Thursday, December 04, 2008

New The Best Show on TV post...

... here.

Those those happy few out there who are fans of my stuff, the best place to find it now is over at PoopReading.com (motto: "Don't Worry; It's Classy").

Don't be afraid to check back here once in a while, but for the most part you'll find me over there now.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Best Show on TV, Part 10

The Best Show on TV

"The Office" (NBC) -- 2/9/2006 - 4/2/2006
"Huff" (Showtime) -- 4/6/2006 - 8/26/2006
"Big Brother" (CBS) -- 8/26/2008 - 10/4/2006
"South Park" (Comedy Central) -- 10/4/2006 - 11/30/2006
"The Office" (NBC) -- 11/30/2006 - 1/14/2007
"24" (FOX) -- 1/14/2007 - 4/5/2007
"30 Rock" (NBC) -- 4/5/2007 - 4/10/2008
"House" (FOX) -- 4/10/2008 - 10/5/2008
"Dexter" (Showtime) -- 10/5/2008 - 11/18/2008
"The Shield" (FX) -- 11/18/2008 - present

I've been a bit worried lately. I was facing something of a lose-lose situation with the seven-season run of "The Shield" coming to an end. You see, if I gave the show the Best Show on TV Title as a sort of lifetime achievement award, it might compromise the integrity of this list. Yet if a show as great as "The Shield" went off the air without ever having held the Best Show on TV title at any point in the title's almost three-year existence, it might compromise the integrity of the list.

My worries intensified as Season 7 debuted with confusing, convoluted episode after confusing, convoluted episode. The series finale airs on November 25th; what was I to do? But then, in the last couple of weeks, things got really good.

And, after Tuesday night, I needn't worry anymore.

[warning: mild "The Shield" spoilers ahead. Although, to be honest, if I hadn't ever seen "The Shield," and then I read the following, and then I went and watched "The Shield," I would think to myself, "you know, those spoilers weren't so bad"]

In the show's pilot, Los Angeles police detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) murders a fellow cop. He does this because the officer was a mole, assigned to Mackey's "strike team" to bust them for their rampant corruption. When he and his team aren't working on the case of the week, the majority of Mackey's time throughout "The Shield's" run has been spent trying to stay one step ahead of politicians, fellow cops, internal affairs guys, family members, gang bangers and anyone else who might be able to put him away for the murder. Or for any of the myriad crimes he and his team committed in its wake.

Which brings us to the final scene in Tuesday night's episode. For reasons that I won't get into, Vic is offered a deal by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They want his connections to L.A.'s criminal underbelly, and they imagine he's not much dirtier than your average dirty cop. Just as his crimes are finally about to catch up with him, he is offered immunity for any and all prior crimes to which he confesses at the time he signs the deal, and only for those prior crimes to which he confesses at the time he signs the deal. ICE knows he's not squeaky clean, but they figure maybe he falsified some reports here, ignored some gang activity there, or roughed up a
suspect once in a while, all in the name of getting the job done.

Instead, in a scene that I would describe as downright Shakespearean if I wasn't worried that would under-sell it, Vic must sit in a room, across from another human being, and confront exactly what he has done and what he has become by literally saying the words out loud. The look on Michael Chiklis's face as he lists all of his transgressions, his fate predicated on forgetting none of them, lets us know that for
Vic, finally having to say it means it's real. All those things he did: they're real. That's him. He can't hide behind his rationalizations any longer. Meanwhile the entire deal is contingent on his providing the full measure of his efforts to ICE, which will now be looking for any excuse to break the agreement.

What will such a man do now? Will he opt for a scorched-earth approach, attempting to burn down everything and everyone around him in an effort to secure his own freedom? Will he decide that enough is enough, and agree to accept the punishment he must know he deserves? The way "The Shield" has set it up, no one knows. At this point, I doubt that Vic himself knows. I can't imagine a series finale with higher stakes. I can't wait to see what happens.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Best Show on TV, Part 9

The Best Show on TV

"The Office" (NBC) -- 2/9/2006 - 4/2/2006
"Huff" (Showtime) -- 4/6/2006 - 8/26/2006
"Big Brother" (CBS) -- 8/26/2006 - 10/4/2006
"South Park" (Comedy Central) -- 10/4/2006 - 11/30/2006
"The Office" (NBC) -- 11/30/2006 - 1/14/2007
"24" (FOX) -- 1/14/2007 - 4/5/2007
"30 Rock" (NBC) -- 4/5/2007 - 4/10/2007
"House" (FOX) -- 4/10/2008 - 10/5/2008
"Dexter" (Showtime) -- 10/5/2008 - present

And we return to my favorite ongoing series of articles, The Best Show on TV. For those of you joining us already in progress, this is based on one of my favorite web pages in all of cyperspace, the WWE Title Histories page. If you can't spend countless hours of fun looking at a list of who defeated whom, and when and where, to win the WWE title, then I'm not sure exactly what more there is to say between us.

To clarify, this list chronicles a history not of my favorite show on TV, but of the actualbest show on TV. I'm not deciding what that show is, I'm just reporting the facts. Now, you might think another show is better; that's your business. But you should know that arguing that there was another show on TV that was better than "The Office" on, say, December 12th, 2006 would be essentially the same thing as arguing that Eddie Guerrero was not the WWE champion on May 23rd, 2004. You can argue it if you want, but we've got a list to refer to, and you're just going to end up looking silly in the end.

Anyway, even though you're reading this today, the title officially changed hands, as you can see, back on October 5, with the airing of that evening's episode of "Dexter." I'm writing it up today because last night was as soon as I was able to download a nice copy of the episode off the internet -- er, that is… last night was as soon as I was able to come to an understanding of what Season 3, Episode 2 of "Dexter" contained without resorting to any illegal means whatsoever.

For those who don't know, "Dexter" -- based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay (don't worry, I hadn't heard of it either, although I'm sure it's good) -- is the story of a serial killer who only kills other killers. You see, young Dexter's pathology was noticed very early in his life by his foster father, Officer Harry Morgan, and Harry decided, for good or ill, that since Dexter would inevitably become a killer, his urges might be steered in a "constructive" direction via a strict code, producing a Dexter who would arguably aid society instead of injuring it. The end result is Dexter Morgan, crime scene analyst (specializing, naturally, in blood spatter) for the Miami Metro Police Department by day, serial murdering vigilante by night.

It should be noted that "Dexter" is most certainly not for kids, or even for most adults; in Season 1 particularly, the subject matter becomes intensely dark, to the point that those who haven't grown up in a popular culture awash in slasher flicks and torture porn may well be so put off that it would be impossible for them to get anything out of the show. Not that the violence actually depicted onscreen is necessarily all that brutal; your average scene in Hostel or Saw makes the worst of "Dexter" look like some fabric softener commercial where a new mom smells her baby's head while tinkly piano music plays in the background. It's more that psychologically, "Dexter" plunges so far down into the depths of the morass of human depravity that you should really make sure you've got a vine tied around your ankle before you commit to diving in.

So why watch it, one might ask. Well, why watch any entertainment? Usually, we watch TV either for the purposes of pure escapism, or to get a laugh, or, perhaps best of all, to get a vicarious thrill from what we see. "Dexter" provides this in spades, because although we'd never admit, don't we all sort of fantasize that it was up to us to punish the wicked, to decide who gets to live and who gets to die, and to be able to do it with the unambiguous certainty that comes with total belief in our righteousness? We know, of course, that in a practical sense it's not doable because if we tried to do it we'd break a bunch of laws and get caught right away. We also know that in a philosophical sense it's not doable because we're fallible, and in no position to take it upon ourselves to administer justice when there are institutions, however imperfect, set up to take care of that for us.

But Dexter works for the cops, he vets his victims carefully, and he doesn't have a conscience per se, so he's the perfect man to live out our aberrant little fantasies on the screen every week. And, since we know that the people he's killing are fictional characters, we get our dose of fantasy fulfillment without any of those pesky horrific, soul-searing nightmares you or I might get from treating flesh-and-blood human beings like Dexter treats his victims.

But "Dexter" doesn't let Dexter off the hook, either; it would be too easy to depict a character who simply has no conscience, no regular human emotions or attachments. Instead, we're given a character who thinks he has no conscience, no regular human emotions or attachments. His affection for his foster sister, Deb, belies his claims of inhumanity, and the relationship he "acts out" with his girlfriend, Rita, grows steadily into a real relationship as the series progresses. Dexter's nervousness and discomfort during a Season 2 dinner with Rita, Rita's mother and a very attractive young woman from Dexter's life (I won't spoil it by divulging the nature of the relationship) show that, despite his claims to the contrary, he can certainly pick up on the same social cues and behavioral ticks on which the rest of us rely, as long as they're obvious enough. Think of Dexter as a blind man who imagines that he must not have any idea what a "cube" is like; if that man were suddenly given the power of sight, he'd probably discover that his guesses weren't far off at all.

Dexter, though he believes he's "apart from," "different than," is but a few tweaks away from experiencing things just like the rest of us do. And so, if my math checks out, that means we're but a few tweaks away from Dexter. Which is probably why it's such a damn good show.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Consider the Bottom of This "Gotten To"

A little while ago, I received an email from Christopher Hatton. "Who's Christopher Hatton?" you might ask, if you were an uneducated Philistine. Christopher Hatton, of course, is, along with Ronald Moore, the co-writer of the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode entitled "Thine Own Self." The faithful reader[s?] of this particular site will remember that I have revealed this as the episode that gave popular culture the name "Jayden," which, to update those of you who didn't rush out and research it for yourselves the minute the data became available (and shame on you for not), has passed "Aiden" and is now the 18th most popular boys' name in America, and the most popular name in the "Aidan rhyming trend."

