In the words of See-Threepio, here we go again.
The nominations for the eighty-second annual Academy Awards will be released this Tuesday morning (by Anne Hathaway!), meaning Oscar season is officially upon us. As Hubie Brown might ask, what does that mean? Well, in theory, it means that the Manifesto will kick into high gear over the next month and generate detailed, category-specific posts, each laden with cogent analysis, prescient predictions, and my trademark "Oh great, he just made another fucking Harry Potter reference" witticisms. In practice, it's entirely possible that my brain will short-circuit while trying to balance my blogging responsibilities with my academic duties, and my family will stage an intervention and fit me with an electronic collar that zaps me with 500 volts whenever I even think about the Oscars. We'll see what happens – it's really 50-50.
Alright, before I get to my nomination predictions, I feel obliged to address one of the ballsiest decisions the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has ever made, and no, I'm not talking about selecting Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin to co-host the show (terrific move, by the way). Earlier this year, the Academy announced that it was expanding the Best Picture category from the usual five nominees to a more hospitable 10. In historical terms, this was akin to FDR deciding, "Screw it, just because the first 31 presidents respected the unwritten rule of two term limits doesn't mean I'm leaving the White House". For anyone who follows the movie industry, this was, to say the least, a big deal. But the question is, was it a good decision?
The answer: No. But not for the reason you might think.
The most obvious rationale for the Academy's audacious move is that it wanted to ensure that high-profile, crowd-pleasing entertainments could find their way into a field generally dominated by small-scale, little-seen art-house pictures. The specific impetus was almost certainly the exclusion of The Dark Knight from the 2008 Best Picture class, a snub that created a clamor among critics and consumers alike. The resulting expansion wasn't really an artistic decision but an economic one; the Academy postulated that the Oscar broadcast would receive higher ratings if it featured movies that people had actually seen. (To wit, three of the 2008 Best Picture nominees – Frost/Nixon, Milk, and The Reader – combined for $84.6 million at the box office, a mere 16% of The Dark Knight's $533 million gross.)
Self-serving motive aside, it's a perfectly valid line of reasoning. The gulf between critical and mainstream opinion has never been wider, and there's something to be said for making a concerted effort to bridge that gap. Of course, I'm not suggesting that voters should now consider nominating a movie simply because it made boatloads of money (something tells me Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen isn't grabbing one of those 10 slots). But the Oscars have drifted away from the demographic to which they claim to appeal – namely, people who go to the movies – and it's possible that this expansion will counteract that trend.
The prevailing counterargument to the Academy's decision is that it dilutes the significance of a Best Picture nomination. I'm unconvinced. How many movies are available for public consumption each year? Five hundred? More? With that many films duking it out for recognition, gaining entrance into a decathlon of the year's best pictures seems pretty damn impressive.
So I'm O.K. with the expansion in terms of the nominations themselves. But the real problem with the Academy's decision is far more insidious: It may very well produce a Best Picture winner that doesn't deserve to win. I don't mean to imply that the winner will be artistically inferior to an alternate contender (hell, that happens all the time). I mean that the winner might literally not have been what the members voted for in the first place.
I'll explain. The issue is that, in addition to expanding the Best Picture field to 10 nominees, the Academy has also revamped the balloting system. In the past – and with the remaining five-nominee categories this year – the voting corresponded to a standard winner-take-all system; you picked the movie you thought should win, the inscrutable accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers tallied the votes, and that was that.
Under the new system, however, things are infinitely more complicated. The Academy fears that, if it retains the standard one-ballot, one-vote system, the winner could receive an abnormally low percentage of votes (theoretically as low as 11% if the votes were split almost equally across all contenders). To counteract this (dubious) hypothetical, the Academy is requiring its members to rank all 10 of the nominees. It will then tabulate the #1 choices and, if no film has achieved greater than 50% of the votes for #1, it will readjust the ballots. How? By eliminating the contender with the lowest number of first-place votes, and then adding the second-place votes on those ballots to the counts for their respective films.
For example, let's suppose only one Academy member ranks An Education #1 (with all other nominees receiving multiple first-place votes) and The Hurt Locker #2. In that case, An Education gets eliminated from contention, The Hurt Locker gains an additional first-place vote, and the accountants re-tabulate. The procedure repeats until one nominee crosses the 50% threshold. (For those desiring a more detailed breakdown of the new system and its potential pitfalls, Steve Pond has a nice write-up at The Wrap).
