Friday, January 23, 2009

Oscar nominations: What went wrong

Today's Oscar nominations at least had one or two more surprises that no one saw coming. The multiple nominations for "The Reader" are a reminder that you should never underestimate a Holocaust movie. Or Harvey Weinstein. The michelin-man mogul may be in a slump at the box office -- at least until the arrival of August's "Inglorious Basterds"-- but he's not lost his touch when it comes to procuring Academy Award nominations. Kate Winslet is guaranteed to win for her role in "The Reader." In case it's escape your notice, the Oscar apparently means an awful lot to the actress and her fellow British countrymen are still mortified at her Golden Globes acceptance speech. (Note to Oscar producer Gil Cates: Have a mop in the wings so that no one slips on Kate's puddle of tears at the podium).

"The Reader" nominations mean that "The Dark Knight" was shut out. Since Warner Bros is laying off hundreds of employees, the studio can at least save money but not having to spend a penny more on a campaign for "The Dark Knight." After all, Heath Ledger is 101% guaranteed to win a posthumous Best Supporting Actor.

The omission of "The Dark Knight" and "Wall-E" in the "Best Picture" category reveals a lot about the perplexing nature of the Oscars these days. The Academy's choices tend to fall in a peculiar no-man's land. On the one hand, they tend to ignore the film-aficionado selections of the various movie critic circles. And they tend to shun the type of films that the average moviegoer gets enthused about.

The cowled crimefighter and binocular-eyed robot were embraced by audiences and critics alike. But they were relegated to lesser categories (Best Supporting Actor; Best Animated Picture) by the Academy. It wasn't always this way. In the past, the Academy has nominated blockbusters such as "Jaws"and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Nowadays, I'm not sure that a "Titanic" or a "Lord of the Rings" would even make it to a Best Picture nomination. "Wall-E" seems to have been deemed a lesser film by virtue of being an animated film even though critics and audiences seem to agree that the mostly silent film was unique for saying so much by saying very little at all. A true "show, don't tell" message film. And "The Dark Knight" may have hauled in the sort of box office that had James Cameron nervously looking over his shoulder, but it would be foolish to dismiss Christopher Nolan's film as a mere superhero movie. Equating "The Dark Knight" to "The Fantastic Four" is akin to comparing "Bladerunner" to "Battlefield Earth." What other film in recent years (other than "Children of Men") tapped into the zeitgeist of the Patriot Act era?

In short, those Best Picture nominations underscore why the Academy Awards play to ever diminishing television audiences. The presence of Brangelina on the red carpet won't give the ceremony much more than a bump in the ratings, either. Several decades ago, the Oscars gave audiences a rare opportunity to gawk at the stars. In the TMZ era, stars are so overexposed that they've lost any mystery and novelty they once possessed. It doesn't help that, Will Smith aside, actors don't have the box-office clout they once had. Nowadays high-concept story is more important than the actor in front of the green screen.

While I'm ragging on the Academy, let's add a WTF? about the Best Original Song category for coming up with a mere three nominees and somehow omitting Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler" or Jenny Lewis's "Barking at the Moon" from "Bolt." Thank goodness Clint Eastwood wasn't nominated for his singing in "Gran Torino." For a minute there, I thought he'd been taking vocal lessons from William Hung.

Also, the Best Foreign Language Picture list overlooked "Gomorra," just as it ignored "Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days" last year.

Final complaint: All the nominations for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Really? Like Brad Pitt's other Oscar bait films -- "Babel" and that Jesse James movie with the awfully long title -- it's puffed up with self importance but utterly hollow. Mark my words, the film will age less well than its titular character.

But let's say this about the Academy. At least it had the good sense to shut out "Revolutionary Road" with its tired myths about the suburbs of the 1950s. And kudos for all the nods for "Slumdog Millionaire."

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