The Oscar Warrior’s 2009 Oscar Picks Part 2


If you already read Part 1 of the Oscar Warrior’s excruciatingly late Oscar Picks then you’re probably ready for Part 2, building up to our picks for the movies likely to get nominated for Best Picture.

The Directors

This category is almost irrelevant at this point because by the time you read this, the Directors Guild (DGA) will have announced their five nominees, which tends to coincide fairly closely to the Oscars picks, mainly because they’re both nominated solely by directors. That said, the Academy has often pulled out a surprise or two in this category, whether it be Fernando Meirelles’ nomination for City of God or Mike Leigh for Vera Drake a few years later. For whatever reason, the DGA tends to gear their nominations more towards American directors over foreigners, but the Academy tends to be more internationally-minded. However the important thing to remember is that almost every year, at least four of the five nominated directors also have their movies nominated for Best Picture. There have certainly been a few exceptions, but they were very much exceptions.

Regardless, here are the directors that have been nominated by the Directors Guild earlier this week:

Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight), David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount), Ron Howard for Frost/Nixon (Universal), Christopher Nolan for The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.), and Gus Van Sant for Milk (Focus).

No real surprises as the above was pretty much the consensus, but let’s look at the candidates a little more closely, mainly because those directing nominations coincide so closely to the Best Picture nominees, though not always.

Going back to 1990, there have only been two years where the Academy went 5 for 5 in terms of nominations with the DGA, the last time in 2005, and there’s only been two years where two nominations were different between the groups, so let’s look at who has a chance to not only be nominated but also win the directing Oscar.

The Frontrunner(s):

At the top of the heap, there are two directors vying for their first well-deserved Oscar this year, and the Academy might do as they’ve often done in the past by awarding one director with the Oscar for their direction, then give Best Picture to the other one’s movie. Or they can do what they did last year with No Country for Old Men or when they gave Peter Jackson and his The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King both honors to honor all three movies.

Both Danny Boyle and David Fincher have been making critically-acclaimed movies for years, and while Fincher has had far more luck at the box office, Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight) is thought to be a breakout hit that might actually exceed the success he found with the horror thriller 28 Days Later seven years ago, and he’s been winning the majority of critics awards including the Critics Choice Award for the movie. This doesn’t mean that those in the industry will feel the same way, especially since Boyle tends to be rather ecletic, generally doing his own thing and writing his own ticket rather than playing ball in Hollywood.

On the other hand, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount) is a glorious and impressive achievement feat for Fincher, just something very different than anything he’s done before and closer to the kind of movie that the Academy eats up hook, line and sinker. He’s definitely in the nominations for sure, and it’ll be up to the Academy to decide whether “Benjamin Button” is the movie that deserves Fincher to get an Oscar. (Unfortunately, it could be like Martin Scorsese and The Aviator–Scorsese was deserving and the movie was a change of pace, but they made him wait two more years regardless.) One thing to note about what will probably be the primary competition within this category is that Boyle has been amicably doing the rounds for his movie since Telluride and Toronto, while Fincher tends to be more elusive, which could ultimately hurt his chances if he’s unwilling to glad-hand the people who do the voting.

Close Behind:

Whether or not you feel that a superhero movie based on a comic book deserves to be considered when dealing with prestigious awards like the Oscar, there’s no denying that Christopher Nolan is as equally deserving as the gentlemen above to get recognition for his body of work, but especially for his amazing work on The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.) A movie like this doesn’t become the second-highest grossing movie of all time for no reason and like James Cameron with Titanic, the movie and Nolan’s amazing work is so far into the public consciousness that it would be shocking if Nolan was snubbed.

Likewise, Gus Van Sant’s work on the biopic Milk (Focus) has been praised greatly by critics groups, and his return to awards-worthy fare should be enough to get him an Oscar nomination to go with his DGA nomination.

The Others:

Assuming that the Academy once again goes four for five this year, the four names above are the most likely to get nominations, so who’s let?

Ron Howard has been nominated multiple times in the past, winning for A Beautiful Mind in 2002 and his take on Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon (Universal) is on the short list for many of the guilds including the DGA. For a long time, Frost/Nixon was thought to be the weak link in the Best Picture category, but that’s before it was nominated by all four of the industry guilds. Even so, Ron Howard has been snubbed by the Academy in the past for an Oscar nomination after winning the DGA for Apollo 13, and few will see this movie to be as big a coup. Also, Howard just won an Oscar a few years back for A Beautiful Mind, so does he need another nomination?

