Every year I lose in Oscar-night ballot-offs with my friends. Good thing I don’t bet actual money. You see, I insist on voting with my heart. To wit: last year I voted for Demián Bichir for Best Actor, in part because it suited the We Are the 99%/ Have-Nots vs. Haves mood I was in.

Do my choices amount to mere whimsy? Not at all, particularly considering the context. On schedule, the Academy disappointed us with its lists of nominees — overlooking terrific films, shutting Kathryn Bigelow out of competition for Best Director. Moreover, we all know from those “for your consideration” ads that the studios are pushing hard for their own films to get votes…because, yes, lobbying helps win votes. Moreover, the voting at this stage always entails voting against certain films almost as much as it’s a positive process. In sum, presented with a deeply problematic selection/ voting process, my methods of choosing What Should Win at Sunday’s Oscar Awards Ceremony are better than most. 

Shall we?

best actor

Best Actor(s) in which I opt for emotion over restraint (and the long shots over the bookies) by rooting for Emmanuelle Riva and Joaquin Phoenix. 

The odds-makers tell us these two don’t have a chance. Nor do I have a beef with the likely winners; of course Daniel Day-Lewis was great, and you know how much I love Jennifer Lawrence.

But Riva and Phoenix did things in these roles that I can’t shake from my mind. They took risks they’ve never taken before; I still have memories of the naked, helpless Anne (Riva) being washed by a home health care worker and crying out (“it hurts! it hurts!”); and the emaciated, twisted Freddie (Phoenix) happily pouring various toxins and photographic chemicals into a cocktail shaker for yet one more night of blankness. These are the actors who should win.

best supportingBest Supporting Actor(s) in which I give Lincoln its due and root for Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field

These are dicey categories for me, as I haven’t seen some of the most relevant films (Django Unchained; The Sessions; Les Misérables). And yet I have opinions anyway!

No one with Jones’ accent has any right playing a senator from Pennsylvania, but he was so good here. And oh, Sally Field walked that fine line between despair and self-consciousness so beautifully. 

I haven’t written about the film here. My overall take on it is that it was a beautifully acted and written piece that was marred by ham-handed directing at the beginning and end — I’m sorry, folks, but Spielberg needs to step back from the swelling violins moments. Anyway, speaking of directing ….

best picture directorBest Picture and Best Director in which I abandon all betting wisdom and root for Zero Dark Thirty and Michael Haneke

In two years we’ll look back and see the hubbub that shut Zero Dark Thirty out of serious competition and wonder what the hell people were thinking. In two years we’ll catch Argo getting recycled again on one of those cable channels and think, “Okay, it is a great story, but I can’t believe Hollywood was so utterly fucked that this film won a Best Picture Oscar.”

Hence I’m voting for Haneke for Best Director, as that was the second best film of the year.

best editing cinematogBest Editing and Cinematography in which I maintain that the Academy doesn’t know what these categories really mean, and vote for Silver Linings Playbook and nothing at all for Cinematography.

It’s the editing that made Silver Linings Playbook such a terrifically crackling comedy — I’d go so far as to argue that it’s the editing that stands out the most to me in making this so watchable. I just don’t even see there being any serious competition here, even as I have lavished so much praise on clunkier editing jobs in Zero Dark Thirty and other films.

And on Cinematography: you know what’s likeliest to win? Life of Pi! 90% of which was filmed before a green screen so that special effects could be inserted later!

Now, I understand that such filming can also be exquisite; and indeed, this was a beautiful film to watch. But I’m so exasperated that the eloquent filmmaking of Amour wasn’t nominated (and in that apartment!) as well as Beasts of the Southern Wild that I just want to spit.

best screenplayBest Screenplay(s) in which I root for some underdogs: Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom.

I’ll admit it: I’m rooting for Beasts simply because it’s one of the few times a woman was recognized in this year’s Oscar ballot beyond the acting categories. Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin might not have written the best script in the bunch — that might have to be Tony Kushner’s Lincoln — but I’m sticking with my choice for political reasons anyway.

And Moonrise Kingdom. It was just so weird and creative and delightful; just thinking about it makes me want to see it again right now. Lovely.

best foreign animated

And finally: Best Animated Feature and Best Foreign Filmthe only categories in which my choices have a pretty good chance of succeeding with Brave and Amour.

Let’s just summarize this by saying, I can’t be wrong all the time. I’d be through the roof if Brave pulls this off.

A few closing choices:

Short Film/Animated: please let it be Head Over Heels, the one true independent in the bunch (and a really great, creative short); see it here!

Costume Designthe one way I want Snow White and the Huntsman to be remembered.

Original Scorethe one way I want Argo to be remembered. (Or, rather, the king-ification of composer Alexandre Desplat.)

We’ll see whether I can catch up on the other short films (live action, documentary short subject) by the end of the afternoon via some creative web searches. And I’ll see you all at the red carpet tonight — during which you can laugh hilariously at my near-complete shutout.

Can we also collectively hold our breaths that emcee Seth MacFarlane isn’t as misogynistic, racist, and otherwise offensive in person as he is as a filmmaker, and/or that better human beings wrote the show? yeah, maybe not.

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I’ve been trying to write about Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild for weeks. Here’s my problem: I have read other people’s reviews, and I keep wanting to respond to them rather than to the film itself.

It’s not that I doubt my own response to the film. I found it a riveting story about the kind of childhood we never seen onscreen. It shows the world through the eyes of 6-yr-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), complete with ugliness, fantasy, and flickering glimpses of adult concerns. But other reviewers have focused on the film’s political stance in placing it in an overlooked Louisiana world that evokes but never mentions Hurricane Katrina, and in telling the story of a child who sometimes appears dangerously unprotected by the adults around her. These perspectives make me want to defend the film for what it is, not for what it might have been if someone else had made it.

