Friday, January 4, 2013

Oscar Forecasting (and, oddly, defending the Golden Satellite Awards)

This is an interesting year for observing the Oscars. Academy voters are under pressure to have their nominations in super early (final submission of ballots has been extended to 4 January, i.e. today), which is way earlier than usual. It puts voters under pressure to see everything with "awards potential" within days of the festive season (because, obviously, they all actually watch all the screeners they're sent for free). It also puts voters at a bit of a loss, as their votes will have been submitted by the time most of the big precursor Awards roll in. Which means no carbon copying this year - Oscar voters will have to tell us what they really liked - for better or worse.

The only precursor nominations really influencing voters at this point will be the Screen Actors Guild (for the four acting categories), The Golden Globes (which is a bit less reverent and a bit more of a college popularity party than the Oscars), to an extent the National Board of Review winners, the Critics Choice Award nominees and, for last-minute voters, the Producers Guild Awards' Top 10 films. As for directing, editing and all the rest, Oscar voters are on their own (note: the Art Directors Guild also released their nominees recently, but with three categories of nominees - Contemporary, Period and Fantasy - they offer a shortlist of contenders at best).

Of course, there are other awards for the conscientious to look to, but these are mostly made up of festivals (Sundance, Cannes), niche interest groups (Independent Spirit Awards, Gotham Awards, NAACP Image Awards) or non-trend-setting, independent-minded curiosities like the Golden Satellite Awards (who, say what you will, have an uncanny knack for highlighting that annual female performance whose singular brilliance seems to have flown under the radar of every other awards body -  think Gillian Anderson in The House of Mirth (2001), Toni Collette in Japanese Story (2004), Laura Linney in P.S. (2005), Gretchen Mol in The Notorious Betty Page (2006), Tilda Swinton in Stephanie Daley (2007), Shohreh Aghdashloo in The Stoning of Soraya M (2009), Tilda Swinton in I Am Love (2010), Vera Farmiga in Higher Ground (2011) and this year's Emilie Dequenne in Our Children).  

This leaves Oscar voters to either make up their own mind (which either means seeing everything or voting for what's popular and ticks the right boxes), or trawl through the reams of Critics Group nominations. In the past, however, Academy voters have shown some resistance to being influenced by the Critics Groups, only yielding nominations where the critics threw unanimous, overwhelming support behind a particular film (Sideways comes to mind) or performance (Melissa Leo, Frozen River / Richard Jenkins, The Visitor) to the point where ignoring it becomes unhip. Of course, this doesn't always work (lament The Dark Knight Rises, the brilliant Paul Giamatti in Sideways, and The Social Network winning Best Picture). It will be interesting to see to what extent the Academy allows themselves to be influenced by the Critics' precursor picks.

For purposes of this forecast, let us refer to the top consensus of nominations from the various Critics Groups as "The Critics", and the most nominated contenders from the current precursor awards bodies as "The Precursors". Handy, extremely geeky Excel Spreadsheet extracts will offer support.

Best Picture

There's little reason to think Oscar's Best Picture will veer far from the Producers Guild's Top 10, even if voters handed in their ballots before the PGA announced their nominations. In a very strong year for movies, critical consensus seems to have formed surprisingly easily around at least 9 films:

The two important-feeling political thrillers:
  • the controversial Zero Dark Thirty
  • the massively entertaining Argo
And their companion piece, Spielberg's best-in-years Historical Political Drama, feeling perhaps more relevant and important than any and anchored by an already legendary lead performance:
  • Surprise Box Office success Lincoln 
  The two little indie movies that could:
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Moonrise Kingdom
The divisive literary / stage adaptations (and fair box office successes):
  • Les Miserables
  • Life of Pi
And the (mostly) crowd pleasing comedy / drama (/Western)s:
  • Silver Linings Playbook
  • Django Unchained (arguably also a political historical thriller of some sort with a weight of importance behind all the cool and gags)
Which leaves, potentially, one spot open for a tenth film (Oscar's Best Picture nominees are decided by a preferential balloting system which basically requires a film to have a minimum number of First Place votes to become a Best Picture contender - there will be as many nominees as there are films with enough number one votes, but never less than five. Last year we had nine.)

Conventional wisdom says the tenth spot should be reserved for one of the year's respectable action blockbusters - The Dark Knight Rises, Marvel's The Avengers or the Producers Guild pick, Skyfall - or critically respected money-maker Flight, but don't count out critical darlings The Master or Amour for the Tree of Life art-house slot. For my money, if there are ten nominees, bank on The Impossible getting in. It's been all but missing from the race so far, but it's a major tearjerker with acclaimed performances and recent support from the likes of Angelina Jolie and Reese Witherspoon. If The Blind Side, War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have taught us anything, it's Don't Underestimate the Power of Sentiment. 

There's also popular Golden Globe Comedy and Screen Actors Guild Ensemble nominee The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but if that makes the cut I simply won't acknowledge it.

Well, then, let's have a look at what The Critics loved most in 2012 (plenty of info, so click on image to enlarge):

And The Precursors:

They agree 100% on the Top 10 of:

  • Zero Dark Thirty (critics frontrunner, torture porn allegations notwithstanding)
  • Argo
  • Lincoln
  • The Master
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild (Precursor frontrunner, thanks to plenty of festival and indie niche attention)
  • Moonrise Kingdom
  • Silver Linings Playbook
  • Life of Pi
  • Les Miserables
  • Django Unchained
But somehow, The Master just feels like it has fallen out of favour. Rounding out the outskirts of both lists are Amour, Skyfall, Looper, The Dark Knight Rises, The Sessions, Middle of Nowhere and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.


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