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Curious Cases

Metroland movie critics wrestle with this year’s Academy Award nominations and predict who will milk Oscar gold and who will have a dark night

By John Brodeur, Laura Leon and Shawn Stone

 

Best Picture

You’re thinking it. Believe me, we—the critics—are thinking it, too. Where in the hell is the Best Picture nomination for The Dark Knight?

Critically acclaimed? Check. While there were some naysayers, the second film in Christopher Nolan’s (hopefully) ongoing Batman reboot was embraced by most mainstream reviewers. Box office powerhouse? Check. At more than $530 billion in world grosses, The Dark Knight got closer to Titanic on the all-time box office list than anyone at maker Warner Bros. dared dream. Compelling behind-the-scenes tragedy? Check. While Aaron Eckhart, Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Gary Oldman were good, the film is unimaginable without the late Heath Ledger’s eccentric, electric, risk-taking performance as the Joker.

WALL-E

And don’t say a thing about WALL-E, which was shunted off to the Academy’s newest ghetto, Best Animated Feature.

It seems the Motion Picture Academy are just not ready to nominate a comic-book movie for the big award. (Or ever again nominate an animated film for Best Picture.) Unfortunately, the membership are still suckers for any film that uses the Holocaust as its back story. If that sounds harsh, well, you haven’t seen the relentlessly mediocre multiple nominee The Reader. If you can explain to me what insight the life and plight of an illiterate German woman adds to our understanding of one of the 20th century’s preeminent horrors, I’m all ears. Kate Winslet is very good, yes, but The Reader is a navel-gazing moral muddle. It stinks.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button shares one characteristic with The Reader. It was conceived and produced with the goal of winning awards. Unlike The Reader, however, it actually deserves a few—just not Best Picture. The story of a man (Brad Pitt) who lives life in reverse—from old age to youth—is ultimately moving because it’s so damned, deadly serious. It’s a beautiful piece of work, too, a confirmation that digital cinema has come of age.

The big-screen adaptation of the Broadway (and West End) smash hit Frost/Nixon is a little too wrapped up in its own importance, but not too full of itself to be compelling entertainment. Also, the producers didn’t forget the reason why it was a hit on the stage: the towering performances by Michael Sheen as TV host David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon.

Milk, Gus Van Sant’s biopic of assassinated gay politician Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), is actually a lot more than a biopic. It’s a tribute to a movement and a testament to human dignity in a world running short on both. And, except for some moments in Danny Elfman’s overemphatic musical score, Milk never loses itself in ponderousness; it’s vibrant and alive. It would be a satisfying Best Picture, though it won’t win.

Which brings us to the film that in all likelihood will win, Slumdog Millionaire. My fellow critics love this film as much as I loathe it, so I won’t belabor the point. It’s uplifting and exciting and all that, but which is truly great: The story of a person who fights the most reactionary elements in society to simply live, or the story of a person who wins a quiz show?

—S.S.

Best Director

This year, the Oscar God is in his Heaven: The five nominees for Best Achievement in Direction mirror the five nominees for Best Picture. It’s likely that Danny Boyle will win for Slumdog Millionaire. Which is fascinating, because this is the one film of his in which he didn’t reduce everything to his usual preoccupation—the savage beast emerging from inside the civilized man. (See Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine.) Apparently, he should stick to somebody else’s script more often.

Ron Howard did a good job with Frost/Nixon, synthesizing a lot of historical material into a framework that is a dramatic showdown between two characters. Stephen Daldry pulled off a bit of cinematic legerdemain, obscuring the shallow hand-wringing that is at the heart of The Reader behind a complex flashback structure that makes the film fascinating for the first 45 minutes or so. However, should he really be rewarded for putting lipstick on a pig?

The best directors in this lot are Benjamin Button’s David Fincher and Milk’s Gus Van Sant.

Fincher created a dark, almost morbid visual texture for this fantasy-romance. His seriousness of purpose imbued Benjamin Button with a gravitas totally missing from the performance of its lead actor. Who else would use the film’s flashback structure to kill off the romantic leads at the same time—and in ways that are as anti-romantic as one could imagine? And yet, Benjamin Button is, in the end, a touching romance. Nice work, Mr. Fincher.

Gus Van Sant mixed vintage video and film images with re-creations in Milk, bringing the 1970s alive in a way most period films botch. As noted before, he balanced Harvey Milk’s personal story with its place in the context of a greater social movement, and he did this in a way that relates to today’s headlines. Nice work, Mr. Van Sant.

—S.S.

