Here we go folks, it’s Oscar time! There are 24 statues up for grabs, and since most of you probably only care about five of them, allow me to suggest how to place your bets for the other nineteen. As always, the goal is to go 20 for 24, and one of these years, it’s gonna happen. With every race, I’ve tried to include an alternate prediction, because there’s nothing quite like having my back-up logic to lean on when you disagree with my primary logic.
In years past, I’ve also included a “Who Got Screwed?” section for the major categories, but these nominations were so bizarre and so much has been written about what went wrong and why that I think it’s time to finally turn the focus on who was actually nominated.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
What Should Win? People tend to delude themselves that Best Picture ought to go to the most important film of the year, but that rarely happens and it’s not even a fair request. It’s too difficult to accurately measure the importance of films which have mostly only been released a few months prior. Rather, it’s generally understood that the Best Picture Oscar isn’t a measure of importance, but some amalgamation of artistic achievement, technical achievement, and entertainment achievement (with a dash heaping of office politics thrown in). While history might prove Zero Dark Thirty to be the most important film of 2012, the dust (and the truth) needs some time to settle on that one. But Argo nails every box on the checklist, and does so without ever feeling like Oscar bait. While Lincoln drags at times, Silver Linings Playbook often feels too light-hearted, and Amour tries so damn hard not to entertain you, Argo just gets everything right.
What Will Win? I started saying by the end of October that Argo would win Best Picture, and in November I even wrote a long piece about why. I stuck with that prediction until the Oscar nominations came out and Ben Affleck was inexplicably left off of the Best Director’s ballot, seemingly crushing all hopes for a Best Picture win. (Only one time in the last 80 years has a movie won Best Picture without a Best Director nomination, Driving Miss Daisy in 1989.) But a funny thing happened on the way to the Kodak Theater: Ben Affleck’s Best Director snub has galvanized support/enthusiasm/sympathy for Argo like nothing anyone could have imagined. In the last two months, Argo has won the top prize from the Golden Globes, the Critic’s Choice Awards, the Writer’s Guild, the Director’s Guild, the Producer’s Guild, the Screen Actor’s Guild, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). For those keeping track at home, that’s everything. That’s every single Oscar precursor that “matters.” Six weeks after looking dead in the water, Argo now seems virtually unbeatable. But having said that, a Lincoln upset isn’t out of the question, and as far as underdogs go, Steven Spielberg is a pretty formidable one.
Michael Haneke – Amour
Ang Lee – Life of Pi
David O. Russell – Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg – Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Who Should Win? Ben Affleck. Oh, what’s that, he’s not nominated? Fine then, give it to Kathryn Bigelow. Wait, what? Ummm
Can I take a mulligan? Seriously though, without Affleck and Bigelow, I don’t think this race even has a “should win” anymore. While Spielberg is a perennially deserving master, I don’t find Lincoln to be among his best work. Life of Pi is a great achievement, but unfair as this may be, Ang Lee just doesn’t feel like a director that should have two Oscars (only four living directors do). David O. Russell conjures amazing performances from his actors, but Silver Linings Playbook isn’t a film that offered many technical challenges. Haneke is in the same boat as Russell, and Zeitlin will probably be wearing a tux this weekend for the first time since senior prom. So without a “right” answer, it depends what you specifically want to award. Spielberg’s career is most deserving of more recognition, Lee is probably most deserving for the film he’s actually nominated for, and Russell leads the “Guys who ought to win an Oscar at some point” sweepstakes. I’ll go with Ang Lee, because his film was the best, and careers aren’t supposed to matter (even though they absolutely do).
Who Will Win? This is the biggest WTF race the Oscars have seen in a long time, and because of that, it seems like the most obvious category for an upset. The safe bet is Steven Spielberg. Some prognosticators are going with Lee, but I don’t give him much chance for the following reason: If voters want to pick a guy who hasn’t won an Oscar, they can’t vote for Lee, and if voters don’t care about picking a guy who’s already won, they’ll probably vote for Spielberg. In other words, I feel like Lee will be the first guy that people decide not to vote for (well, after Zeitlin, who has completely redefined the concept of “happy just to be there”). But I think Russell and Haneke both have excellent chances. Actors represent the largest voting body, and they love Russell, while the always-geriatric academy might really respond to Amour. I still think this is Spielberg’s race to lose, but there’s significant upset potential, and never underestimate how much people don’t like voting for someone that’s already won twice. Unless it’s Daniel Day-Lewis.
Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
Hugh Jackman – Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix – The Master
Denzel Washington – Flight
Who Should Win? Okay, don’t hate me. I promise I have nothing bad to say about Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, which really was wonderful. But I also never felt like I was seeing a performance I would always remember. In The Master, that’s exactly what I got with Joaquin Phoenix. I say this completely devoid of hyperbole: That was one of the ten best acting performances I have seen in my life. Short of Robert De Niro channeling Jake La Motta, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a performance so raw and primal. With Method Acting, the key is becoming the character. But with Phoenix’s performance in The Master, he made me feel like that character was locked up inside of him all along, waiting to be un-caged. If only he weren’t considered mildly crazy, he might be able to get a few votes.
Who Will Win? Back in September, I saw The Master with my cousin Jordon, which prompted a conversation between us about the very early stages of the Best Actor race. At the time I thought John Hawkes would win for The Sessions (and it’s a tragic oversight that he wasn’t nominated). Lincoln was still at least a month away from even its first critics screening, but Jordon was convinced that Daniel Day-Lewis would win, because he was just too good an actor not to win an Oscar for a role like that. And I went on a tirade telling Jordon that if there was one thing I could absolutely promise, it’s that Daniel Day-Lewis had no chance of winning another Best Actor Oscar, no matter how good Lincoln was. No one had ever won Best Actor three times, and no one ever would, I said. I gave him my guarantee. Well Jordon, five months later I’m finally ready to admit I was wrong. In a few days, Daniel Day-Lewis will become the first person to win a third Best Actor Oscar. You have my guarantee.
Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva – Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts – The Impossible
Who Should Win? This is the highest quality Best Actress race I can ever remember seeing, and Chastain, Lawrence, and Riva all could have won in most any other year. Those are three monumental performances that should all be remembered by history. For the last month I’ve been struggling with whom I think is more deserving between Lawrence and Chastain, never even considering that Amour would be a game-changer when I finally saw it last week. Emmanuelle Riva was a revelation. Spotlighted by the long unbroken takes that Michael Haneke likes to use, Riva makes you lose all realization not just that you’re watching an acting performance, but that you’re even watching a dramatic film. Amour feels like a documentary at times, and it’s because Riva’s portrayal feels so real.
Who Will Win? Like Best Director, this is a category that I really think could go any of three ways, with Lawrence, Chastain, and Riva all having a great chance. Lawrence won the SAG award and is probably the front-runner, but I just have a weird feeling that Emmanuelle Riva will win. There’s going to be an upset somewhere in the major categories, and I’m betting this is where it’s going to happen.
Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin – Argo
Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master
Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln
Christoph Waltz – Django Unchained
Who Should Win? Five great films, five great actors, five Oscar winners, five wonderful performances. This is a tough category that doesn’t even seem to have a favorite. Figuring out who’s most deserving requires picking lots of nits, but here goes nothing. I’ll rule out Arkin and Waltz first because their performances seem largely to be the product of great and witty dialogue. And I just can’t totally get behind De Niro because his performance is a little too reminiscent of Meet the Parents. It’s a tough call for me between Hoffman and Jones, but while Hoffman often gets overshadowed in The Master by Joaquin Phoenix, I think Jones has the single best scene in Lincoln, a scene where even the great dialogue felt as though it could only be uttered by Tommy Lee Jones.
Who Will Win? This would be a lot easier to pick if Tommy Lee Jones hadn’t made that face at the Golden Globes. If he didn’t seem so unenthused by awards season he would probably be more of a front-runner. But despite winning the SAG award (where he no-showed), Oscar voters don’t like rewarding the indifferent, so this race is wide open. I don’t think Waltz will win because his international career is just two nascent to already be awarded two Oscars, and the blahness of De Niro’s last decade may turn some voters off. (Plus he already has two Oscars, though as discussed with Spielberg and Day-Lewis, that might not matter as much as it used to.) Arkin’s role probably doesn’t have enough weight behind it compared to Hoffman and Jones. As for Hoffman, I just don’t know if enough voters will like The Master to reward it. While Jones’ indifference to awards season will probably cost him votes, I don’t think it will cost him enough to lose. And Tommy Lee Jones has been one of Hollywood’s best supporting actors for 25 years, so winning this category twice seems well-deserved.
Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams – The Master
Sally Field – Lincoln
Anne Hathaway – Les Miserables
Helen Hunt – The Sessions
Jacki Weaver – Silver Linings Playbook
Who Should Win? This is the category this year that I can’t seem to garner much enthusiasm for, partly because it seems like a foregone conclusion and partly because none of the performances really wowed me. Field was good, but her scenes were the weakest in Lincoln and I often couldn’t wait for them to end. Weaver gave the fourth-best performance in her own movie and the nomination seemed like a stretch. Helen Hunt’s performance was physically daring, but rewarding her for The Sessions seems wrong when John Hawkes clearly gave the film’s best performance and didn’t even get a nomination. And Amy Adams gave the most traumatizing hand job in cinematic history. I guess that leaves Anne Hathaway, who dies fifteen minutes into a nearly three-hour movie, but is still the most memorable part.
Who Will Win? Some people think Sally Field can upset here, but she’s only been nominated twice before and won both times. Winning three Oscars on three nominations just ain’t gonna happen. If anyone can beat Anne Hathaway, it’s probably Amy Adams, who feels due at this point (this is her fourth nomination). But her role just isn’t showy enough, while Hathaway has the benefit of being the only person on screen during the film’s best sequence. And she nails it.
Best Original Screenplay
Amour – Michael Haneke
Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino
Flight – John Gatins
Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
Zero Dark Thirty – Mark Boal
Prediction: While all of these screenplays have their attributes, this race has to be Boal all the way. His screenplay combines incredible research, snappy dialogue, three hours worth of high stakes and suspense, and an unforgettable main character. Despite the controversy surrounding the film and the veracity of the research, Mark Boal still won the Writer’s Guild award, and he should be recognized in a relatively weak year for this category. (Partially because the great Looper was snubbed of a nomination.) But Amour could be lurking for an upset if too many Academy members are turned off by Zero Dark Thirty.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Argo – Chris Terrio
Beasts of the Southern Wild – Lucy Alibar & Benh
Life of Pi – David Magee
Lincoln – Tony Kushner
Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell
Prediction: While Magee, Russell, and Alibar/Zeitlin all did fine jobs, this is a two-man race between Kushner and Terrio. Having never written an adapted screenplay myself, I can’t tell you with certainty which author faced a greater challenge. Terrio took a magazine article and fleshed it out into a two-hour movie, while Kushner started with a 944-page book and had to whittle it down to 150 minutes of screen time. Even though the challenges are wildly different—one focused on addition while the other on subtraction—both authors created wonderful work out of unenviable starting points. But while Tony Kushner’s Lincoln dialogue was nothing short of stunning, the screenplay’s structure was a little suspect at times. Chris Terrio’s Argo script was perfect in both respects. Terrio beat out Kushner at the WGA Awards, and I expect the same here.
Best Animated Film
Brave – Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Frankenweenie – Tim Burton
ParaNorman – Chris Butler and Sam Fell
The Pirates! Band of Misfits – Peter Lord and Jeff
Wreck-It Ralph – Rich Moore
Prediction: Usually when Pixar is in this race, the other nominees can just stay home. But Brave is atypical of Pixar (it feels more like a Disney animated princess movie, and isn’t especially original), and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph conjures all of the creativity and magic we’re used to seeing from Pixar. Telling the story of an arcade game villain who desperately wants to be seen as the good guy, Wreck-It Ralph is the best animated film since 2010’s Toy Story 3.
Best Documentary Film
5 Broken Cameras – Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
The Gatekeepers – Dror Moreh
How to Survive a Plague – David France
The Invisible War – Kirby Dick
Searching For Sugarman – Malik Bendjelloul
Prediction: Unfortunately I’ve only seen Searching For Sugarman, but that appears to be the front-runner, and deservedly so. The story of Rodriguez, a failed Detroit singer-songwriter from the early 1970’s who, thirty years later, discovered he has millions of fans in South Africa, Searching For Sugarman is a wonderful feel-good story that truly is stranger than fiction. But don’t count out The Gatekeepers, a film about Israeli secret service agents that won rave reviews on the festival circuit and should be opening domestically soon.
