Oscars 2016: I coulda been a contender

oscarjoyAs in Oscar marathoning, so in life.

What commodities are at play? Time, money, motive, opportunity.

I had plenty of motive this year. A modicum of money. Less so time. As to opportunity, in the end, the only movies that truly were withheld from view were two features and three documentary shorts — meaning, short of buying the Blu-ray in Marnie‘s case (money commodity), there is nowhere to see them today if I tried:

  • When Marnie Was There (animated feature)
  • Embrace of the Serpent (documentary feature)
  • Body Team 12 (documentary short)
  • Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah (documentary short)
  • A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (documentary short)

It’s my own fault on those remaining documentary shorts. I trusted a bad Google search that implied the West End arthouse cinema was permanently closed. It had been the go-to place for documentary shorts, but I dismissed it this year as a possibility. In fact, it recently reopened and was showing them the first week in February — not today. Opportunity missed.

And previously I, along with fellow Oscar marathoners, were spewing hate at Quentin Tarantino and The Hateful Eight: Tarantino, for making a 70mm bloody movie that few theaters wanted to order or had the capability to show (he’s just as frustrated after one in particular reneged on showing it) and The Hateful Eight for teasing us into thinking we could catch it in Silver Spring on Feb. 19. Missed it by ONE DAY. For an entire week, it was nowhere — well, nowhere within 200 miles. Then outta the blue, while heading into D.C. on Friday — my last “free” night before Oscars night — on the way to see A War, which I thought would be the last film I picked up this season, a quick Google search turned up The Hateful Eight at a pop-up arthouse near Gallaudet University. The only showing I could make was 9:25 p.m., and I’d have to break a standing date with my husband, and walk a mile round-trip in an unfamiliar, dangerous neighborhood after midnight. While weighing options on the Metro, someone at another station actually got hit by a train, disabling service. Decision made, and opportunity lost.

That same theater, Angelika Pop-Up — likely a perfectly safe, cool theater, I may never know — also this weekend opened the hard-to-get Boy and the World (animated feature from Brazil), which I could have nabbed this morning — early this morning, for an 11:15 showing — but it woulda meant a 1¼-hour trip, three hours round-, plus the 1½-hour movie … nearly six hours for a cartoon? The commodity of time notwithstanding.

oscar1wordStill, if I’d planned things right, I could have ended this season with having seen an impressive 90% of all Oscar-nominated movies in the top 24 categories. That’s even including the five Original Song nominees, excluded here because of the shunned, shameful Fifty Shades of Grey. (I’ve seen The Hunting Ground — a heart-wrenching documentary putting faces to the unbreakable sexual abuse survivors on today’s most prestigious college campuses and tracking their battle to hold university officials more accountable — and the other four suddenly are available either for peanuts On Demand or free on HBO. I’ll sample the tunes on iTunes.)

Back to reality: After picking up the anomaly in the animated feature category, Anomalisa, at an Alexandria, Va., late show last night with my husband after a party and then nailing Cinderella — and completing the costume design category — this morning before breakfast by signing up through Amazon Prime for a free seven-day trial of its streaming service Starz, I end with a score of 34/37+12/15, or 88%!!!!

Adding to the titles missing above, I also lack, a-lack …

  • The Hateful Eight 
  • Boy and the World 

… thus am disqualified from voting with full authority in five frigging categories:

  • Actress in a Supporting Role (grrrrr — hateful to miss any of the “top six”)
  • Cinematography
  • Music (Original Score)
  • Animated Feature
  • Documentary (Short Subject)

My predictions, you ask? Nothing earth-shattering here. The 2016 Oscars seem boring and far too easy to predict.

Best Picture

Prediction & Pick: The Revenant

(see ” ‘The Revenant’ should be revered” for rationale)

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: Spotlight won.

Actor in a Leading Role

Prediction & Pick: Leonardo DiCaprio

(see “Best actor slam-dunk” for rationale)

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: Leo won!!!!

Actress in a Leading Role

Prediction: Brie Larson

Pick: This is where it falls apart for me. Hardest category, always. The only fabulous leading lady easily eliminated this year is Cate Blanchett. Carol, about a May-December lesbian love affair back in the ’50s when such things were unspoken, even unconscionable to some, was deeply moving, as was Cate’s pivotal “these people” scene during the deposition with her husband — out of nowhere, crocodile tears. But she was unknowable (maybe that was the point). She outshone herself with her performance as the stepmother in Cinderella, yet she wasn’t nominated for that. What bugs me most is her young lover and supporting actress nominee, Rooney Mara, had more screen time and did more yeoman’s acting yet was sublimated by Cate’s stature. So Cate earns a penalty.

Jennifer Lawrence, while smokin’ stellar in Joy — she carried the film, despite De Niro threatening to sabotage it — didn’t stretch far enough from Catniss. I love you, Jen, I do, you have a magnetic aura, but no mopping up for you. I fell in love with Saoirse Ronan. As an Irish maiden torn between two lovers and two homelands, she left me breathless, like that Kander and Ebb showtune A Quiet Thing “… Happiness comes in on tiptoe, well whaddya know? It’s a quiet thing …” Do folks even realize she played Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones? That heart-stopping scene with Stanley Tucci still gives me chills, and she was only about 14. (BTW, Tucci was my favorite actor in Spotlight.)

I want to give this enchanting, gifted actress a body-of-work Oscar already and she’s but a wee lass of 21. But our-house-of-cards-is-crumbling Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years: even quieter, and no one much has trumpeted her gloriousness. Of all the films and performances this year, her portrayal of a wife battling a dead rival will likely stay with me longest. Could be my age. Could be her age (70). She was understated and elegant, and in the final frame simply haunting. Here’s a clip (not the final frame):

So my pick? Oh, piddle. Brittle but unbreakable Brie Larson‘s survivor, maternal, petulant spirit took us on quite the journey. But the star of this movie is the story, the screenplay, the directing, the 9-year-old who wasn’t nominated.

So my brain-picking pick: Saoirse (SEAR-sha) Ronan 

(Looking for an upset and some excitement, but I’ll be disappointed only if Cate Blanchett wins.)

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: Brie Larson won.

 Actor in a Supporting Role

Prediction & Prediction: Sylvester Stallone

Rationale:  Christian Bale seemed more autistic than odd bird in what one critic calls the erratic tragicomedy The Big Short. Mark Ruffalo is one of my favorite guy and journalists are my peeps, but this performance was average — all impatience and mumbling. Cool cucumber Mark Rylance nearly gets my vote; as a Cold War spy, he brought artistry to a movie that screamed artificial. Tom Hardy — huge profile for him this year, eh?, between The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road. He’s truly masterful, the Next Big Thing, but he also mumbled through both roles. (What’s wrong with mumbling?! Dunno, but I need to find some way to eliminate them.) In the end, Stallone was a huge surprise. Didn’t think he could act. But those darting eyes, curling lips, the strength he emotes in what seems a decrepit face (c’mon, he’s only 69!! THAT’S acting!). Gotta go with the odds-on favorite.

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: Mark Rylance won.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Prediction: Alicia Vikander

Pick: Kate Winslet 

(I’m not allowed to vote here, according to my rules, because I didn’t see Jennifer Jason Leigh in “The Hateful Eight,” but I “saw” her in “Anomalisa.”)

Rationale: Almost went with Vikander. Saw her in Ex Machina, too, of course, and she’s amazing, she deserves the win. But I can’t get Kate’s performance off my mind, so I’m just going with that. I’d also be THRILLED if Rooney Mara gets it, because she is a leading actress in that film (not supporting, as classified) if ever there was one. I wanted to see Carol a second time just to time her screen time, but I know that’s not how the academy decides leading vs. supporting. She’s handicapped because the name of the film is Cate Blanchett’s character. The only one easily eliminated is the flat Rachel McAdams. She is almost as inconsequential in Spotlight as she was in the second season of True Detective. Emily Blunt was robbed for not being nominated  for Sicario  — even if she would have been placed in the leading actress category, I blame Rachel McAdams for wasting a female spot.

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: Alicia Vikander won.

Animated Feature

Prediction: Inside Out

Pick: Anomalisa

Rationale: Charlie Kaufman’s frisky masterpiece borrows from his Being John Malkovich screenplay but is possibly funnier, more tragic and artistically mesmerizing. Motivational speaker Michael Stone has lost all sense of himself in a world of utter sameness. It takes a “deformed” dimwit — freshly prosaic Lisa — to rouse him, if only momentarily, from his hypocritical, hyper-critical stupor. And Inside Out is just good, clean therapy, for anyone, not just the kids.

(I’m also not allowed to vote here, because I didn’t see “When Marnie Was There” or “Boy and the World.”)

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: Inside Out won.

Cinematography

Prediction & Pick: The Revenant

(Didn’t see “The Hateful Eight”)

Rationale: The most immersive camera work ever. And no VR or 3-D. Sure felt like it.

