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Oscar Views – Part One

Oscar-2016-Nominations

It’s a wonderful night for Oscar! Or at least it should be on February 28th. As the 88th Annual Academy Awards approach, it’s time for me to look over the various categories and offer Vincent’s View on the nominees and likely winners.

I decline to arrogantly presume that I know best and say what the Academy got wrong. I don’t necessarily agree with the nominees and, were I a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I would have voted differently. I had my own favourites last year but that’s simply my view – the assembled results of nearly 7000 people do not pale in comparison to my almighty judgement, or indeed anyone’s. What interests me is what the particular nominees say about tastes and trends about Oscar nominees, now and historically.

Beginning with the nominees for Best Picture, they are a rather surprising bunch. I have written before on the kind of film that tends to win Best Picture and the commonalities among nominees. The cliché is that biopics win Oscars, but more broadly historical films win Oscars. Historical films attract awards, presumably because the AMPAS members (not to mention other institutions) respond to the apparent gravitas of “history.” Furthermore, films “based on a true story” do well, as few things offer more “importance” than “truth.”

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With that in mind, consider the eight nominees for Best Picture:

The Big Short 

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian 

The Revenant 

Room

Spotlight

If the nominees were still restricted to five, I believe that the nominated films would be Bridge of Spies (based on real events), Brooklyn (literary adaptation), The Revenant (literary adaptation, based on real events), Spotlight (based on real events) and either Room (literary adaptation) or The Big Short (literary adaptation, based on real events). In addition, all of them are concerned with ideas of “America,” a common theme of Best Picture winners from Wings (1928) to Patton (1970) to Unforgiven (1992). The six films here are concerned with, respectively, the Cold War, the immigrant experience, frontierism, church and community, family, financial disaster. All of the key nominees present aspects of America in relief and highlight them to the world. Cinema has long been an important form of US propaganda, so it is unsurprising that the Academy reward films that effectively advertise the USA. And if the advertisements are about less than savoury events, like Spotlight and The Big Short, this shows a degree of self-reflection and introspection somewhat lacking in US foreign policy and election campaigning.

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Spotlight

Two of the nominees are, however, anomalous: The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road. I saw both films and enjoyed them very much, but to see them nominated for Best Picture is actually staggering. Both are science fiction films (space travel, post-apocalyptic), which makes them part of a very rare group. The only other sci-fi films to be nominated for Best Picture are Star Wars (1977), Avatar (2009), Inception (2010) and Gravity (2013), so to have two such films nominated in one year is quite extraordinary. Furthermore, Mad Max: Fury Road is an action movie and a sequel, only the fifth to ever be nominated after The Godfather Parts II and III, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Return of the King. So for the first time, a sci-fi sequel is up for Best Picture! This is actually radical and groundbreaking for the Academy, and perhaps signals a possible shift in its members’ typically conservative tastes.

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Some Kind of Film: Perspective on Oscar Nominations Part Two

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Continuing my response to the response to Oscar nominations, it is worth noting that there are certain types of film that are consistently honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This type is determined more by content than anything else. I have seen the accusation that the Academy is more interested in rewarding financial than artistic success. In the case of the current crop of nominees, this is patently nonsense, as the eight films nominated for Best Picture are the lowest earning group of nominees in recent years. The combined box office gross of the eight Best Picture nominees came to $203.1 million before the announcement of the nominees, and there is little time before the ceremony for this to increase significantly (although American Sniper is doing very well). Furthermore, look at the earnings of other films, including nominees in other categories. In an act of remarkable brashness, Paramount submitted one of the year’s highest earners, Transformers: Age of Extinction, for consideration as Best Picture. Shockingly, it was not nominated in that category or indeed any other, but the five films nominated for Best Visual Effects (the category Transformers: Age of Extinction had a chance in) have a combined box office gross of $3.6 billion worldwide. So to say that AMPAS only rewards box office winners is simply untrue.

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It is typical that the Academy Award for Visual Effects goes to commercially successful films, often along with other post-production categories such as Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. What irritates me about this is the perpetuation of the art/entertainment divide – movies make money and might win an award for their effects; films are “art” and win awards for being “artistic”. It is an utterly nonsensical division that I love to see occasionally challenged, such as when genre films like Avatar (2009) and Inception (2010) are nominated for Best Picture (unsurprisingly, neither won that award although both won Best Visual Effects, as well as Cinematography). There are exceptions that straddle the divide, earn vast box office receipts and pick up multiple awards as well, but these are few and far between. The best example is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), a fantasy blockbuster that won all eleven Oscars for which it was nominated. Although they did not win, other unusual nominees include The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), as well as Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the occasional animated film such as Toy Story (2010), Up (2009) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), and especially Gravity (2013).