Mr. Hatton, whom I have not met but whose emails reveal him to be a delightful man, reports to us that, upon writing the "TNG" episode in question, he chose "Jayden" as Data's alias due to the fact that his friends had a seven-year-old son named "Jayden" (hereafter referred to as "Patient Zero") who was a big "Star Trek" fan (he tells me that Jayden's parents say they made the name up, or at least they thought they did). I think we can all agree that this gesture was extremely cool, but still, just about everything I wrote previously on this subject still stands.

All that remains to be said is that, according to Christopher Hatton himself, Patient Zero goes by "Jay" as an adult.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

My Long-Awaited Treatise on Silly Baby Names

The trend among Americans in recent decades toward saddling babies (particularly sons) with ridiculous -- and, in many cases, made-up -- names has bothered me for a while. Nowhere is this trend epitomized more unfortunately than in the "Aidan rhyming trend," and, to me, no name epitomizes that trend more unfortunately than "Jaden" (and its myriad alternate spellings).

I finally decided that I needed to look into it, if only to satisfy my own curiosity (and, by cherry-picking facts in a relatively unscientific manner, to prove my own assumptions). I think I've gotten to the bottom of it, but, let's take a look at the whole issue together, shall we?

First, we must ask whether this perceived trend actually exists. If it exists, what -- that is to say, which name -- is to blame (the lead paragraph should give you a clue)? And, finally, is this trend harmless, or does it signify something slightly troubling about the state of American society and culture?

Well, the first part is easy: the trend exists. Heck, this baby name expert says so! It's part of a larger trend of boys' names ending with the letter "n" that I've observed myself. I've touched on this before elsewhere, but, I'll say it again; recently, while at a neighborhood park with my daughter, I walked past a Little League baseball game. In the course of ten minutes, I heard "Dylan," "Mason," "Jackson," "Aidan," "Mason" again, "Preston," "Wellsey" (I can only assume that one of the boys was named either Aidan, Mason or Preston Wells) and "John," which technically ends in "n," although I can hardly lump John's parents in with the rest of the group, even if it might not have killed them to have thought a little further outside the box.

The newness (I couldn't think of a better word there than "newness;" sorry) of such an overall trend has been disputed by some who learned from the 1960s that all old traditions, ideas and institutions were automatically bad and that new ones were automatically good; one progressive friend of mine in particular, with no choice but to admit that current baby-naming trends were ridiculous and without the option of conceding that a new idea can still be a bad one, was left to argue that ridiculous baby-naming trends have, in effect, always abounded, and that today's are nothing new. I welcome her challenges, because they force me to dig up proof (am I being hard on this friend of mine? Sure, but, maybe I'm trying to provoke a response out of her. I need her to keep me honest. I wouldn't have thought to prove the existence of the general trend if it hadn't been for her, after all). I bet if you spent days crunching numbers, which I'm not inclined to do, Laura Wattenberg's (she's the baby name expert in question) assertions that "[s]uch an overwhelmingly fashionable name sound ["-ayden"] is unprecedented" would ring true. This is, despite the protestations of my crazy friend (that's a "Simpsons" reference, not an ad hominem attack), a new and gender-specific phenomenon. It started in the mid-1990s, exploded at the turn of the century and shows no signs of slowing.

Let's look at some boring (to most people, probably; not to me) demographic data to see just exactly what happened when, and which name (or names) might be most at fault:

"Adan" is the first name that rhymes with "-ayden" to show up on the Social Security Administration's Top 1,000 boys' names list (hereafter, for simplicity's sake, the "top 1,000" or just "the list"), in 1928. It pops on and off the list until 1958 and has been in the top 1,000 ever since, but it didn't even crack the top 300 until 2004, almost certainly as a result of being co-opted by the rhyming trend. Its popularity has actually declined slightly in the last couple of years, and at least one baby name website gives its origins as either Hebrew or Spanish, making no mention of Ireland, from where "Aidan" is generally acknowledged to have come. "Adan" and "Aidan" aren't really even the same name, then, and "Adan" likely got swept up in the trend by coincidence. For our purposes, I think we can consider "Adan" to be a non-factor.

Next up is "Braden," which cracks the top 1,000 in 1970, drops out, then comes back to stay in 1974. I have no idea why. Let's just agree that "Braden" is an early guest at the rhyming trend party but not the primary culprit, since it (in all its permutations) is currently only the fourth-ranked "-aydan" name, and its popularity has sort of leveled off while other "-aydan" names that didn't exist 20 years ago have passed it (and by "exist," I mean "exist as a baby-naming option in the cultural consciousness of America). I only have so much time to waste writing this, and tracking down "Braden" isn't in the cards.

What I can do for you is hazard a guess as to what happened with "Hayden," which was on and off the list from 1880 (which is as far back as the list goes) until 1947, then off to stay until 1986.

In 1981, coach Hayden Fry led the Iowa Hawkeyes to the Rose Bowl, in 1985 he led them to a 10-1 regular-season record and another Rose Bowl berth, and in 1986 (the same year "Hayden" ended its 39-year top 1,000 drought) he became the winningest head coach in Iowa history. Since it only took 88 Haydens to account for that name's placement at #982 on 1986's list, I'm more than willing to accept that Coach Fry was the major reason the name came back. Also, consider that the TV show "Coach" premiered in 1989 featuring a main character named Hayden (named after Coach Fry, according to Wikipedia; I'm not going to link to everything, so just take my word for it), and Hayden's yearly rankings skyrocketed after that (going from 899 in 1988 to 167 in 1997, the year the show went off the air).

But Hayden's popularity held relatively steady during those halcyon "Coach" years, moving up the list only 27 spots between 1994 and 1999. In the next six years, though, as the Aidan rhyming trend swept the nation, "Hayden" moved up 52 spots (which means it was much, much more than twice as popular; take into consideration that each move higher on the list represents just that many more actual babies than a similar move lower on the list. Like, if two more people had named their son "Korey" in 2006, "Korey" would have improved 14 spots, from 981 to 967; but for Thomas to improve 14 spots from 51 to 37, it would have required 1,305 more Thomases). So the rise of "Hayden" coincides with the explosion of the Aidan naming trend, it doesn't predate it. "Hayden" is also less popular than "Jayden" and has fewer variations than "Jadyen" or "Caden," so I'm going to say that it's not really Hayden's fault.

Moving on chronologically, we next see "Aidan" show up in 1990. "Aidan" seems to be an actual name, albeit a then-obscure Irish one. That was before Aidan Quinn co-starred in Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985, and if you don't think that type of movie can help a name crack the top 1,000, you need to look at what Splash did to the name "Madison" (it went from not existing in 1984, was in the top 300 four years later and peaked at #2 in 2001-2002). And I'm sure there were other factors in the rise of "Aidan," not just Aidan Quinn, but, he's a handy thing to point to.

Here I'd happily concede that "Aidan" was solely responsible for the whole trend, since "Aidan" and its various other spellings would be, taken together, quite comfortably the #1 most popular boys' name for 2006. Our only problem with "Aidan" is that its popularity has declined while the trend has accelerated and, in 2006, it was overtaken as the most popular "-ayden" rhyming name by the made-up "Aiden." The 2007 figures should be out soon, and "Aidan" is even in grave danger of falling behind "Jayden," about which we'll hear plenty more later, believe you me.

Next on the list is "Brayden," debuting at 884 in 1991, and brace yourselves, because now the alternate spellings start showing up. But since I've already decided that the whole thing wasn't the fault of "Braden," let's move on.

"Braydon" shows up in 1992, as does "Caden," with "Kaden" to follow in 1993. Now, "Caden," in all its forms, shares some blame for this whole thing. It's not really, in the strictest sense, a name (a connection is sometimes made to an old Gaelic surname, and others say it's Welsh, but let's face it: that's probably just a coincidence. I mean, every combination of letters and syllables has undoubtedly been used as some sort of name for something, at some point); I think this is the first we're seeing of the pernicious trend of parents (generally moms, because... well, come on. What guy comes up with "Caden?") deciding to make up names out of whole cloth so that by God, their children will STAND OUT! Because THAT'S WHAT I -- that is to say, MY CHILDREN -- DESERVE!

What's particularly hilarious to me about "Caden" is that dads in 1992 obviously failed to put potential baby names to the "make fun of" test, even in the most basic way possible. "Saturday Night Live" explored this territory in a manner that's unlikely ever to be eclipsed, but "The Simpsons" did it also, in an episode that aired at the end of 1991, less than a year before most of the first wave of "Caden"s were born.

Most of the episode takes place in flashback; Homer and Marge are due for their first child, and they start to discuss names. Marge suggests Larry, and Homer says they can't name him that, because "all the kids will call him Larry Fairy." Louie is no good, because they'll call him "Screwy Louie." On they go: Luke, "puke;" Marcus, "mucous"... until Marge suggests "Bart." Memorably, Homer says, "Let's see... Bart, cart, dart, ee-art... nope! Can't see any problem with that!"

Well, the father of any "Caden" out there did exactly the same thing. He starting moving up the alphabet, got three letters in, and stopped juuuuuust before the letter that really would have been the dealbreaker.

"Let's see... Caden, day-den, ee-ayden, fay-den... nope! Can't see any problem with that!"

