2011 Oscar Preview

There's nothing like a generational conflict to create drama. The grizzled veteran vs. the young phenom. Familiar vs. new, tradition vs. change. More than most, this year’s Oscars feature several such clashes. This divide is sharpened by the Academy producers desperately tying to skew younger. While last year baby boomers Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin shared hosting duties, this time 28-year old Anne Hathaway and 32-year old James Franco have the honors. As always, many of the categories are locks or near locks, but in the competitive fields, it will be interesting to see whether youth or experience carries the night.

More importantly (for me anyway) after getting eight of nine categories correct in 2009, I slipped to seven last year. Nitpicking perhaps, but I take pride in these matters. With a comeback in mind, I once again offer my picks for who deserves to win and who probably will take home the golden statuette:

Danny Cohen – The King’s Speech
Jeff Cronenweth – The Social Network
Roger Deakins – True Grit
Matthew Libatique – Black Swan
Wally Pfister – Inception

Should win: Deakins
The rich cinematography of True Grit served as the perfect backdrop for the adventure. Perhaps the best example is Rooster's ride to get help for Mattie. Deakins’s night photography helped create the almost feverish dreamlike state needed for that sequence to work. His use of the beautiful landscape evoked some of the classic John Ford westerns.

Will win: Deakins
Out of the five nominees, True Grit and Inception are those with the most striking visuals. Pfister won the American Society of Cinematographers award for his efforts, so he must be considered a strong contender. But I’m betting that Academy voters will give much of the credit for Inception to its dazzling visual effects. Deakins is also a widely-respected Hollywood veteran who has never won despite being nominated eight times before (including twice in one year). In short, he’s overdue and will win for his whole body of work.

Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg – The Kids Are All Right
Mike Leigh – Another Year
Christopher Nolan – Inception
David Seidler – The King’s Speech
Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, & Keith Dorrington – The Fighter

Should win: Seidler
Seidler fleshed out a historical figure and made him a compelling human being. He wove together King George's disability, his accidental ascendance to the throne, and the coming of World War II into the perfect storm of circumstance. Seidler established the man and the situation so you feel empathy without it feeling forced or contrived.

Will win: Seidler
Usually the Writers Guild of America (WGA) awards are reliable bellwethers, but Seidler was not a WGA member and was thus ineligible (Christopher Nolan won for Inception). But the Best Picture favorite usually wins the screenplay award. Given the acclaim garnered by The King's Speech, there's no reason to believe this trend will not continue.

Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich – Toy Story 3
Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy – 127 Hours
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen – True Grit
Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini – Winter’s Bone
Aaron Sorkin – The Social Network

Should win: Sorkin
Sorkin, adapting Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, wrote a gripping, layered story about a difficult subject -- the Internet. He cut through the geek speak to get at the creativity, insecurities, and ego of the main players. Not to mention his balancing different points-of-view and multiple flashbacks. Like Quentin Tarantino or David Mamet, Sorkin's dialogue has a distinctive ring to it. The banter's wit and bite also reminded me of Ben Hecht and Billy Wilder's writing in classic Hollywood films. Sorkin's work touched on larger themes, such as the changing way people communicate with each other. While Sorkin is best known as a TV writer, he may have done his best work here.

Will win: Sorkin
Third biggest lock of the night. His dialogue is the most remembered part of The Social Network. Many critics give him as much if not more credit for the film's success as director David Fincher. “The West Wing” has made Sorkin a celebrity in his own right. How many writers guest star on “Entourage”? He won the WGA award and will easily follow suit on Oscar night.

Amy Adams – The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter – The King’s Speech
Melissa Leo – The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
Jacki Weaver – Animal Kingdom

Should win: Leo
Very tough call. Adams, Bonham Carter, and Weaver are all deserving and I’m only writing off Steinfeld because she was a lead and does not belong in this category. Since I need to pick one, I’m eliminating Adams and Bonham Carter because, as good as they were, they played the supportive girlfriend/wife whose part is really not essential to the story. That leaves Weaver and Leo, as different versions of the mother from hell. Weaver was effectively frightening, but Leo humanized her character more. While her character is overbearing, pushy and obnoxious, Leo lets you see how, in her own mind, she is a tireless advocate for her sons. Leo has one scene with Christian Bale where she balances anger, disappointment and tenderness in a poignant, touching way. It’s her giving that something extra to what could have been a two-dimensional role that makes her stand out in a talented field.

