The True Oscar Race
Film Buffs Scramble to Screen the Nominated Movies Before Sunday's Show

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday night. You and your trough of popcorn are at Gallery Place's Regal Cinemas for the 10:25 showing of "Frost/Nixon," with just 15 other stalwarts.

Most of the other filmgoers at Gallery Place are seeing "He's Just Not That Into You" or "Friday the 13th." These filmgoers are weak. They do not realize that the Oscars are in a matter of days and that true preparation requires commitment.

Because if you do not see "Frost/Nixon" now, then you'll have to see the 3:55 tomorrow, which is gonna screw up the matinee of "Waltz With Bashir," which will make getting to "Doubt" pretty dicey, and if "The Visitor" didn't come from Netflix, then you can forget about returning it in time to get "Frozen River," and then . . . then you will be toast.

The final exam is Sunday, people! Fifty nominated films, 24 categories, and only four full weekends between the nominations and the ceremony to see them. That's two fewer than there used to be in the old days, back when the Oscars were held in March. Ignore the numb tingles in your butt and focus!

"You've got to do 'Wrestler' for acting," Kelly Mills tells Adria Crutchfield at the "Frost" showing. Fellow Oscar traversers, they just met in line and are now trading strategies on maximizing the few remaining viewing days.

"Did you see 'Slumdog' yet?" asks Crutchfield, an aide on the Hill. It's her Best Picture pick.

Mills, who works in PR, and her friend Brock McCleary had been doing really well, at least with the Best Picture and acting categories. They saw "The Wrestler." They saw "Milk." They saw "Rachel Getting Married." Then, disaster in the form of weakness: "Last weekend, the weather was so nice," Mills explains. "We used that as an excuse."

What were they thinking?

Now they must spend Valentine's eve watching Frank Langella's sweaty lip.

The movie is "really romantic, I hear," she jokes. Er, maybe not. It is, however, really nominated -- five Academy nods, ranging from Best Picture to Best Adapted Screenplay. Seeing this film means major progress. Crossing off five nominations for the price of one.

" 'Crash' ruined 'Slumdog's' chances," McCleary says, joining the conversation. It's the same "trendy filmmaking. People have buyer's remorse about 'Crash' " -- the ensemble film that beat out heavily favored "Brokeback Mountain" to win Best Picture in 2006.

Why do we do this?

For 11 months of the year, we are perfectly content to see "Sex and the City," see "Hellboy II," see "Wanted." (Hey, look -- "Wanted" is nominated for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing! Score!) Then in January, the Motion Picture Academy comes out with a list, and suddenly we sound like the glossary from our sophomore year History of Narrative Cinema elective.

"There was a very French existential thing going on, wasn't there?" muses a man the next evening at E Street Cinema. He appears to have just come out of the theater showing Oscar-nominated animated short films, which have all been packaged together into one viewing experience.

These types of showings are like homework for an AP Oscar course, advanced stuff for those who see the Best Picture category as amateur hour.

"I just like to feel informed," explains Riki Alexander, on her way into the Best Live Action Shorts showcase.

Trust Washingtonians to see even filmgoing as an opportunity for current-events enlightenment.

Of course, we do need the help -- when we try to get a jump on Oscar season, to start the homework early, we are often woefully incorrect. Who knew "Brideshead Revisited" would be nominated exactly zero times? It was based on a British novel! It starred Emma Thompson! We spent 12 bucks on that, and not even a costuming nod?

This is why Julie Pennini, also at the Live Action showcase, enjoys relinquishing her filmgoing decisions to the academy. "It's sort of, 'Oh, somebody else picked the best. That's a relief,' " she says. Guidance, please!

But even while we appreciate the assistance, we sometimes wonder whether we're betraying ourselves by abandoning our own cruddy tastes. There is, after all, a reason we didn't see "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" until it was nominated for 13 Oscars. We knew it was supposed to be good, we knew it was probably good for us, we knew Cate Blanchett was luminous in the trailers. It just looked really, really long.

On a recent afternoon, Cosette Simon is taking in a matinee of "The Reader" (five nominations) at Georgetown. This woman is hard-core. She sees all the films nominated for every major award.

"The Reader" was an Oscar surprise, with middling reviews and limited distribution. Plus, it's incredibly depressing.

But like any diligent student of the Oscars, Simon put homework ahead of her own selfish satisfaction:

"You know what I wanted to see?" she confesses. "I wanted to see 'Taken.' "

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