The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Slumdog Millionaire (winner)
2008 was the last year that the Best Picture nominees were limited to five films. Is there any evidence that this was because 2008 was such a strong here and so many viable contenders were left off? Probably not, although that is certainly the case in my opinion. This is especially true with the rather sad lot of actual nominees. We can start the snub list with the sorts of films that would never really be nominated. This was the year of The Dark Knight as well as the real start of the MCU with the release of Iron Man. Waltz with Bashir, a film that managed a nomination for Best Foreign Language Feature couldn’t even swing a nomination for Best Animated Feature, so it had no chance here. I can add four more non-English language films to complete an entirely new list of nominees. In likelihood of their being nominated, these are Let the Right One In; The Good, the Bad the Weird; Gomorrah; and Departures. Also on the animated front are WALL-E and Sita Sings the Blues. And this still leaves me with more than half dozen possibilities. Of these, In Bruges is perhaps my favorite and perhaps the least likely to earn a nomination. Happy-Go-Lucky is also not the sort of film that earns a modern nomination. My last five are all ones I could clearly see nominated: Doubt, The Wrester, Rachel Getting Married, Frozen River, and Changeling.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. If 2008 was this strong a year, what the hell is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button doing here? It’s an interesting concept, certainly and the production of it is a pretty good one. But a good concept and a good production don’t necessarily make a good movie. This is simply too long and too ultimately uninteresting to be here when there are so many other quality films that could have been here instead. It’s got big names attached to it, but as a film, it does very little for me. I have no idea how it worked a nomination.
4. The Reader is a film that is again well made, but has significant problems running all the way through it. It’s a film that very much wants to give a certain amount of sympathy to someone who was involved in the Holocaust. I get that—but is this someone really worth humanizing in a real way? Is this someone for whom I want to express a great deal of pity? I think it’s a well-made movie, and perhaps my distaste for it is more a function of current events than anything else, but with the 20/20 hindsight these posts give me, it’s a film I think doesn’t truly belong nominated for this year.
3. The librarian I used to work with hated Slumdog Millionaire in no small part because it was significantly different from the book. This is one of those stories where the way to get to the ending we want, everything has to happen in exactly the right way with exactly the right actions and reactions from the people involved. I like the movie well enough, but I’ve never really felt it necessary to go back and watch it a second time. It has some great moments, but I’m not sure it has more than just some great moments.
2. There’s a great deal to like about Milk starting with the performance of Sean Penn. In a world where it seems that the rights of minorities are constantly in peril and constantly needing to be defended and expanded, Milk does the subject right both in the general and the specific. The lessons learned from the gay rights struggle in the 1970s are easily extrapolated, and the film gives us a hell of a fine template.
1. That leaves us with Frost/Nixon, which would be my pick from the five nominees, as well as the film I’d most likely keep as a nomination in an open field. There’s a lot to like with this film, including the deep dive into one of the more interesting moments in American history. I large part of my love of this film comes from the performance of Frank Langella. This isn’t my favorite Ron Howard film, but it is one that ranks high for me, and given the five nominations we have, it’s where my vote would have gone.
On my Letterboxd page, I have seven movies from 2008 rated higher than all five of the nominations from this year. This include In Bruges, Gomorroah, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and The Wrestler. I have both Let the Right One In and Departures rated at five stars. Of those two, I’d go with Departures, a truly moving and beautiful film in every aspect. I don’t know that a foreign language film will win Best Picture in my lifetime, but this is a case where one could and should have.