OscarMatters: The Awards Whisperer

The ponies are trotted out of the stable. The jockeys have mounted their prized equines. The bookies have their odds on what they assume to be the surefire contenders. The starter pistol is loaded, aimed, and fired into the air. And just like that, the race has begun.

And just like that, the awards derby is set in motion.

The race is always disconcerting this early on. With the National Board of Review being neither a critics group or a body of Academy voters, it doesn’t necessarily provide tremendous insight into the race. But statistically, from 2001 on, the winner of NBR’s Best Picture award is at the very least a nominee for the Oscar equivalent category. And in the past two years, they’ve aligned with the Academy.

However, they also possess blatant biases, such a collective mancrush on Clooney and an eternal Eastwoody for anything involving Clint that even a cold shower and Space Cowboys dinner-and-a-movie party couldn’t cure. So, it’s not recommended that one interpret their selections as the crystal ball of the season, but rather as what it is — the bread and butter before the appetizers before the 4-course-meal.

The real melee begins next week. The Los Angeles and New York critics (the big kahunas of the critical awards) announce their picks on Sunday and Monday, respectively, in addition to a few others, such as the Critics Choice Awards (announcing nominees on Monday). As if that’s not indulgent enough, the Golden Globes AND the Screen Actors Guild will be announcing their nominees on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively. For Oscar prognosticators, it’s essentially a coke-laced toilet seat-overdose and we’re all Courtney Love.

Nevertheless, the excitement is titillating. And I am curious about how campaigning contenders will sustain their buzz this season, with the upcoming accolades being distributed in a wider time frame. The Oscars are in March this year, allowing for a number of potential shifts in momentum. Perhaps we’ll see less redundancy and more innovation in the process?

Many early presumed frontrunners have faltered. (Can anyone really give Amelia a reprieve? Favorite failure of the year so far.) This, thankfully, opens many roads for indies to upset the race from the larger fare. Just the notion makes me salivate….

Until the SAGs next Thursday (generally a great indicator of where the passion lies most), we’ve nothing left but speculation. And a guy’s gotta predict, so predict I shall:

BEST PICTURE: Hopefully with 10 slots, this category will be a pillar of diversity. The original intention was to allow mainstream fare to have more opportunities to snag a spot here. However, one must never underestimate the snooty white devil Academy. They love Oscary films, plain and simple. They’d fill the lineup half with biopics if they could. Fortunately this year, we seem to be short on them….Teehee!

The wisest course of action is to keep an eye on the three potential juggernauts of the season: Up in the Air, The Hurt Locker, and Precious. Air has already won with NBR and the DC critics as well. If this is a trend, it is the official critical darling of the season. But Locker is the top-rated American film thus far. It won the Gotham Best Feature prize, and could continue to win elsewhere this season. And Precious has a vocal fanbase, but also a slew of detractors, ready to whoop it into submission like Mo’Nique and her frying pan on the titular character. Still, a nomination is near locked at this stage.

After that, predicting is basically like playing Scrabble: you can keep shifting the letters around and try to comprise a combination that makes sense, but what’s in your dictionary is not always in some others’. For me, after the aforementioned trio, I see An Education doing pretty well. It’s Academy friendly and has been well-received. Same goes for Nine, although I have my reservations. It’s a less familiar musical adaptation of a classic Federico Fellini film (8 1/2), and thus, may not resonate as much with certain voting factions. If Dreamgirls missed, this could as well.

Then we have the year’s two most confusing titles (to philistines, anyway): A Serious Man and A Single Man. Let’s have…an education, if you will: Serious = dramedy about Jews; Single = drama about gay widower. They are nothing alike!….Other than the fact that the leading character in each is a college professor…who wears black frame glasses…during the 1960s. Okay, who conspired this?

One can only hope voters pay enough attention to distinguish the two. It would be pretty sad (and telling) if there was a ballot conspiracy brought on by the inexplicable inability to differentiate between the Coens’ perceptive and wickedly funny brilliance and fashion designer Tom Ford’s portrait of a gay professor’s lost love and broken life. But since I don’t see the Academy being that, um, goofy, I think both films have the potential to snag nods here.

