February 19, 2009

And the Oscar goes to...

Well, it's that time of the year again when the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selects the winners of its major award, the famous golden statuette known as "Oscar". There are many important film awards across the globe, from recognitions given at Festivals to the awards given by professional film critics or by guilds, not to mention the awards by other National Academies (the Mexican Ariel and the BAFTA awards for example); however, despite being a group of awards based almost entirely on the American film industry, the Oscars still have that strange power to fascinate audiences, and even when it's been proved that their rules by no means proved an objective selection of the best, some still consider them the big prize of the year. Perhaps it's the show, perhaps is just Hollywood magic, but the Oscars still continue to fascinate us whether we admit it or not (and sometimes those who most adamantly scream that they don't care about them, wouldn't mind to have one over their chimney).

Anyways, on Febryary 22, 2009, we'll get to know the results of this year's Awards, and well, considering that at the end of last year I had only seen 16 films released on 2008, I decided to give a rest to my focus on the classics for a while and spend the first two months of 2009 getting updated on 2008 cinema. All with the purpose of having an opinion made for the awards season. As I expected, I agree with very few of the nominees of this year's Oscars, and I dare to say that compared with the awards of the previous two years, this time the selection is pretty uninteresting. Don't get me wrong, the 5 films that are competing for the Best Film award are good, but in my opinion, not really the best that the last year offered. So here at W-Cinema, we have now the obligatory post about the Oscar, with thoughts and ideas about some of the nominees, as well as the films I think should really be considered the best of 2008's American cinema.

Best Picture:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
The Reader.
Slumdog Millionaire.

As written above, I find the selection to be pretty typical safe choices, in the sense that while the 5 are good films, I doubt that they will stand the test of time as important, influential pieces of cinema. If anything, Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" and Gus Van Sant's "Milk" are in my opinion the two best films, and the only worthy contenders for the award. Of the two I would vote for "Slumdog Millionaire", because despite offering a reworking of Hollywood's classic romantic melodrama, it's done with such a fresh and distinctive style that in my opinion, makes it a tad more enjoyable than Van Sant's chronicle about Harvey Milk's life. Of the rest, I found Stephen Daldry's "The Reader" to be pretty interesting, but shallow, and David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" to lack soul. Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon" is certainly his best film, and would be my choice if it wasn't for Van Sant and Boyle's movies. Probably because of my belief in the auteur theory, I find kind of interesting to compare the best movie of a slightly-above-average director (Howard) with a slightly-above-average film by a talented one (Fincher). Forced to pick one amongst the 5, W-Cinema picks Boyle's "Slumdog Millinaire" for Best Picture.

Best Director:
Danny Boyle – Slumdog Millionaire.
Stephen Daldry – The Reader.
David Fincher – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Ron Howard – Frost/Nixon.
Gus Van Sant – Milk.

Then we have of course the Best Directing category, which has the same 5 nominees of the Best Picture award lined up again. As written above, I consider Howard's "Frost/Nixon" to be quite a remarkable achievement for his career, as not only he proves he is a competent craftsman (nothing new, I must admit he has always had good a technique), he finally makes a film where the story shines free of compromises, and for that alone I think he should get an award. On the basis that he is the only one that made something beyond his usual. Or well, I would say that if it wasn't for Boyle's directing of "Slumdog Millionaire", in which he mixed a terrific work of editing and cinematography to make a superb oddity of magic realism. Other than Boyle and Howard, I don't see anyone worthy enough of such award. Van Sant's directing is pretty much straight forward, although his work with the cast is superb (though the real star is the film's remarkable script). The opposite side is Fincher's work, which is a visual joy, but at times kind of emotionless and shallow (courtesy of its screenplay). Daldry in "The Reader" is good and effective, but nothing out of this world. So, as in Best Picture, "Slumdog Millionaire" is my pick again, and the prize goes to Danny Boyle.

