On September 12, when Mark Harris officially returned to Grantland to cover the Oscar race (he stepped aside last season due to the conflict of husband Tony Kushner’s Lincoln being in contention), he penned this dead-on and intentionally prickly piece, which took to task the festival-going, hastily-Tweeting types who hurried to declare 12 Years a Slave this year’s Best Picture winner. In true Harris style, the article used insider wisdom and everyman accessibility to comprehensively articulate the trouble with this particular behavior, and the folly of using “I’m first” tactics to simplify something that still has miles of nuanced ground to cover. It’s one thing to announce, with great certainty, one’s thoughts on a probable nominee, like the baity Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, but it’s quite another to plant one’s feet so early, and firmly name a winner. 12 Years a Slave has a lot of promise, but it’s impossible to tell how it will fare amid the cavalcade of critics’ awards, additional precursors, shifting tastes, and campaign strengths, not to mention the mystery of whether or not Academy members will stomach the film’s violence enough to hand it their loftiest vote. That said, as another adored colleague, Nathaniel Rogers, recently acknowledged, Gravity simply isn’t walking away this year without statuettes for Cinematography and Visual Effects. Sorry, Mark, but this time, my feet are planted.
People may not have foreseen a Cinematography win for Avatar, particularly since the movie’s “camerawork” involved the filming of things that were largely birthed in post-production, but there was never a question as to the crowning of its groundbreaking Visual Effects. In the case of Gravity, the two disciplines are utterly and harmoniously intertwined, and have spawned an even balance of think pieces as much concerned with the how’d-they-do-that intricacy of Alfonso Cuarón’s wizardly technique as the fluid, oft-unbroken lensing of D.P. Emmanuel Lubezki. Surely you’ve already read about how Cuarón’s crackerjack team invented new technologies to achieve zero-G visuals, and there are lists aplenty celebrating Lubezki as the new master of the the single take. Is anyone prepared to decry these two specific modes of artistry, within this specific work, as current, respective industry benchmarks? Regardless of his or her thoughts on the whole package? Odds are there are few such folks within an Academy populated by mega-producers and tech experts alike, and at this point, it’s not a matter of who stands in the way of Lubezki and the special effects team led by Vince Abbot, but merely who will be among them (12 Years a Slave’s Sean Bobbit and Prisoners’ Roger Deakins are likely to join the former, while the crews behind Iron Man 3 and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug should join the latter).
So, in which other races will Gravity pop up? How much time do we have? This is a film that most would agree boasts a whole lot of locks and scant few question marks. As even Harris has observed, within this safer realm of nominee prognostication, the film is a firm lock for a Best Picture nomination, thanks to a rare and epic synergy of factors, which include, but are certainly not limited to, branch-crossing appeal within the Academy, critic and audience appeal outside of it, massive across-the-board buzz, and high-flying box-office returns (the $80 million picture brought in $55.8 million on opening weekend, the biggest ever for an October release). Also in the bag is a Director nod for Cuarón, a previous nominee for cutting and writing Children of Men, and a man who’s in the good graces of nearly everyone in, and connected to, the industry right now. And speaking of good graces, don’t think for a second that voters are going to pass up handing Sandra Bullock her second Best Actress bid, for a turn I refuse to believe that even the naysayers didn’t find intermittently dazzling. Bullock struggles in spurts, as most actors would, with the weaknesses of the Screenplay, but she nails the emotional moments that conjure universal resonance, and there is indeed something about her widespread likability that adds to the weight—or gravity, if you will—of watching her character suffer this experience.
Personally, I’d bet the farm on nominations for a handful of additional craft categories, including Sound Mixing, Sound Effects Editing, and, of course, Film Editing, which Cuarón tackled this time around with partner Mark Sanger. It goes without saying that a Best Picture contender as strong as this is bound for an Editing nod as well, and it’s nice that Gravity actually, indisputably deserves it (I hope you heard that, Silver Linings Playbook). The wild cards that remain include Mark Scruton’s Art Direction, Jany Temime’s Costume Design, and Steven Price’s Original Score. Of the the three, Scruton could hold the strongest shot, as his space-station interiors are packed with meaningful detail (note the symbolic religious idols in various nations’ vessels). Methinks Temime wouldn’t even be considered in a weaker film, since, from these eyes, a spacesuit is a spacesuit is a spacesuit. But who knows? And then there’s Price, who’s by far the toughest call given that this film is so often dependent on silence. My guess is he gets in nonetheless, as when his music arrives, it arrives with brute force. As for Cuarón and his son’s Original Screenplay, and Supporting Actor George Clooney, the less said, the better. Neither are in any way deplorable, but they’re surely the weakest links, and let’s just hope the excitement for this grand achievement doesn’t place coattail-riders ahead of better contenders.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Director, Alfonso Cuarón; Best Actress, Sandra Bullock; Best Cinematography; Best Visual Effects; Best Editing; Best Sound Mixing; Best Sound Effects Editing; Best Original Score.
Possibilities: Best Original Screenplay; Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design.
Shouldn’t be Overlooked: None.