Words: Rob DeStefano, James Emerson, Jake Kring-Schreifels, James Passarelli, & Ryan Waring

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Not that Oscar up there looks any less smug or obnoxious than we’re used to, but at least he actually put some thought and effort into his selections this year (last year we couldn’t even bring ourselves to dedicate serious coverage to the ceremony). If 2012 wasn’t a stronger year in film, it at least gave us some nominations we can root for. And with the skills of Spielberg, Lee, Bigelow, Russell, Haneke, and Tarantino on display, it’s hard to make a truly bad decision. But the Oscars rarely get it completely right either, and that’s where we come in. Have at our picks on who will win, who should win, and of course, which deserving talents’ invitations must have gotten lost in the mail.

Director

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Oscar’s Pick: Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)
Our Pick: Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)
Snub: Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty)

In light of the ZDT media fiasco, Kathryn Bigelow’s snub is not altogether surprising, but no less disappointing because of it. Ang Lee could play the spoiler for his masterful work on Life of Pi, but Spielberg’s third Best Director award looks all but a certainty, as it probably should. No director today captures the frontline of a war quite like Spielberg. On Lincoln, however, he’s refocused the camera to the political backend with just as much aplomb. Spielberg gracefully presents the fussy, fusty frenzy of legal quarrel in a way that’s romantic but not too much to feel unrealistic. There’s a discernible method to the madness, and while for most historical fictions that may result in a story that feels fatalistic, Spielberg’s magic touch heightens the turbulence so well you just might forget how it all goes down in the end. Daniel Day-Lewis is Daniel Day-Lewis, sure, but credit Spielberg that Lincoln arguably got a number of other lifetime performances from its cast. Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, and James Spader were all at the top of their games, and that’s thanks in large part to the man in the chair. - RW

Leading Actress

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Oscar’s Pick: Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)
Our Pick: Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)

It’s sometimes difficult to appreciate a performance when it recalls a character that’s already saturated mainstream television in the last year. Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of Maya, the obsessive CIA officer behind the raid on Osama Bin Laden, bears a lot in common with Claire Danes’ Carrie Matheson, the occasionally psychotic CIA agent on Showtime’s Homeland. It’s even more difficult when Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as a struggling, quirky widow in Silver Linings Playbook is fresh, unique, and engaging. But Chastain uniquely evokes sympathy and rationality for her character’s cold, crazy behavior. More than just her badassery, the backtalk to her boss (Kyle Chandler), and the expletive with which she refers to herself when asked who is in charge of the operation, Chastain’s Maya changes as she experiences more, learns more, and loses more. We gravitate to her unbridled confidence and brazen self-assurance and sit in awe. - JKS

Leading Actor

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Oscar’s Pick: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
Our Pick: Daniel Day-Lewis

In any other awards season, Denzel Washington’s portrayal of alcoholic pilot Whip Whitaker might be a lock for a statuette. Instead, Daniel Day-Lewis emerged from his cave to play the most iconic U.S. Presidents in history. The audacity to take on such a role would be enough to earn a nomination, if Vampire Hunter had not taught us otherwise. Reliable as always, Day-Lewis doesn’t just mimic the tall and slender sixteenth president, he embodies Lincoln: looking, feeling, and, apparently, sounding like Honest Abe. When you can command attention with every word you speak, you are, as he professes in the film, “clothed in immense power.” Day-Lewis delivers Lincoln’s leadership without loud linguistic flare, but with solemnity and wisdom, garnering attention and silence through sporadic, stoic glances and fanciful storytelling. This award is in the top hat. - JKS

Supporting Actress

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Oscar’s Pick: Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables)
Our Pick: Helen Hunt (The Sessions)

While Jackie Weaver was remembering how much more she had to act in Animal Kingdom and Amy Adams was giving PSH the old reach-around, Helen Hunt was, well, getting naked. Playing a sex surrogate should not be confused with playing a whore – that was Hathaway – and showing skin is not the reason for her nomination. Similar to how some consider Tom Cruise’s role in Rain Man to be the true acting challenge, having to react and play off Hoffman’s autistic Raymond, Hunt must play off Hawkes’s crippled character, and do so often without costume to hide in or unique production design to grow from. It’s an absolute challenge, and Hunt pulls it off with complete grace. Her performance is simple. It’s natural. And it delivers every drop of fragility present within her character. - RD

Supporting Actor

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Oscar’s Pick: Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)
Our Pick: Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)
Snub: Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained)

In Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones gives voice to modern morality with mellifluous nineteenth-century smack talk, righteously wielding it to deflate Congressional defenders of slavery. Jones’s sense of justice as Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens is as rough and uncompromising as his visage. Stevens is humorous and on the right side of history, while voters might feel Jones could do with an Oscar from a more respectable movie (he has only won for The Fugitive in 1993); all signs point to the Academy favoring him this year.

