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What To Expect out of This Year’s Oscars

The 84th Academy Award nominations were announced last week, and most of those receiving Oscar nods followed projections, with a few surprises (and snubs) thrown in just to keep things interesting. But making predictions on this year’s winners is a bit trickier than in the past; with roughly a month to go until Oscar night, there are some genuine horse races in progress, unlike recent years, when most of the recipients were pretty much foregone conclusions. So, with that said, here’s what I expect out of the major categories in this year’s competition as of now.

Best Picture

Nominees: “The Artist,” “The Descendants,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “The Help,” “Hugo,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Moneyball,” “The Tree of Life,” “War Horse”
The Field: This category pretty much shaped up as expected, although the inclusion of “The Tree of Life” was a bit of a surprise (it came out early in the year, didn’t screen widely, was seen as a little too esoteric for mainstream audiences and failed to receive the glowing accolades domestically that it garnered overseas at the Cannes Film Festival, where it earned the prestigious Palme d’Or, the Festival’s top honor.) The same could be said of the nomination for “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (a heavily marketed, though widely disappointing, release that many critics have panned), though a concerted campaign to boost its profile appears to have paid off. As for pictures that got snubbed, many viewers were pulling for the raucous comedy “Bridesmaids,” an offering that had been surging in other recent competitions but that apparently didn’t have quite enough clout to capture an Oscar nomination. Other aspirants that some might have liked to see make the cut included “My Week with Marilyn,” “Drive” and “The Ides of March.”
Who Will Likely Win: At this point, the smart money is on “The Artist.” With 10 Academy Award nominations overall, as well as three Golden Globe wins (including best comedy/musical picture and best comedy/musical actor), four Critics Choice Awards (including best picture and best director), a Screen Actors Guild Award for best actor and bushels of love letters from movie critics, this film is well-positioned to take home the top prize on Oscar night.
Who Should Win: In my view, “Hugo” is the most deserving of this year’s nominees. It’s the most complete and most balanced of the entries, both artistically and technically, and it has the most engaging story. Director Martin Scorsese has charmed audiences with this offering, and I believe this film should get the recognition it richly deserves. The only nominees that come close on these points, in my view, are “The Help” (see below) and “Midnight in Paris,” though I’d still rank “Hugo” ahead of these other releases.
Possible Dark Horse: Oscar has been known to surprise on occasion, with dark horse entries making late surges and coming out on top. In this category, the most likely candidate for that distinction is “The Help,” a wonderful film that took home honors in the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award competitions, as well as three statues in the Screen Actors Guild Award program (often an accurate barometer of what comes up a winner on Oscar night). I’m not sure if this picture has enough momentum to take home the top prize, but it is certainly likely to give “The Artist” a run for its money.
Also-Rans: Those who should be thankful for just being nominated include the production teams behind “The Descendants” (at one time an early favorite whose star seems to be fading), “Moneyball,” “War Horse,” “The Tree of Life,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “Midnight in Paris.” Of these six, the only picture that should have received a nomination, in my estimation, is Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” but even with its engaging attributes, I don’t believe it stands a chance in this category. As for the others, “The Descendants,” “Moneyball” and “War Horse” are mediocre efforts, “The Tree of Life” is an ambitious undertaking that didn’t quite hit the mark, and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” falls far short of expectations across the board. Don’t look for anyone from these productions to step up on stage when the big winner’s name is called out.
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: Since 2011 was such a weak year for movies overall, it had to have been difficult coming up with a field of deserving best picture nominees, and I certainly don’t agree with a number of the choices that actually did make the cut. However, several pictures were passed over that, in my view, would have made worthy nominees in this category, including “My Week with Marilyn,” “The Ides of March,” “The Debt,” “Higher Ground” and “The Adjustment Bureau.”

Best Actor

Nominees: Demián Bichir (“A Better Life”), George Clooney (“The Descendants”), Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”), Gary Oldman (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), Brad Pitt (“Moneyball”)
The Field: This isn’t exactly a field that sets the world on fire, but then 2011 was a year for more memorable roles by actresses and by actors in supporting roles than it was for male leads. With that said, the nominations for Clooney and Dujardin were expected, as was the nod given to Pitt, although he received his nomination for the “wrong” film (his performance in “The Tree of Life” was much stronger than that in “Moneyball”). Bichir’s nomination was a pleasant, though not entirely unexpected surprise (his visibility has been surging of late, even though “A Better Life” received little attention when it was briefly released in theaters), and Oldman finally captured recognition for a performance that had so far been entirely overlooked. The snubs in this category include Ryan Gosling for both “Drive” and “The Ides of March” and, quite surprisingly, Leonardo DiCaprio for “J. Edgar.”
Who Will Likely Win: This is a horse race between Clooney and Dujardin. Clooney had the early momentum, but the film’s disappointing performance in garnering nominations may have weakened his standing, despite his Critics Choice Award for best actor and his Golden Globe for best dramatic actor. Meanwhile, Dujardin’s position has been advancing of late, having captured the Golden Globe for best comedy/musical actor and the prestigious Screen Actors Guild Award for best male lead. Given the foregoing, I’d call this category a toss-up, though I’d be inclined to give a slight edge to Clooney, primarily because the Academy likes to bestow honors upon “serious” roles, and Clooney’s performance may be seen as more worthy of recognition than Dujardin’s more lightweight comedic turn.
Who Should Win: As I noted above, this field doesn’t exactly set the world on fire for me, so it’s hard to get enthused about any of the nominees. If forced to make a choice, though, I’d probably go along with Clooney. His role in “The Descendants” is probably his best work to date, despite the mediocre film in which it appears. (In 2011, I was actually more impressed with his work in “The Ides of March,” although that role would have qualified as a supporting performance and not in the lead category.) I was also impressed by Bichir’s performance, even though I can’t say it’s strong enough to merit a win, but I’m hoping this nomination will raise his visibility level for better roles in the future when we’ll really get a chance to see what he can do.
Possible Dark Horse: If there were to be a spoiler in this category, it would probably be Oldman. Since his performance has stayed largely below the radar up to this point, he may be seen as a breath of fresh air that could undermine the positions of the front runners, though that probability is a long shot at best.
Also-Rans: The one who most clearly fits this bill is Pitt, and that’s because, as noted above, he was nominated for the wrong role. Had he been nominated for his work in “The Tree of Life,” he might have stood a better chance of taking home some hardware.
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: I definitely would have liked to see Ryan Gosling receive some kind of recognition for his work this past year, particularly in “The Ides of March.” Maybe next year…

Best Actress

Nominees: Glenn Close (“Albert Nobbs”), Viola Davis (“The Help”), Rooney Mara (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady”), Michelle Williams (“My Week with Marilyn”)
The Field: Unlike the best actor contest, this is a very talent-packed category. There were no major surprises here, although many prognosticators had picked Tilda Swinton for “We Need To Talk About Kevin” over Mara (even though Mara was by no means a long shot). There were no snubs, per se, though there are a number of other actresses who would have made worthy nominees had they been chosen (see below).
Who Will Likely Win: This is another horse race, with Davis and Streep as the front runners, and, given the strength of these two outstanding performances, handicapping this contest is very difficult (even more so than the best actor race). Streep earned the Golden Globe for best dramatic actress earlier this month, but Davis has the momentum, having captured the Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild Awards for best actress. Streep may be something of a sentimental favorite, having been passed over soooo many times for very worthwhile performances (such as “Doubt” and “Julie and Julia”), and the Academy may be feeling guilty for that oversight. However, “The Iron Lady” has not been particularly well-received, despite her performance, and that may weaken her position among Oscar voters. Davis, meanwhile, is in a popular film with a powerful message, even though her character’s role teeters precariously in that netherworld between lead and supporting actress, which might undercut her chances with some Academy members. At this point, I’d say this one will come down to a photo finish, but I think Davis’s ascending momentum will carry her over the top.
Who Should Win: As sensational as Davis is in “The Help,” I believe that Streep is the most deserving, but not because she’s been slighted so many times; it’s because she’s that good. I have no doubt that Davis is an Oscar-worthy actress, and in most years her performance would be a hands-down winner. However, I believe Streep’s role was more demanding, for a variety of reasons, and that would give her the edge if I were to pick the winner.
Possible Dark Horse: Despite the strength of the other performances in this category, I don’t believe the other nominees in this category can seriously challenge the front runners. However, if I had to pick a dark horse, it would probably be Williams. She turns in a terrific performance in “My Week with Marilyn,” having earned her the Golden Globe for best comedy/musical actress. But, as good as she is, I don’t believe her performance is formidable enough to outshine Streep and Davis.
Also-Rans: It’s sad to think of Close as an also-ran, especially given the demands of her role, but, regrettably, I believe that’s where she’s likely to end up. As another sentimental favorite (having been nominated five times previously with no wins to her credit), there may be some Academy voters who would like to honor her at last, but, considering her competition, she will probably end up going home empty-handed once again. And, as for Mara, she’s made an impressive down payment on her future with this nomination, but, given the talent in this field, it’s not her turn — yet.
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: There were so many great performances by female leads this year that it was indeed difficult to limit the field to five. Others who would have been deserving of nominations include Tilda Swinton (“We Need To Talk About Kevin”), Vera Farmiga (“Higher Ground”), Helen Mirren (“The Debt”), Elizabeth Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”), Mia Wasikowska (“Jane Eyre”), Kerstin Dunst (“Melancholia”) and Adepero Oduye (“Pariah”).

