Although I am entering an Oscar pool this year, I don't expect to win it. I tend to be too distracted by what I think should happen to predict what will happen. So, if I were picking the winners, here is who I'd pick.
Best Picture: BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. This is the number one film on my list of top films of the year. "Django Unchained," "Lincoln," and "Amour" all will also appear on my top-ten list, so if any of those win (only "Lincoln" has a shot), I'll be happy enough. If "Argo" or "Life of Pi" wins, I'll be slightly annoyed; I liked both films but don't think they are best picture material. Definitely not "Les Miserables," though I found much to admire in it. And if "Silver Linings Playbook" wins, I'll be pissed. Good performances, but the film feels exploitive to me. All that said, "Beasts" deserves to win because it is visionary and very original. There is nothing like it in this or any year.
Best Actor in a Leading Role: DANIEL DAY-LEWIS. None of the other nominees are in his league this year; his Lincoln is a truly towering achievement. Joaquin Phoenix is very interesting in "The Master," and Bradley Cooper does fine work in a problematic film. I found Hugh Jackman to be pretty grating in "Les Mis," though I think it is mostly because his voice is wrong for the music. Love Denzel, but "Flight" is not worthy of his talents. Daniel Day-Lewis all the way. Who else deserved a nomination? Jack Black for "Bernie" (dead-on funny and wise) and Richard Gere in "Arbitrage."
Best Actress in a Leading Role: QUVENZHANE' WALLIS. The youngest-ever nominee is mind-boggling in "Beasts." I don't know where the director found her and whether she will sustain this level of charisma and talent over time--but she is absolutely inspired in this movie and fully carries it in her own right. That's worthy of recognition. I won't be upset if Emmanuelle Riva wins; the oldest-ever nominee is also truly fine in "Amour." I love Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain, but their performances are in films I found too problematic to reward. That's even more true of Naomi Watts; she's a fine actress but this particular performance doesn't deserve to be on this list at all in my mind. Who else deserved a nomination? Marian Cotillard for "Rust and Bone."
Best Actor in a Supporting Role: CHRISTOPH WALTZ. The Austrian actor who has again inspired Quentin Tarentino is phenomenal in everything, but particularly his two Tarentino roles. No one, but no one, can do what he does. I admired Philip Seymour Hofman's work in "The Master" and Tommy Lee Jones is very good in "Lincoln," but I'll actually be disappointed if Waltz doesn't win. De Niro's work in "Silver Linings Playbook" is unremarkable, and Alan Arkin is always fun and watching but doesn't deserve an Oscar for "Argo." I'd replace those nominations with any of the following: Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson in "Django Unchained" and Matthew McConnaughey in "Bernie."
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: ANNE HATHAWAY. She is so jaw-droppingly good in "Les Mes" that it is worth sitting through the entire film just to watch her version of "I Dreamed a Dream." Amy Adams is a worthy nominee for her interesting portrayal of a strong post-WWII woman in "The Master," and Sally Field does good work as Mrs.. Lincoln. Helen Hunt is fine in "The Sessions" but I don't actually find her performance worthy of a nod. I love Jackie Weaver but she has done far better work elsewhere. To me, Anne is by far the best of the nominees.
Best Animated Feature Film: FRANKENWEENIE. This film is one of Tim Burton's best: weird and sweet and gently soulful. I didn't see "The Pirates," so I can't compare it. Of the other nominees, I'd pick "Wreck-It Ralph," which is original and dazzling, though slightly cacophonous in spots. The animation in both "Brave" and "Paranorman" is beautiful, but the stories in both are pretty lame.
Best Cinematography: LINCOLN. This is one of the hardest categories to pick, because all the nominees are good in their way. I'd be quite happy to see "Django" win, since I think Tarentino is doing some important things here with the depiction of the slavery. I'd also not begrudge a win to "Life of Pi," which creates a very convincing world with a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat. "Anna Karenina" displays some real visual originality. "Skyfall" is the weakest of the nominees but still has some interesting visual tricks up its sleeve. I pick "Lincoln" because it so faithfully conveys the time period that there are moments where one feels as though an old photograph has come to life.
Best Costume Design: LINCOLN. I choose it for similar reasons; it is remarkably evocative of the period. The costumes in "Anna" are just plain beautiful. They are certainly fine in "Les Mis." I don't think we need to go overboard on recognizing "Snow White," though the costumes are competently done. I didn't see "Mirror Mirror" but doubt it is really a contender.
