Mad Max: Fury Road</em>, the post-apocalyptic poster child for the improved Best Picture race.

Mocking the Oscars – or any made-for-TV awards spectacle with the fool’s errand of crowning the “best” in the arts – is a time-honored tradition. Sometimes it’s even important, as with last year’s backlash against the whiteness of that Academy Awards slate of Best Picture and acting nominees. (That paleness was a bit of an anomaly in recent times, as I’ll show in a bit.)

So let’s give the Academy its due: Expanding the Best Picture field – starting with 2009 movies – from five nominees to as many as 10 was a smart and ultimately necessary change with substantial benefits, no matter how you parse it.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land

Nominees for the 89th Annual Academy Awards were announced this morning.

Well, that’s not exactly true.

It turns out they weren’t announced so much as revealed, because for the first time since the yearly nominations became an early-morning PR event several decades ago, contenders weren’t recognized in front of a gathered crowd of journalists and publicists. Instead, the news was delivered in a slick, 20-minute online presentation that also featured reminiscences from former Oscar nominees and winners such as Brie Larson, Glenn Close, and Terrence Howard, with Gabourey Sidibe wisely suggesting that when this morning's nominees eventually attend the ceremony, they should be sure to sneak in a flask. (That’s good advice for those watching from home, too.)

La La Land

Will La La Land match or exceed the record of 14 Oscar nominations currently shared by All About Eve and Titanic? (Matching, maybe; exceeding, no.) Will this be yet another year of #OscarsSoWhite? (Not by a long shot.) Will Mel Gibson be welcomed back into the open arms of Hollywood’s elite? (As we’ve been frequently reminded this past year, anything’s possible.)

These and other questions will be answered on the morning of Tuesday, January 24. But until then, there’s no harm – except, eventually, to my ego – in predicting nominations for the 89th annual Academy Awards.

Image from the Figge exhibit The Wonderful World of Oz: Selections from the Willard Carroll/Tom Wilhite Collection

When I phone Wizard of Oz historian John Fricke for our scheduled July 21 interview, he doesn’t answer the call with a “Hello?”, or even a more formal “Yes, this is John Fricke.” Instead, the first three words he utters, or rather exclaims, are an exuberant “I love Iowa!

He asks if I like that intro, and I admit that I do, primarily because it’s no doubt sincere. Fricke, after all, enjoyed eight consecutive years (from 1979 to 1986) as emcee and chief entertainer for Davenport’s Miss Iowa pageants and even, during that period, co-headlined a two-person Col Ballroom concert alongside an 11-piece orchestra and former Miss Iowa Darla Blocker. So “I love Iowa!” makes total sense.

Given the subject of our conversation, however, “I love Kansas!” might’ve been more fitting.

the team behind Best Picture winner SpotlightWhether it was a conscious decision on their parts is something, of course, that we’ll never know. But faced with #OscarsSoWhite outrage and numerous categories seemingly locked tight as drums, voters for last night’s Academy Awards did the smartest, and perhaps only, thing they could do: They changed the story, so that instead of talking about the controversy, we talked about the winners – more often than not, the surprise winners.

#OscarsSoWhat?Last March, in promoting his eventual blockbuster Furious 7, Vin Diesel made a bold pronouncement to Variety: “It will probably win Best Picture at the Oscars, unless the Oscars don’t want to be relevant ever.”

Predictably, Diesel’s braggadocio about his movie – the latest in a series of genially dopey action thrillers that had never garnered any previous Academy notice – was much repeated, and mocked, in the press. But here we are 11 months later, with Furious 7 nowhere near the 2016 Oscar race, and one wonders if Vin Diesel is not only buff and baritone-voiced, but quite possibly prescient.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The RevenantThe conversation about this year’s Oscars may have been swallowed whole by the second-annual #OscarsSoWhite controversy, but there are still predictions to be made!

With Best Picture, thrillingly, the most unpredictable category of this year’s Academy Awards telecast (scheduled to air on ABC at 7 p.m. Central on Sunday, February 28), here are my educated and admittedly uneducated guesses in the evening’s 24 categories. The past two years, I guessed 18 of 24 correctly. The year before, I had a personal best of 19 out of 24. This year, I’m feeling wholly confident on about 15 of my guesses, so if you’re making bets with your co-workers or bookies, make sure not to wager a hefty amount of personal wealth.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The RevenantAs we Oscar watchers frequently like to ask on nomination morning: Who knew? Regarding this year’s contenders, who knew that category fraud would be so successful? Who knew that the lesbian romance Carol would be so well-liked – just not well-liked enough? Who knew this would be the second year in a row with acting races populated exclusively by white people? Who knew that Lady Gaga would receive as many nominations as Ridley Scott?

Margot Robbie in The Big ShortAs is traditional, I’m taking my annual stab at guessing this year’s Oscar nominees a week before they’re actually announced: at 7:30 a.m. Central (5:30 a.m. for those sleepy souls in Hollywood!) on Thursday, January 14. As isn’t necessarily traditional, my guesses in nine categories are also in this week’s print edition of the Reader, which meant I had to make final decisions a full day earlier than usual. Which, in turn, meant that I made seven major prediction changes mere seconds before they were in my boss’ hands ... and likely would’ve made more if he got to the office just a few minutes later.

But I’ll also, in my head, no doubt be making additional changes up until 7:29 a.m. next Thursday, so enough waffling! Let’s get this fool’s errand over with!

 

Scott Beck (left) and Bryan Woods. Photo by Fred Hayes.

The train rumbles toward you, and then it's over you, throwing sparks. It's a short train, but it's nonetheless a harrowing seven seconds - looking, sounding, and feeling uncomfortably real.

That's because, on a practical level, it is real.

This happens less than 10 minutes into the new, nationally distributed horror movie Nightlight by writers/directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, the filmmaking duo from the Quad Cities now based in Los Angeles.

"That whole sequence was a lot of fun to figure out," Beck said in a recent phone interview. The special-effects team proposed using computer animation for the train, he said, but he and Woods asked: "Could we actually get a real freight train on these tracks?"

We've been introduced to five teens who've come to a supposedly haunted forest for "flashlight games." One involves laying down a flashlight on railroad ties, running down the tracks to a specific point, and then running back and grabbing the flashlight. There's not much to it ... except for the train.

This bit lasts roughly a minute and 40 seconds, done in a single shot.

"The scene starts with the train incredibly far away, [and] it just gets closer and closer," Woods said.

We can only hear the train's horn as the first three people complete the task - getting louder with each blast. With the fourth teen, we can see the headlight peeking through the trees as the engine comes around a bend.

And after Shelby, our protagonist, puts her flashlight on the ties, we see the train itself, with her sprinting toward it and then back toward her flashlight.

She jumps away just before the train hits her, but her flashlight - which belonged to a friend who committed suicide and provides the point of view for all the movie's action - remains on the tracks, and the audience gets an unsettling understanding of what it would feel like to be under a freight train moving at full speed.

Pages