After reaching a decade-long high with its nominated films last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has stumbled back to earth with this year’s nominees that essentially reflect the mediocrity and ordinariness of the unfolding American awards season.
The comparison between last year’s selection and the current one is inevitable. On one corner, you have the two best American films of the decade (“There Will Be Blood, “No Country for Old Men. ), the first epic romance of the 21st century (“Atonement ), one of the best American corporate thrillers to come in a long time (“Michael Clayton ) and that’s just the Best Picture nominees. On the other corner, let’s just say that none of the nominated offerings can measure up to any of 2008’s contenders.
If last year’s films reflected the moral decadence of the Bush era and the end of the American myth, this year’s best pictures nominees reflect the new-found sense of hope prompted by the election of Obama.
Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire is a jubilant rags-to-riches tale set against the rarely charted Mumbai world. Gus Van Sant’s “Milk is a biopic of the first gay mayor in America, Harvey Milk, whose courage, passion and determination ushered a new era in American politics (the film’s topicality was especially boosted with the recent Proposition 8). Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon draws unavoidable parallels between its disgraced protagonist Richard Nixon and George Bush, presenting, in the shape of a responsible media, a forceful agent of accountability and a possibility of future retribution. No wonder a bleak film like “The Dark Knight didn’t make the cut.
The release of these films at this particular time is utterly coincidental. Both “Frost/Nixon and “Milk have been in development hell for years while “Slumgdog was projected to go straight to video.
The ‘best’ five
Perhaps the most baffling thing about the Academy’s choices is that the actual best films of the year were either nominated in minor categories (Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married and Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky ) or overlooked altogether (the list is endless). Not that the five nominated films are below par; the problem is each one contains its fair share of serious flaws, and unlike last year’s nominees, the majority of the 2009 Oscar contenders, save a handful in the acting categories, are safe, uninspired and predictable.
For starters, the surefire best picture winner “Slumgdog is giddy, colorful and uplifting; a perfect crowd-pleaser that shines a ray of hope in the midst of the current economic mayhem. I liked “Slumgdog, delighted that a film with a shoestring budget and a cast of unknown actors could beat the odds and triumph over the Hollywood machinery. But the fact is, it’s not the best picture of the year. “Slumdog is undemanding entertainment with an overly optimistic viewpoint you either subscribe to or you don’t. So far, I can’t say I have.
Same thing goes for definite best direction winner Boyle. From “Trainspotting to the underrated philosophical treatise “Sunshine, Boyle has proven to be one of Britain most original and uncharacteristic filmmakers with a visual prowess that has constantly gone unacknowledged. However, “Slumdog is not his best film and it looks quite tame compared to the rest of his work.
“Milk is a well-made film with fervor and contagious sincerity. Aesthetically though, the film is ordinary; unremarkable compared to Van Sant’s other 2008 release “Paranoid Park that was forgotten in the awards season clutter. Most crucially, by choosing to portray Milk as a saint-like figure, the film sacrifices authenticity for easy narrative conventions.
With “Frost/Nixon, the primary defect is more obvious. While the film is undeniably entertaining, if you’ve watched the original 1977 interview between British presenter David Frost and Nixon, there’s nothing much to look forward to in there.
On the other hand, Stephen Daldry’s critically slammed “The Reader exists in the final five for one sole reason: the Academy always eats up anything remotely connected with the Holocaust. Unlike most critics, I didn’t mind the film and in parts, it poses some intriguing questions. But it’s not best picture material.
The most nominated film of the bunch, David Fincher “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is quite an oddity. “Benjamin is a visual tour-de-force; a peculiar meditation on life and death. I still haven’t made up my mind about it, and I’d rather reserve any further criticism till next week with my full review.
Leading men and women
For the best leading actor category, the academy did justice by nominating Richard Jenkins for his subtle, moving performance as a widowed college professor forging a relationship with an Arab family in “The Vistor, while Frank Langella’s larger than life portrayal of Nixon in “Frost/Nixon is magnetic and self-assured.
This category is essentially a two-horse race between Sean Penn in “Milk and Mickey Rourke’s washed-out wrestler attempting to make a comeback in “The Wrestler.
Both performances are truly astounding; Penn is natural, soulful and charismatic while Rourke wears his heart on his sleeve with touching honesty. The stakes are shifting in Rourke’s favor after his BAFTA. I would personally love to see Penn win, simply because his role ranks among his finest performances to date.
The best supporting actor category is a foregone conclusion. This is Heath Ledger’s award to spare and no other performance in this category comes close to match his intense, transfixing Joker.
On the polar opposite, the best supporting actress race is anyone’s game. The current frontrunner is Penélope Cruz’s sensual, feisty ex-wife of a womanizing poet in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Recently, Viola Davis’ brief turn as the mother of a black student who may have been sexually molested by a Catholic priest in John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt have been generating a considerable buzz and it’s quite possible that she walks away with the trophy. While Davis’ role is gripping and unforgettable, Cruz’s Maria Elena is a real showstopper. I’d be quite disappointed if she doesn t take home the Oscar.
On the other hand, the best actress race is a sordid affair. The two best female performances of the year, Sally Hawkins in “Happy-Go-Lucky and Kristin Scott Thomas in Philippe Claudel’s “I’ve Loved You So Long, were snubbed by the Academy. Instead, what you get is Angelina Jolie’s overdramatic shamble as a mother fighting the corrupt LA police force in Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling, Meryl Streep’s Cruella de Vil comic impersonation as the suspecting nun in “Doubt and Kate Winslet’s least deserving Oscar nominated role as a sympathetic Nazi criminal in “The Reader.
While Melissa Leo’s unglamorous performance in Courtney Hunt’s overrated “Frozen River deserves the nomination, it is Anne Hathaway’s neurotic, self-centered and vulnerable former drug addict in “Rachel Getting Married that stands out above the rest. Hathaway has no chance though; this is Winslet’s year.
The rest of the show
Elsewhere, “Slumdog will easily win best adapted screenplay while “Milk will probably scoop the best original screenplay award, although it faces stiff competition from the best animated feature winner “WALL.E.
Finally, the documentary contest is on a league of its own. The forecasted winner is James Marsh’s extraordinary “Man on Wire, the story of French tightrope walker Philippe Petit who spent 45 minutes crossing the Two Towers on a single wire in 1974. A beautiful rumination on memory, fading youth, lost romances and the everlasting power of art, the film hasn’t received one negative review in both the US and the UK. German veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog at last receives his overdue first nomination for “Encounters at the End of the World; an unusual look at the forgotten continent Antarctica that acts as a milieu for Herzog’s themes of madness, solitude, survival and death.
Along with Errol Morris’ shocking, thought-provoking account of Abu Ghraib in “Standard
Operation Procedure, these three films are far more accomplished than any of the five best-picture nominees.
Catch the 81st Academy Awards ceremony, hosted by Hugh Jackman, this Sunday live on Dubai’s One TV.