Oscar Re-Do: 2008

You know the drill: Winners in bold, then we break it down.

Dev Patel and Freida Pinto in Slumdog Millionaire
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

Should have won: No complaints here
Not even nominated: The Dark Knight

I have absolutely no problem with Slumdog Millionaire. It was my favorite movie of 2008 at the time, and is still the most vibrant of these five nominees, which features David Fincher, Ron Howard and Gus Van Sant at their most prestige-y, and one of the worst movies ever to be nominated for Best Picture. So no, I don’t understand the complaints about the “false uplift” or “poverty porn” of this genuinely moving film.

But of course I have a problem with the Academy not nominating The Dark Knight. Even as the shine of Christopher Nolan’s Chicago crime epic – with occasional appearances by Batman – has dimmed over the years, there’s still never been a good reason as to why the second-biggest movie ever (at the time) wasn’t nominated, especially when the line-up includes The Reader, which no one saw (at the time), and no one ever talks about or thinks about. The backlash was so bad, the Academy expanded their Best Picture field the next year. But still wasn’t until this year that a comic book movie was actually nominated. As critic Guy Lodge put it, at the very least it would have shut up a lot of annoying online people who lament that they never take comic book movies seriously.

Loveleen Tandan and Danny Boyle on the set of Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Gus Van Sant, Milk
Stephen Daldry, The Reader
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

Should have won: Loveleen Tandan
Not even nominated: Tarsem, The Fall

Since all five directing nominees matched here, the only thing I have to add is that Danny Boyle needs to share this award with Loveleen Tandan, the woman who co-directed much of the film, yet he didn’t thank in his acceptance speech. It was a black mark on an otherwise exceptional night for the film, which won eight of its 10 Oscar nominations.

I’ll save my thoughts on The Reader for later, but suffice it to say, Stephen Daldry doesn’t belong here. I’d once again find a spot for Tarsem, who used his clout and busy commercial directing schedule to his advantage, calling in his cast and crew to gorgeous locations across the globe to be able to bring his twisted fairy tale to life.

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Should have won: Mickey Rourke
Not even nominated: Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino

It’s been 10 years, and nothing’s changed. Sean Penn is totally fine as LGBTQ rights icon Harvey Milk, but he’s got nothing on the pain and realism of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Within the film and as a performance, he truly left it all out there.

I don’t think I’d necessarily take off any of these five performers, since they’re all doing solid work, in most cases the best parts of their respective films. But Clint Eastwood always knocks out the “older actor grappling with his legacy” roles, even if he’s done it at least three times since Unforgiven, including Million Dollar Baby (2004), where he was nominated, and here and The Mule (2018), where he wasn’t.

Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, The Reader

Should have won: Anne Hathaway
Not even nominated: Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy

I’m still baffled at the Academy success of The Reader. This is a poorly executed tearjerker/tragic romance/courtroom drama that requires us to empathize with an illiterate Nazi statutory rapist, played by Winslet in what is clearly a supporting role. She’s by far the best part of the movie, and she was well overdue at this point, but this is a case where she won for the wrong movie. I’d have happily given it to her in an actual tragic romance: Revolutionary Road, but the Academy went with the one of the worst movies it’s ever nominated.

So if Winslet wasn’t getting it for the right movie, they should have turned to a slightly younger actress. Anne Hathaway might have won a few years later for Les Misérables, but she still has yet to top her performance as Kym, a still-broken woman trying to act put together for her sister’s wedding. Rachel Getting Married is an uncomfortable movie for anyone who’s experienced a family member struggling with addiction, but its realism will mean it’s remembered far longer than The Reader.

Speaking of which, Michelle Williams isn’t exactly underrated at this point. She’s been nominated for four Oscars now, but somehow hasn’t won. I already sung her praises a few years ago, but she at least deserved a nomination as the anchor of Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt’s absolutely heartbreaking adaptation. With her dog Lucy as her only companion, Wendy slowly fades from society, slipping in and out of sanity.

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey Jr, Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

Should have won: No complaints here
Not even nominated: Russell Brand, Forgetting Sarah Marshall

This was locked even before Ledger’s tragic death in January 2009. He had already become one of the greatest working actors, but his performance in The Dark Knight is the stuff of legend. It’s all the more remarkable, because Ledger reportedly was hoping to get fired, but Nolan kept encouraging him to go weirder and darker, and it will be the first role people will associate with him. There’s no telling how many other great performances he would have gotten to give in the future, but this stands as the best anyone has ever done in a comic book movie.

So it’s a fun What If? to wonder who could have won other than Ledger. All would have been worthy alternates, but perhaps even more than Downey, the best comedic performance of the year wasn’t his co-star Tom Cruise (although that was a fun detour he should do more often). It was Russell Brand, long before he got insufferable. As the tactless rock star Aldous Snow, it’s a bit of comic genius, casually dropping details about his affair to the cuckolded Peter (Jason Segel) and ignoring the obsessive fandom of a waiter (Jonah Hill). I still love his reading of “It’s a metaphor for a crap movie.”

Viola Davis in Doubt
Amy Adams, Doubt
Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Should have won: Viola Davis
Not even nominated: Jennifer Ehle, Pride and Glory

Beatrice Straight, eat your heart out. Viola Davis gave the best one-scene performance of all time. This should have been the first of many Oscars for one of our greatest living actresses. Unfortunately, she lost to Penélope Cruz in a lesser Woody Allen effort. Cruz could have won for Volver (her best work) were she not going up against Helen Mirren in The Queen. So I don’t know if this was a make-up award or autopilot for Supporting Actress in a Woody Allen movie. Either way, they ignored the best work in the field.

I don’t remember much about Pride and Glory, Gavin O’Connor’s solid-if-rote good cop/bad cop drama, but I do remember two things: Jennifer Ehle was fantastic, and Colin Farrell threatened a baby with a hot iron.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in In Bruges
Frozen River
In Bruges

Should have won: In Bruges
Not even nominated: Burn After Reading

Speaking of Colin Farrell, In Bruges remains his best work, and arguably the best post-Tarantino crime film. As an assassin hiding out in Belgium with his sidekick (Brendan Gleeson) after a botched hit job, it’s a pitch-perfect black comedy.

The only black comedy that was better? Burn After Reading. I’m still baffled the Coens’ didn’t even get this nomination after winning the year before for No Country for Old Men. Their farce about a bunch of idiots running around D.C. trying to find a disc they think contains valuable intelligence has actually gotten more relevant as the situation in our nation’s capital has gotten even more absurd. “Jesus, what a clusterfuck!” indeed.

Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor in Slumdog Millionaire
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

Should have won: No complaints here
Not even nominated: Revolutionary Road

Nothing much to say here, other than once again Revolutionary Road should have been here instead of The Reader. Even if the film is more an acting showcase than a writing showcase, it gets the coded language of the suburbs and the trap of capitalism.

Kung Fu Panda

Should have won: No complaints here
Not even nominated: Waltz with Bashir

This starts what I’ve dubbed Pixar’s “weepy trilogy.” All three films won this Oscar and made me bawl like a baby. Bolt and Kung Fu Panda are fine, but neither hold a candle to Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman’s devastating documentary about the 1982 Lebanon War.

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