REVIEW: Our Brand Is Crisis

21 02 2016

Admittedly, the circumstances under which I saw David Gordon Green’s “Our Brand Is Crisis” might have exerted a particularly strong influence on my reaction. Had I gone to see it in theaters back in October, I could have done so with the luxury of writing off the candidacy of Donald Trump as a political sideshow. But now, watching at home in mid-February, that farce has become a force in American democracy with undeniable ramifications for our country.

“Our Brand Is Crisis” was conceptualized, shot and likely finished before the Trump phenomenon came about, so I do not wish to imply in any way that the film paved the way for such a demagogue. But given how few people saw it theatrically, most viewers will encounter the film with the presence or specter of the Donald firmly planted in the public consciousness. Cultural products may not substantially shape our society, but they can reflect its values in intentional or unexpected ways. “Our Brand Is Crisis” feels like a film in the latter camp.

Sandra Bullock stars as as political strategist “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a character who is the polar opposite of Trump in many ways. She is a for-hire, behind-the-scenes operative, obsessively focused on the minutiae of getting her candidates into first place. Mixing intellectual prowess with practical problem-solving, Jane in her zone is truly a force to be reckoned with. For that precise reason, the campaign for a struggling Bolivian presidential contender brings her off the sidelines and out of retirement.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Minions

12 07 2015

The tiny yellow Minions from “Despicable Me” became the breakout stars of the franchise, and Illumination Entertainment has happily licensed them to hawk any number of products – Xfinity, GoGurt, Vivo smartphones –  in between installments of dastardly Gru’s villainy.  With their lack of adherence to a single language as well as their inherent childish tomfoolery, the Minions might represent the well-equipped figures for transnational stardom in the time of talkies.  (And to that end, “Despicable Me 2” brilliantly realized their potential for silent-era physical comedy.)

Yet in “Minions,” when all they have to sell is their own appeal, the ploy falls flat on its face.  When the little guys get bumped up from sideshow status to the main attraction, they simply cannot carry a movie.  Though many people, myself included, clamored for them to take the spotlight, this feature-length exercise in branding proves the little nuggets are most enjoyable in small doses.

“Minions” somehow made me beg for relief from the comic relief.  The meek attempts at plot by screenwriter Brian Lynch are downright insulting; not that I was expecting “Citizen Kane,” but a movie targeted at preschoolers does not have to possess the sophistication of a story they scrawl out in finger-paint.  With connections this tenuous between scenes of Minion mayhem, directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin should have opted for a sketch-style film that brought a train of big comedic set-pieces with no expectations of forward motion toward a climax.

If aiming for the lowest common denominator with the audience, pretensions of a narrative are futile.  Everything else aimed at viewers who managed to complete kindergarten feels like a waste, especially the presence of Sandra Bullock as the Minions’ chosen master, the villain Scarlett Overkill.  Bullock’s considerable vocal talents are completely squandered in service of a one-note character that would sound no different if voiced by someone millions cheaper.  Furthermore, the “adult” humor could not be more painful with a recurring transphobic gag and a disturbingly glib attitude towards torture – the film summons the memory of Abu Ghraib only to laugh at the abuses.

The Minions still have a more than welcome place in our culture, despite the complete face-plant of the film.  (Box office numbers will surely reflect otherwise, though.)  Illumination would be wise to relegate their antics to a “Penguins of Madagascar”-style television series, where they can spew gibberish and cause chaos in palatable portions.  Parents, too, can tune in and tune out as they please while still enjoying an agreeable amount of Minion madness.  C-1halfstars





REVIEW: Gravity

19 01 2014

The story of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” is quite simple. Astronaut Ryan Stone’s spaceship is obliterated by Russian satellite debris, and she must find her way back down to Earth or float away until her oxygen runs out. Only Murphy’s Law propels the narrative – that is to say, everything that can go wrong with technology will go wrong.

In a sense, this bare-bones script suits the film’s visual bravura perfectly. There are no flashbacks, no cutaways, and only minimal reference to Stone’s past. With nothing to distract, we are trapped with Stone. We’re left to share in her panic, breathe her remaining air, and drift through the starry void.

