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.

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.

Oscar-nominated foreign films: The chosen one

maxresdefaultSomething disconcerting about a Sunday matinee of Son of Saul in a packed house, mostly elderly Chosen People who then as one tribe shuffle out, jostled flesh to flesh, only to meet the “cleanup crew” in uniform holding implements like batons, blocking the way and herding them to the exits.

Powerful movie expertly done. And one that forced me to consider not just the drama onscreen but that around me. How it starts off deliberately and interminably out of focus and people start making plans to go talk with the projectionist in the booth. The guy next to me with his Ziploc bag of “snacks” (liverwurst? pickles?). The endless crinkling of wrappers, pungent peanut M&Ms. Food should be banned at Holocaust movies. Imagine eating nachos or Goobers at Schindler’s List, appalling. Then there was the woman behind complaining about the third-row seats her middle-aged son chose online (“Oh, dear, these are our seats? I thought we’d be in the back. I can’t sit here. You sure these are the right seats? I’ll get such a crick in my neck. Did you realize we’d be so close? [Finally surrendering] At least I won’t need my glasses.”) It’s like going to temple. Those intimate, rhythmic, interactive sounds: coughing, throat-clearing, tsk-tsks, moans, scolding grunts — even snores from the man on my other side, then his one-word review as the credits rolled: “Disappointing.”

Sir, you’re sure to be disappointed when Son of Saul sends the other foreign film nominees packing on Oscar night.

mustang-cannes-film-festival-2This is my prediction despite having seen only two foreign film contenders, Saul and Mustang, both of them today. In between, I squeezed in my final documentary feature, Amy. You might say it was an all-Jewish day, what with Mustang having vague Fiddler on the Roof overtones (five sisters in rural Turkey bucking the tradition of arranged marriage) — the French offering is my runaway favorite feminist movie of this Oscar season.

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First time sampling Bethesda Row’s plush cinemas with the most comfortable chairs anywhere, but no leeway to move through the aisle. Next time I’ll choose the front row, where no one tends to sit.

But I’ll hold off on committing to a pick for best foreign film until I’ve seen more nominees. Oscars aficionados understand how predictions and picks can be worlds apart. I enjoyed Mustang more than Son of Saul — who can enjoy a Holocaust movie? But Mustang had editing issues near the end, as if the filmmakers suddenly realized they had to trim its running time.

The operative phrase here is running outta time, with Oscar night just a week away, my marathoning score: 27/37+12/15 — or 75%.

A personal best? Only if I can pick up more of what I lack, alack! (Any local leads welcome.)

  • Trumbo On Demand
  • The Hateful Eight — hate to miss this one; screws up my Essential Eight categories. I might hafta do something crazy and drive to Norfolk, Va., to see it.
  • Anomalisa  Oh where oh where? This is the only animated feature that’s a thorn in Inside Out‘s side, so I must see it.
  • Boy and the World
  • Shaun the Sheep Movie On Demand
  • When Marnie Was There
  • Cinderella  — Only available for purchase. Stupid, greedy producers.
  • Theeb On Demand
  • Embrace of the Serpent
  • A War At E Street Cinema; plan to see the first showing Thursday
  • Documentary shorts — three of them, anyway; two are on Netflix!

‘The Revenant’ should be revered

Show of hands: Who knew what “revenant” meant before the movie? ——–

As suspected.

Folks, don’t judge a movie by its title. Tough to draw an audience to the cinema by way of the thesaurus, 20th Century Fox has learned. Upon formulating it was a “revenge flick,” the public was less likely to see it when it came out on Christmas Day — didn’t strike anyone as particularly festive.

And yet the movie’s theme of isolation resonated more powerfully for me (an Oscar marathoner can relate, sitting alone in a theater during 10:10 p.m. previews). It so happens isolation is a common theme among this year’s batch of nominees. The Martian. Room. Carol. 45 Years. The Danish Girl. Joy. Bridge of Spies. Theeb. They all track survivalists’ courage, sitting “inside the head” of protagonists as they struggle alone against the tide or against their demons or against the challenge of seeing 37 feature films and 15 shorts in a month’s time.

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Every year, my Oscar cheat sheet looks slightly different. This year, I started marathoning at my parents’ house when my dad’s printer was low on ink. Charming. One of these days, I shall invent the Oscar Marathoners’ app — the better to track showtimes and venues and fit them into a busy schedule.

It’s been nearly a week since I wrapped up the Best Picture nominees ahead of the 88th Academy Awards telecast, now nine days away. My Oscar marathoning score: 23/37+0/15 or 62% of the full-feature nominees. Still need to squeeze in those shorts. Who can blame me? I’ve been traveling all but seven days of 2016, a big handicap. (Recap: My denominator is 37 and not 42 because I’m not counting the five Original Song nominees as I refuse to waste a cent on such refuse/trash as Fifty Shades of Grey. Should factor in some points for seeing The Hunting Ground twice and catching Spectre On Demand later this week, if I manage it.) 

