Fri 20 Feb 2009
Posted by Ethan under Oscar Talk
Comments Off on Oscar Talk: Best Director and Best Picture
The Final Round!
Danny Boyle: Slumdog Millionaire
Stephen Daldry: The Reader
David Fincher: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard: Frost/Nixon
Gus Van Sant: Milk
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Before leaping into a discussion of this year’s five nominated films for Best Picture (as well as the five Best Director nominees) I feel like we first have to acknowledge the 50,0000 ton elephant in the room–namely the absence of The Dark Knight from both of these categories. It’s funny, somehow it feels like more ink has been spilled about this one film that wasn’t nominated as opposed to the five that were. I think that speaks to how dull this year’s Best Picture race has been, since the winner was more or less decided before ballots even went out. (It amuses me, to be honest, that some publications are going to such great lengths to manufacture drama about what’s a cut-and-dried situation. No, The Reader will not be the surprise spoiler and no Benjamin Button has no chance at making a late-in-the-game comeback. To paraphrase the sure-to-be-winner, the outcome of this award has already been written. But we’ll get into all that later.) The way I see it, the debate over The Dark Knight can be boiled down to two main points:
1) The Dark Knight should have been nominated for Best Picture and Christopher Nolan for Best Director
2) By not nominated either the film or Nolan, the Academy has all but destroyed its relevance to contemporary film audiences.
I want to speak to the second question first. Look, it’s an open secret that the Oscars are often out of step with both popular and critical opinion. Every year they make decisions that piss off both camps–in fact, a whole industry has sprung up devoted to pointing out all the bad calls that the Academy has made over the decades. Personally, I don’t know if the Oscars have ever really been relevant to film culture. I enjoy the horse race each year and am pleased when some of my favorite movies, actors and directors are highlighted, but at the end of the day, the movie itself matters more than any award. Most of my favorite films over this past decade not only haven’t won Oscars, they weren’t even nominated. But that doesn’t diminish their greatness in my eyes. So the fact that The Dark Knight to make the cut doesn’t really raise or lower the Academy’s relevance in my eyes. It’s just more of the same.
However, in the debate over The Dark Knight, I’m noticing two new arguments being introduced into the “Is the Academy relevant?” question that have me a little perturbed. The first is the suggestion that the movie’s enormous box-office success should have essentially qualified it for a Best Picture nomination. The second is the oft-repeated idea that ratings for the Oscar telecast will plummet because the Academy didn’t nominate the film and therefore they really should have picked it because now nobody is going to tune in. I take issue with both of these lines of thought because–and I know I’m being starry-eyed here–box-office and ratings shouldn’t factor into how Oscars are handed out. It’s an award meant to honor the film arts, not the film business. If people only tuned in to watch awards shows featuring movies that were box-office successes, than the People’s Choice Awards would be the highest rated telecast on the air. To be honest, I kind of admire the Academy voters for not being persuaded by those factors as they went about picking this year’s Best Picture nominees. It would have been easy to bow to popular pressure and pick The Dark Knight, but they picked movies they thought were better artistic achievements and while I disagree with some (okay, many) of their choices, at least I know those decisions weren’t made as a way to goose the ratings or prove that they read the box-office recap in the trades every week.
Now, onto the first question: should The Dark Knight have been nominated in the Best Picture and Best Director categories? I know this will pain you, but I don’t think the film deserved a Best Picture nod. However, I am totally behind a Best Director nomination for Nolan. I know this seems contradictory, but I’ll launch into my patented explanation: I’m one of those people who thinks that the “Best Director always makes the Best Picture” formula is bunk. As far as I’m concerned, there are plenty of examples of mediocre films with great direction or mediocre direction in great films. A classic case I like to use is the Saving Private Ryan/Shakespeare in Love brouhaha that happened a decade ago, where Spielberg took Best Director while Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture. A lot of people disagreed with that split, but it made perfect sense to me. Spielberg earned his Best Director Oscar with Ryan‘s opening twenty minutes alone, which completely changed the way war movies have been shot ever since. And throughout the film, he’s doing incredible things with the camera. When you step back and take a look at the movie as a whole though, Ryan is deeply, deeply flawed. (And, as a sidebar, I would argue that this has been the case with a lot of Spielberg’s recent output. Munich, A.I., War of the Worlds and even The Terminal have some stunning directorial choices in them, but the films themselves are very problematic.) On the other hand, you’ve got Shakespeare in Love, which is a delightful film to watch, filled with terrific performances and a sparkling screenplay. John Madden’s direction, however, is serviceable at best. Really, the smartest choice he makes as a filmmaker is staying the hell out of the way of the material. And his subsequent projects (Proof, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) have revealed just how modest his contribution was to Shakespeare’s success.
