05 March 2010

If I Had an Oscar Ballot, 2010

A few months ago, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis summarized the Oscars with typical acerbity: “Let’s acknowledge that the Oscars are bullshit and we hate them.”

A pithier and truer verdict might not ever have been rendered. But, were it only so easy! When we say we hate the Oscars, what we mean is that they favor publicity to artistry, honor lesser achievements as stand-ins for someone’s entire body of work, and purport to reward the best in film while typically bestowing laurels upon mid-range selections. Yet how can you not get a kick out of it all? I like the Oscars in the same way I like federal elections or the AFC playoffs. It’s a race, with ups and downs, honoring the “best” in film.

Therefore, I like to play this game every year with the Oscars: who’s going to win, who should win, and who should have been nominated. First, a few disclaimers: My predictions are my best guess on this day. My preferences are the nominated films and individuals I’d like to see win, and I’ve chosen them because I think they’re the genuine best of their categories (none of this “he/she is due” yarn—that’s the real bullshit). Wherever possible, I’ve tried to limit my preference to one single choice, like I’d be faced with on a ballot, but sometimes it’s too nuanced for that. The “Should Be Here” selections include 2009 U.S. releases that didn’t make the cut for whatever reason — perhaps ruled ineligible by the academy’s rules and regulations, or passed over in lieu of some lesser film. I don’t claim to have seen every 2009 release, so these suggestions are based solely on my film knowledge as of today.

And the categories are:

Best Animated Short Film
• French Roast
• Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty
• The Lady and the Reaper

• Logorama

• Wallace & Gromit in “A Matter of Loaf and Death”

Nick Park has tremendous goodwill among the Academy. He’s 5-0 when it comes to the gold, and he’ll probably win again this year for his latest Wallace and Gromit short, A Matter of Loaf and Death — familiar territory, but at 29 minutes, the longest of the bunch (Oscar rewards length here) and with the most significant story development. Few of the other four probably stand a chance, but let’s consider them anyway. French Roast and Granny O’Grimm have issues for opposing reasons (the former is nicely animated, but terribly dull; the latter is lively, but poorly animated). Logorama, submitted by France, is a witty and vulgar short that skewers the prevalence of marketing and corporations, but runs far too long on concept alone. I’d suspect the one that has an outside chance of knocking off Park would be Spain’s The Lady and the Reaper, a well-executed if slightly flawed comic battle for a dying woman between the Grim Reaper and a cocky surgeon that recalls (and falls short of) the classic shorts of Chuck Jones. It’s hard to deny Park’s film is objectively the most accomplished of the five, even if its characters are starting to taste a bit like week-old bread. He’ll win, and he’ll deserve it, but I’ll be rooting for The Lady and the Reaper on fresh-blood grounds alone.

Prediction: A Matter of Loaf and Death
Preference: A Matter of Loaf and Death or The Lady and the Reaper
Should Be Here: The Cat Piano, Partly Cloudy

Best Live-Action Short Film

• The Door
• Instead of Abracadabra
• Kavi
• Miracle Fish

• The New Tenants

I want to give a brief shout-out to Miracle Fish, which I found captivating in its strangeness for almost the entire running length. Its final moment however, when it literally fades to nothing and avoids the tough implications of the “ending” it delivered, screws over almost everything that came before. I suspect it and two other films — Kavi, a.k.a. Slumdog redux; and The New Tenants, a bleak and trashy piece of hipster flare — can be written off. The crux of this race will come down to The Door and Instead of Abracadabra, which poses a significant problem.

The Door is a finely crafted short film with startling images and cinematography, deep emotional currents, and genuine suspense. It is the story of a family following the Chernobyl disaster (the straightforward identification of which it, better or worse, averts from the audience until the final credits) and a man’s quest to retrieve a piece of his past. But the ending leaves a sour note in its heavy-handed repetition. Instead of Abracadabra, meanwhile, puts forth a complete story arc of a struggling magician and his relationship with his family, but represents rather conventional comic filmmaking. Abracadabra’s levity was received well at screening I attended, due in no small part to the antidote it provided to the starker preceding films. Yet I’m going to give the edge to The Door, which might prevail merely because it’s “about” something larger than itself.

Prediction: The Door
Preference: The Door or Instead of Abracadabra 

Best Documentary Short Film
• China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province
• The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner

• The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant

• Music by Prudence

• Rabbit à la Berlin

Of the three short film categories, this year’s strongest is the documentary field. The live-action and animation fields suffer from a collective funk in which none of the five stand out as compelling selections, but the short documentaries offer diverse topics and styles. Ironically enough however, the category front-runner seems to be The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, which, while timely and relevant enough, doesn’t announce itself as powerfully as the competition. Rabbit à la Berlin is a surreal angle on the history of the Berlin Wall “through the eyes of rabbits,” so it can probably be disqualified from Oscar consideration but nevertheless is an absorbing and mesmerizing 45 minutes. I was also captivated by The Last Campaign, an even-handed piece exploring the subject of death-with-dignity laws through the campaign of Washington state’s former governor who has Parkinson’s. For me The Last Campaign is a close second to China’s Unnatural Disaster, a heart-wrenching portrait of grieving parents angry at their government after the devastating 2008 earthquake. These are three great shorts, each worthy, but one is too large to ignore.

