Saturday, January 24, 2009

Questions for the Academy

Several of my blog buddies have already weighed in on the Academy Award nominations, including dguzman and Dr. Monkey. Like them, I haven't seen every last movie nominated, but living in the big city, I have seen a few more than they have. I know I am of a minority opinion on two nominated films. Slumdog Millionaire is a truly miserable filmgoing experience and The Dark Knight was a loud, dull, lousy excuse for a superhero movie and sadly, Heath Ledger's last performance was not one of his best. Years ago, it was only the cruel that pointed out that John Lennon's last album Double Fantasy was not very good. That is now the conventional wisdom. Similarly, many people now agree that giving Dances With Wolves so many awards when it was competing against Goodfellas was a moment of temporary cultural stupidity. A decade from now, I think people will feel the same about the praise for The Dark Knight. The best superhero movie this year was Iron Man, hands down.

Here are a few questions for the Academy, based on films I have seen.

So what was Haaz Sleiman's work, chopped liver? Tom McCarthy's film The Visitor garnered a Best Actor nomination for Richard Jenkins (foreground), a really good film actor who was the father on HBO's Six Feet Under and had a small role in the Coen Brothers Burn After Reading. Compared to the other nominees, he's the "Who dat?" guy, but compared to the rest of the cast of The Visitor, he's the big star. He gives a very good and understated performance, but the guy who does the heavy lifting is Haaz Sleiman, the guy smiling and looking towards the camera. Like Tim Blake Nelson in O Brother Where Art Thou?, Sleiman's work in a supporting role is the center of the film, and like Nelson, the Academy decided it wasn't worth even a nomination. Both these snubs are to the Academy's eternal discredit.

Seriously, what is wrong with comedy and what is wrong with the Academy? Robert Downey, Jr. is nominated for putting on black face in Tropic Thunder, the Ben Stiller comedy. When I first saw the posters, I thought "WTF?", but I saw the movie and both the film and Downey were funny, though sometimes he lays on the black dialect so thick it's hard to make out what he's saying. The idea is that he is a highly regarded Australian actor who is really full of himself (sound like anyone we know?) who is given the role of a black American soldier and takes it. The thing is, this movie doesn't aim any higher than most American comedies right now, which means lots of drug jokes, bodily functions and profanity. If Downey gets nominated for this, then Christopher Mintz-Plasse was robbed last year for his work as McLovin in Superbad.

Okay, could someone please define "Supporting"? Doubt produced four acting nominations, all of them richly deserved. Meryl Streep was nominated as Best Actress and she was fantastic, while Philip Seymour Hoffman was nominated as Best Supporting Actor when he has nearly as much screen time as she does and clearly the two characters are the protagonist and antagonist of the story. Hoffman and Streep are even close to the same level of movie star right now, especially in the independent film category. The other two nominations, Amy Adams and Viola Davis, are in the Supporting Actress category, and they show how difficult to define the category is as well. Adams deserves third billing as the yong nun who wants to believe the best about people and does a bang up job, while Davis has one, count 'em ONE scene. She's remarkably moving in the scene, completely holding her own opposite Streep, but like Judi Dench who won for Shakespeare in Love, her screen time is tiny compared to other nominees.

There were five documentaries better than these? I have already written reviews of Chris Bell's Bigger, Stronger, Faster and Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure. They were among the best 2008 films I saw, bar none. I haven't seen any of the nominated films in the documentary category, though I have heard good things about Man On Wire, the story of Philippe Petit's illegal 1974 high wire act between the two towers of the World Trade Center. I would have nominated both of these without question.

Bell and Morris could not be more different. This is the film Bell was born to make because of his closeness to the subject matter. Maybe he will make another film this good in the future, and if so I will be pleasantly surprised. Morris, on the other hand, is the best documentary film maker of the past thirty years hands down, but has had as contentious a relationship with the Academy as Martin Scorsese has had as a maker of fiction films. Morris has one Oscar for The Fog of War, but was famously snubbed for the film The Thin Blue Line. He can console himself with the knowledge that The Thin Blue Line helped to get an innocent man off of Death Row in Texas.

The center of the disagreement with the documentary film makers is that Morris will film re-enactments of action that an interviewed person is describing, and the documentarians think this is cheating. As a person watching, I've never been confused as to when something was actual footage and something was a re-enactment in a Morris film, but it clearly bothers the purists in charge.

I'm old enough now that I'm no longer confused by the Academy Awards. These aren't the best films or the best performances, but the films the industry wants to present to the public, films torn between the desire to make ungodly amounts of money and to make moving and interesting art. Nowadays, they have to throw in more than a few independent films, which used to be token nominations, because so much of the moneymaking machine in Hollywood is creating big budget special effects crap, monster movies and horribly stupid comedies. But these aren't the best movies or the best performances. It helps to have friends whose opinions you trust, even if you disagree with them from time to time, because it's obvious the people who run the Academy are no one's friends.


sfmike said...

You're taking it too seriously. The Academy Awards are an alternate universe version of American politics where the actual Best Picture or Best Politician rarely actually wins, and as you point out, the Best in all kinds of categories are often not even nominated. It's yet another example that life is not only unfair but riddled with stupid, conventional thinking.

And here I am telling YOU not to take it too seriously. Just remember, it's all about the hair, shoes and dresses as Princess Sparkle Pony has demonstrated.

Lisa said...

I stopped paying attention when it began to seem like best film always went to movies that were more a test of endurance than about entertainment. I'm terribly shallow that way.

dguzman said...

You've hit on all cylinders here, as have your commenters so far. The Academy is predictable in their stupidity and shallowness, their desire to use the Oscar to promote their favorite starlets (see Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, etc.), and their sense of revenge (snubbing certain people who've pissed them off or who don't play by "the rules"). Still, I really enjoy making my picks and watching the ceremony. It's silly and stupid, I know--but I like it.