Because YOU Asked For It (and don’t lie, you did): Gene’s 2012 Oscar Picks

I’ve watched them every year — even when life finds me in the rain forests of Costa Rica or on a red eye to Italy. And it’s very likely I’ll watch them again Feb. 26, though I sometimes wonder how long these will matter any more.   I’m no longer sure they do. At least not as much as film festivals do. (And I think we’ll see those televised sooner than we see a revival of the Academy Awards’ fading reputation.)

Nevertheless, I used to do this every year & I used to be pretty good at it – that is for those who thought getting them right mattered more than picking whatever outrageous thing came into sombody’s head. But things have changed. I no longer live in a city with a better-than-average chance of bumping into someone who a.) is an Academy member or b.) knows somebody who knows somebody who is an Academy member.

Hence my once-reliable radar for handicapping these things may be too dust-bunny ridden to pick up more than faint signals of what will happen Oscar Night. Granted, in our world-wired age, there are likely no longer any such things as “faint signals.” But there certainly are garbled or discordant ones. And in a year such as this (not the best, by the way, for movies in general) where some of the more challenging pictures and performances got waylaid, if not ignored, on their way to nomination, I have a feeling – only a feeling – that, with few exceptions, things wont be nearly as cut-and-dried as they’ve been in the recent past. Or maybe I’m just showing how truly out-of-touch I am these days. What-EVER!

(Predictions, as always, are marked with an “x” (not that you couldn’t have figured that out yourselves, but you never know who’s watching, right?)

Best Picture
x “The Artist”
“The Descendants”
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”
“The Help”
“Midnight in Paris”
“The Tree of Life”
“War Horse”

Someone, I’m thinking it was the late John Gregory Dunne, kept insisting that the Academy Awards were, first and foremost, trade awards and, as such, should have never been viewed as purely qualitative assessments. For Best Picture awards, this is especially true – though it still doesn’t explain “Gandhi” winning out in 1984 over “E.T.” or “Tootsie.” (Oh wait. Yes it does, especially if you think about the choice Hollywood often makes between what’s best and what best exemplifies its present state-of-mind.) What movie trades-people also go for are those pictures that will best help their industry move forward, get richer, spread the wealth around. This year, two of the Best Picture nominees – “Hugo” and “The Artist” – come across as broadening the medium’s possibility while flattering the industry’s sense of its own significance. “The Artist” appears to hold an insurmountable lead – and I’ve got no overpowering reason to challenge the hordes. Still I’m getting those aforementioned distant (and intangible) signals that suggest, however faintly, a late surge by Scorsese’s homage to Melies. My old scoutmaster Tom O’Neill would suggest that I’d be Out-There-And-Daring with this choice. I would tell Tom, “Um…Tom? Picking ‘Hugo’ to win Best Picture is not daring. Picking ‘War Horse’ to win Best Picture is not all that daring either. Picking ‘Tree of Life’ as Best Picture? Now THAT’S daring! And so is picking ‘Melancholia’…Oh wait…”

Best Director
x “The Artist” Michel Hazanavicius
“The Descendants” Alexander Payne
“Hugo” Martin Scorsese
“Midnight in Paris” Woody Allen
“The Tree of Life” Terrence Malick

If “The Artist” wins Best Picture, it’s Hazanavicius. If “Hugo” wins, Scorsese. I know we’re seeing Picture/Director splits more often lately than we did in the Way-Back-When. But somehow this doesn’t feel like the year for it.

Actor in a Leading Role
Demián Bichir in “A Better Life”
George Clooney in “The Descendants”
x Jean Dujardin in “The Artist”
Gary Oldman in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
Brad Pitt in “Moneyball”

Man, is Clooney putting himself out there this season or what? He’s brought at least two sets of camera crews into his house to shoot his furniture and scratch his dog. (Better that than the reverse, I guess.) You’d think he was running for something. And maybe he is, but it can’t just be for Best Lead Actor. President, maybe? He’d certainly be Hollywood’s choice, though Clint Eastwood’s performance on that Super Bowl Chrysler ad, along with his Dirty Harry response to the commercial’s GOP critics, may have put his name back in play. I like Clooney as an actor, a director, and an Earthling. But all I can think of when watching him go through the motions is that it’s a shame there’s not as much chronicling Pitt’s efforts on behalf of a striking, nuanced performance that is not only better than Clooney’s, but far better than anything he’s done before. (Some say he’ll get another chance. I ask: Are we sure about that?) He and Oldman are the class of this crop and, while stranger things have happened, I think Oldman will have to settle for happy-just-to-be-here. (And he assures us that he is, he is.) This leaves Bichier and Dujardin, relative unknowns — and foreign to boot. Relatively few people have seen “Better Life”; more and more are seeing “The Artist.” And there’s a gimmick in Dujardin’s turn (e.g. not talking aloud) that practically leaps into voters’ welcome arms to cuddle, much like Clooney’s dog. Or so I’m guessing.

