REVIEW: Dunkirk

23 07 2017

In a typical war movie, the 400,000 men stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk would command the lion’s share of attention. Their rescuers who arrived by sea in small personal and commercial boats requisitioned for the war effort might get an extended arc in the final act. Their protectors in the air might get a few shots during a climactic battle scene as they fended off the German Luftwaffe.

Director Christopher Nolan, however, is anything but typical. (You probably already knew that.) In his take on “Dunkirk,” each of these three threads takes on an equal narrative standing. Though they span a week, a day and an hour, respectively, their experiences unfold in a simultaneous, but not parallel, manner. The lengths of their contribution might be different, yet their weights are equalized – and their fates are intertwined.

This isn’t immediately obvious from the start of the film. Title cards spell out the duration of each section, but it takes their individual narratives overlapping or colliding for that time to really resonate. Remarkably, the gambit never feels like a gimmick. Nolan pays tribute to each prong of the Dunkirk evacuation by sustaining their story for as long as their lives were on high alert … and then gently ratcheting things down a notch once the end is in sight.

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REVIEW: Cinderella

12 03 2015

Kenneth Branagh’s biggest cinematic production to date has been “Thor,” but he established a reputation far before taking on a hot Marvel property.  Many consider him the Laurence Olivier of our time, perhaps the preeminent modern interpreter of Shakespeare.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he stood at the helm of multiple acclaimed film adaptations of the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon’s plays.

After delivering a dead-on-arrival reboot of the “Jack Ryan” franchise, Branagh turned back toward a source material that he could more faithfully reproduce: Disney’s “Cinderella.”  He approaches the fabled animated classic with the same tender touch he brings to a Shakespeare text, gingerly re-staging the action with careful attention to its original incarnation.  By not shaking anything up, Branagh ensures that his film will not ruffle the feathers of the die-hards.

But the downside of such a rigid reinterpretation is that his “Cinderella” also does not really excite anyone except the die-hards.  If the animated classic, 65 years later, still enchants children everywhere, why bother to remake it with such obliviousness to the many midnights passed?  (“Maleficent,” warts and all, at least took a stab at reimagining the “Sleeping Beauty” mythology.)  The answer seems simple: merchandising opportunities and brand awareness.

Branagh serves less as a director and more as a cookie-cutter, ensuring that all components of his “Cinderella” meet the pre-established mold.  In everything from the opening line of “once upon a time” to the traditional gender roles and ideology, the film adequately measures up.  The only worthwhile addition 2015 makes to the story is some CGI in the Fairy Godmother’s transformation of Cinderella, her escorts, and her carriage – effects that look quite magical.

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REVIEW: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

20 01 2014

Economics majors may be get some major wish fulfillment through “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” the latest reboot and recasting of Tom Clancy’s paperback protagonist. As the CIA’s best “analyst” on Wall Street, he’s a compliance officer with a badge! Ryan gets to audit some assets in Russia and uncovers a terrorist plot that’s being developed in tandem with an orchestrated economic meltdown.

While this may sound exciting, it’s far more appealing as a synopsis than as the actual movie that plays out. Kenneth Branagh’s take on Jack Ryan feels like a feature-length first act of a great film. Nothing ever seems to escalate to levels where we feel the need to engage and maybe worry. The action is drawn out rather than reigned in, and as a result, it feels like seeing an incomplete movie. The problem is reminiscent to those that plagued Branagh’s last outing, the first film of the “Thor” series.

Even scarier than Branagh’s directing of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is his acting in it. Playing the villainous Russian banker Cheverin with a heinously slapdash accent, he’s hardly menacing or intimidating. I found myself pining for a Philip Seymour Hoffman, a revelation in “Mission: Impossible III,” to put Branagh out of his misery.

Perhaps more troubling, though, than not having an antagonist to root against is the lack of a protagonist to root for. Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan feels copied and posted from his work as Captain Kirk in the “Star Trek” franchise. That’s not to say that one star cannot be at the helm of two series. But to be pulled off successfully, the two characters need to be distinct. For example, no one would mistake Robert Downey Jr’s smug Tony Stark from “Iron Man” for his cunning detective in “Sherlock Holmes.”

