Smile Politely

Oscar nominations leave much to be desired

I’d like to think of this as a family column, so allow me to employ some asterisks (asterii?): The Oscar nominations this year are a f**king joke. And not a particularly funny one. Hugely entertaining, brilliant, enlightening films were passed over while pretentious, boring crap backed by the powerful Weinstein marketing machine got nominated for Best Picture. Of course, this is nothing new. The Oscars have been awarding mediocrity since they were conceived. But if your movie is a groundbreaking pop culture masterpiece that was almost universally critically acclaimed and made close to a billion dollars but still only gets one nomination in the major categories, then what the hell hope do any of us have?

Yes, the lack of best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay nods for The Dark Knight is a travesty, and further evidence that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a group of snobs who remain willfully out of touch with the actual cinema world happening around them.

No, no one whose opinion actually matters really takes the Oscars as seriously as I’m taking them right now. The Oscars are a giant fashion show, a homecoming ball for adults where we sit in rapt attention in front of the TV and watch pretty people receive and distribute attractive looking awards for making stuff up all day. Of course, sometimes what the people make up is gloriously sublime. Sometimes it’s not. People like to think of the Golden Globes as the less reputable of the awards shows. But the big difference seems, to me, to be the price of advertising time. Also, it looks like they serve dinner during the Globes, which probably makes it an easier show to be in the audience for.

So why does anyone, including myself, even care about these awards shows? The Oscars have been called the “gay Super Bowl,” and maybe there’s something to that. I don’t happen to be gay, but I have never been much for sports (despite actually playing football in high school, I am still not entirely clear on the rules). But I still have that desire in me to root for a team and to watch that team enter competition.

And this year, my team got shafted.

I will take you through some of the major categories at this year’s Academy Awards. I will tell you why the Academy screwed it all up as they always do, and I will also tell you who I think will win and who I think should win. Do you think my predictions will turn out wrong? Do you have any better predictions of you own? Put them in the comments section below. Defeat me, and I’ll buy you a beer. Of course, if you’re man or woman enough to step up to the bar then you’d better be ready to buy me a beer if you’re proven wrong and beaten down.


It’s been said over and over again, most recently by myself a couple paragraphs prior, but I’ll say it again as it needs to be repeated: The Dark Knight was snubbed, and hard. There are several other movies that I would have liked to have seen nominated, but I never honestly thought that the academy would nominate a Swedish horror love story (Let the Right One In), a neo-realist drama about desperation (Wendy and Lucy), or a stoner action/comedy (Pineapple Express). But The Dark Knight should have been listed among the best picture nominees; it’s as simple as that. In addition to just straight up being the best film made in 2008, it was a force in popular culture that doesn’t have a peer in this decade. But it’s bleak and true to its vision, and the academy prefers its films to be bland and toothless. This is why The Reader got nominated while The Dark Knight remains on the bench. If you make a film about the holocaust, put Kate Winslet in it, and hand over the reins of the Oscar publicity campaign to Harvey Weinstein, then you’re guaranteed a best picture nomination.

And let me be the first to start the Slumdog Millionaire (pictured, right) backlash, or just let me jump on the bandwagon if the backlash has already started. It was as cliché, predictable, and trite as any movie made last year. It only got acclaim from hipsters who wanted to appear “cultured” by claiming they really like Indian culture or Bollywood films. In reality it carried over the worst parts of Bollywood movies (strict adherence to formula, one-note characters) and left out all the cool parts (there’s only one dance number in Slumdog, and it’s over the end credits.)

But Slumdog Millionaire will win best picture, I’m calling it. The Academy likes to feel good about themselves, and in its twisted logic giving that movie a Best Picture Oscar is really helping out all the people in Mumbai. I, personally, would kind of like to see Milk win the best picture award. It was far from my favorite film of the year, but of all five of the movies nominated, it was my favorite. It was a very engaging movie, and even though it was occasionally leaded down by the strictest conventions of the biopic genre, both Sean Penn and Josh Brolin were quite good, and Gus Van Sant had a good use of location, turning Castro Street in San Francisco into another character in the film.


Once again, Christopher Nolan should have been nominated for The Dark Knight, if only for directing such a huge film by himself, with no second unit. A nod for Andrew Stanton for WALL-E would have been nice, too. But by creating a separate category for best animated film (which WALL-E is a lock to win, no other films need apply) the academy has made sure that no other “cartoon” movie will ever win an award or even earn a nomination in one of the big categories.

