Handicapping Oscar: No Academy For Young Men

If you’re hoping I can help you win your office pool, stop reading right now. I’ve never won an Oscar pool. Someone who’s seen all the movies tends to vote with his heart, which is fatal. In fact, a number of the movies I’d like to vote for are not even nominated.

So first a moment of silence for those left behind. As much as I appreciate Juno, it’s a crime that Into the Wild was overlooked and its director, Sean Penn, was not recognized rather than Jason Reitman. David Cronenberg and Eastern Promises should have been recognized, in addition to Viggo Mortenson’s best actor nod. And Frank Langella deeply deserved a best actor nomination for his heartbreaking performance in Starting Out in the Evening. So who would I drop from the list to make room for him? How about Johnny Depp? Sure, he did a swell job in Sweeney Todd, achieving sinister elegance and proving he could carry a show tune, but this was not an exceptional performance. It was a feat of style, not emotion. Everyone loves Johnny Depp, myself included. But he used to be the Hollywood outsider, the underrated genius risking obscure roles; now he’s Mr. Movie Star and he can do no wrong. Just as Angelina Jolie’s unpopularity may have prevented her from being recognized for her brilliant portrayal of Marianne Pearl in A Mighty Heart. She was robbed.

Other Oscar crimes include the failure to nominate Romania’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days or France’s animated Persepolis. Neither even made the long list of the year’s best foreign-language films, which are chosen by committee. That only reaffirms that the Oscars are not the Olympics of film—that role still falls to Cannes. The Academy Awards are really the American Movie Awards, which of course includes Canada (the studios actually consider us part of the their domestic market.)

With that grumbling out of the way, let’s look at the nominees. I’m not going to bother with the technical categories—even though Oscar pools are won or lost on them—because your guess is as good as mine. We’ll start in the reverse order of the show.

Best Picture
No Country for Old Men should and will win. The past year saw a renaissance of revisionist westerns and the Coen brothers’ faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is the best of the bunch. And in a year of dark, violent movies about terror and retribution, it was also the most emblematic, the one that put its finger on the zeitgiest. There Will Be Blood, Oscar’s other nominated West Texas epic, pales in comparison. It’s a virtual one-man show by Daniel Day Lewis, who gives a gusher of a performance that’s hugely impressive but sucks the air out of the movie. And for all its momentous drama, There Will Be Blood is a strangely bloodless gothic comedy. Give me the ensemble acting and reflective emotion of No Country any day. Michael Clayton and Juno, they’re too lightweight to win. As for Atonement, it looks and feels like a classic Oscar-pedigree film, a sweeping wartime romance with seven nominations. But it didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Besides, the Academy is dominated by old men; No Country speaks to them where they live.

Best Actor
Daniel Day Lewis has a lock on this one. Oscar loves British actors and big showy performances, and he provides both. My favorite of the nominees is Viggo Mortensen, whose dead-cool but intensely physical role in Eastern Promises offers the antithesis to Day Lewis: a masterpiece of understatement. In the Valley of Elah’sTommy Lee Jones will get a sentimental vote, for playing the old man with no country in two films. Clooney and Depp are both popular. But Day Lewis looks invincible.

Best Actress
Julie Christie is the front-runner for playing an Alzheimer’s victim who forgets she’s married in Sarah Polley’s little miracle, Away From Her. I expect her to win: there’s nothing quite like seeing a great screen icon emerge from semi-retirement to play a woman with a disease, and transcend the potential pitfalls of that Oscar cliché. Blanchett’s vote will be split by her supporting nomination for I’m Not There. Laura Linney was wonderful in The Savages, but the movie and the role are too slight. There’s a strong campaign pushing for Marion Cotillard’s brilliant performance in the otherwise pedestrian Edith Piaf biopic, La Vie En Rose. She could win in an upset. As for Canada’s sweetheart, Ellen Page, she’s the hottest actress on the planet right now, and everyone loves her in Juno. But it’s very unusual for Oscar to give Best Actress to someone so young—newcomers usually win only in the supporting categories. I’m not even sure if it would be good for her to win. That puts a lot of pressure on a tender career. But stranger things have happened.