Best Actress

Angelina Jolie must be spitting tacks. It’s Oscar time, she’s able to slide her supple figure into skin-tight red-carpet couture, but she’s not going to be thanking the Academy. This despite the fact that her movie diva turn in Changeling, as a plucky Depression-era mother fighting a vast bureaucracy to find her kidnapped son, is gut-wrenching. That’s because it looks like a slam-dunk that erstwhile Oscar bridesmaid Kate Winslet will finally get to mount the stage, even though her performance as a former concentration camp guard in The Reader is stiff and hampered by a horrible German accent. But accents count with Academy voters, and the fact that Winslet’s character remains unreconstructed is sort of like the philosophical equivalent of playing a retarded or physically disabled person, another sure thing for the voters. There’s a slim chance that Anne Hathaway will win, something that would make this critic quite happy, but her role, in Rachel Getting Married, despite its stunning mix of fragility, vulnerability, and Amy Winehouse-ish self destruction, isn’t flashy enough. Another performer whom I’d give my eyeteeth to see win would be Melissa Leo, whose gritty turn as a down-on-her-luck mother turned to human smuggling channeled the greatest Barbara Stanwyck roles. And then there’s Meryl Streep, a woman who could no doubt garner an award nomination for passing a kidney stone. Her hundredth (or so it seems) nomination for Doubt is, I’d like to think, a sincere appreciation for providing the only bit of crackle and warmth in that lugubriously stagy adaptation. Sister Aloysius for School Superintendent, sure, but not Streep for another Oscar. It’s going to be Winslet, finally.

—L.L.

Best Actor

Conventional wisdom would have this a two-horse race between Sean Penn (as Harvey Milk in Milk) and Mickey Rourke (as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler). And while both were excellent in roles of differing physicality, their prominence casts an unfortunate shadow on the two other worthy nominees in this category. Richard Jenkins, until now best known as “that guy from that show/movie,” gives a quiet and natural performance as widowed professor Walter Vale in The Visitor; in a role that’s less about action than reaction (and interaction), Jenkins does an excellent job of showing us a real human being. And since Frost/Nixon is a film about television, about the power of the close-up, 75 percent of Frank Langella’s powerful turn as Richard Nixon takes place above the neck. He really ought to be able to take home the Oscar to match his Tony, and Michael Sheen should have been nominated alongside for his work as out-of-his-depth “talk show host” David Frost. (Speaking of being out of his depth, Brad Pitt is one of the weakest nominees this category has seen in years, squeaking in on the strength of the supremely overrated Benjamin Button. He’s capable of very good work, but it wasn’t evident here.)

But back to the front-runners. This could be Sean Penn’s year to join the elite eight, that rare group to take home two Best Actor trophies. And while he is excellent in Gus Van Sant’s stirring biopic, it’s not a role the viewer can get lost in. At no time do you forget that you are watching Sean Penn, and at all times it seems like Penn knows that. (Some might call it Oscar-baiting.) Still, I think he’s got strong odds because the film isn’t going to beat the Slumdog Millionaire juggernaut in the Best Picture category.

But Mickey Rourke stands in his way, and if ever there were a stand-alone performance this is it. Rourke undergoes a complete transformation for the role; perhaps by virtue of this being a fictional character, he is able to create something altogether new and captivating. It’s hard to ignore the obvious parallels between his on-screen and off-screen persona, and harder to ignore the sheer power—physical and emotional—of this performance. If there’s any justice, Rourke takes this in a walk and gives the best acceptance speech ever.

—J.B.

Best Supporting Actor

There are plenty of essay-worthy curiosities in this category. For starters: Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has yet to deliver a subpar performance in his screen career, is excellent in Doubt. But how in God’s name is his a “supporting” role? It’s possible he was pitched in this category as to avoid doing battle against his other great performance this year, in Synecdoche, New York. But of course that film never had a chance. Doesn’t matter, he won’t win.

Robert Downey Jr. is finally given the credit he deserves for a great comic performance—and in blackface, no less. A great performance by any standard, but it doesn’t matter, he won’t win.

Michael Shannon nabbed, surprisingly, the only major nomination for the seemingly surefire Revolutionary Road. But he won’t win. Josh Brolin was actually one of the less interesting parts of the Milk supporting cast; he wasn’t bad, he just didn’t do anything that notable. And it doesn’t matter, he won’t win.

Complaints could be made about those left off the ballot: Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, as the lovable young scamp in Slumdog Millionaire, carried that film on his tiny shoulders for a solid hour. Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, and Sam Rockwell filled out the exceptional cast of the exceptional Frost/Nixon. But it doesn’t matter, they . . . weren’t nominated.

