If this year’s Oscar nominated films have one thing in common, it is a vision of humanity’s darker side where we struggle to become our best selves. Sometimes the light of redemption shines through the shadows cast by these stories evoking a smile or warm feeling. More often, I thought these films were more about the struggle than light at the end of the tunnel.
I have seen all of the feature films nominated except for Wanted and some from other categories. There are a few movies that were not nominated that are just as deserving, such as Gomorrah, a raw film about the Camorra, Naples’ version of the mafia, or Ed Harris’ rather charming western, Appaloosa or Clint Eastwood’s urban cowboy tale, Gran Torino, or the lovely British film Son of Rambow about friendship. This column, however, reflects the nominated films I would like to see win, either because of their art, beauty, justice themes, or grace, even when it is hard to see.
Best Picture – Director Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionare is hands down my favorite. It is full of heart in the midst of hardship, loss, and violence, the human collateral damage of India in the throes of globalization. When Jamal (Dev Patel) makes it to the hot seat of the quiz show, we see how a young man learns facts through his openness to the experience of life and love. And the Bollywood ending exhilarates. I think all the nominated films are deserving. However, I am probably the only film reviewer who didn’t gush over the artfully over-indulgent The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but I am happy to stand alone.
Best Director – I would love to see Ron Howard win. Directing and story-telling are art forms that come natural to Howard. In Frost/Nixon he has transformed a stage play about a television event many of us remember into a riveting drama that lets us see the former President Richard Nixon’s (Frank Langella) un-integrated personality as much as David Frost’s (Micheal Sheen) fortuitous ability to irritate the truth out of an unwilling and unsuspecting subject.
Best Actor – Richard Jenkins gets my vote for the way he comes out of his life of quiet desperation to be the kind of neighbor that can change the world, one person at a time in The Visitor. But I bet Mickey Rourke wins it for The Wrestler. His Randy “The Ram” character is quietly despairing, too, but he doesn’t have the strength, or maybe the options, to risk really living over the devil he knows. (I would not begrudge Sean Penn for Milk or Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon a win, but if Brad Pitt gets it for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I will be disappointed because at least in this instance, in terms of acting Pitt doesn’t even come close to Richard Jenkins, Sean Penn, Frank Langella or Mickey Rourke.
Best Actress – This is the most difficult category to choose; all the performances were amazing. I could easily choose or Meryl Streep for Doubt (Catholics in Media is giving it an award at their annual Mass and banquet on March 22 at the Beverly Hills Hotel visit www.CatholicsinMedia.org for information) but I choose Kate Winslet for The Reader. The film is visually difficult (she seduces a teen boy who then reads to her), but her powerful characterization and performance as a former Nazi concentration camp guard on trial for a war crime offers so much insight into pride and the human and German national psyche that it is almost overwhelming.
Best Supporting Actor – Again, all deserving actors, but Heath Ledger (1979-2008) was disturbing and astonishing as The Joker in The Dark Knight. It takes weeks and months to make a film and one wonders how an actor can maintain the consistency of a character that is so brilliant yet damaged. The film was about a “dark knight” but a case could be made for Batman’s (Christian Bale) dark night of the soul. The Joker shed light on the brokenness of a city and a hero. The psychologist Jung would have a field day with the characters and the film because it dwells in the shadowland of the struggle for self-knowledge and identity.
Best Supporting Actress – Viola Davis gave a memorable performance in Doubt as the loving mother trying to protect her son, no matter the cost. My vote goes to her but for however much I am not a fan of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Taraji P. Henson may well win for her role as the foster mother and caregiver to the age-challenged Benjamin played by Brad Pitt.
Best Animated Feature Film – Kung Fu Panda was good, I appreciated Bolt’s reality TV perspective, but Disney’s WALL-E was an intelligent and somewhat dark prophetic commentary on the consequences of thoughtless consumerism. On one level it entertained in typical Disney fashion; on another level it touched our souls. After all, care for the earth is not only a major theme of Catholic Social Teaching, but it is a spiritual and moral imperative for all of us.
