Not to be too dully aligned with Conventional Wisdom, but let's face facts: We've been in the season of "Yes We Can!" since last November. And in a "Yes We Can" year, it's too, too easy to handicap this year's Oscars list, with a couple of exceptions which need not be named except they involve actresses.
The only evidence this year of "No You Didn't" came with the curious case of the "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." After seeing it last Christmas, I turned to my cousin during the closing credits and stage-whispered, "You know what? I'm finally convinced. Life really is like a box of chocolates." He laughed at this. So did his wife. So did my wife and a few people sitting behind us. We had all come to the same conclusion about this movie: That we would have been better off if we'd opted for "Frost/Nixon" in the adjoining multiplex bunker.
Nevertheless, I knew somehow that, despite our collective reaction, "Benjamin Button's" big-studio pedigree and star wattage would ensure a handful of Academy Awards nominations. In no way, did I expect there to be two handfuls. Seriously, Academy: 13 fracking Oscars nominations? 13? Really??
The suits needed to be placated somehow. I get that. I also get that the telecast needed some glitter to jack up its ratings; hence the gratuitous sop to Brangelina, who, after all this junk, had better show up. (What? Nominating Clint for a golden-age coup wouldn't keep viewers up late? Maybe not at for those of a certain age…)
But let me put down the whip on this all-but-dead horse. "Button" came up goose-eggs at SAG and it will come up goose-eggs on Academy Night. Unless something drastically alters this strange national mood of euphoria-wrestling-with-dread, what follows would seem to be The Script four weeks from now:
The knives are out and you can see them gleaming from here to Mumbai. But I don't think it's going to matter in the end. Nothing shouts "Yes We Can" louder (and I mean literally) than this young man's quest for love and justice and The Final Answer. "Milk," for reasons cited below, may be the only one of this bunch who could pick "Millionaire's" pocket.
Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor"
Frank Langella, "Frost/Nixon"
X - Sean Penn, "Milk"
Brad Pitt, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler"
Leave aside, for the moment, the still-smoldering outrage in California and everywhere else over Prop 8 — though that has always been a factor. Think instead of the sweep of images that linger in people's minds from the Inauguration and its surrounding events. Whatever the next couple months or years may yield in frustration & hardship, Americans will still carry with them the breathtaking vision of millions of Americans who, through the electoral process, now feel connected to their country in ways they haven't felt in 400 years or so. "Milk's" subject speaks both to that apotheosis' possibility and the beautiful, painful yearning that preceded it. In other words, this prevailing mood of "Yes We Can" is bigger than Mickey Rourke's personal triumph (which is almost as heartening) and certainly bigger than Pitt's gilded persona. Plus, Penn seems to have recovered needed buoyancy in his own persona from taking on this heroic role with such detailed and knowing gusto. He wins again.
After SAG, I was ready to make Streep the lock. But my good friend and learned colleague Ms. Lemire has got me thinking: Kate really glowed on GG night, didn't she? And didn't she say all the right things and straddle the border of humility and embarrassment weaving through every memorable acceptance speech? I'd say she was Inevitable if the nomination were for "Revolutionary Road," where she was not only amazing, but really, really good (good enough, anyway, to dazzle even those who were brought down by the rest of the movie). "Reader" isn't even close to "RR" in overall quality and, with all due deference to Christy, if they really want to honor Winslet for her body-of-work, why didn't they nominate her for the better movie? Nevertheless, it wouldn't be the first time a veteran's performance was singled out by her peers while another performance was anointed with the Oscar. In fact, didn't that happen last year?
For what it's worth, Downey's Oscar nomination in this category is exactly one year overdue –- for "Zodiac," which by the way should have been nominated in other categories a year ago as well. He deserves it this year too, but no one's feeling quite evolved enough ("No We Don't") to risk honoring someone doing blackface, however cannily or ironically. This is still Heath Ledger's to lose – and it wouldn't surprise me to hear some people voting twice, three times for him after they watch their "Dark Knight" DVDs.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams, "Doubt'
Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
X - Viola Davis, "Doubt"
Taraji P. Henson, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Marisa Tomei, "The Wrestler"
So far, my biggest folly of this award season has been clinging to the false hope that Cruz's flamboyant and hilarious turn would find an Oscar waiting for it at rainbow's end.
It is, after all, a performance so huge in its movie's narrative scheme that it could have easily been tapped as for a lead nomination. Usually, that's an easy call.
But for whatever reason, people have it in for "VCB," despite the fact that it's been (in late-period Woody Allen terms) a hit.
On the other hand, Davis really does burn a hole in the screen in her relatively brief appearance. It all depends, I suppose, on what happens with the Lead Actress category, but don't ask me how.
X - Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"
Stephen Daldry, "The Reader"
David Fincher, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'
Ron Howard, "Frost/Nixon"
Gus Van Sant, "Milk"
Van Sant is Boyle's only real competition here for reasons already cited. At least, he should be, though Howard always seems extra inspired when his subject takes in the television business. (Yes, I do so think "EDtv" is his most underrated work. Come and get me!)
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
X - "Milk"
Any of the other four would be worthy of the honor (and, after all this time, would it be too much to ask even one of Pixar's scripts to catch a break?) Momentum could carry "Milk" over the hump, but it's not writ in stone, so to speak.
BEST SCREENPLAY ADAPTATION
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
X - "Slumdog Millionaire"
As Jamal would say: How do I know? I don't, really. Maybe it is (you will excuse the expression) written…
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
"Encounters at the End of the World"
X - "Man on Wire"
"Trouble the Water"
If you're going by quality alone, "Trouble the Water" is the most original and heartbreaking American documentary in years. But if you're going by the upbeat, go-for-it mood of the voting populace (in or out of Hollywood), then Philippe Petit gets away with it again.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
"Der Baader Meinhof Komplex"
X - "Entre les Murs"
"Vals Im Bashir"
"The Class" was my personal Numero Uno Movie of the Year and, for this one time, I'm indulging in the general optimism of the moment to give it a push -- though "Waltz With Bashir" would be an awesome, gutsy choice.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
X - "Wall-E"
Come to think of it, EVA would have been a decent choice for Best Supporting Actress. I might even have taken her over Cruz…Don't look at me that way. I kid because I care…
"Jai Ho" from "Slumdog Millionaire"
X - "O Saya" from "Slumdog Millionaire"
"Down to Earth" from "Wall-E"
I'd like to go to a lifeline here. Maybe I should call … Bruce Springsteen!
Photos: Fox Searchlight, Miramax