It was a gloomy Thursday morning for The Dark Knight when Oscar nominations were announced.
The second-biggest-grossing film of all time was denied a Best Picture and Best Director Oscar. Never mind that it elevated comic book films to new heights of acclaim. Academy voters apparently didn't think enough of the Batman epic to give it much notice, except for the fait accompli nomination of Heath Ledger for his menacing take on the homicidal Joker.
Ledger will face competition from Josh Brolin (Milk), Robert Downey, Jr. (Tropic Thunder), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt), and Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road), all of whom deliver memorable performances; but Ledger is better. The late actor - who died a year ago today - transcended the notion of what a comic book villain come to life should be, and made the Joker a frightening figure of chaos unshackled by social mores. Ledger will win, and Academy voters know this, which is most likely their rationale for not nominating The Dark Knight for other top prizes.
If the Oscar nominations were announced in early December, most would have said Milk was the frontrunner for Best Picture. The film opened in November - it should arrive in Toledo soon, possibly next Friday - with a tidal wave of critical praise - especially for Sean Penn as slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk, the nation's first openly gay politician.
But Milk's buzz grew increasingly quiet in December, even as other films picked up momentum. At this point, based on its Golden Globes success, Slumdog Millionaire is the clear frontrunner to win the big prize with 10 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. It's a smart, touching film about a young man whose Dickensian life has led him to the opportunity to become rich on India's Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and it proves the value of an original story. (It should win Best Adapted Screenplay). Considering Slumdog Millionaire's director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) worked with a cast of mostly unknowns, you have to consider him a frontrunner for Best Director, too.
Best Actor is surprising not for who was nominated, but for who wasn't: Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Revolutionary Road) were left off the list. Forget Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) and Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Best Actor is between three performers: Penn; Frank Langella as disgraced president Nixon in Frost/Nixon; and Mickey Rourke as a washed-up professional wrestler given another chance at a career and life in The Wrestler. Again, Penn probably had it in the bag two months ago, but Rourke is the odds-on favorite, especially after his Globes win. Hollywood loves comebacks, in film and in real life. With a Rourke victory, they celebrate both.
Amy Adams as Sister James had a significantly bigger role in Doubt compared to costar Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller. Adams had the thankless job of acting in the shadows as the meek nun at a Catholic school who is the first to suspect a priest of behaving improperly with one of the young male students, and she is never given the showy scene that voters remember. A showy scene is all Davis has in the film, as the mother of the student, who chooses to ignore the allegations of misconduct for what she believes is the well-being of her child. Oprah Winfrey campaigned for the Mrs. Miller role, and even called Doubt writer-director John Patrick Shanley to beg for an audition. Shanley, though, said no, his mind was already set on Davis. His faith will be rewarded.
For Best Actress, it's surprising that Winslet, who won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in Revolutionary Road, was instead nominated for The Reader, for which she won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Revolutionary Road, about the crumbling marriage of a young middle-class couple, was too dour for voters, apparently, given its dearth of major nominations. Also a surprise non-nominee is Sally Hawkins, who won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical for her acclaimed performance as eternal optimist Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky. And speaking of non-nominees, where was Bruce Springsteen's nod for Best Original Song for "The Wrestler"? The song won a Golden Globe, and is a highlight of the film's trailer.
As usual, when it comes to Oscar nominations, the Academy's selections are often more notable for what isn't celebrated, instead of what is.
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