Thursday, January 22, 2009

Snubs and Other Surprises

This year's Oscar nominations have revealed a few surprises, to say the least. As announced by current Academy president Sid Ganis and past Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (Best Actor for The Last King of Scotland in 2006) this morning in Los Angeles, the selection of this year's contenders for the highest of all film awards leaves no shortage of dropped jaws and raised eyebrows among film pundits. Roger Ebert has an insightful write-up here. View the complete list of nominees here.

For me, the single biggest shock of the morning is the absence of The Dark Knight from the Best Picture category. This is the most noticeable Best Picture omission I've seen since Dreamgirls was shut out of the top five two years ago. Many had Knight pegged as a shoo-in for the top nod, myself included. Why has the Academy turned up its nose at the best superhero movie to date? It has just as much depth, intelligence, and emotional power as the five films nominated this year. To say that it struck a chord with its audience would be a gross understatement. (Need I mention its staggering performance at the box office?)

If the summer blockbuster factor is their objection, then why did the Academy nominate Raiders of the Lost Ark for Best Picture 27 years ago? Same goes for Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., and Forrest Gump. Do the voting members of the Academy sway closer to the Barnes & Noble crowd than to DC Comics fans? Whatever the reason, the Academy needs to realize that there is such a thing as a masterfully made comic book movie, and The Dark Knight certainly fits that description. If those divinely chosen final arbiters good taste continue their elitist trend of snubbing par excellence popular movies in favor of lukewarm literary adaptations, the Academy will place itself in grave danger of alienating the public -- even more than it already has.

The Best Actor category delivered not one, but two snubs. Leonardo DiCaprio, who gave an acclaimed performance as Kate Winslet's frustrated husband in Revolutionary Road, was overlooked. (Look for him in the running next year for Ashecliffe.) Also ignored was Clint Eastwood's gripping turn as a bigoted Korean War veteran in Gran Torino. Richard Jenkins turned up as a surprise top-of-the-list nominee for his well-received role as a lonely professor whose life is changed when he befriends a pair of illegal immigrants in The Visitor. Jenkins faces strong competition from Frank Langella as the latter half of Frost/Nixon, Sean Penn as a courageous gay city supervisor in Milk, Brad Pitt as a man who grows younger as time passes in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Mickey Rourke as a middle-aged pro wrestler making a comeback in The Wrestler.

Critical darling Sally Hawkins was MIA on the Best Actress list after winning the Golden Globe for her delightful performance as a vivaciously optimistic schoolteacher in Happy-Go-Lucky. Also missing therein was Kristin Scott Thomas, lauded for her work in I've Loved You So Long. Those who made the cut are Anne Hathaway, clinching her first nod for portraying a recovering drug user preparing to witness Rachel Getting Married; Angelina Jolie, as a distraught single mother who determines to recover her missing son in Changeling; Melissa Leo, as a woman who turns to human smuggling in order to make ends meet in Frozen River; screen veteran Meryl Streep, earning a record-stretching fifteenth acting nomination as a take-no-prisoners mother superior of a Catholic school in Doubt; and Kate Winslet, earning her sixth nomination as a German tram conductor hiding a frightening secret in The Reader. Winslet won the Supporting Actress Golden Globe for this performance and finds herself in the Best Actress category here. Her performance as a disillusioned housewife in 1950s Connecticut in Revolutionary Road was overlooked.

Nowhere to be found among the Best Supporting Actor nominees are Dev Patel, who portrayed the older Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire, and Jason Butler Harner, who received many glowing notices for playing a monstrous child murderer in Changeling. Josh Brolin, nominated for playing disgruntled city employee Dan White in Milk, was the first name announced in this category. He'll be competing with Robert Downey, Jr., who earned his first nomination in 16 years in a hilarious turn as "the dude playin' the dude disguised as another dude" in Tropic Thunder; Philip Seymour Hoffman earned his third nomination in four years as a priest accused of abuse in Doubt; the late Heath Ledger, as criminal mastermind The Joker in The Dark Knight, was nominated exactly one year after being found dead in his Manhattan apartment of an accidental drug overdose; and Michael Shannon, as an institutionalized man who bears witness to a crumbling marriage in Revolutionary Road.

There were no snubs to speak of in the Best Supporting Actress camp. Taraji P. Henson's performance as a kindhearted nursemaid to Benjamin Button came as a surprise, but the remainder of the selections panned out as expected. From the Doubt cast, Amy Adams and Viola Davis were nominated for portraying a naive teacher and a suspicious parish parent, respectively. Penelope Cruz earned her second nomination as a fiery Spanish ex-wife in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. To round out the category, Marisa Tomei was included for her role as an aging stripper in The Wrestler.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button claimed the most nominations with 13, just one nod behind the all-time record held by All About Eve and Titanic. Slumdog Millionaire came in second with ten nominations, followed by The Dark Knight and Milk with eight apiece. Frost/Nixon and The Reader bring up the rear with five nominations each. Though Button leads the pack with the most nominations, Golden Globe winner Slumdog Millionaire is already the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture.

As for other categories, it's too soon to tell who will win. Danny Boyle appears to be the likely winner for Best Director, given his Golden Globe victory last week. He's in like flint if he snags the DGA Award come the 31st. Each of the five directors is nominated for a film in the running for Best Picture. This is the first time this perfect lineup has occurred since 2005. The last time it happened before that was in 1981. (Coincidentally, both years saw a disparity in the awards of Best Director and Best Picture. Warren Beatty won the Best Director Oscar for Reds in 1981, while Chariots of Fire crossed the Best Picture finish line. In 2005, Ang Lee won Best Director for Brokeback Mountain, while Crash claimed an upset Best Picture victory.) Every year since has seen at least one director without a picture among the top five (the kiss of death in that category) and one Best Picture nominee whose director isn't nominated. Last year, for example, Atonement was nominated for Best Picture while its director, Joe Wright, was shut out. Conversely, Julian Schnabel was nominated for directing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, while the film failed to make a purchase in Best Picture territory.