To my mind, The Dark Knight is a Saving Private Ryan situation. I’m still in awe of Christopher Nolan’s ambitions for The Dark Knight. He brought a scale and scope to the superhero film that really hasn’t been seen before and I often find myself wanting to go back and watch select scenes from the movie just to marvel at some of the extraordinary moments and images. However, every time I do go back and watch scenes from the movie, I’m reminded why The Dark Knight itself never lives up to Nolan’s work behind the camera: namely that painfully overwritten and frequently repetitive screenplay (also penned by Noland and his brother Jonathan). For every scene that plays like gangbusters, there are at least two that fall flat, either due to clunky dialogue or problematic performances (I’m looking at you Maggie Gyllenhaal and Eric Roberts!) I certainly think that the film deserved all of its nominations in the technical category. But Best Picture? Sorry, the movie doesn’t make my personal dream list.
Of course, we’re not talking about my dream list here, we’re talking about the actual nominees. And I have to admit that, all my reservations about Dark Knight aside, I would have rather seen it nominated than at least three of the movies that wound up making the cut. (I’m not completely contradicting myself here, by the way. My preference for The Dark Knight in this very specific case speaks more to what those other nominees do wrong than what TDK does right.) What three movies am I talking about? I’ll get to that in my next note. In the meantime, I turn this debate over to you, a stalwart Dark Knight defender. Why did the movie deserve a Best Picture nomination? And has the Academy hurt itself in your eyes by not picking it?
Yes, the Academy has hurt itself by failing to nominate The Dark Knight. I completely agree that a movie should not be nominated strictly because it did well at the box-office or in hope that its inclusion will bring higher ratings for the show. The day that movies like Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean are nominated for Best Picture is the day that the Academy loses all relevance, and the day I stop watching and caring. They are always going to leave worthy films out, and the “best” film of the year rarely wins. But for the most part, deserving films are at least nominated and very good, if not always great, films win. My biggest problem with The Dark Knight‘s exclusion has less to do with the fact that it wasn’t nominated, then with the film that was nominated in its place; The Reader. The Academy would rather nominate a bad movie that tries and fails to say something about a serious subject (the holocaust), then a “comic book movie” that successfully says something serious while also being entertaining as hell. It’s the bias against genre films as serious art that I take such issue with. And when you consider that The Reader is the film that was chosen over The Dark Knight, bias is the only possible explanation. Who in their right mind could possibly compare those two movies and not think The Dark Knight is better. It doesn’t matter if action or superhero’s aren’t your thing. Objectively speaking, one is high quality and the other is not. One is successful as a film, the other a complete failure. So if not a bias, then what?
The Academy is absolutely correct to keep mass-appeal dreck like Transformers away from the big prizes. As you said, that’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for. But they do themselves a disservice when they slight a summer blockbuster that is of extremely high quality and more then worthy of recognition. What they’re saying is we don’t care about those movies at all. By recognizing the achievements of Knight, they would send a signal that says this is how blockbusters should be made. Give us more like this!
But, no, The Dark Knight does not deserve a nomination just because it’s the second highest grossing film of all time. It deserves one because it’s a fantastic film. This is a film that has more to say about the post-9/11 world then all of the Iraq war films combined. It’s big, it’s messy, it’s morally ambiguous and it’s a completely accurate look at where we are in the world today. It asks serious questions about right and wrong, if morally questionable ends justify the means, and if people are generally good or evil. It asks these questions and does not offer simple, pat, or politically correct answers. And yeah, at the same time it features a villain in clown make-up, an amazing chase sequence, and some really cool explosions. What else do you want in a movie? Sure it has some flaws (I still think the Two-Face transformation happens a little too quickly), but they aren’t so bad that they take away from the overall impact of the film. I just don’t see what those flat scenes are that you mention. I’ve seen the film three times now, in three different formats (regular theater, Imax, and home video) and it has only improved with each viewing. I’ve come to not be as bothered by the few problems it has (like no one discovering the explosives on the ferries), and to appreciate the best scenes even more (I could watch the interrogation room scene between Batman and the Joker over and over). I think this film, flaws and all, is a staggering achievement for mass entertainment.
I have a feeling we’re not done talking about this yet, so just a quick comment about what you said in regard to directors.
I agree that the Best Picture doesn’t always have to be made by the Best Director or vice-versa (this year, I think Danny Boyle deserves the directing nomination more then Slumdog deserves one for Picture). But, to play devil’s advocate, I’d argue that if the end result is a good film, the director deserves a lot of the credit, even if all he did was get out of the way of the script and his actors (ala Madden with Shakespeare). And if the end result is an okay movie with several incredibly executed sequences (Spielberg with Ryan), then I don’t know how successful you can say that director ultimately was. Can you have a deeply flawed movie and still say that the director did a great job overall?
When we get around to talking about the five films that actually are nominated, I think we’re going to be in agreement on the two that deserve to be there and the three that we would jettison for others.
