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Predictions Friday: First Wave of Critics Shifts Race

Some films did better than expected this week, some films did worse. It would be a mistake to judge the race in total on what just happened simply because some critics did not go for movies we all thought they would. On the other hand, buzz is all about perception, and perception is what is often shaped in the early stage of the Oscar race.

If the year in film is as big as this Clark Zhu video montage illustrates, how then do we end up with such a small, selective pile?

Moving Pictures 2016 – Movie Trailers Mashup from Clark Zhu on Vimeo.

Welcome to the “Oscar movie.” How did we get here? Things changed.

Ideally, in a perfect world (and years ago), the Oscar year would go like this:

  1. Movies are made and released and reviewed.
  2. The public decides which ones they like best and they define what is and what isn’t a successful movie. Hollywood then rewards that success, along with critical acclaim.
  3. The critics name their best.
  4. The industry names their best.
  5. The Oscar voters get the final say.
  6. All films and participants profit greatly.

This is how it goes now:

  1. Oscar strategists are given films they believe have the stuff to go all the way. They are either hired before a film is seen at all, based on hope and expectations, or they are hired after a movie gets a lot of attention — at a film festival, for example — or is a surprise hit. The latter is rare. The former is common.
  2. Those strategists notify people like me that a certain film is on the horizon and to look out for it. Or the films are shown at a festival and then pushed, like The Birth of a Nation which was bought by Fox Searchlight after rapturous reviews coming out of Sundance.
  3. The films play or they don’t play. If they play, they get rave reviews and are automatically entered into the Oscar race. If they don’t play, reviews are embargoed, the movies are still pushed in hopes of nominations. All the push can really do is get movies in front of Oscar voters — who then decide if they like them or not.
  4. The critics review and award certain films before most of the public ever sees them.
  5. The industry votes on films before the public ever sees them.
  6. The Academy awards many movies long before the public ever sees them.
  7. The public eventually sees them on VOD or on the off chance they play locally.
  8. Every so often there is crossover with a movie like American Sniper or The Blind Side — public and industry alike heap praise.
  9. Movies and participants profit, and hopefully keep alive the small section of the serious film business for grownups (mostly foreign made films or independently financed films) alive.

The Oscar race has changed dramatically over the past 15 years. It changed to adapt to the internet and all of its trappings. It changed to adapt to Hollywood and its race to cash in on new markets like China to make profitable films — mostly films Oscar wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. It’s changed to adapt to the growing number of voices in the film critics community, most of whom see movies for free. The most dramatic way it’s changed, though, is in its exclusivity. And now it’s changing to adapt to to the way most adults watch movies at all anymore: on streaming platforms and VOD. That is a reality that many old timers really don’t want to face.

Ultimately, though, the race is decided by a small group of people — led by strategists, critics, bloggers — to focus people in a certain direction. Are the movies good? Without a doubt they are. They have been chosen in the first place because 1) they’re good, and 2) they are aimed directly at the awards community/critics.

There is the screener pile. The screener pile has been vetted and vetted again, think pieced to death — until some kind of acceptable standard is agreed upon. Meanwhile the major studios keep making movies for another reason: to make money. Movies for the average undemanding moviegoer. Most of the more intense movies offered up in a given year are movies no one wants to watch with their families over the holidays. That’s just the fact of the matter. Most people will almost always go for the movies that have the biggest stars or give you that Hollywood hit of glamour and money splashed on the screen. Otherwise, why even make the distinction at all anymore between film and television.

Every so often a film squeaks through that really did seem to pop up organically and takes everyone by surprise because it is so pleasurable, watchable. That movie this year, I think, is Hell or High Water. It’s just a damn good movie. It’s exciting, well made, and feels original — even if it takes it cues from iconic genres like the western and film noir. I’ll just say it right here, right now that I would not be surprised if it rose to the top in an 11th hour shocker to be one of the top five competing for the big prize.

At this point in time it does seem like a consensus is emerging around Hell or High Water which is beloved across the board. That’s probably the movie I’d be most worried about if I were handling the frontrunners this year. It has an Argo like feel about it and certainly appeals to steak eaters.

If I had to pick five right now instead of more than five, I might go like this:

La La Land
Moonlight
Manchester by the Sea
Hell or High Water
Arrival

The next movie on my list is Fences. That’s six. In the past two years, Oscar voters have gone only for 8 and not 9. So that leaves us with at least two more. I might choose Lion and Loving  to complete the 8. Then we have Sully, Hacksaw Ridge, Silence or Jackie for the last slot. Seems reasonable enough right now. But things might change.

Many are predicting Silence to be nominated, sight unseen. It did make the National Board of Review’s top ten — and will likely make the AFI’s top ten, as well — but even if Martin Scorsese is nominated for Best Director by the DGA and Oscar, that doesn’t guarantee under the current system the film is in for Best Picture. It might be. But it’s not a done deal by any means, given what we know about the movie so far.

The key thing to remember is simply this – voters each have only five slots to name their nominees for Best Picture of the Year. Five. That shrinks things down significantly.  Each film has to have enough people writing it down as their number one pick to get in. For nominations, a movie has to be loved. To win it has to be well liked and loved. This seems to bode well for a Silence nod because it’s probably a film people love or hate. If they love it, they really love it and want to pay Scorsese his due, then it’s in.

The Critics Choice and the National Board of Review

If you look at the two top ten lists that have been posted so far by the National Board of Review and the Broadcast Film Critics you will see some overlap. This is the first year that the BFCA are announcing their nominations so early. It will be interesting to see if they can maintain the same track record as they’ve had in terms of predicting the Oscar race. We will keep track of how that goes. In the meantime, here is how they look side by side this year and a few years back:

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-9-58-21-am

From this limited view of their pasts, the Critics Choice has a much stronger advantage in terms of predicting the Oscars. But we do not know if that will change this year or not.

With that said, let’s get on with our Predictions Friday:

Best Picture
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight
Hell or High Water
Arrival
Fences
Loving
Sully
Hacksaw Ridge
Lion
Wild card: Silence

Can’t rule out:
Jackie
20th Century Women
Hidden Figures
Patriots Day

Best Actor
Denzel Washington, Fences
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Tom Hanks, Sully
Joel Edgerton, Loving
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge or Ryan Gosling, La La Land

Best Actress
Emma Stone, La La Land
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Amy Adams, Arrival
Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
Ruth Negga, Loving

Can’t rule out:
Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Liam Neeson, Silence
Dev Patel, Lion
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water

Can’t rule out:
Mykelti Williamson, Fences
Jovan Adepo, Fences
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Aaron Eckhart, Bleed for This
Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash
Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
Kevin Costner, Hidden Figures

Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Janelle Monae, Hidden Figures

Can’t rule out:
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Miss Sloane
Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
Molly Shannon, Other People
Sienna Miller, Live by Night

Best Director
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Martin Scorsese, Silence
David Mackenzie, Hell or High Water

Can’t rule out:
Denzel Washington, Fences
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
Jeff Nichols, Loving
Pablo Larrain, Jackie
Clint Eastwood, Sully
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Ben Affleck, Live by Night
Peter Berg, Patriots Day

Original Screenplay
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water
Jeff Nichols, Loving

Can’t rule out:
Noah Oppenheim, Jackie
Mike Mills, 20th Century Women
John Perrera, Miss Sloane

Adapted Screenplay
August Wilson, Fences
Eric Heisserer, Arrival
Todd Komarnicki, Sully
Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls
Jay Cocks, Silence

Can’t rule out:
Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals
Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures
Ben Affleck, Live by Night
Luke Davies, Lion
Andrew Stanton,Victoria Strouse, Finding Dory
Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan, Hacksaw Ridge
William Wheeler, Queen of Katwe
James Schamus, Indignation

Editing
Hell or High Water
Arrival
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

Can’t rule out:
Silence
Sully

Cinematography
Silence
La La Land
Arrival
Moonlight
Hail Caesar

Can’t rule out:
Live by Night
Sully
Manchester by the Sea

Production Design
La La Land
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Silence
Jackie
Hail Caesar

Sound Mixing
La La Land
Sully
Hell or High Water
Hacksaw Ridge
Patriots Day

Sound Editing
La La Land
Patriots Day
Moana
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water

Costume Design
La La Land
Loving
Live by Night
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Love & Friendship

Original Score
Arrival
Hell or High Water
Moonlight
Patriots Day
La La Land

Documentary Feature
O.J.: Made in America
13th
Gleason
Tower
Life Animated

Can’t rule out:
Before the Flood
Still I Rise
I’m not Your Negro
Weiner
Lo and Behold
Zero Days
Before the Flood
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

Animated feature
Zootopia
Moana
The Red Turtle
The Little Prince
Finding Dory