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: The Revenant won.

Costume Design

Prediction & Pick: Cinderella

Rationale: I wanted to throw a bone to Mad Max: Fury Road here, but Cate Blanchett’s frocks as the stepmother were jaw-dropping and Cinderella’s ballgown? It had the moonlight in it without being over-the-top. Those costumes alone made me cry.

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: Mad Max: Fury Road won. (I had picked that to win before I saw Cinderella.)

Directing

Prediction & Pick: Alejandro G. Iñarritu for The Revenant

But: I was this close to picking Lenny Abrahamson for Room.

And, question: Why does the Oscar cheat sheet list only movie titles and not the directors’ names for this category? Oversight? Works this year, though, because the accomplishments of movie and director are seamless and inseparable. From 2006 (The Departed) through 2011 (The Artist), the Best Picture and Best Director awards were indistinguishable (matched wins). We had two years of disjointed, “spread it around” awards, but last year Iñarritu restored the AMPAS tradition with Birdman, and he’s bound to do it again with back-to-back Oscars.

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: The Revenant won.

Documentary (Feature)

Prediction: Amy

Pick: The Look of Silence

Rationale: The Amy Winehouse story is something everyone in Hollywood can relate to. Reminded me of the Kurt Cobain film, Montage of Heck. Nicely structured, uncomfortably voyeuristic, with great archival footage. But in the end, they’re both “home movies.” If a biopic were to take top honors, I’d rather see it go to the Nina Simone thought-provoking piece, What Happened, Miss Simone? Far more moving and important a message (racism, mental illness). Documentaries should be about the message, and that’s why I favor Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to 2013’s The Act of Killing. How many times does this guy need to call our attention to genocide? Most people aren’t aware what happened in Indonesia in the 1960s. Please, if you haven’t already, discover this artful film. 

POST-OSCARS UPDATEAmy won.

Documentary (Short Subject)

Predicton & Pick: Last Day of Freedom

(I saw only two of the nominees, but  rationale is in “On Oscar diversity: The Big Shortcoming”)

POST-OSCARS UPDATEA Girl in the River won. NEED TO SEE THIS.

Film Editing

Prediction & Pick: The Revenant

POST-OSCARS UPDATEMad Max: Fury Road won.

Foreign Language Film

Prediction: Son of Saul

Pick: Theeb

(Note: I didn’t get to see all the nominees; still missing “Embrace of the Serpent”)

Rationale: I discussed this category a bit in “Oscar-nominated foreign films: The chosen one,” but that was before I saw A War, a Danish treatise on the war in Afghanistan that elicits serious PTSD, and Theeb, a gorgeous, lone-wolf Arabian western — the marriage of The Martian and The Revenant — starring an amazing young talent, Jacir Eid-Al-Hwietat. Who?! Right. Also loved Mustang, but it had editing issues.

POST-OSCARS UPDATESon of Saul won.

Makeup & Hairstyling

Prediction & Pick: The Revenant

Rationale: Sorry, Mad Max. And unsure why The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared was even nominated. He didn’t look 100.

POST-OSCARS UPDATEMad Max: Fury Road won.

Music (Original Score)

Prediction: The Hateful Eight

Pick: Sicario

Rationale: I didn’t see The Hateful Eight but, given its three nominations and all Tarantino’s troubles, figured it should get something. Meanwhile, the score for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, while great, was recycled greatest hits. Sicario was chilling, haunting, memorable and truly fit this fantastic film that more people should have seen and/or appreciated. All senses engaged; you could even smell it.

POST-OSCARS UPDATEThe Hateful Eight won. How’d I guess?! NEED TO SEE THIS.

Music (Original Song)

Prediction & Pick: “‘Til It Happens to You,” The Hunting Ground

Rationale: Gaga.

POST-OSCARS UPDATE: “Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre won. Pissed.

Production Design

Prediction: Bridge of Spies

Pick: The Danish Girl

But I obviously wouldn’t be sad if The Revenant won again.

POST-OSCARS UPDATEMad Max: Fury Road won.

Short Film (Animated)

Prediction: Prologue

Pick: World of Tomorrow

(see “Are Those Animated Shorts or Are You Just Happy to See Me?” for rationale)

POST-OSCARS UPDATEBear Story (Chile) won.

Short Film (Live Action)

Prediction: Day One

Pick: Stutterer

(see rationale in “On Oscar diversity: The Big Shortcoming”)

POST-OSCARS UPDATEStutterer won.

Sound Editing

Prediction: The Revenant

Pick: Sicario

POST-OSCARS UPDATEMad Max: Fury Road won.

Sound Mixing

Prediction & Pick: The Revenant

POST-OSCARS UPDATEMad Max: Fury Road won.

Visual Effects

Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road

Pick: Ex Machina

POST-OSCARS UPDATEEx Machina won.

Rationale: I always get this category wrong.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Prediction & Pick: Room

(see rationale in “Adapted screenplay: Make room for ‘Room’ “)

POST-OSCARS UPDATEThe Big Short won.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

Prediction: Spotlight

Pick: Ex Machina

Rationale: Gotta give Spotlight at least one. As a real-life journalist, I thought the screenplay was scarily accurate and gripping. Some people say this film will sweep, but I beg to differ. I beg to, because I loved it — saw it twice. And I agree with my husband who says movies must be important, not just entertaining or magical or honest or wrenching or whatever other criteria. Indeed, this one is important, as Doubt was important, or All the President’s Men. (Ultimately, though, as my justification for ignoring Spotlight in every other category, The Revenant got ahold of me and never let go, just like that bear.) Ex Machina, meanwhile — what a fantastic, futuristic, escapist (or not!) story. One of my favorites of the year.

POST-OSCARS UPDATESpotlight won.

Phew, done. Nothing left but the tears.

LET THE FASHION PARADES AND EFFING PARTIES COMMENCE.

Winnowing the Oscars 2016 field via social media

oscaractress

Some of my handiwork at work at USA TODAY

Oscar predictions have hit critical mass this week — from both critics’ standpoints and mass opinions online.

Sealed envelopes? Puh-leaze. Such an archaic messenging device. And no one wants to wait four days for the reveal. These days social media is a prism that doubles as crystal ball.

Who says the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences secret ballots are impregnable?

On the heels of a USA TODAY/Fandango.com poll among 1,000 well-versed moviegoers predicting who’ll win, Hewlett Packard Enterprise analyzed thousands of online conversations surrounding the “top six” categories. It monitored top social media sites and thousands of news sites, using its enterprise search and analytics platform HPE IDOL, to come up with these crowdsourced best bets:

Best Picture: Spotlight

Best Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Best Actor: Matt Damon

Best Supporting Actor: Mark Rylance

Best Actress: Brie Larson

Best Supporting Actress: Rooney Mara

Interesting subplot: Although what HPE dubs “social sentiment” leaned one way, the volume of interest in particular nominees largely leaned another. Of split minds, just as so many other movie fans and pundits, like my Predictions & Picks system. Coin toss time.

Buzziest Picture: The Revenant
38% of mentions in posts related to that category

Buzziest Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio – 61%

Buzziest Actress: Brie Larson – 35% (we have a match!)

Buzziest Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu – 70%

Buzziest Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone – 95%

Buzziest Supporting Actress: Kate Winslet – 33%

oscar1wordIf such analytics prove inaccurate Sunday — as in not mirroring the opinions of the 89% male, 84% white and roughly 50% 60-or-older voting members of the academy — at least we can be sure they reflect the public’s tastes in movies and performers.

Using the same mobile tools as the revolutionaries at Maidan or the activists behind the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, perhaps We the small-screen People can help direct future big-screen endeavors.

Meanwhile, my Oscar marathoning score, with just four days and three nights to go: 30/37+12/15 or 81% of all nominees in 23 of the top 24 categories (does not include the Original Song nominees, because I’m not so masochistic as to force myself to watch Fifty Shades of Grey).

On Oscar diversity: The Big Shortcoming

With rampant talk of the Oscars being too pale and too male, people forget another overwhelming bias: too jingoistic.

Though its headquarters are smack-dab in Beverly Hills, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was first pitched by MGM’s Louis Mayer in 1927, he intended for it to be the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But within four months of its founding, “International” was dropped from the name.

Sure, foreign films are honored in their own category, and foreign actors/creatives regularly creep in across the board. (Among thioscardirectors year’s best director pool, in fact, only two contenders are American, and the smart money is on Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu.) But a separate, mystery panel is required to adjudicate the foreign film categories, an upfront admission the AMPAS membership lacks a worldview.

Most films worldwide are produced in India — in 2014, it certified about three times the number of movies than were made in the USA, 1,966 vs. 707 — but only three Indian movies have ever been nominated for Academy Awards in the foreign-film category: Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Lagaan (2001). None was awarded the Oscar. Granted, awards are based on quality not quantity, but how many films aren’t considered because they are beyond the AMPAS panels’ comfort zones or ken?

