Oscar Bait
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Oscar Bait

Ranking the 2008 Best Picture Nominees

The last Oscars to nominate just 5 films snubbed 2 strong contenders

By Todd Hill

Kate Winslet, Sean Penn and Penelope Cruz, from left, pose with their Oscars for Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, at the 81st Academy Awards in Hollywood on Feb. 22, 2009. Best Supporting Actor was awarded posthumously to Heath Ledger, who died a year earlier. Photo courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Out with the old guard, in with the new — that may have been the impulse behind the changes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed upon the Oscars after the 2009 ceremony, when things went so wrong.

Specifically, two of the best movies of that year — at least from the perspective of 12 years later — were overlooked when it came time to hand out the Best Picture nominations. That may have had everything to do with the fact that the Academy only chose five such nominees back then; there’s no way to know for sure.

It’s entirely possible that a year later, when the number of Best Picture nominees was doubled to 10, “The Dark Knight” and “WALL-E” could’ve been passed over again, because the old guard of Academy voters was still snugly ensconced. Changes in the Academy’s membership — then as now — have only become apparent over time.

“The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan’s relentlessly moody and doomy rendition of a Batman flick, still did well at the Oscars in 2009, garnering eight nominations. It only won two awards, but one of them was historically significant — a posthumous Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger’s deeply disturbing take on the Joker. It was just the Academy’s second posthumous acting Oscar, following Peter Finch’s Best Actor win for “Network” in 1977. Finch died at age 60 of a heart attack, Ledger of a prescription drug overdose when he was just 28.

At least “WALL-E,” unlike “The Dark Knight,” had a lesser awards ghetto to which it could be relegated — Best Animated Feature Film, which it won (there were only two other nominees in that category). One of Pixar’s best, most originally resonant movies may have missed out on a Best Picture nod, but its omission could very well have been responsible for two other animated flicks being invited to the Best Picture party, for better or worse, one in 2010 and then again in 2011.

But let’s turn our attention to the five 2008 films that DID receive Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, if we must. Frankly, it wasn’t the best of years for this category, with — in my opinion — little distance between the best and the worst of the bunch. Here’s my personal ranking of how they stack up today.

David Kross, right, reads to an illiterate former Nazi concentration camp guard, played by Kate Winslet, in “The Reader.” Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company

The Reader

Possible alternative title — “I Had Sex With a Nazi.” Granted, this post-WWII movie’s plot may cause one to snicker — a teenage German boy engages in regular carnal trysts with an illiterate, ex-concentration camp guard in exchange for reading to her from great works of literature. Anyone who can’t get past that clunky set-up is of course likely to look down on this underachieving nominee (hardly anyone saw it upon its release, or has since). But I’ve been a steadfast defender of this film, which attempts to marry the complexities of German guilt with the ramifications of sexual, or at least emotional, abuse, with uneven but still compelling results. There’s some thematic unpacking to do here, and that’s on the viewer to accomplish. Getting past the screenplay, the movie is just so well made on every level. Kate Winslet uglies herself down to portray the closed-off former Nazi, and won an Oscar for her efforts. Ralph Fiennes, as the adult version of the boy, is distant and melancholic, which he’s always done well, although I don’t mean to take the focus off David Kross, who plays the younger character and is the heart and soul of the movie. Thanks to cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins, the picture looks and feels authentically German. It should also be mentioned that the movie features a surprising amount of full-on nudity, especially by the prudish standards of today, and it wouldn’t feel nearly as powerful if it didn’t.

Oscar nominations, 5 — Best Picture, Director (Stephen Daldry), Actress (Kate Winslet), Adapted Screenplay (David Hare), Cinematography. Oscar wins, 1 — Actress.

Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, from left, relive 1977 as the British television personality David Frost and former U.S. President Richard Nixon, respectively, in Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon.” Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Frost/Nixon

Generally speaking, criminals don’t come to regret their crimes so much as getting caught. U.S. President Richard Nixon’s biggest regret, however, seems to have been that his crime ruined his legacy forevermore (or at least until a far more corrupt leader came along). Ron Howard’s big-screen dramatization of a stage play about a series of interviews the British TV host David Frost conducted with Nixon in 1977 attempts to get at what made Nixon tick, but the former president remains just out of our reach, and therefore beyond our complete understanding. Instead the movie goes to great lengths to expand the considerably more limited universe surrounding the interviews, which is only mildly interesting, even in the hands of a consummate filmmaker like Howard and his consistently exceptional cast. Unlike in “Apollo 13” (1995), probably Howard’s best directorial effort, the nation did not come to a halt to see how this historical event would play out. Frank Langella doesn’t particularly resemble Nixon and doesn’t attempt to impersonate him (the same can be said for Michael Sheen as Frost), but it’s noteworthy that Langella, as Nixon, appears twice as haggard-looking as Nixon himself actually did during the interviews. Is this art imitating life, or giving it a slightly different interpretation? You can track down the actual Frost/Nixon interviews, which gets deep into the Watergate weeds. Howard’s version renders them much more accessible, without dumbing them down.

