Last year, David Poland did an experiment. He asked the Gurus to rank the top movies that had been seen, then to rank those that hadn’t yet been seen. Around the same time, Gold Derby experts were polled and those lists weren’t much different from the lists at Movie City News. In other words, we had no clue how the Oscar race was going to go beyond a handful of titles that were obvious sure bets, and some that seemed like they might go, but in the end did not catch fire after the critics voted, then the industry voted, then Oscar voted.
All eventual nine Best Picture nominees were somewhere on that list but they were mixed up all over the place. How they would all eventually settle became clearer into November but, back in October, five or six was about the highest pundits got when you counted them out on MCN and at Gold Derby.
Looking over last year’s Gurus of Gold, a poll taken directly after the New York Film Festival, you will see a list that’s a little like herding cats. We were all wrong in various ways. We had the top films kind of right but after that things got muddied.
There is a great time-capsule piece at Gold Derby where Tom, with his usual flare for making the Oscar race exciting, bet Scott Feinberg that Life of Pi would get a Best Picture nomination. Feinberg is usually on the money when it comes to drop dead Oscar predictions but sometimes we are all undone by our own perceptions, or our opinions. Our opinions on films are probably our worst indicators when it comes to predicting Oscars. But then again, the opposite of that would be always second guessing voters and no one wants to do that either.
In the early stages of the Oscar race, like right now, it’s difficult to gauge what voters will do when given a handful of films to choose from. We think we know how it might go but really we have no idea. Here is how Scott reported the event on the Hollywood-Reporter:
I must confess that I am skeptical about its Oscar prospects.
But, while it looks to be a strong below-the-line contender, I’m not sure that I see it contending strongly in the higher-profile categories. To my eye it is, frankly, uneven — its pacing is off, it feels too long, and its third-act twist is something between confusing and aggravating. I suspect that those who check it out will, by and large, come away from it feeling respect more than passion, which is the key to cracking into the best picture race under the new voting system (as opposed to the old one which rewarded widespread support). In short, I think it will face an uphill climb for best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay noms.
And here’s the money shot:
My sense from talking to a wide cross-section of the industry at the post-screening party is that virtually everyone liked the film, but few loved it, and that makes it a tough awards sell.
There are dozens of these articles online that report on what Academy members supposedly thought of films. In the end, Life of Pi was a massive Oscar success, 11 nominations (including Picture, Director and Screenplay) and winning Director, along with three other Oscar victories (Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Visual Effects).
Tom declared in his piece, “While I’m sure, Scott, that some academy members will share your view of “Life of Pi,” quite a few will feel the same way I did after seeing it: knocked out, dazzled and amazed. I think it’s not only one of the best films of 2012, but one of those films for the ages.”
Though Scott politely declined his bet, Tom did get some other pundits on record with Life of Pi (myself included, “Right now I feel like three films can win: ‘Argo,’ ‘Silver Linings’ and ‘Life of Pi,’ she asserts. “‘Life of Pi,’ ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ and to an extent, ‘Silver Linings’ are all films that pack an emotional punch. One should never count out films that do that, even if they are roasted by the critics — take ‘Extremely Loud,’ for example.”)
Anne Thompson also said “This movie will play for critics, audiences and awards givers all over the world. It has the right elements: globally popular literary source (7 million copies sold); heart-warming family story from an A-list Oscar-winning director (“Brokeback Mountain”); and epic VFX.”
But I can’t let myself off the hook that easily. Of the movies unseen last year around this time I had The Monuments Men ranked at number 1. That was how that movie was being perceived before it was pushed to the following year, mostly panned by critics and written out of the race.
The thing about being an Oscar pundit – the more right you think you are and the more you talk about that, the harder the fall. We need only go back to 2010 to remember the horror, the horror.
Last year many of us were convinced Inside Llewyn Davis, All is Lost and The Butler would get Best Picture nominations. With two of those titles it was, admittedly, wishful thinking but with one, the reliable Coens, I really thought it had a shot, so did many others on both Gold Derby and the Gurus of Gold.