I’m guessing that Danny Boyle will win here, for his work on Slumdog Millionaire. He’ll just ride in on the popularity of the film, as many directors do. Boyle is a very interesting filmmaker who has made some modern masterpieces (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Millions) and some duds (A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach). He’s always pushing himself to do something different, and I respect that, but I feel that Slumdog was an example of all flash and no substance. I personally would like to see David Fincher win for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Much like Boyle, Fincher has made some truly great films (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac), and by no means is Benjamin Button his best film. But it is visually astounding, and the effects work is subtle but effective.


This category actually wasn’t screwed up too badly by the academy. I mean, I would have liked to have seen Danny McBride get nominated for his role as a Tae Kwon Do instructor/terrible human being in The Foot Fist Way, but there is no way that would ever happen. Practically no one saw that movie, and the few that did found it uncomfortable and unpleasant. But nothing I saw last year made me laugh nearly as hard. Seriously, check it out — especially if you’re the kind of person who likes The Office, but want it much rougher and in a lower tax bracket. The Foot Fist Way was made two years ago and not released until last year, and in the meantime McBride turned himself into a go-to character actor for big budget comedies. But here he is in his most undiluted form. 

Mickey Rourke (pictured, right) will probably win this category for The Wrestler, and I think he deserves it. His portrayal of Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a revelation, and Rourke is never afraid to show us the broken, tender heart of this deceptively simple man.


I would like to have seen Michelle Williams get nominated for Wendy and Lucy, another movie no one saw. She was heartbreaking as a drifter who loses her dog in a small town on her way up to Alaska for some seasonal work in a cannery. The movie was raw and free of gimmicks, and much like The Foot Fist Way, it felt like an actual indie film, not just a film created by some studio executives who were trying to recreate Juno or Little Miss Sunshine. And, since neither film fit neatly into a little cubby hole in the marketing landscape, neither got a decent release. But I could spend a whole different column talking about the problems of independent film distribution, and maybe I will someday.

Of course, Frozen River got a similarly limited release but still managed to grab a couple nods, among them Melissa Leo for her bold leading performance. Frozen River is a more easily marketable film than Wendy and Lucy, but that’s not to take away from its power and especially the emotional wallop Leo packs into all her scenes. But Wendy and Lucy and Frozen River (and The Foot Fist Way and The Wrestler and Let the Right One In and many other of the greatest films of the year) are films of quiet desperation, about people trying as hard as they can just to get by. I’d like to see Melissa Leo win the prize, but I doubt that she will. Her performance comes alive in the tiny moments, like lighting a cigarette or changing her voicemail, and the cademy is not always that sensitive to underplaying things.

Although I’d like Leo to win, I’m having a tough time predicting who will win. If I had to guess, which I suppose I sort of do, I would give it to Meryl Streep (pictured, above) for Doubt. When there’s no apparent victor, Streep is always a good bet.


Here it is, plain and simple: Heath Ledger will win for The Dark Knight. If he doesn’t, it will be one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Oscars. There’s no doubt in my mind that he deserves it as well. Was there a more original, more memorable, more effecting character on screen in 2008 than his rendition of The Joker? He stole every scene, and haunted the minds of movie goers long after they left the theatre. This was a character that, despite the very purposeful lack of a true back-story, managed to live and breathe and exist in a way that didn’t feel fake. It’s a performance that people will talk about for years to come, and it has forever raised the bar for acting in what we call “comic book” movies.

If I had my way, we would see Ledger joined among the nominees by James Franco for Pineapple Express, a movie I wrote a whole column about. Much like Ledger, Franco gleefully tossed away his pretty boy image to revel in a grungy deviant. And, also like Ledger, he really worked at creating a full character. I got no impression that what I was seeing on screen was James Franco, but instead a totally different human being.


This is, historically, the hardest category to get a handle on. Upsets happen regularly around these parts. So, just keep that in mind.

It’s hard for me to think, off the top of my head, of any one performance that got snubbed this year. That speaks less to the accuracy of the academy, and more to the simple lack of interesting character roles for women. There were pretty much only these five good, small female roles in 2008.

I’m guessing Viola Davis (pictured, left) will probably win for Doubt. Her performance as a distraught mother with a surprising take on her son’s possible molestation was not a big role, even by supporting standards, but she made the best of the one scene she was in. I would kind of like to see Penelope Cruz win for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, if only to acknowledge the miracle of Woody Allen still writing amazing characters in interesting, thoughtful films while still being as prolific as he is.


I would have loved to have seen Charlie Kaufman get nominated for the screenplay to his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. It would have been wonderful to see him continue to get recognized for being the most consistently original voice of his generation. But I guess his snub does prove just how weird he has to get before the Academy disconnects. Also, a nomination for Woody Allen for Vicky Cristina Barcelona would also have been nice, but he’s been nominated more than any other screenwriter in history, so the academy has decided to only give him more nods if he pulls a curve ball (like Match Point).

