Elvis Mitchell's Oscar Picks: The Declaration of Independents

For me, the Oscar nominations are now something incestuously interwoven with Park City, Utah... and not just because I was scrambling from one theater to another at this year's Sundance Film Festival while drafting this. Everyone knows Sundance spawned several of this year's nominees, as it has many times over the years. But it should be remembered that Sundance is -- literally -- not the only game in Hollywood's favorite Rocky Mountain ski town.

In 1999, my first time here, I wandered up Main Street to Slamdance where I caught a screening of Following, Christopher Nolan's directorial debut - a film Sundance rejected. Two years later, Memento was of course accepted by Sundance (and highly lauded by the critics and audiences who saw it), but Nolan's ascension -- a word that sounds one of his film titles -- through the indie fest ranks shows how closely connected the festivals here are to this year's Oscars.

The shadow the independent world casts over all the nominations underlines the fact that many of this year's top picks are films that originated outside of the studio development system -- with filmmakers who followed their own paths. Even some of the studio films bear a faint indie tattoo; it's hard to believe that Nolan, or the Coen brothers, had to endure much interference -- and both Inception and True Grit were enormous hits. Even the high grossing picture of the year, Toy Story 3, was incubated outside the studios -- Pixar is really an ecosystem of its own. And, as is becoming the custom, the Best Actress category looks like a forwarded text from the Spirit Awards actress category. The message: allowing filmmakers to follow their own way produces rewards - and awards.

BEST PICTURE

I'm excited about this category because it features a film that may be the best reviewed of the year, and the box office leader: Toy Story 3. I may be one of the few to like the idea of 10 nominees, although I've also asserted that one of the few things the Golden Globes got right is breaking the number into Comedy and Drama categories; with the exception of the out-and-out The Kids Are All Right, that's a grim bunch. But there's a gallows humor in each of the films, twisted chortles to dry some of the humidity from the gloom. It's the giggles from the lower depths that links 127 Hours to Inception to Black Swan to True Grit to... you get it. It's laughter while swimming in a swamp, but laughter nonetheless. At least we won't have to hear any more insensitive stammer jokes after The King's Speech wins.

Will win: The King's Speech

BEST DIRECTOR

A category that's almost the definition of spoiler, though this year's grouping so roundly hit the center of the target that you could've guessed it looking at a release schedule. After last year's win by Kathryn Bigelow and inclusion of Lee Daniels, I'd hoped that we'd see upsets by the inclusion of women - I'd hoped Lisa Cholodenko or Debra Granik would turn up, since both The Kids Are All Right and Winter's Bone seemed shoo-in Best Picture candidates. But there are to things to commend, like the hand-wrought roughness of The Fighter; David O. Russell, like his protagonist, is battling to stay alive. The way that Tom Hooper finds, as they say in Get Shorty, a visual metaphor for chaos shows a skill that's underestimated. And David Fincher's willful ingenuity - keeping his cast of marsupials out of the center of frame and using indirect light - is a welcome subversion. Until recently, he seemed as sure a choice as the Jets going to the Super Bowl. We all know that turned out...

Will win: Tom Hooper

BEST ACTOR

I think we've found the new Oprah Winfrey -- Julia Roberts. She bent the world to her smile by campaigning for Javier Bardem, and getting him a nomination. She should ask the Oscar audience to look under the seats to find the seats for a brand new car. She won't stem the Colin Firth tide, nor should she. His turn in A Single Man may have been my favorite of last year. And it draws attention to the fact that the bulk of the nominees are based on real people. Not only Firth, but also Jesse Eisenberg, James Franco and Jeff Bridges, who I think is playing John Goodman.

Will win: Colin Firth

BEST ACTRESS

Outside of a Pat Benatar song, or a John Boehner speech, I've never seen vulnerability used as a weapon as often as in this category. And the women uniformly scrawl graffiti all over their allure -- it's almost a kind of reverse narcissism employed. In Natalie Portman, the kind of masochism not seen since Joan Crawford, Susan Hayward or Liza Minnelli; weren't you waiting for Joel Grey to introduce her to the audience in Black Swan? You can't lose with that kind of grandiloquent suffering.

Will win: Natalie Portman

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Only in America could an actor become a Youtube must in such a frothy tirade I thought it was stolen footage from a David O. Russell film, and get an Oscar nomination for his performance in a David O. Russell film the next year. Christian Bale's appearance in The Fighter is terrific, though I dig that Mark Ruffalo seems to have played the only guy to regularly wash his hair in this group.

Will win: Christian Bale

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

You can't help but like that Amy Adams thinks she's the title character in The Fighter. And her scene with Christian Bale - in which she has to acknowledge her faults while Bale reads her like a Sam Adams label - explains why they're both nominated. It's a category in which all of the nominees fearlessly stare down the camera - Jacki Weaver's so potent in Animal Kingdom that it's only a matter of time before Sarah Palin claims her as a fellow Mama Grizzly. And Hailee Steinfeld's self possession - and that she's the only person in True Grit not to have copped an accent from O Brother Where Art Thou? - made her worthy. For my money, the most interesting of the acting categories.

Will win: Melissa Leo

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

This category also serves as the blueprint for the structure the directors wanted to build. Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg most capably capture the Golden State neuroses that have come to inform her work - it's a sex farce made for the wide-open spaces of the 310 area code, where the skies are not cloudy all day after the Santa Anas.

Will win: The Kids Are All Right

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

This year, it's become a spot that demonstrates where the director's vision originates. In 127 Hours, it's the spur to apply motion to a static situation. True Grit reminds us of Charles Portis' dour cheekiness, and that the Coens find authors whose purview echo their own. Though I imagine the meetings between Aaron Sorkin and Fincher were as entertaining as the movie.

Will win: The Social Network

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

This happens to be my favorite category. Toy Story 3 is the strongest of all this year's nominees. But I have a weakness for The Illusionist not only because of director Sylvain Chomet's distinctive elongated style (he seems to mix Elzie Segar and Nicolas de Crecy), but he bounced back after walking away from a studio film (Despereaux) and took his talent with him. (Chomet's influence is also evident in Despicable Me.) How to Train Your Dragon ably transfers the medieval dankness of the book to its adaptation.

Will win: Toy Story 3

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

My second favorite category, because it underscores the virtues of teamwork. The cinematographer/director teams represented here are the filmmaking equivalent of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo; they go way back. Matthew Libatique's rock and roll boldness first hit screens on Darren Aronofsky's debut Pi, and can be seen in three others. With the exception of Christopher Nolan's first film, Wally Pfister has done all of Nolan's American output, and applied a different signature to his collaborator's noir staged Alan Parker sensibility. Jeff Cronenweth has wrestled with David Fincher's demands four times. Roger Deakins has been shooting with the Coens for the last two decades. And although this is Danny Cohen's only
theatrical teaming with Tom Hooper, they worked together on the John Adams miniseries.

Will win: The Social Network



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