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Orrscar Fever!

The Academy Award nominees are a worthy but scattered bunch this year, and anyone who confidently tells you they know what’s going to happen is not to be trusted. I, by contrast, make a bid for your confidence by openly acknowledging that my guesses are entirely uneducated, and you could probably fare well by betting against them in your office Oscar pool.

The good news is that, with a few exceptions, the Academy seems to have screwed up less than usual. 2007 was a very strong year for film, and the Oscar nominees do a solid job of reflecting this. If there’s a major complaint to be made this year, it’s with the abstruse rules that govern eligibility in certain categories--in particular, best score and best foreign-language film. In the former category, Jonny Greenwood’s stunning, vital, utterly original score for There Will Be Blood was deemed ineligible for containing too many bits of music not written for the film, ensuring the ludicrous outcome that by far the best score of the year is not even nominated. The foreign film category is an even sorrier sight, with the year’s most celebrated offerings (Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days; Persepolis; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Lust, Caution; La Vie En Rose; The Orphanage; etc.) not making it, for one reason or another, to the “short list” of nine films from which the five finalists were chosen. (The foreign film rules, which are particularly convoluted, are explained here.) I’d especially like to put in a plug for Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, which I saw too late to include in my end of the year list, but would have belonged near the top. It is a marvel of cinematic intimacy, grim and unsparing yet not without hope. If The Lives of Others, the 2006 spellbinder about life behind the Iron Curtain, captured the institutional oppressions of totalitarian rule, Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days captures the ways in which it turns people into their own oppressors.

With those caveats, on to the major award categories:

Best Picture

Usually, by now the race has come down to two, or perhaps three, likely winners, often a “safe,” relatively middlebrow choice, and one slightly more bold (Titanic vs. L.A. Confidential, Crash vs. Brokeback Mountain, etc.). This year the field is wide open, though the films in question still fall, more or less, into those same broad categories, with Atonement and Michael Clayton as the relatively conventional (if somewhat underwhelming) options, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood representing a darker, artier vision, and Juno somewhere in between.

Atonement could still win, but it seems never to have amassed any momentum despite being the early favorite and a film seemingly tailor-made for Oscar success (love! war! tragedy! gorgeous country homes and period costumes!). Michael Clayton, which garnered an unexpected trove of nominations, could conceivably win as the Departed-style candidate that most everyone enjoyed but no one considers a cinematic milestone. A couple of months ago, No Country for Old Men seemed the clear front-runner, but audience frustration with its downbeat, elliptical ending seems to have cooled its buzz a little. Worse, while it doesn’t look as though There Will Be Blood, another bleak and beautiful critical favorite, has much chance of winning the award, it is awfully likely to undermine No Country by splitting the arty vote. Could Juno squeeze through? Possibly, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the last straight comedy to win Best Picture (I don’t count Shakespeare in Love, which was also a lavish, period costume drama) was Annie Hall three decades ago.

What will win:
No Country for Old Men. Juno is a plausible upset, but my gut says the early fave will pull it out.
What ought to win: No Country for Old Men.
What deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: Zodiac, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
What didn’t deserve to be nominated but was: Atonement, Michael Clayton.


Best Actor

The easiest category of the year. Daniel Day-Lewis’s selection, for his portrayal of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, may not be unanimous, but it will be close, and with good reason. I was very pleased that the Academy rewarded Viggo Mortensen’s exceptional performance in Eastern Promises with a nomination, but he’s not going to derail the Plainview express any more than George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd), or Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah).

Who will win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Who ought to win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men).
Who didn’t deserve to be nominated but was: George Clooney, Tommy Lee Jones.

Best Actress

The apparent two-way race between Julie Christie (Away from Her) and Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose) may have opened up into a three-way race with Ellen Page, as Juno has continued its improbable critical run. If Christie had never won an Oscar (she picked one up in 1965 for John Schlesinger’s Darling), she’d be a lock; as it is, she’s still the one to beat. Given that Cotillard is up against a film icon and the young star of arguably the year’s most likable film--both of whom, most crucially, perform in English--it’s awfully hard to see her winning. As for Page: Well, stranger things have happened. I’m thrilled that the consistently terrific Laura Linney was recognized for The Savages, and irritated that Cate Blanchett got a nod for her uneven performance in the unbearable Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but I don’t believe either has any realistic shot.

Who will win: Julie Christie. She’s a cinematic legend and, at 66, still a breathtaking beauty.
Who ought to win: Marion Cotillard, whose portrayal of Edith Piaf from her teen years to middle age was a genuine tour de force.
Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: Amy Adams (Enchanted).
Who didn’t deserve to be nominated but was: Cate Blanchett

Best Supporting Actor

Another near-no-brainer, with Javier Bardem standing head and shoulders above the competition for No Country for Old Men. Casey Affleck was great in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (though his was really the leading role), and Philip Seymour Hoffman was fiercely funny in Charlie Wilson's War. Tom Wilkinson was good in Michael Clayton, but he’s been better, and it doesn’t seem likely Hal Holbrook would have been nominated for Into the Wild if he weren’t, you know, Hal Holbrook. He’s probably got the best chance of knocking off Bardem on sentimental grounds, but it’s not really much chance at all.

