'Button' and 'Slumdog' lead the way

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / January 22, 2009
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A man who ages backwards and a Mumbai slum kid are the front runners for this year's Oscars, while the year's most popular movie was snubbed.

Nominations for the 81st annual Academy Awards were announced Thursday, and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," a fantastical drama in which Brad Pitt moves from old age to infancy, received 13 nods, including best picture, best actor, best supporting actress (Taraji P. Henson), best director (David Fincher), and best adapted screenplay. Only two films have garnered more nominations: "Titanic" (1997) and "All About Eve" (1950), both of which received 14.

"Slumdog Millionaire," an independent audience-rousing drama about a young man whose life is revealed through his participation on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," received 10 nominations, including best picture, best director (Danny Boyle), and best adapted screenplay. Stars Dev Patel and Freida Pinto, however, were shut out by better known Hollywood names.

By contrast, "The Dark Knight," which made over $500 million in US theaters and was the pop event of 2008, received eight nominations, almost all in technical and craft categories. As expected, the late Heath Ledger was nominated for best supporting actor and is widely expected to win, but "Knight" went unrewarded in other major categories. It stands as one of the major snubs in Oscar history - even non-winners "Star Wars," "Jaws," and "E.T. the Extra-terrestrial" made it into the race for best picture - and proves that popcorn movies based on comic books still face an uphill battle with the Academy's voting members.

Overall, the 2009 nominations were a mixture of conventional wisdom and left-field surprises. Besides "Button" and "Slumdog," the best picture nominees were a biopic ("Milk") and prestige adaptations of a Broadway play ("Frost/Nixon") and a best-selling novel ("The Reader"). In another departure from Oscar tradition, all five directors of those movies were nominated as well; usually, the Academy unaccountably overlooks one best picture director to make room for another, riskier name. This year, the riskier name was arguably Christopher Nolan of "The Dark Knight," and voters didn't rise to the challenge.

"The Reader" proved surprising in other categories, too. Kate Winslet, who won two Golden Globes two weeks ago, is up for only one Oscar, a best actress award for her performance as a World War II death camp guard in the drama. The film's studio, the Weinstein Company, heavily campaigned to have Winslet considered in the supporting category, since she was expected to get a lead nod for her unhappy '50s housewife in "Revolutionary Road." Academy voters refused to play ball, and the "Reader" nomination can be read as a repudiation of Oscar campaign strategies in general and studio head Harvey Weinstein in particular.

Despite having two films in the running, "Gran Torino" and "Changeling," Clint Eastwood walked away with hardly anything ("Changeling" had three nods: actress, art direction, and cinematography). Sally Hawkins, the star of Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky," and another Golden Globe winner, surprisingly did not receive a nomination for best actress. "The Wrestler" picked up acting nominations for Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei, but director Darren Aronofsky and writer Robert Siegel were ignored.

Unexpected glory shone on other films and players, though. "Frozen River," a festival award-winner set in upstate New York, picked up nominations for lead actress Melissa Leo and best original screenplay; Leo's competition is Winslet, Meryl Streep in "Doubt," Angelina Jolie in "Changeling," and Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married." This counts as Streep's 15th career nomination.

Richard Jenkins, the much-admired character player who had a rare leading role in the independent film "The Visitor," made it onto the best actor list opposite Pitt, Rourke, Sean Penn in "Milk," and Frank Langella in "Frost/Nixon." "Revolutionary Road" received only three nominations, but one of them went to Michael Shannon's eye-catching supporting role as a mentally unstable neighbor.

The documentary and foreign language nominations also surprised for not having major surprises. Acclaimed films like Israel's "Waltz With Bashir" and France's "The Class" made it in (although Italy's "Gomorrah" never made it to the short list), and the documentary nominations included such critical and audience favorites as "Man on Wire," "Trouble the Water," and Werner Herzog's "Encounters at the End of the World."

The nominations, announced yesterday morning by Academy president Sid Ganis and actor Forest Whitaker, reflected the Hollywood film community's mixed emotions about 2008's slate of movies. This year's Oscars were expected to reflect a year in which several Hollywood studio films won huge popular and critical acclaim. The failure of "Dark Knight" to be nominated for best picture or Nolan for best director will be largely perceived as a slap in the face of the film and the young audiences that have taken it to heart.

Similarly, "WALL-E," the Pixar cartoon that landed at the top of many year-end 10-best lists, was relegated to the best animated feature children's table with "Kung Fu Panda" and "Bolt," although its six nominations included Andrew Stanton's original screenplay and Peter Gabriel's song "Down to Earth."

Instead, the Academy chose to recognize the sort of plushly mounted serious dramas that traditionally cluster around the end of the year. "Milk" (eight nominations, including picture, actor, supporting actor Josh Brolin, and director Gus Van Sant), "Frost/Nixon" (five nominations, including picture, actor, and Ron Howard for director), "Doubt" (five nominations, including its entire cast of Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis), and "The Reader" (five nominations, including director Stephen Daldry and writer David Hare) joined "Benjamin Button" as late 2008 releases up for multiple awards.

Then there's "Slumdog Millionaire," which on the strength of its 10 nominations and its multiple Golden Globe wins can no longer be called "the little movie that could" but instead has to be thought of as "the little movie that did - and probably will." That this film, set in India with an unknown cast and a third of its script in Hindi, is now positioned as the best picture front runner is the one sign that last year was an atypical one at the movies.

The Oscars will air on Feb. 22.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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