Saturday, February 07, 2009

The 2008 Best Picture Nominees

Following are my very brief impressions of this year's five 'Best Picture' Oscar nominees. While I have attempted to rank the films in descending order of preference, I will admit that the second and the third, as well as the fourth and the fifth, are virtually indistinguishable in terms of their relative quality. Of the five, I would argue that only the first is reasonably deserving of a picture nomination, though even then I prefer five other films (which I have listed at the bottom of the post). Similarly, only the first ranks as the equal of last years uncommonly justifiable selections.

Though David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the most deserving of this year's five choices, it is the film for which I may have the least to say. Benjamin Button is very much a Fincher film in its production of a graphic style that seems most concerned with illuminating its synthetically created spaces (often in a low key). Impersonal as always, another trait that I would argue distinguishes Fincher's cinema, Benjamin Button nonetheless succeeds in generating a substantive amount of feeling from its life-in-reverse conceit. (I suppose it is worth noting that I am as a viewer very susceptible to the impossible love narrative prototype to which Benjamin Button corresponds.) On the negative side of the ledger, however, there is Benjamin Button's superfluous framing device, positioning the film needlessly in a Katrina-battered New Orleans.

Milk represents a return to a more mainstream aesthetic for auteur Gus Van Sant after his experimental run of indie features - including Gerry, Elephant (perhaps the finest of his recent work), Last Days and the better of his two 2008 releases, Paranoid Park. A supremely conventional if largely entertaining biopic, Van Sant's Milk succeeds in gently highlighting the genuine injustices experienced by the pre-equal protection-era homosexual community. Then again, at least according to the Guardian's Mark Simpson, Milk whitewashes its eponymous hero's promiscuity, which would have at once made Van Sant's film less conventional, and counter-productive to the current debates surrounding the merits of gay marriage. In this regard, Milk's original appearance as implicitly political is shown to be inaccurate; Milk's historical revisionism serves an express legislative purpose. Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch are particularly memorable in their lead and supporting roles.

While sharing its 1970s world of politics setting with Milk, Frost/Nixon nevertheless manages to be the most sociologically current of this year's selections. (Aesthetically, the honor might go to Fincher's purely digital world, while Milk's release on the heals of the Proposition 8 defeat suggests its political currency.) Indeed, Frost/Nixon's subject feels perfectly in tune with Hollywood attitudes at the end of the Bush years: a lightweight celebrity learns to become politically engaged in the process of taking down - symbolically, of course - a Republican pol. No doubt Frost's surrogate trial was for director Ron Howard (lightweight celebrity anyone?) and screenwriter Peter Morgan a virtual indictment of the previous GOP administration; is it any wonder Frost/Nixon managed a nomination from Hollywood's elite body? Morgan's script, however, like his previous work on 2006's excellent The Queen, finds plenty of sympathy for this most unsympathetic of former leaders of the free world. Frank Langella's strong work also helps in this respect.

Presumptive 'Best Picture' favorite Slumdog Millionaire, directed by similarly favored Danny Boyle, seems to have connected with mainstream American critics and audiences in spite of its extraordinary intellectual simplicity and implausibility. Do we really need a series of vignettes to explain how the film's central "Slumdog" (a term that was very problematically invented by the film's makers, as it happens) came to learn a series of not-so-little-known facts? Of course, Boyle manages to equal his screenplay's triteness with moments of extraordinary grotesqueness and sadism: from a child's sewer bath to secure an Amitabh Bachchan autograph - so he does know who India's biggest celebrity is... I was wondering how he could! - to the blinding of a young beggar child to the female lead's implied rape. Uplifting to say the least... at least the slums produced a millionaire to gloss over these many invented injustices. Suffice it to say that 2008 was not Hollywood's most inspiring year.