Pine’s bland acting brings nothing new to the Jack Ryan universe. His acting feels like it could be just any old script; he’s not creating a character that will really endure. As such, the only successful case that “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” makes is that its titular character should just be left behind in the ‘90s.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Pirate Radio

21 01 2013

Musical theatre thrives on the creative sparks of others.  Not to diminish the many accomplishments of that art form, but in recent years, just about everything has been an adaptation.  (Except “The Book of Mormon” – you go Trey Parker and Matt Stone!)  Many have been taken from books, but recently, the trend has become to adapt films onto the stage.

One of the greatest advances has been the invention of the “jukebox musical,” where a story forms around immediately recognizable music, whether a fictional tale like “Mamma Mia!” or a biographical one such as “Jersey Boys.”  (It also gave us “Rock of Ages,” but we can pretend it didn’t.)

Before you ask, no, “Pirate Radio” is not an adaptation of a Broadway or a West End musical.  There’s plenty of music, but the record player does all the singing.  However, I felt that while watching Richard Curtis’ film, it was practically BEGGING to be staged as piece of musical theatre.  The music is phenomenal, and there’s so much capability for it to define a generation – because it does.

The story of the film isn’t all that interesting: banned from playing rock and roll on normal British airwaves, a group of rebels broadcast it in international waters.  The gang is full of eclectic types, ranging from characters played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bill Nighy to then unknown Chris O’Dowd (the cop from “Bridesmaids“).  There’s little character or story development, and when the boat finds itself in peril, I could have cared less what happened to whom.  Not to mention that it feels interminable even at 20 minutes shorter runtime from its British release under the name “The Boat That Rocked.”

But with some slight tweaking of the story – a little bit less of the people on the boat, a little bit more of the people on land, the same amount of the government censors led by an uptight Kenneth Branagh – “Pirate Radio” could actually play quite well on stage given the caliber of music.  Think about it … and I’d like to request royalties if it happens because of this review.  C2stars





Oscar Moment: Final 2011 Predictions!

23 01 2012

Well, folks … guesswork is almost over.  In a little over 12 hours, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) will announce their nominations for the best of the best of 2011.  We’ve had plenty of nominations and winners to give us an idea of what’s to come tomorrow morning.  I’ve done plenty of analyzing the categories, but I think now I just have to go with a mix of gut and knowledge.

Best Picture

  1. The Artist
  2. The Descendants
  3. The Help
  4. Hugo
  5. Midnight in Paris
  6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  7. War Horse
  8. The Tree of Life
  9. Moneyball
  10. Bridesmaids

I’m feeling only six Best Picture nominees this year.  (For those who don’t know about the new rules and regulations of the category, the Best Picture field is now an elastic number of nominees between five and ten.  In order to be nominated for Best Picture, a movie needs to receive at least five percent of the number one votes.)  The top five are very obvious.

I would say “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” takes the sixth spot because it’s the only other plausible nominee with enough guild support (sorry “Bridesmaids”).  If we learned anything from 2010, it was that the guilds still win out in the end.  “War Horse” has been far too silent on the guild front and hasn’t made nearly enough money to be a smashing success.  Plus, there’s an opportunity – and a likelihood – that they can give him another Oscar win in the Best Animated Feature category for “The Adventures of Tintin.” “The Tree of Life” has the critical support, but I don’t think that’s enough to break it into this race.  Oscar voters aren’t critics.

Best Director

  1. Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
  2. Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
  3. Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”
  4. Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”
  5. David Fincher, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

The top three are rock solid locks.  Woody Allen seems very inevitable given the widespread love for his movie and that the directors have nominated him six times before.  The last slot could go any number of ways – Fincher like the DGA picked, Malick like every critic proclaimed from the rooftop, Spielberg if “War Horse” actually makes a strong showing, or maybe even Tate Taylor if they really love “The Help.”

Looking at history, the lone director slot comes when there’s a particularly unknown director for a well-liked movie: Joe Wright missing for “Atonement,” Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris missing for “Little Miss Sunshine,” Marc Forster missing for “Finding Neverland,” and Gary Ross for “Seabiscuit.”  So I think it’s safe to say that the vulnerable director of a leading movie is Tate Taylor.  But who gets the slot?

