What’s Oscar thinking?

By Christopher Smith,
Posted Feb. 19, 2009, at 5:17 p.m.

When it comes to predicting the Academy Awards, which will air at 8 p.m. Sunday on ABC, the novelist and screenwriter William Goldman said it best — nobody knows anything — which is why some of us age visibly while trying to predict the unpredictable.

But aging be damned! (OK, not really.) In the spirit of the season, it’s time to go for it, throw knives into the wind and fearlessly predict who will win — even if it means cutting my own throat in the process. That’s right. Last year, “There Will Be Blood” should have won best picture. This year, there will be blood all over this column.

And so be it.

Hosted by Hugh Jackman, who obviously was hired to make us howl with the witty bons mots for which he’s celebrated and well-known, the event promises more tension than a celebrity face-lift — which is considerable, as a glance around the seemingly air-brushed audience will confirm. (Note to Nicole Kidman’s forehead: Time to cash in and write that tell-all.)

Several key races are proving difficult to call. Who knew, for instance, that in the best actress race, Meryl Streep would win the Screen Actors Guild award and thus snag significant last-minute buzz away from Anne Hathaway, who once was the front-runner for the award for her performance in “Rachel Getting Married”?

Or that Kate Winslet would be nominated in the same category for what was only a supporting role in “The Reader”? It’s her superior turn in “Revolutionary Road” that should have landed her the nomination for best actress, but Oscar didn’t see it that way — and how will that affect the outcome, particularly since in “The Reader,” she plays a Nazi, complicit in the deaths of hundreds at the death camps?

It’s these and a few other elements of uncertainty that will give the show the spark of life it needs. After all, though some might claim otherwise, there are no shoo-ins at the Academy Awards — the voting Academy has a mind of its own, it likes to deliver its share of surprises and the only way it will be swayed by the hype is if a voter hasn’t seen the nominated movies.

That said, there always are exceptions. For instance, one movie that will prove unstoppable is “Slumdog Millionaire,” a fine film that headlines one of the night’s least-interesting races.

Along with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Milk” and “The Reader,” “Millionaire” is up for best picture, a category it almost certainly will win in spite of the fact that it wasn’t the year’s best film. Still, to date the movie has won every major award for which it has been nominated and so, given the odds stacked in its favor, it would be foolish not to predict it to win best picture. So, let’s predict it.

That said, for me, the year’s best film was a tossup between “The Dark Knight,” “WALL-E” and “Revolutionary Road.” Since they weren’t nominated for this particular category, I’ll instead be pulling for “Milk” to win, which it won’t because the Academy might support it elsewhere — in the best actor race.

About that race. Here is one of the evening’s great unknowns. Joining Sean Penn in his amazing performance as Harvey Milk in “Milk” is Mickey Rourke for his equally terrific performance in “The Wrestler.” Also nominated are Brad Pitt in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Richard Jenkins for “The Visitor” and Frank Langella for one of his career highlights, playing Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon.”

As good as all these men were — and they were very good — the race comes down to Penn and Rourke, but how do you choose between the two? Each deserves the award. While it’s a shame to allow logic to enter into anything as subjective as guessing who will win the Academy Awards, what the hell? While Hollywood loves a comeback — and Rourke had one of the year’s great comebacks in one of the year’s best movies — this nevertheless is an acting award, and it’s safe to say that Penn is less like gay activist Harvey Milk than Rourke, a former professional boxer and drug user, is like his character, a self-destructive wrestler on the outs.

On those terms alone, I’m predicting that Penn will win — he had the greater, more complicated reach — but if Rourke takes it, all will be fine. He’s magnificent in the movie.

The race for best supporting actor is the evening’s most bittersweet yawn. Going into it, everyone knows who will win. Still, the night’s winner is the correct choice for the best possible reasons — Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in “The Dark Knight” easily trumps Robert Downey Jr. for “Tropic Thunder,” Josh Brolin for “Milk,” Michael Shannon for “Revolutionary Road” and Philip Seymour Hoffman for “Doubt.”

