On Thursday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces it nominees for the best achievements in the 2012 film year, and for the first time in an age, it's genuinely unclear what they're going to pick in many of the categories. Which makes the guessing game part of the season more fun than usual.
For the record: last year I went a reasonable but not legendary 83/118 overall, and a mortifying 33/44 in the Big 8 categories.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
Those eight are my official predictions. There can be anywhere from five to ten nominations, and if there are more, I would expect them to be from among the following.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
There are five very easy ones, the ones that I'd be genuinely shocked to see any of them miss out: Argo, Lincoln, Les Mis, Silver Linings, ZDT. Then comes Pi, which wouldn't, like, give me a heart attack, but I would definitely count myself surprised not to see it. After that is where it starts to get wobbly, and thus fun. Django came out at just the right moment to be THE new shiny toy that everybody was talking about - thus stealing ZDT's shiny toy thunder, I might add - but even that, alongside a recent PGA nomination, wouldn't be enough to overcome what I perceived to be a remarkably Oscar-unfriendly amount of hip violence. What actually sealed the deal for me was when I tallied up my prediction totals, and found that I would be arguing that Django was set to tie the record for most nominations without making it into Best Picture, and that was not even a little bit something I wanted to do.
Beasts and Moonrise, I gather, are competing for a single "indie movie" slot, and I gather that many more people love the former. For my remaining non-prediction hedge, I am reminded that last year, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close sneaked in on virtually no fanfare, and we don't really have a good sense of how this "variable number between five and ten" system works yet. As we all know, the Academy is deeply old, and which unexpectedly large hit that nabbed a SAG Ensemble nod is all about the old people? And if you were an old person, would you be likelier to trumpet the "seniors are lively" narrative of Marigold Hotel, or the "seniors die" narrative of Amour? Frankly, I'd almost be willing to push it up a notch if I could bear to predict nine nominees.
If Skyfall actually swings a nomination here, I will be dumbfounded.
Ben Affleck, Argo
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Tom Hooper, Les Misérables
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Here's where things start to get awesomely muddy. Affleck, Bigelow, and Spielberg are set; we don't need to worry about them. But after that, it goes nuts. Is the loudly-voiced distaste for Hooper's enthusiastic use of close-ups going to kill him here? Is Ang Lee's work of making so much visual candy out of Pi good enough to overcome how much that movie feels like it came out several years ago, buzz-wise? Is the broad affection for Silver Linings enough to get Russell a "top 5 Best Picture nominees" slot? Does name recognition, personality, and shiny toyness get Tarantino in for Django Unchained? And since this category usually breaks more artistic and intellectual than Best Picture, isn't there at least a chance that Michael Haneke makes it in for Amour? I do not have the answers to a single one of these questions, and would not be surprised in the least at any combination of those five names in the two open positions. But one has to put down something, and on this Saturday, those five are where I feel most confident. The DGA nominees next week would clarify things, but I want to take some risks.
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
John Hawkes, The Sessions
Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
And now, a breather: the most settled of the acting categories (it usually is), as pretty much everybody assumes it's down to these six men, with some of the more bored pundits trying to suggest that Jean-Louis Trintignant has a chance in hell with Amour just to give themselves something new to say, and that is why I only do this once a year. In truth, Cooper over Phoenix is very probably the smarter bet, but "Oscar Nominee Bradley Cooper" is a phrase that I'm not going to make myself live with one hour earlier than I absolutely must.
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Helen Mirren, Hitchcock
Naomi Watts, The Impossible
Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
Chastain and Lawrence are locks; Watts feels increasingly like one to me. It's a bloodbath after that. Cotillard is everybody's favorite sexy French screen goddess, but after that it becomes easier to pick reasons why the other commonly agreed-upon names in the hunt won't make it, rather than reasons they will: Emanuelle Riva in Amour is old, foreign, and in a brittle and unfriendly movie, Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild is too young, Helen Mirren was just "doing a Mirren" in a dreadfully mediocre film, and Rachel Weisz was in a wee little movie that absolutely nobody saw when it was in theaters almost a year ago. Mirren's negatives are the easiest to scratch out, given that she was already nominated under the exact same circumstance three years ago, and I think Riva's are the most daunting; but it's a damn thorny one, no doubt about it.
Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Skimming through the pundits, it's amusing to note how many of them describe this as a jam-packed race, before naming a virtually identical set: the differences being which of the three Django boys (Samuel L. Jackson is the third) they pick, and whether they try to come up with a reason to dump Arkin, whose performance is just kind of... nothing, isn't it? Not even blaming him: it's mostly a nothing part. Anyway, Waltz is just too showy for me to feel comfortable going anywhere else, and between him and Hoffman, I note that if I'm right, we'll have two obvious co-leads lounging in the same Supporting category, a ballsy bit of category fraud indeed.
Best Supporting Actress
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Nicole Kidman, The Paperboy
Maggie Smith, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Amy Adams, The Master
The Kidman prediction probably errs on the side of "what I want" rather than "what I expect", but a little bit of wishing never hurt anybody. Besides, Adams seems to be the most obvious victim of the thick wall of ice that has encased The Master, and I have a hard time seeing anyone besides these six with a real shot. Judi Dench playing a character she'd already played six times in a popcorn action movie does not qualify as "a real shot".
