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 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 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 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)



Rita Wilson's War

Other Nominees:

France, 1820
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.



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.



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.



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,


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!)



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 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.



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.



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.



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.



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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