This year I’m buying two bottles of champagne to enjoy with my Oscar telecast — I’ll pop one to celebrate if Avatar doesn’t win and guzzle both quickly if it does.
On the bright side, it doesn’t look like there is any possibility for a sweep for any movie at this year’s Academy awards (at least, not outside the technical and art awards). And movie diversity is a good thing, even if it means that Avatar’s motion-capture blue lemur characters get to walk home with the big prize. I guess one Avatar is worth some recognition of a big box office actress (Sandra Bullock), a comedian best known for her work on TV (Mo’Nique), a movie-geek alternative history spaghetti western (Inglourious Basterds) and the old-school country music stylings of Crazy Heart.
Make the night of couture gowns, effusive praise and Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin mugging a little more exciting by picking some winners. My track record is about 66 percent accuracy. We’ll find out how much of a surprise this year turns out to be on Sunday, March 7, when the 82nd Academy Awards get underway at 8:30 p.m. on ABC. Until then, here are my predictions for how Oscar night will shake out.
• Best Film
Nominees: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air.
Who will win: Avatar. There are so many reasons I hope I’m wrong: (1) I only sorta liked Avatar when I saw it and like it less in retrospect, (2) I don’t want to have to hear James Cameron give another best-movie speech, (3) In addition to the giant pile of cash, an Oscar would just encourage more empty-suit movies like this (all special effects, no heart) and (4) Other movies deserve it more — heck, all the other movies deserve it more. And yet.
Who should win: Up in the Air. This is a strange bundle of films — The Blind Side, Inglourious Basterds, Up, District 9 and maybe even Precious probably wouldn’t be here if not for the extra five spots. While I enjoyed Basterds and District 9 I don’t know that they have the whole Best Film package. Up will likely get its laurels in the animation category. Of the other five, The Hurt Locker, A Serious Man and Up in the Air have the most heft — The Hurt Locker is a little indie, though, and A Serious Man was seriously weird in a way that might not appeal to all voters. Were it not for Avatar, Up in the Air has the right mix of crowd-pleaser-ness and smarts to win the award and in my opinion is the most deserving.
Dark horse: The Hurt Locker. I think the movie has a solid chance at the director’s award and might get a boost in the film category. It has the gravitas Oscar voters seem to like in their best-film picks and it has had solidly good buzz throughout the season.
Shoulda been a contender: Star Trek. Last year’s Dark Knight is often cited as the reason for this year’s 10 nominees. Star Trek — the movie I picked as my favorite of 2009 — seems like this year’s Dark Knight movie. It was absolutely the best time I had at a movie theater last year. It was a skillful reboot of a franchise and a delight — from story to performances to well-done but not showy (a-hem, Avatar) special effects.
• Best Director
Nominees: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, James Cameron for Avatar, Lee Daniels for Precious, Jason Reitman for Up in the Air, Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds.
Who will win: Kathryn Bigelow. Winner of directing awards and nominations all over the place, Bigelow (the former Mrs. Cameron) seems way out in front of the pack. Even if Avatar takes the top prize, I don’t think the Oscar voters will grant him this award — there’s a craftsmanship with Bigelow’s movie that just isn’t there in Avatar.
Who should win: Kathryn Bigelow. And for the reasons stated above, Bigelow deserves her win. Avatar is all about its effects, Precious stands out for its performances, Up in the Air works so well because of its performances and its writing, and Inglourious Basterds, which I would argue is a product of its director, is probably too quirky to be taken seriously enough and not on the same level of Bigelow’s film. The Hurt Locker is a solid film and a lot of the credit clearly should go to Bigelow for pulling it all together.
Dark horse: James Cameron. If your movie wins best picture, you have a shot (though this year it’s probably a distant shot) at best director.
Shoulda been a contender: J.J. Abrams for Star Trek. For the same reasons I’d have included Star Trek in the best movie mix, I’d include Abrams in the director mix. Comedy, sci-fi, action, horror — these films are not often given Oscar recognition and yet making these movies work perfectly is, I’d argue, an even greater show of skill than turning out a big showy drama.
