We’re putting the cart before the horse
For the first time as far back as I can remember most of the films being bandied about for the Big Oscar Five have not reviewed by the critics nor put to the test with the public. While box office probably doesn‚Äôt matter so much for films that aren‚Äôt expected to break the bank opening weekend, it matters more for the bigger Oscar movies, Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon and perhaps Revolutionary Road.
Only two movies, Milk and Slumdog, have been put to and passed the test of this crucial element. The Oscar race is probably never going to be a dance of studio publicists and bloggers ‚Äì the critics still matter. What the web is starting to feel like, as it bleeds into itself, is one giant audience test screening. The only difference is the film is mostly finished; no one is going to go back and change an ending. Film critics help define film history and thus, put films in historical context without the outside influence of friendships, relationships, or money, most of the time.
The season continues on its surreal expedition, destination unknown, while bloggers are out front with their opinions, taking sides already on certain films, in full-blown advocacy mode. And this, weeks before any of the films are officially reviewed. It‚Äôs all very bizarre and I can‚Äôt help feeling like we‚Äôre all walking into something unexpected but not in a good way, you know, like a ‚ÄúHow to Serve Man?‚Äù ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a cookbook!‚Äù
What we have to go on is very little. Usually the films open, are reviewed and then the predictions start to take shape. When one film is left out, like Charlie Wilson‚Äôs War last year, the picture still feels blurred, but when many of the major films have yet to really take flight, anything can happen.
It isn‚Äôt even that the films haven‚Äôt been seen; even Gran Torino has now been seen with mixed results so far- extremes on either end. It‚Äôs either a masterpiece or a major pile. If Clint Eastwood manages a Best Actor nomination, whom does he knock out?
Still leading the Best Actor race is Mickey Rourke, even with the rumblings heard across the web about this or that ‚Äì his performance still stands out. Sean Penn is a lock and next in line for his truly astonishing turn as Harvey Milk. Frank Langella, vet in the business, is probably the most likely to dethrone Rourke since neither have yet won and both are deserving. Langella plays Nixon, though, and that‚Äôs been done already by Anthony Hopkins. What he needs is rave reviews but since the film hasn‚Äôt opened yet, there aren‚Äôt any. So what do we have to go on? The words of a columnist or blogger here or there?
Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt both, to my mind, give career-best performances but again, neither Revolutionary Road nor Benjamin Button have yet been written up by the NY Times, the LA Times, etc. As an Oscar watcher, I‚Äôve never confidently put the cart before the horse without living to regret it later. Never. I‚Äôm probably the only person, save for maybe the Carpetbagger and Dave Karger, who really believes strongly in the role film critics play not just in the Oscar race but in shaping the story of where the films sit in history ‚Äì the public never lifted Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock to auteur status.
Many of the directors in this year‚Äôs race are there not necessarily because of the critics but instead because of their strong fan base ‚Äì Danny Boyle, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan are, one could say, gods among fanboys and fangirls (I fess up to being one of those for all three). They‚Äôre going up against Academy favorites like Ron Howard and Clint Eastwood. And then there‚Äôs indie icon Gus Van Sant in the mix.¬† And Sam Mendes and Jonathan Demme, two one-time Oscar golden boys who haven‚Äôt been seen or heard from since. And there‚Äôs Ed Zwick, who has yet to crack the code and who‚Äôs film will come in just under the wire at the end of the year. Finally, Courtney Hunt seems very much alive in the race all of a sudden, and she has the advantage (or disadvantage, depending on how you look at it) of being the only woman in the race with a film that is setting itself up to be the critics‚Äô darling.
The past has taught me that when in doubt go with the Hollywood elite, or the good ol‚Äô Academy boys. This is why it took Martin Scorsese so long to win ‚Äì there is always a sense that, with Oscar, they like you to be good just not better than they are. Perhaps this sounds a bit petty but in my observations over the years, this is how it has seemed to go down. The last two years have been the high points for me personally, seeing The Departed and No Country for Old Men take the top prize, signaling a renaissance with Best Picture not seen since the 1970s. But is all of that about to change and fast? With the new be dumped for the old in light of sagging ratings and the threat of network extinction?
The best thing any of us can hope for is that the best work of the year is recognized. Since we don‚Äôt have sweeping critics‚Äô assessments yet we only have our own instincts to go on, which, frankly, isn‚Äôt so reliable. We have yays or nays coming from all corners of the web and most of them are wholly meaningless. Just because they can say it doesn‚Äôt necessarily mean they should. These things are tracked and recorded for all time.
