It is time to predict who will actually take home Oscar, and while the general nominations are relatively easy to call, the actual winners are often harder to predict. In a backwards way, I wish there was one year when my predicting many categories is really moot because that would mean I am not second-guessing political factors and other trends and the vote is based solely on artistic quality.
Of course, politics and artistic quality are not necessarily mutually exclusive but the former should be minimized as much as possible so that we can have some pleasant and truly deserving surprise wins. Anyway, enough of my rambling… here are my predictions for who will win the Oscars as well as my preferences for who should win.
Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire, of course. It has the PGA and DGA on its side and, after the last few years’ Best Picture winners such as Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, and No Country for Old Men have been so downbeat, the Academy will feel that this is their opportunity to honor an uplifting film. The fact that it is set in India is also a gigantic boost, as the Oscars are really enthusiastic over the theme of globalization these days and this is the friendliest one they can pick.
In fact, it is the only particularly memorable movie in this category’s lineup, although it is getting ever clearer that the Academy tends to ignore films that really distend the realm of cinema. There are good movies here such as Milk, Frost/Nixon or The Reader but how many people will actually remember these movies after the next few years? And does The Curious Case of Benjamin Button really tell a story that exploits the possibilities of its wild premise beyond its slick technical and visual surface? Well, at least they will end up (hopefully) picking the one movie that stands out the most.
Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire
Preference: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Director: The Best Picture front runner will also carry the torch here for the director, Danny Boyle. He has been an ambitious director, immersing himself in almost any genre and most, including the DGA that has honored him, would agree that immersing himself so well in a foreign culture this time has allowed him to direct one of his best films yet. If there is a dark horse, I do not think it will be David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as many people believe, but Gus Van Sant, as there might be votes of sympathy for him after not winning for Good Will Hunting and making a slew of films that are strictly personal and outside the mainstream (although, of course, the Academy would choose to pick him for a more commercial movie like Milk rather than a more unconventional, ambitious film like Paranoid Park). Ron Howard is already a past recent winner and Stephen Daldry should be happy just with his nomination here, although he may start to get restless after losing with all three nominations.
Prediction: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Preference: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Actor in a Leading Role: This category is honestly one of the hardest to predict in many a year. Richard Jenkins and Brad Pitt are likely the ones that can safely be crossed out (although I would like to see Richard Jenkins up here again in the near future) but a convincing argument can be made for each of the other three nominees, Frank Langella, Sean Pennm and Mickey Rourke. The Academy may choose Langella, as the older voters are often suckers for the older veteran character actor who gets the role of a lifetime (and he has more exposure and the advantage of a December release compared to Richard Jenkins). Or they might vote for Penn, who already has the SAG and whose winning may make a timely political statement. Or they might go for Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler, as his victory would make his great comeback story complete.
It is hard to call, but here is how I weigh the factors based on past Oscar history. The veteran factor may come strong but it ends up coming more in the supporting category and people may feel Langella’s leading exposure here will lead him to be up soon enough for a nomination in the near future.
Penn does have the SAG but he is a relatively recent Oscar winner and the SAG award was likely more of a make-up one for overlooking him for that Oscar-winning role in Mystic River (it went shockingly enough to Johnny Depp for Pirates of the Caribbean). I am also guessing the writer, Dustin Lance Black, winning for his original screenplay for Milk will likely make a stronger impression and political statement in the Academy’s eyes.
That leaves Mickey Rourke and I think the Academy will consider the fact that he may not be up here in the Oscar lineup again and this may be the only chance they can reward him. They may also want to hear his Golden Globe speech once again where he even earnestly thanked his dog. And you know what, I want to hear it, too, and see him up there for the role on which he poured out his heart and soul and the surprising subtlety with which he embraced his empathy with the character.