We were wrong. Movies that seemed to have a shot, like Saving Mr. Banks, The Monuments Men, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Fruitvale Station did not make it in. Props to Greg Ellwood, Pete Hammond and David Poland for predicting Philomena so early. But for the most part, we had many films we thought would be Oscar favorites that didn’t, for one reason or another.
By the next time the Gurus got together, November 6, 2013, they still weren’t together with nominees. David Poland had the most right, predicting 8 out of the eventual 9, while most topped out at 7 out of 9. But it was by no means a solid consensus. Even by December 14, 2013 there was no solid consensus for Best Picture yet. This is highly unusual, I must say. To be in mid December and not know?
The one thing that isn’t too hard to guess, though, is what will WIN Best Picture. Going back to 2006, the Best Picture winner was at least in the top four by October. That doesn’t means 2014 will be the same way, what with all of the late-breaking films still to come, but history tells us that much at least.
History tells us that there is a high probability that your Best Picture winner will be:
2. The Imitation Game
Again, a pattern is only a pattern until the pattern is broken. By October we can be mostly sure our winner is on the radar. But when it comes to nominees our perceptions can be very easily shifted, either by listening to what Oscar voters are excited about, or judging the race on what we already know.
As it stands now, the top two look like they’re going to be the ones in the race for Best Picture but we can’t know what will be Boyhood’s (or Imitation Game’s) biggest challenger until the films open. The two most promising challengers that have not been seen could be:
1. Interstellar (actually has been seen by several people)
But when we’re talking about nominees, the picture changes quite dramatically. That is when you divide up between good movies, great movies and Oscar movies. When one second guesses what Oscar movies might be one can sometimes trip up — Life of Pi, Wolf of Wall Street, etc. That movie this year is Gone Girl. Closing in fast on $100 in three weeks, the only film in the race written by a woman, and the one that has captured the zeitgeist — out there.
The other films very much in the race would be The Theory of Everything (Oscar movie through and through), Foxcatcher (one that is being second guessed by pundits as being “too dark”) and Whiplash, which I should have among my predicted films but for whatever reason forgot to do that this time around.
There are so many questions still unanswered about this year. We have absolutely no idea where some of these movies might land, like The Gambler, like A Most Violent Year, like Unbroken, like Interstellar, like Selma, like Into the Woods — big question marks all the way around.
Might this be the year the pre-October slate is wiped clean and all of the late breaking movies find their way into the race, dramatically shifting how the Oscar race works? It’s possible. But here’s what to do when contemplating that possibility, and the reason why October-November almost always decides the race, at least for Best Picture.
The combination of the time crunch and busy voters who don’t see everything usually has a race that relies heavily on these crucial weeks before early December. We didn’t have Gurus of Gold the last time a late breaking movie changed the race. That was Million Dollar Baby, ten years ago. When Oscar pushed their date back one month, from March to February, it altered the landscape for choosing Best Picture completely.
A couple of things to watch as we move into the critics awards phase:
- The New York Film Critics are the first major group to ring in. For the past two years, they’ve anointed their top pick a movie that had not yet been widely seen nor screened. American Hustle last year and Zero Dark Thirty. Will they again pick a movie no one has yet seen, thus helping to launch it squarely into the Oscar race?
- Which film will emerge as the “cool” critics darling? Right now, the best-reviewed and most praised films by critics would be: Boyhood and Whiplash, with Birdman just behind. But it doesn’t feel like the film critics will rally their unanimous support around has emerged. Perhaps it has but I’m just not seeing it. I don’t think it’s going to be Boyhood because I think that film is going to win Best Picture and I don’t think critics are going to want to go along with the status quo. On the other hand, maybe they will.
- Will it be something still to come? American Sniper perhaps? Interstellar? We’ll know it when it hits the surface because it will make a GIANT SPLASH.
