Monday, January 24, 2011

Oscars Analysis 2010: Nomination Predictions

When Michael Jordan (temporarily) retired from basketball in 1993, after leading the Chicago Bulls to three straight NBA championships, he did it for one reason: He was on top. He had nowhere else to go. He decided to challenge himself through minor league baseball, a disastrous experiment that nevertheless proved what a ruthless competitor he really was.

I bring this up not because I'm nostalgic for Jordan's greatness on the hardwood but because I'm wondering if I should just quit prognosticating the Oscars right now. When I predicted the Academy's nominations last year, I hit on 89% of my picks, resulting in a crowing post where I compared myself to Eliza Dushku's character in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and lost half of my readers in the process. Where can I possibly go from here? Maybe I should just switch gears and start pegging the Grammys.

But fuck it. I don't just want one great year – I want a dynasty. I want to be the John Wooden of Oscar predictions. (And maybe 40 years from now when a woman goes on an even better streak, Geno Auriemma can accuse the media of misogyny.) And I want to prove to my readers that last year was not a Brady Anderson-level flash in the pan but the beginning of a sustained level of greatness. Besides, I can't walk away from the Oscars – they're kind of my thing.

Alright, the nominations will be announced Tuesday, so let's get to it. And remember, while the Manifesto will eventually forecast the winner of all 21 categories, I'm limiting myself to the top eight categories for the nomination predictions.

Here we go. Michael Jordan, you better watch your ass.

Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Comments: We can essentially break these into confidence tiers. The absolute locks are The King's Speech and The Social Network; those two will be battling down to the wire for the top prize. After that, Black Swan, The Fighter, and Inception are similarly surefire bets, as all three combine critical praise with strong box office grosses. Toy Story 3 will cruise to Pixar's second straight nomination (after last year's Up) and struggle to avoid being labeled as occupying the "token animated slot". The Kids Are All Right came out an awfully long time ago, but its pace hasn't flagged throughout the season. True Grit may not have been a critical smash, but it's been a force at the box office, and reviews are nevertheless strong enough to grant it the populist vote.

That's when things get shaky. The prevailing wisdom is that three films – 127 Hours, The Town, and Winter's Bone – are vying for the two remaining slots. The Town nabbed a nod from the Producers' Guild (outdistancing Winter's Bone), but its narrative just seems too rote to me for it to land in the top 10. Winter's Bone, on the other hand, is an indie darling (hailing from Sundance, no less), and given that the current lineup already includes three movies that crossed $100 million (Toy Story 3, Inception, and True Grit), I imagine that voters will throw more of their weight behind the low-key Ozark drama than the star-studded Boston heist flick. As for 127 Hours, its buzz has lessened somewhat, but I still think Danny Boyle's cred with the Academy – plus the movie's holy-shit-that-really-happened story – give it enough of a lift.

Potential upset: Besides The Town, Shutter Island could sneak in behind Scorsese's clout, although it came out 11 whole months ago. Also, keep an eye on Mike Leigh's Another Year; it predictably won with critics, but I think it's been too-little seen.

Longshots: Blue Valentine (it's an acting vehicle); How to Train Your Dragon (someday two animated films will land in the top 10, but not this year); The Ghost Writer (maybe if the Polanski hullabaloo had happened more recently); Rabbit Hole (supposedly great, so why no buzz?); Biutiful (if any foreign language films makes the cut, it's this one); Secretariat (dubbed as this year's The Blind Side, except it barely made one-fifth the gross); Hereafter (Eastwood's name just isn't what it was four years ago).

Darren Aronofsky – Black Swan
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen – True Grit
David Fincher – The Social Network
Tom Hooper – The King's Speech
Christopher Nolan – Inception

Comments: You can write Fincher's nomination in permanent ink. I don't see Hooper going anywhere, and I'm also reasonably confident on Aronofsky. Nolan is on somewhat shakier ground, especially given Inception's summer release date, but in the end the Academy won't be able to deny his mastery of the medium. By far my diciest proposition is the Coen Brothers, as I'm choosing them over the Guild-nominated David O. Russell (for The Fighter). Part of that is personal bias, but part is that Christian Bale is likely swallowing up all attention for The Fighter, whereas True Grit was as much about its sumptuous visuals and flawless filmmaking as its story.

