Brad Pitt: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Frank Langella: Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn: Milk (winner)
Richard Jenkins: The Visitor
Mickey Rourke: The Wrestler
This is going to be a difficult one, because I really like a lot of these performances. We can walk through the longshot nominations first. I’ll start with the foreign language ones that I think are worth bringing up. These include Kare Hedebrant in Let the Right One In, Song Kang-ho in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and Masahiro Motoki in Departures. Some others are good to great performances in movies I really didn’t like much, like Chiwetel Ejiofor in Redbelt and Tom Hardy in Bronson. I’ve mentioned Oscar’s problems with race and gender before, and the lack of nomination for Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire smacks of that kind of bias. Pontypool is far too small a film and very much in the wrong genre, but Stephen McHattie’s gonzo performance is worth a note. This was a decade too early for superhero movie recognition, but Robert Downey Jr. deserved some notice for Iron Man. I think you can pick either Colin Farrell or Brendan Gleeson from In Bruges, and I think a case can be made for either of them. Finally, I love the nomination for Frank Langella, but Michael Sheen could be here for Frost/Nixon as well.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. I like Brad Pitt as an actor, and I’m happy that he’s won an Oscar for acting. I also think he should have had more nominations in the past. But a nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button feels like a nomination for the film and the production and not for him. The breakout performance in the film is that of Taraji P. Henson, who is far and away the best part of the movie. Pitt is a fine actor often not given credit for the choices he makes in roles, but this is one that didn’t belong in the list.
4. I don’t like putting Richard Jenkins in fourth because I like Richard Jenkins and I liked The Visitor. It hurts doubly in this case because Jenkins is from the town I live in and has had film festivals locally where this movie was featured. He had stiff competition this year, though. I like this nomination, but he doesn’t really have a chance against this competition. Jenkins is a fine actor, and I hope he wins an Oscar one day. This was a good place to get his name out there, but there’s no way he’s winning.
3. There is something about the screen presence of Frank Langella that is at least mildly intimidating to me. He plays impressive bad guys, and I suppose in some respect that’s what Nixon is in this case in Frost/Nixon. He’s damn good in this role, but he’s not specifically a lot better than Michael Sheen. I do find it rather disappointing that this is Langella’s only Oscar nomination. Surely the man who consented to play Skeletor across from Dolph Lundgren deserves more love from the Academy than this third-place finish.
2. In my review of Milk, I said that the film’s biggest flaw is also its biggest strength: the presence of Sean Penn in the lead role. Penn is one of the best actors of his generation and that won’t be taken away from him, but he is so distinctive that he is always Sean Penn on the screen to some extent. That’s perhaps not really his fault. When I did Best Actor for 2003, I put Penn (who won that year, too) in second place and said even though I’m not giving him the win, I don’t hate his win. I’m saying the same thing here.
1. I am very far away from being a Mickey Rourke apologist. I think he was a very talented guy who pissed away a lot of that talent (and his looks) going after a completely different lifestyle and weird thrills. Say what you will about him, though, The Wrestler is an amazing performance. It’s not just the best of Rourke’s career, but one of the best of its decade and one of the best sports movie performances in film history. Rourke was both devastating and dominant in this film, and this should have been his Oscar.