Oscar Preview 2009

The nominations have been out for over a week now, so it’s time to fully digest this year’s Academy Awards and how they should pan out. Thanks to some absolutely dreadful weekend weather in Chicago this January, I was able to see pretty much everything up for any of the major categories.

BEST PICTURE

What Should Win: Frost/ Nixon. Ron Howard’s brilliant biopic about the David Frost-Richard Nixon interviews plays more towards the competitive spirit than it does towards a portrayal of the television industry. The film manages to create such intensity almost as though you were watching the last few minutes of a tied-up Super Bowl, and benefits from the performances of its leads. But where the film succeeds most is in its portrayal of Nixon, played to perfection by Frank Langella, as a man filled with a deep sorrow and remorse that seems lifted once he finally confesses his sins. Symbolic on so many levels and appropriate in today’s political atmopshere as well, we are reminded what a great sacrifice leading our nation can be, and how much more massive the repercussions from mistakes can be when the person who makes them is the President.  To me, this was clearly the best film of 2008.

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What Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire. The momentum is there, and the general feel-good nature of the film has Oscar written all over it. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the movie is incredibly well made from a directorial standpoint, adding in some brutally true footage of life in India’s slums, and that the performances from relatively unknown actors across the board still manage to strike a chord with the audience- we care deeply about what happens to them. It wasn’t my very favorite film of the year due to some serious plot flaws, such as the convenient coincidences of the questions asked on the game show, and most notably the instability of the Salim character’s development throughout the film, but I can see why it will win. Slumdog is certainly an entertaining film organized in an unorthodox fashion, and that is probably enough to win Best Picture this year, considering that at this point The Reader and Button have to be real long shots for this category. I’d give Milk the nod for the Silver Medal in this race as it also plays more to the Academy’s preferences, and is just loaded with powerful performances that also tells a relevant story for these times.

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Biggest Snub: The Dark Knight. Amazingly, the Academy chose to overlook the year’s highest grossing picture that also happened to be one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films. The most recent in the Batman movies took the story, and superhero movies as a genre, to a new level thanks to killer performances and a storyline that delved deep into the humanity of its characters. I wonder if this omission is more of a result of the Academy’s changing preference towards smaller, less accessible films or because of the arguably strong right wing message of the film? In either case, if you liked The Curious Case of Benjamin Button better than The Dark Knight, consider a cat scan, although it was actually The Reader that stole Batman’s thunder.

BEST ACTOR:

Who Should Win: Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon. This could go to either Langella or Penn and I’d be alright with it, but I’ll give Langella the slight nod here, if for no other reason than that I liked his movie more and that he’s not likely to have another shot at this award. And anytime you can work the line “Did you do any fornicating” into a pre-interview chat with such a nonchalant manner, that gets bonus points from me as well. In all seriousness, Langella took the role he had perfected on Broadway and took it a step further, benefiting immensely from Ron Howard’s directing which got the most out of some tight shots way in on his shadowy face. Some of his best acting in this film comes when he isn’t saying a word.

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Who Will Win: Sean Penn, Milk. Everyone is jumping on the Mickey Rourke bandwagon, and that performance was exceptional in The Wrestler, but this is Penn’s award to lose, and despite the fact that he’s completely out of his mind from a political standpoint, I can’t deny that he gave the performance of his career in this film, completely transforming into Harvey Milk, the first openly gay American to be elected into political office. I don’t feel that Brad Pitt carried Button the way that a lot of people do, and while I am a huge Richard Jenkins fan and happy to see him here, he seems to be on the outside looking in for this one.

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Biggest Snub: Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road. As much as I thought this movie somewhat missed its own point, you can’t deny DiCaprio’s effort, and the film was still better than Benjamin Button.

BEST ACTRESS:

Who Should Win: Meryl Streep, Doubt. Streep always just nails characters in her movies, but her portyayal of a cold, stern, old-fashioned, by-the-book nun in Doubt was one of her best performances in years. Streep carries this movie with assistance from a remarkable cast, but resonates as the key character, and the best analogy for the film’s premise and ultimate question- how much needs to be proven in order for a person to truly believe something? This is one of those moives that I always picture the casting directors sitting around a big table and saying, “Okay, if we can’t get Meryl Streep to play Sister Alyicious, we probably can’t make this movie.”

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Who Will Win: Kate Winslet, The Reader. After her performance in this one earned her a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, the Academy turned the tables a bit and put her up for the main actress category, probably at the expense of the movie that won her a Golden Globe in that Category, Revolutionary Road. The result of this change is twofold; on the one hand, the Best Actress category is now incredibly deep, and now the Best Supporting Actress category is wide open, as Winslet was a lock to win there for this film. I agree with the Academy on both counts, that her performance in The Reader was indeed a lead performance, and that it was a better, more challenging one than she gave in Road. I’m okay with it if she gets her long-deserved Oscar here, as she gave an impressively dark performance filled with regret and shame in a movie that ponders what lengths people will actually sink to simply to avoid their own embarrassment. Watch out for Melissa Leo to pull the upset for the job she did in Frozen River, but really this is a two horse race in my opinion. I’m glad to see Anne Hathaway here as well but too much of her performance depended on her surroundings, and it would be a real shock to see her steal a statue from seasoned veterans like Streep or Winslet. Angelina and Brad get to walk down the aisle together, but in my book they’re both the last nominee in for each of their respective categories.

