2012 Oscar Preview

Believe it or not, when I was a kid I often watched the Emmys. Gradually I became less and less interested because the same people were nominated and won every year. For all its faults, the Academy Awards do not suffer from that kind of repetitiveness. The Oscars can offer the “Cinderella” excitement that Jeremy Lin brings to the sports world. While that last sentence may seem a stretch, think about it for a second. A year ago, had you even heard of Jean Dujardin? Bérénice Bejo? Octavia Spencer? Jessica Chastain? Yet the Academy included all four this year along with perennial Oscar nominees such as Meryl Streep.

Don’t worry though, there is no shortage of star power as long as Brad Pitt and George Clooney are involved. This year’s Oscars present an interesting blend of the old and new. On the one hand you have nine first-time acting nominees. On the other hand Billy Crystal returns as the host for the ninth time. While I am still disappointed that Eddie Murphy dropped out, at least Crystal will give steady laughs, something missing from last year's James Franco/Anne Hathaway debacle.

Of course the biggest question, as always, is how I will do with my Oscar picks. I am seven for nine in the past two years. Not bad, but in 2009 I got eight out of nine right. There are some tough categories to call this year, so improving on my average won’t be easy. Yet, undaunted by common sense, I once again offer my picks for who deserves to win and who probably will take home the golden statuette:

Jeff Cronenweth – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Janusz Kaminski – War Horse
Emmanuel Lubezki – The Tree of Life
Robert Richardson – Hugo
Guillaume Schiffman – The Artist

Should win: Kaminski
Kaminski’s cinematography is a major reason War Horse works despite an overwrought story and uneven acting. His pristine shots of the Irish countryside help set the early mood of the film and establish what the horse represents. In the second half, Kaminski’s camera work gives the war scenes a haunting, almost other-worldly quality. Kaminki’s beautiful “magic hour” shots are what make the ending succeed. All-around it’s a superb effort and ranks among his finest.

Will win: Lubezki
The lush visuals are what people remember from The Tree of Life (next to the ordeal of seeing the film in the first place). Lubezki was nominated four times without a win, despite having worked with Tim Burton, the Coen brothers and Michael Mann. He’s clearly due and has won most of the Oscar precursor awards, including one from the American Society of Cinematographers. You can’t rule out Schiffman if Oscar night is an Artist tidal wave, but otherwise it should be Lubezki’s prize.

Woody Allen – Midnight in Paris
J.C. Chandor – Margin Call
Asghar Farhadi – A Separation
Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig – Bridesmaids

Should win: Hazanavicius
How do you even write a silent film in this day and age? Not only did Hazanavicius do that, but he made a compelling story that was both clever and heartfelt. Hazanavicius’s knowledge of old Hollywood is clear in the witty, affectionate take on classic stars and the studio system. Yet, the story maintains a firm grip on the pathos and real emotion at its core.

Will win: Allen
Usually the Best Picture favorite is a lock for a screenplay win. But, in this case, I’m betting that a majority of voters equate a screenplay with dialogue. Besides, Hazanavicius will likely win Best Director, so the Academy can still honor him. As for the other nominees, not enough voters have seen Margin Call or A Separation to give those writers a real chance. While Mumolo and Wiig winning for Bridesmaids would be a great story, I don’t think a script that has a woman defecating in a sink will be considered sophisticated enough for the big prize. Allen’s script was funny while also highbrow and charming. Allen has won this award twice before, but not in the last 25 years. He has won most of the critics’ awards this year, and the Academy always loves a comeback.

George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon – The Ides of March
John Logan – Hugo
Alexander Payne, Jim Rash, and Nat Faxon – The Descendants
Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian – Moneyball
Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Should win: Logan
It’s so easy to immerse oneself in the brilliant visual effects and 3-D photography of Hugo that you overlook the story. Logan patiently lays out how the young hero sees the world. Then he gradually expands the story so that it touches on universal themes. In doing this he also skillfully mixes in an ode to the power of cinema itself. But you never see the gears turning; the story feels effortless and natural and that is what gives Scorsese the foundation for such a crowning achievement.