Best Director
I’d go for the Coen brothers on this one. They won the Directors Guild of America award, which is usually a reliable predictor of the Oscar. If there’s a wild card here, it would be Julian Schnabel for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which many might feel was unfairly shut out of best picture and actor categories, although it drew nominations for editing, cinematography and adapted screenplay. Jason Reitman should be happy, and surprised, to be in this company

Best Supporting Actor
There’s no question that Javier Bardem will win for his powerful turn as a deadpan psychopath with an inscrutable moral code in No Country For Old Men. Bardem has created a character that transcends villainy. He’s also the only nominated actor from the film, representing an ensemble of superb performances. Casey Affleck would be the runner up for his fine-tuned, beautifully skittish portrayal of a fan/assassin in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film I liked more than most critics. And Phillip Seymour Hoffman was a hoot as a renegade CIA guy in Charlie Wilson’s War, but it was “only” comedy, Oscar awards visible effort, and he makes it look like he can do it in his sleep.

Best Supporting Actress
My vote goes to Cate Blanchett for her androgynous tour de force in the Bob Dylan six-pack, I’m Not There. I loved this movie more than most people, but almost everyone seems taken by her performance. If there’s a Blanchett backlash, or if not enough voters saw the film, the two contenders who could displace her are Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan and Gone Baby Gone’s Amy Ryan.

Best Original Screenplay
Expect Juno’s Diablo Cody to take this prize. But I thought her screenplay, while inspired, wasn’t terribly strong. Riddled with showy and rather unnatural one-liners, it adopts an idiosynchratic youthspeak that seems inauthentic. In an Oscar pool I’d vote for Juno, but if I were an Academy member, I’d choose Ratatouille, one of the wittiest and most inspired movies of the year.

Best Adapted Screenplay
The favorite here is No Country for Old Men, and it will probably win. But the Coens’ adaptation of McCarthy was straightforward and fairly literal. Hardly rocket science. So there could be surprises. Atonement is a literary epic, a picture about writing that’s full of writing, the kind of film you can watch and say—now that’s writing! Even the score employed a typewriter. And don’t underestimate Sarah Polley’s chances for Away From Her. She’s immensely popular. The Los Angeles Times just ran a massive article on her, pointing out that what she has achieved is unprecedented. And she’s a star, a writer with a personality voters can recognize and root for. More to the point, Away From Her’s version of Alice Munro’s short story is a singular feat of adaptation, one that expands rather than shrinks the source material. And sheer nerve of choosing to make a film of such an unlikely story, landing Julie Christie, and pairing her with Gordon Pinsent—it all cries out for recognition. In my Oscar pool, I think I might just vote with my heart. Go Sarah, go!

Best Documentary Feature
It’s a toss up between No End in Sight and Sicko. Although Michael Moore has won before, he has a strong constituency of fans and he’s made a movie about a health care, an issue that Americans can take to heart regardless of their partisan views. And although Moore takes his usual poetic license for the sake of satire, for once he’s not mean-spirited, and this happens to be the best, and fairest, documentary of his career.

Best Animated Film
A no brainer. Ratatouille.

Best Animated Short Film
I’ve included this category because it has two Canadian contenders: I Met the Walrus and Madame Tutli-Putli. They’re both terrific. Madame Tutli-Putli, a 17-minute thriller about a ghost train is like Hitchcock on acid. It’s a scary, exquisite little masterpiece, and the most cinematically accomplished of the two. But I Met the Walrus, which animates a 1966 audio interview John Lennon gave to a 14-year-old Jerry Levitan in Toronto, is also witty and inspired. Plus it’s got novelty and stardom on its side, both important when it comes to awards. I haven’t seen the other nominees, but if the category comes down to a contest between these two Canadian gems, I’d say I Met the Walrus will win.

Best Foreign Language Film
I haven’t seen a single one of them. They haven’t been released yet. And the most obvious contenders were shut out. Go figure.

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