Tuesday, February 24, 2009

'Slumdog' Snags Eight Oscars

Slumdog Millionaire brought its awards season winning streak to a victorious close by taking home eight Oscars including Best Picture at the 81st Academy Awards. There were no surprise winners of the acting or writing awards, but there were upsets in other categories. For a full list of winners, click here.

Hugh Jackman completed his first stint as Oscar emcee and for his hosting efforts, the man gets nothing short of high marks from me. With weaker talent at the helm, the opening number saluting the five films nominated for Best Picture with makeshift set pieces would have looked silly, amateurish, and downright embarrassing. In Jackman's hands, the show played like a hit Broadway musical. If the anipodean actor's performance is a sample of what's to come -- and he will be back for future Oscar ceremonies; you mark my words -- Mr. Jackman is poised to place himself in the company of Billy Crystal, Bob Hope, and Johnny Carson as a great Academy Awards show host.

The intimate feel of the evening proved a welcome change of scene, as did the return of the podiums. I don't know what imbecile decided to get rid of them 11 years ago, but it just looks and feels awkward to see a winner with no elevated surface on which to set their award in front of them. Anyone who has ever had to speak in public can tell you that the presence of a podium makes a speaking engagement so much easier. Depending on how tall you are, the platform covers as much as half your body and can be useful in concealing notes, deflecting scrutiny, and shielding the speaker from objects thrown by hostile audience members. Everyone who won an Oscar between 1998 and 2008 must have felt so naked standing up there with nothing to lean on. This year's winners were no doubt grateful for the return to form.

Having five previous Oscar winners salute each of the five nominees in every acting category was a wonderful touch. Playing clips of every performance is always thoughtful, but this gesture personalized each nomination. It would have been sublime had Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Redford, and Steven Spielberg presented Danny Boyle with the Best Director Oscar.

The most moving moment of the evening came when Heath Ledger was announced as best supporting actor for The Dark Knight. Ledger's was the first posthumous Oscar awarded for acting since Peter Finch won Best Actor for Network. When his father, mother, and sister took to the stage to accept the man's award, I was impressed by their restraint and resilience. All three family members spoke movingly of Ledger's talent, compassion, and dedication to his art while remarkably maintaining their composure. Had Ledger come from an Italian family, his relatives would have jumped and down in their seats, hugged and kissed each other down the aisle, and flooded the stage with tears of pride. Picture a guy like Paul Sorvino taking the stage upon hearing his departed son's name announced as the best supporting actor of the year: (gesturing to the screen upstage) "Look at my beautiful boy. There's my son. (blows a kiss to the screen) All my boy ever wanted to be was an actor." The Ledger family speech was quietly eloquent, and helped to certify the highest acknowledgement a late actor's work can receive.

Dustin Lance Black gave the finest acceptance speech of the evening, in my opinion. Upon winning the original screenplay award for Milk, the openly gay screenwriter fought back tears when speaking of his hope to one day get married. His timely words echoed the struggle for gay citizens to achieve equal rights across the nation, an effort marred by the passing of Proposition 8 in California last November.

Ben Stiller's hilarious parody of Joaquin Phoenix was responsible for the funniest award presentation of the show. His timing, facial expressions, and wandering off to watch footage of the cinematography nominees on the big screen behind him gave proof that his comic skills continually improve over time. It was a far cry from his embarrassing green suit presentation of the Visual Effects Oscar at the 79th Awards.

The biggest surprise of the evening for me was Departures upsetting Waltz with Bashir for the Best Foreign Language Film award. The acclaimed Japanese film about an unemployed cellist who answers an ad for what he believes is a travel agency, but is actually for a funeral home edged out Israel's animated favorite about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. This was the biggest upset in the foreign language film category since The Lives of Others beat Pan's Labyrinth two years ago. Now that Departures has claimed the first Oscar for Japan since this category was created (three other Japanese films -- Rashomon, Gate of Hell, and Samurai, The Legend of Musashi -- received special honorary awards before the introduction of the best foreign language film category in 1956), director Yojiro Takita may very well be on his way to building a career as great as Kurosawa's.

For the first time in as long as I have been following the Oscars, I had the benefit of seeing three of the five films nominated for Best Animated Short before the show. My first instinct was to go with La Maison en Petit Cubes, but switched my vote after watching Lavatory - Lovestory on Youtube. (So much for that strategy!) This charming little film is an absolute delight and should have won the Oscar. Make time to see it here. Invariably, my predictions for the categories of Best Animated Short, Best Documentary Short, and Best Live Action Short account for my wildest guesses on the ballot. From now on, I'll have to make a point of seeing as many of the nominated films as I can on YouTube. Eventually, the maniac in me will find the time to watch every animated short, documentary short, and live action short that's ever been nominated for an Oscar.

As for my scorecard, I went 14 for 25. My all-time highest score is 20 out of 24 from 2004, the year Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won Best Picture. My calls were tougher to make this year due to the fact that I (don't come unglued on me) didn't see any of the five films nominated for Best Picture. This was the first time I had gone in that cold for as long as I've been watching the Oscars. Honestly speaking, I'll be the first one to admit that this is inexcusable behavior for a movie blogger to exhibit. If this bothers you, be assured that the moment my schedule and budget allow capacity for regular moviegoing (whenever that may be), this blog will deliver all the benefits of a syndicated movie column. In the meantime, what you see is what you get.

The show was a vast improvement over last year's dull telecast, and the ratings prove it. Of course, if The Dark Knight had been nominated for Best Picture as it should have been, the Nielsen figures would have tied -- if not beaten -- the record for the most watched Oscar telecast in 1998, the year Titanic won Best Picture. Though some of the acceptance speeches were downright boring, the pace never dragged when the performers were in command. If I had to raise one quibble with the show, it would be the fact that the clips from upcoming 2009 movies that played over the end credits did not include scenes from The Road and Ashecliffe.

What were your favorite moments from the show? Would you like to see Hugh Jackman return as host? What changes would you make to the telecast, if any? As always, leave your comments below and speak your mind in kind.

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