YEAR'S OSCARS


It’s that time of year again when film fans turn their attention to the Academy Awards. The ginormous ceremony arrives this Sunday and despite the excitement that the show always brings no matter what, this year may be the most anticlimactic in decades. Truly, only a handful of categories will likely provide any real suspense. Quite simply, if you’re filling out your ballot and predict that LA LA LAND will win in at least eight of the categories it’s nominated in, you could easily have a third of your ballot aced. 


The modern musical about two artists struggling to make it in Hollywood is nominated for a whopping 14 nominations in 13 categories, and to put that in perspective, there are only five categories that it didn’t get recognition in that it could have, and six others that it couldn’t compete in, like Best Foreign Language Film. That many nominations indicate that the film starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone has a ton of support across the Academy and likely ensures that the film will dominate at the event this weekend.

The rest of the ballot isn’t all that challenging to predict either. In fact, when you figure in where all the previous awards have gone, what’s getting the press, who has the buzz, as well as the box office mojo, it’s not that difficult to come off like an expert soothsayer this year. Thus, without any further ado, are my predictions for the 89th Annual Academy Awards.

BEST PICTURE – LA LA LAND
With all those nominations, how does LA LA LAND not win? The only real competition it has comes from two films, both inflated by prognosticators who want a contest. Because HIDDEN FIGURES was such a runaway box office hit, some see it as a real threat. But it’s only got two other nominations. Two versus 14? Please. The genuine threat, though still a real underdog, is MOONLIGHT. It’s the most critically lauded film nominated in the top category this year. (It placed second in the recent Sight & Sound magazine international film critics poll of 2016’s best films.) The Barry Jenkins film has received eight nominations in total, so if any film is going to upset LA LA LAND, it will be his intimate character study of a gay black man growing up in Miami. 

But I believe LA LA LAND has too much broad support, a terrific box office accumulation and standing as a critical darling to be vexed. It also exemplifies the most consistent and somewhat disturbing trend of Best Picture winners of the last decade in that it is a film all about the business. Since 2009’s SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, Oscar’s top prize has gone to four other films with a show biz backdrop – THE KING’S SPEECH, THE ARTIST, ARGO, and BIRDMAN. LA LA LAND is a Valentine to the industry, still heavy enough for voters despite the musical buoyancy. If LA LA LAND loses, it will be a bigger upset than 2006’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN losing to CRASH. But I don't see that happening.


BEST DIRECTOR – DAMIAN CHAZELLE (LA LA LAND)
Chazelle may be only 32, and sometimes youth is voted against by older members, but since this young man’s won most of the critics’ awards, including a key victory at the Director's Guild weeks ago, he should prevail at the Oscars too. The film is entirely his vision and the Academy will recognize that assuredly.


BEST ACTOR – DENZEL WASHINGTON (FENCES)
Interestingly, one of the only real nail-biters of the evening will be this major award. Up until the Screen Actors Guild Awards, it seemed that Casey Affleck was a shoo-in for his brooding, sublime work in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Then, a story about him sexually harassing some coworkers resurfaced and it may have tainted his chances. Granted, he won the BAFTA Best Actor a few days back, but it seems that Washington’s tour de force has more momentum stateside after SAG. I believe it is enough to let him prevail. SAG is seldom wrong in predicting eventual Oscar winners, and Washington's performance is outstanding. The fact that the actor also directed the film can only help his quest. (Actors, the largest wing of the Academy, love to vote for actors who wear many hats.)