Who will win: Javier Bardem
Who ought to win: Javier Bardem
Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: J.K. Simmons (Juno), Tommy Lee Jones (No Country for Old Men).
Who didn’t deserve to be nominated but was:
Tom Wilkinson, Hal Holbrook.

Best Supporting Actress

From the beginning, this looked like a tough two-woman race between Cate Blanchett (I’m Not There) and Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone), and it still looks that way. Blanchett seems to have entered that charmed Glenn-Close-in-the-’80s state where she gets a near-automatic nomination just for showing up on the set. (Again: Elizabeth: The Golden Age? Really?) What’s frustrating to me is that, for all its technical proficiency, her turn as Bob Dylan is--like the Hepburn performance she won for in The Aviator--essentially a mimetic performance, an elevated impression. So much of her craft is right there on the surface, reflecting back to us what we already know about a popular celebrity, rather than uncovering something new underneath. Ryan, by contrast, builds her monstrous, negligent mother in Gone Baby Gone from the inside out; we don’t merely watch her, we feel her. As for the other nominees, it’s hard to see how Ruby Dee (whose tiny role in American Gangster somehow snagged her the SAG award) or young Saoirse Ronan (who was probably the best thing in Atonement) or Tilda Swinton (who was good, but not that good in Michael Clayton) has much of a shot.

Who will win: Cate Blanchett. I don’t know if it’s lingering guilt over giving Gwyneth Paltrow the Oscar that should have been hers a decade ago, or a Jedi mind trick, or a Hooveresque cache of blackmail, but she has the Academy’s number.
Who ought to win: Amy Ryan. If only more people watched “The Wire.”
Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: Jennifer Garner (Juno), Allison Janney (Juno).
Who didn’t deserve to be nominated but was: Ruby Dee, Tilda Swinton.

Best Director(s)

Juno’s Jason Reitman was an unexpected nominee here, but I think a good one: Screenwriter Diablo Cody has gotten the lion’s share of the credit, but when so many small things go right in a film, from the pace to the performances, the director merits recognition. Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), too, did an exceptional job in his rookie directorial outing, elevating a typical genre film to something (a little bit) more. And it’s all but impossible to imagine the remarkable The Diving Bell and the Butterfly being directed by anyone other than Julian Schnabel. Still, this has the look of a two- (or, rather, three-) man race between the freres Coen (No Country for Old Men) and Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood). The Coens have the edge in numbers and, I’m guessing, in votes.

Who will win: Joel and Ethan Coen
Who ought to win: Joel and Ethan Coen. (If not for the disastrous finale of There Will Be Blood, I might go the other way on this.)
Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: David Fincher (Zodiac)
Who didn’t deserve to be nominated but was: A tough one: probably Gilroy or Reitman

Best Cinematography

Another strong category this year, with four entrants that would be worthy winners: Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), Janusz Kaminski (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men), and Roger Deakins again (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). (Seamus McGarvey’s work on Atonement was good, but not at the same rarefied level.) Deakins, who’s been nominated five times before without a win, might get the nod for No Country, particularly if the movie has a big night overall. But he might also split his own vote, offering There Will Be Blood another shot at a statuette.

Who will win: Roger Deakins (for No Country)
Who ought to win:
Robert Elswit. Almost any other year I would go with Deakins, but the infernal universe Elswit’s camera conjures is too astonishing to ignore.
Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: Roger Deakins again, again (In the Valley of Elah)
Who didn’t deserve to be nominated but was:
Seamus McGarvey

Best Adapted Screenplay

Mostly familiar competitors here: the Coens for No Country, P.T Anderson for There Will Be Blood, Christopher Hampton for Atonement, and Ronald Harwood for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—plus Sarah Polley for Away from Her. It’s hard to go against the Coens for this one.

Who will win: Joel and Ethan Coen
Who ought to win: Joel and Ethan Coen
Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: James Vanderbilt (Zodiac), Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).
Who didn’t deserve to be nominated but was: Christopher Hampton, Sarah Polley.

Best Original Screenplay

Even if Juno toddles home without any other hardware, colorful screenwriter Diablo Cody probably has this one sewn up. Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), Tamara Jenkins (The Savages), Nancy Oliver (Lars and the Real Girl), and Brad Bird (Ratatouille) can console themselves that they were overrun by an unlikely, though deserving, phenomenon.

Who will win: Diablo Cody
Who ought to win: Diablo Cody
Who deserved to be nominated but wasn’t: John Carney (Once), Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead).
Who didn’t deserve to be nominated but was: Nancy Oliver, Brad Bird.

By Chris Orr