The Academy Awards will be televised later than normal this year, so that the world can pay tribute to Adam Rippon making that money and earning another check at the Olympics. Normally this delay would spark even more angst than usual about how the awards season perennially makes the Oscars yesterday’s news before they’ve even had a chance to weigh in with their nominations, but we aren’t despairing. The main reason for that is we’re still enjoying the opportunity to accurately gauge AMPAS’s overdue transition from old-guard to new-guard voters. If Moonlight’s thrilling upset victory over La La Land two minutes after the best picture prize was incorrectly called for the latter left everyone’s heads spinning, we still don’t know how sweeping the Academy’s membership truly is or how far-reaching its effects will be. Nor does anyone else. Behold the gazillion nominations it took to make the Broadcast Film Critics Association—i.e., the only professional Oscar prognosticators who’ve managed to dupe the world into believing they’re actually an awards group—feel as though they could sleep at night. Until proven otherwise, we see no reason not to be optimistic about the Grand Pooh-Bah of film prizes’ potential for further underdog surprises.
Taking a cue from the sage Mark Harris, Ed Gonzalez and I have vowed to lay off using the term “Oscar bait” as a pejorative for the remainder of this year’s prediction blog cycle, if not for the rest of our lives. Even at best, it confuses the responsibility of making aesthetic and interpretive judgments of a film with making assumptions about the intentions of not even the filmmakers—which is bad enough in terms of predicting Oscars—but instead with publicists. Beyond that, among the most salient points made by Harris is his theory that whenever people use the term, they may be unconsciously coding a form of cinematic misogyny that prizes certain IMDb-approved filmmakers over others that work in genres commonly thought of as “sissy” stuff. Hell, it’s a point I’ve made multiple times over the years, and since Harris includes in the latter category the sort of costume dramas and comparatively straightforward historical narratives that more or less dominated the upper ranks of Slant’s top 25 films of the year—namely A Quiet Passion, Phantom Thread, and The Lost City of Z—we self-servingly agree.
In listening over the course of the last few months to Vanity Fair’s Little Gold Men podcast, which recently hosted Harris as a guest commentator, what seems all too clear circa 2018 is that, for those who use the term “Oscar bait,” it doesn’t even really represent the type of film Oscar voters can’t seem to help themselves from nominating out of sheer, retrograde habit. What it really refers to are the films that somehow fail to properly align themselves with the urgency of some grander cultural concern in a present-tense sense, the films whose strengths aren’t in providing ancillary support to the #MeToo movement, or covertly attacking Trump, or demonstrating unimpeachable intersectionality. As though cinema’s most important function in the marketplace of ideas is to provide the quickest temperature read, not to transport its audience via the tools of the medium away from anything that doesn’t involve a rhetorical ultimatum on what the fuck just happened today. In those terms, one might say that the Dunkirk promotional team can thank their lucky stars that Christopher Nolan’s streamlined WWII film is now being assessed in contrast to Darkest Hour, which may as well be this Oscar cycle’s The Crown, for all the good faith it’s being given from certain quarters.
Many of the films that have charged to the front of the pack in this year’s Oscar race weren’t made to exist within these limiting strictures. Does anyone think they’re actually paying Get Out a compliment when they note the perfect timing of its release weeks into the Trump era? Or that Greta Gerwig deserves a nomination for best director because Harvey Weinstein? Does anyone believe that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’s makers aren’t at least cognizant of the possibility that one character’s change of heart is, to say the least, abrupt and worthy of your examination? And that maybe Martin McDonagh’s first intention wasn’t necessarily to win the Nobel Peace Prize?
This could all be true, and maybe the influx of young blood in the voting body will simply certify everything that’s happened so far in the Oscar race simply because that’s inescapably what’s in the conversation, which bodes well for Call Me by Your Name and I, Tonya, otherwise diametrically opposed political and formal propositions. Certainly, it’s the only reason we find ourselves reluctant to put our faith in a supposedly hipper Academy, even given later voting deadlines, throwing Phantom Thread a The Tree of Life-style best picture nod, even though we think they’re going to open their hearts to the humanism of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Ultimately, this battle over the identity of “Oscar bait” may end up being won or lost according to whether both The Post and The Shape of Water—woozy marriages between old-school craft and new-school wokeness—earn their expected nods.
