UPDATED February 22 11:19 a.m.
Okay, so we’ve reached the portion of our program where your marginally interested host feigns interest in the actual Oscar awards long enough to go out on a limb and make his Oscar office pool picks public. This act of exhibitionism should in no way be interpreted as excitement over the line-up of nominees Oscar has culled from the past year—I don’t remember a year in which the general crop of movies released during the eligible 12 months was so much better and more interesting overall than the movies chosen by AMPAS for Kodak Theater honors. (Remember that last year’s Oscar for Best Picture, as well as several others, went to the movie that a good portion of us actually believed was the best picture of 2007, No Country for Old Men.) This year the two movies among Oscar’s top five that actually made my own year-end list ranked only #19 (Slumdog Millionaire) and #17 (Milk). There were 16 other movies I thought were more deserving of the honor of Best Picture, and most of the people I know who write about movies and see them fervently would probably say the same (though the numbers, and the movies, probably differ). Nor should the appearance of these barely-educated guesses provide the template for your own Oscar pool ballot—in many instances here I’m more likely to take chances on the odd long shot or left-field pick because there’s no money involved. But my own Oscar pool ballot—the one you guys will not see-- is likely to hew far more closely to the kind of conventional wisdom found in Entertainment Weekly and other oracles of Oscar foreknowledge. So for crying out loud, don’t put these picks on your own ballot if you expect to win, and if you do don’t tell me about it, especially if you lose. Onward.
Blind Guess Department
Best Live Action Short Film: Just because I like the title, Manon on the Asphalt.
Best Animated Short Film: I heard a guy on the radio yesterday tout La Maison et Petit Cubes, but I have no idea whether he just picked the name out of a hat or not, so I’m going to stick with the tried and true and pick Pixar’s Presto, which happens to be a wonderful short. (You saw it before Wall-E.)
Best Documentary Short: The Witness—from the Balcony of Room 306 (See irrefutable reasoning cited for Best Live Action Short Film.)
Best Documentary Feature: I actually saw a majority of the nominees this year (a rarity), but that doesn’t make this category any easier to pick. But something tells me the stunning spectacle of Philippe Petit’s performance art stunt extraordinaire documented in Man on Wire will outweigh the personal perspective on Hurricane Katrina in Trouble the Water and Werner Herzog (and the insane penguin) and their haunting Encounter at the End of the World.
Best Foreign Language Film: The ones we’ve heard of and perhaps even seen (this year, The Class and Waltz with Bashir) usually don’t do so well come award time, and in spite of Bashir's assumed front-runner status, no animated film or documentary has ever won in this category. Out of the other nominees (The Baader-Meinhof Complex and Revanche), I’m going out on a shaky limb and picking Departures, this year’s as-yet-unreleased-in-America entry from Japan.
The Major Categories
Best Visual Effects: If it were my pick, I’d go with the magic that made Iron Man clank and fly and blow up real good. But Oscar ain’t me—the technical categories will belong to Benjamin Button and Batman, and for this one I think they’ll like The Dark Knight.
Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing: Most of the general Academy voting base, I think it can probably safely assumed, doesn’t really get the difference between sound mixing and sound editing-- editing being the way the various sound effects are assembled and employed, either judiciously or generously, and mixing being the way the sounds are layered together to create the ambient soundscape of the film. Given the general level of enthusiasm for the film, and the understanding that sound is one of the major reasons why it works as well as it does, it’s hard to imagine these awards going to anything other than Wall-E, unless the misunderstanding of “Best Sound” as being directly related to decibel level overrides everything, as it frequently has in the past. If this happens, look for a win for The Dark Knight.
Best Original Song: I’m more upset by the absence of Clint Eastwood than Bruce Springsteen in this category, but really, only three songs nominated? How many years in the past could we have eliminated this category altogether? And to not include Springsteen’s "The Wrestler” and Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” both songs that were thematically resonant and relevant to their films, seems especially nonsensical. Not that either one of them would necessarily have stood a chance against the evening’s likely juggernaut, Slumdog Millionaire, which will likely take home its first Oscar (depending on the order in which they are given out, of course), for A. R. Rahman’s feel-good Bollywood closer, ”Jai Ho.”
Best Original Musical Score: Personally, I’d hand it to Thomas Newman for his evocative Wall-E score. And maybe Oscar will too. But I think A. R. Rahman’s chance to take home two music Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire are better than good, and since that means the overreaching and relentless piano-based musings of Alexandre Desplat for Benjamin Button will be passed over, I have no problem with anointing Rahman twice. (Not that I have anything against Desplat-- he deserved the award for Birth in 2004.)
Best Makeup: The incredible old-age makeup, standing in for Brad Pitt’s performance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which burrows beyond interior and into the realm of the recessive), will hold the day, though it’s hard to see how the amazing creations that populate the universe of Hellboy II: The Golden Army could be seen as second, or probably even third-best in this category.
