The 2009 Oscars Race: Getting Something Off My Chest
- Written by Matthew Toomey
And so it begins once again. Another year of cinema has begun. It’s the 14th year that I’ve been reviewing movies and the 11th for the Film Pie website and newsletter. Let’s hope it’s a good one.
I usually use the first issue of each year as a “report card” for the previous year. I look back at the highlights… and lowlights… and everything in between.
I’m not doing that this year because I want to have my say on the upcoming Oscars. It’s just my opinion but I guess it’s as valid as the next man. Let’s get this off my chest…
The close of 2007 was a great period for cinema. The 5 films nominated for best picture at the subsequent Academy Awards were Atonement, Michael Clayton, Juno, No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Narrowly missing out on nominations were The Diving Bell & The Butterfly and American Gangster. I’ve been obsessed with the Oscars since 1994 (when my love of cinema developed) and I can honestly say that 2007 was the first year that I really enjoyed all five of the best picture nominees. I’d have preferred to see Juno win but wasn’t unhappy that No Country For Old Men took the prize. Each year, there’s usually one or two best picture nominees that I’m not a fan of. Crash is a good example from back in 2006. It’s not that I hated it but I think I saw at least 60 movies that were better in that year.
This leads into 2008 and there are four films which are dominating the critics awards to this point – Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight and WALL-E. The first three look certain to be nominated for best picture at the Oscars but WALL-E will probably only be nominated in the best animated film category. For the other 2 slots, the contenders are Milk, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, Revolutionary Road and The Reader.
My problem is that of the 3 favourites (Slumdog, Benjamin Button and Dark Knight), I don’t really want any of them to win. They’re good films but they’re not great films. As I said before though, that’s just my opinion. It does seem to contradict that of most people. The Dark Knight is the highest grossing movie since Titanic. Its many fans have hoisted it to 4th on the all time greatest films list on the Internet Movie Database. I know a few people who loved this film and have seen it more than once.
There are also a lot of people supporting Slumdog. It’s got “crowd pleaser” written all over it and it has won the most critics awards to date. It seems to be on the top 10 list of almost every respected critic. It is the front-runner leading into the Oscar nominations on Jan 22.
Benjamin Button opened on Christmas Day in the United States and has been a box-office hit. That surprises me a little given the film’s length (close to 3 hours) and its subject matter (death). There are critics I admire who are calling it a near-masterpiece. The public seem to like it too (based on the box-office). It’s currently sitting 61st on the greatest films list on the Internet Movie Database.
The point of this week’s Film Pie is to tell you why I don’t think these 3 films deserve to win. Yes, I’m in the minority with my viewpoint, but I feel like it needs to be said.
Now the following contains spoilers so if you haven’t seen, and you intend to see, any of these films, then I’d skip this part and move to the very end.
Is this film a love story or a rags-to-riches story? Is it both maybe? I don’t know what I’m supposed to take away from it.
If it’s a love story, which I think is the intention, then I’m struggling with it. Jamal and Latika first meet when they are very young kids (I’d estimate about 8 years old). They are then separated and they only fleetingly see each other on 2 occasions in the lead up to the current day setting (where they are now 18 years old). Latika did her best to push Jamal away on both occasions. The second time, he asks her to flee with him but she doesn’t want to as she knows they will have no money to live off. I wasn’t convinced that she had such overwhelming feelings for him. Was this really true love? Should I be sitting in my seat with a beaming smile on my face when they finally get together in the end? I couldn’t do it.
Let’s now look at the rags-to-riches argument. The script creates as much drama as possible in the lead up to the final question. Will a slumdog from the streets take the top prize? In the closing scenes, we see all of India glued to their television screens and watching the final question. Lo and behold, Jamal correctly guesses the answer to the final question and wins a fortune.
What point is trying to be made here? Is there a point? Jamal believes that the only way to win Latika’s heart is to go on this show (which is her favourite) and win financial security. I couldn’t help but think that she liked him more because he was now a millionaire.
Probably by biggest problem with the rags-to-riches tale was the handling of Jamal’s brother, Salim. As Jamal answers the final question, we see Salim locking himself in a bathroom and lying in a bathtub full of money. He shoots his gangster boss and is then killed himself. Is this supposed to be some form of redemption? Maybe symbolism? I find it odd that in a part of the film where the audience feels like jumping up and celebrating with Jamal, we see his brother being heinously killed. I think it’s a little distasteful. It felt as if Salim’s life wasn’t being given the full credit he deserved.
