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Our build up to the Oscars on Sunday continues today with a look at Best Actor. Our choices of who we think should win have some nice diversity in this installment.

The nominees:

  • Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart
  • George Clooney in Up in the Air
  • Colin Firth in A Single Man
  • Morgan Freeman in Invictus
  • Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker

Jared kicks us off:

    The talent in this group is undeniable.  Four of them have put up such consistently amazing performances, playing a variety of roles demanding depth and range, it is almost scary.  And that’s no disrespect to Renner, who, this year at least, can hang with any one of them.

    If George Clooney were the type of guy to hold a grudge, he’d probably be egging Mira Nair’s house about now.  Because, as the story goes, after Nair’s Amelia tanked (honest-to-goodness, I typed “crashed and burned” before realizing how awful that would be to say), Fox Searchlight bumped up Crazy Heart‘s release date to get a horse in the Oscar race.  And that’s how Clooney went from a front-runner to an also-ran.  And one of the reasons I enjoy Oscar season.  Oh, to get back to the point, this is just George Clooney doing the same thing he’s done in just about every movie over the past decade, right? He’s quite good at it, of course.  But it is starting to feel a bit stale.

    I tend to conflate actor with character.  I think everyone does, to be honest.  Except I thought Jeff Bridges’ character in Crazy Heart was about as broadly-drawn as they come.  An alcoholic, down-on-his luck country singer who sleeps with any woman in sight?  No way!  He does as good a job with it as anyone could, but the buzz to me rings more of the Academy deciding it is time someone has paid enough dues to get a win (this is Bridges fifth nomination, and he hasn’t won in the past).  The film is about as “good” as Crazy Heart, but Jeff Bridges in The Open Road is what everyone thinks he is in Crazy Heart.

    Jeremy Renner was very very good in The Hurt Locker.  Not really sure that’s up for debate.  I think with an Oscar Scene (TM) or two, he would have had a great shot at taking this thing down.

    I’m not sure I would have put Morgan Freeman this high at first thought, and I wrestled with how he compared to Renner. Ultimately, though, it is Morgan Freeman.  I do believe I’d say I liked him more than Meryl Streep’s Julia Child.  Sue me.  Sure, it was partially an impersonation.  But Freeman humanized Nelson friggin’ Mandela.  That’s a job well done.

    It is entirely conceivable that I have a man crush on Colin Firth, if the concept made any sense.  I’ve watched four movies starring Colin Firth with 2009 U.S. release dates, and I’ll be darned if he doesn’t play entirely different characters in each one.  Here, Firth is working from a mediocre script, yet somehow manages to breathe life into his character.  Never flashy to begin with, Firth packs a ton of emotion into every movement of his character’s battle to let his reserve prevent emotion from coming through.  It isn’t my favorite performance of 2009, nor is it my favorite Colin Firth role.  But as always, he manages to be quietly fantastic.

Adam pulls for a guy who wasn’t nominated:

    Will Win: Jeff Bridges

    Actually, I agree with Jared’s assessment of Bridges role and nomination. Go read his piece if you want more…

    I Want to Win: Daniel Day-Lewis

    Yes, I realize he’s not nominated, and the movie he was in pretty much flopped, but DAMN can this guy act. Jared talked about Day-Lewis earlier a couple months ago, and I agree with his assessment. The guy is a chameleon and the intensity and range he can bring to a role is staggering. However, since he can’t win, I’m rooting for Jeremy Renner. He did a decent job and I’d like to see a non-Hollywood-heavyweight win.

    Dark Horse: Morgan Freeman (once again, not being racist)

    I love me some Morgan Freeman, but the nomination is for Morgan Freeman being Morgan Freeman…not for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela (that, and they are petrified of Clint Eastwood – as everyone should be – and need to make up for no Directing nomination). I personally thought he put on a pretty great performance, but not necessarily Oscar worthy.

    Ranking:

    1. Jeremy Renner
    2. Colin Firth
    3. George Clooney
    4. Morgan Freeman
    5. Jeff Bridges

    Grouches Critiques:

    Unfortunately for the -3 people reading this, I have no comments for this section. At the time I am writing this, only Jared has written his post and, unfortunately, I completely agree with his assessment (as stated above).

    Random Notes:

    Strong talent, mediocre performances for most.

Brian has a similar take:

    I too am rather impressed with this group — there’s not one nominee that causes me to scratch my head or ponder what the Academy was thinking or want to stab myself in the eye. This is an improvement. Even Morgan Freeman, who was quite good even while the script called for him to do his best impersonation of Yoda, is a reasonable nomination. A) He’s Morgan Freeman and B) He’s playing Nelson Mandela and C) He’s actually good at both those things.

