For the third straight year I'm aiming my wildly erratic predicting power at the Academy Awards, which are announced Sunday. As I did in 2007 and 2008, I rank the frontrunners in all categories by likelihood of winning. (Well, all feature-length categories; I'm ignoring the short films.) All frontrunners determined by Dave Karger (former classmate namecheck!) of Entertainment Weekly.
I would have seen all 5 Best Picture contenders had The Reader not been nominated. I've had a month to convince myself to go, but the story of a mostly naked, teen-humping, illiterate Nazi concentration camp guard just doesn't interest me, even if she's being played by Kate Winslet.
Update: with the ceremony over, how did the frontrunners do?
1. Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Seems like more of a sure thing than Javier Bardem was in this category last year. I was tempted not to place it atop on the list because the Academy hasn't voted for a dead actor in a really long time. Then again, I wonder if his chances would be that much worse were he still alive; the competition is noteworthy but not exactly Earth-shattering. There will be karmic retribution against fellow nominee Philip Seymour Hoffman, who beat Ledger as Best Actor 3 years ago.
2. Best Documentary Feature: Man on Wire
In a way, this category pits the two greatest American tragedies of the decade against one another: 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. But while Trouble the Water deals directly with the immediate fallout and aftermath in New Orleans, Man on Wire is set at the World Trade Center... in 1974. Recalling better days would seem to be a winning approach.
3. Best Editing: Slumdog Millionaire
Ticked that The Dark Knight wasn't nominated for Best Picture, but The Reader was? Pay close attention to this lineup instead; it's the one you wanted. Many of the year's big films relied heavily on flashbacks, but few worked as seamlessly as Slumdog did. Kudos to the incredible mix of fictional and real footage that went into Milk, and the anatomy of a leg injury sequence of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
4. Best Makeup: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Up against The Dark Knight and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, this is the only nominee also in the running for Best Picture. Which gives it a huge advantage. I don't know the techniques involved in transforming Benjamin and Daisy: how much is latex, and how much is CGI? I hope the voters know the difference.
5. Best Costume Design: The Duchess
This category is usually not so predictable, but The Duchess is the only nominee with a corset advantage. Its competition (Australia, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk, Revolutionary Road) is surprisingly modern and not out of place in a fashion catalog today. In the event that voters tire of 18th century winners, look for Revolutionary Road to upset.
6. Best Animated Film: WALL-E
I was prepared to rank this frontrunner as high as #1 on this list, but then Kung Fu Panda conquered the Annie Awards last month. That film has a lot of fans who are thrilled with its old-fashioned qualities: hand-drawn animation, movie star voices, lots of dialogue and action. WALL-E rebels against many animation conventions in that regard, but it's also very much a breakthrough for Pixar. It won't go home empty handed.
7. Best Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
I have a feeling that many people, including Academy voters, have no idea what a director does, or know how best to judge direction. I equate directors with general managers in baseball: they don't necessarily instruct the players, or handle the budget, or micromanage every decision. Instead a director controls everything from a distance, letting the cast and crew make many of their own decisions, and making their output adhere to a general vision of how things should go. In that regard, you can guess why Danny Boyle has been winning most of the precursor awards, bringing order to what must have been a chaotic filming process, which crossed barriers of economics, culture, and language.
8. Best Supporting Actress: Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
This seemed like much more of a gimme a few months ago. Watching the film, you're convinced that one of Woody Allen's motivations was to showcase Cruz's role. She doesn't have a whole lot of screen time, but she dominates all of her scenes, and is the main subject of conversation among the other characters before she even appears. So her presence is felt throughout. Cruz has since been overshadowed by a bunch of December nominees, but is still the likely winner. According to others, Viola Davis of Doubt has an outside shot.
9. Best Original Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Two forces are at work here. Milk is very much a triumph of acting, editing, and directing. Not so much writing. But Black is becoming that rarest of birds, a screenwriter celebrity, for being a young, talented, and good-looking winner in the awards circuit. He, not Gus Van Sant or Sean Penn, has become the person most associated with this movie, a public face on a political hot button issue that remains relevant, especially in California. And Milk is the only Best Picture nominee in this category. (Despite all that, In Bruges would make a better winner.)
10. Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Bottom line: it doesn't lead the field in nominations. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button did, and Milk has a better balance/ratio of nominees in the major and technical categories. So it's a favorite, but a very beatable one. Fox Searchlight's non-campaign for this movie (it's been using the same commercial since the film's release in November) is an unusual strategy, but I suppose all the previous awards the film has garnered speak loudly enough. If it does win, it's not without precedent: orphans (Oliver!), Indians (Gandhi), American-free casts (The Last Emperor), and very British productions (Chariots of Fire) could be considered the film's Best Picture spiritual forefathers.
