Thursday, February 5, 2009

2009 Oscar Predictions

Once again, it's that magical time of year when certain movie titles and actors are awarded asterisks next to their names. ("*2009 Academy Award winner.")

As I previously noted, I didn't find 2008 to be a particularly good year in movies. There were a few truly excellent movies, but most of the movies that should have been great ended up bland. I don't want to undermine a whole crop of movies, but there was very little that stood out as extraordinary. Think about last year's Best Picture nominees. Even if you didn't love "No Country for Old Men" or "There Will Be Blood," you have to at least admire them for being unique and inspired and technically masterful. This year's nominees almost seem obligatory. "An earnest recreation of historical events? All right, we'll nominate it." And I'm a guy who loves biopics.

Despite of the dearth of exciting movies this year, I always enjoy the pomp and circumstance of the Oscar ceremony (the pomp slightly more than the circumstance). And, as usual, I expect to maintain a high ratio of accurate guesses about who will win. Below, some analysis and predictions.

Achievement in Makeup

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • Frost/Nixon
  • Milk
  • Slumdog Millionaire
This category isn't necessarily my strong suit, but it seems pretty clear that the flashiest use of makeup is Benjamin Button. I'd expect the prize to go to the makeup artists for that film.

Achievement in Sound Editing

  • The Dark Knight
  • Iron Man
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • WALL-E
  • Wanted

Achievement in Sound Mixing

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • WALL-E
  • Wanted
Sound mixing is recording the practical sound at the time of shooting. Sound editing is cutting it all together in post production. Again, not areas that I know a lot about with regard to evaluating quality. Seems like Dark Knight would be a strong contender for Mixing, while WALL-E stands out for Editing.

Achievement in Visual Effects

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • Iron Man
These are all strong contenders of equal quality. How do you determine which one to award? Well, for one thing, I'd say The Dark Knight has more overall momentum than the others. Additionally, I think the effects for Dark Knight were the most seamless and subtle, and therefor the most effective.

Original Score

  • Alexandre Desplat, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • James Newton Howard, Defiance
  • Danny Elfman, Milk
  • A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire
  • Thomas Newman, WALL-E
The movie with the most momentum this year is Slumdog. The score is likely to be recognized as a significant contributor to the style and the emotional resonance.

Original Song

  • "Down to Earth," Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman; WALL-E
  • "Jai Ho," A.R. Rahman and Gulzar; Slumdog Millionaire
  • "O Saya," A.R. Rahman and Maya Arulpragasam; Slumdog Millionaire
"Jai Ho" is the song the cast dances to at the end of Slumdog. It's the triumphant, feel-good-est moment of a feel-good film.

Achievement in Art Direction

  • Changeling
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • The Duchess
  • Revolutionary Road
I think the stylized production design of Benjamin Button is likely to be awarded here.

Achievement in Cinematography

  • Changeling
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • The Reader
  • Slumdog Millionaire
The Dark Knight is the solid winner here. This is the first major studio release designed and shot specifically for IMAX, and they knocked it out of the park. It set the gold standard by which all future narrative IMAX films will be compared.

Achievement in Costume Design

  • Australia
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Duchess
  • Milk
  • Revolutionary Road
This may surprise you, but this category is not one of my strengths. My fallback position has always been to side with the period piece; but this year the joke's on me: they're all period pieces. I'm placing my bet on Revolutionary Road. This is little more than a hunch. But Kate and Leo in their '50s garb certainly rings the Old Hollywood bell that's likely to remind the Academy of Edith Head.

Best Documentary Feature

  • The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
  • Encounters at the End of the World
  • The Garden
  • Man on Wire
  • Trouble the Water
The two movies here with the most momentum are Encounters and Man On Wire. Encounters is the latest from the well-loved (and rightfully so) Werner Herzog. But Man On Wire was very popular, and my guess is that it will grab the prize.

Achievement in Film Editing

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • Frost/Nixon
  • Milk
  • Slumdog Millionaire
The successfully executed fragmented timeline of Slumdog is likely to give it the edge in this category.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

  • Bolt
  • Kung Fu Panda
  • Wall-E
In 1992, Disney's Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture. It remains the only animated film to ever receive a Best Picture nomination. The Best Animated Feature category was implemented in 2001. There are pros and cons to the existence of this category. On the one hand, it's drawing more attention to more animated films than ever before. It's legitimizing them in a way that they've always deserved but rarely enjoyed. More people are viewing animated films as the unique and inventive art form that it is. On the other hand, the creation of this category can -- and essentially has -- lead to ghettoization. Take this year's Wall-E. Emotionally, intellectually, and technically, this is an absolutely remarkable film. Easily one of the year's best. I'd put it up against any of the year's Best Picture nominees. But unfortunately, the Academy chose to stick it in a category that can only be considered "less than." Will Wall-E win this category? Easily. But in a more just world, it would have been a strong contender for Best Picture.

