Five Years Later: The 81st Oscars Postmortem

I’ve read Bill Simmons a couple times suggesting that we should hand out Academy Awards at a later time—say, five years later—because the distance in time from the buzz surrounding initial release and in-season campaigning combined with the chance to reflect on a certain crop of movies would elicit a more objective opinion of that crop’s best movies and performances. I readily acknowledge that objectivity in evaluation of any art, including movies, is unattainable, but picking winners a few years down the road seems more reasonable to me than the undue influence accorded some elements of Oscar-season politicking and decisionmaking. For example, Jared Leto, who some think should be docked this Sunday because he wasn’t sufficiently respectful in his Golden Globes acceptance speech. If you wanted to dock Leto’s performance and the character he plays in Dallas Buyers Club for the borderline disrespectful perpetuating of drag queen stereotypes, then I’m all with you! He shouldn’t win! But sadly, half of the reasons Oscars are given out are based on how well people meet certain strictures of etiquette—the other half generously reserved for, you know, the quality of the movie and whether or not you’ve won before.

And the five-years idea would save us from the media being clueless as to how to cover another spectacle. Oscars coverage is the opposite of election coverage, where bullshit artists fall all over themselves to let us know the race for office is neck-and-neck even though their comments belie a complete misunderstanding of Nate Silver’s crazy probability machine. No, Oscars coverage actually stifles competition by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’d think the media would want to try and provide the impression that any nominated movie has a shot at winning its category, but no! One dude says “I think it’s between American Hustle, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave this year!” and then another due repeats it, and then I’m left to wonder why an awesome movie like Her was even nominated for Best Picture in the first place. To me, it’s counterintuitive, especially considering that in the grand scheme of things, the concept of the Oscars is pretty fucking stupid. We’re not determining the leader of the free world, so if a vote is a little less important than that, why not make it a little more exciting, and by doing so spread those self-fulfilling prophecies a little more broadly.

Of course, this is never going to change and that’s thanks to Hollywood’s business model, which incentivizes releasing awards bait as close as possible to the voting deadline. But I’m also going to do something I do increasingly infrequently, and that’s admit that Bill Simmons has a point. If the Oscars and the media think we have ADD, they’ve misdiagnosed us. We don’t talk about movies purely in a vacuum, and movies we liked or didn’t like when they came out can rise or fall in our estimation over time. Maybe five years is still too early to officially judge a movie, but you’ve gotta arbitrarily draw the line somewhere, and five is an easily multipliable number and also the number of years that baseball players have to wait before they can appear on the Hall of Fame ballot. Yes, the Baseball Hall of Fame process is horrible, too, but fuck it let’s just talk about the Academy’s favorite movies of 2008 (awarded in 2009). I’m going to offer my opinion on who I think should’ve won from the slate of nominees in the eight most prominent categories and offer a suggestion from outside the list of nominees as to who I think should’ve been included:

BEST PICTURE (winner in bold)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button                                                                                             Frost/Nixon                                                                                                                                         Milk                                                                                                                                                       The Reader                                                                                                                                           Slumdog Millionaire

Hey, we’re back in the bygone era when there were only five Best Picture nominees! Mark Harris’ own probability machine would tell you that five nominees in Best Picture translates into more major-category nominees overall! WRONG. Well, eighteen movies were recognized in Best Picture, Best Director, acting, and writing categories. Or in other words, perfectly in line with the average number of movies recognized since expansion of the Best Picture field.

And goddamn, is this not an inspiring Best Picture field at all. They totally shouldn’t have expanded it! In fact, this was the last year before opening up the list of nominees, in part because people were pissed that neither The Dark Knight nor WALL-E, both of which premiered in 2008 and are better movies than at least four and arguably all five, made the cut. Anybody want to pop in Frost/Nixon with me? (I liked Frost/Nixon, and so did kyra, but typing its name here was probably the first I’ve thought about Frost/Nixon in five years.)

Who should’ve won: The Academy, given this slate, picked the right winner, I think, in Slumdog Millionaire. Danny Boyle’s film is certainly the most entertaining on the list, the most re-watchable, and has the most quotable lines. Is Slumdog really a substantial film? Probably not, it’s pure melodrama. But Boyle is such a feverishly energetic director and his movie feels alive in ways that most melodrama feel turgid and moribund. The exotic cast and locations (to Westerners) also help. It’s the only film on the list that made my Top Ten list, and one of only two I actually liked. I did not, and will not, see The Reader.

