"Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come." -- Herman Melville

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February 10, 2006

Last week, the Academy Awards nominations were announced and that means it's time for me to weigh in with my picks! 2005 was the year of liberal indies, so it's only appropriate that Jon Stewart is hosting this year's ceremonies. The best remark I've read about this year's awards was in IMDb's Studio Briefing, "Los Angeles Times entertainment writer Jim Bates observed today: 'All you need to know about how hard it will be to get people to watch the Oscars is that a nominated documentary about penguins has been watched by more moviegoers than any of the five best picture contenders.'" Gotta love the state of film in our country. The abysmal Charlie and the Chocolate Factory makes $206.5M in theatres. The five Best Picture nominees combined have made $188.2M (as of this writing). Honestly, though, I don't think I'm prepared to say the Oscar telecast is going to be a complete ratings bomb this year. Yes, there's no Lord of the Rings fanbase to call upon, but there are still a few significant crowds that will show up, e.g. I'm sure the gay audience for the Oscars is already high, but with Brokeback Mountain poised to win big, it's just going to get even bigger; not to mention that Jon Stewart's growing cabal will likely be tuning in as well. The numbers may be down from some of the past years, but I'm not ready to say that they'll be catastrophically low (after all, the Golden Globes did very well this year with the same batch of movies nominated). Besides, the kind of people who would be turned off from the telecast just because they hadn't heard of/seen any of these nominees aren't exactly the Oscar target audience anyway. Let's jump on in...

Academy Awards 2006

BEST PICTURE

--Brokeback Mountain - Diana Ossana, James Schamus
--Capote - Caroline Baron, William Vince, Michael Ohoven
--Crash - Paul Haggis, Cathy Schulman
--Good Night, and Good Luck. - Grant Heslov
--Munich - Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel

Will Win: Brokeback Mountain
Could Win: Crash
Should Win: Brokeback Mountain
Dark Horse: Capote
Comments: Shouldn't be much of a race this year--Brokeback's momentum has been carrying it to this award for a while now and I don't think anyone has a chance to stop it. Once Walk the Line was snubbed for a nomination (I thought Line was the only other movie that might have a chance to win), the award was handed to Brokeback. I'm perfectly happy with this: it's a movie of astonishing fragility and it's made with meticulous care for its actors and their characters. And since the Academy is not afraid to make a political statement, it seems destined. If the subject matter turns off some voters, though, look for Crash to slide in. Writer/Director Paul Haggis was nominated last year (as screenwriter for Best Picture Million Dollar Baby) and the SAG-award-winning all-star cast is staggering (and no doubt appealing to voters). For a dark horse, try Capote, which, before the nominations were announced, I assumed had no chance of even being nominated. But it's here (and likely pushed the more Academy-friendly Walk the Line out) and maybe that's a hint. However, I still think its inevitable big win will be in...

BEST ACTOR

--Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote
--Terrence Howard for Hustle & Flow
--Heath Ledger for Brokeback Mountain
--Joaquin Phoenix for Walk the Line
--David Strathairn for Good Night, and Good Luck.

Will Win: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Could Win: Heath Ledger
Should Win: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Dark Horse: Joaquin Phoenix
Comments: Another race that shouldn't be close, Philip Seymour Hoffman wins for his stunning transformation into idiosyncratic author/socialite Truman Capote. Hoffman's been doing wonderful character work for years and it's time the Academy finally recognized him. He's an actor's actor and should have no problem drawing votes. Watch out for Heath Ledger, though, who could win if there's a Brokeback Mountain landslide. His taciturn, tight-lipped performance as the stoic, but emotionally wrecked, Ennis gives Brokeback its heart. He's got plenty of time to get back to this category, though, and his performance is too low-key to appeal to voters easily swayed by more flashy "he really looks like X!" performances (see: Hoffman, Phoenix, Strathairn). I'm torn in my personal choice. I've loved Hoffman for a while (Boogie Nights, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Happiness (which he should have won a Supporting Actor Oscar for if the Academy weren't so scared of Todd Solandz)) and he does an amazing job channeling Capote, but to me the movie was superficial and his concentration on the physical details overshadowed the depth of his role. Howard, Ledger, and Phoenix all turned in memorable performances (especially Phoenix, who burned up the screen as Johnny Cash), but I'd rather see more work from them before annoiting them for one great role. Strathairn has been steady and reliable for years now (besides his many indies, he's great in Sneakers and L.A. Confidential), but I don't see Good Night as a big Oscar night winner and, after all, it's just another imitative performance. So I'll pick Hoffman with Phoenix right behind him and also as a dark horse to win the award if Walk the Line sweeps the two main acting awards starting with...

