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Oscar Handicapping From First Impressions January 22, 2009

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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After reading through today’s announcement of the 2009 Oscar Nominations, I’ll go ahead and make my early predictions. I may or may not alter these over the next few weeks, as I get a sense of the “buzz” via whatever meager connections I have to the people who actually vote on these things. Fewer and fewer people care about the Oscars year after year, as more and more of a disconnect grows between the movies that win awards and the movies that most people actually see – as well as the inundation of self-congratulatory awards ceremonies that fill the television schedules in the weeks following the New Year. But for movie geeks like myself, the Oscars are required viewing for some reason, if nothing else than to remind me that “Hollywood film” once actually produced classic popular art with lasting power to entertain across decades. I’d like to think that some of this year’s (or any recent year’s) crop of honored films can be spoken of in the same breath with Casablanca or The Godfather or Singin’ In The Rain (Whoops! That one didn’t win the Oscar!), but somehow I doubt that most of them attain that level of filmdom.

Starting with the acting categories: I think the easiest prediction here is Best Supporting Actor, with the late Heath Ledger getting the nod over Robert Downey Jr, Michael Shannon, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Josh Brolin. Granted, Downey is basically up for two performances here, officially one for Tropic Thunder and the other, tacitly, for Ironman, and I think in any other year, he’d probably win. But even putting aside the tragedy of what happened to Ledger, his performance as the Joker essentially made the film he was in memorable, putting it over the fine but difficult to reach line between good movie and great one. Never mind the huge logic holes in the plot and the utter ridiculousness of the basic premise of a guy in a rubber bat suit fighting a guy dressed as an evil clown – Ledger created one of the creepiest screen villains in recent memory, and he did it in an underplayed, subtle way. I’ve never seen Shannon in anything, so nothing against the other guys who are all great actors in their own right, but Ledger will win this one posthumously, and I think he would have won it anyway.

Best Supporting Actress: This one is always a crapshoot, and it’s an interesting group of nominees. I think Amy Adams and Viola Davis, both up for Doubt, will cancel each other out. I’m not sure how many people saw Vicky Christina Barcelona, so I’m not sure of Penelope Cruz’ chances here. I think it comes down to whether or not they give Marisa Tomei another award, or whether they want to give something to Benjamin Button (see more of my blather below) by giving the award to Taraji P. Henson. I’m leaning towards Henson, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them give the award to Tomei (mostly for remaining hot).

For Best Actor, we have Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, a film that no one saw. We also have Sean Penn for Milk, but Penn has won before, and I think despite the desire for Hollywood to reward the movie because of its politics & its timing in the strong anti-prop-8 atmosphere, Penn will not share in the awards the film will get partially because he’s already won and partially due to the gossip about his real-life homophobia. I also think that personal jealousies over who he’s gotten to bang over the years will keep Brad Pitt from winning, which leaves the award between two come-backers of sorts, Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler and Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon. I think Rourke will be Burt Reynolds-ed here, with academy voters thinking that the nomination and the revitalized career pulled from the depths of the casting toilet are enough reward for Rourke, who just signed to be in Ironman 2 – therefore, the award will go to Langella, a fine actor who has been plugging away at a wide variety of roles for years.

Best Actress: I don’t think the voters will treat Angelina Jolie the same as Brad Pitt, and voting for her becomes a sort-of vindication for Clint Eastwood, who was unjustly ignored for Best Actor in Gran Torino, but I think the lukewarm reception Changeling got last fall doesn’t bode well for Jolie’s chances here. Ann Hathaway had a great year of appearing in lots of films people saw, but I think she’ll fall into the “you’re too young but you’ll be back someday” category this time out. I didn’t see Frozen River, but I heard critical raves for it and for Melissa Leo, who I remember being very good on one of my old favorite TV shows from the ’90s, Homicide, but I don’t think enough people saw this film. I think this category comes down to Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep. I think the academy voters really want to give an award to Kate Winslet and NOT giving it to her for Revolutionary Road, the movie with “nominate this IMPORTANT MEANINGFUL FILM!!!!” dripping all over it while it left everyone I know who saw it slack-jawed at what they described to be as its pretentious awfulness, might be just the way they want to give Winslet her Oscar, for a movie that at least some of them liked. Meanwhile, Streep earned her record 15th nomination and hasn’t won in a while, despite continually turning in great performances in a wide variety of roles, both comic and dramatic, with the usual variety of accents – Cut To: “A dingo ate my baby!” – so I’d think she’s got a real shot here if it doesn’t go to Winslet, but I keep thinking that the feeling amongst the voters will be that this year “it’s Winslet’s turn.”

