I'll be honest: I'm kind of dreading the Oscars this year.
It's annoying, too, because I love a lot of the movies nominated in the major categories. I generally enjoy watching and live tweeting, snarking about the snubs and judging the dresses. The absurd empty spectacle sure beats … well, whatever it is that's going on in the world these days.
But, of course, "whatever it is that's going on in the world these days" is sure to intrude upon the "absurd empty spectacle," only adding to its absurdity, only deepening its emptiness, only shrinking the spectacle into the ordinary, the mundane. There's nothing worse than a person paid gobs of money to read words affirming the opinions of a roomful of clapping swells all whilst implicitly or explicitly attacking the people whose ticket purchases keep them in midnight blue velvet.
Their bravery is almost too much to bear.
Anyway, it's La La Land‘s year, I guess. Best picture and director, to Damien Chazelle, seem more or less wrapped up, as does actress for Emma Stone. And it'll pick up a bunch of the smaller awards (song, score, etc.) on the way to six or seven trophies. I quite liked it, and I've been amused by the stupidity of the reaction to it—literal reaction, as in reactionary, as in "critics saw a white guy playing jazz and started toting up problematics because this constitutes The State of Criticism Now." Arrival and Hell or High Water are both better, but cheering for La La Land out of spite seems like a reasonable move at this point.
If you're looking for an upset in one of the big categories, you're probably best off keeping an eye on best actor. It was presumed for the longest time that Casey Affleck was a sure bet to win for his stoically dour turn in Manchester by the Sea, but Denzel Washington's surprise victory at the Screen Actors Guild awards for his performance in Fences gives one pause. The actors make up the largest portion of the Oscar electorate, of course, and Denzel has several factors working in his favor (people love him and he's doing the most acting in Fences, if not necessarily the best acting).
That's an outlier though. The lack of drama on the night in question—between the political campaigns mounted by the studios to push their preferred property and the politics surrounding the media coverage of the awards to ensure that the winners are appropriately diverse, there's very little tension on the night itself—is one of the reasons I quite enjoy checking out the animated shorts each year. Here's a category that every voter can study in full in about an hour. Furthermore, the lack of campaigning means, more or less, that quality will triumph.
I say "more or less" because by "quality" I generally mean "that which tugs on the heartstrings the hardest." My working theory for the category is that the short that brings you closest to tears—or, perhaps, just the one that inspires any emotional response at all—is the one that will win.
With this in mind, then, we can simply dismiss "Pear Cider and Cigarettes," which is as long (30-some minutes, or four times longer than the second-longest short) as it is dull. The story about an alcoholic slowly killing himself and the friend who tries to pull him out of his spiral gives us nothing to care about, no one to cheer for, no emotional resonance whatsoever. It's bad and the people who chose it to be nominated should feel badly.
Less aggravating, but similarly soulless, is "Blind Vaysha," a short from Canada about a girl who sees the future in one eye and the past in the other. This prevents her from finding love or happiness: in one eye, she sees only babies; in the other, only wizened old men and women. We should celebrate living in the now, the short ham-handedly hammers home in its crudely written, and even more crudely drawn, way.
"Borrowed Time" focuses on a sheriff in the old West with a regret: an accidental killing that has haunted him for years. Brought to life by some Pixar animators, the short is slick and sweet without being sappy. It's actually a bit dark; indeed, probably too dark to win. But a well-done bit of silent filmmaking of the sort that Pixar's shorts are known for. It won't win, but it's a decent effort.
"Piper" played ahead of Finding Dory in theaters and is considered the favorite by oddsmakers. Fair enough. I quite liked the short, finding it simple and sweet, a perfect combo of silly and meaningful. Pixar has done a good job of proving that silent film isn't dead; it's just restricted to five minutes of computer animation. That being said, Pixar has lost in this category eight times in a row, its last victory coming in 2001.
If we're going by my standard of emotional response equaling Oscar gold, "Pearl" should be the real favorite. The story of a single father—a wandering musician—who settles down and takes a nine-to-five so his daughter can have the sort of stable life she deserves is classic hanky-bait. So you shouldn't be surprised if Pixar loses yet again to this sentimental short.