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Best Picture Oscar Prediction (with one faux spoiler)

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As is often the case come Oscar time, the Best Picture of 2005 will not win the Best Picture Oscar this year — because it wasn’t even nominated.

I’m talking about The Constant Gardener, for which I have been petitioning ceaselessly to make a Write-In candidate to anyone who will listen: strangers in elevators, policeman on street corners, telemarketers who suddenly can’t get off the phone fast enough. You know, people who have no bearing at all on who votes for Best Picture.

I’ve given up the ghost. Instead I’ll focus my bluster here and pick an “official” winner. And in a fit of gracious sportsmanship I won’t even spoil the ending to the film I think wins Best Picture.

1) It’s An Honor Simply Being Nominated. The total nominations for each Best Picture:

Brokeback Mountain = 8
Capote = 5
Crash = 6
Good Night, and Good Luck = 6
Munich = 5

Sometimes a runaway train of noms lead to victory so Brokeback’s gotta like its chances. But there’s cause for superstition: in Oscar history, six movies in history have received eight nominations without winning a single statue.

2) Time Is On My Side. The average running time of all Best Picture Oscar winners thus far is just over two hours, and of those all but two have been over 100 minutes. (The two that were under: Marty at 91 & Annie Hall at 93). This tidbit introduces Golden Rule #1 = The longer the nominated movie, the better chance it has to win.

Oscar wannabees often clock serious OT. The movies may not always justify their running times. Most don’t. But the business side of Hollywood — the side that likes to think it can predict market trends, target audiences, and box office hits — likes concrete formulae, even if faulty. And the algebra says that Long = Important = Critical Acclaim = Oscar.

Running times for this year’s nominees:

Brokeback Mountain = 134 minutes
Capote = 98 minutes
Crash = 113 minutes
Good Night, and Good Luck = 93 minutes
Munich = 164 minutes

By this metric both Capote & Good Night, and Good Luck have no chance, and Munich is the favorite.

3) It Was My Understanding That There Would Be No Math. Is box office gross an indicator of a film’s Oscar chances? Not sure. But I know just enough math & Excel to be dangerously unreliable. Quick number crunches:

The average box office gross of the past 26 Best Picture winners (1978-2004) = $144,779,253 and 54 cents.

Take away two outliers – the highest grosser (Titanic by a nautical mile) and the lowest (The Last Emperor) and the average winners’ gross slides to $129,978,673 and 92 cents. And wow, I just used the word “outlier.”

Here are grosses for this year’s Best Picture Nominees as of this week, rounding up:

Brokeback Mountain = 75 million
Capote = 23 million
Crash = 53 million
Good Night, and Good Luck = 30 million
Munich = 46 million

None are near the target gross. Winners often make their bank after they win the award but that’s reaching even for Brokeback, who’s closest. The only thing I’m betting is that Good Night is slim-to-none and that Capote is definitely kaput: in the history of the event the lowest grossing movie has never won. Ever. Short running time + Least amount of $$$ = thanks for playing.

4) Biodome. Another trend is the Biopic. Three of the five nominated films last year were about Real People (and no, I don’t mean the ’80’s television series starring Skip Stephenson): Howard Hughes, Ray Charles, and J.M. Barrie (the guy who wrote Peter Pan).

This year sees a recurring theme: three of the picture nominees boast historical figures (Capote, Good Night, & Munich). Oscar likes Real People Movies, and Real People Performances are Best Actor/Actress Oscar magnets. Which is also a Best Picture nom’s downfall — a ballot clogged with biopics splits votes. In addition Oscar usually recognizes a performance and not the film itself (like Ray last year, or this year’s Walk the Line, which was *not* nominated for Best Picture).

4) Vets vs. Rooks. Three of the Best Picture directors are newbies, and two are nominated for their feature-film debuts. The other two have been here before — Ang Lee & Steven Spielberg. Oscar likes to go with known quantities (Clint Eastwood last year won his second directing award for Million Dollar Baby). Oscar also usually doesn’t split the Best Director/Best Picture between two different flicks (it’s only happened 26% of the time over the past 80 years).

5) It’s Not Selling Out, It’s Buying In. Here’s a number: 130,000. That’s how many movie “screeners” of Crash were sent to Screen Actors Guild members in January prior to the SAG Awards in February. The usual average amount of screeners sent out = 15,000. Here’s another number: $4,000,000. That’s how much money since January that Lions Gate has spent on marketing Crash and blitzing the media as we countdown to Oscar.

I understand that the movie was released a year ago, and it wants to stay in the minds of the voters. But I’m a bit cynical about these sort of ploys — namely, because sometimes they work. Old Miramax made this routine sing with nominally deserving movies. (Shakespeare In Love & The English Patient, I’m sneering in your direction). Crash comes off to me, more and more, as The Emperor’s New Clothes. (Here’s a concept: make a better movie). And Crash is already a huge success, making 12-13 times it’s budget back. The full-court pre$$ should have gone to other movies, like Capote, or Good Night, or The Constant Gardener.