As deserved as a win for Jones would be, I think a different cinematic orator of 2012 should take home that laurel of modern acting, the statuette for Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, the Scientological Svengali of The Master. Hoffman’s studied enunciation covers a ferocity that his character sublimates into his cultic Cause. He is the mentor, spiritual guide, companion, competitor, and soulmate of Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell; their performances are a brilliant duet, point and counterpoint. Hoffman gives full expression to a man who admires and loves the freedom of Freddie as much as he wants to tame and channel it. In a just world, Hoffman shouting “Pig fuck!” while defending the sometimes leukemia-curing properties of the Cause would be enough for the Academy to unanimously award him Best Supporting Actor.

The Samuel L. Jackson shaped hole in this category is one of the greatest snubs of this year’s Oscar slate. Jackson’s turn as the house slave Stephen inDjango Unchained is a terrifying profile in performativity. The consigliere to Leonardo DiCaprio’s demonically-goateed plantation owner, Stephen affects a cringe-inducing Uncle Tom persona in public, a mask that ingratiates him to his “master” and allows Stephen to play the eminence grise. It is a method of survival for a black man under slavery; Stephen also uses it to cement his own high place within the monstrous system, making him a stakeholder in its existence. Jackson’s shifts from pretended servility and black caricature to an acutely keen and self-interested intelligence are masterful, and surely deserving of at least a nomination. - JE

Adapted Screenplay

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Oscar’s Pick: Tony Kushner (Lincoln)
Our Pick: Tony Kushner
Snub: Andrew Dominik (Killing Them Softly)

Obviously, there are a lot of different components that contribute to the overall quality of a motion picture (that’s why there are as many damn Oscars as there are). Sometimes, the Academy likes to award a great job in one area notwithstanding the work as a whole. On the other hand, and more often than not, the nominees in these divisional categories look suspiciously similar to the nominees for Best Picture. This year, all five nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay are also up for the Granddaddy Oscar. And while all of them certainly don’t have horrible scripts, I think the Academy could have been a little more creative to avoid a classic fallacy of division. I would have included Killing Them Softly, a film that didn’t sit well with a number of critics including IF’s Rob DeStefano. While Andrew Dominik’s stylistic choices for the film’s political subtext definitely felt a little heavy-handed, his adaptation of George V. Higgins Cogan’s Trade made for an undeniably great screenplay. As for the reality of the category, Tony Kushner’s Lincoln will deservedly take the statuette. The story might be ill-suited for the big screen and the assassination scene superfluous, but Kushner’s command of language and tension played just as integral a role as Daniel Day-Lewis or Steven Spielberg did in making a movie about the passage of a bill so gripping. – RW

Original Screenplay

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Oscar’s Pick: Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained)
Our Pick: Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom)

The brilliance of a Tarantino script lies in its desultory, fluid, and truly hilarious dialogue, and its unique and oddly likable (if not altogether complex) characters.  By that reasoning, Django is the writer-director’s least compelling script.  The film’s weighty subject matter forces its players to either side of the ballpoint-width good-bad divide, with little room for the ugly.  Tarantino’s warped humor still shines, but the parody is less subtle; and the revenge consumes any sense of character complexity.  Still, the film’s grandiose aesthetic and willingness to revisit slavery in any capacity earned it a deserved nomination, and will earn it an equally undeserved win.

In the meantime, IF will root against all odds for Roman Coppola, whose underappreciated screen work does no dishonor to the family legacy, and Wes Anderson, who needs no introduction.  Moonrise Kingdom, the pair’s second script collaboration, compliments Anderson’s new level of airtight cinematographic perfectionism with a bizarre but universal story.  More impressive still is how effectively the film places its all-star supporting ensemble in the background, and brings its unknown leads to the fore. – JP

Cinematography

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Oscar’s Pick: Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi)
Our Pick: Roger Deakins (Skyfall)
Snub: Danny Cohen (Les Miserables)

