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An Oscar Voter's Brutally Honest Ballot

One director shares his choices, calling "Argo" a "whole lot of nothing," saying "Django Unchained" is "Tarantino masturbating" and passing on "Amour" because "there's only so much diaper-changing I can tolerate."

Anonymous Oscar Ballot - H 2013
Anonymous Oscar Ballot

A version of this story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

One of the 371 members of the Academy’s directors branch recently invited me over to his office to listen in as he openly deliberated about how to fill out his final ballot for the 85th Oscars. As you can tell from his remarks -- highlights of which have been reprinted below, category-by-category -- he has seen virtually all of the contenders and has very strong but carefully considered opinions about them. He opted to vote online rather than via paper ballot -- “because I want to feel young again,” he said with a chuckle -- and did not experience any issues with the voting system. His main issue, in fact, is with the studios that have inundated him with promotional swag, most of which he doesn’t want. “I’ve gotten books, cookbooks and just about everything short of Lincoln condoms,” he cracked. “It’s ridiculous.” Eventually, we got down to business, and, in no particular order, touched upon all 24 Oscar categories.

BEST SOUND MIXING

“This is the award for sound that is mixed on the set on the day. I’m going to dismiss Life of Pi because it seems like very much of a postproduction movie. And I’m going to vote for Les Miserables because they recorded the singing for live on the set and every quaver had to be caught. They had to be absolutely perfect, and they were.”

Vote: Les Miserables

BEST SOUND EDITING

“This is more about sound effects done in post. I’m going to dismiss Argo, Django and Life of Pi because I don’t think their post sound effects were terribly interesting or original. Zero Dark Thirty? I imagine that a great deal of the raid was done with sound effects editing. But I’m gonna go with Skyfall. The sound of that movie was absolutely extraordinary -- in particular, when the train comes colliding into the station.”

Vote: Skyfall

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BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

“I did not see all of the nominees, but with something like visual effects you can see enough of a film, in many cases, to make an informed decision. The Hobbit lost me with the 48 frames-per-second; I think it’s failed experiment -- noble, but failed. The Avengers and Prometheus are the same old thing. Snow White and the Huntsman lost me when they went into the woods. But Life of Pi is pretty extraordinary—the visuals are as magnificent as anything I’ve seen in a movie in a very long time. I was also very impressed that the tiger is so realistic and so unsentimental.”

Vote: Life of Pi

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

“In general, I object to movies that primarily feature CGI production design, like The Hobbit and Life of Pi. Les Miserables? One of its weakest things was its production design -- for example, in the beginning of the movie, that huge boat looked ridiculously fake. So that leaves Anna Karenina, which is a movie I loathed, and Lincoln. I’m not gonna vote for Lincoln for best picture, but I have a lot of personal respect for Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy and I want to help the film, so when I can throw it a vote, like here, I will.”

Vote: Lincoln

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

“This is No-Brainer City: ‘Skyfall’ is one of the best songs that has ever been in the best song category and Adele is f---ing brilliant. Plus I think it’s about time that a James Bond song won best song. In a way, this is my F-you for not giving it to ‘Live and Let Die’ back in 1973. I will say that ‘Before My Time,’ which is sung by Scarlett Johansson, is pretty good. ‘Pi’s Lullaby’ I couldn’t remember if my life was on the line. ‘Everybody Needs a Best Friend’ is a simple song. And ‘Suddenly’ from Les Miserables is a very boring song and an absolutely blatant attempt to win a best song Oscar; that upsets me. If ‘Skyfall’ does not win I will fillet my next-door neighbor’s dog.”

Vote: “Skyfall” (Skyfall)

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BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Life of Pi is an absolutely perfect score. [Lincoln composer] John Williams has enough f---ing Oscars, and I really feel that the score was a weak part of Lincoln and just self-plagiarism for Williams. Thomas Newman should have won the Oscar a couple of times, but I just didn’t see anything particularly new or interesting in the music of Skyfall.”

Vote: Life of Pi

BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING

“I don’t think it’s a very impressive category this year. They should have nominated Lincoln because of how much they made Daniel Day-Lewis look like Lincoln. In Hitchcock Anthony Hopkins just looked like a man in a fat-suit—I didn’t really buy it. The Hobbit? You know, whatever—it’s what they do every time. So I guess I’m going to vote for Les Miserables here, only because of how well they aged Hugh Jackman. And I think they did a good job beating the shit out of Anne Hathaway, as well.”

Vote: Les Miserables

BEST FILM EDITING

“I think one of the worst things about Silver Linings Playbook was its editing; there was a lot of mismatching. Lincoln? There really isn’t much editing to speak of. Life of Pi is interesting because it was mostly computer-generated, I think there were not that many decisions to be made with editing, as opposed to when you get a shitload of stuff and have to figure out what you’re going to use. Argo had some pretty good editing, especially that sequence at the end when they’re making their escape. But the undeniable winner is Zero Dark Thirty, which must have had a massive amount of footage to boil down and made that raid at the end very understandable.”

Vote: Zero Dark Thirty

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BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

“It’s a very good group; I saw them all. The most powerful might be The Gatekeepers, so that could win. But, in order to win this Oscar, you usually have to make a film that makes people feel absolutely great or makes people feel like they want to slit their wrists; something that’s jovial or something that’s important. I think that Searching for Sugar Man is going to win, and I’m going to vote for it because I just felt like a million bucks after watching it -- and I bought Rodriguez’s album.”

Vote: Searching for Sugar Man

BEST SHORT (ANIMATED)

[Had not seen any of the films, but had heard good things about Paperman so he voted for it.]

Vote: Paperman

BEST SHORT (DOCUMENTARY)

[Had not seen any of the films and knew nothing about any of them, so he declined to vote.]

Vote: [Abstained]

BEST SHORT (LIVE ACTION)

Curfew is the least depressing of five films guaranteed to prevent you from getting laid, as I personally learned.”

Vote: Curfew

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BEST DIRECTING

I would have voted for Bigelow -- I certainly nominated her and Affleck. Silver Linings is a screenplay; the direction is not particularly important -- although it took David O. Russell to figure out that Bradley Cooper is a great actor. Life of Pi is very well-directed and extremely well-thought-out, but I was put off by the religious message at the end. Beasts? I know many people loved it, but I got seasick and found it to be almost impossibly boring. Amour is purely a performance piece; besides, Michael Haneke has pissed me off in the past because he’s made movies that are so misanthropic. He just hates human beings, and I happen to be a human being and don’t like being shit on. That leaves Lincoln, which I don’t feel is the best-directed film of the year -- there’s nothing innovative about it -- but I’m swept away with the gravity of the subject matter, with the respect that Spielberg showed to it and with him guiding Day-Lewis in a direction different than we’d normally associated with Lincoln. Plus, Spielberg deserves an Oscar every 10 years or so out of respect for what he does for the industry.

Vote: Lincoln

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

“This always goes to the nominee with the puffiest dresses. Just once I’d like to see a more modern film put into this category. Mirror Mirror is out for me. Lincoln is out for me. I just don’t want to support Anna Karenina, even though it’s probably going to win because it’s exactly the kind of movie that does win this award; people who haven’t even seen the film are going to vote for it because it just has that smell. But I’m gonna go for Snow White because you had the knights in the shining armor and then you had the more mythical costumes and on and on. I think it was just a little bit more inventive than the others.”

Vote: Snow White and the Huntsman

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BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

“I liked Life of Pi, but I’m suspect of any nominee that used a lot of CGI, since you can manipulate the photography so much. Lincoln was way too milky for me; I have that problem with almost everything Janusz Kaminski does. The Anna Karenina cinematography was totally unimpressive. Django Unchained was Robert Richardson, and he, in general, does far too much top-lighting for me. I’m voting for Skyfall because I want Roger Deakins to win an Oscar. Now, I’m a person who knows that Roger Deakins shot Skyfall, but a lot of people in the Academy will have no clue who did because they don’t tell you on the ballot; in fact, they won’t vote for it because it’s a James Bond film -- you know, ‘How can you give James Bond an Oscar?’ But they should go back and rewatch that opening shot where Bond is approaching the camera, and he’s out-of-focus and he slams into focus in a way that I’ve never seen done before. I also really love the way that Deakins plays with dark and light in the film.”