Overpaying for Oscar is like the Yankees buying every single player in baseball to field a team. I hate the Yankees. So I can’t in good faith root for Crash.

6) Punctuation. Good Night, and Good Luck has NO chance of winning. Not because it’s the shortest film (though that’s strike one). Not because it grossed less than the (unofficial) Best Picture of 2005, The Constant Gardener (strike two). But because of this magic bullet: no nominee with a comma in its title has ever won Best Picture. Previous Best Picture winners include four apostrophes, two periods, a colon, a hyphen, and even an exclamation point, but never a comma. So good night, Good Night. You can take it to the bank.

And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to?

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.

Why? Because people remember how it ends.

You can write an awful movie and make an awful movie. But if your ending is pretty good, or even just “doesn’t suck,” then folks still leave the theater fairly satisfied. A definition of a good ending, to paraphrase William Goldman: “it has to move the sh*t out of you.”

After experiencing a well-earned, plausible, and inevitable ending to a movie, the audience recalls not only how it ended but how they felt. Brokeback Mountain ends definitively & simply, and moves the audience profoundly, much more so than the other nominees.

And while all the nominees have their doses of emotional impact, Munich, Good Night, Crash, and Capote deal in murkier shades of grey & multiple degrees of ambiguity (racial, political, moral, historical): endings where one’s not sure if the characters are better or worse off. Brokeback is much more cut, much more dried, and much less grey than the others.

Think of great movies, ones you love, ones you know by heart. You can succinctly sum up their endings 99.9 percent of the time. A sample list of memorable endings:

They get married.
The good guys win.
The good guys lose.
He dies.
She dies.
Everyone dies.
It was just a dream.
The butler did it.
He’s really a ghost.
They blow up the shark.

Plug in this year’s five nominees. Only Brokeback has an ending that’s listed above (FAUX SPOILER: Ennis & Jack blow up the shark). The rest don’t.

A good ending has to be simple, definitive, and moving, whether you leave ‘em laughing, or leave ‘em crying. Only Brokeback Mountain encompasses all three of these objectives, which is why it will win on Sunday night.

This article appeared in slightly modified form on Tiffany Leigh’s blog, Soundtrack To The Motion Picture.
Edited: [!–GH–]

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  • http://tiffleigh.livejournal.com/ Tiffany Leigh

    Because someone already asked:

    Best Picture Oscar Winners Employing Punctuation In Their Titles:

    Mrs. Miniver 1942
    Gentleman’s Agreement 1947
    All the King’s Men 1949
    Ben-Hur 1959
    Oliver! 1968
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 1975
    Kramer vs. Kramer 1979
    Schindler’s List 1993
    Lord of the Rings: Return of the King 2003

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/4521582 the shakester

    whoa! nice write up there, but I have to say Crash easily out-spoke, out-narrated, out-wrote and out-emoted The Constant Gardener for me.
    but heck, thats just me.

  • http://tiffleigh.livejournal.com/ Tiffany Leigh

    My problem with Crash is that it tries waaaaay too hard. It’s like Marilyn Manson at an assisted living facility in Muncie delivering the keynote address on obscenity.

    Matt Zoller Seitz, one of the best critics out there, gives an elegant “defense” of disliking Crash.

  • Hulkamaniac

    Brokeback will win because of the gay maphia.

  • http://www.moviesteve.blogspot.com Steve C.

    Should Win: A History of Violence. Oh, right, it wasn’t nominated. Good Night, and Good Luck. then.

    Will Win: Brokeback Mountain. And why not? It’s a damn good movie.

    Better Not Win: Crash. One of the most noxious and self-congratulatory instances of ‘limo-liberal’ filmmaking I’ve seen in a couple of years. If this takes home the big prize, I’ll personally travel to L.A., burn down the Kodak Theatre and bitchslap Sandra Bullock.

  • http://www.filmschoolrejects.com Neil

    Tiffany,

    Excellent article. I love the approach. I am not sure who will win yet, we at Film School Rejects are still trying to break the code as well…

  • http://tiffleigh.livejournal.com/ Tiffany Leigh

    If Good Night ditched the comma, it still wouldn’t or shouldn’t win, IMHO.

    I wanted to like it, I really did. But as a biopic of Murrow it fails to tell me a single thing about him outside of the newsroom that would have enhanced his face-value spot-on performance as Murrow.

    Glimmers of hope were botched & left unmined left and right: Murrow’s confrontation with Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), when Hollenbeck begs him to go after the newspapers & Murrow refuses. That should have been a powerhouse of emotion and tension but it wasn’t cos we didn’t know a thing about Murrow to care.

    Another opportunity was when Murrow conducted his puff-piece interviews with celebrities — staying with him after the lights dimmed on his Liberace interview was a nice touch. But there didn’t seem to be any residual effect of this contradiction between this reporting and his going after McCarthy. A complexity wasn’t there.

    My favorite scenes were when Murrow was broadcasting and Fred Friendly (Clooney) was sitting on the floor just out of frame, tapping him with a pen to cue him. There needed to be much more of that intimacy, of the sense that there was something deeper to Murrow behind the camera.