This leaves a few wildcard slots open. And that’s where a sneaky indie like (500) Days of Summer can do some damage to people’s predictions. Many are underestimating its chances, which I find foolish. It’s no guarantee, but it’s an indie smash from Fox Searchlight — which has scored nominations four out of the past five years, including a win last year with Slumdog Millionaire. I’m just saying….

This, naturally, leaves two slots remaining. I suspect at least one, if not two, of the three primary sci-fi films will get a nod here. Avatar is certainly a mega-threat in this case. It’s a visual orgasm (or so I’ve heard) and was a labor-of-love from director James Cameron. But if the story is too hollow for the Academy, District 9 is rich with a poignant, harrowing tale of xenophobia. Voters, when passionate, will support the underdog. Or, there’s always Star Trek, the populist choice. A magnificent film in and of itself, it’s the blockbuster sect’s most likely inclusion.

I am torn in regards to Up. On one hand, almost everyone loves it. And with 10, it makes sliding an animated film into the lineup much easier. On the flipside, I still have a hunch voters will complain that it has its own category to compete in and opt for live-action entertainment.

There’s typically a biopic here, as I mentioned above. Naturally, that makes Invictus a likely token nominee. But perhaps voters won’t feel much for it? (I can dream, at least….) However, I have suspicions about The Last Station. It’s so Academy-friendly that it could be a dark horse, for a nod at least. It could even siphon the biopic slot, but we shall see.

Other contenders include Julie & Julia (if there is some massive Meryl Streep-push), Crazy Heart (if Jeff Bridges can do what Mickey Rourke and The Wrestler were incapable of), Inglourious Basterds (if voters can embrace the historical fallacies), The Hangover (if they feel comedy-happy, and opt for mainstream appreciation), The Lovely Bones (if they appreciate the artistic risks involved), and The White Ribbon (if they feel inclined to honor a foreign choice). But these would all need a massive thrust of support that I’m skeptical they can receive….Well, except for Basterds, which could certainly sneak in with all the right moves.

BEST DIRECTOR: There’s less to say here, really. The three most likely at this stage are the helmers of the Best Picture top dogs at the moment: DC critics winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), and Lee Daniels (Precious). There’s a slew of support for Bigelow, who could become our first female Best Director winner. But it’s too soon to update the Wikipedia statistics just yet, as Reitman is breathing down her neck. The ray of light for Bigelow is that Reitman also co-wrote Air‘s screenplay, so his win there could be his reward. As for Daniels, some of his comments made earlier this season might be what prevents him from ultimately winning, but, barring some unforeseen poppycock, he is sure to become the second black Director nominee.

With 2009 being the year of the female director (which I will cover more in depth closer to the year’s end), it’s highly plausible that there could be a second female nominated: Lone Scherfig (An Education). With the admiration for her film, there is plenty of support for her. This, of course, leaves one slot, and a safe choice at this point would be James Cameron (Avatar). He’s a previous winner, this is a great place to give him some respect; oh, and then there’s the irresistible urge to see he and ex-wife Bigelow (oh yeah) nominated side-by-side! Meowwwww.

(Note: Cameron has nothing but respect, admiration, and praise for her. But still, ya just know bloggers and journos will gobble that up like tiramisu. Mmmm.)

Just for posterity’s sake, we also have: Rob Marshall (Nine) could sneak in, but it will all depend on his awards traction; there’s Ethan Coen & Joel Coen (A Serious Man), but Original Screenplay seems more likely for them; as for Tom Ford (A Single Man), his best chances lie within Adapted; Clint Eastwood (Invictus) always terrifies most prognosticators, but his lazy direction might not inspire voting passion — as last year justfully indicated; and Peter Jackson (The Lovely Bones) simply has a film that will prove too divisive, barring surprise adoration from the Academy.

BEST ACTOR: Easily the most competitive of the categories this year, there are about 10 legitimate contenders. As of now, George Clooney (Up in the Air) is soaring (*rimshot*), after winning DC and NBR, in a vulnerable, career-best performance. But Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) and Colin Firth (A Single Man), both of whom received Spirit noms, are two potential frontrunners that could still make a run for the gold. Bridges is a four-time nominee, long overdue for a statuette; and Firth has never been nominated before and won a prize at Venice Film Festival for his work. It’s going to be quite a race with them all season long.

