Ron Howard, Auteur?

There is an episode of Dawson’s Creek, that stalwart of ‘90s television, where Dawson submits a movie to a college film festival. At the registration table, he is asked to provide some information, including the following gem:

Nikki: Uh, favorite director?

Dawson: Spielberg.

Nikki: (looking up at him) You’re kidding?

Dawson: No.

(She looks almost embarrassed. She takes Dawson’s film reel over to another table as he follows.)

Nikki: Steven Spielberg. Undoubtedly a gifted filmmaker, but I mean, come on, where’s the edge?

Steven Spielberg, for all his contributions to cinema, is rarely placed in the upper echelon of auteurs like Welles, Ford, or Hitchcock. Adding insult to injury, his work is offered up to be sneered at by fictional college students on a mediocre TV show perhaps best remembered for a meme of its star blubbering. If Spielberg, twice a winner of the Academy Award for Best Director, can be dismissed so easily, how much more might cinephiles write off directors considered derivative of him?

Perhaps chief among these ranks Ron Howard, himself an Oscar winner and director of nearly thirty feature-length films. Howard’s films range from frothy comedies to bloated epics to extraterrestrial geriatric drama, but in his own way, he has defined himself as one of cinema’s premier chroniclers of human perseverance. A look at some of his most well-regarded films—Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and Cinderella Man—demonstrates that Howard is drawn to projects that examine both the triumph of the human spirit and the sometimes-negative fallout of persevering through struggle.

Despite his success, Howard seems too often compared to Spielberg: for example, his early fantasy hits Splash and Cocoon came in the wake of Spielberg’s landmark E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Furthermore, they both seem to have shown interest in the years since to turning their cameras toward humanistic stories and away from more fantastical elements (though they’re each doggedly stubborn in maintaining the Da Vinci Code and Indiana Jones franchises, respectively). To present Howard as merely a Spielberg knockoff or protégé, though, is unfair to his development: Howard’s style and narrative preferences grew quite independent of Spielberg’s arc, and the two now present an intriguing parallel in examining humanistic themes.

Spielberg’s more humanistic efforts, particularly in films like Schindler’s List, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies, revolve mainly around major and far-reaching acts of incredible courage: saving Jews from the jaws of the Holocaust, passing the 13th Amendment amid a war-torn nation, or negotiating a prisoner exchange in a hostile Cold War environment. Howard, on the other hand, seems more concerned with emphasizing everyday people who achieve small victories over incredible odds through acts of endurance. Cinderella Man’s Jim Braddock doesn’t end the Great Depression; his main objective is to put food on the table for his wife and children. In that struggle, though, he becomes an Everyman symbol of persistence in crippling poverty. A Beautiful Mind does not chronicle a man who found a cure for schizophrenia, but a single individual who learned to push beyond the disease to make personal breakthroughs. Even Apollo 13 essentially boils down to a story of a core NASA team trying to ensure three men get home safely. This is the difference between Howard’s heroes and Spielberg’s: the stakes are often considerably lower in Howard’s films, but no less noble in their depiction of heroism.

The trend continues even to the more fantastical efforts of each director. Roy Neary, protagonist of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, leaves behind his life on Earth following an obsessive and isolating search for alien activity, stemming from a harrowing “close encounter.” Spielberg implies that Neary may have been called, in a way, by the extraterrestrial beings, and Neary finds more fulfillment in his quest to discover the truth behind a government-sealed national monument than in his home life. When Neary finally steps into the alien ship, his wife and children are nowhere to be found. Spielberg may have a reputation for “cheese,” but particularly in his early films, he goes all-in on the wonder of the unknown at the expense of human relationships.

Compare this to the characters of Howard’s Cocoon. Though they also decide to leave Earth with their alien guests, the emotional stakes are wildly different. Having promised not to reveal their intentions beyond vague references to leaving forever, characters are presented with the moral dilemma of weighing the cost of their decisions as they break the news to loved ones. Howard’s film does not allow for easy goodbyes, even at the enticing possibility of immortality and discovery of new dimensions, because the emphasis lies on the characters as living in a complex world of relationships and commitments.

