If we’re being honest, 2008 came close to being another 1966 or 1995, when A Man For All Seasons and Braveheart made it to the podium from sheer lack of better options. Which meant that a certain perceived snub got even more attention than perhaps it would have had this year had a No Country or Schindler’s List or hell even an Unforgiven. It was a snub so railed against that the Academy changed policy for the Best Picture category in response. And I can 100% confirm it was a snub, because this is the first year of my ongoing crusade to watch every single Best Picture nominee. Haven’t missed one since. And some of this year’s…
Well before we get to that, let’s look at what did win.
And The Oscar Goes To…
Jamal Malik (Dev Patel of Skins and The Newsroom) becomes a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, but due to his impoverished youth and low-class job fetching tea for telemarketers, the host (Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol’s Anil Kapoor) decides he must be cheating, and Jamal must explain to the police (Jurassic World’s Irrfan Khan) that every question he’s known relates to some trauma from his impoverished past. A story of Jamal, his older brother Salim, and their friend Latika (as an adult, Freida Pinto in her breakout role) enduring poverty, a pogrom, and abuse working/living with criminals to get by. And now Millionaire is his one chance to maybe find and reconnect with his one great love.
This movie has two framing devices: Jamal on the show, getting the questions that trigger memories, and Jamal’s sometimes violent interrogation where we’re walked more thoroughly through his traumatic… “upbringing” doesn’t seem the word, given that two scenes in he has no one to bring him up but his mean, petty, asshole brother. Put a pin in that because my point is that having dual concurrent framing devices seems weird from any movie not directed by Guy Richie.
Jamal’s story is appropriately harrowing. Born poor, orphaned by a religious riot, taken in by low-level child traffickers who are like Oliver Twist’s Fagin without that scrap of humanity, almost blinded with a spoon to make him a more effective beggar, reduced to hustling tourists at the Taj Mahal to eat, and then considered too dumb to win a game show because he has an entry level job, and at every stage of his youth, Salim finds ways to let him down. For every time Salim stands up to help Jamal (three, maybe four?) he’s also finding ways to screw him over. From selling Jamal’s prized Amitabh Bachchan autograph, to deciding to leave Latika behind with the traffickers, to later deciding that Latika is his now (all the while knowing Jamal’s feelings for her), and leaving Jamal behind to join a bigger gang, with Latika offered up to the boss.
Honestly on second watching I was struck with one thought: Jamal’s story is not the most interesting one. Yes, he has the catchy hook of using his appearance on Millionaire to reach out to Latika. Winning 20 million rupees doesn’t mean as much as using the phone-a-friend lifeline to find her. But Latika goes through much, much more turmoil, spending her tween years being trained as a future call-girl, having one of her childhood friends claim her from the other, then turned over to his new boss as… not even sure what, but the first time she tries to leave, four thugs chase her down and leave her with a large scar. Her life is unknown and horrifying darkness but we barely dig into it because she’s just an aspect of Jamal’s story. Even Salim’s descent from child grifter (I almost said “hustler” but Midnight Cowboy had a different definition and I wanted to avoid confusion) to teen murderer to full gangster feels like it has more meat to it.
Still, Jamal’s story does work. He might face the least struggle and trauma (depending on who had a worse time, Salim going full criminal or Jamal, truly alone, trying to build a legit life), but he does have the strongest motive. Salim just wants to be powerful, Latika spends much of the movie too broken by circumstance to have wants, Jamal is on a crusade. To the point of chasing national television exposure just to get Latika’s attention. So to that extent, yes, Jamal works as a protagonist, and Dev Patel does a great job as his oldest self. As do Kapoor and Khan.
This became the least white Best Picture in Oscar history to that point, with an entirely southern Asian cast (but many a white dude off camera), but the film has… mixed reviews from the Indian community. Indian directors Aamir Khan and Deepa Mehta called it a western film about India rather than an Indian movie, though Mehta still felt it was good for Indians. Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan supported it. Others criticize it for the way the three main characters switch from speaking Hindi to British English before the first time jump, or point out that actual Indian filmmakers have made movies on poverty within India that are as good or better, but the Academy only cares when the white, English director of Trainspotting does it (he did have an Indian co-director, but a white screenwriter). Some feel that its depiction of Mumbai’s poor does more harm than good, given Jamal and Latika’s only hope for escape is a game show imported from the West.
It’s a sometimes grim but enjoyable watch, with a complicated legacy, and lingering questions on its depiction of its subjects, and the appropriative nature of its making. But I’m not overly qualified to unpack that, so… as a viewing experience, I find it a net positive overall. Maybe that gets me cancelled for southern Asian erasure, I don’t know, not really my place to say.
Anyway I did another Twitter thread, here it is.
And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Just out of the top third at #34, under Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and over You Can’t Take It With You. Not a ranking I fully concur with but sure, respectable.
Which Fellowship Member Are You? Much as it tries to be serious and important, it’s still one of the goofy ones, and that makes Slumdog Millionaire Meriadoc Brandybuck.
Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, and Danny Boyle all finally have Oscars, that’s cool. Now. Let’s talk about Christopher Nolan and how he changed the rules of Oscar night.
The Box Office Champ
Okay. Four things to cover about this movie and I only have time to barely touch on each, but we all know this one, I probably didn’t need to go too deep. So let’s try to burn through 1) the strengths, 2) the flaws, 3) Nolan, and 4) the snub.
The Strengths. Obviously Heath Ledger is incredible as Joker, still one of the best big screen comic villain performances… Ledger’s Joker fiddling with a detonator because the hospital isn’t blowing up enough beats anything Jared Leto ever did in the role… but the whole cast is great, from Christian Bale to the underrated Aaron Eckhart to Michael Caine all the way down to minor roles like Nestor Carbonell as the Mayor or William Fichtner as the manager of a mob bank Joker robs. And the Nolan brothers (David Goyer, the remora on the shark of superhero cinema, got his name on a “Story By” credit but I doubt he did much) have written an all-time classic Joker story. Sure Joker has makeup instead of bleached skin, but Nolan fully understands how the Joker works and what makes a good Joker story, same as he understands the tragedy at the heart of Two-Face as a character. Same as, flaws aside, he got how to use Bane, Catwoman, Ra’s Al Ghul. Joker provides an unpredictable, savage challenge to Batman as a concept. He targets the peace and order Batman pursues and twists, warps, and perverts whatever he needs to in order to break something in Batman. An agent of chaos out to prove the futility of order. It works here incredibly well. And Hans Zimmer’s score is perfect as usual, with Joker’s theme being as simple as one unsettling chord.
The Flaws. I’m not getting into the intricacy of Joker’s plan, because I feel like that’s like calling John McClane’s plan in Die Hard too elaborate. It just looks like he’s meticulously planned everything because he’s not the POV character. No, let’s skim through the bigger issues. First, Christian Bale’s Bat-voice is pretty ridiculous. Batman’s one real triumph over Joker is undermined by this cartoonishly gravelly, breathy voice saying “THIS CITY… JUST SHOWED YOU… THAT IT’S FULL OF PEOPLE… READY TO BELIEVE IN GOOD.” Second, Batman’s tactics to stop Gotham’s mob and Joker involve extraordinary rendition, mild torture, and mass illegal wiretapping, so the whole movie plays like a defense of Bush era anti-terror tactics. And Nolan remains as bad as ever at writing women. Which brings us to…
Nolan. As BoJack Horseman‘s Mr. Peanutbutter said when asked if his therapy was focussed on his issues with women, “Are my issues every Christopher Nolan movie? Because the women are there, but it’s not about them.” There are two significant female characters but one’s only purpose is to be present until she’s revealed as a traitor, and the other, the main one, is a sexy lamp for Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent to strive for. For all of his talents, Nolan is more focussed on ideas and the men who embody them rather than emotions. Still, filming this partially for IMAX improved his skills as a director, leading to cleaner action scenes and better framing, as Patrick Willems can explain further.
The Snub. Am I saying The Dark Knight should have won Best Picture? Of course not. Look at all those flaws I mentioned. No, if I were saying something should have beaten Slumdog, it would be Milk, the rare actually really good biopic. What I am saying is there were definitely two nominees that deserved it less.
The Dark Knight was the most successful movie of the year, and a critical darling. Thirty years earlier, this would have made it a shoo-in for the Best Picture shortlist. As we’ve learned through this project, top-grossers got nominated more often than not all the way to the early 80s. So people really thought Dark Knight would be the first superhero movie to get a Best Picture nomination. But while it got more Oscar love than most in the genre (including Ledger posthumously winning Supporting Actor, I know you know that but I am compelled to mention it), it didn’t make the shortlist for the big prize. Which might not have been so controversial if not for what did make the list.