Hoping to snag the young Oscar newbie slot is Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), who just won Breakthrough Actor at NBR. With his acclaimed performance, he is likely to find himself in the fray this season. An SAG nod is key. And then there’s Morgan Freeman (Invictus), who tied with Clooney for the NBR win (how shocking). The voters will likely give him a thankless nod, but the performance has garnered a few detractors.

Daniel Day-Lewis (Nine) could still make a dent in the race, but the early word is that his internal character is difficult to connect with and the women tend to siphon one’s attention away. Meanwhile, Joseph Gordon-Levitt [(500) Days of Summer] is probably too young and easily outshined by his fellow contenders; but as a consolation, he has a Spirit nod and a likely Globe nomination as well.

Then there are five phenomenal indie performances that will likely fail to get the larger recognition they deserve: Ben Foster (The Messenger), Sam Rockwell (Moon), and Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man). The latter, in particular, could possibly score a Golden Globe nod, but his phenomenal performance deserves more than the zilch it’s received thus far. Those three though, at least, have a semblance of likelihood. Sharlto Copley (District 9) and surprise Spirit Award nominee Adam Scott (The Vicious Kind) are both exceptional enough to make my ballot, but rest assured, there’s no chance for Oscar love.

BEST ACTRESS: Despite bloggers’ attempts to perpetuate the notion that this is a “weak” category, the field of leading ladies is actually riddled with strong contenders. I’d actually say it’s on an even keel with that of its male counterpart at the moment. And riding on top right now is Carey Mulligan (An Education), who was subtly exquisite in her role. Her main competition seems to be Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), who won NBR’s Breakthrough Actress Award and is a delightful person. But both ladies may or may not have to deal with the one and only Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia), aiming for her sixteenth — yes, 16th! — nomination. Streep is adored, and a third win is inevitable — one day. But for this great performance in a mediocre movie? Her fluffy role in a summer film with mixed reception though is no slam-dunk of a win. It all depends.

Meanwhile, Marion Cotillard (Nine) is said to be the emotional core of her film. Cotillard scored a landmark victory two years prior — the first Oscar win for a French-language performer. And Hollywood was enamored. So, with her having a sympathetic role in this year’s big musical, and belting, perhaps, the most passionate showtune, she’s definitely a major contender for a nod. And then Helen Mirren (The Last Station) is said to be outstanding, pretty much owning the film and securing herself another nomination.

But there are always upsets, and I’d be remiss to ignore them. For one, Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) has received a lot of buzz, despite the murky reception to her flick. The same can be said about Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones), who is receiving raves even from the naysayers–potentially allowing her to break Kate Winslet’s record as the youngest two-time nominee ever (though less likely following the reception).

Also in the running are Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart) and Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds), two ladies whom I suspect would have been wiser to remain in supporting. One can’t forget Abbie Cornish (Bright Star), although her film is too restrained for certain tastes. And then there’s the darkest of dark horses, Catalina Saavedra (The Maid), earning wondrous raves for a little seen film. Ya never know….

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: This category has been referred to as somewhat of a dead zone this year, but it’s gotten a bit of juice as of late. Whatever the case though, Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) is still the MVP here. But competition is inching up, in the form of Christopher Plummer (The Last Station) and Woody Harrelson (The Messenger): The former is an overdue veteran (think Alan Arkin, James Coburn, etc.); the latter won a crucial NBR award.

Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones) could still potentially shake things up, especially with two acclaimed performances this year (also in Julie & Julia) — although he may have to just settle for the nomination. The same can be said about Alfred Molina (An Education) — yet two more character actors seeking their first nods.

Matt Damon (Invictus) is still a possibility for a nom, but it seems to be the Freeman show. He still has next year, at least. But Peter Sarsgaard (An Education) may still factor into this race, depending on how great the love for the film is. Or Alec Baldwin (It’s Complicated), sailing on golden seas right now, could have the strange distinction of being both the Oscar host and nominee!

