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And the 2009 Oscar goes to ...

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 19, 2009 - More discerning - or perhaps snobbish - film buffs traditionally have considered the 5,800-odd members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to be a collection of old codgers filled with nostalgia for the Golden Age of Hollywood, an amorphous period that ended when their careers began to slump.

As a group, the thinking went, Academy members tended to favor safe, inoffensive studio box-office hits over innovative, edgy, low-budget independent fare. And there has been some truth in that image.

But lately, the Academy seems to have been getting younger, and it shows in the kinds of offbeat movies that get nominated for the top awards these days.

A decade or so ago, although independent and independent-minded films would sometimes be nominated for major awards, the box-office totals seemed to be an important factor when the time came to nominate and vote on pictures for the Oscars.

In 1998, "Titanic," number one in box office totals for movies released in 1997, and to this day the number-one ticket seller of all time, took home 11 Oscars, including best picture and best director. In 1999, "Saving Private Ryan," the box-office champion for its year of release, was nominated for a best picture Academy Award and won best director for Steven Spielberg. And so on.

By contrast, for the past two years, none of the five nominees for best picture has been close to the top in box-office totals. Most of the nominees have been independent films; most of them have dealt with dark subjects such as, this year, the mutilation of children ("Slumdog Millionaire"), murder fueled by homophobia ("Milk"), Nazism ("The Reader"), a disgraced president ("Frost/Nixon") and a melancholy tragedy about a man whose foreordained end reflects the aging process in reverse ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button").

The only picture among the five nominees for best picture to be ranked in the top 20 for ticket sales is "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which ranks 20th. It is the closest to being a mainstream film, with very popular stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. If it wins best picture, which it probably won't, it might tick up a few slots, but not that many. The rest of the five nominees are way down on the money-making list, with best picture favorite "Slumdog Millionaire" ranked in the 40s and the other three failing to break 100.

Meanwhile, the year's box-office champ, "The Dark Knight," which is second to "Titanic" in all-time ticket sales, only got one nomination in the top Oscar categories, and it was one that everybody knew was coming -- the late Heath Ledger for his deliciously deranged performance as the Joker in the "Batman" sequel.

What's going on? A few months ago, before the nominations came out, a Hollywood reporter for The New York Times named Michael Cieply wrote a very prescient piece stating that "The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, once the chummiest club in show business, is becoming more artsy and indie-minded."

He explained that five years ago, trying to inject some youthful, indie energy into itself, the Academy revised its admission procedures to encourage membership by a "leaner, younger and more forward-looking membership." The details are complicated, but, among other things, all Oscar nominees, including (shudder) foreigners, are now encouraged to join the Academy. As a result, Cieply noted, recent Oscar contests have been fought among independent films like "There Will Be Blood," "Babel" and "Little Miss Sunshine."

And this year, it seems likely that the top Oscars for best picture and best director will go to "Slumdog Millionaire," a quasi-independent film distributed by the low-budget "Searchlight" branch of a major studio, Fox. At first glance - quite literally, since the action essentially begins with an impoverished young man being tortured - "Slumdog Millionaire" could not be any less like a major Hollywood production. It has no stars - at least, no American stars. It is set in India, mostly in the horrific slums of Mumbai. Terrible things are done to children. A lot of it is subtitled. Most of it is handheld. It sometimes moves so fast in such deep darkness that it's hard to follow.

On the other hand - well, I don't won't to reveal too much of the plot for those who have not yet seen it, but let's just say that the general arc of the story line is upward, ever upward. And what could be more likely to win the heart of American audiences, hooked on reality TV, than a poor boy going on a quiz show with a chance to win 20 million rupees and the girl he has loved since childhood. "Slumdog Millionaire" has been called a "fairy tale," and the description is apt, particularly if you remember that the original Grimm fairy tales were, at times, grim.