Wonderful. I mean, any "-ayden" Dad is guilty of the same, but, "Caden" parallels the situation on "The Simpsons" so perfectly that it deserves special recognition. Let's hope somebody starts worrying about this, or the top 1,000 is going to be inundated with names like "Baggot" and "Grouchebag" by decade's end. I'm not getting my hopes up, though, since "Tucker" has only been gaining popularity as a boy name since it popped up on the list in the late-'70s.

[it should be noted that my wife has a family of cousins with the surname "Tucker," and they're all wonderful people, but I think even they would acknowledge some major drawbacks -- okay, one major drawback -- in using "Tucker" for a first name]

In any case, "Caden," as I said, shares some blame for the entire Aidan rhyming trend; it's fairly clear that, after Braden, Hayden and Aidan, parents determined to showcase their originality by clinging like remora onto the two-syllable-ending-in-"n" boys' name trend in general, and the Aidan rhyming trend in particular, just started going through the alphabet looking for another letter to put in front of "-ayden."

"A" was just "Aidan;" "B" was already the province of "Braden;" so "C" was really one of the only letters left. Because "Dayden" sounds awkward with the two "d" sounds in a row, "Faden" sounds like "fadin'," none of the vowels really work at all, "G" is out for obvious reasons, "Hayden" already existed, "J" we'll get to in a minute, "K" is still "Kaden," "Layden" doesn't make much sense (although I wouldn't count it out), "Maiden" isn't a particularly good boys' name, "Nayden" is sort of going overboard on "n," "Payden" is pointless when parents searching for a girly trend name for their son already have "Peyton" (curse Peyton Manning for coming along and making this name borderline acceptable. Archie Manning has a lot of explaining to do when it comes to naming sons, considering that his youngest and most recent Super Bowl champion offspring is officially named "Elisha." Seriously), "Q" doesn't really make any sense and pretty much just makes the already-taken-care-of "K" sound, I wouldn't be surprised if "Rayden" is coming soon since "R" is one of the few available letters left, "Sayden" sounds so much like "Satan" that not even the dimmest parent could miss that, "Tayden" sounds weird but I wouldn't rule out anything at this point, "Vayden" would just be silly, "Wayden" sounds like "wadin'," "Xaden" is only a matter of time given that "Zayden" debuted in the top 1,000 in 2006, and "Yayden" sounds way too foreign (a lot of these trendy names start as variations on obscure nomenclature from the British Isles; I mean, sure, you want your kid to have a name no one else has, but, you still want him to sound like an English-speaking white person. Let's not get carried away).

So "Caden" is really the first made-up name to show up in the top 1,000, but I can't blame it completely for the Aidan rhyming trend. For one thing, it debuted at 870 in 1992 and then got less popular, almost dropping out of the top 1,000 in 1993 before bouncing back in 1994. But even in 1994, "Caden" was less popular (731) than the debuting "Jaden" (630), and in 2006 "Caden" (the most popular spelling) ranked below two forms of "Aidan," two forms of "Jaden," and "Hayden" and "Brayden." "Caden" gained ground more slowly than other "-ayden" rhyming names, so, although it's an early culprit, it's not the main one.

No, that would be "Jayden." It's the last name to show up (other than "Zayden" in 2006... I mean, honestly. "Zayden?"), but, unlike any of the other ones, "Jayden" debuted twice in the same year, with "Jaden" (more popular back then) and "Jayden" (more popular now) both hitting the top 1,000 in 1994. What's remarkable is that "Jaden" debuted at a much higher position on the list than any other "-ayden" name, or any other misspelling of any other "-ayden" name, ever had. It came in at #630 the very first time out, with "Jayden" following at #852. Taken together as one name, "Ja[y]den" debuted in 1994 at #430, which essentially means it didn't exist one year, and was in the top half of the top 1,000 the next. Back to "Ja[y]den" in a minute...

"Aiden" follows in 1995, debuting at a modest 935; the spelling "Aiden" didn't exist, you'll note, until "Jayden" and "Jaden" came along and then everything started ending in "-en." 1996 gave us "Braeden," 1997 somehow saw no "-ayden" names debut, and 1998 welcomed "Jadon."

And let's get into "Jadon," quickly; many baby name sources cite "Jadon" (a Hebrew name meaning, depending on whom you ask, "thankful," "He will judge" or "God has heard") as the basis for "Jayden," but, it seems as though someone realized after the fact that there was such a name as "Jadon" and decided, "hey, that must be where 'Jaden' comes from. After all, Biblical names have always been popular, and 'Jadon' is in the Bible!" And, really, who (other than me) would ever bother to argue with that?

If the Hebrew name "Jadon" was really the basis for "Jaden" and "Jaydon," though, wouldn't it have shown up first, instead of four years after two other spellings of the name? Wouldn't there be some people in Israel named Jadon (there don't really appear to be, although I'm sure there are a couple; this is the best I could come up with as far as Israeli name data)? Wouldn't things have started with the "actual" name -- like they did with Aidan, Hayden, Braden and Caden -- and wouldn't different spellings of "Jadon" have popped up subsequently, rather than "Jadon" popping up as a different spelling of "Jaden?"

"Jaden" and "Jayden" came first, "Jadon" was one of many alternate spellings to follow, and, since "Jadon" was the only version of the name found to have existed before the Twins won a World Series, people incorrectly (though understandably) assumed that "Jadon" is where the name got started. But it almost certainly is not.

Anyway, the floodgates open in 1999, when Ayden, Braedon, Braiden, Cayden, Jaiden, Jaydon, Kadin, and Kayden all show up in the top 1,000 for the first time. Many other forms have tricked onto the list since, generally at the rate of two or three new "-ayden" names a year, but 1999 was when it really happened. Why?

Well, I just now decided that it takes about five years from inception for a societal trend to really catch fire in today's America, so let's assume that's true. I mean, I don't have the wherewithal to prove that, but, out of curiosity, I looked a few things up: the Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync all formed in '94 or '95, and bubblegum pop pretty much hit its apex in 1999... doesn't prove anything, but, at least it's an illustration of what I'm claiming. And I picked that particular trend because of 1994 and 1999, the two key years involved. Those years are also the two key years in the Aidan rhyming trend, because, as I have just illustrated, the trend exploded with eight "-ayden" names debuting in 1999, and if we trace it back five years we come to 1994, when "Jaden" and "Jayden" both showed up.

"Jaden," a made-up name that has skyrocketed in popularity in the last decade-and-a-half, is the embodiment -- and the primary culprit -- of the Aidan rhyming trend.

[and, to strengthen my case that it's really "Jaden"'s fault, let me point out that although "Aiden" and "Aidan" are currently most popular, the rise of "Jaden" has been more precipitous; the average debut position between 1990 and 2006 of any form of "Jaden" (and there are now eight and counting) on the top 1,000 is #816, comfortably higher than forms of "Aidan" (#867), "Braden" (#881), "Hayden" (#897), "Caden" (#901) or -- God help us -- Zayden (#871). I submit that Aiden/Aidan is more popular today only because it's been around longer and had the advantage of starting off as a real, actual name]

And so we come to "Jaden," "Jayden" and 1994, the real beginning of (and, in my mind, the main contributor to) the smaller trend that embodies the larger trend that embodies what is wrong with America. Or, at least a little part of what is arguably wrong with some aspects of America (there's no need to be overly dramatic, I suppose).

At this point, if you're like me, you're asking yourself, "so... what happened in 1994? 'Jaden' was probably inevitable, but what precipitated it's statistically improbably high debut that year? No other '-ayden' names ever debuted anywhere near as high, so something must have happened in 1994, right?"

You want to know what happened in 1994?

I found out, and, I'll tell you. It turns out, after all my years of wondering, that the ultimate responsibility for the explosion of this disturbing trend in baby-naming data lies with, well, Data.

You see, on February 14, 1994, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" aired an episode entitled "Thine Own Self," in which Lieutenant Commander Data, played by Brent Spiner, ends up on a strange planet with no memory of who he is or how he got there. A young girl, with no way of knowing his name, decides to call him "Jayden."

And, there you have it. Great work, WASPs and yuppies: you've bestowed upon your sons a fake name that a little girl gave to a robot on a TV show for nerds. In an episode that originally aired, for good measure, on what is indisputably the single most womanly day of the year.

There. We've isolated the origin of the problem: it's "Star Trek"'s fault (a shame, because although I've never been what you would call a regular viewer, I kind of like "Star Trek," particularly "The Next Generation"). Now: is it really a problem? I mean, so people are giving their sons silly, made-up names at unprecedented rates... does it matter?

I'd say that yes, it matters. The Aidan rhyming trend reflects two larger problems. First, it reflects the persisting idea among academic types (no one else would ever buy into it) that men and women are inherently the same, with differences emerging only as a result of cultural and societal influences and not, say, biological differences in brain function. That plenty of people don't actually believe this, and never have, is almost beside the point; anyone born since Woodstock has grown up in a culture in which is it believed that such a notion is believed. A not-particularly-grueling Google search turns up two different studies about how male monkeys prefer boy toys and female monkeys prefer girl toys; each article seems to take for granted the idea that people believe gender roles are imposed on children, that girls wouldn't want to play with dolls and boys with trucks unless that's what they were given. "It's thought of as a sexual stereotype," says the article on one study; "It's commonly believed that boys and girls learn what types of toys they should like based solely on society's expectations," claims the other.