Speaking of woke, the most expected thing AMPAS could do in the best director category is to nominate the exact same five people that the Directors Guild of America did last week. However, the DGA haven’t gone five-for-five with the Academy Awards in nearly a decade, so who gets the bounce and who gets to be this year’s Lenny Abrahamson? Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele have no rational reason to be lumped together for their efforts. But when, as of this writing, actors everywhere are crawling over each other to announce that they all refuse to work with Woody Allen going forward, it’s hard to argue on behalf of tokenism when absolutism is the only reality of the moment. So, yes, even though Lady Bird and Get Out are both among the year’s best-reviewed films, in addition to being among the most profitable and would be likely frontrunners regardless, the current “cake and eat it too” cultural moment make them both cast-iron locks.
That leaves Christopher Nolan, Martin McDonagh, and Guillermo del Toro fending off strong cases to be made for Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Sean Baker, Dee Rees, and Luca Guadagnino. Traditionally, Oscar categories that boast more viable contenders than Oscar bloggers can successfully whittle down end up skewing more conservative in taste. That favors Nolan and del Toro over McDonagh, to say nothing of the possibility for Spielberg to come roaring back into play. Nonetheless, we’re predicting both a conventional zig and a vanguard zag, and calling the fifth slot for wild card Sean Baker. No one out there’s playing the Oscar game better than A24, especially given the most important rule is to present respectable players.
How long does the average Academy voter wait to submit his or her ballot? Do they get it over with as soon as they possibly can? Do they hover over the deadline as flagrantly as yours truly, submitting his copy at the last possible second…but really another week later? Normally, that question would only serve to illustrate how momentum for platform-release strategies like that of Phantom Thread work either against or in candidates’ favors. But this year—one year after Casey Affleck won this category—is another matter entirely. James Franco’s win at the Golden Globes was something of a gimme, given The Disaster Artist’s carefully calibrated balance of cheap laughs with even cheaper sentiment. (I say that as a “fan” of both The Room and Franco’s by far most tolerable exploration of meta-whatever.) And we’re of the opinion that there probably aren’t enough buzzer-beaters out there to be influenced by the string of j’accuses that emerged in the wake of Franco’s Golden Globe win, most notably in “I’ve said too much” form from Ally Sheedy. Ergo, Franco remains maybe the third or fourth most likely person to get a nomination in this category, after critics’ darling Timothée Chalamet and Oscar pundits’ favorite Gary Oldman, but also arguably SAG nominee Daniel Kaluuya, whose simmering mix of fear and loathing in Get Out has resulted in more places and shows than actual wins but who also gets the year’s most indelible moment of betrayed trust (“Give me the keys!”) in a year that’s hardly wanting for them. The last slot is, again, a battle between early filers and Johnny-come-latelys, with the former group apt to favor Tom Hanks or Denzel Washington, and the latter group more apt to consider Jacob Tremblay, given the surprising resilience of sleeper hit Wonder, or Daniel Day-Lewis, for his ostensible swan song in Phantom Thread.
In contrast to best director, best actress has almost the narrowest or at least most top-heavy field of viable contenders among any in the top eight categories. Here we simply have four co-frontrunners and the force of nature that is Meryl Streep. It may be premature to decree Margot Robbie’s performance as Tonya Harding “frontrunner status” alongside the turns by Sally Hawkins, Frances McDormand, and Saoirse Ronan, who’ve all picked up far more precursor trophies up to this point. Certainly, if we wanted to play our cards closer to the chest, we might give stronger odds to SAG nominee Judi Dench for, once again, donning dated duds and delighting dotards, or to Jessica Chastain, who grapples with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s curtains of verbiage much in the same way that her character grapples with the machismo of the illicit poker tournament circuit. But, presuming every last Academy member has been placing I, Tonya at the top of their screener piles to see just how zestfully Allison Janney chews the scenery, every last drama queen will eat up the film’s final stretch in which Robbie is handed the opportunity to restage Harding’s entire life story as Black Swan: On Ice. However one feels about the entire Scorsese-pinching enterprise, it’s hard not to feel empathy for Robbie, Wolf of Wall Street survivor, as she works the equal-and-opposite angle of the Harding saga, a presumed princess getting down and dirty for her art by portraying a scrappy firecracker berated for her entire life for daring to stiff up in class.
