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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 Director category:

JOHN

Well, the directing nominees completely overlap the Best Picture so it seems a little hard to separate the best directed from the best picture overall. I guess I’m looking for overall concept, tone, pacing, etc… But I guess most of my in depth comments should be saved for the Best Picture discussion.

I’ve said it before but I had some big problems with Stephen Daldry’s The Reader that I couldn’t get around. Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon has a fun tone but it helped detract from making me, well, care. I enjoyed David Fincher’s Benjamin Button and he does a good job steering a sprawling story filled with special effects. I don’t think it achieves the depth it strives for, but it’s quite an interesting story.

But now for the best. Slumdog Millionaire may well be described as director’s movie. Fairly straightforward and simple plot, shallow characters, and some less than stellar acting are turned into something magnificent in Danny Boyle’s hands. He has a great vision for the film that comes through in the photography, editing, scene composition, and music. I liked Milk better than Slumdog and therefore feel the need to choose Gus Van Sant, but Boyle’s vision made it tough.

Van Sant is my choice. He helms a film that says a lot in just the right tone without preaching and with this subject matter that’s a tough job. The opening montage is worth the price of admission by itself and sets the stage perfectly. The film has an incredible sense of time and place so that it’s part an exploration of the gay experience in 1970s as well as a look at Harvey Milk’s life. Maybe it’s not hard to do so when working with the likes of Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, and James Franco but he elicits great work from his actors. And the interesting creative choice to mix in archival footage works perfectly when I never expected it to.

Snubs: I’m beating the same drums here again and again. Christopher Nolan for The Dark Knight and Darren Aronofsky for The Wrestler. Both brilliant with interesting and engaging styles.

BRIAN

Director: Danny Boyle. Whatever.

JARED

I really don’t have any confidence in my ability to determine what effect a director had on a movie, so it seems silly to say anything about the nominees or snubs.  Instead, here’s some other stuff directed by the nominees:

David Fincher – music videos for “Freedom ’90” (George Michael), “Straight Up” (Paula Abdul), “Vogue” (Madonna), “Janie’s Got A Gun” (Aerosmith), and, of course Sting’s “Englishman In New York” and an incredible array of other awesome 80’s musicians (Eddie Money, The Outfield, Rick Springfield, Foreigner, The Motels, Loverboy, Mark Knopfler).

Ron Howard –  Night Shift, Willow

Gus Van Sant – the Psycho remake, music videos for Deee-Lite, Candlebox, “Under the Bridge” (Red Hot Chili Peppers), “Fame ’90” (David Bowie).  And, of course, “Weird” (Hanson).

Stephen Daldry – BORING

Danny Boyle – 28 Days Later

ADAM

Will Win: Danny Boyle

    Danny Boyle stole the front-runner position from David Fincher when he began winning all of the non-Oscar awards.  Between the two of them, Boyle’s film and directing is the clear winner.

I Want to Win: Christopher Nolan

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

Dark Horse: Gus Van Sant

    Van Sant is the sleeper in this category and could very well steal Boyle’s limelight.  However, it is a long shot at best.  Should he receive the award, at least it will be well deserved.  He missed out with Good Will Hunting, but Milk is a film he can be proud of.

Random Notes:

    It is distressing to me that Ron Howard was able to beat out Christopher Nolan for this nomination.  Frost/Nixon was a decent movie, but it was no where near the caliber of The Dark Knight.  Nolan’s handling of the film shows that his is one of the preeminent directors today.

Frost/Nixon works on several levels. It’s an underdog story where the scrappy reporters try to take down a president. It’s a caper film as the heroes investigate and put the pieces together in order to pull the rug out from under Nixon. It’s a showbiz tale where the gang tries to put on the big show. It does not work, however, as something larger, an allegory for modern times or a blistering critique of a corrupt system.

It has a light, breezy style that makes it go down easily and that helps make for a pleasant experience taking it at face value. It’s a pretty neat story. British talk show host David Frost makes a play to boost his career by landing an interview with Richard Nixon. It’s 1977, three years after Nixon’s resignation and pardon, and a big interview covering Watergate topics could potentially be a huge success. Frost has to court Nixon and sell the interviewers to the networks. Meanwhile a crack staff of investigators combs over the records of the Nixon administration, looking for things to nail him on. Finally there’s the high-stakes confrontation. Nixon wants to repair his image while Frost needs some big revelations to sell the program and not lose his own shirt in the process.

