Below, the nominees, picks, and reasoning.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight is the best movie of the year. When I compare these five nominees to TDK, I find them all wanting in one aspect or another. That being said, there are some good films here.
Frost/Nixon is interesting, Button is an auteur masterpiece, and Milk, in a post Prop-8 world, is a very important and well-made film. But Slumdog Millionaire will take the big one here.
I personally find the acting good but unimpressive and the story generic. What makes Slumdog memorable is it’s setting, the purity and energy with which it was captured, and Danny Boyle’s stunning directorial work in bringing such a good film together in an uncompromising environment. To me, that’s not enough to merit a Best Picture win, but since I don’t think any of the nominees are good enough to win in the year of The Dark Knight, I’ll go with the public consensus.
(P.S. I realize I made no mention of The Reader.)
(Disclaimer: That other guy’s actually seen most of these movies. I’ve seen some of them, but I’m going on conventional wisdom and what I’ve read of late in my remarks.)
There’s been a lot of buzz around Slumdog since the first trailer, set to Sigur Ros’ “Hoppipola.” I’m in the backseat on the bandwagon, but I, like most, found it an absolutely breathtaking bit of cinema. I saw “a vibrant hymn to life” somewhere in an ad for it, and that’s right: It’s a buoyant movie from beginning to end, tinged with the magic realism of Marquez and set in a nation that hasn’t had this deep a Hollywood depiction since Gandhi.
And some of the set pieces are either transcendent or devastating. Take this water-logged (the audio’s off) version of the “train scene,” for example:
There’s a lot of wonder, bounce, and joy in this movie. It fits the tenor, politically and emotionally, of the year.
I haven’t seen the other films, but, from what I’ve read, Button‘s a bit too long, Milk too unseen, Frost/Nixon too wonky, and The Reader too Harvey Weinstein-funded to win the grand prize here. Slumdog is the odds-on favorite, and, barring an upset (most likely a dark-horse Milk sweep, which would start with Gus Van Sant winning Best Director), it’s winning this one to cap a night featuring several statuettes.
Richard Jenkins – The Visitor
Frank Langella – Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn – Milk
Brad Pitt – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler
This has always been a race between Rourke and Penn. The other nominees were never really in contention. And based purely on what you see on screen, I find it impossible to choose one over the other. Both actors give touching, sincere, totally believable performances, disappearing into the characters of Randy “The Ram” Robinson and Harvey Milk. But go beneath the surface, into what it took to create those performances, and I think Sean Penn emerges as the clear choice.
Rourke had some personal experience that he could use to create that all-important empathy with his character. On the other hand, I don’t think Sean Penn has ever been persecuted by an entire nation because of his choice of lifestyle, as well as never (probably) experienced any homosexual tendencies. But Penn’s Harvey Milk is a character totally at peace and in love with who he is. There is no hesitation, no sign that Penn was out of his comfort zone. He’s a master of empathizing and embracing the character he needs to become. In the end though, I somehow think Rourke is going to pull a win out of the envelope come Sunday night, which I’m okay with, since he really is fantastic too.
You pick: Great actor doing great work, or marginal actor going above and beyond the call? The Academy’s rewarded Penn before; Rourke has sympathy on his side. It’s a great category, top-to-bottom, and it’s a shame that it’s become a two-man race, but it’s hard to envision anything other than Rourke nipping Penn here.
Either way, there’s a good speech by the winner forthcoming.
Anne Hathaway – Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie – Changeling
Melissa Leo – Frozen River
Meryl Streep – Doubt
Kate Winslet – The Reader
Probably the field I care least about out of the big ones. Kate Winslet or Meryl Streep will win.
It’s more likely to be Winslet, which I would be okay with if she had been nominated for Revolutionary Road. But she wasn’t, so I’m not okay and I hope she loses. The Academy’s habit of voting for a career instead of just the nominated work is to me an unacceptable practice, but it will work in Wislet’s favor this year.
My personal favorite is Anne Hathaway.
Streep’s positively stunning in Doubt, a draconian nun matching wills with a handful of other great performances (note the three other acting nods from a film not in the running for Best Picture or Best Director); it’s a scenery-chewing role, and she takes it on with relish.
That said, Winslet’s winning. It’s about time, in the Academy’s eyes, so 2009’s her year. It’s difficult to see Hathaway stealing too much of her vote, and Streep’s just tallying nominations at this point. Leo and Jolie are courtesy nominations at best, with zero hope of winning.
Josh Brolin – Milk
Robert Downey Jr. – Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman – Doubt
Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon – Revolutionary Road
Not much to say here. Heath will win and he deserves it. If he doesn’t, I’d hate to be the guy that beats him. Although if either Shannon or Downey actually does beat him, I suppose I won’t be too upset; they gave two of my favorite performances of the year.
