So here's the thing.
Each year, I try to make sure I see each of the five films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar before the award ceremony takes place.
The first of the films was Frost/Nixon, a Ron Howard film that tells the story of the famed interviews between British television presenter David Frost, and disgraced US President Richard Nixon. After seeing the film, I watched the actual climactic interview where Nixon discusses Watergate, and it's compelling television, even today, with Frost probing and pressing Nixon until the former President actually acknowledges wrongdoing. The story is small scale - two people sitting in a room talking - yet intense and suspenseful, and you can see why Peter Morgan saw it as the perfect subject for a stage play. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella played the lead roles on stage, and at this point they know and inhabit the characters absolutely. So it's got great performances, and a well-written screenplay. But yet it felt like the film lacked something.
I think the problem is, to be honest, that Ron Howard isn't a great director. He's not a bad director, he's a good working director, but little more. He doesn't have the directorial spark to elevate the material. (I feel bad saying it, but I suspect the main reason he has the high reputation he has is because of the lifelong residual goodwill that comes from being Opie and Richie Cunningham rather than because of any particular greatness as a director.) The end result is a very enjoyable film, but one that feels like it offers little cinematically.
There's another true story that has been nominated for Best Picture. Milk tells the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the US, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It's a good film, with some excellent performances by some talented actors (it's always nice to see James Franco), but I didn't think it really held together.
It's partly because of the awkward framing device - Harvey Milk speaking into a dictation machine, telling his story for people to hear if he ever is assassinated. It doesn't really contribute much, and unless I missed it, they basically abandoned the device halfway through. It just added another moment of self-conscious awareness of future events, like all the constant references to whether Milk would or wouldn't live to the age of 50.
Then there's the issue of Milk's murder, which did seem to come out of nowhere. Milk was murdered by a fellow member of the Board of Supervisors named Dan White. (White had also killed the Mayor several minutes earlier.) But the killings came out of nowhere, and in some ways that's understandable (Milk may have expected to be killed, but he wouldn't have expected it from a fellow politician, so that would have surprised him). But on the other hand, the film throws out a lot of pointers to possible motivations, but seems to come down on the view that White was frustrated as a politician, and blamed Milk for failing to provide support for various issues. The problem is, in order for that to work, I felt you needed more explanation of Milk's political decisions. There were moments where Milk certainly seemed to promise a Quid Pro Quo, you vote for my measure I'll vote for yours, and then failed to support White's matters but still expected White to vote for Milk's matters. And while that doesn't justify murder, at those moments Milk came across as a bit of a bastard, almost like he was deliberately targetting White. So I felt that I needed to understand his reasons for voting how he did in order to understand the circumstances that led to his murder. But in the end, the film seemed to view Harvey Milk as a perfect saintly man who was brutally gunned down by a evil man filled with hate and resentment, and while there's probably a lot of truth to that, that's far too simplistic to be an accurate reflection of the reality.
Then there's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which I liked, but which really lacks something. The broad concept of the film - a person living his life backwards - is really great, and could be the basis of a brilliant thoughtful film. And much as I like Fight Club and Se7en, I really like the restrained David Fincher that directed Zodiac and Benjamin Button.
But the film needed more than that. I felt that the film needed to say something, to use the unusual aspect of the title character to express some idea, whether about the way we live, our way of viewing the world, our mortality, the way our experiences change us, or some such idea. But the film ended up just being a sad story about a couple in love who are separated because one of the two always looks either so much younger or older than the other. It has some great special effects (the digital work involved in creating a recognisable Brad Pitt in the face of an 80-year-old man or a six-month-old child was extraordinary), but without any added depth to the story, it just becomes a sad story about a curiosity, and nothing more.
The worst of the nominees would have to be The Reader. For the first half of the film, I was really hating the film. As we watched a 15-year-old boy having an affair with Kate Winslet, the whole thing seemed like little more than a teenage boy's fantasy and an excuse to see (the extremely beautiful) Kate Winslet with minimal clothing. Interesting to watch, certainly, but not a good movie at all. The film improved markedly in the second half - we learn that Winslet's character was a prison guard during the Holocaust, and she finds herself on trial with many of her fellow guards for a particular event during the war. It starts to look at some interesting issues, how instantaneous decisions in moments of uncertainty lead to enduring guilt, or the difficulties of reconciling one image of a person with another, or questions about when one should or shouldn't speak up about knowledge one may have.
Yet, even though the film does improve and does become interesting, even looking at the better parts of the film, it's never a "Best Picture" film. So one has to wonder why it was nominated. It's tempting to remember what Kate Winslet herself said in the TV series "Extras", that if you make a film about the Holocaust, you're guaranteed an Oscar. But I don't think that's it in this case. The film superficially touches on the subject of the Holocaust, but it's not really about that - the film doesn't even start until ten years after the war, only comes up halfway into the film, and we only ever hear people talking about it. It’s also tempting to blame Harvey Weinstein - the film is a Weinstein Company film, and one of Weinstein's big talents is successfully campaigning for Oscar noms for lesser films (*cough* Shakespeare In Love *cough*) But to be honest, I think the explanation lies in the fact that the Academy allowed an exception to its rules to allow four producers to be listed for The Reader's Best Picture nomination. Two of those producers, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, both sadly passed away in the past year. One finds oneself viewing the nomination less about acknowledging the merits of the film, and more about it being one final chance to recognise two talented, well-respected and well-loved filmmakers (both of whom had won Oscars as directors).
Which leaves the film most people seem to agree on as the likely winner, Slumdog Millionaire. And certainly of the five films, it is my favourite, it was a genuinely enjoyable experience, and yet... A lot of people have talked about the film as poverty porn, and I can see their point, this idea of taking people who are living in these horrible circumstances and making that life into a feel-good film for people who live in immeasurably better circumstances than those kids ever will. And it's so pretty and funny, and we're able to feel good watching the film, the slums are bad but not too bad (they're actually kinda pretty to look at in some ways), and the kids may encounter some dangers, but we know they'll make it through, and it just felt far too safe and happy for a film with that subject.
But my main problem with the film is more evident in the framing device, where the main character goes on a bizarro version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire (where the show is broadcast live and where the host has contestants tortured if he thinks they're cheating). And his every life experience happens to equip him with the exact knowledge he needs to progress in the game. The film is trying for some kind of line where the two leads are bound together by love and fate, an idea the film expressly points to by opening with a question. The film asks "Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it", with possible answers like "He cheated", or "It was luck". But the answer was revealed at the end of the film to be "It is written".
The problem is that is literally true - this is one film where one is very much aware of the hands of the author working to make it work out. Not only are his limited life experiences the exact ones he needs to gain particular knowledge to answer the questions, but those experiences even happen to occur in the same order as the relevant questions. The hands of the writer were so completely evident in forcing the storyline to work that it detracted from the film.
And yet I did enjoy the film. Danny Boyle is an interesting and skilled filmmaker, and it was a very-well-made entertainment. It has its flaws, and significant flaws at that, but of the five nominees, this is the one I can actually see myself wanting to revisit.
Still, it's a shame. Last year, we had two genuinely great films competing with each other, and as a result it's disappointing to watch this year's set of nominees and find them so uninspiring. (Personally, I'm still a bit annoyed that the creation of the Best Animation Feature award meant Wall-E was never going to be nominated for Best Picture. The first half-hour of that film was the most perfect moment of cinema I've seen all year, and the film as a whole was far better than any of the actual nominees.) Still, I'll be watching the ceremony when they start in an hour, and hopefully it will be a fun ceremony.