There are, of course, exceptions. Twice a year, every year, I put the rest of life on hold to sit in front of a television. Two television events--both annual, both longer than they need to be--demand my attention year in and year out, whether I wish to give it or not. It is a sickness for which I have found no cure. I am compelled to watch.
One of these magnetically irresistible events is the Super Bowl. In 17 hours or so, the game will be over and the winning team will have been crowned Super Bowl Champions. The losers, they'll quietly make their way to the sidelines of history. Despite the fact that my team had a truly awful year during which postseason dreams were few and far between, I'm more than a little excited to see if the Arizona Cardinals can do tomorrow what the Seahawks were (in my humble opinion) screwed out of doing three years ago: beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The beauty of the Super Bowl is that little doubt can be cast on the qualifications of any team which has survived a 16-game season with an admirable record intact, only to win its way through the playoffs. Whether or not you like the two teams in the game, you can watch knowing that each dog has earned its place in the fight.
My other annually televised indulgence? The Academy Awards, of course! I can't remember the last time I missed the Oscars. Two years ago I called in sick to work--a loss of at least $50 in pay--just so I wouldn't miss a moment of the action. Put simply: when the most prestigious film awards are presented each Winter, a cinephile like myself takes notice.
Unfortunately for us film-fans, it would be practically impossible for each of our favorite movies from the past year to receive the recognition we believe they are due. Given the backlash and second-guessing that all subjective awards inevitably arouse, I do not envy any award-nominating body their responsibility/privilege.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, though? Well, I have no sympathy for them. The Academy has a remarkable knack for dropping the ball when it comes time to choose which films should be honored as the best of the year.
Honestly, I tend to be pretty forgiving of the Academy's missteps. I'd even go so far as to say that the past couple of years of noms have been bordered on respectability. Please forgive me my past tolerance; the Academy has seriously upped the level of incompetence for the 81st Annual Oscars. I was wrong to grant them any leniency. Of the numerous great films released in 2008, precious few of them were adequately recognized by the Academy (many of the year's best weren't nominated at all).
But (more than) enough talk, right? Let's get down to business. Listed below are the nominees for eight of the highest-profile Academy Award categories, along with comments from the world's most respected occasional film commentator: yours truly. Get ready to hate me.
BEST SCREENPLAY, ADAPTED
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- The Reader
- Slumdog Millionaire
Let's start with those nominees which are doubtlessly deserving of the nod: Doubt. Done. Honestly, though I found the other four stories compelling enough, none of them blew me away. I suppose Slumdog Millionaire deserves a modicum of recognition for bringing a fresh, original, dynamic story into the fray, even if the end-result didn't do all that much for me. The Reader and Frost/Nixon are both impressive films, but the both stories were told in such conventional,formulaic fashion that their provocative content was rendered a little dry. Neither script seemed Oscar-worthy from where I was sitting. Which brings us to Benjamin Button. I'm sure turning Fitzgerald's short story into a filmable script was no easy task. But I just wasn't feeling this story. The pace was a bit off for my taste, and there were fundamental problems with the plot that simply were not reconcilable. For example: how does Benjamin start is life as an old, baby-sized human, then end his life as a young, baby-sized human? If he started in a baby-sized, old-man's body, shouldn't he have ended in an adult-sized, baby's body instead of shrinking back into babydom? It just doesn't add up.
VERDICT: Doubt deserves the nod. Slumdog Millionaire is an acceptable choice. And The Reader, Frost/Nixon, and Benjamin Button have no place on this list.