Prediction: China’s Unnatural Disaster
Preference: China’s Unnatural Disaster
Should Be Here: Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak

Best Visual Effects

• Avatar

• District 9

• Star Trek

Let’s just say that if Avatar doesn’t win this award, there’ll be something seriously rotten in the valleys of southern California. I’m not a cheerleader for Avatar in any respect except its visuals, and if it deserves to win anywhere on the ballot, it’s here. District 9 made the most of its budget, but the results were a mixed bag (the spaceship hovering over Johannesburg was great, but the aliens failed to integrate fully). And although I like Star Trek as a film the best of the three, its effects haven’t quite earned a reputation like the other two. Particular shame on the Academy for failing to acknowledge Henson Co.’s skill in bringing the characters of Where the Wild Things Are to life.

Prediction: Avatar
Preference: Avatar
Should Be Here: Where The Wild Things Are

Best Sound Editing
• Avatar
• The Hurt Locker
• Inglourious Basterds

• Star Trek

• Up

Sound editing — the creation and recording of sound effects — seems to be a category that has Avatar’s name all over it. Nominees here are frequently action films (re: loud), films heavy on special effects (re: loud), or animated films (re: occasionally loud), and Avatar has all three. The sound editing crew was charged with the task of creating an entire aural world for an organic planet populated with fictitious creatures without straying too far outside of the familiar. They succeeded, and might have been my vote, if it hadn’t been for Star Trek. You could argue that the rules were looser for Mark Stoeckinger and Alan Rankin (with help from the legendary Ben Burtt) because they were free to invent sounds that required no root to reality, but I’d argue it required more creativity, balance, and selectivity. When it comes to space adventures in 2009 anyway, Star Trek proved more satisfying to the ears.

Prediction: Avatar
Preference: Star Trek

Best Sound Mixing
• Avatar

• The Hurt Locker
• Inglourious Basterds
• Star Trek
• Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Nominees for sound mixing—the synthesis of all sound elements into a singular soundtrack—tend to be action films or films heavily influenced by music. I suspect the race here, like much of the ballot, will also come down to Avatar and The Hurt Locker. The argument for Avatar would include the company it keeps with other ground-breaking “big movie” winners from the last twenty years that picked up both sound editing and Mixing, films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, Titanic, The Matrix, The Return of the King, and King Kong. These films tend to have liberal usage of special effects and gargantuan sequences, descriptors that fit Avatar nicely. The argument for The Hurt Locker would have to include the company it keeps with war-film mixing winners like Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, and Saving Private Ryan, and is complicated further by the fact that there is a 50/50 shot that this category will follow the Best Picture winner. History aside, a stronger argument for The Hurt Locker is its complete sonic integration of multiple sound elements to help mirror the chaos and confusion of dangerous situations and the skill to pull back and leave an eerie silence engulf the audience when needed. This has actually been one of the trickiest categories for me this year, and until a few days ago, I was solid with The Hurt Locker as my prediction. But now—I don’t know. I'm on the fence, doubting that the nuanced will be rewarded over the colossus, but crossing my fingers and going there anyway.

Prediction: The Hurt Locker
Preference: The Hurt Locker

Best Original Song

• “Almost There” from The Princess and the Frog

• “Down in New Orleans” from The Princess and the Frog

• “Loin de Paname” from Paris 36''
• “Take it All” from Nine

• “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart

The notoriously fickle original song category disqualified many wonderful songs this year as usual, but exceeded my expectations by somehow resisting the treacherously bad “I See You” from Avatar and the banal “Cinema Italiano” from Nine. That said, four of the songs here are still middling-to-poor, with the lone exception of Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett’s “The Weary Kind.” A country western song seemingly penned by an old and broken soul, it serves dual roles as a non-diegetic theme of Crazy Heart but also a powerful diegetic comeback ballad for Bad Blake. Plus, the song itself packs more of a punch than the film’s entire script.

