2004 Oscar Preview

So far 2004 has given us plenty of close races - two college football champions, a thrilling Super Bowl, even a tight finish at the Daytona 500. Too bad the same can't be said for the Oscars. As we approach the 76th Annual Academy Awards this Sunday, we see most races with a clear-cut favorite. While the nominations were full of surprises, the winners will be much more predictable. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King appears poised to snag the top prize. Among the acting categories, only Best Actor appears close.

This lack of drama might be disappointing to most Oscar viewers, but not to me. You see, after correctly picking a stellar seven of nine races in the two previous years, I fell to a pathetic three of nine last year. To say I desperately need a comeback is an understatement. So in an effort to preserve what little credibility I have left, I bravely offer my picks for who deserves to win and who probably will take home the golden statuette:


Russell Boyd - Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Cesar Charlone - City of God
John Schwartzman - Seabiscuit
John Seale - Cold Mountain
Eduardo Serra - Girl with a Pearl Earring

Should win: Charlone
Serra would also be a worthy winner for his beautiful camerawork in Girl with a Pearl Earring, having framed many of his shots so that they looked like paintings. I'm going with Charlone because he contributed to the sense of place so critical to City of God. His lighting made you feel the oppressive heat in the Brazilian slums. Much as in Do the Right Thing, the heat played a crucial role in establishing the ever-present threat of violence that hangs over the whole film.

Will win: Seale
The Return of the King is strangely absent from this group, leaving the race wide open. Schwatrzman won the American Society of Cinematographers award, but I have a hard time seeing the Academy honoring such pedestrian work. Cold Mountain received much attention for being shut out of the Picture and Director races. While opinions varied as to the effectiveness of the script and direction, no one questioned the visual quality of the film. Seale helped stage an artful battle scene and captured the beauty of the Romanian countryside. That should be enough to give him the edge this year.


Denys Arcand - The Barbarian Invasions
Sofia Coppola - Lost in Translation
Steven Knight - Dirty Pretty Things
Bob Peterson, David Reynolds, Andrew Stanton - Finding Nemo
Jim Sheridan, Kirsten Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan - In America

Should win: Arcand
Any of the five would be deserving, but I'm picking Arcand because he avoided the biggest trap. The story of a dying man coming to terms with his life and family could have easily come off as a TV movie tearjerker. Arcand imbued his story with bite and humor along with sensitivity, showing his hero with all warts on display. He also extended the story to include well-drawn supporting characters struggling with their own demons. Through all of this he depicted a culture clash as the 60's generation tried to adjust to a changing world. Because Arcand exercised so much care with the story and the characters, the sadness and emotion at the end of the film felt earned, not forced.

Will win: Coppola
The Screenplay Oscar often serves as a consolation prize for multiple nominees who are shut out in other major categories - think Quentin Tarantino for Pulp Fiction. Sofia Coppola is a triple nominee but will probably lose to the LOTR onslaught for Director and Picture. The Original Screenplay Oscar would be a way to honor her tremendous achievement. She just won the Writers Guild of America (WGA) award, and it doesn't hurt that she's Hollywood royalty. The signs are all in her favor.


Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini - American Splendor
Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Brian Helgeland - Mystic River
Braulio Mantovani - City of God
Gary Ross - Seabiscuit

Should win: Berman and Pulcini
Berman and Pulcini adapted an anecdotal comic book series into a compelling story. They captured the cranky, acerbic Harvey Pekar and the denizens of his world without smoothing their rough edges. Many screenwriters telling the story of a real person would avoid showing the genuine article because it might make their writing feel fake by comparison. But Berman and Pulcini included the real Pekar and built their story around him, weaving documentary aspects into a feature film. Their brave decision did not weaken their story but strengthened it.

Will win: Helgeland
The Return of the King will be favored here as it will in just about all of its categories. But I think this is one where we might see an upset. For all the attention the film has earned, little of it has focused on the script. Remember, last year's Best Picture winner Chicago lost in this category. Berman and Pulcini won the WGA Adapted Screenplay award, but I doubt the Academy will go for a film with no other nominations. Mystic River is arguably the most critically acclaimed of the remaining nominees. It won praise for its complex characterizations and its tragic tale of violence and vengeance. Helgeland won this award six years ago for L.A. Confidential despite's Titanic's overall dominance and he'll do the same this time.