I would say look to the DGA, but looking over their nominees, they do a better job of picking the Best Picture five than they do picking Best Director.  So thus I glean from their slate that “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has the strength to crack the Best Picture field, but Fincher might not necessarily show up here again.  My brain says go with Malick since lone director nominees usually represent far-out, well-directed artsy films.  But my gut says Fincher gets it, if for no other reason that Hollywood seems to have found its new anointed golden director and just wants to shower him with awards for everything.

Best Actor

  1. George Clooney, “The Descendants”
  2. Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”
  3. Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
  4. Michael Fassbender, “Shame”
  5. Leonardo DiCaprio, “J. Edgar”

Best Actor is, on the whole, a very conservative category.  Save the occasional Tommy Lee Jones for “In the Valley of Elah” or Javier Bardem for “Biutiful,” it almost always unfolds according to plan – no matter how boring that plan may be.  So yes, I still pick Michael Fassbender for “Shame” even though there has been some skepticism raised recently.  And yes, I will even defend Leonardo DiCaprio who stars in what will surely be one of the most maligned movies of 2011 to receive an Oscar nomination.  This year, he accumulated the three most important precursor nominations.  And he managed to get nominated in 2006 even when he had two performances in play.  They like him, and I think that (unfortunately) they’ll probably reward him with another nomination.

Best Actress

  1. Viola Davis, “The Help”
  2. Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
  3. Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn”
  4. Tilda Swinton, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”
  5. Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

Yes, even though she missed with the BFCA and SAG, I have confidence that the late surge of support for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” can net a nomination for Rooney Mara over Glenn Close.  I don’t think “Albert Nobbs” has much buzz about it anymore, and even though they like Glenn Close, there are a lot of quotients that Mara would fill.  She’s under 30 and hasn’t been nominated before; you have to go back to 1994 to find a year where the Best Actress category was all prior nominees.  Thus, I rest my case and cross my fingers.

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”
  2. Albert Brooks, “Drive”
  3. Kenneth Branagh, “My Week with Marilyn”
  4. Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”
  5. Armie Hammer, “J. Edgar”

I only feel sure of the top pick Plummer; the next three are fairly vulnerable; the fifth spot could go any number of ways.  I still can’t predict Nolte for “Warrior,” and maybe it’s because I can’t separate my dislike of the movie from the nomination process.  I just don’t think the performance was good, and I’m hopeful that the Academy will validate my opinion.  It could be Brad Pitt as a double nominee for “The Tree of Life;” it could be Ben Kingsley sneaking in for “Hugo;” it could be SAG nominee Armie Hammer for “J. Edgar.”  When in doubt, go with SAG, I guess.

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Octavia Spencer, “The Help”
  2. Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”
  3. Jessica Chastain, “The Help”
  4. Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs”
  5. Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”

Someone else suggested the Woodley comparison to Andrew Garfield’s snub for “The Social Network,” and I’m dreading that it might be the case.  But I really have a hard time picking Melissa McCarthy for a nomination, even if she was a SAG nominee.  I just don’t see it happening.  I don’t think the performance is enough of a stand-out to break the funny woman barrier at the Oscars.  The nomination could be a symbolic vote, but I think traditional performances win the day.

Best Original Screenplay

  1. Midnight in Paris
  2. The Artist
  3. Bridesmaids
  4. Win Win
  5. Beginners

This category always has some surprises up its sleeve for nomination morning, so I don’t know how confident I feel picking so close to the WGA nominations.  I think “Bridesmaids” will see the prize for its remarkable awards run here, and I think “Win Win” has built up enough steam to get in too.  “50/50” has the WGA nom but not much else going for it.  Some say “A Separation” takes its enormous buzz and makes a showing here, but I think the drama of choice will be “Beginners.”  Just another gut feeling.

Best Adapted Screenplay

  1. The Descendants
  2. Moneyball
  3. The Help
  4. Hugo
  5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Four Best Picture nominees will be adapted, so I feel like those will make it in over some arguably “better written” or “more loved” work.  And “Moneyball” has too much acclaim and steam to ignore; it could win even if it doesn’t get a Best Picture nomination.

So that’s what I think!  What about you?  Anything you are hoping for?  Rooting against?





