E: Oh, sure, I like the glitz and the glamor. I like the dresses, and I live in hope for a good acceptance speech – you know, when the winner says something moving and personal, rather than just thanking a litany of industry insiders. Like in 1993, when one of the producers of Schindler’s List read the number that was tattooed on his forearm by the Nazis, or in 1996, Cuba Gooding Jr bounced and bounded across the stage with Tigger-like joy. But more than all that, as Stephen King recently put it, what matters to me is the movies. Oscar is a gateway to great film; in this crazy rush, I see lots of movies that I might never otherwise know of or seek out, movies that are better than I expected or that I can appreciate even when I don’t like them. You’ve heard me laud them in the last few weeks. Remember them, friends! Whoever wins (and my favorite films aren’t likely to), there’s a lot worth your time, and worth celebrating.
I’ve hot-linked my reviews in case you want to know more about particular films. So let’s raise our glasses to the year that was, to film in 2009! Let the pomp and circumstance begin!
(I’ve hot-linked my reviews in case you want to know more about particular films. Some films I didn’t review, but I’ve seen them all except A Serious Man. I’ve also included a few links not on titles to some fun stuff I hope you enjoy.)
Best Supporting Actor:
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
How Sure Am I?
Equally Likely to Lose (or be a Shocking Spoiler):
Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
If I Had a Vote:
Christopher Plummer (with Woody Harrelson as close second)
I could say we’re starting with an easy one, but honestly, the big categories are mostly easy ones. That’s often true, but right now it’s feeling depressingly, boringly true. Is it? Maybe not. Time – and very little of it – will tell. At any rate, Waltz will win. There’s been nothing to suggest that anyone else has a shot. His SS Colonel will take the day. He’s charming, and gives daffy, intellectual speeches in his neat little German accent, and smiles through his neat little German beard, and it’s all very nice. I would be happier if I thought he deserved it more than his competitors. He’s good, I’m not saying he isn’t. I just don’t see why he’s been dominant. He’s no Mo’Nique.
I’m happy to see that Christopher Plummer and Stanley Tucci have finally been invited to the dance. Captain Von Trapp finally makes good! I wasn’t sure, after he was snubbed for playing Mike Wallace in The Insider (possibly because Wallace didn’t approve of his portrayal), that Plummer would ever get this chance again. I’m thrilled for him, though he’s clearly in the wrong category and he ought to have had a shot at winning. Damon (as the understated South African rugby captain inspired by Nelson Mandela) has had to wait more than a decade for his second acting nod, and while I don’t think either he or Tucci’s serial killer out acted the forgotten Alfred Molina (so brilliant as the misguided father in An Education), I still think they did good work. Harrelson gave what was probably my favorite performance of his career, in a film I didn’t expect to love as I did. Austrian actor Waltz is beating a very good crew. We can look forward to a thoughtful, probably whimsical speech and great praise of Quentin Tarantino.
Best Supporting Actress:
How Sure am I?
Just Here For the Party:
Penelope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
If I Had a Vote:
The easiest of all easy categories. There are no bets to hedge here, no spoilers, nothing. She might be a comedienne, but she owns drama with this role and will likely take to the podium with dignity and quite a bit of (justified) self-satisfaction. She’s a first time nominee, and someone you would never expect to take that stage, but there is not denying her abusive mother’s terrible power. She should win. She will. She must.
Her four competitors all do good work, though I’d likely have subbed one of them out for Samantha Morton’s breathtaking realism in The Messenger and possibly also Melanie Laurent’s mesmerizing French Resistance fighter from Inglourious Basterds. It wouldn’t be Gyllenhaal; I loved her sexy single mom despite her atrocious, baffling taste in men. She made me believe she could be attracted to Jeff Bridges’ wreck of a singer, and that feat deserves any reward it can get. And it probably wouldn’t be cool, sympathetic Farmiga, getting her first Oscar nod after doing lauded work in The Departed and Down to the Bone. No, it’d probably be Cruz’s needy kitten of a mistress, or Kendrick’s cracklingly uptight junior executive. They’re both very good, though, and I suppose Kendrick’s career needs this boost the most; she was best known (probably still is) int he bit part of Jessica in the Twilight Saga, but here she’s gotten a chance to really impress. Morton’s been nominated before, and just goes on doing quietly wonderful work.
