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Body slamming the Oscars

You can have your Benjamin Buttons and Harvey Milks and your Richard Nixons and Slumdog Millionaires.

Give me Randy "The Ram" Robinson any day.

And with that give me "The Wrestler" as best picture of the year.

That, however, is impossible because the Academy has chosen not to let it play in the Oscar sandbox. Anyone who has burned a minute of their life following the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' track record over the years will not be surprised by such an omission.

Let us not forget this is the same institution which honored "The Greatest Show on Earth" over "High Noon"; "My Fair Lady" over "Dr. Strangelove"; and — dear God it still hurts after 18 years — "Dances With Wolves" over "Goodfellas."

I've always been a film geek. I remember putting a lot of stock into Oscar nominations year after year, and invariably I suffered disappointment. Though for the most part history has borne out my preferences.

Seriously, which film is watched and appreciated by more people and film scholars every year: "Kramer vs. Kramer" or "Apocalypse Now"?

You know the answer.

That's not to say the Academy has fallen flat with its picks every year. Looking at its history shows several instances when it made the correct move in the face of conservative showbiz wisdom.

Let us not forget ballsy past winners such as "Midnight Cowboy" and "On the Waterfront."

(Now that I look back, some years confronted voters with brutal choices. In 1974, one was faced with determining whether "The Godfather Part II" was a finer film than "The Conversation" and "Chinatown." I believe the Academy chose correctly with the mafia sequel, but having watched "Chinatown" gives one pause.)

This year I have achieved a milestone in my life as a cinephile: I have seen every film nominated for Best Picture prior to Oscar night.

And I'm here to say the Academy has gotten it wrong. Again.

Out of the current stock films, I would hand the conspicuously phallic golden award to "Slumdog Millionaire." It is not particularly deep or innovative, but every scene rings true and it does hit you in the heart at the right moments. Also, I believe it gives you a fair view of a rapidly changing India in the era of globalization.

"Slumdog" isn't even director Danny Boyle's best film. That would go to the tragically underrated sci-fi morality piece "Sunshine."

In all, this batch of Best Picture nominees are tolerable, with the weakest links being "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "The Reader."

"Button" is neither as smart or as affecting as you've been led to believe and "Reader" is neither as manipulative and dreary as advertised by the nation's elite critics — of whom I am certainly not one.

With "Button" I just couldn't get over the thought of a slimy, miniaturized Brad Pitt gestating within his mother's womb. I think babies are cute. Really. But creepy old-man babies are terrifying and repulsive.

The special effects, great as they were, distracted me from whatever emotional riff director David Fincher — an Ashland boy — strived to achieve. The problem is Fincher, of "Se7en" and "Fight Club" fame, doesn't do emotion. Or romance. There's a cold detachment to the film, which serves Fincher's best work, i.e. "Zodiac," but doesn't jibe with the sweeping epic.

For my money, "The Wrestler" remains the year's touchstone film. When historians look back to the train wreck that was 2008, I believe "The Wrestler" will provide some clue into the American zeitgeist leading to the financial and existential malaise enveloping our nation.

Mickey Rourke — dyed hair, steroid pumped, his face scarred and pulped to the edge of grotesque — is the real deal, here. You've heard enough about how true he is as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, but you've got to see it to believe the hype.

The Ram is a pro wrestler who finds himself at a crossroads after a heart attack nearly sends him to that early mass grave containing the bodies of Andre the Giant, Bam Bam Bigelow, Owen Heart and Chris Benoit, along with nearly a hundred other pro wrestlers dead before the age of 50.

Like America circa 2009, The Ram has all the best intentions in mind when confronting his crisis. Like America circa 2009, he sets out to do what he perceives might be the right thing in the face of certain apocalypse.

And like America circa 2009, The Ram's fate in the end is ultimately unknown. We leave the theater hoping for the best, but fearing the worst, as a man who has spent his years abusing his body and alienating those closest to him might have to die embracing his failings in the face of conventional wisdom. Because it's all he knows. And it's worked for him for too long. The Ram chooses to avoid crippling self-reflection and decides to go out fighting for a way of life he knows is unsustainable, but was a damn good time while it lasted.

Sound familiar?

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.