19 February 2016

The Oscars: time to place your bets


Heads up: the Oscars ceremony is on the last Sunday in February. By the end of the evening you can expect some serious surprises and some cruelly overlooked losers, accompanied by public emotions that may even be real. By far the biggest deal of the night is the award for ‘Best Picture’. This is the only award that all the 6,000 or so Academy members can vote on, and it is also the award that has the biggest impact on current box office and future productions. Here’s the CapX guide to who might win Best Picture and why.

It’s a long-ish list, with eight films nominated (for many years up to 2008 there were only five films considered). In one sense it is a classic year in that while there is one bookies favourite there is no obvious winner, and there are several worthy contenders. The biggest selling film by far is The Martian, but that is not the favourite. The bookies prefer The Revenant, which has also taken a lot of money (although only half the box office of The Martian), but Spotlight and The Big Short are running it close in the betting stakes. Neither can a surprise winner from the rear field be ruled out.

The Oscars are criticised for many things, and especially for the Academy’s habit of giving away the Best Picture award for films that are clearly not the best picture. Many of the most influential films of the last 50 years failed to win the prize that the court of retrospective opinion says they deserved. The sentimental has a habit of winning out over the dark: think of Ordinary People beating Raging Bull, or Forrest Gump beating Pulp Fiction. Movies like A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Fargo all lost out against lighter weight competition. Amazingly, neither Kubrick’s 2001 nor Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing were even nominated.

But the Oscars would not be the Oscars if people were not complaining: the prospect of absurdity and irrationality in the decision-making is part of the strange attraction of the ceremony. This year an additional edge has been provided by a somewhat synthetic controversy about the alleged ‘whiteness’ of the nominees this year and in years past (forgetting that the 2014 Best Picture winner was 12 Years A Slave). No doubt the #OscarsSoWhite fuss was not actually manufactured by the Academy’s press office, but the net effect has been to push the awards back into the same controversy zone that has served the Oscars so well in the past. The possibility that someone will stage a Brando-like protest stunt during the ceremony can only help viewing figures on one of the biggest broadcast nights of the year.

On to the films. This year’s nominations are heavily skewed to ‘talking films’ – that is, movies driven by story, script and character rather than effects and grand set pieces, but there is also a science fiction film, a landscape epic, and one noisy effects-fest. Your CapX guide will take them according to the betting odds, in reverse order.

Brooklyn, the romantic character study from the Colm Toibin book of the same name, is bottom of the bookies list. The fact that it is deftly scripted by Nick Hornby and attractively underplayed by the cast fails to lend it the weight it will need. The film is set in a sentimentalised version of 1950s Ireland and New York, and shot in washed out colour that looks – no doubt deliberately – like a faded Kodacolor snap from a family album. On a budget of only $10 million Brooklyn has made back the investment five times over, so the producers won’t have too much to complain of if, as expected, it fails to take home Best Picture. Current best odds at the bookies: 250/1.

Running roughly level with Brooklyn comes Bridge of Spies, a Steven Spielberg-directed cold war reconstruction about the capture and release of the US reconnaissance pilot Gary Powers, with the pivotal scenes set in a snow-bound Berlin. Steven Spielberg is a director and producer of prodigious talent who has shaped the cinema of recent decades, but his work has an unusual range of intensity settings. In Bridge of Spies it feels as if he has barely bothered to turn the lights on. Tom Hanks is not comfortable in his leading role, and Mark Rylance – the star of the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall – is so underused you keep wondering how Thomas Cromwell strayed into this film. Best Picture lists usually contain some inexplicable nominations, and this is one. Current best odds at the bookies: 250/1.

The bookies are giving slightly higher chances to Room. This is a low budget and low box office film about a young woman abducted and imprisoned for years in a tiny room, and her relationship with the son who is born to her there. The first half of the film takes place exclusively inside this dreadful space, a prospect so unpromising that it is remarkable that anyone at all has paid to watch it. Even more surprising is that Room is an utterly involving film that succeeds in drawing a subtle drama from its very limitations. The acting is impeccable, and the darkness of the scenario is as much implied as shown. It would be quite an upset if this intelligent and original film were to win Best Picture, but it would not be undeserved. Current best odds at the bookies: 150/1.