Best Film Editing: Flashiest usually equals best in this category. Benjamin Button’s editorial scheme will be perceived as too leisurely for consideration, Milk and Frost/Nixon not nearly ostentatious enough. The Dark Knight was both praised and criticized for its editing, but Slumdog Millionaire’s front-runner status in the Best Picture race will make the movie’s hay here—that and the movie’s status as the poster child for breathless pacing and the smash-cut, not to mention nominee Chris Dickens’ facility with the tools of traditional storytelling.
Best Costume Design: Dare you vote against the bustles and bodices and surreal wiggery of The Duchess? I daren’t, and nor will Oscar.
Best Cinematography: I haven’t even seen The Reader yet (I hope to tonight), but even sight unseen I don’t see how it could possibly be anything but brilliant visually, with both Chris Menges and Roger Deakins in control of the lighting. But I am expecting a Slumdog Millionaire kind of night, and given Anthony Dod Mantle’s recent honor from the American Society of Cinematographers Slumdog’s chances look excellent here.
Best Art Direction/Set Design: I might, if I were choosing among these five nominees, choose the work of James Murakami in Changeling, a movie I didn’t much care for but which was soaked in the kind of lived-in period realism that either makes up for myriad sins or distracts viewers from the deficiencies of the rest of the picture. But the Academy will likely be tempted by the sumptuous Victorian period dressing of The Duchess before handing the award over to the richly evoked history of New Orleans in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Best Animated Feature: The industry insiders showered a lot of love on Kung Fu Panda at the recent Annie Awards. But though they were undoubtedly an influence in the Panda’s nomination here, the voting on the actual award is turned in by the entire Academy, and the general consensus is that Wall-E is the better movie. Advantage: the robot with the heart of gold.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Perhaps the evening’s most top-loaded category. I think a case could be made for almost any of the nominees as a potential winner. But it’s hard to deny the momentum that Slumdog Millionaire is experiencing going into tomorrow night’s show, and as such its screenplay ought to reign victorious here.
Best Original Screenplay: This is the category with the highest level of quality, nominee to nominee. With the exception of Courtney Hunt’s unexceptional, crime-sorta-does-pay indie poverty thriller Frozen River, each screenplay honored here really does deserve to be honored. But as brilliant as the scripts for Happy-Go-Lucky and In Bruges may be, the movies themselves are untethered to nominations in any other category. Wall-E could float to victory on a wave of emotion, but many might perceive its screenplay as simply 40 or so pages of camera directions and sound effects descriptions before getting to the dialogue, as if screenplays are only really the sum of their spoken words. (I actually heard some genius espouse this theory on the radio this past week.) It seems that, given these conditions, Dustin Lance Black’s intelligent (if conventional) script for Milk is a strong contender.
Best Supporting Actor: I’d like to think that it’s possible that this could be something other than the Heath Ledger category, but that’s probably the evening’s most unlikely bet. Yes, it would be a beautiful thing to see Robert Downey Jr. steal this one, but sentiment and genuine enthusiasm for Ledger’s performance will prove unbeatable.
Best Supporting Actress: One of two Oscar categories (the other also involves females) that provide almost impossible-to-call situations during an otherwise virtually perspiration-free evening. With all due respect to Taraji P. Henson and Amy Adams, these were well-crafted, monochromatic performances that will provide no real competition here. But any of the other three could take the award easily. Penelope Cruz is the prohibitive favorite, and her win this afternoon at the Indeoendent Spirit Awards says a lot for her support in actor circles. And anyone who saw Doubt knows how brilliant Viola Davis was, holding her own in a brief, one-scene performance with Meryl Streep that makes Beatrice Straight look like a red-eyed, red-headed stepchild. She could easily steal this one from the sultry Spaniard. But I’ll hark back to the year 1992 for my prediction. That night on the red carpet hot-shot Rob Reiner, a presumed front-runner for A Few Good Men (which, happily, won nothing that night), was asked about his chances and he cracked, “Well, we’re not exactly Marisa Tomei.” No one thought Tomei had a chance to win against heavyweight Brits like Miranda Richardson, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave and Aussie Judy Davis. Well, she did, and deservedly so. Fast-forward to 2008: add a stellar history of character performances, to which her performance in The Wrestler is an honorable addition, plus her willingness to get naked (and get noticed for it by no less than the Los Angeles Times), and suddenly Marisa Tomei starts to look like a contender. I think she’ll walk away with her second Oscar in this category tomorrow night.
Best Actor: I think this is more of a race than the conventional wisdom might suggest. Despite their individual pedigrees, I don’t think Langella or Pitt are factors here; Jenkins perhaps a sliver more so simply because he is so universally well-liked and respected. But despite his coronation under the tent in Santa Monica this afternoon, I don’t think Mickey Rourke’s ascendence to the Oscar stage is a given, as much for his ridiculous refusal to let go of his pretense at wrestling reality as for the clichés of the movie itself. Rourke is certainly the best reason to see The Wrestler, but it’s not a transcendent performance. I think more people think Sean Penn’s work in Milk is, and therefore I think he’ll be the one accepting the statue.
