Two big movies hit the Oscar race this week. Ridley Scott’s wildly entertaining crowdpleaser, The Martian and Steven Spielberg’s contemplative, cerebral Bridge of Spies. Both films celebrate the goodness in people. Both films affirm human ingenuity and problem solving in life or death situations. Both films leave you feeling good by the end, and more than that — hopeful about the world and our place in it. At the same time, both films are being underestimated for different reasons.
The thing about the Oscar race, though, is that it doesn’t just come down to the opinion of one crabby critic or another pretentious blogger. It comes down to a vote of thousands. A consensus vote that does not account for peculiarities. As a reflection of the earnest pleasures of moviegoing, it’s a consensus that may rise a few notches above the VMAs and the People’s Choice but not by much. It doesn’t seem to matter what the critics choose, nor does it matter what the early awards doyens position out front.
If you’re talking about the Oscars, the only thing that ultimately matters is what “they” think, the 6000 or so mostly white, mostly male, mostly elderly industry professionals. What the pundits try to do — and actually everybody and anybody on Twitter now — is second guess what “they” will do. They do this in two ways. Either they question if a film isn’t good enough, or else they wonder if it doesn’t suit the tastes of the Academy — too genre-y, too far outside their usual definition of “Highest Achievement in Film.”
The thing about it though? Nobody knows anything. Not really. I was speaking to Scott Feinberg about this at an event in Santa Barbara. He said it really bothers him when I say that because he feels it isn’t true. There are things we do know, he said. Things we can know. And to a degree that’s right. Jurassic World is never going to be nominated for Best Picture. We know even Star Wars is a long shot. We know some names will never get anywhere near the Dolby. At the same time, though, there are so many things we don’t know and can’t know.
Feinberg turned out to be right, however, last year when he declared Gone Girl would never appeal to most Academy voters. Last year we did the math and came up with one of three possible choices to win Best Picture: 1) Boyhood, 2) The Imitation Game and 3) Birdman. It turned out to be Birdman. But there was a lot of ups and downs along the way. Scott’s skepticism about Gone Girl and what “they” would do turned out to be right on the money. Some of the same skepticism is now being applied to several new films about to get vetted by bloggers.
It’s worth noting that while Scott Feinberg and many others guessed “right” about Gone Girl, they were just as wrong about everything else, up to and including the Best Picture frontrunner. No one saw Birdman coming and the reason for that was that no one thought “they” would go for it. It was too weird, too dark, too quirky. It wasn’t serious enough. In dumbing down our expectations for what “they” would do we limited our choices too much.
In my predictions last year for Best Picture — Because Sometimes We’re Wrong — I ended up correctly predicting six out of the eventual eight. (On October 17, 2014, Selma and American Sniper had yet to be seen). Sure, I had Gone Girl at number two, and Foxcatcher in there but I don’t think it was crazy to think they would love those movies as much as I did. In fact, Bennett Miller landed a Best Director nomination and Rosamund Pike was in for Best Actress, so there was quite possibly enough support that both those films would have been BP nominees in a field of 10 instead of 8. Predicting them wasn’t “wrong,” as many like to position Oscar predicting. Go big or go home is the way to approach it. After all, you can be right about the one thing and then wrong about everything else.
Only one pundit on this list predicted more than 6 correctly and that was Fandango’s Dave Karger, still the King of Oscar predicting. Each pundit has his own method of predicting and I don’t know what Dave’s is. He somehow just knows or senses things the rest of us don’t. Keep in mind both Dave and I predicted American Sniper and Selma to get in sight unseen. This was only October, before the AFI film fest. How did we know? Who knows? A lucky guess or something more?
For his part, Pete Hammond has opted out of this early predicting ranking madness. He has said that he will no longer participate in Gurus of Gold or Gold Derby, at least not at the moment. Anne Thompson, who only predicted films she’d seen, still managed to predict 6 out of the eventual 8.
No matter how good I am at predicting the Oscar nominations — and I’m decent enough at it — people will still come at me telling me how wrong I am about a presumed favorite. The most recent example of this was The Martian where someone on Twitter kept telling me that there was no way The Martian was even getting nominated. Why did I have it so high in my rankings, he asked. Why is it higher than Spotlight or Steve Jobs? My answer to him then and now is that it is just a hunch.
