Everyone knows that the Oscars, which will be given out at 3 a.m. on Monday morning (local time) and broadcast on various networks, don't actually reward the best movies of the year. The movies that win tend to be the trendiest and most politically correct or the ones made by people who didn't win in the years when they made really good movies.
But the real entertainment is the fun of second-guessing the Academy voters, who are conventional, sentimental and generally unimaginative but who occasionally get it into their heads to honor a terrific movie.
This is why the office pool was invented, to give people a reason to actually watch the Oscars (or read about them the next day).
When I worked at the New York Post, where the staff bet on everything (including the Miss America pageant), people got very competitive over the office pool. I won it three times when I worked there, which wasn't the record. That was held by a sports editor who rarely saw movies but knew how to bet.
You may not work in the kind of office where people are interested in such frivolous pursuits as Oscar pools, but now, with the Internet, don't let that stop you. Go to the Oscarwatch site at www.Oscarwatch.com and you'll find a list of online Oscar contests as well as predictions and all the Oscar trivia you can imagine. Some of the contests give small prizes, like T-shirts, but the real thrill is being able to beat a lot of other Oscar geeks at their own game.
Don't worry if you haven't seen most or any of the nominated movies. Your personal taste can interfere with your judgment. So read on and then see if you want to try your luck.
By the way, in 2005 I was eight-for-eight in the top categories. Last year, I missed only Best Picture, going with the conventional-wisdom favorite, Brokeback Mountain, which lost to surprise spoiler, Crash, a multi-character melodrama about race relations.
Once again, the Best Picture race is the toughest call. Most years, there's a clear front runner, or a duel between two leading contenders. But this year, any one of the five nominees could score. And these five films - Babel, The Departed, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Queen - are a diverse bunch. Many earnest, star-studded films, such as All the King's Men, The Good Shepherd, and The Good German, which industry watchers thought would be Oscar bait early in 2006, fell by the wayside.
The contests for actors' awards are the most cut and dry in years, though. Two veteran actors who have never won Oscars will take home the gold playing world leaders. In the Best Actress race, Helen Mirren's Queen Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears' The Queen is the one to beat. Her subtle performance as she shows the human side of a not especially sympathetic public figure is extraordinary and she's won virtually every critics' prize, plus the Golden Globe. Mirren is a distinguished British film and theater actress who's never won an Oscar, and, as an added bonus, she's married to a Hollywood insider, director Taylor Hackford (Ray, An Officer and A Gentleman).
Forest Whitaker, whom you may remember as the kidnapped British soldier from The Crying Game, gives a riveting performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Like Mirren in The Queen, once you've seen him, it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. The only possible competition for Whitaker is Peter O'Toole, who plays an older man involved with a young woman in Venus. This is O'Toole's eighth nomination, and he's never won, although he received an honorary Oscar in 2003. But five of his nominations were in the Sixties and Seventies, and how many Academy voters today even remember them?
There are many strong candidates in the supporting races, but the two to beat, both of whom have won every award out there so far, are Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls. That movie was expected to get a Best Picture nod, but didn't, although for my money, it was a far more enjoyable film than Babel or The Departed. Both Hudson and Murphy have personal stories that appeal to Hollywood. Eddie Murphy was an overnight success on Saturday Night Live while he was still in his late teens, became a huge movie star in the Eighties, then foundered for years in forgettable flicks, so he's the comeback of the year. Hudson was cruelly booted from American Idol, but has bounced back to triumph in Dreamgirls, in which she upstages pop diva Beyonce.
As far as Best Director goes, everyone agrees this is Martin Scorsese's year. He's never won, although he has been nominated several times - for The Aviator, Gangs of New York, Goodfellas, The Last Temptation of Christ and Raging Bull, and didn't even get a nod for Taxi Driver. Is The Departed a great Scorsese film? Not even close. Jack Nicholson looks good glowering with Rolling Stones music in the background, but basically phones in his performance. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio are virtually indistinguishable as the good-bad guy and the bad-good guy and it's hard to care what happens to either of them. But no matter, Scorsese will win for his body of work and the movie will also take Best Adapted Screenplay.
THIS LEAVES Best Picture. Let's eliminate Iwo Jima. Clint Eastwood, who has directed two Best Picture Award winners (Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby) and won Best Director Oscars for both those films, has simply has gotten enough awards (including an honorary Oscar). And it's unlikely that Academy voters will pick a movie that's mainly in Japanese. I was lucky enough to interview Stephen Frears when he visited Israel in 2001, but his The Queen is more like a BBC drama brought to the big screen than a movie. The Best Picture race should be between The Departed and Babel, the two most ambitious serious films in the running. But those two movies, in spite of their different subjects (gangsters in The Departed and global alienation in Babel), have something critical in common: Neither film is enjoyable. The Departed is like watching an episode of The Sopranos where you don't know any of the characters. The high-minded, thinly veiled anti-American pretension of Babel," rather cynically spiced up by an adolescent Japanese schoolgirl who strips every couple of scenes, is labored and bleak, not qualities Oscar traditionally rewards.
What does that leave? The little movie that could, Little Miss Sunshine, a Sundance favorite about a dysfunctional family taking their youngest child to compete in a beauty contest. Conventional wisdom says that comedies don't win and that movies don't win when their directors aren't nominated (this hasn't happened since Driving Miss Daisy got Best Picture), but I'm still going to go with Sunshine, because Oscar does like feel-good movies about families pulling together. It'll also win Best Original Screenplay.
Another crucial factor to consider is that most Academy voters now watch the nominees as a growing number of regular movie-goers do, on DVDs at home. This is good news for small-scale, character-driven movies such as Sunshine, but bad for movies that rely on gorgeous scenery, like Babel, or last year's also-ran, Brokeback Mountain. It's also not great news for action or war movies, such as Departed and Iwo Jima, since they just don't have the same impact on a smaller screen.
Will people still be watching Sunshine 20 years from now? It's hard to know, but 2007 will be remembered for being the year that it became routine for non-white actors and directors to get a shot. Out of the 20 acting nominees, five are African-American, one is Latin American and one is Asian. It's a solid bet that three of the four acting winners will be black. In addition, three Mexican directors have gotten high-profile nominations: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for Best Director for Babel; Guillermo Del Toro, whose film "Pan's Labyrinth" is the likely winner of the Best Foreign Language film award, for the screenplay; and Alfonso Cuaron, for Best Adapted Screenplay for "Children of Men." Another group Hollywood has neglected for years will get its due this year: older women. Helen Mirren is 61, and this will be the first year that an over-40 actress has won Best Actress since then 49-year-old Susan Sarandon was honored in 1995 for Dead Man Walking. God save The Queen.