An Oscar-night preview
Thousands of critics around the world have issued their lists of 2015's 10 best films, and it's a safe bet that not one of them includes all eight Oscar nominees for Best Picture.
If you're watching the Oscars for anything other than entertainment, you've got the wrong show altogether.
Want to know what the year's best films are? Thousands of critics around the world have issued their lists of 2015's 10 best films, and it's a safe bet that not one of them includes all eight Oscar nominees for Best Picture. Critics are snobs, though, so perhaps Oscar is more attuned to the tastes of the great moviegoing public? Don't bet on it. The only top-10 list that really matters to Hollywood is the year's top 10 box-office winners, and only one of the Academy's eight Best Picture nominees appears on that list: The Martian, at No. 8.
Moviegoers the world over like science fiction, comedies, superhero movies and horror movies. The Academy doesn't. Only six comedies have won Best Picture in the past half-century and, since the Best Picture pool was expanded in 2009, only 11 of 65 nominated films have been comedies. None has been a horror movie and none has been a superhero movie. And only five have been science fiction movies . if you consider Gravity (2013), The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road to be science fiction.
What does Oscar like? Period dramas - five of the eight Best Picture nominees are set in the past - and, especially, biopics. Of this year's 20 nominees for acting awards, 11 played real people.
In other words, when this year's Oscars are passed out on February 28, don't waste your time trying to spot the greatest films of this year, let alone a contender for greatest film of all time. Don't think about art or culture or what movies say about the world we live in. Instead, don't be ashamed to focus on who's wearing what designer or which presenter mangles which nominee's name. The Oscars aren't about cinematic immortality or even, really, about the movies. They're about sheer escapist entertainment.
Which, of course, is also true of the eight nominees for Best Picture. Movies are like that.
Race and the race
We couldn't let this occasion pass without a few words on the year's hottest Oscar topic: the fact that none of the 20 nominees for acting Oscars are black, Asian, Latino or anything but white. Much of the discussion has focused on possible alternative nominees, for example the idea that Michael B. Jordan's performance in Creed deserved to be nominated for Best Actor.
Jordan's performance as a rising young boxer in Creed is outstanding, and he certainly could have been nominated for it. All five nominees did brilliant work, though, and none is obviously any less deserving than Jordan. More relevant are two less-discussed considerations. First, as mentioned, Oscar likes biopics, and those biopics are overwhelmingly about white men: Four of the five Best Actor nominees were nominated for playing real men (or in Eddie Redmayne's case, a transgender woman), who were white, whereas only one of the five Best Actress nominees was playing a real woman. When Hollywood tells stories about black men, they often get nominated, but as long as most of the stories it tells are about white men, Jordan is going to face stiff odds on nomination day.
The one Best Actor slot not occupied by an actor playing a real white guy went to Matt Damon for his brilliant work in The Martian. Damon is a white guy, but there's nothing about astronaut Mark Watney that marks him as a white guy. Nonetheless, so far as we know, no black actor was even considered for the role.
Actors of Jordan's caliber shouldn't have to wait around for Hollywood to make biopics about great black men of the past. As long as roles that are not racially marked are reflexively given to whites, it won't be only the Oscars, but movie screens in general, which are far whiter than they ought to be.
They should have been nominated ...
.. we'll leave it to you to decide instead of whom or what.
Best Picture: There's a case to be made for Furious 7, which accomplishes everything it aspires to do - which, admittedly, isn't much - with all but perfection. However, we'll go for the rowdy, disorganised and altogether thrilling Straight Outta Compton, which captures the wild, incoherent world in which the insurgent rap group N.W.A. arose in 1990s Los Angeles.
Best Director: They'll never nominate the director of an animated film, but this year Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen made it hard not to. Inside Out is richer, stranger and more tonally complex than any of the films nominated for Best Picture, and Docter and del Carmen didn't miss a note.
Best Actor: Tom Hardy's lowest-profile performance in 2015 was his best. In Child 44, as a dogged police detective in Soviet Russia on the trail of a serial child killer, Hardy proved himself to be a master of gesture and nuance.
