On the 25th of February Ellen DeGeneres will be inviting everyone who is anyone in the world of film to the gloriously named Kodak Theatre to hand out the most coveted awards in cinema - the Oscars. In part one of our Oscars preview we predicted the nominees - now we try our luck at the winners. Who will be receiving those career boosting, ego gratifying statuettes? Who will be gritting their teeth through an acceptance speech they should have been giving? And will any of a large contingent of Brits be flying home with something new to put on the mantlepiece?
Keeping in the tradition of shocks and surprises with this year's Oscars, I was quite stunned to see that four of the five nominees actually had played in American cinemas (albeit in small numbers, save Pan's Labyrinth) during 2006. Usually, American filmgoers are lucky to get to see one or two of the best foreign film candidates before the ceremonies...if that.
This year's nominees offer quite a wide variety of unique global visions (however, one has to wonder what the hell happened to Pedro Almodovar's Volver). Germany's The Lives of Others is a taut drama about secret police surveillance in former East Germany. Indigènes (Days of Glory), from Algeria, is based on true-life events from World War II when the French exploited men from their former colonies to do the most degrading of jobs, while Denmark's After the Wedding (not to be released in the States until a month after the Oscars) tells the tale of an orphanage manager (Casino Royale's Mads Mikkelsen) who returns home to secure a donation for his orphanage, albeit with strings attached. Finally, there is Canada's entry, Water, from writer/director Deepa Mehta that is about a group of widows forced into poverty at a temple in the holy city of Varanasi.
Leading the pack, of course, is nominee number five: Guillermo Del Toro's magnificent Pan's Labyrinth, which is nominated in six categories. Del Toro's beautiful, moving mix of wartime drama, fantasy and horror, Pan's Labyrinth is a Narnia for adults, one that leaves its impact on the viewer for days afterwards. Watch for this modern-day masterpiece to nab the Best Foreign Film Oscar without breaking a sweat.
Last year, the five Best Picture nominees were movies that had agendas.. This year, the five top contenders are not as hot topic-centered. The nominees in the Best Documentary, as one would expect, are. Be it a look at the Pedophilia crisis in the Catholic Church (Deliver Us From Evil), our escalating climate change crisis (An Inconvenient Truth), Evangelical Christianity and youth in Middle America (Jesus Camp) or the conflict in Iraq, this time from the point of view of the country's citizens (My Country, My Country and Iraq In Fragments), each of this year's nominees examine important issues, and do so in very effective ways.
While each of these documentaries would make for an ideal winner, I think the clear cut champ is former Vice-President Al Gore's fascinating Inconvenient Truth. Global warming is a mainstay in the news these days, and the screwed up weather we are all facing and have faced is a result of it. The weird winters of our discontent and summers of swelters and storms only reinforce the need for a documentary like this to both exist and been seen. And since we all know how Academy members love to think that they are on the cusp of, erm, hot topics like this, I think a statue for An Inconvenient Truth is a sure bet.
Best Animated Feature
Animated features of late have been a bit underwhelming, and two of the three nominees in this year's Best Animated Feature category enforce that: Pixar's moderately-entertaining Cars and Warner Brothers' odd Happy Feet. In terms of animation, both looked terrific, but when it came to the story and character departments, both fell short (in the case of Feet, way short) of success.
Fortunately, there is Monster House, executive produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg. The animation is as impressive as Cars and Happy Feet, but this one also had fun characters, a decent story and a overall feel to it like you were watching one of those Spielberg-produced features from the 1980s (the only difference being that Monster House is actually a good film). I think the award will either go to Cars or Feet, but were I voting member, I would be betting on Monster House all the way.
Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress
The favourites to be crowned with the Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars are a King and a Queen, with a Dream couple hotly tipped in the supporting roles. That is how it worked out in last month's Golden Globes, but 16 other contenders will be hoping it will prove otherwise come 25 February.
No one would begrudge Forest Whitaker winning Best Actor for his dominating performance in The Last King of Scotland, in which he plays the charismatic but brutal 1970s Uganda dictator Idi Amin. What is so impressive about his larger-than-life performance is that he makes Amin's unpredictable shifts between buffoonery and menace totally believable. Leonardo DiCaprio is also convincing as a diamond smuggler in the Sierra Leone-set Blood Diamond, portraying a courageous but morally compromised adventurer.
