cinecist vs. oscar 2008

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A cinecist does feel a certain responsibility to his audience.  It's an admittedly small audience, and the stakes, we must all recognize by now, are not particularly high.  But nonetheless, any reviewer worth his popcorn salt feels an obligation to give it his best every year, to faithfully and tenaciously seek out and illuminate that which deserves praise, and to firmly steer his readers away from that which....alas, does not.  So it is with some sheepishness that I admit that this particular reviewer, in this particular year...well, I just didn't see enough movies.  It was a busy year, with more travel than usual, and more work (and work-related stress) than can possibly be good for a person.  In such a year, the concept of 'free time' takes on an almost sacred mystical aspect, and one finds oneself reluctant to fill it with anything.  Anything at all.  Even movies.  So if I seem more than usually unable to bring the proper level of informed scrutiny to some of the nominees, or if I defer for now any discussion of my own favorite films of the year, I hope I can count on the same degree of kind forbearance that my readers have always shown for my many and varied shortcomings.

 

At least there's this:  It was a pretty crappy year for films anyway.  I don't generally like to say that, because there is always quality to be found, with the proper effort.  But really.  There were no more than a dozen films in 2008 that I really found myself *needing* to see.  And among all those I saw, there was a startlingly low number that I found to be genuinely first-rate.  I'm sure with the proper effort I could have uncovered more cinematic excellence, but...see the preceding paragraph.  I don't mind working hard when the effort will be rewarded, but cinematic inspiration was pretty thin on the ground this time 'round.

 

Even in such a shallow pool of viable nominees, there was enough room for a surprise or two when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced their nominees:  the general dissing of Revolutionary Road, the absence of Dark Knight from the top category, no Clint Eastwood for Best Actor, no Springsteen for Best Song.... Not quite what anyone would have predicted, I think.  And while surprises are often welcome at the nomination stage, most of them this year actually just seem misguided.  With a couple of notable exceptions, to be discussed below. 

 

All in all, it's not the hardest year to predict winners, as the November elections demonstrated.  But nothing can be taken for granted when the Academy gathers in February. 

 

© 2009 dondi demarco

 

 

Before we start, the usual notes, definitions, and disclaimers:

·         Prediction:  The nominee that will win.  In red, for your convenience.

·         Pick:  The nominee that should win.  This year more than most, we might see this agreeing with the Prediction.

·         Percentages:  My arbitrary, self-designed means of assigning probability to certain outcomes.  But I am not a bookie or professional handicapper.  Yet.

·         Nominees in short-form categories:  No one has seen them, including you and me, so I’ll blissfully ignore them, with all appropriate apologies.

·         *Stifle Ya'self!*:  If you want the vital stats without the verbiage, check out my Picks & Predictions At A Glance™.

 

So there it is.  Thank you for coming, silence your cell phones, and enjoy the show.  Shhhhhhh!!

 

 

____________________________

 

Best Picture · Director · Actor · Actress · Supporting Actor · Supporting Actress

Original Screenplay · Adapted Screenplay · Animated Feature · Art Direction · Cinematography

Costume · Makeup · Editing · Visual Effects · Sound Mixing · Sound Editing · Score · Song

Documentary Feature · Foreign Film

________________________________

 

 

Best Picture

Nominees:

Prediction:

Slumdog Millionaire

 

Pick:

Slumdog Millionaire

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

10%

Frost/Nixon

5%

Milk

15%

The Reader

10%

Slumdog Millionaire

60%

 

Certainly one of the easier categories to predict this year.  Slumdog Millionaire is one of those films that somehow makes everyone feel it's an underdog that needs our support, when in fact it has for some time been the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar just like it's won everything else.  The story (poor Indian urchin perseveres through an impossibly harsh early life to find himself a young adult poised on the brink of fame, fortune and fairy-tale love), the style (frantic melodrama juxtaposed with the gritty realism of class struggle in modern India), the narrative suspense (lifted straight from the game show that gives the film its name), and the unabashed desire to please (we laugh, we weep, we worry, we fret...and then we dance!) make this the one to beat, and really none of these other nominees even make it onto the field.  I choose it for my own pick for the same reason the Academy will choose it:  It is self-evidently the most enjoyable, passionate, interesting and ambitious film nominated.  No contest.

