How to win your Oscar pool

Brian D. Johnson handicaps the most politically charged showdown in the history of the Academy

by Brian D. Johnson

On Sunday night Hollywood will pay homage to itself with a rite of regal pageantry not seen since . . . well, Obama’s inauguration. And after a year saturated in American politics, the Oscar race has come down to what may be the most politically charged showdown in the history of the Academy—a Mexican stand-off that pits the drama of a legendary American president against two tales of heroic CIA agents battling evil Islamic fundamentalists.

Lincoln started out as the natural-born front-runner. But during the string of pre-Oscar primaries—from the Golden Globes to the directors’/producers’/actors’ guild awards—Argo surged into the lead, powered by the populist charm offensive of its self-effacing director and star, Ben Affleck.

Lincoln’s other challenger, Zero Dark Thirty, was bloodied by a Washington backlash from high-ranking senators who claimed the movie condoned torture by misrepresenting its role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Those charges effectively tainted the movie in the eyes of liberal Hollywood, and robbed director Katherine Bigelow of an Oscar nomination.

For fear of inflaming the controversy, Sony, the distributor of Zero Dark Thirty, rode out the storm with no counter attack. As a recent article in the Los Angeles Times recently pointed out, while Lincoln’s Steven Spielberg found a champion in Bill Clinton and Silver Linings Playbook got a seal of approval from Dr. Oz, Zero Dark Thirty was left undefended.

Since then, the plot has thickened. Some critics have argued that Zero Dark Thirty was unfairly maligned by senators who hijacked its release to heat up their own feud with the CIA. And strong liberal voices, from Michael Moore to Amnesty International, have leaped to the film’s defense, insisting that to portray torture does not condone it. But for Academy’s voters, the redemption of Zero Dark Thirty has likely arrived too late. Besides, if there’s one thing that makes them queasy, aside from water-boarding, it’s moral ambiguity.

So Hollywood has rallied behind Argo, a populist crowd-pleaser, whose come-from-behind triumph has turned into a fable as far-fetched as the one it depicts onscreen. In this case, no one seems concerned that the movie, which Affleck claims is “accurate”, has been heavily fictionalized, and that the story’s real hero, Canadian Ken Taylor, has been demoted to the narrative’s concierge. Affleck has spun the war on terror into a caper movie with a gleaming veneer of gravitas. Hollywood likes nothing better than a “true” story in which Hollywood outwits the foreign devils and saves the day.

But maybe you don’t want to know all this. Maybe you just want to know how to fill out your Oscar ballot and win the office pool. You might consult your astrologer. In my experience, knowing too much about the movies can be a handicap. I’ve never won an Oscar pool.

Caveats notwithstanding, who do I expect to win Sunday night? Well, I don’t think we’ll see a sweep by any film. Most likely Argo will win Best Picture. But the Academy is a more elite, older club than the various guilds, and its tastes are not entirely predictable. So don’t rule out Lincoln. And now that Argo has matured from dark horse to favourite, that leaves room for  Silver Linings Playbook to surge from behind as the underdog-de-jour and be the surprise winner. Don’t forget, it’s backed by Oscar king-maker Harvey Weinstein. Never count out Harvey Weinstein.

As for the other main categories, Spielberg will likely win Best Director, given that Affleck and Bigelow are not nominated. Daniel Day-Lewis has a lock on Best Actor. Best Actress offers up the most compelling race with Playbook’s Jennifer Lawrence in a dead heat with Zero Dark’s Jessica Chastain. Expect Lawrence to win, but it’s by no means a lock.  She’s young and cavalier, two traits that don’t turn on Academy voters.

Here’s my scorecard for most of the categories, omitting only the shorts, which I’m sad to say I haven’t seen.

BEST PICTURE

Who will win: Argo. Not too hard, not too soft, it hits Oscar’s Goldilocks zone of gravitas-light. Even though the story’s a crock, the Academy can’t resist a real-life fable in which Hollywood saves the world.

Who should win: Zero Dark Thirty. Because knee-jerk liberals have unfairly punished Kathryn for directing a riveting thriller with a kick-ass heroine that makes us queasy, reopens the torture debate—and is way more accurate than Argo.

DIRECTOR

Who will win: Steven Spielberg for Lincoln. He wins by default, because Directors’ Guild winner Ben Affleck (Argo), the crowd favourite, is not nominated, and if you can’t vote for the usurper, you might as well re-crown the king.

Who should win: Ang Lee for Life of Pi. He pulled off the year’s most amazing directorial feat, in 3D, wrangling both a novice teenage star and a seamless hybrid of tiger flesh and CGI.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

Who will win: Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln. As the first man to win three Best Actor Oscars, he’ll make history with a historic role. The Academy will vote for the nobility of both the actor and the character he incarnates.

Who should win: Daniel Day-Lewis. His eloquent performance is uncharacteristically subtle and nuanced (unlike Spielberg’s direction). And he conveys a presidential weight worthy of the legend while remaining utterly real. (But I would cheer if, by some fluke, Joaquin Phoenix won for The Master; Day-Lewis and Phoenix represent, respectively the ego and id of method acting.)

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

Who will win: Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. Between SLP and The Hunger Games, it’s her year. Plus Harvey Weinstein is in her corner. But keep your eye on Amour’s Emmanuelle Riva—Feb. 24 is her 86th birthday. Oscar loves a real-life fairy tale, and if Lawrence and Chastain cancel each other out, the elderly art lovers might just push her into the spotlight.

