The 88th Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 28, 232 days from today.

Same rules, new members

A few months back, I began mentioning what seemed like an exciting possibility at the time: the Academy switching to five or 10 Best Picture nominees. If it were the former, some of the Oscar-bait also-rans may be excluded. (No one last year was seriously expecting The Theory of Everything to win Best Picture, the argument goes, so why nominate it in the first place?) If it were the latter, as it was in 2009 and 2010, there is a chance that more crowd favorites — like animated films and blockbusters — could get nominated for the big prize, boosting viewership and public interest in the ceremony.

In the end, the answer was neither.

Rather than headline-grabbing announcements, the Academy’s new rules were largely tweaks to the status quo. The New York Times wrote that the Academy changed its rules about who could qualify as a producer, relying more on the PGA than before, and expanded the visual effects award shortlist. The Hollywood Reporter noted that studios are now prohibited from showcasing Best Original Song contenders without an accompanying movie screening in order for voters “to judge not just the quality of a song, but also the degree to which it serves the film in which it is featured.” In other words, expect, as a whole, more of the same.

But while the voting process saw few changes from 2014, the voters themselves are changing. A 2012 LA Times article (“Unmasking the Academy: Oscar voters overwhelmingly white, male”) began a recent trend toward critiquing the lack of diversity within the Academy, a trend brought further into the public spotlight by the perceived snub of Selma last year. The 322 film professionals invited to join the Academy near the end of June included “a substantial number of female and minority artists and executives,” according to the New York Times. (It also included recent nominees Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Morten Tyldum; recent should-have-been nominees David Oyelowo and Damien Chazelle; and Daniel Radcliffe.) Minority artists are increasingly running for Academy board positions, most notably Selma director Ava DuVernay, who ran against Kimberly Peirce, Lisa Cholodenko and incumbent Michael Mann to lead the directors branch. (She lost.)

Another recent trend is including international actors and filmmakers in the Academy. According to a Hollywood Reporter article, an influx of foreign talent has joined the organization in the last two years, including how-was-he-not-invited-before Hayao Miyazaki. The article delves into the history of anti-internationalism at the Oscars, from its motives (the ceremony was run by Hollywood studios who did not want to be overtaken by foreign films) to ineffective counter-attacks (including adding in a Best Foreign Language film award to fence off more important alternates for Americans) to undisguised facial expressions (when British Hamlet won Best Picture in the 1940s, there were “audible gasps” and “visible disgust” in the audience). While it’s unclear how a more international lens may affect Oscar voting, the Academy seems hopeful that its old-white-man reputation may begin to fade.

Early prognosticating

Before we start, let me be perfectly clear — it is July, and nothing we say now matters. The Academy Awards are not for seven months, and everything can change between now and then. Oscar bloggers make predictions now because they need someone to read their blog during the Oscar off-season. It’s true that last year, three of the eventual eight Best Picture Oscar nominees were released in the first half of the year, but it’s not like anyone knew they were golden at the time. With that caveat, we can proceed.

A number of films are earning early Oscar buzz for their good reviews, substantial box office earnings or impressive lead or supporting performances.

