Despite the long-looming threat of the Writer’s Guild strike, the 2008 Oscars are looking like a fine affair. Had WGA members not approved their most recent contract negotiations, the Academy Awards would have been reduced to a star-free, writer-starved clip show. (Nobody out there wants a repeat of the Golden Globes. Shudder.) But the strike is over, allowing nominees to attend guilt-free and returning host Jon Stewart to rely on a full staff of writers to pen his off-the-cuff quips.
Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, what can we say about this year’s Oscar nominees? Well, first off, it should be noted that this is an extremely worthy crop of films and filmmakers. As always, there are a few people who could have been included in the Oscar list: Angelina Jolie for A Mighty Heart, Tim Burton for Sweeney Todd, Kerry Russell for Waitress, Jennifer Garner for Juno, Joe Wright for Atonement, The Simpsons Movie for Best Animated Film, Johnny Greenwood for his stirring There Will Be Blood score. But to get them on the ballot, you would have had to kick someone off, and it’s hard to find an undeserving nominee on this year’s list.
One need look no further than the Best Picture category for proof of 2007’s quality. Rough-edged art films like No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood sit alongside a quirky indie comedy (Juno), an old-school Hollywood thriller (Michael Clayton) and a sweeping British costume drama (Atonement). You’d be hard-pressed to find five better films in any given year.
As usual, though, there was a bit of controversy in the Best Director category. “How could Atonement get nominated for Best Film and not Best Director?” people shouted. “What, did the film direct itself?” The fact is that filmmaking is a collaborative art, the sum of many parts. Some of those parts stand out more strongly than others. I firmly believe Atonement may be the most Oscar-worthy Best Picture of the year. But I wouldn’t argue that the direction was exceptionally outstanding. Julian Schnabel (the guy who usurped Atonement director Joe Wright’s place in the Best Director category) did a magnificent job of imposing his own unique style over his film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Overall, though, I felt Diving Bell was a lesser film than Atonement. Seriously, people, if Best Director is required to exactly mirror Best Picture every year, what’s the point of having two categories? The Best Picture statue is typically handed to the producer, and there’s a big difference between a film’s direction and its production.
There are always complaints about how the Oscars are out of touch with common tastes (hence, the lack of a nomination for The Simpsons Movie). It should be remembered, though, that these are the Academy Awards, voted on by the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This isn’t a contest determined by popularity or box office. (That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for, and Tim Allen has 10 of those stupid things.) The Academy Awards are a chance for an exclusive group of largely old-guard Hollywood elite to salute the finest their craft has to offer. If you’re not a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (and even few Hollywood people are), you don’t get a vote (even if you thought the ending to There Will Be Blood sucked).
Oscar-nominated films are rarely blockbusters. The combined take of every Best Picture nominee this year would barely equal the opening weekend of Spider-Man 3. On the other hand, Juno has become a surprise sleeper hit, taking in more than $110 million at the box office. The Little Indie That Could landed four Oscar nominations and a No. 1 soundtrack album to boot. I don’t know about you, but if I had to choose a favorite 2007 movie starring J.K. Simmons, I’d sure pick Juno over Spider-Man 3.
This year’s Oscars should have a little something for everyone to root for. Bruce Vilanch has been saving up his funny jokes for months and the stars are dying to show off their hot new dresses. After months of picket lines, industry infighting and lame guests on Leno, the least you could do is show Hollywood how much you still love movies and watch the Academy Awards. (It airs Sunday, Feb. 24, beginning at 6:30 p.m. on ABC.)