Sometimes--last year, for instance--the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does a pretty good job of recognizing excellence in film. Sometimes, it does a bad job. This year, it did a very, very bad job. If it was a disappointing year for film, it's an awful one for the Oscars.
First, let's get the good news out of the way: As is often the case, the Best Supporting Actor category is a strong one, though it's hard to see any way that Heath Ledger doesn't have the posthumous win sewn up. Still, it's nice that Michael Shannon's small but mesmerizing turn in Revolutionary Road was honored, and that Robert Downey Jr. got some credit for his extraordinary, if not particularly Oscar-friendly, year.
And that, as far as I'm concerned, is about it for good news. The Best Actress category is a disaster: Kate Winslet was nominated for The Reader rather than Revolutionary Road, which I find frankly unfathomable, and Kristin Scott Thomas (I've Loved You So Long) and Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) weren't nominated at all--three strikes on the three best female performances of the year. It's great that Melissa Leo got a nod for Frozen River, but Angelina Jolie for Changeling? Honestly?
Best Supporting Actress is often a weak category (and, yes, that says exactly what it would seem to say about being a woman in Hollywood), but apart from Penelope Cruz--who was by far the best thing in Vicky Cristina Barcelona--this year it fails to meet even its usual standards. I adore Amy Adams, but she has no business getting a nomination for her tidy, forgettable role in Doubt. And while I understand why some were deeply moved by Viola Davis in the same film, hers was a very small and limited performance. Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married) and all the marvelous actresses in Synecdoche, New York (Dianne Wiest would have been my pick of that lot) got stiffed for this?
The biggest disappointment, though, is the best picture (and director) nominees. There are a few ways the Academy could have gone here: It could have honored indieish movies that took some chances and showed a little edge. (I'm thinking of Revolutionary Road, perhaps The Wrestler, and--though it never had a real shot--Synecdoche.) It could have thrown some love at the ambitious, popular movies of the summer: Wall-E (which is still my pick for best picture of the year) and The Dark Knight (which, for all its flaws, is the exceedingly rare film that redefines the parameters of its genre).
Instead, with the exception of scrappy Slumdog Millionaire, the Academy lavished its major awards on a range of high-minded, middlebrow entertainments engineered for Oscar consideration with assembly-line efficiency. Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, Benjamin Button, and Doubt (which missed out on Best Picture but was buried with acting awards) are by no stretch bad films. But none offered much in the way of spark or inspiration or daring: two faithful adaptations of already-award-heavy plays; one gorgeous but overlong Forrest Gump cousin; an interesting but somewhat remote unpacking of postwar German guilt; and a film about Harvey Milk that, for all its self-perceived courage, comes a decade later than it ought to have and more than two decades after the superior, Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. This may not have been a great year for movies. But it was better than that.
Update: How could I forget the strangest oversight of all? After Heath Ledger and Best Supporting Actor, I thought the one category in which the eventual winner was already obvious was Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler" for Best Song--which, in addition to being a more than worthy choice, would presumably have resulted in an awards-ceremony performance by the Boss, a la "Streets of Philadelphia" in 1994. Astonishingly, it wasn't even nominated. I don't know what happened with the Academy this year. It's as though they set out to beat last year's record for the least-watched Oscars ever.