While The Martian might be among the strongest contenders for Best Picture right now, there is no telling which way the race will go from here. We’re heading into the last gasp of the Oscar race, believe it or not, because by the end of this month it will be time for many key precursor groups to start voting.

Fifteen years ago Ridley Scott was up for Best Director for Gladiator. It was the strangest year for Best Picture, one that no other year has really matched since. Ridley Scott’s film was the one to beat. But it had strong competition from two films: Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.

Ang Lee won the Directors Guild Award, which which set the stage for an unpredictable Best Picture winner. I remember this year very well because it was the first year I started Oscar blogging. Back then, there weren’t really blogs, however. We all built our sites on html before blogging software came along, before opinion-based writing dominated all media, before the Oscars were a 24/7, year round business, before Facebook, before Twitter – practically before cell phones.

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Scott Cooper began his career straight out of the hills of Virginia by landing in New York and studying at the Lee Strasberg institute. It wouldn’t take him long to gravitate towards writing, and eventually directing. He mentions his most influential mentors as Robert Duvall, and William Friedkin. One thing you’ll likely get from listening to our interview is what a genuinely nice person he is. That goes a long way in any business, but especially so in Hollywood. Cooper has made three major films, Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace and now, Black Mass – which is his best film yet. Like Out of the Furnace, it’s not an easy sit but portrays the mob as the cold, opportunistic killers that they were.
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Spotlight opened with an incredibly high per theater average, almost doubling that of Brooklyn, which was also high. Room continues to do great business in limited release. Meanwhile, The Martian closes in on $200 mil, which it should make without breaking a sweat. Bridge of Spies, per Spielberg’s usual box office guarantee, is also staying close to the top. Laurie Anderson’s brilliant documentary on grief and loss, The Heart of a Dog, is also making money. From

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Brooklyn, if it won Best Picture, would likely be the first Sundance get to do the trick. It has been flying nicely under the radar, not even being predicted by some pundits for a nomination. Early on in the year I hadn’t seen Brooklyn. I heard the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg say Brooklyn was his favorite film of the year. That’s funny, I thought. I knew next to nothing about it because the trailer didn’t really tell much about what to expect. A young Irish girl torn between two countries and two men. It sounded conventional to me, maybe even PBS-like. I wrote it off immediately as a potential winner.

What I find interesting is that both Room and Brooklyn are generating early buzz and excitement. Both are word of mouth movies – both are driven by a strong female lead. That means both could either cancel each other out, or one could inexplicably take Best Picture. I suspect if either did it would face backlash, which would be a shame.

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The first thing we know is that there isn’t a lot to know. We know that Spotlight is a slam dunk for Oscar nominations across the board. It is sitting pretty in the Argo slot, underestimated by pundits just enough to keep the target off its back. If you can imagine Tom McCarthy not getting a Best Director nomination, that would be sort of how shocking it was when Ben Affleck didn’t – he was considered as sure a bet as anyone could be. Of course, if McCarthy is left off the Best Director list you can bet there won’t be the same groundswell of support for him like there was Ben Affleck because one was already famous and other isn’t quite there yet.

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That Angelina Jolie-Pitt asks us to remove what we know about Brad and Angie from our feelings for a film about a couple embroiled in an emotional tangle is maybe a little naive on her part. They have always used their celebrity to bring attention to the right causes, and for the films they’re involved in – we get parsed versions of their personal life from them, and an often dubious encyclopedia of their personal life from the gossip columns. There are some celebrities who are simply too big, too embedded in our collective minds that that they can never disappear into a role the way most actors can. This would include larger than life personalities like Barbra Streisand, Madonna and now Angelina Jolie. So it is with inevitable overlay of knowledge about the icon that people will watch By the Sea.

I tried hard to separate what I knew about her and about him and about them while watching the film. Impossible. I then tried to imagine the same film starring unknowns – would it have been enough to hold our attention? A film that meditates on the grief of one woman for two hours? I then tried to imagine if a man had directed it, or someone I admired as an established auteur. Would I still see the film the same way? My conclusion was that I know too much about Angelina and Brad – even while probably knowing nothing, really – to be able to divorce them from their celebrity. Which is kind of a shame because there are some really great moments in By the Sea.
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Tarantino is in the news a lot lately, first by walking with protesters against the police shootings of late, then by calling out the cops for shooting unarmed men. It’s an interesting development for Tarantino, who hasn’t been much of an activist politically, that I’ve noticed. Perhaps he was trying to fight for something that mattered in anticipation of the upcoming Hateful Eight, which will take some heat for its constant use of the ‘n’ word. Perhaps now there won’t be charges of racism. Hard to say how it will all shake down. Where Oscars are concerned, however, the movie just has to be good.
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David Poland’s Gurus of Gold has put out its first real predictions for the season. There is probably a pretty good chance that at least 6 or 7 out of these titles will eventually make it in by year’s end. It’s funny how fast perceptions can change from one day to the next, even. Glenn Whipp and Anne Thompson are only predicting films they’ve seen, which explains why no Joy or The Revenant. That’s probably smart, given that many had high on their lists last year at this time: Unbroken, Interstellar and Foxcatcher. Only one went on to get a nomination.

