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Predicting the Oscars, Part 2: The Pretty Things Categories!

No, you may not take a bathroom break during today’s installment of Oscar oddsmaking. These categories are important! People worked hard! Pay respect! Or at least a little attention. If only because this is our first and last chance to talk about ‘Bad Grandpa.’

No, you may not take a bathroom break during today’s installment of Oscar oddsmaking. These categories are important! People worked hard! Pay respect! Or at least a little attention. If only because this is our first and last chance to talk about Bad Grandpa. (For Part 1, click here!)

Best Cinematography

The Grandmaster
Gravity
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska
Prisoners 

Kudos, first of all, to the cinematography branch, which year after year refuses to serve as a rubber stamp for the Best Picture nominees. Surveying the field, it managed to make room for the dark dynamism of Roger Deakins’s work on Prisoners, the impeccably washed-out palette of gray and brown chill-and-damp that Bruno Delbonnel brought to Inside Llewyn Davis, and Philippe Le Sourd’s beautiful and expressive work on Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster. Even when looking at the Best Picture roster, it chose idiosyncratically, passing up Sean Bobbitt’s painterly compositions in 12 Years a Slave and the caffeinated swoops and lunges that Rodrigo Prieto brought to The Wolf of Wall Street in favor of Phedon Papamichael’s austere but humane treatment of the Midwest in Nebraska. (Choosing to forgo color can get you noticed by your colleagues — this is the fourth cinematography nomination for a black-and-white movie since 2005.)

That said, I can’t imagine a scenario in which Emmanuel Lubezki does not win for his extraordinary work on Gravity. This category is full of talented guys who have never won (it’s the 11th nomination for Deakins, who, at 64, boasts a résumé that ranges from Sid and Nancy to No Country for Old Men to Skyfall and is as deserving a candidate for a lifetime achievement Oscar as anyone in his field). But Lubezki may finally be undeniable. The industry is still on a learning curve when it comes to movies like Gravity, and there’s a degree of natural confusion among voters about exactly what they’re being wowed by — are they looking at cinematography, production design, visual effects, or direction? This year, given the totality of the achievement, many Academy members may shrug and say “all of the above.” This is Lubezki’s sixth nomination. By rights, it should be his third win, following Children of Men and The Tree of Life. Instead, it will be his first.

Winner: Gravity
Dark Horse: Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Production Design

American Hustle
Gravity
The Great Gatsby
Her
12 Years a Slave

A survey of the last 20 years reveals that four kinds of movies win this award:

  1. Fine-grained historical verisimilitude or deep-period opulence (Schindler’s List; The English Patient; Shakespeare in Love; Hugo; Lincoln)
  2. Exotica (Memoirs of a Geisha; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
  3. Musicals (Chicago; Sweeney Todd; Moulin Rouge!).
  4. Elaborate fantasy or sci-fi (The Return of the King; Alice in Wonderland; Avatar).

So it’s refreshing that this year, voters have been asked to cast those predilections aside and at least consider the virtues of movies depicting the fairly recent past (American Hustle) or a gently tweaked version of the near future (Her).

When the Art Directors Guild hands out its own prizes, it splits them three ways, bestowing awards for period, fantasy, and contemporary movies, the last being a kind of acknowledgment that art direction steeped in modernity and realism is almost always slighted by the Academy. This year, Her took the contemporary-movie ADG prize. But when it comes to Oscar voting, this is likely to be a showdown between the other two ADG winners — fantasy honoree Gravity and period honoree The Great Gatsby.

If Gravity stumbles anywhere while attempting to march through the craft categories, it might be here. Over the last decade, the definition of “production design” has started to morph away from a hammer-and-nails approach and toward something that can involve everything from 3-D to collaboration with a visual-effects supervisor on a room (or a building, or a space station) that will then be created digitally. When you think of The Great Gatsby, you think of old-school sets — mansions and sitting rooms and ballrooms and truckloads of luxe trappings. When you think of 12 Years a Slave, fairly or unfairly, the first thing you probably envision is fields, horizons, and the hanging tree, which probably hurts its chances. Gravity’s campaign for this award has been waged on film geek websites; The Great Gatsby’s has been in Architectural Digest. It’s going to be a close one. Tiebreak goes to the movie people actually liked.

