Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dr. Weinstein or: How the Academy Dropped the Ball

NOTE: The nominees are posted below this; I thought it would be redundant to copy/paste them into this reaction post.  Scroll down to see

What the hell?

I dared the Academy to be ballsy.  I never thought they would do something like this.  I was giddy, then shocked, then disgusted as I watched Sid Ganis and Forrest Whitaker read the nominations this morning.  Frost/Nixon is in.  The Reader is in.  The Dark Knight is out.  Benjamin Button has THIRTEEN BLOODY NOMINATIONS (the most of any film).  Slumdog has 10.  Milk has 8.  There are some reasons for me to be happy about how things turned out, but I think the Academy sincerely dropped the ball.  There's this kind of unspoken rule that most films nominated for Best Picture score a 70% score or more on Metacritic, and rarely does a film win without being over 75 or so (except for Crash, which I think had about 68%).  Just look at last year:

No Country for Old Men - 91
There Will Be Blood - 92
Atonement - 85
Michael Clayton - 82
Juno - 81

Now look at this year...

Slumdog Millionaire - 86
Milk - 84
Frost/Nixon - 80
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - 69
The Reader - 55

Yikes.  Milk and Slumdog Millionaire are the exceptions (because I can't for the LIFE of me figure out why Frost/Nixon has a score of 80 when rarely anyone calls it the best of the year), but just look at Button and The Reader.  Is this just a sign that this is a polarizing year?  I don't think so, because No Country and Blood were polarizing films that were nevertheless admired through and through, even by many of their detractors.  I haven't seen The Reader yet (I am this weekend), but WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!  Category by category, here's what I have to say:

Best Picture

The Dark Knight did not score a Globe nod and did not score a SAG nod.  It did score a PGA nod and a DGA nod.  Taken together, you could flip a coin (a la Dent) and determine its fate that way.  Looking back, it was headed for a snub - how DARE the Academy recognize a comic book action film!  But that doesn't make it right.  The Dark Knight did something NO other film of its genre has been able to do - breach critics and audiences in a very personal way by using intergeneric syntax and bloody good filmmaking.  I hate throwing the "popularity" card, but the stars aligned on this movie, and it has EIGHT nominations (tied with Milk for third highest overall), so doesn't that mean it HAS the respect it deserves to be here?  Yes.  Yes it does.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has 13 nominations.  It leads the pack.  I knew the techs would get this film up there, but I'm kind of stunned at just how much this film managed to score.  More on that later, but I can't understand how a movie that so many people HATE (with a capital everything) gets up here.  It's pretty significant.  I personally like the film a lot, but it's so problematic.

Slumdog Millionaire has 10 - the second most.  It has all the love and momentum going into the Guild Circuit.  BUT - it has NO acting nominations.  There are two rules to winning Best Picture - you need a Film Editing nomination (don't ask me why, but you do), and you need at least one acting nominee.  No film since The Return of the King has won without one, and that was a coronation year.  Before that, you have to go all the way back to Braveheart.

Milk landed everywhere I thought it would, and I officially endorse it for Best Picture.

Frost/Nixon is not one of the five best pictures of the year.  It is an entertaining movie that's capably made on any level, but it is not an incisive political doctrine like, say, The Queen was.  I'm tired of ranting about this movie, and I'm sure I will in more categories.  Just...ugh.

The Reader is the spoiler.  I actually suspected this would happen, but I didn't have the balls to do it.  How EXACTLY did this happen?  Harvey Weinstein.  He made the decision to bump it into a tiny release at the end of the year, he made the decision to send thousands of screeners directly to the Academy.  He took a HUGE gamble and pushed the film down their throats and they bough it.  I haven't seen it yet, so no real rant, outside of the fact that they bought Harvey again, which is BIG for him.

My predictions: 4/5 (Dark Knight over Reader) [5/5 with my alternate]
My Personal Ballot: 1/5 (the only crossover is Milk)

Best Director

GAHHHHHHH.  RON HOWARD!  Ron Howard! ron howard!  Why do we award him for everyone half-assed movie he makes?  He's NOT A VERY GOOD DIRECTOR.  For crying out loud, this PISSES ME OFF more than anything else.  Not even as much as Stephen Daldry, although I highly suspect every decision he makes in The Reader is made to make us want to cry and think he's a great emotional director, like The Hours (that movie should've been called THE WEEKS...30 Rock reference for the win).

The real crimes are against Christopher Nolan (could we at LEAST have given him this if we were going to snub TDK for Pic, I mean the man's direction is flawless, even if the picture isn't) and Darren Aronofsky (naturalism at its purest).  Not to mention Andrew Stanton (animated films directed themselves, duh!).

My predictions: 3/5 (Nolan and Aronofsky over Howard and Daldry) [4/5 with my alternate]
My own ballot: 1/5 (Milk again)

Best Actor

Hey look, a category I can say something positive about.  I'm SO happy they nominated Richard Jenkins, who had an amazing year and really deserved this.  Everything else went according to plan, and I don't have much to say here.  Except I still don't understand why Frank Langella is getting so much praise; it always feels like he's trying to imitate Nixon instead of just creating a character.  It gets painful.

My predictions: 4/5 (Clint Eastwood over Jenkins) [5/5 with alternate]
My own ballot: 3/5 (Jenkins, Rourke, Penn)

Best Actress

An awesome, awesome category.  They didn't commit category fraud with Winslet's Reader performance.  They nominated MELISSA LEO!  MELISSA LEO!  One of the BEST performances from ANYONE I saw all year, and I was afraid the movie would be too low-key for them.  SO happy about this, it makes up for Jolie's whiny performance being nominated.  Only insult is no Sally Hawkins; that's a dirty shame.  Like, really.  I'm not kidding.

My predictions: 3/5 (I had Kate, but for Rev Road)
My own ballot: 2/5 (Streep and Leo)

Best Supporting Actor

Why do I always agree almost wholeheartedly with this category every year?  It's kind of weird.  I'm Very (capital V) happy for Robert Downey Jr, it's so great they recognized his tremendous comedic and character skill in this movie.  The only weird pick is Michael Shannon, who I again didn't have the balls to predict because I was predicting a more-or-less shut-out for Rev Road.  It's a fair nomination, I guess.  He was okay, but laid on the pontificating.

My predictions: 4/5 (James Franco over Shannon)
My own ballot: 3/5

Best Supporting Actress

Tajari P. Henson?  Really?  It's probably one of the worst-written characters of the entire frickin year.  What a stupid, one-dimensional performance.  More Eric Roth's fault than hers, because it was an awkward performance that reminded me way too much of old portraits of African Americans in cinema than it should have.

Other than that - AWESOME.  Amy Adams and Marisa Tomei are my favorites from this lineup, and that they BOTH got nominated makes me thrilled.

My predictions: 4/5 (had Kate in The Reader down here) [5/5 with my alternate]
My own ballot: 3/5

Best Original Screenplay

Probably my favorite category in the entire year.  There were SO many good original screenplays last year, and naturally I knew some of my favorites would get left out (Burn After Reading and Synecdoche).  I left Frozen River off my personal ballot because the category was too crowded, but it's a phenomenal screenplay and I'm so happy to see it here.  So glad Martin McDonagh got here for In Bruges, as well as Happy-Go-Lucky (takes some of the sting off the Best Actress snub, it understands point/counter-point SO well).  The noms for Milk and Wall-E are delicious icing on this sweet ice cream cake of a category.

My predictions: 2/5
My own ballot: 3/5

Best Adapted Screenplay

My favorite category becomes one of my least favorite.  I give my middle finger to people who say Frost/Nixon or Benjamin Button have nomination-worthy screenplays.  Yeah, this was a REALLY weak year for this category.  But Frost/Nixon's screenplay is not deft at all and gets so heavy-handed (that phone call scene is soooo stagey, I'm sorry), and Benjamin Button goes off the rails about the 2 hr 15 min mark (remember, I actually like this film, but my own complaint from day one has been the screenplay - it keeps it from being great).  Haven't seen The Reader, but this category was pretty obvious to pick.

My predictions: 4/5 [5/5 with alternate]
My own ballot: 2/5

Best Animated Film

Bolt over Waltz With Bashir?  Really guys?

My predictions: 2/3 [3/3 with alternate]

Best Documentary

Man on Wire and Trouble the Water are here and that's all that matters.

My predictions: 3/5

Best Foreign Language

Glad both Class and Waltz were nominated, even if I haven't seen either.

My predictions: 3/5 [4/5 with alternate]

Best Art Direction

None of these surprise me. At all.  I'm so (so) glad they did not nominate Slumdog in this category for no apparent reason.  All these nominees actually have really good art direction (wow, really?)

My predictions: 3/5 [4/5 with alternate]
My own ballot: 1/5 (Button sole crossover)

Best Cinematography

"We like movies with lots of lighting!" should be the tagline for this year.  Changeling, Button, and Dark Knight are ALL heavily lit.  Roger Deakins gets in for Reader (glad he didn't split himself on Rev Road, I love the man).  Slumdog gets in (well OBVIOUSLY).  Why can't we give Harris Savides the respect he deserves though?  Milk looks so much better than Changeling, it actually has IDEAS in its shot set-ups, not just a bunch of shadows and tonal changes (wow, this shot is blue because she's sad!)

My predictions: 4/5
My own ballot: 3/5

Best Costume Design

Hey look, Australia got a nomination!  High five!  Glad Milk got in, even if it's technically a period piece it's pretty contemporary, and it's always nice to see recognition of great costumes in movies that take place after 1967.

