21 February 2009

If I Had an Oscar Ballot

Here's how I'd fill out an Oscar ballot if the Academy erroneously sent me one.

Picture: Milk
Director: David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Actor: Sean Penn, Milk
Actress: Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Supporting Actress: Viola Davis, Doubt

Adapted Screenplay: Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley
Original Screenplay: Wall•E, by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, and Pete Docter

Animated Film: Wall•E
Short Animated Film: Presto
Documentary: Man on Wire
Foreign Language Film: Waltz with Bashir

Cinematography: Wally Pfister, The Dark Knight
Editing: Elliot Graham, Milk

Art Direction: Donald Graham Burt and Victor J. Zolfo, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Costume Design: Jacqueline West, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Makeup: Greg Cannom, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Visual Effects: Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Original Score: Thomas Newman, Wall•E
Original Song: "Down to Earth" by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman, Wall•E

Sound Editing: Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood, Wall•E
Sound Mixing: Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo and Ed Novick, The Dark Knight

Analysis, explanations, and overlooked possibilities after the jump.

Everywhere I look, from Time to Slant, the predictions are aligning with general consistency. This either means the Internet is exorbitantly homogeneous or that we're independently reading the tea leaves with the same thoughts in mind — neither of which I'm ready to rule out.
The ineluctable truth is that it's been difficult not to feel in the moments of this Oscar race that the film industry came together and decided to ruin the ending of the movie for you. The colossal momentum of one particular film has had an inverse effect on my interest in the show, and this final celebration, now three months after the beginning of the awards season, is in the sort of denouement that would be associated with a bad movie: glitzy, meandering, and predictable.

Yet still, here I am, pencil in hand and ready to flex my prognosticating muscles once again and willing to say (and in some cases, hoping) I'm wrong. For reference, it might be necessary to check my films of the year essay to understand which I have seen and which I haven't, as it will color some of my selections. These blind spots have made some categories very tricky, as I can't say if I would want The Class to win Best Foreign Film yet, Trouble the Water to win Best Documentary, or whether Synecdoche New York was snubbed of anything.


The prohibitive favorite – er, shoo-in – er, "it is written" – is Slumdog Millionaire, a film which I found to be adequately entertaining but relatively trite, backed up by an isn't-it-cute story coated in a Teflon veneer. To me, it's enjoyable, but not the sort of thing that makes a picture of the year. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a captivating motion picture and one I really admire; it's the type of outsider film which could have possibly been my choice had its screenplay not repeatedly fallen flat. That said, I have no qualms about proclaiming that Milk should win Best Picture this year. It is a carefully and gorgeously crafted story, heartbreaking in all the right ways. The technical crew was in top form (particularly the cinematographer, editor, and costumers), the screenplay and direction are complementary and equally strong, and it is stocked with a magnificent ensemble cast led forcefully by a joyous Sean Penn. It's the sort of movie I dream about discovering between Oscar telecasts.

Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win: Milk
- The real film of the year, of course: Wall•E
- The Dark Knight
- The Wrestler


It is often considered unorthodox when the Academy splits its vote between the best picture of the year and the best director of the year, but if I were voting, that's just what I'd do. My choice is David Fincher, because The Curious Case of Benjamin Button felt to me like a rare fulfillment of a fantastical vision. Although I often found myself cringing at the occasionally wooden and sentimental writing, I could not deny that I anxiously awaited the next turn in Fincher's epic – where he would take me next, what utterly complete universe lay just around the next corner. Gus Van Sant had a great year with both Paranoid Park and Milk, films I count among the year's best; one was a stylistic experiment that succeeded wildly, and the other was focused and crisp showcase of one man's activism. As such, he is close second place and one I'd also love to see win.

Will Win: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win: Fincher or Van Sant
- Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler
- Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
- Steven Soderbergh, Che


This year's toughest category, for two great performances deserve merit and historical trends make this difficult to predict. Richard Jenkins would be a great choice, and his work in The Visitor is surprisingly tender, but the contest is clearly between Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke. Will Penn become the tenth lead performer this decade to win an Oscar for playing another person? There has been one at every Oscar ceremony since 2000, sans one. I think Penn deserves it; he embodies Harvey Milk in an exuberant and tragic portrayal that ranges from ostentatious joy to the smallest mannerisms, capture to perfection. But I still haven't been able to shake Rourke's visceral comeback as a wrestler out of his prime. I would never have thought the day before Oscars that Penn would be the riskier bet. After switching my vote nearly every day since the nominations were announced, I've decided what I truly hope for: a tie. It's happened twice in Oscar history – Best Actor in 1932, Best Actress in 1969 – so aren't we overdue for another?

