Cue up the musical numbers. Make sure the dancers hit their marks. The glitz, the glamour, the self-righteous bullshit of the Oscars is here. It’s hard to be a movie fan and simply ignore the Hollywood awards season, but the fact remains that awards only serve to reduce art to a form of competition. As I’ll repeat over and over until my dying day – art is not competition. But awards shows are just a show, a televised get together where an industry pats itself on the back for a couple hours under the guise that it’s all about the craft. Regardless of my indifference towards the awards themselves, they’re here to stay.
Now it’s my turn to dive into the prediction and speculation that some folks spend the better part of year pondering. For the first installment of my Oscar coverage, we’ll be looking at some of the less glamourous categories: Animated Feature, Foreign Language Feature, Documentary Feature, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay (Original and Adapted), and Best Director. Come back later in the week for a rundown of the acting categories and the Best Picture rankings.
Best Animated Feature
Nominees: Anomalisa, Inside Out, Shaun the Sheep, When Marnie Was There, Boy & The World
The two-horse race between Inside Out and Anomalisa for Best Animated Feature only highlights the fallacy of art as competition. On one end there’s Inside Out, a Pixar film that simultaneously entertains children while grappling with some very adult themes. On the other is Anomalisa, a stop-motion animated drama purely intended for adults that provides one of the most striking portraits of depression ever to grace the screen.
The other nominees include the critically loved Shaun the Sheep, When Marnie Was There, supposedly the final animated film from the legendary Studio Ghibli, and Boy & the World, Alê Abreu’s animated film. While each have their own merits and deserve to be nominated, none of the others look to overtake Inside Out as the runaway favorite with Anomalisa trailing right behind it.
What Will Win: Inside Out
What Should Win: Anomalisa
Best Foreign Language Film
The best foreign language film of 2015, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, is ineligible for the Academy Awards this years due to its arcane rules. Its absence once again illustrates the numerous flaws with the awards system, leaving phenomenal work to be overlooked due to procedural reasons that have no bearing on the work itself. That all being said, 2015 still saw a number of excellent foreign films to grace the screen in America.
I believe that the psychedelic journey into the hearts of darkness that is Embrace of the Serpent will likely be too brazen and bizarre to honored by the Academy. Tobias Lindholm’s A War is a smart drama, but it seems too understated in its execution to garner many votes. Regrettably, I did not see Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb, though the buzz surrounding the film has been quiet. Like the award for Best Animated Feature, Best Foreign Language Film seems to be another two-horse race between László Nemes’ holocaust drama Son of Saul and Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s coming of age story Mustang.
History tells us that Son of Saul will likely walk away as the winner. And if Son of Saul is the winner, it won’t be an egregious miscarriage of justice. But that doesn’t mean that Mustang isn’t worthy for the award, and the marvelous drama of a group of sisters just might pull of the upset. Either way this coin flip turns out, it’ll be awarding a strong work of cinema.
What Will Win: Son of Saul
What Should Win: (toss up) Son of Saul/Mustang
Best Documentary Feature
Nominees: Amy, Cartel Land, The Look of Silence, What Happened, Miss Simone?, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
Admittedly, this is the category where I’ve seen the least amount of movies. Again, it looks like this one will boil down to another two-horse race between Amy and The Look of Silence. This showdown in many regards brings to mind this category just a few years ago. Joshua Oppenheimer had crafted a stunning documentary that shed light upon a forgotten atrocity with The Act of Killing, only for his amazing film to lose the Oscar to the documentary about back-up singers, 20 Feet From Stardom. A similar situation looks to happen this year as Oppenheimer’s companion to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence, might be overlooked once again for a documentary that explores the world of musicians, in this case the tragic life of Amy Winehouse.
It would be foolish to overlook the two films that Netflix has in the mix, What Happened, Miss Simone? and Winter on Fire. The streaming service has been trying desperately to earn their first Oscar and have invested a lot of resources in trying to secure that win. Don’t be surprised if What Happened, Miss Simone? shocks everyone and is announced as the winner over Amy.
Joshua Oppenheimer may not care about awards. But his film is the best documentary made in 2015 and it winning an Oscar would continue his quest to never let the Indonesian genocide of ’65 be forgotten.
