Most of us barely survived 2020. Of all of the things COVID took away, movie theaters have ranked up there as one of the worst casualties. How to get people to abandon fear and agree to sit inside a dark room for a couple of hours with other people, wearing masks the whole time. I have not been inside a movie theater since COVID hit. I don’t even remember the last time, that is how long it’s been. But I have long been a believer that to know movies, to really know them, is not to see them in an insulated cube of a screening room with people who are there to evaluate the movie. But to see them with ACTUAL AUDIENCES. They are not there to see the movie for free. They are not there to evaluate, critique and analyze and position, and judge. They are there to enjoy the movie.
Last night I paid $19, along with maybe 100 or so other people, to attend a real live movie theater in Burbank. I had this feeling that if I didn’t break the seal, if I didn’t end the fear of doing something I hadn’t done in over a year, maybe I never would. I drove the same road, I parked in the same parking garage. It wasn’t all the way full but it was full enough that it meant other people were out there too. I got into the elevator and I could not even remember which button took us to the lobby where the movie theater was. No one else could remember either. We all laughed nervously behind our masks.
I rode the escalator up the stairs and I went inside. I handed my printed-out ticket to the ticket taker and went to find my seat. I had already pre-selected my seat. I’m one of those truly annoying moviegoers who doesn’t really like sitting next to strangers. Friends are fine but if I don’t know you it is going to be a little nervous-making to sit right next to you. It was a mostly empty theater but I had gotten the best seat in the house. Front and center. Not all the way in the front but I prefer closer to farther away. If I want farther away I will stay home and watch my flat screen. No, I want to be swallowed up by the big screen. I want to be so close I can see everything.
Of course, moments later another moviegoer came in and of course had the seat to my right. This was awkward. Without pre-selected seats, he would have no doubt sat farther away. Social distancing for me means – you sit over there. Not because of COVID but because I am one of those weird moviegoers that likes the experience of watching a movie without the distraction of another person. You don’t want to have to deal with how they sit if they check their phone if they talk if they slowly but loudly dig in their crackly plastic whatever and pull out whatever and slowly bring it to their mouths and cronch cronch cronch. You don’t even want to know if they sigh or fall asleep or laugh at the wrong parts. Any one of these things can ruin a movie.
But here’s the thing. That was the OLD me. Stockholm Syndrome means I was now perfectly fine with said gentleman and said bag. And when the next two people came in and sat immediately to my left and I was sandwiched between them, I didn’t mind that either. I didn’t mind that they had buckets of popcorn and sodas and other items of food they were going to have to work through in the next two hours. They would talk occasionally – but most of the time it was about what was happening on screen.
As the movie began — Respect, starring the brilliant Jennifer Hudson — I found myself wanting to react to the movie, along with other people. They weren’t quite bobbing their heads to the singing like I was, they weren’t quite reacting to the crystal clear beauty and power of Hudson’s voice as she became Aretha Franklin – but it was close enough and I wasn’t going to complain about anything. Not when I was sitting in an actual movie theater with other people who had paid way too much money to sit there too.
That’s it, that’s the whole thing. That is why we have movie theaters. They are experiences onto themselves. I have had a year of just me and how I watch movies at home. It’s not the same. Movies command your attention. You can’t check Facebook or Twitter. You can’t look away. Well, of course, I guess some young people do, but mostly you are there for one reason.
I bring this up because watching Respect in a movie theater is going to be key to fully appreciating Jennifer Hudson’s performance. Sitting at home watching this movie will mean distractions, looking at your phone, maybe not sticking it out because it’s a longish movie that hits a lot of beats. Publicists are going to have to make sure people see it theatrically, which they certainly did for the film’s premiere. Actors will get how good Hudson is and the rest of the cast.
I will be writing up Respect separately but today let’s do Best Picture and how the other categories hang off of it. Anne Thompson’s theory that you build a Best Picture contender “branch by branch” is probably the most useful tool in figuring out which movies will do best. That’s because, even if actors dominate, each branch gets a vote on Best Picture.
What we’re looking for are movies with acting nominations, but preferably writing, directing, editing and at least one craft. Let’s look at last year’s lineup:
Nomadland – acting+, writing, directing, editing + crafts
Mank – acting, directing + crafts
Promising Young Woman – acting, writing, directing, editing
The Father – acting+, writing, editing + crafts
Judas and the Black Messiah – acting+, writing + crafts
Minari – acting+, writing, directing + crafts
Sound of Metal – acting, writing, sound, editing
Chicago 7 – acting, writing, editing + crafts
All of them having acting nominations, all acting winners are in Best Picture nominees. Only 4 out of the 5 directing nominees have corresponding Best Picture nominees. Only one out of the bunch doesn’t have a screenplay nomination. Acting + Writing matters a lot, clearly.