  • Inside Out (98% Rotten Tomatoes): Pixar’s latest, heady experiment has been adored by reviewers and audiences. It earned $90 million in its first weekend, the highest for an original movie (non-sequel and non-sourced work) ever. To give you some perspective, even Avatar only earned $77 million in its first weekend. Some people have even been calling for a Best Picture nomination. While it is by no means unprecedented, I’d say it is not likely: When Up and Toy Story 3 scored Best Picture nominations in recent years, the voting rules allowed Academy members to select their 10, rather than five, favorite films of the year. Actors are the biggest branch of the Academy, and, historically, “actors usually like movies with real people in them saying lines” rather than animation or motion capture. Given the current rules, and the tendency to forget summer movies come January, I’d say anything beyond animated feature, screenplay and score would be an unexpected pleasure.
  • Jurassic World (71% RT): The film that launched a thousand Facebook debates over whether one can run from dinosaurs in high heels broke a number of records when it opened in June. It is the fastest grossing film of all time, boasts the largest opening weekend ever (over $200 million) and is now, at $1.4 billion, the fifth highest grossing film of all time. Does that mean it will get nominated for Oscars? Not really. Expect some technical nods, but anything beyond that would require Harvey Weinstein levels of campaigning.
  • Max Max (98% RT): Mad Max is pretty revolutionary. It’s an action movie that is loved by critics. It’s a film in a series released 30 years after the previous entry. (One piece of trivia I heard recently is that the largest span of time between a film and its sequel is between Bambi, in 1942, and Bambi II, in 2006.) It is also receiving a fair amount of Oscar buzz, especially for lead actress (and previous Academy Award winner) Charlize Theron, who “had the benefit of creating one of the most iconic females in action films.” I’m unconvinced, but I’ve been wrong before.
  • Love & Mercy (89% RT): A biopic about Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson overcoming mental illness is a big part of the Oscar conversation at this point, largely because of three great performances: Paul Dano and John Cusack (playing Wilson at different ages) and Elizabeth Banks. AwardsDaily has an interesting take on whether Dano and Cusack will both be campaigned as leads or if Cusack will be pushed to supporting, finding fairly convincingly that splits (such as Meryl Streep campaigned as lead and Julia Roberts as supporting in August: Osage County) are better at scoring nominations than having two actors campaigned as leads (only Annette Bening, and not Julianne Moore, was nominated for The Kids Are All Right).
  • The Clouds of Sils Maria (89% RT): The film stars Juliette Binoche as an “aging (and self-involved) actress” and Kristen Stewart as her assistant. What’s surprising is that Stewart is apparently really good. So good, in fact, that she became the first American actress in the 40-year history of the Cesar (the national French award) to win the Cesar for Supporting Actress. That means that she’s someone to watch out for.
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (80% RT): This film premiered at Sundance and, according to the Hollywood Reporter, “became only the sixth film — after 1999’s Three Seasons, 2006’s Quinceanera, 2009’s Precious, 2013’s Fruitvale Station and 2014’s Whiplash — to win both the Grand Jury and Audience awards.” It’s a movie you shouldn’t discount, but the track record is only 40%.

There are obviously a ton of additional movies on the horizon, and trailers are now coming out regularly to get critics excited. Meryl Streep is playing an aging rock star. Maggie Smith is playing an aging woman who lives in a van. Jennifer Lawrence is playing the inventor of the Miracle Mop. You have Carol and Youth and Everest and Brooklyn and Suffragette and a host of other movies with more-than-one-word titles, and suddenly the race is very exciting and very open.

Spotlight on James Horner

Composer James Horner died in a plane crash in June. He was 61. Horner was an eight-time Oscar nominee and two-time Oscar winner for Best Original Score and Best Original Song (“My Heart Will Go On”) for Titanic. He scored three films coming out this year, including Jake Gyllenhaal and Rachel McAdams boxing drama Southpaw, and was apparently working with James Cameron on the score for the Avatar sequels.

“My job — and it’s something I discuss with Jim all the time — is to make sure at every turn of the film it’s something the audience can feel with their heart,” Horner said in a 2009 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “When we lose a character, when somebody wins, when somebody loses, when someone disappears — at all times I’m keeping track, constantly, of what the heart is supposed to be feeling. That is my primary role.”

James Cameron wrote a tribute to Horner in EW.

“I remember exactly where I was sitting when he played the Titanic music for the first time. It was a cloudy day in March and it was just James and I together in his studio. And he sat down and played a solo piano theme and I cried. I sat there and cried. He played three themes for me that day and I was in tears after every one. He hadn’t written a bit of music to picture. He was just reacting to having watched 30 hours of dailies and steeping himself in the movie. I said to him, ‘You’ve done it.’ And he said, ‘I haven’t done anything yet.’ And I said, ‘James, you’ve done it.'”

Other News

  • Academy Award-winning actor takes a stand! Meryl Streep, reportedly, wrote a letter to every member of Congress asking them to revive the Equal Rights Amendment. “I am writing to ask you to stand up for equality – for your mother, your daughter, your sister, your wife or yourself – by actively supporting the Equal Rights Amendment,” she wrote. I’d like to think that the reason she chose to join the cast of Suffragette was to give her a launching pad to start this campaign, but maybe I’m being too hopeful.
  • Academy Award-winning director takes a stand! Kathryn Bigelow recently wrote an op ed in The Daily Beast urging Congress to keep fighting Joseph Kony’s LRA. “Now is the time to dig in, not walk away,” she wrote.
  • Academy Award-nominated actor takes a stand? Ryan Gosling wrote an open letter urging Costco to sell cage-free eggs, EW reports. “You’re already eliminating cages for veal calves and pigs – don’t you feel that chickens also deserve the same mercy?” he wrote.
  • The Queen: Helen Mirren won a Tony last month for her role in The Audience. And by role, I obviously mean playing Queen Elizabeth. I feel like Lizzie deserves some sort of royalty on Mirren’s success. (Also, the correction on this article is the best thing I have seen on the New York times this year.)

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