Best Director: BENH ZEITLIN FOR "BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD." As far as I'm concern, this first-time director is a visionary genius. I don't know how he conceived of such an astounding world, and I definitely don't know how he pulled it off. I won't be upset if the award goes to Spielberg for "Lincoln"; I think it is his best work and shows remarkable vision and also restraint. Michael Haneke does fine work in "Amour" as well. Any of those three I could accept. I don't think Ang Lee should win the award for "Life of Pi," though I think the visuals here are wonderful. Quentin Tarentino deserved a nomination here for "Django." David O. Russell doesn't; in my opinion, he uses his talent for directing chaotic situations like family dysfunction and mental illness and addiction (here and in "The Fighter") to make films that cheap out and treat these same problems as more easily resolved than they really are.
Best Documentary Feature: SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN. I haven't seen "Broken Cameras," but all the other nominees are really terrific. "How to Survive a Plague" is absolutely devastating and does an impressive job of amassing tons of footage to tell a story we really need to know. "The Invisible War" is one of the best documentaries I saw at Full Frame and does a masterful job of using the military's own statistics and several stories of successful soldiers who were assaulted to expose its how abominably the military addresses sexual assault in its ranks. "The Gatekeepers" is a fascinating set of interviews with the heads of Shin Benh and asks all the right questions. But "Searching for Sugar Man" made it into my top ten for the year and is so inspiring that it is my clear pick. Missing from the list of nominees: "Central Park Five," which will be on my top ten list.
Best Film Editing: LIFE OF PI. This is one place I'd recognize the good work of creating such a convincing visual world, though I could easily make a case for "Lincoln." Of the remaining nominees, "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty" are respectable but shouldn't win. I don't think "Silver Linings Playbook" deserves the nomination.
Best Foreign Language Film: AMOUR. This beautiful film is on my top ten list for the year. I also loved "A Royal Affair," which does a terrific job of conveying an important piece of Danish history. "No" is also a worthy nominee, with its canny interpretation of the ad campaign that toppled Augusto Pinochet. I wouldn't have nominated the other two, but they are both very good. "Kon-Tiki" is a wonderfully rendered high seas adventure with some broader significance, and "War Witch" is a very effective story of a child soldier. Of the Oscar eligible films I've seen at PIFF this year, I'd have nominated "In the Shadows" from the Czech Republic, "Kauwboy" from The Netherlands, and "Beyond the Hills" from Romania. I will see the submissions from India, Japan, and Poland in the next few days so stay tuned.
Best Original Score: LINCOLN. I usually find John Williams' scores to be very overbearing, but this one is quite restrained and effective. I recall appreciating the more buoyant score for "Anna Karenina," and the music from "Life of Pi" was good work as always from Mychael Danna. I don't really have much of an opinion as to the other two scores.
Best Original Song: "SKYFALL." This is really a terrific movie song, creating a killer opening for the film. My criteria for best original song is that it should be good music that plays an effective role in bringing the film to life, and "Skyfall" does that in spades. As for the rest, "Pi's Lullaby" is quite beautiful, and I didn't like the version of "Suddenly" from Les Mis. I didn't see the other two films whose songs were nominated, so I can't speak to what they do for those films--but I do like "Before My Time" from Chasing Ice. "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" is just silly.
Best Production Design: LINCOLN. The production design is part of what made this film so effective. I also thought the production design for "Anna Karenina" was remarkable. The other three nominees are also deserving. But where is the nomination for "Django"?
Best Sound Editing: DJANGO UNCHAINED. This film deserves more recognition than it got in the nominations, and the sound editing is very good. All the other nominees are also quite deserving, though.
Best Sound Mixing: LES MISERABLES. The complexity of the sound work here deserves recognition in this category, though I, again, think all the other nominees are worthy.
Best Visual Effects: LIFE OF PI, all the way. I'm fine with the nomination for "The Hobbit," but the other nominations are just silly.
Best Adapted Screenplay: BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. This is the joint work of director Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar and, frankly, I think they pulled of a miracle. However, Tony Kushner is a close second and, if he wins for "Lincoln," I'll be quite happy too. I wouldn't have nominated "Life of Pi" or "Argo," although they are decent enough. "Silver Linings Playbook" does not deserve a nomination for its screenplay.
Best Original Screenplay: DJANGO UNCHAINED. Frankly, I am going to be pissed if Tarentino doesn't win, because I think he has permanently deepened the conversation about slavery in American culture with this film. (More on that in my top ten list and a longer review.) Both "Amour" and "Moonrise Kingdom" are very worthy nominees. Neither "Zero Dark Thirty" nor, especially, "Flight" deserved their nominations. Missing from the list: "Bernie" and "In the Family."
I'll get out my top ten list by Sunday, with short reviews and longer ones to follow over the course of the coming weeks. Happy movie weekend!