For the purposes of our discussion, I'm going to assume that if it is believed that this is believed, then, at least to some degree, by some people, it is believed.

What does this have to do with the rhyming trend? Let's go back to our old friend, baby name expert Laura Wattenberg:
Traditionally, male names have been much less subject to the whims of fashion than female names. Parents were always more conservative in naming boys, and less likely to view their name choice as a style statement...

I've said before that androgynous names are a one-way street: parents like boyish names for girls, not girlish names for boys. But even as we choose more and more traditionally masculine names for girls, the way we approach naming our boys is moving toward the traditionally "feminine." Today, parents are extremely fashion-conscious with their sons' names as well as their daughters -- a first glimpse, perhaps, at how this generation will be raised.
The belief in the sameness of the sexes has begun to manifest itself in the naming of children.

Other than demanding to be called "Joe" instead of "Joey" before I started third grade, I haven't really given much thought to my first name over the course of my life. As far as I know, not many of my male friends have, either. My wife, on the other hand, decided for a few of her teen years that her name ought to be spelled "Karyn;" we still have some stuff with that name on it. This was, according to her, somewhat common among her friends. Simply put, this is something that girls do and boys don't.

But parents (mostly moms, probably) raised with the "progressive" notion that the sexes are basically the same must assume, then, that boys are going to want unique names, just like they (the moms) did when they were little girls. This would account for the presence on the 2006 boys' top 1,000 of eight (eight!) different spellings of "Jayden." For my money, though, the best evidence of the blurring of the gender line is the fact that various spellings of "Jayden" -- a name that was essentially made up in the mid-90s, remember -- occupy no less than five spots on the top 1,000 girls' names list for 2006. There have always been a few gender-neutral names (and a few names would gradually and organically shift from one sex to the other), but now we're inventing new ones.

[The only other "-ayden" names on the girls' top 1,000 in 2006 were "Hayden" at #416 and "Kayden" at #624, further evidence -- as if any were needed -- that this whole thing is really "Jayden"'s fault]

Generally speaking, boys and girls -- and men and women -- are different. Yes, progress means breaking down barriers, continually fighting to ensure that, in a country purporting to stand for freedom and liberty, equal opportunities are available to all. But such progress shouldn't rule out our ability to acknowledge the observable, evident truth, should it? We can encourage our children to observe and catalogue what is typical and to celebrate the fact that we live in a place and time in which the atypical is not to be automatically dismissed and is, in fact, often to be celebrated. But promulgating ideas about gender sameness that our kids will inevitably discover to be false is counterproductive (I was going to say it was "destructive" or "dangerous," but I decided it wasn't destructive or dangerous. Just counterproductive). And starting this process before our children are even born, by giving them made-up gender-neutral names, is just plain annoying.

But the Aidan rhyming trend reflects two larger problems, I have claimed, and the blurring of gender lines is just one of them.

The other problem, and I've touched on it a little, is the idea of parents that their children are particularly special and remarkable (every parent thinks her child is special and remarkable, as well she should. I think that many people now have come to believe that their specific children are particularly special and remarkable). The baby boomer generation led early Gen-Xers and their offspring (many of whom are now having kids) to believe that they would grow up to be special and, for the most part, they're not. They're just regular lame people, same as regular lame people have always been since time immemorial. The women in particular were promised a rose garden of work, home and family, all perfectly balanced with plenty of time to attend adequately to each.

So, when you grow up and are met by the world at large with chilling indifference, you're bound to be disappointed. But by God, your kids are going to be special. So special, in fact, that everybody is going to be able to tell how special they are by the awesomely special name you give them.

On the other hand, kids who grow up being told they're incredibly special and then do set the world on fire are naturally going to think their own kids are that much more special, having come from such special stock. So while disappointed people give their kids unique (read: stupid) names out of the false belief that it will make them unique (I've left the "them" to which I'm referring grammatically unclear on purpose), successful people give their kids stupid names because, in their minds, life has borne out their belief that they are incredibly unique and worthy of adulation, and so should their children be.

And then, of course, it's even worse for celebrities, who are as successful as the successful people but as insecure and disappointed as the disappointed people. That's when you get Kal-el, Apple and Moxie Crimefighter. And then regular people who are determined to advertise the specialness of their kids take their cues from celebrities, and the cycle begins anew.

As with gender sameness, it's counterproductive to build kids up to think that they're any more special than anybody else, because that's almost certainly not going to be borne out in their lives. The naming trend itself shows how even people who try desperately to be unique tend to do so in very similar ways. Radio host Adam Carolla used to make a point using polar bears: if you wanted to know about polar bears, he said, there was no need to study every polar bear. You could study, say, 100 polar bears, and, after enough time, you'd really know all you needed to know about the behavior of polar bears. The idea was that human beings are only slightly more complex.

We get carried away with the idea that everybody is completely unique and different and her own person. I certainly prefer to live in a society and culture in which people are free to make choices as if this were true, but, the fact is that in 1999, 497 women not only decided it would be a good idea to name their son "Caden," but decided that saddling him with that name wasn't enough; they were going to inflict upon him their very own, one-of-a-kind spelling of the name, a spelling that didn't even exist for anyone else. Meanwhile, "Cayden," "Kadin" and "Kayden" all debuted in the top 1,000 in 1999, with hundreds of women determined to be one-of-a-kind having done so in exactly the same way as hundreds of others.

Constantly telling kids how special they are amounts, ultimately, to pressure on kids to be special, to be unique, to stand out, to excel. I'm going to make what may be a bit of a leap here and assume that such pressure is relatively new; post-World-War II new, at least. I would imagine that, among the "Greatest Generation" and looking backwards on in history, parents were mostly concerned that their children be healthy and good (as in "virtuous"), whereas ever since the baby boomers started having kids, more and more parents mainly want their children to be healthy and excellent (as in "to excel"). But expecting your children to be especially outstanding is setting them up to fail; by the very definition of the word, the majority of children can't be "outstanding." Saying that everyone is special, as The Incredibles reminded us, is another way of saying that no one is.

Undue pressure on kids to be unique and excellent may help account for increases in depression among adolescents. I'm not saying that if you name your son "Jaidyn" he will automatically end up killing himself, but puberty is confusing and frustrating enough without adding "Jaidyn" (or, more precisely, the skewed perspective that leads to "Jaidyn") to the mix. The Aidan rhyming trend is symptomatic of a larger (new) desire to give kids -- even boys -- unique and increasingly unisex names, which is symptomatic of a larger desire that our children atone for our own failure to turn out to be incredibly special, which could well be symptomatic of a larger problem of increased confusion, frustration and depression in kids and young adults.

To put it succinctly, the use of "Jayden" as a boy's name indicates a denial by parents of inherent differences between the sexes; it also indicates a fixation of parents on producing children who are unique, special and outstanding, likely at the expense of producing children who are good.

To put it even more succinctly: "Jayden" is a silly fake name from "Star Trek," and is unsuitable for your kid.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Oscar Picks, Year Four!

Hey, kids! It's that time of year again. Time for the glorious Onebee.com Oscar pool, the 4th Annual Athletic Reporter Oscar Picks column, and, to a lesser extent, the 80th Annual Academy Awards.

"But Joe," you ask. "Why should we listen to you? What do you know about the Oscars? Hasn't the accuracy of your picks in recent years been less than spectacular?"

Those are all fair questions...

Anyway, conventional wisdom holds that many of this year's races are closer than usual, so it promises to be an exciting Oscar ceremony.

Like I always do, I'll cut and paste what I wrote in 2005 to explain how this works:

Please note: these are my [Athletic Reporter Oscar Preview] predictions, not to be confused with my all-important picks in Athletic Reporter co-creator and Photoshop guru Jameson Simmons' Onebee.com Oscar pool (aka "The Only Reason At All I Still Pay Any Attention to the Oscars"). I reserve the right to refine my choices for Jameson's until late Sunday afternoon.

Let's get to it!

BEST PICTURE

Winner:

No Country For Old Men

Other Nominees:

Atonement
Juno
Michael Clayton
There Will Be Blood

A recurring theme of this particular Oscar Picks column may well turn out to be the notion that the Coen brothers could, in spirit if technically not in practice, tie Walt Disney's record by winning four Oscars in one night. I think they will. These will be the Coen brothers Oscars.

Count me among those who thought that the bizarre final 20 minutes or so just about ruined No Country For Old Men. There I sat, enjoying an excellent crime drama, and then all this weird crap happens for no reason. At least that's what it felt like. Oh well. Even if it's not for a movie of which I particularly approve, it will be nice to see the Coen brothers finally get their due (or get their due again; they each won Oscars for writing Fargo, so you can't really say that the Academy has ignored them completely).

There Will Be Blood was pretty much a character study, a showcase for Daniel Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainview. I'm firmly ensconced on the Day-Lewis bandwagon this year, but I can see why people might think that, pound-for-pound, Blood is slightly less deserving of Best Picture than No Country.

My personal favorite (of the three I saw) was Juno, which scored the one Best Picture nomination reserved for movies that aren't actually "Best Picture-y." Still, I've heard a good deal about how "relevant" No Country For Old Men (set in 1980) and There Will Be Blood (spanning the first fourth of the 20th century, give or take a couple of years) were to today's times, but... Juno actually takes place in today's times. So, there's your relevant.

