First of all, DAMN I’VE BEEN GONE A LONG TIME. I’ve gotta tell you, it’s been absurdly busy these past few weeks, especially as I’ve been in rehearsals for a show that I’m stage managing, so between regular office hours from 9-5 and rehearsals from 6-11 most days of the week, I’ve basically been left with little time to write. But I’m back, and to make up for my absence, I present my first list of the year (’bout damn time, right?). Today’s list?

Top Ten Potential Oscar Surprises That Would Make My Day on February 2nd

Be aware, this is not a list based on likelihood. I’m ranking these based on what I would most like to see happen. A full set of commentary-free predictions will come on Monday night, mere hours before the big announcement. Enjoy.

#10

Invictus shut out

Why it could happen: This choice is at the bottom slot on my list for a reason: lack of passion. On all sides. I don’t think I’ve heard a single person passionately expressing love for Invictus. I don’t think I’ve heard a single person passionately expressing hate for Invictus. Like a wet noodle, it’s just been sort of sitting there all season. And it’s had plenty of opportunities to pop up. Sure, Eastwood scored a Director nom at the Globes, but the fact that it couldn’t even swing a Picture nom with the same star-struck group (which is comprised of no more than 90 members–it’s not that hard to buy 46 votes) strikes me as suspicious. Plus, earlier this month, the WGA had issues with several notable screenplays being disqualified from the race in Adapted Screenplay (including likely Oscar nominees District 9 and An Education). You’d think that, if people actually liked the film, it could get in by default. But it missed again. Sure, Freeman and Damon scored with the Globes and the Screen Actors Guild, but no other guild has stepped in to drum up any support for the film. Films with a strong fan base have a much better chance of pulling out nominations in Picture, Actor, and Supporting Actor (right now, the only three categories Invictus could possibly score).

Why it should happen: Clint used to be in the business of making movies, period. Some of them weren’t very good, but he has made no less than two truly brilliant films (Unforgiven, his first brush with Oscar, and 2003’s criminally underappreciated Mystic River). But somewhere along the way, Clint started getting hungry for the prestige, for the little golden guy. That’s why Million Dollar Baby happened. That’s why Changeling happened. That’s why Gran Torino happened. Hopefully, having a third consecutive picture crash and burn with AMPAS is just what Clint needs to chill off the awards-baiting and maybe wait a couple of years before his next picture, and make sure it’s something that really excites him. It’s time to stop letting Eastwood coast on name alone; he’s gotta earn it again.

#9

“Stu’s Song” from The Hangover for Best Original Song

Why it could happen: Time for a history lesson: did you know that, in the history of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, no Golden Globe winner for Best Picture (Comedy/Musical) has gone nomination-less with Oscar? On paper, The Hangover is maybe the least likely Oscar nominee of all time, but history is on its side to score at least one nomination. While I’m predicting that category will most likely be Original Screenplay (but more on that later), the film has a potential to sneak into the Original Song category with Ed Helms’ original composition “Stu’s Song.” It’s worth noting that, in the conversations I’ve had with many friends and colleagues, this song often pops up as the highlight of The Hangover, even for people who disliked the film. And remember that AMPAS members vote after viewing clips that show how the song is used in the film. Shown in context, the song is certainly memorable (unlike the use of “I Can See in Color” in Precious) without being a sensory overload (like “Cinema Italiano” from the loathed Nine).

Why it should happen: It fits the bill; AMPAS wants to include songs that work within the context of the film and are well-composed, and while the song isn’t terribly complex, it’s certainly catchy and quite funny. On top of that, people sometimes ignore how bold the moment in the film is; outside of Bollywood, the only non-musical films that would include an out-of-left-field number would probably be by someone like Godard. I’m not saying The Hangover is as bold as anything coming out of the French New Wave, but to say it was charted territory for a frat-boy comedy is (aside from just being straight-up wrong) to not give it enough credit.

#8

Neill Blomkamp for Best Director

Why it could happen: District 9 has been getting a surprising amount of love this season (more on that later), and it seems reasonable that Blomkamp could ride that wave of support into the Director shortlist. Also, it’s common to see at least one foreign nominee in each category, and at this point, the only three with a fighting chance of taking that distinction are Blomkamp, Lone Scherfig (for An Education), and Michael Haneke (for The White Ribbon). The White Ribbon is a very dark horse for a Best Picture nomination, and in a ten-nominee year, it’s not likely we’ll see a lone director nominee like we have in the past, so let’s count Haneke out. When choosing between Blomkamp and Scherfig, District 9 is the film with the bolder (and more obvious) sense of direction. Scherfig’s film is classical and smooth as silk, but most of the praise for the film has centered around Nick Hornby’s script and Carey Mulligan’s revelatory performance, whereas Blomkamp’s vision of District 9 has been at the forefront of the discussion.

