Friday, February 20, 2009

Oscar countdown: Day 2 -- Predictions

Here they are, my predictions and personal favorites in all the major categories, and predictions for most of the minor ones, too.

When the Oscars are passed out Sunday evening, the best bet is that “Slumdog Millionaire,” the unlikely hit about an Indian Muslim competing for the grand prize on a television game show, will win the highest honor.

The fact that “Slumdog” is the clear Best Picture favorite speaks to the weak showing by mainstream Hollywood films in 2008. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” would seem the top contender, since it led the way with 13 Oscar nominations. But in the run-up to the Academy Awards, it’s been trumped by “Slumdog.”

“Milk” and “Frost/Nixon” are the also-rans here – respectable pictures, but more admired for the powerful leading performances that anchor them rather than the strength of the whole film.
On the surface, this might seem to be a race between “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which received the two highest tallies of nominations.

But the best indicators for who will win the Oscar have always been the guild awards – the Producers Guild of America, Directors Guild of America, and Screen Actors Guild. And in those contests, “Benjamin Button” has won exactly zero awards. Since the same people who vote in these smaller contests generally vote for the Oscars too, it stands to reason that “Slumdog” will prevail.

The dark horse is actually “The Reader,” which won surprise nominations for Best Picture, Actress, Direction and Adapted Screenplay. The movie is backed by Harvey Weinstein, whose ability to successfully lobby Oscar voters is legendary. This is the man who somehow pulled off a Best Picture win for “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan.”

Still, I think “The Reader” came on too late to make a serious push. And “Slumdog” deserves to win; it’s the freshest, most vibrant movie-going experience of the year.

Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire
Pick: Slumdog Millionaire

This race will come down to two longtime Oscar darlings: Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet.
This is the astonishing 15th time Streep has been nominated. But it’s also been 26 years since she last won (for “Sophie’s Choice”), and she truly was an arresting presence as a fire-breathing nun in “Doubt.”

At the tender age of 33, Winslet has nabbed six nominations but never won (Streep had been nominated three times and won once by the same age). It would seem to be Winslet’s time.
And Streep may be a victim of her own high standards: She’s so good in everything she’s in, that picking her finest performance is like trying to distinguish between Michael Jordan’s best dunks.

But here’s the wrinkle: Winslet was widely expected to receive two acting nominations this year, and “The Reader” was supposed to be in the supporting category. Voters clearly weren’t impressed with “Revolutionary Road,” in which she had a bigger and showier role.

The SAG awards are no help, since Streep won in the leading role category, and Winslet in supporting (nominating rules are different in the guild contests).

I think it’s Winslet’s year to finally grab the gold.

Anne Hathaway (“Rachel Getting Married”) and Angelina Jolie (“Changeling”) gave fine performances in small movies that not enough people saw. Personally, I’ll take Melissa Leo’s understated, gritty turn in “Frozen River.”

Prediction: Kate Winslet
Pick: Melissa Leo

This one’s between Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” and Sean Penn in “Milk.”
Everyone loves the redemptive story of Rourke’s rise from the ashes of a once-promising career, playing a washed-up wrestler whose story closely parallels his own. It’s the sentimental choice.

But Sean Penn’s been giving great performances year in and year out for more than a decade now, and has a growing reputation as a director, too.

In the end, I think the Academy is going to pick one of their own, rather than rewarding a guy who was run out of town for being such a jerk. Penn’s win at the SAG awards confirms this.

I didn’t really think much of Brad Pitt’s performance in “Benjamin Button,” or much of that movie in general, other than the glory of its technical achievement in aging Pitt backwards, and believably.

Richard Jenkins’ nomination for “The Visitor” is the epitome of the old line that “It’s an honor just to be nominated.” I’ll take Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon” for the first film portrayal of a U.S. president that didn’t come off as a caricature.

Prediction: Sean Penn
Pick: Frank Langella

The cruel jokes about Marisa Tomei’s name accidentally being read as the winner for Best Supporting Actress by an aged Jack Palance in 1993 never cease. Meanwhile, Tomei has appeared in movies large and small, building up a body of work that even the snidest observers would have to dub respectable.

