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NEAL CONAN, host:

The list of nominations for the 81st Oscar Awards was announced today. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" came out on top with 13 nominations. "Slumdog Millionaire," "Milk" and "The Dark Night" also fared well, and the performance that had Hollywood abuzz before anyone saw it - Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker - got its due nod as supporting actor a year later - a year after the actor's death. So, bravos and brick bats - what's there that surprises you? Who did Oscar overlook? 800-989-8255; email, talk@nprorg. You can join the conversation at our Web site, npr.org. Click on Talk of the Nation, where you'll also find a list of this year's nominees. Joining us here in studio 3A is Linda Holmes, who writes and edits NPR's entertainment and pop culture blog, "Monkey See." Thanks very much for coming in.

LINDA HOLMES: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And what's the biggest surprise for you?

HOLMES: I think the biggest surprise for me was that neither "The Dark Night" nor "Wall-E" managed to get a Best Picture nomination. Standing on their own, it's not too surprising in either case - one being a superhero movie and one being an animated movie. But I think a lot of people hoped that in a year when two of the most critically acclaimed movies were also two gigantic money makers, that at least one of them might squeak out a nomination, and it might sort of feel like a victory for populism.

CONAN: And might even get people to tune in to watch the show?

HOLMES: Yes. I think that certainly was one of the hopes.

CONAN: Because there's a lot of people who argue the academy is just out of touch with the movie-going public. I mean, it's not a popularity contest. You're not supposed to get the Academy Award for highest-grossing movie. But nevertheless, blockbusters - it seems like if you make half a billion dollars, you're excluded.

HOLMES: You know, there is some truth to that. I think there are a couple of exceptions. Robert Downey, Jr. was nominated for "Tropic Thunder," which is not necessarily a traditional awardsy kind of movie. And in fact, in a lot of ways, I think the road to his getting the nomination started with his performance in "Iron Man," which came out not too long before, in which he was fantastic. And I think the combination of those two performances in really blockbuster, summer kind of movies, sort of - in a little bit - you know, combined to give him a little momentum toward that nomination.

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. Who do you think Oscar smiled upon properly? Who do you think he snubbed? 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. Alicia, Alicia calling us from Honolulu.

ALICIA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

ALICIA: I think that Oscar smiled a little bit too much on "The Case of Benjamin Button." Thirteen nominations was too many for it.

CONAN: Curious, the case of "Benjamin Button"?

HOLMES: Yeah. Absolutely.

CONAN: And did it deserve - I mean, it did cause a lot of buzz, and it's also caused the sales of a lot of extra bags of malted milk balls, as people realized you had to pack a lunch to get through it.

HOLMES: Yeah, that's true. I mean, I think - one of the things I thought was so interesting that I commented on this morning is that it also managed to get a nomination for its director, which, given the fact that I think even a lot of people who liked it thought it was easily 45 minutes too long, it's sort of interesting to see it come away with not only the nomination for, you know, Best Picture and Brad Pitt, but also for the director who, you know, couldn't part, I guess, with any of those 45 minutes.

CONAN: I can't wait to see the director's cut.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But this year, there was absolute congruity. Every picture nominated for Best Picture had its director nominated for Best Director.

HOLMES: Yeah. It's only one of the ways, of which I think there are several, in which it's a relatively dull set of nominations. There isn't a lot - I think had they come out before "Slumdog Millionaire" kind of made its push in the last just couple few weeks, when it started to become a lot more widely known - that one would've seemed a little bit more like a sleeper. But at this point, there really were very few surprises - a couple of nominations for "Frozen River," which is sort of a smaller independent movie. But other than that, a lot of what everybody expected to see.

CONAN: Alicia, thanks very much for the call.

ALICIA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to - this is Ryan and Ryan's with us from Indianola in Iowa.

RYAN (Caller): Yes. Thank you for taking my call. I haven't heard the exact results, but I have heard no one mention Clint Eastwood and "Torino."