Also, did Salim really need to lock himself in the room with the money? It was always going to be suicide. Why didn’t he just shoot his boss and try to flee? I thought Salim was the most interesting character in the film but I was puzzled by his ever changing personality. There are scenes where he saves his brother’s life but there are scenes when he stabs him in the back. He was forever transforming. Maybe Salim’s death scene was some form of redemption but if so, it wasn’t necessary.
I’ve now seen Slumdog Millionaire twice and both times I thought it worth of an A- grading. It is still a good film and when I saw it for the second time, I realised there were moments in it of brilliance. Danny Boyle is a talented director and I loved his visuals, his editing and his creative subtitles.
As I’ve alluded to above however, I think the screenplay has limitations. It tries too hard to be a crowd pleaser. It’s structured around a set ending and some of the subplots that lead up this ending just don’t quite fit. Would they really have let the game show host and Jamal go to the bathroom together during an ad break? Would Salim have really given Latika his phone if he was about to commit suicide? I don’t know.
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
This film has all the right ingredients and I should love it – it has a great director, a great cast and great reviews. Instead, I felt disappointed on seeing it. I liked the post by one person on the Internet Movie Database who dubbed it “The Curious Case Of Wanting My Money Back.”
Once grievance I have is with the modern-day Hurricane Katrina subplot. Was this necessary? It has no relevance to the story whatsoever. It thought it might for a little while but realised it didn’t when the credits started to roll.
Another annoyance is the continual theme of death. We see Benjamin have to endure the death of so many people. This happens to all of us but to Benjamin, perhaps more so given that he is getting younger and his friends are getting older. There’s an obvious message here and that is to live life to its fullest. I felt like yelling out “yeah, I get it – let’s just move on.” I felt like the message was being force-fed down my throat. Why did we have to see the guy getting struck by lightening so many times? Was it comic relief? Or did I need to be reminded again about the richness of life?
What bugged me most was that I thought the characters were very cold (with the exception of Benjamin’s adopted mother). This is a clearly a journey movie. It’s not the ending which is important but rather how you got there. We see all these short stories involving people that Benjamin meets along the way. These include his first love (played by Tilda Swinton), his father (played by Jason Flemyng) and the captain of a tug-boat (played by Jared Harris). I didn’t mind these stories but was never particularly moved. Benjamin speaks so slowly and I thought he was a boring character.
Like I said with Slumdog, I appreciate how this film was made. The overall look, the music and the special effects were all beautifully done. Unfortunately, this was another lacklustre script which didn’t do it for me.
The Dark Knight
Yes, I liked this film too but I don’t think it’s one of the top 5 movies of the year. I thought that Batman Begins, released in 2005, was just as good. It revitalised the series and boasted a terrific performance from Christian Bale. It received just one Oscar nomination – for best cinematography.
This sequel is being talked about as one of the greatest films of all time. Is it really any better than Batman Begins? If so, why so? The villains are cool but the third act of the film gets a little far-fetched (e.g. the scene with the 2 ferries). I truly believe that the hype surrounding this film has overtaken the film itself.
The biggest raves for The Dark Knight have been for the performance of the late Heath Ledger. I’m 99% confident that we will win the Oscar for best supporting actor. He’s won almost every other critics award to date.
I admit that I’ve struggled to get my head around this. Heath died in 2008 on the same date that the Academy Award nominations were announced. I remember the news stories and people were already saying that it was a tragedy for Heath because his performance in The Dark Knight was touted as his finest and he was one of the front-runners for next year’s Oscars.
The reason I’ve been angered by all this let’s give Heath an Oscar talk is that I find it disrespectful to other contenders. People have been saying that he deserves the Oscar for almost a year now. They were saying it months before the film was even finished and before any of the other performances from any of the other movies were seen. If Heath deserves it, then so be it. I’m just peeved that people were anointing him as deserving of an Oscar. There are a lot of other great actors who passed away who never received one.
I am a bit Oscars fan and over the past few months, I have become more accepting of the whole Heath Ledger / Oscar thing. Many actors have not won for the best performance of their career – instead, they win for a later performance as a way of the Academy making up for past mistakes. For example, Al Pacino’s Oscar was won for Scent Of A Woman. Was it really a better performance than that in Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico or The Godfather?
Still, I’d like to ask the question about what is so special about Heath’s performance in The Dark Knight? Is it really that good? Is it better than Eddie Marsan in Happy-Go-Lucky, Josh Brolin in Milk, James Franco in Milk, Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt, Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading and Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road? He may be a deserving winner but I think the question deserves deeper thought.
That has been a rather long Film Pie newsletter and I think most of the above is incoherent dribble. It’ll do.