What Will Win: Amy
What Should Win: The Look of Silence
Best Achievement in Editing
Nominees: Mad Max: Fury Road (Margaret Sixel), The Big Short (Hank Corwin), Spotlight (Tom McArdle), The Revenant (Stephen Mirrione), Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (Maryann Brandon, Mary Jo Markey)
As a part of the cinematic art form, good editing will likely go unnoticed by a vast majority of the audience. But bad editing can stick out like a sore thumb, meandering shots coupled together that make the viewer aware of a bloated runtime. With all that in mind, I’m genuinely surprised that The Revenant scored a nomination in this category. Perhaps it’s for the way that Stephen Mirrone was able to blend two shots together into one seamless looking shot, but The Revenant itself is a movie that runs far too long for its purpose. Though I don’t feel quite as strongly about its length, The Force Awakens is also in similar teedrritory.
Of the three remaining nominees, any one could walk away the winner and create no personal animosity from myself. For The Big Short, Hank Corwin cuts the film in a way that plays with conventional cinematic form, a number of errors that exist on the screen to draw attention to the impending disaster of the film’s story. For Spotlight, Tom McArdle spliced together the numerous scenes without leaving any actor on the sidelines in its impressive ensemble. Spotlight tells its story in a compelling manner that is greatly aided by the McArdle’s concise editing. Finally, with Mad Max: Fury Road, Margaret Sixel splices the action of George Miller’s action epic with such visual clarity that the action is undoubtedly some of the most engrossing and arresting work to grace the screen in years. For all the virtues of these three nominees, I have a sneaking suspicion that Hank Corwin and The Big Short will walk away with the award.
What Will Win: The Big Short (Hank Corwin)
What Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road (Margaret Sixel)
Best Writing, Original Screenplay
Nominees: Inside Out (Story by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen; Screenplay by Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley), Straight Outta Compton (Story by Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, and Alan Wenkus; Screenplay by Berloff and Jonathan Herman), Bridge of Spies (Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen), Ex Machina (Alex Garland), Spotlight (Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy)
It all starts on the page. Unlike the other categories where the writers have something to work from, the category of Original Screenplay each starts with a blank page and hours and hours of frustration before taking its final shape. Typically, the screenplay categories are where the Academy honors films that are a bit more daring than typical Oscar bait. With the controversy of racial disparity at this year’s Oscars, however, I doubt that they’ll honor the screenwriters of Straight Outta Compton. Sure, the film is fine, but the screenplay itself is more or less a by-the-number music biopic.
Bridge of Spies was an excellent film with a sharp script that dealt with the era’s politics and a larger moral dilemma of its lead character, but I doubt that the voters will choose to honor this particular film. If I had to choose from this category, my personal choice would Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, a smart sci-fi film that explored some rather dark themes. Of course, I have that sneaking suspicion that Ex Machina might too bold of a project for the voters. In my estimation, the category comes down to Inside Out and Spotlight, with a slight edge going to Inside Out for its bold premise.
What Will Win: Inside Out (Story by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen; Screenplay by Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley)
What Should Win: Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay
This is one of the few categories where if anyone of the nominees were to be shuffled offstage with a trophy in their hands, I would have no reason to protest. First of all, I’d just love to see Adam McKay, the writer and director of films like Step Brothers, to be an Oscar-winning writer. McKay should’ve won for Step Brothers, but better late than never. I personally feel that McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph are the frontrunners in this category for making a very wonkish book about the financial crisis of ’08 into a funny, entertaining ensemble drama.
As for an author adapting their own work, Emma Donoghue’s adaptation of her novel Room was an emotional rollercoaster of a movie, with its dual themes of captivity haunting every piece of action on the screen. Meanwhile, there’d be nothing wrong with Nick Hornby winning for adapting Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, which was a charming and quite funny story of an Irish immigrant’s struggles in the early ‘50s.
It’d be just as nice to see Drew Goddard, who co-wrote Cabin in the Woods and helped bring Daredevil onto Netflix, as an Oscar winner for The Martian. It was a crowd-pleasing sci-fi film that captured a sense of unity and wonder that has been absent from our real life space exploration since the Moon Landing.
Finally, my personal preference is for Phillis Nagy’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, released as the drama Carol. Not only was Carol one of the year’s best films, featuring marvelous acting, costumes, cinematography, and direction. It all starts on the page, with the dual leads of this romance written with such depth and nuance while avoiding the clichés that might derail the film with its subject matter.