Lord knows I don’t want to waste too much energy defending The Reader, possibly my least favorite of all the Best Picture nominees, but how can you really say for sure that this was the film that spoiled The Dark Knight’s chances at a Best Picture nod? I’ve seen that argument pop up in various places and it doesn’t really make sense to me. Remember, the Academy isn’t some monolithic organization that picks and chooses movies at will. It’s a committee made up of thousands of members, all of whom submit ballots where they rank their choices for the best movies of the year. Those ballots are then tabulated and the top five vote getters fill out the Best Picture roster. Given that process, who’s to say that Frost/Nixon didn’t take The Dark Knight’s spot instead of The Reader? Or maybe The Dark Knight was never even in the running for the top five slot, only mustering enough votes to come in tenth place? Or what if Benjamin Button just edged out The Dark Knight while The Reader was comfortably in first place with the most votes out of all the possible nominated films? Would you then argue that Benjamin Button–a film I know you like–was chosen over The Dark Knight purely out of bias? The fact is, there are too many variables at work here to single out The Reader as being the sole culprit behind The Dark Knight’s absence from the top categories. Maybe it’s simply a case where the majority of Academy voters agreed with me about The Dark Knight being a good film, but, at the end of the day, not good enough for them to list it among their top choices for Best Picture.
I’ll agree with you that the interrogation room scene with Batman and The Joker is easily the movie’s high point and its certainly one of the sequences I flash too immediately whenever I think of what the film does right. The Nolan brothers clearly know they nailed that scene too, because they proceed to repeat it in the far less effective scene between the Joker and Two-Face in the hospital about a half-hour later. They then repeat it again in the final confrontation between Batman and the Joker on the high-rise. And that’s one of my main objections to the movie, the constant repetition of material we already understand. I swear, if Nolan had just snipped out every scene where the Joker identifies himself as an agent of chaos, the movie would have been a good half-hour shorter. Too often it feels to me like the Nolan brothers don’t trust the audience to get what they’re trying to do, so they repeat, underline and put in boldface every thematic point. As for which scenes in the movie fall flat, start with any scene featuring Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes, easily the most thankless role of the year. Her only purpose in the movie–spoiler alert!–is to die. She has no inner life, no dreams of her own, no goal in life apart from deciding between these two men. Because the movie treats her as a possession rather than a person there’s no drama, no life to any of the scenes she shares with either Eckhart or Bale. I don’t object to the idea of a comic-book movie being nominated for Best Picture one day. The fact that the villain of the piece wears clown makeup is a plus in my book. But The Dark Knight is just not that comic-book movie. Maybe Nolan will get it perfect the next time out, but this one ultimately falls short.
We could have a whole separate conversation about the role of the director in the filmmaking process, but in the interests of keeping us mostly on topic, I’ll quickly respond to your very fair point about the Best Director=Best Picture issue. First off, I wouldn’t call Saving Private Ryan an okay movie with several incredibly executed sequences. I think its an okay movie that’s incredibly well executed. I have no problems with that movie from a technical standpoint–it’s a real achievement of film technique. My issues with the movie lie more with the screenplay and its overall message. Should those flaws be blamed on the director? It’s certainly an interesting question. And again, I do think there are examples of flawed movies where the directors do great work. Take Speed Racer, for example, my third favorite film of last year. The Wachowski Brothers took what is, on the page, a fairly banal coming of age story and realized it onscreen as a glorious, candy-colored adventure. Or, going more old school for a moment, let’s look at a ’70s classic like Network. Paddy Chayefsky’s script, I’d argue, has dated considerably since the film’s release, but Sidney Lumet’s straightforward, no-frills direction–along with his skill at working with actors–still make it a compelling sit. So yes, the director ultimately plays an important role in the success or failure of a film. But I also think its possible that he or she can succeed where the material falls short or fall short where the material succeeds.
I guess we should get around to some of the actual nominated films, huh? I’m going to hold off on talking about the all-but-certain winner Slumdog Millionaire because my feelings about that movie are long-winded enough to deserve a separate post. So let me share some thoughts about a few of the other nominees, starting with the movie that I think should win Best Picture: Gus Van Sant’s Milk. I don’t have a lot to say about the film, to be honest. It’s a very straightforward biopic and one could argue, as many have, that Van Sant played it safe by making such a conventional film. It’s true that if anyone could have put a new spin on the biopic formula, it would be the director of Elephant and Last Days. But Van Sant obviously felt that the content of this particular film was more important than the style. That’s not to say that this film isn’t stylish, by the way. Van Sant and his production team do an excellent job recreating ’70s era San Francisco and he still makes room for his signature lyrical touches, like that beautifully composed shot of James Franco (or his body double) swimming naked in a backyard pool. What really impresses me about Milk though is that way that the film makes the political personal. The movie is filled with detailed conversations about voting, city governance and other topics that normally make a viewer’s eyes glaze over, but it keeps the audience engaged by connecting these topics to Harvey Milk’s life as well as the lives of the other gay men in the Castro. And when Milk is assassinated, you really feel his loss in an intense, emotional way. This film, to me, is an example of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking at its finest and my hat is off to Van Sant for finding a way to work within the system without completely becoming a part of that system.
