2007 Oscar Preview

As the 79th Academy Awards near, we are presented with a paradox. Often there’s a clear favorite for Best Picture and at least a couple of competitive acting categories. This year, all four acting fields have strong front-runners while Best Picture is wide open. Of course looming over all of this is one big question: Is this finally Martin Scorsese’s year?

The past two years, I have called eight out of nine races correctly. In a minor irony, the only ones I missed were the Best Picture races. With that in mind, I bravely offer my picks for who deserves to win and who probably will take home the golden statuette:

Emmanuel Lubezki – Children of Men
Guillermo Navarro – Pan's Labyrinth
Wally Pfister – The Prestige
Dick Pope – The Illusionist
Vilmos Zsigmond – The Black Dahlia

Should win: Navarro
Pan's Labyrinth was a visual feast. Much of the credit goes to the visual effects and production design teams. But without brilliant cinematography, the effects and design would not have worked. Navarro shot the Spanish countryside in a way that seamlessly blended into the dazzling fantasy world the film created. His images were both beautiful and scary.

Will win: Lubezki
With no Best Picture nominees in this category, this leaves an open field. Zsigmond is the biggest name here, but The Black Dahlia bombed. Despite what I just wrote, many voters will credit the effects and design teams for the Pan's Labyrinth visuals. For the same reasons. I have a hard time seeing the two films about magicians being recognized here. That leaves Lubezki, who deservedly is credited for the searing images of a chaotic, dystopic England in Children of Men. He has already won the BAFTA (the British Academy Award) and several critics’ honors. Lubezki also recently snagged the American Society of Cinematographers film award. That should be enough to nab him the big prize.

Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer and Todd Phillips – Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby – Children of Men
Todd Field and Tom Perrotta – Little Children
Patrick Marber – Notes on a Scandal
William Monahan – The Departed

Should win: Field and Perotta
Field and Perotta, adapting Perotta’s novel, seamlessly blended the main story with a riveting subplot and an all-knowing third person narrator. They wrote compelling, three–dimensional characters and placed them in situations where you can sympathize without approving of their actions. The narrator could have seemed hokey but instead provided nuance and depth. Everything came together perfectly.

Will win: Monahan
Pretty easy call. The Departed is the only Best Picture nominee in the field. As such, more voters likely saw The Departed than the other nominees. Monahan won many critics’ prizes. More importantly, he won the Writers Guild of America (WGA) Adapted Screenplay Award. The WGA is normally a reliable bellwether for Oscar night and it will be here.

Guillermo Arriaga – Babel
Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis – Letters from Iwo Jima
Michael Arndt – Little Miss Sunshine
Guillermo del Toro – Pan's Labyrinth
Peter Morgan – The Queen

Should win: Arndt
Really any of the nominees would be deserving winners. They all tackled challenging themes, narratives, and characters. I’m going with Arndt because he combined laughs with an underlying sadness. He deftly wove together interesting characters and played them against each other. The narrative seemed simple at first, but was more complex as you though about it.

Will win: Arndt
Not nearly as clear-cut as Adapted Screenplay. This is the third straight nomination for Haggis, who won in this category last year. Morgan won the BAFTA Original Screenplay Award. Arriaga won much acclaim for Babel. We can rule out del Toro, because people remember the visuals more than the script for Pan's Labyrinth, and he will be honored with the Best Foreign Film Oscar. You can’t rule out any of the others, but Arndt won the WGA Original Screenplay Award. Also, I don’t believe Little Miss Sunshine will win Best Picture, and screenplay nominees often serve as consolation prizes for well liked, heavily nominated films that lose out on the big prize. It will do so again here.