- Which film will the larger consensus voters agree on? It can’t be too divisive, it can’t have a dark ending, it has to be uplifting, and it has to bespeak the goodness in humanity. You have to figure most voters are on mood lifters by this point. Isn’t everyone on anti-depressants? And those who aren’t are even more inclined to fumble towards that which makes them feel good.
- Potential for Picture/Director split where the directing prize goes to a big-budget effects film that is infused with human emotion, a la Gravity, Life of Pi. Will that be Interstellar? Will the awards split again?
- Think FIVE not nine. One of the biggest mistakes people make is forgetting how Oscar voters vote. This might have helped some of us figure it out last year. Voters get only five slots to pick the year’s best. When they count the ballots they allow for spillover but you’re still really talking about five. So when you hear people say “it will get in with nine but wouldn’t with five” that’s important. This is why there will never be an animated film in the Best Picture race and probably why genre movies have a hard time too. Think about your typical Academy member and imagine what film HE would put in his top five. Work backwards form there.
- The DGA and the Oscar category for Best Director could be wildly different in a wide open year. The Oscar ballots are going to be turned in before the DGA releases their five nominees. The DGA membership is 15,000. The Oscar Best Director branch numbers around 400 individuals. Big difference there. It didn’t matter last year. It really mattered the year before. The Argo year was dramatically changed by the directors branch. But as with all things related to Best Picture, always lead with the director. Revered directors who hit it out of the park (Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Cuaron for Gravity – and this year, Fincher with Gone Girl, Inarritu with Birdman, Linklater for Boyhood, Nolan for Interstellar, Eastwood for American Sniper) tend to be more important than a likable film whose director is less known or hasn’t yet earned their chops. 100% true all of the time? No. The Weinstein Co is especially good at bringing an unknown director to a win – did it twice in 2010 and 2011.
- Actors matter. The number of actors more than double every other branch in the Academy. (There are very nearly more actors in the Academy than Directors, Producers and Writers combined. Let that sink in.) This is why films with only one or two actors have never won Best Picture and why Gravity never could have. Actors are the ones who do not want to be replaced by CGI or performance capture. Actors are the ones who back films like Dallas Buyers Club over films like Inside Llewyn Davis. Actors like movies that have lots of actors in them and films that showcase actors more than effects or even showy direction. It’s almost always about the goddamned actors. Remember that.Of course, a film like Boyhood transcends many of these rules because no other Best Picture contender can boast a 12-year-long film shoot. It falls into the “extraordinary” category and sometimes those movies are simply too big, too important to ignore.
- Smear campaigns/Social Justice Blow Ups/Sympathy Votes. One of the clever tricks of Oscar season, mastered by some campaigners, is to plant a negative story about a film that actually ends up garnering sympathy for the movie and thus, creating a sense of urgency to vote for it. In other words, a so-called smear campaign that ‘backfires.’ Sometimes it isn’t even a plant but just a negative story that ends up garnering sympathy. But smear campaigns are real. Watch out for them. Rival studios will often try to spread either big stories or whisper campaigns, like “Saving Private Ryan was only about the first 30 minutes.”
- Finally, this is a game. Remember that good movies, great movies are here for the taking. You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows. You don’t need a consensus to tell YOU what a good movie is. It’s nice to see them win or even to be nominated but it can’t possibly mean much beyond revealing who these people were at a given point in time. Love the movies you love. Play the game to win.
My current predictions for Best Picture for realsies without the sight unseen films:
1. Boyhood. Linklater’s lovely tribute to growing up, or more specifically, how various people you come in contact with end up changing you. The whole family grows up before our eyes. Written, filmed over 12 years, and transformed into two hours that pass in the blink of an eye. Linklater is paying tribute to the biggest teachers in his life because this is a film about that: his mother being the most potent of these. For the first time, Linklater has the opportunity to showcase his masterful storytelling, without the aid of actors collaborating through improv. That gives Boyhood focus, and ultimately makes it powerful.
