Need a guide to the best picture nominations for 2009? Wondering which picture is going to win? Here's the lowdown of the five pictures in contention.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - This traditional Hollywood tearjerker has everything Oscar loves, including the most nominations of any film in the Best Movie category (13). So it should be the front-runner, no? Think again: Oscar voters, like the public, are getting younger, and the old Hollywood tearjerkers may not have the pull they once did. But since this one was directed by David Fincher (director of dark movies like Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac), is more "about death" than love, and stars a pretty-boy actor bravely facing old-age makeup, don't count out the chances that the expected favorite may come out on top. Still, despite the grand ambitions and the heap of talent kept employed by the making of this studio tent pole, many thought this film was a bit too long, and a bit saggy in the middle...so the field is wide open.
Frost / Nixon - This political boxing match between a TV-show-host-wannabe-reporter and tricky Dick Nixon has a knock-out performance by character actor Frank Langella, a well-deserved nominated screenplay, and the political timing at its back. Hollywood loves a good criminal Republican administration to dish, and Ron Howard's astute direction elevates this film to one of the best of the year. Still, political stage plays are long-shots on Oscar night.
Milk - the story of assassinated gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, and how he prevented the passage of the anti-gay Prop 6 in California in the 1970's, may assuage the angst of Hollywood over the recent passage of Prop 8. Gus van Sant is the "in" director in Hollywood right now (via his appearance in "Entourage") and Sean Penn's transformation into a middle-aged, gay, Jewish accountant-turned activist is uncanny. Oscar warmed up to this previously overlooked film (snubbed by the Globes) and rightly saw the talent behind the message. Could the Academy be preparing to right the wrong that was done to Brokeback two years ago? But Hollywood doesn't do regret, and the "gay movie" is still fighting an uphill battle: Those who thought Brokeback was a shoe-in may be setting themselves up for disappointment if they have equal hopes for Milk.
The Reader - This story of a mysterious German woman with a past who seduces a high-school student...who later grows up to be, shall we say, more than a little changed by his encounter - is perhaps the most surprising and original movie of the year. Kate Winslet is golden this year (her Best Actress nomination for The Reader rather than Revolutionary Road was a surprise, but she's still the favorite for it). The Holocaust subject matter may be a hard sell for most audiences, but on Oscar night, quality can still win out, and this little movie, tough as the subject matter may be, is flawless.
Slumdog Millionaire - The story of an impoverished Bombay "slumdog" who escapes poverty and wins the heart of the girl through his appearance on "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire" - and the story of an impoverished movie that wins the heart of Hollywood executives and gets made despite the odds - has infatuated both audiences and the movie industry, and come to be the sentimental favorite for this year's best picture. But has the sentiment peaked too early? Excessive weeks of good sentiment may start to seem like hype, allowing Academy voters to re-consider some of the other films on the slate: and those films, all of which are top quality, provide serious competition.