Vote: Skyfall

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

“It’s a tough category because everything is mediocre. I’m definitely not voting for The Pirates. I’m not voting for Frankenweenie. Brave was unimpressive. So I guess it’s between ParaNorman and Wreck-It Ralph. So… " [At this time, he assigned the screen-side of his iPhone to the former and the back-side of it to the latter, and spun it on his desk.]

Vote: Wreck-It Ralph

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

“It’s a very interesting category.  Jacki Weaver? I don’t even know why she’s there, and she knocked out Ann Dowd, who probably deserved that spot for Compliance. Helen Hunt is really a lead actress. Sally Field is undeserving in this category -- I didn’t find a single moment in the film where I thought she did anything extraordinary; she’s playing an annoying character, and she is rather annoying, plus she’s about 20 years too old for the role. Amy Adams is going to be nominated 20 more times, but this one’s a total throwaway role. Which leaves Anne Hathaway, who’s going to win because she makes you cry and because I find her charming. Sometimes it’s one scene that wins it for you. Not just anybody can come in and kill one song; there are many songs that Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe should have killed, and, in fact, they killed them literally.”

Vote: Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables)

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BEST ACTRESS

“For the first hour of The Impossible, you can’t imagine how Naomi Watts cannot win, but her character basically becomes a person who is exclusively struggling and who disappears for large chunks of the film, so I can’t vote for her. I also don’t vote for anyone whose name I can’t pronounce. Quvez---? Quzen---? Quyzenay? Her parents really put her in a hole by giving her that name -- Alphabet Wallis. The truth is, it’s a very sweet but immature performance from a 9-year-old. I’ve directed children. They probably did a thousand takes and put the best ones together. Jennifer Lawrence I was on the fence about, but she lost me with that Saturday Night Live bit; I thought it was mean-spirited and shows a lack of maturity on her part. So, for me, it’s between Jessica Chastain and Emmanuelle Riva. I didn’t like Amour, but I think Riva was extraordinary in it. Chastain was just fantastic in Zero Dark Thirty -- she is the major star of tomorrow and probably has another 10 Oscar nominations in her future. Meanwhile, Emmanuelle Riva may not even live through Oscar night, so …”

Vote: Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

“I rule out Christoph Waltz because this is a fake nomination — he’s a co-lead with Jamie Foxx, and it’s unfair for the others to compete with that. Also, much of his performance is just like in Inglourious Basterds. Robert De Niro was just Robert De Niro; yes, he had one crying scene, but crying is not enough. Alan Arkin in Argo? I’m shocked he’s even nominated. Tommy Lee Jones has been such a bitter guy -- all that scowling at the Golden Globes? I’m telling you, people don’t like the guy. So I turn to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was sublime in The Master. It’s a very original performance. What’s interesting about it is you don’t know where the character is coming from; you sort of assume he’s insincere, but sometimes he comes across as extremely sincere. Now, you could argue that it’s also a lead, but if you go back and take out a stopwatch, you’ll realize that it really is Joaquin Phoenix’s movie.”

Vote: Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)

BEST ACTOR

“I would be surprised if Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t get 80 percent of the vote -- people like and respect him and also the character. I’ll bet you that none of the other nominated guys have even written a speech. I, too, thought he was very good, but basically it was a lot of soliloquies, you know, so I didn’t see that much range from him. For Bradley Cooper, the nomination is his award. Hugh Jackman did a terrible job singing many of the songs in Les Mis -- I think the live singing, in many cases, actually hurt the movie because the singing just isn’t as good as it could be. Denzel Washington plays a drunk and an addict, which is very difficult to do, and it’s a brilliant performance, but so much of it goes on the natural fumes of Denzel, and he’s already won two Academy Awards. So I’m gonna vote for Joaquin Phoenix, who gives a performance for the ages. So much went into that performance. He created a character as distinct as Daniel Plainview [Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood], from always hunching and putting his right hand on his hip to crying as he’s being audited.”