    Speaking of actors being very good at being themselves, George Clooney. He’s really good at doing the roles he does, and he seems to just be an awesome person in general. I liked Up in the Air, as did all the Grouches I think — and Ryan Bingham was a fantastic character that was tailormade for Clooney. I liked Jared’s gamesmanship analysis — but see, thats not how Clooney rolls. How awesome would it be if he played a vicious villain in a future role? Like what if he did Christoph Waltz’s character in Basterds — that would be fantastic. I too have gotten off point — Clooney is great, but just not enough for my nod.

    Jared has a major man crush on Colin Firth. A Single Man is one of those instances when I have hard time separating his strong performance from a mediocre, dare I say subpar film. I have vague remembrances of his portrayal of a closeted gay man still mourning the tragic death of his lover — but the scenes that stick out in my mind are Julianne Moore’s failed Oscar-bait overacting, Nicholas Hoult’s monotonous cherubicity (yes, I made up that word) all blanketed by Tom Ford’s obnoxious direction. That was part of the point, too, I’d guess in having Firth as the stoic character (the “strong, silent type” as Tony Soprano would say.) But in a year with other, more enrapturing performances like Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man and, of course, Matt Damon in The Informant, it doesn’t make the cut.

    As for Bridges, Jared’s analysis is truly spot-on. I’m going to take the same cop out as Adam and tell you all to read that. If you read Mark Harris’ New York story on this year’s Oscar campaign, then you’ll get the fuller story on how this definitely is the Career Achievement award for Bridges. Which is too bad, as I’ve loved him in other things (The Contender, Big Lebowski)

    If you’ve read this far, you’ll see that I’ll be pulling for Jeremy Renner. I can’t imagine anyone else in this role — he has the charisma and the badassery to pull off playing SGT William James. Considering he’s relatively unknown, I’m sure that other actors could have been considered — but no one, not even the modern everyday infantryman Matt Damon, would have brought the calm and coolness of Clooney with the internal pain/crazy that you’d see from a younger Daniel Day-Lewis. Really just a bravura performance that carried the whole film on its shoulders.

And John goes in an entirely different direction:

    Let me first cast judgment on this category. 2009 was a strong year for actors. I highlighted some great ones here. It’s not uncommon for one’s favorite candidates to not get nominated, but it is a little interesting that so many of mine seem like they should have been in the conversation but weren’t. So this is a fine slate but it kind of leaves me thinking of what might have been.

    Freeman is commanding in Invictus but I feel like he’s hampered by the material. He does a fine Mandela but he doesn’t get to do much but give cliched motivational speeches so he doesn’t get to exhibit much range. Speaking of hampered by material, I think the same can be said for Firth. At least we know he’s very good at long, boring conversations that try your patience. But I think it’s a performance that’s hard to buy into if you don’t buy into the film.

    Renner is terrific in The Hurt Locker. I love his intensity, sometimes verging on insanity, contrasted with his level-headed leadership when dealing with an over-his-head subordinate. The film takes some weird plot directions that left me a little unsettled, but Renner sells them to the extent that they didn’t really bother me until the film was over.

    Bridges is the best part of Crazy Heart. Is that saying a lot? Probably not much. But I think the picture is absolutely nothing outside of a good song without him. He gives a broadly-drawn character depth and empathy.

    But there’s one very clear winner here, and that’s George Clooney. Yes, the suave, self-assured character he plays at the beginning of the Up in the Air is standard for him, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. It’s in his subtlety where he really shines; compare this performance to the over-the-top smooth characterhe played in the Oceans movies. Here there’s a perceptible softening as the film goes on and a shift in the character that very easily could have been overplayed but was not. He also has the magnetism to really lead a film.

    Jared says this is a character he plays all the time, but check out what he’s done in the last decade. Most of his roles are significantly more zany or animated. What this is like is his role in Michael Clayton. Which, by the way, was terrific and Oscar-nominated.

    Snubs: Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man at least got some traction. But Peter Sarsgaard in An Education somehow did not. And I’ll say it til the world goes deaf: Matt Damon gave the best performance of the year in The Informant!

Let’s talk Crazy Heart because we haven’t had much to say about it yet. But there’s a reason for that: there’s nothing interesting to discuss.

If there’s one word to use to describe the film it’s “superficial.” The story is just really thin. And the main reason is that it falls into one of my most-hated pitfalls in that the main relationship just doesn’t feel right.