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees: Kenneth Branagh (“My Week with Marilyn”), Jonah Hill (“Moneyball”), Nick Nolte (“Warrior”), Christopher Plummer (“Beginners”), Max von Sydow (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”)
The Field: What a strange field! Plummer, Branagh and Hill were expected as nominees, Nolte was a mild surprise, and von Sydow was a shocker. Of those who received nominations, Branagh, Plummer, Nolte and von Sydow are certainly worthy of their recognition, though the selection of Hill — even though expected — is questionable at best. Because the field shook out as it did, some who were thought to be in the running were shut out, most notably Albert Brooks for “Drive” and Viggo Mortensen for “A Dangerous Method,” both of whom received nominations in other competitions.
Who Will Likely Win: Plummer has received accolades in numerous contests thus far, including the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild Award competitions, and many believe that he’s been on a clear track to win the Oscar, an award given more for his lifetime of film work than for this specific performance. However, the announcement of fellow octogenarian von Sydow as a fellow nominee makes Plummer’s slam dunk a little less certain. Both have received only two Oscar nominations and no awards in their long and illustrious careers, so it will be interesting to see how this race pans out. I’d still give the edge to Plummer on the basis of sheer momentum, even though I believe von Sydow turned in the better performance. But the Swedish veteran is coming late to the table, and he may not be able to keep his colleague from taking home the statue. If nothing else, this little wrinkle has made what would have been an otherwise-uninteresting race a little more intriguing.
Who Should Win: Among the nominees, I believe Branagh easily gave the best supporting performance, earning him numerous nominations in other competitions. Regrettably, though, unless one particular scenario plays out (see below), I think the deck is too heavily stacked against him this time.
Possible Dark Horses: Considering how this race has shaped up, von Sydow could be the primary dark horse here. Academy fans who want to see his career achievements recognized may wind up giving him an upset win over Plummer. Of course, if the vote for Plummer and von Sydow splits, that could also open up the door for Branagh, which would make for a very pleasant surprise. I still believe it’s Plummer’s race to lose, but I don’t know that he has the lock on it that he once did.
Also-Rans: Originally I would have said anyone who’s not Christopher Plummer, though, in light of the foregoing, I’d be more inclined to alter that assessment. As it stands now, I believe Hill and Nolte are definitely out of the running and Branagh likely is (though that could change if the scenario noted above come to fruition).
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: While I was very pleased to see Branagh and von Sydow nominated, I was less certain about Plummer (his performance was capable though certainly not earth-shattering) and Nolte, and I was decidedly against Hill’s undeserved nod. Changing the field’s current configuration, then, would have opened it up to an array of other deserving nominees, some of whom include Brooks and Mortensen (as noted above), as well as Jim Broadbent (“The Iron Lady”), Ben Kingsley (“Hugo”), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and George Clooney (all from “The Ides of March”), Corey Stoll (“Midnight in Paris”) and Terence Stamp (“The Adjustment Bureau”).

