Thursday, February 13, 2014

Oscar Predictions 2014: Best [BLANK] Film

When people think about the best film of the year, the one that comes to mind is, of course, Best Picture. But when we say Best Picture, we mean best Full Length Feature Film. There are, in fact, six other categories which, essentially, award the best picture in their field-- it's just a more specific field. Of these categories, the only consistently mainstream one is the Best Animated Feature category-- although Best Documentary Feature and Best Foreign Language Film occasionally have some well-known films among the nominees-- like Oscar-winning documentaries March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth, or Bowling for Columbine. But these more mainstream releases don’t always win. For example, famous documentaries such as Spellbound, Super Size Me, and Sicko all went home empty-handed on Oscar night. And that’s because the Oscar voters actually watch all of the films nominated, which most pundits, oddsmakers, and bloggers (including myself) have not done. This disparity can perhaps be best seen in the foreign-language film category. Take the case of Pan’s Labyrinth, which despite being a hit in the United States and receiving multiple other Oscar nominations, lost this award to the German film The Lives of Others. And I have to tell you, as much as I love Pan’s Labyrinth, The Lives of Others is one of the best films I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching—it had appeared on numerous critics’ Top Ten lists that year and very much deserved its triumph. And yes, reaction was negative as people who had not seen any of the nominees other than Pan’s Labyrinth were outraged at its supposed snub. This same ignorance has already been on display this year, with many on the internet being surprised that palme d’or winner Blue is the Warmest Color was not nominated. But…while the film is in a foreign language, it was ineligible to be nominated this year as it was released past the deadline in its home country of France. So its lack of a nomination was far from a snub—it was a certainty!

But I'm getting off track. Because I want to talk about the most overlooked categories-- the ones for short films-- Best Animated Short Film, Best Live Action Short Film, and Best Documentary Short Subject. These awards are a big deal for filmmakers. For those who make these films, there is no higher honor one can receive. But because they’re not big names and often don’t have a wide release, no one really cares about these awards. And I'm not saying that everyone has to watch these films—I know how expensive it is in both time and money to watch movies these days (and if you use…um…less legal methods, these films are often more difficult to locate) but they’re worth at least reading about. What do these documentary short subjects actually address? Even if you can’t see the whole film, you can often get a glimpse of the animation in the animated shorts, and they’re usually incredible. 

I learned about two fantastic short films from previous Oscars—both winners in the Live Action Short category. One is Six Shooter which was made by playwright Martin McDonagh, who has since made the fantastic feature-length films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, and Six Shooter is certainly on par with them. The other live-action short I’d like to recommend is a wonderful movie musical called West Bank Story which is, essentially, West Side Story but taking place between two rival falafel stands on the Gaza strip. The reason why I sought this film out, and in fact purchased it, was actually the speech that the filmmaker, Ari Sandel, gave at the Oscars, which championed the work of the independent filmmaker, the “little guy,” and the importance of the films in the categories below. Here’s a great interview with Sandel about winning the Oscar which ends with the full speech. You realize that, while big celebrities oftentimes give acceptance speeches at multiple awards ceremonies in their life, this is really, truly, the greatest moment in the winners of these particular categories. That’s why they’re often some of my favorite acceptance speeches. Don't go to the bathroom when these awards are announced-- the speeches are going to be the most earnest and wonderful of the night.

And if the encouragement of me and Sandel is not enough to get you to care about these awards, then remember that these are the categories that people just guess on for their ballots. So, these are the ones that can really help put you over the edge if you’re in any competitive Oscar betting pool.

But enough of my soapboxing-- let's actually predict who will win:


The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
The Wind Rises

Will Win: Frozen

This is probably the biggest lock of the night. There's no way Frozen won't win this. I haven't seen the other films listed (Ernest & Celestine could be wonderful but has not been released in the United States yet) so I can't say who should win. But I will say that I wasn't as blown away by Frozen as many others were. It has a lot of flaws. But, still, it's a really enjoyable, beautifully animated film with some great music. It's hard to imagine there won't be big cheers when this one wins.


The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)
The Great Beauty (Italy)
The Hunt (Denmark)
The Missing Picture (Cambodia)
Omar (Palestine)

Will Win: The Hunt The Great Beauty

There are really only two films competing for this award: The Great Beauty from Italy, and The Hunt from Denmark. If any of the other films win, it will be a huge upset. Having seen both of these, I can say that they're two incredibly different films. Most are calling this one for The Great Beauty-- thinking that it will beat out its Scandinavian competitor. And I can see why. The film is one of the strangest (in a good way) that I've seen. It's almost as if Robert Altman were doing his interpretation of Bollywood. Its title is appropriate: it certainly is beautiful (many gorgeous shots of Italy) and is certainly great in its scope-- it's a sprawling film featuring many loosely connected scenes and themes. It's a wonderful and thought-provoking film. The Hunt, on the other hand, is much smaller. The story of a man falsely accused of molesting a child-- and the ensuing witch hunt on the part of his friends and family-- relies on subtlety, and has a wonderful performance from Mads Mikkelsen, who won the Best Actor award at Cannes. The emphasis is more on storytelling, which the film does superbly-- not to mention the fact that it handles a very difficult issue with surprising sensitivity and adeptness.

