Right now I think we've got two sure bets for best-picture nominations ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Slumdog Millionaire") and one good one ("The Dark Knight"). (To see what other pundits think, CLICK HERE for our latest predix rundown.)
My views are based upon the mechanics of how Oscar voting works. Remember, academy members list five flicks on their ballot when choosing nominees, but, really, only No. 1 votes count. (OK, and sometimes No. 2 votes too, but you get the point.) Therefore, contenders must have a high Rooting Factor and, when you see "Slumdog," you'll understand why so many gurus consider it a shoo-in to be nominated and even believe that it has a serious chance to win. (This year's "Chariots of Fire"?)
I haven't seen "Benjamin Button" yet, but the buzz around town has been deafening for months, and now it's confirmed by one top Oscarologist who's seen it. Check out the "wow" comment in Dave Karger's blog at EW.
"Button" has a few other things going for it. It's based upon a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, so it has literary snob appeal (very important) and it's a big, long, sprawling epic (best picture = big picture in voters' minds) full of dazzling cinematography, special effects and music by academy darlings. That means it'll snag lots of nominations. Over the last 20 years, the film with the most bids has won best picture 15 times.
"Dark Knight" will get lots of bids in those tech races too, natch, which will help to lift it up to the best-pic slot. But superhero popcorn pix don't usually fly in the highest Oscar race, of course. This one's different, though, for lots of reasons that don't need repeating here.
The other two best-pic slots are wide open. "Doubt" and "Frost/Nixon" are strong possibilities because they're expertly made dramas based upon hit Broadway plays about real (important) people portrayed in powerhouse performances. They will have wide support in the acting and writing branches, plus others. (The directors' branch will pay close attention to past champ Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon.") Usually, those types of films get in to the top race — like "The Queen" and "Capote."
I have some doubt about "Doubt," though. I think writer-director John Patrick Shanley made a huge mistake by adding one quick, throw-away scene to the film's ending that may hurt its Oscar hopes hugely. After productions of Shanley's "Doubt" on Broadway, the audience was often polled to find out if they believed the priest was guilty or innocent of child molestation. Results were almost always split, thus underscoring the drama's title. However, at the end of the first film screening in New York, I asked a dozen attendees the same question and (SPOILER ALERT — skip over this paragraph and the next if you want to remain in suspense) every single person said, "He's guilty." The reason: the glimpse of a white boy snickering in a church pew as Philip Seymour Hoffman bids goodbye to his parishioners. Since this chap is one of the boys believed to be molested by Hoffman, it's obvious he's snickering in triumph now. At a cocktail reception after the film screening a few weeks ago, I asked Shanley why he included that scene since it clearly seems to dispel all doubt from "Doubt." He got so offended by the question that he turned away from me and bolted.
The reason this issue matters a lot in the Oscar derby now is the Ick Factor. Two years ago, the superb "Little Children" looked like a cinch to be nominated for best picture, but voters got turned off by its sympathetic portrayal of a child molestor. That same ickiness might not apply to "Doubt" if we didn't know what to think at the end, but since Shanley seems to settle the matter on film, he may have driven a nail into the coffin of his own Oscar hopes for best picture or director. The screenplay and acting races will probably still be OK. "Little Children" got nominated for those.
"Milk" is very similar to "Frost/Nixon" — a biopic driven by a fireworks performance -- and it's wowing early screening audiences. Surely, Sean Penn and supporting cast will be nominated by the gay-friendly acting branch. But how other academy members will swallow "Milk" as best picture is a mystery. "Brokeback Mountain" got nominated, but when it lost to "Crash," that was, I believe, clear evidence of quiet homophobia within the overall academy, which is dominated by ole str8 guys. Being the story of a militant, "Milk" is much more gay — in every way — than "Brokeback." At least a few queasy academy members will shut off their DVD screeners after just 10 minutes if they get creeped out by scenes of a craggy-faced Sean Penn lusting after cherubic James Franco in the subway, then Franco licking whipped cream off Penn later when they're naked in bed. Hmmmm. Do you think there's any chance that academy members Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine will put "Milk" in the top space on their ballots?
It may not matter. That's what is fascinating about Oscar's preferential ballot process. Theoretically,79% of the academy could leave "Milk" off their ballots entirely and "Milk" could still be nominated with only 21% first-place votes. There certainly is a large pro-gay contingent within AMPAS that may be strongly motivated to support this film about the struggle for gay rights now in the aftermath of California's ban on gay marriage.
"Australia" is the kind of big, sprawling epic that Oscar voters usually adore, but, frankly, nothing about its story or characters seem remarkable while viewing the trailer. That's why there's so little buzz around it. If it's actually quite good, we don't know because Baz Luhrmann is still tinkering with it just days before its debut Down Under. That's further evidence that the flick may be in trouble, but we'll soon find out more.
Only a few people have seen "Revolutionary Road," and the buzz is good, but there's not the kind of hysterical gushing we observe over "Button," that other big movie being held back by Paramount's film divisions. An earlier Sam Mendes movie about a married couple disillusioned with suburban life won best picture ("American Beauty"), so pundits remain optimistic, but this one doesn't seem to have the sly cheekiness of the first.
Buzz is strong for that other Kate Winslet pic, "The Reader," but journos haven't seen it yet.
There were high hopes over "Gran Torino" up until the trailer came out. Now some cynics say that it looks like a typical bigot-finds-his-heart weepie, but we must keep an open mind since it's by that Oscar magnet Clint Eastwood.
Unfortunately, the software we use to do polls for this blog only permits 10 entries for answers, so I had to limit the choices for you to pick the eventual best-pic winner. However, we accept write-ins! So if you want to endorse "Defiance," "I've Loved You So Long," "Rachel Getting Married," "WALL-E" or something else, click on the "Comments" link below.
(Photo credits: Paramount, Fox Searchlight, Warner Bros.)