REVIEW: My Week with Marilyn

14 01 2012

While I’m always urging filmmakers to push the envelope, sometimes it can be nice to see a movie that takes no risks and is proud of it.  Provided that the movie is pleasant, easygoing, light and breezy like a Sunday stroll in the park, these movies can be a real treat to sit back, relax, and enjoy.  Very few movies get my “Sunday stroll” certification, and “My Week with Marilyn” earns it with ease.

It’s a little more serious than the usual stroll, but it’s a great deal of fun to watch largely because of how easily Michelle Williams totally loses herself in the persona of Marilyn Monroe.  She effortlessly brings to life the charm, the sultriness, and the seduction of the actress, making us wonder if we’re falling in love with Monroe all over again – or Williams for the first time.  While she has shocked in “Blue Valentine” and riveted in “Brokeback Mountain,” Williams has shied away from endearing and glamorous characters.  Yet with Marilyn Monroe, it provides the perfect marriage of her stunning, red-carpet looks and grace with her remarkable ability to plumb the depths of tortured and confused women.

The script by Adrian Hodges gives Williams an ample base to build her interpretation of Monroe without constraining her artistic decisions.  She may spout some lines we would expect the famed actress to say, but he thankfully realizes that the majority of the performance would come from her physicality and the bubbling psychological torment she builds up so deftly.  It’s a perfect blend of understated and flashy that will make you want to spend a week with Marilyn.

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Weekend Update, Oscar Edition – January 8, 2012

8 01 2012

“The funny thing about winning an Academy Award is that this will always be synonymous with my name from here on in.  It will be Oscar-winner George Clooney, Sexiest Man Alive 1997, Batman died in a freak accident…”

– George Clooney accepting the Academy Award for “Syriana,” 2006

“I grew up in a place called Alcobendas where this was not a very realistic dream.  And always on the night of the Academy Awards, I stayed up to watch the show.  And I always felt that this ceremony was a moment of unity for the world because art – in any form – is, has been, and will always be our universal language.”

– Penélope Cruz accepting the Academy Award for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” 2009

“Did I really earn this, or did I just wear y’all down?”

– Sandra Bullock accepting the Academy Award for “The Blind Side,” 2010

Why the Oscars?  Why the attention?

I had planned a whole, in-depth analysis here … but then I got sick today.  I want to get something up, so let me lead off with this: the Oscars are about setting the tone for an industry.  It’s about making and rewarding careers.  It’s about celebrating the best of an industry.  It’s about capturing a moment in time, reminding future generations of what the year meant to those who lived through it.

Revised Predictions

Best Picture

  1. The Artist
  2. The Descendants
  3. The Help
  4. War Horse
  5. Midnight in Paris
  6. Hugo
  7. Moneyball
  8. The Tree of Life
  9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  10. Bridesmaids

As far as I’m concerned, the top six aren’t going to change.  “Moneyball” may or may not make it in, given the passion for the movie that may or may not exist.  And “The Tree of Life” could sneak in as the top choice of many voters, but I don’t feel comfortable predicting that, nor do I think the late surge of “Dragon Tattoo” love will translate into a Best Picture nomination.

Now, onto the state of the race. It looks like 2008 all over again in the Oscar race.  The little movie that could then was “Slumdog Millionaire.”  It was a consensus critical favorite and won the BFCA (Critic’s Choice), then trumped the more conventional Globes play “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in the drama category, and capped off its all-around sweep by taking the SAG ensemble prize without having any big stars to boast … and then pretty much every guild too just for fun.  You could say “Button” or “Milk” posed a serious threat – and “The Dark Knight” might have been a formidable foe had it not been snubbed – but everyone knew it was “Slumdog” all the way.

Similarly, in 2011, the oh-so-typical Oscar movie yet anything BUT typical “The Artist” looks about ready to lap the competition.  It’s been the critical darling of the year but doen’t have the unanimity that “The Social Network” had last year.  Thus, it has become their gentle suggestion of the best movie of the year, not like the mandate that backfired last year.  It has been scoring everywhere it needs to score – a field-leading 11 nominations at the Critics Choice Awards including Best Picture (which it will most likely win), a field-leading 6 nominations at the Golden Globes including Best Picture, and 3 nominations at the SAG Awards including Best Ensemble.  Now all it needs to do is start winning things to make it undeniable.

