If you want to win big at your Oscar party and pick the winners of the Academy Awards, I have one simple piece of advice: don't watch any of the movies. If you watch the movies, you get caught up in what's actually good, what you loved and what you hated, rather than the only question that matters: what will win. It's liking betting on your college sports team. No one wants to bet against their own school. It's a great way to lose money.
Like most people, I don't follow my own advice. So here is my Oscar ballot with all its quirks and personal preferences. I can't guarantee you'll win your betting pool. But if you have watched a lot of the nominees, I can guarantee the Oscars will pick at least one winner that drives you absolutely bonkers. ("How could they possibly...??!!??") Hey, that's half the fun. I put the shorts at the bottom in their own section because most people don't see them and they're really hard to pick this year and worth discussing more fully.
Best Picture -- Argo
Best Director -- Steven Spielberg/Lincoln
Best Actor -- Daniel Day-Lewis/Lincoln
Best Actress -- Emmanuelle Riva/Amour
Best Supporting Actor --Robert De Niro/Silver Linings Playbook
Best Supporting Actress -- Anne Hathaway/Les Miserables
Best Writing Original Screenplay -- Django Unchained/Quentin Tarantino
Best Writing Adapted Screenplay -- Argo/Chris Terrio
Best Animated Film -- Wreck-It Ralph
Best Foreign Film -- Amour
Best Documentary -- Searching For Sugar Man
Best Original Score -- Life Of Pi/Mychael Danna
Best Original Song -- "Skyfall" from Skyfall
Best Sound Editing -- Life Of Pi/Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton
Best Sound Mixing -- Les Miserables/Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes
Best Production Design -- Lincoln/Rick Carter and Jim Erickson
Best Cinematography -- Life Of Pi/Claudio Miranda
Best Makeup and Hairstyling -- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey -- Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater and Tami Lane
Best Costume Design -- Anna Karenina/Jacqueline Durran
Best Film Editing -- Argo/William Goldenberg
Best Visual Effects -- Life Of Pi/Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan de Boer and Donald R. Elliott
Best Animated Short -- Fresh Guacamole
Best Live Action Short -- Curfew
Best Documentary Short -- Open Heart
Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Life Of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
If I were voting, I'd pick Amour. I'd also be very happy if Django Unchained or Beasts Of The Southern Wild shocked everyone. (Not gonna happen.) I was decidedly not a fan of Life Of Pi, so that's the win that would frustrate and annoy me the most, which is what Oscar truly loves to do. But I'll go with the smart money on this.
The Winner: Argo
Michael Haneke -- Amour
Ang Lee -- Life Of Pi
David O. Russell -- Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg -- Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin -- Beasts Of The Southern Wild
If i were voting, I'd pick Michael Haneke, under the quaint notion that the best film of the year must by definition include the best direction of the year. Haneke is a rigorous filmmaker whose movies I have admired but rarely loved. This is an unexpected late career turn which, while hardly sentimental, is far more open-hearted and emotional than one would expect from Haneke. It's the very reason this movie about an elderly couple facing declining health is not maudlin. For heaven's sake, go see it in a theater. This is not one for popping into your DVD player, pausing while you answer your phone or surf the web and so on. I'd also be delighted if Benh Zeitlin won for Beasts, despide that annoying "h" in his name. The three other movies were all strongly admired by voters so anything is possible here. But the smart money is on the one-time front runner Lincoln.
The Winner: Steven Spielberg -- Lincoln
Bradley Cooper -- Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis -- Lincoln
Hugh Jackman -- Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix -- The Master
Denzel Washington -- Flight
If I were voting, I'd be tempted to pick Joaquin Phoenix for his unlikable, unknowable, squirrelly (in every sense :) turn in The Master. But ultimately I'd be ashamed to give it to anyone but Day-Lewis. The Academy feels the same way. Perhaps it's most notable for not feeling like a flashy, big performance. You just spend the movie wondering how they tracked Lincoln down and convinced him to star in this movie.
