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Random Thoughts on the 81st Oscar Nominations

Written by Christopher Beaubien • January 26, 2009 • Start the Discussion!

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We were spoiled by last year’s Oscar telecast. It didn’t feel that way at the time, but after going through the slough of nominations deemed safe by the Academy of Motion Pictures, a year where No Country For Old Men (2007) took home the big kahuna is looking more lustrous. Amidst the categories is a rigid formula of regularity that just strengthens my conspiracy that the Oscar voters are in cahoots with The Sandman. Some of nominees are deserving, but many of them have been preordained by the death of a thousand cuts that film pundits call Oscar Buzz.

Mind you, I’m writing this with a little tongue in cheek. If the few deserving nominees were absent from the categories, it would be disappointing despite how much news preordained the suspense out like a strangled balloon. Looking at the Best Actor nominees alone, four out of five great choices is not bad. Other categories are not as kind. This is the first out of two think-pieces about the 81st Annual Academy Award Nominations.

Best Picture

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Ceán Chaffin, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall
Frost|Nixon (2008): Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Eric Fellner
Milk (2008): Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks (they won for American Beauty in 1999)
The Reader (2008): Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack, Donna Gigliotti, Redmond Morris
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Christian Colson

Out of all the nominees, my favorite is this year’s dark horse: Milk.

The wasp in the honeycomb hairdo this year is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. If those films represented a hand of cards in a poker game, then I would have dropped Benjamin Button faster than you can ask “Why in Hollywood is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button nominated for Best Picture?

This year we lost two wonderful filmmakers who were also two of the four producers nominated for The Reader: Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999) and Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, 1982).

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Richard Jenkins for The Visitor (2007)
Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler (2008)
Frank Langella for Frost\Nixon (2008)
Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Sean Penn for Milk (2008)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Kate Winslet for The Reader (2008)
Meryl Streep for Doubt (2008)
Melissa Leo for Frozen River (2008)
Angelina Jolie for Changeling (2008)

Considering Anne Hathaway’s remarkable turn as the pitiable, impassioned drug-use recoverer Kim, only her title role in Barbera Kopple’s Havoc (2005) hinted at the searing intensity that was all too convincing in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. There are two likely paths Hathaway could follow with her win. One is the same route as her co-star Kate Hudson from the misogynistic Bride Wars (2009): an Oscar winner (Almost Famous, 2002) with a long line of shallow romantic comedies and no redeeming feature films afterward. The other path is the Hilary Swank one; she’ll win two Oscars (Boys Don’t Cry, 1999 and Million Dollar Baby, 2004) years later. Both times she’ll beat the same actress over the prize – imagine Annette Bening puncturing needles into a Swank voodoo doll.

If Kate Winslet should win, she is obligated to deliver her Oscar speech as a continuation of her character “Kate Winslet” from the Ricky Gervais Hollywood satire Extras. In that episode, “Winslet” claims she is doing the Holocaust picture to win herself an easy Oscar despite the surplus amount of such films: “We get it! It was grim. Move on.” Art imitates life and vice versa.

“I would like to thank the Academy for being oh so predictable. I don’t have to be a fortune teller to read the likes of you! A few years ago, I televised my plans to secure my very own golden, bald man on the BBC: ‘Starring in a Holocaust film equals Oscar!’ I stand before you fearlessly knowing that there is no risk of me never getting nominated again because I am a bloody great actress. You can’t help yourselves. You’ve nominated me six times and you’re going do a dozen more times! When my Oscar-holding husband and I go home tonight, we are going to play ‘Academy Wars’ and wrestling our statues for hours. Time: Minute and a half! Smell it, Streep! Kisses!”

It would be wonderful to see Melissa Leo, a hard-working character actor take the gold for her work in Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River. She played Ray, a tough, poverty-stricken mother struggling to improve the welfare of her children’s livelihood. Not only is her loathsome boss at the Dollar Store doling out part-time work like it were crumbs, her runaway husband is also gambling their life savings away. Through a bizarre circumstance (“You shouldn’t have left your keys in the car.”), Ray comes across an equally desperate Mohawk mother named Lila (Misty Upham) whose mother has kidnapped her baby – an encounter in a restaurant where Lila helplessly stands by is hard to watch. To escape financial ruin, Lila gets Ray involved in smuggling immigrants across the boarder from Canada. The illegal venture is extraordinarily dangerous, where misunderstandings turn sickening: Ray abandons a packed bag in the snow fearing that East Indian couple were harboring weapons, she regrets it later. This performance is a fully explored one.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Josh Brolin for Milk (2008)
Michael Shannon for Revolutionary Road (2008)
Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight (2008)
Philip Seymour Hoffman for Doubt (2008)
Robert Downey Jr. for Tropic Thunder (2008)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams for Doubt (2008)
Marisa Tomei for The Wrestler (2008)
Taraji P. Henson for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Viola Davis for Doubt (2008)
Penélope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Best Achievement in Directing

Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Stephen Daldry for The Reader (2008)
David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Ron Howard for Frost\Nixon (2008)
Gus Van Sant for Milk (2008)

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Frozen River (2008): Courtney Hunt
Happy-Go-Lucky (2008): Mike Leigh
In Bruges (2008): Martin McDonagh
Milk (2008): Dustin Lance Black
WALL•E (2008): Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Jim Reardon

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Eric Roth, Robin Swicord
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Simon Beaufoy
The Reader (2008): David Hare
Frost/Nixon (2008): Peter Morgan
Doubt (2008): John Patrick Shanley

Best Achievement in Cinematography

Changeling (2008): Tom Stern
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Anthony Dod Mantle
The Reader (2008): Roger Deakins, Chris Menges
The Dark Knight (2008): Wally Pfister
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Claudio Miranda

Best Achievement in Editing

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Chris Dickens
Milk (2008): Elliot Graham
Frost/Nixon (2008): Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill
The Dark Knight (2008): Lee Smith

Best Achievement in Art Direction

Changeling (2008): James J. Murakami, Gary Fettis
Revolutionary Road (2008): Kristi Zea, Debra Schutt
The Duchess (2008): Michael Carlin, Rebecca Alleway
The Dark Knight (2008): Nathan Crowley, Peter Lando
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Donald Graham Burt, Victor J. Zolfo

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Australia (2008): Catherine Martin
Revolutionary Road (2008): Albert Wolsky
Milk (2008): Danny Glicker
The Duchess (2008): Michael O’Connor
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Jacqueline West

Best Achievement in Makeup

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Greg Cannom
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008): Mike Elizalde, Thomas Floutz
The Dark Knight (2008): John Caglione Jr., Conor O’Sullivan

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Alexandre Desplat
Defiance (2008): James Newton Howard
Milk (2008): Danny Elfman
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): A.R. Rahman
WALLE (2008): Thomas Newman

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): A.R. Rahman, Gulzar (“Jai Ho”)
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): A.R. Rahman, Maya Arulpragasam (“O Saya”)
WALL•E (2008): Peter Gabriel, Thomas Newman (“Down to Earth”)

Best Achievement in Sound

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce, Mark Weingarten
The Dark Knight (2008): Ed Novick, Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke, Resul Pookutty
WALLE (2008): Tom Myers, Michael Semanick, Ben Burtt
Wanted (2008): Chris Jenkins, Frank A. Montaño, Petr Forejt

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

The Dark Knight (2008): Richard King
Iron Man (2008): Frank E. Eulner, Christopher Boyes
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Tom Sayers
WALL•E (2008): Ben Burtt, Matthew Wood
Wanted (2008): Wylie Stateman

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton, Craig Barron
The Dark Knight (2008): Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Timothy Webber, Paul J. Franklin
Iron Man (2008): John Nelson, Ben Snow, Daniel Sudick, Shane Mahan

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

Bolt (2008): Chris Williams, Byron Howard
Kung Fu Panda (2008): John Stevenson, Mark Osborne
WALL•E (2008): Andrew Stanton

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008) (Germany)
Entre les murs (2008) (France)
Revanche (2008) (Austria)
Okuribito (2008) (Japan)
Vals Im Bashir (2008) (Israel)

Best Documentary, Features

The Betrayal – Nerakhoon (2008): Ellen Kuras, Thavisouk Phrasavath
Encounters at the End of the World (2007): Werner Herzog, Henry Kaiser
The Garden (2008): Scott Hamilton Kennedy
Man on Wire (2008): James Marsh, Simon Chinn
Trouble the Water (2008): Tia Lessin, Carl Deal

I would love to see Man on Wire win this one – it recounted the insane affirmation of Philippe Petit’s highest tightrope wire act ever. Much of it was scored to Petit’s favorite music by Michael Nyman. The 2005 animated short The Man Who Walked Between the Towers included with the DVD exposes Petit being much closer to the fiction of fairy tales as opposed to the man of flesh and blood still going about his own way. I hope that James Marsh and Simon Chinn will invite Mr. Petit on stage to say a few words.

Still, it would be exhilarating to see Werner Herzog on the podium addressing Hollywood about the voodoo of location and how aspiring filmmakers should walk 500 miles before making one.

Then again, a win for Trouble the Water would amplify the voices of Katrina survivors like Kimberley Roberts, a real hero.

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