I’m eager to see Mo’Nique’s gown; her SAG dress, particularly, was a triumph. Cruz is a red carpet star; she gravitates towards big, feathery, ruffly princess gowns, yet never looks like a little girl playing dress up. Really all of these women have the potential to look as stunning as their work has been.
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
How Sure Am I?
Likeliest of the Unlikely Spoilers:
Colin Firth, A Single Man
There for the Party:
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
If I Had a Vote:
This race started off all over the place. Jeremy Renner’s adrenaline junkie bomb defusal expert won a bunch of early critics prizes (and in fact was nominated for others, like the Independent Spirit, last year while The Hurt Locker was making the festival circuit), and then George Clooney’s weary business traveler was inevitable, and then A Single Man came out and no one could get over what a revelation it was, how we’d never seen Colin Firth like that before. His grieving professor broke my heart. And then suddenly it was December and Jeff Bridges started eating up all the prizes. Bah. (It’s a funny thing, but every year there are people you know will be nominated but clearly cannot win, and Freeman was one of them. Such a shame, because his Mandela is utterly convincing and superlative.)
Jeff Bridges makes a convincing drunk. What’s perhaps harder is that he makes a convincing musician, a minor country music star whose wrecked himself and simply putters along, stumbling after (and then wrecking) every good thing that crosses his path. His performance didn’t have the same impact on me as Firth’s terrible, gracious despair, or Clooney’s slick patter, or Freeman’s wisdom and strength of purpose. I wouldn’t say that he bested Plummer’s Tolstoy (a true lead role) or Ben Foster’s bruised soldier from The Messenger, either. Still, he’s a popular, affable guy and he’s been making friends in Hollywood all his life. He snared his first nomination for The Last Picture Show way back in 1972, and seems finally ready to capitalize on that promise. So yes, I’d dance like a maniac if Firth pulled out a surprise win, but I don’t expect it. I’ll try to be happy for my old favorite Star Man even as he beats my beloved Mr. Darcy.
Allegedly Duking It Out for the Oscar:
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia
Your Likeliest Winner:
How Sure I Am?
Can They Sneak In For the Win?:
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
No, She’s Won Too Recently (Sigh):
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
If I Had a Vote:
Everyone’s been considering this award locked up for Sandra Bullock since she won the SAG award. I’ve just read a compelling LA Times article which suggests the race might not be as over as that suggests. Man, do I hope he’s right.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve said it before; I love Sandra Bullock, and I think she’s underappreciated as an actress. And she did fine work as a feisty and determined Southern foster-mother. But the other women in this category! Have you seen these performances? I’m just not sure she’s in the same league. For crying out loud, for as much as people go on about Meryl Streep always being nominated, there’s been time to grow whole new competition since she last won! And I’m not talking child prodigy Anna Paquin type competition. She last won in 1983, the year Gabby Sidibe was born. That’s right. 27 years ago. I’ve written more than once that if there’s a race between any actress and Meryl Streep, Meryl always loses. Meryl versus Kate Winslet, Meryl versus Helen Mirren, Meryl versus Catherine Zeta-Jones, et cetera, et cetera. Puh-leeze, let this be the time that I’m wrong.
Mulligan brings to life a precocious, charming teen presented with some baffling life options. Sidibe, playing her polar opposite, fights to transcend personal tragedy, abuse and soul-crushing poverty. Streep is a goofy, bright diplomat’s wife looking for a project to supply meaning to her (childless) days. And Mirren breathes fire as the flamboyant Countess fighting for her famous husband’s attention. They’re awe-inspiring.