I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out how Danny Cohen didn’t receive a nomination for Les Miserables. Say what you will about the film adaptation, but don’t say it isn’t shot extraordinarily well. In any case, the Academy practically tattooed “Claudio Miranda” onto this Oscar’s face when the Life of Pi trailer premiered, which is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because Miranda deserves it. His fantastically convincing visuals were most pivotal to adapting the ‘unfilmable’ Life of Pi. But it’s a bad thing because it means that Roger Deakins will return from his tenth ceremony empty handed for the tenth time. For as alluring as the Bond franchise is, its cinematography has never played a role in its seduction until Skyfall, where it sits front and center. Shots of Turkish viaducts, Shanghai skylines, and Scottish highlands could hang alongside a Turner at the National Gallery. - RW

Costume Design

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Oscar’s Pick: Jacqueline Durran (Anna Karenina)
Our Pick: Jacqueline Durran

This isn’t typically a category I would call my strong suit, but costume design as magnificent as Jacqueline Durran’s in Anna Karenina demands admiration from even those with the worst in fashion sense. A frequent associate with Joe Wright and Keira Knightley (the three have previously collaborated for Pride and Prejudice and Atonement), Durran’s time to win an Oscar is now. Infusing 19th century Russian ornateness with mid-20th French style (Russians were always enamored with French fashion), Durran’s wardrobes seamlessly fit into Wright’s theatrical playhouse backdrop, enveloping viewers inside a world of fantasy and deception. Her anachronistic regalia deliver the film’s challenging demand that Karenina don a colorful dress with matching veil and hat every day. Chanel adorns Ms. Knightley as well, exemplifying her progressive character. Clothing doesn’t have to be perfectly tethered to its period. The beauty of film costuming is that it can give insight into not just its era, but its characters, too. For Durran, the third time will be the charm. - JKS

Best Picture

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Oscar’s Pick: Argo
Our Pick: Zero Dark Thirty

The life of an Academy member must be pretty sweet. While a critic is daunted with the exhibition and the analysis of several films a week, the Academy’s work season is the mere skip from October to December. During this stretch, they are required to leave their homes anywhere from five to ten times to see a selection of effortlessly found titles, which are preordained by those enervated critics. And though Peter Travers has debunked the myth that age comes with wisdom, the Academy makes the case for resourcefulness. Staging their gala at the end of February allows for nearly a dozen other major award ceremonies to choose the crème de la crème. Where are Marlon Brando and Sacheen Littlefeather when we need them?

It’s no surprise that the Best Picture accolade is their most prestigious hunk of painted plaster. Pres-tig-ious [adj] meaning: inspiring appeasement and recognition of quality marketing. Last year’s winner, The Artist, didn’t have any dialogue, which was really cool and totally novel! Right? While it had all the momentum to plow right through the Academy, it was forgotten immediately after the Oscars (see its DVD sales, and when was the last time you heard anyone say, “Man, you gotta check out The Artist!”). With that same type of steam, Argo has accumulated tremendous weight after achieving top awards from nearly every possible corner: Golden Globes, BAFTA, National Board of Review, AFI, Producers Guild, Screen Actors Guild. Its popularity is undeniable, most likely unstoppable, and its novelty lies in Affleck – who they surely regret not nominating – and his celebratory take on Hollywood. Argo is a really good film, but it isn’t the embodiment of the year’s best. It will win however, since it is fresher than Lincoln, more acknowledged than Silver Linings Playbook, more accessible than Les Miserables, and safer than our selection. In other words, pure Oscar gold.

If only one film could be preserved from the 2012 nominations, it should be Kathryn Bigelow’s latest. Like Argo, it’s a dramatized historical account, but unlike Argo, many viewers found it indigestible. Actors including Ed Asner and Martin Sheen wrote a letter to the Academy urging them not to support the film, and even Senator John McCain waged his own protest. The issue of US torture is certainly a controversial topic, but attackers misguidedly disparaged the film when they assumed the torture sequences to be its whole. Each frame does not deliver pure veracity like this year’s nominated sociopolitical documentary 5 Broken Cameras, but Zero Dark Thirty is not a documentary; it is a fictional film, albeit one grounded in truth. The Zero Dark Thirty that I saw objectively depicted the acts of terrorism and the accompanying political fluctuation during a ten year period. The events hinge around Mark Boal’s protagonist, fiercely acted by Jessica Chastain in one of the year’s best performances. In the final few frames, the film transcends its surface agenda; similar to 2010’s The Social Network, it becomes something universal, expressing themes of loneliness and revenge. Texture Zero Dark Thirty’s complexity with masterful visuals and sound – exquisite work in cinematography and editing. The culmination of these “outstanding achievements in a theatrically released feature-length motion picture” is exactly what constitutes Best Picture. – RD


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