America holds a movie monopoly.

For roughly a decade, I’ve tracked nominees and winners in the 24 top categories and noticed a serious U.S. bias in an area that should scream inclusiveness: the wonderful world of shorts.

AMPAS’ creed is to advance moviemaking, and this is where it happens. Shorts are the gateway for the have-nots to gain notice, funding and skill. So how’s that working out for foreigners hoping to network?

ANIMATED SHORTS

Sixty-four percent of all Oscar winners have been U.S. entries, including last year’s 3-D Feast, a Disney/Pixar production. Even the non-American animated shorts bow in some way to the States, such as France’s Logorama (2009), which pokes fun of U.S. culture — or lack thereof. The most recent ‘toon winner in a language other than English was 1999’s The Old Man and the Sea — a Russia-Canada-Japan collaboration based on an American classic novel — still in the America-centric judges’ wheelhouse. Another 17% of the winners hail from Canada or the United Kingdom or a collaboration between the two. It’s a filter that doesn’t make us look good.

(You can read about my prediction/pick for this year’s animated shorts here.)

But enough about politics. This is art, not politics. *skeptically cocked eyebrow

LIVE-ACTION SHORTS

My Prediction: “Day One” (USA)

day-one-directed-by-henry-hughes.47.36-PM

This follows the first day on the job for a female Muslim interpreter joining U.S. soldiers on a mission to interview a bombmaker in a remote Afghan village. Despite slick production and fine acting, it offends. Opening with the fetching Layla Alizada nude in the camp’s makeshift shower — realizing she has also gotten her period, what a bummer!— suddenly a buff soldier is undressing outside to use it next, unaware there’s a woman in there. Oooooh, titillation. Later, of course, on the 6-mile trek she has to pee, while men stand guard, and she can’t keep up with the boys and nearly passes out. What, is this Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Oh, and of course the crisis involves a complicated pregnancy. While dramatic and gripping, it’s billed as challenging gender and cultural norms but plays right into them. U-S-A! U-S-A! zzzzzzzzzzzz.

ITS EDGE: Heavy industry backing in the way of George Lucas, AFI and marketing up the wazoo. Not to mention the whole military industrial complex. AND it’s slick, did I say? Then there’s the issue that its unoriginal title could easily be confused on the ballot with a popular iPad journaling app, a domestic abuse non-profit or any number of previous TV movies or low-budget films, something porn-ish. Capitalize on name recognition much? Plus they save it until last in the cinema bundle. Who decides the order? It’s like So You Think You Can Dance, the contestant with the most votes or best routine finishes the night.

My Pick: “Stutterer” (Ireland)

Stutterer+Oscars+2016+Benjamin+Cleary_1.1.7Enchanting, beautiful film that shows the comfort and value of online relationships. Matthew Needham plays an earnest loner who would be a hipster if not for his debilitating stutter. He is dependent on his dad to navigate the day, while narrating a lovely alternate universe in his head. When the woman he has been Facebook-chatting up for six months suddenly arrives in town and requests a meeting, he finds himself at a crossroads. With all the heavy topics this year in every category, this film is a breath of fresh air. And, of course, the litmus test: This is the one I would share with my adult daughters.

Also-rans:

  • “Ave Maria” (France/Germany/Palestine) — A Jewish family has an implausible accident at a nunnery in Palestine. They beseech the coven of virgin Marys to help them get back to the settlement. A bit goofy, soap opera-ish and tinged with anti-Semitism, it’s my least favorite of the bunch, even though there were several good laughs (the pickle! the phone!). Refreshing treatment of the Middle East conflict, but felt as if it was shot in just one day.
  • “Shok” (Kosovo/United Kingdom) — Kite Runner in Kosovo. Told mostly in flashback, this is a horrific, powerful story of the death of a friendship amid war (“shok” means friend), and how two adolescent boys are forced to face evil head-on. A true shock awaits that will lurch you in your seat. The only downside is it relies on structural clichés.
  • “Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)” (Germany/Austria) — Love, love, love this one. Simon Schwarz is brilliant as a father who decides he wants custody of his daughter. He’s like a Louis C.K. without the humor. The way the plot unfolds is like a master class in acting. So tense and suspenseful. Such complicated emotions, and the little girl is fabulous, too. I would have chosen this one, if Stutterer hadn’t charmed the pants off me. Something about the order in which the shorts are bundled is extremely manipulative. I’d be thrilled, though, if this won.

DOCUMENTARY SHORTS

Prediction & Pick: Last Day of Freedom

Because my favorite D.C. venue to watch the documentary shorts has permanently closed, I could find only two of the nominees On Demand. Sorta like flipping a coin, but this one stood out. It’s topical, about our broken justice system, but is a blend of documentary and animated short. An interview with the brother of a death row inmate is illustrated in lovely pencil drawings. Its novelty alone should carry it to gold. I wanted to watch it again as soon as I was done.

Also-ran:

chau-beyond-the-lines

  • Chau, beyond the Lines — [Ed: That lowercase “b” is cq.] A guilt trip to Vietnam. Chau is an institutionalized teen boy afflicted with deformities caused by American use of Agent Orange. He also happens to dream of being an artist and fashion designer, even though he must draw with his foot or mouth. Stirring, but it feels a little like a 60 Minutes segment and reminded me of Inocente, the winner a few years back about the homeless girl who also wanted to become an artist.

Are those animated shorts or are you just happy to see me?

They’re shorts, so I’ll try to be brief, but I love the shorts.

  • p11304775_i_v8_aaBear Story (Chile). This warm fuzzy (not!) has the most interesting technique of the bunch. Don’t know what it’s called, so I’ll dub it mechanized magic. It could win on sheer complexity — I imagine it took years to make — but the story was way too grim for me: Instead of running away to the circus, Papa Bear gets kidnapped, tortured for years/decades, only to escape and find Mama Bear and Baby Bear either murdered (ursacide!) or nabbed as well. So what else? He becomes the Quentin Tarantino of Bearywood and peddles his sad story on the street. Or something like that, it might just be he’s a psychotic, morose tinker-tailor bear. Could be a metaphor for fascist oppression. What happened to gleeful cartoons?! 
  • Prologue (United Kingdom). I sampled the shorts via the cinema-house bundle, and this one was saved ’til last because it contained “nudity and violence” and was “not suitable for children,” giving responsible parents time to shuttle out the kids.  Sorry, Charlie. It’s also not suitable for adults. I’m no prude; in fact, I was looking forward to an R- or even X-rated cartoon, but this was sick, sick, SICK, Mister. Gratuitously so. It involves gladiators who murder by sticking swords up each other’s genitals. Not even as good as it sounds. I hope the artist does not have access to sharp objects other than colored pencils. What’s scary is the “artist” says he wants to make it a feature film. Please, let’s start a Kickstarter and pay Richard Williams off if he’ll promise never to create anything again. Listen, below, to his insanity (and it figures he “conceived” the idea when he was 15 — I wonder what it was that “happened to him three years ago” — did he fall on his head or get kicked in the nuts?!):
  • SANJAY'S SUPER TEAMSanjay’s Super Team (USA). A Hindu youngster wants to watch his superhero cartoons on the boob tube on one side of the room, but his dad insists he comes pray on the other side in the armoire altar. Then the kid gets religion, realizing gods are actually superheroes, too. Super cute!
  • We_Can't_Live_Without_Cosmos_film_posterWe Can’t Live Without Cosmos (Russia). Dedicated to “our friends,” this one was extremely touching. Two cosmonauts, 1203 and 1204, dream their entire lives of space and play and train together — showing work should not be work but should be JOYFUL — but then one is lost and the other loses his mind. It even seems a bit rebellious, anti-government-ish, though approved by censors. Wouldn’t mind if it won, except the technique reminds me a little too much of Space Ghost, just two-dimensional, literally and figuratively.
  • World of Tomorrow (USA). Indescribably brilliant. I tend to judge shorts based on which ones I’d tell my adult children they MUST see. This is it. Emily Prime, on the right (I’m guessing she’s 3), is playing with the computer and ends up meeting her future third-generation clone, on the left. I can’t even tell you. Poignant, prognosticating and belly-tickling funny. MUST-SEE. MUST-WIN. (It is streaming on Netflix, if you have a free 16 minutes.)lead_960

 

Among the also-rans packaged in the feature as “highly commended”:

The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse (France). Theme: finding friends in strange places/faces. This student-created dreamscape feels like an audition tape to join the coveted Disney/Pixar team, though the fur was friggin’ flawless and the enemy owls, a hoot.

Catch It (France). Another animal tale in the tradition of Road Runner. And again? The birds (a turkey vulture) are the villains!?!? C’mon! This classic-feeling cartoon will appeal more to kids than will any of the others. But … oh shoot, you can’t bring your kids because Sir Richard Williams ruined the fun for everyone, didn’t he? A bunch of meerkats pine for one fragrant fruit, then tangle with a vulture for possession.

