Some terrific recent Oscar-nominated movies, such as Good Night, and Good Luck and Capote, came as close to nonfiction in their techniques and textures as movie drama could bear.
This year reverses the trend with vivid splashes of artifice and theatricality. Movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire, and even Milk and Frost/Nixon, though rooted in reality, have won over still-widening audiences with touches of myth and fable and sometimes just plain make-believe.
The lives in Benjamin Button start on Mark Twain's Mississippi River and end with Hurricane Katrina, and merge into an amazing American odyssey. Just as crucial to Slumdog Millionaire as its gamelike structure and its love story is a tale as old as Cain and Abel - or as Warner Bros. classics such as A ngels With Dirty Faces - about two brothers or playmates taking vastly different routes out of the slums. Milk reaches its artistic peak when Harvey Milk's life ends in moments of operatic tragedy. And Frost/Nixon turned the David Frost-Richard Nixon interviews into a bout worthy of David and Goliath.
Still, what gives these films their spine is their utter currency: They are topical as well as timeless.
They make you feel as if the Oscars heard America talking. In giving Button 13 nominations, Slumdog 10, Milk eight and Frost/Nixon and The Reader both five, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences chose to salute best picture nominees that reflect our national conversations about opportunities and responsibilities, big and small. These aren't matters of "subtext"; they are simply text.
The sprawling, poetry-charged Benjamin Button (my favorite) has a stroke of whimsical genius at the center: a man who is born old and ages backward. Yet as it roams over the entire 20th century, including two world wars, it hinges on a woman taking responsibility by caring for this old-young hero. And it turns on Button taking responsibility in a different way by leaving his child with his wife, so his daughter won't see him as a teen, a boy, an infant.
Slumdog Millionaire is set in Mumbai with a cast of Indian characters, yet it may be the most American movie on the list. It's about a tea-server at a cell-phone company who triumphs on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire by drawing on his nerve and honesty and everything he has - including every ounce of his hard-won street knowledge. He does so not just for material gain, but to be with the woman he's loved since both were slum-dwelling orphans.
Milk offers up the life of pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk and his work in San Francisco's Castro District as a paradigm of community organizing and how such work benefits democracy. Milk triumphed over the gay establishment in San Francisco because he understood his constituency's concerns from the asphalt up. And he became a leader for the entire city because he demonstrated to union bosses and educators and straights of every variety the power of neighborhoods to revitalize cities.
Frost/Nixon, the dramatization of the interviews between British broadcast personality David Frost and ex-president Richard Nixon, in which Nixon at last acknowledged his own culpability in the Watergate coverup, offers several cautionary tales wrapped into one tight, exciting package. Nixon's character provides a prototype of an American who allows unchecked power to corrupt him - and argues that when the president does something illegal, it's not illegal. The Frost character provides a portrait of a commercial talk-show host and sometime-journalist who accepts the burden of history only when his idealistic colleagues thrust it upon him - and then enters into the sort of open-ended interrogation with a political power that today's reporters rarely have a chance to enjoy.
Even the disjointed and opaque The Reader, the one odd (and to me inexplicable) choice on the list, is based on a profound, lucid novel. The movie starts out as the chronicle of an affair between a female streetcar conductor and a high-school boy in post-World War II Germany, then takes a sudden turnaround to the concentration camps. It might have appealed to academy voters who read into it everything they gleaned from the book or saw it as the ultimate depiction of the kind of limited person who could "just follow orders" even in a concentration camp.
The big news was supposed to be that The Dark Knight got shut out of the best picture category. But it did get eight nominations, including best supporting actor for the late Heath Ledger. Was the academy being snobby toward a comic-book movie or merely discerning about its limits? The movie's exploration of all-out nihilism in the character of Ledger's Joker might have brought a new level of viciousness to the form, but in the cool crisp light of a January morn, the movie now looks like the last gasp of a doddering and self-serious old Zeitgeist. It seems so Departed, so No Country for Old Men (two Oscar winners I'd rather see again in an L.A. minute than The Dark Knight).
For once, even if you disagreed with individual choices, the roster did make sense. Most of the key creative talent for all the top nominees - the directors and writers and stars - earned nominations also. So did the exuberant Taraji P. Henson, in the supporting category, for her pivotal role as the hero's adoptive mother in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Of course, because of the film's spurious prestige, the entire above-the-line cast of Doubt won nominations, though only the two supporting actresses, Viola Davis and Amy Adams, earned them. But, refreshingly, so did the star and writer-director of the chilling indie about immigrant-smuggling on the New York-Canada border, Frozen River: Melissa Leo (for best actress) and Courtney Hunt (for best original script). Let's hope Leo or Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married can withstand Kate Winslet (The Reader) and two previous Oscar winners, Meryl Streep (Doubt) and Angelina Jolie (The Changeling).
Other unexpected and welcome picks include the audaciously funny Robert Downey Jr. as the Russell Crowe-like actor bringing all his intensity to impersonating an African-American warrior in the Vietnam-movie parody Tropic Thunder. Marisa Tomei and Penelope Cruz spice up the best supporting actress ranks with their superb performances as a pole-dancer and an artistic spitfire in, respectively, The Wrestler and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And Richard Jenkins simply proved too talented and empathetic to forget as the closed-up academic who befriends two illegal immigrants he finds in his New York apartment in The Visitor.
Several categories are exceptionally strong, notably best actor (besides Jenkins, there are Brad Pitt for Button, Sean Penn for Milk, Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon and Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler) and best adapted script and best original script (including Button, Frost/Nixon and Slumdog Millionaire, in the former, and WALL-E and Happy-Go-Lucky, in the latter).
Based on previous craft and critical awards, Slumdog Millionaire has the momentum. But with its lead in nominations, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button may bring home the top prize on Feb. 22 - and deservedly so. Slumdog Millionaire presents a thrilling drama of triumph over adversity, but Button captures something rarer - the mingled beauty and hardship to be found in all our individual freedoms.
Happy-Go-Lucky: Mike Leigh won a best screenwriting nomination for this one-of-a-kind portrait of a smart, sympathetic, irrepressible optimist, yet it was his direction of the magnificent performers Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan (as her driving-instructor antagonist) that made the movie such an unpredictable marvel. They deserved to be cited and the movie, too (with Leigh as best director).
Greg Kinnear: There was no way he would get nominated for a box-office failure such as Flash of Genius, the story of the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. But in a year of flashier feats, his Willy Loman-esque portrayal, followed by a suave, barbed turn in the romantic comedy Ghost Town, was for my money the acting one-two punch of the year. (Only Robert De Niro reached similar variety and control as the harried movie producer in Barry Levinson's underrated What Just Happened.)
WALL-E: No movie was more deeply or widely loved than Andrew Stanton's masterpiece in which the last trash-compactor on Earth becomes both a romantic leading man and the little child who leads the way to a renewed Earth. It won six nominations, including best animated feature and best original script, but it deserved its props in the best picture and best director categories.