I’ve tried to think of a nicer way of saying this, but there really isn’t one: 2008 hasn’t been the best year for movies. The end of the year is traditionally the time when the movies that get nominated for Oscars are released, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the movies of late 2008 are not living up to expectations. Films like Body of Lies, Changeling, The Duchess, and Synecdoche, New York in particular were billed as major Oscar contenders, but they all opened to mixed reviews.
To be honest, I can’t say that upcoming movies like Milk, Australia, or Frost/Nixon look like they’re going to curb the trend either. And it is a trend – there’s an almost indescribable blandness that seems to permeate the marketing campaigns for all of these films. They all seem to be mining the same “surefire Oscar” well, and the effect is that they all run together and become lost in the crowd.
On top of that, some of the movies that were assumed to be the biggest Oscar contenders this year, including The Soloist and The Road, were pushed back to 2009. What we’re left with for the remainder of the year are a very small handful of potentially great films. But if these movies continue to fall short of our expectations, we’ll be left without any end-of-the-year movies that are truly Oscar-worthy.
So what does this mean? It means that, for better or for worse, we could be looking at a potential Dark Knight Oscar sweep – best picture, director, the whole works. After all, the last time a movie made as much money as The Dark Knight did (Titanic in 1997) it swept the Oscars quite handily. But while there’s no question that The Dark Knight was a great movie, I can’t help but feel that there’s something a little off about the whole situation. Had TDK come out last year, it would have had no business winning more than one or two awards aside from the “craft” awards – editing, sound, sound editing, and visual effects. You could have made a case for the movie being nominated for best picture (over the highly overrated Atonement), perhaps best cinematography, and maybe a handful of other awards, but it wouldn’t have deserved to win any of them.
My point here is that one of the most satisfying things about seeing a movie you love win an award is the sense of competition that justifies having awards in the first place. Without any real competitors, though, I think I would find a TDK best picture win to be pretty hollow.
On the other hand, if the Academy isn’t enthusiastic about handing The Dark Knight every award it’s eligible for, the current cinematic vacuum could give way to a free-for-all the likes of which haven’t been seen in four or five years. I think this is a more likely scenario than the TDK sweep – the Academy has shown over the last few years that, much like the Golden Globes, they’ve become overly fond of distributing the awards to as many films as possible. It’s also the best scenario, because while TDK was a good movie, it wasn’t so good that it put every other movie this year to shame.
If the Oscars go this route, the winners will be next to impossible to predict. The Academy will put all its focus into the nominations, making sure all of the movies that were hyped up before they came out get their recognition, deserved or not. Brad Pitt will get an acting nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Nicole Kidman will get a best actress nomination for Australia. Charlie Kaufman will get a screenplay nomination for Synecdoche, New York. You don’t even have to have seen any of the movies in question to know who will get nominated. When there aren’t a plethora of truly outstanding movies to choose from, the Academy will “spread the wealth” to the same people it’s recognized countless times before.
Even the studios have recognized the cinematic void of 2008’s fourth quarter, and they’re doing all they can to push for Oscars in places that wouldn’t get a second glance in any other year. Paramount is currently promoting Robert Downey Jr. as best supporting actor for his role in Tropic Thunder. Marvel Enterprises is considering an Oscar push for Iron Man, which could lead to a best actor nomination for Downey as well. The extent to which the Oscars are beginning to mirror the MTV Awards is frightening. The only studio effort that I can really get behind is Disney’s push for WALL-E to get a nomination for best picture. As the best-reviewed movie of 2007, Ratatouille was absolutely robbed of a nomination last year and it’s high time for the Academy to recognize animated films as being worthy of more than just their own award subcategory.
Unfortunately, the real casualties in this whole situation are the good movies. The Dark Knight, as I mentioned before, could be robbed of a real victory by the fact that it has so little competition. Clint Eastwood will almost surely win an Oscar for his acting in Gran Torino, which looks fantastic, but the Academy won’t choose him for the reasons they should. They’ll do it because Eastwood has yet to receive an Oscar for his acting and the Academy has been trying to give him one for years. Is an award even still meaningful when it’s given away like that? Since it’s never entirely possible to explain exactly why people in a group vote one way or another, I guess it’s up for debate.
I’ve taken the long road in getting to this point, but here it is: the Oscars are completely up for grabs at this point. You might as well start making your predictions now, because I doubt it will get any easier in the next few months.