A superior ‘Milk’ has a big ‘mo, but ‘Slumdog’ has the big mo(mentum)
After a slow start artistically speaking, 2008 turned out to be a memorable year at the movies if only because, for the first time since "Brokeback Mountain," it seemed like a gay film had gone really mainstream and was the frontrunner for the Oscar.
But oh, how things can change.
"Milk," out director Gus Van Sant’s stirring biopic about slain gay politician Harvey Milk (a scary-brilliant Sean Penn), was hands down the best film of the year (followed closely by "Wall-E"). But many pre-Oscar awards have robbed the film of its momentum going into the Academy Awards on Sunday night. While it’s still favored in a few categories, and could be an upset victor if voters go with their hearts rather than the buzz, this year looks to go to the dogs. Or at least, one slumdog.
Since I have seen literally every nominated movie (except for documentaries and foreign-language films), I definitely have some opinions about what will win… and what should win. Here, then, are my predictions and picks.
Best picture. Will win: "Slumdog Millionaire." Should win: "Milk." "Slumdog" has taken the Producers Guild prize, the Golden Globe and the critical momentum. And while the film is excellent, the emotional weight and crafty brilliance of "Milk" deserves the award more. "Frost/Nixon" and "The Reader" (from bisexual director Stephen Daldry) don’t really belong here.
Best director: Will win: Danny Boyle, "Slumdog." Should win: Gus Van Sant, "Milk." I might even pick David Fincher’s contemplative but visually showy work on "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" over Boyle, who got to work with a well-constructed script and good technicians.
Best actor: Will win: Sean Penn, "Milk." Should win: Penn. Yes, Mickey Rourke has a career-changing comeback in "The Wrestler," playing the washed up father of a lesbian daughter trying to reconnect. But the movie’s style makes it occasionally unwatchable, and compared to Penn’s total immersion in his character — an "actor’s actor" performance — he deserves to squeak by. And I still think he will, after the Screen Actors Guild victory.
Best actress. Will win: Kate Winslet, "The Reader." Should win: Meryl Streep, "Doubt." This is a close call in any circumstances. Winslet was originally being shuffled into the supporting category for this (plainly leading) role; now that she’s head-to-head against the brilliantly prickly Streep in her late-career signature piece, it’s a question of the greatest actress of one generation against the greatest of another. Expect the Academy to reward Winslet before she’s too old to enjoy it.
Best supporting actor. Will win: Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight." Should win: Ledger. Possibly the night’s only sure thing, Ledger would be the obvious frontrunner even if his premature death hadn’t focused more attention on the box office giant.
Best supporting actress: Will win: Viola Davis, "Doubt." Should win: Davis or Taraji P. Henson, "Benjamin Button." Davis was startling in her 10 minutes on screen, shared solely with Meryl Streep, as the mother of a gay son who makes a surprising moral choice. She deserves it, but so does Henson who stole all of her scenes from the likes of Brad Pitt.
Best original screenplay: Will win: "Milk." Should win: "Milk." The film’s one sure thing.
Best adapted screenplay: Will win: "Slumdog." Should win: "Slumdog." It’s most deserving victory.
Cinematography: The frenetic work on "Slumdog" will best the effortless spectacle of "Benjamin Button."
Film editing: As with cinematography, watch "Slumdog" take the prize.
Art direction: Finally, a win for "Button," which should dominate several of the craft categories.
Costume design: "Button’s" century of style will overcome the tailored ’50s wardrobe of "Revolutionary Road."
Score: A toss up for "Button" (my pick) and "Slumdog."
Song: It should go to the "Wall-E" song, but expect Bollywood to make its inroads with "Jai Ho."
Sound mixing and sound editing: I hate these categories, so let’s go with "The Dark Knight" for both.
Visual effects: "Button," by a mile.
Animated feature: It had better be "Wall-E" or there will be hell to pay.
Foreign language film: "The Class" was better than "Waltz with Bashir."
Documentary feature: "Man on Wire" left me hanging.
Animated short: The simplicity of "Lavatory/Lovestory" might pull a surprise win over Pixar’s "Presto."
Live action short: "Manon on the Asphalt" was more touching than the Holocaust-themed "Toyland," but never count out the Nazis.
Documentary short: "The Witness" sounds like a winner to me.
The Academy Awards air on ABC Feb. 22 at 7 p.m.
A MOTHER SPEAKS
Viola Davis, Oscar-nominated for her controversial role as the mother of a possibly gay son, spoke to Arnold Wayne Jones recently. Read the interview at DallasVoice.com, by clicking here.
A GIRL AND HER DOG
First things first: "Wendy and Lucy" is not the lesbian composer-musician duo that played in Prince’s band in the ’80s. That’s Wendy and Lisa.
In Kelly Reichardt’s soufflÃ© of a film, so light it nearly floats off the screen, Wendy ("Brokeback Mountain’s" Michelle Williams) is a twentysomething on her way from Indiana to Alaska, where she’s heard she can make money in Ketchikan. Lucy is her dog, 39 pounds of yellow-gold love.
You may think "Wendy and Lucy" is a female version of "Into the Wild," except that it doesn’t go anywhere, geographically speaking. It’s like one episode of a road movie, where the heroine arrives in Bumfuck in the beginning and leaves in the end. Her old Accord creates discord, stranding her and her dog in an Oregon town until the local mechanic (Will Patton) can fix the car.
Complicating matters, Wendy unwisely tries to stretch her travel funds by shoplifting food. She gets caught and when she’s released from jail, Lucy is no longer outside the grocery where she’d been tied. Everything else is Wendy looking for the dog and waiting for the car.
The movie begins so slowly that when, after 15 minutes, Wendy washes her hands and brushes her teeth in rapid succession, it’s like an action montage.
Appearing in every scene, Williams gets to portray several shades of glum and a few of glee. Her work is admirable but the award talk it has generated is an overreaction.
Reichardt ("Old Joy") co-wrote the script with Jon Raymond, on whose short story, "Train Choir," it was based. Her early credits include work in the art department on "Poison" (Todd Haynes is an executive producer on "Wendy and Lucy") and "Longtime Companion." She makes small, poetic films for the small, poetic audience that appreciates them.
"Wendy and Lucy" is more of a vignette than a full story, and while it’s well made, most people expect more for the price of a movie ticket.
Opens Feb. 20 at the Angelika Film Center at Mockingbird Station.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 20, 2009.