Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Oscars decided not to be cool this year.

Judging from the Oscar nominees this year, the Academy seems determined to reinforce stereotypes about themselves. Said stereotypes had been absent for a few years as edgy movies like The Departed took home the top prize. The Oscars were close to Well, they put a stop to that!

Best Picture
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

The Reader? Come on. This proves once again that even a mediocre movie about the Holocaust can bump out a great movie about anything else. Was The Dark Knight really out of the question? It was the movie of the year, the most seen, the most talked about, and in my humble opinion, the best. And if it was just too badass for these old fogeys, they could have at least given that fifth slot to Wall-E, an amazing movie which will have to settle for the annual consolation prize of an easy win the Animated Feature Category. For the record, I have no problem with the other four nominees. They're all good. But The Reader, though it has its moments, is not worthy of the movies that could have been here. But it is produced by the Weinstein company. Don't forget that the Weinsteins are responsible for that incredible act of mass hypnosis that convinced the Academy that The English Patient was the best film of 1996. These guys know how to work the system. They should enjoy it, because Slumdog is going to stomp on them in the final vote.

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

The directors all line up with the nominees for Best Picture, which is actually unusual. Generally, there's one wild card. Not this year.

Best Actor
Richard Jenkins in The Visitor
Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn
in Milk
Brad Pitt for The Curious, oh let's just call it Forrest Gump II. Come on, you know it's true.
Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

Jenkins was a surprise. I didn't know if anyone had seen that tiny movie, I've barely heard of it. A lot of the prognosticators thought Clint Eastwood's scowling in Gran Torino would get him another nomination, but it seems the Academy decided that he has enough Oscars. Some very good performances here.

Best Actress
Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie in Changeling
Melissa Leo in Frozen River
Meryl Streep in Doubt
Kate Winslet in The Reader

Leo is another nice underdog suprise, but the interesting part of this is how they decided to deal with Kate Winslet. The studios were hoping to get her dual nominations, lead actress for Revolutionary Road and supporting for The Reader. However, this was kind of stupid because if you've seen The Reader, it's obvious that's a leading role. But since Oscar rules say actors can't be nominated twice in the same category in the same year, the studios distort things. It's clear by now that the voters like The Reader a lot better than Revolutionary Road, and Winslet was definitely the high point of that movie. It is kind of nice to see the voters ignore the marketing BS and just go with their gut.

Best Supporting Actor
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

This is probably the category I'm happiest with. Not just because Ledger made it, but Downey was hilarious in that movie and it's nice to see a comedic performance get recognized.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams in Doubt
Penelope Cruz in Vicky Christina Barcelona
Viola Davis in Doubt
Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Ca, yeah yeah yeah.
Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler

Damn, seems like the whole cast of Doubt was nominated. Problem is, when a movie doubles up in an acting category, the two nominees seem to always cancel each other out. This category is famous for upsets, though, so don't rule anything out.

The other nominations can be checked out at the official site. Closer to the ceremony, I'll make my "official" predictions.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Top Ten Films of 2008

A little late like usual. As per tradition, the Oscar contenders all came out in bulk around Christmas and trying to see them all is a bit like drinking from a firehose...especially when it can take them weeks to open in CT. The year as a whole wasn't especially filled to the brim with great films, and indeed for most of the year the cinematic landscape seemed somewhat barren. However, the movies that were great...were really great, and by the time I was ready to write this up, I had a respectable list.

10. Frost/Nixon - Frank Langella's Richard Nixon vividly illustrates the contradictions that defined our nation's second most reviled president, the offbeat charisma that allowed him to make his way up the political ladder and the deep-seated bitterness and paranoia which led to his downfall. Ron Howard directs Peter Morgan's adaptation of his own play about the famous interviews of Nixon conducted by British journalist David Frost shortly after the president's resignation. Frost/Nixon is not a documentary; Morgan's script takes liberties with the true story and turns up the "epic" dial more than is probably warranted. Yet the movie is very valuable as an examination of the symbiotic role the media and politicians in shaping the public's perception of history, especially recent history.

9. American Teen - I sure don't miss high school. Nanette Burnstein's documentary followed a group of students through their senior year of high school in Warsaw, Indiana. It often feels like "reality" television, and thus has to be taken with a grain of salt...the camera does have a tendency to always be in the right place at the right time. Yet even if the entire thing were scripted, it would be the most well-written teenage drama in some time. There's a timeless quality to the dilemmas these characters go through, but the genuine emotion within this film elevates these scenarios, as the audience becomes attached to real people with real flaws, all amplified by the stress of adolescence.

