Who will win the Oscars? Our movie critic sifts the odds and makes his picks

 

While front-runners usually prevail, there’s always a chance for a dark horse.

By Rene Rodriguez | rrodriguez@MiamiHerald.com

Year after year, the Oscars are almost always the same. Forget about how many films or actors are nominated in a particular category: The number doesn’t matter. Most Oscar races come down to a two-way scramble between a heavily favored nominee and a scrappy upstart.

That was the case last year ( Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker) and the year before ( Slumdog Millionaire vs. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) as well as the year before that ( No Country For Old Men vs. There Will Be Blood). Why do most categories boil down to so few valid potential winners? Because the consensus as to who gave the year’s best performance or which director delivered the most creative work is reached long before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gets around to bestowing its honors.

The Oscars, which air at 8 p.m. Sunday on ABC, come last among all other best-of awards after those handed out by the Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, the Producers Guild, the BAFTAS (the British Oscars), even the meaningless Golden Globes, and the picture that dominates those competitions usually — usually — achieves Oscar glory.

But Oscar winners aren’t necessarily the greatest achievers in their categories: They are just the most celebrated. This is why, although all signs point to a sweep by The King’s Speech, there is still a chance — a slim one — that The Social Network could pull through. And although Tom Hooper was a surprise winner of the Directors Guild award, a reliable Oscar indicator in the Best Director category, David Fincher is still favored to make his way to the podium to accept the award.

Being the best (i.e. The Social Network) simply is no guarantee. The movie also has to play up to the tastes of the 6,000 voting Academy members — who tend to favor uplifting stories about human triumph (i.e. The King’s Speech) over everything else. A shrewd campaign is also essential: Shaking the right hands, participating in the right Q&A sessions and saying the right things in interviews can go a long way toward bringing a nominee, regardless of merit, closer to victory.

That trend has changed somewhat for the better in recent years. The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire and No Country For Old Men, all Best Picture winners, were far removed from the traditional safe-and-fuzzy Oscar mold. Sometimes, the Academy surprises you — and the unexpected is exactly what I’m hoping for.

Here’s a rundown of the six major categories, most of which come down to — you guessed it — two-way races.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Amy Adams ( The Fighter), Helena Bonham Carter ( The King’s Speech) and Jacki Weaver ( Animal Kingdom) all delivered standout performances as unusually strong, capable characters — and in Weaver’s case, as a twinkly-eyed grandma with a murderous streak, scary, too. But this category comes down to True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld as the 14-year-old out to avenge the murder of her father and The Fighter’s Melissa Leo as the ferocious manager-mama who could stare down a raging bull. The 10 nominations for True Grit prove the Academy loved it, and Steinfeld’s star-making performance could propel her to victory. But Leo is a hard-working veteran, well known and liked among actors (the Oscars’ largest voting body), and her character was a force of nature — a driven, unflappable woman, Carmela Soprano crossed with Jake La Motta, intent on keeping her family together at whatever cost. She’ll win; Steinfeld will have other opportunities.

SHOULD WIN: Leo.

WILL WIN: Leo

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Right from the opening scene of The Fighter, Christian Bale exuded so much electricity as Dicky Eklund, a former boxing champ turned crack addict, that the movie immediately pinned you to your seat, announcing This Is Not Your Father’s Rocky. The film’s title referred to Micky “Irish” Ward, the working-class boxer who rose from nowhere to become a world champion, but it might as well have described Dicky, who waged a major battle against demons for the sake of his brother. Bale, who specializes in playing withdrawn men of few words, has rarely been this loose and vibrant — this alive — onscreen. Geoffrey Rush’s performance in The King’s Speech as the therapist who helped England’s George VI conquer his stammer was a source of joy — funny, surprising, expertly calibrated — and if the movie pulls a sweep, then Rush could steal this race. But he already has an Oscar (for 1996’s Shine), and Bale has never won. Against them, John Hawkes ( Winter’s Bone), Jeremy Renner ( The Town) and Mark Ruffalo ( The Kids Are All Right) don’t stand a chance.

