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Wings of Desire

Will Scorsese finally win his coveted Oscar, or will Eastwood deliver a knockout blow?

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With no hobbits in sight, don't expect this year's Oscars to resemble one long siesta. Between The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King going 11-for-11 and all the favored actors taking home statues, last year's shindig was, to put it mildly, short on surprises and excitement. Handicapping the awards proved to be a no-brainer for film writers: I went 7-for-8 in the major categories and would have had a perfect score had I not outsmarted myself by assuming that there had to be one upset lurking somewhere (no such luck).

But this year? It's a brand new ballgame. With no money-generating behemoths in sight — for the first time in ages, not one of the Best Picture nominees has cracked $100 million at the box office — there's no opportunity for Academy members to vote with their wallets (see: dubious victories for Gladiator and Titanic). And with the most honored film in the bunch earning the least amount of nominations (Sideways has won more Best Picture awards than the other four contenders combined, yet it's only up for a total of five Oscars), there's no chance for voters to jump on the bandwagon and herd it toward an across-the-board sweep (see: ROTK, Titanic, The English Patient).

These are just two of the factors that point to an unpredictable Oscar contest, one that could witness Martin Scorsese finally receiving his due or one that could see even more honors bestowed on Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood. Yet the picture and director races aren't the only ones up for grabs. While The Aviator seems likely to win the majority of the technical awards, it's possible that it could be stopped in its tracks by movies as diverse as The Passion of the Christ and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. And even in the other top categories (acting and writing), victory is not assured to anyone whose name isn't Jamie Foxx.

The 77th Annual Academy Awards will be presented at 8pm Sunday, February 27, on ABC. Here, then, are the contenders in the Big 8 categories.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Before Sunset, Richard Linklater, Kim Krizan, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke; Finding Neverland, David Magee; Million Dollar Baby, Paul Haggis; The Motorcycle Diaries, Jose Rivera; Sideways, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor.

Prediction: Sideways. Don't underestimate the Million Dollar momentum, which could piggyback Haggis' excellent adaptation to a win. But Sideways has consistently been praised for its exceptional dialogue and attention to characterization by both critics and audiences; plus, it's hard to imagine this film going home empty-handed, and this is its best shot at a victory.

Preference: Sideways. Payne and Taylor deserved to win five years ago for their Election adaptation; this time, the Academy should get it right.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

The Aviator, John Logan; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Pierre Bismuth; Hotel Rwanda, Terry George, Keir Pearson; The Incredibles, Brad Bird; Vera Drake, Mike Leigh.

Prediction: The Aviator. Most prognosticators smell an Eternal victory, and that's a possibility. But if The Aviator sweeps, the script by Logan (who penned a previous Best Picture winner, Gladiator) might get carried along; if it doesn't, then this could act as a consolation prize. The fact that few bring up the screenplay when discussing this movie's success hurts, but knowing that Logan meticulously researched his subject might help him score some votes.

Preference: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 1) Check out the name of this category. 2) Note the inclusion of the word "Original." 3) Watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Any questions?

BEST DIRECTOR

Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby; Taylor Hackford, Ray; Mike Leigh, Vera Drake; Alexander Payne, Sideways; Martin Scorsese, The Aviator.

Prediction: Martin Scorsese, The Aviator. Historically, the winner of the Directors Guild Award ends up winning the Oscar, which aids Eastwood immeasurably. But in recent times, the Academy has tended to make its own way in this category, with the winners differing twice in the past four years and thrice in the past nine. Everyone knows that Scorsese is criminally overdue for Oscar recognition, while Eastwood already has two statues for directing and producing Unforgiven. On the other hand, Eastwood is a rarity -- a Republican who can think for himself and make informed decisions (his recent swipe at both the right and the left was dead-on) -- which might help explain why he's so beloved in liberal Hollywood and why they won't have any trouble bathing him in more accolades. This is a tough one, but I'll go with Scorsese.

Preference: Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby. OK, from an emotional standpoint, I badly want Scorsese to win: I don't know if he'll ever make another movie as Academy-friendly as this one, and I don't want him to share the fate of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, two other exceptional directors who never won a competitive Oscar. But viewing the race with cool-eyed detachment, the premiere directorial feat of the year belongs to Eastwood, who adds layers of nuance to make a complex tale even more thought-provoking.

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