This coming Sunday, February 22nd, will see the broadcast of the 81st Annual Academy Awards. After seeing most of the nominated films as part of my work on a recent list of the “Ten Best and Most Mindful Films of 2008” for elephant, I find that I’m paying closer attention to the race this year than I normally would. As such, I have a few thoughts about the whole thing. So, below I present the nominees, as well as my take on who “will win,” who “should win,” and who was “robbed” of a nomination. Please share your thoughts with us!
nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire
Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win: Milk
Robbed: The Dark Knight
Frankly, I wasn’t that crazy about any of the films nominated for Best Picture this year. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was an empty Forrest Gump redux; Frost/Nixon overblown and self-congratulatory; Slumdog Millionaire very likeable, but hardly revolutionary; and The Reader muddled and pretentious. Only Milk, which rose above a by-the-numbers script, seems worthy of its nomination and the ultimate prize. The human touches injected by Gus Vant Sant and his remarkable cast (not a single player is anything short of extraordinary) really set Milk apart from the competition here. That the Academy ignored the ambition and vision of The Dark Knight–especially after its nominations by the Writers’, Directors’, and Producers’ Guilds of America, and strong showing among the national critics’ awards–was a genuine shock.
Will Win: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win: Gus Van Sant, Milk
Robbed: Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Look for Boyle to continue his winning streak here for the crowd-pleasing Slumdog Millionaire, though Van Sant deserves it for the realism and compassion he brought to Milk. The Academy’s snub of Nolan here is outrageous: The Dark Knight was an incredibly massive production that was masterfully orchestrated, and infused with genuine emotion, striking detail, and social conscience. That the final product is so satisfying as both art and entertainment is downright miraculous, and all the credit belongs to Nolan.
nominess: Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), Sean Penn (Milk), Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)
Will Win: Sean Penn (Milk)
Should Win: Sean Penn (Milk)
Robbed: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Synecdoche, New York)
Between his performance being the best of the bunch and the assumed antipathy toward Prop. 8 in Hollywood, it seems likely that Penn will nab a second Oscar for his moving, memorable portrayal of assissinated gay rights icon Harvey Milk. Though Hoffman is nominated this year in the Best Supporting Actor category for his role in Doubt, his work in Charlie Kaufman’s heady Synecdoche, New York gave the piece a beating heart.
nominees: Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married), Angelina Jolie (Changeling), Melissa Leo (Frozen River), Meryl Streep (Doubt), Kate Winslet (The Reader)
Will Win: Meryl Streep (Doubt)
Should Win: Meryl Streep (Doubt)
Robbed: Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky)
Kate Winslet is considered the odds-on favorite this year…but she’s been cleaning up other awards for this role in the Best Supporting Actress category. The studio is lobbying hard for her, but the Academy doesn’t like to be told how it’s supposed to vote. (Just ask Lauren Bacall.) Streep’s performance is the strongest too. And the venerable actress (who has been nominated more times than any other actor in Oscar history) did a lot of work to chip away at Hollywood’s glass ceiling this year: the incredible and surprising success of her star vehicle Mamma Mia! would have been the big box office story of 2008 had it not been released the same year that The Dark Knight smashed every single record on the books. This is the category most likely to surprise (it ignored critics’ darling Hawkins, after all), but I’m betting the incomparable Meryl picks up Oscar #3.
Best Supporting Actor
nominees: Josh Brolin (Milk), Robert Downey, Jr. (Tropic Thunder), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt), Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight), Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road)
Will Win: Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Should Win: Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Robbed: James Franco (Milk)
An early teaser and the actor’s untimely death generated enormous buzz around Heath Ledger’s Method approach to “The Joker.” But even if the promising young actor (already a legend for his aching, iconoic performance as Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain) had not died, he’d still be the only bona fide awards season juggernaut this year. Utterly terrifying, darkly comic, artistically daring, and absolutely unforgettable, Ledger’s work (epitomized in his sure-to-haunt-you-for-a-long-time last scene) is a swan song for the ages. And pity poor James Franco, who offered two truly great performances this year (one as a put-upon lover in Milk, the other as a stoner with a heart of gold in Pineapple Express), but was shown no love.
