Best actress? Sally Hawkins as Poppy in Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky" is in the running for an Oscar. (Photo by Simon Mein/courtesy of Miramax Films)

The Year in Film 2008: Oscar Odds

Dennis Harvey January 2, 2009

The critic’s groups have weighed in now. The drumbeat of awards speculation has been gradually thumping for months already—yet the Oscars remain months away. Hey, what else have we got to think about? It’s not like there are worries re: the economy, environment, or international unrest. But seriously, handicapping the prize doings for this year might turn out to be as interesting as 2008s big-name movies themselves.

Hollywood put out precious few kudos-baiting items until the annum’s last inning. Several of those hopefuls— Doubt, Revolutionary Road, Benjamin Button, The Reader, Valkyrie—have gotten more muted-to-mixed reviews than the studios were likely expecting. (I’m actually a fan of the first four, but not everyone is.) The year’s bulk of excellence may lie amidst indie, foreign and documentary features. But don’t expect the Academy to suddenly grow too adventurous in those directions, a few acting nominations and Slumdog Millionaire aside.

Instead of breaking it down strictly category-by-category, let’s meander through some principal heat-seeking prestige films and their various chances.

Hometown fave Milk is a strong candidate in numerous categories. It’s the kind of straightforward biopic Hollywood likes, a play-by-rules work by frequently out-there Gus Van Sant, and Sean Penn gives a rare emotionally generous, not-too-fussy performance even his detractors can’t deny. Then again, there that Gay Thing. While less challenging in some respects than Brokeback Mountain, Milk still might be more than some Academy voters are comfortable with—the suspicion widely persists that Crash’s upset victory over Brokeback was because many among the membership’s conservative older voting bloc flatly didn’t want to watch that "gay cowboy movie."

and Frost/Nixon might both benefit and suffer from being based on much-laureled, talky stage plays. These are the sorts of major acting showcases Oscar loves. But then there’s a certain prejudice that such projects aren’t quite "real" movies, as ably as they’ve been "opened up" for the new medium.

Nonetheless, you can expect virtually every major performance in each to be in the running. Despite scattered naysayers about Meryl Streep’s Doubt performance, keep in mind a) the Academy is always up for handing her another statue, and b) she helped make a huge pile o’ green this year in Mamma Mia!

On the other hand, wildly cinematic Curious Case of Benjamin Button may be too peculiar for votership, though it will surely rack up a number of noms. (A lock: Best Makeup.) In contrast to the vaguely similar Forrest Gump, it’s fable-like and sprawling without being crowd-pleasingly schmaltzy (or flag-waving). Plenty of industry folks think director David Fincher is talented but "difficult" to a borderline LITS (Life Is Too Short) extent. Plus some of his most admired films (Fight Club, Zodiac) were surprise commercial disappointments—and no one knows yet whether this will prove another. Remember, Oscar rewards success.

Speaking of which, The Dark Knight just might break through the glass ceiling that historically barred pop genre films from top honors, being a superhero movie that plays more like noirish drama—L.A. Confidential with CGI. In a fairly crowded field it won’t attract acting nominations, with the inevitable exception of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Not only was it a striking performance, but a Best Support prize would serve as both industry memorial and consolation for those who thought he wuz robbed of Best Actor for Brokeback.

In that latter race, Frank Langella’s turn as Nixon could be the dark horse that upsets a dead heat between Penn and Mickey Rourke’s vaunted “comeback” in The Wrestler. Hollywood does love an inspirational underdog tale (and Rourke’s scored a rare on/off-screen two-for-one). But there may be some who still think he’s undeserving for having blown his Phase One career so recklessly; and Penn’s politics strike others as (a la Sarandon/Robbins) too damn loud. Yes, these things can factor. Also bright on the Best Actor radar, though longshots for actual wins, are Robert Downey Jr. for Iron Man, Brad Pitt’s Mr. Button, Richard Jenkins as The Visitor, Di Caprio in Revolutionary Road, and (please... not) Clint Eastwood’s crusty codger in Gran Torino.

It’s probably fair by now to say that The Reader release date—conflicting with director Steven Daldry’s Broadway workload and more or less opposite Revolutionary Road— pretty much cancelled out Kate Winslet’s chances. No matter she’s being promoted as a support player for one and lead in the other—both are really leads. She’ll get nominations. But so far nary a critics’ award has gone her way for either film.

Nonetheless, she’s a contender in a strong Best Actress field. Alongside Streep, heavily favored are Anne Hathaway’s rehabbing antiheroine in Rachel Getting Married and Sally Hawkins’ Happy-Go-Lucky Londoner. Plus three widely disparate mother roles: Kristin Scott Thomas’ stark French-language turn as an infanticidal parolee in I’ve Loved You for So Long, Angelina Jolie as a missing child’s frantic single mum in Clint’s Changeling, and Melissa Leo’s rope’s-end family provider in the indie Frozen River.

As for Revolutionary itself: Given a cast and director already thick with Oscar glory, plus overall impeccable craftsmanship, nominations in numerous categories are assured. But will this painful period chronicle of a disintegrating marriage between two semi-sympathetic characters strike ugly-divorce-plagued Hollywood as too much a downer? Oscar embraces Solemn Importance—not the Unpleasant Bummer.

Then there’s Slumdog Millionaire, an India-set, primarily English-language, Brit-produced project whose narrative expanse and sky-high energy has made it many folks’ idea of 2008’s best, period. For my taste, it’s too flashy, contrived and tonally disjointed—but I can understand why others are enraptured.

is unlikely to score significant acting nominations, since the lead roles are shared amongst numerous child/adult performers playing the same characters at different ages. But elsewhere, it could prove a sleeper fave that steals races where big Hollywood titles haven’t produced an obvious front-runner. And they haven’t, on several fronts to date.

I’d weigh further into Best Director, Supporting Actor/Actress, Original/Adapted Screenplay, et al. speculations. But those fields—particularly the support performance ones—are more cluttered with worthy contenders than we’ve space here to discuss. Perhaps a later missive will weigh their chances. If not, you betting-pool types are on yer own.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.

  • Oct 19, 2011

    Essential SF: Irving Saraf and Allie Light

    Saraf and Light's work is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders.