Red carpet roundup

Though 2008 didn’t exactly start out looking like a year for great films — what with releases like Jumper, Meet the Spartans and 10,000 B.C. — its closing months made for a competitive race at this year’s Academy Awards. The Montage crew voted and these are its Oscar picks.

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire is the sleeper hit of the year and the definitive choice for best picture. Slumdog markedly contrasts with director Danny Boyle’s other films — which include 28 Days Later and Trainspotting — and is a welcome surprise.

The story centers on Jamal Malik, an uneducated youth from the slums, who gets a chance to be on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. People are shocked that he knows all the answers to questions that have puzzled members of India’s upper class.

What makes this film so great is its exposition of how Jamal knows the answers: Viewers are taken on a touching and often tear-wrenching journey through his life. Slumdog Millionaire is destined to win best picture at this year’s Academy Awards. — Libby Hopkins

Runner-up: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Also nominated: Milk, The Reader, Frost/Nixon

Actress in a Leading Role: Meryl Streep — Doubt

It has been quite a while since Meryl Streep won an Oscar — and all too often she gets nominated and then shafted.

Her role in Doubt marks her 15th nomination and could be her third win. She last won in 1983 for her role in Sophie’s Choice. Since then, she’s had 10 winless nominations for some very deserving performances in films including Adaptation, Out of Africa and Music of the Heart.

Luckily for Streep, the Academy loves to play catch-up.

Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the rigid, by-the-book nun Streep plays, shows no mercy for heretics and has such strong convictions that when they break it’s astonishing. In moments when Streep could have overacted, she captures the exact essence of her character — and though the character is easy to hate, it’s hard not to appreciate the performance.

Streep’s third Oscar has been a long time coming, and there’s no better time for the Academy to deliver. — Matt Ferrara

Runner-up: Kate Winslet in The Reader
Also nominated: Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married, Angelina Jolie in Changeling, Melissa Leo in Frozen River

Actress in a Supporting Role: Taraji P. Henson — The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The best supporting actress category was left wide open when Kate Winslet’s role in The Reader was bumped up to the leading actress category. This could mean tough luck for Winslet— but it could also mean a dream come true for Taraji P. Henson.

Henson plays Benjamin Button’s foster mother, Queenie, in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. She held her own against Hollywood heavyweights Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, stealing scenes more often then not. Her comedic timing is impeccable and she plays her serious scenes like a pro. — Jillian Fredenhagen

Runner-up: Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler
Also nominated: Amy Adams in Doubt, Penelope Cruz in Vicky Christina Barcelona, Viola Davis in Doubt

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Brad Pitt — The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Brad Pitt is America’s pretty boy, but he was impressively convincing and perfectly suited for the role of Benjamin in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Pitt plays not only an attractive man in his prime but, with the help of a talented team of make-up artists, graphic designers and film editors, a young boy trapped in an old man’s body.

He and co-star Taraji P. Henson knocked them dead every second on screen. Pitt’s realistically childlike performance while disguised as an old man outshined every other lead performance in film this year. — Emily Handy

Runner-up: Sean Penn in Milk
Also nominated: Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Heath Ledger — The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger described his interpretation of the Joker in The Dark Knight as “a psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy” — and he embodied all things wretched in his performance.

While preparing for his sinister role, Ledger isolated himself for a month in a hotel room with no outside contact. It was there that he perfected the Joker’s voice, posture and mannerisms while keeping a journal of the Joker’s thoughts.

Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker was absolutely terrifying and could give grown men nightmares. His performance is sure to be studied by method actors for years to come and will forever be a reminder of why people make movies. — Amanda Moore

Runner-up: Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road
Also nominated: Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt, Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, Josh Brolin in Milk

Directing: Ron Howard — Frost/Nixon

There were many challenges in making Frost/Nixon. The film adaptation of Peter Morgan’s play features two actors recreating the famous interview between Richard Nixon and journalist David Frost. Director Ron Howard transformed the play into a movie that appealed to a generation that wasn’t around for Nixon — and added a new perspective for those old enough to have seen the interview.

The film’s great success despite the difficulties is a testament to Howard’s ability to portray the human side of a historical event.

The film displays balance, arousing both aversion and sympathy for Nixon. While others might view Nixon as no more than the president who got away with murder, Howard allows several glimpses into the soul of Nixon the man — and anyone who can do that deserves an award. — Joe Polito

Runner-up: David Fincher: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Also nominated: Gus Van Sant: Milk, Stephen Daldry: The Reader, Danny Boyle: Slumdog Millionaire

Animated Feature Film: WALL-E

Pixar always releases cute and visually appealing films for the whole family, but its film
WALL-E was on another level. Forget pretty — this movie’s animation is stunning, and the characters are endearing and impossible not to love.

The breathtaking visuals and recognizable soundtrack illustrate a love story with a righteous environmental agenda on the side.

But the film’s not just for hopeless romantics or environmentalists. Anyone can enjoy it — which is exactly how a top animated film should be. — Emily Handy

Runner-up: Kung Fu Panda
Also nominated: Bolt

Music (Score): WALL-E

People may not believe it, but WALL-E is the greatest motion picture romance of the past decade. The movie is one of the most honest and endearing love stories in cinematic history. The emotional musical score does a lot of the talking in the film when sequences go for long periods without any dialogue.

Though the picture’s groundbreaking CGI graphics alone could have conveyed the wide range of feelings stirred up by its dystopian setting, the original soundtrack, coupled with classics from Hello Dolly!, really struck the heart.

From the opening scene at the desolate garbage mounds to the fire-extinguisher sequence in outer space, WALL-E’s score is a work of genius. — Matt Ferrara

Runner-up: Slumdog Millionaire
Also nominated: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Defiance, Milk