February 24, 2007

Oscars 2006: On With the Show

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 5:55 pm

Well as usual, I couldn’t resist getting my Oscar thoughts down in the long, rambling, insufferable fashion you’ve all come to expect. So straight from my desktop to your Deleted Items folder, here are my predictions for tomorrow’s Academy Awards. Lots of races this year without a frontrunner, which makes winning the pool hard, but will at least lend some suspense to the show. So without further ado….

Let’s go by process of probable elimination. Letters From Iwo Jima, while a powerful, beautiful film, lacks broad support and hasn’t generated the kind of momentum that Clint Eastwood saw in 2004 when Million Dollar Baby came out late in the year and kept bowling people over well into February. And the fact that Clint’s movie won two years ago makes him less likely to triumph here. The Queen was one of the best reviewed films of the year – possibly the best, depending on what list you look at – but while it clearly has much support, it still seems to be looked upon as a bit flat to be named the year’s best. It could have worked just as well as an HBO movie. And Babel, although it has seven nominations and won the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Picture, is apparently incredibly divisive. For everyone who loves it and finds it profoundly moving, there seems to be someone who hates it and finds it contrived and overwrought. I think those who like it probably outnumber those who don’t, but there may not be enough yay votes to earn it a win.

Which leaves Little Miss Sunshine and The Departed, neither of which seem like the winning type. The last time a comedy won Best Picture was 1977 – Annie Hall. Although Sunshine won the Producer’s Guild Award, that has never been a reliable prognosticator for the Oscars. Some point to its win for Best Ensemble from the Screen Actor’s Guild as the sure sign that it will take Best Picture, citing Crash’s similar win at SAG. But it makes sense that both Crash and Little Miss Sunshine would win SAG’s Best Ensemble award. Each film received much attention for its ensemble nature and bevy of strong performances. I’ve never understood why people around the industry seem to think that just because Best Ensemble is SAG’s equivalent of a Best Picture award, the Oscars will automatically follow suit. In the 11 years the SAG has given an ensemble award, only five winners of that award have gone on to win Best Picture at the Oscars (Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, Chicago, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and Crash). If Little Miss Sunshine joins that list, one will have nothing to do with the other. Best Ensemble and Best Picture simply do not equate.

Here’s why Little Miss Sunshine has a greater shot at the Oscar than I ever would have thought possible: a) People simply love the movie, and still seem to be loving it even all this time after its summer release; b) With world events being as chaotic as they are these days, the time may be right to honor a sweet, feel-good comedy with the year’s top film award. And while normally I would suggest that a movie’s Best Picture chances are seriously harmed by the lack of a Best Director nomination, no one really seems to care in this case. The last time a movie won for Best Picture without a nomination for its director was in 1989, for Driving Miss Daisy. So it’s been a while, but there is a precedent.

Now for The Departed. It’s true that violence – especially of the Scorsesean nature – has often turned off the Academy. Moreover, with Scorsese himself having emerged, crazy as it seems after all these years of being overlooked, as the frontrunner in the Best Director race, some may feel that a win for him would take care of The Departed. Then again, there have been so many splits between Picture and Director in the last decade that its easy to forget that traditionally, the two awards have gone hand in hand.

I think it’s safe to say that, along with Little Miss Sunshine, The Departed is the most entertaining of the Picture nominees. Whatever you can say about Iwo Jima, The Queen, and Babel, they aren’t exactly crowd-pleasers. The Departed, despite its violence and body count, is gripping from start to finish, as its great success both with critics and audiences attests. On the negative side, there seems to be a fair number of people who feel that The Departed, while enjoyable, is too reminiscent of Scorsese’s masterpieces without being quite one of them.

I really don’t know which way it will go in the end. I think that while people may love Little Miss Sunshine, they might also deem it too slight and light to go down in history as Best Picture, which leaves The Departed almost by default. But then I keep coming back to how much people Little Miss Sunshine. It could go either way, and on Oscar day I may wind up filling my ballot out the other way, but for the moment, I’m giving the tiniest edge to Little Miss Sunshine.

Personal Pick: The Departed was easily my favorite film of the year.

