Thursday, February 23, 2012

Predicting the 84th Academy Awards

If you follow film pundits closely enough, it's actually quite easy to predict the Oscars. Rather than relying on past voting trends, complicated delegate math, or some other magic juice, the likely winners of this springtime election are identified through getting a proper sense for where the wind in Hollywood is blowing. This year, everyone is talking about The Artist, and consequently that's what will likely take home the gold in the Best Picture category on Sunday.

On the other hand, it's extremely hard to get a perfect score in your Oscar pool. While most categories feature consensus favorites, there are always a handful where there is a true horse race, and there the best you can do is guess—or, perhaps, apply a little magic juice.

According to the diverse and knowledgeable Gurus o' Gold, there are three categories this year that are truly tossups. (That leaves 21 that you can be relatively sure of for that Oscar pool.) Rather than just taking a random stab at them, though, let's try to see what clues Oscar history might hold as to the winners.

Best Editing
This is a two-horse race between this year's two most-nominated films: French silent flick The Artist and Martin Scorsese's Hugo. The Gurus currently tilt toward The Artist (eight votes to five, with one lone Moneyball dissenter), as do oddsmakers. It's something of a turnaround from a week ago, when Hugo was considered the slight favorite. What changed, and can we expect it to stay that way?

For answers, we need look no further than last weekend, when the American Cinema Editors snubbed Hugo in favor of The Descendants in their drama category yet stuck with The Artist for best editing in a musical or comedy. The winners of the ACE's "Eddies" (ha ha... get it?) have an uncanny knack for winning Best Editing from the Academy as well: 10 of the last 10 years, in fact, and 18 out of 20. True, the majority of those times, it was the Eddie winner for dramatic film that took Oscar gold. But with Kevin Tent's work on The Descendants probably too subtle to be noticed by rank-and-file Academy voters and currently not taken seriously as a contender, The Artist seems primed to join Chicago as a comedic winner of the category.

The Artist also seems to have an edge because of its heavy frontrunner status for Best Picture and Best Director, two categories that correlate closely with Best Editing. An analysis of the last 20 ceremonies reveals that the winner of Best Editing was 11 for 20 in the Best Picture field and also 11 for 20 in Best Director. Moreover, many of those nine that missed a Best Picture win (e.g., The Aviator, Traffic, Saving Private Ryan) are considered to have done so narrowly, so that statistic could be soft. Overall, 17 of the last 20 Editing winners were Best Picture nominees; coincidentally, 17 of 20 (but a different 17 of 20) were also Best Director nominees. The only exceptions come when the Academy is confronted by an action movie (such as The Bourne Ultimatum or The Matrix) that they absolutely adore (those two movies won every Oscar they were nominated for). But there is no such movie in the field this year, so count on Best Editing being one of the first dominos to fall if The Artist achieves even a mini-sweep on Sunday (the odds of which are very good).

For the record, the same historical analysis strangely showed that Best Editing also has an 11-for-20 matching-winner rate and a 17-for-20 matching-nominee rate with Best Sound Mixing (formerly Best Sound). This seems spurious to me, but it may be worth noting that The Artist, as a silent film, is not nominated in that category this year. Even juicier, Hugo is one of the frontrunners for Best Sound Mixing this year. However, as the connection between the two is not clear, I wouldn't put too much stock in this coincidence.

Could something other than The Artist or Hugo win this category? The Academy has occasionally opted for complex movies with many simultaneous storylines (which must be edited together, of course) such as The Social Network and Crash. On this slate of nominees, both Moneyball and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo feature flashbacks of this ilk, but I simply don't think that's enough to overcome their lack of fit otherwise. Here's my guess for how the voting will break down:

1. The Artist
2. Hugo
3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
4. Moneyball
5. The Descendants

Best Costume Design
This may be the most wide-open category, with four of the five nominees getting votes from the Gurus. Likewise, Las Vegas sees it as a race between Hugo and The Artist, with the former perhaps a very slight favorite, while Anonymous and Jane Eyre lurk in the background.

In the past, this category has rewarded almost nothing but period pieces. From 2006 through 2009 the winners were as follows: Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Duchess, and The Young Victoria. How's that for consistency? Unfortunately for us, though, neither Hugo nor The Artist is an historical drama about royalty; indeed, frustratingly, they are both more recent period pieces about the days of early cinema, both set within a year of 1930. However, the Gurus' dark horses, Anonymous and Jane Eyre, are set in Elizabethan and Victorian times, respectively; the queen herself is a character (along with several earls) in Anonymous.

Dovetailing nicely with its preference for period work, the Academy's philosophy for costume design has also historically been "more is more"—that is, the showiest work wins. This held true last year, when Alice in Wonderland won in a photo finish with The King's Speech; it was also evident in the wins for Memoirs of a Geisha and Moulin Rouge! Between Hugo and The Artist, this would seem to favor the Scorsese flick; The Artist's black and white mutes the costumes somewhat, whereas Hugo features some very whimsical getups when depicting some of the earliest fantasy films. Meanwhile, though, Anonymous and Jane Eyre sport the obvious frilliness that the Academy loves.