Running closely behind is Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” which looks to be the “Milk” of 2011 as it seems to be the favorite for both the Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay trophies.  It could win Best Picture; indeed, it seems likely to win Best Picture in the drama category at the Golden Globes.  But in a year where nostalgia and an old-fashioned yearning for movies to take us out of our misery – not face it – could hurt this movie which is already burdened by comparisons to Payne’s last film, “Sideways.”

Then again, having a virtual monopoly on the brain vote may help “The Descendants” because the heart vote is being tugged in a number of directions.  “The Help” makes a big case as it’s a period piece (Oscars love the past), it’s a feel-good movie (“The King’s Speech” won last year), it has real audience support ($169 million), and it has the actors behind it.  Davis and Spencer are both serious threats to win their categories, and I would definitely consider “The Help” to be the favorite for the coveted SAG ensemble prize.  Given how well-acted the movie is down to its core, this may be the movie that rallies the biggest branch of the Academy.  But if “The Artist” wins that award, I would consider the race to be pretty much over.

There’s also the case to be made for “Hugo,” which harkens back to the pioneering days of moviemaking, and “War Horse,” which reminds all who see it of the weepy sentimentality and soaring scopes of a John Ford picture.  But with neither making blockbuster cash and neither getting a single nomination from the SAG, it’s really hard to see either mounting a serious threat.  It’s particularly problematic for “War Horse” as it missed a Best Director nomination for Spielberg at the Globes and a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination with the WGA.  Spielberg’s legendary status will likely get him into the Best Director field at the Oscars, but not having a screenplay nomination will be problematic.  Not since “Titanic” in 1997 has a movie won Best Picture without having a nominated screenplay, and only once in the last 10 years did the Best Picture winner not also win a Best Screenplay Oscar.

The acting thing is also an issue as it’s pretty rare for a movie to win Best Picture without an acting nomination.  The last time two times it happened was with “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” – both of which had the actors’ support as shown by their wins in the SAG ensemble category yet were consensus favorites anyways.  The nomination may be the prize for these movies.

As a final word on the category, don’t count out “Midnight in Paris.”  It’s been flying under the radar, but it could win Best Picture in the comedy category at the Golden Globes.  Woody Allen has won the category twice before, and this is his tenth film nominated for Best Picture overall.  It’s also his fifth Best Director nomination and sixth Best Screenplay nomination.  All this talk about career rewards for Spielberg and Scorsese need to be equally focused on Woody Allen.  The movie has scored with the SAG, PGA, and WGA – so there’s no reason to take this movie lightly.

Best Director

  1. Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
  2. Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”
  3. Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
  4. Steven Spielberg, “War Horse”
  5. Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”

It’s never wise to predict a split Picture-Director ticket … even when the director is as widely regarded as David Fincher, who may come into play as a dark horse for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”  But in my mind, the top four is set with Hazanavicius, Payne, Scorsese, and Spielberg, who were all BFCA nominees (and all but Spielberg were HFPA nominees).  Woody Allen, to me, seems like the logical fifth nominee.  The director’s branch has nominated him six times, four of which were not a complement to a Best Picture nomination.  They like him, even when they don’t like his movie.  While Terrence Malick may have crafted a more ambitious, director-driven movie, I still don’t see them opting for him over Allen.

Best Actor

  1. George Clooney, “The Descendants”
  2. Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”
  3. Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
  4. Michael Fassbender, “Shame”
  5. Leonardo DiCaprio, “J. Edgar”

The top three are locked in after getting nominations from the BFCA, SAG, and HFPA.  Fassbender can’t be put in the same category since he missed with the SAG, the group with the most overlap with Academy voters, but he seems pretty safe given that the nomination would be a reward for his ubiquity just as much as his performance.  In addition, physical commitment to a role always plays well with the actors branch; see nominations for James Franco in “127 Hours” and Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” as proof.  “Last Tango in Paris,” another controversial NC-17 film, received a nomination for its leading actor back in 1973.   However, his name was Marlon Brando.

