I know I'm about a week behind, but Shana and I DVR'd the Oscars this year and we only got around to watching them last night. A few comments.
General Oscar Stuff
Every year we get the same talk about how the Oscars are hidebound, reactionary, never honor the right films, etc. etc. We also seem to continually get comments from the conservative wingnutosphere about how liberal the Oscars are, and how they should be honoring movies that people actually see rather than commie Oscar Bait movies. (Big Hollywood just gave them a place to sun themselves -- those of us who pay attention have been seeing the same whining for years.)
Here's my take. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an industry association, really no different in principle from any one of a million professional groups that will be renting out conference rooms in airport hotels across the country this year holding their annual suit-and-tie banquet dinners and award ceremonies. The Oscars are ruled by exactly the same kind of inside politicking and the same Old Guard that would be picking "Best Tire Salesman" in another context, and that's pretty much precisely as it should be. The Independent Spirit Awards are a much more reliable gauge of quality, and tend to pick the kinds of idiosyncratic flicks that people like you and I probably think deserve to be honored. If the Oscars are a bit old-fashioned, that's just the price we pay for the prestige and history of the award. Usually, certainly not always, but usually, Oscar oversights are corrected in the long run, anyway.
And as far as the populist argument goes, consider the top-grossing movies of the year. Admittedly, 2008 was a pretty good year as far as the top-earners were concerned, but do we really want to start giving Oscars to movies like Horton Hears a Who (10th highest grosser of 2008), Marley and Me (14th), or (shudder) Twilight, the seventh highest grosser of the year? 2007 was even worse -- you don't get to a really good movie until you get to number 15, and that was Juno. The Oscars tend to honor middlebrow artsy films made within the studio system that make middling amounts of money, and it's likely to stay that way for a long time to come.
I was actually really impressed with the show this year. Jackman doesn't have the comedy chops of previous hosts, but he played to his strengths in a pair of song-and-dance Broadway-style numbers, one of which was amazingly funny and the other of which was just great spectacle. I loved the opening bit with the no-budget dance number, and Anne Hathaway was a great sport and very funny in her own right. She'd make a great Nixon!
Speaking of funny, this was probably the highlight of the entire show for me.
I wouldn't be shocked if Janusz Kaminsky ends up in Apatow's next film. (Okay, I really would be, but I still think they'd make a fine comedy team.)
Ben Stiller's Joaquim Phoenix bit fell flat for me. Good concept, but I think a bit more suiter for the MTV movie awards than the Oscars. And Bill Maher's material really didn't work -- he seemed more like a man pissy at not being nominated than a man honoring documentary achievement.
The idea of bringing on past nominees to present the awards in the big acting categories was a good one. Some complain that it just makes the whole thing longer and more self-indulgently insufferable, but I thought it helped tie this year's Oscars to the past, putting the performances in better context, and generally were actually pretty funny. I only wish Anthony Hopkins had been the one to talk about Frank Langella's performance as Nixon, since, you know, Nixon.
I said above that Oscars generally go to movies that are made within the Hollywood system, so honestly I figured this year would be Benjamin Button's year. Brad and Angelina looked like Hollywood royalty, and with both of them up for top-level acting honors, I was expecting it was their time to shine together. But I guess Slumdog really is an amazing film (I haven't seen it yet, or any of the big movies except for The Wrestler), for it beat all my expectations and won many of the big prizes. It's funny that this year's best director was making zombie flicks just a few years ago.
Does anyone really think that Milk really deserved its screenplay Oscar and that Sean Penn gave the best performance in his category? Admittedly, I haven't seen the film, but screenwriter Dustin Lance Black is better known for his work on Big Love than on feature screenplays, and if he's that good he could have been honored for another project down the line. And I don't even think Sean Penn believed that he deserved to beat Mickey Rourke this year -- he specifically honored Rourke at the end of his acceptance speech, almost like an apology. I hate Prop 8 as much as anyone, but giving out awards based on "sending a message" politically is just playing into the hands of those who believe that's all Hollywood ever does.
Was there any doubt that Heath Ledger would win? Was there any doubt that he deserved to win? His Joker is probably one of the all-time great movie villains, and watching the clips of his performance last night just made it hit home all the harder the amazing talent we lost. I don't think The Dark Knight is a great movie, but Ledger's performance elevated the whole project, and I don't think that movie would be anything close to what it was if it hadn't been Heath playing that role.
Anyway, I think that's all I've really got on the Oscars. Good show, entertaining, with a few missteps, but ultimately I think I like the new format. The movies themselves weren't really compelling this year, but overall I can't complain too much.