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The Case Against Sean Penn, and Other Oscar Picks

The Oscars have arrived, and with them the inevitable slew of so-called expert predictions. And though I find myself naturally curious, I must admit that my anticipation of Sunday evening’s ceremony has been subdued by lingering disappointment with some of the nominations. Put simply, my heart’s not entirely in it.

WALL*E should have been earned a nomination for best picture, as should The Wrestler. (A win for either would have suited me just fine.) Woody Allen’s strongest contribution in years was largely overlooked. And Bruce Springsteen, in the midst of a creative surge as strong as any in his career, managed to write a song for a movie (again, The Wrestler) without so much as a hint of recognition. Go figure.

But there’s no sense in griping. The big night is upon us. Let’s get on with the show.

Best Picture

Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win: Frost/Nixon

It’s not a sexy pick, but the right one: In a field of worthy contenders, Ron Howard’s arresting recreation of the verbal sparring match between a ratings-hungry entertainer and a bitterly disgraced ex-president provided the year’s most galvanizing drama.

Best Actor

Will Win: Sean Penn, Milk
Should Win: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Make no mistake, Penn’s lived-in impression of Harvey Milk is deserving of all the accolades it has received. It is a masterful, complex performance – in other words, just what you’d expect from one of the world’s finest actors. And if he wins – a decent bet, considering the famously liberal mindset of Hollywood voters eager to make a Big Statement in the wake of Prop 8 – it would hardly be a travesty. But charged with the task of creating a purely original character for The Wrestler, Rourke delivered his most affecting work in decades. Sure, he’s a classic underdog, the prodigal son and unlikely architect of a late-career comeback few thought possible. That’s the kind of story that sells newspapers and magazines. The simple truth, though, is more pertinent: Mickey Rourke came through with the best performance of any actor in 2008, and for that he deserves the Oscar.

Best Actress

Will Win: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Should Win: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Give Kate Winslet her due – that seems to be the rallying cry of those cheering on her latest flirtation with Oscar, and who can blame them? Winslet, a richly deserving six-time nominee who has openly pined for the Academy’s grandest honor, will very likely see her luckless streak end Sunday evening, thanks to a moving, emotionally muted performance in The Reader. But Anne Hathaway’s searing turn as a selfish, self-loathing junkie released from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding was one of the year’s most welcome revelations, and a stronger candidate for the award.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Should Win: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Yes, it’s the sentimental choice, but where would The Dark Knight – considered a legitimate candidate for best picture just a few short weeks ago – have been without the gleefully twisted villain at its core?

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Should Win: Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Conventional wisdom this week has Viola Davis of Doubt taking the award, but in the year’s most wide-open race – almost every nominee has been considered a frontrunner at one time or another – I’ll cast my lot with Cruz, whose furious turn as Javier Bardem’s indomitable ex-lover is impossible to forget.

Best Director

Will Win: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win: Gus Van Sant, Milk

Boyle has an impressive resume, especially if you’re willing to overlook Sunshine, the regrettable, pseudo-spiritual foray into science fiction that preceded the feel-good fantasy of Slumdog. But Van Sant’s portrait of the Mayor of Castro Street is even more impressive, paying tribute to the man without presenting him as a saint.

Best Animated Feature

Will Win: WALL*E
Should Win: WALL*E

The Academy’s refusal to consider an animated feature for best picture has never seemed more transparent – or more wrongheaded – than this year, in which Andrew Stanton’s wondrous work of the imagination serves up a pint-size, nuts-and-bolts hero whose glassy eyes and tiny, sometimes heartbroken voice convey as much emotion as any flesh-and-blood actor could.

Best Foreign Film

Will Win: The Class
Should Win: Waltz With Bashir

Faced with the choice of honoring a harrowing account of Israel at war or a cinema vérité-style French classroom drama, expect voters to take the safer route.

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Should Win: Martin McDonagh, In Bruges

Black’s meticulously researched late-life biography of Milk may land the prize, but McDonagh’s eccentric, colorfully profane tale of a hard-drinking young hit man suffering a crisis of conscience takes wordplay to a brilliant extreme.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire

Eric Roth’s take on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was more ambitious, but uncomfortably familiar to those whose memories of his script for Forrest Gump are less than fond. If Slumdog deserves any honor, it’s this one.