I’m joining the Oscar boycott this year. It’s partly out of sympathy with #OscarsSoWhite, but it’s mostly because I don’t think any of the major categories are going to be won by movies I care about. So I’d like to thank the Academy members who, by voting in another all-white slate of actors this year, have allowed me to disguise my apathy as something noble. Let’s get to my yearly analysis of the awards’ mid-major categories. As always, any wrong predictions will result in a refund of the newsstand price of our paper.
Cinematography: I have a hard time seeing how Emanuel Lubezki avoids winning his third Oscar in a row, this time for The Revenant, unless enough voters decide he has enough trophies. (Before you shrug that off, you should know they’ve voted on that basis before.) That would open the door for the deserving winner, Ed Lachman, whose work on Carol is so expressive that the story of two women falling in love in the 1950s would come across even if the acting, writing, and direction were much worse. The only reason I can think for excluding Mark Lee Ping-bin’s sumptuously beautiful work on The Assassin is that not enough voters saw the Taiwanese period martial-arts film. The accomplished field of nominees crowded out Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak), Dariusz Wolski (The Martian), and Yves Bélanger (Brooklyn).
Production design: Here’s the one Oscar that Mad Max: Fury Road is sure to win. The imagination that Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson brought to that futuristic chase movie’s vehicles and weapons was a main source of its greatness. Sadly, the other nominees here aren’t nearly up to that standard and should have given way to Thomas E. Sanders and Brandt Gordon’s stylish Victorian Gothic look from Crimson Peak, Pater Sparrow and Renátó Cseh’s hermetic Euro aristocratic trappings in The Duke of Burgundy, Dante Ferretti and his team’s fairy-tale world from Cinderella, or even the purposely in-between-decades look that Michael Perry and Joey Ostrander imparted to It Follows. Gerald Sullivan deserved some consideration just for creating the fake films-within-the-film for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
Costume design: Sandy Powell seems a pretty safe bit to take this category for her work on Carol, and it would be a well-deserved win not only for the period styles but also for the way it tracks its heroine’s progress from unformed girl to full-fledged woman. Powell’s nominated again here for Cinderella, but the only other nominee with a shot at taking this is Jenny Beavan for Mad Max: Fury Road. Kate Hawley’s 19th-century gowns for Crimson Peak would have been a good nominee here — certainly better than The Danish Girl — as would Janet Patterson’s colorful Victorian designs for Far From the Madding Crowd. Andrea Flesch was credited for “dress and lingerie” instead of as the costume designer for The Duke of Burgundy, but her lesbian fetish costumes helped convey the story of that film’s S&M love affair. I would have been particularly gratified to see Ami Sow’s costumes for Timbuktu get in as a left-field pick, since her flamboyant African designs helped make that anti-jihad satire into the visual feast that it was.
Foreign-language film: The Academy voters do love a Holocaust story, and it helps that Son of Saul is a genuinely inventive one, using its limited perspective (the camera never strays more than a few feet from its main character) to bring the carnage home in a new way. The Hungarian movie looks nailed on to win, though I’m rooting for France’s entry, Mustang, and its easily overlooked feminine charms to pull off the upset. Perhaps the Swedish absurdist comedy A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence was too dry and the Austrian psychological horror flick Goodnight Mommy was too disturbing, but I struggle to fathom why Taiwan’s The Assassin or Brazil’s The Second Mother went begging. Germany dropped the ball by entering Labyrinth of Lies into the race instead of stronger films like Stations of the Cross or Phoenix. Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights trilogy received rapturous reviews from those who saw all six hours of it, but Portugal submitted only the middle part of that trio (Volume 2 — The Desolate One), so an epic work that was probably screwed anyway because of its extreme length came to the Academy in handicapped form.
Animated feature: Pixar’s best-reviewed movie in years is Inside Out, and a victory for any other movie in this category would be a shock. I do think it’s the best animated movie of the year, but fellow nominee Boy and the World runs a close second. The Brazilian film is about a boy’s attempts to find the father who abandoned him. The dialogue is all nonsense (it’s Portuguese played back backwards), so the movie tells the story through Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat’s music and swirling, welcoming, wildly colored visuals that recall the modernist stylings of S. Neil Fujita and Beatriz Milhazes. Alê Abreu’s tale of innocence colliding with an unfeeling world is deeply moving stuff. I’m glad that Minions didn’t get in, with nominations being doled out to more deserving films Anomalisa, Shaun the Sheep Movie, and When Marnie Was Here.
Documentary feature: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence seems likely to win this one. Undoubtedly his second documentary about the genocide in Indonesia and its unpunished perpetrators performs a valuable service, but I was disappointed in its conventional style given the dazzling creativity that went into his last film, The Act of Killing, which was nominated for an Oscar and made my list of 2013’s best movies. I think that Amy is a better film, though I wish Going Clear had been nominated, just because it would have been interesting to see the resulting controversy play out amid Hollywood’s Scientology contingent.
Original score: This field of nominees depresses me. Not that they’re bad. On the contrary, Carter Burwell’s lush, nervous score for Carol fit the movie perfectly, and Ennio Morricone’s operatic flourishes on The Hateful Eight seem set to give this legendary film composer his first-ever Oscar victory. Still, the Academy ignored some inspired scores like Cat’s Eyes’ faux Baroque ensembles for The Duke of Burgundy, Disasterpeace’s retro 1980s music for It Follows, and The Octopus Project’s unsettlingly objective percussion for Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. The cheery and ominous Latin music from Boy and the World could have been recognized, too. Keegan DeWitt’s score for Queen of Earth seemed to be flying apart as the movie progressed, much like the main character’s mind. Heather McIntosh also provided a score for Z for Zachariah that was better than the film deserved. In a more traditional vein, Michael Giacchino’s music for Inside Out was one element that made that film so heartrending. The lack of imagination in this category’s nominees is stunning.
Original song: But if you want to talk about lack of imagination, how about this category? There’s no “Let It Go”-style clear front-runner this year, though Lady Gaga’s star power and social activism may give a leg up to “Till It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground. Shame the song isn’t better. The lyrics are so nonspecific that you can’t tell that they’re about rape unless someone tells you (or you see the excellent video). The rest of the field is markedly undistinguished, from The Weeknd’s “Earned It” from Fifty Shades of Grey to Sam Smith’s vapid (if superbly sung) James Bond theme “Writing’s on the Wall.” There were plenty of good songs that went begging. Maybe the Academy was embarrassed to make an Oscar nominee out of Mortdecai, but Miles Kane’s “Johanna” was 1960s-fabulous in a way that the movie wasn’t. The Tim Wheeler and Ilan Eshkeri-penned “Feels Like Summer” from Shaun the Sheep Movie was a burst of joy — who knew that British surf rock was a thing? Maybe the best song was “Cold One” from Ricki and the Flash, but even though this clever rocker by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice made for the best moment in the film, it looks like the Academy wasn’t impressed. Too bad. Meryl Streep would have been a nice addition to the Oscar show as a musical performer.