Total immersion is the only way that “Gravity” should ever be consumed; it’s such a shame some viewers will have to watch it on a television, a laptop, or even a cell phone that perhaps the film should never be released for home viewing. I found myself legitimately worried that pieces of flying shuttle shrapnel were going to fly off the screen and harm me when I saw the film in 3D. For how extensively the film utilizes the technology, it only once resorts to gimmickry of tricks with space.

Read the rest of this entry »





OSCAR MOMENT: Final 2013 Predictions! (Part 1)

14 01 2014

Well, folks, hard to believe that we’ll have a fresh batch of Oscar nominations in less than 2 days. Where has the time gone? Seems like just yesterday that I was posting my first (and, sadly, my only) predictions that included Naomi Watts in the thick of the Best Actress race for “Diana.” But now that all the ballots are in, the jury is still out on how a few of the races will go.

Who is about to have a great wake-up call on Thursday? I sort through the acting races races below.

BEST ACTOR

  1. Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
  2. Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
  3. Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”
  4. Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
  5. Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street

Bale HustleThe top 3 seem pretty secure to me.  There’s a slim chance of Hanks falling out simply because this isn’t his first rodeo and voters might want to give their vote to a fresher face.  But aside from frontrunners McConaughey and Ejiofor, very few of the top nominees are new to the game.

Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis” and Michael B. Jordan in “Fruitvale Station,” both gave great breakout performances.  Maybe in a less competitive year, they’d have broken through.  In 2013, I’d be shocked if they could crack this field.  It doesn’t help that neither movie seemed to gain much traction during precursor season.  Past winner Forest Whitaker for “The Butler” and past nominee Robert Redford for “All Is Lost” seem unlikely as well as both of their movies have not been heavily recognized on the circuit.

Christian Bale stands a chance of showing up here, especially after netting nominations from the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, and BAFTA awards for his electric work in “American Hustle.”  He’s won once off his only nomination, which feels like a huge injustice for his vast talents.  If there’s enough love for the movie, he could land a spot.  But losing at the Globes, which clearly loved “American Hustle,” indicates that love for his performance may be wide but not very deep.

Bruce Dern has campaigned his tail off for “Nebraska,” and it’s clear that he really wants to win.  The film has found plenty of fans, and it’s hard to see him missing out since he’s responsible for so much of its efficacy.  He’s been nominated by the triple crown of SAG, HFPA (Golden Globes), and BFCA (Critics’ Choice), yet that’s no assurance of an Oscar nomination these days.  It’s not shocking that he didn’t win the Golden Globe since the organization probably wanted the ultra-wattage of Leonardo DiCaprio up on stage.  The Academy goes back-and-forth on being sentimental for veterans of the craft; I don’t think they’ll be able to resist at least a nomination for Dern though.

Leo Wolf

Upon its release, I would have counted Leonardo DiCaprio out of the race for Best Actor.  But he’s been more active than ever speaking up for his movie, and it really pushed “The Wolf of Wall Street” into the conversation.  The late surge of momentum may not be enough to counter his omission from both SAG and BFCA – DiCaprio netted the precursor triple crown for “J. Edgar” but still found no love from the Academy in 2011.  The Globe win, however, gives me the sense that he’ll slide into a nomination.

It would be his first since “Blood Diamond” in 2006 … since then, he’s starred in “Revolutionary Road,” “Shutter Island,” “Inception,” “Django Unchained,” and “The Great Gatsby.”  This might very well be a nomination rewarding that whole string of excellent performances.

BEST ACTRESS

  1. Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine
  2. Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”
  3. Judi Dench, “Philomena
  4. Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks
  5. Amy Adams, “American Hustle”

MerylBlanchett has this all but sealed up now.  It would take a major blunder on-stage for her to lose Best Actress at this point, but we all know that’s not going to happen.  It’s Cate Blanchett – she’s about the classiest actress around.

Bullock, Dench, and Thompson should all coast right in with no problem.  All 3 prior winners have been nominated by SAG, HFPA, and BFCA, and their films all have a sizable base of fans to pull them through.

The last bit of suspense in this category will come on nominations morning as we wait to see if it’s Meryl Streep for “August: Osage County” or Amy Adams for “American Hustle.”  Streep’s case is … well, she’s Meryl Streep.  The Oscars rarely pass up an opportunity to nominate her, but maybe the reflex will not be as strong now that she’s won the third Oscar for “The Iron Lady” two years ago.  She’s hit all the big precursors so far, scoring all the same major nominations as the previously mentioned actresses.  Her film, though, has not been particularly well-received.

