The Oscars have a way of bringing out the nose-wrinkling snob in even the most forgiving of critics. Films that were “brilliant” and “visionary” at the point of their release suddenly inspire nit-picking criticism or newfound ambivalence in the race to prognosticate an Oscar champion. Playing favorites does that.
Well, here are my favorites, clumped by category. Excuse the occasional wrinkled nose.
BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
In a category that typically rewards the actor who leaves the biggest welts (i.e., Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Denzel Washington in “Training Day”), the smart money falls squarely on Forest Whitaker and his brutish masterpiece of a performance in “The Last King of Scotland.” Granted, the actor’s portrayal of Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin wasn’t as redemptive as Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn as a soldier of fortune in “Blood Diamond,” or as tenderly conflicted as Ryan Gosling’s inner-city schoolteacher in “Half Nelson,” but the sheer force of it was hypnotic.
Beware the Peter O’Toole/ “Venus” sympathy vote. For his endearing performance in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Will Smith gets a hearty slap on the back.
Should win: Whitaker
Will win: Whitaker
Dark horse: Ryan Gosling (“Half Nelson”). Youth frequently reigns at the Oscars. At 27, he’d become the category’s youngest recipient.
BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
I suppose I could repeatedly type “Helen Mirren” under this heading and leave it at that. Any hope that perennial nominee Judi Dench (“Notes on a Scandal”) might hijack Mirren’s first Oscar vanished when the latter took home a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Awards) to go with her Golden Globe. Certainly, Mirren’s performance as a recalcitrant Queen Elizabeth wasn’t the showiest role in the bunch, but the way she played the character — revealing the Queen’s humanity and vulnerabilities in discrete, almost bashful flashes — posed perhaps the greatest dramatic challenge.
Meryl Streep was terrifically vile in “The Devil Wears Prada,” but the movie itself, a leatherette knockoff of “Swimming With Sharks,” cheapens the performance. Same goes for Kate Winslet in “Little Children,” a bravura piece of acting in a bold cinematic misfire.
Should win: Mirren
Will win: Mirren
Dark horse: Penelope Cruz (“Volver”). If only because the Spaniard gives unquestionably the finest performance of her career. Who else in the category can say that?
BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Until popping off in the callous cross-dressing minstrel show “Norbit,” Eddie Murphy looked like a lock for his swivelhipped turn as James “Thunder” Early in “Dreamgirls.” Will “Norbit” turn off Oscar voters? That’s the single most intriguing back story at this year’s ceremony, and if Murphy does find a way to lose, he’ll forever be haunted by images of himself in a latex fat suit.
It’s a shame, because Murphy is one of maybe three or four working Hollywood actors capable of portraying Early’s transformation from sleek R&B prince to smacked-out has-been. It really was Oscar-caliber work. But, then, so was Alan Arkin’s drug-addled grandpa in “Little Miss Sunshine” and Djimon Hounsou’s dispossessed father in “Blood Diamond.” Mark Wahlberg was a certified scene-stealer in “The Departed,” but only appeared in, what, four scenes?
Should win: Murphy
Will win: Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”)
Dark horse: Jackie Earle Haley (“Little Children”). Oscar loves comebacks, and this former teen idol (“Bad News Bears”) has come farther than most.
BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Ugh. Enough already with the Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) hullabaloo. Never in the history of the academy has a performer guzzled down so much undue praise for belting a show tune into a microphone. As R&B songbird Effie White, the Golden Globe winner displayed remarkable pipes, but genuine acting chops? I hardly saw evidence of that.
It goes without saying that a more deserving actress will lose to Hudson come Oscar night, but which of the more deserving is the most deserving? Cate Blanchett was peachy as the adulterous schoolteacher in “Notes on a Scandal” (more of a leading performance, that) and Abigail Breslin was totally disarming in “Little Miss Sunshine.” Mexican actress Adriana Barraza earned raves as the nanny in “Babel,” albeit in the film’s lamest, most pandering thread.
Should win: Blanchett
Will win: Hudson
Dark horse: Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel”). The Japanese actress single-handedly made the movie worthwhile, and would make for killer backstage buzz.
Maybe this is Martin Scorsese’s year to claim his denied statuette, or maybe this is another opportunity for the academy to let the six-time nominee twist in the wind until he finally makes another “Raging Bull.” Alas, that may never happen, and conventional wisdom dictates that voters will reward Scorsese for “The Departed,” a minor masterpiece at best.
Truth be known, “The Departed,” with its jazzy, offnote performances and wacky denouement, is still a more satisfying specimen of personal artistic vision than Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s overwrought “Babel,” Clint Eastwood’s fascinating but ponderous “Letters From Iwo Jima” and Stephen Frears’ emotionally reserved “The Queen.” Which leaves Paul Greengrass and his radically engrossing 9/11 docudrama “United 93,” the field’s most capably directed film and, owing to its absence in the best picture category, the one least likely to win best director.
Should win: Greengrass
Will win: Scorsese
Dark horse: Inarritu. It was a banner year for Mexican filmmakers (Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro), and some voters may view a vote for one as a vote for all.
Public opinion may favor “Little Miss Sunshine,” but precedent does not: The ensemble gem that won a Screen Actors Guild award was snubbed for best director, a category in which every best picture winner from “Wings” to “Crash” was concurrently nominated. While not a weighty, weatherproof piece of filmmaking in the best picture tradition, “Little Miss Sunshine” was, in its own way, perfect: hilarious, touching, spotlessly acted. The family striptease in the finale was the year’s best payoff.
Which leaves a pair of imperfect candidates: “The Departed,” Scorsese’s wildly entertaining (and wildly erratic) Irish mob thriller, and “Babel,” possibly the year’s most overrated, heavy-handed film. The remaining nominees look like also-rans: “The Queen,” a wonderful drama that nonetheless played like a TV movie; and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” which has less heat than the love scene from “Music and Lyrics.”
Should win: “Little Miss Sunshine”
Will win: “The Departed”
Dark horse: “Babel.” An ensemble drama, and the academy seems to be swinging that way.
Get Out Oscar Contest
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