Saturday, February 14, 2009

Black Sheep @ The Oscars: BEST DIRECTOR & BEST PICTURE

For only the fifth time in Oscar history, the five nominees for Best Director are exactly in line with the five films nominated for Best Picture. It would seem silly not to focus on both in the same posting. Otherwise, the two separate postings would sound pretty similar. Besides, I’m fairly certain the same film will win in each category anyway.

Two of this year’s nominees for Best Director are here for the first time and they are here with the two films that stand the most chance of winning. And so, congratulations go out to Danny Boyle and David Fincher for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, respectively. Gus Van Sant and Ron Howard make their second plays for the top prize. Van Sant tried and failed in 1998 with GOOD WILL HUNTING but certainly stands a decent chance with MILK. Meanwhile, Howard already has an Oscar in this category for 2002’s A BEAUTIFUL MIND and is hopeful to repeat his success with FROST/NIXON. Oddly enough, the least known name amongst the bunch, Stephen Daldry, actually holds the most nominations with three total, including nods for BILLY ELLIOTT, THE HOURS and now for THE READER.

Here’s what the five nominees have going for and against them …

Directed by David Fincher

Fincher has done what so many have tried to do for years now; he has successfully adapted a story to the screen that was thought to be an impossible tale to tell. The visual demands of following a character that ages in reverse were supposed to prove to laborious to be effective and convincing. Somehow, he managed to find a team who could make it happen. This epic sentimental tale is also completely removed from the dark work Fincher is famous for (ZODIAC, FIGHT CLUB, SE7EN), but yet he makes this work too without abandoning his visual sensibilities. The buzz throughout the year was that this gargantuan masterwork was the film to beat and while it has wowed many and is the top earner amongst the nominees, it did not impress across the board. Its detractors call it Fincher’s FORREST GUMP and consider it cold and empty. The lack of warmth, I feel, will ultimately leave it out in the cold come Oscar night.

Directed by Ron Howard

I am not a Ron Howard fan. In fact, I was severely disappointed when he won his first Oscar for A BEAUTIFUL MIND. Howard makes very conventional and safe films that often feel heavier than necessary as they don’t have the insight to warrant the tone. There is something distinctly different about his work in FROST/NIXON though. It almost feels like Howard is having fun while he is working. His playful tone lends a breeziness to an intense game between interviewer and interviewee that could have otherwise played out in similar fashion to his previous heavy-handed work. The light tone though does nothing to detract from the seriousness of the task at hand and still keeps us guessing right through to the interviews defining moments. It is by far the best Howard film I’ve seen in ages but having already won one these guys, I doubt he’ll be returning this year to the podium.

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Van Sant is often hit or miss but he is almost always pushing himself in different directions. He does not often play towards the masses and does not seem to be the least bit concerned about doing so. And while I’ve heard the argument that he is doing just that with MILK, I cannot disagree more with the statement. MILK is not a plea to the straight masses to accept the gay and marginalized. It is the story of a man plead with humanity to embrace all as their brothers and sisters. It is a time in history that is being told at another time in history in order to learn from the errors of our past. And aside from being such an important film, it is also a beautiful and tender experience. Van Sant brought together a cast of contemporaries and infused them all with a sense of history that brought about the best ensemble performance of the year. Anyone who knows me, knows how much I loved BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN for what it gave to gay cinema. I can honestly say, as far as the genre goes, if you can call it that, MILK is a very close second to the cowboys. My sensitive heart is pulling for a MILK upset.

Directed by Stephen Daldry

Daldry is certainly the surprise guest at this party. I don’t think people expected him to edge out Christopher Nolan for THE DARK KNIGHT but here we are. Obviously, some people put Daldry’s name down otherwise he wouldn’t be here. And the simple truth is that he definitely deserves to be here. In fact, with this nod, Daldry is now the first director in Oscar history to earn directing honours for his first three films. His work here continues to exhibit his strengths as a sensitive filmmaker with a deep understanding for his characters and their plights. He is not overly sympathetic but rather direct and forgiving. In that sense, given that THE READER focuses on Germans understanding how to forgive previous generations for their atrocious acts, Daldry was the perfect man for the job and the only one who could get it done as succinctly. Still, Daldry is the dark horse here, despite having the force known as Harvey Weinstein championing its campaign. A win for THE READER is certainly the least likely to happen in either category.

Directed by Danny Boyle

I think I’ve said enough about how I feel SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is not deserving of the top Oscars. Why not focus now on why it is still a pleasure to see it racking up all of these prestigious accolades. Boyle felt trapped after completing his last project, SUNSHINE, having filmed the entire thing on a space ship set. He wanted to get outside and paint a bigger, brighter picture and that is exactly what he did. Only, after he finished this work, the company that was due to distribute it, Warner Independent, folded., and Boyle & co. found themselves homeless and eventually hopeless as it seemed that, considering Warner Bros. did not know what to do with the film, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE was headed straight for DVD. Boyle managed to convince somebody to submit it to a couple of festivals in the fall and the audience reaction was practically palpable. And so goes the story of how a little movie almost went nowhere at all but ended up being the front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar.

There you have it, the big five. And despite the recent backlash in India upon the release of the film, Black Sheep still believes, even though he doesn’t want to, that SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE will take both Best Director and Best Picture. That said, I bet you didn’t need me to fill in those two categories on your Oscar poll.

Enjoy the Oscars and be sure to check out the winners of the 2008 MOUTON D’OR AWARDS this coming Saturday, February 21. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE isn’t even nominated there so it’s anyone’s game.

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