Sense of Wonder: Oscars push genre into ghetto – again

Academy nominates BENJAMIN BUTTON for Best Pic, WALL-E for Best Animated Film; DARK KNIGHT gets eight noms, including Ledger.

Taraji P. Henson and Brad Pitt earned two of 13 nominations for CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

Taraji P. Henson and Brad Pitt earned two of 13 nominations for CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

In a year when two of the most high profile films were superhero spectaculars that pleased audiences and impressed critics, and in which one of the best foreign language films was a haunting poem of childhood and vampires – in such a year, you might expect science fiction, fantasy, and horror to make a stronger than usual showing in the nominations for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ Oscar Awards. Unfortunately, you would be wrong.

Oh yes, there were some execptions: THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON was nominated across the board. Heath Ledger received the expected Supporting Actor nom for his role as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT; and the wonderful WALL-E got a couple of high-profile nods. By and larger, however, science fiction, fantasy, and horror films were nominated only in the ghetto of technical categories, like special effects and makeup.

The most glaring omissions were DARK KNIGHT and IRON MAN, both of which warranted inclusion in the Best Picture category instead of traditional Oscar bait like MILK, FROST/NIXON, THE READER, and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. Not that any of these were bad movies (SLUMDOG especially is worth seeing), but in terms of ambition and achievement, none could be said to be obviously superior to the more popular superhero films, which seem to have been excluded on the grounds of some sort of pretentious elitism that favors little-seen “art” movies over big-budget blockbusters.

Besides Heath Ledger’s nomination, THE DARK KNIGHT scored in seven technical categories: Art Direction, Cinematography, Film Editing, Makeup, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects. The film went unrecognized for its Direction and Screenplay.

IRON MAN received only two nominations, for Visual Effects and for Sound Editing. Besides being overlooked for Best Picture, the film should have earned Robert Downey Jr a nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in Leading Role, but he had to settle for a Supporting Role nomination for his work in TROPIC THUNDER. It’s just a guess on my part, but this seems like a consolation prize bestowed by voters who knew they had bypassed a deserving actor in the category where he deserved to be nominated.

Equally disappointing was the absence of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN from the foreign language category. The Oscars did well a couple years ago by picking PAN’S LABYRINTH, so they should be open to fantasy-horror subjects in this category, but for whatever reason, they skipped their chance to honor one of the best horror films made in recent years.

The good news for fantasy films was that THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON was nominated in 13 categories (coincidentally the same number of nominations it received in the Cinefantastique Wonder Awards). No doubt, the film’s fantasy conceit (of a man born old who grows young) was perceived as a metaphor, allowing voters to bestow accolades on it without fear that they were praising a low-brow “genre” film. Also, it is an uplifting film of the kind that Oscar voters appreciate. Even better, it is from a director (David Fincher) whose work, though admired, seldom scores big at the box office and is usually of too dark a nature to win Academy Awards – and we all know how much the Oscars like to reward people for abandoning the Dark Side. With this many nominations, BENJAMIN BUTTON becomes the front-runner for Best Picture.

The genre’s other big multiple nominee was Pixar’s WALL-E, which received not only the obligatory nod in the Best Animated Feature Film category but also nominations for its music score, for Best Song (”Down to Earth“), for Sound Editing, and for Sound Mixing.

The Best Animated Feature Film category – which has a bad rep because there are so few films from which to pick nominees – managed to pick three deserving titles ths year. Besides WALL-E, KUNG FU PANDA and BOLT made the grade.

The only other genre film to earn a nomination was HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY, which was recognized for its makeup work by Mike Elizalde and Thom Floutz.

Overall, it was an unforgivble example of overlooking impressive achievements from a year that saw a vitual flood of high-quality fantasy films, horror movies, and science fiction cinema. If ever there were a year in which the Academy Awards could have nominated some genre titles that were both popular favorites and artistic successes, it was 2008. Fortunately, Cinefantastique Online offers an alternative to the Oscars, the Wonder Awards, which throw a spotlight on Oscar-worthy genre efforts from last year. Click here to read our list of nominations.

Below is a list of Oscar nominations for science fiction, fantasy, and horror film. For the complete AMPAS list of nomiations, click here.

Performance by an actor in a leading role
Brad Pitt in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.)

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.)

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Taraji P. Henson in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.)

Best animated feature film of the year
“Bolt” (Walt Disney), Chris Williams and Byron Howard
“Kung Fu Panda” (DreamWorks Animation, Distributed by Paramount), John Stevenson and Mark Osborne
“WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Andrew Stanton

Achievement in art direction
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Art Direction: Donald Graham Burt, Set Decoration: Victor J. Zolfo
“The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Art Direction: Nathan Crowley, Set Decoration: Peter Lando

Achievement in cinematography
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Claudio Miranda
“The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Wally Pfister

Achievement in costume design
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Jacqueline West

Achievement in directing
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), David Fincher

Achievement in film editing
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall
“The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Lee Smith

Achievement in makeup
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Greg Cannom
“The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), John Caglione, Jr. and Conor O’Sullivan
“Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (Universal), Mike Elizalde and Thom Floutz
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Alexandre Desplat
“WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Thomas Newman
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
“Down to Earth” from “WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Music by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman, Lyric by Peter Gabriel

Best motion picture of the year
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), A Kennedy/Marshall Production, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Ceán Chaffin, Producers

Achievement in sound editing
“The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Richard King
“Iron Man” (Paramount and Marvel Entertainment), Frank Eulner and Christopher Boyes
“WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood

Achievement in sound mixing
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Mark Weingarten
“The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo and Ed Novick
“WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Tom Myers, Michael Semanick and Ben Burtt

Achievement in visual effects
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron
“The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Tim Webber and Paul Franklin
“Iron Man” (Paramount and Marvel Entertainment), John Nelson, Ben Snow, Dan Sudick and Shane Mahan
Adapted screenplay
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Screenplay by Eric Roth, Screen story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord

Original screenplay
“WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Original story by Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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