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Oscars 2012: Dave Karger predicts the nominees

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At first glance, the five movies nominated for the best-cast prize at this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards — the most important Oscar bellwether to date — couldn’t be more different: The Help, Midnight in Paris, The Descendants, The Artist, and Bridesmaids. But they do have something in common: They all premiered last spring or summer, in theaters or at festivals like Cannes or Telluride. Meanwhile, several touted holiday releases — The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Young Adult, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close — have been largely overlooked in the awards season so far.

What happened to the days when all the Oscar movies came out at the end of the year? In 2003, the five Best Picture nominees — Chicago, The Hours, The Pianist, Gangs of New York, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers — had been released on Dec. 18, 2002, or later. But back then, the Academy Awards ceremony took place at the end of March. With the Oscar season now a month shorter, waiting until Christmas — just three weeks before the nomination ballots are due — might not work.

”The movie has to do its job — be stimulating, provoking — but people need a chance to see it, and they need a chance to talk about it,” says actor-filmmaker Kenneth Branagh, a Best Supporting Actor candidate this year for My Week With Marilyn (released Nov. 23). ”It’s such a squash of traffic at the end of the year that it’s difficult, particularly for challenging material.” Indeed, after The Fighter went on to score seven nominations last year despite skipping the major-festival circuit, many studios tried to repeat that strategy, but their movies got lost in the shuffle.

One of the most surprising nonstarters is David Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo, which opened Dec. 20. ”It’s the kind of film that sticks with you for a while,” says Trent Reznor, whose Golden Globe nomination for Best Score was one of only two nods for the thriller. ”I think that if it had come out a couple months earlier, you’d be seeing [it on] different lists right now.” Stephen Daldry’s 9/11 drama Extremely Loud (released Dec. 25) and Martin Scorsese’s family film Hugo (Nov. 23) were also ignored by the SAG Awards. ”There was nothing we could do to get it shown any earlier,” says Hugo producer Graham King. ”Certainly with SAG, we’ve paid the penalty for that. But I don’t look at it and go, ‘Oh my God, we didn’t get SAG; now we’re going to have a tough time with the Academy.’ ” He may end up rethinking that position: No film in the past 15 years has won Best Picture without a SAG nomination.

For a summer smash like Bridesmaids, the trend is certainly welcome. ”We genuinely do expect nothing,” says producer Judd Apatow of the film’s sudden awards-show attention. ”So just the fact that we’re allowed in the same room as Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio and we can try to get drunk enough to talk with them makes it worthwhile.”

Best Picture
The Artist
The Descendants
The Help
Hugo
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

The academy’s newly instituted voting rules dictate that there will be between 5 and 10 Best Picture nominees this year, depending on how many movies earn at least 5 percent of the overall No. 1 votes. (The magic number needed will be in the 225 range.) If there were only five nominees (as in the old days before 2009), chances are they’d be The Artist, War Horse, The Descendants, Hugo, and The Help. If there had to be 10 (as was the case the last two years), you could throw in Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, Moneyball, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and a crowd-pleaser like Bridesmaids or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2. But it’s not that easy this time. Figure enough older voters will put Woody Allen’s delightful time-travel comedy Midnight at the top of their ballots to earn it a spot. And although many Academy members wouldn’t dream of including the polarizing Tree of Life anywhere on their lists, it’s easy to see how 225 of them would write it into the pole position. If there’s an eighth nominee, it will probably be Moneyball. But my hunch is that at the Oscars this year, we’ll all be talking about the lucky seven.

For Your Consideration
So there was this movie called Warrior, about two brothers (Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy) who are mixed-martial-arts fighters and their troubled father (Nick Nolte). But no one really saw it because it had a strange title and people thought it was too similar to The Fighter and it came out the week after Labor Day, which was the worst idea of all time. But here’s the thing: Warrior is fantastic. And moving. And exciting. Now that it’s on demand and on DVD, many people are just now realizing what a knockout it is. Is it too late for the Academy to figure that out? I’m not optimistic. But I do love an underdog.