If I Was God (Canada). For those who prefer stop-action, this autobiographical memory sketch will more than satisfy. Adored the section where the narrator is daydreaming and the images become pieces of cardboard, complete with corrugated seam. The frog-dissection scene is alone worth your ticket and time. A lady in my theater exploded in laughter and became her own spectacle. Story line ended up feeling too narcissistic for me, though. (Apparently animators are gods?)

loneliest-stoplightThe Loneliest Stoplight (USA). A tender treatise on the rush of technology. Evoked two huge laughs from the audience. Probably my second-favorite. Am I just about technological cautionary tales this year? You decide: For 99 cents, you can stream it on vimeo.

In short …

My money’s on:

Prologue, sad to say, because the forbidden fruit always gets picked, plus this guy knows everyone in Hollywood, he animation-directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit, won an Oscar for his adaptation of A Christmas Carol, this is his “life’s work,” and because it illustrates the Spartan/Athenian wars 2,400 years ago, apparently it’s educational. Aaaaack.

My heart’s with:

World of Tomorrow, for reasons stated above. Watch it, you’ll see.

Going through hoops: 9 alternatives to March Madness


college-basketball-tournament-bracket-graphic
What drives Americans’ March Madness mania? Is it a love for the game of basketball — or merely a love of games? Team bragging rights or the individual’s need to always be right?

Humans are compelled and impelled to make choices. When presented with empty boxes to check or blanks to fill in, we cannot resist. Combined with social media madness, our penchant for picking and sharing is off the charts these days — the act alone is satisfying, as if pressing the button is what presses our buttons, not the treat that gets dispensed or the victor’s glory.

Facebook itself has its roots in a simple either/or flow chart: It sprung from Mark Zuckerberg’s simple face-off program to determine the “hotter” Harvard chick.

democracy---people-votingIf only such selection fever translated to 100% voter turnout come election time. If democracy went 100% digital, maybe voting, too, would prove irresistible.

In the meantime, to fill the check-box void before Round 3 of the NCAA basketball tournament begins Thursday, I’ve scoured the universe for interesting alternative brackets for non-hoops fans to play favorites.

 

ENTERTAINMENT SHOWDOWNS

 

  1. Only hours to go before the Philadelphia-area public media provider WHYY wraps up its NPR vs. PBS “Public Media Madness” contest. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey host Neil deGrasse Tyson seems on top of the edutainment world lately. Can he rule as brainy talking head? Your other three Final Four contenders: Mister Rogers, Terry Gross and Peter Sagal. I pick Tyson over Rogers because he’s a LIVING legend (or soon to be).new-trailer-for-cosmos-featuring-neil-degrasse-tyson
  2. Minnesota Public Radio steps up the pace with music match-ups every half-hour from 9 to 5 through Friday’s final round. “The Current March Madness” started with 64 recording artists, featuring close shaves between such bands as U2 and Hüsker Dü, The Roots and Public Enemy. Today, see who challenges Elvis. Keep in mind: Times listed are Central Time.
  3. Pearl JamBeckA catty rivalry pits female characters from a defunct TV drama. The “Dallas” Divas Derby will keep you occupied through April 14. Or not. Like life down under in Dallas, it moves pretty slowly.DallasDivas

ANIMAL MAGNETISM

It’s not quite natural selection. These two popularity contests are playing out on Facebook, where you simply “Like” the picture of the species you prefer. Trash-talking takes place in the comments sections.

4. You’d think there’d be more kittehs at odds in the cybersphere, but drooling dogs drool in NatGeo Wild’s “Doggie Breed Bracket,” licensed by Cesar Millan of “Cesar 911.” This inaugural struggle is pretty much an ad for his show.

DoggieBreed

5. Anyone who knows or reads me knows I’ve plugged Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “March Migration Madness” before. But someone over there finally listened to my complaints: In previous years, organizers picked birds who don’t actually migrate. This year, there are nifty baseball cards detailing the birds’ feats. Visit today for a chance to vote in the “Airborne 8” round between this year’s vastly popular snowy owl and the spectacular painted bunting.

MarchMigrationMadness

6. OK, OK. I found a bracket featuring cats. But it’s something you need to register for, and we all learned our lesson with the Warren Buffett-Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket, did we not?  A glimpse of Apartment Therapy’s Pet Madness entrants, just to satisfy you rabid pet owners.

PetMadness2

FOOD FIGHTS

7. Sweet! This is just a sampler of what’s out there.  Foodsided.com’s “Starch Madness” will surely whet the appetite. In fact, this game can be played alongside the NCAA tourney. Spread out a spread of these and watch your points spread. Recent highlights from the blog:

  • In the Entree Region, an epic battle of cheese. 4-seed Grilled Cheese takes on upstart 5-seed Mac & Cheese, who is coming off a decisive, yet somewhat unexpected, Round One victory over Boneless Wings.

  • After years of being paired together in perfect harmony, Peanut Butter and Chocolate will face off as Peanut Butter Anything takes on Chocolate Cake in the 4/5 match-up in the Dessert Region.

Starch madness8. Somebody alert Chris Christie. The Trentonian is sponsoring an eat-off among New Jersey pizzerias. This one requires some insider knowledge. You wonder if it’s helping to boost the newspaper’s restaurant ad sales.

Pizza

 TOURISTY

9. That last one was touristy, but no one can trump The Washington Post‘s“Monuments Madness” for places that “place.” This civil civics war features 15 statues and one obelisk. The Elite 8 begins today, and a champion will be crowned on April 1. Which begs the question … why?monumental

Sheer madness.

P.S. Go, Spartans.basketball_data

 

 

 

 

 

Doing the Oscar ‘Hustle’

american-hustle

Players in “American Hustle” are all dressed up and ready to collect their Oscars.

For the past two Academy Awards seasons, I have blogged about my attempt to see all of the nominated titles. “All” means not just those flicks up for Best Picture, but every film nominated for anything — from documentary shorts to makeup & hairstyling to sound editing and sound mixing (same thing).

I’ve never succeeded.

Because of my limited time, funds and hope, after two seasons of defeat, I had decided not to even try this year. Then, hello! I analyzed the list.

If it were possible to see all the films nominated for any Oscar in any category in any year, looks like this could be the year.

Look at it this way: Eliminate from the count the 15 shorts (there are always 15 shorts) and the 5 documentary features and 5 animated features and 5 foreign films. They’re all static categories whose films generally do not cross over into other categories (animated feature Up in 2009 and 2010’s Toy Story 3, or foreign offerings A Separation in 2011 and 2012’s Amour, are exceptions). With those slots gone, in 2012, there were 31 other unique films nominated. Last year, 24.

This year, there are only 28. Oh. Wait. That’s more than last year. Why does it feel as if there are fewer? Is it because the titles are getting so short?

I wrote about this last year, how titles are increasingly clipped, possibly because of Twitter and the need to get the word out in a condensed way. But compare one-word Philomena to one-word Her. Kinda hard to do a search for Her.

Joaquin Phoenix searches for meaning in "Her."

Joaquin Phoenix searches for meaning in Spike Jonze’s “Her.”

No matter. The nine Best Picture nominees still have a ridiculous monopoly across other categories, and I’ll find some way to back that up with statistics. (Maybe this guy cites the statistics I need.)

However you slice it, the way the Academy focuses on just a handful of films for praise, given the depth of the year’s pool, seems unfair. Lame. Maybe Academy members were also short on time and funds this time around and didn’t see enough movies. Maybe filmmakers were short on funds and ideas and didn’t make enough movies.

The only folks not lazy seem to be Jennifer Lawrence and Leo. Oh, and the marketers / promoters for the nine Best Picture nominees. Someone is being played, and it’s not just the victims of the con artists in American Hustle.

Well, count along with me, and help me decide whether to go for it. As usual, I’ve seen only two Best Picture nominees outta the starting gate (“Gravity” and “American Hustle”) and one other, from the best actress category (“Blue Jasmine”).

Here are all of the nominees, according to the official category hierarchy with no repeats:

  1. American Hustle
  2. Captain Phillips
  3. Dallas Buyers Club
  4. Gravity
  5. Her
  6. Nebraska
  7. Philomena
  8. 12 Years a Slave
  9. The Wolf of Wall Street
  10. Blue Jasmine
  11. August: Osage County (I saw the play; does that count?)
  12. The Croods
  13. Despicable Me 2
  14. Ernest & Celestine
  15. Frozen
  16. The Wind Rises
  17. The Grandmaster
  18. Inside Llewyn Davis
  19. Prisoners
  20. The Great Gatsby (read the book …)
  21. The Invisible Woman
  22. The Act of Killing
  23. Cutie and the Boxer
  24. Dirty Wars
  25. The Square
  26. 20 Feet from Stardom
  27. The Broken Circle Breakdown
  28. The Great Beauty
  29. The Hunt
  30. The Missing Picture
  31. Omar
  32. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
  33. The Lone Ranger
  34. The Book Thief
  35. Saving Mr. Banks (rhymes with “Hanks”)
  36. Alone Yet Not Alone (Update: This song has since been disqualified due to shady soliciting of votes. Good for me!)
  37. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
  38. All Is Lost
  39. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  40. Lone Survivor (anything like ‘The Lone Ranger’?)
  41. Iron Man 3
  42. Star Trek Into Darkness
  43. Before Midnight

I repeat: All is lost?

