Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscars Analysis 2008: Best Picture


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button



The Reader

Slumdog Millionaire


Twenty categories later, we’ve finally arrived at the big prize, and the suspense is … er, is there any suspense? Like, at all? At this point, I feel like the 2008 Best Picture race is more of a sure thing than the Iraqi election in 2002, when Saddam Hussein won 100% of the vote because no other candidates were allowed on the ballot. As such, the question isn’t “Which movie is going to win Best Picture?” but “Is there any challenger with a shot in hell of defeating Slumdog Millionaire?”.

Not Frost/Nixon. Ron Howard’s sublimely executed glimpse into a key moment in American history may have garnered five key Oscar nominations, but it’s barely sniffed a trophy all awards season. With the exception of an inexplicably dominant showing among the Las Vegas Film Critics and a couple of Adapted Screenplay nods for Peter Morgan, the movie’s only other victory is Location of the Year at the “California on Location Awards.” That kind of win doesn’t exactly scream “Oscar candidate!”.

Not The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Despite leading the pack with 13 nominations (the most for a film since Chicago also tallied 13 in 2002), David Fincher’s epic romance has been utterly dismissed as a contender for the top prize. In fact, some are postulating that the movie will get shut out completely, marking it as the first film in Oscar history to garner at least 12 nominations and fail to take home a single statuette. That’s foolish – the movie is a near-lock for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup, and I also expect it to contend in other technical categories – but it’s indicative of the pessimism surrounding the film’s chances to compete for Best Picture.

Not Milk. Gus Van Sant’s informative, moving biopic may be in contention for a number of major awards this evening – most notably Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay – but most of its buzz seems to be centered around Sean Penn. I suppose it’s possible that there’s some residual guilt among voters for hosing a movie focusing on homosexual characters three years ago when Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash, but that seems like an awfully big stretch.

And not The Reader, unless … well, unless Harvey Weinstein is truly the devil and simply bribes, threatens, and cheats his way to another Oscar. I wouldn’t put it past him to try – the guy has developed such an appetite for under-the-table scheming that he no longer respects boundaries – but I can’t accept that Academy members could in good conscience (or in any conscience) vote for it over a title as breathtaking and rapturous as Slumdog Millionaire. Harvey Weinstein may be a titan of the industry, but even he can’t top true greatness.

So there it is. All remaining candidates having been properly discounted, we can safely say that the winner of Best Picture at the eighty-first Academy Awards will be Slumdog Millionaire. Jai ho.

(Fun piece of trivia: If, as I expect, Slumdog Millionaire wins Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay tonight, it will become just the fourth movie ever to win those top prizes with receiving an acting nomination for any member of its cast. The other three: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Last Emperor, and Gigi. Replace Best Adapted Screenplay with Best Original Screenplay, and no movie has ever pulled off the feat. You can now kill at your next cocktail party.)


First of all, let me say that this year’s Best Picture nominees represent a solid set of films. The blogosphere tends to grouse incessantly about the Oscars and its process, and this blog is no exception, but it’s important to point out that I enjoyed all of these movies to a certain degree. Would I have selected a different quintet given the opportunity? Of course, and it’s also worth noting that, in spite of the quality of each of these films, they pale in comparison to the stellar set of 2007 nominees. That said, I commend the Academy for, if not choosing the best five films of the year, at least not selecting any clunkers. (How’s that for a backhanded compliment?)

Of the five nominees, Milk impressed me least. Again, this isn’t to say it’s a bad movie – far from it. Featuring a bevy of excellent performances, most notably from Sean Penn as an unfailingly generous crusader, it chronicles an important period in political history with both factual verisimilitude and warm compassion. Yet while I came away from Milk far more knowledgeable about its protagonist, for whatever reason I wasn’t deeply moved by his story. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen so many films about passionate supporters of civil rights that Milk’s tale of one man’s quest for equality is unable to separate itself from other pictures of its ilk, or because the movie fails to adequately explain the admittedly unfathomable circumstances of Harvey Milk’s assassination. Whatever the reason, while I find few faults with Milk and in fact enjoyed and admired it, I didn’t adore it.

I didn’t adore The Reader either, but I was fascinated by it all the same. Unlike Milk, it has plenty of problems – its chronology is sloppy, and some of its supporting characters are hollow and poorly developed – but also unlike Milk, it delivers moments of devastating emotional power. It’s odd that a movie focusing so intensely on guilt, grief, and repugnance can produce such feeling from its audience, but The Reader accomplishes it, primarily because of its refusal to sentimentalize its characters. We may develop a measure of sympathy for Hanna Schmitz while watching the film, but only because director Stephen Daldry and actress Kate Winslet do not ask for that sympathy. Instead, they create a deeply flawed character whose ugliness is matched only by her own self-loathing, and this lends Hanna a haunting sense of truth. There are no monsters or saints in The Reader, only guilty people attempting to cope with their own shame, and the result, while often comfortable, is spellbinding.

Frost/Nixon is somewhat The Reader’s antithesis. It is sparse and immaculate, with no wasted moments and little emphasis on emotional currency. Yet it is also electric. For a movie that operates primarily through spoken dialogue, Ron Howard’s account of a series of mere interviews generates remarkable energy. A truly collaborative effort – the editing is invigorating, the actors are shrewd enough to know when to hesitate and when to sneer, and the screenplay assimilates factual data while driving the story forward – Frost/Nixon feels less like a docudrama than a combative duel for salvation. It may not tug at your heartstrings, but it will undoubtedly quicken your heartbeat.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in no way feels like an action movie, although it does possess its share of breathtaking moments. But it is more than a collection of expertly crafted scenes; in totality, it is a grand, sweeping journey, and a heartfelt meditation on life, love, and loss. The emotional impact the film provides is curiously palpable without being acute. Watching it unfold, I was not waylaid by agony (as was the case with last year’s Atonement), but I nevertheless felt deeply, profoundly sad. David Fincher’s picture is languorous, yet it glides effortlessly, an exquisite combination of technique and tenderness. The movie’s last spoken line is a soft, aching farewell, and its immediate visual aftermath – a swift tracking shot of incomparable loveliness – brilliantly personifies the film’s everlasting grace.

Yet the sadness I felt while watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button cannot compared to the undiluted joy I experienced during Slumdog Millionaire. A rousing, unapologetic ode to the grandeur and majesty of cinema, Danny Boyle’s fearless movie thrusts us into darkness and then delivers pure happiness. Boyle dazzles us with a nonstop assortment of theatrical treats – whip-pans, slow-motion sequences, startling jumps forward and back in time – but he maintains an unencumbered love for his characters, a love that easily transfers to the viewer. Watching Slumdog Millionaire, I left behind the cares and worries of my world and heedlessly leapt into its own, a teeming universe of bright colors, raucous music, and pure emotion. A truly unforgettable motion picture, Slumdog Millionaire delivers everything a movie possibly can. And that’s why it gets my vote for Best Picture.


For this, you’ll have to wait for the Manifesto’s prestigious Top 10 Movies of 2008, which will be published in the coming weeks.

(God, I’m such a tease.)

Enjoy the Oscars.

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