The Oscar nominations were announced today. I have always felt like the nominations are more interesting than the winners – it gives a better snapshot of what is going on politically, creatively and technically in the world of film.
Appropriately, on Monday of this week I finished a journey of ten years. I watched the last of the previous 81 (yes, 81*) films that have won Best Picture. (The last one for me was the rather tepid It Happened One Night.) Someday soon I should do a post on my thoughts on having completed the task.
A month from today there will be a new film on that list. I may have already seen it. In fact, I would bet that I have, but I'll get to that further down.
About two weeks ago I declared to a few people that the Best Actor nominations would be five of the following seven: Heath Ledger for Dark Knight; Richard Jenkins for The Visitor; Sean Penn for Milk; Josh Brolin for W; Brad Pitt for Benjamin Button; Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler; and Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon.
Not only was I right, but the two of those seven that DIDN'T get Best Actor nominations got Best-Supporting – Heath Ledger & Josh Brolin (though Brolin got his nomination for Milk not W.)
I want to take the opportunity on this the day of the nominations to make predictions as far in advance as possible as to who will win – before much external analysis and jockeying for position can happen. I'll look at many of the major categories and throw in a little analysis.
I'll take this in the order the categories are posted on the Oscar website – with the exception of Best Picture, which like the ceremony, I will save for last.
ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
It's rare for me to look at a list of nominees and think 'I'd be happy no matter how this one shakes down.' But that is how I feel about the Best Actors.
Richard Jenkins will not win, but it is awesome that he is in consideration. The Visitor came out nearly a year ago, all the other nominees are from films from the last three months... only I believe Milk was the earliest release of the remainder, and it was late November, the other three were all mid to late December. When I saw The Visitor last spring I said to my then girlfriend "We just saw a best actor nomination." I am so happy to be right. His performance is deftly subtle and gently heartbreaking. It is also heartbreaking that Hiam Abbass, from the same film did not get a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
Frank Langella has spent 2 and a half years getting stellar reviews for his stage performance as Richard Nixon... it is no wonder he is getting great reviews for the film. Similarly, Michael Sheen as David Frost – one has to wonder why he missed a nomination. I haven't yet seen the film, but it is high on my list. I have my doubts that Langella can win, though if he does it will be a combination of recognition of his solid journeyman career and his long association with this role. Playing a historical character never hurts your chances, which also applies to the next nominee.
Sean Penn, I hear, is doing his best work ever in Milk. (In alternate versions, he is doing his best work since Dead Man Walking.) I haven't seen it, but it too is 'on the list.' Sean Penn is an actor I have huge respect for, I was so glad when he won his first Oscar, I would love to see him win a matching book-end, but I think there is a wave that will prevent it, which I am getting to eventually...
Brad Pitt is doing excellent work in Benjamin Button, and one of the standard biases of the Academy is towards actors who play role that spans most of a lifetime, and there is no arguing that there has never been a lifetime quite like Benjamin Button's put on screen... but I think Pitt's work is subsumed by the technology that supports his performance and that that will prevent him from winning on this one. It's okay – he will have another chance... which is a thought which also will hurt his chances this time 'round.
Mickey Rourke's disarming self-revealing analogue is almost the only thing anyone talks about when referring to The Wrestler... and that puts even more attention on his brave performance. I suspect that the vast majority of actors who vote will find themselves deferring to their respect for his emotionally naked performance and that Mickey Rourke will take the Best Actor statue in a walk.
ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
In addition to Heath Ledger and Josh Brolin, mentioned above, the options for Best Supporting Actor are Robert Downey Jr., Philip Seymour Hoffman and Michael Shannon. Josh Brolin will win an Oscar someday. Philip Seymour Hoffman already has, Robert Downey Jr. is probably my favourite actor alive right now, and he disappears into his hysterically funny role in Tropic Thunder, but he too will have another chance. Heath Ledger ran circles around the rest of the film he was in, as well as making the world forget that Jack Nicholson ever wore the purple jacket and nasty smile of the Joker. Add the fact that The Dark Knight is the Godfather II of superhero films, and of course the cherry on top – Heath will never have another chance to win – and he will join Peter Finch as the only two actors ever to win posthumously.
ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
When I made my declaration about which performances would make up the Best Actor nominations I was struck that I couldn't come up with a suitable list for Best Actress. Looking at who was nominated, it starts to make sense. I haven't seen a single one of the films that the nominees represent. I I've heard great things about Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married and the same for Kate Winslet
in The Reader. All Meryl Streep has to do is MAKE a movie in a year to get nominated, and she is an actor who I feel deserves that recognition – she is THAT good... but her perennial nominee nature (as well as having already won) makes it less likely that she will win in any given year. I know nothing about Frozen River (and by extension, Melissa Leo), and I am a bit surprised that Angelina Jolie has been nominated for Changeling. None of the reviews I read of the film made it sound like she was doing a good job – in fact some of them were downright unflattering. She already has a statue – an undeserved one, honestly – I think the best chance of getting a second one on her mantle this year lies with her lesser half... and I've already made it clear I doubt Brad Pitt will win.
So... who will win Best Actress? I think this one comes down to 'whose turn is it?' This inevitably makes it Kate Winslet. She has been nearly as perennial over the past decade as Meryl Streep, and she has yet to actually win. Already walking off with a pair of Golden Globes including one for the same performance as she is nominated for by the Academy doesn't hurt her case at all.
ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
I have only seen one of the films nominated, and the performance in question was awesome. If someone other than Taraji P. Henson wins, I MUST see that movie. A few other notes on the subject: I don't think Marisa Tomei actually CAN win another Oscar due to the doubt and controversy surrounding her first win – deserved or not in either case. Penelope Cruz... I have nothing against Penelope Cruz, but I am SO done with Woody Allen. I could care less if one of his films gets any kind of recognition ever again.
ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
It seems that every year this category is made up by the inarguable eventual winner and two sacrificial lambs. This year is no exception. That said, I think the lambs this year – Bolt and Kung-Fu Panda are of better quality than most 'also rans' of the past... but so is the ringer. So far as I'm concerned, you could take nothing more than the opening half hour of Wall-E and put it up against all the winners of the past history of this category in a Battle Royale for 'Best Animated Feature Film Ever' and it would come out as the champion.
As with many categories, I haven't seen enough of the nominees to really make a fully informed prediction, but even with those I haven't I do have SOME notion from clips and other promotional visuals.
With that in mind, I'm going to go to the mat saying that The Dark Knight is one of the most completely realized worlds I have seen on screen in years. Add to that that I expect there will be a lot of grumbling over it not getting a Best Picture nomination and that that will throw it a lot of consolation votes in the technical categories... I think it could easily win this category.
I believe there are three serious contenders for this award. Benjamin Button, Dark Knight, and Slumdog Millionaire. Much of what makes up the cinematographic victories of the former two dovetails with visual effects, and that ultimately hurts them.
Danny Boyle's rich style is perfectly suited to the lush poverty of Slumdog Millionaire and it is gorgeously realized. Director of Photography, Anthony Dod Mantle will take home this Oscar.
It seems that this award it typically dictated by a combination of sheer number of costumes and the requirement of the film in question to inspire the designer to do the most research into period dress – a factor which is magnified by having to cover multiple periods and accurately represent subtleties.
That said, I always have trouble predicting this category. All five nominees require period dress. To the best of my knowledge Benjamin Button covers the greatest scope of time and thus the most differences in dress... although Australia also incorporates multiple cultural idioms of dress. The Duchess involves the most elaborate costumes and there is a propensity to honour the detailed labour necessary to capture that on screen. It's a tough call for me, but I'm going to go with Australia. Catherine Martin already has four nominations (And two wins) combined with Art Direction, and her collaboration with husband Baz Lurmann is notoriously exacting.
