Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Mon Oncle Oscar

Has there been a more lacklustre Oscar season in living memory? I certainly don’t recall one. This is not just the lethargy of a Hollywood that was crippled by an operose writers’ strike last year. The approaching storm of the writers’ strike affected many studios’ summer stock last year rather than their prestige pictures, and was also the reason why, for example, there was an X-Files sequel (and why we almost got a half-baked JLA movie). Coming as it does in the wake of an exceptional movie year in 2007, 2008 was always going to fell a bit lame. But there’s always an excuse (just ask Shane Hurlbut).

Contrary to popular, and rather cynical, belief that films nominated for an Oscar are all nothing but tawdry Hollywood product, the Oscars can, and usually do, showcase some of the best American films of any given year. They usually evoke excitement, even if the previous year was less than stellar. Some years are magnificent all round – last year was one, as was 1999. But this year’s Oscar nominees all seem to be lacking that oomph factor, which incites enthusiasm in even your most blasé moviegoer. I have yet to see all of them, but that should be remedied by this weekend when The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader both open locally. I am not saying that this year’s best film nominees are bad – Frost/Nixon, Milk and Slumdog Millionaire are all flawed, to varying degrees, but one would be hard-pressed to call them all egregious (mind you, Jim Emerson over at Scanners, makes a great case for the ultimate failure of Slumdog, a film he hilariously describes as “Charles Dickens, written in the style of Jackie Collins”). It’s just that, among the nominees, there is not one single film that fills me with unadulterated cinematic passion and joy (o-hoo tidings of passion and joy - passion and joy). Allow me a moment to reflect on the best film nominees of this decade so far before I do like Nostradamus and predict the winners weeks in advance (I'm awesome):

No Country for Old Men (winner)
Michael Clayton
There Will Be Blood (piss off)

A great list of films in a truly amazing year with only one bad apple among them, and even that one can be excused because it is so loud and so boisterous and so fricking quotable (not since the original Star Wars have so many pop-culture phrases emanated from one single movie). Juno was adorable, Michael Clayton was solid, Atonement was sad, and No Country for Old Men was, and is, the best film of the decade. Yes, I disliked There Will Be Blood, but at least it had a sort of feistiness and fervour going for it – an observation that cannot be extended towards this year’s bunch of anaemic nominees.

The Departed (winner)
Babel (Crash 2: Crash World)
Letters from Iwo Jima
Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen (Should have been the winner)

Letters from Iwo Jima is one of the truly great Clint Eastwood films. The sheer brilliance of The Queen only grows with hindsight – that Michael Sheen was not even given a nod for his exceptional portrayal of Tony Blair must have been what compelled him to play David Frost as a clone of the former PM – at least, outside of the interview room. The Special Relationship, the final chapter in Peter Morgan’s unofficial Blair trilogy, is set for 2011, and will chronicle the close relationship between Blair and Bill Clinton between 1997 and 2000.

Trash (winner)
Brokeback Mountain (Should have been the winner)
Good Night, and Good Luck
Munich (Should have been the winner)

Another excellent choice of nominees with one piece of populist tripe masquerading as art. Shame it won. And that whole central thesis about how people are so numb and that they crash into each other just have some sort of humanly contact is just the sort of screenwriter’s tripe that passes for imagery. It’s like Wes Bentley’s “so much beauty in the world, just look at this floating dishcloth” monologue. Pretentious piffle.

Both Munich and Brokeback Mountain are exceptional pieces of filmmaking, with their respective auteur at the top of his game, but if one must pick a winner, and then it would have to be Brokeback. That final shot is heartbreaking.