Will win: Steinfeld
A couple of weeks ago I was going to pick Leo with nary a second thought. She won the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) supporting actress award and many of the other Oscar precursors. Then the D.C. Film Society’s own Charles Kirkland mentioned that Leo and Adams could split the voter from fans of The Fighter. The more I thought about it, the more I believed that he may be right. Also, True Grit has shown more box office staying power than The Fighter. To top it off, Leo bought her own Oscar campaign ads in a move that appears to have alienated some Academy voters. She is the admired veteran, earning raves for her work on TV’s “Homicide” and many indie films such as Frozen River. But Steinfeld is the kind of overnight success story that Hollywood loves. This category often favors the out-of-nowhere young newcomer, such as Tatum O’Neal or Anna Paquin. It’s also the category with a history of upsets, such as Marisa Tomei, Mira Sorvino, and Juliette Binoche’s wins. So I’m feeling like an upset pick, and I’m feeling it here.

Christian Bale – The Fighter
John Hawkes – Winter’s Bone
Jeremy Renner – The Town
Mark Ruffalo – The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush – The King’s Speech

Should win: Bale
Bale simply immersed himself in his role of Dicky Eklund. He transformed physically, and adopted all the mannerisms of a crackhead ex-boxer. Still, he never lost sight of the Dicky’s humanity, so his character’s redemption feels earned, not contrived. His performance gives The Fighter much of its power and heart.

Will win: Bale
Second biggest lock. Bale has won every precursor award, including the SAG. Academy voters love Raging Bull-type physical transformations. Along with Daniel Day-Lewis, Bale is considered this generation’s “Method” actor. He has never won (or even been nominated before) so he also benefits from the “overdue” factor. His temper tantrums are well-documented, But if the Academy penalized bad behavior, Marlon Brando and Russell Crowe would have never won. Bale’s work will win out over his antics.

Annette Bening – The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman – Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence – Winter’s Bone
Natalie Portman – Black Swan
Michelle Williams – Blue Valentine

Should win: Williams
Another very difficult call, but I’m going with Williams because she may have had the most difficult, complicated work. She played the same character at two different stages of her life, falling in love and then later falling out of love. Williams does not hold anything back in her brave, raw performance. In the breakup scenes, she showed that her character’s love is still there, but is being overcome by frustration. Her chemistry with Ryan Gosling, and the intensity of their scenes together, is what made the movie succeed.

Will win: Portman
Annette Bening was the early favorite, having lost to Hillary Swank in this race twice. When Swank was not nominated for her role in Conviction, it seemed to pave the way for Bening to finally win her first Oscar. But then Portman blew onto the scene with her showy, powerful work in Black Swan. She won the SAG best actress award, and has overtaken Bening as the consensus pick. It doesn’t hurt that Black Swan is still playing while The Kids Are All Right came and went months ago. Sentiment would dictate that the overdue actress who has turned in stellar work for over 20 years would carry the day. But in this category the hot young star has often triumphed over the seasoned veteran. Witness Marion Cotillard over Julie Christie three years ago, Reese Witherspoon over Felicity Huffman in 2006, Halle Berry over Sissy Spacek in 2002, and of course Swank over Bening in 2000. Youth will win again this year.