So now we come to picture, director & screenplay, which are all intertwined, and (I believe) intertwined this year with the Best Animated Film category since Wall-E is in the mix. When I looked all of it over, I made predictions that seemed to fall into place like a puzzle, so here goes:

Starting with Best Picture, it strikes me that The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button will be one of those films that gets lots of nominations (13) but doesn’t take home many awards – it’s a film that a lot of people like, but no critical mass of people love it (and many people did not like it, feeling it was nothing more than a reworking of Forrest Gump, and by the same screenwriter to boot). I’d be surprised if Frost/Nixon won for picture, since Ron Howard has already won before, and as much as people liked and admired this film, they (once again) didn’t love or rave about it. Ditto for Milk, though I’d pick this one as the dark horse candidate – especially considering its politics and the way that Hollywood could feel it was atoning for picking Crash over Brokeback Mountain by picking this year’s “gay” film.

The Reader got a bunch of nominations, something that mystifies me, but there you are. I just can’t see this winning for best picture. Maybe I’m personally prejudiced against this one since I can’t understand the desire currently in fashion to make films depicting how difficult the Holocaust or World War 2 were on the Germans (Valkyrie can also be lumped in with this, even if it didn’t get any nominations). I think it’s a reflection of the moral equivalency cancer pervasive in our culture right now – the bending-over-backwards to project falsely positive attributes to our enemies while obsessing on any aspect of ourselves that mars our supposed potential for moral perfection, and the ways in which the same mentality leads to a cover-your-historic-ass effort as far as the strongest single example of an “us good/them evil” war this nation has fought. So, on one end of the scale we get hand-wringing supposedly thoughtful soul searching in the form of The Reader or Valkyrie and on the other end of the scale we get the historical revisionist literary abortions of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke or the antisemetic “we could have dealt with Hitler” Nazi sympathizing wet dreams of Pat Buchanan. I could go deeper into this rant I’m sure, but I’ll just let it go & say that The Reader will not win Best Picture.

Which leaves the one film amongst the nominees that I think DID inspire a sense of love & joy among the people who have seen it – Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which I think will win Best Picture, Best Director & Best Adapted Screenplay. I’m totally going on the level of passion I’ve heard from people who describe this movie to me – it gives me that gut feeling that this is the one for 2009.

So, since screenplay winners most often are also nominated for Best Picture, let’s examine the list of original screenplays – We have Courtney Hunt for Frozen River, Mike Leigh for Happy Go Lucky, Martin McDonagh for In Bruges, Dustin Lance Black for Milk, and Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon and Pete Docter for Wall-E. This one seems to be between Milk and the dark-horse Wall-E. Now, Milk has the Best Picture nom, but Wall-E will be the winner for Best Animated Film, and there are a LOT of people out there who felt it deserved a Best Picture nomination – will they vote for it to give an award to a huge audience favorite, sort of a vote for it AND The Dark Knight all at once? Or will Milk take home a major award for the same political reasons I described above? I’m thinking that the academy voters won’t be jonesin’ to send political messages after being put into their comfort zone by Obama’s election, so I think that Wall-E will win for Best Screenplay here, along with Best Animated film.

And as far as the telecast, I’ll also predict that Paul Newman will get pole position (appropriate phrasing, when you think about it) on the memorial reel, Charlton Heston will get clips from Planet of the Apes, Ben-Hur AND The Ten Commandments, and I’m really hoping they include Rudy Ray Moore but I bet those BASTARDS leave him out. I’m wondering if the highlight of the broadcast will be the humanitarian award they’re giving to Jerry Lewis.

Again, over the next few weeks I may alter any or nearly all of these predictions, depending on whatever way I sense the winds are blowing. But overall I feel pretty comfortable with these picks. As far as the other categories and nominations, I’ll have to learn more about them. So stay tuned!



1. herculesrob - January 22, 2009

Hey great post! There really is no indication yet from any film that could derail the buzz Slumdog Millionaire has been riding through awards season, so indeed Slumdog is the favorite and the safe bet right now.

As for your acting picks… as of now I agree with your Ledger and Winslet predictions… though I feel it’s still a two-man race between Rourke and Penn for Best Lead Actor. And the Supporting Actress category seems up in the air, but I’d give the edge to Penelope Cruz.

Anyway, once again great post!

2. Jim Berkin - January 23, 2009

Thanks! I’ve been missing my picks on the acting categories the past few years, so who knows? The SAG awards will probably be a good indicator.

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