Now that this year’s AFI fest has come to a close, a few questions still remain. In 2014, the AFI delivered unto Oscar the juggernaut American Sniper and Selma. They were the only two late breakers to land in the race, despite a few other big titles that came out by year’s end. Last year was dominated by several films that had opened earlier in the year – or as we like to say around these parts, “before festival season.” We might still be looking at a year like that, or we might not. We have a few major films to go yet, namely Joy, The Revenant and The Hateful Eight.
We did, however, get two films presented this week for the first time at the AFI, Concussion and The Big Short. Did they shake up the race American Sniper/Selma style? That’s a harder question to answer. After all, Selma and American Sniper showed us that they had both been underestimated. Bloggers walked around wondering and asking will they make it? Many believed no for both. Prominent Oscar pundits all said American Sniper was not good enough. Premiering the same evening, immediately following the rapturous response to Selma, American Sniper was not thought to have played well at the festival. But it was very well liked among industry professionals, and critics didn’t have time to take it apart before ballots went out. The reverse happened to Selma – it got attacked at exactly the wrong moment – although the publicity surrounding the trumped-up controversy may well have played a part in rallying enough support to secure its Best Picture nomination.
Two potential Best Actor candidates came out of AFI last year – David Oyelowo for Selma and Bradley Cooper for American Sniper. I quickly predicted Oyelowo – who was so brilliant as Martin Luther King, Jr., would make it in. He didn’t; instead, Bradley Cooper did. So you know – nobody knows anything is as true today as it ever has been.
Having said that, I do not know where either Concussion or The Big Short will land. My initial thoughts on both is that the movies aren’t good enough to get in for Best Picture. My impression is that Will Smith, and not Steve Carell, will make it into Best Actor. I think The Big Short may get a screenplay nod but it has a few obstacles going in. I’m not going to pretend that I know how it will land – that would be a waste of all our time. We just don’t know some things because Oscar buzz is ever-changing. It depends so much on likability, on flavor of the moment, on publicity – so little of it has to do with the film itself.
The Big Short is somewhat confusing. The writing, the acting and the core story are all there. The directing is interesting – very interesting. It kind of explodes outward in a vibrant, vivid and sloppy way. It reminded me of American Hustle where the ABSCAM story was abandoned to make way for the fun characters and showy direction. Here, the story IS important. It couldn’t be more important, and you don’t really get that until the last third of the film, which is the best moment, the most powerful moment and the whole reason to make the film at all. Like so many films I love, The Big Short is a gigantic mess – but in kind of a good way, in an interesting way, in a smart way. I know I want to read Michael Lewis’ book and maybe watch the film a few more times. I had to watch Margin Call more than once for the same reason. That Wall Street shit confuses me. The Big Short did not un-confuse me, which is a shame since there are many people out there who really need to know what went down. And that means might it not be accessible enough for Oscar voters?
Concussion has kind of the opposite problem. It is a story that also needed to be told but gets a little too wrapped up in the internal life of its main character, while sidelining the story of the football players too much. In both cases, these films have so much going for them – they are both worth seeing for different reasons and both feature some of the best acting and writing you’ll see all year. But both are directed by people who have not yet found their groove. They are lucky to be men and to have the opportunity to experiment like this, to be given the time to find themselves as directors. Both Peter Landesman and Adam McKay are on their way to finding themselves but they’re not quite there yet. That’s just my opinion – it may or may not matter.
Either way, the only movement I’m going to take from these two films in terms of predicting will be considering Will Smith to maybe bump one of the five we previously believed to be in a strong position for Best Actor. To consider Steve Carell and in particular Christian Bale in supporting who is just flat out brilliant and the best thing about The Big Short. To think about The Big Short maybe getting an ensemble nod at SAG (if actors can follow the plot) and not close the door on either movie in terms of Oscar nods across the board. For me, it’s not a YES and it’s not a NO. It’s a maybe. It’s a could be. It’s a who knows.