Will Win: Rourke
Should Win: Penn or Rourke
- Benecio del Toro, Che
- Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
- Michael Fassbender, Hunger
- Andrew Garfield, Boy A


Like its partner category, Best Actress this year also includes two very powerful performances, either of which would please me if it won. For me, the race is between Melissa Leo in Frozen River and Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married. The slightest edge goes to Leo, who is without a doubt the epicenter of her film as a desperate mother on the brink of absolute poverty. (Hathaway's full-bodied and fragile performance as a recovering addict thrives off those around her; that's not damnable, and in fact, one might argue it makes hers stronger.) Leo and Hathaway are at the top of my list for a simple reason: genuineness. They disappear into their roles, and there is depth and subtlety to these performances, even Hathaway, who makes a series of smart decisions that keep her character Kym from becoming cliché. The momentum is behind Kate Winslet, but if my two are utterly out of the running, I'd rather see the statuette go to Meryl Streep, who arguably deserves it for her role. (Sorry, Kate: maybe if it had been Revolutionary Road instead.)

Will Win: Winslet
Should Win: Leo or Hathaway
- Juliette Binoche, The Flight of the Red Balloon
- Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
- Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Supporting Actor

It's Heath Ledger. I can think of dozens of reasons why one might justify giving him an Oscar, but the only one that counts is that he gave the best supporting performance of the year. What we know about his preparation for the role and what we see on screen in The Dark Knight (an infinitely complex villain with a clear grand scheme and individualized ticks that haunt us more than minutiae should) translates into a character that should be remembered solely for the performance, all fate-related matters set aside. However, I can see a scenario where the Academy chooses not to honor Ledger because he is no longer alive. James Dean had two consecutive posthumous nominations and won neither; while Peter Finch did win for Network, his death occurred right before balloting, as opposed to Ledger's, which was a year ago. But not rewarding Ledger's fine performance would be a terrible, horrible, awful mistake. In the unfortunate event that such a thing would be the case, I'd like to see the award go to either Josh Brolin as the tortured city supervisor in Milk or Michael Shannon as the chorus-esqe lunatic in Revolutionary Road.

Will Win: Ledger
Should Win: Ledger
- James Franco, Milk
- Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky
- Brad Pitt, Burn After Reading

Supporting Actress

Of the five women nominated for Best Supporting Actress, any one would satisfy me in a win. Sure, I would have swapped out Taraji P. Henson for Rosemarie DeWitt (who really deserves it), but aside from that, I have few complaints. My three particular favorites are Penélope Cruz, who played crazy in a shockingly new way in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and is the eighth woman Woody Allen has directed to a Best Supporting nod; Viola Davis, who fell into the middle of Doubt for the length of one scene and utterly blew open a film that had been sluggish; and Marisa Tomei, who already has an Oscar on her nightstand, as a stripper who bonds with Mickey Rourke's character in The Wrestler. The best performances, however, are the ones where talent intersects great material, and no actress was given a job bigger than Davis. She rose to the occasion with such grace, fragility, and certitude.

Will Win: Cruz
Should Win: Davis (but Cruz is in second place in my heart)
- Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married

Adapted Screenplay

It was not a great year for adapted screenplays, and this category is the weakest of the entire ceremony. The source materials – two novels, two stage plays, and one short story – gave a variety of films, and the best film of the bunch, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is actually weakened significantly by its clunky script. The likely winner is Simon Beaufoy, who radically adapted Vikas Swarup's novel "Q&A" into Slumdog Millionaire. Certainly part of the adaptation award should be the screenwriter's own unique vision, but I think the Millionaire screenplay turns too mushy in the last act, and when you consider whether something is a good adaptation, I think part of the award should be in the work of adapting it and part should be whether the finished product is great. My heart says none of the above should win, but someone has to, which leaves John Patrick Shanley, who adapted his own stage play Doubt as both writer and director. I know, I know: "what adaptation?" But screenplays are more than just dialogue, and while Shanley is guilty of tremendously unsubtle direction, he turned a stage-play with only four characters into a screenplay that is bustling and alive in multiple sets and scene choices, strategic introductions of new characters, and a clear intention in transforming it from the stage to the screen. Let me just say one more time, for the record, that this category is so bad this year that I feel cheated in needing to justify this win.

Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win: Doubt
- Justin Haythe, Revolutionary Road
- Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
- Mark O'Rowe, Boy A
- Kelly Reichart and Jonathan Raymond, Wendy and Lucy

Original Screenplay

It's an old Oscar adage: if you want a better Best Picture line-up than the one they've given you, look to the Best Original Screenplay category. This year, four of the best writing nominees ended up on my top-ten list (only exception: Happy-Go-Lucky, which was still good). Frozen River and In Bruges picking up nominations was a pleasant surprise, and as always, I'm thrilled to see a Pixar film in the mix (the masterful Wall•E). The studio has had five writing nominees — this, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, which should have won last year. Wall•E would be my pick, but close behind it is the film I expect to win, Milk. Written by Dustin Lance Black after years of research, the screenplay lives up to brash explosion of populism Harvey Milk perfected in San Francisco, letting us soar, crash, and mourn all at once.

Will Win: Milk
Should Win: Wall•E
- Joel and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading


I'm still considering Wall•E as a potential for my Best of the Decade list, and I continue to think it was unjustly robbed of a Best Picture nomination and instead shoved into this ghettoized category so that the Academy doesn't have to think animation can be splendid and meaningful art. So, yeah, I'm going to say Wall•E.

Will Win: Wall•E
Should Win: Wall•E
- Waltz with Bashir


I've seen two films in the documentary category this year, Man on Wire and Encounters at the Edge of the World. Neither are masterpieces, I'm afraid, and the documentary I've been longing to see for months, Trouble the Water, has been praised in many circles. I think Man on Wire is the defter of the two. However, it's strange to think that Werner Herzog, the director behind Encounters, is now just receiving his first Academy Award nomination in the history of his prolific and breathtaking career. That could tip the scale for him, but, barring any last minute screenings of Trouble the Water, I'll have to stick with Man on Wire.

Will Win: Man on Wire
My Vote, By Default: Man on Wire
- Waltz with Bashir

Foreign Language Film

My non-English language film intake for 2008 was, admittedly, abysmal. Most prominently, I missed The Class, A Christmas Tale, Tell No One, I've Loved You So Long, Reprise, Revanche, and many others. However, many of the ones I saw did not leave me smitten. Let the Right One In and Gomorra, the Swedish and Italian films mostly frequently cited as snubbed here, were satisfactory but not particularly mesmerizing. The only one I have seen of the five is Waltz with Bashir, which right now holds an honorable mention spot on my list of the year's best. Although the chatter seems to suggest The Class might take the category, I'm going to say Waltz with Bashir will, if only because it could have been nominated for animated film, documentary, or foreign language, and having only received one nomination, this will be its victory.

Will Win: Waltz with Bashir
My Vote, By Default: Waltz with Bashir
- Flight of the Red Balloon

Art Direction

My two favorites for this category — The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Revolutionary Road — both bring meticulous detail to their respective eras: the latter encapsulating the suffocating stillness of suburban decay, the former nearly every era from the 1910s to the 2000s, from America to Europe. That chronological and geographical evolution seems as if it will, and should, translate into a win.

Will Win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Should Win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


I wrote extensively on this year's cinematography contest for LAMB, and I stand by everything I said then, with the exception of thinking Claudio Miranda has a possible greater shot at winning now than Wally Pfister, depending how the Oscars decide to treat The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. As I said then, I think Anthony Dod Mantle is still the front-runner to win here, which would make it the first time since 1999 that the Best Picture and Best Cinematography matched up. I think Pfister deserves it, since The Dark Knight has both the look and the risk to go along with it, with Miranda in a close second-place.

Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win: The Dark Knight
- Roger Deakins, Revolutionary Road
- Harris Savides, Milk

Costume Design

Just as "most cuts" tends to correlate with Oscars for editing and "loudest booms" tends to correlate with Oscars for sound, so "fanciest costumes" tends to correlate with Oscars for best costumes. The Duchess has the period-piece vibe in spades, with all the ridiculous time-specific clothes to boot. But I would be hesitant to discount The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which tracks the contemporary styles of American culture from the 1910s to the 2000s, and yes, was nominated for Best Picture (so there is some love in the ranks for something it did). All five nominees are rather impressive, however, including the '70s chic of Milk and the sexy woman's wear of Revolutionary Road. Something tells me The Duchess will win, but for the sake of a possible upset in my Oscar pool, I'll say differently.