CONAN: There was widely expected to be a Best Actor nomination for a Clint Eastwood movie, and it turned out not to be (Laughing) Clint Eastwood but for Angelina Jolie.

HOLMES: Yeah. Angelina Jolie was nominated for "Changeling," which he directed, and I think, you know, a lot of people did expect "Gran Torino" to get at least something, probably a nomination, either for Best Picture - there was sort of a fifth slot. I think a lot of people thought that several of the nominees were sort of locked in, but there was an understanding that the slot that ultimately went to "The Reader" was potentially available to a bunch of different movies, and I think "Gran Torino" was one.

CONAN: Could've been "Dark Night." Could've been "Wall-E."

HOLMES: Could've been "The Wrestler."

CONAN: All right, Ryan. Thanks very much. You have some more?

RYAN: Yeah. I just want to say that was extremely disappointing to me because I was blown away by Clint Eastwood's job in that movie. I mean, every once in a while, you run into someone who makes you extremely comfortable to be in their presence, and he made me extremely comfortable to be in his presence in a movie theater.

CONAN: Yeah. And this was also thought to be perhaps his last movie as an actor and sometimes Oscar - the Academy will go out of its way to smile upon a performance that is deemed to be the last, one way or another.

RYAN: Thank you very much.

HOLMES: I think that's not absolutely true, yeah.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, Ryan. Email from Eric in Juneau, Alaska. They overlooked "Australia" for Best Picture. I see eyes rolling.

HOLMES: Not so much rolling. I'm just surprised to hear it, not because there's necessarily anything wrong with that, but it's not something that I've heard as much, in the sense that the reviews were not great, the box office was not great. So, it's not necessarily - frankly, to tell you the truth, I didn't see it. But it hasn't certainly had as much, you know, awards buzz. I think it's not - I'll put it this way, it's not surprising that it didn't get a nomination today.

CONAN: Florence emails from Dekalb, Illinois - just want to crow about Richard Jenkins getting a Best Actor nod for "The Visitor." He is a Dekalb, Illinois native and grew up in the house on North 9th Street where - which my family built and lived in until I was not quite five years old. And - well, there's somebody going to vote definitely for that category.

HOLMES: Mm hmm. Absolutely. I think a very beloved character actor for a long time, and I think a lot of people are very happy to see that nomination.

CONAN: And let's go to Jennifer, Jennifer with us from Boise.

JENNIFER (Caller): Yes. Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

JENNIFER: I really think that Darren Aronofsky was overlooked for director for "The Wrestler."

CONAN: Now, "The Wrester" is a controversial movie. Everybody seems to like the Best Actor nomination of course, and this is a comeback - another kind of thing that the Academy likes a lot. Nevertheless, a lot of people thought that movie was unnecessarily violent and, well, really over the top.

HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, I think its sort of depends on what your approach is to the subject matter. I think the subject matter was - the movie was very specifically intended to be about a sub-culture within professional wrestling. It's not professional wrestling like you would've seen on, you know, Saturday mornings as a kid. It's a brand of professional wrestling that takes place in sort of, you know, gyms and, you know, places like that. It's not, you know, widely attended, and it is extraordinarily brutal and violent. And I think everybody who knows anything about it has said, whatever else it is, the movie's very true to what that kind of wrestling is actually like. But yes, a lot of people really cringed at it.

CONAN: Jennifer, what did you particularly like about it?

JENNIFER: Well, I think that the important thing to realize is that, although the movie was violent, it was really important for Darren Aronofsky to establish the brutality of the sport and the brutality of the career, and yet, Randy the Ram is so tender on the inside. So, I really like that juxtaposition between the tough exterior, the game - the play of wrestling and then his emotional soft inside. And that was a really nice interplay between those two.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

JENNIFER: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. (Unintelligible) nominations this year - a lot nominations, both for "Frost/Nixon" and for "Milk." All about politics - is this often happen every four years when we elect a president?

