Alex: Hi Elaine! Grierson & Leitch have already done the New Republic’s Oscar predictions, but I thought there was room for something even less scientific: a free-ranging discussion of the nominees between two people who have seen most of the films nominated for the major awards. (I understand that you have seen all of the shorts, but those don’t count because shorts aren’t real movies.)

Elaine: Alex, now I have to talk about the shorts. For the record, Chile’s Bear Story is the best in the animated category, and if you don’t want to be horribly depressed by the live-action films, the only option is Britain’s Stutterer. But anyway, the Oscars conversation this year has been dominated by two things: diversity and Leonardo DiCaprio. Where should we start?

Alex: Nothing bores me quite like Leonardo DiCaprio—especially Leonardo DiCaprio surviving without his vape pen for six weeks while filming The Revenant—so let’s talk about diversity. Hollywood has traditionally used the Oscars to remind the American people how great and progressive and important Hollywood is—how the movies are not frivolous entertainment but, in fact, Drivers of Real Change. But this year’s Oscar narrative has been about how Hollywood isn’t all that different from the rest of America, where it sucks to not be white or male. Chris Rock has apparently rewritten his show to bring in #OscarsSoWhite and it looks like a number of presenters are going to make the show all about diversity in Hollywood. Do you think that #OscarsSoWhite will end up being the prevalent theme of the show or will it merely be subtext?

Elaine: I’m worried that all of this effort to make the show about diversity may get too heavy-handed, especially with Chris Rock at the helm. But I do hope that they capitalize on all this attention, and last year’s show provides a good example of how to do it. The buildup to the Oscars last year was all about how Selma wasn’t nominated, but the “whitest Oscars ever” (hosted by whitest host ever, Neil Patrick Harris) turned into one of the most politically and emotionally powerful in years. Remember that “Glory” performance? I was crying with David Oyelowo. That performance, plus John Legend’s speech, is the one thing I still remember from that show. Legend and Common didn’t get on a soapbox; they used music and art to make their point, which is what art is all about. I’m hoping this year the Academy will find artful ways to fight for diversity, like “Glory,” instead of just yelling at us about it.

Alex: One of the biggest problems with the Academy Awards is that in Hollywood the line between being incisive and being smug is incredibly fine. But I have to say that I think I have more faith in Chris Rock than you do—I think heavy-handed is fine, as long as it’s funny (which I think he’ll be) and “smug” is not really a word I associate with him. What I worry about more is that the audience will try a little too hard to be in on the joke and that will suck the life out of an awards show that’s already on life support. But I suppose we should talk about the actual films that were nominated. Is it time to talk about Leo? Or should we just jump straight to the clusterfuck of Best Picture nominees?

Elaine: Leo is going to win, so it’s more interesting to think about who should win instead. I’m going to take an unpopular stand and go with Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. I don’t think he deserves back-to-back Oscars, but his performance as Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery, is so much more deserving than last year’s turn as Stephen Hawking. Redmayne is an extremely physical actor whose performance lies in the nuances of his movements and the blinking of his eyes. As Lili, he was at once vulnerable and selfish, masculine and feminine, so incredibly attuned to the performance of womanhood that I found myself noticing the way I behave as a woman. Which performances were your favorite, Alex?

Alex: Redmayne’s performance was my least favorite! I guess I see vulnerable and selfish, now that you say it, but I just felt that The Danish Girl didn’t give him very much to do besides mug—The Danish Girl was mostly about other people’s conflicts and I thought it was Alicia Vikander’s movie and not Redmayne’s, who acted like he was made out of porcelain. I thought Leo’s performance was one of his least-deserving (OMG HE ATE A LIVER AND WENT INSIDE A FAKE HORSE), and it paled before the brilliant, batshit job he did in The Wolf of Wall Street, but one of the problems with this year is that the competition in the Best Actor candidate sucks. Eddie Redmayne was too busy begging for another Oscar to turn in a good performance, Matt Damon was fine as a Redditor who gets stuck on Mars, and Fassbender did a good job playing Aaron Sorkin’s id but only a decent one playing Steve Jobs. I didn’t see Trumbo because it looked like a Coen Brothers movie if it was runover by a steamroller and, while I think that it would be hilarious if Bryan Cranston won, it’s not going to happen. So I guess what I’m saying is that none of the Best Actor performances were my favorite because I thought they were boring. And I feel mostly similar about the Best Actress nods, though we both love Saoirse Ronan and Brie Larson. Maybe you should take this one, just so I can stop being a font of negativity.