I just defended Slumdog, but it’s not exactly The Godfather. And sure Milk and Frost/Nixon were legit, but… The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? Really? The Dark Knight was practically The Departed in a cape, Benjamin Button was a lesser Forrest Gump with a central conceit they barely did anything with. And The Reader? The Reader is mediocre at best, and was so little seen that Hugh Jackman’s Reader bit in his iconic DIY Oscar musical number was about how not even he, the host, had seen it, with an additional dig at the aforementioned genre bias.
“I know I need to see The Reader. I even went down to the theatre but there was a line, of all the people seeing Iron Man a second time.”
The Dark Knight was one of the best reviewed movies of the year. The Reader‘s Rotten Tomatoes score is barely higher than My Bloody Valentine 3D. But Dark Knight is about Batman and The Reader is half-assedly about the Holocaust, and the Academy did what it does. And in response, people stopped caring about the Best Pictures. The Oscar Bounce, the boost to box office revenue a Best Picture nomination used to bring in, went away. Benjamin Button had been a mild hit, but the rest withered on the vine. Which is a shame, because more people should have seen Frost/Nixon.
In response to the backlash, the Academy changed the rules. Starting the following year, they expanded the Best Picture category from five movies to “up to ten,” in the hopes of getting a couple of movies people had actually seen onto the list to keep the awards relevant and maybe stop the decline in ratings the ceremony had been experiencing.
Did they manage this goal? Well… yes and no. But we’ll look at that going forward.
So remember, Marvel fans… The Dark Knight didn’t break the Oscar’s bias against superheroes, but it surely laid down on the barbed wire so that Black Panther could crawl over it.
And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It sits pretty with a 94% from critics and audiences, and flaws aside it earns both. I mean I just watched it and editing this page, I kinda wanna watch it again.
Other Events in Film
- This Year in Superheroes: Plucky upstarts Marvel Studios’ first movie, Iron Man, is a major hit, and with one sentence promises to change the game of superhero movies: “I’m here to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative.” Their second film, The Incredible Hulk is… less fondly remembered. Meanwhile Hellboy II: The Golden Army is liked by many but not enough to greenlight the third installment Guillermo del Toro was setting up, and Punisher: War Zone was the last attempt to make Punisher movies, but remains a better version of his TV show’s second season.
- This Year in Bond: If Quantum of Solace had been a better movie, maybe Spectre would have worked better. Instead this shaky-cam filled mediocrity killed any enthusiasm for Bond’s new nemeses, Quantum.
- Valkyrie is the best movie I can’t stop making fun of. I mean I think its depiction of the German military plot to kill Hitler late in World War II is pretty good, but the fact that all the bad Germans have German accents and all the good Germans have British accents (save for the best German, who’s Tom Cruise) seems inherently hilarious to me in what a tacky stylistic flex it is.
- The Coens go back to comedy and create the paranoid conspiracy farce with Burn After Reading.
- Lord save us all from the movies and moreso the Discourse on the movies, but Twilight arrives.
- JJ Abrams brings found footage to kaiju movies and gets way too fond of mystery box marketing with Cloverfield, whose title he didn’t even reveal until months into the marketing campaign.
- Following the warm reception of Rocky Balboa, Stallone returns to Rambo. It… is less successful.
- Martin McDonagh’s bleak comedy In Bruges is an utter delight.
- Guy Ritchie returns to low-level British gangsters with the super fun RocknRolla. Still waiting on that sequel you promised, Guy.
- Some people say Superhero Movie may have been the last even kind of good parody movie. If true, it’s surely because Friedberg and Seltzer, the men who killed the genre, were busy on the typically reprehensible Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie, the latter of which is considered their worst so far and one of the worst movies ever made. But it made its budget back so somehow those idiots still had a career.
- But the actual nadir of the parody genre is David Zucker’s lamentable right-wing pro-war “comedy” An American Carol, which proves two things: 9/11 broke something in David Zucker he’ll never get back; and conservatives just are not funny.
- The most important thing about Forgetting Sarah Marshall is that it introduced writer/star Jason Segel to the Jim Henson Company.
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull reunites Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas to… save Temple of Doom from being the worst Indiana Jones movie.
- Kung-Fu Panda is a big success for Dreamworks, and didn’t win the Animated Feature Oscar but managed to pass Pixar’s superior Wall-E at the international box office.
- Another disappointing threequel: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Recasting Rachel Weisz is only the beginning of its problems.
- Pineapple Express delivers high quality stoner comedy and mismatched buddy action, but severely overvalues the contribution of Danny McBride.
- If any video game should have been easy to make into a movie, it’s the noir shoot-em-up Max Payne, but they still whiffed it somehow.
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