Best Actor
Richard Jenkins – The Visitor.
Frank Langella – Frost/Nixon.
Sean Penn – Milk.
Brad Pitt – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler.

In the Best Leading Actor we find one of the movies I think was tragically snubbed for the Best Picture category: "The Wrestler". In my opinion, Mickey Rourke's brutal performance as aged wrestler Randy the Ram is easily the best work amongst the 5 nominees. Well, perhaps "easily" is not the most appropriate word, as Frank Langella's work as President Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon" is equally as deserving as Rourke's. But still, if only for the fact that "The Wrestler" was not recognized in the Best Picture, I pick Mckey Rourke for the Best Actor award. About the rest, I must admit not having seen "The Visitor" yet, so I can't have an opinion about it, but I do have things to say about Penn and Pitt. Sean Penn's performance as Harvey Milk is excellent, but I don't see it on the same level as Rourke's Wrestler or Langella's Nixon. I have no idea about why is Pitt on the list of nominees, as he has delivered better performances than his work as Benjamin Button.

Best Actress:
Anne Hathaway – Rachel Getting Married.
Angelina Jolie – Changeling.
Melissa Leo – Frozen River.
Meryl Streep – Doubt.
Kate Winslet – The Reader.

Since at the time I write this I have not seen neither "Rachel Getting Married" nor "Frozen River", to have an established opinion in this category, specially since word of mouth says Anne Hathway is excellent in "Rachel Getting Married". However, the battle seems to be focused between Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet. While it's true that Streep is definitely the best American actress of the modern times, I find difficult to name her as the winner because personally, I found her performance to be a bit over the top. Granted, her character is an extreme personality, but still, something wasn't that convincing. Named the favorite, Kate Winslet certainly has had a terrific year, but of her two main works of the year, I would have preferred to see her nominated for "Revolutionary Road" than for "The Reader". In fact, I probably would had given her the award without too much hesitation. Finally, I must admit that Angelina Jolie's work in "Changeling" was a pleasant surprise, and probably her best work since "Girl, Interrupted". In conclusion, I won't name a favorite as neither Streep nor Winslet fully convince me and while Jolie is great (really great), she's not definitively superior to them.

Best Supporting Actor:
Josh Brolin – Milk.
Robert Downey, Jr. – Tropic Thunder.
Philip Seymour Hoffman – Doubt.
Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight.
Michael Shannon – Revolutionary Road.

Let me say it clearly: no, I don't find Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker as the year's best. In fact, a part of me wonders why was he nominated and not Aaron Eckhart. I mean, his work is remarkable, yes, but as a whole, "The Dark Knight" owes its power to its screenplay. Now that it was said, let's continue with Robert Downey Jr. whom I consider a genius, but despite that, I seriously wonder why was he nominated for "Tropic Thunder". Honestly. Personally, I would have nominated Brendan Gleeson for "In Bruges" (another tragically snubbed film), where he delivers what is simply one of his best performances ever. Anyways, between Philip Seymour Hoffman, Josh Brolin and Michael Shannon, I would pick Michael Shannon's work in "Revolutionary Road" (a film I'm beginning to see as the result of a faulty script saved by a competent director and two masterful performances: Shannon and Winslet). Brolin is the favorite of the crowds (or well, the favorite of those not invaded by nostalgia about Ledger), but Shannon's work is haunting, just haunting.

Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams – Doubt.
Penélope Cruz – Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Viola Davis – Doubt.
Taraji P. Henson – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Marisa Tomei – The Wrestler.

I think that Amy Adams has an incredibly bright future ahead, and her work in "Doubt" is just another proof of how talented she is. But still, I'm inclined to say that neither she nor her "Doubt" costar, Viola Davis, will get the award. At least I wouldn't give it to them, despite the fact that both deliver great performances in a film filled with super acting work. Taraji P. Henson, while being the best actress in all "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is another that wouldn't be my pick amongst the five. No, the choice for me is just between Penélope Cruz's psychotic Maria Elena and Marisa Tomei's strong (yet strangely sweet) Cassidy. While I described the two characters with only a couple of adjective, they are incredibly complex and the actresses who play them truly make a terrific job in their roles. Cruz has never been a favorite of mine, but she surprised me completely in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona". On the other hand, Marisa Tomei's subtle, natural performance in "The Wrestler" left me breathless. I can't choose, I will be happy with any of them winning. OK, I may give Cruz a slight preference at the moment.