 

A quick rundown of the competition, in order of their (slim) chances at an upset:  Milk is a solid biopic, with all the bland and pedestrian connotations that description entails.  But it is redeemed by two things:  1) Sean Penn's performance, upon which I will reflect in greater detail in the Best Actor category, as well as a few supporting performances, and 2) Its intention to bring the story of Harvey Milk, and the import of that story, to people whose social education hasn't included that chapter in American political history.  Milk was the first openly gay man to ever be elected to any significant political office in this country.  If you know anything about him, then you probably already know generally how you feel about him.  But there are still so many who know nothing about him and what he was able to achieve and how it all ended.  With a marquis lead (Penn), super-hot supporting players (James Franco, Josh Brolin), a top-name director (Gus Van Sant), and broad distribution, Milk was able to push into the mainstream a story that has spent too long in the margins.  Sadly, it's not an overly interesting movie; but it is undoubtedly a *useful* one. 

 

Benjamin Button.  What can one say?  It's not a bad film, to be sure.  It manages to be affecting at times, hitting the right notes and tugging the right strings....  It looks very nice, all bathed in the golden hues of a lush Southern fable.  As a genre piece of American Magical Realism, it's hard to find fault with it.  But....can't we do better?  Is it possible that David Fincher, of all directors, couldn't come up with some more interesting way to tell the story of (for Pete's sake) a protagonist who is born as an old man and ages backwards?  Was it necessary for Brad Pitt, not only a bankable actor but usually a very smart one, to smooth over every possible psychological and emotional distinction of this character and turn him into a dull-eyed, somnambulistic cipher?  This movie makes the common mistake of substituting time spent looking at characters (nearly three hours by my watch) for actual development of those characters.  If you see someone suffering long enough, of course it starts to look tragic after a while; we're only human, after all.  But if our sadness is only a function of time and repetition, rather than a specific understanding of the humanity of the character, well, then, those tears are bought rather cheaply.  Benjamin Button could reasonably be compared to Forrest Gump or Little Big Man, but it does not benefit from the comparison.

 

The Reader's presence on this list is one of the bigger surprises to me this year, given the less-than-enthusiastic critical response to the film.  I guess I must cynically point to that old saw:  In Hollywood, never bet against the Holocaust movie.  Even when it's as bloodless and dreary as this one.  It's becoming more and more obvious that the line between the great Ralph Fiennes and the insipid Ralph Fiennes is dangerously thin, and he's well on the wrong side of it here.  Of course, it's also becoming equally obvious that Kate Winslet has steadily matured and deepened into one of our best actors.  There's not a great deal for her to do here, all told, but what there is she does well.  Really, though, that's not much to hang a Best Picture nomination on when the rest of the film is so cinematically and morally flaccid.

 

Finally, there is Frost/Nixon , another solid piece of craftsmanship from one of our ablest journeyman filmmakers, Ron Howard.  Here, he has produced another finely built wooden chair of a movie.  Howard can occasionally surprise us, but...don't hold your breath.  He gets strong performances from his dual leads, and he keeps us always aware of the emotional and political stakes of the proceedings.  But even the Academy must recognize that this is A-B-C filmmaking, competent and ordinary.  There are far worse things, I guess.

 

 

 

Best Directing

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle

 

Pick:

Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher

10%

Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard

5%

Milk, Gus Van Sant

10%

The Reader, Stephen Daldry

5%

Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle

70%

 

Slumdog is even more of a lock in this category than it is in Best Picture.  All other nominees have to be seen as very long shots.  Even if another film somehow manages to pull off a win in the top category, we're still very likely to see Danny Boyle take this one for his successful wrangling of a wild variety of settings, moods, actors and plot points into a colorful and kinetic, but still entirely coherent and frequently affecting human story.  It deserves the award as a logistical feat alone.

 

The two most interesting directors among the distant contenders might be the two most likely to upset--but they are also the two who turned in the most disappointing directorial performances on the list.  We know very well what interesting and even visionary storytellers both Fincher (Seven, Fight ClubZodiac) and Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, To Die For, My Own Private Idaho, Gerry ) can be.  But neither one was able to find a way to enliven the proceedings in their staid genre-piece entries this year.  Instead, we got a couple of middle-of-the-road films from a couple of directors who are anything but middle-of-the-road.  That's sad.

 

As for Howard and Daldry....I'm not optimistic on their behalf.  Howard won the last time he was nominated (for A Beautiful Mind) but he came pretty close to deserving it that year.  Not so this time.  And as mentioned above, it's somewhat shocking to me that The Reader is even on this list, so I can't like its chances at a win.