And the 15 shorts — always 15:

  1. CaveDigger
  2. Facing Fear
  3. Karama Has No Walls
  4. The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
  5. Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
  6. Feral
  7. Get a Horse!
  8. Mr. Hublot
  9. Possessions
  10. Room on the Broom
  11. Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)
  12. Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)
  13. Helium
  14. Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)
  15. The Voorman Problem

How are you doing? Who’s with me?

Pick a pecking order: How birds and politics mix

The rufous hummingbird was recently named the American Birding Association’s 2014 Bird of the Year. How did it pull that off? Don’t recall any campaigning.

$T2eC16RHJGEFFm6!7qebBRzq,,WZdQ~~60_35We humans take care of that. Explains Jeff Gordon, president of the ABA: “We listen to member ideas, but, so far, the staff makes the call on Bird of the Year.” It’s also based on “geography, cool biology and outrageous beauty — not necessarily in that order,” pipes in Ted Floyd, the editor of Birding magazine.

When promoting birds in general, one can’t help but show favoritism now and then. Artists and artisans do it. Ever wonder why male cardinals grace so many Christmas cards? Are they easier to paint/photograph, or just easier to spot?  (I personally prefer the females.) And what’s the deal with owls lately? It’s not just snowy owl irruptions; there has been an eruption of owl ornamentation in a range of products from home decor to personal wear over the past several years.

Some birds seem perennially and unfairly freighted with symbolism. Consider:

Top 5 symbolic birds

1. Eagle (patriotism). And it coulda been the turkey. See American history, or the Broadway musical “1776,” for the animated explanation.

2. Dove (peace). Still, those male cardinals are giving them a run for their money. What people don’t realize is cardinals are more like Angry Birds than sirens of serenity.

owlaamilne3.  Owl (wisdom). Winnie-the-Pooh’s delightful friend “Wol” is even semi-literate.

4. Turkey (Thanksgiving, sure, but also refers to “a lemon” or a lunkhead). This is probably the first bird every kid learns to draw, outlining their hands then rendering in felt, glue and construction paper.

5.  The twin pillars of the stork (birth & hope) and the raven (death & fear)

Other birds get drawn into the political fray through no fault of their own.

Top 5 political birds

On that whole national bird / state bird thing: It shows a lack of imagination when you have some birds (again with the Northern cardinal) monopolizing seven states (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia) as an emblem. Mention the American robin to sensitive Michiganders, and they may get a little ticked: It’s their state bird even though it’s a migrant in Michigan. Whose decision was this?

Illegal immigration has always been somewhat of an issue for birds — just ask the European starling or house sparrow, or the boat-tailed grackle, which has become a target for hunters eager to “help” control populations. Here are a few other feather rufflers.

big+bird

Big Bird makes a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment with Seth Meyers.

1. Big Bird – Embroiled in a 2012 controversy over federal funding of “liberal-leaning” PBS, the good Sesame Street neighbor helped to roast Mitt Romney’s presidential chances.

2. The northern spotted owl / the snowy owl – More owls! The first species was caught up in a Northwest conservation fight / the second, amid this crazy irruption into the Southern states, has been touted by some as evidence of climate change (a politically freighted term all its own).

3. The Canada geese that downed Sully’s aircraft – The risk of bird strikes has triggered miles of legislation and local skirmishes about policing bird nesting areas near airports. A sad tale close to home: the eviction of nesting eagles at the Norfolk Botanical Garden, situated next door to Norfolk International Airport. This is where politics and symbolism intersect. (I blogged about this last year, during March Migration Madness.)

4. The stork – Embodies the idea of sex education, or lack thereof, i.e. how we don’t give our children the straight story, or even the gay story.

5. Poultry — Meaning chicken, as in “tastes like …” Does modern farming of food run afoul of animal rights? Everyone from Whole Foods to PETA has a cock in this fight.

Dear reader, do you have a “pet” wild bird or cause?

Birds in popular culture: Flicks, ’toons and tunes

For those who missed it, I reported in USA TODAY last week on the big birding news that many likely missed.

Bird fans twittered for days about my statement: “Arguably no animal — not even man’s best friend — is as intertwined with human experience as birds, which serve graciously as muse, meat and messenger.”

That bears out in popular culture. A sampling.

5 great under-the-radar bird flicks that aren’t Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (which turned 50 last year):

1. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003). This documentary explores the bond between an unemployed musician squatting in San Francisco while tending to a flock of feral cherry-headed conures.

2. Kes (1969). Based on the 1968 novel A Kestral for a Knave, this British film about a boy’s hardscrabble life buoyed by a bird is told in such accented English you might need subtitles or repeated viewings to get all the dialogue. The universal emotion cuts like a knife.

3. Fly Away Home (1996). A Disney-esque tale of a father (Jeff Daniels) and daughter (Anna Paquin) attempting to lead orphaned Canada geese on their migration route.

4. Winged Migration (2001). This spectacular French documentary in the vein of 2005’s must-see March of the Penguins will literally change your worldview.

5. Birdy (1984). Based on the William Wharton novel of the same name, two Vietnam vets deal with their post-traumatic stress in this Alan Parker pearl. One, an avid canary keeper (Matthew Modine), takes his obsession too far and finds sanctuary in believing he is a bird, while the other (Nicolas Cage — aptly named) is enlisted to help free Birdy from his illness.

5 most inspiring TV cartoon birds

1. Road Runner Has an uncanny ability to escape every scrape with danger.

2. WoodstockNamed for the legendary 1969 three-day music and peace festival on Yasgur’s farm in the New York Catskills, Snoopy’s loyal sidekick is famous for busting through pretensions.

3. Woody WoodpeckerVoiced by the inimitable Mel Blanc (who also did Tweety Bird), he’s a rascal who even inspired young boys to imitate his comb-forward hairstyle. (And if you’re still trying to identify what type of woodpecker he is, here’s the definitive word.)

4. Daffy Duck & Donald DuckYou’d think the Looney Tunes mascots might include a loon, but these two resilient comic fowls are linguistic marvels, showing kids everywhere that they can become thhhhomebody even with a thhhhhhpeech impediment.

5. Toucan SamThe mascot for Froot Loops cereal since 1963, he defies birds’ typically inferior sense of smell with an ability to sniff out sugar anytime, anywhere while showcasing an advanced bird brain capable of speaking Pig Latin (OOT-fray OOPS-lay).

6 signature bird songs by humans (selecting just one per decade)

thunderbird11. 1960s: “Surfin’ Bird” — The Trashmen
Released in 1963, it soared to No. 4 on Billboard Hot 100. Its wide appeal and longevity might be explained by it being a blend of two R&B hits by The Rivingtons: Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow and The Bird’s the Word, which was sparked by Red Prysock’s radio jingle advertising a cheap brand of wine, Thunderbird: “What’s the word? Thunderbird. How’s it sold? Good and cold. What’s the jive? Bird’s alive. What’s the price? Thirty twice.”

2. 1970s: “Free Bird” — Lynyrd Skynyrd
Debuted in 1973, it is “the most-requested song in the history of rock music,” says Amazon.com music reviewer Lorry Fleming. The band itself is a bit like a mythical phoenix, having made a comeback after losing key members in a fiery plane crash.

3. 1980s: “The Chicken Dance” — In the repertoire of any wedding band worth its salt
Composed by Swiss accordion player Werner Thomas, the translated name is “The Duck Dance.” The accompanying fad dance, often performed at wedding receptions and safe for the whole family to embarrass themselves with, was introduced to the U.S. in 1981 at Tulsa’s Oktoberfest by the German Heilbronn Band. They wanted to perform it in duck costumes, but couldn’t lay their hands on any, so a local TV station donated a chicken costume, hatching the new name.

4. 1990s: “I Believe I Can Fly” — R. Kelly
Featured on the soundtrack of 1996’s “Space Jam” and forever linked to NBA superman Michael Jordan, the song gained universal fame when used as a wake-up call for the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis in 2008 and, later, on Oct. 13, 2012, as Endeavour’s theme song when the space shuttle program was ceremoniously retired. Given that birds first piqued humankind’s aspiration for flight, this fits even though birds aren’t mentioned (but images of a hawk are overlaid with images of a young basketball player in the official music video, and there were plenty of animated birds in the movie, like Daffy Duck).