Best Foreign Film – I only saw The Class but I am going to vote for it because it is about the power relations expressed through language during a year in a multi-cultural contemporary urban Paris high school. Fascinating and human.
Best Original Screenplay – In Bruges probably won’t get it, but I am giving it my vote anyway. This intricate, violent tale of honor between assassins won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is original, compelling, redemptive, transformative, and finely woven like a Belgian tapestry. In the midst of great beauty there is a human stain, and in that ugliness, grace appears so unexpectedly that the audience knows it has just experienced a great film.
Best Adapted Screenplay – John Patrick Shanley adapted his own Pulitzer-winning play Doubt for the screen, and I like it well enough, but I am going with The Reader, adapted by David Hare (The Hours) from the novel by Bernhard Schlink. None of the other adaptations are as layered and as seamless; this script never misses. Screenwriters concentrate on the development of the character arc for dramatic effect and to move the story along; here the main character doesn’t change and therein is the script’s brilliance.
Best Documentary Feature – I saw only Man on Wire but felt like I was watching a tightrope incarnation of Picasso, with all the flaws of a self-centered artist and his brilliance. Philippe Petit managed and manipulated his way into stringing a high wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Compelling.
Best Original Score – Slumdog Millionaire and for Best Original Song the same film’s Jai Ho because they are exhilarating and blend with such power to make the story leap off the screen.
Best Cinematography – The word cinema comes from the Greek kinesis and means movement. Cinematography is the art of recording images. Which of the five nominees does it in such a compelling way as to win this category? I would like Clint Eastwood’s atmospheric historical crime drama The Changeling to get it, but I choose The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – a cinematographic marathon if ever there was one. The one scene where Cate Blanchette performs a ballet wins it for me (although the film overall does not.)
Best Editing – Because of the complexity, Benjamin Button will probably get it, but Slumdog Millionaire was awesome.
Best Costume Design – I thought The Duchess was a very fine, thoughtful film and the costume design excellent; The Duchess gets my vote. (I went with two of my own sisters and a sister-in-law to see Australia; I think they’d vote for this one!)
Best Sound Mixing & Editing – Wanted is the only film in the main categories I did not see, but my vote goes to Slumdog Millionaire because I think it took some doing to make this film come together. Brilliant.
Best Make-Up – I am a fan of the Hellboy franchise, everything about Benjamin Button screams marathon and hours of attention to detail, but The Dark Knight gets my vote. The Joker’s visage in particular with perfectly synched with his persona, to great emotional effect.
Best Art Direction – going with The Changeling. This was pretty much a perfect film. The art direction created a historical landscape and environment that was completely believable.
Best Visual Effects – OK, so Benjamin Button had more set-ups with a storyline that offered more opportunities for F/X. It’s a draw between The Dark Knight and Iron Man. My vote goes to The Dark Knight on principle; I enjoyed Iron Man until I found out that the U.S. Military consulted on it making me feel it was more a propaganda piece than entertainment.
Best Short Live Action Film – This is a difficult category because the viewing public – and many reviewers – don’t always get to see these films. I did screen On the Line (Auf der Strecke), a 30 minute film from Germany. It was like watching a fine short-story about the microcosm of daily living come to life, about doing the right thing and owning the decision after. For catechists and religious educators, I suggest buying the DVD of these short films when they come out in a few months. Obtain a license to show them Church Video License and use them to start conversations about things that matter.
PS: I went to the video store to rent Tropic Thunder so I could see it for this column (sorry Robert Downey, Jr., my vote went to someone else.) But I asked the two ladies running the shop if they had seen any of the Oscar-nominated films, like Chris Rock did a few years ago when he helmed the Oscar Awards. They both laughed and said “No!” One added, “When I leave here at night the last thing I want to see is a movie!!”
Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP, is the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, and an author and speaker on media literacy and faith and film. For the rest of her Oscar picks visit www.sisterrose.wordpress.com.