Oscarology: Or, How To Win An Office Pool

Like any respectable American institution involving winners and losers, betting on the results of the Academy Awards is part of the fun. Keeping abreast of Hollywood film industry news or, you know, watching all the nominated movies are both undoubtedly helpful ways to go about putting together your personal Oscar ballot, but there are certain key factors you can use to up your percentage regardless of your access to limited releases.

The Oscar Taste Palette: Star Wars Loses To Annie Hall

Understanding Oscar winners means understanding the Academy’s membership and the kinds of movies they like.  A best picture winner says a lot about the films the Academy values and wants to be representative of the industry at large. It’s reductive to say that Best Picture is decided by a roomfull of old white men, but the Academy does lean conservative – its current membership loves films about films so long as they aren’t too meta, will almost always prefer a drama to a comedy, and rewards films that are formally well crafted on a sufficiently grand scope/scale so long as formalism doesn’t distract from a compelling narrative. That said, this year’s list of Best Picture nominees suggest that these guidelines aren’t so ironclad, with smaller, more unconventional films getting recognition – although clearly there’s still a limit to the Academy’s generosity there, with no room for both The Master and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Thinking about the 2012 nominees in this way, Lincoln, Life of Pi, and Argo all emerge as likely pretenders to rights over the little naked gold guy.

Another consideration is that, at least in the ‘aughts, there’s a strong correlation between Best Director and Best Picture. In the wider nominee field for Picture, the Director category tends to point to the real contenders. This dampens Argo‘s chances and all but suppresses the hopes of Les MisAmour and Beasts, as outsiders, aren’t safe bets in either category. Silver Linings Playbook as the lone comedy is a wild card, but assuming predictability from the academy the choice is between Lincoln and Life of Pi. Although Life of Pi is even more masterful in use of 3D than last year’s Hugo, the edge goes to storytelling and import over mood and visuals; it goes to Spielberg and to Lincoln. 

Certain categories, too, tend to favor certain aesthetics. Sound awards favor explosions, Make-Up the most make-up, and Costume invariably rewards period pieces, specifically the most florid, Versailles-esque sensibility on display. As that relates to this year, good money would be on The Hobbit for Make-Up and Anna Karenina or Mirror, Mirror for Costume, because gigantic swan hats and golden hoop dresses are exactly what that award is about.  

Sentimentality: Who ‘Deserves’ It? 

But wait, I hear you cry, what about Return of the King, which swept the Oscars in 2003, demolishing arguably better films like Mystic River and Lost In Translation? Well, it’s true, genre or popularity aren’t necessarily bars to Oscar glory, but it’s important to think of the Oscars not so much as awards, but as rewards. Winners often receive Oscars for an accumulated body of work, not necessarily for the outstanding quality of a given film. They get awards for the awards they didn’t win for better films. The Academy is an insular community that keeps tabs on its membership; it’s willing to wait until nominees have ‘earned’ an award in a broader sense, over performance in an individual film.

This brings me to cinematography, which is open to several capricious turns of the weathervane, but the strongest wind might be pulling in the direction of Roger Deakins for Skyfall, which has in large part won praise for being more film than Bond film. That the film is absolutely gorgeous is why he’s in the running, but Deakins’ pedigree is what may pull him through: he’s been behind every significant Coen Bros. effort since Barton Fink, in addition to Academy loves The Shawshank Redemption, A Beautiful Mind, and Jarhead. In terms of Costume, too, you can’t rule out a posthumous award to Eiko Ishioka for Mirror, Mirror, although there the poor showing of the film itself might hurt her. Oscars don’t just reflect either quality or pedigree: it’s an interaction between the two.

Buzz and Momentum: Suck It, Nate Silver

Another real factor is buzz. Remember that Academy members don’t have to see all the films in order to vote on them. The resounding, universal critical praise for Daniel Day-Lewis and Anne Hathaway have a real influence on voting members at the moment they’re confronted with a ballot: those two are pretty much the only sure bets this year. Conversely, John McCain might have (not really him, but all the bad press) torpedoed Zero Dark Thirty‘s chances for Picture. Image is important, so being tagged as pro-torture or racially exploitive is a discouraging proposition. This is why, although the Golden Globes have an enduring fondness for Quentin Tarantino, neither he nor Mark Boal are completely safe bets for Original Screenplay, although Boal has a better shot. A surprise win for  Moonrise Kingdom wouldn’t be unwelcome in that category, although in Adapted Screenplay, the award is Tony Kushner’s to lose.

This makes looking to one of the tightest races, Lead Actress, rather interesting. Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence are the frontrunners – Sally Field, Naomi Watts, and Helen Hunt all being rather unlikely and young Quvenzhane Wallis a winner just by being there; both frontrunners have been nominated previously, both have their share of popular successes since breaking out, and both are cited as essential to the success of their films. Although Chastain’s incredible strength and mesmerizing restraint is probably the more technically impressive, Lawrence’s loud, brash, vulnerable performance (and standing toe-to-toe with Robert De Niro) is less tainted by controversy and closer to the capital-A Acting that’s responsible for the crime of Renee Zellweger having an award.

Lastly: Quality And Merit

If you’ve been reading closely (good for you!) you noticed I mentioned sound earlier and then didn’t talk about it. I’m not hedging, I swear, but waiting to explore the last factor I want to mention. Sometimes, films dominate an category so convincingly that no amount of politics or campaigning can dislodge them. The fact that Amour was impressive enough to break into Best Picture certainly means it’s winning Best Foreign Language Film. Sound Editing and Sound Mixing are notoriously confusing categories (for the record, the distinction is that editing rewards the making of completely new sounds or music from scratch, separately, in a studio, which are then added to the soundtrack of a film; sound mixing involves the use of highlighting or integrating already available sounds). They usually go to the same film, as both are involved in crafting a convincing soundtrack. Big battles and explosions tend to get the edge, which make Skyfall, Zero Dark Thirty, or Django Unchained all likely contenders for Mixing, although I would give the edge to ZDT. However, the one thing Les Mis has locked up – and probably did since it released that pretentious featurette on live-singing –  is Sound Editing, given that the film’s score was recorded on the fly, in line with actors’ pacing, in a separate location.

So, there you go! Some considerations for making your own Oscar ballot, and completely dominating that asshole who’s still complaining about Looper getting snubbed.

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