Best Adapted Screenplay
Argo, by Chris Terrio
Beasts of the Southern Wild, by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin
Life of Pi, by David Magee
Lincoln, by Tony Kushner
Silver Linings Playbook, by David O. Russell
Les Misérables, by William Nicholson
This category is a predicting gift, if you've gotten through Best Picture: just populate it with the films from that list that have adapted screenplays. I assume the reasons that Les Misérables is the odd man out here are obvious enough that explaining them is unnecessary. Also, they tell me that a certain high school movie has a shot here, but I hope if I don't say it's name out loud, I can keep that from happening.
Best Original Screenplay
Amour, by Michael Haneke
Django Unchained, by Quentin Tarantino
The Master, by Paul Thomas Anderson
Moonrise Kingdom, by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
Zero Dark Thirty, by Mark Boal
Flight, by John Gatins
The category that usually plays as "what Best Picture would look like if the Academy had more adventurous but still not radical taste", and this just seems like a very conservative guess of five to me. My alternate pick is a little off-consensus, but it feels like a good fit; and I cannot see how something like Looper plays well for the Academy, which customarily has zero use for science fiction.
Django Unchained (Robert Richardson)
Life of Pi (Claudio Miranda)
Lincoln (Janusz Kaminski)
The Master (Mihai Malaimare, Jr.)
Skyfall (Roger Deakins)
Zero Dark Thirty (Greig Fraser)
The Cinematography branch luuuuvs Richardson, and likes Deakins and Kaminski a whole lot, Pi fits in with their recent embrace of CGI-heavy digital work, Malaimare gets in on the same logic that Wally Pfister could get a nod with The Dark Knight mostly for using exotic film stock, and The Master is better-shot than that film. The only real question in my mind is, does Fraser get his "welcome to the club!" nomination for such a full year of work, and who does he knock out? Kaminski or Malimare, I guess, but I truly do doubt it.
Argo (William Goldenberg)
Lincoln (Michael Kahn)
Les Misérables (Chris Dickens)
Silver Linings Playbook (Jay Cassidy & Crispin Struthers)
Zero Dark Thirty (Dylan Tichenor & William Goldenberg)
Life of Pi (Tim Squyres)
Another good, lazy category: pick the five Best Picture nominees you think are in the lead. Which doesn't always work out, but it's pretty much the only conceivable reason why The Descendants got here last year, and I'm calling that same "what? there was editing in this movie?" slot for Silver Linings. Django Unchained I consider to be a second-tier candidate given that one of the things everybody seems to agree on is that the lack of Sally Menke is sorely felt.
Best Production Design
Anna Karenina (Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer)
Django Unchained (J. Michael Riva and Leslie A. Pope)
Lincoln (Rick Carter, Jim Erickson, and Peter T. Frank)
Les Misérables (Eve Stewart)
Skyfall (Dennis Gassner and Anna Pinnock)
Life of Pi (David Gropman and Anna Pinnock)
This newly-renamed category is fun to predict this year: it's been a bumper crop. Anna Karenina is a film that everybody has generally agreed is obvious, even if it's not, really - it sank like a stone at the box office - but given how much it's about production design even more than it is about its narrative and characters, I think that's fair. The rest is randomly plucking from a good 15-film field of competitors, which I've done by favoring Best Picture frontrunners. Skyfall is the one huge "what the hell are you one" Hail Mary of my predictions this year, but this category and Cinematography tend to be friendly with one another, and the film is plainly turning into awards season's favorite huge blockbuster.
Best Costume Design
Anna Karenina (Jacqueline Durran)
Django Unchained (Sharen Davis)
Lincoln (Joanna Johnston)
Mirror Mirror (Eiko Ishioka)
Les Misérables (Paco Delgado)
Snow White and the Huntsman (Colleen Atwood)
The branch of the Academy most famous for honoring the work done in that category regardless of the quality of the film containing it, which is why I feel relatively confident that the late, legendary Ishioka gets honored with one last nomination for one last extraordinary collection of designs. In fact, with three Picture nominees, I fear that I'm giving the branch too little credit for surprises, but I'm at a loss to see what's more likely to show up.
Best Makeup & Hairstyling
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Men in Black 3
A seven-film shortlist makes this renamed category a bit easier to work with than most; but after Lincoln, whose absence would shock me to no end (that was some hella impressive mimicry, after all), and The Hobbit, which is by far the most-designed film of the bunch, it does kind of look like a four-way race for the last slot with Looper and Snow White and the Huntsman right up in the hunt. I do rather strenuously doubt that the drama-school chintz of Hitchcock has a prayer, so now watch it take a nomination and go all the way to a win.
