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.

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