It's the end of February and the Super Bowl is history. That means the fantasy football betting at work has been temporarily replaced by the Oscar pools.
Should be easy to win the pot on this, right? A lot fewer variables than the NFL.
The problem is no one's always got a clear line on who's gonna win the Oscars. They aren't really about which pictures are the best, so much as an excuse to have a 3-hour worldwide commercial for Hollywood (and so do they really care if it goes over the scheduled time?).
The raison d'etre of the show has always been showing clips, reminding you to rent last year's winners on VOD (oh yeah, Birdman), the nervous glamour on the red carpet, Kate's (and Cate's) designer dresses, and who's so drunk they mess up their acceptance speech.
But who gets the gold statues is increasingly impossible to predict -- #OscarsSoWhite not withstanding. The Academy tries each year to be more inclusive, nominating films no one's heard of, letting James Franco and Anne Hathaway host (ruin) the 2011, and featuring well-meaning foreign-based issue pictures for lesser awards to class up the joint.
How can you possibly win your Oscar poll this year? The secret to remember is the best films and performances seldom -- almost never -- get the prizes.
You saw who won the Golden Globes (The Martian as best comedy or musical, it must have been all that Abba music on the boombox), and what the Spirit Awards has nominated (Carol, which only appears in the acting categories and adapted screenplay among the Oscar's major awards). The most popular films of the year aren't even nominated (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and Avengers: Age of Ultron aren't "Oscar material" and they don't need the extra publicity push).
Inside Out, the 4th highest grosser of 2015, is safe, being in the animation ghetto; also, it's a little girl's bike. The front-runner among the best picture nominees, The Revenant, at #17 is modest enough to pass the art-over-commerce test.
None of these are predictors for how to mark your ballot. But you can have the inside track, and beat that Oscar pool and annoy your co-workers as you agree to take them out for lunch next week when you trump the odds.
Here are the things you must remember:
1. Don't watch any of the films beforehand.
No. Really. Millions of people try to see all the nominees in the weeks leading up to the broadcast so they can give the ballot an objective, fair ranking.
Measures of quality will only blind and confound you. What wins has little or nothing to do with actual accomplishment and everything to do with who's sleeping with who, whether or not the grosses are too big (but not too big), how many little people you pushed aside on the way up, or if they forgot to nominate you last year.
This is inside baseball and you'd be better to read Deadline Hollywood than Manohla Dargis. Does it feel like it should win? What looks good on the front page tomorrow morning statistically wins more than the best film.
The more culturally acceptable and polite, the better the odds. Ergo, Crash beats Brokeback Mountain (2005), Out of Africa beats The Color Purple (1985), Ordinary People beats Raging Bull (1980), Kramer vs. Kramer beats Apocalypse Now (1979), the list goes on and on. The losers, all worthy, are made by young turks and maybe those guys haven't paid their dues yet.
Their time will come (see 3 below). Shakespeare In Love won over Saving Private Ryan (1998), but that upset seemed to be about the size of Spielberg's bank account. Plus, Spielberg. (Nothing against any of these winners, but no one's teaching Gandhi in film school nowadays.)
The winner can't embarrass anyone when it wins. If you steer clear of quality, you're alright. It's strictly business. Deserve's got nothing to do with it.
Like I said, the runners-up tend to engage with youth culture, which brings us to:
2. The Academy is old (and white) (and male).
The real truth is the Academy (spoiler alert) picks what it understands, and being made up predominately of old men who used to work in the industry (who are also, yes, mostly white) this year as much as any has made it clear the field inadvertently gets biased towards films they feel most comfortable with.
The Academy ranks are filled with professionals that at one point were nominated for or won an Oscar, or were invited by their peers (those mostly white, male nominees) to join. It ends up being a self-selecting group "minority" of the majority.
And, until this year, you didn't leave the Academy until you died. The average age is 74. It was not, nor intended to be, a democracy. So imagine a screener of Straight Out Of Compton hitting a retired cinematographer's mailbox along with the one for Spotlight. Which one gets popped in first?
Those Academy members might have voted for Compton when they were 22 years old, but they weren't in the academy when they were 22 years old.
Remember who's casting the majority of the votes, and you can't go wrong on your Oscar poll. What would your rich grandpa vote for?
(The Academy has recently revised its voting rules so that anyone who hasn't been "active" in the industry loses their voting status. This will ensure younger voters have more of a voice in future nominees and winners, and will, for the good, dramatically change future ballots. Tab Hunter apparently will still be allowed to participate.)
(The full effect of this change remains to be seen. Next years meme: #OscarsSoYoung.)
3. Timing is everything.
Oscar history is rife with people who won for "last year's performance," when for some reason the Academy failed to honor what they should have and are now making amends.
Did Paul Newman really win in 1986 for The Color of Money, or for Cool Hand Luke, Hud, The Verdict, The Hustler, and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, all of which he was nominated for but didn't win?
Jeff Bridges's Crazy Heart win (2009) is really acknowledgement for a long career of solid work. It's not because he did anything special in Crazy Heart he hadn't already done better in, for example, The Big Lebowski.
And speaking of the Coen Brothers, they've made better pictures than No Country For Old Men (2007) and there were better pictures that year, too, but it was good enough. There might not be another chance. (Hasn't been so far.) The Academy realizes time is running out. The Departed? MillionDollar Baby? Thanks for the memories, boys.
(This doesn't explain Argo, however.)
4. The "trash" awards.
All those minor awards -- documentary shorts, make-up, editing that take up the middle hour while you're making more margaritas and surreptitiously changing your choices on your ballot when your boss isn't looking? Just flip a coin. Only people in those guilds are generally allowed to nominate and vote on those and who knows what the hell they think is good?
Difference between sound editing and sound mixing? Time for one more round.
Besides, your poll probably only gives a single point to each of these if you win, a handful of darts in the dark. Odds are no one will get any more of them right than you did. (N.B: If it's French, knock it out of the running. If the animated short is about a cat, automatic win.)
5. It just ain't fair.
Mad Max: Fury Road consistently impresses in all the categories it's nominated for. I predict it will win nothing important. It's a Mad Max movie. This is the Oscars. In a fair fight, Spielberg and Boyle would be on the director's list and Samuel L. Jackson would be representing The Hateful 8 instead of Jennifer Jason Leigh for acting.
But Matt Damon lost all that weight on Mars and Leonardo DiCaprio wrestled a real bear.
Now you have the inside track. Good luck!