Denby nails it

Posted by · 5:50 pm · February 2nd, 2009

If you saw his TV chat with Charlie Rose and A.O. Scott, you won’t be surprised to read that critic David Denby doesn’t think much of this year’s Oscar crop. (And if you didn’t, you could probably guess.) Anyway, in this very lucid New Yorker piece, he expands on the points he raised on the show, tearing apart every Best Picture nominee but “Milk,” and lamenting the exclusion of “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “Rachel Getting Married.” I don’t agree with everything he says (and I do think he’s unnecessarily cynical about “Slumdog Millionaire”), but he’s bang on-target here:

In the well-acted “Frost / Nixon,” a nice journalistic coup—David Frost’s pushing Richard Nixon into semi-confessional mode, in 1977—has been elevated to a great transformative moment in history, which, alas, it was not. These two films (“Frost/Nixon” and “The Reader”) may have been controlled more by their directors and their writers than by their studios, but they’re still the kind of middlebrow pictures that the Academy used to nominate in the bad old studio-dominated days—the contemporary equivalents of “Judgment at Nuremburg” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” They are “important” pictures that “say” something about public issues. They’re good for the industry’s image.

Note the quotation marks. The rest here.

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21 responses so far

  • 1 2-02-2009 at 6:02 pm

    murtada said...

    I usually don’t agree with Denby (or Anthony Lane) and find the critiques in the New Yorker obtuse and pompous. However this time he makes a good case against Frost/Nixon and the Reader, I found myself agreeing with him!

  • 2 2-02-2009 at 6:47 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Didn’t agree with him here. I felt he was being overly pompous and self-righteous, and differed in opinion on pretty much everything he said. I was more with Scott on this one, especially his views on “Benjamin Button.”

  • 3 2-02-2009 at 6:47 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Sorry, I meant to say “I differed in opinion on pretty much everything he said.”

  • 4 2-02-2009 at 8:05 pm

    bigherbs said...

    I had to agree with his cynical view of Slumdog. I had a similar feeling when I watched the movie. It was lush and marvelously crafted; a technicolor dream of a slum. But it all rang a tad hollow for me.

  • 5 2-02-2009 at 8:10 pm

    Jim said...

    So Denby and Ebert prefer Milk. Interesting.

    I’m happy he liked Milk more than the others but I liked The Reader and Slumdog Millionaire as well. But I do think Milk is a more complete film than the others.

  • 6 2-02-2009 at 8:13 pm

    James D. said...

    Great article. I think Milk is the only one deserving of being nominated. It should have been joined by Happy-Go-Lucky, The Wrestler, Rachel Getting Married, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

  • 7 2-02-2009 at 8:55 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Pretty spot-on article, although to be honest I had more problems with Benjamin Button than he did.

  • 8 2-02-2009 at 10:03 pm

    PJ said...

    Denby’s propensity in this article for a brand of cynicism that’s a tad mean-spirited (you’d have to be fairly jaded to see “Slumdog Millionaire” as a “jumpy, hyper-edited commercial for poverty”) almost obscures the very valid criticisms he makes of the Best Picture nominees. His point about “The Reader” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” obscuring the messages of their respective source materials is especially pertinent. But the article would be better served if he used some of the time spent tearing into the other nominees to explain why “Milk” is the best out of the lot in more detail than it simply being a “bio-pic with a thrilling sense of history and lots of jokes and sex”, which, frankly, is a little degrading.

  • 9 2-03-2009 at 4:50 am

    red_wine said...

    James D, I completely agree with you & Denby, Milk is the only film worth nominating, the rest are just filler, most of all Button & Slumdog.

    His critique of Button
    “You come away from it … with the impression that something profound has been said without having any idea what it could be. The central drama in the picture turns out to be Brad Pitt’s makeup.”
    I completely agree, the movie is so self-serious & gracious that you have doubts on your own sanity that the ridiculous movie you just saw might have some meaning that you cant decipher.

    His critique Of Slumdog.
    “The central plot mechanism of “Slumdog Millionaire” … feels both cheesy and rigid. Apart from a nagging implausibility—how could every question link up with an old memory? Everything is seen in a flash … and nothing is prepared, explained, or understood. Boyle has created what looks like a jumpy, hyper-edited commercial for poverty—he uses the squalor and violence touristically, as an aspect of the fabulous.”
    While I do agree thats its really horrible that Westerners might come away with the impression that so what if people live in slums, they still enjoy themselves and have some really great moments in life of happiness. The reality couldn’t be further away.
    And besides, its plain and simple an undeserving movie.

