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The State of the Race: Happy Endings

Resolution, justification, redemption and an impulse to play it safe define this year’s Best Picture nominees. All five of them are safe choices, which could mean progress in certain areas – a Bollywood-esque movie, a film where two men openly kiss in the first few scenes and no one really freaked out about it? Not only did they not freak out about it but most of the time it wasn’t even mentioned. The love story was not controversial but perfectly normal; at least in the circles I visit. Maybe in some regions of the country, it is still considered quite scandalous. Even still, Milk is a traditional biopic the way Slumdog is a traditional fairy tale. There is nothing particularly new about Frost/Nixon. Benjamin Button is modern technology but a traditional love story, albeit a fantastical one. And The Reader is like stepping into a comfortable pair of shoes. This is not to say the films aren’t spectacular, memorable, life-affirming or even Oscar-worthy, it’s just to say that this year, voters decided not to take the big risks.

One thing that is hard to accept about Oscar season but is as real as the sun coming up every morning is that the best picture race isn’t really about the five best films of the year. It’s the five best campaigns of the year. And for that, you really have to hand it to the professionals who delivered these five nominations. These people, the shadow figures in the background, are who drive the Oscar race. The voters might think they are really voting from their heart, but I’ve come to realize that it’s not unlike my favorite Citizen Kane line, “people will think…” “What I tell them to think.” These are beautifully orchestrated campaigns by very smart, driven and passionate people who never get credit. Harvey Weinstein gets some credit but even he is only part of what has driven the Weinstein films this year.

They are rarely thanked at the podium because no one wants to admit that the man (or woman, most of the time woman) who helped usher their project to the Oscars was a mastermind at targeting the right people at the right time. I marvel at what they do. They are required to remain stealth or else they lose their credibility. They are the main players in the Oscar race and most people have no idea. The collection of nominees at the end of the year are there because they are, in effect, corralled in. They are the choice horses, if you will, separated from the pack early because they look like winners.

To that end, it is like a horse race, even though people will tell you that’s insulting. Even Slumdog Millionaire, which really did come from nowhere, was put into that coral. It was a late-comer but those legs, there was no mistaking them for speed and stamina.

It isn’t necessarily that the films are chosen out of the gate (sometimes they are; four of the five nominees this year were), or chosen after they dazzle the public, it is what kind of run they are given once that choice is made. No one knows this but the publicists are the most interesting and hard-working people in the Oscar race.¬† You saw a little bit of it when Mickey Rourke thanked his publicist for telling him what to say, what to do, what to fuck.

Once you know this about the Oscar race, though, a bit of the impossibility of things rubs away. For me, these days, what excited me after ten years of covering this stuff is when an impossibility hovers on the edges, like the potential for a comic book movie to be nominated for the first time, or the potential for a black lead actor and a black lead actress to win in the same year. Perhaps, though, that is a misguided passion – after all, the Oscar race is a business. It isn’t a form of entertainment.

What has been frustrating this year is that The Dark Knight and Wall-E didn’t make the Best Picture cut. Evolution, it seemed, had been cut at the knees.¬† Both films seemed to have much to say about our world but especially Wall-E. Perhaps the popularity of The Dark Knight and Wall-E resulted in a weird sort of canceled vote; anyone not willing to vote for the more standard fare, those who wanted to go out on a limb, either chose Wall-E OR The Dark Knight. If there had been less division on those two films maybe one of them would be in the Best Picture race.

But what do we have now and where do they fit in to our modern world?

Slumdog Millionaire – a film that started out the year as the most shaggy underdog you’ve ever seen. But it was immediately apparent out of Telluride and Toronto that Slumdog was already leaving viewers breathless. It was helped by the odd turn of events that took many of the Oscar contenders out of Toronto. So much momentum for a contender can be deflated on one bad screening at the fest, so in effect, Slumdog had an empty track with no other horses racing against it. The only other strong contender at that time was The Wrestler, which was also gaining strong buzz early on.

Slumdog Millionaire is not, I don’t think, a film that is about hope and optimism against all odds. It isn’t about that at all. It is about fate. It is about keeping one’s fantasies alive. There is nothing realistic about the way that film tells its story; it is a fairy tale all the way. Why? Because it is written. Fate takes hold of Jamal and lifts him up out of poverty. This is, I believe, a Bollywood necessity; the way it was a necessity for us during the Depression. And now we need it too. It isn’t that the public has gripped tightly to Slumdog, because most of them haven’t seen it yet. Once they do, you can bet they will agree with the small circle of people who decide how these film awards will go. Although the times are good Slumdog, this is a film that would probably be in the Oscar race no matter what year it was released. Why it’s a winner is because it has no true formidable challenger.

One of the reasons is that, if you go by the theory that the Oscar best picture race is about the director, Danny Boyle’s time has come. The versatile director has been just outside Hollywood but has been developing a following for decades. Remember, he as once hailed as the Second Coming but then he did The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio, it flopped, and it was back to square one for him. He has never done anything stale or unoriginal. This is part of what makes this film a winner. Little Miss Sunshine would have been a winner if its directors had been as revered as Danny Boyle. It is the key ingredient. Sometimes a film can win without the director being the star but most of the time, we need to celebrate the person (usually the man, the white, straight man) behind the vision.