Best Actor
George Clooney, The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Michael Fassbender, Shame
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Two megastars and an unknown (in the U.S., at least) French actor are this year’s three Best Actor locks. Thanks to their respective career-best turns in The Descendants and Moneyball, buddies George Clooney and Brad Pitt will spend the next six weeks cracking wise on red carpets about competing against each other for the Oscar. Meanwhile, The Artist‘s debonair Jean Dujardin remains a possible spoiler for the win. For the final two slots, there’s Gary Oldman, so impressively contained in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, though the film hasn’t done well in the awards season so far. Michael Shannon and Woody Harrelson have won raves for the indies Take Shelter and Rampart, but there’s no guarantee enough voters have seen the films. And Ryan Gosling stood out in Drive and The Ides of March but runs the risk of splitting his own vote. So give the edge to J. Edgar‘s Leonardo DiCaprio, who, distracting makeup aside, convincingly embodied J. Edgar Hoover, and Shame breakout Michael Fassbender, who wins this year’s Viggo Mortensen Award for taking on a role that many actors would be afraid to touch.

For Your Consideration
The happiest surprise of the Screen Actors Guild nominations was the inclusion of Demián Bichir, star of the immigration drama A Better Life. If enough Academy voters would simply watch his unfussy yet powerful performance as a gardener struggling to keep his son away from L.A.’s gang culture, he’d surely make Oscar’s cut, too. Pop in that DVD!

Best Actress
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton, We Need To Talk About Kevin
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

With five true powerhouses in contention, Best Actress may be the easiest major category to forecast this year. Our predicted nominees — all of whom were recognized by the SAG Awards and Golden Globes — have a combined 25 Oscar nominations (and three wins) to their credit. And this year they uncannily portrayed fascinating icons of cinema (My Week With Marilyn‘s Michelle Williams) or politics (The Iron Lady‘s Meryl Streep), transformed into women struggling to get by in the civil-rights-era South (The Help‘s Viola Davis) or 19th-century Ireland (Albert Nobbs‘ Glenn Close), and created one of the most indelible portraits of failed parenting ever depicted on screen (Tilda Swinton in the festival hit We Need to Talk About Kevin). And that’s not even mentioning Young Adult‘s caustic Charlize Theron, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s fierce Rooney Mara, Martha Marcy May Marlene‘s vulnerable Elizabeth Olsen, and Bridesmaids‘ sidesplitting Kristen Wiig, all of whom would have had a better shot at making the cut in a weaker year. At least Wiig stands to score a nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

For Your Consideration
To say the British indie Tyrannosaur is not easy to watch would be a serious understatement. But to skip the film would be to overlook one of the year’s most affecting performances: Olivia Colman’s quiet and ultimately jaw-dropping turn as a thrift-store employee in a horrifically abusive marriage. The film is tiny, but Colman’s talent is of T. rex-level proportions.

Best Supporting Actor
Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Albert Brooks, Drive
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Respected vets Christopher Plummer and Kenneth Branagh, who’ve landed on every major pre-Oscar list, are the sure things here. And with his understated performance as Brad Pitt’s math-whiz Moneyball sidekick, 28-year-old comedian Jonah Hill just might find himself in a race alongside actors several generations his senior. Meanwhile, Drive villain Albert Brooks failed to make the Screen Actors Guild awards short list, but the Academy, like several critics’ groups, is likely to recognize his against-type turn. Ditto Extremely Loud‘s Max von Sydow, who expresses so much heartbreak without saying a word. In that case, two of this year’s worthy SAG nominees — Warrior‘s beleaguered dad, Nick Nolte, and J. Edgar‘s stalwart companion Armie Hammer — may just miss the cut.

For Your Consideration
George Clooney is clearly a lock in the Best Actor category for The Descendants. But his supporting performance in his own directorial effort The Ides of March was arguably even more eye-opening. Trading on his offscreen persona as a politically aware celeb, Clooney adeptly morphed from upstanding presidential candidate to philandering snake in 100 minutes flat. His climactic kitchen-set face-off with Ryan Gosling was nothing short of thrilling.

