Every year at this time, people ask me for inside dope so they can win their Oscar pool. Problem is, I’ve never won my own pool, and now refuse to join one. For a film critic, it’s a lose-lose situation—if I win, I have an unfair advantage; if don’t, I’m unqualified. This year looks more predictable than ever. With the rising profile of the Oscar primaries—critics’ lists, Golden Globes and guild prizes—the Academy Awards have become anticlimactic. But they’re still the only ones that matter. So for the love of the game, let’s play Oscarball! Here are some rules, and a batch of predictions from an unreliable oracle.
1. Oscar loves a good juggernaut. The Artist has swept the Directors and Producers Guild awards with no backlash in sight. Expect it to take Best Picture and Director. Caveat: Oscar loves to upset a juggernaut—Hugo and Martin Scorsese could do just that.
2. The best actors are not in the best pictures. The notable exception is The Artist’s Jean Dujardin. Otherwise, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are favoured to win Best Actress and Supporting Actress for The Help, which was shut out of every non-acting category but Best Picture. And Christopher Plummer has a lock on Supporting Actor for Beginners—its only nomination. Conversely, Hugo, which leads the pack with 11 nominations, doesn’t have a single acting nod.
3. It’s better to be due than overdue. George Clooney is Hollywood’s new King of the Room, succeeding Jack Nicholson. He’s in a tight race with Dujardin, who won the Screen Actors Guild prize. But six years after winning Supporting Actor for putting up with torture in Syriana, Clooney will be crowned Best Actor for crying real tears in The Descendants. He is due. Meryl Streep, who hasn’t won an Oscar for 29 years, is overdue.
4. Civil rights trump stunt makeovers. In the race for Best Actress, every nominee except Davis is radically transformed—into Margaret Thatcher (Streep), Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), a male butler (Glenn Close), and a girl with a dragon tattoo and no eyebrows (Rooney Mara). Streep seemed a shoo-in for The Iron Lady, with its royal flush of Oscar attributes—period film, iconic matriarch, English accent, uncanny likeness. She could still win. But Davis has overtaken her in the primaries. Oscar tends to confuse actors’ virtues with those of their characters. Streep plays an arrogant politician who can’t relinquish power, even in senility; Davis plays a humble maid who finds strength in resistance. Do the math.
5. When in doubt, go with the obvious. Even critics haven’t seen some of the obscure Animated Feature nominees. I’ll pick Rango. For Documentary Feature, I love Pina, but it’s a 3D dance film and most voters see docs on DVD. Undefeated is an inspirational tale of a black high school football team. Never bet against triumph of the human spirit.
6. Oscar is a sucker for a nifty plot. That’s why Midnight in Paris and The Descendants will likely win Original and Adapted Screenplay respectively. But don’t count out Bridesmaids (co-writer Kristen Wiig got snubbed for Best Actress)—or Moneyball, with snappy dialogue by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian.
7. Craft categories are a crapshoot. But here goes: Hugo sweeps Costume, Art Direction and both Sound awards. The Artist wins Score, Harry Potter Visual Effects, Dragon Tattoo Film Editing. The Iron Lady gets Makeup, The Tree of Life cinematography (Oscar adores sunbeams).
8. If all else fails, vote with your heart. Foreign Language feature and shorts are chosen only by academy voters who can prove they’ve seen them in a theatre. So quality can prevail. Iran’s A Separation will win foreign film, but Canada’s Monsieur Lazhar and In Darkness are both worthy. I like Ireland’s The Shore for Live Action Short. It’s warm, funny, folkloric—and stars Ciarán Hinds. I’ll vote with my heart for Wild Life, one of two NFB nominees for Live Action Short. This hand-painted gem of Van Gogh-like brush strokes is up against Pixar’s slick La Luna. Weirdly, both are about comets. Documentary shorts? Haven’t seen them. Go for the one with “civil rights” in the title. There are just two Original Song nominees—toss a coin.