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The Oscar Quest: Best Actor & Best Actress – 2008

There’s really not much to say here. One was a tight race between two very deserving performances, and the other was a career achievement award to a very deserving actress — for the complete wrong film.

Best Actor – 2008

And the nominees were…

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

Sean Penn, Milk

Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Jenkins — Jenkins finally got a chance to have a lead role of his own, after years of amazing character work in such films as (so that way you can be like, “He was in that? Who was he? Oh yeah!”): The Indian in the Cupboard, There’s Something About Mary, Me, Myself & Irene, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Changing Lanes, Stealing Harvard, Intolerable Cruelty, I Heart Huckabees, Six Feet Under (TV show, but, kind of well-known), North Country, The Kingdom, Step Brothers, Burn After Reading, Let Me In … the list goes on. Not really and on. Just on. I hit all the relevant ones. This film is by the guy who made The Station Agent, that little indie that everyone seemed to love.

Here he plays a professor who is pretty boring, writes books, gives lectures, grades papers, keeps an apartment in New York and Connecticut. He’s a widower, and pretty much just goes through the motions. Then he goes on a leave from school to write a book or paper or something, and as he goes to his other apartment, he finds an immigrant family living there. After some rough first minutes, they agree to share the place. And eventually they become friends. The man teaches him African drums. His life starts feeling more interesting. Then, in a tiny ass moment, the man is arrested for hopping the turnstiles in the subway (one of those, card didn’t swipe moments where it seemed the cop was just waiting to bust them. Turns out, though, the man is illegal. So he gets held to get deported. And Jenkins dedicates himself to helping this family out, because they’re now his dear friends. And he gets these nice quiet moments to shine. It’s a nice performance. The film is very low key, and kind of boring, so, be forewarned in case you’re ever thinking of watching it. You have to be really willing to sit through indies to get through it. Though it’s a good performance. However, I can never vote for it. It’s one of those, glad he’s nominated, but, #5. Just has to be.

Langella — Yeah, he looks nothing like Nixon, nor does he really sound like him. But he originated the role and this was more like a “it was supposed to be here” nomination. That’s kind of what this whole film is. He’s fine in it, I guess. I would never vote for this performance, but, he plays an okay Nixon. Anthony Hopkins was so much better, though. Like, insanely so. But, he’s here. I mostly spent this Oscar night praying he didn’t somehow win. I was rewarded. I actually rank him higher than Jenkins only because Nixon is a more interesting figure than a boring professor.

Penn — This performance is jaw-droppingly good. In fact, voting between him and Mickey Rourke was about an even choice, except for the fact that he’s won an Oscar already, and for a performance that barely even merits a nomination. So, that said, I can’t vote for him when they already fucked up giving him one for the wrong film. That said, I’m not too upset that he won, because this performance is amazing.

He plays Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official. Very flamboyant, gets shot. Oscar role. The first time I saw the performance I was like, “Yeah, this is good, but I liked Mickey better.” Then I saw the film again on my college film series, and what I noticed the second time were the nuances of the performance. It seemed less like I Am Sam being gay instead of retarded (the voices are not that dissimilar. It’s like Sean Connery doing a British accent and then doing an Irish one. Can you tell the difference?), and actually like a really moving portrait of a man. The scene that really got me was when his younger boyfriend (always a bad decision) kills himself. Which, isn’t so much of a spoiler because, you can see it coming. Anyway, after he finds out, there’s this one shot of him in close up, and you can actually see his lip quivering. But not like in an acting sort of way. It actually looked like someone’s lip involuntarily quivering. That, to me, is the mark of a great performance. Because, a lot of times you can see actors acting. This actually felt like you saw something really happening. So, that’s why ultimately I think the performance is worthy. But in such an environment as this Academy, the fact that he won for an unworthy performance really dictates who I vote for.

Pitt — I like to think he got this nomination because they overlooked him for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Because he was fucking spectacular in that. He’s also good in this, having to act against CGI. He does an effective job of conveying the loneliness and isolation of a dude aging backwards. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s not going to win any awards, but it’s nice to see him get some recognition for all the years of good performances and great career choices he’s had. I was actually rooting for him Oscar night because, really, the Oscars are built on rewarding the person and not the performance, and this performance was made to win an Oscar. It’s solid, and is okay enough to where you can be like, “Yeah, I guess.” But, I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Love this movie though. Sure, the CGI is there, but you overcome it. It’s actually a fascinating film.

