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Published: Sunday, 2/22/2009

The Blade s Kirk Baird picks the Oscar winners with his heart, and then with his mind

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Follow the heart or follow the mind?

When it comes to forecasting the Oscars, accurately predicting the winners can be as difficult as love.

You like this person and you really want it to work out, but you know deep down it never will.

Or, the reverse: You really don t have feelings for someone the way everyone else thinks you should, and that pressure is making you rethink your choice.

So what do you do?

Or, does it even matter?

After all, did anyone really think Roman Polanski would pick up an Oscar for directing the 2002 Holocaust film The Pianist? My wife did. She was so bold as to even circle Polanksi s name on an Oscar ballot at a friend s Annual Academy Awards party, even though she had never seen the movie. (Still hasn t, in fact.) I remember laughing at her selection, as any good husband would, only to be stunned into silence along with the 30 or so other party attendees who thought Polanski s chances at an Oscar were nil.

The Pianist was a moving picture, based on the true story of an acclaimed Polish Jewish piano player Wladyslaw Szpilman, and beautifully acted by Adriene Brody, who won an Oscar for his performance. But Polanski as Best Director? A one-time sex offender who pleaded guilty in 1977 of having intercourse with a 13-year-old girl, who subsequently fled the country fearing further incarceration, and couldn t even attend the awards ceremony because he would have been arrested as a fugitive? Talk about an Oscar shock watched round the world.

I Suppose it just shows how little critics and other cinephiles really know when it comes to the Academy Awards.

This year doesn t look to be any easier, either, with no clear favorites other than Best Supporting Actor Thy Name is Heath Ledger.

And so that leaves me with my picks for the 81st annual Academy Awards. The show airs live at 8 tonight on WTVG-TV, Channel 13 (ABC).

Rather than choosing between heart and mind, however, I ve opted to cheese out and select both in six categories.

Best Picture:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Frost/Nixon

Milk

The Reader

Slumdog Millionaire

Milk is the better film, but Slumdog Millionaire, with its recent and surprising wins at the Golden Globes, is the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture. Slumdog is one of those from-the-heart movies that stirs emotions and rouses audiences with its Rocky-esque tale of a down-on-his-luck dude whose life and financial fortunes may change by being a contestant on India s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Milk will stand the test of time better than Slumdog, much like Saving Private Ryan when compared to Shakespeare in Love. Shakespeare in Love was another romantic tale that enraptured audiences after its release, and beat out the Steven Spielberg-helmed D-Day epic Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture at the 1999 Oscar telecast. But when was the last time you heard someone talk about Shakespeare in Love? It s a meager consolation.

My pick: Milk.

Oscar pick: Slumdog Millionaire.

Best Animated Feature:

Bolt

Kung Fu Panda

WALL-E

Bolt and Kung Fu Panda are entertaining movies, but WALL-E was transcendent. Pixar continues to push animated films, not just through its state-of-the-art visual presentation, but by finding innovative ways to challenge audiences, such as the nearly wordless first 45 minutes of WALL-E. Pixar s efforts will be rewarded with a fourth Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

My pick: WALL-E

Oscar pick: WALL-E

Best Actor:

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

Sean Penn, Milk

Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

A brutal category. Jenkins was great, and so was Pitt, but neither will win. Langella is a dark horse, but there s a reason why nobody is talking about his Oscar chances anymore, despite his riveting and surprisingly emotional turn as lion in winter Richard Nixon. That leaves Penn and Rourke. Penn gave a better performance, but Milk is also a better movie than The Wrestler, and its message of equality would still resonate even if Penn hadn t so eerily channeled slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Rourke, however, takes a routine tale of a down-on-his-luck bum with a heart of gold, Randy The Ram Robinson, a film made moderately interesting by the fact that The Ram happens to be a professional wrestler, and elevates it with a literally transformational role.

My pick: Penn

Oscar pick: Rourke

Best Actress:

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Angelina Jolie, Changeling

Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Meryl Streep, Doubt

Kate Winslet, The Reader

Again, another difficult-to-divine category. Winslet has Oscar momentum for her role as a concentration camp guard on trial for Nazi war crimes, which earned her a Golden Globe win (although I think her role as a repressed and depressed housewife in Revolutionary Road was more challenging). But Anne Hathaway enjoyed early Oscar buzz as a drug addict who returns from rehab just in time to confront her dysfunctional family at her sister s wedding. I think Winslet will be rewarded, since Oscar voters are likely to consider this a combo win for The Reader and Revolutionary Road.

My pick: Hathaway

Oscar pick: Winslet

Best Supporting Actor:

Josh Brolin, Milk

Robert Downey, Jr., Tropic Thunder

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

This is the easiest category of the night, without question, and as close to an Oscar slam-dunk as there ever was. The late Heath Ledger was mesmerizing as The Joker, and delivered an iconic villainous turn in the same psychotic vein as Anthony Hopkins Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs. Hoffman and Shannon had some showy scenes, and Downey, Jr., was comically inspired in Tropic Thunder as a white method actor who becomes black for the role of a Vietnam soldier. But if anyone were to edge out Ledger it would be Brolin for his nuanced performance as Dan White, the man who murdered Harvey Milk. Brolin plays White as a man with bottled-up desperation and frustration over his political impotence, which erupts in violence. The performance is the antithesis of Ledger s caffeineated jolt of edgy mayhem, as a whirling dervish of chaos and death. Ledger will win. If nothing else, Academy voters will give it to him as a morbid career achievement nod.

My pick: Ledger

Oscar pick: Ledger

Best Supporting Actress:

Amy Adams, Doubt

Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Viola Davis, Doubt

Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Oscar likes to surprise audiences, and it s usually the supporting category where it happens. Since that ain t happening in the supporting actor category, it s a good bet it will happen here. That means there s a real possibility Cruz could be giving an acceptance speech tonight. Still, there s something telling me it s going to be Tomei. What works against her is that she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1992 for My Cousin Vinny but how many voters remember that? (Or the movie, for that matter.) Plus, there s some weird karma/dimensional symmetry at work with Rourke and Tomei two actors whose careers have often been disappointing sharing, essentially, Academy Awards for Best Comeback. If nothing else, you have to respect the then-43-year-old actress for her willingness to bare much of her body as a career stripper who reluctantly is wooed by Rourke s Randy The Ram.

My pick: Tomei

Oscar pick: Tomei

Best Director:

David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon

Gus Van Sant, Milk

Stephen Daldry, The Reader

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

The nominees for Best Director mirror those for Best Picture, and expect the same results. Howard had the difficult task of translating a successful play to film and he delivered, with an engaging, thought-provoking, and entertaining movie that stands separate from the stage production. Fincher s handiwork is all over the marvelous spectacle that is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but the movie has its flaws, length being one of them. Stephen Daldry for The Reader is the token I m just happy to be here nominee of this category. So, again, that leaves Milk and Slumdog Millionaire. Milk is a better film, but Slumdog Millionaire is just good enough, different enough, and has the Oscar momentum that will deliver Danny Boyle an Academy Award. Plus, he just picked up the Director s Guild of America award, which is nearly an automatic for accurately predicting the Best Director Oscar winner.

My pick: Gus Van Sant

Oscar pick: Danny Boyle



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