Oscar Predictions '09: Mediocrity Isn't Just a Pipe Dream Anymore!

Before we begin my predictions, let's sum up the important details thus far:

1. In 2006, I successfully predicted 9 of 11 categories but didn't try any of the more difficult categories. Also, I seem to recall cheating (as in "oh, yeah, I totally called Memoirs Of A Geisha winning Cinematography, I just didn't write it down in time").

2. In 2007, I got 15 out of 24 categories (63%) and won my Oscar pool, which I think had about five people in it.

3. In 2008, after talking a big game, I got 13 out of 24 (54%), and went into a period of deep mourning.
4. In 2009, I called 16 out of 25 Golden Globes (64%), which starts to show a definite pattern of not-awesomeness.

5. I really, really hate losing - and unfortunately, in recent years, have been required to acquire a taste for it.

So the bad news is that I've shown a distinct pattern for having a decent idea of what's going to happen at the Oscars but not enough of one to really be considered an expert. That's all going to change this year.

This year, it's 75% or better - or bust. I'm not sure what, exactly, "or bust" means, but I'm willing to take suggestions over what my punishment should be should I fail to meet my quota.

The important thing to remember about the Oscars is that they are not actually an award show to determine which film or actor is superior, but which selection makes Hollywood feel the best about itself. The reason it selects films that are considered more "important" is not necessarily that it feels those films are better but because it feels that they should honor the films that "make a difference." That's why Wall-E and The Dark Knight are pushed aside to make way for films like The Reader and Revolutionary Road, even though voters know - and will acknowledge - that the former two are better films. But honoring a film like Slumdog Millionaire makes voters feel that Hollywood is connected to the plight of the world at large, and that belief is much more important to them than whether The Dark Knight did a better job of sound mixing. So watch closely during this year's Oscars - the direction taken early in the night will domino along throughout the show.

In fact, let's start with the sound categories:

Sound Editing and Sound Mixing: The reason we're starting with these two very unimportant categories is because of the Bafta results from a couple weeks back, which awarded Slumdog "Best Sound." While Slumdog is a certainly very well-mixed movie, it doesn't deserve to win "Best Sound," especially when movies with intensively designed soundscapes (Wall-E, The Dark Knight) are involved. The rule of thumb for awards given for technical prizes and performances is that "best" usually means "most." What movie had the most sound effects? What movie had the most make-up? Who had to do the most acting? When an award is specifically given outside of that, that usually means that there's a strong feeling within a community that a film is deserving to be rewarded as much as possible in as many ways as possible. And I think that's the case this year, Expect Slumdog Millionaire to capture at least 7 out of 9 possible awards (I'm predicting 8).

But not 9, and here's where I'm breaking away from the pack - while Bafta gives out one sound award, the Oscars gives out two - Editing and Mixing. Editing basically refers creating sounds and sound effects, and mixing involves combining those sounds together into the movie. While Slumdog should (well, not should, but probably will) win Best Mixing, there's essentially no sound creation going on, whereas most of Wall-E's whole appeal is hinged on the brilliant sound creation of Star Wars alum Ben Burtt. And I say that the voters see the distinction as well.

Alright, let's cover the acting categories, since that's where the only real debate left this year is.

Actor: This category is completely even-steven. The line between Sean Penn (Milk) and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) is so razor-thin that they've actually shared the award at some shows. The debate goes something like this:
A. They're both unbelievably good in these movies, two heavyweights who absolutely tore up their roles.
B. As good as the rest of the competion is (especially Frank Langella's punchy Richard Nixon), everyone knows that the battle is between these two.
C. Sean Penn immersed himself in a role that was unlike anything he'd ever done before, gave the whole movie an effervescent charm, and got you to root for him despite the fact that he's Sean Penn. Impressive.
D. Mickey Rourke reappeared from the dead, bulked up for a year, dominated a movie that hinged entirely on his performance, and made you believe in him as a down-on-his-luck professional wrestler, which almost no other actor could do.
E. The two of them have been exceedingly gracious, doing interviews together, helping promote each other, and so on. There's no real competition here between them, so there's no hard factions arguing with each other.

So no one knows what will happen - none of the precursors give us any clear picture, and neither seem to be fading or suffering from backlash. It's a pick'em. And I'm picking Penn, who gave my favorite performance of the year, in my favorite movie.

No wait, I'll go the other way, Rourke's got the momentum...


No, I'm sticking with Penn, I'll be mad if he wins and I didn't pick him...

No, wait, I'm going for Rourke. He's got the momentum, and I'm riding that.

Actress: Here's a good example of how it's not performance, it's politics. The best performance of the year was Anne Hathaway's. But it's not a strong enough performance to unseat someone who the Academy wants to vote for because they feel that the actress is due - which is the case with both Kate Winslet (five nominations, no wins) and Meryl Streep (hasn't won since 1982, been nominated 10 times since). I think Winslet has the stronger case in that regard - the Academy is famous for having ignored her, she's in a Holocaust movie, she gets naked in the role, she wears aging makeup in the role, she's had a strong couple of years of great performances - and so I think she gets the win. That being said, it's hard to tell what's going to happen because previous award shows have nominated this role as a supporting role instead of a lead role, and so Streep and Hathaway have been winning these awards instead of her.