Traditionally, the Best Actor race comes down to two horses and this year, those horses are Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke. Penn has an advantage over Rourke in that he has four prior nominations (one of which, for 2003's Mystic River, resulted in a win) under his belt, in that Milk is nominated for Best Picture, and in that the passing of Proposition 8 in California gives his performance a timely relevance. Rourke, however, has no prior nominations to his credit and The Wrestler did not make the top five. On the other hand, Rourke recently beat Penn to the Golden Globe for Best Actor and Las Vegas oddsmakers current project Rourke as the winner. Personally, I would love to see Sean Penn collect statuette number two. Rourke's performance is heartbreaking, but to award him an Oscar would put an end to his triumphant comeback just as quickly as it began, thereby reducing his career rejuvenation to a mere flash in the pan. (To interject a non sequitur, nine of the 20 performers nominated this morning -- exactly 45% of the total -- are first-time nominees. Of the 20 actors, three -- Frank Langella, Sean Penn, and Josh Brolin -- are nominated for playing real people.)

The Best Actress category is another tough nut to crack. Kate Winslet seems like the most sensible choice, as this is her sixth nomination and she has yet to win her first Academy Award. Her toughest competition comes from Meryl Streep, who has an almost certain third Oscar in her future.

Best Supporting Actor is by far the easiest race to call, as Heath Ledger is a hands-down lock for the Oscar. Not only does he have unanimous critical praise to his credit, but no other contender in his category can hold a candle to Ledger's insane portrayal of a comic book character that leaves Jack Nicholson's campy mugfest in the dust. Trivia junkies will be quick to point out that Ledger's will be the first acting Oscar awarded posthumously since Peter Finch won Best Actor for Network in 1976.

Best Supporting Actress, at this stage, appears to be a toss-up between Penelope Cruz and Viola Davis. Cruz won the New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Circle, and National Board of Review Awards in this category. Plus, she has one previous nomination under her belt. (as Best Actress for 2006's Volver, lest you wonder) Davis, on the other hand, won the runner-up slot in this category from the LAFCC and the Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Award from the NBR. What's more, this is only her first nomination and her total screen time is limited to one scene. However, word of mouth suggests that Davis is absolutely riveting and gets maximum mileage out of her role. Besides, limited screen time has not stopped actors from winning Oscars in the past. (e.g., Dame Judi Dench for Shakespeare in Love, Beatrice Straight for Network, Anthony Quinn for Lust for Life) To add, it would be a (pardon the pun) mortal sin to let all four nominated performances from Doubt go unrewarded. If the Academy honors one role from the film, Davis' will be it.

Do you have any sins of omission to share? Who will you be rooting for this year? Care to give me a hard time for my shoddy prognostications? All comments, within reason, are fair game today, especially if you'd like to join me in thanking the Academy for keeping Che off its radar.


Pump said...

Agree with you about Revolutionary Road. I'm glad "Waltz With Bashir" was nominated. Think "Che" was one of the top ten films of 2008.

Lorelei said...

I had to check out your blog once I saw the Golden Globes hit...I knew the Academy Awards nominations weren't far off. I finally saw The Dark Knight and wholeheartedly agree with your comments about Heath Ledger - it's such a shame he won't be able to collect his Oscar. I also agree with you about the Academy - when WILL they learn that a comic book movie can be as well-written, breathtakingly visual, and emotionally satisfying as any well done literary adaptation? In fact, as a voracious and varied reader, I would humbly offer (not being nearly as educated about film-making as yourself) that most novel-to-film transitions fall flat with the fans of the book (can you say Da Vinci Code?). Of course there are many excellent films based on novels (Silence of the Lambs, Harry Potter...say what you will of this obsessessed fandom, the movies are as engaging as the books, and Silence is one of the most chilling and suspenseful distillation of a literary work I've ever witnessed) but often that isn't the case.

Conversely, I have often been inspired read the book after a movie was made from it found it a complete snooze-fest or so depressing I found it a wonder anyone found it worthy to imortalize on film at all (The Natural was one...The Posidon Adventure another. I expect someone will take issue with that *grins* but I stand by it...the language was lumpy and I simply could not picture the action. But I digress.).

The Dark Knight is, as you said, simply the best superhero/comic book adaptation to date. It opened a whole new realm of quality that stands up and says that comic books are for grownups. It doesn't flinch at the darkness of its characters (on either side) and portrays not only one of the best villains ever put on film (kudos again to Heath...there really aren't adequate words here) but some of the most complex heroes as well. Lucius' relief when the spy-cam was destroyed; Batman willing to be seen as the renegade outlaw to protect his city, Gordon's determination to have his son understand Batman's sacrifice, Alfred burning the note from Rachel...all of these little moments make us see our heroes and human and their world attainable. The academy's tendency to bestow it's honors based on "intellectual" ideals is often misguided bordering on criminal.

Not having seen most of the offerings this year, I cannot comment intelligently on the rest of the nominations. I did, however, want to put my two cents in about the merits of an entertaining movie that happens to be a blockbuster that actually is worth the money moviegoers spent to see it.