Thursday, December 4, 2008

Oscar Season, Vol. 2: National Board of Review



The National Board of review, always eager to be the first big prize-givers of the year, have announced their winners for the 2008 awards season. Here is a list of the awards, followed by some brief commentary by yours truly.

Best Film
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

Best Director
DAVID FINCHER, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Best Actor
CLINT EASTWOOD, Gran Torino

Best Actress
ANNE HATHAWAY, Rachel Getting Married

Best Supporting Actor
JOSH BROLIN, Milk

Best Supporting Actress
PENELOPE CRUZ, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Best Foreign Language Film
MONGOL

Best Documentary
MAN ON WIRE

Best Animated Feature
WALL-E

Best Ensemble Cast

DOUBT

Breakthrough Performance by an Actor
DEV PATEL, Slumdog Millionaire

Breakthrough Performance by an Actress
VIOLA DAVIS, Doubt

Best Directorial Debut
COURTNEY HUNT, Frozen River

Best Original Screenplay
NICK SCHENK, Gran Torino

Best Adapted Screenplay
SIMON BEAUFOY, Slumdog Millionaire and ERIC ROTH, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Spotlight Award
MELISSA LEO, Frozen River and RICHARD JENKINS, The Visitor

The BVLGARI Award for NBR Freedom of Expression
TRUMBO

Top Ten Films
(In alphabetical order)
BURN AFTER READING
CHANGELING
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
THE DARK KNIGHT
DEFIANCE
FROST/NIXON
GRAN TORINO
MILK
WALL-E
THE WRESTLER

Top Five Foreign Language Films
(In alphabetical order)
EDGE OF HEAVEN
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
ROMAN DE GUERRE
A SECRET
WALTZ WITH BASHIR

Top Five Documentary Films
(In alphabetical order)
AMERICAN TEEN
THE BETRAYAL (NERAKHOON)
DEAR ZACHARY
ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
ROMAN POLANSKI WANTED AND DESIRED

William K. Everson Film History Award
MOLLY HASKELL and ANDREW SARRIS

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Right off the bat, we see that festival favorite Slumdog Millionaire continues to wow and delight critics as well as the average moviegoer. No real surprise there, though the choice could help curtail a mild Slumdog backlash that has recently begun percolating. While many highbrow critics don't consider the NBR the most reputable awards group, their position as first out the gate does give them a certain level of significance. Earning the NBR's top prize is a good sign for Fox Searchlight, making it all the more likely that they should have multiple chances to reach the podium in February.

David Fincher, whose film Zodiac was my pick for best film of 2007, finally seems to be earning the recognition he deserves. And all he had to do was combine Brad Pitt, stellar CGI, and the screenwriter of Forrest Gump. The film itself also made the group's Top 10 and shared the Best Adapted Screenplay award with the writer of Slumdog.

A big surprise came in the Best Actor category, with the prize being given to NBR favorite Clint Eastwood for his performance as a racist veteran in the relatively unseen Gran Torino. Eastwood's good fortunes continued as his two directorial efforts of 2008 (Changeling and Gran Torino) made the Top 10. Although I found Changeling to be a fascinating film, many critics seemed to dismiss it for reasons I still can't quite fathom. Personally, I think Eastwood's recent hot streak and impressive work ethic actually made some people wary of his latest effort. And the less-than-enthusiastic response from some critics at Cannes may have set the wheels of negativity in motion. It will be interesting to see if Gran Torino truly is good enough to have swooped in at the eleventh hour and made the group's Top 10. I certainly hope so, though the trailer didn't exactly have me expecting great things. And no matter how good the picture is, I can't imagine that Clint delivered the best male performance of the year. Then again, at age 78, he continues to surprise us.

On the flipside, Wall-E's victory in the Best Animated Film category was anything but startling. As one of the best films of the year, animated or otherwise, it should easily take home another Oscar for the unstoppable Pixar.

Man on Wire remains one of the best reviewed films of the year, and it's a documentary I cannot wait to see for myself. It made the controversial Oscar shortlist late last month, and its victory here should help its chances with the ever-clueless Academy doc voters. The NBR also recognized three films in their Top 5 Documentary list that did not make the Academy shortlist (American Teen, Dear Zachary, and Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired).


OTHER SURPRISES

In what has to be the biggest shocker of the bunch, Burn After Reading made the Top 10 list despite the overwhelming indifference it seemed to provoke from most critics and viewers. Even a lifelong Coen Brothers fan such as myself found the film amusing yet somewhat bland, not to mention a retread of the themes and humor that have peppered previous better works by the delirious duo.

