Oscar Alternatives: My 2016 Academy Award Dream Picks

A streaker runs behind host David Niven at the 1975 Academy Awards. (Photo: Associated Press.)

A streaker runs behind host David Niven at the 1974 Academy Awards. (Photo: Associated Press.)

As the red carpet rolls out for this Sunday’s 88th Academy Awards, controversy may overshadow the usual celebrity worship and horserace analysis. But for all the handwringing over the lack of diversity among this year’s nominees, maybe the rallying hashtag shouldn’t be #OscarsSoWhite, but #OscarsWhoCares?

Yes, the movie industry has a serious diversity problem, but a close look at the recent ups and downs of minority Oscar nominees shows that issue won’t be affected much by who brings home the statue and who doesn’t. Surveying all the major films and artists never honored with an Oscar—irrespective of race and gender bias—it’s clear the awards really matter very little to film history, let alone social progress. So why bother paying attention to this bloated exercise in industry self-congratulation?

Well, I’ll confess to being sucked into the spectacle like everyone else. I’ve been watching the ceremony since I was a kid and that questionable tradition continues. As for any serious value in the awards, last year in another “dream picks” feature I wrote for Chicagoist, I suggested they might serve a purpose in presenting the general public with a standard beyond box office grosses to measure film excellence. This is a rare mainstream arena where an intimate drama like Room shares the spotlight with a box office behemoth like The Martian…at least for one night.

That chief merit is questionable though, when you see the small pool of films that get serious Oscar consideration. The significant sway of marketing campaigns, perceived momentum of other awards shows, and the greater visibility of films from well-funded studios keeps countless worthy movies completely out of the game.

So, as a trivial corrective to this trivial tradition, I’m again skipping Oscar predictions (aside from the wagers I make with my wife) and “snub scorecards” in favor of a selection of fantasy winners chosen for a few select categories. These are choices that were either never on the Academy’s radar or quickly fell off it.

And now, the envelopes, please…

Best Picture: The Mend

My favorite film of 2015, the micro-budgeted They Look Like People, didn’t have a commercial theatrical release last year, so it wouldn’t be eligible under Academy rules. So I’ll go with another indie gem: John Magary’s brilliantly brittle drama of the antagonistic relationship between misanthropic brothers. As oddly funny as it is combative, the staid Academy membership probably wouldn’t know what to make of it.

Best Actor: Ian McKellen for Mr. Holmes

At 76, it might not seem much of a stretch for McKellen to play an elderly version of Sherlock Holmes, but the actor plays him at 93 and in his early ‘60s, and the different physicality he brings to both ages is meticulously detailed. The range of the role goes beyond that challenge, as McKellen also shows both the fierce intelligence of Holmes and his inner turmoil as he begins suffering from dementia. There was some buzz about a possible nomination for the veteran thespian for a while, but the summer release of the movie probably doomed it. The Academy is notorious for favoring fall and winter releases and all the Best Actor nominees starred in films that opened in October or later.

Best Actress: Samantha Morton for The Harvest

Nominated twice for Oscars before she turned 30, Morton hasn’t been an awards season favorite for a while, but her harrowing performance in John McNaughton’s excellent chiller shows her estimable talent hasn’t faded in the slightest. As a physician and mother who succumbs to madness in her obsession to keep her ailing son alive, she is both terrifying and tragic.

Best Supporting Actor: Sam Elliott for Grandma

I absolutely hated Grandma, a jaded sitcom of a road movie that exists mainly to show how cross-generationally hip it is. That only makes Elliott’s unforgettable performance all the more impressive. In one extended scene, playing Lily Tomlin’s jilted former lover, Elliott delivers more explosive emotional honesty than the movie deserves. Tomlin can’t keep up with him in the scene, but it doesn’t matter. Elliott has made a career out of likeable, laconic character roles, but in just a few minutes here he shows how much more he has to offer.

Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander for Ex Machina

Vikander is nominated in this category…but for the wrong movie. She’s superb in The Danish Girl (despite my reservations about the film as a whole), but it’s clearly a lead performance. As Ava, the robot imbued with artificial intelligence in Ex Machina, Vikander finds the perfect note of not-quite-human warmth and curiosity.

Best Director: John Magary for The Mend

The wilderness brutality of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant and the post-apocalyptic pyrotechnics of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road are indeed impressive. For me, however, it was even more thrilling to see how John Magary made the simple sight of Josh Lucas unexpectedly appearing on his brother’s couch seem utterly dynamic. Magary does that kind of thing throughout his debut feature, showing that bravura visual style is not confined to epics and action films.

Best Original Screenplay: Bruce Wagner for Maps to the Stars

I’m actually rooting for Alex Garland’s nominated script for Ex Machina, but I’ll use this fantasy slot to highlight Wagner’s supremely cynical, wickedly funny, dark Hollywood satire.

Best Adapted Screenplay: David Nicholls for Far from the Madding Crowd

Classic literary adaptations often fail because the writers are more concerned with doing justice to the book than making it come alive for the screen. But Nicholls’ dialogue avoids that pitfall, bringing a sense of immediacy to characters created over 140 years ago.

Best Foreign Language Film: White God

The critical consensus is that this is a very strong category this year, with Son of Saul, Mustang and Embrace of the Serpent all getting wide acclaim. It may be that Hungary’s White God was too close to action/thriller territory to compete for a trophy often awarded to films with subject matter perceived as more serious. But putting aside that the movie is also metaphor about the mistreatment of immigrant communities, this exciting and moving tale of mixed-breed dogs rising up against humanity is a marvel of physical production. No digital doggies run with the huge hordes of canines acting in unison. If nothing else, this should get a special award for the animal wranglers.

Best Cinematography: Dan Lausten for Crimson Peak

Best Production Design: Thomas E. Sanders for Crimson Peak

Even with its wobbly ending, Guillermo del Toro’s gothic horror throwback was a delight for fans of a more literate, classy brand of fright film. Dan Lausten’s expressive, richly colored cinematography harkened back to the look of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle and the Hammer films of the ‘60s. More pivotal was Thomas Sanders’ downright spectacular production design. The crumbling, labyrinthine mansion was built from scratch for the movie and is one of the most unique haunted houses to ever grace the screen. Hard to imagine how the Academy failed to recognize Sanders’ dazzling creation.

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    Joel Wicklund

    Joel Wicklund has been writing about movies for over two decades now and, shockingly, he is still allowed to do so. He was a film critic for Chicagoist before its demise, among other outlets. He insists on claiming more online space here in the hope of indoctrinating more lost souls in his personal cult of cinephilia. Reviews, rants, interviews, features…you get the drift.

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