Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Better to be loved than respected

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Being nominated for an Academy Award is a sign of respect. Winning one is a sign of adoration. This is how films such as American Hustle,Gangs of New York, and The Color Purple end up with huge nominations hauls (10, 10, and 11, respectively) but with zero Oscars among them. Academy members respect these films, but they do not love them. For a film to win at the Oscars, it must be lovable. That does not mean it has to be easy or soft, but it must inspire passion in voters.

The two frontrunners for Best Picture this year are Spotlight and The Big ShortSpotlight is a critical favorite with a stellar cast that tells a low-key story well. The Big Short is brash and populist, featuring some of the biggest stars of our day and taking on one of the most important stories of the new millennium. The Big Short won the top prize with the Producers Guild, a key predictor of Oscars success, but Spotlight took home the Screen Actors Guild’s ensemble award, not as a reliable a predictor but a show of strength with the massive, 160,000-strong voting body.

For reasons unique to each film, audiences have strong emotional reactions to both. They are the passion films, thus the most likely winners. What I find intriguing this year are the two respect films, The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road. Each is a threat for the top prize should either of the frontrunners falter, but it will be interesting to see which of these epic pictures is embraced and which could be shunned by the Academy.

The Revenant leads the nominations list with 12, while Mad Max: Fury Road is close behind with 10. Those are your respect nominations, the recognition from the Academy that both films are epic technical achievements. They are ambitious, bold, and bracing. They resemble nothing else in the race. Remarkably, apart from The Revenant’s two acting nods, they are also nominated in the same 10 categories and constitute the two most likely winners in each of the eight crafts categories in which they appear.

Mad Max: Fury Road is an action film like no other before it and a labor of love by visionary director George Miller. It is also supremely strange. That it has 10 nominations says a lot about how far the Academy has come in terms of the types of films it embraces. I feel safe in saying there has never been a Best Picture nominee that feels like this one. On the other hand, The Revenant might be the biggest art film ever made and comes from a director the Academy has honored before – just last year in fact.

The most likely scenario is one of these will run the table, taking award after award in the crafts categories. It makes sense. If you think Mad Max: Fury Road is the best technical achievement of the year, you most likely believe that about each of its individual components. Ditto The Revenant. Whichever film catches on more will be the most awarded film of the night, regardless of what wins Best Picture.

While there are a few locks we can count on – Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor, Brie Larson for Best Actress, and Inside Out for Best Animated Feature for instance – this is the most wide-open year I have seen in nearly a decade of doing this. I have said it before this season, but it bears repeating. Not knowing is what makes this year fun, and without a true clunker in the lineup, the one certainty we have is finishing with an impressive group of deserving winners.

Over the next four weeks, Last Cinema Standing will break down each of the 24 categories – from Best Picture down to Best Animated Short – providing an in-depth look at the nominees, predictions for the winners, and thoughts on the Academy’s process. It all leads up to the big night Feb. 28. I hope you will join me here and join the discussion each day as we make our way to that world-famous red carpet.

Tomorrow: Best Visual Effects

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