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Will the Oscar go to "Blood," "Old Men" or?

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Posted: Friday, February 22, 2008 10:00 pm

Best Picture

Will win: "No Country for Old Men"

Should win: "There Will Be Blood"

Overlooked: "Gone Baby Gone"

Six weeks ago, I would have given a slight edge to sentimental favorite "Juno," the teen pregnancy comedy that seemed to have the whole country swept up in an inexplicable frenzy of adoration. That bit of unpleasantness appears to have subsided, though, and critical darling "No Country for Old Men" looks to be the one to beat. The backlash over the film's abrupt, bewildering ending shouldn't be enough to hinder the steady stream of praise the movie has received since its debut. This chase flick may be a tad too violent for some voters' tastes, but, hey, they gave the award to "The Departed" last year, so maybe those prudes are finally loosening up a bit.

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Javier Bardem stars in "No Country for Old Men." (Courtesy photo)

Of course, that wave of buzz and unmitigated praise should have been directed at "There Will Be Blood." While the film did get more than its share of kudos, it deserved even more. This was the year's truly great western - methodically paced, horrifying without being overtly violent, and often unbearably intense even when not much is going on plot-wise. It's been billed as merely an oil industry drama, but it's also a penetrating character study on the level of "Citizen Kane," not to mention an inventive, sometimes surreal vision of the apocalypse. (Oh yes, there's subtext aplenty.) You can't help but fall in love with a movie that ambitious.

And once again, the real best film of the year has gotten the shaft. Nominated only for actress Amy Ryan's supporting performance, "Gone Baby Gone" was overlooked in nearly every major category. Its absence from the best picture race is particularly aggravating, as this kidnapping thriller is even more impressive than the considerable sum of its parts. It's not often that a movie can claim to be both the most entertaining and most thought-provoking film in a given year, but "Gone Baby Gone" takes both titles handily. It offers up a story (based on the novel by "Mystic River" scribe Dennis Lehane) that exploits only the best aspects of genre conventions while at the same time subverting audience expectations by throwing us a final-act curveball that forces us to cast doubts on the very foundation of our respective belief systems. I think that alone trumps anything that anyone could possibly say about "Juno."

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Daniel Day-Lewis stars in "There Will Be Blood." (Courtesy photo)

Best Actor

Will/Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood"

Overlooked: Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"

He was robbed five years ago for his iconic performance in "Gangs of New York," but previous winner Daniel Day-Lewis is heavily favored here for his turn as Daniel Plainview, the ferocious oil baron at the center of "There Will Be Blood." He's won the lion's share of awards so far, and there's no reason to think he won't win the big one, too. For anyone who has seen the movie, it should be blindingly obvious that none of the other nominees even come close to touching Day-Lewis' work, which blends theatrical and cinematic acting styles together to form a singularly weird tour de force that defies categorization.

Just look at that final scene, when Plainview completes his descent into absolute madness; no other actor, living or dead, could have pulled that off without looking totally ridiculous. Day-Lewis, however, embraces the inherent absurdity of the scene, and then completely owns it. He also succeeded in making "I drink your milkshake!" a viable pop-culture catchphrase, which is awesome in itself.

Philip Seymour Hoffman has been giving such natural performances for so many years that it's easy to gloss over and dismiss him as a character actor who already got his due with a win for "Capote" two years ago, and should now go back to his supporting-actor roots. (Hence the nod for his backup role in "Charlie Wilson's War.") But his best work this year - in several years, actually - was as the lead in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," Sidney Lumet's little-seen heist thriller-cum-Greek tragedy. As one of a pair of brothers who decide to rob their own parents' jewelry store, Hoffman makes the progression from sleazy everyman to desperate criminal seem believable and disturbingly natural.