As far as I can tell, no animation director has been recognized for their work in this category ever, so if Andrew Stanton gets nominated for his work on the highly-praised Pixar movie WALL•E (Disney/Pixar), it would certainly be setting a new standard. A nomination for Stanton doesn’t necessarily guarantee WALL•E a slot for Best Picture, but it certainly would up its chances, even if it’s somewhat redundant because it’s almost guaranteed to win Best Animated Feature regardless. To nominate Stanton for direction will show that the Academy is respecting the craft behind directing animated features more than they have in the past. (Stanton was snubbed by the DGA because animated features aren’t considered worthy of nomination, but maybe the Academy will try to make up for that fact.)

On the Outskirts:

Stephen Daldry was already nominated for a Golden Globe for his German drama The Reader (The Weinstein Co.) but snubbed by the DGA. Then again, Daldry was nominated by the Academy for both of his previous movies Billy Elliot and The Hours, even though only the latter received a DGA nomination. There is certainly support for this movie from vocal critics that could help put Daldry and his movie into the running. Sam Mendes’ direction on Revolutionary Road (Paramount Vantage) was also enough to get him a Golden Globes nomination, but otherwise, his movie has received very little love except for his wife Kate Winslet. Likewise, British filmmaker Mike Leigh returned last year after his surprise Oscar nomination for Vera Drake in 2005. Similar to Daldry, the Academy might choose to honor the eclectic director for a third time for his work putting together Happy-Go-Lucky (Miramax).

John Patrick Shanley hasn’t directed a movie in over twenty years and bringing his award-winning play Doubt (Miramax) to the screen has brought him a lot of attention. Even so, the movie is thought to be more of an actors’ piece, so there’s a chance the acting branch of the Academy might get it into the Top 5 for Best Picture, but Shanley just doesn’t have the sway with the Academy to get in, making him even more of a dark horse for a directing nomination.

Even further on the outside is Darren Aronofsky, whose The Wrestler (Fox Searchlight) has received a lot of critical acclaim, but it’s Aronofksy’s first low-fi independent film since Pi, and actual directors might not be as impressed by critics and wrestling fans. One can’t discount the movie just because of its “indie-ness” though as the last two years have seen Jason Reitman get nominated for Juno as well as the co-directors of Little Miss Sunshine.

No Chance in Hell:

Sorry Baz Luhrmann. I love you and I kind of liked your epic Australia (20th Century Fox), but there’s too many people who didn’t, and at this point, there’s far too much competition.

My Personal Pick: Honestly, I’d be fine with either Boyle or Fincher winning.

The Story So Far:
(In this category, only the DGA really matters, but since a few groups will have already picked their winner, those decisions could be important information to consider.)

HFPA: Danny Boyle, Stephen Daldry, David Fincher, Ron Howard, Sam Mendes

BFCA: Danny Boyle just won this award for Slumdog Millionaire, which does give him more than a slight edge over Fincher.

Best Best for Director: Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), Gus Van Sant (Milk), Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon) (Alternate and the category spoiler: Andrew Stanton for WALL•E)

The Scripts

It’s kind of strange that this is always the hardest category to suss out, since you’d think that a movie writer would be able to think more like a screenwriter than anyone else. It is indeed writers who nominate the screenplays in the two Oscar writing categories, but more than any other branch, they’re also an eclectic bunch who don’t always go where you might expect, often picking something that no one’s expecting like Away From Her last year and giving an Oscar to Almodovar’s Talk to Her years earlier.

Fortunately, the WGA have already doled out their own nominations and those can be very telling even if they don’t have nearly as good a track record as the DGA in terms of going 5 for 5 with the Oscar nominations. Instead, they tend to get 3 or 4 nominations in common, although one thing worth nothing is that for the last four years, the Academy picked as their top choice the same nominee as the WGA.

So let’s look at who they picked earlier this week, so we can figure out the weak links and possible drop-outs.

