Saturday, February 14, 2009

a nod to the oscars
I muse about this year's best picture nominees...

The other day it occurred to me that for the last few years I have really only watched the Oscars out of habit, perhaps even because it is expected of me. In my younger days it was a real event night; friends would gather at my apartment and we would fill out our own ballots, guessing the winners with a close eye on the Vegas odds. My famous nacho dip never lasted long, but the bar was fully stocked, and I would inevitably drift into a state of fuzzy headedness by the time the Best Picture category was announced.

Rather than having to be reminded who won the next morning, I watched the last couple of Academy Awards ceremonies stone sober, only to realize that I was better off when I was half in the bag (or better yet, two thirds). Harder drugs are recommended if you plan to abide those vapid red carpet interviews. Seriously, the whole thing's a yawn fest.

While my mind is not yet made up whether to watch this year's broadcast or not, I have managed to see the five films that are nominated for best picture, and in good time, which is not always an easy task in a city that won't run The Wrestler because we need to reserve screen space for The Pink Panther 2. To the Academy's credit, they generally nominate five movies that are
amongst the better films of the year, and over the past couple of weeks I have been exceptionally satisfied as a patron of the cinema:


I think Slumdog will take the award this year, and rightly so. It's better than three of the nominees, and just a bit more cohesive than the fourth. Apparently this film was nearly released straight to DVD, which would have been a shame not only in terms of limiting audience exposure, but also because director Danny Boyle's visual techniques are so vivid and exciting on the big screen. The picture has more than a handful of tragic moments, even scenes that are difficult to watch; ultimately, though, Slumdog Millionaire is tempered with themes of love, sacrifice, and destiny that should appeal to reluctant viewers. The film also ends with a Bollywood dance sequence that could put a smile on anyone's face.


My opinion of this film is a bit skewed due to the fact that I saw it very shortly after having read the book. The adaptation is very faithful to Bernhard Schlink's novella, both in plot and tone, but I feel as though the movie lacks some of the crucial details that define the characters' motives. The book is not one that easily lends itself to a cinematic treatment, and I am eager to hear the thoughts of others who have seen The Reader, both those who have read Schlink's work and those who have not.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the extraordinary Kate Winslet. I can't say that it doesn't appeal to me to see her naked for a considerable portion of the film's first act, but what I really noticed was her performance. Between The Reader and Revolutionary Road, she has proven herself a force to be reckoned with, and is deserving of the attention that has been cast upon her this Oscar season.


"Life isn't measured in minutes, but in moments." The tagline to Benjamin Button reminded me that the movie is, in fact, several moments too long. You would think that a film chronicling the lifespan of a man who ages backwards have more interesting moments, too. It doesn't, really. And even if it did, Button would still suffer from the fact that screenwriter Eric Roth basically regurgitated the formula he used when he penned the script for Forrest Gump. Still, I wasn't surprised to see this film nominated for best picture; the Academy seems to have a soft spot for anything with an epic scale. From a technical perspective, Button does trump some of the competition, but its chances of winning in this category are severly hampered by its tendency to induce sleep.

Having said that, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button certainly rivals Slumdog Millionaire in terms of cinematography. I don't generally recommend a movie just because it looks good, but Button is really something to see. Also, the special effects will give Iron Man a run for its money, and I think it would be a shame if this picture isn't recognized for its amazing costumes. Benjamin may walk away with a couple of statues, yet.


I find it hard not to be a little bit critical about Frost/Nixon. For one thing, it seems like an easy movie to make: it's based on a play which was largely composed from transcripts of the actual Frost/Nixon interviews, and the bulk of it takes place in one room. It also seems a bit redundant given that video tapes, internet clips, and DVDs of the original broadcast are readily available, and quite intriguing to watch.

On the other hand, Frost/Nixon is compelling in its own right, and I think the dramatization of events is particularly helpful in terms of engaging viewers, like me, who did not live through Nixon era politics and the subsequent decade-or-so of heightened paranoia and disillusionment. And unlike The Reader, the tale of David Frost, underdog, is one that seems to cry out for narrative treatment. Of course, the film really belongs to Frank Langella whose interpretation of Nixon neither glamorizes the ex-president nor attempts to elicit our sympathies, but does provide some speculative insight into the nature and degree of his self-delusion. While, Frost/Nixon may not be as strong a contender in the Best Picture category as some of the other nominees, it is one of the more engaging films I have seen this year.


If I were a voting member of the Academy, this is the nominee that would make me hesitate before ticking the box for Slumdog Millionaire. It sounds strange to say so, given my general distaste for biopics, but the decision to limit the film's scope to the eight years during which Harvey Milk was politically involved with the gay rights movement and elected to public office was one that allowed director Gus Van Sant to avoid the kind of superficial portrait that I have come to expect from this type of movie.

In my opinion, Milk is a far more important film than Slumdog, not only because of its subject matter, but also in terms of the images we see on screen. Van Sant is not shy about including scenes of male sexuality, sometimes affectionate, other times far more carnal, and I can't think of another mainstream movie that portrays this kind of intimacy as authentically and unapologetically. I know a lot of people will be uncomfortable with these images, but I believe that visibility of this sort is a step towards humanizing people who belong to a highly oppressed and misunderstood minority, and whose rights are still inadequately protected.

Of course, a subject of this magnitude is not easily condensed into a two hour package. Nothing in the film seems to be dispensable, but it does feel a bit long, and there are a few scenes towards the end that appear to have been designed to facilitate a path towards the conclusion rather than mesh with Milk's established tempo. The acting is a bit hammy in some of these later scenes, too, a minor quibble given Sean Penn's otherwise stalwart performance as Harvey Milk (who, in all fairness to Penn, tended to be an exuberant figure himself).

Are these moderate criticisms enough to deny Milk a shiny bald man-statue? Well, it's enough to tip my own personal scale towards Slumdog Millionaire. Ultimately, though, I'm more interested in watching quality films than seeing who wins awards and who's wearing who. So while I may not watch the Oscar broadcast this year, I would like to thank the Academy for their viewing suggestions... It was an honor just to screen your nominees.

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