SHOULD WIN: Bale

WILL WIN: Bale

BEST ACTRESS

Poor Annette Bening, previously nominated for three Oscars and coming home empty-handed each time (particularly painful was her losing presence among so many winning nominees from 1999’s American Beauty). The actress scored her fourth nomination for The Kids Are All Right, playing a methodical, practical lesbian whose carefully balanced life is thrown askew by factors beyond her control. She was fantastic in the movie — and in any other year might be a shoo-in. But Black Swan’s Natalie Portman is poised to swoop in and fly away with this one. Portman’s portrayal of a dancer slowly losing her mind was critical to the success of Black Swan — she’s in every scene — and the movie’s surprisingly strong showing at the box office (more than $100 million in the United States) implies that the public was wowed by her work. Oscar voters, I suspect, will agree. All the other nominees are deserving: Rabbit Hole’s Nicole Kidman, Winter’s Bone’s Jennifer Lawrence and especially Blue Valentine’s Michelle Williams. But this one is between Bening and Portman, and unless guilt and sentiment kick in, the Academy will go for Portman.

SHOULD WIN: Portman

WILL WIN: Portman

BEST ACTOR

One of the great performances of 2010 was Javier Bardem’s turn as a terminally-ill father in Biutiful. The actor, who had to convey the angst of a man whose life repeatedly went from bad to worse, kept you plugged in, no matter how contrived or punishingly grim the story became. And in 127 Hours, James Franco spent much of the film alone in a dark canyon, his arm pinned under a rock, and his warm, engaging humanity made you feel every second of his character’s ordeal. In a perfect world, he’d win the Oscar for holding up an entire film in which he was alone onscreen for much of the time. But Franco and Bardem, who already has an Oscar for No Country For Old Men, will have to settle for the honor of being nominated. So will Jesse Eisenberg ( The Social Network), so good as a cunning, antisocial genius, and Jeff Bridges ( True Grit), who essentially reprised his Crazy Heart performance, only a few notches down the drunkenness scale. This year, no one beats The King’s Speech’s Colin Firth as the stuttering, daunted king of England, waging a personal battle in which the stakes grew increasingly higher. Firth was terrific, and he is worthy. Although I’d still argue Franco’s performance has more artistic merit.

SHOULD WIN: Franco

WILL WIN: Firth

BEST DIRECTOR

Here’s where things get tricky. Only six times since the Directors Guild of America began handing out their annual prize in 1948 has that winner not gone on to win the Best Director Oscar. If you approach this category logically, that means The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper should be polishing his acceptance speech. But my gut tells me that this year is going to mark the seventh time the Academy parts ways with the DGA. David Fincher is beloved by actors, admired by the industry and widely considered to be one of the smartest and most relevant filmmakers in Hollywood. And Hooper is … wait, who is he again? Darren Aronofsky ( Black Swan), David O. Russell ( The Fighter) and Joel and Ethan Coen ( True Grit) all delivered fine work — and Inception’s Christopher Nolan, who was somehow snubbed by the Academy, belonged on this list. But all will bow before Fincher tonight: Surely Oscar voters will recognize that his work in The Social Network was infinitely harder, more exacting and more inventive than the straightforward Masterpiece Theater elegance of The King’s Speech, right? Right?

SHOULD WIN: Fincher

WILL WIN: Fincher

BEST PICTURE

The Oscars expanded the list of nominees in this category from five to 10 last year, but, once again, this is really a two-way race. In one corner, there is The King’s Speech, which embodies all the qualities for which Oscar historically has been fond: Historical context, an individual who overcomes daunting odds, a mature elegance and British accents. In the other corner is The Social Network, which also has an historical context (albeit much more recent), someone who beats daunting odds (although this guy is not quite so likable) and a mature elegance. The lack of British accents, however, may help explain why The King’s Speech, a perfectly fine, well-made entertainment set in the past, has pulled ahead of The Social Network, a provocative, trenchant examination of the here and now. All signs point to a King’s Speech victory (the movie’s success at the Producers Guild of America is another reliable bellwether), while The Social Network will join the ranks of All the President’s Men and Network — other movies about the way communication and technology impact our lives — as a great film that lost. Those classics are pretty good company to be in, regardless of the vagaries of Oscar voters. Here is one prediction I really hope is wrong.

SHOULD WIN: The Social Network

WILL WIN: The King’s Speech

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