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Casey Affleck stars in "Gone Baby Gone," directed by his brother, Ben Affleck. (Courtesy photo)

Best Actress

Will win: Julie Christie in "Away From Her"

Should win: Marion Cotillard in "La Vie En Rose"

Overlooked: Nobody

Oscar voters love a survivor, and this year they'll likely show that love to longtime Academy darling and previous winner Julie Christie, who earned some of the best notices of her illustrious career for her turn as an Alzheimer's sufferer in "Away From Her." This is one of the year's most wide-open races, so she's far from a sure thing. However, since she nabbed the Screen Actors Guild award and a slew of critics prizes, she has earned her front-runner status with a strong role that shows that after all these years, she's still got it.

Christie's most formidable competition may be Marion Cotillard, nominated for her haunting portrayal of legendary French singer Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose." If enough voters actually saw the film, she would win easily. But the film is quite a sit, and subtitled to boot, so some prospective supporters may be turned off. A shame, because this was such a fascinating, physically demanding role for Cotillard, who transformed herself inside and out to play her subject over a span of 30 years. With a presence and energy reminiscent of Giulietta Masina in her prime, Cotillard is simply stunning.

And no, despite careful thought, I cannot think of any lead actresses who were snubbed this go-around. It's sad to admit, but honestly, 2007 wasn't what you could call a strong year for actresses.

Best Supporting Actor

Will win: Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men"

Should win: Tom Wilkinson in "Michael Clayton"

Overlooked: Ed Harris in "Gone Baby Gone" and Paul Dano in "There Will Be Blood"

Not since Hannibal Lector and "The Silence of the Lambs" has a cinematic psychopath gotten as much attention as Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh, the unstoppable force of death and destruction in "No Country for Old Men." Here's a figure so malevolent and calmly brutal that he becomes less a character in the traditional sense and more of a catch-all figurehead for the incomprehensible evil of which men are capable. He's what people are remembering most about the movie, so you can count on Bardem riding the film's wave of critical popularity to his first - but probably not last - Oscar win.

I preferred Tom Wilkinson's work in "Michael Clayton," in which he plays a high-powered attorney who finds he must lose his mind in order to gain back his conscience. It's definitely a high-wire act, but Wilkinson tows the line between realism and over-the-top theatrics with such dexterity that it is often easy to take the performance for granted. It's delicate work in which Wilkinson must sell himself as both sweet and creepy (often in the same scene), but he proves he's up to the task and crafts what may be the year's most heartbreaking role.

Since I didn't have a pick for a lead actress who was overlooked by the Academy, I guess I'm entitled to two in this category. My first choice would be Ed Harris, who towered over "Gone Baby Gone" with his performance as a fiercely protective policeman investigating the disappearance of a little girl. Nobody can portray raw intensity like Harris, who continues to be either robbed or completely ignored by Oscar voters who fail to realize that this guy deserves at least two or three awards by now.

Also worthy of a nod was Paul Dano (seen two years ago in another best picture nominee, "Little Miss Sunshine") as the falsely pious preacher Eli Sunday in "There Will Be Blood." Asking such a young actor to go head-to-head with an intimidating veteran like Daniel Day-Lewis is quite a request, but Dano tackled the role with a reckless abandon that can only be described as admirable. And while his co-star is the one getting all the accolades, Dano's performance is just as central to the film's success. Sunday is the festering annoyance that ultimately drives oilman Daniel Plainview to the brink of insanity, and that journey wouldn't be nearly as credible or as interesting had Dano not carried his weight with the confidence of a seasoned pro.

Best Supporting Actress

Will win: Cate Blanchett in "I'm Not There"

Should win: Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton"

Overlooked: Marcia Gay Harden in "The Mist"

Ruby Dee won the SAG award for her turn in "American Gangster," but since that was little more than a cameo role (and not a particularly memorable one, at that), I refuse to believe that she'll pull out an Oscar win as well. In this competitive race, look for double-threat Cate Blanchett (also nominated by default for her leading role in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age") to beat out critical fave Amy Ryan and take home her second supporting actress Oscar for her work as Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There." She was the only female out of the eight different actors portraying the singer in various stages of his life, yet amazingly enough, her performance was the most authentic. Voters won't be able to resist this delightful bit of stunt casting.