Granted, criticism is tricky business, and I would be the first to defend the right to express one’s response to a film, even if that response deals more with the film’s role in the zeitgeist than its artistic merit. It goes without saying that I’d defend a critic’s right to express an unpopular opinion, perhaps even more so after the weird exchange last summer between the NY Times‘ David Carr and A. O. Scott about the role of criticism. In it, Carr attacks Scott for offering up unpopular opinions about film that Carr depicts as elitist; Scott tries to explain why that’s not the case. (For particular pleasure, see Jim Emerson’s great breakdown of all the logical fallacies Carr commits during the course of this exchange.)

In some ways I see film criticism in the same vein as I see my academic scholarship: as an honest attempt to further a longer conversation among people jointly concerned with finding something meaningful, something true about humanity.

I’d heard enough about Beasts of the Southern Wild to expect that it would be a movie about Hurricane Katrina, focusing on those people most abandoned by the social safety net — a community so far on the margins that it seems almost post-apocalyptic. And yet what I found was different. Rather, I marveled at its imaginative view of childhood. I never expected to walk out and think, “This is a film about America through a child’s eyes” — which was exactly how I felt.

I especially loved the way the film doesn’t try to offer an adult’s reality, but privileges Hushpuppy’s idiosyncratic perspective. Through her eyes, we spin a fantasy in our minds about her long-gone mother, thanks to a tale told by her father. We get angry with her father when he just disappears for a while, leaving her alone, only to return with evidence of a hospital stay about him (which she neither asks about nor understands). When she condenses all her fears and creates in her imagination a herd of giant boar-beasts, racing closer and closer to up-end and destroy her life and that of her community, we remember our own crystallized fears all too well from our own childhoods.

But then I started reading about people who walked out of theaters because they felt it displayed something damn near close to child abuse. (What?! I wondered.) Or because it romanticized poverty. (How is that degree of filth and poverty romantic?) Or a fantasy of racial harmony amongst whites and Blacks.

Most heartbreaking to me was the extensive takedown by superstar cultural critic bell hooks over at NewBlackMan (In Exile), who felt the film to be a “continuous physical and emotional violation of the body and being of a small six year old black girl.” hooks finds nothing to admire here; she likens it to The Help (2011) for its racist and sexist stereotypes of Blacks. She even argues that “the camera toys with the child’s body pornographically eroticizing the image,” which I don’t see at all.

hooks’ takedown is so all-encompassing that I have a hard time knowing where to start in defending the film. I’ve been in her place before — having seen a film (like Greenberg) that everyone seemed to admire, yet which I found so resolutely misogynistic that I could not, would not, see any redeeming qualities.

But criticism is a conversation, yes? I cannot stop myself from insisting that hooks is just wrong. Of course I believe that everyone has different responses to a film’s artistic merit, political commitment, social context. hooks has ever right to hate the movie, to find it lacking. And I can argue that in both her vehemence and the substance of her specific criticisms, she has refused to see the film’s many virtues.

Beasts seems so significant to me because it tells a story about childhood (and America) through the eyes of a tiny Black girl — insisting that we see it on her terms. I didn’t see the film as being primarily about race; perhaps hooks’ true complaint is that it should have been. Instead, it’s about childhood, poverty, and self-determination — aspects of the lives of the characters which are inextricable from race, to be sure, yet in this case are more central to the story. True, Hushpuppy is not sensitive to the ways that race divides, perhaps because of her extreme youth (and perhaps because the director and writer didn’t want to tell the story that way). No matter the reason, this is not a story about a girl focused on the subject of race, and it seems unfair to demand that it be otherwise. Rather, Hushpuppy knows perfectly well that her community is threatened and that other, richer people are responsible.

If her worldview is not primarily oriented to race, it nevertheless seems vital to me that Zeitlin asks us to consider these matters via the person of a 6-yr-old Black girl, to see her as our heroine — which we do, effortlessly. I can’t help but feel this is sort of remarkable. I complain every single week about the fact that film offers so few opportunities for women, especially women of color, to get interesting parts. Well, here’s the best role for a Black female of the past five years — goddamn if I’m going to let it pass when someone says this character offends them, or that Hushpuppy is a mere cardboard cutout or racial type.

Stepping back, it occurs to me that my frustration with hooks’ full metal jacket bullet fired at this lovely film is related to my ongoing concerns about cultural criticism more broadly — both within and without the academy. I read too many critiques that are beautifully written, fervent and learned, yet which fail to understand as honestly as possible an artist’s actual work, to weigh fairly its successes and shortcomings, and attempt to place it in contexts that help us understand it better. hooks’ long piece certainly inflicts a wound on this film, but rather than hit the center of the target it has only done some damage to one of the film’s extremities — an arm, perhaps, or an ankle.

I must admit, however, in working up a righteous response to her vehement piece, I feel my critical juices flowing, my muscles tensing. Sometimes criticism really is about the back-and-forth. It’s all about the conversation. I do love the conversation, the way that criticism gives people the chance to debate.

So before I forget, let me note: what a find is Quvenzhané Wallis. Has any child actor ever inhabited her role so fully and with such genuine intensity as this one, from listening to the heartbeats of chicks and turtles to having an imaginary conversation with her long-gone mother? Wallis is now 8 and next year will appear in Twelve Years a Slave (2013). I can only hope she continues to have good luck with roles and directors and scripts, for she has a gift that could make her a truly great new child star.