Some artists like to pretend that they don't care about award recognition, that they are simply grateful for the chance to do satisfying work. Comments of this ilk usually surface mere days before the cameras are set to focus in on their practiced—and Botox-assisted—gracious-loser faces. Anne Hathaway reportedly loves Meryl's thespian commitment and focus, but secretly she's dying to steal that ultimate piece of gold bling away from her Devil Wears Prada co-star. And you know Brad is ready to go all Achilles on favorite Sean Penn.
The 81st Academy Awards ceremony will be broadcast live Sunday night, but before you tune in to all the couture cattiness and poker-faced passivity, you still have a full weekend to get out and watch the nominated films. Here's your guide to the major-category contenders that are still playing on Treasure Valley big screens.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: "Youth ..." my grandmother used to say, "is wasted on the young." Not so for Button (Brad Pitt), who is blessed—or cursed—with the conundrum of aging in reverse. Adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, it offers a gentler example of director David Fincher's (Fight Club, Seven) talents. Cate Blanchett gives wonderful support as Button's "ships in the night" love interest, and the visual effects seamlessly carry the audience through the changing eras. Nominations: Best Actor (Pitt), Best Supporting Actress (Taraji P. Henson), Best Director (Fincher), Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Eric Roth, Robin Swicord).
Frost/Nixon: Translating a stage work onto the big screen is no easy task, but director Ron Howard and scribe Peter Morgan—adapting from his own play—masterfully capture the tension leading up to the landmark 1977 interviews between softball journalist David Frost (Michael Sheen) and disgraced former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). Nominations: Best Actor (Langella), Best Director (Howard), Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Morgan).
Milk: Gus Van Sant's empathetic biopic stars Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the so-called mayor of Castro Street and the first openly gay elected official in California. The film follows the last several years of his life leading up to his assassination by a zealous fellow supervisor (Josh Brolin). Nominations: Best Actor (Penn), Best Supporting Actor (Brolin), Best Director (Van Sant), Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (Dustin Lance Black).
The Reader: Thirteen years and five Oscar nominations after her first, Kate Winslet might finally break her career-long losing streak. She plays Hanna, a German woman who engages in an affair with a young student (played at different ages by David Kross and Ralph Fiennes). His discovery of her dark past dramatically affects them both. Nominations: Best Actress (Winslet), Best Director (Stephen Daldry), Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay (David Hare).
Slumdog Millionaire: Following the classical tradition of comedic narrative, the film begins with a stark torture scene and ends with a riotous Bollywood-inspired dance number. Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Millions) directs this Dickensian tale of a Mumbai orphan turned quiz-show celebrity with verve and kinetic aplomb. When Jamal (British newcomer Dev Patel) becomes a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, no one expects the unschooled street kid to get past the first few rounds. But Jamal's hardscrabble upbringing has prepared him for the head-scratching questions, and his exposure on national television may be the key to reconnecting with childhood sweetheart Latika (Freida Pinto). It's an exuberant and electric modern fable that manages to be both a feel-good film as well as a hard look at the effects of poverty. Nominations: Best Director (Boyle), Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Simon Beaufoy).
The Wrestler: This film opens with a litany of headlines, most extolling the pro-wrestling prowess of Randy "the Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke), but a few questioning whether he's still at the top of his game. Twenty years after his news-making prime, Randy is looking for wilder stunts to try to attract the fever-pitch attention of his bygone days. When a massive coronary forces him to retire after a particularly brutal match, he is confronted by the shambles of his life—an estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), a one-sided affection for an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei) and a mindless grocery deli-counter job. Rourke, the quintessential Hollywood anomaly, is tailor-made for this role. Moviegoers have been treated to a slew of "comeback" films in the past several years, but by making a sort of anti-revival flick—the audience left rooting for Randy to stay out of the ring—Rourke turns this tiresome trick over on its head. Director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, The Fountain) sensitively balances the film's raw and poignant moments with the hard-edged glam-rock setting of professional wrestling. It's an excellent portrait of the fickleness of fame and the damaged caused by trying to gain it. Nominations: Best Actor (Rourke), Best Supporting Actress (Tomei).