 

 

 

Best Actor

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Sean Penn, Milk

 

Pick:

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Richard JenkinsThe Visitor

0%

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

19%

Sean Penn, Milk

41%

Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Bejamin Button

0%

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

40%

 

As I write this, I'm not at all sure I've made the right prediction.  I might still change my mind.  This category is a horse race between an actor who has overcome impossible personal and professional odds (brought on by his own failures, of both the tragic and the stupid varieties) to deliver a performance that has been universally recognized as one of the strongest and most heartfelt in recent memory, and an actor who is arguably (and I am a proponent of that argument) the best film actor ever.

 

Who ever (EVER) thought we would see another great performance from Mickey Rourke, who was once seen as the natural successor to Brando but then spent the better part of two decades pissing away every single accolade and squandering every opportunity heaped upon him, burning every bridge that could lead him back to the bright lights of Hollywood, and generally seeming to wallow willfully in the mire of a wasted career?  Yet here he is back before us, as scarred physically as he is professionally, utterly unrecognizable as the erstwhile Golden Bad Boy, looking every bit the broken heap of wounds and pain that he portrays in The Wrestler, and once again knocking us over with the perfection of his technique and the power of his presence.  It's a performance built literally and figuratively on the flesh and bone of the actor himself, a confluence/conflation of actor and role as complete and inevitable as Brando/Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.  Personally, I have no choice but to surrender to it.  And the Academy voters might very well find themselves in the same position. 

 

But I think there is just a slightly greater chance that they will find themselves obligated to honor Sean Penn for once again proving why he is head and shoulders above the crowd:  his unmatched power to transform everything about himself to suit the needs of the performance, and to use that transformation to communicate the human truth of the character.  Penn has never before looked or sounded or moved the way he does in Milk (a point one could make about the majority of his performances).  He never strains for effects, he just...embodies a character wholly, in every last detail, forcing us to believe the truth of the character he is playing because there is simply nothing left for us to disbelieve.  And he does this over and over, in movie after movie, decade after decade, a seemingly inexhaustible font of transformation and newness.  Who has ever done this so perfectly for so long?  Among the very best screen actors of (roughly) this generation--Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., Edward Norton, and a short list of similar talents--none can match Penn's ability to adapt to the specific demands of every role and create a complete, credible person up on the screen, seemingly from scratch.  I think an appreciation of this, coupled with the general cozy liberal message of the film, will be just enough to edge out a victory for Penn.  Just a few weeks ago, I would have called it for Rourke, but there's a feeling in the air that the momentum has shifted toward Penn in recent days.  But it's still almost too close to call.  Can't we just do what the Boston Film Critics did and declare it a draw?

 

Now, is there any chance voters will find themselves unwilling to decide between the two front-runners, and so choose instead to honor the respected veteran Langella turning in the performance of his career (so far) in the role he originated on Broadway?  Yes, there is a chance, though not a great one.  His performance was certainly the centerpiece of the film, and the only reason it got nominated for Best Picture.  So there is obviously some love there.  But not nearly enough, I think, to threaten Penn or Rourke. 

 

The other two are out of the running in my estimation.  Jenkins's nomination is his reward for a career of solid work in low-key supporting roles, topped by a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take center stage and his ability to make it count with an outstanding performance.  No one saw his film, and he won't take home the Oscar, but he will probably see some juicier supporting roles coming his way for a few years.  And Brad Pitt...this one's inexplicable to me.  I generally like Pitt as an actor, but his non-performance in Benjamin Button could have just as easily been pulled off by any good-looking actor, with exactly the same effect.  If he wins, it will be irrefutable evidence of a technical failure in the Academy's voting procedures; nothing else could explain it.

