At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it's getting harder for me to feign interest in the Academy Awards every year. The Oscars feel increasingly irrelevant to me. Every awards show and its cousin are being televised and new ones are invented every year. Sundance has played out and buzz about the movies we will theoretically be lauding this time next year has already started.
Particularly aggravating is the studio practice of releasing Oscar fodder in two theaters on December 31 so that they will qualify. When half the films on reviewers' "best of" lists and on the Academy nominee roster are titles the Average American has had no opportunity to see, the Average American can be forgiven for losing interest in the outcome.
I used to get righteously indignant when films I loved were neglected by the Academy, but vote Democrat long enough and you learn to separate the concepts of "winning" and "quality". Besides, this is the organization that awarded Kramer vs Kramer over Apocalypse Now; and, starting a 20-year-old tradition which may finally play itself out this year, Ordinary People over Raging Bull. It's enough to make you nervous when something you do like wins.
Now that I've gotten that all off my chest, I confess I am not immune from the urge to handicap the race. An Academy Award win accurately reflects greatness about as accurately as a Presidential win reflects competence. However, there is something interesting about what the nominees and eventual winners say about culture and the politics of artistry. Kramer vs Kramer is so vastly inferior a film to Apocalypse Now it might as well be a different art form. But a look at that win tells you an awful lot about where America's head was at in 1979; a year in which, interestingly enough, my own parents divorced, and people were still crossing the street to avoid talking to Vietnam vets.
The Academy has covered all its bases in the nominees for Best Actor this year. You have the powerful role in a small indie film nominee — Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson. You have the amazing actor channeling a significant historical figure nominee — Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. You have the popular actor in the triumphing over extreme adversity whilst tugging upon the heartstrings like a jazz bass nominee — Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness. You have the Leonardo DiCaprio in a Leonardo DiCaprio role nominee — Leonardo Dicaprio in The Departed, or wait, no, it's for Blood Diamond. In that case, it's the Leonardo DiCaprio in a funny accent role, otherwise known as the Meryl Streep nomination. Finally, you have the nomination for the old guy who's probably going to die soon so they better hurry up and do something so history doesn't remember them as the people who never gave a real award to legend (otherwise known as the Henry Fonda Award) — Peter O'Toole in Venus.
Who Should Win: Either Ryan Gosling or Forest Whitaker would not be embarrassing choices. Whitaker has the edge for finding something human in one of history's most fearsome Evil Doers, a feat which makes his character that much more terrifying. Actually giving the award to Peter O'Toole, as opposed to just nominating him for it, would only emphasize how ludicrous it is that he's never received anything but an honorary Oscar. Not only is Blood Diamond not Leonardo DiCaprio's best role, it's not even his best role this year. And why did he get nominated instead of Djimon Hounsou? As for Will Smith, I don't even know what to say. If the story had been about a single mom instead of a single dad, it would have been right at home on Lifetime. On the other hand, it's the kind of story that Hollywood loves, the pull 'em up by your bootstraps triumph over adversity as God is my witness I will never go hungry again tale.
Who Else Should Have Been Nominated: Clive Owen in Children of Men, a film and a performance that were criminally overlooked in my opinion. Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction. Matt Damon in either The Good Shepherd or The Departed. Christian Bale in The Prestige. Edward Norton in The Illusionist.
Who Will Win: I can't guess. For all its pretense, Hollywood is an oddly conservative place. I could see Whitaker and Smith somehow splitting the affirmative action voting bloc. This would be a grave disservice to Whitaker, but it might create an opening for either a Gosling dark horse win or an O'Toole AARP win. Most people aren't even sure what DiCaprio has been nominated for. This isn't his first time to the dance and it's clearly not going to be his last. I think his chances are pretty low.
It's an interesting group of women in the Best Actress category this year, not quite as simple to categorize as the male nominees. Except for Penelope Cruz, every one of them has been nominated for Academy Awards previously. Cruz has struggled to find her niche in American films, and most of her performances in them have been underwhelming. I always had a sense of some greater talent struggling to burst forth from her, which is why it's gratifying to see her nominated for Volver. That the film is in her native language and was directed by Pedro Almodóvar is clearly not a coincidence.
Who Should Win: Meryl Streep's nomination for The Devil Wears Prada is pretty much a lark, much as the role itself was. Otherwise, any of the nominees would be acceptable. It would be nice if Cruz won if only to encourage her to do more roles like Volver, but I don't think that win is likely. I'm not sure enough people saw Little Children to give Winslet much of a shot. Judi Dench has been nominated for playing a bitch on wheels, which is awesome for her, but a bit of a stretch for the Academy who like their Judi Dench to be charming and non-threatening.
Who Else Should Have Been Nominated: I have to tell you, I can't think of any really great female roles this year that got passed over. There were other fine performances, like Natalie Portman's in V for Vendetta or Gretchen Mol's in The Notorious Bettie Page, but was anyone unjustly overlooked? Meh. Not really.
