Academy Award

The Academy Award nominations are announced on January 22, two days from now, so it’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is. Here are my predictions for who will hear their names called on Thursday morning.

Dev Patel and Freida Pinto, in 'Slumdog Millionaire'
BEST PICTURE

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frost/Nixon
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire

A clear consensus has developed around four candidates. Slumdog Millionaire, currently the film to beat in this race, is guaranteed a spot; widespread support from critics and industry organizations would be enough, but its emotional uplift makes it a film voters will rally behind. Next are The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which has received mixed critical response but has earned enough passionate support from the guilds to make it a good bet, and Milk, which suffered significant snubs at the Golden Globes, but that didn’t stop Crash.

Frost/Nixon is a surprising candidate, but by now seems safe. It is a small-scale, two-character historical drama, the kind you’d expect to see in the acting races, but not in Best Picture. However, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Producers Guild of America (PGA), Directors Guild (DGA), and Writers Guild (WGA) have all given it the rubber stamp. And remember, The Queen was an a similar position two years ago, and it made the final five. So will Frost/Nixon.

The last spot is up for grabs. Revolutionary Road has the right pedigree — its director, Sam Mendes, ushered American Beauty to a Best Picture win nine years ago, and it reunites the stars of a little film called Titanic — but opinions of the film have ranged from glowing to unkind. Doubt is a major contender for its performances, but has just as many detractors. Ditto The Reader. All three films have received scattered support at best from the major guilds. They seem to be longshots.

It turns out the likeliest candidates are also the unlikeliest if you consider Oscar history. The Dark Knight, a superhero movie from its cape to its cowl, had rapturous reviews and was a huge money-maker, but the same was true of Spider-Man 2. However, what the Spidey sequel didn’t have were nominations from the PGA, DGA, and WGA, and it didn’t feature a blazing performance from a sentimental favorite (the late Heath Ledger). Then there’s WALL-E, which was snubbed by the major guilds, but the animated film wasn’t eligible for the directors’ or writers’ guild prizes, so its omissions may be misleading. I predict The Dark Knight because the Academy loves a hit, and it’s the biggest hit since Titanic. But the Academy is also notorious for its snobbery, so if they deem both the comic book movie and the cartoon unworthy, all bets are off.

Gus Van Sant, director of 'Milk'
BEST DIRECTOR

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky
Gus Van Sant, Milk

The Best Picture winner usually wins the directing prize along with it, but the nominees seldom line up five-to-five. This year, I suspect the victim will be Christopher Nolan, who will suffer from Academy ambivalence about caped crusaders competing at the Oscars. In his place, I’ve got a hunch it will be Mike Leigh, whose Happy-Go-Lucky has been romping through the major critics awards, including wins from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle. Though it is a light, stylistically understated film, the Academy loves him; he is a five-time nominee, including a surprise nod four years ago for directing Vera Drake. I think he’ll be back.

Mickey Rourke, in 'The Wrestler'
BEST ACTOR

Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Three locks: Penn, Langella, and Rourke. Several candidates vie for the remaining spots. Clint Eastwood has been snubbed throughout awards season for what he claims will be the last acting performance of his career. He got an early push from the National Board of Review, but received no critics’ prizes after that, was snubbed by the Golden Globes, and then again by SAG. But he’s Clint Eastwood. Clint. Eastwood. He’s got four Oscars already, and none for acting, so if Eastwood means what he says this will be their last chance. They’ll take the bait.

The last spot is a tough call. Brad Pitt has had trouble earning kudos for his acting since his Best Supporting Actor nomination for 12 Monkeys in 1996: no nomination for last year’s Assassination of Jesse James, and none for Babel, which was a Best Picture nominee. Curious Case is another Best Picture hopeful, and that should be enough to get the leading man back into the Oscar spotlight, but his understated performance and the intensive visual effects work that contributed to the role make him vulnerable. If he loses out, expect his spot to go to Richard Jenkins for The Visitor; he was nominated by SAG, and it was SAG that two years ago predicted the nomination for another actor in a low-key indie: Ryan Gosling in Half-Nelson.

And outside chance: Leonardo DiCaprio for Revolutionary Road. It’s a showy, emotional performance, and heck they nominated him for Blood Diamond of all things, so never rule him out.

Anne Hathaway, in 'Rachel Getting Married'
BEST ACTRESS

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

As with Best Actor, there are three safe bets among the leading ladies: Hathaway as a emotionally erratic substance abuser (Oscar loves those), Streep as a ferocious nun (Oscar loves her), and Winslet as an unhappy suburbanite (Oscar may finally be ready to show her love with her first win). After that, I expect to see Sally Hawkins recognized for Happy-Go-Lucky; the Academy loves Mike Leigh, and they love his leading ladies just as much, having nominated Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies) and Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) in years past for his films. What’s more, Hawkins pulled an impressive hat trick by winning the three biggest critics’ prizes: New York, Los Angeles, and the National Society. Despite her surprising snub from the British Academy (BAFTA), Oscar will likely take notice.

Four women contend for the last nomination. Kristin Scott Thomas earned raves and a Golden Globe nod for the French-language I’ve Loved You So Long, but the film has lost its momentum and she’ll likely fall through the cracks. Melissa Leo was nominated by SAG for Frozen River and has a fighting chance, but it’s an un-glamorous performance in a small indie, and sadly Oscar prefers to reward un-glamorous performances from young, sexy starlets (Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard).

