Film prizes are usually a bloated mess, and encourage vacuous criticism. Here's what we should really be celebrating from the last 12 months of film
February 28, 2009

International film prizes are given throughout the year but the biggies in the Anglophone world—the Baftas, the Golden Globes, the Oscars—are crammed into the new year and early spring.

Inevitably, a kind of group-think emerges. The Golden Globes' results influence voting for the Oscars, as does the Bafta gong list. The resulting advertising campaigns for prestige pictures like The Reader, Revolutionary Road, Milk and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button create a gold rush for the trade press. Industry rags triple in size, swollen with brazen claims for often modest movies. Everything is a "must see," an "all-time great"—an elephantiasis as icky as the group-think.

I've long argued that the Oscars in particular, like a whiny kid, should be ignored; yet the world's media continue to swoon at this middlebrow frock fest that has consistently failed to celebrate the best in cinema around the world. So, as a tiny rejoinder to it, here are my 2008 winners and losers—the Prospect version of the Oscars.

The political film of the year, Steve McQueen's Bobby Sands film Hunger, had virtually no politics in it. Meanwhile, the almost political film of the year was—and I can't believe I'm typing this—Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, in which the bonged-up Asian-American odd couple are mistaken for terrorists and, after incarceration, threatened with "a cock meat sandwich" by US marine Big Bob. It shouldn't have worked, but it did.

In its annual rollcall of the dead, the Oscars will no doubt salute Paul Newman, Heath Ledger, Charlton Heston, Sydney Pollack and the director Anthony Minghella—and quite right too. But the first great African and Arab director, Yousef Chahine, died in 2008 too, as did Chinas's greatest living filmmaker Xie Jin and Japan's most committed documentarian, Noriaki Tsuchimoto. Each changed the course of film history. I've written about all three in this column. Let's see if the Oscars remember them.

Another loss was the great film critic Manny Farber, who famously championed "termite art" like B-movies over what he thought of as pretentious "white elephant" films. In the spirit of acknowledging efficiency over prestige, our "That Wasn't Ninety Minutes, Was It?" award for zap and zest goes to Cloverfield, which shows a monster attack on Manhattan through the lens of a handheld camera. I watched it with Irvine Welsh. Not only did we grin like dingbats the whole way through, we did so for ages afterwards. Far, far longer was Synecdoche, New York, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, which gets the "WTF?" award. Watching it in Cannes at 8.30am felt as if theatre director Tadeusz Kantor had come back from the dead and stormed Hollywood. Philip Seymour Hoffman was good in this as the theatre director whose rehearsals take over the whole city and last a lifetime, but he's not close to winning our acting gongs.

The year started with a performance as big, cold and hard to process as Orson Welles in Citizen Kane: Daniel Day Lewis channelling John Huston as Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood. Mickey Rourke channelled himself in The Wrestler, and made me cry, but the performances of the year were by Russian opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya, who doesn't sing a note in Alexandra, and Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

Performance was also what set aquiver the "Most Memorable Scene of the Year"—Meryl Streep singing Abba's "The Winner takes it All" on a Greek cliff in Mamma Mia! Many thought its emotions were in the wrong register, but her refusal to understate this song gave it the feral excitement of melodrama. For the opposite reason, Johnny Depp's emo-inflected opening song in Sweeney Todd— "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit/And the vermin in the world inhabit it/And its morals aren't worth what a pig might spit/And it goes by the name of London"—was pure joy. Still on music, Indian composer AR Rahman's percussive score for Slumdog Millionaire wins him our composer of the year award.

article body image

Moving on to the hotly contested, "Still Taking the Stupid Pills?" award, we were tempted to give this to the Will Smith slacker superhero film Hancock (pictured, right) because of the asinine plot revelation halfway through that Charlize Theron's character is a superhero too. But then we remembered Sharon Stone's mighty insight that the Sichuan earthquake in China, which claimed 65,000 lives, might have happened because of bad karma over Tibet. Shazza, doll, you're in a class of your own.

The Oscars used to have a best story prize. Mine goes to German-Turkish Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, a labyrinth of heartbreaking coincidences. The best screenplay goes to Alexandra, and to David Hare for the pithy scene in The Reader where Lena Olin's character says that nothing came out of the Nazi concentration camps. "They weren't therapy."

Finally, a mention of things beyond the new releases. The best film posted on YouTube in 2008 was Latvian Herz Frank's 1978 documentary Ten Minutes Older, which wordlessly records the faces of children watching a play. The best production design of the year was the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. The best movie website was GreenCine daily. The technological advance of the year was the normalisation of digital projection. And, in its Garbo-esque underexpression, the most cinegenic face of 2008 was Barack Obama's. It was an antsy year for cinema. The big movies were seldom beautiful, but forced themselves upon us. World cinema had the heart and art. Again.