2010 Oscar Preview

Call me old fashioned or naive, but I believe that the Academy Awards should celebrate cinematic excellence. In an ideal world, that standard of excellence would apply to those in charge of the Oscar telecast. But we do not live in an ideal world; far from it. Look no further than whom the Academy selected as the telecast’s co-producer: Adam Shankman. “Who’s Adam Shankman?” you may be asking. He’s the director of such film gems as The Wedding Planner, The Pacifier, and Cheaper by the Dozen 2. Oh, I almost forgot, Shankman also directed the video “Zac Efron’s Pool Party.” Currently he’s a judge on Fox’s “So You Think You can Dance.” In fact, he plans to have dancers from that show on the Oscar telecast. Is that feeling in my stomach excitement, or just nausea?

Shankman promised to have plenty of musical numbers this year. So for anyone who remembers last year’s atrocious song-and-dance medley with the stars of Mamma Mia! And High School Musical 3 and thought “If only we could have more of that,” you’re in luck. The rest of us, not so much.

I’m focusing on the telecast because there’s little drama in the award contests. Most of the pre-Oscar awards have honored the same people, leaving nearly no doubt who will win the big ones. I got eight out of nine categories right last year, and expect to do at least as well this time. Maybe that’s why I’m focusing on more intriguing questions, such as how Ryan Seacrest will make an idiot of himself. Last year, he tried interviewing the youngest stars of Slumdog Millionaire, not realizing that they did not speak English. It’s tough to beat that gaffe, but if anyone can do it, it’s Ryan.

As for the awards themselves, I once again offer my picks for who deserves to win and who probably will take home the golden statuette:

Barry Ackroyd – The Hurt Locker
Christian Berger – The White Ribbon
Bruno Delbonnel – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Mauro Fiore – Avatar
Robert Richardson – Inglourious Basterds

Should win: Berger
Berger’s stark black-and-white photography was essential in creating the atmosphere of gloom and dread that permeated The White Ribbon. If there’s any heir to the legacy of Sven Nykvist, who shot many of Ingmar Bergman’s best films, it’s Berger.

Will win: Ackroyd
It’s a little difficult to call this one because, as of this writing, the American Society of Cinematographers have not given out their annual award yet. But the BAFTA’s (the British Oscars) recognized Ackroyd, as have many critics groups. Richardson has won this award before, but most people don’t think of the visuals when recalling a Tarantino film. Also, I think Avatar and Harry Potter are best known for visual effects, not photography. Not many people have seen The White Ribbon. Ackroyd’s you-are-there desert photography contributed greatly to the impact of The Hurt Locker. The film seems to be gaining steam as the award season goes on, and Ackroyd will benefit.

Mark Boal – The Hurt Locker
Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman – The Messenger
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen – A Serious Man
Pete Docter, Bob Peterson & Tom McCarthy – Up
Quentin Tarantino – Inglourious Basterds

Should win: Docter, Peterson & McCarthy
Yes, I would love to see Pixar get some long overdue recognition for writing. But my pick is mostly because the Up team so skillfully blended adventure and comedy with a heartfelt emotional core. Fitting enough for a 3-D film, they created characters that were more three-dimensional than in most live action films. Even the first ten minutes, which could have just been mandatory exposition, was, in and of itself, a beautifully moving story.

Will win: Boal
More often than not, the Best Picture favorite wins in one of the screenplay categories, and I see no reason why there would be an exception here. Tarantino won the award 15 years ago for Pulp Fiction, and, given his talent and celebrity, you can’t count him out. Still, it will be hard for Academy voters to overlook Boal’s gritty script, especially given all of the attention The Hurt Locker has received recently. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) gave Boal it’s top prize, and the Academy will follow suit.

Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci & Tony Roche – In the Loop
Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell – District 9
Geoffrey Fletcher – Precious
Nick Hornby – An Education
Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner – Up in the Air

Should win: Reitman & Turner
This was a tough choice over Fletcher’s frank and brutal script for Precious. I’m going with Reitman and Turner because they combined an intelligent story with a compelling character study. Both the story and the characters had many layers that were slowly revealed. Everything fit together perfectly.

Will win: Reitman & Turner
Many times one of the screenplay Oscars is a consolation prize for a Best Picture nominee unlikely to win many other awards, and that appears to be the case here. Reitman and Turner won the WGA adapted screenplay award and the USC Scripter (which honors the screenwriters and the author of the source material, in this case Walter Kirn’s novel). Since Reitman also directed Up in the Air, this category gives the Academy voters an opportunity to honor him for all of his efforts.

Penélope Cruz – Nine
Vera Farmiga – Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal – Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick – Up in the Air
Mo’Nique – Precious

Should win: Mo’Nique
Mo’Nique dominated the screen every minute she appeared in Precious. She created a mother from hell filled with anger and hatred, and you could feel her negative energy. While her character was one of the most unlikable ones in recent screen history, Mo’Nique showed the vulnerability and pain beneath the hostility. She never tried to justify her character, but did help put her in a larger context.

Will win: Mo’Nique
In a night filled with sure things, this is the biggest lock. From the day that Precious debuted, Mo’Nique was universally proclaimed the favorite for best Supporting Actress. Since then she has won every pre-Oscar award, including the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) supporting actress prize. She also gets credit for shining in a dramatic role after years as a comedienne. I’m already looking forward to her acceptance speech.

Matt Damon – Invictus
Woody Harrelson – The Messenger
Christopher Plummer – The Last Station
Stanley Tucci – The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz – Inglorious Basterds

Should win: Harrelson
Harrelson excelled in a difficult role. He played Captain Stone, a soldier who built an emotional wall between him and his duties – informing family members that a loved one was killed. Eventually Harrelson let us see the toll that Stone’s work took on him. In a performance without vanity, he laid Stone’s soul bare. Harrelson has grown as an actor so much in the last 20 years, and in The Messenger he took his talents to new levels.

Will win: Waltz
If Mo’Nique is the biggest lock, Waltz is a close second. Like Mo’Nique, Waltz has snagged the SAG and all the other pre-Oscar awards. For both audiences and the Academy, it’s tough to resist a charming villain.

Sandra Bullock – The Blind Side
Helen Mirren – The Last Station
Carey Mulligan – An Education
Gabourey Sidibe – Precious
Meryl Streep – Julie & Julia

Should win: Streep
I could have easily gone with Sidibe, but I’m picking Streep because she drew me in from the first second she appeared as Julia Child. It’s so easy to play Child as a caricature, but Streep never stooped to that level. Yes, she nailed the mannerisms and the accent as you might expect. But she also embodied Child’s passion for food, cooking, and her husband. Sometimes it almost seemed like she was glowing. Streep may not have as much screen time as the other nominees, but her performance is the one you’ll most remember.

Will win: Bullock
Yes, she’s the least worthy of the five, but that doesn’t matter. Let’s call it the “Erin Brockovich Syndrome.” An actress considered “America’s Sweetheart” takes on a real-life role in a drama after being better known for romantic comedies. The film takes off and the actress gets the “Hey, she can really act” treatment. That was the case with Julia Roberts nine years ago and it will hold true with Bullock this time around. Bullock won the SAG best actress award and has been helped by The Blind Side’s success at the box office. You can’t rule out Streep given her career achievements, but the Academy will not say no to “America’s Sweetheart.”

Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart
George Clooney – Up in the Air
Colin Firth – A Single Man
Morgan Freeman – Invictus
Jeremy Renner – The Hurt Locker

Should win: Firth
Any one of these five would be a deserving winner. Since I have to pick one, I’ll take Firth because he had to do more with less. As a closeted gay professor mourning the death of his lover, Firth needed to hold his character in. He conveyed the grief and sadness with small touches such as looks and inflections. Firth has specialized in playing serious, uptight men, but here he added many layers as a man who is as constrained by society as by his own demons.

Will win: Bridges
If Sandra Bullock is this year’s Julia Roberts, then Jeff Bridges is this year’s Robert Duvall. Sixteen years ago, Duvall, like Bridges, was a widely respected actor who had never won an Oscar. Then he finally got one for playing a washed-up country music singer in Tender Mercies. Now it’s Bridges turn after losing out in his previous four nominations. Bridges also shined as a washed-up country music singer, with Duvall co-starring no less, in Crazy Heart. Bridges has become the favorite with the SAG and many critics awards. As with Duvall and many others in this category over the years, Bridges will win to honor his whole career.

Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
James Cameron – Avatar
Lee Daniels – Precious
Jason Reitman – Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino – Inglourious Basterds

Should win: Reitman
Reitman did not have the emotional or visual spectacle to work with that some of his fellow nominees had. However, he showed just the right touch, imbuing Up in the Air with wit, wistfulness, and drama and making all of it flow together seamlessly. Reitman also coaxed some masterful performances and not just from leads George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick. Even the actors with one scene left a real impression. Reitman was also brave enough to blend real people who had lost their jobs into the film, giving the film added resonance. With only his third feature, Reitman has become one of the top directors in Hollywood.

Will win: Bigelow
She gets credit for making a powerful, gripping war picture. Many in Hollywood are surprised when a woman can make a good film about men. They shouldn’t be, anymore then they should be shocked that English director Danny Boyle was able to make Slumdog Millionaire, set entirely in India with an all Indian cast. Still, women directors are often thought to make “women’s pictures” and nothing more. Bigelow has shattered stereotypes and defied the limitations placed on her gender. She has the chance to become the first woman ever to win a Best Director honor. She won the Directors Guild of America award and many critics prizes. This year the Academy voters won’t pass up the chance to make history.

The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglorious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

Should win: Up in the Air
You probably already figured that out given my picks in the other categories. More than any film from 2009, Up in the Air asks questions about who we are as people and what we want in our relationships with others. It is a film of our time, beautifully displaying how attitudes and technology can lead to a gradual fading of our common humanity. It is funny and poignant, with a deep, intelligent script, terrific acting and crisp direction. Every detail in the film works. It’s pitch-perfect ending is both clever and heart-wrenching. Up in the Air will speak to audiences for many years to come.

Will win: The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker and Avatar tied for the lead this year with nine nominations apiece. However, The Hurt Locker has acting and screenplay nominations while Avatar doesn’t, and usually Best Picture winners are represented in these categories. Also, a sci-fi film has never won Best Picture. The closest would be The Return of the King a few years ago. But even that was more of a fantasy film and it had a strong literary pedigree. The Hurt Locker won the Producers Guild of America award, a good Best Picture bellwether. It may have done nothing near the box office of Avatar, but The Hurt Locker seems to have had as much of a cultural impact. Now that the Iraq war is not in the news as much, people were ready for a cinematic treatment. As film critic Bill Henry opined, it has become for the Iraq war what The Deer Hunter was for Vietnam. And, like The Deer Hunter, The Hurt Locker will win the big prize on Oscar night.

Adam Spector
March 1, 2010

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