WGA Original:

Burn After Reading (Focus), Milk (Focus), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (The Weinstein Co.), The Visitor (Overture), The Wrestler (Fox Searchlight)

Looking at the above list, the weak links are probably Burn After Reading and The Visitor, mainly because they probably won’t have guaranteed nominations in other categories. The Academy generally loves Woody Allen, having nominated him for Match Point a few years back despite a WGA snub. In fact, they’ve nominated Allen for 14 (!) Oscars in the writing category, all original screenplays, though he’s only won twice and not in over 20 years for Hannah and Her Sister. The Academy writers also love the Coens, having nominated them three times and handed them two Oscars for their writing work for Fargo and last year’s No Country for Old Men, and the fact that they just won might get Academy writers to hesitate on another nomination for weaker material. Tom McCarthy’s script for The Visitor is certainly worthy of nomination but it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing the older Oscar writers might go with, although it will probably be paired with Richard Jenkins. If he gets in, so will the screenplay. Robert Siegel’s screenplay for Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is pretty amazing, and it probably has a better chance of getting in than The Visitor just because Fox Searchlight does a good job getting their writers around.

If The Visitor and Burn After Reading bow out, what might take their place?

The Golden Globes are no help since all their choices are adapted screenplays; The Critics’ Choice only have one original screenplay and that’s Milk.

When you talk about writers and filmmakers the Academy loves, they’ve nominated the screenplays for three of Mike Leigh’s previous movies in the last ten years, and there’s no reason why they wouldn’t feel just as strongly about his work on Happy-Go-Lucky (Miramax). Like in the directing category, where Leigh has received two nominations, the British filmmaker could pull a surprise by being snubbed by the WGA but getting nominated by the Academy. The Academy also loves Clint Eastwood, which may be enough for Nick Schenk’s screenplay for Clint’s Gran Torino (Warner Bros.) to make a play for the Oscars despite being snubbed by the WGA. It would be rather ironic if it replaces McCarthy’s The Visitor in this category, being that portions of the movie are similar fish-out-of-water character pieces.

Another interesting spoiler in this category is Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon’s screenplay for PIxar’s animated WALL•E (Disney/Pixar), which would be an interesting choice considering that much of the film is sans dialogue. Looking back in time, Brad Bird’s screenplay for The Incredibles was nominated in this category, as was his follow-up Ratatouille–the Academy snubbed Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up–both the screenplay for Toy Story in 1995 and Stanton’s previous movie Finding Nemo in 2003, so there’s definitely a precedent there.

Either way, Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay for the biopic Milk stands the best chance at winning both WGA and the Oscar, and the only possible spoiler there might be if the Academy wants to recognize Woody Allen’s return to glory, thought that’s unlikely.

My Personal Pick: As with the actress categories in Part 1, I’d go with Rod Lurie’s screenplay for the political drama Nothing But the Truth (Yari Film Group), which took a real life event from the news and put a far more human spin on it.

Best Bets for Original Screenplay: Gran Torino, Happy-Go-Lucky, Milk, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Wrestler (Alternate: WALL•E)

WGA Adapted:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount), The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.), Doubt (Miramax), Frost/Nixon (Universal), Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight)

The list above is looking very good, and the WGA may go 5 for 5 for the first time in a long time. The only spoilers might be Justin Haythe’s script for Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (Paramount Vantage) or David Hare’s script for Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (The Weinstein Co.), both strong adaptations of well known and popular novels that might get attention in other categories. The prestigious USC “Scripter Award” has named both of those as the nominees for their award honored for adapting a book-to-film, as well as “Benjamin Button” and Slumdog Millionaire. The screenplay that was snubbed was The Dark Knight although the inclusion of the screenplay for Iron Man in its place made it clear that they did consider a “comic book” as credible source material. This could put the screenplay for The Dark Knight in flux even with its WGA nomination, being that it’s not adapted from an existing comic book story that can be used for comparison. If The Dark Knight doesn’t get a screenplay nomination, its chances for a Best Picture also get put into question, though its support from three of the four guilds does help. The other possible weak link may be John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay for Doubt, only because it’s the only movie of the above four that hasn’t received nominations from all three other guilds, although it has been developed beyond the play more than Peter Morgan’s screenplay for Frost/Nixon.

