Take a Wild Guess

Well we’re still approximately a month away from the Oscars – the ceremony will be held on the evening of March 2nd, pushed back by a week or two from its normal slot to avoid viewership conflict with the Winter Olympics. If it were perhaps any other season, that extra time would honestly be agony, waiting and waiting for the inevitable victory of a steamroller “King’s Speech” or “Artist”-style campaign. Thankfully, the year we have some unexpected time on our hands also happens to be the most competitive and unpredictable year I’ve ever covered. The comparison going around out there is to 2000, when “Gladiator,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Traffic” took a three-way dogfight all the way to a heavily divided ceremony (in which “Gladiator” ultimately triumphed without winning a corresponding Director, Screenplay, OR Film Editing award).

And after the major guild awards, it certainly seems like we’re headed towards that kind of oddball result. The three major bodies ended up going with either a three-way, or even four-way split, depending on how you look at it: SAG unsurprisingly went with actors’ showcase “American Hustle,” the Directors opted for Alfonso Cuarón’s visionary work on “Gravity,” and the Producers couldn’t even make up their minds, splitting their top award between “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” in the organization’s first tie.

That latter result is particularly fascinating, since the PGA is the only guild that uses the same preferential voting system that the Oscars have used since expanding their Best Picture field – a system that, in theory, makes such a tie all but mathematically impossible. But there it is. Many bloggers are claiming that these past few weeks have put “Gravity” in the solid lead because it essentially got two mentions to one each for its competitors, but I’m not so sure. I’m just looking at that PGA tie and thinking it shows how divided and close this race is; there’s basically three camps in the industry (as well as those brave souls who are going to throw some votes the way of “Her”), and they seem to be about equal in size and passion.

So what does that mean? It means in the top categories this year, including Picture, Director and the Screenplay races in particular, your guess is as good as mine. The permutations are endless: do we have two years of Picture/Director split in a row? Or can McQueen and Cuarón end up sweeping their way to victory? Will the massive love in the acting categories (and a likely Original Screenplay win) leapfrog “American Hustle” over the auteurists? Or will Russell’s bullshit-and-glamor-fest walk away empty-handed, even in the acting races? It seems baffling for a film to get four nominations and no wins, but you wouldn’t call anyone from “Hustle” the front-runner in their respective category at the moment. This means there’s a lot of attention on the Brits – whoever walks away with the BAFTA on Feb. 16 (a few days before Oscar voting closes) will probably end up being my pick for Oscar as well. Right now I’d say both “12 Years” and “Gravity” have an equal shot at it, since both directors have the hometown advantage. Stay tuned!

Of course, one can’t check in on Oscar and not mention the past week’s kerfuffle in Original Song. Yes, “Alone Yet Not Alone,” that most unlikely of Oscar nominees, is now nominated yet not nominated. After one of the opposing campaigns that lost out on a nod reportedly hired a private investigator to peek into the tactics of Bruce Broughton’s obscure Christian tune, Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the Academy Board of Governors took the unexpected route of disqualifying “Alone Yet Not Alone” from the Original Song race. There have been a few examples of the Academy rescinding nominations in the past, but they were all based on eligibility requirements (most famously, Nino Rota’s score for “The Godfather” was DQ’ed after it was found Rota recycled the film’s love theme from an earlier, obscure Italian film that he had also scored), making this the first case of campaign malfeasance to merit such drastic consequences.

The story is, Broughton indeed wrote personal e-mails to a large portion of Music Branch members on behalf of his entry, pointing out its number on the mix CD of clips from all eligible songs sent out to everyone in the branch (yes, Academy voting includes mix CDs as part of the official process). You might ask how this is different from “The Hurt Locker” producer Nicholas Chartier, who sent out similar e-mails on behalf of his film in early 2010, and was reprimanded simply by having his tickets to the Oscar ceremony revoked. Well, the problem is the Music Branch’s former representative on the Academy Board of Governors and a current member of its executive committee. Isaacs and the Board determined that this constituted an unfair advantage; presumably, if some third party had sent the e-mail on behalf of Broughton, everything would be hunky dory. C’est la vie.

