It's not over 'til it's over, right?
So why does it feel as if it's over?
"The King's Speech." Colin Firth. Natalie Portman. Christian Bale. Aaron Sorkin. David Seidler. "Toy Story 3." They all have an air about them: case closed; take it to the bank; game, set and match.
But with a week and a half left until Oscar night, that just doesn't seem right. There ought to be some hints that things aren't as inevitable as they appear to be. There ought to be some tea leaves that, if you read them the right way, indicate possible surprises on the stage of the Kodak Theater on Feb. 27.
What follows is a search for signs of uncertainty in this year's Oscar race. I suspect I'm looking for my own sake as much as for anybody else's – because while I like the idea that I correctly picked the Best Picture winner in the first week of September, before I'd seen it or most of its fellow nominees, I also want to believe that there are still questions to ponder in the final week of the race.
THE DIRECTOR CONUNDRUM
"The King's Speech" enjoyed a remarkable night at the BAFTA Awards on Sunday, winning seven awards and picking up the nearly unprecedented combination of Best Film and Outstanding British Film. But also the way, the film suffered a hiccup in one of the key categories, Best Director, where Tom Hooper lost to "The Social Network" director David Fincher.
Even if you disregard the fact that BAFTA splits picture and director far more often than the Oscars do, the move reinforced what I keep hearing from Academy voters. Many of them – probably even the majority, among ones I've talked to about this – fully expect that Fincher will win the Oscar for directing even while his Facebook flick loses Best Picture to the royal drama.
While "The King's Speech" has swamped "The Social Network" in almost all Hollywood guild contests, including the Directors Guild, Fincher has somehow managed to remain the favorite in the directing race. Which leads to a follow-up question to bring delight to "Social Network" partisans: If voters put his name down for Best Director, are they really going to forsake his film in the big race?
To that last question, I think the answer is yes: Even if Fincher wins the directing prize at the Oscars, "The King's Speech" will win Best Picture. Remember: the picture and director ballots are counted differently now, and it's almost certain that "The King's Speech" is far too big a consensus movie to lose the top prize.
So if Fincher wins here (I'm still on the fence about it), it'll be the closest thing his picture will have to a moment of Oscar glory.
Last week saw a sudden burst of stories about how Academy members really liked Annette Bening, about how she was due for an Oscar, about how her newfound presence on television and around town in screening Q&As marked a surge that just might take down favorite Natalie Portman.
And then Portman won the BAFTA Award to go with her SAG Award and her Golden Globe and her Critics Choice Movie Award and her lion's share of the critics' prizes. Oscar voters may love Annette, but they also love backing a young, hot hand, particularly in the female acting races. This surge, if it is indeed happening, is likely a case of too little, too late.
THE KING'S SWEEP
Lots of people expect that affection for "The King's Speech" will spill over into a variety of other races, from Original Score to Costumes and Art Direction and maybe even Film Editing and Cinematography.
But can it impact the Supporting Actor and Actress categories the way it did at BAFTA, where Geoffrey Rush beat odds-on favorite Christian Bale and Helena Bonham Carter won in a field that didn't include top Oscar contenders Melissa Leo and Hailee Steinfeld?
If that happens, it'll mean that King George VI and crew are on their way to an historic night. But I suspect that Bale, at least, is unassailable, particularly since Rush has already won and Bale has never even been nominated.
Supporting Actress, though, is another story. Melissa Leo had momentum before taking out some ill-advised "for your consideration" ads; Hailee Steinfeld seems poised to cash in with what could be the biggest win out of those 10 nominations for "True Grit." And Carter might be number three at the moment … but then again, if voters really, really love her movie, she could be an upset waiting to happen.
Every Oscar observer knows that Roger
Deakins is long overdue to win a Best Cinematography statuette, and almost all of them think that "True Grit" will be the movie to give him one. But Deakins lost to "Inception" DP Wally Pfister at the American Society of Cinematographers Awards on Sunday, and the "he's overdue" argument could be hurt by the fact that actors are the only people who get their names on the Oscar ballot – in every other category from director on down, voters simply chose the name of the movie without any indication of who'll be taking home the statuette.
As a result, this race feels as if it's gone from being a foregone conclusion to a three-way race between Deakins (because even without his name on the ballot, "True Grit" is the kind of big, beautiful movie that voters like here), Pfister (if voters give him degree-of-difficulty bonus points for dealing with those spinning sets) and Danny Cohen (because "The King's Speech" is also beautiful, plus it's going to win Best Picture).
THOSE WONDERFUL DOCS
Now here's a category that knows how to make things interesting. And I'm not talking about the fuss over what the Academy wants to do about Banksy, or what the street-artist-turned-director is doing in town. I'm talking about a wide-open race in which I could make a pretty good argument for all five of the nominees winning.
For instance: "Inside Job," the presumed frontrunner, is strong and smart and sobering; it tackles a Very Big Issue in the financial crisis and has already been honored by the DGA and WGA. "Gasland" is so provocative that it's drawn high-profile attacks from oil and natural gas producers, which could well persuade Oscar voters that the film has hit a nerve the way issue docs are supposed to do. "Waste Land" deals with poverty and squalor but hinges on the transformative power of art – and it's the most uplifting of the nominees, which can make a difference. "Restrepo" is the most visceral and involved the biggest physical risk to its filmmakers; it'd also be a way of honoring soldiers involved in a protracted overseas conflict.
And "Exit" is the most playful and entertaining of the nominees, and in some ways the most essential to what's happening in non-fiction filmmaking these days. In a field of more traditional nominees, it's the one that exemplifies the ways in which the documentary form is being enlivened and enriched by filmmakers who treat the standard doc techniques as tools to mess around with, not laws to obey. (AJ Schnack makes the case for the film here.) Besides which, a vote for this film would pretty much guarantee an entertaining acceptance speech from somebody.
The bottom line: even if voters do end up going the conventional route and opting for the fine and deserving "Inside Job," this race feels messy and uncertain at the moment.
And this year, that's something to embrace.