Prediction: “The Weary Kind”
Preference: “The Weary Kind”
Should Be Here: “Help Yourself” from Up in the Air; “Hideaway” from Where the Wild Things Are; “You Got Me Wrapped Around Your Little Finger” from An Education

Best Original Score

• Marco Beltrami, The Hurt Locker

• Alexandre Desplat, Fantastic Mr. Fox

• Michael Giacchino, Up
• James Horner, Avatar
• Hans Zimmer, Sherlock Holmes

First, let’s get out of the way that no one is having a better run of film scores than Alexandre Desplat, who penned scores for five 2009 releases and should have picked up an Oscar for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button last year. Outside of James Horner’s rather routine score for Avatar, I think there’s a lot to like about this year’s original score category: the offbeat work by Hans Zimmer in Sherlock Holmes, the subtle but effective score in The Hurt Locker by Marco Beltrami, and of course Desplat’s effective (if a little light) channeling of Wes Anderson’s eccentricities in Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’d have swapped out Horner for Abel Korzeniowski’s haunting score for A Single Man (which I’ve heard, though not seen) but even then I’d still want to the award to go to Michael Giacchino for his tender work on Up. Pixar prominently featured his work in the film (particularly the emotional montage in the beginning), and it is immediately recognizable and evocative.

Prediction: Up
Preference: Up
Should Be Here: Abel Korzeniowski, A Single Man

Best Makeup
• Il Divo
• Star Trek

• The Young Victoria

Not to be too reductive, but many of Oscar’s technical categories live and die by how noticeable they are: films with the most cuts take home editing honors, films with the most elaborate sets take home art direction, etc. I think there’s a tendency to appreciate that if a film has made it this far, it’s doing something right, so you should honor the one that has its “rightness” most visibly on display. If that follows through to this year’s make-up category, Star Trek should walk away with the statuette: the film brought the classic makeup of the series into the modern age, and voters will likely remember Spock’s ears or a Romulan’s face (never mind that more voters have probably seen the film than the other two combined). My choice is Il Divo because I was completely unaware just how much make-up went into transforming Toni Servillo into Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. It was convincing enough to be a hell of a surprise later on, and certainly utilizes its make-up in the most meaningful of ways.

Prediction: Star Trek
Preference: Il Divo
Should Be Here: District 9

Best Film Editing
• John Refoua and Stephen E. Rivkin, Avatar

• Julian Clarke, District 9

• Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, The Hurt Locker
• Sally Menke, Inglourious Basterds

• Joe Klotz, Precious

This year’s editing field should be a no-brainer: of the five, no film benefited as much from precision editing as The Hurt Locker. The cutting by Chris Innis and Bob Murawski created a spatial atmosphere on screen that was at once claustrophobic and paradoxically all-encompassing while sacrificing none of the tension. The result is an embedded sensation during the film’s taut action sequences, where the viewer is thrown into a bomb-difusing squad as concerned with the explosive on the ground as they are from the peering eyes positioned on top of neighboring buildings, all of which we experience. The other nominees did not put forward as impressive work as Innis and Murawski, nor as impressive as Dana E. Glauberman’s clean and efficient work on Up in the Air or the Coen Brothers (as Roderick Jaynes) in A Serious Man. A surprise nomination should have been in order for Sugar, an underrated baseball drama by directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Boden’s editing, coupled with Andrij Parekh’s cinematography, presented as realistic a portrait of what it’s like to be in the middle of a baseball game as I’ve seen in a film.

Prediction: The Hurt Locker
Preference: The Hurt Locker
Should Be Here: A Serious Man, Sugar, Up in the Air

Best Costume Design
• Colleen Atwood, Nine
• Catherine Leterrier, Coco Before Chanel
• Janet Patterson, Bright Star
• Sandy Powell, The Young Victoria
• Monique Prudhomme, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

I usually find myself aboard the “stop-rewarding-fancy-period-dramas” train when it comes to the Academy’s costume design category, so it’s with an expansive recognition of irony that my vote is for Janet Patterson’s lovely and subtle costumes in Bright Star (sadly the film’s only nomination), a film that actually engages its costumes on a cumulative level. But subtlety has never been the strong suit of the Oscars, which elevates the chances of eye-poppers like Sandy Powell, with strong but routine work in The Young Victoria, and Monique Prudhomme, behind the trippy costumes of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Because the category has a tendency to reward anything older the McKinley Administration, it appears Powell will pick up her third Oscar.

Prediction: The Young Victoria
Preference: Bright Star
Should Be Here: Colleen Atwood, Public Enemies

Best Cinematography

• Barry Ackroyd, The Hurt Locker
• Christian Berger, The White Ribbon
• Bruno Delbonnel, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
• Mauro Fiore, Avatar

• Robert Richardson, Inglourious Basterds

Beside the obvious question of how the preferential ballot and 10 Best Picture candidates will pan out, Sunday should resolve another lingering question of the Academy’s tastes: will it embrace the all-digital (and special-effects-driven) cinematography of Avatar? All signs point to a deep and understandable hesitation. That’s not to deny the complexity of Mauro Fiore’s task as cinematographer on the film, but it is to suggest that the overlap between visual effects and cinematography creates a Vinn diagram with a bit too much space for some voters. Personally, I’d be among them: I have a greater respect for Barry Ackroyd’s embedded lens in The Hurt Locker and Robert Richardson’s lean and mean reincarnation of classical Hollywood cinema in Inglourious Basterds. Christian Berger’s work on The White Ribbon also gains my respect (lit for black-and-white, shot in color, and desaturated), and it is always a pleasure to see foreign-language films land nominations in categories outside Best Foreign Language Film, but the work comes in below Ackroyd and Richardson, who already has two Oscars to his name. Although Avatar poses a great risk across the technical field, this will go to The Hurt Locker.

