Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Who is this 'Meryl Streep' Anyway?

As promised, this week's Oscarology post is brought to you by the letter 'A,' as in 'actor.' Let's face it, we live in a world of boldfaced names and celebrity that keeps us most interested in the acting awards above all others. Yes, it's nice that Kathryn Bigelow is going to be the first female Best Director Oscar winner in, well, ever, but will she be on the front cover of Entertainment Weekly this week? Hardly. (That honor belongs to Up in the Air stars George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick, by the way.)

However, this year is odd, because of the number of probable nominees who are virtually unknown and have never been nominated for an Oscar before. 13 out of 20 nominees as predicted by yours truly have never heard their name called at oh-God-hundred by the Academy president and a pretty, random celebrity. Nonetheless, the acting categories remain the focus, and at least two of the races are pretty hotly contested. The other two? Well, let's just say that eight actors don't really need to show up on Oscar night expecting to win.

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

Hit or Miss! Daniel Day-Lewis, Nine

Disappointingly, this race has been predictable all along this precursor season, and not only that, but the performances aren't that great. The same goes for Supporting Actor, but at least there's one incredible standout in that race. The female acting categories definitely have the advantage over the males this year.

Clooney's performance as corporate ax-man Ryan Bingham isn't quite as stirring as many are calling it (I'd call it serviceable, quite frankly; without the stunning script and fantastic work of the two women next to him every step of the way, it wouldn't have made much impact), however, he has the star gravitas and the goodwill from Syriana and Michael Clayton going for him. Still, I do want to say this: George Clooney isn't half the actor his fellow would-be nominees are. He's a pretty face and does a decent job, but he's not a true artist.

Bridges' performance I have not seen yet (when a movie hasn't even really been released anywhere but LA you can understand why), but I have to say this: I'm growing a little tired of the "strong men can cry" inspiration-type performances so common here. (See: Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.) Trust me, I know that more than a few disagree with me, especially in regard to Rourke. But I just can't shake how annoyed I get with such performances.

Firth is lucky that he gave an incredible performance in a movie that rings a little too "student work," because he elevates the medium, and nothing turns the Academy on like a good medium elevation. Again, the film hasn't really been released, so I haven't gotten to see it, but Firth's performance is exactly what Brokeback and Milk fans love oh so dearly.

Freeman has a formula: play God-like character (in two cases, God himself) with a commanding voice and get critical plaudits. I loved Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy, and I kinda wish he'd go back to those types of performances, because as much as Freeman was made to play Nelson Mandela, this one just feels so Oscar baity.

Renner would be my winner of these five, but keep in mind that he's a low-wattage star in a low-wattage film. Up against four ridiculously bright stars, he's (sadly) out of luck. Still, his performance as a bomb tech and adrenaline junkie in Iraq is really stunning. Combined with Bigelow's excellent direction and a terrific supporting cast, Renner really made the film something special.

Day-Lewis, my Hit or Miss! pick, was truly the worst part of Nine. By a country mile. He couldn't wrap his mind around Guido Contini (guess that Method acting fails sometimes), and I honestly don't remember a worse performance from Day-Lewis. (The original pick for this role, Javier Bardem, would have been so much better.) So why is he a Hit or Miss? Simple: He's Daniel Day-Lewis. The man who abandoned his child and drank our milkshake only two years ago in what some called a 'masterpiece' film, There Will Be Blood. (I'll reserve my rant on that movie.) His star appeal might help him coast into the final five, especially in this weak of a year.

Best Actress
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria

Hit or Miss! Saoirse Ronan, The Lovely Bones

I'm pretty lonely out here in left field predicting Blunt over Helen Mirren, but I really don't think The Queen has a shot. In fact, I wouldn't even put her in sixth place.

Who is this 'Meryl Streep' character, anyway? She always gets critical fawning, but I just don't know what she's done that's worth half a damn. Kidding. The truth is that once again, Streep turned in another ridiculously good performance (actually, including It's Complicated, pair of performances), her third in four years. Whether she's imitating an icon or creating a new character all her own, Streep is truly a masterful actor, definitely the greatest alive and possibly the greatest of all time (she has to fight four-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn for that title), and I think critical sentiment is pushing for a third career win for the to-be 16-time nominee.

