All too often years are marked by their top movies. Think of 1997. James Cameron made it all about “Titanic.” In 1986, Oliver Stone took us back to Vietnam for “Platoon,” a country – not to mention concept – that Michael Cimino had explored in 1978’s “The Deer Hunter.” Francis Ford Coppola took us twice into the world of the Corleone family, first for 1972’s “The Godfather” and then for 1974’s “Godfather II.” And producer David O. Selznick made sure that 1939 would forever after be associated with the epic Civil War romance “Gone With the Wind.” Last year, though, was different. When movie fans look back at 2008, they’re not likely to recall any specific film. They will, however, remember certain images: Heath Ledger wearing the makeup of a psycho named The Joker (in “The Dark Knight”). A character named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) growing younger even as he ages. Frank Langella (as Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon”) and Sean Penn (as Harvey Milk in “Milk”) impersonating real-life figures. Kate Winslet playing both a concentration-camp guard (in “The Reader”) and a disgruntled suburban housewife
(in “Revolutionary Road”).
Mickey Rourke bulking up for a career makeover (in “The Wrestler”).
A bit of Dickensian melodrama called “Slumdog Millionaire” bearing the unmistakable mark of Bollywood.
All these images make up the movie montage known as 2008, and some of them will bear the color of gold following tonight’s broadcast of the 81st Academy Awards.
Following is a breakdown of the major categories, including who (or what) our readers and staff movie critic think will win.
Best Supporting Actor
•Josh Brolin (“Milk”)
•Robert Downey Jr. (“Tropic Thunder”)
•Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Doubt”)
•Heath Ledger (“The Dark Knight”)
•Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”)
The overview: Even in this sterling field, the late Heath Ledger stands out. Sure, that’s partly because of his unfortunate death on Jan. 22, 2008, at the tender age of 28. But it’s mainly because as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” Ledger pulls off a performance for the ages. That it comes in what is an overcharged costume caper is both unfortunate and perfectly appropriate. No matter. The Oscar is his.
Readers’ pick: Ledger
Dan Webster’s pick: Ledger
Best Supporting Actress
•Amy Adams (“Doubt”)
•Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”)
•Viola Davis (“Doubt”)
•Taraji P. Henson (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”)
•Marisa Tomei (“The Wrestler”)
The overview: This is one of the hardest categories to figure out, mainly because the Screen Actors Guild winner – Winslet for “The Reader” – has been placed here in the Best Actress category. All five nominees are worthy, and the recent good showing of African-American acting nominees bodes well both for Davis and Henson. This is the second nomination for Adams and Cruz, the third for Tomei (who won in 1993). Flip a coin.
Readers’ pick: Cruz
Dan Webster’s pick: Cruz
•Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor”
•Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon”
•Sean Penn in “Milk”
•Brad Pitt in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
•Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”
The overview: A nomination is honor enough for the solid Jenkins, Pitt’s performance owes a lot to his makeup artist, and Langella’s bravura probably plays better on stage than screen. That leaves Penn (a 2004 winner who received the 2009 SAG award) and comeback king Rourke (the Golden Globe winner). Again, flip a coin.
Readers’ pick: Rourke
Dan Webster’s pick: Penn
•Anne Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married”
•Angelina Jolie in “Changeling”
•Melissa Leo in “Frozen River”
•Meryl Streep in “Doubt”
•Kate Winslet in “The Reader”
The overview: Except for Angelina Jolie, whose spot should have gone either to Kristin Scott Thomas (“I’ve Loved You for So Long”) or Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky”), the nominees in this category are particularly strong. Hathaway is a glamour-puss who shows real acting ability, and Leo is a veteran who makes the most of her powerful small-movie role. Then there’s the institution known as Streep (15 acting nominations, two wins) and the lady-in-waiting Winslet (six acting nominations, no wins). Streep took the SAG for Best Actress, Winslet the SAG for Supporting Actress and the Golden Globe in both categories. The edge would seem to be in Winslet’s favor.
Readers’ pick: Winslet
Dan Webster’s pick: Winslet
•David Fincher, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
•Ron Howard, “Frost/Nixon”
•Gus Van Sant, “Milk”
•Stephen Daldry, “The Reader”
•Danny Boyle, “Slumdog Millionaire”
The overview: That’s an all-star list of filmmakers listed there, ranging from the mainstream talents of Howard to the art-film conceits of Van Sant, the visual splendors of Fincher to the stage-to-screen abilities of Daldry. And fitting in there somewhere, blending a bit of what the others have to offer, are the eccentric qualities of the British director Boyle. Boyle was the Director’s Guild winner, which has been one of the best indicators of past winners.
Readers’ pick: Boyle
Dan Webster’s pick: Boyle
•“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
The overview: Yes, “Benjamin Button” received 13 nominations. Most, though, reflect the respect that the industry has for Fincher’s technical aptitude. But for content, “Frost/Nixon,” “Milk” and “The Reader” would seem to have the edge. “Slumdog Millionaire,” however, took home the Golden Globe, the SAG ensemble acting award and Boyle’s DGA award and is the best blend of issues, fantasy and feel-good energy. It might be time for a bit of Bollywood to stake its claim in the home of American cinema.
Readers’ pick: “Slumdog Millionaire”
Dan Webster’s pick: “Slumdog Millionaire”
Other possible winners
Best animated film: “WALL-E.” Took the Golden Globe and was named to many Top 10 lists.
Best art direction: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Fincher’s film won the Art Directors Guild award for period piece, which gives it an edge.
Best cinematography: “Slumdog Millionaire.” Anthony Dod Mantle won the American Society of Cinematographers award.
Best editing: “Slumdog Millionaire.” Chris Dickens won the American Cinema Editors award.
Best foreign language film: “Waltz with Bashir.” Ari Folman’s jackal-charged, mostly animated film is an expiation of Israeli guilt.
Best original screenplay: “Milk.” Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay won the Writers Guild of America award.
Best adapted screenplay: “Slumdog Millionaire.” Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay, adapted from Vikas Swarup’s novel “Q&A,” took the WGA award.
Best documentary feature: “Man on Wire” is a critical darling, but “Trouble the Water” – which takes us back to Hurricane Katrina – is more of a pure documentary. For the third time, flip a coin.