The Oscars are on Sunday, and this year the awards seem like something of an afterthought. Maybe they've just gotten overwhelmed by the other set of blustery egos on display in the media. Politics are much more interesting, any way you slice it, than this year's Academy Awards.
Or maybe the seemingly endless effort to discredit the Oscars for being racially exclusive is having an effect.
I think, though, that it's bigger than that. Ten, twenty, forty years ago, the Oscars were a big event for the entire world. They were one of the few times everyone gathered together to talk about something they knew very little about; it didn't matter if it was the guy in the office who went to three movies a week or the woman who hadn't been to a movie in three years. Everyone could find something to like about the Oscars, and it felt like a special occasion. Now, those occasions happen literally every day. Our long-ago office-mates, college pals and high-school crushes are part of our virtual lives on a daily basis. In the social-media age, gathering around an event like Oscar seems less exciting, less glamorous than it used to be.
Or maybe no one really cared about this year's movies. That's possible, too. I mean, did you actually see movies like The Big Short and Room? Judging by their box-office grosses: nope.
It's all of those things, it's none of those things, but the show will go on this year, and there might be a few surprises. (Though I'm beginning to doubt it.) With that, here are my reasonably considered, marginally well-informed guesses about who I think will be sleeping with Oscar come Sunday night ... and who I hope will be.
WILL WIN :
SHOULD WIN : Bridge of Spies
WHY? For a long while now, it's been assumed that Spotlight would take Best Picture. It's a well-acted ensemble piece that explores an issue ripped from the headlines, but it just hasn't appealed to voters in a visceral way. It's a movie to be admired for its acting, its writing, its subject matter, but less for its passion for moviemaking. The Revenant has that in spades, and since Hollywood loves to crown its own royalty, Sunday offers a chance to do exactly that, by giving a film by Alejandro González Iñárritu the top prize for the second year in a row, after last year's vastly overrated, overblown, overbaked, over-lauded, over-rhapsodized Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). If that movie seemed the completely wrong choice for Best Picture last year, The Revenant would not at all be a bad choice this year -- it's a technically masterful film, a fine movie made by true artists and craftsmen, whose visual splendor almost outweighs its intense, overwhelming violence and lack of an interesting plot. It is the kind of movie the Academy loves to reward. Almost completely overlooked, however, is the best film of the eight nominated, Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, the director's best movie since Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. (And I'd even argue that, emotion aside, it's a better film than Schindler's List.) Fast, provocative, insightful and impeccably made, of the eight films selected for consideration, it's the one that felt like the most fulfilling, satisfying movie. It is the work of a mature master of the medium, one of his major works that is both a gripping story and a superior example of expert filmmaking. It would have received my vote, even if it wasn't my favorite movie of the year.
WILL WIN : Alejandro González Iñárritu for "The Revenant"
SHOULD WIN : Lenny Abrahamson for "Room"
WHY? There's no doubting the accomplishments of Iñárritu and his film. If measured solely on a technical level, Iñárritu deserves it. And, as noted earlier, The Revenant is a far superior film to Birdman. Still, The Revenant left me wholly unmoved, something I can't say about Room. Abrahamson's challenges were enormous -- no, they didn't involve the elements and lugging expensive equipment up and down mountains. They involved using a tiny space to convey a world, finding a way to see the most depressing place imaginable as holding everything a little boy could possibly need, and using the space to show us the bleak and horrifying despair of the little boy's Ma. Abrahamson did extraordinary things in Room, but didn't need CG effects or $90 million budget to do it -- he needed creative vision, technical know-how, and the emotional heft of a director who could take an unknown young actor and have an entire film turn on his believability. Room is a good movie, but Abrahamson is a spectacular director.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
WILL WIN :
SHOULD WIN : Mark Rylance for "Bridge of Spies"
WHY? Stallone has the nostalgia vote, for sure, and he does deliver a knock-out performance (sorry, couldn't resist) in Creed. It's a different, battered, saddened vision of Rocky Balboa, but also one that regains the character's nobility and sense of purpose in a beautiful way. The last thing I'd do is complain if Stallone does indeed win. But Rylance: Wow. He creates a character so unexpected, humorous, sympathetic and rich that is one of the reasons Bridge of Spies works so spectacularly well. His vision of convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel stands in direct contrast to everything we've always been told spies are -- and yet, you never lose the sense that beneath his quiet exterior and humble civility, he could be dangerous. Rylance's Abel is just a guy doing a job, trying to make a living like anyone else, and suffers the foolishness around him with a heaving sigh. Rylance is at the very center of Bridge of Spies, he holds the movie together, and he's spectacularly good.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
WILL WIN :
SHOULD WIN : Rooney Mara for "Carol"
WHY? Winslet provides the only identifiably human presence in Steve Jobs, a movie that I have a suspicion the Academy is eager to reward somehow. She's good in the role, despite an accent that seems to come and go. Winslet is the name on the ballot that likely seems irresistible to voters, and a win wouldn't be completely undeserved -- but it would come at the expense of the tremulous, touching, achingly real performance by Rooney Mara in Carol. Mara has always felt like something of a shadow on screen, never quite coming fully into her own, even when playing a role like Lisbeth Salander. It's been hard to figure out exactly who she is. That evasiveness becomes a strong point in Carol, as she plays a character who seems certain that her whole life could just disappear at any moment, so quiveringly unsure of herself that she comes to represent much more than a lesbian woman in love in the 1950s -- she comes to represent the aching emotional vulnerability of anyone in love, ever. Hers is an elegant, exquisite performance, and maybe just a bit too genteel, a bit too lacking in flash, to generate the support it deserves.
