Film in 2006 #3: I’ll give you an Oscar prediction: It’s going to be cold, it’s going to be nauseating, and it’s going to last the rest of your life.

The headline might be paraphrasing a sentiment Phil (Bill Murray) has in Groundhog Day, but that’s the reaction generated by the words “Oscar Season.” The Academy Awards have entered a period of inanity perhaps unmatched in its history. The nominees are more diverse than ever, but the films that diversity represents are exceedingly bland, pictures made to be nominated for and win Academy Awards.

Fifty years ago, Around the World in Eighty Days won the Oscar for Best Picture. Today, it’s considered one of the weakest winners of that award in the history of the award. Last year, Crash was declared Best Picture, and while there has been much debate on the merits of the film itself (was it or wasn’t it deserving of the award?), some have begun calling it the weakest Best Picture winner in recent memory. Indeed, over the past decade the Oscars have been marked with a decidedly commercial bent. Films are being recognized for popular appeal rather than artistic merit, or, put another way, the Academy is retreating into the Green Zone of recognition. Work that’s safe is trumping work that’s demanding, difficult or daring. Titanic over L.A. Confidential, Shakespeare in Love over Elizabeth, American Beauty over The Insider, Return of the King over Lost in Translation, Crash over Munich.

In previous years, you’d turn on the Academy Awards with the expectation of being surprised by a winner or a loser. Not anymore. The campaigns launched to land the coveted (read: cash cow) award, begun by the insufferable Miramax faux-prestige machine, have sucked the shock element out of the celebration. If you want to know who’s going to win, pick up a film magazine or turn on the television. Whatever studio is churning out more ads for a specific film or actor, you’ve just been given the winner. And if the ads aren’t the culprit, pre-release posturing for a specific film or actor will be. Prior to the wide release of The Queen, all you could hear in regards to the film was how much of a shoe-in Helen Mirren was to win the Oscar for Best Actress. When the film finally got a wider release, it was hard to determine whether it was because the public had an insatiable desire to see it, or if the studio was putting itself in a better position to land a nomination. (The Hollywood Reporter ran a story recently about this subject in regards to Ryan Gosling’s Best Actor nomination for Half Nelson.) A bigger problem that this campaigning has led to is a drought of interesting films 10 months out of the year, and a deluge of give-me-an-award-now films the other two months. The result: it’s difficult to distinguish the truly interesting from the truly disgusting.

All that’s left of the Academy Awards is a bloated, hollow parade of Hollywood glad-handing. Actor A fake-flirts via teleprompter with Flavor of the Month B, gets really serious because it’s time to discuss an important world issue, then introduces a film or actor or song or other creative aspect that’s super-important, either because it has to do with the issue previously discussed or because it’s time everyone reveled in the life-and-death work costume designers engage in. An oh-so-cutesy host (this year Ellen Degeneres) comes out in between presenters, makes some snappy quips meant to make the Hollywood crowd feel great about themselves while laughing at themselves (they can be so self-deprecating!) and moves the show along at a snail’s pace. Awards are given out yadda yadda yadda it’s four hours later and it’s over.

The Academy Awards have always been commercial recognitions of Hollywood cinema, but they at least used to recognize the best Hollywood had to offer. Perhaps it’s a reflection on the state of Hollywood that the Oscars and the films they honor have taken such a swan dive. The show has become a celebration of mediocrity, and an unremarkable one at that.

So why predict the winners? Because it offers the faint hope of a better, alternate reality. Yes, some of the categories aren’t as good as they could be. But nearly every one has a glimmer of hope buried in it, and imagining a scenario in which that truly great performance or expert film gets recognized is enough to keep coming back to the Oscars and discussing who will win. The Academy Awards might never be a perfect institution. Every Oscar night might be a repetition of the one before it, Phil’s Groundhog Day. But picking who will win presents us with the chance to imagine a new, more perfect Oscar Night, the Feb. 3 that might never come but looms so tantalizingly on the horizon.

Best Supporting Actress
Should Win: Rinko Kikuchi, Babel
Will Win: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
--Hudson is a singer playing a singer. Regardless of her placement on American Idol, her performance, while it might be compelling, isn’t the most exceptional in this category. Kikuchi, on the other hand, and her storyline are the best things about Babel because, one, they’re not pedestals for pontification about this-and-that and, second, they’re the most interesting. More than that, though, she is burdened with some of the heaviest of the emotional heavy lifting as a deaf mute looking for human connection, either through sex or communication. Kikuchi is endlessly compelling in the role, and she makes her character as memorable as she is heartbreaking.

Best Supporting Actor
Should Win: Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine; Mark Wahlberg, The Departed
Will Win: Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
--This is cheating, but Arkin and Wahlberg both deserve this award for different reasons. Arkin and his character is the glue that holds Sunshine together. When he’s on-screen, he steals ever scene with his crabby, chippy grandfather/veteran act. When he’s gone, his character looms large over everything. Wahlberg, at first, seems like he’s playing a shouty, obscenity-loving foul mouth. But at the end of The Departed, it’s revealed that he’s the only just, loyal character in the film. Wahlberg never lets on that he’s not some common thug abusing his position of power, and because he’s so strong at carrying this out he adds an extra dimension to a character that could be totally stock and flat.

