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Why so serious, Oscar?

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For most people, thoughts of the Holocaust are unpleasant ones. But for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, thoughts of the Holocaust presumably only lead to thoughts of Holocaust pictures. And if there's one thing that Oscar history has taught us, it's that nothing arouses Academy members quite like Holocaust pictures. Just think of it as Nazi porn.

Certainly, Spike Lee nailed it back in a 1998 interview with Entertainment Weekly. Reflecting on when his 1997 effort 4 Little Girls lost the Best Documentary Feature Oscar to the Holocaust film The Long Way Home, Lee commented, "I'd rather be the Knicks playing the Bulls at the United Center down by 20 with 10 minutes left -- those odds are better than going against a Holocaust film." I was reminded of that quote as the nominees for the 81st Academy Awards were announced early Thursday morning. While many Oscar prognosticators were predicting -- some even guaranteeing -- that The Dark Knight would be up for Best Picture, I figured its slot would go to The Reader (and, yes, I have the Oscar pool ballot to back my claim!). Never mind that The Dark Knight was both a critical and commercial darling; never mind that it soared far above its designation as a "superhero flick"; never mind that it scored nominations from the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild. It simply stood no chance against a lesser film that touched upon the evils of the Holocaust. And sure enough, while The Dark Knight managed to score an impressive eight nominations, all but one (Best Supporting Actor for the late Heath Ledger) were in the technical categories; in the major categories of Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay, it was shoved aside to make room for The Reader.

But The Reader isn't the only nominee unworthy of its lofty status -- at least according to the critics. Audiences who eye reviewers with disdain might soften their stance after glancing at these numbers from Rotten Tomatoes, a critical compilation site that awards "Fresh" and "Rotten" ratings based on the percentage breakdown of reviews across the nation. Here's how the Best Picture roster stacks up: Slumdog Millionaire, 95% Fresh; Milk, 92%; Frost/Nixon, 91%; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 72%; The Reader, 60% (one percentage point away from a "Rotten" designation). Clearly, the first three titles deserve their perches; the last two do not. Now let's look at the numbers for some other films that the Academy could have nominated: The Wrestler, 98%; WALL-E, 96%; The Dark Knight, 94%. Even Gran Torino (77%) and Doubt (77%) score higher than Benjamin Button and The Reader.

So let's face it: Wouldn't the Best Picture lineup look a lot better if The Dark Knight and WALL-E had made the cut instead of Benjamin Button and The Reader? Yeah, we figured most of you would agree.

Here, then, are some more observations regarding this year's crop of contenders.

Highlights:

• The eight nominations for Milk. The best movie of the year was a near-lock for its five nods in the major categories -- Picture, Director (Gus Van Sant), Actor (Sean Penn), Supporting Actor (Josh Brolin) and Original Screenplay (Dustin Lance Black) -- but its additional three bids in secondary categories (Film Editing, Original Score and Costume Design) indicate that it had strong support across the board.

• Taraji P. Henson for Best Supporting Actress. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is hardly a favorite of mine (see "Low Points," below), but I fully support the nod for Henson, who was excellent as Benjamin's adoptive mother. Henson first impressed me in Hustle & Flow (and later in Talk to Me), so it's gratifying to see that she's finally being honored. And how about Marisa Tomei, nominated in the same category for The Wrestler? After winning for 1992's My Cousin Vinny, it was long felt that she would be nothing more than a fluke winner, never to be heard from again (see: Mira Sorvino, F. Murray Abraham). But with two additional nods for 2001's In the Bedroom and now The Wrestler, Tomei has demonstrated that she's an actress of unlimited potential.

• The two major nominations for Frozen River. I missed this one during its brief Charlotte run, only catching up with it when the studio sent the for-your-consideration screener at the end of the year. Although it fell just shy of making my Top 20, I was impressed by this low-budget indie effort that featured confident filmmaking by writer-director Courtney Hunt and a strong performance by Melissa Leo. Apparently, the Academy liked it, too, handing it nods for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay.

• The Best Original Screenplay category. While I'm massively upset that Robert Siegel wasn't nominated for his insightful script for The Wrestler, I can't argue with the titles that were chosen: the aforementioned Frozen River, Happy-Go-Lucky, In Bruges, Milk and WALL-E. That's a blessedly diverse lineup.

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