Actress in a Leading Role
Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs”
x Viola Davis in “The Help”
Rooney Mara in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady”
Michelle Williams in “My Week with Marilyn”

A wider-than-usual race includes not one, not two, but three performances that lean heavily on gimmicks; four, if you consider what Mara does to herself and her skin pores a gimmick. Of course, it takes more than stunts to pull off a rich, well-rounded performance and Streep, Close, Mara and Williams all earn their nominations by making you feel the pleasures and pains in each of their grandly-conceived characters. And that’s exactly why I think Davis scores here. Her dominance of “The Help” sneaks up on you while the other performances lead with their inventiveness. The takeaway from Davis’ work will thus resound more with voters reacquainting themselves with her movie. Nothing’s a lock here. But I’m sensing a canceling-out effect that favors the one performance with nothing but humanity to declare.

Actress in a Supporting Role
Bérénice Bejo in “The Artist”
Jessica Chastain in “The Help”
Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids”
Janet McTeer in “Albert Nobbs”
x Octavia Spencer in “The Help”

No reason to think Spencer wont continue her hot streak. True, McTeer’s getting awfully good buzz heading into the stretch – though not good enough to take the lead.

Actor in a Supporting Role
Kenneth Branagh in “My Week with Marilyn”
Jonah Hill in “Moneyball”
Nick Nolte in “Warrior”
x Christopher Plummer in “Beginners”
Max von Sydow in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”

Why do I think they’ve already shipped the Oscar to Plummer’s house? And that he’s still plucking stray Styrofoam peanuts out from under the sofa? Rather than dwell on the ONLY sure bet on this year’s card, let’s once again make rude noises at those who excluded Albert Brooks from nomination. Or, for that matter, any or all of the following three guys from “Descendants”: Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard and Robert Forster.

Animated Feature Film
“A Cat in Paris” Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli
“Chico & Rita” Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal
“Kung Fu Panda 2” Jennifer Yuh Nelson
“Puss in Boots” Chris Miller
x “Rango” Gore Verbinski

We will now pause to register shock & awe over a “Pixar”-less slate of candidates. Guess I’ll toss a dart, blindfolded, and see where it lands…Hmmm…Really? Should I toss it again? You’re right. What for? (I REALLY want to see “Chico & Rita, though…)

Documentary (Feature)
“Hell and Back Again” Danfung Dennis and Mike Lerner
“If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman
“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
x “Pina” Wim Wenders and Gian-Piero Ringel
“Undefeated” TJ Martin, Dan Lindsay and Richard Middlemas

The biggest gripper in this group is “Paradise Lost 3,” which deserves the Oscar for nothing more than the sheer persistence of its makers through two previous installments. Its triumph would neither displease nor stun me. But there’s a tingle in my back that makes me think that “Pina’s” “Wow” factor is strong enough to lift it to the podium. Plus, it’s always the comparative dearth of buzz that seems to benefit winners in this category. And for that matter, the next one.

Foreign Language Film
“Bullhead” (Belgium)
“A Separation” (Iran)
x “In Darkness” (Poland)
“Footnote” (Israel)
“Monsieur Lazhar” (Canada)

“A Separation” is the almost-by-acclamation winner of this category in just about every critics’ poll and awards ceremony from sea to shining sea — which has in the past proven to be an all-but-certain buzz kill for its Academy chances. (Besides, people seem quite angry with Iran, even with movies that openly criticize the things that make people quite angry with Iran.) This opens the door for any of the other contenders and it’s on the strength alone of Agnieszka Holland’s good name that I’m giving a slight edge to “In Darkness.” Which doesn’t mean I wont be much happier if “Separation” gets the gold.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
x “The Descendants” (Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash)
“Hugo” (John Logan)
“The Ides of March” (George Clooney, Grant Heslov & Beau Willimon)
“Moneyball” (Steven Zaillian & Aaron Sorkin w/story by Stan Chervin)
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan)

O’Connor and Straughan are the most deserving for being able to winnow and boil the knottiest of thrillers into something evocative and tense. But I can’t imagine “Descendants” walking away from this thing empty-handed.

Writing (Original Screenplay)
“The Artist” (Michel Hazanavicius)
“Bridesmaids” (Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig)
“Margin Call” (J.C. Chandor)
x “Midnight in Paris” (Woody Allen)
“A Separation” (Asghar Farhadi)

Writers love Woody and the public, in numbers greater than anything Allen’s reaped in four decades of filmmaking, loved “Midnight in Paris.” And while I’m not sure screenwriters will be altogether happy with what the movie says, or even implies, about their craft. (Then again, we’re talking about a profession legendary for its self-loathing); and while “Margin Call” needed – and deserved – more eyeballs; and while it would be a kick to see which of her many alternate personalities Wiig assumes in the winner’s circle, this really & truly is Allen’s best script in decades. Of course, I needed to see it again to be sure…as, one presumes, did the voters.