Friday, February 20, 2009

My Oscar predictions

Los Angeles is busily preparing for the Super Bowl of the Entertainment Industry, the Oscars. The Hollywood and Highland complex that hosts the Kodak Theater has been bristling with security for days, guarding the newly installed bleachers, ensuring no one gets near enough to the places where the celebrities will soon be to do damage.

I’m looking forward to the Oscars this year more than in previous years for two reasons. First, I’ve seen nearly all the nominated films for a change, so I care more than usual about the outcomes. Second, this year, the host will be Hugh Jackman.

I was not a big fan of Jackman’s until I saw him on Broadway in “The Boy from Oz.” I’ve seen a lot of excellent theater in my life, so it means something when I say he was extraordinary. His charisma didn’t just ooze; it came rolling like a tidal wave from the stage, and the audience was clearly as swept away as I was, both times I saw his show.

The guy can flirt with the audience and sing and dance like nobody's business, and with any luck, all his talents will be on full display Sunday night. I just hope the writers don’t ruin it for him with dumb jokes! I do hope, however, the writers saw fit to lampoon the hilarious slow motion shower Jackman took in his recent film “Australia.” That cheesy shot deserves to be parodied for a long time to come.

This is also the first year in recent memory where I agreed, and very strongly, with the five films nominated for Best Picture. These films were all extraordinary. If you haven’t seen them all, do not delay.

How could Frost/Nixon, a story most of us either remember or know something about, have been so suspenseful on film? I was riveted by the story itself as much as by the tremendous feats of acting by Frank Langella, a lifelong favorite actor, and Michael Sheen, who captured completely the essence of Frost. Of course, my favorite character was the fiery, passionate James Reston, Jr. (played by Sam Rockwell), who wanted to turn the televised interviews into the trial Nixon never had.

How could Jewish filmmakers get me to care so much about a Nazi guard in “The Reader”? This is a film made with and about tremendous compassion. And Kate Winslet should absolutely get the Oscar for her amazingly layered and nuanced portrayal.

How could a film by the writer of that awful faux history of the CIA, “The Good Shepherd,” be so good? The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was an immensely thoughtful and moving examination of life, love, and the hardships of aging both physically and emotionally.

And seriously, how could a low budget film with Hindi subtitles become the frontrunner for Best Picture? Slumdog Millionaire wound its way into our hearts by giving us a look at hardships few of us ever have to deal with in not only a moving way, but in often hilarious segments, with the brilliant framing device of the world’s most famous game show.

I wish all the top nominated films could win at least one award so people go to see them. In any case, without further ado, here are my Oscar picks in some of the major categories.

Actor in a Leading Role

Who will get it: Mickey Rourke
Who I’d like to see get it: Sean Penn

Sean Penn is known for his dark, brooding, willful characters. But as Harvey Milk, he dials up the fun and lightness to the point where he's unrecognizable as anyone other than the charismatic Mr. Milk. Rourke, however, did a fine job of resurrecting his career, and will probably get it, because 1) it was a fine performance, and 2) Hollywood is full of people who hope they too can get a second chance at greatness.

Actor in a Supporting Role

While each of the nominees gave remarkable performances, if you have any doubts, you 1) are not paying attention and 2) have not yet seen “The Dark Knight.” Don't be put off because it's a film about a comic book character. Heath Ledger's performance as “The Joker” is already legendary, and deservedly so. Ledger will win. The only question remaining is who will accept the award his three-year-old daughter will eventually inherit.

Actress in a Leading Role

While I feel compelled to note it was a crime that Cate Blanchett was not nominated for her extraordinary role in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” hands down, this one belongs to Kate Winslet.

Winslet plays a Nazi prison guard so ordinary it was terrifying. She didn't fully understand the role she played until the compassion of another helped her face the horrible truth about herself. As great as Winslet was in (that awfully depressing film) Revolutionary Road, she's that much better in this. All the actresses in this category were fantastic and deserving. Meryl Streep created yet another version of herself we’ve never seen before with her amazingly hilarious portrayal of a fundamentalist nun in Doubt. But this should be Kate’s year. She more than earned it.

Actress in a Supporting Role

This is one of the most suspenseful award categories this year, as all of these actresses gave fine performances. Here, I start to think overall best film sentiments kick in. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” will lose several awards to “Slumdog Millionaire.” Here’s a chance for the film to pick up one. Tariji Henson’s performance was excellent, and while not as nuanced or passionate as some of the others, given that her picture is the biggest of those nominated, I think she’ll pick this one up. If not, I’m pulling for Viola Davis, whose portrait of a mother caught between unacceptable options in “Doubt” was chilling, if brief. However, conventional wisdom would probably pick Penelope Cruz, who has already received awards for her role in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Animated Feature Film

Again, if you don’t know the answer to this, you don’t live in Los Angeles. Everyone knows Wall-E will win this one going away. It was a brilliant little film with precious little dialog, but a lot of heart. This one is a slam dunk.

Art Direction

Wow, this is a tough category. All of the nominees—“Changeling,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Dark Knight,” “The Duchess,” and “Revolutionary Road”were gorgeous and meticulously presented. I think the award will go to Benjamin Button, though. This is truly one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. So many scenes were almost like paintings. And with thirteen nominations, it’s important the film actually win some awards. I think this category is a likely victory for Button.

Cinematography

This one is a toss-up between Button and Slumdog. I think Slumdog is going to win this one because the task of making Slumdog look good while running through the streets of Mumbai and on a shoestring (by Hollywood standards) budget was monumental and well-executed. But you’ll get no disagreement from me if the Academy sees fit to award the gorgeous shots of Button. If the award goes to any other film I’ll feel a bit cheated, even though the other films were clearly worthy of their nominations.