Jeff Bridges is Bad Blake, a washed up country star doing the bar and bowling alley circuit in middle America. Maggie Gyllenhaal is Jean, a journalist and single mother who interviews him at one of his stops. They fall for each other, he wrestles his demons, etc…

Blake’s an interesting enough character but Jean is not particularly well-developed. And from what we know about both there’s no reason to believe these two characters would fall for each other. They also fall in love so quickly!

“You’re cute. Will you sleep with me?”

“You’re an old drunk so… yes.”

*night passes*

“So we’re in love now?”

“Agreed”

*handshake*

It’s a fine movie but I didn’t think it was particularly special. And, truth be told, Jeff Bridges didn’t blow me away either. He’s still the best part of the movie. He’ll win his Best Actor Oscar and that will be good for him. Gyllenhaal’s Supporting nod feels weak to me, but that might have to do with the weakness of her character. With material that made better use of her earnest expressions and Southern accent, perhaps the performance would have done more for me.

Really Crazy Heart needs to win Best Song, and I suspect it will. The writing of the song is a major plotline with the big performance coming in circumstances that I would call pretty perfect. And it’s a darn good song.

Actually, “The Weary Kind” is so good it diminishes the rest of the songs in the movie, which are generally standard country tunes that don’t particularly stand out. I knew “The Weary Kind” going in and expected a certain musical tone and those expectations were not met. Again, not bad, but underwhelming.

So that’s that. I imagine we won’t be talking about Crazy Heart much more.

John’s a good man and got this up before the nominees were announced.  I’m gonna see how many categories I can get through before Oscars.  Now, I’ve seen probably more 2009 movies than I should have, but I’m still slogging my way through some, so between that and the game theory of the ballot, I reserve the right to have my best of 2009 list look a little different, though ballots are due when ballots are due.

1.  Stanley Tucci, Blind Date

A remake of the same-named Theo van Gogh film, Blind Date slipped into a few theaters rather quietly, and I have no idea how it came across my radar.  Little more than Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, and a single room, it blurs the line between film and staged play.  Revolving around a husband and a wife who set up blind dates with each other as they deal with a tragedy, the role requires tremendous range and depth, and I can’t really imagine too many actors pulling it off successfully.

2.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, (500) Days of Summer

He’ll have turned 30 around next year’s Oscars, so maybe he’ll finally be old enough for some Academy love.  He’s certainly built an impressive resume.  The male lead in a romantic comedy of this sort is difficult to play, in my opinion.  It is very easy to veer off into sheer whininess, but Gordon-Levitt is eminently relatable.

3. Sharlto Copley, District 9

In traditional hands, this role is played by someone like Vin Diesel.  Which would have been interesting, sure.  But instead, one of the most unlikeliest action heroes turned in something quite memorable.

4.  Daniel Day-Lewis, Nine

The movie wasn’t great, sure.  But Daniel Day-Lewis was his usual crazy impressive self.  If he had been billed as, say, Baniel Bay-Kewis, I would have had absolutely no idea that this actor was the same one who played Daniel Plainview.  His ability to morph from role to role is just staggering.

5.  Colin Firth, A Single Man

Another performance hampered by a subpar film.  It tickled me pink to see Colin Firth get a nod, because he’s been so consistently great.  Given about as much to work with as Jeff Bridges, for example, Firth creates a much more textured character, one who felt more like a real person than a caricature.

Just off the ballot: Michael Sheen (The Damned United) and Patton Oswalt (Big Fan)

Well this morning the Official Mistress of the Golden Grouches (c), Anne Hathaway, announced the nominations — and there were few surprises among the acting nods, a couple shockers in the Best Picture, but overall things went according to plan. Nonetheless, we still pulled together our thoughts for a short post.

Brian: My biggest disappointment is that with Penelope Cruz’ nomination, I now have to see Nine, something that I had been avoiding doing. No real desire to see it at all, but it can’t be nearly as bad as Lovely Bones, which fortunately, did indeed garner Stanley Tucci a nomination. It would have been tragic had we had to sit through that dreck for no reason whatsoever.

With the best pictures, I was quite happy to see District 9 get the nod there and in screenplay — I held out hope for director until getting slapped in the face by Lee Daniels name being read. As Jared says below, Blind Side is the only real WTF here, and even that it’s rather pointless since it has no shot at winning. This batch of nominations also has me quite excited to see A Serious Man when it comes out on DVD next week.

