R-J critic examines the Oscars


"The King’s Speech"


First it was the front-runner, then it wasn’t, then it was. And now this handsome period drama — about the unlikely friendship between Britain’s future King George VI (best actor favorite Colin Firth) and the unorthodox speech therapist (supporting nominee Geoffrey Rush) who helps him conquer his stutter — seems poised to claim the crown for polite, expertly crafted crowd-pleasers everywhere.

"The Social Network"


The critic’s choice — a zeitgeist bull’s-eye about Facebook’s contentious birth in a Harvard dorm — may be sharp and smart, but veteran Oscar-watchers know one thing: If the best picture race comes down to a movie that goes for the heart or one that goes for the head (1981’s "Ordinary People" vs. "Raging Bull," or 1991’s "Dances With Wolves" vs. "Goodfellas," 1991, or — you get the point), bet the one with heart. Every time.

"The Fighter"


And here’s a movie with heart to spare — a fact-based one at that, about a Massachusetts palooka (Mark Wahlberg) and his battling family (played by, among others, supporting favorites Melissa Leo and Christian Bale). It’s a crowd-pleaser, all right, but can’t quite overcome the classier "King’s Speech" in the triumph-of-the-underdog sweepstakes. It should collect in the supporting acting categories.



Filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s pretzel-logic thriller about a team of daring dream raiders showcased Nolan’s prodigious visual imagination, but its lack of key directing and editing nominations probably dooms its chances.

"True Grit"


Talk about grit: Iconoclastic Joel and Ethan Coen dare to remake the one and only movie to win John Wayne an Oscar — and score eight more nominations than the Duke’s did. But the Coens’ "No Country For Old Men" took home four Oscars three years ago. Besides, only one remake — 1959’s colossal "Ben-Hur" — has ever won a best picture Oscar. Gritty as ol’ Rooster Cogburn and young Mattie Ross may be, they’re not in the same chariot league.

"Black Swan"


A young ballerina (best actress favorite Natalie Portman), cast in "Swan Lake’s" dual lead roles, dances dangerously close to the edge — on and off stage — in director Darren Aronofsky’s fever-dream thriller, which is way too kinky for the Academy’s warm ‘n’ fuzzy contingent.

"Toy Story 3"


If a separate Oscar category for best animated feature didn’t exist, the stage might be set for a breakthrough. But because this more-than-equal Pixar sequel is a runaway favorite in the ‘toons-only category (a victory for either "The Illusionist" or "How to Train Your Dragon" would be a massive upset), it’s a nonstarter here.

"The Kids Are All Right"


It’s insightful, it’s delightful, but this tale of devoted lesbian parents shaken — and stirred — by their kids’ bachelor biological father has too much comedy, and not enough gravitas, to bring home the big prize.

"127 Hours"


A tour-de-force for Oscar co-host James Franco — and more bravura work for "Slumdog Millionaire" winner Danny Boyle — as a trapped hiker takes desperate measures to survive. If Boyle hadn’t already had his turn in the Oscar spotlight with "Slumdog Millionaire," things might be different, but he has, which makes this a no-go from the get-go.

"Winter’s Bone"


And speaking of gravitas, this grave little indie — about a flinty Ozark teen’s harrowing quest — may be in the big race. But don’t look for it to finish in the money.


Colin Firth, "The King’s Speech"


Plenty of people thought Firth should have won an Oscar last year for his subtly searing performance in "A Single Man." Now, it’s payback time — and in a perfect Oscar-bait role, one that enables Firth to show off his technical expertise while balancing surface control and inner turmoil. He’s won every award leading up to this one, and the runaway favorite’s not about to stumble at the finish line tonight.

Javier Bardem, "Biutiful"


Bardem’s already got one Oscar (for his unforgettable "No Country for Old Men" villain Anton Chigurh ), and deserves at least a few more. Anyone who’s seen his "Biutiful" portrayal of a dying Barcelona hustler will attest to its down-to-earth yet utterly transcendent power, yet it’s likely that numerous Academy members will avoid watching such a reputed downer. Besides, Bardem’s already been lauded for this performance — at last year’s Cannes film festival.

