Hollywood giveth and Hollywood taketh away. 2007 was a good year for film and arguably an even better one for Oscar picks. Yes, a few gems were overlooked--Zodiac and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford come to mind--and the foreign film nominations were a scandal; but overall, the Academy did a better-than-usual job of separating the wheat from the chaff. (The ceremony’s broadcast ratings were another matter.)

This year, there will be a whole lot of chaff up on stage. 2008 wasn’t a particularly strong cinematic year, but the Academy aggravated matters by overlooking many of the high points it offered. WALL-E, for my money the best film of the year, was relegated to the animated-film ghetto from which only Beauty and the Beast has ever emerged. The Dark Knight--which, for all its flaws, was an ambitious, fascinating work of pop mythology--will have to content itself with whatever technical awards it can scrape up. (Best Visual Effects! In your face, Iron Man!) And even as the Academy ignored the summer’s big mass-cultural phenomena, it simultaneously managed to skip over the fall and early winter’s quieter, more thoughtful indies--The Wrestler, Rachel Getting Married, and the bleak, bewildering Synecdoche, New York.

Instead, this year is all about the mushy middle, a showcase of high-toned, politically palatable films meticulously engineered to approximate art: Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Doubt (which was not nominated for Best Picture but received an absurd four acting nominations). These are films intended to make viewers feel thoughtful, provided they don’t think about them too closely. The spirited, global vibe of Slumdog Millionaire is the only thing likely to distinguish the Oscar ceremony from a political convention--and even it offers a mixed blessing, with its expected dominance of the non-acting categories likely to rob the proceedings of much suspense.

Indeed, for the first time in memory, the most intriguing questions may surround not the eventual winners but the broadcast itself. Will the paradigm-busting choice of Hugh Jackman to host--and his reported Baz-Luhrmann-directed opening song-and-dance number--be a delight? A disaster? A delightful disaster? (Those seeking a sense of the peril and possibility can sample Jackman’s Tony awards work here, here, and here.) What are we to make of the producers’ enigmatic promise that the awards will be presented “in a completely different way”? Such questions may not be the stuff of high drama, but they offer something to ponder while we wait for Mickey, Kate, Heath, and Penelope to be awarded their anticipated hardware, and Slumdog to walk away with everything else.

 

Best Picture

It’s Slumdog versus the field. The sheer cinematic brio of director Danny Boyle’s film makes it the runaway audience favorite of the bunch. But it also has the advantage of being the kind of underdog the Academy likes (small budget, came out of nowhere) and the kind of overachiever the Academy likes even better (so far pulling in $25 million more than Milk, Frost/Nixon, and The Reader combined).

If there’s an upset, Milk may be the most likely candidate, especially in the wake of Brokeback Mountain’s egregious non-win. (Though someone might want to remind the Academy that it already gave the superior The Times of Harvey Milk an Oscar 24 years ago.) Benjamin Button did relatively well at the box office and is the kind of romantic/historical epic the Academy generally adores, but in the end it seems to have left everyone a bit underwhelmed. It’d be unwise to count The Reader out altogether as long as it has a pair of “H”’s--Harvey Weinstein and the Holocaust--up its sleeve, but it’s still an awfully long bet. And it’s hard to see Frost/Nixon getting much love, which is probably as it should be given the film’s extreme historical fraudulence.

What will win: Slumdog Millionaire

What ought to win: Slumdog Millionaire

What deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: WALL-E, The Dark Knight, Revolutionary Road, The Wrestler

What didn’t deserve to be nominated but was: Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

 

Best Actor

A two-man race between Sean Penn (Milk) and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) in which Rourke seems to have emerged as the favorite. Though his is a terrific comeback story in a town predicated on the possibility of redemption, he hasn’t done himself many favors in the past several weeks--announcing his plan to participate in Wrestlemania 25 when he won the Screen Actors Guild Award, dropping F-bombs when he won the BAFTA, and generally being a little too Mickey Rourke for his own good. As for Penn, he’d be a lock if he hadn’t already picked up a Best Actor for Mystic River; as is, he’s in the awkward situation of being the “safe” alternative for his portrayal of gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk.

It’s hard to see anyone else sneaking in here, but after Tilda Swinton edged out Cate Blanchett and Amy Ryan last year, who knows? Brad Pitt’s performance (Benjamin Button), like his movie, seemed as though it had a good shot until everyone watched it. Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) made the crucial mistake of not becoming a beloved character actor before embarking on his current string of Oscar-worthy performances. And Richard Jenkins (The Visitor)? I love you dearly, but you’re lucky to be here.

Who will win: Mickey Rourke, though anyone looking for an upset might bank on the Academy’s eagerness to advertise its moral elevation and go with Penn

Who ought to win: Mickey Rourke

Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: Leonardo DiCaprio (Revolutionary Road), Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man)

Who didn’t deserve to be nominated but was: Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins


Best Actress

Another apparent two-horse race, between six-time nominee Kate Winslet (The Reader) and 15-time nominee Meryl Streep (Doubt). The smart money is on Winslet who, if she goes home empty-handed, will join Thelma Ritter and Deborah Kerr as the most-nominated actress without a win. Less noted is that, despite Streep’s record-breaking haul of nominations, she has only won twice (one lead, one supporting), and the last time was for Sophie’s Choice, 26 years ago--when Winslet was seven. Still, Kate is the clear favorite, even if the Academy perversely nominated her for the wrong movie.

