Total Recall

Total Recall: And the Oscar Goes To...

We try predicting the Best Picture winner based on Tomatometer and box office.

by | February 20, 2008 | Comments

Instead of focusing on one hot movie for Total Recall, this
week you’ll get five. They’re a little old now, but I think you’ll forgive me —
after all, they’re
Atonement
, Juno,
Michael Clayton,
No Country
for Old Men
, and
There Will Be
Blood
.

I’ve never been good at predicting the Oscars. Last year, for
example, I thought
Pan’s Labyrinth
was going to win Best Foreign. Silly me! So this year,
I’m ditching gut feelings and going the experimental route: the Tomatometer. The
average Best Picture nominee’s Tomatometer hovers in the upper-80 percentile, so
critical reception and Best Picture nomination go hand in hand. My
mini-experiment: can an ad hoc formula using Tomatometer and box office
numbers be used to predict the winner?

To begin with, here are this year’s Best Picture nominees:
 

Movie title

Tomatometer

Box office so far
(in mil.)

No Country for Old Men

94%

$61

Juno

93%

$126

There Will Be Blood

91%

$31

Michael Clayton

90%

$48

Atonement

82%

$48

I’m going to predict an upset and say either Juno or
Michael Clayton will take Best Picture. I’m probably wrong. And I hope
I’m wrong — I want There Will Be Blood to win. No Country has
also deserved all of its momentum. But going on purely Tomatometer and box
office statistics, the numbers are against both NCFOM and TWBB.
But more on that later.

First, let’s talk Atonement. What happened here? It
has strong performances, a rousing score, gorgeous panoramas, and a love story
that transcends both time and large bodies of water. In other words, the perfect
Oscar movie. And director
Joe Wright
skillfully avoided preening for the award throughout his movie. But, suddenly,
it’s Atonement, not Juno, that should be happy to have gotten this far.

This week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly pegs Atonement
with a 10 percent chance of victory, writing, "Aren’t the days of the typical ‘Oscar
movie’ over?" Indeed, the smear-and-sneer campaigns the last historical, epic
Best Pictures (The
English Patient
[85 percent] and
Titanic
[82 percent])
have endured after their wins reveal audiences have had their fill. Plus, Wright
wasn’t even nominated for Best Director. There’s only been three instances that
a movie has won Best Picture under those circumstances (Wings
[100 percent], Grand
Hotel
[84 percent], and
Driving Miss Daisy

[78 percent]), and two of those came at a time when
Private Snafu

seemed like cutting-edge animation.

I can’t decide if either Michael Clayton and Juno will win.
They both exist in the now, even as they embody specific eras: Clayton recalls
meaty American dramas like
Network
(90 percent)
and On the
Waterfront
(100 percent), and Juno, with its precious music and
Gen Y jive, is a movie with its head in the clouds, leaning ever-so-slightly
into the future. If I had a gun to my nose, I’ll say Juno will pull the
upset. It’s been a while since a movie mainly identified as a comedy has won Best
Picture. And Juno has much in common with
Annie Hall
(98
percent): they’re both culture-driven products of their time, but their
ruminations on love and relationships have universality.

So what does the Tomatometer have against a movie like
No Country for Old Men
, with its

virtual lock
on the Best Picture race? Get this: my cursory peek into
criticism history shows that in the past 36 years, only twice has the nominee
with the highest Tomatometer won Best Picture: Annie Hall in 1977, and
Unforgiven

(96 percent) in 1992.

Why is that? Ideally, a year’s Best Picture is a
meeting point between art and commerce: a movie of deep thoughts with the sweet charm
to pass them on to whomever’s around. Critics, thirsty for something to wow them
after watching several hundred movies a year, are likely more wont to praise
movies of extreme novelty and subtlety before audiences (and the Oscars) can
fully latch onto them.

No Country for Old Men is the only Best Picture
nominee that has virtually no backlash against it. The movie is challenging and
deliberately obscure, but the Coens’ mastery of their medium has kept audiences
electrified. I still feel jolts and chills thinking about it. But
Tomatometer-wise, NCFOM has a 5.5 percent chance of winning. So if we are
heading for an upset, I would normally picture There Will Be Blood
sneaking up to take home the statue.

And that would be a remarkable feat for reasons beyond the fact that
There Will Be Blood is a sprawling, shapeless movie about an ugly misanthrope. TWBB
has grossed the least of all the nominees. And from what I can guess, the
lowest-grossing nominee has never,
ever won
. The reason’s fairly obvious: even though There Will Be Blood
has been drawing strong per-theater averages, the less a country feels compelled
to watch a movie, the less likely they are to vote for it.

The Oscars have suffered a number of embarrassments this
year. Snubs for Zodiac
(89 percent) and
The Simpsons Movie
(89 percent). The sheer presence of
Norbit
(9 percent).
And on the rejection of
Persepolis
(96
percent), The Band’s
Visit
(98 percent), and
4 Months,
3 Weeks, and 2 Days
(97 percent), foreign Oscar chairman Mark Johnson
had

this to say
: "It’s just inconceivable to me that they weren’t included." But
public humiliations aside, this year’s Best Pictures selections are among the
most thoughtful, well-rounded crew to represent cinema in decades.

In last month’s "The
Downsizing of Oscar
," Richard Corliss wondered, "Why not just change the
name, from the Oscars to the Independent Spirit Awards?" But I don’t think it’s
a matter of the academy out of touch with what the public watches. In fact, it’s
the opposite: not only do these movies represent the still-smoldering hope of
indie fare connecting with audiences, it demonstrates the Academy is finally
catching up with the rest of us.

After giving Best Picture to the lazy, self-congratulatory
pap of Crash
(75 percent), the Academy atoned by giving
Martin
Scorsese
his Oscar last year. And now they’re recognizing five movies each
relevant in its unique way.  I haven’t seen as much online discourse sparked
as the complexities of deceit in Atonement and Michael Clayton
have, or of the annoying/endearing personality of Juno, the mystique of Anton
Chigurh, and the general WTFness of Daniel Plainview. Their stories may
not always make a mint at the box office, but they are exactly the thing to rile
up the modern community — the bloggers, the users, the podcasters, the budding
scholars and filmmakers. Choose the movies that get us talking. We will be the
ones who make them last.

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