• Best Actor
Nominees: Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart, George Clooney for Up in the Air, Colin Firth for A Single Man, Morgan Freeman for Invictus, Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker.
Who will win: Jeff Bridges. Bridges’ performance has much in common with Mickey Rourke’s in The Wrestler but it’s more crowd-friendly and backed up with a really enjoyable soundtrack. It’s the kind of standout performance (with lots of standout attention) that Oscar likes to reward. Bridges would be my top choice if not for…
Who should win: Colin Firth. And not just because Mr. Darcy only seems to be getting hotter with age. Firth’s performance as a man drowning in grief is stunning. As you watch his college professor go through his day missing and remembering the man who, because this is 1962 California, couldn’t legally be but was in every other way his husband, you get to know the character from inside his own head and you think about the things the movie has to say about grief long after the movie ends. Firth’s brilliant performance makes the movie.
Dark horse: Colin Firth. I don’t think he has much of a chance but perhaps if enough people vote for someone other than Bridges, Firth could sneak in.
Shoulda been a contender: Michael Stuhlbarg for A Serious Man. I would also have accepted Tobey Maguire for Brothers, Jesse Eisenberg for Zombieland or Sharlto Copley for District 9 in this category. And, I know, Zombieland — but that was a top-notch film and if Oscar is going to start throwing movies other than the Official Oscar Contender End-of-Year Films bones in the Best Picture category, it should start taking a serious look at the films outside traditional parameters for other categories as well.
• Best Actress
Nominees: Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side, Helen Mirren for The Last Station, Carey Mulligan for An Education, Gabourey Sidibe for Precious, Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia.
Who will win: Sandra Bullock. She’s got a story made for one of those moony figure-skater bios: A popular actress, up for a Razzie for one of her lesser movies of 2009, who turned in a performance that was both technically impressive and crowd-pleasing. This kind of pathos might even beat the juggernaut of the mighty Meryl.
Who should win: Sandra Bullock. One could make a serious case for Sidibe here — she gave us the big emotions of her character without making her character melodramatic (something the movie itself didn’t completely accomplish). But I think it’s Streep and Bullock (both portraying real people) who created performances that will endure. Of the two, my vote (if I had one) would go to Bullock, who did the difficult work of capturing her character’s personality and showing her as a fully formed person without letting it turn into a caricature. (Full disclosure: As of this writing, I haven’t seen The Last Station.)
Dark horse: Meryl Streep. Probably the only time you’ll ever see the words “dark horse” and “Meryl Streep” next to each other. Her Julia Child was a delight and reminded you of why you love Child, Streep and butter.
Shoulda been a contender: Alison Lohman for Drag Me to Hell. How often do you see a horror movie with likeable characters or, even, characters (particularly female characters) with more development than “blonde in panties” or “scared girl who is decapitated”? Here, we get a heroine with layers and faults and motivations while still getting an entertaining story and fun chills. Start spending some time at the muliplexes in the summer, Oscar voters.
• Best Supporting Actor
Nominees: Matt Damon for Invictus, Woody Harrelson for The Messenger, Christopher Plummer for The Last Station, Stanley Tucci for The Lovely Bones, Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds.
Who will win: Christoph Waltz. It almost seems like they picked purposefully vanilla-yogurt performances to set off Waltz.
Who should win: Christoph Waltz. Waltz’s performance as an urbane Nazi felt like a reward for all those who continue to go to Quentin Tarantino movies. Everything about this revenge fantasy was gleeful circus of excitement and fun — from the spaghetti western music to the twisty Dirty Dozen plot. Waltz’s performance — delivered in German, French, Italian and English — was a display of fireworks and full brass band.
