A Political Year at the Movies

November didn't mark the end of the political season. Hollywood hasn't handed out its Oscar nominations yet.

And when it comes to who wins that golden statuette, a film's politics often plays a supporting role to the movie's creative bona fides.

At first blush this doesn't seem to be an overly political year at the movies. After all, Michael Moore was silent in 2008 by his standards, releasing only one documentary for his Bush-hating brethren online.

Look closer. Among the Oscar favorites are: Milk, the biopic of the slain councilman and gay rights activist played by Sean Penn; Wall*E, a Pixar tale in which the earth has been reduced to a garbage dump thanks to rampant consumerism; Frost/Nixon, a retelling of the historic interview of the disgraced GOP president; and The Dark Knight, a film many conservatives felt embraced President George W. Bush's war on terror tactics.

What's a conservative movie doing lumped in with the rest? Well, likely losing to its lesser competition.

So far, the New York Film Critics Circle snubbed Knight in every major category. The National Board of Review did the same, although it did select Knight as one of the year's ten best movies.

The Golden Globe nominations also denied the Caped Crusader his just desserts, only throwing the film a single nomination for Best Supporting Actor -- the late Heath Ledger.

Both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Washington, D.C.-area Film Critics Association also gave its Best Supporting Actor prize to Ledger, but nothing more.

Yet it's arguably the best comic book film ever, a thoughtful thrill ride that touches on themes both current and universal. What more can a film do to win some Oscar love?

Other hopeful films will find their Oscar paths greased by political correctness. Penn's performance in Milk is certainly Oscar worthy, but his work comes on the heels of the Proposition 8 debate, which will only add to its luster.

Just don't expect the newly installed President Barack Obama to catch any flak from actors speechifying on Oscar night. They prefer to ignore the fact that he's against same sex marriage.

More than a few critics of Frost/Nixon, and the film's director, Ron Howard, are using the story to bash President Bush anew. Howard made his views clear during a recent press gathering -- which drew the ire of Fox News' Chris Wallace.

The film could also jump-start a new movement to galvanize the left -- waiting for the new ex-president to "confess" his crimes to Oprah, Barbara, or some other high profile interviewer. An Oscar win would certainly help jump-start such a movement.

Director Steven Soderbergh's Che, the four-plus hour biopic of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, drew some withering reviews from both the left and the right. Star Benicio Del Toro is still a favorite to pick up a Best Actor nomination for playing the title character. Hollywood loves Guevara almost as much as naïve college students do.

The film got a hearty salute in Cuba recently, and that should be catnip to Oscar voters with a soft spot for the Castro regime.

Politics routinely factors into the minds of Oscar voters. When Melissa Etheridge's "I Need to Wake Up" from An Inconvenient Truth got a Best Song nomination, was there any doubt she'd walk away a winner?

And speaking of Truth, the glorified Power Point presentation got its Oscar two years ago solely based on politics. That same year, the devastating documentary Deliver Us From Evil was among Truth's competition, and there likely hasn't been a more engrossing doc put out since.

But it didn't stand a chance with Oscar voters. They had a message to send, art be darned.

Oscar politics is nothing new. Tom Hanks won his first Oscar playing a dying gay man with AIDS in Philadelphia, even though co-star Denzel Washington acted rings around him, and the film itself was hardly a memorable one.

And let's not forget Moore's body of documentary work, which has all but redefined what the genre actually stands for -- polemics, not adherence to the unvarnished truth. Yet he's become a perennial Oscar favorite.

Politics might even interrupt a justly deserved honorary Oscar slated for aging funnyman Jerry Lewis. The news broke this week that the 82-year-old legend would receive an Oscar for his decades of humanitarian work.

But influential industry blogger Nikki Finke says protests are starting regarding Lewis' selection because he's used the "F" word for homosexuals in the past few years.

Finke's parting shot on her blog will likely echo the thoughts of many in Hollywood:

Despite Lewis' laudatory 42 years of raising money for MDA [Muscular Dystrophy Association], his publicly demonstrated debasement of gays doesn't make him a humanitarian in my eyes.

That movement, combined with lingering headlines surrounding Proposition 8, makes Sean Penn the surest bet to walk home with an Oscar Feb. 22, 2009.