This year I'm going to try something a bit different. Usually my predictions are just one article but I'm going to spread it out across the week this time. I want to be able to take more time to really discuss the various nominees. So let's get right to it.
I'm starting with this one because it has been I think the most heavily debated category this year. The heavy favorites are Sean Penn for Mystic River and Bill Murray for Lost in Translation. The other three nominees are Johnny Depp for Pirates of the Caribbean, Ben Kingsley for House of Sand and Fog and Jude Law for Cold Mountain.
Jude Law is probably the least likely to be nominated. In my book, his was the weakest performance of the group. I would have preferred seeing Paul Giamatti nominated for American Splendor. It's not that Law is bad or even mediocre. He does a good job with a thankless role that mostly forces him to react to an insane world populated with some very strange people. The main reason I don't think better of this performance is because the writing just didn't give him enough to work with. He has some godawful dialogue early on spends most of the movie separated from his great love. He needed a better foundation to make more out of this role.
Ben Kingsley hasn't been mentioned a lot and that puzzles me. His performance as a former Iranian colonel trying to build a good life for his family in a foreign country is very powerful. He is just an immense screen presence but he keeps a tight lid on the character. It lets us know that there is a powder keg of emotion boiling inside this man, just beneath the surface. He will do anything for his family and that leads him to some tough decisions. When Kingsley lets his character let it all out, it's amazing and yet not what you would expect. This is a really great performance but he is being overshadowed by bigger personalities.
Sean Penn does some of his best work in Mystic River. He plays a family man with a criminal past. He runs a legitimate business but tragedy forces him on to a different path in life. Penn, like Kingsley, keeps everything under wraps, which makes the occasional outburst of raw emotion that much more impressive. Working in his favor is a role that just gives him amazing depths to explore and he takes full advantage of it. He's a front runner for good reason. On the downside, Penn is a notorious figure, both for a past bad boy image and his trip to Iraq prior to the war. He's also not big on awards and isn't campaigning for it. It's possible he himself could turn off voters from his own great work.
Bill Murray may be the best comedic actor of the last few decades. He seems to effortlessly find the oddest and funniest way to approach virtually any role. With Lost in Translation, he finally has a role that seems custom built to take full advantage of his many talents. He plays a star actor on the downside of his career. He is trying to figure out his place in the world with a crumbling marriage and career. In the movie he is in Japan to shoot commercials for a whiskey he's endorsing. The culture shock of Tokyo leaves him utterly alone, mirroring his life. Yet he finds another American with whom he can connect and ground himself, maybe finally finding his way. The character is both funny and sad, giving Murray the ability to show off impressive range. It seems like he's long overdue for Oscar recognition. The only real question is how much the Academy likes a guy who has shown disinterest or even disdain for awards in the past.
Johnny Depp seems out of place here, starring in a big budget action/adventure pirate flick that is much better than it has any business being. But his work in Pirates of the Caribbean is nothing short of iconic. This is a role that will be imitated and parodied for years to come. His work as the swaying, sun and rum damaged Captain Jack Sparrow is funny as hell but without being showy. He creates a truly unique character but doesn't beat his fellow actors over the head with it. He graciously shares the screen, even amplifying his co-stars with his outrageous performance. I smell an upset here. This is undoubtedly a great performance and Depp is held in very high esteem by his fellow actors, who gave him the SAG award over the weekend. Since actors constitute the largest percentage of Academy voters, don't be shocked to see him win the Oscar.
Best Supporting Actor
The front runner here appears to be Tim Robbins who has already won the SAG award and Golden Globe award for this category. But Alec Baldwin for The Cooler, Benicio Del Toro for 21 Grams, Djimon Hounsou for In America and Ken Watanabe for The Last Samurai all have a real shot.
Ken Watanabe gets a lot of credit for being great in a language he doesn't speak well. English is not his strong suit and yet he still brings forth a solid character and generally lights up a flawed movie. This is a performance long on charisma and machismo. Being something of an unknown to Hollywood is his biggest weakness.
Djimon Hounsou has a role that lets him be the soul of In America. He serves the movie in so many ways they can't be counted. He is both metaphor and plot device. His dying artist gets to help heal a grieving family of immigrants. He is both fierce and frightening and gentle and caring. If only he appeared earlier in the movie and thus had more screentime he might have a stronger chance at the award.
Benicio Del Toro owns this movie. He plays a man struggling to put his life in order and he is willing to try anything to do so. When we first meet him he is a born again Christian and he embraces that with every fiber of his being. A horrible accident derails his life once again and he simply can't deal with it. The fury and fear in him make him both sympathetic and frightening. It's a complex performance that might not be properly appreciated because of the film's shattered timeline. The character arc is somewhat obscured by the movie's framework and that probably hurts his chances.
Alec Baldwin seems to have found himself again with this role. He used to be a huge star but has struggled to find his way in recent years. This might be the start of a new phase of his career. In The Cooler, he plays the manager of a Las Vegas casino. He's old school all the way, a guy flying in the face of Vegas's attempt to become family friendly. It's an unsympathetic role and he seems to enjoy the chance to be such a rottern person. It's a dangerous Machiavellian character who doesn't understand friendship but definitely understands not losing money. Hollywood seems delighted with a reinvigorated Baldwin and that makes him the dark horse candidate. He probably won't win but I wouldn't be shocked if he did.
Tim Robbins has the juiciest role of the group and plenty of screentime to get the most out of it. His character was kidnapped and molested as a child and as an adult we can see he's a badly damaged individual. He seems frightened of his own shadow and yet ready to lash out any possible threat. He's at the heart of the movie's mystery and thus we never really know what to make of him until the very end. Robbins's work here is unlike any previous from him. His thick Boston accent, stooped shoulders, nervous eyes and broken spirit make this a distinct character that really seems to be the end result of a horrifying violation. It's the best work he's done since The Shawshank Redemption and probably his best work ever. He's pretty much a lock for the Oscar.
Animated Feature Film
Let's get the obvious out of the way right now. Brother Bear is not going to win this award.
Finding Nemo is the heavy favorite. It is both extremely well reviewed and also a box office monster. It dominated the summer when The Matrix sequels were supposed to be changing the way we thought of movies. It is an extremely well written movie that shows off Pixar's great touch with films primarily aimed at children that adults will have no trouble enjoying as well. They have a knack for hitting on themes that children really do grapple with and making them accessible. This can be said about every one of Pixar's movies but Nemo is also far and away their most beautiful film. It is a masterpiece of animation, creating an environment so detailed and enveloping that it is very easy to forget that it is animated.
Nemo's competition comes primarily from the loopy little Canadian feature The Triplets of Belleville. While it hasn't enjoyed the massive success of Nemo, it has been well received by critics. It is a thoroughly unique experience, almost hallucinatory in nature. With virtually no dialogue, it tells a story bizarre and ridiculous, topped only by the insane characters that populate the movie's world. The Academy was hip enough last year to pick the anime classic Swept Away over the Disney products so maybe it can show off a wicked sense of humor with an upset for The Triplets of Belleville. Don't bet on it though. Nemo is just too big to be sunk.
The two sea-going adventures Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean are great looking films with solid effects. But let's be realistic here. Return of the King is going to stomp on the competition like one of its olyphants squishing a foot soldier.
That's a good start. I'll be back tommorrow to talk about the women and the writing.