Gravity

Gravity

An interesting comparison can be made between Gravity, which won seven Oscars including Best Director, and Titanic (1997), which tied the record of eleven awards set by Ben-Hur (1959) (a feat later achieved by The Return of the King). Both Gravity and Titanic were commercially successful, and both are disaster movies with very high production values. Yet Titanic was more honoured than Gravity, picking up Best Picture whereas Gravity lost out to 12 Years A Slave. The common factor between 12 Years A Slave and Titanic is the factor that the Academy consistently rewards – history.

Look over these Best Picture winners of the last three decades:

2013 – 12 Years A Slave

2012 – Argo

2011 – The Artist

2010 – The King’s Speech

2009 – The Hurt Locker

2008 – Slumdog Millionaire

2007 – No Country for Old Men

2006 – The Departed

2005 – Crash

2004 – Million Dollar Baby

2003 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

2002 – Chicago

2001 – A Beautiful Mind

2000 – Gladiator

1999 – American Beauty

1998 – Shakespeare in Love

1997 – Titanic

1996 – The English Patient

1995 – Braveheart

1994 – Forrest Gump

1993 – Schindler’s List

1992 – Unforgiven

1991 – The Silence of the Lambs

1990 – Dances With Wolves

1989 – Driving Miss Daisy

1988 – Rain Man

1987 – The Last Emperor

1986 – Platoon

1985 – Out of Africa

1984 – Amadeus

Only eight (26.6%) of these thirty Best Picture winners have a setting contemporary to the time of their release, whereas twenty-one (70%) have a historical setting, ranging from 18th century Vienna to ancient Rome, 13th century Scotland to various points in the 20th century. Many of the films feature significant historical events, including World War II (four), Vietnam (three), the Middle East (two) and the US Civil Rights Movement (the anomaly is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Ten of these films (33.3%) are based on specific historical events or people, making them “true” stories.

The Academy consistently rewards the depiction of history, both in terms of period setting and significant events. Unsuccessful nominees have the same features – Saving Private Ryan, L. A. Confidential, Quiz Show, The Cider House Rules, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning – demonstrating that a significant proportion of nominees depict historical subjects. One can interpret this historical dimension as adding (in the minds of some) an element of gravitas, a quality that makes the film seem “important”. If we accept that AMPAS is an institution devoted to the development, promotion and cultural significance of motion pictures, then it follows that this institution would reward films that make the effort to engage with significant socio-cultural concerns and events. “History” can be considered a short-hand for this, the Academy honouring films that depict “history” because this subject matter is worthy of reward. Equally, it is rare for a contemporary-set thriller to win Best Picture (only The Silence of the Lambs and The Departed in the last 30 years – Argo and No Country for Old Men have thriller narratives, but both are historical and the former is based on a true story) and unheard of for a science fiction film to win. Gravity came closest and I had hopes for Interstellar this year, but no such luck for Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic. Surprise, surprise though, Interstellar is nominated for Visual Effects.

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This goes back to the art/entertainment divide, a form of cultural elitism that goes far beyond the Academy Awards. The Booker Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for literature rarely (if ever) go to science fiction, fantasy or thriller novels, and there remains the nonsensical view that literature and theatre are “art” and therefore somehow superior to cinema which is “only entertainment”. Interestingly, one of this year’s nominees, Birdman, engages with this elitism through its portrayal of a former movie star struggling for credibility in the face of immense cultural prejudice, including a scene where a theatre critic lambasts the entire practice of Hollywood cinema for being too commercial and giving awards for “cartoons and pornography”. The great irony of AMPAS is that it perpetuates this bizarre double standard within its own medium, for the most part ignoring genre films and those with a contemporary or (God forbid) future setting and consistently rewarding historical dramas of “importance”.

Birdman

Birdman

While I am frustrated by this practice of AMPAS, it would be unfair to entirely blame AMPAS, because the cultural attitudes at work here go far beyond a single institution. But I will blame the Academy members for their general conservatism and reluctance to honour films that differ from the typical pattern. Nominees like Gravity and Avatar, and the extraordinary success of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, are especially gratifying because films like these develop the cinematic medium, creating fantasy worlds and taking audiences to new and exciting places. The challenges and innovations of these films are often expensive and the only way they can pay for themselves is through commercial success, therefore by honouring such films the Academy honours and encourages the development and continuance of cinema itself. That is what I would like to see more of in the future, though I am not optimistic as year on year the Academy instead rewards subject matter rather than innovation, perpetuating an unnecessary cultural elitism.

