Your crotchety, sentimental liberal grandpa Patrick Leahy, say, or Dan Rather picked the Oscar nominations again this year. The voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences don't care that you liked The Dark Knight, which is the second biggest dollar-earner in movie history, and which kids and critics alike appreciated less as a live-action comic book than a triangular battle of stern Good, giggling Evil and two faces in between. Except for a Heath Ledger memorial citation (Supporting Actor), the film was shut out of all major award categories, taking seven other doorstop prizes like Sound Editing and Sound Mixing.
True to their advanced age and ideological inclination, the Academy's geriatric Lefties chose as the five nominees for Best Picture films set totally or mostly in the past, when moral lessons could shine with pristine clarity. The members wanted to look back in a kind of rancorous nostalgia to dedicate this year's selection to the preservation of a political and artistic status quo from the dear dead days of the '50s, '60s and '70s, back when the members were barely pushing 40.
No question, they loves 'em their Nazi exposés (The Reader), their civil rights martyrs (Milk), their Nixon (Frost/Nixon), who to the Academy voters is like Bush 43 rewritten by Shakespeare. All three films were finalists for Best Picture. And Doubt, set in a Catholic school in 1964, cadged slots for all four of the actors who didn't play kids or really old nuns. Note to the Academy: What have you nice folks got against really old nuns? (See Time's Top 10 Best Movie Performances of 2008.)
The young did fill two slots, with a brace of movies that should duke it out for Best Picture: the Anglo-Indian Slumdog Millionaire, with 10 nominations, and the all-Hollywood The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, with 13. One film cost $15 million, the other 10 times that. Slumdog is about kids who grow into teenagers amid the civil and class chaos of modern Mumbai; Benjamin Button, about someone (Brad Pitt, no less) who's born an old man and ages backward, reaching adolescence when most people are hitting senility. Both pictures have social agendas, but they are more vigorous and less predictable than the Broadway stage-based Doubt and Frost/Nixon. The Pitt movie has already taken in more than $100 million at the domestic box office, and Slumdog, already at $45 million, looks poised to create big currents in the mainstream.
When the Academy did honor famous people stars who might actually prop up the sinking ratings of what was once the highest-rated TV show except for the Super Bowl it chose the wrong ones, or the right ones in the wrong films. It's sweet that Angelina Jolie will accompany her beau Brad (Best Actor nominee for Benjamin Button) to the ceremony, but a shame that she was made a Best Actress finalist for her work as the desperate mother in Changeling, a performance so miscalibrated that it yanks the story out of its period whenever she's on screen. (Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood, took three nominations; Eastwood's much superior Gran Torino, none.) It would have made far more sense, though obviously not to the Academy, if she'd been cited as the succulent succubus of the comic-book film Wanted a true demonstration of star quality.