The Oscar Best Picture Nominees - A Comparative Review

January 26, 2009
Aaman Lamba

Movies seem to get better with each passing year. While last year's Oscars were all about dystopian gloom and blood, this year seems to be predicated on hope and transformation, on the power of movies to make the impossible probable, and to chronicle memory through the prism of interpretation.

The 81st Academy Award Best Picture Nominees cover the spectrum from biopic to masala entertainer. They brim with heartwarming pathos while each reveals the darkness within. Each of them has a strange pairing that makes the movie what it is, from the cerebral Frost and Nixon to the tragic Jamal-Latika (or should that be Jamal-Prem?).

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is perhaps the most fantastical of them all, with its reverse chronology, and yet this device serves to give us a retrospective look at our last century, and also enables the tragic nature of ageing in the film. The unusual romantic pairing of Daisy (Cate Blanchett) and Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is itself depicted in a manner that requires great creative effort, at times from the perspective of the ageing Daisy, and at others from that of Benjamin. As he puts it on one memorable occasion, "When I had left she was a girl...and a woman had taken her place...She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen." This magic realism imbues the photography, the close-ups and the broader shots of a society in as much flux as the characters themselves. The computer generated characters are reminscent of The Lord of the Rings, more Gollum than Bilbo. Its only failing is its episodic character, not giving us any reason to appreciate the deeper meaning of Benjamin's adventures, across tramp steamers and with bored diplomat's wives. Brad Pitt's typical detachment might see him lose the Best Actor award to the far more intense Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, or perhaps either of Frank Langella or Sean Penn from the other Best Picture Nominees.

Milk has more immediacy, along with Sean Penn's desire to be redeemed, at least in his own eyes. Harvey Milk, advocate for gay rights and activist, is portrayed with a playfulness while still revealing the bleakness and loneliness within. This is a movie borne entirely on the shoulders of Mr. Penn, although Gus van Sant has much to do with the causes and effects of his acting, undoubtedly. There is much foreshadowing of both what is to come for Harvey Milk as well as for America at large with his refusal to fit into the closet, as it were. The oft-quoted line "My name is Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you" has resonance even today, with the separation of civic life from the political sphere, and more opinionation than action. Harvey Milk takes action, and is evidently ready for the consequences. The film is shot with linear, controlled shots, done using actual 70s-era Cooke-Panchro lenses, and giving the film its 70s sheen. San Franscisco and the Castro neighborhood are as much characters in the film as Harvey Milk or Dan White, and the city's backdrop is a central part of the film's tone. Dan White (Josh Brolin) might provide the gay subtext to this film about America's first openly gay elected official, yet the indictment is more on a society complicit in the closeting of people.

The Reader takes another look at society's complictness in the events that occur within it. The movie deals with the war, already forgotten by 1958, when the story opens, and the process of forgetting. The amnesia of a nation and Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet)'s 'forgetting' to tell the adolescent Michael Berg are contrasted later, when she is put on trial for being a concentration guard at Auchwitz. Still, is it so hard to expect a society and a person to want to reconstruct their pasts to build a new life? This difficult question haunts Michael, who must choose to be the instrument of Hanna's punishment, and thereby redemption. The movie is also about the power of another form of remembering, books. The illiterate Hanna is read to, and perhaps does not therefore comprehend, by Michael, and earlier by prisoners. The coming-of-age sexuality is also contrasted with the damaged country seen around Hanna's apartment. There is a certain ham-handedness to the film, but it successfully poses its central question, and sidesteps it, by letting the viewers realize that everyone knew all along about the atrocities of the time, and chose not to speak out, much like Hanna chooses not to learn to read. Finally, the film is also a journey, from ignorance to knowledge, as in The Odyssey.

Slumdog Millionaire is another kind of journey, from rags to riches, and also from obscurity to fame. There is no forgetting involved in this film, though. The centrepiece of the film is the ability of Jamal to answer questions in a television quiz show based on seminal moments in his life. His childhood is no aristocratic idyll, a la Nabokov in Speak, Memory. Jamal is from the gutters and the film takes us through a rollercoaster ride through these social gutters, battering the characters with everything terrible and depraved that society can manufacture. He survives, pehaps by a self-imposed detachment, necessary to wade through rivers of excrement for the promised goal. The goal is ever-fluid, though, much like the film's usage of time. We are sometimes given a retrospective view, and at other times, events presage the inevitable happy ending. This recursive approach works more on the first viewing than any subsequent one. Another aspect of the film that does not quite work is the out-of-place accents of both Jamal and Salim. Jamal's Scottish tone might be explained by his days as a chaiwallah in a call center, but Salim's preppy voice is more suited for a school production of Othello. The interesting counterpoint of the film is not that between damaged Latika and the hopeful Jamal, but between the quiz show host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) and Jamal. Prem sees Jamal's indefatigability as reminscent of his own, and endeavors to first sabotage it, and then undermine its validity. In the end, he is rendered an instrument of Jamal's Fates, with the final question being a roll of cosmic dice more than a memory of horrors past. The spectacular reception of the film might work in its favor, but the Oscars are home to capricious spirits themselves, from those that shut out shoo-ins from the nominations to others which spring a surprise when the envelope is opened. It is written, as Jamal might say.

Frost/Nixon has perhaps the most unusual subject in the set, with its focus on the 1977 interviews of former President Richard Nixon by upcoming presenter David Frost. The film is a talkathon, with the magic lying in the interplay between the extremely savvy Nixon and the stubborn Frost, whose career and financial stability rests on the success of the interviews. The nature of the success is ambiguous, and final victory, the admission of guilt, delivers little reward, even for David Frost, who might have gone on to television success regardless. While the superlative acting and close setting of the film have brought it this nomination, it would be more than magical if it went further. 

A definite miss in the nominees is Edward Zweick's Defiance, with its hardpressed Jweish partisans, a Schindler's List in the forest, as it were. While Daniel Craig and the ensemble cast deliver a compelling performance, and most aspects of the film are very well-done, it probably lost out given its Hollywood-style fight scenes and general lack of subtlety. Another notable miss was The Dark Knight, and I would posit, the Swedish vampire movie, Let The Right One In, perhaps the best vampire flick since Interview with The Vampire.


Aaman Lamba is the Publisher of, a Blogcritics network site. He also blogs, more infrequently nowadays, at Audit Trails Of Self
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