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iW Insider: Academy Could Offer Surprises, Frustration

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire January 21, 2009 at 1:36AM

Thursday morning at 5:30 PST, Forest Whitaker will join AMPAS President Sid Ganis to announce the 81st Academy Award nominations. It'll mark an end to months of building speculation in what seems to have resulted in a relatively boring Oscar race. Ever since mid-December, it's become increasingly clear what the five best picture nominees will be: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Dark Knight," "Frost/Nixon," "Milk" and "Slumdog Millionaire." Reliable precursors like the Producer's Guild and Director's Guild both agreed on them, which seems to suggest the Academy will follow suit.
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Thursday morning at 5:30 PST, Forest Whitaker will join AMPAS President Sid Ganis to announce the 81st Academy Award nominations. It'll mark an end to months of building speculation in what seems to have resulted in a relatively boring Oscar race. Ever since mid-December, it's become increasingly clear what the five best picture nominees will be: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Dark Knight," "Frost/Nixon," "Milk" and "Slumdog Millionaire." Reliable precursors like the Producer's Guild and Director's Guild both agreed on them, which seems to suggest the Academy will follow suit.

Or maybe not. It's actually been a while since the Guilds and the Oscars have perfectly aligned. The past few years, one film fell and another rose somewhat unexpectedly. Last year, frontrunner-turned underdog "Atonement" knocked out "Into The Wild," while in 2006 "Dreamgirls" fell to "Letters From Iwo Jima." One reason for this might be Oscars unique voting mechanisms, which makes it so it's much more important to get a voter's first choice than anything else. Another might be that Academy voting takes place later than everyone else. Both of the aforementioned "surprises" were December releases that benefited from a few more weeks to gain fans among voters.

Even so, I'm still not confident this bit of history will mean anything. And if it does, which film will benefit? The Oscars-vote-later theory seems like it would boost films like "The Reader," "Revolutionary Road," "The Wrestler," and "Gran Torino" (which might really benefit from its overwhelming box office results). The first choice theory might help "WALL-E," which one should keep in mind was ineligible for both guild prizes. But then, which film would one of them replace? Many suggest the weakest links of the five are "The Dark Knight" or even "Milk," which was almost entirely shut out of the Golden Globe nominations. I'd like to think its actually "Frost/Nixon," based on the idea that I can hardly imagine it getting as many #1 votes as the rest of them.

Still, going with any of these theories is risky. A more plausible scenario is removing one of the "favored five"'s directors from that category's list. This is especially reasonable considering that the Academy has a history of offering one edgier director nominee that's film doesn't get a best picture nod (Paul Greengrass for "United 93," Mike Leigh for "Vera Drake," Fernando Meirelles for "City of God"). Again, I feel like "Frost/Nixon"'s Ron Howard will be the one to lose out, though I'm less certain of his replacement. "WALL-E"'s Andrew Stanton would be an inspired and unprecedented nod to animation work, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"'s Woody Allen would celebrate a return to form for a legend, and the Academy does like them some Mike Leigh. My guess is "The Wrestler"'s Darren Aronofsky. He's never been nominated before, and "The Wrestler" just seems like the type of film favored more so by the Oscars than its precursors.

As far as the winners of those two categories, it seems pretty safe to say "Slumdog Millionaire" is all set for a big night next month.

Where things really get interesting is in the acting categories. None of them seem to have a locked five, and some even have seven or eight truly viable contenders. It's also important to keep in mind that the Academy can actually prove quite unpredictable for the actors. Last year, Tommy Lee Jones' nod for "In The Valley of Elah" was based on basically no one's predictions, while Laura Linney was nominated for "The Savages" without a Golden Globe, SAG or Critic's Choice nomination.

The lead categories each seem to have three all-but-confirmed finalists. For the women, its "Doubt"'s Meryl Streep, "Rachel Getting Married"'s Anne Hathaway, and "Revolutionary Road"'s Kate Winslet. The men have "The Wrestler"'s Mickey Rourke, "Milk"'s Sean Penn, and "Frost/Nixon"'s Frank Langella. Then things get murky.