I think the easiest to eliminate is Paul Greengrass for United 93. It’s nice that he was nominated, as he took extremely sensitive material and handled it with grace and skill. But there may be many Academy members who just couldn’t bring themselves to watch the movie, and the fact that it doesn’t have a Best Picture nomination probably seals its fate. Stephen Frears did a fine job with The Queen, but again, it isn’t exactly a showcase of directorial flair. And just as Babel’s divisive nature will harm its Best Picture chances, so too will it sideline the talented Alejenadro Gonzalez Inarritu. Which leaves us with a repeat of 2004’s showdown – Eastwood vs. Scorsese. Eastwood’s chances are helped by the fact that he made two impressive movies telling flip sides of the same subject, in both cases further demonstrating his sensitivity and versatility as a filmmaker. But having won two years ago while Scorsese has famously never won, it’s difficult to justify handing Clint his third directing Oscar for a film that hasn’t generated deafening buzz. And so it would seem that for the first time, Martin Scorsese is poised as an almost sure thing. True, there could be an upset here. While many feel that Scorsese is due, there are those who think the film pales next to his truly great achievements. But armed with a slew of critics’ awards, a Golden Globe and the Director’s Guild of America award, it finally looks like Marty’s year. Hallelujah!

Personal Pick: Martin Scorsese. Not because he’s overdue and it’s time, but because he made the best movie of the year, and made it a showcase for his skills while still highlighting the great acting, writing and editing. It may not hit the level of artistry of Raging Bull, Taxi Driver or GoodFellas, but really, so what?

First of all, I’ll never get over Leonardo DiCaprio getting nominated for Blood Diamond rather than The Departed. Don’t get me wrong – he was very good in Blood Diamond; excellent, even. But it doesn’t touch his work in The Departed. He burrows so deep into his undercover cop character and creates an astounding performance free of histrionics, of big gestures, of big “actorly” moments. His performance was one of subtlety, of a man losing himself but keeping it just below the surface. As I said when the nominations were announced, for Blood Diamond he’s an also-ran; for The Departed, he coulda been a contender.

It’s great to see Ryan Gosling here, for another subtle performance, and one much less available than Leo’s work. People had to go looking for Half Nelson, but thanks to strong praise from critics, look they did, and they found one of the most buzzed-about young actors in the business doing sensational work. But for him, the nomination is all the reward he’ll get. Ditto for Will Smith, an immensely likable and appealing actor who stepped away from his action-comedies to show us a more human story. His performance is full of warmth and grace, but that won’t be enough.

The contest comes down to Forest Whitaker and Peter O’Toole. The fact is that this wouldn’t be contest at all if Peter O’Toole weren’t Peter O’Toole. He’s a threat to Whitaker only because he is a screen legend who has been nominated for Best Actor seven previous times and never won. He’s Lawrence of Arabia, for chrissakes! People love him, and are happy to see him still in the game. Judging the performance on its own merits, it’s lovely work for sure. O’Toole still has a twinkle in his eye and he makes his lecherous character almost not-creepy. Almost. It’s a terrific twilight performance, but it doesn’t amaze.

Forest Whitaker, on the other hand, amazes. His performance in The Last King of Scotland is unlike anything I’ve ever seen him do, and this is a guy who has been around since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He’s consistently been a strong, reliable character actor and now he is enjoying a wave of acclaim and attention such as he’s never received before, not even for Bird. It’s deserved, and so is a win.

Other than a possible desire among Academy members to finally give Peter O’Toole a win, there is one other factor that could hurt Whitaker. It’s shallow and stupid, but it needs to be acknowledged. Oscar voters love a good speech. They like to be entertained. I’m convinced that the only reason Roberto Benigni won Best Actor for Life is Beautiful is because people wanted to see him up there acting like a buffoon and making them laugh in his crazy Italian-accented English. I’m also convinced that Jamie Foxx’s win for Ray was, partially (and only a small part, but still…) due to a series of acceptance speeches throughout the award season that were both hilarious and also genuinely moving. Whitaker has won almost every award possible leading up to the Oscars, and each time he’s ascended the podium, he’s delivered a rambling, mumbled, inarticulate speech riddled with long silences. It’s been very strange. And I guarantee you there are some people who will not vote for him because they won’t want to hear him give another such speech. I doubt it will be widespread enough to hurt his chances, and obviously it shouldn’t matter at all, but even things like this affect voters’ decision. If enough people let this impact theirs, Whitaker’s winning streak could come to and end on Oscar night.

