For everything the Oscars got right this year (all those nominations for “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Milk”), there’s even more they got wrong (13 for “Benjamin Button”). Jack Mirkinson surveys the damage.
So, so many problems, and so little space. First off: this is the place to rage against the almost complete exclusion of “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Mike Leigh’s dizzyingly delightful postcard from working-class London. How is it possible that “Happy-Go-Lucky” only got a nomination for its script — most of which was improvised — while dreck like “The Reader” and “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button” soaks up the awards sunlight? “The Reader” is a disingenuous mess that asks us to salute an unrepentant Nazi guard because she overcomes some personal obstacles. It’s got the lush production values and the Holocaust theme that the Academy goes for over and over again, but when will they stop falling for these shams? Their embrace of “Benjamin Button” suggests that the day will not come soon. Obviously crafted from day one to be the sweeping epic of the year, “Button” has everything — from a journey through American history to extensive (and admittedly brilliant) CGI to a failed romance between pretty people — but an emotional center and a script editor. The presence of these two films in so many categories is quite painful.
Kate Winslet surely does not deserve to be nominated for her performance in “The Reader.” Where is the recognition for Sally Hawkins, whose turn in “Happy-Go-Lucky” was my favorite of the year? Hawkins is warm, exciting, mischievous and very, very real. Or how about Michelle Williams, who carries “Wendy and Lucy” — a spare, searing short story in tune with the tenor of our recession-plagued disaster of a country — entirely on her slender shoulders? Playing a woman severely down on her luck, Williams seems to move forward on sheer will, and she is devastating in her journey through a broken American landscape.
Brad Pitt should never have been nominated. He takes what could be a fascinating role and turns it into a gooey pile of nothing — no introspection, no personality, jut long gazes into space and a creaky Southern accent. Pitt is not likely to win, though — that honor will go to Mickey Rourke, if only for his redemptive backstory. As is so often the case, voters will pull the lever for what’s off-screen, which is why Sean Penn, whose magisterial performance in “Milk” far outclasses Rourke’s melodramatic, hammy comeback, will not get the award he should. I’d have loved Dev Patel, who anchors the feverish dreamscape that is “Slumdog Millionaire” with considerable skill, to be nominated as well.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
The only thing missing here is Rosemarie DeWitt’s knockout performance in “Rachel Getting Married.” Without DeWitt, there’s no movie — and that’s not just because she plays Rachel. As the sister so often shunted to the side by Hathaway’s junkie traumas, she gives the film its complexity with equal doses of tenderness and pathos. I could also do without the nomination of Penelope Cruz, who, though she lights a fierce jolt through “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” has a wisp of a role in a wisp of a film.
BEST FOREIGN FILM
Time and again, the Oscars make inexplicable choices in this category. Last year, their snubbing of “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” the heart-rending Romanian abortion thriller, caused howls of protest. This year, I can’t believe “Let The Right One In” did not make the cut. This Swedish vampire movie ain’t “Twilight”; it’s a pitch-black, blood-soaked and ravishing chiller. Are the voters scared of the dark? Many people I trust are also complaining about the puzzling omission of “Gomorrah,” the Italian mafia exposé that just opened in New York.
Mike Leigh. Mike Leigh. Mike Leigh. Mike Leigh. ‘Nuff said …