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A curious case of Oscar analysis

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

This year, I managed the difficult trick of watching 14 of the 15 films that are nominated in the major categories of the Academy Awards. (I missed Tropic Thunder, though Ive been assured that missed is not a term that really applies here, and am confident that Robert Downey Jr., nominated for Best Supporting Actor, has no prayer of winning.)To see all these films, I cajoled, bullied, distorted the truth and outright lied. I jeopardized the safety of generous and trusting friends. I sacrificed sleep in favor of movie time. I was far from a perfect watcher: Sometimes I would watch half a movie, on DVD, late at night, after putting my daughter to bed, and return to it the next morning, after getting her off to school, not even remembering by then which film I was in the middle of. Thats what I get for living in the boonies where, instead of press screenings in genuine theaters, I get DVDs usually legitimate, sometimes pilfered, bootlegged or borrowed in contravention of grave warnings to watch at home. You gotta feed the monkey.Sometimes, worse than the questionable means of obtaining the films was having to watch them. I experienced the vacuous Revolutionary Road and the curiously ungripping The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I even watched Che. Both parts. Every minute. I want those five hours back, pronto.Heres how it turned out. And as far as I know, no ones been tracked down by the Oscar police.

Slumdog Millionaire is an almost too-good reflection of our times. When the most upbeat topic on our minds is what good can come of this economic cataclysm, here is the story of what one young man learned from a lifetime of poverty. It features no movie stars, at a time when our worries are properly placed on ourselves and our families, not on the Angelina-Brad-Jen triangle, the latest Tom Cruise weirdness, or the breakdown of Joaquin (though that last one was a fine distraction). It is the most global of films to reach such commercial and critical heights: filmed in India with an Indian cast, dialogue in English and Hindi, directed by the Englishman Danny Boyle, crossing from the slums to the slickest of TV sets.Pretty cool that such a relevant and timely film is going to take the big prize at Sundays Academy Awards, and deservedly so.By comparison, even the two worthy films up for the Best Picture Oscar Milk and Frost/Nixon havent got nearly as much to show us, dont shake us out of our usual way of seeing the world, and are not nearly as vibrant and expansive as Slumdog Millionaire. Well dispense with the two other nominees, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader in good time, though that hardly seems necessary. Neither belongs in the years Top Ten list, much less in contention for the best film.Milk and Frost/Nixon are both fine entertainments, as well as being intelligent, wonderfully acted and surprisingly lively, given the subject matter: the openly gay, ultimately assassinated San Francisco politician/activist Harvey Milk; and the televised interview of former President Richard Nixon, by British TV personality David Frost. But the films, both set in the mid-70s, are narrow in scope; neither feels like an important story. Milk is set almost entirely in San Franciscos Mission District, and depicts Milk played warmly and with due quirkiness by Sean Penn as a neighborhood organizer. He fights, no doubt, for a just and noble cause, and successfully, but in Gus Van Sants film, it is more a personal triumph than a global one. When Milk is killed, by his fellow board of supervisors member Dan White, it isnt quite clear whether he died for being gay, or for playing back-room politics, and Van Sant doesnt tailor the facts to make for a grand and tidy ending. It feels right given the confines of this film, but perhaps robs Milk of some potential significance. Thankfully, AIDS which arrived several years after Milk was gone isnt employed in the pursuit of big themes.Frost/Nixon focuses on an even tinier, less important sliver of history. (A cynic would suggest that that made it a perfect assignment for director Ron Howard, whose previous films include such less-than-vital works as A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code and Backdraft.) At least one critic has complained that Howards film is probably a more significant event than the Nixon interview itself, which passed quickly into the dustbin of history. But that misses the point entirely: Frost/Nixon is by no means a historical film, but a drama in the nature of a duel, really that unabashedly works the maneuvers of the combatants. A viewer might ask I certainly did how compelling are the maneuvers behind a TV interview? Adapting Peter Morgans stage play, and using the same actors Frank Langella as Nixon, Michael Sheen as Frost Howard admirably works the angles of money, psychology and potential failure to spin a unique sort of thriller. The contemporary relevance Nixon as a president who believes the law to be whatever he says it is is slight and obvious, and Howard doesnt force it.Dont get me started on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It is a beautifully made film, and if for some reason I were ever forced to watch it again, Id be tempted to do so the same way I watch sports on TV with the volume off, taking occasional glances at the screen. I doubt I would get any less out of director David Finchers adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgeralds story about a man who was born old, and ages toward infancy. Exactly what the film was about aging? love? wisdom? dancing? New Orleans? the curious beauty of Cate Blanchett? the sea? was lost on me.The Reader was not so much bad as overly familiar another angle on the Holocaust, where assigning culpability is a twisted and complex affair. All the other elements of the movie a former Nazis affair with a teenage boy; Ralph Fiennes as the boy, grown up but emotionally damaged; the whole business about reading add up to very little. Give The Reader this: It is better than the other Kate Winslet film (the truly empty Revolutionary Road), and better than the other Holocaust film (the implausible The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. But The Reader might not be as good as the other other Holocaust movie, Defiance, which I didnt see, on grounds of Holocaust-film fatigue).The shame, as in all years, is that several worthy films get overlooked, and this year there were a lot of them. Start with The Visitor, Tom McCarthys original and quirky story of an elderly professor who seizes an opportunity to reconnect with the world and becomes more connected than he bargained for. Frozen River was a story as hard as its setting: the cold, socially sunk border community between Upstate New York and Canada. But Courtney Hunts sense of tragedy, and the flip-side of generosity, rang true. My second-favorite film of the year, The Edge of Heaven, a multi-layered drama of crime and guilt set among Germanys Turkish immigrants, didnt even get nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film award, when it merits a nomination for Best Picture.Also ranking high on my list: The Wrestler, a visceral story of self-sacrifice; the very funny Wall-E; Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzogs spellbinding and surprising journey to Antarctica (nominated for Best Documentary); Gran Torino, though I wish director Clint Eastwood had spent a little more time choosing and directing his actors; the impressively downbeat and minimalist Wendy and Lucy; the Swedish film Everlasting Moments; and Doubt.If you were counting, that comes out to a top 13, and as a bonus, here they are in order: Slumdog Millionaire; The Edge of Heaven; Frost/Nixon; Encounters at the End of the World; The Visitor; The Wrestler; Frozen River; Wendy and Lucy; Wall-E; Doubt; Wendy and Lucy; Gran Torino; Everlasting Moments. It was a very good year.

