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The Oscars: The M. Carter Condensed Version

Try as I might, I can’t seem to muster up much excitement for this year’s Oscars (Feb. 22).

Why? Well, the Oscars are always the same — longer than the 6:58 p.m. line at a Southern ABC store, filled with speeches as patchy and inconsistent as Suncom service and duller than Marisa Tomei’s peach-as-death Globes getup.

But every year I tune in, and every year I stay up into the wee, wee hours of morn, wade through all the obscure categories — I think this year they’ll be adding Best Art Direction in an Animated Foreign Short that No One Saw Ever — to get to the Big Six: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Animated Picture. (OK, fine, I’ll admit I enjoy a few strays, like Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Directing.) It’s a whole lot of waitin’ for not much happenin’.

Yet this year, since I’ve accomplished a personal best — seen four of the five Best Picture noms — I’m going to err on the side of enthusiasm and take the fact that “Slumdog” topped the Globes as a sign of Good Things to Come.

So now I’ll do what I started out to do (no, not launch into a bitter diatribe): Give you my picks for Oscars 2009 in the order people really want to see them and the order that allows good, working people the chance not to do the zombie march into work the Monday after the Oscars.

Best Picture: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Milk,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Reader”

My Pick: This is a soul-splittingly hard decision, since I saw the first four and loved all but “Button” (sorry, Brad, but you barely registered a pulse). In the end, though, it’s “Slumdog” all the way. Why? Danny Boyle’s Bollywood book-to-film adaptation is the perfect combination of epic romance, coming-of-age story, thriller and social commentary. There’s a phrase I never use: It has something for everyone. But “Slumdog” does, including a slew of young actors — most notably Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, brilliant as young Jamal, and Dev Patel, who radiates fierce intelligence — more talented than actors twice their age. Even the soundtrack is faultless. And here’s the highest praise: If “Dark Knight” can’t win, I declare “Slumdog” the ONLY acceptable substitute.

Best Actor: Richard Jenkins, “The Visitor”; Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”; Sean Penn, “Milk”; Brad Pitt, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”

My Pick: Once again, this one’s so close it nearly hurts my movie-obsessed heart to pick a favorite. But pick I must, and for me no one quite topped what Langella did in “Frost/Nixon.” Giving Rourke an Oscar for playing, well, himself is a little like giving Courtney Love an Oscar for playing a junk-addicted lady of ill repute. And Pitt LOOKED great in all his makeup, but his acting was … lackluster at best. (He did better in “Burn After Reading.” Trust me.) And though I love Jenkins and Penn — two of the great actors of our time — Langella recreated a character so complex and contradictory it is, quite simply, awesome. It’s a measured, brilliant performance, and one deserving of Hollywood’s highest honors.

Best Actress: Anne Hathaway, “Rachel Getting Married”; Angelina Jolie, “Changeling”; Melissa Leo, “Frozen River”; Meryl Streep, “Doubt”; Kate Winslet, “The Reader”

My Pick: Location kills me for this category, since “Rachel” and “Reader” opened in theaters for approximately 5 minutes, and “Frozen River” just plain never showed up. That narrows my options severely, but I’ll manage. After I see “Rachel” and “Frozen River” I might be tempted to reconsider my choice of Meryl Streep … but I doubt it. Yes, I know she gets nominated for an Oscar every time she, you know, boils water, but “Doubt” showcases some of her best work ever. She’s blood freezingly chilly one minute, then bitingly funny the next. And just watch her go toe-to-toe with Philip Seymour Hoffman. You’ll fear for HIS safety, not hers. She’s that good.

Best Supporting Actor: Josh Brolin, “Milk”; Robert Downey Jr., “Tropic Thunder”; Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Doubt”; Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”; Michael Shannon, “Revolutionary Road”

My Pick: Was there ever any doubt? It’s Heath Ledger all the way. And that statement means much coming from my fingertips — not because I’m any kind of expert, but because I’m fairly obsessed with Robert Downey Jr. (I’ll tell you about my shrine later); Josh Brolin’s been a favorite ever since “No Country for Old Men”; and I worship at the altar of Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Also, I’ve always stuck to the “If You’re Not There to Receive the Award, You Shouldn’t Get One” rule. For Heath, I make the except. There are no words to describe the hot box of crazy brilliance that is his Joker. He doesn’t reinvent The Joker; he invents him. His performance is the standard. It will go down in history, and not because the media’s painted him with James Dean colors. He earned this Oscar through and through.

Best Supporting Actress: Amy Adams, “Doubt”; Penelope Cruz, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”; Viola Davis, “Doubt”; Taraji P. Henson, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; Marisa Tomei, “The Wrestler”

My Pick: I can’t get over Viola Davis’ slap-you-dumbfounded 10-minute appearance in “Doubt.” I’ve tried, believe me, but those 10 minutes haunt me. In fact, it’s precisely the length of that clip that convinced me Davis deserved the Oscar. The sheer range of emotions she displays in that 10 minutes trumps anything anyone else in this category did. Plus, she’s an actress who’s mostly done TV work, never anything that hinted at this kind of blistering raw talent. This is rip-out-your-heart-and-stomp-that-sucker-flat good stuff. (Penelope, don’t worry — you’ll get nominated again for something next year.)

Best Animated Short: “Bolt,” “Kung Fu Panda,” “WALL-E”

My Pick: Pardon the sarcasm, but oh my isn’t this a difficult decision. There’s the meta-movie about a dog playing an actor owned by a teen-ager who sounds like 55-year-old 10-packs-a-day smoker. Wait! What about the magnificent movie Jack Black — surely THE seminal thinker/actor of our time — plays a (get this) a hungry panda bear? Hmm. I think I’ll take the cinematically stunning, beautifully animated romance/sci-fi thriller/socio-political commentary masterpiece that is “WALL-E” for $200, Alex. Seriously, though, “WALL-E” still gets my vote as one of the best movies released in 2008, equal to contenders like “Milk” and “Slumdog” because WALL-E, the sweet little robot that could, is the most charming animated character ever created. And if THAT was an award, “WALL-E” would get my vote for that, too.

Visit http://www.oscar.com/nominees/?pn=nominees for a full list of all the categories, including the ones I watch while listening to Bruce Springsteen my iPod.

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