Ranking the Best Picture Nominees, 2014

I had nearly forgotten about making this yearly Oscar post, when I happened upon the following bit of inspiration in my Twitter timeline:

Fortunately, I’ve had enough free time while avoiding studying for field exams to watch all of this year’s nominees and then some, so ranking them wasn’t too hard. In order of personal preference:

  1. American Hustle
  2. Dallas Buyer’s Club
  3. Her
  4. Nebraska
  5. 12 Years a Slave
  6. Captain Phillips
  7. Gravity
  8. Philomena
  9. The Wolf of Wall Street

I usually am prepared for my favorite nominees to deviate pretty heavily from the actual winners, and this year is no different. I’m guessing that 12 Years a Slave will probably win Best Picture, although I preferred four distinctly more light-hearted films. I’m opening myself to criticism on the choice of The Wolf of Wall Street as my least favorite film, as I’m sure I just didn’t fully appreciate the beauty of Scorsese’s satire; I found myself bored halfway through. Gravity was another film which disappointed me – I love the idea of a Scifi film set in present day, but the drama was thin, and the female lead character was obnoxiously weak. A great action film to be sure, but no Best Picture.

I didn’t see enough of the outsiders to complain about the selections, although by year’s end I hope to have watched Blue Jasmine, Rush and August: Osage County. Inside Llewyn Davis and The Butler were solid, if not outstanding. The one film I’d say deserved more praise was All Is Lost, a must-see if you have any affinity for the Survival genre.

Ranking the Best Picture Nominees, 2013

Schoolwork has left me hopelessly busy over the past half year or so, but I used up a good chunk of my dearly departed winter break to watch all of the best picture nominees. I’ve been putting off ‘ranking’ them, as I can’t say that any of them really excited me this year. Whereas in past years I’ve always come away with strong feelings about the year’s best and worst, this year’s selections left me unaffected.

Anyway, I’ll go ahead and throw down my list of favorites this year, in order of my personal preference:

  1. Django Unchained
  2. Life of Pi
  3. Argo
  4. Amour
  5. Les Miserables
  6. Lincoln
  7. Beasts of the Southern Wild
  8. Zero Dark Thirty
  9. Silver Linings Playbook

This year’s crop of movies seemed to boast a lot of movies that were clearly very good at what they were trying to do, but none that fell in my so-called wheelhouse. I’d struggle to find a flaw with movies like Amour, Les Miserables, and Lincoln, but you wouldn’t catch me watching them again. I can’t even say that I really enjoyed Django Unchained as much as other recent Tarantino work. The only movie I really didn’t like among this list was Silver Linings Playbook, which struck me as a painfully prototypical romantic comedy with predictable storyline and one-dimensional characters. And aside from the masterpiece that is The Expendables 2, I can’t think of too many movies outside of this list which I found to be particular entertaining (I am partial to Cloud Atlas and The Dark Knight Rises). Maybe I would have felt differently if I didn’t watch every movie on this list over a one week period, though!

There’s no sense in quoting InTrade statistics this year, as the site has been almost entirely vacated since the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission banned US users from the site last November, but the media consensus is pretty much in unanimous agreement that Argo will win.

New Computer!

My time left in Chicago is beginning to dwindle; as of today, I have less than one month at my job.

I’ve been filling my time with smaller projects of interest, including the recent construction of my own desktop computer, a workstation which will hopefully satisfy my computing needs for the next few years. My goal was to build a computer with sufficient memory and power for statistical computing using large datasets, accessed remotely from my laptop if necessary.

I usually avoid large purchases and have no knack for electronic workmanship, and fortunately this venture required neither. I made no sacrifices in my choices of components and still spent only $831 after tax and shipping.

All in all, the experience was educational and reasonably frugal, and has already been very valuable for my personal productivity. I’m very happy with the final product. Take a look at my Windows Experience Index, which rates each attribute out of 7.9. This stacks up well with the high-powered beast provided by my work.

 

Some notes about my build, and the things I learned along the way:

-          I probably spent too much on my CPU and motherboard. Anyone with similar objectives but a tighter budget would probably be best-served with the Intel 3570k i5 and the ASRock Extreme4. Anyone who wants to build a gaming PC should stray as far as possible from my build.