So ... is anyone else really fucking confused? To say this new system is rife with complications is like calling Polonius long-winded. My biggest concern is that it seems to be biased against polarizing pictures (like, ahem, this one). Since second- and third-place votes now merit significant importance, love-them-or-hate-them films appear to be at a serious disadvantage, even if they initially receive more first-place votes than their less divisive counterparts. You could argue that such polarizing movies don't deserve to win Best Picture in the first place because it's really an award of consensus, but I disapprove of the notion that earning votes as a runner-up can translate into status as a champion.
But such is life. The Gods of the Academy have spoken, and we must accept their divine ruling. (Or we can espouse monotheism and blow up a train full of innocent civilians in protest. Whoops, sorry, I've been watching too much "Caprica".)
O.K., please forgive the lengthy preamble, let's get to the picks. Remember, my goal here is an 80% success rate, which is about as plausible as LeBron James signing with the Knicks this summer (last year I hit 68% or 72%, depending on how you count the Kate Winslet thing). Also, as usual, I'm only predicting the top eight categories – after that people get bored. Here we go with the Manifesto's official predictions for the 2009 Academy Award Nominations:
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
Up in the Air
Comments: We can bisect this field into five locks and five also-rans (I suppose that alone could merit an argument against the move to 10, but I think it's pure coincidence this year). Here are the locks: Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, and Up in the Air. If any of those five films fails to receive a Best Picture nomination, I will forever cease predicting the Oscars. (Not really, but it sounds more impressive when I'm bold.)
The others are less certain, but I'm reasonably confident in An Education and Up (soon to be Pixar's first Best Picture nominee). Invictus hasn't received much in the way of adoration, but it's a prestige picture by a beloved filmmaker, so it should find its way. A Serious Man was a critical smash that's failed to gain traction on the awards circuit, but I think its pedigree gives it a sufficient boost here.
My shakiest pick is Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart, a pseudo-upset that I'm backing over the trendier District 9. The latter earned a nomination from the venerated Producers' Guild, but it premiered all the way back in August. Crazy Heart is more fresh in voters' minds and offers a more heartwarming story. It's really a tossup, but I'll go with the country singer over the persecuted aliens.
Potential upsets: In addition to District 9, Rob Marshall's Nine has a legitimate chance; it was reviled by critics, but the Academy always appreciates a musical (well, unless that musical is Dreamgirls). The other big player here is Star Trek, which is the kind of booming, big-budget, fanboy-supported picture that the move to 10 was designed to embrace. Interestingly enough, if Crazy Heart holds off District 9 and Star Trek, then the Academy's expansion will essentially have failed to serve its purpose, since no populist pieces will have gained admission (Avatar and Inglourious Basterds would have made the field even without the switch to 10).
Longshots: The Blind Side (massive hit with audiences, but it just isn't good enough); The Hangover (claimed victory at the Golden Globes, but that's meaningless at the high-brow Oscars); Broken Embraces or The White Ribbon (voters usually don't go foreign, and neither received much exposure); Fantastic Mr. Fox (has its champions, but I think one animated film is the max); Julie & Julia (pleasant enough but came out too long ago); The Road (too unsettling); A Single Man (it's an acting vehicle, not a Best Picture contender).
Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
James Cameron – Avatar
Lee Daniels – Precious
Jason Reitman – Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino – Inglourious Basterds
Comments: One of the most significant offshoots of doubling the number of Best Picture nominees is that the Best Director category suddenly transitions from meaningless to momentous. In the past, it was virtually guaranteed that four of the five directing nominees corresponded with the Best Picture field (last year featured a rare five-for-five match). Now, the Best Director category represents an opportunity to bifurcate the Best Picture nominees into contenders and pretenders. If I had to pick a likely nominee whose footing is somewhat less firm, I'd go with Daniels or Reitman, as both Precious and Up in the Air have lost a bit of steam. That said, I'm reasonably confident that the five Best Picture "locks" will find their makers recognized in this category, especially since they all earned nods from the Directors' Guild.
Potential upset: Never count out Clint Eastwood. Sure, Invictus was more of a Space Cowboys than it was a Mystic River, but the man is a legend. Now get off his lawn.
Longshots: The Coen Brothers for A Serious Man (it's predictably immaculate, and perhaps the residual rancor following their indifferent acceptance speech for No Country for Old Men has faded); Rob Marshall for Nine (only if voters are in a musical mood); Lone Scherfig for An Education (2009 is allegedly the "year of the woman", but I think Academy members will be content with Bigelow's inclusion in their mostly-male fraternity).
Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart
George Clooney – Up in the Air
Colin Firth – A Single Man
Morgan Freeman – Invictus
Jeremy Renner – The Hurt Locker
Comments: Yawn. I would say this field is completely set, but the Academy will occasionally sneak a surprise lead in here. If anyone's getting booted, it's either Freeman or Renner, but neither of them has much to worry about.
Potential upsets: None. The rest are all major longshots.
Longshots: Viggo Mortensen for The Road (will try to duplicate his surprise success for Eastern Promises); Johnny Depp for Public Enemies (he's universally adored); Robert Downey, Jr. for Sherlock Holmes (ibid); Ben Foster for The Messenger (an up-and-comer who still hasn't achieved mainstream recognition); Matt Damon for The Informant! (looked like a shoo-in five months ago, but the buzz vanished); Tobey Maguire for Brothers (if Damon's buzz vanished, Maguire's got locked in a Vanishing Cabinet); Sharlto Copley for District 9 (maybe if anyone had ever heard of him); Sam Rockwell for Moon (too little-seen); Daniel Day-Lewis for Nine (the "greatest actor alive" is always a threat).
Sandra Bullock – The Blind Side
Helen Mirren – The Last Station
Carey Mulligan – An Education
Gabourey Sidibe – Precious
Meryl Streep – Julie & Julia
Comments: Bullock, Sidibe, and Streep are all safe. Back in October, Mulligan was the alleged favorite for the award, but it's possible she could find herself in the same fate as Sally Hawkins for Happy-Go-Lucky last year. Mirren is a bit of a mystery, but her name plus her nod from the Screen Actors' Guild (SAG) should give her the edge.
Potential upsets: It's likely wishful thinking on my part, but if voters were feeling particularly courageous they could highlight Tilda Swinton for her phenomenal performance in Julia; sadly, a minuscule box-office take makes such a proposition unlikely. A more plausible nominee would be Emily Blunt for her regal portrayal in The Young Victoria, since the Academy always lauds British period pieces. I also can't discount Mélanie Laurent for Inglourious Basterds, but category confusion could work against her (discussed in the Best Supporting Actress category below).
Longshots: Abbie Cornish for Bright Star (looked like a sure thing post-Toronto, but her buzz died); Meryl Streep for It's Complicated (if anyone can pull off the double-nominee, it's Meryl); Saorise Ronan for The Lovely Bones (frisky, but too risky).
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Matt Damon – Invictus
Woody Harrelson – The Messenger
Christopher Plummer – The Last Station
Stanley Tucci – The Lovely Bones
Cristoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds
Comments: Yikes. On the plus side, the nominations here don't really matter, since Cristoph Waltz is the biggest lock in the history of this category (or at least since Heath Ledger last year). Anyway, I'm confident in Woody Harrelson, but after that things get shaky. The Last Station is one of those movies where it's difficult to gauge its momentum, since it hasn't played in most cities yet, but Plummer's SAG nod is enough for me. The Lovely Bones sadly never got off the ground, but Tucci's performance is creepy enough that he probably still has enough pull, though he could split his own vote with his work in Julie & Julia. Matt Damon is my weakest pick, but he drilled an impossible accent, and besides, he's Matt Damon.
Potential upsets: Me and Orson Welles fell victim to inadequate distribution (that's what happens when your movie is distributed by some hack company called Freestyle Releasing – not that I'm bitter), but Christian McKay earned rave reviews for his portrayal of the iconic director. As a protective father in An Education, Alfred Molina has the added benefit of appearing in a Best Picture nominee, but I don't think his performance is showy enough. In the Loop barely played in American theatres, but voters might be seduced by Peter Capaldi's merciless, hilarious incarnation of a government minister.
Longshots: Stanley Tucci for Julie & Julia (he's getting more play for The Lovely Bones); Anthony Mackie for The Hurt Locker (whatever praise Bigelow isn't earning, Renner is snapping up); Stephen Lang for Avatar (if any actor receives recognition for Cameron's picture, it's Lang); Fred Melamed for A Serious Man (call this one an ultra-longshot).
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Vera Farmiga – Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal – Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick – Up in the Air
Mo'Nique – Precious
Julianne Moore – A Single Man
Comments: The fifth slot of this category has given me nightmares. Alright, Mo'Nique is solid, as are the two lovely ladies from Up in the Air. I'm also reasonably sold on Julianne Moore. But that fifth slot could go in a variety of directions, and part of the confusion involves the usual category campaigning from the studios. For Inglourious Basterds, The Weinstein Company is pushing for Mélanie Laurent for lead actress and plugging Diane Kruger for supporting, a maneuver which led to Kruger's surprising SAG nomination. Meanwhile, for Crazy Heart, Fox Searchlight was initially promoting Maggie Gyllenhaal for lead but then switched to supporting. The problem is that voters aren't required to conform to the studios' suggestions and can nominate the actresses in whichever category they choose.
