No, I didn’t crawl out of bed to see who snagged Oscar nominations. I’m not quite that dedicated to the Oscars. OK, so let’s be honest, I’m not that impressed by the Oscars, period. They simply have too long a history of overlooking anything and anyone that might frighten the horses in favor of the safely middle-brow. (Remember the look on Robert Altman’s face when he was passed over for Ron Howard? Or the furor over Crash beating out Brokeback Mountain?) All the same, it’s impossible to be interested in movies and completely ignore the damned things however irrelevant you think they are. That means, of course, that as soon as I was up and had become sufficiently caffienated and nicotinized that my eyes would focus, I sought out the list.
With the exception of a couple unlikely to win nods to the existence of the world of indie film—Richard Jenkins’ Best Actor nomination for The Visitor and Melissa Leo’s Best Actress one for Frozen River—it was fairly predictable and rife with the Hollywood politics to be expected every year. At least I hope the nomination for Angelina Jolie as Best Actress for her performance in Changeling was Hollywood politics and not actually grounded in her ability to scream “my son” every few moments. Hey, she’s a big name, she’s glamorous and they couldn’t very well nominate her for Wanted. Perhaps the biggest surprises came in the form of The Dark Knight and WALL-E being absent from Best Motion Picture consideration.
So what do we have? Well, let’s look at them in order.
For Best Motion Picture we have The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader and Slumdog Millionaire. The only surprise there is The Reader and shutting out Revolutionary Road and The Dark Knight. In truth, both the choice and the omission of the other two suit me fine. I don’t honestly think The Reader has a hope in hell of winning, but I’m glad to see it up there—and amused by the prospect of all those Oscar-doping theater chains kicking themselves for choosing this week to drop it from most of their theaters and pushing Revolutionary Road into them. (Don’t be surprised if The Reader reappears next week.). At the same time, they’re doubtless patting themselves on the back for getting Slumdog Millionaire into saturation mode (perhaps too much saturation) and opening Frost/Nixon.
For my money, there’s only one choice—Slumdog Millionaire. The race, however, is going to be unusually interesting. Setting aside The Reader as a very dark horse, cases can be made for all of the four others in Oscar terms. Slumdog has the edge critically—but that might work against it with the Academy. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has serious Oscar appeal. It’s long (Oscar likes long; they think it means “important”) and it has a Hollywood star in the lead. But don’t underestimate the mid-cult appeal of Frost/Nixon. It has historical import. It’s solidly crafted, but not particularly exciting (or threatening) filmmaking. It has a dynamic performance from Frank Langella as Nixon. It’s a Ron Howard film and he’s the perfect Oscar filmmaker—serious-minded, but very accessible and audience-friendly. Plus, he seems like a nice guy. At the same time, Milk has historical import, too. The gay aspect could go either way for it. It might work against it, or the Academy voters might want to show no homophobia was involved in voting for the mediocre Crash over the far from mediocre Brokeback Mountain. I’m pulling for Slumdog all the way.
In the Best Actor realm we find Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, Langella in Frost/Nixon, Sean Penn in Milk, Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. I doubt that Jenkins has a chance, especially since the Academy has Mickey Rourke to choose from in a film that also carries some indie film cred. Personally, I’m solidly for Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, but I’d be cool with Rourke or Langella. All three give remarkable performances. Brad Pitt has that movie star thing going for him and that may counter the fact that his Benjamin Button is stupefyingly bland. My guess, though, is that Rourke will end up with the award.
Best Actress comes down to Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married, Angelina Jolie in Changeling, Melissa Leo in Frozen River, Meryl Streep in Doubt and Kate Winslet in—surprise!—The Reader. Winslet’s nomination is really something of a shocker. Yesterday, the smart money would have had her nominated, but for Revolutionary Road. My own suspicion is that this choice has as much to do with slapping the Weinsteins in the face as it has to do with merit. The Weinsteins’ push for her in the Supporting Actress category with The Reader was such a barefaced attempt to not lose out to her performance in Revolutionary Road that it was impossible to ignore. There’s no question that her role in The Reader is a lead, not a supporting one. That it’s also a far better performance is another matter—and probably irrelevant in Academy terms. In any case, Winslet is my personal choice.
Who will actually win Best Actress? That’s a really hard call. Hathaway is a good bet, but hardly a shoo-in. It’s a terrific performance housed in a messy movie that didn’t exactly set attendance records. The Jolie factor is formidable, even if I personally think it’s a ludicrous choice. Melissa Leo was very good in a movie not that many people saw. It could go to Meryl Streep almost by default, though she’d be my personal second choice.