Recently, Howard’s films have explored more cynically the effects of determination. Talk-show host David Frost gets the scoop he wants from the former president in Frost/Nixon, but at what cost to a man who has already been humiliated? The protagonists of Rush take their racing rivalry to the point of obsession and eventually severe injury. The whalers of In the Heart of the Sea are pushed to the limit of psychological torture and physical exposure to the elements. Nevertheless, Howard’s primary motivation is to take each character’s drive to its logical conclusion and demonstrate the effects of single-minded devotion in the face of adversarial surroundings.

In this way, Howard has established himself as cinema’s premier auteur in the area of human determination and spirit. Far from being derivative of Spielberg—or that famous all-American chronicler of the Everyman, Frank Capra—Howard is unafraid to show both the positive and negative effects of such a will. It may be time to reevaluate Howard as a true and pure voice in cinema—especially as growing cries for the acceptance of Michael Bay as a singular auteur grow—and one whose thematic signature continues to leave its mark on the silver screen.


Negan, Trump, and “Going Too Far”

I’m no fan of AMC’s The Walking Dead. It’s just not my cup of tea. I can handle violence, but I just don’t have the stomach for the unique brand of gore presented by TWD, so I’ve never started watching the show.

What I have done, though, is follow very closely others’ reactions to major plot points as they reveal themselves. One of the overarching themes of this exercise is that I now constantly see people throwing up their (virtual, Facebook) hands and proclaiming they are done with the show because someone died and they can no longer go on supporting such nonsense. This is not limited to the average viewer, either. Especially since Noah’s death in season five—you know, the one where his face is graphically ripped off—articles have been cropping up wondering whether “TWD went too far this time.”

Such questions have now reached a fever pitch, as it was revealed in this week’s season-seven premiere that the beloved Glenn met his demise at the end of arch-villain Negan’s “vampire bat.” A popular blog titled “The Walking Dead Quitter’s Club” has now proclaimed (after several prior events that tested the authors’ commitment) that there is a 100% likelihood they will never watch again.

With such a fierce reaction to an admittedly unpopular decision, people like me are left to wonder what compels TWD viewers to keep watching. If one death can be so heartbreaking in a show whose bread and butter is sucking the hope out of everything, what could possibly entice someone to stay on board?

Continue reading Negan, Trump, and “Going Too Far”

Best Films of 2015 (As of Right Now)

Every year around November I have to meticulously plan my time spent with other human beings, because so much of my life becomes dedicated to watching movies. I don’t know exactly where the compulsion comes from, other than maybe the belief that I can’t be an authority on which films are good unless I’ve seen them before 99% of the general public.

So off to the theater I have been going, and I need to be honest about something: until a few short weeks ago, I was convinced 2015’s crop was a dud. I saw many excellent films, but not a single truly great one. Even now, I think only one movie has convinced me of its classic status after only one viewing. Overall, I guess I can say 2015 was a decent year in film. I’d say at least the first six or seven films in my list are excellent-to-great, and a good number after that are well-made and entertaining, even if they come short of greatness.

This year (2015), I’ve seen only 54 movies that are Oscar eligible. Of course, that number will go up in the coming weeks, as I catch up on some Redbox releases and as a few indie movies finally make their way to Kentucky (I’m looking at you, Anomalisa!). But for the most part, I’ve seen all the movies that matter, since the Oscar nominations came out today and everything that’s excluded from them seems to be put on the back burner for a month or so.

Nevertheless, before I share my absolutely-not-definitive rankings of 2015 films I’ve seen, let me share a little bit about my process.

I generally don’t see movies that get bad reviews, and I almost never see movies that get universally awful reviews. A few years ago, women at my church convinced me to watch Fireproof after almost a year of avoiding it. It was unintentionally hilarious and I rather enjoyed laughing, but it also marked the occasion of me professing to never again bow to the pressure to see a movie I wouldn’t want to pay money to see anyway.

Now, I’m no prude, and I like to think I’m not so snooty that I won’t watch a good entertainment (I mean, I loved Spy). But when a move has a 34% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I’m probably not going to like it, and trying to convince me that it’s a good movie because it espouses a Christian worldview will not change that. So, no, you will not find War Room on this list. Let the hate mail rain down upon me.

Without further ado, here’s the list of every movie I’ve seen in 2015.