It's really impossible to compare the two. If The Great Beauty wins, I will understand why, and I won't be upset. And, as I said, it's probably the favorite here, with The Hunt simply a contender. But in this category, the Academy has a tendency to pick the smaller films. Consider the year that the wondrous and whimsical Amelie lost to the more dramatic No Man's Land from Bosnia & Herzegovina. This category has had no shortage of upsets, and I'm predicting one this year. I could be totally wrong, but I think it's going to be The Hunt.

However, if The Great Beauty wins, then it will mean that Italy will be officially tied with France for the most winners in this category.

EDITED: As it is now the morning before the Oscars, things have obviously changed. The Great Beauty has simply become too much of a favorite for it to be reasonable to pick anything else. Upsets are still always possible, but the odds of The Great Beauty winning have only increased since I originally published this, and the chances of The Hunt winning have all but disappeared. Both are great films and both should be seen, but The Great Beauty will be the winner tonight.


The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet from Stardom

Will Win: The Act of Killing
This category always features amazing variety. The feel-good films tend to not have the best success here, as the category likes to award the more hard-hitting documentaries (the fact that March of the Penguins won is actually rather surprising) which would knock out Cutie and the Boxer and 20 Feet from Stardom this year. I think the big winner here is going to be The Act of Killing based solely on its truly unique premise: the film follows former executioners under the command of Pol Pot in 60's Cambodia as they are encouraged to recreate some of their murders in various film styles (such as Western, gangster film, and musical) and filmed the process. Disturbing and fascinating, it's the best bet.

And, to go back to the point that you should see these films, all of these documentaries with the exception of 20 Feet from Stardom are available on Netflix right now! Go watch them! Interestingly, The Square was actually released as an original film on Netflix, meaning that Netflix has garnered its first Oscar nomination.


Get a Horse!
Mr. Hublot
Room on the Broom

Will Win: Get a Horse!

This category is often unpredictable, but if there's a favorite it's Get a Horse! which is otherwise known as the short shown in theaters before Frozen.  The film's use of classic Disney characters, and a combination of old and new animation make it a fun and nostalgic pick. If not Get a Horse!, the other favorite would be Room on the Broom which is based on a children's book of the same name and features an all-star cast of British comedians (it's narrated by Simon Pegg, and also stars Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, Sally Hawkins, Davis Walliams, and Timothy Spall). It's perfectly fine, but the fact that it takes them over twenty minutes to tell what I imagine is, like, a twelve page book is kind of ridiculous. It's a fine movie for kids, but for adults it's incredibly predictable and tedious (and, even for kids, it's hardly groundbreaking). The only reason it got nominated is for the names involved...and that might be enough to make it a spoiler to win. Although it shouldn't-- it doesn't hold a candle to any of the other nominees here.

Should Win: Mr. Hublot

Get a Horse! and Room on the Broom are nice, but neither comes close to actually being the strongest of these films-- especially not Room on the Broom which is perfectly adequate but is really nothing special and goes on way too long. And while Get a Horse! is really good, its animation is really not all that impressive, especially when compared to the other films in this category.

My two favorites are Mr. Hublot and Feral, two very different films. Mr Hublot is the story of a lonely man in a steampunk mechanized world who adopts a dog. It's simplistic, but the story it tells is actually really wonderful, to the point that I got a bit choked up towards the end. And the level of detail that goes into the animation is really extraordinary. My close second is Feral which tells the story of a feral child who is brought into society by a hunter. The animation is unlike anything I've ever seen before, and I was especially impressed by the amount of expression animator Daniel Sousa extracted from these characters considering they don't have any faces.

I wanted to make a Wolf of Wall Street joke, but nothing I couldn't come up with anything clever.

Get a Horse!, for me, comes in a clear third place in this lineup, and is not even close to being on the same playing field as Mr. Hublot or Feral (for me, it does beat out an interesting Japanese film Possessions about a traveler who escapes a temple of horrors through the use of his sewing kit). Really, as long as it's not Room on the Broom I'll be happy. If that wins then...I just give up.

