I know what you've been thinking: "My office Oscar pool deadline is rapidly approaching, and yet I'm unsure for whom I should vote. Why, oh why, won't David from Clark Schpiell Productions offer me some guidance in this important matter?" Well, I've finally seen all (okay -- almost all) of the relevant Oscar-nominated films, and I'm now here to help, just in the nick of time. Without further rigamarole, my thoughts about the six main categories:
Best Actor (Leading Role)
A lot of people would love to see Johnny Depp win here. I'm not one of them. Depp is, no question, a premiere actor -- his talents are matched by a small, small few in Hollywood. And he was very good in Pirates of the Caribbean. And he's unquestionably pretty. But his role was not complex or challenging enough to merit a Best Actor nod. The same could be said, I think, for Sean Penn -- an amazing actor (my favorite of his is State of Grace), and a bang-up job in Mystic River, but, for all the weeping, it was a pretty middle-of-the-road role. The real outstanding job this year was from Ben Kingsley in House of Sand and Fog. Kingsley is, arguably, the best actor working today -- certainly in the top 5. And his character in this film was perhaps the most difficult he's ever played. He lent nobility and complex layers of personality to a character which could have gone wrong in so many places, for so many actors. This was simply a role too big, too challenging for almost any actor to play, yet Kingsley slid into it like a glove.
Who should win: Ben Kingsley -- his nuanced performance was the best of any actor in the last few years.
Who will win: Sean Penn -- he's a great actor, he cried a lot, and he may actually be coming to the awards this year. The Academy is stumbling all over itself to give this to him.
Best Actress (Leading Role)
Like Best Actor, this really comes down to three people: Diane Keaton, Samantha Morton and Charlize Theron. Morton's measured, moving, utterly real performance in In America gets my vote. However, Keaton is one of the greatest film actresses of all time, and the Academy wants to honor her this year. Theron's performance in Monster was unquestionably great -- she proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is a skilled, talented actress, and not just a stunningly beautiful face. But she wasn't that good -- both Keaton and Morton well outdid her, and in better films.
Who should win: Samantha Morton -- her quiet, dignified and emotional performance in In America was absolutely beautiful.
Who will win: Charlize Theron -- she made herself ugly and did a good job, despite the fact it was in a mediocre movie. The Academy loves hot chicks who make themselves ugly.
Best Actor (Supporting Role)
This is the hardest category for me -- I absolutely love all of these guys. Alec Baldwin has long been one of my favorite actors (and he's certainly given, along with Christopher Waulken, one of the two best Inside the Actors Studio interviews to date). Benicio -- ah, Benicio -- his hangdog looks and deep, sincere eyes made even The Way of the Gun into not such a bad flick. Djimon Hounsou is just simply a huge mountain of raw, coiled, electric emotion. Tim Robbins is the ultimate everyman, and was the ultimate broken everyman in Mystic River. Ken Watanabe was everything good about The Last Samurai. His intelligent, measured performance cut through the cheese of that film and showed an amazing skill.
Who should win: Tim Robbins -- his was the only really nuance performance in Mystic River, despite what others might tell ya.
Who will win: Ken Watanabe -- he successfully battled cancer -- Oscar likes that. Plus, Robbins is shunned by rednecks and Republican everywhere, and the Academy (after last year) is really afraid of a political acceptance speech.
Best Actress (Supporting Role)
This should go to Shohreh Aghdashloo -- the single look she gave Kingsley before drinking her tea at the end of House of Sand and Fog is worth 100 Oscars. However, as much as it irks me to say this, Renee Zellweger was really, really good in Cold Mountain, and the fact that she was, really, the only consistently good thing about that damn movie plays heavily in her favor. The rest are all good actors (I'm a big fan of Holly Hunter and Marcia Gay Harden), but just didn't give performances that could stand up to those first two.
Who should win: Shohreh Aghdashloo -- she was utterly real in the most difficult role in this category.
Who will win: Renee Zellweger -- she carried Cold Mountain. Plus, Aghdashloo is an unknown, so that stacks against her.
Dark Horse: Holly Hunter -- everybody loves Hunter, and she was really good in Thirteen. Aghdashloo's newness to Oscar, and the fact that Zellweger won last year could open Hunter up to a win.
I'm not gonna mince words here -- if Peter Jackson doesn't get this one, heads will roll. I'm damn serious. What he has done with the LOTR trilogy over the last five years is nothing short of miraculous. I'd go so far to say that his trilogy is the most daring, difficult task ever set to by a mainstream director, and the fact that all three films are stunningly good movies shows his amazing skill as a director (and writer and editor). Peter Weir's Master and Commander was a brilliant job as well -- that picture is all direction (and I loved it) -- unfortunately, he did it the same year as Return of the King. He certainly deserves something for it -- he'll have to settle for a nomination.
Who should win: Peter Jackson -- he has gone from a relative nobody to one of the most powerful directors in Hollywood in three films (really, one big film), all thanks to his incredible skills.
Who will win: Peter Jackson -- I think the Academy sees what he has done, and will reward him.
Dark Horse: Sophia Coppola -- the Academy wants a woman winner, and that may push her over the edge. I want one too, but her work, while good, just wasn't as good as Jackson's, or Weir's for that matter.
Mystic River was an okay film. But it was terribly uneven, a bit sloppy in its editing, and the all-important "prequel" section, upon which the whole film hinged, was populated almost entirely with the worst actors, kids and adults, in the history of cinema. Seabiscuit, for all its hype and really strong acting, was the most plastic kind of "inspirational" film. Lost in Translation was certainly a smart, adventurous, intellectually challenging undertaking, with really strong performances from both leads, but, in truth, it was more than a little boring in places -- I liked the film more because I wanted to than because I was truly engaged. Master and Commander is a great movie -- I loved it. It's well-crafted -- no doubt, and I don't know anyone who didn't like it. But I also don't know a lot of people who loved it, and I know only one or two who put it above ROTK. To follow that line, I hardly know anyone who saw ROTK and didn't love it. It was a tremendous movie in its own right, and, when looked at in the context of it's predecessors, a truly spectacular achievement.
Who should win: Return of the King -- an accomplished closing chapter to the best movie trilogy ever (please forgive me, Han).
Who will win: Return of the King -- 'nuff said.