The Academy & I: 2008

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After the exceptional year in film that was 2007, to see a fall-off in the quality of motion pictures the following year wasn’t all that unexpected. While 2008 certainly had its fair share of great films, you’d be hard-pressed to find many that were fairly represented at the following year’s Oscar ceremony. What the Academy did give us that year, however, was the last truly great Oscar host in Hugh Jackman. He took what is often-times an incredibly lackluster show and made it quite simply, great entertainment. It was, however, magic that we unfortunately haven’t seen in the ceremonies since. 2008 would also mark a notable shift in the Academy’s nomination process, as it would be the last year in which they would only get to nominate five films for Best Picture, but more on that in the next entry.

2008 was a year in which the Academy chose to frustrate my inner-cinephile like no other. Sure, there were many nominees and winners who were very deserving, but there were just as many head-scratching nominees and victors who would have been left out in the cold in any other year. It was a year that heralded the comeback of a once great screen actor, but also saw the loss of one of the industry’s most promising young thespians. It was a year that saw The Dark Knight take the critics and box office by storm, only to be shunned in most of the major categories by Hollywood’s greatest institution.

As I take a look back on the year in film that was 2008, I will delve into those films that I personally felt best represented the year, as opposed to those that were actually represented come Oscar night.

Best Cinematography

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2008, for all intensive purposes, was the year of Slumdog Millionaire. One of the film’s many wins on Oscar night was for the bright color-infused work by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. Known for his collaborations with not only Slumdog helmer Danny Boyle, but the crazy Dane himself Lars von Trier, there is no doubt Dod Mantle does solid work here, but it’s certainly not a career-best. Other nominees in the category included Wally Pfister’s work in The Dark Knight as well as that of Claudio Miranda in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. While my thoughts on the film itself may not exactly match up with my declaration here, there is no doubt Miranda’s work with David Fincher on Button is exceptional. It’s interesting to note then that Miranda’s nomination was the first ever awarded by the Academy to a film shot entirely digitally. Although I am very much on the side of film stock when it comes to the raging cinematography debate, Fincher’s films continue to be the best example of digital cinematography, highlighted by Miranda’s work here. He would go on to win the Oscar for lensing Life of Pi just this past year, but it’s safe to say it doesn’t top his timeless work on Button.

As for those not nominated by the Academy, I’d highlight the masterful job Sean Bobbitt does in Steve McQueen’s feature-length debut Hunger. It’s a film comprised of long shots, of which I am an avid fan, the most notable of which exceeds 17 minutes in length. It’s a devastating film centered around the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike and it’s probably Bobbitt’s finest work in a career full of highlights, which includes his work this very year in 12 Years a Slave.

Who Won: Anthony Dod Mantle for Slumdog Millionaire

Who Should Have Won: Claudio Miranda for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Who Should Have Been Nominated (And Won): Sean Bobbitt for Hunger

Best Original Screenplay

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Much like with Diablo Cody the previous year, 2008 brought with it a new writing voice in that of Dustin Lance Black. His script for Gus Van Sant’s Milk proved to be the one to beat come Oscar night, the only nominee in the Original Screenplay category that year to also be nominated for Best Picture. It took home the award of course and fulfilled the narrative of yet another youngster coming seemingly out of nowhere to win the Oscar. It was up against a slew of independent films, as well as the script from Pixar’s WALL-E. It was a strong selection of films and while a part of me really does love a romance between two robots, my favorite nominee of the year was Martin McDonagh for his great work on a film he also directed, In Bruges. A Brit black comedy about two Irish hitmen hiding out in Bruges, the film is certainly an original with its unique brand of humor and high-wire performances from Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Raplh Fiennes. It’s a script that represents an incredibly unique voice in McDonagh, one that is much more evident than that of Dustin Lance Black’s. While his work on Milk  is strong, I’ve always felt that it’s much more a director’s and actors’ film. Make mine In Bruges.

And then there’s Charlie Kaufman. The man who many an aspiring screenwriter look to as their own personal God, his work in his 2008 directorial debut Synecdoche, New York drew the ire of many critics. I was not one of them. Is it his best work? Certainly not, but then again that’s compared to some of the best scripts in recent memory. Be it Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindAdaptation or Being John Malkovich, Kaufman’s work as a screenwriter is unparalleled. He’s a true original and Synecdoche is perhaps his most ambitious to date. I’d have liked to see it here.

Who Won: Dustin Lance Black for Milk

Who Should Have Won: Martin McDonagh for In Bruges

Who Should Have Been Nominated: Charlie Kaufman for Synecdoche, New York

Best Adapted Screenplay

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A year in which the Best Picture slate was dominated by adapted material, it came as no surprise to see the Adapted Screenplay category look eerily similar. Simon Beaufoy’s script for Slumdog took home the prize, up against its Best Picture brethren that included the scripts for Benjamin ButtonFrost/Nixon, and The ReaderDoubt rounded out the category with John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his own work. Of the nominees, I’d actually go with Peter Morgan’s work on Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon as my favorite of the bunch. I’ve never really been a fan of Howard’s directorial work, nor of Morgan’s various script duties, but this is probably the strongest work from both due to its simplicity in setting the stage for a showdown between two great actors in Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. While it was a particularly weak year on the adaptation front, Morgan’s work rises above the crop of nominees.

