How to predict the Oscars
Predicting the Oscars is an amateur's game and I mean that in a good way. You don't have to have Academy sources to be a good guesser; in fact, some of the best are self-taught experts who live way outside the Hollywood bubble. Want to play at home? Now that guessing season has begun, here's a handicapping tip sheet.
It's better to be loved by some than liked by all. This is a good rule for life, but also for Best Picture nominees. In the Academy's voting system, each nominator ranks five movies by preference. The way their choices are then tabulated strongly favors movies that receive a high number of first- or second-place votes, the underlying principle being that in choosing nominees, passion should matter more than consensus. For proof of how this changes the playing field, look at the last two years, in which supposed sure things Walk the Line and Dreamgirls were left out of the Best Picture hunt. Being everyone's fifth choice isn't enough.
Movies you think are too cool to be nominated for Best Picture will be Nominated for their scripts. Screenwriters, who do the choosing, have smart, adventuresome spirits. The last few years have brought writing nominations for Pan's Labyrinth, Children of Men, A History of Violence, The Squid and the Whale, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In this branch, good movies rule. Go writers! (This paragraph sponsored by the WGA.)
Directors are internationalists. One of the last pre-Oscar heats is the list of Directors Guild nominations in January. The DGA's choices will just about match the Best Director Oscar nominees, which will just about match the Best Picture noms. It's the ''just about'' that's tricky. Unlike the Yank-friendly DGA, the Academy's directors' branch has a long history of honoring foreign filmmakers, from Kurosawa to Kieslowski. Last year, the DGA went for Bill Condon; the Academy replaced him with England's Paul Greengrass. So when you see the DGA list, scratch one American and replace him with a Brit or European. And then send a note of apology to poor Rob Reiner, who's been on the losing end of that deal three times.
Actors are both generous and sentimental. They like newcomers, the very young, the very old, the reliable workhorse, the person with a great backstory, the underappreciated veteran, pretty people with ugly makeup, and ugly people with pretty accents. Think of the actors' branch as a tipsy aunt who hugs you but leaves lipstick smears it operates on warmth and a bit too much slobber.
In the visual categories cinematography, art direction, and costume Design pretty beats daring. These are not branches whose members often make the ''less is more'' argument. Period beats contemporary; elaborate and excessive beats simple and appropriate; inordinately beautiful beats intelligently grimy. Westerns, musicals, and epics can still score in the art direction and costume branches, where it's always 1962. Cinematographers are more modern, but they're still under a 50-year credibility penalty for not nominating The Godfather or The Godfather Part II. As for the complex issue of where art direction and cinematography end and CGI begins, don't worry: Many voters don't know either. If something looks good, they nominate it.
Don't trust any handicapper who's beating a drum too loudly. In the last few years, bloggers have blurred the line between Oscar prediction and advocacy something that has had no discernible effect on the nominations, but has lowered their batting average. Nine out of 10 bad calls are made because you love or hate a movie so intensely you're blind to reason. Everybody relishes making an out-on-a-limb guess that pays off, but try to keep one foot on planet Earth: If you're the only one talking up Billy Bob Thornton for Mr. Woodcock, it's not because everybody else is an idiot.
Keep Internet noise in perspective. Remember that Oscar voters don't follow every who's-up/who's-down microtwitch; they're busy seeing (or making) movies. And bear in mind that some of those bloggers tend to get chest-thumpy about a certain type of (usually male, usually violent) film: This year, a lot of bluster is already massing around No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. They're contenders, but rhetoric doesn't equal votes.
Don't trust lingo. Memorize these translations: ''Insiders tell me...'' (Meaning: I talked to a publicist.) ''Word on the street is...'' (Meaning: I talked to a publicist.) ''The Academy screening went well.'' (Meaning: The Academy screening took place.) ''Voters are leaning toward...'' (Meaning: I am completely making this up.)
Beware numerical formulas. A prognosticator who tells you, ''Only four times in history has the second-place finisher in the New York Film Critics Circle also received a SAG nomination and still failed to...'' is working too hard. Math can't trump instinct.
And don't forget to see the movies. On balance, it helps.