  1. The Revenant
  2. The Big Short
  3. Spotlight
  4. Sicario
  5. Mad Max: Fury Road
  6. The End of the Tour
  7. Creed
  8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  9. Best of Enemies
  10. Inside Out
  11. Slow West
  12. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
  13. Room
  14. Stanford Prison Experiment
  15. Steve Jobs
  16. The Martian
  17. Woman in Gold
  18. Ex Machina
  19. Danny Collins
  20. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II
  21. Bridge of Spies
  22. The Gift
  23. Brooklyn
  24. Spy
  25. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
  26. Love and Mercy
  27. While We’re Young
  28. Pawn Sacrifice
  29. Carol
  30. The Walk 
  2. Trumbo
  3. The Hateful Eight
  4. He Named Me Malala
  5. Phoenix
  6. Amy
  7. Avengers
  8. Southpaw
  9. Trainwreck
  10. Infinitely Polar Bear
  11. Cop Car
  12. Far from the Madding Crowd
  13. I’ll See You in My Dreams
  14. Bone Tomahawk
  15. Tomorrowland
  16. Jurassic World
  17. Testament of Youth
  18. What Happened, Miss Simone?
  19. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
  20. Holmes
  21. Kingsman
  22. Clouds of Sils Maria
  23. Time Out of Mind
  24. Irrational Man 


Oscar Nominations 2016 – Reaction

I’ve never understood why, every year and without fail, one comes across so many articles called something like “Biggest Oscar Snubs.” Actually, I do. It’s called click bait, and I usually fall for it despite my profound disagreement with whatever is in the article.

See, I have a problem with any list of, say, “ten actors who got snubbed at this year’s Oscars.” At least as far as acting nominations go, only five slots are open to the myriad actors and actresses eligible for a nomination in any given category. For someone to get “snubbed,” one is basically suggesting that Individual A deserved—indeed, was a lock for—a nomination, and instead was passed over for Individual B. Of course, all of our opinions are subjective, and maybe our favorite performance wasn’t honored with the recognition we think it deserves. But that doesn’t mean the Academy just arbitrarily nominated some hack instead. Everyone who received a nomination in the major categories today was forecasted to at least be a dark horse. You aren’t going to find anyone who is absolutely undeserving of recognition, even if that means one of your favorite 2015 performances or films was left out.

Look, I’m sorry if you personally thought Johnny Depp deserved a nomination for Black Mass, or even if you want to argue that Adam Sandler’s performance in Pixels changed your life. This does not change the fact that critics guilds and prior awards shows (like this week’s Golden Globes) help forecasters determine which individuals are most likely to receive a nomination.

Continue reading Oscar Nominations 2016 – Reaction

Oscar Predictions 2015 – The Major Categories

Well, here we are. The Oscars are less than eight hours away, and there is still no clear-cut frontrunner for Best Picture. This is the tightest race we’ve seen in a long, long, time, and it happened in a way similar to the fiasco of 2010-11. That year, we saw The Social Network virtually sweep all the critics’ awards and the Golden Globe before The King’s Speech swooped in at the last minute to pick up the PGA, DGA, SAG, BAFTA, and finally the Oscar for Best Picture. This year, Boyhood seemed unstoppable, cleaning up nearly every major critics award and the Globe, before Birdman halted its steamroller with wins at SAG, PGA and DGA. However, Boyhood isn’t down for the count, winning the Writers’ Guild Award, as well as the BAFTA, leaving us virtually neck-and-neck for Best Picture.

But that isn’t the only category that has become a nail-biter amongst the major contenders. Here are my final predictions for the eight major awards:

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • American Sniper
  • The Imitation Game
  • Inherent Vice
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Whiplash

General consensus is that Sniper and Inherent Vice are out of the running. Sniper is not really a writer’s film, and Vice was really only nominated as a consolation to Paul Thomas Anderson. I don’t think The Theory of Everything has what it takes to topple the two front-runners here, The Imitation Game and Whiplash. Whiplash was adapted by Damien Chazelle from his own short film, so it’s been nominated throughout awards season as both an adapted and an original screenplay. The Imitation Game has been cleaning up of late, including the Writers’ Guild Award, but its historical inaccuracies have resulted in a mini-controversy, leading BAFTA to toss its Adapted Screenplay to The Theory of Everything. I personally would love to see a Whiplash win here, but I think it’s going to The Imitation Game.

