Friday, February 27, 2009
2008 Film Roundup: The Oscars and the Year in Review
(Welcome to the annual post-Oscar film roundup, a pre-blog tradition. It's split into four posts, starting with this one and scrolling down.)
2008 was an odd, uneven year for film, even accounting for the usual summer spectacle and Oscar bait seasons. For the first time in a few years, we had summer blockbusters that were actually good. But while there was a respectable crop of films that were above average, very good, or otherwise worth seeing, the number of really superlative films was underwhelming. (That's a subjective call, of course, but I thought WALL-E remained head and shoulders over virtually everything I'd seen all year until surprisingly late in the fall. Devoted Dark Knight fans can add it to the list.)
Oscar nominations typically have a "usual suspects" element, but it seemed more pronounced this year. Her for Best Actress? That for Best Picture? Really? A mystifying thirteen nominations for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? It felt like the Academy was scrambling more than usual to fill out even some major categories. It was nice to see underdogs such as actor Richard Jenkins nominated for great work, and some of the more celebrated performances definitely deserved their nominations, but it was hard to get too enthusiastic over the selections as a whole. I liked The Dark Knight, but didn't think it was the runaway best picture of the year. Despite that, I thought it received the biggest snub. Each film of The Lord of the Rings series, while being showered with nominations, still had to overcome significant bias that it was somehow juvenile fare, and that a movie featuring effects-heavy spectacle and hobbits couldn't also produce great acting and perhaps the most depth and artistry of any film that year. Well, hobbits may have eventually gotten their due, but superhero flicks, even if they possess far more substance than the average blockbuster, will have to content themselves with box office receipts. Similarly, I agree with the sentiment that WALL-E should have been able to contend for Best Picture in addition to Best Animated Feature. All that said, Slumdog Millionaire was one of the best films of the year and the best of the nominees. It earned early praise as a film to seek out, and then the inevitable backlash. But while it has fairy-tale elements, it also depicts poverty and class issues in a stark and memorable way that's rare for Hollywood to honor outside of the documentary categories. It was also one of the most energetic, innovative and emotionally-engaging films of the year.
As always, the fun in watching the Oscars lies in mocking the excesses, booing the injustices, and cheering on the worthy winners. Hugh Jackman did a good job overall as Oscar host. Consensus at the Oscar party I attended was that not being a comedian helped him. He didn't need to come out and deliver a real comedy set, as other hosts have. There was much less pressure on him to be funny (although he was at points); he just needed to be charming, which he handled with ease. If all else failed, he could just say, "Meryl Streep, ladies and gentlemen!" as he did a couple of times. But his opening number was lively and creative, with some good gags – singing to Kate Winslet about swimming in excrement, joking about renting The Reader, and making Anne Hathaway surely the prettiest actor ever to play Richard Nixon. Despite the immense venue, the staging was very intimate, at least for Jackman and the acting nominees in the first few rows. (But where was Jack Nicholson? Isn't this the second Oscar ceremony in a row without the King of Hollywood? I also see I shouldn't have cut the "Aniston to Jolie and vice versa reaction shot" category from the Oscar Drinking Game.)
I really could have done without the 'Salute to Musicals' number later on (although I was in the minority on that one at the Oscar party). Jackman and Beyoncé performed well, though. Less welcome was the High School Musical duo, and ABC/Disney's repeated attempts to further flog its juggernaut franchise. I would have preferred giving that time to the Oscar songs, which were presented in a medley and limited to 65 second snippets each. Peter Gabriel bowed out of performing for that reason, although he got his desired Gospel choir replacement, and John Legend sang Gabriel's lead part nicely.
On the music front, this was a strong year. I was happy to see A. R. Rahman's wins for his energetic, infectious score and song-writing, especially because they played such an important role in Slumdog Millionaire. He was certainly the most original choice for the Academy. Danny Elfman's score for Milk was quite good, and Thomas Newman continues to show why he's one of the best out there with his soaring work on WALL-E. Apparently, there was an eligibility issue for the score for The Dark Knight by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer. Their Joker's theme, using a single, extended cello note, was eerie and extremely effective (more in the Dark Knight entry below). For the songs, no nomination for Hamlet 2's "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus" was unfair but unsurprising, while not including Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler" was a glaring omission. It and two of the actual nominees provided the capstones to their respective films. Normally, I'd be pulling for my man Peter Gabriel to win, and his song "Down to Earth" offered a nice exit for WALL-E. But "Jai Ho" from Slumdog was a celebratory explosion for that film, so it deserved the edge. Still, I think even "Jai Ho" paled to the role Springsteen's "The Wrestler" played for its movie – a haunting, simple soliloquy that put the entire preceding film in perspective and lingered far after.