Now, does this mean Van Sant is also my pick for Best Director? Not necessarily. I would love to see him win, because this movie really shows off what he’s capable of when handed a larger budget, but is still recognizable as a Gus Van Sant film. But I also admire what David Fincher accomplished on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, yet another example of a very flawed film that, nevertheless, highlights this particular filmmaker’s skills and interests. I’ll have more to say about Button in my next post, but right now I’ll turn it over to you. Is Milk your “should win” pick out of these nominees as well? Or are you leaning towards one of the other movies like, say, Frost/Nixon?
No. Definitely not Frost/Nixon. More on that in a bit. But first, a couple of last comments on The Dark Knight….
I don’t know for sure that The Reader is the movie that knocked Dark Knight out of contention. But conventional wisdom says that the other four films were pretty much set in stone and the 5th slot was Knight’s to lose. The other four were consistently nominated in all of the major Oscar precursors, specifically the guild awards (the Directors, Producers, and Writer’s). The 5th film was The Dark Knight. The Reader was nowhere to be found in any of them. So I feel fairly confident that The Reader was the spoiler here. And again, The Reader isn’t even an okay film…it’s bad. It’s the worst film nominated for Best Picture that I can remember. I’ve disagreed with past choices, but I can’t think of a film that I actually thought was awful. The Reader is awful.
Yes, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel is more of a device (an extremely important one) then a fully fleshed out character, but that didn’t bother me at all. Remember, this is a sequel and I think Batman Begins gave us enough of the Rachel/Batman background to establish their relationship and set the stage for what happens in Knight. She serves her purpose well.
I’ll also agree that there is some repetitive dialogue in Knight, but not enough to get in the way of the pleasures of the film. There is a similarity to those three scenes that you mention, but there’s enough that’s fresh in each one to keep it from feeling stale, and each one serves a different purpose. The middle scene with Two-Face is the weakest (the Joker literally says I am an agent of chaos and that’s simply not necessary), but even that scene is a joy to watch, in large part because of Ledger (I love his droll “hi” at the top of the scene and the delivery of his line about being like a dog chasing cars and not knowing what he’d do with one if he caught it). I think you have it in reverse. For every one scene that might feature some clunky dialogue, there are two others that shine and more then make up for it. When you look back on the film, do you think about a bad line here or there, or do you think about the interrogation scene, the amazing opening bank heist, the chase scene, the Joker’s visit to the mob (or really any scene featuring the Joker), Lucius’ handling of the accountant, Bruce Wayne’s knowing glance with said accountant after saving his life, and so many other wonderful moments? But what makes it a great film is not that it is simply a series of terrific scenes, but that it adds up to something better then the sum of its parts. If this superhero movie isn’t worthy of a Best Picture nomination, then I don’t know if we’ll ever see one that is.
The director discussion does feel like a whole separate topic that we could delve into so I’ll keep it brief (and I won’t even touch your Speed Racer comments). There’s no question that there can be good work in mediocre, or even bad, films (see Kate Winslet in The Reader). And there can certainly be good directing in an okay film. But it would take an extreme example for me to give the Best Director award to someone who directed a movie that, as a whole, is bad. Isn’t it the job of a director to create something that is an overall satisfying film-going experience? So if it’s not satisfying, doesn’t the director have to take the blame for it? Even if the real problem is in the script, it’s the director’s job to discover that fault and fix it. There are all sorts of exceptions, and I think there are some directors that should shoulder more blame then others (Spielberg, for example, is smart enough to recognize problems, and powerful enough to have them fixed. A young director working on his first studio film will not have the same type of clout to make the changes that might be necessary), but for the most part, a bad film has to be blamed on a director that failed to do his or job. I don’t think it’s quite as cut and dry as that (there are valid points on both sides of the argument), but it’s the best I can do without driving us too far off course. I do, however, completely agree with you that in terms of the Oscars, the Best Director does not necessarily have to match up with the Best Picture.
Now to the films and directors that are actually nominated this year.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of passion for most of them. Frost/Nixon is a well-made movie with some exceptional performances and an interesting subject. I enjoyed my time watching it in the theater, but a day later it started fading from my memory. There’s just nothing all that memorable about it. It feels like a “serious” version of a summer popcorn flick…. you have fun and escape with it for two hours and then you forget about it with no need to ever revisit it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what makes for a Best Picture. Slumdog is a better film. It sticks with you a little longer; it shows you a world we haven’t seen all that much of, and it’s a good, rousing, feel-good story. But Best Picture? Not even close. I think this is an example of extremely talented director (Danny Boyle) whose skill has tricked people into thinking this is a better movie then it is. It’s not bad by any means. To be clear, I think it’s a good movie. But I simply don’t understand why it has become the phenomenon that it is, or how it has won every award that there is to win. Do you have an explanation for this? I feel like we’re the only two people in the world who aren’t in love with this movie.
