The five nominees for Best Picture are Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk, and The Reader. Slumdog Millionaire received ten Academy nominations and thus will, most likely, win the most awards this year. There is some suggestion that Academy voters will create a last-minute backlash against the film since it became popular so long ago and because so many think it will obviously win. Michael Phillips, film critic of The Chicago Tribune, believes it remains the best bet to take home the best picture Academy Award this Sunday evening. I happen to agree with Philiips, though I see two other movies that have a decent chance at winning the award: Frost/Nixon, a truly first-rate film, and The Reader, a film with very provocative adult themes set in a Nazi context, a context that is popular again this year. Why do we remain so fascinated with the Nazi's? Perhaps we need these cultural reminders of the potential for human evil on a macro-scale.
Having seen all five of the nominees for Best Picture, and all the actors and actresses nominated for the Academy Awards, a movie I would have put in the top five, that did not get nominated, is Doubt. One of the five nominees for best supporting actress, Viola Davis (photo at right), appears in Doubt. A stage star this is a break-through film role for her. She plays an African-American mother of a boy who is caught in a political power play between a priest and a nun in a parish school. She is very good and is my "sleeper" choice for best supporting actress! Doubt is a movie that I highly recommend for thoughtful Christians. The greatest line of the year occurs when the priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is defending himself against the false charges of the nun (Meryl Streep). He asks her what proof she has for her charges of sexual impropriety. She answers, "Father, I do not have any proof but I have my certitude and that is enough for me." (This might not be the exact words but you get the idea from the statement. Some will understand why I found this so compelling since I have seen this same self-righteous certitude far too often used by religious people I have known.)
Slumdog Millionaire direct Director Danny Boyle describes his film as a "picaresque," part comedy, part thriller and part romance. You will leave the theater feeling like a million bucks after seeing it. Face it, this is part of the movie's real charm. It is an all-too-real look at Mumbai's poorest orphans, living in the streets, while at the same time it is a story with a happy ending. It really is everything that most film goers generally like.
The people who bet on these things believe that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the "underdog" that might slip in and win best picture. I did not care for this film that much. It was a bit too fanciful and preposterous for my tastes. I generally like films that create an imaginary world but this one did not work for me. I always find one film people love that I do not like that much and this year this film is my choice. It stars Brad Pitt, who was "dubiously nominated" for best actor according to Michael Phillips. Again, I do agree with Philipps.
Two of the nominees for best picture are political in nature: Frost/Nixon and Milk. Frost/Nixon feels a lot like All the King's Men, which won an Academy Award for best-picture some years ago. It is a superb film for adults and appeals especially to all of us who lied through the Nixon-era. It brought back a lot of memories, not all of them positive for sure. I was surprised at how much I liked it.
Milk is the story of the controversial Harvey Milk, a San Francisco city councilman who became the first openly homosexual man to hold elective office in the United States in the late 1970s. Harvey Milk was later shot, as was the major of San Francisco, by a disgruntled former councilman named Dan White (Josh Brolin was nominated for best supporting actor for his role as Dan White). White served a relatively short sentence in prison. (Anyone remember the "Twinkie defense" used by White's lawyer in this case?) Upon release White hung himself. Sean Penn is truly marvelous in the role of Harvey Milk. Some believe that he will win the award for best actor as a result of his portrayal of Harvey Milk. I think Mickey Rourke (photo on left) should get the award for his sterling role in The Wrestler. (Warning: If you cannot deal with films that make homosexuality a central issue then do not see Milk. I will do a review of three films on the theme of homosexuality in the next few weeks, including the film Milk as one of my three. Culture shapes movies and movies shape culture. I want to show how by looking at this explosive theme in films.) Milk will most likely not win best picture. The politics of this film could play a role, one way or the other, depending on who you believe. Many thought Brokeback Mountain was a sure-fire winner a few years ago but it did not nab the award as expected. Director Gus Van Sant has been accused of polishing the rough edges from Harvey Milk's character in order to give us a more sanitized version. I find this to often be the case with the way various films present homosexual characters. The rough side, the seamy side, is always downplayed and the characters are presented as victims much of the time. This seems to be a function of social thought much more than hard-core human reality.
Some of my favorites, who will most likely not win awards but I think should, are Richard Jenkins (photo at left) in the fantastic movie, The Visitor. This is a sleeper film that I recommend very highly. I saw it on DVD from my local library. It truly flew under the media radar this year. The best supporting actor should he Heath Ledger, hands down, for his role as the Joker in Batman 2: The Dark Knight. But Philip Seymour Hoffman was truly superb in Doubt. (How is he a supporting actor when he is the star in the film?) Kate Winslet will most likely win the best actress award (I sure wish she could star in a role where she kept her clothes on) but I would give the award to Meryl Streep for her role in Doubt. I have already said that Viola Davis should win for best supporting actress but Marissa Tomei was great in The Wrestler, a tough surprising film that could have been nominated for best picture. The best cinematography award should go to The Dark Knight. Man on a Wire is by far the best documentary and has no political angle at all, a rarity these days. I cannot guess at the best foreign language film since I have not seen any of them. (I watch these on DVD when they come out later since they first appear in small art-house theaters and I have none near me.) The best director award should go to Danny Doyle for Slumdog Millionaire. The oddity is that Slumdog was not nominated for any of the actors/actresses in the film, all of whom are Indians. Is this a Western bias? This film works almost like a great basketball team. Slumdog Millionaire is the sum of its parts and all the players have their unique role to make it a winning movie. It is, quite simply, a very fine movie. In some ways it is not a "great movie for the ages" at all but it still should win the award this year. It has such huge audience appeal in a very refreshing way. See it if you have not done so. Having been to Mumbai I can assure you the conditions you see are real.