Javier Bardem – Biutiful
Jeff Bridges – True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
Colin Firth – The King’s Speech
James Franco – 127 Hours

Should win: Franco
One more very difficult pick, as all five are worthy. Like Williams, Franco excelled while facing the toughest challenge. It may be a cliche, but it’s true that much of acting is reacting. Actors get better by playing off their colleagues. Franco spent most of his time acting alone. As his character, Aron Ralston, was pinned by a rock, Franco couldn’t even move around. Despite these obstacles, Franco grabbed your attention and took you with him on his character’s odyssey. Not only was he compelling through the physical struggle to survive and break free, he was also convincing through Ralston’s spiritual metamorphosis. Franco has always had charm and charisma, but in Milk and now in 127 Hours, he showed real dramatic chops.

Will win: Firth
Congratulations, it’s the biggest lock of the night!!! Firth was considered a shoo-in even before The King’s Speech was released. Why? Let’s see, real life historical figure, check. Overcoming disability, check. Either one of those boosts your chances with the Academy. Combine them, and you’re awfully tough to beat. Also, unlike with Best Actress, the Academy has often recognized well-respected veterans who have never won before. Just look at Jeff Bridges last year. Firth deservedly won plaudits last year for his heartbreaking work in A Single Man. Voters will likely remember that film in addition to his current nominated performance. Firth has won every Oscar precursor, including the SAG, and it would be a shock if anyone else’s name were called Sunday night.

Darren Aronofsky – Black Swan
Joel & Ethan Coen – True Grit
David Fincher – The Social Network
Tom Hooper – The King’s Speech
David O. Russell – The Fighter

Should win: Fincher
In sports, a great coach is often one that doesn’t force his system onto his players, but instead adjusts his system to make the most of his team’s strengths. Fincher did the same thing by cutting back on his visual stylings. He built his film around Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant script. It would be easy to overlook Fincher’s contributions, but that would be a mistake. It was Fincher who tied together the different points of view and points in time. It was Fincher who kept the film moving at a brisk pace. He has never been known as an actor’s director, but he drew out wonderful performances from his cast. By showing new talents, Fincher has become a more complete director, and one of the best.

Will win: Hooper
The Academy has split the Best Director and Best Picture awards before, and some have speculated that it will do so here. That’s a distinct possibility, but Hooper’s recognition has grown with his film. He won the Directors Guild of America award, which has been a very reliable predictor of the Oscar. In what shapes to be a close race, I’m betting that the momentum of his film will carry Hooper to victory.

127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone

Should win: The Social Network
No surprise here, as I thought The Social Network was the best film of 2010. It’s certainly one of the most ambitious films. While its subject was current, and it spoke to the times we live in, it’s themes are timeless. Ego clashes, greed vs. loyalty, gaining the world and losing your soul, these subjects have been around long before film began. The Social Network spotlighted this human drama while also examining how new technology changes and shapes our world. It engages the audience on so many different levels. The Social Network had the intelligence, wit, insight and emotion needed to elevate a film above the ordinary, above even the well-done, and to truly earn the term “classic.”

Will win: The King’s Speech
Here’s the ultimate old vs. new contest. Radio vs. the Internet. The King of England vs. a billionaire in his 20s. The Social Network won most of the critics awards, and, like Annette Bening was the early favorite. But gradually the dynamic seemed to shift as The King’s Speech came out and proved a real crowd pleaser. It’s more inspirational and uplifting than The Social Network. Once the Academy announced the nominations, it was clear the tide had turned. The King’s Speech had the most nominations, 12, while The Social Network had eight. The King’s Speech also snagged three acting noms, compared to one for The Social Network, with Andrew Garfield missing out on what had seemed a sure Supporting Actor nom. As actors are the largest voting branch of the Academy, this disparity tells you something. To top it off, The King’s Speech won the Producers Guild of America best picture award, not quite as reliable as some of the other guilds, but still another point in that film’s favor.

While the Oscar voters have generally been more older and traditional, the Academy has gradually tried to bring in younger, more indie members. Still, you can’t discount tradition here. With its historical setting and heart-tugging story, The King’s Speech simply feels more like an Oscar Best Picture winner. I’m betting that ten years from now, The Social Network will have shown more staying power, but for right now, the King will reign supreme.

Adam Spector
February 24, 2011

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