Winner: Gravity
Dark Horse: The Great Gatsby

American-Hustle-HP

Best Costume Design

American Hustle
The Grandmaster
The Great Gatsby
The Invisible Woman
12 Years a Slave

Here’s where The Great Gatsby might have a real shot at putting the words “Academy Award winner” next to its name in the history books — just as the last big-studio film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel did 39 years ago, when it beat competition a lot stiffer than this year’s (among the costume losers for 1974: The Godfather Part II and Chinatown). The Gatsby mystique remains powerful for an industry built on wish fulfillment. Look at all those pretty, expensive white people clothes — this movie was made for Oscars!

It’s unlikely a sufficient number of voters saw The Grandmaster or The Invisible Woman (a movie so dark it’s hard to find the costumes) for either to be a factor. That leaves two heavy hitters. American Hustle has some great wardrobe moments — Amy Adams’s plunging necklines, Bradley Cooper’s plunging necklines, the polyblend suits worn by Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner, and every moment involving Jennifer Lawrence or the disco — but there’s virtually no precedent for a witty evocation of recent kitsch winning this prize. And what about the sweaty, ragged clothes seen in 12 Years a Slave? The most analogous recent winners are Gladiator and The English Patient, both movies that, like 12 Years a Slave, had substantial Best Picture support. This category is a close one, but pretty almost always rules the night.

Winner: The Great Gatsby
Dark Horses: American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave

Best Film Editing

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
12 Years a Slave

In every Oscar-prediction season, there comes That Awkward Moment (“More like That OSCAR Moment! Start engraving Zac Efron’s name now!”—Mark Harris, Grantland) when I have to say something unfortunate to all of you: I don’t know. Except in years when something razzle-dazzly like The Matrix or a Bourne movie comes along, Best Film Editing is often intimately connected to the overall passion voters feels for a particular movie, which is why it so often correlates to Best Picture. Accordingly, this year, five of the nine Best Picture nominees are represented here. And the only way to sort them out is to remember that instead of two paragraphs of analysis, voters are likely to give their choice two seconds of thought.

So let’s slow those two seconds down to Matrix-style Bullet Time: Dallas Buyers Club is an outlier without flash or fast cutting, so that’s not happening here. American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave will each get votes from partisans who plan to choose them in every category, but Hustle is a comedy (a genre that doesn’t usually win for editing) and the most talked-about moment in 12 Years is an unendurably long still shot; yes, editing is sometimes about when not to cut, but the choices in 12 Years feel primarily directorial.

That leaves two options. One is to reward Gravity, thus ensuring director/co-producer/co-editor Alfonso Cuarón, a triple nominee, of at least one trophy for putting the whole thing together. The other is to give this prize to Captain Phillips as a recognition of the general craftsmanship it took to assemble those action sequences — and in all likelihood, to shape and sharpen the performances of a large number of neophyte actors. In recent years, voters have spread the wealth (last year, eight of the nine Best Picture nominees ended up winning something), and this might be the best place to honor a movie that’s likely to be out of contention for bigger prizes. However, to repeat: I don’t know.

Winner: Gravity
Dark Horse: Captain Phillips

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Dallas Buyers Club
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

Two warring impulses come into play here: the desire to honor a movie with a major five-hours-in-the-chair transformation, and the desire to honor a movie that does not have the words “Jackass Presents” in its title. The latter sentiment is probably enough to keep Bad Grandpa away from the podium. The makeup in Dallas Buyers Club is modest, but a recent story noting it was done on a $250 budget (yes, for the entire movie) with “paint and powder” doing most of the work and grits and cornmeal being used to create seborrheic dermatitis is probably just what the film needs to push it over the finish line. As for Johnny Depp in whiteface in The Lone Ranger: Shhh. Pretend it never happened.

Winner: Dallas Buyers Club
Dark Horse: Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa

Gravity-Explosion-HP

Best Visual Effects

Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness

I could contrive an elaborate theory here, but why lie? Three of the movies in this category are here to remind viewers and audiences that something called “summer” exists, and that while it has very little to do with the Academy Awards, it must be acknowledged in some form. The Hobbit is here because of habit (and, OK, the dragon). And Gravity is here because apparently they couldn’t simply give it the award without going through the formality of nominating it first.

Winner: Gravity
Dark Horse: Don’t even.

Tomorrow: We enter a Gravity-free zone, with looks at Animated Feature, Documentary, Foreign-Language Film, and the three short categories, which seriously aren’t doing a whole lot to justify their existence this year.