Prediction: The Hurt Locker
Preference: Inglourious Basterds
Should Be Here: Lance Acord, Where the Wild Things Are; Greig Fraser, Bright Star; Eduard Grau, A Single Man

Best Art Direction 
• Avatar

• The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
• Nine
• Sherlock Holmes
• The Young Victoria

What were Academy voters smoking when they nominated the five films for this category? This is a rather pathetic slate of nominees for what is usually a lively and competitive category, although these films bear the hallmarks of Oscar’s fingerprints: flamboyant period pieces, stylish musicals, and fantasies. A more original and deserving slate of possible nominees is available by me below, but considering what my options are from the official category, my preference would have to go to Sherlock Holmes, which delivers the eye for period detail and the creativity of the detective himself. The likelier winner will be Avatar, which boasts a threat in almost every tech category, even if its art direction and set decoration were more the result of skilled computer technicians and illustrators. With the word “art” in the category title, you have to give the advantage to Avatar, I guess.

Prediction: Avatar
Preference: Sherlock Holmes
Should Be Here: Any or all of the following with vastly superior art direction: Bright Star, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Inglourious Basterds, Public Enemies, The Road, A Serious Man, A Single Man, Where the Wild Things Are

Best Foreign Language Film
• Ajami

• La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow)
Un Prophète (A Prophet)

• El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes)
• Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon)

“Film X will never win Best Foreign Language Film, and that’s a high compliment” has become the punch-line to what’s become a rather sad joke of a category. That’s not to say the films themselves are jokes, but the process of selecting the nominees for film not in the English language is chuckle-worthy at best and cringe-worthy at worst. Fold the exclusive selection process with the edict that voters must prove they’ve watched all five, which undoubtedly skews the demographic audience, and the result as been some interesting, if not surprising, selections come Oscar night. (Note: The watch-’em-all is not a bad rule; hell, the results often suggest they ought to implement it for every other category.) The year boasts two well-known entries, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, and three lesser known entries from Israel, Peru, and Argentina round out the category. I wasn’t floored by any of the five, to be perfectly honest, but I found A Prophet — which has garnered much love among critics — to be the most compelling of the group. Its violence and slower narration will probably exclude it from many ballots, and odds are better that the Academy will go with something a bit more conventional. In the end, I like how Slant Magazine spun this category: If this were the 1950s/1960s, the auteur work of The White Ribbon would prevail; if this were the 1980s/1990s, brutal reality of A Prophet would end in victory; but this is the 2000s/2010s, so the winner will probably be Westernized traditional fare like The Secret in Their Eyes.

Prediction: The Secret in Their Eyes
Preference: A Prophet

Best Documentary Film
• Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country
The Cove
Food, Inc.

• The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

• Which Way Home

What an activist field this year. The front-runner is The Cove, an investigation into the slaughter of dolphins by Japanese fishermen that has sparked the ire of many. There is no denying the force of what The Cove attempts to accomplish as a piece of politics; you’d have to be one cold soul not to flinch, grimace, or tear at the awful sight of the self-aware panic in the dolphins and the subsequent blood-filled waters, but as a formal text, I’ve long though The Cove became too preoccupied with the actions of its crew as opposed to the heart of their mission. For most of the awards season, my vote was loyally in the camp of Food Inc., an exposé into the food production industry that difficult to sit through on a content level but which was crafted with commercial ease in mind. Robert Kenner’s documentary sat on my alphabetical year’s-best list until late December, when it was slowly pushed out by other films, one of which is Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country. It is a shattering documentary that examines life in junta-controlled Burma through footage shot illegally and exported out of the country. All three of the nominees I’ve seen speak to my inner liberal, but of the three, Burma VJ is the most formally ambitious and successful.

