The Oscar Warrior’s ’07 Awards Preview

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In this crazy world where the Oscar race begins months after the conclusion of the last Academy Awards ceremony, it’s that time of year again when the Oscar Warrior starts to take a more serious look at what’s out there and what’s coming out in the next few months that might be in the running for one of those Golden Men come next February. Here’s a preview of some of the directors, actors and movies whose names you may be hearing when the 79th Academy Award nominations are announced at the end of December. (This is only a preview. The Oscar Warrior’s actual predictions will be posted sometime in late November or early December.)

The Masters

We’ll start with the men (and women) responsible for every aspect of the movies we love to watch, the directors.

The biggest buzz of the last few months has been the possibility of next year’s Academy Awards turning into a rematch between veteran directors Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood. The latter won in 2005 for Million Dollar Baby, though many people thought Marty deserved it more for his ambitious Howard Hughes epic The Aviator. This year, they each have buzzworthy films, Scorsese with his Boston crime drama The Departed and Eastwood with the WWII movie Flags of Our Fathers. The former has received rave reviews from critics while dominating the box office all month, while the latter is not doing nearly as well as some hoped. Even if the Clint-loving Academy nominates him again, let’s all pray this is finally Marty’s time to win.

Another Academy favorite, Steven Soderbergh was nominated twice in 2001 for directing Erin Brockovich and Traffic, winning an Oscar for the latter. Five years later, he returns to more Oscar-worthy fare with The Good German, a black and white war tale starring longtime collaborator George Clooney, who was also nominated twice last year, once for directing and winning one for his supporting role in Syriana.

Oliver Stone won two of the three times he was nominated for his directing, and his 9/11 drama World Trade Center has been considered by some as a return to form, having grossed over $70 million much like his most popular movies. British director Paul Greengrass isn’t as well known among American director’s circles, but his own 9/11 drama United 93 is an achievement more likely to be awarded on the merit of his direction, even if it wasn’t as commercially successful as Stone’s film.

Brit Stephen Frears has only been nominated once before for 1991’s The Grifters, and may feel that his latest movie The Queen is worthy of a best picture nomination, which gives him a chance to reenter director’s race, though he’ll be competing against American directors with much stronger publicity firms.

Everyone knows how much the Academy loves to award actors who make the move behind the camera. Like Mel Gibson, for instance. The Australian actor was handed a gold statue ten years ago for his Scottish war epic Braveheart and he’s returning in December with the Mayan drama Apocalypto. Times have changed a bit and Gibson’s recent drunken escapades are likely to keep him out of the Oscar race even if Apocalypto is his greatest film ever. On the other hand, actor-turned-director Robert De Niro helms the CIA spy thriller The Good Shepherd starring Matt Damon, which at this point, no one has seen.

There’s also a strong Mexican directors’ contingent rolling movies out this fall, starting with Alejandro González Iñáritu’s Babel, which has the most industry buzz due to its emotional weight and global scale. Although their films Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men may be a bit too genre-specific, we shouldn’t rule out Iñarittu’s pals Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, who are both equally respected for their bodies of work.

The Academy has always loved Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar, nominating him as a director for Talk to Her, though he won an Oscar for writing that movie’s script. Volver may be one of his most enjoyable and accessible films to date, reuniting him with the stars of his last two movies to be nominated in the Foreign Language category. It’s almost guaranteed that Volver will be one of the frontrunners in the Foreign Language category again, along with Pan’s Labyrinth, but don’t be too surprised if Pedro is nominated for his writing and directing as well. Chinese master Zhang Yimou’s films have been nominated for many Oscars, though he’s never been nominated as a director. Like Pedro, he’s reunited with his Oscar good luck charm Gong Li, when she stars in his latest, Curse of the Golden Flower.

Then there are the longshots like acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, who has been making one strong movie after another ever since Memento and whose latest The Prestige has generated interest among his fans even if it’s not really “Oscar fare.” Likewise, Ridley Scott has been nominated three times for his direction, though his reunion with his Gladiator star Russell Crowe in A Good Year might seem too light or frivolous for his direction to stand out. Visionary director Darren Aronofsky’s third film The Fountain might be too difficult for even the Academy directors to comprehend, so he might have trouble convincing them that he should be honored for it.