BEST SCREENPLAY, ORIGINAL
- Frozen River
- In Bruges
Okay, Academy. You're getting warmer. I can say without reservation that three out of the five nominees for Original Screenplay are Oscar-worthy. I'm not surprised to see Milk. The story is perfectly told and incredibly moving. It was the backbone for one of the best movies of 2008; you can't get much more Oscar-worthy than that. Another of 2008's best is represented here in WALL-E. I didn't necessarily expect it to receive this nomination, though it's certainly deserving. Animated films are too often eschewed in favor of the more traditional live-action stuff. When an animated feature turns out as well as WALL-E, no applicable category should be off-limits. The most unexpected nominee here (and maybe the best surprise on the whole ballot) has to be In Bruges. I overlooked the movie when it was first released but finally saw it in New York and was very happily surprised. The dialogue in this movie is incredible, and the story is certainly original. I call this movie a dark comedy, but there's a lot more to it than just guilty laughs. It's everything a dark comedy can and should be and that's thanks in no small part to a (presumably) well-written screenplay. Another nominee I was surprised and heartened to see in this category is Frozen River. Frozen River is a good movie, and well worth seeing, but an Oscar-worthy script? Not in my book. Kudos to writer-director Courtney Hunt (whose post-screening Q&A I saw at SIFF) for taking this movie as far as she has. The attention and acclaim is deserved, just not in this category. And then there's Happy-Go-Lucky, for which director Mike Leigh gets the writing credit. Full disclosure: my judgment of this nominees qualifications is based in large part on the widely-held assumption that though Mike Leigh's movies are tightly-scripted, much of the on-screen dialogue and interaction is at least partially improvised by the actors. And this movie's heart is the interaction between characters. I might be wrong, all the activity in this movie may come straight out of Mike Leigh's script and every bit of dialogue may be verbatim. But I can't be certain. Leigh probably should've been nominated for directing instead of writing. I could get behind that.
VERDICT: Milk, WALL-E, and In Bruges are all deserving of their noms. Frozen River and Happy-Go-Lucky, despite being good movies, are not.
[Let it be known that I have not read any of the ten nominated screenplays and, as such, probably shouldn't be commenting on the worth of any of them. Let it also be known that I don't really care.]
BEST ACTRESS, SUPPORTING
- Amy Adams in Doubt
- Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona
- Viola Davis in Doubt
- Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler
Only two decent choices here: Amy Adams and Taraji Henson. I had my doubts after Junebug as to whether Amy Adams was a legitimately great actress or just happened to find her way into a first role that really suited her abilities. I'm happy to report that the former is true. Amy Adams is a terrific actress and I fully expect her to continue the string of strong, diverse performances she has compiled over the past few years. I had never even heard of Taraji Henson before I saw Benjamin Button (not unlike Adams in Junebug...hmmm...), but she quickly made an impression on me. Brad Pitt's a good actor, but Henson's Queenie stole every scene she was in. I didn't love Button as a whole, but I did love Henson's turn. Tomei and Davis both had the bad luck of being good actresses in underdeveloped one-dimensional roles. Cruz had the bad luck of being cast in a dumb, pointless movie.
VERDICT: Amy Adams and Taraji P. Henson are entirely deserving. Viola Davis and Marisa Tomei are not. And Penelope Cruz, despite being a fine actress in her own right, got nominated for one of her worst roles and performances in recent history. Boo, Academy.
BEST ACTOR, SUPPORTING
- 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
Some very solid noms in this category. Only one, Downey, is off-the-mark. Downey was solid in Tropic Thunder, in a very out-there role, but his performance was far from Oscar material. His Iron Man performance on the other hand, that may have been Oscar-worthy. Only one man in Tropic Thunder gave an extraordinary performance: Tom Cruise. Sorry Bob, Tom's weird role upstaged the hell out of your weird role. All of the other nominees are terrific choices, though. Shannon's performance in Revolutionary Road is the most complex and impressive piece of an otherwise disappointing puzzle. As strong as his work in Revolutionary Road is, it's nothing compared with his leading role in Shotgun Stories (I included this film on my Best of 2007 list, as I saw it at SIFF before its theatrical release last year. It's amazing And it's on DVD now. Go get it!) Brolin's Dan White was on-point and incredibly dynamic; the character's life falls apart right before the audience's eyes and Brolin is able to convey his immense desperation using little more than body language and facial expression. The actor's resemblance of the man he portrayed is equally remarkable. And Hoffman's portrayal of a Catholic priest of dubious morality is nothing short of commanding. But we've come to expect nothing less from the preeminent actor of our time. Given the impressive performances from Shannon, Brolin, and Hoffman, it's incredible to think that they're all considered underdogs behind Heath Ledger. But such is the case, and not for no reason; Ledger's turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight was as close to perfection as one could hope to get. It must be said that had he not met his untimely death more than a year ago, he likely wouldn't be running away with all the awards seemingly uncontested. It is strange that dying somehow made Ledger a sentimental favorite to win every award in sight; what good is winning if you're no longer able to receive the prize? Regardless, I believe his performance is deserving of everything he's won thus far and fully expect him to win the Oscar. It just bums me out that he never got to see it happen.
