Once a year, Hollywood dresses herself up real pretty and tries to convince everyone that she's not a skank who'll do anything for a couple of bucks. Sometimes her elaborate ruse works, and sometimes it doesn't—but regardless, the next morning, movie nerds the world over wake up feeling tricked and lonely and sad.
Okay, so maybe calling an inanimate awards show slutty isn't the classiest thing I've ever done, but I'll stand by it. The 81st Annual Academy Awards air this weekend, bringing with them a lackluster slate of Best Picture nominees, Hugh Jackman as a host (is it too much to ask that he stays in character as Wolverine throughout?), and a sure-to-be-awkward honorary award for Jerry Lewis, who has raised an incredible $2 billion for muscular dystrophy research and also likes to call gay people "faggots." As befits a ceremony this classy, the thing's scheduled to run three and a half goddamn hours (including the obligatory half-hour of leering at celebrities on the red carpet), and as with any sort of contest, we can probably predict a few winners: Heath Ledger will posthumously win Best Supporting Actor. The golem known as Mickey Rourke will win Best Actor. Slumdog Millionaire, the standout in a not-so-great pack of contenders, will win Best Picture.
Don't quote me on any of those predictions—I'm as close to certain as I can be on that shit, but just because she's got a nice dress on doesn't mean Hollywood will be any smarter or any more predictable. This is the same Academy that decided Crash was better than Brokeback Mountain and Good Night, and Good Luck in 2005, threw 11 Oscars at Titanic in 1997, and decided Forrest Gump was a better picture than Pulp Fiction in 1994. Trying to accurately ascertain who's going to win an Oscar is like trying to make it all the way through The Curious Case of Benjamin Button without rolling your eyes: It simply cannot be done.
That's not to say that some films and filmmakers shouldn't win Oscars, nor that it shouldn't be cool when they do. Sure, the Oscars' main purpose is to sell more tickets to (and DVDs of) whatever films Hollywood is least ashamed of, but they're also the closest thing to genuine artistic appreciation that Tinseltown can muster, which counts for something. I'll act all grumpy and cantankerous about the whole ceremony, but I'll still be upset if Danny Boyle doesn't win Best Director for his exhilarating, breathless work on Slumdog, and I still want AR Rahman and M.I.A. to win Best Original Song for Slumdog's "O Saya," because that shit just rules, and while Ledger will win due to rote sentimentality, I'm going to pretend the recognition is because of his astounding performance, which'll make it feel a bit less mercenary.
The two best pictures this year are nominated in categories other than Best Picture: The fantastic Wall-E has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay, while Werner Herzog's beautiful, melancholy Encounters at the End of the World—a film that, astoundingly, marks the first time the director has been nominated for an Oscar in his four-decade-long career—is stuck in the Best Documentary category. (At least those two were nominated for something—two of last year's best foreign films, Sweden's tween vampire love story Let the Right One In and Italy's mobster epic Gomorrah, found themselves with no love come nomination time.) And while I'm being all contrary, I'll even jump into that controversy about this year's most debated snub: Would a Best Picture nomination have been overkill for The Dark Knight? Probably. But I'll be damned if out of all the films that came out last year, that superhero blockbuster didn't perfectly capture the angry, nihilistic, terrified tone of the waning days of the Bush administration.
Despite their usual love of pop epics like Gladiator and Titanic, in recent years the Oscars have focused more on smaller, better pictures, like last year's best picture nominees that practically nobody saw, No Country for Old Men, Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, and There Will Be Blood. Just like last year, there are some good pictures here, buried among all the overrated other nominees—and if an overblown night of smug self-congratulation convinces a few more people to see one or two films they wouldn't have otherwise? It's hard to argue with that.
Plus, who knows? Maybe Jerry Lewis will slip up and call Wolverine queer or something! Now that's entertainment.