I have to admit that when I first heard that Slumdog Millionaire got nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, I assumed that it was another triumph of hype over excellence.  I didn’t have a chance to see it earlier, and usually when a film gets this much chatter, it disappoints.  In this case, neither are true.  Slumdog Millionaire is a masterpiece of a film, a gritty story about survival, loyalty, betrayal, love, and ultimately redemption.

When Jamal Malik, an uneducated young man from the worst slums in Mumbai, suddenly hits it big on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, police interrogators attempt to torture a confession out of Jamal to find out how he cheated before he can go back and answer the final question and win 20 million rupees.  But did he cheat — or did Jamal’s life of depredation give unique preparation for this humble man to triumph on the brightest stage?  Jamal relives his life of extreme poverty, explaining how his brother and the girl he has loved since childhood became the Three Musketeers — and how each wound up on a different path to survival.

The best pictures give us a real taste of life as well as entertain.  Slumdog Millionaire brings the utter poverty of Mumbai’s slums into focus.  People exist on garbage, children get orphaned and exploited, and criminal gangs sometimes give the only escape, as Salim discovers.  Even those who give kindness want something in return, and Latika falls into the trap when Jamal and Salim escape.  Jamal wants nothing but to rescue Latika, while Salim gives up his soul for money.  Can he find redemption after betrayal, and can Jamal find it and Latika in a TV game show?

Danny Boyle keeps the pace up and the shocking squalor of Mumbai in our face as he moves back and forth in time to tell Jamal’s story.  Dev Patel gives a terrific and understated performance as Jamal, as does Freida Pinto as Latika, the girl he loves and who he rescues — and who may wind up rescuing him.  The children who play Latika, Jamal, and Jamal’s older brother Salim are amazingly good.  The one performance that may get overlooked is that of Irrfan Khan, who plays the brutal detective who finally discovers that Jamal’s origins have little to do with his worth.

Believe the hype.  Slumdog Millionaire really is that good.  I think it’s a better movie than Benjamin Button, which I liked but didn’t feel was Best Picture material, and perhaps better than Doubt, which should have gotten a nomination this year.  I haven’t seen the other three nominees for Best Picture, but they’d have to be excellent to top this picture.  It’s going right onto my wish list for the blu-ray release.