Once you realize that Academy Awards and quality correlate only sporadically, the only reason to watch is the hope of seeing something surprising or controversial. People slagged last year's weird Pilobolus shadow-puppet interludes, but what the hell: at least it was something I hadn't seen before. Seeing as how a lot of the substantive results seem like even more of a foregone conclusion than usual this year, there's even less motivation to watch. So here are seven pleasant surprises I'll watch for on Sunday in the hopes of keeping entertained.
1. The ceremony comes in at three hours or less. It hasn't happened in the modern era; the shortest ceremony since 1996 happened in 2005 -- the year of Million Dollar Baby -- and it ran three hours and fourteen minutes. Last year's festivities took 3:21. Look, I'm generally skeptical of accusations that the Oscars are "self-indulgent": it's an awards show put on by the industry for the industry. Of course they're self-indulgent. They're also boring, which seems to me the more relevant accusation. Ratings have been steadily declining, with last year an all time low. Shorter and snappier please. That they've offended Peter Gabriel by asking him to trim his nominated song performance to 65 seconds for the show seems, I hate to say it, like a step in the right direction.
2. Anne Hathaway wins Best Actress. By all accounts Kate Winslet has this locked up, albeit for a performance that is as clearly Supporting as any in the Supporting categories. I'm quixotically pulling for Hathaway, who has absolutely no chance -- not least because hers is the least Oscar-y of the nominated turns, unshowy and self-deprecating, a perfectly low-key performance for a perfectly low-key film. The performance itself was a surprise from an actress that not too many people held in high regard; a win here would be an even bigger, cooler one.
3. Hugh Jackman is half as entertaining as Ellen DeGeneres was. I take it that revamping the ceremony this year involves moving away from the jokey, industry-gadfly tone of the host. But I thought that the best host they've had in years was also the snarkiest: Ellen DeGeneres made the 2007 ceremony significantly easier to endure. I hope Jackman is at least permitted to take a couple quasi-mean-spirited cracks over the course of the evening.
4. No montages. Well, okay: the obligatory in memoriam slideshow is acceptable. But no more. This is sort of a corollary to #1. Yes, it's your show, but you're trying to get tens of millions of people to watch it. Some consideration please.
5. Josh Brolin Wins Best Supporting Actor. I have to start at least a little bit of trouble here. I do love the Joker, as much as the next guy. And I admit that it's the kind of atypical, genre film performance that the Academy rarely rewards, and that I wish would get recognized more often. But a) I have my doubts about posthumous awards; b) this is by far the most predictable category on the list; and c) I really do think that Brolin gave one of the most difficult, nuanced performances of the year, and richly deserves the Oscar.
6. No more battles between the winners and the orchestra. I really do hope they figure out some other way to keep the winners' acceptance speeches in line. The inevitable tap-dance wherein the winner starts looking nervously at the conductor and making hurried entreaties for him not to start playing the walk-off music gets really irritating after a while.
7. Bruce Springsteen Crashes the Show and Performs 'The Wrestler'. In its entirety. Hey, I didn't say the surprises would be remotely plausible -- or that my list would be internally consistent. But can't there be a way of rectifying the year's most infuriating snub? The possibility of seeing Bruce do this song live was a major reason to look forward to the Oscars this year. Maybe if I complain a lot on the internet...