Expert opinion

THR's chief film critic evaluates the nominees' chances of success.

The good news is that the 2005 Oscar competition is a very tight horse race. The bad news -- for me, at least -- is that I'm supposed to predict with sagacity and insight Sunday night's winners. Personally, I love a good race where the winners are in doubt. Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences probably do, too, but their ratings suffer. TV audiences tend to watch in large numbers when the outcome is never in doubt -- remember the year that 1997's boxoffice titan "Titanic" was crowned king of the world, with 11 wins? The 1998 Oscar telecast had its best ratings ever.I suspect Academy voters will cast multiple-split ballots, with winners coming from a number of worthy films. So, while Focus Features' "Brokeback Mountain" is the favorite to win the best picture Oscar, its coattails might not be long. This could even be a year in which the Academy honors a director who didn't helm the film chosen as best picture.
PictureAng Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" appears to be the likely winner. It was certainly a seamless collaboration between writers, director, actors and behind-the-camera personnel, with no one element dominating. Sony Pictures Classics' "Capote" is, in my mind, every bit as good as "Brokeback." Nevertheless, one could make the argument that since so much depended on Philip Seymour Hoffman's towering performance as Truman Capote, voters will be inclined to give the Oscar to him rather than the film. Likewise, one could also argue that Lionsgate's "Crash" was heavy-handed at times, Warner Independent Pictures' "Good Night, and Good Luck" went for a very narrow focus and Universal's "Munich" was too controversial, making some Oscar voters, especially strong supporters of Israel, uncomfortable. Should voters agree, this, of course, bodes well for "Brokeback's" chances.
DirectorBecause the two categories so often go hand in hand, one could predict that "Brokeback" director Ang Lee is a shoo-in for the Oscar much in the same way his film is. I'll make that prediction here -- but no one should be surprised if George Clooney (for "Good Night") or Steven Spielberg (for "Munich") wins. After the year Clooney has had -- he is the first directing nominee ever to also be nominated in the original screenplay and supporting actor categories (for "Good Night" and Warner Bros. Pictures' "Syriana," respectively) -- voters are dying to give him at least one Oscar to take home. It could be best director.
ActorThere are nothing but worthy performances in this category. Terrence Howard had an amazing year in 2005, performing beautifully in a number of films -- "Crash," Paramount Classics' "Hustle & Flow" and Paramount's "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" and "Four Brothers." However, the quick disappearance act of "Hustle" -- the film for which he is nominated -- from the local multiplex might have hurt his chances. Heath Ledger as the lonesome cowboy in "Brokeback," Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Fox's "Walk the Line" and David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow facing off with Sen. Joseph McCarthy in "Good Night" all gave career portrayals. None of those performances will be enough though, to best Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose Capote was pitch-perfect and psychologically astute.
ActressIt's much the same story here. The performance of each actress nominee was memorable, but it's apparent that Reese Witherspoon is on a huge roll, having won a Golden Globe and SAG honor for her performance in "Walk the Line." A dark horse would be Felicity Huffman's remarkable transformation into a transsexual in the Weinstein Co.'s Transamerica." Judi Dench's role in "Mrs. Henderson Presents," also from the Weinstein Co., was great fun though much lighter than many of her previously nominated performances. Keira Knightley was luminous in Focus Features' "Pride and Prejudice," and Charlize Theron was solid in Warners' "North Country," a movie that felt more like a telefilm. Nevertheless, it will be Witherspoon's night on Sunday.
Supporting ActorTalk about a toss-up. Clooney, for reasons given above, and Paul Giamatti, for his role in Universal's "Cinderella Man," are running neck-and-neck. Giamatti has been doing such splendid jobs in indie films that have gone unrecognized by the Academy (just look at how he was snubbed last year for his role in 2004's "Sideways") that his current nomination fell into the it's-about-time category. Voters might be sufficiently embarrassed to give him a damn Oscar. Then again, if "Brokeback" does have long coattails, Jake Gyllenhaal, the other lonesome cowboy, could sweep to victory. Only William Hurt seems an unlikely pick since his role in New Line's "History" lasts only for one (very long) sequence.