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees: Bérénice Bejo (“The Artist”), Jessica Chastain (“The Help”), Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”), Janet McTeer (“Albert Nobbs”), Octavia Spencer (“The Help”)
The Field: No surprises showed up in this category. Bejo, Chastain, McTeer and Spencer have been nominated in virtually every competition thus far, and the fifth slot has generally gone to either McCarthy (as here) or Shailene Woodley for “The Descendants” (someone had to be sixth).
Who Will Likely Win: Spencer has a virtual lock on this category.
Who Should Win: For her powerful portrayal, Spencer is easily the most deserving of these nominees.
Possible Dark Horse: Anyone who is not Octavia Spencer.
Also-Rans: Anyone who is not Octavia Spencer. That’s not to say that the other performances were unworthy of nominations; they just aren’t strong enough to compete with the front runner for the win.
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: I would not have been disappointed if Woodley had received a nomination for her performance (she was one of the few things that made “The Descendants” worth watching). I also would have been pleased to see Sandra Bullock nominated for her role in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (she was just about the only thing that made that film worth watching). And I definitely would have had no complaints if Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek or Mary Steenburgen had been nominated for their performances in “The Help,” but then there are only five nominees in the category.

Best Director

Nominees: Michel Hazanavicius (“The Artist”), Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”), Martin Scorsese (“Hugo”), Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris”), Terrence Malick (“The Tree of Life”)
The Field: Perhaps the only surprise in this category was the inclusion of Malick instead of Steven Spielberg for “War Horse,” though I can’t say I’m disappointed with that substitution. While Malick’s effort had its shortcomings, at least it was bold and ambitious in its approach, far more than can be said for Spielberg’s disappointingly lackluster offering.
Who Will Likely Win: Since the Oscars for best picture and best director nearly always are in tandem, I believe Hazanavicius as director of “The Artist” has the inside track for this award, especially since Taylor Tate, director of “The Help,” the other leading best picture contender at this point, is not nominated in this category.
Who Should Win: Given that the best picture and best director awards usually coincide, I would have to follow suit with that logic and give the Oscar to Scorsese as director of “Hugo,” my selection for best picture. However, wanting that outcome doesn’t guarantee that it will happen, even though Scorsese did pick up the Golden Globe for best director in that competition.
Possible Dark Horse: It’s been a long time since the Academy has honored Allen, and if there is a dark horse to be had this year, I believe he would be it. However, since he is also nominated for best original screenplay, I believe he stands a better chance of taking home the writing award, a category in which the Academy often hands out its “consolation prizes.”
Also-Rans: I’m afraid that fans of Payne are going to be disappointed here. Despite the film’s Golden Globe win as best dramatic picture, “The Descendants” fell short of expectations with many critics and in its Oscar nomination tally, and I think the same will ultimately be said for Payne’s chances. And, as for Malick, well, he should be happy with his nomination.
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: On balance, the Academy got this category right on just about every count. However, I believe that Taylor Tate, director of “The Help,” would have made a better nominee than Payne.

Other Predictions

Best Original Screenplay: Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris” (see above).

Best Adapted Screenplay: Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, “Moneyball.” Since this film is unlikely to win anything else, and since Hollywood is a big fan of Sorkin, I think this writing duo has the inside track to take home this award. Its only real competition is from the writing team of “The Descendants” (another potential consolation prize winner), but, when the two scripts are compared head to head, I think Academy voters will “play ball” and give the edge to the more substantive screenplay.

Best Foreign Language Film: “A Separation,” from Iran. Politics aside, this picture has been winning virtually every competition thus far. Look for it to repeat here.

Best Song: Who cares! With only two nominees in this category (and forgettable numbers at that), the Academy should seriously consider eliminating it. No memorable original songs have come out of the Oscars (or the movies, for that matter) in years, and with the field reduced to an all-time low number of nominees, the Academy should just do the deed and get it over with. No one will miss this category, and it will make the awards show broadcast move along at a better pace.

The awards will be handed out on Sunday February 26. In the meantime, check out my reviews of some of the films that have been nominated (and others that should have been).

“The Artist”: Review, web site

“Beginners”: Review, web site

“A Better Life”: Review, web site, web site

“The Descendants”: Review, web site

“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”: Review, web site

“Hugo”: Review, web site

“The Ides of March”: Review, web site

“The Iron Lady”: Review, web site

“Midnight in Paris”: Review, web site

“My Week with Marilyn”: Review, web site

“The Tree of Life”: Review, web site

“The Adjustment Bureau”: Review, web site

“A Dangerous Method”: Review, web site

“The Debt”: Review, web site

“Higher Ground”: Review, web site

“Melancholia”: Review, web site

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