None of this matters, not one bit, because this was the year that Heath Ledger played the Joker in The Dark Knight. And it doesn’t matter, either, that Ledger passed away last year, because his Joker was an absolute work of art—it takes something serious to stand out in an acting field that includes Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. Like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Ledger pushed himself to the limit for the role, and he will be recognized accordingly.

—J.B.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Best Supporting Actress

Let’s get rid of the wasted slot right away: Amy Adams, a normally compelling performer, stunk up the nunnery in Doubt. She seemed so out of her depth, unable to balance the fine line required to depict strength of conviction with flickering uncertainty and, I mean, really, this ability, in this role, is the whole point of the production. This brings me to Adams’ costar, Viola Davis, a respected veteran who earned a lot of praise for her 11-minute, gritty toe-to-toe with Streep’s gorgon mother superior. The fact that Davis doesn’t let a runny nose detract from her conviction was, I think, key to her nomination. However, as was the case when Judi Dench won this award for Shakespeare in Love, or when Beatrice Straight won for Network, it just doesn’t seem to truly equate “supporting.” It’s more like “special guest appearance,” for which perhaps there should be a new prize given. Penelope Cruz did exemplary work in Vicky Christina Barcelona, but the Academy won’t give her honors for, in its opinion, being impossibly sexy. The race, a tight one, is going to be between Oscar veteran Marisa Tomei, who gave a gritty and revealing (really!) turn in The Wrestler, and Taraji P. Henson, who imbued The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with emotional depth and humanity. There are many who still think Tomei wasn’t supposed to win for My Cousin Vinny, when her competition was the thespian quad-fecta Joan Plowright, Judy Davis, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson, so perhaps this could be her vindication year. I hate to play the race card, especially in this historic year, but the fact that Henson is African-American could give her the edge, as the Academy voters, in their inimitable crass way, would like to show just how, er, color-blind they are. If Button doesn’t get many of the bigger prizes, it would make sense for the Academy to compensate by bestowing on it one of the “minor” acting statuettes.

—L.L.

Best Original Screenplay

Best Adapted Screenplay

You’d have to be a real Mr. Potter not to root for local hero Courtney Hunt in the Best Original Screenplay category for Frozen River, the terrific drama about hard-bitten lives in an upstate New York short on jobs and hope. There’s nothing else like it in any Oscar category this year. She has a good chance, provided Academy voters don’t decide to give Milk (and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black) this one as a consolation prize for not winning Best Picture. It’s hard to see WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Pete Doctor) or Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh) winning here, but Martin McDonaugh is the dark horse—his In Bruges was one of the year’s more delightful surprises.

For Best Adapted Screenplay, Slumdog Millionaire (Simon Beaufoy) is probably a lock. One hopes John Patrick Shanley (Doubt), Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon), David Hare (The Reader) and Eric Roth and Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) enjoy the nominees’ lunch.

—S.S.

Best Costume Design

Try to remember an Academy Awards show in which the nominees for Costume Design, shown in brief clips that don’t do justice to the importance of the category, weren’t dominated by costume dramas. Clearly, the challenge of combining historical accuracy with stunning screen presence is monumental, and ample reason why movies such as Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Memoirs of a Geisha beat out challengers like The Queen, Dreamgirls or Walk the Line. Attention to detail, of course, is very important, but the farther you have to go back in time, the better your chances for Oscar gold. For instance, last year’s Elizabeth blew away worthy contenders whose stories were of more recent vintage, namely Albert Wolsky for Across the Universe and Jacqueline Durran for Atonement. The Academy voters like plush velvets and such, regardless of the fact that, for instance, the bias-cut Kelly green gown that Durran designed for Keira Knightly was an essential component of storytelling and character development. I offer this brief analysis in order to put this year’s contenders into better perspective. They are: Catherine Martin for Australia; Jacqueline West for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Michael O’Connor for The Duchess; Danny Glider for Milk, and Albert Wolsky for Revolutionary Road. Let’s just say, nice try Messrs. Glider and Wolsky, but perhaps staying at home on Sunday evening is in order this year. Martin’s outback wear was appropriate, but not that interesting, and West ably demonstrates the march of time and style trends over the course of Button’s decades-long timeline. But it’s a no brainer that O’Connor will win for the outrageously detailed and patterned ensembles, for both sexes, he created in The Duchess. What’s nice is that it’s not just about the lushness; his wardrobes do, in fact, underline personality traits and sociologic imperatives for his characters.

—L.L.

Slumdog Millionaire

Best Cinematography

This category traditionally has some surprises, both in nominees and winners. In 1935, Hal Mohr won for his gorgeous cinematography for A Midsummer Night’s Dream through write-in ballots; apparently not amused, the Academy banned write-in votes the next year. This year, it’s noms for Changeling and The Dark Knight.