Best Original Screenplay:
WALL·E - Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon and Pete Docter.
Happy-Go-Lucky - Mike Leigh.
Frozen River - Courtney Hunt.
In Bruges - Martin McDonagh.
Milk - Dustin Lance Black.

Being unable to have an opinion regarding "Frozen River" and "Happy-Go-Lucky", I'll focus on the other three, which certainly are three of the best original screenplays of the past year. "WALL·E"'s simple, yet timeless story is probably the favorite, but personally, I think it loses a lot of steam by the end, where the film's message gets too obvious and the love story takes the backseat. A shame, cause the first two acts are pure perfection. I guess I'll be pretty disappointed if it actually wins (and probably it will). On the other hand, "Milk" and "In Bruges" are two masterpieces of writing, one being an extremely detailed portrait of a man's crusade and the other the best comedy of the year. Dustin Lance Black's "Milk" is quite an achievement not only in the level of detail it includes, but also on how intimate its representation of Milk's life is. It's certainly a winning screenplay, but as written above, "In Bruges" is in my opinion amongst the real best 5 films in English of the year, and a lot of that comes from the movie's brilliantly funny script. Seriously, if it doesn't win, it'll be an injustice.

Best Adapted Screenplay:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Eric Roth and Robin Swicord.
Frost/Nixon - Peter Morgan.
The Reader - David Hare.
Slumdog Millionaire - Simon Beaufoy.
Doubt - John Patrick Shanley.

I'm not entirely happy with Roth and Swicord's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", I mean, it's a terrific story, but I just couldn't help but feeling that Roth was trying to make a deep point by using the most clichéd resources. Something similar happened to me with David Hare's adaptation of "The Reader", which left me the impression of having seen an important theme being treated on a shallow way by giving more importance to an illicit love story. Simon Beaufoy's "Slumdog Millionaire" is a great piece of work, but I think that the two best adaptations of a previously written material came from stage plays this year: "Doubt" and "Frost/Nixon". And of the two, I pick "Frost/Nixon" as the serious contender for the award. "Doubt" is remarkable, but what Morgan does with "Frost/Nixon" is to make more than just a filmed play (something that "Doubt" can't help but do a couple of times), but a wonderfully constructed story that seems to be done for film instead of a play. Outstanding work.

Best Animated Feature:
Bolt – Chris Williams and Byron Howard.
Kung Fu Panda – Mark Osborne and John Stevenson.
WALL·E – Andrew Stanton.

No contest. "WALL·E" will simply roll over both the dog and the panda. Easy as that.

Well, those are W-Cinema's thoughts and rants about this year's Academy Awards. Anyways, If I was the one in charge, now that I have been able to give the year a better review than what I did last December, I would nominate the following films for Best Picture:

Låt den rätte komma in (2008, Tomas Alfredson)
WALL·E (2008, Andrew Stanton)
The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky)
The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)
In Bruges (2008, Martin McDonagh)

The prize of course, would go to that Swedish miracle that is "Låt den rätte komma in" ("Let the Right One In"), but OK, let's play by Academy Awards rules and pretend that it wins the Best Foreign Film category and that "WALL·E" is placed on the Best Animated feature. With that in mind, my nominees would be...

The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky)
The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)
In Bruges (2008, Martin McDonagh)
Gran Torino (2008, Clint Eastwood)
Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan)

To me, those are the top five. But hey, nobody cares about Oscars, right?


Marin Mandir said...