Another reason I responded to Juno more than No Country For Old Men or There Will Be Blood, I think, is that characters in the latter two movies can probably be said to exist to some extent as metaphors (Daniel Plainview is capitalism, Eli Sunday is unchecked religious zealotry, Anton Chigurh is the inevitable, powerful force of evil in the ream of human existence), whereas, in Juno, the yuppie couple wanting to adopt a baby is pretty much a young couple wanting to adopt a baby, the spazzy teen boyfriend is pretty much a spazzy teen boyfriend...

As I get older I tend to be a little less interested in movies about the Big Ideas and more interested in movies about regular people dealing with their lives. Probably because I used to have Big Ideas, and now I'm a regular person dealing with his life. Makes sense, I suppose.

(well, and I like movies with boobs and gunfights. That's been pretty constant since I was about 12)

Michael Clayton I didn't see. I heard it was good and I'm sure it was, but, I got the feeling that if you sent away for "Oscar Movie Set in Present Day," then 6-to-8 weeks later you'd open up your mailbox and there you'd see Michael Clayton.

Atonement I didn't see. I heard it was good and I'm sure it was, but, I got the feeling that if you sent away for "Oscar Movie Set in the Past," then 6-to-8 weeks later you'd open up your mailbox and there you'd see Atonement.

BEST DIRECTOR

Winner:

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men

Other Nominees:

Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
Jason Reitman, Juno
Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Apparently Julian Schnabel is somewhat of a trendy upset pick, for those who want to pick an upset in this category. I don't. Nominations in a few of the big boy categories (Cinematography, Editing, Screenplay) might indicate some passionate support for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but, I'm just going to bank on this being the Coens' year. They've been making great movies for over 20 years and they did an exemplary job with No Country For Old Men (my feelings about the film's conclusion notwithstanding), and I think those two factors will overwhelm whatever support Schnabel has out there.

As far as Jason Reitman goes, he's about the same age and my wife and I, and my wife was lamenting the other day the fact that he's a Best Director nominee and the two of us are, unequivocally, not. True, I told her, but, Buddy Holly was 22 when he died, so, in my mind, the day I turned 23 that whole "by the time this person was my age, he was doing x or y" ship had sailed in a big way. I mean, who's better than Buddy Holly? At anything?

So good on you, Jason Reitman.

Paul Thomas Anderson will probably be back in this category before too long. He's young and he'll almost certainly win Best Director one day, so nobody really has to feel like they're slighting him this year (it's sort of the same reason why they keep not giving Johnny Depp an Oscar).

And I'm sure Tony Gilroy's a fine man, but, it's tough to find anyone who thinks he's got a shot this year.

BEST ACTOR

Winner:

Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood

Other Nominees:

George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises

This would seem like a sure thing if it weren't for a small Daniel Day-Lewis backlash that seems to be building in some -- oh, who are we kidding? It's a sure thing.

Count me among those who loved Day-Lewis's performance unconditionally. Even the final scene, the "I Drink Your Milkshake" scene, rang true to me. And as far as There Will Be Blood is concerned, without Day-Lewis playing Daniel Plainview -- and, what's more, without Day-Lewis playing Daniel Plainview like he did -- I'm not sure you've got much of a movie.

The Cloon, I can't argue with. No one can. He's just a big honkin' movie star. You only get one or two George Clooneys (Cloonies?) every generation, and I enjoy ours (due in no small part to the lucky break that our generation's George Clooney actually happens to be George Clooney). But it's Daniel Day-Lewis's year, not his.

I've made no secret of my distaste for Sweeney Todd, but none of that was Johnny Depp's fault. He was just fine and he'll win an Oscar someday, but, as I parenthetically alluded to earlier, it won't be this year.

Viggo Mortensen's always good, and he fought some guys naked, which is pretty badass. But he won't win.

And, when I glanced at Entertainment Weekly's Best Actor prediction page and saw Tommy Lee Jones's picture, I thought, "Wait, he was nominated for No Country For Old Men? For Best Actor? He wasn't even in it that much... what page am I on? This is -- oh. Right." And I follow this stuff more closely than the average bear, so, my reaction probably doesn't say a lot for how memorable In the Valley of Elah was.

BEST ACTRESS

Winner:

Julie Christie, Away From Her

Other Nominees:

Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
Laura Linney, The Savages
Ellen Page, Juno

Julie Christie's British and she played a person with a mental illness (Alzheimer's). It's hard to see the Academy not voting for that.

Unless they vote for Marion Cotillard; those who've seen La Vie en Rose rave about her performance, but have enough people seen it? And, of the people who have, will enough of them decide not to vote for Julie Christie?

It's a weird year for Best Actress, since the only nominee in a movie that anyone really saw is Juno's Ellen Page, and people her age don't win Best Actress, really. Although it should be noted that I heard someone praise Daniel Day-Lewis's performance for, among other things, his perfect American accent, and, well, Ellen Page is from Nova Scotia, so let's not pretend she wasn't doing an American accent as well.

Laura Linney and Cate Blanchett, we shouldn't have to worry about.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Winner:

Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men

Other Nominees:

Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton

Any other year you might think about Hal Holbrook pulling an upset for Into the Wild as a sort of lifetime achievement thing, but if they didn't give Peter O'Toole an Oscar last year they can skip Hal Holbrook on Sunday. People seem to have been fascinated by Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh. I'll admit that I don't quite get it, even though I have no trouble acknowledging that Bardem gave a worthy performance. It would probably be the biggest surprise of the evening if anybody else won Best Supporting Actor.

Too bad, though, because I kind of wish Philip Seymour Hoffman had a chance. I didn't see Charlie Wilson's War, but, based on the one three-second snippet of Hoffman's performance that I did see, extrapolated out to fill a two-hour movie, I'm sure he was excellent.

This is the one category this year where I feel there have been a number of egregious snubs, most notably Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood, but also Ben Foster in 3:10 to Yuma and John Travolta in Hairspray. Chins up, boys; there's always next year.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Winner:

Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There

Other Nominees:

Ruby Dee, American Gangster
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

Wide open, it seems. Entertainment Weekly picks Tilda Swinton but gives her only a 28% chance, with Amy Ryan at 25, Cate Blanchett at 22 and Ruby Dee at 20. Over at AwardsDaily.com, their predictions roundup had Cate Blanchett ahead, plenty of others picking either Tilda Swinton or Ruby Dee, and Amy Ryan conspicuous in her almost total absence. Swinton's own Michael Clayton co-star, the Cloon himself, predicted Amy Ryan.

So, who knows? I say, go for the safest bet. Which, in this instance, is the out-there, gender-bending performance in a weird movie people didn't see. You've got an English speaking foreigner playing a man; sort of like with Julie Christie in the Best Actress category, what is there to Cate Blanchett's performance that Oscar voters wouldn't swallow hook, line and sinker?

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Winner:

Diablo Cody, Juno

Other Nominees:

Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
Tamara Jenkins, The Savages
Nancy Oliver, Lars and the Real Girl
Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco and Brad Bird, Ratatouille

I suppose there's a slight chance that this could be the award that breaks Michael Clayton's way, but, Juno's the one to beat. They've marketed "Diablo Cody" (not her real name, if you can believe it) very well, sending her on press tours and Letterman and stuff, and I'd be even more sick of all that if she hadn't written such a good script. The director and cast of Juno deserve a ton of credit, too (it's not entirely fair that Cody is probably the only person associated with Juno who's going to come away with an Oscar for her efforts), but the script was right on. Maybe it had one or two extra-cutesy moments of self-consciously hip teenage dialogue... but maybe it didn't. I'm too young to have a teenager and too old to hang out with them (or so those bastards down at the county courthouse have declared), so maybe the ones who are determined to be hipper-than-thou actually make a point to try to talk like that. And even if, by and large, they don't, it's not out of the realm of possibility that one of them would.

There's one moment in particular in Juno that, for me, serves as a microcosm of why the movie was so successful (and we get into some plot stuff you'd probably rather not know if you've got a burning desire to see Juno but you haven't gotten around to it yet, so, tread lightly):

A pregnant Juno comes to visit Mark, the husband of the couple to which she has promised her baby once it is born. They've discovered previously that they share a love for being snobby about obscure bands. Juno is drawn to Mark because he amounts to the grown-up version of her spazzy-but-cool boyfriend, Bleeker. Mark is Bleeker plus a decade-and-a-half of money made, self-confidence found and comfort-in-own-skin achieved. Mark is drawn to Juno because she's a cute young thing who thinks it's cool that he plays the guitar and likes to be snobby about obscure bands. This in contrast to Mark's wife Vanessa; she has banished all of Mark's music stuff to one small room of the house, which, subconsciously, Mark chooses to focus on instead of the fact that Vanessa keeps a gorgeous house for him to live in.

Mark and Juno are alone together. Some music is played. Juno puts her hands on Mark's shoulders. She asks him, "did you dance like this at your prom?"

They sway together. Mark looks at her.

"Actually..." he says.

The entire movie -- the lives of the main characters -- turn here, between "actually" and what Mark says next. Will he say, "actually... this might make me seem lame and old, but, it's probably not appropriate for us to be slow dancing like this"?

No; he says, "actually... it was more like this," and he re-positions Juno's arms more intimately around his waist.

And, in the audience, you think, "Oh, Mark..."

This little scene, like most of Juno, was written, directed and acted with such depth of feeling and emotional truth that I'm excited to think someone involved could end up with an Academy Award, even if it's someone who decided that it would be a good idea for her name to be "Diablo Cody."

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Winner:

Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men

Other Nominees:

Christopher Hampton, Atonement
Sarah Polley, Away From Her
Ronald Harwood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

First of all: yes, the blonde chick from Dawn of the Dead is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.