Dark horse: Woody Harrelson. After years of getting movies about The War on Terror that were ham-fisted and/or stupid or completely without an audience, this year we finally got several good war movies that people actually saw. One of them was The Messenger, kind of a Best Years of Our Lives (if World War II had gone on forever and most of the public had forgotten about it) for this century’s conflicts that looked at the war at home. Harrelson, as one of the men charged with delivering “the Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you” messages to family members of soldiers, turned in a great performance that had moments of humor, pathos and weirdness.
Shoulda been a contender: Woody Harrelson for Zombieland. He was great in The Messenger but Harrelson was brilliant in Zombieland, a movie that deserves way more addition than it ultimately got. I would also submit: Jason Bateman for Up in the Air, just about anybody in The Hurt Locker but particularly Anthony Mackie, Zachary Quinto for Star Trek, Brad Pitt for Inglourious Basterds, Stanley Tucci for Julie & Julia, Peter Capaldi for In the Loop or James Gandolfini for Where the Wild Things Are.
• Best Supporting Actress
Nominees: Penelope Cruz for Nine, Vera Farmiga for Up in the Air, Maggie Gyllenhaal for Crazy Heart, Anna Kendrick for Up in the Air, Mo’Nique for Precious.
Who will win: Mo’Nique. While the supporting actress category is stronger than the supporting actor category, it’s still hard to argue that the non-Mo’Nique actresses dug as deep as she did to play the monstrous mother of Precious. What support doesn’t go her way will probably be spread evenly, a vote or two each, among the other actresses.
Who should win: Mo’Nique. I guess you have to have five nominees but none of the other performances are even in the same league as hers. I hope they really are just happy being nominated.
Dark horse: Maggie Gyllenhaal. To pick a name at random. I don’t think this is a category that even has any dark horse opportunities. Mo’Nique should clear a space for the statue on her bookshelf now.
Shoulda been a contender: Mélanie Laurent for Inglourious Basterds. Or Leslie Mann in Funny People — it would have been an interesting choice and since there’s really nobody who can beat Mo’Nique it would have been nice to see the category get a little more diversity in the performances recognized.
• Best Screenplay, Adapted
Nominees: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell for District 9; Nick Hornby for An Education; Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci and Tony Roche for In the Loop; Geoffrey Fletcher for Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire; Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for Up in the Air.
Who will win: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner. It’s unlikely that Up in the Air will win the big prize of the night so here’s where it will get its recognition for a story that was smart and funny and had moments of Great Recession angst.
Who should win: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner. The movie is also a fascinating example of an adaptation. It isn’t a direct translation of the book, which has more going on with its main character than the movie does and changes some significant story points. It captures the spirit of the book while giving us a new plot and characters that range from being slightly tweaked to completely different. The movie is an accomplishment on its own merits but read the book and you see the work done to create this specific story in a whole new way.
Dark horse: Nick Hornby. An Education has stronger competitors in the other categories where it’s nominated. If somehow Up in the Air doesn’t make it, this coming-of-age-story might slip in.
Shoulda been a contender: Roberto Orci and Alexi Kurtzman for Star Trek. Nice way to revive the franchise without tying yourself to Trek’s weighty mythology.
• Best Screenplay, Original
Nominees: Mark Boal for The Hurt Locker; Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds; Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman for The Messenger; Joel Coen and Ethan Coen for A Serious Man; Bob Peterson, Pete Docter and Tom McCarthy for Up.
Who will win: Quentin Tarantino. As with Up in the Air, the screenplay category seems the most likely place (in addition to supporting actor) for the movie of Inglourious Basterds to find Oscar gold.
Who should win: Quentin Tarantino. The movie has lots of fun moments of dialogue that make the best use of Tarantino’s writer quirks.
Dark horse: Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman. The Messenger has even fewer opportunities for recognition than Inglourious Basterds and this would be another worthy place to reward some nuanced story-telling.
Shoulda been a contender: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick for Zombieland. I put this zombie movie up against most of the “serious” movies released last year.
