At this point, all of the Academy’s ballots have been turned and this year’s Oscar broadcast is certainly going to be an interesting one, especially in a couple of categories where the races are so unbelievably close with no clear frontrunner so that people have to tune in if they want to see how it all pans out.
Even so, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight) still feels like the clear-cut winner for Best Picture and Director, being that it’s swept the guild awards, as well won more preliminary awards than any other movie to date. In the past, when a movie pulled a surprise win for Best Picture, as were the cases of Crash and Shakespeare in Love, both of them had precursors by winning the SAG Ensemble Cast weeks prior. It’s kind of shocking that not a single member of the cast for “Slumdog” was nominated for an Oscar, which would make the movie one of those ultra-rare Best Picture winners that doesn’t have a corresponding acting nominations. It’s following in the footsteps of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which had similar but slightly less success leading up to Oscar night and also got nominated in almost every category except acting.
Even with the amount of love being garnished on “Slumdog,” David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount) is leading the pack with 13 nominations, though in many of those categories, it’s going up against the favored Danny Boyle film. While you’ll find many people who love this movie, you’ll find just as many who had problems with its length or subject matter or even the fact that it’s reminiscent of the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump. Then again, everyone agrees that it’s an amazing technical achievement by director David Fincher and his team, which means it’s doubtful it will get completely snubbed on Oscar night. “Benjamin Button” is very much like Martin Scorese’s The Aviator in that sense, a perfect Oscar movie, but one that will be appreciated more for technical reasons than for creative or emotional ones. (That will pretty much rule it out with the acting branch who make up the largest percentage.)
Then there’s the even curiouser case of The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.), a movie that seemed destined for nominations in three primary categories (Picture, Director, Writing) but being snubbed in all, despite being nominated in eight other categories. It’s going to hope to walk away with something, although there are only a few categories where it’s not going up against one of the stronger movies.
Milk (Focus) has gotten a lot of support in the early awards season, and it’s nominated in the main categories as well as being a strong contender to win the Lead Actor category. Likewise, Frost/Nixon (Universal) received a Best Picture nomination as well as nominations in the three other key categories. While both movies had great ensemble casts that theoretically could have taken the SAG Ensemble award, the actors’ guild went with the cast of unknowns in “Slumdog.”
Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (The Weinstein Co.) seemingly came from out of nowhere to get a Best Picture nomination, although it did bear many similarities to Daldry’s last movie The Hours, and he’s still the only director to get an Oscar nomination for everyone of his movies. (He’s made three.) While there’s been a lot of last minute support, much of it speculating on Harvey Weinstein’s ability to sway Oscar voters, there’s just as much dissension for same. The film’s best bet is Kate Winslet’s performance which was shifted to the Lead category by the Academy, but it’s also the most likely movie that could pull a similar coup as The Pianist by stealing a few categories from “Slumdog.”
The last movie of note is John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (Miramax), which might be the first movie ever to get four individual acting nominations and a nomination for writing, but not be included in either Picture or Directing categories. One would think that it at least has a chance for one of those four acting nominations, but is it Meryl Streep’s commanding leading role or Viola Davis for her scene-stealing ten minutes?
With all of that in mind, it’s time for us to take a look at all of the individual categories:
Best Achievement in Art Direction:
One of the vaguer categories, which tends to get buried in the middle of the show, this Oscar goes to the production designer, who is responsible for the overall artistic look of the film–set decoration, costumes, etc–and the set decorator. While there are a lot of beautiful movies included in this category, this is the one where Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount) is the one to beat, because it’s so driven by its unique settings and costumes. Sure some can see competition from the other period pieces and even from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which mostly used real locations, but this one seems like a shoe-in for Fincher’s film to win.
The Winner: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Best Achievement in Costume Design:
The Academy’s tendency to go with period pieces in this category is legendary, which is why movies like Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Marie Antoinette and Memoirs of a Geisha could win in the category despite getting very few other accolades. This trend puts the otherwise ignored The Duchess (Paramount Vantage) as the frontrunner for all its garish costumes mostly worn by Keira Knightley. Everything else looks rather bland by comparison.
The Winner: The Duchess
Best Achievement in Makeup:
There are only three nominations in this category, and while one might commend John Caglione, Jr. (who won an Oscar for Dick Tracy) and Conor O’Sullivan’s work at bringing the villains to life in The Dark Knight, it’s nothing compared to having three characters aging backwards and forwards in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount). While some of that was done using CG effects, it’s hard not to be impressed by the work of eight-time nominee and two-time winner Greg Cannom, who’ll be adding a third Oscar to his mantle.