Prediction: The Imitation Game

Best Original Screenplay

  • Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
  • Boyhood
  • Foxcatcher
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Nightcrawler

Let’s be as brief as possible here: Foxcatcher and Nightcrawler are out. This is a three-horse race. The problem therein is that sometimes this award is given to a film too edgy to win Best Picture (Pulp Fiction), which looks like it could be a Birdman victory. Often, it reinforces the choice for Best Picture, which again could go to either Birdman or Boyhood. Finally, it also sometimes goes to writer-directors who have a smaller chance of winning Best Director, which could signal victory for Wes Anderson. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the runaway favorite here, but don’t be surprised if Boyhood or Birdman come from behind, as a win here could mean more wins where it matters.

Prediction: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Supporting Actor

  • Robert Duvall, The Judge
  • Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
  • Edward Norton, Birdman
  • Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
  • JK Simmons, Whiplash

JK Simmons. The end.

Prediction: JK Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress

  • Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
  • Laura Dern, Wild
  • Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
  • Emma Stone, Birdman
  • Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

This one is almost as easy to call as Supporting Actor: Arquette goes home with gold.

Prediction: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Actress

It was an unacceptably thin year for leading actress roles. For the second year in a row, the Actor category is loaded, with some “snubs” causing major controversies. However, it seemed the Academy had trouble finding five eligible female performances to even fill out this category.

  • Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
  • Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
  • Julianne Moore, Still Alice
  • Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
  • Reese Witherspoon, Wild

I remember when the resounding narrative was that Reese Witherspoon was going to win this category by a landslide. Then Still Alice came out. Julianne Moore has swept nearly every award ceremony, and I don’t think she’ll stop here.

Prediction: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Actor

  • Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
  • Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
  • Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
  • Michael Keaton, Birdman
  • Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything.

Finally, a category worth debating. Although Bradley Cooper has been making waves as a legitimate threat, this one comes down to a comeback story and a brilliant young actor. Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton have been duking it out since the beginning of the awards season, and their battle has crescendoed to tonight. Redmayne is the favorite, and his performance as Stephen Hawking is everything the Academy loves: playing a real-life character, a physical transformation, aging over a period of decades. In short, it screams “Oscar bait.” But is Redmayne too new on the scene to claim an Oscar? If he wins, he’ll be (amazingly) the eighth-youngest recipient of the award at 33 years old. Keaton, meanwhile, is enjoying a career resurgence, and in playing a satirized version of himself, gives a truly transcendent performance. At 63, Keaton would be (even more amazingly) the second-oldest to win Best Actor.

This one is tough to call. I really believe Keaton’s was the better performance, but Redmayne has the edge with more overall wins. However, the Academy loves people who can “play the game” throughout their career, and a win for Keaton would validate a whole career of hard work. I’m calling this one for the underdog, but my confidence is shaky at best.

Prediction: Michael Keaton, Birdman

Best Directing

  • Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
  • Boyhood, Richard Linklater
  • Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson
  • The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum

This is another close one. In terms of just how close, I’ll quote Mark Harris from Grantland:

Indiewire’s Anne Thompson…is guessing Iñárritu for Director and Boyhood for Picture. The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg, whose track record is impressive, is also predicting a split, but in reverse. Fandango’s Dave Karger, my longtime EW colleague and an awfully good guesser, has both prizes going to Boyhood; Deadline’s Pete Hammond is betting the Birdman ticket. That may not reflect how close a race this actually is — that will remain a mystery, since the Academy never reveals vote totals — but it certainly reflects how close it feels.

Iñárritu won the DGA award. In terms of precedent, that’s huge but not insurmountable. It has led to Best Directing Oscars 16 times in the last 20 years, which is completely meaningful unless you’re one of the three exceptions. Here’s my logic: There’s been a lot of Oscar press, up to and including Wednesday’s New York Times piece by Carpetbagger Cara Buckley (thanks for the shout-out!), about what a close race this is. One of the effects of extended discussion about a close race is that it gives voters a kind of permission to do whatever the h—they want — including to split Picture and Director, which used to be an extraordinary rarity (it happened only twice between 1973 and 1997) and has since become no big deal (it has happened six times in the last 16 years).

Which makes this a difficult call. Does the Acadmey split, and if so, how? Generally, in terms of a split, they tend to reward the director of the “edgier” picture, but give top prize to the more conservative film overall (which would mean an Iñárritu win followed by Boyhood for Best Picture). However, Richard Linklater is no newcomer, and the Academy may want to reward his overall body of work with a Best Directing win here (although the same could be said for Iñárritu). Furthermore, does the Academy want to perpetuate the “splitting” tendency, or will they finally return to honoring both the director and the film together?

