Andy Bockelman: Does the Oscar always go to the right person?

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82nd annual Academy Awards

Hosted by actors Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, the live award ceremony broadcasts at 6 p.m. Sunday on ABC. For a full list of nominees, visit www.oscars.com.

As the biggest night of the year in movies, March 7 will honor the best and brightest of 2009’s films at the 82nd annual Academy Awards. Just as with every year, the time-honored tradition should provide shocking moments along with sure things as the Hollywood elite prepare for the gold.

But are those who are favored to win the ones who deserve it most? In some cases, yes, but across the board, some nominees are simply more praiseworthy than others.

Best Supporting Actress

Who Will Win: Mo’Nique for “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”

Best known for her work as a comedienne, Mo’Nique’s dramatic turn is nothing short of incredible. Her performance as abusive Harlem mother Mary Jones not only shocks in terms of her character’s absolute depravity and cruelty as a parent but in the fact that the existence of this woman — a leech on the welfare system who only sees her child as a way to add extra numbers onto her check — is entirely plausible.

But Mo’Nique not only makes her easy to hate but easy to pity, as there is much more beneath the surface.

Who Should Win: Mo’Nique

The comic is all but a lock for the Oscar, mainly because her competition is on a different level.

Fellow nominees Maggie Gyllenhaal (“Crazy Heart”), Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick (“Up in the Air”) do well in their respective roles with their weaknesses being not in their acting, but in their characters’ lack of development. Each of these women plays parts that pale in comparison to a leading role.

Ironically, wild card nominee number five, Penélope Cruz (“Nine”), has this problem, as well, despite having won the category last year for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” in a very similar role.

Best Supporting Actor

Who Will Win: Christoph Waltz for “Inglourious Basterds”

Easily the best part of Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist tale of World War II Europe, Austrian actor Waltz gives a humanistic portrayal of Col. Hans Landa, a Nazi whose notoriously sneaky tactics in rounding up quarry for Hitler’s regime have earned him the nickname of “The Jew Hunter.” It would be one thing to play a Nazi as despicable and soulless, but Waltz gives Landa a personal depth that would make him almost likable if you didn’t catch a glimpse of his swastika armband.

Who Should Win: Woody Harrelson for “The Messenger”

If one military character doesn’t win, another should. Harrelson gives one of his best performances in the low-key story of a pair of Army officers tasked with informing civilians of family casualties during the Iraq War. As the more experienced and more flippant of the two, Harrelson is sensitive, humorous and forceful all at once, turning a good movie into a great one.

This kind of complexity is ever-present with the rest of the list, including Stanley Tucci, as a twisted pedophile (“The Lovely Bones”); Matt Damon, as a post-Apartheid South African rugby captain (“Invictus”); and Christopher Plummer, as the giant of Russian literature, Leo Tolstoy (“The Last Station”).

Best Actress

Who Will Win: Sandra Bullock for “The Blind Side”

After a lengthy career slump, the actress regained firm footing as a star in 2009 with “The Proposal” and the story of NFL phenom Michael Oher and his adoptive family. As Leigh Anne Tuohy, the surrogate mother for the left tackle, she exudes warmth and comfort on behalf of a youth who has been overlooked for most of his life.

Who Should Win: Gabourey Sidibe for “Precious”

Aside from Meryl Streep (“Julie & Julia”), Bullock is the most popular of the Best Actress group. But being the best-liked doesn’t necessarily equate to best performance.

First-time actress Sidibe deserves this distinction much more for her startlingly honest work in the title role of “Precious,” which is quite akin to the hero of “The Blind Side” but much more graphic in the representation of low self-esteem, urban poverty and teenage illiteracy. Though character financial status is irrelevant, Sidibe’s opposition inadvertently seems less impressive as women who are much more comfortable in life: Carey Mulligan, as an Oxford-bound British teen (“An Education”) and Helen Mirren, as the Countess Tolstoy (“The Last Station”).

Best Actor

Who Will Win: Jeff Bridges for “Crazy Heart”

Joaquin Phoenix may not have won this title several years ago for his acting as an alcoholic country singer, but he didn’t have quite the pedigree that Bridges upholds. With four previous nominations under his belt, the actor’s forthcoming victory is more of a lifetime achievement award, but that doesn’t mean he’s not commendable.

In playing burnt-out country crooner Bad Blake, Bridges puts his musical talent to fine use in an exceptional showing that reminds audiences just why they’ve been enamored with him for decades.