But I doubt it.

Personal Pick: Forest Whitaker

The Oscar goes to Helen Mirren, no analysis necessary.

Eddie Murphy remains the front-runner for Dreamgirls, and while he would seem like a lock, having won most of the key awards leading up to this, I think he’s vulnerable. First, Dreamgirls buzz feels like it’s waned considerably. I’m not hanging out with many Academy members, so maybe I’m wrong, but nobody really seems to be talking about the movie anymore. And the fact that it lost out on widely expected nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, suggests that maybe not enough people – or not enough of the right people – were talking about it much in the first place. Then there’s the fact that Murphy is a bit of a polarizing figure in the industry. Some like him and have great respect for him; others find him cold and difficult. He’s been around for a long time, and he hasn’t made friends with everybody he’s done business with. On the other hand, I think his days of being difficult are reasonably far behind him, and his work in Dreamgirls has generated him considerable goodwill. Personally, while I loved his performance and am pleased to see him nominated, I felt that the role needed one or two more meaty scenes for him to really sink his teeth into to make it worthy of an Oscar win. The part as written was a little thinner than I’d hoped. But I suppose that’s irrelevant for the purposes of predictions.

So if not Murphy, then who? Alan Arkin and Mark Wahlberg seem like the likeliest bets. This is Arkin’s third nomination, and people’s affection for the movie and respect for him could combine to bring him home. A win for him would be like a career tribute (see previous Supporting Actor winners like John Gielgud, Don Ameche, Jack Palance, and James Coburn). As for Wahlberg, he is, shockingly, the only acting nomination for The Departed. And people rave about his brutal, foul-mouthed cop. No one calls it a stretch, but the consensus is just that he fully inhabits the character and delivers a performance that people love to watch.

Jackie Earle Haley had a great comeback story in his favor, but not enough people have seen Little Children. Although it did manage to get three top nominations, I think the studio mishandled everything about it, which is a shame. It’s a very good film. Anyway, I think Haley’s comeback is honored with the nomination, and if the acclaim and award attention re-launches his career, as I truly hope it does, than that will be his reward. The final contender, Djimon Hounsou, brings gravitas to his part in Blood Diamond, but the momentum isn’t there.

As of now, I’m still betting on Murphy, but I’m leaning more and more toward Arkin, and have a feeling that when the moment of truth comes and I need to make a choice, it’s gonna be him.

If the Best Supporting Actor award is often used to salute a long career, the Supporting Actress award tends to favor ingénues or up-and comers, (see Anna Paquin, Mira Sorvino, and Angelina Jolie). That could be good news for Jennifer Hudson, who, like her Supporting Actor co-star, is still the front-runner. But also like her co-star, I think she’s vulnerable. She wouldn’t seem so, having won probably as many other awards as Helen Mirren, but unlike the queen, Hudson is on rockier ground in my eyes. First, there is the aforementioned lack of buzz, it seems to me, for Dreamgirls. Second, although no other group has much cared that this is the first acting gig for someone who is only known otherwise for being on “American Idol,” I think it’s conceivable that the Academy could care. I could see a lot of these people having reservations about handing over an Oscar – an Oscar – to a first time actress who, while she undoubtedly has skills, hasn’t paid her dues and may be thought of as a charismatic singer who just got lucky. I’m not saying I feel that way, or that anybody actually does, but I think it’s possible. Being a first time actress shouldn’t be too much of a hindrance in this case, since several of her fellow nominees are also in young careers. I don’t know if Babel is Rinko Kikuchi’s first movie, but it’s gotta be close. Abigail Breslin has a short list of credits, and although I think Adrianna Barraza has been around for a while, it’s safe to say that most voters don’t know who she is, so she might as well be a new face. So the only veteran is Cate Blanchett, and though she is excellent in Notes on a Scandal (hell, when is she not excellent?), her win two years ago The Aviator hurts her chances.

So who else besides Hudson has a shot? The Oscars have smiled on child actresses in the past, and considering that Breslin is the pure heart of Little Miss Sunshine, voters could pick her for being so damn cute. Of the two Babel actresses, I’d guess that Kikuchi will score more votes, but maybe not enough. I’m sticking with Hudson as my prediction…for now, anyway. But let it be said that I think both Supporting categories provide fertile ground for an upset, and here, my sense is that it could be Little Miss Sunshine herself who steals the thunder.