As good as they were (with the exception of Downey, whose selection is as surprising as it is stupid), this year it’s all about Ledger, and the good news is that his win will have nothing to do with his untimely death. The man was pitch-perfect in “The Dark Knight” and he has earned the award he will posthumously win.

As for best supporting actress, things aren’t quite so simple. The nominees are Penelope Cruz for her unhinged turn in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Viola Davis for “Doubt,” Taraji P. Henson for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Marisa Tomei for “The Wrestler” and Amy Adams for “Doubt.”

Every one of these actresses is deserving of her nomination, but if you listen to the buzz, the race is between Cruz and Davis, though Tomei, so absolutely free as a stripper struggling to raise her son in “The Wrestler,” is the dark horse. That said, while Davis had one of the year’s best, most emotional scenes and lifted her movie beyond reason, hers was only a fleeting performance and not fully supporting in ways that the other four actresses supported. Of course, none of this stopped Dame Judi Dench when she won for her minuscule scene in “Shakespeare in Love,” so who knows? Nobody should be surprised if Davis takes it.

As much as I would prefer to see Cruz win, this is the one category in which a surprise usually unfurls at center stage. Cruz deserves the award more than Davis — it was a bigger, meatier part — but I’m still predicting Davis to win it. Unlike Streep’s overcooked but entertaining Sister Aloysius, Davis’ performance in “Doubt” never approached caricature. It was as moving and as honest as any in recent memory.

Since Angelina Jolie won’t win best actress for “Changeling” and the deserving Melissa Leo won’t win for “Frozen River” (though I wish she would win — she gave the year’s best performance by a woman), the award comes down to three women — Anne Hathaway for “Rachel Getting Married,” Meryl Streep for “Doubt,” and Kate Winslet for “The Reader.”

So, who will it be? Two-time winner Streep, who has been nominated 15 times, hasn’t won since 1982 and always will have our hearts, even when she dips into her bag of tricks and plays to the back row, as she does in “Doubt”? Hathaway, who is best known for wearing crowns for Disney? Or Winslet, who delivered two great performances this year, particularly the one in which she should have been nominated, “Revolutionary Road”?

This can go either way — it really is that wide open — so let’s just go with Winslet, though my heart is for Leo. If she wins, I’ll be cheering.

In the award for best director, there is no contest. Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) will win over David Fincher for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Gus Van Sant for “Milk,” Stephen Daldry for “The Reader” and Ron Howard for “Frost/Nixon.” Van Sant deserves to win (actually, Christopher Nolan does for “The Dark Knight,” but I digress), but since Boyle won the Directors Guild Award, always a solid indicator of who will win, look for him to take home the award.

Rounding out the evening is the race for best animated picture, with “WALL-E” easily pressing out “Kung Fu Panda” and “Bolt.” It’s such a done deal, you can bet your trash compactor on it. In the best documentary feature race, your winner will be “Man on Wire” over “Trouble the Water,” “Encounters at the End of the World,” “The Garden” and “The Betrayal.” As for best foreign language film, the race comes down to two — Israel’s stunning (and animated) “Waltz with Bashir” and France’s “The Class.” They will take on Germany’s “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” Austria’s “Revanche” and Japan’s beautiful film, “Departures.” “The Class” likely will win, but since I think an upset is at hand, I’m going with “Bashir.”

In the writing categories, best original screenplay is a tossup between Dustin Lance Black’s “Milk” and Andrew Stanton’s “WALL-E,” with Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges,” Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” and Courtney Hunt’s terrific “Frozen River” happy to be nominated. Expect “Milk” to take the award. As for best adapted screenplay, Simon Beaufoy will win for “Slumdog Millionaire” over Eric Roth’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon,” John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” and David Hare’s “The Reader.”

Or will it? When it comes to predicting the Academy Awards, remember, nobody knows anything (and I likely just proved that), which is why it’s good to have an Academy Awards party. Celebrating your triumphs and drowning your sorrows with a house filled with good friends can be almost as entertaining as the show itself.

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/02/19/living/whatrsquos-oscar-thinking/ printed on September 19, 2014