Any other year, Robert Downey Jr. and Mickey Rourke are celebrating wins together at some afterparty, and columnists drop references to phoenixes in their Monday-morning treatises; some year soon, Brolin will get one for his stellar work (American Gangster, No Country for Old Men, Milk) of late; Hoffman is great, as usual, in Doubt, but it’s really a starring role; someone who saw Revolutionary Road probably has a better opinion on Shannon than I do.
But Heath Ledger was beyond phenomenal in The Dark Knight. He’s unbridled, authoring his own character in a way that his lines and mannerisms on their own could not, and his performance would be the stuff of golden statuettes even if his tragic passing hadn’t sealed him in myth as this generation’s James Dean. The Joker is one of the ten best characters of this decade, a thrilling treat, and if Ledger doesn’t win, it would be a huge shock.
Amy Adams – Doubt
Penelope Cruz – Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis – Doubt
Taraji P. Henson – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei – The Wrestler
An impossible category to call, even if most Oscar pundits are predicting a Cruz victory. This is one of the categories that are most ripe for an upset. While Cruz was delightfully crazy in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, there’s a lot of Viola Davis love going round, Henson and Adams are extremely likable personally (which does matter), and Tomei gave a great performance and was naked, a combination that’s hard to resist. My personal choice is Cruz, since looking back her performance has left the most vivid impression on my memory. In the end though, I’m unwilling to commit to a choice of who I think will actually win. It’s just too hard to tell.
Last year, I thought Ruby Dee, who’s on screen in American Gangster for about twelve seconds, deserved a nomination; she got it. I saw the same thing in Viola Davis in this scene:
(It’s really unfortunate that you can’t always see her vived eyes as they are on the huge screen, but, hey, you can at least see the clip.)
Cruz was apparently crackling in Vicky, Tomei gorgeously wounded in The Wrestler, but Davis is electric and powerful in this scene in Doubt, a thunderclap of conflicted maternity, and she’s who I want to win.
Will she? Probably not, with bigger name Amy Adams stealing some of her Doubt votes and Cruz seemingly due, but that doesn’t change my mind on this one.
Viola Davis gave the best performance as a supporting actress of the last year.
David Fincher – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard – Frost/Nixon
Gus Van Sant – Milk
Stephen Daldry – The Reader
Danny Boyle – Slumdog Millionaire
If you believe that Slumdog‘s winning it all, you have to think Boyle wins here. And I do.
But I’d rather make note of the ages here: Boyle’s 52, Daldry’s 47, Fincher’s 46, Howard’s 54, and Van Sant’s 56. Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan, both near-misses here, are 40 and 38, respectively.
As Hollywood retires the Spielbergs and Scorceses, or at least phases them out with awards, it’s this slightly younger guard that will be populating this category in the future. We’re in good hands.
Danny Boyle deserves it. Even if Chris Nolan had gotten a nom over that bastard Stephen Daldry, Boyle would still deserve it. He went to India, worked guerilla-style with a crew that was almost entirely Indian, in a harsh, dirty environment, and emerged with a beautifully shot, well-acted film.
I give props to Ron Howard for again making history interesting; and to Fincher for creating an enormous, sprawling yet cohesive and beautiful film; and to Van Sant for treating his material with respect instead of turning it into a political stunt.
But Danny Boyle’s achievement in Slumdog Millionaire really is the cream of the crop this year.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
This one’s a fun little tussle. It’s TDK and Slumdog allowed to compete against each other in a prestige category, and a battle of contrasting styles. Nolan’s a master of the dank, subtle, and shadowy, and TDK is testament to it, but he’s got all sorts of great single shots that go against that, too: The pile of money on fire; the exploding hospital; the flipping truck.
Boyle obviously has those, too, but he’s got a more cohesive and grander scale for his cinematography; ironic, of course, that it’s the semi-indie (Fox Searchlight) movie that could out-epic one of the biggest movies of all time, but, with his broad brush for India’s diversity and an eye for the individual colors, Boyle does it.
When I look at standout shots, though, I think of the train scene in Slumdog and the swerving scene with The Joker swinging his mussed, greasy hair in the wind in TDK. The latter wins, and, so, I think, will TDK.
This was a good year for cinematography, in my opinion. There were many beautiful films beyond this year’s nominees, and that should speak to the difficulty of making a choice.
However, consensus says this is a competition between Slumdog and The Dark Knight, with Button close behind. Slumdog Millionaire is a beautifully shot film, and an important one due to the fact that it was shot both digitally and with film–and you can’t tell the difference.
