AP writers make Oscar predictions

February 18, 2009 4:04:20 PM PST
Associated Press movie writers David Germain and Christy Lemire would like to agree to disagree more often so they could make fun of each other's Academy Awards picks, but they're in general consensus this time. Among the top six categories, they diverge only on one: best actor.

Here are their predictions, with both sounding off on best picture and actor, Lemire offering their take on director and supporting actress, and Germain giving their opinion on best actress and supporting actor.

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BEST PICTURE

Nominees: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Frost/Nixon," "Milk," "The Reader," "Slumdog Millionaire."

GERMAIN:
"Slumdog Millionaire" is a wildly different story than "Trainspotting," one of my favorite modern films, yet both showcase director Danny Boyle's remarkable ability to present equal parts humor and horror on screen and deliver an energy-burst of a movie that people walk away feeling good about.

I confess I doubted the instant best-picture buzz surrounding the movie after it debuted on the film-festival circuit six months ago. I thought it was a terrific film but one whose dark edges - child mutilation, police torture, boys orphaned when their mother is slain before their eyes - would limit its appeal to commercial audiences and Oscar voters alike.

I get paid the big bucks to be wrong. "Slumdog" has steamrolled through awards season, dominating at virtually every Hollywood honor that matters, while steadily climbing toward $100 million hit status.

The movie has four worthy opponents. In some parallel universe where "Slumdog Millionaire" went straight to DVD (as it nearly did in our world), "Frost/Nixon" or "Milk" easily could have emerged as the film to beat. "The Reader" is a high-class drama in every sense, while I admire the technical prowess that went into "Benjamin Button," even though it smothered the story.

But the breathless drive and romance of "Slumdog Millionaire" - with its no-name ensemble and unshakable optimism in the face of terrible hardship - will carry it through to one of the great diamond-in-the-rough triumphs ever at the Oscars.

LEMIRE:
It's not the best movie of the year. It didn't even make my top 10 list - my choice for the year's best film, "The Wrestler," sadly is not among the best-picture nominees. But "Slumdog Millionaire" is the unlikely, undeniable juggernaut. And so, after winning every other top prize week after week throughout awards season, "Slumdog" will win the Academy Award for best picture.

What's intriguing about "Slumdog," though, is that it's not the most traditional best-picture pick. Not by a long shot. That would be "Benjamin Button," a huge technical achievement with both sweeping scope and intimate heart. In its own small, vibrant way, though, "Slumdog" is exceptionally well made. It has a great energy about it, an inventive narrative structure and an immediacy that's bracing. And the tone is purely and uniquely Danny Boyle, with its sweetness and squalor existing equally side by side.

Above all else, though, its ultimate uplift is what wins people over. Would "Slumdog" win the Oscar any other year? Maybe not. But maybe it's exactly what we need right now, and that's its lasting appeal.

BEST DIRECTOR

Nominees: David Fincher, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; Ron Howard, "Frost/Nixon"; Gus Van Sant, "Milk"; Stephen Daldry, "The Reader"; Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire."

LEMIRE:
"Slumdog" wins and Danny Boyle wins. The story, based on the novel "Q&A" by Vikas Swarup, is set in the slums of Mumbai but the result on screen is very much in keeping with the British director's tradition of blending graphic images with unexpected hope. The juggling act the film required - the jumping back and forth in time, the difficult shooting situations, the large (and largely unknown) cast - all paid off with the cohesive and convincing results.

You could argue that Fincher's job was tougher and more of an accomplishment in many ways, simply because the virtuoso director pulled off such seamless visual effects throughout an enormous - and some would say overlong - tale. But the embrace of "Slumdog" is so widespread that it would be impossible to separate the filmmaker from the film.

"Frost/Nixon" is probably Howard's strongest work but he's won a best-director Oscar recently for 2001's "A Beautiful Mind." Van Sant managed to make a biopic that's rich and full and never feels like a paint-by-numbers depiction of a famous person's life, but this unfortunately isn't his year. Daldry has made a prestigious picture in "The Reader" but doesn't have a shot against Boyle.

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BEST ACTOR

Nominees: Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor"; Frank Langella, "Frost/Nixon"; Sean Penn, "Milk"; Brad Pitt, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler."

LEMIRE:
A ha, finally the category on which we differ.

I love Rourke in "The Wrestler" but, admittedly, much of the allure of his performance comes from the art-imitating-life nature of it. As physically demanding as the role obviously was, Penn did something more difficult from the inside with the transformation he underwent to play slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk. He deeply loses himself in the part - there's a charm and softness to it that makes you forget you're watching an actor whose off-screen brashness is as well known as his on-screen intensity. And actors, the largest voting bloc in the academy, may find that more impressive than Rourke's moving comeback.