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Biggest Snub: As I said, the Academy probably got this one right, although Winslet arguably could have been up for her Revolutionary Road performance here as well. I’m happy to see her here for The Reader instead as I didn’t sympathize with her Road character at all; it seemed like more of a film about how to handle an insane wife than it did about the perils surburban cabin fever as it tries to be. I didn’t get a chance to see I’ve Loved You So Long, but Richard Roeper said Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance in that one was the best acting he’s seen by anyone in twenty years, and that has to mean something.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Who Should Win: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight. Looking past the tragic death of Ledger over a year ago, no one can deny what he was able to do with this character. I vividly remember when my wife told me she had heard that Ledger had been cast as the Joker for the next Batman movie and my reaction was complete disbelief- this is the same Australian dude from 10 Things I Hate About You, right? But Ledger put a new, eerier, creepier but ultimately more human spin on this villian, which stood out in this category and among all-time diabolical villians. Everything about the show he put on, from the voice he created to the lip-licking and maniacal laughter, was absolutely possessive, and the best element of a movie that was already very good to begin with.  At the risk of making a massive understatement, it’s a shame that he can’t be here to enjoy his accomplishment.

Who Will Win: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight. Mark it down, this one is in the bag. It is slightly concerning that the film was passed over for Best Picture, but who else really even has a chance here? The next best performance was easily Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt, but he doesn’t seem a likely candidate to pull the upset. Probably the best chance for an upset comes from Michael Shannon’s performance in Revolutionary Road, where he steals every scene he is in and begs us to question the definition of true insanity. Josh Brolin was great in Milk as well, but I don’t see him stealing this from Ledger.

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Biggest Snub: Michael Sheen, Frost/ Nixon. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Tropic Thunder wasn’t even a good movie. So Robert Downey Jr. painted himself brown and learned to speak in a dialect that borders on racially offensive–is that what merits a nomination these days? It’s a shame that Sheen’s dynamic portrayal of David Frost was overlooked here; without creating some sympathy for that character’s plight, the best film of the year would not have been as such.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

Who Should Win: Amy Adams, Doubt. This is somewhat of a tossup for me between Adams’ thorough performance as a naive, sweet-hearted nun named Sister James who tries to see only the best in people, and the devastating ten minutes of screen time from Viola Davis as an emotinal mother willing to make questionable sacrifices to provide her son with a better life. Both are deserving, but Adams had the more challenging role, especially having to hold her own against  the likes of Meryl Streep in nearly every scene. Her best moments come when Sister James comes out of her shell and loses her normally composed tone as a result of the events around her, only to submit back into that tone with a certain sadness. Clearly, Adams is one of the best actresses of her generation, a rare talent with the ability to control entire scenes with only the look in her eyes.

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Who Will Win: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The omission of Winslet’s character from The Reader in this category renders it fairly wide open. Adams and Davis gave the two strongest supporting performances of the year in Doubt, but I fear those two will cancel each other out. It would certainly be a huge upset for Marisa Tomei or Taraji P. Henson to win here, so that leaves Cruz as the likely winner. Admittedly, she gave one of her most powerful (and often humorous) performances to date alternating between English and Spanish with impeccable timing, and her sheer beauty remains stunning enough to make every scene she’s in jump off the screen.

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Biggest Snub: Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married. Anne Hathaway is getting all of the credit for this film, and she’s deserving of the nomination, but as the movie’s namesake, DeWitt played a vital role in making that performance resonate. As the sister who did everything right but was always in the shadow of the personal issues of Hathaway’s character, DeWitt exhibited remarkable poise and restraint in many of her powerful scenes. She’s not getting the credit she deserves here, although I’m not sure which of the five nominees deserved the get the bump.

BEST DIRECTOR:

Who Should Win: Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon. What Howard did in this movie was use the power of film to add a new element to a story that everyone already knows the ending to. By using such tight shots on Frank Langella’s face, we’re given a different look into Nixon’s inner demons that the actual television interviews in the 1970s weren’t able to give us.

Who Will Win: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire. Using the same off-lit style he used in movies like Trainspotting, Boyle created a choppy, exciting feel here that worked best early in the film during the shots in the slums of India. His use of the flashback signs here also add consistency to a film that otherwise might be difficult to keep in sequence in its later scenes. The momentum is there, and Boyle’s unique style will likely earn him the Oscar here.

Biggest Snub: Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler and Jonathon Demme, Rachel Getting Married. Both directors used hand-held cameras to create a raw atmopshere, which worked perfectly in both movies. In Rachel Getting Married, this style effects the viewing to the point where we almost feel that we are at the wedding, and in The Wrestler it certainly adds to how we connect and sympathize with the main character. It’s a shame that neither of these innovative risks weren’t rewarded here in lieu of the more conventional directing in The Reader and Benjamin Button.

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