Prediction: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Preference: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Best Actress in a Leading Role: People all around have been saying it is finally time for Kate Winslet to receive her due as one of the best actresses of her generation and the Academy will no doubt agree. She is already at her sixth nomination with no wins yet at the age of 33 and the Academy will want to prevent her from becoming the biggest loser in Oscar history. Not even the fact that the SAG went to Meryl Streep for her work as the sternly unbending, authoritarian nun in Doubt will hinder her from winning this category (and in the SAG, Winslet was not competing against Streep for The Reader but for Revolutionary Road and she won Best Supporting Actress SAG for the former).
I do admire Winslet’s work in The Reader in not only playing a wide range of ages but keeping an enigmatic resilience to her very secretive character that evokes our sympathy despite her ultimately callous and even monstrous nature. But my personal choice would be for Melissa Leo in Frozen River. Just the fact that she would risk a close-up of her naturally aged, wrinkled face to make her desperate but unusually heroic mother role so raw and powerful alone shows that she has more daring than any other actress, including the other nominees this year. If there were a time when honoring a hard-working veteran is not just political but actually meritorious, this would be it because she is truly able to use her natural age to her artistic advantage. But we all know that politics often come on stronger than merit at the Oscars and the “long due” political favor is on Winslet’s side.
Prediction: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Preference: Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Well, we all know we would be fools to bet against Heath Ledger, right? So I am going to take a moment to respond to the slight backlash that I have been reading and state why I think the posthumous award will not just be out of a sentimental vote but a truly deserving one. It is easy to think of his performance as the Joker as one-note because the character is one pitched at feverish, mythical levels and, as the film’s director Christopher Nolan intended, seemingly without a past. But that would be ignoring the multitude of methods with which he wholly and distinctly created a singularly terrifying character. He spanned the gamut from enigmatic calculation and a slightly comical morbidity to acting so thoroughly like a caged, wounded animal in his telling of conflicting stories to almost draw on our sympathies until we realize that it is a more insidious strategy of deceptive intimidation. That he managed to find these various shades of subtlety within what is a larger-than-life creation is remarkable.
There are other worthy nominees that I would like to see go on to win Oscars another year. Robert Downey Jr. was a refreshingly good choice to see honored for his comical method acting satire through method acting in Tropic Thunder. Josh Brolin has been on a roll with consistently great work in No Country for Old Men, W. and now his nominated role in Milk. Philip Seymour Hoffman from Doubt is, of course, a past winner already and is never known for giving a dishonest performance. The only nomination I really question is that of Michael Shannon, as I am not usually in favor of the brief “scene-stealing” character that is compellingly played to be sure but is not necessarily a larger, crucially supporting drive to the overall film (although I do hope the nod opens the door for an accomplished stage actor like Shannon to make a more lasting mark in film). But this is Heath Ledger’s year and he earns the award, posthumous or not.
Prediction: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Preference: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Now we arrive at the category that is the toughest of all to predict. No bona fide precursor wins to go on, since Kate Winslet from The Reader is no longer in this race anymore. That may leave Penelope Cruz as the front runner for her work as the sultry, jealous ex-wife in Vicky Cristina Barcelona but I am not sure that is so clean-cut despite that she has the BAFTA.
I am going to go on a bit of a whim and predict Viola Davis for Doubt. Despite her limited screen time in the film as the mother of the only African-American student in a 1964 Catholic school, her character transcends it and opens up a whole other perspective to the story that not only stuns Streep’s character but shows her unusual yet unusually strong maternal love adjusting to the unfair familial conditions and racial prejudice of the time. The role has made a strong impression with audiences on film, as it did on stage, and considering that hard-working character actors like Richard Jenkins and Melissa Leo may lose out on Oscar night in the leading categories, this might be the Academy’s way to award at least one in Davis here and also at least one of the four acting nods for Doubt. Davis is certainly a good choice as her performance is not just a scene-stealing role but one valuably contributing to the arc of the story.
