This has been an atrocious year for the Oscars in P.R. terms, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' big annual showcase for American movies continues to decline in relevance, ratings and cultural centrality. Ratings for the Chris Rock-hosted telecast on Sunday evening will almost certainly be up this year, to be fair, but not for reasons that ought to make the film industry's behind-the-scenes leadership happy.
I'm not sure the 2016 Oscars will ever move past the #OscarsSoWhite controversy; if they are remembered at all, that will probably be why. But if we suspend that conversation for a minute, we'll notice that this was not a terrible year at all in terms of the art, craft and business of making movies. We're no longer quite sure what defines a "movie," since it isn't always true that if you want to see one the day it opens you need to leave the house. Will the ambiguous qualities of "movie-ness" or its more pretentious cognate "cinema" still mean anything in 15 or 20 years, beyond whatever Michael Bay's cloned offspring are pooping out and the seventh or eighth reboot of the Spider-Man franchise?
I can't tell you and I won't try. But if the academy membership hadn't collectively shot itself in the loafer-clad foot (the one it didn't shoot last year), we might have noticed an unusually varied and intriguing group of nominated films and actors, and an Oscar campaign where for once we didn't have to pretend that we didn't know the outcome. I suppose we think we know now: Remember, the Oscars are decided by an electorate roughly the size of a New England village, with a marked propensity to gab and gossip and spill its secrets.
This election is a lot more predictable than that bigger and scarier one that has hogged all the headlines, but as Donald Trump keeps reminding us on that stage, conventional wisdom has its flaws. I feel reasonably sure Trump won't win anything on Sunday night. But if he bum-rushes the stage and grabs the statuette from Brie Larson's hands and announces that he's appointed himself best actress of all time and henceforward will play all of Jennifer Lawrence's roles -- well, his poll numbers will go up, am I right?
OK, so here’s today’s quiz: Which of the eight movies nominated for Hollywood’s biggest prize hasn’t been touted as the front-runner at some point by supposedly knowledgeable infotainment specialists? I guess the answer would be “Bridge of Spies,” which I had totally forgotten was among the finalists until I looked it up. (And I’m not sure either “Room” or “Mad Max: Fury Road” ever quite had that moment.) And the thing is, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ plodding espionage procedural would be a near-perfect Oscar movie, if we could shove it into the Hot Tub Time Machine and go back to 1986.
Speaking of bad-wardrobe eras and plodding procedurals, I think Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” an earnest and well-crafted drama about multiple overlapping and important topics, was viewed as a shoo-in for too long and ultimately got stale. Also, it isn’t really any fun. I admired it and in some sense “liked” it, but I definitely don’t want to watch it again. So I think we’re stuck with the cinematically glorious Road Runner cartoon known as “The Revenant.” When right-wingers alleged that it was about Leo DiCaprio being raped by a bear, that should have told us something. As far as I can tell, no director has ever made two best-picture winners in consecutive years. Does Alejandro G. Iñárritu really deserve to be the first, when John Ford and Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks never did it? Well, such things are subjective and he’s very talented, mumble mumble. But actually no.
Will win: “The Revenant”
Should win: The fact that Todd Haynes’ romantic masterpiece “Carol” was not nominated in this category is the single biggest academy fail, above and beyond the gruesomeness of the all-white acting categories. Among the actual nominees, I’ve gotten sweeter on “The Big Short,” which translates challenging and provocative material into tremendous entertainment. And “The Martian” would have made a perfectly plausible vehicle for the academy to show some serious love to a big-budget film that people actually liked.
By the time we get to this award, you’ll know how the evening is going and the winner will be obvious. No, forget that — we know already. There is, of course, a high correlation between best director and best picture, except in anomalous years like 2014, when “Argo” director Ben Affleck was not nominated. (One could argue that that happened because Ben already has a big head and isn’t actually that good at directing movies, but let’s move on.)
