Talented nominees face steep competition at 85th Academy Awards

Much to the delight of cinephiles and fashion freaks across the country, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has released its official list of nominees for the 85th Annual Academy Awards, a ceremony that’s sure to stir up enough gossip about backroom deals and bad dresses to get us through the rest of the bleak winter season. For movie lovers who have any sort of emotional stake in who comes out on top on awards night, the most exciting part of the Oscar process is the admittedly useless back-and-forth of speculation and conjecture that makes us feel like experts and hotshots for a little more than a month, only to be crushed and confused by the announcement of the actual winners and losers.

Regardless of which movies, performers, and technical gods ultimately emerge victorious on the evening of Feb. 24, we can rest assured that 2012 will go down in history as a superbly strong year for film, both in terms of general quality and box office bang. From the searing journalistic prowess of Zero Dark Thirty to the big-budget bombast of Skyfall and the sublime grandeur of Life of Pi, the year’s top critical and monetary performers indicate that the cinematic epic is alive and well, even in a world supposedly dominated by unfocused minds and short attention spans. Unfortunately, rather than honor one of these entertaining masterworks, the Academy will likely turn to Steven Spielberg’s overlong Lincoln for the top prize, in spite of the film’s static structure and its ham-fisted political plodding.

Much more deserving of his promised statue is Daniel Day-Lewis, who breathes vitality into an otherwise lifeless project with his towering turn as the titular hero of Spielberg’s picture. I, for one, will never look at a five-dollar bill the same way again. The veteran actor’s only competition worth mentioning is Flight’s Denzel Washington, whose twisted take on the classic ‘morally ambiguous hero’ archetype transcends his film’s simplistic framework. In a different year, the 58-year-old powerhouse would easily have added a third golden man to his mantelpiece with his work here.

The same could be said of virtually every ‘also-ran’ in the Best Actress competition, which has evolved into a two-woman horserace between Silver Linings Playbook’s Jennifer Lawrence and Zero Dark Thirty’s Jessica Chastain, both of whom have earned numerous critical honors and glowing reviews for their grade-A performances. Although Lawrence’s quirky, scene-stealing role imbues a stale script with emotional honesty and humor, Chastain’s ferocious combination of tense restraint and raw commitment make ZDT’s Maya the year’s most memorable character. At this point, my money says Lawrence will win out, but my heart has Chastain taking the gold.

In contrast to the anxious anticipation surrounding this nailbiter, the Best Supporting Actress race has been a one-woman show from the start. In addition to providing audiences with one of the year’s most miserable movie-going experiences, Tom Hooper’s opulent adaptation of the ambitious Les Miserables has given us one of the gutsiest — and hammiest — star turns in recent memory in the form of Anne Hathaway’s Fantine. Her performance would look laughably over-the-top and excessively cloying in any other project, but it suits this film perfectly, and the actress’s wrenching rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” deserves a miniature statue of its own. If Sally Field had wanted to pose a threat to the Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted alum, she should have shaved her head and starved herself for a few days, it seems.

As it stands, however, Lincoln seems more likely to grab its second acting prize in the Best Supporting Actor category, which has never been weaker. The majority of the gentlemen on the shortlist have won this particular award in the past, but only Tommy Lee Jones’ stoic turn as a congressman offers the spark necessary to win over the Oscar voters, who tend to operate with a “bigger is better” attitude.

As is customary, a sense of predestination will dominate the Academy Awards ceremony, which holds little potential for serious surprises by this point in the season. Ben Affleck’s Argo or Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty could regain steam and take down Spielberg’s presidential biopic, but these Middle East-set political thrillers will likely steal votes from one another, and Bigelow’s recent big win with The Hurt Locker may dissuade Academy voters from calling her up to the podium this year. As for the acting ‘races,’ potential surprises and spoilers seem even more infrequent. At this point, we may as well just brace ourselves for bad jokes, long speeches, and more champagne than anyone can or should drink.

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