Jesse Eisenberg, "The Social Network"


If "The Social Network’s" critic’s-choice momentum hadn’t faded, and if Colin Firth weren’t such a lock in this category, Eisenberg’s memorably unsympathetic turn as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg might be a player. But not enough Oscar voters will "like" him to push him into the winner’s circle.

James Franco, "127 Hours"


Oscar co-host James Franco’s disarming solo turn as between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place hiker Aron Ralston might have had a shot in another year. This year, however, not a chance. But at least he’s a nominee — which is more than co-host Anne Hathaway can say.

Jeff Bridges, "True Grit"


Back-to-back nominations are an impressive achievement for any performer. And if Bridges hadn’t finally captured a long-overdue Oscar for last year’s "Crazy Heart," he might have a better shot this year for his incarnation of cantankerous lawman Rooster Cogburn — who, even with one eye, could see that it’s Colin Firth’s year.


Natalie Portman, "Black Swan"


Oscar voters love actresses who suffer for their art. Oscar voters love actresses who play nutcases. No wonder Portman’s the favorite to collect an Oscar for her portrayal of "Black Swan’s" tormented dancer — to accompany all the other awards-season hardware she’s collected for her achingly vulnerable turn. She’s the favorite, to be sure, but she’s not quite a lock. For that, blame …

Annette Bening, "The Kids Are All Right"


In the event Portman loses, it’s likely to be to Academy favorite Annette Bening, who’s been shut out three times previously — twice by Hilary Swank. Bening may be overdue for an Oscar, but some observers consider her tightly wound "Kids Are All Right" role too lightweight to qualify for the big prize; others think she should be a supporting nominee. Bening was equally poignant (and far more dramatic) in last year’s "Mother and Child," but hardly anybody saw that, so it won’t boost her chances. And, probably, neither will anything else.

Jennifer Lawrence, "Winter’s Bone"


Oscar voters love to honor dazzling newcomers, and Lawrence’s quiet eloquence as a determined Ozark teen seems like an Academy natural — that is, until you ponder Portman’s awards-season momentum and Bening’s it’s-her-turn status. Lawrence has a shot, but it’s a long one. Not quite long enough to count her out, however.

Nicole Kidman, "Rabbit Hole"


Kidman already has a best actress Oscar for 2002’s "The Hours" — which helped make up for losing the previous year for "Moulin Rouge." (See how this game works, Oscar fans?) So the desperate power she generates as "Rabbit Hole’s" grieving mother doesn’t really matter; she’s already won one Academy Award, which means she’s not getting another one tonight.

Michelle Williams, "Blue Valentine"


Williams is moving up in the world with her second nomination (her first, for "Brokeback Mountain," was in the supporting category), and her emotionally devastating "Blue Valentine" portrayal is the kind that wins awards — Independent Spirit Awards, not Oscars.


Christian Bale, "The Fighter"


Several classic Oscar trends add up to a virtually unbreakable lock for the ever-intense Bale, "The Fighter’s" crack-addict half brother/trainer/torment. Fact-based character? Check! Drug-addicted character? Check! Showy, live-wire performance? Check! Leading man in popcorn pix ("The Dark Knight," anyone?) with serious acting chops? Check — and checkmate. If Bale loses, it’ll be a major upset.

Geoffrey Rush, "The King’s Speech"


But, in the event of a "King’s Speech" sweep, all bets are off. Rush’s warm, witty portrayal of offbeat speech therapist Lionel Logue gives the Oscar front-runner much of its humor — and humanity. But he too is a previous winner (for 1996’s "Shine") and therefore an unlikely prospect to repeat.

John Hawkes, "Winter’s Bone"


Here’s an actors’ branch shout-out to a hardworking TV veteran ("Deadwood," "Eastbound & Down") who delivers a scary yet poignant portrait of a meth-brewing moonshiner who knows how far gone he truly is. Hawkes will lose this category — but his prize is more, and bigger, big-screen roles in the future.

Mark Ruffalo, "The Kids Are All Right"


Hard to believe this is Ruffalo’s first nomination, but his loosey-goosey, utterly naturalistic acting style doesn’t have much in common with the florid histrionics that usually catch Oscar’s golden eye. The appealing, slightly appalling Peter Pan he plays in "The Kids Are All Right" triggers the movie’s comedic, and dramatic, complications — but it lacks the seriousness Oscar voters seem to favor.