This is an odd group of nominees. When I look at the list I have an overwhelming feeling of “meh” (if such a feeling can be overwhelming), but when I try to pick it apart I can’t. All five of these guys did a fine job directing these films, and the reasons why none of the films are immortal cinema lie elsewhere. I was initially upset that Lenny Abrahamson was nominated for “Room” and George Miller was nominated for “Mad Max,” largely because neither of those movies is half as good as “Carol” and because Todd Haynes may be the most important American director below Social Security age. But Miller and Abrahamson have paid their dues on the margins of mainstream film, in remarkably different ways, as has Haynes. So it’s just mean-spirited to begrudge them a level of recognition they may never get again.
Will win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, “The Revenant” (last back-to-back winner: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950-51, for “A Letter to Three Wives” and “All About Eve”)
Should win: Tom McCarthy for “Spotlight,” which is a perfectly measured and modulated piece from beginning to end
This is where I stop sounding snarky and sardonic and start sounding like a movie lover: This is one hell of a group of women. It features Charlotte Rampling’s first-ever Oscar nomination, at age 70, and Saoirse Ronan’s second, at age 21. (I know Rampling kinda put her foot in her mouth on the racial controversy; if you’d ever met her, you wouldn’t be surprised.) I would tell you that those two had given the most moving and memorable female performances of the year, but then we get to Cate Blanchett as the absorbing, magnetic and slightly predatory title character of “Carol” and Brie Larson with her kitchen-scissors haircut in “Room,” who is evidently about to have her big moment. (According to Oscar psychological arithmetic, Blanchett won this award too recently — and for a vastly inferior performance.)
As for Jennifer Lawrence in “Joy,” I mean, I like her and she was good in the role and all. But the movie was perfunctory and so was the nomination. Lawrence is already in the running to catch Meryl Streep for number of nominations, except that to this point she can only play plucky outsiders who don’t give up and exceed expectations. She may require some version of the Kristen Stewart remedial course in low-budget self-reinvention, and soon.
Will win: Brie Larson, “Room”
Should win: Cate Blanchett, “Carol”
Bryan Cranston deserves a special award this year. Not so much for his performance as the eponymous blacklisted screenwriter in “Trumbo,” although that was fine. But for being the major-category nominee who knows he has no chance, doesn’t even pretend to “campaign” and seems content to stand in the corner with a glass of sparkling water, not being noticed. Mind you, I would say that Michael Fassbender and Matt Damon and obligatory Oscar nominee Eddie Redmayne (the male Jennifer Lawrence) have been nearly as wallflowery.
I’m not going to get into all the Hollywood mind games about the past, present and future careers of Leonardo DiCaprio, and whether he will turn out to be the mid-career male star for whom the industry yearns. As for his near-wordless performance as the not-raped-by-bear protagonist of “The Revenant,” I’m of two minds. It doesn’t offer much emotional range and it’s more a physical endurance test than anything else. But Hollywood loves it when their big stars get dirty and beaten up to play some real-ish character, and I did feel a soulful intensity and unifying sense of purpose that hasn’t always been present in DiCaprio’s roles. So sure, why not?
Will win: Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”
Should win: Same
A largely unpredictable category, which is fun. In the New York Film Critics Circle awards process, there was contentious back-and-forth about whether Rooney Mara’s role as the Audrey Hepburn-esque shopgirl love interest of “Carol” belonged in this category. I mean, maybe not, but when Harvey Weinstein speaks, the academy listens. I thought Kate Winslet was in many ways the central character of “Steve Jobs,” but that movie was a bomb. I loved the ensemble work in “Spotlight,” but can barely remember anything Rachel McAdams said or did. A lot of people have beaten up “The Danish Girl” during the Oscar race for being exactly what it is: A pretty, non-confrontational English-accent movie about love and tolerance. To the extent it moved me and actually felt like a story addressing the now rather than remembering the then, the picture’s heart lay in Alicia Vikander’s performance as a relatively liberated and enlightened young woman forced to travel into completely unknown territory. We’re good here.
Will win: Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”
Should win: Rooney Mara, “Carol”
You know, I can be cold-hearted about this stuff, and since I’m a white guy myself I get that academy members did not consciously set out to exclude actors of color and were mildly surprised when it wound up looking that way (again). But if they give this award to Sylvester Stallone for “Creed” when Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler didn’t get nominated for anything — and when Idris Elba, who should probably win this category for his terrifying turn in “Beasts of No Nation,” didn’t get nominated either — then I’m going to scream. Or laugh an evil-clown laugh about how this entire institution is dooming itself to irrelevance in the near future. But you’ve heard all that already, and taken one at a time the actors in this category are all terrific in different ways.