Adams HustleAmy Adams is an Academy favorite herself though, racking up an impressive four Best Supporting Actress nominations in the past nine years.  She’s never been recognized as a leading lady, and a nomination here would send the message, “We’re working on getting you that Oscar win one day, Amy, we promise!”  Though she did not land a SAG nomination, she’s been recognized by the BFCA and BAFTA.  Moreover, she beat Meryl Streep for Best Actress at the Golden Globes.

It’s unclear if the Academy will love “American Hustle” as much as the HFPA did.  I feel pretty confident, though, that respect for Adams and the film she commands will overpower the impulse to give Streep her bazillionth nomination.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

  1. Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”
  2. Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
  3. Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”
  4. Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”
  5. Daniel Brühl, “Rush

AbdiWhile I remain hopeful that Fassbender can pull an upset, this category looks to be all Jared Leto.  He’s been taking everything in his path, and I don’t think that will stop until the Oscar.  For Fassbender, though, he should at least take solace in getting his first nomination without campaigning a bit.  (If he had to work so hard only to be denied recognition for his astounding work in “Shame,” then why bother lobbying anymore?)

Debut performances often fare well at the Oscars, especially in the supporting categories.  22 have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and I suspect that number will rise to 23 this week.  Barkhad Abdi’s first role ever as the lead Somali pirate in “Captain Phillips” has been highly praised and won him recogition from SAG, HFPA, BFCA, and BAFTA.  Especially given the praise that his film has received, I think a snub would be rather inconceivable at this point.

Though he wasn’t nominated by SAG, Bradley Cooper has collected every other key nomination for his work in “American Hustle.”  The film is beloved, and his performance is one of the best parts of the movie – hilarious but also heartily dramatic.  Two years ago, back-to-back Oscar nominations for the guy who was a staple of rom-coms like “Valentine’s Day” might have seemed an absurdity.  Now I see it as a practical inevitability.

Cooper HuslteCooper was passed over by SAG in favor of a posthumous recognition for James Gandolfini in “Enough Said.”  While he was certainly a beloved actor, Gandolfini was more revered for his television work than his film roles.  (“Killing Them Softly” was fantastic, just going to point out once again.)  The SAG nomination committee has plenty of television actors, and that may have accounted for his appearance.  Otherwise, he’s been spotty, picking up a nod from BFCA but not from the HFPA.  “Enough Said” really hasn’t been a big part of the Oscar conversation, and I think that will ultimately cost Gandolfini a slot in this line-up.

The final slot is likely to go to Daniel Bruhl, who I really shouldn’t be doubting as he’s racked up nominations from all significant precursors.  But aside from the Golden Globe Best Picture nomination for “Rush,” the film hasn’t really been lighting up awards season.  Bruhl’s work is solid but seems to draw no fervent support.  I could see him losing a spot to Gandolfini or even a left-field player like Tom Hanks in “Saving Mr. Banks” or Jonah Hill in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”  In my wildest dreams, James Franco’s brilliant work in “Spring Breakers” could trump Bruhl.  But I have to predict what seems predictable.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  1. Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
  2. Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
  3. June Squibb, “Nebraska”
  4. Oprah Winfrey, “The Butler
  5. Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”

Nyong'oIt’s down to Nyong’o vs. Lawrence for the win here.  Though Lawrence prevailed at the star-powered Golden Globes, I still have my doubts as to whether she can swing back-to-back Oscar wins.  I think this category could also be a way for us to gauge on Oscar night which film will win Best Picture.  Both films are likely to need one acting victory, and Best Supporting Actress is the most probable place to earn it.  (Ejiofor has a shot for Best Actor, and that might pan out for the film.)

I think 84-year-old June Squibb is pretty much locked in for her fantastic performance in “Nebraska.”  She’s had all the requisite nominations leading up to the Oscars, and her film is well-liked too.