My Personal Pick: You know what? If it’s good enough for USC then it’s good enough for me and I’ll go with the screenplay for Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, because it’s an amazing adaptation of the comic book which is also a true original.

Best Bets for Adapted Screenplay: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, Slumdog Millionaire (Alternate: Revolutionary Road or The Reader replacing Doubt or possibly even The Dark Knight!)

The Movies

Going by the guild nominations above, SAG’s Ensemble Cast category and the Producers Guild (PGA), it quickly becomes much clearer which movies stand the best chance at getting nominated in the Academy’s most prestigious category, the one that is deservedly saved for the end of what always seems like a never-ending telecast.

Back in September, when it debuted at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, Danny Boyle’s Mumbai epic Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight) received a lot of immediate acclaim, and it’s received a lot of critics awards since then including the Critics Choice Award. It’s pretty much a guaranteed nomination for Best Picture and for Boyle’s direction, the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, and a number of technical categories, so the question is whether the Academy also respects the movie for Dev Patel’s acting and he gets into the relatively weak Supporting Actor category. Those who’ve been reading the Oscar Warrior’s analysis for a while knows that all it takes is one acting nomination to be taken serious as a Best Picture contender. In fact, Crash, The Departed and last year’s No Country for Old Men all won with only one acting nomination in the supporting category. One thing working against Slumdog Millionaire is that it is generally a foreign film set in Mumbai, which could turn off the older Oscar voters, though it’s also won the majority of critics awards including the Broadcast Film Critics Association’s top prize, while it was also the National Board of Review’s choice for Best Picture. The latter two organizations don’t always match with the Academy’s choice for Best Picture and some might say that “Slumdog” is peaking too early to make it through the Oscar voting process (remember Brokeback Mountain and Little Miss Sunshine?), even as those two honors seemingly solidify “Slumdog’s” lead.

Even if Slumdog Millionaire is the frontrunner to win Best Picture, there are at least four other worthy movies standing in its way of taking it all, one being Christopher Nolan’s superhero sequel The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.), a movie that’s grossed over $500 million nationwide, a movie that’s been seen by millions and has entered the public consciousness as one of those box office phenoms that only comes around once in a blue moon. Usually, summer popcorn movies would immediately be discounted as not being “Oscar-worthy” but this is a very different animal. The reason the movie has done so well among so many different audiences is that it’s a high-quality movie that’s being viewed and analyzed well beyond the normal superhero or summer blockbuster. In fact, many of the filmmakers and actors has spoken to since July have referenced the movie, so those in the industry are just as susceptible to its success and why it worked as the fans. What’s hurting The Dark Knight‘s chances for a Best Picture nomination is that the movie was snubbed for a SAG Ensemble, which is often a precursor for the Oscars, being that actors make up its largest branch. The fact that The Dark Knight was also snubbed by the Golden Globes won’t really matter much because when it comes down to it, movies geared towards guys often do very well among the Academy’s male technical crews, which can be attributed for the wins for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and many more.

Another director who has been long overdue for attention is David Fincher, whose career has included many popular favorites like Se7en and Fight Club. For his adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount), he’s been teamed with Eric Roth, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Forrest Gump. It’s a strange movie for sure, one that doesn’t have universal support, but it does have a lot of vocal fans and having so many Oscar-friendly story elements, as well as being an amazing technical achievement, mean that it should have enough support across all the technical departments for it to potentially end up with the most Oscar nominations all things considered. (Personally, I think it will win for Alexander Desplat’s score over the other choices, even The Dark Knight and Slumdog Millionaire.)

It’s been over ten years since director Gus Van Sant was part of the Oscar race for directing Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Good Will Hunting, a film that fully launched both actors’ careers. After a lengthy foray into experimental indie films, he’s back doing traditional Hollywood films (sort of) with the political biopic Milk (Focus), and it’s already won a number of prestigious critics awards as well as being nominated by all four guilds, an honor it shares with “Benjamin Button” and Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon. The film’s screenplay is likely to win in the Original Screenplay category while it has two acting nominations almost guaranteed for Sean Penn (currently the frontrunner) and Josh Brolin. Because of the large ensemble cast, it will already have the Academy’s acting division on its side, although it could suffer from the same biases that ultimately kept Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (also released by Focus) from winning Best Picture a few years ago. On the other hand, it has a far better chance at winning the SAG Ensemble award this year than anything else, which either makes it the spoiler in this category or it will just be another year where Oscar’s Best Picture and the SAG Ensemble award go to different movies, something that’s happened often in the last few years.