This all works quite well, in a rather conventional way. Frost has to improve his light interview style to get anything good out of Nixon. Selling the interviews proves hard. Nixon prepares for the interviews to throw Frost off his game and dominate him. Frost’s researchers are a funny diversion with quick wits and a desperate desire to nail Nixon.

The problem is that in the whole scheme of things, I just didn’t really care. Maybe it’s a generational thing where merely seeing Nixon apologize on camera fails to pull at something deep inside me. I didn’t live in that tumultuous time. But even knowing what I know of that time period, probably more than most of my generation, I still felt lost in its history. It needed a lot more historical context to make me care as much as the film wanted, more than Nixon filling a garden variety movie villain role where you want him to fall simply because he’s the villain. And maybe that makes sense, because from what I piece together the interviews weren’t the success the film portrays but more akin to an opening of Al Capone’s vault of its time. In actuality it really wasn’t important.

Frost/Nixon garnered a variety of Oscar nominations, most of them undeserved. The film does have some great acting. Frank Langella plays Nixon and grabbed a Best Actor nomination and that is the one that I’m fine with. He gives a good portrayal that doesn’t stray into caricature. I also enjoyed Michael Sheen as Frost, though he never really found a spot in the awards show orbit, neither in Lead or Supporting. Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfayden, and Oliver Platt as Frost’s team are also thoroughly enjoyable. On the acting side, I wasn’t fond of Rebecca Hall as Frost’s girlfriend and I kind of hated Kevin Bacon, playing an adviser to Nixon.

On the other hand, it’s simply not Best Picture material. There were many films that were better than Frost‘s successes and without its failures that also made me care. The lack of historical context can be traced directly to Oscar-nominated director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan. The tone is too light for a film with high ambitions. Plus the technique of the characters speaking to the camera as if they were getting interviewed for a documentary doesn’t work and feels gimmicky. It also got an editing nomination, which I don’t have much to say about except that it didn’t help any of the problems I had with the film.

It feels like Oceans Eleven with a purpose – a purpose that fails. Without the self-provided weight it works to entertain simply on the back of its interesting characters and mostly intriguing plot. Good things, no doubt, but nothing more special than a pretty well-spun yarn.

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. Today’s topic: Disappointment. We’re all going to feel it in some way on Thursday morning. To help get ready for the blow, we’re predicting it now. What inclusion or exclusion on Thursday will disappoint you? How do you like that, a topic that combines both our savvy prediction skills and our impeccable opinions!

John: Adams’s Prowess Doubtful, For Once

I dig Amy Adams, I really do. I liked her a lot in Charlie Wilson’s War, Junebug, and even The Office. She really should have gotten a Best Actress nod last year for the shockingly terrific Enchanted. But she’s about to get swept up in an acting nomination wave for Doubt and that will be too bad. I had a lot of problems with the film but generally agreed with the consensus that the acting was terrific, particularly from Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman (I think Viola Davis’s big scene was too initially puzzling for me to pay a lot of attention to her). But Adams is chirpy and one-note. Her character is pretty shallow, which may have more to do with the writing, but it also doesn’t give her much opportunity to show what she can do. She was supposed to personify the doubt in the film’s central question but I never really saw much complexity in her performance.

But if not Adams, then who, realistically? Good question. She has nominations from both the SAG and Golden Globes. I’d like to see Rosemary DeWitt from Rachel Getting Married but in the end, as long as Adams doesn’t displace Marisa Tomei I’ll be able to live with my disappointment.

And let that be the last time this blog ever speaks unkindly about Amy Adams.

Jared: If I Wasn’t Depressed Enough by The Reader, I Will be When it’s Snubbed for Best Picture

In a year of mediocrity, where movies are missing the mark by just a little bit, one movie managed to get inside my head, to the point where I was too wrecked to get up out of my seat until all the credits had rolled.  So I’ll be disappointed when I don’t hear The Reader making the cut for Best Picture.  Disappointed because I know the movie would have stood a better chance if it hadn’t received bad buzz stemming from various delays and on-set mishaps.  Disappointed because of the seemingly ineffective Oscar marketing campaign, especially when the nascent Slumdog backlash is looking for a candidate to rally behind.  And disappointed that the current climate is absolutely wrong for such a horribly depressing movie.  The Reader is a hauntingly beautiful film, in my mind undoubtedly one of the best of the year, and it is frustrating that it is going to unjustly barely miss the Oscars.