No fewer than three films have been legitimately given consideration for their double-dipping potential here, and another half-case if you consider Christopher Plummer getting buzz for stepping into a role that until recently was earning Kevin Spacey buzz. That’s left some of those unimpressed with Willem Dafoe’s performance for his Mahershala Ali-worthy sweep in precursors thus far wondering if the abundance of him-or-him options might not be partially responsible for Dafoe standing virtually alone. (Dafoe’s loss at the Golden Globes was his first major misstep, and one that Ali also suffered.)
That would be, of course, sloppy logic, but anyone who’s read any trade-paper article revealing some unnamed Academy voter’s ballot knows that sloppy logic ain’t exactly outside the realm of plausibility; this year’s biggest gem, thus far, found one such voter shrugging off Call Me by Your Name because the Academy already did the small-gay-movie thing last year when they awarded Moonlight. Call Me by Your Name is, on paper, the most likely of the three to get two supporting actor nods. Armie Hammer dances (awkwardly, and to Psychedelic Furs) close to co-lead status but not enough to risk backlash. And Michael Stuhlbarg hovers along the periphery of the film as a source of warmth who remains vague up until the denouement, where he delivers the patient monologue every former gay child would have so wished to hear themselves that it may as well have been scored to Björk’s Utopia.
But we wouldn’t be surprised, in this cultural environment, for the Academy to steer clear of Hammer, who took some heat recently for the number of “chances” Hollywood has given him despite a string of flops, and finding comfort in Stuhlbarg’s character, who preaches restraint and resignation. For a while, the early buzz on The Shape of Water held that Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins were top-line contenders, and as neither exactly turns in a nuanced performance, the fact that only the latter of the two is showing up virtually everywhere probably only indicates that people are tiring of Shannon pouring it on thick, and haven’t gotten there yet with Jenkins. Conversely, people had written off Woody Harrelson, presuming Sam Rockwell would get the lion’s share of their film’s attention. However, with every passing guild slate announcement, and after witnessing the genuine enthusiasm in the room at the Golden Globes for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Harrelson’s our pick.
Will Be Nominated: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project; Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water; Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me by Your Name
The issue of whether the ultimate winner of the award will be critical favorite Laurie Metcalf’s good-bad mother from Lady Bird or Allison Janney’s bad-bad mother from I, Tonya is all but assured to dominate the discourse from the moment the Oscar nominations are announced. Allowing, of course, for that brief period of mourning for everyone who’s been pinning their hopes on Tiffany Haddish’s star-is-born moment in Girls Trip. Haddish, who we are decidedly not predicting to crack the eventual lineup, has had to overcome a surfeit of perceived barriers toward translating her New York Film Critics Circle win into genuine momentum. If I say “perceived,” it’s because we’ve heard the rationales in the past, right before Melissa McCarthy scored a nomination for Bridesmaids: she’s too little-known, the character is too brash, her film is just another bloated gross-out studio comedy. And it’s not her fault for trying, as anyone who attended the New York Film Critics Circle banquet could attest. There, Haddish launched into her acceptance speech with such full-throated force that she left no one in doubt that she wants that nomination, and holding nothing back to appease those in the room for whom a performance like hers seems beneath their palate.
That Mary J. Blige’s perfectly fine but muted performance in Mudbound has been getting the nods in all the right places while Haddish’s winning ebullience in a crowd-pleasing hit that additionally lets women of color know that it’s okay to put oneself first may or may not say something about the mindset of awards voters. (Our hot take of the moment: Blige feels like the archetypal candidate who bats 1.000 throughout the preseason only to somehow come up short on an Oscar nomination.) On a related note, as Hong Chau’s hotly debated role and Octavia Spencer’s less debated but still problematic one have managed to rack up precursor nominations thus far suggests that this category might just somehow exist in a parallel universe free from social justice warriors. Excepting, of course, early favorite Holly Hunter, whose good-good mother in The Big Sick dressing down racist hecklers at her future son-in-law’s standup show ought to make for a handy palate-cleansing Oscar clip against everything else here.