That's pretty fantastic, but, as we've discussed, it's going to be the Coen brothers' night.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Winner:

The Counterfeiters, Austria

Other Nominees:

Beaufort, Israel
Katyn, Poland
Mongol, Kazakhstan
12, Russia

The Counterfeiters is about the Holocaust (catnip to Oscar voters), and, on top of that, the trailer made it look really good.

I have nothing more to add about this category, except to say that with Borat last year and now with Mongol, Kazakhstan has essentially been represented at two consecutive Oscar ceremonies. I haven't taken the trouble to look it up, but, you can be pretty sure that hasn't happened before.

--------------------------------

Okay. It's getting late and this is getting long; let's plow through the pee-break categories, shall we? Here's what I always write about how that goes:

For the major categories, I'll give you my analysis; for the others, I'll just tell you who Entertainment Weekly says is going to win (that's what everybody does anyway. Like you've got any clue about Best Documentary Short).

The only danger here is if EW has an off year. Like, say, last year, when mostly listening to their picks ended me up with an 11-13 Oscar picking record. Honestly, if you'd have made me bet on whether I ever, in my life, would pick more Oscar categories incorrectly than correctly in a given year, I would have bet on "no" and felt really good about it.

[actually, that's not true. I would have bet on "yes," and then, the next year, I would have intentionally made picks that had almost no chance of winning, thus outsmarting you and winning our little wager. But, if you said I'd have to place my bet and then afterwards you'd erase all memory of the bet from my mind so I couldn't pull the little trick I described, I would have bet that there was absolutely no way I'd ever come away from an Oscar year with a losing record. I once, in college, got them all right except for two! For Pete's sake!]

Anyway. I'll just tell you what Entertainment Weekly said, unless I disagree, in which case I'll let you know that you're getting my pick instead of theirs. Usually, though, when I against them in a pee-break category, we're either both wrong or they're right. I don't think, in three years of doing this, I've ever disagreed with EW and been right. But someday I'm sure that'll happen. Has to, right?

Here we go...

BEST ART DIRECTION: Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I read somewhere else that Sweeney Todd wouldn't win because Dante Ferretti wins "all the time," but I looked it up, and, he's like 1-for-7. Not a convincing reason to pick against EW, to say the least.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: They (i.e., Entertainment Weekly) say There Will Be Blood's Robert Elswit, mainly because they assume that since Roger Deakins is nominated twice in this category he'll split the vote with himself. But, in the year of No Country For Old Men, will anybody actually vote for Deakins for The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford?

Still, Robert Elswit is supposed to be the front-runner, and this award generally goes to the movie with the most sweeping shots of the outdoors, which There Will Be Blood has in spades.

[although, when you think about it, wouldn't sweeping shots of the outdoors almost be the easiest thing for a cinematographer? I mean, doing something indoors, or with special effects, I can see how tough that would be, making sure everything in an unnatural arena looks natural; but, aren't most of the outdoors pretty much just sitting there already? Isn't that kind of what the outdoors are famous for?)

BEST EDITING: Roderick Jaynes, No Country For Old Men. Here's why No Country is going to beat The Bourne Ultimatum, which plenty of people are picking in this category: first of all, it's Best Editing, not Most Editing. Second, Roderick Jaynes is, as you may well know, not a real person. Roderick Jaynes is -- for some reason -- the pseudonym under which Joel and Ethan Coen edit their own movies. It would be a "thing" to have Roderick Jaynes announced as the winner and have the Coens accept for "him," and since when has Best Editing ever been a "thing?" Academy voters aren't going to pass up a "thing."

In any case, this is why I say the Coen brothers could tie Walt Disney's Four Oscars in One Year record in spirit if not in practice; if they win all the awards they're up for, then they will have essentially won four Oscars each on Sunday. You and I and everybody else watching will know that. Technically, however, by the letter of Oscar law, Joel and Ethan Coen will have won three Oscars each, and Roderick Jaynes will have won one. Also, if "Roderick Jaynes" wins Best Editing, there will only be one Oscar statuette given away in that category (the Coens will each get one if they win any of the categories in which they're both nominated).

So, while they may find it cute to edit their films under a pseudonym, it could cost the Coen brothers a tie for the official record for Most Oscars Won in a Single Year. Though certainly, a share of the unofficial record would be theirs.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Dario Marianelli, Atonement. Seems like everyone thinks it's between that and Ratatouille. I'll take Atonement, because the magazine says so.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: "Falling Slowly" from Once, music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Finally, you can just go on YouTube and watch all of these songs and decide for yourself. "Raise It Up" from August Rush isn't really very good, and the three from Enchanted probably will spit. Having seen all three, I would go straight to hell before I voted for anything other than "Happy Working Song," but others think "That's How You Know" is more likely to win. That's why they'll split the vote; they're all good enough to have a reasonable amount of support.

So, it'll probably be Once. That was nice little movie, and it would be cool to see Hansard and Irglova, who pretty much wrote the songs in the movie (and the songs pretty much were the movie), rewarded with Oscars.

Although my favorite song from a 2007 movie was this one, by far. Even though it's obviously a parody of what old white people think rap music is, it's actually a much better song than 3-6 Mafia's Oscar-winning "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp." I beg you not to click on that link if you possess any sense of decency, but, I also defy you to tell me that that video is not hilariously awesome (I'll also accept awesomely hilarious).

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Russell Earl and John Frazier, Transformers. I can't argue with this pick; when I went and bought our new HDTV I was waiting at Circuit City from them to go and get it for me, and they were showing Transformers on an even better HDTV than I bought, with the Blu-Ray DVD and surround sound... I felt like one of those people on the audience of the first-ever motion picture, who ducked when the footage of the locomotive approached. It was something else.

BEST SOUND EDITING: Ethan Van der Ryan and Mike Hopkins, Transformers.

BEST SOUND MIXING: Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell and Peter Devlin, Transformers. The biggest, explodiest movie usually wins the sound stuff anyway, and this nomination is Kevin O'Connell's 20th, with zero wins so far. He got some attention for his 19th nod last year and I'm sure would have been a sentimental favorite if the movie he worked on, Apocalypto, hadn't been directed by Hatespeech von Hitler. Transformers director Michael Bay, as far as I know, has no beef with the Jews, so this should finally be Kevin O'Connell's year.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN: Colleen Atwood, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Entertainment Weekly's guess is much, much better than mine.

BEST MAKEUP: Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald, La Vie en Rose. La Vie en Rose seems to be considered something of a shoo-in here.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Ratatouille. I'd look out for an upset by Persepolis if Ratatouille hadn't been so, so universally adored.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT: Madame Tutli-Putli. I actually did a little bit of research on this category, and that research led me to believe strongly that Madame Tutli-Putli -- and not EW's pick, I Met the Walrus -- will win.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: No End In Sight. Seems to be the favorite no matter whom you ask, although with Michael Moore (Sicko) around, I won't breathe easy until the envelope is actually opened.

Well, and then until the winner is read. The actual opening of the envelope in and of itself doesn't really reveal any -- you know what? Never mind.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT: Freeheld. I'm sort of depending on you completely for this one, Entertainment Weekly.

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT: Tanghi Argentini. I've seen this one predicted as the winner a couple different places, so, knowing nothing of any of the nominees, I'd be silly not to pick it.

That's all, folks. Enjoy the Oscars, now that you've been given permission by the WGA to do so.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Oscar Picks, Year Three... And-a-Half???

[note: not long ago, Athletic Reporter Co-Creator and Photoshop Guru Jameson Simmons e-mailed out a mock-up of his glorious Onebee.com Oscar pool ballot, which he was using to tweak the program in advance (well in advance) of next year's Academy Awards. Rather than list last year's nominees he made up his own, using fake (but real-sounding) movie titles and the names of real Hollywood stars. It was breathtaking; the kind of thing that makes me want to poop my pants with glee. I realized that I had absolutely no choice but to do what you are now about to read. The following takes place in an alternate universe that is exactly like our own, except that the 2008 Oscars are days away, and the nominees are made up of the films on Jameson's mock-up. Oh: and the Minnesota Vikings have multiple Super Bowl victories to their credit. Because why not? Enjoy]

Hey, kiddies, it's that time of year again! That's right: time for the glorious, fabulous, often maddening, always fascinating Onebee.com Oscar Pool, as well as the accompanying Athletic Reporter Oscar Picks column! I've got some making up to do, after my solid but unspectacular record in the picks column and my utter failure in the Onebee.com pool last year. Fear not, though, dear readers, because this year I've seen the bulk of the nominated films, and can offer the sort of expert advice I simply haven't been able to give before.

Let's get started, shall we?

(these are my predictions for who will win, it should be noted. Who will win, not necessarily who should win)

BEST PICTURE

Winner:

Rita Wilson's War

Other Nominees:

France, 1820
Magnified
My First Caliphate
The Wasted Life

I know the Oscar rule of thumb has been that the film with the most nominations usually wins Best Picture, but that rule hasn't been quite as hard-and-fast of late (last year's most-nominated film, Dreamgirls, didn't even receive a Best Picture nod). So France, 1820 (nine nominations to Rita's eight) is some people's pick, but I think that the lack of any acting nominations for France portends a lack of Academy-wide support. Besides, it racked up a bunch of noms in costume and art direction-type pee break categories that Rita was, perhaps, not quite "epic" enough to contend in. So, sure, it was the most nominated movie, but... eh.

