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Times film experts reconsider the Oscar nominees

All year, film critics tell us what they like and don't like about new movies, always moving on to the next release. But how often do we ask them to take a second look, to give us their considered opinions again once the Oscar nominations are announced? That's just what we've done in assembling L.A. Times film columnist Patrick Goldstein and Times film critics Kenneth Turan and Betsy Sharkey to talk over this year's nominees and to play Oscar Voter for a day.

Patrick Goldstein: They don't let any of us peons vote in the Academy Awards, but if you two had to vote for best picture, I'd like to hear you make the case for your favorite movie this year.

Kenneth Turan: It's " Slumdog Millionaire." To me, it's a throwback to the old style of Hollywood moviemaking. It's a smart movie by an independent director that has really broad mainstream appeal, and that's good enough for me.

Betsy Sharkey: My choice would be "Slumdog Millionaire" too because I think it does what, really, every movie that is ever made is supposed to do -- it sweeps you in and it takes you away and you are absolutely there with it every minute until the end and the lights go up.

Goldstein: Well, since I'm very uncomfortable hearing critics agree with each other, I am going to ask you a follow-up question. What is the film in the best picture slot that doesn't belong there? That if you were King or Queen for a Day you would take out?

Sharkey: I think "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" does not belong. I know it's been popular with a lot of people, but to me it did not fully work as a movie.

Goldstein: What didn't work for you?

Sharkey: What did not work, frankly, was what should have been the spine of the movie, which is Brad Pitt's performance. It was passive throughout. And I had a hard time buying into the proposition that if you had that sort of absolutely counterintuitive life, that you would not be more introspective, that you would not be more active or proactive in the way that you reacted to and assessed your life. I felt like he just was gliding through the years and I wanted more out of that character.

Turan: I won't pick a film that should be cut out, but I will say that I feel bad that "The Dark Knight" didn't make the cut.

Goldstein: Why do you think it deserved to be there?

Turan: It's exceptionally well made just from a craft point of view, art direction, cinematography, all the kinds of things that the Hollywood studio system remains so good at. And I just like the notion of having popular films in there. I mean, one of the things that is always characterizing the academy is that often if a film is too successful, it doesn't get voted in; not always, but sometimes you can be too successful for the academy's taste. Obviously, "Titanic" was in there. "Lord of the Rings" was successful -- sometimes they just are so overpowering that they get in. But it would have been nice to have one of the year's most popular films among the five.

Goldstein: And Betsy, are there films that you loved that you would have liked to see as a nominee?

Sharkey: " Doubt." I thought between the directing, the writing and acting, it was incredibly compelling. It felt like a grown-up film, as it was taking on adult issues and dealing with them in very sophisticated and smart ways. And, at the same time, it brought in the humanity of every single one of those characters in a very compelling way.

Goldstein: Let's move on to director. Who are you rooting for to win?

Turan: I like "Slumdog Millionaire" and I like Danny Boyle. I think if you look at Danny Boyle's entire career, one of the things that characterizes it is that he brings a lot of energy to his films no matter what the subject matter is. And I think that energy was critical in making "Slumdog" the success it is.

Sharkey: I think Danny Boyle is terrific in terms of what he has done and just the sheer technical nature of what he was able to pull off. I also would throw in a strong vote for Ron Howard. He is one of the filmmakers that is very often overlooked as being someone of substance, even though he continues to grow. He has a body of work that is increasingly impressive, and certainly with "Frost/Nixon" I thought he took a huge leap of faith and it really paid off in the end.

Goldstein: Do you think the best director award should go to the same person whose movie won best picture? Or is it a legitimate idea to split the ballots?

Turan: I think it's legitimate to split the ballots. I mean, these things are not scientific. You may like one film better but feel that the reason you like it is a performance or the idea of the film or the novel it was based on. I don't think they have to go hand in hand.

Sharkey: I agree. I mean if you mandated that, what you would really be doing is eliminating a category.

Goldstein: Let's move to lead actress. Who would you pick?

Sharkey: Kate Winslet in " The Reader." She had two really powerful performances this year, and I do think this is the better of the two. It's more nuanced and it is an extraordinary performance, and I think she also has sort of earned her due. Perhaps with the exception of Meryl Streep, it is really the best performance out there.

Turan: I want to vote for Melissa Leo for a lot of reasons. No. 1, I like the notion of people from smaller films getting that kind of recognition. Melissa Leo has been around for a while, always been really good, never gotten this kind of recognition. This is a terrific performance; it really makes this film the film that it is. It would be really exciting if she won.

Goldstein: Does it bother you when someone like Kate Winslet shamelessly campaigns for the award?

Turan: Patrick, this is the Oscars. People campaign for Nobel Prizes. There's no reason people shouldn't campaign for the Oscars. I'm not offended. Why not campaign?

Sharkey: I agree. It is something that is important to a lot of these people. Most of them will show up on that night, and most of them will be hoping desperately that their name is called, and I just think it's the nature of the game. Whether it's a Nobel Prize or the Pulitzer. People want to be recognized when they do good work. It's good too that it means something -- that there is something to aspire to, that there is some kind of bar that people want to not just reach, but exceed.

