Pick ‘n’ Choose

The curious case of the 2008 Oscar best picture nominees


Unrivaled in glittering ghastliness, the Oscar totters on toward its centennial. The number of facelifts adds to the tight smiles all around. Unlike your slutty upstart award shows, here sumptuary laws keep the stars in basic black, cleavage squeezed with lobster-claw savagery by boob-hating designers.

The ensemble gathers to deck that studio leviathan in laurels or gild that little-movie-that-could. (So quickly, the little-movie-that-could becomes the little-movie-that-won’t-go-away.)

The highlights this year, unless Wall-E shows up to trash-compact host Hugh Jackson, will be the Parade of the Dead. It’s always stirring to see who gets the biggest posthumous round of applause. After that, we get to find out what senescent Academy members, so soon to be in that parade, think is the deepest wrong: the Holocaust, the suppression of gay people or the plight of Indian urchins.

I’d rather kick the nominees when they’re down, but I’ll kick them when they’re up.

On Saturday, Feb. 21, all five Best Picture nominees are playing in a row at San Francisco’s AMC Van Ness 14 from 10:30am to midnight; sitting through this would be the perfect method for achieving the gaga state of an elderly Academy Member.

And the nominees are:

‘Nixon/Frost’ Not as compelling as Carter/Amy Goodman, less facetious than Leno/McCain. If we’d just given him the Italian shoes, history would have been different. Unusually good for a Ron Howard movie, and yet still very much a Ron Howard movie, trying to pour some oil on waters that have good reason for still being troubled. One might feel more of a pang for the mendacious old war criminal if he’d been rehabilitated in jail instead of on TV. And he was rehabilitated, not disgraced—remember?

‘Slumdog Millionaire’ The best policy is just to nod and smile when people bring this front runner-up. It’s better than growling that this movie is the combination of the least of Dickens and the worst of Bollywood, a polychrome piñata stuffed with caricatures, such as the vision of America where we drive to India in a Mercedes, watch the police punch a kid in the eye and then give ’em a Benjamin afterward as a token of our part-time compassion; where, when thugs slash your face, you get this artistic scar that looks like an expensive henna tattoo; where, when you fall into the dung, a movie star gives you his autograph afterward; and where, when you’re arrested, the cops say, “So! The slumdog barks!” like they’ve seen Aladdin. Watch the upcoming Gomorra for comparison: it’s the difference between a filmmaker trying to clean out an open sewer and a filmmaker like Danny Boyle just getting off on the rot.

‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ And this one is all about the Benjamins. This film gave a lot of people a lot of jobs, and that needs to be remembered, though it won’t be, since even Frost/Nixon (another case of misremembered history) has a better chance of coming home with the gold. It’s larded with sequences like that 15-minute bit to explain why a lady crossed the street. (To get to the other side?) The oddly sexless script by Joe Roth took an interesting century and made it bland. Having shed his black relatives, the titular Benjamin can safely ignore the Civil Rights era in ’60s New Orleans. Eventually, he seeks solace at the banks of the Ganges, and unfortunately the slumdog urchins weren’t there to pick his well-padded pocket.

‘The Reader’ Aka Hanna, She-Cougar of the SS, this film outed a popular if forbidden sexual fantasy (“Auf with ze clothes! Mach schnell!”). What else could explain this drab, nigh colorless film’s success, other than the Nazis-were-people-too theme or the scene of Ralph Fiennes pulling an appropriate face as he wandered through a death camp, lonely as a cloud?

‘Milk’ In addition to being the best film on this list, it’s the one really personal film, unmistakable as the work of anyone other than Gus Van Sant. And here is the least vainglorious and most appealing acting ever done by Ross’ own Sean Penn. Take the quality of this film and add to it its relevance—the way it rebukes that slight margin of our state that declared gay people will never be quite as good as straight people. Proof that a movie can be about something without being something of a bore.

The 81st Academy Awards screens on Sunday, Feb. 22. Check ye olde TV listings for details.

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