They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?

Handicapping the Animated, Documentary and Foreign Language Feature Categor

By J. Don Birnam

February 18, 2019

Tom Cruise, is that you?

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With less than a week to go until the 91st Academy Awards, today we look at the three categories that reward feature-length film outside of Best Picture: Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary Feature, and Best Foreign Language Film. Two of these races seem locked, while the third is more open - in sort of a repeat of last year.

Speaking of last year, I got all three right last year, as these races have become slightly easier to call. I am much more nervous about this year, so help me figure it out by telling me Twitter and Instagram why I’m wrong.

Best Animated Feature

As I have been saying, this category has become inherently predictable, with one movie tending to sweep most relevant precursors. This year, I expect the same to be the case, although the winner of this did not become obvious until late in the game.

The nominees are Incredibles 2, Isle of Dogs, Mirai, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

For the longest time it seemed as if Incredibles 2 was going to win sort of by default, though no one seemed that excited to give it the award. Then, late in the year, Spider-Man came out as an alternative universe to the Spider-Man series that Sony now has and received near unanimous critical praise. The New York Film Critics Circle then awarded the successful movie with their Best Animated Feature of the year award, and it has not looked back since. Not only did it receive similar awards from most other critics groups, it also nabbed the Globe, the BAFTA, the PGA for Best Animated, the top awards at the Annies and at the Visual Effects Society, and the top awarded from the American Cinema Editors award for Animated Feature.

So, with all the precursors falling neatly for the story, can someone defeat it?

I would not count on Mirai or Ralph at all. The former is the typical Japanese-animation style that the Animation Branch loves to nominate, but that has never gone anywhere. The latter failed to win when its original was nominated, losing to the arguably lesser Brave. So, I am not sure it could outdo its predecessor here.

Incredibles 2 also seems unlikely, having failed to get any significant industry precursor. The original Brad Bird film did win this Oscar back in 2004, but I am afraid that its bid to become the first franchise with two wins in this race will fall short and we will look to Frozen, perhaps, to get us there.

I suppose you can make a case for Isle of Dogs, which boasts a Best Original Score nod in addition to a nomination in this race. However, films with multiple nominations routinely lose here to films with only one citation, particularly given how common it is for Animated films to have a Best Original Song nod to go along with it. Just two years ago, both Moana and Kubo had two nominations but lost to Zootopia, a more beloved animated film. I just can’t see it.

And Spider-Man is arguably the deserving winner. It is hard to deny the story of the “blatino” teenager becoming the arachnid super hero, the diverse perspective of the film overall, and the daring animation styles that the filmmakers used. A choice for this film signals, above all, hipness, and I seriously doubt this new Academy would want the retrograde label they could earn if they go with the Pixar sequel.

Will Win: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Could Win: Isle of Dogs

Best Foreign Language Film

This is an interesting race that appears locked in favor of Best Picture front-runner Roma, from Mexico. But is it?

The other nominees are Poland’s Cold War, Germany’s Never Look Away, Japan’s Shoplifters, and Lebanon’s Capernaum. The slate of nominees is historic in a number of ways, including that for the first time ever, three of the nominees scored citations outside of this race. Roma, of course, has nine others, but both Cold War and Never Look Away have cinematography nods, and Pawel Pawlikowski was also cited as a Best Director of the year. That is a pretty spectacular look outward for the normally insular Academy.

But can anyone defeat Mexico in its quest for its first ever win in this race after eight loses? I would not count on Capernaum, although it is impressive that Lebanon has two nominations in a row - its first two - after The Insult last year. Though the movie earned a 15 minute standing ovation and the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, it has barely figured in the Hollywood awards circuit this year. The same goes for Japan’s film, which won the Palme d’Or at the French film festival and would have walked to a win this year were it not for the more popular entries. This would be Japan’s fifth Oscar, having received three honorary awards in the 1950s and one competitive win in 2006.


