23 January 2009

The Oscars shortlist

With the announcement of the Oscars shortlist this morning another Academy Awards season has swept down upon Hollywood like a plague of immaculately-clad celebrity locusts. The rest of the movie-going world will now look on with a modicum of interest until the 81st Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles on 22 February.

It's another year in which there are no stand-out clean sweeps on offer, and no sure fire favourites to bludgeon any lingering suspense out of the ceremony itself. And similarly to many other recent Oscar years, there are a lot of workmanlike but hardly historic films on the shortlist.

Chief among these is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Perhaps it's just because it's not been released here in the UK yet, but I can't see this film being looked back on with any great fondness in five years, let alone 10 or 20. I'm sure it's a competent effort; it just seems like it's Brad Pitt's year for the golden handshake so his film is damn well going to feature prominently in the nominations whether or not it's a technically and stylistically excellent film.

I've not seen enough of the Best Picture nominations to judge the probable winner, but I have a hunch that the performance of Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon may be sufficiently powerful to earn the film the top nod. It would be thoroughly deserved, but still it'd be great if the popular outsider, Slumdog Millionaire, sneaked through to catch the big guys unaware. It's a simple good old-fashioned story and it would be nice for a low-budget film to take the big prize.

I'd imagine Best Director will go to Ron Howard, simply because he's a nice guy who's had a long and productive career. He also has a much higher name recognition factor amongst the Academy members and the general public.

As I've said, I hope Frank Langella will take the Best Actor award, but it's also great to see Mickey Rourke win a nomination for The Wrestler. Given the career doldrums he's experienced in recent years even to be nominated is a great achievement and a vindication for the formerly self-destructive Rourke. It will also bring Darren Aronofsky's movie to a much broader audience, which is well deserved.

Best Actress? Blimey, I don't know. The worthiness quotient seems very high this year, as does the old adage that Best Actress performances must contain copious hankie-drenching bawling if they are to gain the Academy members' favour. The last winner of Best Actress for a comedy film was Frances McDormand for Fargo in 1996, unless you count Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love as a comedic performance (1998). Surely it must be Kate Winslet's turn for a gong by now after those five previous nominations without a win? She took Ricky Gervais' advice in Extras, made a Holocaust film and raked in the nomination forthwith. Clever girl.

I hope they don't give the Best Supporting Actor award to Heath Ledger posthumously. This is not to criticise his performance in The Dark Knight, which was of a high quality. The fact remains that if he wins there will always be a lingering suspicion that many Academy voters rewarded him out of sympathy for a promising (but hardly legendary) career cut short. The same sentiment, coupled with a quasi-morbid fascination with viewing a final performance has helped the film itself to score more than half a billion at the US box-office. If another man wins the Oscar, won't they feel that their own triumph has been somewhat undermined by preventing the sentimental favourite from winning? It would have been better to stage a special one-off tribute to Ledger rather than throw his name into the nominations hat. At least Robert Downey Jr won't mind either way: like Mickey Rourke, the very fact that he's been nominated for the shaggy dog story Tropic Thunder is a victory given his recent history.

Finally, it would be fantastic if the Academy rewarded Happy-Go-Lucky with the Best Original Screenplay honour, given the honest quality of Mike Leigh's charming little British film. Indeed, it's a pity that the effervescent Sally Hawkins won't be sitting alongside Kate Winslet on 22 February as another British Best Actress nominee. But a screenplay nod for Wall-E too? Sure it's a sweet film and some of the animation is very pretty to look at, but given that during the first three-quarters of the film the dialogue consists of barely three words, I fail to see how its script required gargantuan feats of talent and intellect to produce. Oh well, good luck to them and to all the other nominees...
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