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Saturday, February 23, 2008

And The Oscar Goes To...

The Oscars combine two of my favorite things: movies and trivia. And I don’t just love the ceremony. I also love the run up to the event itself: TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar, all the websites discussing great Oscar movies or Oscar snubs, debating who will win what award.

Yes, I know, the Oscars are more about Hollywood feeling good about itself than they are about honoring quality films. Yes, the Oscars have a terrible track record of honoring only films by white males. The Oscars are not diverse, often overlooking smaller independent films, or foreign films, or comedies and sci-fi and other genres, and they have a ridiculously short memory, often forgetting about many fantastic films that are released before the fall “awards season.” The academy has many screwy eligibility rules that make little sense, and the voting methods of the academy members are mysterious and often hard to fathom. You’re right, Rocky had no business winning in 1976 over Network or All the Presidents Men; Kevin Costner shouldn’t have won the Best Director Oscar for Dancing with Wolves in 1990 over Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Often times, the “best” or “greatest” film doesn’t win, or is even nominated. But most of the time, at least a “great” film does win.

At the end of the night, above all else, the Oscars are about celebrating movies. That’s why I love them. It’s like the Super Bowl: one can either watch it because their favorite team is playing, or because they just enjoy watching football and the Super Bowl should be, at least, a good football game. The Oscars are like that, but for movies. Even if a favorite or better film isn’t nominated or is but has no hope of winning, I still like to watch because I love movies and the Oscars celebrate that.

People like to complain about how long the ceremony is or the number of montages they show. I don’t mind the length and I love the montages. I love the Oscars so I don’t mind if they run longer than they should: that’s more to love. And the montages remind me of great movies I’ve seen and suggest others I still need to make a point to watch. (I could do without the interpretive dance numbers and tedious “thank yous” though. Nothing is better than a poignant acceptance speech from someone who knows how to speak in public, and nothing is more boring than a winner prattling off a list of people, including their lawyer and hairdresser.)

All of this is really just a rambling preamble to my Oscar picks, intended to shed some light on why, despite its flaws, Oscar Night is one of my favorite nights of the year. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the six Oscar categories most people care about:

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Cate Blanchett in “I’m Not There”
Ruby Dee in “American Gangster”
Saoirse Ronan in “Atonement”
Amy Ryan in “Gone Baby Gone”
Tilda Swinton in “Michael Clayton”

Historically, this category is either a lock or incredibly difficult to predict, especially since it is also historically prone for upsets. This year it’s the latter, with several strong-but-not-lights-out performances. Saoirse Ronan really was fantastic in Atonement but was missing from the second half of the film. Cate Blanchett is supposedly awesome as one aspect of Bob Dylan, but she is competing against herself in the Best Actress category and thus, likely to split her votes. It also wasn’t too long ago that she won this award for her playing another real person in the Aviator. I heard some buzz on Ruby Dee a while back (I believe Roger Ebert picked her for the win) and she could win on the “lifetime achievement” platform, but the role is small (shorter even than Judi Dench’s win for Shakespeare in Love) in a film that was more or less shut out of the Oscars despite being heavily favored when it was released. Amy Ryan received critical praise and a few awards for her performance in Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, but I haven’t seen this film either. And finally, Tilda Swinton is one of those actresses who consistently turns in Academy friendly performances looking for a win. The strength of Michael Clayton seems to be in its performances (it’s the only film to get multiple acting noms) and this is an award voters could use to honor that. This is a tough call, and one that will probably knock me out of the Oscar pool.
1st Pick: Tilda Swinton
2nd Pick: Ruby Dee

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Casey Affleck in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”
Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men”
Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Charlie Wilson’s War”
Hal Holbrook in “Into the Wild”
Tom Wilkinson in “Michael Clayton”

Javier Bardem’s victory is, perhaps, the biggest lock this year. In a film praised endlessly, nothing receives more praise than his performance of the relentless and enigmatic, cattle-stunner killer, Anton Chigurh. Casey Affleck received a lot of praise for his role, but his first time nomination is his reward. Philip Seymour Hoffman is more or less nominated in this category every year, but his role is the only Charlie Wilson’s War blip on Oscar’s radar. There is some buzz that Hal Holbrook, a longtime veteran, may edge out a surprise upset over Bardem if voters decide to approach this award as a lifetime achievement one for Holbrook (similar to what happened last year with Alan Arkin’s upset over Eddie “Fatsuit” Murphy). Most of Holbrook’s work has been in TV, though, and academy voters are notorious snobs when it comes to that, so they may feel his nomination is award enough, for the time being.
1st Pick: Javier Bardem
2nd Pick: Hal Holbrook

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Cate Blanchett in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”
Julie Christie in “Away from Her”
Marion Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose”
Laura Linney in “The Savages”
Ellen Page in “Juno”

I’ve only seen one of these performances: Ellen Page in Juno. She certainly carried the film, but she is another young up-and-comer for whom the nomination is likely her reward. Most of the buzz seems to be around Julie Christie, who is said to have turned in a phenomenal performance on top of being a well respected actress. I hear good things about Laura Linney’s performance but the film has operated pretty far under the voter’s radar. Marion Cotillard has also received rave reviews in a film few in the public have seen or heard of, and it’s traditionally tough for actors to win awards in foreign language films (but don’t tell Roberto that). If Cate Blanchett can overcome her split and eke out a win, buzz says it would be for her turn in the Dylan biopic, not for this role, where just the nomination surprised the hell out of most people since the film was apparently a clunker.
1st Pick: Julie Christie
2nd Pick: Ellen Page

Performance by an actor in a leading role
George Clooney in “Michael Clayton”
Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”
Johnny Depp in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
Tommy Lee Jones in “In the Valley of Elah”
Viggo Mortensen in “Eastern Promises”

The next closest thing to a lock this year is cademy favorite Daniel Day-Lewis, who’s been given this award by twenty-two different voting bodies already this year. George Clooney has been getting some buzz in the run up the ceremony, but most insiders feel that while this may be his best performance yet, it’s come too close to his recent Oscar win for Good Night and Good Luck. It seems that while the other three nominees all turned in critically praised performances, it’s Day-Lewis’ award to lose.
1st Pick: Daniel Day-Lewis
2nd Pick: George Clooney

Achievement in directing
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” Julian Schnabel
“Juno” Jason Reitman
“Michael Clayton” Tony Gilroy
“No Country for Old Men” Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
“There Will Be Blood” Paul Thomas Anderson

The Coen Brothers are critical and commercial successes looking to win their first Oscar. It seems the enigmatically well-received No Country for Old Men will be the one to bring it home for them. Anderson, another Academy favorite looking to score his first win, could be a spoiler, especially since the old maxim that the Best Director winner’s film goes on to win Best Picture has proven to be less a sure thing in recent years; so voters could very well split the prizes, giving Anderson the win here and No Country best picture. Then again, the Coens won the DGA award, and that has been an unbelievably reliable predictor of the Academy award. Julian Schnabel suffers from the lack of a best picture nod for Diving Bell, and Juno is the kind of film in recent years the academy likes to nominate to show how diverse it can be, without actually awarding it anything big (see Little Miss Sunshine last year).
1st Pick: Joel and Ethan Coen
2nd Pick: Paul Thomas Anderson

Best motion picture of the year
“Atonement” (Focus Features)
“Juno” (Fox Searchlight)
“Michael Clayton” (Warner Bros.)
“No Country for Old Men” (Miramax and Paramount Vantage)
“There Will Be Blood” (Paramount Vantage and Miramax)

After heaping tons of critical praise and numerous guild awards, this has been No Country for Old Men’s category, almost since the film premiered. Atonement was a well-crafted, elegant film that would have been the front runner in 1996 (the last time the Coen’s were nominated, for Fargo). Plus, Joe Wright’s lack of a best director nom shows a lack of academy support for the film as a whole. As for Juno, well, see above. The strength of Michael Clayton, again, seems to be its performances. So it’s down to There Will be Blood and No Country (tied for the most nominations, another reliable predictor of best Picture victory), and while There Will be Blood could pull a Crash-like upset at the last minute (perhaps the academy splitting the awards opposite of how I speculated it could go down above), it looks more than likely that, love it or hate it, No Country will acquire the final award needed to complete its collection on Sunday.
1st Pick: No Country For Old Men
2nd Pick: There Will Be Blood

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