Change Me, Transform Me

One frequent reason why high-quality films are chosen as Best Picture finalists is because of the resonance and universality of their themes. And the themes that always seem to register more than others are contained in personal journey movies about growth, redemption and transformation. They say something with a measure of eloquence that people recognize as fundamentally true based on their own life experience, and if they don’t jerk the audience around with too much shallow diversion or emotional manipulation, they tend to shine through — even if they end sadly or tragically.

You will see change/grow/transform themes lurking within most Best Picture winners or nominees going back to the ’50s, at least. Not with every last contender, of course, but they turn up a lot.
Based on this criteria, four of the 2008 Best Picture finalists — the ones with the strongest personal-journey elements involving redemption, truth-seeking, transformation — are going to be Milk, Gran Torino, The Wrestler and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And there’s an even-handed chance that another redemption movie, Joe Wright‘s The Soloist, may become the fifth.
Clint Eastwood‘s Gran Torino (Warner Bros., 12.25) may be one his lesser efforts — who knows? — but it he’s got game the theme of a snarly blue-collar racist, a Korean War bet named Kowalski (Eastwood), trying to “reform” his neighbor, a Hmong teenager who tried to steal Kowalski’s ’72 Gran Torino — is right out of the change-redemption playbook. Add to this my suspicion that Kowalski will need as much (if not more) reforming as the kid does, and you’ve really got the elements in play. Especially if the film is rendered in Eastwood’s usual no-frills style and if Nick Schenk‘s screenplay works on its own terms. Added element: this will probably be Eastwood’s last performance, at least in one of his own films.
Darren Aronofsky‘s The Wrestler (Fox Searchlight, 12.19) is about a downscale guy who’s screwed his life up so badly that he only has one way to go, and that’s toward facing himself and his mistakes and somehow fighting and climbing and building his way out of that. Fits the journey-of-redemption model to a T. Not to mention the real-life resonance of Mickey Rourke‘s life mirroring that of the wrestler character he plays.
David Fincher‘s Button (Paramount, 12.25), of course, is all about the journey, of course, only backwards. It really can’t miss unless people decide that Brad Pitt‘s journey isn’t sufficiently transformational or redemptive.

Gus Van Sant‘s fact-based Milk (Focus Features, 12.5) is about a geeky gay guy from Long Island who found his spirit and his mission when he moved to San Francisco and began running for local office. He was an unlikely politician, to say the least, but he kept on running for San Francisco Supervisor and was finally elected, and then fought against the Briggs Amendment and inspired others gays to hold their head high, and then was shot by a fellow San Francisco supervisor who was basically a conflicted homophobe. If it turns out to be as good as I’ve heard, Milk meets the thematic criteria so completely that it’s a near-lock for a Best Picture nomination.
And Joe Wright‘s The Soloist (DeamWorks, 11.21) is about a homeless schizophrenic musician (Jamie Foxx) and an L.A. Times jourmalist (Robert Downey, Jr.) who tries to help him realize his dream of performing at Walt Disney Hall. Could be icky, but it sounds half-right on paper, and Wright has shown he’s an emotional director with good chops.
One might assume/presume that Gabrielle Muccino and Will Smith‘s Seven Pounds would qualify in this respect, but for reasons I’d rather not say at this time I temporarily have doubts.

  • actionman

    “…redemption, truth-seeking and transformation…”
    No Dark Knight based on those attributes?
    Very curious about Gran Torino and Milk. Benjamin Button is the one I want to see most.

  • NV

    People need to see The Wrestler before making a comment like that. I’m not going to spoil anything, but saying its about redemption isn’t true and its missing what happens in the entire last act.

