For the past five years, I have tried to determine which films I felt were the best, meaning which should be nominated for Oscar's Best Picture prize.
For the past half-decade, my choices have somewhat matched the films that went on to get nominated. I haven't always agreed with all of the Academy's picks for the top award, but I've always had at least one dog in the fight.
There have been occasionally two or more movies that I thought should never have been Best Picture contenders. Not that they were bad movies! It's just that I felt that there were better films out there. At the same time, there have always been a couple, or at minimum one film, that I thought deserved to be in that distinct group.
Unfortunately, that is not the case this year.
The Oscars have nominated The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, and Slumdog Millionaire, as its five Best Picture hopefuls. Again, I don't think these films are bad movies, but ultimately each turned me off or didn't really excite me enough to get me to care.
I thought they were all good films with important messages and interesting stories, but my criticisms were too insurmountable for me to be comfortable with all of them being in their now lofty positions. For the first time, I am in total disagreement with the movies up for the main category.
Of the five, Slumdog Millionaire seems to be the front-runner. It's already won so many top awards from other organizations that tend to mirror Oscar results. Still, that doesn't convince me.
What does convince me is what Christine Spines and Nicole Sperling of Entertainment Weekly reported in the Jan. 30 issue of that magazine. They wrote that Fox Searchlight bought the film last year and spent up to $25 million in marketing in order to build an Oscar campaign. They quoted Peter Rice, the president of Fox Searchlight, a man who had similar campaigns built for Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Juno (2007).
Whatever the campaigns were, apparently they worked because both films got nominated for Oscar's Best Picture. With Slumdog Millionaire, Rice has proven that he has a knack for getting independent and lighthearted films into the main Oscar category, but in the article he admitted that his company actively worked to do more to make Slumdog not just another nominee but this time a winner.
So, was it the movie that got nominated or the campaign? I know a lot of people claim to like it, but I wonder if it was because they were inundated into believing so by the $25 million advertising.
The film itself isn't a winner for me. In my review of it, I called it an overblown love story. I thought it was too contrived. In the film, a young Mumbai boy named Jamal is accused of cheating on a TV game show. The response from the police is to kidnap him, rip off his clothes, string him up by his wrists and electro-shock him.
If this is how they treat game show contestants, I'd hate to see how they handle Al Qaeda terrorists. It's not as if this is Jeopardy. The game show questions are pop culture ones that anyone could answer. He could easily know the answers without cheating. But, at the same time, how Jamal knows all these answers is at minimum ridiculous and preposterous.
Yes, this is supposed to be a fairy tale. However, director Danny Boyle forces so much harsh realism- a ton of ugly and gritty details- that there seems to be no proper balance between being fluffed with a fairy tale and being hammered by all the street violence and little boys falling in feces.
I know I'm in total disagreement with the majority of professional film critics. But, the only film on which the critics and I agree is The Reader. My response was as lukewarm to that one as the majority of critics were.
The framing device was pointless. Actor Ralph Fiennes was non-utilized. The film loses sight of the love story to deal with the Holocaust stuff, but, once it does get into the Holocaust stuff, it doesn't give Kate Winslet's character enough three-dimensions or give us really enough insight into her motivations. Winslet had a nice conversation with Charlie Rose on PBS that illuminated things, but not enough was explained on screen. The trial where the debate about her character's motivations should have been argued was rather lame.
In the box office, Frost/Nixon was probably the worst performing of the five Oscar films, having grossed only $16 million in three months. Nothing against Ron Howard who is a great filmmaker! His movie is well made and interesting, but its sloth-like ticket sales don't surprise me. It's not a rush-to-the-theater-to-see kind of picture. From Howard's vantage point, it felt more like an intellectual exercise.
There appears to be somewhat of a slobbering love affair, as Bernard Goldberg might say, for Sean Penn in Milk. I agree Penn gives a performance that is uncanny to the real-life gay politician, Harvey Milk, and, that rightfully has people questioning Penn's own sexuality, but director Gus Van Sant's film leaves much to be desired! As I stated in my review, one thinks this film is going to be a biopic but ends up revealing nothing about who Harvey Milk was, where he grew up, who his parents were or etc.
It becomes less about the man and more about the movement, which would have been fine, if the writer had bothered to put more substantive weight to the issue. No real or concrete examples were given to demonstrate the homophobia or discrimination that existed. It just amounted to Milk giving speeches.
The only film that felt like it should have been there was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. At nearly three hours, the film felt epic. It had a grandiose feeling with gorgeous cinematography, perfect special effects and amazing makeup. It truly was a well-directed and beautifully artistic creation. With the writer of Forrest Gump in its back pocket, it seems poised to go the same route come Oscar Sunday.
Certainly, if I had a chance to vote, Benjamin Button would get mine. But make no mistake: it was not my favorite film. Brad Pitt acted more like a puppet. There were parts in the middle that dragged. The love story wasn't all that compelling, and instead of being provocative and challenging, it skirts away.
I know these films were made with the best and noblest of intentions. Yet, honestly, they left me with nothing. Quite frankly, I was highly disappointed to learn these were the movies the Academy chose as the industry's best representatives.