Will win: Payne, Rash and Faxon
Usually a screenplay winner is at least a Best Picture nominee. Hugo is better known for the visuals, so that leaves The Descendants and Moneyball. This one could go either way. Both Sorkin and Zallian have won this category individually. In fact, Sorkin did so last year. Many give the duo credit for even being able to make a script out of a book that didn’t lend itself to a film adaptation. Payne has also won in this category before. I’m betting that The Descendants feels a bit more accessible to Academy voters than a story about a baseball general manager. Not too long ago The Descendants was considered a strong candidate for Best Picture or Best Director. That seems less likely now, but it will be enough to win what’s often the Oscar consolation prize.

Bérénice Bejo – The Artist
Jessica Chastain – The Help
Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer – Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer – The Help

Should win: McTeer
Tough call over the hilarious McCarthy, who steals every scene she’s in. I’m going with McTeer because she pulls off, to borrow a term from Taxi Driver, a “walking contradiction.” She is completely convincing as Hubert, a woman who is hiding her gender but is nevertheless supremely confident in who she is. McTeer and Glenn Close play off each other beautifully as Hubert serves as a counterpoint to the title character. She excels at delicately illustrating Hubert’s inner thoughts and emotions. The other characters may not have known what was going on with Hubert, but we do. A truly rewarding performance.

Will win: Spencer
One of the two biggest locks of the night. Spencer has won just about every supporting actress award the past few months. Hers and Viola Davis’s performances are the two main selling points in a film that touched many people. And she doesn’t have Meryl Streep in her category.

Kenneth Branagh – My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill – Moneyball
Nick Nolte – Warrior
Christopher Plummer – Beginners
Max von Sydow – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Should win: Branagh
Plummer and Von Sydow are also worthy choices, but Branagh had the toughest task of the five. In a relatively short amount of screen time he manages to convey the many sides of acting legend Laurence Olivier. Branagh shows how Olivier made acting look easy and elegant; the consummate professional. Yet Branagh also nails Olivier’s ego and insecurity hidden beneath the outward confidence. In the scenes with Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, Branagh is both funny and compelling. Olivier could have come across as merely a foil to Monroe, but in Branagh’s hands Olivier is sympathetic.

Will win: Plummer
The other biggest lock of the night. It seemed that from the minute Beginners hit theaters, critics and the media named Plummer as a shoo-in, and why not? He has worked in films for over 50 years. Audiences still remember him fondly for The Sound of Music. He may have never become a star but he was always a respected character actor. Not only has he never won, but he never even got a nomination until two years ago at age 80. Plus his role is Oscar catnip – a charming gentleman coming out of the closet in his seventies. If that weren’t enough for his chances, his character is (spoiler alert!) dying, and that’s too much for the voters to pass up. Like Spencer, Plummer has won all the precursor awards, including the one from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). This category has served as a de facto Lifetime Achievement Award many times – George Burns, Sean Connery, Martin Landau, Jack Palance, and James Coburn, just to name a few. History will repeat itself on Oscar night.

Glenn Close – Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis – The Help
Rooney Mara – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams – My Week With Marilyn

Should win: Williams
By far my most difficult choice. Close, Davis and Steep would also be great picks. However, if Branagh had a difficult task in My Week With Marilyn, the one for Williams was almost impossible. How do you give a full, three-dimensional performance as one of the biggest icons in screen history? How do you portray a woman whom almost everyone has seen in other movies or clips on TV? I don’t know, but Williams not only does it, she knocks it out of the park. She captures Monroe’s sex appeal, getting the look, voice and walk right. Somehow she also finds Monroe’s vulnerability, fragility, and loneliness. Within a few minutes on screen you simply accept her as Monroe. With My Week With Marilyn following Blue Valentine and Wendy and Lucy, Williams has established herself as one of her generation's most versatile and underrated actresses.

Will win: Davis
While the supporting categories are locks, both of the lead categories are true toss-ups. Davis and Streep have split most of the Oscar precursor awards. While this is Streep’s 17th nomination, she has not won in 29 years. For someone universally considered the finest actress alive, if not of all-time, that’s a long drought. Besides, she was mesmerizing as Margaret Thatcher. She could easily be the sentimental choice. However, The Help was much more widely seen than The Iron Lady. While the film itself was polarizing, even its many critics raved over Davis’s performance. Davis also has a gripping personal story, as she struggled and then succeeded in a system that does not provide many opportunities for African-American actresses. Davis distinguished herself in small roles before finally making the most of her big chance. An Oscar win would be the perfect culmination for her climb to the top. Her story and her film will be enough to give her the slightest edge.