Then, of course, there’s The Reader. This movie has no business being nominated for Best Picture, director or screenplay. Frost/Nixon is a masterpiece by comparison. It’s a jumbled mess of three different stories/ideas that never mesh into something cohesive. The movie appears to be saying that you’re better off being a Nazi guard who led women and children to their death, then to be illiterate. The main character, Hanna, would rather go to prison for war crimes, then allow anyone to know that she can’t read. Am I missing something here? Am I really supposed to take this movie seriously? I haven’t even mentioned the completely unbelievable affair that Hanna has with the young boy that sets the story in motion. Maybe everyone that likes this movie read the book and they’re bringing something to the film that’s not on the screen (like I did with Revolutionary Road). But from my view, this is a tedious, rambling film with no direction.
I’m running long again so I’ll turn it back to you and save my thoughts on the two films that do deserve to be here-Milk and Benjamin Button-for next time.
My last word on The Reader/Dark Knight situation: conventional wisdom has been positing that the former knocked the latter out of contention, but remember that conventional wisdom also said that Kate Winslet would be nominated for Revolutionary Road rather than The Reader. I guess what I’m trying to say is that conventional wisdom can often be wrong. You also mentioned the guild awards and while it’s true that The Dark Knight was honored by the Directors, Producers and Writers guilds, it was completely passed over by Screen Actors Guild—the largest voting block in the Academy—save for Heath Ledger’s expected Supporting Actor nod. It’s also worth noting that The Reader didn’t dominate the SAG Awards either, only getting a Supporting actor nomination for Winslet. You know what the SAG voters did flip for though? Doubt. So my working theory is that Doubt and The Reader were the two movies competing for the fifth slot, while The Dark Knight was never seriously in contention. The public and pundits (myself included, not trying to distinguish myself as a kind of sage here) assumed that The Dark Knight was a given because of box office, but in hindsight, I just don’t think that was the case. I know The Reader is a tempting target for assigning blame, both because it was a real surprise and because it’s backed by Harvey Weinstein who many still loath for the Shakespeare in Love upset a decade ago, but it’s not fair to blame The Dark Knight’s loss solely on that film, particularly when we don’t have access to any hard data.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, what about the movie itself? I’ve already said that I’m not a big fan of The Reader, although I don’t know that I’d call it, as you did, “the worst film nominated for Best Picture I can remember.” I don’t know offhand which movies I’d offer up in its place for that title, but I do know I’ve seen worse offenders than The Reader. At the end of the day, I don’t see a lot of difference between The Reader and Frost/Nixon—both of them are White Elephant movies, pictures that are primarily crafted to win awards and thus take few artistic risks and rarely have anything provocative to say. Frost/Nixon may feature stronger performances, but honestly I left that film baffled as to what the movie was actually about. I don’t mean on a story level—the plot is very straightforward and the screenplay constantly repeats the themes the filmmakers want the audience to ponder. But—and I’m being serious here—what is the point of Frost/Nixon exactly? That politicians lie? Shocker! That journalists should worry more about asking tough questions than scoring big ratings? Well, duh! The movie doesn’t even work as a history lesson, since it distorts or exaggerates a number of details about the actual Frost/Nixon interviews in order to fit the story into this “boxing match” approach to the material that Ron Howard and Peter Morgan hammer into the ground. To be fair, Milk also takes some dramatic license in its recounting of Harvey Milk’s story (most biopics do), but again, Van Sant’s triumph with that film was directly connecting Milk’s experiences to things happening in the country today. Maybe on stage Frost/Nixon packed some contemporary relevance, but as a movie, it feels like a museum artifact.
I know I said earlier that The Reader is probably my least favorite of all the Best Picture nominees, but in some ways, I’m angrier about Frost/Nixon‘s double nominations than The Reader. I know what appeals to voters about the latter film—the Holocaust is one of the Academy’s pet subjects and in its awkward, contrived way it is trying to address some larger questions about personal responsibility and an individual’s complicity in a society’s crimes. I’ve read the original book and I think the problem with the movie adaptation is that they try too hard to give equal screen time to both Winslet and Fiennes’ characters. The book is very much presented as the boy’s story, with Hannah offstage for long stretches of time. The movie tries to have it both ways, shoehorning in as much Winslet as possible, most notably in the final section of the movie where we see exactly how she learned to read. (Those scenes are referenced, but not described in great length, in the book). Unlike Frost/Nixon, I can see the kind of film the filmmakers hoped they were making—they just didn’t succeed.
