The Gurus of Gold have been asked for the top three in all of the major categories. How much has changed since September? Not a lot.
If either 12 Years a Slave or Gravity win Best Picture, that continues the streak of the winning films getting their launch at the Telluride Film Festival, or more specifically, September or earlier. This trend is a recent phenomenon, one that seems to have been a direct result of Oscar’s decision to shift its date back by one month. That tectonic shift sent the entire race into a time crunch. The date change has impacted the race in the following ways.
1. Now, a movie must be seen at Telluride or September/October to win. The reasons for this are unclear except to say that if they can hit that early and run the gauntlet they can maintain their momentum through the end of the season, provided they don’t emerge as the frontrunner. Only a few films can withstand that kind of pressure: Slumdog Millionaire, The Artist, No Country for Old Men. Better to fly under the radar like a reality show contestant, sneaking past the beast unnoticed before emerging as the frontrunner from the Producers Guild on. This was true for Argo, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, etc. Early films are taken less seriously as winners, even now that we know they have to emerge early. Focus is still naturally on the old paradigm of releasing “Oscar movies” at the end of the year.
2. There are very few years like this one where the race feels wide open. Even though it’s still down to the two films – Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, with American Hustle right up in there as a spoiler, there has been less vote splitting and more uniformity among voters with less time to vote. Everyone kind of votes at the same time, over the same period of weeks. What we’re seeing this year departs slightly from that – the delay between the BAFTA and Oscar ballots could change voters’ minds. Those wins might have had an impact on how Oscar voters pick their winners. In this case, the BAFTA being the “dress rehearsal” for how the Oscars might go. Did they like those results? Or did they feel one film got the short shrift?
3. The need to be “first” – this put the New York Film Critics in the awkward position of shifting their dates back even farther than the National Board of Review (by one day) to be the first voice in the awards race. With the SAGs, Globes, the NYFCC and the NBR being “early” in the race, they are forced to miss late-breaking films, or not have much rumination time before picking their winners. In other words, both American Hustle and Zero Dark Thirty (the last two New York Film Critics Best Picture winners) were voted on as Best Picture without having been widely seen or reviewed. While their reviews backed up their win – that Inside Llewyn Davis, and not American Hustle, was the National Society’s pick, tells you how opinions can shift with more rumination time. The National Society is made up of many of the same members as the New York Film Critics. Their love for American Hustle showed up in their runner-up choices, and in their Best Supporting Actress pick. The need to be “first” seems to put power on films that are released earlier because everyone has seen them – so they get included in the all-important SAG vote. They are included at the Globes, and at least considered for the New York Film Critics. A late-breaker like Wolf of Wall Street has to play catch up.
BUT — the early release did not help films that the Academy did not cozy up to, like Inside Llewyn Davis (too little late when the National Society named them), or All is Lost, which had everything going for it to be included except urgency to watch it. All of these groups, bloggers, critics can only really put the DVD in front of the voters in the first place. You can’t force them to watch and you can’t force them to like.
4. Hysteria drives the race in ways it never has – whether that has to do with the date change or the explosion of media is unclear. But now, one accusation can be hurled at a film and it will travel lightning speed around the internet. Since the voting window is so short there is less time to do damage control while ballots are outstanding. It is so easy to send out a story that can hit right at the moment people are voting, like last year’s stupid eruption with the Congressman who pitched a fit during voting — if anyone knows the power of something like that, it’s a politician. He denied it, of course. No point in going back over that but put it this way: a film that is released earlier has more time to recover from a negative story. Just look at how the Zero Dark Thirty attack started, gained momentum, reached a fevered pitch and ultimately damaged that film’s Oscar chances.
5. The public is selected out of the process. When I first started blogging, the Oscars were held in March — not March 2, like now, but late March. That meant the public had a say. Movies were released late but everyone saw them. The public saw them. The public was included in the decision for best. Once they changed the date, and the awards race was swarmed with precursors, bloggers and noise, the public was selected out. Films that won Best Picture were often films the public had not even seen. Now it’s routine for the public to think WTF about many of the Academy’s choices for Best Picture.
In the end, ballots will be turned in on Tuesday at 5pm. The Best Picture winner will be a reflection of both the film itself, and the perception of the film in the race. Preception drives more of the votes than anything else. If this race is like a political election or a popularity contest it is open to any kind of manipulation. When people say that Oscar bloggers, pundits or predictions sites have “ruined” the Oscars, they forget what the Oscars have always been. They are a representation of the power dynamic in Hollywood, just as the Homecoming Parade pronounces the power dynamic in high school. Contests, by their very nature, are dictated by popularity. The consensus wants what it wants.
We are headed into a year where there is an agreed upon split between Picture and Director. This, because people have decided, like In the Heat of the Night, that 12 Years a Slave SHOULD win. At the same time, they can’t give up the movie they seem to love, Gravity. Therefore, Gravity gets director because they can’t seem to find it in their hearts to believe Steve McQueen deserves it. This consensus seems to be wrestling with the division between heart and head. Love is a momentary thing, a passing fancy. It is undeniable. It makes you feel powerless against it. Sometimes love can last a lifetime. Sometimes you can’t believe you ever had those feelings to begin with. The last three years seem to have produced Best Picture winners that were decided solely upon love. That makes their wins feel like mysteries now.
Love is a funny thing. It doesn’t always make sense. In many ways, the heart is the least reliable, more disruptive decider of big things like “highest achievement in film.” Loving something doesn’t make it great. Greatness eventually inspires love when you open your heart to the possibilities.
But no one likes to be “forced” into voting for anything. Should-wins are often kicked aside because people, voters, feel defiant under the strong arm. They exercise this rebellion quietly, privately, with no one looking, like an anonymous commenter on a website – the powerless feel powerful under the cloak of anonymity. Therefore, nothing is yet certain about this year’s Best Picture race. Any film could win, but we’re likely looking at a toss up between the big three.
Best Picture – 12 Years a Slave (spoilers Gravity, American Hustle)
Best Director – Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity (Spoilers Steve McQueen, David O. Russell)
Best Actor – Matthew McConaughey (Spoilers Chiwetel Ejiofor, Leonardo DiCaprio)
Best Actress – Cate Blanchett (Spoilers Amy Adams, Judi Dench)
Best Supporting Actress – Lupita Nyong’o (spoilers Jennifer Lawrence, June Squibb)
Best Supporting Actor – Jared Leto (spoilers Barkhad Abdi, Jonah Hill)
Best Original Screenplay – American Hustle (spoiler Her)
Best Adapted Screenplay – 12 Years a Slave (spoiler Philomena, Wolf of Wall Street)
Best Editing – Captain Phillips (spoiler Gravity, 12 Years a Slave)
Best Cinematography – Gravity
Best Visual Effects – Gravity
Best Sound, Sound Editing – Gravity
Best Score – Gravity
Best Song – Let it Go, Frozen (Spoilers U2, Pharrell)
Best Animated Feature – Frozen
Costumes, Production Design – Great Gatsby
Doc feature – The Act of Killing (spoiler 20 Feet From Stardom)
Foreign Lang – The Great Beauty (spoiler Broken Circle)
Animated Short – Get a Horse
Live Action Short – The Voorman Problem (spoiler Helium)
Doc short – not yet clear