But if beauty and importance are the determining factors in this race, then The Dark Knight takes the cake. Wally Pfister’s third Oscar nomination in four years marks a turning point in how big budget films will be shot. His use of IMAX cameras on a fiction film was unprecedented, and has already started a new trend, with filmmakers like Michael Bay and Jon Favreau jumping on the bandwagon.
Add to that the fact that every frame of The Dark Knight is full of lush images that contribute a great deal to the emotionality of the scenes, and I personally feel that The Dark Knight is the most deserving of this award. But this category is a real toss up, so we’ll see what happens.
Courtney Hunt – Frozen River
Mike Leigh – Happy-Go-Lucky
Martin McDonagh – In Bruges
Dustin Lance Black – Milk
Andrew Stanton – WALL-E
I’m taking Stanton, and largely for his bold, successful decision to rely on wheezes and whirs for a third of his film; he’s in good company here, of course, especially with Leigh, but it’s high time that Pixar started winning awards, and this is a piece of work that justifies starting the collection.
The competition is between Milk and WALL-E. But the Milk screenplay is really a very straightforward affair. And so I hope WALL-E gets it, because it’s an emotionally powerful story told in a most unconventional manner. Relatable characters were created despite being restricted by robot bodies that have limited emotive capabilities, as well as a severe lack of dialogue. There was also an important message about the way we treat our planet and ourselves, which was handled in a very tasteful way.
That’s probably because Andrew Stanton never wanted to make a politically relevant film.
He wanted to make a love story, and all the other details emerged out of trying to make a love story between robots work. And that’s the definition of a good story/screenplay: Something with a meaning and emotion that soars beyond the intentions of the writer.
Milk is the only Best Picture nominee of the lot in this category, and that can work strongly in Dustin Lance Black’s favor. But Wall-E should have been a Best Picture nominee, and giving it a win in this category could be a way for the Academy to show that they do respect animation.
Eric Roth and Robin Swicord – Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley – Doubt
Peter Morgan – Frost/Nixon
David Hare – The Reader
Simon Beaufoy – Slumdog Millionaire
I feel like I’ve waxed poetic a little to much up to now, so I’m gonna start trying to be more brief. Button is an adaptation of Forrest Gump, not Fitzgerald, and is lying and shouldn’t have been nominated. Doubt is a play on screen, with no cinematic style to it at all. Frost/Nixon’s lynchpin scene is entirely made up, which to me says Peter Morgan realized there wasn’t enough drama in the actual events to merit a play, let alone a film. The Reader is a film that says murder is okay as long as you don’t know how to read. Slumdog Millionaire has a tried-and-true premise, but the story built on it is well written and entertaining. Beaufoy takes home the gold.
My criterion here is simple: which source material do I want to read most after the adaptation? Beaufoy turned a quirky little set of stories into a universe-sized symphony. He wins.
(It doesn’t hurt that Morgan has to fudge, Shanley’s barely “adapted” his play to the screen, Button smacks of Gump, and there’s a not-insignificant backlash against The Reader.)
Kung Fu Panda
Having actually seen two-thirds of these movies (sorry, Kung Fu Panda), it comes down to which one’s a better movie, not a better animated movie. Bolt‘s seriously underrated, a nice, sweet paean to pet people and an on-the-road film to rival Pixar’s own entry in that category, Finding Nemo, and there’s great animation and voice work done there.
WALL-E, however, is an achievement. You don’t get serious Best Picture chatter for half-done animated films, and this one’s as far from half-done as possible, from the wonderful screenplay to the nods to Chaplin-era cinema all over the place. There’s a bit of message work done here, but it’s woven underneath a timeless love story, and doesn’t distract from the peerless sound and visual work that’s become de rigeur for Pixar in general and Andrew Stanton in particular.
WALL-E will win. For reasons why, see my discussion of Best Original Screenplay above.
What’s worth talking about though is why Wall-E will win. It’s my belief that it’s because the entire Academy membership votes on the winner, not just the relevant departments within the Academy.
Look at the Annie Awards, the Oscars of animated film. Kung Fu Panda took home ten awards. WALL-E won none. Animators apparently look for different things in a good animated feature than people at large. I liked Kung Fu Panda, and if I were an animator I think I would have rather worked on that feature, with it’s stylized characters and environments, and not on WALL-E’s painstaking photo-realism.
WALL-E has a better story, brilliant sound design courtesy of legend Ben Burt, and a better score than Kung Fu Panda; to me, all that does give it the edge, but I just thought it was worth noting that the criteria that define a “best feature” can be very disparate depending on your point of view.
That’s a fact that can be applied to all categories when it comes to determining a winner.
Are we right? Wrong? Stupid? Hit the comments and let us know.
We may see you Sunday night for some live-blogging.