Best Actress: Charlize Theron's work in Mad Max: Fury Road has a flair and an authority to it that supercharges George Miller's film. Too bad the costumes showed too much skin to get a Best Actress nomination - Oscar prefers its women well-dressed, quiet and unarmed.
Best Supporting Actor: As a sympathetic priest serving the Irish-American community, Jim Broadbent brings warmth and a welcome twinkle to Brooklyn, an earnest film which benefits from both.
Best Supporting Actress: Nobody sat through Hot Pursuit thinking "Oscar bait." Nonetheless Sofia Vergara's performance as a drug lord's widow on the run has the kind of zest and vigor that only Jennifer Jason Leigh, of the actual slate of nominees, brought to the table.
And finally, who will win...
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sounds like an educational institution, but it's essentially a trade association for the American film industry, and its members are movie professionals or retired movie professionals. They don't vote the way you would, because they don't see movies the way you do. They know the nominees personally, for one thing, so their voting reflects the nominees' standing in the industry.
Academy voters also have jobs on their mind. Films that win Oscars spark imitation, so foreign films are out and foreign actors and actresses are pretty much out too - why should American actors vote to reduce the use of American actors? All of which may well mean nothing. Predictions are little more than guesses. Hundreds of experts analyzed the 2007 Oscars and, if a single one of them predicted that Marion Cotillard would be voted Best Actress, we missed it.
Bearing all that in mind, here are our picks for the six top categories.
BEST PICTURE: It's usually safe to assume that a film that isn't nominated for Best Director won't win as Best Picture. Sometimes that doesn't hold true - as Ben Affleck can tell you, having not been nominated for Argo in 2012, which then won Best Picture in a huge upset - but most of the time it works.
In other words, to Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn and The Martian, thanks for playing and sayonara! George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road is the next obvious choice for elimination. Action-driven, light-on-dialogue, post-apocalyptic shootouts don't match the membership's usual vision for an Oscar movie.
The Revenant would be a stronger contender if producer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu hadn't won in both categories only last year for Birdman (2014). The Academy doesn't like repeat winners in any category, and especially in Best Director. The Big Short and Spotlight appeal to the same kind of voters: They're ensemble-cast dramas based on real-life stories from the 2000s, earnest investigations into the financial crisis and the Roman Catholic Church's pedophile-priest scandal, leavened in the case of The Big Short with some irreverent humour. Both do a good job of making complicated stories accessible to movie audiences.
Neither one has the kind of happy ending that sends audiences out of the theater beaming and reaching for their Oscar ballots, though. The financial crisis happens and the fat cats get away largely unscathed, and Spotlight is an emotionally distant telling of a story that largely focuses on reporters and lawyers, not priests and their victims.
Room is much smaller in scale than any of its competitors, and it tells its story entirely through acting and writing, not special effects or fancy sets. Its heroine is a mother who will do anything to save her child, a subject matter of which Hollywood can never get enough. A classic Little Film That Could, Room will walk away with the night's biggest prize.
Best Director: An easy one. Hollywood loves the auteur theory, which can be summed up as the assertion that the best movies are made by the best directors and the best directors make the best movies - or, if you will, the Best Director makes the Best Picture.
It's not carved in stone that Lennie Abrahamson will win as Best Director if Room wins as Best Picture. His film is by its nature short on visual flair, while Adam McKay's The Big Short and Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road are visually imaginative. Nor does Abrahamson have to juggle a complex plot and a large ensemble cast the way Tom McCarthy does in Spotlight. All of that said, the auteur theory still holds sway with the Academy, and the winner as Best Director will likely be the director of the winner as Best Picture. That's looking like Abrahamson.
Best Actor: Three of this year's nominees are plausible winners. Eddie Redmayne's win last year for The Theory of Everything pretty much takes him out of the running, and Bryan Cranston's nomination for the scarcely seen Trumbo is a welcome-to-the-party nod to a television standout who has only begun to pay his dues on the big screen. That still leaves Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Fassbender to vie for the prize.
