As I do every year, I’m offering my predictions on how the Oscars will play out by looking at the nominations today and picking my favorites now, and then checking in the day before the actual show and making any modifications, if necessary. Historically speaking — and we’re talking all the way back to 1991, here — I correctly pick five of the six top categories (being Best Picture, Best Director, and the acting categories). I usually screw up one of the supporting actor categories. Last year I went four for six, missing Best Director and Best Actor. But no one got those right last year, so I don’t feel so bad.
Here we go:
Best Picture — Nominees: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; Lost in Translation; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; Mystic River; Seabiscuit
The big news here is who isn’t here: Cold Mountain, which many Oscar observers had flogged as a big contender. So I guess the Golden Globes near-shutout wasn’t just a fluke. First out is Seabiscuit — nice that it’s nominated but it’s the ritual Best Picture Nominee Whose Director Wasn’t Nominated, and you pretty much can’t win Best Picture if your director isn’t even nominated. Next out: Master and Commander — might have been a strong contender some other year and if it had done better at the box office to this point (It’s done $85 million in domestic business, which isn’t bad as long as you don’t consider it cost $150 million to make). Fact is there’s a pretty good correlation between box office and Best Picture, and Master is not masterful in this case. The good news here for the movie is that this nomination will pad its coffers some.
Lost in Translation is out next — great character study and a beautiful little film, but it’s just not a year for beautiful little films. Also, it’s nominally a comedy, which makes its job tougher. Mystic River has a great pedigree, but I believe it’s more of a critical fave than a true fave — the sort of film people respect rather than actually like. This leaves Return of the King, which has everything going for it: Massive critical and commercial success, a solid run at the earlier and more minor awards, and the overall perception that after three generally wonderful films, the Lord of the Rings series is owed some official recognition. People make noise that fantasy films have never won a Best Picture, but look, people. This ain’t Willow. It’s going to win.
Winner: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Best Director — Nominees: Fernando Mirelles, City of God; Peter Jackson, The Return of the King; Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation; Peter Weir, Master and Commander; Clint Eastwood, Mystic River
Bye-bye Mirelles; nice you got nominated in what seems to be becoming the annual foreign director gimmee slot, but your picture wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. Enjoy the parties. Sofia Coppola is next out the door, but don’t feel sorry for her, as she’s very likely to get a screenwriting Oscar; call it the Orson Welles Memorial Screenwriting Oscar for Directors the Academy Feels It Owes Something To (other winners of the Welles: Jane Campion, Quentin Tarantino). Poor Peter Weir is always the bridesmaid, never the bride, and has the bad luck to direct a technically impressive shoot in a year when someone else did one even more technically impressive. Eastwood has a good chance — why wouldn’t he? — but he’s already got one directing Oscar, so it doesn’t feel as if he’s owed.
Jackson, on the other hand, is owed, big time. The Lord of the Rings is arguably the single most complex directing assignment any director has ever undertaken: filming three films at one time and managing up to 20,000 people on the cast and crew while still getting some really good performances out his actors (none of whom are nominated this year, which is a bit of a shame). The fact that each film is excellent counts in his favor as well; no matter how you slice it, it’s the best film trilogy ever, and that’s worth a statuette.
Winner: Peter Jackson
Best Actor — Nominees: Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl; Ben Kingsley: House of Sand and Fog; Jude Law, Cold Mountain; Bill Murray, Lost in Translation; Sean Penn, Mystic River
Bye-bye, Jude and Ben. Cold Mountain’s awards floppiness is going to rub off here, and anyway, there are other more compelling performances to look at. Kingsley’s great, but he should have gotten the award a couple of years ago for Sexy Beast, and House, while doing okay for an art film, hasn’t gotten much traction outside a couple of the performances. Awesome that Johnny Depp got a nomination for Pirates; he totally deserves it. But let me suggest that actually giving it to him might be an “arrrgh” too far for the Academy.
Leaving: Sean Penn and Bill Murray. The smart money’s on Penn, who is indeed great in Mystic River. But I think there’s an excellent chance that Murray might sneak by with this one. Reasons: Translation is still relatively early in its release cycle, it’s otherwise doing very well in awards, it’s something of an acting rehabilitation for Murray (who is after all best known for fluff like Stripes, Ghostbusters and Caddyshack), and besides, Murray showed up to pick up his Golden Globe and Penn didn’t. Penn is undoubtedly the better actor of the two, but as of this moment I think Murray has a (very slim) lead. This is definitely one where I’ll want to check in again before the actual ceremony.
Winner: Bill Murray
Best Actress — Nominees: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider; Diane Keaton, Something’s Gotta Give; Samantha Morton, In America; Charlize Theron, Monster; Naomi Watts, 21 Grams.