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“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” Oscar night.

To Infinity, and Beyond: Science Fiction Countdown – 1

2001 poster

No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.

Monolith

To Infinity, and Beyond: Science Fiction Countdown – 3

Avatar poster

The third film in my countdown of top five transportive sci-fi movies gives the most overt attention to transporting the viewer (although it is not necessarily the most successful). Avatar creates a tangible, tactile environment that immerses and surrounds the viewer, an environment that took me far beyond the cinema in which I first saw it and continues to do so across repeat viewings. It is a literally awesome film in the sense that it fills me with awe with its extraordinarily rich and compelling vision of an alien planet and the experience of exploring it along with the protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Nor is this experience of Avatar simply down to the 3D, as I find the film immersive and absorbing on 2D home viewings as well. This effect is partially due to the remarkable production design that details the geography, flora and fauna of Pandora, as well as the film’s vibrant visual style that thrusts the viewer through these gorgeous but also dangerous environments. James Cameron has always been an intensely visceral director, from the relentless pursuit of The Terminator to the collapsing environment of Titanic. In Avatar, the director’s visceral and absorbing style takes the viewer into a world that is both alien and familiar, showing us what we know in a new light and creating greater appreciation of our surroundings beyond the filmic world itself.

Avatar_pandora

Interstellar

Poster 2

Interstellar is many things. It is a descendant of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the direct descendant of Contact (1997), midwifed by Avatar (2009) and Gravity (2013). It is the most ambitious film of Christopher Nolan’s career, incorporating theories of wormholes, time and gravity into a story of space travel in the midst of environmental devastation that, perhaps appropriately for a film with apparent familial connections, explores themes of family, hope and love. It is a near-three hour spectacle of epic proportions that delivers awe-inspiring visuals as well as exquisite detail in the production design. It utilises Nolan’s trademark crosscutting techniques to tie together sequences for greater impact. It centres on a father-daughter relationship, beautifully played by Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy (later Jessica Chastain) along with a cast that includes Nolan alumni Michael Caine (obviously) and Anne Hathaway, along with Topher Grace, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Wes Bentley and Ellen Burstyn. It is a eulogy for NASA and a lament for the abandonment of space travel and all that represents for human endeavour and ingenuity. And it is an attempt to blend hard science (both fact and fiction) with an emotional story of broken families.

Cooper Murph

At times, Interstellar achieves the heights of its ambition, utilising its extraordinary scale to move its audience both emotionally and intellectually. At other times, the balance between science and sentimentality is lost and some scenes feel awkward. Explaining love as a dimension within the universe is ultimately unconvincing because love is at its most dramatic when it is not quantified. Love is the ultimate mystery that is most dramatic when left unexplained, and Interstellar’s attempts to incorporate love into scientific calculations do not work.

Perhaps ironically, Interstellar’s greatest weakness may be its insistence upon science, in the sense that everything is observable and quantifiable. A great strength of Nolan’s previous work is ambiguity. How much of Memento can be trusted? Who did what in The Prestige? Was everything justifiable in The Dark Knight? How much of Inception was a dream? Ambiguity is also used to great effect in Contact and 2001: A Space Odyssey – in neither film is it entirely clear what happened. Mysteries abound in Interstellar, but they are ultimately explained and, while the explanations are consistent within the logic of the film, they are also very pat: Eureka moments with the mathematical formula laid out in painstaking detail, which reduces the dramatic impact of key moments.

INTERSTELLAR

That said, while Interstellar overplays its (pseudo)science, it succeeds both as a visual and an emotional spectacle. The vastness of space is beautiful and awe-inspiring, as are the landscapes of Earth and other planets. The eponymous interstellar travel is breathtaking and humbling, while Nolan provides a number of action set pieces that rival the tension of zero-gravity combat of Inception and the impact of the street battle in The Dark Knight. Furthermore, the sentimentality of the father-daughter relationship is played with Spielbergian conviction, as recorded messages express loss and longing across separations of both long years and immense distances. The climax is an extraordinary special effects sequence of dazzling technical virtuosity, yet this sequence is sustained by a moving and affecting display of love. Interstellar may fail to explain love, but it does succeed at portraying love.