Best Picture

"As written above, I find the selection to be pretty typical safe choices"
I agree, though nominating "Button" was quite a surprise, since it's not that often at al that they nominate a fantasy film in any relevant category.

"I found Stephen Daldry's "The Reader" to be pretty interesting, but shallow, and David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" to lack soul"
Wait a minute, didn't you give both of those films a 8/10? Isn't that suppose to be excellent? And then again, it seems as if the true nature and quality of a film comes with time, when you can judge it better. Anyway, "Slumdog" is an interesting pick, and the Golden Globes and the BAFTA awards agree with you.

Best Actor

You know, I would also love it if Mickey Rourke would win the award. If anything, I have to admit that I have a soft spot for underdog outsiders who somehow manage to achieve a comeback and return to top notch shape. Though I'm affraid Penn or Pitt might win the award. Namely, Rourke won the Globe and the BAFTA, but the Academy always likes to award actors playing a famous/eccentric celebrity, which is why Seymour Hoffman won for "Capote", Whitaker for "King of Scotlland" etc. Penn has the biggest chances to win for "Milk", the same as he won back in 2004 for "Mystic River".

Best Supporting Actor

"Let me say it clearly: no, I don't find Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker as the year's best. In fact, a part of me wonders why was he nominated and not Aaron Eckhart"
Exactly. Ledger's role was good, but really *that* good? Since we don't find out anything about the Joker's past or his psychological reasons why he is the way he is, he is a character with not that complete persona. It's not fair to compare him with Nicholson's Joker, but that was one character that was arguably better developed. I also agree that Eckhart's role was more engaing on a more subtle level.
As for why they nominated Robert Downey Jr...Pure chance! Don't believe me? When was the last time they nominated an actor for a pure comedy? Ages ago...But Downey is a good actor and they wanted to have an autoironic jab on the industry for his role as a "method actor", which is why they nominated him.
But since I haven't seen so many films in 2008, I can't say who should win.

Best Supporting Actress

Now this is a controversial topic. And I'm sure I'll cause quite a heated debate, but I have to be honest: despite the fact that Penelope Cruz won a BAFTA and the New York Film Critics Circle Award, I found her role in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" to be quite unnecessary, pale and not special at all. If anything, Rebecca Hall and Javier Bardem should have been nominated: they were amazing in that film! I sat through the first 50 minutes of the film and was enchanted by their chemistry, and thought: "Wow...if they are such great characters and they weren't even nominated for the award, I can't wait until Cruz shows up: she must have a super special role that even tops them!" But my oh my, was I wrong...Cruz is a great actress, but her role in the film was written completely wrong. She was the film's third wheel that wrecked the original love-triangle relationship. But I guess since there was no room for the other actors, they nominated her for the category that was left empty this year. I think Marisa Tomei should win the award though...Time and time again, she proves she can really act and have great charisma at the same time.

Best Animated Film

Considering I haven't seen any anime from 2008, I simply can't make a pick for this category. American animation can be great, but I still have to admit that the Japanese animation holds all the surprises and still handles adult themes with ease. WALL-e was a sweet film, and it will probably win. Though I have to say, I'm sad they didn't have this categoryback in the 1980s when they could have awarded Don Bluth - he is one of the most neglected animation masters of that time.

Anyway, great topic that cowered a lot of ground. Cheers.

cinemarchaeologist said...

I've been pretty contemptuous of the Academy Awards--wrote a piece not so long ago about bad Best Picture choices.

Oddly enough, I don't think I've seen a single one of this year's nominees yet, but I detect the tell-tale signs of another year of poor ballot choices--it's the same small handful of movies in nearly every category. In Academy history, that's always a sign of great work being aggressively overlooked.

J Luis Rivera said...

Marin: Oh, my numbers are not to be trusted, hehehe. Both are like B-, while "Frost/Nixon"'s 8/10 is like a B+.

Although you are right, I guess I'll have to give those two a 7/10 now.