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Oscar nominations will be announced on January 22. We’re counting down to the big day by tackling some tough questions and spouting some mad opinions. We’re starting with an appropriately grouchy topic: What lock for a nomination is undeserved?

Jared: Milk Script is Spoiled

I’m considerably more bearish on Milk than my fellow Grouches (yet another reason not to trust their opinions), so perhaps unsurprisingly I’m going to be disappointed when Milk gets its Best Original Screenplay nomination.  In my mind, it is a fine movie and decent script, but hardly Oscar-worthy.  Perhaps the strongest argument to support this stance is that the strength of the cast creates the illusion of a stronger script.  If Sean Penn isn’t there giving one of the strongest performances of the season, does Milk get the screenwriting nomination?  Josh Brolin and James Franco’s performances were both nominated for awards, and let’s face it, both play characters with relatively few meaningful lines.  Some argue Emile Hirsch steals the scenes he’s in, because he goes so close to being over the top.  And Diego Luna, well, he sure makes everyone else look better, again suggesting it is the actors, not the script.  Milk follows an awkward storyline, forgoing clearly depicting Milk’s rise for a standard biopic method of cherrypicking events.  Climatic scenes seem to lack an oomph.  Again, it isn’t a bad script, probably in the top fifteen or so original scripts of 2008, but a serviceable screenplay with great actors should not translate to an Oscar nom.  Granted, this year’s original scripts aren’t terribly exciting, and many of the ones in contention do seem to be largely propped up by a star turn.  Now should be the time for the Academy to get off its high horse about comedies, and instead of forcing in something like Milk, turn to an In Bruges.

Adam: Impeach Ron Howard…

It seems unavoidable that I will soon be ridiculing the Academy first for their nomination and then for their ultimate Oscar choices.  I am already disappointed in many of the “locks” that currently pervade the buzz.  Probably the biggest snub in my opinion is the lack of talk about In Bruges (actors, script, directing, picture).  It was one of my favorite films of the year, and I have to give the HFPA credit for their recognition (albeit limited recognition) of it.  That being said, I have chosen a different topic for my piece – Best Director.  Hollywood’s love for Ron Howard while not totally unfounded is highly overblown.  He is perhaps one of the most over-rated directors in the industry.  I actually liked Frost/Nixon, but I don’t believe that the direction warrants a Best Director nod.  There are much more deserving directors including Martin McDonagh for In Bruges (as you may have guessed by my lead-in), Darren Aronofsky for The Wrestler, or John Patrick Shanley for Doubt. Honestly, I don’t really like David Fincher over McDonagh or Aronofsky either.  In short, I think it’s a travesty that In Bruges hasn’t been recognized enough – whether because of its genre, release time, etc. – and I think the Academy needs to look past its standard/comfortable/fall-back nominees to actual deserving candidates.

John: … And Frost/Nixon While You’re at It

Frost/Nixon is a fine film, but not Best Picture worthy. To me it works much better as like a caper movie where a bunch of underdog ruffians try to take down a President. Or as a showbiz flick as the gang tries to put on the big show. But it has designs on being much more and it doesn’t really work and that’s because, at the core, I didn’t really care. I wanted the underdogs to win, I wanted the show to come off without a hitch, but didn’t really care if Nixon said anything revelatory. Maybe it’s a generational thing where a defeated Nixon means little to me. Or maybe the film didn’t give me enough context to care. Which, incidentally is also a failure in direction and writing, two places where Frost/Nixon is also likely to grab nominations. I can give Howard credit for spinning an entertaining yarn, but it doesn’t do anything exceedingly special.

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Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski (from Gran Torino) may be the manliest character ever caught on film.  Sure, guys may aspire to be suave like Bond, badass like Bourne, and lethal like Bruce Lee or Rambo, but deep down we know those are unrealistic exaggerations.  Fun to be for a day, but maybe not much longer.  Kowalski, though, is what we all wish and fear we might be when we reach seventy.  Kowalski’s material possessions exemplify masculinity.  He has a garage full of tools he’s accumulated over his lifetime, a more realistic version of what MacGyver represents.  He’s got the cool car, obviously, which he keeps in immaculate condition.  Comfortable around guns, he saw combat and received a medal, something which most guys wish they could say they’ve done, even if they have absolutely no desire of actually doing it.  Most of all, he doesn’t take nothing from nobody.  He is his own man, unencumbered by anyone and certainly not by whatever these things you call “feelings” are.  If he wants to spend his life on his front porch, drinking PBRs (of course) by the six-pack, hurling racial epithets when mere grunting isn’t an effective enough method of communication, he damn well will.  Kowalski isn’t cynical, exactly, just entirely comfortable with where he is and entirely unwilling for anyone to suggest otherwise.  And, of course, has a faithful dog by his side.  But as the pinnacle of masculinity he is, naturally, the ultimate joke.

The actual movie is almost irrelevant here.  Gran Torino is a pretty standard tale of neighborhood justice – bad guys start picking on the good guys, main character learns something about himself, someone has to make a sacrifice.  Nothing particularly new or exciting.  The non-Eastwood actors were seemingly chosen to contrast the awesomeness of the man.  And it involves Hmong community probably because they provide an easy group for Eastwood to slur an entertainingly large number of different ways, but don’t have vocal enough support to affect the box office.

No, Gran Torino is pretty much entirely about Eastwood tearing through every scene.  I’m still not entirely sure how he manages to be so incredibly over the top (to the point where a mere grunt elicited raucous laughter in my theater) and yet have the film maintain some semblance of gravitas.  The concept is hard to grasp, as all the other actors are serious, the plot is serious, and Eastwood’s character is the most serious of them all, yet he turns out genuinely funny.  His Kowalski is cantankerous, curmudgeonly, and ignorant, but also a reminder that as annoying as other people are, it is pretty hard to avoid them.  Eastwood single-handedly makes the film worth watching.

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