Who wins Best Actor is a tough call: Mickey Rourke has a great comeback story and his performance was excellent, but the film was almost certainly too gruesome and gritty for many voters. Sean Penns performance is way more charming and crowd-pleasing than Penn himself, but as a noted above, Milk lacked breadth of scope. Langella gets my vote: He doesnt so much make you believe hes Nixon as create a character you believe is real and true. Ill go with my heart and say the Academy gives it to Langella. If Brad Pitt gets it for Benjamin Button, I may never stop vomiting.By process of elimination, Kate Winslet will get the Best Actress statue. Anne Hathaway, in Rachel Getting Married, was too depressing; Melissa Leo in Frozen River is too unsung; the very-sung Meryl Streep, in Doubt, is too one-dimensional; and Angelina Jolie did a decent job in a decent movie, Changeling. Id love for Leo to win, but my final answer is that three of the best performances were overlooked: Michelle Williams as the stranded dog owner in Wendy and Lucy; Sally Jenkins in the way offbeat British comedy Happy-Go-Lucky; and Kristin Scott Thomas in the French drama Ive Loved You So Long.The late Heath Ledger has pretty much been promised the Best Supporting Actor award for the overrated Batman saga The Dark Knight, which bothers me slightly. It means that the overwhelmingly deserving (but un-nominated) Eddie Marsden wont get honored as the explosive, neurotic driving instructor in Happy-Go-Lucky. But it also means that Michael Shannon, the psychologically disturbed neighbor in Revolutionary Road, doesnt stand a chance either. Of those nominated, Philip Seymour Hoffman, from Doubt, is the deserving winner.Best Supporting Actress should and will go to Viola Davis, who appeared in one scene in Doubt and without her, and without that scene, Doubt wouldnt be half the movie it is.Danny Boyle should and will win for Best Director, for Slumdog Millionaire. As for best Sound Mixing, Im keeping my opinion to myself.



The Academy Awards ceremony, hosted by Hugh Jackman, airs Sunday at 6 p.m. on ABC.

stewart@aspentimes.com




Time is growing short for film fans to pick the Oscar winners at http://www.aspentimes.com/redcarpet an online contest that offers both bragging rights and a shot at a $50 VISA gift card.The contest entry deadline is 6 p.m. on Feb. 22. Participants make their picks in each of 10 major Academy Awards categories. A tie-breaker question asks participants to guess how many awards the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will win (it has the most nominations, with 13, by the way).If someone picks them all correctly, the Times will boost the prize package with a gift certificate to Jimmys An American Restaurant and Bar in Aspen.


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