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Herrington and Akers on the Oscars (Part 2)

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Flyer film writers Chris Herrington and Greg Akers continue their discussion about this year's Oscar nominations in advance of Sunday's show. In the first installment, Chris was overwhelmed by Greg's rigorous preparation, but both agreed that Slumdog Millionaire, while likely to win Best Picture, is not all that.

Today, they tackle the screenplay, editing, and cinematography categories. Tomorrow: acting.

1. Original Screenplay

Nominees: Courtney Hunt (Frozen River); Mike Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky); Martin McDonagh (In Bruges); Dustin Lance Black (Milk); Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon and Pete Docter (WALL*E).

Herrington: With four-fifths of the Best Picture candidates adaptations, the Original Screenplay category is a pretty wild assortment. Will Win: As the only movie in the mix nominated for Best Picture, Milk seems like a pretty strong bet here. The inexplicable In Bruges and my beloved Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky have no chance. This category would give the Academy a chance to recognize WALL*E beyond its inevitable Best Animated Feature win, but I don't see Oscar voters having the wit and cojones to give a screenplay award to a movie whose finest stretches are mostly silent. Frozen River is the dark horse, but I'm at a disadvantage since it's one of the few nominated films I missed. Should Win: I'm becoming a broken record here, but I think screenwriter Dustin Lance Black probably deserves as much credit as Gus Van Sant for leaping past biopic tropes and making Milk such a smart, buoyant, purposeful film. I think Happy-Go-Lucky is the better film, but I'll give Milk the slight nod strictly on screenplay terms. Got Robbed: Here's where I'll stump for Gran Torino, a nice tidy story that closes the book on the "Clint Eastwood" character and respectfully turns the page on the era of white dudes generally. Also incorporates some excellent not-too-familiar culture-clash material and builds to a "surprise" ending with considerable internal logic.

Akers: This is my favorite category every year. It's the most democratic, as anybody could produce a great original script with just an investment of time (and talent, of course). That Courtney Hunt can propel herself from being an unknown to an Oscar nominee in one year is remarkable, just like how it's possible I know of a former stripper (Diablo Cody, Juno) with an ear for cute dialogue and great insight into the teenage human condition. This contest is pretty wide open, I think. This is Mike Leigh's sixth nomination. He might win this year partly because of the Susan Lucci factor but mainly because this is the one chance everybody who loves Happy-Go-Lucky has to vote their approval. I didn't see In Bruges and never thought I needed to. Its inclusion is a little shocking, but I'd be stupid not to notice that it won this category in the BAFTAs and won Colin Farrell an acting Golden Globe. (I can't believe I just typed that.) And WALL*E might have finished sixth in Best Picture nominations. It's a strong contender here. Nevertheless, I think that: Will Win: Dustin Lance Black for Milk. This will play out in later categories, but I'm starting to feel Milk as a solid (though distant) second overall to Slumdog. I can see it winning the categories Slumdog isn't nominated in. This is one of them. Should Win: I didn't see Happy-Go-Lucky, but I absolutely loved Frozen River. It was a rare film that believably showed lives in tough circumstances without getting depressing or, conversely, having a false positive ending. The actresses Melissa Leo and Misty Upham sell it, but Hunt's script is dynamite. Got Robbed: Agree with your Gran Torino shout out. To the list I'll add that -- though maybe it's a stretch to say it got robbed -- Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind script was just as odd and original as you could hope to find in mainstream "indie" filmmaking.

Herrington: I halfway watched In Bruges sitting on the couch one night while my wife was watching it, and it seemed like a over-busy, jokey, bloody "indie" mediocrity. I found it annoying and tuned it out pretty quickly. But our film-section colleague Addison Engelking told me it played at a Minneapolis art house for something like six months straight, so it clearly found an audience. (Though not here, as near as I could tell.) The movie I'm surprised isn't here in its place is Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, not that I think that agreeable slice of eye candy is such a great script.

2. Adapted Screenplay

Nominees: Eric Roth and Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); John Patrick Shanley (Doubt); Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon); David Hare (The Reader); Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire).