Best Supporting Actress
Bérénice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help

This year’s Supporting Actress race is dominated by women destined to receive their first career nominations. Real-life friends Octavia Spencer and Melissa McCarthy turned in star-making performances in The Help and Bridesmaids, respectively, while Bérénice Bejo was as much a discovery as her rising-star character in The Artist. The only past nominee likely to return is Albert Nobbs scene-stealer Janet McTeer. The final slot should also go to a rookie. Overall support for The Descendants could buoy 20-year-old Shailene Woodley, but her failure to earn a SAG nomination puts her on shaky ground. That boosts the prospects of The Help‘s Jessica Chastain. Though the Academy’s weighted balloting system favors her costar Spencer, Chastain’s 2011 breakout in multiple films should prove too impressive to ignore.

For Your Consideration
Shame star Michael Fassbender has won most of the accolades for his revealing performance as a sex addict. But as his unstable sister (and temporary roommate), Fassbender’s costar Carey Mulligan drove the film’s plot and matched him scene after scene. Balancing uneasy humor and cringe-inducing sexual tension, Mulligan, a past Best Actress nominee for An Education, was a very important half of the most fascinating screen-sibling pair of the year.

Best Director
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Alexander Payen, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Steven Spielberg, War Horse

Barring any major surprises, this derby seems to have come down to six mightily impressive horses. Three men with Oscars already adorning their mantels — War Horse‘s Steven Spielberg, Hugo‘s Martin Scorsese, and The Descendants‘ Alexander Payne (who won the Adapted Screenplay prize for Sideways) — will surely be joined by the year’s most notable breakout filmmaker, The Artist‘s daring Michel Hazanavicius. The best tool for predicting the fifth nominee might just be a coin. Heads is The Tree of Life‘s rarely seen but always revered Terrence Malick; tails is Midnight in Paris‘ Woody Allen, who’s almost as shy and just as beloved. Allen is a lock for a screenplay nod, but the sheer scope of Malick’s ambition may give him the edge with the Academy’s directors branch.

For Your Consideration
Not many filmmakers would have the guts to combine a wrenching romance and a poignant coming-out story in the same film…and then toss in a dog who speaks in subtitles. But Beginners director Mike Mills (who also wrote the film’s insightful screenplay) fashioned a uniquely contemporary character study that is as boundary-stretching as it is endearing. And he coaxed a performance out of Christopher Plummer that could very well win him an Oscar.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Nat Faxon, Jim Rash & Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Tate Taylor, The Help
John Logan, Hugo
Steve Zaillian & Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball
Lee Hall & Richard Curtis, War Horse

As top Best Picture candidates, The Descendants, The Help, Hugo, and War Horse should have no problem making the grade with the writers branch as well. Eric Roth, a past winner in this race for Forrest Gump, expertly distilled Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close into a 129-minute whole. But the talkier Moneyball script, an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ baseball exposé will likely find its way on base instead.

For Your Consideration
Yes, the first time you see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it makes your head hurt. But the second time, it’s impossible not to be impressed by Peter Straughan and his late wife Bridget O’Connor’s spare, labyrinthine script.

Best Original Screenplay
Will Reiser, 50/50
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo, Bridesmaids
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Tom McCarthy, Win Win

The no-brainers here are The Artist, Midnight in Paris, and Bridesmaids. Will Reiser’s autobiographical 50/50 is impressively matter-of-fact in its treatment of a cancer diagnosis. The final spot could go to entries as diverse as the trippy Tree of Life, the misanthropic Young Adult, or the acclaimed Iranian drama A Separation. But Tom McCarthy’s droll suburban tale Win Win may prove too timely (and funny) to ignore.

For Your Consideration
If we want to take this category literally, voters would be hard-pressed to find any screenplay more original than Pedro Almodóvar’s twisty — and twisted — plastic-surgery mystery The Skin I Live In.

(Additional reporting by Grady Smith and John Young)

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