The Bat-Signal must be on the fritz.
How else to explain the snub The Dark Knight received last week from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when Oscar nominations were announced?
Sure, Heath Ledger is all but a lock to posthumously win best supporting actor for his maniacal turn as The Joker, and the Academy named The Dark Knight in seven other categories (art direction, cinematography, editing, makeup, sound, sound editing and visual effects). But look at the writing nominations and you won’t find the names Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan or David Goyer. Chris Nolan is missing from the best director list, as well.
The most glaring omission comes under best picture, where the competitors are The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which has a leading 13 nominations), Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader and Slumdog Millionaire.
It’s hard to believe The Dark Knight is one of 2008’s top five movies in eight different categories—tying Milk as the third most nominated film this year—but not one of the five best overall. What’s a psychologically-disturbed, crime-fighting billionaire gotta do to get a little love?
Aside from being the second-highest grossing movie of all time (behind only Titanic, which won 11 Oscars in 1998, including best picture and director), The Dark Knight was universally praised by critics (94 percent of the reviews collected by the Web site Rotten Tomatoes are deemed positive, compared to 60 percent for The Reader) and appeared to be gaining momentum with top nominations from the directors, producers and writers guilds.
Apparently, that’s not good enough for the Academy, which every year seems to become more and more irrelevant to the average moviegoer. Can you name the the movie that won best picture 10 years ago? How about five years ago? Last year?
There are bright spots this year: David Fincher, a best director nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, even though he should have received the honor a year earlier for Zodiac; Taraji P. Henson, who brings so much love and warmth to the adoptive mother of Benjamin Button and scored a best supporting actress nomination; Richard Jenkins, a reliable character actor for many years, up for best actor for The Visitor; Robert Downey Jr., a best supporting actor contender for his hilarious performance in Tropic Thunder (this is, perhaps, also a nod to his wonderful star turn in the superhero adventure Iron Man); a best original screenplay nomination for the funny and surprisingly poignant In Bruges (Martin McDonagh), released about a year ago, which might as well be a century in most voters’ minds.
I am not an Oscar hater. With recent winners including The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, No Country for Old Men and the long-overdue Martin Scorsese (best director, The Departed), the Academy has been getting a lot right lately. And despite its bloated length and endless parade of montages and production numbers, I enjoy watching the Oscar telecast itself.
I also think awards do a lot of good in drawing attention to films that otherwise might not receive it. But that is not why they exist.
A movie can be both a popular phenomenon and art simultaneously. And that’s The Dark Knight (WALL•E, too, but don’t get me started on another rant). It’s not merely a superhero or comic book movie. It’s a crime drama of epic proportions, dealing with very real, very serious moral issues of heroism and villainy, order and chaos, and impossible choices. Change the names and faces, and you have a classic Scorsese picture.
The Academy has a longstanding stigma against genre movies, but The Lord of the Rings overcame that with 30 total nominations and 17 wins, including best picture and director for The Return of the King. So what gives?
In time, Chris Nolan will get his gold statue. With a resume that includes, in addition to his two Batman movies, Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige, he is too good a filmmaker for it not to happen at some point in his career. It might be another case of the Academy righting a wrong by recognizing him for lesser work. There will never be another chance, though, to award all of those who maximized their many talents in making The Dark Knight.
No matter who wins on the big night, Oscar blew it this year.