Clearly, then, the nominees divide into two camps: juggernaut and artsy. Based on the category's history, the artsy would seem to have the edge—but which one? A precursor award may again hold a clue. The Costume Design Guild has only a so-so record of choosing the same winners as the Academy (six of the last 13 Oscar winners also won one of the guild's three awards), but the CDG has at least nominated the eventual Oscar winner every year since 2001. This bodes poorly for Anonymous, which somehow missed the cut for the guild this year. Jane Eyre's odds with bookies are also significantly better, making it the favorite in my view.

Meanwhile, to break the tie between the juggernauts, let's look at other Oscar categories that are traditionally closely aligned with Best Costume Design. Only one category shared its winner with Best Costume Design more often than five times out of the past 20 (a poor 25% correlation): fellow eye-candy fodder Best Art Direction. Eleven of the past 20 winners in that category were also the best dressed. This year, the clear favorite for Best Art Direction is Hugo. Not only that, but the winner of Best Costume Design was at least nominated for Best Art Direction 17 times in the last 20 years (note to self: play the numbers 11, 17, and 20 at Powerball). Neither Jane Eyre nor Anonymous scored nods for their art directors this year, though. If history is to be trusted, Costume Design will ultimately fall to one of the juggernauts, and the more likely choice is Hugo.

However, I believe there is too much precedent standing in the way of a win for longtime Scorsese costume designer Sandy Powell. Begin with the fact that Best Costume Design is a notoriously Best Picture–unfriendly category: only five of the last 20 best films have won in Costume Design (yet another point against The Artist), and only eight Costume Design winners were even Best Picture nominees. Of course, I'm not saying that voters go out of their way to punish their favorite films here–just that they don't feel limited to them. In this category more than others, voters feel the freedom to go with otherwise unaccomplished movies whose costumes really stand out. Moreover, while it's rare for the award to go to a non-nominee in Art Direction, it's not unprecedented, especially in recent years. In fact, Marie Antoinette won in 2006 when Costume Design was its only nomination—a feat Anonymous and Jane Eyre look to duplicate this weekend. My final rankings for an extremely difficult category:

1. Jane Eyre
2. Anonymous (but at 33/1 odds, it might be worth putting $10 on!)
3. Hugo
4. The Artist
5. W.E.

Best Sound Editing
Sound is another place where the showiest—or, in this case, loudest—contender usually wins. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, blockbusters and other action fare do well in this category. This year, the field is led by our old friend Hugo (eight Guru votes and consistently the best odds), but Steven Spielberg's War Horse is a strong contender as well (five votes).

Immediately, it's clear that War Horse fits perfectly into the fraternity of past winners. Each of the past 14 winners has been either a modern war movie (The Hurt Locker, Letters from Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor, U-571, Saving Private Ryan), a historical/medieval war movie (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), a disaster movie (King Kong, Titanic), or just the boring ol' action film with more hand-to-hand combat and gunfire (Inception, The Dark Knight, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Incredibles, The Matrix). In this sense, Hugo, without a single scene of violence, might actually be the least likely winner!

This has been borne out on the award circuit so far as well. While Hugo did score for its only nomination (Best Music in a Feature Film) at the Motion Picture Sound Editors' Golden Reel Awards, War Horse took home that organization's highest honor—also the one most closely associated with the Oscar. In sum, if we weren't looking at the odds or the pundits, it would appear that War Horse had a mortal lock on Best Sound Editing.

Another key kernel of wisdom for this category is that its winner often tracks with the winner of its twin award, Best Sound Mixing—but not as often as it has the reputation for. In 10 of the last 20 years (but four of the past six), the same film has taken home both trophies. (The record for Sound Mixing nominees in this category, which Hugo and War Horse both are, is again 17 for 20.) When the awards split, it is frequently because Sound Editing is more "niche" than Sound Mixing, which tends toward the mainstream (read: major Best Picture competitor). The Academy also consistently honors musicals with Best Sound Mixing for their skillful interweaving of normal audio with musical numbers.

If the pattern holds, Best Sound Editing will go to Hugo, the generally accepted favorite for Best Sound Mixing. But the pattern has a 50/50 chance of not holding, and the two categories could yet split. If this happens (as at least two Gurus are predicting), it would make sense that Best Sound Mixing would go to the popular Hugo and Best Sound Editing to the film that has been somewhat shunted to the side: War Horse. What's more, Hugo isn't even a sure thing in Best Sound Mixing, which has the same love for eardrum-splitting battles as Best Sound Editing does and could conceivably go to War Horse as well. In my opinion, it would be a mistake to base our Sound Editing prediction on a shaky assumption about Sound Mixing; in a more stable year, this datum might be more useful to us. If War Horse does win Best Sound Mixing, though, you can count on it taking Best Sound Editing, too.

In the bottom tier, Drive has the longest shot; the lack of nominations (this is its only one) for a film that probably deserved more tells you all you need to know about how much the Academy liked it. The two remaining nominees, Dragon Tattoo and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, both fit the action-film mold of the award. But Academy voters can be notorious snobs, voting only for films that don't stink (possibly out of a desire to keep "unworthy" films from being able to brag "Oscar winner!" on their Blu-ray boxes), so don't expect Transformers to be much of a factor. Dragon Tattoo did have some very impressive sound work, but it's simply not in the same league as the two frontrunners in this category. The final standings for Best Sound Editing:

1. War Horse
2. Hugo
3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
4. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
5. Drive

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