Other thoughts: disappointed that Damon got nominated for the wrong role and left Molina in the dust. Happy to see Moore get snubbed for A Single Man as her role was more or less the same as Susan Sarandon’s in Lovely Bones and was less funny. I had forgotten all about In the Loop until John started his well-deserved campaign for it, and I’m happy that John got something to gloat about. By far my biggest disappointment though was Marvin Hamlisch getting crapola for The Informant. His score was such an integral character in the great movie that it deserved to win the award, not just the nod.

Looking forward to stewing over these races in the “should win” discussions — especially the screenplays. Lots to ponder. And I think the 10 films for best picture was a wild success — good job…academy?

Adam: Editor’s Note: Adam did not submit anything so I wrote it for him. Inglorious Basterds: Yay. If only It’s Complicated were nominated, then I could make fun of Brian more. I’ll find other ways.

Jared, via iPhone in the DFW airport: Most surprising to me is the relative lack of true surprises. There were some, of course, but I’d guess most Oscar prognosticators did pretty well, especially if they stayed conservative.

People will hate on The Blind Side, and sure, it probably isn’t a top ten film. However, in my opinion it is miles better than Crazy Heart, Invictus, and The Messenger, all of which now appear to have been viable contenders. Like, it just isn’t close at all. So while I would have preferred Star Trek, The Hangover, or In The Loop, I can settle for the middle ground.

I’ve heard people claim this is the wrong year for ten nominees. But you know what? This a very strong lineup, and for me, stacks up against much of this decade’s best picture groups. And really, assuming the expansion got District 9 and Up into the group, I’m fully prepared to call it a success.

I’m a little surprised we didn’t see something crazy in Supporting Actress. Sorta seems like the Academy threw its collective hands in the air and gave up. There was definitely room for another film to have made a play here. No Basterds is a surprise, I guess, but there seemed a very unWeinstein-like unfocused campaign.

Finally, the screenplay categories were a general success. My efforts to not jinx them went mostly rewarded. In the Loop getting a nomination is such a good thing. But, of course, the one nomination I really really wanted to see, (500) Days of Summer, missed. Probably at the hands of The Messenger, which I interpret as a direct, intentional, personal slap in my face.

John: Before going to bed last night I nearly made a quick post amending my earlier “biggest hopes” declarations. But I decided not to and both of those hopes came true!

I had been surprised at the amount of In the Loop predictions prognosticators were making yesterday, which gave me hope for an Adapted Screenplay nomination, whereas before I thought of it as only a longshot. But then it happened! It was my big fist pump moment of the morning. It really has made my day.

My other hope was that Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs would get left off the Animated Feature slate in favor of some of the more interesting films that came out this year. When Coraline was announced first (nominees are announced alphabetically) it was obvious this wish had come true and it was fun to see what would take its spot. The Secret of Kells is an interesting choice, although not the one I would make.

A few other quick thoughts:

  • A boring slate of acting nominees. Very by the numbers. Penelope Cruz was a surprise, but only because her long-presumed nomination seemed derailed by Nine‘s failure.
  • No Avatar in Original Screenplay. Not a problem for most of the Grouches, but interesting that such a juggernaut would miss. 500 Days of Summer also missed and that had seemed like the indie that would break out in a writing category. I suspect not being in the picture for Best Picture hurt it.
  • Hooray for Invictus not making Best Picture even though it appears to be supplanted by the awful The Blind Side.
  • No Makeup nod for District 9 despite the film’s heavy use of prosthetics. Instead the aging makeup for Il Divo and the hairstyles of The Young Victoria get in, along side Star Trek.
  • No Score nod for The Informant! excludes that gem of a film completely.
  • I’m generally happy with the Best Song slate. Thankfully “See You” from Avatar was left off.

So it all comes down to this. Nominations come out tomorrow and the Grouches are staking their pristine reputations on their predictive powers! Brian, Jared, and John took a stab at the top eight categories while John and Jared went on to predict the rest of the non-short categories. There’s a lot of overlap, so any picks where we differ has been shaded.

The Big Eight:

And the rest (note we also predicted how many Best Song nominees there will be, since there can be 0, 2, 3, 4, or 5)

Who will reign supreme? We’ll declare a winner tomorrow!

Oscar nominations will be announced on February 2. We’re counting down to the big day by offering some hard-hitting analysis and incisive opinions on the toughest questions surrounding the nominees.  We can be sometimes be pretty negative, but we like stuff too!  What’s your biggest hope for nomination morning?

