Don’t misunderstand me on Revolutionary Road—I’m neither defending its artistic merit nor lamenting its under-recognition, and if it had earned a bunch of nods, I wouldn’t be hollering “Whoo-hoo!” but mumbling “That figures.” I guess I’m just puzzled at The Reader having barged its unsubtle way into so many big categories. If academy voters want to reward Kate Winslet for her entire body of work (and why shouldn’t they, even if 33 is a bit young to start bemoaning your long-overdue Oscar), why overlook her obvious blue-chip project of the year, a beautifully crafted if somewhat lifeless movie, in favor of the morbid pandering of The (even more lifeless) Reader? The most likely answer—that a majority of academy voters simply enjoy morbid pandering for its own sake—is so dispiriting that I’d prefer to leave this an open question.
So, you’re one of those people who thinks Paranoid Park is the great Gus Van Sant movie of 2008. There were a few of them at every year-end critics’ meeting I attended, and I confess that I half-suspected they were just being deliberately contrarian. Not that Paranoid Park, a grim little young-adult morality tale set in the skate-rat culture of the Pacific Northwest, was a bad movie—just so slight that it disappeared from my memory within weeks of seeing it. The ambitious, sprawling, large-spirited Milk, on the other hand, is unforgettable. (And though it is a conventional biopic in some respects, can you really call it Van Sant’s “squarest movie”? Wouldn’t that award have to go to Good Will Hunting?) I’m with you: If I had a vote to cast for best picture out of these nominees, it would go to Milk. (But for best director, I might choose The Wrestler’s Darren Aronofsky, who wasn’t even nominated.)
As for Frost/Nixon: Like Doubt, it was a filmed play that didn’t try to be more than that. (Well, in Doubt’s case, director/playwright John Patrick Shanley tried a bit too hard but remained stage-bound.) Still, I enjoyed every dishy, talky, stagy moment of both Frost/Nixon and Doubt—and, as a theater-buff friend of mine likes to rant, what’s so wrong with filming a play? Can’t one of cinema’s many tasks be to record theatrical performances that are worth preserving? Ron Howard is never going to give Renoir or Ozu a run for their money, but Frost/Nixon makes perfectly respectable filler for the best picture category (though it won’t win), and Frank Langella’s magisterial turn as Nixon certainly seems at home in the best actor category (though I’m pulling for Mickey Rourke or Sean Penn—Penn’s performance is my favorite of the year, and wouldn’t you like to see Rourke’s acceptance speech?).
What gets on my nerves about the marketing of Slumdog Millionaire is the whole “little indie that could” rhetoric. That’s annoying enough when applied to movies that are legitimate sleepers; still, at least Little Miss Sunshine and Juno were films by little-known directors that attracted larger and more loyal followings than anyone expected. But Danny Boyle is a long-established and popular British filmmaker who’s had many hits in the United States (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, A Life Less Ordinary), and he’s working with a cast of actors that includes Indian superstars Irrfan Khan and Anil Kapoor. If people want to laud the movie, fine, but let’s not pretend it was constructed from duct tape and spit by the Little Match Girl.
Now, Frozen River—there’s a movie that just about was constructed from duct tape and spit, shot on digital camera in rural New York State by first-time writer/director Courtney Hunt. I was very happy to see Melissa Leo get a nod for her fine performance as an impoverished single mother who starts smuggling immigrants across the U.S.-Canadian border to support her family. But I was thrilled, and surprised, to see Hunt’s name appear in the best original screenplay lineup. Truth be told, I seldom think about the Oscars in terms of who “deserves” what—as Hamlet said, “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?” (That line has always struck me as the setup for a Mae West-style riposte along the lines of “Hon, you can use me after dessert anytime.”) The formula for winning an Academy Award is such a mysterious algorithm, some unquantifiable mix of strategy, luck, and the prevailing taste of the moment, that usually, to paraphrase the real Mae West, goodness has nothing to do with it. But when the name of an unknown talent like Hunt pops up on these nomination lists, you remember that even the academy, every once in a while, is capable of making the right call.
Go ahead, burst my bubble,