BEST ACTRESS

--Judi Dench for Mrs. Henderson Presents
--Felicity Huffman for Transamerica
--Keira Knightley for Pride & Prejudice
--Charlize Theron for North Country
--Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line

Will Win: Reese Witherspoon
Could Win: Felicity Huffman
Should Win: Felicity Huffman
Dark Horse: Keira Knightley
Comments: Going by the winners the past three years in this category, you'd think that whoever made the biggest physical commitment to their role would be the winner. That would lead us to Felicity Huffman for disappearing inside the role of pre-operative transsexual Bree. However, the big difference is that the other winners were in heavy, emotionally exhausting dramas--Huffman is in a darkly comedic road film (that's really not that original except for its main character). Toss in that Huffman is seemingly always overlooked in Hollywood and, despite her star being as bright as it's ever been thanks to Desperate Housewives, I don't see her winning this award. The competition is pretty light this year (feel free to insert your own rant about the lack of strong female leading roles in movies), but I think Reese Witherspoon walks away with the statue. Everyone loves Witherspoon's effervescent cheeriness and despite her Legally Blonde empire, she's also been doing real work for a while (how about her gritty turn in Freeway? Election? American Psycho?) My caveat is that she felt more like a supporting actress in Walk the Line. She was the main female lead, but Joaquin Phoenix (as Johnny Cash) was the sun and everyone else was just orbiting. She held her own next to Phoenix, though, and had a nice singing voice, so I think this is her first big prize. Elsewhere, she keeps getting nominated, but I can't see Judi Dench winning again after her gift Supporting Actress award for Shakespeare in Love. I don't think she has a chance. Charlize was great yet again in North Country and seems certain to pick up another Oscar eventually, but not so quickly after Monster. She's out. Keira Knightley is an interesting dark horse for actually making yet another Jane Austen adaptation watchable, but her perkiness, youth, and charm aren't going to help her against Witherspoon (who will win because of those same qualities).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

--George Clooney for Syriana
--Matt Dillon for Crash
--Paul Giamatti for Cinderella Man
--Jake Gyllenhaal for Brokeback Mountain
--William Hurt for A History of Violence

Will Win: Paul Giamatti
Could Win: George Clooney
Should Win: Paul Giamatti
Dark Horse: Matt Dillon
Comments: Not easy calling the supporting races (it usually isn't), so here we go. Clooney will probably be the favorite after winning the Golden Globe, but I don't think Syriana is a strong enough film, so it'll slip by this year. It's certainly plausible, though, that he'll be rewarded here to make up for Good Night, and Good Luck not winning anything. I think Clooney has a Best Actor performance in him waiting for a chance to come out and that should be the one he wins big for. Giamatti, on the other hand, is like Philip Seymour Hoffman: reliable, under-the-radar, and has put in a lot of good work. He got viciously snubbed last year for a nomination in Best Actor for Sideways and I think the Academy fixes that here. Gyllenhaal has a chance, but only if the Brokeback tidal wave wipes everyone else out and that seems unlikely (this looks like one of those Oscar years where there's no heavy favorite, so every big movie wins something). William Hurt has won before and I think the nomination is the award since he only appears at the very end of Violence. Dillon is the sleeper here. A few scenarios where he could win: Crash is a surprise winner of the night and Dillon gets swept along; Crash needs to win something and voters deems this a better choice than Director (no chance) or Screenplay (where there's tough competition). He deserves credit for yet another rejuvenation of his long career and winning an Oscar for his first nomination would be the capper.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