For those overlooked by the Academy in 2008, I would look no further than David Gordon Green’s adaptation of Stewart O’Nan’s novel Snow Angels. An independent feature that most overlooked come the end of the year, the small town drama affected me like no other. Sporting strong work from Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale, Green’s script really captured life as it is. It’s a moving, potent, and even scary picture, one that lingers in the mind long after it’s over. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Who Won: Simon Beaufoy for Slumdog Millionaire

Who Should Have Won: Peter Morgan for Frost/Nixon

Who Should Have Been Nominated: David Gordon Green for Snow Angels 

Best Supporting Actress

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When it comes to creating strong female characters, perhaps no writer has had quite the consistency of Woody Allen. Year in, year out, he brings audiences a new film and along with them, a new showcase for actresses of the highest order. Although his films have been inconsistent in their quality in recent year, one of the highlights is without question Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The film’s lone nomination that year came for Penelope Cruz’s strong performance as the emotionally unstable Maria Elena, who just so happened to make the most of it with a win. While Cruz was up against a strong performance from Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler and notable turns from Amy Adams and Viola Davis in Doubt, you’ll get no argument here. Cruz was in a class all her own.

Marisa Tomei’s performance in The Wrestler wasn’t the only strong supporting turn in that particular film. Evan Rachel Wood’s work as the daughter of Mickey Rourke’s wrestler was an emotionally invested one that just so happened to be overlooked by the Academy. It’s a performance that perfectly captures that sense of alienation and abandonment while also providing an undercurrent of a certain longing for something more from her father. Although it’s only the focus of a few scenes in the film, Evan Rachel Wood makes the most of her limited screen time. It may just be a career best.       

Who Won: Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Who Should Have Won: Cruz

Who Should Have Been Nominated: Evan Rachel Wood for The Wrestler

Best Supporting Actor

Heath Ledger

Another supporting performance win that will get no argument from me, the late Heath Ledger’s turn as Batman’s greatest foe may just be the single greatest performance in any superhero film ever. His Joker is impossible to take your eyes off of,  an individual whose chaotic nature entertains as well as terrifies. Although the great Jack Nicholson was synonymous with the role for his hammy turn in Tim Burton’s Batman, Ledger’s take on the role manages to overtake Nicholson’s in seemingly every aspect. It’s never over the top. It’s a performance that prides itself on nuance and capitalizes on simple ticks and turns to portray a truly disturbed mind. It was acting that the Academy simply could not overlook. Although much was debated in giving the award to an actor posthumously, it’s nearly impossible to argue that it wasn’t deserving. It’s quite simply great acting from an actor who, in my opinion, should have already had an Oscar to his name for his performance in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. It is truly a shame we will never get to see another performance from Heath Ledger, an actor of the highest order.

James Franco. It’s safe to say you’re going to see this name a few more times in this series of posts. While nowadays he’s often mocked for his overabundance of hobbies and film projects, I’ve always been a fan. One of his best performances came in 2008, albeit in an R-rated comedy in which he played a pot dealer. Franco’s character Saul in David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express was an instant hit amongst movie fans. It was not only an incredibly funny performance, but it also captured overcame the typical drug dealer cliches by giving Saul something different: a yearning for real friendship. It’s the kind of performance the Academy almost always overlooks, but I’m hoping one of these days they’ll smarten up and award one. I mean if you’re going to nominate Robert Downey Jr. playing a character in blackface, comedic drug dealers should not be off limits.

Who Won: Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight

Who Should Have Won: Ledger

Who Should Have Been Nominated: James Franco for Pineapple Express

Best Actress

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2008 was a year highlighted by many of the top actresses in the industry receiving Oscar nominations, albeit for believed-to-be lesser performances in their incredibly illustrious careers. Meryl Streep was nominated for Doubt, Angelina Jolie for Changeling, Melissa Leo for Frozen River, Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married, and Kate Winslet, who ended up taking home the award for her performance in The Reader. Now I’ll get this out of the way, most of these films don’t appeal to me in any way shape or form. I have not seen The ReaderChangeling or Rachel Getting Married, and Rachel is the only one I have any interest in seeing. As most critics tend to do, I’m making gross generalizations based on the perception of many. I will say that Streep’s performance in Doubt is the worst I’ve seen from her, highlighted by her incredibly hammy delivery of the film’s final line. Leo’s performance is fine in Frozen River, but it pales in comparison to the strong work she’s done since. So who should have won? I’m willing to bet Anne Hathaway, but I’m abstaining for now.

Kate Winslet should be here for Revolutionary Road. She won the Oscar so it’s not like I’m going to complain all that much, but I find it hard to believe her performance in The Reader could top this one. Kate and Leo at the top of their game.

Who Won: Kate Winslet for The Reader

Who Should Have Won: ?

Who Should Have Been Nominated: Kate Winslet for Revolutionary Road

Note: Don’t worry, I feel like a fool. I catch up with this category in the more recent years.

