Thursday, January 22, 2009
2008 Oscar Nominations
Just when I thought I had a handle on the collective thinking of the Academy Award voters, they made “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a film totally ignored by all the critics’ groups, one of the most nominated pictures in Oscar history.
In recent years, the Oscar nominations have hewed closer and closer to the collective thinking of those journalistic organizations (National Society of Film Critics, National Board of Review and the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics) and this year they can certainly take credit for the acting nominations of Melissa Leo in “Frozen River,” Penelope Cruz in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor.” And would “Slumdog Millionaire” have scored 10 nominations without the accumulative support of those groups, the Golden Globes (voted on by the foreign press) and the countless individual critics who placed it on the top of their end-of-the-year lists?
But “Benjamin Button” is clearly a special case and a film that now becomes the only real competition for “Slumdog” in the best picture race. The film is the eighth in Oscar history to earn 13 nominations (which ranks second to the 14 scored by “All About Eve” and “Titanic”) joining another Oscar favorite that it closely resembles, “Forrest Gump” (1994). Oscar voters have long had a soft spot in their hearts for epics (or maybe just long films) and this was about the only major 2008 release that fit into that category.
While I didn’t think for a second that my pick for the year’s best film (the little-seen “Synecdoche, New York”) would make the cut, I was surprised that two over-praised films, “The Dark Knight” and “Doubt” were left off the best picture list. Maybe even more surprising than the multiple nominations for “Benjamin Button” was the inclusion of “The Reader,” a film that received mediocre reviews and scant box office support. To me it’s an interesting but minor film boosted by a great performance by Kate Winslet. But it fits into the mold of “Benjamin Button” and “Slumdog,” by dramatizing characters as they age (or, in “Button’s” case, get younger).
The other best picture selections, “Milk” and “Frost/Nixon,” are two of the best films of the year (my Top 10 will be included in February’s Thoughts on Film) and I was glad to see the Academy voters recognize them.
By following the critics, the Oscar nominations in the acting categories were mostly dead on. I was especially pleased to see Jenkins receive a nod as best actor for “The Visitor,” an off-beat film released early in 2008 that I worried would be forgotten as the Christmas releases hit screens. While Brad Pitt is quite good in “Benjamin Button,” I would have given his spot to Josh Brolin for his amazing portrayal of the ex-president in “W.”
Brolin did score a nod for his first-rate supporting work as Dan White in “Milk” as did Robert Downey Jr. for his hilarious work in the Hollywood satire “Tropic Thunder.” I’m less sure about the nominations for Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Doubt” (is that really a supporting role?), Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” (a one-note performance elevated by his tragic death) and Michael Shannon in “Revolutionary Road” (an almost comic performance in an otherwise painfully serious film), and would rather have seen recognition for Eddie Marsan as the argumentative cabbie in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Emile Hirsch in “Milk,” Sam Rockwell in “Frost/Nixon,” Dennis Hopper in “Elegy” or James Cromwell as Bush 41 in “W.”
The big surprises in the best actress category were the absences of Sally Hawkins, who earned awards from three of the four top critics’ groups, for her enthusiastic performance in “Happy-Go-Lucky” and Kristin Scott Thomas for her heartbreaking work as an ex-con in the French film “I’ve Love You So Long,” arguably the most impressive performance of the year.
In smaller films, it would have been great to see Cruz get nominated for “Elegy” and Samantha Morton in “Synecdoche, New York,” but I’d be hard pressed to eliminate any of the five who were selected.
There’s not a bad pick among the supporting actress selections, but equally deserving were Emily Watson in “Synecdoche, New York” and Rosemarie DeWitt as the sister in “Rachel Getting Married.”
I usually pay little attention to the original song category, but who in the world thought the two songs from “Slumdog Millionaire” were more worthy than Bruce Springsteen’s song for “The Wrestler?”
Among the writing nominations, the voters made smart picks in the original screenplay category with Courtney Hunt for “Frozen River” and Martin McDonagh for “In Bruges.” But a writing nod for “Wall-E”! More deserving were Robert Siegel’s superb script for “The Wrestler” or Charlie Kaufman’s astonishing and outrageous work on “Synecdoche, New York”
Since the nominations were reduced to five in each category in 1944, this was only the fifth time that there was perfect alignment in the best director and best picture nominations. I think most observers expected Christopher Nolan to score a nod for his direction of “The Dark Knight” even if the film didn’t make the cut. Instead, I would have loved to have seen the voters add Oliver Stone to the list, a recognition of his superb, even-handed look at the unlikely life of George W. Bush in “W.”
So, who’s going to win? I’m leaning toward “Benjamin Button” for best picture (but maybe that’s just me rooting against “Slumdog”), Mickey Rourke as best actor (they love a comeback role) and Winslet as best actress (the first performer to receive six nominations by age 33, yet she still hasn’t won). But I wouldn’t be surprised to see Danny Boyle win the Oscar for directing “Slumdog.”
It seems to be a given that Ledger will win the supporting actor, but the supporting actress category is wide open. Right now, I’d put my money on Viola Davis for her short, but unforgettable performance as the mother in “Doubt.”