BEST ACTRESS – EMMA STONE (LA LA LAND)
Five months ago, the contest seemed to be between Stone and Natalie Portman for JACKIE, but somewhere along the way, the tide turned against the previous Oscar winner’s sublime essaying of the 35th president’s wife. Since then, Isabelle Huppert has emerged as the only threat to Stone for her subtle and fierce work in ELLE. She could upset, but it’s hard to see how Stone doesn’t continue her sweep at the final ceremony. She's won at the Golden Globes, SAG and BAFTA in the past months, and the Academy likes to reward Best Picture winners with an acting prize too. Plus, Stone is playing an actress who makes overcomes hardship in Hollywood and prevails. Life will imitate art here, most likely.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – MAHERSHALA ALI (MOONLIGHT)
Perhaps Dev Patel’s surprise victory for LION at BAFTA could change things, but I doubt it. Ali’s performance has been talked about for months and swept most of the critics’ prizes, so he should continue adding to his mantel. His character is the heart of the movie and turns a drug dealer into a surprising father figure and the moral center of the story. That requires a maturity, gravity and clarity of acting that Ali brings in every second he's onscreen. In fact, his work lingers long after he's out of the picture.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – VIOLA DAVIS (FENCES)
Davis’s knockout work might have given Stone a run for her money had she competed in the lead category where she really should have been nominated. Her FENCES role is truly a lead, but category fraud is done all the time at the Oscars to ensure victories for those not wishing to go up against a tougher slate of competitors. Just ask supporting winners Alicia Vikander, Timothy Hutton, Juliette Binoche or Tommy Lee Jones who won supporting Oscars with starring roles and exquisite performances that eclipsed the featured ones they competed against in their winning years. By being pushed to supporting by the producers and management, Davis’ victory is assured even if she should be listed elsewhere.


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
The contest here is between Kenneth Lonergan for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and Damian Chazelle for LA LA LAND. The inevitable LA LA LAND sweep could give Chazelle the advantage, but I believe Lonergan’s work will prevail as its script is extraordinary and has won more acclaim and awards. Also, Chazelle's script has come under fire lately for its whitewashing of jazz to some degree and that might hurt it just that smidgen that allows Lonergan to prevail.


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – MOONLIGHT
Other than Chazelle, the auteur who emerged with the most fame and plaudits this year was writer/director Barry Jenkins for his extraordinarily rendered MOONLIGHT. He’s up for producing the film, as well as directing it, but it is as its scribe where he will collect a statue.


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY – LA LA LAND
Usually a period piece or action pic prevails here, but Linus Sandgren’s ebullient and colorful camera work, especially with its virtuoso long, single-take tracking shots is artistry that anyone can see. And remember, the entire Academy votes on the final ballot and anyone can see this film’s stunning cinematography as one of its most obvious charms.


BEST EDITING – LA LA LAND
Working hand in hand with Sandgren’s sublime work is Tom Cross’ precise editing. His cuts are sharp, keep the numbers moving, and provide a lot of the emotional wallop. The final number of the film, where we see the entire arc of Sebastian and Mia’s story recreated, is the best montage in the movie and would be enough to win the award on its own. But the editing in the rest of the film is pretty spectacular too.


BEST SOUND MIXING – LA LA LAND
Musicals tend to win as they achieve the tricky blending of live sound with prerecorded singing. Sound mixing is so crucial to the success of a musical, it’s hard to see any other film contending here. I don't believe any will.


BEST SOUND EDITING – HACKSAW RIDGE
Sound editing is placing sound effects into the film essentially, you know, what the Foley artist does. War movies, actioners, and special effects extravaganzas tend to prevail here because all that sound has to be created in post. The surprise support for Mel Gibson’s antiwar epic will likely squeak past LA LA LAND for its only victory, but don’t be surprised if LA LA LAND takes this category too.


BEST ORIGNAL SCORE – LA LA LAND
Justin Hurwitz is probably the most certain lock at this year's Oscars for his score for LA LA LAND. He benefits from having all the songs he wrote regarded as the score too, though technically this category should only represent incidental music. (If only JACKIE had opened another year, then Mica Levi’s challenging work might have prevailed.) Still, the voters will vote for Hurwitz, whether it's for his songs or marvelous underscore. They're all sublime. 


BEST ORIGINAL SONG – CITY OF STARS (LA LA LAND)
Sadly, the best song from LA LA LAND will not win here. The truly worthy entry is “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).” That is the anthem of the movie, and the most moving piece in the whole production. But because the producers have pushed “City of Stars” hard in the trades and most critics groups have followed suit, it will win instead. Frankly, I’d even give Best Song to “Another Day of Sun” or “Someone in the Crowd” before this one, but “City of Stars” is still nifty enough to earn the gold.


BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN – LA LA LAND
Usually a period piece wins in this category as its production design is the most obvious to the Academy voter, but all the blending of real locations and fantasy sets in LA LA LAND should enable another victory for that film here. 


BEST COSTUME DESIGN – JACKIE
Can LA LA LAND win Best Costumes? Sure, but contemporary films almost never get nominated, let alone win. Again, voters pick the most obvious costumes. Not only does JACKIE fit that bill, but her clothes were as much a part of her character as they were a part of that period. Still, the bold color palate at play in Chazelle’s musical might just give it the edge. It’s a toss-up, but I think the Academy will go for the period.


BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING – STAR TREK BEYOND
What a weak slate of nominees here, particularly when you realize that films like JACKIE, THE WITCH, SWISS ARMY MAN, and FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS weren’t even nominated. Inane! Of all the nominees, the STAR TREK universe of alien life points to the most make-up which is often enough for voters.
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS – THE JUNGLE BOOK
Last year, four $200 million dollar extravaganzas were bested by the $15 million EX MACHINA, as the voters recognized how critical Alicia Vikander's robot effects had to be to pull off the story. Of all the nominees here, THE JUNGLE BOOK needed to ace its talking animals or there would be no story. And Disney did it all incredibly well. In fact, the whole damn jungle was created as the whole film was shot on a stage or in front of green screen or rendered in a computer. 


BEST ANIMATED FEATURE – ZOOTOPIA
ZOOTOPIA has the Disney brand name, and it made a boat load of money, plus it has a timely message of tolerance. I loved KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS too, but I think this category is Disney’s to lose this year.


BEST ANIMATED SHORT – THE PIPER
I’ve seen them all and written about them here, and the likely winner is PIPER from Pixar. Hard to argue with a simple, well-told short with adorable animals.


BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT – ENNEMIS INTERIEURS
Again, I shared my thoughts on the nominees here, and any entry in this category could prevail. I believe that this edgy political thriller will as it is smart, taut, an actor’s showcase, as well as a timely essay about prejudice and deportation.


BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT – EXTREMIS
This category is another toss-up and the three that seem to be most in contention are EXTREMIS, JOE’S VIOLIN and THE WHITE HELMETS. Call me cynical, but I believe this one, about an ICU at a hospital, may speak to the aging membership of the Academy and allow it to prevail. It’s also terrific, as are all in this category.


BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE – O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
I thought that the miniseries THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON was sublime and then I saw this ESPN produced documentary and it blew me away. It made my Top 10 list and is one of the most fascinating documentaries ever made. It runs 7.5 hours and is riveting every single second of it, covering race, sex and celebrity with thorough care. Only if the Academy voters refuse to watch that long a doc does this one lose. If it fails to take the top prize, Ava DuVernay’s 13TH will instead.


BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM – TONI ERDMANN
I’m at a bit at a disadvantage calling this one as I have not seen all the nominees. Chicago simply doesn’t get access to as many foreign films as the coasts do, but the nominees must be amazing as I cannot believe that Pedro Almodovar’s JULIETA or Paul Verhoeven’s ELLE didn’t make the short list. Having said all that, Germany’s entry TONI ERDMANN should come out on top. It is one of the most provocative and arresting dark comedies I've ever seen, and it was justtpicked as the #1 film of the year by the wide range of international critics polled by Sight & Sound, so it has a lot going for it. If that kind of acclaim is lost on the Academy voter, well, then shame on them.


Those are my picks for the 24 Academy Award categories. All in all, I expect LA LA LAND to win 9 Oscars. Perhaps the excitement will come in seeing if that film can sweep up the others and beat the record of 11 that WEST SIDE STORY, TITANIC and THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING all share. That would make the show on Sunday incredibly suspenseful. And historical as well. I'll be watching, won't you?

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