8. Iron Man - The character has never achieved the same kind of widespread adoration as Superman or Spider-Man, but this film stands out in this decade's deluge of superhero films. Iron Man's effectiveness owes a big debt to Robert Downey Jr's performance, and director Jon Favreau deserves big kudos for pushing the studio big-shots to cast the right man for the job. Downey's Tony Stark is drastically different from his brethren, a materialistic SOB who slowly discovers that he "really does have a heart." In addition to that, the movie delivers first-rate action without overdoing the effects. A great piece of well-crafted fun.

7. W - A few years too early? Maybe, but Oliver Stone's movie does provide a unique catharsis after eight years of political frustration, and anyone who has followed the news over that period of time will have a pleasant familiarity with the detailed events being discussed in the movie's script. Brolin digs deep as the title character, while a superb supporting cast fills out the rest of the cabinet. The war-room showdown between Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell and Richard Dreyfuss's Dick Cheney is one of the most riveting scenes I saw in the movie theater this year.

6. Gran Torino - Now older and wiser, Clint Eastwood now seems to find the ethics behind his own famous "Dirty Harry" persona questionable, and Gran Torino is the latest examination of the fine line between tough talk and actual violence. Directing himself as an old curmudgeon living in a racially diverse neighborhood, his latest film is both hilarious and very poignant. Surrounding Eastwood is a mostly nonprofessional cast of Hmong actors, providing a truly unprecedented insight into a group of people who have never been presented on screen. Gran Torino manages to be both highbrow and totally entertaining.

5. The Wrestler - If you've read anything about this film, you've no doubt heard that the on-screen story of a former icon who trashed his own career though a series of bad choices parallels the life of its star, Mickey Rourke. But don't worry - There are plenty of non-meta reasons the movie is so effective. Director Darren Aronofsky packs his usual visceral punch, but this emotional story is quite different from his other more abstract work. The drama here is so intense that you may find your stomach in knots during certain scenes, and the ending is both triumphant and achingly sad. Rourke's comeback is just a nice bonus, I've been rooting for it since his awesome work as Marv in Sin City.

4. Milk - A movie of breathtaking importance, probably more than its creators even intended. If you think Proposition 8 is bad, wait until you learn about Proposition 6, which would likely be law now if it weren't for the efforts of San Francisco businessman Harvey Milk and the group of gay activists he inspired. Sean Penn's sensitive performance has all but guaranteed him another Oscar nomination, and it's a fascinating departure from the actor's usual work. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and Director Gus Van Sant don't seek to define Harvey Milk by just his untimely end, but as the happy warrior he was in life. America needs to hear this man's story now more than ever.

3. Slumdog Millionaire - This movie blindsided the awards scene this year and will likely have a Best Picture Oscar to show for it. Danny Boyle's terrific film would be a deserving winner, it's beautifully shot, ingeniously written and unashamedly romantic. The story of a poor boy in Mumbai whose youthful experiences contribute just the right amount of knowledge to perform well on a game show is an engrossing fable which has already touched audiences everywhere. I guarantee you've never seen anything like it.

2. Wall-E - The artists at Pixar must enjoy getting on this list. Their films seem to consistently pop up here. Where do I even start with Wall-E? It's some of the most gorgeous CG I've ever seen. It defies audience expectations and relies on ingenious character animation to carry viewers through a dialogue-free first act. Its story has ingenious and penetrating satire about a pampered society that indulges its inhabitants into passivity. It builds to a stunningly moving finale. It's an incredible work of art. It rules.

1. The Dark Knight - I realize it's not the most original choice. I concede that this choice is informed by my own lifelong fondness for both Batman and The Joker. That said, I walked out of this one knowing that not only was it the best movie I'd seen this year, but one of the best films I'd seen this decade. Not only is it an uncannily gripping new vision of this classic conflict, but it's so full of ideas that a convincing case can be made that the movie is both liberal and conservative. Director Christopher Nolan has created a crime drama for the ages, led by a fantastic cast, including the late Heath Ledger as the Clown Prince of Crime. His legacy (something tells me nobody will attempt to play The Joker for at least 20 years), and the movie will endure.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Finally Fixed the Blog

Holy crap, I finally figured out what was wrong with this thing. I stopped writing for months because this annoying pop-up window kept coming up and asking for a password. I didn't want to be responsible for any of my readers getting a virus, so I basically let the blog die.

However, I realized that the source of the disturbance was one of the images I had hosted in my annual Oscar predictions entry. That entry's been deleted...if you really want to read it, I can put up a picture-free version, but given that a new Oscar season is in full swing now, it's not very relevant anymore.

I missed so many months, I didn't even get to comment on the election. (I got drunk and boisterous, it was fun). My usual features will be back soon though, aiming to have the Top 10 up around January 20 or so. Then of course we'll have Oscar analysis and whatever else I can think of. Check back here every so often if you're so inclined and there will indeed be new content.