Today I’m just three pictures away from crossing off what people consider the “top 6” categories: four acting honors plus best director and best picture. I tend to include the two screenplay categories as my Essential Eight. The hateful titles standing in the way: The Hateful Eight (a bear to locate; it’s playing at one remote theater with only one midday showing), Creed (plan to see the late show tonight at a hole-in-the-wall, second-run college theater) and Trumbo, which finally, FINALLY popped up On Demand.

Feast your eyes on the categories I’ve decimated:

  1. Adapted Screenplay
  2. Original Screenplay
  3. Visual Effects
  4. Sound Mixing
  5. Sound Editing — what’s the difference again?!
  6. Production Design
  7. Makeup and Hairstyling
  8. Film Editing
  9. Directing
  10. Actress in a Leading Role
  11. Best Picture

It’s never too soon to predict the big awards, so here’s my big picture on Best Picture — and you know where I’m going with this if you’re paying attention. 

*(In case you’re wondering why there are only eight nominees and not 10, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changed the rule, ergo: “The pictures receiving the highest number of votes shall become the nominations for final voting for the Best Picture award. There may not be more than 10 nor fewer than five nominations; however, no picture shall be nominated that receives less than 5% of the total votes cast.”)

The Big Short (5 total nominations; released Dec. 11, 2015). I’m all for trying to electrify a dry subject like underwater mortgages. But when I tried to watch this movie with my parents, ages 91 and 84, who have their faculties intact except for some vision/hearing issues, it played like a horror movie on their giant home-theater screen. Too jumbled, gimmicky and LOUD. They couldn’t stand it for even five minutes, so we watched Steve Jobs instead (yay, my third time!!!). Not saying The Big Short wasn’t stylistic or entertaining or educational. It aroused strong emotion: blistering anger. But this movie was trying too hard to get me to like it and, like taking medicine or an advanced econ class, I resisted. It seems targeted to Millennials with squirrel-like attention spans. For what Best Picture tends to represent — a slice of Americana that’s not so bleak — it doesn’t meet my criteria. Ranks 6th on my list.

Bridge of Spies (6 total nominations; released Oct. 4, 2015). Who knew we were referring to a literal bridge?!? Despite fairy-tale-like production design and drippy nostalgia, most of the imagery was not only too literal — it was simplistic. Terrific story, but in Steven Spielberg’s hands it was dumbed-down, Disney-fied, you know, for kids. God, I hated the part on the bus or train where the woman is reading the paper and glowering at Tom Hanks over the negative headlines and then later, same woman, different headlines and she’s all sugar and gaga. GAG ME. “Maudlin” was the word my husband used, and that describes it to a T. Although Mark Rylance was brilliant, Hanks never sold me, no matter how stirring and patriotic the soundtrack got. Give me an actual spy movie with unpredictable twists and turns any day. Ranks 7th on my list.

 Brooklyn (3 total nominations; released Nov. 4, 2015). Oh, heaven. Now THIS is the kind of American story that wins Best Picture. An absorbing immigrant tale (topical!) that some might discount as a “chick flick” but should seduce anyone with a pulse. Gorgeously filmed, consummately acted, lovely screenplay … blew me away. Unfortunately, it carries East-Coast-bias baggage and nobody saw it, so it won’t win. Ranks 4th on my list.

Mad Max: Fury Road (10 total nominations; released May 15, 2015). I’m shocked this was even nominated. I know that hurts the feelings of people I love and respect; I’m sorry. It’s nothing but a CGI car chase purported to be feminist — I felt it was sexist-ugly. The best I could give it might be costume design. People who know me understand that CGI puts me to sleep; I fell asleep twice, unfortunately, and had to see it twice. It did not improve on a second look. A Best Picture, for me, needs to be compelling enough to want to watch again and again. I’m embarrassed USA TODAY reviewers put this one at the top of their list. It would not make my top 20. I think its long legs (its release date a distant memory) can be attributed to the power of the franchise behind it, and the fact movie technology has finally hit critical mass appeal for its audience. Ranks 8th (last) on my list.

The Martian (7 total nominations; released Oct. 2, 2015). This is one of three Best Picture nominees I saw at the theater when they were released (Spotlight and Star Wars: The Force Awakens are the others). I enjoyed it enough to see it twice. Shocking that many average Americans considered it a documentary. Hello?! If a Best Picture is supposed to put life in perspective with universal themes, this works. I still get choked up thinking of the scene where the whole world is watching on screens, pulling for our lone hero in space. However, it’s not a “great” film, and its competition is too great. Ranks 5th on my list.

