There was a time when I was much more up on my movie-watching than I am this year. Still, the Oscars are quickly approaching and I have been a fan of the Academy's highest honor for something like twenty-five years. Holy smokes.
Anyway, today is Oscar Nomination Day and I typically take this time to mull over the contenders, acknowledge the snubs, and perhaps offer up some predictions. So let's get to it.
Penelope Cruz - Nine
Vera Farmiga - Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal - Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick - Up in the Air
Mo'Nique - Precious
This is pretty simple, really, because there's no way anyone but Mo'Nique is taking this home. Farmiga and Kendrick are completely fabulous in their roles, but it would be hard for me to argue the merits of one over the other. Maggie Gyllenhaal will certainly get her due in time, but while Crazy Heart is the one film in this category I've yet to see (perhaps today), I'm confident saying this year will not be hers. And Penelope Cruz is loved by the Academy so much that her adequate performance in an uneven and poorly structured film gets a nomination over the likes of, say, Julianne Moore in A Single Man. Mo'Nique, on the other hand, gives a stark, raw, gritty performance in a film that tiptoes along the line between gut-wrenching power and emotional manipulation. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it's precisely Mo'Nique's fully realized menace and veiled desperation that keep the film on the right side of that line.
Matt Damon - Invictus
Woody Harrelson - The Messenger
Christopher Plummer - The Last Station
Stanley Tucci - The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz - Inglourious Basterds
God love Matt Damon, but the inclusion of Invictus in any of these awards programs feels like filler, as if suddenly the male acting categories are afflicted with the same lack of viable candidates that have been plaguing the female categories for years. The good news is now movie marketers around the world are one step closer to being able to tout "Academy Award Winner Matt Damon" as appearing in their film without having to sidestep the white elephantine caveat that Damon's previous win was for Original Screenplay. Closer, of course, but not quite there, because Damon is not winning. Neither is Woody Harrelson -- a wild card the Academy is fond of nominating but who will have to completely blow a role out of the water in a year with weaker contenders order to win -- or Stanley Tucci -- an amazing actor who might have half a chance if nominated for Julie & Julia, in which he was delightful, but, as the villainous child-killer in the mildly-received The Lovely Bones, will likely be overlooked. Christopher Plummer could be a surprise, since, unlike the Supporting Actress category, which likes to recognize ingenues, the Supporting Actor likes to recognize lifetime achievers. But my money's on Christoph Waltz, easily the most dynamic performance in a movie that was nothing if not dynamic, who has been raking in statues left and right.
Sandra Bullock - The Blind Side
Helen Mirren - The Last Station
Carey Mulligan - An Education
Gabourey Sidibe - Precious
Meryl Streep - Julie & Julia
I'll get to The Blind Side in a bit, but with regard to just Sandra Bullock's work in the film, I can get behind the assertions that it's the best of her career. She is transformed and so strong in this she might have her own gravitational pull. There's been talk that this might be her "Erin Brockovich moment", and I can't really argue. Like Julia Roberts in that role, Sandra Bullock is a well-loved actress with enormous romantic comedy chops and popularity who has stepped into a true-life story and the shoes of a woman as bold, brassy and fearless as she is beautiful, but with a protective, nurturing instinct that saves her from being "too aggressive" and therefore unlikable in the still-narrow view Hollywood has of women. Given Bullock has already taken home the Screen Actors Guild award for this role, and considering the fact that actors are the largest voting block of the Academy, I'm going against the grain and saying Bullock is the favorite to win over Meryl Streep's positively perfect portrayal of Julia Child. Two weeks ago I never would've said that, but that's the nature of this business. Helen Mirren is always strong, but up against this year's powerhouse battle of Streep vs. Bullock, her chances are very slim indeed. Sidibe was a breakout star in a breakout movie, but in my opinion was overshadowed by her supporting actress, Mo'Nique, and will probably have to settle for the honor of being nominated. Same goes for Carey Mulligan, whose role and movie were not nearly as breakout, leaving her a much steeper hill to climb if she wants to take home the gold, which is why she won't.
