By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist March 2, 2011 at 8:14AM
Yesterday, we took a look at the 10 films we think will be battling it out at the Kodak Theatre for the Oscar roughly 11 months and 3 weeks from now. Today, we've made our picks for the acting categories. In this piece: Best Actor and Actress, and coming up tomorrow, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress.
To reiterate what we said yesterday, a million things can change before the end of 2011 -- some of these films may disappoint, and some of the performances won't live up to our hopes. Dark horses will emerge and favorites will fall out. But we're feeling as confident as we can do about these 10 men and women.
Brad Pitt -- "The Tree of Life"
It's easy to forget that, while he's been nominated twice (Best Actor for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Best Supporting for "Twelve Monkeys"), Brad Pitt's never won an Oscar. He's certainly in with a decent chance here; from the script, the father in Terrence Malick's film is one of the most challenging roles of Pitt's career, and we're sure Malick will get a strong performance out of the actor. The biggest question here is about the category -- it's probably the single biggest role in the film, and is likely to dominate the picture, but it's not nominally the lead, so Fox Searchlight could well move Pitt to Supporting if they feel he stands a better chance there.
George Clooney -- "The Descendants"
Clooney's becoming something of an Academy staple these days, and with good reason -- his performances in both "Michael Clayton" and "Up in the Air" were superb, easily topping his winning supporting turn in "Syriana." Clooney lost out both times, but would have been a worthy winner in either occasion. And teaming with Alexander Payne, who took Jack Nicholson to his most recent nomination, in a film that he has easily the biggest role in, should pay off. Like the best of his work, the part plays off Clooney's star persona, but mixes it up -- and it'll give him the chance to play off kids, which is always a good way to get the Academy's attention.
Gary Oldman -- "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"
Amazingly, Gary Oldman has never been nominated for an Oscar. Partly, we suppose, it's because he spent so long playing scenery-chewing villains of the kind that don't get awards attention, but there's still a half-dozen performances that have been unfairly overlooked. Fortunately, this year Oldman has a rare lead in a high profile project, above the likes of Colin Firth and Tom Hardy, and it's a meaty role, one previously embodied by Alec Guinness. Early word about Oldman's take on spycatcher George Smiley is already incredibly strong and, while it's possible that it'll be a little cold for the Academy, our gut says that it's Oldman's year.
Michael Fassbender -- "Shame"
Steve McQueen's second film, "Shame" looks, along with Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive," to be one of those films too good, and not award-baity enough, to get a best picture nomination. But, with some rising stars on board, and a U.S. setting, it's going to raise more of a fuss than "Hunger," and Michael Fassbender could well be the beneficiary. He's going to have a high-profile year with "X-Men First Class" and "A Dangerous Method" also hitting, and while he' s unlikely to top his performance in "Hunger," his character in McQueen's film is a good'un, and we feel like a nomination's in the cards. Having said that, it's entirely possible that the Academy may find the film too racy and too harsh, but if they can manage to sit through "Blue Valentine" and "127 Hours" for the performances, we're sure they'll manage this one.
Peter Mullan -- "Tyrannosaur"
Something of a wild card again, but the word out of Sundance on Paddy Considine's directorial debut, the dark drama "Tyrannosaur," widely praised all the central performances, and particularly Scottish actor Peter Mullan in the lead. Mullan's widely respected, and won Best Actor at Cannes a decade or so ago for Ken Loach's "My Name Is Joe," while racking up enough Hollywood credits along the way to be recognized by Academy voters. As a violent alcoholic who shows a vulnerable side, it's the kind of part that voters adore, so long as they can get to see it -- Strand Releasing, who've never really made a serious awards run, are putting it out, which is the biggest stumbling block here. But where there's a will, there's a way, and if critics get behind him, this could be the small performance that sneaks in.
Also In Consideration: Pitt and Clooney aren't the only big stars who could be in the running this time. Depending on the quality of the film, Leonardo DiCaprio could well pick up a nomination for the title role in Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar," and after missing out this year for the double whammy of "Shutter Island" and "Inception" it may be felt that he's due. However, from the script, it doesn't seem as showy a role as some of the other contenders, unless Leo really turns on the fireworks. Meanwhile, having been nominated four times in seven years in the '90s, Tom Hanks hasn't got the nod in a decade, and the self-directed "Larry Crowne" could provide it. But the clip that debuted at the start of the week suggested something as light and frothy as Hanks' first directorial effort "That Thing You Do!," and we're not sure this'll be his big awards comeback.
Sean Penn is the other double winner in the category in recent memory and, assuming it gets distribution before the end of the year, his vengeful Robert Smith-esque rock star in Paolo Sorrentino's "This Must Be the Place" could see him return, although we reckon it's probably too out there. Viggo Mortensen finally picked up a nomination a few years back for "Eastern Promises" and could certainly be a contender again for Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method," while Paul Giamatti's certainly overdue for another nod, and if the film catches on with the public, he could sneak in for "Win Win."
Two actors from the younger generation might end up in the mix too. Ryan Gosling didn't manage to match his co-star in "Blue Valentine" for a nomination this year, but he'll have a second chance next year with both George Clooney's "The Ides of March" and Nicholas Winding Refn's "Drive" -- although the former's far more likely to happen than the latter. Meanwhile, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a last minute-replacement for James McAvoy in the cancer comedy "50/50," but Summit recently moving it into the fall suggests they may have some awards hopes in mind (even if we're still skeptical of a Seth Rogen-produced dramedy having any real chance of making it to the final 10, at least until we see more).
