By Jon Frosch
Do the Oscars seem anticlimactic this year? Who cares about industry insiders voting for their BFFs while we're still nursing inauguration hangovers? At a time when culture seems farther away than ever from American preoccupations, any enthusiasm about film—no matter how vacuous—is welcome. If little else, the Oscar circus lets us talk about the movies we loved, bash the lame Academy and ignore the bleaker realities of the world.
Best Supporting Actor
With his hunched shoulders, smeared sad-clown mouth and a scratchy voice full of creepy inflections, Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight is more than a brilliant method stunt. It's a wild, imaginative, shape-shifting creation that becomes something human and terrifying: a study in sadism fed by suffering.
Best Supporting Actress
This category would be stronger with the year's best supporting actresses in it: Rosemarie DeWitt, effortlessly convincing as the less turbulent sister in Rachel Getting Married, and Hafsia Herzi's tour de force of naturalistic acting as a French-Arab teen in The Secret of the Grain. Oh well. I'll take Marisa Tomei, who, in The Wrestler, coaxes a complex human being out of the potentially cliché-riddled role of stripper with a heart of gold.
The male performance that messed me up most was Mickey Rourke's in The Wrestler. Randy "The Ram" is a perma-tanned, bleached-blonde slab of muscle with a face half-melted from too many slams on the mat, and with worse wounds on the inside. The character is a sentimental creation—the gentle monster. But as Randy reaches out to the world outside the ring, Rourke builds an almost excruciatingly lived-in portrait of regret and self-loathing. We feel like we're witnessing a spiritual meeting of actor and role.
Anne Hathaway gave the year's most soulful female performance as a rehab queen on furlough in Rachel Getting Married. Armed with bangs and sullen eye makeup, cigarettes and hyper-articulate barbs, the character could have been unbearable. But Hathaway invests the role with such compassion that we never forget that Kym's most loathsome tendencies stem from her yearning to reconnect with her family. It's a performance so alive you hang on every word, and one of the most cathartic, clear-sighted interpretations of emotional neediness ever put on screen.
The Academy showed no love for the American directors in finest form this year: Jonathan Demme, whose Dogma-style approach achieved a luminous intimacy in Rachel Getting Married; and Christopher Nolan, who, with The Dark Knight, demonstrated that superhero movies can reach for serious ideas and still be smashing good fun. Of the nominees, I pick Gus Van Sant for Milk. It's not his most aesthetically daring work, but Van Sant reworks the stale biopic formula by weaving the personal essence of the slain gay leader into a tale of political awakening.
It's no surprise that the two best American films of 2008, Rachel Getting Married and The Dark Knight, were snubbed; both are fully engaging pieces of work, but prickly and unsettling in different ways. As for the nominated movies, forget the over-hyped Slumdog Millionaire; root for the vibrant and moving Milk. It falls short of greatness—at times you feel like Van Sant is curbing his passion. But it's still insightful, gorgeously made stuff—and the rare biopic that understands the emotional force of a great life story is best conveyed by a telling that doesn't push too hard or preach too loudly.
2009 academy awards benefit event
6 pm Sunday, Feb. 22
1600 St. Michael's Drive