Jeff Bridges - Crazy Heart
George Clooney - Up in the Air
Colin Firth - A Single Man
Morgan Freeman - Invictus
Jeremy Renner - The Hurt Locker
Five strong performances here, or four strong performances and a default nod to Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela because it's Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela. Whichever. Colin Firth gets his first nod for what is, by all accounts, a quiet and nuanced work. While he is a sentimental favorite of mine and a well-loved actor, however, he probably doesn't have much of a chance here. The front-runners in this race are Jeff Bridges and George Clooney, with the edge going to Bridges since Clooney's character is a little too polished and perhaps a little too Clooney. Look out for dark horse Jeremy Renner, though, who is getting a lot of late buzz for his tense and electric turn in The Hurt Locker now that it's out on DVD. He could pull an Adrien Brody and beat out the better-known favorites.
James Cameron - Avatar
Kathryn Bigelow - The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino - Inglourious Basterds
Lee Daniels - Precious
Jason Reitman - Up in the Air
I'm just going to go ahead and put all my eggs behind Kathryn Bigelow, because it's well past time for a woman to walk away with this award and Bigelow's movie has the strength and support to push her into the winner's circle. My personal favorite this year, though, was Inglourious Basterds, and a richly deserved Oscar going to Tarantino this year won't upset me at all. Lee Daniels and Jason Reitman both produced strong work, but neither of their movies have enough support in my opinion to secure a win for the director. That leaves Cameron's Avatar, and frankly I'm ready for some backlash in that department. Given the monstrosity of the Best Picture race this year, which I will address shortly, Avatar might just sneak through with a win, but I don't think Cameron gets the top prize as director. It might be wishful thinking, but I'm standing by that statement.
The Blind Side
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
Up in the Air
Okay, so we all know this is a mess. Ten nominees is just unmanageable, truly. Where do I start? First and foremost, I'm confused as to how Up can land a Best Picture AND a Best Animated Feature nomination, because in years past the Academy has insisted on one or the other. I understand this year they wanted to open up the Best Picture nominees, but this is just ridiculous. It probably has the best chance outside the top 5 films, but I don't see it winning here when the Academy can award it as an Animated Feature. District 9, A Serious Man, and An Education hardly have widespread support, as evidenced by their overall lacking in other nominations (District 9 leads with four, in Screenplay, Editing and Visual Effects in addition to Picture, while An Education and A Serious Man have only Screenplay plus An Education's one acting nod.), which makes it hard to really stand by either film as a legitimate Best Picture hopeful. And The Blind Side, really?? Look, I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. Sandra Bullock was fabulous and could very well win an Oscar because of it. But this is not a Best Picture-caliber film, and everyone knows it. Aside from Bullock's nomination, it has exactly zero others to back up a Best Picture run and it doesn't deserve any. The writing is cliche at times and schmaltzy at others, the direction is heavy-handed, and the whole movie belongs to Sandra Bullock because the supporting ensemble is not strong at all. It's an enjoyable movie, without a doubt. I laughed and I cried and I had a great night out, but it's very simply not the best. Far from it.
So that leaves five. The five who would be here if this category were still limited to five nominees. Not knowing what would happen with the pool of ten nominees, I initially thought crazy amounts of vote-splitting could open the door for an Avatar victory, but given the split of nominations between five strong and five questionable, I no longer think it's all that likely. Avatar is a huge blockbuster, clearly, and it has a chance to win, but I don't think it's a runaway. Inglourious Basterds is getting a lot of renewed praise of late, as is The Hurt Locker. Meanwhile, the buzz on Up in the Air and Precious has largely waned, focusing almost exclusively on the performances instead of the films at large. So my thinking is that if the Academy goes the way of most of the critics' prizes and recognized Bigelow's directing, they'll recognize the film as well. If they don't and the rising love for Tarantino's Basterds continues, it takes home the gold. If neither of those things happen, then Avatar has taken over the world and we can all order our virtual reality headsets through Amazon in the coming weeks.
So those are my thoughts on the major races. Feel free to leave me yours in the comments. You can also view a full list of the 82nd Annual Academy Award Nominees here.