My gut tells me Iñárritu has the momentum right now, and I think a Linklater win might be more political than anything. I am probably wrong no matter what.

Prediction: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, Birdman

Best Picture

And here we are. The hardest category to call is, fittingly, the biggest one of them all.

Seriously, nobody knows which film walks away victorious. Look at these odds.

It’s also the one that makes or breaks credibility in a “predict the winners” post such as this. If I get this wrong, none of my other predictions matter. Here’s hoping I don’t miss on Actor, Director, and Picture.

And the nominees are:

  • American Sniper
  • Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
  • Boyhood
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Selma
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Whiplash

This is, again, a battle between Birdman and BoyhoodBoyhood won the Globe and BAFTA. Birdman won the SAG and the PGA.

I have a feeling Boyhood is the more likely candidate to win. It’s the more “conservative” pick of the two. However, a poll of over 50 critics and bloggers thinks that Birdman comes away with a win off its incredible come-from-behind run.

In a situation like this, I have to go with the film I personally want to see win more. Call it an arbitrary way to choose, but I’ll sleep better at night knowing “the Academy got it wrong” than I will picking the film I didn’t like and finding out I abandoned the one I did just before it won.

Prediction: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

And there you have it. My official picks for 2015’s Academy Awards. We’ll see how I did starting at 8pm ET on ABC.

Oscar Predictions 2015 – The Mid-Majors

Every year at the Oscars, there’s a middle group of categories somewhere between “really important” and “I wonder which college basketball games are on right now.” For most people, the categories listed below probably fall closer to the latter group, but for people who genuinely love film, categories like editing and cinematography are just as important as Best Director.

Let’s take a look at the nominees.

Best Visual Effects

This is always a fun award to watch being presented, because the telecast always shows the various stages of visual effects magic. You see Gollum as this weird grid-like structure, then a crude 3D rendition, and finally, the layers ad up to a finished product of this weird little creature skittering across the screen.

  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Interstellar
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past

This is a pretty significant achievement for Marvel: three films based on their franchises are nominated in one category. That said, I don’t think Captain America  or X-Men have enough traction to win here. Which leaves us with three legitimate candidates. My personal favorite of the bunch is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, because Andy Serkis is always, always brilliant, and his motion-capture performances help make CGI feel real. Interstellar is the prestige film of the lot, and could walk away with a victory based on merit. Then there’s Guardians of the Galaxy, that feel-good romp through sci-fi silliness. It was adored by audiences and critics alike, but is it too light to pick up an Oscar? (In case you haven’t noticed, the Oscars don’t always reward the most deserving work, but the one that seems most prestigious). Interstellar certainly had more VFX, mostly because it had more of everything at almost three hours in length. But I’m going with the dark horse here.

Prediction: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Best Cinematography

Now, I know what you’re thinking here: why is this a mid-major category? Think of your favorite photograph. Think of the picture of that sailor getting a kiss in Times Square that was on the cover of Life. Cinematographers want you to remember their images. Everything from the composition of a shot (Establishing shot? Two-shot? Close-up?) to color pallette to lighting is in some way dictated by the cinematographer, so if the movie looks great, we have them to thank.

  • Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Ida
  • Mr. Turner
  • Unbroken

Roger Deakins, cinematographer of Unbroken, has been nominated twelve times with zero wins. He was the favorite a couple years ago for Skyfall, but ended up losing to Life of Pi. However, I don’t think 2015 will be his year, either (even though he’s responsible for my favorite shot in film all year). And, as has been our trend all along, I think we can safely rule out Mr. TurnerIda is brilliantly shot, in crisp, clear black-and-white that recalls the films of Bresson in its simplicity (and 4:3 ratio). But it’s also not going to win.

The two real contenders (in a category of beautiful movies) are Birdman and The Grand Budapest HotelGrand Budapest is inventive, colorful, and experimental (it alternates between aspect ratios as the narrative jumps through time). In another year, this one might go to Wes Anderson’s quirky tale. But this year, it’s going to Emmanuel Lubezki’s work on Birdman. Purposely designed to look like one continuous shot, Lubezki’s camera is crystal-clear, showing every pore on the faces of the actors from which it hovers no more than six inches away. It weaves and bobs like some beautiful pugilist. It’s a thing to behold.

