Courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures, CJ Entertainment and Warner Bros. Pictures

February 6, 2020

An Idiot’s Guide to Sounding Smart While Watching the Oscars

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Are you sick and tired of being force fed movie factoids by your more “culturally-attuned” friends? Well rest easy casual movie fans, and welcome to The Sun’s first, and likely last, guide to sounding smart while watching the Oscars. Having read this short run-down, you’ll be ready to engage your friend group’s resident cinephile in a number of conversations they’ll treasure for years to come. Just don’t get mad at me if it works too well and they invite you to their in-home TIFF screening next year.

In this guide, I cover what I consider to be the nine most important awards, and predict (underline) the winner for each, to ensure you are covered this Sunday. And while my selectivity is not to say that this year’s achievements in the 16 other categories (there are 25) are meaningless, anyone who hears you say “man, I really loved Jacqueline Durran’s costume design in Little Women” is going to know you spent just a little too much time anxiously memorizing names to which you assign no importance. The best practice is to act engaged but casually disinterested during the more minor categories.

We start with Best Picture, as that is really the only category normal people ever get excited about. The Sun’s writers have already covered Parasite , Marriage Story, The Irishman, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Ford v Ferrari and Jojo Rabbit, both with my opinion and a dissenting one, so check those out if you want to seriously brush up. By all accounts, this one’s a two-horse race between 1917 and Parasite after the former won at the Globes, the Producers Guild Awards and the Directors Guild Awards (the “PGA’s” and “DGA’s,” respectively), and the latter took home hardware from the Screen Actors Guild’s (“SAG’s”) and the Writers Guild (which has no fun abbreviation). There is, however, also the possibility that Joker, with its show-leading 11 nominations, could take home Best Picture, an eventuality most talking heads I subscribe to are describing as the nightmare scenario. Comment something to your movie friend about Joker being either “deeply insightful” or “intellectually bankrupt” to get on their good side early on.

The Academy’s preferential balloting system often rewards movies that are generally well-liked over those that are well-loved; more polarizing films can end up near the bottom of some voters’ ballots, while the well-liked films tend to fair pretty well across the board — but you don’t need to know any of that. Your movie friend might be disappointed when 1917 wins and you can commiserate with them by calling the choice “boring” or “easy.” If that doesn’t do the trick, say something like “I found Parasite to be more thoughtful” then gaze pensively into the middle distance.

The Actor in a Leading Role and Actress in a Leading Role awards seem to be locked up by Joaquin Phoenix for Joker and Renée Zellweger for Judy (which we also wrote about) but surprises can happen. If Saoirse Ronan wins for Little Women, call her performance “moving” and if Cynthia Erivo wins for Harriet, call the movie “important” and move on — it’s pretty likely none of your friends saw it, though it is playing at Cornell Cinema this weekend! If either Adam Driver or Scarlett Johansson wins for Marriage Story, acknowledge that they were good but wonder aloud if their performances can be chalked up to the writing.

Actress in a Supporting Role is Laura Dern’s to lose, even though my mom just hates her. I’ve found that my friends think it’s pretty funny that my mom hates Laura Dern so why not say your mom hates Laura Dern? It’s not like any of your friends could prove you wrong, and by reading this far into this piece you’re practically guaranteed to come across as original. Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh could also win here for Jojo Rabbit and Little Women, respectively, but neither seems particularly likely. Ask your movie friend if they think ScarJo would’ve won one award if she weren’t nominated for two — that’ll get them to shut up about the ceremony not having a host for a couple minutes.

Actor in a Supporting Role is an interesting category this year in that it’s the most wide-open of any of the big categories. Be sure to vocalize that you think it’s interesting — your movie friend will project their thoughts onto your words for you. I like Brad Pitt for Once upon a Time but wouldn’t be surprised if any of the other nominees — Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci — took the category. If Pacino or Pesci wins, make a joke about The Irishman’s runtime; if Hopkins wins, make a snide comment about Netflix pumping out phony prestige cinema and if Hanks wins, say you love Tom Hanks. Everyone loves Tom Hanks!

The award for Directing is likely going to Sam Mendes for 1917, though Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) has gained a lot of steam through the earlier parts of this awards season. No joke here; both are phenomenal. If you haven’t seen any of this year’s crop, 1917 and Parasite are both thoroughly enjoyable, inventive films. The story of this category, though, might well be that neither Quentin Tarantino nor Martin Scorsese won in a year where both made traditionally Oscar-friendly movies.

It would be absolutely stunning if Roger Deakins didn’t win Cinematography for 1917 — he’s a movie-maker’s movie-maker and, again, 1917 is great. While it’s certainly more thematically shallow than is its Korean opponent, it could be argued that 1917’s camerawork carried it to a best picture nomination (and remember, cinematography is just a fancy word for camerawork). If you’re looking to impress your friend with chatter about another film in the category, you could call Joker “disturbingly claustrophobic” or The Lighthouse… um… I don’t know… I didn’t see The Lighthouse. Maybe notice the b-roll is in black and white!

That brings us to a helpful frequently asked question: What should you do when you haven’t seen a film and can’t fake your way through it? Simply shake your head and say either “I couldn’t make time for that one” or “I still can’t believe I missed it.” Both suggest that you regret not having seen the film and can even make you seem more in-touch. Just be careful not to overdo it; you’re trying to sound informed after all.

That leaves the writing categories, Adapted Screenplay and Original Screenplay. It’s looking like Adapted Screenplay belongs to Greta Gerwig, who thoughtfully reimagined Little Women, but your movie friend will appreciate your saying something nice about Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit). Buzz words to use in the Taika-talk are “clever,” “witty” and “innovative.” Original Screenplay is a little more interesting, as it contains both frontrunners for Best Picture as well as Once Upon a Time and (my pick) Marriage Story but you really can’t go wrong here. Even Knives Out, the presumptive longshot of the category, presented an enthralling story and great performances. Odds are your friend will be focusing on the bigger categories during this one’s presentation, anyway, but remember: you were bawling at the end of Marriage Story when he read her letter.

Finally, though I myself spend quite a lot of time considering the cultural implications of these awards, the cinematic over-analysis that this time of year brings is one of my least favorite things about movies. Awards season should be about celebrating the films that meant the most to us, not looking down on those that didn’t make the cut. At the end of the day, your opinions are of no less value because they aren’t congruent with the Academy’s. You think Uncut Gems or Hustlers deserved a nod? Sure! You think Avengers: Endgame was the best movie of the year? Great! But maybe keep that one to yourself while your movie friend is droning on about Sundance not getting enough attention.

If you’re not a movie junkie and are looking for one takeaway from this year’s Oscars, let it be that there’s a whole lot of exciting stuff happening in cinema right now — all you have to do is watch.


Nick Smith is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].