The Oscar Quest: Best Picture & Best Director – 2008

It’s weird to think I actually agreed with the Academy. But don’t worry, it’s only to a point. I only agree with them based on what they chose from the nominees. I’d have nominated a totally different set of films. But isn’t that how it always is?

This counts as a landmark year in terms of Best Picture history. This is the year that changed everything. Who’d have thought that all because of a comic book movie the Academy would change a system that had served them fairly well for 66 years. Granted, it was a long time coming. The Academy was mired in a boring Baby Boomer-lead set of years, where the boring, conservative fucks that were dominating the mindset of the country were essentially the major voices in the Academy. Don’t get me wrong, Hollywood is more liberal than the rest of the country, but you can see the lack of creativity in the choices as the years went on. The older people get the more they revert to “tradition” and just lost touch will the younger group of films.

Overall, I can’t totally fault the decision-making in the 90s, since, a lot of the Best Picture nominees were actually pretty good. But in the 2000s, there are a lot of boring, typical “Academy” choices that really give you the sense that the majority of the members were clearly over 50 and were losing touch with things. Things came to a head in 2005, when the younger generation really were like, “Okay, this is too much,” and sort of took over. Then you had that run of nice films from The Departed to No Country for Old Men and then here to Slumdog Millionaire. However, through it all, you still saw Old Hollywood rearing its ugly head. None more obviously then when The Reader, a film almost nobody thought was a worthy Best Picture nominee, beat out the likes of The Dark Knight and Wall-E to take that final spot. I didn’t feel as strongly about Dark Knight as a Best Picture nominee as everyone else did (mostly because I liked Wall-E more, but it’s still a brilliant film), but in terms of this list, I’d definitely have included it instead of The Reader. But, its exclusion from the nominees was a big letdown — you could actually see the President of the Academy’s dismay when they went they announced Frost/Nixon as the second nominee.

It wasn’t that The Dark Knight would have ever won the award. It’s that it would have brought ratings. Huge ratings. And you could have structured the show around it, and could have maybe even tried things to make the boring old ceremony more entertaining (which they did anyway, by getting Hugh Jackman to host, who was the best Oscar host I’ve seen in a long, long time. Maybe even since Billy Crystal). Not having it on there in favor of a film that has no merit except that two people who were ancillary producers on the film — Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, two men who were very well liked and respected within the business, so much so that the Academy waived their rule of only two producers per film to incorporate both of them on the list of producers for The Reader — died within the year, giving the film a poignancy vote. Oh, and the fact that it was made by Harvey Weinstein. Who is to the Oscars like Bill Belichick is to football. The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Chicago, and now The King’s Speech — all films that should not have come anywhere near Best Picture won the award because Harvey Weinstein is a genius. That or he’s got something on every member of the Academy. Frankly I’m not ruling it out.

My point is, because they went with the boring old same thing in a year where everyone was clamoring for something new and exciting, it basically got the Academy to be like, “Okay, we want more ratings more than we want the self-respect of adhering to tradition,” and up the list to ten nominees. Which, when we get to next year, will be nothing more than an unmitigated disaster. At least 2010 will have most of the nominees worth the salt, but 2009 was fucking horrendous. However, depending on what happens this Sunday, and what continues to happen these next few years, we still have 2008 to credit for being the catalyst for implementing this huge change. A change, that I feel, is the Academy officially changing over the guard to the younger generation — forcefully. Naturally the old timers don’t want to be retired just yet (don’t worry, they’re not RED — unless we’re counting The King’s Speech, in which case, they are certainly ED), so they only way to gracefully make the change was to implement this preferential ballot, so that way the old timers can vote in the shitty pictures, just like the ones they used to know, and everyone else in the Academy will rank those films much lower, and we get a true sense of what everyone thinks. Personally, I like the voting system better, because, if people are honest, then you get a much more representative ballot. A film doesn’t just need to be voted #1 to win. If a film doesn’t get a huge majority of the #1 vote (which I think has to be more than 51%…or maybe even more than that), then it comes down to how many #2 and #3 votes it gets. Which, if you have a contentious #1, where you know a lot of people will rank it #1, but then a lot of people will also be voting it #5 and #6, then it actually benefits the people who vote the other film in contention #1, because even though that film won’t have as many #1 votes, it will get a lot of #2 and #3 votes because it is, by consensus, one of the best films of the year. Not to draw parallels, or anything, but there is still hope. And 2008 is the reason for that hope. Game changer.

Best Picture – 2008

And the nominees were…

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount, Warner Bros.)

