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Things can always be different. In most cases, they should be different. At the end of the day, however, especially when it comes to awards shows, we can only really deal with what’s in front of us. Taking a look at this year’s Oscar nominees, there’s a whole lot that I would do differently. For one, there’s a lot of female directors that should have been on the list this year (Marjane Satrapi, Shira Piven and Celine Sciamma spring instantly to mind). There are at least a bakers’ dozen of extraordinary films and performances that weren’t so much as nominated (Kristen Wiig, Slow West, Girlhood and Bone Tomahawk are all on the “shafted” list this year). As I’ve said before, so shall I say again: do Academy voters actually watch more than 10 films a year?

All of that being said, we’ll deal with what “could’ve been” in a future post: at this time, we can only examine what was nominated, for good and bad. I did my best to see as many nominated films as I could this year but, as always, there were plenty that slipped through the cracks: Carol, The Big Short, Anomalisa, Mustang, Brooklyn and 45 Years were all films that seemed immensely worthy and right up my alley: unfortunately, we just never ended up being in the same place at the same time. Cest la vie, I suppose: after all, that’s what Mop-Up March is for.

In that spirit, here’s the first part of my educated (or not) guesses at what might tickle Academy voter fancy this Sunday. Part Two will follow later, including my guess at Best Picture.

Best Live Action Short

Ave Maria

Day One

Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)

Shok

Stutterer

What Should Win: Stutterer

What Will Win: Shok

This ended up being a pretty tough category due to the consistent quality of the nominees. Ave Maria was fun, if rather slight, and benefited from being the only truly lighthearted one of the bunch. Day One and Alles Wird Gut were intense little micro-movies, bolstered by great performances, if unrelentingly grim. Stutterer ended up being my fave of the bunch: the Irish/UK production was visually dazzling, had a really neat central conceit and used the proper proportions of giddiness and internal suffering. I’m pretty sure that nothing will beat Shok, however: this Kosovoan production is a 21-minute descent into almost abject misery with a climax that (literally) took my breath away. Nothing about this short is fun, in any way, shape or form, but it absolutely deserves to be seen. I’d rather see the more hopeful Stutterer take the trophy but Shok is, arguably, the most deserving.

Best Documentary Short

Body Team 12

Chau, Beyond the Lines

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

Last Day of Freedom

What Should Win:

What Will Win:

This is one of those categories where I didn’t see enough nominees to make an informed decision. Neither of the two shorts I saw really blew me away: Chau was uplifting and well-made but thoroughly conventional and obvious, whereas Last Day of Freedom had a great, important central concept but lost me due to the stylistic affectations (skittery, animated line drawings that distracted from the powerful story). If I had to guess, Chau seems like the kind of short that the Academy tends to favor but this could really go to any of them, I suppose.

Best Sound Mixing

Bridge of Spies

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What Should Win: Mad Max

What Will Win: The Revenant

For me, this is technically a toss-up between the unholy cacophony of Mad Max’s never-ending apocalyptic din and the all-encompassing stillness of The Revenant’s purgatorial chill. While I lean towards the more chaotic side of the spectrum, I think that The Revenant’s momentum will make this an easy lock. Nothing about the sound mix in either Bridge of Spies or The Martian really stood out, although I can’t comment on Star Wars, as that was one of the ones that got away.

Best Sound Editing

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What Should Win: Mad Max

What Will Win: The Revenant

See my above reasons for Sound Mixing, with the added caveat that I really like the sound editing in Sicario. Despite that, however, I still think Mad Max and The Revenant are the two to beat.

Best Visual Effects

Ex Machina

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What Should Win: Mad Max

What Will Win: Star Wars

With its seamless blend of physical effects and CGI, Fury Road was an all-encompassing experience and my easy pick for Best Visual Effects of the nominated films I saw. While Ex Machina was impressive on a smaller scale, I find it hard to believe the Academy will give it much love. The Martian was nice but certainly nothing special, while the effects in The Revenant (barring that terrifying bear attack) were so organic that they never really stood out. All of that said, however, I don’t think that anything will beat Star Wars in this particular category: with so few nominations, tossing it the VizFx statue seems like a no-brainer.

Best Costume Design

Carol

Cinderella

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

What Should Win: Mad Max

What Will Win: Cinderella

Although it might seem as if I’m just picking Mad Max in every category, that’s not quite the case. In this example, as with the above, I genuinely think it was the best of the best. With its unique vision of end-of-the-world-couture and a seemingly endless variety of eye-popping outfits, this (to me) is what costume design is all about. Nothing about The Revenant’s costume design really stood out for me, although the organic authenticity was certainly impressive. All of this being said, the Academy really can’t pass up a safe bet and I’m sure that Cinderella’s ball-gowns and fairy-tale fashion will fit that bill to a t.

