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2016 Oscars Preview

It’s that time of year again. Football is over, spring training is in full swing, my new residence of State College, Pa. is seriously COLD and the awards season is about to culminate with the Academy Awards, hosted by Chris Rock and airing Sunday, Feb. 28 at 8:30 p.m. (ET) on ABC.

Most of the discussion leading up to this year’s ceremony has centered on the fact that there are no minorities recognized among the 20 acting nominees for the second straight year. In response, several actors of color announced they would boycott the ceremony and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (an African-American woman) vowed to overhaul the voting procedure to allow for more diverse representation.

Although it’s admirable for Boone Isaacs to take a stand, it’s also become slightly comical that the only time anyone talks about Hollywood and diversity is when the Oscar nominees are announced.
In short, this is NOT an Oscar problem, it’s a Hollywood problem. The Oscars are simply a reflection of a film industry in which the number of minorities and women in a position of power is comparatively small.

People point to “Straight Outta Compton,” “Creed” or “Concussion” as films starring, written or directed by minorities that were unfairly snubbed by the Academy but these aren’t all-time great films that are being ignored. They are good films with good performances that simply didn’t make the cut, but they appear to stand out as examples of discrimination because they are among the woefully small list of award-caliber films produced by minorities.

Think about it: if there were dozens of prestige pictures being made each year by a diverse set of filmmakers, would it be so glaring when Michael B. Jordan isn’t nominated for Best Actor for "Creed" or “Straight Outta Compton” doesn’t earn a Best Picture nod?

And it’s not like anyone shouldn’t have seen this year’s crop of nominees coming. Anyone can look at the credits for the slate of films being released each year and see that females and minorities are under represented. But that doesn’t stop Jada Pinkett Smith or Spike Lee from feigning dismay at Hollywood’s award season dismissal of diversity. It’s evident all year long.

The fervor over diversity has died down in the weeks since the nominations were announced but it will surely reignite with Rock emceeing this year’s ceremony. Rock created controvesy in his first hosting stint in 2005 by ruffling the feathers of the straight-laced Hollywood establishment and it’s unlikely he’ll go easy on them Sunday night.

As for the awards themselves, there are some locked-down categories and some that are still up in the air. What’s unique about this year’s awards is that one of the awards that is still in question is the biggest of all – Best Picture. Eight films are nominated for the big prize, but only three have a legitimate shot at winning the top honor – “The Big Short,” “The Revenant” and “Spotlight.”

“The Big Short,” Adam McKay’s comedy-drama about the 2008 financial crisis starring Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale, came out of nowhere when it was released in December but has steadily gained momentum ever since. My first impression after seeing it was that it was a culturally important film that Americans should make a point of viewing but there’s a difference between being an important film and a great film. There’s nothing particularly remarkable or original about the filmmaking in “The Big Short” and while McKay uses clever devices to explain the Wall Street lingo (like Selena Gomez playing blackjack while breaking down subprime mortgages) the subject matter is still often times too “inside baseball” to be completely engaging.

That said, the Oscars have a history of sometimes honoring films that spark the public consciousness in the moment but don’t really stand the test of time, like “Crash” defeating the superior “Brokeback Mountain” for Best Picture in 2006. That’s happening right now with “The Big Short” as millions of Americans outraged by Wall Street greed have latched onto it as a culturally-relevant film. Working in its favor as well is that “The Big Short” won the top prize earlier this month at the Producers Guild of America Awards, which is usually an accurate prognosticator of what will win the Best Picture Oscar because the two awards follow a similar voting procedure. Since 2002, only one film (“Little Miss Sunshine” in 2007) has won the PGA Award but not the Best Picture Oscar. That’s a very encouraging track record for “The Big Short.”

It’s still not a lock though because actors constitute the largest voting bloc and the Screen Actors Guild named “Spotlight” as the top ensemble. It’s not as accurate an indicator as the PGAs, but six of the last 10 Best Picture Oscar winners also took top honors at the SAG Awards.

“Spotlight,” a drama about the Boston Globe reporters who exposed the Catholic Church sex scandal in 2002, was the early favorite to win Best Picture when it was released in November, but it never ran off with the competition. It’s the kind of film where it’s extremely difficult to find any flaws, but it doesn’t really blow you away with its filmmaking artistry. While it’s an exceptionally well-made and taut drama, it’s difficult to pinpoint anything about it that makes you think it will be particularly memorable 10-20 years from now.

The final film that could win Best Picture is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “The Revenant.” The film came out so late in the year (it didn’t even get a wide release until January) that I didn’t include it on my best films of 2015 list because it hadn’t had its wide release yet. If I had seen it in time, it absolutely would have made the cut. “The Revenant” is beautifully shot, exceedingly well-acted (Leonardo DiCaprio is a lock to win an overdue first Oscar for Best Actor) and manages to tell a compelling narrative over more than 2 ½ hours. Just in the first 10 minutes there were a handful of shots that looked impossible to achieve and the behind-the-scenes stories about the film’s difficult production have only made “The Revenant” a more impressive achievement.

“The Revenant” took the Best Drama prize at the Golden Globes and Inarritu won the Director’s Guild Award, but it’s possible the Oscar’s older voting bloc will be turned off by the film’s brutally realistic depiction of the early 1800’s American Frontier or are turned off from hearing about production stories like DiCaprio actually eating raw bison liver. It also remains to be seen whether the Academy is ready to honor Inarritu again so soon after he won Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay for “Birdman” just last year. Not since 1950 has a director won Best Director two years in a row and a director has never helmed two consecutive Best Picture winners.

My predicted winner? As much as I ‘d like to see “Spotlight” or “The Revenant” win (or even “Room,” but that ain’t happening), I think the PGA Award’s history of accurate predictions will likely hold up and honor the wrong film with “The Big Short” coming out on top.

Here’s the lowdown on some of the other categories:

Best Actor: as I stated above, DiCaprio is overdue and he fully committed to his role in “The Revenant.”

Best Actress: Almost as much of a lock as DiCaprio, Brie Larson is a pretty sure bet to earn a deserved win for “Room,” in which she plays a traumatized young woman bonded to her five-year old son under harrowing circumstances.

Best Supporting Actor: This isn’t a terribly strong category and I’d probably give the honor to Mark Ruffalo for “Spotlight,” but I think the acting bloc will be anxious to honor Sylvester Stallone, a deserving winner for reprising his performance as Rocky Balboa in “Creed.”

Best Supporting Actress: Another tight category with no clear-cut favorite but Alicia Vikander appears to have gathered momentum for “The Danish Girl.” I haven’t seen “The Danish Girl” yet, but if Vikander gives as strong a performance as she did in “Ex Machina,” it’s a worthy honor. Kate Winslet in “Steve Jobs” is a possible spoiler, though.

Best Director: For most of the year, George Miller seemed like an obvious frontrunner for his visionary filmmaking in “Mad Max: Fury Road” but the scope and scale of Inarritu’s work in “The Revenant”, coupled with his DGA win, makes him the frontrunner.
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