HOLMES: You know, I don't exactly know the history of whether it would match up with presidential elections. Certainly, I think topical movies, as well biographical movies - and those sort of are both biographical movies, in addition to being topical - have a lot of awards-pulling history. I was a much bigger fan of "Milk" than I was of "Frost/Nixon." In fact, I would've rewarded the performance by Michael Sheen as David Frost over the Franklin John Nixon performance, which didn't move me as much. But, yeah, I mean, I think they're both - those are both movies that are of a type that's pretty typical to be nominated.

CONAN: Let's go to Josh, Josh with us from Akron, Ohio.

JOSH (Caller): Hey. Well, I definitely agree about "The Wrestler" from before, but another thing that didn't surprise me but disappointed me was that "Synecdoche, New York" didn't make it on the list. And I know that most critics, like Roger Ebert, right off the bat said, hey, this won't get nominated, but it is the best picture of the year.

CONAN: And the critics - he's write - went crazy for this film.

HOLMES: They sure did, but a lot of people said from the beginning, it is so challenging. It's almost like you can - a movie can be challenging up to a point and still get a lot of award nominations, but there's such a thing as it being so challenging and so difficult for people to sort of process and have kind of a wide popular conversation about that you don't necessarily get the kind of recognition in awards contexts. I wasn't terribly surprised by it, but I sort of understand the disappointment.

CONAN: Josh, what did you particularly like about the film?

JOSH: I - like she said, the challenge of it. I mean, it's not very often that we get to watch a movie that's at least somewhat wide-released that actually makes you think about it, instead of just watch it.

CONAN: Think about it in terms of its form or its content?

JOSH: Both. I mean, pretty much everything in it is open to interpretation, and even the writer-director said as much. He just said, I won't explain anything; it's up to the audience entirely.

CONAN: Is there a certain level also of commercial success? We talked about, well, blockbusters are sort of off the table for a Best Picture or, you know, some of the big awards anyway. Is there a certain level of success it has to achieve to be considered, even for a small film?

HOLMES: You know, I think that's a good question. I think, as I said - I don't think any of the movies that are nominated for Best Picture are extremely small movies, but if you look at "The Reader" certainly, I think it's relatively obscure, other than the fact that it has Kate Winslet in it, who has gotten, you know, a fair amount of recognition for that performance. Other than that, I think that is a little known movie. I couldn't tell you exactly what the box office is, but I don't think it's much.

CONAN: Didn't she win a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in that same role?

HOLMES: She did. She did. They put - they gave her a Golden Globe for supporting in that film and then for lead actress for "Revolutionary Road." And the Oscars - she didn't get any - she wasn't nominated for "Revolutionary Road," and they sort of promoted her "Reader" performance from supporting to lead, which a lot of people said should've been done by the Golden Globes anyway.

CONAN: So - but they were just (Laughing) trying to find a way to, yeah…

HOLMES: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah, yeah.

HOLMES: She's, I think, very well-thought of at this stage in her career, and so I think for a lot of people, she's kind of due.

CONAN: "Revolutionary Road" though, did not do well this year.

HOLMES: No. That was sort of one of the big - the big ones, I would say, kind of got skunked - "Revolutionary Road," in addition to "Gran Torino," which we talked about before.

CONAN: Our guest is Linda Holmes, who writes and edits NPR's entertainment and pop culture blog, "Monkey See." She's with us here in studio 3A. We're talking about the pans and picks at this year's Oscar nominations, announced earlier today. If you haven't see the list, go to our Web site. That's at npr.org, just click on the Talk of the Nation. And this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's go to Sherry, Sherry with us from Rochester, New York.

SHERRY (Caller): Hi there. I really loved the movie "Doubt." And I thought Meryl Streep was awesome. Did that even come on the airways to the nominations?

