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Frank J. Avella’s
Film and Theater Column

2009 Oscar Hopefuls

Written by Frank J. Avella

Opposite Photo:
Penelope Cruz in Nine



2009 is proving to be quite an exciting year for the Academy Awards with each major category bubbling with a slew of potential nominees. What strikes me as most fascinating is how some of the sure things from a week ago are starting to feel less certain.

There has been much written, of late, about whether the Oscars “matter” today. The fact that so MUCH is, indeed, being written proves they matter since what is truly vital is the dialoguing about film and currently that dialogue is absolutely deafening. More writers, in print and online, seem to be focused on the Oscars than ever before.

More importantly, the movies themselves ‘matter’ and the Oscars have always been, and still are, a celebration of cinema. The best celebration of cinema.

Attempting to analyze the race this early is much like playing baseball blindfolded, you might enjoy swinging the bat several times but you might also get hit dab-smack in the face with the ball! No matter, I’m ready to step up to the plate, put on my blindfold and swing!

It’s easy to blur the lines between favorites and predictions. Anyone who says they can be completely objective is either a liar, delusional or on crack. That said I plan on specifying when I am more taken with a film or performance that doesn’t seem to truly have traction.

I must note that I have yet to see Avatar, The Lovely Bones, Invictus, Brothers and Crazy Heart. These films will screen in the coming weeks so while the pedigree of each lends itself to high expectations, we won’t really know much until they’re seen and a consensus is formed.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Marion Cotillard in Nine

I would also like to state that I saw Nine in two rough cut screenings three months apart--the last one was VERY recent-- and my musings are based on that last cut (and the fact that I knew it would be a MAJOR contender after the first screening!!!)

This year there’s a special kind of lunacy since the Best Picture race will feature ten films instead of five. I applaud this oddly controversial decision. I had hoped for years that AMPAS would return to the tradition of nominating 10 (and even 12) films in the 30s and early 40s, but I never really thought it would happen. I even called for it last year—in the Best Actor race!

I don’t feel upping the number to ten takes anything away from the prestige or the exclusivity of Oscar; I think it simply makes (rightful) room to honor films that go overlooked each year. Last year Revolutionary Road and The Dark Knight may have made a Best Pic 10 list. The bottom line is that the Academy is showing a refreshing ability to grow and change and try out new ideas (regardless of the reasons behind it) and that’s always a good thing. Always.

Besides the handful of celebrated films that have been predicted as shoo-ins across the blog-boards--and remember Dreamgirls and The Dark Knight were also on the shoo-in list--no one really knows whether the Academy will decide to honor blockbusters (Star Trek, District 9), comedies (500 Days of Summer, A Serious Man), serious fare (The Road, A Single Man), foreign-language films (A Prophet, The White Ribbon), Brit pics (An Education, The Young Victoria), a docu (Capitalism: A Love Story), an animated feature (Up) or enjoyable popcorn flicks (Inglourious Basterds, Julie and Julia).

I am pretty confident that the following four films will make the final cut:

One of the best-reviewed films from early in the year is Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker with Jeremy Renner’s powerful performance making him a solid Best Actor contender (that was until Jeff Bridges’ eleven o’clock entry into the race). More certain is Bigelow’s nomination for telling an old story in a new and exciting way.

Even in rough-cut, Nine feels like a lock for Best Picture, Actor, Director, Supporting Actress and techies galore. The film is better than Chicago in many ways and Rob Marshall works some true cinematic magic. Daniel Day Lewis is not only a believable Italian but also a good singer. He delivers a multi-faceted, nuanced performance (it’s DDL, so that can’t come as a surprise). There may be a backlash against so many songs being cut from the original show but I still feel the Academy will embrace it.

It disheartened me to learn The Weinstein Company is pushing Marion Cotillard for Best Lead Actress for Nine, when her supporting performance is the best female turn in the film and she would most certainly be nominated in that category. I am hoping the Academy rights that wrong come nominations. Penelope Cruz is right behind her, continuing to add to what is becoming a terrific body of work onscreen. (If Nine doesn’t get her a nod, Broken Embraces should). Of the other women, no one is really onscreen long enough to snag attention, but perennial fave Judi Dench should never been discounted. And don’t completely rule out Fergie simply for dazzling us with the best musical number in the film: Be Italian (okay that one’s beyond long shot, but what the hell!!) Nine, by the way, boasts the best cast since Altman was alive to gather the greats together. And they’re ALL wonderful—even Kate Hudson!

Mo’Nique in Precious

Precious will make the Best Picture cut and Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe and Mo’Nique will probably both be nominated despite the fact that Mo’Nique seems to have pissed off the planet with her anti-Oscar ramblings. Someone must have recently ‘spoken’ to her because she’s changing her tune. And while she’s no George C. Scott or Marlon Brando, she does delivers one of the most indelible performances of the year and—unless she murders a small child—will be recognized.

George Clooney in Up in the Air

Finally, Up in the Air lives up to its hype. It’s simply great filmmaking and George Clooney’s performance is a career best. Look for multiple nominations.