Frost/Nixon (Universal)

Milk (Focus Features)

The Reader (The Weinstein Company)

Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight, Warner Bros.)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — I loved this movie. I saw this in the theaters, the first day it came out (which I think might have been Christmas. That makes sense. Because I know where I wasn’t.), and loved it. I was with it from the very beginning. Well, after the weird beginning with Cate Blanchett looking like Zordon when he died in the Power Rangers movie. But once the flashback started, I was with it. I also don’t care how much it’s essentially Forrest Gump, just, different. I loved it. Sure, it’s not perfect. But it’s pretty goddamn good. And you know what, I might even be voting for it. I know I was holding out slight hope Oscar night that maybe, just maybe, this would win. I didn’t mind, of course, that it lost. Just, I really liked this movie, and it seemed like everyone was against it from the start. Don’t get it.

Frost/Nixon — Yeah, this was Oscar bait from the start. People had this shit pegged into one of the five spots from the Oscar ceremony the year before. I’m surprised it held on. Because it’s a fine film and all, but it’s certainly not a Best Picture nominee. Not at all. But, it’s here. And, as a film, in and of itself, it’s fine. I enjoyed it. I was with it. It’s just nothing more than a 4 star film. There’s just something missing. Probably, emotion. Something Ron Howard isn’t very good at infusing in his films. And I’m not talking about evoking emotion. I’m talking about making the film feel alive. Example: The films that won Best Picture this year and the two years prior. So, as a film, it’s fine, but, not on this list. Though, by sheer dumb luck, it’s not the worst film on this list. Who’d have thunk it?

P.S. Wall-E wasn’t good enough to take this spot? We all know Dark Knight was. But that was meant to have another spot.

Milk — I like this movie. You can’t, though, honestly vote for it for Best Picture. It’s one of those films you want to get a lot of nominations but can’t really see it winning anywhere. Case and point: The Town. A lot of people wanted to see that get a Best Picture nomination, but, even if it got it, you couldn’t really think to vote for it. You just wanted to see it get some recognition and stop there. This is one of those films. A playoff team but not someone you want to see win the Super Bowl. Because the film itself is wonderful. Just, not a winner.

The Reader — Okay, okay, we all know this shouldn’t be here. Naked, learns to read, kills herself, we all know. So, instead of bashing it, what I’m going to do is list the reasons this should be here:

Slumdog Millionaire — Another movie I loved unconditionally. I fell for this, hook line and sinker. Of course, some of the parts feel stale, two years after the fact, but overall, the film has so much goddamn heart, and ultimately, between this and Button, I really don’t care which one won. Because I love them both equally. And the films I’d have voted for over them weren’t nominated. So, whatever. Still, there’s no way you don’t watch this movie and not feel anything. I’m not saying crying — I won’t presume upon you robots out there — I’m just talking about feeling legit happiness when the kid wins at the end. It’s worth it for that alone. So, definitely between this and Button. Dare I say, based on the nominees, the Academy got it right this year.

My Thoughts: This one is more like a three-way tie. I really loved, Slumdog, Milk and Benjamin Button, and really have a tough time choosing between them. No I don’t. I love Button, but in this case, I’m voting with the Academy. Slumdog it is.

Rankings:

5. The Reader

4. Frost/Nixon

3. Milk

2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

1. Slumdog Millionaire

Best Director – 2008

And the nominees were…

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

Stephen Daldry, The Reader

David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon

Gus Van Sant, Milk

Boyle — The man really gave life to a film, and in a way, an entire city. It’s a very spirited piece of direction, and one that’s more Academy-friendly than his other work (I’m speaking specifically of, you know, the ones about heroin, zombies, and a man cutting his arm off). This was a nice way for them to reward him. However, it’s weird to think that directors like him are never viewed as “due” or “deserving” until they release a film like this, and suddenly they became the most overlooked directors working and one of the top directors in the field. This is mostly aimed at the individual who will be winning Best Director next year, who, before 2009, was barely even thought of as alive, and now that she’s won Best Director, was just named one of the top 25 working directors — by EW, so, not exactly a reputable source, but still — above such directors as David O. Russell, David Lynch, James Cameron, Edgar Wright, Peter Jackson, Spike Lee, and Wes Anderson. So, suddenly because she’s won Best Director, and is a woman, and thus fills the quota for making it seem that Hollywood isn’t that sexist, she’s the 15th best working director today? Does an Oscar suddenly cloud everyone’s field of vision? Where was this sentiment when she was directing such masterpieces as K-19: The Widowmaker? I’m not saying she isn’t a capable director — before someone gets all out of line for accusing me of being sexist — I’m saying that, aside from Point Break and The Hurt Locker, and if we really want to stretch a little, Strange Days, not only has the woman barely made other films, she’s barely made any good films. If directing a Best Picture winner and another good film and another passable film (I guess) were criteria for being named one of the top working directors, Mel Gibson would be on that list. Which, absolutely without question hands down do I consider Mel Gibson a better director than Kathryn Bigelow. Ignoring the fact that she’s a woman — and ignoring the fact that he’s kind of a racist sometimes — me being objective here is actually the fairest thing anyone can do — god forbid we actually judge somebody based solely on merit and nothing else — just because someone directed a film that won them an Oscar doesn’t automatically propel them to the top of their field (career-wise). And I don’t get this whole notion of ignoring somebody completely until suddenly they’re in the forefront and then suddenly proclaiming them better than — well, seriously, look at the people they ranked her higher then.