Will Win:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Should Win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- The Fall


There are moments when Slumdog Millionaire feels like a moving image overload, and since it's poised to pick up Best Picture, Best Director, and (I'm guessing) Best Cinematography, it doesn't seem so much of a stretch to think its editing will also be selected. My vote goes to Elliot Graham's agile work on Milk, however: splicing real footage through new footage, creating collages of still photography and weaving it all together in a tight production that never felt to me like it was a moment too long.

Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win: Milk
- Joel and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading


Although the primary effects of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were visual and computer-based, the make-up still played an important role as Button grew younger and Daisy grew older. Although I love the Joker's scars (and hearing about them) in The Dark Knight, I'm having a difficult time imagining how this category might go another way.

Will Win:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Should Win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Original Score

There are some big possibilities in this category. Defiance is an error, but I'd think there are compelling cases to made for the remaining four. Often-ran Danny Elfman is nominated for Milk and often-ran Thomas Newman is nominated for Wall•E. I would really like to see Newman win, because Wall•E depended on its aural experience as a significant storytelling device (and could tear me up). Alexandre Desplat, however, delivers a lush orchestral score that valiantly attempts to make up for the missed connections in Eric Roth's lackluster script, and like the rest of Benjamin Button's technical wizardry, Desplat's score is majestic. The winner, I'm guessing, is A.R. Rahman for his pyro-techno music set to Slumdog Millionaire, and although I think Desplat and Newman deserve it more for sheer emotiveness, I'm not going to be upset by a Rahman win. His score often feels like a pop album simply laid across the film and to me lacks all the gradation of Desplat, but if nothing else, I remember the music and the camerawork from Slumdog. That's the sort of thing that will translate well.

Will Win:
Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win:
Wall•E or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, The Dark Knight

Original Song

The bottom line is that this category didn't have to have only three nominees, but it does, which upsets me to no end. Personally, I found the Slumdog Millionaire songs a little grating. I was tremendously moved by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman's "Down to Earth" as it played over the artistically beautiful credits of Wall•E. Still, any original song award should have gone to the man who wasn't nominated: his name is Bruce Springsteen.

Will Win: "Jai Ho," Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win: "Down to Earth," Wall•E
- "The Wrestler" by Bruce Springsteen, The Wrestler

Sound Editing & Mixing

The team behind
Wall•E's sound, including the great sound editor Ben Burtt (known far and wide for R2D2's "voice" and the light saber effects in Star Wars), deserve a win for Best Sound Editing as much as Wall•E deserved to be nominated for Best Picture. Quite simply, here's a film that wouldn't have been the same had it not been for its tender and unique use of non-humanoid sound made to carry the swell of humanity.

Will Win Editing: Wall•E
Should Win Editing: Wall•E

When it comes to sound mixing, my vote's with The Dark Knight. Yes, this category usually goes to the loudest of the nominated pictures, and The Dark Knight does have some splendid action sequences with lots of kabooms and kerpows. But I'm thinking of the moments aside of those explosions, the moments of tension when the mixed sound and score could made the tension almost unbearable. Wall•E certainly is in the running here, and I'd love for it to win as well, but I'm splitting the sound awards between two of the most euphonic experiences I had in the theater this year.

Will Win Mixing: Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win Mixing: The Dark Knight

Visual Effects

More than makeup, more than costumes, even more than art direction, the film that used visual effects to the greatest degree of success this year was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But it's worth noting at least Iron Man didn't abuse its visual effects.

Will Win:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Should Win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


Summary: Although I don't think Slumdog Millionaire will pull off a complete sweep, it'll win the night.
But if I were giving out the awards based on these nominees alone, my top honorees would be Wall•E (5 awards),
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (5 awards), Milk (3 awards), The Dark Knight (3 awards), and Doubt (2 awards).

A little more egalitarian, I'd say, than my official predictions. And yes, I could go through the entire ceremony without awarding Slumdog Millionaire a single trophy. What can I say? I liked it, but didn't love it. I liked Definitely, Maybe as well, but I'm not lining it up for any Oscars either.

Tune in Sunday night for my live-blog of the Oscars to read my mind as it all transpires and see how many predictions I got wrong.


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