Shohreh Aghdashloo - The House of Sand and Fog
Patricia Clarkson - Pieces of April
Marcia Gay Harden - Mystic River
Holly Hunter - Thirteen
Renée Zellweger - Cold Mountain

Should win: Hunter
Clarkson was incredible in Pieces of April, but she's in the wrong category, as she was really a lead. Of the other nominees, Hunter helped create the most poignant character. As the mother of a rebellious teenage girl, her character was torn between her desire to be the permissive "cool" parent and her growing concern over her daughter's behavior. Hunter conveyed this conflict largely though small glances and gestures. She bought uncanny honesty and authenticity to her performance and to the entire film.

Will win: Zellweger
As big a lock as they come. Zellweger is "America's Sweetheart," who looks adorable even when she's playing unsavory characters. Besides the strong visuals, her earthy performance dominated Cold Mountain, saving the film from becoming incredibly tedious. She just won the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award, a strong bellwether for Oscar night. The Academy frequently honors performers who were snubbed before, and many felt Zellweger should have won Best Actress last year for Chicago. Some have pointed out that this category has a history of upsets, which is true. But there haven't been any the past few years, and there won't be one this time.


Alec Baldwin - The Cooler
Benicio Del Toro - 21 Grams
Djimon Hounsou - In America
Tim Robbins - Mystic River
Ken Watanabe - The Last Samurai

Should win: Baldwin
Agonizingly tough call over Hounsou, whose tender portrayal of a dying artist was the heart of In America. Baldwin played Shelly Kaplow, a ruthless casino boss, in The Cooler. He was very convincing as a fierce, vicious, dangerous man. But he also imbued Kaplow with an integrity uncommon for that type of role. Baldwin's three-dimensional performance prevented Kaplow from becoming a cardboard villain, and made him into one of the most memorable screen characters of the year.

Will win: Robbins
Like Clarkson, Robbins is in the wrong category. He was as central to Mystic River as Sean Penn. But since when has that stopped the Academy? Robbins earned deserved raves for his performance as an abused wounded man sleepwalking through life. It was also worlds away from anything Robbins had done before - always a plus for the Academy, which loves when actors are perceived to have broken new ground. Robbins just won the SAG award and is the consensus pick for Sunday. A year ago, his outspoken stance on the Iraq war may have hurt his chances, but public opinion has started to move his way. Politics will not be enough to deny him this year.


Keisha Castle-Hughes - Whale Rider
Diane Keaton - Something's Gotta Give
Samantha Morton - In America
Charlize Theron - Monster
Naomi Watts - 21 Grams

Should win: Castle-Hughes
Any of the five actresses would be deserving winners.. But Castle-Hughes, more than the others, had to carry her film by herself. She was the film. Castle-Hughes had to portray a young girl who was, in many ways a typical adolescent, with all the doubts, insecurities and hurt that comes with that time of life. But her character also had to show the uncommon determination, strength, and leadership that would make her a worthy tribal chief. Castle-Hughes blended these different sides into a spellbinding well-rounded performance. When you saw her on screen, you did not see acting; she inhabited her role.

Will win: Theron
Almost as much of a lock as Zellweger. Theron was primarily known as a glamour girl before her riveting turn as serial killer Aileen Wournos. She went against type and produced a "Wow! She can actually act" reaction in critics and audiences. She also underwent a remarkable physical transformation, gaining weight and appearing almost unrecognizable through her makeup. The Academy can't get enough of that - see last year's winner Nicole Kidman. Theron threw herself into her role with reckless abandon that's the epitome of method acting. She won the SAG award and is the overwhelming favorite Sunday. Keaton would be the sentimental choice for her whole career; Oscar always likes a comeback. But she's won before and sentiment won't be enough to carry her past Theron.


Johnny Depp - Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Ben Kingsley - The House of Sand and Fog
Jude Law - Cold Mountain
Bill Murray - Lost in Translation
Sean Penn - Mystic River

Should win: Depp
Bill Murray shone in Lost in Translation. He toned down his usual screen persona and deftly gave it feeling, pathos and depth. Depp's my close call because he added so much more to his character than the script did. His pirate-as-rock star performance had such as sense of fun that it permeated through the entire film. You couldn't take your eyes off him and couldn't wait to see what he did next. Without Depp, Pirates of the Carribean would have been a competent, but forgettable action film. He alone made the film memorable.