There are many reasons that people win Best Director. Making fabulously realized pictures. Being artistic completists. Making films with huge scope. Pushing the bleeding edge of technology for new creative realizations. Body of work. Stretching one's self into vastly new artistic territory. It's 'their turn.' And god forbid, moving us, the audience or taking us on journeys we've never been on before.
David Fincher has been one of my favourite directors for years. Of my favourite directors he is the one least known by non-cineastes, though when I start naming his films they tend to know of every single one. I've always known that his day would come, and I believe that is has. Take the list above and apply it to the five films & directors that represent them. Fincher gets a tick beside EVERY single item. No other nominee can make the same claim.
Fincher/Benjamin Button: Fabulously realized pictures – not one of his films has ever failed in this manner, Benjamin Button even more so. Artistic Completist – In Fincher's case this is almost to a fault. He is a famous perfectionist, to the degree that he alienates collaborators on occasion (most famously on Zodiac wherein he lost his original Director of Photography – not the first time that has happened to him – and the film STILL feels visually unified.) Huge Scope – Benjamin Button follows an entire lifetime through most of the 20th Century and into the 21st. It is truly epic in a very personal way. The Bleeding Edge of Technology – Aging Brad Pitt backwards from a tiny child-sized old-man to his natural 40 something silver screen glory and onwards to an octogenarian teen ager... you simply have to see it. It's fucking fantastic, and we've never seen anything like it. Body of Work – Fincher doesn't have a bad film on his resume. Some are lesser, for certain, but even Spielberg made Always (shudder.) Stretching oneself – Take a look at Fincher's past canon. Every one is classifiable as 'dark thriller' of some variety or another. Benjamin Button is an epic romance. It's their turn – This is the most arguable. This is his first Oscar nomination, but I guarantee that I'm not the only person thinking it's been a long-time comin'. Moving the audience – It is rare that a film utterly makes me forget I'm watching a movie. Benjamin Button sucked me right into its magic for the first 90 minutes solid and left my mind racing in all the best ways at the end.
A quick, hardly comprehensive look at how the other directors fail to hit all the points above...
Howard/Frost/Nixon – It is NOT Ron Howard's turn. He won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. The scope of Frost/Nixon is a fraction of Benjamin Button. Technologically it's not ground breaking, nor does it strike me as a stretch for a director who has a number of historically based dramas on his resume.
VanSant/Milk – Gus Van Sant exploring gay themes is hardly new territory. Nor is he adding to the director's arsenal of tools.
Daldry/The Reader – To be fair, I know the least about this film, but from what I can tell, the scope is limited; Daldry isn't pulling any new rabbits out of the hat at the Hollywood Magic Store; despite two past nominations for solid, but IMHO unremarkable films, he only has six credits on IMDB and frankly two of them don't really count in this context.
Boyle/Slumdog Millionaire – If anyone else wins, it will be Danny Boyle. He only really fails in one of the least of the benchmarks – technological innovation – and in my opinion he doesn't make as strong an argument in fully half of the other aspects... but he sure comes close.
It's significant that the only one I have heard of is Man on Wire, and what I have heard of it is nothing short of glowing.
I'm going to Dark Knight for the largely the same reasons I'm doing so for Art Direction.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Waltz with Bashir, like Man on Wire is the only film I have heard of in this category, and I've heard pretty good stuff about it... which at the level I have my finger on the film world is usually a pretty solid indication it's at the head of the pack.
All three nominations move into a world where the line between CGI and make-up begins to blur... I'm not sure where the line should be drawn. I'll throw this one to Benjamin Button.
I wish I knew why, but score is one aspect of film that I really tend not to notice consciously. It's kind of weird – even distressing. Upon repeat viewing score will start to present itself to me, but I rarely register it immediately. I don't know why. As a result, I'm not going to bother analysing this one at all and just go with Wall-E based on the spurious assumption that part of why the opening 'silent' (it's not actually silent) half-hour must be so awe inspiring is that is backed up by a masterful soundtrack.
For starters... WHAT!!!? NO BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN!???
