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for the Academy Awards, discussing the history, the films as a whole, and adding some hindsight to the (almost always) outdated Academy.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.

Cruella

Written by Alexander Reams

89/100

Cruella is the latest film from critical darling Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, I,Tonya, and Fright Night). The film follows a young Cruella de Vil as she attempts to leave her young life of crime and enter the London fashion scene. All the while discovering revelations about her past with her companions Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry). 

Emma Stone took this iconic character and truly made it her own. She delivers a nuanced, extravagant, and heartwrenching performance in the film. Her performance has already been compared to Joaquin Phoenix’s in 2019’s Joker, and rightfully so. The main difference for me is that Stone is far superior in her role than Phoenix was. She exudes joy and menace at the same time. 

With this film being about fashion, you would expect that the costume and production design are nothing short of brilliant, and you would be right. Jenny Beavan and Fiona Crombie do excellent work as the costume and production designers for the film, fully immersing the viewer in 1970’s London. Gillespie brings back his usual editor, Tatiana S. Riegel, to edit the film. She does a marvelous job, knowing just when to let the shot continue and when to do quicker cuts. Nicolas Karakatsanis returns to work with Gilespie after their collaboration with 2017’s I, Tonya. His tracking shots are very frenetic and beautiful. 

My issues are very few with the film but still issues. One scene in particular that sticks out was either lit very poorly which made it look like a green screen, or the VFX was done very poorly, but either way it just does not look right and sticks out like a sore thumb. Despite that the film still has so much going for it. Emma Stone’s performance, Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser being comedic revelations, the editing and cinematography, and Gillespie’s direction. All of this made for a very fun time that is well worth a watch.

Cruella Trailer

Cruella is currently playing in Theaters and on Disney+ with a 29.99 surcharge.

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