The Winner: Daniel Day-Lewis -- Lincoln
Jessica Chastain -- Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence -- Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva -- Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis -- Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Naomi Watts -- The Impossible
The smart money is on Jennifer Lawrence. But having seen Amour, I find it difficult to imagine any voter who watches it choosing anyone but Riva. She's an iconic French actress, she would be the oldest winner in Oscar history, it would acknowledge this great film (and the performance of her co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant, which is just as marvelous) and it's her birthday on Oscar night! As a bonus, it's also one of the most remarkable screen performances you'll ever see. If you wanna play it safe, go for Lawrence, I guess. But there's a real chance for an upset here and you can't go with the obvious choice every single time or you'll just have the same ballot as most everyone else. Sometimes, I'd rather go with my heart and be wrong.
The winner: Emmanuelle Riva -- Amour
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Alan Arkin -- Argo
Robert De Niro -- Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman -- The Master
Tommy Lee Jones -- Lincoln
Christoph Waltz -- Django Unchained
Everyone in this category has won before and you can make a convincing case for why any one of them will triumph (except for Hoffman). I think the smart money is on Tommy Lee Jones, though it's so close to call you might also say prognosticators are leaning towards Christoph Waltz, who is so hilariously good in Django. Waltz would certainly get my vote, though I think he belongs in the Best Actor category alongside Jamie Foxx and might go with the equally good Hoffman. But if my bet is right and Riva beats Lawrence for Best Actress, I think voters will want to acknowledge Silver Linings Playbook somehow. For me, De Niro has always been the sentimental favorite only Jones has gone so long in not winning) and it's his best performance in a long, long time.
The Winner: Robert De Niro -- Silver Linings Playbook
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams -- The Master
Sally Field -- Lincoln
Anne Hathaway -- Les Miserables
Helen Hunt -- The Sessions
Jacki Weaver -- Silver Linings Playbook
The smart money is on Anne Hathaway, of course. She's almost as sure a bet as Daniel Day-Lewis; I'm sure Vegas betting on both of them closed long, long ago. My vote goes for Amy Adams and her very contained, controlling turn in The Master. Playing cold really suits her. But not as much as an Oscar will suit Hathaway for shaving her head and belting it out.
The winner: Anne Hathaway -- Les Miserables
BEST WRITING -- ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Amour -- Michael Haneke
Django Unchained -- Quentin Tarantino
Flight -- John Gatins
Moonrise Kingdom -- Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Zero Dark Thirty -- Mark Boal
The smart money is on Django Unchained with Moonrise Kingdom a stalking horse now that Zero Dark Thirty is too tainted for liberal Oscar voters to embrace. (That's unfair but true; whatever its faults in capturing the complexity of the official record, Zero Dark Thirty is by no means pro-torture and endeavors to capture the moral dilemmas torturing people raise.) I'd be happy if Amour or Moonrise won; though Moonrise is not Anderson's best it's a return to form. But Tarantino's work is sterling and hilarious and bold. Anyone offended by the dialogue in the movie should actually be offended by the dialogue in Gone With The Wind, not this tale of a man's revenge against brutal slave owners that uses the coarse, dehumanizing language of the day.
The Winner: Django Unchained -- Quentin Tarantino
BEST WRITING -- ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Argo -- Chris Terrio
Beasts Of The Southern Wild -- Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Life Of Pi -- David Magee
Lincoln -- Tony Kushner
Silver Linings Playbook -- David O. Russell
The smart money is on Argo, which is fine with me. If I were voting from this lot, I'd choose Beasts -- I have no idea how this movie sprang from a stage play and it's so visually striking that it seems the best accomplishment of the group. As for Lincoln, I have no problem with the kerfuffle over the voting record of imaginary politicians from Connecticut. But my biggest problem with Lincoln was the screenplay, which buried a solid hour of West Wing-like political machinations with an unnecessary prologue and tiresome epilogue showing the rest of Lincoln's life, the end of the Civil War and the assassination when the story had ended with the passage of the 13th amendment. I also despised the hagiography of the noble black characters, from the noble soldier to the noble maid, both of whom are far more eloquent in their speechifying than anyone in sight (including Lincoln) and arise to give their speeches at various points in fear that we might otherwise forget what the 13th amendment was about. Worst of all was the White House servant who gets a funny feeling and just has to turn around and take one last long at Lincoln as he heads for the theater. I'll take Samuel L. Jackson's servant in Django Unchained any day. Argo messes with the historical record far more than Lincoln but they're just ignoring Canadians and that apparently is ok. (Sorry, Mom.)