Prediction: The Cove
Preference: Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country
Should Be Here: The Beaches of Agnes

Best Animated Film

• Coraline
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog
• The Secret of Kells

Expanding the animated film category from three nominees to five couldn’t have come at a better time. The year was one of the best for animation in recent memory. Up and Fantastic Mr. Fox are on my list of the year’s best films. A surprise nod for The Secret of Kells, a beautiful Irish film about the Viking invasion in the sixth-century, renewed my belief that the Oscars can launch good and obscure films from mere abandon into instant publicity. They should have done for Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max, one of the best films of the year. Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo would have nicely rounded out the category. (Coraline and The Princess and the Frog are the weak links.) The Pixar powerhouse legacy will continue with Up, its five nominations (including Best Picture) making it an unstoppable force, but my own heart is torn between Up and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Prediction: Up
Preference: Up or Fantastic Mr. Fox
Should Be Here: Mary and Max, Ponyo

Best Adapted Screenplay
• Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, District 9
Nick Hornby, An Education

• Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche, In the Loop

• Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious
Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air

I judge an adapted screenplay on three qualities: 1) its success as a screenplay; 2) how meaningfully it transforms the source work; and 3) how it differentiates itself from the source work to become a film. By those standards, there aren’t many screenplays on an annual basis that I think become worthy of this award. This year’s category is certainly stronger than last year’s (where, out of sheer necessity, I voted for Doubt). District 9 has numerous problems, the screenplay most prominent among them; Precious proudly displays its adaptation in its full title, and should be commended from adapting Sapphire’s voice-driven stream-of-consciousness P.O.V. into a mainstream film. I’m thrilled Nick Hornby received a nomination for An Education, although the script’s tendons and threads sometimes show through. The team behind In the Loop provided some of the year’s greatest laughs, and if the Oscars offered a most inventive adaptation of the work fuck, this would win in a heartbeat. As it stands, however, I was never convinced the film took its satire to the next level and it ended as a good, though no great, screenplay. The Oscar will, and should, go to Up in the Air, which took Walter Kirn's first-person novel and grew it into a wonderful character study that is relevant and smart.

Prediction: Up in the Air
Preference: Up in the Air
Should Be Here: Fantastic Mr. Fox, A Single Man, Where the Wild Things Are, and because the Academy corralled it into the “adapted” category, Bright Star

Best Original Screenplay

• Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker

• Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman, The Messenger

• Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
Bob Peterson and Pete Docter, Up

Of Oscar’s twenty-four categories, this year the strongest is Best Original Screenplay. But that’s not surprising for two reasons: first, I’ve long believed the original screenplay category holds a truer, though no precise, lens to the world of mainstream film in a particular year than the Best Picture category. Consider some of the previous winners: Milk, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Lost in Translation, Fargo, etc. Second, the original scripts are typically better fare. This category isn’t perfect, mind you, but I can’t patently object to any of the above titles, four of which are on my year’s-best list. Up is another gem from Pixar, A Serious Man is a bleak and crackling existential comedy from the Brothers Coen, and The Messenger (written by two non-Americans) nails the American process of grief and suffering during wartime.

I suspect the race is between The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds, but it’s difficult to say which will prevail. A screenplay award could be a way of guaranteeing Tarantino an award for Basterds. I’ve long considered Basterds to be a misread text; it speaks to me not as a vengeance fantasy, but a film about the morally suspect ways we as moviegoers root for vengeance and as a war film that upends our traditional notions of language, how we talk about movies and how we define heroes and villains. I’m not entirely sure that’s how Tarantino wanted it to be read, but as it is, I personally found its screenplay more rewarding than The Hurt Locker’s, which is peppered with vivid details and psychological analysis. Still, none of the others come as close to capturing the image of an ideal original screenplay than the offbeat existentialism of A Serious Man.

Prediction: The Hurt Locker
Preference: A Serious Man
Should Be Here: Olivier Assayas, Summer Hours; Adam Elliot, Mary and Max

Best Supporting Actress
• Penélope Cruz, Nine

• Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air

• Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Mo’Nique, Precious

Earlier this season, when Mo’Nique suggested doing P.R. rounds for Precious was essentially pointless because everything voters needed to know about her performance was on the screen, I nearly leapt from my chair and tracked her down to deliver the largest hug a critic could muster. I adore that sentiment, and it’d be nice if more actors took that approach. After winning practically every supporting actress award all year, she’s the favorite to win, and I’ll be thrilled watching her take the stage and walk away with gold. The supporting acting categories have begun a slow drift into the fields of villainy, and Mo’Nique’s turn as the abusive mother in Precious couples nicely with Christoph Waltz’s baleful scourer in Inglourious Basterds. The role even contains an awards staple: the show-stopping, heart-pounding monologue. It is not, however, the performance that struck me the most of the five. For that I’ll have to commend Vera Farmiga as the cool and calculated travel companion that holds her own against George Clooney in every shared scene of Up in the Air. It’s an impressive performance in the opposite of every way that Mo’Nique’s is impressive: Farmiga is restrained, balanced, a master of false impressions and steely sexuality who is able to compartmentalize her life in even a way that shocks Clooney’s character. Never mind that a win by Farmiga would keep with the villain theme.