Prediction: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Best Film Editing

One of my personal favorite categories. Next to the director, the editor may be the most important person at work on a film, because the editor sets the tone and pace of the whole movie. It’s the editor who chooses to cut to a reaction or stay on the person speaking. It’s like being a second director, and some movies (see Jawsare considered to be “made in the editing room.”

  • American Sniper
  • Boyhood
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Whiplash

This one comes down to two films, with one potential spoiler. As to the spoiler, it’s going to be American SniperSniper is going to be breathing down the neck of the frontrunner in many categories simply because it has so much momentum going into Oscar Sunday. But barring a shocker, this one is down to Boyhood and WhiplashBoyhood is interesting because it isn’t really greatly edited. It’s more a feat of twelve years’ work, and assembling so much footage into one workable film. Whiplash, on the other hand, is a master class in how to edited a film. The camera is constantly moving, and the editor picked up on that rhythm, using quick cuts when necessary, constantly allowing the tension to build. Its last act is a dizzying crescendo of terror. The problem therein is that Boyhood picked up most of the editing awards throughout the season, while Whiplash came on strong at the very end, picking up the BAFTA. In honesty, it’s probably going to be Boyhood taking home the trophy, but here I think I’ll stand up for which I thought was the better job. This is a close race, and it could go wither way.

Prediction: Whiplash

Best Foreign Film

Look, you may not care about foreign films. But this is an important category. It shows that there are films outside of Hollywood. It’s a category that chooses the best picture, without being called “Best Picture.” Not many categories at the Oscars honor a film as a whole and this is one of them.

  • Ida
  • Leviathan
  • Tangerines
  • Timbuktu
  • Wild Tales

This category had a semi-shocker when Force Majeure, one of the year’s best-reviewed films, was left out of the nominations. In a rather unfortunate way, though, it helps us narrow down the real contenders to two: Ida and Leviathan. Neither film is particularly uplifting material, and the latter is certainly more experimental in terms of structure. That approach paid off last year with Italy’s The Great Beauty, but I have a feeling that this year, Ida will take home the trophy.

Prediction: Ida

Best Documentary Feature

  • CitizenFour
  • Finding Vivian Maier
  • Last Days in Vietnam
  • The Salt of the Earth
  • Virunga

This has been another interesting category to follow. I’ve been assured that every entry is excellent, and for a long time, it seemed CitizenFour was a shoo-in. The Edward Snowden chronicle was one of the year’s best-reviewed films. However, both the Netflix-produced Virunga and Last Days in Vietnam have been gaining lots of steam, with many critics now proclaiming the latter to be the best of the bunch. Still, I think most of the damage has been done, so to speak, and despite two potential spoilers (Virunga is great, by the way. Watch it immediately.), CitizenFour will probably take this one.

Prediction: CitizenFour

Best Animated Feature

  • Big Hero 6
  • The Boxtrolls
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2
  • Song of the Sea
  • The Tale of Princess Kaguya

The biggest nomination shocker this side of Selma cam when The LEGO Movie was left out of this category. I personally didn’t think it was that great, but apparently all of the world did, so there’s that. The Boxtrolls was a critical darling, but does it have enough steam to beat two juggernauts? I don’t think so. It’s a Disney-versus-Dreamworks kind of year, with Big Hero 6 squaring up against How to Train Your Dragon 2. I think the latter takes it, as a way of honoring that rare sequel that lives up to its predecessor.

Prediction: How to Train Your Dragon 2

On next to the awards we’ve all been waiting for, in some of the most hard-to-call races in years. I’m not looking forward to this…

Oscar Predictions 2015 – The Minor Categories

Let me start this list of predictions off with a few observations. I went 20/24 on my predictions last year, with at least two of the misses coming in categories like “Best Documentary Short,” categories to which the average moviegoer has very limited access. So, let me get this out there right off the bat: I’m guessing on a lot of these. I have not gone to my local arthouse theater and watched the nominated short films. In categories like these, I rely heavily on oddsmakers like GoldDerby, which in turn process the predictions of people more qualified than I to prognosticate in such matters. Again, If I’m going to lose ground in my overall win percentage, it’ll happen by missing out in these categories.

Also, you might be one of those people who automatically rail against me using a label like “minor categories”–after all, this is the Oscars, and I’m sure that “Best Short Film–Live Action” is full of wonderful nominees. But let’s be real here–you’d be a lot more upset at missing Best Actor than you would Best Sound Mixing.