Director Ron Howard is no stranger to the Oscar race and neither is screenwriter Peter Morgan, whose script for Stephen Frears’ The Queen was nominated a few years back. Their collaboration on bringing the latter’s play Frost/Nixon (Universal) to the screen has received a lot of recognition in terms of nominations but very few wins either for Morgan’s script or for Frank Langella’s amazing performance from critics, even though both are likely to get nominations. Frost/Nixon did receive a Golden Globes nomination, unlike Milk and The Dark Knight, although the Hollywood Foreign Press often miss Oscar nominees (and even winners!) in their nominations. The question is whether the Academy’s directing branch will snub Howard like they did with Apollo 13 in the ’90s, and if they do, that makes Frost/Nixon‘s chances even weaker for getting a Best Picture nomination.

If Frost/Nixon doesn’t get in, what might take its place? How about WALL•E (Disney/Pixar), the acclaimed computer-animated movie which has won a number of critics awards for Best Picture already, something that rarely happens with groups who have separate categories for animated feature. Especially notable are the L.A. Film Critics whose Best Picture choice has almost always gone on to at least get a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, although WALL•E is also their first animated film to get that honor. The problem is that the Academy already has an Animated Feature category as well, and most voters might feel that WALL•E will win an Oscar there, so why nominate it in the Best Picture category?

Another possible spoiler might be John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (Miramax), which is clearly an actors’ movie with three nearly guaranteed acting nominations, and a possible fourth, as well as a strong screenplay that’s already received some recognition. As mentioned above, Shanley might have a tough time getting a nomination for his direction, which makes it less likely to get in as Best Picture, but with the acting branch of the Academy being such a powerful force, one shouldn’t be too surprised if they choose this over the dated political movie.

The “Feud” on the Outskirts:

At this point it’s probably moot, but earlier in the season, there seemed to be a feud brewing between two movies, both of which have received nominations in all sorts of categories before being mostly snubbed by the industry guilds. Those movies were Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (Paramount Vantage) and Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (The Weinstein Co.), both starring Kate Winslet, both produced by Scott Rudin and both reteaming elements that were so successful in past Oscar races. Mendes won the Oscar for his first movie American Beauty and his new movie returns him to the suburbs, as well as allows him to use his theater background with a talented ensemble cast. The strong script and the actor-driven film could help it win over some fans in the Academy’s acting branch, much like Todd Field’s In the Bedroom, but the same can be said for The Reader. Both movies are very dark and somewhat dreary–not sure if that’s a good or bad thing when it comes to the Oscars–but the deciding factor might be whether either or both are nominated for their strong adapted screenplays, which could give them a leg up. After all, Kate Winslet is already likely to get nominated for one or both movies. Regardless, one shouldn’t put it past members of the Academy to let sentimentality take over, especially with so many newcomers in the race like Boyle, Fincher and a summer popcorn movie. Frost/Nixon or Doubt will probably fulfill the Oscars’ desire to be consistent with traditions even if the past few years have shown the Academy trying to break away from that.

HFPA: Drama: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, Slumdog Millionaire / Comedy/Musical: Burn After Reading, Happy-Go-Lucky, In Bruges, Mamma Mia!, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Obviously, the latter category is moot and the Golden Globes tend to differ so much from the Oscar Best Picture category that they’re almost irrelevant.)

BFCA: Slumdog Millionaire won the Critics Choice Award after sweeping every category it was nominated in, but let’s face it, they’re critics. The Academy has been known to deliberately go against the critics when making their own choices.

SAG Ensemble: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire

PGA: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire (These coincide 5:5 with the DGA’s director nominations, and all five have received WGA nominations as well, which is somewhat telling.)

ASC (Cinematographers Society): Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, Slumdog Millionaire (Notably missing are Milk and Frost/Nixon)

Best Bets for Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire, The Dark Knight, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk. Those four are almost guaranteed with Frost/Nixon being the most obvious choice for fifth, although also the weakest and most likely to get bumped, possibly with Doubt or even WALL•E taking the fifth spot.