Brian: Adapted Screenplay a Disappointment All Around

My biggest disappointment will be the adapted screenplay category as a whole, especially when Benjamin Button and Frost/Nixon both get nominated for mediocre scripts. Both were unevenly paced with broadly drawn characters with little depth to them. Eric Roth’s screenplay for Button succeeded in spite of itself, to use a great Schollism, and the interplay between the hospital death bed and the story was tangential and distracting. Frost/Nixon perverted history, which makes little to no sense when you are writing about a series of television interviews that ACTUALLY HAPPENED! This wasn’t like The Queen where you could make up the dialogue and history because it all happened behind closed doors, you can compare the action in Frost/Nixon to the transcript. Since Ron Howard made Quiz Show, I thought he’d at least be able to handle a similar scenario here, but with the screenplay already written for the stage, I guess he didn’t have much to work with.

Adam: Actually, Original Screenplay Too (And Have I Mentioned I Really Liked In Bruges?)

My biggest disappointment is with the Academy as a whole (especially if The Dark Knight doesn’t get the nods it deserves). However, if we need to pick and choose, one of the bigger disappointments will be in the Original Screenplay category. The complete lack of respect for Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges script is frustrating. This movie has the most original story, some of the most interesting characters, and the best ending of any film this year. The complete snub by the Academy in exchange for films like Happy-Go-Lucky and Wall-E is embarrassing (putting hyphens in a title doesn’t make it Oscar worthy). Happy-Go-Lucky was a pointless movie that had one decent scene and shouldn’t be nominated for anything. Wall-E was a cute movie, but the main problem I have with it is its script. The plot was, by far, the weakest point. One of my fellow Grouches pointed out that if you look at Wall-E as a romantic comedy that it was the best of that genre all year. However, he later went on to admit that it was a horrible year for that genre. But does that warrant it a nomination? Disappointing… that’s what this category is.

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.

Going into this year’s Oscar season, if I had to pick one contender I least wanted to see, I’d imagine it would have been Frost/Nixon in a runaway.  Because going into the movie, I’d probably have called screenwriter Peter Morgan a hack.  I felt like I’d given the man a fair deal, having seen The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, and The Other Boleyn Girl (Morgan co-wrote the first and has sole credit on the latter two).  The Last King of Scotland was a somewhat tolerable movie.  I know some people liked or even loved The Queen, but they happen to be exceedingly wrong.  And as I may have mentioned before, I think Morgan must possess some sort of unholy power if he can turn a movie starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson into a clunker of a snoozefest.

With that on the table, I found I actually kinda sorta liked Frost/Nixon.  Not in the top of the charts sense, more in that it is probably in the top quarter or so of movies I’ve watched this year.  Maybe it was because Morgan first wrote it as a play, but I think what worked was the dynamic between interviewer Frost (Michael Sheen) and Nixon (Frank Langella).  Everything else, perhaps, falls fairly flat, so it is fortunate the movie spends a good chunk of time (though not nearly enough) on the battle between the two men.

Nixon certainly views it as a competition.  He looks forward to engaging Frost in a duel of wits.  And as the interview progresses, he gloats over how he is ahead on points.  Indeed, it may have been Brian who called it one of the best sports movies of the year.  And it certainly has most of the trappings of a sports movie.  Scrappy underdog with his small band of supporters who no one believes in up against an overconfident, yet intelligent foe with a sniveling henchman  in a title bout that looks all but lost until the very end.  Sure, the hero gets the hot chick a little early and we may have been lacking a montage, but otherwise we are pretty much there.

To Morgan’s credit, he clearly tries to add texture and depth to characters and situations, where subtlety is not necessarily a desired trait in a sports flick.  Nixon, for example, is not the typical villain.  I’d argue he’s portrayed in a rather sympathetic light.  Sure, he may get a little cocky at times, and he makes the inevitable fatal slip-up, but as a sharp-witted old man, he never comes across as malicious.  The only two characters to actively loathe him are awed when they meet the former President in person.  But again, most interesting is how Frost views him.  For most of the movie, Frost doesn’t view Nixon as an antagonist, really.  Frost seems to think Nixon is a curosity, but he’s only ever gets even slightly intimidated by Nixon on the eve of their final interview.

Frost is the weaker of the two main characters.  I think it is because for the first chunk of the movie Nixon isn’t his opponent.  Instead, he’s fighting the more vague battle to first get the interview, and then get financing and a network to air the show.  Which isn’t terribly interesting, because it isn’t detailed very well and we aren’t given very much of a chance to see its impact on Frost.  It is only when he finally turns to focus on Nixon that the potential of the movie starts to shine through.

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