Oscars Predictions, Part 2: The Visual Categories

In yesterday’s Oscar predictions column, I handed out guesses for sound and music, and bestowed one Oscar apiece on American Sniper, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash. Today we go through the six visual categories, and the winners are … none of the above.

Best Cinematography

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Mr. Turner

In another year, we could explore the validity of any number of Oscar narratives in this category: revered veteran Roger Deakins, a 12-time nominee, finally getting a win for Unbroken, or Ida becoming the first black-and-white film to win the award since Schindler’s List 21 years ago. But there’s no point in trying to create a race where none exists: Emmanuel Lubezki’s work on Birdman was so integral to the film that it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he doesn’t make a return trip to the podium just one year after winning for Gravity.

Winner: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Dark Horse: Voter fraud

into-the-woods-streep-hpWalt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Best Production Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

Handsome British period dramas are a mainstay in this category — they show up so often that it’s easy to imagine they have an edge in the voting. In the last 15 years, we’ve seen production-design nominations for Gosford Park, Finding Neverland, Pride & Prejudice, The Prestige, Atonement, The Duchess, Sherlock Holmes, The Young Victoria, and The King’s Speech. How many of those won the award? Zero. Going by that perennial-bridesmaids reasoning, we can assume that both The Imitation Game and Mr. Turner will be ignored in favor of flashier choices.

The good news for Into the Woods is that musicals often have an advantage when it comes to this Oscar — Moulin Rouge!, Chicago, and Sweeney Todd were all recent-ish winners. But when people think about production design, you want them to think immediately of sets, not trees. In the CGI era, a movie like Interstellar has a different but equally difficult path; when the line separating art direction from visual effects feels uncertain, voters tend to assume that the latter is dominant, which is why this is one of the few craft categories that Gravity lost last year. (Production designers are beginning to make a strong case that production design is, in fact, an integral part of the creation of visual effects, but that’s something AMPAS voters may need a few more years to grasp intuitively.)

The film that beat Gravity, The Great Gatsby, was distinguished by the fact that voters could conjure images of its opulent, detailed sets the second they heard the title. That kind of quick connection — “That movie looked great!” — makes Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock’s work on The Grand Budapest Hotel the favorite here.

Winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Dark Horses: Interstellar, Into the Woods


Best Costume Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Inherent Vice
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

Period and fantasy films own the Costume Design category so completely that The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (a movie about fantasy) and All That Jazz (a movie with fantasy sequences) are the only two films set in the present to have won the award since 1972. As for the nominations, the traditions and tastes of this branch are so rigid that even the inclusion of a movie set in the last 50 years in which the costumes are accurately grubby or tacky rather than lavish counts as a triumph of sorts. Last year, I thought the synthetic blends and Qianas of American Hustle at least had an outside chance (they lost to Gatsby); this year, I can’t imagine voters going for the raffish post–Manson Family beach-town threads of Inherent Vice, but I’m glad they’re in the mix.

What’s left are two fairy tales and two period pieces. Colleen Atwood, who designed Meryl Streep’s transformative witchwear in Into the Woods, is never to be discounted — she’s an 11-time nominee who has taken the prize three times in the last dozen years — but Woods and Maleficent feel like they appeal to the same subgroup of voters. The largely unglamorous mid-19th-century costumes for Mr. Turner are exemplary in their unobtrusiveness; you believe them without noticing them, which is a boon to any film but a hindrance to any Oscar campaign. That leaves nine-time nominee (and three-time winner) Milena Canonero, whose first Oscar came 39 years ago for Barry Lyndon. Her work on The Grand Budapest Hotel feels both copious — bellhops, soldiers, prisoners, socialites, Tilda Swinton! — and impeccable in its ability to keep one high heel in the 1930s and the other in the fantasy-Zubrowskian playroom of Wes Anderson’s imagination. In a fairly close race, I’d give her the edge. (Incidentally, if there’s an X factor in Budapest’s favor here and in Production Design, it’s that Wes Anderson is seen as one of the most design-minded of all contemporary American directors — his movies are practically lookbooks.)

Winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Dark Horse: Into the Woods

boyhood-still-hpIFC Films

Best Film Editing

American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game

If you’re looking at this list of nominees and thinking, I don’t know … they’re all Best Picture nominees … they all seem pretty well edited … what does good editing look like, anyway? — congratulations: You have just qualified to become an Oscar prognosticator, and you’re also in the same boat as about 90 percent of Academy voters. Here’s one way to sort through this: In recent years, three types of movies have won Best Film Editing — the eventual Best Picture winner (Chicago, The Return of the King, Crash, The Departed, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, Argo); the movie widely (perhaps wrongly, but widely) perceived to have come in second for Best Picture (The Aviator, The Social Network, Gravity); or a movie that isn’t a Best Picture contender but whose editing feels distinctive enough to merit singling out (Black Hawk Down, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo).

Do things look any clearer? Well, perhaps a little: There’s no particular reason to reward The Grand Budapest Hotel here, since (as noted above) there are plenty of other opportunities to do so. And it’s not clear to me that The Imitation Game landed in this field for any reason more compelling than the fact that Birdman, a very strong Best Picture contender without a single visible cut, would have been a reach for editors to nominate. But the remaining three contenders are real, and each can boast a distinctive accomplishment. Sandra Adair’s handling of Boyhood contributed greatly to the flowing, seamless quality of the film (no “one year later” chapter headings, no “My, how he’s grown” big reveals). Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach brought vigor and just the right amount of disorientation to the war sequences of American Sniper (I’ll be charitable and assume they did the best they could with what Clint Eastwood handed them in the plastic-baby scene). As for Tom Cross’s work on Whiplash, I hate to resort to the clichéd “a master class in … ” but if you want to understand how cross-cutting can build suspense and define character, let this movie take you to school. I think this one’s a close call with a lot of potential for surprise, but calling it a toss-up is cheating, so …

Winner: Boyhood

Close Second: Whiplash

Dark Horse: American Sniper

FoxcatcherScott Garfield/Sony Pictures Classics

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy has made a nice case for itself that primarily involves the physical transformation of Dave Bautista’s Drax — but CGI-heavy sci-fi/fantasy movies don’t have the easiest time in this category; a voter who stops to think, Wait, does Groot count as makeup or a costume or a visual effect? is a voter who may quickly move on to What else is on the menu? No comic-book movie has won this category in almost 20 years — not even for Heath Ledger’s milestone Dark Knight transformation. And, especially recently, voters have gone for the human over the fantastical (recent winners include The Iron Lady, Les Misérables, and Dallas Buyers Club; recent losers include the final Harry Potter movie and the first Hobbit installment). This one probably comes down to Steve Carell’s beak versus Tilda Swinton’s wattle. When a Best Picture nominee shows up in this category, it tends to win (in fact, that has held true every time it has happened since 1997, when Men in Black beat Titanic). The edge goes to a movie that I’m guessing is going to have a very good first two hours on Sunday night.

Winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Close Second: Foxcatcher

guardians_finger_starlordMarvel Studios

Best Visual Effects

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
X-Men: Days of Future Past

If anybody out there reading this is complaining that the Oscars should look more like the top of the U.S. box office charts, (1) shhh, no, do you have to ruin everything?; (2) drop out now because you’re really not going to enjoy the next three days of predictions; and (3) Marvel, Apes, Marvel, Nolan, Marvel. Happy now? The lowest-grossing of these five nominees still managed to rake in $671 million worldwide. It’s also the movie I think is going to win.

Funny thing about the Oscars: They really don’t care much for comic-book movies. Even in this category. Marvel may have 60 percent ownership of this year’s field, but Superman (1978) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) are the only films in the genre ever to win for Visual Effects. It’s possible, I guess, that the charming offhandedness of Guardians might attract enough votes to reverse that trend, but I doubt it. When soulfulness is an option, soulfulness is what voters go for. Don’t believe me? Pretend this is an SAT question:

Complete this sequence: The Visual Effects Academy Award has recently been won, in order, by Inception, Hugo, Life of Pi, Gravity, and …

Winner: Interstellar

Dark Horse: Guardians of the Galaxy

Tomorrow: Cartoons, foreign films, documentaries, and shorts. Come for the guesswork, stay for the dashing of Oscar-pool dreams.

Filed Under: Movies, Mark Harris, Oscars, Academy Awards, Oscars 2015, birdman, the grand budapest hotel, ida, Mr. Turner, unbroken, Into The Woods, Interstellar, Inherent Vice, maleficent, guardians of the galaxy, captain america: the winter soldier, dawn of the planet of the apes