Ledger Oscar nominated, but commercial flicks ditched for artsy hooey

Despite a brave forecast Wednesday in USA Today that Oscar voters finally might see the light and meld their alleged “we love the world” populism to their choices for 2008 nominations, such was not the case Thursday when the noms were announced.

Again, smash-hit popular entertainment got little respect. And what else is new? Sure, Titanic and The Return of the King won big at both the b.o. and on Oscar night. But largely the 2008 slate is like so many others: heavily weighted toward artsy fare released at year’s end, and slanted against popular fare which dominated ticket sales and boosted the industry. After all, what does the public know?

So The Dark Knight and WALL-E both got shut out of the best-picture race, in favor of such overrated no-hit flicks as The Reader and Frost-Nixon. Frost-Nixon? Is Ron Howard getting rubber-stamped? Sir, I’ve seen enthralling political dramas such as All the President’s Men, and you, Frost/Nixon, are no All the President’s Men.

Sure, the late Heath Ledger was nominated as best supporting actor for The Dark Knight, and the film got eight nods in all. But except for Ledger’s, it got no major award noms. And the best WALL-E could muster, beyond an inevitable best animated feature nomination from a thin field, was an original screenplay nod.

So forget about cheering for a popular favorite, unless you dig Benjamin Button’s absurd story of a man aging backwards while Gumping through time, or you’re hooked on the game-show heroics of Slumdog Millionaire. And while this year’s slate may not be as esoteric as last year’s, Oscar viewership again should decline, as film fans with the wacky, dim-witted idea that WALL-E and The Dark Knight represented better filmmaking than the allegedly weighty The Reader or Frost-Nixon get stiffed.

I’m leaving Milk out of my rant because I believe in that movie, regardless of its level of popular appeal. It’s not only beautifully made, with another fantastic performance by Sean Penn, but its late-’70s story of intolerance vs. inclusiveness is somehow more timely and significant for today than anything else in the best picture field.

Still, that race now largely comes down to a plurality vote for “Best Pretentious Pseudo-Artsy Flick Released in December.” Come on.

My rant can’t be complete without dissing supporting actress nominee Penelope Cruz for a shrieking performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Bad movie, bad performance. Sorry, Woody — I love ya. But this was recycled, contrived, lame, preposterous, unfunny and unremarkable, with countless missteps. Who cares about a bunch of losers strangely unencumbered by the need to make money or face real responsibility while they indulge in artistic whims and in lust/passion with the depth of a tuna sandwich?

But huzzahs to Robert Downey Jr.’s supporting actor nod for Tropic Thunder. He won’t win — in true Phantom of the Paradise mode, Ledger’s a lock — but Downey was as good as anyone on screen last year, as a dude playing a dude dressed like another dude and sometimes looking like the first dude but really being — oh, forget it. But he was great — and he even held fast to his character’s pledge  not to drop character till after the DVD commentary! Robert, I salute you. With this and Iron Man, you rocked in ’08, and Tropic Thunder was the year’s funniest film.

Not that that distinction will ever win anyone a best picture Oscar — what do humorists know? We’ve got dead presidents to resurrect, guys to be born old, and snob appeal to embrace over entertainment power.

Yes, that’s the Oscars — again — rejecting the sheer show-biz oomph on which the industry depends in favor of pretentious Important Pictures which bore to the point of snores. Oh, well — at least we’re done with The English Patient.

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