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Saturday 24 February 2018

Who'll get to take Oscar home?

Next Sunday, February 26, all of Hollywood will assemble at the Kodak Theatre for the most glamorous awards ceremony on the planet.

In many ways the 84th Academy Awards will adopt a back-to-basics approach. After the farce of last year when presenters Anne Hathaway and James Franco made complete arses of themselves, old-stager Billy Crystal will return to show us all how Oscar-hosting should be done.

The conservative approach extends to the nominees, with few surprises among the leading contenders and not many chances taken either. A couple of years back the Academy decided to expand the Best Picture category from five to 10 nominations to reflect box-office trends and categories such as animation.

That practice continues but, curiously, the Academy has decided to nominate only nine films, despite the fact that many worthy candidates have been overlooked.

The favourites to contend for most awards this year are Steven Spielberg's rather old-fashioned family drama War Horse, Alexander Payne's acclaimed family story The Descendants, Martin Scorsese's Hugo, and The Artist, a black-and-white -- and largely silent -- French film by Michel Hazanavicius.

Between them they boast 32 nominations, and if the pattern set by the Golden Globes holds true it's The Descendants and The Artist that'll be battling it out for top spot.

Here, at any rate, is our best guess as to how it will all go, and we'll also have a quick look at films that should have been there and aren't.

Best Picture

Perhaps the most interesting and daring film nominated this year is Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, a beautifully crafted rumination on life, the universe and everything.

It won't win, but perhaps Martin Scorsese's wonderfully inventive 3-D adventure Hugo will. The Help, a perfectly adequate melodrama, is nominated because of its subject matter -- racism in the old South, a perennial academy favourite. And Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been given the nod simply because it mentions 9/11.

But it doesn't stand a chance, and nor do Spielberg's War Horse, the baseball film Moneyball, or Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. It's a battle between Hugo, The Descendants and The Artist, but I think The Artist might shade it.

Best Director

Woody Allen, Michel Hazanavicius, Terrence Malick, Alexander Payne and Martin Scorsese are the nominees in this category.

If there was justice in the world Malick would win for his extraordinary Tree of Life, but there isn't, and Allen's nomination is a sentimental one, so he won't win either. For all its other charms, The Descendants wasn't actually that well-directed, so I'll rule out Payne. That leaves Hazanavicius and Scorsese, and it could just be Marty's year.

Best Actor

Here the Academy got it all wrong. Michael Fassbender seemed a shoo-in for a nomination for his performance in Shame, but the members were no doubt put off by the film's graphic sexual content.

Instead, we have Mexican actor Demian Bichir, fairly average in the awful immigration drama A Better Life. Brad Pitt also gets a nomination, but for the wrong film.

He was outstanding as a taciturn father in Tree of Life, but instead the Academy has singled out his more mannered turn in Moneyball. French actor Jean Dujardin was excellent as a self-satisfied silent movie star in The Artist, and Gary Oldman is also up for his superb portrayal of ageing spy George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Oldman would be a deserving winner, but the smart money is on George Clooney as the put-upon Hawaiian father and husband in The Descendants.

Best Actress

With 17 Academy Award nominations and only two wins, Meryl Streep is the favourite to win for her uncanny portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

Viola Davis is probably the other front runner: her starring turn in The Help as a black maid in 1960s Mississippi was restrained and dignified. Rooney Mara's up for the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but the film and her performance will probably be a bit too extreme for the voters.

Glenn Close is nominated for Albert Nobbs, a costume drama filmed in Dublin, as is Michelle Williams for My Week with Marilyn. But it's hard to look beyond Streep.

Supporting Actor

Two of this year's nominees for best supporting actor are in their 80s.

Max von Sydow is nominated for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a bad film in which he's good. And Canadian Christopher Plummer is up for Beginners, in which he played an elderly gay man diagnosed with cancer.

Why Moneyball's Jonah Hill is nominated is beyond me. Nick Nolte was chosen for his portrayal of an Irish-American ex-alcoholic in Warrior, and Kenneth Branagh for his note-perfect impersonation of Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn. He might win, but so might von Sydow.

Supporting Actress

Inexplicably, Berenice Bejo is nominated in the best supporting actress category even though her role in The Artist was actually a starring one.

Melissa McCarthy is up for her hilarious turn in Bridesmaids. Also honoured is Janet McTeer, who plays a cross-dressing Victorian house painter in Glenn Close's period drama Albert Nobbs.

The Help has two nominees in this category -- the excellent Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer, who stole the show playing sassy southern housemaid Minny Jackson. She won the Golden Globe, and is probably the favourite here.

Best Screenplay

In the best adapted category Alexander Payne's sparklingly witty script for The Descendants is the front runner, though Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan's work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is also deservedly nominated.

In the original screenplay category, it would be ironic if The Artist, a film with fewer than five words of dialogue, got the Oscar, but of course there's a lot more to a screenplay than spoken lines. Woody Allen's urbane script for Midnight in Paris gets a nomination, as do Kristen Wiig and and Annie Mumolo for Bridesmaids.

Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi is nominated for his excellent marital drama, A Separation, but JC Chandor might just get the nod for his brilliant Wall Street drama Margin Call.

Best Animated Feature

No Pixar films in contentio, which is good news for everyone else. Nominees Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss in Boots are mere makeweights.

The delightful French film A Cat in Paris is a far worthier nominee, but the real battle will probably be between Rango, a hilarious spoof western starring the voice of Johnny Depp, and Chico and Rita, a gorgeous animation set in the Havana jazz scene of the late-1940s. Should be Chico and Rita by a country mile.

Best Foreign Film

Asghar Farhadi is nominated again here, and A Separation would be a worthy winner. Also up is Bullhead, a moody Belgian thriller in which a young farmer gets mixed up in the killing of a cop, and Footnote, a heavyweight Israeli drama about a power struggle between father and son Talmud scholars.

The Polish wartime drama In Darkness is also nominated, along with Monsieur Lazhar, a Canadian drama about racial tensions in Montreal. For me, it would be between A Separation and Footnote.

Notable Absentees

Lars von Trier is not everyone's cup of tea, but it seems odd that his powerful film Melancholia was included neither in the best film nor best foreign film categories.

Scottish director Lynne Ramsay and her film We Need to Talk about Kevin have been even more unfairly treated. Her adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel was brilliantly done.

Strangest of all, though, is the exclusion of Michael Fassbender from the best actor race. I can't get my head around his absence


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