MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Pondering the Contenders in the Best Picture Derby

Published under Oscar Outsider.

With ten days to go until Oscar, it’s time for Oscar Outsider to take a look at the Best Picture nominees. Here’s a rundown of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the Best Picture contenders as we come down to the wire … and what the Academy voters might be thinking.

Slumdog Millionaire

Strengths: This year’s Little Movie that Could certainly seems to have momentum on its side, already racking up a slew of awards from critic and peer groups, the Golden Globes and BAFTA. The film played well at its Telluride Film Festival premiere over Labor Day weekend, went on to pop hugely at Toronto, and has been surprisingly well-received by critics and audiences alike.

Slumdog is a great feel-good movie with a heart-warming story, lively cinematography, frenetic, fast-paced editing and a charming, unknown cast. I’m a big fan of all of Danny Boyle‘s films, but getting Boyle out of Britain seems to have opened the director up in unexpected ways, pulling all his formidable directorial strengths together into a film that, while still artistic, is his most broadly accessible and appealing film thus far.

Boyle is this year’s golden boy … but will being directed by the golden boy translate into a Best Picture golden man for the film’s producers?

Weaknesses: It’s not always a good thing to be the front-runner … there’s always someone out there looking to knock you down a peg or two, and we’ve seen that with Slumdog this year as the film has been targeted by a last-minute run of attacks from various quarters about whether the producers took advantage of its child actors, whether Boyle took advantage of his casting director, Loveleen Tandan (credited as co-director for her exceptional work on the film) and whether white filmmakers can or should make a film about poor people in the slums of Mumbai.

Then there are the criticisms about the film itself; some find the storyline too melodramatic (perhaps too Bollywood?) to take seriously, some question the strength of Simon Beaufoy‘s script (although frankly, I’d question whether many of the people leveling those criticisms have actually read the book from which the script was adapted), and still others are simply not enamored of the lead performances.

What will the Academy do?

In the end, it matters not what critics or audiences think –Oscar night is all about the Academy, which is made up largely of well-off white people over the age of 50. Will the Academy find the homage to Bollywood appealing or off-putting?

Slumdog might appeal to Academy members on several fronts: it’s a popular film that’s been well-received, it addresses greater social issues without being maudlin, depressing, or gratuitously violent, it’s directed by a worthy director with a solid pedigree, and written by a screenwriter who was previously nommed for an Oscar for The Full Monty. On the other hand, the cast is full of unknowns with nary an Oscar nod among them, and in the end, the film might have benefitted more from going into Oscar night as the underdog rather than the top dog. Further, it’s hard to tell at this point whether being in the stable of studio indie-arm Fox Searchlight, which had Juno in the running last year and Little Miss Sunshine the year before, will hurt or help Slumdog when it comes down to the wire.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Strengths: David Fincher‘s adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story turned epic romance was largely anticpated to be the season’s frontrunner heading into Oscar Night. It’s directed by a well-respected director who, in spite of a stellar oeuvre, hasn’t won an Oscar. It stars Brad Pitt, a talented, equally well-respected big name who’s also gone without Oscar love (with the exception of a single nod for 12 Monkeys), and it co-stars Oscar fave Cate Blanchett. The film is sweeping in scope, and its technical merits are impressive. Benjamin Button was highly anticipated, it’s been mostly well-received on the critical front, and box office, while not yet enough to pay off the bills, has been impressive.

Weaknesses: On the other hand, some have found Fincher’s adaptation to be cold and lacking in that all-important element of “heart.” Although it’s a love story that wends its way through decades, with Pitt aging backwards while Blancett ages normally, it’s been criticized for lacking an emotional core that would have made audiences feel more invested in its outcome.

Fincher’s Zodiac, which many critics found to be the director’s strongest work, was completely overlooked by the Academy last year. Could the auteur be too high-browed and intellectual to appeal broadly to the Academy’s base? And will the Academy members, who are, like the rest of us, inexorably aging forwards, be emotionally drawn to a tale of a man who gets younger the older he gets?

What will the Academy do?

Benjamin Button’s pedigree alone could possibly give it the boost it needs to leapfrog over Slumdog, but I think it’s more likely that the Academy will shy away from a largely intellectual and abstract take on what might otherwise have been a heartstring-tugging emotional tale. There is emotion at the heart of the film, but it’s subtle and metaphorical rather than blatant emotion-mongering ala previous Academy faves like CrashTitanic and Million Dollar Baby.

Bottom line: The Academy doesn’t have a particularly strong recent history of rewarding directors whose work lies more in the realm of the intellectual rather than the emotional, and ultimately that, even more than the momentum of Slumdog, could hurt the Benjamin Button’s chances.


Strengths: Milk is a strong biopic about a lesser-known, gay political figure, and the fact that it’s not a film about a more broadly known name might boost its chances, as there are fewer expectations to live up to — or fail to meet.

Director Gus Van Sant was previously nominated for Best Director for Good Will Hunting(which was nominated for, but did not win, Best Picture the same year) and his body of work, while somewhat schizophrenic in leaping between the accessible and the arcane, is mostly solid. With Milk, the director reined in his tendency to push the artistic envelope and managed to make a film about a gay politician feel remarkably mainstream.

