January 23, 2008

Handicapping the Oscars: Best Picture

Posted in Movies at 3:32 am by Calico Jack

It’s that time of the year again; this morning the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their nominees for the February 24th awards show. And as an aside, do most people realize just how ridiculously complicated the nominee-picking process actually is? I always assumed it was based on a simple formula that prioritized someone’s first choice over their fourth or fifth. And it does — except that’s only the first step in a very involved procedure. For more, check out Entertainment Weekly‘s PopWatch blog. One would think there could be a simpler way…

Anyway, now is the chance for every film critic to rub his or her hands in glee and prognosticate the Academy Awards winners. My personal track record has been decent but not great over the past five years or so that I’ve been doing this seriously, but I’d like to think that I’m getting better each awards season. This year, however, gives us some categories that are nearly impossible to predict, and I suspect that we’ll see a few surprises come Oscar time. The list of nominees follows, with my prediction in bold (if I feel comfortable making one).

BEST PICTURE:

Atonement
Juno
Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

This one is quite tricky, and I’m certain that an excellent case could be made for any of the five to receive the top award. The only way that Atonement will win, however, is if enough voters split their ballots between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, leaving the British period piece as the winner by default. It fits neatly into the “epic, romantic, sometimes-war-related drama” category that the Academy seems to embrace (see: The English Patient, Braveheart, Gladiator, Shakespeare in Love, Return of the King, Titanic, etc.) But I really don’t think it has a good chance of getting the award on its own merits, since almost nobody (myself included) thinks that it truly deserves to be called the best picture of the year (Golden Globe winner notwithstanding).

Juno has captured the heart of America over the past month, and if this show were left up to the public it would be the hands-down favorite. But there has been a growing critical backlash against the film in recent weeks, partly because Fox Searchlight overhyped it instead of letting box office receipts grow based solely on word of mouth. It’s also accused of having the most unrealistic dialogue of the year, if you believe the hyperbole. Yet Juno‘s biggest problem is that the Academy has been historically biased against comedies, and I’m not sure that will change this year.

Michael Clayton gained a huge amount of momentum over the holiday season, even though it flew under the radar of most people when it was released back in October. In my opinion, it’s one of the more overrated films of the year; I found nothing special about its hackneyed story of a conflicted corporate lawyer. But I will admit that it is well-made, and it has the prestige credentials to please the more conservative members of the Academy. And with its best director, actor, supporting actor, and supporting actress nominations, I’m going to pick it for a possible dark horse upset.

This leaves us with the two giants of the field: No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. I hope to (finally!) see the latter this weekend, which would leave me in a slightly better spot for making predictions. However, I know that quite a few critics seem to regard There Will Be Blood as straining for greatness but not quite reaching the goal, and its explosive performance by Daniel Day Lewis might help his Best Actor chances but actually hurt the film’s Best Picture chances. The Academy is, if nothing else, a staunchly conservative organization that has never truly embraced the immoderate, and There Will Be Blood might just be a little bit too bizarre to wholeheartedly recommend.

This leaves me with my money on No Country for Old Men, a film that I’ve hailed as the best of the year. It has the key supporting nominations — director, adapted screenplay, editing, cinematography — that often help a film’s chances for receiving the Best Picture award, and its nearly universal acclaim can’t hurt either. Even those who dislike the film recognize its technical brilliance and flawless filmmaking, which is about as good as one can get from a negative review. No Country for Old Men has been endlessly discussed, dissected, and debated over the past several months, and critics are still finding new ways to approach the film — something that can’t be said for any of the other nominees. It has everything the Academy is looking for in a Best Picture: powerful, layered performances, technical mastery (this will get overlooked by many, but the sound design is absolutely stunning), a thought-provoking final act, and the immaculate attention to detail, tone, and scope that the Cohen brothers have at the zenith of their career. No Country for Old Men is one of the finest films of the decade, and it should be celebrated on Oscar night as 2007’s masterpiece.

Now, I just realize that I listed a bunch of reasons why it should win, not why it will win. But I’m going with my gut on this one; I can’t help feeling this strongly about its chances. The only thing that could provide an upset is if it somehow gets conflated with There Will Be Blood; if voters are undecided between the two front-runners then neither might gain enough votes to take the top spot. Keep in mind that the entire Academy is eligible to vote for the Best Picture nominee, and it’s a well-known “fact” that quite a few people who vote in a category never see all of the nominees. There is a possibility of voters being undecided between the two front-runners and splitting the vote; then it becomes a free-for-all. I’ll be watching the buzz over the next month to see which of these five films will gain or lose momentum. But I’m crossing my fingers that the existentialist No Country for Old Men gets the recognition it deserves.

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