One thing to remember is that Best Picture is now expanded to ten. So voters aren’t going to be thinking FIVE as they have been since 2011. They’ll be thinking TEN. That is going to change how we see the race.
So let’s look at the two years where they had ten to see how this all works out.
The Hurt Locker – acting, writing, directing, editing + crafts
An Education – acting, writing
District 9 – writing, editing + crafts
Precious – acting+, writing, directing, editing
Up – writing, animated feature + crafts
A Serious Man – writing
Avatar – directing, editing + crafts
Inglorious Basterds – acting+, writing, directing, editing + crafts
The Blind Side – acting+
Up in the Air – acting, writing, directing
The King’s Speech – acting+, writing, directing+, editing + crafts
Black Swan – acting+, directing, editing + crafts
The Fighter – acting++, writing, directing, editing
The Social Network – acting, writing+, directing, editing+, + crafts
True Grit – acting, writing, directing + crafts
127 Hours – acting, writing + crafts
Inception – writing + crafts
The Kids Are All Right – Acting, writing
Toy Story 3 – writing, + crafts
Winter’s Bone – acting, writing
So basically, when I look at these I think – under the previous system of films between 5 and 10 nominees you tended to get films more concentrated in the core categories of acting, writing, directing, editing. Once you expand it out, that becomes less important. That’s just a general theory with not a lot to back it up. I’d have to go back through all of the years and I don’t have time to do that.
So — with that in mind, let’s look at what we have this week.
Here is what I think I know, though — lead with acting. In general, predict your Best Picture nominees around those you think will either win in the acting categories or get nominated.
Here is what Erik Anderson has for Best Picture right now:
- Nightmare Alley (Searchlight Pictures) ↔
2. The Power of the Dog (Netflix) ↔
3. House of Gucci (MGM/UA) ↔
4. Dune (Warner Bros/HBO Max) ↑
5. The Tragedy of Macbeth (A24/Apple) ↔
6. West Side Story (20th Century Studios) ↓
7. Belfast (Focus Features) ↑
8. King Richard (Warner Bros/HBO Max) ♦
9. Untitled Paul Thomas Anderson aka Soggy Bottom (MGM/UA) ↔
10. Flee (NEON) ↔
So Best Actor might be Macbeth. Best Actress might be House of Gucci. But if Best Actress is Jennifer Hudson, Respect should be a Best Picture nominee. The supporting actors should also be represented. This is more true for Best Actor than for Best Actress but in general, your films should all, or most, have at least acting nominations. Flee is a fine prediction here because with ten you can go outside the demands of having acting, as we saw with District 9, Avatar, Up, etc. One or two, maybe even three films can have no acting. But writing? Pretty solid on that one.
And if we go to Gold Derby’s predictions graphs here are the strongest contenders in each category:
Best Picture – Nightmare Alley
Best Director – Paul Thomas Anderson, Soggy Bottom
Best Actor – Denzel Washington, the Tragedy of Macbeth
Best Actress – Lady Gaga, House of Gucci
Supporting Actress – Ann Dowd, Mass
Supporting Actor – Jesse Plemons, Power of the Dog
Screenplays: Power of the Dog, Soggy Bottom
So all of these films, including Mass, would have to have a Best Picture nomination. And potentially writing.
With that said, here are my predictions, such as they are:
West Side Story – Acting, Writing, Directing, Editing + plus crafts
In the Heights – Acting plus crafts.
Nightmare Alley – Acting, Writing, Directing, Editing + plus crafts
King Richard – Acting, maybe Editing, Maybe Writing
Soggy Bottom – Acting, Writing, Directing, maybe crafts
Dune – crafts for sure but beyond that, who knows.
Respect – Acting, maybe writing, maybe directing plus crafts
House of Gucci – Acting, writing, directing, maybe editing + crafts
The Last Duel – Acting, maybe writing, maybe directing + crafts
Other films on my radar:
Cyrano – acting
Belfast – writing or directing or acting
CODA – acting
Don’t Look Up – acting, or writing, or directing
Finch – acting
Tick, Tick … Boom! – acting
Last Night in Soho – directing
Being the Ricardos – acting, writing, maybe directing
Cry Macho – acting, directing, maybe writing
The Eyes of Tammy Faye – acting
Spencer – acting
Parallel Mothers – acting, writing, directing
The Card Counter – acting, writing, maybe directing
You get the idea.
If my acting predictions are Jennifer Hudson for Respect, Denzel Washington for The Tragedy of Macbeth — both of those films need to be on the Best Picture list. As for supporting, I still have no clue who will get into that lineup.
Obviously this is stupidly, pointlessly early but hey – we gotta do what we gotta do.
Finally, to SUM UP – acting + writing seem to be strong anchors when determining Best Picture. Directing still matters but not quite as much.
And last but not least, if you love movies, GO TO THE MOVIES. Pay to see them. Keep them alive. That’s the best way to make sure they don’t go away for good.