 

 

 

Best Actress

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Kate Winslet, The Reader

 

Pick:

Meryl Streep, Doubt

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

10%

Angelina Jolie, Changeling

0%

Melissa Leo, Frozen River

5%

Meryl Streep, Doubt

40%

Kate Winslet, The Reader

45%

 

Streep has been nominated approximately a gazillion times before, and won twice, but the last win was 25 years ago.  Winslet has been nominated five times and never won.  Streep won the SAG award, and Winslet won the Golden Globe, so it's pretty evenly divided.  Sort of.  But here's the thing:  Kate Winslet was very clearly nominated for the wrong role.  She's fine in The Reader, being appropriately cold and sad and only occasionally tender, in a role that demands little more than that.  But how she got nominated for this one--truly only a supporting role anyway--instead of for her obviously much stronger and more deserving performance in Revolutionary Road (a true leading role), is downright confounding.  The Academy does sometimes pull little sleight-of-hand moves like this, a bit of nominational misdirection to allow an actor to benefit from multiple strong performances in a year, or a movie to bathe in a bit of reflected glory because...well, just because they like it.  Maybe that's what's going on here, just an awkward attempt to put a shine on the dull lump that is The Reader, for ideological reasons alone.  But it's misguided.  Winslet doesn't deserve the nomination for this performance, and she did deserve it for Revolutionary Road.  Some of the voters are bound to notice.

 

What's that mean in the end?  Maybe not too much.  The stats are still the same, and I still think this is an extremely close race.  My personal pick is Streep, and that would have been true even in Winslet had been nominated for the right performance.  Doubt is at times an interesting and affecting film, and at times too stagey and full of bluster to do justice to the complexity of its themes.  It is not a subtle work.  But despite what the previews might have you believe, the same cannot be said of Streep's performance as the single-minded but far from simplistic nun who just can't let go of her dire suspicions.  Half the time, she is indeed the two-dimensional dragon lady you expect her to be.  But the rest of her time is spent demonstrating a character of great and idiosyncratic depth, full of such specific obsessions and peculiar humor that even her self-superior huffings start to seem like a perverse little game she plays against the world.  I'm honestly still not too sure what Sister Aloyisius is all about, but Streep makes her a real kick to watch. 

 

Will the Academy agree enough to give it to Streep?  Tough call, but in the end I think not quite.  I think they will narrowly decide to award it to Winslet on the strength of her work as a whole over the last few years, and particularly (peculiarly) on the strength of her work in Revolutionary Road this year...which they chose not to even nominate.  Strange world, this Hollywood.

 

If there is any other contender here--which I don't think there is--it would be Anne Hathaway, who really did give a nice performance in a movie that so many people responded to with such great affection.  Rachel Getting Married was the most original movie you've ever seen for the hundredth time; as predictable as a favorite song in its broad strokes, yet in its smallest details thoroughly alive to the messy little surprises of life.  Hathaway gave an indication here that she can do a lot more than the toothless pop comedies she has become known for...but then took two steps back with the unfortunate Bride Wars, released right in the middle of voting season. Not that she would have won this one anyway, but her people really ought to focus a little more on timing.

 

 

 

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees:

Prediction:

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

  

Pick:

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Josh Brolin, Milk

5%

Robert Downey, Jr, Tropic Thunder

10%

Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt

0%

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

80%

Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

5%

 

I will quote from Roger Ebert, as I like to do now and then, by offering his entire treatise on the Supporting Actor category this year:  "Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight, period.  Bet the house.  No dark horses."

 

Now, I can't be as terse as Ebert.  It's just not in my nature.  But I can be just about as certain.  Heath Ledger will win, and he should win, and everyone knows it.  The Dark Knight was a very good movie, especially given the constraints within which comic-book superhero films have to conduct their business. But every other aspect of the film could have been worthless dreck, and it still would remain a classic for no other reason than the power of Ledger's performance.  We might have thought, all those years ago, that Jack Nicholson was a great Joker.  We were wrong.  The Joker is now and forever will be defined as the character brought to astonishing, frightening, thrilling life by Heath Ledger in this movie.  It is a towering performance--and, of course, the last such performance we will ever see from the late Ledger.  Anyone who thinks the outpouring of sadness over his death might have been a little forced, just Hollywood doing what Hollywood does when a promising young star is extinguished, need only watch Ledger's masterful performances here and a couple of years ago in Brokeback Mountain to realize the true depth of the loss.  Not since James Dean's death has the sense of lost potential been so stark and so heartbreaking.  His peers will express that the only way they can at this point:  by giving him the Oscar he deserves.

