Here’s something I’ll bet a lot of you wouldn’t have guessed: once upon a time, when my pants were short and my South African accent heavy, I was a very good Oscar pundit. I won every pool going. I beat the lame TV critics’ guesses and laughed in their televised faces. When that got old, I entered a radio “predict the Oscars” contest and won ZAR200 in mall vouchers. (Okay, that’s $26 – it was worth more in the 90s.)
Since those heady days of glory, however, things have changed. The internet came along, for starters, and proved to be a hell of a lot smarter than me. But my own predictions – particularly at the nomination stage – got more wayward by the year; gone were the days of going five-for-five in one category after another.
When it comes to picking the winners, meanwhile, I’ve begun losing Oscar pools to my brother, a mostly disinterested architect with an uncanny knack for calling the Academy’s most gauchely sentimental instincts. (He nailed the Best Foreign Language Film upset by “Departures,” for example, simply by reading a one-line plot synopsis of each nominee. I can learn much from him.)
Why the lapse in form lately? It’s simple, really: I’ve started seeing the movies.
That is to say, I’ve started seeing the movies in time. Back in the days when I had no access to press screenings or festivals, I was wholly at the mercy of South African release schedules, which usually meant I was lucky if one of the Best Picture nominees landed before Easter.
Invariably, that meant predicting nominees with little perspective on the nominees beyond what precursors, reviews and past Academy form dictated. Logically, such blindness should be a handicap. But over the years – not least the last 18 months I’ve spent working at InContention – what I’ve learned is that familiarity breeds confusion. The better I know the players in any given year, the harder it gets to see the forest for the trees.
It’s not merely a case of favoring what I like, though I can’t help but let wishful thinking play a part. Last year, for example, had I not spent the better part of a year admiring and championing one Sally Hawkins, I might have found it easier to drop her from my predictions when she missed with the BFCA, SAG and BAFTA. Come February, had I had no personal investment in the showdown between Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn, I’d probably have seen how cold Oscar logic favored the latter. But I did. So I didn’t.
What this is a very roundabout way of saying is that my current predictions, which I spent a good deal of time puzzling over yesterday afternoon, are somewhat in limbo. As we sit on the eve of the National Board of Review offering the first broad precursor pointers of the season (the Spirits are too exclusive, the Satellites too daffy), I’m torn between protecting outside notions that I’ve nurtured for months on end, and facing up to more obvious realities.
It broke my heart to drop “Bright Star” from my projected Best Picture list, for example, but I can’t ignore the sinking feeling that the industry love isn’t there – though it’s nothing that a well-placed critics’ award or two couldn’t fix. I held on for ages to the idea of Tilda Swinton scoring one of those rare connoisseur’s nominations from left field, but until I see some hard precursor evidence to the contrary, I’m letting go.
That said, I can’t give over entirely to sensible thinking – I’m sticking by my Best Picture and Best Actress calls for “It’s Complicated,” simply because the possibility of being right is too rich, however remote. And I still can’t accept that all the heavily-hyped December contenders are going to make the cut – “spot the Christmas turkey” is one of the most enjoyable games in Oscar prognostication, though I fear The Ten may have put paid to that ritual.
In this regard, I kind of sympathize with Jeff Wells, who recently wrote a plea to his fellow Oscar pundits to “lead a little bit” with their forecasts, to “mysteriously and inconsistently blend their predictions with some personal conviction of their own.” Wells drove home his point recently by leaving “Precious” out of his recent Best Picture slate for the Gurus of Gold – not because he doesn’t think it will be nominated (Wells is a sharp man, after all), but because he felt someone was duty-bound to resist it.
When someone like Wells raises the question of what an Oscar pundit’s responsibility is, I’m not sure there’s a right answer. The very objective of predicting is to be right. At the same time, successfully anticipating the success of films or artists you don’t personally believe in can feel like a hollow victory. And if you do use predictions to champion those you think deserve a boost, how far can you stray into the impossible?
Perhaps sites like ours should run a parallel sidebar of “should-be” candidates throughout the year. Or perhaps one should keep meshing personal hopes with practical considerations – which is why, in the end, I popped “Bright Star” back in my ten after all.
Because there are rare, beautiful moments when wishful thinking is validated. In 2007, I fell hard for a performance I encountered in early autumn. It seemed a surefire Oscar bid to me, and it duly entered my predictions, not budging despite precursor after precursor failing to take notice. Months later, when nearly every Oscar pundit had rationally dropped said actor from their lists, my loyalty was rewarded when Laura Linney landed a deserved Best Actress nod for “The Savages.” There’s nothing sweeter than being right in two ways.