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Oscars Predictions, Part 1: The Sound Categories

The first installment of our annual series attempting to predict the winners of the most unpredictable Academy Award categories.

All this week, I’ll be unveiling, explaining, and rationalizing my predictions for the Academy Awards, which will be handed out, at long last, this Sunday. I have always loved thinking and writing about the Oscars and their resonance in both the larger cultural world and in the industry that is so intoxicated by them — I’d be frightened to tally the number of words I’ve expended on the subject over the years. But I’m not sure I would ever have been moved to cover the awards as a beat if David Carr, who died on Thursday, hadn’t founded the New York Times Oscar blog, the Carpetbagger, almost 10 years ago. The wry, bemused, spiky, swaggering persona with which he infused the alter ego he called The Bagger was not a reach for him, but his voice — unsycophantic, occasionally impressed, usually skeptical but never contemptuous — was something new and exciting on the awards circuit, and a game raiser. He did the job for just four years; it was only one piece of what he accomplished as a newsman. Still, those of us who ply this particular trade walk in a small part of his very big shadow.

And now — since a prolonged wallow in sentiment was never his thing — on with the show, folks. Last year, I got 20 out of 24 categories right and, I hope, helped many of you with your Oscar pools. Let me be the first to say that this year could be a lot uglier. If you have money to spare, I urge you to invest it in snacks for the ceremony, not bets on the results. We’re looking at a lot of close races and some very uncertain outcomes. Therefore, I’ll be using three categories in my predictions this year. When I predict a “Winner” and a “Dark Horse,” that means I feel pretty good about my guess. When I list a “Winner” and a “Close Second,” that means you shouldn’t.

The upside of this “reply hazy, ask again later” problem is that this year’s show may have one element that the presence of Neil Patrick Harris and the promise of, dear God, a 50th-anniversary tribute to The Sound of Music cannot provide: suspense. Speaking of sound and music, let’s start there.

whiplash-drummersSony Pictures Classics

Best Sound Mixing

American Sniper
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Right away, we run into a buzz saw — a couple of them, actually. One is that a reasonably large number of Academy members (let’s say most) don’t know how to judge sound mixing. The second is that that doesn’t stop them from voting. The third is that they probably take about as long to make their decision as it took you to read this paragraph.

So run your eyes over that list of nominees and pretend you’re an Oscar voter. How do you make your decision? Well, nine out of the last 10 times voters have had the opportunity to give this award to a Best Picture nominee, they’ve done it — which means we can probably scratch Unbroken. Then it gets tougher, since there’s precedent in the last 15 years for all four of the remaining nominees to win. Voters have gone for noisy war movies like American Sniper (Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker), sci-fi movies like Interstellar (Inception, Gravity), music-driven films like Whiplash (Ray, Chicago, Dreamgirls, Les Misérables), and generally popular, heavily nominated films like Birdman that don’t automatically make you think “Best Sound Mixing” (Slumdog Millionaire, Hugo).

I can’t get a lot more scientific than that. My instinct is that Birdman1 is going to get a lot of votes in a lot of categories and that this isn’t an Oscar that anyone feels it has to have. An award for Interstellar would be slightly odd, since it probably drew more complaints about its mix muffling its dialogue than any other movie this year. (It’s a Nolan issue; if Interstellar wins, maybe Bane should accept the award.) This feels to me like a race between a war blockbuster and a music movie. On the premise that Interstellar and Unbroken might siphon off just enough blockbuster votes to hurt Sniper, here’s my shot in the dark:


By the way, what the hell is with the placement of those parentheses in the title? Is the name of the movie Birdman or, and what follows optional? Tragically ugly.

Winner: Whiplash

Close Second: American Sniper

Dark Horses: Birdman, Interstellar

UnbrokenUniversal Pictures

Best Sound Editing

American Sniper
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

This used to be called Sound Effects Editing, so forget all of those past wins that movies with music enjoyed in the Sound Mixing category. They didn’t even get nominated here, which is why Whiplash is out of the running, replaced by The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which is not going to win because of the threat that if Peter Jackson gets even the slightest encouragement about Hobbit movies, he will insist on making a fourth one. The rest of the lineup is the same as Sound Mixing, and one of the same trend lines applies: There’s a fairly strong propensity to tilt toward Best Picture nominees. So say good-bye to Unbroken — and also, I think, to Birdman, which is just not a sound-effects movie. (If it wins this, assume it’s winning everything.) Again, war movies and sci-fi both perform very well here. Christopher Nolan’s films have won the award twice (The Dark Knight and Inception), and both of Clint Eastwood’s last two war-related movies, Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers, were nominees in the same year (Iwo Jima won). In other words, it’s a toss-up — so I’ll go with the movie that has the current higher profile and greater overall AMPAS respect.

Winner: American Sniper

Close Second: Interstellar

interstellarParamount Pictures

Best Music (Original Score)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Alexandre Desplat)
The Imitation Game (Alexandre Desplat)
Interstellar (Hans Zimmer)
Mr. Turner (Gary Yershon)
The Theory of Everything (Jóhann Jóhannsson)

Looking at this list of nominees, you might think it’s Desplat’s moment — he’s nominated twice (coming off of a perhaps too prolific year in which he also scored Godzilla, The Monuments Men, and Unbroken); his nominations for The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Imitation Game are his seventh and eighth in just nine years; and he’s never won. But the Oscar ballot doesn’t look like this; it features only the names of the movies, not the composers. So cover your right eye, look again, and make a snap judgment. When you think of Mr. Turner, you probably think of how it looks, not how it sounds. Hans Zimmer is a perennial nominee, and if this award were for Most Music, Interstellar would probably have it locked up. I’m assuming it’s out, since this is another category in which a Best Picture nomination really seems to help — Original Score has gone to a contender in that category all but once since 2000. Which leaves three candidates. The Desplat duo is very strong, but I’m giving the narrow edge to Jóhannsson, since The Theory of Everything reaches its emotional climax with a sustained music cue that sends Stephen Hawking and the movie flying backward through time in fast motion; it’s the closest any score in this category comes to stealing the show.

Winner: The Theory of Everything (which won the Golden Globe)

Close Second: The Grand Budapest Hotel (which won BAFTA)

selma-hp-1Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures

Best Music (Original Song)

“Everything Is Awesome,” The Lego Movie
“Glory,” Selma
“Grateful,” Beyond the Lights
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
“Lost Stars,” Begin Again

Here’s one strange phenomenon of the Academy Awards: The membership that attends the actual ceremony is not an accurate cross section of the overall votership. For instance, in 2006, when Crash won, the vibe of the auditorium was “Nooo! Brokeback Mountain!” And three years ago, when The Artist’s Jean Dujardin took Best Actor, he received a polite sitting ovation that barely lasted until he made it to the mic.

That’s all by way of saying that I have a hunch that Oscar attendees this year are going to be a more pro-Selma bunch than the overall votership was. Which means that when the anthemic “Glory” takes this award, which I think it’s going to, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fairly demonstrative response from a crowd that I’ll bet liked the film more than its overall tally of just two nominations reflected. Certainly, sentiment could give the award to the Glen Campbell song — although this year, voters have another, more prominent category in which they can express their feelings about Alzheimer’s disease. “Everything Is Awesome” could click with younger members, although Best Original Song hasn’t historically been all that hospitable to irony. This will be a moment to show Selma some appreciation, and I think the room will make the most of it.

Winner: “Glory”

Dark Horse: “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”

Next: The visual categories — Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Film Editing, Visual Effects, and Makeup & Hairstyling.