David Denby's dour take on the upcoming Oscars is too kind to Milk, in my view, and far too hard on Slumdog Millionaire, for which his limbic system seems to have been unprepared. But it's otherwise rather good. Here he is on Benjamin Button, a film that has been diminishing for me in retrospect ever since I saw it:
The movie is given over to an infinitely patient and scrupulous working out of its own bizarre premise, and you come away from its sombre thoroughness with the impression that something profound has been said without having any idea what it could be. The central drama in the picture turns out to be Brad Pitt’s makeup.... [M]any people in Hollywood endlessly have “work” done to put off aging, and here’s a movie that begins with a wizened baby and ends with physical perfection, a progression that may encapsulate both the nightmares and the dreams of half the Academy.
More importantly, he gets the common thread running through most of the nominations this year. Writing of The Reader and Frost/Nixon (I'd add Milk to the list, as well as Doubt, which wasn't nominated for Best Picture but would have garnered acting nominations for its extras if there'd been any left), he notes
These two films may have been controlled more by their directors and their writers than by their studios, but they’re still the kind of middlebrow pictures that the Academy used to nominate in the bad old studio-dominated days—the contemporary equivalents of “Judgment at Nuremburg” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” They are “important” pictures that “say” something about public issues. They’re good for the industry’s image.
In response, the Times's David Carr, a self-designated "homer," comes to the nominees' defense with the argument that, for every unremarkable nominee on this year's slate, you can find a comparably unremarkable nominee on another year's. The problem, of course, is that while almost every year has an unremarkable nominee or two, few have so many as this. Yes, I agree that Benjamin Button was no worse (indeed better) than Atonement, but the latter shared nominations with No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Juno, which rather took away the sting. In any case, the complaint about these nominees is not that they're worse than past years'; it's that they're worse than 2008 films that weren't nominated, whether because they were the wrong genre (Wall-E, The Dark Knight) or were too bleakly trippy (Synecdoche, New York) or the Academy had a collective brain freeze (Revolutionary Road).