Beirne Lowry's eagle used in the opening titles of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."

Beirne Lowry’s eagle used in the opening titles of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

5. 2000s: “Where the Stars & Stripes & the Eagle Fly” — Aaron Tippin
Hard to pick just one country song mentioning eagles. Released Sept. 10, 2002, this hit embodies post-9/11 patriotism and the allusion that the eagle and the mystical phoenix are synonymous with the American spirit that continually arises from the ashes.

6. 2010s: “I Like Birds” — The Eels
With childlike awe, this ditty reflects a gentle sensibility and hipster evolution of our love of birds — as understated as a Facebook “like.”

But no song can rival the calming magic of actual birdsong. Happy exploring!

5 out-of-fashion terms that somehow still fit

Design and fashion shape language in ways most people don’t stop to notice. Here are a few dated concepts that somehow have survived the test of evolving styles and technology.

MonopolyHat

The Monopoly guy has pretty much cornered the market on hat-tipping.

1. Hat tip. On the Intrawebz — among social-media socialites mostly — this has been condensed to “h/t.” It’s what we in the real media biz call sourcing: a nod to the person or organization providing whatever scoop, meme, funny video, scintillating blog post you’re sharing. My suspicion: Its recent popularity was inspired by the “Tip of the Hat / Wag of the Finger” segment on the The Colbert Report — but I don’t have that sourced. Or maybe it’s bad economic times reminding us how hats are held out to collect tips.

What strikes me as odd: The style of hat that men once congenially tipped was in vogue all the way back in the Edwardian age. With this usage, it zooms into the digital age. Although some men — primarily cowboys — still flick their brims in a kind gesture of recognition, respect, gratitude or greeting, hat-wearing has been in decline since the end of World War II.

ManTipHat

Side note: In American Sign Language, the “hat tip” gesture signifies “man,” while drawing a bonnet’s chin strap across the chin signifies “woman.” Today’s deaf kids must be durn-tootin’ confused by that one.

2. Powder room. Doing lines in the ladies’ room aside — and I refer to both kinds of lines — powdering one’s nose seems a somewhat outdated rite. Refreshing her makeup was always a subterfuge for “meeting in the ladies’ room,” anyway, and what happens in the ladies’ room, stays in the ladies’ room, amiright, m’ladies? But day and night, as I watch endless episodes of whatever comes on HGTV — the modern gal’s counterpart to ESPN — I’m reminded that “half-bath” may be correct, but “powder room” has more polish.

Another take on "powder room."

Another take on “powder room.”

3. Duck tape. When Ace Hardware stores started stocking all those decorator rolls of “duck tape” — sports teams, camo, tie-dyed, floral patterns — I chortled. Isn’t that cute? They are changing the spelling of duct tape! Joke’s on me, because the original spelling of this jack-of-all-trades tool is, in fact, “duck tape.” It was developed in 1942 using a cotton duck-cloth backing. It assumed the “duct tape” spelling, along with the gray sheen, only in 1950, when the Melvin A. Anderson Co. bought the rights and started using it primarily for sealing air duct systems. So what’s old definitely has some sticking power. (Who said blogging wasn’t educational?)

fancy_duck_tape-545x545

My only issue: Why penguins and not ducks?

4. QWERTY. There is poetry in this shorthand reference to how keys are arranged on a typewriter — or “a keyboard,” for those born after 1990. (Yes, Virginia, I have friends who have not only never used a typewriter but have never seen one. There may even be some youngsters who would need a dictionary to get through this bullet point.) But the beloved 1873 layout is not universal. As technology advances and we find a need for more control keys, panic buttons, what-not, the QWERTY is as endangered as those quick brown foxes jumping over the lazy dogs. For instance, the Dvorak keyboard, patented in 1936. Muyah-ha-hah, if it gained traction, then you’d ALL be hunt-and-peck typists, like me.

kbdvorak

The simplified Dvorak keyboard.

A more complex arrangement in the Dvorak keyboard by Maltron.

A more complex arrangement in the Dvorak keyboard by Maltron.

This is a typewriter.

This is a typewriter.

SGH-t469 008

5. BUtterfield 9 and PEnnsylvania 6-5000. Gone are the days when such obscure cultural references as these mean anything to those who text using predictive text. When texting was new, I pondered why phone designers clung to the arrangement of letters on numbers that once formed the genomic sequence for reaching out and touching someone. That is — arcane phone exchanges spurred the design of touch-tone phones, even though exchanges pretty much went out with rotary phones and a boom in urban population (too many land lines to maintain limited combinations of letters).

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then you probably weren’t as frustrated as I was trying to spell-text on flip phones, especially when my “3” and “6” buttons would lose their paint from overuse. Predictive text SOMEWHAT eased this problem. I no longer had to type each letter. And now touchscreens mirror the QWERTY schematic, although the numbers still appear on the flat-screen keypad. WHY?!?!?!

Can’t help wondering: If the designers of touch-tone phones knew how much communication would be based on actual touching today, would they ever have arranged the letters this way?

get your digitsIt gives “Can I get your digits?” a whole new meaning. Can I BORROW someone’s else’s digits so I can manage to stay in touch in the digital age?

(Cross fingers this post doesn’t make me seem so out-of-touch.)

Do the Oscars need a new category?

Trivia question: What was the most recent category added to the Academy Awards lineup?

a) Visual Effects

b) Animated Feature

c) Sound Mixing

d) Music (Original Song)

e) Hairstyling and Makeup Design

f) Documentary Short

g) None of the above

If you guessed “a” — or anything else — I’ll tell you at the end of the post whether you’re right.

Meanwhile, having seen 41 Oscar contenders across 23 categories in just the past month, I bet you’re probably thinking that I’m thinking: SO relieved there are not more categories!

Au contraire. How fun it would be to add one more. Call it the Best Bookends award.

Bookends?! Fool, we’re talking movies, not books. With “bookends,” I’m referring to the titles, the credits and those rewarding parting shots after credits roll. Signature signoffs, which most moviegoers miss, are like bows in live theater. Characters often break character or rub some joke into the ground or, in the case of Hitchcock, which I just saw, satiate a viewer’s expectations with a shot of a corpulent Anthony Hopkins doing a classic Hitchcock silhouette against stage footlights.

Movie-editing programs are so widespread that anyone can now create “professional-looking” titles at home, so the pressure is on for studios to go further in defining “professional.” Titling companies — and not the kind you use to buy property — stand on their own these days, so why not reward their creativity with a tiny Oscar? OK, a mini-Oscar, like mini-Reese’s Cups.

Among the more interesting titling I’ve seen this year month:

Skyfall — This movie’s opening sequence should win, hands down. It’s groovy, psychedelic and feels like an animated short. When it was over, I already felt I had my money’s worth. But of course this was my first Bond movie. Friends tell me they ALL begin like this, that it wasn’t truly over-the-top. So, hmmm.

Amour — Hard to ignore the titles and credits for this intense Austrian film: stark white lettering on black background and completely silent. My fellow patrons dared not crunch their popcorn, let alone breathe. The titles proved engaging from the start, telling the audience: You are participating in this experience, supply your own soundtrack.

Life of Pi — During extended titles, we tour the zoo of Pi’s childhood — gorgeous, exotic creatures overlaid with graceful letter strokes until the last name gets chased away in a puff by a group of animals. Wish I could remember now which animals … some kind of fowl, I think, though not water fowl.

Django Unchained — I burst out laughing when the Quentin Tarantino movie changed locale and rather than fade in-out with a standard “Mississippi, 1858,” along came a slow, side-scrolling, screen-high, bright-yellow MISSISSIPPI in a goofy, frontiersy font.

Moonrise Kingdom — Credits were done in swirly, utterly unreadable fonts, tacky colors of pink and yellow, which moved too fast to decipher. I thought, “These poor folks aren’t getting their due!” then realized how well the titles fit the spirit of the film: When a 12-year-old girl runs away with her khaki scout, her suitcase is crammed with YA chick lit that she reads aloud to him at bedtime. It seems she designed these titles in her diary using gel pens.

moonrise-kingdom

These two sure looked a lot like Hermione and Harry Potter to me.

Zero Dark Thirty — I can’t remember what it said, but there was a comma missing and this copy editor SAW RED. They call this a journalism drama?! Get a better editor! I was in a foul mood and could hardly enjoy the first torture scene.

Among memorable parting shots:

Argo. Jimmy Carter’s comments about the declassified Argo operation are heard while a side-by-side, then-and-now, fact-vs.-fiction slide show plays. IDs of the actual rescued Americans appear beside screen grabs of the actors who played them, historical shots alongside counterfeit scenes.

Marvel’s The Avengers. After almost saving the world, my favorite character, Robert Downy Jr.’s Iron Man, expresses a craving for shawarma, an Arab meat dish. He tells his A-team, “There’s a shawarma joint two blocks from here, don’t know what it is, but I’ve always wanted to try it.” When the soundtrack play out and credits fade, find our heroes binging. And … scene!