A note about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I really believe this film was about 75 percent of the way toward being one of the greatest films ever made. But ultimately it fails from a sense of cinematic excess and director David Fincher's unwise choice to indulge screenwriter Eric Roth's preference for magical realism. So many brilliant moments gone to eventual waste. Had they tightened up the film, dropped the hummingbird, not added the Hurricane Katrina element, and focused more on Benjamin than Daisy at critical moments...
11. Best Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Despite its problems, the film remains a remarkable visual achievement. You can understand why it took decades to get the basic concept properly made. In the grand intermixing of effects and makeup (see Best Makeup above), Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are depicted as flawlessly young and believably old. I would have liked to see the title character's reverse aging take more advantage of the actor's earlier career. We see a little bit that reminds us of Seven Years in Tibet -- why not go all the way and depict him in his Seven, Legends of the Fall, and Thelma & Louise periods? A missed opportunity.
12. Best Sound Editing: The Dark Knight
See next category.
13. Best Sound Mixing: The Dark Knight
LOSER! The Oscar goes to... Slumdog Millionaire.
See previous category. (Kidding. I'll never know the difference.) Some movie experts are paying close attention to these categories to see if Slumdog Millionaire will lose any awards. Others wonder if WALL-E (particularly Ben Burtt, sound technician and voice actor) can make some noise against the year's biggest movie.
14. Best Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
As I mentioned in my review, this is a remarkable adaptation in that it improves upon its source material in every possible way. Compare to nominees Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon) and John Patrick Shanley (Doubt), who adapted their own stage plays. Beaufoy is a previous nominee (original screenplay for The Full Monty) but has never won. He'll face some competition from the previously mentioned Eric Roth, but the darkhorse is probably David Hare for The Reader.
15. Best Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Speaking of The Reader, I have mixed feelings about one of my favorite actresses finally winning an Oscar for a movie that I have no interest in seeing. If you pay attention to the angry world of movie award prognosticating, this role exemplifies the worst things about the process: Holocaust bait, category fraud, last minute release, production problems, Harvey Weinstein. I plead ignorance in this category: I've seen none of the nominees, and am not seeking them out.
16. Best Score: A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire
If you've seen this movie, what do you remember? Probably not the acting or the dialogue. The visuals and the music come to mind. Rahman gives the film its pulse and energy, both in his songs (two of which are nominated) and his score. But this is a category with more traditional winners, and there are some other good choices. Look for a win by Alexandre Desplat (Benjamin Button) or Thomas Newman (WALL-E, which is even less reliant on dialogue).
17. Best Art Direction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
It's like a sampler of great looks from different regions and periods. There's Paris, that train station, postwar New Orleans, that hotel, the sea. Possibly the most accomplished of the nominees. The Dark Knight also covers a number of sets, but they're not as memorable.
18. Best Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire
Handheld camera work is a vital part of this movie, but I don't know if Academy members are in love with that type of filmmaking. The down and dirty approach gets nominations, not wins (see also Children of Men and City of God). The probable winner is Claudio Miranda for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, or possibly Wally Pfister for The Dark Knight.
19. Best Actor: Sean Penn, Milk
I've actually seen all 5 nominees. Richard Jenkins is solid in The Visitor, but its one Oscar bait scene in the detention center almost rings false. (The restaurant scene would make a much better Oscar clip.) Brad Pitt and Frank Langella are the oddball anchors, more concerned with holding their films together than standing out. This leaves the long-hyped two-man race between two wunderkind actors of the early 1980s, Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke. Penn has the more prestigious film, the biopic role, and current political relevance. Rourke has the comeback factor, no prior wins, and far more charm. Advantage goes to The Wrestler.
20. Best Song: "Jai Ho," Slumdog Millionaire
Some recent winners in this category suggest a trend against the biggest names in performing and songwriting. So this is a reasonable pick. If it does win, it will be the first winner in Hindi. Also, as a historical bookend to Three 6 Mafia's win a few years ago, the message is clear: songs with "Pimp" or "Ho" in the title win Oscars. But there is some in-film competition from "O Saya" (not in Hindi) and Peter Gabriel's "Down to Earth" from WALL-E, which I think will win.
21. Best Foreign Language Film: The Class
LOSER! The Oscar goes to... Departures.
I wish I could be more informed about this race, but from what I can tell, any of three films can win: The Class (France), Waltz with Bashir (Israel), and Departures (Japan). If I had to guess, I'll go for the Israeli animated film. I'm enjoying this new trend of films that cross categories: documentary, animation, foreign language film. It's only a matter of time before the major categories become a true free-for-all.