In many years it would be a tossup. Fassbender's magnetic performance as a flailing Steve Jobs is the kind of brilliantly emotional portrayal of a real-life figure that the Academy loves, and Damon's virtually solo work as an astronaut stranded on Mars was a sterling star turn for an actor much loved in Hollywood for his lack of ego. DiCaprio's performance in The Revenant, in which he too is alone on screen for much of the film, is arguably the lightest of the three.
It doesn't matter. DiCaprio, a Hollywood insider since his days as a child star in the 1990s, is widely regarded as one of the greatest actors of his generation. He's been nominated five times now, and never won - the most of anyone at this year's ceremony. He's due, and this year he'll be rewarded for his patience.
Best Actress: Charlotte Rampling does her customary fine work in 45 Years, but the film has been seen by few Academy members and, indeed, by few people of any kind. Cate Blanchett's work in Carol is brilliant, but at 46 she's already got seven nominations and two wins under her belt.
That leaves the prize to one of three 20-somethings nominated this year: 21-year-old Saoirse Ronan, 25-year-old Jennifer Lawrence and 26-year-old Brie Larson. Lawrence already has gotten her fair share of Oscars, though, with four nominations and one win as Best Actress. Like Blanchett, she's been here before and will be here again, but this isn't her year.
It wouldn't be a surprise if Ronan were to win. Her performance in Brooklyn as a naïve Irish girl forging a life for herself as an immigrant in 1950s Brooklyn is ample proof that the child actress who was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for Atonement (2007) has matured into a compelling adult actress. Her Oscar will come, but probably not this year.
Larson's performance in Room as a young woman held prisoner for years in a garden shed and fighting to win freedom for her young son has made her the front-runner since the film's release, and nothing since then has changed that. The award is hers to lose.
Best Supporting Actor: The problem with predicting the best-supporting Oscars is that they are really three awards rolled into one. At various times they've been used to encourage up-and-comers who are seen as likely Best Actor or Best Actress winners of the future. Other years they're a tip of the hat to veteran character actors who have paid their dues. They're also used as a sentimental way to give well-regarded old-timers one more night in the spotlight.
This year's contest comes down to a clash between categories. Mark Rylance is both a veteran character actor and, because he's worked almost entirely on the stage, an up-and-comer in need of encouragement, while Sylvester Stallone is the grizzled old-timer who's never won an acting Oscar and is unlikely to get another shot.
Sentiment is a powerful thing in Hollywood, and Stallone can't be written off. He's been an icon for Hollywood's actors - the biggest voting bloc in the Academy - since the 1970s, when as a starving actor he wrote the screenplay for Rocky (1976) and turned down a huge payday to let someone else play the lead role.
Nonetheless, Rylance probably will take home the statuette. His performance as a captured Soviet spy in Bridge of Spies is a textbook Best Supporting Actor job, making a part that could have been a cipher into the living, breathing heart of the movie. That he largely has shunned film and television for the stage makes Rylance a model of integrity for Hollywood's actors.
Best Supporting Actress: Usually this is the hardest category of the top six to predict, and this year is no exception. Any of the five nominees could plausibly win. Chances are, though, that Rooney Mara will be the one to hear her name called on Oscar night. Kate Winslet is universally admired in Hollywood, but her part in Steve Jobs was underwritten. Rachel McAdams was excellent in Spotlight, but the part didn't have the one big scene that marks an Oscar favorite. Alicia Vikander had a big year, but she'll have to wait for her next shot at an Oscar - she's still got some dues to pay.
The same can't be said for Jennifer Jason Leigh, an adventurous actress whose work is highly regarded in Hollywood despite her lack of previous Oscar nominations. She makes the most of her role as the only meaningful female character in The Hateful Eight, but she's surrounded by bigger, showier performances and probably didn't get the acting time she needed to take home the award.