Anna Karenina (Dario Marianelli)
Argo (Alexandre Desplat)
Life of Pi (Mychael Danna)
Lincoln (John Williams)
The Master (Johnny Greenwood)
On the Road (Gustavo Santaolalla)
No clue, really, beyond Lincoln as being a lock; Williams gets a nomination when Williams is eligible. Also, with new branch favorite Desplate having so many possibilities, it's ridiculous to think of him getting passed up - the only question being, are his Zero Dark Thirty and Rise of the Guardians scores likelier than Argo? I doubt it, though I have a weird gut feeling about Guardians sweeping in - probably over The Master - and being a huge surprise for everybody. I've seen multiple people suggest that Beasts of the Southern Wild has a good shot here, but given the clubby nature of this category, I don't know that I can make that jump, even though it is genuinely one of the year's best scores. When has that mattered, anyway?
From Brave: "Learn Me Right"
From Django Unchained: "Ancora Qui"
From Joyful Noise: "From Here to the Moon and Back"
From Les Misérables: "Suddenly"
From Skyfall: “Skyfall”
From Paul Williams Still Alive: “Still Alive”
The good news: there was a rule change and now we can be absolutely certain of five nominees, neither more, nor less. The bad news: this category still exists. As a song actually sung by actual characters in the actual narrative of the actual movie, "Suddenly" has to be a prohibitive favorite for a nom, though I think "Skyfall" has the win all sewn up.
Incidentally, if I am right about the Dolly Parton/Kris Kristofferson duet "From Here to the Moon", they had damned well better bring back live performances during the ceremony.
Best Sound Mixing
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty
Best Sound Editing
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty
Every time I try to get fancy in predicting the sound categories, it bites me on the ass in a major way. So I'm just going to treat them as one thing, and take the hit in my prediction record: I can just about guarantee that in the very best of best cases, only eight of these ten are right. Which would be double my nauseating four of ten last year. Which is why I've decided to go hyper-conservative. I would ordinarily think The Dark Knight Rises had a good shot, but not with the problems with Bane's voice, no way.
Best Visual Effects
The Dark Knight Rises
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
So the first thing to do, is to carve out the things from the 10-film longlist that seem like they can't possibly have a shot, which I take to be John Carter and Skyfall. No way do three superhero movies make it in, and surely The Amazing Spider-Man is the weakest. Then it's just a matter of playing the "this category prefers hits to misses" logic, and hope that the good bits of The Avengers outweigh the rather unmissable bad bits.
Best Animated Feature
The Rabbi's Cat
Given how, for the first time in over half a decade, it's not completely obvious what film is going to win, isn't it weird how pre-ordained this set of five seems to be with just about every single pundit? That's what happens with nonsense rules that require five nominees when there are 21 eligible films, and a good half of those 21 are flat-out crap.
Best Foreign Language Film
The Intouchables (France)
A Royal Affair (Denmark)
War Witch (Canada)
Amour, Intouchables, and A Royal Affair looks like the frontrunners in what's shaping up to be the strongest set of nominees in this category in a long time. Really, the only one of the nine-film longlist that I think has no chance is Kon-Tiki, though God knows why I think that.
The House I Live In
The Invisible War
Searching for Sugar Man
How to Survive a Plague
After Sugar Man and The Gatekeepers, this one becomes extremely hard fast. I like Bully on the grounds that, if Harvey Weinstein could push the lukewarm Undefeated to a win in this category, surely he can swing a nomination without a sweat; the other two are unambiguous "THESE ARE ISSUES ABOUT TODAY" movies that this branch favors. Incidentally, I refrain from going the Mea Maxima Culpa route for what seems to me the unassailable logic that Michael Moore is the only person to ever receive a nomination here after previously winning, and Alex Gibney is, for good and ill, no Michael Moore.
Best Documentary Short Subject
"The Education of Mohamma Hussein"
"Mondays at Racine"
With a list of eight finalists, it's literally impossible to get less than two right, even having seen none of the films and knowing virtually nothing about any of them. "Mohamma Hussein", about Muslim-Americans, "Mondays at Racine", about a salon catering to cancer victims, and "Open Heart", about Rwandan children receiving heart surgery, seem like the most obvious choices for a category that errs on the side of capital-I Importance, and children.
Best Animated Short Subject
"Adam and Dog"
"The Eagleman Stag"
"Head Over Heels"
Here's where it becomes almost pure guesswork; though I don't want it to be possible for "The Eagleman Stag", my favorite thing I saw in a theater in 2011, to miss out here. My super-scientific method involves look at stills and trailers for the ten finalists (or, that is, the seven I haven't already seen), and trying to decide what looks most technically accomplished and interesting; that covers everything but "Adam and Dog", which has a sweet little concept and polished aesthetic that fits in with this category's history, plus it was a 2011 Annie winner, which has to count for quite a bit.
Best Live-Action Short Subject
"Death of a Shadow"
Even more desperate, flailing guessing than Animated Short: I'm basically favoring movies about children, for no more reason than because there's no reason not to; that gets us "Asad", "Buzkahi Boys", and "Curfew" (the last of which, to judge from the plot synopsis, checks pretty much all the boxes in this category, except for Third World suffering). "Kiruna-Kigali" is about world culture and motherhood, and that sounds like a safe bet; "Death of a Shadow" is something I've seen others predicting, and I've heard good things about it, so what the hell. This is a category where I don't traditionally expect to know what the hell I'm going on about.