I was going to talk about Benjamin Button next, but since you asked about Slumdog Millionaire, I’ll address that movie now. I know I promised a separate all-Slumdog post, but our time grows short here on Oscar Talk with the awards two days away, so I’ll try not to ramble too much in summing up my feelings about this year’s biggest success story. You’re certainly kinder to the film than I am—I think it’s a deeply mediocre movie that nevertheless functions as a crowd-pleaser by shamelessly trafficking in overripe melodrama and phony triumph-of-the-underdog uplift. You can say that about a lot of Bollywood films of course, but most Bollywood productions make no apologies about being fantasies. Slumdog, on the other hand, wants to be both authentic and fantastical at the same time and, for me, the mixture never coheres. Boyle is to be credited I suppose for highlighting the many social problems that exist in India—child disfigurement, forced prostitution etc. etc.—but then he lets the audience off the hook by letting his two characters walk off into the sunset as multi-millionaires. And I think that’s the reason the movie has really become the success that it has: it allows first-world viewers to feel like they’re being shown the “real India,” but makes sure they go home without images of child beggars and emaciated adults living in shantytowns stuck in their heads. If you want to see movies about India that acknowledge the country’s problems while also telling uplifting stories in a believable way, check out Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding, both of which are just as entertaining and far more emotionally rich than Slumdog Millionaire.
I’ll wait to see your comments on Button before talking about that film. And since none of these nominees excited you, which movies (apart from The Dark Knight) would you have rather seen nominated?
Of course it’s all speculation when we talk about what film may have bumped another one out. We’re never going to know. But by all indications, the other four films were pretty set in stone, so The Reader almost certainly took that fifth spot. Did it come down to Reader and Doubt or Reader and Dark Knight? We can’t know for sure, but with SAG being the only major guild not to nominate Knight, I think it’s fair to assume that Knight was right there in the mix. It makes sense to me that SAG would nominate Doubt over Knight. In that category, strictly talking about the acting, I’d absolutely put Doubt in there. It’s the definition of an actor’s film and all four main actors do an outstanding job with it. I’ve always found it puzzling that the SAG award for best cast should be an indication of what will win Best Picture at the Oscars (Sure, actors make up the largest voting block of the Academy, but there is a big difference between a good cast and a good film). One shouldn’t have much bearing on the other. Even if I disagree with it, I understand why people match the Best Director to the Best Picture-there’s logical reasoning there-but the Best Cast? Bottom line is that The Reader took the place of a more worthy film (whether it was Doubt or The Dark Knight) and that is frustrating.
Wow. I’m shocked that you put The Reader on the same level as Frost/Nixon. I don’t want to defend Frost/Nixon too strongly, but I think it’s a decent movie that succeeds as an engaging historical drama. I don’t think there are many deep points that it’s trying to make. It is simply a “boxing match” between two interesting characters. It succeeds as entertainment. The Reader, on the other hand, fails at everything it tries to do. I think the larger questions that it wants to raise could make for a fascinating movie, but they’re barely even in this one. By attempting to do too much it fails on all levels. I might be a bit harder on the film then it deserves. I applaud filmmakers who are ambitious and try to accomplish something new or bold. This summer’s Will Smith movie Hitch, for example, is something I’ve defended. It tried to do something different with the superhero film and though it wasn’t always successful, it should get all sorts of credit for trying. But it shouldn’t be up for Best Picture. The Reader should be applauded for its ambitions, but it should not be made out to be something more then it is simply because of its subject matter and the pedigree of its cast and crew. That is exactly what they’re doing by nominating it for Best Picture and that’s what makes me dislike the film even more. Celebrating mediocrity is bad enough. Lets not start celebrating failures as well.
Now to something positive. I don’t have much to add to your comments about Milk so for the sake of brevity, I’ll simply say that I agree with you about the accomplishments of Van Sant and the film. This is exactly what I’d like to see more of: talented, independent directors taking aim at mainstream Hollywood material (even if Harvey Milk isn’t the most mainstream subject, biopics are certainly Hollywood mainstays and that’s what Milk is).
