THR critic surveys likely best picture candidates

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Oscar predictions have been difficult for the past few years, even for critics who see almost every film in contention.

But the Academy Awards' upcoming 80th edition is shaping up to be the trickiest yet when it comes to establishing any kind of real consensus.

For starters, unlike the 2005 and 2007 Oscars, there will be no Martin Scorsese-Clint Eastwood face-off, since neither filmmaker will have anything new ready until next year.

And even though recent Oscar competitors Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain") and Paul Haggis ("Crash") did weigh in with new films, neither Lee's Focus Features release "Lust, Caution" nor Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" from Warner Independent has demonstrated the kind of momentum required to put them on the best picture fast track.

That said, if you were to scan best picture nominees over the past decade or so, it's possible to detect a template of sorts.

More often than not, Academy voters have managed to make room for at least one or more of the following: An old-fashioned studio-style biopic ("The Aviator," "Seabiscuit," "Ray"), an inspirational/overcoming obstacles/survival story ("Million Dollar Baby," "Letters From Iwo Jima," "Master and Commander"), the tony, literate British import ("The Queen," "Shakespeare in Love," "Gosford Park") and the quirky little indie that could ("Lost in Translation," "Sideways," "Little Miss Sunshine").

Bearing that formula in mind, here's how the best pictures of 2007 might fall into place: It might not reach the edgy heights of Scorsese's "The Departed," but Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" (Universal) nevertheless strikes a satisfying chord that's very much in the old-school Hollywood vein.

Scott's spin on the life and times of Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas has that epic scope of classic studio gangster pictures from "Scarface" (the 1932 version) to "The Godfather" (1972) to "Departed," last year's best picture winner.

And as the Scorsese movie proved, Academy voters aren't fazed by bloody violence as long as it's tempered with other draws, like "Gangster's" gristly performance by a previous Oscar winner (Denzel Washington, who won for 2001's "Training Day"), a solid script by an Oscar veteran (Steven Zaillian, who won for 1993's "Schindler's List") and evocative period touches that recapture 1970s NYC in all its scuzzy glory.

It feels like every week brings another over-the-top war-themed drama for the boxoffice casualty list -- "Elah," MGM/United Artists' "Lions for Lambs," Magnolia Pictures' "Redacted" and New Line's "Rendition" among them. It has only just started screening for critics, but Universal's "Charlie Wilson's War" likely won't fight the same losing battle when it opens on Christmas Day.

First, it doesn't deal with the current situation in Iraq, but with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the early '80s, which is just far enough back in recent history to allow for sufficient distance and perspective.

Second, Tom Hanks plays the title character, the maverick Texas congressman who oversaw what was billed as the largest covert operation in history. It's the sort of affably larger-than-life role that has eluded Hanks in recent years. It's also the kind of politically astute but entertaining movie at which director Mike Nichols excels (think 1998's "Primary Colors").

Add Julia Roberts as the lively Houston socialite who prods Wilson to come to the aid of Afghan freedom fighters with the help of Philip Seymour Hoffman's rogue CIA agent, plus Aaron Sorkin's typically brisk adaptation of the 1984 George Crile novel, and it would be a surprise if "Charlie Wilson's War" didn't earn Nichols his first trip to the Oscars since 1988's "Working Girl."

Reuniting Keira Knightley with her director on 2005's "Pride & Prejudice," Joe Wright, "Atonement" (Focus Features) is exactly the type of sterling British import that finds a place on the best picture lineup more often than not.

Adapted by Christopher Hampton (who won an Oscar for 1988's "Dangerous Liaisons") from the Ian McEwan best-seller, the moving romance has the transporting sweep of 1996's "The English Patient" and the literate pedigree of a vintage Merchant Ivory production.

Then you've got a never-more-radiant Knightley in a performance that casts her in a whole new light -- think Emma Thompson in 1992's "Howards End" or Kate Winslet in 1995's "Sense and Sensibility."

Factor in some of Seamus McGarvey's unstuffy cinematography and Jacqueline Durran's elegant period costume design and you've got a class act all the way. It should handily occupy the spot taken last year by "The Queen."

And what about those two remaining slots?

Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton" served as an assured directorial debut for screenwriter Tony Gilroy. But it failed to catch fire with audiences despite enthusiastic reviews and George Clooney's Oscar-worthy turn as the legal thriller's conflicted title character.

Although it's Sean Penn's most accomplished directorial effort to date, "Into the Wild" (Paramount Vantage) has also had difficulty standing out in the crowded pack of contenders.

On the musical front, both New Line's giddy "Hairspray" and Paramount/DreamWorks' sinister "Sweeney Todd" will likely be hard-pressed to avoid the same disappointing fate that awaited "Dreamgirls" the day last year's nominations were announced.

Paramount Classics/DreamWorks' "The Kite Runner" should be a contender, considering the Oscar track record of director Marc Forster (2004's "Finding Neverland," 2001's "Monster's Ball"), whose faithful rendering of the acclaimed Khaled Hosseini novel, set against the backdrop of the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, is the kind of overcoming-adversity story that sits well with Oscar voters. But the fact that it's extensively subtitled might make it seem like a best foreign-language contender.

The language issue could also hurt the best picture chances of Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," American artist-director Julian Schnabel's stirring, French-language portrait of paralyzed editor Jean-Dominique Bauby that has been warming the hearts of film festival audiences from Cannes to Toronto to New York. Still, it is an exceptionally acted, artful film that manages to move you without shamelessly pulling heartstrings. In other words, it's ideal Oscar fodder.

Then again, it might prove tough to rule out Fox Searchlight's "Juno," Jason Reitman's spirited dramedy about a pregnant teen (beautifully played by Ellen Page) who chooses to put her unborn child up for adoption. Should it acquire sufficient momentum over the next month, "Juno" could become this year's "Little Miss Sunshine," taking the quirky indie spot on the nominees list.

But it would first have to wrestle those honors away from "No Country for Old Men" (Miramax), the Coen brothers' virtuoso return to form that is arguably their best effort since 1996 best picture nominee

"Fargo." Even with its almost gleeful bloodletting, there's an intriguing moral foundation beneath the Coens' meditative take on the Cormac McCarthy novel.

Ultimately, it will all depend on whether voters' moods gravitate toward dark or darker when they fill out their ballots. But at least at this point, "No Country" looks to have dibs on that last slot.
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