Ryan recently found one columnist who is touting the success of an untested film was the same person who said Sweeney Todd would win Best Picture. Another critic who apparently hated Benjamin Button is recorded as saying The Departed has no chance for any Oscar recognition. Nobody knows anything. It‚Äôs more true right here, right now than it ever has been.
And so we are sailing through thick fog, destination unknown. But here is a rough rundown of how I personally see it. One of the big questions is still The Dark Knight ‚Äì clearly a towering achievement, maybe THE film of 2008, a critically acclaimed masterpiece from top to bottom, an organic, surprise hit yet many are still saying no way, it will only get supporting actor, makeup and visual effects. Before the critics awards started coming down that‚Äôs how many felt about the Fellowship of the Ring; why should the film be barred from being considered Best Picture simply because of its genre?
It reminds me of this scene in The Insider where everything necessary is checked off one by one but the end result is still a big fat ‚Äúno.‚Äù
Al Pacino, sigh.
No, I‚Äôm not insinuating that our silly gig has anything remotely to do with investigative journalism. I just mean the juxtaposition of so many yes‚Äôs in a world of no‚Äôs is crazy making and inexplicable. Did the movie make more than any movie since Titanic? Yes. Did it receive some of the best reviews of the year? Yes. Is it relevant? Absolutely. Is it a best picture frontrunner? Of course not.
Let‚Äôs talk for a moment about the weighted ballot. Oscar voters, in determining Best Picture, rank their choices. The most number 1‚Äôs is the first nominee, the second most number 1‚Äôs is the second nominee, then the most number 2‚Äôs, etc. So the favorite film of the year tends to find its way on the ballot rather than the film generally expected to do well; this is why, I think, Dreamgirls missed the Best Pic slot ‚Äì it was probably on everyone‚Äôs ballot but it wasn‚Äôt in a number 1 or number 2 slot. This is how I think The Dark Knight gets in. And Milk, and Slumdog and Benjamin Button. This might not bode well for defacto contenders like Frost/Nixon or Rev Road or Doubt. But you never know.
This is how I see the race shaping up, on the eve of the NBR‚Äôs, which will no doubt shake things up. Or not.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ‚Äì heartbreaking, lyrical, melancholy ‚Äì it is a poem to me, one that echoes the Dylan sentiment, ‚Äúget busy living or get busy dying.‚Äù
Milk ‚Äì a rallying cry and fine piece of cinema with great ensemble acting across the board.
Slumdog Millionaire ‚Äì a vital piece of filmmaking, sweet and uplifting, directed by one of the best in the business.
The Dark Knight ‚Äì I am keeping it in my top five until there is a really good reason (other than a bagful of irrational no‚Äôs) to dump it.
Revolutionary Road ‚Äì Another untested one that seems to be splitting audiences up ‚Äì the critics will make the difference on this one, as with all others save Milk and Slumdog.
Frost/Nixon ‚Äì seems to be the Michael Clayton of the bunch but doesn‚Äôt have the necessary reviews yet but figures into the top five somehow. See, now I have six. Something‚Äôs got to give.
Next in line, Doubt (again, needs a whole bunch of rave reviews), The Wrestler (I‚Äôve heard it‚Äôs too hard core for Oscar but who knows), The Reader (waiting in the wings), Defiance (still an unknown ‚Äì with some tepid reviews out front but none of the big critics yet ringing in). Finally, Gran Torino remains an unknown. It could go either way.
Gus Van Sant
Still in limbo:
Benicio Del Toro
Kate Winslet, Rev Road
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Cate Blanchett, Benjamin Button
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Kristin Scott Thomas, I‚Äôve Loved You So Long
Heath Ledger, TDK
Michael Shannon, Rev Road
Josh Brolin, Milk
Ralph Fiennes, The Reader OR The Duchess OR In Bruges
Robert Downey, Jr. Tropic Thunder
Brad Pitt, Burn
Dev Patel, Slumdog
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina
Kate Winslet, The Reader
Taraji P. Henson, Benjamin Button
Rosemary Dewitt, Rachel Getting Married
Viola Davis, Doubt
Amy Adams, Doubt
Kathy Bates, Rev Road
Rachel Getting Married
Burn After Reading
Nothing but the Truth
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
The Dark Knight