Best Picture Nominees:

  • "The Aviator"
  • "Finding Neverland"
  • "Million Dollar Baby"
  • "Ray"
  • "Sideways"

Every time I look at the Oscar nominees this year, I shake my head that “The Passion of the Christ” is hardly represented at all, especially in this category.  It is probably the best film ever made – not just the best of 2004.  And clearly, all the controversy surrounding the movie served to bolster the box office, but did little to help it win any awards.  Such a shame.

The nominees this year are all very different: three biopics (“Ray,” “The Aviator” and “Finding Neverland”), an “issue” film (“Million Dollar Baby”) and an independent.  I’m surprised that “Sideways,” the independent, made its way to the list.  It’s an interesting film, but not nearly one of the best – even in a year as bad as 2004.  All of the biopics are excellent, from a cinematic point of view, as is “Million Dollar Baby.”  However, only one of these films contains a truly redeeming message.  And, at the end of the day, I’m all about the message.  Is there truth?  Is there hope?  Is there redemption?  And how did they get there?  Because, as believers, the end can never justify the means. 

With that in mind, my personal choice for the Best Picture Oscar is “Finding Neverland,” a well-made, beautiful film that portrays the importance of art and the imagination without promoting immorality.  Like “Dead Man Walking” in 1995, however, “Million Dollar Baby” is Hollywood’s socio-political film of the year – one that happens to be wrapped in a very compelling story with great acting and excellent direction.  Without a doubt, it is the strongest contender for Best Picture.

Actor in a Leading Role Nominees:

  • Don Cheadle, "Hotel Rwanda"
  • Johnny Depp, "Finding Neverland"
  • Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Aviator"
  • Clint Eastwood, "Million Dollar Baby"
  • Jamie Foxx, "Ray"

Five amazing actors at the top of their game, in five excellent films.  Definitely the best of the best (not counting Jim Caviezel, of course, for “The Passion of the Christ” – who knocked it out of the ballpark).  I would very much like to see Don Cheadle win this one.  His performance in “Hotel Rwanda” was haunting, and the film’s message – that those who are blessed with positions of authority, and who find moral courage, can do great good in the midst of great evil – is one of the best of the year.  But Hollywood loved Ray Charles.  And, even though Charles, who was an incredibly talented but immoral musician, is the polar opposite of the character Cheadle portrayed (a simple but noble hotel manager), Charles died this year.  More importantly, Foxx gave an outstanding performance.  So I predict that Foxx, rather than Cheadle, will win this Oscar.  We will see Cheadle nominated again soon, though.

Actress in a Leading Role Nominees:

  • Annette Bening, "Being Julia"
  • Catalina Sandino Moreno, "Maria Full of Grace"
  • Imelda Staunton, "Vera Drake"
  • Hilary Swank, "Million Dollar Baby"
  • Kate Winslet, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"

Years later, after Swank’s first Oscar in 1999, we have another face off between her and Annette Benning.  The other actresses are good, but these two are the best.  And while all bets are on Swank – who truly did an outstanding job – my guess is that Bening is taking this one home.  Hollywood loves actresses who play actresses, and Bening is a good performer whose time has come.

Directing Nominees:

  • Martin Scorsese, "The Aviator"
  • Clint Eastwood, "Million Dollar Baby"
  • Taylor Hackford, "Ray"
  • Alexander Payne, "Sideways"
  • Mike Leigh, "Vera Drake"

Martin Scorsese has been waiting a long, long time for an Oscar, and I’m convinced he’s taking it home this year.  He did a great job with “The Aviator” – a large-scale, impressive production about the life of an intriguing man.  Was he better than Eastwood?  Probably not.  But Eastwood’s taken home the honors before, so I’d say Oscar is going to make Martin’s day.

Actor in a Supporting Role Nominees:

  • Alan Alda, "The Aviator"
  • Thomas Haden Church, "Sideways"
  • Jamie Foxx, "Collateral" 
  • Morgan Freeman, "Million Dollar Baby"
  • Clive Owen, "Closer" 

An interesting selection.  Three morally repugnant characters, all white, against two noble ones, both black.  Oscar has a sketchy history when it comes to African-Americans, having gone to a very select few, so it’s a great time to improve the record.  With Foxx as Best Actor – and Freeman giving us yet another tour-de-force as a black narrator solving white people’s problems – this one is going to Freeman.  Rightly so.

Actress in a Supporting Role Nominees:

  • Cate Blanchett, "The Aviator"
  • Laura Linney, "Kinsey"
  • Virginia Madsen, "Sideways"
  • Sophie Okonedo, "Hotel Rwanda"
  • Natalie Portman, "Closer"

Oh, how I would love to see Sophie Okonedo win this one.  She was sublime in “Hotel Rwanda,” but Blanchett was just too flawless to overlook.  Besides, it’s not every day that someone portrays an icon like Katherine Hepburn – one of Hollywood’s own.  I strongly suspect that this one is going to her.

Writing (Original Screenplay) Nominees:

  • "The Aviator"
  • "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"
  • "Hotel Rwanda"
  • "The Incredibles" 
  • "Vera Drake"

Good screenplays – all of them.  But “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is probably the best.  A quirky independent film, it offers the wonderful message that, even when we know each other’s sins, and how hard it will be to make a relationship work, we can still choose to love.  And we will.  A well-deserved Oscar.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay) Nominees:

  • "Before Sunset"
  • "Finding Neverland"
  • "Million Dollar Baby"
  • "The Motorcycle Diaries"
  • "Sideways"

I’m amazed that “Before Sunset” is on this list.  A vacuous film with nothing but “talking heads” (characters who speak to one another without any action, except walking around), it would have received an ‘F’ in first-year filmmaking.  My first pick in this bunch is, again, “Finding Neverland.”  However, I predict a surprise win for “The Motorcycle Diaries.”  Hollywood loves communist revolutionaries.

Animated Feature Film Nominees:

The real battle is between “The Incredibles” and “Shrek 2,” because “Shark Tale” is just a rip-off of Dreamwork’s “Finding Nemo” – with lots of sleaze and none of the charm.  I liked “Shrek 2” for the way it deconstructed postmodernity, showing us all who we’ve become.  But “The Incredibles” wins this one hands-down for me, and I believe Hollywood will say the same

Cinematography Nominees:

Finally a safe place to nominate “The Passion of the Christ” without ruffling any feathers.  Caleb Deschenel (“The Patriot”) is one of the best cinematographers around, so this nomination is hardly without merit.  His artistic renderings of Christ’s suffering were was so vivid and memorable that it would be hard for Hollywood to give this to anyone else.