Last year around this time, I published my Oscar-world version of Bill Simmons’ “Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the _____” columns (by the way, we are suffering without these during this, his prolonged absence). The point of the exercise is to summarize the reasons why you chose to bet one way – and then summarize the reasons why you chose to bet the other way. In Hollywood in December and January, the big question for every studio is if the film(s) that they’re campaigning will rise to the level of Best Picture nominee(s). Will they make it, or won’t they? If I can paraphrase Iñárritu from the other night (and of course, he was paraphrasing someone else), Pain is Temporary, A Best Picture Nomination is Forever.
With that, here’s this year’s installment. I’m not going to get into the obscure math that you can read about on other sites, but there could be anywhere from 5 to 10 Best Picture nominees. Every individual voter chooses five nominees, but then, the films that score a certain minimum of points rise to the Best Picture circle. In four years of using this system, there have been between 8 and 9 BP nominees each year. You won’t see Spotlight and The Big Short, because, by the funky math of precursor love, they are locked for Best Picture nominations (which doesn’t mean they’ll win anything). Seems to be a good year for ’00s-set true-story dramas where an ensemble creatively confronts decades of corruption. It’s a shakier year for…
Why You Always Knew Beasts of No Nation Would Make It: Classic Oscar math. Look how many Oscar boxes are getting ticked here: prestige novel, military, preteen boy in rude awakening, contemporary relevance, high RT and metacritic scores. SAG ensemble nod was gold. Pushback against #oscarssowhite. Emmy voters, many of whom overlap with the Oscars, have shown willingness to embrace Netflix.
Why You Always Knew Beasts of No Nation Wouldn’t Make It: Netflix’s unusual strategy – a quick Oscar-qualifying run just before streaming it everywhere – is unpopular throughout the genuine movie industry, and voters aren’t going to capitulate this easily. The film hasn’t shown up where it has needed to be – and it’s won just about zero singular prizes. Perhaps some residual racism and/or anti-Africa bias (uh, since Out of Africa, which was released 30 years ago, made by Sydney Pollack, and starred Meryl Streep and Robert Redford).
Why You Always Knew Bridge of Spies Would Make It: The steak-eaters need their film, and this one is both set in and (unlike Carol) reminiscent of that era when the old guard came up in Hollywood, when hard men made hard choices in films like Advise and Consent and Inherit the Wind. Not since Empire of the Sun (1987) has a Spielberg war film failed to be BP-nominated even when it seemed borderline (I’m looking at you, Munich and War Horse). Spielberg and Hanks. Need we say more?
Why You Always Knew Bridge of Spies Wouldn’t Make It: Spielberg and Hanks? Catch Me If You Can couldn’t catch a cold nor a BP nod, and BP odds of The Terminal were just that. BoS has won nearly nothing anywhere (except Best Supporting Actor prizes here and there); worse, it’s caught almost none of the precursors that narrow the best-of-year field to five. A whiff of been-there-done-that, even by your grandfather’s standards (and let’s face it, after the year George Miller and Ridley Scott had, those standards are higher than before).
Why You Always Knew Brooklyn Would Make It: New relevance in the year of the immigrant/refugee. Manages to be traditional and just twisty enough, quite like the better films from the 1950s. This exquisitely rendered period piece turned out to be perfect for the steak-eaters – once enough of them were convinced to see it. Nick Hornby knocks it out of the park again, and they owe him this after failing to BP-nom Wild last year.
Why You Always Knew Brooklyn Wouldn’t Make It: A bildungsroman about a young woman – guess what? – just isn’t “important” enough. Hasn’t been lighting up the precursors – didn’t even crack the all-important Producers Guild’s Top 10. Not big box office. Saoirse Ronan is back on the A-list, and that’s enough.
Why You Always Knew Carol Would Make It: Three years after Obama and Hillary “evolved” toward same-sex marriage, the Academy finally “evolved” toward Todd Haynes. An impeccable adaptation of a terrific Patricia Highsmith novel. Probably the most impressive pair of performances of the year. Because The Danish Girl is almost certainly out (RT score too low), fits the only “classy” slot previously filled by Merchant-Ivory, Jane Austen adaptations, The King’s Speech, and the sort of posh tosh voters nosh.