Original Screenplay

  • Dustin Lance Black, Milk
  • Courtney Hunt, Frozen River
  • Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky
  • Martin McDonagh, In Bruges
  • Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon, WALL-E
This is a highly competitive category this year. Each is deserving. Each has a solid, stand-out characteristic that's reason enough to give it the statuette. After the position on Wall-E expressed above, I could obviously see the award going there. But a lot of attention has been paid to Dustin Lance Black's script for Milk, and I'm thinking the prize could end up going to him. This, I predict, will be the only major award that goes to the more-deserving Milk.

Adapted Screenplay

  • Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • John Patrick Shanley, Doubt
  • Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
  • David Hare, The Reader
  • Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
The top three contenders here are Forst/Nixon, Doubt, and Slumdog. As I will discuss in greater detail soon, this year belongs to Slumdog. It will win this category.

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

  • The Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany)
  • The Class (France)
  • Departures (Japan)
  • Revanche (Austria)
  • Waltz With Bashir (Israel)
The Class and Waltz are your two strongest contenders here. The merits of The Class have been frequently debated amongst critics. I have a feeling that the very fact this movie inspires such passionate debate indicates a likely win.

Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

  • Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
  • Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
  • Sean Penn, Milk
  • Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Anyone who pays attention to the work of Robert Rodriguez knows that Mickey Rourke made his comeback several years ago. But those "lesser works" were ignored by the critical community. The big story this year is Mickey Rourke's comeback. He already won the Golden Globe, and he will win this. But in any other year, Sean Penn would have been awarded for his fantastic performance as Harvey Milk.
Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
  • Josh Brolin, Milk
  • Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
  • Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
  • Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
This goes to Heath Ledger. And that would be the case if he were still alive, too.

Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

  • Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
  • Angelina Jolie, Changeling
  • Melissa Leo, Frozen River
  • Kate Winslet. The Reader
  • Meryl Streep, Doubt
I'm leaning towards Anne Hathaway on this one. These are not the most exciting performances from Jolie or Streep. It's nice that little-known Melissa Leo was nominated for little-known Frozen River; the extra attention drawn to that movie is well deserved (from what I've heard; haven't seen it yet). Kate Winslet could win -- she had a hell of a year -- but most agree she should have been nominated for Revolutionary Road instead of The Reader. Yes, it's looking like Anne Hathaway.

Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

  • Amy Adams, Doubt
  • Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
  • Viola Davis, Doubt
  • Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
I'll be honest - I think this one's too close to call. The most likely candidates are Amy Adams and Marisa Tomei. I think the Mickey Rourke momentum might carry over to Marisa Tomei. But don't hold me to that.

Achievement in Directing

  • David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
  • Gus Van Sant, Milk
  • Stephen Daldry, The Reader
  • Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

With a few notable exceptions, the Best Director award most often goes to the director of the year's Best Picture. I expect that to be the case this year. Danny Boyle will win Best Director.

Best Motion Picture of the Year

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Frost/Nixon
  • Milk
  • The Reader
  • Slumdog Millionaire
In the waning months of 2008, I had several arguments with a coworker about whether or not The Dark Knight would be nominated for Best Picture. The coworker admitted to a prejudice against superhero movies; but beyond that, he claimed that The Dark Knight simply wasn't good enough to be considered a best picture. I noted that the Oscar hopefuls of the year were shaping up to be letdowns. This turned out to be the case. The Dark Knight deserved not only a Best Picture nomination, but a win... especially considering the competition. I saw Slumdog Millionaire the Saturday before it won Best Drama at the Golden Globes. I was surprised at its win. I really liked the movie, but felt there were significant flaws that would keep it from winning any major awards. The police interrogation framing device goes nowhere, and is too easily dismissed. And knowing a bit about the way game shows are produced, there wouldn't really be the overnight break as depicted -- a plot point which is vital to the timeline of the movie. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire isn't a live show; but the emotional payoff of the movie doesn't work unless they fudge that fact. (Well, maybe Millionaire is live in India; I guess I don't know that for sure.) The "big" dance number at the end was a bit of a disappointment to me. Have you ever seen a real Bollywood dance number? Slumdog's doesn't come anywhere near that. But all of this is incidental. Slumdog is a good movie -- sweet, dramatic, and with an appropriate happy ending. It's also the clear standout -- easily the most memorable -- in a list of unextraordinary nominees. Looking back, why was I surprised it won the Golden Globe? Slumdog was the clear winner then, and it is again now. Oh, and Academy... The Reader? Really? The Reader? That's one of your Best Picture nominees this year? Dark Knight doesn't get nominated, but there's room on your list for The Reader? Not to be harsh, but who loved The Reader? Audiences didn't care for it -- not that that's ever a measure of awards worthiness (nor should it be). But critics were apathetic about it too. How in the hell did that movie end up on the list? I usually defend the Academy against people who say that they're out of touch, but... damn, they were totally out of touch with that pick. Anyway, Slumdog will win Best Picture. So those are my predictions for this year's winners. Do you disagree? Strongly agree? Let me know in the comments. On Oscar night, I'll be live blogging during the ceremony via Twitter. Click here to follow me. The 81st Academy Awards ceremony will air on February 22, 2009 at 8pm eastern/5pm pacific on ABC.