Prediction: Mo’Nique
Preference: Farmiga
Should Be Here: Marion Cotillard, Public Enemies

Best Supporting Actor

• Matt Damon, Invictus

• Woody Harrelson, The Messenger

• Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones

• Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Let’s dispense with a few formalities: Matt Damon was nominated for the wrong movie (he’s better in The Informant!), Stanley Tucci was nominated for the wrong movie (he’s better in Julie & Julia), and thank god that Christopher Plummer was nominated at all (his first!?). Now let’s talk about the heavy-hitters. Few performances were as arresting this year than Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. It’s equal parts “who-the-hell-is-this-guy” and “holy-hell-what-a-performance.” I cringe at the suggestion of Bob Mondello from NPR that we should shuffle all the acting categories together regardless of gender for a Best Performance and Best Supporting Performance, but if we did, Waltz would have been vote in whichever category he’d received a nomination. Tarantino has suggested he couldn’t make the film until he found the right Hans Landa, and I think on that mark the typically self-aggrandizing director is humbly correct. My runner-up selection for would easily be Woody Harrelson, as an experienced and emotionally wounded bearer of bad news in The Messenger.

Prediction: Waltz
Preference: Waltz
Should Be Here: Peter Capaldi, In the Loop; James Gandolfini, Where the Wild Things Are; Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker; Christian McKay, Me and Orson Welles

Best Actress
• Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

• Helen Mirren, The Last Station

• Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious

• Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Last year I called Costume Design for The Duchess while officially predicting The Curious Case of Benjamin Button would take home of the gold. My call was correct and my prediction fell through, but any Oscar watcher has to make one or two from-the-gut picks in hopes of an upset. This year, the Best Actress category is almost atomically unstable in comparison to the other acting fields, and thus the likeliest for an upset. (Just mentioning the category in some circles also brings out those who are atomically unstable, too.) Personally, I was more impressed by the performances of Carey Mulligan in An Education and Gabourey Sidibe in Precious than I was by Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side or Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia. I’m holding out hope that a vote split among the two leading contenders will deliver either Mulligan or Sidibe to the stage come Oscar night. Right now, most signs point to Bullock winning in this category for her work. It’s not a performance for the ages, but it works inside its (awful) film. However, merely because I want to be a bit contrarian and am looking for a serious Oscar pool upset, let me give you five reasons why I think Meryl Streep will win:

1) The Screen Actors Guild and the Academy Awards do not go hand-in-hand. Only twice in SAG’s 16-year history has its awards and the Oscars synched 4/4. The last time it happened was 2004, so you might think that we’re set for it to happen again. But statistically speaking, someone who won a SAG Award this year will not go home with an Oscar. Bullock won at SAG, and Actress is this year’s most contentious and this year’s least locked category.
2) If Kate Winslet hadn’t been placed in the lead actress category last year for The Reader, there’s a good chance Streep would have won her third Oscar for Doubt — and the Oscars love to correct their errors and oversights.
3) Never bet against the establishment candidate, and always remember the Oscars don’t like to be told what to do. This is Bullock’s first nomination, and she’s a populist figure to win, a once-in-a-lifetime-shot, but ask Bill Murray and Mickey Rourke how that turned out.
4) The biopic factor. Julie & Julia has a lot going against it (including only one nomination), but one of its awards-season strengths is the portrayal of a famous person. Every Oscar ceremony since 1998 has had a winner who played a real person; while this year’s actress category features four portrayals of real people (Bullock, Mirren, Mulligan, and Streep), Julia Child is certainly the most famous and recognizable among them. And note that frontrunners Waltz, Mo’Nique, and Jeff Bridges all play fictional characters.
5) Streep hasn’t won gold since 1983. Since then, she’s been nominated 12 times. I suspect many voters are thinking she’s overdue.

Naturally those in support of Bullock can cite other indicators as to why she’ll win, and they’re certainly convincing enough. She has the support of many Hollywood figures, both before and after her nomination. This may be her only shot at an Oscar, so why not give it to her? She’s charming, she’s self-effacing, she's been generous with the P.R., and she has the wind behind her back, and...

Okay—look—I’m a nervous gambler. If I were putting money on the line, I’d mark Bullock a hundred times out of a hundred. So, it’s Bullock. But if Streep wins, you’ll at least have to give me the benefit of my math.

Prediction: Bullock
Preference: Mulligan or Sidibe
Should Be Here: Abbie Cornish, Bright Star; Mélanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds; Yolande Moreau, Séraphine; Tilda Swinton, Julia

Best Actor
• Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart

• George Clooney, Up in the Air

• Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Jeff Bridges, here with his fourth nomination, has never won an Oscar and his turn as an alcoholic country singer who turns himself around in Crazy Heart will serve as a lifetime career award. Unfortunately, the screenplay for Crazy Heart doesn’t give Bridges enough to do to infuse true power into the character and the performance is not as brilliant as others by Bridges, whom I love dearly as an actor. In any event, his late entry into the Oscar race (Fox Searchlight distributed the film just in time) certainly knocked off any chance the other four actors had. Morgan Freeman portrayed Nelson Mandela well in a bad film; George Clooney was unfairly derided as 
“playing himself” as axe-man in Up in the Air, and he’s terrific in the film, working with everyone nicely without stealing the spotlight. Jeremy Renner, in a stunning role of depth and determination that shoulders the weight of The Hurt Locker, is a close second to Colin Firth, a grieving and suicidal professor in A Single Man who lost his significant other in a car accident and is fumbling toward acceptance.