 

I show a couple of slim percentage odds for other nominees above, but those are mostly just a formality.  The only effective countermeasure to tragedy is comedy, so if anyone could take this one away from Ledger, it would be Downey for his exceptionally funny work in the exceptionally, if only sporadically, funny Tropic Thunder, playing a white Australian actor playing a black American soldier.  If a voter is looking to put the sadness of Ledger's death behind them, a vote for Downey would be the logical move.  He would have had competition in this position had the Academy chosen to recognize Tom Cruise's unexpectedly hilarious performance in the same film.  Cruise's didn't have nearly as much screen time as Downey, but in the few minutes he had, he turned the joint upside down with his bizarrely effective turn as a megalomaniacal Hollywood producer with thin hair, thick hands and a heart that would fit in a gnat's navel with room left over for all his scruples.  It was a lacerating portrayal of the corrupting effect of power....precisely the kind of power Cruise himself enjoys, which is precisely why it was so effective, and so funny.  He deserved a nomination.  Instead, it looks like they handed it to Hoffman, who is good in Doubt as he is in everything, but it's the kind of role he can play in his sleep.

 

One of the most welcome surprises in all the nominations is Michael Shannon's appearance on this list for his superb work in Revolutionary Road.  He stole every scene he was in, which was no mean feat in the acting slugfest between DiCaprio and Winslet that made up most of the film.  Shannon was my favorite part of the movie, but I didn't dare hope the Academy would have the good sense to recognize him for it.  I was wrong, happily.  It's just his bad luck, I guess, to be nominated in the same year as The Dark Knight.  Some other year, perhaps he would have had a real shot.

 

 

 

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

 

Pick:

Viola Davis, Doubt

Amy Adams, Doubt

5%

Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

25%

Viola Davis, Doubt

30%

Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

5%

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

35%

 

Normally, we might look to the Golden Globes or SAG Awards to give us some indication of who will win in this category.  But....this year, those two organizations made the correct but unhelpful decision to nominate Kate Winslet's performance in The Reader in the supporting category (where it belongs), so she ended up winning both awards.  The Academy, on the other hand, put that role in the leading category, so we're left with very little guidance here.  And this is always a tricky category, in which the Academy has shown a tendency to take chances and vote against expectations. 

 

My first instinct is to predict Tomei for The Wrestler.  The Academy loves her, and she has for the last several years demonstrated great professional maturity in both her choice of roles and her performances.  And, of course, she looks absolutely fantabulous as the stripper with a heart of gold in this movie, and isn't afraid to bare some flesh for the sake of 'authenticity'.  It's the kind of performance that I would expect the Academy to react very favorably to, in the most emotionally affecting movie of the year.  That is probably enough, especially in a year characterized by (mostly) very conventional choices.

 

But there are other contenders.  Penelope Cruz is a ball of lunatic fire in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which is universally recognized as Woody Allen's best comedy in ages.  I go back and forth on Cruz myself; sometimes I see the appeal, and sometimes I don't.  But she's clearly in her element in this role, reminiscent in its love triangles and Spanish melodrama of the Almodovar films that helped make Cruz a star.  Though the feeling doesn't seem mutual, the Academy continues to love Woody, and that can only help Cruz's chances.

 

The other viable option is my personal pick, Viola Davis for Doubt.  She really only has one scene, and she has to play it against the formidable Streep, but the remarkable balance she is able to achieve between understated humility and emotional strength turns it into the best and truest scene of a movie that can't always quite manage to ring true.  It's a quiet little gem of a performance, and I would love to see it recognized here.  

 

 

 

Best Original Screenplay

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Milk, Dustin Lance Black

 

Pick:

In Bruges, Martin McDonagh

Frozen River, Courtney Hunt

5%

Happy-Go-Lucky, Mike Leigh

10%

In Bruges, Martin McDonagh

25%

Milk, Dustin Lance Black

35%

WALL-E, Andrew Stanton, Jim Rearson, Pete Docter

25%

 

I look at the overall color of the nominations in all the categories this year and I see a lot of very conventional choices.  So the appearance in this category of some genuinely interesting choices looks encouraging at first:  Irish wordsmith Martin McDonagh's raucously entertaining In Bruges, the sweet but surprisingly satirical WALL-E, the always deserving Mike Leigh's fine but little-seen Happy-Go-Lucky, the even less-seen human drama Frozen River.  There's a lot of life in this list. 

 

However....my gut tells me that conventional thinking will reign and we will see Milk take this one.  It will be the runner-up for Best Picture, and the traditional way of showing that is to give it a screenplay award.  I don't want to come down too hard on Milk, which is not by any means a bad film.  It's just not the caliber of film that should be getting eight nominations when better, more ambitious films (like some of the other nominees in this category) have to settle for so much less.  The value placed on originality in Hollywood rises and falls like the Dow Jones, and it's clearly a bear market right now.