Leonardo DiCaprio, after garnering notices from all three of the major groups, would normally be considered a lock.  But here’s my hangup on predicting him: this is a category that almost always requires a quality movie behind a quality performance.  You have to look back to ten years ago when you saw a movie with a Rotten Tomatoes score below 70% – “Ali” at 67% and “I Am Sam” at a staggeringly (and unfairly) low 34%.  “J. Edgar” currently stands at 42% on the review aggregator. Not since 2005 has anyone with nominations for BFCA, SAG, and HFPA missed an Oscar nomination in this category, and that was previous winner Russell Crowe who was up this time for “Cinderella Man.”  It also happened to Paul Giamatti for “Sideways” in 2004, the victim of Clint Eastwood coming out of nowhere and scoring a nomination thanks to the rising tide of “Million Dollar Baby.”

But if DiCaprio misses, who gets in?  Ryan Gosling is having a great year but his two performances could cancel each other out, and neither “Drive” nor “The Ides of March” seem to have much momentum.  There isn’t consensus either on which is the more deserving performance; BFCA nominated him for “Drive” while HFPA nominated him for “The Ides of March.” I feel like this is prime territory for a dark horse candidate to rise … but who will it be?  Michael Shannon for “Take Shelter?”  Joseph Gordon-Levitt for “50/50?”  Woody Harrelson for “Rampart?”  Or will SAG nominee, but still underdog, Demian Bichir capitalize on the actor’s love for his work in “A Better Life?”  Unfortunately, there’s not much opportunity for any of these candidates to gain traction in the race, so you either go smart and pick Leo here or go with a hunch.

Best Actress

  1. Viola Davis, “The Help”
  2. Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
  3. Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn”
  4. Tilda Swinton, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”
  5. Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

For the past 15 years, the SAG field has provided a clue to at least 4 of the 5 eventual nominees for Best Actress at the Oscars.  The top four in the field – Davis, Streep, Williams, and Swinton – have all scored nominations from the BFCA, SAG, and HFPA.  Then, the plot thickens. The way I see it, there are three actresses competing for that final slot.  History says go with the SAG nominee, which is Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs.”  But Charlize Theron is also a threat for “Young Adult” after cracking the field for both the BFCA and HFPA.

And I definitely don’t think anyone can count out Golden Globe nominee Rooney Mara for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”  People sensed the passion wasn’t there for this film, but it’s been stealthily building a healthy résumé throughout the season.  It was one of the top ten movies for the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute; this week, it was nominated by both the Producers Guild and the Writers Guild.

The movie has supporters where “Albert Nobbs,” which currently sits at 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, has few. But love from producers, directors, and critics doesn’t provide any direct aid to Mara, who must be nominated by her peers in the acting branch of the Academy.  They may be more inclined to vote for Glenn Close because she’s a five-time nominee who worked tirelessly for three decades to get this story on screen, whereas Mara is making her first big splash (and will likely have two other chances to be nominated for this role) and Theron seems to have had her moment in the sun.

Here’s an interesting mini-trend I’ve picked up on: since 2003, only once has the Academy not included an actress under the age of 30 in the field.  Michelle Williams is now 31, so only Mara (or dark horses Felicity Jones and Elizabeth Olsen) fills this new quotient.

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”
  2. Kenneth Branagh, “My Week with Marilyn”
  3. Albert Brooks, “Drive”
  4. Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”
  5. Brad Pitt, “The Tree of Life”

At once, this is the most solid and the most fluctuating race this year.  The frontrunner still is – and has been since June – Christopher Plummer for his incredible turn in “Beginners.”  I don’t really think anyone else has a prayer because this is both a sentimental, Lifetime Achievement Oscar (think Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin) and a consensus pick (think Tim Robbins and Javier Bardem).  Of course, this assumes that he will steamroll to wins from the BFCA, SAG, and HFPA, a scenario which I think is incredibly likely.

Branagh is the only other sure-fire nominee after scoring nominations from all three of the big organizations thus far.  Brooks also seems pretty secure, although the SAG omission raises some eyebrows since the Oscars have matched the SAG five in this category for the past two years.  I would also say that given the support for “Moneyball,” Jonah Hill seems like a decent bet after SAG and HFPA nominations.  It’s that very support and presence that I think is the X-factor for him and perhaps the nail in the coffin for Nick Nolte, whose movie “Warrior” is totally absent on the precursor scene.