Super couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have each taken pretty much every precursor out there for their work in "The Curious Case in Benjamin Button" and "Changeling," respectively. And both have been snubbed for recent work. So it might be ridiculous to suggest it'll happen again, but that's where I'm heading. Both performances were met with divisive responses, and there's bound to be more #1 votes for work like Sally Hawkins' in "Happy-Go-Lucky" or Clint Eastwood's in "Gran Torino." More uncertain is the suggestion that great-indie-hopes Richard Jenkins and Melissa Leo will also beat out the Jolie-Pitts, but I feel like history is actually on their side. Both films have been out for a while and play very nicely on DVD screeners, and both performances have some pretty passionate supporters. That also leaves out "Revolutionary Road"'s Leonardo diCaprio and "I've Loved You So Long"'s Kristin Scott Thomas, though either could surprise.

Perhaps the most undetermined category of all is best original screenplay. No fewer than nine contenders are great possibilities: "Burn After Reading," "Gran Torino," "Happy-Go-Lucky," "Milk," "Rachel Getting Married," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," "The Visitor," "WALL-E," and "The Wrestler." The WGA usually gets about three right, and my thought is that this year that number will fall to two: "Milk" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." WGA contenders "Reading," "Wrestler" and "Visitor" will lose out to "Rachel"'s Jenny Lumet (they already seem on track to giving the film a pretty unfortunate cold shoulder, and being Sidney's daughter can't hurt), "Lucky"'s Mike Leigh (again, they like Leigh, even more so than his home-and-native BAFTAs), and "WALL-E"'s Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon (they are usually kind to Pixar in this category).

Other categories to watch includes the always unpredictable (and often tragic) foreign-language film and feature documentary shortlists. The finalist lists have already caused controversy, most notably the snub of Matteo Garrone's "Gomorrah," and it wouldn't be a shock if the final nominations do the same. It seems as though timely foreign contender "Waltz With Bashir" and universally praised "Man on Wire" are the only sure things, but even that is difficult to say with much confidence. My suggestion for Oscar morning blogger bitching is the snub of France's "The Class," which despite critical acclaim is not at all an "Oscar baity" film and might join "Gomorrah" in a massive list of shoulda-beens that more recently includes "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," "Persepolis" and "Volver."

Below are my final predictions. I have "Button" down for 13-nod lead, but if Pitt gets in, it could top out at 14, tying "Titanic" and "All About Eve" for the all time record.

BEST PICTURE
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frost/Nixon
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire

BEST DIRECTOR
Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant, Milk

BEST ACTRESS
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

BEST ACTOR
Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Taraji P. Hensen, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Kate Winslet, The Reader

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey Jr, Tropic Thunder
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky
Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married
Woody Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Andrew Stanton, Wall-E

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Eric Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley, Doubt
Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
David Hare, The Reader
Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Kung Fu Panda
WALL-E
Waltz With Bazhir

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Everlasting Moments
Departures
The Necessities of Life
Revanche
Waltz With Bashir

BEST DOCUMENTARY
At The Death House Door
I.O.U.S.A.
Man on Wire
Strandard Operating Procedure
Trouble The Water

BEST EDITING
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frost/Nixon
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
Slumdog Millionaire

BEST ART DIRECTION
Changeling
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire
The Reader

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Australia
Changeling
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Duchess
Revolutionary Road

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
"Down to Earth" (WALL-E - Peter Gabriel)
"Gran Torino" (Gran Torino - Clint Eastwood)
"I Thought I Lost You" (Bolt - Cyrus & Steele)
"Jai Ho" (Slumdog Millionaire - AR Rahmen)
"The Wrestler" (The Wrestler - Bruce Springsteen)

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Revolutionary Road
Slumdog Millionaire
WALL-E

BEST SOUND MIXING
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Iron Man
Slumdog Millionaire
WALL-E

BEST SOUND EDITING
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Iron Man
WALL-E

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Iron Man

BEST MAKEUP
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Tropic Thunder

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