Let me take Mulligan's section to just rave about An Education a little bit. This thing is by far the Doubt of this year: the incredibly well-acted, well-written prestige film that goes almost completely ignored by major organizations because it isn't a pop culture phenomenon (Up in the Air), a directing marvel (The Hurt Locker), big and loud (Inglourious Basterds), a technical marvel (Avatar) or a R-rated melisma of cursing, violence, and sexual abuse (Precious). No, instead, Education, with the brilliant Mulligan as its star, is getting its plaudits only for the central actress, which is a shame. Yes, she's fantastic, and a win for her is well-deserved, but what about all the other elements of the movie that were so stunning? It truly is a shame that Education is only coasting into the Best Picture race on the 10-wide field. At least the superb Mulligan will get noticed here, though Sidibe and Streep are going to give her a run for her money.

Sidibe is truly awe-inspiring as the titular character in Precious, and I would actually love to see her win, but she's almost too natural in the role. I'm afraid the Ellen Page/Juno "is she the same?" affliction will befall Sidibe's chances here. Her best shot is at the Golden Globes, but will something unexpected happen there? See Blunt's section for more on that.

Bullock's nomination is the win here, I'm afraid. Yes, she is fun as Leigh Anne Tuhoy, a real-life hoot-and-a-half, but the performance lacks a gravitas necessary to win at the Oscars as well as the necessary screen time. "But Kevin," you say, "She's in almost the whole movie!" Ah, yes, but there are several key scenes (the beginning phases, the shooting scene) where she not only does not appear, but isn't even an off-screen presence. That's a tough hurdle for a Lead Actress contender to overcome. She's not really supporting, but she's not really lead. She does a damn good job at whatever she does, but it isn't good enough to beat the incredible Streep, Mulligan, or Sidibe. The fact that she's rallied so well and beaten out Helen Mirren as an Oscar lock is pretty admirable in and of itself.

It's risky, placing a bet on someone who's never been nominated for an Oscar based on a performance that never really gained any traction up until the recent nominations. Not only that, but Blunt has Mirren, Marion Cotillard, and a category-confused Melanie Laurent nipping at her heels. However, Cotillard's movie got ravaged by critics, Mirren's movie wasn't ever really released, and Laurent, like I said, is category-confused. Her part in Inglourious Basterds isn't enough to scrape a nod here. So that just leaves the simple task of actually doing enough to get nominated. Like Mirren's film, Blunt's never really made much of an impact on release. Still, it's a movie about royals (1 point), her performance is critically lauded (2 points), and she's scored Golden Globe (3) and Critics' Choice (4) Award nominations for the performance. It's a risk picking her, but I feel good about her chances. To paraphrase Dr. Chase from House, "The other choices suck worse."

What to make of Saoirse Ronan? The girl's so young (only 15! Taylor Swift wrote a song about that age as if it were some time ago, and she's only 20), but she's the best part of a terrible movie and her track record with Oscar is good (first nomination at 13 = great track record). I want her to be nominated for the historical aspect of it all, and with the fifth spot so vulnerable she could upset, but I doubt it, sadly. No, if this is going to any younger actress, it'll be Blunt, unless Oscar voters are feeling very generous.

Best Supporting Actor
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Matt Damon, Invictus
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station

Hit or Miss! Christian McKay, Me and Orson Welles

In case it hasn't been made obvious before, this is Waltz's award already. His multilingual, sinful performance in Basterds is the stuff of film legend. He's genius as an evil genius, and the precursors (almost) all agree: he's a winner. The only one to beat him in any early contest (and there's only been one) was Harrelson.

A few weeks ago, Harrelson wasn't even on anyone's radar. Alfred Molina had his spot on my list, as well as most others'. He's truly come out of nowhere, and I feel like that's primarily because of goodwill from Zombieland as well as an enduring career. He won the National Board of Review Best Supporting Actor award, but I feel that'll probably be his last; this isn't his best performance, and the movie is tiny. He deserves the nomination, but not the win.

It's tough to win an Oscar when you're not devoted to campaigning, and Damon really couldn't care less about this award. He's probably seen his competition (read: Waltz) and decided the nomination is the win this year. Smart man. He's nailed Francois Pineaar's South African accent for this performance, but almost no one is that excited about Invictus. He could probably be playing Nelson Mandela in this movie instead and no one would look twice. It's a snoozer role.

Tucci does fantastic work always, but this isn't his best work, even this year. I really wish he would get the nomination for Julie & Julia, but he's subtle in that movie, and as Jennifer Garner and Rosemarie DeWitt found out the last two years for Juno and Rachel Getting Married, subtle don't play. He's ridiculously over-the-top in Bones, and Oscar voters prefer the ostentatious, so the nomination is gonna come for this rather terrible flick.

