With most of this weekend's new-release mediocrities (horror cheapie of the week The Uninvited, for instance) not screening in time for our Tuesday deadlines, I could have filled this space with a review of one of last weekend's new-release mediocrities (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, perhaps). But in a typically bad post-holidays period for Hollywood product, the truth is that thoughtful filmgoers are less likely to be choosing among these studio dregs (box-office gold right now: Paul Blart: Mall Cop) than playing catch-up with Oscar nominees they missed.
Nominations were announced last week, with David Fincher's epic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button leading the way with 13 nominations, just ahead of "underdog" fave Slumdog Millionaire with 10 nominations. Joining these two among the Best Picture nominees are the Sean Penn-led biopic Milk, stage-to-screen adaptation Frost/Nixon, and the surprise nominee, literary adaptation The Reader. All five of these nominees are currently screening locally, with Slumdog Millionaire, The Reader, and Frost/Nixon all expanding into more theaters this week.
A year ago, in this space, I praised the 2007 Best Picture candidates — led by audacious work such as There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men — as the best slate since the mid-'70s. This year's batch doesn't include any outright dogs, but it is a bit of a return to the Oscars' unadventurous norm.
If there was a surprise in the nominations, it was the absence of both The Dark Knight and WALL*E, a couple of summer blockbusters that were simultaneously more successful than any of the Best Picture nominees and more critically respected than, at the least, The Reader and Frost/Nixon. Combine this with the more predictable disregard of art movies like Happy-Go-Lucky, Rachel Getting Married, and Waltz With Bashir, and you have an Oscar list that neglects great filmmaking of both the "low" and "high" variety for the safe embrace of middle-brow "quality."
Of the movies that did make the Academy's cut, I'm probably most impressed with Benjamin Button, which I didn't catch up with until recently. After his bravura performance with the similarly epic-length Zodiac last year, I had a lot of faith in Fincher's ability to carve a watchable movie out of a star/gimmick-premise combination that didn't seem very encouraging. Button takes its time, but it builds to a series of emotional high points that took me by surprise — and with plenty of interesting bits of business along the way. It doesn't feel quite as momentous as Blood or No Country, but it's an impressive work.
Unfortunately, Benjamin Button might be topped by Slumdog, a decent if increasingly mundane little Dickensian fairy tale set in Mumbai but directed by British filmmaker Danny Boyle. Slumdog has emerged as a cinematic cause célèbre despite lacking the verve of Boyle's better films (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) and the claims of it capturing a culture being highly specious.
Much better is Milk, where Sean Penn gives his best, least fussy performance in years as martyred politician and gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk and director Gus Van Sant returns to the mainstream while avoiding most of the formulaic traps of the biopic genre.
Rounding out the group, Frost/Nixon and The Reader are watchable movies that don't quite live up to their projected gravitas. With wooden direction (surprise!) from Oscar fave Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon all but jumps around and waves its arms trying to convince viewers that its titular encounter — and thus the movie made about it — is really important. The reality is that Frost/Nixon is more a diversionary pleasure. Frank Langella is enjoyably magisterial as the fallen man, Oliver Platt shows off a quick, funny Tricky Dick impression, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona's Rebecca Hall slinks around as well-costumed and -coiffed eye candy. The Reader, on the other hand, provides the spectacle of Kate Winslet quite possibly winning her first Oscar for what is probably her least impressive major performance. It's the kind of dutiful Oscar pick that seems important (to Oscar voters, anyway) at the time, but that no one remembers a couple of years later.
The downside, of course, to filmgoers descending on the multiplexes in the coming weeks with Oscar checklists in hand is the potential for better movies to be neglected. Clint Eastwood's recently released Gran Torino — a farewell of sorts to Eastwood's own on-screen persona — is an autumnal gem that was mysteriously shut out in the Oscar noms. But it's a better film than at least three of the Best Picture nominees. Don't forget it.