I know there were more … blanking now. Gosh, does this mean I have to sit through them all again?

To make more room for my new category, we could try ending sexism and lump all the men, women, boys and girls into unisex “Lead Acting” and “Supporting Roles” categories. What drama to have Meryl Streep up against Daniel Day-Lewis. Ahem. Even NASCAR’s sexist barriers have been busted through by Sunday’s other main event: Danica Patrick’s inclusive triumph. Because, yeah, just for her to qualify makes her a winner.

OK, pure cheekiness about the new category, but here’s your reward for staying ’til the end: trivia answer is b) The Animated Feature category was added in 2001. Visual Effects has been around since 1939; Sound Mixing since 1930; Original Song, 1934; Hairstyling and Makeup, 1981 (it’s the most recent addition before Animated Feature –before that, it was Sound Editing, added in 1963); and the Documentary Short has been awarded since 1941.

Taking a long shot at Oscar’s short bets

The allure of Oscar shorts: They represent the workshops from which filmmakers master their art and craft. And who doesn’t like rooting for the little guy now and again? Most Oscar watchers don’t bother to see them, so it’s like a horse race, picking the name with the catchiest ring. I’ve seen them all, so I’m here to help shorten your bets.

Guessing which shorts will grab hold of an Oscar, though, is an inexact science. Last year, I correctly predicted only the animated short category. So I’m operating under the assumption that the ones I favor won’t win. You probably should, too.

DOCUMENTARY SHORTS

My Prediction: “Open Heart”

open-heart_592x299Open Heart tells the touching tale of eight chronically cheerful Rwandan children dying of rheumatic heart disease, which roughly 13 million of their peers have developed because of untreated strep throat (the disease has been eradicated in the U.S. because of easy access to penicillin). They are treated at a free clinic in Sudan, led by a brilliant, chain-smoking, greasy-haired, elderly surgeon. He spends time pleading with the Sudanese government for a reneged $5 million in funding, so Oscar voters should rise (fund-raise) to the occasion.

ITS EDGE: Academy members seem pressured to pick the documentary that makes the most difference or advances the greatest cause. Typically doesn’t matter whether it’s the best produced film or evokes the greatest emotional response from an audience. Seeing that Saving Face won last year — that film shed light on the brutal acid attacks on Pakistani women and a doctor who returns to his homeland to perform pro-bono cosmetic surgery — I’m betting Open Heart will play on those same voters’ heartstrings.

My Pick: “Mondays at Racine”

mondaysatracine-300x225So many beautiful things about this film, but the beauty of its title is you have no idea what it’s about if you go into the shorts experience cold, as I prefer to do: A salon run by two sisters on Long Island — sisters who were forced to witness their mother hiding from the world while undergoing her own cancer treatments — extends free beauty and pampering once a month to female chemo patients. One could argue this is this year’s feminist piece and will follow in the footsteps of Saving Face. Though the topic is cancer, it is more than a warm pink fuzzy as these courageous women bare far more than their bald heads and flat chests. Every member of our audience, male and female, needed time to compose themselves after its disquieting conclusion.

Also-rans:

  • “Redemption” — You’d expect a religious treatise, but “Redemption” follows down-on-their-luck New Yorkers who “can” — redeeming bottles and cans after scrapheap-snorkeling 24/7. People of all ethnicities and walks of life do it, sometimes dragging along kids for lack of day care. The territorial disputes are amusing, interviews at times are LOL funny, but ultimately the “there but for the grace of God go I” revelation is chilling. Academy voters might have a soft spot for these colorful souls, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it pulled out a win. This is everything a documentary short should be.
  • “Inocente” — Probably the best-produced of the documentary shorts about a 15-year-old homeless Latina artist who finds a path out of her dead-end life. Handicap: I see marketing written all over it and the focus is a bit too narrow to earn my vote.
  • Kings Point” — Far more depressing than Amour, this bittersweet look at end-of-life issues is set in one of those sunny, Southern retirement communities filled with eternal darkness. Kill me now.

POST-OSCAR UPDATE: “Inocente” wins; shoulda known.

ANIMATED SHORTS

papermanMy Prediction: Paperman

On the strength of Disney’s promotion — nearly everyone I know has either viewed or shared this cartoon online — this story of love-at-first-sight and paper-airplane darts seems destined to win. I do like the black-and-white undertones of paper saving the day in a digital world.

head-overheelsMy Pick: Head Over Heels

While Paperman witnesses to romance, Head Over Heels — the only non-American contender in this category — is the real deal. In this stop-action gem, an elderly couple share a topsy-turvy house, where one’s ceiling is the other’s floor. Eventually, they find some kindling and reclaim some common ground. This is to Amour as Silver Linings Playbook is to Paperman.

POST-OSCAR UPDATE: “Paperman” clinched it.

Also-rans:

  • Adam and Dog — The clear winner for all dog owners, about the first domesticated canine. Be prepared to whimper and wag. Loved the watercolors and the artists’ loyalty to the dog’s point of view.
  • Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare” — The only short to receive applause in our theater. Familiar but refreshingly unpredictable. Still, it felt like a warm-up short for the rest of the shorts.
  • Fresh Guacamole — Fresh and zesty. This one could win — goes by in a blink and a wink and has absolutely no fat. A friend says it was the best two minutes she spent at the movies.

Bonus: Because the animated shorts are so short, producers threw a few highly commended entries onto the reel. I’ve already written about my favorite, Dripped, from France, here. Abiogenesis from New Zealand was a doodler’s dream, and The Gruffalo’s Child from U.K. and Germany seemed a desperate follow to The Gruffalo (2009), both of which seem too long to be shorts. I’d rather read the books and imagine my own visuals than hear it read by squirrels.

LIVE-ACTION SHORTS

ht_buzkashi_boys_mi_130212_wgPrediction: Buzkashi Boys

Guilt over the war alone could edge out a win for this boilerplate buddy flick (wanna-be Western) from Afghanistan. According to The Huffington Post, the young Afghan stars will attend the Oscars ceremony. Hard to send them home without a gift bag.

shorts-curfew31rv1My Pick: Curfew

Pure made-in-the-USA genius. A suicidal uncle’s day out with his nonpareil niece proves doubly life-affirming.

POST-OSCAR UPDATE: “Curfew” took home the Oscar!

Also-rans:

  • Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw) — From Belgium, a film school-ish portrait of hell.
  • Henry — Oh, Canada, Alzheimer’s is so last decade.
  • Asad — South African/U.S. filmmakers track a young boy at the crossroads of becoming either a Somali pirate or legendary fisherman. An animal from the sea helps seal his fate. Also could win, as it shows the flip side of piracy.

Oscars picks from a patron in a leading supporting role

oscarIgnorance can be bliss when it comes to predicting the Oscars. Sadly, I know too much.

Most Academy members don’t have time to see all 38 Oscar-nominated features in every category, so they watch only those that get mailed to them or for which they’ve been wined, dined and re-wined. This year, though, was unique in that most of the nominees in the running for major awards were still in theaters at the time the contenders were announced, giving voters a chance to easily do their homework via legwork.

Me? Last month, I had seen only two films in the running in any category: “Lincoln” (up for Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role, Actor in a Supporting Role, Actress in a Supporting Role, Directing, Cinematography … phew! … where was I? Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Sound Mixing and Adapted Screenplay) and “Snow White and the Huntsman” (Costume Design, Visual Effects). I know, quite the pair.

With two days to go, my tally is 23 of 38 features and all 15 shorts (I had seen one of the shortest-ever animated shorts beforehand: Fresh Guacamole, likely during pre-roll for Lincoln).

Still haven’t seen The Hobbit, I refuse to see Ted, and I am not fully qualified to vote in six categories because I haven’t viewed each nominee: Animated Feature Film (Frankenweenie will win though), Documentary Feature, Foreign Language Film (Amour has it), Makeup and Hairstyling (dammit, Hobbit), Production Design (Hobbit-snobbit!), Visual Design (hobbled again by The Hobbit). I shall focus on the shorts in a separate post, as if anyone cares. (I do!)

So, let’s get on with it.