The Winner: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Most people are probably presuming that A.R. Rahman’s score for Slumdog Millionaire is a shoe-in to win this year, maybe because he already won the Golden Globe. One has to ponder how much of the love for the film’s music is for the actual score and how much of it is for the music and songs, something made more evident by the film’s dual nominations in the song category (below). Up until ten years ago, the score category was divided into dramatic and musical/comedy scores, but since the two were combined, only one movie has won Best Picture after winning in this category, which was Howard Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, after Shore having won this category two years earlier. The Academy has often gone very traditional in this category which is why movies like Frida and Atonement and Finding Neverland could win in this category with no chance of taking Best Picture. With that in mind, we think that Alexander Desplat’s score for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button might surprise many by taking this one, because the emotional content of the film is driven so much by its music. That said, there’s just as much chance for Thomas Newman’s score for WALLE to win, which would be at return to the ’90s when Disney animated films regularly won in this category. Either way, we think Rahman will have to be content with winning an Oscar for one of his two songs and let score go to someone else.
The Winner: Alexander Desplat, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Only three nominees in this hotly-contested category and two of them are from Slumdog Millionaire, while the third is Peter Gabriel’s closing song from WALLE. Since most people love the “Slumdog” soundtrack, it seems obvious that one of the two songs it’s nominated for will take this one and “Jai Ho” makes more sense, since it’s the amazing closing dance number.
The Winner: “Jai Ho,” Slumdog Millionaire
Short Film (Animated):
There are a lot of great films in this category and while Pixar always has a lot of support for Doug Sweetland’s “Presto,” a fun little five-minute homage to the great Looney Tunes cartoons of yesterday, much of that comes from it being one of the few in the category that everyone has seen either in theaters or on DVD. It has plenty of strong competition in the Russian 2D animated “Lavatory Love Story” or the more serious and introspective Japanese short “La Maison En Petits Cubes” and even Smith and Foulkes’ creative “This Way Up.” On the other hand, Pixar hasn’t won in the short film category since “For the Birds” in 2001, and they’ve been on the sidelines enough in this category that “Presto” seems like the strongest contender to win if based on nothing else but pure nostalgia.
The Winner: “Presto”
Short Film (Live Action):
My annoyance that the Academy might go with the obvious German short “Spielzeugland (Toyland)” due to its Holocaust themes is growing, but there’s something that people are forgetting: In the past, this category has more often gone to a charming comic film rather than a drama, and while “Toyland” has cute kids that will warm the hearts of Oscar voters, the other movie with kids, Steph Green’s “New Boy,” is the kind of joyful look at an immigrant boy’s first day at school that it will be hard to ignore. As much as we’d love to see it take the prize, there’s just too much support for the Germany Nazi movie among those who’ve seen all five movies so we have to go with the majority
The Winner: “Spielzeugland (Toyland)”
For the past six months, it seemed obvious that Pixar Animation’s WALLE (Disney/Pixar) was going to win this category without breaking a sweat. Some people even felt that the movie was good enough that it should be nominated in the Best Picture category. The recent Annie Awards sweep by DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda was daunting, especially since Pixar Animation has won every previous year, even with Cars. That film is voted on solely by animators who probably had a soft spot for that movie’s martial arts premise, but we still think that the members of the Academy will go for the Pixar movie that has received numerous prior awards. The obvious giveaway is that the Pixar movie once again got into many other categories including original screenplay, sound editing and mixing, and the music categories, while Kung Fu Panda is nowhere to be seen except for here.
The Winner: WALLE
If there’s one category that screws up every single office Oscar pool, it’s this one very few people outside the Academy get to see the contenders. Last Sunday, the Oscar Warrior spent a couple hours at the Museum of Modern Art to see this year’s four contenders, and yet it still feels like it could go any of three ways.
Steven Okazak has received four nominations in this category with one previous win, and his new movie “The Conscience of Nhem En,” about a photographer who took ID photos of thousands of people killed by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, is a poignant and moving film. Even so, it’s going up against two real crowd-pleasers in Megan Mylan’s “Smile Pinki” and Adam Pertofsky and Margaret Hyde’ “The Witness – From the Balcony of Room 306.” The former is a heartwarming tale of an adorable young girl from a poor family in India scarred by a cleft lip who gets the opportunity to have it fixed. It’s a wonderful story, one that makes a great companion piece to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, but it’s going up against a far more traditional documentary about a timely subject matter, the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as told by someone who was with him on the balcony on that fateful day in Memphis edited together with rare footage. The subject matter and artistic filmmaking of the latter should win out, even if the former is more of a crowdpleaser. In fact, the only one that absolutely has no chance of winning is “The Final Inch” about the fight against Polio in India, because “Smile Pinki” covers similar territory in a much more personal way.
