As usual, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would have us believe that only a handful of films were produced last year, with just under 100 nominations in 19 categories (not counting the short film, documentary and foreign film categories) likely to be divided between a scant dozen films when nominations are announced on January 25th. Did anyone in the Academy bother to see Bad Education, House of Flying Daggers, Hero, Dogville, Son Frère, Before Sunset, Crimson Gold, and The Keys to the House? What about Vera Drake or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Moolaadé anyone? Of course, since complaining about Oscar's short-sightedness and asking for them to change their ways is as futile as asking for a recount in Ohio, let's get this show on the road. Below you'll find Slant Magazine's predictions for who will make the cut in the Academy's top six categories.
PICTURE: As of late December, there were exactly two films battling it out for Oscar's top prize: Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby and Martin Scorsese's The Aviator. Now, thanks to the mass delusion of our country's middle-aged critics, Alexander Payne's Sideways must be considered a serious threat come Oscar night. That leaves exactly two spots for four films: Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Marc Forster's Finding Neverland, Terry George's Hotel Rwanda and Taylor Hackford's Ray. Every year since 2001, Focus Features has managed to place a film in this category (Traffic, Gosford Park, The Pianist and Lost in Translation), but Eternal Sunshine peaked entirely too early and didn't quite earn the respect of the NBR demographic that went inexplicably ape-shit for Finding Neverland. Since an Oscar race is never really an Oscar race without a contrivance of Seabiscuit-sized proportions in the mix, we give Finding Neverland the fourth spot. That leaves Ray and Hotel Rwanda. The former made more money but the latter is only now picking up steam and is likely to appeal to the liberal guilt of Academy members whose minds are already in third-world-crisis mode in light of the tsunami disaster earlier this month. We're not trying to be glib—we just know how the Academy thinks.
ACTOR: The Best Actress line-up this year may be a relative no-brainer, but with one week left before the Oscar nominations are announced, there are still no less than eight men who could seriously make it into the Best Actor race. There is exactly one lock here: Golden Globe winner Jamie Foxx, whose performance in the mediocre Ray goes beyond mere impersonation, and who rightfully wowed critics and audiences alike as the late Ray Charles, a frontrunner himself for Album of the Year at the Grammys. Two weeks ago, pundits weren't taking Leonardo DiCaprio seriously for bringing life to Martin Scorsese's clunky The Aviator, but after winning a SAG nomination and a Golden Globe in the span of one week, he'll probably be the only actor within spitting range of Foxx come Oscar night. Several months ago, Liam Neeson was a shoe-in for his subtle and heartbreaking performance in Kinsey, arguably the best biopic of the year, but Oscar voters have very short attention spans, which means Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) and Paul Giamatti (Sideways) stand to benefit from their films being fresh in people's minds. By all accounts, Johnny Depp should be a lock for his serviceable performance as J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, but it's difficult to believe that anyone is seriously rallying behind this performance (not to mention the film) besides those who actively tune into E! Entertainment. Though Alejandro Amenabar's horrendous A Sea Inside hasn't lit up the box office, Javier Bardem's performance in the film is the kind of tripe Oscar voters love to lap up, and just as Fine Line Features is working hard to get Imelda Staunton and Catalina Sandino Moreno into the Best Actress race, they're also making sure that Bardem—a previous Oscar nominee for Before Night Falls (for which he didn't get a SAG nomination)—makes the cut here. But then there's Clint Eastwood, the 74-year-old screen legend who gives the single greatest male performance of the year in Million Dollar Baby but whose work behind the camera looks to overshadow his work in front. Eastwood scored his first and only acting nod for Unforgiven, for which he won a Best Director Oscar, and this may be the last chance Academy members will have to throw an acting laurel in his way. With SAG on his side, and for directing a film that shows Amenabar how it's really done, look for Eastwood to possibly take the spot reserved by Depp or Giamatti in one of many likely surprises on nomination Tuesday.
ACTRESS: Some of the greatest female performances of the year came from women who never entered Oscar's closed-minded radar, among them After the Life's Dominique Blanc, Osama's Marina Golbahari and Before Sunset's Julie Delpy. Nicole Kidman, who was rightfully shut out of last year's race for her god-awful turn in Cold Mountain, gave two of her finest performances this year, the first in Lars von Trier's Dogville and the second in Jonathan Glazer's fascinating failure Birth. Though the actress scored a Globe nomination for the latter, neither Kidman or A Love Song for Bobby Long's Scarlett Johannson are considered serious contenders. Still, this year's Best Actress line-up looks to be one of the strongest ones in years, with Million Dollar Baby's Hilary Swank and Being Julia's Annette Bening leading a pack that includes Imelda Staunton, whose performance in Mike Leigh's Vera Drake wowed both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind's Kate Winslet, and Catalina Sandino Moreno, who seemingly came out of nowhere when she snagged a SAG nomination for her performance in Joshua Marston's impressive first feature Maria Full of Grace. Moreno and Winslet are on the weakest terrain, but if anyone (Emily Rossum, Uma Thurman, Kerry Washington, among others) manages to squeak in at their expense, it would be considered a major surprise.
Will Be Nominated: Annette Bening (Being Julia), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace), Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby), and Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).