After spending some time really cramming for the Oscars (I know the awards don't mean all that much, but it's fun, so quit being a joyless wet blanket), I felt very empowered by what all I'd seen. Although I was unable to see every nominee (or even every Best Picture nominee), I did see several good films that were featured prominently throughout the evening's broadcast. In fact, I even saw a couple of great ones.
Before watching really anything, I was fully aware that the night would belong to indie powerhouse Slumdog Millionaire. Hell, I think everyone with a pulse had Slumdog down to take home Best Picture and a half-dozen other awards whether they'd seen the film or not. Regardless of anything else, this particular bit of celluloid contains a feel-good story with a built-in romantic element, takes place in an impoverished nation, and pulls at the heartstrings liberally. This is the sort of stuff that mainstream award shows get off on. I mean really get off on. It's indie enough to please the hipsters, but it's not so far out there that your average American family isn't going to enjoy it thoroughly. Simply put, Slumdog Millionaire is very easy to like, and subsequently, very easy to root for. The only problem is that it certainly was not the best film released in 2008.
It's hardly news to point out that the academy got a major award wrong; they do it all the time. The show is a spectacle and celebration first and a true measurement of accomplishment second. And I'm seriously okay with that; it's entertainment. But everyone seems so swept up in Millionaire mania that I just wanted to take a moment to shed light on a few other films that received various nominations and really deserved a better fate.
First up is the absolutely outstanding Doubt, a story based on a Pulitzer-winning play that centers around a priest, two nuns, an eighth grade boy, and the boy's mother. One nun, Sister James (Amy Adams), believes something strange is going on involving the priest, Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Shy and naive, she approaches the rigid and stern Sister Alloysius (Meryl Streep) with her dilemma. What ensues is a story of human nature, morality, twisted perceptions, faith, and, um, doubt. All of the major performances in this film are dead perfect, and I probably wouldn't have a problem watching these characters unfold their story several more times. So much subtext and depth exists in each line of each performance that it's hard not to miss something important if you step away for even a minute. I highly reccomend this movie, and it currently stands as my favorite of 2008.
That $500 million The Dark Knight reigned in is probably enough that the lack of Oscar love doesn't sting so bad, but still, I'd like to give the film its due. It's merely the finest superhero movie ever made, and at its core that really isn't even what it is. It's yet another very complex story of morality, the human condition, and how blurry the lines of right and wrong can be. Some of the choices Batman has to make here aren't the lighthearted ones you might read in a comic book. Chris Nolan's Batman is some serious stuff. When you're a superhero and you face a daily choice to either reveal your identity or see an innocent civilian killed, things aren't so easy.When you have to choose between saving the life of a public icon who might be your city's newfound savior and saving the life of your one undying love, you have an awful duty. When you have to deal with the fact the madman behind everything at the heart of your city's unraveling can be appeased by absolutely nothing, that he's just doing it to create chaos and will literally never stop until his life is taken, you have the hardest job in the world. That's the point. Unlike any other superhero movie, The Dark Knight places Batman in a world where everything doesn't have a solution. Not everyone can be saved and not everything can be fixed. And the things that can be fixed aren't going to be fixed overnight. This is a brilliant film that didn't get its due with the academy. Its success was probably its undoing during this awards season. Heath Ledger did, of course, nab the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and he deserves it. His portrayal of the joker is a haunting one, one that will stay with us forever as a reminder that evil isn't always cut and dry, and that the world is never going to simply be fair. While they're different interpretations, anyone who thinks Jack Nicholson's joker holds a candle to Ledger's is an idiot.
Another excellent release of 2008 is Gus Van Sant's Milk, the story of former San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, who became the first publicy gay man to be elected to major political office. Milk is beautifully told, and the atmosphere of the film captures a time and a place elegantly and admirably. Then you have the performances. Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk with a liveliness and a determination that make it very easy to see why he rightfully took home Best Actor honors last Sunday. He becomes the character so fully that it is seriously hard to believe Penn is married to a woman when you're done watching his work. Penn has five times been nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and he's won twice. Thankfully, the academy understands how truly talented he is, personality malfunctions aside. James Franco is excellent as well, playing Milk's longtime lover Scotty Smith. Scotty is the tougher, younger half of the relationship, but he and Harvey share a great deal of soft moments together as well. The scenes that Penn and Franco share are consistently great, documenting a couple going through life-altering events and just trying to come out the other side of it unscathed. I recommend this film to everyone, but if you aren't in favor of gay rights, please watch this and then try to tell me why. This is as moving a story as you're likely to see, and it's every bit as inspirational as Slumdog claims to be. I'd argue even more so.
What's my problem with Slumdog Millionaire? I seriously don't have a problem with Danny Boyle's Best Picture-winning effort, it's just that it is certainly not 2008's best. It's a good film with an upbeat message and characters that are really easy to pull for, but it just wasn't the life-altering experience for me that it was for others. It's certainly worth seeing, it just didn't give me the goose bumps it gave others. Soon I hope to watch a few more highly-regarded movies from last year in hopes of finalizing my opinion on what the year's best really was. Doubt is currently out front, but a few more contenders lie in wait.
It's very late/early. I work at 2:15 PM now. It's sort of great (I get an extra $1.00 an hour), but also sort of awful (I'm there until 11:00 PM). Anyway, have fun everyone. I'm downloading some things I'd like to talk about soon. Also, get ready for a 2009 Major League Baseball preview. I wish all of the important free agents would hurry up and find a home so I could completely and thoroughly evaluate teams. Okay, it's mainly just that Manny Ramirez needs to hurry up and sign with the Dodgers, as he's the last remaining player that can really make a huge difference. Good night, and good luck. And George Clooney.