Who Should Win: Jeremy Renner for “The Hurt Locker”

The one thing Bridges has working against him, as do three of the other nominees, is his fame and the fact that he’s been on the award circuit so many times before. The lone standout here is the largely unknown, younger Renner as an unpredictable military bomb disposal technician in Iraq.

But class and subtlety are the key words in this category, and all five actors emanate this trait, from Morgan Freeman, as peace-driven leader Nelson Mandela (“Invictus”); to Colin Firth, as a distraught gay man in the 1960s on the brink of suicide (“A Single Man”); to George Clooney, as a meticulously antisocial corporate ax man (“Up in the Air”).

Best Adapted Screenplay

Who Will Win: Geoffrey S. Fletcher for “Precious”

In his treatment of author Sapphire’s true-to-life take on struggling New York teenagers, Fletcher keeps the circumstances of the abused young woman grounded and real while still allowing her intervals of daydreaming in order to escape the horrors of her everyday life. Most importantly, Fletcher’s screenplay takes us on a journey that really lets us help appreciate the wonder of learning through the eyes of someone who has been mistreated by the public school system almost as much as she has by her parents.

Who Should Win: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell for “District 9”

Not to say that a victory for “Precious” would be unmerited, but it’s always encouraging to see the Academy go in a different, unexpected direction. Science fiction movies rarely receive much attention in way of major awards, and for Blomkamp’s racism parable of aliens in South Africa to receive acknowledgment the genre would have a vital boon.

This gathering of selections has no lack of good writing, ranging from the hilariously profane look at the world of political spin in “In the Loop” to the topical subject matter of business layoffs in “Up in the Air.” And though “An Education” may be a lot quieter in tone than the rest, but it’s no less meaningful.

Best Original Screenplay

Who Will Win: Mark Boal for “The Hurt Locker”

Journalist Boal’s account of being embedded in Iraq with a bomb unit is charged with energy and apprehension. Driven by the psychological mindset of the men and women who risk their lives in such an undertaking, the plotline keeps viewer attention effortlessly, never once deigning to teach the audience a lesson. It does impart wisdom, to be sure, but the politics of the Iraq situation are left out of the mix, allowing the story and characters to do the job.

Who Should Win: Quentin Tarantino for “Inglourious Basterds”

The subject of war makes for an absorbing watch in any instance, but it takes ingenuity — and a good amount of gall — to blend fiction with fact. And in this instance, Tarantino doesn’t just aim to make his own mark in the universe of WWII films. The writer/director painstakingly crafts his homage to genre classics like “The Dirty Dozen” and many more while still remaining true to his own sensibilities.

The Coen brothers achieve this kind of dual mastery in the script for the modern day version of Job in “A Serious Man,” while the stories in home front war drama “The Messenger” and Pixar’s high soaring animated adventure “Up” are equally personal in their own ways.

Best Director/Picture

Who/What Will Win: James Cameron/“Avatar”

Since directors and their movies generally win a pair of twin trophies, there’s no point in splitting this one up, especially since the director of each feature is so inseparable from their project. In Cameron’s case, this is true, as he remains linked to the box office-record-shattering fantasy epic as closely as the protagonist of said saga does to his extraterrestrial second body.

The director stands a good chance of sweeping the Oscar ceremony, having all but nailed down well-deserved awards, such as Best Cinematography, Film Editing, Visual Effects and more.

Who/What Should Win: Kathryn Bigelow/“The Hurt Locker”

The drawback of an “Avatar” win is that it sets a bad precedent. Cameron’s blockbuster furthers the idea that flashy special effects and a huge budget can disguise a weak story bursting at the seams with action movie clichés.

The fact that Cameron won top honors and a 12-year reign as the highest grossing film of all time, which “Avatar” has long since topped, for his last directorial endeavor, “Titanic,” proves that the Hollywood mogul is concerned with whatever is most profitable and popular more than material of substance.

In contrast, Bigelow — Cameron’s ex-wife — constructs a genuinely involving atmosphere that does what an Oscar nominee should do: take risks and not let the potential receipts determine its worth. Those up for the twofold of Best Director/Picture are also shining examples of risk-taking, whether it’s the irreverence of Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” the explicit candor of Lee Daniels’ “Precious” or the timeliness of Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air.”

But with the expansion of the Best Picture category to 10 nominees, maybe we won’t have a pairing, and “The Blind Side,” “District 9,” “An Education,” “A Serious Man” or “Up” will come from behind in a surprise move to nab the last award of the evening.

As it is with any given year, you never know…

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