John: Matt Damon And Left Field

My biggest hope is fairly easy. I hope Matt Damon slides into the Best Actor race from the back of the bubble for his wonderful work inThe Informant! I’ve steeled myself for the likely eventuality that he won’t make it, but I’ll be holding my breath to see who comes after George Clooney in the alphabetical announcement tomorrow.

I’m also hoping that something entirely out of left field sneaks into the Best Picture nominations. With ten slots available, something with a fairly small amount of support can make it in. I won’t necessarily agree with the choice – I’d guess the most likely possibilities to be The Blind Side or Crazy Heart – but it’d make for some excitement to see something come out of nowhere. And imagine if it becomes something of an Oscar tradition! What film will shock everyone each year? That would be fun!

Brian: Directing District (and Dodgeball)

In Dave Karger’s list of slightly plausible shots in the dark for tomorrow morning, he posits that Lee Daniels of Precious will get pushed out for Best Director and Neill Blomkamp of District 9 will come in with the upset. I can think of no other switcheroo that would make me happier. Daniels nearly ruined my good feelings about Precious with the gratuitous use of verite camera shots, obnoxious fantasy interludes, and grotesque (and overused) zoom-ins of boiling pig’s feet. Blomkomp created a new world — based on the all-to-real world of the slums of South Africa — of aliens, super weapons, Michael Scott-inspired humans, and juiced up mercenaries straight out of Avatar that directors should be awarded for. I don’t see it happening, but man — that would be like what Gary Cole in Dodgeball calls a “two-person swing!”

Jared: Mo’ Mo’Nique, No Problems

When I first heard the Oscar buzz surrounding Precious, I immediately pictured the sheer ridiculousness of Mo’Nique getting a nomination.  Which isn’t meant as an insult to the actress, I don’t think, I’m the first one to advocate the Academy getting outside their comfort zone.  It is just that Mo’Nique doesn’t exactly fit the Oscar mold, and I still smile to think of her being mentioned in the same breath as, say, Jack Nicholson or Meryl Streep.  That said, yowza.  I don’t know what I can say about her performance that hasn’t already been said.  And while it is an admittedly weak year for supporting actresses, it is instructive that there’s really zero momentum for any other contender.  Rightfully so, because Mo’Nique just towers over everyone else.  Sure, part of it is that everyone loves a villain (see Waltz, Christoph).  But it would have been so easy to take Mary somewhere comic book over-the-top, making her an unrelatable, emotionaless automaton.  Mo’Nique gives Mary depth and humanity, which just makes the character that much scarier.

The non-lock category is a little trickier.  There’s definitely some fluidity this year, so while a lot of nominees are all but nailed down, there’s no one scenario that every single person is picking.  So I’m happy there’s be some excitement.  My biggest hope lies in the categories that may mean most to me: Adapted and Original Screenplay. I’m terrified of jinxing anything, because I think my favorites are on the bubble.  I won’t name names, but it is probably obvious which movies have my backing.  So here’s hoping some of my favorite movies of the year aren’t excluded at the expense of some of my least favorite.

Oscar nominations will be announced on February 2. We’re counting down to the big day by offering some hard-hitting analysis and incisive opinions on the toughest questions surrounding the nominees. No claims the Academy is perfect.  But sometimes they seem to refuse to consider certain films or performances, which can be terribly infuriating. If you ruled the Academy, what would you decree to get a nomination?

***SPECIAL NOTE***
We exempted one film from this discussion. Look for our thoughts on that movie in the coming days.

Brian: Maybe The Film Would Do Better If It Had A Name

I write this without seeing any of the other nominated foreign films, but if I could pick a film to get some overdue recognition, it’d be Sin Nombre, a thrilling, engaging, and beautifully shot film that handles the dicey subjects of illegal immigration and the spread of MS-13 with grace. Critically, it was adored by most when it came out last spring, but it seems to have faltered pretty fast this Oscar season. I’m disappointed — there are parts of the movie that still stick with me and it’s been nearly a year since I saw it. Based on the trailers I’ve seen for the nominated foreign films, this looks much more accessible to American audiences and falls far from the cliched tropes of the dreaded “foreign film” with subtitles. Truly great and deserving of recognition.

Jared: Move the Oscars to Summer

Oscar actually isn’t doing a terrible job this year.  As always, comedy gets shafted in the Best Picture race.  My ideal nominee list would likely include The Hangover, (500) Days of Summer, I Love You, Man, and as much as it pains me to agree with John, In the Loop.  One of my pet films this year is an obscure movie called Blind Date. I’ll be talking about it more later on, but I think Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson’s performances should have been in the discussion this year.  Fudging things a little bit, if I only had control of one thing, I’d advocate for the acting in (500) Days of Summer.  I imagine Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel faced the double disadvantage of not being in a drama and not “paying their dues,” but their work absolutely contributed to the magic of the film, and it makes me sad that they were barely considered.

