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Friday, February 22, 2008

Going for Gold...

...the heat is on, the time is right...

The Oscars will be presented on Sunday night having been saved due to the resolution of the writer's strike. Now I know that many, myself included, tend to get our knickers in somewhat of a twist over the decisions made - and not made - by the loftily titled Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (a moniker that prompted director DW Griffith's caustic response: 'What art? What science?').

But this year, there are a slew of thoroughly deserving nominees for mostly dark, challenging films that reflect the edgy times we live in. The problem is that these days, the Oscars are a bit of an afterthought before they even take place, thanks to the proliferation of award ceremonies that come before it - such as the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Screen Actors Guild Awards.

For thatreason, there are a lot of heavy favourites this year, so much so that Sunday night's ceremony is shaping up to be mind-implodingly predictable. Worthy, but predictable.

Oscar remains the big cheese though, and below are my tips to win on Sunday night, broken down again into my "head" choices (who I think will win) and my "heart" choices (who I think should win). (Incidentally, the best Irish chance of picking up an Oscar this year is Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova for Best Original Song for the track Falling Slowly from Once, which I think is a lock to win).

Best Supporting Actor:
This category is arguably the strongest in this year's contest, yet strangely it's been a one-man race for the entire award season - Spanish actor Javier Bardem, for his mesmerising portrayal of the relentless, bowl-haired killer in the Coens' No Country For Old Men.

Bardem, who was nominated for Best Actor in 2000 for sensitively playing persecuted Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls (directed by Julian Schnabal, who is up for Best Director on Sunday too), has won the Globe, BAFTA and SAG, as well as 14 critics' citations, and so is the heavy favourite going in.

His only competition could come from 83-year-old Hal Holbrook, who was heartbreaking as the lonely widower who tries to stop Emile Hirsch's quasi-suicidal trek to Alaska in Sean Penn's Into the Wild. Sentiment would normallly push the award in Holbrook's direction, but it genuinely doesn't seem to be the case this year.

Elsewhere, Casey Affleck, in the running for his deeply unnerving performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, will build a successful career on the back of his recognition here, while Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won Best Actor two years ago for Capote, never really stood a chance, despite being the best thing in Charlie Wilson's War (by a long way) and giving two equally award-calibre performances this year in The Savages and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. Lastly, Tom Wilkinson devoured the scenery in Michael Clayton, but this isn't his time (he should have won the Best Actor gong in 2001 for his devastating performance in In The Bedroom).

My heart says: Hol Holbrook
My head says: Javier Bardem

Best Supporting Actress:
In a year of apparent foregone conclusions, this category is the one that is genuinely impossible to call. There's no real favourite per se, and all the pre-Oscar awards have been divided in their choices. Double nominee Cate Blanchett was the early choice, winning Best Actress at Venice and then the Golden Globe for her electrifying (literally) channeling of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There.

All the while the critics were falling over themselves praising the unheard-of Amy Ryan for her gritty turn as a drug addict mother whose child goes missing in Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone. Then, 83-year-old Ruby Dee seemed to have locked up the all-important actors' support by claiming the Screen Actors Guild gong for her 5 minute role in American Gangster (the actors make up the largest voting block in the Academy).

Then, a fortnight ago, British actress Tilda Swinton swept up the BAFTA for her brilliant performance as a corporate lawyer in Michael Clayton.

The only nominee not to take home any pre-Oscar award hardware - apart from an IFTA which I doubt holds too much sway - is 13-year-old Carlow native Saoirse Ronan, nominated for her extraordinary performance in Atonement, where she acted Keira Knightley and James McAvoy right off the screen, and where her pitch-perfect portrayal was so crucial to the movie's action.

Personally, I'd give the award to Ronan, though I'm always reluctant about rewarding Oscars to stars so early in their careers. This girl is going far- and will go further - with or without an Oscar now, and who doubts that she won't be back here again soon, maybe even next year for her role in Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones?

I think that Blanchett has lost her edge - the Academy admires her movie, but doesn't like it, plus she won this category recently for The Aviator. Ryan could be the Marcia Gay Harden of this year and pull it off, but I think Swinton has emerged late as the most serious competition. Dee could coast to victory purely on the sentimental vote, but her role really is too small, even in comparision to the modern benchmark for short Oscar winning screen times, Judi Dench, who won this category 10 years ago for an 8 minute role in Shakespeare In Love.

My heart says: Tilda Swinton
My head says: Amy Ryan

Best Actor:
Look, why waste my time and yours? Is there anybody in the world who doesn't think Daniel Day-Lewis is going to win here for his monumental (the emphasis on 'mental') performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's There WillBe Blood? He's won the GG, BAFTA, SAG, and 14 critics' prizes. Literally no other actor has won a Best Actor gong at any of the pre-Oscar award shows.