And there are always outside contenders to keep things interesting, such as Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker), Paul Schneider (Bright Star), and Christian McKay (Me and Orson Welles). It would take at lot more than luck for one of these three to crack the top ten though. But if one could, it would likely be Mackie, riding Locker love.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Mo’Nique (Precious) has been the talk of this category since the Sundance Film Festival in January. She’s clearly a frontrunner and a threat to win. But the white elephant in the room demands to be heard, and there’s definitely attempted backlash brewing against her attitude along the campaign trail — which I will avoid discussing here. But I’m just glad that this category is not sewn up. No matter how amazing she is, it’s not fair to the others to write them off as also-rans.

Julianne Moore (A Single Man), for example, could easily upset in this category. She’s a four-time nominee and loved by the Academy. She’s earned raves for her performance, so this could be her time. Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), one of the breakout stars of the year, could be a surprise victor if the film sweeps.

Penélope Cruz (Nine), on the other hand, could set a record and become the first consecutive supporting actress winner. (Every other category has experienced this phenomenon.) Or Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air), whose star has been rising rapidly with each passing year, might be a contender as well.

Other than those five, there aren’t many potential upsets for nominations. Susan Sarandon (The Lovely Bones) was originally considered a threat, but the film’s feedback doesn’t bode well. Judi Dench (Nine) is said to have great wisecracks, but Cruz and Cotillard seem steal the spotlight. Samantha Morton (The Messenger) was outstanding in her understated role, but she needs some critics’ award love. Rosamund Pike (An Education) received great reviews for her endearingly ditzy portrayal, but her performance is likely too slight to be recognized. Rachel Weisz (The Lovely Bones) has a very underwritten role, which ultimately won’t serve her well enough to upset the competition. Marion Cotillard (Public Enemies) earned much acclaim, but this will likely be overlooked. And Paula Patton (Precious), the less-heralded gem with an outstanding, moving performance, will probably get Anne Hathaway-ed (think Brokeback Mountain).

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Up in the Air is sure to do the most damage here — although, nobody knows anything yet, yadda yadda yadda. Technically, A Single Man, Precious, and An Education are all highly likely nominees as well. The most vulnerable would be Single, if voters decide it’s too artsy. But I think they’ll want to recognize it here.

That leaves only one slot open. Gasp! My gut instincts are telling me District 9 could reap some love here. It was originally Original (heh), but ruled adapted since it was based off of a short film with a nearly identical plot. But with Invictus not really having a screenplay the writers would likely get behind, The Lovely Bones being this year’s Revolutionary Road once-anticipated love-it-or-hate-it film (I loved it, for the record), The Last Station probably being performance-only, Nine having most of its focus on its ladies and tech achievements, Julie & Julia being too twee, Crazy Heart garnering recognition in acting instead, In the Loop being too…British, and The Road being a slight critical misfire, D9‘s chances rise considerably.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: This category is at its weakest in years, but it absolutely has its share of ace exemplars. For instance, The Hurt Locker has perhaps the strongest case for a win here. If it doesn’t emerge as the Best Picture winner, this is a nice place to reward it. (Screenwriter Mark Boal has already received much acclaim.) Then, there’s (500) Days of Summer, which has charmed many and this category is a place where comedies succeed most often. And there’s always A Serious Man — an exquisite screenplay, and the most writerly of the three. (Interestingly enough, these are my top three films of the year so far…hmm.)

Of course, Up will be nominated here. It’s probably the most secure, actually. The WGA denies animated films nominations (usually, a hilarious gross-out comedy will substitute in its place — this year, that would be The Hangover). But the AMPAS has nominated all of the big ones here — even WALL·E, which was largely dialogue-free. That leaves one slot open, and anything from Inglourious Basterds, The White Ribbon, The Messenger, The Maid, It’s Complicated, Avatar, and the aforementioned Hangover making a run for that final slot.

Well, hope you enjoyed this! I’ll be making this a weekly feature, updating as new awards shift momentum and silly behavior jinxes others’ buzz. This upcoming week will be a clusterfuck of awards brouhaha, full of critical diatribes and elitist jubilance.

In other words, this is my utopia.