Why it should happen: It proves that the Academy is willing to support bold, young filmmakers. Enough said.

#7 / #6

Avatar snubbed for Best Art Direction/Cinematography

Why it could happen: Avatar may be sitting pretty as one of the Best Picture frontrunners (and will probably become the highest-grossing film in the United States ever released shortly after nominations are announced), but one mustn’t forget an important contingent of the Academy: old people. Technology can be confusing and scary, so films shot digitally or that rely heavily on CGI can run into trouble, especially a film as CGI heavy as Avatar. While the technical achievement of Avatar is impossible to ignore, it is easy to see how it could befuddle members’ standard definition of what qualifies as Art Direction or Cinematography and what qualifies as Visual Effects.

Why it should happen: I warn you that what follows will be a common thread in this list. Simply put, Avatar does not deserve to win Best Picture. Not this year, not any year, not ever. It could win Best Visual Effects every year for a decade and I wouldn’t care, because that achievement is truly unprecedented and deserves every bit of praise it has received. But honoring great techs while turning a blind eye to sub-par acting and abominable dialogue is just inexcusable. Let’s leak a little air out of the tires on Cameron’s vehicle, and allow some recognition for equally impressive work in the likes of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Bright Star, and A Serious Man.

#5

Ponyo for Best Animated Feature

Why it could happen: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is a lot of fun and made really good bank, but there is one element missing that makes it a weaker contender against the likes of Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, and Coraline, and that is emotional weight. Meatballs has its share of laughs, but they are more aimed toward the 14-25 SNL set (which shouldn’t surprise, considering starring turns from Bill Hader and Andy Samberg and writing-directing credits for the guys behind MTV’s cult hit “Clone High”), who aren’t big on the whole catharsis thing. Since Up and Frog will represent for the moneymakers, why not let a smaller animated film shine? Well, comparatively small; Hayao Miyazaki is still a titan, a god amongst mere mortals, and a director who hasn’t missed a nomination in this category since its inception (2002’s winner Spirited Away and 2005 nominee Howl’s Moving Castle).

Why it should happen: Like every Miyazaki picture, it is a visual feast. It pushes the magic and wonder of childhood to the forefront. It explores all sorts of love on rich, resonant levels. It revels in the joys of the senses, like the feel of water against your feet or a belly full of hot soup. And because it ranks as both one of the year’s best animated films and one of the year’s best films, period.

#4

Anthony Mackie for Best Supporting Actor

Why it could happen: Outside of Christoph Waltz and Woody Harrelson, this category is wide open. Even early frontrunner Stanley Tucci is losing ground after the beating The Lovely Bones has been taking from critics and guilds. With as many as three slots up for grabs (more likely, just two–I say Christopher Plummer still scores here), anything could happen. The actors have shown their support for The Hurt Locker through a Best Ensemble Nod from the Screen Actors Guild, and if they admire Jeremy Renner’s work enough to net him a Best Actor bid (which seems likely at this point), I could easily see AMPAS award Mackie in kind.

Why it should happen: Right now, Best Picture is likely a two-way race between David and Goliath: The Hurt Locker and Avatar. A surprise nomination for Anthony Mackie could be the ultimate harbinger of a Best Picture victory for The Hurt Locker. I may not be head over heels for The Hurt Locker, but in the end, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. If my favorite of the likely nominees isn’t going to win this race (more on that in a second), then I certainly want to see the little $12 million David take out the $600+ million Goliath.

#3

Melanie Laurent for Best Actress OR Best Supporting Actress

Why it could happen: How many AMPAS members have actually seen The Last Station? Really and truly. Jeff Bridges can still get nominated without most people seeing his film because he’s so beloved and because he’s never won an Academy Award before–it’s his year, it’s a done deal, plain and simple. Same goes for Christopher Plummer (well, his year to be nominated, at least–Christoph Waltz takes the Supporting Actor trophy in a victory that will be even less contested than Bridges’). But what of Plummer’s co-star Helen Mirren? Is she really a lock? Unlike Bridges and Plummer, she’s a recent past winner, so AMPAS doesn’t feel they owe her anything. Sure, she’s hit all the right precursors, but no other guilds have recognized The Last Station, so that tells me they either don’t like it or haven’t seen it. However, it’s clear that they like and have seen Inglourious Basterds. The Weinsteins were pushing Melanie Laurent for Best Actress, but AMPAS can put them in any category they please (see Kate Winslet, campaigned Supporting for The Reader last year, only to win in Lead come Oscar night). Category confusion could do her in, but I feel confident that she can get enough of a following in one category or the other, either over Mirren and Emily Blunt for Best Actress, or over Julianne Moore and her Basterds co-star Diane Kruger for Best Supporting Actress.