The Revenant (12 total nominations; released Dec. 25, 2015). I have to admit, for once, the Academy got it right. I literally had to drag myself to see this one — not unlike Hugh Glass dragging himself in the mud and snow back from the brink of death. (Funny how Leo doing that reminded me of his amazing physical comedy in his Wolf of Wall Street now-classic Quaaludes scene.) Despite my reluctance — and I never would have gone to see this if it hadn’t been nominated, thank you, Academy — as soon as the movie started, from the first frame, I was hooked. It was the closest thing to a virtual-reality cinematic experience I’ve known. Never been a fan of 3-D and actually watched it in 2-D, but still, I felt totally immersed, as if I was part of the hunting party. And for anyone who rejoices in nature — holy moly! “Revenant” should stand for “reverence.” While it is indeed a story of revenge, it has themes up the wazoo — family, tolerance, hunter-becoming-hunted, man’s place in grand scheme, native rights — the American Indian stuff alone should make it America’s Best Picture and required study in schools. This is visual literature. Haven’t read the book, but don’t need to. Pure moviemaking magic. Make fun of it all you want, but that bear-mauling scene!! I want to see it over and over. The filming of that scene should be a movie all its own. And the underwater scenes! The stunts, the rapids, the falls. This is Hollywood at its best, people. A pure vision from a brilliant director and collaborative excellence from his whole team, from hair and makeup designers to breathtaking cinematography. I was on the edge of my seat from start to finish. Part of my reaction could be because my expectations were so low that it was an utter joy to discover. I famously posted on Facebook that if The Revenant doesn’t win Best Picture, I’ll eat a raw squirrel — which is why I’m ill advised to host an Oscar party this year. Would be happy for The Revenant to sweep the rest under the rug, and I almost always prefer awards to be spread around. Go, Leo!! Ranks 1st (tops) on my list, obs. 

Room (4 total nominations; released Sept. 4, 2015). Before I saw The Revenant, this was my hands-down favorite. As you’ve heard all the critics say, it’s the Little Movie That Could. Because I had read the book, I especially could appreciate the translation to film — the movie is definitely its own vehicle, even with the author doing the screenplay adaptation — great choices. The acting is flawless, and that whip-smart Jacob Tremblay, who was not nominated for an Oscar, grrrr, nevertheless is the reason I’m torn and could almost assign Best Director to Lenny Abrahamson. The performance he coaxed outta that 9-year-old kid. … But so hard to compete with my new master, Alejandro González Iñárritu. I’m afraid Room will have to settle for a Best Adapted Screenplay and maybe a leading actress Oscar, haven’t quite decided on that yet. And that’s largely because Emily Blunt wasn’t nominated for Sicario. Robbed! Ranks 2nd on my list.

Spotlight (6 total nominations; released Nov. 6, 2015). As a journalist, I’m all for valentines to investigative reporting. I’ve seen this one twice and still cry when the presses roll. But despite a fantastic cast — including one of my favorite Broadway idols, Brian d’Arcy James, and my soulmate, Stanley Tucci — it did not ring all my bells. Yes, a compelling issue, gripping story, important to be seen and advocate for. But I’m rating movies here, not topics. And I feel neither Mark Ruffalo nor Rachel McAdams deserves their nomination. Ranks 3rd on my list, with Brooklyn a close 4th.

More predictions coming soon to a blog post near you.

Adapted screenplay: Make room for ‘Room’

This is new: Adapted screenplay is the first category of nominees checked off in my race to see 37 feature films and 15 shorts before Oscar Night. That hardly ever happens. My score so far: 12/37+0/15, which means I’ve seen 32% of the essential Oscar-nominated films in this year’s first two weeks of marathoning.

But I’ve read only one of the books on the list (Room). So, despite having seen all five nominees, I’m sorely unqualified to judge.

The combination of Jack's knit hat in "Room" and Joy's stolen innocence combines to feel lot like Susie Salmon in "The Lovely Bones."

The combination of Jack’s knit hat in “Room” and Joy’s stolen innocence meshes, for me, into a mirror of Susie Salmon of “The Lovely Bones.”

Let’s begin with Room, then. The book was hauntingly told in the voice of a 5-year-old. It evoked Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, in which horrific events are filtered through a child’s eye. But Bones was a sad screen adaptation, with screenplay by Peter Jackson, lord of the epics. Relief, then, to see that author Emma Donoghue adapted her own book. She deftly sanitized parts, enhanced the dramatic tension where issues were glossed over in print — unsure how much guidance she had, but this was an emotionally wrenching, faithful, fresh adaptation.

Even the blue palette is the same.

Susie Salmon –who happened to be played by Brie Larson’s rival for best actress, Saoirse Ronan!!! I just realized — appears in her handmade knit cap. As if a parent’s love could protect a child from the cold, cruel world. Even the blue palette is the same.

A well-worn crutch in most adapted screenplay nominees (especially those derived from books) is the overuse of narration. Room managed to use this technique sparingly and effectively. The shift from Jack’s separation anxiety in the book to Ma’s on-screen trauma balanced the work, as a whole. Adore this movie, and I want it to succeed in as many categories as possible.

