Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, Jared Leto, Lupita Nyong’o. You won’t go too far wrong if you pick those people to win the Academy Awards for acting. You’ll also have lots of company — although there’s an outside chance of some other actor crashing the party (lots of people are noticing that Amy Adams is the only nominee in this year’s Best Actress field who hasn’t already won an Oscar), most observers are picking those four thespians to take home statues on Oscar night. With those races seeming like foregone conclusions, now seems like a particularly good time for my yearly analysis of the awards’ less heralded but still important categories to help you win your Oscar pool. I’m running this column a week early this year because next week I’ll be reviewing Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (more on that under the Animated Feature heading below). As always, any wrong predictions will entitle you to a refund of the price you paid to read the article.
Cinematography: It’s hard to compete with a cinematographer who invents entirely new technology and then uses it to achieve dazzling results, which is what Emmanuel Lubezki did in Gravity. Pushing the boundaries of what is possible in cinema will probably get him the statue that was denied him two years ago for his work on The Tree of Life. The field also includes several cinematographers whose work would have been deserving winners in another year: Philippe Le Sourd’s plush, opulent photography on The Grandmaster stands in sharp contrast to Phedon Papamichael’s stark, windblown black-and-white photography on Nebraska. Bruno Delbonnel also did nicely dramatic work on Inside Llewyn Davis, his first collaboration with the Coen brothers. Overlooked for a nomination was Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography on 12 Years a Slave, though some might have felt that his work was too beautiful for the movie’s subject matter. Simon Duggan embraced sensory overload on The Great Gatsby, while Christopher Blauvelt and the late Harris Savides created a more enveloping feel in The Bling Ring, but all made their respective films into gorgeous journeys into rich, decadent settings. They would have been worthy of nods, as would the glitzy, Felliniesque black-and-white look that Jay Hunter gave to Much Ado About Nothing.
Production design: The nomination for Gravity here is unusual, given that the film’s sets are entirely computer-generated. The situation is too new to determine whether that might hurt the movie’s chances for a win. In any event, the likely winner seems to be Catherine Martin and Beverley Dunn for their sizzling and flagrantly beautiful work on The Great Gatsby. They’re deserving winners, too, though I have a soft spot for the far subtler work by K.K. Barrett and Gene Serdena in Her. Having seen so many movies that depict the future as a steel dystopia illuminated by the glow of computer monitors, this film offered up a cozier, more hand-crafted and breezy alternative vision of our technological world.
Costume design: When will the Academy’s costume branch get over its prejudice against movies set in the present day? Not that the nominees here (all period pieces, as usual) don’t represent excellent work: Catherine Martin’s outrageously bold Jazz Age outfits for The Great Gatsby deserve the statue as far as I’m concerned, and William Chang did great with the East-meets-West look of The Grandmaster, not to mention designing those costumes so the actors could do kung fu moves in them. It’s a pity that the conversation about the 1970s wardrobe in American Hustle (the likely winner here) devolved into “Wow, we can almost see Amy Adams’ boobs!” but the greatness in Michael Wilkinson’s outfits was in how they revealed their character’s threadbare facades. Nevertheless, the voters should have considered such contemporary picks as Michael Battat’s costumes in The Bling Ring, a movie that was as much about the clothes as anything else. On a less ostentatious note, Kurt and Bart’s outfits for Stoker were sharply stylish even as they peeled back the depths of its story’s family dysfunction and murder. The voters should realize that movies set in the present day don’t dress themselves.
Foreign language film: All the references to America and American culture will probably give Felix van Groeningen’s Belgian country musical The Broken Circle Breakdown a leg up in the race here, although Paolo Sorrentino’s riotous and reflective Italian film The Great Beauty is a better entry, with some devoted fans. The worst omissions weren’t made by the Academy voters but by the rules that stipulate that each country can nominate only one film for consideration. The powers that be in France passed over the wild and impassioned Blue Is the Warmest Color and the funny, layered In the House in favor of the snoozy Renoir, which ended up failing to garner a nomination. Iran did not make the same mistake, submitting Asghar Farhadi’s acclaimed The Past, and yet that too went untapped by the Academy. The same goes for Chile’s pick (Gloria) and Saudi Arabia’s (Wadjda). A lot of these movies are about women or girls — is sexism rearing its ugly head here?
Animated feature: This race appears to be Frozen’s to lose. I have no complaints about that, although having seen The Wind Rises, I can tell you that the Japanese film is very nearly as good and in some areas better than the Disney movie. I’m glad a film from outside the Hollywood circle got some recognition in this category. The same goes for the Belgian film Ernest & Celestine — I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, but I know filmmakers Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar have done excellent work in the past (A Town Called Panic). I liked Monsters University more than most people seemed to, and I certainly would have preferred it to receive a nomination in this category instead of Despicable Me 2. At any rate, I can muster up more of a case for the Pixar film than I can for the Japanese entry From Up on Poppy Hill or the French film The Painting.
Documentary feature: I’m terribly afraid that Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet from Stardom has the inside track for the Oscar here. Nothing against that movie about career backup singers, but it wasn’t even the best documentary about music this year. The Punk Singer was, though it’s missing from the list of nominees. I’m still holding out hope that Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing can pull out the victory here, with moral conscience wedded to its artistic conceit of having mass murderers re-enact their crimes as scenes from movies. Most observers were stunned that Sarah Polley’s metadocumentary Stories We Tell failed to land a nomination here. I was mildly surprised but also saddened that the voters couldn’t find room for Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s ineffably strange Leviathan, Teller’s jaw-dropping Tim’s Vermeer, or the old-school, social consciousness-raising likes of Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, Roger Ross Williams’ God Loves Uganda, and Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn. Any of those would have made a better nominee than either 20 Feet from Stardom or Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars.
Original score: The front-runner looks to be Steven Price’s score for Gravity, but its support might be softer than it is for the movie in other categories. Others are pointing out that the prolific and versatile Alexandre Desplat (nominated for Philomena) has never won an Oscar despite five nominations in the last six years and that John Williams (nominated for The Book Thief) hasn’t won an Oscar since Schindler’s List 20 years ago. Still, if you’re looking for a dark horse, the candidate is William Butler and Owen Pallett’s score for Her, which embraces everything from electronic fuzz to Satie-like piano ballads. (The Oscars are recognizing Butler and Pallett by their names, even though the film credits them under Arcade Fire, the band they’re members of.) I do wish that Hans Zimmer’s score for 12 Years a Slave had won some recognition; it’s much more subdued than usual for this composer and devastatingly effective, like much else in the movie.
Original song: This one’s pretty easy to call. Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’ “Let It Go” from Frozen looks to run away with this statue. I must confess I’m not nearly as impressed with this as everybody else seems to be. I found other songs from the same movie to be funnier and more memorable than this number’s generic sentiments that appear to have little to do with the movie’s story. (Though I do like the song’s terrific last line: “The cold never bothered me anyway.”) It’s a better candidate than the undistinguished U2 effort “Ordinary Love” from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. I am quietly pulling for Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” from Despicable Me 2, even if I thought his “Just a Cloud Away” from the same movie was better. Better still is Lana Del Rey’s unnominated “Young and Beautiful” from The Great Gatsby, which was not only gorgeous but also fit beautifully with the scene it accompanied in the film. Memo to the Academy: Hating Lana Del Rey is so 2011. Get with the times.