Monday, January 12, 2009

Grading the Frontrunners

I have now seen all of the generally presumed Oscar Best Picture nominees (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire) and what may very well be the most serious threat for the fifth slot, WALL-E. Of the other possibilities, I have yet to see Doubt, Rachel Getting Married, The Reader, and The Wrestler.

So what do I think of this year's front runners? Interestingly enough, for the first time since I started doing these things in 2002, my current top 6 favorite films of 2008 are a perfect match to the presumed top 6 in Oscar's best pic race. I've ranked WALL-E third only to Slumdog Millionaire and The Dark Knight, but the other three are up there in my list. I've given all of these films a rating of A. What a great year for cinema.

And just like the BFCA and other critics, the HFPA, and the Globes crowd (did you see and hear them go wild?), I LOVE SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. How can anyone not? Its direction is topnotch, the performances are endearing (special props to Dev Patel), the splashes of color and the rousing score are amazing, and the sheer exuberance of the whole thing... I've read someone describe the ending as "giddy," and I'd have to agree. But it's not the sort of giddy of innane childishness that some films have. What I felt for most of the movie's duration and, more importantly, after watching it, is how cinema was meant to make one feel: invigorated, joyful, youthful, exhilarated, and appreciative of the medium.

Until I saw Slumdog, The Dark Knight was my favorite film of the year, and even now that I have I'm still inclined to consider it the most well crafted. It easily goes beyond Heath Ledger's performance, which is of course transcendent. The gritty look, the chaotic madness (intensified by that eerie score), the concept of White Knight vs. Dark Knight (i.e., the heroes that we need and the heroes that we deserve). It's what every serious comic book adaptation should aspire to be in terms of sheer quality and gravitas. It greatly helps that the cast is topnotch; it's my favorite ensemble of the past year.

Acting is also a primary strength of that other Best Picture favorite, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Cate Blanchett is, as always, superb (my favorite lead female perf of 2008 so far), Taraji P. Henson is adorable and moving, Brad Pitt is a strong presence, and Julia Ormond is a surprising treat. It's a tad overlong (and to think it was adapted from a short story!), with a few ounces of fat that could have been trimmed, but it's an effective film that is, above all, simply sumptuous to look at. Still, I would have to say that I understand where the comments saying that the film seems a bit detached or even cold are coming from.

Milk is a small picture compared to these big visual and aural feasts, but it packs the emotional punch that many may have missed in Button. Sean Penn gives a near-flawless performance, perhaps the best of his career (easily better than his Oscar-winning, typical-Penn Mystic River perf) as Harvey Milk. He's so convincingly gay without being overly indulgent. Assisted by a strong cast, he makes us feel what Harvey Milk and his community felt and continue to feel as their society continues to persecute them. Given recent political events, particularly in California, it is perhaps the most important of all the films vying for the top Oscar honor.

Frost/Nixon is a film that is quite easy to like. Ron Howard directs it with simplicity and honesty. Frank Langella turns in a memorable performance as Richard Nixon, and Michael Sheen is just a good a co-lead as he was in The Queen. The moments of tension during their interviews are palpable. But as great a film as I thought it was, it's not the type of film that I see inspiring passion and adoration among its viewers. It's not exciting enough.

And therein lies its problem Oscar-wise. Nominations work on a preferential ballot, with #1 votes of the Academy members counting more than #2's and so on. Frost/Nixon is critically lauded, yes, but it is not easy to see the film getting so many #1 votes among Oscar voters.

WALL-E, on the other hand, is a delightful, intelligent work of art that has impressed critics, performed very well in the box office, and is undoubtedly on top of many people's lists. Do those people include Academy members? If there weren't a Best Animated Feature category, the Best Picture nom would be in the bag and it would even be a serious threat for the win. If enough voters see past that and vote with their heart, WALL-E could definitely sneak in.

By awards consensus, these films represent the best of 2008. So far, I'm agreeing. If only for the number of very good films that came out, last year was pretty decent. I hope WALL-E sneaks past Frost/Nixon, but I wouldn't mind seeing what so many people are predicting as the final slate of Oscar nominees.

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