Just when you thought the Oscars ceremony couldn’t possibly get any longer, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences today announced plans to increase the number of films in the Best Picture category from five to ten.

“Having 10 Best Picture nominees is going allow Academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize,” said Sid Ganis, president of the Academy.

There’s a general feeling that the Academy has taken this decision in the wake of heavy criticism over the exclusion of The Dark Knight from last year’s Best Picture race. There was also some speculation that the Best Animated Feature category might now be cancelled as a result, with the wider field allowing Pixar films, for example, to enter the running.

But that category remains, with Ganis claiming that the expansion was also taken as a way to return to the Oscars’ roots – the first 16 Academy Awards all featured more than five Best Picture nominees. The last ceremony to do so was in 1943, when Casablanca won the big prize.

“The final outcome, of course, will be the same – one Best Picture winner – but the race to the finish line will feature 10, not just five, great movies from 2009,” added Ganis. “I can’t wait to see what that list of ten looks like when the nominees are announced in February.”

Well, one thing’s for sure – Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen won’t be on that list, unless they expand the category to include 1000 films. And probably not even then.

What’s Movieblaze’s feeling on this? Well, it’s hard not to feel that this is purely a cosmetic change, and something of a condescending one at that; a way of patting films like The Dark Knight on the head and saying, ‘see? You made it to the final ten! Well done! Now run along and play, while the real movies vie for the big award’. After all, the argument is clear: if a film didn’t get enough votes to make the top five nominations, then it doesn’t stand a chance of winning.

But maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised. After all, you’ve got to be in it to win it, and had The Dark Knight been in the running last year, things may – just may – have been slightly different.

One thing’s for sure, though: with ten Best Picture nominations to get through, bring a cushion for next year’s event. You’re going to need it.

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Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swimton, Faune A. Chambers, Jason Flemyng

Director: David Fincher

Screenplay: Eric Roth

Cinematography: Claudio Miranda

Original Score: Alexandre Desplat

Running Time: 166 Mins.

There is much to be admired in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher, he behind such cinematic masterpieces as Se7enFight Club and most recently Zodiac, it is the kind of sweeping epic the Academy voters love, hence its 13 Oscar nods. But the Academy is often wrong, Forrest Gump and Shakespeare In Love being two glaring examples and once again I am sorry to report that for all that’s good in Benjamin Button it has some rather large flaws making it little more than Forrest Gump: the arthouse version!

Lest, before I get caught up with whats wrong, this is a film that really does have a lot going for it. David Fincher is no slouch in the directors chair, and once again he has brought his unique style to something that one would think was more befitting of Tim Burton. Sharing the borderline gothic look of his past cinematic masterpieces, including Se7en and Zodiac, Benjamin Button is undoubtably a total feast for the eyes, aided by DOP Claudio Miranda each scene is set and lit as if each moment of the titular hero’s life were taking place in a dream land not too far removed from our own world, but beautiful enough to give it an ethereal quality.

Cutting through the gorgeous look of the film are Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, Pitt is superb, Blanchett on the other hand is deeply underwhelming and woefully miscast, it would seem that when she is called upon to play larger than life characters such as Elizabeth, Bob Dylan or Catherine Hepburn she excels but in romantic fare such as this she stumbles at the first hurdle, the bulk of the film where she plays the young to middle aged object of Benjamin’s desire is dull and empotionless at best but it’s in the needless framing device, in which we cut back to Blanchett on her death bed that really niggle. Overly sentimental and needless in the grand scheme of the story, it’s in these scenes that the film is really dragged down, in quality and pace.

Thankfully Pitt is on hand to bring back the balance, his performance is a wonder, both technically and emotionally. Oft under-rated, he again shows his range playing Benjamin from pensioner to teen, it’s in the earlier half of the film’s long running time that the story is at peak, in playing an child in an 80 year old man’s body Pitt holds your attention and you can’t take your eyes off the screen in disbelief at how Fincher and his team have used the technology to age the star, but beneth all the technical achievements is a performance earning every inch of his Academy Award nomination.

The latter half of the film becomes less concerned with Pitt’s journey and dealing with his plight and more of a love story, with the relationship between the two leads taking centra stage, its passable fare but doesn’t fulfill the promise of the infinitly more interesting first half. As the film approaches its close the use of the dying Blanchett and daughter becomes more pertinant and hackneyed, with the revelation that Button is the girl’s father and having these scenes set against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina, they are two plot devices too many, and your attention wavers when it should grip.   

VERDICT

Far from the masterpiece I had hoped for, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has a great film in there somewhere, and phenomenal performance by Pitt, but it becomes too hackneyed and is plighted by a miscast Blanchett gargling on her death-bed when it’s deeply in need of some emotional pull.