As more than one critic has noted, "Slumdog Millionaire" is more than a little Capraesque, a heartwarming story of an underdog who perseveres through some very hard times and comes out on top. True, director Danny Boyle puts his common-man hero through some pretty terrible experiences, but remember what Frank Capra did to Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life?" Capra turned Stewart's beloved hometown, Bedford Falls, into a dark and surrealistic vision of hell on earth. At least, for a while. Pardon the cliche, but when it comes to the Oscars, it appears, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Top Picks 

The Beacon asked four people who follow film - Harper Barnes (noted critic), Nick Otten (teacher and author of Nick’s List), Susan Hegger (Beacon Issues and Politics editor) and Cliff Froehlich (head of Cinema St. Louis) - to give us their best guesses on who and what will win at the Academy Awards.

When they were told that their responses were remarkably similar, they said that was because they were picking what they thought would win rather than what should win.

So, those are the picks of the Beacon's team of experts.

Who did they think was robbed?

Harper, who said Kate Winslet would win for best actress, said Sally Hawkins ("Happy-go-Lucky") should have been nominated and should have won. Nick also saw a gaping hole in the best actress nomination, but he would have given the Oscar to Kristen Scott Thomas ("I've Loved You so Long"). Cliff believes Sean Penn ("Milk") will be annointed best actor, but thinks Mickey Rourke ("The Wrestler") deserves the honor. Susan would have given the best actor statue to Frank Langella ("Frost/Nixon").

Good luck with your picks.

Actor in a leading role

Richard Jenkins in "The Visitor"
Frank Langella in "Frost/Nixon"
Sean Penn in "Milk"
Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler"

Harper and Cliff: Sean Penn

Nick and Susan: Mickey Rourke

Actress in a leading role

Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married"
Angelina Jolie in "Changeling"
Melissa Leo in "Frozen River"
Meryl Streep in "Doubt"
Kate Winslet in "The Reader"

Unanimous: Kate Winslet

Actor in a supporting role

Josh Brolin in "Milk"
Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder"
Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Doubt"
Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight"
Michael Shannon in "Revolutionary Road"

Unanimous: Heath Ledger

Actress in a supporting role

Amy Adams in "Doubt"
Penélope Cruz in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Viola Davis in "Doubt"
Taraji P. Henson in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Marisa Tomei in "The Wrestler"

Harper: Viola Davis

Nick and Susan: Penelope Cruz

Cliff: Marisa Tomei

Adapted screenplay

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Eric Roth and Robin Swicord)
"Doubt" (John Patrick Shanley)
"Frost/Nixon" (Peter Morgan)
“The Reader" (David Hare)
"Slumdog Millionaire" (Simon Beaufoy)

Harper and Cliff: Beaufoy for “Slumdog Millionaire”

Nick: Shanley for “Doubt”

Susan: Morgan for


Original screenplay

"Frozen River" (Courtney Hunt)
"Happy-Go-Lucky" (Mike Leigh)
"In Bruges" (Martin McDonagh)
"Milk" (Dustin Lance Black)
"WALL-E" (Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Pete Docter)

Harper and Cliff: Black for “Milk”

Nick: Leigh for “Happy-Go-Lucky”

Susan: McDonagh for “In Bruges”

Best animated feature film

"Kung Fu Panda"

Unanimous: “Wall-E”

Best foreign language film

"The Baader Meinhof Complex" - Germany
"The Class" - France
"Departures" - Japan
"Revanche" - Austria
"Waltz with Bashir" - Israel

Harper, Nick and Cliff: “Waltz with Bashir”

Susan: “The Class”

Achievement in directing

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (David Fincher)
"Frost/Nixon" (Ron Howard)
"Milk" (Gus Van Sant)
"The Reader" (Stephen Daldry)
"Slumdog Millionaire" (Danny Boyle)

Unanimous: Danny Boyle for “Slumdog Millionaire”

Best motion picture of the year

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
"Frost/Nixon" (Universal)
"Milk" (Focus Features)
"The Reader" (The Weinstein Company)
“Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight)

Unanimous: “Slumdog Millionaire”

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