However, with a nudge and a wink in my admiration for Davis’ work, my personal vote would go for Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler. Her turn as the stripper who becomes the object of Mickey Rourke’s growing romantic affection is almost a lead role and really the textbook example of a supporting, complementary role to the lead. The impact of either performance would not become complete without the other and it is through her character that we draw the line through both the wrestling and pole dancing professions in the film and see that they are both essentially about selling a product towards the juvenile nature of men. She understands that, as Rourke’s character does not, and she is able to suggest this from the start almost entirely without dialogue underneath her instinctive generosity towards the wrestler. It is great work that is easy to overlook because Tomei makes it look so easy, which is why I think more votes will probably go for Davis, who pops out more visibly.
Prediction: Viola Davis, Doubt
Preference: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Best Original Screenplay: This is the category I think will make the political statement of Oscar night. The screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, was one personally touched by the legacy of Harvey Milk to bring gay rights into the forefront and reportedly inspired him to come out amidst growing up in a Mormon household. Those emotions will no doubt flow through an impassioned speech he will give on Oscar night.
The screenplay for Milk was a good one although, in my opinion, I felt it was a little too conventional a biopic and too predictably lionizing an account of Harvey Milk, as a more audacious screenplay would have been willing to portray a fuller human portrait of the man with more of his flaws addressed as well as his strengths. In terms of pure quality, I would go with my favorite film of the year, WALL·E, as all of the emotion and heart in the screenplay was not in human dialogue but in imagining the communication between robots and creating one of the most unusually romantic stories in years. All that and they also managed to write a great science-fiction story and a stark, foreboding environmental warning in the mix. Well, the Academy may give the Pixar folks the trademark long overdue award at some point in the future but the condescension towards animated films still lingers and since Milk also has the Best Picture nod as well, it is the likely winner.
Prediction: Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Preference: Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, and Pete Docter, WALL·E
Best Adapted Screenplay: The buzz train of Slumdog Millionaire will be unstoppable here and it deserves it for the amount of gritty detail of the Indian slums that it ties to the multitude of story threads as in a Dickensian fable and finally a very satisfying, classical Hollywood-styled entertainment (even though it is penned and directed by Brits). I only hope that the Academy does not consider the outside possibility of giving The Curious Case of Benjamin Button a consolation prize here, although more people seem to realize how hollow and unambitious the screenplay is. Also, that fake YouTube trailer showing side-by-side comparisons (read: rip-offs) between Forrest Gump and this movie (both written by Eric Roth) cannot help matters. If Roth ends up on the Oscar podium, he will have to put his feet to the flame for this in his speech. But he almost certainly will not be up there and he should not be ahead of Simon Beaufoy for Slumdog Millionaire this year.
Prediction: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Preference: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Animated Feature: Well, the Annie Awards threw a real whopper in late January when they shut out WALL·E completely and embraced Kung Fu Panda instead. Maybe they thought that Dreamworks does not frequently make very good animated features and decided to give it to them when one came along. But I am pretty certain the Academy will not make the same mistake of overlooking the superior WALL·E, particularly since it has other significant nominations to boot, including screenplay, and was also speculated as a potential Best Picture contender. If any other movie gets up there, there might actually be some puzzled, head-scratching looks in the audience.
Predictions in the remaining categories:
- Best Art Direction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- Best Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire
- Best Costume Design: The Duchess
- Best Film Editing: The Dark Knight
- Best Makeup: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- Best Original Score: Slumdog Millionaire
- Best Original Song: “Down to Earth,” WALL·E (I may be off in predicting this over “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire but I have a sneaky feeling that the composer, Thomas Newman may get his long due here like his cousin, Randy Newman since A.R. Rahman will likely win Original Score for Slumdog Millionaire).
- Best Sound: Slumdog Millionaire
- Best Sound Editing: WALL·E
- Best Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- Best Documentary Feature: Man on Wire
- Best Foreign Language Film: Waltz with Bashir