Oscar Reflection | Best Picture & Best Director from the 78th Academy Awards

Written by Alexander Reams

Crash: 46/100

Brokeback Mountain: 76/100

Venice Film Festival, September 2, 2005. Ang Lee brought a new film to the Lido, entitled Brokeback Mountain, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, and Randy Quaid. Premiering to universal praise, and winning the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion. This kicked off the Oscar campaign, but also the memes. After the hype from festivals hit the internet, the film became known as the “gay cowboy movie”.

A year prior, Paul Haggis premiered his latest film at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival, Crash. The film received mostly positive reviews but was not considered an Oscar frontrunner sans the screenplay. The film would mostly go unnoticed until the summer? Yes, Crash was a summer release. Quite surprising given that most Oscar-fare doesn’t begin to roll out until mid-September/ October.

Then Oscar nomination day came, and Brokeback Mountain won the day with 8 nominations, with Crash following close behind with 6, both receiving nominations in the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor categories, with Crash also receiving a Best Original Screenplay nom. Whereas Brokeback Mountain received a Best Adapted Screenplay nom. 

None of these nominations were really a surprise, especially after Lionsgate took advantage of home media distribution and used that as a major push for Crash. While these other films were slowly rolling out into theatres, Crash was already available to be purchased and seen at home, saving a trip to the theatre for moviegoers. Whereas Brokeback, along with their competition; Capote, Munich, and Good Night, and Good Luck (in both Best Picture and Best Director categories) were all being released in theatres around the same time. 

When you look at where race relations were in America at the time of the release of Crash, one can’t be surprised that the mostly white Academy would want to nominate the film that explored race relations (in the most white-person way possible) for as many awards as possible to make themselves feel good. The film itself is an Altman-ripoff ensemble film, exploring the lives of its incredibly stacked cast. A cast that includes (deep breathe folks),  Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillion, Michael Peña, Jennifer Esposito, Brendan Fraser, Nona Gaye, Terrence Howard, Ludacris, and Thandiwe Newton. Almost everyone here is serviceable, sans Don Cheadle, Matt Dillion, and Brendan Fraser. These 3 men were somehow able to take the very surface-level script by Haggis and Robert Moresco and add depth and reality to their pipe dream aspirations of solving race problems in America. 

When I looked at what inspired Haggis to birth this film, he was carjacked, and what is one of the inciting incidents? Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock are carjacked, except here it is by 2 black men, something the film never lets you forget. This leads to Bullock rationalizing her predetermined prejudices not to be racism because of this incident. Haggis uses the subtlety of a sledgehammer to tell you that even though the white people were carjacked, they deserved it, instead of analyzing the crime through both sides of the story, again, the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

On the flip side, a quiet, moving, decades-spanning romance film sounds right up The Academy’s alley. Until you find out the romance is between- two men. This was during the height of the rumored anti-gay movement within the AMPAS. Considering the New Queer Cinema movement had been exploding within independent films for the past 12ish years, one could assume that The Academy would move with the times and that one could be laughed at greatly for that. These folks have always been at least 20 years behind the times, these are the same people that waited 82 years to award Best Director to a woman (Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker). 

I digress, The Academy was destined to hate this film, even if this checks all of their so-called “boxes”. Even the plot of this film is something to hate, two men fall in love while taking care and driving cattle through the American west over a span of 20 years. Future Scorsese regular Rodrigo Prieto was the DP (Director of Photography) and shot it on gorgeous 35mm film See how much there is to hate? How boring it sounds? No wonder The Academy went against it, even though it won the BAFTA, Critics Choice, Golden Globe, and the PGA award for Best Picture. All precedents that (most) eventual Best Picture winners not only contend but win before winning the big one. 

Upon finally seeing both of these films 15 years after their wins at the Academy Awards in 2006, the hype had died down and I could temper expectations and after seeing both films neither one is deserving of the biggest award in the film industry. Both are tales that squander their potential. Crash could have been a film that actually analyzed the racial problems in America. Thoughtfully presenting ideas that audiences already know, but in a way that only film can present them. Brokeback could have been an intriguing romance that would break hearts all around and instead disappointed me by the lack of care I had for every character. 

Unfortunately the Best Picture and Best Director race that year was not as stacked as it could have been. In a dream year, Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins), Shane Black (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang), and Terrence Malick (The New World) would have all been nominated in the Best Director category. With films like King Kong and V for Vendetta eking into the Best Picture category. However, this was before the time that the Academy would nominate a film about a giant ape and a film based on a…. comic book? The thought hadn’t even begun to enter the Academy’s mind that a comic book film could be “worthy” of a nomination in their prestigious little club. With the nominations we were given I would give Best Picture and Best Director to Munich (and director Steven Speilberg). However, with the Academy giving Best Picture to Crash we will forever have some of the Internet’s finest jokes and memes at their expense.

Crash Trailer

Crash is currently available to rent and purchase on most major VOD platforms.

Brokeback Mountain Trailer

Brokeback Mountain is currently available to rent and purchase on most major VOD platforms.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Oscar Reflection | Best Picture & Best Director from the 81st Academy Awards

Written by Alexander Reams

65/100

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire 

Best Director: Danny Boyle; Slumdog Millionaire

In these retrospectives, Alexander will be going through the Best Picture and Best Director winners for the Academy Awards, discussing the history, the films as a whole, and adding some hindsight to the (almost always) outdated Academy.

We’ve all imagined being on those afternoon game shows where people win massive amounts of money. Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire explores what would happen if we won , while also being a surprise in the director’s filmography, given his past films at the time included Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and The Beach. A feel-good movie about someone from the slums who finds success in the unlikeliest of places didn’t seem like a logical next step for Boyle.

