Tis the season to be jolly! No, I'm not already plugging Christmas (of which, for the record, I'm no fan). I'm jumping for joy because after a summer of dull-as-dirt big-screen blockbusters (I may be in the minority, but I was underwhelmed by The Dark Knight), the Oscar contenders are finally upon us. Nights in Rodante, starring a nomination-less Richard Gere and Academy bait Diane Lane opens on Friday, and things only get better from there.
Every year I share my Oscar predictions with my friends, and my track record is pretty solid. My former colleague Mara and I actually used to have an Oscar board at work for all of the major acting categories (more an admirer of the thespian craft than filmmaking, I've never been much interested in Best Picture and Best Director), and my expert credentials include winning at least two office Oscar pools.
So shall we begin? Without further delay, here are the first of my 2009 Oscar Picks. (Each day I will highlight a different category.)
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Frank Langella: Frost/Nixon No one knows much of anything about the film other than that it's based on an immensely popular Broadway play, which means its critical fortunes could go either way. Langella, who won a Tony and practically ever other major stage award for his performance as the highly compromised 37th U.S. president, has been touted as the frontrunner since the day after the 2008 ceremony, mostly because he was so egregiously snubbed last year for Starting Out In The Evening. I'm jumping on his bandwagon, too, because, let's face it, he's due--at least a nomination.
Brad Pitt: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button The trailer alone has many deeming this the Best Picture frontrunner. Will Brad Pitt (left) ride its coattails to a much-delayed second nomination (his supporting nod for 12 Monkeys was 13 years ago) after two straight years of being overlooked in favor of his costars in supporting roles? Eventually, Oscar will have to get past his excess baggage (matinee-idol good looks, tabloid-bait status, untraditional nuclear family with controversial live-in lover) and recognize that the man's got talent.
Clint Eastwood: Gran Torino He was the only thing I liked about Million Dollar Baby (I cheered loudest when he sneaked in a best-actor nomination), and I think that sooner or later the Academy will appreciate his acting as much as they already worship his directing. If that's even possible.
Mickey Rourke: The Wrestler He's the talk of the festival circuit for his title-character role in director Darren Aronofsky's drama. Oscar loves a comeback, and not even his fashion disasters at the Venice Film Festival (featuring clown ties and a miniature pooch as accessories--see above photo) will probably stop this one.
Will Smith: Seven Pounds Hollywood's most bankable box-office star + a reunion with his Pursuit of Happyness director = Oscar nod No. 3?
Richard Jenkins: The Visitor This year's Julie Christie? Jenkins (left, perhaps best known to the masses as Six Feet Under's dead dad) is another veteran character actor who's finally getting his due. The reviews for his performance as a dead-on-the-inside recent widower who's reawakened after being thrust into the orbit of a family of illegal immigrants received unanimous praise early this year. But will Oscar remember? He's been known to have a short memory.
Benicio del Toro: The Argentine Although the perfectly cast del Toro won Best Actor at Cannes for his performance as Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, the picture has been saddled with mixed buzz all year and only just got distribution from IFC Films. Considering that the director is the infinitely marketable Steven Soderbergh, that can only mean one thing: It's a truly tough sell. Plus, it's actually one of two movies--the other being Guerilla--that make up a four-hour-and-counting biopic called Che. Still, I think the Oscar winner (for his role in Traffic, another Soderbergh film) has more than a fighting chance of snagging his third nomination (and first for a leading role).