Friday, February 28, 2014

One Category at a Time: Best Picture

It's that time of year: This is the point of the season at which we are practically begging for the Oscars to finally be over and done with, as the preordained winner of the Best Picture Oscar waits impatiently (but none too nervously) to hear its title called after more than three long months of rigorous campaigning and precursor award victories. At least, that's what usually happens at this point of the season. This year, however, is unlike any I've observed before. The standard three-month march towards inevitability has been replaced by a three-month build of suspense, as this Best Picture derby has boiled down to a true crap shoot, and one at which multiple contenders (not just the two presumed frontrunners) have a plausible chance of winning.
It all started with the critics. While the highest profile groups went their own way -- New York anointing American Hustle and L.A. ending in an unprecedented tie between Her and Gravity -- it was ultimately 12 Years a Slave that settled in as the favourite with regional critics groups across America. The Golden Globes, though not hugely influential in their own right, shook things up by proving that the harrowing slavery drama could win the top prize on prestige alone, even if not genuinely loved enough to claim any categorized prizes. SAG gave a boost to mainstream option American Hustle, causing reasonable suspicion that it could be the one to beat, but then came the TSN turning point of the season: The Producers Guild of America, heretofore the unblemished harbinger of Oscar, split the decision between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave... with a preferential ballot to boot! (And I thought the LAFCA tie was a shocker!)

BAFTA did little to clarify by handing 12 Years a Slave Best Film and Gravity Best British Film. And now, with only three days to go and ballots being busily tallied by the accountants at Price Waterhouse Coopers, we have potentially the tightest race in over a decade, with even fringe contenders keeping their hopes alive via big wins from the WGA and ACE. So how to rank them in order of winning? Traditionally, I start by analyzing the contestants by their key nominations of Director, Screenplay, and Editing:

12 Years a Slave: Director (Y), Screenplay (Y), Editing (Y)
American Hustle: Director (Y), Screenplay (Y), Editing (Y)
Captain Phillips: Director (N), Screenplay (Y), Editing (Y)
Dallas Buyers Club: Director (N), Screenplay (Y), Editing (Y)
Gravity: Director (Y), Screenplay (N), Editing (Y)
Her: Director (N), Screenplay (Y), Editing (N)
Nebraska: Director (Y), Screenplay (Y), Editing (N)
Philomena: Director (N), Screenplay (Y), Editing (N)
The Wolf of Wall Street: Director (Y), Screenplay (Y), Editing (N)

So by that limited logic, the only two that can win are 12 Years a Slave or American Hustle. Except that this year that is clearly not the case, and limited logic isn't going to cut it. Gravity is simply too formidable to discount. If Argo could win last year in the absence of a Directing nomination, then why should Gravity's lack of a Writing nomination be considered such a hindrance? That sure didn't stop Titanic's sweep.
But at the end of the day, I think it is possible to get lost in precedents and bogged down by stats. They threaten to blind you to the bigger picture staring you right in the face. I call them 'Milk moments'; Those moments when you slap your forehead in retrospect and say, "of course Sean Penn was going to win for playing Harvey Milk!" Look at these nominees and ask yourself: which one just seems like more of an 'Oscar movie' (if such a thing still exists)? As much as I hate to think of it coming down to that in such a stellar year for film, perception and importance of subject matter may be a difference-maker for 12 Years a Slave.

But will it really? There's been a lot of chatter about Academy members you were reluctant (or in some cases, flat out refusing and proud of it) to watch the sobering slavery drama. The last three Best Picture winners have all been feel-goods, and that's the effect of the preferential ballot for ya. If that pattern holds, then the triumphant emotional catharsis of Gravity is clearly the beneficiary.

But we mustn't count out American Hustle. After three consecutive Best Picture nominations, there may be some who feel it's David O. Russell's turn. The film is a broadly appealing option, and could sneak up the middle of a vote split between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. But will there be enough voters who actively prefer it to either of those two supposed heavyweights? I'm not so sure. The same question can be applied to Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, and Nebraska, all of which have plenty of champions and wide industry support.
Bringing up the rear are divisive options like Her and The Wolf of Wall Street, who may have passionate fanbases, but probably won't nab a whole lot of #2 or #3 votes. As for Philomena, Harvey Weinstein should never be underestimated, but his bigger challenge will be getting the gentle geriatric pleaser to win anything at all, let alone the top prize (although his campaign involving the real Philomena Lee is nothing if not exhaustive).

Will win (ranked):
1. Gravity
2. 12 Years a Slave
3. American Hustle
4. Captain Phillips
5. Dallas Buyers Club
6. Nebraska
7. The Wolf of Wall Street
8. Her
9. Philomena

But in a year as wacky as this, I wouldn't be surprised to be way off. The only thing of which we can be certain is that the Best Picture contest promises to be a nail-biter right up until the final envelope of Oscar night, and we should cherish the excitement while it lasts. Who knows when we'll have a race this close again?

Should win (ranked):
1. Gravity
2. 12 Years a Slave
3. Her
4. Captain Phillips
5. Dallas Buyers Club
6. The Wolf of Wall Street
7. American Hustle
8. Philomena
9. Nebraska

Should have been nominated: Before Midnight

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