The Wasted Life was well done, was a pretty brutal portrait of American frontier life, but was a relatively "small" movie and was mainly just a downer. Not the kind of thing Best Pictures are made of, and I'm not sure enough people saw it. But if I had to handicap the race I'd say it was probably running a solid third in this category.

My First Caliphate, for all the controversy that surrounded it before it was released, was ultimately staid and sedated, almost to a fault. It featured some flawless performances but, as far as I'm concerned, never coalesced into an affecting film. It aimed for the heart, but it only hit the head (and, because of the 177-minute running time and my large Diet Coke, so did I. Twice).

And, as I always mention, every year some often dumb and always undeserving little comedy sneaks into the Best Picture field, certain to be completely forgotten about in the next few years (like, when's the last time you heard anybody mention Chocolat?). As such, the less said about the slapdash mishmash of clichés and lame set pieces that was Magnified -- and the less said about the hacky, one-note supporting "performance" by the usually good, herein bad and now inexplicably nominated John Lithgow -- the better.

So, Rita Wilson's War, then. I know we've been hearing the comparisons to Being John Malkovich ever since the project was first announced, but, really, all the two movies have in common is a trippy sort of surrealism and a famous person or two (Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks, most notably) playing themselves. I don't think the Malkovich factor will hold Rita Wilson's War back at all, and I don't think Hollywood will be able to resist awarding a movie that so skillfully uses industry in-jokes while taking care to entertain and avoid alienating those who aren't as in the know. The uproarious cameo by Spielberg alone was almost worth a Best Picture trophy (especially in what I think was a bit of a lean year), but I still can't figure out why more people aren't talking about that blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance from everyone's favorite former governor, Jesse Ventura. Anyway, Rita Wilson's War stands above the field in terms of originality, sheer quality (in my humble opinion) and critical acclaim, and since the Academy has shown a willingness of late to award Best Picture to movies that actually are set in the present day (The Departed, Crash, Million Dollar Baby), I'll say Rita over France.

BEST DIRECTOR

Winner:

Stephen Frears, Rita Wilson's War

Other Nominees:

Doug Liman, Can Only Feel Diamonds
Martin Scorsese, France, 1820
Clint Eastwood, My First Caliphate
Paul Greengrass, The War Birds

This category is actually one of the easiest of the night; Frears has won every major award short of the Heisman Trophy (for which I think he actually finished like fourth). And, in case you never actually looked, he really does have quite an impressive -- and eclectic -- body of work (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, The Queen and now Rita Wilson's War).

I don't see a director whose film isn't nominated winning this year (they never really do), so there go Liman and Greengrass. Clint Eastwood already has two Best Director wins, and I think if you really got down to it, most movie lovers would be forced to admit that My First Caliphate probably doesn't crack his own career Top Five.

And it would be harder to discount Scorsese if he hadn't finally won last year. But he did. So push all your chips to the center of the table when Best Director comes up; you won't have to worry about it.

BEST ACTOR

Winner:

Rupert Everett, Shy and Alive

Other Nominees:

Matt Damon, A Frank Portrayal
Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson's War
Kevin Kline, The First Man Home
Robert Redford, Notebook

I heard once, a few years ago, that nobody has even won Best Actor when his Best Actor nomination was the only nomination that film received. I don't feel like looking that up to find out it it's true, mainly because even if it is it won't be for long. Only Hanks's Rita has received any nominations anywhere else, and although Hanks is great in the movie, if he's going to get a third Oscar it's going to be some other year.

This has been a weird one to predict: Kline won the SAG award; Damon won numerous critics' awards; the Golden Globe went to France, 1820's Sam Rockwell as Prime Minister Elie Decazes, and then Rockwell didn't even get nominated here; Redford's nomination seems to have come out of nowhere (and, many feel, at Rockwell's expense. In fact, if Rockwell had been nominated, I dare say he'd have been my pick)...

I'll go with Rupert Everett; not only does it seem like he's getting a surge of late buzz, he's actually the only guy in this category who hasn't already won an Oscar in some category or another. And, as much as I enjoyed Rockwell and was surprised that he was left out, Everett's portrayal of 18th century civil rights crusader Horatio Tardwell pretty much had everything: he's mentally handicapped, he's British (the actor and the character), and (spoiler alert!) he dies at the end. All stuff that Academy voters eat up with a spoon.

BEST ACTRESS

Winner:

Sandra Bullock, Torn From the Top

Other Nominees:

Frances McDormand, The Franken File
Julia Roberts, My Skirt Ripped!
Meryl Streep, I Appeared In a Movie This Year... er, I mean... My First Caliphate
Hilary Swank, Bible Murder

One of the other putative "no-doubters" of the night, or, at least the one acting category of the four that's closest to being a sure thing. I don't have much to say about any of these movies, so I'll just say this in regards to Sandra Bullock: Hey! Hey, Academy! If you keep giving Oscars to beautiful women whose main performance feature is that they dressed up ugly, then beautiful women will continue to dress up ugly to try to win Oscars! And no one wants that. We want to look at hot women being hot. That’s why we have Hollywood. Next time you've got a script with an ugly chick in it, maybe think about hiring, like, Joy Behar instead of Jessica Biel. That's all I'm saying.

Two other points about Best Actress:

1) If Annette Bening were also nominated this year, I'd be picking Hilary Swank to beat her again,

and

2) You'll hear bitching from time to time about how hard it is for women in Hollywood, but, let me just ask: did Richard Gere get nominated for Pretty Woman? Did Aaron Eckhart get nominated for Erin Brockovich? Did Hugh Jackman get nominated for My Skirt Ripped!? No, they didn't, did they. An actress can get nominated for just about any kind of movie, whereas an actor pretty much has to play a President or a retard (wait until they make a movie about George W... some lucky actor will get to play both! Ha! Get it? Because he's stupid and evil! I'm so brave for joking like that! Speak truth to power!)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Winner:

Christopher Guest, Frances Harper

Other Nominees:

Javier Bardem, Under the Waning Moon
Samuel L. Jackson, The Short List
John Lithgow, Magnified
Kevin Spacey, The War Birds

This was the toughest one by far, and I admit to sort of throwing up my hands and voting with my heart on this one. According to almost every barometer of Oscar buzz, it’s pretty much a three-man race between Guest, Bardem and Jackson, but I’ll take Christopher Guest with his chilling portrayal of the psychologically abusive patriarch in Frances Harper. If you didn’t see the movie, first of all, shame on you, and second of all, by way of describing Guest’s performance: imagine if Count Rugen, the character Guest so skillfully played in The Princess Bride, had been 50% smarter, 20% more evil, about half as funny, and scarier than any character in any movie ever. That will give you a pretty good idea of what Guest did with Solomon Harper. Christopher Guest has given so much to movies over the course of his career; it’s time that movies gave back.

(should I throw in a “dammit!” here? Oh, why not?)

Christopher Guest has given so much to movies over the course of his career; it’s time that movies gave back, dammit!

Then there’s Bardem and Jackson to contend with. Bardem’s been nominated before, and he just has this stink about him of a guy who in no way won’t win an Oscar someday. In Athletic Reporter Co-Creator and Photoshop Guru Jameson Simmons’s Onebee.com Oscar pool, you’re given 10 points per category to parcel out as you wish; I don’t know that I’ve ever split any points in an acting category but, as much as I’m pulling for Guest, I might have to throw a couple of points Bardem’s way.

And then there’s Jackson; he’s never won an Oscar, he’s a big movie star, and he’s black. So, he’s got a hell of a lot going in his favor as far as this is concerned (the last few years they've been giving out Academy Awards to black actors like it's going out of style). I’m sure he’ll also win an Oscar someday, but for the sake of Christopher Guest I hope that day is at least a year away. Plus, he was only in two scenes in The Short List, and although there’s almost universal agreement that he made the most of them, the movie didn’t make as much of a splash as he did and, as far as I’m concerned, it is unlikely to be remembered much beyond the next few years.

Kevin Spacey’s already got two Oscars, and, if John Lithgow wins I’m really going to have to move to some country were they don’t even allow movies. Like, Saudi Arabia or somewhere.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Winner:

Catherine Keener, Reverse Cowgirl

Other Nominees:

Julie Delpy, The War Birds
Olympia Dukakis, After the Depression
Téa Leoni, My First Caliphate
Rita Wilson, Rita Wilson’s War

Tough category, but, I’ve got to figure it’s finally Catherine Keener’s year. Leoni won the National Board of Review award and most of the early cricits’ prizes, but Keener took the SAG trophy and looks to be coming on strong. She’s been Oscar-nominated for a couple of movies and egregiously snubbed for others (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, anyone?), but, her daring, hilarious, ultimately tragic performance in Reverse Cowgirl will probably be impossible to ignore. Plus, if you really think about it, she technically avoids the old “hooker with the heart of gold” cliché because, in the strictest sense, she’s actually playing a madame.

Téa Leoni’s performance was very strong as well, but not as flashy as Keener’s, and for once I’ll decide not to mind if that’s all the Academy sees fit to consider. Rita Wilson, ironically, wasn’t actually all that integral to the happenings of Rita Wilson’s War, though she was plenty good in the film. In a slower Best Supporting Actress year she’d have a darn good chance.