But then there’s The Big Short, a flashy sermon on the housing bubble, which no doubt in book form is about as far as you can get from an “action” movie. Yet, this is one of the buzziest and most kinetic films on the list. Impressively translated, but not a slam-dunk. It relied too much on narration, slide-show effects and the breakdown of the fourth wall. Too cheeky for me.

The Martian? This novel was on most folks’ holiday reading lists, yet maybe the film hewed too closely to the book. Not much adaptation to be had, aside from condensing — and most of the fascinating science got sacrificed, I hear, which made for a confusing movie upon first viewing. What amazes me is many American viewers thought this film was a documentary, that the events actually happened (while possibly the same subsample of folks subscribes to the conspiracy theory that the moon landing was a hoax). When belief is at odds with suspending disbelief, it diminishes  the sci-fi effect. Like the air on Mars, this screenplay proved thin.

Brooklyn and Carol. Both very powerful woman-empowerment flicks. I think Brooklyn outdid Carol as both film and screenplay.

Carol had one foot stuck in a novelesque mental landscape; Exhibit A was its overdone window/mirror imagery. Moving, but the movie tried too hard. I can’t imagine reading through that screenplay, ugh. While it made good use of the “flashback” technique, it was way too self-conscious to earn my vote.

Brooklyn was simply lovely. If the secret to a good adaptation is that the movie makes you want to read the book, it did its job. Brooklyn will be the next one I download.

In short, I fear The Big Short might win the Oscar, but I’m gonna short (bet against) The Big Short. Instead, I’m pulling for Room.

Oscars 2014: A film odyssey

It’s a wrap: my month of trying to cram in all 42 Oscar-nominated feature films and 15 shorts before the awards ceremony.

For the third straight year, I humbly concede defeat. My tally stands at a paltry 31 features and 15 shorts.

I ended quite appropriately at around 4 p.m. on Oscars day with “The Book Thief” (up for Music-soundtrack).

And isn’t that what movies are? Little book thieves? The fear, anyway, is that watching too many movies might turn our heads to mush and make us forget about reading. Although more often than not, the movies are based on books that, typically, if you’ve read them, are FAR superior to the movies.

Har-har-har. I laugh when people compare these two vastly different art forms. “It didn’t do justice to the book.” IT CAN NEVER BE THE BOOK. It’s the movie!!

1384359757000-BOOK-THIEF-MOV-JY-1658-59704130Still, ending with this Nazi-era tear-jerker, in which we watch Hitler youths’ faces redden reflected against a bonfire of crisping, curling books — “intellectual dirt,” they called it — was more than fitting. Far from a perfect adaptation of what I’m told is a magnificent read, it certainly didn’t suck.

photos-seats1Besides, it brought me back to the Arlington Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse, a venue I had boycotted for more than 15 years because it lacked clearly designated parking and was prime hunting grounds for enterprising, likely unlicensed tow truck companies. The week we bought our 1998 VCR-loaded, Nintendo-ready flashy green-gold Dodge Caravan LX, we went to see a movie there and it was towed lickety-split and held hostage for $150. We blamed the theater at the time because we figured someone must be getting a kickback.

78c44eed-e13e-4139-bafc-6339dd853239Well, our car and the theater survived, and today I was reminded what a cool place it is. Movies are just $6.50 (cash only, be forewarned), and it’s not just beer and pizza on the menu —  I had a pretty decent spinach-walnut salad with raspberry vinaigrette, and their drink menu is entertaining in itself, featuring specialties like the Pulp Fiction (grape vodka, creme de cassis, Sprite and Blue Curacao), Pirates of the Caribbean (Malibu rum, pineapple and orange juices, Grenadine and cherry) and the Big Lebowski “The Dude Abides” (vodka, Kahlua and cream).

As has been typical on this month of crisscrossing the metro area, I made a couple of quick friends, other movie mavens who see the season as a sort of March Movie Madness (technically, February Madness). It’s not about the endgame, it’s about the odyssey.

My record stands at seeing 74% of all the movies nominated in every category, because you can’t predict winners with any authority if you haven’t see all the contenders. And the distributors, the weather, the theaters, plus life in general put plenty of obstacles in my way, which added to the drama. (Ask my husband about the morning I was rushing to see a 10:20 a.m. matinee before work, spilled coffee on my GPS, then discovered GPSes don’t like that and won’t work, so I went the wrong way and missed the showtime, including the 15 minutes of previews and had to abort the mission.)

That was “Frozen,” the animated feature I am sure will win tonight. I can’t fully say, because I didn’t see “Ernest & Celestine”— scratch that, couldn’t — because it isn’t yet available in the States. A dirty, dirty trick played by the Academy, handicapping all of us Oscar marathoners.