The Winner: “The Witness From the Balcony of Room 306”
The Winner: Man on Wire
Best Achievement in Sound Editing:
This is one of the vaguer categories, but it’s basically awarded for the use of sound effects and sound design. While Slumdog Millionaire is included in this category, this Oscar is usually rewarded to the loudest action movie or the one with the most creative sound FX. Since that’s essentially all four of the other candidates, we’ll probably have to rule out Danny Boyle’s movie here.
The most obvious choice is Richard King’s effects work for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight–King won previously for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World–but one could be just as easily impressed with the work of Oscar regulars Frank Eulner and Christopher Boyes for Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. The two of them have been nominated many times in both sound categories, and they’ve won four previous Oscars in the other sound category, which could keep them out of the running.
When it comes to the use of sound design, you can’t do much better than Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood’s work in WALLE (Disney/Pixar) to the point where Burtt even supplied the “voices” of the main characters, which is a huge part of the film. Burtt is a legend in this field, having won Oscars for huge movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, so there’s little reason why he won’t win another for what many consider his greatest achievement. Either way, sorry “Slumdog,” you’re just going to have to sit this one out.
The Winner: WALLE
Best Achievement in Sound:
To clarify the two categories, this one is often referred to as “Sound Mixing,” and in past years, this would go to a musical or a movie that’s heavy with music. Movies like Dreamgirls, Ray and Chicago have all won in this category, although it’s also been given to big, loud movies like King Kong and Black Hawk Down. This year there’s only two big and loud movies and no musicals. The sound team behind Fincher’s “Benjamin Button” have won four Oscars between them, but it doesn’t really seem like a movie that fits into either category, but “Slumdog” does have a lot of music, so one could sort of deem it a musical. “Slumdog” already received an award for its sound from the Cinema Audio Society, which one would assume to be the precursor for this, and up until 2000, CAS and the Academy were normally 1 to 1, until that changed in 2001, because since then, no CAS winner has won the Sound Mixing Oscar. While “Slumdog” still has a good chance, this could be one of the categories where The Dark Knight gets honored, especially if WALLE gets the Oscar for sound editing, since it doesn’t seem like any one movie will win both sound Oscars, as was the case with The Bourne Ultimatum a couple years back and Peter Jackson’s King Kong a few years earlier.
The Winner: The Dark Knight
Best Achievement in Visual Effects:
This might be a tougher category than some might think because while Iron Man would normally be the most obvious winner, being a huge FX driven movie, how can we forget how Michael Bay’s Transformers lost to The Golden Compass last year? Of the three movies, The Dark Knight seems the least likely due to the way director Christopher Nolan proudly proclaimed how much of the action was done on set, so that makes it between the two Paramount releases. While normally we’d go with the big FX movie, the Academy will probably be more impressed with the more subtle FX used by David Fincher’s to create the older Brad Pitt in “Benjamin Button,” although it’s confusing how much of that uses visual FX and how much is make-up, a category in which “Button” is also a frontrunner.
The Winner: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Best Achievement in Editing:
In past years, this would often go hand-in-hand with Best Picture, which might have been why when Paul Haggis’ Crash won for editing, it could have been a telltale sign. Then again, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator won an Oscar for its editing in the same year it lost Picture to Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, and The Bourne Ultimatum received this technical award, as well as both sound awards, without any nomination in the top categories. There are a lot of well-edited films in this category, but Chris Dickens’ editing in Slumdog Millionaire is clearly impressive enough to have received the American Cinema Editor’s Eddie Award, and the only movie that has any chance of beating it for editing is The Dark Knight, which is clearly at the awards for its technical achievements more than anything else. We’ll go with Dickens on this one.