Best Production Design

Bridge of Spies

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

What Should Win: Mad Max

What Will Win: Mad Max

This is another category where I just can’t see a lot of competition. The period detail in Bridge of Spies was just fine but certainly nothing special: ditto the science-factual details of Scott’s The Martian. The Revenant looked consistently lovely but seemed rather sparsely designed, barring the handful of scenes in villages and way-stations: it’s overriding strengths were the huge, endless outdoor vistas and that gorgeous natural light. Of the four films I saw in this category, only Mad Max sported the kind of meticulous, exacting attention to detail that’s necessary to make an utterly fantastic world spring to gritty life. I could definitely see The Revenant taking this home, especially if it sweeps, but I still think Mad Max is the most worthy candidate.

Best Film Editing

The Big Short

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Spotlight

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What Should Win: Mad Max

What Will Win: The Big Short

If you think about it, Mad Max is really one big, two-hour car chase: that’s a film where editing is not only important but pretty much the sink-or-swim pivot. Not only is the film always coherent and spatially easy to follow, the integration of physical effects and CG work is nothing short of seamless. In a perfect world this would be a lock. That’s not to say that the editing in The Revenant wasn’t seamlessly fluid, mind you, or that any of the ones I didn’t screen might be equally worthy. As far as what will win, however? My money is on The Big Short (which I didn’t screen), which has amassed quite a bit of pre-awards buzz and feels like an all-around safer bet for the Academy.

Best Cinematography

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Sicario

What Should Win: The Revenant

What Will Win: The Revenant

Just like last year, there may be several viable choices in the Best Cinematography category but there’s really only one front-runner: Emmanuel Lubezki’s work in The Revenant is pretty much what awards were created for. While The Hateful Eight brought 70mm film back to the masses, it just didn’t do as much awe-inspiring stuff with its vistas as The Revenant did: Tarantino’s newest might smoke lots of the competition but it’s at least a half-step behind Inarritu’s survival chiller. In any other year, either Roger Deakens’ work in Sicario or John Seale’s heart-stopping cinematography in Mad Max would be solid locks for the pole position. As any good Highlander knows, however, there can be only one: this year, The Revenant looks to lop a lot of heads.

Best Original Song

“Earned It,” Fifty Shades of Grey

“Manta Ray,” Racing Extinction

“Simple Song No. 3,” Youth

“Til It Happens to You,” The Hunting Ground

“Writing’s On the Wall,” Spectre

What Should Win: “Til It Happens To You,” The Hunting Ground

What Will Win: “Writing’s On the Wall,” Spectre

Despite having seen none of the nominated films, I did manage to listen to all of the individual songs. “Earned It” and “Simple Song No. 3” are both rather forgettable tracks, each one falling into the category of Muzak for one reason or another. “Manta Ray” is a great song but seems too brittle and spare to really go anywhere. Personally, I found Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On the Wall” to be the most banal, middle-of-the-road tune of the bunch, just the kind of forgettable anthem that seems aimed at most Academy voters. Only Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You” struck me as a song suitable for both on and off the screen. I’m predicting that Smith wins by a landslide, naturally.

Best Original Score

Bridge of Spies

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What Should Win: The Hateful Eight

What Will Win: Star Wars

As far as I’m concerned, this category is one of the easiest of the bunch: not only was Ennio Morricone’s score for Tarantino’s Western one of the very best of the year, it was one of the very best of the illustrious composer’s rather incredible career. Menacing, thrilling, driving and as integral to the film as any of the visual components, Morricone’s Hateful Eight scores is one of the rare bits of filmic music (just like his Good, The Bad and The Ugly score) that’s just as good off-screen. Among the others, I found Thomas Newman’s score for Bridge of Spies to be just about the most generic, forgettable one of the year, while Johann Johannsson’s work for Sicario was nothing spectacular. That being said, this is a year that sees legendary composer John Williams nominated for a Star Wars film: in Vegas, they call that a “sure bet.”

Best Foreign Language Film

Embrace of the Serpent, Columbia

Mustang, France

Son of Saul, Hungary

Theeb, Jordan

A War, Denmark

What Should Win: Theeb, Jordan

What Will Win: Son of Saul, Hungary

Yet another category where I only got to see one entry but I’m a lot more confident calling a winner in this one: there really hasn’t been buzz for any of the nominees save Son of Saul and that looks set to win by a landslide. That being said, I absolutely loved Theeb and would be overjoyed if that decidedly old-fashioned Western (by way of Lawrence of Arabia) were able to surge ahead and take the prize. Biggest disappointment, here, is not getting to see Mustang, which I’m pretty sure is absolutely amazing.

Best Documentary Feature

Amy

Cartel Land

Look of Silence

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Winter on Fire

What Should Win: Cartel Land

What Will Win: Amy

While the worst thing that I can say about any of these entries is that Oppenheimer’s Look of Silence was a disappointment (for me, at least) and a step down from his unforgettable The Act of Killing, the clear winner is Cartel Land. Amy is a well-made, sad look at a popular public figure (hence, my assumption that it will win) and is much less politically-thorny than the Nina Simone biopic, while Winter on Fire hews a little closely to previous nominee The Square. Cartel Land, on the other hand, is a fiercely original, terrifying and massively thought-provoking look at the war on drugs that arrives like an anvil to the face and instantly eliminates the competition. I feel the same way about Cartel Land that I did about The Act of Killing: it should be required viewing for every citizen of Planet Earth.