Cate Blanchett has struggled for notice this awards season for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but Oscar voters love her; they nominated her twice last year, for Elizabeth: The Golden Age and I’m Not There, neither of which had much support otherwise. Last is Angelina Jolie. Her performance in Changeling is sympathetic and emotionally charged, and she’s directed by Clint Eastwood, which never hurts. But she seemed like a slam dunk last year for A Mighty Heart, and voters nevertheless slammed the door. As with her husband Pitt, I expect Jolie to just sneak in.

Heath Ledger, in 'The Dark Knight'
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire

A misleading category, because a couple of the frontrunners — Hoffman and Patel — are actually leads in their films. They’ve been campaigned as supporting actors to protect them from the crowded and competitive lead-actor field, and it will probably pay off for both. Hoffman has been consistently recognized for his work as the accused priest in Doubt, and though the 18-year-old Patel is a relative unknown, the support for Slumdog is likely to carry him along to a nomination.

Ledger is a foregone conclusion, and after the standing ovation for his posthumous Golden Globe victory, it’s hard to imagine him losing. Josh Brolin is on a hot streak, starring in last year’s Best Picture-winner, No Country for Old Men, and giving two admired performances in 2008 — as President George W. Bush in W. and as the murderous city supervisor Dan White in Milk. The latter will earn him his first Academy Award nomination.

As for Downey Jr., it would be unusual, to put it mildly, for Academy voters to select a broad comic performance by an actor in blackface, but Downey has enormous industry support after the tremendous success of both Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, and in Thunder he is playing not only against type but against race and adopts not one but two unique accents.

Anyone else would be an upset; for a major surprise, this is the category to watch. Could it be James Franco, Brolin’s co-star in Milk? I think Brolin will nab all of Franco’s votes for that film, and it’s not a showy performance. Ralph Fiennes? He could get in for The Reader or The Duchess, but has little support for either and will likely split his own vote. Eddie Marsan in Happy-Go-Lucky? Possible, but he is a little-known actor, and I don’t think Academy support for the film will extend that far. Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road? He’d be a good bet if the film were a stronger contender.

Kate Winslet, in 'The Reader'
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Kate Winslet, The Reader

There are only two locks: Cruz and Davis. After them, it’s a game of musical chairs with four actors competing for the three remaining spots. Amy Adams earned SAG and Golden Globe nods for Doubt, but she may suffer under the shadow of co-star Viola Davis’s performance in the same film. Marisa Tomei is a previous winner and earned a Golden Globe nomination for The Wrestler, but her SAG snub may be a very bad sign for such a subtle performance in a film where all the attention has gone to Mickey Rourke’s comeback. Kate Winslet, on paper, would be a lock for a nomination and a frontrunner to win, but most believe she clearly gives a lead performance in The Reader, including BAFTA, which nominated her twice for lead actress; if Oscar voters try to place her there, it may threaten her nominations for both this film and Revolutionary Road. And Taraji P. Henson, playing the doting mother in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, got a very important SAG nomination, but I have trouble imagining that voters will rank her highly on their preferential ballots, where only number-one votes count.

My prediction amounts to my best guess. I say Henson will be the odd woman out.

Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, in 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — Eric Roth, Robin Swicord
Doubt — John Patrick Shanley
Frost/Nixon — Peter Morgan
The Reader — David Hare
Slumdog Millionaire — Simon Beaufoy

Four safe bets: likely Best Picture nominees Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, and Slumdog, plus the prestigious adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt. For the fifth slot, there are only three serious contenders: The Dark Knight got a surprise WGA nod, but WGA is traditionally more welcoming of popular entertainments (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Clueless, Mean Girls, Knocked Up). Oscar snobbery will likely block the film’s scribes, even though Christopher and Jonathan Nolan were previously nominated for Memento. Revolutionary Road has a strong literary pedigree — Richard Yates’s novel is lauded, though the adaptation is controversial. The Reader also has its share of detractors, but in addition to its prestige it was adapted by David Hare, who was nominated for The Hours — I give him the slight edge.

'WALL-E'
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Happy-Go-Lucky — Mike Leigh
Milk — Dustin Lance Black
Rachel Getting Married — Jenny Lumet
Vicky Cristina Barcelona — Woody Allen
WALL-E — Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Jim Reardon

Though most of the Best Picture hopefuls will be competing for adapted screenplay, it is the original screenplay race that is the hardest to peg. Only one sure thing: Milk, which is likely to be the only Best Picture nominee represented in this category, may already have this award in the bag. But if WALL-E sneaks into Best Picture, it’ll pose a serious threat here. Though the Academy has been unwilling to nominate animated films for the top prize, they frequently nominate their screenplays as a consolation prize (Toy Story, Shrek, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille). Though WALL-E features limited dialogue, expect it to continue the trend.

Rachel Getting Married was surprisingly snubbed by the WGA, but it has received consistent love from critics organizations and should rebound at Oscar time.

That leaves five films competing for the two remaining spots: Burn After Reading, The Visitor, The Wrestler, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Happy-Go-Lucky. I suspect the Academy will reward its veterans. Though the dialogue of Happy-Go-Lucky is mostly improvised, that hasn’t stopped voters before: Leigh has three previous nominations in this category. And Woody Allen is one of the most beloved filmmakers in Oscar history, with twenty-one nominations and three wins, including two for writing. He received a nomination for his London holiday Match Point. I think he’ll be nominated again for his trip to Barcelona.

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