What Will Win: The Big Short (Adam McKay and Charles Randolph)
What Should Win: Carol (Phyllis Nagy)
Best Achievement in Cinematography
Nominees: Carol (Edward Lachman), The Hateful Eight (Robert Richardson), Mad Max: Fury Road (John Seale), The Revenant (Emmanuel Lubezki), Sicario (Roger Deakins)
More so than the other categories, Best Cinematography is truly a category where every single nominee deserves the award. While I may not care for the whole of The Revenant, the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, affectionately known as Chivo, was undoubtedly the best thing about the film. Shooting with only natural light and in harsh conditions, Chivo may very well be walking away with his third consecutive Oscar.
Unlike Chivo’s work on The Revenant, Edward Lachman’s cinematography on Carol captured more of the story’s era by using a majestically grainy Super 16mm stock. It’s somewhat gritty and grainy, but captures the color and feel of the back and forth romance between the eponymous Carol and the young Therese.
Then there’s Robert Richardson’s phenomenal cinematography in The Hateful Eight, using Super Panavision 70mm, a format not used in decades. Richardson’s classical cinematography captured the stunning vistas of The Hateful Eight and the intense textured interior of Minnie’s Haberdashery. While John Seale didn’t use any antiquated technology to film Mad Max: Fury Road, his technique on the film is both at once strikingly new and old fashioned. The motorized mayhem of Mad Max features some of the most impressive action ever to grace the silver screen, simultaneously a revelation and renaissance.
Finally, there’s the work of Roger Deakins on Sicario. The legendary cinematographer and frequent collaborator of the Coen Brothers, Deakins is nominated for the thirteenth time over his illustrious career and maybe, just maybe, this will finally be the year that he will take home the statue. Of course, the Academy has a habit of giving the award to anyone not named Roger Deakins, and with Lubezki once again doing phenomenal work, this time in harsh working conditions, the voters of the Academy are likely to overlook this movie maestro once again. But if they can give Leo a career Oscar, they might as well give one to Deakins.
What Will Win: The Revenant (Emmanuel Lubezki)
What Should Win: Sicario (Roger Deakins)
Best Achievement in Directing
Nominees: The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu), Spotlight (Tom McCarthy), Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller), Room (Lenny Abrahamson), The Big Short (Adam McKay)
For the final category today, there’s the Best Director award. Like last year, I have a sneaking suspicion that Alejandro González Iñárritu will be shuffled off the stage with his second consecutive Oscar for directing. Much has been made about the arduous shoot that was undertaken to bring The Revenant to the screen. Between the studio marketing machine and the filmmakers, they would have you believe that since The Revenant was hard to make that it is somehow more artistically pure, and a better movie than its competitors. Of course, that’s a load of bullshit. Every movie is hard to make, from securing financing to battles with the studio, and so on and so on. Hell, even The Adventures of Pluto Nash was hard to make. But Iñárritu will likely hold up high his award for most directing, not necessarily best directing.
If an arduous shoot was enough to earn the Oscar for Best Director, George Miller and Mad Max: Fury Road would be taking home the statuette. Miller’s film began shooting all the way back in 2012, and a number of stops and starts plagued the production until it was finally released in 2015 – a full 3 years of production. But Miller doesn’t deserve to win because Fury Road was tough to make, he deserves to win because he crafted a film that is both revolutionary and retro, one that will shape the future of action cinema for decades. The craft on display in Fury Road is unparalleled, and the legendary Australian filmmaker deserves the award.
Of the other nominees, Tom McCarthy did a wonderful job in crafting a tense drama about the reporters uncovering the abuses in the Catholic Church. It’s a wonderful ensemble that is never showy in its direction, but consistently effective. Spotlight is a film that doesn’t mistake showy, over-the-top direction for good direction. The same could be said of Lenny Abrahamson’s direction on Room. The first half of Room is claustrophobic and tense while the second half of the film is much more of a heartbreaking drama. Abrahamson’s film plays so effectively with space and tonal shifts, much like the stellar work of McCarthy. Both did marvelous work, though their nominations will not likely translate into victory.
If there’s a dark horse in the Best Director category, it would Adam McKay for The Big Short. The director best known for his collaborations with Will Ferrell made the big leap into dramatic territory in bringing Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book the screen. Always a talented a visual stylist, McKay makes a number of intentional errors in The Big Short to amplify the connection to the fatally flawed financial system that is teetering on the brink of collapse. McKay also injects a lively sense of humor into the film, most notably with informative segments explaining how the house of cards that made up America’s financial institutions work.
What Will Win: The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu))
What Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)