Demián Bichir – A Better Life
George Clooney – The Descendants
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Gary Oldman – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt – Moneyball

Should win: Oldman
It’s hard to believe that Oldman first gained notice as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy. Oldman’s role as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is as far from Sid Vicious as humanly possible. The part is all internal. With Smiley you see someone who has spent his whole life keeping secrets. One of his primary goals is not to stand out or draw attention to himself. As I noted in an earlier column, Oldman built his performance with uncommon precision, relying on small movements and glances. On the surface he’s not doing much, but you can’t take your eyes off him. Oldman trusts the audience to both meet him halfway and to patiently learn who Smiley is.

Will win: Dujardin
A couple of weeks ago, I was convinced that this race was Clooney’s to lose. For the past ten years, he has been Hollywood’s golden boy. He has earned critical acclaim not only as an actor, but also as a director and writer. With The Descendants, Clooney deservedly earned kudos for moving outside his comfort zone. This time he was not the smoothest guy in the room, but rather an aging cuckolded father trying to hang on. The Academy voters often reward actors for trying something different from their bread-and-butter, and they may do so again here. Still, a funny thing happened on the way to Clooney’s coronation. Dujardin was the upset winner at the SAG awards. Then he won again at the BAFTAs (the British Academy Awards). He’s been popping up everywhere, even making a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” Meanwhile, The Artist has become the clear Best Picture favorite and has been in the news more than The Descendants. You would never think that an actor could out-charm Clooney, but Dujardin may have done so both on screen and off. It doesn’t hurt that he’s playing an amalgam of the Hollywood archetype – the fading movie star. That charm and the film’s momentum will be enough to keep Dujardin rolling along.

Woody Allen – Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne - The Descendants
Martin Scorsese – Hugo

Should win: Scorsese
A film about a young boy, featuring fantasy elements, sounds more like a Steven Spielberg work than anything you would ever see from Martin Scorsese. Not only did Scorsese branch out in subject, he also tackled a new format, 3-D. Scorsese masters 3-D filmmaking by using the format not to produce cheap thrills. Rather, his 3-D both creates a singular world and draws you into that world, along with the young hero. Scorsese also ensures that the striking visuals don’t overwhelm the story but instead complement it. As always, he gives his actors room to shine. For all of Scorsese’s accomplishments and honors, he was not afraid to challenge himself, and his efforts paid off.

Will win: Hazanavicius
Scorsese may have been the sentimental favorite a few years ago, but he has his Oscar, as does Woody Allen. Payne looked like the early favorite, but with the popular focus shifting away from The Descendants, he will probably have to settle for a screenplay Oscar. Hazanavicius has won most of the critics awards and the top prize from the Directors Guild of America, a reliable bellwether for Oscar night.

The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

Should win: Hugo
You have probably guessed that Hugo was my favorite film of 2011, for many of the reasons I already described. Hugo is also a moving tribute to the power of film and to the early pioneers who created film as an art form. But it is hardly a history lesson, instead incorporating its themes through a whimsical adventure. A fine cast, including Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee and Jude Law give the film its ballast. Asa Butterfield, in the title role, shows enough heart and moxie to take audiences with him and to see the world through his eyes. Hugo is the perfect blend of passion and technique, of emotion and intelligence.

Will win: The Artist
The Artist is the consensus choice for some very good reasons. First of all, no film has won Best Picture without a Best Director nomination since Driving Miss Daisy, so that eliminates four of the nominees. Hugo has the most total nominations, often a safe predictor for Best Picture. But none of those nominations is for acting, and actors make up the largest slice of Academy voters. The Artist has ten nominations that include two acting nods. It doesn’t hurt that the film is, in many ways, a tribute to Hollywood’s glory days. It also helps that, as with other Best Picture The Artist has a good backstory. Hazanavicius and the producers struggled to get the movie made. They bucked the odds to get money to make a silent film. Their ultimate reward will come Sunday night.

Adam Spector
February 24, 2012

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