 

But the race isn't a runaway.  If it's not Milk, then I would expect it to be either In Bruges or WALL-E.  The former is my pick, for the sharp, poetic and always funny musings of the various hitmen and thugs that populate the film--crime never sounded so literate, which I guess is not unexpected for a screenplay from the most celebrated Irish playwright of the last 20 years.  But WALL-E is also right there in the race.  This animated fable combines a simple, sweet love story and a surprisingly cutting look at the modern culture of consumerism, charming its way into our hearts as well as our consciences--and, of course, onto the top ten lists of hundreds of critics.  If the Academy isn't content giving it only the Best Animated Feature prize, it might throw this one in as well.

 

 

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Slumdog Millionaire, Simon Beaufoy

 

Pick:

Slumdog Millionaire, Simon Beaufoy

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Eric Roth, Robin Swicord

15%

Doubt, John Patrick Shanley

5%

Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan

15%

The Reader, David Hare

5%

Slumdog Millionaire, Simon Beaufoy

60%

 

Don't expect to see any surprises here.  Slumdog Millionaire is the easy favorite (and my pick) for the reasons already discussed:  life, life, life.  All the other nominees just look sallow and anemic next to this one.  It's not fair to say that is necessarily the main criterion for the Academy in picking a winner in this category.  But it's just hard for me to see them passing over the vitality of Slumdog for any of these particular contenders.

 

If anyone can mount a challenge, it's probably Frost/Nixon, with its depiction of the high-stakes verbal sparring that resulted in Nixon basically...almost...kind of admitting on national television that he was, in fact, sort of...a crook.  It's good writing, delivered with conviction by the two leads.  Perhaps the tepid Benjamin Button could manage an upset as well.  The Academy did, after all, give it 13 nominations (which is shameful, really), so they're going to want it to win at least some of those, aren't they?

 

 

 

Best Animated Feature

Nominees:

Prediction:

WALL-E

Pick:

WALL-E

Bolt

5%

Kung Fu Panda
10%

WALL-E

85%

 

WALL-E will win.  I didn't set the probability at 100%, but that's more of a courtesy than anything else--just like the Academy naming the other two nominees when it's a foregone conclusion that they won't win.  Don't bet against the smart money on this one.

 

And for the first time in some time, I'm not predicting this category without having actually seen any of the nominees.  I did see....WALL-E.  So in addition to my prediction, it's also my personal pick.  I know, I know...it's a bit cheap to only see one nominee and then name it as my pick.  But really, am I to believe that Kung Fu Panda or Bolt is a better film than my projected winner?  Am I to believe that either of them could have come anywhere close to the visual sweep and sublime poignancy of the first, nearly wordless first act of WALL-E?  I can't judge films sight unseen; but to quote a very wise man, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. 

 

 

 

 

Best Art Direction

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

The Dark Knight

 

Pick:

The Dark Knight

Changeling

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Dark Knight

The Duchess

Revolutionary Road

 

I expect the Academy to use this category to help atone for its most egregious omission this year, which is the failure to nominate The Dark Knight for Best Picture.  With the dramatic elevation in the quality of superhero films over the last several years, and the critical and Oscar success of the fantasy genre as manifest in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is no longer really acceptable to deny a movie a shot at best picture solely because it had its genesis in comic books.  Yet it's hard to figure what other reason the Academy could have had for snubbing what was so clearly one of the best (and most commercially and critically successful) films of the year in the Best Picture and Director categories, while nominating the lackluster The Reader or Benjamin Button in both--and even nominating Dark Knight itself in so many other categories (eight in all).  It's too late for voters to rectify this error, but they'll make a gesture in that direction by giving it the prize here.  And it doesn't hurt that Knight also happens to deserve the award, being the best looking film on (or off) the list this year. 

 

The competition, if there is any, comes from Benjamin Button, a good-looking sweeping sepia-tone epic in the classic style, with meticulous attention paid to the period details through all the periods it covered.  Again, if the Academy feels it needs to hand Button some wins, this might be one of the places for it.  Could Revolutionary Road have a shot here, for its impeccable recreation of the tidy, placid homes and smoky corporate offices of the early 60s?  Probably not, I guess....

