Monday, February 23, 2009

Obligatory Oscar recap

Question: What do Mickey Rourke and Bill Murray have in common?

Answer: They have both now unjustly lost an Oscar to Sean Penn.

(At least this time around, Penn deserved the Oscar almost as much as Rourke. The first time, all I remember from that performance was him howling "Is that my daughter in there? IS THAT MY DAUGHTER IN THERE?" Meanwhile, I remember almost every detail of Murray's performance from Lost in Translation, as well as the crushed look on his face when his name wasn't called.)

But I am digressing even before I've started.

I don't have that much interest in your typical Oscar recap story -- in part because I've got two other postings inspired by my recent trip just bursting to get out -- but this is a film blog, and I think I would be remiss if I didn't weigh in on film's most prestigious awards show.

But before I go into specifics of tonight's telecast, I thought I should tell you that I originally wanted to title this post "My diminishing interest in the Oscars." Ultimately, I think what I went with was funnier, and it speaks more to the dual purpose of this post. But the sentiment is still there -- I am still a lot less interested in the Oscars than I used to be. So let's start with that before we get into the show particulars.

I remember a time when the month of March was when every obsessive thing I cared about crossed my plate at the same time. I used to tell people that March was my favorite month of the year hands down, and there were three factors that contributed to that: 1) It's when college basketball holds March Madness, a tournament I follow with rapt attention despite not watching any other games the rest of the season (thank you, gambling); 2) It was usually when I held my fantasy baseball auction/draft, though even when that slipped to the first weekend of April, my obsessive stats studying and following of spring training consumed most of the month; 3) Back in the day, it was when they held the Oscars. It was on a Monday night then -- remember?

But in recent years, as the number of other awards given out have multiplied (or at least multiplied in my awareness of them), and as the prognostications have become not only more sophisticated, but proffered by almost anyone and everyone, the actual ceremony itself has lost some meaning to me. I'm not going to give you the typical Oscar spiel about the telecast being too long or there being too many dance numbers -- especially because that last really only returned in full force this year. I'm simply going to say that a lot of the suspense was lost for me. It's not that there weren't any surprises -- usually bad ones, I found -- but rather, even the surprises lost their ability to really shake me. Nominees who don't win always say it's enough just to be nominated -- but for me, it was true, the nominations themselves came to be the moment of interest.

But this year, I noticed that even the nominations felt like a foregone conclusion to me. I got up at 5:30 LA time to watch them as I always do, but none of them really surprised me, perhaps because I'd already seen those names and titles bandied about by people in the know. And with the exception of The Dark Knight not getting nominated for best picture, there really weren't too many other surprises. Nowadays, the main reason I look forward to nomination day is because I use that as my (somewhat arbitrary) date to cut off my rankings for the previous year. I make that act itself -- finalizing the list -- much more monumentally important in my brain than having the next best picture winner narrowed down to just five choices.

And so it's gotten to the point that the thing that really interests me is the first stage of guessing. That's when the real front-runners start to take shape, when you first come into contact with the next title that's going to be added to that select list. (A select list that includes titles like Crash -- watch while I stifle my laughter). Anyway, that means that the true Oscar excitement usually hits me around November. Poor timing indeed.

These days, I'm lucky if I even get to an Oscar viewing party. Tonight makes two years in a row that my wife and I have watched the show by ourselves. Last year, this was due mostly to a lack of options we were interested in doing; this year, we returned to town an hour after the red carpet stuff began (thank you DVR), but that doesn't change the fact that we didn't have any credible invites. Maybe we stopped seeking out credible invites because the Oscar party we attended two years ago was marred by a drunk girl yelling at the screen throughout the speeches. (And, because we watched with about 30 other people on a giant screen in an old brewery building converted into a studio space, there was no going back eight seconds on Tivo.) More likely, though, it's that a lot of our friends dropped their Oscar obsessiveness a year or two before we did. (Though I should say, I do miss the Oscar pools.)