There were a few other titles like that, such as the foreign film nominee “The Missing Picture” (Cambodia), which doesn’t come out until March 19.

What other pictures am I missing? I’ll give you the Big Picture. Some of these 11 flicks I spent the month chasing, but somehow never managed to be in the right place at the right time. Others I simply didn’t care enough about to rearrange my world for. The latter category includes this first one (horrors!):

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Unfortunately, by not seeing this behemoth, it rules out THREE categories for me to safely judge: Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects. I wanna say “All Is Lost” for Sound Editing, “Lone Survivor” for Sound Mixing and “Gravity” for Visual Effects, but I cannot, not in good conscience.

Star Trek: Into Darkness & Iron Man 3. These two titles I wouldn’t have minded at all seeing, but because they weren’t easily available and I wasn’t gonna see “The Hobbit,” anyway, I didn’t bother. That leaves me only having seen two of the Visual Effects contenders: “Gravity” and “The Lone Ranger.” But no matter, “Gravity” will win.

Before Midnight. This omission makes me saddest of all, because the writing categories are among my favorites. It is available on Blu-ray, but I refuse, refuse, refuse to hoard any more movies. Technology will make them all refuse (clever!). Something I learned this year: Any sequel up for a screenplay award is automatically entered into the Adapted category, even though it’s as original as sliced bread. The Academy considers it based on the movie(s) that came before it.

The Great Gatsby. No great loss, I’m told. Except by not seeing it, I can’t vouch for the two categories it is nominated for: Costume Design and Production Design.

The Invisible Woman. I’m not a fan of period pieces, and because “Gatsby” was handicapping me, I decided not to spring for the rare chances I had to see this. I hate the Costume Design category, anyway. I have no clue. But I’m rooting for “American Hustle.”

Ernest & Celestine. Already covered, but I kept calling it “Ernestine & Celeste” in my mind. That’s what you get, zero name recognition!

The Wind Rises. This came out only last week. Shame on you, Oscar! Not only was I handicapped, it was handicapped.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. I wanted to see this, nominated for the U2 song. But WHERE was it? Couldn’t they have brought it back when Mandela died? Somebody missed their opportunity.

The Great Beauty. Up for foreign film, it looked like the Italian version of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” But I’m pulling for “Omar,” that haunting Palestinian film of betrayal and freedom-fighting youth set in the West Bank. If it wins, people can stop with the Jewish-Hollywood jokes, OK? Hollywood will have proved itself totally inclusive. (UPDATE: It didn’t win. On with the jokes.)

The Missing Picture. The missing commentary.

There you have it. My missing pictures. Everything else mentioned tonight I saw. I still have to pick/write about four more categories, but I’m starting to think I’ll blow my deadline. You’ll trust me if it’s not on record, right?

So enjoy the show tonight … and even though I’m not Catholic, I think I’m giving up films for Lent.

Oscar picks: Best Actress

Activate claws. Competition for the Oscar in the Actress in a Leading Role category this year is as fierce as it gets. Frankly, I live for the day when a trans actor gets nominated, forcing the Academy to rethink its gender labels. But onward.

The nominees:

amy-adams-american-hustle-movie-photos_1Amy Adams (“American Hustle”). Of the five actresses nominated, none is a newbie nominee, but only one has never won an Oscar: That’s Amy Adams. This is also the first time her nomination has been for a leading role, vs. supporting. Does this give her an edge in playing the sympathy card? Heaping on more sympathy: Two of her previous nominations came for work she did with Philip Seymour Hoffman, in The Master and Doubt (for which Meryl Streep also was nominated). In light of Hoffman’s untimely death, Adams may indeed be touched by an angel. She also is the only nominated actress featured this year in more than one Best Picture nominee (“Her” being her second).

The Academy likes “fresh faces,” and at 39 Adams is the youngest we’ve got by five years — odds may be in her favor. But let’s take a look at her work (not just her cleavage). Playing a hustler looks doubly attractive on her: She’s the beauty and true brains of the outfit. Her tiptoeing dance between vulnerability and vaVOOM, American social climber vs. British financier, con and conniver is phantasmic. Can she hustle one more win?

Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”). She’s the safe bet, but the Woody Allen-Dylan Farrow scandal could truly (unfairly) taint her chances. Final ballots are due the Tuesday before the awards show on Sunday, March 2.

This is Australian Blanchett’s sixth nomination. Her lone Oscar (supporting actress) came her second time out for her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator.” (Hepburn still holds the record for most acting Oscars: four.) Blanchett is the only one among the five nominees to have had two nominations in the same year: 2007, for her leading role as Queen Elizabeth I in the sequel to the film that gave her her first nomination in 1998 … and as Jude in I’m Not There — playing a man, a Bob Dylan doppelganger. She certainly wins the chameleon prize.

I-m-Not-There-1

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.”