Should Have Been Nominated: A La Francaise, The Missing Scarf, The Blue Umbrella

At the presentation of short films that I went to, after the five nominees played, I was ready to leave...but then another film started playing. It was called A La Francaise and the screen announced that it has received "commendation." Not only did this film play, but two other films played after it-- none of them received nominations, but they had all received a commendation of some sort. I'm not really sure what the technicalities of this are, but I have to say...these three films were some of the best of the showing, and certainly deserved nominations above three of the actual nominees. 

Pixar's The Blue Umbrella was cute and clever, A la Francaise was hilarious, and both were exceptionally well done. But, the third commended film, The Missing Scarf, was by far one of the most brilliant things I've ever seen. Using simple and whimsical paper animation to tell the story of a squirrel looking for a missing scarf, the film starts off rather plainly. But takes a turn towards the existential and the absurd. By the end of the film, I could hardly breathe because I was laughing so hard-- when it is released for purchase on February 25th, I will be the first in line to download it so that I can watch it again: the first time I was too distracted by my disbelief that what was happening on screen could possibly be occurring. It was simply amazing, I cannot think of anything else like it, and cannot possibly hope to explain its genius in text-- you really do have to see it for yourself. It alone is worth the price of admission. As far as I'm now concerned, its lack of nomination is the biggest snub of the year. Oh, and did I mention that it is narrated by George Takei?


Aquel no era yo (That Wasn't Me)
Avant que de tout perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)
Pitaako mun kaikki hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)
The Voorman Problem

Will Win and Should Win: Helium

When I originally published this post, I called this category for The Voorman Problem. The reason was that I had read that most people were predicting a win for it, so it seemed like a sensible thing to do. However, now that I've seen the films, I've changed my mind. Here's why:

I understand why people think The Voorman Problem will win. It's a really interesting film, based on a short story, about a psychiatrist who examines a prison inmate named Voorman who thinks he's a god. You learn very quickly, however, that Voorman might be right (as a proposed test, he makes the nation of Belgium disappear). It's well done, but not really that suspenseful-- you immediately know that this character wields tremendous power, so there's no real mind game played-- the psychiatrist never holds all of the cards. And the ending comes rather abruptly, ending on a bit of a "huh" rather than a bang.

But, despite this, I understand why a lot of people are predicting a win for this one: celebrities. None of the five films nominated are American, with the other entries coming from Spain, France, Denmark, and Finland. The Voorman Problem is from the U.K., and features performances from internationally recognized actors Martin Freeman and Tom Hollander. If you were looking at things statistically to determine which film would win, a la Nate Silver, this film has all of the key elements to put it over the edge.

The two main players in The Voorman Problem
But since seeing the films, I have changed my mind. And I have changed my mind for one simple reason: I simply refuse to believe that, of the people watching these films, enough people would name it their number one pick.

Of the nominees, there's really only one that will definitely not win-- that's the Finnish Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? which is perfectly nice, but is a lightweight comedy that clocks in at less than half of the running time as the second shortest film. It's fine, but not really Oscar material-- to compete it would have had to have been a laugh-out-loud riot, and it really isn't. It's fine, though. I also don't think a win is likely for the Spanish That Wasn't Me, an emotionally powerful but also highly flawed film about two Spanish doctors kidnapped by African child soldiers.

The Voorman Problem places third for me, and just like with Get a Horse!, it is a distant third behind my two favorites of the program. My pick for the win-- because it WILL win if everyone is as moved by it as I was-- is the Danish entry Helium, about a custodian at a hospital who tells stories to a dying boy about the magical world of Helium where he claims the boy will go to when he dies. It's a beautifully shot, beautifully written, and beautifully acted film which had tears streaming down my face. Absolutely incredible.

I could also see voters responding to my second favorite-- the French film Just Before Losing Everything which starts of slowly but soon comes to a frightening head. The film follows the four hours before a woman and her children are attempting to flee their home and start a new life to get away from her abusive husband. Things are going okay, until her unaware husband shows up at the supermarket in which they're hiding out. It is a tense film, and of the nominees, is the one which feels like a full-length feature-- you become incredibly invested in these characters and their well-being. It would be my runaway winner, if Helium just didn't tug on my heartstrings so much.

If you want to do the safe thing, choose The Voorman Problem. I won't be surprised if it wins. But, I'm guessing that a lot of people calling this award for that film have not seen the full lineup (few people have). And watching these films together, I just cannot believe that The Voorman Problem will beat out two clearly superior films. I'm calling an upset in this category.


Facing Fear
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Will Win: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved Me Life

Alas, I've yet to see the films in these categories, but hope to before the Oscars and will update this page accordingly. I've heard of some support for CaveDigger, but The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life seems to be the odds-on favorite here.

Thoughts on my predictions? Thoughts on my rant on the importance of these categories? Has anyone else had a chance to see these short films? Let me know in the comments!

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