Who will win the Oscars? Our film critic’s predictions

  • By Robert Horton Herald Writer
  • Friday, February 20, 2009 3:29pm
  • Life

There’s a certain carnival-sideshow aspect to this year’s Oscar ceremony. Just look at the actors in the race.

Nominee Brad Pitt spends the first 52 minutes of his film as a computer-generated head attached to other actors’ bodies. Mickey Rourke, at the other extreme, looks so surgically altered he might as well be computer-generated.

Heath Ledger, alas, has been dead for more than a year. Robert Downey Jr., plays a white actor who’s been cosmetically enhanced to play a black role in an action flick.

Now, actors have been getting Oscar-nominated for playing drunks and mentally unbalanced characters for years. In fact, the whole point of Downey’s role is to satirize the absurd lengths performers will go in order to prove their award-worthiness.

But maybe things are getting out of hand.

Nevertheless, welcome to the 81st annual Academy Awards, Hollywood’s excuse to slap itself on the back and unleash a series of speeches thanking agents, lawyers and personal assistants.

Here’s hoping those speeches (and first-time Oscar host Hugh Jackman) will be better than the nominees, which overall are a pudding of bland, safe, mildly political choices.

There isn’t a great movie in the five best picture nominees (where’s “The Dark Knight”? Where’s “Wall-E”?). Instead, we get four very serious studio pictures and one supposed underdog (“Slumdog Millionaire”) that has been getting massive hype since it showed in film festivals last fall.

At least there should be some suspense. Except for two of the acting categories, the big awards are all in question, even if “Slumdog” has been tipped as the favorite by oddsmakers.

The Oscar show’s new producers promise a different kind of broadcast this year, although periodically that happens without any big changes. Maybe Jackman, as a noncomedian, will add something offbeat.

I’ll be looking forward to the special Oscar to Jerry Lewis, who is overdue for one of the Academy’s “gold-watch” awards for longtime service. This one comes a little sideways: Instead of being honored for his moviemaking, Lewis is getting the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his charitable work, such as his annual telethon.

He really should be getting a lifetime-achievement Oscar. Even if you aren’t French, you have to acknowledge that Jerry Lewis wrote, directed and starred in a series of comedies that made an enormous amount of money for many years. Lots of Oscars have been given out for less.

As for the rest of the glitz and glamour, will the economic crisis cause a dimming of the usual Tinseltown wattage? Don’t bet on it. Oh, there’ll be seriousness, with movies such as “Milk” and “The Reader” in competition, but this is Hollywood. Low-cut gowns and ditzy moments are obligatory.

Enough yammering. Get out your cheat sheet and let’s predict the winners. As always, these are the movies I think will win, not my own favorites.

The envelope, please…

BEST MOTION PICTURE. “Slumdog Millionaire.” Mostly because everybody’s saying it’s the chosen one, and it’s been winning all the little awards. My head tells me “Milk” should be the favorite, though — its gay-rights moral is popular in Hollywood, and most Oscar voters live in a state that just voted down a gay-marriage law. Sometimes Oscar voters do send messages. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a maybe, but “Frost/Nixon” and “The Reader” don’t stand a chance.

BEST ACTRESS. Kate Winslet, “The Reader.” There’s a longstanding tradition of awarding actors who have more than one strong performance in the same year (Winslet is also in “Revolutionary Road”), and for giving them Oscars for the wrong movies. She probably should’ve gotten it for “Little Children” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Ah, but Oscar loves Meryl Streep, who is so deft in “Doubt.” My own fave, hardworking character actress Melissa Leo, probably doesn’t stand a chance for “Frozen River,” and Anne Hathaway (“Rachel Getting Married”) and Angelina Jolie (“Changeling”) will stay seated.