It’s hard to notice how good Mark Ruffalo is in “Spotlight” amid that understated ensemble, whereas you can’t not notice Christian Bale in “The Big Short,” perhaps because his spectrum-disorder shtick is a little over the top. Tom Hardy is completely amazing as the murderous, racist villain of “The Revenant,” who ultimately compels you to see that he has a legitimate worldview and acts accordingly. If this turns into an all-“Revenant” party and Hardy wins, I’ve got no problem with that. But Mark Rylance is pretty much the best theater actor in the English-speaking world, and if there’s one thing Steven Spielberg knows how to do (and there are more than one), it’s how to spotlight supporting actors. Rylance’s pragmatic-idealistic Soviet spy (“Would that help?”) isn’t just the heart of “Bridge of Spies” but something bigger, like all the unfulfilled political longing of the 20th century.
Will win: Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”
Should win: Same
Did you know that they gave separate awards for color and black-and-white cinematography from 1939 through 1966? Admittedly I am kind of weak on mid-century Hollywood history, but I’ve seen a lot of movies from that era and I had no idea. Well, all the nominated films are in color this year! (In fact, the last black-and-white nominee, “Nebraska,” was actually shot in color and then digitally rendered into black-and-white, complete with fake film grain.) And I have no argument with the greatness of Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, who is about to become the first person to win this award three years running. OK, I guess I do, a little bit. Lubezki is a showboat and sometimes seems to take on long tracking shots simply to prove he can, or to test the limits of his technological playthings. And let’s not relaunch the debate about whether his work in “Gravity” really counts as cinematography at all.
Am I working up to my broken-record routine on “Carol”? You know it. While Lubezki pushes the frontiers of digital video with the often thrilling images of “The Revenant,” and Roger Deakins (I honestly do not enjoy saying this) descends further toward hack-dom with all the visual and psychological clichés of “Sicario,” Edward Lachman shot “Carol” on Super 16 motion-picture film, creating a vision of 1950s New York full of hope and tragedy, a vision that made you feel like you were there and you were sad about it. Let’s show some love also to Robert Richardson for shooting “The Hateful Eight” in 70mm to please his increasingly deranged employer, Quentin Tarantino. But Richardson’s wide-screen images were almost the only good thing about that movie.
Will win: Emmanuel Lubezki, “The Revenant”
Should win: Edward Lachman, “Carol”
It’s difficult for non-insiders, and even for movie critics, to judge the editing of a film except in retrospect and by implication. It’s a process far more invisible than directing, and we can’t possibly know what was cut out or how the film might be better if another five minutes had gotten snipped. That said, as an Oscar-night indicator, this category is a pretty reliable guide to how things are going. I will add that the editing in four of the five nominees was clearly at a high level of difficulty, although I suspect that “The Revenant” is a case where the damn thing is still too long and too self-indulgent, as is true of everything Iñárritu has ever made or ever will. As for nominee No. 5, it is deeply hilarious that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” got in here somehow.
Will win: Stephen Mirrione, “The Revenant”
Should win: Hank Corwin, “The Big Short”
Are there other categories you care about? “Amy” will win best documentary, although “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” a Netflix doc that barely played theaters, is marvelous and should not be missed. The foreign-language category makes even less sense than usual, exemplified by the fact that the “French” entry (“Mustang”) was made in Turkey, by a Turkish director and in Turkish. Atmospheric story of female empowerment and all, but decidedly not French. We have the first-ever Jordanian nominee (“Theeb,” described as a “Bedouin western”), which is quite good. And the obvious winner will be the riveting Hungarian Holocaust drama “Son of Saul,” which blows past all the clichés and gestures of that genre and is one of the year’s two or three best movies. I have zero memory of ever previously hearing the Weeknd song “Earned It” from “50 Shades of Grey,” but it would be an awesome Hollywood troll-moment if it won instead of that Lady Gaga sexual-assault song we’re all required to like but isn’t actually good.