VERDICT: Ledger, Hoffman, Brolin, and Shannon all deserve the nods they received. Cases could be made for each of the first three to WIN the award, and a case could certainly be made for Shannon's Shotgun Stories role to at least get a nod for Leading Actor. Downey, Jr. is a great actor, but the role for which he is nominated is less than great. All in all, this is one of the strongest categories by a longshot.
BEST ACTRESS, LEADING
- Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married
- Angelina Jolie in Changeling
- Melissa Leo in Frozen River
- Meryl Streep in Doubt
- Kate Winslet in The Reader
Like the Supporting Actor category, Leading Actress is another loaded category. I have yet to see Changeling, so I'll hold off on her role for now. As I mentioned earlier, I'm happily surprised that Frozen River is getting so much Oscar love. And while I couldn't endorse the nom it received for it's screenplay, I wholeheartedly support the nomination of Melissa Leo for Best Actress. She was absolutely perfect in this movie, totally nailing her role where most actresses would probably overdo it. I can think of number of "established" actresses right off the top of my head who might have been cast in Leo's role had Frozen River been a Hollywood production, and I expect a number of them would have unintentionally ruined the movie by bringing limelight somewhere it didn't belong. Bravo, Melissa Leo. I don't think you stand a chance of winning this award, but you deserve recognition for absolutely owning your part. Good on the Academy for nominating Kate Winslet's best role (The Reader over Revolutionary Road) in the appropriate category (Leading Actress, not Supporting Actress). The Reader belongs to Winslet's Hanna Schmitz; to call Schmitz a "supporting" character is absurd. Yes, the movie follows Hanna's teenage lover Michael (played perfectly by David Kross), but Michael and the movie both revolve around Hanna. The nomination is deserved, but of the four performances in this category which I've seen, this is the fourth-best. The best performances came from Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway. I know Streep gets nominated entirely too often, but that's because she's a hell of an actress. And her turn as Catholic school principal Sister Aloysius in Doubt is among the best performances I've seen from her. If she doesn't take home this Oscar, it has to go to Anne Hathaway. Playing a recovering drug addict is almost hackneyed anymore, so it's that much more impressive that Hathaway turned this role into one of the best characters of year. I wish Rachel Getting Married had been nominated for more awards; it certainly deserves more recognition than it's getting. But I'll take a win for Hathaway in exchange for the multiple snubs it suffered at the hands of the Academy.
VERDICT: Of the four nominated performances I've seen, all four actresses more than earned their nomination. Changeling comes out on DVD in a couple weeks; if Jolie's performance was as good as the other four, I'll be blown away that the Academy got a whole category right.
