Viewpoint:The Oscars are coming!

The Oscars are coming! The Oscars are coming! Which films are worthy contenders? Which will make good DVDs?

The advantages of Web-based publishing keep piling up. In years past, there was never any point in my commenting on the Oscar race; by the time my ruminations turned up in print, the results were in and any commentary was likely to generate little more than a quiet yawn. But with the nominations in and the award ceremony still weeks away, my remarks will still be timely, if hardly influential.

This isn't the place for an exhaustive rundown of my picks for the winners in every category; you can go to a thousand other Web sites for that sort of coverage. But since I've now seen four of the five contenders for Best Picture, I can't resist taking at least a stab at a couple of predictions. In the first year since 2000 without a Lord of the Rings entry, there are no contenders offering anything like an epic feel—traditionally the sort of film that Academy voters often choose. (Alas, neither Troy nor Alexander was honored with a Best Picture nomination—just joking folks!)

The Aviator is the odds-on favorite to win both Best Picture and Best Director. The fact that director Martin Scorsese is a critical darling who has never received either award works strongly in his favor. If Academy voters can be counted on for one thing, it's sentiment and making up for past oversights. And it doesn't hurt that The Aviator is a fully deserving choice.

Clint Eastwood is equally deserving for Million Dollar Baby, but he already has Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for Unforgiven. On the other hand, he's never won a Best Actor trophy, an honor for which he's also nominated this year. But that award will likely go to Jamie Foxx for his uncanny channeling of Ray Charles in Ray. Still, if Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio (who gave his best-ever performance as Howard Hughes in The Aviator while actually managing to look older than 18) split the vote, Eastwood could slide in. Hilary Swank will almost certainly win Best Actress for her role in Eastwood's film, as will Morgan Freeman as Best Supporting Actor.

There's less buzz this year about the Academy custom of sending out DVD screeners of films to voters, a practice that, in the past, has caused pirate-paranoid studio execs to break out in hives. I've always had mixed feelings about this practice for another reason: how many voters are watching nominated films on tiny televisions with 2-inch speakers (not all Academy members are big stars with state-of-the-art home theater systems). No movie makes the same impression in such a circumstance as it does on a big screen. How this might skew the voting is a matter that can't be ignored. It could be no coincidence that comedies (which work best with a large audience) and science fiction (which really needs a big screen to breathe) always fare poorly at awards time.

There's still a category for cinematography, but the Best Sound award was divided a few years ago into Sound Mixing and Sound Editing. Neither of these addresses sound quality; the Academy must assume that's a given. Maybe the cinematography award should be divided into Best Color Capture and Best Camera Angles!

I also lament the balkanization of animation by the establishment a few years back of a separate Best Animated Feature category. This category honors a field too-often given short shrift as kiddie fare, but it also makes it easy to overlook candidates that might be Best Picture material. For my money, the best feature film I saw in 2004 was Pixar's The Incredibles—not the best animated picture, the best picture, period.

More to the point for home theater fans, what can you expect in both picture and sound quality from the Best Picture candidates when their DVDs hit the stores? I'll have to defer comment on Sideways (which I have not yet seen) to a later time. Ray is already out on DVD, and my review of it appears in our February eNewsletter. (You can sign up for a free monthly copy here.) It's a fine DVD technically, though not without shortcomings. The Aviator will clearly be the audio demo disc of the bunch, with a number of exciting aviation sequences and one spectacular crash. Some of its dialog was mixed too loud, and its use of an antique sound quality for much of its period music was annoying, but it's still a solidly produced soundtrack.

When I saw The Aviator in a good theater, I was disappointed from the start by its pasty-looking cinematography. The flaw did not appear to be a stylistic choice; if so, it was a poor one. Inexplicably, it was nominated for a cinematography Oscar. Perhaps something went wrong in the printing process and the negative is capable of better. I also hope that the video transfer will not be done—or rather done in—by the same folks who did Scorsese's last film, Gangs of New York, one of the worst-looking major-release DVDs of recent years with its pervasive edge enhancement.

Million Dollar Baby was crisply photographed. While much of it was shot in subdued lighting with a muted color palette, only rarely was the film dark enough to present a serious challenge to a good digital video display. Its soundtrack, however, is mostly dialog with some very subtle and almost unnoticeable music. The soundtrack only rises above that level in its fight scenes, and even there it isn't particularly memorable. It's a clean enough effort, and it never detracts from the film, but no one will choose it for demo purposes.

Finding Neverland was nicely photographed and recorded, though nothing about its technical quality really jumped out me, either good or bad, when I saw it in the theater. But sometimes the DVDs of movies that didn't leave much of a technical impression in the theater surprise me at home. In the meantime, however, I'll be watching on February 27 in high definition on ABC to find out if I have a future as a pundit.