Slumdog Millionaire: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto
Slumdog Millionaire: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto

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 week 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 Ten 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:

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 henceforth 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 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.

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.

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 (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.

ACTRESS: What I said about Richard Jenkins probably also applies to 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.

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.

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 & 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 kneejerk 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.


Copyright © 2009 by Richard T. Jameson