The Men

Moving onto the actors…

Three and a half years ago, then 70-year-old Peter O’Toole was awarded an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar for his body of work after being nominated seven times between 1963 and 1983 without winning once. At the time, he was thinking of turning the award down because he didn’t feel his career was over and he still hoped to “win the lovely bugger outright.” Smart move! O’Toole appeared in three movies so far this year, but the one that has everyone talking is Roger Michell’s Venus, about a elderly actor whose life is turned upside down by the grandniece of his good friend. Sentimental older voters will probably want to give O’Toole his due after forty years of being overlooked, and really, THIS might be his last chance to get long-due awards recognition. (That said, he has roles in two movies next year, too.)

Playing a real person has always gotten love from Oscar voters, as seen by the last two year’s winners Jamie Foxx and Philip Seymour Hoffman. This is why Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Uganda dictator Idi Amin in Kevin Mcdonald’s The Last King of Scotland is sure to be one of the frontrunners in this year’s Lead Actor race. It’s been five years since Will Smith was nominated for playing the title role in Michael Mann’s biopic Ali, and he’s playing another real person in The Pursuit of Happyness, a poignant drama with all the right elements to get Smith nominated if his performance is as good as people think.

So far, those are the only three actors being taken seriously in the Lead Actor race, especially now that Jack Nicholson has been moved to the supporting slot for his over-the-top portrayal of crime boss Frank Costello in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves Jack and his first teaming with a legend like Martin Scorsese has created a role and performance that anyone who’s seen the movie will remember. If (or should I say when?) Jack gets into the supporting race, is there anyone that can beat him?

Jack’s main competition in that category may end up being one of The Departed‘s Double D’s, Leonardo DiCaprio or Matt Damon. Both actors have been nominated before, Leo for Scorsese’s last movie The Aviator and Matt for Good Will Hunting, and they each have their own movies in December, Blood Diamond and The Good Shepherd. Some might feel that at this point in their careers, they really belong in the lead category and they’re more likely to get attention for the less ensemble-based roles.

George Clooney may be back in the Oscar race for a second year in a row, as he heads up Steven Soderbergh’s war drama The Good German, even if he’s trying to push interest away from his own performance in favor of his co-star Cate Blanchett. (What a gentleman!) Clooney’s good friend Brad Pitt has also been getting loads of Oscar attention for his emotional role in Alejandro Iñarittu’s global epic Babel, but will voters think of him as a lead or just part of the ensemble, putting him into the far less crowded supporting category? Pitt has only been nominated once before, in a supporting role for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, but how amazing would a supporting race be if it was between Nicholson and Pitt?

There’s likely to be one slot left open in the male lead race for a dark horse or longshot, and here are a few:

Hugh Jackman is having one of the best and busiest years of his career, returning as Wolverine in X-Men: The Last Stand and starring in Woody Allen’s Scoop and Christopher Nolan’s period thriller The Prestige. His emotionally charged triple role in Darren Aronofsky’s difficult film The Fountain is strong enough that it should impress his actor pals in the Academy looking to give him some recognition.

After taking a few years off, Edward Norton is also having a great year. Few, if any, people have seen his long-delayed movie The Painted Veil just yet, though his title role in Neil Burger’s The Illusionist is pretty impressive.

Phillip Noyce’s South African drama Catch a Fire didn’t do very well at the box office, but it has a great leading performance from Derek Luke, who debuted in Denzel Washington’s Antwone Fischer, and another great supporting role from Tim Robbins, who won an Oscar in this category for Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River. General audiences ignored the movie, so the Academy may do the same.

On the other hand, Ryan Gosling has been a critics’ darling since Henry Bean’s The Believer, but his role in Ryan Fleck’s indie drama Half Nelson is a new career high. Can indie distributor THINKFilm get Oscar voters to see the movie? The same can be asked of last year’s Oscar nominee Heath Ledger and his role as a junkie in the Australian indie Candy. (It’s hard to forget how Sean Penn was completely ignored for his performance in The Assassination of Richard Nixon a few years back.)

Russell Crowe has been nominated a few times before, winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Maximus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. The two have reunited for the light comedy A Good Year; though Crowe gives another fine performance, it’s more likely to get him interest from the Hollywood Foreign Press than the Academy. If that happens, he’s likely to be overshadowed in the Golden Globe musical/comedy division by British comic Sacha Baron Cohen for his portrayal of the un-PC Kazikhstan reporter Borat, a character that might be too offensive for Academy voters, but who’s already been winning over the Hollywood Foreign Press. (Heck, he may already be an honorary member!)