• Best Song
Nominees: “Almost There” by Randy Newman for The Princess and the Frog; “Down in New Orleans” by Randy Newman for The Princess and the Frog; “Loin de Paname” by Reinhardt Warner and Frank Thomas for Paris 36; “Take It All” by Maury Yeston for Nine; “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)” by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett for Crazy Heart.
Who will win: “The Weary Kind.” The rest of the pack are songs that work with their movies. “The Weary Kind” works whether you’re watching Jeff Bridges’ character write it in the movie or listening to it on your iPod some rainy afternoon.
Who should win: “The Weary Kind.” The song doesn’t totally make the movie but it comes close. And it transcends the movie — it’s the kind of thing you can listen to months later and still get wrapped up in, even without the accompanying story.
Dark horse: “Take It All.” Nine did not, in my opinion, have a lot going for it but Marion Cotillard’s betrayed-wife anthem is one of its brightest spots.
Shoulda been a contender: “Fallin’ & Flyin’” from Crazy Heart. This movie did, in fact, produce an entire excellent album of music, including several original songs that sound like they’ve been the soundtrack to lonely nights and shots of whiskey for decades. “Fallin’ & Flyin’” was just one of many songs to make a country fan out of the most diehard anti-twang music listener.
• Best Animated Feature
Nominees: Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, The Secret of Kells, Up.
Who will win: Up. It’s a Pixar movie.
Who should win: Up. And in addition to having the Oscar spot all warmed up for them every year, Pixar actually does produce movies that deserve the award. Coraline was visually quite neat. Fantastic Mr. Fox was hipster cool. The Princess and the Frog was a sweet fairy tale. The Secret of Kells was, well, was not seen by me (or probably most Oscar voters). But Up did humor, sweetness, stunning visuals and passage-of-life stuff (that totally did not make me tear up at all — shut up, I just got something in my eye), all in the first 15 minutes and all with sophistication and subtlety. You can’t say that for the entirety of many of the live-action movies up for Oscars.
Dark horse: The Princess and the Frog. This return to classic Disney watercolor cartoon (but with a modern can-do “princess”) could get some nostalgia votes.
Shoulda been a contender: Avatar. Because the blue lemurs are not real, y’all.
• Best Documentary
Nominees: Burma VJ; The Cove; Food, Inc.; The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers; Which Way Home.
Who will win: Food, Inc. Documentaries on this topic have been done before — and better — but this seems like Food Inc.’s year. Also, and I’m probably not alone in this, it was the only one I actually saw.
Dark horse: The Cove. And if Food, Inc. doesn’t win, this one probably will. It was the other movie in this category one might have seen this year.
Shoulda been a contender: The September Issue. And, yes, it’s about a fashion magazine but it’s a fascinating story with multi-dimensional characters (who happen to be older women, in charge in a competitive environment). Makes The Devil Wears Prada look like a pale imitation. It Might Get Loud, meanwhile, was a charming bit of music geekery. Documentaries don’t always have to be grim.
• Best Foreign Language Film
Nominees: Ajami (Israel), The Milk of Sorrow (La Teta Asustada, Peru), A Prophet (Un Prophete, France), The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos, Argentina), The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band, Germany).
Who will win: The White Ribbon. Something about the fact that this is a nearly two-and-a-half-hour black-and-white movie in German has kept me from quite finding the time to see it. But once again, it’s the only movie that’s had much of a presence in American movie-related media. And, as in recent years, the choices of films overall in this category have become more obscure. Where I used to be able to count on having seen at least three of the nominated films, this year I have seen none of them and only The White Ribbon has even screened at any large-ish local venue (and by local here I mean Boston, though it is slated to come to New Hampshire).
Shoulda been a contender: Coco Before Chanel. Or, in the spirit of recognizing more than just serious dramas, how about some love for Dead Snow — a fantastic Norwegian movie about Nazi zombies terrorizing some kids on a ski vacation.