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Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Ryan Simpkins

Director: Sam Mendes

Screenplay: Justin Haythe, Richard Yates

Cinematography: Roger Deakins

Original Score: Thomas Newman

Running Time: 119 Mins.

Suburban angst, it seems to be Revolutionary Road director Sam Mendes speciality, which means that in returning to the topic that made Mendes the director he is acclaimed for being (with American Beauty) we have another truly special film to behold. After the lukewarm critical and commercial reception to Road to Perdition and Jarhead Mendes is back on safer ground with the double whammy of Kate and Leo, but of one thing you can be sure, this is no Titanic 2! 

Based on the award winning novel (aren’t most films at thsi time of year!) by Richard Yates we follow the brief meeting of Frank and April Wheeler, which then becomes, years down the line, a full blown marriage with 2.4 children, okay only 2 but you get the picture. Thing is, both husband and wife have grown tired in their holed up lives, Frank seeks sexual satisfaction with an office affair and Kate seeks solace in a neighbours arms, whilst playing at the doting house-wife. In order to break the monotony of their lives April suggests they move to Paris, at first Frank is over the moon, there he can, as April tells him, discover what who is and what carreer he wants instead of being stuck in an office.

As ever with these kind of plans, things begin to go wrong, events occur and many a domestic takes place. In reducing the plot down to words it is very hard to get across quite how gipping Revolutionary Road is, it hardly sounds like the most tension filled experience but with masters of their craft working this well you cannot fail to be swept along in the young couples plight (s).

As ever DiCaprio is excellent, showing yet another side to his craft, the conflict he feels in making choices is shown with such passion, that he has been denied an Oscar nod is a mystery. Almost matching him, with seemingly less screen time, is Winslet, whilst not her biggest fan the journey that she takes into eventual tragic circumstance is an emotional ride so heavy you almost feel like you are going through the same ordeal as her.

But, and this is a big but, the film is subtly lifted from being totally downbeat with blackly comic asides that don’t take from the drama in any way but simply serve to punctuate the ridiculousness of life and relationships and the choices we make, and this is where Oscar nominee Michael Shannon comes in. He is fully deserving of such an accolade and in only 2 scenes he becomes the backbone of the films message, saying what no-one else dare, being 100% open when all the supposedly ‘sane’ people around him dare not! If you needed but one reason alone to see Revolutionary Road it would be him.

Although when it boils down to it, this is Mendes film through and through, the man can frame the simplest shot and make it look unique, shot through an almost dream-like haze, it shows a story that is anything but dream like. Sucked into every shot and despite the liklihood that you won’t go away from Revolutionary Road with a big grin on your face, you will go away wanting to see it again. 

VERDICT

In Revolutionary Road suburban angst never looked so beautiful as Sam Mendes well and truly returns to form with the dream team of Kate and Leo, but it’s Michael Shannon who steals the show in only minutes of screen time. That’s not to knock the rest of a film, but simply testament as to how good it is as a whole. A word of warning though, this is the antithesis of an date movie!

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Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Diego Luna

Director: Gus Van Sant

Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black

Cinematography: Harris Savides

Original Score: Danny Elfman

Running Time: 128 Mins.

“You never go full retard”, so said Robert Downey Jr. (as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder) of Sean Penn in Oscar baiter I Am Sam, well the advice that fits more appropriately this time would beYou never go full gay”, for once again in his carreer Penn has chosen a role so blatantly written with a Golden Baldie in mind he might as well bear a badge saying vote Sean Penn, much less Harvey Milk!

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, for Milk is based on a true story of the first openly gay official voted into Californian office, famously murdered by Dan White, an opposing candidate, before his 50th birthday. Poignant stuff indeed, but a story that it would seem is best left in true documentary form, see The Life & Times of Harvey Milk (1984). Gus Van Sant is a director capable of very accomplished films, Good Will Hunting being the obvious example, and in Milk I had hoped for a similarly thought provoking experience, instead it has to be said that this had more in common with his shot for shot Psycho remake, needless and unimpressive as a whole.

Though positives do spike from the film, a handful of performances in particular, James Franco and Emile Hirsch only cement their staus with two very fantastically characterised performances demonstrating how hard Penn is trying in his lead role, for while he isn’t bad as such he just looks like Sean Penn trying his damn hardest to impersonate a gay politician for Oscar glory, only in two scenes does he shine and make his take on Milk more than just a imitation.

One being the assassination itself, which couldn’t fail to impact and two, the drunken conversation between Dan White and Milk at his Birthday party, scenes like this are much too few and far between and considering how excellent Josh Brolin is as White he doesn’t have nearly enough screen time. Building on his turn in last years No Country Brolin seems to be finally garnering the praise he is deserving of, but it’s too little too late in a filmic experience that can only be described as pedestrian A to B film making, Van Sant is capable of so much more, as is Penn when he isn’t show-boating.