  • gruver1

    Wells to actionman: Bruce Wayne is redeemed and/or transformed in The Dark Knight? Not in the version I saw. Or do you mean Heath Ledger‘s Joker? Naah, that doesn’t apply either

  • pm123

    Aristotle understood storytelling long before anybody in the movies ever figured it out. Show characters (not necessarily human) with whom the audience can empathize, being forced to make extremely difficult, but emotionally recognizable decisions. If they make the decision we would like to think we would make under the circumstances, it’s a comedy. If they make the decision we’re afraid we would make under the circumstances, it’s a tragedy. Now just do it all in pictures and not words, and you’ve made a great film. Easy! Right…

  • gruver1

    Wells to NV: I didn’t say the film has to turn out positively in terms of redemption or transformation for it to be nominated. It just has to deal with these themes in the sense that the lead character realizes at some point along the way that he/she needs to try and do something that changes the game to some extent. If they fall or if life overwhelms them — in other words, if the story turns out tragically — then c’est la vie. I’m just saying that the films that seem to get nominated put these themes on the table and come what may.

  • NV

    Wells
    Understood, and I agree somewhat but
    He fails and rejects his own redemption. I think its going to be hard for the academy to embrace that. They have on rare occasions, and I hope they do here, because its one amazing performance. Best actor nom, likely, but not best picture.

  • NV

    sorry, there was supposed to be a spoiler warning above

  • Rich S.

    The transformation of character is the essence of drama. So one would hope that all Best Picture winners would qualify in that regard, or else they are melodrama.
    Now, redemption is only one subset of transformation. Michael Corleone is pretty much the opposite of redemption in Godfather I and II. He mucks about with redemption in III, and we all saw how that went.

  • p.Vice

    Uggh… including Mr. Caveman’s Opus in this discussion is a bad joke. Unless you’re talking about the academy’s preference for nominating sentimental, emotionally uplifting mush, in which case the movie looks to fit that bill perfectly.

  • Josh Massey

    The Dark Knight will take the place of The Caveman’s Valentine II.
    And I am certainly no Batman fanboy – I enjoyed it, but in my estimation, it was only the second-best sequel of the year. Behind Rambo, of course.

  • iamwhoiam

    Based on the trailers alone, i’d say Milk and The Soloist are the most intriguing to me.
    The Dark Knight? Overrated. A very good movie, with one great performance, but overrated.

  • Bob Roberts

    I am not saying I think it is Best Pic worthy, but no call’s for Wall-E? Every year, people think that a Pixar movie will break through and every year, it only gets a nod for Animated picture. This one seemed like it was going to be the one.

  • Mark

    Tranformative movies get rewarded while opposite occurs in the men’s acting categories, where transformation is only permitted if physical. See Whitaker (Last King), Denzel (Training Day), Hanks (Gump), Hopkins (Lambs), Hoffman (Rain Man), Douglas (Wall Street), De Niro (Raging Bull), and both winning actors from last year. This theory pretty much guarantees Langella and Ledger awards this year.

  • LDKA0186

    The Departed. No Country for Old Men. Plenty of redemption and transformation there, provided you think the two come from the cold barrel of a gun or from witnessing the harsh realities of the world.

  • D.Z.

    “One frequent reason why high-quality films are chosen as Best Picture finalists is because of the resonance and universality of their themes. And the themes that always seem to register more than others are contained in personal journey movies about growth, redemption and transformation. They say something with a measure of eloquence that people recognize as fundamentally true based on their own life experience, and if they don’t jerk the audience around with too much shallow diversion or emotional manipulation, they tend to shine through — even if they end sadly or tragically.”
    So how did Titanic get picked?

  • Nick Rogers

    Ah, nothing like strokes who’ve been to festivals spoiling films that have yet to play ANYWHERE ELSE for the rest of us.

  • The Winchester

    My stars, does that Soloist movie drip of Oscar bait. They should just end the trailer with Jaime Foxx jerking off an Oscar statue. That’s the message that flick sends to me.

  • Zimmergirl

    There is no set formula. The Oscars would be dull as dirt if they were this predictable. Of these predicted five, the only film anyone has seen is The Wrestler. That, then, should be the only one anyone can safely predict. Everything else is just good on paper, great publicity but no there there. The Dark Knight is a formidable challenger – it is at this moment easily one of the best films of the year. All of these upcoming Oscar movies could tank, particularly with the speculation and hype – go with what you know not best case scenario.

  • BurmaShave

    Massey RESURRECTING THE CHAMP was THE CAVEMAN’S VALENTINE 2, this is the third, re-cast. CAVEMAN FOREVER?

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