For such an overcrowded field of worthy movies, the 2008 Oscar race certainly narrowed itself quickly. Most of the winners in major categories are foregone conclusions: "No Country for Old Men" for Best Picture, the Coen Brothers for Best Director AND Best Adapted Screenplay, Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood") for Best Actor, Julie Christie ("Away from Her") for Best Actress, Javier Bardem ("No Country for Old Men") for Best Supporting Actor. Best Original Screenplay is a little harder to read, but the Academy has a history of honoring quirky left-field hits ("Breaking Away," "Little Miss Sunshine") in that category, so logic dictates that the Oscar will go to Diablo Cody for "Juno." The only really contested category is Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, Ruby Dee and Amy Ryan, who split the pre-Oscar awards between them, all have a good shot. In such a close race, the Academy usually resorts to its sentimental side as a tie-breaker, so my guess is that Dee--an octogenarian and first-time nominee whose credits include extraordinary performances in "A Raisin in the Sun," "Do the Right Thing" and "Jungle Fever"--should start clearing her mantelpiece to make room for that little gold statue. I would guess the same thing for Hal Holbrook, another octogenarian first-time nominee with a long and glorious career, except that the pre-Oscar acclaim for Javier Bardem has been so overwhelming.
The good thing about this year is that there was such a preponderance of Oscar-worthy films. The bad thing is that, in an awards program that allows only five nominees per category, a lot of very worthy films, actors, directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, etc. got stiffed good and hard. The five films nominated for Best Picture--"Atonement," "Juno," "Michael Clayton," "No Country for Old Men," and "There Will Be Blood"--all indisputably deserve their nominations. Yet I would remove any one of them--yes, even "No Country for Old Men"--to make way for my own favorite this year, Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd."
I haven't yet seen the film whose exclusion from the Best Foreign Film category scandalized everybody--the Romanian drama "4 Months, 2 Weeks and 3 Days," which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and has been described everywhere it's played as a cinematic revelation. I have seen, however, a lot of films that deserved Oscar consideration but received not a single nomination. "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"--the probable valedictory film of the great Sidney Lumet, as fresh and thrilling as "Serpico" and "Dog Day Afternoon" were 30 years ago--leads this sad list, followed by the late Adrienne Shelly's "Waitress" and Scott Frank's "The Lookout." There also are worthy films that were shunted aside with one or two minor nominations, such as James Mangold's remake of "3:10 to Yuma" (Best Original Score and Best Sound Mixing).
There were so many great performances by leading actors this year that--even granting the dominance of Daniel Day-Lewis, giving in "There Will Be Blood" the sort of performance that's seen maybe once a decade--you could make a credible alternate list of Best Actor nominees off the top of your head:
Christian Bale, "3:10 to Yuma"
Josh Brolin, "No Country for Old Men"
Emile Hirsch, "Into the Wild"
James McAvoy, "Atonement"
Denzel Washington, "American Gangster"
And that isn't even mentioning one of my favorite performances of the past year, that of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "The Lookout." I said at the time of its release that I doubted I would see a better performance in 2007; except again for the remarkable Mr. Day-Lewis, I didn't. Yet I heard not the slightest whisper of Best Actor talk for Gordon-Levitt, and also none for Best Supporting Actor for his co-star, the versatile and brilliant Jeff Daniels, who is about two decades overdue for his first Oscar nomination.
The sad omissions go on and on: sure, Ellen Page was delightful in "Juno," but so was Keri Russell in "Waitress," playing a VERY similar character. And, going down the list, the most magnficent photography I saw in any film in 2007 was Eric Gautier's for "Into the Wild." I am second to none in my admiration for the genius cinematographer Roger Deakins, but couldn't the Academy have lopped off one of Deakins' two nominations to give one to Gautier?
Here's a name I never thought I would include in the Legion of the Robbed: Eddie Vedder. I had thought I would be complaining here about the unfair omission of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the lovable and very gifted songwriting duo from "Once." Hansard and Irglova were excluded from the Golden Globe nominations for Best Song, and that award went to Vedder for his song "Guaranteed" from "Into the Wild." The Academy, however, stiffed Vedder, gave a single nomination to Hansard and Irglova, and gave three "Enchanted" nominations to Disney house composers Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken, who rent a hangar at LAX to store their previous Oscars. I had thought going in that the race would be between Vedder and Hansard-Irglova, with Vedder the winner, and consoled myself with the thought that Vedder's songs were very good and added greatly to the film in which they appeared. I had forgotten that, in the Academy's eyes, great songwriting begins and ends with The Mouse. I'll still keep hoping that the Best Song award this Feb. 24 will make headlines the next morning in Dublin and Prague, but I won't hold my breath.