It is easy to criticize the Academy for its choices. Like any organization, they are going to make unpopular decisions. And as with any vote, the most deserving person or film isn’t guaranteed victory in the least. But part of the genesis of this project is the idea that it isn’t fair to ridicule a winner without seeing all of the other nominees. So, we watched all the nominees. Quixotic? Maybe. Fun? Almost always. Here’s what we thought of the Best Picture category:

ADAM

Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire

    As I have stated before, Slumdog Millionaire has been sweeping all awards ceremonies. At this point, it seems like an unstoppable juggernaut. Overall, it was a well written screenplay, with very good acting (especially by the children, the cop, and the game show host). I have issues with the transition and handling of the older children and storyline, but other than that, I thought this was a very well put together movie.

I Want to Win: The Dark Knight

    As with Best Director, I realize that The Dark Knight was not nominated, but in my opinion there was no movie better this year. It is a travesty that it was excluded and my opinion of the Academy has reached an all time low (no small feat).

Dark Horse: The Reader

    The Reader‘s nomination was a surprise to a good many people. The love for it is obviously there so it has an outside chance of stealing this award from Slumdog. However, it is still Millionaire‘s award to lose.

Random Notes:

My disgust with the Academy over this award is palpable. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, The Dark Knight was the best movie of the year. The Academy does itself no favors by proving time and time again that it is both antiquated and close-minded. This is just another example.

BRIAN

Since The Wrestler isn’t in this group, I am going with the masses and hoping for a Slumdog win. Of the five, its the movie I most enjoyed and the one I would most be looking forward to watching again. Faint praise, but well, its the 2008 Oscars.

JARED

You know, I kind of like this group. Not because I think they are the five best pictures of the year, but because they sort of provide a good summary of the Oscar year in film. The Oscar-bait movies were generally disappointing affairs, and more frequently than not, the best movies came outside of the traditional framework (even Slumdog Millionaire didn’t exactly come from the studio system). Most of the biggest themes in 2008 films were largely ignored by the Academy. Looking at the top ten grossing films of the year, for example, there are four animated films, three super hero films, Indy, Bond, and Twilight. Moneymaking doesn’t equal quality, of course, but WALL-E landed on more critics’ top ten lists than other other film, and had the third-highest metacritic score of the year (behind 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and The Class). The Dark Knight was on the fourth-most number of crtic’s lists, and is third of the viable Oscar contenders and nominees on Rotten Tomatoes list, behind The Wrestler and WALL-E.

At this point, I feel like I’ve spent enough time on Frost/Nixon. I’m stunned that anyone could consider it in the top five of 2008 movies. Sure, it felt like an Oscar movie, and was a decent film, but The Wrestler wasn’t better? Maybe as John (I think) said, the film just had more of an impact on people who lived through the Nixon administration. And I’m still content to be in the minority who didn’t think much of Milk. Maybe I’m just allergic to biopics. I can at least somehow see how people might love the film, I suppose, and I don’t think too much less of them.

It is hard to watch Benjamin Button and not think, “Yeah, this is an Oscar movie.” The effects (and I’m including makeup there) are really impressive, and the film has a grand feeling to it. It wasn’t completely successful or maybe even mostly successful in delivering an entertaining film. But it was a valiant effort. And really, I think more or less the same about Slumdog Millionaire. A fantastic start, but it falls a little short of greatness. Again, while I don’t quite understand all the love for the film, I’m certainly not opposed to it.

So yes, I’m the sole person waving a The Reader foam finger. It wasn’t perfect, far from it. But for me, it was touching, maybe even beautiful. Everybody looks for something different from a movie, and I’m not sure I can describe what I want. But I have to think when a film hits me like a punch to the gut, it is doing something right.

JOHN

And here we are, the Big Kahuna. I think this is sort of a middling group of films. The fact that I didn’t truly dislike any of them is better than average for the Academy. On the other hand, only two really moved me. I will have forgotten half this slate in six months.

