Wednesday, February 21, 2007

It's Oscar Time, So Why am I Yawning?

Make no mistake, 2006 was an exciting year in the movies. It was a year in which several promising filmmakers reached new artistic heights or at least struck boldly in new directions. It was a year in which strong acting ensembles worked together so seamlessly one could hardly tell who led and who supported. And it was a year in which globalism was more than just a catchphrase and the fluidity of national boundaries could really be felt even in films featuring faces familiar to American audiences.

Too bad, then, that so little of that excitement carried over into the Oscar nominations. It's not that the nominees are generally unworthy (I'll withhold skepticism on "Blood Diamond," not having seen it). It's that the most interesting films of the year, at least in this viewer's humble opinion, are mostly hiding out in the minor categories rather than contending for the major awards. Which may be why in some ways I'm more interested to see who wins Art Direction, Cinematography, or even Costume Design than who wins Best Picture. Nevertheless, from a handicapper's perspective, the race for the big one is a corker. There's been a gradual tilt over the past few weeks towards two of the nominees, but it's still a wide open field. Anything can happen, and just may.

My predictions on the majors:


Nominees: "Babel," "The Queen," "The Departed," "Little Miss Sunshine," "Letters from Iwo Jima"

Will win: The last lap seems to have come down to either "The Departed" or "Little Miss Sunshine," but as of this posting, I'll put my money on LMS. It's the most likable of the five, it's won some of the key pre-Oscars bellwether awards (Producers' Guild, SAG) and just seems to have more industry goodwill towards it. "Departed" will likely be awarded in the directors' category instead. As for the other candidates, "Babel" seems to have lost steam since the nominations came out, and "Iwo Jima" never really picked up any. "The Queen" still has some, but it's hard to conceal that it's basically two exceptional performances in a thoughtful but otherwise unexceptional film.

Should win: In this crowd, definitely "The Departed." It has its flaws, but it's still a gripping blend of crime thriller and psychodrama, directed with all the flash and bloody panache that made Martin Scorsese a household name.


Nominees: Alejandro González Iñárritu, "Babel"; Stephen Frears, "The Queen"; Martin Scorsese, "The Departed," Paul Greengrass, "United 93"; Clint Eastwood, "Letters from Iwo Jima"

Will win: This is Scorsese's award to lose. He won't lose. Clint's movie just doesn't have enough oomph to unseat him.

Should win: Scorsese. It may not be his best work, but unlike his last two nominated films, he really knocked this one out of the park.


Nominees: Forest Whitaker, "The Last King of Scotland": Leonardo di Caprio, "Blood Diamond"; Ryan Gosling, "Half Nelson"; Peter O'Toole, "Venus"; Will Smith, "The Pursuit of Happyness"

Will win: Forest Whitaker. He's been cleaning up all the other acting awards this year and enjoys the longstanding respect and goodwill of his fellow Academy members. His only real challenger is O'Toole, who's been nominated for Oscar, what, eight times? and never won any but an honorary. For sentimental reasons, I'd be delighted if he won, and I'm sure many in the Academy feel the same way. But this doesn't feel like the right role: after all, he basically plays an old lech, and from what I can tell, coasts on his charm and experience. On the flip side, the other nominees are all too young; they've got lots of future opportunities ahead of them.

Should win: I'm a bit ashamed to admit that of the five nominated performances, I've only seen Forest's. (Though I really wanted to see "Half Nelson," it kept eluding me - first in the theaters, then on Netflix, where it's next on my queue but apparently subject to a "short wait.") However, his is plenty strong enough for me to feel comfortable with his pretty damn-near-inevitable victory.


Nominees: Helen Mirren, "The Queen"; Meryl Streep, "The Devil Wears Prada"; Judi Dench, "Notes on a Scandal"; Penelope Cruz, "Volver"; Kate Winslet, "Little Children"

Will win: Mirren, hands down. There is no contest, which is remarkable, considering she's up against no less than Oscar darlings Meryl and Judi. She's won every award there is to win, and shows no signs of slowing down. The other nominees need not even show up this Sunday, except as a courtesy. Actually, I think Dench isn't showing up, apparently for medical reasons.

Should win: Hooray, I actually saw all five of these performances! And I liked them all (well, Dame Dench made my flesh crawl, though I think that was the idea), but I have to jump on the bandwagon here. I tend to prefer quieter turns anyhow, and Mirren illustrates to perfection how much you can convey through restraint.


Nominees: Eddie Murphy, "Dreamgirls"; Alan Arkin, "Little Miss Sunshine"; Mark Wahlberg, "The Departed"; Jackie Earle Haley, "Little Children"; Djimon Hounsou, "Blood Diamond"

Will win: Murphy, if "Norbit" flak doesn't catch up with him. Otherwise, Arkin is a fairly close second. That said, this is a race that can surprise (remember Jim Broadbent beating out Ian McKellan's Gandalf?), so don't count out Marky Mark.

Should win: Haley. He somehow managed to make his character at once hair-raisingly creepy and unexpectedly poignant. That is one tough feat.


Nominees: Jennifer Hudson, "Dreamgirls"; Rinko Kikuchi, "Babel"; Adriana Barraza, "Babel"; Abigail Breslin, "Little Miss Sunshine"; Cate Blanchett, "Notes on a Scandal"

Will win: Hudson. Hers is too good a story not to get the fairy-tale ending, and none of the other nominees have built up enough momentum to overtake her. Though again, the supporting races can pack some surprises.

Should win: Kikuchi's performance still haunts me, but I'd give the award to Blanchett. For an actress who's best known for playing ladies of iron will and fearsome intelligence, she's remarkably convincing here as a naive, weak-willed, slowly unraveling woman all too ill equipped to resist her own impulses, yet has the presence to face off with la Dench and still more than hold her own.


Nominees: "Babel," "The Queen," "Little Miss Sunshine," "Pan's Labyrinth," "Letters from Iwo Jima"

Will win: "Little Miss Sunshine." Again, there's all that goodwill, and apart from Best Picture, this is the movie's best shot at an Oscar

Should win: Oddly, while I thought this was a good year for movies, I didn't find it to be a particularly good year for screenplays. I felt like most of this year's standouts rode on the strength of their direction, visuals, and/or acting rather than the writing. Among this lot, I'll give a very qualified nod to "Little Miss Sunshine," because, despite its loads of painful contrivances, it had a basic underlying humanity I appreciated, and it made me laugh. A lot. Though how much of that is due to pitch-perfect delivery by an incomparable cast, rather than the words on the page, is hard to say.


Nominees: "The Departed"; "Little Children"; "Children of Men"; "Notes on a Scandal"; "Borat"

Will win: "The Departed." Never mind that nearly all of its plot points are copied from the Hong Kong "Infernal Affairs" trilogy - I guess that's "adaptation" for you.

Should win: Despite that small gripe, "The Departed" deserves this award. It does a fine job transferring the action and sociocultural conflict from Hong Kong to Boston. But if the screenwriters (or for that matter, the producers) get more than half a minute for their thank you speech, they sure as hell better thank the writers of "Infernal Affairs."

And that's a wrap. See you all on February 26!


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