On the bright side, at least no one has to fret this year over whether everyone is underselling Woody Allen’s chances. Which doesn’t exactly thin out the field much, because best original screenplay is as stacked with potential as its adapted counterpart is searching under pillows and behind cabinets to find five agreeable candidates. The math is simple: Most of the best picture contenders this year center around original screenplays, leaving precious little room for films that in other years might have potential for the classic one-off writing nod, like The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Wind River, Coco, or Beatriz at Dinner. And again, three of the slots are all sewn up by writer-directors who could all potentially find themselves double nominated: Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig, and Martin McDonagh.
The Post, at one time a presumed frontrunner, might wear its attempts to address the way things are now a little too overtly for a film that’s set nearly 50 years in the past. The entire project’s momentum seems to have slowed significantly since its very characteristic National Board of Review wins, but even the film’s fans don’t count its double-underlined speechifying among its strengths. Meanwhile, Paul Thomas Anderson works at a “one on, one off” rate with Oscar writing nominations, so even though he managed to wrestle his way into the category with his incredibly dense and difficult work on Inherent Vice, Phantom Thread may not be direct enough about dissecting toxic masculinity in this particular Oscar year. Especially with far cuddlier options to choose from, like the gentle observations of The Big Sick and the safe-word winking depiction of domestic violence via a series of unreliable narrators that comprises the entirety of I, Tonya.
We’ll keep this short because, well, there’s not much to talk about. More telling than the list of likely nominees for best adapted screenplay are the films popping up as “next in line” in most places. In short, when seasoned Oscar prognosticators find themselves seriously listing as runners-up not just one, but multiple franchise movies, the field starts looking mighty thin. For the record, we buy Logan being taken seriously by Oscar voters but draw the line at Wonder Woman and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, as we do on the opposite side of the spectrum with The Lost City of Z, elated though that nomination would make us. Call Me by Your Name, The Disaster Artist, and Mudbound should coast to nominations, and absent of many other alternatives, writers might not be able to plug their ears to Aaron Sorkin’s relentless dialogue in Molly’s Game. Similarly, it would be a safe bet to give Last Flag Flying’s Richard Linklater the benefit of the doubt based on name recognition alone, but in the meantime, Wonder became a genuine crowd-pleasing sleeper hit. If the writers are being asked to seriously consider superhero movies, they could easily find themselves backing a far more relatable form of human heroism.
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actor
Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual.
We’ve reached the halfway point of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, and I think I speak on behalf of Ed and myself when I say we’re already absolutely spent. Yes, we still have some major rounds of mental gymnastics to undergo for best picture, which most people believe can be won by no fewer than three and as many as six films, and a few other races feel ripe for an upset (we’ve got all eyes on both screenplay categories). But nowhere does the fatigue of even an accelerated Oscar season feel most evident than it does in the acting categories, which at an increasing rate seem to be nailed down even before the Golden Globe and SAG award winners are announced each year.
Yes, we still have the image of Glenn Close nodding and grimly grinning while resignedly slumped over in her front-row chair at the Oscar ceremony last year imprinted in our memory bank, but that universe-disrupting exception only proved the rule. And it’s a rule that, incidentally, is only rivaled in rigidity by what Ed mentioned last week when predicting Renée Zellweger at the beginning of this year’s marathon: “There’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals.”
Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, who’s going to win the Oscar, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual. Sure, he’s up against Adam Driver playing a thinly veiled version of director Noah Baumbach in Marriage Story, and Antonio Banderas playing a thinly veiled version of director Pedro Almodóvar in Pain and Glory, and Jonathan Pryce playing a thinly veiled version of the faultless, approachable, non-slappy Pope Francis that director Fernando Meirelles sells to the world in The Two Popes. But none of them are in the same class of mimicry-first winners as Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and Eddie Redmayne.
Add to that the fact that the historically prickly Phoenix has proven himself capable this Oscar season of not only directing his pugilism at worthy causes (being arrested alongside Jane Fonda protesting climate change enablers, comforting slaughterhouse pigs), but also coming off as a genuinely effusive member of the acting community, as when he spent his speech time at the SAG awards paying tribute to his co-nominees and, then, Heath Ledger. He’d have the award even if he wasn’t playing Joker’s real-life version of Donald Trump.
Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Could Win: Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Should Win: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short
Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.