Goldstein: Let's go to lead actor. Your favorites?

Turan: I thought Sean Penn did an exceptional job, but he has won an Oscar before and I would -- for that reason alone -- I would go for Frank Langella. I think there's a marvelous performance, again a wonderful career. Spectacular work for a long, long time. It's a really interesting performance as Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon." He doesn't impersonate Nixon -- he creates a character who is Nixonian and makes us really compelled by him.

Goldstein: You seem to be saying that you are taking into consideration the overall career. That because Sean Penn has already won, it is less important to give it to him again. So is this really an award for a body of work, or an award for the specific performance?

Turan: It's an award that whoever votes for it decides what it's for. We don't know why people vote the way they do. They may vote because they met the person and just like him personally. To pretend that every person who votes is just purely and simply voting on the quality of one performance is to be naïve.

Goldstein: One last thing, Kenny. Did Sean Penn ever take a swing at you?

Turan: He never took a swing at me.

Goldstein: Betsy?

Sharkey: I am a sucker for redemption stories, so I would have to say Mickey Rourke. I thought it was a vulnerable, stripped-down, raw and brave performance by somebody who has climbed his way out of what seems like a bottomless pit. It was an excellent performance. It really reminded me of all the things that I loved about Mickey Rourke in the early years, and part of that is just kind of a fearlessness to expose himself to whatever it takes to get the performance across.

Goldstein: Neither of you has mentioned Brad Pitt as being a favorite. There's a lot of debate about "Benjamin Button" as a movie, and I think it carries over to Pitt's performance, that there's so much technological work going on in that film. From your standpoint as critics, do you consider it purely an acting performance, or is it somehow intertwined with being a technological triumph? And does that affect your view of Pitt's role?

Sharkey: Honestly, despite all the things that they did to age and de-age his body, a part of the performance is what you see in the face and what you see in the eyes and, to me, it was flat.

Turan: I wanted to be moved by the performance. I wasn't moved. How much of that was the direction, the acting, the script, the technology, I don't know. But the bottom line is I wasn't moved the way I wanted to be.

Goldstein: That takes us to the supporting actor nominations. What do you consider when thinking about what makes a best supporting performance? Can one great scene make you vote for someone? Or is it providing, you know, a key into the movie's story line?

Sharkey: It can be exceedingly small, actually. But it has to make a difference. It has to be a character and a performance that if you pulled it out, the movie could not stand as well without it. So that's sort of my bottom line.

Turan: It can be either or; you just see what moves you. You see what you feel is effective. In "Doubt," Viola Davis has only one scene, but it's a spectacular scene -- good enough to get her nominated and maybe good enough for her to win. So there are no rules about these things. It is just what happens in any given film.

Goldstein: So the clear-cut favorite in supporting role for an actor is Heath Ledger from "The Dark Knight." Do either of you differ from that for your own choice?

Sharkey: It's an excellent performance, but it's also layered with the tragedy of his death. And it's like Kenny said earlier: It is impossible to remove all the many factors that go into how people make decisions. It was a great performance. Michael Shannon's performance, though, in "Revolutionary Road" was just chilling in its ability to be affecting.

Turan: I would go with Heath Ledger, even though his death is possibly part of the reason why he's the favorite. But I don't think his death is the reason it's a great performance. It's a very unnerving performance. He's a really scary villain in a very kind of almost subliminal way, in a way that really disturbs you, and that's hard to do -- especially with a character that we've seen before, that Jack Nicholson has done. He's made this character very much alive in the film. He would get my vote.

Goldstein: What does it say that out of all the nominations we talked about, all the acting nominations and directing, there are only two nominees that come from a comic role? Two of the supporting actor nominations are from performances in a comedy. All of the other almost three dozen nominations are dramas. Do you think the academy and the Oscars do not appreciate the craft of comedy?

Turan: It's very rare for the academy to recognize it. It's not unheard of, but the academy tends to feel as a body that comedy isn't serious work. That's at least the way the members vote. They wouldn't say that face to face. But they vote as if comedy is a different style of work and that what they want to be recognizing is serious work.

Sharkey: Comedy is not easy. It's not easy to write, it's not easy to perform. It takes a remarkable amount of skill and timing and pacing. And also, to give a comedic performance the kind of layers that you can get in a drama, it's just -- and textures -- that's difficult to do. So, yes, I think they should take a harder look at comedy. It doesn't move people in the same ways that dramas do. And I think that that becomes an inherent problem as well that people have to overcome.

Goldstein: So on Oscar night, what is the one thing that you two look forward to the most about the show?

Sharkey: I look for some level of spontaneity. Someone who doesn't walk up there with their list of agent and PR representatives and Mom and Dad and kids, that really responds in some sort of very human and very personal way that feels real.

Turan: I would even go one step further. I look forward to the unexpected events, to the streaker who ran past David Niven, to Jack Palance doing one-armed push-ups. The things that just come out of nowhere. The things that make us remember why live TV is very exciting.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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