The Academy expanded to up to 10 Best Picture nominees, which many including myself have theorized was because of The Dark Knight being snubbed from the Best Picture lineup. This forever changed The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Expanding from what had been the standard for the past 81 years of Oscars. This change was one that was near-universally praised, The Dark Knight being snubbed when it was generally considered to be the best film of 2008 was a shock to everyone and proved a rumor that had been floating around for a while. There is a stigma against comic books & superhero films. I say “is” because while superhero films have taken the populace by storm, there are those who still critique them and can’t find any enjoyment with them. Only in the past 3 years have these popular films broken through to The Academy, with nominations for Black Panther and Joker.

Slumdog Millionaire’s competition was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, and The Reader. All of these films are traditional Oscar fare. Frost/Nixon, Milk, and The Reader are all historical dramas that deal with politics in some shape or form. Something that The Academy has a history of loving (All the President’s Men, The Insider, among a slew of others). The enigma here is Benjamin Button, while it is an epic film, with grand scale, The Academy had been moving away from that genre of film, add in the unusual aspect of the film, and David Fincher’s style (which has proven to be a hit or miss with The Academy), and you have the biggest enigma of the lineup.

First, a bit of history. In 2008 the world had been taken by storm by films like Slumdog Millionaire, The Dark Knight, and Gran Torino. With The Dark Knight seeming to be a frontrunner for a Best Picture and Best Director nomination. But come Oscar nomination day, the only film of the three to receive a nomination was the eventual winner, Slumdog Millionaire. When looking at the plot, you really can’t be surprised. An underdog story is something The Academy has constantly gone for in entries like Forrest Gump, Driving Miss Daisy, Gandhi, and Rocky to name a few. What sets this apart is its location, Mumbai, India, at this point we were four years removed from the tsunami that hit India. This tragedy was a truly brief glimpse at India, filtered through the American media. It was another step towards the Academy honoring international features with Best Picture and Best Director. This would culminate at the 92nd Academy Awards with Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite taking home Best Picture and Director. Even though it is a British production, much of the film is in Mumbai’s native language.

Like its narrative, the journey for Slumdog Millionaire’s night at the Oscars was a long and arduous one. Beginning at the 2008 Telluride and Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF, to the initiated). It premiered at TIFF where it became known as a TIFF classic and won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award. This was the jumping-off point for excitement for the film and its Oscar campaign. There was no doubt in its merit for Oscar chances, where it began to snowball and garner universal acclaim. The underdog of Oscar season. Battling it out with heavy favorites The Dark Knight and Gran Torino.

We first meet Jamal (Dev Patel) as he is about to win 20 million rupees. His nervousness and fear are conveyed brilliantly by the future The Last Airbender actor. Patel was a very new voice in acting, with his previous credit being the British soap opera Skins. As he is close to answering the final question, he flashbacks to show us how he got this far in the game, and in life. Unfortunately, all intrigue is lost after this brilliant opening. Everything after this intense opening is seemingly inconsequential to the rest of the film.

The film as a whole was underwhelming. Compared to its numerous stellar reviews. I had expected an exquisite film that has stood the test of time since its release. I found no emotional connection to any of the characters, which in my estimation is due entirely to a poor script by Simon Beaufoy. Characters are frequently introduced, especially in the first act, and we are expected to care about them just because they are children. For example, Latika as a toddler and a teenager, there is no emotional connection other than the fact that she is a child. That is a very cloying move by the writer to add emotional complexity to the story.  While they can be a trope and set up for guilt-tripping, there is a way to do it with class, such as Sunny Pawar in Lion. He conveys the fear and despair of a child having lost their parents and siblings, but does so that it never feels oversentimental and desperate, thanks to the brilliant writing, direction, cinematography, film editing, and music. Here, instead of all of these departments firing on all cylinders, the cinematography and score are intrusive, the writing is poor, and the child actors or doing base emotions at best. And at worst the kids appear as they are reading cards right behind the camera. Having child characters in a film does not mean that we will immediately care about them, and I never did. The scenes with Dev Patel show the promise that’s come to be delivered in his career but do not show off his talent. Instead, Patel looks like he is in a constant state of confusion, during the interrogation scenes, the game show scenes, even in the dance finale, he looks like he does not know what is going on. Which made me feel frustrated throughout, not only about the film but also for Patel as he could have elevated the material if the script was not as bare-bones around its central character. There was more character development for Anil Kapoor’s character “Prem”.

With a crew filled with future first-time Oscar nominees (Film Editor Chris Dickens, Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, and Composer A.R. Rahman) and 2 previous nominees, Danny Boyle (Best Adapted Screenplay for Trainspotting) and Simon Beaufoy (Best Original Screenplay for The Full Monty), you would expect a much higher production value and final product.

By the end of the film, my feelings that had been marinating for the previous 110 minutes had still not changed. When looking back at what was nominated the only nominee that I would even be ok with winning would be David Fincher winning Best Director for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as well as for Best Picture. However, of all the films of 2008, the 2 Best Pictures were not even nominated, Gran Torino and The Dark Knight. If Gran Torino and The Dark Knight were nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, like they were predicted to be, then Gran Torino for Best Picture and Christopher Nolan for Best Director for The Dark Knight. After the ceremony, The Academy expanded to up to 10 Best Picture nominees, which many including myself have theorized was because of The Dark Knight being snubbed from the Best Picture lineup. After 13 years Slumdog Millionaire did not hold up to the expectations set up and  Sometimes history looks favorably on the underdogs, unfortunately, this is not one of those times.

Slumdog Millionaire Trailer

Slumdog Millionaire is currently available to stream on Hulu and Paramount+ or to rent on purchase on most VOD platforms.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.