Will win: Penn
By far the closest race of the night. I was all ready to call it a two man race between Murray and Penn when Depp won the SAG award. Now Depp has to be considered a factor, but as good as he was I just can't see the Academy honoring a film based on an amusement park ride. Bill Murray won many critics awards and has earned credit for going beyond the types of role that made him famous. To a lesser degree has the same thing going for him as Theron - a realization that he can really act. On the other side, Sean Penn has not exactly won friends with an often churlish attitude, brazen political acts (such as visiting Baghdad), and a willingness to criticize fellow actors in public. But he's still considered the "actor's actor" and has been frequently labeled as "the best actor of his generation." He also had a critically acclaimed performance in 21 Grams in addition to Mystic River. Although nominated before, he's never won. So despite everything the overwhelming feeling among Academy voters might very well be that he's due. I wouldn't be surprised if Murray won, and you can't completely rule out Depp, but the odds just seem to favor Penn.


Sofia Coppola - Lost in Translation
Clint Eastwood - Mystic River
Peter Jackson - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Fernando Meirelles - City of God
Peter Weir - Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Should win: Meirelles
Meirelles infused City of God with a dazzling kinetic energy. He moved the camera 360 degrees at a time, used quick cuts, and moved instantly back-and-forth in time. Somehow his style did not hinder the storytelling but rather enhanced it. He never shortchanged the characters. In a strange but effective way, Merielles illustrated the horror of violence by downplaying it. He did not beat you over the head with how bad it was, but showed it as part of everyday life. In his story, it's so common that even kids shoot each other as if it were nothing. And that's the frightening part - it's banality. Merielles trusted the audience to fully take in his film without a road map, which is part of what made City of God so powerful. Oh, yes, by the way Merielles also had to shoot his film on location in a dangerous Brazilian slum. He did so masterfully and also coaxed some powerful performances from non-professional actors. No one accomplished more with less.

Will win: Jackson
Another easy one. Jackson won the Directors Guild of America award, which is a very accurate predictor for Oscar night. He did not win for The Fellowship of the Ring and was not even nominated for The Two Towers, so now Academy will honor him for his work on the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy. Clint Eastwood would be the sentimental choice had he not won before. As it stands, this is no contest.


The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Lost in Translation
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Mystic River

Should win: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Most of my favorites from last year weren't included. Out of the five nominees, The Return of the King best combined visual splendor with dynamic storytelling. Peter Jackson and his team seamlessly wove in the CGI visual effects with the live actors so that you could barely tell the difference. The battle scenes were some of the most exciting ever staged on film. But Jackson also kept a firm eye on the character arcs of the whole trilogy. The film brought together the many story elements from the first two films in an emotional and satisfying climax. The result was a picture both epic and intimate - a true rarity. Often the third film in a trilogy is the weakest, but here it was the strongest, with a grander scale and much more emotional pull than the first two. The film dragged at the very beginning and the very end, but overall it was a superb, if not spectacular, job.

Will win: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Until a couple of months ago, I was skeptical that this year's Oscars would be the Lord of the Rings coronation so many had predicted. After all, the Academy usually ignores science fiction/fantasy films. Neither 2001, Star Wars, nor E.T. won Best Picture, despite their critical and commercial success. Why did I change my mind? First, The Return of the King has two qualities that those other films lacked - an epic scale and a strong literary pedigree - that give the film more legitimacy to the Academy. Second, a Best Picture would be a way to honor the craft and artistry of the whole trilogy, not to mention the gamble New Line undertook by filming all three movies at once. Third, the film just won the Producers Guild of America Best Picture award. Fourth, there's a lack of strong competition. No other film capture the nation's fancy across such a large spectrum. Lost in Translation was the 2003 indie hit, but I think many Academy voters will find it too slight to be a Best Picture. Cold Mountain would have been the biggest threat because it had all the Best Picture elements: history, epic scale, and romance. The film would have also had the Miramax marketing machine. But, as some wise man once said, a film's gotta be nominated to win, and Cold Mountain wasn't. Although Mystic River, on the strength of it's actors, has the best chance for the upset, I think the Academy voters will find it too dark and depressing. The field's all clear for the Hobbits to claim the big prize.

Adam Spector
February 25, 2004

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