Personal Pick: Rinko Kikuchi. I wasn’t passionate about any of these performances, and its ironic that I pick Kikuchi given that most of my problems with Babel center on her storyline. But none of my problems have anything to do with her. She was damn good, naked or not.

I think we can definitely scratch Letters From Iwo Jima, and while Babel is a serious contender in other categories, it will miss out in this one. Pan’s Labyrinth could pull Gods and Monsters-type upset, but that’s unlikely. So it’s The Queen or Little Miss Sunshine. The many critics awards were generally split down the line with these two, and without doing an exact count, I The Queen probably came out the victor. But on Oscar night, I believe the Academy will go with the one that makes them feel good. That sentiment might help Little Miss Sunshine win Best Picture, but I think it will definitely help it win here.

Personal Pick: Pan’s Labyrinth. The category says Best Original Screenplay. I didn’t see anything more original all year.

Like I said earlier, Oscar voters love a good speech. Anything to provide some laughs during that long, long show. After Sacha Baron Cohen’s hilarious speech at the Golden Globes, it’s conceivable that voters will pick Borat just to see Cohen on stage again. Conceivable, but not likely. And while I loved the movie, I don’t think it should be here in the first place. When there’s that much improvisation going on, how much of a script is really there? I’m glad Children of Men made the cut, but I don’t see it winning, especially with five credited writers (also a problem for Borat). Little Children was probably too little seen, Notes on a Scandal, while sharp, doesn’t feel like a winner. So it goes to The Departed. Yes, it’s a remake, but by all accounts, William Monahan added his own flavoring to the source material and created an authentic-feeling movie that was suspenseful, funny, powerful, and exciting. And he nailed the Boston vibe.

Personal Pick: The Departed

Tough to call. The critics heavily favored Happy Feet, but the Producer’s Guild and the Golden Globes went with Cars. Monster House is safely out of the race, but with these other two, I just don’t know. My gut tells me Cars, but I’m not particularly confident.

Anything could happen, but An Inconvenient Truth is the most widely talked about of the bunch, it’s he biggest hit of the bunch, and you gotta figure that after Al Gore “lost” the 2000 election, liberal Hollywood isn’t going to want him to lose again.

Pan’s Labyrinth is definitely the favorite, and with an impressive six nominations, it clearly has widespread support in the Academy. But these facts were also true of Amelie back in 2001, and the win went to another film. I don’t think that will be the case this time, as the praise for Pan’s has really been phenomenal. But if there’s going to be an upset, it will be The Lives of Others.

Personal Pick: Pan’s Labyrinth, though it’s the only one I’ve seen.

Can I just ask first, how in God’s name is Marie Antoinette not nominated in this category? Talk about an oversight. The Good Shepherd gets an art direction nomination while Marie Antoinette sits the race out? In a hundred years I’ll never wrap my brain around that one. As for the race at hand, when there’s a musical in the running, it tends to win the day. So in the tradition of Moulin Rouge and Chicago, I figure Dreamgirls is probably sitting pretty. But if the voters are feeling a bit more edgy, Pan’s Labyrinth looked awfully good.

Personal Pick: Pan’s Labyrinth

The Queen? Seriously? Can’t say that makes sense to me. Elizabeth II isn’t exactly a fashion trendsetter. Once again, the razzle dazzle of Dreamgirls’ garb would keep with recent tradition, so that’s my guess. But Marie Antoinette extravagant and exquisite frocks may be hard to ignore…if enough people saw them.

Personal Pick: Marie Antoinette

Children of Men has definitely collected the most awards for this field so far, so it’s safe to say that it will win the Oscar as well. Without any Best Pictures nominees represented here to give it some competition, I’d say the likeliest candidate for an upset is Pan’s Labyrinth.