The only possible argument against Mara is that her role in Carol is actually the lead, and thus she's been nominated for the wrong award. There will be some who will make that argument, but not enough to undercut a meaty, nuanced performance by a young, rising actress. Not everyone saw Carol, and not everyone who saw it loved it, but its fans are passionate, and an award for Mara will be their way of recognising their favourite film of the year.
Oscar by the numbers
Oldest 2015 Nominee: George Miller, director of Mad Max: Fury Road, is 11 months older than Charlotte Rampling. Both are 70.
Youngest 2015 Nominee: No Quvenzhane Wallises this year. The youngest is 21-year-old Saoirse Ronan, who got her first nomination at 13. Young she is, but still 12 years older than Wallis was when she was nominated as Best Actress in 2013.
Tallest 2015 Nominee: Adam McKay, director of The Big Short, is more big than short, towering at 6 feet 5 inches. The tallest female nominee is Jennifer Lawrence, at 5 feet 9 inches.
Shortest 2015 Nominee: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rooney Mara and Room director Lenny Abrahamson are all 5 feet 3 inches tall.
Most Previously Nominated Nominee: Meryl Streep didn't get nominated this year, so at least there's a contest here. The winner is Cate Blanchett, whose six previous nominations have brought her two wins. If you really want Oscar nominations, though, be a composer - John Williams has 49 nominations to his credit - or, better yet, producers: The record-holder is 59-time nominee Walt Disney.
Most Previously Nominated Without a Win: Usually this candidate is a solid bet, since the Academy loves to reward people who've paid their dues. This year that would be Leonardo DiCaprio, with four previous nominations but no wins.
Most Currently Nominated: Nobody managed the golden producer-writer-director trifecta this year, though four men came close. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Miller were nominated for producing and directing, but not writing, while Tom McCarthy and McKay were nominated for writing and directing but not producing.
Most Previously Honoured Nominee: Inarritu has three of the golden guys, all for Birdman (2014), as writer, producer and director
Longest Academy Awards Ever: 2002, which lasted for four hours and 16 minutes, but seemed much longer.
Shortest Academy Awards Ever: 1929. The first awards were handed out as an after-dinner bonus at an industry banquet, and were taken care of in a snappy 15 minutes. Don't expect that this year.
Oscars that won't be presented
Most Overhyped: Fifty Shades of Grey. There's nothing there that we haven't seen before, done more sexily.
Worst Remake: Poltergeist.
Most Unnecessary Remake: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Worst Sequel: Ted 2, by a hair over Magic Mike XXL.
Most Unnecessary Sequel: Paul Blart, Mall Cop 2. Runner-Up: Pitch Perfect 2, the mechanical sequel to a surprisingly charming original.
Worst 2015 Performance by a Current Oscar Nominee: Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending.
Worst Performance Ever by a Current Oscar Nominee: Charlotte Rampling in Orca (1977), the best - and worst - killer-whale-from-hell movie of all time. Leonardo DiCaprio in Critters 3 (1991) was actually worse, but he was a kid and can't be blamed.
Best Title: The Big Short.
Clearest Title: Everest. It's about a mountain.
Least Accurate Title: The Martian, in which only earthlings appear, and Spotlight, which isn't about performers.
Most Accurate Title: Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens - the seventh movie in the series is the seventh episode, the first time that's ever happened in this series.
Worst Title, Content: The Revenant. The title is explained in the press notes - it's a walking dead man, sort of like a zombie - but never in the movie itself.
Worst Title, Form: Straight Outta Compton was popular with everyone except the Academy - and English teachers.
Best Public-Relations Campaign: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. By the time the T-shirts, the toys, the Halloween costumes, the games, the trading cards and so forth were played out, some people forgot there was actually a movie.
In this Feb. 28, 2015, file photo, Chris Rock appears onstage at Comedy Central's "Night of Too Many Stars: America Comes Together for Autism Programs" at the Beacon Theatre in New York.
Packer scored a critical and box-office hit with Straight Outta Compton, starring Corey Hawkins, O'Shea Jackson Jr. and Jason Mitchell as the influential rap group NWA