Oscar season officially kicked off on December 4th of last year when the National Board named Slumdog Millionaire the Best Picture of the year. Amazingly, that film has remained the front-runner for the top prize ever since, and now with a week left in the Oscar race, the only question remaining is not if it will win, but does it deserve to win?

That answer to that very question is what this column is seeking. For the last few months, we’ve been all about stone-cold analysis of the Oscar race completely devoid of opinion at Oscar Power Rankings Centra. Now that the race is at an end, it’s time to take a respite from predictions and rank the nominees with regards to quality in advance of Thursday’s final Oscar predictions which (spoiler alert) Slumdog is set to top in several categories.

So now, without further ado, the first-ever Who Should Win Oscar Power Rankings:

Best Picture

Rank Movie Comments
1 Milk Easily the best film nominated, and the only one truly worthy of a spot on the Oscar shortlist. Gus Van Sant’s sweepingly small epic perfectly captures the times and passion of Harvey Milk in a way that neither deifies nor hails the former city supervisor. This is an excellent film delivered at the perfect time.
2 Frost/Nixon Another fine period piece with performances that allow it to transcend its gimmicky direction and the fact that it really only works on stage. Watching Sheen and Langella square off is the acting equivalent of Kobe posting up LeBron.
3 Slumdog Millionaire Boyle’s direction and the film’s setting has masked the fact that this film is a bit formulaic and predictable with events that are really just a bit too convenient. It’s certainly a fun and exciting film but not the overwhelming and life-changing bit of inspiration many are calling it.
4 The Reader This film is destined to be underrated because of the backlash against its Nazi-sympathetic themes and its being nominated in favor of “The Dark Knight”. It’s actually a nice character study that drags in parts, but puts a very human face of the evils behind an abomination.
5 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button This movie should not be nominated. In fact, this is the one film on the list that can’t even be recommended. It’s just three hours of unrelenting boredom as we watch a man age backwards with no apparent ramifications other than that he looks weird. Nothing thematic, nothing entertaining, nothing even interesting.

Best Director

Rank Director – Movie
1 Danny Boyle – Slumdog Millionaire The unrelenting energy he injected into this film combined with an incredibly deft touch at dealing with its human aspects confirmed what we’ve known since “Trainspotting”: Danny Boyle is a genius.
2 Gus Van Sant - Milk Gus Van Sant’s return to the mainstream was a long time coming, and he did not disappoint with his own take on epic film-making – getting to the small in order to reveal the large. Superb work, just not quite as good as Boyle.
3 David Fincher – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button There’s a lot wrong with “Button” but Fincher’s steady hand isn’t one of them. His astounding use of the frame and scintillating imagery is about the only thing likely to keep viewers awake during this film.
4 Stephen Daldry - The Reader Nothing bad, but nothing remarkable either. Daldry has always displayed an apt touch with bringing difficult literature to the screen, but he never seems to add anything to it.
5 Ron Howard - Frost/Nixon If you really can’t figure out a way to tell a story other than having actors talk to the camera as though they are in a documentary, when the film does not have a documentary feel, you probably should have gotten someone else to direct it.

Best Actor

Rank Actor – Film Comment
1 Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler This category is extremely close, but Rourke claims this title with a gorgeously subtle performance that made a very formulaic script seem like realism.
2 Sean Penn – Milk Can’t say a bad word about Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk. A total transformation that he controls perfectly. What a strong category.
3 Frank Langella – Frost/Nixon Who should win is razor thin between the two front-runners and Langella is not far off. He showed more of Richard Nixon than we ever saw from the man himself. Astonishing work.
4 Richard Jenkins - The Visitor A terrible film, but none of that was Jenkins’ fault, his subdued vapidity was the acting highlight of the first quarter of 2008. Kudos to the Academy for nominating such a quiet role where screaming and shouting normally carries the day.
5 Brad Pitt – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button A lot of people are saying Brad Pitt was bad in this role, that simply isn’t true. He did fine work, but he just didn’t have a lot to do. Comparing his work to Rourke’s is like comparing somebody who made a ceramic bowl to a man who sculpted a 10-foot statue from the same material. No matter how good the bowl was, he’ll never come close to comparing to an equally well-made statue.