Prediction: Bridges
Preference: Firth
Should Be Here: Nicolas Cage, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans; Soulévmane Sy Savané, Goodbye Solo; Michael Sheen, The Damned United; Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man

Best Director
• Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Lee Daniels, Precious

• Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
• Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

This category may not be a “lock” per se, but I don’t know a single person willing to bet against Kathryn Bigelow. So let’s take her out of the equation for just a moment.

Last year I cast my imaginary vote for David Fincher, director of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It was not among my favorite films of 2008 and would not have received my vote for Best Picture (although it did well in my imaginary tech categories), but I responded to and respected Fincher’s overall vision for the film and what he accomplished outside of the screenplay concerns. It was similar to the reaction I had with Avatar, which is also a flawed film from start to finish, but I don’t think you can downplay the scope and accomplishment James Cameron brought to it. I will never be able to wrap my mind around the idea of Avatar for Best Picture, but if Cameron were to pull off some miraculous upset, I could at least seen the justification in it. Ditto for Quentin Tarantino and Jason Reitman. (I didn’t like Precious, so Lee Daniels earns my congratulations on his nomination.) Inglourious Basterds and Up in the Air are the best films yet from their directors, but they couldn’t be further apart: the former is messy and slaphappy homage to cinema, while the latter is a clean, measured, and controlled character study.

That said, the discussion is utterly moot because of Bigelow. She crafted one of the finest war films in recent memory, and the first truly great fictional feature film to handle the Iraq War. Her vision on The Hurt Locker is in many ways a wild amalgam of the best decisions from Cameron, Tarantino, and Reitman. She utilizes the raw power of cinema to create an immersive experience in a war zone, and because the rest of the crew — from the actors to the editors, from the writing to the cinematography, from the sound mixers to composers — are also firing on all cylinders, it highlights her achievement even more.

Prediction: Bigelow
Preference: Bigelow
Should Be Here: Jane Campion, Bright Star; Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man; Spike Jonze, Where the Wild Things Are

Best Picture
• Avatar

• The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds

• Precious
A Serious Man

• Up
Up in the Air

Most Oscar nominations are foregone conclusions (as Meryl Streep once noted, “the best acting all year is when the winners act surprised”), but for the 2009 Academy Awards, there was still the hint of genuine curiosity. Would opening the Best Picture category to ten let in more popcorn-friendly films of a lesser quality or smaller films of higher quality?

The answer, we’ve discovered, is a bit of a mixed bag. Had the category stayed at five, most likely the Best Picture nominees would have been Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, and Up in the Air. (We can deduce this from the Producers and Directors Guild Awards and from this year’s Best Director category.) As I see it then, the rest of the five slots were a +2/0/-2. A Serious Man and Up making the cut are positives. I’m indifferent toward An Education as a total package, and while I would have preferred something else, I don’t find its inclusion particularly cringe-worthy. District 9 and The Blind Side come in as negatives. It turns out that when you let the academy nominate five extra films, what happens is a mirror of when they nominate five films total: a few deserving, one middle-of-the-row, and a few undeserving. If I could go back in time, I’d suggest they just stick with five.

Now the new question will be how the Academy’s preferential voting system will affect the results. I’d call it a three-way race between Avatar, The Hurt Locker, and Inglourious Basterds. The first has practically made more money than the other nine nominees combined, but suffered a typically fatal blow of not securing a writing nomination or a single acting nomination; the second has hit nearly every precursor in its path to victory (PGA, DGA, WGA, ACE, and variations guilds and critics’ associations); and the third has a passionate, if limited, following as well as possible high-rankings on voters’ preferential ballots.

If I could vote, I’d go with The Hurt Locker, although I admire four other films here — Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, Up, and Up in the Air, all of which hold a spot on my year’s-best list. Any of them winning would be fine, and any of the other five winning would be frustrating. I predict the Academy will follow suit, given the precursors Locker has scored. But we simply don’t know how it’ll play it out; the Academy’s taste is at times mercurial (cf. Gladiator, Crash). Avatar winning would absolutely unprecedented but wholly logical on a few levels.

It feels strange to make The Hurt Locker as my official projection, considering I’ve been on the side of the film that won Best Picture only once this decade (in 2006, with The Departed). I’m holding my breath and crossing my fingers I will be again.

