It was a dark day for “The Dark Knight” as the 81st annual Oscar nominations, announced Thursday, snubbed the most popular film since “Titanic.”
Christopher Nolan’s Batman film, which has earned nearly $1 billion worldwide, was expected to be the first superhero film nominated for best picture. Instead, voters favored a multicultural mix of highbrow fare and historical commentary: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Milk,” “The Reader” and “Slumdog Millionaire” will compete for best picture.
The Dark Knight
Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Eric Roberts, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 18 Jul 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 21 Jul 2008 (General release); 2008)
Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan
Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan
(Fox Searchlight; US theatrical: 12 Nov 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 9 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, David Kross
(Weinstein Company; US theatrical: 10 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 2 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall
(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 5 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 23 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
The comic book film was recognized in just one key category. As expected, Heath Ledger was posthumously nominated as best supporting actor for his performance as the crazed, charismatic Joker. The film received seven other nominations in technical categories.
“Button,” a time-tripping fantasy inspired by an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, led the pack with 13 nominations, including acting honors for Brad Pitt and supporting actress Taraji P. Henson, and a directing nod for David Fincher.
The film ranks just behind “Titanic” and “All About Eve,” which scored 14 nominations apiece, and is tied with “Gone With the Wind: and “From Here to Eternity.”
Pitt’s partner, Angelina Jolie, is also a nominee, for her leading role as the mother of a kidnapped boy in “Changeling.”
“Millionaire,” a Mumbai-based rags-to-riches romance, echoed its theme. Despite its out-of-nowhere origins, Hindi-heavy script and a cast of unknowns, the underdog came in second with 10 nominations, including a directing slot for Danny Boyle and two of the three song nods.
The political biography “Milk” was tapped in eight categories. Sean Penn received a best actor nod for his sensitive portrayal of slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk, and Josh Brolin was nominated in the supporting category as his killer. Director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black also were nominated.
The leading actress category had the biggest share of surprises. Kate Winslet, who won two Golden Globes as best dramatic actress for “Revolutionary Road” and supporting actress for “The Reader,” received a single Oscar nomination, for lead actress in “The Reader,” playing as a German woman implicated in WWII war crimes.
Other best actress nominations favored modestly budgeted independent films. Disney princess Anne Hathaway was honored for her performance as a neurotic 12-stepper in “Rachel Getting Married,” and longtime character actress Melissa Leo for playing a trailer-park single mother in “Frozen River.”
Also in contention is Oscar magnet Meryl Streep as an intolerant nun in “Doubt.” It was Streep’s 15th nomination, and ties her with Katharine Hepburn as the most-nominated leading actress ever, with 12.
“Doubt” also earned supporting-actor spots for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis and Amy Adams. Writer/director John Patrick Shanley earned a screenplay nomination for bringing his Tony- and Pulitzer-winning 2005 drama to the screen.
Mickey Rourke’s career-resurrecting role in “The Wrestler” as a grappler who hurts himself the most, had been considered a lock for a best-actor nod. Frank Langella’s reprise of his Tony-winning Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” and Penn’s Harvey Milk were also sure things. Less predictable were the honors for Pitt’s muted, makeup-intensive performance as a man who ages backwards in “Button” and veteran supporting player Richard Jenkins, making his first star turn in “The Visitor.”
Robert Downey Jr.‘s controversial blackface comedy performance in “Tropic Thunder” joined Ledger’s whiteface turn in “The dark Knight” in the supporting-actor field. Michael Shannon rounded out the supporting field for “Revolutionary Road.”
Penelope Cruz was tapped for her supporting role as a Latina spitfire in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” as was Oscar winner Marisa Tomei, playing a past-her-prime stripper in “The Wrestler.”
David Burton Morris, a Twin Cities feature film director who cast ballots for best picture and director in this round, and can vote in all categories in the final ballot, declared himself generally satisfied with the field.
“‘Benjamin Button’ was embalmed, but a technical marvel like nothing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It was hard to feel any empathy for the character because he has so many age differentiations. It pushes the envelope of what you can do with computer graphics, but it didn’t move me that much.”
Morris was more enthusiastic about the other best-picture nominees.
“In ‘Frost/Nixon’ Ronnie Howard took something that could have been quite dry and boring on paper and gave almost a documentary feel to it,” he said. “I thought Gus Van Sant did a fantastic job in ‘Milk.’ Certainly Sean Penn gave an unbelievable performance, but Van Sant’s vision, intercutting the archival stuff into it, made it so you understood the period, understood gay rights and really cared about this guy most people haven’t heard of. You understand how it resonates today.”
“‘The Reader’ left me very depressed. Kate Winslet gave an incredible performance. You felt empathy for her,” even though she is on trial for horrific actions against Jewish prisoners. “It left me more conflicted than any other film and so depressed that I had to go directly to bed.
“And I walked away from ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ feeling there’s no way I could ever have directed that. I was totally blown away by shooting it in Mumbai, by the storytelling, by the technique, the way Danny Boyle shot video and film. It ranks as easily one of the best pictures of the year, if not best picture,” he said.