Adapted ScreenplayLarry McMurtry & Diana Ossana's adaptation of E. Annie Proulx's short story for "Brokeback" is the front-runner here. A close second is Dan Futterman's distillation of a section of Gerald Clarke's Truman Capote biography, that narrow stretch of time when the author researched and wrote his masterpiece "In Cold Blood." While Academy voters clearly admire the work by Jeffrey Caine (Focus Features' "The Constant Gardener"), Josh Olson ("A History of Violence") and Tony Kushner and Eric Roth ("Munich"), McMurtry and Ossana are the best bets.
Original ScreenplaySamuel Goldwyn's "The Squid and the Whale" might have received only one nomination, for its scribe Noah Baumbach in the original screenplay category, but its chances here are excellent. Baumbach's wry account of his parents' messy private lives, and therefore his own messy childhood, was keenly observant writing. On the other hand, many folks adored Woody Allen's so-called return to form with DreamWorks' "Match Point." Of course, one has to believe he was off his form to see this as a return to excellence. In fact, it's a return to his more serious, noncomedic films of the 1980s. Another distinct possibility in this category is Clooney and Grant Heslov's "Good Night," a meticulous piece of historical writing. Stephen Gaghan's deliberately confusing tale of geopolitics and oil in "Syriana" and Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco's racially polemic "Crash" could turn off voters.
AnimationJapanese animator Hayao Miyazaki has his firm admirers in the Academy. He won the Oscar for 2002's "Spirited Away," so he might repeat with Buena Vista's hand-drawn "Howl's Moving Castle." But his two competitors, Warner Bros.' stop-motion "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" (Burton and Mike Johnson) and DreamWorks' clay-animated "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" (Nick Park and Steve Box) are the more likely winners this year. I'll go with "Corpse Bride," which was very clever and imaginative, as well as extraordinarily well-animated.
Art Direction and CinematographyOne has gotta love the art direction and cinematography categories. Here, a little black-and-white film shot in a handful of sets is going up against Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and Universal's "King Kong" (for art direction) and Sony's "Memoirs of a Geisha" and Warner Bros.' "Batman Begins" (for cinematography). Talk about apples and oranges. Wouldn't it be great if "Good Night" pulled off an upset in one of these categories, demonstrating that good work in these areas has nothing to do with budget or size? I don't think it's impossible at all. Even so, the front-runner for art direction is "King Kong," which made some astonishing advances in terms of how digital effects fit into the overall production design of a film. "Goblet of Fire" also is in the mix. "Geisha" and "Pride & Prejudice" had extraordinary art direction, but neither seems to be on the radar of voters to the degree that the films about big apes and small wizards are. If "Brokeback" doesn't sweep, this might give Robert Elswit's elegant black-and-white photography for "Good Night" a chance at the cinematography Oscar over "Brokeback's" Rodrigo Prieto. Dion Beebe's lush filming of "Geisha," emphasizing deep, rich colors, and the dazzling work by photographer Emmanuel Lubezki for New Line's "The New World," in which he created a visual tone poem, were major achievements in both films. Wally Pfister also created a fabulous nightmare city for "Batman Begins." But Elswit's retro look might take the night.
Costume Design A contemporary drama or comedy never stands a chance in this category, where period pieces and futuristic thrillers are consistently rewarded. This year, it comes down to whether voters are feeling Japanese ("Geisha"), are in a country mood ("Walk the Line") or are dreaming of Blighty ("Mrs. Henderson Presents," "Pride and Prejudice" and Warner Bros.' "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"). This might be the one area where "Geisha" gets its due. So, there you have it -- a mixed bag to honor a year where audiences, critics and Academy professionals alike have professed mixed feelings. That no one film stood out is, perhaps, a good thing; that so few did at year's end is definitely not. Oscar will likely spread its golden wealth thinly over a dozen or so titles, but look to "Brokeback" to take home the most trophies.