Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Oscar 2012: Best Picture

For my entire coverage on the Academy Awards, click here.

A few ground rules on the likely Best Picture winner. In Oscar history, the winner almost always takes Best Director as well, or is at the very least nominated in that category. It is also often a nominee or winner for Best Screenplay (either Original or Adapted). Remember the rules that I had mentioned in my post on Best Director, they are for the most part true. Taking this rule into consideration, we can realistically remove several of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees out of contention for the big prize: The Help, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, War Horse, Moneyball and The Tree of Life. That leaves us with four viable Best Picture contenders: The Artist, Hugo, The Descendants and Midnight in Paris.

With such a huge crowd, going through each nominee with the above hard-and-fast rules and applying to each nominee, we can whittle down the likelihood of each nominee’s chance to win the big prize.

First off, let’s forget the jaw-dropping inclusion of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Stephen Daldry’s surprise nominee was supposed to have been Oscar bait, with across-the-board nominations and big box office to go with it. It touches on the sensitive legacy of 9/11 and is the first tackling the subject to get into the final group. But with its below-average critical reviews and soft box office (even with big stars like Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock it pulled in barely $30 million), it looks like a prestige project that disappointed. Without directing or writing nominations, it’s the first rank outsider.

We can also knock off The Tree of Life. It’s a big-budget film several years in the making, brought in a small box office take, and despite overall strong critical notices, those who didn’t like the film outright hated it: viciously, passionately, vociferously. It’s just too “out there” for more conservative Academy members. It’s out.

Next to be removed from the list is another big-budget Oscar-bait prestige project, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. It had the pedigree of a likely winner: Pulitzer Prize-winning source material, one of the most popular film directors of all time at the helm, and it performed strongly and steadily commercially. Without directing or writing nominations, however, and a near absence from the winning circle at the guilds, it’s just an also-ran. Note that of its six nominations, five are in below-the-line technical categories.

I’m going to also remove Moneyball on the basis that despite six nominations including four high-profile ones, it didn’t win any of the precursor Best Picture awards and lacks a directing nod for Bennett Miller. Had he made it into that category, this popular and critical favourite would have made a much stronger case.

I’m reluctantly removing The Help from consideration as well. I had previously thought it had the mileage to go the distance, since it’s a big box office success and tackles race issues in America. The closest parallel I had with it was Crash, which was the upset winner six years ago, but even that had directing, writing and editing nominations to go with it. The Help doesn’t have any of it. Its other close parallel was 2009’s The Blind Side, but it also lacked these nominations and its popularity alone couldn’t let it get past The Hurt Locker.

Let’s turn to the remaining contenders, which you can view after the jump.

Once we eliminate these five, there are four really viable options left in play. Another hard-and-fast rule is that the most nominated film often wins Best Picture. While this was the norm for a long while, the last few years have produced winners that didn’t fit this statistic but nevertheless swept through their categories and ended up going home with the most trophies anyway (Slumdog Millionaire, The Departed, Million Dollar Baby). That brings us to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, the winner at the National Board of Review, a finalist for every major award possible, and an ode to the history and love of the cinema. It won’t win, however, because the Best Picture winner is usually a box office hit, or at the very least can’t be seen as a flop no matter how low its gross is. This was how The Hurt Locker won: it made almost no money, but since it was so low-budget and artistically adventurous, it turned out a small profit anyway. Hugo, on the other hand, hasn’t even grossed half of its estimated $150 million (at least, not domestically) budget, and the Academy likes to reward a box office winner with its top award. So Hugo is out.
Turning to The Descendants, I note that its nominations hit the four key categories perfectly: picture, directing, acting, screenplay and a surprise inclusion in editing (generally a nomination also awarded to a Best Picture winner). It won the L.A. Film Critics Award and has been short-listed for several other awards in this category. It’s the only Best Picture nominee that is still in the top ten of the box office, and continues to play well three months after its initial release, with solid grosses that have been gradually accumulating. It was produced on a modest budget and is the kind of intimate character drama reminiscent of previous Best Picture winners such as Ordinary People, Driving Miss Daisy and A Beautiful Mind. It may not win, however, because it needed to win the Directors Guild or Producers Guild to make a solid case for itself. Oscar also likes to sweep and unless it takes up Best Actor and / or Screenplay with it, it doesn’t have the momentum to take the biggest prize.
I’ve had my eye on Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris for a very long time. While it hasn’t won any of the major prizes, it’s also received high reviews and those who have seen this film, the highest-grossing in Allen’s career, speak of it in glowing terms. It’s been a strong finalist in major categories all season long, even if it hasn’t won too many major prizes. Should the votes be split up into separate camps with no consensus winner, then Midnight in Paris, which many are considering a “top ten” if not a #1 choice, might pick up more neutral or apathetic voters’ default votes and pull off a shockeroo win. It’s not likely, but I have a feeling that it has more support than one might think.
This brings us, by process of elimination, to the likely Best Picture winner, The Artist. It’s won top prizes at the SAG, DGA and PGA awards. It cleared the board at the increasingly-influential BAFTAs. The only reason it didn’t win the Writers’ Guild of America is because its writer is not a member of it, and only WGA members could be nominated (I once spoke with the screenwriter of a very highly-regarded film who confirmed this was what disqualified his film from even being nominated for the WGA prize). Despite a soft start, box office has picked up and it’s doing modest but steady business. Its’ a movie about show business, and it’s such a throwback that it’s silent! It is the likely winner in several other categories like music, editing and costumes, and the Academy likes a sweep winner. Voters often see the same film appear in several categories and if it’s a buzz-worthy film they love, they’ll go for it all the way down the line. While contemporary audiences may not want to see a silent movie, the average age of Academy members is 62 years old, and they are more likely to enjoy an homage to classic cinema.
The Best Picture Oscar will be awarded to: The Artist