You can talk about how “unfair” this really was compared to the inequity of studios with millions and millions of monies campaigning against a minuscule indie film that was released for about two weeks in three “Christian” markets; but really this just looks embarrassing for the Academy, considering cronyism is apparently so rampant in the Music Branch that they’ll just vote for their fearless leader’s entry because he asked. Just bad news all around, and it really seems like it’s time to either a) rehaul the Best Original Song category significantly, b) clarify campaigning rules, or c) ditch the category altogether. I would aim for a combination of a) and b) personally; perplexing as it’s been at times, looking back over the past decade, they’ve generally got it right when it mattered most. “Falling Slowly,” “The Weary Kind,” “Skyfall,” “Man or Muppet;” like it or not, those were pretty much the best options available in their respective years, and the weakness of the category overall is equal parts Academy staleness and shifts in the industry.

Plus, I mean, what are the ceremony directors going to do without song performances? Just have random tributes to whatever musical is having an anniversary this year? Oh, wait.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

And so here we are, on the morning after – well, not quite. It was only earlier (much, much earlier, if you live on the West Coast) today that the Oscar nominations were announced, although the current state of entertainment news and blogging means that by now you’ve probably read at least a minimum of five lists of the biggest “snubs” and two lengthy analyses of why, exactly, the Academy Awards don’t really matter. Or do. Or are racist. A combination of all of the above, most likely.

As someone who generally views awards-watching as an outlet, more akin to a crossword puzzle hobby than a platform for analyzing cultural trends, I find myself increasingly less interested in the latter. The Oscars are what they are, a reflection of the industry rather than the heart of it. Change Hollywood and you’ll change the awards, not the other way around. In the meantime, let’s have some fun scratching our heads over this altogether peculiar group and their choices for the best of the past year in film.

And really, what a maddeningly unpredictable slate when you get right down to it. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the pure number of contenders this time around; while there was very little revealed this morning that was shocking, there were any number of small surprises, both good and bad, depending on your point of view. Despite agonizing for many hours (and making some last-minute changes that I quite regret in hindsight), I couldn’t do much better in my predictions than three or four out of five in each category; Best Adapted Screenplay was the only one I nailed outright, although I’m rather pleased with going eight for nine in Best Picture.

My only mistake in that category was in my choice of which middlebrow piece would find the hearts of (most likely older) voters. While the Academy turned out to want none of the sentimentalized inside baseball of “Saving Mr. Banks” – rejecting not only the film itself but even, surprisingly, Emma Thompson’s acclaimed lead performance as “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers – they embraced Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” giving it not only a Best Picture slot but a Screenplay nod for star Steve Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope as well. I’m kicking myself, first because I had a hunch about the film for most of the season and only recently wavered, and second because I actually rather enjoyed the movie myself and it’s not the kind of film that usually ends up in my wheelhouse; a sure sign it would definitely register with the eager British bloc, then.

A greater personal disappointment was that my last-minute sinking feeling that “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which got mostly shut out on the guild circuit, wasn’t going to register was indeed borne out, in fairly brutal fashion. I prepared myself for the eventuality that passion votes for “Her” might take away some crucial support for the Coens’ latest in Best Picture, but not even a consolatory screenplay nomination? That hurts, and I think the Oscars will end up on the wrong side of history with that one. The other really stinging snub was of Sarah Polley’s remarkable “Stories We Tell” in Best Documentary Feature; granted, I haven’t seen all of the nominees in that category, but I have a hard time imagining Polley’s devastatingly personal film not beating out any of them. We’ll always have the EMOs, Sarah.