 

 

 

Best Cinematography

Nominees:

Prediction:

Slumdog Millionaire

Pick:

The Dark Knight

Changeling

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Dark Knight

The Reader

Slumdog Millionaire

 

This can be a tough category to call.  On the one hand, I think Dark Knight has a very solid shot at it, for exactly the same reasons I described in the Art Direction category.  And Benjamin Button as well, which I think might fare even better here than in Art Direction.  Then, there's The Reader, which gives one of the very best and most popular cinematographers in the business, Roger Deakins, a chance at his first win in eight nominations--and it doesn't hurt that Chris Mengs, his co-nominee for The Reader, has already taken home a couple of statuettes himself.  And finally, of course, Slumdog Millionaire, which has to be considered a strong contender on the basis of its front-runner status for Best Picture as well as on straight technical merits. 

 

In other words, the only nominee out of the running is Changeling, and it's a fairly close race among the others.  Hmm.

 

Here's how I handicap it:  Slumdog's Best Picture momentum makes it the slight favorite here.  My personal pick, The Dark Knight, is a close second, with Button and Reader tied for third not far behind.  No outcome would really surprise me, though--except a win for Changeling

 

 

 

Best Costume Design

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

 

Pick:

Revolutionary Road

Australia

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Duchess

Milk

Revolutionary Road

 

The heavy hitters--veteran costume designers with multiple nominations on their resumes--generally do well in this category.  There's only one heavy hitter here, and that's Albert Wolsky for Revolutionary Road.   The other contenders are Benjamin Button, which had to cover multiple eras and did so competently, and The Duchess, which was set in the costumer's playground of the 18th century English courts.  I would go with Wolsky...but I just don't feel like the costumes were quite obvious enough in the film to secure a win here.  So even though Revolutionary Road is my personal pick (I just love the look of that era), I think it's the more varied and conspicuous costuming work of Benjamin Button that will finally take the prize. 

 

 

 

Best Makeup

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Pick:

The Dark Knight

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Dark Knight

Hellboy II:  The Golden Army

 

Fairly easy win for Button here, I think.  We had characters aging both up and down and hitting somewhat startling extremes, and whether or not the makeup was always completely convincing, it was certainly logistically impressive throughout.  It's an easy category for the Academy to give Button a win.  It wouldn't be shocking to see either of the other nominees prevail, given the general unpredictability of the category; but I think I'm reading the situation correctly this time.

 

 

 

Best Film Editing

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Slumdog Millionaire

 

Pick:

Slumdog Millionaire

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Dark Knight

Frost/Nixon

Milk

Slumdog Millionaire

 

I think the race here is between Slumdog and Dark Knight, and I like Slumdog's chances. In a movie whose entire complex narrative is built on flashbacks and suspense, editing is nearly everything.  The viewer has to know where he/she is in the life of the characters, and has to know exactly what's at stake at any given moment, or the emotional effects are diluted or lost altogether.  Slumdog does a masterful job of keeping us aware of and engaged with a complicated story full of cultural and geographical elements that are not immediately familiar to us.  Much of the credit must go to Chris Dickens, the editor.  I think the Academy will agree.  If not, they will likely give the award to Lee Smith, whose editing helped to make Dark Knight a superbly exciting action film. 

 

 

 

Best Visual Effects

Nominees:

Prediction:

The Dark Knight

Pick:

The Dark Knight

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Dark Knight

Iron Man

 

I'll start by saying Iron Man won't win.  After that, this one gets a lot tougher to call.  It could really go either way, with Dark Knight winning for its high-flying action sequences, or Benjamin Button winning for its more understated manipulation of human elements.  Button might actually be hurt by the fact that many viewers aren't quite sure where the traditional makeup ends and the visual effects start.  Part of the creepy experience of the movie is that we're really not sure who is behind all the effects at any given point, or when Brad Pitt actually becomes the actor we're watching.  What should we be attributing to makeup and what to something more technological?  Without that baseline established, perhaps voters will be reluctant to make a judgment on the quality of the visual effects.  Perhaps.  I'll make the call for my pick Dark Knight based on that, but I could be wrong. 

                                                                                            

 

 

Best Sound Mixing

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Slumdog Millionaire

 

Pick:

The Dark Knight

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Dark Knight

Slumdog Millionaire

WALL-E
Wanted

 

No musicals here this year, which might make predicting a winner a little tougher.  I'm inclined to go with Slumdog based on its strength as an overall sensory experience--if there were categories for Smell and Touch, it would certainly have a good shot at those, too--as well as the simple fact that the Best Picture winner has to be considered a strong contender in this category when it's nominated.  If not Slumdog, then probably my pick Dark Knight, as quality action pictures tend to do well here. 