What I also know is that there are other films that are more like the kind of film Oscar voters and industry voters traditionally go for.
There is much brouhaha on Twitter over the HFPA’s decision to declare The Martian as a comedy. This is apparently a big deal around some circles and a signal that all is lost with the film. Thing about Oscar voters though? When they like a movie, they like a movie. Period. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t have a director nod, or if it’s silent and in black and white, or if it’s a fantasy film – or in this case, a film set in the near future. Some of us like Pete Hammond, David Poland, Anne Thompson are thinking The Martian is that movie – based on what Academy members have been saying. Almost all of them, especially the target demo (older white dudes) love the movie. It’s one of their favorites of the year. It’s making $200 million plus at the box office. It’s directed by Ridley Scott, who’s never won an Oscar. It’s a green light all the way. But — we don’t know if it’s the winner. It’s up against Spotlight, which is currently clocking in as the best reviewed film of the year. Spotlight is prestigious and honorable. It has gravitas and resonance. It’s everything The Martian is not. But The Martian will appeal more broadly across all generations, genders, occupations, etc.
So let’s see how things have changed. The one thing an Oscar contender usually needs is a director who knows how to tell a good story. The films at the top of the Best Picture list right now are those that tell a good story. It’s harder to do than you’d think. But, as level two chaos theory tells us, the very nature of predicting them changes how people interact with them when they view them – are they expecting too much? Are they annoyed by being a forgone conclusion? Do they need something that feels like the underdog? Either way, it’s still a crap shoot until the PGA announces their winner. Then we will know what will win Best Picture.
The Martian – an ode to science, and a brilliantly written film that gives back more than it takes. One of the year’s surprise hits out of Toronto, unlike recent Telluride Oscar winners. Right now, it’s chances still depend on how the industry likes it overall.
Spotlight – the serious Best Picture contender with heart and soul. It will win something – we just don’t know what or how big.
The Revenant – sight unseen but counting on Alejandro G. Inarritu to bring it. The expectations might be a tad high but this is a director who rarely missteps. I expect it to have the brutality of Biutiful while also showing us an Inarritu we’ve never seen, though it’s all speculation at this point.
Bridge of Spies – another surprising hit of Oscar season. Spielberg still breaking new ground and rediscovering himself as a filmmaker. It also resonates with what’s happening in America today.
Room – emotionally powerful film driven by the performances. Here is an example of a director who really does give the film over to the actors. Like all of the films on this list it tells a good story, and a satisfying one.
Carol – Todd Haynes’ beautiful ode to love and to standing up for who you are, no matter the consequences. It is about truth and beauty all at once. Only Haynes can bring the beauty of this kind. Cinema was made for beauty, thus Todd Haynes was made for cinema.
Brooklyn – there are some films that just do everything right and Brooklyn is one of those. It isn’t going to inspire a revolution but it is a fully developed, fully realized coming of age story about a young Irish woman finding her own identity. Sure, to some, those are low stakes – but those are often people who don’t consider the inner lives of women to matter.
Joy – this is still a crap shoot because it’s only been seen via test screenings. But we’re holding a spot for it because of David O. Russell’s magic touch within the industry and how his films can find themselves in the editing room and stick their landing.
Steve Jobs – vibrant, wild, original – the Aaron Sorkin dialogue opera has taken on a bit of water with its box office performance. It is beloved enough, however, to stay afloat.
And that’s nine. The rest of them will have to find their spot among those frontrunners. You have to always THINK FIVE. THINK FIVE. THINK FIVE. You’re not thinking about nine movies or ten movies. You’re thinking which films will land on voters’ ballots who only have five available slots for Best Picture. Five is not a lot. The Producers Guild still has ten, which is how darker, more challenging films are able to land on their list but do not always make the Academy’s cut. The five slot limitation makes all the difference because 1) shit gets real, and 2) the voters tell you who they really are.
Black Mass – as good as it is, will its darkness prevent it from getting the “heart light” vote on the top five? It seems IN for PGA, however.
