Will twice the nominees be boon or bust at 2010 Oscars?
A funny thing happened on the way to this year's Academy Awards ceremony. The Academy decided to open up its nominating process to 10 films, instead of the usual five. Who (besides Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, who will reap twice the revenue from "For your consideration …" ads), is this new policy designed to benefit? Well, the Academy, mainly, suffering from charges of elitism for failing to include more popular, crowd-pleasing titles among its most august list of Best Picture nominees in recent years. This was kind of a surprise to some of us pointy-heads who thought the Academy's recent trend toward more interesting, independent films was sort of a good thing. (Big box-office movies have big box-office receipts to console them.) After all, you don't have to go too far back in the last decade to find movies like Gladiator and Lord of The Rings: Return of the King—not exactly popularity wallflowers— not only nominated, but waltzing off with the whole Oscar enchilada.
What the Academy really seems to be trying to do with its expanded list of nominees is ratchet up the suspense factor with the possibility of a wild-card upset to keep us glued to our TVs after the nail-biting showdowns of the Winter Olympics. Judging from all the pre-season awards already handed out, there are still only five films in serious contention for the Best Picture Oscar, no matter how many titles appear on the ballot. But who can predict how the additional five choices might skew the vote? If the overcrowded field creates spoilers, diffusing support for an odds-on favorite, what if something less expected skates to victory on points? Hollywood loves a cliffhanger, and intrepid critics like moi had better do some fancy toe loops on the ice this year to try to second-guess the Academy at its own game. That said, here are my predictions for this year's winners, along with my personal favorites, and a few snarky asides.
BEST PICTURE The Hurt Locker. Throughout awards season, Kathryn Bigelow's kinetic Iraqi war thriller has vied with her ex-husband James Cameron's mind-blowing epic Avatar for the hearts and minds of critics and guild voters. Both films show the U.S. military in a poor light; in one they are pillaging, slaughtering invaders, while the protagonist of the other embodies reckless military adventurism as an addiction. That Bigelow's characters are life-sized humans caught up in the hyper-real situation of modern warfare, not 9-foot tall archetypes acting out a mythic allegory, may tip the scales in her favor among Academy voters, who also may feel that Cameron's two-billion-dollar worldwide box office to date is its own reward. But if the number of choices splits the voting, don't be entirely surprised if something with a small, but avid partisan base slips in to claim the gold, like Inglourious Basterds, or even The Blind Side. Precious and Up In The Air are the other nominees most often cited in the pre-season awards. An Education, A Serious Man, the pithy South African alien thriller, District 9, and Up (my personal favorite) should be happy just to be asked to the dance.
BEST DIRECTOR Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker, for all the reasons cited above. She's already been anointed by the Directors’ Guild, usually a dead giveaway in handicapping this category. To top it all off, no woman has ever won an Oscar for directing (only three—Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, and Sofia Coppolla—have ever even been nominated) and Hollywood loves a milestone. Cameron, Lee Daniels (Precious), Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds) and Jason Reitman (Up In The Air) will have to sit this one out.
BEST ACTOR Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart. Bridges makes it all look so effortless, and it's taken nearly 40 years for Hollywood to realize what a tremendous actor he is. The scruffy verve of his bruised and boozy country has-been has already won several major pre-season awards, and should finally earn him the gold—and about time, too, says I. George Clooney (Up In The Air), Colin Firth (A Single Man), Morgan Freeman (Invictus) and Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) split most of the critics' awards, but critics don't vote for the Oscars.
BEST ACTRESS Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side. This is the toughest race to call. All through awards season, Bullock has duked it out with Meryl Streep (so marvelous as Julia Child in Julie & Julia) for the top prize. They shared the Critics’ Choice award, and each won a Golden Globe (which divides the category into Drama and Comedy recipients). But Bullock's is continued from page 40 the kind of feisty, drawling, no-nonsense Southern gal part that won Oscars (and legitimacy) for Sally Field and Julia Roberts, two other actresses once considered fluffy. Bullock has already won the Screen Actors’ Guild award, bad news for the amazing Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), the great Helen Mirren (The Last Station), and plucky newcomer Carey Mulligan (An Education). But, personally, I'm hoping the Mighty Meryl stages a well-deserved upset.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds. Judging from the pre-season awards, nobody else is even in this race. When you look at the other nominees, you can see why. (Seriously, Matt Damon in Invictus?) Conspicuously absent from this list is Christian McKay, an astonishing Orson Welles in Me And Orson Welles. And Stanley Tucci is nominated for the wrong role: he was so much better as Paul Child, Julia's droll, supportive husband in Julie & Julia, than as the woebegone serial killer in The Lovely Bones. Christopher Plummer (The Last Station) and Woody Harrelson (The Messenger) fill out the slate.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS Mo'Nique, Precious. As the spiteful, cold-blooded mom who infuses every frame of her film with agonizing dread, Mo'Nique has a lock on the Academy Award— she's already won all the others. Last year's winner, Penélope Cruz will have to settle for having had the best production number in Nine. Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick (both in Up In The Air), and Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart) got to act opposite George Clooney and Jeff Bridges—what more do they want?
BEST SCREENPLAY(S) Traditionally (but not always), the Best Picture winner also wins in its writing category, so expect Mark Boal's script for The Hurt Locker to pick up the Original Screenplay award. (The script for Avatar wasn't even nominated, which bodes ill for that film's chances for the top prize.) The much-nominated Up In The Air will likely win the Adapted Screenplay prize for Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, its only major award of the night.
MISCELLANY Since most of what's onscreen in Avatar is digital, expect it to clean up in the visual technical awards: Art Direction, Cinematography, Visual Effects, and possibly Editing. Original Song kudos should go to T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham for "The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart. (It's a shame they weren't also nominated in the Original Score category.) And while Pixar's moving and delicious Up will be snubbed for Best Picture, it will win Best Animated Feature gold—along with the distinction of being my favorite movie of the year.
The Oscars air at 5 p.m. Sunday on ABC. Pictured from top: Best Pic nominees Avatar, A Serious Man, Up, District 9 and An Education.
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