Consider this a dispatch from alternate histories of the Academy Awards. One is history as it actually happened. The other is history as it has unfolded in the Kingdom of Ericksonia, where His Wisest and Most Exalted Majesty (me) decrees the Oscars rather than leaving them to the philistines of the Motion Picture Academy. See if you can guess which history is which. In one, classics like Vertigo, Some Like It Hot, and 2001: A Space Odyssey all won Best Picture. In the other, these movies weren’t even nominated, and Kevin Costner has won more Best Director Oscars than Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Akira Kurosawa, Howard Hawks, David Lynch, Spike Lee, and Quentin Tarantino combined. That said, consider as well a recent convergence of these histories: The dirty little unhip secret of those of us who love mocking the Oscars is that they’ve gotten better, honoring movies like Nomadland, Parasite, Moonlight, and Birdman that, a couple of decades ago, wouldn’t have even been in the running. So with grudging obeisance paid to the academy and its voting membership, here are the top categories along with this year’s Real World Predictions and Royal Choices alike:
Supporting Actor & Actress
Acting has gotten so good and these categories have gotten so competitive that the nominations are a free-for-all, and the final awards are almost always up for grabs. Despite bravura turns by Bradley Cooper in Licorice Pizza and Mark Rylance in Don’t Look Up, my choice here is supernal 25-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Power of the Dog, while the real-world pick is an upset by Belfast’s Ciarán Hinds. Dog’s frontier wife Kirsten Dunst is the favorite to edge out Aunjanue Ellis who, in the shadow of Will Smith’s showier performance, anchors King Richard as the matriarch of the family that will produce tennis titans Venus and Serena Williams. In the realm of Ericksonia, however, the award goes to Belfast’s Caitriona Balfe, embodying her story’s central conflict as another matriarch torn between her family and the troubled city she loves that won’t love her back.
Screenplay, Original and Adapted
There may be great movies somewhere sometime that didn’t have great scripts, but is it worth our time trying to think of one? These are the categories the academy most often gets wrong, a lamentable pattern of error it could easily correct by giving me a call. Likely real-world winners are, respectively, Paul Thomas Anderson for Licorice Pizza and Jane Campion for Power of the Dog, if for no other reason than that it gives Hollywood a chance to honor two of our best living filmmakers. But I’ll even rent a tux for the chance to bestow Oscars on Adam McKay for the love-it-or-hate-it Don’t Look Up, about the cosmic hazards of living in denial, and the team of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe for Drive My Car, a meditation on passion and the nature of inspiration, based on a story by Haruki Murakami.
For all the focus on words and the actors who say them, the movies are a visual medium. In almost every great movie is an image we remember: a black monolith, a wandering cowboy framed in a doorway, an assassin’s head rising from the swamp of Vietnam. The odds-on prediction is that the towering science-fiction vistas of Dune will narrowly beat The Power of the Dog’s magical Western landscape where New Zealand stands in for Montana. Either is awardworthy, but the academy shouldn’t overlook The Tragedy of Macbeth’s shimmery, gorgeous black-and-white Scottish moors as rendered by French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who first caught audiences’ attention 20 years ago with Amélie.
Actress & Actor
Of all the prospective winners, Kristen Stewart is the surest bet in your Oscar pool for her Princess Di in Spencer, more an interpretation than a portrayal. Ever since her megasuccessful Twilight run, Stewart has been quietly doing stellar, awardworthy (yet unnominated) work in European pictures like Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper—so no one can reasonably complain when she wins. Nonetheless, this year Ericksonia is throwing its support behind Team Lady Gaga, the gravitational center of Ridley Scott’s florid House of Gucci, where she schemes her way to the top of the fashion world and back down again to the murderous bottom. Barring surges by Denzel Washington in Macbeth or Andrew Garfield in Tick, Tick . . . Boom!, the actor race is between King Richard’s Smith and The Power of the Dog’s Benedict Cumberbatch, whose raging cattle rancher clinging to corrosive notions of masculinity is the zenith of a spectacular and still young career. Smith is the sentimental favorite, but if you’re playing the odds, remember that the academy loves Brits like Cumberbatch. Sentimental favorites Michael Keaton, Glenn Close, and Chadwick Boseman have routinely lost to English winners Eddie Redmayne, Olivia Colman, and Anthony Hopkins.
Picture & Director
These two awards have always had a volatile relationship to each other, reinforcing competing schools of thought: Does it make sense that the year’s Best Picture is necessarily directed by the year’s Best Director, or do separate awards offer the opportunity to honor two good movies instead of one? The answer to both is yes. For the first decade of Oscar history, when movies were considered a producer’s medium, the awards went their separate ways more often than not; then for the next 60 years, they were joined at the hip with only a handful of exceptions. Barring an upset by West Side Story’s Steven Spielberg, Campion is this year’s front-runner, for The Power of the Dog, and if a Best Director Oscar would also be something of a lifetime-achievement award for the New Zealand filmmaker (not to mention the academy trying to make up for lost time with the third director award this century going to a woman), then why the hell not?
And if, as predicted above, The Power of the Dog sweeps the director’s award, the screenplay award, two or three acting awards, the cinematography award and perhaps awards for editing and musical score too, how can such a juggernaut not win Best Picture? Well, because sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and this year, that whole is called Drive My Car, a three-hour epic of ideas and emotions, highways of chance and one-way streets that vanish into nights of the soul. With nothing but respect for Campion, I’ll be riding Car in my mind for years to come, and if in the real world the Japanese Drive My Car has a better shot for Best International Film, the humbled King of Ericksonia will settle for that.
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