The Oscars have come and gone with no real surprises. (Come on, is anyone really surprised that the Rourke comeback narrative was toppled by Hollywood's Sean Penn fixation?) It was a strange year--on the surface, the nominations and winners were fine enough, and commendable films were honored, but most of the most interesting films were passed over for the awards, and even nominations, that they really deserved.
The Best Picture category, in particular, might have been completely redone and honored five more interesting, more ambitious, more diverse, and just plain better films. Consider the actual nominees:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button racked up the most nominations, despite being no one's idea of the year's best picture. Well-made, and often gorgeous, but a bit overlong, and not a film to revisit. (The Gump comparisons didn't help, either.)
Frost/Nixon was superbly acted, but seemed to inflate the importance of its events while simultaneously forgetting that the interviews themselves are the most compelling piece of the story, focusing instead on superfluous background and absolutely useless and confusing psuedo-documentary talking head interview scenes.
Milk was well-crafted, but Gus Van Sant directing a biopic about a gay, liberal San Francisco politician? This movie wasn't written, it was hatched in the Guaranteed Oscar Genetic Engineering Lab.
The Reader finally gave Kate Winslet's her Best Actress Oscar, but it was essentially recognizing her entire career--Revolutionary Road was the better Winslet performance and the better film overall, but the Holocaust Chamber is next to the Oppressed Minority Room back at the Oscar Lab.
Slumdog Millionaire? Yeah, that was pretty good, but it already won, so what's the fun of including it in our thought experiment?
Instead, I present five other 2008 films for Best Picture consideration. Read, watch, and think about which set sounds more interesting to have in regular DVD rotation ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road.
The Dark Knight
Why is the Academy so reluctant to acknowledge that blockbuster popcorn films sometimes deserve a Best Picture nod? Talk that Heath Ledger would not have gotten a nomination were he alive is true, but few stop to reflect that he actually deserves the award, dead or alive, but would have been held back by the genre of the film. And, as I've written before, The Dark Knight transcends its genre and offers just as much subtext and character development to dwell on as any of the so-called Best Picture nominees, but, hey, comics are for kids, right? I guess my question for the Academy is: why so serious?
In a lot of ways, this is the film that Frost/Nixon wanted to be: a tightly written, small cast, character-driven play adaptation. There are only four actors with significant speaking roles, and all four of them were (deservedly) nominated for Oscars. What does that tell you? Pound-for-pound, Doubt was one of the leanest, best films of 2008. Unlike any of the films actually nominated, there are no clear good guys or bad guys here, only moral ambiguity. It's not a traditionally satisfying film, which might be why the picture as a whole wasn't nominated. And, sure, the nun outfits and the "issue" feel of the movie might make it seem too Oscar-baity, but it's really about people and their perceptions, and Doubt remains a much-nominated film, yet one of the most underappreciated of 2008.
What the hell happened here? Out of nowhere drops a funny, dark, fantastical, violent film that suddenly makes Colin Farrell relevant again. Farrell got the Golden Globe, and as happens in partner movies only one half got the glory. His counterpart, Brendan Gleeson, was nominated but went home with nothing. Strange that it got nominated in the Comedy half, though, but maybe the Globes didn't know what to do with it. At least they did something with it, though, unlike the Oscars which gave it a token screenplay nod and moved on. A movie that veers off in so many unexpected directions you don't want to summarize it for fear of spoiling it, and for knowledge that it wouldn't make sense out of context no matter how hard you tried. A hell of a feature film directorial debut from playwright Martin McDonagh. Here's hoping the indifference to a brilliant film doesn't send him scurrying back to the stage.
Richard Jenkins had no shot against a resurrected Rourke or the perennial Penn, but Jenkins quietly gave the most commanding performance of the year. The Visitor was a character study and a social issue study all at once, and touches on fundamental questions about immigration, prejudice, and homeland security without being preachy or giving any easy answers. Even Jenkins' obvious Oscar clip, in which he shouts down a customs officer about how "it isn't fair" and "you can't just take people away" is curiously stifled and restrained, an impotent outburst by a man who's been stirred enough to care about something he can't change. But he still cares, and I think the film's final scene is an act of protest that has probably moved many of the film's few viewers as much as it moved his character. Quiet, but funny, but thoughtful, but heartbreaking, The Visitor didn't get a wide audience, but I'd bet it sticks with anyone who did see it longer than Benjamin Button will.
The Best Animated Feature Film is a token prize, basically keeping a highly imaginative adventure tale at the kiddie table so the "adult" films can play. Except Wall-E was a lusher, more engrossing treat for the eyes than the kaleidoscopic colors of Slumdog Millionaire or the historical CGI travels of Benjamin Button, which hogged the visual awards. It was the rare kids' movie that remembers that kids don't just like broad jokes, bright colors and silly voices, but movies that take you to another world and have a real sense of wonder. It was only when Wall-E got to the space station and human characters were involved that the movie lost a little steam, but the silent charm of the first half or so was among the best storytelling in years.