Even though critics say she’s channeling Blanche DuBois, Blanchett seems to be the only one of the five nominees who invented an iconic character in the role she’s nominated for — the Rx-addicted, fragile, fractured Jasmine. (Streep was iconic but only in re-creating Violet.) People in the future likely will say “you know, like Blue Jasmine.”

video-undefined-1BA51708000005DC-288_636x358Sandra Bullock (“Gravity”). Bullock has a perfect batting average, having won her first Oscar the first time she was nominated (2009 for The Blind Side). I especially love her non-flightiness, her groundedness; interestingly, she’s the only brunette in the bunch. She carried this whole movie, elevating some of the most banal lines like an aerialist. Of the five nominees, she had the most physically demanding task — she’s the Matthew McConaughey of the bunch, whittling herself down to dancer form to be suspended and manipulated like a puppet and to lie like Pinocchio. Unfortunately, the movie itself eclipses her achievements, and she likely won’t win.

Judi Dench (“Philomena”). This is the dame’s seventh nomination; she also won her second time out. Interestingly, she won for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I (“Shakespeare in Love”), a character she shares with Blanchett — it’s a royal showdown!

shakespearejd3blanchett-as-older-liz

I loved the light that shone through Dench’s Philomena — she delivered grace, piety, forgiveness — all of the values inherent in Christianity playing opposite some pretty unsaintly nuns. Her Philomena was both savvy and a simpleton. I loved how knowing and tolerant of others she was. But I got distracted examining Dench’s upper-lip wrinkles and eye creases and couldn’t always stay with her, preferring to think of her younger self (a rapturous Sophie Kennedy Clark). With all due respect, Dench is the easiest nominee for me to eliminate.

Meryl Streep (“August: Osage County”). Is this the year Streep will tie Hepburn’s record? I think she deserves that and more, plus she’s not getting any younger. This is her 18th nomination, of which she has won three Oscars (Kramer Vs. Kramer, supporting; Sophie’s Choice, leading; The Iron Lady, leading). Like Blanchett and Dench, she first won on her second nomination. Obviously, she killed in this role. Her name is synonymous with star power /acting goddess. I would not be sad at all if she proved victorious.

However, this is a race between Cate Blanchett and Amy Adams. And I think it’s Amy Adams’ year. No justification for that but a gut feeling.

My prediction & pick: Amy Adams

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?

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.

Oscar movie date night: Double-dip features

the-oscars_320Finally wrapped up my screening of all nine Best Picture nominees for this year’s Oscars − aptly, “Amour” was a Valentine’s Day morning delight.

Something I noticed about this field’s crop is that they can be paired off thematically. So if you, like me, had a bunch left to see before the Feb. 24 deadline, here is my proposed clumping.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

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Life of Pi

Animal love.

The movies go marching two by two, so bring on the animals — and the water and questionable boats. Both of these coming-of-age films are visual masterpieces, one from Bollywood, the other the bayou. “Beasts” follows a young girl’s survivalist spirit amid powerful forces of nature, namely floods and flawed humans, although there is no judgment here, only acceptance and shimmering love. The work is primal, pungent poetry, and if you don’t cry puddles — well, I won’t judge. In “Pi,” a lone teen survivor of a shipwreck discovers his manhood via primal fear on the high seas — but the focus is on spirituality and faith, storytelling and myth. In each of these Big Picture pictures, a colorful tale is wildly manipulated, heavily accented narration is riveting, pain gets painted over by emotion-drenched cinematography, and our intrepid protagonists go by funky nicknames: Hushpuppy and Pi. I’d suggest seeing “Beasts” first, as it catches you off guard and leaves you breathless, but is still a mere entree to the more lush (if you can imagine) “Pi,” with its cohesive and slightly more uplifting script — plus, its animals aren’t CGI-generated. The opening titles alone — touring an exotic zoo in 3-D David Attenborough mode — are worth the ticket, as is a goofy meerkat scene and sublime sea shots. For two movies featuring no Hollywood stars, these leave you starry-eyed.

Django Unchained

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Lincoln

For those not into bondage, an anti-slavery pair.

Attention, even Civil War re-enactors: You need to see “Django” first, to summon proper outrage over slavery, before “Lincoln” tackles the seed of a solution. As campy as Quentin Tarantino’s gory frolic is — no question he was influenced by Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” — there is a moment in which he lays out stark horrors like a plantation owner’s best china. It’s not during any of those exploding-body-parts parts, but at Candieland when Laura Cayouette as Leo DiCaprio’s “beloved sister” Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly, delicate in her corseted finery and doting on petticoated youngsters, contrasts with a naked and tortured Kerry Washington, a serial runaway slave who is lifted from a living grave to be primped as a drop-in guest’s sex toy. It’s akin to seeing fresh-faced German children playing in the commandant’s yard on the other side of the wall at Auschwitz. Powerful stuff, even if some of Tarantino’s touches border on sophomoric, anachronistic and iMovie-ish. Contrast the near lawlessness of his Wild West and ridiculously high body count to the marbled “law”ful pillars of Washington and a lawyerly drama, all climaxing with one famous murder, only alluded to. The shadowy, internal, parched tones of “Lincoln” prove a departure for typically vivid filmmaker Steven Spielberg, and while he turns the mechanics of lobbying into a spy thriller, it gets a little mopey and droopy at the end. My two cents: “Lincoln” is either overhyped or overdone this year. Granted, the acting chops in both movies prove jaw-dropping. But freed slave Django is every bit as heroic as the Great Emancipator. And given neither Jamie Foxx nor DiCaprio was nominated, Christoph Waltz and Daniel Day-Lewis should win their races uncontested.