Million Dollar Baby (winner)
The Aviator
Finding Neverland
Sideways (Should have won)

Another year that was less than stellar, but all the films were solid, nonetheless. Sideways, in particular, is a masterpiece of sorts that stands the test of time – which I really didn’t think was possible. Finding Neverland has lost some of its power over time, but it’s Hollywood sentimentality done right. Nothing wrong with it as long as it’s done right – something Roger Ebert says about Will Smith’s underrated Seven Pounds.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (winner)
Leaving Las Tokyo
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Mystic River

City of God was the best film of the year, with American Splendour, In America, and The Barbarian Invasions close behind though none was nominated – the last one did win best foreign film, mind. Of the five films above, Mystic River was a better film than Neverending Story Part III, but, you know, these things happen. Still, not a bad list – and quite an interesting one when you think that they just don’t make films like Master and Commander or Seabiscuit anymore. (The latter was a hit at the box office – good luck breaking 40 mil. Domestic with a film like that nowadays, let alone crossing the century mark)

Chicago (winner)
Gangs of New York
The Hours
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Pianist (should have won)

Once again – not a tremendous selection but it still contained a Scorsese dream project, and a Roman Polanski film! Enough to get any cineaste wet.

A Beautiful Mind (winner)
Gosford Park (should have won)
In the Bedroom (or maybe this one should have won)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Moulin Rouge! (4 “bad-ass chicks” inc.)

People bitch about how A Beautiful Mind stole the award from the first Rings flick, completely dismissing the magnificence of Gosford Park, which was clearly the best film of the year. I only watched it a few weeks ago – wonderful.

Gladiator (winner even though it’s bollocks)
Chocolat (chocolate bollocks)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Erin Brockovich
Traffic - USA Films (should have won)

There are two types of people in this world: people who realise how shitty Gladiator is, and those who will one day see the light. There is a third group, who, after almost a decade, still quote the film’s terrible tagline (“what you do in life, echoes in my pants” or whatever it is), but the rest of us do our damn hardest to ignore them. Traffic was a stellar achievement, and it should have walked away with the award.

Anyway, you see my point. This decade has seen a few wonky years, sure, but none has been so devoid of charm and passion as this year obviously is. Anyway, here is a list of all the Oscar nominees for 2009, as well as my my predictions - which are subject to change nearer the time of the actual ceremony. Come back on Oscar night for my Third Annual Academy Awards Ceremony Live Blog. I must capitalise it for it is trés importante.

Performance by an actor in a leading role
Richard Jenkins in "The Visitor" (Overture Films)
Frank Langella in "Frost/Nixon" (Universal)
Sean Penn in "Milk" (Focus Features)
Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler" (Fox Searchlight)

Will win: Sean Penn
Should win: Richard Jenkins

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Josh Brolin in "Milk" (Focus Features)
Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder" (DreamWorks, Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Doubt" (Miramax)
Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.)
Michael Shannon in "Revolutionary Road" (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage)

Will win: Heath Ledger
Should win: Brad Pitt (Burn After reading)

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married" (Sony Pictures Classics)
Angelina Jolie in "Changeling" (Universal)
Melissa Leo in "Frozen River" (Sony Pictures Classics)
Meryl Streep in "Doubt" (Miramax)
Kate Winslet in "The Reader" (The Weinstein Company)

Will win: Kate Winslet
Should win: Anne Hathaway

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Amy Adams in "Doubt" (Miramax)
Penélope Cruz in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (The Weinstein Company)
Viola Davis in "Doubt" (Miramax)
Taraji P. Henson in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
Marisa Tomei in "The Wrestler" (Fox Searchlight)

Will win: Viola Davis
Should win: Marisa Tomei

Best animated feature film of the year
"Kung Fu Panda"

Will win: Wall-E
Should win: Not Wall-E.

