They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
Handicapping the Technical Races: Part II
By J. Don Birnam
February 5, 2015

Excuse us... do you know where we might be able to purchase some non-purple clothes?

Not so fast, Birdman: Boyhood’s win of the ACE Eddie award this past weekend shows the little movie that could will not go quietly into the night. So while we wait for the Directors Guild of America to tell us if this is a runaway year for Birdman, let’s look at the other five technical races that could really shake-up your Oscar pool. Note that most of these guilds will give out their prizes around February 15th, and we will update our predictions accordingly.

Best Make-up and Hairstyling

I was only surprised not to see Maleficent show up here on nominations morning, given the showy make-up on Angelina’s face in that film. But the branch, for all its embrace of critically-panned movies (see: the nomination for Norbit) could not help itself this year and “me too” the general Academy’s Best Picture nominees. This year, two made the list: Foxcatcher, featuring Steve Carrell’s nose, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, featuring Tilda Swinton’s saggy face. Rounding out the lot as the third nominee is fan-favorite The Guardians of the Galaxy, which in my opinion is the deserving winner.

But, like with other technical categories, wins by non-Best Picture nominees when a nominated movie is in the mix are extremely rare. You have to go all the way back to 1997, when Men In Black denied Titanic what would have been a record-setting 12th Oscar and took the Make-up award from under it. Although I am hopeful, I don’t really think that Guardians will repeat the feat - the Academy simply has too many other movies it wants to honor.

The smart money is on Grand Budapest Hotel which, arguably, is the weakest of the field. Tilda’s make-up notwithstanding, the prosthetics in Foxcatcher seem more complicated. Grand Budapest is more a hairstyling job, and perhaps since they have added “& Hairstyling” to the official category name a few years ago, they will look to reward that.

Given that Grand Budapest is very well liked (but, frankly, so is Foxcatcher) and likely to take a lot of technical prizes, that is your safest bet. For a walk on the wild side pick Guardians for the win instead.

Best Costume Design

This is another branch that, like the make-up artists, isn’t afraid to reach out for non-prestige films. Unlike the other tech races, however, here is one where the Academy has not been afraid to reward non-Best Picture nominees over movies that are up for the top prize. Thus, The Great Gatsby bested 12 Years a Slave, and Alice in Wonderland topped The King’s Speech, to give some examples. This year, however, may see the Academy go back to the Best Picture nominee for the win.

The nominations are a respectable bunch. The branch has shown that it is ready to embrace more than period-piece “costume porn,” and has, of late, ventured into more modern 1960s and 1970s pieces, rewarding with nominations the clothing work in American Hustle and, this year, in the deserving Inherent Vice. I don’t think the broader Academy is ready to recognize something like Inherent Vice yet, so you can safely scratch that one off.

Mr. Turner would be your more classic winner here, featuring 19th century costumes, a staple in the Academy. However, I think the movie is too low-profile to pull it off.

Two other nominees - Into the Woods and Maleficent - are deserving of a spot and maybe even a win, but the Academy hasn’t ever gone for fantasy in this realm, and that’s what both movies represent. Moreover, the work in Maleficent is arguably the easiest of the lot as the costumes were just adapted from the classic Sleeping Beauty cartoon.

To me, the deserving and likely winner is the costumes of The Grand Budapest Hotel, weaving through different time periods (from the 1930s to the 1980s) and representing a key component of the visual stimuli of this movie. If Grand Budapest does pull out the victory, this would be the fourth Oscar in this race for the legendary Milena Canonero, who designed the costumes in A Clockwork Orange and won for Barry Lyndon, Chariots of Fire, and Marie Antoinette - wow. This would take her out of the five way tie and into sole possession of third place in this category, behind the legendary costume designer Edith Head (winner of eight Oscars in this race), and the lesser known Irene Sharaff (winner of five Oscars in this race, West Side Story and An American In Paris among them).

Best Art Direction

My favorite of the tech branches, because it involves the entire construction of the movie sets, Best Art Direction tends to be a companion to Best Costumes because period piece normally signifies both artsy sets and adornments. This year, many of the same nominees as in Costume Design are indeed duking it out, and I expect the same outcome as in the Costume Design race (another not uncommon experience). The guild awarded one of the nominees, which I expect to repeat on Oscar night.

Of the nominees, I was of course happiest to see Interstellar make the cut for the complex design of the planetary sets in the movie. From the mostly-water world to the ice-world, to the Elysium-like planet outside of Saturn, most of these were actual sets and/or location shoots, and not just visual effects. However, that subtlety is likely lost on the wider membership, but good on the branch for recognizing it. Many thought Interstellar really had a shot at the art directors’ guild win for this, but it fell to the likely Oscar frontrunner.

The Imitation Game also made a surprise appearance here. Yes, it is a period piece, but the sets don’t seem particularly striking to me. Perhaps its nomination is simply a sign of its strength with some fields. If anything, the schizophrenic sets of Birdman were a more deserving contestant but, regardless, this will not be an Imitation Game prize.

Mr. Turner is one of the Costume Design/Art Direction crossovers. Again, however, I fear Mr. Turner will have to yield to a more well-known movie. Any other year I would have expected it to pull a Great Gatsby or Alice in Wonderland double-win, but those movies were simply more “prestige” than the lesser-known Mike Leigh vehicle. An upset wouldn’t surprise me, but I think the headwinds against it are too strong.

Into the Woods is another crossover, and the carpentry is of course a big part of the movie and the forest setting. But I just can’t see this winning here, and it is likely a distant third place.

For the win, the easy money is on The Grand Budapest Hotel, the winner of the top prize at the Art Directors Guild ceremony this past weekend. The vignettes rely heavily on the scenery, and the overall color and camera scope of the movie accentuates the different sets. You’ve heard my logic by now: the movie is essentially the Hugo or Gravity of its year, and members will be wanting to click it off in several boxes. Indeed, Grand Budapest will likely win the most Oscars of the night, an astounding outcome for a March release.

Best Cinematography

This category provided perhaps the most-tweeted about moment on nominations morning other than #OscarsSoWhite. When Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced that the cinematographer for Mr. Turner, “Dick Poop,” was a nominee, she created a moment that will live in Academy infamy. Mr. Poop (Pope, actually) will have to settle for the 15 minutes of fame that the Academy President’s gaffe brought him, because arguably the other four nominees here are ahead of his beautiful lighting in the boat and lake scenes in Mr. Turner.

Roger Deakins, meanwhile, the photographer behind Unbroken, landed a 13th career nod. The branch loves him, but the Academy has yet to recognize him with a win, placing him one shy of the record for most nominations without a win. It surely doesn’t help that the ballots do not list names in the technical categories. Otherwise, the brilliant cinematographer, nominated for Prisoners, Skyfall, True Grit, The Reader, and No Country for Old Men just in the last few years, may have walked away a winner. But with Angelina Jolie’s movie tanking badly before critics and the Academy, this too will not be his year.

Meanwhile, the branch showed some love for a black-and-white entry, something they have a penchant for doing so every once in a while, by nominating the somber tones of Best Foreign Language Nominee, Ida. That crossover, however, did not help a movie like The White Ribbon in 2009, nor has a black and white film won here since Schindler’s List. Ida’s hopes lay in the foreign film race, but will not be fulfilled here.

The Grand Budapest Hotel features one of the prettiest-colored movies of the year, and could likely eke this award out too if it becomes a technical tidal wave. But I think that Emmanuel Lubezski, last year’s Best Cinematographer for Gravity, will or should win his consecutive Oscar for another collaboration with a Mexican director, this one for Birdman.

If Birdman is indeed the Best Picture front-runner, this is the obvious place to shore up its Oscar tally, as the Academy likes to do its Best Picture winners. Moreover, the camera work is on full display throughout the movie with the complex transition shots between scenes, sets, and actors. It really is remarkable work. That said, I do wonder whether it is a bit too subtle for the Academy. Lubezski’s prior work of similar ilk was the nominee Children of Men, but ultimately that lost out to the more exquisitely colored Pan’s Labyrinth. Right now the smart money is with Birdman, but watch out for a Grand Budapest and maybe even Mr. Turner upset here, if enough people see the latter. Cinematography tends to go to pretty colors, not subtle camera work. The pundits are all saying Birdman but my gut says that’s not where this is headed.

Best Film Editing

So, it’s come to this. The dean of the technical races. Best Film Editing is considered the strongest Best Picture bellwether of the below-the-line races, and statistically-minded Oscar pundits love to say that no film has won Best Picture without at least a nod in this race since Ordinary People did it in 1980. Many, today, point to Birdman’s lack of a nod here as a sign of weakness, or claim that Brokeback Mountain’s lack of an editing nod is what sunk it back in 2005. Don’t buy it.

First, as we have said, it is implausible that a voter will stop him or herself from voting for a movie he or she likes simply because it didn’t get a particular, supposedly magical nod. Yes, there tends to be a correlation between some categories, but voters don’t vote on statistics. Second, the last few years prove that these trends don’t matter. Argo won without a Best Director nod. Third, it is clear that the Academy does like Birdman - nine nominations lead the field, even if a portion of the 220 editors in the Academy (of 6,000 or so members) liked the editing work of five other films more. Even if all 220 editors placed Birdman last on their ballots, the movie could win in a landslide. That it can’t win because of a lack of an editor nomination is borderline insane logic.

So, in any event, who will win this category with the potential Best Picture front-runner out of the way? One obvious candidate is, of course, Best Picture front-runner or runner-up Boyhood. Many will say that editing 12 years-worth of shots entitles it to the win. But that seems like a stretch to me. It’s not like Linklater shot continuously for 12 years, and the editing of the movie seems to me the weakest of the bunch - at times awkwardly trying to achieve the seamless transitions between the years that the director went for. But don’t doubt the power of consolation prize narrative, so do not discount Boyhood here.

The presence of The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel here, both of which also scored directing and writing nods, shows that both movies have to be taken seriously as Best Picture front-runners. Neither, however, will be able to pull it off for Editing. The Imitation Game’s editing is virtually unnoticeable and while the vignettes of Grand Budapest provide for quick-paced and important editing, I think the film will be rewarded plenty in other tech races.

It comes down to the action film, American Sniper, and the beloved and showy Whiplash. For many reasons, including its box office success, many are going with Sniper here. Indeed, action movies do well here, as when The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo shocked Oscarologists by pulling off an improbable win here against four Best Picture nominees. Bourne Ultimatum and Black Hawk Down are other good examples of action movies that have done well here, so the smart money is probably on American Sniper.

Again, in this unpredictable year, I find myself at odds with the pundits. I may go out on a limb, however, and predict Whiplash here. The editing of the movie is crisp and poignant. It creates tension, moves you around the drum set, and even features a fast-paced action sequence at the climax of the film. Like with Sound Editing, I have a feeling that Whiplash has enough passionate support in the Academy that, together with a division of votes by the other movies, could propel it to a victory. The safe bet is American Sniper, but the more daring and, yes, even likelier outcome is Whiplash.

Up next: The writing, acting, and directing awards.