--Amy Adams for Junebug
--Catherine Keener for Capote
--Frances McDormand for North Country
--Rachel Weisz for The Constant Gardener
--Michelle Williams for Brokeback Mountain

Will Win: Amy Adams
Could Win: Rachel Weisz
Should Win: Amy Adams
Dark Horse: Catherine Keener
Comments: Going with my heart instead of my head again, I'll say that Amy Adams wins here, but if Clooney and Weisz walk off victorious, know that my head will be telling me, "I told you so." Adams was the critical darling of summer film festivals for her spirited performance as Ashley in Junebug and the supporting awards are perfect for rewarding lesser-known actors. I think she surprises and wins here. Watch out for Weisz, though, who is coming off a Golden Globe and would represent Gardener's big win for the night. Like Clooney, though, I think she's got a Best Actress win in her and it's just a matter of finding the right role. She's good in Gardener, but doesn't have a very substantial role (it surprised me how much Ralph Fiennes was tossed aside in award season despite being the center of the film). Frances McDormand has her Oscar for Fargo, so I think she's out. Michelle Williams, so the broken record says, could win if Brokeback is unstoppable, but what voters are paying attention to the Brokeback women? Catherine Keener is my dark horse, but I thought she was better in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, so this probably isn't her year.

BEST DIRECTOR

--George Clooney for Good Night, and Good Luck.
--Paul Haggis for Crash
--Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain
--Bennett Miller for Capote
--Steven Spielberg for Munich

Will Win: Ang Lee
Could Win: No one else
Should Win: Ang Lee
Dark Horse: Paul Haggis
Comments: Easy one. Ang Lee wins for building a formidable body of work over the last 15 years and for having the courage to bring Brokeback to the big screen without turning it into melodrama or caricature. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllerhaal probably won't win, but Lee will for drawing their best performances out of them. I don't know what Miller's doing in this category (probably as a credit for Hoffman's performance) and Spielberg is too easy--he's won twice before and for much more high-profile work. Clooney may get his trophy for supporting actor, but won't win here (though watch out if he releases a Clint Eastwood-esque actor/director dramatic showcase at some point). That leaves Haggis, who might have a chance if Crash is destined to win big or if the Academy decides to split the vote and give Haggis Director and Brokeback Picture. But since I don't see either happening, he's a dark horse.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

--Crash - Paul Haggis, Robert Moresco
--Good Night, and Good Luck. - George Clooney, Grant Heslov
--Match Point - Woody Allen
--The Squid and the Whale - Noah Baumbach
--Syriana - Stephen Gaghan

Will Win: Crash
Could Win: Match Point
Should Win: The Squid and the Whale
Dark Horse: The Squid and the Whale
Comments: Let's work backwards here. Syriana certainly has a twisty, convoluted screenplay, but it's much inferior to Gaghan's earlier Oscar-winning screenplay for Traffic, so he's out. I loved Squid and its masterful interplay of the comedy and drama of a divorcing family. However, with no other nominations, it's slipped off the radar and will likewise be ignored by voters. Good Night had gotten great reviews, but don't forget that much of the dialogue is taken from Edward R. Murrow's actual broadcasts, so it loses points there. (Complete tangent here, but did you realize that Grant Heslov is the guy who played Faisil, one of the good-guy secret agents in True Lies?? I love him in that movie and had no idea it was the same person--he's moving on up, for sure). You can't rule out Woody Allen, who may win as acknowledgment of his first good movie in ages, but voters may want to see more to make sure his comeback isn't a mirage. That leaves Crash, which is riding a renewed wave of critical acclaim after its Screen Actors Guild victory. Crash seems certain to win one of its big awards and if the Academy decides to reward Paul Haggis (who was part of last year's big winner Million Dollar Baby), this will be the place to do it (as opposed to Director which Ang Lee has in a stranglehold).