So how will it play out? I honestly have no idea, but I'm betting that Harvey Weinstein has shot himself in the foot by being too greedy. It's always dangerous to bet against Weinstein (see: The Reader), but I think he could have secured a nomination for Laurent if he'd simply advertised her as a supporting actress from the beginning. Instead he's gunning for nominations for both Laurent and Kruger, and I'm guessing both get shut out as a result (Laurent because she splits her votes across the two categories, Kruger because she isn't that good). Of course, it's possible that Gyllenhaal could split her own vote as well thanks to Fox Searchlight's schizophrenia, but I think Jeff Bridges is such a dominant figure in Crazy Heart that Academy members will be more willing to accept Gyllenhaal's transition to supporting actress. But, as I said, I really have no idea.
Potential upsets: In addition to Laurent and Kruger, Penélope Cruz is a major player here for her performance in Nine. Frankly it isn't much of a role, but Cruz is an Academy darling, and she also earned an SAG nomination, so she's just as plausible for that elusive fifth slot.
Longshots: Marion Cotillard for Public Enemies (could compete against herself with Nine); Samantha Morton for The Messenger (Harrelson seems to be the sole Oscar magnet there).
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Avatar – James Cameron
The Hurt Locker – Mark Boal
Inglourious Basterds – Quentin Tarantino
A Serious Man – Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Up – Bob Peterson and Pete Docter
Comments: This is really a make-or-break category for Avatar. If Cameron earns recognition for his script, then his movie still has a legitimate chance at winning Best Picture. If it gets ignored here, then The Hurt Locker only further fortifies its frontrunner status. Anyway, The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds are safe here, and I think Up can feel comfortable as well, especially after Wall-E's nomination last year. The other big question mark is A Serious Man, but I think the Coens' spiky originality gives them the edge here.
Potential upset: The looming contender here is (500) Days of Summer by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. Not only did it earn a Writers' Guild nomination, but it exhibits the kind of spunky, time-twisting storytelling technique that the Academy often rewards in this category. I'm leaving it out because I honestly believe that Avatar is too hefty a contender to lose out on a screenplay nomination, but if (500) Days of Summer shows up instead, I won't be remotely surprised.
Longshots: The Hangover (preposterously earned a nod from the Writers' Guild); Broken Embraces (Almodóvar has shown up here before); Moon (if the Academy is in a sci-fi mood, which is possible given the growing support for District 9).
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
District 9 – Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
An Education – Nick Hornby
Invictus – Anthony Peckham
Precious – Geoffrey Fletcher
Up in the Air – Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
Comments: Last year, this was the one category where I correctly predicted all five nominees. I can assure you that I will not be delivering a repeat performance this year. With the exception of Up in the Air, all of the remaining slots are, ahem, up in the air. That said, I think the Best Picture credentials of An Education and Precious should give them sway here. The same argument necessarily extends to Invictus, though I'm considerably less confident with that one (and if it fails to snag a Best Picture nod, it doesn't stand a chance here), but it does at least tell an inspirational story.
For the fifth slot, I'm hedging my bets on my Best Picture prognostication and going with District 9 over Crazy Heart (my other nine screenplay predictions double as my picks for the big prize). My logic is that Crazy Heart is primarily performance-driven, whereas District 9 is more plot-centric, making its screenplay more critical to its success. It also tells a unique, original story, whereas Crazy Heart's redemption narrative is plain and generic. I recognize that the category is called best adapted screenplay, meaning originality shouldn't really play a role, but I nevertheless think that voters will set store by the freshness of the material.
Potential upset: Crazy Heart (by Scott Cooper). Just to make me second-guess myself, it earned a nomination from the Writers' Guild, while District 9 was nowhere to be found. Nor was Invictus for that matter. Hmm ...
Longshots: In the Loop (its skewering of modern-day politics could give it some traction); Julie & Julia and Star Trek (both earned nods from the Writers' Guild, though I can't say I understand why); The Informant! (would be a great sleeper pick if it had any buzz whatsoever); Fantastic Mr. Fox (doesn't operate within Up's shadow here); Where the Wild Things Are (took a 37-page children's book and transformed it into a full-length film).
And that's that. Tuesday morning's announcement will set us straight, and I'll be back after that with a report on my failure. Er, accuracy. Till then.