George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises), Tommy Lee Jones (superb in Paul Haggis' little-seen In The Valley of Elah) and Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) are all making up the numbers sadly.

My heart says: Daniel Day-Lewis
My head says: Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Actress:
This race has become a lot tighter in the last few weeks. 66-year-old Julie Christie has been the long-time favourite for her understated and moving portrayal of an Alzheimers patient in actress-turned-writer/director Sarah Polley's Away From Her. Christie, who won the Best Actress prize in 1965 for Darling, has won the Golden Globe (Drama) and SAG, as well as 12 critics mentions.

However, there seems to have been a bit of a late swing behind French star Marion Coitillard's turn as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, a move no doubt aided by the fact that Harvey Weinstein has taken her under his wing. The 32-year-old delivered an astonishing performance but in an almost psychotically uneven film, which has held her back until now. But she won the BAFTA a fortnight ago ahead of Christie, and has been working the circuit in Hollywood like crazy for the past month.

Ellen Page also is somewhat of a dark horse who could pull off a last minute upset. Juno is by far the most successful movie of any in the race (with a domestic gross of $120m and rising) and has clocked up extremely positive reviews. It's also the most light-hearted movie in the race, providing much-needed relief from the cynicism and nihilism of the main contenders. While the movie itself stands its best shot in the Best Original Screenplay category, 21-year-old Page might just become the conduit for the Academy's love of the movie.

Cate Blanchett was great in the very mediocre Elizabeth: The Golden Age, while Oscars's perennial always-the-bridesmaid-never-the-bride Laura Linney gave a complex and sympathetic texture to her damaged character in The Savages.

I think Christie peaked too early which, together with her vocal disdain for the awards process, will trip her up at the last hurdle. I'd like to see Page pull off the upset, but I suspect Cotillard will pass the finishing line.

My heart says: Ellen Page
My head says: Marion Cotillard

Best Director
Ethan and Joel Coen are the safest bets heading into the contest, having won the Directors Guild and the BAFTA. No Country is the year's most feted movie, and indeed the brothers stand to win 4 Oscars apiece if they win here as well as Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing (under their pseudonym Roderick Jaynes).

Be that as it may, I'm not sure their victory here is set in stone. There's a real sense that Paul Thomas Anderson has done something very special with There Will Be Blood, a movie that has wowed, baffled and haunted critics and audiences like few others in recent years. There may have been a late swell of support behind him, and I would not be shocked to see him carry off this gong.

Jason Reitman showed great promise in Juno but this isn't his time, while Tony Gilroy will also be back again after his deftness in channeling the great 70s paranoia thrillers in Michael Clayton.

I'm rooting for Golden Globe winner Julian Schnabel, who simply blew me away with the flair, imagination and daring he demonstrated in transplanting Jean Dominique Bauby's memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly into the beautiful and profoundly moving film of the same title. If Schnabal does win, I'm pretty sure it will mark the first time that a director has won here without a Best Picture nomination (an omission that was a travesty by the way). It will be very close, with Anderson closing up on the Coens, but I'm sticking my neck out for Schnabel.

My heart says: Julian Schnabel
My head says: The Coens

Best Picture:
When The Departed won this award last year, everyone expressed surprised that such a dark and violent movie could triumph at the normally safe and anodyne Academy Awards. This year, however, the two frontrunners are even darker - No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood.

No Country won the Producers Guild and just about every pre-Oscar gong going, so it's in the best position to win. But as with the Best Director race, there's a feeling that There Will Be Blood is one for the ages, a cinematic epoch that will be analysed in years to come, and one which the Academy doesn't want to be seen to be missing out on or ignoring. I myself think the movie is flawed, but is still a momentous piece of cinema that has lingered in my mind ever since, for good and for bad.

Juno is the most commercially successful picture running and would be a mjaor upset if it were to win, but perhaps not that much of a shock. Remember that the Academy tends to plump for the movies it likes, irrespective of the movie's artistic merits or its inferiority to the other nominees, which would explain some of its more bizarre choices down through the years.

I doubt it will go all the way, however. Michael Clayton is a brilliantly acted movie with some fantastic set pieces, and it has the most acting nominations of the Best Picture nominees. But I felt it didn't all come together as well as I'd liked. Plus it has no buzz.

Atonement, meanwhile, has been the great non-starter of the season. Once considered a major contender - mainly before anyone actually saw it - the movie has failed to make a significant impact, even failing to win a Best Director nod for Joe Wright, which would have been more deserving recognition for the movie than this nomination.

I think No Country will just about pull it off, though it will be a close race. Don't bet the house on it.

My heart says: No Country For Old Men
My head says: No Country For Old Men

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