Julie Delpy is being given pretty long odds, and, although it probably won’t happen, it would be kind of nice to see past winner Olympia Dukakis (Moonstruck) receive that second Oscar she so clearly deserved for Too Many Grandmas.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Winner:

Aaron Sorkin, Rita Wilson’s War

Other Nominees:

Guillermo Arriaga, Aim Higher
Iris Yamashita; story by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis, Bits and Bytes
Guillermo del Toro, Scamp
Peter Morgan, The Wasted Life

And so, prodigal son Aaron Sorkin returns after taking a beating from the Jesuslanders, welcomed by the nurturing bosom of Hollywood liberals.

But seriously, Rita Wilson’s War might just be enough to wash the stink of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” off of Sorkin’s legacy, and considering how much I thought “Studio 60” blew, that’s saying something. Movie critic Manohla Dargis memorably called Rita Wilson’s War “a movie that Charlie Kaufman himself couldn’t possibly get high enough to write,” and, if you’ve seen it, that pretty much says it all. If you haven’t, then, there’s really no way to do it justice. Well done, Sorkin.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Winner:

Patrick Marber, The War Birds

Other Nominees:

Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer; story by Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Anthony Hines, Todd Phillips, Alabaster Disaster: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Michaelangelo’s Gay Secret
Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, France, 1820
William Monahan, Into War
Todd Field and Tom Perrotta, Under the Waning Moon

I always talk about how one of the screenplay Oscars is essentially given away as a consolation prize for Best Picture (Little Miss Sunshine won a screenplay award last year, if you’ll remember), and I suspect that will happen to some degree with War Birds. A mild surprise to be left out of the Best Picture category, The War Birds is partially based on an obscure German biography of World War I flying ace Manfred “The Red Baron” von Richthofen, which is why it was slotted into the Adapted Screenplay category; but Patrick Marber fleshed out large portions of the story himself to create characters and scenes that weren’t in the book (or any book, for that matter).

Director Paul Greengrass’s dogfight sequences (the airplane kind, not the Michael Vick kind) were really well done, which makes it also a bit of a surprise that War Birds didn’t receive a Visual Effects nomination (maybe because they didn’t actually even look like special effects). A small but passionate following of fans seems to consider The War Birds to be the best movie of the year, so it’ll probably be acknowledged with a screenplay win. I suppose there's a chance that this could be the one major award that France, 1820 scores, but, I really think that for all the hullabaloo over that movie when it came out in July, people are, for the most part, over it by now.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Winner:

Living in a Dirt Box, Germany

Other Nominees:

For This Day, Sweden
Home Without You, Canada
Open Sesame, Egypt
The Tallest Nun

According to some, the title Living in a Dirt Box could have been translated more accurately from the German. The movie is supposed to be a canny satire about tabloid journalism; I’ll have to take that on faith, as I haven’t seen it. I bet against Germany and The Lives of Others last year and ended up regretting it, so, I’ll stick with the Krauts (I’m half German; I can say that. You can’t. That’s our word).

---------------------------------------------------------

And that’s it for what I like to think of as the “major” categories; as I do every year, I’ll cut-and-paste what I wrote in 2005 to explain how the rest of it works:
For the major categories, I'll give you my analysis; for the others [i.e., the "pee break" categories], I'll just tell you who Entertainment Weekly says is going to win (that's what everybody does anyway. Like you've got any clue about Best Documentary Short).
Last year, I believe I did some actual research into some of these categories, and, for the most part, it cost me. You only end up seeing something that will throw you off. I’ll stick with EW unless I really, really think I’ve got to strike out on my own, in which case I’ll let you know that’s what’s going on.

BEST ART DIRECTION: EW says Jeannine Oppewall, Gretchen Rau, Leslie E. Rollins, France, 1820. It’s got to win something, right? And these categories are harmless. Other than maybe After the Depression set decorator Nancy Haigh’s mom, who really cares if France, 1820 beats out an overall better movie for an award here?

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Wally Pfister, The War Birds. Although France, 1820 can’t be counted out here. This category is usually (not always, but usually) just an award for “most sweeping shots of the outdoors,” and to prove it, as I always do, here are Best Cinematography’s last several winners: Pan’s Labyrinth; Memoirs of a Geisha; The Aviator; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; Road to Perdition; Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; American Beauty; Saving Private Ryan; Titanic; The English Patient; Braveheart; Legends of the Fall.

BEST EDITING: Clare Douglas, Christopher Rouse, Richard Pearson, Underwater Dynamo. This one often matches up with Best Picture, but it might not this year, since Rita Wilson’s War editor Thelma Schoonmaker just won last year for The Departed, and since Schoonmaker, who has edited nearly all of Martin Scorsese’s movies, underwent a highly publicized rift with the director last year, the reasons for which have never been addressed by either party in public (and not to be unkind, but I think it’s safe to assume that it’s wasn’t a lover’s tiff, because, guh).

Scorsese’s France, 1820 was, in turn, edited by Steven Rosenblum, and industry scuttlebutt suggests that, in some circles, sides have been taken and lines have been drawn in the sand as far as Editorgate goes. I (and Entertainment Weekly) look for Schoonmaker and Rosenblum to split the vote and Underwater Dynamo to emerge as the victor.

And let’s face it, maybe it should; was there a slicker, more fun, more thrilling movie all year? You got your Nicolas Cage, you got your Ryan Reynolds, you got your Danny DeVito, you got your Zooey Deschanel running around in a bikini pretty much the whole time... good stuff. Any given year’s box office champ/loud fun blockbuster usually takes home some technical awards, but Underwater Dynamo was probably deserving of a Best Picture nomination in its own right (I mean, Good Lord, if there’s a spot being taken up by freaking Magnified...), and I like it to sneak in there and grab Best Editing also.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Philip Glass, Me and Your Cousin. Evidently it’s Philip Glass’s year; he’s lost thrice before. I didn’t particularly notice the score in Me and Your Cousin, which may not be the best sign; I’m not sure film scores are necessarily supposed to be like major league umpires in that respect (i.e., you never notice the really good ones). But I certainly can’t claim that Glass’s score was particularly offensive.

Really, though, every year that Carter Burwell doesn’t win this award is a year that I just get closer and closer to joining al-Qaeda.

( I mean, really. I saw Miller’s Crossing on TV just the other day. You know what won Best Score the year Miller’s Crossing came out? Neither do I! Neither does anyone, because whatever movie it was, it’s score couldn’t carry Miller’s Crossing’s score’s jockstrap!)

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: “Slow,” from Friar Bait, music and lyrics by Randy Newman. I happen to love Randy Newman’s stuff. I really liked Friar Bait, too; I thought it was Disney’s best hand-drawn animated offering in quite a while, and I was surprised it was left off of the Best Animated Feature list. I did think that the decision to promote Bait from Friar to Master at the end of the movie was unwise, and probably cost them a good chunk of box office from some of your more conservative moviegoing parents.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: Mark Stetson, Neil Corbould, Richard R. Hoover, Jon Thum, Underwater Dynamo. EW says Panic Island, but, I think a substantial voting block will toss Underwater Dynamo a bunch of Oscars for most -- if not all -- of the categories in which it’s nominated. In fact, I think the smart money might be on Underwater Dynamo to emerge as the most-honored movie of the night.

BEST SOUND EDITING: Christopher Boyes and George Watters II, Underwater Dynamo. Keep ‘em coming, boys!

BEST SOUND MIXING: Paul Massey, Christopher Boyes, Lee Orloff, Underwater Dynamo. EW agrees with me on the last two, by the way. Or, I should say, I agree with them.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN: Sharen Davis, France, 1820. Is there any chance that a movie called France, 1820 wouldn’t win a costume design Oscar?

BEST MAKEUP: David Marti and Montse Ribe, Underwater Dynamo. The makeup in France, 1820 was your pretty standard period stuff. Also: I'm not saying it should beat Dynamo here, and I hate to admit it, but, I sort of liked MonsterFace. I mean, Rob Schneider as a guy who inexplicably develops a condition that makes his face appear monstrous and gross to everyone else, only when he looks in the mirror he sees himself as normal? You’ve got to admit, MonsterFace mined all possible comedy out of that situation, and then some. And Norm Macdonald’s cameo was, as it is in all Rob Schneider movies, off-the-charts hilarious.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Up. Always bet on Pixar. It should be noted that Koala Spaceship was pretty cute, but, I think to take home the Oscar you’ve got to at least attempt to appeal to adults as well as kids, and they really didn’t.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT: The Bastard Potato. If you say so, Entertainment Weekly.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Anniversary at Birkenau. People have confused Anniversary at Birkenau with the also-nominated Birkenau: An Anniversary, but the two are similar in title only. Anniversary at Birkenau unearths the story of a Jewish couple who celebrate their first wedding anniversary at the Birkenau concentration camp in 1944 only to be executed the following day; Birkenau: An Anniversary cobbles together present-day interviews with Holocaust survivors and American soldiers done on or near the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.

I haven’t seen either movie, but EW says Anniversary at Birkenau, and all I can tell about it is that I did recently get out of a screening of a different movie at the same time as an Anniversary at Birkenau crowd, and I actually heard someone say, “I never would have thought the Holocaust could seem that sad.” So, it must get the job done.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT: Unexpectedly Quaint. A New York power couple quits the rat race and starts up a Vermont B&B. It would sound like a lame mid-season CBS sitcom starring Mark Feuerstein (at least Mark Feuerstein) if it weren’t a true story and, according to EW, this year’s Best Documentary Short front-runner.

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT: Lavate las Manos. Oh, busboys. You can’t not be funny.

And there it is, friends. Another Athletic Reporter> Oscar Picks column in the books. It really seems like the Oscars come sooner and sooner every year, doesn’t it?

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