BEST ACTOR. Sean Penn, “Milk.” Up until a minute ago, I was going to type in Mickey Rourke for a big sentimental comeback in “The Wrestler.” But I’ll cast my lot with Penn’s incarnation of the ill-fated gay activist Harvey Milk, a subject that inspired a certain lightness in an actor who can too often be tangled up in his own angst. Rourke was strong, and Hollywood loves a career that rises from the dead. Less likely are Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”), Brad Pitt (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) or Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS. Penelope Cruz, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” There’s not really an outstanding, obvious choice in this category, and I’m not sure why oddsmakers favor Cruz, who was fine but not especially spectacular in Woody Allen’s best movie in a while. Viola Davis was spectacular in “Doubt,” but she had very limited screen time. Amy Adams (“Doubt”), Taraji P. Henson (“Benjamin Button”) and Marisa Tomei (“The Wrestler”) seem unlikely.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR. Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight.” A posthumous award for Ledger’s skyrocketing performance as The Joker. The only other real contender is Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose priest in “Doubt” was actually a leading role. Also: Robert Downey Jr. (“Tropic Thunder”), Josh Brolin (“Milk”) and Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”).

BEST DIRECTOR. Danny Boyle, “Slumdog Millionaire.” I think this movie plays up the slickest, shallowest aspects of Boyle’s talent, but everybody seems to love it. Plus, he won the Director’s Guild award. My dark-horse choices are Gus Van Sant, if “Milk” has any momentum, and David Fincher, for the sheer technical achievement of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Ron Howard (“Frost/Nixon”) and Stephen Daldry (“The Reader”) don’t belong here.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY. “Milk” by Dustin Lance Black. Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon and Pete Docter of “Wall-E” have a shot, but would Hollywood give a screenplay award to a movie that has almost no words spoken in its opening 40 minutes? “Happy-Go-Lucky” (Mike Leigh) and the gloriously rude “In Bruges” (Martin McDonagh) would be cool choices; “Frozen River” (Courtney Hunt) is in there too.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY. “Slumdog Millionaire” by Simon Beaufoy. In terms of sheer adaptation, the biggest job was definitely “Benjamin Button,” which Eric Roth expanded from a very short F. Scott Fitzgerald story. “Doubt” (John Patrick Shanley) and “Frost/Nixon” (Peter Morgan) showed their stage origins, while “The Reader” (David Hare) struggled to bring a novel to life.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE. “Wall-E.” A lot of people wonder why this beloved film isn’t in the best picture race. The other two, “Kung Fu Panda” and “Bolt,” are strictly window dressing.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE. “Trouble the Water,” a raw but powerful Hurricane Katrina story. I think “Man on Wire,” a wonderfully entertaining account of the man who wire-walked between the World Trade Center towers in the 1970s, would be the best-liked film, but political importance usually rules this category. The Academy would probably like to give an award to Werner Herzog, but “Encounters at the End of the World” is minor for him. A couple of the films here haven’t shown locally, “The Betrayal” and “The Garden.”

BEST FOREIGN- LANGUAGE FILM. “Waltz with Bashir,” Israel. Oddly enough, this strong film is also an animated feature and a documentary. The other widely heralded movie in this category is France’s “The Class,” but “Waltz” is much more the kind of movie Oscar goes for. “The Baader Meinhof Complex” (Germany), “Departures” (Japan) and “Revanche” (Austria) haven’t made it to local screens yet.

BEST SONG. “Down to Earth,” from “Wall-E,” by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman. But hey, who knows? Or do I mean, who cares? Two songs from “Slumdog” fill out the bill, “Jai Ho” and “O Saya.” Having only three songs on the list indicates Oscar’s embarrassment over this often-wrongheaded category.

BEST MUSIC. “Slumdog Millionaire,” A.R. Rahman. Indian rhythms beat out the more conventional work of Alexandre Desplat (“Benjamin Button”), James Newton Howard (“Defiance”), Danny Elfman (“Milk”) and Thomas Newman (“Wall-E”).

So here we go. Sprinkle some curry on your popcorn and pour yourself a glass of milk — just to play it safe. Over to you, Mr. Jackman, it’s your show now.

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