2. Gone Girl. The wickedly funny black comedy masterpiece by one of America’s finest directors. The Oscar voters don’t yet know what to do with David Fincher other than not give him awards. Like Scorsese before him, Fincher’s work always flies on a different frequency than what the consensus wants. And it’s all the better for it. A wildly different interpretation of the popular Gillian Flynn novel, Gone Girl is a top-to-bottom satire of modern culture, of marriage, of women and men, of illusion and Hitchcock blondes. Dark for most people this Oscar season is going to be Birdman. But there’s dark and there’s DARK. No other director working in Hollywood has as razor sharp focus, such a deliberate thumbprint as Fincher.
3. The Imitation Game. If there is one movie that can unseat Boyhood, it’s this one, but here at number three only because its director is not yet known, and is someone voters will have to get to know. That’s a tricky prospect. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The film has much going for it, with a bravura performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s a touching crowd-pleaser that can move just about anyone to tears. It is important in that it brings two issues to light: persecution of homosexuals by the British legal system of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, and autism or spectrum disorders. You won’t find a more sympathetic protagonist than Alan Turing except for …
4. The Theory of Everything. Which is going to bring some heat to The Imitation Game as it is about another British genius/hero Stephen Hawking. Both Turning and Hawking changed the world. That is no exaggeration. They changed the world. Hawking is still changing it. Again, like Imitation Game, Theory of Everything’s director is James Marsh, not the most well known in town. The object will be getting people to know him. The film is a crowd-pleaser, according to Pete Hammond, and features a top shelf performance by Eddie Redmayne. This seems to be the film that Oscar voters will respond to — I will be able to tell you more once I see it at the end of this month.
5. Birdman. Like Gone Girl (and every great film) it’s divisive, but it’s less divisive than Gone Girl and more well liked, at least by critics at this stage. How it’s going to play for Academy members is up for debate but there is no denying the brilliant work by the ensemble cast (SAG nod for ensemble all but guaranteed) and that it is a movie that will ultimately APPEAL to actors. It is about actors. It’s about theater – in a way. Wildly subversive, sometimes deeply moving, always snarky and full of spite – Birdman is one of the best films of the year.
6. Foxcatcher. This is another one that could be carried through with the support of actors. Like Gone Girl and Birdman it’s dark, really dark. Brilliant but dark. The ensemble, including Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum, Vanessa Redgrave and especially Steve Carell, but the trick here is going to be how many dark movies are going to get in and how many uplifting movies aren’t. Usually the darker films take a back seat. Birdman is in but Gone Girl and Foxcatcher will require strong support by directors and actors and below the line categories.
7. Whiplash. Coming up from behind, a surefire crowd-pleaser that fits absolutely in line with Academy voters. A perfect film from start to finish, about the notion of achievement, what a person can take and what a person can’t take. Really, though, it’s a showcase performance between two men, two very good actors – JK Simmons and Miles Teller. If I have any sticking points with Whiplash it’s that my own frustrations with the male-centric trends of films these days prevents me from falling in love with the movie – one supporting female as a love interest? My father is a jazz drummer and I’ve grown up with jazz and have played in orchestras. One thing I know about music groups: they are not male-centric. There are females here or there. Why not a single one in Whiplash? But that’s not really a criticism so much as it is a personal bias – and it isn’t fair but in case anyone is wondering why I am not falling all over myself about this most excellent film, that’s really the reason. On the other hand, wow. What a great movie.
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Still kicking around here in the early stages, though it’s likely to be washed away by what’s coming next. In fact, many of the dark horse contenders like Wild, The Homesman, etc., reside on the fringe here – they aren’t making any lists because people are making way for the films that have not yet been seen.
And that’s as far as it goes.
The films that are coming next have their place being held in line:
A Most Violent Year
Into the Woods
A few of them will go all the way and a few won’t. But it’s unlikely ALL will.
By the middle of next month we should have a much clearer idea of what the Best Picture lineup will be.
In the other categories, the frontrunners are, according to the Gurus:
And here is how Gold Derby measures it: