They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?

AFI Does Nothing to Clarify Best Picture Race

By J. Don Birnam

November 17, 2015

Be as charming as you want. I'm still not telling you how to pronounce my name.

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The Big Short and Concussion made their debuts at this year’s American Film Institute Film Fest, which in past years gave space to future Best Picture nominees like American Sniper and Selma, but neither seems to have made a significant dent in the confusing and murky race this year. At the same time, the Chilean mining disaster The 33 made its debut, alongside Angelina’s By the Sea, and both fell victim to tepid reviews and disappointing audience responses.

Perhaps Steve Carell’s performance in The Big Short puts him in the conversation for the wide-open Best Actor race. And given the lack of other viable options, the Academy may feel some pressure to nominate Will Smith for his well-reviewed performance in the NFL drama Concussion. As you know, their failure to nominate a single minority in the 20 acting slots last year caused controversy, and at the Governor’s Awards this weekend, where Spike Lee was awarded an honorary Oscar, the conversation was squarely directed at that embarrassing slate of nominees.

With little movement in the main races, today I will look at the writing races, and in particular, at what appears to be becoming a showdown in the Best Adapted Screenplay race. You can also check out our updated Best Director power rankings, here.

As we discussed, Steve Jobs seems to be fading from Oscar contention, while The Martian appears to be surging. The phenomena behind these two movies’ Oscar fortunes and what it means for the overall picture is nothing short of fascinating. I would love to hear thoughts on Steve Jobs and The Martian - particularly if they are different than what I have heard so far as I explain below - which you can share with me on Twitter.


"The Story" that Makes a Movie Great: Best Adapted Screenplay and the Steve Jobs vs. The Martian face-off

Almost unanimously, friends that I ask love The Martian and feel lukewarm or actively dislike Steve Jobs. This explains, without a doubt, their respective box office fortunes (the latter is a colossal flop, and the other one did very well), and will likely affect their fates at the Academy Awards later this season.

Opinions of these movies invariably center first and foremost on the stories they tell - as most people’s opinions of movies tend to. There can be no doubt that people perceive a movie to be “good” if they somehow connect or respond to the story, if they are inspired or entertained or solaced. Rarely will you hear someone say, “Well, the story was good but the soundtrack was bad so I didn’t like the movie.” Nor will you hear, “The sets and the lighting were so great that I loved the movie but the story was boring.” It’s more common to get “The movie was slow” or “I didn’t like the character.”

It is therefore not surprising that the dislikes of Jobs center around hating the character and/or what he stands for or on disapproving of the filmmakers’ choice to limit the narrative to a discrete chapter of Jobs’ life (Spoilers: “They don’t get to the iPhone!” is a common complaint). By marked contrast, when talking about The Martian, people have gushed about how entertained they were, and about how exciting the movie is. Who does not like movies about American ingenuity and our ability to come together to solve problems (Argo, anyone?). Moreover, the book on which the movie is based, and the adaptation to the extent allowed by the medium, are interesting and ingenious with regards to science.

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