Aaron Eckhart, who plays a great @$$hole in Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking is also more likely to be nominated by awards that have more room for comedy. The only Americans who might be familiar with Richard Griffiths are diehard “Harry Potter” fans (he’s played Harry’s Uncle Vernon in three of the last four movies) but he gives what many consider the standout performance in the Broadway play The History Boys, which will show up on screen with the same Tony-winning cast. On the other hand, Ed Harris is a regular nominee who has never won an Oscar. His take on Ludwig van Beethoven in Copying Beethoven is right up there with his performance as Jackson Pollack, his only other leading role to get nominated, but he may be too unlikable, even compared to Idi Amin!

Getting into some of the other supporting performances, everybody loves Fox Searchlight’s Little Miss Sunshine and a lot of that has to do with two actors, the legendary Alan Arkin and chronic scene-stealer Steve Carell of NBC’s “The Office,” but which one will get the recognition if either? Could they end up cancelling each other out?

Sight unseen, Eddie Murphy is generating a lot of buzz for his performance in Dreamgirls, but really, we’re talking about Eddie “Doctor Dolittle/Beverly Hills Cop/Nutty Professor” Murphy?! Djimon Hounsou is no stranger to the Oscar scene having been nominated for Jim Sheridan’s In America, and just from the trailer, it looks like he might give an even stronger performance opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond.

Sadly, it’s doubtful that Paul Giamatti might make it two years in a row for his Inspector Uhl in Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, and Robert Downey’s masked role in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus isn’t generating much buzz either. Other great performances by Daniel Craig as killer Perry Smith in this year’s Capote biodrama, Infamous, and Ben Affleck channeling George Reeves in the crime drama Hollywoodland might get overlooked when big names like Nicholson and Pitt are bandied about in supporting category.

Since no one has seen the Warner Bros. football drama We Are Marshall, performances by “Lost” star Matthew Fox and last year’s nominee David Strathairn might get overlooked, though there are obviously a lot of options in the supporting race for the right actor in the right part.

The Women

This year’s Oscar speech in either of the women’s categories are likely to be read in a British or Australian accent as the actresses from across both ponds have been dominating in the strongest year for female roles in a long time.

First, there’s the two Dames, Mirren and Dench. Both of them have significant experience playing queens, but it’s Helen Mirren’s turn as the reigning Queen Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’ The Queen that has been getting all of the attention ever since it won the critics over at the Venice Film Festival. But that doesn’t give her that much of an advantage over Dame Judi Dench, who stars in the little-seen Notes on a Scandal. Let’ face it, everything Dench does is great and the Academy loves her, so she could offer Mirren her toughest competition in the Lead Actress race.

Both of them may have to contend with the super power that is Cate Blanchett. Having won an Oscar for her portrayal of Katherine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, the versatile and much-appreciated actress appears in three of the big Oscar movies this season. Currently, she can be seen opposite Brad Pitt in Babel, but she’s more likely to get nominated for her lead role in Soderbergh’s The Good German or get a second supporting Oscar nomination for her role in Notes on a Scandal… or both!! (Of course, most Academy voters won’t have seen her amazing performance in the Aussie drama Little Fish earlier this year, which is a shame.)

Other Aussie accents come in the form of two-time nominee and one-time winner Nicole Kidman, who plays the title role in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, while her good friend and former Oscar rival Naomi Watts stars in the long-delayed The Painted Veil. It’s questionable whether either movie is the right vehicle to put them back in the Oscar spotlight.

The third Brit getting any sort of noteworthy attention is four-time nominee Kate Winslet (Sense & Sensibility, Titanic, Iris and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), who gives another strong performance in Todd Field’s new drama Little Children. She might end up getting pushed out of the crowded field, as may Julie Walters, who has been nominated for two previous Oscars (Educating Rita and Billy Elliot), but whose hilarious performance in Jeremy Brock’s Driving Lessons might have to settle for a Golden Globe nomination, if even that.

The big spoiler for an all-Brit women’s Oscars may come in the form of the beautiful Penélope Cruz, who reunites with Pedro Almodóvar for his latest masterpiece Volver. Cruz might be at a disadvantage because it’s a foreign language film–anyone remember Javier Bardem being overlooked for The Sea Inside which won the foreign language category two years ago?—but she’s far better known in Hollywood circles. (While we’re at it, let’s honor Almodóvar vet Carmen Maura for playing Cruz’s returning dead mother!)

Doesn’t Meryl Streep have enough Oscars? Apparently not, if the early buzz for her role as bitchy boss Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada has anything to say about it. It’s really a supporting part to Anne Hathaway’s main character, but Fox is selling it as a co-lead and has the Academy ever ignored Meryl Streep, except for her role in bad movies like Prime and The Manchurian Candidate remake? Poor Annette Bening has been nominated three times without winning, but is her role as a bad mother in the dark comedy based on Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors one Oscar voters might want to acknowledge or will they hate the movie as much as the critics?