Okay, enough of that. On to some random thoughts from the evening:

- Very happy with the best picture winner. I ranked Slumdog #3 for the year, and it was the highest of the best picture nominees on my list. I'm noticing something of a pattern, that in even-numbered years I am pretty happy with the winner. Unfortunately, it's not much of a pattern as it dates back only to 2002, and skips 2004. But if you take out Million Dollar Baby in 2004, Chicago (2002) and The Departed (2006) were also my highest ranked best picture nominees. I'm not even going to tell you where I ranked the aforementioned Crash, but it was slightly lower, relatively speaking, than No Country for Old Men last year.

- Generally speaking, good speeches by the prominent winners. Danny Boyle was such a breath of fresh air after the aloofness bordering on hostility displayed by the Coen brothers last year. Also liked Penn's speech, even though I didn't like him winning.

- I got into the extended bouts of acting praise as the evening went on, though I must admit feeling very wary when I first saw the device used for best supporting actress. I think they must have quickened the pace a bit as the evening went on.

- Why did I need to see all the sucky animated movies from last year that weren't nominated? They actually showed several clips of Star Wars: The Clone Wars during the Oscars. For shame.

- Hugh Jackman was lively and I really enjoyed his opening number, though I think I would have preferred it if he'd stuck to just the best picture nominees, the way Billy Crystal used to. Adding in additional references to only The Dark Knight and The Wrestler tended to confuse what the rules were for his song. However, I did not need the extended salute to musicals, which also played by the rules fairly poorly. By the way, weren't musicals actually "back" in 2001 with Moulin Rouge?

- The stage looked pretty good and I was on board with the thrust of the overall concept. I think it needs some fine-tuning, but giving out those awards in bunches, according to their logical placement within the production schedule of a typical film, worked, and did not belittle the categories in the slightest. I would, however, have given out best animated short before best animated feature. There are some things that are just logical. They'll get those next time, I assume.

- Ben Stiller's bit as Joaquin Phoenix was sort of funny but it went on too long. If they were going to nail Joaquin, why not also nail Christian Bale? Answer: Bale's still an actor, and Phoenix claims no longer to be. Once your own quits the team, you cast them out.

- I was happy that Kate Winslet won, but doesn't it seem like Meryl Streep really deserves to win another Oscar eventually? She's not only the most nominated, she has also lost the most. If not for those two wins, you'd call her the Susan Lucci of the Oscars.

- My biggest surprise of the evening is that I am going to be reviewing the underdog winner for best foreign film. (And by the way, when was the last time a best foreign film winner came from Japan?) In an arrangement that's actually fairly unusual for me, and makes me feel like a "real" (as in full-time) film critic, I am being sent to a critic's screening of the Japanese film Departures a week from Wednesday. It'll be nice to already know that the film won an Oscar. Being able to incorporate that kind of information into a review that will exist perpetually on the internet is always helpful, as it lends more to the sense of timelessness. (More on this another time.)

- Did they mess up on opening that curtain at the beginning? I thought I heard someone telling someone else on a headset to "Go."

- Jerry Lewis gave a great speech, and I was glad he got an honorary Oscar. For all we tease him about having made comedy that only a Frenchman could love, the man is a damn fine humanitarian and a credit to Hollywood.

- I know it was pretty much a Slumdog sweep -- I think it lost one category -- but I was fairly surprised that the Oscar voters actually distinguished between the two nominated songs and didn't split their votes. My bet is that Bruce Springsteen would have won if he'd been nominated for his Wrestler song, anyway. The Wrestler, my favorite movie of last year, definitely deserved to walk away with at least one Oscar.

- My wife and I hastily made our picks when we returned home from our trip. In that haste I picked 15 categories correctly. Not too bad for not having pondered the nominations too much. Unofficially, I believe I beat her by one category, but we didn't actually tally her sheet, and she's asleep on the couch now.

There's probably a lot more I could say, but this kind of stuff you can find in any of the 7,332 other recaps available online.

Back tomorrow with material more typical of The Audient -- for better or worse.

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