The first part of my hunch is based on Anne Thompson’s reaction to the movie. Her confidence in it makes me look twice at what some would describe as a popcorn movie. Next to Dave Karger, Thompson is really good at this game and always has been. If she thinks The Martian is good enough, that is enough for me to consider it. Second, I saw the movie. I saw it twice and could go back and see it again. It’s likable, charming, and even quite moving by the end. Anne Thompson summed it best by saying it has that Argo thing — you leave the theater feeling good about people. Third, it’s Ridley Scott, stupid. If you cover the race you know that the director often leads. Big, well known directors doing great work almost always get paid more attention than lesser known names. This is especially true when they’ve delivered a few misfires and finally have a big success on their hands. Fourth, The Martian got a solid A from Cinemascore. While movies like The Help and Ant-Man also got an A, Argo and The King’s Speech were solid A movies too. You can’t ignore that, not with all of the other things to consider.
Bridge of Spies is likewise being underestimated, I think, by people who cover the race. After the New York Film Festival screening, early reports were that it could be too subdued to get recognition. This is definitely true if you’re talking about bloggers and critics. It is not true if you’re talking about Academy members. Bridge of Spies is an absorbing movie about a time many of the voters lived through. It is a class act up one side and down the other. The only thing that will keep it off the list is if there are better movies coming down the pike. Let’s remember that these reservations expressed about Bridge of Spies exactly match what was being said about Lincoln 2 years ago — doubts that persisted right up the morning of Jan 10 when Lincoln received 12 nominations.
I try to listen less to what people tell me I should be thinking and more about the things I know to be true about the Oscar race — and those things constitute a very small list. So here’s what I know to be true about finding Best Picture.
Think five, not ten
PGA members 6,500 (ten slot nomination ballot, preferential voting)
DGA members 16,000 (five slot nomination ballot, plurality voting)
SAG members 100,000 (five slot nomination ballot, plurality voting)
BAFTA members 6,000 or so (five slot nomination ballot, plurality voting)
Academy members 6,000 or so (five slot nomination ballot, preferential voting)
The only two ballots that count preferential are the PGA and Oscar. The PGA has a similar enough population to match the Academy — therefore they are as close as you’re going to get to how to the Academy votes.
Last year the PGA had Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler and Gone Girl but the Academy’s five-slot ballot omitted these darker films and went for the ones that made them FEEL better.
Producers Guild | Best Picture
Won PGA | Won Oscar
|American Sniper||American Sniper|
|Gone Girl||Gone Girl|
|The Grand Budapest Hotel||The Grand Budapest Hotel|
|The Imitation Game||The Imitation Game|
|The Theory of Everything||The Theory of Everything|
|12 Years a Slave||12 Years a Slave|
|American Hustle||American Hustle|
|Blue Jasmine||Blue Jasmine|
|Captain Phillips||Captain Phillips|
|Dallas Buyers Club||Dallas Buyers Club|
|Saving Mr. Banks|
|The Wolf of Wall Street||The Wolf of Wall Street|
|Beasts of the Southern Wild||Beasts of the Southern Wild|
|Les Misérables||Les Misérables|
|Life of Pi||Life of Pi|
|Zero Dark Thirty||Zero Dark Thirty|
|Silver Linings Playbook||Silver Linings Playbook|
|Django Unchained||Django Unchained|
|The Artist||The Artist|
|The Help||The Help|
|Midnight in Paris||Midnight in Paris|
|The Ides of March||Tree of Life|
|War Horse||War Horse|
|The Descendants||The Descendants|
|The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo||Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close|
|The King’s Speech||The King’s Speech|
|The Town||Winter’s Bone|
|The Fighter||The Fighter|
|The Social Network||The Social Network|
|Benjamin Button||Benjamin Button|
|Black Swan||Black Swan|
|The Kids Are All Right||The Kids Are All Right|
|Toy Story 3||Toy Story 3|
|True Grit||True Grit|
|127 Hours||127 Hours|
|The Hurt Locker||The Hurt Locker|
|Star Trek||A Serious Man|
|An Education||An Education|
|District 9||District 9|
|Inglourious Basterds||Inglourious Basterds|
|Invictus||The Blind Side|
|Up in the Air||Up in the Air|
Backlash against the frontrunner is a real thing
No one likes being a foregone conclusion. If the entire industry is being told they have to vote for Boyhood because the critics said so you can pretty much guarantee they aren’t going to vote for Boyhood. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, like The Artist — which won many awards all the way through and was beloved across the board. Still, pity the film the pundits put at the top of the list in October. Its chances are greatly diminished just by its position on their charts. That doesn’t stop people from putting films up there — because you never know which way the hurricane will turn.
Probably there will be an inclination go bigger rather than smaller
Last year’s slate of “smallish” movies seemed to leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. How did it help Big Hollywood preserve itself at all? What did it say about the studio system when only one Best Picture contender made $100 million? This year, Big Hollywood is back with a vengeance — Warner bros, Fox, Universal — all potentially major players this year. That will be good for ratings, good for the Oscars and good for the economics of Hollywood overall.