The Dark Knight had some good sound editing work by winner Richard King – the sequence with the Bat-Bike was breathtaking. But I thought WALL-E's editing and mixing were just extraordinary, one of the best sound jobs I've heard in at least a decade, and Ben Burtt got robbed. Since both Burtt and King have won before, it's less of a concern. (And maybe I'd feel differently myself if I were privy to the nomination "bake-offs" that precede some of the more technical awards.) I continue to wish the Academy would better explain the difference between sound editing and sound mixing to the general audience, because as someone in my film buff Oscar party crowd pointed out, even most of them weren't sure. I just wish the arduous and important task of sound design was better understood and appreciated. On a similar note, NPR station KCRW ran a good story on the Oscars' Sci-Tech Awards, given out by this year's virgin sacrifice, Jessica Biel (it's always a gorgeous young actress – past presenters have included Jessica Alba and Jennifer Garner). Only Gordon Sawyer Award winner and geek king Ed Catmull got shown at the Oscars this time, whereas in past years they've flashed brief video clips of the other honorees.
The most welcome award was the always good and versatile Kate Winslet finally winning her Oscar. Her warm shout-outs to deceased Reader producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack were especially nice, and the requested whistle from her father was fantastic. (I would have liked to have seen Sally Hawkins get a nomination for Happy-Go-Lucky, though.) Heath Ledger's untimely death locked in his win, but it was a remarkable performance, and his family's acceptance was one of the most emotional moments of the evening. I thought Penelope Cruz was the least deserving of the Best Supporting Actress nominees, and won mainly due to past nominations (as is often the case). Cruz serves ably in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but it's a performance consisting of only a few notes, and mostly one ("feisty senorita," as a friend of mine put it). Both Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall deliver better performances in the same film. I'd have given the award to the multitalented, always superb Amy Adams, who had the most screen time and the most substantial performance of the lot. I would have been satisfied with any of the other nominees winning, too. Viola Davis really only has one scene, but it's a long one, full of shifts and discovery, and she's fantastic in it. Taraji P. Henson is very good in Benjamin Button (several people were shocked to discover that the young Henson, looking gorgeous at the Oscars, played Queenie in the film). And Marisa Tomei gives a layered performance that moves her role in The Wrestler away from that beloved Oscar trope, the stripper (or prostitute) with a heart of gold. For Best Actor, I would have been happy with either Sean Penn or Mickey Rourke winning, but would have given the edge to Rourke on the merits and because Penn's already won. (I would have really cheered for Richard Jenkins – and while Brad Pitt deserved his nomination for 12 Monkeys, I don't think he merited one for Benjamin Button.) The debate among our crew was on the tipping points – what role was played by lingering resentments toward Rourke in Hollywood, and extra support for Penn because of Prop. 8? Was this also delayed appreciation for Brokeback Mountain? Rourke said he wanted Penn to win, since he was a good friend to him during his dark days. Rourke did get several nice shout-outs at the awards, and his rambling, profanity-laced acceptance speech at the Independent Spirit Awards is pretty entertaining. So he's gotten his moment, his "return to the ring," as Ben Kingsley put it. And Penn did do a terrific job, submerging himself into the role of Harvey Milk. As with Meryl Streep, it's easy to take him for granted because he's always good (I know people who think of him as a scenery-chewer, but he's not in Milk). Penn's speech was unsurprisingly political but on-target, and also fairly funny and restrained for him. (It was hard not to like "You commie, homo-loving sons of guns" – but dude, remember to thank your wife!)
I'd have given the endlessly inventive and elegant WALL-E best original screenplay, but Dustin Lance Black's winning script for Milk was solid and above average for a biopic, and he gave one of the most heartfelt, memorable speeches of the night. Manic leprechaun Danny Boyle gave a sweet speech after winning Best Director, and his apology to the choreographer was classy (it's very easy to leave someone out of the credits, especially on a major production). Tina Fey and Steve Martin, both writers and witty performers, made the screenplay presentations the most entertaining of the night. The device of showing some of the script and the film was last done (to my memory) in 2002 (In the Bedroom, Fellowship of the Ring), and it works wonderfully, so I hope it endures this time (something similar for the sound awards would be harder, but fantastic). Jack Black was very funny presenting, joking about making his money by working for Dreamworks Animation but betting on Pixar, and claiming he only watched movies with himself in it – like most actors. Ben Stiller's Joaquin Phoenix impression was pretty funny, although he let it go on a bit too long, so that the names of the cinematography nominees were obscured by laughter. Queen Latifah did a really lovely job singing "I’ll be Seeing You” during the "In Memoriam" section, although the camera cutting was excessive. The Paul Newman clip was a perfect closer, though (Heath Ledger was featured last year, if you missed it, and they added Roy Scheider this year after forgetting him last time). Man on Wire star Philippe Petit provided some fun balancing an Oscar on his chin and performing a magic trick. Best Animated Short winner Kunio Katô's speech in halting English, unexpectedly closing with "Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto," might have been the funniest (and most unexpected) bit of the night.
