They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?

Reviewing the Tech Races: Part II

By J. Don Birnam

February 14, 2019

Boom boom boom.

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Oscar voting began Tuesday with essentially all precursors in the bag though still a couple of guilds left to speak. But, we already have good tea leaves on a lot of the technical races, so let’s finish them up why don’t we. We looked at some of the tech categories yesterday.

As tends to be the case, by this time this year a broad consensus has formed in most of the tech races and this year appears to be no different. There is still room for debate or discussion, and some are calling it the most unpredictable Oscars in a while. We shall see.

Last year, I did very well and went 5/5 here, in my early gut check, and then I stupidly switched some of the correct predictions at the last minute, something I’ve done before. Lesson: Trust your original guts! Let’s take a look and follow me on Twitter and Instagram if you disagree.

Best Visual Effects

Let’s do these more systematically since all the players are in: we can give some precursor stats first, then apply to the five nominees. Since the preferential ballot expansion in 2009, the VFX Society has predicted the eventual Best Visual Effects Oscar 5 out of 9 times in their “Effects Driven” race, considered their most important. Three of their misses are when they picked the first two Planet of the Apes sequel, the third for The Force Awakens. Their pick this year? Avengers: Infinity War. The BAFTAs have done better, going 6 out of 8 (and never for the Apes), missing Ex Machina when they picked The Force Awakens. Their pick this year? Black Panther, which is stunningly not nominated here.

Instead, over with the Academy, the five nominees are Christopher Robin, Ready Player One, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and First Man. Four of those film have their sole nomination here (the default “Popular Film Category”). Only the Damien Chazelle space drama has more nods. As we have said before, the last time a movie won its sole nomination in this category was actually two years ago when The Jungle Book’s motion capture won, but, before that, it was over 25 years ago, when Death Becomes Her did it in 1992.

Best Picture nominees have only lost to a non-nominee one time, the year of Ex Machina, but this year the branch decided to avoid the obvious nominations for movies like Black Panther, something it did last year too to Dunkirk and went with straight effects-driven films.

The foregoing means that you can safely count out Christopher Robin, Ready Player One, and Solo: A Star Wars Story. It does not help that all three of those films had an icy critical and audience reception. It would be a stunner if they won.

But doesn’t the “sole nod” stat mean that Avengers is in trouble? Not if you listen to the Guild, and not if you look at the fact that the movie made a ton of money and that the Academy seems to finally be softening towards superhero films. But, much like Blade Runner, last year, and I am quoting directly from my column again: First Man “by contrast, has several nominations, is by an “auteur,” and is considered high-brow by some.” Funny how history repeats itself like that, no?

Will Win: First Man
Could Win: Avengers Infinity War

Best Costume Design

The Costume Design Guild is historically one of the latest to speak but in any case they have multiple awards so have some use but also some limit. This year the five nominees are Black Panther, The Favourite, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Poppins Returns, and Mary Queen of Scots. The BAFTA went for homegrown favorite, The Favourite.

Once more I default to Best Picture nominees, though that is hardly a hard in fast rule here. Movies like Alice in Wonderland can triumph here if they have high tech/production values. But, I would not say that any of the three non-Best Pic contenders have that this year, and the two “Mary” films may even cancel each other out. That said, The Favourite may lose votes to the other British Monarch movie as well, and Sandy Powell (also nominated for Poppins and seeking her fourth Oscar), may not come back to the podium yet.

With a recent win in this field for Mad Max: Fury Road, it is clear to me that the Academy is more willing to go into the contemporary/fantasy realm and reward newer, daring stuff, as opposed to the more traditional costumes of the other nominees. A Western, for example, has not won here in a long long time.

Will Win: Black Panther
Could Win: The Favourite


Best Production Design

The Production Design Oscar, which goes hand in hand with Costume Design more often than not, went its own way last year with the Phantom Thread/Shape of Water split, but, this year feels like the same movie could net it. And, like Costumes, they are not afraid to award a non-Best Picture nominee here, doing so five total times since the 2000s. But that will not be a problem this year.

The nominees are again Black Panther and The Favourite, as well as Roma (Cuaron made a point about how he found old family furniture to recreate his home), First Man, and again Mary Poppins Returns (indicating some hidden strength by that film in both races). Take out the two non-Best Picture nominees in this case, neither of which has a stunning or jaw-dropping art direction, and take it from there.

The Art Directors’ Guild has three awards each year, so it has been able to guess the eventual Oscar winner more often than not in the last ten years, usually in the period film category. Last year, the ADG picked Blade Runner Logan (not up for an Oscar) and The Shape of Water as its winner, and of course that later triumphed. This year, they went for Crazy Rich Asians (not nominated), Black Panther, and The Favourite. It really does seem to be between those last two.