Early on, Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married) looked as though she had a good shot here, but like non-nominees Kristin Scott Thomas (I’ve Loved You So Long) and Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky), her smaller, quieter picture seems to have been pushed to the side by the rollout of Worthy Studio Contenders. Under the circumstances, Melissa Leo (Frozen River) is lucky she was nominated at all for her pitch-perfect performance in a tiny indie. And one can only assume that Angelina Jolie’s nomination for Changeling was powered by the votes of Academy members who didn’t actually see the film.

Who will win: Kate Winslet (for The Reader)

Who ought to win: Kate Winslet (for Revolutionary Road)

Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: Kate Winslet (for Revolutionary Road), Kristin Scott Thomas (I’ve Loved You So Long), Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky)

Who didn’t deserve to be nominated but was: Kate Winslet (for The Reader), Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep


Best Supporting Actor

Another year, another shoo-in psycho. Heath Ledger’s Joker (The Dark Knight) may be more manic than Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, but this award was destined to be his even before his tragic death. If someone were going to steal the statue, it’d be Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt) or Josh Brolin (Milk), but no one’s going to be stealing anything. Robert Downey Jr.’s nomination for Tropic Thunder was likely a nod to his Iron Man work as well, and Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) should count himself lucky that he managed to get a nomination despite his movie’s Oscar free-fall.

Who will win: Heath Ledger

Who ought to win: Heath Ledger

Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: This is actually a pretty strong list, though John Malkovich (Burn After Reading), Ralph Fiennes (In Bruges), or Eddie Marsan (Happy-Go-Lucky) could’ve comfortably swapped places with any non-Ledger nominee


Best Supporting Actress

Man versus machine? A computer regression analysis by the very sharp Nate Silver declares Taraji P. Henson (Benjamin Button) to be the strong favorite here, but I’ll cast my lot with the flesh-and-blood consensus that this is Penelope Cruz’s to lose, for her tempestuous turn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. One reason to root for this outcome: It would enable Cruz to receive the statue from paramour Javier Bardem, last year’s Supporting Actor winner. A better reason: None of the alternatives are terribly deserving. Viola Davis was very strong in Doubt, but it was a small, narrow role. Amy Adams is generally marvelous, but her performance in the same film was flimsy and forgettable. And though Marisa Tomei was quite good in The Wrestler, she still has a bit more digging to do to make up for that Oscar for My Cousin Vinny.

Who will win: Penelope Cruz

Who ought to win: Penelope Cruz

Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married), Elizabeth Banks (W.), almost any of the actresses in Synecdoche, New York (Dianne Wiest, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis)

Who didn’t deserve to be nominated but was: Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis, Amy Adams


Best Director

Very difficult to see this winding up anywhere but in Danny Boyle’s mitts. If someone were to upset him, it would likely be David Fincher (Benjamin Button), but it’s a considerable long shot. Gus Van Sant (Milk), Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon), and Stephen Daldry (The Reader) are basically here because the Academy also put their films up for Best Picture and couldn’t think of anything better to do with the directing nominations.

Who will win: Danny Boyle

Who ought to win: Danny Boyle

Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road), Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), Jonathan Demme (Rachel Getting Married)

Who didn’t deserve to be nominated but was: Gus Van Sant, Ron Howard, Stephen Daldry


Best Cinematography

Once again, there’s a good chance Slumdog will be the bride and Benjamin Button the bridesmaid, though it’s possible the Academy will rate Claudio Miranda’s stately camera work over Anthony Dod Mantle’s restless lens. (If it doesn’t, Benjamin Button could conceivably go an unprecedented 0-for-13 on nominations.) This is the biggest award The Dark Knight is up for, but cinematographer Wally Pfister almost certainly won’t be bringing it home. Chris Menges and Roger Deakins (who split work on The Reader) are unlikely to be in the mix unless The Reader emerges as a strong contender elsewhere, and Tom Stern (Changeling) won’t be in the mix regardless.

Who will win: Anthony Dod Mantle

Who ought to win: Claudio Miranda

Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: Roger Deakins (Revolutionary Road), Mandy Walker (Australia)

Who didn’t deserve to be nominated but was: Chris Menges and Roger Deakins (The Reader), Tom Stern (Changeling)


Best Adapted Screenplay

Familiar contenders by now, and possibly a familiar result, with Slumdog’s Simon Beaufoy the favorite. Benjamin Button’s Eric Roth would have a better shot if he hadn’t already won for the same script 15 years ago. John Patrick Shanley (Doubt), David Hare (The Reader), and Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon) aren’t out of the question, but any would be a considerable surprise.

Who will win: Simon Beaufoy

Who ought to win: Simon Beaufoy

Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road), Maurizio Braucci et al. (Gomorra)

Who didn’t deserve to be nominated but was: John Patrick Shanley, Peter Morgan

 

Best Original Screenplay

In a year of generally disappointing adaptations, there were quite a few excellent original scripts. Milk (by Dustin Lance Black) was not one of them, in my view, but it’s the favorite here anyway, especially if Academy members don’t give it their votes for Best Picture and Actor. Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon (WALL-E) have a shot if the Academy wakes up and realizes what a terrible job they did with this year’s nominees. Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), Courtney Hunt (Frozen River), and Mike Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky) are presumably happy they were invited to the party.

Who will win: Dustin Lance Black

Who ought to win: Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon

Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York), Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight), Michel Gondry (Be Kind Rewind), Joel and Ethan Coen (Burn After Reading)

Who didn’t deserve to be nominated but was: Dustin Lance Black, Martin McDonagh, Courtney Hunt, Mike Leigh

Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.