Best Actress

Rank Actress – Film Comments
1 Anne Hathaway – Rachel Getting Married In a stacked category where each nominee gives a performance capable of winning, Hathaway takes the prize because she was in the worst film. Why does this make a difference? Because it’s so much harder to give a good performance with a dull script and a director who seemed more concerned with showing how in touch he was with hip music than telling a story. Hathaway overcame those ancillary obstacles to create a narcissistic wonder of a character with every eye-twitch seeming to have a purpose.
2 Meryl Streep - Doubt Streep is once again brilliant in a smartly subdued role that is controlled so well the audience is always waiting for the seams to burst. Any critic who said she was “hamming it up” should be taken to kangaroo court.
3 Melissa Leo – Frozen River It’s too bad for everybody that this film never came out anywhere, because America missed out on a brilliant bit of realism from Leo as she mined the depths of desperate poverty in this country all directed inwardly. Implosions are harder and more interesting to play than explosions, and this performance is a shining example.
4 Kate Winslet - The Reader All sorts of controversy surrounding this performance. Is she apologizing for the Nazis? (No) Was the role supporting or a lead? (Supporting) Was the movie any good? (Yes) Whatever the case, Winslet is her usual brilliant self playing the role with brilliantly controlled restraint when it would be easy to chew scenery.
5 Angelina Jolie – Changeling Putting Jolie at the bottom of this list isn’t meant as an insult. She’s excellent in the film, but just not as good as the other four.

Best Supporting Actor

Rank Actor – Film Comment
1 Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight The second-best performance of the year, but not even the best in his own film.  That’s because Gary Oldman’s James Gordon was the tops.  He’s not here, so Heath tops this list.
2 Michael Shannon – Revolutionary Road Peter Travers called the role “A heat-seeking missile that targets hypocrisy”.  That doesn’t make any sense nor does it describe the role with a shred of accuracy, so I’ll go with my friend Chris’ description when he called Shannon, “A one-man Greek Chorus from Hell.”  A description so perfect I wanted to punch him in the face for thinking of it before me.  Either way, Shannon was brilliant and if he’d a little more screen time he’d be challenging Heath for the title.
3 Robert Downey, Jr. – Tropic Thunder Nobody ever gives comedy its due, so it’s nice to see his exceptional transformation honored.  The funny thing is that Downey is even funnier when he slips back into the Australian character.  It’s a rare feat to create two memorable characters with one role.
4 Phillip Seymour Hoffman – Doubt It’s funny that there was such a fervor over the “category fraud” of Winslet’s nearly getting a supporting actor nomination for “The Reader” and nobody said boo about Hoffman’s actual lead role receiving a nod here.  His complex performance is good enough to win in either category.  The fact that it’s fourth here shows just how strong the acting categories are this year.
5 Josh Brolin – Milk When you’re barely in the movie and aren’t given much to do once you do arrive it’s hard to pull yourself out of the basement.

Best Supporting Actress

Rank Actress – Film Comments
1 Penelope Cruz – Vicky Cristina Barcelona Up there with Ledger and Oldman for best performance of the year.  It’s incredibly hard to play crazy and complex.  To be insane without losing control and she does it all hear.  Plus her perfect attachment to the thematic structure of the film through her performance puts her on another level.
2 Amy Adams - Doubt Adams is so good it’s almost getting annoying.  This was another brilliantly controlled performance to follow her shoulda-won-the-Oscar performance from last year’s “Enchanted”.  She actually manages to make her role as a novice nun seem more complex than it’s written.  She’s unreal.
3 Marisa Tomei – The Wrestler A good performance from a good actress.  Nothing remarkable, but certainly better than the bottom two.
4 Taraji P. Henson – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Like Pitt, her role was more about effects than it was about acting.  She didn’t have a whole lot to do and wasn’t around for the important parts of the film.
5 Viola Davis – Doubt All right.  It’s time to stop the madness.  It’s time to stop the incredibly ignorant practice of nominating actors who are in movies for five minutes. Be it, Gloria Stuart, Judi Dench, Ruby Dee or all the way back to Beatrice Straight for some reason we keep seeing these one-scene wonders pop up in supporting categories every year and it’s ridiculous. When you aren’t given the opportunity to develop a character, or take one on a journey where you can explore your creation onscreen, you simply cannot give a good performance – because those journeys are what acting, real acting, is. Otherwise you’re simply emoting onscreen, saying lines with inflection to sound real, and all those other tricks that laymen think is the totality of acting. It’s not and whenever critics propel a performance such as Davis’ to Oscar nominations, it just shows how clueless they really are. It’s not that Davis is bad in the role; she’s quite good for what it is. The role simply doesn’t give her enough to do any actual acting.