Spectacle

Ostensibly the film is about abandoning Earth and seeking a future on other planets. But as with any film, the events are open to interpretation. As with Nolan’s previous films, grieving and loss are major themes, and Interstellar suggests that part of loss is what we leave for our children, the importance of the future we create for them. Time is a variable within the calculations of Professor Brand (Caine) and the adult Murph (Chastain), but it is also a philosophical consideration for the film as a whole. What do we do with time? How can we maximise its utilisation and its availability for others? Do some people warrant more time than others and a species warrant more than individuals? Interstellar expresses a fundamental aspect of cinema: the capture and manipulation of time. Nolan’s work is often meta-cinematic, and just as a filmmaker rearranges time, temporal calculation and manipulation is intrinsic to the story, emphasising the importance of time and our use of it. Furthermore, the film undertakes that most fundamental task of cinema, especially science fiction – to transport its audience. Watching the film, I both felt myself transported beyond Earth and to a new perspective on time, all based upon concepts of love and hope. Interstellar is a flawed film, but it is an undeniably affecting and moving experience.

Interstellar poster

Expanding and Continuing Part Three: Transforming to Extinction

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I always like to see the positive in movies. Whereas others bemoan the death of narrative cinema (which is nonsense) and complain about overreliance on CGI (which is overly simplistic) or whinge that sequels and remakes have squashed originality, I find plenty to enjoy in mainstream cinema and rarely leave the movie theatre disappointed. But I confess that Michael Bay’s latest entry in the Transformers franchise did that rarest of things – left me bored.

I’ve been a fan of Transformers since I was a child (although I was a bigger fan of M.A.S.K. and Centurions – can we get a big screen adaptation of one of those please), and this has made me sympathetic to the current film franchise. In fact, I loved 2007’s Transformers, which combined 80s nostalgia with contemporary aesthetics and delivered some of the most blistering action sequences of that year (which also included The Bourne Ultimatum, Spider-Man 3, Die Hard 4.0, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End). Since then, the franchise dipped with Revenge of the Fallen (2009) that not only featured racist stereotypes but pointless mysticism and a story that went all over the place before collapsing into incoherent noise (even the director described it as “crap”). Things got slightly better with Dark of the Moon (2011) that was at least more coherent but still suffered from too much in its final (hour long!) battle sequence. Age of Extinction continues the trend of ever-longer films (respectively, the four movies have lasted 144 minutes, 150 minutes, 154 minutes, 165 minutes), and demonstrates the law of diminishing returns as more proves to be less.

I went into Age of Extinction with low expectations because of poor to mediocre reviews, and often find that low expectations are surpassed. I wanted to enjoy the film and it certainly delivers on scale, with huge spaceships looming over Earth and the return of favourites Optimus Prime (voiced again by Peter Cullen) and Bumblebee. These are combined with some decent new Transformers including Hound (John Goodman) and Lockdown (Mark Ryan), although I could have done without the horrible Japanese stereotype Drift (Ken Watanabe). An alien robot with a personality out of human samurai culture, including swords and helmet, that speaks in haikus and calls his leader “Sensei”? Really? If anything, this was more offensive that Skids and Mudflaps in Revenge of the Fallen. The much-touted appearance of the Dinobots was pleasing when it arrived, but they only turned up in the last half hour by which time I’d stopped caring.

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This was the main problem with Age of Extinction, as, despite my goodwill, the film failed to maintain my engagement. My attention wandered over its 165 minute running time, my reactions reduced to “Uh-huh”, “Uh-huh”, “Yes”, “Um-hum”, “How long have we been here?”, “Why did you do that?”, “Hmm”, “There’s still half an hour to go?!” There are some nice concepts, but again and again Ehren Kruger’s script and Michael Bay’s direction flog ideas to death, resurrect them and beat them to death again, or just abandon them. Early in the film, the Transformers are presented as illegal immigrants being pursued by nasty government agents, and this demonstrates that you can include political parallels in mainstream entertainment cinema. Similarly, the financial troubles of the Yaeger family, father Cade (Mark Wahlberg) and daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), allow for real world resonance. But these ideas are quickly abandoned in favour of over-designed alien robots that waste your time messing about. The bickering between the Autobots is tedious and serves no purpose, and the number of moving parts on the Transformers quickly becomes distracting. A robot that transforms into a vehicle is fine, but to have every little piece of them in constant motion actually becomes annoying. Worse, there is a bizarre attempt to humanise the robots and make them somehow biological, which includes blinking, breathing and bleeding. I don’t need Optimus Prime to leak green fluid to know he is injured – he has large holes in his body and has difficulty standing. That makes it pretty clear. This excess reaches its apex during the second act aboard Lockdown’s ship, which features some sort of robot guard dog-hyena type creatures. When those appeared all I could think was “Why, why, why?” Minions fair enough, but savage robot beasts is going way too far.