Why You Always Knew Carol Wouldn’t Make It: Even though you personally march in every Gay Pride parade of the summer, you happen to know that the Academy is a bunch of homophobes cough Brokeback cough who also happen to like their women barefoot, pregnant, and not driving away from New York for their independent adventure together. Why else did this film possibly miss the Art Directors Guild nominations? Shallow support, as we expect from the steak-eaters when the story is about women.
Why You Always Knew Inside Out Would Make It: Because it actually is, hands down, the best Hollywood-financed film of 2015, and that still counts for something. Because parents and women want to rally around something. Because, by steak-eater logic, the younger the female lead, the better. (I mean, geez, those leads in Carol, Brooklyn, and Room are just so independent and negative.) Because ever since the BP field expanded, partly as a response to the non-nomination of WALL-E, the voters have nominated every great Pixar film…
Why You Always Knew Inside Out Wouldn’t Make It: …but that was because the great post-expansion Pixar films, Up and Toy Story 3, were in the years that voters checkmarked ten nominees on their ballot, and now they checkmark five (leading to 8 or 9 finalists, based on weird math). When most Academy voters are restricted to choosing five, they always find five they prefer over cartoons (Beauty and the Beast in 1991 excepted). And…maybe the #oscarssomale problem.
Why You Always Knew Mad Max: Fury Road Would Make It: Uh, it’s won and been nominated for more precursors than any other film. For extremely selfish reasons, Academy members are embracing the story of a septuagenarian director returning to his franchise after three decades and delivering a film that feels friskier than, and improves over, the previous installments. Like Trump (and this is the only way Mad Max is like Trump), the film’s refusal to obey the rules and zany unlikelihood of winning are part of the reason people vote for it.
Why You Always Knew Mad Max: Fury Road Wouldn’t Make It: Genre. And when has the Academy ever BP-nominated a sequel after failing to nominate the original? Well, Toy Story 3, but that was under rules applied for two years and two years only, whereby the membership could put up to ten films on their ballots (since then, they vote for five). More important, when has the Academy nominated anything with the way-over-the-top, kinetic style of Fury Road? This just isn’t their cup of hose water.
Why You Always Knew The Martian Would Make It: Dominated the fall to become the year’s only Top 10 film that will never be part of a franchise, and did it literately, tastefully, audience-respectingly. Ridley Scott may be the most owed living director, while Matt Damon is probably the most owed actor of his generation (yes, he has a writing Oscar, but they’ve ignored awards-worthy work from Syriana to The Departed to The Good Shepherd to True Grit to The Informant!). Unlike Damon’s Interstellar, simply asks for you to believe in American knowhow to love it: mission accomplished.
Why You Always Knew The Martian Wouldn’t Make It: Hasn’t shown up in the right precursors, including a SAG ensemble nod that should have been a gimme. Hasn’t won Best Film of the Year anywhere except at the Globes, and that because of category fraud which may deserve punishment. Academy didn’t BP-nominate Cast Away, another Robinson Crusoe-esque story starring a well-liked white male 44-year-old that made even more money than The Martian (even without adjusting for inflation; if you adjust it made close to double). Because each member was voting for five films, the plurality that voted for Mad Max couldn’t convince themselves to also vote for The Martian and thus vote 40% sci-fi in BP. (This theory can be expanded to explain the omission of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and even Ex Machina.)
Why You Always Knew The Revenant Would Make It: This year’s Tree of Life. Sumptuously composed, painterly shots. Bear attack might be the most memorable single scene of the year, or at least the season. Voters love Iñárritu and Lubeski, as anyone knows who was awake 11 months ago. Needs the nom to assure Leo’s win, which is at Susan Lucci levels of overdue-ness.
