Academy Awards 2009

• We shoulda known: the Caped Crusader and the loveable robot got the cold shoulder from Oscar voters when it came to nominating the year’s five best pictures. Oscar’s choice instead was the stuffy Holocaust drama The Reader, which scored a lowly 58 on MetaCritic; that makes it the worst reviewed movie nominated for Best Picture this decade. The irony is that The Dark Knight and WALL-E both received more nominations: eight and six, respectively, compared to Reader’s five.

• Hooray for independent thinking! The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences proved wise in 2004 when they rejected the preposterously fraudulent campaign for Keisha Castle-Hughes as a supporting actress in Whale Rider — they nominated her in the lead category instead. This year, Kate Winslet’s widely criticized supporting campaign for The Reader was ignored as well; the result is her sixth Oscar nomination, her fourth as Best Actress. The good news for her, I suspect, is that she will not have to contend against ambivalence about awarding her for a film the industry had little affection for — Revolutionary Road, which nevertheless managed three nominations. Despite the mixed reviews for the film, consensus is nearly unanimous that Winslet is superb in The Reader. I believe she is now the woman to beat.

• Most shocking omissions: Sally Hawkins, who swept the critics awards for Happy-Go-Lucky, was overlooked in favor of Melissa Leo’s gritty performance as a poor mother of two in Frozen River. Clint Eastwood, according to whom Gran Torino is his last acting performance, was also snubbed in favor of a character actor in a small indie: the very deserving Richard Jenkins in The Visitor.

• Most shocking inclusions: sure In Bruges reaped three Golden Globe nominations and one victory — for star Colin Farrell — but the Globes have separate categories for comedies, and sometimes it’s slim pickings (also nominated for Globes this year: Mamma Mia!). Its nomination for Best Original Screenplay is one of the year’s biggest surprises. In Best Supporting Actor, fringe candidate Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road), managed to make the cut despite the snubs of his better known co-stars and despite his absence from precursor awards. The odd man out was Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel, who I suspect split votes between supporting and lead.

Slumdog Millionaire earned two nominations for Best Original Song … I didn’t even know the film had two songs to nominate. The third and final nominee was “Down to Earth” from WALL-E. This category marks one of the year’s strangest; conspicuously absent are the title songs from Gran Torino (co-written by Clint Eastwood) and The Wrestler (written by Bruce Springsteen!), as well as the sublimely twisted “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” from Hamlet 2. It was one of last year’s strangest categories also — they nominated three songs from Enchanted and ignored Eddie Vedder’s entire acclaimed song score from Into the Wild. I think it’s time to reconsider how this category is judged.

• Predictions: I correctly guessed 31 out of the 40 nominees in the top eight categories — 31.5 if you count Winslet, who I rightly predicted would be nominated, but for a different film.

Below are the nominees in eleven top categories:

BEST PICTURE

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
What I wrote: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, adapted from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a curious case indeed. It’s a beautiful film, with some of the most exquisitely integrated digital and makeup effects of the year, and the production design by Donald Graham Burt and cinematography by Claudio Miranda give it a glow that evokes fantasy and memory. But in the final analysis, what is it about?”

Frost/Nixon
What I wrote: “The film feels diffuse in the early going, perhaps too much so … The film improves the more closely it focuses on its main characters. Director Ron Howard does an excellent job during the last and most important interview, discussing Watergate. He cuts away the cameras, the crew, and the backstage quarterbacks from both camps. Intense closeups keep the characters on the hook, especially Nixon, whose artifice can be seen crumbling as he walks into questions he has no way out of.”

Milk
What I wrote: “Milk is a stirring film and an important one, if only to dramatize the early stages of the gay rights movement and to pay tribute to a man without whom our national progress would not have come so far so fast.”

The Reader
What I wrote: “There are few bad scenes in The Reader. Several good ones. Many that don’t quite work. And the persistent feeling throughout that you should be getting more out of them than you are, that you should be focused on character and story but instead are preoccupied by nagging problems in narrative structure, strange distractions in its style, and telling the time.”

Slumdog Millionaire
What I wrote: “Boyle films with a frenetic style that is reminiscent of City of God, but he lacks Fernando Meirelles’s elegance of camera and narrative. At times, we wish he’d stay still and conjure more of the gentle warmth he brought to his other fable of young boys, 2004’s Millions.”

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

BEST ACTOR
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

BEST ACTRESS

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

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Frozen River — Courtney Hunt
Happy-Go-Lucky — Mike Leigh
In Bruges — Martin McDonagh
Milk — Dustin Lance Black
WALL-E — Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Pete Docter

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — Eric Roth, Robin Swicord
Doubt — John Patrick Shanley
Frost/Nixon — Peter Morgan
The Reader — David Hare
Slumdog Millionaire — Simon Beaufoy

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Bolt
Kung Fu Panda
WALL-E

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Encounters at the End of the World
The Garden
Man on Wire
Trouble the Water

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
The Baader Meinhof Complex — Germany
The Class — France
Departures — Japan
Revanche — Austria
Waltz with Bashir — Israel

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