Who Will Win: I'm trying very hard not to fall into knee jerk Helen Mirren resentment caused by Oscar buzz overload, especially since I loved The Queen and I loved Helen Mirren in it. She's won almost every single award possible this year, including an Emmy which she got for playing the other Queen Liz. The prize is hers for the taking, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Now here's the Djimon Hounsou nomination, in the Best Supporting Actor category. I shouldn't get started on the political vicissitudes which nominate a main character for Supporting Actor and a supporting character for Best Actor. I'll just say straight up that I would NEVER imply that it was because of either the race or the box office clout of the respective nominees. The most puzzling nomination in this category is Mark Wahlberg for The Departed. It's not that Wahlberg wasn't fine in The Departed, but was he better than Alec Baldwin or Martin Sheen in The Departed? Was he better than Jack Nicholson? It's a puzzlement. Clearly Wahlberg's publicist needs a raise.
Who Should Win: I admit, I'm rooting for Eddie Murphy. His nomination is such a welcome surprise for those of us who have watched the comic genius who gave us Raw descend into wretched family friendly fart humor. He takes a stock "cautionary tale" role and infuses it with heart, soul, and pathos.
Who Else Should Have Been Nominated: I'd say many performances were more memorable than Wahlberg in The Departed. Michael Caine for either Children of Men or The Prestige, but particularly for Children of Men. Paul Giamatti or Rufus Sewell in The Illusionist. Ben Affleck in Hollywoodland. Alec Baldwin for anything he was in. And of course the trippiest, most mind-blowing best supporting actor role of the year was Robert Downey Jr as a character called "James Barris", but otherwise known as "himself before rehab", in A Scanner Darkly. I'm hoping one of these days the Academy will give Downey Jr an award just for still being here. They missed an opportunity with this one.
Who Will Win: It's possible that Alan Arkin will get the nod for Little Miss Sunshine, but I'm betting on Eddie. There's no certainty that he will ever pull off this kind of powerhouse dramatic role again (can you say Norbit?) so I can't see the Academy passing up the opportunity to give him this pat on the back.
In a complete reversal from the Best Actress category, every nominee for Best Supporting Actress is a newcomer except Cate Blanchett. There's Abigail Breslin, the winsome cutie patootie from Little Miss Sunshine, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi, both from Babel, and, of course Jennifer Hudson from Dreamgirls. Hudson may be the only thing the show American Idol will ever have to be proud of. Hudson should win, Hudson will win and except possibly Princess Diana as herself in The Queen, I can't think of any obvious performances the Academy may have missed in this category.
Like Democrats before an election day, cineaestes throughout the world are lighting candles and muttering to themselves about this year's Best Director category. This will be the year Scorsese wins, they chant. It will! It will! It's hard to imagine that he wouldn't win this year. Clint Eastwood got his (mulitple) awards already, and no one has seen Letters From Iwo Jima anyway. (Note to studios... I told you to stop dumping these pictures in theaters at the last minute every year. It aggravates people.)
Arguments could be made that Paul Greengrass deserves it more for United 93 but, again, how many people actually gutted it out and watched the movie? My work stocking library shelves has taught me that right, wrong, or in denial, the American people are not watching or reading 9/11 stories. (Out of curiosity, I checked our catalog. Right now, 12 people are waiting to see United 93. 240 are waiting for Little Miss Sunshine.) You can ponder whether or not "it's time" for them to do so, but they ain't. Not to diminish a great accomplishment, but that is what Paul Greengrass is fighting, and I can't see him overcoming it. What people love about The Queen is Helen Mirren. Most would be surprised to learn that some dude named Stephen Frears had anything to do with it.
The problem, of course, is that The Departed, as fine as it is, is no Goodfellas. Do you remember what film/director won instead of Goodfellas? The Academy is so often on record as having preferred cinematic piffle over greatness but nowhere is that shame more deserved than in the awarding of Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas. The Academy can finally make up for their deficiencies in honoring Scorsese this year without too much guilt. The Departed was one of the best films of the year. The Academy may never fully erase the shame of honoring Kevin Costner instead of Martin Scorsese that year, but sucking it up and giving Marty the award this year is a start.
Best Picture is a crapshoot. Traditionally the film that received the Best Director award always won the Best Picture award, but in recent years the Academy has begun splitting the two. Give Spielberg the best director prize and Shakespeare in Love the best picture and everyone goes home happy. I'm surprised, like everyone, that Dreamgirls was not nominated for Best Picture. If it had been, I would pick it as the most likely winner. It's the feel good choice. Little Miss Sunshine is another one of those feel good flicks, like Shakespeare in Love, that could edge out The Departed. Neither Babel nor Letters From Iwo Jima feel like they're picking up that Oscar buzz momentum, the way Crash did last year, but they're both powerful message films, and Hollywood does love those. Hollywood's Helen Mirren love, and their lingering affection for Princess Di could push The Queen ahead. Ultimately, it all depends on the Academy's mood.
Other Films That Should Have Been Nominated: Have I mentioned Children of Men enough? It's on every critic's "best" list. It has some insanely high Metacritic rating like 98. I believe that Alfonso Curaron is the next Spielberg. He does everything well. If he'd been nominated, he's the only director that could reasonably give Marty a run for his money this year. Either of the magician films, The Illusionist or The Prestige, could also have fit nicely here, as well as Stranger Than Fiction.
For someone who claims disinterest in the Academy Awards, clearly I have too many opinions about the outcome. I'm not a sports fan, but I think it's similar to people's facination with the Super Bowl. It's not really a contest between the best two teams in the country, and winning is no predictor of quality or future success, but damned if we don't all show up every year.