It was a year of pleasant surprises. Jack Valenti's screener ban didn't last for very long and didn't seem to do much damage, and come Oscar time, indies may walk away with several big prizes. AMPAS passed on Cold Mountain, ending Miramax's 11-year nomination streak in the Best Picture category. With the exception of the execrable Seabiscuit, this may be one of the strongest line-ups in years. Nominated for 11 awards, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King may not win everything, but Peter Jackson fans don't care, just as long as the big guy wins Best Director and his film takes the top prize (watch out for Seabiscuit!), which many will consider a reward for Jackson's work on the first and second installments of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. If this sense of inevitability may make Oscar a little boring this year, things are not so cut-and-dry in some of the technical races and acting categories. Will it be Theron or Keaton? Will Penn and Robbins say "weapons of mass destruction" when they take the stage? Is Zellweger really the lock everyone thinks she is? Only time will tell. Until then, here are Slant Magazine's biased and bitchy predictions of who will leave the Kodak Theatre with Oscar on their arm and who will be putting on a happy face for the camera. This year, though, we're going to make you work a little, as we will unleash one prediction every day until the big night. Enjoy!
ACTOR: Imagine a montage clip of scenes from the five films represented in this category, set to Gloria Estefan's "Bad Boys." Some Oscar nuts will tell you that Sean Penn's reputation will cost him a much deserved win here. Reality check: It doesn't matter what Penn has to say about Oscar and Bush, this is the actor's fourth nomination in less than ten years, which means there's lots of love for him in the Academy. And surely if Penn can be nominated for I Am Sam, he can win for Mystic River. Some members think he's overdue, and they'll use this opportunity to retroactively award him for his performance in Dead Man Walking. Penn will also score points courtesy of 21 Grams fans, who tossed nominations to Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro in the lead actress and supporting actor categories, respectively. Penn's main competition is Bill Murray, who's performance in Lost in Translation was a coup for serious comedic actors everywhere (somewhere, Jim Carrey is weeping). Sofia Coppola's film is beyond popular with the Academy, and there's no denying the clout of Murray's critic's prizes and Golden Globe victory, but who can forget the man's controversial snub for his turn in the Wes Anderson masterpiece Rushmore? You have to wonder sometimes if Academy members collectively buy into the hype perpetuated by Oscar prognosticators everywhere or if they make decisions on their own terms. Some Oscar swamis will tell you that Murray will be back in this category for his performance in Anderson's next film, but the reality is that Oscar prefers melodrama to stand-up, and as such Penn's primal howls trump Murray's "lip my stocking" routine. Note to Johnny Depp: You did good this year, and it helps that everyone on the face of the earth saw Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, but as good as your scene-stealing performance in the Gore Verbinski film was, there are some people in the Academy who refuse to take your fey, drunkard pirate seriously. Better luck next time! The Academy gave Cold Mountain the cold shoulder (Look Ma, I made a pun! Take that Gene Shalit!), but this much is true: Jude Law's pelvic thrust won the hearts of every woman and gay man in the Academy. This is the second time the Brit pretty boy has been nominated for a performance in a Minghella production, but are his heaving buttocks enough to win over Cold Mountain's detractors? Probably not. As for previous Oscar winner Ben Kingsley, House of Sand and Fog is the least popular film in the category, and though the man's critically approved performance happily panders to liberal ideologists everywhere, the Academy may have an easier time sympathizing with Shohreh Aghdashloo's character in the film. It doesn't help that Kingsley's proud character in the film is a difficult man to like. In the words of Nicole Richie: "You're mean!"