The producers of the season’s box office winner The Martian must be very disappointed that this Matt Damon sci-fi vehicle is not anywhere near the betting favourite for this year’s award. But then, the film is just a Matt Damon vehicle – pleasant, enjoyable, and rather unambitious. Science fiction films only soar when they expand the envelope of what is possible, and The Martian doesn’t do that. As for the story the premise is terrific – a lone spaceman accidentally left behind on Mars – but there is an odd absence of jeopardy as Damon trundles around the huge sandpit that is his version of the red planet.  No science fiction film has ever won Best Picture; will this be the year that changes? The bookies don’t think so, and your best odds are 125/1.

This is not a big year for special effects, so Mad Max: Fury Road with its intricate effects-rich palette is an outlier. That makes it distinctive, but is it good enough? A lot of work went into refreshing the Mad Max franchise for this sequel, although all the usual hardware is there (that is, lots of rusty vehicles with spikes on). Despite the best efforts of the production team the challenge of adding a credible storyline to what is not much more than another post-apocalyptic car chase proves too much. The film has another handicap, which is that it is a sequel: only two sequels have ever won Best Picture (and only one – The Godfather II – deserved to win). Current best odds at the bookies: 100/1.

Three films form the cohort of favourites for this year’s prize, with The Big Short currently third in a close pack. The Big Short is an attractive but uneven film, jokey and angry at the same time, analysing and animating the property crash of 2008 in a style that draws on improvisational comedy as much as conventional screen storytelling. It is not quite as good as the book it is based upon, perhaps because it never quite finds its tone, perhaps because the film-makers never get on easy terms with the complicated subject matter or with the investment world’s equivocal morals. It’s good, but it could have been better. Current best odds at the bookies: 5/1.

There is nothing uneven about Spotlight, a grey, relentless movie about child abuse in the Catholic church and the work of journalists at the Boston Globe in first uncovering the story. Spotlight inevitably brings to mind that other hit film about crusading journalists All The President’s Men, which was nominated in 1976 but lost out to the Sylvester Stallone punch-up film Rocky: the Academy has a record of awarding prizes to make up for past omissions, which might give Spotlight an extra chance. It is also an excellent film, avoiding many opportunities to moralise and depicting everyone involved in the story as in some way compromised. Current best odds at the bookies: 5/2.

The bookies favourite is The Revenant, the Leonardo DiCaprio showcase epic from Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Massive and ambitious, the story of the filming of this revenge western is almost as strenuous as the 156 minutes of the movie itself with the actors and crew undergoing considerable privations. It is certainly a starkly handsome movie, although the story weakness that is apparent in all of Iñárritu’s work is repeated here. While the producers insist that The Revenant is not an effects-dependent film, in fact there are some startling effects moments and they are particularly good (watch out for the plunging horse). But The Revenant faces one big problem in the prize stakes, and that is simply that Birdman, another Iñárritu film, won Best Picture last year. Best Picture Oscars are awarded to producers, not directors, but Iñárritu is a co-producer of both Birdman and The Revenant and not since 1940 has a producer won Best Picture two years in a row. Current best odds at the bookies: 4/6.

We may not know which of these films will win the big prize, but we can confidently predict that once again the Oscars will be roundly criticized for being irrelevant, out of touch, grossly commercialised, and plain wrong. And anyway how can anyone compare what are claimed to be works of craft and art, especially when they range from the $6 million Room (in today’s terms that is almost no budget at all) to the $135 million monster The Revenant?

In fact such disparities are really the point of the Oscars. In their own way they show that money isn’t everything. Money buys you impact – it is difficult for a well-crafted epic with a big star to lose money – but it doesn’t necessarily buy you an Oscar (in the last ten years at least three films costing $15 million or less have won Best Picture, while many $100 million plus efforts have lost out). The only reason that many original films get financed is that distant chance of lucking out at the Oscars.

And who would have guessed back in 1929 when the first Oscars ceremony was held (it lasted a full 15 minutes) that nearly a century on this dazzling four-hour showcase of preposterous self-esteem and bare-knuckle competition would still be hogging the airwaves? Hollywood has always done corny and cosmopolitan in equal measure, but nothing else has made it to 87 sequels. The Oscars are slightly ridiculous: long may they remain so.

The betting odds in the CapX guide to the Oscars Best Picture award are based on the longest odds offered by active betting sites at the time of writing – some bookmakers may offer shorter odds, and odds may shift as the ceremony approaches.

CapX has reviewed some of the nominated films in depth. For a look at The Big Short go here; our review of Spotlight is here.

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications advisor to financial companies.