The Oscars

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Allow me to quote myself, from the latest issue of National Review:

... the [Christmas] rush is worse for critics than for viewers, since at least half the movies "released" in November and December won't trickle out to non-Manhattan multiplexes until January. (Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, which national publications had to review around its official December 12 release date, probably reached a theater near you some thirty-odd days later.) But I suspect that even filmgoers in Peoria partake of the overwhelm-ment that settles over cinephiles sometime around Christmas -- a time when critics who've devoted dozens of column inches to The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor during the movie industry's fallow months find themselves tackling what are supposed to be the year's best films at capsule length, and when serious moviegoers wander cineplexes in a daze, rambling about whether Mickey Rourke should win Best Actor for The Curious Reader of Revolutionary Doubt.

It's bad for the moviegoers, and it's bad for the movies. Studio executives are a risk-averse lot in the best of times and, faced with the cruel Darwinism of the holiday season, they seem to have decided that the best way to hedge their bets is to green-light films within an ever narrower range. How else to explain this house-of-mirrors movie season: two Clint Eastwood movies released within 40 days of each other; a pair of Oscar-caliber Kate Winslet performances playing against each other in the local art house; and not one or two, but five films about the Holocaust and Nazis playing between mid-October and the New Year.

What does all this conformity and caution get you? It gets you Revolutionary Road. No film in this holiday season checks quite so many Oscar-season boxes: There are A-list stars (Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, together again a decade after they clutched at each other in Titanic), an Academy Award-winning director (Winslet's husband, Sam Mendes), a sterling supporting cast, a handsome mid-century aesthetic, and a semi-famous literary novel as the source material. And no holiday-season film better illustrates the way that such box-checking curdles art.

As it turns out, the Academy nominated neither Eastwood movie and just one of the Nazi films, and ignored Revolutionary Road entirely. And yet the final Best Picture list - save for Slumdog Millionaire, which slipped into the dark-horse slot previously occupied by Juno and Little Miss Sunshine - still looks like a roster of box-checking exercises, and what A.O. Scott memorably termed "hermetically sealed melodrama[s] of received thinking." There were that many of them!

This was, admittedly, a bad year for movies overall, which makes a disappointing Best Picture slate par for the course. I'm not enough of a Dark Knight partisan to get outraged at its exclusion, and while I wish The Wrestler and Rachel Getting Married were occupying the slots filled by The Reader and Frost/Nixon, neither of the former are anywhere near as good as No Country For Old Men - to pick my favorite recent winner - and neither of the latter are anywhere near as bad as, say, Crash. But it's still an uninspiring group of nominees - which is a good reason to pull for Slumdog come Oscar night, even if you think it's overpraised and overrated. I mean, which would you rather see rewarded - Stephen Daldry or Ron Howard being pretentious and high-minded, or Danny Boyle being (as usual) quirky and adventurous?  I think the question answers itself.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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