Okay, that is out of my system. I'm not sure which of the Slumdog Millionaire nominations is the Bollywood dance number at the end of the film, but that is my pick.
>Skipping the short films and sound – neither of which I have any real basis upon which to make a determination beyond wild or even hopeful guess.<
All three nominations were pretty cool, but I only feel like Benjamin Button expanded the film-maker's palette. I'm being somewhat redundant, but Brad Pitt's aging process is enchanting.
The three films I have seen are all worthy and I have no reason to think the other two aren't, but in the end I have to go with Slumdog Millionaire. It's structure is refreshingly original (ironic for Best Adapted, I know) and manages to make me forget that the story itself is consistently predictable step by step throughout the film... in fact I might even agree that the juxtaposition of original structure and predictable outcome actually complement each other admirably.
I am kind of stuck here. Wall-E's opening half hour (again, I know) is fantastic, but I don't know that I have been so pleasantly surprised by a film's script this year as I was by in Bruges. It seems to be a pedestrian buddy film, yet it manages to make a hero of a despicable man, without genuinely redeeming him, and it also refuses to give in to an easily Hollywood conclusion. When watching it, I found myself begging the film to end before it gilded the lily by hitting the standard notes of a commercial film ending... and it obliged. I guess, if pressed, I'll go with In Bruges for bravely being 'wrong' to excellent result.
While I didn't make an effort to predict the possible nominees, I am happy to see the results and I think I would have called four of the five if I had tried.
Slumdog Millionaire – As previously mentioned is remarkably fresh for being a film with such an obvious destination. I think it has a real chance of winning – winning a Golden Globe doesn't hurt either. Why was it nominated? It manages to avoid the obvious pitfalls that would and should prevent any film from getting nominated (I.E. It is generally speaking a high-quality film.) but above and beyond that it raises awareness of the Western mind as to the lifestyle of modern Mumbai. A politically relevant message is always a good way to add stock to your Best Picture chances. Additionally, a film that other film-makers can look at and say to themselves "that was not easy to accomplish" is doing itself favours. Specifically, going to the slums of Mumbai and shooting amongst the dense population with a paucity of controls is a significant accomplishment it itself – to say nothing of the purported risk of attempting to do so.
Frost/Nixon – The film is doing itself favours from the outset by taking a well received stage play as its immediate source. Add to that the fact that it is a historical drama that reflects upon current events and it becomes increasingly difficult to not nominate it – all basic quality control notwithstanding, which clearly it manages to achieve... it's Ron Howard – what do you expect?
Milk – Again a historical drama – a biopic, no less. Not to be dismissive, but add gay-rights and issues into the mix on top of a solid work and Hollywood is going to like you... especially in a year when gay-rights are under assault.
The Reader – The film I know the least about. Generally speaking, a well made film which touches – or even directly takes on a taboo subject is doing itself favours. In some cases a film of nominal quality can ride its subject through to a win. Gentleman's Agreement, I am looking at you.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Let me be the first to say it, I have an obvious bias and hard-on for this film. It is my pick for Best Pic. It breaks technological boundaries (which is why Forrest Gump won in 1994); it is epic in scope – like MANY past winners; it is both beautiful and moving; and it's (somewhat tacked on) relationship both on screen and off to Katrina-slammed New Orleans does it favours too; the vast number of locations and eras it covers and the fidelity with which they are rendered plays in its favour. It is not a lock, but I do expect it to win Best Picture as well as more of its other nominations than it fails to win. It's not going to run the table though – Slumdog is too strong a competitor and scattered other ringers will spread the wins around on February 22nd.
I may revisit this with updated predictions based on the buzz and politics of the day and on (hopefully) better first-hand knowledge of the films in contention.
*The first year of the Academy Awards there were two separate 'Best Picture' categories; Best Picture – Creative (won by Wings) and Best Picture – Technical (won by Sunrise). For some reason they amalgamated the categories the next year, and today only Wings is recognized as the winner the first year.