A human trafficker, an illiterate SS guard, a narcissistic addict, a grieving mother—the characters who grabbed the Academy's attention for Best Actress are a decidedly benighted bunch. O's Winner Is... Anne Hathaway is probably too young to win, Melissa Leo too unknown, and Meryl Streep (as an imperious nun) and Angelina Jolie have been Oscar'ed before. That leaves Kate Winslet as the sympathetic favorite, especially since she gave one of 2008's other standout performances as the suffocating housewife in Revolutionary Road.
Missing in Action Golden Globe® winner Sally Hawkins as the aggressively cheerful schoolteacher in Happy-Go-Lucky and Michelle Williams as the unlucky wayfarer in Wendy and Lucy. Netflix This Frozen River got a blink-and-you'd-miss-it theatrical release, but Oscar® completists can cram by renting the just-out disc.
Much as we love Mr. Jolie, the makeup and digital effects did as much of the labor as Brad Pitt did in Benjamin Button. The Academy deserves a prize of its own for nominating the reDoubtable character actor Richard Jenkins in his first lead movie role, as the reticent widower in the indie drama The Visitor. But this contest is down to Sean Penn's spot-on embodiment of slain gay-rights leader Harvey Milk and Mickey Rourke's back-from-the-career-grave turn as a ravaged pro Wrestler. O's Winner Is... Sean is the safer bet, but we're pulling for a Mickey victory. There won't be a dry eye in the house if his name is called—plus, he might bring one of his chihuahuas on stage with him! Missing in Action Philip Seymour Hoffman was drolly great as the dour playwright in Synecdoche, New York, but at least he snagged a place on the Supporting Actor lineup. Netflix This All of these performances are still in theaters, save for Jenkins's in The Visitor, now on a no-frills disc.
These roles are models of economy: Viola Davis is heartbreaking as the conflicted mother in Doubt, despite her precious few minutes of screen time; same goes for Marisa Tomei as the weary stripper in The Wrestler, despite her precious few inches of clothing. As Javier Bardem's vampy, unhinged lover in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Penélope Cruz shows up fashionably late and still sashays away with the movie. O's Winner Is... Penélope. Her performance was the biggest and brashest in the crowd, and the Academy loves to award Woody Allen's actors (see Michael Caine, Dianne Wiest, Diane Keaton, Mira Sorvino...). Missing in Action She won last year, but still—Tilda Swinton's lusty wistfulness as the adulterous, English Channel–swimming hotel guest was a highlight of Benjamin Button. Netflix This Only Vicky Cristina Barcelona is on disc, but like all of Allen's movies, it comes without supplementary features.
Best Supporting Actor The Nominees Josh Brolin in Milk Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road
Four of these performances are more than worthy: Josh Brolin as Harvey Milk's creepy-pitiable killer, Robert Downey Jr. as an over-the-edge Method actor, dark horse Michael Shannon as a gimlet-eyed holy fool, and a bellowing Philip Seymour Hoffman as an accused priest. But... O's Winner Is... ...Stating the obvious, Heath will win. Missing in Action If only there could be a sixth slot reserved for James Franco's gently understated work as Harvey Milk's wary lover/adviser/support system in Milk. Netflix This The "Full Mags" feature on the Tropic Thunder disc allows you to watch the endlessly inventive Downey improvise his way through multiple variations on a single scene.
Best Documentary Feature The Nominees The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) Encounters at the End of the World The Garden Man on Wire Trouble the Water
The uniformly compelling shortlist of real-life tales emphasizes families and communities fighting to sustain themselves in the wake of violence and upheaval: war and emigration in The Betrayal, the 1992 Los Angeles riots in The Garden, and Hurricane Katrina in Trouble the Water. And the Antarctic cinematography of Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World will take your breath away. O's Winner Is... Oscar goes to Man on Wire, the stirring, suspenseful account of Philippe Petit's historic tightrope-walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Missing in Action The Unforeseen, which looks at overdevelopment and greed in Austin, Texas, succeeds as both a work of investigative journalism and a philosophical rumination on the earth and our place on it. Netflix This The Man on Wire, disc has a new interview with Philippe Petit and an animated short depicting his death-defying walk, narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal. The Encounters DVD packs in more than three hours of extras, including gorgeous under-the-ice footage and a lengthy interview between Herzog and Rachel Getting Married director Jonathan Demme.
It's a typical roster for Oscar's top award: some high-prestige adaptations (Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, and The Reader), a handsome biopic (Milk), and a crowd-pleasing wild card (Slumdog Millionaire). O's Winner Is... Slumdog all the way: It's got the most awards-season momentum and the most passionate admirers. Missing in Action Last summer's dystopian fable Wall-E is playful, tender, totally beguiling—and inexplicably absent from this list, though it will almost certainly pick up a consolation prize in the form of Best Animated Feature. Among the extras on the three-disc special edition: commentary from director Andrew Stanton, a short film starring the robot-welder Burn-E, and alternate scenes that point toward the darker detours the story might have taken. Best of all, the DVD includes the short Presto (which served as Wall-E's warm-up act in theaters), a laugh-out-loud vignette of a magician and his unruly rabbit-in-a-hat.