In theory, either Garrett Hedlund or Sam Riley could get in for "On the Road" -- which we didn't mention in our best picture round-up yesterday for a reason -- we're nowhere near convinced of the casting (those two, plus Kirsten Dunst and Kristen Stewart) to believe that it's going to be any good at all. Summit also seem bullish on Chris Weitz's "A Better Life" and its star Demián Bichir ("Che"), but we're not sure they'll be able to maintain the momentum from the film's June release date.
Michelle Williams -- "My Week With Marilyn"
There's nothing like playing an iconic popular culture figure to get some awards attention -- Cate Blanchett, Jamie Foxx, Reese Witherspoon and Marion Cotillard have all managed it in recent years. There are few icons that loom larger than Marilyn Monroe, and with the star being embodied by Michelle Williams, who's picked up two nominations in the last five years, this seems like a double threat. The film, from director Simon Curtis, sounds as if it'll be lighter fare than, say, Andrew Dominik's mooted "Blonde." But Monroe had more than enough demons to go around, which means that Williams should have the chance to not just impersonate Monroe, but embody her. We're going to say she's the front-runner at this point.
Meryl Streep -- "The Iron Lady"
Streep is now a fixture at the Kodak, picking up four nominations in the last decade, and a near-record 16 altogether, and she's pretty much a dead cert to get her 17th this year as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. We're less than convinced by the film's prospects, principally because of the presence of "Mamma Mia!" helmer Phyllida Lloyd in the director's chair, but there's no denying that Streep is perfect casting as Thatcher, and even now it looks likely to be a two way race between her and Williams. Of course, Streep is by no means an automatic nominee -- when the film isn't good enough, and can't get general awards traction (see "Rendition, "Lions For Lambs," "It's Complicated"), she can lose in a strong field. We'll have to see if Lloyd can pull it off.
Tilda Swinton -- "We Need To Talk About Kevin"
We discussed yesterday the impeccable awards credentials of "We Need To Talk About Kevin," and nothing's more central to that than Tilda Swinton. The actress is incapable of giving a bad performance, and was finally recognized by the Academy in 2008 for her nervy supporting role in "Michael Clayton." Director Lynne Ramsay proved she could get killer performances out of actresses with her last film, "Morvern Callar," and teaming with Swinton, particularly on a part with as much dramatic potential as the mother of the perpetrator of a high school massacre, should be a hugely potent one. The only risk here is that, like last year's big literary adaptation "Never Let Me Go," is that it's too emotionally restrained to connect with audiences and Academy voters, but Swinton's a real threat in this category.
Rooney Mara -- "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"
Brief awards hopes for Noomi Rapace's portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" never gained traction, but the character is an awards magnet, and we reckon that Rooney Mara, who's taken up the mantle for David Fincher's remake, could well pick up a nomination. Mara's a much better physical fit for the character, and, having been introduced to audiences in Fincher's "The Social Network," the transformation from girl-next-door to tattooed, pierced Goth is bound to make an impression. Fincher's casting technique seemed to be so rigorous that we can't believe that Mara is anything other than the best possible pick for the part, so, even if the film doesn't deliver, we'd still say Mara's a very good bet here.
Charlize Theron -- "Young Adult"
Having read "Young Adult," the reteam of "Juno" writer/director pair Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, we stand by what we said yesterday; that the film is likely to be too dark and raw to repeat the awards success of its predecessor. But it's also a terrific script, and features a couple of killer parts, none more so than Mavis, the thirtysomething young adult novelist who returns to her Minnesota home town to track down her ex-boyfriend. It's a dark, complex role, and Charlize Theron should be a revelation -- it lets her display the comic side she's displayed on the likes of "Arrested Development" and "Funny or Die," but there's plenty of substance here too. The big question here is whether audiences may be turned off by Mavis' unsympathetic qualities -- and there are plenty...
Also In Contention: Williams and Streep aren't the only people playing real life figures; Andrea Riseborough's gathering some early buzz for her performance as Wallis Simpson (the same role taken by Eve Best in "The King's Speech") in Madonna's "W.E." Riseborough will certainly get nominated some day, but we suspect being directed by Madonna isn't the way to do it. There's also a string of literary adaptations out there: Mia Wasikowska in "Jane Eyre" (although the film's a week from release and has negligible buzz, which suggests it ain't happening), 2009 winner Sandra Bullock in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," Judi Dench in "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" and Glenn Close as the cross-dressing title character in "Albert Nobbs" -- the latter being a real passion project for the actress, and perhaps the most likely to step in to the five if the film works.
If "Butter" does gain traction, it could well take its star and producer, Jennifer Garner, with it -- the actress was robbed of a nomination for "Juno" and she seems like she's got the meatiest role in the comedy. Naomi Watts could also do well off of Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Impossible," which deals with the 2004 Thailand tsunami, but we reckon the film's rumored supernatural elements might put people off.
Rachel Weisz picked up good reviews at Toronto last year for "The Whistleblower," which will finally make it to theaters shortly, but we suspect if she's going to get another nomination this time out, it'll be for Terence Rattigan's "The Deep Blue Sea." Finally, one or both of Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet could make it in for Roman Polanski's "God of Carnage" if it does qualify as a 2011 film, while Elizabeth Olsen and Brit Marling both broke out at Sundance, in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "Another Earth," and either, particularly Olsen, could find themselves mirroring Jennifer Lawrence's success last year. There's one other name who could find herself among the final five, but there's a category question there -- stay tuned for our next feature where we'll talk about it in full.
To Be Continued...