‘Benjamin Button,’ ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ earn Oscar love

The Oscars are obsolete. Year after year, the Academy has proven itself to be hopelessly out of touch with public taste, and this year’s nominations are no exception. It’s an unforgivable travesty that beloved blockbusters like “The Dark Knight” and “Wall-E” were left out of the Best Picture category in favor of pretentious “art” films that nobody has ever heard of. Seriously, five nominations for “The Reader?” Just because a film stars Kate Winslet doesn’t automatically make it good, Academy. And “Slumdog Millionaire” was an entertaining little movie, but when your Best Pic frontrunner is a low-budget Indian film with no major stars, don’t expect us to tune in for another interminable award ceremony.

That’s one version. Here’s another one:

The Oscars are obsolete. Year after year, they ignore brilliant filmmaking in order to coronate a set of shallow, commercial movies. Critical darlings like “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “Synecdoche, New York” were left out in the cold, while soulless prestige pictures like “Frost/Nixon” got all the love. Seriously, 13 nominations for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?” Just because a film stars Brad Pitt doesn’t automatically make it good, Academy. And “Slumdog Millionaire” was an intriguing little movie, but don’t expect us to sit through three hours of pretentious Hollywood onanism just to watch it win Best Picture.

Ahem. A reporter named Joe Klein once wrote that cynicism is what passes for insight among the mediocre. One wonders what Klein might think of Academy Awards coverage, which has been reduced to meaningless spin by lazy film journalists in search of a sound byte. Rather than engage in a healthy discussion about the merits of various nominations, it’s easier to dismiss the institution itself, as if disinterest were somehow a badge of trendiness.

For those of us (myself included) who wake up to Oscar nominations with the unbridled excitement of a kid at Christmas, this trend can be rather disheartening. Its antidote is the event itself, which provides movie fans with a month of speculation, anticipation and lively debate culminating in an unabashedly glamorous telecast. I see plenty to disagree with in this year’s batch of nominations, and that’s part of the fun. At the end of the day, everybody loves the Oscars.

The trophy is all but engraved for “Slumdog Millionaire,” this year’s likely Best Picture winner. It’s certainly the most entertaining contender among the nominees, though I would humbly assert that “Milk” — Gus Van Sant’s stirring, evocative biopic of the eponymous gay rights crusader — is a stronger work of art. “Benjamin Button” is the prestige choice, but once Academy voters get past the novelty of a geriatric Brad Pitt, the film is unlikely to remain a contender. Ditto for “Frost/Nixon” and “The Reader,” both decent films that stand little chance of garnering the gold.

Though it may not win Best Picture, “The Reader” has the distinction of being the film that might finally earn Kate Winslet her Oscar. At the ripe age of 33, she has become the youngest performer ever to accumulate six Oscar nominations, but still has yet to snag the Best Actress trophy. Meryl Streep, nominated for her performance in “Doubt,” is Winslet’s strongest competition, but since the venerable actress now boasts a whopping 15 nominations and two wins, the Academy might decide to spread the wealth around instead. It’s nice to see Melissa Leo earn a nomination for the little-seen indie gem “Frozen River,” although I’m quietly rooting for Anne Hathaway, whose incendiary performance shamed the rest of “Rachel Getting Married.” Angelina Jolie also made the cut for “Changeling,” an honor she neither needs nor deserves.

It must be a busy time at the Pitt-Jolie household, with Jolie’s more talented half celebrating his own nomination for “Benjamin Button.” Brad Pitt is joined in the Best Actor category by Frank Langella for “Frost/Nixon” and Richard Jenkins, the immensely talented character actor who sparkled in “The Visitor.” I happen to think that Sean Penn will earn his second Oscar for his protean performance in “Milk,” but it’s hard to count out Mickey Rourke, whose portrayal of a broken-down action man in “The Wrestler” is surfing a wave of critical acclaim.

It hasn’t been an especially memorable year for supporting female roles, as evidenced by the bland roster of stereotypes that compose the Best Supporting Actress category. There’s the token stripper (Marisa Tomei, for “The Wrestler”), a couple of loving maternal figures (Taraji Henson for “Benjamin Button” and Viola Davis for “Doubt”) and a fretful nun (Amy Adams for “Doubt”). It’s hard to imagine any of these actresses overtaking Penelope Cruz, who will probably earn a trophy for her fiery incarnation of artistic angst in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

Speaking of locks, why did the Academy even bother nominating four other supporting actors when Heath Ledger has had this category locked down since the summer for “The Dark Knight”? It’s a shame that Josh Brolin’s moving portrait of masculine implosion in “Milk” and Robert Downey Jr.’s inspired comic turn in “Tropic Thunder” will go unrewarded, but this is Heath’s Oscar, and everybody knows it. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Michael Shannon get to fight over the leftovers with their nominations for “Doubt” and “Revolutionary Road,” respectively.

Some of these nominees deserve their nominations; others do not. But the range of talent is part of what makes the Oscars so enjoyable. They are Hollywood’s annual reconciliation between artistic ideals and glossy populist appeal. It’s a celebration of genuine talent, wrapped in a big gold bow. And whatever the cynics might say, it’s still a lot of fun.

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