The Fan’s Guide to the Oscars
The 2009 Oscar nominations are in, and they include a gratifying number of comic book adaptations and other geekly delights. First and most obvious is The Dark Knight. In addition to Heath Ledger’s highly anticipated posthumous Best Supporting Actor nod for his reinvention of the Joker, The Dark Knight has also gathered a slew of technical nominations: Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, Best Film Editing, and Best Visual Effects.
But the Batman isn’t the only comic hero to get Oscar’s nod. Iron Man was nominated for Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects (though sadly, Robert Downey Jr. received no recognition for his splendid portrayal of the eponymous douchebag hero. His nomination for Tropic Thunder is a small consolation, as comedies and comic roles get snubbed by the Academy almost as much as fantasy and science fiction.) Wanted, based on Mark Millar and J.G. Jones’ comic miniseries, was nominated for Best Sound Mixing. And Hellboy II: The Golden Army got a nod for Best Makeup. No nominations at all for The Incredible Hulk – thought I wouldn’t want to be the one breaking the news to Ed Norton.
You may notice a pattern here: except for Ledger’s Best Supporting Actor nomination, all the comic book movie nominations are for technical awards: music, sound, visual effects, makeup. And even those seem a bit skimpy – where is The Golden Army’s costume or visual effects nomination? Makeup alone does not begin to cover Guillermo del Toro’s stunning visual feast. It’s sad that in a year delivering so many knockout performances and stories from the comic book world, the Academy continues to marginalize them in favor of heavy real-world dramas.
Nevertheless, there are still plenty of delights for fans of animation and reality-bending in this year’s Oscar nomination list. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button may have been adapted from (gasp!) literature—a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, to be precise—but this tale of a man born in his dotage and living his live in reverse is straight out of fantasy. Mythology, even; in many versions of the King Arthur story, the wizard Merlin is likewise described as living and aging backwards. Slumdog Millionaire offers a Bollywood sensibility, Dickens-like storytelling and synchronicity, and a whiff of magical realism. Both have been nominated for Best Picture. Benjamin Button was additionally nominated for Best Actor (Brad Pitt), Best Supporting Actress (Taraji P. Henson), and technical nominations in Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects, and Adapted Screenplay. Slumdog Millionare was nominated for Best Director, as well as Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Original Score, and not one but two original songs.
For lovers of animation, there is of course the spectacular WALL-E, nominated for Best Animated Film (up against Bolt and Kung Fu Panda). WALL-E was also nominated for Sound Mixing, Original Score, and Original Song—not surprising for a Disney animated film; has there really ever been a year where Disney hasn’t at least been nominated in at least one of these categories?—and for Best Original Screenplay. Sadly, WALL-E was not nominated for Best Picture—no animated film has made it there since Beauty and the Beast back in 1991, the first and quite probably the last. Additionally, this year we have animation in an unexpected category: Waltz with Bashir, an animated documentary by Israeli director Ari Folman, on the 1982 war with Lebanon, nominated for Best Foreign Film.
So in the end, can 2009 really be called a knockout year in Oscar history? On the one hand, it’s gratifying to see so many comic book adaptations, animated films, and other speculative tales getting the nod. Recognition of genre films by the Academy is still all too rare; gleaming moments like Johnny Depp’s nomination in 2004 for Pirates of the Caribbean or The Return of the King actually winning Best Picture in 2004 (widely believed to be a Best Picture win for the whole trilogy, each of which was nominated on its own) are still rare exceptions. On the other hand, the vast majority of the nominations for these films remain ghettoized in technical categories, ignoring some spectacular performances. It could be argued that Heath Ledger only got the Best Supporting Actor nod because of his untimely death, and that otherwise a Batman movie actor would never have been nominated.
I’d have to say that it’s progress, but that we still have a long way to go.