Personal Pick: Children of Men

This is a tough one. I always preface this by saying that I can rarely recognize all the ways that great editing can be on display. But neither can most Academy members who aren’t editors. So they tend to vote for the movie that is the most obviously-edited, such as one that has multiple storylines intercutting. Hence, recent winners have included Crash and Traffic. By that rationale, Babel stands the best shot. On the other hand, The Departed is also very skillfully edited, and its excellent editing is easy to see, without being too obvious. If you watch the way certain scenes will fold out and then back in on themselves, it’s deceptively simple. So which will it be? The Editor’s guild doesn’t offer any help, since Babel and The Departed tied for the award last weekend. Scorsese’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, won this award two years ago for The Aviator. Although The Departed is more deserving, will the recent win hurt her chances? And I haven’t even mentioned United 93, which has also been praised for its construction and tension. I’m thinking it will be overlooked, since again, there isn’t much widespread support for the movie and many members may not have even seen it. This is another one where I may change my final prediction at the last minute, but at press time, I’m going with Babel.

Personal Pick: The Departed. Babel is well-done, no question, but I think it could have done with some trimming, and I also think the cutting between story lines is clean and simple. The Departed strikes me as more interesting and inventive in its editing. Things that could have been presented in a completely straightforward manner are tweaked and twisted, which helps give the film its intensity.

A weak category this year, and it’s especially annoying that three of the nominations belong to Dreamgirls, considering that none of the songs in the movie are particularly memorable – unlike when Beauty and the Beast got three song nominations but actually deserved each of them (and probably the other two slots as well.) Unless the Dreamgirls tunes cancel each other out, the likely winner is “Listen,” which seems to be the song that gets singled out from the bunch.

Thomas Newman did a great job with The Good German, musically capturing the style of those 40’s black and white melodramas as successfully as Steven Soderbergh captured it visually. Newman has never won an Oscar, and he should have an armful of them by now (for The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, and Road to Perdition, in my eyes). Alas, this is not his year. Philip Glass’s score for Notes on a Scandal has a shot, but a lot of people feel Glass’ scores are too relentless and overpowering. The Queen has good buzz here too, but how memorable is the score? I think it will come down to another battle of the Mexicans: Gustavo Santaolalla could win his second consecutive award, after Brokeback Mountain, for Babel; or Javier Navarrete Pan’s Labyrinth. Tough call, but I’m going with Pan’s Labyrinth, thanks to its haunting, melodic theme.

Personal Pick: Pan’s Labyrinth

This award often goes to music films, like Ray and Chicago, which could bode well for Dreamgirls. But it doesn’t always go to music films; Walk the Line lost last year to King Kong. Since this is another category where a lot of the voters probably don’t understand what they’re voting for, I tend to think they’ll go with something popular which they may have seen, or something obvious – like a musical. I’m as ignorant about this stuff as anybody, so this category is always a shot in the dark for me, but I’m passing over Dreamgirls to guess Pirates of the Caribbean will get the treasure. I’m also not discounting Blood Diamond.

This is even more of a mystery than Sound Mixing. Or wait…maybe I’ve got it backwards. Oh Hell, I don’t know. This category is even tougher this year because there are five nominees, instead of the usual three. Since I don’t know any better and am acting on instinct, I’m going with Pirates again.

I’m guessing that not enough people saw Apocalypto or Click for them to win. I’m also guessing the make-up in those films isn’t as impressive as the work in Pan’s Labyrinth.

Personal Pick: Pan’s Labyrinth

Dare I even say it? ILM dominated the scene all through the 80’s and into the mid-90’s. Then, after winning for Forrest Gump in 1994, the well dried up and ILM has suffered a drought ever since. But the pendulum seems poised to swing back now, cause really….how can Pirates not win? There have been some years since 1994 when ILM deserved to win (1996, 2000), some years when it didn’t (1998, 2002), and some years when it’s been debatable (1999, 2001). This year, it’s not debatable. ILM hasn’t deserved the prize this much since Jurassic Park, and if Pirates isn’t rewarded, it will be not only a major slap in the face, but an Oscar mistake for the record books.

Personal Pick: Isn’t it clear?

Last year I got to see the animated and live action nominees, and while I had the chance this year as well, I didn’t get there in time. So I know almost nothing about any of these films. After looking at all the titles and the predictions in Premiere and Entertainment Weekly, I’m basically throwing a dart and picking The Little Match Girl for Animated; Eramos Pocos for Live Action; and The Blood of the Yingzhou District for Documentary.

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