Ryan Gosling is riveting as a crack-addicted Brooklyn high-school teacher who has the chance to redeem himself as the mentor of a troubled young girl in Half Nelson. However, hopefully the Academy members will not succumb to the saccharine sweetness of Will Smith's role in The Pursuit of Happyness, where he plays a single father determined to regain financial security for himself and his young son.
Finally, the septuagenarian Peter O’Toole gives one of his best-ever performances, at once funny and touching, as an elderly actor who falls for a teenage girl in Venus. When O'Toole received an Honorary Oscar in 2002, he said he still hoped to win a 'real' Oscar - although nominated seven times before, the last time was 25 years ago; what a story it would be if he finally won!
The Brits are out in force for the Best Actress award, but Helen Mirren's regal performance in The Queen will surely gain her the top prize. By showing us the private strains and uncertainties behind Elizabeth's public mask at the time of Princess Diana's death in 1997, she humanizes a figure not brought up to show emotions, at a time of crisis for the British monarchy.
Judi Dench once again excels in her late-flowering film career, this time as a blackmailing lesbian schoolteacher with a crush on a colleague, in the psychological thriller Notes on a Scandal. And the underrated Kate Winslet, still searching for her elusive first Oscar, gets her fifth nomination for her role as an adulterous American suburban housewife and mother in Little Children.
Penelope Cruz gets a well-deserved first nomination for her star turn in Volver, where she plays a strong-willed, big-hearted and sexy family woman under extreme pressure. Finally, it would be foolish to rule out the formidable Meryl Streep (14 times nominated, twice a winner), who is back in top form as a deliciously bitchy fashion-magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada.
Best Supporting Actor
The Best Supporting Actor Award is more wide open, but Eddie Murphy has a very good chance as an embittered singer who failed to make it in the big time, in the Motown-style musical Dreamgirls. The veteran Alan Arkin (last nominated almost forty years ago!) is back in the running as a heroin-addicted grandfather to a budding beauty queen in Little Miss Sunshine.
Jackie Earle Haley is disturbingly persuasive as a sex offender recently released from prison who creates panic among the neighbours in Little Children, but I'm not sure why Mark Wahlberg has been nominated - his role as a Boston police sergeant involved in undercover surveillance of the local Irish mafia in The Departed is well-enough acted but hardly exceptional.
Djimon Hounsou, on the other hand, probably deserves to win for his movingly committed performance as man driven to extremes to save his family in Blood Diamond.
Best Supporting Actress
The Best Supporting Actress Oscar is also up for grabs, though former American Idol finalist Jennifer Hudson may well go all the way this time for playing a Supremes-style lead vocalist supplanted by a more beautiful girl in Dreamgirls.
For such a consistently outstanding actress it's amazing that Cate Blanchett hasn't won an Oscar yet, but she's up for it again for her compelling performance in Notes on a Scandal, as a teacher embroiled in an affair with a pupil. Adriana Barraza fully deserves her nomination for her role in Babel, as a Mexican nanny in California who takes her two young charges across the border for her son's wedding without permission, and suffers the consequences. And Rinko Kikuchi also impresses in Babel as a lonely and rebellious deaf-mute Japanese teenager, desperate for love after the suicide of her mother.
If 10-year-old Abigail Breslin, nominated for her natural performance as a wannabe beauty queen in Little Miss Sunshine, wins she will tie with Tatum O'Neal (Paper Moon, 1973) as the youngest Oscar winner ever. So there could well be tears before bedtime on 25 February - but who sheds them, and whether they spring from joy or disappointment, remains to be seen.
Best Film, Director, Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay
On paper, the Best Director gong is easy to call. Despite robust challenges from young whippersnapper Alejandro González Iñárritu and mercurial old hand Clint Eastwood, the white-hot favorite is seven-times nominated Martin Scorsese for his virtuoso retelling of Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, The Departed. His film has it all: hyperbole-infused reviews, an enormous box office haul, five astonishing central performances, and a script to kill for by one of Hollywood's hottest writers. Leaving aside the facts that yes, it's a remake, and yes,
a wet paper bag could probably tease decent performances out of a collective cast including Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese has one thing on his side none of his rivals do: a Hollywood hard luck story.