BEST PICTURE

My Prediction: “Argo”

The metadata, media, my mom, Google searches and gang-think all point to Argo becoming only the fourth movie in Oscar history to win best picture without its director also being nominated. This was clearly a case of Hollywood feeling sorry for Ben Affleck and rallying. Don’t get me wrong: I liked the movie. I also confess to starting to doze off just a tad (well, it was the late show and the third movie I had seen that day) but I swear I didn’t miss much, because when I came to, there was that woman with the 1970s yearbook haircut and glasses still looking fretful. What was stellar about this movie: the acting by veteran legends John Goodman — who also stole the show in Flight, up for Denzel Washington, er, best actor — Alan Arkin and Ben himself; nail-biting film editing; and the exquisite costume and production design. It was authentic, gritty and gripping, even if it did rewrite history with a Hollywood ending. And amid all the beatings Zero Dark Thirty is taking for its depiction of torture, Argo provides the counterpoint: Torture=bad, Capture by Iranians=torture, therefore Iranians=really bad. I love how the story of a fake movie was a fake movie within a fake movie. Probably because I’m a journalist and take a hard-line on “facts,” as we know them, I still don’t want it or Zero Dark Thirty to win … and I wasn’t a big fan of The Artist winning last year, either, as it was just another Hollywood valentine. You want a Valentine? Go see Amour on Valentine’s Day, alone, as I did.

Suddenly I’m feeling sorry for left-out Lincoln. Wasn’t it supposed to sweep up a month ago?

My Pick: This has been the hardest decision of my week. My favorite movie experiences among the nine nominees were, in order but kinda a five-way tie: Silver Linings Playbook, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, Life of Pi and Django Unchained— all because I had zero expectations going in and they each surprised and inspired me to the core. I also loved Lincoln, Les Misérables and Zero Dark Thirty, but I can’t overlook their leaden flaws. I have to base my decision on which movie I would get sucked into and watch again and again on cable forgoing all previous plans, or which I would tell my friends they must see, because that’s what a best picture should do. That movie this year would be … I’ll tell you at the end of this post. Nyah, nyah.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

My Prediction & Pick: Daniel Day-Lewis

No-brainer. If he wins, he becomes the first actor to win three Oscars for a leading role. We should bow to him or maybe elect him president for real.

I marveled at Day-Lewis’ walk as Lincoln, but also harbor great affection for Joaquin Phoenix’s deflated Popeye stance as a sailor with no compass in the masterful The Master.

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

My Prediction: Christoph Waltz

Loved him, but it’s an unlevel playing field because he felt like an actor in a leading role, and I am irked Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t get the best supporting actor nod or that Jamie Foxx didn’t get nominated for best actor.

My Pick: Robert De Niro

I’m tempted to give it to Alan Arkin for his delivery of just one or two lines — polar opposite of Waltz’s saturation performance — but De Niro is due, proving he’s still got it while redeeming himself for all that Focker nonsense.

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

My Prediction & Pick: Jennifer Lawrence

Sorry to be boring. I love Jessica Chastain — she could be the next Meryl Streep — but this was not the role she should have been nominated for. Naomi Watts is Lawrence’s biggest competition, but there was so much about just being dazed, and you can’t discount her boost from hairstyling and makeup design. Emmanuelle Riva, yay, but her co-star, the pigeon … I mean Jean-Louis Trintignant, should have been nominated as well in that case. And I love kids, but Quvenzhané’s acting is a credit to director Benh Zeitlin.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

My Prediction: Anne Hathaway

My Pick: Helen Hunt

Sorry, Sally Field. I’ll miss your acceptance speech. Really, really, I will. I know you gained weight for to play Lincoln’s “loony” wife and all (and I loved how you didn’t make her too loony because, heck, I could relate), but Helen Hunt got totally naked in an artful way. Yes, she does that little smirk, and it’s a crutch, but you do the open-mouth exasperated thing. And I did love Anne Hathaway to death, but she loses points for all those talk shows. Did I mention I’m anti-marketing?

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

My Prediction: “Frankenweenie”

Still need to see two, but they all pretty much follow the same formula: Misfit kid gets comeuppance by defeating villains/solving puzzle and saving the day!

CINEMATOGRAPHY

My Prediction: “Anna Karenina”

My Pick: “Life of Pi”

Just to vent here. The cameras were well-choreographed in Anna Karenina, every frame composed like a painting, but I felt I was watching a flip-book story board and got a wee bit dizzy. If it hadn’t been for Keira Knightley and Jude Law’s flesh-and-blood performances I would have died of distraction. The actors and set pieces seemed part of the director’s dollhouse. And who does Joe Wright think he is, Fellini? I know Fellini and, Joe, you are no Fellini.

COSTUME DESIGN

My Prediction & Pick: “Mirror Mirror”

I am going out on a limb here, but the duds in Mirror Mirror dazzled without encumbering character. Whimsical, but not victims of whimsy. On the other hand, I could lobby for Lincoln as a sentimental favorite, his non-cliche stovepipe hat and all. Winning this early-in-the-proceedings Oscar could be a sign of a complete sweep at the end.

Truly, I’d welcome either of the Snow White flicks winning, just please, Oscar gods, don’t give it to Anna Karenina. Those costumes, while fancy-pants, looked as if they’d barely been worn, except maybe once for fittings then the actors were told they couldn’t play in them or get them mussed up.

UPDATE at 5:17 p.m.: Credits just rolled on Mirror Mirror, and I learned it was dedicated to Eiko Ishioka, its own costume designer, who died Jan. 21 —less than two weeks after nominations were announced. This category just got interesting. I have no doubt now she will win posthumously. It’s the kind of story Hollywood eats up. If she doesn’t win, I will eat my stovepipe hat.

DIRECTING

My Prediction: Steven Spielberg for “Lincoln”

Kudos for also directing screenwriter Tony Kushner, no small feat.

My Pick: David O. Russell for “Silver Linings Playbook”

Could be an upset! Would also revel in either Ang Lee or Benh Zeitlin getting a steal.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

My Prediction & Pick: “The Invisible War”

Only one I’ve seen so far, but will have seen four by the time the Red Carpet is unrolled. Still, I can’t imagine any subject being more timely, rally-cry important or outrage-inducing than institutionalized rape in the military.

FILM EDITING

My Prediction: “Argo”

My Pick: “Silver Linings Playbook”

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

My Prediction & Pick: “Amour”

How could it not win if it’s also nominated for Best Picture? “A Separation” (2011) all over again. (That Iranian brilliance was nominated for screenplay and best foreign film, not quite the same deal, but once a foreign film is elevated, it typically prevails.)

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)

My Prediction: “Life of Pi”

Hypnotic, but relentless. Still, it’s nice to indulge in something on the total opposite spectrum from John Williams.

My Pick: “Skyfall”

Loved how the new sound melded into the old Bond theme. In general, the music kept my adrenaline going throughout.

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)

My Prediction: Skyfall from “Skyfall”

I think Adele’s performance seals it, and the way the song grooved with the titles was old-fashioned solid gold.

My Pick: Suddenly from “Les Miz”

Aside from the heart-stopping opening and Anne Hathaway’s scene, this song was the moment Les Miz earned my unbridled attention and affection. Stage revivalists should take note.

SOUND EDITING

My Prediction: “Skyfall”

The Oscar almost always goes to action-genre movies. My, Skyfall is doing better than I thought it would.

My Pick: “Django Unchained”

The gunfire and squelchy body parts were indeed impressive if over-the-top — expert sound work is what sold it all and made us squeamish. Also loved all the table-settings/dinner sounds. God, I love this movie. It needs some extra recognition. Maybe best picture?

SOUND MIXING

My Prediction & Pick: “Les Misérables”

C’mon, you gotta hand it to ’em, that wasn’t easy!

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)

My Prediction: Tony Kushner for “Lincoln”

Well, duh. And I get the feeling he is STILL revising the screenplay.

My Pick: David Magee for “Life of Pi

… or David O. Russell for “Silver Linings Playbook”

I honestly can’t decide. Perhaps I should read both books first. Anyone out there who has who cares to weigh in? “Life of Pi” dealt in the art of storytelling, and Magee proved the consummate artist. And kudos to Russell. I mean — the man was a wizard on “Silver Linings,” it was his baby and, in the grand scheme of things, the perfect contemporary Hollywood creation, a Cinderella story examining “crazy in love” against the madness of modern times.

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)

My Prediction: “Zero Dark Thirty”

I think we have to acknowledge the renewed sense of patriotism and pride people felt attending this movie. In terms of writing, yes, it was too long, but I felt it was because the researchers were throwing their sources a bone. Plus, in terms of writing, there was a nice, subtle “twist,” whether fiction or fact, to help explain why Osama bin Laden was shot on sight. Made me feel better about things, anyway.

My Pick: “Moonrise Kingdom”

This quirky, “camp” movie about misfits, puppy love and khaki scouts is a timely salute in a year when the Boy Scouts finally decided to slacken its anti-gay stance and allow local troops to set their own policies on inclusion.

AND NOW, THE ENVELOPE PLEASE … MY PICK FOR BEST PICTURE:

I am kinda embarrassed to say. I guess I simply wasn’t up for a historical treatise or compromised journalism this year. I wanted something more holistic. So I’m leaning, at the moment, to choosing between Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook. Or maybe Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Again I’m feeling sorry for Lincoln. Maybe I should see that one again.

I may need one more day to puzzle this out. Let me deal with the shorts first, and I’ll get back to you on that best picture thing.