My predictions: 4/5
My ballot: 2/5

Best Film Editing

There's a rule that's been true since 1989: You can NOT win Best Picture without being nominated for Best Film Editing.  No one can explain this phenomenon.  That being said, it's a 4-way race (screw The Reader!).  But hey, Dark Knight got nominated for ANOTHER category because it's a GOOD movie.  Milk and Slumdog actually had good editing as well.  Frost/Nixon couldn't decide what the hell it wanted to DO with its editing, and Benjamin Button as well bounces all over the place from sequence-to-sequence.  I feel like they got nominated "just cause!"

My predictions: 4/5
My own ballot: 3/5

Best Makeup

Legitimately good picks.  Cool to see some Hellboy love thrown in.

My predictions: 3/3
My own ballot: 2/3

Best Original Score

It could have been worse - they could have nominated Frost/Nixon.  No, in all seriousness, these are pretty solid.  I'm glad Wall-E is here, that score was as breathtaking (if not moreso) than A.R. Rahman's vivacious beats in Slumdog.  I haven't heard Defiance's score, but I'm sad Dark Knight isn't here after all the trouble they went through to make it qualify again.

My predictions: 4/5
My ballot: 3/5

Best Original Song

Can we PLEASE make up our minds if this is a 3- or 5-nominee category??????  Is that so much to ask?  And oh look, I'm irate again: No Bruce Springsteen.  Look Academy, Bruce's song in The Wrestler IS the freaking movie.  Not only as a standalone song, but it's place IN the movie defies freaking words.  It is the best use of an individual piece of music in a movie for the entire year, and I don't say that because I like Bruce (I do, but that's beside the point) - the way the music enters the film and guides us out works on every level with what Rourke and Aronfosky want to communicate.  But instead, we get two nominees for Slumdog, even after the Score nomination.  That's just stupid, bro.

My predictions: 2/3
My own ballot: 1/3

Best Sound Mixing

Wanted?  I almost laughed when I read that, before I noticed IRON MAN wasn't here!  Awful decision.  That, and Benjamin Button = what?  Not really a...sound movie, and not particularly complex on that level (yeah, we mixed dialogue and ambient noise and score and it sounded good...let's get a nomination because you love our movie!)  NO!  Slumdog is doing bold things with sound, which is why it's nominated.  Wall-E is like a symphony of creative noises.  Wanted and Button are stale sound mixes that serve their movies and are nothing spectacular.

My predictions: 3/5
My ballot: 3/5

Best Sound Editing

Wanted again?  Really guys?  Is it because Angelina Jolie was in it?  At least Iron Man is here.  Also: this used to be a 3-film category.  Why are we changing nominee numbers year to year with no heads-up?  Because you liked Wanted and Slumdog Millionaire that much?

My predictions: 3/3 (because this is traditionally a 3-film category, I'm giving myself 100% on this)

Best Visual Effects

So surprising.

My predictions: 3/3
My ballot: 3/3

Overall Predictions: 73% correct (without factoring in alternates)
Factoring in my alternate picks: 81%
^ That's about as close to good as I can get.  Even without factoring the alternates, I did well (I usually get around 67%).  Factoring in alternates, I kicked ass.

You know, it's not so much what they DID nominate as opposed to what they DIDN'T.  I think history will look back at this year and be really perplexed, because most of the films that will be remembered from 2008 10 years from now were not nominated for much of anything (well, the Dark Knight had 8 nominations, but we're still not going there).  I'm waiting for people to make a case for this year.  Last year, the Academy embraced a bunch of serious films that critics and scholars were excited about and writing heavily about (namely No Country and Blood, but there was a lot of praise for Clayton and general good feelings about Atonement).  This year, the critics' most praised lists look SO different from this list.  It's weird and I don't know what accounts for this surge of populist, studio-heavy films after a year of thoroughly embracing independent work (and even 2006 recognized globalization in film...this year completely discounts that).

Here's what I think: Benjamin Button will win Best Picture and Slumdog Millionaire will win Best Director.  Button will gain considerable momentum in the Guild circuit.  Slumdog will get a lot of awards, but at the end of the night, they won't embrace it.  It's "too foreign" compared to the rest of these films.  If they DO it will actually validate them a little bit as they would be raising up an independent work by a budding filmmaker.  I hope they split and Milk wins.  But this is like 2005: One film gets praised ad naseum (Slumdog/Brokeback), wins the Globe, and then another film sweeps it away at the last moment (Button/Crash).  At least, that's what I see.  Remember, the Globe has been a kiss of death since 2004.  I think this is going to be a much more interesting race than people are letting on.  Remember: Slumdog didn't get an acting nod for Dev Patel.  That could end up being REALLY important!

That's it for now.  Stay tuned for the next grueling month of figuring this out.

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