I'm beginning to think that this may be one of those Oscar derbies in which the front-runner is really behind us and everybody, at this place on the track and the calendar, is looking at the wrong horses. Remember those years when pre-autumn releases "Annie Hall," "Braveheart" and "Gladiator" came trotting back, triumphant, into the derby after late-year releases tripped up?
Yes, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" is a front-runner, one of several, and will nab nominations for best picture, director, screenplay, actress and supporting actress. I think it's guaranteed of at least one win: Gabourey Sidibe for best actress. Probably Mo'Nique for supporting actress too, but there's room for an upstart victory here. However, I think "Precious" may be too small of an art-house flick to WIN best picture, and I don't think it's going to have the kind of widespread support across the academy's tech branches that's usually needed to win best picture.
Let's face it. Odds are against Clint Eastwood's "Invictus," regardless of how good it is. Two of his flicks already have won best picture: "Million Dollar Baby" and "Unforgiven." Only one director has helmed three best-pic champs in the pasy — William Wyler: ("Mrs. Miniver," "Best Years of Our Lives," "Ben-Hur").
"The Lovely Bones" looks good, but it's a killer thriller. Yes, that didn't slay the Oscar hopes of "No Country for Old Men," but that quality is usually fatal.
Rob Marshall is such a maestro of theatrical direction that I'm sure "Nine" will be a grand entertainment, but his "Chicago" already beat the odds stacked against musicals winning best picture in this cynical cinema age. Two superb recent tuners, "Sweeney Todd" and "Dreamgirls," both failed to be nominated, so "Nine" faces tough odds to win.
"Up in the Air" is a good film, but its plot may be too light (George Clooney has a midlife crisis while striving for frequent-flyer miles) to soar to such lofty Oscar heights. Hmmm … so what's left?
Because best pictures tend to be chosen based on who directs them, let's look over the list of five likely nominees. Yep, Eastwood will make the cut, of course. Probably "Up in the Air's" Jason Reitman and "The Lovely Bones" Peter Jackson too. Lee Daniels is a good bet based on the gathering buzz for his film, but although "Precious" is a great dramatic achievement, it may not be regarded by academy members as an exceptional directorial one. Not flashy enough. Marshall's "Nine" sure looks flashy, but, as noted above, I'm skeptical of musicals these days. Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") is a long shot considering that only three other women have ever nabbed noms for best director in the academy's 80-year history..
Then, there will be … hmmmm … Quentin Tarantino.
There's a lot of passion behind "Inglourious Basterds" within the academy, at least among voters I've spoken to, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. My spies tell me that Golden Globe voters are so crazy about "Basterds" that it's absolutely guaranteed of nominations for best drama picture and director, screenplay and supporting actor (Christoph Waltz).
At the Oscars, "Basterds" — which has the across-the-branches support that "Precious" lacks — has excellent shots to be nominated for best picture, director, screenplay, supporting actor, art direction, costumes, cinematography and film editing. That's eight nominations. It might even score more. In short, it might actually be the nominations leader.
Tarantino is overdue to win best director. Sentiment behind an overdue helmer is often what pushes a film to a best-picture victory. Think Ron Howard and "A Beautiful Mind," which was under a severe media attack during its home stretch at the Oscars, but prevailed thanks to the academy's insistence on finally catching up with Howard.
Furthermore, "Basterds'" theme of Jewish revenge against the Nazis is a powerful one within Hollywood, and its approach is bold, daring, even delightfully outrageous. Oh, yeah, another major plus: "Basterds" certainly has The Cool Factor, which often propels films to victory.
It's possible that one of the critics' awards (New York, Los Angeles, national society, BFCA) will get the "Basterds" ball rolling by voting it best picture. Critics are particularly crazy for Tarantino. But if they fail to champion "Basterds" first, then expect the Golden Globes to point the way to the Oscars just like they did for "Platoon," "Rain Man," "Out of Africa," "The Last Emperor," "The English Patient," "Titanic," "Shakespeare in Love" and "Gladiator" after those films were snubbed by the journos.
(NOTE: An earlier draft of this article incorrectly stated that no one has directed three best picture champs. A fix was made to cite William Wyler.)
Photo credit: Weinstein Co.