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Herrington and Akers on the Oscars (Part 1)

The Oscars telecast is Sunday night and, in anticipation, Flyer film writers Chris Herrington and Greg Akers have been having an ongoing e-mail conversation about who they think will and should win the big categories.

Akers, who, last year, was one of only two people to get a perfect score in the Commercial Appeal's "Beat Beifuss" Oscar contest, is a legendary Academy Awards prognosticator. Herrington always messes up his Oscar picks, but loves to hate the whole affair every year. We've broken Chris and Greg's back-and-forth into three parts.

Today we start with Best Picture, then get into directing, and the other feature categories. Tomorrow we'll tackle the two screenplay categories and a couple of the more interesting technical categories. And we'll finish up Friday by wading into the acting categories. Let the games begin:

1. Best Picture

Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire

Herrington: Okay, I'm going to try not to rant too much here, but… Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire is going to win Best Picture and it's a better, more enjoyable movie than a lot of previous Best Picture winners. I like it okay. So why am I so annoyed by this particular cultural event? Because Slumdog is being treated as some kind of unusual triumph of art and culture when the movie itself is nearly as artificial as The Dark Knight or WALL*E, more escapist, less thought-provoking, and a considerably more mundane piece of cinema. It's the new Shakespeare in Love — another decent "underdog" Oscar winner that didn't deserve it. Like Shakespeare in Love, Slumdog's appeal lies partly in making audiences feel smart (or noble or cultured) for liking it, which will make it actually a very typical Oscar winner. Should Win: Milk and Benjamin Button are the head of this class. Button is perhaps more impressive in scope and packs more of an emotional punch for me in its final stretches (this is, in part, perhaps, a function of my status as a heterosexual parent), but I think Milk is the finer, more fully realized film. It's what I'll be rooting for Sunday night. Got Robbed: Though there are eligible movies I liked better (Happy-Go-Lucky, Waltz With Bashir, Rachel Getting Married), if the Oscar is about acknowledging high-quality mainstream filmmaking, then The Dark Knight probably deserves to be here. It's not like there's not a precedent for pulpy blockbusters getting Oscar love -- both Gladiator and that mind-numbing last Lord of the Rings movie actually won and both are far inferior to The Dark Knight.

Akers: For a movie that I actually liked while watching it, I am sad to say how grumpy the idea of Slumdog Millionaire winning Best Pic makes me. I agree with all of your points about its failings, and will only add that I never once felt immersed in the alien culture to which I was ostensibly being exposed. Unlike similar films such as City of God or Amores Perros, I don't feel I'm any closer to understanding Slumdog's real-world (albeit fantastical) setting. Nevertheless, it seems pretty obvious: Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire. Possibly working against it winning are two things: 1. The reaction to the film in Mumbai, which has been very negative, at least as reported in the press. Apparently, the Mumbains are themselves very grumpy at the movie, which they think portrays them as "slumdogs." To be fair, it does. The taint of controversy may keep some Oscar voters from casting their ballot for it. 2. Slumdog Millionaire didn't receive a single acting nomination. If you're like me, you're curious how many Best Picture nominees have won without any acting nominations. The answer: In the Supporting Actor category era (1939-present), seven films have won Best Picture without any acting noms. Four of them I'd consider "spectacle" movies: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Braveheart, Around the World in 80 Days, and The Greatest Show on Earth. Another is borderline spectacle: The Last Emperor. And the last two are Vincente Minnelli joints starring Leslie Caron and set in Paris: Gigi and An American in Paris. But, working for Slumdog winning is its clean sweep of indicator awards in "Best Picture" type categories the last few months: Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild, Writers Guild, Producers Guild, Golden Globes, and BAFTA. Slumdog will win. Should Win: Milk is my favorite of the bunch. I have fewer problems with it than any other. I think it's a pretty weak five overall, though. Of course, it was a pretty weak year. Got Robbed: I thought Frozen River was the best film of 2008, and its Actress (Melissa Leo) and Original Screenplay (Courtney Hunt) nominations indicate that it probably got some Best Picture votes. And it continues to astound me that Gran Torino didn't get a single nomination. It's far better than Clint Eastwood’s Best Pic winner, Million Dollar Baby. A couple critics have talked about Slumdog Millionaire being the first film of the Obama era. That's garbage. If you're going to go so far as to tag something that, Gran Torino truly represents the end of the old white guys in charge era, thus making it the real "Change We Can Believe In" film.

Herrington: Clearly I am out of my league here. Your level of research is daunting. If this is what it takes to beat Beifuss, I'm not sure I have it in me. I agree with you about the embarrassing neglect of Gran Torino, a something I'll complain about more later in the conversation. Finally, bonus points to you for working the phrase "Vincente Minnelli joints" into this Oscar chat. (For the record, my favorite Minnelli joint is Meet Me in St. Louis, which towers over all five of these noms.) Okay, on to Best Director. You set it up Akers, I'll knock it out.

2. Best Director

Nominees: Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire); Stephen Daldry (The Reader); David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon); Gus Van Sant (Milk).

Akers: Okay, after a little more IMDb research, I'm having to make a fundamental change in how I view the world: Did you know that Frost/Nixon is only the second directing nomination Opie has ever gotten? (He regrettably won for A Beautiful Mind.) And here, I've always thought of Howard’s films as the very definition of Oscar Bait. Turns out, the Academy can't really stand his tripe either. In breaking down this year's race, surprisingly it's Daldry who's the wily veteran here, having been nominated twice before (The Hours and Billy Elliot). Van Sant was nominated for Good Will Hunting, and this is Boyle's and Fincher's first trip to the show. This category is a slam-dunk to forecast, though. Will Win: Danny Boyle. I'm typically a fan. His Slumdog work was underwhelming to me, as I may have mentioned, but as long as I think of his win as a half-lifetime achievement award, I won't be tempted to throw the remote at the TV. Should Win: David Fincher's my favorite of these filmmakers, and the directing of Benjamin Button is probably the most important element to its quality (versus the acting, which was strong, and the script, which was above average). Got Robbed: Has anyone ever been more robbed than the snubs of Christopher Nolan for The Dark Knight and Jonathan Demme for Rachel Getting Married? Well, maybe. But in 2008, I'd rank those one and two for the year in terms of directing, and they got blanked. Comparatively, Howard's Frost/Nixon was a crab dribble. I'm blowing the whistle.

Herrington: Okay, Professor, get comfortable while I drop some science. (If this were an NBA conversation, you would be me and I would be Chris Vernon.) Since 1970, there has been a disagreement between the Best Picture and Best Director winner only seven times. However, four of these have occurred in the past 10 years, so this is a growing trend. What were the four recent Best Pictures that didn’t yield Best Director winners? Two were relatively anonymous popcorn spectacles (Gladiator, Chicago), much like Slumdog actually is. The other two were clearly second-tier candidates that made voters feel good about themselves (Crash, the aforementioned Shakespeare in Love). Slumdog fits the type. Plus, I don't see the Academy spoiling its love affair with this Hot! Young! Multicultural! sensation by lavishing accolades and TV time on the middle-aged white dude that made it. (Keep in mind that I’m rarely right about these things, unlike you, Mr. Perfect.) Will Win: David Fincher gets the statuette for the epic directorial feet of Benjamin Button, however imperfect it is, especially compared with his own best work. Should Win: I'm torn here, because I do think Fincher fashioned a better film than I expected from its premise/star foundation. But I'll give my personal nod to Gus Van Sant for taking a well-worn genre (the biopic) into unexpected, rewarding places. Got Robbed: With apologies to Christopher Nolan and Mike Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky), the filmmaker who most deserves to be here is Jonathan Demme, whose bravura direction stands out for taking a potential mess in Rachel Getting Married and forming it into one of the year's very best films.

Akers: Here's some science right back at ya: E=MC Squared, and predicting Best Director is theoretically relatively easy. But, since in practicality it's kinda tough to do, I’ll admit I might be wrong about Boyle winning. Because of the trend you indicate of the Best Pic/Director split, this category has traditionally been my Achilles heel. Emotion gets in the way of scientific reason, and I end up certain that Scorsese will win for The Aviator. D'oh. So this year I'm saying Boyle, partly because I don't want him to win. My heart says "no." My brain says "yes." Maybe I'm just overcompensating. But, I hear that Fincher is a difficult director to get along with, and he's burned a lot of bridges in his time. Here's hoping those bridges have Oscar votes. By the way, I love the Crash reference. Slumdog is absolutely this year's Crash. Boo this man! (I'm henceforth taking back the Chris Vernon role in this tete-a-tete. If I'm the Chris Herrington arguing against the real Herrington who's acting like he's Vernon, my head is going to collapse and I'm not going to be able to meet my Flyer deadlines. So, I'm restoring order to the universe as I say: Chris Herrington, your Oscar picks suck.)

3. Documentary Feature

Nominees: The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) , Encounters at the End of the World, The Garden, Man on Wire, Trouble the Water.

Herrington: I've only seen two of these five nominees and am still upset that Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World lasted only one week in Memphis and didn't pre-screen for critics. So, let's make this quick. Will Win: Despite the weightier Katrina subject matter of the terrific Trouble the Water, the even-better Man on Wire is the biggest critical and commercial hit of the bunch, and the Academy will make it a hat trick. Should Win: Man on Wire, one of the year's best films, a poetic tribute to man, madness, and monument, and the most enjoyable caper flick since Ocean's Eleven. Got Robbed: Hard to say — presumably something I haven’t seen. The Order of Myths, a film about the segregated Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama, which screened at the Indie Memphis Film Festival, was an excellent doc that got a decent bit of national attention. It would have been a good nominee.

Akers: It's my great shame to admit I've only seen one of these: Man on Wire. I'll blame it on the fact that I've marathoned the entire series of Mad Men and The Wire in the last year. Let's cut to the chase. Will Win: I'm feeling a little twitchy about this category this year. Man on Wire has all the makings of a lock. But how about this little factoid: This is Werner Herzog's first Oscar nomination, ever. It seems like the universe has made a mistake, or, at the least, that IMDb has made a serious copyediting error. I'm calling it: The Academy makes a market correction and gives the brilliant Herzog a little gold statue for Encounters at the End of the World. Should Win: On the basis of the above sentences, I'd give it to Herzog just because he made Aguirre, Wrath of God. But there's no denying how lovely, elegant, and evocative Man on Wire is. Got Robbed: Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie screened at Indie Memphis and brought a tear or two to my eye. Robbed of an Oscar? Maybe not. Good movie though

4. Animated Feature

Nominees: Bolt, Kung Fu Panda, WALL*E.

Akers: The Animated Feature category: Since its inception in 2002, has there been a bigger annual disappointment than this category? Working backwards from last year: Persepolis loses, Happy Feet wins, Howl's Moving Castle loses, Polar Express doesn’t get nominated, The Triplets of Belleville loses, and Waking Life isn't nominated. (Okay, The Incredibles won in 2005 and Spirited Away won in 2003.) This year, Waltz with Bashir gets the shaft for — what — Bolt? Where's the imagination, Oscar voters? Eff the Academy. Will Win: This is some kind of lock. WALL*E by a light year. I'm purposefully not being concerned that Kung Fu Panda beat WALL*E for the Annie Award this year. Should Win: I didn't seen Kung Fu Panda, but I'm comfortable saying that WALL*E is the most deserving. I took my then-three-year-old daughter to see it, and she and I were in perfect agreement: The first hour is crazy good, riveting in ways that only silent films ever are. The second half of the movie brings with it a bunch of humans, and my daughter got ants in her pants. I was wishing I had a watch to check, too. In the balance, however, it's an excellent film. Got Robbed: Waltz with Bashir. I have yet to see it, and I'm not trying to say that a movie I haven't seen is better than Bolt, which I have seen. Okay, actually that's exactly what I'm saying. An animated documentary/biography about the Israeli-Lebanese conflict is better than Bolt, sight unseen.

Herrington: What is an Annie? Anyway, this is easy, so let's make it quick. Will Win: WALL*E. Should Win: I haven’t seen Bolt or Kung Fu Panda, but I can’t imagine that they are in the same league as WALL*E, and I’m not even someone who considers WALL*E anywhere close to a masterpiece. (For the record, I also took my then-three-year-old daughter to see it and she bailed after 10 minutes — too noisy, too scary.) Got Robbed: Waltz With Bashir is one of the year’s best films of any type and its absence here is a clear indicator that the Academy isn't at all serious about making this category open to all types of animated films. Among the kid movies that are under consideration, I thought Horton Hears a Who was very underrated. As a parent, I want more kids movies that seemed to actually be for kids and don't have lots of referential jokes for adults and don't ape Hollywood action movies for teens.

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