Monday, October 1, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 2008

The Contenders:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire (winner)

What’s Missing

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.

My Choice

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.

Final Analysis


  1. We agree almost down the line and definitely on what should have won. Frost/Nixon is just so well done and eminently rewatchable. The only film I"d place differently is Benjamin Button which I'd move to third. Not because I think it deserved its nomination only that I dislike the other two films more. The only two of the five that belonged are Milk and Frost/Nixon.

    You mentioned some excellent alternatives (though I hated The Wrestler and Rachel Getting Married with a passion) and In Bruges would also rate highly with me. The only two I'd add are both French, the thriller Tell No One (which came out in 2006 but didn't get to America until 2008) and I've Loved You So Long-though I'm not certain it opened here in 2008 so it might not qualify.

    1. If you haven't seen Departures, I recommend it so highly. It's entirely possible that the circumstances of my viewing it have affected my perception of it. It's so terribly ignored and it's a film of such power and beauty.

  2. Uh...yes and no.

    Yes, of the nominees Frost/Nixon was the most deserving of a win. In fact, I'd have all the noms in the same order as you.

    No to Departures. It just didn't work for me. I never felt any of the emotion it kept trying to make me feel. Some of your other alternatives are fantastic. I love Let the Right One In, The Wrestler, and Rachel Getting Married. I'm kind of surprised neither of the latter two got a nom because they actually do fit the Oscar mold better than some of the actual noms. That said, I'm one of those dudes who prays at the altar of The Dark Knight.

    1. You're the first person I know who didn't like Departures. Then again, you're maybe the fourth person I know who's seen it.

      I like The Dark Knight, but I'm that rara avis who thinks Batman Begins is a better movie, even if Heath Ledger is the best thing in any Batman movie.

  3. I may just disagree with you on placement. I see the Best Picture winner as Best English Language film. Foreign film winner is best non-English language film. I don't see the Foreign film winner as a lesser and Departures did win that one.

    1. I see your point, but I'm not sure I agree completely. It holds foreign language picture at a lower level--it's the marked term, which linguistically means that it is not the default, and thus at a lower or different tier.

      It's possible that the best foreign language movie could be the best movie of the year. That's certainly been the case for me in many situations.