Further, the film has a fantastic lead performance in Sean Penn as Harvey Milk (Penn is the current Best Actor frontrunner, although I won’t be at all surprised to see Mickey Rourke steal the Oscar away from him) and a solid, well-respected ensemble cast. The authenticity of the production design might give the film a boost as well.

Weaknesses: Some feel Milk‘s overtly homosexual theme might be a turn-off to the more conservative element among the Academy, and while Van Sant is respected as a director, Milk is up against some lofty competition.

What will the Academy do?

Still, I think if any film has a shot to beat Slumdog, Milk might just be the one to do it. The fact that it’s a biopic of a lesser-known figure could prove to be a boost in the end, as it’s less likely to succumb to the “unfulfilled expectations” syndrome of biopics about better known subjects (RayWalk the LineW.) Penn, well-known for his churlishness, surprised many with his warm, big-hearted performance as the affable Milk, and the overall strength of the film could help it rise to the top.


Strengths: A strong adaptation of a well-received stage play, Frost/Nixon is bolstered by solid performances from Frank Langella as Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as the entertainer-attempting-serious-journalism David Frost. For what it’s worth, the film is one of Howard’s strongest directorial efforts, though it relies largely on the strength of the two lead performances.

In spite of the fact that he’s dramatizing an historical event with a known outcome, Howard manages to sustain suspense to the end with taut pacing, great framing of tense shots, and smart editing.

Weaknesses: Howard previously won Best Director and Best Picture in 2002 for A Beautiful Mind, which might seem at first to be a strength. But like this year’s MilkA Beautiful Mindhad the advantage of being a biopic about a little-known real person, which gave Howard and his lead actor, Russell Crowe, a great deal of creative freedom in interpreting schizophrenic mathematics genius John Nash for the big screen. This time around, Howard’s tackling a larger-than-life real person who was as much a caricature as he was a character, which leaves more wiggle-room for criticism about the interpretation. Also, the film’s political relevance may be lost somewhat in the long shadow of an Obama presidency — it might have been a stronger contender a couple years ago, when Bush was still in office.

What will the Academy do?

In spite of the potential pitfalls, Howard is a well-liked figure in Hollywood circles, with a reputation for being a good guy; he’s also one of the few child actors to successfully transition into a solid, respected career, and he may be a bit of a sentimental favorite with some Academy members. Nonetheless, this is Best Picture, not Best Director, and warm fuzzy feelings for the director may not be enough to boost the film above stronger contenders in the pack for the win.

The Reader

Strengths: The Reader, for all that it’s been positioned as the longshot in the Oscar derby, might just surprise folks in the end (which, in my opinion, would be a travesty, but then, the Academy often makes decisions that are questionable).

In addition to the lofty presence of Academy favorite Kate Winslet (also nommed for Best Actress for the same film) in the lead role, The Reader was directed by Academy favoriteStephen Daldry, whose films The Hours and Billy Elliot were Academy nominees.

In addition, the film has the “uglification factor” going for it, with the radiant Winslet’s substantial beauty dulled down to play an illiterate ex-Nazi concentration camp guard, and it also has the factor of being a serious “Holocaust” film (see: Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful) working in its favor; it’s the only one of the Holocaust-related films this year (Defiance and The Boy with the Striped Pajamas being the other two) to make the Best Picture cut.

Weaknesses: The Reader‘s biggest weakness is that it’s just not the strongest film in the pack this year, although it’s a much better film than Winslet’s other film, Revolutionary Road— which many predicted would be strongly in the running come the Oscar noms, but got almost completely shut out in the end. There’s a contingent that feels Winslet’s Revolutionary Road performance was, strictly on the basis of acting merits, a stronger turn than her Hannah in The Reader, but that factor is more likely to impact her best actress chances, where she could be defeated by Oscar powerhouse Meryl Streep or even a dark horse like Melissa Leo.

Also, The Reader‘s questionable take on moral culpability — and the whole icky issue of a 36-year-old woman having a sexual relationship with a teenage boy — may be a turn-off to some Academy voters.

What will the Academy do?

The Hours was nommed for eight Oscars, but only took home Best Actress for Nicole Kidman, while Billy Elliot scored three noms, but no wins. Daldry’s history could work in his favor here, as he may be perceived to have a strong Oscar-worthy pedigree that it’s time to reward.

But is The Reader strong enough to be that film? And will Harvey Weinstein‘s strong-armed Oscar push help or hinder the film’s chances when it comes down to the wire? While I think Milk has a better chance of usurping Slumdog from its frontrunner position for the win, The Reader, with its potentially potent combination of Daldry’s Oscar history and Weinstein’s Oscar-marketing accumen, might just sneak in at the last second — if the film resonates strongly with enough voters.

-by Kim Voynar

Edited 2/13/09 — Good Will Hunting was nominated for, but did not win, Best Picture. Correction made, and thanks to the reader who pointed out that error.

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