Achievement in art direction
"Changeling" Art Direction: James J. Murakami - Set Decoration: Gary Fettis
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" Art Direction: Donald Graham Burt - Set Decoration: Victor J. Zolfo
"The Dark Knight" Art Direction: Nathan Crowley - Set Decoration: Peter Lando
"The Duchess" Art Direction: Michael Carlin - Set Decoration: Rebecca Alleway
"Revolutionary Road" Art Direction: Kristi Zea - Set Decoration: Debra Schutt

Will win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Should win: Revolutionary Road

Achievement in cinematography
"Changeling" Tom Stern
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" Claudio Miranda
"The Dark Knight" Wally Pfister
"The Reader" Chris Menges and Roger Deakins
"Slumdog Millionaire" Anthony Dod Mantle

Will win: Chris Menges and Roger Deakins
Should win: Tom Stern (I might revise this later)

Achievement in costume design
"Australia" Catherine Martin
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" Jacqueline West
"The Duchess" Michael O'Connor
"Milk" Danny Glicker
"Revolutionary Road" Albert Wolsky

Achievement in directing
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" David Fincher
"Frost/Nixon" Ron Howard
"Milk" Gus Van Sant
"The Reader" Stephen Daldry
"Slumdog Millionaire" Danny Boyle

Will win: Oh, Danny Boyle.
Should win: Tomas Alfredson for Let The Right One In

Best documentary feature
"The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)" Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath
"Encounters at the End of the World" Werner Herzog and Henry Kaiser
"The Garden" Scott Hamilton Kennedy
"Man on Wire" (Magnolia Pictures) James Marsh and Simon Chinn
"Trouble the Water" (Zeitgeist Films) Tia Lessin and Carl Deal

Will win: Man on Wire
Should win: Encounters at the End of the World

Best documentary short subject
"The Conscience of Nhem En" Steven Okazaki
"The Final Inch" Irene Taylor Brodsky and Tom Grant
"Smile Pinki" Megan Mylan
"The Witness - From the Balcony of Room 306" Adam Pertofsky and Margaret Hyde

Will win: No idea.
Should win: No idea.

Achievement in film editing
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall
"The Dark Knight" Lee Smith
"Frost/Nixon" Mike Hill and Dan Hanley
"Milk" Elliot Graham
"Slumdog Millionaire" (Chris Dickens

Will win: The Dark Knight
Should win: Frost/Nixon

Best foreign language film of the year
"The Baader Meinhof Complex" - Germany
"The Class" - France
"Departures" - Japan
"Revanche" - Austria
"Waltz with Bashir" – Israel

Will win: Waltz with Bashir (if it’s its night, if not then The Class)
Should win: The Edge of Heaven or Three Monkeys. (I am showing my true colours here…)

Achievement in makeup
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" Greg Cannom
"The Dark Knight" John Caglione, Jr. and Conor O'Sullivan
"Hellboy II: The Golden Army" Mike Elizalde and Thom Floutz

Will win: Benjamin Button
Should win: Probably Benjamin Button. Haven’t seen the flick yet, as I said, but from what I have seen, Cannom’s work is amazing.

Original Score
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" Alexandre Desplat
"Defiance" James Newton Howard
"Milk" Danny Elfman
"Slumdog Millionaire" A.R. Rahman
"WALL-E" Thomas Newman

Will win: Thomas Newman
Should win: Danny Elfman (with what may be his best work)

Original song
"Down to Earth" from "WALL-E" Music by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman Lyric by Peter Gabriel
"Jai Ho" from "Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Music by A.R. Rahman Lyric by Gulzar
"O Saya" from "Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Music and Lyric by A.R. Rahman and Maya Arulpragasam

Will win: Thomas Newman and The Gabriel
Should win: Jason Segel for Dracula’s Lament

Best animated short film
"La Maison en Petits Cubes" Kunio Kato
"Lavatory - Lovestory" Konstantin Bronzit
"Oktapodi" Emud Mokhberi and Thierry Marchand
"Presto" Doug Sweetland
"This Way Up" Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes

Will win: Presto
Should win: Presto

Best live action short film
"Auf der Strecke (On the Line)" Reto Caffi
"Manon on the Asphalt" Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont
"New Boy" Steph Green and Tamara Anghie
"The Pig" Tivi Magnusson and Dorte Høgh
"Spielzeugland (Toyland)" Jochen Alexander Freydank

Again, not a clue (not my fault - shorts, the kind you watch, are incredibly hard to find in Istanbul). But Auf der Strecke is apparently an Academy of Media Arts Cologne Production so, just because I used to live there, I will be rooting for Caffi.