This is another category with no clear front runner, but I’m guessing Dustin Lance Black will win for his screenplay for Milk (pictured, right), although I would not be too surprised if WALL-E swept in for an upset. Personally, I would like to see Martin McDonagh win for In Bruges, an interesting and refreshingly original genre pastiche that makes you think it’s gonna go for sub-Tarantino on vacation in Europe, but then becomes surprisingly mature and touching towards the end.


For all of the acclaim it has gotten outside the Oscars, The Dark Knight has not been given a lot of kudos for its screenplay, which is a shame because it is definitely some smart, tight writing. It was a big movie with a small movie inside, a character study and a moral drama inside a riveting crime drama. And the dialogue is succinct and memorable.

Simon Beaufoy will probably win for Slumdog Millionaire. Much has been made of Eric Roth basically plagiarizing his script for Forrest Gump in order to write The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but the script for Slumdog seems to consist entirely of clichés ripped wholesale from other movies. And I know what you’re thinking: “it’s a Bollywood homage, so they’re just using the same clichés as Bollywood movies.” Well, you’ve just uncovered why I don’t like Bollywood pictures very much, and have gotten tired of typing the word “Bollywood” over and over. It’s a dumb word.

I guess my personal favorite in this category would have to be Peter Morgan for Frost/Nixon. I thought the movie itself was okay, but Ron Howard’s by-the-numbers direction kept me from moving the film from the “respect it” category to the “love it” category. Still, Morgan’s screenplay does interesting work in juxtaposing these two seemingly very different men, and it makes Richard Nixon a more human and sympathetic character than I would have guessed was possible.


Springsteen’s haunting, sparse title song from The Wrestler didn’t get nominated this year, and yet there were only three nominations. What? I feel like this must be the result of some arcane Academy voting laws, but it makes me so angry that I refuse to even say which song I would like to see win. The Peter Gabriel song from WALL-E probably will win, as the two songs from Slumdog Millionaire will split the vote among those who, you know, give a shit.


Go see Let the Right One In (pictured, right). Seriously, go. It’s a goddamn masterpiece. Rent it, download, drive to Chicago (it just finished up a weekend-long stint in Normal at the Norma Theatre). It is a movie that is most often, and not entirely inaccurately, described as a “vampire” movie from Sweden. It does have a character in it who drinks blood and doesn’t age, but it’s more of an utterly unique love story than a horror movie. It’s about loneliness and connecting to others. It is totally unlike anything you have ever seen before, and to say too much more would be to ruin it. Just go see it. Or, at least, look for it on DVD soon.

Of course, is Let the Right One In nominated for a single academy award? No. This is because of how the academy chooses it’s nominees for best foreign language film of the year. The voters can’t simply nominate the best film they’ve seen. Each country has to choose one film of theirs to submit, and Academy voters can choose amongst the films submitted. Now, governments are going to want to choose something inoffensive and austere (like The Class from France, which will probably win) instead of something as strange and challenging as Let the Right One In.

But screw ’em.


I haven’t seen Man on Wire, yet. But I heard it was really good, and Ben Gibbard said it was the best movie of the year so it has got mad hipster cred. It will probably win, but I’d kind of like to see Werner Herzog win for Encounters At The End Of The World. I have to admit that I haven’t seen that movie either; I just want Herzog to be given a microphone with access to the ears of a billion people. That dude is awesome. Once, on the set of Aguirre, Wrath Of God, he threatened to get a rifle and shoot actor Klaus Kinski in the head if he walked off the set, which just so happened to be in the middle of the jungle. I bet he would have done it, too.

And that’s that. When the nominees were announced, I said that I wasn’t even going to watch the Oscars this year. It was even my Facebook status for a whole day, as I am a 12-year-old girl and I enjoy sharing every thought I have with the Internet. But, you know, whatever. It’s just a silly little awards ceremony that managed to fill up six pages of drivel, and people like myself get way too worked up over it, because we don’t follow sports and need someplace to put our surplus testosterone. Also, I kind of just like throwing parties, as it gives me an opportunity to make and eat guacamole. So I’ll be watching, surrounded by my friends on a comfy couch, and complaining.


To sum up, here are my picks for who will win:

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Best Actress: Meryl Streep, Doubt
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis, Doubt
Best Original Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Best Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Original Song: Peter Gabriel’s “Down to Earth,” WALL-E
Best Foreign Language Film: The Class
Best Documentary: Man on Wire

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