Costume Design

Typically, this award goes to the period piece, and The Duchess was the most “period” of the films nominated. While Benjamin Button covered the longest period of time and therefore might have required the most thought and research, the results were so subtle I don’t think this one will get the nod. Personally, I’d like to see “Australia” pick this one up, as it required quite a lot of variety, and I’ll never forget Jackman’s Rhett Butler-like entrance in that white suit. That image alone was worth an award. (It’s safe to assume my Jackman infatuation is coloring my judgment here, for better or for worse.)

Directing

All five of these films are so wonderful, so well done, that it’s a crime the award this year can’t be split five ways. David Fincher did a sensitive and beautiful job with Button. Ron Howard, one of the underrecognized yet much beloved directors in Hollywood, really put forward a personal best with “Frost/Nixon.” Stephen Daldry’s job with “The Reader” is remarkable for its unflinching yet compassionate look at a difficult moment in history. And Gus Van Sant always delivers quality work, as he did again this year in “Milk.” But this year, Slumdog has all the momentum, and it’s going to carry its most enthusiastic champion and deserving director, Danny Boyle, to the stage to accept this award.

Documentary

I haven’t seen any of these, but most of the buzz this year seems focused on “Man on Wire,” about a French citizen who came to America and staged a daring and illegal tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in New York, which he dubbed “the artistic crime of the century.” The dark horse in this race would be “Trouble the Water,” about a couple trapped in New Orleans during Katrina.

Film Editing

Again, this is a tough category, because all the nominated films—“Milk,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Dark Knight,” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” were so well edited they crackled with energy and intensity. Given the close race, I’m giving the edge to the underdog again, Slumdog. Watching that film was like taking a roller coaster ride through Mumbai, at times, and that’s due to the amazing editing.

Foreign Language Film

The buzz in town seems to center around the Israeli entry, done in filtered animation style (modified from live action), called “Waltz with Bashir.” The runner-up seems to be the film that has sparked a lot of vehement discussions, “The Class,” France’s entry.

Makeup

This award should and will go to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” How they age both Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, in reverse directions, in this film, is amazing.

Music (Score)

This is one award that might go to Slumdog that I feel strongly really should go to Benjamin Button. At the end of the film I felt like I had just seen and heard an amazing work of art. The score was lush and romantic without being corny or obtrusive. It was modern yet lyrical, beautiful without being sentimental. I loved the score to Slumdog as well, but I really want this one to go to Button. Still, I’ll call this for Slumdog.

Music (Song)

This one is anyone’s guess. I’m leaning towards “Jai Ho” from Slumdog, but wouldn’t be surprised in the least if Peter Gabriel’s song “Down to Earth” (from Wall-E) took this one.

Picture

This one will likely go to “Slumdog Millionaire,” and deservedly so. The little film that could has chugged to victory in several of the other awards arenas, and I expect the Oscars will be no different. As I said, the other films are all fantastic, and should any of them win, it will be justified. But the world is enamored of the international underdogs right now, as demonstrated by Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency. Given its recent momentum, betting on Slumdog seems safer than any bet you could make on the market right now.

Screenplay (adaptation)

This category always puzzles me. Is an adaptation “better” if it adhere closely to the original material, or “better” if it invents something new, but in somewhat of the spirit of the original? How does one judge? Or do you just pick the movie you liked best in this category? If the latter, I think this award will likely go to Slumdog Millionaire.

Screenplay (original)

This one is hard for me to call. I think “Milk” and “Wall-E” were both outstanding screenplays. But I’ll give “Wall-E” the edge because it was so different from anything else we’ve seen, whereas we’ve seen really great biopics and political stories before. And Andrew Stanton, a key writer on the project, has been responsible for so much of the success Pixar has enjoyed (he wrote “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and “Finding Nemo”) that it’s high time the Academy awarded him some serious recognition for his compelling stories and keen sense of humor.

Those are my predictions, and I’m standing by them. What are yours?

3 Comments:

Anonymous Justin J. said...

Nice picks. A lot of your predictions were braver than mine (I've come to learn not to expect too many surprises from the Academy). You definitely loved Benjamin Button more than I did, but i totally understand your rationale behind most of its wins.

6:26 AM  
Anonymous simpilmindz said...

I'm not into the Oscars or any of those other show biz awards. However, I agree with you completely on the amazing performance of Kate Winslet. But apparently she "insulted" Queen Angelina at a previous ceremony (by forgetting Jolie's name, I think) and since AJ is Hollywood royalty and Hollwood doesn't like its royal persons to be treated in that way, look out for a surprise. I hope I'm wrong.
The Reader is a wonderul film, but its real significance lies in the fact that Nazis were indeed ordinary human beings doing horrible things in an extrordinary time. That's the real horror. And the real question is how was it that the German people were so easily hoodwinked by a gang of drug-addicted, degenerate nincompoops? Because if Germans can fall for that rubbish, then anyone can be manipulated in similar fashion, including us.
Anyway, good luck to Kate, the finest actress of her generation.

4:10 AM  
Anonymous simpilmindz said...

P.S. Someone once said to me that the Germans "went bad" because they abandoned their religious beliefs. But I'm afraid that idea is just too comforting to be true. The majority of Nazis were either Lutherans or Catholics. I'm afraid religious belief, far from protecting one from evil, can exacerbate it. There is nothing quite so fearsome as a religios person killing for God/Allah/Yaweh/whoever.

4:16 AM  

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