As much as I like and admire Milk, my vote would go to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Button is an imperfect film, but it succeeds far more often then it fails. The odd thing is that it took a second viewing for me to fully appreciate it, and to give director David Fincher his due. Initially I thought Fincher was an odd choice for a fable like this, but since it’s really a film about death (and by extension, life) who better then the director of Seven and Zodiac? For a nearly three hour film with state of the art special effects, a large cast and globe-stretching locales, it is at its essence a pretty basic story about coming to grips with death, taking ownership of your life, and appreciating fleeting pleasures when you can. One of the many reasons why I’ve come to see Fincher as the perfect director for this is that he deals with these issues in a relatively unsentimental way. Death, and there is a lot of it throughout the film, is handled matter-of-factly. It’s simply a part of life and something that comes to everyone. Other directors wouldn’t be able to resist turning these moments into ten-hankie, tearjerker scenes, but Fincher pulls back, keeping us at a distance. That’s not to say it’s not an emotional film, and there is a point near the end that will make most eyes water, but those are well earned tears. There are all sorts of things that go into how I judge a film, but two of the most important are how well it stays with me once it’s over and how it holds up on repeat viewings. When I came out of my first screening of Button, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, and I may have been a little disappointed in it (my expectations had been sky high). But the longer I sat with it, the more I thought about it, and the more I wanted to see it again. The second time around I connected with it on a much deeper level and saw or “got” things that I hadn’t before. And now, I look forward to seeing it again. Though Milk may be a “more perfect” film with no real flaws, Button is the one that stays with me, and the one that I want to revisit again and again. That’s why it gets my vote for Best Picture, along with Fincher for Director.
What else would I have liked to see nominated? I think we’ve already established that I would keep Button and Milk and that I would add The Dark Knight to the list. It should come as no surprise that The Wrestler would also be among my choices. The fifth spot comes down to two films. Doubt is a terrific movie with an amazing cast and a solid effort from writer/director John Patrick Shanley. It is completely deserving of a nod. However, I have to go with my favorite, and I think best, film of the year: WALL-E. WALL-E is as visually stunning as anything in Benjamin Button; it’s as compelling a story as Slumdog and has much more heart; and it has just as much, if not more, to say about the state of the world then Milk, Frost/Nixon, or The Reader. It has everything you could possibly want in a movie. Unfortunately, now that they have their own category, I think the chance of an animated film being nominated for the big prize is almost non-existent. That’s a shame. A great film is a great film whether it’s live-action, animated, a comic-book movie, a comedy, or a historical drama. WALL-E was the best film of the year so it deserves to complete in that category.
Do you share my love of WALL-E or are there others that you’d prefer to see in contention?
I completely agree with you that the Oscars shouldn’t celebrate failures and, in my book, both The Reader and Frost/Nixon count as failures, albeit for very different reasons. The Reader is largely a failure of execution. It takes a book that with a challenging structure and moral complexity and simplifies it to the point where it loses most of its dramatic and emotional impact. Traces of the film that it could have been remain, but mostly it comes across as confused and at cross-purposes with itself. Frost/Nixon, on the other hand, is largely a failure of imagination. At every turn, Ron Howard made safe, conventional and thoroughly boring choices in bringing this play to the screen. It’s executed professionally, but the film feels lifeless to me. There’s never a moment in the movie where Howard actually seems to be engaged in the material and, as a result, I felt distant and vaguely bored by it all. Every now and then I got a flicker of enjoyment out of Langella and Sheen’s verbal joustings, but mainly it just made me long to be watching the original interviews instead of this airless recreation. Neither of these movies deserve to be included in either the Best Picture or Best Director category and I suppose one of the reasons I’m more rankled by Frost/Nixon is that it was always one of the four films that was destined to end up here and I never thought it deserved it. The Reader was an unpleasant surprise, but I knew Frost/Nixon was going to happen and it disappointed me that Academy voters were going to make such a safe, boring choice.
Speaking of failures of imagination, I think it’s a crying shame that voters chickened out on nominating Wall-E, a film that deserved the Best Director and Best Picture slot that went to Frost/Nixon and/or The Reader. And here’s the crazy thing: I think if it had been nominated in either category, it would have won. People really do love that movie just as much, if not more, than Slumdog Millionaire. And, in fact, I think it has a good shot at winning Best Original Screenplay, a first for an animated film. As you said, it completely deserved to compete in the Big Two categories as well. That voters failed to push for Wall-E reveals more about the Academy’s biases than the absence of The Dark Knight.
In case you’re curious, here is how the Best Director and Best Picture line-up would have looked if I had had final say:
Laurent Cantet: The Class
David Fincher: Benjamin Button
Steven Soderbergh: Che
Andrew Stanton: Wall-E
Gus Van Sant: Milk
Synechdoche, New York
In this scenario, I would have voted to hand Best Director to Soderbergh and Best Picture to Wall-E. Even though Che was my favorite movie from last year, Wall-E is 2008’s Best Picture as it hit that sweet spot of being an artistic triumph that also functions as a commercial crowd-pleaser.