Oscar nominations, 5 — Best Picture, Director (Ron Howard), Supporting Actor (Frank Langella), Adapted Screenplay (Peter Morgan), Film Editing. Oscar wins, 0.

Sean Penn, center, won his second Best Actor Oscar for “Milk,” directed by Gus Van Sant, in which he portrayed San Francisco politician/gay activist Harvey Milk. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Milk

Some perspective — Just one year earlier, “Brokeback Mountain,” the most prominent movie up to then with an overt gay storyline, lost the Best Picture race to a clearly inferior film (“Crash”), while a key Supreme Court decision in support of gay rights was still eight years away. This biopic about the San Francisco gay rights activist-turned-politician Harvey Milk was never in serious contention for the top Oscar despite its nomination, but the excellence of Sean Penn’s powerhouse performance as the title character could not be denied (it earned him his second Best Actor award). Gus Van Sant’s film may have an agenda, but it’s not presented with that at the forefront. Milk’s political ascendancy simply makes for good cinema, only to come crashing down with his assassination at the hands of a political rival that likely had little to do with Milk’s homosexuality. Then as now — and throughout Hollywood history, to be honest — biopics had the clearest path to recognition from the Academy, which is not to say that the standards for this genre have been lower. This is an exceptionally well-crafted film across the board, but just once I’d like to see a slate of Best Picture nominees that includes no biopics for a change (I know that will never happen). Penn has long been an A-list movie star with an easily identifiable persona, yet was able to keep all that hidden from view to successfully portray a character very different from anything he had tried before. That’s this film’s legacy.

Oscar nominations, 8 — Best Picture, Director (Gus Van Sant), Actor (Sean Penn), Supporting Actor (Josh Brolin), Original Screenplay (Dustin Lance Black), Film Editing, Original Score, Costume Design. Oscar wins, 2 — Actor, Original Screenplay.

Brad Pitt, as the reverse-aging Benjamin Button, stars with Cate Blanchett, who portrays a regularly aging ballerina, in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” directed by David Fincher. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Until David Fincher decided to adapt the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name for the big screen, we never much heard about this source work. Now that several years have passed since this odd, curiously flat movie was given serious consideration as a prestige title, the story has retreated back into the obscurity where, frankly, it belongs. Thankfully, Oscar voters, as well as general audiences, did not fall head over heels for this film the way they did for “Forrest Gump,” a similarly warm-hearted but really dopey and ultimately kind of annoying movie that actually won Best Picture in 1995. Here, Brad Pitt plays a man who ages backwards; in other words, he’s an old man on death’s door when he’s born as an infant, only to have the mind of a newborn when he’s old and gray — if that makes any sense. Arguably the most meticulous filmmaker working today, Fincher saw to it that the copious computerized aging/de-aging effects worked seamlessly, although they’re still supremely creepy. He rounded up a superb supporting cast (Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, et al.). But Pitt’s performance here lent credence to the argument that he can often be a bit of a blank as a leading man, and the story’s messages about age and identity have trouble rising above what is a fairly dull cinematic undertaking. There’s something of a critical consensus out there that Fincher can’t make a bad movie. Well, sure he can (“Alien 3”). I’ll take bad over dull; at least then there’s usually some passion involved.

Oscar nominations, 13 — Best Picture, Director (David Fincher), Actor (Brad Pitt), Actress (Taraji P. Henson), Adapted Screenplay (Eric Roth, Robin Swicord), Film Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Original Score, Costume Design, Sound Mixing, Makeup, Visual Effects. Oscar wins, 3 — Art Direction, Makeup, Visual Effects.

In Danny Boyle’s hyper-kinetic “Slumdog Millionaire,” Dev Patel and Freida Pinto find love against all odds amidst the slums of Mumbai, India. Photo courtesy of Pathe Distribution

Slumdog Millionaire

This was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture in 2009, which speaks to what an underwhelming year it was for the Oscars. The films to choose from weren’t great, and yet the Academy still left at least two of the most significant movies of the year un-nominated. That’s another version of the same old story with the Academy Awards, and obviously not this movie’s fault. But on my first (and probably only) re-watch since reviewing this for publication back in 2008, I once again came away underwhelmed. Dev Patel was a discovery, to be sure, which his acting career since has only emphasized still further. Freida Pinto is positively gorgeous here. But Danny Boyle — damn, man, give it a rest. You’re a wizard behind the camera, OK, got it, but you don’t need to show off with every single scene. The movie is so frenetic, jittery and twitchy that it gave me a headache. Such is the life of a slumdog, a smooth operator, always on the make, but the film needs to stop and catch its breath. While the picture attempts to be Dickensian in its scope, it never exhibits the patience for that kind of detail. Anchoring the plot via a television game show that was once hugely popular but has since disappeared from our culture without a trace isn’t a great look all these years later. What irked me the most, however, was that the game show is just a framing device, and a clumsy one at that. It feels forced. The end credit sequence is fun, but that shouldn’t be the best part of the movie.

Oscar nominations, 10 — Best Picture, Director (Danny Boyle), Adapted Screenplay (Simon Beaufoy), Film Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Original Song (2), Sound Mixing, Sound Editing. Oscar wins, 8 — Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Original Song (1), Sound Mixing.

For further consideration

Heath Ledger became only the second person to receive a posthumous Best Actor Oscar when he won for his performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan went big with what could have been just the latest superhero flick featuring Batman. “The Dark Knight” is a tonally profound, visually stunning representation of a modern, urban dystopia. More importantly, it was arguably the first superhero flick to exhibit the genre’s possibilities beyond its limiting comic-book confines. There has been only a handful of similarly ambitious efforts in the many years since, however, making “The Dark Knight’s” slight at the hands of the Academy seem less egregious than it might have. Consequently, discussions about this historically prominent snub have inevitably come back around to whether popular titles like this one should just be satisfied with great box-office numbers. Maybe so. When a superhero flick finally garnered a Best Picture nod — “Black Panther” in 2019 — it was lauded for a diverse cast and really great costume design, and that was appropriately it. I would not have voted to nominate “The Dark Knight” for Best Picture, not in 2009 and not today, but I think it should’ve gotten more serious consideration at the time.

The title character in the Pixar animated film “WALL-E” is a Waste Allocation Load-Lifter: Earth-Class with a weakness for the musical “Hello, Dolly!” Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

I’ve been saying it for years — the great imaginations at Pixar should be making movies for grown-ups, or at least films targeted at both grown-ups and kids. Why not give it a go just once? Of course, many would say that that’s precisely what Pixar has been doing for years, with “WALL-E” the most prominent of perhaps half a dozen fairly sublime examples. Much in the way even the most ambitious superhero flicks must conclude with yet another special effects-laden, confusedly edited, world-ending fight sequence, Pixar’s movies are seemingly beholden to a cuteness mandate married with visual distraction to hold the kids’ attention. But “WALL-E,” concerned with a couple of lonely robots on a desiccated future Earth, is surprisingly moving. Its homages to cinematic touchstones alone — from the silent films of Charlie Chaplin to “2001: A Space Odyssey” to, of all things, the 1969 musical film “Hello, Dolly!” — are impressively adult. Whether “cartoons” should be taken this seriously is probably an issue too big for Academy voters to handle, but we should all be grateful to a rare picture like this one for raising it.

About this project

Some people vow to visit every continent on the planet, others to read everything Shakespeare (allegedly) wrote. I’ve never had much interest in doing either, but I have committed to seeing every motion picture ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, back to the very first ones in 1927–28 (specifically, I’m talking about films nominated for Outstanding Picture, Outstanding Production, Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Motion Picture and Best Picture; I’m not sure why the Academy has seen fit to change the name of the award so frequently).

I don’t for one moment presume to operate under the assumption that the Best Picture nominees have consistently represented the best American filmmakers have had to offer over time, which is why with each slate of nominees I also briefly consider some other consensus critical picks for the best movies of that year(s). Yes, there’s a lot of overlap, but not as much as there should be.

So, why am I taking the time to watch and then write about so many often sub-par movies (571 following the 2020–21 Academy Awards)? As anyone with just a passing knowledge of the Oscars knows, the voters often get it wrong, which isn’t so much fascinating as it is frustrating. The Oscars, however, have always mattered to the film industry, and matter still (the annual awards telecast, not so much). Each year’s Best Picture nominees help to paint a picture of how Hollywood saw itself at that time, and provide us with glimpses at trends in movie history that could be gone for good.

Most of all, they supply context. Think this year’s slate of nominees was the best ever? The worst? I can virtually guarantee you that that’s not the case. No, really. You’d be surprised.

Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.

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Warm3wind

Warm3wind

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Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.