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Jason picks the Oscar winners

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Posted: Friday, February 20, 2009 10:00 pm

Here are News-Sentinel film critic Jason Wallis' picks for the Oscars, which will be announced Sunday:

Best Picture

• "The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttonâ€A

• "Frost/Nixonâ€A

• "Milkâ€A

• "The Readerâ€A

• "Slumdog Millionaireâ€A

Upon its release, "Slumdog Millionaireâ€A quickly situated itself as one of the most beloved films of the year. And due to the crunched schedule of this awards season, there hasn’t been enough time for any kind of significant backlash to set in.

It’s a safe choice, and a solid flick that has won more than its share of major awards already (including the Golden Globe for best drama and the Screen Actors Guild award for ensemble acting). Above all, it leaves you with a pleasant vibe, and that escapist appeal will probably propel it to some major wins in a time when well-respected feel-good entertainment is becoming an increasingly rare and sought-after commodity in Hollywood.

Or, they could screw up and give the big one to "Milk,â€A which looked like an early front-runner for this prize until less-than-enthusiastic audience reaction put a dent in its campaign. Still, the film undoubtedly retains many dedicated fans in the voting populace, although I strongly suspect that their admiration for such an unremarkable film stems not from any real artistic admiration, but rather a fervent support for the movie’s political agenda. All things considered, I think Hollywood will probably put their Prop. 8 outrage on the backburner and honor the film with other awards.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttonâ€A leads the pack in its number of nominations, but out of its 13 nods, I’m guessing that its only wins will be in technical categories, and certainly not here. "Frost/Nixon,â€A despite being the only truly great film on the list of nominees, is simply not provocative enough for Oscar voters. And although I consider the Holocaust drama "The Readerâ€A to be among the worst films ever nominated for the best picture Oscar, it actually does stand a smidgeon of a chance if the two big ones split the vote. But don’t bet on it.

Best Actor

• Richard Jenkins, "The Visitorâ€A

• Frank Langella, "Frost/Nixonâ€A

• Sean Penn, "Milkâ€A

• Brad Pitt, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttonâ€A

• Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestlerâ€A

Mickey Rourke deserves this award, and I really don’t think you can form a rational argument against him. Alas, he’s not a Hollywood insider â€" in fact, I get the impression that he isn’t very well-liked at all by the people who matter.

Enter Sean Penn, who will likely win his second award in six years, this time for his role as slain San Francisco politician Harvey Milk. It’s just a slightly more refined version of his embarrassing (but Oscar-nominated!) work in "I Am Sam,â€A and frankly, I’m surprised the gay community wasn’t offended by this one-dimensional turn, which often flirts with the realm of gay caricature. But, hey â€" it’s a fun political message, and that’s what counts, right?

Rourke, meanwhile, is operating on a whole other level. This isn’t just acting; this is a transcendent revelation, a harsh and profound act of soul-baring that blows everything else completely out of the water. As a washed-up pro wrestler who returns to the ring for one last match, Rourke channels the pain incurred from his own unfortunate past, and harnesses the power of these feelings and experiences to create a truly vivid portrait of a man who lives life on his own terms â€" and pays the consequences. Rourke has won his share of awards, and stands a very good shot here. But given that "Milkâ€A will probably come up short in other big categories, this award will be looked on as an opportunity to ensure that film some glory.

Richard Jenkins is a well-liked and respected figure who had a great year, but I think the nomination will be his reward. Frank Langella gave an intense performance as the former president in "Frost/Nixon,â€A and if it wasn’t for Rourke, I would say that he deserves the award hands-down. But he’s already got a Tony for the role, and people just don’t seem all that jazzed about the movie, unfortunately. As for Brad Pitt, I think even he realizes that it just isn’t his year, despite the popularity of his film.

Best Actress

• Anne Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Marriedâ€A

• Angelina Jolie, "Changelingâ€A

• Melissa Leo, "Frozen Riverâ€A

• Meryl Streep, "Doubtâ€A

• Kate Winslet, "The Readerâ€A

This has just gotta be Kate Winslet’s year, right? She has done better work in the past in far greater films, but considering that both "Revolutionary Roadâ€A and "The Readerâ€A were so well received, I think the Academy is almost obligated to throw her a bone here. And even though I hated both films about equally, even I must admit that she was impressive, especially as an accused Nazi war criminal in "The Reader.â€A She elevated herself above some really rancid material, and the ability to do so is, I believe, the hallmark of a genuinely talented actor.

If Winslet’s role in "The Readerâ€A had been relegated to the supporting category, as it was for the rest of awards season (despite the fact that it’s clearly a leading role), then the Academy’s obligations would likely lean toward two-time winner Meryl Streep, who shows that she’s still going strong after 15 Oscar nominations spanning four decades. As the icy Mother Superior at the center of the religious drama "Doubt,â€A Streep will likely gain the support of many older voters, but it won’t be enough to stop Winslet from claiming her first award.

The young Anne Hathaway was looking good early on, but her luster seems to have faded in the face of more experienced contenders. Same goes for Angelina Jolie â€" a winner in the supporting category for 1999’s "Girl, Interruptedâ€A â€" who will have to wait to return to the Oscar stage (although she’s still a tad more likely to win than her beau, Brad Pitt). And the unknown Melissa Leo is in the same boat as Richard Jenkins: She doesn’t stand much of a chance at all, but she can take solace in the fact that she’s "already a winner.â€A

Best Supporting Actor

• Josh Brolin, "Milkâ€A

• Robert Downey Jr., "Tropic Thunderâ€A

• Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Doubtâ€A

• Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knightâ€A

• Michael Shannon, "Revolutionary Roadâ€A

Okay, here’s an easy one: If Heath Ledger doesn’t win a posthumous Oscar for his powerhouse work as The Joker in "The Dark Knight,â€A then it will be the biggest upset in Academy Awards history. His performance is so magnetic, so can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it fascinating that, yes, he would still be a shoe-in for this award even if he hadn’t died in post-production. This isn’t a bandwagon effect; this is earnest respect for an immensely talented actor who delivered what is among the most riveting performances ever caught on film.

Of course, I never completely discount the possibility of a massive Oscar meltdown, so I recognize that both Josh Brolin and Robert Downey, Jr. do, in fact, have a snowflake’s chance in hell of pulling out a win. Past best actor winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and Michael Shannon (whose role in "Revolutionary Roadâ€A had the distinction of serving absolutely no real purpose at all), meanwhile, might as well stay home.

Best Supporting Actress

• Amy Adams, "Doubtâ€A

• Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Christina Barcelonaâ€A

• Viola Davis, "Doubtâ€A

• Taraji P. Henson, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttonâ€A

• Marisa Tomei, "The Wrestlerâ€A

Best supporting actor may be by far the easiest category to predict, but its sister race is damn near a toss-up. On one hand, Viola Davis has been earning nothing but raves for her 10-minute cameo in "Doubtâ€A as the mother of a young boy who may have been sexually molested by a priest, and her few moments of screen time are what most people seem to be taking away from the film. (Co-star Amy Adams will suffer, as anyone championing the film will no doubt join the Davis camp.)

However, in the midst of all this Davis infatuation, some forecasters seem to be neglecting the very real threat posed by Taraji P. Henson, who plays the fiercely protective maternal figure in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.â€A Voters may feel compelled to reward such a highly nominated film with at least one major trophy, and this is the only real candidate for a minor upset.

Penelope Cruz gave the year’s finest comedic performance in Woody Allen’s "Vicky Christina Barcelona,â€A and I wouldn’t be too opposed to seeing her take it down (even if I don’t think she’s usually that great of an actress). My first choice, though, is Marisa Tomei, who for the past several years has carefully cemented her status as one of today’s most forceful actresses. Her work in "The Wrestlerâ€A is a testament to the role of the "supporting actressâ€A â€" she uses her screen time to establish a strong character whom the viewer immediately cares about, but her primary function is to complement and bolster Mickey Rourke’s lead performance. Tomei holds up her end of this cooperative effort nicely, and even though she’s a prior winner, she deserves at least one more statuette.

