Best Picture: The analysis

Chances and glances at this year's nominees

Nothing this year could be as different as it was 12 months ago in the picture category, when “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was such an absolute lock it turned Oscar’s most anticipated category into an afterthought.

High drama has returned to the big race, with the picture outcome possibly hinging on how the director’s competition goes.

There’s plenty of speculation that the battle between Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood could determine the big trophy, too. Some awards onlookers are saying that if Scorsese wins for “The Aviator,” then “Million Dollar Baby” will take home the big prize, and vice versa, to give both men something to take home.

That’s a distinct possibility. Each film has its fervent supporters, though it seems fans of “Million Dollar Baby” have been more vocal as of late.

Though the pic came out Dec. 15 — as Eastwood was putting the final post-production pieces in place after he and Warner Bros. determined that the film had serious Oscar potential — that late date seems be playing to “Baby’s” advantage as momentum seems to be in its favor.

Still, 18 of the past 20 years, the film with the most noms has taken home the picture prize, and “Aviator’s” 11 trumps “Million Dollar Baby’s” seven.

“Aviator” is a supremely solid, if not spectacular, piece of filmmaking by Scorsese and, most would agree, a great improvement over “Gangs of New York.” Scorsese has never been honored with a helmer prize nor have any of his films won the pic prize. Sentiment has been growing ever since “Raging Bull” lost to “Ordinary People” in 1980. Seems at this point even a home movie by the director would get serious consideration.

Speaking of momentum, “Sideways” seems to be losing it, despite its win at the Golden Globes in the music/comedy category. Opening to stellar reviews in October, pic was the darling of critics this year, but the omission of Paul Giamatti from the actor race might mean the accolades could be drying up.

“Sideways” is a case where reviews were so terrific that it might’ve set expectations too high for auds and voters.

“Ray” got some Oscar love when helmer Taylor Hackford — who was left off many guild and critics lists — picked up a director mention. Its inclusion in the picture race is a testament to both Hackford and lead thesp Jamie Foxx.

“Finding Neverland” seems the most lightweight film of the bunch. That being said, being in this exclusive group of only five pics is an achievement and the film’s performances — Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet and youngster Freddie Highmore — were all universally praised.

  • “Aviator”
    Current kudos: Golden Globes (win), PGA (win), BAFTA (nom), Broadcast Film Critics (nom)
    Why it will win: It has the heft and feel of a picture champ and a Golden Globes drama win already on its mantel. High production values, an A-list star in Leonardo DiCaprio, (mostly) terrific reviews, released just at the right time and, maybe most importantly, a respected director in Martin Scorsese who’s never taken home the big prize.
    Why it won’t: While everyone admires and respects the film, it’s not clear if there are enough voters out there truly passionate about it. “Sideways” and “Million Dollar Baby” seem to be the two films in this category that have the most fervent followers.
    What critics say: ” ‘The Aviator’ may well be the movie that breaks the director’s longstanding Oscar jinx. Can the Academy’s venerable membership ignore a film that features both a glittering Grauman’s Chinese Theater movie premiere and a splashy Cocoanut Grove party? And how about a movie that offers terrific aerial footage, enhanced by CGI effects? ” ‘The Aviator’ is Mr. Scorsese’s shiniest film, and the Academy loves polish,” says Phillip Wuntch, Dallas Morning News.
  • “Finding Neverland”
    Current kudos: National Board of Review (win), BAFTA (nom), Broadcast Film Critics (nom), Golden Globes (nom), PGA (nom)
    Why it will win: There’s always room for an underdog — and when they occur, the Brits always seem to end up on top. “Chariots of Fire” defeated two strong American pics (“Reds” and “On Golden Pond”) and then there was “Shakespeare in Love” knocking off favorite “Saving Private Ryan.” And “Shakespeare,” don’t forget, was also a Miramax pic.
    Why it won’t: While it’s enormously sweet and good-hearted, the fragile, small-scale subject matter doesn’t stand the test of time to be included with best picture winners that carry such gravitas as “The Godfather” and “Unforgiven.” And only twice in 76 years has a pic won the top prize without its director being nommed.
    What critics say: “At its best, ‘Neverland’ pays sad, sweet tribute to Depp’s intelligence as an actor and to (director Marc) Forster’s ability to avoid the most mawkish of sentiments,” says Robert Denerstein, Rocky Mountain News.

  • “Million Dollar Baby”
    Current kudos: National Society of Film Critics (win); Broadcast Film Critics (nom), Golden Globes (nom), PGA (nom)
    Why it will win: The third act hits harder than an Ali right hook to the head. And even before then, we have a film that does everything well: terrific acting, steady direction and a story that doesn’t waste a moment in moving the plot forward.
    Why it won’t: If “Aviator” wasn’t in the race, “Baby” might be a slam dunk. But there’s so much admiration for Scorsese that it wouldn’t be a major surprise if either film wins.
    What critics say: “Staying at the top of his game when most of his contemporaries have long since hung up their gloves, Clint Eastwood delivers another knockout punch with ‘Million Dollar Baby.’ As if ‘Unforgiven’ and ‘Mystic River’ weren’t grave enough, this endlessly resourceful filmmaker goes just as dark and deep in this slow-burning drama of a determined female boxer and her hard-shelled trainer, a tale Eastwood invests with rewarding reserves of intimacy, tragedy, tenderness and bitter life knowledge,” says Todd McCarthy, Daily Variety.

  • “Ray”
    Current kudos: Broadcast Film Critics (nom), Golden Globes (nom)
    Why it will win: Who knows, maybe Jamie Foxx’s performance is big enough to carry both the Oscar for himself and one for the film, too. Top-notch supporting actresses Regina King and Sharon Warren went unrecognized in their respective categories, but voters might give them credit here with a picture win.
    Why it won’t: Certainly the most feel-good pic of the five nominees — nobody sat through “Finding Neverland” clapping in their seat — music isn’t enough to propel “Ray” over the two favorites.
    What critics say: “For many older people in the audience, the sound of Ray Charles’ impassioned music is inseparable from memories of dating, dancing, lovemaking, and loss. ‘Ray’ has the bold good grace to honor the enraptured kids they once were and the sterner but still hungry grown-ups they have become,” says David Denby, The New Yorker.

  • “Sideways”
    Current kudos: Boston Film Critics (win), Broadcast Film Critics (win), Chicago Film Critics (win), Golden Globes (win), Los Angeles Film Critics (win), New York Film Critics (win), Independent Spirit Awards (nom), Online Film Critics (nom), PGA (nom)
    Why it’ll win: The film landed on more top 10 lists than any other. “Sideways” resonated with critics and united scribes in ways that few films do these days.
    Why it won’t: Comedy — the genre in which Fox Searchlight is promoting this film — often has a hard time breaking through voters’ traditional preference for dramas and epics.
    What critics say: “Alexander Payne has made four wonderful movies: ‘Citizen Ruth,’ ‘Election,’ the Jack Nicholson tragicomedy ‘About Schmidt,’ and now this. He finds plots that service his characters, instead of limiting them. The characters are played not by the first actors you would think of casting, but by actors who will prevent you from ever being able to imagine anyone else in their roles” says Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times.

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