Rourke — It’s tough judging this performance because, it’s so scarily made for him that it’s almost like he isn’t acting. But, he does an amazing job here. But, remember when I said, people get that once in a lifetime role that’s so scarily perfect for them they get their one chance to be nominated but almost never win? Yeah, this is kind of what that is. Except, here, this is so good you actually can vote for it. Because it’s really fucking good.

In case you have no idea what this movie’s about (which what kind of fucking rock are you living under?), he’s a wrestler nearing 50, used to be huge in the 80s, but now, is kicking around high school gymnasiums and getting paid shit money and living in a trailer. And he has a heart attack after one of his matches. And that gives him a chance to reflect on his life — he decides to try to reconcile with his daughter, whom he ignored for the majority of her life, and then try to start a family, with the only woman he really knows — the stripper he always visits. Though, because he’s a deeply flawed human being, things don’t go according to plan, and he very often does the wrong thing out of sheer inability. He doesn’t want to fuck up, but he just does. Plus, he’s reduced to working in a deli part time to make ends meet, and is forced to be recognized by people who wonder what the fuck he’s doing there. It’s fucking riveting. This dude deserved an Oscar for this. Seriously. It was also one of the best films of the year. You kind of wish that this was the year they upped it to ten nominees and not the next one.

My Thoughts: Rourke is the vote. Penn is a close #2 but, he won for Mystic River and that disqualifies him from getting my vote when there’s someone else just as good. Cool that he won though, since the performance alone is worth it.

Rankings:

5. Jenkins

4. Langella

3. Pitt

2. Penn

1. Rourke

Best Actress – 2008

And the nominees were…

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Angelina Jolie, Changeling

Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Meryl Streep, Doubt

Kate Winslet, The Reader

Hathaway — Wow. just, wow. This performance blew me the fuck away. Not so much the first time, but, the second time. The first time I saw this, I was actually amazed at how much I liked the film. Sure, it’s very indie, and has weird, indie moments like the randomly Indian themed wedding with the fucked up music, and all the strange talent show acts the family puts on at the reception. But, overall, it’s actually a really great film. Two things I want to focus on in particular. One is Hathaway’s performance. I think she does a tremendous job here.

She plays a former teen model (or just model? I forget) who was into drugs and stuff, and the family around her never really did anything about it. And one day, she’s babysitting her little brother, driving him home from the park, and she nods out at the wheel (because she’s on sedatives and stuff) and the car drives off a bridge into the lake, and the brother dies. So she enters rehab. And the movie is about her, doing better in rehab, receiving a three-day pass to go to her sister’s wedding. So, to answer your question, no, she is not Rachel. And during the wedding, you see all the family issues that really exist slowly come to light, including why she may be an addict in the first place. And the whole time you see her, sort of jittery and shaky, but also very much the wild card. She’s the family member they treat with kid gloves because they never know when she’s going to say something very inappropriate like, “Is Uncle Joe still fucking that girl half her age?”, and prefer to keep uncomfortable things in the back and never talk about them. You can see why I feel a connection to the character. That, and, there’s also a great little play where, she sort of feels left behind during it and wants to be the center of attention, so, at the rehearsal dinner she gets up and makes a toast, which is one of those moments you know no one wants her to do, and when she stands up you’re like, “Oh shit, here we go.” It’s great. I think she’s amazing in the role. And, well, I’ll get to the voting part later, since I have more praise for this movie I’d like to point out, because I like to say extra about movies that people might not ever see, in the hopes that, if they trust me and my opinions, if I talk about something enough and in such exalted terms, they might be like, “I guess I should check it out.”

The other scene I want to mention, which is more the film than Anne herself. Though the scene does add to her character by making you very sympathetic to her. There’s a nice play in the film where you’re sort of against her because she’s seemingly unnecessarily fucking up her sister’s wedding, but also, when things come to light, you then start feeling for her and why she’s acting like this. It’s really nice. Anyway, there’s one scene about midway through the film, which, by this point you’ve been lulled into the whole preparations and family getting together dynamic and aren’t really thinking about all the other stuff in the periphery. And, I believe the groom is the one to do it, or someone else in the wedding party, critiques the father of the bride’s ability to put dishes in the dishwasher. It’s something to do with dishes. Essentially, he believes he has a flawless system of being able to neatly fit every dish into the dishwasher perfectly and in an organized manner. And someone else thinks they can do it better. (It’s like when you’re packing all your shit when you move. I’m the kind of person that can fit all my stuff into very few boxes and bags and whatnot, disregarding how heavy they are, but knowing I’ve fit as much stuff as possible inside those containers. I’m the guy who stores things in an empty mini-fridge just to eliminate the necessity for one extra small bag. And other people just dump shit wherever and don’t care how many trunks it takes. The father is one of those who can cram, with considerable skill, as many plates, cups, dishes and pots and pans into a dishwasher without making it appear overfilled.) And a contest then ensues where they each, within an allotted time limit, have to fit, neatly, as many dishes and such as possible inside the dishwasher. And at first you’re like, “Is this really happening?” and then you’re like, “Well, I guess families do random shit like this all the time.” and then you get into it. The scene is paced and editing insanely well. And the guy does it and everyone’s like, Yeah, good job,” and then the father steps up. And now, you’re fucking excited. It’s like when the hero of the film steps up for his challenge. Robin Hood has to top the arrow in the center of the target. And you’re like, “Oh, man, come on, you can do this.” And he starts going, and everyone in the family is cheering him on and it’s this big moment of him finally showing what he’s made of and has this big, shining moment. And even you in the audience are rooting for him. You actually manage to get caught up in the scene and are legitimately rooting for him to do this. You get taken away by the happiness and the fun that he’s having while doing this, and everyone is smiling and laughing and cheering and clapping — and then suddenly, without a fucking moment to catch your breath, the entire fucking thing is just pulled out from under you. Just like that. As he’s putting all the dishes back into the dishwasher, he suddenly comes across a plate and just stops. He just fucking freezes. And you realize, the plate he has in his hand is one of those child’s plates, like with all the letters and shit on them, one that was clearly his son’s. And out of nowhere, you’re suddenly reminded that, “Oh shit, this kid died.” And it’s fucking heartbreaking. I’ve never seen a tonal shift accomplished that well that suddenly. Not even in a certain film where someone suddenly gets their fucking head blown off when exiting the elevator.

So, ultimately, this performance is the best on this list for me.

Jolie — Wow. At first you may not realize why this is such a brilliant performance — or maybe you do, in which case we have nothing to talk about.

Cricket, cricket.

But on the off chance you don’t see what she did to deserve this — watch the performance again. I don’t think anyone can really say she did a terrible job in the movie. You can certainly fault the movie for a contrived story, bad Irish accents and just a general sense of, “meh.” But at the very worst you can only say of her performance, “Yeah, it was all right, but I don’t get why it was so special.” And that’s fine. Because that’s what I thought too the first time.

However, the second time, when you watch this movie, or the first if you haven’t seen it, go into it thinking about the fact that it was directed by Clint Eastwood. Clint Eastwood is a director who is notorious for not liking a lot of takes. He comes from the school of spaghetti westerns. Do it, move on. That’s his philosophy. Most actors do it and then are like, “let’s go again,” and Clint is like, “Why, we got it, let’s move on.” So, with that in mind, watch the performance knowing that her performance was, essentially captured in one or two takes. Of course, not all of them. I’m sure some of them had three or four takes. But there is no way, unless someone really fucks up, there’s a camera problem or some new and enlightening way to shoot the scene, that Clint Eastwood is going to allow more than five takes per scene. Contrast that to other directors. David Fincher routinely does 80-90 takes of any given scene. Easily. Ridley Scott does three or four takes, but uses six cameras to capture the action from all of those different angles so he has different things to cut to. This one’s not a director, but is applicable. Al Pacino goes on a set and uses takes 1-10 just to warm up. Then, after that, he gets in the zone. So, when you’re shooting a Clint Eastwood film, you need to be on top of your shit because, if you don’t achieve what you want to achieve in the first two or three takes, too bad, we’re moving on. So, when you realize that Jolie’s performance was accomplished in such few takes, it really stands out as being a very exceptional performance.

