Oscars: the contenders


February 3, 2009, 10:11 AM 

Gus Van Sant
(Focus features) Gus Van Sant/Sean Penn

In this week’s issue of The New Yorker, the critic David Denby argues that although

this year’s nominees have their charms, except for “Milk” they are not the “best picture” type. Is this a weak year for movies as reflected in the five nominees for picture? The Bagger thinks not. The Bagger is (understatement alert) a bit of a homer when it comes to movies – he generally likes what he sees – but he thought it might be useful to put this year’s bunch up against those that made the cut in the past few years and see if they suffer by comparison. These comparisons are necessarily rough and highly subjective, but then that’s why the overlords of the Interweb invented comments, no?

The Reader

Far from a perfect film, the Stephen Daldry-directed film suffers from a third act problems as he tries to supply the Ralph Fiennes character – the young lover of the prison guard now grown up – a reason for existing. And as Manohla Dargis wrote in her review, David Hare’s “apparent attempt to deepen or underline the novel’s ideas about the past informing the present, by kinking up its linear chronology with flashbacks, proves crippling: scrambling the time frame, so that the story repeatedly points to the past, only exposes the deep vein of self-pity that runs through the novel.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean the movie does not belong in the company it is keeping. Big themes (nature of guilt, accountability and man’s inhumanity to man) come under significant and sometime subtle examination. Sure it has flaws, but was “Munich,” another film that attempted to personalize tragic human history a perfect film? Hardly. “Munich” used a quasi-documentary approach that left many viewers struggling to catch up, but still made it to the show in 2005.

Frost/Nixon

A popular theater piece that was put on steroids to render into cinema, “Frost/Nixon” may blow a little too much air into the actual historical event, but is it any less notable than say, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” another film where journalism gets a rare workout as heroic and the performances dominate. Nominated in 2005, “Good Night, and Good Luck” had its ferocious advocates. That film’s director, George Clooney, limited his palette to black and white and gave it an evocative period feel, but it is a movie with significant flat spots that simplified some very complicated matters.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This is not a film that hit the Bagger’s buttons, but its 13 nominations testify to the ability of the director David Fincher to use cutting edge technology in seamless ways. The narrative has some leaps and gaps that brought to mind “Atonement,” another piece of directorial craft that had a big, sprawling love story that clanked off the rim a few times when it overreached.

“Milk”

Not even Mr. Denby argued about its inclusion this year. Everyone talks about Sean Penn’s performance, but as A.O. Scott marveled in his rave of a review, this is perhaps Gus Van Sant’s best work yet. The power of the movie, he writes, “lies in its uncanny balancing of nuance and scale, its ability to be about nearly everything — love, death, politics, sex, modernity — without losing sight of the intimate particulars of its story.” Nominated in 2005, “Capote” brought a vivid contemporary American figure to life, but where that film relied on mood and style, “Milk” grabs onto a complicated figure and shoots him from every conceivable angle.

Slumdog Millionaire

The Bagger and the legions of fans of this movie have little patience for the folks who suggest that this portrait of kids rowing away from the slum fanciful or prurient. Danny Boyle has been clobbered for making a movie that is too pretty, of all things. Yeah sure, the game show device has a slickness to it, but the rest of the movie has so much integrity and impact within each scene that it can take your breath away. “Babel,” which was nominated in 2006, was another movie that spanned the world and was rendered in more than one language, has the same virtue, but without the knitting that made “Slumdog” such a deeply satisfying movie-movie experience.

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