The Hurt Locker

So we have The Hurt Locker, Nine, Precious and Up in the Air. And with Invictus, The Lovely Bones and Avatar coming, let’s say there will probably be four more slots open. The most likely:

Carey Mulligan in An Education

Emily Blunt and Jim Broadbent in The Young Victoria

An Education is a delight from Lone Scherfig and boasts this year’s acting discovery: the ebullient Carey Mulligan. Does the film have enough support to go the distance? Or will some of that support go to the underrated and thoroughly delightful costume drama The Young Victoria? Directed by John Mark Vallee, the pic has Oscar written all over it and features a winning ensemble led by Emily Blunt.

Two of my favorite American films of the year are two of the most divisive (big surprise there!) Each has support but both have a tough road ahead (oh, forgive me!!).

Viggo Mortensen in The Road

John Hillcoat’s stunning cinematic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s devastating novel, The Road, should sweep the nominations in a perfect world. Viggo Mortensen gives his best performance and in a less crowded year would be a cinch for Best Actor. And can someone tell me why Kodi Smit-McPhee’s astonishing turn as his son isn’t being talked about for a Supporting nod? I am hoping against the odds that The Road does not fall the way Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead did two years ago and Revolutionary Road did last year. My only hope is that it does have big Harvey behind it. And it’s one of the most extraordinary film achievements of the year!

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore A Single Man

Tom Ford’s incredible directorial debut, A Single Man, may fare better since Colin Firth’s genius portrayal of a man crippled by loss is getting loud buzz. But will it be enough to insure a Best Pic nom?

And speaking of Weinstein (above), Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is getting quite a push. It’s certainly a crowd pleaser even if it rewrites history, Tarantino-style!

Helen Mirren in The Last Station

Helen Mirren tears up the screen in The Last Station, a film about the final days in the life of Leo Tolstoy. She’s already a Best Actress front-runner. In addition, Christopher Plummer (who has insanely NEVER been Oscar nominated) could grab a Supporting spot. Does it have the power to climb onto the Best Pic pile?

Tahar Rahim in A Prophet

Germany’s Oscar entry, The White Ribbon, and France’s submission, A Prophet, are two of the finest films of 2009. But the Foreign-Language category will most likely be where those titles will be competing.


And speaking of Foreign films, Vincere, Marco Bellocchio’s masterwork about Mussolini’s first real wife, should have had a 2009 release but since Italy fumbled badly and chose to overlook this gem as their Foreign-Language Film entry, the film will not qualify until 2010. I only pray it’s remembered at next year’s awards.

Best Picture

Most Likely:
The Hurt Locker
Up in the Air

An Education
Inglourious Basterds

A Serious Man
A Single Man
The Road
Star Trek
The Young Victoria
Julie and Julia
The Last Station
Capitalism: A Love Story
500 Days of Summer
The White Ribbon

Still to be seen:
The Lovely Bones

My shake-things-up candidate: Flame and Citron

The Directing category is more intriguing this year because of the number of female possibilities as well as the fact that the number of Best Pic candidates have doubled.

Kathryn Bigelow’s helming of The Hurt Locker is the most assured female nod with Lone Scherfig a long shot for her work on An Education. Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) and Rob Marshall (Nine) both have smashing chances at nominations. Lee Daniel’s direction of Precious is one of the weakest aspects of that film, but he will probably ride the wave depending on what Peter Jackson, Clint Eastwood and James Cameron turn out.

Best Director

Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker
Jason Reitman for Up in the Air
Rob Marshall for Nine

Lee Daniels for Precious
Tom Ford for A Single Man
Joel & Ethan Coen for A Serious Man
Lone Scherfig for An Education
John Hillcoat for The Road
Pedro Almodovar for Broken Embraces
Michael Haneke for The White Ribbon

Still to be seen:
Peter Jackson for The Lovely Bones
Clint Eastwood for Invictus
James Cameron for Avatar
Jim Sheridan for Brothers

My shake-things-up candidate: Lars Von Trier for Antichrist
(And big blue birds are going to fly out of my ass!)

Four Best Actress nominees now seem inevitable: Carey Mulligan, Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep (when is she going to win her long overdue third Oscar???). Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe probably takes spot number four—although I’m not that convinced. I think Emily Blunt, Abbie Cornish (Bright Star) or Marion Cotillard (if she’s sold as lead) could take it from her.

And look for Robin Wright Penn (is she still Penn?) to receive a surprise nomination for her sublime portrayal in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. She’s never been nominated. It’s an excellent performance. And she has divorce-sympathy on her side.

What I want to know is how is it that hardly anyone is discussing Tilda Swinton who gave an electrifying performance in Erick Zonca’s highly underrated Julia. No one is talking Swinton and it puzzles me. I can’t remember the last time an acting triumph of this caliber went completely overlooked!