Our track record here is spotty, but we’re on a roll, having correctly guessed the winner three years in a row. Just as every film up for the documentary feature prize grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war, every one nominated for best documentary short concerns the aftermath of trauma. And this category’s history tells us that academy members are quite keen on a certain angle on the process of coping with trauma, which is implicit even in the titles of the films that won here but whose chances we underestimated, such as Mighty Times: The Children’s March and A Note of Triumph.
There isn’t a single dud in this bunch, but a few feel only half-formed. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s St. Louis Superman, which earned MTV its first Oscar nod, concerns Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. and his efforts to pass a bill recognizing youth violence as a public health crisis after being sworn into the Missouri House of Representatives. A powerful sequence set during a rap battle gives us a complete picture of how the trauma of his younger brother’s death—and, simply, living while black—has come to shape Franks’s politics, but if the short successfully attests to his accomplishments against all odds, it remains conspicuously tight-lipped about his home life and has a final title credits sequence tell us about his future in government that we wished it had actually processed on screen.
John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s gripping Life Overtakes Me, the only short in this category with Netflix’s muscle behind it, feels as if it could benefit from simply reporting on a relatively unknown matter: the dissociative condition known as resignation syndrome, a response to the trauma of refugee limbo that has been predominantly observed in children from the Balkans now living in Sweden with their families. The filmmakers vigilantly depict the day-to-day routines of parents struggling to feed their comatose children and keep their limbs as lithe as possible. But the short doesn’t offer enough context about the struggles that brought these families to Sweden and, like St. Louis Superman, it has one read a little too much between the lines, sometimes literally so, as information relating to the asylum process and evolving opinions about resignation syndrome is largely conveyed via on-screen text.
Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam’s In the Absence plays out like a ghost story, and it’s much less withholding than both St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me. Concerning the 2014 MV Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, this hauntingly cool-headed short doesn’t lack for astonishing footage of the incident, some of it pulled from the phones of those who were aboard the ship; the shots of the protests that followed the incident, as well as the talking-head interviews from the families of the deceased, are no less harrowing. The filmmakers are ferocious in their condemnation of the various failures of communication that led to the deaths of hundreds aboard the ship, and one deserved target of their contempt is South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye. Still, if we have any reservations about our favorite short in this category, it’s over the way it risks leaving some with the impression that the Sewol disaster was largely responsible for the disgraced politico’s downfall.
Now, for those who couldn’t read between the lines of this post’s first paragraph: Bet against a message of hope, as we did in the past when we didn’t rally behind Music by Prudence and Strangers No More, and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool. As such, In the Absence faces stiff competition from Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt’s touching but somewhat featherweight Walk Run Cha-Cha, about a young man and woman who, 40 years after being separated during the Vietnam War, and especially Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva’s Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which, spite of its cloying score, chronicles a resistance in a language that will be impossible for most to resist.
Learning to Skate in a Warzone tells the story of a school in Kabul that teaches young girls to skateboard and, by extension, take on the patriarchy. “I don’t want to grow up so I can skate forever,” one girl says at one point. Hopeful words, yes, but we can see their melancholic roots. The filmmakers may not have bombard us with images of violence, but you don’t walk away from this short without understanding the risk of simply seeing that girl’s face speaking those words, in a country where so many girls are destined to become prisoners in their own homes, and are more prone than boys to be the victims of terrorism.
Will Win: Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Could Win: In the Absence
Should Win: In the Absence
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short
It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.
If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.
Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Bryan Buckley’s Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.
Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.
So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.
Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.
But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.
Will Win: Brotherhood
Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window
Should Win: Brotherhood
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”
One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.
At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.
Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.
Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.
Will Win: Memorable
Could Win: Hair Love
Should Win: Memorable
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.
The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.
Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.
From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.
One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, and, in fact, a Star Wars film has never won a competitive award for sound editing. Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.
Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Could Win: 1917
Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature
Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.
Will Win: Toy Story 4
Could Win: Missing Link
Should Win: I Lost My Body
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor
Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.
We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.
On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.
Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.
Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.
Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.
When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.
Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.
Will Win: For Sama
Could Win: The Cave
Should Win: For Sama
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling
There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.
While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
Will Win: Joker
Could Win: Judy
Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film
Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.
Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.
Will Win: Parasite
Could Win: Pain and Glory
Should Win: Parasite