Every year, some young actress gets into the lead actress race among the older veterans. Last year, it was Keira Knightley, the year before it was Catalina Sandino Moreno and the year before that it was Keisha Castle-Hughes for Whale Rider. This year, it may be Kirsten Dunst’s turn as the French queen in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. It’s certainly a meatier role, but it’s also a bit more frivolous than Helen Mirren’s performance. We also shouldn’t forget about Keisha Castle-Hughes’ return as the Virgin Mary in Catherine Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story.

The long-overlooked Maggie Gyllenhaal was great in Laurie Collyer’s Sundance favorite Sherrybaby, but she’s more likely to get recognized for her supporting role as a pregnant wife in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. Ashley Judd is also pretty amazing in Joey Lauren Adams’ Come Early Morning, but will this independent movie get the sort of boost it needs to get her recognized ala Charlize Theron in Monster? They can fight it out in the Indie Spirits even if they’re overlooked in the Oscars.

The most interesting Oscar catfight might be between Sienna Miller and Renée Zellweger as Edie Sedgwick and Beatrix Potter in The Weinstein Company’s year-end Oscar prospects Factory Girl and Miss Potter. Their late December releases may be too late to get the early thumbs up from the New York and L.A. critics.

What other established actresses might end up in the supporting category? Maybe Angelina Jolie for her role in Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd, but more likely, Vera Farmiga will be recognized as the only woman in the testosterone-fest that is Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.

And how funny would it be for Catherine O’Hara to get a nomination for Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration, a comedy in which she plays an actress who gets Oscar buzz for her part in a movie that’s still shooting? Pretty damn funny, if you ask me.

The New Blood

As the youngest member of the cast of Little Miss Sunshine, not to mention the movie’s title character, Abigail Breslin is a strong contender to become one of those first-time nominees under the age of 12 if AMPAS loves her as much as the rest of the country. (Then again, they didn’t nominate Napoleon Dynamite, so why would they nominate Little Miss Sunshine?)

Another Abigail, Abbie Cornish has been wowing critics since appearing in the Aussie indie Somersault and after a small part in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, she plays Heath Ledger’s junkie girlfriend in Candy, which might put her on the map along with her Aussie older sisters Nicole and Naomi. That is, if Academy voters even get a chance to see this difficult movie. Even though it’s a lead role, the movie’s indie distributor THINKFilm might have better luck sneaking her into the supporting race.

Unfortunately, that category may already be dominated by an singing actress already thought to be the frontrunner based solely on a preview performance of a signatures tune from Dreamgirls. Singing sensation Jennifer Hudson may not have made it to the finals of “American Idol,” but she might end up ahead in the supporting category if she’s as good in the musical as everyone seems to think she will be.

One of the most memorable performances in Babel comes from Japanese newcomer Rinko Kikuchi, who bares everything, both emotionally and physically, in the drama’s most powerful segment, but she may be fighting a losing battle against better-known American actresses. It’s also hard not to be impressed by young newcomer Shareeka Epps, who holds her own against Ryan Gosling and Anthony Mackie in Ryan Fleck’s indie drama Half Nelson. Her Indie Spirit nomination awaits.

Neither Michael Sheen nor James McAvoy are particularly new, but their supporting roles to the sure-thing Oscar nominees in The Queen and The Last King of Scotland should help them if the trickle-down effect takes place.

It’s been two decades since Jackie Earl Haley was a hugely successful teen star, best remembered as Kelly Leak from The Bad News Bears movies, and his return in Todd Field’s stirring drama Little Children is sure to warm up the hearts of the Academy voters who can only imagine what it must be like to be a has-been before the age of 25 and then get a chance for a comeback 20 years later.

The Movies

Every year, the Best Picture category is filled with many possibilities. It’s a pretty fierce race because it’s the highest honor a filmmaker or his cast can receive, plus it often guarantees a lot more attention and business down the road.

As always, there are plenty of presumed frontrunners, but it may still be a bit too early to declare any sure things, since there are way too many movies no one has seen yet. One of those that seems to have the most buzz is the DreamWorks/Paramount adaptation of the musical Dreamgirls by Bill Condon (Chicago, Of Gods and Monsters), which hopes to follow movies like Chicago and Ray into the Oscar race.