As for that final slot, I’m going gusty and saying it will be Brad Pitt in “The Tree of Life.”  I don’t see why this performance can’t ride in on the coattails of his sure-fire nominated one in “Moneyball.”  And it would make Pitt both a competitor and a co-star of Jonah Hill; how awesome would that be?  Dark horse nominees, unnoticed by the big three organizations, happen in this category – look to Michael Shannon in “Revolutionary Road,” William Hurt in “A History of Violence,” Alan Alda in “The Aviator,” Djimon Hounsou in “In America.”  But this is a gusty pick; smart money always goes the SAG five.

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”
  2. Octavia Spencer, “The Help”
  3. Jessica Chastain, “The Help”
  4. Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs”
  5. Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”

BFCA/HFPA/SAG only agreed on Bejo, Spencer, and Chastain.  This is the only category where, to my knowledge, getting all three of these nominations does not ensure a nomination.  Last year, Mila Kunis missed for “Black Swan,” and Cameron Diaz missed in 2001 for “Vanilla Sky.”  It happens, although I’d say that that was more of a character judgement disapproving of some of their other, non-Academy friendly projects.  None of these actresses seem to be at risk for a similar fate.

I’d call Bejo the frontrunner because there might be some vote-splitting for the scene-stealing Spencer and the year-stealing ubiquitous Chastain.  If Viola Davis emerges as the one to beat for Best Actress, I would guess that the urgency to reward one of the ladies of “The Help” here will go down.

The race gets murkier beyond that, though, as the three organizations differed on how to fill those final two slots.  BFCA went Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids” and Shailene Woodley in “The Descendants” (they nominate six, so Carey Mulligan was also in there for “Shame”).  SAG went McCarthy and Janet McTeer in “Albert Nobbs.”  HFPA went Woodley and McTeer.  Again, the rule is usually to follow SAG … but I just don’t think Melissa McCarthy can manage a nomination because comedic actresses just aren’t usually the Academy’s cup of tea.  I think the only precedent is Robert Downey Jr. being nominated for “Tropic Thunder,” but that was a lot more daring and probing of a performance.  McCarthy just – drains her plumbing in a sink.

McTeer disappears in her role (so I’ve heard) and Woodley is in the #2 movie of the year.  I think those are my other two.

Best Original Screenplay

  1. Midnight in Paris
  2. The Artist
  3. Bridesmaids
  4. Win Win
  5. 50/50

Here is where I think the surprising “Bridesmaids” love – among the top movies feted by the AFI, SAG, HPFA, PGA, and WGA – will register.  It’s a well-written movie where the comedy is so heavily in the dialogue and the plot; while Apatow movies have yet to show up here, there has to be a first time for everything.

“Midnight in Paris” and “The Artist” are slam-dunk nominees destined to duke it out until the end, unless “The Artist” just pulls away and can’t be stopped.  I hope the WGA nominees “Win Win” and “50/50” translate their success there into Oscar nominations, but this category could go a number of directions.  It’s hard to imagine that they would spring for a slate of five comedic nominees, but it could very well happen.

There’s a chance that “The Tree of Life,” thinly plotted as it is, will show up here.  “Beginners” is also an option; “Margin Call” could surprise.  It was a very good year for original screenplays, so many things are fair game.

Best Adapted Screenplay

  1. The Descendants
  2. Moneyball
  3. The Help
  4. Hugo
  5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

“The Descendants” is about to lap the field here; barring a huge surge for “Moneyball” (which would make Aaron Sorkin a back-to-back winner), I don’t see anything standing between Alexander Payne and a second Academy Award win in this category.

As for the rest of the field, it’s kind of a mess.  I went with the WGA five here, which subbed the surging “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” for the sagging “War Horse.”  (Funny enough, that would make Steven Zaillian nominee again in the category – the Oscars are seeing double this year!)

I think Tate Taylor, who will most likely miss for Best Director, can earn a nomination here for his work adapting “The Help.”

And while “Hugo” is a director’s movie, I don’t see why hot scribe John Logan (who also penned “Rango” and “Coriolanus” this year) can’t score a nomination.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” ineligible at the WGA, could also sneak in for a nomination given its labyrinthine plot.  But given its total radio silence during the season, I’m seeing that as a long shot at best.

Tune in this time next week for my LIVE BLOGGING of the Golden Globes!