Why You Always Knew The Revenant Wouldn’t Make It: Story at once paper-thin and lugubrious as a dead horse’s stomach. Too much of Leo’s horizontal grunting along with too much of his teeth, as though to show his fellow Davy Crocketts that his choppers are still in perfect shape. 80% RT score indicative of soft support. Oscars may need a little course correction after over-loving Iñárritu in 2015.
Why You Always Knew Room Would Make It: Too powerful a story to ignore. Brie Larson has been working the rounds harder than Rick Santorum worked small Bible Belt towns, as evidenced by Sunday’s Golden Globe win when she told the Hollywood Foreign Press how nice it was to meet all of them (presumably, all 90). Larson also looked into the camera and said that if she forgot to thank you, she’ll write you a thank-you note. What some call desperation, others call sweeping Oscar voters off their feet.
Why You Always Knew Room Wouldn’t Make It: Too desperate a campaign by Larson. Also, A24 isn’t spending enough, and Room isn’t appearing on enough of the lists it needs. Reflexive Academy masculinist bias means that a female-centered story isn’t considered as “important” as stories of men performing within their job description (The Martian, Bridge of Spies).
Why You Always Knew Sicario Would Make It: Unlike most of the frontrunners, it’s an urgently contemporary tale that was clearly made by an artist. The cinematography and sound design set a new standard, elevating this film past any story of its ilk since Traffic 15 years ago. A chance to be relatively feminist without actually turning off the steak-eaters (who presumably don’t cotton to “soft” stories like Brooklyn or Carol).
Why You Always Knew Sicario Wouldn’t Make It: Guild love in scattered places, yes, but just not enough. Like Nightcrawler last year, didn’t make enough of a box-office dent. Passive ending was justified (she’s us), but still unsatisfactory; if Emily Blunt is the heroine, how can she be absent from the denouement? Not enough people saw it; campaign got started too late.
Why You Always Knew Star Wars: The Force Awakens Would Make It: Money, money, money. For the sake of both their reputation and pocketbooks, the Oscars can’t afford to ignore the #1 film ever (domestically); certainly they BP-nommed the last few films to hold that title (E.T., Titanic, Avatar). Also, it’s one thing for George Miller to revive the Mad Max franchise with a near-absence of studio notes, quite another for J.J. Abrams to keep all the many corporate balls (read: demands) in the air and produce an entertaining story nonetheless. Everyone knows that such plate-spinning is the new 4-minute mile of moviedom and doing it this well deserves recognition.
Why You Always Knew Star Wars: The Force Awakens Wouldn’t Make It: The Force has not been with the precursors – this film isn’t the droids they’re looking for. It’s not just a sequel, it’s a seventh entry at that. (Creed might have the same issue.) Continued from The Martian above: how many sci-fi films can a voter really be expected to place on their five-film ballot? Three of five? More than one of five has no precedent (the only year of two sci-fi BPs was 2009, when each voter chose ten BP nominees). Sorry, Rey and Finn, check in with us again at Episode IX.
Why You Always Knew Straight Outta Compton Would Make It: Oscar voters are suckers for well-received music biopics, and this is the highest-earning such film in this century. Oscars want to make up for #oscarssowhite, and this is the easiest way (though that doesn’t explain why one token “black” film in BP, without many other nods, is an improvement over Selma). Wins for “Lose Yourself” and “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” indicated that voters like hip-hop more than wags had predicted. Universal was caught flat-footed by the non-response to Steve Jobs, and had to put its bajillions of unprecedented profits into some other campaign; Compton benefited from the pivot.
Why You Always Knew Straight Outta Compton Wouldn’t Make It: Not an “Oscar”-type musical biopic, meaning not about musicians that had hits during the Eisenhower era. (In fairness, Love and Mercy might have the same problem.) Bedeviled by controversy about N.W.A.’s treatment of women. A sense of flabbiness to the second half of the ten-year story. Or how about we just say it: gangsta rap and the Academy? Really? “Lose Yourself” and “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” were many things, but they weren’t, well, “Fuck Tha Police.”
Personally, I’ve got:
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max Fury Road
Straight Outta Compton
…and I’ll see you here Monday for the nomination post-mortem.