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News-Sentinel film critic Jason Wallis names his top picks for Sunday’s Academy Awards

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, February 24, 2012 7:41 am

I always try to get as excited as possible about the Academy Awards, that time-honored annual tradition in which Hollywood enrages the nation’s cinephiles by consistently displaying the most remarkable lack of good taste and common decency imaginable.

This year, though, has been more difficult than most. I mean, look at the nominees. Go on, look. Cast your weary gaze upon this list of top-tier honorees, and marvel at the mind-bending ignorance and general contempt for the creative process that went into crafting such a list — a thoroughly insulting mish-mash of boring “arthouse” awards bait and half-baked mainstream drek.

And for who? For what? So Christopher Plummer can finally feel like a winner before it’s too late, Meryl Streep can add another undeserved notch to her Oscar nod belt, and we can continue to pretend that movies like “The Help” and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” are relevant or constructive or entertaining in any way at all? I guess I’ve been laboring under the misapprehension that this was supposed to be Oscar night, and not a celebratory banquet for elderly has-beens and the galactically stupid.

Too harsh? Not a chance — this entire farce has finally gone too far, and the people should at last stand up and be counted. Every man, woman and child who values artistic integrity and/or sanity should boycott the Oscars, this year and every year, until our voices are heard and Hollywood ceases its all-out assault on our beloved cinema. We should rise. We should fight, knowing that one day they will sing songs of our valiance.

We should. But we won’t. And I’m not gonna be out there all by my lonesome, yelling in the streets and tilting at windmills in a one-man struggle to restore balance to the awards season. So, yes, I’ll be tuning in along with everyone else, moaning and complaining as usual, hoping against hope that one of my favorites will snag a trophy, and waiting for the revolution that will never come. But hey, at least it’s something to do on a Sunday night.

Best Picture

Should win: “The Tree of Life”

Will win: “The Artist”

With the year’s actual best movies (“Drive,” “Melancholia,” “Rango,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” etc.) out of the running, I reluctantly throw my support behind “The Tree of Life,” director Terrence Malick’s heady rumination on life, the universe and everything. It was more of a fascinating experiment than a traditional “great” film, but it is most certainly the most accomplished (not to mention ambitious) choice out of the nominees. “Hugo” would be my second pick, but there’s simply no way the Academy could ever muster the gall to honor either of these bold and unusual works.

The smart money is on “The Artist,” and I see no reason to argue, as it’s light, fun and plays perfectly to Hollywood’s sense of nostalgia. It’s a high-concept film that relies on a gimmick, and they’re typically overlooked by more traditional narrative-minded voters, but this one is clever and accessible enough to appeal to more or less everyone. Its only real competition is “The Descendants,” which has lost steam of late — unless the Academy decides to get cute and give it to “The Help” (or, as it was originally titled, “Hallmark Presents: Mississippi Burning”). But don’t bet on it.

Best Actor

Should win/Will win: Jean Dujardin in “The Artist”

Apparently Oscar hates Ryan Gosling, Michael Shannon and Michael Fassbender. There is no other explanation for their exclusion from this sorry list of names — an especially hostile gesture considering that Gosling and Shannon are former contenders. I have not seen Fassbender’s work in the sex-addiction drama “Shame,” but am prepared to believe the legions of admirers who claim that he turned in one of the most difficult and hypnotic performances in years. I have, however, seen Gosling in “Drive” and Shannon in “Take Shelter,” and can confidently say that either of them would deserve to win, in a walk, over any of the actual nominees if only the Academy saw fit to actually honor great, fearless acting.

So, since George Clooney’s momentum has faded, nobody knows or cares about Demian Bichir, and Brad Pitt’s nomination has an elaborate practical joke in the first place, that leaves Gary Oldman and Jean Dujardin. Part of me wants to say that Oldman will pull a major upset and claim a “career achievement” trophy, but let’s face it: His performance in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” wasn’t so much impressive as it was simply different from Oldman’s usual “thing.” Dude was pretty much just staring silently the whole time. Not particularly riveting. Thus, the easy charms of Dujardin’s endlessly expressive comic performance in “The Artist” will win the day — which is fine by me, even if I do maintain that “The Descendants” contains Clooney’s best work to date.

Best Actress

Should win: Tilda Swinton in “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (write-in)

Will win: Viola Davis in “The Help”

I’m going to pretend, for a moment, that Oscar miracles can happen, and that a secret write-in campaign for Tilda Swinton as best actress has been underway for weeks. It was, after all, the finest, fiercest and most emotionally affecting performance of the year, in any category. The fact that she didn’t make the cut while Streep is marking her 37th or whatever nomination is particularly upsetting, and in her honor I refuse to support any of the pretenders to her rightful throne. (In all fairness, if I would have made it to “My Week with Marilyn,” it’s possible that Michelle Williams could have earned my backing.)

Asked two months ago, I would have said that Williams was a slight favorite for her reportedly layered turn as Marilyn Monroe, as she took quite a few critical honors and Oscar always loves a good celebrity impersonation anyway. But after her Screen Actors Guild victory, it’s hard to deny that Viola Davis, in terms of momentum, is at this point indistinguishable from a freight train. Barring some kind of terrible “We love you, Meryl!” outburst that results in Streep being honored for a movie that nobody will ever see, this is Davis’ year.

