Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oscar Nominations: The 81st Academy Awards

This probably goes without saying, but here it is: Although no one in their right mind expects the Oscars to be any real indication of what was best in the cinema during a given year, this year's nominations, announced this morning, are an especially depressing lot. While last year's Best Picture category included two titles (There Will Be Blood and eventual winner No Country For Old Men) that at least offered some sort of aesthetic uplift, even if neither were personal favorites of mine, the current crop represents as dull a selection as imaginable. While Milk, despite its hewing pretty closely to the standard biopic template, was certainly not without its merits and while both The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire have their cinephile followings, even if I never warmed to the former and hated every minute of the latter, it's the final two selections in the category that are most dispiriting. No doubt voters were impressed by the smooth professionalism of Frost/Nixon and the insistent self-importance of The Reader, but does anyone really think these are among the best pictures of the year, even those who voted for them? While I haven't seen the latter film - although I suppose I will catch up with it now - everything I've read about it seems to indicate another self-consciously serious bit of Oscar-bait that egregiously draws on the Holocaust as background to provide the film with due gravity.

Since these last two spots claimed by Frost/Nixon and The Reader were the ones that were potentially up for grabs, there was some speculation (like that of my colleague Eric Henderson at Slant Magazine) that the Academy would nominate two popular favorites released during the summer. And while I'm glad to see The Dark Knight snubbed - although it did pick up nominations for actor Heath Ledger and in several technical categories - Wall-E would have been a fine change of pace choice, a work - despite its status as a "mere" animated film - far more aesthetically innovative and personally affecting than any of the nominated films. Even the Christopher Nolan picture, as much as I dislike it, would have been something other than the usual fare; it's always good to see a receptivity on the Academy's part towards genre entries. And while Slumdog Millionaire, the sentimental favorite among the nominees, may appear to be anything but your typical Oscar material, its sentimental story, broad historical scope and slam-bang visuals hardly distance the film very greatly from the usual interests of Academy voters.

The most conspicuous - and egregious - snub in the acting categories would, no doubt, be Sally Hawkins' inspired turn in Happy-Go-Lucky. While it would be too much to hope for Michelle Williams to have picked up a deserving nomination for her fine work in Wendy and Lucy, Hawkins did win a Golden Globe for her performance (although in the lesser regarded Musical/Comedy category). But while the Academy made room for Angelina Jolie's silly hysterics in Clint Eastwood's Changeling, they couldn't clear a space for Hawkins' far more vivid characterization in Mike Leigh's movie. I rarely find myself getting too excited about individual film performances, but acting is always key in Leigh's pictures and in Hawkins' Poppy we get a figure whose outsized enthusiasms are barely contained by the 'scope screen, but whose indelible positivism gives way to a certain pathos as it rubs up against the practical limitations of an insistenly quixotic attitude. Playing a creature who both does and doesn't fit in the world around her, Hawkins' performance is the key to one of the year's best films and, while voters tried to make it up to Happy-Go-Lucky by nominating Leigh in the original screenplay category, denying the film's star (along with supporting actor hopeful Eddie Marsan) her rightful spot signals voters' preference for business as usual. But those who prefer to seek for positives will not be entirely disappointed. The mostly respectable documentary nominations did find room for such worthies as Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World and Tia Lessin's and Carl Deal's justly celebrated Katrina doc Trouble the Water.

2 comments:

kenjfuj said...

Hi Andrew:

The Reader is worse than self-important; it's practically an unintentional sex comedy if the filmmakers had any sense of humor about the risible events they were depicting. Catch up with The Reader just to keep up (I'll probably be doing the same with Frost/Nixon, as yet unseen by me), but it is as far, far, far from award-worthy fare as could be imaginable.

And amen on Sally Hawkins---but then, BAFTA did snub her, and the movie, too, as a friend of mine pointed out. So maybe this was inevitable. An original screenplay nomination is rather insulting, though: are there any AMPAS voters aware of how Mike Leigh actually works?

All I know is, it pretty much dulls out any interest I might have had with this year's Oscar ceremony (especially compared to last year's, as someone who did like No Country for Old Men). Encounters at the End of the World for best doc (regrettably missed Trouble the Water), Waltz With Bashir for best Foreign Film, Anne Hathaway's performance in Rachel Getting Married (now that Hawkins isn't up for one)---that's the extent of my rooting interest this year.

andrew schenker said...

Kenji:

I was really looking forward to not having to see The Reader after everyting I've read about it, but I guess there will be no such luck. At least F/N goes down relatively easy and isn't too offensive to watch. (Although some objected to the liberties it takes with the historical event in order to push forth a blandly "liberal" viewpoint.)

I guess it seems a little silly to get too worked up about the Oscar nominations, but for me it was a question of having really low expectations to start out and then having even those minimal expectations blasted.

I hadn't followed the BAFTAs so I didn't realize Hawkins got snubbed there as well, but I was very surprised to see her omitted from the Oscar noms. I'll probably watch the ceremony anyway, but you're certainly right that there are few nominees worth rooting for.