We’ll be completely honest. Predicting Oscar nominees is just no fun anymore. The ubiquity of precursors (and self-important, tubthumping, full-time awards prognosticators like that weirdo over at The Envelope website) all jockeying to be the first to have their say in the race has led to premature declarations even before years’ end (and all but ruined the chances of late-breakers like The New World), has turned each reminder of Brokeback Mountain, Good Night, and Good Luck and Crash’s frontrunner status into an annoying exercise in hegemonious monotony, and has done more to narrow Oscar’s field of vision than anything (if Oscar reporters haven’t mentioned a film in the last 48 hours, that must mean it’s tainted). Even worse, the mere concept of credibility in the world of film journalism has shifted to Oscar batting averages, and film appreciation has become synonymous with poring over columns of statistics. We mean, there are people who get more excited when a film wins an Oscar because they guessed it correctly, not because it was their favorite among the nominees. That’s sick! So long as there are still some people fighting the good fight against the total commodification of film culture, we approach the inevitable Oscar parlor game with at least one eye toward the entire enterprise’s inherent ridiculousness. While we acknowledge the ways the Academy can go right, we’re equally enthusiastic about bitching over the number of ways they intend on fucking it up.
PICTURE: When King Kong’s opening weekend cannonball failed to send the box office pool’s water lines above $50 million, this category lost its only viable blockbuster candidate. Never fear, there’s another crowd pleaser that’s been steadily gaining momentum ever since Oprah was (to hear her tell it) slapped right out of that Hermes boutique. And it makes King Kong’s questionable racial portrayals look like Killer of Sheep. Call it a losing battle against good faith, but last year’s awards for Million Dollar Baby made the prospect of Oscar-nominating something as shatteringly awful as Million Dollar Baby scripter Paul Haggis’s pet project Crash seem impossible. After all, Haggis was one of the film’s nominees that didn’t get to scale the podium that night, and we bet that if you were to ask a sample of Oscar voters for their theory as to why he was felled by the otherwise ignored Sideways, they’d bring up Hilary Swank’s mom and her Universal Studios theme park tee. Crash’s entirety is made up of scenes like that, strung up one against the other. Still, having just seen the trailer for the film on IFC (obviously part of Lions Gate’s massive awards push), we have to admit that it plays well as its own advertisement. What registers to the film’s detractors (mostly critics) as overblown, grating idiocy passing for social commentary also probably plays to mainstream moviegoers (check the film’s rating over at IMDb) as cinema’s first conglomeration of freeze-dried Oscar clips and nothing but. Just pop the movie into the microwave and, in three minutes or less, out comes a brand new outlook on racial prejudice. We still say it’s a disaster, but as we said last year, it’s just not an Oscar race without an outrage of Finding Neverland (nee Seabiscuit) proportions. It’s just that, this year, the outrage stands at nearly even odds to topple the house favorite: Brokeback Mountain. Wouldn’t it be just hilarious if anti-gay prejudice tipped the scales toward Crash’s “can’t we all just get along” whining? We’ve looked under rocks to find anybody who’s still enthusiastic over Walk the Line, but it was literally the only viable, studio-produced Oscar candidate that also packed ’em into theaters (to the tune of $100 million), so it becomes one of the most unlikely “box office hit” entries in recent memory.
ACTOR: Hilary Duff has told us to raise our voices, but it’s not a call this year’s Best Actor prospects have answered, whose gifts—or lack thereof, depending on who you ask—resonate meekly from their Adam’s apples; the sound produced by their collective larynges couldn’t exorcise Emily Rose, let alone wake a light sleeper. The gay men played by the category’s two frontrunners, Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) and Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), are scarcely screaming mimis, and David Strathairn’s sluggish Edward R. Murrow from Good Night, and Good Luck, a film structured as a lung in which a political cancer hangs thick, prefers to engage the world vicariously through a television camera. Then there’s Walk the Line’s Joaquin Phoenix, who, as Johnny Cash, sings more memorably than he speaks. Who else, then, to invite to the party? A depression-era boxer who pulls no punches (Cinderella Man’s Russell Crowe), a literati who talks too much (The Squid and the Whale’s Jeff Daniels), or a downtrodden pimp who wants nothing more than, you got it, raise his voice (Hustle & Flow’s Terrence Howard)?
Will Be Nominated: Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line), and David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck)
ACTRESS: There are two sure bets here: Reese Witherspoon, whose performance as June Carter in Walk the Line is the curious toast of nearly every critics circle, and Judi Dench, whose bon mot-firing viper from Mrs. Henderson Presents gave the Rex Reeds of the world something to get behind. North Country may have suffered the indignity of poor box office returns, but surely the spectacle of shit-and-semen-based abuse Niki Caro’s hateful film heaps upon Charlize Theron and her Saints of the Steel Mine Kingdom isn’t easily forgotten. With the Norma Rae spot out of the way, that leaves the AmerIndie slot for Felicity Huffman, whose strange but worthwhile performance in Transamerica is probably less threatening to your average Academy voter than Cillian Murphy’s equally brave turn in Breakfast on Pluto. Wishful thinking aside (sorry Q’orianka Kilcher), that leaves Ziyi Zhang, Joan Allen and Keira Knightley to bitchslap each other for the last spot. Allen’s unpleasant character from Upside of Anger might win in the real world, but in La La Land she appears as a less toothsome version of Dame Judi’s Mrs. Henderson. Zhang’s SAG nomination surely means something, but are Oscars going to be as forgiving by giving the actress a nomination simply for surviving the debacle that is Memoirs of a Geisha? That leaves Knightley, whose performance in the perfectly mediocre Pride & Prejudice follows in Winona Ryder’s period footsteps. The world, including Saks Fifth Avenue, is keeping its eye on her.