But I must give credit to Tilda Swinton, who, in my estimation, eclipsed Javier Bardem's work in "No Country for Old Men" to give us the year's best and most underrated villain. While Bardem's character was cold and calculating, Swinton's murderous corporate lackey is all emotion. A bundle of pained expressions and nervous twitches, she demonstrates exactly how taxing it can be to live as a bad guy with everything to lose. Look at her final scene, where she is finally confronted by George Clooney's title character, and you'll find one of the year's very best examples of great, layered acting.

Marcia Gay Harden was the subject of some early Oscar buzz before "The Mist" opened, but given the film's poor box office performance, that quickly died down. Yet regardless of the movie's financial failings - and no matter what you think about its ostensibly silly plot involving a swarm of killer bugs that terrorize a group of people holed up in a supermarket - there's no denying that Harden (a previous winner in this category for 2000's "Pollack") gave a tremendous performance as the loathsome religious fundamentalist Mrs. Carmody. Never has the phrase "you love to hate her" been more apt.

Best Director

Will Win: Joel and Ethan Coen for "No Country for Old Men"

Should win: Paul Thomas Anderson for "There Will Be Blood"

Overlooked: Ben Affleck for "Gone Baby Gone"

They deserved to win for 1996's "Fargo," but lost to Anthony Minghella and his vastly inferior "The English Patient." But this year, even if their film fails to nab the big prize, they are pretty much guaranteed a win in this category. As two of the most respected auteurs working in Hollywood, the Coens have been cranking out great, original films for decades, and this will be seen as a career achievement even for those who weren't entirely sold on the film itself. It's worth noting that if they do get the award, it will be the first time since 1961's "West Side Story" that a directing team was honored.

As much as I admire the Coens and their work in "No Country for Old Men," Paul Thomas Anderson clearly deserves this trophy. Channeling past masters Orson Welles, John Huston and Stanley Kubrick, he took what could have been a standard anti-capitalist tirade and turned it into a magnum opus that will be discussed and analyzed for decades. In a just world, a filmmaker this talented and diverse would have two awards already (for 1997's "Boogie Nights" and 1999's "Magnolia"). Given that justice rarely prevails at the Oscars, Anderson will likely have to wait a while to get his due. But I've no doubt that he eventually will.

• Joel and Ethan Coen are nominated not only for producing, directing and writing "No Country for Old Men," but are also nominated as film editors under the pseudonym "Roderick Jaynes."
• Heath Ledger had been in talks to play Llewelyn Moss in "No Country for Old Men," but withdrew to take "some time off." The role ultimately went to Josh Brolin.
• Had the infamously reclusive Daniel Day-Lewis not agreed to play Daniel Plainview, Paul Thomas Anderson has said it is unlikely that "There Will Be Blood" would have been made.
• The "I drink your milkshake!" monologue from "There Will Be Blood" was inspired by actual congressional transcripts from a 1920s oil drilling scandal involving Republican Senator Albert Fall, of New Mexico.
• George Clooney's Michael Clayton wasn't always such a lonely guy: All scenes involving his girlfriend, played by Jennifer Ehle, were cut from the final print.
• It often took up to five hours to apply makeup to Marion Cotillard for her scenes as the rapidly aging Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose."
• For her role in "Gone Baby Gone," Amy Ryan was so convincing as a low-class Boston mom that an on-set security guard mistook her for a fan on the first day of shooting and wouldn't let her on the set.
Source: Internet Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com">http://www.imdb.com).

The Academy has a history of rewarding actors who fare well behind the camera (Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson have all won in the past 30 years), but apparently Ben Affleck doesn't qualify, despite the fact that his film is leagues better than the best works of any of the aforementioned actors-turned-directors. With a keen eye for detail and a peerless sense of location, Affleck knocked one out of the park with the Boston-based "Gone Baby Gone." It's a grand achievement, and all the more impressive when you consider that this was his first effort as a director. If he abandons his failing acting career and focuses instead on making his own movies, we should be seeing more great things from this born filmmaker.

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