Prediction: The Hurt Locker
Preference: The Hurt Locker
Should Be Here: Bright Star, Mary and Max, Sugar, Summer Hours, Where the Wild Things Are

Here are my predictions and preferences one more time:

Best Picture
Will and Should Win: The Hurt Locker

Best Director
Will and Should Win: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker

Best Actor
Will Win: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Should Win: Colin Firth, A Single Man

Best Actress
Will Win: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Should Win: Gabourey Sidibe, Precious

Best Supporting Actor
Will and Should Win: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Best Supporting Actress
Will Win: Mo’Nique, Precious
Should Win: Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will and Should Win: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air

Best Original Screenplay
Will Win: Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
Should Win: Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man

Best Animated Film
Will and Should Win: Up

Best Documentary Film
Will Win: The Cove
Should Win: Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country

Best Foreign Language Film
Will Win: The Secret in Their Eyes
Should Win: A Prophet

Art Direction
Will Win: Avatar
Should Win: Sherlock Holmes

Will Win: Barry Ackroyd, The Hurt Locker
Should Win: Robert Richardson, Inglourious Basterds

Costume Design
Will Win: The Young Victoria
Should Win: Bright Star

Will and Should Win: The Hurt Locker

Will Win: Star Trek
Should Win: Il Divo

Original Score
Will and Should Win: Michael Giacchino, Up

Original Song
Will and Should Win: “The Weary Kind,” by T Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham, from Crazy Heart

Sound Editing
Will Win: Avatar
Should Win: Star Trek

Sound Mixing
Will and Should Win: The Hurt Locker

Visual Effects
Will and Should Win: Avatar

Animated Short
Will and Should Win: A Matter of Loaf and Death
(However, I Hope Will Win: The Lady and the Reaper)

Documentary Short
Will and Should Win: China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of the Sichuan Province

Live-Action Short
Will and Should Win: The Door

As a frame of reference, last year I correctly predicted 17 of 21 categories (I missed Actor, Foreign Language Film, Costume Design, and Sound Editing, and didn’t predict the short films). My preferences, however, lined up only 7 times out of the 21 — Actor, Supporting Actor, Animated Film, Documentary, Art Direction, Make-Up, and Visual Effects.

We won’t know until Sunday how good these predictions are, but if they go this way exactly as I foresee it, my new nomination preference overlap is more than 50%—13 of 24. That’s a hell of an improvement, but still a long way from reflecting the state of cinema as I see it.


Hokahey 05 March, 2010  

You are totally right on here about Art Direction. It's like they pulled the nominees out of a hat. Besides the others you mention that should be there, some smaller films like Pandorum had excellent art direction. I like most of your choices here, but I'd definitely go with Basterds for Best Picture.

Sam Juliano,  07 March, 2010  

The year's Best Film was not even nominated (Jane Campion's BRIGHT STAR) but of the lot of five here I would NOT go with Tarantino's film, but rather Cameron's. But again, it's all individual taste as always.

Wow, you have really written the "Mother of all Posts" here T.S., and I can't praise you or your stellar insights enough. At the end of the day I agree with you most of the way, though I am not sold that Park will win again despite your astute observation that "it's longer" and he has "goodwill" among the voters, and I also differ on a few of the tech categories.

My favorite category every year is always 'Best Musical Score' as music is my most beloved interest, and I tip my cap to you for mentioning Mr. Korzieniowski, who should be the final winner, even after Giacchino and the gifted Russian composer of THE LAST STATION.

Yes, yes, yes, Grieg Fraser (BRIGHT STAR) most assuredly should be there, and I'd even agree with you on Lance Accord, in the otherwise tedious and unmemorable WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. But I do NOT agree with you on Akroyd for the hand-held work there. I do believe the Academy will go with Christian Berger for THE WHITE RIBBON, though you are 100% right in my view with that call on the Argentini9an film for Best Foreign Language Film. I just had a change of heart with that earlier today.

In the Best Actress category, I agree with you that Cornish should have been nominated, but I would also add Yolande Moreau for SERAPHINE, Catalina Saavedra for THE MAID and Charlotte Gainsborg for ANTICHRIST.

Paul Schneider deserves the Best Supporting Actor Oscar as much as Waltz does, and he wasn't even nominated.

Anyway, here's my predictions:

Picture: The Hurt Locker
Director: Bigelow
Actor: Bridges
Actress: Bullock
Supp. Actor: Waltz
Supp. Actress: Mo'Nique
Original Screenplay: Hurt Locker
Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air
Editing: Hurt Locker
Cinematogrpahy: The White Ribbon
Foreign Film: The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina)
Animated Film: Up
Documentary Feature: The Cove
Original Score: Up
Original Song: The Weary Kind (Crazy Heart)
Art Direction: Avatar
Visual Effects: Avatar
Costumes: Young Victoria
Make-up: Star Trek
Sound Editing: Avatar
Sound Mixing: Hurt Locker
Animated Short: The Lady and the Reaper
Live Action Short: Instead of Abracadabra
Documentary Short: China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province

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