Nothing seems certain this year, in real or reel life. The political pollsters, normally so drearily accurate, emerged with egg on their faces after proclaiming a resounding Obama victory in New Hampshire. Why should the Oscars be any different? It feels as if this ceremony--which almost didn't happen thanks to the writers' strike--could produce some significant upsets for a change. The conventional wisdom may not apply to a field filled with more than the usual share of unconventional movies. Mainstream commercial movies are barely a blip on the Academy Awards landscape. Little "Juno" is by far the biggest hit among the five best-picture nominees, and the only one of the five that's considered a major studio movie, Warner Bros.'s "Michael Clayton," actually isn't: it was a pickup, financed by an outside company. The Oscars have become the Independent Spirit Awards on a bigger budget.
Here are my not-so-fearless prognostications for a night that may make all the soothsayers, myself included, look clueless.
All the usual signs point toward a victory for "No Country for Old Men." It won the producers', directors' and writers' guild awards, and that's usually a pretty clear sign. The question is, will the Academy really go for a movie this bleak, with such an un-Hollywood leave-em-dangling ending? "Juno" could be a spoiler, as it's the one feel-good movie in a dark lot, but movies about teens just don't win the big one. For all its critical hosannas, "There Will Be Blood" splits audiences down the middle: it has too many detractors to win. "Atonement" only seems like an Oscar movie: it's lost its momentum. If there's a big upset here, it's going to be "Michael Clayton," a movie that speaks in a language both young and old Hollywood understand, and has a swell kick-ass ending to boot. But I'm having a hard time bucking the Vegas odds here: there's just too much evidence that points to a "No Country" victory.
This is perhaps the safest bet of the night: it would be a shock if Daniel Day-Lewis lost. I'd like George Clooney's chances better for "Clayton" if he hadn't already picked up a trophy for "Syriana" a couple of years back. Much as they'd love to give an Oscar to Johnny Depp, "Sweeney Todd" was clearly too macabre for this group. Tommy Lee Jones is great in "In the Valley of Elah," but voters prefer more flash. Viggo Mortensen's award was the nomination.
SAG and Golden Globe winner Julie Christie is the front runner, and she's beloved for her golden oldies. But something tells me the voters are going to give it up for Marion Cotillard this year, in spite of the fact they don't often go for foreign-language performances. It's exactly the kind of role the Academy loves: self-destruction in song, with lots of disfiguring makeup. How can they resist? The only other contender is "Juno's" Ellen Page, but history suggests young newcomers do better in the supporting categories. Cate Blanchett (nobody liked "Elizabeth: The Golden Age") and Laura Linney ("The Savages") are very dark horses indeed.
Best Supporting Actor
Hal Holbrook seemed poised for an upset here: he's a well-liked vet in a moving role in "Into the Wild," but can anybody stop the Javier Bardem juggernaut? In a year of great villains, his "No Country" psychopath out-nightmared them all, and you'd be wise to place a conservative bet on him. Philip Seymour Hoffman was the best thing in "Charlie Wilson's War," and he had a remarkable year, but again his having won already for "Capote" lessens his chances for an upset. Abandon all hope Casey Affleck and Tom Wilkinson.
Best Supporting Actress
Your guess is as good as mine. This is the toughest race of the night. I could make a case for four of the five nominees. The one I don't think will win is "Atonement's" gifted young Saoirse Ronan, but I should add that I once said the same about Marcia Gay Hardin in "Pollack," and damned if she didn't win. The early favorite was Cate Blanchett. (Her name, by the way, is pronounced BLANCHIT, not BLANSHETTE, as if it were French. I asked her.). The Academy loves Cate, and they love gender-bending performances. But boy do they not love "I'm Not There." Crafty Harvey Weinstein, hoping to get around that fact, inserted a DVD into Variety that contained only the Blanchett segments of the movie. If she triumphs, she might be the first winner for a movie the voters only watched a sixth of. (Didn't they tell us in high school never to end a sentence with a prepostion?) Ruby Dee has to be considered a strong contender because she won this category at the SAG awards--but maybe voters will consider that enough of a tribute to an admired old-timer. Amy Ryan gives a bravura turn as a badass mom in "Gone Baby Gone," and she's won more critics awards than anyone. She may be the favorite now, but I have a hunch Tilda Swinton's ulcerous corporate toady in "Michael Clayton" is going to pull off a mild upset here. It's a way to honor a movie they like, and an uncompromising actor who's paid her dues in movies both far-out and mainstream.
You have to go with the Coen brothers. They've never won, and this is clearly movie to give it to them for. The wild card here (in every sense) is Julian Schnabel, who could pull off a monumental upset--when has a director won for a film that wasn't nominated for best picture? His hope is that a lot of people didn't see "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" until after the nominations were announced. Paul Thomas Anderson ("There Will Be Blood") will have ardent support, but not quite enough of it. Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton") and Jason Reitman ("Juno") are delighted to be nominated, but neither is holding his breath.
Best Original Screenplay
While "Ratatouille" and "The Savages" will pick up some votes, this is a two-way race: "Michael Clayton" vs. "Juno." Diablo Cody has gotten more press than any screenwriter in memory (it helps to be a former stripper) and her script is the most obviously "written." Much as the Academy likes "Michael Clayton," obviously written wins.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Could "Atonement," "Away from Her," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" or "There Will Be Blood" upset "No Country for Old Men"? Not likely. The brothers Coen pick up another naked gold man.
Best Animated Feature
There are only three nominees in this category. "Surf's Up"--no way. "Persepolis" will have some passionate supporters, but "Ratatouille" is too widely beloved to lose.
Best Foreign Film
Upsets abound in this category, because so few people vote here. You have to have seen all five--and some are only screened a few times--to qualify to vote. Austria's "The Counterfeiters" has the edge: movies that deal with the Holocaust rarely lose. "Mongol," about the early years of Genghis Khan (from Kazakhstan) is slick, fun and full of spectacular costumes and landscapes. Hollywood loves foreign films that feel like Hollywood films. Which is probably why the Russian "12" got nominated--it's a remake of "12 Angry Men," but a lot longer. Israel's "Beaufort" is a moody, well-made (and apolitical) war movie that has been warmly received at some screenings. And Andrej Wajda's brooding "Katyn" has historical import going for it: its about the Katyn Forest massacres during World War II, in which thousands of Polish officers were massacred by the Soviets, who then blamed it on the Germans. A close call, but I'm sticking with "The Counterfeiters" (My review appears in the next NEWSWEEK)
Here again only those who see all five get to vote, and it's a strong field. Three movies that deal with Iraq go head to head: the highly acclaimed "No End in Sight," which documents in incontrovertible detail the disastrous mistakes of the U.S. occupation; "Taxi to the Dark Side," a powerfully disturbing investigation of our deployment of torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, and "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience" a moving and imaginative re-enactment of the stories written by returning soldiers. Also in the field is Michael Moore's "Sicko," the most commercially successful documentary of the year. But much as the health-care issue resonates, I'm not sure the Academy is ready to give Moore another Oscar just yet. Not to be discounted is "War/Dance," which tells the horrific but uplifting tale of Ugandan refugee children, orphaned by civil war, who compete in a national dance competition. This last one could be a surprise winner, but my hunch is that anger with the Bush administration propels "No End in Sight" to victory.
A few other interesting races to watch:
Roderick Jaynes is listed as the editor of "No Country for Old Men," but no such person exists--it's the pseudonym for Joel and Ethan Coen. If they win this--and the screenplay and directing awards--they're going to need a U-Haul to bring home the loot. But watch out for an upset win here from the supercharged "The Bourne Ultimatum." The cutting was dazzling, and such visible virtuosity gives it an edge. I'm guessing the most edited film gets the most votes.
Here again "No Country" may come up short. "Atonement" will get votes, but the battle is between Robert Elswit's superb work on "There Will Be Blood" (the slight favorite) and Janusz Kaminski's distinctive subjective camerawork in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." My gut says Kaminski wins by a hair.
Probably comes down to "Ratatouille" vs. "Atonement," a concerto for typewriter and orchestra. Pick "Atonement."
"La Vie en Rose" all the way. There was more makeup in "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End"--hell, there was more of everything--but who wants to votes for that? And the Academy will turn up its nose at "Norbit."
It won't be "American Gangster"--too subtle. It won't be "The Golden Compass"--didn't make enough money. It could be "Sweeney Todd," because it creates a whole city of London, but Dante Ferretti has won too many times, and the sets are too blood-drenched. It could be "Atonement," for the Academy loves grand English houses. But here I think (and hope) "There Will Be Blood" wins its second Oscar of the night. Jack Fisk created a whole world from scratch.
Live Action Short
I've seen all five and was underwhelmed by most. A lot of critics are touting the 40-minute Danish "At Night," about terminal cancer patients (who all look like supermodels), but I found it dreary and pat. None of the entries are American: my hunch is "Tangi Argentini," with its clever twist ending, wins. "The Tonto Woman," based on an Elmore Leonard Western story, is also a contender, as is the kinetic Italian entry, "The Substitute."
Live Action Animation
This is a better crop, and a tough race to call. I was knocked out by the visual brilliance of the National Film Board of Canada entry, "Madame Tutli-Putli," which sounds cute but is in fact a nightmarish railroad journey taken by a frightened woman in a cloche hat: I hope it wins, but it may be too dark and enigmatic in the end. Many are predicting "I Met the Walrus"--which illustrates (in abstract Saul Steinberg-like images) an interview between a teenage journalist and John Lennon, but I think it's too slight (and literal minded) to win. The ironic French entry, "Even Pigeons Go to Heaven" is a long shot. "My Love," an impressionistic Russian tale of tortured first love, is impressive but overlong. By default, I'm guessing the winner is the visually lively eco-fable "Peter and the Wolf," a wordless drama set to Prokofiev's music. But go Tutli-Putli!
Three songs from "Enchanted" cancel each other out, and "Once"'s "Falling Shortly" takes home the gold--in the true Spirit Award spirit of the night.