Best Actor

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There is no question that Sean Penn’s victory this year was hugely symbolic. It was not just a great performance, but it served as a reminder during a trying time that social change was coming despite heavy opposition. With that said, Penn’s performance was not the best in the category that year. That distinction belongs to Mickey Rourke’s heartbreaking performance as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson in The Wrestler. Rourke’s acting comeback was not just a good awards season story, it was truly a work of art. There was no actor better suited for the role of physically-drained drug-addled wash-up than the man who had experienced his fair share of troubles in real life. He was for all intensive purposes an acting wash-up, it just took Darren Aronofsky to take a chance and see something in him that many hadn’t in years. That chance resulted in not only the best performance of 2008, but one of the best of the entire decade.

Leonardo DiCaprio delivered what in my mind was his best performance to date in 2008’s Revolutionary Road as Frank Wheeler, a man suffocated by his own suburban life. It’s a performance that certainly wouldn’t have been out of place in the Best Actor category this year, but I’m also inclined to go with something a little more offbeat. Well, you don’t get more offbeat than Josh Brolin’s performance as President George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s W.. Say what you must about the film itself (I really enjoy it), but Josh Brolin gives a career-best performance as the Texas politician who wanted nothing more than to live up to his father’s expectations. Many thought it was going to be an incredibly biased, negative portrayal of the controversial figure from one of the left’s most eccentric, but for the most part, it wasn’t. It’s an entertaining little film that sympathizes with the man, and it’s a credit to Brolin’s great performance that it never moves into parody. Easily one of the more underrated performances in recent memory.

Who Won: Sean Penn for Milk

Who Should Have Won: Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler

Who Should Have Been Nominated: Josh Brolin for W. 

Best Director

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Brit filmmaker Danny Boyle has had a wide-ranging directorial career that has spanned various different genres and cultures, but no one could have guessed that the film that would garner him the Oscar would be an India-set modern-day fairy tale. Although I’m a fan of many of Boyle’s works, it’s safe to say Slumdog Millionaire isn’t his best. It’s an entertaining film that I greatly enjoyed upon first viewing, but it doesn’t really hold up as the best film of the year nor as a true representation of Indian culture. It is easy to admire Boyle’s energetic approach to the material though. His competition in 2008 included Stephen Daldry for The Reader, David Fincher for Benjamin Button, Ron Howard for Frost/Nixon, and Gus Van Sant for Milk. Daldry is one of those filmmakers who I personally have never understood the praise for. Fincher’s work on Button, while admirable, pales in comparison to pretty much every other single film he’s made. Howard’s work is strong in its simplicity on Frost/Nixon, but the one filmmaker in the category who truly makes his mark known on his film is Gus Van Sant. Milk is a tender work about a tender man full of great performances and a very real sense of the San Francisco culture of the time. It should have won here.

There in no question what auteur my mind immediately goes to when considering those directors overlooked by the Academy in 2008. Darren Aronofsky is a filmmaker who has consistently made truly original works of art that take hold of you in a way unlike any other, and The Wrestler was just his latest at the time. As a life-long professional wrestling fan (trust me, that’s hard to admit), Aronofsky captures the later stages of a former pro perfectly, highlighting a world full of depressing fan singings and familial troubles. With bravura tracking shots and a really lived-in feel to the performances, it’s no wonder why many critics took to, as the late great Ebert called it, the ‘meat and potatoes’ style of filmmaking on display in The Wrestler. It’s certainly up there with Aronofsky’s best.

Who Won: Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire

Who Should Have Won: Gus Van Sant for Milk

Who Should Have Been Nominated: Darren Aronofsky for The Wrestler

Best Picture

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It being the year of Slumdog and all, it was no surprise to see the film take home the big prize for Best Picture at the end of the ceremony. While I, like many others, wasn’t thrilled with the slate of Best Picture nominees for 2008, there certainly were some good films in the bunch. Benjamin Button, however, wasn’t one of them. While beautifully shot and from one of my favorite filmmakers, it suffered from a slight script and a terrible framing device. Frost/Nixon was a more noble effort than usual from Ron Howard, but it wasn’t the best film of the year. Of the choices, I have to again go with Gus Van Sant’s Milk. It’s a work full of likable performances and an honesty often not seen in so-called message movies. It was also an important film for the time in which it was released, highlighting a cause that remains relevant to this very day.

And you probably know where I’m going here. Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler not only centered on material near and dear to my heart, it was the comeback film for an often overlooked actor who delivers an absolutely devastating performance. In fact, it’s full of devastating performances, including ones from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. When it comes to 2008, I feel there’s no film that better represent the best of the year than The Wrestler.

What Won: Slumdog Millionaire

What Should Have Won: Milk

What Should Have Been Nominated (And Won): The Wrestler

So ends my entry in The Academy & I that spanned the year in film that was 2008. Up next is 2009. It was a year that saw the Best Picture slate expand to lengths it hadn’t seen since 1944. It was also the first telecast to sport multiple hosts since 1987. Bring on 2009.  

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