Good on the Academy for nominating Castle-Hughes in the criminally little-seen Whale Rider, and for having the guts to nominate a young teenager in a leading acting category. She won’t win, but it hardly matters. Samantha Morton gets to keep working, which is nice for her (and nice for us, she’s a fine actress). Naomi Watts is where Nicole Kidman was a few years ago — primed for Oscar glory but not there yet.
So we have Keaton and Theron left. Keaton has a pretty good chance here — she’s won for a comedy performance before (Annie Hall), which makes another win for a role in the genre not impossible. Also, of course, she’s a well-regarded vet of the industry and she’s given a performance in which she’s entirely comfortable being her age (as evidenced by her nude scene), which must be heartening for the generally older Academy population. But Theron does everything you’re supposed to do to win an Best Actress Oscar, which includes obscuring the fact you’re a totally hot young lady, wallowing in a role that is a massive change of pace, and (let’s not forget) actually doing more than a decent acting job while doing it. The fact that the chick who was eye candy in The Italian Job convincingly transformed herself into Aileen Wournos, serial killer, is worth noting. I think she’ll get it, though at this point I wouldn’t count out Keaton.
Winner: Charlize Theron
Best Supporting Actor — Nominees: Alec Baldwin, The Cooler; Benico Del Toro, 21 Grams; Djimon Hounsou, In America; Tim Robbins, Mystic River; Ken Watanabe, The Last Samauri
Interesting selections here. First out: Hounsou. Glad he’s getting recognition, though — he’s been really good in everything from Amistad on. Ken Watanabe is out at the same time; neither he nor Hounsou has any constituency in the Academy. Benicio Del Toro has a good chance, but he did already win a Supporting Actor Oscar (for Traffic), so it’s not as if he needs another one.
I think it’s a toss-up between Baldwin and Robbins, both of whom offer good reasons to pick them: For Baldwin, it’s a recognition that while he’s flamed out as a leading man, he does have the acting chops and he’s an excellent presence (my all-time favorite thing he’s done is his brief but rockin’ turn in Glengarry Glen Ross). Robbins is a jack-of-all-trades (he’s been nominated before in the directing category) and of course, he was also very good in a difficult role. I’m leaning very slightly towards Robbins at the moment, but it’s a lean so slight that you’ll barely see it. I’ll revisit this one again. Also — if Robbins gets the Oscar in this category, I think you can kiss Penn’s Best Actor Oscar goodbye; I suspect voters may think they’ve already awarded Mystic River enough hardware.
Winner: Tim Robbins
Best Supporting Actress — Nominees: Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog; Patricia Clarkson, Pieces of April; Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River; Holly Hunter, Thirteen; Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain
More interesting picks in a notoriously difficult category. Harden out first; she’s already won a supporting Oscar recently (for Pollack), so there’s no need for two. Hunter out next, since not all that many people have seen Thirteen, and the focus is so much on the kids in the film that Hunter gets washed out. Aghdashloo is a good dark horse for this category, but I don’t think this is a year for dark horses.
In a normal year I think Clarkson would have a good chance: She’s good in April and she also turned in another fine performance in The Station Agent, which is another film most people haven’t seen, but heard good things about. And she’s been a patient trooper of an actor for years (I first saw her in The Untouchables, as Kevin Costner’s wife). But, see, the thing is, there’s Renee Zellweger. She’s been nominated for Oscars twice, both in the leading category, and I believe that being nominated twice in the leading category can be redeemed for an actual win in the supporting category. And I think it will.
Winner: Renee Zellweger
* It will be interesting to see if the Best Animated Feature Oscar goes to Finding Nemo or The Triplets of Belleville. I’m guessing Nemo but given Spirited Away’s win last year Belleville is not outside the realm of thought — and it would mean that a category everyone expected to be a rubber stamp for Disney would actually be one of the most adventurous categories in the pile (Disney, by the way, has never won one of these for an in-house film — its Brother Bear is nominated this year but has no chance).
* Screenwriting: I expect the Original Screenplay award to go to Sofia Coppola (she’s helped by the fact the category is relatively weak), but I have no idea where the Adapted Screenplay will go. I’d like Return of the King to pick it up, as recognition for the screenwriting team for all three films, but it’s not actually the best screenplay of the three films (Fellowship is), and the other nominees (City of God, American Splendor, Mystic River and Seabiscuit) are all very good. Put a gun to my head and I’ll tell you I think American Splendor might get it. But I’m so not confident on this category.
* Documentary: There’s an actual battle here, between Capturing the Friedmans and Fog of War. Both are appropriately downers (the former about child molesters, the latter about Robert McNamara). My guess is that Fog will pull it out; it’s that whole Vietnam thing.
* In the Best Song category, everyone should vote for “Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” from A Mighty Wind. As there’s no Disney film song here, I have no idea who will win, which is why I make a suggestion here, not a prediction. As for Best Score, it think it’s Danny Elfman’s year (He’s nominated for Big Fish) — Howard Shore already won for Fellowship, and Return of the King’s score is basically the same.
Those are my thoughts. Comments?