VERDICT

Sean Penn on an Oscar crusade, you betcha (and that is far from a good thing!). A handful of support performances lift Milk from total mediocrity but the biggest criticism would have to be that it really serves no purpose as a film, and ultimately has nothing new to say about Harvey Milk and his crusade, seek out the 1984 documentary instead.

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Starring: Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Saurabh Shukla, Rajendranath Zutshi

Director: Danny Boyle

Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Vikas Swarup (novel)

Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle

Original Score: A. R. Rahman

Running Time: 120 Mins.

The feelgood film of the decade…or so the poster’s say, well if that were a truth we sure have one hell of a depressing year in cinema ahead! There is no doubt you will LEAVE the film with a smile but for 110 minutes prior to this director Danny Boyle really puts us through the emotional ringer, in the best possible way, for mis-selling the film is the only error made here. Never one to pigeon-hole himself to one genre Boyle has crafted a masterful filmic experience in suspense and emotion, both good and bad.

Slumdog Millionaire has much in common with Boyle’s own past foray into the effect of money of peoples lives in Millions. Millions was largely over looked by audiences, and failed to make much money or garner any awards buzz, unlike Slumdog which has already won Golden Globe plaudits and could quite possibly walk away with this years Best Picture Oscar. Not entirely undeserved achievements I did find Slumdog to be over-rated in the same way that Millions was under-rated.

Slumdog is essentially a series of short vignettes broken up by the questions posed to our hero (Dev Patel) on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.  Boyles storytelling mastery however escapes this potentially episodic style and forms a brilliantly paced race through Jamal’s life. Whilst encountering situations which enable him to make his way to the Indian equivalent of the million pound prize, but there is much more than a to this Slumdog than a gameshow, the issues of poverty, racism, and more pertinantly, child exploitation with a dash of the gangster underworld are explored, far from what you will go in expecting. 

Of all that is good about Slumdog though, it is the breathless pacing that makes it head and shoulders above many other films, though I can safely say I would struggle to compare it to any other film. Which really does work in its favour, originality is a very rare beast in Hollywood, or even Bollywood, which this has clear links too, not least because of the setting!

Much has been made of Slumdog not only being wrongly pushed as a feel-good film but also the romantic aspect, with banners on buses showing a picture that could almost have been taken from Four Weddings & A Funeral. Now, it would be wrong to say that Slumdog is not romantic but it’s certainly not a romantic film in the usual sense of the word. Again taking an original tack, Boyle has our romantic protaganists apart for the majority of the films running time building tension with a will-they/wont-they style plot.

The performances throughout are nothing less than good, with Patel given little room to show anything other than awe until the final third where he really lets loose and has some fun, the other standout is the Indian version of Chris Tarrant, all smiles and cock-sure style but with an almost weasly inner self, with one scene in the bathroom between him and Patel that really gets you thinking abouyt his true motives.

VERDICT

Slumdog Millionaire is far and away a major achievement for Boyle, his visual style is up there with the best, and the drama and thrills he wreenches from a potentially dull story is literally edge-of-your seat stuff! So while its not a feel-good film as such it’s certainly a great one, and like nothing you have or will ever have seen in the cinema, an exhilerating and original experience is more appropriate a slogan!

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Define optimism: putting your film up against Wall-E in the race for a Best Animated Feature Oscar. After all, I’ m fairly certain that Pixar’s loveable little robot has it in the bag. Yet that hasn’t stopped studios of all shapes and sizes from putting forward thirteen animated films as contenders for the 2009 award.

Wall-E, of course, makes fourteen. And they are: Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Kung-Fu Panda, Waltz With Bashir, The Tale Of Despereaux, Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears A Who!, Bolt, Delgo, Fly Me To The Moon, Igor, Dragon Hunters, $9.99, The Sky Crawlers, and Sword Of The Stranger.

Of that fourteen, only three films will actually be nominated when the announcements are made on January 22. And after that, of course, only one (Wall-E) can win (just give it to Wall-E now, I won’t say anything).

Mind you, I may be getting ahead of myself here. Although some of the other contenders would seem to be barking up the wrong tree (Igor? Seriously? Madagascar 2? WTF), some of the films there will fancy their chances of causing an upset come next February.

Waltz With Bashir, for example, is a serious and stunning drama (apparently) that could become this year’s Persepolis, while I’d put Kung-Fu Panda in there because it was just plain awesome. But, at this point in time, I reckon it’s Wall-E’s Oscar to lose. If you disagree, of course, feel free to vent below.