Eye on the Prize 

It's Oscar time.

Happy Oscars! My favorite time of year. Or tied with Christmas, anyway. Time to trot out my earnest but oft-incorrect predictions for the best and brightest in cinema.

Best Supporting Actor

Alec Baldwin, The Cooler

Benicio Del Toro, 21 Grams

Djimon Hounsou, In America

Tim Robbins, Mystic River

Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai

The Cooler scored mixed reviews, and while Alec Baldwin is racking up more accomplished performances as a character actor than he did as a leading man, he's out. Del Toro has won in this category in recent memory (2000's Traffic). Hounsou is the surprise nominee in this bunch, and as this is his first nomination, that may suffice to reward his dignified performance in In America. Ken Watanabe was the best thing about the bloated Last Samurai and could win if the politically wily academy wants to reward a film that extols the Eastern virtues of stoic dignity over American bullying. But it's time to give Tim Robbins his due. After years of heralded work as actor (Bull Durham, The Shawshank Redemption) and director (Dead Man Walking), it's Tim's year. He should and will win.

But where's the hobbit?

What a shame that Sean Astin wasn't nominated for the best acting seen in any of The Lord of the Rings' three films.

Best Supporting Actress

Shohreh Aghdashloo, The House of Sand and Fog

Patricia Clarkson, Pieces of April

Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River

Holly Hunter, Thirteen

RenÇe Zellweger, Cold Mountain

Shohreh who? This virtual unknown gets all the thanks she needs from the nomination and from the higher-profile projects she will get as a result. Clarkson gave two nominate-able performances this year: Pieces of April and The Station Agent. Harden and Hunter have statues at home (Harden for Supporting Actress in 2000's Pollock and Hunter for Best Actress in 1993's The Piano), but neither improves upon their previous accomplishments with these roles. This is RenÇe Zellweger's year. After consecutive Best Actress nominations in Bridget Jones' Diary and Chicago, RenÇe will and should take home Oscar for another transformative turn in the otherwise gorgeous (and slighted) Cold Mountain.

Robbed, robbed, I tell you!

One of the finest performances last year, male or female, was Catherine O'Hara's heartbreakingly dignified turn as the faded folk singer in A Mighty Wind.

Best Actor

Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Ben Kingsley, The House of Sand and Fog

Jude Law, Cold Mountain

Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Sean Penn, Mystic River

I'll start with who should get this award: Johnny Depp. Funny and over the top without ever betraying the truth of the character, Depp provided one of the most complicated and complete performances on screen last year. But he probably won't get it because Oscar seldom rewards comic performances. Kingsley won't win either. A great performance, yes, but not the most significant of the bunch. Law has more dues to pay, because, while Oscar will go home with any pretty girl (Marisa Tomei, Jennifer Connelly, Mira Sorvino), he's really selective about pretty guys (no wins and some snubs for Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Law himself). There is a contingent that feels Bill Murray was owed for 1998's Rushmore, but it may be that the nomination is thanks enough for redirecting his career toward craft and gravitas and away from the smug antics of, say, Meatballs. This will be Penn's for the taking. He could have been nominated for 21 Grams, so his long career as a respected actor and director will finally have icing for its cake.

I would like to thank the academy ...

... for rightfully omitting Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise for their fine but forgettable turns in Master and Commander and The Last Samurai, respectively.

Best Actress

Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider

Diane Keaton, Something's Gotta Give

Samantha Morton, In America

Charlize Theron, Monster

Naomi Watts, 21 Grams

Castle-Hughes, at 13 the youngest nominee ever in this category, has roughly 60 more years to get back into the race, so she's out -- though I would love to see her raw, intelligent work acknowledged. Samantha Morton, Charlize Theron, and Naomi Watts have provided, I think, equal dues in the Lovely New Stars of the 21st Century club, but all the buzz is with Theron, who has won most of the major critics' awards for convincingly looking like most people do: scraggly and normal. Not to discount her transformation and work, but I think there will be an upset. Keaton will take the statue. I think that the voters in this category (women all) will prefer to reward a woman who proves she can be sexy in her 50s to a woman who confirms that she can be ugly in her 20s. Call me crazy.

No Kidman

Kidman graduated from Mrs. Tom Cruise to Hollywood A-List with last year's Hours win. Oscar has decided that his account with her is paid in full for a while, leaving her Oscar-grabbing but adequate turns in Cold Mountain and The Human Stain unnoticed.

Best Picture (and Director)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, director Peter Jackson

Lost in Translation, director Sofia Coppola

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, director Peter Weir

Mystic River, director Clint Eastwood

Seabiscuit, director Gary Ross

I combine the categories because they are almost always identical, save one Best Picture nominee whose director is snubbed in favor of some other auteur. In this case, the snub is Gary Ross, director of Seabiscuit, who is replaced in the Director category by Brazilian Fernando Meirelles for City of God. Neither Seabiscuit nor Meirelles will win, since neither a body nor a head can live long without the other. Sofia Coppola won't win, because, at 32, she has plenty of time to match her father's success. Neither Peter Weir nor Clint Eastwood will win because nothing can stop The Lord of the Rings. This isn't the best structured film of the year (of the film's six endings, I prefer the third), but it is the biggest, and Hollywood will want to crown the accomplishment and vision of director Peter Jackson. Return of the King is the best of the trilogy, and while one can argue that the three films are only parts of one larger film, fine -- let's reward that larger film now. The King is king.

What about the Big Fish? No, not Big Fish!

I'm sorry, but the best film of 2003 was Finding Nemo. Gorgeous, funny, wise, witty -- it had it all, not to mention Ellen DeGeneres in one of the year's best performances of any species.



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