Best Actress

Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia

Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia
Helen Mirren in The Last Station
Carey Mulligan in An Education

Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe in Precious
Robin Wright in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Marion Cotillard in Nine
Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria
Abbie Cornish in Bright Star
Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side (God help us!)
Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds
Michelle Pfeiffer in Cheri
Audrey Tautou in Coco Before Chanel

Still to be seen:
Saoirse Ronan in The Lovely Bones

My shake-things-up candidate: (You guessed it,)
Tilda Swinton in Julia

Like last year, the Best Actor possibilities are absurd in their abundance.

And Fox Searchlight didn’t help by announcing they are releasing Crazy Heart to qualify. Good news for four-time nominee, never-winner Jeff Bridges who is said to be remarkable in it. Bad news for up-till-the-announcement-favorites George Clooney and Colin Firth!

Matt Damon in The Informant

With Bridges and Eastwood-bud Morgan Freeman a-coming and great performances by Jeremy Renner, Daniel Day-Lewis, Viggo Mortensen and Matt Damon (The Informant) already in play, this is going to be another year where some of the year’s best work is left off the short list (can you say Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road? Or Benicio Del Toro in Che!)

Best Actor

George Clooney in Up in the Air
Colin Firth in A Single Man

Daniel Day-Lewis in Nine
Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker

Viggo Mortensen in The Road
Matt Damon in The Informant
Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man
Hal Holbrook in That Evening Sun
Tahar Rahim in A Prophet
Ben Foster in The Messenger
Sam Rockwell in Moon
Hugh Dancy in Adam
Michael Sheen in The Damned United
Sharlto Copley in District 9
James McAvoy in The Last Station
Clive Owen in The Boys are Back
Robert DeNiro in Everybody’s Fine
Johnny Depp in Public Enemies

Still to be seen:
Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart
Morgan Freeman in Invictus
Mark Wahlberg in The Lovely Bones
Tobey Maguire & Jake Gyllenhaal in Brothers

My shake-things-up candidate: Tom Hardy in Bronson

In my Tribeca review of In The Loop, I wrote, “Someone get this guy a gold statue” about Peter Capaldi’s brash and relentless performance. I only hope he isn’t lost in the Supporting Actor shuffle.

No clear front-runner has emerged but bet on Christopher Plummer to harpoon his very first nomination and Christoph Waltz’s frightening “Jew Hunter” to make the list.

One of great treats of the year was watching Christian McKay’s virtuoso impersonation of Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles and I truly hope he is rewarded with a nod.

For the record, this would have been the perfect year for one of the best actors on the planet, eight time nominee Peter O’Toole, to finally win his longgggg overdue Oscar if only a distributor had picked up Dean Spanley. This excellent film, which features another outstanding performance by O’Toole, played at last year’s Toronto Film Fest and has been released in Britain. But why not here??

Best Supporting Actor

Christopher Plummer in The Last Station
Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds

Alfred Molina in An Education

Woody Harrelson in The Messenger
Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles
Peter Sarsgaard in An Education
Anthony Mackie in The Hurt Locker
Brian Geraghty in The Hurt Locker
Rupert Friend in The Young Victoria
Stanley Tucci in Julie and Julia
Peter Capaldi in In the Loop
Paul Schneider in Bright Star
Jim Broadbent in The Young Victoria

Still to be seen:
Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones
Matt Damon in Invictus
Robert Duvall in Crazy Heart
Alec Baldwin in It’s Complicated

My shake-things-up candidate: Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road (I’ve always shouted that children should not compete with adults—until now!)

Supporting Actress. Blah-blah, Mo’Nique. Blah-blah shoo-in.

Two films might produce two nominations in this category.

Up in the Air could not have two more different yet splendiferous gals competing with the hilarious Anna Kendrick and the compelling Vera Farmiga.

And Nine has a slew of potential candidates beginning with the dazzling Marion Cotillard and sexsational Penelope Cruz.

And if Julianne Moore had a little more screen time in A Single Man she could have given the Mo-gal a run for the gold.

Best Supporting Actress

Mo’Nique in Precious
Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air
Penélope Cruz in Nine

Probable: (if AMPAS proves savvy and place her in Support)
Marion Cotillard in Nine

Julianne Moore in A Single Man
Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air
Judi Dench in Nine
Rosamund Pike in An Education
Charlize Theron in The Road
Patricia Clarkson in Whatever Works
Ellen Burstyn in The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond
Paula Patton in Precious
Cara Seymour in An Education
Samantha Morton in The Messenger

Still to be seen:
Susan Sarandon in The Lovely Bones
Rachel Weisz in The Lovely Bones
Sigourney Weaver in Avatar
Natalie Portman in Brothers
Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart

My shake-things-up candidate: Jessica Haines in Disgrace (it’s incredible that this was her very first film and she sears the screen in it!)

I have this oddball feeling the actual Best Picture winner will be one of the film’s that hasn’t officially screened yet (The Lovely Bones?). I don’t know why. I do know that it’s too early to pronounce Precious (good but NOT deserving of the top honors) or Up in the Air as the pics to beat. Watch out for Nine!

I do think this will be the year a female director finally does take home the gold—deservedly. Go Kathryn Bigelow!





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