Elaine: Let’s talk about the ladies, then. This year was heralded as a great year for women in movies. So many plump, complex roles for actresses—even older ones!—that appealed artistically and did well at the box office. Brie Larson is the favorite for Best Actress right now, and while you’re right, I love her and Saoirse Ronan, my vote would ultimately go to Charlotte Rampling. 45 Years was entirely constructed around her, and the last shot of her—lit in blue, breaking just as everyone around her celebrates—continues to haunt me. But ultimately, it’s anyone but Jennifer Lawrence for me.

Alex: Jennifer Lawrence deserves something, though. I walked out of
Joy—the first time I walked out of a movie since I snuck into then walked out of Traffic when I was 13—convinced it was a terrible, terrible movie and that Lawrence was a goddamn movie star. That movie sucked and she made it watchable, if only barely. She’s great. I didn’t see 45 Years, so I can’t talk about Rampling, but my pick would probably be Ronan, who delivered a quiet, subtle performance in the most charming movie of the year (except the last quarter, which I found infuriating). I was totally underwhelmed by Carol, which surprised me because I had previously been in the Todd Haynes Can Do No Wrong camp, but would shrug off a Blanchett win like I shrugged off that boring Oscar-bait movie. If Rooney Mara wins for Supporting Actress, though…

Elaine: Rooney Mara was great! Alicia Vikander is this year’s golden girl, though, and it will be hard to topple her. She was in five movies this year, and while you could argue that her performance in Ex Machina is worthier than The Danish Girl, I think she deserves it overall. I’m curious what you think about the writing categories. Spotlight will probably win Best Original Screenplay, as much as I think Inside Out deserves it. But what about adapted?

Alex: It’s got to be The Big Short, right? You can’t explain the financial crisis that many times and not get an award for it. I have my problems with the screenplay for The Big Short—the overexplaining bordered on condescension—but I still feel like it’s miles above its competitors in this category. We both loved Brooklyn and, while I love its old-fashioned, we-love-these-characters-so-much-we-don’t-want-anything-bad-to-happen-to-them vibe, I also think it’s too gentle to win. The Martian was mostly about one man’s quest to stop disco music on a deserted planet in 2015 and, while the film is roughly 25,637 times better than the book it was based on, the screenplay is nothing special. Room and Carol were fine, but only The Big Short felt like it leapt out of the book it was based on—it took real risks and in doing so really expanded on its source material. I totally agree that Spotlight will win the other screenplay category, but it makes me worried. The Big Short and Spotlight are two of the three movies I think deserve Best Picture (the other is Mad Max but we can talk about that later), and I worry that the screenplay categories will be their consolation prize, while The Revenant and Alejandro González Iñárritu will win Best Picture and Best Director.

Elaine: I would vote Room for Best Adapted Screenplay! It’s always hard to tell a story from a child’s perspective, and while a couple of the voiceovers veer on precious, the movie generally walks a brilliant line between what Jack tells us and what’s actually going on. And the movie shifts well from their time in captivity to their transition to freedom, especially with Joan Allen’s great performance as a mother trying to understand her daughter’s experience while embracing a grandson conceived from a monstrous union.

