I meant to post this yesterday, but I was busy with my DVD column in the morning and then news of Heath Ledger’s death hit, which made the subject of the Oscars seem frivolous.  I don’t have enough to say about Ledger to make it worth a separate post, but I think the saddest thing about the whole story–apart from the fact that he’s leaving behind a young daughter–is that he was a talented guy who was really just starting to prove how much talent he possessed.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t take Ledger seriously as an actor when he first turned up in stuff like 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale, which, to be fair, I’ve never seen in its entirety.  He always seemed vaguely out of place in those movies; he had teen idol looks, but wasn’t interested in embracing that persona.  As a result, Hollywood (and us critics) didn’t know what to do with him, until director Ang Lee came along and challenged Ledger to realize his potential by entrusting him with the lead role in Brokeback Mountain.  Prior to the film’s release, very few people (myself included) were convinced he’d be able to pull the part off, but coming out of the theater, you couldn’t imagine any other person ever playing that part.  With that single performance, Ledger wiped away all the flops and disappointments he’d been in since coming to America and became the young actor directors wanted to work with.  More importantly, it seemed to change something within him–he finally seemed engaged with the material he was being offered.  His performance in Todd Haynes’ experimental Dylan biopic I’m Not There was thoughtful and lived-in and the brief glimpses I’ve seen of his Joker in The Dark Knight suggest that he’s nailed that character cold.  On the horizon was a starring role in Terry Gilliam’s next film and a possible part in Terrence Malick’s super-secret project, Tree of Life.  In other words, his best roles were in front of him and its tragic that we won’t get a chance to see those performances now.  I remember when he was up for the Best Actor Oscar back in 2005 against Philip Seymour Hoffman and one of the arguments against his winning was that he’d almost certainly be nominated again–most likley several times–over the course of his career.  Just another reminder that you shouldn’t put off honoring someone til tomorrow when you can do it today.

That’s an awkward segue into my brief reaction to the Oscar nominations.  I’ll get into this year’s awards more in depth in a few weeks, either in Oscar Talk or just in my own ramblings, but here are some off-the-cuff thoughts about some of the major categories:

*Best Picture: Boy, this will teach me never to pretend to be an Oscar prognosticator again.  Remember how I was sure that The Kite Runner and Sweeney Todd would be in the final five and the Demon Barber of Fleet Street was a lock to win?  Forget about it!  Neither movie was even nominated, with the Academy instead going for There Will Be Blood and Juno to accompany the three flicks I had (correctly) predicted would make the final cut, Atonement, Michael Clayton and No Country For Old Men.  I’m thrilled and more than a little surprised that Blood scored a nomination, although I already know there’s no way in hell it’s going to win.  Juno I’m less thrilled about.  It’s one of those movies I liked without feeling any passion for whatsoever.  At best, it’s a pleasant diversion.  At worst, it’s a self-satisfied fairy tale.  In a perfect world, both Atonement and Juno would have been replaced by Into the Wild and Sweeney Todd, but this is why I’m not a member of the Academy.

*Last year was an incredible year for actresses, even though the winner (Helen Mirren) was pre-ordained.  This year, the Best Actress category is a head-scratcher, beginning with Cate Blanchett’s surprise nomination for Elizabeth: The Golden Age.  Don’t get me wrong–I love Cate and she’s the only reason to see this mess of a movie.  But the fact that she was nominated over Tang Wei from Lust, Caution or Carice Van Houten from Black Book tells me that a large chunk of the Academy didn’t bother to watch all the screeners they were sent.  The other odd person out is Laura Linney from The Savages.  Again, I like Linney and I like her performance in that underseen film, but there were at least five actresses who deserved a nomination ahead of her.  In the end, the Academy only made room for one foreign actress (unless you count Ellen Page, who is Canadian) and that’s Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose, a film I still have to sit down and see.

*Go No End in Sight!  Put Sicko in the hospital where it belongs.

*As one of the 20 people who saw Surf’s Up, it was nice to see it recognized among the Best Animated Feature nominees.  My first choice is still Persepolis, but this underrated mockumentary cartoon deserves some attention.

*If you had told me when I first saw it back in October that There Will Be Blood would receive seven nominations, including Picture, Director and Screenplay, I would have called you a liar.  I was won over by the film right away, but was equally convinced the Academy would loath it for any number of reasons.  Glad to see I was wrong in that case.