Best Art Direction
Should Win: The Prestige
Will Win: Dreamgirls

Best Costume Design
Should Win: Marie Antoinette
Will Win: Curse of the Golden Flower

Best Make-Up
Should Win: Pan’s Labyrinth
Will Win: Pan’s Labyrinth

Best Animated Feature
Should Win: Cars
Will Win: Cars

Best Sound Editing
Should Win: Letters from Iwo Jima
Will Win: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Best Sound Mixing
Should Win: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Will Win: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Best Visual Effects
Should Win: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Will Win: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Best Film Editing
Should Win: The Departed
Will Win: Babel
--The editing in The Departed is top-notch. It seamlessly interweaves three central stories into one coherent masterpiece without ever making you completely aware that the narrative you’re watching is, indeed, three stories intertwined. Babel, on the other hand, clumsily handles its four stories. But since it does so consciously and with an eye towards a global connection between them, Academy voters will feel obliged to recognize the film for it’s editing—despite being woefully clichéd and trite.

Best Animated Short
Should Win: Lifted
Will Win: Lifted

Best Live Action Short
Should Win: West Bank Story
Will Win: West Bank Story

Best Documentary Short Subject
Should Win: The Blood of Yingzhou District
Will Win: The Blood of Yingzhou District

Best Documentary Feature
Should Win: An Inconvenient Truth
Will Win: An Inconvenient Truth
--Truth will win for the same reason Bowling for Columbine won this award: It’s super-popular. Jesus Camp and Iraq in Fragments could upset Al Gore here, but it’s not likely.

Best Score
Should Win: The Queen
Will Win: Babel

Best Original Song
Should Win: “Our Town” from Cars
Will Win: “Listen” from Dreamgirls
--Randy Newman should win every time he’s nominated in this category. But since he’s up against three songs from Dreamgirls (honestly, Academy, isn’t that a bit excessive?), it’s difficult to imagine one of those songs not winning this award.

Best Cinematography
Should Win: Children of Men
Will Win: Children of Men

Best Foreign Language Film
Should Win: Pan’s Labyrinth
Will Win: Pan’s Labyrinth

Best Adapted Screenplay
Should Win: The Departed
Will Win: The Departed

Best Original Screenplay
Should Win: Letters from Iwo Jima
Will Win: Little Miss Sunshine

Best Actress
Should Win: Penelope Cruz, Volver
Will Win: Helen Mirren, The Queen
--It’s a foregone conclusion that Mirren has this one all but in the (no-longer-tax-deductible) bag. But it would be nice to consider a world where another actress has a shot at this award. And why not Cruz?

Best Actor
Should Win: Forest Whittaker, The Last King of Scotland
Will Win: Forest Whittaker, The Last King of Scotland
--If Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated in this category for The Departed, this would be a more difficult pick. But since he’s nominated for Blood Diamond, the choice is easier. Although, how great would it be if Peter O’Toole, a couple years removed from his honorary Oscar (or his “Here’s an Oscar, now go away!” Oscar), won this award? It will never happen, but it’s still a nice thought. (There’s also a nice symmetry to O’Toole’s nomination. His first Best Actor nomination came for Lawrence of Arabia, his first film; his most recent (and likely last) Best Actor nomination comes for his latest (and likely last) film, Venus.)

Best Director
Should Win: Martin Scorsese, The Departed
Will Win: Martin Scorsese, The Departed
--It’s his year. But it’s not wholly inconceivable that Clint Eastwood could again defeat Scorsese in this category; his direction in Letters is exceptional. This could come to pass if you factor in the politics of the Oscars--Letters won’t win Best Picture, so they’ll give it second prize. The worst case scenario, though, is Babel sweeping this and the Best Picture categories, another scenario not too outlandish to conceive of.

Best Picture
Should Win: Letters from Iwo Jima
Will Win: Babel
--Last year, Crash came out of (almost) nowhere to win Best Picture, an awarding as baffling as it was laughably undeserving. Babel is cut from the Crash cloth. That is, Babel is high-minded ideas about globalism packaged for middlebrow audiences who wish to do as little thinking while watching a movie as possible. (Replace globalism with racism and you have Crash.) Letters, on the other hand, is an unflinching World War II epic told from the perspective of the Japanese that never compromises in terms of its ideas, politics and aesthetics. Plus, it’s risky and daring: An American director (Eastwood) directing a war film, where the “enemy” (the Japanese) is the hero and the “hero” (the Americans) the enemy, in Japanese, released to mainstream American audiences. The fact that it succeeds on all levels is remarkable, making it one of the best films of 2006 and certainly the best of the five nominated films in this category. The notion that it could be beaten by the weakest film nominated is mind-boggling, distressing and wholly representative of everything wrong with Hollywood and the Oscars.