Best Supporting Actor is probably a lock for Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, but he has interesting competition from Josh Brolin in Milk, Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt and Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road. My actual choice would have been James Franco in Milk, but since he’s not on the list there’s a perverse side of me that would love to see Robert Downey Jr. win. I don’t think it would be a bad choice on any level, but I also don’t think it’s likely. Then again, I didn’t think a nomination was likely either. Hoffman feels kind of shoe-horned in, since his role in Doubt is really a lead. Michael Shannon is certainly the liveliest thing in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, but that’s not saying much. Still, his character in the film is supposed to be crazy and Oscar loves crazy. Josh Brolin is very good in Milk and my money would would be on him if he wasn’t up against Ledger’s Joker.
With Winslet out of the Best Supporting Actress category, this becomes an interesting race. We have Amy Adams in Doubt, Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Viola Davis in Doubt, Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler. That’s a pretty strong list. I’d go for Viola Davis, whose performance in Doubt is shattering in its brutal honesty, but I think she’s a long shot. Adams is, I suspect, an even longer shot. I’m delighted to see Taraji P. Henson nominated, but she’s done better work (Hustle & Flow, Talk to Me) than her turn in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. She’s good, but like everything else about the movie (apart from the overlooked Tilda Swinton), there’s something curiously remote about the performance. Tomei’s performance in The Wrestler is not only very good, but it’s a brave one. I’m leaning toward Penelope Cruz as the best bet—and that’s fine. Even though I’d prefer Davis, I’d be good with this choice. Thing is, I love all these women and I’d have a hard time being upset with any of them winning.
In theory the race for Best Director is supposed to be between Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire and David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. So far as I’m concerned, Boyle deserves it beyond any possible choice—nominated or otherwise. Oscar voters, on the other hand, are inscrutable in these matters, but it probably doesn’t help that Boyle is something of an outsider, especially up against Fincher. With that in mind, it would be foolish to rule out Ron Howard for Frost/Nixon. Van Sant is a possibility, but not, I think, a strong one. The darkest horse—and the biggest surprise, especially since it snubs Christopher Nolan for The Dark Knight—is Stephen Daldry for The Reader. A win for him is just unlikely. It might be kind of amusing. Or it would be, if it wouldn’t be barefaced robbery for anyone but Danny Boyle to win.
The Best Original Screenplay choices are a strange mix. We have Courtney Hunt for Frozen River, Mike Leigh for Happy-Go-Lucky, Martin McDonagh for In Bruges, Dustin Lance Black for Milk and Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Jim Reardon for WALL-E. Much as I liked Happy-Go-Lucky and much as I love Milk, I’m in McDonagh’s corner here. Not only did he elevate swearing to an art form (its only competition ever may be Barry Sandler’s script for Crimes of Passion), but In Bruges is one of the most cleverly constructed screenplays in living memory. I admit to just completely not “getting” the noms for Frozen River and WALL-E, and they both seem unlikely winners to me. I’m guessing the Academy will plop for Milk, but I wouldn’t lay money on it.
The Best Adapted Screenplay surprises once again by including David Hare’s script for The Reader and ignoring Justin Haythe’s for Revolutionary Road. The choices of Eric Roth and Robin Swicord for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Simon Beaufoy for Slumdog Millionaire were a given, while neither John Patrick Shanley for Doubt and Peter Morgan for Frost/Nixon are greatly suprising. Sanity would dictate Simon Beaufoy for Slumdog as the winner, but politics will probably win out. It’s for Oscar show moments like the probability of a Benjamin Button win that I am forbidden to keep bricks handy while watching.
Well, we’re already down to writing awards, which means we’re already past the awards that most people care that much about. As a result, I’ve no intention of weighing in on cinematography, editing, etc. I will say that I’m conflicted in the Original Musical Score department. I couldn’t possibly choose between Danny Elfman’s Milk score and A.R. Rahman’s score for Slumdog Millionaire. However, if “Jai Ho” by Rahman and Gulzar from Slumdog doesn’t nab Best Original Song, there ain’t no justice. We all know that WALL-E will grab Best Animated Feature. It’s a wonder they bothered nominating anything else. The Best Foreign Language Film is completely…well, foreign to me this year. Not a single entry has made it to town yet and no one bothered to send screeners for any of the nominees. The buzz, however, indicates the choice will be Waltz with Bashir, which at least is slated to show up.
And there you have it—at least till all will be revealed on February 22. I’ll be there—sans bricks, especially since I have a nice new flat screen TV. Passion is sometimes outweighed by practicality.