Oscars … As they Should Be

Everyone’s handicapping the Academy Awards right now, arguing about whether Slumdog Millionaire will continue its award-winning juggernaut on Oscar night, and whether even one Academy voter will not cast a ballot to honor the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.

I leave that sort of bookmaking to others, and choose to embrace the cinema’s original and still central role in our lives—that of dream factory. In my dream—where everyone who deserves to win does win—here’s who takes home the golden statuettes on February 22.

Performance by an actor in a leading role nominees
  • Richard Jenkins in The Visitor
  • Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon
  • Sean Penn in Milk
  • Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

Sean Penn disappeared completely and movingly into his portrayal of community/gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Frank Langella made me forget he looked nothing like Richard Nixon, and actually made me feel sorry for the guy—something I’d have said was impossible. Comeback kid Mickey Rourke gets points for taking the blows life sent him and still coming back for more (in and out of the ring). And Brad Pitt looks good (and acts well) at any age. But it’s Richard Jenkins who deserves the statuette for his infinitely nuanced portrayal of an ordinary, introverted guy whose heart and life are opened by the visitors he finds in his apartment. Jenkins is one of those character actors who shine in little roles for years without anyone taking much notice. The Visitor gave him a place in the limelight, and he deserved a few more rays of glory on Oscar night.

Performance by an actor in a supporting role nominees
  • Josh Brolin in Milk
  • Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt
  • Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
  • Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road

It’s quite a feat—whether positive or negative is for you to decide—for a white actor to do blackface and earn accolades rather than charges of racism, but Robert Downey Jr.. pulled it off in Tropic Thunder. Josh Brolin was suitably honored with a nod for getting Dan White’s combination of rigidity, selfishness, bigotry, and community feeling in Milk. But nothing can beat the combination of talent + sympathy going for the late Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. I’m among the few who feel that the academy did right by not nominating Knight for best picture, but Ledger made the calmly psychotic Joker an incendiary persona that riveted audience attention even when the rest of the picture dragged.

Performance by an actress in a leading role nominees
  • Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married
  • Angelina Jolie in Changeling
  • Melissa Leo in Frozen River
  • Meryl Streep in Doubt
  • Kate Winslet in The Reader

Anne Hathaway may very well be the greatest actress of her generation, just as Meryl Streep is in hers. And Kate Winslet is giving them both a run for their money this year with strong turns in Revolutionary Road and The Reader. But the Oscar should go to the category’s least-known nominee, Melissa Leo. Helped by a strong script and solid, cliffhanger plot, she showed us the daily struggle of a working-class mom just trying to keep food on the table and what’s left of her family together. In this Sundance hit, Leo brings honesty and tension to every movement, and each line reading rings true.

Performance by an actress in a supporting role nominees
  • Amy Adams in Doubt
  • Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona
  • Viola Davis in Doubt
  • Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler

I saw only two of these performances—Cruz’s and Henson’s—and of them, must reluctantly deposit the statue in the hands of Penélope Cruz. Reluctantly…because Vicky Cristina Barcelona was the biggest disappointment I suffered all year in the cinema; it was so bad it’s caused me swear off Woody Allen films forever. But Cruz was luminous and memorable in a way that Henson’s performance as Benjamin Button’s surrogate mother never was.

Best motion picture of the year nominees & achievement in directing nominees

This year, the nominees for best picture and best director are a matched set, which may seem obvious, but isn’t as common as you’d think. So I’m taking advantage of that to award Oscars in both categories to the same film.

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)
  • Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard)
  • Milk (Gus Van Sant)
  • The Reader (Stephen Daldry)
  • Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)

While I wish my favorite film of 2008, Frozen River, was among the nominees, there’s no “shouldn’t be here” nominee for best picture this year. Each was solidly directed, though Danny Boyle’s showmanship makes him a standout in this bunch. And each nominated film brought viewers into a world most couldn’t experience otherwise; that’s one of the late critic Gene Siskel’s criteria for a great film.

Yet as I reflect on these offerings, it’s Milk—the only one whose events some viewers might have experienced first-hand—that stays most powerfully with me. Sean Penn’s delicate yet steely performance grabs the spotlight, but it’s the underlying power of an unstoppable movement for equality that gives the film its force. And recently viewing the documentary film about the same topic (The Times of Harvey Milk) made me admire both documentary and feature filmmakers.


Best animated feature film nominees
  • Bolt
  • Kung Fu Panda
  • WALL-E—Hands-down brilliant, with its long, wordless opening sequence, profound and subversive messages to contemporary humans about trashing the planet and ourselves, and glorious and richly colored artwork. Animation: it’s not just for kids any more.

Achievement in art direction nominees
  • Changeling
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight—Smart money is on Benjamin Button in this category, but the latest—much darker and more brooding—incarnation of Batman was perfectly underscored by the moody, imaginative, and appropriately nihilistic art direction
  • The Duchess
  • Revolutionary Road

Achievement in cinematography nominees
  • Changeling
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • The Reader
  • Slumdog Millionaire—Everything I just wrote about The Dark Knight for art direction applies here too, but Slumdog still gets the edge for its agile camerawork that takes viewers scuttling through teeming, filthy streets and swooping along the hero’s ever-hopeful trajectory.

Achievement in costume design nominees
  • Australia
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Duchess
  • Milk
  • Revolutionary Road—This is a hard category to judge, partly because it’s easy to go for the most elaborate costume designs (which would bring the title to The Duchess), and partly because I can’t imagine any true lover of beautiful clothing honoring anything set in the era of polyester doubleknit. (take that, Milk!) I’ll buck tradition and vote for Revolutionary Road’s anything but radical costumes. Leo and Kate seemed emotionally and physically imprisoned in their grey flannel suits and nip-waisted dresses (respectively), and Kathy Bates’s floral chintz frocks made her intrusive neighbor role all the more ghastly.

Achievement in film editing nominees
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • Frost/Nixon
  • Milk—It didn’t have the flashiest editing nominated (that honor goes to Slumdog), but the editor subtly and effectively mirrored the pace of Milk’s career from no-hoper to triumphant leader to mourned martyr.
  • Slumdog Millionaire

Achievement in visual effects nominees
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—The considerable charms of Iron Man’s hovering carapace and Batman’s Gotham notwithstanding, Button scores a slam dunk in this category. Melding Brad Pitt’s face on another’s body, and believably aging him (backwards or forwards) by decades is a triumph worth celebrating.
  • The Dark Knight
  • Iron Man

Achievement in makeup nominees
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—Here, too, the nomination should be Button-ed up for Pitt, Blanchett, and company’s breathtaking older/younger transformations.
  • Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Adapted screenplay nominees
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Doubt
  • Frost/Nixon—Every nominee here is deserving, but special credit must be given to making riveting viewing of what’s largely two people sitting in chairs talking. It worked for My Dinner with Andre, and it works in Frost/Nixon, but it takes talented scribes to make that happen.
  • The Reader
  • Slumdog Millionaire

Original screenplay nominees
  • Frozen River—My clear favorite is this low-budget independent gem of a film. Every word spoken seemed plausible, real-to-the-ear, and necessary to the plot.
  • Happy-Go-Lucky—This is the most inexplicable nomination of the year. To my ears, not one word of the dialogue rang true.
  • In Bruges
  • Milk
  • WALL-E

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