 


Best Sound Editing

Nominees:

Prediction:

The Dark Knight

Pick:

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight

Iron Man
Slumdog Millionaire
WALL-E
Wanted

 

I am unable to employ my default (ignorance-based) method for predicting a winner in this enigmatic category (that method being "whichever nominee has the most explosions") because this year that would point to Wanted, when in fact I would much rather predict a win for The Dark Knight.  I'll even go so far as to name Knight my personal pick, though I still have no idea what that means.

                                                                                                              

 

 

Best Original Score

Nominees:

Prediction:

Slumdog Millionaire, A.R. Rahman

 

Pick:

Milk, Danny Elfman

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Alexandre Desplat

Defiance, James Newton Howard

Milk, Danny Elfman

Slumdog Millionaire, A.R. Rahman

WALL-E, Thomas Newman

 

There are a couple of frequent nominees here (James Newton Howard and Thomas Newman), neither of whom have managed a win yet.  Both would seem to be strong contenders.  Anyone who pays attention to these things also has to figure that underappreciated musical whiz Danny Elfman is about due for a win, too, having written many of the best and most interesting movie scores of the last 20 years.  But in the end, they may all be trumped by the collective affection the Academy has for Slumdog, and the obviously incorrect but abiding subconscious sense that the movie is somehow a kind of Bollywood musical, when the only song-and-dance routine in the whole thing is the one over which the end credits roll.  Don't look for logic here.  I'm predicting the win for Slumdog.

 

My pick is Elfman, even though I don't actually recall anything about the score of Milk.  I just want him to win. 

 

 

 

Best Original Song

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

“Jai Ho”

 

Pick:

None

 

Down to Earth” from WALL-E (Peter Gabriel / Thomas Newman)

“Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire (A.R. Rahman / Gulzar)

“O Saya” from Slumdog Millionaire (A.R. Rahman / Maya Arulpragasam)

 

First of all, someone at the Academy needs to explain why they chose to cut this category down to three nominees this year, especially when that meant having to throw out Bruce Springsteen's Golden Globe-winning entry "The Wrestler" (from, yes, The Wrestler) and the equally worthy Clint Eastwood/Jamie Cullum collaboration "Gran Torino" (from, yes, Gran Torino).  Inexplicably weird move, and one that has prompted me to refrain from selecting a personal pick in the category this year--my little form of protest.

 

In the end, neither would have won anyway, as the celebratory "Jai Ho" from the end credits of Slumdog made the biggest impression on audiences and so is the big favorite here. 

                                                                                            

 

 

Best Documentary Feature

Nominees:

Prediction:

Man on Wire

 

Pick:

None

The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)

Encounters at the End of the World

The Garden
Man on Wire

Trouble the Waer

 

One of these days, I'll get around to watching documentaries again so I can offer my personal pick in this category.  Sadly, it ain't happenin' this time.

 

But I'm fairly confident (as confident as one can be when it comes to predicting how Oscar will deal with documentary films) that Man on Wire will come out on top here.  It is an engrossing procedural on exactly how, in 1974, a French performance artist managed to clandestinely prepare and then execute a tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center.  If not Man on Wire, then I can only hope it will be Encounters at the End of the World, which is Werner Herzog's first Oscar nomination ever (!!!) and, because the world is a ridiculous place in which few ever get what they really deserve, will probably end up being his last.

 

 

 

Best Foreign Language Film

Nominees:

Prediction:

Waltz with Bashir

 

Pick:

None

The Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany)

The Class (France)

Departures (Japan)

Revanche (Austria)

Waltz with Bashir (Israel)

 

This is frequently an utterly inscrutable category, in which obscure nominees that have failed to connect commercially with the American audience seem to be involved in a random drawing to select the winner.  Not so much this year.  There are two clear contenders, both semi-autobiographical in nature, and both of which have generated a lot of attention in the US, and have even managed to make a dollar or two here.  One of them is very likely to be the winner.  The Class tells the story of a young teacher and the difficult students who force him to face his own shortcomings, and Waltz with Bashir is an animated film that examines from multiple perspectives the experience of an Israeli soldier in Lebanon in 1982.  I'm guessing the topicality of Waltz with Bashir gives it enough of an edge to take the prize.

 

Once I see some of these movies, maybe I'll have a personal pick.