2009 Oscar Preview

Change, Change, Change. No, I’m not stuck in the 2008 election. It’s the buzz from the new Oscar producers. Oscar ratings have plummeted faster than the stock market in recent years. Producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark are determined to turn the ship around. So far, so good. But it's the details that are perplexing. No more comedians hosting; instead it’s Hugh Jackman. Was that really the problem with other Oscar shows, that they were too funny? Besides looking good in a tux, what does Jackman bring to the table? That brings us to the next rumored change; the return of lavish musical numbers. Does anyone remember how awful these productions were? Rob Lowe’s duet with Snow White. Dom DeLuise, Pat Morita and Telly Savalas singing together. No, I’m not making this up.

The other big change is “surprise” presenters. No presenters have been announced, with the idea that the mystery will result in more viewers. Maybe this will work, but I’m skeptical. Most people know who the big stars are. Exactly who could come out that would make you say “Wow?” The last time I was surprised by an appearance was the 2002 ceremony, when Woody Allen made a plea for more filming in New York post-9/11. Even that was only because Allen was a perennial Oscar no-show.

While the jury’s out on the ceremony, the awards themselves should prove interesting. The Best Picture favorite, Slumdog Millionaire, has no acting nominations. Three of the four acting races are open, which could produce some genuine surprises. Of course for me the real drama is my predictions. After nailing eight out of nine in 2005 and 2006 I slipped to seven in 2007 and six last year. It’s time to get my mojo back. With that in mind, I bravely offer my picks for who deserves to win and who probably will take home the golden statuette:

Anthony Dod Mantle – Slumdog Millionaire
Chris Menges and Roger Deakins – The Reader
Claudio Miranda – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Wally Pfister – The Dark Knight
Tom Stern – Changeling

Should win: Miranda
Miranda’s work was overshadowed by the film’s stunning visual effects, but it was his work that helped create a slightly removed reality where one could accept that a man aged backward. He combined darkness with warm tones, perfect for a film that dealt with death in a serious but gentle way.

Will win: Mantle
It’s hard to think of Slumdog Millionaire without recalling the dazzling colors. Mantle made the most of the locations in India, shooting under some tough conditions. The American Society of Cinematographers gave Mantle their top prize, and the Academy will follow suit.

Simon Beaufoy – Slumdog Millionaire
David Hare – The Reader
Peter Morgan – Frost/Nixon
Eric Roth, Robin Swicord – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley – Doubt

Should win: Roth and Swicord
Roth and Swicord took a short story from F. Scott Fitzgerald written more than 85 years ago, fleshed it out, and gave it scope. They took a premise that could have been corny and made it poetic and moving. Their script touched on universal themes, but in a way that served the story.

Will win: Beaufoy
More often than not the Best Picture favorite wins its screenplay category, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t happen this time. Beaufoy is already known to Academy voters, having been nominated for The Full Monty. He won the Writers Guild of America (WGA) Adapted Screenplay award, a reliable bellwether for Oscar night.

Dustin Lance Black – Milk
Courtney Hunt – Frozen River
Mike Leigh – Happy-Go-Lucky
Martin McDonagh – In Bruges
Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Pete Docter – WALL-E

Should win: Stanton, Reardon and Docter
This trio created a funny and sweet story with a lead character that barely says a word. In fact, there is little dialogue at all for the first half of the story, but it’s still totally engrossing. They even folded in an anti-consumerism message, but without beating you over the head with it.

Will win: Black
Easy one. Milk is the only Best Picture nominee in this group. Black justifiably earned kudos for successfully crafting a screenplay about Harvey Milk when many others had tried and failed. He won the WGA Original Screenplay award and, like Beaufoy, will win again at the Oscars.

Amy Adams – Doubt
Penelope Cruz – Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis – Doubt
Taraji P. Henson – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei – The Wrestler

Should win: Davis
Tomei and Henson are also deserving, but Davis made a rich, complex character out of only one scene. She brilliantly displayed moral ambiguity, convincing you that a mother could love a son but do so in a way that you would not expect. Davis showed you her character’s struggle with her situation, her ideals, and the realities of her time in a way that defied stereotypes or pigeonholing. Perhaps no actress did more with less last year.

Will win: Cruz
This is a difficult category to predict because Kate Winslet won many of the Oscar bellwether awards for Supporting Actress, including the Screen Actors Guild, for her role in The Reader. Of course the Academy put that role in the lead category, leaving this race up for grabs. Neither Adams nor Davis can be ruled out, but they might split the Doubt vote. It seems that Mickey Rourke has garnered most of the attention for The Wrestler, which has me doubt Tomei’s chances. I’m a little puzzled why Henson hasn’t caught more traction given that she is in the year’s most nominated film. The leaves Cruz. She has won some critics awards and the BAFTA (the British Academy Award). Some thought she should have won in 2007 for her lead role in Volver, but there was no stopping Helen Mirren that year. Also, it doesn’t hurt that Cruz appeared in a Woody Allen film. Dianne Wiest won two Supporting Actress Oscars in Allen films and Mira Sorvino won one. I’m guessing that Cruz will make it four.