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

--Brokeback Mountain - Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana
--Capote - Dan Futterman
--The Constant Gardener - Jeffrey Caine
--A History of Violence - Josh Olson
--Munich - Tony Kushner, Eric Roth

Will Win: Brokeback Mountain
Could Win: Capote
Should Win: Brokeback Mountain
Dark Horse: Munich
Comments: Interesting that the first thing you heard about Brokeback was the strength of its performances, but the awards I see it winning are Picture, Director, and Screenplay. Brokeback wins for taking a short story by E. Annie Proulx and turning into a sweeping, universal canvas of love and regret. As much as I love Dan Futterman (I still hold a candle for Urbania, which a whole six of us saw in theatres), Capote is about the performances, not the script, so I don't think he wins, but could be a close second since Capote appealed enough to voters to receive its Best Picture nod. I think Violence gets shut out of the awards and Gardener's best shot is Rachel Weisz, so we're left with Munich which has Tony Kushner's rising star behind it, so it has a chance. Never discount a Spielberg movie on awards night.

OTHER AWARDS

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

--La Bestia nel cuore - Italy
--Joyeux Noel - France
--Paradise Now - Palestine
--Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage - Germany
--Tsotsi - South Africa

--Will Win: Paradise Now
--Comments: You know what? I got nothing here. Haven't seen any of these movies. Paradise played here, but I missed it, and the others haven't ventured into my local Ritz yet. I'll pick Paradise because political controversy seems to be the theme of this year's Oscars and it sure fits that bill.

BEST ANIMATED FILM

--Corpse Bride - Tim Burton, Mike Johnson
--Howl's Moving Castle - Hayao Miyazaki
--Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit - Nick Park, Steve Box

--Will Win: Wallace & Gromit
--Could Win: Corpse Bride
--Should Win: Wallace & Gromit
--Comments: This one's frustrated me. My personal choice is easy. Wallace & Gromit was one of the funniest, most imaginative films of the year (and earned a spot on my 2005 Top Ten list) and Nick Park deserves all the awards we can give him. As much as I'd like to hope that voters will feel the same way and make Wallace a winner in a landslide, I worry about Bride for one reason: Tim Burton. While Burton hasn't had his mojo working for years now (Christ, do we really have to go all the way back to Batman in 1989 (!!)--though some will go to 1994 for Ed Wood), his name still carries plenty of weight, so he may win over the more Brit-friendly Wallace. I'll be incredibly upset if the underwhelming Bride beats Wallace, though, so let's just hope it doesn't come to that.

BEST DOCUMENTARY, FEATURES

--Darwin's Nightmare - Hubert Sauper
--Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room - Alex Gibney, Jason Kliot
--March of the Penguins - Luc Jacquet, Yves Darondeau
--Murderball - Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
--Street Fight - Marshall Curry

--Will Win: March of the Penguins
--Could Win: Murderball
--Should Win: March of the Penguins
--Dark Horse: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
--Comments: Since I've actually seen three of these nominees, let's take a stab at this prediction while we're at it. I haven't seen Nightmare or Fight and I think one of the high-profile docs will win, so I'll discount those. I'm curious what the voters will make of Penguins. Will they take it seriously and get absorbed by the gorgeous photography and captivating tale (as I did)? Or will they see it as "that movie about penguins that made a lot of money?" The Documentary category has been in shambles for years now (such as the snub to Grizzly Man, which would have been my personal favorite had it been nominated) with no sign of recovery in sight, so it's hard to say. If Penguins doesn't pull it off, then perhaps there's room for Murderball, which debuted to fantastic critical acclaim but bombed atrociously at the box office. It deserved better, so if the voters give it the chance audiences didn't, it could be a winner. Otherwise, let's keep the liberal politics of this year's broadcast going with Enron as a sleeper.