First, the weakest. How did The Dark Knight lose out to The Reader? It’s not that good but it is total Oscar bait. Consider: forbidden love, the Holocaust, AND a lesson about the importance of art. I guess there’s no way the Academy could refuse (and, for the record, I had one of the few correct pre-nomination predictions on this site when I said it would sneak into the category). Its success is mixed. I was very fascinated by the affair plot. The way young Michael becomes so completely enamored with Hannah and the devastation her rejection wreaks on the rest of his life are very interesting. But the other more serious story lines are much less successful. There’s a very good film to be made exploring how we assign blame to an entire society that commited an atrocity but The Reader is not it. It has some good thoughts on the issue, however, and the scene with Michael’s classmate yelling at the professor is my favorite scene in the film. And then the whole redemptive power of literacy theme is a complete and utter miss. I couldn’t possibly have cared less. Hannah’s actions would be much more interesting explored from her position in society and her occupation than her literacy.

I found Frost/Nixon to be a pretty entertaining ride. It reminds me of Oceans Eleven of all films with the way its characters playfully work their scheme to trick the villain. It’s fun but that’s about it. It’s the problem I mention again and again: I just didn’t care. The big climax is… a contrite Richard Nixon!! Um, so? That surely means a lot to some people but not for me. Without more context Nixon just feels like another movie villain, albeit one I have knowledge of going in. So it’s a fun flick without much weight. I liked Frank Langella and Michael Sheen and Frost’s team of three researchers is hilarious.

Benjamin Button is a darn good story. Take the crazy premise of aging in reverse, choose the time to begin the guy’s life, and let it go. I enjoyed seeing where the story would go and generally the plot is quite interesting. It made me think about the practical challenges of aging backwards. It clearly wanted me to think about something deeper, however, and I think any intended lessons on youth and love fall short. The film looks great and the special effects are very neat without being too ostentatious. Some of the unnecessary contrivances, such as the framing device of old Daisy on her death bed while Hurricane Katrina bears down on New Orleans, are nicely counterbalanced by some really superb segments like the ones in the USSR and World War II. It is a little too sprawling and goes on too long, but it is for the most part a pleasant film-going experience.

There’s a pretty big gap to my top two. Slumdog Millionaire will win and I’ll be okay with that. It’s great to see something untraditional get so much love. Even though I’m making Milk my choice I understand how boring it is to reward a biopic. The contrivances annoyed me at times. It’s meant to be a Dickensian fairy tale and that does make me feel better about them but I’d be lying if I said they didn’t bother me a little. But most of those reservations get blown away by the picture’s look and feel. Exhilarating pieces like the chase through the slums and the scenes at the Taj Mahal took my breath away. The throbbing score gives the entire thing a great pulse. Clearly it has the feel-good thing going for it that puts audience in a good mood and I wonder how much of the love for the film is an outsized response to that. I adore Slumdog Millionaire but I’m not sure how well it will hold up.

And so my choice is Milk. I loved pretty much everything about this film. It transcends its biopic genre by being not just about a man but a time and an ideal. It’s a message film that never grows preachy or sappy. Sean Penn turns in an incredible performance. He’s one of those stars that you immediately forget is Sean Penn when he is on the screen. The supporting cast is also terrific, led by Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch. I also really liked how Milk treats its antagonist, Dan White, by making him quite complex and even somewhat sympathetic. Even the editing in Milk stood out for me with its terrific opening montage that so perfectly set the stage and its use of archival footage. In a lackluster year I’m thrilled to find such a gem even in the guise of a standard Hollywood biopic.

Snubs: I so wish The Dark Knight had made it into the big show. I would never consider myself a superhero movie fan but this felt like a superhero movie made for me with its dark style and thought-provoking themes. It would have been nice to see a big action flick get the recognition. And even though I wasn’t as entranced with WALL-E as nearly everyone else – I merely really liked it instead of loved it – it, too, would have been a fun change of pace for the nomination.

And then there’s The Wrestler, which totally fits into the Academy’s box of the types of films to get recognition and yet did not. Great story, great acting, great camerawork, resonant themes- it’s a shame it never even really entered the conversation.

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