It feel like this could be a year full of surprises
Don’t let anyone tell you they know how this year is going to go. They have best guesses but in truth, there are so many question marks, so many potential interlopers and game changers that it’s really hard to focus on what a consensus of thousands will do. It is possible the lineup will be filled with movies no one has seen yet. It’s possible that for the first time in almost a decade the Best Picture winner could be a movie released long after Telluride. It’s possible that there will be more movies nominated starring women, and possible there won’t be any movies starring women. Here is where we are all in the dark.
Context is everything
There is much happening in our culture right now and those feelings will play a part in what films make it to the big show. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will have some impact. So will Donald Trump. Films with social relevance often seem more appealing when viewed during an election year. That gives a movie like Bridge of Spies a boost.
Finding our Feel Good Moment
Something tells me this year, after such a depressing year last year, will take us headlong into optimism and feelgood endings. That gives movies like The Martian, Spotlight, Bridge of Spies maybe Joy a boost — and probably hurts the movies that end on a downer note.
Herewith, my predictions so far – though it feels like finding my way through a very dark room — so far, films that have been seen and fit within the time frame of pre-October movies:
- The Martian – I can’t really defend my hunch here and there’s a very good chance I will be wrong. It premiered in Toronto, not Telluride or earlier and it is suffused with humor. It’s just that it has so many things going for it, not the least of which is Andy Weir’s book. It’s about science, friendship and hope for the future. It’s also a film that will appeal to voters in many of the categories – branch by branch. PGA, WGA and DGA nominations assured, maybe even SAG.
- Spotlight – It’s still the film that no one can complain about. The only thing that hurts it is the hype coming out of the film festival season. It’s good enough to be represented in all of the major categories and will easily get PGA, SAG, WGA and DGA nominations.
- Steve Jobs – Sorkin’s word opera seems to be delighting viewers so far, no reason to expect it won’t keep the train rolling. Maybe PGA, WGA, SAG.
- Bridge of Spies – Handsomely mounted, tailor-made for the crafts branches, acting and writing branches. Might it be too subdued for a Spielberg movie? It’s possible. For now, I’m thinking PGA, DGA, WGA.
- Room – This is an extremely well-liked film that might hit with all demos. It won the audience award in Toronto which puts it high on the list for a nod. PGA, WGA.
- Brooklyn – A charming period piece that many have already begun to call their favorite film of the year so far.
- Beasts of No Nation – I can’t give up on what is the best film I’ve seen this year so far. My fellow pundits are convinced it is “too much” for the Academy and that may turn out to be true. BUT if they are really in the business of rewarding “highest achievements in film” they risk their reputation if they ignore such a masterpiece.
- Youth – This is the one film about Hollywood and its tragic players. It’s an homage as much as an exposé but it remains to be seen what the voters will think of it. We presume they will love it but we can’t know for certain.
- Carol – This film seems to be losing a bit of steam, unfortunately, and I worry that it isn’t going to be a “top five” for voters based on what I’ve been hearing from people. It is a beautiful love story, one that will be remembered long after the Oscar race concludes. It will either go baby go or it will stall, leaving only the tech categories, the screenplay and acting categories honored.
- Mad Max: Fury Road – though George Miller’s reputation could pull this one through – and it’s likely to be among the top five for many voters, it is also losing steam, or appears to be, here in the last part of the year.
Ranking of films yet to be seen, based on hunches:
- The Revenant – (Sight unseen) This is a wowzer film judging by the trailer. We might see Chivo win his third consecutive cinematography Oscar and it looks like Leonardo DiCaprio might finally win an Oscar. PGA, DGA maybe SAG.
- Joy – (Sight unseen) It looks like it will be loved by actors (SAG), and should do well across the board. PGA, WGA, DGA
- The Hateful Eight (Sight unseen) Based on Quentin Tarantino’s likability, the actors involved.
- Sicario – Strangely dark but many are coming up saying how much they loved the movie.
- The Danish Girl – seems like it could be a player but final outcome unknown.
- Black Mass – Probably out but Johnny Depp’s performance might keep it afloat.
- The Big Short – AFI premiere and who ever knows how these things go.
- Suffragette – impossible to say how this all female joint will play.
- Truth – it seems to be flying quietly under the radar so that it can open and hopefully make some money before the controversy hits.
When all is said and done the consensus doesn’t feel fully formed and likely won’t be until the big movies upcoming have their screenings. Thus, we all have to be patient and fight against the urge to dumb down our choices in order to suit what “they” will do. In the end, nobody knows anything.