The BAFTAs have done slightly more poorly here than in other races, going “only” 5 for 8 and incorrectly picking Fantastic Beasts (not a BP nominee!) here two years ago and last year as well when they went for The Shape of Water. This year, they went for The Favourite. Should we discount this because of the hometown status? Or not…

Will Win: The Favourite
Could Win: Black Panther

Best Cinematography

Best Cinematography is another previously prestigious tech award that will be relegated to tape delay. Sigh.

Anyway, Best Picture contenders had a string of 11 consecutive victories here until Roger Deakins finally broke through on his 14th try and won for Blade Runner last year. The last time before that this did not happen was back to back in 2006 and 2007 when Memoirs of a Geisha and Pan’s Labyrinth. Indeed, from Braveheart in 1996 through American Beauty, the winner of this prize was also your Best Picture winner except once.

So, this year, that means good news for Roma, The Favourite, and A Star Is Born. Indeed, this year has a historical quirk, which is that there are three foreign language films here—the other two nominees being Cold War and Never Look Away. That has never happened before. Also, the fact that there are two black and white nominees is also an anomaly in the modern age.

What about precursor stats? The BAFTA liked Roma this year, while the American Society of Cinematographers went hot for Cold War. The BAFTA missed the first three years of the Best Picture expansion, but since they changed their voting system in 2012 to match the Academy’s, they have correctly predicted this race every single time. The ASC, meanwhile, has a spotty record since the expansion is spotty. When a snazzy foreign contender has been in the mix, like The White Ribbon ten years ago, they could not help themselves, but this did not translate into Oscar Gold.

But, Cold War is different because it also has support of the Directors’ branch. So, it clearly is liked and many report loving it. It is right in the wheelhouse of those older, white Academy males.

Nevertheless, I would not bet against Alfonso Cuaron winning one of his statuettes of the night here for Roma. Why? Because if Roma is going to do well, it has to win somewhere else other than Director and Picture, no? (I suppose you could say that those two are the obvious prizes and that is about it—but that would be historic). Where else could they reward it? And, if Roma is not their top choice, would they not want to at least give it Oscars anywhere outside the Best Foreign Language Film race? I guess you can make the same argument about A Star Is Born--let’s give it something. The Favourite, by contrast, bothered some with its fisheye lens and also has other room to win.

I am not 100% sure, but at this point it seems the obvious…

Will Win: Roma
Could Win: Cold War

Best Film Editing

Finally, the crown of the below-the-line races, the Film Editing Oscar that is so important only a couple of movies in the last 30 years have won Best Picture without being nominated here (Birdman and Ordinary People. But, will that stat hold this year? The nominees are Green Book (LOL), Blackkkansman, Vice, Bohemian Rhapsody, and The Favourite.

Of those five, I would knock out the first and last. Neither of those, despite being strong Best Picture contenders in their own right, scream editing, despite the ACE Eddie win for The Favourite (two categories). Vice won at BAFTA and Bohemian Rhapsody at ACE. I do wonder about the split screens in Blackkkansman and the switches over between the rallies there. Vice seems to have Makeup in the bag, and the other nominees other clear paths to Oscar victory. Sure, Spike Lee’s film is likely to win Adapted Screenplay.

The other question of course is whether the lack of a nod for Roma here dooms it. I have never bought into that way of thinking. Why would an Academy member that loves Roma not give it a top choice because the small editing branch did not? (Another branch small enough to be relegated to the tape delay by the way). And it is a steady, stable film. It is not visibly edited. The flip argument: that it shows that a small branch likes Green Book over Roma IS more persuasive, but also less meaningful. They are small.

What about the stats? Since the Best Picture expansion in 2009 (true, small sample sizes), the BAFTA has gotten this one right 7 out of 9 times, including three years in a row. Last year, for example, they picked Hacksaw Ridge, which should have warned us about the upcoming Oscar win for that movie in that race. They also got Dunkirk right last year.

Over on the guild side of things, the ACE Eddie award is another guild with a mediocre track record. Since the expansion, they are 4 for 8 if you consider their drama prize, while their comedy editing prize (which two years ago went for La La Land) hasn’t predicted the Best Editing Oscar since Chicago in 2003. Last year they did also correctly pick Dunkirk.

It really is between Vice and Bohemian Rhapsody, it would seem, but I can’t shake off Blackkkansman.

Will Win: Vice
Could Win: Blackkkansman



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