In terms of personal (or is it pyrrhic?) victories, though, there were certainly some. The Best Picture recognition for “Her” is richly deserved, and I had hoped/thought that Spike Jonze could even garner enough support for his unique, subtle work to slide into the Best Director slate. As it happened, that spot went instead to Alexander Payne, whose “Nebraska” I also greatly admired (more thoughts on several of these films coming soon, but I thought Payne’s work here far superior and more coherent than the inconsistent “The Descendants”). Payne also edged out Paul Greengrass, whose work on “Captain Phillips” earned a Director’s Guild nomination, but always seemed more respected than adored this season.

That attitude extended for “Phillips” through the rest of the nominations as well. While newcomer Barkhad Abdi pulled out a Best Supporting Actor nod for his wiry, intense performance as a Somali pirate captain, Tom Hanks unexpectedly missed in the lead category. Considering he at one point seemed destined for a double nomination, a goose egg for Hanks has got to be a disappointing end to the season. The severely over-crowded Best Actor race was always going to be the place to look for surprises, and indeed there were a couple. Late-season-bloomers Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale both crashed the party, pushing vets Hanks and Redford out of the picture. DiCaprio’s all-in performance is assuredly one of my favorites of the year, so his presence was another bright spot for me – in what suddenly seems a wide-open race, he might even have a shot at the win (McConaughey didn’t overly impress with his cut-off Golden Globes speech).

Bale’s nomination, along with Amy Adams pushing out Thompson in Best Actress, meant that the predictably popular “American Hustle” moves on with a nomination in all four acting categories – an astounding feat when you consider that makes two years in a row that David O. Russell has accomplished that for his cast (before “Silver Linings Playbook,” no one had done it for about 40 years). Once a highly unpopular director due to on-set fights with the likes of George Clooney and Lily Tomlin, Russell’s going to have actors beating down his door now.

Riding that love from the actor’s branch, “Hustle” tied for the field lead with “Gravity” at ten total nominations; “12 Years a Slave” right behind with nine. Those are your three contenders for the moment, and it’s really anybody’s game that I can see. Keep an eye out on the guild awards for the next month, and pay attention to the craft category victors early on Oscar night for signs of where we’ll be headed at the big finish.

A few final, random thoughts:

  • The most surprising snub of the day may have Sean Bobbitt’s exquisite cinematography for “12 Years a Slave.” Philippe Le Sourd and Phedon Papamichael both did great work as well on “The Grandmaster” and “Nebraska,” respectively, but that’s a wallop to Fox Searchlight’s campaign for McQueen’s film.
  • The masterful Roger Deakins, meanwhile, will get to lose that category yet again as the sole nominee for Denis Villeneuve”s thriller “Prisoners” (Deakins is 0 for 10 lifetime at the Oscars).
  • Deakins’ peer in futility, composer Thomas Newman (0 for 11 so far), also managed to be his film’s only nominee, for the original score of “Saving Mr. Banks.”
  • Indie animation distributor GKIDS worked its magic again to bring French charmer “Ernest and Celestine” into the fold. Particularly impressive considering it appears to have pushed out Pixar’s rote “Monsters University” (now only the studio’s second film, after “Cars 2,” to miss a nomination in Animated Feature).
  • Sally Hawkins earned her first-ever Oscar nod for her supporting turn in “Blue Jasmine.” Nice try, Academy, but it still doesn’t make up for ignoring her in “Happy-Go-Lucky.”
  • Jonah Hill is now a two-time Oscar nominee, and it’s not even really egregious. Try to figure that one out.
  • The “Jackass” franchise is now Oscar-nominated, and it also kind of makes sense. What is happening?
  • John Williams earned his 49th nomination for Original Score, because John Williams wrote something this year. Did anyone even SEE “The Book Thief?”
  • Speaking of not seeing things, this year’s winner for Best Original Song Nominee That Sends Everyone Scrambling to IMDB to Find a Movie You’re Pretty Sure Chris Hemsworth Just Made Up is “Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone” (no I still don’t know what it is, don’t ask me).
  • Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures became only the fourth producer ever to earn double nod in the same year, for “American Hustle” and “Her.” In the past two years, she’s carried five films to a total of twenty-four total nominations. Watch out, Hollywood.

