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April 2, 2009

The curious case of the Oscar nominations

by Warren Zhang, Managing News Editor and Ombudsman
The end of every winter can only mean one thing: awards season. It's that time of the year when bright-eyed young actors and directors wait apprehensively for fat, old armchair snobs to announce to the world their personal favorite movies of the past year. By that logic, it stands to reason that the most anticipated list will be the list made by the world's fattest, oldest, most armchair-iest snobs of them all, the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Two weeks ago, these so-called captains of reasonable judgment and sound logic convened in Los Angeles to celebrate the medium of film and indulge in their own self-indulgence. Yes, the Oscars have come and gone, but we now have all year to examine each and every nominee and "winner" ("Slumdog Millionaire" for Best Picture? Puh-lease ). So Chips, in our humble (but probably correct) opinion, decided to inform our beloved readership about which films and performances were snubbed out of a nomination and which never deserved one in the first place.

Best Picture

"The Reader" was nominated for Best Picture? There are only two explanations: Either 2008 was a heck of a lot worse than expected or Harvey Weinstein, the studio executive behind the film, bribed all 6,000 Academy members. The movie is neither the poignant journey through emotional post-Holocaust Germany that the novel was, nor an interesting new take on the overloaded Holocaust drama genre like 2008's "The Boy in Striped Pajamas." The movie is simply an excuse for director Stephen Daldry to undress Kate Winslet in every other scene and an opportunity for the entire cast to put forth their best non-German accent. Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" is by far a better movie, an inventive and exciting new spin on the Batman franchise, bringing both the series and the comic book-movie genre substantial respect in the industry. The movie easily deserved the nomination over "The Reader." And of course, there was Heath Ledger's electrifying performance as The Joker, which left no doubt as to whether or not Ledger deserved his award.

Best Director

Speaking of "The Reader," the Academy's decision to nominate Daldry for his direction is another unforgivable offense much like the rest of this year's nods for Best Director. Let's take Ron Howard, who was by far the worst part of "Frost/Nixon." All of his decisions, not the least of which being the stupid close-ups outside of the actual interviews, made "Frost/Nixon" a far more confusing experience than it should have been. Similarly, Gus Van Sant's nomination for "Milk" is perplexing since his use of flashbacks and multiple plot devices clouded the plot rather than elucidated parts of Harvey Milk's life. On the other hand, Danny Boyle and David Fincher, of "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" respectively, do nothing special with their films other than add a layer of cinematography and sentimentality. Fincher in particular relied too much on tear jerker plot points to cause viewers to overlook clichéd filming and uninspired editing. Thus, the director who most deserves the nomination is, drum roll please… Darren Aronofsky for "The Wrestler." Any man who has the gall to give Mickey Rourke an important role after his disastrous career in the boxing ring deserves some form of recognition.

Best Leading Actress

In terms of depth and believability, Kate Winslet's performance in "The Reader" was definitely not one of her best. Winslet's supposedly transcendent performance amounts to little more than facial spasms on screen for 45 minutes and yelling in a bad German accent for another five. Don't get me wrong, she wasn't awful in the movie. Even with these odd acting quirks, Winslet doesn't feel out of place in her role, unlike the rest of the cast. Her performance wasn't horrible; it was just disappointingly mediocre. But who better to trump Winslet in "The Reader" than Winslet in "Revolutionary Road"? Here, the six-time nominated actress gives a powerful performance as a distressed, middle-aged 1950s housewife. One of Winslet's best scenes comes early on in the film, when her character flubs her role in a local play. For once, Winslet has to be a really lousy actor, tears of embarrassment and all. The performance went incredibly well - though it came off disturbingly close to her Golden Globe acceptance speech.

Best Animated Film

In another odd decision, Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who" got snubbed for a nomination in favor of Jack Black's moronic kung-fu extravaganza "Kung Fu Panda." The reasoning is not entirely clear: "Horton Hears a Who" is in every conceivable way the better film. Jim Carrey, Seth Rogen and Steve Carell - who lend their voices to the film's three main characters - play off one another brilliantly, making Horton and company feel all the more real. This is a particularly impressive feat, given the outlandish plot: An elephant discovers a microscopic society on the petal of a flower. Somewhat disconcerting, however, is that the mayor of Whoville seems to have a stronger grasp on the intricacies of diplomacy than our 43rd president. Perhaps George Bush should have graduated from the Whoville school of Foreign Policy. "Kung Fu Panda," on the other hand, not only reeks of been there, done that, but also places animals into equally obnoxious situations. Fundamentally, it feels as if they took a 1970s kung-fu movie, added Black and made it a cartoon, presumably because Black is only slightly more coordinated than a blinded muskrat which would have made actions sequences a pain to film. The visuals for "Panda" are, admittedly, quite nice but they still fall way behind "Horton Hears a Who" in terms of creativity. And when it comes to "Panda's" stale story line versus Seuss' ingenuity, there's simply no contest.

Best Adapted Screenplay

While we're on the subject of plots, let's move on to this year's Best Adapted Screenplay nominees, which are composed of scripts based off already existing stories. In short, "Slumdog Millionaire," based on Vikas Swarup's 2005 book "Q & A," should never have been nominated and "Revolutionary Road," the film adaptation of Richard Yates' critically appraised novel, should have. I'll give you a moment to find those socks I just blew off. Yes, "Slumdog" does have a unique plot device - the "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" taping - but lacks compelling writing, resorting to a banal romantic plot over originality. Even worse is the choppy character development, in which supporting characters inexplicably turn from evil to good with a flick of a switch, and the villains are evil with no apparent motivation except to abuse poor people. Character development in "Revolutionary Road," on the other hand, is far more convincing. Thanks to a well written script, the characters have more emotional depth and range than any in "Slumdog Millionaire," giving the story and dialogue an authentic feel.

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