The Winner: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Achievement in Cinematography:
This Oscar could also go a lot of different ways, although Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (yes, that movie again) has already been honored with numerous awards including one from his peers in the American Society of Cinematographers, and there’s been quite a lot of crossover between them and the Academy, though less in recent years. With that in mind, three-time nominee Wally Pfister’s impressive use of IMAX cameras while filming The Dark Knight and the gorgeous camerawork of first-time nominee Claudio Miranda for David Fincher’s “Benjamin Button” can’t be completely ignored, the latter also being a far more traditional choice to win this award. One thing to bear in mind is that its been nearly ten years since the winner in this category also won Best Picture, and if “Slumdog” is going to win for direction and other technical awards, this will be the category where another movie could win something. Unfortunately, poor Roger Deakins, who has lost in this category seven times prior, probably won’t be joining Kate Winslet on stage in her victory year (see below), even though it was his able camera who captured her performance in The Reader. Instead, we’re going with Miranda, whose luscious visuals are as important to “Benjamin Button” as the music and FX.
The Winner: Claudio Miranda, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Foreign Language Film:
Coming into the weekend, only two of the five movies nominated have had general releases, and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir has already won a Golden Globe and other critics awards. Laurent Cantet’s The Class has won the prestigious Palm D’Or at Cannes and is nominated for five Cesars, which are awarded next week. Not too many people have seen the other three movies, which is why most of them are putting their bank on the two mentioned above. The problem is that one of them is a heavy and metaphysical animated war film and the other is a long-winded classroom docudrama (of sorts), neither which might strike a chord with sentimental Oscar voters. Austria won two years ago for The Counterfeiters, so it’s doubtful Götz Spiegelman’s crime drama Revanche will follow, and Germany’s offering The Baader Meinhof Complex; does anyone know what that’s about? What a bizarre title, right? Germany has a pretty good track record, having won 2 out of their 7 nominations, but the Japanese film Departures by Yojira Takita is a beautiful, poignant film about a cellist that has just the right elements to win over Oscar voters. Let’s face it, Japan is due for a win having had 11 previous nominations but none to win the gold. Look for this to be the category where a lot of Oscar pools get trashed.
The Winner: Departures (Japan)
Writing (Original Screenplay):
At this point, this category has been pretty well whittled down to a heads up face-off between two screenplays, Dustin Lance Black’s script for Gus Van Sant’s Milk and the screenplay for Pixar’s WALLE, a movie that’s mostly dialogue-free for the first half. The lack of dialogue in the latter will certainly hurt it when compared to the dialogue-heavy biopic about San Francisco’s first gay politician. The only other semi-series contender might be Oscar winner Martin McDonagh’s screenplay for In Bruges, which got a surprising amount of love at the Golden Globes, drawing further attention to it, but we think the more all-encompassing love for Van Sant’s film will help Black win an Oscar, having already been honored by the Writers Guild for his script.
The Winner: Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Writing (Adapted Screenplay):
While there might be some love for Eric Roth’s screenplay for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or the two strong adaptations of Tony-winning stageplays (Doubt, Frost/Nixon), there’s very little way that any of those three will be able to surpass the Golden Globe and WBA-winning screenplay by Simon Beaufoy for Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, the only other screenplay that seems like it has even the slightest chance of making a dent in Beaufoy’s chances at winning his first Oscar is David Hare’s adaptation of Bernard Schlink’s The Reader, but it would be a shocker on par with the win in this category for The Pianist a number of years back.
The Winner: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Actress in a Supporting Role:
With Kate Winslet being removed from this category after winning both a Golden Globe and SAG for The Reader, it’s opened up a lot of possibilities and debate for who might take her place and win the far more coveted Oscar. This tends to be the category where there are often the biggest surprises, such as Marisa Tomei’s win for My Cousin Vinnie all those years ago and Marcia Gay Harden winning for Pollock.
Most people are going with Penelope Cruz for her performance in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, assuming that she’d get it merely because she’s due after a number of previous nominations, and this Oscar has often gone to veteran actresses who had never been recognized previously, like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton. Then again, just two years ago, the Academy went with newcomer Jennifer Hudson for her very first film performance, so they’re not adverse to commemorating newbies either. While so many people think Cruz is deserving, the Academy is not one to bend to the pushy critics and journalists, and would anyone in the industry really think Cruz gave the best performance of the bunch?
John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt received two of its four acting nominations in this category, Viola Davis and Amy Adams, and though it didn’t get a Best Picture nomination, it’s clearly a movie that’s being targeted for its amazing performances, and clearly, the thing that everyone remembers is Viola Davis’ amazing ten minutes on screen where she steals the scene from none other than Meryl Streep. Davis doesn’t really fall into either normal category of Supporting Actress winner, being a veteran theater actress who has appeared in dozens of films in small roles, but if there’s anyone who’s going to take home an Oscar for Doubt, it will be Davis.