Who was forgotten: Well, my favorite movie of 2008 was a Swedish movie about a stunted child and his vampire friend, so color me SHOCKED that Let the Right One In wasn’t reserved a Best Picture spot. I’ve also already mentioned the more obvious omissions, The Dark Knight and WALL-E. I think it’s safe to say that both of these movies would have made the expanded Best Picture field—they also turn up later on in some major categories, were incredibly popular, and, looking at them five years later, are probably the two films from the year with the most lasting mainstream legacy. Dark Knight is the consummation of Christopher Nolan’s career and has spawned countless rip-offs that cannot match it, and WALL-E, though not my favorite Pixar endeavor, proudly displays all that is revolutionary about that studio’s best work. Also considered: The Class (winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes and also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at these Oscars, which, absurdly, it did not win), Rachel Getting MarriedIn Bruges.


Richard Jenkins, The Visitor                                                                                                         Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon                                                                                                             Sean Penn, Milk                                                                                                                               Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button                                                                           Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

I would also like to note that 2008 was the year that the ceremony producers introduced the weird, creepy spectacle (since ditched, thank God) of having other famous actors come out and say completely vacuous platitudes about the actor’s performance or the actor as a caring human being.

Who should’ve won: As good an actor as Sean Penn is, both of his Oscars have come at the expense of what I think are better performances. His role in Mystic River beat out, criminally, Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, and here Penn accepted instead of his closest competitor that year, Mickey Rourke. Like Murray’s role, Rourke’s is career-defining and career-encapsulating, and the mutilation has character endures at others’ hands and his own evokes his own (often self-imposed) struggles with fame and appearance. Also like Murray, it’s a role only Rourke would’ve been able to play, and that harmony of actor and character is something I often want to reward. That’s not to say that Penn isn’t good in Milk, or that The Wrestler is definitely a better movie (though I think it is, mostly because I’m incapable of seeing Milk as anything other than a generic biopic), or that these other actors weren’t deserving. (I was particularly thrilled that Richard Jenkins was nominated this year—he’s wonderful in The Visitor.)

Who was forgotten: The nomination for Jenkins robs me of dropping his name here, as his work in The Visitor is the type of quiet work that doesn’t get as many accolades as it often should (unless, like Jenkins, you’re old). So I’m going to change tack and suggest Colin Farrell for In Bruges. I’m no fan of Farrell’s, but his moroseness perfectly completes the dark comedy. It’s alternately pathetic, harrowing, and richly funny when handed some expletive-laden self-pitying monologues.


Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married                                                                                      Angelina Jolie, Changeling                                                                                                               Melissa Leo, Frozen River                                                                                                                Meryl Streep, Doubt                                                                                                                           Kate Winslet, The Reader

Who should’ve won: Going to have to stay away from saying who I think should’ve won, as I’ve only seen one of these performances. In fairness, it was a performance I loved—Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married. Her abrasive fieriness in the film draws out some secrets or unseemly qualities in the film’s ensemble of characters (mostly family members and close friends) in a way that really enhances the drama. The film’s vérité style helps Hathaway, too, lending an authenticity and humanity some of her more shallowly drawn characters often lack.

Who was forgotten: Again, since I haven’t seen 80% of the nominees here I don’t want to say that any of them shouldn’t have been nominated.


Josh Brolin, Milk                                                                                                                               Robert Downey, Jr., Tropic Thunder                                                                                               Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP), Doubt                                                                                      Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight                                                                                               Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

Who should’ve won: Really, really hard to argue with the choice of Heath Ledger here. His version of the Joker complements so well—probably too well—what Christopher Nolan was trying to do with comic book movies in supplying the subtext of paranoia and anarchy. It’s a big, cartoonish performance in a big cartoonish movie, but Ledger and Nolan use the Joker’s outsize personality towards more sinister ends so memorably. Given the brief length of Ledger’s career, it’s one of the two performances (the other being Ennis in Brokeback Mountain) he’ll be remembered for.

Who was forgotten: I can’t complain with any of the five names nominated, all talented actors, but for this section I’ll bring up a name that came up earlier—Brad Pitt, for his role in Burn After Reading. It’s arguably Pitt’s best role, and certainly his funniest. His airhead of a personal trainer is just delightful, failing miserably at planning any scheme. It’s a performance augmented by the hair, certainly, but Brad Pitt’s stretching and gym routine might’ve been the hardest I laughed in a theater that year.


Amy Adams, Doubt                                                                                                                            Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona                                                                           Viola Davis, Doubt                                                                                                                              Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button                                                            Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Who should’ve won: Again I’m hamstrung here by having not seen Doubt, but I’ve gotta believe that the Academy made the right decision here, choosing Penélope Cruz. Vicky Cristina is a surprisingly strong Woody Allen movie, and though Allen’s movies have featured plenty of sultry and excitable female characters, there’s something fresh about Cruz’ take—for one thing, she speaks Spanish, which not a lot of nebbish Upper West Siders are doing these days, and her excitableness extends outside of Allen’s often closed archetypal world.

