The Lundys: Best Reviews of Best Pics
Welcome! To the first annual presentation of the Lundys: the best reviews of the best picture candidates from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
No science in mine. Just reviews that confirmed or articulated what I felt was right or wrong about a movie. Mostly wrong, this year. Many people have said that 2008 was a pretty crappy year for movies, but, to me, it was really only an off-year for the prestige pictures. Overall, it was a great year. Just look at 2007. The big box-office pics were either lame threequels (“Spider-Man 3,” “Pirates 3,” “Shrek the Third”) or noisy remakes (“Transformers”), while 2008 gave us, among the top five box-office hits, “Dark Knight,” “Iron Man” and “WALL-E.” Not bad.
From the winning reviews, you can probably guess which movie I’m rooting for on Oscar night. It has no shot but doesn’t mean I’m not rooting.
Apologies, too, to all the critics whose reviews I missed. I’m not much of a surfer. I don’t even have nominees for best reviews of best picture candidates. Only winners. Maybe next year.
OK, on with the countdown.
For best review of Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader,” the Lundy goes to... Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal! (Applause) Mr. Morgenstern most exactly articulated the biggest problem with both movie and book:
The Reader remains schematic, and ultimately reductive. It really is about literacy, which proves to be a dismayingly small answer to the enormous questions posed by Hanna's dark past.
I can talk more about this later, but: Yes. “The Reader” begins as a sexual coming-of-age film, veers into a Holocaust picture, and winds up as an “ABC Afterschool Special”: Hanna Schmitz Learns to Read. With such a trajectory (which is more obvious in the book, since the movie includes Kate Winslet’s great performance), it can’t help but feel small and unworthy. Academy, I'm looking at you.
For best review of Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon,” the Lundy goes to... David Edelstein of New York Magazine! (Applause) I love in particular Mr. Edelstein’s early slams of Nixon the man. Criticism is not for the impartial, political or otherwise, a fact that many editors at many newspapers — trying to hold onto every loudmouthed conservative subscriber — don't seem to understand.
Edelstein also gets to the heart of what’s weak with “F/N”:
Frost/Nixon is unsatisfying even if, like me, you’re a lifelong aficionado of Nixon-bashing. [Screenwriter Peter] Morgan makes him out to be a Great White Whale, but when he sat down with Frost, Nixon was already dead in the water—convicted by his own words in White House transcripts to the point where even his Republican allies had long deserted him. And with selective editing, Morgan makes it seem as if Frost got Nixon to admit more than he actually did. The original Watergate interview is now on DVD, and there are self-exculpatory escape clauses in every interminable, circumlocutory utterance. When Frost read aloud from the White House transcripts, Nixon’s eyes darted around as he searched his brain for linguistic loopholes. In Frost/Nixon, Langella’s heavy features move slowly; he seems to be plumbing the depths of his soul and glimpsing, for an instant, the abyss. Alas, the shit that dribbles from Langella’s mouth is still Tricky Dick’s.
For David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the Lundy goes to... David Denby of The New Yorker! (Tepid applause. Some hoots.) Mr. Denby actually reviews, or takes apart, all of the Oscar candidates in his piece — save “Milk,” which he roots for — and he’s good on all of them. But particularly “Button”:
As Benjamin makes his way, many people puzzle over the discrepancy between his age and his temperament. But who cares? 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.
For Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Milionaire,” the Lundy goes to... Manohla Dargis of The New York Times! (Hoots. Cries of a New York bias.) Ms. Dargis’ reviewed the film when it was merely a film — one of many coming out that month — as opposed to the Oscar frontrunner for best picture, but, from that early, uncluttered vantage point, she still manages to articulate what is both appealing about the film, and, more importantly, what is false about it:
In the end, what gives me reluctant pause about this bright, cheery, hard-to-resist movie is that its joyfulness feels more like a filmmaker’s calculation than an honest cry from the heart about the human spirit (or, better yet, a moral tale). In the past Mr. Boyle has managed to wring giggles out of murder (“Shallow Grave”) and addiction (“Trainspotting”), and invest even the apocalypse with a certain joie de vivre (the excellent zombie flick “28 Days Later”). He’s a blithely glib entertainer who can dazzle you with technique and, on occasion, blindside you with emotion, as he does in his underrated children’s movie, “Millions.” He plucked my heartstrings in “Slumdog Millionaire” with well-practiced dexterity, coaxing laughter and sobs out of each sweet, sour and false note.
And finally, the last Lundy of the evening, for best review of Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” goes to... Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic! (tepid applause; shrugs; people grabbing their coats and leaving en masse) Mr. Sullivan is the only non-critic in the bunch, but his early take on “Milk,” written from a more personal perspective, articulated something about the film I hadn’t taken in. It opened the film for me. That’s basically what you want from a critic:
Milk was a radical; but he was also a businessman. He had one true love; and yet couldn't integrate it into a successful long-term relationship in his short life-time. He was a man of the streets and yet he also had to become a symbol of establishment power. The scene when he both stokes a rally-cum-riot and then calms it down captured the tension perfectly. He was a man of politics, but he was also only a politician in order to have the chance to be a human.
The movie's brilliance is not that it begins and ends with his death as a reflection on the first and last things; it is that it begins and ends with Milk's love for another human being as well. This reach for intimacy - always vulnerable, always intimate, never safe - endures past movements and rallies and elections. These manifestations of the political are the means to that merely human end.
Which is why, in so many ways, the gay movement, at its very best, is something holy.
That’s it, folks. Thanks for coming. And keep reading the critics.