Golden Globes Invite You to Remember the Hilarity of “Nebraska”

The HFPA’s division between Drama and Comedy categories is always good for some awkwardly dubious nominations. Usually that means some films of questionable quality getting undue recognition to fill out the whole Comedy slate – recall that year when “Burlesque” and “The Tourist” both got nominated, yeeeesh – this year, thanks to the pure glut of good options, it’s more a matter of dubious categorization.

I mean, I’m sure that Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” has plenty of comedic moments, but really, any more than his previous film, “The Descendants,” which won Best Drama from this very same group? Same goes for “Her” or “Inside Llewyn Davis,” although I suppose the latter could arguably fit under the “Musical” side of things. The confusion just continues in the acting categories – Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine” is a dramatic performance, but Julie Delpy in “Before Midnight” is comedic?

It’s tough to complain too much about these hilariously useless genre definitions when it lets in so many deserving nominations that haven’t had a chance elsewhere on the circuit. The aforementioned Delpy is a great example, as is Greta Gerwig’s lovely turn in “Frances Ha,” which went so bafflingly unrecognized at the Indie Spirits. Also unexpected was the love for Ron Howard’s “Rush,” which had its critical advocates back when it was released but seemed to fizzle out when the box office didn’t follow. But on the heels of his SAG nomination the previous day, Daniel Brühl’s Supporting Actor campaign has got a major resurrection; will his studio’s publicists make a new push for him after they had basically left the film for dead?

Overall, though, the Globes really shouldn’t be taken as any kind of Oscar “precursor;” they’re a quirky alternative from an eccentric group that just likes to have a big ol’ Hollywood party every January. I’ve come to appreciate that a lot – I mean, who else is going to nominate “Please Mr. Kennedy” for Best Original Song (and over Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” from “The Great Gatsby” to boot)?

2014 HFPA Golden Globe Awards nominations

Best Motion Picture – Drama

  • 12 Years a Slave
  • Captain Phillips
  • Gravity
  • Philomena
  • Rush

Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical

  • American Hustle
  • Her
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Nebraska
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actor – Drama

  • Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
  • Idris Elba, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”
  • Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”
  • Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
  • Robert Redford, “All Is Lost”

Best Actor – Comedy/Musical

  • Christian Bale, “American Hustle”
  • Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
  • Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
  • Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
  • Joaquin Phoenix, “Her”

Best Actress – Drama

  • Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
  • Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”
  • Judi Dench, “Philomena”
  • Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks”
  • Kate Winslet, “Labor Day”

Best Actress – Comedy/Musical

  • Amy Adams, “American Hustle”
  • Julie Delpy, “Before Midnight”
  • Greta Gerwig, “Frances Ha”
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Enough Said”
  • Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”

Best Supporting Actor

  • Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”
  • Daniel Brühl, “Rush”
  • Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”
  • Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
  • Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”

Best Supporting Actress

  • Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”
  • Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
  • Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
  • Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”
  • June Squibb, “Nebraska”

Best Director

  • Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity”
  • Paul Greengrass, “Captain Phillips”
  • Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”
  • Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”
  • David O. Russell, “American Hustle”

Best Screenplay

  • Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, “Philomena”
  • Spike Jonze, “Her”
  • Bob Nelson, “Nebraska”
  • John Ridley, “12 Years a Slave”
  • David O. Russell, Eric Singer, “American Hustle”

Best Animated Feature Film

  • The Croods
  • Despicable Me 2
  • Frozen

Best Foreign Language Film

  • Blue Is the Warmest Color
  • The Great Beauty
  • The Hunt
  • The Past
  • The Wind Rises

Best Original Score

  • Alexander Ebert, “All Is Lost”
  • Alex Heffes, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”
  • Steven Price, “Gravity”
  • John Williams, “The Book Thief”
  • Hans Zimmer, “12 Years a Slave”

Best Original Song

  • “Atlas” from “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”
  • “Let It Go” from “Frozen”
  • “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”
  • “Please Mr. Kennedy” from “Inside Llewyn Davis”
  • “Sweeter than Fiction” from “One Chance”