One, two, three — everybody out of the pool! Because today, I’m going to take you through the categories that can destroy anybody’s hopes of Monday-morning bragging rights.
Best Animated Feature Film
Big Hero 6
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Here’s a thought, in light of the still-stinging fact that The Lego Movie didn’t make the cut: Why should the animation branch have a monopoly on nominating animated movies? It’s a little bit like saying that the costume branch should choose the candidates for Best Picture because all movies have costumes. We live in an era in which animated movies are more and more like any other movies — there are big mainstream hits, arty foreign imports, movies whose quality resides primarily in their visual style, and others (like Lego) whose strengths are more about writing and direction — qualities that the animation branch sometimes undervalues. Quality of animation is only one element by which animated movies should be judged. The argument against opening the process to writers, directors, production designers, and so on is, I suppose, that small movies like Song of the Sea and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya wouldn’t stand a chance. But in other categories, there’s scant evidence that Oscar voters are whores for blockbusters, so why would they be here?
On to the race. Four years ago, when DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon was a nominee, it lost to Toy Story 3, because when Pixar has a movie in the contest, that usually means it’s not a contest; Pixar is 7-for-9, while DreamWorks is 2-for-10 (and Disney’s non-Pixar offerings are 1-for-7). But there’s no Pixar nominee this year, and DreamWorks has run an aggressive-bordering-on-frighteningly-needy campaign for How to Train Your Dragon 2, a film that may be a better fit for the AMPAS demographic than Disney’s teen-skewing, gamer-generation Big Hero 6. My vote would go to the Laika studio’s beguiling Boxtrolls, but the thing about my vote is, it doesn’t exist. Therefore …
Winner: How to Train Your Dragon 2
Dark Horse: Big Hero 6
Music Box Films
Best Foreign-Language Film
Wild Tales (Argentina)
Often, a kind of cultural piety can take hold in this category; foreign-film voters are sometimes like tourists who are eager to see themselves as world travelers but also want reassurance that there’s no place like home. As a sort of proof, they tend to reward movies that are specifically about the history, turmoil, or national shame of the countries or regions they’re from. That means the mad, raucously brutal and funny revenge anthology Wild Tales is probably out — like Sweden’s acute Force Majeure, which deserved a place in this lineup, it’s almost too culturally translatable, which may bode better for its American box office potential (it opens here Friday) than for its Oscar chances. But the other four movies all fit the bill: Tangerines is a pacifist war fable about an Estonian fruit grower nursing two enemy soldiers, a Chechen and a Georgian, in his little woodland home (change the conflict and nationalities and it is the kind of film that has been catnip to voters in this category since it was invented 60 years ago). Leviathan is about Russian corruption and despair, Timbuktu covers life under extreme Islamic rule in Mali, and Ida packs decades of agonized Polish war and postwar history into a concise, indelible portrait of two haunted women.
Like the films in the categories I’m going to talk about below, all five of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film landed in the mailbox of every Oscar voter this year, in a DVD package sponsored by the Academy. This procedural change, instituted last year, opens up foreign-film voting from what had been a small pool of AMPAS members who had to attend special screenings and sign statements that they had seen all the nominees to the overall membership. Which is cool, but it also creates two categories of voter: Those who have the time and inclination to sit down and watch all five nominees, and those who flout Academy regulations by voting anyway because they saw and loved one candidate. This year, I suspect both voting pools will reach the same conclusion and select the biggest box office success in the field.
Close Second: Leviathan
Best Documentary Feature
Finding Vivian Maier
Last Days in Vietnam
The Salt of the Earth
If you follow the logic above — one group of voters that sees all five movies, another that sees only one or two, and an edge to the box office champ of the bunch — then this should go, without much struggle, to Laura Poitras’s CitizenFour. If there’s a real challenger here, it’s Virunga, an extraordinary piece of cinematic reportage about a Congolese national gorilla refuge under siege by destructive political, paramilitary, and economic interests, and a film that combines passionate advocacy with a serious journalistic interest in presenting context. To my taste, it’s every bit as strong a piece of reportorial filmmaking as CitizenFour. That said, Poitras’s film is a one-of-a-kind document of history as it happened; it’s hard for me to imagine that its uniqueness won’t be recognized.