The Winner: Viola Davis, Doubt (would be the night’s big shocker but well-deserved)
Actor in a Supporting Role:
This category has been pretty much sewn up for months as Heath Ledger’s last full performance in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was part of the driving force for that movie earning over $500 million. Having won every other award in this category, it’s doubtful that anyone, even Josh Brolin in the much-loved Milk can deny Ledger his first Oscar, even though sadly, it will be delivered post-humously.
The Winner: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Actress in a Leading Role:
This category suddenly got more interesting when Kate Winslet was nominated for Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, winning the long battle between Harvey Weinstein and producer Scott Rudin, the latter taking his name off the movie in protest for there being a conflict with his other Kate Winslet movie. Winslet’s role has already won a Golden Globe and SAG award, but in the supporting category, because that’s where it had been jockeyed by the Weinsteins, but the Academy wisely put her where she belonged since it really is a leading role (even if she isn’t the title character). Daldry’s last leading lady, Nicole Kidman, won her only Oscar for his previous movie The Hours, and there’s no denying that Daldry pulled something out of Winslet that we haven’t yet seen from her. Then there’s also the well-known fact that Winslet has been nominated five previous times without ever having won. As mentioned above, the Academy won’t generally bend to pressure from journalists, critics and everyone else to finally recognize Winslet merely because she’s deserving, but if there is a movie role for which she deserves an Oscar, it’s this one. (It won’t hurt that Winslet starred in another lauded but snubbed performance for Revolutionary Road as well.)
The only thing standing in Kate’s way is the actress who has been nominated for more Oscars than any other person, Meryl Streep. Despite all those nominations, Streep has only one once in the lead category, despite being one of the most respected actresses working today. Playing Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt has been the perfect reminder what a great actress she is after appearing in movies like Mamma Mia! and other weaker fare like Rendition.
The fact is that however you cut it, Winslet’s performance in The Reader is a much stronger one than Streep’s and many see it as the best performance for which she’s been nominated. There’s a chance of votes being split and someone else slipping in for the win, but having already won a Golden Globe and SAG for the role, we expect Winslet to overcome the Streep steamroller and win her first Oscar. Expect a teary impassioned speech that will be remembered for years to come, which is exactly what the Oscar telecast will need as it crosses the three-hour mark.
The Winner: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Actor in a Leading Role:
The other big head-to-head fight at this year’s Oscars comes in the form of two long-time friends, and notorious ’80s bad boys, Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn, the latter vying for his second Oscar after winning his first for Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River five years ago.
Mickey Rourke’s performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (Fox Searchlight) is the type of transformative role and performance that actors desperately crave, and it’s very much on a similar plane as Charlize Theron in Monster. While not everyone loves the movie, everyone loves what Rourke does in it, as well as the fact that he’s been able to make such an impressive comeback after languishing in obscurity for over a decade.
Penn has given a similarly transformative role taking on the persona of former San Francisco politician Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk, and it’s really impressed everyone who has seen the movie bar none.
The question is whether the Academy wants to go with the professional wrestler or the gay politician – whether they consider Penn (normally a loose cannon) relatively sane compared to Rourke (who can still be quite nuts). People are divided down the middle and usually when something like that happens, there’s a chance of votes being split and others slipping into steal this, but it seems doubtful that there’s enough support behind Frank Langella or Richard Jenkins to get them past the other two.
This really can go either way, and while there’s a lot of love for Milk, it probably won’t win for Best Picture, so honoring Penn with his second Oscar for the role would seem due. Then again, the Academy loves a comeback story, and I don’t think anyone would want to be anywhere near Rourke if he loses.
The Winner: Seriously, flip a coin, but we’ll go with Sean Penn for Milk. Sorry, Mickey.
As much as David Fincher is well-deserving for the technical achievements of “Benjamin Button,” which all should be well-honored, Danny Boyle has already won every previous award including the coveted honor from the Directors Guild, so there’s little reason why the Academy won’t follow suit. It’ll be a win as much for his groundbreaking Mumbai epic, as it will be for his impressive body of work.
The Winner: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
We covered this at the top of this article, but after winning just about every award leading up to the Oscars, including every single guild award,Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight) winning Best Picture feels like one of the surest bets of the evening. It’s doubtful that all of the various groups that make up the Academy will be able to agree on any other choice, so while other movies might have some support, they’ll all have to fight for second place.
The Winner: Slumdog Millionaire
Actor in a Leading Role – Sean Penn, Milk
Watch the live Oscar Telecast on ABC on Sunday, February 22 at 5PT/8ET.