UPDATE: This just in from Larry Aydlette: Mickey Rourke's salty and spectacular acceptance speech for Best Actor honors at the IFP Awards yesterday afternoon. Rourke really cuts loose here, but in a genuinely moving, edge-of-your-seat unpredictable fashion, and he begins by demanding that Hollywood start paying attention to Eric Roberts again... Thanks, L.A.! (Larry will be live blogging the Oscars, and he always has terrific in-the-moment observations, so if you're nearby a computer tonight you'd be doubling your pleasure to keep up with him!)
Best Actress: Melissa Leo can grimace like nobody’s business, and she crafts an entire performance out of one-note sobriety and gritty trailer-park nobility in Frozen River. It won her the Independent Spirit award for Best Actress, and it’s remarkably of a piece with a list of glum, cosmetic-free appearances that, to this eye at least, don’t seem to be very distinguishable, one from the other, the kind that often get mistaken for serious acting. She’s willing to look worn-out and weary, and that goes a long way for some voters. Better Leo than Angelina Jolie, however; Jolie’s high-school-play-level histrionics, mixed in with her otherwise monotonously saintly portrait of a mother abused, in Changeling were just shy of embarrassing, certainly not worthy of awards or of this otherwise accomplished actress. So scratch those two, or maybe after Leo’s win today you leave her in the mix. However you approach it, this category shapes up as being perhaps even more difficult to call than the Best Supporting Actress race. There are good cases to be made for the Academy wanting to make a historic splash and anoint Meryl Streep a winner after her record-setting 15th nomination and backing a slightly-less-dark indie colt like Anne Hathaway, who gave a performance whose quality was less debated than the merits of the love-it-or-hate-it movie in which she starred. But the fact that this is Kate Winslet’s sixth nomination, all before she turns 35 (another Academy record), in a movie that deals, however tangentially, with the Holocaust (an Oscar imprimatur of seriousness), and that she spends a copious amount of time in the nude (perhaps more so than even Ms. Tomei) adds up to an itch that Oscar won’t be able to help but scratch. I think you’re relatively safe betting any of the last three, and Kate Winslet, while not a lock, does seem like the surest thing. Therefore I pick Meryl Streep.
Best Director and Best Picture: Rarely do the five nominees for Best Picture find all five of their respective directors similarly nominated, but it has happened this year and I think that is as good an indicator as any that the vote between the two categories will not split this year. Based on this non-split theory, I think the only reasonable choice, if it’s money you want to make Sunday night, is Danny Boyle and Slumdog Millionaire. Don’t be seduced by Benjamin Button’s 13 nominations— we are not talking The Return of the King here. Button is a movie that lots of people saw that failed to emotionally justify its epic length and life-story ambitions which will win only in some of the technical categories, where its real success (such as it is) lies. Nor is the movie the strongest of David Fincher’s work; the silver lining of his nomination here is that he seems to be quite unlike the kind of director who will go further fishing for the Academy’s approval and turn away from the kind of clear-headed, tough-minded films for which he is better known. Ron Howard’s
Frost/Nixon is creditable and entertaining, but doesn’t seem to have a very passionate following, and The Reader, beyond Kate Winslet’s nomination, seems generally recognized as standard-issue Weinstein-approved Oscar bait. (It is amazing to consider that Stephen Daldry, director of The Reader, has made exactly three movies and all three-- this, The Hours and Billy Elliot-- have netted him nominations in the directing category—a piece of Oscar history reserved for the most nondescript of candidates.) So Milk would seem to be the only nominee to have a fighting chance against the Slumdog tsunami. But as much sentiment as may be behind the movie in the wake of the passage of Prop 8 in California, and as much as it is recognized as a brilliant acting showcase for its entire ensemble, it is also perceived as fairly conventional, less for its status as a biopic than as a Gus Van Sant movie, and there seems to be little heat behind his nomination. So unless the director/picture categories do indeed split, it seems that the old-fashioned, fable-grounded virtues of Slumdog Millionaire, wrapped as it is in the heart-stopping pyrotechnics of Danny Boyle’s relentlessly assured style, will be the movie to beat in both of these major categories.
Best of luck to all of you in your Oscar viewing tomorrow night—the over/under on me falling asleep in my chair, to the dismay, or perhaps mean-spirited delight of my Oscar party guests, is 6:15 p.m. This year, of all years, I can’t wait to forget who won in all the major categories on my way toward hoping for a more interesting show next year. Let’s hope that Jerry Lewis jolts us all out of our pizza-and-hot-wings-induced complacency and that Hugh Jackman can figure out how to keep us awake enough to follow out our ballots as the show goes along.