    The whole thing took place behind the scenes, but I was left lacking, or feeling like I got any sort of sense of the players outside of what is known. I was dying for a scene of Murrow at home, or in the car, or alone and out of the newsroom, when he didn’t think anyone was watching. I feel like Clooney & Heslov (the screenwriters) weren’t ballsy enough to “invent” stuff like that; they just wanted to show us what they knew for sure.

    At times I got more out of McCarthy’s performance than anyone else’s — and he was purely stock footage.

    In fiction writing workshops this happens all the time. Someone will write something, and it will be mediocre, or blah, or soulless, and their “defense” of it is, “Well, all of this actually happened to me.” Just because it happened doesn’t mean you can simply lock a camera in front of it as it transpires and expect to wring emotion and depth from it. You’re faking the three dimensions of life in film. This one stayed 2D for me.

    GN&GL came off as a PBS or History Channel dramatization to me, with A-Listers. Which doesn’t make it bad, it just doesn’t make it as resonant as Brokeback or Munich or even The Constant Gardener.

  • http://tiffleigh.livejournal.com/ Tiffany Leigh

    Neil–

    Great site y’all have. Thanks for the compliment.

    I’m kinda doing my predictions based on lies, dammed lies, and statistics. I think the fantasy baseball league I’m in has rubbed off on me, sabermetrically.

    This way I can review movies I haven’t seen yet (I often post “Movie Magic 8-Ball” articles that do this very thing.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    I enjoyed your article, but you lost me at “I’m talking about The Constant Gardener” [as Best Picture not nominated].

    That movie was terrible. The characters are completely unbelievable and only serve to move the script along.

    One example: Sandy leaves Tess alone with a super secret document that’s going to blow the lid off of everything because she promises to finally sleep with him. I would have almost been able to suspend disbelief except he wasn’t going to get sex until two weeks later. HUH??!! He’s sexually obsessed with Tess, but is willing to accept that deal. I’ve seen dogs who get tricked when you pretend to throw a ball smarter than this guy, and he is involved and trusted in such a high-level criminal operation.

    Plus, the story is such a cliche. Drug companies are bad. And…? How about one glimmer of insight other than money.

    Murderball, Sin City and Joyeux Noel were much better films.

  • http://tiffleigh.livejournal.com/ Tiffany Leigh

    Thanks for the post. I agree with Murderball and Joyeux, but in the interests of continuing interesting threads, I see your “I unheart Gardener” and raise you one “Sin City’s overrated.”

    First — Robert Rodriguez. I’m happy he’s a sextuple hyphenate on all his movies (direct write edit music production design SFX producer), but unfortunately his movies all look like they were made for three bucks.

    NOT that Sin City does, mind you. That movie looks fantastic. BUT it was still directed by Rodriguez, and you could tell. He said working in total green screens freed him up to work with the actors more: then why were the performances all cardboard thin? Unless a character was gussied up in black and white or red blood or yellow freakshow skin or lots of prosthetics like Mickey Rourke, there was ZERO empathy, or emotional heft. Outside of the glimmer that Tarantino provided on a dare. The rest was as flat as the pages of the graphic novel on which it was sourced, and made me hanker for (the horror, the horror) Shark Boy and Lava Girl.

    Sin City is a lot like one of the Best Picture nominees, actually: Good Night, and Good Luck. Both are pretty. Both have A-List actors. And both really have no soul — they are faithful recreations of time and space and mood, but there’s nothing behind the faces, no there there. Style (or ultraviolence) over substance.

    Just because something is shot for shot a great dramatization doesn’t make it a movie. (Gus Van Sant and his Psycho remake say “hi.”) It simply makes it a great shot for shot dramatization of a vision — of “what actually happened” — and nothing further. Not enough to make it a movie experience.

    As for the suspension of disbelief in Gardener, I was okay with it. And yeah, pharmaceutical companies = BAD, been there, done that. But Gardener is based on a source novel too, just like Sin. So I’d fault the story more than the movie.

    But I felt that the sneaky success of it — what put it over the top for me emotionally and fleshed it out — was Ralph Fiennes.

    Yeah, Rachel Weisz has a showier performance & an Oscar nom, but Fiennes did more subtle, inward, heavy lifting. He was the “straight man,” the pivot that made the whole thing — the love story — work.

    I don’t think you were suggesting that Sin City was a worthy Best Picture nomination, were you? I’m not so sure about that, and even if it wasn’t a genre picture, and even though I think Crash being nominated is a total mistake, I don’t think it’s the stuff of a Best Picture.

    Which means nothing, because the Oscars are like a high school student council election anyway.

  • Steve

    Well, I’m feeling seriously underqualified to comment on this article, seeing as I’ve not seen ANY of the “Best Picture” nominees. However, I will say, that based on the plotlines of these movies, I would probably be most likely to see “Good Luck…” or…maybe…”Crash”, so those are (albeit, almost totally uninformed) my ‘faves’ for this category.