The year was 2008. I will forever remember it as the year the Oscar race finally broke the NY Times’ David Carr, who watched the whole season buckle under a can’t-lose frontrunner.
It happens sometimes. You have years where a film is too big to ignore — Schindler’s List, Titanic — and then you have delightfully wide open years where any film could win. And then there are those years where a movie comes along that is so utterly beloved it wins EVERYTHING. When Slumdog Millionaire won the SAG ensemble it was all over but the shouting.
It was just one of those perfect storms. It was a similar dynamic to Million Dollar Baby vs. The Aviator. In this case, it was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button vs. Slumdog Millionaire. The Oscar race always needs those two things – the high achieving frontrunner and the little movie that could. The race is run almost purely on emotion, with nearly as much thought as one gives to clicking the like button on Facebook. Think of it like a whirlwind romance, where the object of your desire has the glow of perfection about them. You won’t be able to see this person clearly until many years later, once the fog of love has died down. And so it goes with Best Picture.
Then again, how could anyone not fall hard? It’s just a beautiful, beautiful film. It was an easy call, knowing how everyone would vote that year.
Vibrant, imaginative Danny Boyle brought his directing to the strange kind of disconnect between worldwide poverty and the dangling of the American dream – that you too can become a millionaire if you get lucky. The film would not turn on luck, in the end, but on integrity. And that might be, finally, why it soared like it did.
But there was another dynamic at play and one that has inflicted the Oscar race since. As American directors become darker, more daring and experimental, the Academy and the industry turn to foreign directors for more traditional stories. They are still the same kinds of films the Academy has always liked – very structured iconic roles – heroic men, women in need of rescuing (or the reverse). Beginning, middle and end, real actors, uplifting ending, some kind of morality at play. Although the following year The Hurt Locker would defy this theory, it would come roaring back in the next year with The King’s Speech and the following year with The Artist. Those nostalgic, familiar stories would trump filmmakers who were trying to break new ground.
That year the movie that broke new ground was David Fincher’s Benjamin Button, a film that blooms over time and becomes a deeper experience the older you get. Crushingly beautiful, the film is an examination of lost or missed opportunities. It toys with the notion of physical beauty, youth and the agony of it all slipping away. As is usual with Fincher, the film is filled with an array of diverse performers, with strong women throughout.
Despite its many nominations, Benjamin Button was not an across the board crowd pleaser like Slumdog. No other film I can think of in recent memory did to voters what Slumdog did. But Benjamin Button is a much bigger, deeper experience overall than the momentary but delirious fantasy that Slumdog offers. Returning to Benjamin Button year after year is like returning to most of Fincher’s canon – it is to see almost a different movie with each repeated viewing.
At the same time, Benjamin Button and ultimately Fincher’s method of filmmaking, was threatening to Hollywood as much of it was told with visual effects. Stunning though they were, that element continues to put up a barrier for film awards. There has always been the preference to reward nuts and bolts filmmaking, from the ground up, with dependence upon acting, writing and directing.
The luscious cinematography, the melancholy performances, the damn shame of how it all turns out. Damned if it ain’t life itself, not a fantasy but scratching at that thing that breaks your heart about life every day you wake up into it. No one will ever convince me that Benjamin Button was not the better film but it’s frustrating to have to make that choice. The Oscar race is not about the best, of course. It’s about how much you love seeing winners win. Danny Boyle was a guy no one ever got sick of seeing win anything.
My favorite thing about this clip is watching David Fincher squirm under the camera lens. Thing is about these awards is that they themselves offer up a fantasy. People have to want you to win, to feel as though their vote is bestowing something. That only added to the film itself — all dreams come true in Hollywood.
“For those of you at home…”
The other films that year were pretty great – Frost/Nixon, Milk and The Reader.
The Dark Knight changed the Oscars.
2008 will also be remembered as the year The Dark Knight changed the Oscars. 2008 was the last year there were five nominees. When The Reader took what many believed would be the Dark Knight’s slot, there was a big uproar. The Academy felt they needed to broaden the slate in order to honor films like The Dark Knight – genre/effects movies. But they would never figure that their current procedure for nominating films would continue to exclude genre movies; who is going to put The Dark Knight as their number 1? Or even their number 5? But with a slate of ten choices, as they did from 2009 to 2010? Genre movies have a better chance of getting in.
The death of Heath Ledger was one of the most talked about things that impacted the race and certainly made the omission of The Dark Night for Best Picture even more severe. But I believe it was a film worthy of that fifth slot, over The Reader. Stephen Daldry has a hypnotic effect on the Academy and probably because he is so friendly with the actors branch. Either which way, that a Weinstein coup unlike any other. It was a great example of Harvey Weinstein knowing instinctually what the voters will go for. That’s why we call him the Oscar whisperer.
How about you readers? What was your favorite film of 2009? We will be recording our podcast in the next few days.