Why it should happen: Christoph Waltz may be Basterds‘ best in show, but Laurent is the heart of the piece. Her strong silent type could have easily flown off the rails into femme fatale territory, but Laurent grounds it all in a relatable human being, helping to keep Tarantino’s epic from turning into another masturbatory cinematic exercise à la Death Proof. On top of that, if Laurent could score over Helen Mirren for Best Actress while Diane Kruger (who scored a SAG nod for her performance) scores a Best Supporting Actress nod, it could mean this is a tighter race than we thought, and there’s nothing I love more than a close race, especially when my favorite of the nominated films is a major contender. Come on, AMPAS–make Inglourious Basterds a REAL contender.

#2

District 9 for Best Picture

Why it could happen: Sure, the real story of guild season has been The Hurt Locker and Avatar, especially the high prospects of Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first woman to ever win Best Director at the Academy Awards (just as she became the first woman to win the Directors Guild of America award this weekend). But the other story, hidden behind all of that hype has been the quiet rise of District 9. First came the surprise Screenplay nod from the Golden Globes, but people thought it could be a fluke. Then it managed a nomination from the Producers Guild of America. Eyebrows across the country were raised. Suddenly, the USC Scripter changed its rules (normally, only films adapted from a book could be nominated for the screenwriter and the author; last year, comic books became eligible; this year, even films based on other screenplays became eligible), allowing District 9 to score another shocking nomination (its screenplay being adapted from Blomkamp’s own original short film “Alive in Joburg”). It has continued to rack up guild notices, with surprise nods from the Art Directors Guild and the American Cinema Editors (sneaking in their Drama category over higher-profile Best Picture contenders Inglourious Basterds and Precious), as well as expected notices for sound and visual effects. Just recently, the BAFTA nods were especially kind to District 9. While it missed the Picture shortlist (BAFTA, unlike AMPAS, keeps it down to five), it scored for Director, Adapted Screenplay, and five technical categories.

Why it should happen: If AMPAS manages to nominate District 9 for Best Picture (which I am predicting they will at this point), it will be the best argument for keeping the new ten-nominee system. In a five-nominee year, a film like District 9 would have no shot, but now it has a fighting chance, as well as the potential to score one of the highest nomination tallies come Tuesday morning. The quiet rise of District 9 has been the greatest surprise of this awards season, presenting what could have been a similar trajectory to City of God‘s path back in 2003. Trust me: if we had a ten-nominee system in 2003, City of God would have been a rightful Best Picture nominee. Seeing bold, gritty, forward-thinking fare like District 9 sneak in is exactly why The Ten was made.

#1

The Hangover for Best Picture

Why it could happen: Stranger things have happened. Not much stranger, but I remind you once again that a Golden Globe winner for Best Picture (Comedy/Musical) has never gone without a nomination come nomination morning. What helps a film grab a Best Picture nomination is love, and the fact is that there are people out there who truly love The Hangover. And this isn’t just hearsay; Ivan Reitman has made it public knowledge that the film played into his Best Picture ballot; the Writers Guild of America and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts have recognized the film’s screenplays with nominations in the face of more prestigious competitors; and it scored surprise notices from both the Art Directors Guild and the American Cinema Editors guild. The support is there, and in a ten-nominee year, it could be enough to push it over the top.

Why it should happen: Because, at the end of the day, the ten-nominee system is a bad idea. The Academy abandoned the system once before, so it’s only a matter of time before they do it again. And what better way to expedite the process than for a raunchy, low-brow frat-boy comedy (one that I love without shame or guilt, mind you) to sneak in due to the new system? The Greatest Show on Earth pulled off a Best Picture win in a five-nominee year, and it is considered one of the biggest mistakes AMPAS has ever made. Trust me when I say the Academy will never live this choice down if The Hangover sneaks in for Best Picture. I give it three weeks post-ceremony before they announce that they’re going back to five nominees for Best Picture. Plain and simple: the Oscars are the Oscars because of their prestige, not because the big populist fare that everyone’s already seen and already loves get recognized. The Oscars aren’t meant to be the People’s Choice Awards, but the industry honoring the industry. Let’s keep it that way, shall we?

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