A loser for better films than this, Scorsese finally picked up his first Directors Guild of America (DGA) award for The Departed this week, after six failed nominations in the past. This Oscar nod is his seventh, still without a win. No-one would begrudge him a gong now, certainly not the notoriously misty-eyed Academy. As an added precedent, the DGA's have only failed to predict the eventual winner of the Oscar six times in their history, meaning Scorsese looks locked on for victory.
However, there may just be room for an upset. It almost certainly will not come from Stephen Frears' The Queen, a film more about a titanic central performance from Helen Mirren than showy directorial flourishes. Eastwood too, despite pulling the worthy card with his haunting look at the other side of an American invasion in Letters from Iwo Jima, has underperformed critically and commercially, and two recent wins will hamper his chances against long-time loser Scorsese.
We feel the only challenger to Scorsese will come in the unlikely shape of Paul Greengrass, whose harrowing United 93 was deemed too political for a Best Film Nomination. His ability to draw fantastic performances out of a cast of unknowns and the way he kept the movie from descending into melodrama makes him a decent outside bet. But we're going to plump for Scorsese here: It's seriously about time.
The Best Motion Picture award, which involves four of the five directors also up for Best Film, is a far more open race this year. Indie charmer Little Miss Sunshine is the only one not up for both, but it is seen as a runner, not a winner because of its minute budget and lack of punchy, Oscar-friendly themes. However, it did triumph at the Producer's Guild of America (PGA's) ahead of three of its four Oscar rivals, and the PGAs have predicted 11 of the last 17 winners. It may be a long shot, but it will certainly pick up a large vote, so don't discount it.
The Queen, again, is a good film, but not an Oscar winner - put your money on Mirren by all means, but not on to win here. Conversely, Eastwood may have a better chance in this category than in the best director one, but as he's picked up so many Oscars in his life we're seeing this as a straight fight between Babel and The Departed. Both are epic, well acted and critically acclaimed, but The Departed is a little pulpy and populist for the Best Film award. Babel may still find itself falling victim to the backlash against last year's winner Crash, a similar sprawling, non-linear narrative film which was roundly derided as a bad call, but with its global themes, strong central performances and intertwining storylines, we're going to tip it to pull off a narrow win here.
Both the Best Script (Adapted and Original) are nigh-on impossible to call. In the original category, Best Picture nominees Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Queen and Little Miss Sunshine bump shoulders with Guillermo Del Toro's astonishing Pan's Labyrinth, in what could be a very tight run-in. All have good things going for them, but the early bragging rights have gone to The Queen, which picked up a Golden Globe for Best Script (original or adapted) last month. It's a good bet - it's British, about the royals and very original. Pan's Labyrinth, which is a masterpiece of storytelling, is another good outside bet; but may be a little 'out there' for some voters.
Who'll win? We're having a real punt here, but we're going to go for a shock win for Little Miss Sunshine over favorite Babel - it's unlikely to win Best Film, but it was nominated there on merit above films with much bigger budgets and stars for a reason. It's a heartwarming, funny portrayal of family dysfunction, and one that the Academy obviously thinks deserves rewarding.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Sacha Baron Cohen's corking Borat is belatedly, and bizarrely, nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category alongside The Departed, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men, adultery drama Little Children and Patrick Marber's slice and dice job on Zoe Heller's novel Notes on a Scandal.
The Departed may edge this again, not just because of the tight script but also because the delivery from the five superstar leads is near-perfect. Children of Men is a fantastically realised idea, but the script certainly isn't the strongest part of the film, while Little Children hasn't performed well enough to really be in contention here. Borat, however hilarious, is essentially an improvised comedy, and really can't win this award, unless the academy is looking to reward it for doing such good business worldwide.
Again, we could be proved completely wrong come Oscar night, but we're going to put our collective shirt on Patrick Marber's Notes on a Scandal rewrite. The Departed is a great adaptation, but it's essentially a pretty close remake of an already popular film with some great one-liners thrown in. Marber, who missed out on a nod for his blistering script for Closer last year deserves this, especially after crafting two imperious parts for actresses Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench.