While this year’s Academy Award nominations seem like they’re filled with deserving honorees, apparently some honorees are more deserving than others. Just look at the Las Vegas betting odds for proof. Has there ever been a more one-sided Oscar race? Heath Ledger at 1:100? That means you could lay down $100, and if Heath wins Best Supporting Actor, you walk away with a one dollar profit!
The bookies are convinced we won’t see a single surprise come Oscar night, and they’re probably correct. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t already seen some surprises in the form of an outrageous oversight or two on the part of the Academy. Where the holy hell—for the sake of example—is Bruce Springsteen’s Best Song nod for The Wrestler? Why wouldn’t you want The Boss performing on your Oscar telecast? Why choose two songs from Slumdog Millionaire, one song from Wall·E and call it a night? Pure craziness.
So how do the other nominations stack up this year? Let’s break ’em down.
Best Motion Picture of the Year
Most Deserving: Actually, there are minor flaws in all the films nominated this year (too big, too small, too stagey), but there’s no denying the momentum behind Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Audiences loved it. Critics raved about it. It had humor, romance, violence and dancing. What more do you want out of your Best Picture?
Least Deserving: Credit the unstoppable publicity machine that is Harvey Weinstein for The Reader’s surprise nomination in this top category. It’s a decent film, but--given its subject matter--far too flat. The story wanders all over the map, jumping from past to present and never quite figuring out whose story it’s supposed to be telling.
Most Overlooked: A tie between Wall·E and The Dark Knight. Both were spectacular films that deserved an invitation to the big dance. The Academy really missed an opportunity to laud a popular, box-office hit--something Oscar voters have not done since the ratings-high year that Titanic won. What can we do other than blame it on Elite Hollywood’s ghettoization of genre films? A cartoon? A superhero movie? How could those be in contention for Motion Picture of the Year? Easy. They are two stellar examples of how an intelligent, well-made film transcends its genre.
Achievement in Directing
Most Deserving: Hard to call here. David Fincher, Ron Howard, Gus Van Sant, Danny Boyle and even Stephen Daldry are talented, experienced directors. Let’s go with Gus (Milk) for delivering his most polished effort since Good Will Hunting.
Least Deserving: Sorry to harp on The Reader again. But Stephen Daldry’s disappointing direction does little to lift the unsympathetic and convoluted story to an Oscar-worthy level.
Most Overlooked: Guess what? There were actually two directors on Slumdog Millionaire: Brit Danny Boyle and Indian Loveleen Tandan. By all accounts Tandan shot many of the scenes, made key script changes and wrote all the Hindi dialogue. Her name is on the credits. Why not the award nomination? The Academy says you can only have one director per film--which is all fine and good, except Joel and Ethan Coen were allowed to share their Best Directing award last year. Funny thing: In 2004, Fernando Meirelles was Oscar-nominated for City of God, but his female co-director Kátia Lund was not. Is Oscar sexist? Just ask the only three woman ever nominated in this category (Lina Wertmüller in 1976, Jane Campion in 1993 and Sofia Coppola in 2003--none of whom won).
Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Most Deserving: Sean Penn always knocks it out of the park, and he does it again with Milk. The actor has been nominated five times in the Best Actor category and won once. But Oscar voters are likely to get a “been there, done that” feeling with him this year. In which case, Mickey Rourke has got the statue locked up. Rourke’s raw performance in The Wrestler is the stuff of legend. Plus, his own personal comeback story dovetails nicely with the plot of The Wrestler. Penn is going down for the count.
Least Deserving: Richard Jenkins is certainly the least familiar of the nominees, but his work in The Visitor is truly fine. In fact, all the lead actors this year did upstanding jobs. Who to boot? Hmmm. Let’s throw Brad Pitt under the bus. Benjamin Button wasn’t a particularly nuanced character, affording relatively little in the way of acting challenge. (A better talent showcase? The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford.) Plus, Pitt’s rich and handsome and sleeping with Angelina Jolie on a nightly basis, so we should punish him somehow.
Most Overlooked: Dev Patel was the charming, guileless heart of Slumdog Millionaire. Why no love, Oscar?
Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Most Deserving: Anne Hathaway does quite wonderful work in Jonathan Demme’s challenging Rachel Getting Married. But the film is polarizing, looking to most like a too-simple exercise in improvisation. It’s not. Meryl Streep’s on-the-nose performance as the tough nun in Doubt is easier to digest and more likely to take home the gold. But we expect that from Streep. Hathaway deserves it for both skill and surprise.
Least Deserving: It’s tempting to nominate Kate Winslet for The Reader, especially since everyone from the Golden Globes to the Screen Actors Guild agreed that she deserved Best Supporting Actress for that role. But her performance is probably the best part of the movie. More suspect is Angelina Jolie’s role in Changeling. Jolie does her best as the film’s grieving mother, but it’s a decidedly unsubtle performance thanks to J. Michael Straczynski’s too-obvious script. You know Jolie is mad because she screams. You know she’s sad because she cries.
Most Overlooked: How did Sally Hawkins from Happy-Go-Lucky land so many film festival awards and critics’ choice lauds and not end up with a nomination?
Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Most Deserving: Good as Heath Ledger and Robert Downey Jr. are in their respective character parts, Josh Brolin gives a pitch-perfect perf as the tightly wound city councilman in Milk. It’s an exercise in subtlety, and Brolin nails it, eliciting sad sympathy for his upper-middle-class schmuck.
Least Deserving: Michael Shannon is definitely in Revolutionary Road, but most people will be forgiven for forgetting who the hell he was. Early attention focused on the acting fireworks of stars Leonard DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. But the ardor for this film faded fast, leaving poor Michael Shannon to carry the torch for the film all by himself. No offense to the skilled actor, but he was hardly the driving force behind it all.
Most Overlooked: James Franco did fine assist work as Sean Penn’s long-suffering lover in Milk. Plus, he was the stoner dude in Pineapple Express. Who else demonstrated such actorly range in 2008?
Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Most Deserving: Marisa Tomei from The Wrestler should get this statue for multiple reasons. First of all, it would reconfirm the promise she had when she won this very category back in 1992 for My Cousin Vinny. Second of all, her brave, body-and-soul-baring performance is easily the equal of Mickey Rourke’s. It’s simply been overshadowed by Rourke’s comeback story.
Least Deserving: Make no mistake: Viola Davis is quite memorable in her role as the mother of a poor, possibly abused schoolboy in Doubt. No small task, given that she’s up against the likes of Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. But she has exactly one scene in this entire film. If she wins, it will be the shortest Academy Award-winning performance since Judi Dench’s eight-minute Supporting Actress win for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love.
Most Overlooked: If Anne Hathaway gets the nod as the unhinged daughter in Rachel Getting Married, then Rosemarie DeWitt gets one too as her disapproving sister (the “Rachel” of the title).
Most Deserving: Dustin Lance Black probably deserves this accolade most for cracking the nut that was the life and times of Harvey Milk. Multiple writers and directors had signed onto this project over the years, but few could find the proper way to tell Milk’s doomed story.
Least Deserving: It’s tough to admit, but Courtney Hunt’s screenplay for Frozen River pulls too many punches. The two main characters are very well written, but the storyline doesn’t push them far enough. The emotions are there, but the real danger isn’t.
Most Overlooked: The Dark Knight deserved better than a handful of technical awards, and here’s one category it should have nailed. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s epic, outsized script is simply the most grown-up game of superheroes ever played.
Most Deserving: Eric Roth did monumental work translating F. Scott Fitzgerald’s slim short story into an epic personal journey of life and death. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button almost (almost) makes up for his sappy work on Forrest Gump.
Least Deserving: You could argue that Doubt’s John Patrick Shanley didn’t have too tough a job here, given that he was adapting his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play. But the onus falls, once again, on The Reader. David Hare’s adaptation fails to solidify the story, wandering aimlessly back and forth in time and giving us some dull courtroom drama to boot.
Most Overlooked: Sweden’s peerless vampire drama Let the Right One In didn’t even get nominated in the Best Foreign Film category (probably due to some stupid Academy rule). Screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist at least deserves some kudos for the tight condensation he made of his chilling original novel.