What to make of Plummer's campaign? The Last Station has been almost invisible this year, and the fact that it has any awards traction whatsoever is a bit surprising to me. Yes, Plummer has had an enduring career, and playing Leo Tolstoy is baity, but I just don't get this movie or the buzz for its actors. I still don't think this nod is likely, and it most definitely isn't locked. It doesn't have the feeling of certainty that Hal Holbrook's "career" nod did two years ago, and a lot of people loved Into the Wild. Not so much for Station.

McKay's a breakout star in Me and Orson Welles as the titular thespian, and his performance is fun, inventive, and attention-grabbing (which is more than I can say of Tucci, Damon, and Plummer's roles...). However, the buzz for the role is dying out quickly, and this is only McKay's second film (yes, yes, I know it's only Sidibe's first, and that Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for her first role in Dreamgirls, but those are what we call "extraordinary circumstances"). With the more boring competitors hogging all the precursor awards, I'd bet we're going to have to suffer through a McKay-less Best Supporting Actor competition. Too bad, too. He's the only one who could really give Waltz a good race.

Best Supporting Actress
Mo'Nique, Precious
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Penelope Cruz, Nine
Julianne Moore, A Single Man

Hit or Miss! Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds

Mo'Nique is as locked into the win as Christoph Waltz is for his category. The role is an absolute winner, her performance is stunning and a true marvel, and the hype from Sundance to Toronto to the year-end best lists has been undying. Don't believe any of the negative buzz. When the top Oscarologists were polled last month by Gurus of Gold, an awesome collection of pundits that play this fun Oscarology game, about the Supporting Actress race, each and every one put Mo'Nique solidly in first place. That didn't happen with any other competitior in any other race, not even Waltz. She's in and done.

Kendrick is truly marvelous in Air, playing corporate chipmunk Natalie Keener. She's by far the best actor in the film and probably the best part of the film (raise your hand if the hysterical crying scene and basically everything that came afterward up to her off-key rendition of "Time After Time" made you die laughing), but this isn't her year. She's shown tremendous promise, and any other year I would love to see her get her golden statue on Oscar night, but this is Mo'Nique's year.

Farmiga wasn't my favorite part about Up in the Air, but she was still quite good. Her big character shift near the middle rivals Jennifer Garner's in Juno two years ago, but it's a great negative shift as opposed to Garner's positive one. I still wonder if she'll have some trouble getting nominated with Kendrick also involved, but things have gone her way throughout the precursors, so she should be fine. Of course, she'll lose to Mo'Nique, but it's always an honor to be nominated.

Cruz is being dropped off of Oscarologists' lists everywhere, which puzzles me. She's been nominated by SAG, the BFCA, and by the Globes, and critics, though they blasted her movie, actually liked her quite a bit in it. Her Vicky Cristina Barcelona role was quite similar to this one, and they gave her the trophy for that role, but then again, her strongest competition last year was a woman with a ten minute scene (Viola Davis). Unlike other Oscarologists, I do think she'll get the nomination, but again, she'll lose to Mo'Nique. (Notice a pattern here, folks?)

Moore's nomination once looked like much more of a sure thing than it does now. She does a great job, but it's a small role in a small movie, and she's way overshadowed by Colin Firth. Getting snubbed by SAG, which is usually the greatest indicator of the acting races, hurts, but their choice, Diane Kruger, less-than-inspiring as Bridget Von Hammersmark in Inglourious Basterds, isn't going to get the nomination. Moore should get this final spot, but again, she'll lose to--oh, you know.

Laurent was the George Clooney of Inglourious Basterds: she did serviceable work in a fairly easy role. You gotta admire the bilinguality of the role, but everyone in Basterds pulled that off (well, not Brad Pitt, but that's part of the reason why you don't see his name on this list). She could make it on this list, but it's a risk, and one that won't pay off, because she'll lose to Mo'Nique.

Well, that's about as deep an analysis of the acting races as you'll find on the net today. Things look pretty set in most of these, with at least three sure things on each list. Still, I would say that Renner, Blunt, Plummer, Cruz, and Moore should be very careful, as they are the five most vulnerable on these lists. If anyone gets left off, it'll be one (or more) of those five.

Got any feelings on any particular race? Wondering why Tobey Maguire suddenly disappeared off the Best Actor list? Got any thoughts about Marion Cotillard's category fraud and where she'll finally be put if she indeed makes it into the final cut? Take it to the comments! Next week, I'll examine the Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Adapted Screenplay categories, the second of which is sure to be a hot mess. Hoo boy.

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