Once again though, I have to remind myself that I’m living in the real world, which means my personal favorites almost always go overlooked at the Oscars. So in terms of this year’s actual nominees, I’d hand Best Picture to Milk and Best Director to David Fincher. As I said before, Van Sant would be an equally deserving winner, but I think Fincher really does an excellent job realizing a very problematic screenplay. He accomplishes two of the hardest assignments a mainstream director faces on a big-budget project, namely establishing a consistent tone and balancing intimacy with spectacle. Like his good friend Soderbergh, Fincher is a whiz kid when it comes to film technology. He loves the process of filmmaking and can talk endlessly about the mechanics of his craft. What this particular movie allows him to do is take that cerebral approach to directing and apply it to a story that does carry significant emotional weight. I’ve seen Benjamin Button twice now and both times I’ve sobbed through much of the final thirty minutes. As you said, a big part of the reason the movie earns those tears is because of Fincher’s restraint behind the camera. Another director (Stephen Daldry and Ron Howard, for example) would have milked certain moments for all they were worth, rendering them cheesy instead of moving. For the most part, Fincher avoids wallowing excessively in the screenplay’s sentimentality and, in fact, many of the most moving scenes for me are also the most fleeting in terms of screentime. I have to confess that I wasn’t a fan of Fincher when he first burst on the scene with Se7en, but he’s consistently improved since then and both his last film Zodiac and now Benjamin Button represent some of his best work behind the camera. I can now genuinely say that I’m excited to see whatever he does next.
All that said, I can’t get behind Benjamin Button as this year’s Best Picture and, as I’m sure you noticed, I left it off my dream ballot as well. There are several reasons for that, most of which stem from Eric Roth’s script. For starters, I didn’t care for the endless narration, which spelled out in awkward, clunky dialogue what was much better expressed through images. There are only a handful of movies that make good use of voiceover narration and this certainly isn’t one of them. Secondly, I thought it was a mistake to cut back and forth so often between Benjamin’s story and the scenes with the elderly Daisy and her daughter in the hospital. Those sequences kept interrupting the gentle flow of the film’s main narrative and, after a certain point, I found it absurd that Daisy would force her child to go on what is basically an elaborate scavenger hunt to learn the truth about her father. Speaking of narrative flow, as I said in my original review, I appreciated that Roth and Fincher wanted to take their time in telling the story of Benjamin Button’s life. However, this did result in some sequences that went on much too long, most notably Benjamin’s adventures at sea during World War II. This portion of the movie also featured my least favorite character, Captain Mike, played like something out of a Saturday Night Live sketch by Jared Harris.
But, for me, the film’s fatal flaw–and I’ll be curious to hear your take on this–is its use of Hurricane Katrina as the backdrop for the present-day story. I disliked this choice the first time I saw the film and I hated it even more the second time around. The problem with using Katrina is that it injects a note of harsh reality into this otherwise fantastical story that the film simply can’t support. Obviously the movie does make use of other real historical tragedies, including the first two World Wars. But enough time has passed since those events that we’re able to treat them with an almost mythic quality. In contrast, the wounds of Katrina are still too fresh and too raw. Whenever they talked about the storm coming closer, all I could think about was what would happen to those people in the hospital after the hurricane hit. It also ruins the last shot of the movie, where the rising water submerges the old train station clock, clearly alluding to the biblical image of the Great Flood covering the world in water. In theory, I like the idea of that scene, but I don’t appreciate Roth and Fincher using Katrina for their own metaphorical purposes. It’s cheap and exploitative and derails what should be a powerful conclusion.
And with that, I rest my case about this year’s Best Picture and Best Director races. I’ve really enjoyed this particular edition of our Oscar Talk–we built up some pretty good heads of steam! I turn the last word over to you and look forward to chatting with you again next week as we do our post-Oscar post-mortem. Here’s hoping that at least one of my “Should Win” picks actually does win!
I really like your director’s ballot. But since The Class is the one film that I haven’t been able to see, I’d have to swap Cantet for Christopher Nolan. Soderbergh is absolutely deserving of a nod for Che, and of course I’d support Stanton. I can’t say I’m with you on Che for Picture though. And though I was intrigued with Synechdoche, and really enjoyed the first half of it, I’m afraid you’re on your own with that pick as well.
I admit that Button has flaws, and I think you’ve pointed out the worst of them, but I don’t mind the Katrina backdrop in the least. Especially the second time around, I found it poignant. It’s meant to hammer the themes home and inject just a little reality into an otherwise whimsical story. I think it effectively does just that. It had to be something that was easily recognizable to anyone watching (in the U.S. and around the world), and something that happened in the last few years. I can’t think of another event that would have been more appropriate. Nor could they have chosen a more perfect city in which to set the film. New Orleans is all about celebrating life even in the midst of death, and everyone in that city has a story to tell. Katrina, unfortunately, is now a part of that city’s story.
Whew! I stuck to my word and actually kept it brief this time around. I have thoroughly enjoyed our discussions, and I hope that the readers did as well. I look forward to our wrap-up next week and hope that we get a good show on Sunday night with at least a few pleasant surprises. Enjoy!
Will Win: Danny Boyle
Should Win: David Fincher
Will Win: Danny Boyle
Should Win: David Fincher
Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win: Milk
Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
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