Supporting actor

Should win: Nick Nolte in “Warrior”

Will win: Christopher Plummer in “Beginners”

This category seems weaker than usual this year, and I’ve no choice but to throw my hat into the ring for grizzled old acting vet Nick Nolte, who gave us a career-best performance as a regretful, guilt-ridden estranged father in the curiously underrated MMA drama “Warrior.” I’ve not seen Kenneth Branagh or Max von Sydow in their roles (the former because I never got around to it, and the latter because I intentionally avoided it like the plague), but I have my doubts that their performances could hold a candle to Nolte’s delicate and heartbreaking work.

No matter, though, because fellow grizzled old acting vet Christopher Plummer pretty much has this one sewn up. As an elderly gay man coming out to his son and embracing his sexuality following the death of his wife, Plummer is absolutely charming, and finds a lot of nuance in a rather broadly written role. I’ll still take Nolte in a head-to-head, but I will take solace in the fact that Jonah Hill has a better shot at being named People’s sexiest man alive than he does winning this award. So at least there’s that.

Supporting actress

Should win: Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids”

Will win: Octavia Spencer in “The Help”

Another weak field, another easy call. Ironically, my pick for the year’s best supporting actress is Jessica Chastain for her emotionally shattering turn in “Take Shelter,” as the endlessly patient wife of a man who may or may not be slowly succumbing to paranoid schizophrenia. It was a brilliant performance, but since the Academy saw fit to nominate her for “The Help” instead, I gotta go with Melissa McCarthy for her pitch-perfect comedic role in “Bridesmaids.” She took what could have been a generic “fat, butch chick” role and instead transformed it into one of the most memorable and flat-out courageous comic turns I’ve seen in years. But since Oscar doesn’t have the greatest track record when it comes to honoring comedies, I’m not going to get my hopes up too high.

I used to think Chastain would pull out a win here, as she’s the year’s budding young ingenue and could conceivably be rewarded for her body of work over the past 12 months (which also included a solid role in “The Tree of Life”). But the momentum has shifted to her “Help” co-star, Octavia Spencer, would along with Davis has been mowing down the competition lately. It’s too broad a performance for my tastes, but she crafted an instantly likeable characterization in a successful bit of Oscar bait — and with the right lobbying, I guess sometimes that’s enough.

Director

Should win: Terrence Malick for “The Tree of Life”

Will win: Michel Hazanavicius for “The Artist”

The exclusion of Nicolas Winding Refn (a Cannes winner for “Drive”) and David Fincher (for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) is so absurd as to be farcical, and Academy voters should be hanging their heads in shame over such glaring omissions (especially after they robbed Fincher so blatantly last year, when he was up for “The Social Network”). But at least they had the foresight to nominate Terrence Malick for his stark visual essay “The Tree of Life,” which has become the year’s cause celebre in the directorial community just as it has emerged as a target of ridicule for a lot of actors, who are insulted by Malick’s egomaniacal approach to his craft. Granted, Malick is an actor’s worst nightmare — but there’s no denying that he produces great results, and remains one of cinema’s truly unique creative voices.

But, as was the case last year, Oscar voters will likely go for the promising upstart over the seasoned vet, and honor Michel Hazanavicius for the bold (but short of visionary) “The Artist.” After his win at the Director’s Guild Awards, he’s more or less a shoe-in — a shame, considering he’s also up against Martin Scorsese, that titan among men who, with the family-oriented “Hugo,” proved that he is a master of all genres. But hey, who needs living legends when you’ve got some random guy who made a silent movie, am I right? (*weeps silently*)

Original Screenplay

Should win: “Margin Call”

Will win: “Midnight in Paris”

No screenplay last year crackled with intensity quite like “Margin Call,” writer/director J.C. Chandor’s absorbing, fictionalized look the cutthroat business ethics of a major financial firm in the first 24 hours following the 2008 meltdown. The film probes the psychology of greed with surprising delicacy and finesse, and by the end it provides a clearer picture of what has happened to the American business model in the past decade than any number of painstakingly researched documentaries possibly could. But it’s too small a movie to win a major Oscar, and the nomination will be seen as reward enough when they of course award the trophy to Woody Allen — who wouldn’t be caught dead at such a debased dog and pony show anyway, so what’s the point?

Adapted Screenplay

Should win: None of the above

Will win: “The Descendants”

This is both the most boring category of the evening, as none of the nominees deserve to be there in the first place, and the most awesome, as one of the contenders is Jim Rash — aka Dean “I would that this desk were a time desk!” Pelton from NBC’s “Community.” He’s up as a co-writer for “The Descendants,” which is a lock to win in this incredibly dull field — and regardless of whatever happens the rest of the night, it’ll all be worth it just to see the esteemed Mr. Pelton on stage accepting an award. Not your usual brand of Oscar thrills, but at this point I’ll take what I can get.

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

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