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Repeatedly, the film suffers in comparison with 2007’s Transformers, which featured running battles that kept things moving. In Age of Extinction, battles occur, chases occur, and they go on and on and on and on. It is always very easy for a film critic, or indeed viewer, to say what would make the film better. It’s incredibly arrogant and presumptuous to assume that I know better than a professional filmmaker about how to do his job. But there is a glaring moment in Age of Extinction when the film could have moved into its climax. Instead, that is only the end of the second act and we have a torturous extension into China (which comes off as remarkably benevolent, clearly the producers had an eye on the lucrative Chinese market). I will not go so far as to say the film should have ended in Chicago (like the last one did), but I would have been happier if it had. I was already bored by the Chicago act, but that may have been because I knew there was more to come so the stakes were too low to excite me. More can be more – I will happily watch the three-hour cut of Avatar – but Transformers: Age of Extinction can best be described as a tedious, bloated, messy headache of a film.

And the nominees are…

Oscars

On 16 January 2014, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for the 86th Annual Academy Awards. I’m sure there will be criticisms and complaints in the coming weeks that nominee X should not have been honoured in favour of snub Y, but as always, the nominees provide an insight into what the Academy like to reward, what are dubbed worthy and who has been able to garner the attention. There were some surprises, both among the inclusions and the omissions, but overall the usual suspects are well represented.AMERICAN-HUSTLE-poster-1024x768There are several remarkable aspects among the nominees, most startlingly the multiple nominations for a David O. Russell film, as for the second consecutive year, his film is nominated in every major category. Just like Silver Linings Playbook last year, American Hustle is nominated for Picture, Achievement in Directing, Actor in a Leading Role, Actress in a Leading Role, Actor in a Supporting Role, Actress in a Supporting Role, and Screenplay (Original rather than Adapted, as Playbook was). Silver Linings Playbook’s success can be credited at least partially to Harvey Weinstein, but American Hustle was not distributed by The Weinstein Company, whereas one of Weinstein’s major awards hopeful, Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom, only managed a nod for Best Original Song. Perhaps more effort was put into August: Osage County.

Anyway, here are my impressions of the nominees, and my initial predictions. These may change, depending on how other awards go.

Best Motion Picture of the Year
12 Years A Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
The Wolf Of Wall Street

I wish the Academy members would pick ten nominees as they’ve been able to do since 2009. Surely there was something else that warranted attention (for my money, Saving Mr. Banks is the major omission). Dallas Buyers Club would have been a surprise before the Golden Globes, but now its star has risen. American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, 12 Years A Slave and The Wolf Of Wall Street were all expected, and Nebraska isn’t that surprising, coming from Oscar darling Alexander Payne, but I’m impressed that Her and Philomena got in. Her is science fiction, which hardly ever gets a look in, and Philomena has stirred up controversy with its depiction of the Catholic Church. None are likely to win, however, as the obvious nominees are also the likely winners. With few nominations, Captain Phillips seems unlikely, and the provocative subject matter of The Wolf Of Wall Street is likely to put voters off. It looks like a three horse race at the moment, between American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave. I’d love Gravity to pick up Best Picture because it is such an exquisitely cinematic film, but the historical subject matter of the other two contenders is likely to carry more weight (geddit?) than the space thriller. American Hustle, however, is rather flimsy, which works against it, so by process of elimination, and by virtue of it having won the Golden Globe and the Critics Choice Award, 12 Years A Slave emerges as the most likely winner.

Prediction: 12 Years A Slave

Best Achievement in Directing
Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity
Steve McQueen – 12 Years A Slave
Alexander Payne – Nebraska
David O. Russell – American Hustle
Martin Scorsese – The Wolf Of Wall Street

No surprises here, although I’m disappointed that Paul Greengrass was overlooked. I would like Alfonso Cuarón to pick up an award, as Gravity is a cinematic experience like none other, probably the closest the average cinema-goer is ever likely to get to being in space. With his second consecutive nomination (and third overall, as he was also nominated for The Fighter), David O. Russell might be in with a chance, but I don’t think he is any more likely than Steve McQueen (first nomination) or Martin Scorsese, who previously won for The Departed. Alexander Payne is the outside runner, and I think it will come down to between McQueen and Cuaron. I dare to predict the Academy will agree with me, as Directing can reward superb technical accomplishments even when the film as a whole is not honoured with Best Picture (see Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain, The Pianist, Saving Private Ryan, Traffic), plus Cuarón has already received the Golden Globe and the Critics Choice Award.