Langella is, of course, completely great as Richard Nixon. He very easily could have lapsed into caricature in playing such a widely parodied figure and he never does, instead presenting a multifaceted portrayal of the disgraced former president. Jenkins is lovely in "The Visitor" and it's about time this veteran character actor gets some recognition, but he won't win for his small gem of a film. Pitt's performance is wide-ranging but "Benjamin Button" is primarily a technical feat. And so, after winning for 2003's "Mystic River," Penn should win the best-actor prize again.

GERMAIN:
I never thought I'd say it, but I'm voting for Nixon.

Yes, Penn is enormously deserving as another fallen '70s political leader. His Harvey Milk is arguably the warmest character Penn has created (save for party dude Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"). And Penn very well might walk away with his second Oscar.

But Frank Langella has crafted a monumental performance as Richard Nixon, a role he manages without a trace of caricature. His Nixon is everything you imagine the man was - brilliant, fumbling, two-faced, autocratic, terrified, terrifying.

Langella's a greatly respected actor who's won top honors on stage - including a Tony Award for this same part. But he's never had a film role before that puts him in this league, though 2007's "Starting Out in the Evening" could and should have earned him an Oscar nomination.

Now that Langella has one, it's a short step for his peers to seize the opportunity to give him the highest film prize, since you never know when he'll come off the stage and do another movie again.

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BEST ACTRESS:

Nominees: Anne Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Married"; Angelina Jolie, "Changeling"; Melissa Leo, "Frozen River"; Meryl Streep, "Doubt"; Kate Winslet, "The Reader."

GERMAIN:
Kate Winslet has the Sean Penn thing going. All that finest-actress-of-her-generation talk. Nominated a bunch of times but never won an Oscar. And now she has two films back-to-back ("The Reader" and "Revolutionary Road") that could have gotten her a nomination.

Penn was in the same boat five years ago when he had "21 Grams" and "Mystic River" out, winning best actor for the latter.

But as with Penn, the Winslet back-story amounts to talking points. He deserved to win, and so does she.

As a former Nazi concentration camp guard who truly may not comprehend the wrongs she's done, Winslet is a study in restraint and latent guilt. It's a performance that has Oscar written in the marrow as Winslet takes her character on a decades-long journey from denial and ignorance to enlightenment and agonizing self-examination.

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SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Nominees: Josh Brolin, "Milk"; Robert Downey Jr., "Tropic Thunder"; Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Doubt"; Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"; Michael Shannon, "Revolutionary Road."

GERMAIN:
It would be one of the biggest shockers in Oscar history if Heath Ledger did not win for his final completed role. Everything about "The Dark Knight" raised the bar on the superhero genre, but Ledger's reinvention of Batman adversary the Joker seemed to come from a place of true madness and chaos.

This was not just a comic-book villain; this was an Olympian force of evil whose bad makeup job accentuated the fact that a real demon lurked beneath. Ledger made this repellent madman magnetic, enthralling, even perversely joyous.

The Joker was a force of nature, and as revealed here for the first time in a career that had been spiraling steadily upward, so was Ledger.

The question we'll never be able to answer is whether the raves for his performance would have been quite so strident if Ledger had not died on Oscar nominations day a year ago.

But the amazing buzz on the performance began long before his death, and were Ledger alive today, he'd likely be heading on stage Sunday to collect his Oscar.

If only.

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SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Nominees: Amy Adams, "Doubt"; Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"; Viola Davis, "Doubt"; Taraji P. Henson, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; Marisa Tomei, "The Wrestler."

LEMIRE:
The radiant Cruz is a force of nature in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" - wildly beautiful and selfish, volatile and vulnerable, sexy and funny. She steals her every scene in Woody Allen's Spanish romp - no small feat when you're playing opposite Scarlett Johansson and Javier Bardem. Her performance reinforces what we realized when she was nominated for best-actress two years ago for "Volver" - that Cruz is so much more than just a pretty face, but rather an actress of real fearlessness and versatility.

Tomei allows herself to be just as stripped down - literally and figuratively - and her nomination proves that the supporting-actress Oscar she won for "My Cousin Vinny" was no fluke. Adams brings an engaging softness to the otherwise heavy-handed "Doubt," and Henson provides an understated sweetness to the enormity of "Button."

The only other actress who may have a real shot at beating Cruz is Davis, whose few powerful scenes opposite Streep in "Doubt" give the film a much-needed sense of perspective and complexity.

She changes everything in just a few minutes, and considering Judi Dench's win for a brief appearance in "Shakespeare in Love," a win for that kind of performance wouldn't seem unprecedented - or unmerited.

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