Will Win: Sean Penn (Mystic River)
Should Win: Sean Penn (Mystic River)
ACTRESS: Bravo Newmarket! When Jack Valenti's controversial screener ban went into effect last year, the studio was lucky enough to be a non-member of the MPAA. That meant that they could send screeners out to critics and Academy members alike, and that they did: "For Your Consideration" copies of Whale Rider and Monster. Charlize Theron's nomination was a give-in, but Keisha Castle-Hughes's nod came as a surprise to everyone, even the would-be card-carrying members of CWR (The Cult of Whale Rider). Fox Searchlight should be similarly applauded. While most studios went on the woe-is-me defensive, Fox Searchlight quickly employed a non-screener attention-grabbing campaign that included sending out publicity goodies for their films In America and Thirteen. Evan Rachel Wood lost the tween vote to Castle-Hughes but Samantha Morton (a previous Oscar nominee for Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown) scored a well-deserved nod for her sensitive, knock-out performance as a grieving mother in Jim Sheridan's magical mystery tour In America. Both Morton and Castle-Hughes represent the most likeable and sympathetic films in the category, but their performances may be too subtle to truly register across the board, and as such they're just lucky to be here. Snubbed for her brilliant turn in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts received a nomination for her performance as a grieving, coked-out wife and mother in 21 Grams. Unfortunately for Kidman's best gal pal, Alejandro González Iñárritu's time-bending indie was seen as a disappointment after the director's break-out hit Amores Perros and may prove entirely too nihilistic for older Academy members. Diane Keaton scored her fourth Oscar nomination in 25 years for her three-dimensional juggling of an older woman's sexual frustrations in the one-dimensional Something's Gotta Give. Working to Keaton's advantage is a Golden Globe victory and a role that appeals to older members in the Academy. Finally, a movie that acknowledges that men and women over 50 still like to have sex! "Whoopdi doo!" say Monster fans--you know, the same people who like to reward ingénues (Hilary Swank, Halle Berry, Gwyneth Paltrow, et al) for playing against type and coddling (not so much exploring) the body horrific. Monster isn't exactly beloved, but the spectacle of Theron's performance is one that will be impossible to ignore. Kidman won by a nose last year. This year, Theron will win by 25% body fat.
Will Win: Charlize Theron (Monster)
Should Win: Samantha Morton (In America)
SUPPORTNG ACTOR: There are more Baldwins than Bridges, but let's face it: Alec doesn't command the same kind of respect that four-time Oscar loser Jeff and his Emmy slut brother Beau do. The oldest Baldwin brother scores his first nomination for his bada-bing performance as a Machiavellian casino owner in Wayne Kramer's The Cooler. Big ups to Lions Gate for their impressive Oscar campaign, but The Cooler may have less fans than The Girl With a Pearl Earring. Kramer's film is a far cry from Goodfellas and Baldwin's nasty put-on may be recognized as derivative of Joe Pesci's Oscar-winning performance in the Martin Scorsese film. Then again, the Academy loves the guy's politics more than they do his charisma, and weirder things have happened in the past (Kim Basinger has an Oscar, right?). Actors love Benicio del Toro, and while his performance as a hard-boiled thug who's failed by the American Dream in 21 Grams is better than his material, the actor already has an Oscar under his belt and it may be entirely too soon for a second one. Djimon Hounsou also earns a much deserved nomination for his role as a reclusive painter living with AIDS in In America. Sheridan's film is better liked than The Cooler and 21 Grams, but Hounsou, like Morton, is just lucky to be here. Plus, what with Academy tough guys (you know, the one's who give away their screener tapes) splitting their votes between Baldwin and del Toro, the more sensitive members of the Academy will have to choose between Hounsou and Mr. Susan Sarandon. Tim Robbins directed his wife to an Oscar back in 1995 and this year the Academy will not only get the chance to retroactively reward Penn, but also his one-time director. As a conflicted husband and victim of abuse in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, Robbins is put through a complex emotional wringer and his performance was justly applauded by the Hollywood Foreign Press and critics alike. His what-the-fuck competition? Apparently Ken Watanabe, whose completely non-descript (one could say "vanilla") performance in Ed Zwick's absolutely ridiculous The Last Samurai pressed everyone's PC button (wait, you thought they were making up for some slight against Kizuna and Tampopo?). Okay, so the guy can act, and the Academy has patted itself on the back before for representing Asians in their nominee line-ups, but The Last Samurai doesn't command the same respect as The Killing Fields.
Will Win: Tim Robbins (Mystic River)
Should Win: Tim Robbins (Mystic River)