Prediction: Alfonso Cuarón

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale – American Hustle
Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf Of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years A Slave
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

There is a host of grand performers here, all of whom have elements working in their favour. Bruce Dern might be a favourite due to his age – at 77 there may not be many nominations ahead for him and he has only once been nominated previously, for Coming Home in 1978. Christian Bale is the only previous winner here, having picked up Supporting Actor win for The Fighter in 2010 (also directed by David O. Russell). While this might work in his favour, his performance is rather unflashy, and the Academy tends to honour more showy performances, especially if the character has to overcome something. Chiwetel Ejiofor is playing a historical figure in an “important” historical film, and white guilt could work in his favour. That said, it is his first nomination which can sometimes work against you. The same is true of Matthew McConaughey, but having won a Golden Globe, a Critics Choice Award and a SAG award he is a front runner, plus he is playing someone suffering from an illness – AIDS no less, which twenty years ago won Tom Hanks his first Oscar for Philadelphia (it’s surprising that Hanks isn’t up for either Captain Phillips or Saving Mr. Banks, but there we go). Leonardo DiCaprio also won a Golden Globe this year, but he is in a comedy, a genre that is rarely honoured with major awards (this is also a mark against Bale). But of all the nominees, he has had the most nominations, this being his third for Best Actor (previously for The Aviator and Blood Diamond) and fourth overall (Supporting Actor for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Oscars can sometimes be cumulative, and maybe it is DiCaprio’s time. But his role and film are not the type beloved by the Academy, so expect the McConaissance to culminate (but not end) with a golden baldie.

Prediction: Matthew McConaughey

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Amy Adams – American Hustle
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Judi Dench – Philomena
Meryl Streep – August: Osage County

This is another very strong group, and a good set of roles for older women. All too often, Hollywood (and beyond) only pays attention to women under forty, but Amy Adams is the only performer of that age (and at 38, she’s getting close). This is Adams’ fifth nomination, but her first for Actress in a Leading Role, having previously been nominated for Supporting Actress in Junebug, Doubt, The Fighter and The Master. She is the only performer here to have not previously won an Oscar, so maybe it is her time. She did get the Golden Globe, but like DiCaprio and Bale, may be hampered by her film being a comedy. A very strong contender is Cate Blanchett, who also got the Golden Globe and was getting Oscar-tipped as soon as Blue Jasmine was released, plus she won the Critics Choice and SAG awards. Blanchett previously won Supporting Actress for The Aviator, a category in which she was also nominated for Notes on a Scandal and I’m Not There, while this is her third nomination for Leading Actress after Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. This could well be her year. The other three have all won, Bullock and Streep very recently, for The Blind Side and The Iron Lady, respectively. Streep has more nominations, seemingly, than anyone, but conversely a very poor success rate. Her role as a crotchety matriarch in August: Osage County may be a little low key for the voters, while Gravity’s technical accomplishments are likely to overshadow Bullock’s performance. Dench has been nominated a few times, including Leading Actress for Mrs Brown, Notes on a Scandal, Iris and Mrs. Henderson Presents, as well as Supporting Actress for Chocolat and a win for her EIGHT MINUTES in Shakespeare In Love. It would be lovely to see her win, but the strong contender at this stage is Blanchett, whose has had the momentum for months.

Prediction: Cate Blanchett

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper – American Hustle
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years A Slave
Jonah Hill – The Wolf Of Wall Street
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

Once again, having won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG awards, Jared Leto is a front runner, despite this being his first nomination. Leto as well as Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill are slightly surprising actors to see in Oscar territory as they are not always known for awards films. That said, Hill was previously nominated for Moneyball, while Cooper was up for Best Actor in a Leading Role last year for Silver Linings Playbook. These second nominations make these two actors more nominated than other, more obvious performers, such as Gary Oldman and, indeed, Michael Fassbender. This is actually Fassbender’s first nomination, despite his dominating performances in such films as Shame, Prometheus and Inglourious Basterds. He’s playing the sort of vile villain that sometimes attracts Oscar attention, while newcomer Barkhad Abdi is a very welcome presence. A year ago, no one had heard of this guy, and now he’s going to the Oscars, what a thrill! Captain Phillips has relatively few nominations, so this is probably its best chance for a win, but on the night, I think the Academy is more likely to go the same way as the Globes and the Critics.

Prediction: Jared Leto

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years A Slave
Julia Roberts – August: Osage County
June Squibb – Nebraska

This is an interesting bunch, with previous winners of the Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar, Jennifer Lawrence and Julia Roberts, up against newcomers Lupita Nyong’o and June Squibb. Sally Hawkins is an established presence, but this is also her first nomination. Sometimes, first timers can do well, such as Octavia Spencer in The Help, but big stars in supporting roles often do well, so this is likely to come down to Roberts and Lawrence. Lawrence got the Globe, but Nyong’o got the Critics Choice Award as well as the SAG award, and the members of SAG will also be members of AMPAS, so the newcomer may surpass the established.

