The Academy Awards aren't just an awards show. They're supreme validation for movie fans. As a kid, I remember feeling upset and slightly betrayed when my favorite movies and performers suffered Oscar defeats, not because I felt bad for, say, Harrison Ford, but because it implied a rift between me and the Hollywood elite. There was a champagne room of cinematic appreciation, and I didn't have access.
These days, I'm a bit more self-possessed. Most of my favorite movies aren't even nominated, but I still enjoy a secret surge of well-being when my horse wins. OK, maybe not so secret. I brag about it.
The key to predicting the Oscars is putting aside those personal preferences and looking at the thing objectively. So here are my objective predictions, along with some subjective hedging.
When is best director NOT synonymous with best picture, especially when the concept of the auteur is so prized by critics and serious movie fans alike? I suppose when a movie's greatness has more to do with scale, production value and commercial appeal (like, arguably, "Saving Private Ryan") than specific directorial vision (like, arguably, "Shakespeare in Love"). Which is why it was nice to see Julian Schnabel pick up a nomination for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." An expert on the topic of confined artists ("Before Night Falls"), Schnabel was perhaps the one director alive who could do justice to the true-life story of a diarist (Mathieu Amalric) locked inside his paralyzed body.
Schnabel was the only nominee whose film didn't pick up a best picture nomination, but was his feat of directorial expression the best on the table? Naw. This year, the best director and best picture battles are particularly indistinguishable. As described below.
Should win: Paul Thomas Anderson ("There Will Be Blood")
Will win: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen ("No Country for Old Men")
As a fan of movies, and, more generally, stories, I've always operated from the presumption that the most vital part of the storytelling anatomy is the ending. The finale. The destination. The Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" challenged me, challenged most everybody in this regard. Clearly, this is a brilliant film, exalting at times, deeply horrifying at others. But that ending. Instructive? Maybe. Challenging? Undoubtedly. But I doubt any of the movie's myriad champions honestly enjoyed it. Not in the visceral, cinematic sense, anyway.
Contrast this with Paul Thomas Anderson's oil-smeared opus "There Will Be Blood." These are not dissimilar movies. Except, instead of breaking character and giving us a Brechtian lesson in the falsehood of myth, Anderson ("Boogie Nights") takes his existential horror film to its cinematic satisfying conclusion, fulfilling the dark promise of the title. That's my take, in any case. Having won most of the meaningful precursor awards, "No Country" seems unstoppable at this point.
Should win: "There Will Be Blood"
Will win: "No Country for Old Men"
ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Ruby Dee's Screen Actors Guild win for her performance as the mother of drug kingpin Frank Lucas in "American Gangster" certainly makes this race more interesting; beforehand, it looked like Cate Blanchett was the prohibitive favorite for her cross-dressing, coolly disenchanted turn as Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There." Can't deny that Dee was great; at first, she seems like a harmless, slightly baffled old lady; then - THWAP! - with an outburst of lucid, motherly rage, she transforms herself into the snarling guardian of her family's dying soul.
I still think Blanchett will win. That performance was just so fun to watch, and Blanchett ("The Aviator") is a proven Academy darling. Personally, I'd like to see Tilda Swinton take home the award. Pulling murderous strings as George Clooney's corporate nemesis in "Michael Clayton," she performs a controlled descent into villainy as convincing as I've ever seen.
Should win: Tilda Swinton ("Michael Clayton")
Will win: Cate Blanchett ("I'm Not There")
WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)
It's often been speculated that when a movie is too cool to win the other major prizes, it gets the consolation prize here (case in point: Christopher McQuarrie's script for "The Usual Suspects"). That being said, a win for Diablo Cody's ultra-cool "Juno" screenplay should dull the sting of what will most likely be losses in best picture and director. Certainly, "Juno" is the liveliest and funniest in this field; still, I'm pulling for Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton," the year's most potent drama not featuring a pneumatic bolt gun-wielding killer or a sociopathic oilman.
Should win: Tony Gilroy for "Michael Clayton"
Will win: Diablo Cody for "Juno"
WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)
Screenwriter Christopher Hampton created a gloriously sexy puzzle of motivations in "Atonement," and Paul Thomas Anderson gave us the year's most quotable catchphrase ("I drink your milkshake!"), but it's the Ethan and Joel Coen-adapted script for "No Country for Old Men" that figures to win here. Filled with dry, dusty wit and surreal tension, it already claimed the Writers Guild of America prize for this category.
Should win: "No Country for Old Men"
Will win: "No Country for Old Men"
ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
It's difficult, and perhaps pointless, to distinguish Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in "There Will Be Blood" from the movie itself; as wildcatter Daniel Plainview, the actor seems as much a part of the early 20th-century California landscape as the oil fields he ravenously plunders. This is one of my all-time favorite performances, and, based on the actor's Screen Actors Guild win, I think many in Hollywood feel the same way. He's a lock.
That's bad news for Tommy Lee Jones, who dug deep into the craggy, war-torn soul of a desperate father in "In the Valley of Elah" and pulled up the finest performance of his career. I loved the other nominees, too: Viggo Mortensen's oddly thoughtful killer in "Eastern Promises," Johnny Depp's floridly tormented barber in "Sweeney Todd," George Clooney's conscience-tested lawyer in "Michael Clayton." Just a superb field.
Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood")
Will win: Day-Lewis
ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Julie Christie was tragic grace personified as the Alzheimer's-stricken spouse in "Away From Her." In fact, it still pains me to think of the marching orders she delivers to her devastated husband (Gordon Pinsent) as he abandons her to the care of a nursing home: "I'd like to make love, and then I'd like you to go." Oh, man. There's something very, very wrong about an actress of such towering dramatic ability using her powers against mere mortals such as us. Another lock.
Someday, I'd like to see Laura Linney get her due. She was great as the schizy sister in "The Savages," but she has better, more iconic roles ahead of her. One could say the same for "Juno" leading lady Ellen Page, sort of a spunky millennial answer to Sally Field (or better, hopefully). The dark horse here is French actress Marion Cotillard - this coming from somebody who didn't know Edith Piaf from rice pilaf before Cotillard enshrined her in "La Vie en Rose."
Should win: Julie Christie ("Away From Her")
Will win: Christie
ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
The easiest category to call. With his Beatles coif and deadly, hooded gaze, Javier Bardem made for instantly iconic, Oscar-worthy evil in "No Country for Old Men." Was Bardem's Anton Chigurh the year's best villain? Well, my vote goes to Marcia Gay Harden's Bible-thumping tyrant, Mrs. Carmody, in "The Mist," but one must give credit where psychopathic credit is due. Bardem asks us to "call it," and the cold pinprick of dread that follows makes our choice obvious.
If there's a dark horse here, it's Hal Holbrook, delivering a lovely bouquet of pathos as the lonely widower in "Into the Wild." Old pros have a way of hijacking this category (e.g., Don Ameche in "Cocoon" and Jack Palance in "City Slickers").
Should win: Javier Bardem ("No Country for Old Men")
Will win: Bardem