The Danish Girl – a passionate response film and an “Academy movie” all the way. Still seems like a question mark rather than a done deal but one never knows.
Beasts of No Nation – to my mind, still the best film of the year – but one that might be laden with too much baggage. More celebrities have come out in support of it than any other film this year. Will that be enough?
Mad Max: Fury Road – there is an affectionate push for this movie from people like me. Can George Miller’s likability help push the film through? Might its practical effects give voters a reason to support it?
Son of Saul – another big question mark and a potential Amour situation.
Inside Out – A lot of people are predicting this gets in – but I remain skeptical that it can. I could be wrong.
Youth – it also seems like an Academy movie to me and a potential SAG ensemble nominee.
The Big Short – this one might be a hit and miss, love it/hate it movie – original and kind of brilliant but might it to be too confusing?
- Ridley Scott, The Martian – the commander is back in the director’s chair once again, possibly looking at his fourth nomination and third win. The Martian came on like a surprise for Scott, who has returned to space with mixed results. The Martian, though, has elements of his best work, from the red vistas of Mars that look like Thelma and Louise, to women taking charge like Ripley in Alien – yet there is a lightness to his work here that I’ve never seen before.
- Tom McCarthy, Spotlight – a relative newbie but a committed artist whose painstaking detail to plot and story and most of all authenticity makes Spotlight stand out. It is one of those films that never makes you question whether a director knows what he or she is doing. He is in full command of this film.
- Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant – winning back to back Oscars is a near impossibility but it wouldn’t be if he were just winning director and another film won Best Picture, which could theoretically happen. We’re holding his place in the lineup in the event that the film really is that good.
- Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies – There’s Spielberg and there’s everyone else. He will be on his 8th Oscar nomination. He’s already won twice and if he wins a third he’ll be only the fourth director in Oscar history to win more than two. He’ll be on his 12th DGA nod if he gets in. If his films weren’t so good he wouldn’t keep getting nominated, but he’s the king of crafts and the industry loves to work with him and to support him because of that. Not to mention that every shot in Bridge of Spies is a work of art.
- David O. Russell, Joy – again, we’re holding his place because of his history, because he’s way overdue and because he always sticks his landing. Maybe this will be his miss but we just don’t yet know.
Lenny Abrahamson, Room – the new kid on the block helmed one of the most beloved films of the year. The real directorial stuff happens inside the tiny room where they film much of the film’s first half. That he holds the whole thing together – it’s really two movies in one – and the way he handles all this makes him a frontrunner but by no means a done deal.
George Miller, Max Max: Fury Road – George Miller is a real threat for a director nod, even if no corresponding Best Picture nomination. He’s just the bomb and everyone knows it. A nicer guy you will not meet. But it is his adherence to the old-fashioned way of making movies – and the underlying integrity of turning Mad Max into a feminist rewrite – not to mention balls out directing all the way through (and at his age!) makes him a force to be reckoned with.
Todd Haynes, Carol -the most overlooked cinematic genius of his time, Haynes has never been nominated for an Oscar for directing, if you can believe that, though he deserved it for Far From Heaven and I’m Not There, at the very least. Can he make it in for Carol? It’s hard to know. The directing branch has become much more unpredictable now that they vote before the DGA announces their nominees. So it’s anyone’s game.
Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs – the kind and popular Danny Boyle is always a threat but it will just depend on whether Steve Jobs can hold the momentum, regain it, or sustain it.
Quentin Tarantino – The Hateful Eight – this is another mystery, though it’s being quietly screened behind the scenes. Tarantino is beloved in the Academy and this might be another nomination for him, especially given his recent publicity surrounding cop violence which has put him in the news and made him very relevant.
Cary Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation – in the industry, they like you tp be good – just not too good so as to be threatening. I suspect there is something about Fukunaga that is somewhat threatening. Beasts of No Nation is one of the best directed films of the year – a masterpiece. Still, he has an outside shot.