Josh Brolin – Milk
Robert Downey Jr. – Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman – Doubt
Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon – Revolutionary Road

Should win: Downey, Jr.
All but Hoffman would be worthy winners, and I’m only removing Hoffman because he’s in the wrong category. I’m picking Downey in part because I like to see actors recognized for comic performances, which happens much too rarely. Also, Downey, while very funny, also created a compelling character. His Kirk Lazarus was a fascinating portrait of an actor so immersed in “the Method” that he lost his own identity.

Will win: Ledger
Lock of the night. Even without his tragic real-life story, Ledger might be a strong contender for nailing a part so closely identified with Jack Nicholson. With his untimely death last year, an Oscar becomes the way to honor his brief but noteworthy career. Ledger has won nearly every pre-Oscar award. If anyone else’s name were called Sunday night it would be arguably the biggest upset in Oscar history.

Anne Hathaway – Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie – Changeling
Melissa Leo – Frozen River
Meryl Streep – Doubt
Kate Winslet – The Reader

Should win: Hathaway
Melissa Leo would also be an excellent choice, but I’m going with Hathaway because she pulled off the most challenging role of the five. She was completely believable as a recovering drug addict battling her own demons and struggling with her family. Hathaway never tried to make her character likable but still made you care about her.

Will win: Winslet
I’m only picking Winslet because I need to pick someone. It could just as easily be Meryl Streep, who won the SAG Best Actress award. Streep has long since passed the movie star level into the “Best Living Actress” realm. Doubt is her 15th nomination. Believe it or not, she hasn’t won since 1983, and the Academy voters might like to see her back in the winner’s circle. Ironically, Winslet has formed a very Streep-like career, notching her sixth nomination at age 33. Like Streep, Winslet has earned plaudits for immersing herself in many different types of roles (and donning multiple accents). She also won a SAG this year, although that was for Best Supporting Actress. What’s more, she is zero for her previous five nominations. I’m guessing the “It’s about time” factor will give a slight edge in a very close race.

Richard Jenkins – The Visitor
Frank Langella – Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn – Milk
Brad Pitt – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler

Should win: Rourke
Agonizingly tough call over the underrated Richard Jenkins, who gave a career performance in The Visitor. But Rourke laid himself bare and simply inhabited his role. His walk and his movements were mesmerizing even when he had no dialogue. Like Hathaway, he never played to the camera or tried for sympathy. A true test of his work was his scenes with real wrestlers, as Rourke blended in perfectly. Rourke's sincerity made you understand why his character did the things he did and how he has become such a lost soul.

Will win: Rourke
Another one that could go either way. Sean Penn is the PC choice for his role as pioneering gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Playing real-life heroes never hurts with the Academy. After years of playing dour, sullen characters, Penn got raves for playing a warm and upbeat man. Penn won the SAG Best Actor award and may very well follow suit at the Oscars. But Rourke has also garnered his share of pre-Oscar awards, including the BAFTA. His comeback after years away from the limelight melds perfectly with the role he played. Plus you never know what Rourke might do on stage should he win. Will he be sober? Will he be coherent? How many times will he thank his dogs? The Academy voters can’t pass up that kind of entertainment.

Danny Boyle – Slumdog Millionaire
Stephen Daldry – The Reader
David Fincher – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard – Frost/Nixon
Gus Van Sant -– Milk

Should win: Fincher
With Benjamin Button, Fincher successfully combined an epic with a character-driven personal film. He made use of the astounding visual effects to establish the right atmosphere and, most of all, enhance the story. Fincher also evoked stellar acting work not just from Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson, but also from the minor players. With a lesser director, the rather implausible premise of Benjamin Button could have grown hackneyed and stale. Instead, Fincher kept it credible and fresh with the just the right amount of warmth and whimsy.

Will win: Boyle
Easy call. Boyle won the Directors Guild of America award and most of the other Oscar bellwethers. He got much credit for even getting Slumdog Millionaire made despite financing problems and very difficult shooting conditions, not to mention working with nonprofessional actors. Also, the highly stylized look of Slumdog Millionaire makes it seem like that much more of a director’s film. Boyle is a well-respected veteran and this is his year.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

Should win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Out of the five nominees, Benjamin Button has the most resonance. It is an achievement in acting, storytelling, cinematography and visual effects. But it is also a poignant reflection on the fleeting nature of life and love. Even though it tells of a very uncommon man, its themes touch on our common humanity in a very touching and thought-provoking way.

Will win: Slumdog Millionaire
It used to be that the overall nominations leader was generally considered the Best Picture favorite, but that hasn’t been the case in recent years. For example, Babel was the nominations leader two years ago, but The Departed won the big prize. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has 13 nominations, while Slumdog Millionaire has 10. Still it’s Slumdog that won most of the pre-Oscar awards, including the Producers Guild of America and the SAG Ensemble award. Benjamin Button has not done nearly as well, and will probably have to settle for some visual effects awards. There was a brief backlash against Slumdog Millionaire due to questions about how some of the child actors were treated, but that seems to have passed. It’s not only a feel-good movie, but also the right feel-good movie for this year. With our troubled economy, what better antidote than a kid who rises above poverty due to hard work, destiny and luck? That luck will continue at the Oscars.

Adam Spector
February 20, 2009

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