Akers: These are the same nominees for the Writers Guild Adapted Screenplay category, except that The Dark Knight has been stupidly replaced by The Reader. I see no reason why the WGA winner shouldn't be the same as here, since the voting blocs overlap. Therefore, Will Win: Beaufoy keeps the Slumdog Millionaire steamroller going as another white Brit wins an award for a movie about life in modern India. Hooray for progress? Should Win: Shanley's work was excellent, but that's an actor's movie right there. The Reader left me feeling there was a lot more to the novel than was in the script. Though the Benjamin Button script was embiggened by David Fincher's direction, it's still the strongest of the contenders. Got Robbed: Every adapted screenplay produced last year that wasn't Frost/Nixon. I appreciated that Frost/Nixon didn't feel like an adapted play most of the time, but having a few key characters occasionally talk directly to the screen, documentary-style, was awful. I know that was in the original play, but, damn, that's the kind of thing that needs to be changed when you switch the medium to film. Of particular robbed-hood, I'll point out that The Dark Knight, though of course an adaptation of characters who have existed in comics and other places for seven decades, was not actually based on a specific story. The Nolan brothers and David Goyer should have gotten at least a nomination as recognition for coming up with a great, original story that still fits within the confines of the laws of a well-established universe.

Herrington: Will Win: Since Doubt is the only nominee here not in the Best Picture race, I think we can safely count it out. I'll count Frost/Nixon out since I think it'll be seen as an extension of the play more than a Chicago-style re-imagining (and do I ever agree with you about those torpid talking-head segments). That leaves The Reader -- mysteriously loved by the Academy and, despite Button's F. Scott Fitzgerald roots and Slumdog's Dickensian aspect, the most "literary" of the nominees -- battling it out with the "big two." My hunch is Slumdog Millionaire, with its gimmicky premise, edges out The Reader. Should Win: I don't think this is a particularly strong batch of nominations, but I'll go with Benjamin Button's Forrest Gump rewrite, which turns its slim source material into a sprawling film and seems to contemporize the story well. Some complained about the Katrina connection, but I thought that worked. Got Robbed: I'm down with your Dark Knight pick, but I'll also throw a shout-out to local boy Ira Sachs here, who built what I thought was a pretty strong and honorable '40s-style period noir from an obscure pulp novel with Married Life.

Akers: Looks like we agree on the winner in this category and that the Katrina framing story worked in Benjamin Button. I'll go one step further and say that the entire film works because of the Katrina reference. That last shot is the whole movie to me. And kudos to F. Scott for Nostradamusizing Katrina by more than 80 years. Heckuva job, Fritzie.

3. Film Editing

Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire.

Akers: Looking back over the last 20 years, I can find no discernible trend between the Editing winner and the Best Picture winner. However, Editing and Director awards have a well-established relationship. True, since 1989, nine of 20 times the Editing and Director awards have gone to work in different movies. But most of those divergent Editing winners set new precedents in technical filmmaking or are remembered specifically for their editing: Who Framed Roger Rabbit? , JFK, Apollo 13, The Matrix, Black Hawk Down, The Aviator, and The Bourne Ultimatum. The others, Crash and Chicago, were Best Picture winners that didn’t net their films Directing honors. So, in looking at this year's list, I think the question is, is there a film that will be remembered along with the likes of the technical great films enough to separate this category from who I think the Best Director is, Danny Boyle? I'll say yes. Will Win: I think Benjamin Button is one those technical leaps forward in filmmaking, comparable to the list above. Plus, maybe it's personal preference, but the editing of Slumdog Millionaire was one of the things that kept me from engaging in the story as much as I should have. Should Win: Benjamin Button should win, but I'll take a moment to recognize Milk, which got a hell of a lot of mileage out of blending archival and fictional footage. Got Robbed: Man on Wire did great things in this category, too. Should've been nominated.

Herrington: For the record, I'm no longer trying to keep pace with your prodigious research. I'm just shooting from the hip. In this category, our three picks won't match up exactly, but you've basically stolen all my main points. Perhaps I should get creative and shift my arguments in a different direction, but, once again, I'm going to take the lazy way out and reiterate a lot of what you've already said. I promise I'd already thought about all of this on my own: Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire's editing is noticeable but, I agree, not entirely effective. Nevertheless, my hunch is that the film gets a little gold man not in spite of but actually for its unwieldy cross-cutting. I agree that Button is a good bet in technical categories, but I think it'll be thought of more in terms of special effects than editing. Should Win: I'm going Milk, yet again, for its extremely effective and almost heroically non-showy mix of fictional and archival footage. Got Robbed: Man on Wire is absolutely the one movie from last year that leaps out in terms of great editing being central to the film's success. The new interview footage, re-creations, still photography, and archival footage are blended in a way that gives the film the pacing and suspense of a great fiction film. Hopefully I don't come across as your lapdog here. Damn you for getting to go first on this category.

Akers: Ditto.

4. Cinematography

Nominees: Changeling,The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire.

Herrington: I really feel like there's not enough disagreement going on here. Why oh why couldn't that godawful Indiana Jones movie have gotten some Oscar love so we'd really have something to argue about? As for cinematography, the most underrated of the Oscar categories: I have no idea what The Reader is doing here unless a lot of voters were struck how effectively the camera lingered over Kate Winslet's, um, talents. (In which case, who could blame them?) Changeling does have a striking look, but I found the high-tech sepia-toned style of that period piece both too obvious and too distracting. And I can't see The Dark Knight triumphing here over two very visually oriented Best Picture frontrunners. So, I think this is a two-film race. Will Win: As I suggested in the editing discussion, I see Button's visual achievement being recognized more for what's being shot (the art direction, make-up, costuming, etc) and how what's being shot has been altered (special effects) than for its more purely cinematic elements. I think the photography in Slumdog Millionaire certainly could have given the film a lot more character than it did, but when it sets out on the slums of Mumbai or into the tourist haunts around the Taj Mahal, I think it achieves something at least a little bit more than travelogue, and I think that gets the prize here. Should Win: The Dark Knight grabs you from moment one with those expansive, sweeping aerial shots, and the terrific cinematography even in interior (that bank robbery) and nighttime scenes (that flipped 18-wheeler) lends the whole film a gravitas previously lacking in costume epics. This is a pretty easy pick for me. Got Robbed: You could argue that Rachel Getting Married is essentially a point-of-view film, its handheld camera turning the viewer into an interloper in the midst of its intimate family dramas and audacious wedding celebration. This is also a good place to recognize the all-but-ignored My Blueberry Nights, Hong Kong master Wong Kar-Wai's visually ravishing American debut which -- in its New York and Memphis sections, at least -- turns the melancholy interplay of neon, dark, and diner-window reflections into its true subject. Bonus points, as well, for that bravura extreme-close-up kiss.

Akers: I think we're not disagreeing much because neither of us feels that passionately about any of these movies. Maybe we should do an Oscars Classic showdown. How 'bout: Greatest miscarriage of justice by the Oscars in the last 10 years? I'd argue Denzel Washington winning Best Actor for Training Day over Will Smith (Ali) and Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom) in 2002. Boom. You got served. Whatya think about that? As for this year's cinematography race, did you know that in odd-numbered years since Sven Nykvist’s birth, Best Cinematography winners have a 63 percent chance of having been directed by a non-American? Just kidding. I have no research this time, except that this category reliably goes to the most beautiful film to look at. Will Win: I'm going out on a limb here, but I think Wally Pfister's taking a trophy home for The Dark Knight. Everything in my head tells me to just roll over and say Slumdog again, but there's something about DK's chances of winning that’s sticking in my gut. Maybe it's that they broke new ground and shot the action scenes in IMAX. For sure all those reasons you alluded to. I'm going to hope the Academy gets it right again this year like they normally do. Should Win: Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, Batman! Got Robbed: The most gorgeous, purely visual movie last year was probably The Fall. Colin Watkinson should've gotten some love for his work. Especially since The Reader got a nomination. Who let that dog in here? Bad dog. I love me some Roger Deakins, but just because he shot a movie doesn't mean it's gold.

Herrington: Denzel? That's the best you can do? That wasn't even the biggest Oscar outrage that year. My vote goes to the A Beautiful Mind double-dip -- Opie over David Lynch (Mulholland Drive ) for Best Director and beating out the funny, profound Ghost World for Best Adapted Screenplay. I'm also tempted to say The Cider House Rules over Election for Adapted Screenplay in 1999, but, um, I never got around to seeing Cider House Rules. Worst Best Picture win of the past decade? It's tempting to say Crash over Brokeback Mountain, but I'll go Gladiator over the trio of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Traffic, and Erin Brockovich. Anyway, back on point -- good catch on Roger Deakins for The Reader. That explains everything. Dude got two noms last year; I think Academy voters just check his name reflexively.

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