The last two slots, however, could go any number of ways.  Sally Hawkins got a Golden Globe nomination for “Blue Jasmine,” and the British contingency that got her a BAFTA nod could break her into the field here.  I have to wonder if “Blue Jasmine” is purely the Cate Blanchett show, however.  Scarlett Johansson’s vocal work in “Her” got her a nomination from the BFCA (it was ineligible at the Globes), but the Academy generally strays away from rewarding unconventional performances like that.  Maybe Sarah Paulson, silent on the trail so far, could shock and give “12 Years a Slave” its second nomination in the category.

RobertsMy guess is that the Academy will stick to some long renowned actresses to fill out the roster.  Oprah Winfrey surprisingly missed with the Golden Globes for “The Butler,” but she’s been touted by the BFCA, SAG, and BAFTA.  Even though the film has lost its buzz after it scored surprisingly well with the SAG, I think the Oscars will still want to give something to one of the few screen performances given by the cultural icon.

I think they’ll also be welcoming back Julia Roberts, who hasn’t been nominated since she won in 2000 for “Erin Brockovich.”  As previously mentioned, “August: Osage County” hasn’t been met with rapturous acclaim.  But it does have the support of the actors, who gave it a coveted Best Ensemble nomination at the SAG Awards.  If anything for the film is recognized, it will be the acting.  And Roberts, who many view as a co-lead, is the most likely to reap the goodwill.

Check back tomorrow to see my predictions for the writing/directing categories as well as the granddaddy of them all … BEST PICTURE!





REVIEW: The Heat

21 07 2013

I won’t deny that I laughed a hefty amount in “The Heat.”  It’s definitely a far cry from Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy’s respective greatest comedic hits, “Miss Congeniality” and “Bridesmaids.”  But it’s still a rollickingly funny romp, effectively harnessing the slightly awkward uptightness of Bullock and the bizarre outrageousness of McCarthy into a laugh machine.

It’s not the most efficient machine, however.  “The Heat” never takes a moment to slow down the pace of the humor, operating at full capacity for nearly two hours.  As a result, there are quite a few jokes that fall flat.  But over the course of a fairly bloated runtime, director Paul Feig and writer Kate Dippold more than make up for these missed opportunities.

The film’s Achilles heel is Dippold’s script, which just isn’t as good as the film’s humor.  It’s more of a through line than a story, connecting the dots between the jokes.  “The Heat” is predictable and formulaic, more or less writing Gracie Hart and wacky bridesmaid Megan into a standard police investigation film.

Sadly, two years after Paul Feig’s own “Bridesmaids” lit the world on fire and promised a more prominent future for female-headlined film, “The Heat” is the only studio film of summer 2013 to feature a female leading character.  And sadly, Dippold blows the chance to make the ultimate feminist statement with some cursory scenes addressing gender struggles in the typically masculine work of law enforcement.  The fact that two women were in a buddy cop flick and no one seemed to bat an eyelid is a pretty telling statement in and of itself.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

27 03 2012

I absolutely love the Oscars, and despite the cries of many naysayers, I believe they are overall a very good thing for film artistry and industry.  As tone-setters and taste arbiters, they have enormous influence over how and when movies get made.  This ability is not without a downside, though.  It may have scored a Best Picture nomination, but Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” as a piece of art is a victim of the Academy process.

The framework is there for the cinematic adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s incredible novel to be equally as compelling and emotionally moving.  But Daldry, who was still shooting a new scene for the movie on December 1 (yes, just weeks before the movie opened!), leaves us with merely a glimpse of what could have been.  He shows us how much potential the movie has, yet we are constantly left seeing the rough edges that should have been ironed out in post-production.  Tonally, it has some very rough swings, too.  If he had taken a few more months, really wrestled with the material, and released it in 2012, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” would have been a deserving Best Picture nominee – and dare I say it, a formidable threat to be a winner.

At a certain point, though, I have to stop mourning a movie that doesn’t exist.  Daldry made the movie that he made, and it does have some remarkable moments sprinkled sporadically throughout that really hit home.  He gets fine performances out of Sandra Bullock and Max von Sydow; Thomas Horn has flashes of brilliance every now and then, but his precociousness often errs towards the side of a grating whine.  Nevertheless, there were a number of scenes that just don’t work as well as they should, and knowing the source novel, I would periodically cringe.

Read the rest of this entry »





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!