Everyone's been writing about which films will enter the magic circle when the academy announces its best picture nominations Jan. 22, mercifully putting an end to the annual year-end demolition derby that finds nearly all of the year's best films being released in the last 10 weeks of the year.
In other words, come Jan. 22, there will be five winners and lots of losers -- admirable, well-made movies that will quickly drop off the media radar screen, with the five best picture finalists sucking up all the air in the room. So, with a consensus forming around five films that could nail down the best picture slots ("Slumdog Millionaire," "Milk," "Frost/Nixon," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "The Dark Knight"), it seemed like a good time to take a look at which movies will go home empty-handed -- and why they didn't make it to the finish line.
Feel free to fire away if you think I've slighted any of your favorites, but here are my thoughts on the most obvious also-rans:
"Wall-E": A wonderful, critically beloved movie, "Wall-E" in any normal world would be a shoo-in nominee for best picture. Its problem? It's an animated film, the one genre (along with comedy) that gets no respect from the academy -- no animated film has won an Oscar for best picture, even though many classics, notably "The Lion King," "Toy Story 2," "Spirited Away" and "Ratatouille," were just as good as the live-action winners in their year of eligibility. Actors, who make up the biggest branch of the academy, almost never vote for animated films, so it's virtually impossible to put together enough support from other branches of the academy to register a win.
Hence, the best animated film ghetto, which, just like at Sunday's Golden Globe Awards, allows an animated delight like "Wall-E" to get some recognition without having a legitimate shot at best picture stardom. Some commentators have suggested that if Disney had spent just another $20 million to push "Wall-E," it could've gotten over the top, but Disney is probably right not to throw good money after bad -- too many academy members have a built-in bias against animated films, viewing them as just not "important" enough to vote for.
"The Reader": There is a lengthy treatise to be written about the perils of adapting challenging literary material to the screen -- the old adage being that bad books often make the best movies. But since my space is limited, I'll give the short answer: You can't land an Oscar when no one likes your movie. For all its filmmaking and acting pedigree, "The Reader" simply doesn't cut it as a compelling drama. And it would have to be truly compelling to impress academy voters, who after being suckers for years for virtually any story about Jewish oppression finally seem to have a legitimate case of Holocaust fatigue.
"The Wrestler": Film festival sensations are rarely Oscar winners. That goes double for "The Wrestler," which is propelled by a dynamite performance from Sunday night's Golden Globe winner Mickey Rourke but has failed to ignite with academy voters, who have reacted a bit squeamishly to the movie's deliberately rough-hewn portrayal of life on the wrestling circuit, especially the staple-gun antics and other graphic in-the-ring violence.
"Revolutionary Road": It's full of great performances (with Kate Winslet already taking home a best actress Golden Globe for her work) but is admired far more than it is loved. The criticism is often veiled but I suspect that many comfortably middle-aged academy burghers have found a movie devoted to a cold-eyed dissection of a tormented marriage far too close for comfort. The movie is based on a terrific novel by Richard Yates that was a cult classic, with the emphasis on cult -- it wasn't material that resonated with a larger audience. In the end, for all its admirable craft, it's hard to rouse a lot of enthusiasm for a movie that forces us to spend two-plus hours with two deeply unhappy people with no happy ending in sight.
"Gran Torino": One of my favorite movies of the year, if for no other reason than that it allows us to see Clint Eastwood playing out the Dirty Harry myth to a natural but surprisingly redemptive conclusion. And yet . . . not everyone likes it as much as I do. I've been around a number of academy members who seemed put off by the casual racism and foul tongue of Clint's openly bigoted character. It's apparently too much of a politically incorrect portrayal for liberal do-gooders, who make up a sizable percentage of the academy. I'm betting this movie will be more appreciated by future generations in much the same way as "Dirty Harry," which was initially dismissed by Pauline Kael as a fascist attack on liberal values but is now viewed as a bracing commentary on its times.