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Some awards season movies just aren’t meant to be Best Picture contenders. You can pick out films that seem like prestige flicks, but as they roll out a common refrain is that the film is just not good enough… but so and so sure is great! These are the performance showcases, a film whose only nomination hopes hinge on an actor or two.

I took a look at some of this year’s performance showcases, most of which totally fizzled down the stretch. But they’re all actually quite good and worth a watch (with one very notable exception).

Fair Game

This is the one whose lack of success puzzles me the most because it’s a darn good film that seems up the Academy’s aisle. A telling of the Valeria Plame affair with Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, Joe Wilson, Fair Game does a wonderful job of navigating a complex narrative while demonstrating the absurdities and injustices of the whole ordeal.

It’s also a terrific domestic drama. Plame just wants to be a good CIA officer and stay out of the limelight while Wilson wants to fight back in the media and take on the Bush administration. The result is a strained marriage, portrayed effectively without dialing up the melodrama.

Penn is such a blowhard in real life that I’d never expect him to have a role that allows him to bloviate about the Bush administration without coming off like a blowhard. And yet, he’s great: stubborn but loving, hurt and lashing out but intelligent and calculating. I guess I should stop being surprised by him. I walk into a film thinking about how obnoxious I find the guy and yet he always makes me forget that I’m watching Sean Penn. Watts got more awards attention, though I found her less memorable but still very good.

Fair Game is a great mix of entertainment and message without overdoing the latter. It’s a great example of how to pull off an effective political drama. I’m afraid its lack of awards season traction will consign it to anonymity.

I'm gonna work wicked hahd to get you out of jail

Conviction

If any film had “Oscar bait” written all over it, it’s this one. If it wasn’t based on a true story you might think it was a parody of Oscar films. Hillary Swank plays a single mother who puts herself through law school in order to clear her brother (Sam Rockwell) of a murder he did not commit. This should really be an unbearable cliche of a film but it’s actually pretty good. I don’t think it does anything groundbreaking, but it tells the story coherently and hits the right notes without overdoing the schmaltz.

And here’s the surprising thing: Swank is really good. If I had a ballot, she would have been on it. She’s earnest and sports a Massachusetts accent but doesn’t overdo it. She picked up a SAG nomination and seemed like a decent shot for an Oscar nod up until the end. I would have been quite okay with that. Rockwell is also good, as always. I wouldn’t recommend Conviction over Fair Game or Made in Dagenham, but I think those who rent it during the dreary spring months would be pleasantly surprised.

Made in Dagenham

Sally Hawkins is the star of this one. Literally, sure, she leads the film, but she’s so good. She plays the leader of a group of female Ford sewing machinists who go on strike in 1960s England. It’s one of those films about fighting for what you believe in and daring to dream. And it’s pretty darn good. Once again, not groundbreaking, but very entertaining and effective. It’s the kind of film that leaves you smiling as you leave the theater.

Hawkins steers the film wonderfully. She’s appropriately inspiring when necessary and nails all the rousing lines. This is usually when my eyes start rolling, but her performance and some good writing combine to hit the right, sincere notes. But Hawkins is also great because of her range. She’s not just very good as an inspiring leader, but also as a mother, a friend, and even a jokester.

It’s too bad Hawkins’s campaign never picked up much traction. Miranda Richardson seemed like a better shot for Supporting Actress, at least earlier in the season. She’s also good, but I think her success as Secretary of Employment Barbara Castle has more to do with a forcefully written role that allows her to unleash some zingers on her bumbling male staff.

I would have thought Dagenham could have made some waves in some technical categories as a period piece: Makeup or Art Direction, perhaps. A small plot point revolves around an outfit, so Costume was a definite possibility to the point that I predicted its nomination. Alas, this nice film will be totally missing from Oscar night.

This scene is especially bad

Casino Jack

Kevin Spacey landed a Golden Globe nod for his role as Jack Abramoff. But boy is this an awful movie. It goes for a zany tone like Oceans Eleven or The Informant! but it’s all wrong. Turning the story into a humorous romp undermines the political points it tries to make, not that those points are made subtly or effectively. Furthermore, the plot has trouble unfolding coherently. I didn’t like Spacey at all in this role and Barry Pepper is terrible as his business partner.

I left Fair Game intrigued and spent an hour reading up on the whole affair online once I got home. It felt like I left Casino Jack knowing even less about Abramoff than I did going in and what’s worse is I didn’t care.

Skip it!

Hooray, the movie's over!

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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 Actor category:

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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.

Apologies for the horrible title. If it goes on to win Best Picture God help us that headline will be everywhere.

Milk may be the best biopic I’ve ever seen. Admittedly the review of my memory for a better biopic was hardly scientific and this is an invitation to set me straight in the comments and for me to sheepishly agree, but for now I’ll call it the best in memory. It doesn’t fall into the usual traps even good biopics succumb to and it manages to be a message flick without being too preachy or heavy-handed.