Argo

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Zero Dark Thirty

Undercover heroes.

Speaking of history, two suspense-packed docudramas for which we all know the endings go head to head, newsreel to reel. They each retrace special-ops daring-do’s under much-maligned Democratic administrations. But government is not what’s glorified — rather, two headstrong, non-political CIA agents, played biting-lip coolly by Ben Affleck and Jessica Chastain, get their due. Grainy footage helps legitimize “Argo,” and its excellent editing plus authentic costume and production design make it the better film. It also helps resurrect Jimmy Carter’s legacy, a bit. “Zero Dark Thirty,” while closer to the audience’s heart and memory (how can a dusty Iranian hostage crisis compete with 9/11 villains?) seemed timed as part of a campaign to cement Barack Obama’s legacy. It was billed as part journalism, but someone should have found a better editor. Some of the dramatization, of course, can neither be confirmed nor denied. Just odd how everything covert has become overt this year. I’d watch chronologically: 1970s then 20-aughts to tens.

Silver Linings Playbook

&

Amour

Crazy in love.

For better or worse, in sickness or in health. “Amour,” an Austrian film in French with English subtitles set in the romantic cauldron of Paris, has got the ” ’til death do us part” part down. Old people and pigeons, right? Wrong. This opus, about a piano teacher in frail health whose patient husband rises to the challenge of diapering and spoon-feeding her, testifies to love’s greatest test. The irony is all we see of Paris is through veiled windows; their suspended-animation love never leaves the flat. Arresting in that there is no score, not during titles or credits — the only music are piano strains integral to the flow. The silence at times is deafening. Compare that to the boisterous “Silver Linings Playbook,” a twisted Cinderella story that evokes both “Garden State” and “Pulp Fiction” (for me) and follows love’s glorious gestation, in all of its noisy, messy madness. Again, I’d watch chronologically: new love, then vintage love.

Les Misérables

A love-hate relationship.

One might pair this Frenchie-themed flick with “Amour” or even one of the historical treatises … but “Les Miz” is its own monster, more of a revolutionary third wheel, and needs to be seen by itself so you can either retch or rave, unrestricted. I personally found the movie version more palatable than the stage version, even rapturous. But, as they say, all’s fair in love and war, and vive la différence, if you find any.

Oscar shorts: Like a box of chocolates

What will be missing on Oscar night is suspense. Not like M. Night Shayamalanaboomchuckawam suspense. I’m referring to the inevitability of a sweep by “The Artist.”

Oh, I liked the movie well enough. But, face it, it’s a) foreign (‘cept John Goodman, yay) and b) gimmicky. It sometimes feels as if Best Picture nominees are chosen based on how well Billy Crystal can spoof them for his opener. Guaranteed there will be B&W, silence, toilet humor, cross-dressing, fitting keys in locks (both “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and “Hugo”), Hawaiian shirts (both “The Descendants” and “Rango”) and possibly a trained Jack Russell terrier.

And how many more “homages” does the movie industry need?

If you’re gonna elect a valentine for Best Picture, go with “Hugo.” It covers even more film history than “The Artist” — from 1902’s “A Trip to the Moon” to today’s cutting-edge 3-D technology. Oops, did I say “elect”?

These studios mount Oscar campaigns to rival politicians’. The Frenchies have been stumping ever since Cannes last May for their trifle of a film. And Oscars night has gotten as anti-climactic as a typical presidential election. Can’t believe I’m pining for a Bush-Gore scenario or this year’s GOP race, with contenders hop-scotching to the finish line.

I’d hoped that when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the nominee pool from five to 10 (or, in this case, nine*SEE NOTE), it would ensure suspense. Instead, the talk-show-awards-show momentum of “The Artist” and “The Help” sealed their deals. I likely wouldn’t have seen either without a nomination; after all the hoopla, I had to drag myself to both. The Academy’s true motive in adding  nominees wasn’t to recognize more art but to sell more tickets.

*(In case you’re wondering why there are only nine and not 10, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changed the rule this year, ergo: “The pictures receiving the highest number of votes shall become the nominations for final voting for the Best Picture award. There may not be more than 10 nor fewer than five nominations; however, no picture shall be nominated that receives less than 5% of the total votes cast.”)