Best Animated Feature

Anomalisa

Boy and the World

Inside Out

Shaun the Sheep

When Marnie Was There

What Should Win: Anomalisa

What Will Win: Inside Out

While I didn’t get to screen Anomalisa in time for the awards ceremony, I have no doubt that Charlie Kaufman’s puppets-in-crisis drama is nothing short of next-level amazing. The very fact that a film like that is nominated in the Animated Feature category makes this year’s selections rather intriguing. Of the others I saw, Shaun the Sheep was a disappointment, being the first Aardman film that didn’t completely charm me. I can’t see anything stopping Inside Out, however, and there’s nothing wrong with that: this genuinely incisive look into childhood emotions and the terrifying joy of getting older and letting go of your youth is the rare “kids” films that’s aimed as squarely at adults as it is wee ones. It’s a genuinely lovely film with a positive message, great voice acting and lots of fun setpieces: I’d be a complete Scrooge if I tried to crap on its rainbow.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short

Brooklyn

Carol

The Martian

Room

What Should Win:

What Will Win: The Big Short

In this particular category, the only films that I got a chance to screen were The Martian and Room: ironically, I had the exact same problem with both films. To whit, the movies are much better when they’re smaller and more contained: when it’s just us and Mark Watney or us and Joy and Jack, both The Martian and Room are virtually airtight. Once they’re expanded to larger canvasses, however, the films lose their impact and become altogether more generic and familiar. From what I understand, The Big Short did a good job of not only compressing a lot of information into its two hours but also in educating its audience on various difficult concepts and terminology. On face value, that seems like a pretty admirable job to me but, as always, my sincerest apologies to the unscreened.

Best Director

Adam McKay, The Big Short

George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant

Lenny Abrahamson, Room

Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Who Should Win: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Who Will Win: Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant

While there may be five individuals nominated here, this particular race is really only about two: Miller and Inarritu. Both longtime auteurs produced staggeringly difficult, singular works, each with more obstacles to overcome than most filmmakers deal with in their entire lives. While Inarritu’s production travails on The Revenant have entered the public zeitgeist in a way not seen since Francis Ford almost lost his marbles in the jungle, I’m Team Miller on this one, all the way. Inarritu used minimalism and natural order (along with an exceptionally game cast) to craft a chilly piece of brutalist art, whereas Miller turned overriding chaos into one of the most beautifully orchestrated, choreographed and riveting pieces of thrash-pop we’ve ever seen. It’s the difference between fire and ice: I’m all about the fire on this one.

Best Actor

Bryan Cranston, Trumbo

Matt Damon, The Martian

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Eddie Redmayne. The Danish Girl

Who Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Who Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

I only got a chance to screen The Martian and The Revenant so, again, my apologies for a slightly uninformed opinion here. As usual, Damon was massively charismatic, the kind of matinee idol who can easily carry a film on nothing more than his “aw shucks” bearing and goofily endearing grin. That being said, there also wasn’t anything here we haven’t seen from him in the past: it’s a great performance from a great actor but it never struck me as the best of the year. As far as DiCaprio goes, we’ve all heard the narrative of woe, by this point: nearly frozen to death in the frigid wild; forced to eat steaming animal liver, puking it back up in the take that actually makes the final cut; crawling through icy cold water for days on end; taking a bite out of a living fish…if Olivier thought Dustin went a bit overboard, wait’ll he gets a load a this guy, eh?

The thing is, DiCaprio is great in The Revenant for more than his ability to go the extra mile (literally). He does a lot with a relative scarcity of dialogue, slipping into the strong, silent antihero (ala classic Eastwood and Bronson) with a surprising ease: it’s like we blinked and Jack suddenly became a man. He’s always 100% invested in the character (obviously) but he brings that investment to all the small things, as well: the expressive eyes and skittering glances…the constant, realistic pain and reactions to the elements…those rare moments where peace and calm slip across his face before being brushed aside. If the point of a Best Actor nomination is to award the actor who gave us the most immersive, fully-formed and complete character interpretation of the proferred group, I’m pretty sure that DiCaprio fits that definition. Go ahead: give Leo the damn trophy, already.

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, Carol

Brie Larson, Room

Jennifer Lawrence, Joy 

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Who Should Win: Brie Larson, Room

Who Will Win: Cate Blanchett, Carol

This, alas, was a category where I only got to screen one film, making my ultimate analysis a bit of a dice toss. I thoroughly enjoyed Brie Larson’s portrayal of the imprisoned mother, however, so I don’t feel bad tossing all my support behind that. She’s always been a great actress (Short Term 12 was absolutely amazing) and her performance here is full of subtle moments and quiet gestures that say more than a thousand lines of dialogue ever could. It’s a difficult role, emotionally, but Larson turns in a pretty stunning performance. All of that being said, however, I have a sneaking suspicion that Cate Blanchett will actually win this particular award. Call it a hunch, intuition or just the notion that Room may have been a bit too small to gain as much attention (despite its Best Picture, Director and Actress nods) but I just have a feeling. I could also see Charlotte Rampling taking this, although 45 Years was another film that didn’t seem to receive as much attention from the Academy.

Stay tuned for Part Two, faithful readers.

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