BEST ACTOR, LEADING
- Richard Jenkins in The Visitor
- Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon
- Sean Penn in Milk
- Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler
Jenkins got a lot of love for his role in The Visitor when the film first hit theatres. I finally saw it on DVD about a month ago and maybe I just don't get it, but the role totally fell flat for me. He didn't even seem like he was trying, really. Maybe I'll be able to relate to the character when I hit middle-age or something. But from where I sit right now, a man must do more than be quiet, look sad, and feel lonely to move me. Sorry, Richard Jenkins. I felt for your Burn After Reading character. Brad Pitt, I hated your Burn After Reading character. And I didn't like your Benjamin Button much more. I think Brad Pitt is a talented actor, but I don't think he showed much of that talent in this performance. There seemed to be so much depth to this character, but Pitt only tapped into it at a few points during this long movie. You can't win an Oscar if you're only intermittently convincing. Mickey Rourke is such an odd character, and I really felt like he was almost playing himself in The Wrestler. But at the same time, I was fully convinced that he was Randy "The Ram" Robinson. It was weird. Taken as a whole, The Wrestler didn't do much for me. But Mickey Rourke's performance was as impressive as advertised. He deserves this nomination, but not this win (though he may very well take home the Oscar, too). Playing Richard Nixon has got to be tough. The guy has been portrayed so many times by now that it's difficult to separate the man from the myth. Being born more than a decade after his impeachment, my image of Nixon is that which pop culture presented me with: a big-nosed rubber mask emphatically saying, "I am not a crook!" I've seen the clip of Richard Nixon actually uttering those words many times now, and each time I'm surprised at how inaccurate all the impressions and impersonations I heard growing up were. In any event, however distorted my image of Richard Nixon may be, I completely bought Frank Langella's depiction of the disgraced former President in Frost/Nixon. Not only was Langella totally unrecognizable under the makeup, but he truly seemed to embody the man's mannerisms, speech patterns and accent. I expect he nailed his personality and attitudes as well, though I'm much to young to know that for certain. Langella might have been the best actor in the category if not for another actor portraying a real person. Harvey Milk doesn't have the name recognition Richard Nixon does, but he was a famous man in his own right. After my first viewing of Milk, I got my hands on the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (a great movie, as acknowledged in the credits of Gus Van Sant's film). After watching the doc, and seeing Milk a second time, I was blown away by Sean Penn's uncannily accurate portrayal of the eponymous character. While Langella nailed Nixon, Penn practically brought Milk back to life. The performance is unbelievable, one of the best I've seen in a long time. Penn's got some stiff competition from Rourke and Langella, but if he doesn't win this award, something is wrong with the Oscars.
VERDICT: Penn's performance is almost without compare, the nomination obviously deserved. Langella and Rourke earned their noms, but both pale in comparison with Penn. And neither Jenkins nor Pitt really belong in the same company as the other three; at least not this year.
- David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- Ron Howard for Frost/Nixon
- Gus Van Sant for Milk
- Stephen Daldry for The Reader
- Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire
Okay, this is where it truly starts to get ugly for me. Excepting the Supporting Actress category, most of the acting noms are okay even if I probably would have done a few things differently in each category. And the Original Screenplay noms were decent, too. But I hold my Directing and Best Pic noms to a high standard which the Academy's picks, excepting one, simply don't meet. As was the case with Adapted Screenplay, only one of the five noms in this category is well-founded. (Strangely, the misses in this category mirror the misses in Adapted Screenplay exactly.) The deserving nominee in this bunch is Gus Van Sant. Milk is a great movie. The story is compelling and concise without being formulaic or predictable. The acting is absolutely spot-on, through and through. The use of archival footage and photographs is appropriate and effective (and, at the film's end, affective). And the subject matter is timely, vital, and heartwrenching. Van Sant has put together the complete package here. Perhaps most impressive of all is that he accomplished all of this without inserting himself into the movie in one way or another. Everytime I've seen a Van Sant film in the past, there's always some part of the movie when I catch myself thinking, "Oh yeah, I'm watching a Gus Van Sant movie." He has this weird knack, intentional or not, for putting his own stamp on all of his movies, occasionally marring the film in the process. Not so in Milk. He took himself out of this movie and let the story and the characters speak and act for themselves. The result is extraordinary. Yes, Frost/Nixon is a fine film. Yes, Ron Howard is a decent director. But I don't know that he's ever made a great movie and Frost/Nixon is not an exception. The same is true of The Reader and Daldry. A fine movie by a fine filmmaker. But not an Oscar-worthy achievement. David Fincher is different. I believe him to be a director with Oscar-potential. Just last year a terrific Fincher film, Zodiac, came and went with nary an Oscar nom. Fast-forward to the present and Benjamin Button and we're looking at 13 nominations including Directing for a film that's long in duration and ambitious in scope but ultimately fails to deliver the cinematic satisfaction it promises. The visual effects used to make the movie are sure cool, but I'd trade them all for a more concise, better developed plot structure. And then there's Danny Boyle, who has made some very interesting if not always well-received films over the past dozen years or so. I'm sure it was a great challenge to coordinate the making of a big piece of show like Slumdog in a chaotic city in a foreign country. But that doesn't make up for the fact that the film is little more than a piece of (arguably) exploitative entertainment. If you're going to be nominated for a Directing Oscar, the achievement ought to be not only impressive, but also valuable. I don't doubt the impressiveness of making Slumdog work. But I do doubt it's value. A year from now, I expect it to be all but forgotten.
