Let's Talk Oscars

Is Kate Winslet Having Her Tracy Flick Moment?
All about the Academy Awards.
Feb. 20 2009 5:13 PM

Let's Talk Oscars

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Cher Collègue,

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

There's a line from somewhere (I like to think it's the Marx Brothers, but I suspect it's really Car Talk)—"Do two people who don't know what they're talking about know more or less than one person who doesn't know what he's talking about?"—that I always think of when Oscar time rolls around. The answer, of course, is that the solo ignoramus and the paired ignoramuses have the same knowledge quotient, zero. But the two know-nothings are happier, because instead of monologuing at the water cooler, they can build beautiful castles (of bullshit) in Spain. (Oops, sorry if that hit a nerve. My condolences on the whole pepper spray thing.)

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You and I aren't the only dolts—when it comes to the Oscars, there's no such thing as expertise, and received wisdom is as reliable or unreliable a guide as "logistic regression." Everybody knows what the locks are this year—Heath Ledger for supporting actor, Slumdog for best picture, Boyle for best director, Wall-E for animation. Then there are the tossups: Penn and Rourke, which is a true dead heat, and increasingly, Winslet and Streep. Kate has been coming off as something of a Tracy Flick in the press, overly earnest and grasping about her lust for that statue. And even voters who'd like to see her win may simply be too skeeved out by The Reader's icky premise to give it vicarious praise by awarding it anything. I know if I had an academy vote, I would blanch at checking off any box that appeared next to that title.

Anthony Dod Mantle, the garbage-heap-gilding wizard of Slumdog Millionaire, seems to me most likely to take the prize for best cinematography. This raises the question of whether garbage heaps should be gilded in the first place—I'm of the camp that found Boyle's aestheticization of Indian poverty unsettling. But moral quandaries aside, there's something irritating about automatically handing the cinematography award to the movie that looked the prettiest. (This happens with costume design too; as my Slate colleague Julia Turner has pointed out, period films always, always, always win in this category, even though contemporary costumes, like the vaguely Goth windbreakers in the unnominated Twilight, are arguably harder to do well.) Maryse Alberti, whose handheld work in The Wrestler was both virtuosic and almost unbearably intimate, wasn't even nominated, and I can't help but think that's because no one in The Wrestler stood around backlit train stations haloed in golden light, with their chromium-yellow scarves wafting in slow motion. They were too busy barfing in VFW hall locker rooms.

As for best short: yes, that sly bunny in Presto, the Pixar cartoon that preceded screenings of Wall-E in many markets, is a keeper. But I agree with Brian Tallerico at Videohound that allowing a polished, expensive high-profile Pixar film into this category is "sort of like bringing a gun to a knife fight." Shouldn't the breakthrough success of Wall-E open doors for more than just Pixar? So I'll root for Oktapodi, on behalf of underrepresented cephalopods everywhere. Its chief animator, Julien Bocabeille, has just landed a job at DreamWorks, so maybe we'll see more lovelorn flying octopuses in 2009. A girl can dream.

'Til Sunday night,
Dana

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