WILL WIN : Leonardo DiCaprio for "The Revenant"
SHOULD WIN : Matt Damon for "The Martian"
WHY? Sadly, this is one of the least intriguing set of performances selected by the Academy in a long time, but there were surprisingly few truly standout male performances overall. DiCaprio has the edge for the sheer physical intensity of and commitment to his role. Trouble is, there's not much character to play. The Academy will have a hard time resisting DiCaprio this time around, especially since it overlooked him twice for roles that were more deserving: Howard Hughes in The Aviator and Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. In an Oscar year with few absolute certainties, this is one them. But the more nuanced and complex performance among this group belongs, in my mind, to Matt Damon, who brought a sunny optimism to The Martian -- and had to find a way to sustain that happy sense of self while frequently being the only person on screen. His version of Mark Watney was heroic -- and simple heroism, not of the super- kind, is rare in movies these days -- but also physically demanding and emotionally intense. Damon took an incredibly difficult part and made it look astonishingly easy. Maybe too easy for the Academy.
WILL WIN : Brie Larson for "Room"
SHOULD WIN : Saoirse Ronan for "Brooklyn"
WHY? Here's a tough one: Brie Larson was extraordinary in Room -- almost as extraordinary as her co-star, the not-nominated Jacob Tremblay. She found depth, humanity and beauty in the role, while bringing the same sort of "looks-easy-but-isn't" approach to it as Damon did in The Martian. In any other year, she deserves the Oscar and more for her incredible work. But Soairse Ronan in Brooklyn reminded us that it's still possible for an actress to be a movie star, for a single personality to carry not simply the film -- but the heart. Ronan creates an old-fashioned movie heroine and anchors a sweeping melodrama that's almost impossibly entertaining. Eilis Lacey becomes, to my mind, one of the screen's truly great female characters by the end of Brooklyn. In Room, Larson creates a performance to deeply admire; in Brooklyn, Ronan creates a performance to fall in love with.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
WILL WIN : The Big Short
SHOULD WIN : Carol
WHY? The Big Short is the Academy's opportunity to prove it's relevant -- and this year, more than ever, the Academy needs to feel relevant. I know lots of people who loved The Big Short, but I wasn't one of them. I enjoyed it, but the screenplay became muddled and confusing just when it needed to be most clear, and I thought it better as a fictionalized lesson in modern economics than as a drama. Carol is a movie, a grand and glorious movie, unashamed of its old-fashioned squareness -- and proud of blending that with its modern sensibilities and perspectives. It's a rare movie, one that is both elegant and heartfelt, and its circular construction emphasizes its emotion. It's not flashy and wordy and clever like The Big Short; it uses its words sparingly, emphasizes action over exposition, and reveals its characters beautifully.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
WILL WIN : Spotlight
SHOULD WIN : Ex Machina
WHY? Again, headlines will trump art, as frequently happens at the Oscars. Spotlight went into Oscar season as the movie to beat, but it's lost a tremendous amount of traction. It's hard to justify its solid workmanship as one of the year's truly great achievements, but words on a page -- the very thing that Spotlight impressively glorifies -- will be the area the Academy can't overlook. Still, for true originality, for a movie unlike any other, Ex Machina does things most films never even attempt: It creates a vision of a reality not far removed from ours, grounds that reality in its own rules, and creates a cat-and-mouse thriller so intriguing that viewing it multiple times only begins to unravel some of its mysteries. It's a stunning achievement in originality, and the most intriguing, if not the best, screenplay of the year.
BEST ANIMATED FILM
WILL WIN : Inside Out
SHOULD WIN : Anomalisa
WHY? How can you deny Joy, Sadness, Anger and their pals? How can you consider any animated film other than Inside Out as the best of the year? Don't get me wrong: It's a lovely movie, and a lot of fun. But you've never seen an animated movie like Anomalisa. Very possibly, you never may again. It's a potent, spectacular reminder that any cinematic medium -- animation, live-action, 3-D -- only provides a base from which to work. What filmmakers do from that base varies wildly, and while there have been many admirable attempts to create a genuinely adult-oriented animated film in the past, none has been as downright perfect as Anomalisa, a movie that actually expands the definition of the entire medium of animation, making us reconsider what we know if its possibilities. Both as a technical achievement and an emotional one, Anomalisa is one of the very best movies of the year, and the only one I saw that actively, aggressively takes filmmaking into a new direction.
Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul
Best Documentary Feature: Amy
Best Documentary Short Subject: A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
Best Costume Design:
Best Film Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Cinematography: The Revenant
Best Makeup/Hair Styling: Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Original Score: Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
Best Original Song:
Best Sound Editing:
Best Sound Mixing:
Best Visual Effects:
Best Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Animated Short Film:
Best Live Action Short Film:
So, let's see on Sunday night how I do. I'm hoping I do much better than last yera's woeful 58% accuracy rate.