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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Top critics wallop Oscar nominees

Having heard all the dismissive talk about the hapless new "At the Movies" team of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, I have a suggestion: If you want Must See Movie Critic TV, it's time to dump those lightweights and hire the New York Times' A.O. Scott and the New Yorker's David Denby, who put on a heady demonstration of critical fireworks Friday night on the Charlie Rose show. Although clearly a bit taken aback by the critics' rough treatment of the hallowed Oscar nominees, Rose still knew he'd seen two cultural observers at the top of their game, saying at show's end that it was "the best conversation about movies that's ever taken place at this table." For once, Charlie was actually understating the case. Eager to hear about the Oscar best picture and actor nominations, Rose got an earful from Denby and Scott, who both thought the best picture category would've been a lot stronger if it had a few films with real bite and depth, like "Rachel Getting Married" or "Wall-E."

Scott perfectly grasps the underlying flaw of the Academy Awards, which has led to oh-so-many dazzling films being ignored in favor of middlebrow crowd-pleasers like "A Beautiful Mind." As he put it: "I think the Oscars are an odd phenomena because what they're really about is not the best movies of a given year, but the American film industry's image of itself." After sharing solid enthusiasm for "Milk" and engaging in a fierce debate over "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the critical duo--Denby looking like a natty college professor, Scott like a brainy Rand analyst--proceeded to strafe the remainder of the best picture field, damning best picture favorite "Slumdog Millionaire" with the faintest of praise (Denby called it "fun and sentimental, but not a great film in any way") before dismissing "Frost/Nixon" (Scott calling it "a well-done minor film that should allow itself to be minor") and heaping scorn on "The Reader." And what scorn!

Scott: "It's not a serious film. It's a self-serious film. The novel [it's based on] is a pretentious, sentimental consecration of an idea of literature that is just nonsensical and preposterous."

Denby on Ralph Fiennes' dreary performance: "What you got was his handsome face looking into nowhere for an hour. I wanted to give him a kick. Just do something!"

But it was their lively, biting exchange over "Benjamin Button" that really hit paydirt.

Bigpicture

It all started when Scott teased Denby, saying "I don't adore 'Button,' but I certainly didn't think it was the worst movie of the year [gesturing toward Denby] as you did." Denby laughed, saying, "Well, that was a little bit of a riff," with Scott shooting back, "You obviously didn't see 'The Love Guru.' ''

But that was just the beginning. How brutal was Denby's dissection of "Button?"  Keep reading:

 

Denby really was insulted by "Button's" entire filmmaking stance. "It took a playful science-fiction conceit of a story from F. Scott Fitzgerald and literalized it and monumentalized it and solemnized it. The level of the craft is extraordinary, but I don't see anything dramatic going on there.... Brad Pitt doesn't take a close-up well. The camera doesn't discover anything in his eyes. He doesn't know how to dramatize thought. I mean, how can we have deep, profound thoughts about what's essentially an artificial conceit?" Scott retorted: "You could say that about any movie that takes place in a world of fantasy or unreality. You could say that about 'Wall-E.' That movie is a conceit and it's still the most profoundly moving movie of the year."

Denby was unmoved: "This movie never came alive dramatically. It was just absorbed in its own mechanics." Scott gave him a sidelong look, like a guy in a bar who just heard someone say that Willie Mays really wasn't such a great center fielder. "Actually," said Scott, "the more I hear you say  that, the more I find myself actually liking the movie. For me, it had a structure that was almost like a piece of music. It just flows."

Scott acknowledged that he was dreading making the trek to the screening room to see "Button," having heard that it was nearly three hours long. "To tell the truth, I was not looking forward to it. I sort of fought it for the first half-hour and then, well I didn't look at my watch for the rest of the film." With great timing, at least for a critic, Denby waited a beat and then sniffed: "I developed a love affair with my watch."

I know the great age of criticism is supposed to be over. But this was a wonderful throwback to the glory days of film criticism, hearing two wonderful practitioners of their trade sharpening their stilettos, separating the wheat from the chaff and actually sounding like they still enjoyed their jobs. But don't take my word for it. Watch for yourself:

Photo credit: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" from Paramount Pictures

 
Comments () | Archives (10)

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This was an excellent discussion. However, A.O. Scott totally misses the theme of The Reader (at least the book, probably the film). The Reader is not about the redemptive power of literature. It is about the banality of evil. The relationship of Hanna to both the concentration camp prisoners and to Michael is abusive, and their reading to her in no way redeems her.

