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Looking Back at This Year’s Best Picture Race

I’ve finally gotten to see all the five Best Picture nominees for the 81st Academy Awards. I’m honestly disappointed it took me so long, but that’s what happens when a flood of prestige movies hit the cinemas over three weeks in January and the Academy doesn’t even pick the good ones. I’m honestly not sure how I feel about the contenders, in retrospect. The previous year’s awards featured a fantastic line-up – Juno, No Country for Old Men, Atonement, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood – that hit just about every demographic and represented the awards at their best. This year, we got a closed shop.

The statuettes are actually quite creepy when you get to looking at them...

The statuettes are actually quite creepy when you get to looking at them...

It’s odd. It’s generally asserted that 2008 was a bad year for film, or – at least – not a good one. I think that claim is rubbish – and I’m somewhat glad that Roger Ebert agreed with me. It was a bad year for mainstream prestige cinema (Australia faltered, Changeling should have been better), which may explain why we ended up with such a weak crop of contenders – but it was a fantastic year for off-beat productions with just a little bit of edge to them. If the Academy had been willing to take the odd risk or two, it could have been one of the most interesting years on record. But let’s start with what we know – what did get nominated.

The common understanding is that there are two types of voices in the Academy. The older generation who like the melodramas and the epics and the prestige cinema and the younger generation drawn mainly from independent and international cinema who embrace fresh and pretentious drama while eschewing the mainstream. Looking at our five nominees, it’s easy to see the older members being won over by Frost/Nixon, The Reader and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and seeing younger members voting for Slumdog Millionaire and Milk. In fairness, there are three very good films included in the selection – Milk, Slumdog Millionaire and Frost/Nixon do deserve to be counted among the year’s best – and the two exceptions – the hot-and-cold Benjamin Button and the just plain horrible The Reader – are the kind of pretentious nonsense the Oscars like to enjoy.

I was not as enamored with Slumdog as everyone else seems to be. It was a solid film from a director who has done better in the past. I preferred Frost/Nixon and Milk, but can understand how each lost – Frost/Nixon is too stale and stuffy for the younger generation, Milk would have the same difficulties convincing the older generation as Brokeback Mountain did (despite being a much better film). Slumdog, with its broad romantic themes and mostly happy ending, seems like a good compromise. But my problem with this year’s awards don’t lie with the winners. Quite frankly, The Reader (and to a lesser extent Benjamin Button) don’t belong on the list of the year’s best films and coasted on merely be virtue of being what they were (what might be classed ‘prestige drama’, with one of them being a holocaust drama). Everyone expected the Button nomination (and most called it as a winner), but the nomination of The Reader took even hardened Oscar pundits by surprise.

Some of the films shut out from the Best Picture race...

Some of the films shut out from the Best Picture race...

There were at least half-a-dozen better choices, and each was rejected by the establishment for a clear reason not based upon the quality of the work. Revolutionary Road was too sly, cynical and depressing and its portrayal of suburban life may have hit too close to home. Doubt was too dark and slow, and didn’t offer too much closure. Gran Torino was film about racism that wasn’t presented in the cookie-cutter style of earlier winners like Crash – it was far more ambiguous and too rough around the edges. The Wrestler was just too rough, despite solid performances. Wall-E was animated – it should know its place despite its excellence. The Dark Knight was based on a comic book – those things for kids, right? Its hard to argue that these thoughts – or some similar – weren’t working their way through the brains of the Academy. And that kind of closed-mindedness is fundamentally a problem in a body whose job it is to reward cinematic excellence, no matter what form it may take.

In fairness, it’s easy to hide the snobbishness in a year when you can pick five proper prestigious dramas that no one can really complain about. In the years where there are less films to the taste of the Academy, it becomes more pronounced. That’s why I worry about the expansion of the Best Picture category to ten films – I can just see the Academy nominating more worse films instead. Due to the rules surrounding the counting of the ballots by PwC, we don’t know by what margin The Reader won its place, we don’t even know that any of those ‘better choices’ would have been in the top ten. Changing the membership is the only way to really deal with the growing close-mindedness of AMPAS, and I’m quite pleased with this year’s batch of recruits.

Maybe it’s a good thing that the Best Picture race is getting a bit of a shake-up next year…

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