Best Supporting Actress
nominees: Amy Adams (Doubt), Penélope Cruz (Vicky Christina Barcelona), Viola Davis (Doubt), Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler)
Will Win: Penélope Cruz (Vicky Christina Barcelona)
Should Win: Viola Davis (Doubt)
Robbed: Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married)
Woody Allen has guided a number of actresses to wins in this category, though Penélope Cruz may be the most deserving yet for her sexy, edgy, complex turn as Javier Bardem’s ex-wife in Vicky Christina Barcelona. That said, I’d like to see the wonderful Viola Davis (finally nominated after all her remarkable work with Steven Soderbergh) win for her pitch-perfect, heart-wrenching turn as a mother in a difficult position. And while critics carped about the omission of Debra Winger for her work in Rachel Getting Married, Rosemarie DeWitt did an equally fine job in the film’s titular role.
Best Adapted Screenplay
nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Eric Roth and Robin Swicord), Doubt (John Patrick Shanley), Frost/Nixon (Peter Morgan), The Reader (David Hare), Slumdog Millionaire (Simon Beaufoy)
Will Win: The Reader (David Hare)
Should Win: Doubt (John Patrick Shanley)
Robbed: The Dark Knight (Christopher and Jonathan Nolan & David S. Goyer)
The smart money here is on Beaufoy’s Dickensian script for Slumdog Millionaire, but I have a feeling that The Reader will swoop in to take the trophy the way it swooped in to collect so many unexpected nominations. Shanley is to be commended, though, for his earnest effort to make cinema out of his talky, Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play. The Dark Knight team was badly snubbed again here, after earning a WGA nod for their serious-minded noodling with DC Comics’ richest creations.
Best Original Screenplay
nominees: Frozen River (Courteney Hunt), Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh), In Bruges (Martin McDonagh), Milk (Dustin Lance Black), WALL*E (Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, and Pete Docter)
WILL WIN: Milk (Dustin Lance Black)
SHOULD WIN: WALL*E (Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, and Pete Docter)
ROBBED: The Visitor (Tom McCarthy)
Black’s script for Milk seemed to me the weak link in the film, but it’s been steadily racking up wins elsewhere. The rioutous, quirky, warm, and winning script for WALL*E (co-written by longtime “Simpsons” scribe Reardon) has a shot, though. It sure would have been nice to see McCarthy pat on the back here for his deft, sensitive work on The Visitor.
Best Documentary Feature
nominees: The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), Encounters at the End of the World, The Garden, Man on Wire, Trouble the Water
WILL WIN: Man on Wire
SHOULD WIN: Encounters at the End of the World
ROBBED: At the Death House Door
James Marsh’s Man on Wire is everybody’s favorite this year, though Trouble the Water (about Hurricane Katrina) is the “important” one. If those two split the vote, Werner Herzog’s deserving Encounters at the End of the World could slip in and win the Oscar its director should have won for Grizzly Man. And does the Academy have it out for Steve James, or what? After not even nominating him for his American classic Hoop Dreams or the wonderful and intimate Stevie, he’s dissed a third time with no nod for his powerful death penalty doc At the Death House Door.
Best Foreign Language Film
nominees: The Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany), The Class (France), Departures (Japan), Revanche (Austria), Waltz with Bashir (Israel)
WILL WIN: Waltz with Bashir (Israel)
SHOULD WIN: The Class (France)
ROBBED: Let the Right One In (Sweden)
The dazzling, animated Waltz with Bashir has all the momentum going in to the Oscars, but The Class is just as outstanding in its understated and powerful verisimilitude. The race here is overshadowed, though, by the Academy’s snub of the delicious Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In.
Best Animated Feature
nominees: Bolt, Kung Fu Panda, WALL*E
WILL WIN: WALL*E
SHOULD WIN: WALL*E
ROBBED: Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
The no-brainer this year is WALL*E winning in this category. If you’re betting in an Oscar pool, don’t lose money here: put it on the robots. It’s sort of surprising that Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa was passed over: the sequel was one of the top ten highest grossing films of the year, and contributed significantly to making 2008 Hollywood’s most successful year ever.
Lastly, here are my guesses on the technical and other categories….
ART DIRECTION: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Dark Knight
COSTUME DESIGN: The Duchess
DOCUMENTARY SHORT: The Conscience of Nhem En
FILM EDITING: The Dark Knight
MAKEUP: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
MUSIC (SCORE): Slumdog Millionaire
MUSIC (SONG): “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire
SHORT FILM (ANIMATED): “Presto”
SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION): “Spielzugland (Toyland)”
SOUND EDITING: The Dark Knight
SOUND MIXING: The Dark Knight
VISUAL EFFECTS: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Bonus: Colbert’s predictions: