Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oscar Nomination Malaise

Well, there's something for no-one in this year's Oscar nominations. After a year in which No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood and Juno represented carried critical and popular acclaim into the best picture category, the Oscars followed by ignoring the best and most popular films in a bad year for film.

In the Best Picture category, voters ignored the most critically praised film of the year (Wall-E), as well as Gran Torino and The Dark Knight. The latter's exclusion is an utter mystery, and I wonder if a late surge by Eastwood's box office smash cost the film a nomination. The Reader is the sort of complicated WWII drama the voters love, but was a late release that nobody was planning on watching, and which garnered approximately the same critical approval as Step Brothers. Now I have to watch it for my blog. Thanks academy.

With 13 nominations, Benjamin Button may have trumped Slumdog Millionaire as the presumptive favorite. Either way, expect Slumdog's distributors to attempt a wide release, and for director Danny Boyle (Millions, Trainspotting, and the cult-favorite Shallow Grave) to finally get his due as a top-tier director. With the directing category matching the best picture nominees verbatim, voters might feel compelled to split the difference in these categories by giving the director nod to Boyle.

I am disappointed to see Eastwood snubbed in the best actor category. I like Richard Jenkins a lot, and he had a great year this year (his work in Burn After Reading in particular), but did Brad Pitt really outperform Eastwood? I am skeptical. Penn sure didn't, but his nomination was a given. I'm rooting for Langella, whose performance is the only reason anyone would bother to see Frost/Nixon.

I didn't think Angelina Jolie would get a nomination for Changeling, a film that was largely regarded as a failure. I don't believe Frozen River was ever even released in Minneapolis, so kudos go to the Academy for finding Melissa Leo's work here. I can't imagine how Meryl Streep wouldn't run away with this award. But that could be said of the other dozen times she hasn't won.

The supporting actor categories are where the Academy lets its hair down. And by "letting hair down", I mean "voting for black people". It's as though best supporting actress has a one black nominee requirement. That said, Viola Davis was already a (deserving) front runner for the Oscar, so nominating Taraji Henson seems a bit of a reach. The category also features two nominees (Amy Adams and Marisa Tomei) whose careers were launched by previous supporting nominations. Both are among my favorite actresses. Penelope Cruz is not.

Perhaps the Henson nomination was reflexive of some latent guilt over the nomination of Robert Downey Jr., the first nominee of the civil rights era to win be nominated for acting in blackface. The nomination is well deserved, and is really the only bold pick of the Oscar season. There are other nominees, including Philip Streepmore Hoffman's obligatory nod. He's the best actor working right now, but his performance in Doubt was not his finest. Brolin's nomination is utterly undeserved. He's actually a pretty bad actor.

In the other categories, the failure to nominate the Theme from Gran Torino or The Wrestler represents the most egregious snub of the year. But hey, at least viewers won't have to watch Bruce Springsteen or Clint Eastwood and Jamie Cullum sing their respective songs , cause that wouldn't have been awesome at all. Hypothetically, the Academy could shorten the Oscar run time by condensing the two Slumdog songs, but instead they'll probably just add a four minute montage of famous trousers.

"Down to Earth" from Wall-E is a nice song, and will certainly win. If Thomas Newman keeps writing songs for Pixar, he'll have 25 nominations under his belt by the time he retires. For once, the Documentary category actually included a doc that people will recognize, nominating Man on Wire. Hopefully this gets an arthouse re-release, because I'd like to see it.

As usual, the Academy confuses most makeup for best makeup. The screenplay categories again function as a semi-finalist list for the main prize. Doubt is universally regarded as a clumsy adaptation of an excellent play. The animated category allows Kung Fu Panda to call itself an Oscar nominee. I was unaware of the existence of "The Duchess", and I doubt it's nominations for art direction and costume design will raise its profile greatly.

In the absence of great films, the academy reverted to its old habit of rewarding message movies, epics, and Meryl Streep. Lost in the shuffle were outstanding films whose only crime was being either too popular or not popular enough. By and large, the Academy has neither rewarded audience favorites nor unearthed potential favorites for their consideration.

This will be the least-watched Oscar ceremony in years, and the Academy will have no-one to blame but itself.

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