The Winner: Argo -- Chris Terrio
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
The Pirates! Band Of Misfits
Frankly, none of these movies deserves the Oscar. Brave would be a lock if Pixar's first movie with a female heroine didn't have the unfortunate backstory of Pixar firing its first female director. Frankenweenie is an unnecessary expansion of a delightful short but the Academy does love Tim Burton. ParaNorman is a pretty good tale and the movie I'd probably vote for, edging out Brave just a tad. The Pirates! is silly fun but not quite as good as other Aardman movies. The smart money is on Wreck-It Ralph. Having just watched it, I'm astonished since it's the weakest of the bunch, mechanical and self-referential. Including references to old video games does not constitute character development. On the assumption that Oscar loves to annoy me...
The Winner: Wreck-It Ralph
BEST FOREIGN FILM
A Royal Affair
It seems like a lock but the foreign film category is notorious for bizarre choices. You have to watch all five foreign films in order to vote so the fact that Amour was such a popular film with voters overall is meaningless. Still, it would be a shocking upset if Amour didn't win.
The Winner: Amour
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
5 Broken Cameras
How To Survive A Plague
The Invisible War
Searching For Sugar Man
The smart money is on Searching For Sugar Man. Ironically, Argo, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty are fictional films but have received all sorts of flak for their various fiddlings with the truth in order to tell a coherent story. On the other hand, Searching For Sugar Man is misleading, disingenuous or if you prefer downright false in its storytelling in order to create a simple sweet story that ignores a more complex truth. But no one seems to care. AND IT'S A DOCUMENTARY!! They're actually SUPPOSED to be accurate. Searching For Sugar Man tells the inspiring story of Sixto Rodriguez, an artist who recorded two very good albums in the early 1970s, neither of which made a ripple commercially in the U.S., and then slipped into obscurity. Little did he know that in apartheid South Africa his music became wildly popular and was an inspiration for rebellion among young white South Afrikaners who fought against the establishment. His albums were mainstays, alongside Simon & Garfunkel and other 1970s blockbusters. The rumor in that country was that Rodriguez had committed suicide onstage. So the film tells two stories: the story of an artist who works in construction and volunteers in various social justice projects in Detroit, Michigan. One day he finds himself whisked to South Africa where he's treated like a superstar. The other story is the one of fans who that country who become obsessed with Rodriguez and just want to find out information on him, only to discover the man isn't dead. It's like researching a story on Jimi Hendrix and suddenly finding yourself on the phone with Hendrix. Imagine your astonishment. It's all true. But the movie ignores the fact that Rodriguez was also rediscovered in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Australia, where he toured, recorded a live album and even opened for Midnight Oil. That spoils the Cinderella nature of the film, however, when you learn it happened before. Never mind that finding this out is even more interesting; clearly Rodriguez simply does not have the all-consuming drive for success that drives major artists who achieve popular fame. Further the movie is incredibly slow and plodding. His daughter shows us the website she stumbles on and reads the comment she left saying Rodriguez is her father. Then we see the South African who says he was told someone left a comment and how he read it and then he reads her comment all over again. We know! We just heard it! Every stage is laboriously detailed, which keeps Rodriguez off camera for half the movie, a stunt to maintain the mystery as to whether he's alive or not but which is meaningless since everyone who sees the movie knows that he is. Finally, the interviewing is poor, the many questions not asked mount up (such as how does this figure of rebellion for a certain segment of the country feel about concerts that seem to draw almost exclusively white people? if there's a black face in the audience in those concerts, I didn't see them. How could the film not discuss this wildly relevant issue, especially given his social activism? The entire movie feels like a simple-hearted cheat. It's not trying to be deceptive so much as telling the story as they know it. But that ignores the far more interesting story staring them in the face. My pick would be How To Survive A Plague followed very closely by The Gatekeepers. Both are on my best of the year list. So guess what...
The winner: Searching For Sugar Man
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Anna Karenina -- Dario Marianelli
Argo -- Alexandre Desplat
Life Of Pi -- Mychael Danna
Lincoln -- John Williams
Skyfall -- Thomas Newman
Uninspired choices. I'd vote for Skyfall because it's good and action films rarely get recognized for their scores. But the smart money is on Mychael Danna and Life Of Pi, the least interesting work in a while from a good composer.
The Winner: Life Of Pi -- Mychael Danna
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
"Before My Time" from Chasing Ice
"Everybody Needs A Best Friend" from Ted
"Pi's Lullaby" from Life Of Pi
"Skyfall" from Skyfall
"Suddenly" from Les Miserables
The smart money is on "Skyfall" because it's a great James Bond theme song and absolutely deserves it. Plus, it's Adele!
The only remote competition is "Suddenly" from Les Miserbles but I barely noticed the song and I know the stage musical very, very well. So barring an act of God...
The Winner: "Skyfall" from Skyfall
BEST SOUND EDITING
Argo -- Eric Aaadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn
Django Unchained -- Wylie Stateman
Life Of Pi -- Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton
Skyfall -- Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers
Zero Dark Thirty -- Paul N.J. Ottosson
The Winner: Life Of Pi -- Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton
BEST SOUND MIXING
Argo -- John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Jose Antonio Garcia
Les Miserables -- Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes
Life Of Pi -- Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill and Drew Kunin
Lincoln -- Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Ronald Judkins
Skyfall -- Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell and Stuart Wilson
The Winner: Les Miserables -- Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes
The smart money is on...well, actually the smart money has no idea. Sound Editing and Sound Mixing are two of the categories people feel completely at sea about, no matter how often the Oscars do a segment showing how it works. However, Life Of Pi's success is all about technical achievement, so that movie is going to dominate the tech awards and it will win Sound Editing. However, the people behind Les Miserables have done a good job of hyping the fact that they recorded the singing live on the set (something not technically feasible for the most part even a few years ago) and Sound Mixing is the one place where the movie will get recognized other than Anne Hathaway.
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Anna Karenina -- Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey -- Dan Hennah, Ra Vincent and Simon Bright
Les Miserables -- Eve Stewart and Anna Lynch-Robinson
Life Of Pi -- David Gropman and Anna Pinnock
Lincoln -- Rick Carter and Jim Erickson
I can talk myself into most anything but The Hobbit here. I'll deduct points from Life Of Pi because they'll dismiss it as all special effects. That leaves Lincoln as the favorite of the period pieces.
The Winner: Lincoln -- Rick Carter and Jim Erickson
Anna Karenina -- Seamus McGarvey
Django Unchained -- Robert Richardson
Life Of Pi -- Claudio Miranda
Lincoln -- Janusz Makinski
Skyfall -- Roger Deakins
The smart money is on Life Of Pi. Personally, I would have voted for the sterling work of Richardson on Django Unchained -- it had fun with all the conventions of the spaghetti westerns and 1970s movies in general, but always put the story and characters ahead of jokey zoom shots and the like. Still, I hated the cotton candy color of Life Of Pi so....
The Winner: Life Of Pi -- Claudio Miranda
BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Hitchcock -- Howard Berger, Peter Montagna and Martin Samuel
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey -- Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater and Tami Lane
Les Miserables -- Lisa Westcott and Julie Darnell
Special effects extravaganzas usually win though there's no love for The Hobbit from much of anyone. Les Miserables could sneak in here, but I'll still go with the splashy vote for all those furry hobbit feet.
The Winner: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey -- Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater and Tami Lane
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Anna Karenina -- Jacqueline Durran
Les Miserables -- Paco Delgado
Lincoln -- Joanna Johnston
Mirror, Mirror -- Eiko Ishioka
Snow White and the Huntsman -- Colleen Atwood
It's a three way race but Lincoln and Les Miserables were too dark and muddy. The pretty dresses of Anna Karenina will win because Hollywood loves glamour.
The Winner: Anna Karenina -- Jacqueline Durran
BEST FILM EDITING
Argo -- William Goldenberg
Life Of Pi -- Tom Squyres
Lincoln -- Michael Kahn
Silver Linings Playbook -- Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers
Zero Dark Thirty -- Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg
There's no obvious choice here but Argo is the closest to an action film spectacle, the sort that usually dominates this category.
