IT’S OSCAR SEASON
Oscar prognostication is not a sport for the faint of heart – at this point last year, it looked like “Dreamgirls” would win Best Picture, and it ended up not even getting nominated.
This year’s race, if anything, is even crazier, with no single picture a lock for a nomination out of a very strong and crowded pack, and many more contenders opening late in the year than in 2006.
Still, I get the big bucks for predicting the Oscars, so I’m going to offer my fearless assessment of what I think will get nominated – not, it should be emphasized, what I think should get nominated.
Oscar predicting is largely about finding historical models for winners, and there’s a very good model for my presumptive front-runner, “Atonement.”
A sweeping World War II story of doomed love with a faultless literary pedigree and starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, it’s this year’s counterpart to the 1996 Best Picture winner “The English Patient” – though if you ask me, it’s a much better movie.
Very often, the flick with the most nominations gets the prize, and I can see 10 or more for “Atonement.” Not only the leads and stunning supporting performances by Vanessa Redgrave and newcomer Saoirse Ronan, but direction, the script and sterling contributions in the crafts like cinematography, set and costume design, and sound editing.
The only thing that worries me about “Atonement” is that it’s been out in front since it debuted in Toronto in September. Focus Features has been trying to low-key the campaign, wary of repeating what happened two years ago, when the same studio watched its supposedly sure-thing “Brokeback Mountain” go down the tubes at the Kodak Theatre.
Nipping at the heels of “Atonement” is the thriller “No Country for Old Men,” one of only two hits among the unprecedented number of prestige films that were rolled out this fall.
This one has a trio of powerhouse performances (Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones), stunning cinematography and the best script and direction from Joel and Ethan Coen since “Fargo” (which lost to “The English Patient” except in the Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay categories).
The main drawback of “No Country” seems to be its controversial – some say confusing – ending.
The other specialty hit also likely to be nominated is “Michael Clayton,” the first directorial effort of Tony Gilroy, hugely respected for writing the “Bourne” flicks. This potent thriller is the most successful of the season’s many ’70s-style character dramas and provides a career-best role for George Clooney as a morally ambiguous lawyer.
Clooney gets points from the Academy for consistently embracing challenging material. But will it be too dark and challenging for nominators?
“American Gangster” is, in some ways, this year’s “The Departed,” a sprawling crime picture with impeccable performances by Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe as a Harlem drug lord and an honest cop, and an impressive re-creation of the 1970s.
But director Ridley Scott’s reputation has suffered since “Gladiator” won Best Picture six years ago, and the picture will have to get past the Academy’s weighted voting system, which can reward pictures with smaller passionate followings at the expense of those respected by many.
In my mind, this year’s “Little Miss Sunshine” – only, again, better – is the serious comedy “Juno,” opening Friday. This one has been flying under the radar, but early audiences have been stunned and seduced by 20-year-old Ellen Page’s performance as a pregnant teenage wiseacre and the fresh, knowing script by stripper-turned-screenwriter Diablo Cody.
But as I said, the situation is extremely unsettled at this point.
There are five other pictures that are playing well to awards voters, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see any one of them work their way into the five Best Picture nominees:
*”The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Entirely in French, but with an American director and Steven Spielberg’s longtime producer. Ecstatic reviews and also a highly moving experience. Art with a capital A.
*”The Kite Runner,” opening Dec. 14. This schmaltzy adaptation of another best seller about someone who spends a lifetime regretting a childhood mistake (as in “Atonement”) is largely in foreign languages and has a cast of unknowns, but there has been a lot of sobbing at screenings.
*”Sweeney Todd,” opening Dec. 21. This extremely bloody and emotionally remote adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical will likely divide critics, but its supporters are going to be quite vehement, and Johnny Depp certainly has his fans in the Academy.
*”There Will Be Blood,” opening Dec. 26. Paul Thomas Anderson’s flick, to my mind, jumps the shark in the third act. But it’s hard not to be hugely impressed by its “Citizen Kane”-like ambition, a towering performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as an ambitious oilman, or the stunning, dialogue-free, 20-minute opening sequence.
*”Charlie Wilson’s War,” opening Dec. 21. The only one of this fall’s many Mideast-related flicks with a prayer of making money, it’s got two of the most popular Oscar winners of recent years (Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts), a respected veteran director (Mike Nichols) and lots of laughs. But is Aaron Sorkin’s script too lightweight and politically timid to capture a nomination?
OKAY, AND THE NOMINEES WILL VERY LIKELY BE…
Daniel Day-Lewis, “There Will Be Blood.” There is his extraordinary, visceral turn as an early 20th-century oilman and there is everyone else. A winner for “My Left Foot,” it’s Day-Lewis’ race to lose.
James McAvoy, “Atonement.” Another British actor, best known as the faun in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” moves into the major leagues as a falsely accused sex criminal turned soldier on the beach at Dunkirk.
Denzel Washington, “American Gangster.” As he showed with his previous winning performance in “Training Day,” Washington’s great when he’s bad and he commands attention as a Harlem drug lord.
George Clooney, “Michael Clayton.” As an ethically challenged former prosecutor, Clooney takes the sort of emotional journey beloved by Oscar voters.
Tommy Lee Jones, “In the Valley of Elah.” The movie tanked, but Jones’ portrait of a former MP investigating his soldier son’s death is not easily dismissed.
Also possible: Johnny Depp, “Sweeney Todd”; Josh Brolin, “No Country for Old Men”; Mathieu Amalric, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”; Emile Hirsch, “Into the Wild”; Tom Hanks, “Charlie Wilson’s War”; Frank Langella, “Starting Out in the Evening”; John Cusack, “Grace Is Gone”; Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”
Keira Knightley, “Atonement.” Previously nominated for “Pride and Prejudice,” she burns up the screen both in her romantic and big dramatic scenes.
Julie Christie, “Away From Her.” A 1966 Best Actress winner for “Darling,” this British icon has a career-capping role as a woman slipping into Alzheimer’s.
Ellen Page, “Juno.” Diminutive 20-year-old Canadian actress explodes like a supernova as a pregnant teen in a category that historically embraces young newcomers.
Laura Linney, “The Savages.” Previously nominated in lead and support, she’s at the top of her game as a self-absorbed woman dealing with a demented dad.
Marion Cotillard, “La Vie En Rose.” She delivers the emotional goods as legendarily self-destructive French singer Edith Piaf.
Also possible: Angelina Jolie, “A Mighty Heart”; Amy Adams, “Enchanted”; Keri Russell, “Waitress”; Helena Bonham Carter, “Sweeney Todd.”
IT’S OSCAR SEASON