    This years Oscars are gonna be a thing of ridicule in the future, the only way yet to save it would be to give Best Picture to Milk.

  • 10 2-03-2009 at 6:14 am

    Cliff said...

    I think that Milk deserves a bit more scrutiny (read: criticism) than it’s been getting. I’m totally disgusted with the BP nominees this year, but I don’t think Milk is in a league of its own as the only “deserving” one of the five. For some reason, its brand of triteness has been getting a free pass.

  • 11 2-03-2009 at 6:25 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I kind of agree with you, Cliff. Because the story is so unavoidably moving, and the performances so stellar, I think a lot of people are overlooking just how pedestrian Van Sant’s take on the material frequently is. I, for one, was hoping for something a little rawer and more dangerous from him — but then, I guess we wouldn’t be talking about it today as a Best Picture nominee. It’s frustrating.

  • 12 2-03-2009 at 7:09 am

    Mike V. said...

    I agree that Milk is the best picture out of the 5 nominees. Slumdog is completely overrated, there’s nothing special about that film. It’s predictable, formulaic and full of flashbacks in excess.

  • 13 2-03-2009 at 7:58 am

    chris said...

    Did anyone else realize that he totally messed up the timeline for The Reader???? A 15 year old boy in 1950s Germany does NOT have an affair with a former concentration camp gaurd. The affair obviously happens before she ever becomes a gaurd. Also, Ralph Fiennes is no where present during the trial. If you don’t like the movie that’s fine, but how can your review really hold water when you kind of missed some of the basic (and pretty obvious) plot points of the movie. Did he even see it?

  • 14 2-03-2009 at 8:06 am

    red_wine said...

    Guy, I agree that some of Milk’s impact is due to the liberal outrage & heartbreak caused by the story itself, and the film is conventional in every way, but it is the only Oscar movie this year(movies that were heralded as big Oscar favorites right from the beginning) that came close to fulfilling its promise.

    Its a very well staged movie & the performances are truly home-runs. It would be in the 2nd quintet of my Top 10 but still its a solid movie and a very respectable Best Pic nominee & definitely better than what other films are nominated.

    I would not even dream of nominating Slumdog or including it in my Top 10. Its gonna age badly I think, and will be bracketed along with A Beautiful Mind.

  • 15 2-03-2009 at 8:07 am

    chris said...

    re: my previous comment…

    oops, my bad. In quickly skimming (darn wasting time at work! haha) the article I thought he was saying you knew she was a gaurd before you knew they had an affair (hence losing the element of surprise). So I take that back.

    Btw, if anyone has read the book, I like it a lot better that way – without jumping through time.

  • 16 2-03-2009 at 1:39 pm

    Jason said...

    i think “milk” is the most overrated out of the bunch, even though i enjoyed. to me, it’s a conventional episodic bio-pic (here he meets this dude, this dude commits suicide, then he gives a speech) that has no narrative innovation, nor is it shot in any spectacularly cinematic way (except the police whistle shot). i think that “paranoid park” is more interesting cinematic. what sets “milk” apart from a boring run-of-the-mill biopic is the truly astounding sean penn performance, not to mention a pretty brilliant support cast.

  • 17 2-03-2009 at 2:35 pm

    JC said...

    I agree that Paranoid Park is more interesting in cinematic terms than Milk (with gloriously hypnotic cinematography by the great Christopher Doyle), but felt that the amateurish acting and narration kept it firmly in the “good but not great” pile.

  • 18 2-03-2009 at 7:05 pm

    Average Joe said...

    About the only thing I agree with Denby on is that Milk is the best of the bunch. I don’t understand how he can praise the last two Zwick films and smackdown Button and Slumbog, but that’s the beauty of subjectivity I guess.

    I kinda resent that slap at Judgement at Nuremberg? Am I the only one that loves that film? I saw it again not too long ago, and Lancaster’s testimony scene at the end is all sorts of awesome.

  • 19 2-12-2009 at 2:34 pm

    Chris G said...

    “I had to agree with his cynical view of Slumdog. I had a similar feeling when I watched the movie. It was lush and marvelously crafted; a technicolor dream of a slum. But it all rang a tad hollow for me.”

    My god… I thought I was alone in this world!
    I didn’t really care much for slumdog either. It was beautifully made, but to me the story was predictable, monotonous and too “constructed” (with all answers having a story and everything predictably falling into place at the end).

  • 20 2-12-2009 at 3:02 pm

    Chris G said...

    And by constructed I mean just what he mentions here: “Apart from a nagging implausibility—how could every question link up with an old memory?”