And, if you know me, you know I love surprises. I love it when conventional wisdom flies out the window. And oh, Mulligan and Streep are so magnetic! Sidibe and Mirren are so moving! I love them all! I don’t want any of them to lose! And I hate that they all probably will! Oscar, you’ve probably heard, seem to be all about momentum, about people winning because the voting body collectively decides that it’s time, because everyone wants to back a winner. Of course, occasionally there’ll be backlash to someone’s inevitable victory (Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan), or several strong contenders who split the vote so that a more unexpected candidate pulls through (Adrian Brody in The Pianist). You can have a popular star sweep to victory over critical favorites (Julia Roberts, Robin Williams) or see a blockbuster comedian (Eddie Murphy) lose his seemingly locked in award because people don’t think of him as an award winner. Or maybe it was just that they didn’t like him, and Sandy Bullock certainly doesn’t have that problem. What does all that mean? There’s a lot more going on than just figuring out who had the best performance.
If she wins, Bullock will be funny and disarming and she’ll thank her tattooed mechanic/reality show star husband Jesse James, and she’ll cry, and that’ll make us cry. If Streep wins, she’ll be modest and witty and hilarious and passionate. (Will she be a fashion disaster? That’s a tougher question.) If Sidibe wins, she’ll be bubbly and gracious. If Mulligan wins, she’ll be dimply and charming and just possibly gobsmacked. I’m hoping that her gown will be as Audrey Hepburn inspired as her pixie hair, something floaty with a poofy skirt, like the strapless embroidered wonder in Sabrina. If Mirren wins, she’ll be queenly and British and great, and probably shock onlookers with a fabulous frock.
Duking it Out For the Top Spot:
Katheryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
How Sure Am I?
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Here for the Party:
Lee Daniels, Precious
Jason Reitman, Up in The Air
My Vote Would Go To:
Call me shallow, but I’m most excited about the idea of a woman finally, finally winning best director after nearly a century of male dominance. I know it shouldn’t be about that, but since Oscar isn’t exactly the meritocracy we all hope it would be, I take solace and find reasons to celebrate where ever I can. So all other things being equal (which is to say, that these are not my five favorite movies) she’d just edge out Jim Cameron for my personal vote.
I won’t write this off as a sure thing until the acceptance speech is given. I think a huge boost in Kathryn Bigelow’s favor is that she’s gracious (and, let’s face it, gorgeous) and she is not James Cameron. In fact, I’m willing to bet she’s getting more than a few votes because she used to be married to him, three wives ago, and some people might see that as a way to stick it to an uber-successful blowhard. Cameron’s win at the Golden Globes served as a reminder of his much derided “King of the World” speech. No one wants to hear him quote himself in Navi again. No one.
The fight clearly is between Cameron and Bigelow. How fascinating (and how unlikely?) would it be if Quentin Tarantino snuck in? I suppose it’s not out of the realm of possibility, but it’d be a tremendous shock. The sum of the precursors (especially the DGA) point to Bigelow. But who knows? Only BAFTA (the British equivalent of Oscar) tells us that people are still thinking of her – the PGA, DGA and SAG were all announced a month ago. Momentum can shift significantly in a month.
The case for Cameron, of course, is that he made the highest grossing movie of all time. And that he filmed it all himself, and wrote it himself, and created a 3D experience which could spell the start of new era in film history. That’s a pretty damn good case. But on the other hand, the story he wrote is hardly original or deep, there are some who take issue with its politics (though not many in Hollywood, I would think) and mostly, people just don’t like him. He may have changed movie-going forever, but did he make the best movie? Most people believe The Hurt Locker is a better movie than Avatar. Kathryn Bigelow – in addition to being likable and talented – managed a multi-lingual set in the Middle East during sandstorms on a pretty minor budget. Her achievement is less grandiose in scale (and also in historical consequence) but it’s rated as a fine achievement no less.
So, will voters feel that Cameron should be satisfied with technical awards, since that’s where his movie excels? We shall see.
Duking it Out For the Top Spot:
My Best Guess:
The Hurt Locker
How Sure Am I?:
51% (Which is to say, not very.)
