Buzzmeter roundup

There hasn't been this much suspense surrounding the Oscar race for best picture since, well, last year. The big difference: now pundits are aware ahead of time.

At the last derby nearly every prognosticator predicted "Brokeback Mountain" would win -- that is, before "Crash" hit the category like a runaway BMW on California's 405 freeway.

This time the pundits are poised for the shock of potential upsets by "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Babel" while "The Departed" seems to be the conservative, allegedly "safe" choice for frontrunner.

Several of The Envelope's Buzzmeter experts like Edward Douglas of Comingsoon.net and Steve Pond of The Envelope are banking on the industry vote support that the film has already demonstrated with big wins at the directors' and writers' guilds.

All experts agree that this is the year director Martin Scorsese will finally win his overdue Oscar as best director, an award that usually matches up with best picture. But since the director/picture categories have split four times in the past eight years, it gives gutsy Oscar seers an excuse to stray when predicting the top race.

Notable naysayers have emerged like Peter Travers of Rolling Stone and Gene Seymour of Newsday who bask in the glow of "Little Miss Sunshine."

"It won both the Producers' Guild and SAG best-ensemble prizes," notes Seymour. "And it seems altogether plausible for the Academy to anoint one of those little-movies-that-could over bigger and, yes, better movies. There are precedents, folks. Remember 'Rocky' 30 years ago?"

The SAG ensemble award has correctly forecast the top Oscar champ three times over the past four years, including the big upset by "Crash" last year.

However, its track record drops below 50 percent if viewed over the award's full history of 11 years. Only 5 of its ensemble winners went on to win the Oscar for best picture. The producers' guild has a much better record, correctly forecasting the top Oscar 11 times in 17 years.

Clay Smith, film critic of "The Insider," vacillates between "The Departed" and "Sunshine," leery of the latter "because the other four nominated films are so serious in nature. Maybe people need a little laughter right now!"

But some gurus believe that "Sunshine" is TOO lightweight. Oscar voters are often accused of taking their job picking best picture too seriously -- literally. Rarely, do outright comedies win and, when they do, they tend to have pretension or sophistication that "Sunshine" doesn't.

The triumphant comedies were written by famous social satirists like Woody Allen ("Annie Hall") or Billy Wilder ("The Apartment"). "Sunshine" writer Michael Arndt is relatively unknown in the industry.

Furthermore, "Sunshine's" directors aren't nominated. Only one film in modern times has won best pic without being nominated for best director ("Driving Miss Daisy").

"Sunshine" also isn't nominated for film editing, which many Oscarologists believe is a key tea leaf. No film in the past 60 years has won best picture missing both of those nominations.

"Babel" is rising quickly as an alternative usurper to "The Departed." It won the Golden Globe as best drama picture. That's key. Over the past 52 years, the top Oscar champ won one of the two Globe awards for best pic (drama or comedy/musical) 42 times. Also, "Babel" has the most nominations (7) among films up for best pic. That same was true of 16 filmis that won best picture over the past 20 years.

But "Babel" doesn't fit the best picture formula in many other ways. The average best-picture champ earns $100 million at the U.S. box office. "Babel" has reaped only $32 million. It's been nominated for the most guild awards, but has won only one -- tied "The Departed" for the prize bestowed by American Cinema Editors. But the Eddie Award has foretold the Oscar winner for best picture 6 times over the past decade.

But 'Babel' has formidable boosters among The Envelope's Oscar seers, including Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times and Pete Hammond of Maxim and Hollywood-Wiretap.com, both of whom foresaw the "Crash" upset last year.

"'Babel' is just a hunch right now based on a few conversations I have had with voters," says Hammond. "I still think 'Little Miss Sunshine' could pull it out as well, but the lack of directing and editing noms is something that really bothers me. Are we ready to make Academy history with 'Little Miss Sunshine' in that regard? On the other hand, I have switched to Alan Arkin in supporting and am sticking with 'Little Miss Sunshine' for Original Screenplay against 'Babel,' so picking 'Babel' without a screenplay or directing win (I am with Scorsese there, of course) is also highly unprecedented on my part, but it certainly can happen."

Clay Smith calls this category a three-horse race.

"No question," he adds. "In terms of the chances of 'Letters from Iwo Jima,' we've never seen a film 100 percent in a foreign language win best picture. As revered as Clint Eastwood is, I think he's gotten his just desserts and rewards in the last few years. In terms of 'The Queen' -- people admire it for Helen Mirren's performance. I don't think it was even looked at initially as a film that could go this far."

The frontrunner, according to Edward Douglas of Comingsoon.net is "The Departed," adding, "it's a hard movie to beat in the Best Picture race. Sure, 'Little Miss Sunshine' is fun and everybody loves it, but "best picture"? Not likely. While Alejandro Iñarritu's 'Babel' has been gaining some ground and supporters, it seems to be coming into the game late with just a Golden Globe and an ACE Eddie and little else. Are there so many people that love this movie that they forgot to vote for it in all the guild awards? Not likely. "

Click here for complete Buzzmeter Oscar rankings.

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