I was wary of past acting winners giving a little speech to each of the nominees, but warmed to it. (It went over well at our Oscar party.) The problem was that the first set of tributes, for Best Supporting Actress, were overly somber and dragged. The last crew, for Best Actor, had much more fun, particularly DeNiro: "How did he do it? How did Sean Penn get all those roles as straight men?" (Cuba Gooding, Jr. speaking to Robert Downey, Jr. was funny on the one hand, but on the other - Cuba - Snow Dogs? Daddy Day Camp? Boat Trip, the straight-guys-on-a-gay-cruise flick?) Assuming the Oscars broadcast can keep things tight, this tribute device gives past winners a spotlight and continuity with the present, and it gives all of the nominees a moment of appreciation, with less focus on the actual winner. This comes at the expense of clips of the performances, though, so I wonder about this. The nominees clearly appreciated it, but are their films and their work better promoted with brief footage? As it is, the awards are awfully actor-centric, even if actors are understandably the main focus. If nothing else, the tributes do up the odds for teary eyes, and the Oscars may not like unrestrained, unintelligible sobbing, but they loooove weepy!
The montages were also surprisingly good this time, celebrating all the films of the year and trying to place the Best Picture nominees in the tradition of past winners. Having Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen put together a comedy montage was smart (laughing at The Reader was surreal). The animation, action and Best Picture montages featured some very slick and inspired editing. (Besides the great motion and thematic edits, there was a brilliant cut during the animation montage between doggie hero Bolt shooting laser beams from his eyes to Anakin Skywalker deflecting a laser blast. I'd like another look at these segments, actually.) One problem during the rest of the ceremony was the occasional blue frame made up of film clip loops. It wasn't a horrible idea, but one of the most prominent looped clips was Po the Kung Fu Panda leaping to eat a wonton. After you spotted it, it was hard not to laugh, distracting from the more serious speeches.
In any case, the Oscars have always made for problematic viewing outside the dedicated, and this year's ceremony was uneven, but made some good choices to build on for next year. Some deserving winners also made it worthwhile.
On to more general issues – AMC had a smart promotion allowing people to watch all five Best Picture nominees the Saturday before the Oscars in a marathon viewing. It would be great for some chain to offer a Oscar film card, good for two weeks, say, to see any of the nominees at an overall discount. Movie theaters make most of the money at the concession stand, and they'd be sure to make a decent profit and potentially win some new or more frequent customers, while allowing people to catch the films they'd missed.
On the critic front - a pet peeve of mine with "best of" lists is when critics are late to the party and list films that came out the previous calendar year with no acknowledgement of that fact. I know most critics are expected to deliver such lists before the end of a calendar year, or not long into the new year, and the Oscar bait deluge can make it hard to see everything before deadlines. Generally, it's especially difficult with the major foreign films. I have an advantage with my roundups of having the extra two months before the Oscars to catch up, and almost everything will be out by then. But many reviewers have access to free screenings and/or screener DVDs. For American critics, it's ridiculous to say There Will be Blood was one of the best films of 2008. The same goes for The Counterfeiters, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days, when all were in major award contention as 2007 films, and The Counterfeiters won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. A critic in a fairly prominent publication named The Lives of Others his best film of 2007, when it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of 2006 – and won. Did these critics (who shall remain nameless) miss all this? The worst remains listing There Will Be Blood for 2008 - seriously, Daniel Day Lewis accepting his Best Actor award wasn't a clue you're a year late? Just add a special note to the list, and by all means honor a good film or two you missed earlier, since highlighting good work is one of the key reasons to review films in the first place. Plenty of critics add such notes and also list honorable mentions. Another solution for more casual reviewers is simply to list 'the best films I've seen this year,' rather than describing (for instance) 2007's The Diving Bell… as one of 'the best films of 2008' in December 2008. It's just that it's jarring when said film was already being discussed at some length 10-14 months ago (it was in limited release, reviewed, on many 2007 lists, discussed on Charlie Rose etc.). It's a bit like talking to football fans, praising the New York Giants' great Super Bowl win, and wondering aloud if they'll repeat this year. Where were you? (For foreign films released in America a year/years later, I try to include the original release date, too.) Of course, since the biggest troublemakers are foreign-language films, maybe I'm being unfair on the front. With There Will Be Blood, I've been told the studio was uncooperative about showing it to some reviewers, and that cost the studio. Still, it just looks ridiculous to list such a celebrated film a year later - and as the fourth best film of 2008. Oh, and naming as your top film of the year something you and fewer than a dozen people saw at a private residence does not give you indie cred; it just means you're really obnoxious (I have actually seen that done, a few years back).
In any case, on to the films themselves. Per tradition, I've split the films into three tiers, but I wouldn't put too much stock in the divisions, especially this year. I've linked a number of interviews throughout. And as usual, I've tried to avoid any spoilers and/or labeled them near the end of each entry. If you'd know it from watching the trailers, I figure it's safe to mention. (I'll also pass on The Daily Show's post-Oscar episode, with John Oliver insulting Jon Stewart in comparison to Hugh Jackman. It's pretty funny.)