By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com February 24, 2012 at 1:02PM
Sometimes, the nomination is the prize. Even in more open years than this one (where many of the major prizes have been locked in for weeks, if not months), only two or three of the nominees have had a realistic chance of winning, with the others merely filling out the field. Which is not to say that they're not deserving. Indeed, quite often, the anointed winner is in that position because they're overdue, or they're part of a film that's sweeping the Oscars in general, or any one of a number of reasons.
Sometimes, the most deserving winner is the one that stands no chance of actually picking up the prize. So, with the Oscars only slightly more than 48 hours away, we've picked five wins that, while extremely unlikely, would make us entirely delighted if they happened. Let us know any potential wins of your own that would make your Oscar night in the comments section.
Even if "The Artist" didn't have this in the bag, "Moneyball" would still be some way down the list of possible winners -- more likely than "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," but less likely than "The Help." Which is odd, because arguably no film is as well-liked as this one or as good as the other nine nominees. Bennett Miller's adaptation of Michael Lewis' non-fiction book, aided by an impeccable script by Steve Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin and Stan Chervin, targets both the head and the heart, turning out a stirring, inspirational sports movie without resorting to cliche. Technically outstanding across the board (with a special mention for Mychael Danna's score and Wally Pfister's photography), and with career-best performances from Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, it's also, crucially, the film among the nominees that has something to say about the world we live in today, rather than looking back fondly on another era. When "The Artist" has its name read out on Sunday night, we'll be closing our eyes and thinking of "Moneyball."
Unlike the rest of this list, there is a faint possibility of this happening, but the smart money's still on Michel Hazanavicius, or even Martin Scorsese, taking the prize. And that's a shame, because Malick has never won an Oscar. Indeed, he's only been nominated twice before (for direction and screenplay of "The Thin Red Line"). And while "The Tree of Life" has just as many who believe it's Malick's least complete film as those who call it his masterpiece, it's hard not to think that he's due. While that might be the kind of thinking that sees Al Pacino win his Oscar for "Scent of a Woman" rather than "Dog Day Afternoon," even the haters have to look at the film and acknowledge that Malick was doing things with the artform that none of the nominees, and indeed no one else in American cinema, was doing in 2011, and in an ideal world, that ambition and achievement is what would be rewarded here. Fortunately, the Academy have as many as three chances in the next few years to make it right.
Of all the categories this year, Best Actor is perhaps the one with the highest bar of quality. Even when we're cool on the film, as we are with "The Descendants," the quality of the performance is undeniable, and any of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Jean Dujardin and Gary Oldman could take home the gold on Sunday without complaint from us. But the one that would be truly thrilling would be a victory for Demian Bichir, star of "A Better Life." Chris Weitz's moving, low-key drama, which single-handedly redeemed the filmmaker for "The Golden Compass" and "Twilight: Eclipse," was mostly ignored on release, so the nomination for Bichir has given it much needed exposure. But that aside, the actor (previously best known for playing Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's "Che") is absolutely terrific as the illegal immigrant gardener trying desperately to give his son a life he'll never have; compassionate, heartbreaking and totally identifiable, whatever your own circumstances. In a field full of A-list turns, Bichir's is the performance that lingers.
Whatever the flaws of "The Help," and there are many, its ensemble of actresses give excellent performances across the board, from likely winners Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer to villain Bryce Dallas Howard. But perhaps the highlight came from Jessica Chastain, an actress who delivered a spate of outstanding performances last year, but perhaps had her finest hour here, of all places. As Celia Foote, the flighty outsider in the community, it's her relationship with Spencer's Minny that is the most genuine, heartfelt and moving one in the film. We don't begrudge Spencer her inevitable win (or Berenice Bejo, should she surprise), but Chastain was delightful, heartbreaking and funny, and a win for her would have celebrated not just that, but also the impressive body of work she established in the last year. Never mind: her time will surely come before too long.
The Adapted Screenplay rarely awards the film with the most impressive act of adaptation, of which there were quite a few this year: Steve Zaillian & Aaron Sorkin and Stan Chernin turning a brain-teasing non-fiction book into a crowd-pleasing film; George Clooney and Grant Heslov expanding Beau Willimon's stage play "Farragut North" into a genuinely cinematic final product. But the toughest nut to crack must have been "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," John Le Carre's terrifyingly dense spy tale. Last time it was adapted, it was as a seven-part TV series, but writers Peter Straughan and Bridget O'Connor managed to get it down to just over two hours while keeping the story coherent and the characters well drawn (some have complained it's hard to follow, but really, it just demands your attention to keep up). It's a fearsome piece of work, and recognizing it would have been particularly pertinent, as O'Connor, who was Straughan's partner in life as well as writing, passed away not long before filming got underway. Alas, it won't happen, but the script did win a BAFTA, where Straughan's speech was the moving highlight of the evening.