That man might have been David Fincher if Danny Boyle hadn’t directed such a vibrant, popular film. Benjamin Button was in line to be this year’s big winner. It was hurt early on by being the so-called frontrunner. Therefore, the publicists on that movie had the year’s hardest job by far. Not only is the frontrunner used for target practice always but it is the movie voters usually say, “okay what else is there to root for?” No one likes to be a foregone conclusion. The films we vote for, root for, cheer for define who we are. And thus, you have to figure which film do voters want to be associated with? This year, no other film took a beating like Benjamin Button did from the chattering class. It was as thought they took all of their collective hate for Forrest Gump, Brangelina, and the Oscar race and heaped it on this movie. I have never seen anything like it in the ten years I’ve been doing this, which is odd considering David Fincher is like a God to many of the net geeks out there.

Ryan says that Benjamin Button will be the one film rediscovered and appreciated because it will need more time.¬† I don’t think anyone could have predicted the kind of venom certain people would have for this film – and most of the complaints are twofold – it’s too much like Forrest Gump and it’s too long. The first one is irrelevant since most writers revisit similar themes in their work and no one says a damned thing about it (they just hate Forrest Gump that much), and if it’s too long for them, well that just makes them look bad. One needs the attention span of an adult to sit for three hours, it’s true, but if you’re paying attention to this film, it is anything but boring.¬† Most people, most men let’s face it, were left untouched by it, perhaps because they couldn’t quite get into Brad Pitt as this character. But time will vindicate Benjamin Button, I have a feeling. And maybe the Academy will ignore the chattering class, after all, they nominated the thing for 13 Oscars, for chrissakes. That shows that in the moment they saw it, they loved it.

Milk is probably the film that could win if there was more time between now and ballots being turned in. I feel certain that the two true underdogs in this race are Milk and The Reader. Milk needed to find its way out of being an agenda movie and into its own artfulness. Funnily enough, I feel the buzz building for Milk in an organic way. I know it must sound funny to read this while ads for the film flash at you on top of the page but the truth is that those ads would probably be there anyway, no matter what film was up for this award and it’s probably true that no blogger will really trash a film that an advertiser has paid good money for — but I’ll let you in on a little secret; I don’t like publicly trashing movies. I never have, even before I was getting advertising. I don’t really think it’s my job nor my role in this race. You can certainly lodge that complaint against me if you’d like but I try to maintain the rule that I am not here to knock out any contender. I would never want to be that person. Too much is on the line.¬† But back to Milk — though the film was professionally delivered into the Oscar race and was handled by one of the best in the business, it is also gaining momentum through word of mouth. But I feel it would need more time to overtake Slumdog and I’m not sure it could anyway.

What I loved about Milk was Sean Penn’s performance, for one thing. But also the natural way the love stories unfolded. This is a year where activism of that order is appreciated. We now know, because we’ve seen it in the Obama race, that one person really can make a significant difference in the world. Milk seems to be celebrating someone who’d mostly been forgotten. Whether the film wins big or not, Harvey Milk has been resurrected. People will know his name.

The Reader is the movie that has taken the most heat for taking The Dark Knight or Wall-E slot. The truth is, the film is strong because it was produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack. It really is just the fact of the matter. Also, as I said, it was going to be a movie Academy members wanted to see because it featured Kate Winslet in the altogether having sex (quite erotic sex) with a 15 year-old. Think of what a slog it must be to be a voter. Half the movies sitting on the pile are too exhausting to contemplate watching, let alone actually watching. But The Reader was one, as opposed to depressing fare like Revolutionary Road, which offered the year’s only true eroticism. And there is always one in the bunch, isn’t there? The only other one that was close was Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a movie far too irritating to really be a strong contender. Kate has been naked and sexy before heading into the race, like in Little Children, but the eroticism factor is just one advantage to a film that had other strong advantages, like Minghella and Pollack, like Harvey Weinstein, like the Holocaust as subject matter.¬†¬† It is driven by Winslet’s remarkably strong performance. And it’s beautiful to look at. Finally, it’s one of the few of the five that is a potential tearjerker. But it isn’t really a movie for our time. It is a good old fashioned Oscar movie.

Frost/Nixon, speaking of good old fashioned Oscar movies, this is one. This film was like Michael Clayton, it just had its spot in the race and nothing was going to move it out. A friend of mine said to me, “the only two movies I want to see this year are Slumdog Millionaire and Frost/Nixon.” I think most people want to see Frost/Nixon and when I played the films for my family at Christmas the two they most liked were Slumdog and Frost/Nixon. Is it the most original movie ever made? No. Is the director well-liked and a star this year? Yep. The film is driven by Frank Langella’s brilliant incarnation of Richard Nixon. If it weren’t already celebrated on Broadway it would be celebrated now.

The five Best Pictures this year, admittedly, are nothing to write home about, meaning, none of them will really set the world on fire in ten year’s time. Most will fade in memory because the Oscars are a snapshot in time. This is where we were in 2008 (minus two very big films).