Best Foreign Language Film
Amour (Austria) – Michael Haneke
Kon-Tiki (Norway) – Joachim Ronning and Espen
No (Chile) – Pablo Larrain
A Royal Affair (Denmark) – Nikolaj Arcel
War Witch (Canada) – Kim Nguyen
Prediction: This category often has wonky results because it isn’t voted on by the Academy at large. Rather, it’s voted on by a small sub set of the Academy who attends special screenings of the nominated films. Because the voting body is much smaller, it’s much more prone to strange results that feel out of line with popular opinion. It also tends to be an incredibly old voting body, which is why a fantastical film like Pan’s Labyrinth was upset in this race six years ago. But Amour is probably so well regarded that it’s upset-proof, and its subject matter shouldn’t have problems appealing to older voters. But even though I know it has no chance, I’ll be rooting for Kon-Tiki, which I saw in Toronto last fall and is absolutely wonderful.
Anna Karenina – Seamus McGarvey
Django Unchained – Robert Richardson
Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda
Lincoln – Janusz Kaminski
Skyfall – Roger Deakins
Prediction: Tarantino films tend not to win any technical categories, Lincoln was likely too dark and enclosed, and Anna Karenina might not be widely enough seen among the voters. Some people are predicting Life of Pi here, but I have a hard time imagining a movie that relied so heavily on CGI being awarded for photography. Without a nomination for The Master (which really did have the year's best cinematography), that leaves Skyfall, which is not only the most visually resplendent Bond film ever created (seriously, watch that Shanghai sequence again), it’s also the sentimental favorite to win. Cinematographer Roger Deakins has been nominated nine previous times and never won (and sometimes, as with Fargo and No Country for Old Men, he lost despite being the alleged front-runner). Who knows how many voters actually consider this stuff, but anyone that does will also be aware that Kaminski has already won twice and Richardson has won three times. Here’s hoping the tenth time will be the charm for Roger Deakins.
Best Costume Design
Snow White and the Huntsman
Prediction: It’s worth remembering in categories like this that even though the nominees are chosen solely by the costume designers and visual artists in the Academy, the winners are voted on by everyone. That means that most of the people voting won’t have seen Mirror Mirror or Snow White, so they’re out. And because most of the people voting do not, in fact, know a thing about costume design, the winner tends to just be the most opulent looking of the bunch. And that means that Anna Karenina should have the clear edge. I know I just said that a lot of voters might not have seen it, but as long as they at least caught the trailer, it should catch their vote.
Argo – William Goldenberg
Life of Pi – Tim Squyres
Lincoln – Michael Kahn
Silver Linings Playbook – Jay Cassidy and Crispin
Zero Dark Thirty – Dylan Tichenor and William
Prediction: Williams Goldenberg deserves some kind of Super Oscar for editing the two best films of the year, both of which are incredible achievements in pacing and suspense. Since that’s pretty unlikely (though not impossible; he could tie with himself!), I’ll just be happy if he wins. But for which film? Argo seems more likely, because Zero Dark Thirty is three hours long, and some people view that (unfairly, I might add) as weakness in editing.
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Prediction: I’m still trying to get over the fact that Cloud Atlas wasn’t nominated here, but whatever. As with Costume Design, it’s useful to remember that most of the people voting for this don’t know a thing about make-up, and therefore bigger equals better. That’s why I don’t think Les Miserables will win, because the actors mostly just look dirty. Two of the three Lord of the Rings films won this category, so The Hobbit is probably the front-runner. But I think the achievement of making Anthony Hopkins look like Hitchcock is the most impressive of the bunch, and Academy members love making nods to Hollywood with their votes.
Best Production Design
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Prediction: I’m ruling out Life of Pi for the same reason I ruled it out in cinematography—the CGI does too much of the work. And people probably disliked The Hobbit too much to vote for it. Anna Karenina, assuming enough people watched it, should have the edge for its intricate stage-like set maneuvering, easily the only most impressive part of the movie. But both Lincoln and Les Miserables have much more overall support, and either one could win here.