Her skills are on full display in “The Wrestler” as a stripper who rebuffs the advances of a broken-down palooka, not realizing the physical decay that threatens his identity foreshadows her own. Tomei spends a large portion of the movie unclothed, and yet it’s only in the scenes outside the strip club that she seems truly naked.

Viola Davis seems to be the leading nominee here, despite only appearing in two scenes in “Doubt” for a total screen time of perhaps eight minutes. But it’s a powerhouse turn, akin to a first-round knockout, and Oscar voters respond to that sort of thing.

Amy Adams (“Doubt”), Taraji P. Henson (“Benjamin Button”) and Penélope Cruz (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”) fill out the bill.

Prediction: Viola Davis
Pick: Marisa Tomei

This is one the certain lock of the evening. This would be the case even if Ledger, who started in teenybopper roles and grew immeasurably as an actor, hadn’t died tragically a year ago.
Josh Brolin (“Milk”), Robert Downey Jr. (“Tropic Thunder”), Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Doubt”) and Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”) all gave fine performances, and all don’t stand a chance of winning.

Ledger took a well-known commodity of comic book villain The Joker and turned him inside out, flipped him upside down, smashed the reflection and reassembled the shards. If possible, it was an even more stunning performance than “Brokeback Mountain.”

Prediction: Heath Ledger
Pick: Heath Ledger

The other sure thing of the night is Danny Boyle taking home the golden statue for directing “Slumdog Millionaire,” as he did for the directors guild award. And he deserves it, for boldly mixing English filmmakers telling a story about Indian characters with a decidedly Hollywood rags-to-riches vibe.

Interestingly, this is one of the few years in which all five Best Picture nominees also earned nominations for their directors. Usually there’s at least one Best Picture nominee whose director doesn’t get a nod, which leads to quips about the movie “directing itself.”

The other nominees are David Fincher (“Benjamin Button”), Ron Howard (“Frost/Nixon”), Stephen Daldry (“The Reader”) and Gus Van Sant (“Milk”).

Prediction: Danny Boyle
Pick: Danny Boyle

The favorite seems to be “Milk,” which Dustin Lance Black spent years trying to get made. Personally, I found his script a bit rote and hagiographic. I thought “Wall·E” the finest movie of the year, so I would give the Oscar to its trio of storytellers.

I was pleased to see a nomination for Courtney Hunt, who wrote and directed “Frozen River” in an audacious debut. I felt both “Happy-Go-Lucky” (Mike Leigh) and “In Bruges” (Martin McDonagh) were quirky for the sake of quirkiness, and didn’t deserve to be nominated.

Prediction: Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Pick: Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon and Pete Docter; Wall·E.

This category tends to follow the Best Picture winner, and I think that’ll be the case again this year.

The other nominees are “Benjamin Button” (Eric Roth and Robin Swicord), “Doubt” (John Patrick Shanley), “Frost/Nixon” (Peter Morgan) and “The Reader” (David Hare).

Prediction: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Pick: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire

“Wall·E” will win, “Wall·E” deserves to win. “Kung Fu Panda” and “Bolt” are entertaining children’s movies that don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as “Wall·E.”
The only disappointing thing about this win is that having an animated category effectively shut “Wall·E” out of the race for Best Picture, where it surely deserved to be.

Sure, anybody can offer a pick for Best Picture, but who has the stones to make a prediction in the category of Best Costumed Visual Effects Editing Documentary?

I do.

Here are predictions for the winners in most of the remaining categories. The three exceptions are the short film categories (Live Action, Animated and Documentary), since these movies do not see more than a very limited release.

Prediction: The Dark Knight

Prediction: The Dark Knight

Prediction: Man on Wire

Prediction: Waltz With Bashir

Prediction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Prediction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire

Prediction: “Jai Ho” by A.R. Rahman and Gulzar from Slumdog Millionaire

Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire

Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire

Prediction: The Dark Knight

Prediction: The Duchess

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