MOVIE REVIEW- Oscar survey: Academy gets it right, competition still fierce

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has gotten a lot of things right in their nominations for the 81st annual Academy Awards. Of course being "right" means they agree with me. All five of their Best Picture nominees were either in my Ten Best (Milk #1, The Reader #2, Slumdog Millionaire #6) or Second Ten (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon) list.

Three things made me cheer out loud during the announcement of the nominations: the nods to Melissa Leo for Frozen River and Richard Jenkins for The Visitor recognize these long-reliable character actors for their breakout lead roles in small independent films; and the nomination of Kate Winslet as Best Actress for The Reader resisted the marketing strategy that tried to position her performance as a supporting role so Winslet wouldn't compete with her other excellent lead performance in Revolutionary Road.

(The Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes both went along with Plan A, the Globes giving Winslet both awards and SAG naming her Best Supporting Actress but honoring Meryl Streep as Best Actress for Doubt.)

On the downside, two perceived "snubs" have been much discussed in the past week. Many think The Dark Knight should have been nominated for Best Picture. I wouldn't have been upset if it had taken the Frost/Nixon or Benjamin Button slot, but its popularity shouldn't be confused with quality. Had the excellence of the first two hours been sustained to the end I would agree it should be a Best Picture contender, but most people who can get out of their fanboy mindset will tell you The Dark Knight fell apart in the end.

Also snubbed was Clint Eastwood, who produced and directed two fine films, Changeling and Gran Torino, last year, also scoring the former and starring in and co-writing the title song for the latter. He handled most of these tasks very well and deserves a special award as the hardest-working old man in show business. A case can be made that none of his jobs was one of the five best in its category, but his performance in Gran Torino was at least as good as Brad Pitt's, and his song could have taken one of the slots the Academy left vacant (as could Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler" and Norah Jones' "The Story" from My Blueberry Nights. Even Miley Cyrus' song from Bolt could have replaced one of the Slumdog songs).

I was also upset that the Best Original Screenplay category ignored Woody Allen for Vicky Cristina Barcelona and the Coens for Burn after Reading.

So who's going to win?

Fox Searchlight Pictures has learned to control the zeitgeist by releasing small films at the end of the year that capture the public's imagination. The Weinsteins in their Miramax days had mastered the art of getting nominations for their independent films by relentless promotion. Fox Searchlight is doing it by releasing pictures people like: Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and now Slumdog Millionaire.

Danny Boyle's bombastic– sorry, Mumbastic– feelgood movie has momentum on its side at the moment, having just won the Best Picture award from the Producers Guild of America and the Best Ensemble Cast prize from the Screen Actors Guild (even though none of the individual performances are anything special). Expect to see the coined word "slumdog" added to dictionaries next year, defined as a derogatory term for a ghetto resident, with perhaps a secondary definition of "Slumdog," referring to the movie, as a juggernaut.

Slumdog looks like a good bet to take Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, along with Best Cinematography, from among its 10 nominations.

One of the most nominated movies ever, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button could end up as one of the biggest losers of all time, taking only the award for Best Makeup, for transforming Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett from youth to old age, or vice versa.

In the acting categories, the late Heath Ledger is a sure thing for Best Supporting Actor. With Winslet out of the way, Penélope Cruz should get the Best Supporting Actress award she deserves. Viola Davis is her biggest threat but is likely to split the "black vote" with Taraji P. Henson and the Doubt vote with Amy Adams.

The lead acting races are too close to call. It's basically Sean Penn vs. Mickey Rourke and Meryl Streep vs. Kate Winslet. The other nominees can stay home on Oscar night.

WALL-E can't lose for Best Animated Feature. Since I've only seen three of the Best Documentary Feature candidates and one of the Best Foreign Language Films, and the voting procedures for them are strange, I won't hazard a guess.

"Down to Earth" from WALL-E should win as Best Original Song since voters won't be able to tell one of the Slumdog songs from the other. I can't hum themes from any of the Best Original Score nominees. Slumdog could win as part of a sweep or the Academy could take the opportunity to honor the much nominated Thomas Newman (his tenth) for WALL-E or James Newton Howard (his eighth) for Defiance. Don't count out Benjamin Button in this category either. Composer Alexandre Desplat (The Queen) is an up-and-comer.

In Best Visual Effects The Dark Knight and Iron Man may split the comic book blockbuster vote and clear the way for another Benjamin Button victory, but the award should really go to whoever puts the smiles on the faces of all those losing nominees when the winners are announced.

We'll find out the results on February 22.