I am an outlier on a few things, namely supporting actor where I feel the heat is on Paul Dano and Jacob Tremblay, not on Michael Keaton in Spotlight – though clearly most everyone else disagrees with me. Wisdom in crowds, so I would trust the majority if I were you.

Here are the charts. Let the games begin. Gold Derby’s picks are here.

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Beasts of no nation

I am not moving and the leader man is throwing up his arm to the sky. He is shouting, where are you finding him, so hard that his voice is becoming high and sounding like it is sticking in his throat. Strika is pointing his arm at the shack. Is that right, the man is saying and shaking his head like he cannot be believing it at all at all. SSSSS! He is shouting, you. Where is Luftenant? Luftenant! And another voice is answering, he is in the bush.

Two films vividly depict a story of unimaginable horror from a child’s point of view. One is Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, and the other is Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. Both films are about victims of violence, of being taken to be used and destroyed from the outside in. They depart in significant ways, as Room is really about the ways a child can be protected from horror if he has his mother there. Fukunaga’s Agu has no such form of protection, but is thrust into a nightmare that will work him, Job like, until his soul is saved or damned.

Make no mistake, no indifferent God has anything to do with the battle for Agu’s soul. It is his own humanity he will either keep or lose. Critics of the film have make the tragic mistake of needing Beasts of No Nation to be “a film about Africa.” In so doing, it suddenly becomes a checklist for political correctness, its identity as true art long forgotten. What country, they ask? Why is Africa always portrayed in a negative light for white audiences? Why can’t we see good Africa?
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It’s practically a revelation to read the best critics in the business praising John Crowley’s Brooklyn, a movie (among a handful this year) that reminds us that not only do female characters exist but they are worthy of quirks and multiple dimensions in their — dare we say it — personalities! Of Brooklyn, the LA Times’ Kenneth Turan writes:

No special effect is more difficult than mastery of the complex contours of the human heart. No amount of money spent or armies of CGI minions employed can ensure that it is done right: Emotion, intelligence and skill in equal measure are what’s essential. Qualities that the masterfully done “Brooklyn” have in abundance.

Impeccably directed by John Crowley, feelingly adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s fine novel and blessed with heart-stopping work from star Saoirse Ronan and the rest of the cast, “Brooklyn” is about love and heartache, loneliness and intimacy, what home means and how we achieve it.

And closes it this way:

Perhaps the most impressive thing about “Brooklyn” is that it does so much, touches on so many emotions, that it resists pigeonholing. It’s possible, for instance, to make the film sound simply like a romance, the story of a young woman waiting for Mr. Right, but it does not play that way at all.

Rather, “Brooklyn” is about the inevitable but never easy process of deciding who you are and what your life is going to be. As Georgina advises Eilis on the boat over, “You have to think like an American. You have to know where you’re going.” Getting to that place is Eilis’ journey, and being witness to it is both a privilege and a pleasure.

AO Scott at the New York Times names Brooklyn a “Critics Pick” and says about it:
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The Ex Machina showing here is the best news to me. They’re all good movies but 45 Years and Ex Machina are my two favorites off of these lists. Worth noting, no Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl. That’s a little surprising. Go Ex Machina!

Thanks to In Contention:

Best British Independent Film
“Ex Machina”
“45 Years”
“The Lobster”

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After Dreamworks pulled the hat trick in 1999, 2000, and 2001 with American Beauty, Gladiator, and A Beautiful Mind, the only major studio to win Best Picture has been Warner Bros., who did it three times over the past 13 years with Million Dollar Baby, The Departed and Argo. All three of these films were warmly received by the public and critics alike. All three made money. And all three represent the ideal scenario by which a film most often wins Best Picture – when it unites the industry and the public (nevermind the critics for now). It rarely happens that a film will hit all of the markers heading in: well received by critics, a box office draw, and released by a major studio. Even when such alignment occurs, it doesn’t often end with a Best Picture win – and sometimes it doesn’t even result in a nomination. Then there are other factors to be considered, like director cred, buzz and “gravitas.”