-          To choose components, my method of quickly absorbing sufficient knowledge was to leech off the combined experiences of others. In particular the BuildAPC subreddit provided a fantastic resource for figuring out the types of computers that people were building at the time for different goals.

-          Purchasing the components was my favorite part. In the PCPartPicker link above, note that I snagged the sum total of the parts at the lowest point in their price trajectory (this is endogenous, as I purchased only the brands which were on sale, but I think it does say something). I took advantage of my fortuitous proximity to a brick and mortar Micro Center to find an amazing release-day deal on the CPU, and scoured slickdeals.net for deals on the remaining parts. The one part I’ve held off on is a HDD, as the market hasn’t yet recovered from the supply shock from major flooding in Thailand.

-          Though I relied heavily on online tutorials and a few panicked phone calls to my dad, the build itself didn’t prove to be very difficult. The only time you can really cause any damage is when placing the CPU on the motherboard (which, I admit, was pretty nerve-wracking).

-          The integrated graphics on the new Intel processors are almost too good to be true. I didn’t expect to be gaming on my machine, but I’m glad that I didn’t opt for a low-grade graphics card. Despite not having played a video game since 2008, I could resist grabbing a cheap copy of Assassin’s Creed II to check out its performance.

The Next Five Years

I’m pretty excited to say that last week I committed to attending Princeton University’s Economics PhD program this fall. Obviously I have a lot of people to thank for their advice and influence, but here is not the best forum for that.

I do hope to write a bit more here about my experience in the application process, perhaps as a guide to students applying from non-research or lesser-known universities.

Flyouts

This hasn’t been a thing I’ve explicitly discussed yet, but this past fall I applied for PhD programs in economics for the second time. My first attempt, two years ago as a senior in college, wasn’t met with much enthusiasm. I’ve spent the last couple years bolstering my profile and figuring out precisely what I wanted to do, and I’ve had much better success this time around. Now, I have just a few weeks to figure out where I want to spend the next five years of my life.

In a few hours I’ll board a plane to my first open house/visit day. My attempt to get any amount of sleep tonight has been thwarted, so tomorrow may be a long day.

For those not familiar with the routine, every school holds a visit day for admitted students they’d like to woo into their program. Students are flown in from across the world, shown around the department, and wined/dined to various extents. To be honest, I kind of see the whole visit-day routine as kind of an unfortunate prisoner’s dilemma.

I’d imagine that most students make their final matriculation decision based mainly on factors like prestige and location of the institution, as well as the observable strengths of the department. All of these are clear to see from a few web searches; no one comes to a visit day uninformed about the school’s research strengths or US News ranking.

What then, is the use of a visit? Students take a single visit invite as a signal of (i) the department’s care for incoming students, and (ii) the size of the department’s wallet. But in my understanding and experience (I went to two flyouts last time around), this signal is mostly uniform across schools, and thus when all other schools offer flyouts, it is meaningless. Students like to be wined and dined however, so all attend. It’s clear that in the current equilibrium, if one school deviates by not offering admitted students a visit day, public perception would be that the program is weak in both (i) and (ii) above. So, we are stuck in an equilibrium in which schools dump thousands of dollars into an uninformative obligation.

Feel free to take or leave that analysis, as it’s 3 AM and I’m kind of rambling. I’m actually fairly certain that many people more sensitive to personal fit than I am, so my generalization may not be wholly true.

My final Best Picture nominee rankings

Made it through The Artist today, meaning that I can finally rank all of the Best Picture nominees this year a couple hours before the announcement. This isn’t a prediction of how things will go – The Artist is trending at 91.1% on InTrade.

  1. Hugo
  2. The Descendants
  3. The Tree of Life
  4. The Artist
  5. Midnight in Paris
  6. The Help
  7. War Horse
  8. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
  9. Moneyball

Movies that I enjoyed more than at least half of these include Beginners, 50/50, and Rango. I’m still looking forward to watching A Dangerous Method, Melancholia, and A Separation.