I took this all out on Danny Boyle. I feel bad. He doesn’t really deserve that sentiment, because he is a good director. I just don’t like his whole shooting digital thing. Looks fake to me. Anyway, he did an amazing job here, and the film looks great and is great. And it’s definitely between him and Fincher for the vote.

Daldry — Yeah, I don’t get how every film he directs gets him nominated for Best Director. I mean, BIlly Elliot, are you kidding me? The Hours? This? He must have one hell of a press agent. (He does: Harvey Weinstein.) Fifth nominee. We’re done here.

Fincher — I loved this film. I loved his direction. I was so glad they finally nominated him for once after a career of making nothing but good films. That is to say — his weakest films were Alien cubed, which I have yet to actually see (because how can you top the first two?) but hear tell that aside from the opening scene where they totally negate the point of Aliens that the film is actually pretty good, considering. I heard he did a good job with what he was given. And Panic Room is his other weakest film. Which, in and of itself, can you really consider Panic Room a bad movie? Sure, it’s not great. But it’s good. It’s better than most of the thrillers that come out of Hollywood. So I’m glad he finally got the nomination. (We’ll talk about 2010 on Sunday.) The only thing that I think holds him slightly behind Boyle in the race, for me, is the fact that there’s so much CGI in the film. I mean, it’s not a total dealbreaker, but when I see CG, I think that he’s not really directing for some reason. I’m not talking specifically of Pitt, since I know Pitt was acting in there as often as he could (as in, when he was not a child or an infant). I’m thinking off that boat versus submarine battle that is clearly all done CG. That just makes me think Fincher didn’t direct it himself, which kind of takes away from the whole thing for me. Plus, the film’s a little too wishy washy at times. (I’m talking, of course, of Katrina.) So, maybe I won’t vote for him, but, he’s definitely a #2 (barely), and definitely worth being here.

Howard — Yeah, Ron’s an admirable director, but, like I said up there, his films just lack a kind of emotion for me. It feels like cold, studio filmmaking (which, keep in mind, would have won him an Oscar in the 40s and 50s). Not necessarily cold, but, if you didn’t know he directed it, you really could believe that several other people did if you were told. I liken him to the Joeseph Mankiewicz of the oughts. And 90s. It’s fine filmmaking, but there’s nothing exciting about it. So, whatever. He’s here. I like Ron, though. (How could you not?) So, good for him. Yay.

Van Sant — This is a top notch piece of directing. I like his great choice of shots in a lot of this film. He uses a lot of interesting angles to capture scenes. I’m talking of course, of the film shot specifically through the reflection of a rape whistle (though, it’s a gay rape whistle, so more like a, “A homophobe is attacking me” whistle), or the shot of all the people on the phone with all the boxes like the Brady Bunch were mixed with a Mexican clown car, or the shooting of the mayor, with that pan to the mirror beforehand, or the brilliant, brilliant shot of Harvey walking up the steps of City Hall, and we pan up to see Dan White walking up the corridor. That is a brilliant moment. So, Gus really did direct the hell out of this, but with the competition, I can’t really vote for him. Which sucks, because he’s just as deserving as anyone else in this category.

My Thoughts: It’s really between Fincher and Boyle, but I guess if it came down to it, I’d take Boyle. I don’t know why. I like Fincher more, and want him to have an Oscar more, but I still think it’s Boyle. This opinion might change, but I think I’m making that vote with the sense that Fincher will have an Oscar of his own by the next time I come back to this, so in that case I’ll still be more inclined to agree with the Boyle vote.

Rankings:

5. Daldry

4. Howard

3. Van Sant

2. Boyle

1. Fincher (tie goes to who I like more. Won’t affect the voting, though.)

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