For most of the years when I’ve been covering the Oscar race, we’ve been dwelling in the “indie breakthrough” era where independent players crashed the Oscar party, namely Fox Searchlight, the boutique arm of 20th Century Fox, and most notably Miramax, which was absorbed in its entirety by Disney and then sprouted anew from Harvey’s hearty roots as The Weinstein Co.  In the 70 years before that revolution, the Oscars had almost always been dominated by the majors. Anne Thompson reminds us not to misuse the term “indie.” If it’s a film produced on a lot, or one of the lots, then it’s considered a studio movie. Once in a blue moon throughout Oscar history, a genuine indie maverick like Selznick or Goldwyn could crash the Big Five party. More recently when we talk about indies in the Oscar race, these production companies lack traditional studio real estate. In fact, we’re mostly talking about distributors, not production companies, though their functions can often overlap as financing is patched together. Who puts up the money, who buys the film’s rights and then stands to make money usually determines which individual producers can take credit when or if the film wins Best Picture. Continue reading…


Tom Brokaw gets the interview with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, mostly about their marriage and Jolie’s decision to undergo preventative surgery. There is some about By the Sea, with on set footage.


Anomalisa might end up being my favorite film of the year, although it’s crowded at the top for me, with Beasts of No Nation, The Martian, Steve Jobs, Spotlight gathered together up there. Still, there is nothing else out there like Anomalisa. It is such a pure piece of art. The less you hear about it the better but the trailer isn’t much of a spoiler.


What do All the President’s Men, Network, Capote, Broadcast News, Citizen Kane, Good Night, and Good Luck, The Insider, Frost/Nixon all have in common? They were films up for Best Picture. They were also films about journalists. Most of them are about good journalism. Citizen Kane is about Charles Foster Kane. It is about a man who couldn’t find happiness or true love for all the money in the world. But it is also about getting the story behind that man. It Happened One Night is probably the only film about journalism to win Best Picture, back in 1934, but was it really about journalism? If Spotlight wins Best Picture it will become the first film fully and completely about journalism to win.
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Song Explorer has an interview with The Martian’s composer, Harry Gregson-Williams, and they talk a bit about Ridley Scott’s desire to keep the music hopeful, not too dark for too long. Have a listen!

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The New York Times nabbed an interview with David O. Russell, who talks about Jennifer Lawrence and Joy and his decision to center a film on a woman for the first time:

It’s the first story I’ve done that has a woman at the center of it. Jennifer’s usually coming in from the side, like a rogue. [Laughs.] She kind of sneaks in and takes over half the movie. But here, she’s in the middle, not with a bow and arrow, but with her heart and soul. That’s a new one for both of us, because I think her renegade nature thrives on the other mode of attack.

He also talks a bit about how he’s misrepresented as “an actors director” who makes stuff up on the fly:

What do people misunderstand about you, or get wrong?

That I’m an actor’s director. I don’t like being painted with that brush, quite frankly. I think it’s true to some degree, but it’s pigeonholing me. What I’m doing is as much about the cinema, it’s as much about camera and script. I don’t want those to be overlooked and say, well, it’s just about how I got a performance out of an actor. Unlike Cassavetes, there is no literal improvisation in my movies. Everything is planned out, even if we change it. I’ll sit with the actors for half an hour and go: “O.K., let’s redo this. Everybody agree?” We never go onto the playing field not knowing what’s going to happen.

Read more at NY Times.

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There is an interesting phenom that has come out of the Academy’s choice to use the preferential ballot with more than five nominees. You almost never see a movie win that people really hated. All of the truly divisive films that have won Best Picture, like Crash or Chicago, did so when there were only five films and a non-preferential ballot, or a majority ballot – voters picked their favorite to win and it won.

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The Oscar pundits are kind of like preachers in the old world standing on our pulpits and promising you we can hear the word of god and if you’ll just follow us we’ll lead you to the promised land. ‘Don’t listen to that person over there because they’re crazy. Listen to me because I have the power to hear God speak. He sends me messages from on high. Follow me! I will lead you to the promised land.’

Okay, so maybe it isn’t quite that dramatic but you get the idea. The truth is that nobody knows anything. We all know that we don’t know anything. We have voices whispering in our ears from strategists and publicists who need to sink those nominations because their bread and butter relies on it. We have fans who mobilize and become active members of the flock in hopes of seeing their own mini god rewarded with Oscar’s attention. We have various markers we count on – box office, reviews, that elusive “buzz” that may or may not exist. But mostly, we have experience. Or not.
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Many people keep asking me why I’m not predicting Straight Outta Compton for Universal’s big Oscar play. They’ve had an insanely successful year, with Jurassic World a hair’s breath away from beating Titanic’s box office take to become the second highest grossing film of the year. They’ve got Straight Outta Compton, about the roots of the hip hop movement in Los Angeles, with an African American director at the helm. And they’ve got Steve Jobs, which took a hit at the box office, there is no denying it. That doesn’t mean the film is off the Oscar list, however. It could mean that. But it could also mean that voters feel like supporting a film that at least partly aims for the kind of Hollywood they want to support – leaning heavily on the core values: writing, directing, acting. So does Straight Outta Compton but that one comes with its own problems.
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