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The Critics

Tough Calls

February 11, 2009|Patrick Goldstein; Kenneth Turan; Betsy Sharkey

All year, film critics tell us what they like and don't like about new movies, always moving on to the next release. But how often do we ask them to take a second look, to give us their considered opinions again once the Oscar nominations are announced? That's just what we've done in assembling L.A. Times film columnist Patrick Goldstein and film critics Kenneth Turan and Betsy Sharkey to play Oscar Voter for a day.


Patrick Goldstein: They don't let any of us peons vote in the Academy Awards, but if you could vote for best picture, I'd like to hear you make the case for your favorite this year.

Kenneth Turan: It's "Slumdog Millionaire." It's a throwback to the old style of Hollywood moviemaking. It's a smart movie by an independent director that has really broad mainstream appeal, and that's good enough for me.

Betsy Sharkey: My choice would be "Slumdog" too because it does what, really, every movie that is ever made is supposed to do -- it sweeps you in and it takes you away and you are absolutely there with it every minute.

Goldstein: What is the film that doesn't belong there? That if you were King or Queen for a Day you would take out?

Sharkey: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." I know it's been popular with a lot of people, but to me it did not fully work.

Goldstein: Why not?

Sharkey: What should have been the spine of the movie, which is Brad Pitt's performance, was passive throughout. And I had a hard time buying into the proposition that if you had that sort of absolutely counterintuitive life, that you would not be more introspective, that you would not be more active or proactive in the way that you reacted to and assessed your life. He just was gliding through the years.

Turan: I won't pick a film that should be cut out, but I will say that I feel bad that "The Dark Knight" didn't make the cut.

Goldstein: Why do you think it deserved to be there?

Turan: It's exceptionally well made just from a craft point of view, art direction, cinematography, all the kinds of things that the Hollywood studio system remains so good at. And I just like the notion of having popular films in there. Often, if a film is too successful, it doesn't get voted in, not always, but sometimes you can be too successful for the academy's taste.

Goldstein: Betsy?

Sharkey: "Doubt." With the directing, the writing and acting, it was incredibly compelling. It felt like a grown-up film, taking on adult issues in very sophisticated and smart ways.

Goldstein: Let's move on to director. Who are you rooting for to win?

Turan: I like Danny Boyle. If you look at his entire career, one of the things that characterizes it is that he brings a lot of energy to his films no matter what the subject matter is. And I think that energy was critical in making "Slumdog" the success it is.

Sharkey: Danny Boyle is terrific. I also would throw in a strong vote for Ron Howard. He is one of the filmmakers that is very often overlooked and with "Frost/Nixon" he took a huge leap of faith that really paid off.

Goldstein: How about lead actress?

Sharkey: Kate Winslet. She had two powerful performances and "The Reader" is the more nuanced of the two. She also has sort of earned her due. Perhaps with the exception of Meryl Streep, it is really the best performance out there.

Turan: I want to vote for Melissa Leo for a lot of reasons. I like the notion of people from smaller films getting that kind of recognition. She has been around for a while, always been really good, never gotten this kind of recognition. This is a terrific performance; it really makes this film the film that it is.

Goldstein: Lead actor?

Turan: Sean Penn did an exceptional job but he has won an Oscar before and I would -- for that reason alone -- I would go for Frank Langella. There's a marvelous performance, again, a wonderful career. He doesn't impersonate Nixon -- he creates a character who is Nixonian and makes us really compelled by him.

Sharkey: I am a sucker for redemption stories, so I would have to say Mickey Rourke. It was a vulnerable, stripped-down, raw and brave performance by somebody who has climbed his way out of what seems like a bottomless pit. It really reminded me of all the things that I loved about Mickey Rourke in the early years, just kind of a fearlessness for whatever it takes to get the performance across.

Goldstein: Neither of you has mentioned Brad Pitt as being a favorite.

Turan: I wanted to be moved by his performance. I wasn't moved. How much of that was the direction, the acting, the script, the technology, I don't know. But the bottom line is I wasn't moved the way I wanted to be.

Goldstein: So the clear-cut favorite in supporting actor is Heath Ledger. Do either of you differ from that?

Sharkey: It's an excellent performance but it's also layered with the tragedy of his death. Michael Shannon though, in "Revolutionary Road" was just chilling in his ability to be affecting.

Turan: I would go with Heath Ledger, even though his death is possibly partly why he's the favorite. But it's a very unnerving performance. He's a really scary villain in a very kind of almost subliminal way, in a way that really disturbs you, and that's hard to do -- especially with a character that we've seen before, that Jack Nicholson has done.


All the banter

Read the full text of our Times film critics' Oscar discussion with Big Picture writer Patrick Goldstein.

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