John: Best Loop-de-loop

I have a couple ideas of what omnipotent John would do with the Oscar nomination and damned if it isn’t hard to pick. The Informant! could be put in Best Picture or Matt Damon in Best Actor. But I’m going to go with a film I loved even more, In the Loop, for Best Picture. This is an exquisitely written film, packed to the gill with jokes and spot-on as a satire. I don’t think a plot point or performance goes wrong. If there’s any recent film that I can say, “we need more films like this!” it’s In the Loop. It won’t get the recognition it deserves without me breaking into PricewaterhouseCoopers and messing with the ballots. Which is too bad because more people should check it out.

Oscar nominations will be announced on February 2.  We’re counting down to the big day by offering some hard-hitting analysis and incisive opinions on the toughest questions surrounding the nominees. This time around, we are looking at each category as a whole. Which categories appear to be the strongest and weakest?

John: Everyone With A Solid Year Take A Step Forward…Not So Fast Supporting Actresses

I think the likely slates of nominees will be pretty solid this year, mostly bereft of bad choices. On the other hand, there are few categories I’d call particularly strong. If I had a ballot I’d still have trouble filling it out with performances/films that I found worth advocating for. If there were only three slots for animated films, Best Animated Feature would certainly be the strongest category. But enough films qualified this year that there ought to be five nominees, which dilutes its still considerable strength.

The strongest category overall is Best Actor. If I chose irrespective of those choice’s chance at nomination, there are many strong candidates. If we’re looking at likely candidates, both screenplay categories look very strong. Even films whose scripts I wouldn’t find strong enough to nominate (Inglourious Basterds, (500) Days of Summer) are at least somewhat different. Compare that to the screenplay nominees I found disappointing from last year, like Frost/Nixon or Doubt, that were neither particularly great nor interesting.

The weakest category is Supporting Actress, where I find little to interest me either in the whole pool of 2009 supporting actresses nor in the list of those who have a shot at a nomination. Beyond Mo’Nique and Vera Farmiga there’s very little for me to get excited about.

I also don’t think there’s any doubt that the ten nominees has weakened the Best Picture slate. But at least the films that are going to get in because of the category expansion tend to be different, fresh choices, even if I didn’t always love the films.

Jared: Love/Hate Relationship With The Ladies

I actually think Best Actress is a very strong category this year.  Small caveat, The Last Station is (probably) the last Oscar movie I need to see.  But Helen Mirren is always awesome, so should she beat out a strong Emily Blunt performance, I’m not super concerned.  Otherwise, I think Gabourey Sidibe walks away with the statue in many other years, but she’s nearly out of the picture this year.  Similarly, Carey Mulligan was just breathtaking.  I’m a little lower on Sandra Bullock than most, but would still be tickled pink if she won.  And Meryl Streep certainly doesn’t need me to praise her.

Depending on what happens, Original Screenplay is a close second.  It has the potential to be filled with riveting, unique works.  And even if my dream scenario doesn’t happen, it is still going to be very very strong.

And yeah, Supporting Actress is far and away the weakest category this year.  I’m surprised there hasn’t been more of a push to get more names into the race.  Maybe it is because Mo’Nique has this thing in the bag.  Otherwise it is her, and then meh.  I already said my piece on the lovely ladies from Up in the Air, and then you are looking at, what?  Someone from the horribly overrated Inglourious Basterds?  (Although, I’d love a Diane Kruger nod, just to bump up the Oscar nominees who appeared in National Treasure 2.  The actresses from Nine were decent, but their roles weren’t anything special.  That Julianne Moore has a shot to sneak in here shows how much of a joke this category is this year.

Brian: If Only The Actors Could Sing A Song

If the Academy had expanded the Best Actor slot to ten nominees as they had with Best Picture, I’m not sure I would have found a choice about which to complain. Sure, Morgan Freeman is a gimme nomination, but if I’m going with the Academy trends, I can understand it. The next five in probably includes Mortensen, Damon, Day-Lewis, Stuhlbarg, and maybe even one of my faves, Sharto Copley for District 9. I have seen neither Nine or Serious Man, but from what I have heard I can’t image there would be anything too objectionable about any of their performances. Once I see them, they might even find a lobbyist in me for their likely snubbing tomorrow. Of the five nominated, I liked all of their performances. Freeman was serviceable as Mandela and he rose above what was a script replete with platitudes and Yoda-like pieces of wisdom. Colin Firth was the best part of Single Man and like with Freeman, transcended the limits of the story, not to mention the over-the-top direction. I disagree with Jared on Clooney and thought that even though was just doing his Clooney thing, it still worked great and I can’t see anyone else in the role. I’ll get to Bridges v. Renner when we do our Oscar posts later in the month, but both were fantastic.