Prediction: Lupita Nyong’o

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

American Hustle – Eric Singer, David O. Russell

Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen

Her – Spike Jonze

Nebraska – Bob Nelson

Dallas Buyers Club – Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack

Writing awards as often go to films that don’t win anything else to those that do, so it’s fairly open. I think David O. Russell is more likely to pick up this award than Directing, and never count Woody Allen out. Alexander Payne has picked up screenplay awards for Sideways and The Descendants, respectively, so could be in with a good chance here. Hard to say.

Prediction: American Hustle

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Before Midnight – Richard Linklater

Captain Phillips – Billy Ray

12 Years a Slave – John Ridley

The Wolf of Wall Street – Terence Winter

Philomena – Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope

Adapted Screenplay and Picture often go together (see Argo, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country For Old Men, The Departed), so Before Midnight is unlikely here. The other four are all true stories, making them strong contenders in this category as well as Best Picture. While Steve McQueen is not a sure thing for Directing, the historical significance of a true story of survival and courage gives him a very good chance of winning here, whereas the controversy around Philomena may make voters anxious. The hedonism and debauchery of The Wolf of Wall Street might offend conservative sensibilities, but Captain Phillips is a tale of true life heroism, which makes it a strong contender. Come the night, expect this to go to one of the tales of courage.

Prediction: 12 Years A Slave

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
Frozen
The Wind Rises

Frozen has been almost universally praised and already picked up the Golden Globe as well as the Critics Choice Award. I see no reason for it not to continue its winning ways.

Prediction: Frozen

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)
The Great Beauty (Italy)
The Hunt (Denmark)
The Missing Picture (Cambodia)
Omar (Palestine)

The only one of these I have heard of is The Hunt, so go Denmark!

Prediction: The Hunt

Best Documentary, Feature
The Act Of Killing
Cutie And The Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet From Stardom

People sometimes deride the Academy for being very conservative and not rewarding films that are willing to take risks. While there is justification for this criticism, to see The Act of Killing included in this list of nominees is very positive. By all accounts, the film is harrowing beyond belief, and while that might negate its chances of winning, the genre of documentary arguably exists to challenge and, when necessary, provoke. I hope it does well.

Prediction: The Act of Killing

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
The Book Thief – John Williams
Gravity – Steven Price
Her – William Butler and Owen Pallet
Philomena – Alexadre Desplat
Saving Mr. Banks – Thomas Newman

Scores are a difficult business because at their best, they neither overpower the drama nor are unnoticeable, synchronising perfectly with the mood of the images. John Williams has more awards than you can shake a conductor’s baton at, and Alexandre Desplat has done nicely as well. There’s a nice spread among these nominees which makes it hard to pick one, but since this is the only nomination for Saving Mr. Banks, I’d like to see some love that way.

Prediction: Saving Mr. Banks

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song
“Alone Yet Not Alone” – Alone Yet Not Alone
“Happy” – Despicable Me 2 (Pharrell Williams)
“Let It Go” – Frozen (Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez)
“The Moon Song” – Her (Karen O. and Spike Jonze)
“Ordinary Love” – Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (U2)

Tough call, as the criteria for song are less obvious than other categories. I fondly remember U2 performing “Hands That Built America” back in 2003, and it’d be great for them to pick up an award (they did not previously). Then again, there was a time when Disney was unbeatable in the music stakes, and Frozen by many accounts is a return to form. Why not let it continue?

Prediction: “Let It Go”

Best Achievement in Sound Editing
All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Lone Survivor

It’s disappointing not to see Rush in here, as that had some of the most exhilarating sound I’ve heard in ages. But the sound of the sea, storms, boats and man was a great feature of All Is Lost, so that is good to see here. Similarly, a great cacophony is heard in Captain Phillips, while Gravity makes great use of sound and also silence. I think Gravity is going to be the big winner in technical categories rather than “artistic”, so expect this award to gravitate towards the space tale.

Prediction: Gravity

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor

Apparently, the voice of Smaug was created through multiple layers of Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice. If that’s not impressive sound mixing, I don’t know what is. Any film involving music is a good bet in the sound categories (see Les Miserables from last year), so that speaks well of Inside Llewyn Davis. As in Sound Editing, Captain Phillips and Gravity are strong contenders, so it really is hard to pick one. But since it isn’t likely to win much else, and it’s a fascinating fusion of human talent and technological wizardy, let’s go for the hobbity-tosh.

Prediction: The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Production Design
American Hustle
Gravity
The Great Gatsby
Her
12 Years A Slave

Historical dramas are often a good bet in this category, so that bodes well for American Hustle, 12 Years A Slave and The Great Gatsby, the last of which has the added bonus of being hugely concerned with design, sets and production. But it was a while ago – when I saw it nominated my first thought was “Wasn’t that up last year?” Her is an interesting choice, but not a likely winner. The production design of Gravity treads that fine line between sets and special effects, as it is often not clear whether the surroundings are physical are not. However, the very fact that it is in the category means that the production design has impressed the Academy members, so that impression may well lead to winning votes.

Prediction: Gravity

Best Achievement in Cinematography
The Grandmaster – Philippe Le Sourd

Gravity – Emmanuel Lubezki

Inside Llewyn Davis – Bruno Delbonnel

Nebraska – Phedon Papamichael

Prisoners – Roger Deakins

Please, let this be the year that Roger Deakins wins an Oscar! The man is an absolute genius with a camera and cinematography is the one thing that cannot be faulted in the otherwise deeply flawed Prisoners. This is Deakins’ 11th nomination and he has never won, and he really should just for staying power. But I highly doubt it, because cinematography has become the province of 3D. From Avatar to Hugo to Life of Pi, 3D is what impresses the cinematographers of AMPAS, and I see no reason for this trend to not continue.

Prediction: Gravity

Best Achievement in Makeup And Hair
Dallas Buyers Club
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

It is quite baffling that American Hustle has been left out of this category, since the hair is one of the most overt features in the film. In its absence, and with the rather weird appearances of Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger, this seems a winner by default. Healthy men are turned into AIDS victims in Dallas Buyers Club; that has to be worth something.

Prediction: Dallas Buyers Club

Best Achievement in Costume Design
American Hustle
The Grandmaster
The Great Gatsby
The Invisible Woman
12 Years A Slave

Better to see American Hustle here, as the costumes are almost as important as the hair. Costume dramas, unsurprisingly, tend to dominate this category, but once again I think the time since The Great Gatsby was released will work against it. 12 Years A Slave is a decent contender here, but bear in mind that most of its costumes look (which does not mean they are) simple: shifts and dresses, shirts and breeches. The Invisible Woman is the epitome of costume drama, not only Dickensian but actually features Dickens himself, so I think it has a very good chance of winning.

Prediction: The Invisible Woman

Best Achievement in Film Editing
12 Years a Slave – Joe Walker

American Hustle – Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers

Gravity – Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger

Captain Phillips – Christopher Rouse

Dallas Buyers Club – Martin Pensa, John Mac McMurphy

Editing is the silver bullet that often leads to Best Picture, but not always. This is because the dominant filmmaking practice in Hollywood is that films are made in the editing room, so no matter how much work is done on location or on soundstages, the editing room is where the film is truly assembled, and then reassembled and trimmed and reconsidered and tweaked and adjusted before finally being released. Therefore, it is no surprise that all the nominees for Editing are also Best Picture nominees. One of the complaints about The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is too long, and to see Thelma Schoonmaker omitted from this category perhaps indicates a similar feeling among the Academy members. Therefore, I think the tussle for Editing will come down to those jockeying for Picture and Directing, leaving Captain Phillips and Dallas Buyers Club out. While American Hustle and Gravity both demonstrate accomplished editing, on the night the combined force of Editing and Adapted Screenplay will be key to 12 Years A Slave’s victory.

Prediction: 12 Years A Slave

Best Achievement in Visual Effects
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness

Ah yes, the blockbuster award. Every film in this category is a blockbuster, with only one also being a prestige film. That’s Gravity, in case you’ve dozed off by now. Iron Man 3 does a lot of good work in combining purely digital creations with integrating the human and the digital, while The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug creates fantastic creatures including but not limited to the titular dragon. Star Trek Into Darkness often looks completely digital, but does a decent amount of practical effects as well, which still have bearing and merit, it must be said. But I see this one going to the technical triumph of this year, which is going to win plenty, though not everything. OK, you can go back to sleep now.

Prediction: Gravity

Best Documentary – Short Subject

Cavedigger
Facing Fear
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Prison Terminal: The Last Days Of Private Jack Hall

Best Live Action Short Film
Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)
Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)
Helium
Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have To Take Care Of Everything?)
The Voorman Problem

Best Animated Short Film
Feral
Get A Horse!
Mr. Hublot
Possessions
Room On The Broom

I know nothing about any of these, so have no opinion.