Dark Horse: Virunga
Walt Disney Co.
Best Short Film — Animated
The Bigger Picture
The Dam Keeper
Me and My Moulton
A Single Life
I used to do really well in guessing the shorts winners; then I made the fatal mistake of actually watching the films, and these categories became my Waterloo. Although I think you might not have any worse luck if I handed you a ballot, a blindfold, and three darts, I am not paid to abdicate responsibility! So what’s hot in cartoons this year? Sadness, death, loneliness, decay, and despair! The Bigger Picture is about two brothers dealing with their aging mother. In the painterly The Dam Keeper, a town is threatened with toxic devastation because the lonely piglet who protects it feels ostracized and bullied (I know that sounds kind of depressing, but when you see it, you’ll realize that it’s actually hugely depressing). Me and My Moulton, by past winner Torill Kove, is a childhood memoir of parental narcissism drawn in the flat style of certain Scandinavian kids’ books from the 1970s. And the hilarious, innovative A Single Life — which clocks in at well under three minutes and would get my vote — ties the entire life cycle of a woman to a needle skipping on a record player. Given this competition, the natural winner would seem to be the cheerful counterpoint (and sole American competitor), Disney’s exuberant Feast, a kind of canine version of Boyhood that’s heavy on awww. But Disney almost never wins this category; people who sit through all five cartoons tend to want to demonstrate that they can go for the less-than-obvious. So I’m giving the narrow edge to the longest and saddest of the bunch.
Winner: The Dam Keeper
Close Second: Feast
Best Short Film — Live Action
Boogaloo and Graham
Butter Lamp (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak)
The Phone Call
On the DVDs that are sent to Oscar voters, the dramatic shorts are presented in alphabetical order, and that’s the way I imagine they’re watched by most voters. It’s what I did, and I can do nothing but share my experience. First, Aya — it’s about a lonely Israeli woman who takes a brief holiday from her real life to pretend she’s a dial-car chauffeur and drive a Finnish music-competition judge to his Jerusalem hotel. Do they make a connection? Almost. Thirty-nine minutes is a lot of minutes for “almost,” but it’s polished and in English. Boogaloo and Graham is about a pair of too-adorable Irish tykes who adopt pet chickens during The Troubles. Shameless, even for a category that traffics in sentiment. Butter Lamp is a very cool, virtually non-narrative mini-drama about Tibetans posing for photographs against fake scenic backdrops that suggest the encroaching influence of other cultures; the last shot is a killer reveal and if critics voted, this would win, which means it will lose. Parvaneh is about a girl from Afghanistan and a punkish Swiss girl. Do they make a connection? Almost. The Phone Call is about Sally Hawkins manning a suicide hotline that lonely widower Jim Broadbent calls. Movie stars! Do they make a connection? Well, you know …
So much exquisite poignancy, so little anything else. I give up. Here’s a dart.
Winner: The Phone Call
Dark Horse: Parvaneh
J. Christian Jensen
Best Documentary Short Subject
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
The Reaper (La Parka)
Sincere congratulations to any Academy member who has the energy, sense of due diligence, and appetite for completism to make it through this almost three-hour roster of some of the most annihilatingly bleak films this year. La Parka is about a man whose job it is to slaughter cattle all day; Joanna, from Poland, is about a terminally ill young mother trying to give her young child every bit of love and wisdom she can before she dies; Our Curse, also from Poland, is about a young couple whose infant has a rare and awful disorder that causes him to stop breathing when he falls asleep; White Earth is about economic despair in the American Northwest; Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 is an HBO doc about phone workers trying to help keep veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from taking their own lives. In terms of filmmaking, it’s probably the most traditional of the bunch (the others are more like video essays); it’s also in some ways the most hopeful, and advantaged by its alphabetical placement (it’s followed immediately by the two Polish films, which may cancel each other out).
Winner: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Dark Horse: Joanna
Tomorrow: Three slam dunks, one nail-biter — it’s time for the acting categories.