Except for last year’s indie bonanza, there’s a thought that “big movies”– either big budget or high-grossing, which aren’t always the same thing—tend to impress Oscar voters, and you can’t get bigger than a war movie by Clint Eastwood, whose last movie Million Dollar Baby, nearly swept the Oscars a few years ago. Flag of Our Fathers was thought to be a Best Picture frontrunner until people started seeing it, a few critics panned it and it failed to do the kind of business expected from a war movie by an Oscar winning director. Like Eastwood, Martin Scorsese is coming off two consecutive Oscar-nominated movies, but his crime remake The Departed has been doing extremely well, both critically and commercially, and it would be a shock if the Academy didn’t feel just as strongly about the movie as everyone else does. At this point, it may be one of the only sure things in the Best Picture race.

Other than that, Alejandro González Iñarittu’s Babel and Stephen Frears/Peter Morgan’s The Queen are also getting favorable early nods, and the commercial success of the quirky family comedy Little Miss Sunshine could mean that the Academy loves it as much as the American public. Maybe the same can be said for Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, but it’s a serious longshot despite being distributed by one of the producers of last year’s Best Picture, Crash.

So what else is there out there? Emilio Estevez’s ensemble drama Bobby has all the makings of an Oscar movie starting with a huge star-studded cast, something that the acting division of AMPAS tends to appreciate. African dramas ala Hotel Rwanda have been all the rage in past years, but two of the three of the African movies (Catch a Fire and The Last King of Scotland) haven’t done well commercially, while the third, Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond, has barely been seen by anyone yet, though it does look like a “big movie.” Two unconventional espionage thrillers with similar names are being eyed with similar interest, Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, with George Clooney and Cate Blanchett, and Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd, with Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie.

Despite his personal issues, one can’t discount Mel Gibson talents as a director and his Mayan epic Apocalypto is being released at the perfect time to get Oscar attention, as is Alfonso Cuarón’s futuristic epic Children of Men.

We also can’t forget two 9/11 dramas that came out earlier this year, Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. Both movies have their supporters and detractors, though the latter is certainly more geared towards Oscar voters, that is if any of them care to watch a movie about 9/11. Both are dark horses in the Best Picture category for that reason alone.

The Writing

Usually, movies worthy of getting into the very exlusive Best Picture club are likely to get nominated for their screenplays, but a few scripts really jumped out this year and are likely to be noticed by the AMPAS screenwriters who nominated in the two screenplay categories.

One of the most impressive screenplays is Will Monahan’s adaptation of the Hong Kong trilogy Infernal Affairs for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, filled with so many great one-liners that it’s helped many of the movie’s cast be taken seriously in the acting categories.

Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s darkly comic look at the tobacco industry Thank You for Smoking has many of the right elements to appeal to screenwriters, as does Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction book Fast Food Nation. Linklater is a much-respected screenwriter among the Academy scribes, and his new screenplay is as strong as his 2004 Oscar-nominated screenplay for Before Sunset.

Likewise, Pedro Almodóvar won an Oscar in 2001 for his screenplay for Talk to Her and his latest movie Volver has an equally strong script. 2002 screenplay nominee Todd Field worked with Tom Perotta to adapt the latter’s novel Little Children, another dark comedy which is likely to get recognized for its script, and it’s much more likely than Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, which has been heavily-panned by the critics.

A couple potential newcomers to the Oscar race include Zach Helm, whose screenplay for the Will Ferrell comedy Stranger Than Fiction has gotten him a lot of attention in Hollywood, while the huge commercial success of Little Miss Sunshine would never have been without Michael Arndt’s hilarious script.

Then there’s Peter Morgan, the hot British screenwriter and playwright whose screenplay for The Queen is nothing short of brilliant. (Morgan also co-wrote the Idi Amin biodrama The Last King of Scotland and hit West End play “Frost/Nixon” is going to be made into a film by Ron Howard.)

Playwright Patrick Marber was overlooked for his adaptation of his own play Closer two years ago, but maybe he’ll have better luck with his adaptation of Zoe Heller’s novel Notes on a Scandal, which promises to be a riveting film.

That’s really about all we can say for now. Check back in early December when the Oscar Warrior posts his definitive picks for the movies likely to be in the big race come February. Hopefully, it won’t be nearly as long as this preview, which would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of people like Sasha Stone at Oscarwatch.com, Tom O’Neil of Gold Derby, David Poland of The Hot Button, and Jeffrey Wells of Hollwood-Elsewhere.com, all of whom spend way more time thinking about this Oscar stuff than anyone should.

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