More eBay madness

Just bragging a bit, but here’s some of the crap I’ve sold on eBay recently:

  • My broken Zune MP3 player (sold for parts), which stopped working months ago: $50.
  • My crappy point-and-shoot Kodak Z712 camera, which I bought for $105 refurbished off eBay four years ago: $58.
  • My idle three-year old HTC myTouch 3G: $82.

I certainly didn’t make a profit on anything here, but without the magic of eBay exposure they would have been left decaying in my closet until they were worthless. Also magical is the fact that all of these have been functionally replaced by my smartphone.

Measures of Success

If you’ve taken a look at the Academy Award Best Picture Nominees for 2011, you might have noticed that none of them were smash hits at the box office. In fact, according to the worldwide gross data available at www.boxofficemojo.com, we find that this year’s highest ranking nominee, The Help, managed only 32nd place in 2011. This is a historic low:

Best Picture Nominee Worldwide Box Office Grosses, 1989-2011

YearTop Ranking Best Picture NomineeRankBest Picture WinnerRank
2011The Help32??
2010Toy Story 31The King's Speech13
2009Avatar1The Hurt Locker93
2008Slumdog Millionare14Slumdog Millionare14
2007Juno22No Country for Old Men31
2006The Departed14The Departed14
2005Brokeback Mountain24Crash54
2004Million Dollar Baby21Million Dollar Baby21
2003LotR: Return of the King1LotR: Return of the King1
2002LotR: Two Towers1Chicago12
2001LotR: The Fellowship of the Ring2A Beautiful Mind12
2000Gladiator2Gladiator2
1999The Sixth Sense2American Beauty9
1998Saving Private Ryan2Shakespeare in Love9
1997Titanic1Titanic1
1996Jerry Maguire9The English Patient11
1995Apollo 133Braveheart13
1994Forrest Gump2Forrest Gump2
1993The Fugitive3Schindler's List4
1992A Few Good Men7Unforgiven13
1991Beauty and the Beast3The Silence of the Lambs5
1990Ghost1Dances With Wolves4
1989Dead Poets Society5Driving Miss Daisy13
Yearly rank of Worldwide Gross among all movies each year taken from wwww.boxofficemojo.com. For fun, I've emboldened movies that I've already seen.

 

That’s as far back as the data goes on the website, but my guess would be that this year’s class of nominees holds this record over the 84-year history of the Academy Awards. The ostensible trend is that the tastes of the Academy are diverging from those of the global consumer base, but this is really only a cursory glance into this notion. I just found it kind of fun to think about.

It also looks like this year’s winner will beat out 2008′s The Hurt Locker as the least profitable Best Picture by rank: The Artist, which currently stands an 84% chance of winning this year’s Best Picture according to Intrade, is ranked 104th in worldwide gross so far this year.

A couple caveats:

  • There are still a few films in this year’s class which are still in theaters in some locations. Therefore, it’s possible that The Help will move up another spot or two.
  • Using Worldwide box office statistics probably inflates action films and deflates the arthouse-type films which have been nominated in recent years.

And a few final thoughts:

  • Has there been a study done on demonstrable effects of piracy on different strata of films? [EDIT: The answer to this, of course, is yes.]  In an attempt to analyze consumer psychology, I would guess that the ability to pirate makes a consumer much less likely to purchase or rent a DVD of a marginal film that she isn’t sure she’ll like. I wonder if the increased knowledge of and availability of torrent trackers could be linked to an increasing divergence in the financial success of more predictable films (sequels, remakes, Superhero films) and more risky ones (arthouse, original screenplays, etc.).
  • Among this year’s nominees I’ve seen only The Descendants, Moneyball, and The Help, and I wasn’t really impressed with any. I don’t profess to have refined tastes for film, but my favorite movies of the year have been 50/50, The Guard, and Rango. Last year I was pretty obsessed with Winter’s Bone and True Grit.

Imperfect Information

eBay is a marketplace I don’t frequent often enough to understand fully, but I’ve found it a fantastic place to peddle my junk. A recent sale of mine provides an example of the uninformed buyers that frequent it.

My listing of a brand new top-of-the-line SD card went for $33.00 on eBay,  when the same item is very clearly available from a number of actual vendors for less than $30 shipped. I can’t think of any reason why an individual would prefer my sketchy listing to that of a reputable company aside from their ignorance of the various price-comparison websites.