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Predicting the Academy Award winners

Last Labor Day weekend, a near-miraculous march to the Academy Awards began at the Telluride Film Festival, in a remote Colorado mountain range.

I was there, excited as everyone else was that director David Fincher was attending, accepting a career achievement prize and showing off 20 minutes of the most anticipated movie of 2008, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Telluride takes pride in being first to single out Oscar frontrunners; Brokeback Mountain, Juno and There Will Be Blood among them in recent years. Fincher's movie fit the profile: an epic with an impressive creative pedigree.

By the end of the festival, however, Telluride fell in love with a mutt.

Slumdog Millionaire was the little movie with an odd title and a distributor ready to send it straight to home video. Warner Bros. didn't see any financial upside to Danny Boyle's movie, gladly selling the rights to Fox Searchlight for $2.5 million just before the Telluride festival.

One packed screening, then another. Then two more that Telluride officials added due to popular demand. By the end of the weekend, Slumdog Millionaire was the festival's darling, a little movie that shouldn't but could be the greatest discovery of the year.

Then the rest of the world began to agree.

There's only one way this fairy tale should end: same as it did for Rocky and Chariots of Fire, with underdogs defying conventional wisdom to claim the best picture Oscar.

At least that's the happy ending I'm predicting.

Over the past two weeks, I've been sorting through all 24 Oscar categories on my blog, Reeling in the Years. You're invited to drop by, crib information for your Oscar pools and post opinions.

Meanwhile, here are the shorthand results:

Picture

PERSALL's pick: Slumdog Millionaire is destined to complete the journey from studio scrap heap to Hollywood history. In the final envelope it is written.

Actor

PERSALL's PICK: Mickey Rourke has convinced Oscar voters he's still too crazy to immortalize, shifting the choice to Sean Penn. The role of martyred gay rights activist Harvey Milk also reflects the academy's political edge, responding to California's recent repeal of gay marriage.

Actress

PERSALL's PICK: At 33, Kate Winslet is the youngest female actor ever with six Oscar nominations to her credit. She finally wins one, playing a stern, sexy and stunningly vulnerable former Nazi prison guard.

Supporting Actor

PERSALL's pick: Any choice other than the late Heath Ledger would ruin the academy's reputation for generations.

Supporting Actress

PERSALL's PICK: The toughest major Oscar to pick this year. I'm picking Penélope Cruz since she's terrific in the movie and a previous nominee (Volver) — and the academy likes Woody Allen's actors in supporting roles. Just ask previous winners Mira Sorvino, Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest (twice).

Director

PERSALL's PICK: Danny Boyle wrangled a cast of nobodies, in a nation whose language he doesn't speak, into the feel-good movie (and backstory) of 2008.

Adapted screenplay

PERSALL's PICK: Simon Beaufoy's script for Slumdog won the Writers Guild of America prize, making it the favorite.

Original screenplay

PERSALL's PICK: The fact that Milk is the only nominee also among best picture finalists tips the vote to Dustin Lance Black, also a WGA honoree.

Animated feature film

PERSALL's pick: Six Oscar nominations ties WALL-E with Beauty and the Beast for the most earned by an entirely animated film. Easy pick.

Costume design

PERSALL's PICK: A baker's dozen nominations and box office success give Benjamin Button the advantage against underachieving competition.

Foreign language film

PERSALL's pick: Waltz With Bashir is one of 2008's marvels, an animated documentary — a first in my book — of director Ari Folman coming to grips with nightmarish Lebanon war memories.

Sound mixing

PERSALL's PICK: Movies loaded with music have recently fared well in this category, including wins for Dreamgirls, Ray and Chicago. Slumdog Millionaire gets the nod.

Sound editing

PERSALL's PICK: Loud special effects typically grab the academy's ears. The Dark Knight wins in a close fight with Iron Man (and we'd all like to see that movie).

Original song

PERSALL's PICK: No other movie's end credits entertained viewers like Slumdog Millionaire. A railway station dance number to the song Jai Ho sends viewers to the exits singing and swaying.

Original score

PERSALL's PICK: Thomas Newman has been Oscar-nominated nine times without taking one home. The 10th time is the charm. His music nimbly filled the dialogue-free potions of WALL-E with classic silent-film grace.

Best cinematography

PERSALL's pick: Only one movie (American Beauty) has won this and the best picture Oscar over the past decade. Slumdog Millionaire beats the odds again.

Film editing

PERSALL's pick: Oddly, the nominee with the longest running time often wins this one. Go with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (166 minutes).

Art direction

PERSALL's pick: Spanning decades of Americana with masterful period detail, Benjamin Button cashes in.

Visual effects

PERSALL's pick: Iron Man was wall-to-wall eye candy, and the second-highest grosser of 2008.

Documentary feature

PERSALL's pick: Man on Wire has more year-end awards to its credit, but this is a make-nice move for the academy. Werner Herzog's daredevil career has never earned a nomination until now. Encounters at the End of the World, exploring life underneath Antarctic glaciers, is a worthy pick.

Documentary short

PERSALL's pick: Civil rights history is regularly lauded by the academy. Go with The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306, an eyewitness account of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Live action short

PERSALL's pick: Next to civil rights, the surest theme for earning Oscar's attention is the Holocaust. Spielzeugland portrays a German boy in 1942 being told his Jewish neighbors are being sent away to Toyland.

Animated short

PERSALL's pick: Never bet against a Pixar 'toon in this category. Presto is a frantic battle between a magician and his rabbit that got an extra boost from unusually wide exposure, coupled with WALL-E.

Makeup

PERSALL's pick: Turning hunky Brad Pitt into wrinkly Benjamin Button was quite a feat, in the tradition of previous hotty-to-notty makeovers (Salma Hayek, Marion Cotillard) that won this race.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

Predicting the Academy Award winners 02/17/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 22, 2009 5:17pm]

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