Potential upsets: I'm essentially calling an upset with the Coens over Russell. Two months ago I'd have pegged Danny Boyle for 127 Hours – then I saw the movie. Debra Granik could sneak in here for Winter's Bone, especially if she can ride some pro-female sentiment following Kathyrn Bigelow's win last year for The Hurt Locker.

Longshots: Mike Leigh for Another Year (he'll have better odds for his screenplay); Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right (too much buzz for Bening, not enough for the film); Martin Scorsese for Shutter Island (only if it also lands a Best Picture nomination); Ben Affleck for The Town (ibid); Roman Polanski for The Ghost Writer (hey, after The Pianist, who knows?).

(FYI: Massive spoilers on this True Grit clip. Certainly no more than in the film's damn trailer though.)

Jeff Bridges – True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
Colin Firth – The King's Speech
James Franco – 127 Hours
Ryan Gosling – Blue Valentine

Comments: Eisenberg and Firth are rock-solid locks (anyone sensing a pattern?), and Bridges seems reasonably secure. It's possible the buzz for 127 Hours has dwindled so dramatically that Franco might miss the cut, but he carries his picture more so than any other performer this year (with the possible exception of Ryan Reynolds in Buried). My admiration for Gosling's performance is undoubtedly swaying my prediction, but I can't help myself, and I'm not sensing all that much enthusiasm for the Guild-nominated Robert Duvall (for Get Low).

Potential upsets: Conventional wisdom pegs Duvall, while Javier Bardem could slide in for his supposedly stellar work in Biutiful (I've yet to see it). It's possible The Fighter has more pull than I'm anticipating, in which case Mark Wahlberg could land a nomination for his incredibly bland serviceable performance in the title role.

Longshots: Stephen Dorff for Somewhere (did anyone see it?); Paul Giamatti for Barney's Version (definitely no one saw it); Leonardo DiCaprio for Shutter Island (as with Scorsese, only if it's part of an all-out Shutter Island blitz).

Annette Bening – The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman – Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence – Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman – Black Swan
Michelle Williams – Blue Valentine

Comments: Here's where things get messy. The distinction between lead and supporting performances at the Oscars is often blurry, and that's only exacerbated when studios campaign for stars to show up in one category (usually for probability purposes), even though they clearly belong in the other. (The most bizarre example of this came two years ago, when Harvey Weinstein promoted Kate Winslet for Best Supporting Actress for The Reader, but the Academy resisted and nominated her in the lead category, which she eventually won.) This year features no fewer than three such confusing considerations: Lesley Manville for Another Year, Julianne Moore for The Kids Are All Right, and Hailee Steinfeld for True Grit. (The latter is being pushed for supporting but is so clearly the film's star that it illustrates the lunacy of the entire process.)

To demonstrate how difficult this makes the prediction process, let's look at the approaches of two different agencies. The BAFTAs (i.e., the British awards) ignored all politicking and nominated both Moore and Steinfeld as leads while registering Manville as supporting. The Screen Actors' Guild (SAG), in contrast, toed the studio line and slotted Steinfeld as supporting, then muddled everything further by not even nominating Manville or Moore, instead opting (somewhat shockingly) for Hilary Swank for Conviction. Meanwhile, Michelle Williams is watching everything unfold like the piranha in You Only Live Twice, hoping to swoop in for the kill her after her enemies have exhausted themselves fighting each other.

So where does that leave us? Well, only one slot is really up for grabs, as Portman and Bening are shoo-ins, while Kidman and Lawrence can feel reasonably comfortable. I'm disenchanted enough with Academy voting procedures to bet that they'll place Steinfeld in the supporting category, not least because of her age. Moore would probably have better luck in supporting, but she's being overshadowed by Bening either way. So for me it's a tossup between Manville and Williams, and it's made all the more difficult because I've yet to see Another Year. Still, if I have the balls to predict a nomination for Gosling, I might as well go out on a similar limb for his (arguably more-beloved) co-star. And when Noomi Rapace shows up here for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, well, that'll just prove that this was all just a waste of time.

Potential upsets: You mean besides Manville, Moore, Rapace, Steinfeld, and Swank?

Longshots: Tilda Swinton for I Am Love (perhaps as an apology for failing to recognize her masterwork in last year's Julia); Sally Hawkins for Made in Dagenham (perhaps as an apology for failing to nominate her for her stellar performance in Happy-Go-Lucky two years ago); Carey Mulligan for Never Let Me Go (perhaps as an apology for failing to properly give her the win last year for An Education).