Best Visual Effects
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Marvel’s The Avengers
Snow White and the Huntsman
Prediction: Say it with me kids: The whole Academy votes for this, and most of them don’t know a damn thing about visual effects. Good, now that we got that out of the way, we can scratch off every nominee that isn’t Life of Pi, because there’s no way anyone in the Academy over 55 (which is most of them) saw those other four movies.
Best Original Score
Anna Karenina – Dario Marianelli
Argo – Alexandre Desplat
Life of Pi – Mychael Danna
Lincoln – John Williams
Skyfall – Thomas Newman
Prediction: Voters are probably sick of Williams (he’s won five times), and Marianelli will likely fall prey to a film that’s just too low profile. Desplat (fifth nomination, no wins) and Newman (eleventh nomination, no wins) are both immensely talented, respected, and deserving, but I can’t help thinking Danna is the favorite. People often associate scores with how much a film emotionally resonates, and Life of Pi is probably the leader of the pack in that regard. I’d be thrilled if Desplat or Newman wins, but I don’t expect them to.
Best Original Song
“Before My Time” (Chasing Ice) – J. Ralph
“Everybody Needs a Best Friend” (Ted) – Walter
Murphy and Seth MacFarlane
“Pi’s Lullaby” (Life of Pi) – Mychael Danna and
“Skyfall” (Skyfall) – Adele and Paul Epworth
“Suddenly” (Les Miserables) – Claude-Michel
Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer, and Alain Boublil
Prediction: Would you believe that a Bond movie has never won an Oscar for Best Original Song? Seems impossible, right? And of the 22 previous films, only three even received nominations in this category—“Live and Let Die” was first, followed by “Nobody Does It Better” and “For Your Eyes Only.” (How classics like “Goldfinger” and “You Only Live Twice” didn’t even get nominated should go a long way towards explaining how screwed up this category has always been.) Anyway, as much fun as it would be to see Seth MacFarlane win an Oscar while he’s hosting the show, it’s time for 007 to finally win this Oscar after fifty years in the film business. And Adele is the perfect winner, considering she’s the first British artist to record a Bond Theme since Duran Duran in 1985.
Best Sound Editing
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty
Prediction: What’s fun about the Sound categories is that no one knows a freaking thing about them, and they basically only exist to ruin your Oscar pool. I’m picking Skyfall here because everyone loves James Bond. Sadly, that’s as much logic as I can put into this one.
Best Sound Mixing
Life of Pi
Prediction: Apparently people like Les Miserables for this category because the sound mixing involved combining the studio sung parts with the live acting sung parts. Sounds good to me!
Best Animated Short Film
Adam and Dog
Head Over Heels
Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare”
Prediction: The short film categories are nice, because they’re voted on by a small group that attends the screenings, and because they’re almost all by first-time filmmakers the votes tend to be totally devoid of politics or agendas. Presumably, people vote purely on taste, because what else is there to go on? So let’s predict taste! I’m excited, I don’t think we’ve tried this yet. I’ve seen Adam and Dog on a few sets of predictions, but I found it boring. Fresh Guacamole was weird, brief, and slight, so no. The Simpsons are always fun, but they’re played out and this is a category about originality. Paperman was sweet, but not as sweet as Head over Heels, which was beautiful and incredibly creative.
Best Documentary Short Film
Mondays at Racine
Prediction: I could see this going any of three ways: Inocente is about a fifteen year-old homeless immigrant trying to become an artist, King’s Point is about a retirement community, and Mondays at Racine is about a salon that helps chemotherapy patients. All are worthy, but Mondays at Racine feels like the one with the broadest appeal.
Best Live Action Short Film
Death of a Shadow
Prediction: Henry and Buzkashi Boys were both on the overbearing and boring side (not good for a short film). Asad was quite good, but a little too underdeveloped and quaintly resolved. I was really impressed with the artistry and production design of Death of a Shadow, and I’ll bet we’ll hear from that filmmaker again. But I expect Curfew to win, and only partly because it has the best suicide bowling alley dance sequence of the year. I would absolutely go see a feature-length version of this film.
And that's it! I'll see you again next year when I guarantee that Daniel Day-Lewis will not win a fourth Oscar.
Daniel Joyaux is a film and pop culture critic living in Ann Arbor. You can read more of his work at thirdmanmovies.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @thirdmanmovies.