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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Top critics wallop Oscar nominees

January 26, 2009 |  4:42 pm

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

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