Who should win: Jennifer Lawrence. Acting circles around the movie’s putative star, Bradley Cooper, she pulled yet another persona from her quiver, and fooled me into thinking the movie is better than it is.

SUPPORTING ACTOR

Who will win: Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln. Again, the Academy tends to vote for the character. And this character is a total actor—the kind of crusty, honest, showboating politician Americans crave.

Who should win:
Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master. He plays a very different politician than you’ll find in Lincoln, an intoxicating highball of hero and villain in a movie the Academy found just too damn weird. You can almost see his blood pressure rise and fall.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Who will win: Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables. Because she’s so lovely, and loveable. Because she’s the new Audrey Hepburn. Because actors (the majority of the Academy) are impressed that an actor can sing “live” on camera.

Who should win: Amy Adams for The Master. As the cult leader’s wife, hers is a truly supporting role, but she gives off such a sinister and mysterious chill you feel you’re seeing just the razor-edged tip of the iceberg.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Who will win: Tony Kushner for Lincoln. Aside from Day-Lewis’s performance, his script is the heart of the film. It’s also exquisitely literate, and in this category, the Academy tends to vote for the most silver-tongued scribe.

Who should win: Kushner, because his script is a masterpiece of nuance and complexity—both endangered species in Hollywood—and aside from the glossy framing that begins and ends the film, he makes us forget Spielberg is directing it.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Who will win: Mark Boal for Zero Dark Thirty. Ironically, even though you’d expect the screenwriter to be punished for the controversy swirling around ZDT’s veracity, Boal’s script is clearly the best in show.

Who should win: Boal for ZDT, even if only half of it is accurate. Condensing the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden into a procedural thriller that flies by is no mean feat.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Who will win: Amour. This is a no brainer. It has five nominations, including Picture and Director, one of only three foreign films in history to be recognized in both categories.

Who should win: Yes, we like Rebelle, the Canadian entry, but Michael Haneke’s palliative love story is an unprecented chamber piece with devastating resonance, and its two aging leads are the screen couple of the year.

ANIMATED FEATURE

Who will win: Brave, because it’s The Hunger Games for kids, a crowd-pleasing adventure with a feminist role-model heroine, a rousing story, and robust doses of comedy, action and totemic magic.

Who should win: Frankenweenie, because it’s the most original and striking of the contenders. I’ve been bored with Tim Burton for years now, but this dark comedy, beautifully composed in black-and-white, reboots his mojo: it seems like the kind of movie he’s being trying to make all his life.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

I haven’t seen all the nominees, but I have seen Searching For Sugarman. Given the buzz around it, and that it’s a back-handed star-is-born fairy tale—with a real-life hero who is around to bask in his overdue glory—I expect it will win. And the two documentaries about the Middle East, The Gatekeepers and Five Broken Cameras, are likely to cancel each other out.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

Who will win: Roger Deakins for Skyfall. Because it’s his ninth  nomination and he’s never won. Because the movie, endowed with half a dozen different palettes, looks fabulous. Because people loved the movie. And because, after shooting all those Coen brothers movies, he’ll never get a better shot.

Who should win: Roger Deakins, for all the above reasons.

FILM EDITING

Who will win: Zero Dark Thirty, because of all the nominees it’s the one that uses editing most kinetically to drive the narrative. It’s like the screenwriting awards; the non-voting members of the Academy have to notice  the editing, even though the best editing, like the best writing, is invisible.

Who should win: ZDT, for making a shopping list of procedural plot points sing and dance.

ORIGINAL SCORE

 Who will win: I’m not too confident on this one, but I’ll pick Thomas Newman for Skyfall, because he plays with the classic Bond themes so coyly. Besides, many of the Academy voters may conflate the score with Adele’s title song.

Who should win: Canadian composer Mychael Danna for Life of Pi. Don’t ask why. I just like his music.

ORIGINAL SONG

Who will win: Adele has a lock for Skyfall.

Who should win: Adele, obviously. I mean, have you heard it?

COSTUME DESIGN

Who will win: Les Misérables, because it’s a big, honking period piece and I’m expecting it to sweep the eye-candy categories.

Who should win: I could care less. But Anna Karenina would be the classier choice.

MAKE-UP AND HAIRSTYLING

 Who should win: Les Misérables, because it’s a big, honking period piece that required a lot of make-up and hairstyling.

Who should win: Don’t know, don’t care. But Keira Knightley looked like a million ruples in  Anna Karenina.

PRODUCTION DESIGN

Who will win: Les Misérables. If only for that scene of the boat.

Who should win: Anna Karenina. Converting screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s conceit into visual fantasy, it’s ingenious framing of location scenes within a proscenium stage is breathtaking, original and ingenious—though probably too abstruse for the Academy.

SOUND EDITING & SOUND MIXING

Yes, I know they are separate categories, but most Academy members probably don’t understand the difference any better than we do.  So . . .

Who will win: Skyfall, because it’s the only blockbuster nominated in both categories, because people love it, and what says golden 007 anniversary more than sound editing and mixing?

Who should win: Damned if I know. But I’d vote for Skyfall.

VISUAL EFFECTS

Who will win: Life of Pi, because no one can tell the difference between the digital tiger and the flesh-and-blood beast. Not to mention the water, the floating island, etc., etc.

Who should win: Life of Pi. It’s this year’s Hugo, another film by great director that shows there’s hope for 3D. If it doesn’t win, it will be a crime.




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