László Nemes, Son of Saul – just the type to break into the directing category in a bit of a surprise/upset. This film could earn more nominations, too, in other categories. We think it will be big with voters, we just don’t know how big.
Other names to consider:
Bill Pohlad, Love & Mercy
Adam McKay, The Big Short
Paolo Sorrentino, Youth
Allex Garland, Ex Machina
Best Actor looks like this right now — to most minds, and to our poll which collected over 6,000 votes:
1. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant (sight unseen)
2. Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
3. Matt Damon, The Martian
4. Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
5. Johnny Depp, Black Mass
The next tier, to my mind, would be:
Michael Caine, Youth
Will Smith, Concussion
Ian McKellen, Mr. Holmes
Steve Carell, The Big Short
Close behind those would be Michael Caine for Youth — he’s out there doing publicity and is an Academy favorite top to bottom, playing a character right in their own backyard. There is also Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies, which is very popular among voters, more so than among bloggers apparently.
1. Brie Larson, Room
2. Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
3. Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
4. Cate Blanchett, Carol
5. Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years or Carey Mulligan, Suffragette
That fifth slot is a doozy for Best Actress. There are many actresses pushing through. The reason I suspect Rampling might have the edge is the power of her performance in 45 Years and my guess that she will win a lot of critics’ awards that might push her over. I’m not sure Mulligan can survive the Suffragette backlash but maybe she can. I think 1 -3 are unshakable but if Joy is not good, Lawrence could be skipped over (doubt it).
Best Supporting Actor
1. Jacob Tremblay Room
2. Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
3. Christian Bale, The Big Short or Tom Hardy, The Revenant
4. Mark Ruffalo or Michael Keaton, Spotlight
5. Paul Dano, Love & Mercy or Benicio Del Toro, Sicario
6. Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight
Harvey Keitel is in there for Youth. I know people want me to drop Paul Dano. But I just can’t at the moment. I think he gave a great performance that should not be forgotten because the film came out so early in the year, as is Oscar’s way.
Best Supporting Actress
1. Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
2. Rooney Mara, Carol
3. Jane Fonda, Youth
4. Elizabeth Banks, Love & Mercy
5. Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs or Jessica Chastain, The Martian
6. Jennifer Jason-Leight, The Hateful Eight (sight unseen)
7. Joan Allen, Room
8. Guru Mbatha Raw, Concussion
1. Drew Godard, The Martian
2. Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant
3. Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs
4. Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa
5. Phyllis Nagy, Carol or Emma Donoghue, Room
6. Nick Hornby, Brooklyn
7. Cary Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation
8. Jez Butterworth, Mark Malouk, Black Mass
9. Andrew Haigh, 45 Years
1. Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight
2. Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Inside Out
3. Matt Charman, The Coens, Bridge of Spies
4. Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight
5. David O. Russell, Joy
6. Adam McKay, Charles Randolph The Big Short
Best animated feature film of the year
1. Inside Out
3. The Peanuts Movie
4. The Good Dinosaur
Achievement in cinematography
1. The Revenant
4. Bridge of Spies
5. The Martian
Achievement in costume design
4. The Danish Girl
5. Bridge of Spies
Best documentary feature
1. He Named Me Malala (Davis Guggenheim)
2. Going Clear (Alex Gibney)
3. What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus)
4. The Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson)
5. Amy (Asif Kapadia) or Where To Invade Next (Michael Moore)
Fringe dwellers: Winter on Fire, The Armor of Light, Hitchcock/Truffaut, Meru, Prophet’s Prey, The Wolfpack
Achievement in film editing
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. The Revenant
4. The Martian
5. Bridge of Spies
Best foreign language film of the year
Son of Saul (Hungary)
The Assassin (Taiwan)
The Second Mother (Brazil)
Labyrinth of Lies (Germany
Achievement in production design
Bridge of Spies
Achievement in sound editing
Mad Max: Fury Road
Achievement in sound mixing
Mad Max: Fury Road
Son of Saul
The Hateful Eight
Achievement in visual effects
Mad Max: Fury Road
In the Heart of the Sea