Leo — I hadn’t seen this movie for the longest time. I was like, “Yeah, indie, gonna be boring.” And I was kinda right. It’s an okay film, I liked it and it’s interesting (mostly because it’s only 95 minutes). But I liked Winter’s Bone more. Anyway, Leo plays an upstate New York woman, whose ex-husband skipped town after amassing a gambling debt (or shacking up with a Native American woman. Or both. I forget), and she’s not receiving her child support payments. So she’s got two kids and is living in one of those house trailer things. And she works in CVS and is trying to keep her kids fed. One’s like sixteen and the other is seven or eight (or maybe younger). And in trying to track down her husband (following his, in actuality her, car), she comes across a Native American woman who was sort of kicked out of her tribe for her brother’s activities in transporting illegal immigrants across the frozen river between Canada and the States. And she tells Melissa Leo about this and how there’s money involved. And the two of them start doing it. Which, is illegal and pays, but, the river is frozen and if it cracks, they’re fucked. But essentially, aside from that, it’s not a huge risk, aside from the Indians knowing about it and not condoning it, and the police knowing it happens but not stupid enough to do anything. (They’re New York cops. Unless they catch you in the act, they’re like, “Whatever.” Like Sergeant Wiggum — “I’d rather see a thousand guilty men go free than chase after them.”) So she starts doing this, and things get complicated and stuff happens, and it’s really about her getting money to keep them from being evicted and having her shit repossessed. It’s interesting. She does a really nice job here and without a doubt deserved to be nominated. But (you knew this was coming), I can’t vote for her for thee reasons. One is that it’s an indie film. For some reason I just don’t respect them when it comes to Oscars. I don’t know why. The other two are, more importantly, Kate Winslet and Anne Hathaway.

Streep — Meryl Streep is, without a doubt, probably one of the greatest living actresses, if not the best. She is great in everything she does, so, when I speak ill of this performance, know that it’s not because she’s not great in the role. She’s great in everything she does. This is more of a weird minor detail that did it for me. The accent. I’m not sure what kind of accent she had (even though other people swear that it’s authentic). It’s not so much as I think it wasn’t authentic or appropriate for the neighborhood the film takes place in as much as it is — it’s fucking distracting. It just sounds off. Not to belittle everyone else’s performance, because everyone else in this film is tops, it’s that if you’re doing Hamlet, and everyone is doing the lines normally, but the guy playing Polonius is randomly singing his lines, it’s going to take you out of it because it seems like that guy is doing his own thing separate from the play. That’s what this felt like. It just felt out of place. That said, the performance is wonderful, but I wouldn’t vote for her in this. You know she’s got another great one left in her. Save it for that.

Winslet — Yeah, this was the wrong film. I’m not even gonna talk about the film she won for because, A) she’s naked for half the film, B) It’s a supporting part, and C) the whole movie is about her learning to read and then killing herself. And the holocaust, but that’s just assumed. Wrong part. She’s fine, but, wrong part. The part she should have won for is Revolutionary Road, where she does a much better job as the wife of Leonardo DiCaprio, who signed onto marriage for one thing, and now has slowly allowed herself to live with another thing that she did not want to happen. At first, they’re very upbeat and very “we’re gonna move to France!” and then, slowly we see them becoming the same boring, suburban couple that they absolutely did not want to become. And there are two kids, and instead of saving to go to France, it’s about “Maybe I can get this promotion at work, and then we can add an extra room onto the side of the house.” Inane, yuppie shit like that. And she’s like, “Nuh uh.” And they fight all the time, and she gets pregnant again, which is the exact last fucking thing in the world she wanted. And eventually she tries to self abort after she’s supposed and bleeds out. And you sort of get the sense that she wanted that to happen. It’s very Jesse James like, the way she sort of goes to her own death. Anyway, that’s the performance that should have won.

Also, I say this as absolute because, there was nothing on this earth that was keeping her from winning the Oscar this year. She would have won for anything she did. I just feel it should have been for the right film. But, knowing the Academy, this is not surprising at all.

My Thoughts: I think Anne Hathaway gave a great performance, but, Kate Winslet was owed an Oscar so badly that even I’m voting for her. It’s like 2006, when I voted for Leo even though it was the wrong performance just because I thought he was best. Here, it’s because she deserves it that much. Sorry Anne, but the way things are going you’ll have one of these soon enough.

Rankings:

5. Winslet

4. Streep

3. Leo

2. Jolie

1. Hathaway

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