HOLMES: Oh, yeah. Meryl Streep was nominated for that performance today. She was nominated, so was Philip Seymour Hoffman, so was Viola Davis and so was Amy Adams. They were pretty much all nominated, although the picture was not. Meryl Streep's performance in that movie was kind of polarizing. Some people found it extraordinarily moving, you know, as you're saying. Other people - and this is more the camp that I fall into - found it sort of over the top and a little bit much. But she was nominated for that part.

SHERRY: The people who found it over the top probably weren't raised Catholic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOLMES: That's very possible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHERRY: …where we all went, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

HOLMES: That's very possible. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Backs of my hands still sting from the ruler.

SHERRY: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Sherry, thanks very much.

SHERRY: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: What about Viola Davis?

HOLMES: Yeah, that's a really interesting story, because she really only has the one scene in this movie, and it's already a movie that's dominated by these three much better known, much sort of more awards-friendly actors. And she comes on in this one scene, and it just blows you away. To me, it's the most emotionally true part of the movie. And it's very - it's a very brave performance in the sense that she looks very out of control in it - her nose is running, and she's sort of very desperate. And it's a great, great scene, and you can sort of see how, you know, just that one scene would get you a nomination.

CONAN: Let's get Jeff in, Jeff's calling from Cleveland.

JEFF (Caller): Yeah. I think that kind of - Neal, you touched on this - I think "Milk" being up for Best Picture was a very political move. I enjoyed the film and enjoyed Sean Penn a whole lot, but I think it more so was nominated because it, you know, is very en vogue subject matter.

CONAN: It's about the politics of the Academy?

JEFF: Well, I personally don't think it's any secret that the Academy is a very political institution.

CONAN: Oh no. I don't think that's any (Laughing) secret.

HOLMES: Yeah, I'm not really sure whether you're talking about the politics of the Academy or sort of the politics of the - politics of Harvey Milk.

JEFF: No. I think the Academy - you know, I personally think "Dark Night" was much more - was a much better film, but again, because, as you mentioned, it's a superhero film, so it doesn't deserve it, whereas a movie that, you know, kind of lauds a political hero does deserve it, in the eyes of the Academy.

HOLMES: OK. Yeah, and I do understand of what you're saying. I think there's a lot of, you know, history surrounding Sean Penn in particular that's - would tend to support that idea. But I think in this case there's a decent argument to be made that the movie might have succeeded anyway, and certainly for Sean Penn, it's really easy to look at this now and say, now it's been really successful, now it's done great. But it's a extremely different way of looking at (Laughing) Sean Pean, in terms of its warmth and humor and that sort of thing.

CONAN: Well, in terms of Best Picture, is this a dead film walking? Everybody says "Slumdog Millionaire" is a slam dunk.

HOLMES: You know, I got to tell you, I think "Slumdog Millionaire" has all the momentum right now. And Academy Awards are very oriented around what's in the wind, and I think "Slumdog Millionaire" is what's in the wind right now. I would be very surprised to see it be "Milk" or "Frost/Nixon." Yeah, I think it's going to be (Laughing) "Slumdog Millionaire."

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And the other slam dunk thought to be Heath Ledger for his supporting actor role in "Dark Night"?

HOLMES: I think that's absolutely true, largely because - not largely because, but in part because it's the only major nomination that the movie got. And I think for people who did think that it was sort of a masterpiece of pop filmmaking, which is kind of, you know, a popular view of it, they're going to take that opportunity to honor the movie, as well as the performance.

CONAN: In 30 seconds, Best Actor and Best Actress picks.

HOLMES: Best Actor? I'm going to go with Mickey Rourke. And Best Actress, as long as it's not Angelina Jolie, it'll be OK with me. My guess would be Maryl Streep.

CONAN: Meryl Streep getting another piece of hardware for a very crowded mantle piece. Linda Holmes, thank you very much.

HOLMES: Thank you.

CONAN: Linda Holmes writes and edits NPR's entertainment and pop culture blog, "Monkey See." She was kind enough to join us here today in studio 3A. Tomorrow, Ira Flatow's here with Science Friday. We'll talk to you again on Monday. Have a great weekend everybody. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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