Like one of 2008's best-reviewed films, the seemingly never-on-the-Oscar-radar Wendy and Lucy, Stephen Daldry's (justifiably) critically ignored The Reader centers on an implausible, unexplained characterization: in its case - spoiler - that its former Nazi female lead is illiterate. Of course, The Reader's narrative twist, excessively telegraphed by Daldry, provides cover (and potentially exculpation, as Ron Rosenbaum notes) for the serious question of individual complicity in Germany's Nazi war crimes. Daldry instead shoots for a dishonest moral equivocation in which we are led to have sympathy for the former prison guard (while Daldry assures us that we need not feel bad for one of her victims who, after all, has become wealthy in America). This year's Munich, The Reader is (to be overly generous) all about securing Oscar hardware - which it seems it will for Kate Winslet - by pairing the unconscionably fashionable combination of moral equivalence and Nazi sex. That Hollywood does not see how disgusting this film is indicates a fundamental lack of intelligence in its elite class.

While 2008 was a disappointing year for the American cinema, there were a handful of bright spots beyond Benjamin Button, even if Hollywood did not quite produce a great film as it has the past few years. To me, a better collection of 'Best Picture' choices, however improbable the majority are, would include, in alphabetical order: Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood), Momma's Man (Azazel Jacobs), Redbelt (David Mamet), and The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky). This motley assemblage of termite art, populating the most minor of genres, reflects Hollywood cinema at its latter-day best - works of the first-person that reflect meaningfully on themselves and on their culturally-invisible working class subjects, living as they do in America's rarely projected rundown urban centers and anonymous first-ring suburban margins. Then again, Hollywood has always been at its best when being similarly disreputable.

Note: In the first draft of this post four and five were reversed. In thinking more of my order, however, a reversal seems imperative (as much as I detested the original #5). It is simply that The Reader is so reprehensible that giving any indication it was better than another film feels unjustified - as bad as that other film was.


P.L. Kerpius said...

I'm frustrated because I have not seen every Oscar nominated flick yet; and I'm frustrated more because, especially after reading this, I have so little urgency to. It is such bad practice to judge movies before you've seen them, but I have to say, of those that I have not seen (Ben Button, The Reader, Slumdog), there is only one I am truly looking forward to (Ben Button).

As per Milk and Frost/Nixon, which I have seen, well, let's just say I'm not surprised at the nomination pics. They are all very predictable and I think self-congratulatory.

Then again, don't we have the same despondency every Oscar year? I'm just so apathetic!

Michael J. Anderson said...

Pam, this is one of those years in which somebody at some point has to just say: no, I'm not going to watch every film just because they're nominated. I would suggest that begins with you and The Reader. Basically, I went to it in order to write on the five films, having seen the other four. In many respects it was an unfortunate decision; I hope my readers won't feel the same pressure to suffer for their sense of completion. Slumdog Millionaire, too, was really awful, but in its case at least it has its defenders. Then again, I feel confident enough in my position to encourage anyone reading this not to see it. However, it is going to win 'Best Picture,' so if you feel it necessary to see every top-prize Oscar winner, I suppose you will have to.

At the same time, this feeling has in recent years led me to see A Beautiful Mind, Chicago and Crash, so again I ask, is it worth it?

See Ben Button: you may or may not like it; not everyone does. What an inspiring year!

Matt Singer said...


I can't believe you would compare WENDY AND LUCY and its "implausible, unexplained characterization" to THE READER. Having read this snarky, out-of-left-field jab and your original review, I still don't quite understand why it bothers you that they don't explain the specific circumstances of Wendy's plight. Why is that so important? And why is it so implausible that a young person might make some dumb decisions, a few well-intentioned mistakes, and wind up in severe money troubles? In today's economic climate it feels reasnably plausible to me (in retrospect, the domino-falling doom that befalls Wendy also resembles the slow inexorable collapse of the entire nation's financial system).

Your original review of WENDY AND LUCY focuses on this one point for several paragraphs yet makes no mention of the remarkable performances -- and in particular the incredible relationship between Williams and her dog (played, I believe, by Reichardt's own pup). I guess you were not absorbed by Wendy's struggle, but I was, in a way I was by few movies last year.

