Heath Ledger as the Joker in "The Dark Knight."
Heath Ledger as the Joker in "The Dark Knight."
Two-thousand-eight was a thrilling year for presidential election politics, but it's occasioned the most dispiriting and beside-the-point Academy Awards race in decades.

What a neck-snapping switch from 2007, when the nominees for best picture were an honor roll of envelope-pushing excellence led by "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood." The 2008 nominations announced last Thursday demonstrate that Oscar has gone back to genuflecting before historical biopics, hit-play carryovers, Big Subject movies with nothing interesting to say about their Big Subjects and overwrought, cornball crowdpleasers that give both crowds and pleasing a bad name.

Those would be, respectively, "Milk," "Frost/Nixon," "The Reader" and "Slumdog Millionaire." That leaves "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" as the lone best-pic nominee with interesting ambitions and genuine grandeur, both thematically and stylistically. But not quite enough to get onto my personal 10-best list.

Which brings us to a fundamental problem with 2008: it was a year seriously deficient in first-rate films, and of the few that were first rate, most were foreign - "The Edge of Heaven" (Germany/Turkey), "Let the Right One In" (Sweden), "A Christmas Tale," "I've Loved You So Long," "Tell No One" (all France). Needless to add, no mention of these by the Academy.

Of the English-speaking titles in my top 10, the Disney/Pixar "WALL•E" is up for best animated film and best original screenplay - the latter in competition with my favorite '08 movie, the Irish gangster film "In Bruges." The finest American film of the year, Kelly Reichardt's Portland-set "Wendy and Lucy," isn't even a whisper on the Oscar wind.

Let the grumbling continue:

BEST PICTURE: First, thank heaven for small favors. Despite premature anointing in the entertainment press, we have been spared best-pic nominations for the dodgy "Doubt," the devoutly downbeat "Revolutionary Road," the extravagantly ludicrous "Australia" and even "The Dark Knight," which was finally more Event than satisfying Movie.

Dictionaries soon will feature a still from "Slumdog Millionaire" alongside the definition of meretricious, but why should that stop this thoroughly specious movie from winning the Oscar? The best chance to do so may rest with "Milk," the admirable, stirring but basically conventional biopic about America's first openly gay elected official; "Milk" arrived just after California voters passed the antigay Proposition 8 and hence is serendipitously poised to become the vehicle for a protest vote from Hollywood. "Frost/Nixon" is D.O.A. apart from entertaining performances by Michael Sheen and Frank Langella re-creating their respective stage roles. "The Reader" is somewhat better than its widespread critical savaging would indicate, but my vote (if I had one) would go to "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" with its epic yet intimate canvas of the 20th century and Katrina-tossed clock that ran backwards.

BEST DIRECTOR: This is a rare year with no deviation between picture and director nominees. Give the little golden man to David Fincher, "Benjamin Button," because he's a visionary ("Se7en," "Zodiac") heretofore ignored by the Academy. Gus Van Sant is a major modern filmmaker, but it's galling to cite him for a docudrama like "Milk" after turning a blind eye to such breakthrough work as "Drugstore Cowboy," "My Own Private Idaho," "Elephant" and this same year's "Paranoid Park." Also nominated: Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"; Stephen Daldry, "The Reader"; and, for "Frost/Nixon," the redoubtably mediocre Ron Howard, whose pat setups and rhythms render thinking superfluous.

BEST ACTOR: Brad Pitt is decent but outclassed as the titular, aging-in-reverse "Benjamin Button." Frank Langella's looming, lurching portrait of the disgraced ex-president is worth sitting through "Frost/Nixon" for (though I wish he'd received a 2007 nomination for "Starting Out in the Evening"). For his portrayal of Harvey Milk in Van Sant's movie, Sean Penn best deserves the award. But there'd be special joy if a fluke conferred victory on Richard Jenkins, one of those unfailingly superb character actors who rarely get a leading role and still more rarely get an Academy Award nomination for what they do with it - in the case of Jenkins and the indie gem "The Visitor," something rich and moving. Mickey Rourke's getting lots of love in his comeback performance as "The Wrestler," and that victory, too, would be sweet. Wish you were here: Brendan Gleeson and/or Colin Farrell, "In Bruges."

BEST ACTRESS: What I said about Richard Jenkins probably also applies to the always-terrific Melissa Leo in "Frozen River," but alas, I haven't caught up with her movie yet. The fearless Kate Winslet should win for "The Reader," but really for all the splendid work she hasn't won for in the past. No quarrel with nods to Anne Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Married," and Meryl Streep (her 15th nomination!), for "Doubt." But although Angelina Jolie isn't bad, her casting is the most regrettable thing about Clint Eastwood's "Changeling." Absolutely best performance of 2008: the unnominated Kristin Scott Thomas, "I've Loved You So Long." And let's not forget, as Oscar did, Michelle Williams, "Wendy and Lucy."

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"; nothing to discuss, and no, it's not because a brilliant actor was taken from us way too soon. Also brilliant: Robert Downey Jr., hilarious as the Method-mad actor in "Tropic Thunder," and Michael Shannon as Kathy Bates' crazy son in "Revolutionary Road." If the Academy somehow balks at a posthumous award for Ledger, look for Josh Brolin to collect as (another crazy!) Dan White in "Milk." This category is always rock solid, but Philip Seymour Hoffman, albeit fine as the accused priest in "Doubt," doesn't belong in it this year - he's Streep's co-star. M.I.A.: James Franco, "Pineapple Express."

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: My guess and my vote is Penélope Cruz in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," Woody Allen's best film in years. But I've been a fan of Taraji P. Henson since "Hustle and Flow" and would feel warm all over if her name were called for "Benjamin Button." Also nominated, and congrats: Amy Adams, "Doubt"; Viola Davis, "Doubt"; Marisa Tomei, "The Wrestler."

My pick for best original screenplay would be Martin McDonagh for "In Bruges" (celebrated playwrights receive knee-jerk nominations; he won't win). For screenplay adaptation, Eric Roth and Robin Swicord did the most work, wresting the three-hour "Benjamin Button" from a 10-page F. Scott Fitzgerald story, but the award will go to Simon Beaufoy, "Slumdog Millionaire." "The Reader" was shot by the two finest lighting cameramen alive, Chris Menges and Roger Deakins, and its every frame is a glory to behold; nevertheless, Anthony Dod Mantle will take the cinematography award for the orangey-busy-tilty "Slumdog Millionaire." Fade to black.

Richard T. Jameson, a former editor of the News, has been a member of the National Society of Film Critics since 1980. The Oscars will be presented the evening of Feb. 22 on KOMO-4.