Christian Bale – The Fighter
Andrew Garfield – The Social Network
John Hawkes – Winter's Bone
Mark Ruffalo – The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush – The King's Speech

Comments: Bale and Rush are golden, while Ruffalo isn't dogged by any of the category concerns surrounding his running mate Moore. I'm backing Garfield largely because I'm banking on a massive showing from The Social Network, but he's by no means assured. Hawkes is my shakiest pick, but he landed a nod from the SAG, and given that I've already thrown in my hat for Winter's Bone in my Best Picture predictions, there's no point in hedging here.

Potential upsets: The biggest potential disruptor here is Jeremy Renner for The Town. He showed up in both the SAG and Golden Globe nominations, and he's likely riding some residual good will from his star-making turn in The Hurt Locker. It's possible that The Social Network could double-dip via Justin Timberlake. Matt Damon could sneak in for True Grit, but I feel like Bridges and Steinfeld are dominating the market on that movie.

Longshots: Michael Douglas for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (a pure sympathy pick); Pete Postlethwaite for The Town (same); Jim Broadbent for Another Year (not enough buzz); Sam Rockwell for Conviction (if Swank doesn't get in, neither does he).

Amy Adams – The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter – The King's Speech
Melissa Leo – The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
Jacki Weaver – Animal Kingdom

Comments: Adams and Leo shouldn't have any difficulty earning nominations for the same film, though only Leo is a sure thing. Bonham Carter isn't going anywhere. Steinfeld, of course, could lose out due to the category confusion I've mentioned, but I'm anticipating voters will look at her age (not to mention her co-star's stature) and marginalize her here. For the elusive fifth slot, I'm going Down Under with Weaver, an actress who's garnered plenty of press and has no concerns about category fraud whatsoever.

Potential upsets: Obviously Lesley Manville and Julianne Moore could both show up here. Weaver's biggest challenger is likely Mila Kunis for Black Swan, although she might wind up losing votes to Barbara Hershey for the same film.

Longshots: Kristin Scott-Thomas for Nowhere Boy (maybe if anyone had seen it); Miranda Richardson for Made in Dagenham (name recognition, perhaps); Marion Cotillard for Inception (voters love her); Dianne Wiest for Rabbit Hole (she always seems to show up here every five years or so); Mia Wasikowska for The Kids Are All Right (she'll be here someday, but not this year); Keira Knightley for Never Let Me Go (I freaking wish).

(By the way, this is easily the best scene in The Fighter. Note that Mark Wahlberg isn't anywhere near it.)

Another Year – Mike Leigh
Black Swan – Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin
The Kids Are All Right – Stuart Blumberg and Lisa Cholodenko
The King's Speech – David Seidler
Inception – Christopher Nolan

Comments: I'm pegging four of these five for Best Picture nominations as well, meaning Another Year is my wildcard. Leigh generally does well with his screenplays at the Oscars, and while the Writers' Guild nominated The Fighter, I again think that Christian Bale's towering performance snuffs out that film's chances here.

Potential upsets: Besides The Fighter, the Guild also highlighted Nicole Holofcener's scruffy screenplay for Please Give, though I think it's too downbeat and off-kilter to show up at the Oscars. Blue Valentine is primarily an actors' vehicle, but it's possible voters could be impressed with its cross-cutting timelines.

Longshot: Greenberg (perhaps Noah Baumbach can garner some residual report for his critically beloved The Squid and the Whale); Somewhere (can Sofia Coppola cash in on Lost in Translation seven years later?).

127 Hours – Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy
The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin
Toy Story 3 – Michael Arndt
True Grit – Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Winter's Bone – Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini

Comments: Unlike with Best Original Screenplay, I'm calling a five-for-five match between this category and Best Picture. If one were to drop out, I'd pick 127 Hours, but the Writers' Guild nomination should give it enough heft.

Potential upsets: The Town managed a nod with the Guild as well, though that's partly because Toy Story 3 was weirdly ruled ineligible. (I'm frankly unsure just what it is that Toy Story 3 is adapting, but no matter.) Similarly, I Love You, Phillip Morris scored with the Guild, but its paltry gross (under $2 million) should rule it out.

Longshots: How to Train Your Dragon (more plausible than a Best Picture nomination); The Ghost Writer (Polanski will have better luck in the Best Director category); Rabbit Hole (I'd know better if I'd actually seen it).

That's a wrap. Feel free to sound off with your own predictions in the Comments, and check back soon to see whether or not I remain invincible. I'm not betting on it.

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