From a plot standpoint I think Milk’s life naturally lends itself to an effective biopic. For one, it was short and the most influential times of his life spanned a remarkable short period. He only lived to 48, didn’t move to San Francisco until the age of 39, didn’t run for San Francisco supervisor until 43, and didn’t win until 47, and only served for 10 months. This all makes it easy to keep the film focused in both plot and theme without skimping on the details. For me it was a refreshing change of pace from films like Ray and Walk the Line which felt sprawling and thematically shallow because they had so much to cover over their subjects’ long lives. For this reason many biopics feel like a series of vignettes: in this scene the hero experiences childhood tragedy, in this one he let’s his demons overcome him, in this one he redeems himself, etc… Milk rarely feels like that, instead composing a continuous story. And of course, Milk’s life was dramatic and heroic and he fought for the tried and true ideals of freedom and equality.

The positives in Milk are not by all means inherent to the subject, however. Director Gus Van Sant imbues his film with a remarkable sense of time and place, putting the viewer not just into the life of Harvey Milk but also into his environment. As much as we’re experiencing a great man’s achievements we’re experiencing a period of upheaval in 1970s San Francisco. Again, this is rare for a biopic, which necessarily tend to focus more on their subjects than their settings. The cars and clothing change over the years in Ray, for example, but there isn’t the same depth in setting as there is in Milk.

Van Sant filmed mostly in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, even renting the space Milk’s camera shop used to occupy. It was made up to look like the old shop; security guards stationed there reported older residents walking by and getting moved to tears by the recreation.

Beyond that, the story is well told and the characters well developed. The pacing, the level of drama, and the tone always felt right on. And in a time when the gay civil rights movement is gaining attention and traction and Harvey Milk’s state is once again thrust into the spotlight, the message hits home without getting preachy (save, perhaps, that boy in the wheelchair). I found the interspersal of archive footage to be effective and not gimmicky and I loved the opening montage.

Sean Penn is terrific as the title character. He disappears into the role and I in turn lost myself in his performance. The man is simply one of those movie stars that you forget is a movie star when he is on the screen. I also really liked Josh Brolin as Dan White, Milk’s killer. The character is complex and off-kilter and the performance is skillfully and subtly unsettling. If I can agree with one point in Jared’s (I’m sorry to say) remarkably wrong-headed post is that I wish we saw more of White. He is an intriguing character and the film does a disservice to itself by suggesting White did what he did because he was gay. There is no evidence to suggest he was and Dan White’s warped mind was likely more fascinating than explaining away his motives with a false and simple reason. Thankfully there was no scene of him chowing down on Twinkies. (For extra reading, check out this story on White from earlier this year)

As to the rest of Jared’s argument, I know we saw the same movie because I saw it with him. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen him there with my own eyes. I guess he wants more sense of context, but I’m not sure how that matters. Who cares how many gay people there were in San Francisco or how many supported Milk? How does that help a story about the man? The film does a remarkable job of developing its environment, but it’s still primarily about the man. I found the context provided and a simple knowledge of history to be more than enough context. Also you namechecked the wrong Brolin there, boss.

You’d have to think one of the supporting actors will sneak into a nomination, if not several. Brolin was my favorite, followed by Emile Hirsch and James Franco. Neither character was as fleshed out or challenging as Dan White, however. Diego Luna was the weak link in the cast, I think.

Elsewhere we can probably expect Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay nominations, all well deserved. As far as the technical categories, with those big nominations one would imagine Editing to follow. And, to throw a bone to Jared, art director Charley Beal was also the art director for the pilot episode of “Love Monkey,” so he must have been good.

Finally, does anyone know what the deal is with all the random little barbs directed at Dianne Feinstein? Amusing but strange.

Harvey Milk’s story is the stuff from which biopics are made. He faced discrimination, became a leader in his community, had a series of failed campaigns, was finally the first openly gay person elected to major office, and was murdered by a disgruntled fellow politician. There’s tragedy and triumph, all surrounding Important Social Issues.

Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant’s depiction of that story, however, never really rises to the challenge. Compelling actors and back story make the movie watchable, but it doesn’t seem particularly special. If, as some people claim, 2008 is a relatively weak year for Oscar movies, this movie’s awards success might be helping the notion gain traction.

Milk’s primary weakness is its inability to provide context.  It is never quite clear who, exactly, is impacted by Harvey Milk.  This vagueness starts with his coterie, none of whom are given any discernible character traits.  Other than his two boyfriends, who maybe get one apiece.  There’s never any sense of how many gay people were living in San Francisco, or how many people (gay or straight) supported Milk.  Or didn’t.  The movie hints at Milk uniting the gay vote and turning it into a force, but what was the magnitude of that force?  Perhaps Van Sant attempts to answer these concerns with his insertion of stock footage from the era.  But it only serves to weaken the film’s tenuous creation of an environment.

That’s not to say the movie is a failure.  It has plenty of solid moments.  The film has some funny bits and some touching ones.  It is paced well and is fortunate to have a great cast.  Milk, perhaps obviously, advocates gay rights, but the message is generally used to enhance the film, rather than take it over.

I’ve probably made it clear I’ll be disappointed if/when the movie grabs Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay nominations.  The Academy has done far worse, but I just don’t get why Milk is considered great, and not merely good.

At this point, I’m all for Sean Penn and James Brolin to be nominated for Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively.  I love me some James Franco, but I’m not sure he’s deserving here.  Penn as Milk, is probably the highlight of the movie (other than the doggie, naturally),  and he certainly makes the movie much more interesting.  Brolin’s character is another supporting one who deserved to be better fleshed out.  But he turns Dan White into the most intriguing character in the movie, one who provokes the most thought.  For me, anyway.

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