Who was forgotten: I’ll stray a bit from the beaten path here—this exact group of five women also constituted the nominees at the Golden Globes—and remind you all of the Academy’s general disdain for comedy by highlighting Mila Kunis in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. For all of the understandable handwringing some of Judd Apatow’s comedies and Judd Apatow-influenced comedies can engender, Kunis’ is one of the two female roles in the collective that I really enjoy and add a bit of humanity to the seeming inability to see women as anything other than she-devils or immaculate prizes that are too good to be true. (The other is Catherine Keener in 40 Year Old Virgin. It helps that neither is Katherine Heigl.) Kunis’ strongest scene in the film comes when she and Peter visit that dive and she forces him to get on stage to play a part of his puppet musical—she’s testing him in a subtle but still kind of ridiculous way that is endearing in how it turns the tables on those kinds of movies’ frequent resorting to sad-sackiness.


Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire                                                                                         Stephen Daldry, The Reader                                                                                                            David FincherThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button                                                                Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon                                                                                                                 Gus Van Sant, Milk

Who should’ve won: My feelings about this category dovetail almost exactly with my feelings about the Best Picture category, because the exact same movies are nominated in both. Suffice to say that I’ll double down on my assertion from earlier that Slumdog Millionaire works because of Danny Boyle‘s kinetic direction, which uses space and angles unconventionally to add some fun to the whole affair. Much as I love Fincher, this was rightly Boyle’s year with this slate of nominees.

Who was forgotten: The easy answer here is Christopher Nolan, and to be perfectly honest were Nolan nominated, my answer about who should’ve won this category would be different. Nolan’s direction of The Dark Knight has changed Hollywood’s tastes as much as any development within the last ten years. Maybe that’s not for the better, now that every action movie must be dark and ominous, and we might be growing a little dull to that. But Nolan was at the top of his game here, and there was something so invigorating about seeing The Dark Knight on the big screen—I saw it five times in theaters—that I think the Academy would like this category back.


Frozen River                                                                                                                                    Happy-Go-Lucky                                                                                                                              In Bruges                                                                                                                                             Milk                                                                                                                                                      WALL-E

Who should’ve won: In my mind, not Milk. As I mentioned above, Milk was a run-of-the-mill biopic that happened to have a gay guy at its center. That’s great and noble effort, because there aren’t a lot of good movies about gay people out there (though some are undoubtedly on their way). But frankly, Milk used some pretty standard tropes to shoehorn in an increasingly important issue, and in doing so left some characters, including Harvey Milk, underdeveloped. (Same goes for Brolin’s Dan White, and I would’ve loved to see a movie about Emile Hirsch’s character.)

WALL-E‘s an interesting case, considering that the strength of its script is completely in stage directions. (Drawing directions? Animation directions? Whatever.) Half of that movie is two robots speaking their names at one another, but they do so while conveying a whole range of emotion that had to be supplemented by some kind of writerly control that transformed the word EVA, for example.

But WALL-E still isn’t the best script of the bunch, in my opinion. It’s In Bruges. There’s a lot going on in In Bruges—it’s part travelogue, part movie about making movies, part buddy cop comedy, part action thriller, part existential rumination—but its author, the playwright Martin McDonagh, ties all those loose strands together by its end, punctuated by some awesomely vulgar dialogue handed to Ralph Fiennes’ character. It’s when Fiennes shows up that the movie’s pieces fit into shape and point to the simultaneous absurdity and heaviness of it all.

Who was forgotten: I definitely would have loved to see Rachel Getting Married, by Jenny Lumet (Sidney’s daughter), included. The strength of Rachel Getting Married comes as much from what is not spoken as what is spoken—the marriage in question is actually an interracial one, and one of the beautiful things about it is how this is totally unremarkable to any character in the film. Great, too, are the exchanges shared by Rachel’s (and Kym’s—Kym is Hathaway’s character) parents, now divorced, and between their new spouses now that they’ve remarried, too. Who else? I wouldn’t have minded some love here for the Forgetting Sarah Marshall script, or The Visitor.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button                                                                                         Doubt                                                                                                                                               Frost/Nixon                                                                                                                                         The Reader                                                                                                                                       Slumdog Millionaire

Who should’ve won: Getting repetitive but here we have the Best Picture nominees, minus one (Milk was an original screenplay) and plus DoubtSlumdog Millionaire gets the win here just for coming up with the questions Jamal was asked when he was on the show. Ricky Ponting or Jack Hobbs? WHAT A PLAYA.

Who was forgotten: My vote for who should’ve been included here is almost certainly The Class, a French film starring a teacher in a script he wrote based on a novel he also penned inspired by some of his experiences with inner city Parisian youth. The film is so vibrant because the kids are given full reign to be themselves, and the film doesn’t shy away from ambiguity—you’ll be asking whether the teacher was right to make some of the decisions he did. The Class beautifully and heartbreakingly dramatizes the stakes involved and generates empathy for all of its characters.

Oh, and Let the Right One In, too, also adapted from a novel. See The Class and Let the Right One In. And think of movies like these when American Hustle and Dallas Buyers Club win awards tomorrow night.

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