Nor, I think, does Germany have a chance to repeat. The filmmaker behind this three-hour, somewhat uneven movie, however, has been here before. Indeed, when Mexico last had a serious shot at breaking through here, with 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, it was Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others that upset Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece. But other movies that the cinematographers like, for example The White Ribbon, have failed to win here despite that additional nomination (indeed, Pan had six total nominations), and I don’t expect that to change here. The competition is too fierce.

So, between Roma and Cold War - which one? Well, Pawlikowski himself has netted Oscar glory for Poland, with the winning film Ida a few years ago. And the fact that he has a director citation as well as cinematography means the movie has wider support than your typical Foreign Language nominee does. Indeed, while Roma has won most of the industry’s “Best Foreign Film” awards, Poland took awards from critics groups that would not award the same movie with the Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film award, after those groups decided to honor Roma with its top prize. So, the question is whether members may see it fit to do the same here - give something to Cold War if they’re giving Roma something else, something “better.” The converse could also happen, of course: people could reward Alfonso Cuarón’s movie here instead of in the main prize.

The outcome of this race, then, seems keyed to the outcome of the Best Picture race in a short of strange feedback loop. The bottom line is that Roma’s overall obvious popularity makes it hard to bet against it, though I will be nervous until the envelope is opened on this one…

Will Win: Roma
Could Win: Cold War

Best Documentary Feature

A trend seems to have emerged in this race for the past few years where the perceived front-runner is eventually snubbed by the documentarian branch, leaving everyone scratching their heads. Here, the dubious distinction belonged to industry darling Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which won the PGA but did not make it to the Oscar. Another popular doc, Three Identical Strangers, racked up guild wins as well, but also did not make it.

Instead, the nominees are Free Solo, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Of Fathers and Sons, Minding the Gap, and RBG.

This is a pretty powerful, interesting, and diverse bunch. Off the bat, I’d strike out Of Fathers and Sons and Hale County. The former follows the filmmaker as he infiltrates a Syrian caliphate and witnesses fathers training their young boys to be soldiers/fight holy war. It is a very disturbing and captivating piece, but one which has received little praise elsewhere and is likely to make it near the top of the screener pile. The latter, meanwhile, follows the lives of certain black individuals as they pursue career and emotional dreams. The movie has a contemplative, deliberate style, one which is different from what you see in most documentaries. Again, however, little precursor love beyond some critical praise makes it hard to see it winning.

RBG is probably the next to go, though I am not without some hesitation. Since it premiered at Sundance, the film has wowed audiences with its portrayal of iconic liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The justice has achieved some late-in-life commercial popularity, and this is the only film that is focused on a woman, which could help it distinguish itself from the pack. Still, RBG has not been able to transform industry goodwill and interest towards the legal icon into major circuit wins. I would say that it is, as of now, at best a dark horse contender.

This leaves us with two emotionally effective and visually arresting movies. Minding the Gap, Bing Liu’s touching, personal documentary about life, growing up, manhood, adulthood, motherhood, has melted hearts of critics and audiences alike. The story is very well told, impossible to deny, and beautiful to watch unfold. It is sort of a loving poem or song to finding yourself in life, and many of the male Academy voters in particular are sure to identify with it.

However, the film that chronicles the real life exploits of a high-climbing daredevil who climbs mountains and rocks without a rope is also stunning and difficult to turn away. Since its premiere at Telluride, it has won audiences with a suspenseful score by Marco Beltrami, sweeping shots, and nail-biting suspense. Personally, I find sort of distasteful the somewhat solipsistic, self-involved nature of the endeavor, and question the ethics of the filmmakers who stood by filming while their friend and colleague risked his life on a purely personal, egotistical pursuit. Despite these misgivings, however, one cannot deny that the movie is compelling and gripping. With a BAFTA win to go along with some industry citations, including for sound, and with a TIFF People’s Choice award, it seems like the obvious choice.

Will Win: Free Solo
Could Win: Minding the Gap



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