It has taken me several days since the 81st Academy Award nominations were announced to collect my thoughts, and not because I was stunned silent by the strong showing of The Reader. (I actually like The Reader a lot, but more on that in a minute.) The films and artists both cited and neglected by the Academy this year point out to me what an unusually and perhaps unexpectedly strong year 2008 was at the movies. Here are my musings on some of the films both highlighted and ignored when the nominees were announced last Thursday:
The Reader: While I haven't met anyone in Hollywood — including a couple of Academy members — who admits to liking this unusual, morally complex love story, its nominations for best picture, director, screenplay and actress shouldn't surprise those devoted to late producer-directors Sidney Pollack and Anthony Minghella ... which is a lot of people in the industry. Minghella's and Pollack's sudden, unexpected deaths a few weeks apart last year left a void in the hearts of many who worked with them, and the final film they co-shepherded has clearly helped to fill it.
I was disturbed by much of The Reader, and consequently found it one of the more thought-provoking films of 2008. Kate Winslet gives a strong performance (and I'm betting she's going to win the Oscar for it), and her young, previously unknown co-star David Kross is just as good.
The Wrestler: This was #11 on my list of the best films of last year, and narrowly missed being included in my top ten. The nominations for comeback kid Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei are well deserved, but I was disappointed by the Academy's screenwriter members' failure to nominate The Wrestler for best original screenplay. Robert Siegel nails the mindset and experience of a fallen, former superstar and his script is alternately tough and graceful. While I haven't seen best screenplay nominee In Bruges, I haven't heard anything about it that makes it sound half as accomplished as The Wrestler. Hats off as well to director Darren Aronofsky, who is one of the very best filmmakers we have.
The Dark Knight: Eight Oscar nominations, even if in mostly technical categories, is hardly worthy of disappointment. I wasn't as impressed by this Batman epic as the die-hard fanboys, but it is a significant achievement for a comics-inspired adventure. It is also a dark, chilly film that doesn't have the universal appeal its nearly $600 million in box office would indicate. Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker was deservedly recognized by the Academy, and he'll likely be only the second posthumous winner of an acting Oscar. Hopefully, the next, inevitable Batman movie will be this well-crafted as well as accessible and entertaining to the under-10 and over-60 crowds. Batman should be a hero to them, too.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: This romantic-fantasy's leading 13 nominations cement it in my mind as the most overrated movie of 2008. I don't think the film is bad, but merely OK with a lot of attractive parts that don't coalesce into a satisfying whole despite its nearly three-hour running time. The story's aging-in-reverse conceit doesn't say anything unique or significant about love, and actually struck me at times as creepy. I did find it affecting — finally — in the last ten minutes, but WALL-E, The Reader and even the so-so Australia impressed me more as love stories.
Gran Torino: Completely snubbed, this odd take on race relations should have been nominated for something. No, not best actor, as Clint Eastwood's snarling, growling performance often seems on the brink of caricature; and no, not the script, which jumps from day to day and location to location faster than a head-scratching episode of Lost. But Gran Torino is an entertaining, unpredictable tale that is clearly resonating with multi-ethnic and multi-generational audiences to the tune of nearly $100 million at the box office. Best direction? Best song? Best cinematography? I don't know, but some recognition is warranted.
Finally, I'm thrilled that all the principal actors in Doubt were nominated by the Academy. When was the last time that happened, anyway? Has it every happened? (Come on, Kirby, you unofficial Academy Awards historian you) (Editors note: Yes it has, and you'll find out the answer in an upcoming Oscar-themed Trivial Pursuits post.)
It's an extraordinary cast and a great film. Heck, Meryl Streep's speech upon winning the Screen Actors Guild award the other night for her portrayal of Sister Aloysius deserves some kind of nomination or award too! Reverend lovingly shouts out to my fellow "holy rollers" Meryl, Philip, Amy and Viola: You go!
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.