This year’s best nominees are Tom Stern for re-creating the look of 1930s Los Angeles in Changeling; Claudio Miranda for the wondrous images of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; and Wally Pfister’s cold, clear Gotham in The Dark Knight. Hard to say why The Reader (Chris Menges and Roger Deakins) is nominated; Slumdog Millionaire (Anthony Dod Mantle) will probably win.

—S.S.

Best Original Song

Why talk about the Best Original Song category? Because this year, we may just be witnessing its undoing. Only two times in the history of the Academy Awards have there been just three Best Original Song nominees: the 61st awards in 1988 (Carly Simon won for “Let the River Run” from Working Girl), and the 78th, in 2005 (in which the winner, Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp,” was given my single favorite staging in the history of the ceremony). This year, the Academy saw fit to name only three songs worthy of Oscar contention: two A.R. Rahman compositions from Slumdog Millionaire (“O Saya” and “Jai Ho”) and Peter Gabriel’s “Down to Earth” (from Wall-E). These are all fine songs, all three. But there are some glaring omissions. Like “Get off my lawn” glaring.

First and foremost: the Golden Globe winner, Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wrestler.” Some have complained that it’s Springsteen-by-numbers, but that’s exactly what was required. It’s a beautiful song that stands up on its own, and as a reflection of the film it was written for. It might be the best title song for a major motion picture since, um . . . “A View to a Kill.” Seriously though, it makes more sense in context (and it’s a better song) than Springsteen’s previous Oscar-winner (“Streets of Philadelphia”). For it not to be nominated shows a great deal of ignorance on the part of the Academy, and forbids an interesting potential hat trick: This could have been only the third time that the same film won for Best Original Song and Best Actor, following in the footsteps of 1945’s Going My Way and . . . Philadelphia.

Also absent from the list are Globe nominee Clint Eastwood, whose Gran Torino theme song was ignored (along with his lead performance); Beyoncé’s “Once in a Lifetime,” the only song from the music-packed Cadillac Records that could be nominated by Academy standards (and also a Globe nominee); and two songs that probably were excluded on the “Blame Canada” rule: Hamlet 2 centerpiece “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” and “Dracula’s Lament,” from Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Part of the reason for this year’s slim crop could be a new limitation on the number of eligible songs; after the last two years, in which films with three nominated songs came away empty-handed, the Academy limited the allowable number to two. But that should have left room for at least Eastwood and Springsteen. The way it stands, it really doesn’t matter who wins.

—J.B.

 

Smackdown!

Will Mickey Rourke win his Oscar by putting a hammerlock on Sean Penn? Will Slumdog Millionaire pin well-heeled Benjamin Button in a Best Picture steel-cage match? Metroland’s movie critics pick the winners in Oscarmania 81

Best Picture

Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated

Brodeur Slumdog Millionaire Frost/Nixon WALL-E The Curious Case of

Benjamin Button

Leon Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire The Dark Knight The Reader

Stone Slumdog Millionaire Milk WALL-E Slumdog Millionaire

 

Best Director

Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated

Brodeur Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight none

Leon Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon Martin McDonagh, In Bruges Stephen Daldry, The Reader

Stone Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire Gus Van Sant, Milk Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

 

Best Actress

Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated

Brodeur Kate Winslet, The Reader Melissa Leo, Frozen River Kate Beckinsale, Snow Angels none

Leon Kate Winslet, The Reader Melissa Leo, Frozen River Sally Hawkins, Happy Go Lucky Kate Winslet, The Reader

Stone Meryl Streep, Doubt Melissa Leo, Frozen River Kristin Scott Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long none

 

Best Actor

Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated

Brodeur Mickey Rouke, The Wrestler Mickey Rouke, The Wrestler Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of

Benjamin Button

Leon Mickey Rouke, The Wrestler Mickey Rouke, The Wrestler Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of

Benjamin Button

Stone Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of

Benjamin Button

 

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated

Brodeur Viola Davis, Doubt Viola Davis, Doubt Dianne Wiest, Synechdoche, New York Amy Adams, Doubt

Leon Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of

Benjamin Button Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married Amy Adams, Doubt

Stone Viola Davis, Doubt Viola Davis, Doubt Samantha Morton, Synechdoche, New York Amy Adams, Doubt

 

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated

Brodeur Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Slumdog Millionaire none

Leon Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight Colin Farrell, In Bruges none

Stone Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight Tom Noonan, Synecdoche, New York Josh Brolin, Milk


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