Jeremy Renner, "The Town"


Star of last year’s Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker," Renner delivers once again as a ferocious, hellbent Boston hood in "The Town." But he’s the movie’s lone nominee — and, as longtime Oscar-watchers know, solo nominations are almost always doomed to defeat. He’ll be back.


Melissa Leo, "The Fighter"


Leo scored a well-deserved best actress nod two years ago in "Frozen River," and does a total about-face here, embodying "The Fighter’s" brassy, domineering mother. Several awards-circuit victories have made her the favorite, but some blatant desperation-time Oscar campaign moves — and the fact that she could split the "Fighter" vote with co-star Amy Adams — make her less of a sure bet than she might otherwise be.

Amy Adams, "The Fighter"


Adams scores her third supporting nomination (after "Doubt" and "Junebug") for her less showy, but equally tough, performance as "The Fighter’s" determined girlfriend. She’ll pull some votes from Leo — but probably not enough of them to win.

Helena Bonham Carter, "The King’s Speech"


That "King’s Speech" sweep factor rears its head again. It’s an unlikely prospect, true, but if it happens, it could sweep Bonham Carter — who gives Britain’s future "Queen Mum" a welcome spark — along with it. It’s her second nomination (her first was in 1998, for her superb lead performance in "The Wings of the Dove") but it’s unlikely to be the charm.

Hailee Steinfeld, "True Grit"


Plenty of people think Steinfeld, making a slam-bang feature debut, should be up for a best actress Oscar for "True Grit’s" dominant role: vengeful teen Mattie Ross, who’s determined to bring her father’s killer to justice. From "The Miracle Worker’s" Patty Duke to "Paper Moon’s" Tatum O’Neal to "The Piano’s" Anna Paquin, Oscar loves spunky young ‘uns — and if "The Fighter’s" dynamic duo and "The King’s Speech’s" queen split the vote, Steinfeld has a shot at Oscar glory.

Jacki Weaver, "Animal Kingdom"


And here’s a "good on ya" to an Aussie veteran whose unsettling turn as a Melbourne crime family’s deceptively chirpy matriarch gives "Animal Kingdom" much of its striking power. Not enough power, however, to qualify as a serious challenger.


David Fincher, "The Social Network"


According to the official (if apocryphal) Oscar rulebook, the awards for best picture and best director are almost always linked. But something tells me that rule’s not going to apply this share-the-wealth year. That sets the stage for Fincher (nominated two years ago for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") to score a partial blow for "The Social Network." It’s not the big prize, but it’s big enough.

Tom Hooper, "The King’s Speech"


Hooper, an Emmy-winner for HBO’s "John Adams," may have captured top honors from the Directors Guild for "The King’s Speech," but that group includes a big TV contingent — all of whom might be expected to cheer on one of their own movin’ on up to the big screen. Yet Hooper’s dignified, restrained direction is the movie’s least impressive aspect, which may prompt Oscar voters to anoint someone else.

Darren Aronofsky, "Black Swan"


Dancing between the horrible and hypnotic, embracing his own excesses, director Aronofsky conjures vivid imagery as he puts his characters (and audiences) through the ringer — and that’s not where most Oscar voters like to be.

David O. Russell, "The Fighter"


Russell has a reputation as a "difficult" filmmaker; witness his notorious clashes with George Clooney on "Three Kings" and Lily Tomlin on "I (Heart) Huckabee’s." So it’s a tribute to "The Fighter’s" overall popularity — and Russell’s intense, energetic direction — that he’s in the ring at all.

Joel and Ethan Coen, "True Grit"


If you’re wondering why "Inception’s" Christopher Nolan didn’t make the directors’ final five, blame those pesky Coen Brothers, who had the gumption to remake a beloved Western — and delivered a memorably sly ride. But their Oscar night arrived three years ago when "No Country for Old Men" captured four categories — including best picture, direction and screenplay adaptation. That’s how the West was won in 2008 — but not in 2011.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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