Best Director

• David Fincher, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttonâ€A

• Ron Howard, "Frost/Nixonâ€A

• Gus Van Sant, "Milkâ€A

• Stephen Daldry, "The Readerâ€A

• Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaireâ€A

The rules that apply in the best picture race hold true here as well: This is Danny Boyle’s award to lose. After winning virtually every critical award that a filmmaker can win (not to mention the coveted Director’s Guild award), Doyle should close it up here without too much trouble. He’s perceived as the man of the hour, and his impressive list of past credits (including, most notably, "Trainspottingâ€A and "28 Days Laterâ€A) can’t hurt his chances.

He only needs to watch out for Gus Van Sant, a veteran filmmaker with an even stronger background of work. But like I said, "Milkâ€A never really "took offâ€A like many were expecting, and despite its status as the darling of the critical world, I just don’t see Hollywood (an industry often noted for its latent homophobia) going out of its way to make a statement here. Besides, Van Sant has been rubbing many people the wrong way lately with the frustrating artistic "shiftâ€A he’s been going through this past decade or so. Stuff like "Elephantâ€A may fly with the Cannes crowd, but for Oscar, Van Sant may still be a little too much of an outsider.

Three-time nominee Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliot,â€A "The Hoursâ€A) could conceivably sneak in, but I’d like to think that he’s too dry and unimaginative a director to seriously be in the running. David Fincher ("Se7en,â€A "Fight Club,â€A "Zodiacâ€A) is the exact opposite of Daldry; he’s one of our great visual filmmakers, and his work is always interesting. Yet, despite his credentials and the fact that he directed the most honored film of the nominations process, Fincher has about as much of a chance of getting his first Oscar as Ron Howard has of getting his second â€" that is, absolutely zero.

Best Original Screenplay

• "Frozen Riverâ€A

• "Happy-Go-Luckyâ€A

• "In Brugesâ€A

• "Milkâ€A

• "WALL-Eâ€A

This one will be quick: "Milkâ€A was written by Dustin Lance Black, an openly gay recovering Mormon who looked to Harvey Milk as a source of inspiration during a time that was incredible hostile to homosexuals. Forget the actual quality of writing - he wins anyway. It’s transparent and insulting to everyone that a fundamentally weak screenplay can gain such kudos primarily because of its socially friendly content, but so it goes.

But really, there’s not a lot of strong competition here. "WALL-Eâ€A (charming and clever, but wildly over-rated) could pose a challenge for "Milk,â€A but ultimately the film will have to settle for a win in the animation category. I’d rather see "Happy-Go-Luckyâ€A rewarded for Mike Leigh’s unique brand of pseudo-improvisation, but Martin McDonagh’s "In Brugesâ€A would be a decent pick as well. But no matter â€" along with the screenwriter of "Frozen River,â€A they’re strictly seat-fillers in the coronation of Dustin Lance Black.

Best Adapted Screenplay

• "The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttonâ€A

• "Doubtâ€A

• "Frost/Nixonâ€A

• "The Readerâ€A

• "Slumdog Millionaireâ€A

Simon Beaufoy is definitely the front-runner for "Slumdog Millionaire,â€A his adaptation of Kikas Swarup’s novel "Q&A.â€A The film moves at a brisk pace, and it translates fairy tale sensibilities into a modern context like few films I’ve seen. The tide is with him, but David Hare and "The Readerâ€A could come from behind to claim this one. It’s a highly literary work, and most people seem to be under the impression that Hare successfully adapted a supposedly unfilmable novel â€" always an impressive feat.

Both "The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttonâ€A and "Doubtâ€A (adapted by Sean Patrick Shanley from his Pulitzerand Tony-winning play) have a slim chance of winning, but as with all the other awards it’s nominated for, the spectacular "Frost/Nixonâ€A will have to sit on the sidelines and watch other, inferior films have all the fun.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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