Design by Saad Arifi
Design by Saad Arifi

Tomorrow, when the 93rd Academy Awards — aka the Oscars — run live, take a moment to reflect and look past the bizazz and the pageantry, past the jokes or the woes of the film industry’s state of forced hiatus because of Covid-19, and past the self-congratulatory hoo-hah of racial and gender inclusion in the nominees.

Look past all of these aspects, and ask the question: do most of the films nominated in the Oscars line-up this year really represent excellence in cinema — especially in a ceremony whose motto is to celebrate and award excellence (the word ‘excellence’ is repeated in press releases and speeches from the Academy).

Now, we’ll be the first to admit that lacklustre, mediocre films hardly worth a second thought, much less a nomination, do wiggle their way into the Oscars every year. There is a science behind how they do it, be it through public support, critics- and press-backing or industry patronage. But usually, the mix of worthy and not-so-worthy is somewhat satisfactory.

Not today — and it’s one of the reasons that the awards might be a tad difficult to predict this year. On second thought: it may also be exactly why anyone with a smidgen of industry insight might be able to accurately guess who wins tomorrow.

Predictions for the 93rd Academy Awards have been made more difficult not only by the lack of theatrical releases last year and a collapsing of categories but by a certain tilt towards less-than-excellent films in the nominations this year. Nevertheless, Icon’s regular team of Oscar-watchers perseveres to present its assessment of how the vote will go…

Let’s clarify both aspects.

Predictably, the Oscars race can be prejudged by studying individual guild awards that celebrate particular arts and technicalities. From producers, directors, actors and screenwriters to sound designers, mixers, cinematographers, editors, make-up and hair artists, most guild awards often run-up to the Oscars and extend a hazy glimpse into who might win where.

In theory, looking at the guilds’ wins sounds like a good plan, but it’s not really that simple.

Some guilds awards in several disciplines and sub-categories are, inevitably — and unfortunately, in the broader context of filmmaking practice and art — consolidated into one all-encompassing category at the Oscars. Oftentimes, nominees of a guild award will not match the nominees at the Oscars, more so expressly when sub-categories come into play.

For example: the Art Director’s Guild awards Fantasy, Period and Contemporary categories, while the Oscars has one consolidated award for Production Design. The same three categories, with a slight difference, are awarded in the Costume Designers Guild, and here again the Oscars have only one award.

The Golden Reel Awards of the Motion Picture Sound Editors — the MPSE — award several categories for theatrically released motion pictures. They include: Sound Effects and Foley, Dialogue and ADR (additional/automated dialogue replacement), and Underscore (stirring ambience music that is made or edited for scenes; these can be different from the soundtrack, or cut-down from longer music cues). At the Oscars, there used to be Sound Edit and Sound Mixing — the latter category can be charted from the Cinema Audio Society awards — however, from this year onwards, there is only one sound category: Best Sound.

As much as we hate to admit it, the Oscars are appearing to be more and more like the British Academy Awards — a.k.a. the Baftas — with each passing year (Baftas only have one Sound category as well). In the race leading up to the awards, pundits often use the Baftas and a few select guild awards as barometers for Oscar night. They are half-right in doing so.

Results from Baftas — especially in the last few years — have become an indicator for the Oscars. One key reason is that a good number of members of the British Academy — some 6,500 — are also in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS, or simply The Academy). The Academy, overall, has 9,921 members from the filmmaking community, which includes members from The Screen Actors Guild (nearly 130,000 members), The Writers Guild (East and West Chapters combined have a head-count of 15,675 members), as well as members from other guilds.

In short: 9,921 members of the Academy might be influenced by the Baftas (it’s the ugly truth), and to some extent from some of the guilds.

This, of course, creates a conundrum: while members can judge some artistic categories, such as director and actor, judging technical categories such as Cinematography or Editing, with their minute nuances, may become a problem — especially if one doesn’t understand the art form.

The screenplay, for example, is a mix or artistic and technical triumph. But do you judge a film based on its adaptation from the source material (just how many people read the original source material anyways?), or by the way it looks which, depending on the director and the director of photography, can differ extraordinarily from what is written on the page. So, the question is this: are the members of the Academy voting for what they see on-screen, regardless of how well it was penned on paper?

Here’s another example to ponder: the Visual Effects category front-runner Tenet has fewer visual effects than most Hollywood tentpole films. Most shots in the film have actors walking or fighting backwards, and cars, with physical effects, rotating in reverse motion. In comparison, at the Visual Effects Society Awards — the VES, for short — Tenet didn’t win. The award for Best Photoreal Effects (the equivalent to Oscar’s Best Visual Effects) went to The Midnight Sky.

So, again, the question is: would the Academy applaud Christopher Nolan’s film, and its fewer physical effects, or award George Clooney’s CGI visual effects-driven character drama? It’s an uncertain question, and probably one of the bigger questions of the night.

When one sees a deserving title lose an award (especially in technical categories), more often than not, the results are influenced by members who may not be well-versed in that craft, and are just judging by what they feel, or what their peers may be voting for. The latter is more of a probability, since members presumably only see a fraction of the nominated films every year.

Since Dawn started the Oscar predictions in some 17 years ago, in 2004, we have made it a practice not to be influenced by Baftas or the guilds. After a strenuous binge-reviewing session of almost all of the 41 nominated titles in the 21 feature categories (we don’t cover shorts), we guesstimate where the industry — or specifically, members of the Academy — may vote.

Netflix, initially shunned by the industry, is nominated heavily at the Oscars this year (37 noms; 40 if one counts the Tom Hanks’ starrer News of the World, which Netflix distributed internationally). The reason is simple to comprehend: most producers, and even major studios, see distribution deals with OTTs (Over-The-Top or streaming platforms) as a viable opportunity.

We feel, however, that OTTs — Netflix or otherwise — have a specific way of presenting stories that often do not engender the feel, pace or narrative of a theatrically-released film. Obviously, the medium is different, ergo the slight difference in telling stories, but still.

The prospect of releasing films on OTTs, often without traditional studio oversight, leads to — in our point of view, specifically in this year — a drop in quality. Superficially, it may look like the Oscars are promoting titles that include racial and gender equality — Promising Young Woman, The United States vs Bille Holiday and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are the best examples of these two aspects — and that may not be a bad thing.

But while most titles are good, as mentioned above, they lack the ‘excellence’ one expects from the Academy Awards.

This year’s predictions, then, keeps sight of what may happen tomorrow by grasping the state of affairs of the industry. In contrasts to yesteryears’ predictions, where we let our gut-instincts decide, tomorrow is not about who we feel will win, but rather where the industry purportedly tilts.

Perhaps, the results tomorrow will surprise everyone (not that there’s much chance of that happening); or perhaps, still influenced by the Baftas, the Oscars will turn out to be dull surprise.

Honestly speaking, no other candidate has a chance. As far as celebrating excellence goes, Nomadland ticks all the boxes worthy of a Best Picture candidate. The Trial of the Chicago 7 has a long shot of winning.

Another no-brainer here. Chloe Zhao’s simple yet multi-layered direction, is an easy pick over her fellow candidates.

The late Chadwick Boseman gives one of his finest performances as a talented, on-the-edge trumpet player in the adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It may have been his best, but Hopkin’s difficult performance, mind you, still tops him out. Despite the overwhelming odds of Boseman winning, partly because of the actor’s death and partly because of his exceptional success from Marvel’s Black Panther (the industry loves to prove its point about inclusivity, especially when the actor’s film made billions worldwide), we’d still like to give Hopkins the benefit of the doubt come Oscar night. Who knows how many more films of The Father’s calibre Hopkins may get this late in his career.

While we are rooting for both McDormand and Davis, Mulligan is turning out to be the leading nominee in perhaps the most difficult category to accurately predict. It should be noted that McDormand, the best actress in the lot, already has two Oscars — one for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and another for Fargo — and Davis has one for Fences. We would love seeing Vanessa Kirby win the award for Pieces of a Woman, but there’s little chance of that. Mulligan, an industry favourite, did a far better job in The Dig — a film that secured a Bafta nomination, but didn’t get recognition at the Oscars.

Kaluuya has been on fire this awards season for his performance as the leader of the infamous Black Panther party in Judas and the Black Messiah. With few candidates delivering Oscar-worthy performances, we suppose he turns out to be the nominee to beat.

Mads Mikkelsen delivers an excellent performance as a teacher who turns alcoholic for a social experiment in Another Round. Since the film is nominated in the Best Director category, and that Mikkelsen is more known an actor than his fellows in the other International Feature titles, it stands to reason that his familiarity with voters will get the film its Oscar. The film, by the way, deserves it as well. By the way, in case one is wondering, the category used to be called Best Foreign Film until last year.

Like the Baftas, in a bid to streamline the Sound category, the Academy did the industry a disservice by merging Sound Mixing and Sound Editing categories. Voters, with a less inclined ear in differentiating the edit of the sound, and how it is mixed, will find it easy to pick Sound of Metal as their go-to title to vote. While perfunctory at best, the film pales in front of the mix and edit of Tom Hanks’ World War II sea-thriller Greyhound. We think both have equal chances of winning.

Nobody would factor in Glenn Close as a possible candidate to nab the award, but here’s our theory: with eight nominations and no wins, she’s one of the few industry-loved actresses who still has no wins. If it’s an upset, then we peg Close to cinch the award. Her last nomination was against Olivia Colman for The Favourite (who won) in the Best Actress category — a clash that appears again this year, with Colman getting a nod for The Father. Yuh-jung, who plays the grandmother in Minari, is the soul of the film, and a resilient winner this entire award season, so there is a high chance of her getting the award.

Time, a black-and-white documentary about a family waiting for their patriarch to return from jail, is a good concept in an overlong package that doesn’t get anywhere, storytelling-wise. My Octopus Teacher, a feel-good film about the friendship between an octopus and a documentarian, is a minor miracle. Expect it to snap up the award.

As mentioned above, the industry has to choose whether to award Christopher Nolan’s egoistical misfire Tenet (it wasn’t that bad, by the way) for its tenacity to deliver physical effects, or award a harrowing film with a lot of CGI. We expect the category to confuse Oscar voters, because The Midnight Sky won the VES award, while the Bafta went to Tenet. We think it could go either way, with Tenet having a slightly better chance at winning the award.

We’re splitting the vote here. While Nomadland was a wonderful film, technically The Father, which won the Bafta, is a much better screenplay. A personal favourite, One Night in Miami doesn’t have the Oscar push of the other two.

Ma Rainey may well reign supreme here once again, despite strong competition from both Mank and Hillbilly Elegy.

The Oscars love to award period films in this category. This year, the decision would be to either award a film set in 1920s that celebrates a strong woman of colour and her hot-tempered young trumpeter, or to give the Oscar to a Jane Austen novel set in early 1800s. Pundits will likely discard Emma, with its bright colour palette and vibrant costumes, but we think it holds a chance… if the feeling of supporting diversity doesn’t sway votes (and it will).

After winning awards left, right and centre for Promising Young Woman, Fennell seems to be the undisputed winner, come award night. While the film does put out a message, and has an explosive final act, it’s hardly our preferred winner. Sorkin, who pens an exceptional screenplay, mind you, already has an Oscar for The Social Network. Judas and the Black Messiah has the least chance of winning the award out of the three.

This is another tough one. Sound of Metal appears to be the front-runner in the category, winning the Bafta, but losing the Eddie Awards (the editor’s guild) to The Trial of the Chicago 7. While we feel that Chicago 7 deserves to win, it’s a proven fact that musicals — or films about music, such as Bohemian Rhapsody, Whiplash, Chicago — often win Best Editing. There are rare exceptions, such as La La Land, which lost to Hacksaw Ridge. We’re wishing for rare exceptions to happen once again.

The industry may very well be confused in this category, since all three headlining titles offer little in terms of technical pizazz. Nomadland, with its win at the Baftas, has everyone convinced that it will win — and don’t get us wrong. It is one of the best-shot films out there this year. Some may vote for Mank, since it won the American Society of Cinematographers’ award. We, however, would not like to count out Dariusz Wolski’s brilliant work in News of the World.

Soul has been the front-runner this season, and the only way it could lose is if Academy members finally choose to vote for a traditional (ie. 2D), hand-drawn animated film such as Wolfwalkers. The latter, though, like most films nominated this year, is hardly Oscar-worthy. Soul, while not for children, has a lot of soul.

With music in its soul (pardon the bad pun), the film score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross with Jon Baptise, will likely win the Oscar. On the off-chance, there is an upset, Mank, also scored by Reznor and Ross, or James Newton Howard’s News of the World, have an equal chance of nabbing the award.

Speak Now, written and by performed by Sam Ashworth and Leslie Odom Jr. (the latter is also nominated in the Best Supporting Actor), has a slight lead in a category filled with contenders who have equal chances of winning. Io Si (music by Diane Warren; lyrics by Laura Pausini and Warren), from The Life Ahead, seems to be the second favourite that may upset the race. Given the message of the former song, we think there is only a slight chance of that happening.

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 25th, 2021

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