Here For the Party:
A Serious Man
If I Had a Vote:
I’m not as sold on The Hurt Locker as everyone else seems to be. How ironic is it that the Academy expands the Best Picture list to ten and snares an enormous box office smash like Avatar, only to have it lose out to a movie that’s made a whopping $19 million world wide? You may have heard tell of the new Academy preferential balloting concept, which makes it all even more confusing. We don’t really know how (or if) that’s going to change things, but I guess we’re about to find out.
I just heard Boston Globe critic Wesley Morris on NPR talking about how The Hurt Locker has a better plot than Avatar. I’ll certainly say that it has deeper and more original characters, but honestly, does The Hurt Locker actually have a plot? It has a character arc, sure, but isn’t it just episodic? Here’s what happens on Day 25, Day 16, Day 8?
Anyway, this is one of those cases where I’m going with conventional wisdom, but my gut is telling me that things aren’t as solid as they appear. Maybe that’s because I didn’t love The Hurt Locker as I expected to. Maybe it’s because I find it hard to believe that a $12 million grossing David can beat the $714 million grossing Goliath. Maybe it’s because the technical innovations of Avatar seem already to have changed the cinema landscape. I’m going to have to say The Hurt Locker, though, because I’m not sure Avatar can pull it out – and if not Avatar, then who? Do people really like Inglourious Basterds that much? (God, I hope not. If there’s a more lopsided film out this year, I haven’t seen it. Tarantino brings explosive color and energy like no one else, but his work is so unbalanced.) Is The Blind Side too middlebrow for the Academy these days, or is it just middlebrow enough? Up in the Air had the early buzz, but stalled at the Golden Globes and SAG. It’s all well and good for my gut to mistrust The Hurt Locker, but unless it gives me an alternative, I’m forced to play it safe.
So I’ll do the dorky, film enthusiast thing instead and tell you to see some of these movies. I don’t care how old you are: Up is one of the most moving and thrilling flicks I’ve seen in a long time. Maybe they’re not deep, but The Blind Side and Avatar will leave you cheering in your seats. They’re up near Up for sheer entertainment value. An Education and Precious (despite the latter’s ridiculous full title) tell difficult, moving coming of age stories; ladies, how often do we get to see that at the movie theater? Seek them out! I have serious issues with District 9, but it’s exciting to see film on this scale and of this level of mastery coming out of South Africa, without the dubious benefit of a bloated Hollywood budget.
The Rest of the Nominees:
What else can I add? Whatever else comes, Avatar will bring Papa Cameron some well deserved technical trophies. Most people believe Up will sail away with the Animated Feature prize, although all the contenders seem worthy. I loved The Princess and the Frog, and can’t wait to catch The Secret of Kells (the tiny little Irish movie that could) and the fantastically reviewed mixed media flick The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Food, Inc is the best known and most critically lauded of the documentaries – which often is a sign that it won’t win. The White Ribbon seems a good bet for foreign film; it snagged a cinematography nod, and any foreign film that appears twice on a ballot gets a big boost. Will the two marvelous entries from The Princess and the Frog cancel each other out, leaving T. Bone Burnett to pick up an Oscar for “The Weary Kind”? Will the Academy reward Quentin Tarantino for his unbalanced incendiary of a script, or reward Mark Boal instead? That’d certainly show us how much the Academy loves The Hurt Locker, and would be a really good indication that it’s got the biggest prize sewn up.
It’ll be fun, of course, to see who’s got the best dress, and the best speech, which presenters transcended their material and which ones didn’t. Will Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin soar or sink as hosts? Can they possibly best Billy Crystal’s opening songs? Or even Neil Patrick Harris’ Emmy dance. Speaking of which, will we love or hate Adam Shankman for cutting out the Best Song performances but including (as rumor has it) interpretive dance? And will it matter (at least to me) if he uses some of my favorite dancers from So You Think You Can Dance? Will the Twilight trio stumble over their lines, or shine as presenters? Will Nicholas Chartier be celebrating at home, or will his little email campaign help hand the night to his rivals? Only time will tell, ladies and gentleman. I’ll see you back here tomorrow for a good old-fashioned rundown of the winners and losers, the surprises and the speeches. And now, please excuse me. I’ve got some strawberries to dip in chocolate.