Another Top 10 entry that will have most pundits scratching their heads in the inclusion of Edward Zwick's Defiance. Then again, should we ever really be surprised that a Zwick film gains some awards attention?


NOTABLE OMISSIONS

Despite it taking home the prize for Best Ensemble Cast, Oscar hopeful Doubt failed to crack the Top 10. Other likely candidates that went virtually ignored include Revolutionary Road, The Reader, Australia, and The Visitor (though the latter did earn a Spotlight Award (whatever the hell that is) for its lead actor Richard Jenkins. The cryptically-marketed and essentially unseen Seven Pounds was understandably absent, while Soderbergh's epic, Che, continues its uphill struggle.

Well, there you have it. The awards season is now officially underway. I for one am glad that popcorn fare like Wall-E and The Dark Knight gained admission into the Top 10. I would have been even more pleased to see some love for Gus Van Sant's criminally overlooked Paranoid Park, though I'm not at all surprised by its lack of attention.

Reactions?

Monday, December 1, 2008

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (R) - 120 min.



Danny Boyle made a minor splash on the festival circuit back in 1994, with his debut film Shallow Grave. Two years later he released his second (and still greatest) effort, Trainspotting. He has only made one genuinely bad film since (remember The Beach?), but despite some setbacks he continues to tackle a variety of genres utilizing a vast array of inspired methods.

His latest offering, Slumdog Millionaire, was a big hit with the festival crowd a little earlier in the year. Audiences and critics didn't know what to expect from this strangely titled film with a primarily Indian cast, and that's probably why it was so well-received. But now that the air of mystery has dissipated and the accolades have been hurled its way, I feel many people will start paying closer attention to the film itself, rather than the hoopla that has preceded its wide release.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is an 18-year-old from India who has found himself on that country's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? On the verge of winning 20 million rupees he is arrested and tortured by police forces who assume he has cheated his way to the final question. Eager to clear his name and go back on the show, he begins telling his interrogators how he happened to know the answers to each of the questions. We see him as a young boy trying to survive on the harsh streets of India. While he encounters many difficult experiences growing up, they inevitably offer him the answers to those questions he will one day get the chance to answer. It's a wonderful script, adapted for the screen by Simon Beaufoy from the novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup. Boyle's direction is indeed a marvel, but it is no more impressive than the amazing techniques he employed 12 years earlier in Trainspotting.

The three actors who play Jamal throughout his younger years do a great job, though Oscar buzz for Dev Patel should be quietly brushed aside. I will say that it was nice to see a film chronicle a single character with multiple actors who actually look like they could be the same person. And all without resorting to CGI trickery. The real special FX in this movie are the bird's-eye view of life in the midst of a horrendously packed city like Mumbai. Jamal's various chases through the populated region is nothing short of exhilarating, and the smart editing and invigorating soundtrack can't help but make the viewer feel like they're on a rollercoaster. In fact, the film's exuberant style subtly works against it in the long run, if only because it somewhat sugarcoats the hardships that these children are being forced to endure.

Nevertheless, that is a minor flaw in an otherwise enjoyable tale. Bringing the Indian tale closer to the hearts of American mainstream audiences is the story's romantic aspect. As we watch Jamal grow up we witness his budding affections for the young girl Latika, whose life takes as many unexpected twists as his own. The three actresses who make up Latika aren't quite as convincing, but her final incarnation, portrayed by Indian model Freida Pinto is the most affecting. If none of the performers in this movie go on to do much else, you can count on seeing Miss Pinto's face on the cover of various magazines for years to come.
Slumdog Millionaire is a lovely movie that hits all the right notes, though I don't expect any Juno-like box office success. Fox Searchlight has done a decent online campaign for the movie, but my parents, who would probably enjoy it, had never even heard of it. That's not a good sign this deep into Oscar season. With a slew of awards-friendly films on the horizon, it may be difficult for a movie like this, however touching, to find a wide audience. And it will probably need to gross at least $50 million domestically to have a real shot at Best Picture in February. Of course, with many Oscar hopefuls still relatively unseen, it's possible that this could still become the little indie that could. And despite its formulaic tendencies it is still less saccharine and contrived than previous indie darlings like Life is Beautiful and...well, Juno.

Will you see a better film this year? Chances are you already have. I'd still put summer smashes Wall-E and The Dark Knight ahead of this one. But if you can try and cast aside the hyperbole that has been heaped on the film, you should emerge from the theater with a smile on your face and a tingle in your chest. And hey...you'll know a little more trivia than when you stepped up to the box office two hours earlier.

Rating: B+

Review by Keil Shults