VERDICT: Gus Van Sant deserves this nomination. Ron Howard, Stephen Daldry, and Danny Boyle do not. And though David Fincher has deserved this honor for previous work, he doesn't deserve it for Button.
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- The Reader
- Slumdog Millionaire
If you read my comments for the Directing category, you've already got a pretty good idea of what I'm going to say here. The Best Pic noms mirror the Best Directing noms, as is often the case. So instead of saying all the same stuff again and boring you further than you already are, I'll try to sum it up and keep it short. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a good, if overlong, movie. But the story is poorly developed and seems to have taken a backseat to the digital trickery employed in the making of this film. I think the movie had much more potential than was tapped. But unfortunately, we'll probably never know how good this film could have been. Button is good, but far from great. Movies must be more than just good to be worthy of a Best Pic nom. The Reader is in another "good not great" movie. The story is compelling and the acting is very strong, but an interesting story told in a stale, formulaic manner does not a great movie make. Bummer for Daldry, because I've read that it was his desire to do further work on the film than he was able, that the Weinsteins wanted the movie to contend for Oscars. The Weinsteins won and they got their Oscar noms, but I think Daldry could have made this good movie great and truly earned this nomination. As it stands, I believe it's the least likely film to win this award. Frost/Nixon, same deal. Good story+strong acting+less-than-fresh filmmaking=good, not great movie. The Ron Howard touch is a bit of double-edged sword, I think. While he guarantees a well-crafted, very "Hollywood" film, he does so at the cost of creativity and fresh perspective. And the result is not worthy of an Oscar nom. Which brings us to the media darling and this year's X-factor: Slumdog Millionaire. This is a good, entertaining, even provocative movie. But I think the credit it's been given for opening the world's eyes to life in the slums of Mumbai is far from deserved. The movie is a show, and an exciting one at that. But it makes slum life out to be something almost fun by glossing over the horrible side of poverty with pretty pictures, flashy cuts and an upbeat score. Juno made teen pregnancy look fun and easy last year. This year Slumdog makes Indian slumlife into some sort of crazy party; the movie ends with a mass dance scene, for crying out loud. City of God proved that you can make a movie about the ghetto look cool without glamourizing the sometimes horrifying reality of the place. Slumdog is no City of God, and it does not deserve its Best Pic nom. Milk, of course, does. I'll try not to beat all the dead horses too severely, but suffice it to say that I'm taking solace in the fact that the Academy got at least one of best movies of 2008 onto its list. Here's hoping it comes out on top when the awards are announced on the 22nd.
VERDICT: An enthusiastic YES to Milk. And nos to all the rest: Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, and Slumdog Millionaire. Good movies, all. And all worth watching. But none worthy of the ultimate nomination.
Jeez, long-winded much?! If anyone made it clear to the bottom of this beastly first post, thank you. (Who am I kidding? If you read ANY of this, thank you.) You clearly love me or just have a whole lot of time on your hands. I hope it wasn't too painful.
I fully intend to post Part Two of 'Nomination Breakdown'--MY PICKS!--tomorrow (or the next day). And this time, no comments! Won't that be a relief!
Oh, last but not least: if you take issue with any of my opinions, please leave me a comment. I will reply.
Until next time...