Supporting Actress: And since Winslet's been nominated so often in this category - and won so many times - it's impossible to know what'll happen here. It's nice to see a race that's actually a 5-way battle for once. I don't think I've ever seen that happen in any category.

The smart money has to be on Penelope Cruz. Her movie came out months earlier than the other contestants, she built buzz around her role for months until everyone knew she was guaranteed a spot in this group even before the nominations came out. And Vicki Christina Barcelona relied heavier on her performance than any of the other movies relied on their nominees, which matters. Of course, if The Wrestler begins to get any sort of momentum, than it could take both Actor and Supporting Actress categories out of sympathy for being ignored in Best Picture. Take note during the night - if Marisa Tomei wins this category, than Rourke is probably winning at the end of the show.

Supporting Actor: Gambling odds on this category have Heath Ledger at -2000. That means that if you want to win $100, you'd have to put $2000 down. That's a strong favorite. I think if Ledger was going to lose this category, we would have seen something in the award shows leading up to it, but that wasn't the case, and the Academy isn't going to want to stand out on this one. Our only hope for this category is that when Ledger wins, they send Christian Bale up there to accept the award.

Alright, let's play Quick Picks.

Animated Feature: Wall-E
Art Direction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire (though it should be Wally Pfister's incredible nighttime photography in The Dark Knight)
Costume Design: The Duchess
Documentary Feature: Man On Wire
Documentary Short: "The Conscience of Nhem En"
Editing: Slumdog Millionaire
Makeup: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Original Score: Slumdog Millionaire
Short Film, Live Action: "Spielzeugland" ("Toyland") - hey, Holocaust alert.
Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Screenplay, Adapted: Slumdog Millionaire
Screenplay, Original: Milk

And know we'll do things that should be Quick Picks but I can't bring myself to not talk about.

Foreign Language Film: It's The Class vs. Waltz With Bashir, and man, this one is tough. Subtle acting drama with children against an inventive documentary in rotoscoped animation, not to mention that you don't just vote for the film, you vote for the country (France vs. Israel, in this case). I'm gonna say France's The Class will win just because they had such a strong year (Let The Right One In, I've Loved You So Long).

Short Film, Animated: There is an anti-Pixar movement in animation circles (they were recently shut out at the Annie Awards), which leads one to believe that the voters might go the other way - perhaps to the lovingly hand drawn "La Maison en Petits Cubes" ("House of Small Cubes"), about a man in a precarious, nearly submerged house who finds old memories under the water. Still, Pixar-haters or no, I can't see enough people rallying to vote against Pixar's smartly funny old-school slapstick piece, "Presto" (which, oddly, is available for free in HD on Youtube). Pixar might be overrated, but how can you vote against a little bunny who plays tricks on his magician? Have you no soul, voters?

Original Song: I'm not writing extra here because I feel that there's much competion - "Jai Ho," from Slumdog, is going to win - but because I found out how Springsteen's "The Wrestler" didn't get nominated. It turns out during the nomination process, rather than nominating songs and tallying the nominations given, instead the voters rate the songs on a scale from one to ten. That's right - you can assess negative votes to your competion. That's a shady piece of voting structure if I ever saw one - it lets people target the frontrunners and take them out. Worried that Springsteen will beat you out for a nomination? Give your piece a ten and his a one - that should even out all the sixes and sevens you've been getting! I'd've organized a write-in campaign if that was even a slight possibility.

The big ones are of course already decided.

Director: David Fincher's a lightly-publicized but legitimate dark horse (and my favorite) for his work on Benjamin Button, but only if things take a strange, anti-Slumdog turn. This award is almost definitely going to Danny Boyle.

Picture: And, of course, the crown jewel in Slumdog's well-garnished crown. If you're watching the awards this Sunday and want to go to bed after the acting trophies are handed out, I'm sure you can safely do so - Boyle will already have gone to the stage half a dozen times before this award gets handed out, so you won't need to feel guilty for missing it.

Don't feel that I'm knocking Slumdog for winning all these awards because I think it's a bad film - it's not, I think it's fantastic, it's my second favorite film this year behind Milk. But the hype has built to such a level that it seems there's no way for it to be beat, and I don't think it's that good. Also, it's started to win awards it doesn't deserve against more deserving films - in addition to sound awards, it's won acting awards and things like "Best Ensemble" that more accurately would go to Milk or Doubt. And the way it's going to snag things like Best Song over Springsteen nags at me - after 80 Academy Awards, things like that should happen.

One way or another though, I'll be watching this Sunday. I'm nervous for all the usual categories - documentary short, animated short, foreign film, costume design, etc - but I feel I've got at least half a dozen categories locked up. And I feel very, very good about 75% this year.

Though it probably wouldn't be a bad idea to come up with punishments that I could get if I miss my goal. Again.