With that said, let’s take a look at some nominees.

Best Documentary Short Subject

I’m sure there are some really intriguing entries here, but I certainly haven’t seen any of them.

  • Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
  • Joanna
  • Our Curse
  • The Reaper
  • White Earth

According to the experts at GoldDerby, Crisis Hotline is the clear frontrunner. When it comes to documentary filmmaking, one wants to be timely and incisive. In a year filled with conversation on VA scandals, as well as potentially riding the coattails of the hot-button American Sniper, it seems Crisis Hotline may be taking home the gold statue. It also has what is possibly the best marketing of the bunch, coming from HBO Films. If there’s a potential spoiler, it appears to be the tearjerker Joanna, about a terminally ill woman who starts a blog and chronicles her final months of life.

Prediction: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

Best Live Action Short

  • Aya
  • Boogaloo and Graham
  • Butter Lamp
  • Parvaneh
  • The Phone Call

The main reason I don’t get to vote for the Academy Awards is because if they allowed me to do so, I would be tempted to vote for anything called Butter Lamp sight unseen.

This one doesn’t even seem like a competition. Currently, the odds of The Phone Call winning are a staggering 4/11. I won’t mess with odds like that.

Prediction: The Phone Call

Best Animated Short

  • The Bigger Picture
  • The Dam Keeper
  • Feast
  • Me and My Moulton
  • A Single Life

Again, this is a runaway: Disney’s short Feast sits at 3/10 odds to win. As in, not even worth plopping down your cash for. However, the runner-up as of now, as far as oddsmakers are concerned, is The Dam Keeper, at 5/1, making it a legitimate dark horse. Still, Walt Disney has the marketing power to take this every year if it wants, and I don’t see anything eclipsing Feast.

Prediction: Feast

Sound Mixing

As we move into the sound categories, you’ll notice an award for Sound Mixing and another for Sound Editing. The latter used to be called Sound Effects Editing, which helps you realize that big, flashy movies like Interstellar or American Sniper have a leg up on the competition. Sound Mixing, though, is this weird category that no one really gets. Is it about the final mix of sound, or about the process of mixing it, or what? Check out this piece at Grantland and you’ll see that there’s no great way to choose this category.

  • American Sniper
  • Birdman
  • Interstellar
  • Unbroken
  • Whiplash

Going along with the Grantland piece, I see it as significant that Whiplash, a small film, got a nomination here. When you see the film, you’ll realize just how amazing its mix is, though. This movie is a wall of sound that Phil Spektor could only dream of. It is a visceral sucker-punch and its editing–both visual and auditory–play key roles in its immersive experience. However, we should watch out for American Sniper. Conservatives everywhere love this movie–and that also means a significant number of the older-leaning, white demographics that compose Academy voters are apt to vote for it. It does have an incredible mix, but is it too divisive a picture overall? Also, be on the lookout for Birdman. Often, a movie that ends up sweeping the big awards will win these lesser ones, too, whether it deserves them or not. A Birdman victory could mean bigger things down the road. But right now, I’m calling it for the little indie that could.

Prediction: Whiplash

Best Sound Editing

  • American Sniper
  • Birdman
  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
  • Interstellar
  • Unbroken

Again, this one is about sound effects. The above comment on Birdman holds true here, too–a win could mean a lot for the Best Picture nominee. We can probably safely rule out The Hobbit and UnbrokenInterstellar provides an interesting dark horse here: a smart, long, sci-fi film that has a legitimate shot at winning other technical awards. However, I think that the Academy decides here to honor American Sniper. It’s the movie of the moment, and it’s probably been viewed by more Academy members than Interstellar.

Prediction: American Sniper

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Being the expert in makeup and hairstyling that I am (I am now the proud owner of two combs and four kinds of pomade), This category should be a breeze, right?

  • Foxcatcher
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Guardians of the Galaxy

Only three nominees! I guess we really are trying to keep the telecast under three hours, eh? Well, let’s see here. Just looking at the nominees, I think we can get rid of Foxcatcher. This may be a surprise, since the film has Best Director and Best Actor nominations, but that thing on Steve Carell’s face is actually pretty divisive (I felt it inhibited his performance). Depending on who you ask, it was either great or hideous makeup work. WHich leaves us with two nominees. In cases like this, it’s always best to go with the Best Picture nominee, and I already feel that the sublime period work of Grand Budapest Hotel was the best of the bunch. I was jealous of Ralph Fiennes’ hair the whole darn movie, and look what they did to Tilda Swinton! If that’s not convincing makeup, I don’t know what is. GoldDerby seems to agree with me here, so I’ll call this one now.