Weakest category has to be Best Song. Not one of the Princess and the Frog has broken out and reached the public discourse. Granted its a wholly different era in entertainment from the years when Aladdin and Lion King permeated the popular music culture and had songs played ad nauseum on the radio, but still — I expect at least one of them to be recognizable. The song from Crazy Heart is the best of the bunch but even then — I am sorely disappointed in the list of possible songs and cannot see any of them being memorable even a couple of months from now. I leave it now to John to disagree with me.

I am not a member of the Academy. I am instead but a lowly professional economist. Which means not only do studios not send me dozens of screeners but every time I go to the movies I’m always wondering if it’s worth my money.

But today I am pretending I’m a member of the acting branch and casting my ballot for Best Actor.

Acting nominations are made by ranking up to five actors in each category. If the ballot’s number one choice does not have the support needed to receive a nomination, the ballot is counted instead as a vote for the #2 choice, and so on. There is no guidance as to how to separate between Lead and Supporting categories; that determination is left up to individual voters.

1. Matt Damon, The Informant!

Damon puts on the pounds and a mustache for this film, but it’s his complex performance and not the gut that make it so memorable. His squirrelly character is outrageous but not flashy and even though he’s exasperating we’re always able to empathize.

2. Peter Sarsgaard, An Education

I’m not sure whether this is really Lead or Supporting. If I had a ballot I’d put him in both categories just to make sure. He must walk a thin line as a character that’s both charming enough to win over a teenage girl – and the audience, to some extent – but also creepy enough to be trying to win over a teenage girl. At least Damon got a little recognition and a Golden Globe nod; the utter lack of respect this awards season for Sarsgaard is confounding.

3. Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man

This film is essentially two hours of the world shitting on the main character so the man portraying him better be someone the audience wants to watch. The role calls for Stuhlbarg’s exasperation to forever increase while never overcoming his nebbishness and I think Stuhlbarg does a great job of keeping us all frustrated but empathetic.

4. George Clooney, Up in the Air

I’m always impressed by Clooney’s quiet performances. He’s one of those uber-famous, attractive Hollywood types that it’s easy to forget is damn good at what the does. He’s interesting in zany roles like in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Men Who Stare at Goats, but there’s so much talent in his subtle acting that requires a role like this one or in Michael Clayton to really display.

5. Paul Rudd, I Love You, Man

Not a conventional choice,but the man needs some recognition for his wonderfully awkward performance. I don’t think it’s easy to pull of bumbling faux machismo. Most comedies in this vein feel a little rough around the edges in the performances, like the punchlines don’t come across quite polished enough. No offense to the Jonah Hills of the world, but Rudd has the comedic chops and smooth delivery that are often lacking even in the comedies I love. Rudd was so great in this and Role Models and I hope he gets more and more leading roles.

Next on my list were Sam Rockwell for Moon and Michael Sheen for The Damned United.

Oscar nominations will be announced on February 2. We’re counting down to the big day by offering some hard-hitting analysis and incisive opinions on the toughest questions surrounding the nominees. While no one know for sure what will happen on Tuesday, some nominees are a foregone conclusion. Which lock for a nomination is undeserved?

John: Voters Blind Sided by Bullock

This has been a good year in that I don’t see any real egregious locks. The silly nominations I see coming, like those for Invictus, I wouldn’t really call locks. So let me highlight a few performances that have been on the track to nominations since their films were released. Neither are bad performances and perhaps both are even deserving of nominations. I have trouble understanding how so many people saw these films and immediately thought, “This is so good she’s absolutely sure to get a nomination!”

The first is Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. I think this is a combination of a name actress who hasn’t received much awards attention in her career, a Southern accent, a big character, and a late-year release date. If any of these components change, does this performance become a lock? It’s a good performance helped by a script that give her lots to work with, but the assumed inevitability of a nomination is puzzling.

The other is Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air. This is a performance I have mixed feelings about. All of her physical acting is terrific: the way she carries herself, her facial expressions, her stiff seriousness. But the way she sort of spits out her lines drives me nuts and that was hard to get past, at least on the first viewing. I just don’t think people talk like that, even the uptight, self-serious ones. I left the theater thinking, “that’s what everyone’s been so ecstatic about?”

To be fair, she’s sharing the screen with two terrific performances from George Clooney and Vera Farmiga and maybe I was just wowed by their excellence!

Both Bullock and Kendrick will get nominated; Bullock may win and Kendrick is probably the only one who can knock off Mo’Nique. And the nominations won’t be wrong, necessarily. I just have a hard time seeing the hype.

Adam: Shouldn’t a Best Picture Actually Be, You Know, Good?

One word – Avatar. Don’t get me wrong, I think this was an enjoyable movie. But Best Picture good? I think not. Let’s look at it’s pros: visually beautiful, moves along pretty well (even for a 3 hour movie) … not much else. Cons: no attempt to re-engineer/better a stolen script/story, no character development (in a 3 hour movie), very weak dialogue, ridiculous scenes (not involving explosions). How can a movie that fails in a majority of the areas that make up a FILM let alone a GREAT film be the front-runner for Best Picture?

For all of those out there that use the advancing technology/3D/movie-going experience argument I have two words for you – Jurassic Park. Back in 1993, Spielberg and company revolutionized the CGI industry and how audiences view movies. Not only that, he did it with a pretty entertaining movie. One reason for this was good material (Michael Crichton’s novel), but also the ability to adapt it reasonably well to the silver screen. After all of that, Jurassic Park won 3 Oscars, but wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. And I think that that was the right call. It didn’t deserve a nomination – and neither does Avatar.

For those of you who want to use the dollars argument, I submit Dark Knight. Last year, Dark Knight made more money in a single day then any other movie in history and went on to make more money than most of the films ever made. Not only that, it was a phenomenal movie and easily the best one last year. Fantastic writing, beautiful scenes, decent dialogue and one of the best villain portrayals ever. With all of that, it didn’t even get a nomination for Best Picture.

So, I submit to you, how is it that a film like Avatar gets a nomination for Best Picture?

Jared: Full of Hot Air

Hm.  Adam took Avatar, I already addressed Invictus, and if I say anything bad about Inglourious Basterds, I think Adam will probably hurt me (though it really isn’t a good movie).  Not sure any other locks make me too angry.  But I will admit to not quite understanding why Up in the Air is receiving plaudits for its acting.  Don’t get me wrong, I love me some George Clooney.  But isn’t his Ryan Bingham just the same thing he always does?  A charming, in-charge guy who needs to be humbled a little bit (but not too much, because he gets his way in the end), and who draws easy comparisons to Clooney himself?  I’m OK with Bingham as a character, but I think that’s due to the writing, and I could see a bunch of people doing justice to that role.  And maybe I’m wrong, but sure seems that one (if not both) of Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are locks as well.  Which I don’t get at all, both roles didn’t appear to be particularly challenging and serve more as mirrors for Bingham than anything else.  Just seems to me that the sheen of the movie is unduly rubbing off on these ladies.

Brian: Avatar Doesn’t Score

Since John is incapable of originality and is once again piggybacking on Jared, I will decline writing about Vera Farmiga’s bewildering lock status. Avatar is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to the Best Picture category, so it jibes that Adam would have gone there; I always look forward to his brutal take-downs. After struggling a bit to find another true lock that I found baffling, I came back around to Avatar, but for musical score.

If I’m coming out of an epic, big, bombastic picture like Avatar, I need to be humming the score as I leave the theater for it to be impactful enough for an Oscar nom. The score is such an integral part of these films that if you name me a commercially and critically successful epic — I can most likely hum the main theme — and thats how it should be. I find James Horner’s work to be uneven — I loved his scores to Enemy at the Gates, A Beautiful Mind, and Apollo 13 — and his work for Avatar was sub-par. Inspiring motifs here or there, but overall bland and forgettable. Perhaps I am being unfair to Horner, since the key to a great score is if it matches the tone of the film — and since I found Avatar to be superficial and derivative — it makes sense that I thought the same about the score. Should Horner be recognized and Marvin Hamlisch be left in the cold for his flighty composition for The Informant, I will be upset.

I considered writing about Lee Daniels’ heavy-handed and distracting direction of Precious, but I think there’s a enough of a chance that he gets pushed out for another director that I didn’t deem him enough of a lock. If he gets the nomination, however, you’ll hear plenty from me on my frustration with him.

February 2020
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