I concur THE READER is a mess and a most unworthy Best Picture nominee. But I would have had no problem slotting WENDY AND LUCY into its place.

Michael J. Anderson said...


Does homelessness really occur to reasonable intelligent (and responsible), beautiful young women without being mentally ill or suffering from substance problems? Does it? Sure young adults make bad choices, but why is she in the position she is, and moreover, why would she, so unprepared, go to Alaska? The more reasonable choice would be that crappy retail or fast food job in rural Missouri. Other than being a part of a faltering economy - are we to assume she defaulted on her predatory mortgage? - where is the reality here?

I apologize for not talking about performances, which is admittedly a critical weakness of mine. How should I have qualified her performance? Also, what makes her relationship to the dog in any way remarkable, from the perspective of their performances?

Lastly, I do apologize for comparing this critical sacred cow to that piece of trash THE READER. Then again, I was only pointing out that they suffer - at least in part - from the same problem. (Why is someone with real abilities and an interest in literature illiterate in a highly literate society? You see the comparison.) Of course, THE READER does have many more.

Matt Singer said...

"Does homelessness really occur to reasonable intelligent (and responsible), beautiful young women without being mentally ill or suffering from substance problems?"

Well first of all, yes. I think it's pretty naive to think that only people with "problems" become homeless or have extreme trouble with money. I also think you're giving Wendy more credit than maybe she is due. As much as I feel for her and her plight, how do we know she's "reasonably intelligent" or "responsible" -- in fact, her activities seem pretty wreckless and at times downright dumb, however well-intentioned they are. I also think there is a suggestion that she's going to Alaska for more than a job, she's running from something, perhaps even abuse of some kind.

Regarding Wendy's relationship with Lucy, most dogs in movies are pretty obviously stage dogs. You can see that they're performing tricks for the benefit of a trainer off-camera. The relationship between the dog and the character onscreen is completely manufactured by careful cutting between owner and pet. You rarely see them together and when you do, you can often see the dog looking somewhere off camera for their commands.

In contrast, the scenes between Wendy and Lucy are done in long take. We see their relationship and -- at least to me -- it does not look like one faked for the cameras. Their bond feels real. I think of the scene very early in the film where Wendy is awoken in her car by the security guard who wants her to move her car. In one unbroken shot, while Wendy speaks with the security guard, Lucy wanders in and out of frame, and barks repeatedly at the security guard until Williams yells a single "LUCE!" at which point the dog immediately quiets down for her owner. I realize this is a pretty miniscule moment, but it really brought into focus how tight the bond was between girl and dog, while enhancing Reichardt's unvarnished aesthetic. I have a feeling Lucy's "role" in this scene wasn't even written; she was permitted to do whatever she wanted and Williams simply had to react to whatever the dog did. The approach is unusual and, I think, deeply rewarding.

Michael J. Anderson said...

It's unfortunate that this conversation is occurring on the Oscars post rather than the WENDY AND LUCY piece; I guess the comparison - not actually the statement of quality for which it has been taken - was the mortal sin.

It seems that we're at loggerheads re: the issue of the central conceit's believability. I continue to insist that the film needed to explain the why, much as De Sica's films do, even though they were located in a much more precarious economic situation than that of the US in 2008. I think without this the spectator is left to wonder how, unless they (wishfully) insist on the film's socio-economic critique. I say wishfully as WENDY AND LUCY veers toward a certain confirmation of what is fundamentally an anti-capitalist, life-without-a-safety-net anxiety rather than a true analysis of what is, clearly, an exceptional situation. The film stipulates, it speaks in the declarative - this happens in a free market - without actually making the case that it does. This only becomes a problem if one believes as I do that the situation posed is far from normative. My experience tells me that it is.

I think you do, however, successfully illustrate the fictive relationship between Wendy and Lucy.

Andrea Janes said...

From a writer's POV, I have to say I found Wendy and Lucy's lack of backstory really refreshing. It's nice not to be spoon-fed and to make up my own mind about how I feel toward a character. She was by turns endearing and frustrating and I thought it was a very subtle and effective combination.