The Winner: Argo -- William Goldenberg
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey -- Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and R. Christopher White
Life Of Pi -- Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan de Boer and Donald R. Elliott
Marvel's The Avengers -- Janek Sirrs, jeff White, Guy Williams and Dan Sudick
Prometheus -- Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley and Martin Hill
Snow White and the Huntsman -- Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brennan, Neil Corbould and Michael Dawson.
The smart money, indeed all the money is on Life Of Pi. I couldn't stand the look and special effects of Life Of Pi (and the 3-D was, as always, pointless). I'd vote for Marvel's The Avengers. But there's little doubt that Life Of Pi will win. Another one of the evening's locks.
The Winner: Life Of Pi -- Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan de Boer and Donald R. Elliott
BEST ANIMATED SHORT
Adam And Dog
Head Over Heels
The Longest Daycare
The Winner: Fresh Guacamole
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT
Death Of A Shadow
The Winner: Curfew
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Mondays At Racine
The Winner: Open Heart
The shorts categories used to be where you could really gain an edge back in the day. They used to be seen only in NYC and LA and if you actually took the time to head to a screening, you could often spot an obvious winner in at least two of the categories. Now the shorts are shown commercially in some major cities, which is great. I'm glad they get more attention. If you're lucky enough to live in a town where they're shown and you are going to bet on the Oscars, by all means head to the screening. Winning two or three categories that other people haven't a clue about is a great advantage.
Here in New York, the shorts are shown commercially. But for the past decade, they've also been screened at the Academy Theatre at the Lighthouse. The Lighthouse is a worthy group that fights vision loss through "prevention, treatment and empowerment." You can learn more about their good work here. (Can I get a discount on laser surgery? Uh, no.) I've never quite understood why they have a movie theater there, but it's a great space for the New York branch of The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. They have monthly screenings of classic Hollywood movies, usually with the director or star or some related talent present for a Q&A afterwards. It's very inexpensive (even if you're not a member) so if you're in NYC or LA sign up and get their newsletter so you can catch word on future events. They often sell out so you have to act fast.
It's a fun day catching the shorts, though with two and a half to three hours of material to get through, I wish they'd skip all the padding and get to the movies as quickly as possible. This year, the batch of shorts was mostly uninspiring and almost satirical in its button-pushing subject matter (Somali pirates, cancer, Afghanistan -- you name it. If it's a heart-tugging or politically explosive topic, the shorts are certain to go there.
The smart money on the animated shorts is on Paperman, I think, because it's had the most attention and posted itself online. But you have to attend screenings of all five shorts to vote so that doesn't really give it an advantage. The Simpsons short The Longest Daycare was solid but the 3-D was annoying and unnecessary and it felt simply like a very good episode of The Simpsons, which is often Emmy worthy but not special enough for this. Some liked the artiness of Adam And Dog and others the romance of Paperman. When I spoke to people at the screening, everyone had their own theory as to what would win and when -- but ask them what they liked the most and everyone said Fresh Guacamole. It's clever, visually innovative and has a nice little kicker at the end; plus it's the shortest of the five. I'm going with my heart on this one, especially since this category has been pretty funky in recent years and gone with the cutting edge picks.
The live action shorts are hard to call as well, with no real standout. The smart money is on Curfew and I'm inclined to agree. Asad and Buzkashi Boys have exotic settings but cancel each other out. Death Of A Shadow is a murky, poorly thought out Twilight Zone episode. And the old man with dementia in Henry can only remind everyone that Amour was much much better. that leaves Curfew, which has an appealing sweetness amidst black humor and a nice little moment at the end.
I didn't get a chance to catch the documentary shorts -- one big reason is that they're so darn long. Thanks to digital cameras, independent filmmakers aren't hamstrung by the expense of film stock. They can shoot and shoot and shoot to their heart's delight, which means the documentary shorts are increasingly flabby and show no discipline in their editing. Forty minutes is a novella length for movies -- not short enough to be a short and not long enough to be a feature. Tighter is almost always better. Just going on the cleverest title and the most heart-tugging of a group of heart-tugging tales, I'm going with Open Heart.
Good luck on your Oscar pool! Let me know which category I'm crazily wrong about and whether you win.