The critics' picks for Oscar love

February 22, 2009 3:06:37 PM PST
The Oscars are approaching and, for movie fans, suspense is mounting.[SIGN UP: Get entertainment news sent to you]

Can Mickey Rourke body-slam Sean Penn? Will never-won-an-Oscar Kate Winslet shut out veteran actress Meryl Streep? ABC News Radio convened three of the nation's top film critics -- Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, People Magazine's Leah Rozen and Alison Bailes of the syndicated movie review show "Lyons and Bailes Reel Talk" -- to talk about who will win, and who should win, at the 81st Annual Academy Awards. Read on: It's not too late to change your picks for the office pool.

Best Supporting Actress

Some skeptics still contest Marisa Tomei's "My Cousin Vinny" win back in 1992, saying an aging Jack Palance called out her name simply because it was listed last on the teleprompter. Seventeen years later, the critics are rooting for Brooklyn-born Tomei, who plays a stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold and Mickey Rourke's sort-of girlfriend in "The Wrestler."

Bailes called her performance "phenomenal" and, according to Rozen, a second win would prove the naysayers wrong, adding, "This time, it would be completely deserved."

The honorable mention goes to Taraji P. Henson, who plays Brad Pitt's adoptive mother in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Travers said Henson gives the movie much-needed heart, but he joked, "I think she can't win because we still don't know what the 'P' stands for." (P.S.: Her middle name is Penda.)

Best Supporting Actor

"The conversation should be who would have won if Heath Ledger wasn't in the category," Travers said.

In that case, the Oscar might have gone to the most unlikely nominee of the bunch, Robert Downey Jr., who bagged a nomination for, of all things, a comedy ("Tropic Thunder") in which he appeared in blackface. The reality is that Downey and the rest will almost certainly lose to Ledger, who has earned more than a dozen awards worldwide for his psychopathic turn as the Joker in "The Dark Knight." Despite his tragic death, Ledger, Bailes believes, isn't tallying sympathy votes.

'Mad as Hell' if Ledger Loses

"I think his performance is incredible," she said, "and I think he deserves to win it."

Travers reminds us that the Academy has awarded only one major posthumous Oscar in its 81-year history, to "Network" star Peter Finch in 1976. If, somehow, Ledger is passed over, Travers predicts Finch's famous line would be an appropriate response.

"People would be mad as hell and they wouldn't take it anymore," he cracked.

Best Actress

Early buzz in this category pointed to Anne Hathaway, who put the princess schtick to rest to reveal her dark side in "Rachel Getting Married." But, according to Travers, "The two words hurting her are 'Bride Wars,'" Hathaway's corny romantic comedy with Kate Hudson, which came out earlier this year.

The roundtable agreed that after five nominations and an ever-improving body of work (from "Titanic" to "Revolutionary Road"), the Oscar should go to Kate Winslet, who plays a Nazi-turned-cougar in "The Reader."

"She slides into the role so seamlessly that you're not watching Kate Winslet act," Bailes said. "You're watching [character] Hannah Schmitz."

If anyone can beat Winslet, the critics predict it's 15-time nominee Meryl Streep, who shines from behind the habit in "Doubt." Streep may chew scenery, but Rozen doesn't mind.

"Yes, she's acting," she said, "but gloriously acting."

Best Actor

The critics dub this race "The Sean and Mickey Show." Mickey Rourke, star of "The Wrestler" and comeback kid of the year, was the winner at the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes, where he famously thanked his dogs. He competes against the always acclaimed Sean Penn, who took home the Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice awards for his tour de force in "Milk."

"They've given ties before," Travers said, but he, like Rozen and Bailes, are members of what they call Team Penn.

"This isn't just another good Sean Penn performance," Travers said. "This is really close to the best Sean Penn performance."

The critics are also unanimous when it comes to who the Oscar shouldn't go to. That unlucky distinction falls on Brad Pitt, who plays a wrinkly little boy/dashing old man in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Pitt looks great during those dreamy motorcycle scenes, but the critics agreed the top-notch makeup artists deserve the most credit.

Best Picture

Cue up the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" music. The million-dollar question: Who will win Best Picture at the Oscars? Is it?

a) "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

b) "Frost/Nixon"

c) "The Reader"

d) "Milk"

e) "Slumdog Millionaire."

Without employing a single lifeline, Rozen goes for "e" -- "Slumdog Millionaire" -- the feel-good film from director Danny Boyle.

"In many ways, you come out of it and you go, 'That's what I want in a movie.'"

Final answer? Not so fast. With anti-"Slumdog" conspiracy theories swirling, there is always the possibility of a surprise. (Think "Departed" whacking "Brokeback Mountain" two years ago.)

"I think 'Slumdog' is the winner," Travers said. "But I have in my heart hope that 'Milk' will create an upset."

They're all just predictions for now; tune into ABC Sunday at 7 p.m. CT to find out who takes home all these trophies.

ABC News Radio's David Blaustein contributed to this story.

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