Adriana Barraza – Babel
Cate Blanchett – Notes on a Scandal
Abigail Breslin – Little Miss Sunshine
Jennifer Hudson – Dreamgirls
Rinko Kikuchi – Babel

Should win: Kikuchi
Very tough call over Barraza. Both were in many ways the emotional heart of Babel. Barraza was simply heartbreaking as her character desperately tried to hold on in situations spinning quickly out of control. Kikuchi, playing a deaf teenager, had to convey her character’s hurt and loneliness just using her face and body. She pulled this off very convincingly. Kikuchi’s eyes alone imparted so much. Even without a voice, she managed to speak volumes in what might be the bravest performance of the year.

Will win: Hudson
Not even close. Hudson has won very pre-Oscar Supporting Actress award, including the one from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Everyone remembers her soulful and powerful rendition of “And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going.” Plus, Hudson has the classic Hollywood rags-to-riches story, rising from obscurity to stardom overnight. The signs are all there, and Oscar night will be her coronation.

Alan Arkin – Little Miss Sunshine
Jackie Earle Haley – Little Children
Djimon Hounsou – Blood Diamond
Eddie Murphy – Dreamgirls
Mark Wahlberg – The Departed

Should win: Haley
Out of these five, Haley had by far the most difficult role to play. He was able to make a sex offender repulsive but still sympathetic. Through his performance, you saw a man trying to turn his life around but weighted down by his past and by the dangerous impulses still in him. The others impressed, but Haley’s turn was the one that stayed with you.

Will win: Murphy
This is the only competitive race in the acting categories. Alan Arkin is a highly regarded character actor who has more than 40 years of film work behind him. He recently won the BAFTA Supporting Actor award and may be the sentimental favorite on Oscar night. In the end that won’t be enough to overtake Murphy, despite all those horrible ads for Murphy’s new movie Norbit. Murphy has a good backstory of his own with his up-and-down career. After many years of comedic roles, his serious turn in Dreamgirls tuned heads. There’s the “Hey, he can really act” factor, while his stellar singing in the film also helps. His SAG Supporting Actor award cements him as the favorite, although Arkin could pull off the upset.

Penélope Cruz – Volver
Judi Dench – Notes on a Scandal
Helen Mirren – The Queen
Meryl Streep – The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet – Little Children

Should win: Winslet
Dench and Mirren also sparkled, but Winslet showed the most range. She was spot-on in portraying her character’s frustration and boredom, and then later the guilty joy from an illicit affair. Winslet especially excelled in showing the inner workings of her character; what was going on underneath. This was the best performance of Winslet’s terrific career.

Will win: Mirren
A total lock. Her win was preordained before the nominations were even announced. She has won every pre-Oscar prize, including the SAG Best Actress Oscar. She is widely admired and respected but has never won. Mirren also had the most high-profile role and deservedly won kudos for humanizing Queen Elizabeth II, no small feat. If anyone else wins, it would be the biggest upset in recent Oscar history, but that won’t happen.

Leonardo DiCaprio – Blood Diamond
Ryan Gosling – Half Nelson
Peter O’Toole – Venus
Will Smith – The Pursuit of Happyness
Forest Whitaker – The Last King of Scotland

Should win: Whitaker
Tough call over Gosling, who pulled off a difficult part in Half Nelson. Whitaker, as Idi Amin, managed to be charming and frightening. He stood out in both Amin’s public and private moments. Through Whitaker you understood how Amin became powerful, but also Amin’s paranoia and anger that tore Uganda apart. Whitaker seduces you just like Amin seduced his people. Not many actors can pull off being larger than life while also conveying a three-dimensional character, but Whitaker was more than up to the task.

Will win: Whitaker
Another easy one. Like Mirren, Whitaker won all the pre-Oscar prizes, culminating with the SAG. He has been a respected character actor for many years and is reaping the benefits from a rare high-profile role. The legendary O’Toole is the sentimental favorite, having lost in his pervious seven tries. But that won’t be enough to stop Whitaker’s momentum.

