2008’s Oscar race is the reason there is a possibility of 10 best picture nominees. With an influx of Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon and Harvey Weinstein forcing The Reader into the conversation, box office and critical champions The Dark Knight and Wall-E–along with critical darlings such as Rachel Getting Married, The Wrestler, and Happy-Go-Lucky missing their deserved placement–THE ACADEMY, fond of making unpopular decisions, expanded the five-wide field to a possibility of ten. Oddly enough, we’ve never wound up with ten, landing at 8 or 9 for the last decade. Looking back at movie popularity from a distance is one of my favorite anniversary activities in my movie addiction. Let’s look at them, worst to best:
5) The Reader
Sure, it got Kate Winslet her Oscar, but why? Especially why did Kate Winslet, who won best actress for Sam Mendes’s superior Revolutionary Road at the Golden Globes and best supporting actress for The Reader, get tossed between categories? Answer: The Weinsteins. For anyone who wonders why ample homosexuals obsess over awards season, Oscars equate money. Oscars bolster careers. A 91-year-old institution, the Academy Awards mark the climate of the filmmaking population, stirring the conversation of racial, gender, and queer representation in Hollywood, bookending a year’s cinematic conversation. The Reader, about an underaged boy’s fling with an illiterate woman who he later watches get charged with war crimes, is borderline painful. Nominated for five Academy Awards, prestige was the name of the nomination game. Written by Stephen Daldry and David Hare, the team behind The Hours, they cannot redeem a skeezy beginning and emotionally empty end. Wrapped in some of cinematographers Roger Deakins’ (Skyfall, Fargo) and Chris Menges’ (The Killing Fields, The Mission) weakest work, the film lacks any real flare, losing most of its emotional punch with its unlikable characters. The book was no more interesting, so it doesn’t surprise the movie was a dud. We groaned a lot. Winslet has her showy moments, but it’s all just that: SHOW. She usually imbues her performances with such subtlety, but Winslet in The Reader is a red-eyed, slow-witted woman with a secret; near melodrama if there weren’t so much Nazi crime involved. Please, let this one mark an end of an error.
Frost/Nixon is the one I expected to have grown on me. George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck went from a boring slog to a thrilling celebration of journalistic heroism, but Frost/Nixon’s issue became apparent after seeing Seattle’s Strawberry Workshop’s all-female production in early 2018. The film version lost the dramatic flare of narrators (and unreliable narrators) surrounding the taping of the infamous post-impeachment interviews. Frank Langella (best actor nominated) is spectacular in his performance, and Michael Sheen (missing out on a category fraud supporting actor nomination) is less showy but stands up against the Nixon impersonation. Transferring their roles from stage with Ron Howard (best director nominated) in the director chair, the film still wound up boring. There was no punch, and for those of us not alive in the Nixon era, there was no resonance. A straight-forward production with Peter Morgan (The Queen) adapting his own play to an Oscar nomination–similar to John Patrick Stanley adapting his play Doubt with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman that same year–Frost/Nixon loses its steam early on and struggles to keep itself engaging even through the more intriguing interview scenes. Presenting a 70’s realistic production may have been better served by some gusto behind the historical recap. Also nominated for Film Editing.
3) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Certainly an overblown show off event by David Fincher, he took his first step into awards season fare with an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Adapted by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Insider), he was nominated for expanding upon Benjamin’s life in reversing. The early portion highlights his childhood as a withered old man, a deserved set of visual effects and makeup Oscar wins for the steady transformation into a younger Brad Pitt. The love story between Pitt’s Benjamin and childhood love Cate Blanchett’s damaged ballerina was hit and miss, best in the later stage, though Blanchett is in one of her weakest roles here. Pitt nabbed his second acting nomination for the gentlemanly Button, and Taraji P Henson landed a best supporting actress nomination as his adoptive mother: lively and loving, she stole all her moments on-screen. Snagging a third award for art direction, it was nominated for a year high of 13 (picture, director, actor, supporting actress, adapted screenplay, cinematography, score, editing, art direction, costume design, sound mixing, makeup, visual effects) and led to Fincher and team’s even closer success with 2009’s The Social Network. Showy and a bit dated, Button did no drag like I expected. Overly long, the effects and later drama add up to an intriguing, beautiful film.
2) Slumdog Millionaire
Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE Slumdog Millionaire! Rewatching it was a joy, realizing how special this film is. Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Trainspotting) knocks it out of the park with the tale of Jamal, a Mumbai orphan, who finds himself on the Indian “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” answering questions toward to top prize. Part love story, part journey through a troubled childhood, its rhythm and spark are brilliant. Dev Patel (sadly missing a best actor nomination) is a baffled, somewhat broken man, shocked at his place in the competition. Winning best director, best cinematography, best editing, best adapted screenplay, sound mixing, score, song, people lost their heads over this film. The only two awards it missed were sound editing (special sound effects, award going to The Dark Knight) and song, since it was nominated for “O Saya” with rapper M.I.A. and the winner “Jai Ho”. A.R. Rahman’s score, up against Thomas Newman’s interplanetary Wall-E score, could have dealt with JUST best song, but Newman’s one of those endlessly nominatable talents that can’t quite strike that unbeatable note. This film thrives on the speed it whips through corners of a depressing story you would think would be depressing, but rather you are enlivened by the positivity behind Jamal’s path. If you haven’t seen it, I highly advise!
I saw both Slumdog Millionaire and Milk on Christmas 2018, driving from my hometown Weirton into Pittsburgh. I watched these two movies, crying at each–a much needed emotional catharsis–a few days after being outed by my mother. I drank my way through Christmas Eve, a barely underaged gift from a socially liberal uncle of orange juice and vodka as I walked into their house, this holiday was the nail in a miserable history with December twenty-fifth. Slumdog Millionaire was a breathtaking film, deserving of all its accolades. Milk holds a very special place. Gus Van Sant’s story of the first openly gay man elected to major public office who later was assassinated by a fellow city supervisor was the balm for my place as a gay man. Brilliantly acted by Sean Penn, he won his second Oscar for his role, bringing out the impersonation and the human and the icon. Though Mickey Rourke’s role in The Wrestler was the most impressive of the year, Penn is unlike he ever has been or ever will be again. Lively and inoffensive, sure the cast is mostly made up of straight actors, but 2018 could still hardly get that right. The supporting cast of Josh Brolin (supporting actor nomination), James Franco, Emile Hirsch (should’ve been nominated), and Allison Pill–among many others–all melted together to show an alternative family working together for a better cause. Sure, my connection to a queer community has never been anything like these real-life heroes, but it gave the opportunity to see the life that can be led even when you’re turned away from by blood relations. My family has reconnected since, but aside from the importance that day, I can watch this movie on repeat with love. Dustin Lance Black (winner for original screenplay) is still in the conversation ten-years on, now married to Olympic diver Tom Daley, and his screenplay captures a nostalgic and vital vision of the gay rights movement taking off from the Castro streets. Nabbing additional nominations for best director, costume design, the score by Danny Elfman, and editing, Milk is a stunning movie. Watch on Netflix if you’ve never had the pleasure.