Achievement in sound editing
"The Dark Knight" Richard King
"Iron Man" Frank Eulner and Christopher Boyes
"Slumdog Millionaire" Tom Sayers
"WALL-E" Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood
"Wanted" Wylie Stateman

Will win: Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood
Should win: Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood

Achievement in sound mixing
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Mark Weingarten
"The Dark Knight" Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo and Ed Novick
"Slumdog Millionaire" Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke and Resul Pookutty
"WALL-E" Tom Myers, Michael Semanick and Ben Burtt
"Wanted" Chris Jenkins, Frank A. Montaño and Petr Forejt

Will win: Tom Myers, Michael Semanick and Ben Burtt
Should win: Anything but, you know, that film, so I’d go for WALL-E.

Achievement in visual effects
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron
"The Dark Knight" Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Tim Webber and Paul Franklin
"Iron Man" John Nelson, Ben Snow, Dan Sudick and Shane Mahan

Will win: Button, if he’s lucky. Batman, if he is not.
Should win: The other one.

Adapted screenplay
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" Screenplay by Eric Roth Screen story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord
"Doubt" Written by John Patrick Shanley
"Frost/Nixon" Screenplay by Peter Morgan
"The Reader" Screenplay by David Hare
"Slumdog Millionaire" Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy

Will win: Simon Beaufoy for Jackie Dickens.
Should win: John Ajvide Lindqvist for Let The Right One In.

Original screenplay
"Frozen River" Written by Courtney Hunt
"Happy-Go-Lucky" Written by Mike Leigh
"In Bruges" Written by Martin McDonagh
"Milk" Written by Dustin Lance Black
"WALL-E" Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon Original story by Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter

Will win: WALL-E or Milk (yeah, cheating, but what are you gonna do?)
Should win: Happy-Go-Lucky or In Bruges. (yeah, cheating, but what are you gonna do?)

Best motion picture of the year
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
"The Reader"
"Slumdog Millionaire"

Will win: Slumdog Millionaire
Should win: Let The Right One In. It was the best film of the year. By far.


Anonymous said...

Definite agreement on Jason Segel. :)

Unknown said...

"Should Not Win: WALL-E"

What are you, on crack? Get over the whole "OMG I R DIFFERENT!" crap. Everyone knows WALL-E is the film of the year, it's been said so time and time again, and it even should've been nominated for Best Picture.

I'd love to see the look on your face on Oscar night, win it wins not only Best Animated, but Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Screenplay as well. Deal with it, dick, it's the film to beat this year and you know it, come out of denial and join the rest of the thinking world.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Great write-up, Ali. I'll have to get my predictions done here pretty soon (although it'll be tough because I've only seen two out of the five heavily nominated films).

A few things:

You're dead on about this being such a 'meh' year for the Oscar's. I can't remember a time ('98 maybe) where I was this disinterested.

I'm so happy you mention the three kinds of people who think about "Gladiator". I remember seeing that movie in the theater (I was in high school), and telling my friends how overrated and boring the film was. They laughed at me. But about two years later they all snapped out of it, and realized I was right. So there. Although I did have roommate in college who would only watch "Braveheart" and "Gladiator", and when I would try to introduce him to other movies (even stuff like "Rob Roy"), he would say they were boring and not any good because they didn't win Academy Awards. Damn you Oscars!

I still stew over the fact that "Traffic" didn't win best pic. Oh well.

Totally agree with you about Jason Segel. I remember watching that being the only one in the room laughing at the rock opera. I guess there weren't any Meat Loaf fans in the house.

I'll save my thoughts on this years films for my blog post.

Good stuff.

Missy said...

I agree that Brad Pitt should of been nominated for Burn After Reading rather than Benjamin Button. That said he's not better than Heath.