I couldn't agree with Denby more regarding Benjamin Buttons. It was so self important and over blown and cloying. And there is nothing interesting or compelling in the character that Brad Pitt portays. If i'd been wearing a belt during the viewing it I would've hanged myself.

The producers of the reader are TO BE ANNOUNCED!!! You've got to be kidding men and they snubbed the dark knight for the reader. Now that's just stupid. The Dark Knight was way better than the reader in every sense. Higher box office gross more critical acclaim was on AFI's and NBR's top 10 movies of 2008 list(the reader wasn't). I mean it also could have boosted up oscar ratings. The academy members have gone nuts. Not only did they snub the dark knight but they chose the worst possible movie to do it with. I mean look at its ratings on rotten tomatoes and metacritic and compare it to the dark knight. If they were to snub the dark knight why didn't they do it with wall-e or gran torino. I mean come on that's just stupid.
I AM GOING TO BOYCOTT THE OSCARS AND JUST CHECK ONLINE TO SEE IF HEATH LEDGER WON THE OSCAR!!!!!!!!!!!!! AND HEATH LEDGER BETTER WIN THE OSCAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thank you Rose, Denby and Scott! They should have a weekly or at least yearly session (and bring in Manohla Dargis). While the faults of the Academy are not news, its refreshing to see films taken seriously on television. That said, the chinks in Denby/Scott's critical armor and their own hypocrisy is exposed in praise for Rachel getting married. There was not a more maudlin or self-indulgent film this year, and, as bad as button and the reader were, they cannot touch Rachel for empty theatrics and navel-gazing.

Hey -"The producers of the reader are TO BE ANNOUNCED!!! You've got to be kidding men and they snubbed the dark knight for the reader. Now that's just stupid. The Dark Knight was way better than the reader in every sense. Higher box office gross more critical acclaim was on AFI's and NBR's top 10 movies of 2008 list(the reader wasn't). I mean it also could have boosted up oscar ratings. The academy members have gone nuts. Not only did they snub the dark knight but they chose the worst possible movie to do it with. I mean look at its ratings on rotten tomatoes and metacritic and compare it to the dark knight. If they were to snub the dark knight why didn't they do it with wall-e or gran torino. I mean come on that's just stupid.
I AM GOING TO BOYCOTT THE OSCARS AND JUST CHECK ONLINE TO SEE IF HEATH LEDGER WON THE OSCAR!!!!!!!!!!!!! AND HEATH LEDGER BETTER WIN THE OSCAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Your Dark Knight Comments make me sick. The only award nom it was snubbed of was for costumes. The movie was total Crap! did you even see the The Reader, because there is a reason it has been nominated for awards like the Golden Globes and the Oscars...it was good. Let's talk about the real snub for the Dark Knight and that is it was not nominated for a single Razzie award.

I agree that the Dark Knight was just a good movie and not best picture material. But as far as Scott and Denby my humble opinion is that these are two liberal film critics and its no wonder that they fell for the dreary WALL-E (probably their testimonial to Al Gore) and I will leave it there. Their choices of the years best suck. As for the Academy, it is no secret based on past years, if you want to be nominated for an OSCAR make a good holocaust film and a gay film no matter how good they might be and your in.

That is a good discussion. I actually went to see COBB and wasn't that impressed myself. I must admit there were moments in the film that were touching. But Brad's peformance was not Oscar worthy. I couldn't understand his approach to his character. He was to subtle or trying to be good and understanding. I don't know what to say. The movie is overhyped and onverblown to garner attention and publicity.
I went on a blog and stated the fact then that I didn't understand the need for all the sex that was implied in the film.

I will say, there is no way that Revolutionary Road should have been overlooked, particularly in the Best Actor category. Leo is on top of his game. Check out my full review, here. Enjoy!
The Rake
http://thefilmnest.com/2009/01/revolutionary-road-review/

"The Dark Knight" is a great film, the best of the year, and will be watched and admired long after "Milk," "Frost/Nixon" and "The Reader" are forgotten.

David Denby was one of the first critics that I ever started to follow. A friend of mine raved about him to me, this was when we were both in college. In New York.
This friend was, last I checked, a president at New Line.
A.O. Scott is one of my more recent, and additional favorites.
Even when I disagree, my respect doesn't waver.
They're in the "Ivy League" of film critics.


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