Prediction: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Costume Design

Again, my expertise is unparalleled in this field…

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Inherent Vice
  • Into the Woods
  • Maleficent
  • Mr. Turner

This can be a tough category to call. It seems that the award tends to alternate between British period pieces (the poofier the gowns, the better) and out-there fantasy films. However, this year, I think this is actually fairly easy to project.

Rule out Maleficent. No other nominations? Not a good sign. Rule out Mr. Turner. Not enough publicity for the film. Rule out Inherent Vice. Its period detail is spectacular, but members of this branch generally want to see the design work put into practice, not necessarily a good job combing through vintage clothes.

I think this one goes to Grand Budapest. It’s a big, colorful movie, and the costumes are suited to each character’s personality (look at these two, and try to convince me they’re good guys). Into the Woods has an outside chance, but I think it may be hindered by the somewhat similar Maleficent.

Prediction: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Production Design

This one used to be called “Art Direction.” It’s essentially the design of sets, from the huge facade of buildings to the props in an actor’s hand. It’s about the look of the film, whether it achieves an effect of expressionism or realism. Sometimes, fantastical, colorful films get the Oscar, and on the other hand, one often sees stately British period dramas represented.

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Interstellar
  • Into the Woods
  • Mr. Turner

Mark Harris at Grantland points out that those aforementioned British period dramas have been striking out of late in this category. So let’s rule out Mr. Turner (again) and The Imitation GameInterstellar  could get some love here, but it’s unlikely to win (especially since Gravity lost in the same category last year). Into the Woods is yet another dark horse, but I think Grand Budapest continues its lighthearted romp through the technical awards and snags this one. Wes Anderson and his teams are known for crafting each film with meticulous care, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception.

Prediction: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Original Score

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Interstellar
  • Mr. Turner
  • The Theory of Everything

Two of my favorite scores in film this year were The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Theory of Everything (another favorite, Birdman, got left out here, which makes me very unhappy). There are a couple issues in this category. First, Alexandre Desplat composed two of them: Grand Budapest and The Imitation Game. This means he might split votes between himself. Ruling out (of course) Mr. Turner and Interstellar (it might take Hans Zimmer a while to live down that Inception score), I think this race comes down to Grand Budapest and Theory of Everything. Having just re-watched the latter, I must say, it’s mushy, gushy, and manipulative (in short, everything Academy voters love). I would vote for Grand Budapest if I could, but alas, the Academy has yet to recognize my musical genius. Besides, it’s my job here to predict what others will vote for, not what I prefer. Grand Budapest won the BAFTA; The Theory of Everything won the Golden Globe. The former is by a renowned composer with eight nominations and zero wins as of yet. The latter is by some guy named Johann Johannsson (no prior nominations). GoldDerby has Theory of Everything as a clear favorite, but The Grand Budapest Hotel as a real threat at 2/1 odds. I really, really want to go with the underdog here…in fact, I typed it as my winner once. I hope it wins. I think I’ll be wrong no matter which I pick. But I’m picking the favorite.

Prediction: The Theory of Everything

Best Original Song

  • “Everything is Awesome” – The LEGO Movie
  • “Glory” – Selma
  • “Grateful” – Beyond the Lights
  • “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” – Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
  • “Lost Stars” – Begin Again

So let’s be clear here: Oscar almost never picks actual good songs to compete in this category. It’s usually given to something that represents a big “issue” picture so that the Academy can stroke its ego and feel it rewarded something noble (Bono is always nominated here). That said, we can rule out “Grateful” and “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” No publicity. We can also probably get rid of “Everything is Awesome,” because as much as we all have to admit its catchiness, and as much as the Academy might want to give it the “My Bad” Award for leaving it out of the Animated Feature category, this is not really a song that something like the Academy Awards recognizes. So that leaves us with “Lost Stars”–which, by the way is my favorite–and “Glory.” “Glory” has won, like, every one of these awards, so let’s not buck the trend.

Prediction: “Glory,” Selma

Well, there you have it. The “Lesser” or “Minor” Categories. I have a bad feeling about Best Original Score, but, hey, at least it’s minor, right? Right?