Projection: Oscar - A Season Set in Stone?


As we exited Phase One, it seemed as though this year’s Oscar race was quite inert, with a frontrunner anointed before the season even began and several races for which the highest degree of drama would be who got nominated, not who would ultimately win. Now that we’ve been launched full-speed into Phase Two, the season isn’t merely inert, it’s downright stubborn, determined to deliver expected winners in nearly every category, no matter how loudly we cry out for even a miniscule twist.

What becomes frustrating from a pundit’s perspective is the desire to see movement where there is clearly none. In terms of making predictions for the various precursor award ceremonies, I find that my predictions don’t necessarily reflect the reality of the race, but my personal desire to see the potential shifts that would make the race interesting. The Artist‘s months-long stranglehold on Best Picture and Best Director has remained so firm that I found it suspect, wondering if said stranglehold would force the Academy to reassess the seasonal lockstep. The movie is the clear favorite, but I thought a year like this might be ripe for that rare Picture-Director split, with Martin Scorsese winning Best Director over the nubie Hazanavicius. I figured the DGA announcement would provide the clearest indicator of that shift, but…no such luck. This race, it seems, is etched in granite.

What becomes frustrating from a pundit’s perspective is the desire to see movement where there is clearly none.

Looking at the nominations overall, surprises were few and far between…and most were the kind that the Academy would likely regret on the back end. The biggest and most notable surprise, I guess, would be Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s odd nomination for Best Picture — odd because it wasn’t deemed worthy of nomination in any additional category other than Best Supporting Actor, where Max von Sydow landed a more-or-less expected nomination. The fact that the film was deemed BP-worthy but not laudable enough to show up in even a single below-the-line category indicates that the film hit Academy members late with an upswell of surface emotion (with the great von Sydow performance as its anchor), thus leading to an 11th-hour snap decision — apparently for a sizable portion of Academy voters — to place the film very high on their ballots. My guess is even the people who voted for it in a fervor were surprised and a little disappointed by its inclusion.

Speaking of “inclusions,” the Best Picture category was much more inclusive than any of us could have reasonably expected. A grand total of nine films were nominated this year, putting an end to the heretofore expectation that the new voting system would lead to greater exclusivity. On my end, I was correct to stick with my ‘more than seven’ prediction, but in full disclosure, I NEVER would have guessed there would be more than eight. I was right to stick with War Horse, but wrong to go with the sensation of Dragon Tattoo over the yearlong respect for The Tree of Life, a film I had slotted among my predictions since September, but stupidly abandoned in the lead-up to the announcement.

No Oscar discussion would be complete without mentioning the perceived “snubs,” and when I think of that word, three specific names spring to mind: Tilda Swinton, Michael Fassbender, and Albert Brooks. In my opinion, these three exclusions are borderline criminal, but they aren’t entirely unfathomable given the trajectory of the season. Presumably, Swinton was bumped by Rooney Mara, whose inclusion was a clear possibility. Fassbender was supplanted by either Gary Oldman or Demian Bichir, though the former is the more likely culprit, since Bichir was clearly a favorite among the acting branch (his SAG nomination was clear indicator of strong industry support). For Brooks, he was the casualty of a very crowded field. If it wasn’t him, it would’ve been von Sydow…or Jonah Hill…or Nick Nolte. Someone had to be left off. And Brooks’ movie, Drive, was clearly too much for Academy voters (it failed to land a single nomination).

Someone had to be left off. And Brooks’ movie, Drive, was clearly too much for Academy voters…

One unifying element to these snubs: they all indicate the power of the Screen Actors Guild. For all the teeth-grating over the exclusion of Fassbender and Brooks, both were predicted by the SAG nominations. SAG is also responsible for paving the way for Bichir’s nomination, proving that the nomination we viewed as a reach turned out to be a clear indicator of industry passion (as for Swinton’s exclusion, Mara’s was a performance that struck voters late in the season, and that buzz is the ultimate culprit). This year more than any other, I am struck by the power of SAG. Lest we forget, the Academy’s acting branch is its largest, wielding the most power among AMPAS’ 5,000+ members. Even after tracking awards season for years, I sort of dissed SAG by not taking its nominations seriously. I won’t make that mistake again.

The SAG winners, then, once again reflect the steady nature of the race — save its one seeming surprise, which we will address momentarily. Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer…when some of us (guilty) were predicting a Melissa McCarthy upset, conventional logic prevailed. Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer…that was easy enough. Lead Actress: Viola Davis…and her humility and passion will carry her to an Oscar win, much like co-star Spencer. Best Ensemble went to The Help, which was clearly the year’s broadest acting showcase. I thought The Artist might sneak in on the strength of its runaway freight train of awards season glory, but this was really the one place where it wasn’t the true favorite. The film, after all, is really a one-man show.

That ‘one man,’ by the way, came away with the night’s biggest surprise win. Jean Dujardin won the Lead Actor prize from SAG, and charmed us all once again with another disarmingly genuine acceptance speech. So let’s go back to the aforementioned “Power of SAG”…is Dujardin’s win another indication of SAG’s ultimate predictive power? It certainly could be, especially considering the history. The SAG Best Actor winner is a frighteningly precise Oscar predictor; the last time SAG and AMPAS didn’t match up was eight years ago, when Johnny Depp won the SAG (for the inaugural Pirates of the Caribbean) and Sean Penn won the Oscar (for Mystic River). Since then, SAG has been spot-on — including the last season of perceived uncertainty, 2009, when Sean Penn was battling Mickey Rourke in the Best Actor race. Rourke won the Golden Globe and appeared to be the frontrunner. But Penn won the SAG and, subsequently, the Oscar. In a season where George Clooney has led from the opening shot and his only perceived competition was Brad Pitt, Jean Dujardin might be the man to beat. Back when The Artist was first buzzing, I thought he seemed like the Roberto Benigni of this season, a charming foreign import whose passion was undeniable. And we all remember what happened to Roberto Benigni, don’t we? He won the SAG…followed by the Oscar.

A couple odds and ends regarding the nominations…

-The Best Song category is the biggest joke of the lot, with only two songs meriting final consideration — one from The Muppets and one from Rio. What a ridiculous folly. This category long seemed like The Muppets‘ to lose, but frankly there were at least three viable Best Song contenders from that film alone, not to mention Oscar bait songs from Albert Nobbs, The Help, Captain America and others. The fact that the Academy only saw fit to nominate two total songs indicates not merely a lack of passion for the year’s songs, but a lack of respect for the category. It’s quite annoying, and will play out as a complete joke on Oscar night.

-The animators flexed their muscle against motion capture technology, rejecting Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin in favor of a handful of clearly sub-par films. Of the nominees, only frontrunner Rango and long shot Kung Fu Panda 2 deserved nominations. Chico and Rita was a lark that always seemed like a possible nominee, but…Puss in Boots? A Cat in Paris? The animators really bent over backwards to snub Tintin. At least they didn’t nominate Cars 2 or Happy Feet Two.

Phase Two is in full swing, and we have nearly four weeks just to talk it all over. The guilds are done, the precursors are over…nothing left for us to do but debate Clooney vs. Dujardin and The Artist vs. All of Creation.

Jason McKiernan

Awards Pundit & Senior Film Critic. I married into the cult of cinema at a very young age - I wasn't of legal marriage age, but I didn't care. It has taken advantage of me and abused me many times. Yet I stay in this marriage because I'm obsessed and consumed. Don't try to save me -- I'm too far gone.
  • Anonymous

    One little quibble…Drive did get a nomination, for Best Sound Editing. Which is somehow worse than nothing at all.