Vote: Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

“It’s a rather strong category, but I’m partial to Life of Pi because we all thought that it was an unfilmable book, and yet David Magee came up with a way to structure it that was faithful to the book but also cinematic. Lincoln was a little too much of a history lesson. Plus, I thought the opening scene with the black soldier and the scene featuring Tommy Lee Jones’ character and his maid were both very contrived, and that the ending, as is so often the case in Spielberg’s movies, was overkill. Silver Linings is a pretty good screenplay, but I wasn’t wowed by it. Argo is a whole lot of nothing; it’s a very engaging story, but with nothing particularly clever in the writing. And I didn’t understand what was going on in Beasts of the Southern Wild; up until this very second, I didn’t even realize it was an adapted screenplay.”

Vote: Life of Pi

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Amour is immediately disqualified -- it’s just a woman dying, and there’s no real story, and it made me feel like shit. There’s only so much diaper-changing that I can tolerate. Django? If Tarantino had never made a film and this was his first screenplay, I might consider voting for him, but he’s made the same movie eight times. Moonrise Kingdom? It’s a personal thing, but I don’t like this guy’s movies. Flight offers a look at addiction unlike any we’ve seen. But Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty script is even more amazing, with very good moments and great tension. Also, this whole torture thing is nonsense. Knowing that it’s not gonna win best picture, part of me just wants to try to push through an award for it as an ‘I’m sorry.’”

Vote: Zero Dark Thirty

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

“I’ve seen all of the nominees at official Academy screenings held over the past few weeks. You go into that theater, you sit there, you look around, and you just hope that there’s an ambulance outside because a lot of the members in attendance must have aged out of AARP at this point. I really wonder if these people are going to vote for Amour, because they’re really looking at themselves and they’ve gotta be saying, 'This is what’s in my future? This is f---ing depressing.' It’s depressing for people who are dying and for people who have to take care of people who are dying. It’s like, who needs that shit? I personally didn’t care for it. A Royal Affair is the kind of film that bores me; I fell asleep as I was watching it. No is a very good film, but it’s shot in a very weird way. War Witch is a really great film, but it’s an absolute f---ing bummer, and when you have children in jeopardy, people check out. That leaves Kon-Tiki, which has a very weird beginning but is very moving by the end; when they showed the photos of the real-life people at the end, my eyes were welling up. There is a tendency among voters in this category to vote for something that uplifts or energizes them, and this certainly does that.”

Vote: Kon-Tiki (Norway)

BEST PICTURE

“This is a preferential system. I’m putting Amour at No. 9 because I’m just pissed off at that film. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a movie that I just didn’t understand, so that’s my No. 8. Les Miserables goes in seventh place -- it’s not just the most disappointing film of the year but the most disappointing film in many years. Above that I’m putting Silver Linings Playbook, which is just a “blah” film. Django Unchained will go into my fifth slot -- it’s a fun movie, but it’s basically just Quentin Tarantino masturbating for almost three hours. Next up is Life of Pi because of how unique it is and for holding my attention up until its irritating ending. Argo is gonna go in third place, but I don’t want it to win because I don’t think it deserves to win and am annoyed that it is on track to win for the wrong reasons. Actually, come to think of it, do we have to put a film in every slot? Because what I want is for my best picture choice to have the best possible shot, so why even give any support to the others? [He has his assistant call the Oscar voting helpline, finds out that voters can leave slots blank and promptly removes all of the aforementioned selections.] I’m basically OK with one of two films winning. Lincoln is going in my second slot; it’s a bore, but it’s Spielberg, it’s well-meaning, and it’s important. Zero Dark Thirty is my No 1.”

Vote: (1) Zero Dark Thirty, (2) Lincoln, (3) [blank], (4) [blank], (5) [blank], (6) [blank], (7) [blank], (8) [blank], (9) [blank]