I like seeing movies without advance team or fanfare, shunning reviews — sometimes even trailers — until after-the-fact. That’s why I recommend “the shorts,” the Buddy Roemers of the year. They revive the ol’ sport of it. Practically no one has seen or lobbied for them; they’re like Forrest Gump’s chocolate sampler, you never know what you’re gonna get. Lest you think they’re not important, I’m sure they count big time in your Oscar pool, they constitute three categories! Plus the brains and talent behind the shorts are the filmmakers of tomorrow — often still in film school.

Assuming you have short attention spans, here’s your cheat sheet:

Documentary shorts

I saw these with my pal Patricia Kime in a theater with a full-service bar. And they didn’t show us “God Is the Bigger Elvis,” although we may have had our own sighting. ‘Nuff said.

It’s pretty intense to see a series of doc shorts, each with its own agenda, and mostly grim tales. But, because the story of James Armstrong was sheerly uplifting and expertly crafted, I’ll go with …

PREDICTION & PICK: “The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement” (hands down)

Speaking of and in election year, if the Barber doesn’t inspire you to vote, vote, vote, early and often, nothing could. Hallelujiah! Also-rans:

    • The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. This is a close contender, because who isn’t mesmerized by the images of Japan during and after the March 11 quake-tsunami tragedy? Despite the beautiful buffer of endless poetic images of cherry blossoms, it needed editing. Did Terrence Malick direct this? (I mean, there are a LOT of blossom close-ups.)
    • Saving Face. A Pakistani-American plastic surgeon journeys to his homeland to bring women who are victims of acid attacks back to life. Heart-wrenching, but I kinda resent its corny title.
    • Incident in New Baghdad. One-sided, single-sourced, anti-war soliloquy. Doesn’t stand a chance.

Live-action shorts

PREDICTION & PICK: “Time Freak” (hands down)

    • Time Freak. I’ll bet the farm on this 11-minute treasure about a geek who invents a time machine but, rather than travel to ancient Rome, obsesses over ironing out awkward social situations. You know, how you wish you’d thought of that great comeback sooner? It made me LOL.
    • The Shore. Interestingly, several shorts dealt with time and reconciliation. Northern Ireland’s luscious offering was about a man returning to the Emerald Isle with his grown American daughter to make peace with his best friend and jilted lover.
    • Tuba Atlantic. A Norwegian man learns he has only six days to live and wants to communicate with his brother in America, with whom he hasn’t spoken in 30 years. An blonde apprentice “death angel” ushers him through grief’s stages. If there weren’t so many seagull murders, I might regard it higher.
    • Raju. This German film exposed child trafficking in India. A bit heavy-handed, but a lovely portrait of morality.
    • Pentecost. A team of altar boys are “coached” for the Big Mass of the season. Also from Ireland, it deftly mixes sports and religion. Made me think of last year’s “The Confession,” from the U.K. — which remains one of my favorite shorts ever; no religious rant or satire can compare to its heaping guilt serving.

Animated shorts

These are way tougher. But I’m gonna guess that Academy voters will be swayed by title alone, as most will not have taken the time to watch them, like a track novice picking a horse. Interesting, all the contenders were virtually “silent.” A big theme this year!

PREDICTION: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

PICK: A Morning Stroll

SHOULD-WOULDA-COULDA: The Australian contender, “Nullabor,” about road rage in the Outback, was a virile buddy flick that didn’t make the cut. Crikey!

  • The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. A strange mix of Hurricane Katrina and The Wizard of Oz. I eventually warmed to it; as a lover of books, who wouldn’t? But it needed editing, so it’s not my favorite. The “Pop, Goes the Weasel” soundtrack was odd. In short, it celebrates literature and learning on the backs of those who came before us. And alerts us that books are on life support. It’s more about people dying than books dying, to beg to differ with other critics. But the flying books are awfully cute.
  • Dimanche/Sunday. Most artistic of the bunch, about life in a small town and a boy’s yearning for adventure. As a birder, I LOVED the three crows. From Canada.
  • La Luna. A working-class tale of who is really behind the moon’s phases. This is Pixar, so I’m handicapping it, although the artist is Italian. This is the best one for kids.
  • Wild Life. Not only did I hate the animation style (broad strokes that had that smeary motion), it was a story-telling jumble, with an incredibly annoying soundtrack, variations of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from “The Pirates of Penzance” mixed with the Old West. The Darwin allusions were nice, but its use of birds didn’t earn it enough points to overcome my bitterness. Also Canadian.
  • A Morning Stroll. This must be seen to be believed. It’s the story of a man seeing a chicken walking down a city street, played out over a century. It also traces the history of animation. The Oscars are so about film history this year. If you like zombies, you’ll love this short.

Funny my “shorts” post is my longest on the Oscars.