Alex: I thought Room was great for all of the reasons you just laid out, but Jack’s occasional voiceovers about how Gosh, wouldn’t life just be grand if grown-ups just slowed down and appreciated life for a minute! disqualified it for me—they felt like refrigerator magnets and they really took me out of the reality of the movie. We’re running out of non-Best Picture/Best Director categories, but I’d like to breeze through the Supporting Actor nominations. This feels like Sylvester Stallone’s to lose, which is totally fine, though it feels more like a Lifetime Achievement nod than anything else. Creed absolutely should have been nominated for Best Picture and Michael B. Jordan should’ve taken a slot for Best Actor—of the big movies, it was my favorite non-Mad Max movie of the year and it turned the Rocky franchise, which was in many ways, as A.O. Scott pointed out, about racial backlash, on its head. Still, Mark Rylance turned in what I thought was the best performance of the year in Bridge of Spies, a movie that otherwise felt like watching paint dry (with occasional coughing). We need more Rylance!

Elaine: Agree! Unless the Academy goes for The Revenant big time and Tom “Mushmouth” Hardy rides that wave to glory. And now I think we have to talk about Best Picture. This year is bizarre because there is no frontrunner. The guild awards, who are pretty good Oscar forecasters because those people essentially make up the Academy, split the difference: The actors went for Spotlight, the producers for The Big Short, and the directors for The Revenant. I’m afraid Spotlight’s momentum has faded, but I can’t bring myself to believe The Revenant could actually win. Back-to-back wins for Iñárritu feels like too much even for the Academy. I’d be thrilled if Mad Max or Room won, just for how unconventional it would be. And I’m also mad that Inside Out didn’t get a nomination. It’s every bit as deserving as the rest—if not more—and it would help shake the notion that animation is somehow inherently lesser than live-action. (Plus, this way Shaun the Sheep could win in animation!) In 2009, the first year the Academy broadened the Best Picture field from five to up to ten, a remarkable range of movies were nominated: blockbuster Avatar, animated Up, prestige An Education, and eventual winner The Hurt Locker, to name a few. I’m not saying those were all great movies, but it was an interesting moment for the Academy’s diversity in taste. But now, just a few years later, it seems like they’ve recalcified, and now it’s all down to prestige and campaigning.

Alex: The Revenant’s only real strength (IMO) is its breathtaking cinematography. Otherwise it’s a decent revenge movie or a decent adventure movie or a decent carbon copy of a Terrence Malick movie, but very rarely all three things at the same time. If it sweeps Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture (or even takes two of three), I’ll be disappointed, though at least two of three seems increasingly inevitable. I think that you’re right that Spotlight seems like it’s lost its momentum, and I worry that it and The Big Short will split the votes of those inclined to vote for that old Oscars standby, Good Liberal Cinema. I could see George Miller stealing Best Director from Iñárritu, and in a perfect world that award would go to Miller or McKay, and Best Picture would go to Mad Max, Spotlight, or The Big Short. But this is not a perfect world, it’s a world where The Revenant, a movie about what happens when your beard freezes, is a heavy favorite. I could also see The Martian playing spoiler, but that would be almost as disappointing as the fact that Ridley Scott wasn’t nominated for Best Director. (His work in The Martian was meh, but he deserves some sort of special prize for the Director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven.) Brooklyn, Room, and Bridge of Spies (How was that nominated?!) don’t stand a chance.

Elaine: I don’t even know what to say to you, Alex. Kingdom of Heaven?!?!? You are the reason Leo is going to win. “He deserves some kind of recognition for some previous work that I loved, even if this current one sucked.” No! That’s not how it works. We should judge each individual performance or work, not how overdue we think someone is. That’s what Lifetime Achievement Awards are for! I’m holding out for Spotlight, and I even have a soft spot for this theory that Room could pull off a huge upset, Million Dollar Baby-style. The idea is that The Big Short, The Revenant, and Spotlight will split the votes, like they did the guilds, and allow a fourth movie, Room, to sneak in. Everyone clearly loves Brie Larson, and nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay has been breaking hearts on the campaign trail, so there’s a lot of good will towards that movie. Pipe dream? Maybe. But I’m going to keep hoping.

Alex: Give every award to Mad Max: Fury Road.

We’ll be covering the Oscars on Sunday night at our Minutes blog, if you want to follow along.