Clint Eastwood – Letters from Iwo Jima
Stephen Frears – The Queen
Paul Greengrass – United 93
Alejandro González IZárritu – Babel
Martin Scorsese – The Departed

Should win: Scorsese
Once again, I’m going to be a hypocrite. Greengrass did the best job of the five nominees, and I really should be pulling for him. But my reasoning falters where Scorsese is concerned. The man and his career represent everything good about cinema, and as we all know, he has never won. Believe it or not, he wasn’t even nominated for Taxi Driver. For his landmark Raging Bull, he lost out to Robert Redford for the well-done but unremarkable Ordinary People. In the worst outrage in Oscar history, Scorsese lost for Goodfellas, one of the best gangster films ever made, to Kevin Costner for Dances with Wolves. My stomach still hurts when I think about that one. Usually I’m not a big fan of “We’re sorry about before” de facto lifetime achievement Oscars, but not here. The wrong must be righted. Scorsese must win.

Will win: Scorsese
We’ve been down this road so many times that I’m very nervous calling this. I feel like Charlie Brown running to kick the football hoping this time that Lucy won’t take it away. However, none of Scorsese’s rivals appears to have gathered enough steam to derail him. Eastwood is beloved by Academy voters, but he won twice, most recently two years ago (beating Scorsese). Scorsese finally won the Directors Guild of America award after being snubbed before. Academy voters may finally understand that its time to honor this man.

The Departed
Letters from Iwo Jima
Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen

Should win: Little Miss Sunshine
Difficult pick over Babel and Letters from Iwo Jima, both of which would also be worthy Best Picture winners. Little Miss Sunshine affected me more emotionally. The characters were so well-defined and worked together so perfectly, that I was drawn in immediately. The cast had a wonderful chemistry and brought to life a clever, poignant script. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris mixed the comedy and the pathos just right. Little Miss Sunshine also delivered a moving and hilarious catharsis, the perfect way to end the film. In a strong field, Little Miss Sunshine stands out.

Will win: Babel
There’s no front-runner here, and none of these films has dominated the pre-Oscar awards. When that’s happened in the past the Academy has shared the wealth. The Departed will be honored for Director and Adapted Screenplay and The Queen for Best Actress. Also, with the exception of The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II, gangster films haven’t won Best Picture. The Queen is too small and too inherently British to win the top award. The three main contenders, then are Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Little Miss Sunshine. Usually the film with the most total nominations has the edge, but that was Dreamgirls, which wasn’t even nominated here. Letters from Iwo Jima has the heft and epic scope worthy of a Best Picture winner, and given Eastwood’s history it can’t be ruled out. But none of its actors was nominated, which is not a good sign given that actors represent the largest branch of the Academy. The Return of the King won Best Picture without any acting nods, but that was the runaway favorite, and Letters from Iwo Jima isn’t. Little Miss Sunshine won the Producers Guild of America Best Picture award and the SAG Ensemble Cast award, two solid Oscar bellwethers. However, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris did not receive Director nominations. No film has won Best Picture without a Best Director nomination since 1990 (Driving Miss Daisy). Academy voters may believe that, like The Queen, Little Miss Sunshine is too small a film to win Best Picture. Also, comedies have historically not have a strong record here. That leaves Babel, which has the most total nominations of the five Best Picture nominees. It combines both Hollywood and foreign talent. More importantly, it’s a serious “statement” film with interconnecting plot lines, similar to last year’s Best Picture winner Crash but even more ambitious. In a wide-open field, Babel appears to be the best fit.

One final note: This year the Academy will honor composer Ennio Morricone with a lifetime achievement Oscar. Morricone is best known for scoring Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns,” such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. Morricone’s grand, operatic music was a key reason why Leone’s westerns worked so well. He also scored Once Upon a Time in the West, The Untouchables, and Cinema Paradiso, just to name a few. His touch is unmistakable and his contributions to film immeasurable. His award will be the most gratifying moment of the night. Or the second most gratifying moment if Scorsese wins.

Adam Spector
February 21, 2007

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